Monday, March 26, 2012

Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities by tonyhall
Invisible Cities, a photo by tonyhall on Flickr.
Co-writer/director Wes Anderson and co-writer/actor Owen Wilson were still riding high from the critical acclaim of their 1996 debut film, Bottle Rocket, when they began their next project, 1998's Rushmore. It's here that Anderson and Wilson flourished after years of mentoring by legendary writer/director/producer James L. Brooks (who executive produced Bottle Rocket). The duo wrote a script that perfectly walks the fine line of tonality between witty comedy, physical comedy and, most importantly, believable drama. Many films strive to achieve such greatness; Rushmore pulled it off flawlessly. Upon further study of Anderson and Wilson's original script, it's clear that the biggest lesson they learned from Bottle Rocket was the fine-tuned editing necessary to pull off comedy. A look into their 9/11/97 draft shows more than a few places where jokes linger, or are followed up by too many weaker jokes that, if left intact, would have lessened the power of the prime jokes. Overall, the draft reads very closely to the finished film, save for a few exceptions.

On page 13 when Max Fischer walks next to Mr. Blume's moving car, they have a brief conversation that defines both Max's character and the important themes that continue throughout the film. After being asked by Blume, "What's the secret, Max?" Max replies, "You just have to find something you love to do and then keep doing it for the rest of your life. For me it's going to Rushmore." A moment later twins Ronny and Donny knock Max off-screen. Tonally the scene starts intimately and ends on a solid piece of physical comedy. Interestingly, there was a brief exchange before the scene's strongest moment that Anderson and Wilson bravely excised, even though it remains the best comedic dialogue lost from the film.


How's the concrete business?

Mr. Blume:

Oh, I don't know. By the time you hit 45 you've been fucked over so many times you don't really care anymore.


I'm sorry to hear that.

It's funny, but tonally ineffective. As written, the scene ran the emotional gamut from self-pity to intimate enthusiasm to physical comedy. During Anderson's recent interview with Creative Screenwriting about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou [Vol. 12, #1] he talked at length about continuing to battle tonal issues; this shows that his approach works best when limiting the shift to two tones for a scene.

Anderson and Wilson created a few rules of their own regarding physical humor, and they cut brief bits of snappy dialogue that interrupted comedic visuals. An example is the deleted dialogue when Mr. Blume reaches back to smack the twins and Ronny says, "Remember what Mom said. Hugs not hits." It's a cutesy line, but follows up a far funnier physical action. Dialogue like this appears in early drafts of many comedies where it's unclear how successful the physical comedy will play. For the sake of a fluid read a follow-up joke is usually thrown in for added effect. These often get cut closer to production, as was the case here, but the sooner writers can identify and eliminate these comedic crutches, the brighter the script's true humor will shine.

Like all writers, Anderson and Wilson occasionally had to trim the fat. In this next case, the trimming provided another laugh. During the finished film Max calls Mrs. Blume for a mysterious rooftop meeting regarding Mr. Blume and sirens drown out what Max says to her. Onscreen, the scene works because it's brief and codified; originally it included over a page and a half of expository and superfluous dialogue that Anderson and Wilson smartly cut, including this bit where Max explained the purpose of the meeting:


Your husband's banging a school teacher, pardon my French. I thought you should know.Silence.

Mrs. Blume:

Why are you telling me this? Are you trying to hurt Mr. Blume? Or are you trying to hurt me?


I have no reason to want to hurt you.

Mrs. Blume:

Then you're trying to hurt Herman.


That's correct.

Of course this is redundant because the next scene begins with a hotel clerk asking Mr. Blume how long he'll be staying, and Blume responds, "Indefinitely. I'm being sued for divorce." By cutting the fat, Anderson and Wilson increased the effect of a far superior joke, while simultaneously following the golden rule of comedy: brevity is the soul of wit.

Source Citation Goldsmith, Jeff. "Lost Scenes." Creative Screenwriting 12.2 (2005): 14. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism Select. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Mar. 2012.
Document URL

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100074342

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