THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
One of those great debates on screenwriting message boards is whether or not to outline. I do not know any professional screenwriters who do not outline (though there may be some), and the more spontaneous the writing seems, the more likely the writer outlines - 70s icon and indie writer Paul Schrader outlines page-by-page and is a slave to his outline. The big argument against outlines seems to be that it removes creativity... or that it makes the script boring to write. Hey, a screenplay is not *just* the story, it's all of those great little details that make a moment come to life!
Once I have my outline and I know how the *story* works, I concentrate on making each scene interesting and surprising and creative when I write the screenplay - I *live* for coming up with some cool twist or detail or line of dialogue in each scene to make the scene itself fun to watch and fun for me to write.
Whenever I get roped into reading contest finalists, one of the common problems with the scripts is that they are sketchy. They often seem like the rough draft (and maybe they are) - the artist's charcoal sketch before he breaks out the brushes and oils and adds all of the color and texture and shading. The story - the thing you may create with an outline - is what happens, but every scene is filled with dozens of details that are the specifics of *how* things happen. None of those things are ever in the outline... and they are not in many of those scripts by writers who do not outline because they are thinking about making the *story* work, not making that moment work. Terry Rossio once said that when writers don't outline, their first draft is an outline... or part of several drafts that become the outline. They are finding the story by writing draft after draft. But that eighth of a page, that line, that sentence needs as much creativity as the story itself. So let's look at one of the detail elements in your screenplay... gags.
A few years ago the Director's Guild showed a bunch of John Ford silent movies, and I was amazed at the number and quality of the "gags" - those little details or actions that flesh out a scene. FOUR SONS must have had hundreds of great little detail moments that made every minute of that film great. Every second great. There was more creativity in any random scene than there is in many big Hollywood blockbusters.
Hitchcock's man-on-the-run film THE 39 STEPS (1935) holds up well, is still lots of fun... and is 75 years old! This is the film that created the subgenre, and created so many "standards" that you have seen dozens of times in other movies. When Harrison Ford escapes the police by blending in with a St. Patrick's Day Parade, this is the film that originated that cliche. It may also be the first film with bickering male and female leads who are on the run together and eventually fall in love (IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT was released the year before - but it's a rom-com). The banter still works, the suspense still works, the characters are charming and fun and deal with some real problems, there is one amazing plot twist that still packs a punch, but the one thing that is amazing about this film are the "gags". There is a density to films from the 1930s that we seem to have lost. Little details that are obviously the work of the writer.
The story has Canadian Richard Hannay living in London, where he meets a mysterious woman at a live variety show (musicians, dancers, jugglers, and Mr. Memory who memorizes pages of facts every day and is a human encyclopedia) who asks if she can come home with him... because she likes him. Um, he doesn't know her at all. But he's a man and she's hot... At his apartment, she tells him that she is a freelance spy and people are trying to kill her and she needs a place to crash that can't be traced to her. When Hannay wakes up the next morning, the woman has been murdered and two men are watching his building.
How does he escape?
Your outline might just say: "He gets past the two killers watching his building." Okay, maybe he goes out the back doors or something, it's not a chase scene or a fight scene, he gets past the two killers without altercation. But that scene can be just a scene that performs its function... or something clever and creative. Here's what happens:
The Milkman is making deliveries, and Hannay grabs him and asks if he can borrow his uniform. There's a dead woman spy in his apartment, and the killers are out there on the street waiting for him to leave. The Milkman doesn't believe a word of it. Killers and spies? Sounds like a pulp novel. So Hannay tries it again, this time telling the Milkman that he's a bachelor, was spending the night with a woman, seems she's married and her husband and brother are waiting outside to beat him up. This the Milkman believes, and loans Hannay his uniform so that he can escape. But there are additional details in the scene - from empty milk bottles to what to do with the milk truck once Hannay is done with it to a discussion of marital fidelity and bachelorhood versus marriage. Hannay doesn't just escape the apartment, there are details and reversals and gags along the way - dozens of them.
COLLARED & CUFFED!
The best series of gags in the film revolves around a pair of handcuffs. In one of several great twists, Hannay is arrested by the police and manages to escape with handcuffs attached to one wrist. The dangling cuff creates all kinds of problems - each one a great little gag. When he's in that eventually-a-cliche parade escape, he must keep his cuffed hand hidden in his pocket. He ends up escaping into an auditorium where an evening political rally is being held, and he is mistaken for the speaker of honor! Not only must he hide the handcuff, he must make up a political speech on the spot (no idea what party the crowd is) and refer to the candidate by name... reading it upside down on the banner in front of the podium and getting it completely wrong, calling him "Mr. Crocodile", then having to come up with reason why he would call him that on the fly, and when he starts sweating like crazy from the pressure, almost wipes his brow with the cuffed hand! And because he's supposed to be a politician, everyone wants to shake hands with him! That handcuff keeps almost getting him in trouble!
But those aren't even the good handcuff gags!
A pair of detectives begin searching the auditorium for him... and in the crowd? A woman named Pam who recognizes him from a daring train escape earlier in the film. Hannay was being chased by the police on the train, saw her alone in a compartment, ran in and began kissing her so that his face would be covered and the police would see them as a couple, not a single man on the run. An unusual "meet cute". Well, the minute he stops kissing her, Pam yells for the police, and Hannay has no choice but to leave a speeding train. When she sees the two detectives searching the auditorium she points out Hannay to them. Busted! As the two detectives start to lead him away, he flirts with her (she's the female lead, even though she doesn't know it... and neither do we at this point), and then pleads with her to go to the police with a bit of information he's uncovered that may prove him innocent. Neither detective seems interested in Hannay as innocent... but now they become interested in Pam - she witnessed him escape from the train, she's a witness. So they take her along... slapping the empty handcuff on her.
Now the two are tethered together - and do not like each other. But on the way to the police station, the detectives take a crazy detour, and Hannay realizes they are not detectives after all, but the two killers from outside his apartment... taking both of them to the villain! When the fake police car gets stuck in a Scottish back road traffic jam (a huge herd of sheep), Hannay and Pam escape the car and go on the run. Well, Hannay goes on the run, and Pam is forced to follow since she is handcuffed to him.
And the handcuff gags swing into action in a couple of scene.
Trying to run away from the killers, Hannay jumps over a fence and Pam crawls under - except they are cuffed, so they get stuck. Hannay wipes his brow, and Pam's hand slaps him. Hannay has to drag her along behind him. A few other times they get hung up by the cuffs when running past a tree or fence or running in different directions. All of this time, she is not a willing escape partner. She knows those two guys were not detectives, but she also knows that Hannay is wanted for murdering a woman.
And she's a woman.
They come to a Bed & Breakfast, and Hannay orders Pam to place her cuffed hand in his coat pocket - hiding both ends of the handcuffs but forcing her to hold his hand. They pretend to be a newlywed couple, eloping because her father doesn't like him... But Hannay's *right* hand is cuffed - he can not sign the register, he can not take the room key, he can not shake hands with anyone, he can't open the door or take the hot water bottle the wife of the B&B owner offers him. He must trust Pam, his prisoner, to do all of these things without giving away that she is a hostage!
Later, the B&B owner's wife tells her husband that the two are so much in love that they did not let go of each other the entire time.
And once they get in the room? One bed. They are cuffed together, no way for Hannay to sleep on the sofa or floor. They are brought a plate of sandwiches and some drinks, and eating and drinking proves a problem. When Hannay raises his glass, her hand follows. If she jerks her hand down, he spills his drink. The sandwich in her hand almost slaps Hannay in the face a few times. Every time one of them tries to take a bite, the handcuffs pull the other one closer. Neither can hold their drink in one hand and sandwich in the other without those handcuffs creating some sort of food mishap.
But here's the topper - the gag that everyone remembers. Because they've been chased through the cold, wet, night - their clothing is wet. They try to dry themselves by standing in front of the bedroom fireplace, but that really doesn't work. Hannay encourages Pam to find a way to take off her wet skirt, but she's having none of that... and there is no way to take off their wet coats while handcuffed together. Pam's stockings are soaked, but when she takes them off Hannay's hand rubs over her legs. Because of the cuffs, he gets to feel up her legs. And when she takes off the far stocking? Um, his hand is all over her! He can't help it, he's cuffed to her... but he takes advantage of the situation.
After hanging her stockings up to dry, they climb into bed together - what else can they do, they are cuffed together? Pam doesn't want to be this close to an accused murdered, but has no choice. Neither can roll over without pulling the other one closer, and at one point she rolls onto her side dragging his arm around her. There are well over a dozen handcuff gags!
BULLET IN A BIBLE
Some of the other great gags in THE 39 STEPS include a farmer with a question for Mr. Memory, who keeps asking it again and again... even when some shooting creates a riot in the music hall.
A pair of lingerie salesmen on the train who compare their products in front of a Priest who tries not to look interested... this scene is all about Hannay trying to read one of the salesmen's newspaper with a story about the manhunt for him.
The police chase on the train goes through the dining car, where a waiter with a tray full of food has to move and twist and turn when each person races down the narrow aisle past him, without spilling any of the food.
A jealous old Scottish farmer who rents a bed to Hannay but fears that his young wife may be interested in him... in reality, Hannay has spotted a newspaper with a story about the police search and is trying to hide it from the old farmer. There are many gags in the Farmer & wife scene based on the Farmer thinking that Hannay is trying to sleep with his wife - and everything Hannay does to hide from the police looks to the Farmer as if he's making moves on his wife. When the police get to the farmhouse, the wife gives Hannay her husband's "Sunday best" coat because it is black and will blend with the night better than Hannay's light colored jacket. Later, Hannay is shot in the chest and we think he's dead, but *twist* the bullet hit the old Farmer's hymnal in the coat pocket. First time for that gag! But it doesn't stop there - we get a barrage of puns and jokes about hymns and hymnals in the scene where we find out he's alive. Every scene has some great, amusing detail that creates some fun moments and makes the scenes seem real.
Once you come up with that detail, like the handcuffs, make a list of as many ways that detail impacts the scene and story. In Hitchcock's YOUNG AND INNOCENT an innocent man escapes by stealing some clothes and articles to create a disguise - including a pair of glasses. Problem is, the glasses are so thick everything becomes a blur and he can't see where he's escaping to. Those stolen glasses create a dozen little problems within that escape scene. So brainstorm up a list of "gags" for one element in your scene that will create a bunch of fun details that add texture and shading and great little moments in your scene. This also makes the scene seem real, because it's not just the sketch and the broad strokes, it's all of those real little bits that add density.
So, if the actual writing isn't exciting, you need to look at a script as more than just the story, but the interesting small choices and details within every scene. Bring your creativity and imagination to every moment in your screenplay and have some fun! How could this scene be unlike any other similar scene in any other movie? What are the details that make it seem real, and make it amusing? Fill your script with clever "gags" that turn your sketch of story into fine art that we will be viewing and discussing 75 years from now.
More on THE 39 STEPS later this month in the new book HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE.
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several sample scripts, my available scripts list... And MORE!
CLASSES ON CD
CLASSES ON CD! Take a class on CD! GUERRILLA MARKETING - NO AGENT? NO PROBLEM! and WRITING THRILLERS (2 CDs). Full length classes on CD. Now Available: IDEAS & CREATIVITY, WRITING HORROR, WRITING INDIE FILMS, more!
Take classes on CD!