3

So, a dozen years ago, I said to myself, “If I’m really going to understand this industry, if I’m to be as knowledgeable in cinema-speak as everyone I run into, I’m going to have to watch every good movie ever made, even the ones I have no interest in seeing.” Which was a big problem for me because I didn’t like black and white films. They were all so over-acted and the lack of color instantly dated them, making it hard to fully immerse myself in the experience. People knock me on this, but movies are about suspension of disbelief. If at any point that suspension is broken, so is the magical movie spell. And black and white breaks the spell for someone who grew up in color. But I felt I owed it to myself to see all these movies, so I did. Outside of Hitchcock’s films and a few others, Sunset Boulevard is the only black and white movie where I forgot the black and white. There was something about the film, despite it being 50 years old, that felt so current. I’d never seen that with these old movies before. I’ve been aching to revisit it forever and “Ten Tips” seemed the perfect motivation. For those who haven’t seen the film, it’s about a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who accidentally befriends a washed-up silent film actress. I highly recommend seeing it if you haven’t yet.

1) Myth: You can’t write a movie about Hollywood – I used to believe this myth. But the truth is, you just can’t write a BAD movie about Hollywood.  It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. If you have great characters, a unique concept, a compelling plot, nice twists and turns, nobody’s going to say to you, “I thought your script was the best I’ve read all year. But I have no interest in it because it’s about Hollywood.” If something is good, people WILL WANT IT. I think the key to the “about Hollywood” script is the concept. Focus on something less obvious than your basic “screenwriter/actor trying to make it” storyline. Sunset Boulevard is about a struggling screenwriter who gets kidnaped into a fading actress’s house of horrors. It dealt with Hollywood from a different perspective. If this is had been about our hero, Joe Gillis, trying to get his movie made, Sunset Boulevard would have been forgotten two weeks after it came out.

2) Timeless movies are driven by characters with universal problems – The question I’ve constantly asked myself about this film is, “How come this 60 year old film still feels relevant today?” What is it that makes any movie stand the test of time? And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s timeless characters – characters with universal problems that people are going to have today as well as have a hundred years from now. Norma Desmond is terrified of being alone. Joe Gillis is struggling to make ends meet. Betty Schaefer doesn’t know if she should be with the “right” man or the man she’s in love with. Give your characters relatable universal problems and they’ll last for ages.

3) Don’t expect a great movie unless you have a great character – The more I read, the more I realize that you shouldn’t even bother writing a movie unless you have a REALLY INTERESTING, UNIQUE, MEMORABLE character SOMEWHERE in your script. Those are always the scripts that actors are most interested in. Those are always the scripts that get made into movies first. Those always turn into the films you remember most. Sunset Boulevard is Sunset Boulevard because of the wacky crazy antics of Norma Desmond. The woman has a chimpanzee buried when we first meet her! What interesting shit does your character do?

4) Interesting characters tend to be supporting characters – Although I’ve seen movies with really wacky main characters, most of the time, the memorable characters are not the hero. Why? Because the hero has to be the straight man. He has to be the one to keep the story on track. He must be grounded. If he’s too wacky, the story becomes unfocused and messy. Jack Sparrow, Han Solo, Quint, Doc from Back To The Future, Norma Desmond. Supporting characters tend to work best in those secondary roles because they can be wacky without upsetting the balance of the story.

5) The intruding storyline – Remember that whatever your story is about, you want to have an “intruding” storyline, something that’s trying to make its way into your character’s life independent of the main plot. At first, in Sunset Boulevard, it’s the repo men. They’re constantly on Joe’s trail. They’re coming to Norma’s house. You need this intruding storyline because if all you have is your main plot, the script’s going to feel thin.

6) If an intruding storyline ends, replace it with another – This is where the real writers show their mettle. They know that certain subplots are going to conclude in the middle of the script, and when that happens, they need to replace them. So here, the intruding storyline of the repo men ends. What’s going to replace it? Wilder and his crew write in the Betty Schaefer screenwriting plotline, which intrudes bigtime on the main plot (and ultimately ends up in Joe’s demise!). You always want at least one story element intruding on the main plot, and probably more.

7) Great lines of dialogue tend to stem from character – “I am big. It was the pictures that got small,” is one of the most famous lines of dialogue in history. I spend entire nights, sometimes, trying to figure out what makes a great movie line. I still haven’t figured out any definitive formula, but Sunset Boulevard reinforced one of my beliefs: The best lines of dialogue stem from character. Norma Desmond is a narcissistic, delusional fame-whore who erroneously believes she’s still a star. Naturally then, when someone says “You used to be big,” she’s going to give a narcissistic, delusional fame-whore-like response: “I am big. It was the pictures that got small.” So when looking for that amazing line, start by asking who your character is.

8) CONFLICT ALERT – Remember that nearly every scene you write should have some element of conflict in it. Take a very simple dance scene in Sunset Boulevard. Norma Desmond has a “party” which she of course invites Joe to. When he gets there, there are no other guests. Just him. She then wants to dance. Joe does so, but reluctantly. The scene then revolves around this simple setup: She wants to dance, he doesn’t. You can see this dynamic extrapolated over the entire movie. Almost everything in Sunset Boulevard is about Norma wanting something and Joe not wanting it. This is the conflict that drives every scene, and by extension, the film.

9) Contrast the surrounding elements with the moment at hand – In that same scene, Joe and Norma get into a fight. The ugly battle is contrasted against the beautiful music from the live band. Contrasting the surroundings with what’s going on with the characters is always good for a scene or two in your script.

10) The Anti-Love Story – I’ve found that these “anti-love” stories are almost always interesting. By “anti” I mean a love story where one or both of the characters doesn’t want the relationship, but are stuck in it anyway. Movies like 500 Days of Summer, The Break-Up, War of the Roses, Sunset Boulevard. We’ve seen every love story in the book, which is why they all feel so cliché. Anti-love stories are much rarer, which is why they tend to be so fascinating when done well.

  • Alex Palmer

    Nice article. And I like the inclusion of a food ol’ fashioned Polish film poster. It reminded me of how movie posters have gone down hill recently. You only need to look at the one-sheet for R.I.P.D. (on the back of the latest Empire magazine, if you read it). It’s a photoshop/CGI travesty. Almost worse than:
    http://www.impawards.com/2008/posters/bangkok_dangerous_ver2_xlg.jpg

  • martin_basrawy

    not gonna lie, this read like a very basic column with advice (albeit very good advice) we’ve read here a million times before (have interesting characters that actors will want to play, have conflict, have subplots, if it’s a good movie about xyz subject then people will come, etc.). still works as a refresher, I guess.
    Love this movie btw!

  • Poe_Serling

    Hey Carson-

    Thanks for the some great tips from a great movie. And, of course, I have a few thoughts of my own regarding Sunset Boulevard:

    “We should horsewhip this Wilder. We should throw him out of this town. He has dirtied the nest. He has brought disgrace on the town that is feeding him!”

    –MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer after seeing the film Sunset Boulevard for the first time.

    Fortunately for us, Mayer didn’t get his way and Billy Wilder went on making great movies…. Stalag 17, Sabrina, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, and so on.

    I’ve been a huge fan of Sunset Boulevard forever. I can’t count the number of articles/books I’ve read about the film. Plus, it was one of my first DVD purchases when I started my collection.

    For me, Sunset Boulevard always had the trappings of a classic horror story.

    >>The opening hook.

    A dead man floating belly down in a swimming pool.

    >>Time to meet our main character.

    Joe Gillis is on the run (from repo men) when his front tire suddenly blows out. He has to wheel the car into a long driveway and soon finds himself stranded at –

    >>A somewhat secluded location.

    To be more specific, it’s a mansion in the sad state of decay and neglect.

    >>Toss in some unsettling characters.

    How about an aging movie star with a penchant for eccentric behavior and a reclusive lifestyle. Next, a creepy butler at her beck and call. Top everything off with a handful of ‘waxwork’ friends from a by-gone era.

    >>Strange goings-on at the house.

    A somber funeral for a pet monkey, individuals living in a 1920s time warp, screenings
    of the same few movies night after night, signs of possible mental illness and whispered suicide attempts, and the real threat of murder/death lurking in the back of our
    minds after viewing the first few frames of the film.

    >>Finally, the entire pic is wrapped in a glorious black and white bow of Gothic
    underpinnings.

    The viewer is ushered into a mansion full of shadowy nooks and crannies, which only adds to the already bleak/oppressive atmosphere of the place. Other elements of this genre on display here include people harboring a dark secret or two, hints of illicit sex, and the often wasteful nature of having excessive wealth.

    All in all, a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

    • TruckDweller

      I love this analysis.

      • Poe_Serling

        Thanks, TD. :-)

  • MaliboJackk

    Using the once famous director, Eric von Stroheim, as the butler
    – also says a lot about Hollywood.

    • Poe_Serling

      You’re so right… even though he garnered a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Max von Meyerling in Sunset Blvd., von Stroheim would often refer to the role in interviews as ‘that lousy butler part.’

      • brenkilco

        When an interviewer once complimented him by saying he was ten years ahead of his time as a director Von Stroheim replied “Twenty.”

  • JNave

    Great tips. It was nice to see #4 because we always hear that our main character has to be interesting and I’ve run across a number of people who say he/she should never be overshadowed. And while the protagonist certainly does need to keep our interest, I have found that my supporting characters are usually more interesting, as you point out. I also love # 6, 7 & 9. Great things to keep in mind.

  • tobban

    In the original script, Wilder wanted a morgue and two dead guys talking to another.
    I guess the studio didn’t like that either…
    Sunset Boulevard is one of my top five movies.
    Seen it more than ten times.

  • ElectricDreamer

    I’m unsure how one learns about the film industry WITHOUT black and white films.

    Recently, I’ve been brushing up on my rom/com titles — namely Ernst Lubitsch’s films.
    I watched “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) with Jimmy Stewart.
    The plot… anonymous pen pal lovers are actually rival employees in the same shop.
    Pretty high-concept sounding to me…

    Hmmm, where have I seen SOMETHING like that, but SLIGHTLY different before?
    “You’ve Got Mail” delivered to us by the late and luminous, Nora Ephron.

    Replace letter writing with e-mails and give each protag their own shop in town.
    Move the in-store rivalry to an inter-store one.
    That’s more capitalist and modern for our times, etc.
    Heck, even call one of the shops… The Shop Around the Corner. ;-)

    And that’s a classic example of how you STEAL in this business of screenwriting, folks.
    You can’t learn about those tricks — WITHOUT embracing black and white movies.

    So hug a classic today and learn how to be a good thief. Please. :-)

  • James Inez

    This is one of my favorite movies. Reading through your tips, it made me think about the story. This story I think, is the evolution of a relationship between a rich woman and a kept man. I can see a lot of “kept” relationships such as this ending in the same way. Maybe not resulting in murder but with strong emotion and hysterics. I think the person with the money in a “kept” relationship tends to be possessive and obsessive over what they believe belongs to them. They feel like they have ownership rights over the other. And as the relationship evolves they want more and more from the person, strengthening their possessiveness. “Bernie” just popped into my head and a similar thing happens in that relationship. And that’s based on a true story! It’s like life imitating art. And Sunset Blvd is definitely art imitating life.

    • Deaf Ears

      Good observation. Your post made me think of STAR 80, PRICK UP YOUR EARS, and AUTO FOCUS which are not about “kept” relationships as such but are in the same ballpark. Certainly obsessive/co-dependent relationships tend to end badly, in the movies and real life.

      • Deaf Ears

        And they’re all also based on true stories.

      • James Inez

        I’ve seen Auto Focus, but not the other two. They look really good, so I’ll probably end up checking them out.

  • blue439

    Another thing about the “I am big” line is it’s one of the first lines Norma Desmond speaks. It’s a CHARACTER DEFINING line. It establishes her character. This is how she sees herself. She remains a star, it’s the world that has diminished. An interesting thing about her relationship with Joe Gillis is this is the diametrical opposite of Gillis’ attitude. He clearly sees himself as a hack — someone scraping along, throwing out any story just to (barely) stay in the business. As his work with Betty Schaefer shows, he clearly has talent. I think in their first meeting she even says something about a good earlier script of his. Gillis just dismisses it with a “It didn’t sell” comment. Gillis at some point lost faith in himself (and his talent). This is NOT Norma Desmond’s problem. She still believes herself to be a star, even if no one else does. Both Desmond and Gillis are deluding themselves and face the tragic consequences.

  • Citizen M

    Great line of dialogue from an anti-love story: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

  • JakeBarnes12

    Oh, man, I’m so with you Carson about black and white.

    I mean, when did you ever see in black and white unless you’re a dog or something, and they don’t go to the theater much? It’s so unrealistic. Okay, there was this one time I bought some bad acid in Stockton, but apart from that…

    It’s like, what’s with when you’re watching a movie where people aren’t talking American and then the words appear below them in American? I’ve been to Mexico and they all speak Mexican and the words never appear below them in American, so that’s bull and totally takes me out of the movie.

    And then, what’s with when there’s some big emotional scene and suddenly there’s all this music? Where does that come from? Is there always an orchestra or DJ just round the corner only you can’t see them for some reason? I don’t get it. It’s like this one time I was knocking over a liquor store in Bakersfield and put in my iPod earphones only that didn’t work out so well on account of I couldn’t hear the cop cars coming when I was running out of the place. So I’d say that makes it kinda hard to suspend your disbelief in a movie cause you really wanna be able to hear the cops coming.

    And then, what’s with there’s something happening on screen and it’s getting interesting but then suddenly the picture stops and you’re looking at it from somewhere else like you’re another person or something except there’s no other person there? And it doesn’t just happen once but it KEEPS happening. Sometimes you’re even in the air looking down, like you’re Superman or something. I mean, that’s NEVER happened to me in real life, not even on acid, so either I’m unique or that’s one more screw-up making it impossible to immerse yourself in the experience cause it’s just so freakin’ unrealistic.

    Man.

    Movies suck.

    • MaliboJackk

      Know what you mean about those overhead shots
      I’m like sitting in the audience, twisting my head trying to watch
      – end up on the floor looking up.

      Ugh.

    • Citizen M

      The first movie I ever saw, my mother dumped me in the front row on the side in the theatre and went shopping. It was a black and white British movie, forget the title or story.

      What I do remember is these two bald-headed guys talking. And specifically the shape of their heads. They were egg-shaped and distorted. I told my mother about it afterwards. She realised it was because I was looking at the screen from an extreme angle. I hadn’t learned yet how to mentally compensate for my viewing position. I thought they really did have distorted heads.

    • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

      Best response ever to someone saying they dislike black & white

    • Michael

      I don’t know, I’m watching a movie and every now and then it flashes back, then I feel exactly like I’m on acid. ;-)

    • Jonathan Soens

      I doubt anyone’s problem is actually the lack of color.

      Because I’ve had people express similar difficulties with watching old black and white films. And then you ask if they saw “Clerks” or “Schindler’s List.” You ask if the black and white scenes in “American History X” or “Pleasantville” made them unwatchable. You ask about “Pi” or “Ed Wood” or “Following” or “Wings of Desire.”

      And, long story short: usually, it turns out people just have a problem with older movies. The lack of color usually isn’t the deal-breaker. They usually just have a harder time seeing past older production values and acting. Because when they watch more modern black and white stuff, it’s not like they can’t stomach it because there’s no color.

    • carsonreeves1

      Like, I said. Some people give me a hard time about it. :)

  • brenkilco

    Something about Sunset Boulevard has always bothered me. I’ve always wondered if Wilder intended it to be funnier, black comic funny but still funny, and if the whole thing sort of got away from Wilder and ended up more noirish, sad and horrific than he meant it to. Swanson’s Norma is so toweringly pathetic and needy and deluded that she sort of unbalances everything. It’s said Wilder considered Mae West for the role. Just a joke of his? Not sure.

    As for great lines for writers, you can’t beat this from Holden’s Gillis. ” I wrote a sensitive story about Oakies in the dust bowl. You’d never know it because when it came out the whole thing played on a PT boat.”

    The more things change…..

    • Poe_Serling

      According to biographer Jeffrey Meyers: “Wilder pursued silent film stars Mae West (who refused to appear as an actress past her prime), Mary Pickford, and Pola Negri before choosing Gloria Swanson to play Norma Desmond.”

      • brenkilco

        Still in her prime? What was West then, sixty? Makes Norma Desmond look reasonable.

        • Poe_Serling

          lol. Wilder eventually came to the same conclusion, “The idea of [casting] Mae West was idiotic because we only had to talk to her to find out that she thought she was as great, as desirable, as sexy as she had ever been.”

          • filmklassik

            There’s a great video on Youtube of Swanson appearing on Dick Cavett’s old talk show along with — wait for it — Janis Joplin! That’s right: Swanson and Joplin on “The Dick Cavett Show.” Swanson comes across as sweet, gracious and dignified while Joplin comes across as stoned and somewhat trashy and not gracious at all. Amazing.

            Oh, and Swanson looks better too. I’m not kidding. See for yourself.

            (Swanson joins Cavett and Joplin around the 27 minute mark)

          • klmn

            Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out this evening.

          • Poe_Serling

            Ditto – thanks for the link. :-)

          • Christian Zilko

            Method acting

      • klmn

        Mae West was such a caricature, it’s hard to imagine her in a serious role.

  • jaehkim

    I’m with carson with the black and white. they feel dated. movies are such a visual experience that color is something I need. one thing that helps with me is the speed of the story. a lot of movies nowadays move so much faster. sometimes I’ll find a black and white story that moves quite well. I saw marlon brandon’s the wild one on TV the other day and I actually enjoyed it.

    • filmklassik

      Actually, many older movies moved faster than today’s movies do. Yes, the individual shots were longer, but the scenes were frequently shorter and there was much less fat on the story. Compare a good crime movie from the 40s or 50s with something like Michael Mann’s HEAT or Brian DePalma’s SCARFACE. Or, for that matter, with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

    • brenkilco

      Check out a few superior film noirs and realize just how amazing stylized black and white cinematography can be. As for speed, the machine gun dialogue delivery of some thirties comedies would make your jaw drop. Keep an open mind.

  • Erick

    Good article. Timing couldn’t be better. I sent my script out and a Co wants a meeting. As it turns out, its a story about Hollywood (#1) but not in a satire way. It’s about the fall of Harvey Weinstein (#3) (but I use “Victor Gottstein” as I’d like to avoid any legal proceedings) because of a mailroom clerk (#4, but she becomes a #3). Based on a true story (reputation, ousted by his own company, control obsession), but with a twist. Hopefully I hit hit #7!

    I’ll keep you posted if something comes of the meeting (keeping my fingers crossed! I’m tired of Ramen… maybe next I’ll write “The Starving Screenwriters’ Cookbook of Survival”. Ramen will have it’s own chapter as will Fast Food Condiments. God, this is making me hungry…)

    http://www.sendspace.com/file/vp52lb

    • klmn

      Good luck with your script!

      • Erick

        Thank you much. It was a labor of love, an exercise in futility and one of the most frustrating accomplishments I’ve ever done (it was part of my thesis and its based on true events–Carson could explain the genesis of that statement, but I’d prefer he didn’t… ;-)

        My one objective of my paper was: Write an Academy Ward winning role… so naturally, I tried to do two. Lets see if the Co agrees…

  • NajlaAnn

    Excellent tips – thanks!

  • filmklassik

    “Outside of Hitchcock’s films and a few others, Sunset Boulevard is the only black and white movie where I forgot the black and white.”

    Carson, is that really true…?

    Are you really conscious of the black and white when you are sitting there watching A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, THE THIRD MAN, CASABLANCA, OUT OF THE PAST, RAGING BULL, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, HUD, RED RIVER, THE HUSTLER, DR. STRANGELOVE and SCHINDLER’S LIST?

    Interesting. And just a little bit sad.

    • J. Lawrence Head

      Most of the old film noirs lose their impact when colorized

    • klmn

      About the Last Picture Show, IIRC Bogdanovich said he filmed in B&W because the town looked too good in color.

      • klmn

        Check out the trailer from The Last Picture Show.

        http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067328/?ref_=sr_1

      • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

        The Last Picture Show is one of my absolutely all time favorites.

        Bogdanovich’s follow-up, “Paper Moon,” is likewise black & white, which I think made for an excellent juxtaposition to the comedic and fun story, set during the depression.

    • Poe_Serling

      The one overlooked gem I would throw into this growing list of black and white must-sees:

      Night of the Hunter – Robert Mitchum plays a ‘demented preacher who
      stalks a boy and his sister because he suspects the kids know where a
      stash of stolen money is hidden.’

      Directed by actor Charles Laughton. The film is packed full of stark, haunting scenes/images.

      • brenkilco

        And Notorious, black velvet suspense. And Sweet Smell of Success, Manhattan as a gleaming noir cesspool of ambition. Face it. There are hundreds.

        • Poe_Serling

          ‘black velvet suspense’ – I like the sound of that. ;-)

          • klmn

            Would be a great title.

      • klmn

        Another must see, FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!

        One of the actresses, Haji, just died. I mentioned this on yesterday’s post.

        Here’s a trailer for the poor, benighted, B&W haters:


        • Poe_Serling

          Hey klmn-

          Are you familiar with cult film director Edgar G. Ulmer’s work? If not, you may want to check out some of his better known films such as The Black Cat, Detour, Bluebeard, and The Strange Woman.

          • klmn

            The Black Cat and Bluebeard sound familiar, but I’m no expert on Ulmer. Thanks for the heads up.

            I just ran across this BBC doc on Russ Meyer. I’ve bookmarked it to watch later.

          • brenkilco

            Gotta love Black Cat. War atrocities, Satan worship, cool post modern home decor and Bela Lugosi is the good guy. Ulmer was definitely unique.

          • Poe_Serling

            Fun fact: According to wiki – The Black Cat was Universal’s biggest hit that year. Budget: $95, 000 plus some change. Box-Office: $236,000.

          • brenkilco

            A big budget production for Ulmer. Poor guy.

      • MaliboJackk

        Cool images.
        Has almost a child’s fairy tale quality about it.

        • Poe_Serling

          “Has almost a child’s fairy tale quality about it.”

          That’s a great way to look at the film!

    • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

      People who dislike black & white remind me of people who dislike subtitles. Yet those same people, when they went to see Inglourious Basterds and half of the film was subtitled, didn’t complain.

      The lack of consistency in complaints like that (such as them liking Schindler’s List, or The Artist, or Frances Ha, etc.) makes me honestly wonder what their resistance is actually all about.

      • filmklassik

        Simple. Those movie aren’t old. They may be SET in the past, but the cast and filmmakers are very much “of” today — of the zeitgeist — and so the movies they make will carry much more relevance to modern audiences than a movie made 65 or 70 years ago.

    • carsonreeves1

      It’s sad, but I try to be honest about it. A lot of people pretend to like classics because they’re supposed to. It’s something that gets in the way of my viewing unless the story is just phenomenal.

  • brenkilco

    Forgetting the black and white. This is monumentally twisted. The greatest B and W films are simply inconceivable in color. Monochrome is essential to their effect. Touch of Evil, Lady From Shanghai, Out of the Past, Strangers on a train, Citizen Kane for God sake, Psycho. Well, actually Psycho is conceivable in color. Also absolutely forgettable in color.

    • filmklassik

      One of the most gorgeous black and white movies ever made is MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. The story’s just okay, say a B or B-minus. The acting is very good (and Fonda is top-notch) but the cinematography is stunning.

      • brenkilco

        No argument. Of course Monument Valley looks great in color too. But somehow more vast and lonely in b and w. And those low ceiling bars with the swinging lamps and the shadowy night scenes. Just great. Agree the story meanders though some claim it’s JF’s masterpiece. Never much liked Victor Mature in anything else.

  • filmklassik

    Well, PSYCHO’s a Hitchcock movie and Carson did say Hitchock movies “and a few others” were exceptions to the rule.

    But I’m kicking myself for leaving out MANHATTAN and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

    • Paul Clarke

      Is no one going to mention 12 ANGRY MEN?

      That’s got to be near the top of any black and white film list, or any film list for that matter.

      • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

        I think we could all sit here and name brilliant black and white films. 12 Angry Men is phenomenal, though, I completely agree.

        One of my top ten favorites is Anatomy of a Murder. Also in my top is Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. Both b&w.

    • kidbaron

      Elephant Man and Sin City…

  • filmklassik

    And I’m a big fan of ALL ABOUT EVE too… until Bette Davis leaves the picture about 15 minutes from the end. It’s purely a structural thing, but the last act of that movie kinda blows it for me.

  • Cambias

    Concerning black and white film I have two words: Casa fucking Blanca.

    • filmklassik

      Magnificent film, natch, and one I only omitted from my post (which was basically addressed to Carson) only because Carson has written at length about its virtues.

      • filmklassik

        Ha! Strike that — turns out I did NOT omit it from my earlier post.

        Incipient dementia, guys. My apologies.

  • drifting in space

    Strong tips. Good read.

  • http://www.erikvidal.com/ Erik Vidal

    One of the structural “secrets” that allows Sunset Boulevard to really stand up over time (and this is true with any great screenplay) is that the main character and dynamic character (some Writer’s Bootcamp terminology for you all) have OPPOSING TRAGIC FLAWS: he thinks too little of himself, and she thinks far too much of herself…

    It’s clear that the writer was once operating at career peak efficiency (the love interest even comments on this) but, whatever’s happened since, Hollywood has ground him down–as the years have passed, he’s lost faith in his own talent and in himself… Contrast this with the movie star: she too was once at the top of her game, but unlike the writer, when Hollywood moved on without her, rather than let herself get beaten down by it, her ego actually inflated, and she lost herself in a world of denial… Throw these two together then, and you automatically get self generated conflict in every single scene.

    Check it out: ALL the great movies have an MC and a DC with opposing tragic flaws: STAR WARS: Luke’s a naive and innocent farmboy (who’s seen too little of the universe), Han’s a jaded and cynical pirate (who’s seen too much). Etc. Writers: add this one to your toolbox if you haven’t already, it’s great stuff–

    Erik

    • Jerry Salvaderi

      Very good, thanks for the tip.

    • drifting in space

      Brilliant.

    • brenkilco

      Sorry but I’m not MC/DC. Are these anything like protagonists and antagonists? And whenever anybody is discussing fundamentals of great dramatic construction and their first reference is to Star Wars I get a little dubious. There’s a difference between flaws and tragic flaws. Hubris is a tragic flaw. Cynicism and naivete. Not so much. In fact, neither of those Star Wars Characters is a tragic hero in even the most general sense. Darth Vader. You could make a case but we’re still a long way from King Lear.

      • http://www.erikvidal.com/ Erik Vidal

        I agree, the STAR WARS references get a little old after while–we only use them because the structure is so sound (Lucas studied with Joseph Campbell and was very intent on creating, not just a story, but a full on proper “myth” that would survive the ages, hence his slavish devotion to hitting each and every beat just right), and certainly, it’s a reference we all know…

        But yes, MC (Main character) and DC (Dynamic Character), can also be thought of as “Hero” and “Sidekick”, “Protagonist” and “Co-Protag” etc, the point is, when constructing your story, one great way to rocket off the starting line and ensure that you have conflict built into each and every scene is to make sure that your Protag and Co-Protag have opposing tragic flaws–or (again, to use the Writer’s Bootcamp parlance), OPPOSING ACTIVE MISBEHAVIORS (“active misbehavior” defined here as: the way that your character acts such that it affects others around him in a negative fashion…) Being naive. Being reckless. Being too much of a perfectionist. Being a miser. And so on…

        Of course we don’t have to fall back on Star Wars here–like I said, ANY great screenplay likely has this dynamic contrast. Look at LETHAL WEAPON: the protag’s tragic flaw / active misbehavior is that he’s crazy, suicidal, he wants to die (he is, then, actively courting his own death). So what does Shane Black do? Pair him up with a careful, conservative family man who’s about to retire from the police force in a week! (His active misbehavior: overly cautious…) So right from the get go, every scene these two are in together (which of course is almost all the scenes in the movie) automatically has a TON of built in “auto generated” content, all before you even start writing…

        I could list countless examples here, but do yourselves a favor: go back through all your most beloved movies and scripts, and look for the opposing / constrasting tragic flaws between the protag and the co-protag… I guarantee you’ll be shocked at how often this trick is used, and, if done right, how transparently it pushes the story forward–

        Erik

        • brenkilco

          As explained, I think your observation is perfectly sound. Oil and water personalities for hero and sidekick are time honored way to generate humor and gin up the action. You could go all the way back to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. I’d just caution you on your word choices. Tragic flaw has a very specific meaning. And it’s really not what you’re talking about.

        • MaliboJackk

          Is Lethal Weapon a great movie?
          Love Shane Black — but not sure using that technique makes that a great movie.

          And isn’t the Main Character? And the Dynamic Character?

          Pairing “odd couples” is a well known Hollywood gimmick
          – making it easier to creates conflict and explore character.

          Giving the technique a fresh new name, suggesting that it be limited to misbehavior, and throwing in opposing tragic flaws …
          (I may have to go back and watch Citizen Kane.)

          I don’t think we’ve talked that much about writer’s boot camp.
          Curious to know cost, number of weeks and if you met any professional

          screenwriters.

    • carsonreeves1

      Ooh, I like that concept – opposing tragic flaws. Hadn’t picked up on that.

      • http://www.erikvidal.com/ Erik Vidal

        One of the single most useful storytelling techniques I’ve discovered. Am sure you’ve got a column in there somewhere– ; )

        Erik

  • JakeBarnes12

    If only there was some kind of technology that was like a theater movie projector and screen only, and I’m just spitballin’ here, it was possible to fit it into your home! And imagine if men would come to your house to deliver big reels of film and you could choose what to watch from all the movies ever made in the history of the world, from, like, the Romans or whatever all the way to now!

    I bet people who really loved movies would watch a lot of them. I bet they’d watch movies from all different times and places because they loved movie stories so much and wanted to experience all the great ones. I bet some of those movies might even be from hundreds of years ago and in black and white and some might not even have any dialogue cause people didn’t speak back then. They just gesticulated wildly and moved really fast and when someone wanted so say something they held up a sign with words on it.

    But enough of these utopian fantasies. Guess we’re stuck with what was showing at the local multiplex and on cable when we were growing up.

    What a dull world we live in.

  • kidbaron

    My rant…

    This is part of what I call my William Holden trinity. Sunset Blvd, The Wild Bunch and Network are all amazing movies with plenty of screenwriting lessons. Also look at the characters Holden plays while your at it. The man goes from the leading handsome man of old school Hollywood to a grizzled accomplished actor of one of the best and the most prophetic movies of the 70s.

    Then there’s The Wild Bunch. It still influences filmmakers today. Blake Masters was thinking about it when he wrote 2 Guns. David Simon and his writers on The Wire call back to it throughout, especially in season 2.

    I think if your going to be a screenwriter you need to grow up and watch some old B&W movies. You know Billy Wilder made Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Lost Weekend and Double Indemnity. Don’t tell me you don’t want to see one of the funniest and most influential comedies that stars Marilyn Monroe because it’s not in color.

    • brenkilco

      The amazing thing is that when Holden played the very weathered Pike Bishop he was a couple of years younger than Tom Cruise is now. Also you left out Bridge on the River Kwai. Great Script, great movie. Holden got top billing. But was he the main character?

      • kidbaron

        I need to watch Bridge… again. On my first viewing I really didn’t get into it. Yeah, no one would ever confuse Holden with a teetotaler. Wasn’t booze the thing that got him in the end. From a very different generation…

        • brenkilco

          Yeah, his death was pathetic and sad and all to do with the booze.

  • carsonreeves1

    As soon as someone tells me what baneful means, I can tell you whether I agree with this or not.

  • Paul Clarke

    “Usually amateurs blow their load the first time you see the antagonist, and then hit the same note over and over.”

    Well put. They know they need to start things off with a bang, but don’t leave themselves anywhere to build. That’s the exact impression I got watching the Evil Dead remake the other day. The idea that she’s a recovering addict going cold turkey is a great one. It means you could spend half the movie building up with suspenseful scenes where we’re not quite sure what is real and what’s caused by her withdrawal. But no, they just go crazy right from the get go and waste all that. In a few minutes it turns into a cliche fest. “Hey, lets split up” etc, etc. I stopped it half way through.

    Contrast that with something like The Way Way Back (terrible title), I was consciously aware of how long they spent emphasizing the personality of the main character. So many other films wouldn’t have that patience. They show us a scene or two, then BAM, he’s a new person. That all just greatly lessens the impact of the transformation.

    The real trick is to make the movie dramatic and interesting while establishing the main character and without blowing your load.

  • Michael

    It’s sad Carson, how you feel about black and white films. Time is on the side of color, but at this moment I’d argue that in the category of truly great films, black and white can still go toe to toe with color. I think your book has only one b/w film, Psycho, its such a shame.

    From a screenwriting point of view, the black and white era will always be the golden age of cinema. The industry plumbed the greatest writers of novels and theater for their screen plays. The writers of that era understood story in a way few writers do today. Today, they look to comic books for story. Nothing wrong with comic books, but there’s no comparison in the source material.

    Sunset Boulevard, such a great movie to learn from. It’s not even my favorite Billy Wilder film. I have to watch Stalag 17 once a year. It’s the perfect film to study how to slip comic relief into a dramatic film.

    You want to learn how to write screenplays? Watch black and white films.

    • Poe_Serling

      Gotta agree… Stalag 17 is another 5-star classic, and it pretty much set the standard for all future WW2 POW films.

      Echoing Sunset Blvd. in it’s casting…

      William Holden scored an Oscar for his lead performance as the cynical sergeant and director Otto Preminger took on the role of the camp commander.

      • Michael

        Yeah, but Harvey Lembeck as Shapiro and Robert Strauss as Animal, steal the film. Painting a white line in the mud all the way to the Russian women’s shower is priceless.

    • K.B. Houston

      I disagree. I understand your point but great novelists don’t always translate to great screenwriters. Wilder is a genius, but there have been many novelists who tried to tackle film and failed miserably. I certainly love some old films but I feel like it’s the emperor’s new clothes with a lot of them too. People just assume that because someone else said it was good, and because it’s in black and white, that it’s automatically a classic. That is not the case. There are many black and white films that are criminally overrated in my opinion. I’m the last thing from a comic book fanboy but film has grown for the better in many regards. It’s simply a matter of finding the right balance!

      • K.B. Houston

        And just for the record: This is coming from someone who’s all-time favorite film (and fourth or fifth all time favorite film) is in black and white. Color does not bother me, it’s the content that I feel older films are somewhat lacking in.

        • Michael

          I’d agree with you on many levels, especially technical ones. Film has grown and I’m excited about the future of film, I wouldn’t go back for anything. I think many people are put off by the black and white, as well as acting styles, pacing, camera work and editing, and so much more, but underneath all that distraction is some damn good story telling that people miss.

          I wasn’t just advocating novelists as the ones writing the screenplays, but feel there was a better source pool for material to adapt and that that generation had a better handle on the craft of storytelling, whoever was writing the screenplay. Just a gut feeling on my part, no scientific evidence to back it up.

          I just wish people could see past the period window dressing and discover the treasures beyond.

          • brenkilco

            Think your gut feeling is correct. There was a time where Hollywood actively recruited big time novelists and seasoned playwrights to write screenplays. It didn’t always pan out. Fitzgerald never got the hang of screenwriting. On the other hand Faulkner was good at it. Take a movie like To Have and Have not. A cool, low key Bogart picture that still works today. But it’s also one future Nobel Prize winner adapting the work of another future Nobel Prize winner. You won’t see much of that today.

      • brenkilco

        The vast majority of all movies made in Hollywood before 1950 and there were thousands of them are in black and white. And the vast majority of these, like the vast majority of movies today are disposable junk.But with the passing decades the bad ones have been forgotten and only the superior ones pop up with any regularity. So unless you’re watching TCM at three in the morning if you happen on an old black and white film on TV, chances are its a good one.
        As to your claim that film has grown for the better, I’d be interested to hear you defend it. Are you claiming that the Hollywood product in 2013 is of higher quality than the movies in 1939 or 1974? By what standard? To my eyes the intelligence, wit and dramatic construction of commercial genre films have been going downhill for a while. Indie films are a separate subject. I’m talking now about major studio productions.

        • K.B. Houston

          Again, I go back to subject matter and content — themes, sex, diction, censorship, you name it. The world is a dull place without the ability to say everything you want and need to in order to convey a message. You didn’t have unbridled freedom in a lot of old films. All I’m saying is that there are so many more possibilities these days, so many more doors to open and avenues to explore. Hollywood is obviously fluid. It kinda sucks right now, let’s just be honest. It was better in days of yore, but if you’re limiting the scope of film strictly to what comes out of Hollywood then your pigeonholing yourself into a very concentrated area of the map that’s almost entirely centered around money. That’s never what great film was about and never what it will be about. I think we agree on this point, being that you’ve alluded to indies. Again, I’m just pleased with the possibilities of what we can discuss in film these days, that’s all.

  • K.B. Houston

    Wild. I was just thinking of No. 10 the other day. I was trying to form a list of my favorite movies and I found many of them were love stories with sad endings or an unorthodox, “Anti-love” conclusion: 500 Days of Summer, The English Patient, Before Sunrise, The Bridges of Madison County (OK, I’m a sucker for love stories — who isn’t?!?). I think what people want out of a film is that old Hollywood mantra, the same but different. We all love love, but we’re also human and understand it doesn’t always end with rainbows and unicorns, so seeing something we can relate to makes us connect more with the film. I guess I’m just a big believe in the “Anti-Love Story,” as Carson puts it. There’s so much more room for creativity yet also realistic themes.

  • Sanjay Madhavan

    Ahh Billy Wilder. The man who inspired me to write. The sardonic humor in his movies are so good. One under-rated classic is One,Two,Three (James Cagney). I have watched this movie so many times , and it still cracks me up every time.

  • klmn

    One more thing: If you watch old movies, especially B&W movies, you’ll recognize shots and scenes that reappear in more recent movies. In the old WW1 and WW2 movies (and the old serials) you will see a lot (maybe all) of the shots from Star Wars and Raiders. Check out Lost City of The Jungle. IIRC, there was a rope bridge sequence in it, long before Indiana Jones.

    Trailer: http://youtu.be/57HkSKvjKqQ

  • jbird669

    Carson,
    I appreciate the tips, especially from a classic film like this. I have a question for you. IIRC, you offered a link to the scripts you reviewed in the newsletter. Is there a way to get them still or because of all the lawsuits and cease and desists (with other sites dealing with scripts)I have to go another route?

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