15 Minutes Project

The First 15 Minutes Project: The Archive

 So back before the Road Tests of the Ultimate Story Checklist, I had a series where I would go step by step through the first 15 minutes of a film or TV pilot and figure out how they got us on the side of the hero.  Many of these eventually got checklists, but many never did, so they can only be found here (How have I never done The French Connection or The Apartment?) The above graphic is from the fifth piece below where I went through the first four and noticed something: One shortcut to sympathy is to have your white character high-five a black person. 

The First 15 Minutes Project: Juno McGuff in Juno

Juno is halfway between Max and Cady: not desperate to fit in and willing to alienate everybody, but still pretty vulnerable and lost.

Re-watching this confirmed something I’d noticed before: the first ten minutes, with its wall-to-wall terrible hipster dialogue, is entirely different from the rest. As soon as the very grounded character of Bleeker is introduced, the sheer force of his reality obliterates all that phoniness, and most of the dialogue from there on out is beautifully written and real.

So why the atrocious beginning? One clue is to be found in the deleted scenes, where we learn that the atrocious first 10 minutes was actually 20 minutes that got cut way down. This implies that writer Diablo Cody was flailing around and finding her way, until the introduction of Bleeker forced her to settle down and discover that she actually could write if she suppressed her hipster instincts.

Ironically, I think that the script only sold because of that hipster dialogue at the beginning, which indicated to Hollywood that they had found “a fresh new voice” (Director Jason Reitman even says in the commentary that one of the lines he cut was the one that made him want to direct it.) Hollywood tried to buy a bad too-cool-for-school movie and accidentally ended up with a good one, because none of the buyers, thankfully, read beyond the first twenty pages.
  1. Onscreen title over black: Autumn 
  2. Juno stands in a yard looking at an easy boy chair on a lawn. A dog barks, making her say “Geez banana, shut your freaking gob, okay?” Voiceover: “This is the most magnificent discarded living room set I’ve ever seen. It all started with a chair…” 
  3. Flashback to Juno having awkward sex with an unseen kid her age in lazy-boy-style chair.
  4. Juno walks along the sidewalk drinking Sunny Delight, as a hipster-folk song kicks in and she walks through animated credits. 
  5. Animation ends as Juno enters a drugstore, exchanges hipster dialogue with the guy running the store. She’s there to have her third pregnancy test after not trusting the first two that were both positive. This one’s positive, too. “This is one doodle that can’t be undid, home skillet.” She buys a several-foot long strip of Twizzlers.
  6. She goes home and turns it into a noose and throws the noose around the tree. 
  7. She calls her friend on a burger phone. “I’m pregnant.” “Honest to blog?” They discuss where she’ll get an abortion. Juno says she needs her help though…
  8. …Juno and her friend pick up that discarded chair. 
  9. They talk about Bleeker, intercut with a flash 
  10. Intro Bleeker montage getting ready for a run: putting deodorant on his thighs, making himself a hot pocket. 
  11. Bleeker comes out to find Juno sitting on his lawn in the living room set. Guys run by and she thinks about their pork swords. She tells Bleeker that she’s pregnant. He quietly freaks out and then says “What should we do?” She says she’s gonna “nip it in the bud.” Somewhat vulnerable, she asks “Is that okay with you?” He says yeah, disappointing her.
  12. At her locker, she gets heckled by a bully, but then she explains to us in voiceover that he really likes her. “Jocks like him always want freaky girls with horn-rimmed glasses, who, like, play the cello and read McSweeny’s and wanna be children’s librarians when they grow up. They just won’t admit it because they’re supposed to be into, like, the perfect cheerleaders, you know? Like Leah, who, incidentally, is into teachers.” She watches Leah flirt with a teacher and chuckles.
  13. In chemistry class, Juno and Bleeker are partners with another girl and guy who are going out and bickering (see: clones). “Well, there’s nothing like experimentin’.” “Who’s ready for some chromo-magnificence?” She tries joking around but Bleeker isn’t in the mood for jokes, disappointing her.
  14. At home, Juno uses her burger phone to call the number from an abortion ad in the back of a paper. “Hi, I’m just calling to procure a hasty abortion. Can you hold on just a second, I’m on my hamburger phone…” She has to shake the hamburger phone to get it to work. We find out it’s been two months already. 
  15. While talking, she imagines a teacher putting a condom on a banana. 
  16. Montage: she introduces us to her dad, step-mom, and absent mom.
  17. In the morning, she has breakfast with her family. Her step-mom accuses her of throwing up in her urn, correctly, as we seen in a quick flashback. 
  18. Juno arrives at the clinic to get an abortion. An acquaintance from school is protesting out in front. “Your baby probably has a beating heart, you know, and it can feel pain. And it has fingernails.” Juno turns, “Fingernails? Really?”
  19. Juno enters and checks in. She begins to imagine her fetus’s heartbeat. 
  20. Juno runs to her friend’s house. She wants to have the baby. They decide to look for adoption ads in the Penny-Saver. (actually at 21 minutes here). 
  21. Juno doesn’t like the ads, “I just like, I don’t want to give the baby to a couple that describes themselves as ‘wholesome’, I just want someone a little more edgier, I was thinking more like: graphic designer, mid-‘30s, with an Asian girlfriend who plays bass.” She picks a couple…


The First 15 Minutes Project: Max Fischer in Rushmore

Our first three heroes just wanted to fit in and survive their dreaded high school experience. Now let’s look at someone who has no interest in fitting in or leaving high school.
  1. Sprightly harpsichord music plays while titles appear against curtains. 
  2. Curtains part, revealing Rushmore sign on side of school.
  3. Cut to math class inside school. Teacher assigns complex problem. A student asks about another problem on the side board. “That’s the hardest geometry problem in the world. I guess if anyone here could solve that problem, I’d see to it that everyone here would never have to open another text book for the rest of their lives.” They all whisper to each other about how awesome that would be, then turn back to a guy in the back of the room, the only one wearing the school blazer, who’s reading a newspaper. The teacher says “Max, would you care to try it?” Max looks over his paper, “I’m sorry, did someone say my name?” They all laugh. Sipping coffee out of a china cup, Max goes up the board. The teacher tosses him the chalk and he catches it heroically. Max solves the problem handily. The rest of the students lift him up on their shoulders while they cheer.
  4. Max is woken up by his friend Dirk, after having fallen asleep in the school’s chapel, where all the kids are gathered to hear a talk by Mr. Blume, the father of two students. “You guys have it real easy. I never had it like this where I grew up, but I send my kids here, because the fact is that you guys go to one of the best schools in the country: Rushmore.” Max’s friend leans over to talk to him but Max holds up two fingers to stop him and then leans in to listen to the speech… “Now, to some of you, it doesn’t matter. You were born rich and you’re going to stay rich.” We see Blume’s speech, written out in front of him, neatly typed on a typewriter. “But here’s my advice to the rest of you. Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down.” Max writes in his a Hymnal, in florid penmanship: “Rushmore – best school in country, Rich kids – bad?, This guy – best chapel speaker I have ever seen.” Blume continues: “Just remember, they can buy anything, but they can’t buy backbone. Don’t let them forget that. Thank you.” Only Max stands up and applauds (once again, he’s the only one in the school blazer, so that was one true thing in the fantasy)
  5. Blume leaves, talking to the headmaster Dr. Guggenheim about how he wished the students gave a shit. Max come us and overly-familiarly says hi to Dr. Guggenheim, then introduces himself to Blume, trying to sound like a fellow-40-year-old when he says “Y’know I really think you’re right about Rushmore…”, then he leaves. Blume says to Guggenheim: “Sharp little guy.” Guggenheim responds: “He’s one of the worst students we’ve got.” Blume smiles.
  6. Funny montage of all the clubs Max has either founded or leads, including the bee keepers and the Max Fischer players.
  7. Another curtain says “September.” The curtain parts. Max is meeting with Dr. Guggenheim, who immediately tells him, “We’re putting you on what we call sudden death academic probation.” “And what does that entail?” “It entails that if you fail another class, you’ll be asked to leave Rushmore.” “In other words I’ll be expelled.” “That’s correct.” “Can I see some documentation on that?” Guggenheim hands over his transcript. “Too many extracurricular activities, Max, not enough studying.” “Dr. Guggenheim, I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but the fact is that no matter how hard I try, I still might flunk another class. If that means that I have to stay on for a post-graduate year then so be it.” “We don’t offer a post-graduate year.” “Well, we don’t offer it yet.” “Just bring up the grades.” “You remember how I got into this school?” “Yes. You wrote a play.” “That’s right, second grade, a little one-act about Watergate.” The discuss how Max’s late mother got him in. Max asks if he can just coast by for old time’s sake, but Guggenheim says no.
  8. Max leaves, trailed by Dirk, saying they want to kick him out. What are you gonna do? “The only thing I can do. Try to pull some strings with the administration, I guess.” 
  9. Later, Max is at a meeting of his Backgammon club with its only other member. The member tells him that the school is ending Latin and Max is glad to hear it. Max is reading a Jacques Cousteau book as he plays. He sees that someone has hand-written in an extra Cousteau quote: “When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.” He excuses himself and asks to see a list of everyone who checked out the book. The priest-librarian asks why. Max shows him the quote. The librarian is impressed and agrees to help.
  10. Max has a listing in his hand. He arrives at a Kindergarten class and sees a beautiful woman reading “Kidnapped” to her class. He props open the door to hear her read in a beautiful English accent. He’s smitten.
  11. After school, Max tries to hit on Dirk’s mom.  When Dirk arrives, Max asks, “How’d your math test go?” “What math test?” “Didn’t you have a math test?” “No.” We realize that Max is only friends with Dirk to get to his mom.  Max runs over to talk to Blume, but he’s too smitten to say anything. Finally Blume asks “What’s the secret, Max? You seem to have it pretty figured out.” “Well, I think you’ve just got to find something you like to do and then do it for the rest of your life. For me, it’s going to Rushmore.” Blume realizes that Max is actually pretty screwed up. Blume’s bully-ish sons come and get in the car, pushing Max over.
  12. Blume drives them home. “Did you invite that kid to your party?” “Max Fischer, are you kidding? There’s going to be girls there. Get your head out of your ass.” 
  13. Max walks home across campus, giving a friendly back-pat to the Indian janitor, Mr. Littlejean. 
  14. Max rides his bike to a barbershop. Only when his haircut is done do we realize that the barber is his dad. He shows his dad a test with a “37” on it, but the dad cheerily turns it into an 87. Max tries to talk about his problems, but his dad is too forgiving of his failings.
  15. The teacher is reading on the bleachers and looking for a light for her cigarette. He swoops in and lights it, then goes to the far end of the bleachers to read “The Powers that Be” by David Halberstam. He has a simulation of an adult conversation with her. She went to Harvard. The top schools that he wants to apply to are Oxford and the Sorbonne, but his safety’s Harvard. He mentions that the school is ending Latin and she says that that’s a shame.  They exchange Latin quotations. He charms her, introduces himself, then sits reading next to her.   She’s charmed and baffled.
  16. Max starts a petition drive to re-introduce Latin. Latin is now required for everyone. 
  17. Max watches a wrestling match featuring Blume’s sons. Max tells Mr. Blume that his father is a neurosurgeon. Later, he asks Blume, “You were in Vietnam if I’m not mistaken?” “Yeah.” “Were you in the shit?” “Yeah, I was in the shit.”  Blume is shocked to learn that Max is also on the team.
  18. At his sons’ birthday party, Blume tries to sink down to the bottom of the pool.
  19. Max shows up to tell the teacher that he restored Latin for her.


The First 15 Minutes Project: Peter Parker in Spider-Man

The structure of this movie is interesting. It starts us out with a hero with superficial teen problems (he’s too scrawny, gets bullied, and clams up around girls), then gives him a huge opportunity that seems to solve them all, and then, once, he accepts that opportunity, it reveals deeper personal problems he hadn’t suspected.

 So instead of “hero gets opportunity to solve longstanding personal problem”, we have the opposite: “hero gets opportunity that reveals heretofore hidden personal problems.” In the end, the only way to solve those problems will be to reject all the things he sought in the opening 15 minutes: the girl, the rich friend, and personal acclaim. As a result, as you’ll see here, a lot the hero’s true problems don’t emerge until around the 40 minute mark. 

I don’t know about you, but I fall totally in love with Peter as a character. I’ll have more to say about it soon…
  1. First line, over a pan out of a spider’s web: “Who am I? You sure you want to know? The story of my life is not for the faint of heart. If somebody said it was a happy little tale, somebody lied. But let me assure you, this, like any story worth telling, is all about a girl.” We see Mary Jane on a school bus, then see the jerk with his arm around her, “I’d like to tell you that’s me next to her,” then we pan to a slob eating a jelly donut, “Heck I’d even take him.” Then we pan to Peter running alongside the bus. “That’s me.” Mary Jan runs to the front of the bus and demands the bus driver stop.
  2.  Peter gets on the bus. A super-nerdy girl contemptuously looks at him and sees that he’s considering sitting next to her: “Don’t even think about it.” The donut-eating slob shakes his head no as well. Peter tries to catch the eye of Mary Jane, who averts her gaze, looking embarrassed, then someone trips Peter and he falls forward onto his face in the aisle, knocking his glasses off.
  3.  Class trip to Columbia University. Peter thinks he sees Mary Jane turning and giving him a flirtatious wave, so he returns it, but she’s waving to the girls who are coming up behind him. When they join up with MJ, they all giggle about Peter’s wave, humiliating him.
  4.  Just then, a Rolls Royce rolls up. Inside, Harry Osborn is being dropped off by his father Norman. Harry asks not to be dropped off “These are public school kids, I’m not showing up to a field trip in a Rolls.” “You want me to trade in my car for a Jetta just because you flunked out of every private school I ever sent you to?”
  5.  Harry gets out but forgets his bag, so Norman gets out to return it. Harry introduces Peter to Norman. “I read all your research on nanotechnology.” “And you understood it? Your parents must be very proud.” “Well, I live with my aunt and uncle and they are proud.”
  6. They enter the lab where a scientist gives them a tour of the genetically modified spiders, talking about their super-powers. Peter tries taking photos but the bullies keep knocking him in the back. Peter tells Harry that some spiders have the ability to change their color to blend into the background. Harry rolls his eyes and asks “Why would you even think I would want to know that?” Peter asks “Who wouldn’t?”
  7. Harry points at MJ and asks Peter if he’s going to talk to her now. Peter jokes, “Why don’t you talk to her?” Harry shrugs and says “All right.” Harry sidles up to her as she looks at spiders. She says, “Disgusting.” Harry: “Yeah, hateful little things.” She disagrees, “I love ‘em!” Harry: “Yeah, me too.” She shoots him a look of disgust for so obviously hitting on her. He busts out Peter’s line about the spider’s changing colors. MJ says “cool”. Peter overhears, chagrined. The scientist says that there are 15 spiders, but MJ points out that one is missing. Peter tries approaching MJ to take a photo for the school paper. She enjoys modeling for him. As he takes pictures, the missing spider climbs down and bites him. (at 10:56) Peter is worried about the bite. As he walks away, a display behind him shows spider DNA being combined.
  8. Meanwhile, at Oscorp, the military shows up to evaluate Norman Osborn’s weapons programs: a flying glider and a gas that makes you strong, though it’s driven some test subjects insane. The general tells Norman that he prefers Norman’s competitors, and if Norman doesn’t show results in a week, he’s pulling the contract. 
  9. Uncle Ben fixes a light bulb “And the lord said let there be light, and voila, there was light, all 40 glowing lights of it.” Aunt May says “God’ll be thrilled, just don’t fall on your ass.” “I’m already on my ass, May. When the plant’s senior electrician is laid off after 35 years, what else would you call it? I am on my ass.” “Hand me that dish, the green one.” “The corporation is downsizing the people and upsizing the profits.” “Oh Ben, you’ll get another job somewhere.” “Well, let’s look in the paper and see. Here are the want ads, what have we got here? Computer salesman, computer engineer, computer analyst… My lord, even the computers need analysts these days. I am 68 years old, I’m too old for computers, and beside I have a family to provide for.” “I love you and Peter loves you. You’re the most responsible man I’ve ever known. We’ve been down and out before, but somehow we survive.” Peter comes in, looking sick. He wants to go upstairs and not eat. “You won’t have a bite?” “No thanks, I had a bite…”
  10. Upstairs, we see Peter’s sickly chest as he looks at himself in the mirror. We hear a voice-over of the spider powers again, then we zoom into Peter’s blood as DNA re-combines. 
  11.  At Oscorp, the same scientist who complained to “If you just give me two weeks…” “Two weeks? In two weeks, we’ll have lost the contract request and Oscorp will be dead. Sometimes you’ve gotta do things yourself.” He tests the gas on himself. The other scientist stops the test. Norman, now super-strong and insane, kills the scientist.
  12. Peter wakes up on the floor and puts on his glasses, but he no longer needs them. Then he looks at his chest, which is now super strong. May knocks on the door. “Any better this morning? Any change?” “Yeah, big change!” Peter watches MJ out of his window and through her window.
  13. Peter leaves. Ben says “Teenagers, raging hormones, they never change…” Peter promises Uncle Ben that he’ll help him with painting the kitchen that night...

Tomorrow, a very different type of high-schooler...

The First 15 Minutes Project: Cady Heron in Mean Girls

High School Week Continues!
I just got around to watching this one and I was very impressed, so let’s figure out why...
  1. African drumming plays over titles on black, then fade up to: 
  2. Two parents look down on the camera’s POV offering a bag lunch and talking about how brave she is on her first day of school. But then the POV rises up: it turns out that it belongs to a 16 year girl who had been sitting down on the steps listening to her parents. Voiceover comes in: “I guess its natural for parents to cry on their kid's first day of school. But you know this usually happens when the kid is five. I'm 16 and until today i was home-schooled. I know what you're thinking. Home-schooled kids are freaks...” 
  3. Snarky montage of freaky homeschooled kids: Intense little girl wins spelling bee with xylocarp… 
  4. …“Or that we’re really religious or something…” Inbred hick kids talk about shooting homosexuals…
  5.  …But she explains that her family isn’t like that: They’ve been in Africa doing research. We see fun picture of the three of them hanging out with the animals there. 
  6.  Her parents drop her off at school, and she promises she’ll be fine, but then she almost gets run over by a bus.
  7. She walks across the lawn toward the front door, through a teeming crowd that’s fighting, burning a notebook and doing other vaguely scary things. 
  8.  She enters a classroom and mistakes a tall girl for the teacher. The girl threatens to kick her ass. Cady tries to sit next to her but a goth girl, Janis, and her gay friend, Damien, yell out that she shouldn’t, because the tall girl’s boyfriend is going to sit there. Sure enough, the boyfriend slips into the seat and immediately begins making out with the tall girl vigorously. Cady starts to go towards another seat, but Janis and Damien warn her not to sit there because the guy in the desk in front farts. The loser-ish guy shrugs in confirmation. Cady turn to find another desk, but runs into the teacher, causing the teacher to spill her coffee all over herself. Janis and Damien laugh and give a thumbs up. Cady apologizes. Teacher says that’s all right, tries to take off her sweater, but her T-shirt sticks to it and reveals her bra. The principal comes by and wonders what’s going on. The teacher realizes what’s happened and Cady helps her lower her t-shirt. The principal asks about the teacher summer. The teacher says she got divorced. Principal starts awkwardly hitting on her. Principal announces to class that they have a new student from Africa. Teacher welcomes the one black student, but she’s from Detroit. They realize that it’s Cady, who is awkwardly introduced.
  9. Back in the hall “The first day of school was a blur, a stressful, surreal blur. I got in trouble for the most random things. I’d never been in a world where adults didn’t trust me.” 
  10. Funny montage of her being yelled at by her teachers for petty things.
  11. She’s in the lunch room, looking for a place to sit. The Asians won’t let her sit there. The dudes are saying “It only counts if you see nipple,” so she doesn’t want to sit there. She greets the black kids with an African greeting and they take offense. 
  12. She eats her lunch alone in a bathroom stall as the credits end.
  13. She comes home and her parents ask her how her first day was. She just huffs in frustration and blows past them. 
  14. Day 2: She sits next to Janis and Damien. (Where did she sit yesterday? Shouldn’t this scene have come then?) Damien asks, “Is that your natural hair color. It’s gorgeous.” She says thanks. He yanks on her hair and holds it up to his, explaining to Janis that this is the color he wants. Janis explains to Cady that Damien is almost too gay to live. Cady asks where her health class is. They say that it’s in the annex and they’ll take her there…
  15. …But instead they take her out back behind the school to skip class. Cady talks to Damien: “I like math.” “Ew. Why?” “It’s the same in every country.” “Wow. That’s beautiful. This girl is deep!” They point out to Cady that she’s very attractive, which she hadn’t noticed. They explain to Cady about who the cliques are. They watch the attractive, mean girls known as “the plastics” led by a girl named Regina.
  16. As they re-enter, they talk about the big dance, which Damien is excited about but Janice hates. Janice draws Cady a map of the cafeteria: 
  17. We hear Janice narrate her map as Cady navigates the cafeteria. “Here this map is gonna be your guide to North Shore. Now where you sit in the cafeteria is crucial because you got everbody there: Freshmen, ROTC guys, Preps, JV Jocks, Asian nerds, Cool Asians, Varsity Jocks, Unfriendly black hotties, Girls who eat their feeling, Girls who don’t eat anything, Desperate wannabes, Burn outs, Sexually Active band geeks, The Greatest people you will ever meet (Janice and Damien), AND THE WORST BEWARE OF THE PLASTICS!” But as Cady enters, a guy tries to hit on her in front of the plastics. Regina ridicules him and sends him away, then invites Cady to join the table. She shoots an apologetic look over to Janis and Damien and sits with them. Regina interrogates her and decides to accept her as a fourth member.
  18.  After lunch, Cady meets with Janis and Damien in the girls bathroom and Janis proposes that Cady accept the invitation and spy on the plastics for them. Cady reluctantly accepts. 
  19. That afternoon, in math class, Cady develops a crush on a boy.
  20. The next day, her first as an official plastic, she figures out the percentage of calories from fat in Regina’s diet bar. When Regina gets up, Cady tells one of the girls about the boy she likes, but she’s warned that she can’t like him, because he used to go out with Regina.

(Incidentally, Lohan really does give a vulnerable-yet-charismatic star-making performance here. Who would have guessed that she’d be a punchline today, while co-stars McAdams, Seyfried and even Lizzy Caplan would all be going strong?  Ah well.) Tomorrow: the ultimate zero-to-hero tale...

The First 15 Minutes Project: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

High School Week begins! 
Welcome back to the 15 Minutes Project.  Both of my new projects contain high schoolers, so I thought I would look at some memorable high school intros all this week.

You’ll note that I’ve added some new categories, including “Expectations Managed”, and “Dramatic Question Posed” in keeping with recent posts.  Also, I’m trying to focus more on nailing down the “moment of humanity” (formerly called “when do we fall in love with the character”), though I find it’s still hard to identify, so let’s collect some more data and then parse it.
  1. Opening narration over graveyard imagery: “In every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, demons and forces of darkness…” 
  2. Cold Open: schoolgirl and football player break into school after hours to make out. She seems scared. He reassures her that they’re all alone. She says good, turns into a vampire, and kills him. 
  3. Buffy tosses and turns in bed, has a hallucinatory dream showing hordes of vampires attacking the school.
  4. Buffy wakes up in the morning, looking concerned. Mom calls out. “Buffy, don’t want to be late for your first day!”. Buffy rolls her eyes and sarcastically says “No, wouldn’t want that.” 
  5. Cut to school where there’s a lot of kids and loud music playing. 
  6. Mom drops her off for first day: “Think positive! And honey? Try not to get kicked out?” Buffy smiles and says “I promise.” They exchange a smile. Mom drives off. Buffy turns and looks at the school, intimidated.
  7. Trying to seem cool, Xander skateboards past everybody, asking them to scoot out of his way, but they ignore him. He sees Buffy and wipes out. Williow stumbles upon him on the ground. He’s glad to see her, but only so that she can help him out with the math. She suggests he get a book from the library. “I kinda had a problem with the math.” “Which part?” “The math.” She suggests he check out a book. “Check out?” “You know. From the library, where the books live.”
  8. They enter school and meet their friend, Jesse, who says that there’s a new girl. “So what do you know about her?” “What? New girl!” “You’re certainly a font of nothing.” 
  9. Buffy meets with the principal, who tears up her bad transcript and promises her a clean slate, but then he starts to read it (she burned down the gym), and begins to tape it back together. She starts to explain that the gym was full of vampires, but stops herself. The principal tries to be a nice guy but ends on a stern warning.
  10. Buffy comes out of his office, dazed. A girl bumps into her knocking her to the ground and sending her stuff sprawling. Xander sees and rushes over to help, says “Can I have you?”, then corrects himself to “Can I help you?” “I’m Buffy, I’m new.” He’s totally flustered: “Xander is me, hi. Maybe I’ll see you around at school, because we both go there.” She says “Nice to meet you and leaves. He sees she left something behind: a stake?
  11. Class with Buff and Cordelia in it. Buffy has no book and shares with Cordelia. Cordelia suggests she get her own in the library.
  12. In the hall, Cordelia finds out that Buffy has transferred from L.A. and says “I would kill to live in L.A.! That close to that many shoes??” She offers Buffy friendship, but then suddenly quizzes her to determine how cool she is: “Vamp nail police” “Over?” “SO over.” “James Spader?” “He NEEDS to call me.” “John Tesh?” “The devil.” “Okay, that was pretty much a gimme, but you passed.” Then they run into Willow, who Cordelia openly ridicules (“I see you’ve seen the softer side of Sears!”), making Buffy feel suddenly self-conscious. Willow flees the onslaught. Then Cordelia invites Buffy out to a club that night, and says she’ll find out everything about Buffy later. After she leaves, Buffy sarcastically says to herself, “Gee, that sounds like fun.”
  13. Buffy enters the library, looking for books. She meets Giles the librarian and tells him that she’s new. He knows her name instantly and offers a book on vampires. “That’s not what I’m looking for.” “You’re sure?” “Way sure.” Buffy flees.
  14. In the girls’ locker room, two girls talk about the new girl and the rumors that she’s lame. Just then one opens her locker and a dead body falls out. She screams. END OF ACT ONE. 
  15. ACT TWO: Willow takes out her sack lunch. Buffy walks up and introduces herself. “Willow, right?” Willow looks scared, “Why? I mean, hi. Did you want me to move?” “Why don’t we start with ‘Hi, I’m Buffy’ and then segue right into asking you for a favor. It doesn’t involve moving, but it does involve hanging out with me for a while.” “But aren’t you hanging out with Cordelia?” “Can’t I do both?” “Not legally.” “Look, Cordelia’s been really nice…to me, but I really want to pass my classes and I heard a rumor that you were the person to talk to if I wanted to get caught up.” Willow’s happy to hear it and wants to meet in the library, but Buffy freaks out at the mention of it. Just then Xander and Jesse join them. Buffy introduces them. Xander says that he and Buffy go way back, going into a rambling, self-deprecating monologue, which weirds Buffy out. She can only say, “Nice to meet you guys, I think.” Xander returns Buffy’s stake, which Buffy hastily lies about.
Tomorrow: Another heroine who transgresses the popular/geek divide, in the other direction...

The First 15 Minutes Project #12: Richard Boyle

Richard Boyle in Salvador

  1. Rapid-fire montage of newsreel-style footage of a massacre in El Salvador. Thriller music plays.
  2. A news report tells us about what’s going on in El Salvador.
  3. Boyle is woken up by three things: this news report, this baby crying, and the landlord knocking on the door. His baby’s mother cries and says she can’t live like this anymore.
  4. Later, using the payphone in the hall while others wait for the phone, Boyle begs various news agencies for a press pass to go drum up some news in El Salvador before it blows up. He brags about the various heroic newsgathering jobs he’s done in the past: the last American journalist out of Cambodia, etc. A friend is heading for the airport but agrees to loan him $500 if he can get there in time.
  5. Boyle speeds across San Francisco, gets pulled over. He has not license or registration and several tickets have gone to warrant. He’s arrested.
  6. In jail, Boyle is bailed out by his DJ friend Doctor Rock, who spends a lot to get Boyle and his car released, on the condition that Boyle take him to get his dog out of a pound.
  7. Boyle and Dr. Rock drive across town. They complain about yuppied women. Boyle prefers Latin women, who are kind and understanding. It turns out that they’ve both been kicked out and planned on crashing with the other. They complain about the yuppie cars on the road.
  8. They show up at the pound. They explain that they put Dr. Rock’s dog to sleep. “That was my only relationship! My best friend! Seven years! My marriage only lasted five!”
  9. They go to Boyle’s place. His wife has gone back to Italy to her parents, leaving only the TV and a dirty diaper in the crib. “It was a marriage made in hell. I sure am gonna miss my boy. (shrugs) Maybe she’ll be back.” Dr. Rock jokes: “Sure. Who could leave all this?”
  10. Back on the highway, Boyle suggests that they roadtrip down to Guatemala. “Why?” “Why not? No cops. No laws. Sun. It’s cheap. No yuppies. Great dope.” They toss an empty beer can on the highway.
  11. As they drive through Mexico: “Look at you. You’re a walking museum of the ‘60s.” “What the fuck are you?” “I am a forward thinking human being! I know about life because I explore things. Being a journalist, you’re in touch with reality.” “You come off with this journalist bullshit all the time. I haven’t seen one goddamn thing that you’ve written.” “I wrote a book” “That was ten years ago!”
  12. They enter El Salvador. “You said Guatemala! You never said anything about El Salvador! They kill people here, Boyle!” “You believe everything you read in the papers? You’ll love it! C’mon doc, this is my last chance, man. I’m serious, if I get some good combat shots for AP I can make some money. Pay you back!” “You’d better pay me back!” (Boyle is smoking a joint as he drive, Dr. Rock is washing down pills with alcohol.) “We could go to Los Libertas, best surfing beach in the world. You can drive drunk! Get anyone killed for 50 bucks!” “I don’t want to get anybody killed” “Where else can you get a virgin to sit on your face for seven bucks??” That finally convinces Dr. Rock to stay.
  13. They come across soldiers who have just killed some people. “Who are these clowns” “Traffic accident.” Then Rock sees a burning corpse on the side of the road. “Shit, Boyle!” The death squad realizes that Boyle is a journalist and takes them both into custody. They watch the soldiers kill somebody on the side of the road. Boyle insists that he’s friends with their boss and asks to be taken to him…

This is a classic example of triangulation: no matter how extreme a character is, you can always make him look moderate by putting him in the middle of a spectrum, in which he contrasts favorably with people who are even worse. In order to make Boyle’s reckless journalism seem acceptable, Stone contrasts him with journalists who play it way too safe. In order to get us to accept Boyle’s hedonism, Stone gives him a best friend who is even more reckless.

The First 15 Minutes Project #11: Tom Ripley

Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley

  1. Flashforward: Tom, looking distraught but handsome, staring blankly ahead, sits in a rolling boat cabin while the titles chop up his face. VO: “If I could just go back. If I could rub everything out, starting with myself. Starting with borrowing a jacket…”
  2. Flashback: a rooftop garden in NYC overlooking Central Park. Tom, looking much geekier, wears a crested Yale blazer, plays classical piano while a vocalist sings. Mr. Greenleaf comes over with his wife and asks if they knew his son at Yale. He says “How is Dickey?” They complain to him “Dickey’s idea of music is jazz.” They say good-bye: I’ll see you at the shipyard.
  3. He runs to return the jacket to the singer’s boyfriend, who has a broken wrist.
  4. Tom works in the bathroom in the basement of an opera building brushing dandruff off people’s shoulders for spare change, wearing a uniform.
  5. He sneaks a peek at the performance by peeking through the curtains of an opera box, but the box patron turns and scowls, so he closes the curtain.
  6. After the theater is closed, Tom plays the grand piano on the stage, but the electrician shuts off the lights. Tom apologizes.
  7. At Mr. Greenleaf’s shipyard, Mr. Greenleaf says “You’ve probably heard that Dickey’s been living in Italy. Mongibello. South of Naples. No kind of place at all. Marge his young lady is supposedly writing some kind of book. God know what he does. His talent is spending his allowance.” He offers to pay Tom a thousand dollars to go to Europe and reclaim Dickey.
  8. In his basement apartment, Tom learns jazz by blindfolding himself, pulling records off a pile and playing them until he can guess who’s singing each one. He listens to Chet Baker singing My Funny Valentine and says “I don’t even know if this is a man or a woman.” He hears domestic violence upstairs. He looks at a Yale yearbook he’s acquired and the picture of Dickey.
  9. He climbs up out of his apartment to the limo picking him up. Opens his ticket for the Cunard line.
  10. In Italy, he meets an heiress named Meredith who flirts with him in the customs line. He introduces himself as Dickey Greenleaf. “One of the shipping Greenleafs?” “Trying not to be”. She points out that his luggage was under R. He says he travels under his mother’s name. She says that so is she. She’s really a Loag. “Of the…” “Yes, the shipping Loags. We’re partners in disguise.” She’s pulled away.
  11. Tom arrives in Mongibello, a picturesque shipping town.
  12. Tom reads from an Italian phrase book while he watches Dickey and Marge with binoculars. They dive off their boat, named Bird and swim to the beach. While he looks at Dickey, he says “This is my face”, then checks the book and learns how to say that in Italian.
  13. He puts on day-glo swim trunks and runs past them into the sea, then walks back past them. He turns to them and says “Dickey Greenleaf. It’s Tom. Tom Ripley.” “Did we know each other?” “Well, I knew you, so you must have known me.” “Princeton’s like a fog. America’s like a fog.” Dickey introduces him to Marge. “You’re so white!” “It’s just an undercoat.” Marge gets the joke but Dickey doesn’t. Marge says you should come and have lunch with us, anytime. Tom leaves. Dickey repeats that he doesn’t remember him.
  14. Tom walks down the street, Dickey drives past him on his vespa, picks up a local on the street.
  15. Marge is in her backyard. Dickey shows up, apologizes for being late. Tells a lie about fishing. She says “We ate everything without you. Tom Ripley’s here.” Marge says “Tom was telling me about his journey over. Made me laugh so hard I almost got a nosebleed.” Dickey asks if Tom makes martinis. He hesitates. Marge says she’ll make them. Dickey says her martinis are great. Everybody should have one great talent. He asks what Tom’s is. Tom says “forging signatures, telling lies, impersonating practically anybody.” Dickey tells him to do an impression. Tom imitates Dickey’s father, which amazes Dickey. How do you know him? “I met him in New York.” “Could you ever conceive of going to Italy, Tom, and bringing him back?” Dickey is shocked.
  16. They walk through the street, pass a wedding, Dickey touches the cheep of the girl he was flirting with. Dickey says that he’ll never go back.

If Boyle in Salvador is the asshole-truth teller, then Ripley is the flip side: the sociopathic liar. Each character type has its appeal. There’s something very thrilling about watching a character juggle lies: Every other character is fooled but we in the audience see all and know all, making us the liar’s intimate co-conspirator. We can’t help but admire the liar’s dexterity, and we develop a gleeful anticipation every time it he has to wriggle out of another trap.
And yet, the audacious moment we admire most is when he dares to unexpectedly tell the truth: He suddenly admits to Tom the real reason that he’s there. They now feel the same intimacy we do: a liar has chosen to trust them, which is deeply flattering, at first...

The 15 Minutes Project #10: Dave Chappellet in Downhill Racer

Any hero can win our sympathy by saving cats, but what if the writer wants us to like a jerk? This week, we’ll try to figure out why we care about certain heroes, even through they’re jerks...

Dave Chappellet in Downhill Racer:
  1. Opening montage: ski lift cable, shots of snowy mountain, scared skiers above, anxious fans below. A cameraman who looks like a sniper. Tense action movie music kicks in.
  2. Coach Claire (Gene Hackman) waits halfway down the course with a stopwatch, looking intense…
  3. An American skier makes an amazing run down the mountain as the credits roll, but near the bottom, the skier wipes out spectacularly.
  4. Claire looks sick at the news. Helicopter comes in and takes the skier away.
  5. Claire sees his skier in the hospital, looks worried.
  6. Dave Chappellet (Robert Redford) arrives at a European airport, but there’s no one there to meet him. He clearly doesn’t understand Europe.
  7. Chappellet and another new recruit, D. K. take the train. Chappellet is awkward getting through the train with his skis. He roughly takes a sandwich and a drink from porter.
  8. They arrive outside his hostel. D. K. heads in immediately, but Chappellet pauses to look up at each mountain, takes a deep breath and smiles…
  9. Chappellet arrives at the front desk, where Claire is on the phone, arguing about a reservation. Claire sees Chappellet and D. K., says he’s glad they got together, but they haven’t, really. Guy goes over to shake the hand of the other skiers, ignores Chappellet. Claire finally shakes Chappellet’s hand but has no time for him.
  10. Chappellet checks into his room with D. K. He’s baffled by the bidet. D. K., trying to friendly, chuckles and asks, “You know what that is?” Chappellet sullenly lies, “Yeah,” and leaves.
  11. Chappellet gets in bed, asks where he knows the other skiers from. D. K. says “Dartmouth. I was one of the Olympic hopefuls. I was hopeful, not them.” Chappellet mutters “Dartmouth” to himself, in disgust.
  12. The next day, they all put their skis on the the van. The big guy introduces himself, “Chappelet, I’m Johnny Creach.” Chappellet responds, “Yeah, I know.”
  13. Claire and his assistant time the skiers. One goes through and the assistant says “Not bad”. Claire grunts, “Too much style” The assistant says “Who’s next, Chappellet?” Chappellet skis.
  14. Claire, shocked, asks what time his assistant has. The assistant says 28:08. Claire smiles, “That’s what I have.”
  15. The next day Claire hands out the bibs that tell the skiers what order they’re going to race. He gives Chappellet a starting number of 88, and apologizes that he’s so far back. Chappellet says that he’ll be in ruts up to his knees. “What’s the point of even racing?” “Same as always, try to win,” Claire says.
  16. Cut to back at the room, Chappellet refused to race. D. K. asks why, Chappellet explains that he was seeded too far back. D. K. says he should have raced. Chappellet expresses annoyance that he has to call him “D. K.” which sounds too preppy-ish for his tastes.
  17. They take a train to the next meet. Chappellet watches the press gather around the star and looks jealous.
  18. Everybody gets their bibs. Claire gives Chappellet a similar number and teases him about it.
  19. Chappellet races and does great. Claire is pleased, despite himself.

Chappellet is a surly jerk, a bad sport, and a guy who expects acclaim before he proves himself. We should hate him, but we don’t, entirely. Why? Americans are never supposed to mention class resentments, but we all feel them, so we certainly identify with that, as well as the universal feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. And it helps that he’s really quite handsome, of course. And that he keeps winning.

Don’t get me wrong: this is a daring movie that pushes our sympathy to its limits, and forces us to admit that what we actually admire doesn’t always match was we should admire. Still, it’s worth noting that the movie does use subtle tricks to ensure that we’ll feel some genuine sympathy.

The 15 Minutes Project #9: Jake Gittes in Chinatown

Actually, Jerk Week is next week, but here’s a one-day preview...

Jake Gittes in Chinatown
  1. Old fashioned art deco opening credits, muted trumpet plays...
  2. Working class husband looks at photos Gittes took of his wife having an affair. Gittes looks somewhat sympathetic, but eventually rolls his eyes: “Alright, Curly, enough’s enough. You can’t eat the Venetian blinds, I just had them installed on Wednesday.
  3. [Missing lines about how you can’t kill a guy unless you’re rich.]
  4. Meets the fake Mrs. Mulwray, who says her husband is having an affair. Gittes says, as deadpan as possible, “No. Really.” He insists that she’s better off not knowing.
  5. He asks her husband’s first name. “Hollis.” Gittes immediately responds, “Water and Power??” He tries more powerfully to get her to drop it, but she won’t.
  6. Gittes attends a hearing about a new dam, sees Hollis Mulwray speak: He explains that he signed off on a dam that gave way. He sees the same problem here, and he won’t okay it this time. Ranchers bring their sheep into the hall to complain about how their water was stolen, accuse Mulwray of stealing their water.
  7. Gittes watches Mulwray drive out into a dry riverbed and look around.
  8. He then watches Mulwray drive out to the ocean where a metal pipe is pointing off a cliff. Gittes climbs into the pipe to hide.
  9. After the sun sets, Gittes suddenly has to jump out of the pipe as water pours out!
  10. Gittes sees that Mulwray isn’t going anywhere, so he goes back to his car, finds a flyer under the windshield: Los Angeles is dying of thirst, vote Yes!
  11. He opens his glove compartment, revealing a dozen stopwatches. He sets one to the current time. He sets it behind a back wheel of Mulwray’s car and leaves.
  12. In the morning, his operative brings him the watch, smashed and frozen at the time Mulwray pulled away. The op explains that Mulwray was there all night. Then he followed Mulwray around all day, arguing with people about the dam. He hands Gittes a fixer tray where he’s just printed photos of Mulwray arguing with someone (John Huston).
  13. Gittes, nattily dressed as always, shakes the fixer chemicals off his hands in disgust. “This is what you spent your day doing?? Let me explain something to you, this job requires a certain finesse.” The other op calls: “I got it, he’s found himself some cutie. They’re in Echo Park.” Gittes hangs up: “Echo Park. Water again.”
  14. Gittes’s op rows him around the park’s lake. Mulwray rows by with a teenage girl in a pretty dress.
  15. Gittes climbs the roof of Gittes’s house and gets photos of the Mulwray and the girl: She tries on a dress for him and he kisses her gently. He slips and almost gets caught, but gets away…
  16. Unexpectedly, the photos are on the front page of the paper the next day. As Gittes gets shaved, the barber congratulates him for being so famous. A car overheats out on the street for lack of water. A mortgage banker in the next chair is disgusted at how Gittes makes his living. Gittes responds: “Listen, pal, I make an honest living. People only come to me when they’re in a desperate situation. I help ‘em out. I don’t kick families out of their houses like you bums down at the bank do!” The barber tries to distract him with a dirty joke about how the Chinese screw their wives.
  17. It apparently worked because Gittes comes back to his office and insists on telling the joke to his operatives. First he ushers his secretary to the restroom so she won’t hear it, then tells the dirty joke. His operatives, with embarrassment, point out that Faye Dunaway is standing behind him waiting for him. She reveals that she is the real Evelyn Mulwray.

  1. In re-watching this, I realized that Gittes isn’t actually that much of a jerk if you just look at his words and actions, but Nicholson chooses to play him with an apathetic sneer—a daring choice for an actor to make. (Actors usually try to make characters more appealing than they are on the page.)
  2. One thing that I’ve noticed in my own scripts is that it’s hard to write stalking scenes well. Spying on someone in real life is terrifying and tense, but onscreen it’s hard to capture that tension. To solve this problem, Towne keeps endangering Gittes. Gittes is in the pipe that the water comes out of. Later, he almost falls off the room while taking photos of Mulwray.
  3. This is one of those rare scripts where theme is more important than character. Few of these scenes move the character of Gittes forward, but they almost all move the theme forward. The theme revolves around a bad vs. bad dilemma: drought vs. stealing water. Every scene hits this theme hard, which is rare for a first act. Even the barbershop has a car running out of water outside.