Monday, April 22, 2013

What I Learned From Reading E.T.

 This post was originally written for, and posted at, the Women in Film Seattle site.  Cool organization, check them out. Anyway, in case you missed it at their site, here it is.

A friend of mine recently read a spec script of mine and was very complimentary. Which was, of course, nice. But his compliments are also the specific kinds of comments I like to hear because they tell me that I have hit the target at which I was aiming.

When people like my screenplays, the things they say most often is, “I really feel like I just watched a movie.” Or they say, “I could really picture it!” And one of my very favorites, “I couldn’t put it down”. These kinds of comments have been fairly consistent over the years. Why? How can I get these comments consistently? It’s because I spent many years reading, starting as a teenager, reading scripts and learning from them. I stole the techniques of the writers whose work sucked me into the story and made me see a movie in my head vividly.

It is astonishing to me how many aspiring screenwriters almost never read screenplays. Part of the reason for this is that with the advent of screenwriting software that formats scripts for you, folks no longer feel that they need to look at screenplays to learn that aspect, which was one of the main reasons that people ever looked at screenplays to begin with. Most people I speak to haven’t bothered to read scripts to learn much else, but there is so much to learn.

When E.T.The Extraterrestrial came out I was 17. That movie blew me away and I, already a huge Spielberg fan, became obsessed with the film and screenplay. At this time Spielberg’s most famous films were Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The man was a juggernaut. I even had a picture on my wall of Steven Spielberg with E.T. that I pulled out of an issue of Rolling Stone magazine. I wanted to know what this guy knew, so I tracked down the scripts to his films and studied them.

Movie geek that I was this picture of E.T. and Steven Spielberg was on my wall as a teenager.
I really got into reading screenwriter Melissa Mathison’s script for E.T. I’m not sure how many times I read that screenplay. Multiple times. It was while reading this brilliant script that I learned one of my biggest screenwriting lessons – make every single thing matter. It was a revelation.

It struck me as I was reading a section of the script where the boy, Elliot, is hiding in a closet with his alien buddy E.T. as they eavesdrop on Elliot’s mother reading a bedtime story to his kid sister.  

E.T. heals Elliot's cut finger
 This scene is interrupted when Elliot cuts his finger, “Ouch!”  This is where E.T. learns the meaning of the word ouch and that is associated with pain. E.T.’s finger lights up and he touches it to the boy’s finger and heals the cut, after which the pair goes back to eavesdropping on the bedtime story.

Elliot and E.T. watch as Elliot's sister is read a story.
It is a tender scene of friendship between boy and alien, but it is so much more than that. I learned something reading the script, seeing the words on the page that I had not noticed consciously while watching the film.

The story being read to Gertie, the little girl, as played by Drew Barrymore, is Peter Pan’s. So what? Think about this: writer Melissa Mathison could have chosen any story to be read to the little girl. It could have been about Snow White or the Three Little Pigs or Rumpelstiltskin or Stone Soup, but it was Peter Pan, the part where the fairy Tinkerbelle is dying. And this is what the mother is reading when Elliot and E.T. go back to listening in.

“She thinks she can get well again if children believe in fairies, “ reads the mother. “Do you believe in fairies,” she continues, “Say quick that you believe.” Gertie says emphatically that she does believe. “If you believe,” the mother reads, “clap your hands.” The girl claps earnestly. “And Tink is saved,” says the mother.

Mom reads Peter Pan to Gertie
Here’s what’s amazing: later in the film E.T. dies and is brought back to life.  Mathison works this fairy-tale imagery of miraculous resurrection into our minds; she primes us to believe what’s coming later. She did it seamlessly and skillfully. She did not stop the story to have this tender scene – she continued to tell, and add, to her story by choosing a story for the mother to read that mattered, not an arbitrary or generic one.

Not to be forgotten is the fact that the fairy Tinkerbelle is often depicted as nothing more than a glowing light, with the light dimmed to indicate when she is dying, and made to glow brightly again when she is coming back to life.  E.T’s light, too, goes out when he is dying and comes back up when he comes back to life.

The amazing screenwriter of E.T. Melissa Mathison
I often compliment a film I like by saying that it had no fat. What I mean is that the storytellers used every line, shot, scene, and character to stay on track with the story in some way. Nothing is wasted.

If I ever have to pleasure of meeting Melissa Mathison, I will remove my hat out of sheer respect for the craft of her screenplay.

Today, I use this lesson I learned from reading the screenplay for E.T. in every story I construct. This lesson changed the direction of my writing profoundly. I have no doubt that if you read great scripts, you will learn great lessons. And when you do, steal them and use them liberally. 

P.S. And in case you missed this, I was on the 20/20 Awards podcast discussing one of my very favorite films Norma Rae: And also another film I love Groundhog Day:

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Shows I Like: The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Not long ago I read the late legendary comedy writer and teacher  Danny Simon used to show episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in his classes and talk about the writing techniques. I loved hearing this because I, without knowing about Danny Simon doing so, have been known to do this very thing. So I have at least one thing in common with Danny Simon.

The show has been on my mind lately because Mary Tyler Moore co-star Valerie Harper announced that she has terminal cancer and has very little time to live, news that has saddened me deeply. I have been a fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Ms. Harper from the beginning of the show and nearly the very beginning of my life. The show first aired on September 19, 1970, when I was five years old. Somehow I knew it was great, even at that tender age. In fact, during its run, the show won a total of 29 Emmy Awards. Over the years my admiration for the show, its cast, and its writers, has only increased. 

A good friend of mine owns this slate from the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He let me hold it and then had to pry it from my hands.
It is fair to say that I’m not sure I would know anything about constructing stories if it weren’t for this show. When I was about ten or so I started to audiotape the shows to listen to them over and over again. (This was before people had any way of recording television. Once show had aired that was it. You were at the whim of the network as to when you might ever see that show again.)

After repeated listening, I started to see the patterns to the stories. I had never read a book on story structure or ever heard anyone talk about such a thing; I was happening upon it without knowing. I remember clearly the epiphany when I first discovered the purpose of each act even before I knew the formal concept of an act.

The now classic Mary Tyler Moore show was created by Allen Burns and James L. Brooks. (Brooks went on to produce Rhoda, Lou Grant, Taxi, and The Simpsons, to name a few hits.)

One of my very favorite episodes – one I have used in my classes – aired in Season One of the series, is called Support Your Local Mother. This episode is so well constructed it blows my mind.  

In the episode, Valerie Harper (who plays Rhoda, Mary’s upstairs neighbor and best friend) gets a visit from her mother, but Rhoda refuses to see her, and so Mary, not understanding this, puts up Rhoda’s mother while she is in town. This is how it plays out.

In Act One, Mary’s friend and neighbor Phyllis instructs Mary on how to whack a table with a length of chain to give furniture an antique look. Mary, who is a prim and proper woman and a little uptight, finds it silly to whack her furniture and comes down with a case of the giggles with each whack.

No sooner has Phyllis left Mary alone to do her work when Ida Morgenstern, Rhoda’s mother (played brilliantly by actress Nancy Walker), shows up at Mary’s door. Rhoda lives upstairs, but Ida says that she is not home and Mary lets her wait in her apartment until Rhoda arrives.

Ida and Mary as Ida waits to hear from Rhoda
Mary goes back to her work beating her table and is now embarrassed to have company.  Ida is a no-nonsense New Yorker from the Bronx and finds Mary’s giggling a little odd. This is not a small thing. Mary is very middle-America, very Midwestern. Already it is established that there is a clash of cultures at work – brash New Yorker meets Pollyanna.

Turns out Rhoda has been home all along and is avoiding her mother, so Mary marches upstairs to talk some sense into her friend. Rhoda tells Mary her mother drives her crazy and that it’s better that she not see her at all. This makes no sense to Mary, so Rhoda explains that Bronx love is not like Midwestern love and comes with a healthy dose of guilt. Mary still doesn’t understand, but Rhoda still refuses to see her mother.

As Mary is leaving, Rhoda asks Mary in all earnestness to ask Ida if she’s taking her pills.

Okay, some things to point out here. If the three acts are thought of as proposal, argument, and conclusion, then Rhoda saying that Bronx love is not like Midwestern love in that it comes with guilt is the story’s proposal. The rest of the story will deal with this idea – the story will argue, or prove this proposal.

Nancy Walker as Ida and Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards
Also, it is great that the scene with Mary and Rhoda ends with Rhoda showing that she truly cares for her mother and her health. Without this, Rhoda would look just plain mean, but now we know she cares. That is beautiful construction.

We are still in the first act at this point. Mary lets Ida stay with her in hopes that Rhoda will change her mind, but right away Mary starts to get an idea of what Rhoda was talking about: Ida wants to pay Mary for letting her stay there and Mary refuses.  The two go back and forth over this with Mary saying that it would make her feel uncomfortable to take the money, but Ida finds a way of wearing Mary down and guilting her into taking the money.

By the end of the first act, just as the two are about to go to sleep Ida takes one more little stab at making Mary feel guilty and we know that Mary is in for a hard time with Ida. This is a brilliant first act. It sets up everything perfectly.

Ida and Mary settle in just before the end of act one.

The second act is the argument for, or proof of, the proposal that Bronx love comes with guilt. Second acts prove (or sometimes disprove) their proposal through dramatization.  By dramatizing an idea I mean demonstrating through the storyline and actions and reactions of the story’s characters. To dramatize is to demonstrate and this second act demonstrates the proposal by seeing Mary driven to near insanity by Ida just as Rhoda said would happen.

Cloris Leachman, who plays Phyllis, along with co-stars Mary and Ms. Harper
At one point Mary tries to explain to Phyllis how she is being driven crazy by Ida, but Phyllis doesn’t understand. Now Mary is in the same boat Rhoda was in Act One, trying to explain to an outsider how this seemingly sweet woman is making her insane.

By the third act, Mary understands through experience what Rhoda was talking about in the first act. Now Mary can talk to Rhoda from a place of knowledge – and is able to convince her that should see her mother. It is an amazing piece of writing. There is a reason the show won a bunch of awards and has become a classic.

This is me meeting Ms. Valerie Harper in October 2012.  She was very sweet.
 As a side note I want to say that I was lucky enough to meet Valerie Harper not too long ago and I was able to tell her how great she is as an actress and how much the show means to me. It was one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me.

I would very much like to thank Ms. Harper and the cast and writers of this show that has had such an impact on my life from the first day it aired until this very day. This show was one of the very first things that helped me to understand my craft, not to mention how much joy, laughter, and happy memories it’s given me.

For those of you wanting to better understand the craft of storytelling, you have a great teacher in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.