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08/17/2002 - Minute Rice

I read a clever anecdote about the early days of Hollywood, when East Coast playwrights and novelists were shipped out to Pasadena on the Twentieth Century Limited. These playwrights had earned their stripes in the unforgiving world of educated theater and often had difficulty adjusting to the "shake a hand, make a buck" attitude in the developing movie industry.

So the anecdote goes like this: Producer A tells Screenwriter B to write a scene about a husband and wife getting into an elevator and the wife discovering that the husband doesn't love her anymore. Screenwriter B crafts a ten-page scene with an involved, bitter argument between the couple.

The scene was good, but Producer A wanted something different, so he has Screenwriter C take a crack at it. Screenwriter C writes a one-page scene, where the husband and wife get on the elevator and ride down to the next floor, where a beautiful young woman enters the car. The husband immediately doffs his evening hat in deference to the young beauty. The wife looks at him, incredulous. (*see note below)

That was it. A scene told visually, immediately, without billowing dialogue. Don't misunderstand, flowing dialogue is great in film, but too often amateur writers make the mistake of relying on winding speeches and arguments to move their stories when the simplest image or action will do.

To me, this anecdote illustrates what I call the "Minute Rice" theory of screenwriting. It's weakly based on Ockham's Razor, the principle stating (to weakly paraphrase) that the simplest answer is almost always right.

The "Minute Rice" theory struck me after watching THE INSIDER, a great movie that I love for many reasons, but most of all for the scene early on in the film when Russell Crowe's whistle-blowing executive comes home after getting canned. He returns to his very nice home in an upper-income neighborhood, where his wife lounges in the backyard reading a book.

Cut to the kitchen, where the couple prepares for dinner with their two young daughters. Russell's character looks over the meal simmering on the stove and sees a box on the counter. He remarks, "Minute Rice?" His wife pretends to miss the comment.

We learned so much about that couple and their relationship in those two words. Just image the speech that a writer could have put into that scene:

"Minute Rice? You're cooking Minute Rice for our kids? I bust my hump all day so that you can be a stay-at-home mother for our little girls and instead of giving them the best you buy Minute Rice? What, are you in some kind of hurry? Do you have an appointment with the lounge chair in the backyard? Minute Rice?
(screaming) MINUTE RICE?!?"

It wasn't necessary to have that sort of explication in the scene, because the two words said it all, subtly. Also, Russell's character hadn't fully grasped that his wife wasn't quite a team player. It wasn't that she was lazy; she was selfish, more concerned with what she got than what she gave. A drawn out speech so early in the movie would have portrayed the couple's marriage as being weaker than it was at that particular point in the story. The comment painted a picture and foreshadowed a rift to come.

Movies sometimes are like condensed reality. It's challenging to write succinct scenes that capture the essence of a character or relationship, but just think of the page space you can save! See if you don't have a long, talky scene that could be replaced by an action, offhand comment or even by the scene setting and composition.

As for myself, I'm going to buy a box of Minute Rice and put it on the shelf over my computer just for inspiration. Because it's especially true that in screenwriting, "You only have a minute."

* I know I read this anecdote somewhere and as soon as I find the damn reference I'll adjust this column to give credit where it is due. -GL

*8/19 update
A reader offers the following: "Your Saturday column references an old screenwriting 101 anecdote. Billy Wilder is the one normally given credit for the hat idea. And it's either Scott Fitzgerald or Eugene O'Neil who supplied the ten beautifully crafted sides of dialogue."

(Sigh) Well, I thought it was a charming anecdote, even if it's old hat to everyone but me. I guess next week I'll be ranting about my best friend's Aunt Tizzy who got charged $500 for a cookie receipe from Neiman Marcus. -GL


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