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The Secret To Every Great Movie Is Under The Hood Of A Car
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When the Earth had recently cooled from molten lava and I was a young man, I found myself in Los Angeles adapting a novel for the screen. My script for a horror film had just finished shooting and a studio producer figured that was enough experience to qualify me to adapt this book. I doubt the producer ever read it, because the closest the book came to the horror genre was that it was horrible.
Hedging his bets, the producer also assigned a veteran screenwriter to guide me. The word "grizzled" is overused, but it fit this guy beautifully. He drank Kentucky Bourbon from a leather hip flask and smoked four packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day. He had enough Raleigh coupons for a new Cadillac, but had lost his license after a string of DUI's back in the 50's.
This man lived high up on Sunset in a cottage he somehow never paid rent on. The winter we worked together, he had stopped paying his utility bills, so they turned off his water the same day they turned off his electricity. If you're thinking "Barton Fink", you're right. The difference being Fink worked with a guy based on the novelist William Faulkner. My co-writer never wrote anything more meaingful than a grocery list.
I'm not being metaphorical. After he passed out one afternoon, I drove him home and after dumping him on his couch, I perused a cupboard in what passed for a kitchen. Flintstone Jelly Glasses, empty bourbon pints, a half-snifter of what tasted like Tabasco and a box of cereal. I peeked inside the box and noted the cornflakes were in frenzied motion.
Our work on the screenplay was, as you may suspect, a bit tedious. I held the book in one hand, typed a key at a time with the other - while he squandered his few lucid moments describing getting fired from a three-picture deal at Paramount Pictures. Sometimes, Burt Lancaster was involved and sometimes it was a five-picture deal, but when it came to getting fired, his tale remained doggedly consistent
One day, despite everything, I learned something about screenwriting from this man that has worked gangbusters for me to this very day.
While struggling with boiling the first 100 pages of the book into a first act, I was instructed by this man to stop typing and drive him to the store for more cigarettes. When we returned, he insisted on lifting the hood of the Roadrunner, a souped-up "muscle car" I had borrowed. He asked me to turn the car back on and rev it. I did so, but feared he would get his throat cut by the whirring fan blade.
After deftly avoiding this gristly fate, he slammed the hood home and pronounced: "This is an engine. That book and our script - has no engine."
It was then that I learned that every script, story, novel - must have something that drives it constantly. An engine that never stops moving a reader or movie audience from Point A to Point Z.
The Bourne Identity, both book and movies - is an excellent example. The engine is Bourne himself, trying to find out who he is and why he does the things he does. It's such a powerful engine that you happily follow Bourne through three movies. You can watch them each 100 times and that engine always hums you along. (Of course, it helps immeasurably to have a great star and supporting cast and vastly talented screenwriters and directors.)
The book we adapted, alas, had no engine. It meandered from one scene to the next. Under his occasional guidance, I tried to create an engine, but it was instantly and vociferously rejected by the book's author, who happened to be married to the producer.
I returned the car to my friend, who had mysteriously survived his stint as a forward gunner on a riverboat cruising The Mekong. I moved back East to take another assignment, but am frankly not sure what happened to my co-writer. He is one of those people you're afraid to Google, because in cases like this, a search engine can only confirm your worst suspicions.
These days, I still tinker with screenplays and vastly enjoy watching movies created by people who expertly craft engines capable of taking us to great places. I'll quote the great Bo Goldman script for "Scent Of A Woman". The Al Pacino character has just been stopped by a cop after a 90 mile mph joy ride on an urban street. The cop is admiring the car when Pacino says, "Don't she purr, though?"
Very much so. As does the movie.
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