9.01.2008

The Dark Knight - revisited


In part, I celebrated the Labor Day weekend by going to see The Dark Knight in IMAX for the second time. I also wanted to see it again after having read the script. I'm sure most fans of the movie -- or script junkies in general -- have already sniffed out the script. All 167 pages of it. If not, look here.

It's an interesting read. For a few reasons.

First, it's almost a 1:1 transfer from page to screen. They shot what they wrote. The only changes I really saw were the cutting of lines, and some clarifying of the action. But not much. It's impressive. I think it all comes down to the breaking of the story. In a CS podcast, Jonathan Nolan said it the fastest first draft he'd ever written. To paraphrase, he said that when you have such a solid "crackerjack" story, it's a joy to write -- and a speedy one at that.

Second, Heath's Ledger's performance. This may be what struck me the most. He performed his lines to the letter; to the punctuation even. The brilliance of his performance -- I think most people would take that as a given -- came in all the surrounding choices he made. His voice, inflection, laugh, mannerisms, ticks, the licking of his lips. Gestures, posture, his stare, etc. etc.

The reason I bring this up is that in the past decade or so we seem to be placing more and more importance on improvisation. The genius that the actor brings to a part -- and this somehow being directly correlated to his/her putting his stamp on the dialogue. Many actors, whom I won't bother naming, seem to be placing that skill as a measure of one's acting ability. Which is a sharp misconception.

Now, I'm not putting down improv or it's value in narrative filmmaking. Improvers are incredibly talented. I just think it's important to note that improvisation and acting are two different skill sets. They can be used together, but one does not equal the other. It's like acting and public speaking. Two different deals.

So what I admired about Heath Ledger's performance is that he took this part that was just brilliantly written, and he performed it to the letter, and still made it completely his own through the hundreds of little decisions that he made and risks that he took. And that's what acting is. And I think it's eye-opening and refreshing to see someone from Ledger's generation doing the work, and knocking it out of the fucking park.

I think his performance will go down as a textbook example to be studied. I can't remember where I read it now, but I remember hearing about Gary Oldman being impressed with Ledger's performance during the scene where he's made Commissioner and The Joker is applauding him. He went up to Ledger and said that in that moment he reminded him of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. And Ledger said, funny enough, he'd be studying McDowell's performance in that movie in his trailer.

Finally, the aspect that struck me was the script's sparseness. Yeah, sparseness. In a 167 pages. This script is packed to the brim and paced to within an inch of its life -- just like the final cut of the film. The script reads incredibly well -- and I was surprised at how economical its descriptions were.

The Joker is introduced piecemeal, just like he is in the film. At the bank heist:

"Bozo PULLS off his MASK. The Bank Manager GASPS. In the reflections of the glass DEBRIS behind the Bank Manager we see GLIMPSES of a SCARRED MOUTH and CLOWN MAKEUP. THE JOKER."


Obviously that reveal was altered slightly. But it's still shown in a brief, tight shot that didn't allow the viewer to take in the scope of the character too much. But that was it. A "scarred mouth" and "clown makeup." It was his opening line and the spirit of the part (as written here), that carried those piecemeal descriptions to such an impact.

It isn't until later, at page 32, that we get a more complete picture of The Joker and what he has in store for us when he crashes the meeting of the crime bosses of Gotham.

"From the back of the room comes LAUGHTER. It grows and grows, until it fills the room. All eyes turn:

The Joker. Sweaty clown makeup obscuring the AWFUL SCARS which widen his mouth into a PERMANENT, GHOULISH SMILE."


Simple, direct. No forced effort to communicate that this guy is terrifying and fun and psychotic. He just is. And they give him the words and actions to carry that through -- and then Ledger came in and added all of the details and layers which made his performance what it is.

If you haven't read the script, I suggest doing so. The Nolan brothers have been criticized as mediocre writers who just use nonlinear gimmicks to dress up their genre stories. But I think this script is a big and powerful rebuttal. Essentially 100% linear. A skillfully broken story. Incredibly structure and pacing. Voice voice voice. And powerfully written.

So I guess it all comes down to the argument that a great movie must start with a great script. Read it. It's all there. It started on those pages. And it just feels effortless.

ps. Spoof or not, it's also worth checking out Michael Bay's rejected Dark Knight script. Be-yut-iful.

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