Monday, September 24, 2012
A Final Visit to the Burger Shack
[If you haven't read the nine preceding stories, you will find them on one of my pages in the right-hand column. This final story will only have its full effect if you read the other stories first and know who the characters are--although, believe it or not, I had not even thought of Ryan and Suzie or a story like this until the other nine were all written, and when I started writing this one I had no idea it would bring in the others. The question is, does it work? Let me know.]
Ryan and Suzie always made it work, in more ways than one. As script doctors, the Mackenzies were good at what they did. As a couple, they had more fun than most.
Here’s how it is. No screenplay gets to the big screen unchanged. That’s a simple fact of life. So after everyone had put a finger in, after all the would-be cooks had added their odd bits to the broth, stirring and seasoning it into a total hash that wouldn’t hold together on a plate, that’s where Ryan and Suzie entered the scene. They were the ambulance team, if you will, arriving to put everyone and everything back together so the cameras could finally roll. They never said “No,” and they never said “can’t.” They listened, they worked, they got paid.
Now it was their turn.
What script doctor doesn’t want to be an original writer? This pair had talked through many screenplay ideas over the course of their marriage. They would fall into it naturally, right after finishing a rewrite, to sweep their minds clear, or late at night on vacation or, later, on the road going to visit the kids at college. One of them would begin with a character or a scene or a bit of dialogue, and give it to the other, and in the back-and-forth that followed their own ideas flowed and built, along with their enthusiasm. It was such fun! “Someday,” they told each other, “we’ll make our own movie.”
Well, now “someday” had arrived. They had put away enough to form their own small production company and finance a year away from other jobs. They had given themselves that whole year to write the screenplay, and when they were happy with it, they would try to raise money to make the picture, but any doctoring of the script, at any point along the way, would be theirs. If the first picture wasn’t a complete flop, maybe they would make a second, but right now they weren’t looking any further ahead than their first independent film, and here they are, far from Hollywood, hunkered down in Rocket’s, nearing the end of their first draft.
“So we’ve got everyone here in the same neighborhood. Recap?” Ryan gave Suzie an expectant look.
She looked down at her notes and began. “Becky, the girl who works the counter, is there, at work. Cheryl, the mother-grandmother, is hanging out by the counter, talking to Becky and watching out the window for the school bus, and her husband is still sitting in a booth, talking nonstop to some stranger. (Doesn’t matter who. We don’t even need to see the other person.) The little dog isn’t in sight yet, and neither is the school bus. Kelly and her kids are getting ready to leave, and Eva and Frank Hayes are having another cup of coffee.
“Bob, the fat man, is out in the parking lot, squeezing into his car. Joe and the other boys are walking along the highway in the direction of the gated community—that is, right to left onscreen.
“Wes, we’ve got him coming out of Eleanor’s fan showroom across the highway, the little showroom in front of the manufacturing plant. And Mallory, of course, has vaporized.” Suzie paused and frowned. “Can we really do that? Does it fit with the other stories we’re weaving together? Just because we came up with him first doesn’t mean we need to keep him, you know.”
Ryan nodded. “I know. He doesn’t really interact with anyone else, does he? He was really a trial run to get us into the location. Yeah, we might have to write him out—but let’s not worry about him now. What about Eva, though? We’re keeping her?”
Suzie flipped through the pages of the long yellow legal pad in front of her. “She’s still weak. Not her as a character—she’s a strong character--but her story is weak.”
The two of them turned to stare out the window, Ryan gazing across the highway and Suzie’s eyes sweeping the parking lot, both of them looking at cars, imagining Eva and trying to think of a complication to punch up her part. Ryan tried to think what kind of car Eva was driving. Then, where was she going next, and why? They had written out the scene at the house for sale, after deciding on the big car crash in front of Rocket’s.
“If Joe isn’t going to get to the house,” she said now, hesitantly, thinking out loud, “do we even need Eva? Their paths won’t cross.”
Ryan’s eyebrows went up. “Do you want to try it without her?”
“Well, we don’t want to waste time right now on a character we might not use in the final version. She can always go back in. Agreed?”
“I like her, though,” Ryan objected.
“Well, you liked the woman who vaporized Mallory, too, and we didn’t do anything more with her!” That female character had been entirely Ryan’s invention. Suzie had thought all along that the ending to Mallory’s segment was wrong for the movie.
Ryan winked and laughed. “Maybe we should bring her back! Maybe we should lose Red Ice Eva and get back to the Bombshell in Black!” Then he stopped himself. “Nah, nah, nah! Not now! We’re getting distracted. Huh? Okay, I’m getting distracted! We need to get this big scene pulled together. Mallory and Eva are on probation, and everyone else is in. So run it down again?”
“We’ve got the Bob, the fat man in the parking lot, Wes across the highway, the boys walking along the side of the road, and everyone else in the Burger Shack. The boys are going in the opposite direction they usually go to get their school bus. The bus for the little kids will come from the right, from the direction of the expressway--.”
“Is this confusing? Joe’s little brothers and sisters didn’t take a school bus, and up to now we only had high school kids on a bus.”
“I know! Make this a private school bus! Like, from a church school.”
“Jenny can afford to send her kids to private school?”
“No, that doesn’t work, does it?”
“Never mind. How about this? The kids are going on a field trip--.”
“No, we’ve established that Cheryl has been watching the school buses for days.”
They fell silent, looking around and out the windows, looking and reflecting on the scene.
“So maybe we need to go back and have Joe’s brothers and sisters get on a school bus, too? It could come a little before the high school bus. Maybe Cheryl notices that Joe and his buddies are going in the wrong direction and that they missed their bus on this particular morning.”
“Do we need to have her notice that?”
“It emphasizes the way she’s been taking in everything that happens every morning around the Burger Shack. Remember, she’s the one who’s most aware of her surroundings. Hyper-aware.”
Ryan: So everyone’s in place for the big crash scene.
Suzie: Establishing shot coming in from the highway. Then we move in on each character and smaller part of the scene, one at a time.
Ryan: Dog first or bus?
Suzie: Dog, I think. Trotting along the side of the fan factory, opposite Burger Shack, Stopping to sniff. Takes a pee. Then bus but only from exterior. Kids’ faces in the window. Driver has a cup of coffee.
Ryan: It’s a sunny morning.
Suzie: It’s a sunny morning. Joe and Miguel and Ed and Diego are boppin’ along the highway, headed away from our focal center. Here they are, here’s Wes, here’s the dog. [Draws a diagram for Ryan to look at.]
Ryan: The grade school bus is still coming from our left.
Ryan: Muted. Muted conversation inside the Burger Shack, muted traffic noise outside.
Suzie: A little --muted bird sounds?
Ryan: Good! The boys are walking in the same direction the bus is traveling, but they’re on the other side of the highway. Won’t they be too far--?
Suzie: For the bus, yes. But okay, the dog runs out, the bus driver brakes suddenly and loses control--.
Ryan: The bus veers into the opposite lane, and traffic scatters, and the cars behind the bus--.
Suzie: Yes. And the ones coming from the other direction, too.
Ryan: --The other drivers all react in panic and set off a chain reaction. That’s when one of the cars--. Or maybe a truck! Better yet!
Suzie: The truck driver hasn’t seen the boys, and he tries to pull off the road to avoid the bus.
Ryan: Wouldn’t they be killed? The truck would hit them.
Suzie: They don’t have to be killed. Say it isn’t a semi, just a small delivery truck. The audience will see the truck go off the road and expect the boys to be killed, but they don’t need to be, remember? It’s just one of those unplanned, freakish ways that Fate intervenes. Joe thought the worst thing that could happen to him was being picked up and put in a foster home after his parents were deported, but without this accident to stop him he was headed for something a lot worse.
Ryan: [His voice dissatisfied] It still feels contrived. Joe is saved by Fate before he can commit B&E, Cheryl is stopped and doesn’t kidnap her grandkids, Bob gets to be a little hero (well, a big hero!), and the dog will probably be licking little kids’ faces as they tumble out of the bus, all unharmed. Why don’t we just have the Hand of God reach down from the sky?
Suzie: [irritably] Kelly is still pregnant, Wes still has two wives, Eva hasn’t figured out what to do with Frank Hayes yet, and Bob is still fat! Some lives are changed, some aren’t. What’s so unbelievable about that?
Ryan: And you don’t even want the dog killed?
Suzie: Audiences don’t like seeing dogs killed. You kill a dog in a movie, and it goes one of two ways, noir or melodrama. Now we can’t suddenly shift into noir at the climax of the film, and we were never aiming at melodrama. I mean, cue the strings! I don’t think so! This movie is about ordinary people and the small events that turn their lives in one direction or another. And anyway, if the bus driver were just going to hit the dog he wouldn’t have--.
Ryan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay.
Suzie: But what about Bob making the 9-1-1 call? Wouldn’t Wes be the quick thinker?
Ryan: Seeing the school bus, all the kids, puts Wes into kind of a trance. Kids are his soft spot, his Achilles’ heel.
Suzie: But Eleanor’s kids—
Ryan: --Aren’t on that bus, no. Her business is here, not her home. No, but Wes, he’s got a lot on his mind.
Suzie: And Bob, he’s getting to his car, anticipating the highway, looking ahead, but he’s not in yet, and he looks up.
Ryan: So here we are. And this scene is so important! We need to make the smashup feel realistic and important but not a cliché.
Suzie: Right. So this is where we get close-up shots, with no sound, of all those little details. That’s what people always say they remember from these events.
Ryan: But first, the scream.
Suzie: Yeah. Cheryl is talking to Becky, but she’s watching the highway at the same time, and she sees the bus, and she sees the little dog, and she screams!
Ryan: And the scream is like the switch that turns off all the sound. And, and, and while she’s screaming—silently now—we see everything Cheryl sees, the whole scene through the front window of Rocket’s.
Suzie [eagerly]: Then! Farthest away, first. Becky?
Ryan: Sees Cheryl screaming, the bus sliding.
Suzie: Frank Hayes.
Ryan: Sees a little sports car flying toward the Rocket’s sign, about to crash. Eva?
Suzie: Eva hears Cheryl screaming and looks up at Cheryl, then down at the chrome napkin holder, where she sees a reflection of the school bus turning over.
Ryan: That’s good. How about having Cheryl’s husband oblivious to the crash?
Suzie: Yes, I think he would be. He’d be rushing toward his wife, stumbling over anything in his way.
Ryan: Kelly and her kids. This one’ll be hard.
Suzie. Yeah, it’s not really one but three. Justin, I think, will see tires rolling in all directions.
Suzie: I just thought of it. But I guess there wouldn’t be tires flying off all the crashing cars and bus and stuff, so how about the truck we talked about, having that carrying a load of old tires?
Ryan: Sure. And you’re right, that’s just the kind of thing that would grab Justin’s attention.
Suzie: So what about Robert and Kelly, the mom?
Ryan [with a shrug]: Kelly can’t see anything but kids’ faces in the bus windows. Robert, now. How about if he just sees his mother’s face. He’s never seen that look of shock on her face before, and it affects him so powerfully he can’t look away. In fact, he sees only her eyes and knows that she doesn’t see him at all. It might be hard to get across.
Suzie (admiringly): That’s great! We can do it! And that’s everyone inside.
Ryan: Bob has his car door open, but he sees the accident before it happens. He grabs for his cell the instant the bus leaves its lane. He’s already talking—we don’t hear him, but we see him on the phone--.
Suzie: Then he sees.... I know! Can he see kids’ backpacks landing on the side of the road? No, that’s too obvious. –Oh, this is good! One little girl’s bright yellow beret!
Ryan: I don’t get it.
Suzie: That’s because we have to go back into his story--.
Ryan: The girl at the party!
Ryan: Okay, this is weird, but how about if Wes sees a plane overhead. He’s in his trance, and way up over the whole scene is this jet, almost too small to see.
Suzie (nodding): Because he’s caught up in his own web of deceit and wants out of it. Okay, Joe’s our last one. What does Joe see?
Ryan: Everything happened so fast he didn’t take in any of it until he’s on the ground, his leg broken, and he sees the two keys on the ground, just out of his reach.
Suzie: So he couldn’t have put them in his jeans pocket, or they wouldn’t--.
Ryan: Right. He had to put them in his jacket pocket. Now his jacket is torn half-off him, and the keys are on the ground, and that’s all he can see before he closes his eyes.
Suzie: And as he closes his eyes the screen goes black.
A brief silence ensues.
Ryan: But you don’t want to stop right there?
Suzie: We’ve discussed this a hundred times. It’s what action movies do nowadays. The only dénouement is the silence after the gunshots. No! Again, like the dog thing, that’s not what we’re doing!
Ryan: Agreed, agreed. I don’t think it’s quite the same, though.
Suzie (reluctantly): It isn’t the same, I grant you that. We could end there. But how about if we talk through a different ending and then decide?
Ryan: What we talked about before was having a series of very, very short scenes set later the same day. If we do it that way, I’d like to see each one pushed aside by the next, sort of like the audience is waiting at a railroad crossing and watching a passenger train go by. Each car is replaced by the next, with people in the windows they glimpse for a moment and will never see again. [Suzie smiles, amused.] I know, passenger trains, part of the past! Look it as an homage to passenger trains. I think it works.
Suzie (still smiling): I think it works, too. Well, then, how about if we go backwards? Start with Joe, the last character we saw in the crash scene?
Ryan: Easy! He’s in a hospital bed with his aunt and uncle at his bedside, telling him it was always arranged for them to take the kids if anything happened to their parents. Push.
Ryan: Nah, nah, the backwards thing doesn’t work here. We need to save Wes for last.
Suzie: Or next to last.
Ryan: Right. Bob!
Suzie: Alone in his dining room at home, his high school yearbook on the table in front of him. Kelly and her family?
Ryan: I’m giving you this one. It’s your feel-good scene!
Suzie: Well, doesn’t it make sense? Those children’s lives, so fragile? She can’t get the scene out of her mind, and suddenly she’s sure it’s a girl child she’s carrying--.
Ryan: We can’t see her thoughts. What does she do? What does she say?
Suzie: She kisses her husband good-by as he’s leaving for work, and she clutches at the front of his shirt, pulling him back again when he pulls away to leave, and she says--.
Ryan: “Didn’t you once say you wanted a daughter?”
Suzie: Cheryl and her husband are in their motor home. They don’t look at each other. They’re not talking. The husband is the one looking at the map.
Ryan: Significant. Eva—let’s have her out with friends.
Suzie: Right. Center of attention, telling the story of the crash. Becky can be lying on her bed, staring up at the ceiling.
Ryan: Now Wes. We see him in the boarding area at an airport. We don’t know where he’s going, but he’s dressed differently.
Ryan: I don’t know yet. I don’t know where he’s going. Finally--?
Suzie: The little dog took off when the crash occurred. He ran—to the woods or the expressway? Out to the country. We see him trotting along a dirt road, looking purposeful, stopping here and there to sniff and pee.
Ryan: Camera rolls back. Credits.
They look at each other and say together: We’ve got a movie!