The end. February 11th, 2008

Where do you end a screenplay?  How do you know it’s done?  

Here’s a perspective, as I have endings on my mind this week. 

It began with a call from my father, telling me that my brother – my younger brother – had just suffered a stroke. 

I know, right?  Scary stuff.  Is this an ending?

It was a solid blow to my head, the shock that this ending could even be possible.  I think my brother understandably felt the same way.

To jump to the ending of this story: he’s doing fine.  He’s already out of the hospital, and although he still has some sensory loss (miraculously, no motor loss) along half of his body, the fine doctors are declaring this an isolated cautionary stroke.   End of story.

Or is it?

We don’t really know, do we?  Will Mike fully recover?  Will he change his life in any way?  Will this incident mark a clear division for him, the ending to one thing (Mike’s immortal life) and the beginning of another (Mike’s mortal life)?  Or will he forget, and backslide, and have more isolated cautionary events just like this one?

Maybe the story isn’t over until he has completely recovered to his pre-stroke state. But when do you know the exact day and time of full recovery? Like a radioactive isotope, we may have to figure out the half-life of Mike’s numbness.

What if the day of my brother’s full recovery, the day we decide the story has fully ended, happens to be the same day as the unfortunate fishing accident (just for argument’s sake, Mike.  Just for argument’s sake.  I chose that one because I know you’re not likely to go fishing anyhow)?  That gives the ending a little punch, doesn’t it?  An ironic twist.  That’s a nice way to go, I suppose – especially if you’re a movie.

The thing is, you can end a story anywhere you want to (caveat: final running time not longer than two hours, not shorter than 80 minutes), but that may change the meaning of the story: it may change which story you are telling.   Is Mike’s story about his vacation in Utah, about his struggle for youth, about his incomparable powers of self-deception, about facing his fears, about turning defeat into victory…?  If you already know what your story is about – what its meaning is – then knowing when to end your story will be easier. 

Let’s look at another ending taking place this week, and that would be the three-month-old writer’s strike!  It’s not OVER over just yet, and it may not even be over at all.  But – between you and me – it’s over.  This is the end, baby.

The spinners are out there telling the story of this labor conflict, a story they can finally tell not because the news blackout has lifted but because we now know the ending.   Since we know the ending, we know what the story was about.  For each storyteller the ending may be interpreted differently – way differently – but for that storyteller its meaning will be clearer. 

For the WGA the story ended with a contract in which writers made the most significant gains in the history of labor relations ever.  Or something like that.  Clearly the story is about solidarity, sacrifice, and justice.  Glad to have taken part in writing it.

The story will be retold in this way in perpetuity – in union halls throughout the land, in story and song – as long as the ending remains where it is.   If the future of the industry is indeed in new media, as the writers assumed for these negotiations, then the story proceeds as planned.  If instead there is a nuclear explosion in space and all electronic communication is somehow interrupted and destroyed, well, the writers are in retrospect going to look pretty foolish.

Believe it or not, the story of Groundhog Day had several endings to choose from. I don’t think any of the possible endings changed the meaning of the story; all they changed was the tone.  But that’s important, too. 

In the original draft, Phil arrived at a perfect day, became lovable, and won the heart of Rita – just as you saw.   And he woke up the next morning, with Rita, on February 3rd. But…

At that point, to my way of thinking, the movie was over, and all that was left was to put a satisfying button on it.  The button I chose – actually, to my delight, suggested by Louise – was consistent with the tone of my original draft.  The story was a little bit more whimsical and playful back then, modeled tonally on the wonderful Alec Guinness film “Kind Hearts and Coronets.”  

It was a short-story in need of a twist.

Here’s that first ending: it turned out that February 3rd was not only the beginning of Phil’s new life, but, Phil discovers, it was also the day in which Rita was stuck.  She’d been here for a long time already.  Every day she has been waking up to Phil, who is always unbelievably emotional about seeing her there, as you can imagine.  If you think about it, that’s about the best way a person could wake up – to a loving and appreciative audience – but after the first thousand times …

It was just a twist ending.  Fun.  It wouldn’t have fit the movie you all saw – not really.  Harold and I played with various reveals on February 3rd, including several drafts where Phil, not fully believing that his experience really happened, runs out and expertly plays the piano, which adds to his and our delight.  The final morning bedroom scene was of course very satisfying to write, the entire movie having led up to this.   I think all of the versions were pretty good. Harold scripted the scene as seen in the film, and to my mind it was written beautifully, and performed and shot with great love and skill by everybody.  The final tag, “Let’s rent,” was perfect, and also not mine.  I didn’t even know it was there until I saw the movie, and it made me laugh.

So, there you have it.  Mike’s cautionary tale in Utah, the strike’s victorious conclusion, and a beloved ending revisited.  

And now, on to new beginnings. 

6 Comments »

Comment by michael rubin
2008-02-12 08:21:36

I promise you – i’m DYING to know how this one turns out! Seriously though: the hardest part of an experience like this, particularly one where you have nothing but time to ponder the implications, is how you think your life will change. I tend to believe change is good. In a movie, the whole point is that the protagonist goes through some sort of growth and emerges different, better perhaps. A stroke is just like condensing a thousand Groundhog Days into a short space– can i learn from this without making infinite mistakes? Do I want a twist ending?

This all does feel like a turning point in my life, from carefree youth (it never really felt that carefree) to, you know…something less carefree. I’m scared — not that i will die necessarily, nor that I won’t regain my full capacity, but scared in that way where you really don’t know what is going to happen (good movie moment) as compared to every other day where in some odd way you THINK you do know what you will do at 6pm, what you’ll be doing tomorrow, who you’ll be and who you’ll be with from moment to moment. All that is in the air, and for someone rather inertial, like me, there is pain in this kind of forced change. Maybe for anyone.

I sort of like the gentle reminder of my mortality — of not taking everything for granted, of the impermanence of my, your and everyone’s lives. I’m almost glad it happened to me and not to you, or our folks… to give me that nudge, as strange as it must be when it is your kid, or your little brother.

Anyway, i didn’t mean to hijack your ponderings on screenwriting. I’m deep in my own questions these days, certain only in the uncertainty of it all. Trying to love (as Rilke said) the questions themselves, and not look for answers. Hoping to be something better on the other side.

Even when you think you’ve missed a bullet, i believe it hits you just as hard.

And I’ll tell you one thing for sure: After reading your post, you can be damned sure I’m not going fishing any time soon (screw those ironic twists!). Fraternally yours….

Comment by Danny
2008-02-13 08:27:54

Very happy to still have you among us, bro. You ain’t heavy. By the way, your writing is becoming pretty formidable. On the other hand, I at least take the extra energy to capitalize my “I”s. Something wrong with your pinkie?

 
 
2008-02-12 10:01:27

Your father, who was my classmate at Lowell, and neighbor earlier on Oak Street (1939-40), sent me the above comments on your blog. I had written something about myself in the Lowell alumni newsletter, and he contacted me as we both now live in Florida not too far from each other.

We had not seen each other since graduation, except perhaps in passing at Cal. Mel was quite possibly the brightest among the brightest in our class, and if he hasn’t, he must tell you why he received his only B in Miss Peckham’s class. It had nothing to do with his test scores.

I am pleased for all of you that Michael has recovered well, and specifically I want to tell you I truly enjoyed GROUNDHOG DAY.

Finally, congratulations to all for what appears to be a successful end to the strike.

Donald

Comment by Danny
2008-02-13 08:22:43

Any friend of my dad’s is welcome – both to my blog and to my home. I can’t wait to find out about the dreaded “B” (I know dad had a tendency to blow things up – was that it?) and I have first dibs on the name “Miss Peckham” in the upcoming movie of my choice.

Thanks, Donald.

2008-02-19 14:29:55

Danny,

Miss Peckham repeatedly reminded us her grandfather, Rufus Peckham (good 1st name, no?), founded the Republican party of California.

No blowing up — it had something to do with a group of us laughing at another student’s crudity and we were lowered one academic grade — mass punishment. I am not even sure if Mel laughed.

Donald

 
 
 
Comment by BJ
2008-02-14 06:55:06

Guys, ever been tested for Factor Five Levian? We had a bunch of younger (under 65) heart attacks and strokes in my family…and this genetic anaomly can up your risk factor…might not hurt to check. Wishing both of you better health.

 
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