July 23, 2015

Our New Film-Poem

Recently did this web-ad. I adapted the classic O. Henry story into a script and wrote the Hindi poem. My brother, Devanshu, directed it. Hope it adds a smile to your day! :)



June 11, 2015

Use of Moving Camera and Montage: Lessons from 'Cape Fear' (1991)

Sharing another video essay that I've created to understand how a director can use the power of moving camera and montage to add style to content. Hope you like it!


June 05, 2015

Cannes in Andheri 2015

The recently concluded Cannes film festival has brought tremendous joy to us with Neeraj Ghaywan's 'Masaan' winning two awards in the Un certain regard category. It is a matter of pride for us, and we hope that every year movies from India continue this trend of making noise at the big places. Their approval matters, not as a stamp of quality, but to increase the reach of our films. Their approval matters because it can only benefit our cinema. I have been optimistic about the future of our cinema, and the success of 'Masaan' at Cannes has come as a big boost.

Meanwhile, I had my own Cannes film festival. I watched some really good films as a part of this. And as always, I am so glad that I did it. Please find below the films that I screened for myself as a part of this year's edition of 'Cannes in Andheri' Film Festival:

  • OPENING FILM: Unagi (The Eel) (1997/ Japan) by Shohei Imamura: Palme d'Or winner. What gripping story! Keeps you expecting and gives you exactly something new. My festival got a great kick-start with this.
  • Timbuktu (2014/ Mauritania) by Abderrahmane Sissako: Won two awards (Francois Chalais Award and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury). Went on to earn an Oscar nomination, for Foreign-language film. Its stunning locales and exotic music was a delightful experience.
  • Lenny (1974/ USA) by Bob Fosse: Won Best Actress for Valerie Perrine. It eventually earned six Oscar nominations, but no wins. I liked it in parts. But added an interesting variety to the festival.
  • Harakiri (1962/ Japan) by Masaki Kobayashi: Won Special Jury Prize. It took time and I was getting irritated by its structure of flashbacks. But by the time it ended, it had won me over! A real classic!
  • Fish Tank (2009/ UK) by Andrea Arnold: Won Jury Prize. Rewatch for me, after five years. I remember being pleasantly surprised by this little movie at my first Mumbai Film Festival. It can be called the 'Short Term 12' of UK! Only it came earlier.
  • Il Divo (2008/ Italy) by Paolo Sorrentino: Won Jury Prize as well as Vulcain Prizes for cinematography and sound mixing. Went on to earn an Oscar nomination, for Make-Up. I did not particularly enjoy the film, except for its real-life connection.
  • Mulholland Dr. (2001/ USA) by David Lynch: Won Best Director. Went on to earn the Oscar nomination for Best Director. Rewatch after eight years. Was still so engrossing! However, since over these years I have come to go more for heart than mind, its impact was much lesser.
  • The Barbarian Invasions (2003/ Canada) by Denys Arcand: Won Best Screenplay as well as Best Actress for Marie-Josee Croze. Went on to win the Oscar for best foreign-language film. One of those films that makes you laugh and cry, effortlessly. Beautiful, and sweet. And real fun.
  • The Ice Storm (1997/ USA) by Ang Lee: Won Best Screenplay. One of those films about dysfunctional American families and their parallel tracks. Had I watched it before 'American Beauty' and others, it would have worked better for me.
  • Like Father, Like Son (2013/ Japan) by Hirokazu Koreeda: Won Jury Prize as well as Special Mention by Ecumenical Jury. Perhaps my favourite of this line-up. What universal, timeless story! And very moving. A delightful experience!
  • Force Majeure (2014/ Sweden) by Ruben Ostlund: Won Un Certain Regard Jury Prize. Went on to earn a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign-language film. I really, really liked the film. I should re-watch it, especially for its understated but sure-footed writing. I was very impressed.
  • Leviathan (2014/ Russia) by Andrey Zvyagintsev: Won Best Screenplay. Later won the Golden Globe for the best foreign-language film, apart from an Oscar nomination in the same category. Woked well for me. But the insistence on a message was slightly disappointing. I would prefer Force Majeure over this.
  • CLOSING FILM: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015/ Australia-USA) by George Miller. I went to watch it at PVR Phoenix, so not exactly in Andheri. But what an experience! Have we ever seen a movie like this? I hope to watch it again, very soon. And this time at IMAX.

May 23, 2015

Staging and Blocking Multiple Characters: Lessons from 'About Elly' (2009)

Telling stories through cinema broadly involve two tools that specific to this medium: the Shot and the Cut. What all to keep in a shot, how to compose it, what kind of lens to use, how to coordinate actors' movements and performances, and how long to stay in the shot is what constitutes, briefly, the mise en scene. When to cut the shot, and how to use successive shots to create the desired impact is what constitues montage. A director is expected to have understanding and skill of using both and one major job that is included in these two is the staging and blocking of actors.

Using movement of characters and the camera is a priceless tool to tell your story on film. But it is also a very challenging task, especially when there are multiple characters in every frame. Studying the works of master film-makers can help us tremendously in taking the first steps toward this.

I have just created a 9-minute video essay, which is a brief study of Asghar Farhadi's craft through his film 'About Elly' (2009). Watching it over and over again can make us learn some basics of staging and blocking and inspire us to get ambitious with our own storytelling.

May 11, 2015

The Curious Case of a Movie Director

Years ago, while discussing a favorite new movie with my college-friends, one particular remark always left me slightly uncomfortable. It was not uncommon to hear from them that the film was very well-directed. To my young aspiring film-maker mind, such casual mention of the profession of my dreams was sacrilege. “What do they know about directing?” I wondered within.

As laymen, there are not many professions we so critically remark about. Visiting an amusement park does not make us wonder about the architect’s skill. An electronic good does not make us critical of the engineering that has given the product its merits or flaws. Cinema and cricket seem to be the only professions in our country where almost everyone has a critical reaction. But then, these two are also our people’s favorite passions. So, we cannot really blame them!

Anyway, so I just wrote an article for this online magazine on leadership. And tried to share whatever I have come to realize to be the job of a director. You can read the article by clicking HERE.

April 16, 2015

Top Filmmakers at Cannes 2015



A few hours ago, Cannes Film Festival announced its official selection. Let us have a look at the ten most high-profile film-makers whose films will premiere this year at the most reputed film festival on the globe.

OFFICIAL COMPETITION
  • Jacques Audiard (62-year old French film-maker): With his latest, 'Dheepan', Audiard has earned his fourth Palme d'Or nomination, after 'A Self-Made Hero' (won Best Screenplay at Cannes 1996), 'A Prophet' (won Grand Prix at Cannes 2009) and 'Rust and Bone' (2012).
  • Matteo Garrone (46-year old Italian film-maker): He has been nominated for Palme d'Or for the third time with 'The Tale of Tales' that stars Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel and John C. Reilly. His first two nominations have both won him Grand Prix, 'Gomorrah' (2008) and 'Reality' (2012)
  • Hsiao-Hsien Hou (68-year old Taiwanese film-maker): This is his seventh Palme d'Or nomination. The Jury Prize he won for 'The Puppetmaster' (1993) is the only award this Cannes regular has won so far. Can his latest martial arts film, 'The Assassin', achieve the feat that 'Flowers of Shanghai' (1998) and others could not?
  • Hirokazu Koreeda (52-year old Japanese film-maker): Following the success of 'Like Father, Like Son' (2013), for which he won the Jury Prize, Koreeda is back with his fourth Palme d'Or nomination in 'Our Little Sister'.
  • Nanni Moretti (61-year old Italian film-maker): His latest, 'Mia Madre', has earned him his seventh Palme d'Or nomination. He has already won the top award once for 'The Son's Room' (2001) and Best Director prize for 'Caro diario' (1994).
  • Gus Van Sant (62-year old American film-maker): 'The Sea of Trees' starring Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts and Ken Watanabe is his fourth Palme d'Or nomination. He has already won the top prize once for 'Elephant' (2003).
  • Paolo Sorrentino (44-year old Italian film-maker): 'The Early Years' aka 'Youth' is Sorrentino's eighth feature film, and his seventh Palme d'Or nomination. Well, this is some record. He has won awards for 'Il Divo' (2008) and 'This Must be the Place' (2011).
  • Jia Zhangke (45-year old Chinese film-maker): His last film 'A Touch of Sin' had won the Screenplay award at Cannes. His latest, 'Mountains May Depart' is his fourth Palme d'Or nomination.
Other prominent names nominated for the top prize are Todd Haynes ('I'm Not There.' (2007)), Yorgos Lanthimos ('Dogtooth' (2009)), and Denis Villeneuve ('Incendies' (2010)). 


UN CERTAIN REGARD
  • Naomi Kawase (45-year old Japanese film-maker): Her first film won her the Camera d'Or in 1997 for 'Suzaku'. Since then she has earned four more Palme d'Or nominations, including a Jury Grand Prix in 2007 for 'The Mourning Forest'. Her latest, 'Sweet Red Bean Paste' will open the Un Certain Regard section this year.
  • Kiyoshi Kurosawa (59-year old Japanese film-maker): One of the biggest name in Un Certain Regard category, his latest is titled 'Journey to the Shore'. His earlier nominations in this category, 'Seance' (2000) and 'Tokyo Sonata' (2008) have both won him awards. He has been nominated for Palme d'Or once for 'Bright Future' (2003)
  • Apichatpong Weerasethakul (44-year old Thai film-maker): Three of his films have won awards at Cannes, including a Palme d'Or in 2010. This time he will be competing in the Un Certain Regard category with his latest, 'Love in Khon Kaen'.
The Un Certain Regard category also features Corneliu Porumboiu, who won Camera d'Or in 2006. Two Indian film-makers, Neeraj Ghaywan and Gurvinder Singh will be in competition with him.


OTHER CATEGORIES
  • Woody Allen (79-year old American film-maker): The veteran with close to 50 films as director has struggled to have a great impact on the major festivals, including Cannes. He has won only one award at Cannes so far, for 'The Purple Rose of Cairo' (1985). This time too, his film 'Irrational Man' is to be screened out of competition. 
  • Arnaud Desplechin (54-year old French film-maker): He has made seven feature films before his latest work and five out of those have earned Palme d'Or nominations. His eighth film, 'My Golden Years' will screen out of competition as a part of Directors' Fortnight.
  • Philippe Garrel (67-year old French film-maker): Despite being from France, Garrel is a Venice favourite, with six Golden Lion nominations and two Silver Lion wins. Only one of his previous films ('Frontier of the Dawn') have earned a Palme d'Or nomination. His latest, 'In the Shadow of Women' will also play out of competition as the inaugural film of 'Directors' Fortnight' sidebar.
  • Takashi Miike (54-year old Japanese film-maker): For someone who has directed close to a hundred films, just two Palme d'Or nominations must look like a dismal record! His latest underworld war epic will be screened out-of-competition.
Jaco Van Dormael, the Belgian film-maker and Camera d'Or winner of 1991 will present his latest, 'The Brand New Testament' in Directors' Fortnight section. Gaspar Noe's latest, 'Love', will have a midnight screening. The festival will also hold out-of-competition screenings of George Miller's latest 'Mad Max' movie and Natalie Portman's directorial debut 'A Tale of Love and Darkness'.

April 09, 2015

Epilogue: Of Vulnerabilities and Virtues

What a journey it has been, to complete this in-depth study of this brilliant screenplay! It has given me a tremendous sense of fulfillment, as this is the first script I have studied in such minute detail. But more that that, this study has humbled me, and has made me wonder once again at the power of the moving pictures.

There is one point I always make during my introductory lecture at a writing workshop. We all will agree that the screenplay of a great film is as rich and layered as a good novel, and is as true and relevant as the stories from real life. What most of us do not realize is that the amount of written word a screenplay uses to create this involving, enriching story-experience is much, much less than that of novels. A typical screenplay is less than 120 pages long, and each page has more blank space than letters and words. If you formatted a screenplay like a novel, it would not take more than 50 pages. To still achieve what great movies do is not only among the most supreme achievements of writing, it is a wonder how they do it. ‘Casablanca’ is and will always remain a prototype of what screenwriting can achieve.

It must be mentioned here that the script of ‘Casablanca’ was only half completed when the shoot began. The writing continued as they shot. In fact during the last days of production, scenes were written on the morning they were being shot. It might give us a wrong idea that this is how it can be done. If this unorganized, ad hoc writing could produce a movie of this stature, we could easily create half-decent movies with similar approach. We must realize that the screenplay was based on a play, and hence the story was very much in place when they started shooting. The bottom-line of this discussion is – go ahead if you do not have the patience to complete the dialogue draft and start shooting, but in your head, and in the heads of all cast and crew, the story must be extremely clear. And that story should be as powerful, rich, and emotionally involving as this. As someone rightly remarked, and I cannot agree more, that the most important thing for a film is not the script, but the story.

And what a brilliant story ‘Casablanca’ is. Using a unique, but now dated setting, it works even today because it is based on certain archetypes. It is the story of love and loss, of trust and betrayal, of loyalty and courage, and thus it is and will always remain relatable for all of us. But more than anything, it is the story of human vulnerabilities, against our most intimate emotions as well as the brutal force around us. And it is the story of winning over those vulnerabilities, with the help of our virtues, the inherent goodness and strength deep within us. We love our characters in this film because they are as vulnerable as we are, and we admire them because they are as virtuous as we should be. And then, we really, really want to listen to this story, and we want to know what happens in the end.

Despite adopting a classical three-act structure, this script breaks some conventions, and breaks them really well. With an extremely long set-up, and a very late arriving main plot, the film’s first act consumes forty per cent of it. This is not only unusual, I would go on to say that it is not advisable. But then, if this is the structure you want to adopt, the screenplay teaches you how to do it. A MacGuffin introduced in the first page, using extremely involving sub-plots to create the illusion of main plot, creating some unforgettable cinematic characters, including those with small parts, and giving them some of the best lines ever heard on film, the script keeps you involved and guessing. It plays with your expectations, constantly, and it delays exposition teasingly. The exposition also works because of a very solid back-story, believable and very relatable. In fact, it is a wonder how the emotional depth of the back-story, that actually becomes the emotional spine of the film, has been conveyed to us so magically. During my latest re-watch of the film, I was crying and smiling, as if it were my own story. I believe that this emotional resonance the film manages to achieve has also to do with how it controls it rhythm. It slows down at the right moments, to let us anticipate, feel, think, and come closer to the emotional space of our characters, so that when it picks up, we are not thinking any more, but reacting emotionally, and urgently to whatever they are doing on screen.

The aural ambience of the film is almost unparalleled. It does not have the irreverence of a Tarantino, nor the incision of an Allen. And yet it is a classical example of how film dialogue should be – attractive, pleasing at different levels, and most importantly, true to each character. And then there are image systems, as discussed under the heading “themes” in the ten preceding posts of mine. Since it is based on a play, there is a lot to hear, but there also is a lot to see, and it goes beyond the charismatic insouciance of Bogart or the endearing beauty of Bergman.

And then, the ending! “Wow them in the end!” – advises Robert McKee’s character in ‘Adaptation’, the film where he claims ‘Casablanca’ to be the best screenplay ever written. I’m grateful to McKee for leading me to this detailed study of this script and also for giving this mantra. I’ll always keep in mind the climax of this film as an example of a “wow finish”, something that Rick himself had seeded around mid-point.
A brilliant love story, an extremely engaging and powerful political drama, with elements of urbane comedy and a musical, it is rich and varied. It is driven by characters who will shine forever, and remind us of what being human is, or can be. For its sheer brilliance, and timeless appeal, I most humbly recommend ‘Casablanca’ as a must-watch-before-you die (#44), before I formally conclude this study of its screenplay. Informally, studying and learning from it will continue, for as long as I live. I am pretty certain of that.

April 08, 2015

#10: New Beginnings

In this ten-part series I study the screenplay of ‘Casablanca’ by breaking it down to its several aspects. Click here and read from down upward for the entire series.

“It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”

Story Covered in this final part: Ilsa rushes to Rick to confirm that Laszlo is leaving and she is staying back with Rick. Rick reassures her. Laszlo believes Rick has arranged for Ilsa to leave with him and is thankful to Rick. Rick hands him the letters of transit without accepting any money in return. At that moment, Renault appears to arrest Laszlo. But his smile fades as he finds Rick pointing a gun at him. Rick makes Renault call the airport to ensure no problems ahead. But, actually, Renault has called Major Strasser who immediately leaves for the airport. Rick and others reach there. Once Laszlo goes to take care of the luggage Rick makes Renault fill in the names of Laszlo and Ilsa on the letters. To their surprise, Rick reveals to Ilsa that she is going to leave with Laszlo. Despite Ilsa’s protests, he convinces her, that this is the right thing to do, that Laszlo will need her, and more importantly, Rick too is going to enter the war. When Laszlo returns he informs him about Ilsa’s attempt to get the letters from him last night and that he does not believe she really loves him. Laszlo thanks Rick, and welcomes him back to the fight. He leaves with a teary-eyed Ilsa. Strasser reaches just when the flight is about to take off. Rick shoots him dead. Renault helps Rick escape arrest and as the plane takes off Renault earns his sense of patriotism. He and Rick are soon going to disappear from Casablanca and join the war.

Step Outline:
  • Pg 115-117: At Rick’s. Scene between Rick and Ilsa and Laszlo. And Renault.
  • Pg 118: Strasser has received Renaults call. He leaves for the airport.
  • Pg 119-126: The climax at the airport. (With one brief intercut on pg 122 to show Strasser driving to the airport.)
        Structure: The rhythm and the pace of the events in this section are dramatically and emotionally so involving that we hardly have time to breathe. The classical design of the Climax comes into play that plays on reversal of expectations, using cinematic tools (see below), and an end that brings satisfying emotional resolution to not only the main plot, but all sub-plots.

The Character arc:
  • Rick completely drives the climax, with his presence of mind, wisdom, and courage. By doing everything right, he has fulfilled our emotional investment in him.
  • Ilsa completely surrenders to Rick’s command. Despite the pain, and the knowledge that she may never see him again, she understands what he has decided is the best for all of them. Their love story will stay unfulfilled, but Rick has successfully brought to it purity and pride.
  • Laszlo continues to impress us with his understanding. Not only he implies that he understands the sacrifice Rick and Ilsa are making for the greater cause, he also makes sure to ask Ilsa if she is ready to join him on the plane. He also admires Rick’s entry into the War.
Sub-plots: Apart from the resolution of the incredibly beautiful love story between Rick and Ilsa, that was the main plot of the film, the following subplots are resolved as well.
  • Laszlo's escape brings a satisfying end to the political drama
  • Rick is back in the fight
  • Renault’s sense of patriotism is back. Despite trying his best to prevent Laszlo from escaping until the last minute, Rick’s sacrifice makes sure that Renault finally gives up his selfish and corrupt ways.
  • Renault always had a soft-corner for Rick. It resolves when he helps Rick after he kills Strasser. We are not sure how much Rick will trust him, but for a while they are going to be together. The famous line that closes the film assures us of that, when Rick says, walking away: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
  • Strasser dies. If there is one character who deserved to die, it is he, the one who is most brutal, and the one who signifies the Nazis.
Tools Employed:
  • Reversing Expectation: Since we are not aware of Rick’s plans, and he manages to create wrong expectations in all of us, including the characters on screen, what he eventually ends up doing is an extraordinarily pleasing surprise.
  • Surprise: When forced to call the airport by Rick, Renault makes the call. But as the scene ends we cut to the other end of the phone call and are surprised to find it was Strasser whom Renault had called, thus informing him about the escape plan.
  • Time-lock and Rising Tension: And thanks to that phone call, the tension in the film rises like never before. There are several films where all characters converge at one place at the climax, but not many films manage tension so effortlessly and effectively. Also, as soon as we cut to location of the climax, the airport, an Orderly makes a call informing us that the Lisbon flight is leaving in ten minutes, thus creating a time-lock and enhancing the sense of tension.
  • Cinematically stunning climax: Apart from closing on great emotional and dramatic high, the climax also works cinematically, visually. One, heavy fog surrounds the airport. Two, the energy of the moment and intercutting with Strasser driving to the airport gives it a formal urgency.
Themes:
  • One big theme of the film has been the struggle between the personal and the political. Rick’s passion has turned this patriotic and compassionate man into a recluse. Renault’s premature line “Love, it seems, has triumphed over virtue” further confirms this struggle. And in the final lines spoken by Rick to convince Ilsa, the personal desires and the political virtues meet, merging into each other, losing something for the greater good. What powerful lines: “Inside of us we both know you belong to Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it… May be not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life… We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we’d lost it, until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”
  • Also, Rick’s entry into the War signifies more than just personal. Remember, the setting of the movie is December 1941, precisely when America entered the war. Hence, Rick’s personification of the USA is complete here.
  • Rick’s killing of Strasser foreshadows Germany’s defeat in the War some years after the film’s release.
Standout scene: The final scene at the airport, for obvious reasons.

April 07, 2015

#9: Hero's Call

In this ten-part series I study the screenplay of ‘Casablanca’ by breaking it down to its several aspects. Click here and read from down upward for the entire series.

“Each of us has a destiny, for good or for evil.”

Story Covered in Part 9: Ilsa shares with Rick the complete truth regarding the past. She was really in love with him during their days in Paris when she believed Laszlo to be dead. She did not share with Rick that she was a widow to ensure their safety as Laszlo was an important man. Just before they were to leave Paris, she got the news of Laszlo’s return. She now requests Rick to help Laszlo escape. Rick does not want to lose Ilsa again. She leaves the decision on him. He must decide for both of them. They are interrupted by the arrival of Carl and Laszlo, escaping the police. Rick makes Carl take Ilsa to her hotel room without letting Laszlo know about it. Rick then has another conflicted moment with Laszlo when he gets to know how much Laszlo loves her. He wants Rick to take her away to ensure her safety. A French Officer arrives at this point and arrests Laszlo. Next morning, Rick goes to Renault and reveals that he is about to leave Casablanca with Ilsa. He convinces Renault to frame Laszlo in a better way, so that they have bigger charge against him. The plan is that Rick will arrange for Laszlo to pick up the letters of transit from him, and precisely then Renault will arrest Laszlo. Gaining Renault’s trust Rick goes to meet Laszlo in the lock-up. He then goes to Ferrari and sells his café to him. That night, Renault reaches Rick’s and they wait. Laszlo arrives with Ilsa.

Step Outline:
  • Pg 103-104: Ilsa reveals the complete truth to Rick.
  • Pg 105-106: Carl is back with Laszlo. Rick makes Ilsa leave with Carl.
  • Pg 107-108: Laszlo requests Rick to take Ilsa away, to safety. Laszlo is arrested.
  • Pg 109-111: Rick meets Renault next morning and convinces him of his plan.
  • Pg 112: Rick sells his café to Ferrari
  • Pg 113-114: Rick and Renault wait at Rick’s. Ilsa and Laszlo arrive.
Structure: The slowed rhythm of the seventh part does not affect the film at all. In fact, by taking us away from the main plot during that segment, the writers prepared us for the very thick eighth and ninth parts. The Second Act ends on a high after both Ilsa and Laszlo leave the decision on Rick, and it seems he has made the decision by the time Laszlo is arrested. From page 109, the Final Act begins. Notice that after spending the entire film not knowing the complete truth, Rick is now the only person who knows what is going to happen. The hero has taken over. No other character, and neither the audience knows what he is going to do. There is a plan he has shared with Renault but as the ending will reveal, he is closely guarding his cards. Also, the rhythm of the scenes has prepared us for an exciting climax, emotionally and dramatically.

The Character arc:
  • Rick: Since Ilsa has left the decision on him, and now we know that Rick and Ilsa really want to be with each other, his apparent decision of going away with Ilsa looks kind of fulfilling. But then the film is more than Rick’s desire to have Ilsa. And hence we hope he does something more than that. All our expectations ride on him, our hero. Also, his kindness is further affirmed when he ensures the security of his employees as he sells his café to Ferrari. And, as the final segment will reveal, the sharpness of Rick’s mind is more than impressive, as evident from how he sets up the end as per his own wish.
  • Ilsa: Our expectation is fulfilled. She is a nice woman, in every way. The revelation of truth is extremely fulfilling. And then she surrenders herself to Rick, leaving him to decide for both of them. We love her more than ever. We care for her more than ever.
  • Laszlo: His love for Ilsa is more than we could imagine. He surprises Rick by requesting him to take Ilsa to safety, knowing very well that Rick loves Ilsa. “Apparently you think of me only as the leader of the cause. Well, I am also a human being.” These lines by Laszlo create a more rounded character of Laszlo for us than before, more tender, more relatable.
  • Captain Renault: We were always aware of his soft corner and admiration for Rick. Hence when Rick convinces him so easily, it does not come as a surprise.
Sub-plots: Ferrari’s sub-plot comes to a close, as he gets what he wanted since the very beginning – the ownership of Rick’s Café. Also, with this, all employees at the café get their sub-plots closed, whether they like it or not. Sam, Carl, Sacha and Abdul – all will stay at Rick’s under Ferrari. Rick has ensured their continued employment and has, we assume, raised Sam’s share in the profits from ten to twenty-five per cent – thus closing this sub-lot in somewhat fulfilling manner.

Tools Employed:
  • Control on the rhythm of the screenplay, as mentioned in the structure above.
  • Rising Tension: as mentioned above
  • Use Character Motivation for Plotting: Both Ilsa and Laszlo leave it on Rick to take the final call. With Rick acquiring all the power, all possibilities of the film’s ending are alive, despite ninety per cent of the film being over.
  • Keep the Protagonist Ahead of the Audience: Rick’s entire plan, as revealed since page 109 is, as we realize in the last part, untrue. He has something else in the mind. Also, since his plan involves Laszlo coming to him for the letters of transit, we will never be able to predict the end.
  • Surprise: When Rick reveals to Renault that he has decided to leave Casablanca it comes as a surprise, despite the last night’s events clearly leading us to believe that.
  • Tie the ends logically: Reading Rick’s scene with Renault is a pleasure. Rick has made a fool-proof plan that serves various purposes. It convinces Renault and us of something, while making sure that something exactly different takes place in the end. The writers have not left any room for logical errors. These final lines of this scene prove how much of thinking has gone into it, by Rick, and effectively by the writers: “And by the way, call off your watchdogs when you let him (Laszlo) go. I don’t want them around this afternoon. I’m taking no chances, Louis, not even with you.”
  • Ellipsis: After his conversation with Renault, Rick goes to talk to Laszlo in the lock-up. But we never get to see that scene. It is because we really do not need to see that.
  • Use Conflicted Dialogue to Make the Character’s Internal World Available to the Audience: Thanks to a wonderfully conflicted scene, Laszlo’s lines to Rick sum up the hero’s state of mind, both personal and political. The lines are: “You know how you sound Monsieur Baline? Like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart.”
Standout scene: Ilsa’s revelation of the complete truth to Rick is satisfying at many levels. Craft-wise it works so well because of two reasons: the delayed exposition and fulfilling character-reveal that has made us love all three of them now – Rick, Ilsa, and Laszlo.

What is the audience expecting: The scene with Ferrari further confirms that Rick is leaving. So we do not have any doubts about his intentions. But we are still waiting to be surprised. To be honest, the energy of this segment is dramatically so powerful that we do not have the time to think. We are so damn curious to know the end.

April 06, 2015

#8: The Flame Stays Alive

In this ten-part series I study the screenplay of ‘Casablanca’ by breaking it down to its several aspects. Click here and read from down upward for the entire series.

“I wouldn’t bring up Paris if I were you. It’s poor salesmanship.”

Story: Laszlo offers to buy the letters of transit from Rick but Rick blatantly refuses. He suggests Laszlo ask his wife the reason behind this. As Laszlo steps out of his office, he hears some Germans singing a popular anthem. He arouses others to sing the French National Anthem that drowns the Germans. Ilsa is filled with pride seeing Laszlo do this and Strasser is worried. He orders Renault to the get the café shut. As Renault implements the orders, against Rick’s protests, Strasser walks to Ilsa and threatens her. He says that unless Laszlo returns to occupied France, he will either be sent to a concentration camp or murdered. Ilsa and Laszlo leave the café and reach their hotel room. He asks Ilsa about Rick. Before she could say anything, he gently implies that he understands something must have happened between them in Paris when he was in a concentration camp. He still trusts her and loves her and needs no explanation. He then rushes to attend the underground meeting. Rick knows that his café will be shut for the next few weeks, but he still wants to keep the employees on salary. When he reaches his room, he finds Ilsa waiting there. She tries to convince him to get the letters, but he would not budge. She then points a gun at him. When he provokes her to shoot, she cannot. She confesses how much she still loved him. He takes her in his arms and they kiss passionately.

Step Outline:
  • Pg 89: Rick’s staff and Renault discuss with him about the generosity he just displayed.
  • Pg 90-91: Laszlo tries to get the letters from Rick but fails.
  • Pg 92-95: The battle between the anthems. Renault gets the Café shut. Strasser threatens Ilsa.
  • Pg 96-98: Laszlo and Ilsa talk about Rick in their hotel room before Laszlo leaves for the underground meeting.
  • Pg 99: Rick informs Carl that the employees will remain on payroll despite the café being shut. Carl leaves for the underground meeting.
  • Pg 100-102: Rick finds Ilsa in his room. And the conversation that follows.
Structure: After the brakes on the narrative in the seventh part, this eighth part focuses only on the main plot and takes it significantly ahead. The entire political situation has now zeroed down to the triangular relationship of Rick, Ilsa and Laszlo. And at this point we empathize with each one of them. Strasser’s threat to Ilsa, and Rick’s refusal to help Laszlo has forced Ilsa to drive the narrative on her own shoulders. Screenwriting books keep talking about ‘Rising Tension’ and ‘Thickening of Action’. This segment is a great example of that, apart from a masterful command over the rhythm.

The Character arc:
  • Rick: Our admiration for him as a person keeps growing. He is there for everyone who needs him. As Renault says, he is a sentimentalist at heart, a good-natures one. And it’s ironical that this guy blatantly refuses to help Laszlo. Why? Because of the passions involved, the matters of the heart. This irony in his character is wonderful. Subconsciously we also want him to overcome this conflict. Also, notice that when Carl tries to tell him that he is going to attend the underground meeting, Rick asks Carl not to tell him anything. He is rational, and careful.
  • Ilsa: We admire her so much now, for the way she is proud for her husband and cares for him, for how devoted she is to him, and for her courage and determination to go to Rick with a revolver for her husband. And then we see how vulnerable she is when it comes to Rick. She is still in love with him. Has always been.
  • Laszlo: And we admire this man as well. More than ever. He so strongly believes in his cause. He so easily manages to lead the sentiments of his people while making them sing their anthem. He confesses to his wife that he is scared, but still goes to attend the underground meeting at night, because he wants to do all that he can. But most importantly, he surprises us with his understanding of the situation between his wife and Rick. For this kind, brave and understanding man, his cause is so important that anything else cannot matter much.
Sub-plots: Yvonne’s sub-plot goes through a very understated but beautiful resolution. With her patriotism aroused, it seems she will not allow German officers to woo her, at least for now.

Tools Employed:
  • Cause and Effect: Read this wonderful pattern of causality. German anthem – Laszlo provokes his men to sing the French anthem – Strasser witnesses this – asks Renault to get the café shut (this shutting down will contribute to Rick’s decision in the climax) and threatens Ilsa – she gets to know about Rick’s refusal to Laszlo – she goes to meet Rick.
  • Rising Tension and Thickening of Action: As mentioned above
  • Let the characters drive the plot: Just observe the actions and decisions of all the characters in this segment and see how the plot is being totally driven by them and not by chance.
  • Add a sense of urgency to make conversational scenes more interesting: The presence of the stalker below Laszo's hotel window and his need to leave for the underground meeting soon creates a sense of urgency in which he and Ilsa talk about Rick. Thus adding such a powerful dramatic tension to it.
  • Tease the audience and let them anticipate: While leaving the café Ilsa asks Laszlo what happened with Rick. “We’ll discuss it later” comes the reply. We stay with them, and they talk about other things before they come to Rick’s suggestion that Laszlo should ask his wife. This delay has teased us and forced us to anticipate some great drama between Laszlo and Ilsa.
  • Reverse Expectations: There is no high-tension drama over Rick between Ilsa and Laszlo. He is so understanding that it surprises us. The scene actually gives us more than we could have imagined. And it also underlines that for Laszlo, the cause is more important than anything else.
  • Foreshadowing: By showing that Carl is leaving for the underground meeting as well, the writers have made sure that in the next part when Carl returns with Laszlo while Rick is talking to Ilsa does not look forced or chance-driven.
  • Time Lapse: Carl leaves for the meeting. Rick goes upstairs to find Ilsa. They talk. Carl and Laszlo return, escaping the police. In order to logically give Carl sufficient time for this, there is a time-transition in the middle of Rick's scene with Ilsa.
Themes: With “Wacht am Rhein” (a popular German anthem) and the “Marseillaise” (French National Anthem) battling out in this part, the political theme of the film gets dramatically colorful. Also, we are reminded yet again that Casablanca is representing the entire world. Also, the theme of Casablanca being a “prison” is reiterated again as we see Ilsa and Laszlo talk in dark, behind curtains, peeping and exiting stealthily.

Standout scene: The final scene of this segment when Ilsa confronts Rick for the letters and ends up confessing her love for him is one of the best written scenes in the history of cinema. One note must be made how a logical loophole has been covered as soon as the scene begins. When Rick spots Ilsa in his room, he asks her “How did you get in?” She replies “The stairs from the street.” In ten words, two short sentences, this logical explanation is given to the audience. It’s not taken for granted that the audience will not mind Ilsa appearing in his room out of nowhere. On the other hand, the drama has not been compromised by making her enter normally. This little explanation is the best way to solve it.

What is the audience expecting: It is getting so intense! Rick and Ilsa still love each other passionately. And we admire both of them and Laszlo so much more than ever. We really do not know where this story is going, but want the best resolution for all three of them. With eighty per cent of the film over, we are so engrossed, curious, and emotionally involved.