Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Brilliant Beginnings

A beautifully-lit, plush bedroom in an expensive hi-rise ~ informed by designer white leather chairs, white shag rug, hardwood floors, silk curtains and city view. Man’s pants, a woman’s dress scatter the floor.

On pristine white sheets, a Caucasian woman, naked but for bitchy high heels, and a naked Black man, upside down, sprawled over her, are both asleep. He wakes up. His expression indicates he doesn’t remember what happened. He does a double-take on her ass. Oh, yes, he recognizes it. He scrambles to get dressed, to wake her up. She is dead to the world; even cold water thrown on her face has no effect. He struggles to dress her dead-weight body, wriggling her dress on from the bottom up. He falls, his face smacks between her ass cheeks.

Cut to him dumping her on a chair, dress barely on, boobs exposed. He props her up, plops a laptop in her lap, yanks up her dress. A young teen walks in the door. Dressed in lavender tights and skirt, buzz cut hair, we don’t know if this is a boy or a girl, but, judging by the voice, probably a boy. The kid calls, “Hey, Dad.” Dad leaps around, startled. The kid announces that Grandpa is making French toast. He then inquires, “What’s Mom doing here?” “Working,” says Dad. “Should I tell Grandpa to make her French toast?” Dad replies, “Absolutely not.” The kid does a twirl as he exits. Mom startles awake, her disheveled hair frozen in slow motion. Dad addresses the camera. “Don’t… ever…. fuck…. your… ex-wife.”

That is the first two minutes of Showtime’s House of Lies, billed as a black comedy about a big-moneymaking management consultant and his high-rolling, low-ethics team. How much better can the opening to a new T.V. show get?

How about… to the tune of a church choir singing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”: A Porche heads up a cemetery driveway past lawns being watered by sprinklers (as filmmakers, we prefer our tarmac wet, right?) towards a church of Notre Dam proportions. The driver, handsome, scruffy, smoking a cigarette, gets out the car, pulls of his dark shades. The cigarette is thrown into a font of holy water. The man walks up the aisle, past white pews, towards a crucifixion, “Hey, Big Guy, you and me. I’ve never done this before but desperate times call for desperate measures. My name is Hank.”

A young nun appears, “Hello Hank.” She offers to help him. He doesn’t want to bother a real person, but explains that he’s “having a crisis of faith.” He can’t write. This sucks because he’s supposed to be a writer, a professional one at that. He is erudite and profane. He apologizes. She responds, “Normally, I would suggest a couple of ‘Our Fathers’ or ‘Hail Mary’s’, but I don’t think that’s going to get it done. What about a blow job?” She pulls off her wimple, shakes out her long blonde hair, gets on her knees before him. Hank holds out his hand to block Jesus’s view, saying, “Sweet Baby Jesus, Hank is going to hell.” Hank startles awake.

In less than three minutes, we know our protagonist, Hank Moody, and his chief problem in life. Thus begins another Showtime creation, Californication, which just finished its sixth season.

For more detail on the intro to Californication, read a review here.

For more detail on the intro to House of Lies, read a review here.

What other brilliant openings to TV shows can you recommend?


  1. Lorraine, 'You had me at hello' is what I think you're talking about. Your descriptions are terrific - and stand alone without the visuals! On TV, when such punctured writing meets great directing, how delicious.

    I'm happy that you brought our attention to 'beginnings' or 'opening sequences.' How critical they are at setting the vibration of the movie or series. And in the two examples you provide, they illustrate the golden rule of screenwriting: arrive late ( and leave early). I dislike openings when there is a lot of setting up and back story. Your examples dive in and we get it. Do you think this says something about how writer/director treat audiences (how smart we think they are?) Does it speak to an audience's attentions span? Or is it just a brilliant 'haiku' style that distills character or story in an instant, and is now expected?

    In terms of your own TV project...what other series might you look at to help ensure you have a great early hook?

  2. Hahaha. Great description!

    Tiska, I agree with your point about rule of screenwriting only when it come to television show. But I like when movie sest up the story world like an opening scene in Floating Weeds (1959) by Yasujiro Ozu. It is a hot summer, at a seaside town, a group of villagers are waiting for a boat at the boat house. Some are sitting on the floor, some standing, and some sitting on a chair. As they were casually doing talking about daily village dialogue, they share their different opinions about a troupe of travelling theatre coming to their town. Then the story begins as we are introduced to the protagonist and the side characters who are part of the troupe of travelling theatre.

    I definitely recommend watching this magnificent saga of profound humanity and rich understanding. Photographed by legendary cinematographer - Kazuo Miyagawa

  3. I also concur with Tiska, you put your finger on how an effective opening tempts us into a story world that feels both relevant and mysterious, and we get to know the rules and begin to trust the teller with our time and suspension of disbelief. I would encourage you to think about how the filmmakers achieved this by using dialogue, performance, camera, editing, production design/setting, music etc., and how you want to build on this with your own work.

  4. As screenwriters, we're taught to set up the story in the first five minutes. We need to not only hook the audience, but inform them and set expectations. There are successful filmmakers that get away with complex storytelling, among them my personal hero Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu, and presumably trust that their audience will in return trust them. I remember saying, "WTF" half-way through 21 Grams and then I had an "A Ha!" But I don't consider myself the typical moviegoer. I have friends who would be asking a million questions... What's he doing? Who's she? What's going on? These same friends have the same questions when it comes to watching TV. The difference in how much we, as storytellers, can get away with lies in the investment of a movie ticket versus the click of a remote.

    There's a different sensibility between Hollywood films and other country's films, driven, clearly, by those countries cultures. I don't know what the ADD stats are in Europe, but I can attest to the fact that they're high in the U.S.

    Once upon a time, I worked for Sega of America in their Strategic Marketing Department. I was tasked with breaking down every ad that Sega had ever done to see if we could identify what makes a successful ad, right down to the predominant colors used. So, if I'm to pursue the idea I have for my TV pilot, and use these two examples then the opening will have a bed, the color white, profane language and, most importantly, a redirect. I believe I have the idea, which, furthermore, adds a new element that can be recur throughout. F**k, I LOVE the creative process!

    Thanks for your comments!

  5. I like what Tiska brought to the table about the audiences attention span, like you said Lorraine, ADD stats surely would be a useful tool to compare between countries. I read a book a long time ago, by Neil Postman, "Amusing Ourselves to Death" This book a is a treasure trove if you want to understand the evolution of news, and entertainment, and how entertainment warped into news, our brains have changed. For example, just grab an old newspaper, late 1800, and the pages are thick with writing. Wall to wall ... Can't wait to see your pilot!

  6. When I was in Tokyo two years ago, one of my students was an elderly fisherman who had written over 50 Yakusa movies, one of which was sold to Tarantino - which then became KILL BILL. I asked him what he thought made a good opening and he replied through an interpreter: "Our bodies are 95% water. Our minds are 100% emotion. A good opening, regardless of the genre forces water out of the body's pores. When that happens you know you have a good opening."