Doug Richardson’s first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder. Visit Doug’s site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.
First of all, let’s start this one by getting your mind out of the gutter. We have four fingers and only one of them is reserved for drivers who cut you off, ex-lovers when they turn their back, and when you’re a teen, pretty much all members of authority. Today I’m going to talk about another gesture — one which I knew was equally universal, but would never have guessed might cause so much emotion – not to mention fights over a simple line of screenplay description.
It was on the movie Hostage, a fifty-million dollar independent film which, for some of us working on the picture, we imagined was just that. Independent.
Okay. So most indies are not budgeted halfway to a hundred million — but most indies aren’t starring Bruce Willis who, when his name stands alone above the title, can command significant coinage due his continued overseas popularity. Now back to the story.
We were shooting out in Azusa, California, an Inland Empire burb that bumps up against the San Gabriel Mountains. The sections of the script involved a few days to cover the “family” scenes. These included actresses Serena Scott Thomas as Bruce’s wife, as well the-hoping-to-be-released-from-boarding-school Miss Rumer Willis, playing — you guessed it — Bruce’s angry teenage daughter. While director Florent Siri was laboring to make his days, pushing the crew from setup to setup, I was sometimes tasked with rehearsing the cast.
Bruce, as you might expect, wanted to take extra care with his daughter, making sure she was as comfortable on camera as possible. Truth be known, this wasn’t Rumer’s first rodeo. She’d played her mother Demi’s daughter in the kitschy Striptease. I suppose it was daddy’s turn to play the onscreen role model. For Rumer, there wasn’t much meat to the role but for a couple of brooding scenes as the unhappy child of separated parents on the verge of divorce. Based on her own description, she’d had more than her share of experience on the subject. So why not just roll the cameras?
For Bruce’s sake, we read through the scenes, talked them out, expanded the sessions into a couple of past-tense improvisations. Toward the end, when discussing the next day’s text, Bruce queried me this:
“Why does she hide my gun in the freezer?” Bruce asked.
It was a good question. His character, a former LAPD hostage negotiator recovering from a nervous breakdown, had moved to Ventura County to be a small town police chief. In the scene scheduled for the following day, while in the midst of arguing with his wife, Bruce’s character can’t find his service weapon. This is because Rumer’s character has, once again, hidden it.
“She’s hiding it because she’s afraid for you,” I answered. “She’s acting out.”
“I get that,” said Bruce. “She’s watching her mom and dad’s relationship coming unglued. But why act out with his gun?”
“Because one night way back when,” I continued, “after Tally’s breakdown, she spotted you alone with your service weapon, crying and contemplating suicide.”
Now, Bruce and I both knew this wasn’t in the script. It was discussed backstory. I’d written the gun-in-the-freezer bit as subtext, not to be revealed or necessarily puzzled over, but for shading alone.
“So what would happen,” Bruce began, “if when Ru and I go outside, I ask her why she hid my gun.”
“So I’d like, answer with something like…” said Rumer, “something like ‘because you tried to kill yourself, asshole!’”
I grinned. Something inside me felt that Rumer really enjoyed saying “asshole” to her old man. I mean, what self-respecting teen wouldn’t? But that’s as far as my affection for her suggestion of dialogue traveled.
“I don’t think she’d verbalize it,” I reasoned. “She’s pretty shut down. Doesn’t want to exactly give her dad the satisfaction.”
“So how would she play it?” Bruce asked.
“If pressed,” I said, “she might glare at him with a ‘duh’ kinda look, then something like this.”
With that, I put and index finger to my temple and, with my thumb, gestured the hammer falling.
“Yeah, that’s it,” agreed Bruce. Rumer marinated on it for a moment, then ran the scene with her father. Both felt comfortable.
My thoughts on the scene change was that if played correctly, it could be illuminating as hell, especially for Bruce’s character to be confronted with a horrible moment he’d moved on from, not to mention something he thought nobody had witnessed. Also, the way the scene fit in the narrative, if it didn’t play, it could be excised in editing without losing the original intent of the gun being hidden the freezer.
Once the session ended, I retired to my laptop and the passenger seat of my car. This is because pretty much everything but the color of the wall paint had to be in the script. Even the most minor changes in description, dialogue, and action should be committed to an official revision. I banged out the changes in a matter of minutes, saved it to a thumb drive, then passed it off to the P.A. destined to land back at the production office before the day wound to a close.
Next, I planted myself in a chair by the monitors and told our intrepid French movie director what to expect the next day.
“I like eet,” said Florent. “Anything where we can zee Bruuuuce eez more vulnerable. Especial in eez faze.”
Swell I thought. Good writer. Job well done. Moving on.
We’d just returned to working days after more a month of nights. So when I arrived home at eight-thirty or so it had such a wonderful feel of normality. I was reading my daughter to sleep when my cell phone alerted.
“Daddy,” said my Kate. “You’re buzzing.”
I checked the phone. It was Hawk Koch, our joint Executive Producer and Unit Production Manager.
“Can I call you back?” I answered. “I’m reading to my little girl.”
“Sure,” said Hawk with his trademark foghorn of a voice. “But you can’t do the suicide thing with Bruce.”
“What?” I asked. “Forget it. Lemme call you back when I’m done.”
“Fine,” said Hawk. “But you can’t do it.”
“It’s just a gesture.”
“You can’t do it,” said Hawk. “Not my call, either. It’s Mark. He said you can’t do it. So you can’t do it.”
“If it doesn’t work, we can just cut it in post,” I said.
“Mark said you can’t shoot it. So that means you can’t shoot it. And that’s just what it is.”
So what happened? Find out in Part 2 of ONE-FINGERED GESTURE.
- Read more articles by Doug Richardson
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The Smoking Gun: True Tales from Hollywood’s Screenwriting Trenches