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They Set The Scene

A single image or narrative moment can be the key that unlocks the story. Writers describe how it happens.

December 12, 2007|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

FOR some, it happens years before the script has been started. For others, it follows weeks of ignoring a blank screen and a producer's frantic calls. An idea for a scene, or even a line comes up and something ineffable clicks into place, like a tumbler on a lock, setting the story free.

We asked a few writers to discuss a scene that helped them bring their films into focus. Their responses -- over the next three pages -- cover some film moments in such depth that a simple spoiler alert isn't sufficient. Caution: There may be one or two sentences in the following story that don't give away key plot points.


Tony Gilroy,

"Michael Clayton"

In his film about a law firm "fixer" up against forces he can't control, a scene halfway through the movie imparts background and plot, and sets up the thriller aspect to follow.

"It's the scene where Michael goes to his boss' Upper East Side town house to ask him for money. I remember it was a very critical scene to write because, just from a utilitarian standpoint, it has some real important plot aspects to it. It's at the moment when Michael Clayton realizes that this is not something casual -- the stakes are really raised for him, he has to take this very, very seriously. It's a huge scene in terms of the back story as well; it really gives me a chance to blow back through their history in a really efficient, unsentimental, sneaky way. You're going through the movie up to that point trying to figure out where the power lies and how much of a hole Michael Clayton is in, and this scene drops the floor out from under him completely. It's the scene where you find out exactly how he feels about his job, and his past, all the things that he squandered, where he sits on the food chain in the law firm, and that's the next level.

"The third part of it, which is the part that goes unnoticed, is that this is not a movie star scene, in any way shape or form. . . . This is not a cool scene, this is a scene about a guy coming in almost as a child; It's 'I could have been a contender' in a way. He's so bereft . . . he's so clinging to the idea that he could go back to court -- 'I was good at it.' It's such a weak [moment] for his character, and he ends up just so emasculated by it. I think that's what's so fascinating."


Tamara Jenkins,

"The Savages"

Jenkins tells the story of two siblings who have to put their estranged father in a nursing home. The first scene she worked on inspired the rest of the film, but not until years later. In it, Wendy calls her brother in the middle of the night to tell him about an alarming act by their possibly demented father.

"That scene -- when I wrote it originally, I must have written it a million years ago -- it was almost in a preconscious state. I wasn't working toward a screenplay, it was one of those scenes that you write and you throw it in your drawer and you don't know what it's connected to. So it really was a kind of nucleus scene, and only many years later, when I started locating the idea of the story and I had an interest in writing about adult siblings, [did I revisit it]. . . . I didn't know who these people were, I didn't know what I was after, except it was clear that I was interested in these two siblings that had to confront something really primal and intense."


Ronald Harwood,

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

When, after weeks of struggling with the material, Ronald Harwood figured out how to convey his protagonist's paralyzed condition, he knew how to proceed with the rest of the story.

"I put in bold capitals, 'THE CAMERA IS JEAN-DOMINIQUE BAUBY.' And that was the breakthrough, that first page was the moment of release. Everything else flowed. I could use his voice-over, I could select the memories, I could use his alphabet as I wanted to. That was a marvelous moment. I knew I was onto it.

"Prior to that, in the weeks I was stuck, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be paralyzed, and to write with one eye, and I used to get a kind of constriction of the throat and feel terribly claustrophobic. I just couldn't do it. What I knew this would do, but only in retrospect, was that it would put the audience through it. It's all right to say they must identify with him, but how do you identify with a guy lying in bed, who can't move anything but his eye?" As the movie opens, the camera -- and the audience -- sees only what Bauby can see.

"Later, in that first scene, where he realizes that they can't hear him, I realized I would have to carry that through for the picture. He couldn't respond until somebody understood that he could blink. It's a very important moment because it really opened my eyes to the fact that I'd have to keep that going -- that he couldn't communicate. It hit me that it was such a massive thing for the movie. When you think of it in dramatic terms, that's when it crystallized for me."


John Carney,


Carney's film tells the tale of two young, unnamed musicians who discover that they make sweet music together.

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