Saturday, July 26, 2014

#9. Jim G. and I go to Paris and Argentina. Plus Act 2!

#9.   This is where Jim Goldstone and I go to Paris and I learn to drink.  I promised you we'd get to this.

Jim (now sadly departed) had the wild heart of a ten-year-old and was always up for a good time.  He was a true family man with a bedrock wife named Cookie and three wonderful kids (one of whom I chauffeured to some concert in my old Ford Woody).  Jim was the least narcissistic director I ever met.  Maybe it was because he'd been raised in Hollywood show biz, but not as royalty; his father was a respected entertainment lawyer.  So whatever it was, Jim had already seen it.  Twice.  Our mutual agents had put us together for a reason.  And here it was:

Word was getting around about me -- clever but undisciplined, quick but careless, all character and dialogue, not much structure.  In other words, too much puppy not enough Chow.  They thought I'd be better off collaborating with a working director.  Especially one who had just finished a big racing movie for Universal with Paul Newman.

And two star-struck British producers had just the project: a spy book called "Tricks of the Trade."  I think it must be out of print now, but, as I recall it was a good story about a husband and wife spy team (ooo, oooo) chasing down their "MacGuffin," a steamer trunk full of spy-type goodies from Paris to Barcelona to the Gold Coast of Portugal to Buenos Aires to the Laurentian Mountains in Canada.

After we had several meetings with the producers, it was decided that Jim and I would do a little recky, a 1st class travel brochure struck to life.  This was back in the insane, halcyon days when both the Directors' Guild and Writers' Guild had all 1st class travel mandates in their Minimum Basic Agreements.

It was the first limousine I had ever been in.  It was so luxurious, so comfortable, so window-tinty quiet, I fell asleep in the back, going down LaBrea on our early morning way to the airport.

One of the things I loved about Jim was even though he'd been to Paris many times, he seemed as excited as I was.  And when we got there, I wanted to go everywhere at once.

We set out walking from our piss-elegant little hotel suites to the Eiffel Tower and ran smack into about the worst city traffic jam I'd ever seen.

So this from my first Parisian day: An old lady trudging home from the bakery with a long loaf of bread sticking out of her shopping bag.  All of us mired in the city traffic, a little Citroen pulled up and was stopped dead in the walkway, blocked by a thousand other cars.  He looked helplessly out his window and shrugged.  With that, the old woman wheeled out her baguette and began to beat his car, over and over and over until the loaf just flew apart.  His terrified face was priceless.

Jim and I looked at each other with huge grins.  "It's going in the movie," I said.  "Dinner's on me," he replied.  Here comes Plot Point One in my real life story.  You'll see.

There is a fairly decent restaurant at the top of the Eiffel Tower.  Maybe not four star, maybe not even three...but it's on the Eiffel Tower, bro, and it rotates!  Jim and I were seated and the waiter came over, all tourist milking grin and took Jim's drink order as he handed us the menus.  "I'm getting a Bloody Mary," said Jim.  "What do you want?"

The last time I'd had alcohol, it was a mountain rainy night, I was fifteen and heartbroken over getting dumped by Mary Ann Haines.  So I showed her.  I chugged a pint of Century Club paint stripper masquerading as bourbon and puked so violently, I swear to you, I lost several fillings.  I vowed never to drink again.  Ever.

Ahhh, but that was years ago in Tryon, North Carolina, not now in Paris, France.

"I guess I'll have a Bloody Mary, too," I said.  Jim knew I was more of a doper than a roper.  He wondered if I should've toked up back in the hotel.  I told him I'd had a major panic attack when I came back from my London trip six months before with Eli Silver and The Who.  I'd hidden a chunk of blonde Lebanese hash in the fold of my shearling coat sleeve.  So my heart was pounding as I went through US Customs eyeballed by a nasty looking German Police Dog, apparently one of those new dope sniffers.

Though, when he got to me, my coat was so ratty with LA's smog, London's dirt, Keith Moon's flying food splatters, a thousand farts, and my endlessly spilled coffee stains, the poor dog slunk away like he'd just caught his mother getting humped by a Chihuahua.

So this time, I hadn't brought any illegal substance with me at all.  I savored the Bloody Mary.  Damn, this is good.  Where has this been all my life?  So I ordered another one.  And as Jim and I ate delicious French food on top of the Eiffel Tower, we talked about the movie we hoped to make, shared life-stories, and watched the scenery circle around us.  I  kept wondering if it would be cool to order another Bloody Mary, like for dessert?  And I could get him to tell me the How Did You Meet Cookie story again.

This early magical evening along with my somewhat diseased thought process should have warned me about the wonderfully shitty era I was about to enter.  But let it not be forgotten, while Chow Puppies can be cute, they are not the brightest dogs in the pound.

Not even close.

"I'll have another one," I told the waiter.  Jim ordered a port wine.  "You should try the port instead," he said.  So I did.  Yumm-ola!

Looking back on it, I understand it was probably at that very moment I became a working alcoholic as well as a working screenwriter.

Jim Goldstone and I went to every single city in every single country that figured into "Tricks of the Trade," the last of which was Argentina.  All I remember about Buenos Aires is that right after our plane landed, we were shunted off onto an ancillary apron to wait while the Argentine Army scrubbed and fire-hosed off the tarmac near the terminal.  There must have been two or three hundred soldiers.

I turned from the window to a well-dressed Argentinian businessman next to me.  "What're they doing?"  He showed me the front page of the International Herald Tribune he'd gotten in Paris that very morning.  One of the headlines read, 'PERON RIOTS FEARED AT BUENOS AIRES AIRPORT.'  "So what are they scrubbing?' I asked.

"Blood," he said and went back to his newspaper.

We got home, back to Los Angeles.  I wrote the script, I even thought parts of it half decent.  One of the best scenes was the old woman beating the car with her baguette which, hard as I tried, I could not get it to be an integral part of the story.  But we liked it.  So foolishly I left it in and handed in my first draft.

You know how when you toss a stone into a well, you expect to hear it glancing off the sides and eventually splash into the water?  That was in 1973, maybe '74.  I'm still waiting.


Further thoughts on the screenplay...and the rocks and shoals of the dreaded
                                        ACT TWO
Act Two is where the whole circus parade is first and finally seen in its full glory.  It is in this seventy or eighty pages -- gulp -- that most of your story -- double gulp -- is revealed.  Don't worry, it strikes cold dark fear in everyone.  As essayist Wendell Berry once observed, "the un-befuddled mind is not fully employed."

Recall that your set up act, Act One is now over, having been capped brilliantly we hope by Plot Point One.  This event or moment should believably (key word that) swing the action, the story, the entire flow of the river into a new and exciting direction.

For example, "2001, a Space Odyssey," even if (and they did) design it to be a four act narrative, Plot Point One comes when Moonwatcher, the first ape finally works up the nerve to actually touch the mysteriously appearing black slab monolith.  Very shortly afterward, he has his first human idea: take a large bone from the pile and use it for a tool.  Hey, now.

Hard on that idea's heels comes another one: You know, thinks the monkey, I bet I could use this for a weapon!

With that, Moonwatcher beats one of the marauding apes to death, then joyously flings the bone in the air into a match-cut of a space ship.  This is one of the most breathtaking cuts in the history of film: Four million years pass in one frame.  One twenty-fourth of a second.

With this kind of plot swing, the story as a whole begins to pick up speed.  I believe in any kind of drama, increasing the speed -- however slowly -- while 'falling forward' is the key to wide-eyes, slack-jaws, and open wallets.  It holds true for Stan Lee and Edward Albee, for Gillian Flynn and William Faulkner.  For every dramatist ever.

As we enter Act Two, it should engender the feeling of certitude, even of calmness as we bob up in this new swift current.  Well sure, I got my life vest on, I can swim this thing.  I see why I'm here, makes perfect, horrifying sense.  Now, let me look around and see how the hero is doing.  Maybe I can help.  This is a perfect symbiotic empathy.  You're now in the flow with the protagonist; while it's happening to them, it's happening to you.

And here are some of those 'happenings' as you lay out the huge map of further complications.

Love and loss.  Fear.  Task failure.  Shifting allegiances.  Blind alleys.  And throughout, events are seen as dark, darker, darkest.  Make a list of the possibles.  Most of the things on that list should serve to keep the hero from reaching his/her goal.  They should be nearly swamped by an ocean of lies, all of which sound perfectly plausible, even to us.

This also holds true in comedies.  Look at "Bridesmaids" or "The Truman Show" or "Some Like It Hot."  Check out "Sullivan's Travels."  Oh, baby...

In Act Two, more twists and turns.  Friends turn out to be enemies.  Dangerous plots against the hero are uncovered.  Confusion reigns (for the hero, not you).  Other friends fall away, some will even die. Clouds of contention make it rain conflict.  The situation looks dire.  Is there no escape?  We can barely stand it!

Who do you have to screw to get out of this movie?

In his structural view, Syd Field also has a smaller but crucial Mid-Act Two Plot Point.  Even though I never quite got it or why it was there, I totally trust Syd and again recommend his book "Screenplay."  Maybe you can bring some light and understanding to it.  If so, contact me.  Old dog seeking new trick...

But back to the onrushing Second Act train.  The hero almost dies, ends up crawling out of a mythic grave with the classic wound that will not heal.  Chris Vogler is very good about this, Joseph Campbell even better.  The Hero finds the courage and strength to go on in the very last place they look, the last place any any of us would ever look.

Act Two is where you can add color, patterns, moments, sub-plots, leit motifs, even an occasional red herring or two.  But most of it must be in service to keeping the hero from their goal, their Valhalla, their peace.

It is also the place where you invite the reader/audience to make dozens of tiny leaps ahead: oh, God, are they gonna go that way?!  This way?!  I can see this happening -- oh, wait, that can't happen.  Can it?  These tiny spasms only take a second or less.  But oddly, they help pave the way to YOUR conclusion by illuminating and then activating the brains and hearts of the reader/audience without ever having them have to jump off the fast moving train of your plot.

You can certainly stack the deck.  You should.  But you can't make it so impossible that Jesus in Houdini's dinner jacket couldn't find his way out of it.

Like real life (whatever that turns out to be), it's all a balancing act.

And just when it seems like there is no way out, that the pressure keeps building and building until it seems it will all blow up, turning into a throbbing nuclear explosion of maple syrup, it does!  And we have Plot Point Two.

Yet, sometimes Plot Points can be very quiet.  For example, Plot Point 2 in "Lawrence of Arabia."  They don't all have to be spectacular.  All they have to be is singular.

Lawrence has been 'tortured and stripped and repeatedly whipped and subject to all kinds of whoredom' and now only wants to quit the desert, to go home to rainy afternoons in England.  But General Allenby knows how to play him, how to get him to stay and be part of his Big Push.  The conniving old pro simply leads Lawrence into believing that the Arab warrior tribes he desperately needs won't come for money.  No.

But they will come for him.

When O'Toole turns to face the General, you see he has bought it hook, line, and sinker.  And it will cost him his soul.  Lawrence tries to save his honor by saying "They will come for Damascus."  But falls into his own blue-eyed blond reflection again by adding "I will give it to them."

In the movie's narrative (not necessarily the same as history's), if Lawrence doesn't go for this, if he sticks to his "I'm an ORDINARY man" and goes home, Damascus might not get taken and Allenby's plan falls apart.  Along with the side deal to carve up the Middle East for France and England.  As a result, the area, as we know it today, would look entirely different.  All from that one little universal moment.

For want of a nail...

Which takes us into the final movement of this visual symphony -- propelling us into the inevitable sprint of a concluding Act Three.  Normally this is fifteen or twenty pages; in "Lawrence," longer because it's a four hour movie.

But the principal remains the same.  As they almost always do.

So stay tuned!  Because I WILL get to my worst pitch meeting ever, I promise.   And my slow dance with the brilliant, sad singer named The Rose, a rock and roll casualty so buried alive in the blues that it almost took me down with her.


  1. ". . . least narcissistic director I ever met." How perfectly lovely! And "Who do you have to screw to get OUT of this movie?" Excellent.

    Also lovely is "his own blue-eyed blond reflection." I've actually never even seen "Lawrence of Arabia"; maybe now I should. I've never known a thing about it, and the title has always given me the confusing image of Laurence Olivier trudging through the desert.

    ". . . a rock and roll casualty so buried alive in the blues that it almost took me down with her." Now that's something I look forward to reading!

  2. Any real values here? Hello?

  3. Loved the Act II plot plot - increase the speed stuff and reference to the bone flung in to sky Space Odyssey scene. The things you have to say about writing are terrific. Reading this section, I realized the exact moment where my novel hit plot point one, and it gave me chills as I understood the life vest feeling in my writing, even without an outline. As a screen writer, I outlined every scene, but when I started this novel, I thought: What the hell, I just want to be free! How 60s of me!

  4. The “who do you have screw to get out of this movie” made me laugh. I first heard that from Tim Scott back in 1965. Remember him? He did a ton of movies, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Fried Green Tomatoes, The Lollie Madonna Wars. And most importantly he was in David T. student film Gun Fight at the OK Corral. Your blog is kicking off so many memories.