Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Script Tease

One thing I forgot to mention in my post on The A-Team is that reading a script by Stephen J. Cannell is often more fun than seeing it onscreen. Cannell is one of those writers who knows that a movie or TV script has to read excitingly -- it's all that executives or actors have to go on before accepting it, after all. So his scripts are filled with entertaining stage directions that hype the action: "We are in the back of the laundry with Mr. Lee as he pulls off his skull cap and traditional dress and sure as shit, you guessed it! It’s Hannibal Smith again!" And unless the actor delivering Cannell's dialogue is really good -- e.g. James Garner in The Rockford Files -- the dialogue often seems snappier on the page than on the screen, as in this excerpt from the pilot script of The A-Team (which George Peppard kind of throws away in the pilot itself -- but then, when you're in a show with Mr. T, you're not going to be at your best in the occasional quiet scene...

AMY: And what about you, John ‘Hannibal’ Smith? Where do you come from?
HANNIBAL: Actually, I’m a rancher.
AMY: A rancher? As in rope ‘em an’ brand ‘em?
HANNIBAL: Got over two hundred acres and more head a’cow than people can drink milk. I mis ridin’ out t’the north forty on Sunday mornings... sitting on top of ol’ Topper, just lookin’ out across my spread. A place I call home.
Amy looks at him a beat, then the corner of her mouth curls.
AMY: You’re not a rancher. That’s all bull.
Hannibal looks at her and shrugs.
HANNIBAL (wistfully): It’s nice though.

It's often fun to look at a shooting script just to see what kind of stage directions the writer puts in; sometimes the stage directions are the writer's chance to sneak in little "personal" bits that no one will see, making up for the fact that the final dialogue and story might include contributions from many other people. To go up many artistic notches from The A-Team -- not that I'll hear a word against that show -- the screemplay of Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise, written by Broadway playwright Samson Raphaelson (The Jazz Singer, Accent on Youth), has the kind of "commentative" stage directions -- using similes to describe the action or describing the inner feelings of characters -- common in playscripts of the era:

Gaston reaches for his watch, discovers it is missing. He gives Lily a look of admiration and astonishment. Lily smiles triumphantly, opens her purse, lifts out the watch, hands it to him. He takes it with a bow.

LILY: It was five minutes slow, but I regulated it for you.

They bow to each other like two Chinese mandarins.

GASTON (tenderly): I hope you don't mind if I keep your garter.

Lily almost leaps out of her chair. She raises her skirt; her hand searches for the garter. It is missing. Gaston takes the garter out of his breast pocket, shows it to her, kisses it, puts it back, and buttons his coat. Lily is delighted. This is the highest compliment ever paid to her. She slides into his lap, embraces him.

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