What you see above are my recent pencil notes on page two of Raymond Chandler’s 1949 script for a feature film called “Playback.” The film was never made.
I thought it might be useful for me to talk about the kinds of things I consider when I read a script for a film I am working on or might be working on. Obviously, all sound people who read scripts have their own approach, and I wouldn’t claim that mine is the only or the best way to do it. As I read a script I’m always wondering how to incorporate the sound ideas that are already explicit or implicit in the script, and inevitably sound-related ideas occur to me that are not in the script at all, ones I think might be good additions. Incorporating some of these ideas into the story would require changing the script, and some would influence how a scene is shot. Whether I mention any of these “re-write” thoughts to the director of the film will depend on many things, the main one being how open to that kind of collaboration I think the director is. I’m very aware, though, that it’s common for other department heads, like the production designer and the cinematographer, to make script suggestions relating to their crafts, so I’m always hoping that sound design will enjoy the same creative open door. One reason for interacting with the director this early is that some of the ideas we discuss in pre-production would shape principal photography to some degree, and some of them would be impossible to accomplish remedially in post production.
In my ideal world, the production mixers on movies would see themselves as sound designers, and would feel free to present story-altering ideas based on sound to directors, ideas like some I suggest in this case study. Unfortunately, few production mixers have traditionally had the kind of relationship with their directors that would allow such interaction. I hope these blogs will encourage production mixers, sound designers, supervising sound editors and directors to move toward a fuller kind of collaboration.
The example script I’m using was for a film that never got shot. The famous novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler (Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, etc.) wrote it about 70 years ago, but for some reason Universal decided not to make it. I wouldn’t say it’s a great script, but I think it will do for our purposes. It is VERY dated. The language, sensibility, and culture are very much from the late 1940’s USA. For some reason there are lots of typos. My hunch is that somebody quickly retyped it at some point without being careful. Or, maybe Chandler himself was a sloppy typist. That’s research for another day. I have tried to fix the most egregious ones.
I chose this particular script to use as a case study in part because I wanted to avoid offending anyone, at least anyone still alive, by presuming to improve on their work. Using a script that had actually been turned into a film, especially a film within the living memory of anyone around today, would have been too much of an affront to the writer, director, etc. On the other hand, when I am hired to work on a film in pre-production I don’t have any qualms about making these kinds of suggestions for script changes as long as the director seems open to considering them. I consider it part of my job.
I’m going to cheat and give you a very brief synopsis of the story just so you’ll have a hint of where we’re going. Betty arrives in Vancouver, Canada on a train, running away from having been accused of murdering her husband back East. She is soon to be accused of a murder in Vancouver, the second experience being like a “playback” of what she was running away from.
Below are the first two scenes, with my notes. I will cover the next set of scenes with my next post.
If you would like to read all of Chandler’s screenplay, here is a link:
PLAYBACK / Script Analysis
To begin, let’s pretend that this is a script I have been sent by the director of a film I’ve been hired to do the sound design for, and the movie is in pre-production. No shooting has happened yet. Having read the script once, now I’m going through it page by page to make notes for myself, for the director, and other collaborators when appropriate. If I were reading the script for a film that had already been shot, my notes would be different in some ways, certainly more specific. I will include some of those kinds of notes too.
Some of the script changes I’m proposing here are pretty radical. They go far beyond the boundaries of what sound people have traditionally considered their territory or purview. I would submit, though, that they are very much in line with the kinds of suggestions often made by cinematographers. In my view, an idea about a script change is either good or bad, regardless of who it comes from. If you offer enough bad ideas, or offer any ideas in an offensive way, then you’ve hurt yourself. But if most of your ideas have the potential to help the movie, then the person who gets hurt most is the director who refuses to listen to them because they came from a sound person.
Most screenwriters either don’t take sound design very seriously, haven’t thought about it much, or think of it as something that happens only in post production, and therefore not really their business. Raymond Chandler was a fantastic writer, but using sound imagery in interesting ways wasn’t a strong element in his writing arsenal. The changes I suggest in this analysis are aimed at making it better cinema by figuring out how to use the sounds of places and objects, and especially how to use Betty’s perception of those sounds, as a way of pulling the audience into a deeper understanding of her and her world. Many of the ideas I have about bringing sound into the story more fully would be difficult or impossible to incorporate if the movie were to be shot based on the script as Chandler wrote it. The director, the film editor, and the sound team would be stuck trying to shoehorn sound ideas into a scenario that wasn’t designed to use them.
PLAYBACK An original Screenplay by Raymond Chandler Final Draft March 24, 1949 Property of Universal-MCA Hollywood, CA. USA FADE IN: EXT. OPEN LANDSCAPE WITH RAILROAD TRACKS -- DAY LONG SHOT A STREAMLINER coming TOWARDS CAMERA which is off to one side of tracks. The landscape has pine and fir trees and is a northern Washington landscape. As the streamliner passes, the CAMERA PANS around following it and stops. The streamliner tears off into the distance and in the foreground is WE SEE a RAILROAD SIGN -- "EVERETT WASH"
Immediately I’m thinking about themes. The name of the movie is Playback. It’s about a re-playing of something already experienced… repetition. I’m wondering how I can underscore with sound design the idea of repetition, especially a kind of repetition that is not necessarily pleasant. The click-clack of train wheels rolling over the junctions between the rail segments comes to mind. I also know from having read the script that there are other kinds of wheels in other scenes which might make a repetitive sound.
We might only get a hint of the rail clack during this train pass-by, but I know we can make more of it once we are inside the passenger compartment.
This would have been a diesel train during that period in the USA. I make note of that, and of the locale of this first shot: rural Washington State, train tracks adjacent to conifer forest. It isn’t likely that we will get a chance to hear much except the train in this first shot, but I’ll make a note about recording and/or finding in libraries appropriate bird calls and winds.
I should talk with the director about whether the shot of the train going by needs to be a pan, as it’s described in the script. I might try to sell them on doing a different kind of shot that would be more powerful/interesting for sound. The train rolling over the camera instead of rolling by it would allow us to fill the acoustic space with this giant, dynamic thing. There would probably still be a way to land visually on the “Everett WASH” sign after the train goes by.
At the end of the script Betty finds herself quite literally on dark waters. I’m wondering if we can establish a water theme at the beginning that could connect in a useful way with where she winds up. Perhaps the first shot in the movie could be of the churning water below a railroad bridge. The camera could rise up the pilings of the bridge until it is just above the rails, looking down the tracks. A train is quickly approaching from a distance. Just before the engine smashes into us we descend, and the train speeds right over our heads, filling the space with devastating sound.
DISSOLVE TO: INT. STREAMLINER IN MOTION - CORRIDOR -- DAY SHOWING OPEN DOORS OF FOUR ROOMETTES
I’m thinking mainly about rail clacks and other kinds of repetition inside this train passenger compartment. I’m wondering if objects the train passes close to could make a double whoosh. Maybe we would assume that for each object we see going by there might be another one we can’t see which would generate a second doppler. Or perhaps the director would consider seeing two electrical poles fly by the train windows in quick succession in some cases. In that case I might think about treating each of them differently. Maybe the first pole or other object would be more or less dry sounding, and the next pole (only a second or two or three later) could be quieter, with reverb. Or the reverse, the first more stylized (as if a memory) and the second more up front, dry and aggressive.
Chandler’s dialog tends to dominate every scene. I’m hoping the director will leave enough pauses for this place to establish itself a bit, because we can use the sounds of the train in motion to mirror and reinforce Betty’s stress.
Metallic scraping and squeaking sounds are common on moving trains. I’ll make note of placing some of those strategically to underscore Betty’s tension, obviously avoiding being too “on the nose” with them.
We’ll want to make lots of recordings inside moving train cars. They won’t necessarily have to be diesel trains because we probably won’t be hearing the engine much if at all when we are inside the passenger compartment. In addition to the click-clack and object whoosh-bys I’m thinking about train crossing bells. Getting recordings of those that don’t have a different click-clack rhythm in the background from our primary one could be a challenge.
To reinforce the water theme and connect the beginning to the end, I’m thinking that Betty could be looking out the train window, and gazing down at water similar to what we saw in the first shot below the bridge. Maybe a water bird plucks up a fish, and flies with it right by her window, dripping muddy water on the glass.
This story can be stronger if we can find ways to get inside Betty’s head… see and hear more things from her POV. There are obvious opportunities to do that in the flashbacks later in the script, but I think we could do it during two or three earlier moments in the movie too.
I need to find out how the director is planning to shoot this train car interior. Will it be practical, on a real train, or on a set of some kind. How much if any CGI will be involved. I’ll want to talk with the production mixer about what kinds of help they may need from the other department heads to get the best recordings possible of the dialog, and a minimum of ambient noise. We should coordinate our efforts, and lobby on behalf of production sound as much as we think we can get away with, maybe slightly more than we think we can get away with.
Through the windows can be seen the landscape through which the train is passing. In the first roomette, counting from the left, is a well-dressed, rather wise-looking FEMALE, young, smart. She is making up her face. In the second is a middle-aged couple, a CANADIAN IMMIGRATION INSPECTOR and a CANADIAN CUSTOMS INSPECTOR. In the third, BETTY MAYFIELD is seated near the window, turning over the pages of a magazine. She is about 27 years old, beautiful, blonde, and has a remote troubled expression, as though her thoughts were far away. The fourth is empty. There is a man's suitcase in evidence on the seat. LARRY MITCHELL enters from the left. He is tall, good-looking, young, with superficial charm and rather too much self-assurance. He glances in at the woman in the first roomette, stops in the door and leans against it. We MOVE IN so this scene becomes a SHOT of a single roomette. OVER SCENE is HEARD the voices of the Canadian Immigration Officer. CANADIAN OFFICIAL (O.S.) Good afternoon. You name, please. PASSENGER (O.S.) George Olson. MITCHELL (to the unknown woman) Better stop while it's still perfect. She looks up at him with a slow stare. CANADIAN OFFICIAL (O.S.) And where were you born, Mr. Olson? PASSENGER (O.S.) Waukegan, Illinois. UNKNOWN WOMAN (to Mitchell) Is there something I can do for you? MITCHELL There are a lot of things you could do for me. IMMIGRATION INSPECTOR (O.S.) And this is your wife, Mr. Olson? PASSENGER (O.S.) Yes. She was born in Waukegan, too. Same as Jack Benny, you know. OFFICER (O.S.) (puzzled) Jack Benny? UNKNOWN WOMAN (to Mitchell) Well, there is something you could do for me. MITCHELL I'd be delighted. UNKNOWN WOMAN You can move to one side. So my husband can get in. Mitchell glances back, then moves to one side with a smile. He is quite unperturbed. A rather decrepit MAN creeps past him into the roomette with the unknown WOMAN. She gives Mitchell a quick flashing smile. Mitchell grins, turns away. CAMERA PULLS BACK AND PANS HIM PAST THE NEXT ROOMETTE We now see the IMMIGRATION and CUSTOMS OFFICIALS and two MIDDLE-AGED PASSENGERS. CUSTOMS OFFICIAL (to Olson) Any firearms? Dutiable articles of any kind, Mr. Olson? Olson shakes his head. CAMERA PANS Mitchell past this door to the door of better Mayfield's roomette. He leans in this as he did in the unknown Woman's roomette. MITCHELL (to Betty) Would you care to see the Seattle paper? Betty turns slowly, stares at him. BETTY No thanks, I've seen Seattle. MITCHELL My name's Larry Mitchell. I live in Vancouver. Betty says nothing. MITCHELL Same as an hour ago. Remember? I'm the steady type. BETTY (coldly) I'm afraid there's nothing I can do about it, Mr. Mitchell. CAMERA NOW HAS MOVED IN CLOSE enough to exclude the other roomettes completely. MITCHELL You could tell me your name. And where you're going. BETTY How far does this train go? MITCHELL Vancouver, B.C. BETTY I'm going to Vancouver, Mr. Mitchell. She picks up a magazine and opens it, ignoring him. MITCHELL O.K. Be rugged. He turns, starts out, then looks back at her. MITCHELL You're next for the Immigration and Customs. I trust your papers are all in order. Betty looks up quickly and cannot conceal a startled expression. Mitchell reacts. CAMERA PULLS BACK as he comes out into corridor, looks towards the roomette in which the officials are, then turns towards the next roomette and goes into it. Fusses with his suitcase. CAMERA PANS across to the officials coming out of Olson's roomette. As they come out of Olson's roomette. CANADIAN IMMIGRATION OFFICIAL I hope you will enjoy your stay in Canada, Mr. Olson. OLSON'S VOICE (O.S.) Thanks. Canadian officials then go on to Betty's roomette, enter. CANADIAN IMMIGRATION OFFICIAL Your name, please. BETTY Betty.. Mayfield. There is a perceptible hesitation which immigration officials notices. OFFICIAL Betty Mayfield. Miss or Mrs. Mitchell is seen in his roomette, standing near the door listening. BETTY Miss Mayfield. OFFICIAL And where were you born, Miss Mayfield? BETTY New York, City. The official is a little suspicious. He looks down at Betty's hands which are clasped in her lap. OFFICIAL I see you are wearing a wedding ring. BETTY I've been married. My Husband.. (she breaks off and bites her lip) INSPECTOR Then I take it Mayfield was not your married name? He is very polite, but is building up to asking for some identification papers. One this cue, Mitchell comes out of his roomette, crosses, enters Betty's roomette. CAMERA MOVES IN MITCHELL I've wired ahead to-- He breaks off, turns to Inspector, recognizes him. MITCHELL Inspector Gillette, Isn't it? I'm Larry Mitchell. We've met before, several times. He takes out wallet and holds it out to Inspector. MITCHELL I cross the border so often I carry an identification card. INSPECTOR (glancing at card) Yes, I remember you, Mr. Mitchell. (glancing at Betty) You know this lady? MITCHELL Very well. Since 1940, at least. I met her--let me see--it was New York City, wasn't it Betty? Betty nods silently. Inspector turns back to her, handing Mitchell's wallet back. INSPECTOR (to Betty) How long do you expect to be in Canada, Miss Mayfield? BETTY Oh.. a month. INSPECTOR (making up his mind) Thank you. I hope you have a pleasant trip. He turns away, starts out. CUSTOMS INSPECTOR (to Betty) Any firearms? Dutiable articles of any kind? BETTY No. CUSTOMS OFFICIAL Thank you. He marks her baggage. MITCHELL (to Customs Inspector) My suitcases are open in the next room. CUSTOMS INSPECTOR (to Mitchell) Anything dutiable, Mr. Mitchell? MITCHELL No. Nothing. CUSTOMS INSPECTOR Thank you. Custom Inspector goes out. Mitchell sits down, looks at Betty coolly. She avoids his eyes. MITCHELL Better get rid of the wedding ring. That's what threw him. Betty looks out of the window, says nothing. MITCHELL Trouble? Betty turns her head and looks at him without speaking. Her face is empty of expression. MITCHELL Or Reno? (a beat) They always throw them off the bridge there, I've heard. BETTY Perhaps I don't take it so lightly. MITCHELL Where are you staying in Vancouver Royal. It's pretty crowded you know. BETTY Is it? I expected to go to the Vancouver Royal. Should I have a reservation? MITCHELL I'll make one for you. (a beat) I live there. BETTY (doubtfully) Well.. MITCHELL (quietly) A very small service. It doesn't even ask for thanks. How long for? BETTY I really don't know. MITCHELL Indefinitely? BETTY (with a shrug) I don't know. MITCHELL (eyeing her thoughtfully) You don't know. He turns and goes. She looks after him, puzzled and rather attracted. Then his mood passes and she relapses again into her listless, hopeless manner. She reaches for the magazine and starts to leaf through its pages indifferently, as we DISSOLVE TO: EXT. ROYAL HOTEL -- DAY LONG SHOT