Two Guys in the woods. In a tent. Big bear comes up, he’s gonna eat ’em. One guy reaches in his pack, starts putting on his running shoes. The other guy: "you idiot, you can’t run faster than a bear…" Guy says ’I don’t have to run faster than the bear, I just have to run faster than you…"
ANGLE: INT. THE PLANE
You know why that’s particularly funny…? (PAUSE) The man would not be in the woods with his running shoes. (PAUSE) He wouldn’t take them in the woods. So the joke indicates hostility on the part of the man who brought the shoes. (PAUSE) It indicates, in effect, that he brought the other man into the woods to kill him.1
I can do no better explaining the plot of the movie The Edge than this early exchange between Bob Green, a superficial fashion photographer, and Charles Morse, a detached billionaire. In David Mamet’s screenplay they get stuck in the woods together, and Green wants to kill Morse for reasons you’ll soon find out. Possibly the most amazing thing about this fun piece of writing is that it didn’t even make it into the movie. In The Edge, Mamet and Lee Tamahori, the film’s director use naturalistic, mostly forgettable dialogue and shape it into a a sparse, intelligent movie which transcends the bounds of the run-of-the-mill action flick.
I Think Therefore I Am
A lot of reviewers have been calling The Edge a thinking-man’s action film, because Anthony Hopkins' character Charles Morse dispenses lore about the great outdoors. But I think that a lot of these reviewers are missing the point. Not that Morse isn’t an intelligent character or that intelligent people wouldn’t enjoy this movie, but Mamet, greatly aided by Tamahori, makes a point: that for all of Morse’s planning, scheming and pontificating, almost every piece of knowledge and plan-of-attack that Morse asserts ends up failing. By carefully frustrating viewer’s expectations of the genre, Mamet defines his bookworm Billionaire, ultimately, as a man of action, and his nemesis Bob Green, as a character who’s specific flaw is inaction.
With naturalistic dialogue that functions as action (even when “supposed” exposition is revealed) Mamet is able to clarify his theme of action versus inaction. And through the use of a tag-line, one simple sentence, and an accompanying image system, his thriller transcends its physical jeopardy into a metaphysical arena.
For all of the information that Morse has learned from his book, Lost in the Wilds (The filmmakers wisely choose to let the book get lost when the plane crashes unlike the draft I read where they have it with them the entire time.), the filmmakers carefully contrive such that practically not one piece of that information actually helps them accomplish any of their goals. The compass (trying to magnetize aluminum in the first place, tsk, tsk) leads them right back to where they started. They don’t catch a fish. The “fire from ice” trick isn’t used. The swinging bear trap doesn’t work very well. After reading the first-aid kit and attending to Green, Morse can’t save his life.
Instead of knowledge assisting the characters in their survival, Mamet uses it differently. In this scene, Green, after seeing a rescue plane fly away, drops to the ground, frustrated, giving up.
Did you know you can make Fire from Ice…?
GREEN SHAKES HIS HEAD, DEJECTED, MEANING “NOT NOW…”
You can make fire from ice. Hello? I’m talking to you… Do you know how that would be done? (PAUSE) Robert? (PAUSE) Robert. Can you think?
You Yankees. Isn’t it…? Isn’t it?
Fire from Ice, can you think how?
Sit up there… drinks and Golf. Screwing the Maid (PAUSE) But get you in an emergency…
An’ you bloom. You make me sick. You make me sick, d’you know that…?
I’m sure that I do.
You make me sick. What the hell puts you off… Jews and Public Speaking, I’d bet.
Fire from ice. Can you think how? Can you think how?
I don’t care how, Charles.
Do you want to die?2
Morse continues to throw the question at Green until he eventually explains to Green how to make fire from ice.
Even if this scene were in the hands of a novice screenwriter, and he/she had to solve the problem of how to reveal to the audience that Morse knows how to make fire, this scene would be a strong way to dramatize the exposition. The question he asks Green however, is not a question; it’s antagonism--an aggressive attempt to push him to think clearly so he can help both of them survive.
Although Morse’s solution to how to make fire from ice is interesting, it is not the point of the scene. At the end of the scene Morse even says, "But I doubt we’ll be reduced… we still have the matches." It’s not even exposition, because it is not a set up where 30 pages later you see them saving themselves by making a fire with this knowledge. In general, any time a movie has a character tell us exactly how a plan is going to go and then the plan goes exactly that way (or at least with no additional irony), the movie’s not going to work. But the dialogue reveals Morse as a man who is very strong-willed and determined and Green as a man who ironically, quite unironically, does want to die. This is a dramatic scene about a person imploring another person to think, to do, to act, to BE!
Rhetoric As Action
Charles Deemer wrote in Creative Screenwriting, "Rhetoric (storytelling) itself becomes a kind of action, as well as contributing to character development and often to scene tension."3 Deemer was discussing Tarantino’s work, but it’s equally applicable to Mamet’s. When Mamet has a character tell a story, impart knowledge or tell a joke, he is careful to not just give information out for its own sake. It must not stall the script or stop the dramatic momentum. You’ll find that when it’s done right, rhetoric, as in the “foot massage” argument and Samuel Jackson’s repeated religious diatribes in Pulp Fiction, has as many of these characteristics as possible:
- Very funny or intrinsically interesting
- Revealing character
- Creating tension for the audience or conflict between characters
Foreshadowing or setup or pay off If you can apply the same criteria to long monologues or joke/storytelling in your script, it can help your writing. Tarantino’s diatribes (as an actor) in, say, Destiny Turns on the Radio and Desperado don’t work as well as they do in his own scripts, because they aren’t functioning dramatically on several levels at once.
The “Fire from ice” scene above has almost all of these characteristics. Mamet specifically foils the last characteristic, because we never see them actually rely on the information as a lesser writer might do.
The “Two guys in the woods” story at the beginning of this article is a textbook example of how Mamet creatively integrates rhetoric/dialogue as action. Not only does it foreshadow the central issue of the movie, it also reveals character: how analytical and perceptive Morse is, and how he is good at reading other people’s covert hostility. It’s also an interesting insight into the nature of comedy, which Freud says, always has a hostile intention.4 The story is also funny, and Morse’s response is revealing.
To Be or Not To Be
When Green is on his death-bed, he says to Morse:
…Hey. I’m dying, and I never did a goddamn thing.5
This might seem like a throwaway line, but it actually joins in with several other of Morse’s lines like “Do you want to die?”, “You want to die out here,” and “Should we just lay down and die?” to show that Green does want to die, that he is a person unable to take action. This is a subtle and elaborate theme which is set up several different ways in the dialogue, but also in the plotting. Green’s failure to bury the bloodied cloth leads to the death of Stephen. Green’s failure to put back the note on the door puts them in more danger. He fails to keep the fire going. He can’t find his own woman. He doesn’t even want to add three hours to determine the time in New York when in Los Angeles.
An additional line of dialogue that is not in the draft of the script I read but which is in the movie really helps to clarify this theme. Morse knows that Green is gravely injured and he tells him not to die, and Green responds "Don’t tell me what to do." These are Green’s last words before he dies. Passive aggressive. Appropriate. He dies simply because he won’t do anythingeven live.
Why is Morse the hero? And what is it about him that makes him dramatically able to save himself from the PHYSICAL danger? At one point Morse says to Green:
I’m not dense, Robert. I just have no imagination.6
This is a great line, because most of the audience thinks that it is said with irony, but the great irony is that it’s not ironic. For all of Morse’s information and ideas, the reason they are still alive is because he’s a man of action, a person bold enough, even under the worst conditions, to act to try to change his predicament. Let’s look at the second biggest decision Morse makes. In this scene, the bear has tracked them down again, and they know he is lurking nearby.
…he’s a mankiller. He’s been stalking us from the first. He’s toying with us.
…what are we going to do?
…when they get the scent of blood….
(STANDS AND GRABS MORSE) What are we going to do….?
Morse THROWS HIM OFF.
What are we going to do?
What do I have a plan? Am I supposed to have a plan…?
Morse moves to a piece of the encircling fire, which has burnt down, he starts to build it up. He takes the note “Gone Bear Hunting, Jack Hawk” from his pocket.
(PEERING OUT PAST THE FLAMES) What are we going to do Charles…?
Morse PAUSES. HE TURNS OVER JACK HAWK’S NOTE, AND WE SEE THE 19TH CENTURY ADVERTISEMENT “STRIKE FAST” MATCHES, THE CAMPER’S FRIEND. AND THE DRAWING OF THE INDIAN SPEARING THE BEAR.
ANGLE Morse AND GREEN.
MORSE LIGHTS THE FIRE.
… What are we going to do?
We’re going to kill the bear?7
The five consecutive occurrences of “What are we going to do?” clarify that Green is somebody unable to do anything and it is Morse who will have to come up with the decision. When it all comes down to it, the answer to “What do you do to stop a bear who is chasing you when you have no other way to stop it from killing you?” is you try to kill it: two men and their spears.
What do we use for bait?
(ABSENTLY) …we ‘lure’ him - you know, Masai boys, in Africa. Eleven years old. They kill lion with spears.
Uh huh. (Pause) … how do we lure him?
Morse WITHDRAWS THE SPEARPOINT FROM THE FIRE, LOOKS AT IT, HE NODS AND REPLACES THE SPEARPOINT, REVOLVING IT IN THE FIRE.
… and what One can do, another can do…
(Green doubts their ability to kill the bear. In the script, Morse shows Green a picture in the book of how it will be done, but this is excised from the film.)
You can’t kill the bear, Charles. He’s…he’s… he’s (shakes his head) Been ahead of us, the whole, he’s been playing with us, he can read our minds, he…
What one can do, another can do. You weakling. Do you want to die out here…? (PAUSE) DO you? (PAUSE) You coward. (PAUSE) Do you hear me? (PAUSE) "I’m going to kill the bear." Say it…
Say it… "I’m going to kill the bear." Say it:
I’m going to kill’im.
And tomorrow I’m going to kill the motherfucker.8
This naturalistic, repetitive emotional dialogue works on more than one level. It clarifies the theme about doing and being as the two characters reveal their true selves. The matchbox gives him the idea, but he has to think to elaborate on how to do it. And the information Morse knows about the Masai isn’t used to solve the problem. He uses the Masai stories to chide and inspire, but the resolution comes from the characters and more specifically their character.
The MetaphysicalAbove, I asked the question what makes Morse the hero and why is he able to save himself. We dealt with how he saves himself from physical jeopardy, but how does he save himself spiritually? After they have killed the bear:
(resuming a conversation)
…and so I said, and so I said, "if this is me life, then this is my life… but you can change your life. (Pause) Is that true?9
What follows is not in the script, but in the movie:
GREEN Why wouldn’t it be true?
Because I never knew anyone who did actually change their life. (PAUSE) I’ll tell you what. I’m going to start my life over.
Yeah. (PAUSE) You’ll be the first.
Morse makes the decision to change. After Green’s failed attempt to kill him, Morse, even after learning that Green has slept with his wide, makes the most important decision in the film and in his life: he decides to forgive Green and try to save him. The movie becomes bigger than just the outdoorsits physical environment. It gives us hope that people can rise up to a higher level. Mamet uses small snippets of dialogue, an image system and a tag-line to help to foreshadow and strengthen this theme.
Image system is the term Robert McKee uses to explain a series of recurring images or ideas which help to clarify a theme or mood.10 Some may just call it a motif. The most interesting image system in the movie wasn’t even in the script. The opening shot of the film (which is not alluded to in the script) makes the back of a plane and its wings look like a winged-totem or an angel. There are bookending shots of a totem (which Morse notices and points out) at the lodge when the plane and helicopter land, and there is even a match-dissolve from Morse’s face to the totem.
Morse’s wife, laying back, with her arms folded behind her head like wings, ironically looking like an angel, calls her husband an angel and continues, “…everything but the wings.” Later, in persuading him to go on the trip, she tells him that it will be good to “get some air under your wings.”
A tag-line also works with this image system to show how Morse transcends the ground and rises to a new height. John Truby defines a tag-line as a line of dialogue that is repeated throughout a screenplay, but has a different meaning each time.
The tag-line, “Never feel sorry for a man who owns a plane” which was not in the draft I read, is repeated twice and meshes well with the other associations of visual and aural images of planes, angels, Morse, totems and wings. The first time it is used, the line is a jaded remark, but later it raises questions about whether or not material things alone, without love, can make a person happy. These are nonobtrusive, subtle ways where the dialogue, working in conjunction with an image system, helps clarify a theme and the purpose of the character’s journey.
Taking Out All the Good Lines
In the preface of his On Directing Film (an eqally good book for screenwriters), Mamet quotes Hemingway: “Write the story, take out all the good lines and see if it still works.”11 In Mamet’s writing, we see the same dramatic clarity. In The Edge, a character may be telling a story or imparting knowledge to the audience, but it is always in service to the very basic question: what does the character want. We may learn that Masai boys are good hunters, and that we can make fire from ice, and that bringing your sneakers in the woods indicates hostility. But these interesting and sometimes entertaining tidbits do nothing if they are not in the context of a flesh-and-blood character and his/her grappling with desires and emotions.
- 1David Mamet, The Edge (January, 1996), p. 6.
- 2Ibid., pp. 91–2.
- 3Charles Deemer, “A Tarantino Script” in Creative Screenwriting (Vol. 3, No. 4), p. 63.
- 4Mamet has made it clear several times that Freud and psychoanalysis have a great deal of influence on his work. He loves to have characters use double-entendres and freudian-slips which belie something more about themselves.
- 5David Mamet, The Edge (January, 1996), p. 130.
- 6Ibid., p. 92.
- 7Ibid., 99–100.
- 8Ibid., pp. 101–104.
- 9Ibid., p. 111.
- 10A few examples would be flawed eyes in Chinatown, water in Diabolique, hats in Miller’s Crossing, and cigarettes in too many movies.
- 11David Mamet, On Directing Film, Penguin Books, 1991, p. xiv.