The Oops! Moment that Changes Everything

417980_10200174855440320_308108071_nIn Mike Leigh’s film, “Happy Go Lucky,” Poppy, Zoe, and Poppy’s younger sister, Suzy, go to visit another sister, Helen, who is pregnant. Helen lives with her husband, Jamie, in Southend-on-Sea. The mood of the visit, and actually the mood of the whole movie, changes subtly when Jamie, in a brilliant bit of subtext, blurts out the baby’s name despite Helen’s insistence on not revealing it before it’s born. Jamie has always submitted to Helen’s controlling ways, but in this Oops! moment things begin to change. The mood of the visit changes. The mood of the film changes. This often overlooked few seconds turns the Happy Go Lucky atmosphere into a narrative on the more serious issues of life.

Here it is:

I revisited my screenplay scheduled to begin filming July 24. I searched for that moment of mood change precipitated by an implicit word or action underlying the explicit occurrence. It wasn’t there. So, I injected a city council member who asks a perfectly innocent question as to why they must wait long hours in the board room for news about a local war hero’s struggle for life in a local hospital. However, before the mayor can give his coverup answer, one of his disgruntled lackeys blurts out, “Money.” From there the tenor of the meeting and the whole film changes from a light drama, to a dark mystery. When the council member spills out “Money” he is subversively revealing a sinister plot that straightaway rises to the surface.

Other examples of the Oops! moment came to mind, not the least of which is “War of the Roses.”

Here’s when it happens.

With a table full of dinner guests that Michael Douglas is trying to impress, he asks his wife, played by Kathleen Turner, to explain how they acquired the Baccarat wine glasses they’re using. Nervously, she tells the story about their trip to Paris, but her narrative begins to fall apart. Douglas finally cuts her off with, “To make a long story short…” From that point we dive into the dark side of the movie.

Looking for the Oops! moment in a movie is an intriguing exercise. Give it a try. The most useful employment of this activity is, of course, searching your own screenplay for that crucial bit of subtext that transforms the mood or tenor of the story.

The Heart of a Filmmaker

 

417980_10200174855440320_308108071_nWhen King Solomon finished building the magnificent temple in Jerusalem, he recalled the words God had spoken to his father David years before:

“Whereas it was in your heart to build a house for my name, you did well that it was in your heart.” temple

David had a great desire to build the temple but was prevented from doing so. Yet, he was commended for what was in his heart.

moviemakingA moviemaker has a drive that the world cannot understand. The drive to bring a story to life. He or she carries the overarching burden of knowing that if they don’t tell the story, it will never be told. From script to screen, the motivation to produce something that heretofore never was, pushes one to sacrifice everything for the sake of putting something before the eyes of an audience that will change their lives.

The necessities of food and sleep; the compulsion of fleshly desires; compelling social expectations; and the temptation to screenwriterabandon the work when agony and frustration drives one to tears — all of this lives and vies for preeminence in the filmmaker’s heart. But the crying out of the yet unborn and unnamed characters, whose very existence depends on the inspiration of their creators, cleanses one’s heart and refreshes the mind over and over.

A filmmaker’s heart is full of love and compassion and desire for greatest good. One with a true filmmaker’s heart puts a story onheart2 the screen for no other reason than to imprint something in the heart of a viewer. The imprint may be a revelation; an understanding; an attitude; a joy; a heartache; a call to activism; or a life-changing summons to think about things that are otherwise lost among the everyday issues of life. The movie experience is a transference from heart to heart.

There is no experience on the planet equal to watching one’s story come to life on the screen and to hear the laughter or  theaterperceive the tears or to catch a glimpse of an arm tightening around the shoulders of a companion. And then to watch the audience leave: Some silently dabbing tears; others conversing in low tones about what has just happened; and some leaving zestfully carrying laughter from the seat to the lobby and beyond. This is what the filmmaker lives for. This is the manna she craves. This is the magic that satisfies the heart and mind and soul.asleep

Sometimes we fail. Sometimes, like David, we fall short in spite of our most ardent efforts. But from the unknown independents to Hollywood’s rich and famous, a common thread binds all true filmmakers together when they come to the end of the day:  “I had it in my heart to make a movie. Yes, I did well that it was in my heart.”

 

Screenwriters: When Will You Quit?

417980_10200174855440320_308108071_nAn old saying from the Malabar region of India advises: You must not cast away the paddle when you approach the shore. A similar thought from the Telugu bemoans a man who watched the field until the harvest, and then let it go to the jackals.

I was walking with my 4-year-old granddaughter on a crisp autumn day in south Georgia. She’s full of wonder and curiosity. A natural-born naturalist. She has a special fondness for wild flowers. It was late fall and the leaves had turned and were by now weaving a brown and yellow carpet where once the grass was green. “Where are the yellow flowers?” she said. (She has a special penchant for Marigolds.) “I guess they only come out in the spring and summer,” I replied. We walked quietly for a minute or so, then suddenly the little one emitted a “Woo! Woo!” “What is it?” I asked. “Look, Peepa, there’s one.” Sure enough one solitary little yellow flower was poking its head up through the litter. My granddaughter’s face sparkled like the morning dew as she bent down and studied the little yellow anachronism.

After having enough of it, she stood up and beckoned for me to follow her on a further adventure. All along the way she had her eyes peeled for the sight of another Marigold, but none were to be found. As we turned for home, she broke the silence with, “Peepa, why was there still one flower?” I thought for a bit and could do no better, and no worse, than to reply, “Well, dear, I guess it was just waiting for you to come along.”

Nature is full of examples of perseverance. By its very existence the world of living things cries out, “See? We never gave up.” Through the ages of volcanoes and ice we survived. And we continue to survive in spite of the onslaught of natural and man-made catastrophes.

Perseverance. I’m guessing ninety-nine percent of all writers who begin their quest for success in screenwriting never submit a finished work. They simply drop out. What a shame. How many thousands of stories are there that will never be told? How many colorful characters have died on page sixty when their creator gave them up to spend eternity on a remote sector of a hard drive or to languish in a folder stuffed in the back of a filing cabinet.

In 1992, Derek Redmond was running the race of his life — the 400-meter dash at the Summer Olympics. In the previous Olympics, he was forced to withdraw 10 minutes before the race due to an Achilles injury, but now he was ready and heavily favored to medal.

His father is in the stands cheering. The race begins and 175 meters into it, Derek pulls his hamstring muscle and collapses on the ground. As the stretcher rolls out, he refuses to get on. Suddenly, everyone realizes that Redmond isn’t dropping out of the race by hobbling off to the side of the track. No, he is actually continuing on one leg. He’s going to attempt to hobble his way to the finish line. All by himself. All in the name of pride and heart. He is joined by his father, Jim, who avoids the security workers and rushes onto the track to help his son finish the journey. As they near the finish line, Jim releases the grip he has on his son to allow Derek to finish on his own to the roar of an appreciative crowd. Perseverance. Dead last, but he will always be among the few who can say they entered and finished the Olympic 400-meter race.

Every now and then when my 70-year-old body sends a messenger to my mind with a plea for surrender, I click on the most inspiring speech I have ever heard.

In the same year he died of Cancer, Jim Valvano cried out to all who are, or will ever be tempted to shut down an aspiration: “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”

A screenwriter’s greatest enemies are not the many obstacles that one faces trying to sell a play. No, the greatest enemy of those who write comes somewhere between the 60 minute mark and FADE OUT. It’s the enemy within. I had a golf coach tell me early on that the only course that could beat me lies along that 15 cm stretch of the cerebral cortex. In other words, one ultimately defeats one’s self.

Hollywood doesn’t fail us, or even obstruct our success. We obstruct ourselves when we give up. Sure, most of us will never write a smash hit. But how will we know if we don’t finish? One eliminates any possibility of receiving an Oscar when the decision is made to call in the dogs. Give up the hunt. Pack it in. That’s the end of a career that might have been.

Next month I’m going to make another movie. Maybe this will be the one that breaks through. Maybe not. But I’m going to keep banging away until I’m carried off the set without breath or heartbeat.

You’ve heard that what Hollywood doesn’t need is another screenwriter. Wrong. What Hollywood doesn’t need is another quitter. You will persevere, won’t you? Here’s a video entitled “When Will You Quit?” I hope you’ll take the time to watch and absorb it. (Note: Before, or after you view the video, please take time to read the message to you, our faithful readers, at the bottom of the page.)

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I am adding free DVDs of the soon to be produced feature-length film, “Some Glad Morning” to the rewards list for all backers of the excellent short film “The Last Pedestrian.” Become a credited participant (all the way up through the associate producer level) in this film to be shot in Douglas, GA, beginning July 24th. Backing of any amount is extremely appreciated. Go to:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/74447690/the-last-pedestrian

The Last Pedestrian

“The Last Pedestrian” is presented for public participation at various levels at Kickstarter.com. Please watch the presentation below. I hope you will seriously consider backing this independently produced project at any level.

kickstarter

A corrupt mayor seeks to replace embezzled funds by qualifying for a huge government grant based on a high rate of pedestrian deaths.

This project is a short film entitled, “The Last Pedestrian.” I wrote the screenplay and will direct the filming. The finished product will be entered in Film Festivals all over the world where it will be made available for distribution. Also the film will be featured on Vimeo’s Video on Demand (VOD), produced on DVD, and shown on Comcast Public Access Television. This is my second short film. The first, “Mattie and the Meteor” was distributed on DVD and shown on Comcast in south Georgia, as well as VOD on Vimeo. Details can be found in the Internet Movie Database.

The concept for “The Last Pedestrian” was  born one afternoon while reading the newspaper when I came across a short article about a midwestern town that had an unusually high rate of pedestrian deaths. No one really knew why, so a $500,000 study was conducted to explore the problem and to develop a plan for improvement.

It was soon discovered that towns of all sizes across the U.S. were experiencing a rise in pedestrian fatalities. In the light of this, the Federal and State Departments of Transportation, and Departments of Public Safety, offered incentives for cities with high rates of pedestrian deaths to study and improve conditions for those who walk. Sizable amounts of grant money has been issued for study and improvement programs for targeted local municipalities.

I asked the question, based on the above, “What if a corrupt mayor embezzles funds and seeks to bail his city out of debt by qualifying for a huge government grant to study pedestrian deaths?” But, it’s the last day of the fiscal year and his city is one pedestrian fatality short of qualifying. How far will he go? The last pedestrian is about to find out.

The movie will be filmed in Douglas, GA, thanks to the cooperation of the city government and various city and county agencies.

The principal characters are the Mayor, Harry Prichard (the last pedestrian), an ensemble of six city council members, the Mayor’s seductive secretary, a doctor, the driver of a mysterious “Big Dog” pickup, and the representative from the Department of Public Safety.

I am in the process of securing locations, permissions, and auditioning actors. This is a low-budget film, and money raised on Kickstarter will go for hiring a couple key crew members (the rest are volunteers); expenses for shooting on location; and post-production costs.

I hope you will seriously consider being a backer of “The Last Pedestrian.” The incentives for your support are listed on the Kickstarter page. This film is certain to gain attention on the Film Festival circuit in 2015. I will tell you in advance that I will produce a finished product worthy of your investment. Thank you in advance for your support at any level.

Tatemae and Honne: Keys to a Great Screenplay

Longfellow wrote it this way:

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

  Life is but an empty dream!—

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

  And things are not what they seem.

                       – Longfellow, “A Psalm of Life”

In the movie “Emperor,” the General Kajima character tells General Fellers (Matthew Fox), “There are two Japanese words you should know. Tatemae, the way things appear. Honne, the way things really are.”Epictetus said something along those lines when he wrote: “What concerns me is not the way things are, but rather the way people think things are.”

A key element for a successful movie is this: Make the audience believe that “A” is the case, when in actuality, “B” is the case. Then, at a key moment, hit ‘em with “the way things really are.”

Can you think of a few movies that do this superbly? Of course, the one that jumps right out at you is, “The Sixth Sense.” In this case, the way things really are, isn’t discovered until the ending.

Sometimes a dose of “the way things really are” comes early on, so that the story line encompasses what the hero must do to adjust and deal with it.

I’m not talking about a little twist here. I’m talking about creating a whole world that seems one way, but is revealed to be something else altogether. Something we have not suspected — or expected. A whole other world.

I knew a guy once that was as nice a family man as I’d ever known. He was so much into his children that at the drop of a hat he’d pull out his wallet and show us their latest pictures. His love for his children made us all resolve to do better regarding our own. I had never carried pictures of my children with me to show others. This guy put me to shame, so I found some wallet sized photos and began brandishing them about. It felt good.

Now, here’s the kicker. I got a call one evening informing me that our ‘Brady Bunch’ father had been arrested for child pornography. He had no children of his own. The head shots were pictures of victims. Two different worlds. The world I thought was the case, and the world that really was.

In my script “The Last Pedestrian,” a short film about to go into production, most of the film follows a mayor and his city council anxiously waiting for news from the hospital about a returning war hero who was stricken down by a hit and run driver. They are collectively concerned. Each time the attending physician phones in from the hospital, the prevailing question is, “Is he going to make it?” But, about three-fourths into the film the world as we thought it was morphs into a world we couldn’t have imagined. No, I’m not going to tell you.

I always go back to the opening scene in “The Dream Team.” During the opening sequence we see a doctor, Henry Sikorsky (Christopher Lloyd), clipboard in hand, rounding up patients for a group therapy session. He succeeds in getting them all together, except for Michael Keaton’s character who comes in late, disrupting things. Then the world we’ve built turns upside down. A man enters, makes Henry take off his white lab coat, and asks him to put away the clipboard so that he, Dr. Weitzman, can begin the session. Henry is a delusional patient.

Things are not what they seem.

It’s strong stuff for a writer to lay out the hero’s journey across the threshold into the new world of Act II; and then midway through the act lower the boom on an unsuspecting audience. The new world was an illusion. The REAL new world, the REAL adventure is not what we thought. Does “Chinatown” come to mind. We soon find out nothing is as it seemed. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

I’m not talking about twists, I’m talking about turnarounds.

I made a wrong turn somewhere in Waycross, Georgia, on my way to Brunswick. Here’s the way it went:

I’m driving leisurely along as the pines and cypress and mossy oaks whiz by on a beautiful sunlit Sunday afternoon. I look at my watch and find I’ve been about an hour out of Waycross, so it’s about time to pass under I-95, cross the Sidney Lanier Bridge, and breeze up Hwy 17 to my place of abode. But only a few seconds after glancing at my watch, I look up and see the sign that changed everything: “Welcome to Florida.”

That whole drive from the time I left Waycross was not what it seemed. It was an illusion. If you were in the car filming, your footage would convincingly portray a world the audience has no reason to believe isn’t the world we thought it was. Same kind of highway, same trees, and roadside convenience stores. But when the sign, “Welcome to Florida,” appears, we realize nothing has been what it seemed.

I love epics like, “Titanic.” Great adventures. But in Titanic nothing ever really changes, even when the boat meets the iceberg. We know who the bad guys are. We know who the good guys are. We know the social strata and the barrier between “steerage” and first class. Rose, abused by Cal, is looking for love, and Jack Dawson wants to be the one. These folks are, in the end, what they were in the beginning. The ‘wannabe’ socialite mother, the tender Molly Brown and the egomaniacal Cal make up a world that is what it is. None of it isn’t what we think it is. So Titanic turns out to be a magnificent love story in a one-dimensional world. (Releasing it in 3D didn’t change that.) Well, I suppose you could say that the Titanic, portrayed as an unsinkable world, is, in reality, a very sinkable world. But no one leaves the theater exclaiming, “Man, I didn’t see that coming,” because we knew that up front. If you’re basing a screenplay on a real event, you’d better not serve up things we knew before our first mouthful of popcorn as your “things are not as they seem” entrée.

The Truman Show is a brilliant example of a turnaround world. Suddenly an idyllic small town becomes a TV reality show. This comes to us early on, but Jim Carrey must slowly discover the reality of a world he never knew existed. So what we have here are three worlds. (1) The illusionary world. (2) The real world. (3) The special world beyond the sea.

The “things are not what they seem” element is the bread and butter of a short film. I have another short script, “Reality,” where a man is the focus of a reality show, but unlike Truman, he knows it. He knows the cameras are tracking him wherever he goes. He plays out some everyday events in a scripted manner to make the show more interesting. He brings in new characters and revisits his ‘regulars’ on a daily basis. It’s all a little upsetting to those around him. Especially when he stops midstream during the course of a conversation or task to allow the cameras to move, or to suggest a new angle to the director. But, (Are you ready for this?), suddenly we discover that there are no cameras. There is no director. There is no script. There is no reality show. Our hero is imagining it all. He suffers from what psychiatry is now calling TSD or “The Truman Show” delusion.

But that’s the way a short story must go. Build a world, then, “presto change-o,” it disappears in a flash and a new one appears.

Do sweeter words ever fall a writer’s ears than, “Man, I didn’t see that coming!”