One thing about these screenwriting courses: It’s sure given me a new appreciation of movies. This hasn’t, as film/video teachers so often promise, ruined them for me. Alan studied music when he was young, and I just listened to it. Of course he hears music entirely differently than I do, and sees shapes and forms within it that I never will. Same with movies.
One thing that’s interesting about the class is the handouts — the teacher’s a working scriptwriter with access to early script drafts of familiar movies, and we study them every week. “The Truman Show,” for instance, started out with Truman a dull, overweight crybaby who lives in New York City. His obsession with the girl who gave him his first kiss leads him to hire prostitutes to wear her sweater while they have sex. If you remember the final product, in which Truman is of normal weight, smarter, not given to tears and living in the creepy Cleaveresque town of Seahaven, where there are no prostitutes, it’s possible to have hope for one’s own script. You see that as long as you’re willing to write the thing again, there’s always hope.
But lately we’re talking about pace. It’s amazing, when you break it down, to see how fast screen stories move, even if they don’t seem to, and how relentlessly a writer has to flog the story along from the very first page. Last night we watched the first act of “The Graduate” — that is: the party, the “Mrs. Robinson you’re trying to seduce me” stuff and the scuba-gear-in-the-pool scene — with our newer eyes, and boy, does it crackle. Not a wasted line. Hell, not a wasted word.
So then I came home, and guess what was starting on cable? “The Fugitive.” I’d seen it before, and thought it was a top-drawer action movie, but watching it again, it’s so much more. It’s a textbook case in how to craft that rarest of birds, the action movie with a brain. Every scene raises the stakes. Every location is significant. Every line is true to its speaker’s character. Every scene has a beginning, middle and end that flows logically into the next. And, of course, it has Tommy Lee Jones, with whom it’s hard to go very far wrong.
“The Fugitive,” in fact, is a great example of a movie greater than the sum of its parts — great direction of great actors speaking great lines from a great script, and presto: Greatness.