Specs & The City: Openings and ‘Goodfellas’

A great scene is a beautiful thing. A place where intent and execution meet, fall madly in love, move to the suburbs, and live happily ever after. In other words – learning how to construct an individual scene is just as important (if not more so) than the structure of the script as a whole for a professional screenwriter. And nowhere is it more important than your opening scene.

Think of it this way – the first scene in your script is your business card. It tells the reader who you are as a writer and what they can expect from your story. A great one can make them so excited they can’t stop turning pages. A bad one will get you an immediate “pass”. Think of all the truly amazing scenes out there that never got read because the writer botched their opening and the reader never made it that far. Don’t be that writer.

There’s a quote from Billy Wilder that I write on a post-it note and stick to my laptop every time I sit down to write.

“Grab ‘em by the throat, and never let ‘em go.” This is the writer you want to be.

Whenever I’m stuck on my script, whenever I have a decision to make on which path to take – especially with my opening scenes – I let this quote guide me.  But here’s a caveat – A great scene is different from a great opening scene. Opening scenes serve a very special purpose and need to be selected with the utmost care.

Here’s how I know…

Opening Scenes and Goodfellas

Goodfellas, otherwise known as the film that was robbed of a Best Picture Oscar by Dances With Wolves, is, to me, Scorsese’s most complete film. It’s visually arresting, full of colorful characters, extremely efficient in its direction, and it takes Wilder’s advice to heart.

The shooting script, co-written by Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, opens with the confrontation between Billy Batts and Tommy at the bar. Batts gets beaten down and loaded in the trunk of Henry’s car. The trio if Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy the stops by for a late night snack for with Tommy’s mother before heading off to bury Batts’ body.

It’s a good scene. Let me correct that. It’s a GREAT scene. You’ve got a bloody confrontation, some spectacular acting, and the tension playing from the casualness of the dinner going on while a dead body sits out in the driveway.

It’s laid out exactly as it is in the film, just at the beginning instead of Act Two. But Scorsese knew it wasn’t a strong enough open. He needed to “grab ‘em by the throat”. And so instead we get this…

INT. HENRY’S CAR – NIGHT

Finally on their way, HENRY is driving. JIMMY, in the passenger’s seat, and TOMMY, in the rear seat, embracing the shovel, are dozing off. The sleepy humming of the wheels is suddenly interrupted by a thumping sound. At first, HENRY thinks he has a flat, but the thumping is too irregular. JIMMY awakens. His eyes are on HENRY. TOMMY leans forward from the rear seat. Silence. Thump. Silence.

EXT. MERRITT PARKWAY – NIGHT

Car pulls off the road onto the grass. HENRY, JIMMY and TOMMY, still holding the shovel, get out of the car.

TOMMY
Jesus Christ! Miserable bastard!

HENRY opens the trunk and steps back.  In the trunk light. WE SEE the mattress cover squirming around. We hear muffled groans.

TOMMY
(raising the shovel)
Can you believe this no-good fuck?
The prick! He’s still alive.

TOMMY suddenly smashes the shovel into the moving, bloody mattress cover.  He smashes it again and again and again. Cursing BATTS with every swing.

TOMMY
Rat bastard.
(he swings shovel)
No-good, low-life fuck.

TOMMY swings shovel again and again. Soon the mattress cover stops squirming and TOMMY stops swinging the shovel. He is exhausted. TOMMY and JIMMY get back in the car.  HENRY is facing the open trunk.

TILT UP and FREEZE ON HENRY’S face slamming the trunk shut.

HENRY (V.O.)
As far back as I can remember, I
always wanted to be a gangster.

MAIN TITLE:
GOOD FELLAS

UNFREEZE and DISSOLVE TO:
HENRY – AS A CHILD

We still get the violence, and the casual nature with which it’s dealt with, but we get it in a much more compact form than the other scene.

With this film, Scorsese was attempting to breath life back into a genre that, at the time of Goodfellas’ release in 1990, hadn’t been seen as viable since The Godfather: Part II. He was also attempting to say something new about the gangster world by telling his story from a bottom-up perspective.

It was a huge risk, but he pulled it off. And a big part of it is how effective and evocative that opening scene is.

Billy Wilder would have been proud (maybe he would have liked a little fewer F-Bombs, but you get the point).

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2 thoughts on “Specs & The City: Openings and ‘Goodfellas’

  1. Brad JohnsonBrad Johnson

    Susan,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Concerning the dialogue, I would say that it wasn’t really a case of dialogue being left out. The scene, as it’s written, would have been fine. No dialogue at all needed while everyone wakes up and realizes what’s going on. Once you’re on set though, the director might do several takes with the actors – letting them improvise and seeing what works best.

    As for the use of “We”. You’re right that a lot of books, seminars, etc. claim that using “we” is forbidden. The thing to keep in mind is that they guy who wrote this script is Martin Scorsese. He can get away with doing things that might be frowned upon by a beginner.

    That being said, I’m a proponent of there being no 100% rules in screenwriting. There are guidelines, but break them if you need to. That part is key – if you NEED to. If using “we” is the best decision for this particular story…then do it.

  2. Susan

    If you show that opening exactly as the script was written, I have some questions about that.

    At first, HENRY thinks he has a flat, but the thumping is too irregular.

    Is that really allowed? That line indicates a need for dialog in the car. Can a writer get away with leaving that much dialog for the actors and director to deal with, without being frowned on? How much are we allowed to consolidate? How do we know if we’ve gone to far, leaving someone else to make up the details… Or if we’ve been so detailed spelling out every move to the point of long boring expedition?

    And what about…

    WE SEE the mattress cover squirming around. We hear muffled groans.

    McKee said in his book STORY to avoid WE SEE and We hear and camera angles. Yet I see these things in many script examples. Was he wrong or are their exceptions?

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