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Great Character: Sam Shakusky (“Moonrise Kingdom”)

This month’s theme: Wes Anderson characters. Today: Sam Shakusky from the delightful 2012 movie Moonrise Kingdom, written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola.

Director and screenwriter Wes Anderson has created several cinematic sensations that have featured youthful protagonists seeking out the worldly guidance of older, but not always wiser mentors. A few of these primary characters have been youngsters that have extraordinary focus on their very particular interests, yet the world around them often becomes way too real and closes in on them.

There was 15-year-old Max Fischer in Rushmore, looking to become a high school legend purely by overbooking his extracurricular activities. But the harsh reality of actually having to pass his academic courses threatened to put the kibosh on any such grandiose hopes.

Wes Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola made the parentless precocious pre-teen Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) in the 2012 romantic coming-of-age comedy Moonrise Kingdom an extremely mature camp scout seeking a reliable family unit, even if it only has one member.

Moonrise Kingdom from IMDB:

A pair of young lovers flee their New England town, which causes a local search party to fan out and find them.

Sam Shakusky may be only 12 years old, but this little guy has turned his summer camp tour as a Khaki Scout into upgraded outdoor bravado. He is sailing canoes, pitching personal campsites and escaping from his scout troupe to be with the only one who may actually love him, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward).

Sam is an orphan with repressed emotional wounds that can become easily peeled open with tense temperamental treatment from his peers. Shakusky’s biological family is no longer around, his foster home is closing the doors on him, his fellow campers treat him several levels lower than a contagious disease and his rolodex of friendly contacts would be seemingly vacant if it wasn’t for Suzy. This lack of companionship also draws the socially introverted Suzy, a black sheep of the Bishop family, towards her male counterpart Sam.

Sam’s somber childhood has morphed into his accelerated mastery of survival skills and very adult mannerisms and life lessons.

SAM SHAKUSKY: That sounds like poetry. Poems don’t always have to rhyme, you know. They’re just supposed to be creative.

From his “Daniel Boone” head gear with a tail, to his tobacco pipe sending smoke through his pint-sized lungs, Sam appears ready for a grown man’s world, with or without electricity and appliances in it. But even the great outdoors is always better when you have someone to share it with.

Sam and Suzy’s friendship becomes a mutual romantic necessity, a cosmic connection that warmly inserts the missing words into their incomplete definitions of themselves. Their premeditated exile from their restrictive peer groups and family structures opens up a daring deployment towards their personal oasis – Moonrise Kingdom – where no one can judge or alienate them any longer. They are discovering what unconditional love feels like, with every understandably awkward question and each pubescent French smooch, using the tongue this time around.

SAM SHAKUSKY: It’s possible I may wet the bed by the way. Later, I mean.

Sam’s relationship with Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the fictional New England town’s one-man law enforcement department, becomes crucial for Sam and the lonely and unmarried Sharp as well. Even Sam and Suzy’s unofficial-by-law but very official-by-heart “marriage” is a ceremonious salute to their bond and unbridled desire to feel connected to a receptive counterpart. This is Sam actively pursuing a new family for himself – literally.

Arguably the most hyper sad moment occurs when Edward Norton’s character Scout Master Ward breaks the news to Sam about his foster home ousting, and in turn finds out Sam is quitting the Khaki Scouts as well. Sam’s thick skin that has shielded this little big man from weeping over his woes understandably collapses, as does any beating heart human in the audience. Sam Shakusky has no father or mother figures to rely on, only that quietly melancholy red head that totally gets him, but is being yanked away by her concerned parents.

SAM SHAKUSKY: I feel I’m in a real family now. Not like yours, but similar to one.

SUZY: I always wished I was an orphan. Most of my favorite characters are. I think your lives are more special.
SAM SHAKUSKY: I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.

For his radically endearing child/man explorer swagger, his undaunted escape from social isolation into pre-teenage love and his fearless search for a family to call his own – Sam Shakusky is a hilarious, heart-breaking and uniquely GREAT CHARACTER from the Wes Anderson archive.

Granted orphans are choice character types for Protagonists because they immediately do two things: (1) Engender sympathy on the part of the moviegoer. (2) Create an immediate need for a sense of family. The way Anderson and Coppola handle Sam in Moonrise Kingdom manage to work both of these dynamics extremely well, even if in a quirky Anderson-type way.

By the way, this is my favorite movie of 2012.

Thank you, Jason, for this post. Please hit Reply and join us in comments to discuss Moonrise Kingdom with Sam Shakusky.

You may follow Jason on Twitter: @A2Jason.

Daily Dialogue — April 18, 2014

“Why shouldn’t I work for the N.S.A.? That’s a tough one, but I’ll take a shot. Say I’m working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I’m real happy with myself, ’cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are sayin’, “Oh, send in the Marines to secure the area” ’cause they don’t give a shit. It won’t be their kid over there, gettin’ shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number got called, ’cause they were pullin’ a tour in the National Guard. It’ll be some kid from Southie takin’ shrapnel in the ass. And he comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, ’cause he’ll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And, of course, the oil companies used the skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them, but it ain’t helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And they’re takin’ their sweet time bringin’ the oil back, of course, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin’ play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain’t too long ’til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy’s out of work and he can’t afford to drive, so he’s got to walk to the fuckin’ job interviews, which sucks ’cause the shrapnel in his ass is givin’ him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he’s starvin’, ’cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat, the only blue plate special they’re servin’ is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what did I think? I’m holdin’ out for somethin’ better. I figure fuck it, while I’m at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.”

Good Will Hunting (1997), written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Job Interview, suggested by blueneumann. Today’s suggestion by Michael Corcoran.

Trivia: At a WGA seminar in 2003, William Goldman denied the persistent rumor that he was the actual writer of Good Will Hunting: “I would love to say that I wrote it. Here is the truth. In my obit it will say that I wrote it. People don’t want to think those two cute guys wrote it. What happened was, they had the script. It was their script. They gave it to Rob [Reiner] to read, and there was a great deal of stuff in the script dealing with the F.B.I. trying to use Matt Damon for spy work because he was so brilliant in math. Rob said, “Get rid of it.” They then sent them in to see me for a day – I met with them in New York – and all I said to them was, “Rob’s right. Get rid of the F.B.I. stuff. Go with the family, go with Boston, go with all that wonderful stuff.” And they did. I think people refuse to admit it because their careers have been so far from writing, and I think it’s too bad. I’ll tell you who wrote a marvelous script once, Sylvester Stallone. Rocky’s a marvelous script. God, read it, it’s wonderful. It’s just got marvelous stuff. And then he stopped suddenly because it’s easier being a movie star and making all that money than going in your pit and writing a script. But I did not write [Good Will Hunting], alas. I would not have written the “It’s not your fault” scene. I’m going to assume that 148 percent of the people in this room have seen a therapist. I certainly have, for a long time. Hollywood always has this idea that it’s this shrink with only one patient. I mean, that scene with Robin Williams gushing and Matt Damon and they’re hugging, “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault.” I thought, Oh God, Freud is so agonized over this scene. But Hollywood tends to do that with therapists.” As of 2009, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have both co-written one other script each, although not with each other; Damon co-wrote Gerry (2002) with Gus Van Sant and Ben’s brother Casey Affleck, and Ben Affleck directed and co-wrote (with his childhood friend Aaron Stockard) the script for Gone Baby Gone (2007). In 2010, Ben Affleck directed The Town (2010), for which he had also co-written the screenplay.

Dialogue On Dialogue: Long monologues are a real challenge. They have to be great to work. This job interview monologue is great.

Everything You Wanted to Know About Specs

Been a lot of buzz going around social media about spec scripts recently. Thought it was time to bring back this 20 part series I did some time back. Essential reading for anyone who is writing spec scripts hoping to break into the business.

In Part 1, we look at the genesis of the spec script in Hollywood from 1900-1942.

In Part 2, we cover the emergence of the spec script market from 1942-1990.

In Part 3, we analyze the boom, bust, and back again of 1990-2012.

In Part 4, we survey the buyers, both major studios and financiers.

In Part 5, we examine the screenwriter-rep relationship in terms of developing a spec script.

In Part 6, we explore rolling out a new writer’s spec script.

In Part 7, we delve into the subject of attaching producers.

In Part 8, we consider the value of attaching talent.

In Part 9, we learn about reps wanting to “own all the tickets”.

In Part 10, we dig into how reps generate buzz for a spec script.

In Part 11, we scrutinize the practice of slipping a script to someone.

In Part 12, we acknowledge the role that serendipity can play in the process.

In Part 13, we discuss the strategy of targeting specific buyers.

In Part 14, we drill down into the strategy of going wide.

In Part 15, we indulge in the ultimate fantasy of a bidding war.

In Part 16, we get a first-hand account of a preemptive purchase.

In Part 17, we think about one creative choice to write what they’re buying.

In Part 18, we ponder another choice to sell them your dream.

In Part 19, we reflect on the value of a spec script even if it does not sell.

In Part 20, we muse about what is means to the writer if a spec script does sell.

With everything floating around the web, a reminder: Do not buy into the hype. Understand the odds of you selling a spec script are hard against you. Stay away from charlatans who promise you secret formulas and anything other than hard work as a path to success. Be smart. Learn the craft. Understand the business. And first and foremost, write because you love to write.

Interview: Elijah Bynum (2013 Black List) – Part 4

The Black List is a pretty exclusive club, especially so for those writers who manage to land two scripts on the List in a single year. That’s what Elijah Bynum did in 2013 when two of his original screenplays — “Mississippi Mud” and “Hot Summer Nights”. I sought out Elijah to see what sort of creative mind could manage that feat. He was kind enough to give me an hour of his time in what turned out to be a great conversation about storytelling and the craft of screenwriting.

Today in Part 4, Elijah digs into the two lead characters in “Hot Summer Nights” as well as some of the themes at work in the story:

Scott:  Let’s talk about the two main characters in “Hot Summer Nights” — Daniel Middleton and Hunter Strawberry. Both of them have interesting names by the way. These are your iterations of the two kids from college you mentioned? You used them as a touchstone or a starting point.

What was important to you in developing them so that they were similar and yet distinct, because there are some similarities between them, and yet there are some substantial differences?

Elijah:  We might look at a total stranger and figure they are completely different from us and in a lot of ways they are, but there’s something about all of us as human beings that can be universal.

Even though Hunter was the town bad boy and he got all the girls and he drove the cool car and everyone in town knew who he was, there was a loneliness inside him. He felt like an outsider, especially because he was a townie in a resort town in which every summer, people with money flocked in and made him feel inferior.

Every summer he was reminded that he was nothing more than a townie and that he probably would never be anything more than a townie. In that sense he was an outsider.

Daniel’s more obvious in the sense that he’s an old fashioned loner. His father had just passed away. He never really established great friendships or turned into anything that he could identify himself with. Didn’t do particularly well in school. Wasn’t great at sports. He couldn’t look a girl square in the eye without getting dizzy.

And yet, as different as these two kids seem to be on the outside, they shared a very powerful similarity that brought them together. They both wanted to belong. I think that is true about the real life characters I based the story off and it’s something that I wanted to maintain in the fictional versions of them.

Scott:  Speaking of Daniel and that loneliness, there’s voice-over narration early in the script where he says, “I was an only child and was never one to make friends easily. Over the years I had become very good at being alone. Frankly, it was the only thing I was good at.”

As a starting point, that suggests his destiny is to find at least some connection, some community, right?

Elijah:  Yes. Yes. He wanted to belong to something. I think there’s a piece of dialogue in there that said, “We both wanted to belong.” This is the scene when him and Hunter first meet. They both wanted to belong in different senses of the term “belong,” but there was again that very visceral feeling of not being part of the group and feeling inferior to everyone.

Scott:  They share something in that both have lost a parent.

Elijah:  Yeah.

Scott:  And that’s important.

Elijah:  Yeah. I think if I do another pass on the script, it’s something I want to tap into more, because right now, it’s never mentioned. It’s something that someone like yourself who has read probably thousands of scripts and is very attuned to what to look for has picked up on it. I’m not sure everyone will pick up on it.

It’s something that’s floating beneath the surface, but it’s not something I’ve brought out there and really addressed.

Scott:  Yeah, I mean, you can deal with it with Daniel. He does this interesting symbolic act at some point about his father and burning some stuff that gets him into a bit of trouble or at least perceived to be like a cry for help.

That and in fact at a key point, he even thinks ‑‑ it’s in a scene description, I think ‑‑ that he might have seen an image of his father down the road. I think you know what I’m talking about. And so as the father hangs over him like a ghost in the way. He’s in the background, but it’s present.

With regard to Hunter, it’s not as much there. I was wondering, because he’s a very angry guy. He’s like a ticking bomb. How much of that anger do you think is spurred on by him being an outsider and how much of that do you think actually is tied to the fact that he did lose a parent, his mother?

Elijah:  I think it’s both. I think there is that inferiority complex that kind of haunts him. There is the fact that not only did his mother die, but he realizes he wasn’t there for her. Now his sister won’t speak to him, because she has, whether rightfully or not, found someone to place blame on. And he’s become alienated from everyone.

But on top of that, it is the self‑fulfilling prophecy that for as long as he can remember, he’s always been told that he wasn’t going to amount to anything and he’s nothing more than the bad boy. He’s the guy who can sleep with a girl at night and sell the girl’s father weed during the day. Then the next day, when he runs into both of them, they look the other way, like they have no idea who he is.

That’s something that…it affects every moment of his life. At times he gets off on it, like when he drives up to the gas station and he winks at the young mother and shudders and drives away. And at times, it makes him feel really shitty about himself. And what makes him so tragic is that he is aware of who he is and his place in the world and feels like there is no way out.

There’s a scene where him and Daniel are talking. It’s when Daniel asks him to be part of the drug business. And Daniel says something along the lines of, “You know when you’re told that you’re one way long enough you begin to believe it.” I think the screen direction is something along the lines of Hunter not responding, but knowing all too well how that feels.

And Daniel’s been told all his life, directly or indirectly, that he’s nobody. He is average, which is where I got the last name “Middleton.” He’s in the middle. He does not stick out of the crowd. He’s like, “I don’t want to be that way anymore.”

And Hunter, from a very different standpoint, doesn’t want to be what he’s been told anymore. There’s a point in the script where he starts realizing he doesn’t have to live the life he’s always been told that he has to live. Without giving away the ending, the sad part is that he becomes what everyone says he always would become…

Then when you look at McKayla, she is also a victim of this where she is the attractive,  dangerous girl in town that is taken advantage of by these vacationers and then is left after Labor Day, when they go back to their lives. She can see the trajectory of her life as well. Although she doesn’t speak about it, it affects her in the sense that she’s like, “I know how my story ends. I know who I am and I know what’s meant for me.”

It’s the fear of becoming that thing that the world around you tells you that you’ll become. All of our characters fight against that. Some win. Some don’t.

Scott:  There’s a real theme at work of destiny, fate. It’s even up top in the dialogue. Hunter at some point says early on in conversations with Daniel, “Walk on the edge long enough and you’re going to fall. Trick is to enjoy the goddamn view first.” And then he follows it up a little later saying, “Life is like gravity. It doesn’t matter who you are. We’re all going to end up where we’re supposed to, whether we like it or not.”

Could you talk a bit about this idea of destiny in the story, of fate?

Elijah:  Well, one of the opening sentences in the script in a voice‑over is Daniel saying something about “every moment in life is a result of the moment preceding it.” Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford tapped into this when he said “It’s not until we look backwards that we can connect all the dots.”

Oftentimes in life we find ourselves in a situation where we go, “How the hell did I end up here?” But if you really go back and deconstruct every decision you’ve made leading up to there, it makes perfect sense. The problem is in the moment we’re blind. Although we always think, “Oh, I won’t make this mistake again” but as it says in the script, “Life is always one step ahead”.

I really was interested in the fact that Daniel was, for the first time in his life, living in the moment and letting emotions and instinct lead the day. And from the very beginning, I wanted to tell a story about a person who thought they had everything under control. And of course, life was one step ahead of him and he watched things spin out.

A  movie that I probably watched 100 times when I was writing the script was “Goodfellas.” Structurally, it’s very similar, but it’s the idea of the romanticism of this time and how you can be swept up in it. Before you know it, you look up and you’re facing 50 years in prison and go “How did this happen?” Well, if you look at it, it makes perfect sense how it happened, but on a day to day level, on a granular level, you’re unaware of the path you’re leading yourself down.

Scott:  There’s a moment where Calhoun, the sheriff, he’s sort of a mentor or a wisdom figure. He’s got a side of dialogue where he stops Daniel, then says, “You’re going to have a hard and trying summer. Looks like we all are.” Then he goes on. Just sort of raps about the summer and “the heat will change a man, Mr. Middleton. Make him do things he otherwise would not do. And as he yearns for cooler times, you know what it is that will tear him apart? Denying that which is inevitable.”

It’s almost like Calhoun is a prophet at that point. He’s literally saying look, this is the path you’re going down.

Elijah:  Absolutely. I love stories that do this. They do it in Magnolia. They do it in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Again, this whole story I wanted to feel like there was a small layer of mysticism to it. It was fantastical in a way. And just working with the idea of the fable. Having a prophet that basically verbatim says the theme of the script and tells Daniel this is what your fate will be, it’s something from the onset that I knew I wanted to happen. I didn’t know how it was going to happen, but I knew I wanted to put it in there.

If only I made Calhoun blind. Damn…

Tomorrow in Part 5, Elijah reflects on his love/hate relationship with plot and what it was like to learn two of his scripts made the Black List.

To read Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Elijah is repped at Verve and Kaplan / Perrone.

Twitter: @BynumElijah.