Sunday, February 08, 2015

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. 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.

This is a re-post from six years ago.  Whattaya think?  Too soon?


MikeK.Pa. said...

Friday Question: I've always contended that the order of importance for a successful movie is: 1) script; 2) casting; and 3) direction. Do you weight one factor over another or all equally? My contention is that if you have a great script and cast it right it's hard for the director to screw it up. Although, your blog today would tend to undermine my argument a bit.

Also, any sense that because of your script, you helped foster a relationship (Hanks-Wilson) that led to a long-term marriage?

Oat Willie said...

I didn't see the movie until years later but I remember Gene Siskel on "Sneak Previews" consistently putting down Tom Hanks as a Michael Keaton wannabe. Bet Gene's sorry now, maybe, probably...
MikeK: it wasn't that script that got Hanks and Wilson together, it was that "Brady Bunch" cheer.

Brian O. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MikeK.Pa. said...

Oat Willie: Gotcha, but according to this the relationship blossomed on the movie set.

However, neither had much success in the 1970s, and they were only beginning to establish themselves when they were paired in the 1985 movie Volunteers. It’s there that they fell in love—but it wasn’t actually the first time they met.

Their paths had actually crossed four years earlier on the set of the ABC sitcom Bosom Buddies, in which Tom starred as a cross-dressing advertising agent. Rita appeared on an episode about a video dating service -

See more at:

Hamid said...

Brian Williams says he was there when the bridge was blown up and he was responsible for bringing Hanks and Wilson together.

Unknown said...

No need to imagine the director's version. One fellow was kind enough to post the entire movie on youtube.

Jeanne said...

There seems to be nothing in the director's resume which would indicate why in the world he was hired to direct VOLUNTEERS. To direct a comedy like VOLUNTEERS, wouldn't it make more sense to hire someone experienced in comedy?

Anonymous said...

MikeK.Pa. said...

"...neither had much success in the 1970s, and they were only beginning to establish themselves when they were paired in the 1985 movie Volunteers."

Hanks may not have had much success in the 1970's because he wasn't acting in film or television in the '70's, aside from doing commercials. By the time he did "Volunteers," Tom was established as a comedy star, and I'd bet the producers of "Volunteers" felt lucky to get him.

Mike, shouldn't you do your homework before you "teach" us?

Ray said...

I know VOLUNTEERS followed BACHELOR PARTY and SPLASH, both of which were big hits for Hanks, so he was hardly an unknown quantity.

Hanks followed VOLUNTEERS with THE MONEY PIT, which paired with an actress whose name escapes me at the moment. Some obscure TV actress.

Dan Ball said...

I wish I didn't know how to read the scene! Now I feel wrong for thinking it worked better with a slower pace! (Not really. Frenetic was pretty much the best way to do it. I'll have to pull out the movie again and see if Nick butchered it or not.)

Ken, I remember reading elsewhere here on the blog that you and David had a pretty decent relationship with Nick during VOLUNTEERS and he regularly asked for your input throughout filming. Did you three compromise on the pacing of this scene or did you not know about it until you saw it in the theater?

I hold Nick Meyer in very high regard purely for his approach to STAR TREK. He got it right.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Anonymous: If you read the post, what I wrote was "according to this" (referencing the copy below it) with a link to the source material. I didn't say it and wasn't teaching anybody. My error in not putting it in quotes to make it more obvious.

Anonymous said...

I thought that Evanier was the only writer allowed to do repeats ?

Deggjr said...

I think the Tom Tuttle/Washington State/brainwashing story line is one of the funniest things I have ever seen. John Candy was great.

I learned the Washington State fight song because of the scene where the People's Army is headed towards the bridge in the People's Trucks singing the that song. How was Washington State so lucky to be chosen?

Albert Giesbrecht said...

Ken, I saw the movie when it came out, but just by reading the screen play I can hear Tom Hanks' voice. The man owes a great deal of success to you and David. I hope Mr. Hanks realizes this!

Johnny Walker said...

Don't kill me for saying this, but I wonder if different stage direction would have made the intention of this scene a little clearer?

Reading it I had difficulty imagining when the pace began to ramp up. I had to go back and think about it (although it's obvious once you know).

The reason I became unsure was it looked like things were going to speed up at Beth's line: "Jesus, there's no time to lift a finger..." but Lawrence's reply seemed lackadaisical: "Just one of those days, I guess."

And, even though you take the time to specify a camera shot earlier in the scene, you don't put any urgency in the next bit of scene direction: "They rise and start collecting booze, etc."

Of course, the dialogue that follows seems to work a lot better if it's done as a fast-paced series of throwaways... but maybe you should have made it clearer in the actual script?

For example, if you'd cut Lawrence's first sentence and then changed the scene direction to: "They jump up and frantically start collecting their respective essentials..." wouldn't it have been more obvious?

Hindsight and all that.

Johnny Walker said...


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

At, up and at ‘em. I’ve gotta get my dope, my booze – you know, the essentials.

They jump up and frantically start collecting their respective essentials...

(And yes, as I say, hindsight.)

Dan Ball said...

Johnny, I think Ken's said before that his intention isn't to direct the director or the actors, but give them a strong inclination of what to do and leave room for them to put their spin on it.

It's hard for me to imagine doing that since, as a beginner, I need to be given credit for as many good ideas as I can. If a director or actor is going to take credit for something I did, then that's not good for me, even though it makes me a more selfish artist.

Directorface said...

Hey Ken - thinking about it as a director, it reads (at least at the beginning) like a slower pace scene. Here're the phrases that gave me that impression:

- 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. (Feels like a long/slow shot)
- Lawrence and At are on the floor, catching their breath. (The characters start lying down, not a very active image)
- This line makes it sound like there's urgency: "If you want any more of it we’d better get going. At seven a.m. this morning all Hell’s gonna break loose." But then they don't get up for another couple lines.
- They rise and start collecting booze, etc. (Is this them cleaning up? I pictured them collecting bottles and it didn't feel particularly urgent).

After this, they start referencing being in a hurry, but there wasn't action descriptions to tell me that it was frenetic. I can totally see how that would work better off of the dialogue, but I think by then, the beginning images that had been planted in my mind didn't have me thinking about a frenetic pace. I tend to hone in on the blocking/staging and then break down the dialogue, so maybe that's where your director missed where you were going with it.

Love the scene, though!

Les said...

Was this scene supposed to be farcical as opposed to frenzied? Is there a difference? What's interesting, at least to me, is that the scene would have been great with Frasier and Niles.

cityslkrz said...

This is on HBO exactly now as I read this.
Deja vu

Johnny Walker said...

I know what you mean, Dan. Film and TV is a very collaborative medium -- you need to be OK with everyone else putting their spin on things, but that's why I mentioned the camera shot. That's very specific and might well be ignored by the director.

And additionally I'm eager to hear Ken's thoughts: Was that the problem? Would my solution have fixed things? Is it a good solution or something you should avoid?

I'm just guessing here.

Storm said...

Just wanted to say that I use the line "What have you learned, Dorothy?", in At's voice, to my goofy friends ALL the time, but had somehow completely forgot that it came from "Volunteers". I blame that devil weed.

Meyer made both of my favourite TREK films, as well as "Time After Time" with Malcolm McDowell and David Warner (both of whom I ADORE), so I can cut him some slack here. But then, he's not messing with *my* work, so I guess I can see your point.

Cheers, thanks a lot,