Sunday, January 25, 2009

Just 'cause they don't change your words...

...doesn't mean they still can't screw up your scene. Here’s an example: It’s from VOLUNTEERS written by me and David Isaacs.

The setting is Thailand 1962. Lawrence (Tom Hanks) and Beth (Rita Wilson) are in the Peace Corps. They’ve helped build a big wooden bridge over the river for this tiny village. But now they learn that communists and a war lord will be using it to invade them in a few hours. So along with Lawrence’s sidekick, At, they hastily start packing. The fun of the scene is that Beth misunderstands something Lawrence says and it leads her to the idea of blowing up the bridge. And later Lawrence blurts out that he loves her. And even he’s surprised. But it all has to happen fast, otherwise his admission is pre-mediated. The director shot our words exactly as written but instead of shooting it as a frenetic scene he made it slow and rueful. So to me it made no sense.

Here’s the scene. Imagine it both ways. Which do you think works best?


Our three heroes have returned soaked. Ai Po (the town elder) sits solemnly at the bar.

CAMERA STARTS on the bridge and pulls back to reveal the back of Beth’s head, facing it.

Our bridge. Our beloved Goddamn bridge.

She turns to face the interior where Lawrence and At are on the floor, catching their breath.

At, my pathetic little friend, are you all right?

I’m fine. So I die before I ever have a woman. I helped build a bridge and some fat guys touched me. I had a full life.

If you want any more of it we’d better get going. At seven a.m. this morning all Hell’s gonna break loose.

You didn’t tell me it was seven o’clock. Jesus, there’s no time to lift a finger –

Just one of those days, I guess. At, up and at ‘em. I’ve gotta get my dope, my booze – you know, the essentials.

They rise and start collecting booze, etc.

Oh, my God, how did this happen? All the speeches… all the promises…

I’m taking my grandfather.

All right. Just jam some hooch into his jumper.

What about our genuine Persian carpet?

Tear it down. We’ll roll it up around your grandfather.

Beth whirls around.

Tear it down – of course! We have the dynamite. We’ll just blow the bridge to bits.

Beth, we’re in kind of a hurry here –

Blow it to bits – Lawrence, that’s a brilliant idea. We’ll show those war-mongers that the people won’t stand for their tyranny.

At, tell he it can’t be done.

Should have been done in the first place. I’ll help you, Beth.

(picks up Beth)
Thank you, At.

Put me down!

Beth, don’t be crazy.

Leave me alone, I’ll do it myself.

I won’t let you.


Because I love you… Who said that?

If you love me, you’ll help me.

Now I know I didn’t say that.

Lawrence, you can’t have me unless you blow up the bridge.

That’s blackmail. Okay, fine. If that’s what it’ll take, I’ll blow up your silly bridge. I’ve done crazier things.

Lawrence and At start to move off.

No, wait. I’m sorry. I know you think the right thing can be done for the wrong reason, but for me motives are important. Lawrence, you can’t be part of this if you’re doing it for yourself.

What have you learned, Dorothy?

Alright, fine. I’m blowing up the bridge for me, I’m blowing up the bridge for you, for At, for the people, for America! Please, just let me blow up the goddamn bridge!

A beat, then:

You really do love me.

Yes, I do. Can we go now?

Right away.

Thank you! Thank you very much!

Beth and At run out. Lawrence follows, figuring out what just happened.

(muttering to himself)
I think I’ve just changed my mind about grad school.

Lawrence exits.


TCinLA said...

And now you know, Mr. Levine, why you became a director - it's the only way a writer can protect their idea and vision. Many directors, most of whom are God's Gift to screwing up, rather than God's Gift to the world (as they think they are), would get that one wrong.

Consider that if the writers on Casablanca had left the last 5 minutes to that worthless hack Michael Curtiz, it would have been the "programmer" it was always seen as by those who commissioned it. It was Julius Epstein arguing with him to do different takes and make the cuts as they are that makes the movie great with its ending.

Yeah, fast is the only way to do that scene. I remember it from seeing the movie and thinking "what were they thinking with that???"

word verification: "aregulai" - fancy salad greens found only on salads served at West Side LA restaurants.

Anonymous said...

Consider that if the writers on Casablanca had left the last 5 minutes to that worthless hack Michael Curtiz, it would have been the "programmer" it was always seen as by those who commissioned it. It was Julius Epstein arguing with him to do different takes and make the cuts as they are that makes the movie great with its ending.

? A little off-topic, but I've never heard that one before. As far as I know Julius Epstein didn't even write most of the final scene (Casey Robinson, another WB contract writer, was brought in for that). Epstein didn't even like Casablanca; he called it "slick shit" and preferred the movies that actually respected his words. Of course he was wrong.

Back on topic, I haven't seen Volunteers so I can't comment, but some good scenes as well as bad ones come from the director deliberately playing the scene differently from the way the writer envisioned it.

Emily Blake said...

I read an interview where Joss Whedon talked about his contribution to the first X Men script. One of his lines was the "Know what happens to a frog when it's hit by lightening?" line. Apparently Halle Berry was supposed to say "Same thing that happens to everything else" as if she were bored and shrugging her shoulders - a frog is just another idiot she can fry.

Instead, of course, she said the same line like it was this big profound statement. Which is why that line sounds stupid.

Mark Martino said...

Ken, I can see what you mean but I still love the movie. In the half dozen or so times I've watched it, that scene never seemed wrong to me. I'm guessing that the director was playing the scene for romance and drama, not so much comedy and in that respect I think it works. You should be proud that your words are so adaptable and so effective no matter what the director did. Thanks for writing Volunteers.

Ralphie said...

This reminds me of a Playboy interview Neil Simon did years ago. He said that in "The Hearbreak Kid" he originally wanted the Lenny Cantrow character, (Charles Grodin), to marry a woman who looked like Cybill Shepherd, and then fall in love with a woman who looked like Jennie Berlin while on his honeymoon.

Of course, the film was directed by Elaine May, who wanted her daughter, Jennie Berlin, to have what she considered the better role.

I always wondered why I hated that movie so much, and when I read Simon's explanation I realized that what we saw wasn't funny, it was tragic. What's funny about a guy dumping an unattractive woman for a Trophy wife? It happens every day, and we don't laugh at it.

However if you reverse the roles, now that's funny. At least I think so. Well, maybe you had to be there.


Jaime J. Weinman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jbryant said...

I suspect the producer of Casablanca (Hal Wallis, I think?) had as much or more input on the final cut as Curtiz did, especially at the height of the studio factory system (and didn't Wallis come up with the final line of dialogue?). At any rate, Curtiz's energetic style and superb visual sense is as key to the film's success as the script and casting, IMO, and I say that as a writer. I've always assumed that Curtiz was a highly efficient technician who served the material he got without much interference. But that's just my impression. Does the Aljean Harmetz book shed any light (I think it's called Round Up the Usual Suspects)?

Kirk Jusko said...

The way I've always heard it, they were going to shoot two different CASABLANCA endings to see which one worked better. In one, Rick gives Ilsa up, in the other he doesn't. They shot the version where he gives her up first, and liked it so much they didn't bother with the other one.

Incidentally, every time I watch that movie, the more impressed I am with Claude Raines performance. You kind of expect Bogart to do the right thing in the end, but not Raines. Go back and look at the scene where the girl tells Rick that Reanult will get her out of Casablanca if she's "nice" to him. Rick then fixes the game so her husband wins. The first time I saw it Raines seemed annoyed by Rick's trick. Having seen the movie since, Raines seems more surprised then anything. My theory is it's not a last-minute conversion we see in that final scene, but Raines "corrupt cop" was a ruse from the very beginning. It's just that he's NOT SURE about Rick until the last minute.

Oh, wait, we're supposed to be talking about VOLUNTEERS, huh?

Swedish Pete said...

Hey, I hate do rain on the director bashing parade, and of course you are right Ken when you say that he botched the intention of the scene, but I can sort of understand why he did. At the start of the scene their are a cuple of indicators that suggest another tone than the frantic pace that you envisioned.
There is the past tense in "Our heroes have reurned soaked". Soaked adds an image of slow and heavy. An old man sits and speaks solemnly.
The "Our bridge. Our Goddamm bridge." sunds thoughtful and philosphical. In fact I do not find any suggeston of urgency or pace i the wording or the direction until further down the scene when Beth whirls around. And there not really any suggestion after that that the pace quickens either, although I can see that it would play beter that way now that you said it. So, given the action before and after, and the sudden display of afaectin that you wanted to force the character to have it was probably a bad call from the director to handle it as he did. However, I don't see that you gave him a lot of cues or clues.
Swedish Pete
WV: "duabl" somthing that is possible to do before it is due?

Joe said...

I think it works better at a His Girl Friday sort of way. When Lawrence Bourne III screeches to a halt by saying "Now I know I didn't say THAT!" the laugh that would have ensued would have been a guffaw instead of a chuckle the way it was filmed.