Saturday, June 27, 2009

Steven de Souza at the Writers Guild

Last Wednesday, Steven de Souza spoke at the WGA. Rewriting was the ostensible topic for the evening, and de Souza did talk about that -- many of his highest profile scripts were rewrite jobs -- but he also was just a font of great stories and anecdotes. A few that I took notes on:

(As a side note, these kinds of great events are always going on in Los Angeles, held by the Writers Guild Foundation, the WGA, and any number of other organizations. Many are open to non-Guild members; all the WGF ones are. Check 'em out.)

Don Mankiewicz was one of de Souza's first mentors, from whom he learned some great old-Hollywood jargon:
  • Haircut - A ripoff. Change the part, and no one recognizes it. "I hear Miracle Pictures is doing a haircut of TRANSFORMERS for 2010."

  • Dynamite dog - Intercutting to build suspense. You have Rin Tin Tin running to the rescue, off to drag some dynamite out from under a bridge. Cut from the dynamite, to the dog, dynamite, dog.

  • Dog heavy - Low-level bad guy. You have the main heavy, who's the top villain, the one who kills the sheriff, the one whom the hero dispatches mano-a-mano. In DIE HARD, Alan Rickman. Then you have the second heavy, the chief lieutenant, who kills the deputy and gets offed before the main heavy. DIE HARD: Alexander Godunov. The dog heavy is the grunt henchperson, who's around to kick a dog if need be. DIE HARD: Everyone who isn't Alan or Alexander.
De Souza does a fantastic Arnold Schwarzenegger impression.

DIE HARD's principal photography sounded like it was a lot more seat of the pants than the final product would suggest. A lot of the movie's best elements came about during production, and would never have happened had the writer -- de Souza -- not been on set.

Bruce Willis was starring in MOONLIGHTING during production, and it became clear that all the night shoots for DIE HARD plus his rigorous TV days were going to kill him unless he could sit out some nights. The character development of the villains came in direct response to needing scenes that Bruce wasn't in.

The scene where McClane meets an American-accented Hans Gruber also came about during production. De Souza, director John McTiernan, and the producers realized that having the hero and villain meet only at the end felt unsatisfying, and this scene is what de Souza came up with after learning at lunch one day that Alan Rickman could do a California accent.

The bad guys' escape plan was devised three days before the end of shooting. All those scenes where the bad guys talk about the plan, Alan Rickman doodles on maps about the plan, all of that-- no one, de Souza said, on either side of the camera, knew what the plan was.

The escape plan, of course, ended up being that the bad guys would get away in an ambulance they brought with them, hiding amidst the many other rescue vehicles around Nakatomi Plaza. But coming so late in production, this set up a whole cascade of things:
  • There is no ambulance in the truck when the bad guys arrive. This scene was already shot and couldn't be reshot.

  • The clue that the bad guys were all of a cohort was to be their identical Tag Heuer watches, which originally got a lot more screen time.

  • The scene that landed this was one of the bad guys synchronizing their watches, a longer one than in the final cut, and had a long, clear shot of the non-ambulance-containing truck. So this bit had to go.

  • Which means that Bruce is a little bit psychic when he guesses that Alan isn't in fact a hostage-- he was supposed to clock the watch, which he'd seen on other bad guys.

  • So people have invented reasons why Bruce catches on, but de Souza says there really isn't any official reason. The fact that Alan takes a stinky, vile Gaulois cigarette without objecting is the most popular theory. Next to McClane just being that fucking awesome, of course.
De Souza is careful to step out his fight scenes, giving them a page and half at least, so the movie can be timed appropriately. He doesn't just write "They fight" or "The Indians take the fort."

One very cool thing he shared with us was (projected on a screen) all the versions of one page of a Sheena comic book that he did. Over and over and over, working to get it right. And, as he pointed out, not because anyone asked him to or gave him notes. "This is insane," he said. "A cry for help." And it was worth it-- the page is spectacular, an Eisneresque borderless, time- and space-jumping work of art.

He's writing and producing a Web serial now, the Webby-nominated Unknown Sender, for Strike TV.

When writing a first draft he doesn't read anything from previous work sessions. He won't even go back to check on someone's name, subbing in Dog Heavy or the like if he can't remember.

A trick he uses to catch errors in a much-rewritten script is to read the whole thing twice, first only the stage directions, then only the dialogue.

I was happy to see that de Souza uses some of the same tightening techniques that I do when wanting to pull in the page count just a little, namely rewording a line of dialogue or action, or very judiciously tweaking the right margin, to get rid of orphans, those single words that hog an entire line to themselves. If Steven de Souza does it, hell, it's good enough for me.

Another very cool thing he did was to walk us through a few pages from his new script, BEIJING BULLET. He hadn't looked at them since writing them, so as he read (the moderator was the other actor in the scene), he was basically rewriting on the fly, speaking aloud notes to himself, stuff he'll want to change. He thought that one character should be a woman instead of a man-- I'll be interested to see what shows up in the final version. If it's a woman, I will have been in the room when that decision was made! Nifty.

De Souza was once pitched a rewrite job from a producer: "DIE HARD in a building."

1 comment:

Chris said...

in the film, McClane figures out Hans is not a hostage when he looks at the employee directory on the wall and sees the "Wm. Clay" name that Hans conveniently has when he asks him. i guess he could still have been a hostage but for someone with McClane's street smarts, it seems too much of a coincidence