The Irishman: What’s Your Character’s “Thing”?
This week we’re going to look at The Irishman, written by Steven Zaillian and directed by Martin Scorsese.
Let’s set aside for a moment the all-star cast. Let’s also set aside whether the age-enhancement technology was distracting or valuable. Let’s set aside the pacing of the film and whether it should have been shorter or starts too slow. And let’s set aside thoughts about where this fits in the Scorsese canon. Let’s even set aside any questions about whether this is the true story or not.
Instead, I want to focus on what this film can teach you as a screenwriter.
At slightly more than three-and-a-half hours long, we could probably teach a 15-hour podcast on this film and still not mine all the value in it for you as a screenwriter.
I want to focus on one very important aspect that’s going to give you the most value as you watch or rewatch the film and look at how Steven Zaillian’s script is powering these extraordinary performances.
The Irishman is a primer on how to write a script to attract an A-list actor and create an unforgettable character.
This script is a primer on how to adapt an extremely complicated true story with a man at the center who doesn’t seem like the kind of character you would build a movie around. It’s a primer on how to take that story and create something compelling, to ask a profound question and build it around this vast array of characters we need to fully understand.
I’m going to talk about how Steven Zaillian does that, then take you on a deep dive into what I consider to be the seminal scene in the film. I want to show you how Zaillian’s script allowed the actors to take that scene and push it to an even higher level.
We’re going to talk about adaptation, rewriting, and the whole process a film goes through not just by ending at the finished page, but by how it’s transformed and shaped into becoming something even better on the screen.
It’s important to understand that Frank Sheeran, the character at the center of The Irishman, is an extraordinarily challenging character to build a movie around.
This is not Goodfellas, a fun film built around a tragically flawed and open book of a human being. This is a film built around a man who seems like ice and whose primary characteristic is that he doesn’t share his emotions. He doesn’t allow anyone to see what he’s feeling; he’s not actually connected to anyone. He’s the kind of man who can murder anyone for any reason and not even feel bad about or regret it.
This is an extraordinarily challenging character.
Typically, when we think about a character, we think about an arc. We think about a character who’s going to go on a journey of change, usually a positive journey of change.
Even if we’re building a movie like Goodfellas, we’re going to watch a character fall into the vortex. We’re going to take a relatively good guy and push him off the edge into the ocean.
What’s happening in The Irishman is something much more challenging and complicated. You have a character at the center who is not going to change.
There might be a tiny glimmer of change toward the very end of the film, but this character is never going to have that cathartic moment you’re waiting for. This character is so busy protecting something he doesn’t even fully understand that he’s never going to be able to see himself or step into the kind of change we would normally see.
The question then becomes, how do you build around a character like that? How do you make that character compelling?
In a traditional film, you would carefully build the relationship between Frank Sheeran and his daughter Peggy, for example. You would build that relationship because you would know that ultimately — and there’s a tiny spoiler here — Peggy is going to stop talking to her father.
Using traditional structure, you would take the main character on an emotional journey in relation to his daughter. You would work to build that relationship early, to show what Peggy means to Frank. You would build that relationship strongly and beautifully so that you could then start to take it apart, and we would feel the loss that comes with it. That’s traditional structure.
If you were reading Save the Cat!, which is a screenwriting book I strongly disagree with (even though there are some interesting elements in it), you would let Frank save a cat in a tree or do something wonderful for his daughter to help build that relationship so we would see he’s a hitman with a heart of gold.
Think of another very famous mobster movie, The Godfather, and you can see that’s who Michael is at the beginning. Again, it’s traditional structure. Here’s Michael Corleone, a good guy. He wants to do the right thing. He shows up. He’s trying to keep his nose clean. There are some wonderful “save the cat” moments, such as where we see him say, “No, Kay. That’s my family, not me.”
We see Michael is a war hero. We see Michael only gets involved because he’s trying to save his father’s life. We think, ‘Wow, what a beautiful man,” which is what makes Michael’s decline, becoming the Godfather and losing Kay, so powerful.
That’s a traditional structure. You take a character and humanize them. You help the audience see the inside of their heart and understand where their motivation comes from, and then you take us on a journey in relation to that.
What Martin Scorsese and Steven Zaillian are doing in the structure of The Irishman is something so much more complicated.
Zaillian is saying, “Well, that ain’t true.” This particular character is barely aware of his daughter and wife. This character leaves one life and joins another in a heartbeat without any emotion or heart-wringing about it.
The closest we get to a “save the cat” moment with Frank Sheeran is when he finds out a store owner has hit his daughter, drags her to the store and, in front of her, stomps that store owner so badly that his daughter will never look at him the same way again.
He doesn’t have a single moment of connection with that daughter. In fact, late in the film his other daughter will tell him that she and her sisters couldn’t come to Frank for anything because they knew what he would do to somebody. Who were you protecting, Dad?
In Frank Sheeran, we have a character who is the opposite of the traditional tragic hero and traditional comic hero.
He’s not a character who’s going on a journey; he’s functioning on a completely different operating system than we are.
There are so many interesting points of access into a film and so many interesting ways to figure out what you want to write about. But one of the ways I find particularly compelling is to take a question you don’t know the answer to and put that question into a character, to be really truthful with that character and not push toward a traditional structural shape or a pop psychology 101 take on the character’s journey.
You’re not pushing to try and tell people why this happens, but are genuinely watching the character do what they do and trying to figure out what’s driving them. I think this is the question that Zaillian and Scorsese are asking in The Irishman.
I should also mention this is what Charles Brandt, the writer of I Heard You Paint Houses, is wrestling within his book. It’s the same question I think, if you really stepped into the character of Frank Sheeran, Frank is wrestling within his life.
How is it that some people will go through their whole lives and never really connect? How is it that some people are so detached from themselves that they can kill literally anybody whether it’s a person they don’t know, a president, or their closest friend?
And how is it possible this person isn’t a traditional psycho killer and could actually be a person with a conscience who considers himself a good man, who has good intentions to protect other people?
How could this happen? How does this keep happening in our society and in our politics? How do these extremely powerful men keep making these decisions that don’t seem to actually serve anybody? How do people get that cut off from their emotions?
If you watch the trajectory of all of these characters, they all fight so hard for something and end up with very little at the end to show for it other than money.
In fact, the visual structure of this piece is literally a laundry list of kills and of old men who end up in jail. People who, despite going through a whole life together, seem to fail to build any connection that goes beyond this strange code they have between each other, where the need for respect is more important than a human life.
Everybody talks about the idea that characters need to have a “want.” But what gets discussed less often is that underneath that “want” is something really powerful called the emotional need.
If you look at every character in The Irishman, what you see is a profound emotional need for respect.
For example, we watch Joe Pesci’s character, Russ Bufalino, kill another mobster, Joe Gallo, for insulting the pin he wears on his lapel. We see how that need for respect transcends everything.
This is a movie where, yes, everyone has their tangible goals: the mobsters want to be in Cuba, they want to control the unions, they want their loan. And Jimmy Hoffa, brilliantly played by Al Pacino, wants control of his union. He wants to set his own rules.
But what’s actually happening within these life and death stakes isn’t about any of those goals. It’s about this primal, raw emotional need that every single person in the human race shares, which is the need for respect and what happens when it goes wrong. And each character in this film has their own way of dealing with that need within themselves.
For this podcast, I’m going to focus on two specific characters because I want to get into a deep discussion of the climactic scene. I’m going to focus on the two characters who are the strongest connection in this piece: Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Frank Sheeran has a mantra, a way of looking at the world. The truth is, every character has a way of looking at the world, and when you understand their way of looking at the world, writing them becomes very simple.
Understanding how to push them, change them, torture them, connect to them, and take them on a journey becomes very simple. Once you understand what that character’s one “thing” is, it all becomes very simple.
If I was going to name Frank Sheeran’s mantra, I would say his mantra is, “It’s what it is.”
Frank Sheeran is a guy who believes you do what you’re told, you do what’s necessary, and you don’t complain about it. It’s what it is.
If your boss tells you to kill somebody, you don’t ask, “Is that right or wrong?” You do what needs to be done; it’s what it is. If you’re told to be this guy’s friend, you be his friend. You don’t ask what the politics are or what’s right and wrong; it’s what it is. If some blood needs to be spilled between this point and that point in the war, you don’t ask if it’s right or wrong; you do what you’re told to do. It’s what it is.
You can see this throughout the film, from an early scene where Russ and Frank discuss the war all the way through to the final climax of Frank’s relationship with Jimmy Hoffa. You can see Frank lives by that mantra, “It’s what it is.”
Because of that mantra, “it’s what it is,” Frank’s not able to fully connect to anybody, or even to a single, human emotion in himself. We can see him doing good things and genuinely fighting to try and protect his friends, but at the end of the day, “it’s what it is.” This character isn’t going to change, because his belief system isn’t going to change.
His daughter is looking at him and trying to understand, “What is it? You’re saying, ‘It’s what it is.’ You’re saying ‘This is what I had to do to protect you.’ You’re saying, ‘This is what was necessary.’ But, what is it? This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.”
You can see how each character has their own point of view.
Because Frank and Peggy have such polar opposite points of view, the human relationship isn’t built between Frank and his daughter Peggy. Instead, it’s built between Peggy and Jimmy.
This is some good, structural screenwriting. Now, there’s going to be a small spoiler ahead, but if you’ve done any research on this film, you already know what’s going to happen.
Peggy connects with Jimmy like he’s her own father and gets the emotional relationship from him that she can’t get from Frank. This makes the moment of betrayal when Frank kills Jimmy even more powerful. It helps us understand why that’s the moment where she decides, “Enough is enough. This is not what it is for me.”
So, you have this one main character whose primary mantra is one of acceptance: “It’s what it is.” You can’t change the world. There are people in power and people with no power, and the best you can do is go along with the system. If you play by their rules and do what they want, then you’ll go pretty far.
This is Frank’s belief about the world. It’s an extraordinarily dark belief and one of the reasons why this film is so hard to watch, so bleak and depressing, because at its center is a nihilistic worldview. “It’s what it is.”
It’s interesting because Frank Sheeran sees himself as a low man on the totem pole. He’s the guy who doesn’t need respect, but he’s going to show respect to others and make sure that others get the respect they deserve. It’s what it is for him. Some people are going to respect you, others are not.
But if we look at Jimmy Hoffa, Jimmy Hoffa needs respect. If you watch Al Pacino’s performance, you can see how literally every tiny moment is driven by that need for respect. You can see the actor acting that need for respect. Together, the actor and writer take that emotional need, that’s a general need, and turn it into some very specific actions.
Jimmy Hoffa’s character in The Irishman has also got his one thing. His one thing is, “This is my union.”
He says it several times. “This is my union. Very simple when you see it that way.” That’s a little note not only for the character, but for the writer. Just like, “It’s what it is.”
It’s very simple when you see it that way.
These are two different points of view in the world of The Irishman. One character says, “It’s what it is,” and the other character says, “This is my union.”
If you just understand that one thing about Jimmy, you can write Jimmy forever. You only need to understand the one thing that’s always in Jimmy’s mind is, “This is my union. You can do anything else, but this is my union. You can ask me to corrupt myself in a million ways. You can ask me to play games with organized crime. You can ask me to make loans to gangsters. Fine. This is my union.”
This allows you to understand, structurally, how to torture Jimmy. You attack his control of his union. You attack his feeling that this is his union.
Jimmy needs people to show up on time for meetings. You know why? Because, “This is my union. I’ve never waited more than 10 minutes. This is my union. Show up on time.”
Jimmy needs people to not wear shorts to a meeting for the same reason: “This is my union. Show up on time. Don’t wear shorts. Show me respect. This is my union.”
Do you see how all these little quirks and tics help you understand who this character is?
If you look at the structure of Jimmy’s journey, Jimmy chooses to lose his life rather than show respect for a guy who showed up late wearing shorts.
Why? Because Jimmy sees things from one very simple lens, “This is my union.”
Does this mean all your characters need to be megalomaniacal? No, not at all. In fact, if Jimmy had gone on a journey where he was to let go of the union, to pass the torch, to change, to do something different, we would feel the structure of that journey.
Does this mean Jimmy can’t have other aspects to his personality? Of course he can. He has a beautiful relationship with Peggy. He loves ice cream. He doesn’t like to drink. He hates watermelon. He has a full “rainbow of desire,” as Augusto Boal would say. He has a full interior landscape.
It’s that one simple thing though, “This is my union,” that provides the drumbeat for the character of Jimmy Hoffa.
As you’re writing, you may wake up one day and just know, “Oh my God, I get this character. This is the drumbeat.” Or it may take you the whole darn script to figure out what that drumbeat is.
It may take you writing the script to really understand not the many things, but what is the one thing that holds it all together? What’s the Capt’n Crunch decoder ring you can fish out from the cereal box and use to see the character clearly?
If you don’t know what that “thing” is for your character, don’t try to impose one. Get curious. The character already has a thing, just like you already have a thing. It doesn’t mean that’s going to be your thing forever; it’s just your thing right now. It also doesn’t have to be your character’s thing forever; it just happens to be your character’s thing right now.
So, with Frank and Jimmy you’ve got, “It’s what it is,” versus “This is my union.” You can see how just understanding those two things tells you there’s going to be trouble.
What the writer, Steven Zaillian, does so beautifully is build that relationship between Jimmy and Frank. He builds Jimmy’s absolute trust in Frank and Frank’s total love and devotion toward Jimmy.
We then get to watch Frank try the whole darn movie to show Jimmy that, “It’s what it is. It’s not your union.” And we watch Jimmy try to help Frank understand, “No, baby, it ain’t what it is. I say what it is. This is my union.”
That struggle culminates in an extraordinarily powerful scene between Frank and Jimmy.
Joe Pesci’s character, Russ, has just gotten word from the higher-ups that this is it. There’s no going back. Either Jimmy is going to come around, stop pushing back and do what they want and let them control him, or they’re going to kill him.
Jimmy thinks he’s untouchable, while Frank knows that anybody is touchable. As Russ says in the previous scene, “If they can kill a President, don’t you think they can kill the president of a union? You know it, and I know it.”
As we enter the scene, there’s been some lovely preparatory work done. There’s a wonderful scene earlier in the film where we get an explanation from Frank of what “a little worried” versus what “seriously worried” means in mafia terminology.
So when we hear Frank express to Jimmy, “I’m a little worried,” we have a wonderful resonance with that previous scene, and we realize, “Oh, the shit is hitting the fan, and Jimmy is refusing to get it.”
Now, I’m going to do something I don’t usually do. I’m going to read two different versions of this scene to you.
You can read along here or go to our website www.writeyourscreenplay.com/theirishman
The first version of the scene is copied and pasted from the original script. The second version is transcribed without any real formatting or action; it’s just a transcription of the dialogue from the film.
Using both versions, I want to show you where the scene began and then what the scene evolved into. I want you to see how the rewrite of the scene was built out of these concepts we’ve been discussing.
Once you understand what the “thing” is for your character, once you understand what the “thing” is for each character, it not only allows you to start to focus your rewrites, it also allows you to play within the scene and riff on the “thing” that’s driving each character in your film.
I’m going to read the first version of the scene first. As I read it, you’re going to notice that it’s quite different from the ultimate scene you saw when you watched The Irishman.
Frank: “I spoke to Russell. He just spoke to Tony. He means what he’s saying.”
Jimmy: ”Who? Russell?”
Jimmy: “Well, I mean what I say. He can’t seem to get that through his fat, fucking Sicilian head. Don’t look so concerned.”
Frank: “I’m a little concerned.”
Jimmy: “They should be concerned, not you.”
Frank: “They are. They’re more than a little concerned. There’s widespread concern. Tony told Russell to tell me to tell you what it is.”
Jimmy: “They wouldn’t dare.”
Frank: “Don’t say that, Jimmy.”
Jimmy: “Something funny happens to me, I got stuff ready to go. To the press. To the right people. They do something to me, something is going to be done to them, and those guinea motherfuckers know that. They know I know things that I know. They know I know things they think I don’t know.”
Frank: “Jimmy, what am I supposed to do? I’ve got to go back and tell the old man–what? That you’re still not listening to him? He ain’t used to people not listening to him.”
Jimmy: “Neither am I.”
Frank: “Then, I don’t know, you should maybe keep some bodies around for protection.”
Jimmy: “I’m not going that route; they could go after my family. You should keep some bodies around; they could go after you since you’re with me. Tell Russ I got nothing but respect for him. I would never hurt him. But this is my union.”
This is a pretty darn good scene. You can see the struggle between these two characters, each fighting for what they want. You can see Frank fighting to protect his friend and that Jimmy is not getting it.
Now let’s look at the second version. I’m not sure who did this rewrite, whether this is something that occurred through improvisation between these actors or whether this is something that Zaillian did on set. I don’t know the story behind it. But I want to read to you the more extended version of this scene that actually ends up in the movie.
This final version is unusual. Typically in a rewrite, if your scene is getting longer, it’s usually getting worse. If your scene is getting shorter, it’s usually getting better. But in this case, it’s getting longer, and it’s getting better. A lot better.
What we end up getting to see in this scene is two world-class actors playing around inside the superstructure of what the writer has already created and then expanding the scene.
Now, if you aren’t Steven Zaillian and you don’t have three-and-a-half hours, what you would do after writing this kind of expansion is squeeze it back down, getting those great, little moments you found into the compressed final version of the scene.
You can almost think of it like an accordion. You fill the accordion with air and then you squeeze it out when you get that perfect note. It’s a way of making more of a scene that’s already good or adding more life to a scene that’s maybe a little bit average.
In this film, because they have all the time in the world, because it’s Netflix, and because they have Scorsese, Zaillian, Pacino, De Niro, and Pesci, they don’t ever squeeze it back down. They just let them play, and it’s a tour de force scene between two of the greatest actors of their generation.
Notice the differences here. The scene starts the same way.
Frank: “I talked to Russ. He talked to Tony. He means what he’s saying.”
Jimmy: “Who? Russ?”
Frank: “No, Tony.”
Jimmy: “Well, I mean what I’m saying. He can’t seem to get that through his fat, fucking Sicilian head, can he? Don’t worry about it. What’s the matter with you?”
There is just a tiny change here, and the tiny change is, “Don’t worry about it. What’s the matter with you?” What that does is it focuses on the human connection rather than just the business connection here. It also helps highlight the next wonderful moment.
Frank: “I’m concerned.”
Jimmy: “Yeah, I know. You look concerned. What are you concerned about? They should be concerned.”
This is another tiny change, but we get that game of, “What are you concerned about?” as if Jimmy doesn’t even understand. Then, as if Jimmy is reassuring Frank, he says, “They should be concerned.”
This is a tiny rewrite, but what it’s doing is taking a scene that in the first draft was primarily focused on the object, the target–Frank wants to stop Jimmy from getting himself killed, and Jimmy wants to preserve his union–and gives it a tweak to really focus on the caring dynamic between these two characters and the interplay that’s happening between them. Instead of taking the bait, Jimmy keeps playing the game of trying to make Frank feel better.
Frank: “They are. They are. They’re more than a little concerned.”
Here you see that wonderful resonance again with the earlier scene where we found out what “a little concerned” means. Frank then continues on a little longer than in the first version.
Frank: “There’s widespread concern. It’s a big problem. Tony told the old man to tell me to tell you, ‘It’s what it is.’”
Here’s what I want you to notice: In the first draft, Frank says, “Tony told Russell to tell me to tell you what it is,” which is just a dialect way of saying, “Hey, he wants me to tell you what the deal is.”
But in this version, the line is focused around that central premise of the way Frank sees the world. “It’s what it is.” That’s the line Russ, Frank’s mentor, says to him in the previous scene, and it’s the line Frank passes on to Jimmy here, “It’s what it is.”
Then a wonderful game takes place where “it’s what it is” becomes code for murder; it means, “They’re going to kill you.”
In the first version, this same idea is playing out as, “Tony told me to tell you here’s where we’re at, to tell you what it is.” But in the rewrite it becomes, “Tony told the old man to tell me to tell you, ‘It’s what it is,’” and then watch how long they play with it.
Jimmy: “What it is?”
Frank: “It’s what it is. Please, listen to me.”
See that little riff there? We actually get hit with that idea of “it’s what it is” several times so that it’s clear “it’s what it is” has become the coin phrase for, “They’re going to kill you.”
This is a way of exploding cliché. We’ve all seen a million scenes where one character threatens another character. But that little tweak of making “it’s what it is” stand in as a euphemism for what the character is actually saying gives us a feeling of, “Hey, I understand mob talk now.” It also makes us think, “I’ve never heard this scene play out this way before.”
Jimmy: “They wouldn’t dare. They wouldn’t dare. Please, Frank, come on.”
Once again, with the line, “Please, Frank, come on,” we’re back onto the personal level that’s heightening this scene.
Frank: “Don’t say they wouldn’t dare.”
Jimmy: “Don’t tell me that kind of…that’s fairy tales.”
Frank: “Don’t say they wouldn’t dare.”
They’re expanding this scene to really focus on that personal dynamic, on “it’s what it is,” and on the theme that drives the characters around the structure of the scene they’re building.
Then we get Jimmy’s monologue, but with some changes.
Jimmy: “Something funny happens to me…they’re done. You understand that? And they know it. Because I got files. I got proof. I got records. I got tape. Any time I want, they’ll be gone. These guinea motherfuckers will spend the rest of their lives in jail, and they know it. They know it.”
Do you see the adjustment to that monologue and how that adjustment focuses it?
Frank: “What you’re saying is what they’re concerned about.”
This is also a new line. In the previous version, Frank says, “What am I supposed to do?” But in this version, it’s coming back to “it’s what it is.”
Jimmy: “What I’m saying is I know things. I know things they don’t know I know. Please.”
Here, you can see how “I know things they don’t know I know,” focuses that longer, more complicated monologue down to one line.
Frank: “Are you going to take that chance?”
Jimmy: “What chance am I… Why should I be taking a chance?”
Frank: “They’re saying this is it.”
Jimmy: “They’re saying this is it and then it’s it? Bullshit. Bullshit, Frank. Come on.”
Do you see what’s happening? They’re highlighting in this rewrite that this is the turning point. This is not just another ongoing discussion. It’s what it is; this is it.
Frank: “Jimmy, I’m trying to tell you something.”
Jimmy: “I know you are. You’re telling me they’re threatening me, and I gotta do what they say.”
Here the power dynamic shifts again. For the first time Jimmy is admitting, “Yeah, I get it. I get exactly what you’re saying. You’re saying they’re threatening me, and I’ve gotta do what they say.” And he isn’t concerned at all, which is why Frank says what he says next.
Frank: “But it’s more than a threat. It’s the bottom line.”
Jimmy: “Bottom line.”
Frank: “It’s what it is.”
Do you see how the writers hit on “it’s what it is” again and again and again? They’re hitting it with a sledgehammer.
This is one of the lessons I learned as I became more experienced as a writer. When I started out, I always wanted to be so darn subtle, thinking the more subtle I was, the stronger a writer I would be.
As I became more experienced, I realized you have to hit things really hard for them to land. Sometimes the thing that feels really subtle to you isn’t even registering for your reader.
With The Irishman, you can see that first scene I read to you was perfectly good, but this second scene is so climactic because you can truly feel the culmination of this argument over, “Is it what it is or not?”
Jimmy: “They do something to me, I do something to them. That’s all I know. I don’t know anything else, do you?”
Frank: “So what am I gonna do? What am I gonna tell McGee? That you won’t listen? He ain’t used to people not listening to him.”
Jimmy: “Well, neither am I.”
Jimmy: “Neither am I.”
Playing with that dialogue a little bit allows us to punctuate it.
Frank: “Then I don’t know what to do. I mean, maybe you should get some bodies around you for protection.”
Jimmy: “Oh, come on, please. I’m not gonna go that route. Don’t do this to me, Frank. What do you mean ‘bodies around me’? I don’t… You put bodies around you, then they go after your family. It doesn’t matter. You worried?”
Do you see what’s happening here? We’re back in the game again. It’s the same idea, but we’re amplifying the game in this rewrite.
Frank: “I’m worried.”
Jimmy: “Get some bodies around you. I’ll tell you why. This could happen to you. They could come after you since you’re with me. No?”
Do you see the game? We’ve come back to the idea of Jimmy trying to reassure Frank. Can you see how great this dialogue is? It’s setting up the idea that Jimmy doesn’t realize his best friend has something missing in him that Jimmy doesn’t have missing in himself. Jimmy has the capacity to allow his emotions to change his actions, whereas for Frank, “It’s what it is.” This is why Frank responds the way he does and the scene gets even deeper.
Frank: “I’m worried.”
Jimmy: “Tell Russ I got nothing but respect for him.”
That’s the same line we have in the previous scene.
Jimmy: “I had a little trouble with him. We were talking before, I just got a little crazy. You know how I am. I just blow sometimes. I just walked away like that. But I get that way. I get abrupt.”
Again, this is a deepening of the scene. For one moment, Jimmy realizes, “Oh my God, I know what he’s upset about. It’s that respect thing I didn’t give him.” He almost looks at himself and thinks, “Wow, I understand why this guy is upset.” Then he brushes it off with, “Eh, it’s fine. I get abrupt.”
Jimmy: “Maybe you could just tell him how much I respect him. I have nothing but respect for this guy. I would never hurt him, no matter what I do with files or whatever I do with anything.”
This is Jimmy now thinking, “Oh, shit. Frank, you’re my friend. Fix this for me. Help them understand because I know I might have gone too far before.”
Frank: “Look, but you should tell him. Yourself.”
Jimmy: “No, I’m not gonna tell him myself.”
Frank: “It would go a long way.”
This scene, that began as a great scene, becomes superb because the writer keeps playing with the game of the scene.
The game of the scene is that Jimmy is going to reassure Frank, even though Frank’s the one who is trying to warn him.
At this moment, we get a new structural change. Frank’s concern finally registers with Jimmy, but instead of making a change, Jimmy asks Frank to fix it.
Jimmy: “He’s your Rabbi. Because of him, you’re here. You tell him. Listen to me. At the end, there’s only one thing that’s real.”
Listen to that line again, “At the end, there’s only one thing that’s real.”
Jimmy: “This is my union. This is my union, Frank. Very simple when you see it that way.”
Notice the difference between this scene and the previous version where it reads, “Tell Russ I got nothing but respect for him. I would never hurt him. But this is my union.” Notice how soft that initial scene is compared to, “Listen to me. At the end, there’s only one thing that’s real. This is my union. This is my union, Frank. Very simple when you see it that way.”
Once you know your character’s “thing,” then you’ll know that thing is active at every moment.
Once you know what’s driving them, the thing that shapes everything they see and do in the world, then you’ll know where to attack them, where to push them, and how to rewrite your scenes.
You’ll know how to take a perfectly good scene, like this one that was good enough to get all the way to the shooting draft, and turn it into the kind of scene that transforms a movie, transforms a performance, and builds that climactic experience you’re trying to create as a writer.