Next month, we're doing a bunch of comedy scenes for April, but we still have a week to go before then. Here's an oldie but a very illustrative one, a scene that I wish a lot of today's directors would take a look at...and learn from.
The Set-Up: Here is F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Screen-Writing 101" interpreted by Harold Pinter, director Elia Kazan, and a young Robert De Niro (acting unusually spry and light-hearted at this stage in his career). The rest of The Last Tycoon, the film of Fitzgerald's unfinished last novel is a bit mordant, but this scene crackles, not only because of DeNiro's performance, but also due to Donald Pleasance as the stuffy British writer who "just doesn't get it." He also becomes the audience-surrogate, drawn in by Studio Head Monroe Stahr's visual story-telling. The other two writers in the room have one line between them, and do a good job of communicating the "been there, done that" of hearing this speech again--the fellow on Pleasance's right doesn't say a word; he just sits with a writerly sneer on his face.
But follow the eyes (it's the reason there are so many screen-shots for a relatively quick scene). The looks that pass from Stahr to the writers and between them, do more communication than Monroe's three-corner dialog. And when he sits down, smugly satisfied with his performance, he lowers his head, waiting for the response he knows will come.
It's a bit specious, but it's a fine story illustrating how to use an audience's attention to lead them through a scene set-up. And Kazan's camera follows Stahr as he bounds around the room, playing all the parts, making sure that we see the audience reaction (Pleasance's) to each complication Stahr adds to the story.
And, of course, Stahr gets to keep the illusive nickel.
The Story: What a day it's been for Monroe Stahr (Robert De Niro), Production Head for the All-American Film Corporation: an earthquake, a pretty obvious attempted pass by his boss' daughter, insecure stars, scape-goated directors, oh...and then there's that girl who's a spittin' image for his late wife that's attracted his eye. The least of his worries is a novelist (Donald Pleasance) making an uneasy transition to screenwriter, who has been summoned to Stahr's office for a little attitude adjustment. This is you, watching.
(Boxley walks into Monroe Stahr's office a bit diffidently, eyeing the other two writers in the room seated in front of Stahr. Stahr welcomes him and offers him a seat between the other writers)
MONROE STAHR: Sit down, Mr. Boxley.
BOXLEY: I can't go on. It's a waste of time.
BOXLEY: You've stuck me with two hacks. They can't write.
BOXLEY: And they... bugger up everything I write.
STAHR: Well, why don't you just write it yourself?
BOXLEY: I have. I sent you some.
STAHR: That was just talk. We'd lose the audience.
BOXLEY: I don't think you people read things.
BOXLEY: The men... The men are dueling...
BOXLEY: ...when this conversation takes place.
BOXLEY: At the end, one of them falls into a well...
BOXLEY: ...and has to be hauled up...in a bucket.
STAHR: Would you write that in a book of your own?
BOXLEY: Of course I wouldn't. I inherited this absurd situation.
STAHR: Let me ask you, do you ever go to the movies?
STAHR: Because people are always dueling and falling down wells?
BOXLEY: And talking a load of rubbish!
(Stahr gets out of his chair and comes around to the front of his desk)
STAHR: Listen... has your office got a stove in it that lights with a match?
BOXLEY: I think so.
(Stahr crosses to the work-table at back of his office. Boxley's eyes follow him)
STAHR: Suppose you're in your office. You've been fighting duels all day. STAHR: You're exhausted.
STAHR: This is you.
STAHR: A girl comes in. She doesn't see you.
(Stahr crosses the room to the door, goes through it, then comes back in, looking furtively in both directions.)
(Stahr crosses to his desk and mimes the actions)
STAHR: She takes off her gloves. She opens her purse. She dumps it out on the table.
STAHR: You watch her.
(Stahr crosses back to the work-table)
STAHR: This is you.
(Stahr crosses back to his desk and mimes the actions, except for the nickel which he takes out of his pocket and bounces on his desk)
STAHR: Now... She has two dimes, a matchbox and a nickel. She leaves the nickel on the table. She puts the two dimes back into her purse.
STAHR: She takes the gloves...they're black.
(Stahr crosses back to the work-table)
STAHR: Puts them into the stove. Lights a match.
STAHR: Suddenly, the telephone rings.
STAHR: She picks it up. She listens.
STAHR: She says, "I've never owned a pair of black gloves in my life." Hangs up.
STAHR: Kneels by the stove. Lights another match.
(Boxley listens attentively, then catches himself. He's actually enjoying this.)
STAHR: Suddenly, you notice...
STAHR: ...there's another man in the room...
(Boxley can't help but look)
(Stahr crosses the room to the front door)
STAHR: ...watching every move the girl makes.
(Stahr crosses to his desk. Looks at Boxley. The other writers look at Stahr, then turn their attention to Boxley, who looks at them expectantly.)
(Stahr looks at Boxley, letting the moment hang. Then he slides into his chair looking like the cat that ate the canary. He looks again at Boxley and waits. Then he looks over at the other writer and smiles)
BOXLEY: What happens?
STAHR: I don't know. I was just making pictures.
BOXLEY: What was the nickel for?
STAHR: Jane, what was the nickel for?
JANE: The nickel was for the movies.
BOXLEY: What do you pay me for? I don't understand the damn stuff.
STAHR: Yes, you do...
STAHR: ...or you wouldn't have asked about the nickel.
(Stahr feigns throwing Boxley the nickel, who grabs at it, then sees he's bought the illusion)
(And Stahr holds up the nickel)