Wednesday 25 March 2015

Answering machines

I was chatting with a friend recently about ideas for short films and one of those mentioned involved a telephone answering machine. That lead to me doing some quick research. I turned up fifteen films with scenes involving answering machines (though there are many more). 

The most surprising dates from 1955: Kiss Me Deadly, a Mickey Spillane, Mike Hammer story. In 1955 most Australian families didn't have a phone, much less an answering machine, so it was interesting to see one from that era in action. 

Mike Hammer and a 1955 reel-to-reel telephone answering machine.
Get Shorty (1995) and Definitely, Maybe (2008) have very similar scenes, where the post-coital happy couple receive a message summoning them to a hospital.  

"My name is Maude Lebowski. I'm the one who took your rug."
In The Big Lebowski, an answering machine solves the mystery of the missing rug. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy gets my vote for the movie with the cutest answering-machine.  
The Magrathean answering machine.
Swingers (1996) has two such scenes, both well worth seeing. The first introduces the machine as a character in its own right, commenting on the messages received (or not received) and attempting to give advice to Jon Favreau. The second consists of a series of phone calls Jon makes to a woman he's just met, where he is stymied by the machine and descends into ever-increasing frustration. A very similar scene, involving George Costanza, occurred in a Seinfeld episode five years earlier. Coincidence? Probably. 
Jon Favreau gets advice from his answering machine.
In Once (2006), the heartbroken protagonist sings a sad song, while an insert shows him ringing the ex, only to get her answering machine. In Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), John Cusack rages to his psychiatrist's answering machine about the fact his childhood home has been turned into a supermarket. 

In Bowfinger (1999), two messages arrive over the answering machine in the opening scene. The first helps establish the point that Bobby Bowfinger is struggling financially; the second leads to a sequence of phone calls which set up the subsequent scene, a meeting where the protagonist's plan is outlined to the gang. 

Bobby Bowfinger summons his gang.
From a writer's P.O.V., what's most interesting about the various scenes is the way the machine enables someone not visible onscreen to influence a character's story. Sometimes they are purely comic relief (Seinfeld, Swingers), other times they provide new expositional information, or alter the direction of the protagonist (Get Shorty and Definitely, Maybe). Whatever role they play, answering machines have to be the cheapest actors in the business.

First posted:  29 September 2011

Wednesday 18 March 2015

The Act II metaphor

One of the many 'expert' books on the subject of screenwriting is Viki King's How to Write a Movie in 21 Days: The Inner Movie Method. It focuses on getting you to push through and write a first draft of a script (no matter how rough), but it also teaches a formula which is based firmly on Syd Field's 3-Act theory. I suspect her method works best for highly visual people.
The book's one original contribution to the subject of screenwriting is her reference to something she calls 'the Act II metaphor.'  "This is usually a small scene with symbolic overtones... (which) ... gives us a clue to the resolution." King is rigid about the place where this scene occurs in the script—page 45 (in a 120 page script)—"the start of your character's growth."
I spent some time recently contemplating confrontation scenes in movies. One of the films I looked at was You've Got Mail, and I was interested to see that the major confrontation scene in the movie includes an Act II metaphor. 

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are business competitors. He runs a giant discount book sellers chain; she runs a tiny specialist children's bookshop. When he opens a new store in her neighborhood, she is threatened with extinction.

Tom Hanks scoops up the caviar..

They run into one another at a P.E.N. dinner, where his actions mirror his business position—he scoops up all the caviar garnish on a salmon mousse. This symbolises the threat he poses: he is going to scoop up all of her business. Her response is to take the caviar back, which represents what she will do by the end of the movie: she will lose her shop, but will take it all back, by capturing his heart.

... and Meg Ryan takes it all back.
Watch the movie sometime, it's a good one. 

Just for the record, the event occurs 37 minutes into a 115 minute movie. That's 32%, not the 37% suggested by Viki King's page-45-out-of-120-pages, but who's to quibble?

First posted: 25 September 2011

P.S.:  There is a Bollywood movie around which contains many of the elements of You've Got Mail, but with a different ending to the story, called The Lunchbox. It's set in Mumbai and draws on practices unknown elsewhere in the world. (There are no dance scenes in it either, believe it or not.) All round, an interesting film.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

A slap between friends...

One of my surprises when considering confrontation scenes in movies recently was the number of films where she slaps/punches/kicks/knees him.

Robert Downey Jr. finds a red rose no defense against Marisa Tomei in Only You (1994)
For example: Definitely, Maybe (she slaps him twice), The Holiday (she punches him twice), No Strings Attached (she slaps him repeatedly), Only You (she slaps and kicks him), Miller's Crossing (she punches him), Jerry Maguire (she punches him), That Old Feeling (she attacks him), Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (she punches him), Groundhog Day (she slaps him repeatedly), Hollow Point (she punches him repeatedly), Romance & Cigarettes (she attacks him), The Royal Tenenbaums (she slaps him), and Scenes from a Mall (Bette Midler knees Woody Allen in the clods). 

Ryan Reynolds cops one from Isla Fisher in Definitely, Maybe (2008)
The one that surprised me most was When Harry Met Sally... I thought I knew this film fairly well, but I somehow hadn't registered the slap scene. (Or the two F-bombs Sally drops during the course of the movie.) 

When I asked various friends about it, not one of them could remember the face-slap scene either. These are all people who are fond of the movie. (I'd conducted an informal survey of What's Your Favourite Rom/Com? among friends a year earlier and WHMS came out on top, by a wide margin.) 

Watch out, Harry, here it comes...
Probably in Miller's Crossing, Groundhog Day, Romance & Cigarettes, The Holiday, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the slap/punch is deserved. The rest are debatable, to say the least. Which raises the question of what purpose these face-slaps fulfill in movies. 

Aamir Khan cops a slap from Kareena Kapoor in 3 Idiots (2009)

Are they a vicarious I-Wish-I'd-Done-That moment to satisfy a female audience still seething over some historical wrong, or do they fulfill some other function?

Bill Murray deserved it. Definitely.
I asked a number of women if they'd ever slapped a guy's face. Only one admitted to it, and she pleaded serious (and violent) provocation. The others were generally vague (read, non-committal), and some were decidedly defensive.

Edward Burns deserved it, too.
From a cinematic perspective, I think of the Cecil B. De Mille quote: "I will trade you forty gorgeously beautiful Hawaiian sunsets for one good sock on the jaw."

For the benefit of those looking at the timing—for structural reasons—I checked five of our films. The punch in The Holiday takes place at the 12% mark, the slap in Only You at the 54% mark, in Groundhog Day at the 57% mark, in Definitely, Maybe at the 75% mark, and in When Harry Met Sally at the 89% mark. 

What does it all mean? Who knows? Certainly not me. But I am now reviewing confrontation scenes in my scripts with a view to adding a decent slap somewhere.

First posted: 16 September 2011

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Disguising the exposition

I've been looking at confrontational dialogue scenes in movies lately, the ones where he and she face off, and maybe get a few home truths off their chest. I expected to find lots of them in romantic comedies, but was surprised to discover how few rom/coms have such a scene. 

You don't believe me? It's true. Think of the (financially) most successful rom/com of all time, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002). Lots of conflict, but it's with the family, not the boyfriend. In What Women Want (2000), the second most successful, the conflict is with himself, his daughter, his boss and most of all, the weird ability he suddenly develops. Or think of movies like Sleepless in Seattle (1993), or Serendipity (2001), where the happy couple barely get to exchange opening pleasantries, forget about having time to work up to a righteous indignation. 

There's a great confrontation scene in Jerry Maguire (1996), where she slugs Tom Cruise, but that's the old girlfriend, not RenĂ©e Zellweger. There is a face-slap scene in When Harry Met Sally... (1989), something I've discovered even aficionados of the movie don't remember (but that's a subject for another time). In Only You (1994), Marisa Tomei gets to beat up Robert Downey, Jr., and in You've Got Mail (1998), Meg Ryan confronts Tom Hanks; but I had to go to an action movie like Die Hard (1988) for a great spousal confrontation scene, or Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), where the Best Punch Award goes to Karen Allen, not Harrison Ford. 

Some of the finest confrontation dialogue scenes take place between married couples. Check out the first meeting between the exes in That Old Feeling (1987) for a great example of two people building up a full head of steam.  

When exes meet, there's liable to be some friction.
Another is The Out-Of-Towners (1999), a remake of an old Jack Lemmon movie. It was while watching it again that I came to appreciate just how far you can go in disguising an exposition scene. 

Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn play a married couple who are in New York so he can attend a job interview. He needs the job because he just got fired for being too old, but he hasn't told his wife yet. Now comes the moment when she has to be informed. It could have been the dullest piece of exposition imaginable; instead, it's the funniest

Steve Martin tells the group, "I got fired!"
scene in the movie. They seek refuge in an old church to escape the close attention of a large and aggressive dog, only to find themselves being welcomed into an AA-style meeting for people with sex problems. Check out the movie to see just how well a simple piece of exposition can be turned into a classic encounter.

First posted: 12 September 2011