MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #20
Simply because a movie is long and dull, has no plot, no characters worth caring about, all-over-the-place dialogue improvised on-set by the actors, and no central core does not mean it is profound and meaningful and worthy of viewers’ time, not to mention their money.
MY FIRST AND LAST
HENRY JAGLOM MOVIE
I long ago stopped reading movie reviews.
I’m a film professor, for goodness sake, and I already have tenure. I don’t have to tolerate critics with their impenetrable, highfalutin, self-conscious, self-important gobbledygook designed to enable snobs to wallow in pseudo-sophisticated cocktail party chatter (“I love the way he moves the camera!”) regarding movies they may not have even seen.
Not critical praise, not million-dollar movie stars, not lavish advertising-and-publicity campaigns, not anything sells movies other than word-of-mouth. Friends who have seen the movie tell you to see the movie; you see the movie. Friends tell you to avoid the movie; you avoid the movie.
In 1971, desperate for distraction, my friend Rocky and I went to a now-closed United Artists triplex in Westwood to see a film of which we knew virtually nothing. A Safe Place was the first movie written and directed by Henry Jaglom. In those days I was still reading reviews. Critics awarded high scores to A Safe Place, so Rocky and I decided to give it a shot.
Jaglom would go on to make more than a dozen pictures over the years, in many ways clones of A Safe Place: micro-budget, loosely scripted if scripted at all, short on character and story, heavy on texture and mood, in other words, visual tone poems unique in their ability within the very first frames promptly to put audiences to sleep. Many of his films feature Jaglom himself playing the romantic male lead. The artwork for the ads inevitably depicts a ho-hum, furrowed-brow Henry Jaglom rolling his eyes as two or three artsy/craftsy, long haired, impossibly pretty women sporting clinky-clanky dangly earrings gaze up at him in awe, as if he is the sexiest hunk who ever drew breath.
Jaglom once addressed a group of our graduate students at UCLA. “Be bold,” he advised them. “Be true to your vision. Don’t let the suits trample your art with their jackboots. Tell the lawyers and managers and agents and accountants and story editors and executive vice presidents to go fuck themselves. Make the movie that you want to make.”
He left out one item, however. He neglected to tell the students to be born to super-rich parents, as he was, from whom to inherit the vast sums necessary to making movies without worrying about whether or not they merit the attention of anybody besides the out-of-control auteur/narcissist who made them.
Hard as I try to forget, A Safe Place opens on a rooftop in upper Manhattan with actors no less celebrated than Jack Nicholson and Tuesday Weld. Jaglom owns a nose-bleed luxury townhouse on Fifth Avenue. He has developed relationships with international celebrities who are willing to appear in his movies for virtually no money. This provides the actors with credibility when they say, after their latest multi-million dollar major-studio deal, that it’s not money that engages them but art, witness their appearance for scale—the minimum fee the Screen Actors Guild allows--in Henry’s latest gem.
Up on the roof, Nicholson and Weld engage in dialogue regarding the demise of named telephone exchanges. At that time, telephone numbers were not mere numbers but also words: STillwell-9, HAvermeyer-6, RAvenswood-2, CRestview-4, and scores of others. The phone system was at that time converting to numbers that were exclusively that: numbers. They were deep-sixing all the named exchanges. Algonquin 5-5555, for example, was now simply 255-5555.
One might ask: So, what?
So, this: Jaglom apparently saw the practice as further evidence of the depersonalization afflicting our culture. There’s something warm and familiar about, say, CHelsea 5-5555 compared to the colder 345-5555. I say with all sincerity and faith, and with credit due Henry Jaglom, that this strikes me as a worthy example of text and subtext and other qualities that mark worthy dialogue.
Nicholson’s character cites a particular telephone exchange of which he was particularly fond. Weld does the same for another.
Every once in a while there’s a shot of nobody less than Orson Wells, morbidly obese, seated on a bench in the park across the street from the Jaglom manse, performing sleight of hand, exquisite little magic tricks. Here are Nicholson and Weld on the roof exchanging telephone exchange names; here’s Wells doing some trick.
Now Jack and Tuesday.
And again. And again.
And yet again.
Wells was already decades past his creative triumph as actor, writer, director. He was virtually penniless. When Wells was in New York, Jaglom would feed and house him. He may well have provided Wells also with walking-around money, so that he’d always have on hand the price of a hot dog with red onions courtesy of the umbrella-toting Sabrett stands. Clearly, on one occasion or another Jaglom had sat Wells down in the park across the street from his house, and filmed him performing some sleight of hand.
Watching A Safe Place, soon enough two things became apparent. First, the actors were not reciting dialogue written by writers but improvising the lines themselves. Second, there was no editing. Apparently Jaglom included in the finished picture every frame that had been shot. If it had passed through the camera, it passed through the projector.
If actors can successfully improvise dialogue, who needs writers? Occasionally a made-up-on-the-spot bit of dialogue works quite well, but that is the exception. Writers who mistake the exception for the rule will fall on their face every time. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a TV series whose dialogue is apparently ad-libbed in its entirety; at its best it works unevenly well. Here and there are ruffles and outcroppings of bright, brittle, brisk, crisp banter and repartee. Most of the time, however, there’s mainly vamping, bobbing, weaving, place-holding, stalling.
Dramatic narratives must not stall but, to the contrary, move inexorably forward.
The scene, if we can call it that, in A Safe Place, even while improvised, could have worked well enough if it had been edited. Instead, it becomes all too clear that Jaglom was using whatever footage he’d shot. If film ran through the camera, eventually it ran through the projector. He just wouldn’t trim.
Inevitably, the movie was excruciatingly boring.
I turned to Rocky. “I’m happy to stay as long as you wish,” I whispered, though no one else would have heard us as we were alone in theater. “Myself, I’ve had enough. Whenever you’re ready to leave, just say so.”
“Let’s go!” Rocky said. Three minutes into the picture, we arose from our seats and departed the theater.
As we walked north on Westwood Boulevard toward Wilshire, we heard a man’s voice calling, “Gentlemen! Gentlemen!”
We looked over our shoulders and saw a guy in a tuxedo running up the street, apparently chasing us.
He caught up with us. Huffing, puffing, he said, “Didn’t you just leave the United Artists Tri-plex?”
Warily, we acknowledged that we had. This guy, it dawned us, had to be the all-in-one theater manager, ticket taker, popcorn salesman, and usher.
“Is there a problem?” Rocky asked.
“It’s just that you walked into the theater,” the manager said, “sat down, the movie started, you’re there maybe two, three minutes, and you get up and leave.”
I said, “Why can’t we do that?”
“Don’t you want your money back?”
“We can have our money back?” Rocky asked.
“But you hardly saw any of the picture,” the manager said, as if arguing with us.
“Fair enough,” Rocky said. “We’re persuaded. You can give us back our money.”
The three of us now made our way back to the theater. As we walked, the manager said, “You think that picture is bad? Last month, in Auditorium #3, we had some Lithuanian film, a travesty called something like Necrophagus, all hand-held cinema-verité, truly an unreconstructed atrocity. It makes this piece of trash look like The Godfather.”
That was not the first or the last time I walked out of a movie well in advance of its conclusion.
It was, however, the first and last time I got my money back.
Not only mainstream, commercial Hollywood blockbusters but also modestly budgeted, keenly personal, independent films can be stultifyingly, paralyzingly boring.
Behind the Screen: Getting to Know Jeanne Veillette Bowerman
Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor and Online Community Manager for ScriptMag.com with a regular column entitled Balls of Steel. She is also a Co-Founder and Moderator of the weekly Twitter screenwriters’ chat, Scriptchat. When not writing, she teaches screenwriting webinars for the Writers Store. A graduate of Cornell University, she’s written several spec scripts, including the adaption of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, with its author, Douglas A. Blackmon, former senior national correspondent of The Wall Street Journal.
Q1: What led you to pursue a career in entertainment/screenwriting?
A mid-life crisis. I was a 40-yr-old, stay-at-home mom with both kids at school. I had way too much time to think. As I puttered about the house, I stumbled upon a term paper I wrote for a class at Cornell. When I turned it over, my professor’s comments read, “Amazing. Simply amazing. Change your major to writing, dammit!”
I never did. I was far too insecure to think anyone would want to read my words. But at 40, maybe, just maybe, I could do it. So, I sat down and started a novel, not having the slightest clue where to begin. I ultimately got pulled into screenwriting by someone who suggested it would be “easier than writing a novel.” Yes, I can hear all screenwriters snickering.
Q: How do you pursue this successfully living outside of Hollywood?
This is a question requiring a multi-layered answer, but my number one tool is Twitter. I have met so many amazing industry people there. The community is incredible.
Beyond social media, I make trips to L.A. as often as I can and always stay in touch with the people I come in contact with. The trick is to make them forget you live across the country by being “present” in their lives by blogging, tweeting and emailing. I’ve written about my strategies for ScriptMag.com and even teach webinars for the Writers Store, one on “Breaking in Outside of Hollywood.” One of my passions is sharing my experiences with other writers to help them advance their own careers faster.
Q2: How did you start your writing career?
I wrote a few spec scripts, one being the adaptation of the Pulitzer prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name. An entrepreneurship professor suggested I join Twitter to get a buzz going about the adaptation. When I opened my account less than three years ago, I had no blog, no published clips, and no significant contacts. Because of both the educational resources people tweeted, and also their encouragement, I created a blog. Those personal essays lead to my first published clip in Writer’s Digest Magazine, launching my freelance career. While blogging and freelancing isn’t screenwriting, there’s value in being a published writer with a website for people to discover your writing voice. That platform has opened many doors for me.
Right around the same time, Zac Sanford, Jamie Livingston, Kim Garland, Mina Zaher and I created Scriptchat, a weekly Twitter chat for screenwriters. Scriptchat got the attention of Joshua Stecker, former editor of ScriptMag.com, and ultimately led to him offering me my “Balls of Steel” column. Fast-forward and I’m now the Online Community Manager for ScriptMag.com, still writing “Balls of Steel,” and writing, producing, and running a Kickstarter campaign for my short film Impasse, full of talent, all found on Twitter.
While doing freelance, I continued to rewrite Slavery by Another Name, and we have found some wonderful champions for our project… via the magical Twitter. That fat, blue bird changed my life.
Q3: What is your favorite movie of all time and why?
Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart. Enough said. But beyond his amazing talent is a multi-layered script full of romance, espionage, intrigue, yet at the same time, the conflict is so simple. A man loves a woman… who he can’t have. What level will he go to in order to either get her or forget her? Perfect filmmaking.
Q4: How do you define success as a screenwriter today?
For me, success is simply waking up every single day and making the decision not to quit, but to sit down and write instead. Because the day I hang up my pencil, is the day success will evade me forever. That’s just not an option.
Catch Richard If You Can!
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