The script is finished. Pop the champagne. Call your mother; mine’s dead.
In my movie HEAVENLY ANGLE the filmmaker is asked (by the drunken mayor he’s trying to bilk for a budget), “So now what? Just add water and poof – Academy Awards, People magazine, Ellen?” The filmmaker, played handsomely and winningly convincingly by me, replies, “Yes, but first we have to make the movie.” We’ll get back to that.
For the moment it’s between us, this thing we’ve created, this gift of Frankenstein and mirth. We knew it was brilliant even before the champagne hit. Even before we’d finished, before we’d started even. How could we go wrong, right? With our bona fides and exuberance, our failsafe concept and killer execution. How could we possibly fuck it up? Good question. Why do most movies never get made, no matter their originality and scintillating construction? While we’re on it, why do so many movies that do get made suck wind?
Seriously, take any given year. There are, plus or minus, 400 movies that make it to your local cineplex or art house. Last January the New York Times critic bemoaned the surfeit; nearly 900 films would be reviewed by her paper. There are “too many lackluster, forgettable and just plain bad movies pouring into theaters, distracting the entertainment media and, more important, overwhelming the audience,” was Manohla Dargis’s complaint. I know what you’re thinking, Eat me, Manohla.
But I get it; I vote. Every autumn I’m sent 75 to 100 MOVIES, sometimes in triplicate; the FedEx driver has become my friend. And those are only the ones the studios believe in or believe have a chance of getting nominated for the four awards I vote for – the Oscars, SAG, WGA and DGA. And, while it’s nice to have my shelves overloaded with the shiny DVDs that have replaced the VHS tapes that took up even more space – both, inevitably, dinosaured by streaming any year now – most of them are soporifics on a wintry night, incomplete collections of good ideas, strong performances, nice writing, excellent camera work, adding up, typically, to not enough. And those are those; the rest, not so much.
So finish your glass of champagne, breathe deep, get coffee – I don’t drink it, remember? – and let’s get real. Have we written the script we meant to, have we done the hard work the right way, have we told the truth? Have we found the sweet spot?
The huh? Every living creature has one. It’s called a heart in most cases, a radial point, an omphalos. That ping you dream of when the ball hits your tennis racquet in the bull’s eye, the effect it creates, the kill you’ll make, the perfect placement of the sunset in your lens, the composition of your shot, the essential note the bassoon will add, or an actor will, the epicenter of the earthquake. Those are Sweet Spots. There are pornographic implications to the term as well; I’ll let you chew on you them.
But back to the living creature. Does our script have a pulse? It better. Does every page we turn make us want to turn the next one? Are you checking, is that why you have your face against the paper or did you fall asleep from the bubbly? I’ll wait.
It’s been said, by somebody, hell if I can remember who, that every successful screenplay needs three Set Pieces. Not chairs, please. Nor the couch I see that you’ve now repositioned yourself to in dread of where we’re going with this. Set Pieces, the big, symphonic, filmic moments that rock a movie and its audience, that stay in our brains forever after. Name some.
Easier, you might say, when it’s action, the classic car chase in BULLITT, the boat crash in ON GOLDEN POND, the little freaky monster popping out of John Hurt’s stomach in ALIEN, Sandra Bullock at the end of her tether in GRAVITY. Look at those movies again and find the other two set pieces, Waldo. Watch any James Bond movie and you’ll invariably find three. There’ll be more, natch, but usually there’s a boffo opening – this a franchise that knows the rules of the road – an end-of-Act-Two white-knuckler, and, just when you think but know better that James is going to be okay, a last, scariest-one-of-all.
Even FROZEN has its three. Or, more realistically stated, it ESPECIALLY has its three. FROZEN didn’t make a billion dollars just by Letting Go. But here’s the ticket: when we stop being kids, if, in fact, that ever happens, and/or, in my case, stop owning any and before grandchildren show up and we’re conscripted back to the mall, we generally find ourselves less drawn to the explosions and carnage, animated or otherwise, that constitute the meat and potatoes of most popular fare. Our appetite is hungry for something else and that’s the Sweet Spot I’m talking about and does BEAUTIFUL WOMEN have it?
We’ll read it together. I’ll play all the handsome parts. And we’ll listen carefully, and not only with our ears. We want to FEEL something. I’m not talking schmaltz. I haven’t seen BULLITT in 40 years and you know what I remember from it? The car chases, sure, but the scene that’s stayed with me for all this time is in the airport and Steve McQueen is facing down Robert Vaughn and he says something simple, something boy-like actually, like, “I don’t like you.” And the boy in me, the young man also feeling cornered by life and needing to find the strength to stand up to the forces that weigh us down, FELT that tossed-away sentiment with more puissance than any bomb going off or any fifty bodies dropped by Schwarzenegger or Willis, James Bond or Liam Neesen.
GRAVITY, same thing. Lotta terrific CGI at work but the Sweet Spot is Sandra Bullock’s vulnerability when she shows her fear and commits to overcoming it. We don’t all enjoy the luxury of having George Clooney swing by and cheer us on, but each of us, in theory, has a heart. Why was ON GOLDEN POND the second-highest grossing movie of 1982 and why does it continue to resonate forever on cable and onstage? Not for the boat crash. Ask any six-year-old who can sing you “Let It Go” backwards and she’ll tell you how much she FELT for those ice princesses.
BEAUTIFUL WOMEN can live on its casting. I mean seriously, beautiful women. It can fly on its rich humor and plot complications and the cunning surprises we’ve so artfully labored to include. But it can crash and burn if we don’t succeed in MOVING our audience. Does the script have the irresistible, inviolable, unforgettable Sweet Spot that every movie needs, whether the audience realizes it or not, and that serves as the high-water mark for the rest of the story? Does yours?
Ernest Thompson, an actor, director and the author of more than thirty screenplays, including the classic ON GOLDEN POND, for which he won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Writers Guild Award, offers private coaching and script analysis, weekend workshops at his farm in New Hampshire (ad page 21), and also teaches advanced acting classes in Boston and elsewhere. For more information, visit www.ErnestThompson.us.