The Improbable Connection

There's no question that conflict is important. And we connect because we also strive, hit obstacles, suffer.

"Life is suffering," Buddha said.

"And such small portions," Woody Allen says in Annie Hall.

Connection is the other half of the story—of our lives and the stories we tell. Good screenwriters understand this intuitively even though, as I've said, connection is essentially overlooked in screenwriting books. "Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict," Chris Keane writes in How to Write a Selling Screenplay, putting all our screenwriting eggs in one basket.

But, soft! Doesn't Romeo and Juliet take a quantum leap forward when Romeo sees Juliet for the first time? He and the story have slowed to a crawl ("What sadness lengthens Romeo's hours?"), but the moment he sees her, the story takes off at emotional warp speed. ("Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!/For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.") Yes, their star-crossed love creates all kinds of conflict that also moves the story along, but so does this initial—and the ongoing, deepening—connection between the two lovers. Again, it's a dance. Conflict and connection. The best stories have both.

Look at the following scene in Ron Nyswaner's screenplay for Philadelphia (and then screen the same scene in Jonathan Demme's outstanding film). Andrew Beckett has been fired from his law firm because he has AIDS. No lawyer will take his case, including Joe Miller. Beckett's will is up against an insurmountable obstacle—prejudice—and though this creates conflict, the story is stalled. Beckett is stuck. He decides to handle his case himself and is doing legal research when Joe Miller sees him again:

A CHAIR SQUEAKS and Joe LOOKS UP TO SEE:

Andrew taking a seat across the room (the blotches have been reduced by chemo, but he's struggling with a cold).

Andrew removes notepads and pens from his briefcase. He takes out a package of tissues, blowing his nose.

(under his breath)

Joe slides to the far end of his table, stacking seven or eight HUGE REFERENCE BOOKS in front of him.

JOE'S POV, PEERING THROUGH THE REFERENCE BOOKS:

Andrew opens a book, taking notes. Rubs his eyes. Writes something. Sneezes.

A LIBRARIAN delivers a book to Andrew.

LIBRARIAN

This is the supplement. You're right, there is a section on . . .

(lowers her voice) . . . HIV related discrimination.

ANDREW

Thank you.

Andrew takes the book from her—but she remains.

LIBRARIAN We have a private research room available.

ANDREW

I'm fine, thanks.

Andrew BLOWS HIS NOSE. Now the other PATRONS are watching.

LIBRARIAN

Wouldn't you be more comfortable in a research room?

ANDREW (pleasantly) No. But would it make you more comfortable?

LIBRARIAN

Whatever, sir.

The LIBRARIAN turns away, shrugging to a PATRON, indicating she's done all she can do.1

In previous scenes, Joe himself has discriminated against Andrew because he's gay and has AIDS. Earlier, when Andrew came to Joe's office and asked if he'd take the case, Joe refused ... for personal reasons. And he didn't buy that Andrew had a case. But now, in the library, hiding behind a wall of reference books he's built between himself and Andrew, Joe witnesses discrimination in action and its consequence—disconnection—as the librarian tries to segregate Andrew in a research room and other library patrons quickly exit. Witnessing this—and the suffering it causes—stirs a sense of injustice in Joe—and compassion.

"Compassion is the only energy that can help us connect with another person," Thich Nhat Hanh tells us in The Heart of Buddha's Teachings.

It is this compassion—mixed with a sense of injustice and, I would wager, a little guilt—that moves Joe to reestablish contact with Andrew:

Joe approaches, nonchalantly, as if he just happens to be sauntering by.

Suddenly he "notices" Andrew.

ANDREW

Fine.

When you screen Demme's film, you'll notice a subtle but important change: Demme has Joe interrupt the "Whatever, sir" boxing match beat between Andrew and the librarian. The librarian—a man in the film—looks at Joe, realizes he's outnumbered, and backs down. "Whatever, sir," he tells Andrew and goes. So does a nearby patron. By having Joe come to Andrew's defense, Demme creates a richer, more significant moment of connection between these two men.

Connecting is a process, a pattern of change made up of moments of change—connection beats. A series of connection beats create and deepen the connection that is occurring in this scene:

Joe discovers Andrew is being mistreated.

He decides to come to his rescue.

He discovers that no lawyer will represent Andrew, so Andrew is planning to represent himself.

Then, in a lovely, off-the-point beat, Joe discovers Andrew's own humanity when he asks about Joe's new baby. Joe, slightly changed, walks away.

Then he decides to come back. He asks Andrew how the law firm found out he had AIDS. Andrew tells him. This discovery raises other legal questions and more discoveries that play out in a subtle boxing match, Andrew trying to return to his work but Joe keeping him from it, interrupting, wanting answers.

Because of these specific connection beats, Joe is slowly drawn into the case, his connection with Andrew deepening with his understanding of the case law on discrimination and its consequences, stated in bald, unsettling terms in the scene when Andrew reads from a relevant legal precedent:

ANDREW

"But because the prejudice surrounding AIDS exacts a social death which precedes the actual, physical one . . ."

Joe and Andrew glance at each other, clear their throats . . .

In the film, the camera cranes up (a lovely shot called for by the screenwriter) and we look down on Andrew and Joe as they continue to work on the case together, passing notes and books back and forth, their hands almost touching. They have connected as lawyer and client and, more importantly, as human beings. In the following scene—in the screenplay and the film— Joe delivers a summons to Charles Wheeler, the man who fired Andrew. And the story is moving forward again.

It is connection that moves it—an improbable connection between two men who have been legal rivals, who find each other repulsive (Andrew thinks Joe is an ambulance chaser; Joe thinks Andrew is an infectious pervert). This improbable connection occurs in only four pages—less than seven minutes on screen—but creates breathtaking change in both characters' lives. And it jump-starts the stalled story.

There are moments of change in our lives and stories that are simply not comprehended by conflict.

Moments of change that create ties between us, as Stephen Jay Gould so beautifully said. As a screenwriter you can't afford to overlook this crucial fact of narrative life. If you want to write screenplays that connect to others, you need to learn to create and craft a connection.

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