Cinematic Storytelling (6)

Here’s a sequence from Robert Towne’s Chinatown, a script that really deserves no introduction.
This is my favorite sequence in this script in terms of screenwriting techniques. Reading this for the first time was such a revelation to me.

by Mystery Man

I love the way Towne uses Secondary Headings to cut back and forth between Gittes and Mulwray.

In the hands of lesser writers, this sequence could have been a bear to read and follow. With a pro like Robert Towne, it’s simple, seamless, and visual. As far as I’m concerned, there was no other way to write this sequence.


It’s virtually empty. Sun blazes off it’s ugly concrete banks. Where the banks are earthen, they are parched and choked with weeds.

After a moment, Mulwray’s car pulls INTO VIEW on a flood control road about fifteen feet above the riverbed. Mulwray gets out of the car. He looks around.


holding a pair of binoculars, downstream and just above the flood control road -- using some dried mustard weeds for cover. he watches while Mulwray makes his way down to the center of the riverbed.

There Mulwray stops, tuns slowly, appears to be looking at the bottom of the riverbed, or -- at nothing at all.


trains the binoculars on him. Sun glints off Mulwray’s glasses.


There’s the SOUND of something like champagne corks popping. Then a small Mexican boy atop a swayback horse rides it into the riverbed, and into Gitte’s view.


himself stops, stands still when he hears the sound. Power lines and the sun are overhead, the trickle of brackish water at his feet.

He moves swiftly downstream in the direction of the sound, toward Gittes.


moves a little further back as Mulwray rounds the bend in the river and comes face to face with the Mexican boy on the muddy banks. Mulwray says something to the boy.

The boy doesn’t answer at first. Mulwray points to the ground. The boy gestures. Mulwray frowns. He kneels down in the mud and stares at it. He seems to be concentrating on it.

After a moment, he rises, thanks the boy and heads swiftly back upstream -- scrambling up the bank to his car.

There he reaches through the window and pulls out a roll of blueprints or something like them – he spreads them on the hood of his car and begins to scribble some notes, looking downstream from time to time.

The power lines overhead HUM.

He stops, listens to them -- then rolls up the plans and gets back in the car. He drives off.


Hurries to get back to his car. He gets in and gets right back out. The steamy leather burns him. He takes a towel from the back seat and carefully places it on the front one. He gets in and takes off.

And finally, here’s the opening scene from The Long Kiss Goodnight by Shane Black.

A number of elements I love about this scene. He has the camera panning from the windowpane over to the bed and to the eyes of the sleeping little girl who wakes up.

It’s dark. The mother by the bed is just a vague shape.

After a little dialogue, she turns on the nightlight, which brings a surprising visual revelation. And then we’re back to the mother by the bed and then back to same windowpane where we began. Perfect.

My man, Shane Black – I love his work.


Assaulted from without by SNOWFLAKES. Wind tossed.

INSIDE, a bed, dappled with moon shadow. A LITTLE GIRL, fast asleep. The wind whistles and sighs outside. She DREAMS... Eyelids closed, eyes roving beneath... then suddenly they SNAP open. A stifled cry. She thrashes for her STUFFED BEAR, as a soft voice says:



And there’s MOM, kneeling beside her. Vague shape in the dimness. The full moon throws light across one sparkling eye.


Mommy, the men on the mountain...!


Shhhh. Gone, all gone now.

(strokes her hair)

I’m here. Mommy’s always here and no

one can ever hurt you. Safe now...

safe and warm... snug as a bug in a



I’ll sit with you, think you can



Turn on the nightlight.

The mother nods. Passes her left hand gently over the girl’s forehead.


Close your eyes now. I love you.

The child subsides, breathing steady. Eyes closed. The mother rises. Regards her through the dimness. Slowly turns, heads for the door. Flicks on a Winnie the Pooh NIGHTLIGHT --

Her entire right forearm is slicked with blood. More blood on her Czech-made MP-5 machine gun.

She staggers just a little... barely noticeable. Passes out on the light. Into darkness. Sits beside her daughter’s bed. The child sleeps peacefully. Outside snow slithers at the glass.

– Mystery Man

In his own words, Mystery Man was “famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. A homebody jetsetting around the world. Brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.”

MM blogged for nearly 4 years and tweeted for only 4 months, then disappeared – mysteriously.

The Story Department continues to republish his best articles on Monday.

Here, you’ll also be informed about the release of his screenwriting book.

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