The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 314 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show, we’ll be taking a deep dive into 1992’s Unforgiven, looking at why Craig calls it a perfect film. Is that a fair assessment? Is it a perfect film?
Craig: Well, no one really knows what perfect is exactly. But for me, perfect.
John: Perfect. Is it perfect in the sense that if you had written it you would stop writing any other movies because you would know you would never top it?
Craig: Nah. I don’t think — if I ever do write the perfect thing, which you know is probably — we’re probably just months away from that, I’m sure, nah, I’d just keep writing anyway because I like it. I like writing. I would have no problem slowly falling off the mountain of my own success.
John: I understand that. I believe that Unforgiven is a terrific film. I do not think it is perfect, so as we get into our discussion I will point out some things which I found not so amazing about Unforgiven. But also reasons why I thought it is a fantastic film for anybody who loves movies to study because it does so many things so incredibly well.
Craig: Yeah. And that’s all reasonable. I mean, it’s a rare thing to be able to say, OK, well I just think this movie is perfect. And that’s always an individual relationship. All of our reactions are individual relationships that we have with these things. But there are so many concrete lessons for screenwriters that are contained within this script, which is wonderful. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to get this script and as the legend has it Clint Eastwood got it from David Webb Peoples when it was initially written I think in the early ’80s. And he read it and said, “OK, yup, I’m going to shoot this. Don’t write no more. This is good. I’m going to shoot it. And I’m going to be in it. But I’m not old enough yet, so I’m putting it in this drawer. And then when I’m old enough I’m going to make it.” And that’s exactly what he did. But the exhilaration of receiving a screenplay like this must have just been, well, something else.
John: So let’s do some setup on Unforgiven. So, the film came out in August 1992. So this is the 25th anniversary of Unforgiven. Craig, do you remember when you first saw it?
Craig: In August of 1992 in a movie theater.
John: I remember when I first watched Unforgiven, it was the summer of ’92, August, right when it came out. And I watched it with my friend Jason Hallett here in Boulder, Colorado. And I was just about to go off to film school for the first time. So I graduated from college, I was getting ready to pack up and move to Los Angeles. And it was one of the last movies I saw before I started film school and I think it had a big impact on me for just that reason. I knew I was heading into the industry that could make something like this movie.
Craig: Yeah. In August of 1992 I had just arrived in Los Angeles. I’m guessing I probably saw this movie with my then girlfriend and now wife. And we were probably at the Beverly Center, which wasn’t — you know, Beverly Center is this mall in Los Angeles. And they have a movie theater in there. I assume they still do. Haven’t been in a while. With lots of little tiny — there were like little mini theater rooms in there. So, it probably wasn’t the best way to see Unforgiven, but I do remember just being blown away by it from top to bottom.
It’s one of those movies where as you leave and you start thinking about it you realize, oh wait, everything I’m thinking about was amazing. And I didn’t even know at the time of that amazing scene that more amazing scenes were coming.
John: Agreed. This is the 25th anniversary of the film, so let’s go back and take a look at sort of what it was like to actually make the film. It had a budget of $14 million. It grossed $159 million in the US. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director for Clint Eastwood, Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, Best Film Editing for Joel Cox, and the screenplay by David Webb Peoples was also nominated but it lost that year to The Crying Game, which was another terrific movie.
Craig: Yeah. The awards stuff is always dispiriting to me because I love The Crying Game and I love Unforgiven. It seems absurd to say that the screenplay for The Crying Game is better than the screenplay for Unforgiven is just stupid. It similarly be stupid to say the screenplay for Unforgiven was better than Crying Game. This is why I just don’t understand these sorts of things. They’re both brilliant.
But certainly if you do believe that the Academy Awards are a general echo of people’s appreciation for certain movies, no question everyone really loved this. So Clint Eastwood had at this point had kind of gone through this period which was a little bit of a — well, it wasn’t creatively his strongest period. I mean, he had come out of the great Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns. And then he had made the Dirty Harry movies which started in a kind of ’70s grindhouse spirit and then, well frankly started to devolve, I think, into just a broad vigilante fantasy world.
And then he had made — I mean I know people like Any Which Way but Loose, but it’s a movie about him and a monkey. It was starting to get a little silly. But here he comes along as a director and this movie going in I would imagine a lot of people, critics or audience goers might think, well, Clint Eastwood, he came out of westerns. He made The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Fistful of Dollars, and The Outlaw Josey Wales. And that was a while ago.
But, you know, now he’s a little bit of goofy, and so is this going to be another devolution of a genre that he was once really good in? And imagine their surprise.
John: Yeah. It turned out to be a fantastic movie and it’s hard to imagine Clint Eastwood not in this role. But actually this was my first time reading David Webb Peoples’ script. So I should say that we’re going to be providing a link to a script that very accurately reflects the movie. So, the draft we’re going to be linking to is from April 23, 1984. Quite a bit before they shot the film. This is David Webb Peoples’ draft. It says “shooting draft.” Some stuff has changed from this draft to what you see on the screen, but it’s incredibly, incredibly close.
But if you look at the descriptions of the characters, William Munny’s character is meant to be in his 40s. Like it’s not meant to be that old. And so Clint Eastwood I think is actually older than that character is supposed to be, but his age works really well for sort of what’s happening on this character’s journey throughout this story. If you want to read the script, you’ll find a link in the show notes, but we also have it up in Weekend Read. So if you have Weekend Read it’s just in the Scriptnotes Extras folder.
If I refer to page numbers at any point, I’m referring to this draft, but most drafts you’re going to find online are going to have the same kinds of scenes. The page numbers may just be different.
Craig: Yeah. The age factor is an interesting one because you could argue that back in the time that the movie is set, 40 was already quite a bit older than 40 is now. But, yeah, it seems clear that Clint Eastwood understood, OK, this is a certain kind of age that I’m going to need here to make this work. And we’ll get into why in a bit. But I want to point out that your assessment of how close the film hues to the script is absolutely correct. It’s remarkably close. And, again, to reiterate, the script that we’re looking at here was written eight years before the movie came out. And in that eight years of time Clint Eastwood just waited. It is a remarkable act of confidence in a write and you can — this is what happens when you have a great script and everybody just is OK with that. And there isn’t this endless desire to just keep working on it because you can.
There are very, very few changes. There’s one tiny little change that I think is crucial and it’s two words that comes much, much later toward the end. But by and large, Eastwood shot the script. And the reason why I wanted to talk about this movie from a screenwriting point of view is because I can’t think of a better example of a screenplay that is about something. And I’m kind of curious, John, when you watch this movie and when you read this script what you kind of think it’s about.
John: I think the script takes our expectations of what a western is supposed to do and what the hero of a western is supposed to do and what the tropes of a western are supposed to do. It explores them and ultimately sort of rips them apart and sort of lays bare the pain and the suffering that’s underneath all of that and sort of tries to get back to the common humanity that underlies all the sort of mythic heroes that we have coming out of the western genre. I don’t you can make Unforgiven without a good knowledge of all of the westerns that came before it. And the audience’s expectations about what’s supposed to happen in a western.
It’s not sort of playing with the tropes as much as sort of just lighting them on fire and watching them burn away. Is that your experience of the film?
Craig: By and large it is. I think that there is certainly a deconstructive aspect to this. It is the deconstructed western. So the lawman is corrupt and the savage killer is our moral hero. And every story that we’re told seems to be false. But from a human point of view, I think the movie even getting past what it does to westerns, from a human point of view the movie I think speaks directly to the power of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. And how sooner or later those stories will crumble in the face of truth.
Some of the stories that we tell are worth telling. And some are just there to cover up some ugliness. But they all in the end crumble in the face of truth. And it is no small mistake that a key character in this movie is a writer. This writer, David Webb Peoples, is in many ways critiquing the power and the danger of writing itself.
John: All right. So let’s take a look at the characters and sort of the principal characters we are setting up here. Because one of the things I found fascinating as I went back and watched the movie this past week and read the screenplay was that it really doesn’t follow the very classic patterns of, OK, now we’re setting up this protagonist who is going to go on this specific journey. Yes, you have William Munny and he literally takes a journey and then comes back changed. But not changed in the ways you’d normally expect.
So let’s take a look at our principal characters and how they interact. So you have Clint Eastwood who is playing Bill Munny, William Munny. You have Gene Hackman as Little Bill Daggett. If you notice in the script, Eastwood’s character is always called Munny and Gene Hackman’s character is always called Little Bill. So even though they’re both Williams it is never confusing in the actual execution of the screenplay.
You have Morgan Freeman playing Ned Logan. If you look through the actual script there is no reference to Ned Logan’s race. It was just a choice to make Ned Logan be Morgan Freeman. And he’s fantastic. But watching the film I realize like, huh, it does seem curious that no one is addressing the fact that Morgan Freeman is black. It doesn’t matter really that it’s not addressed, it’s not acknowledged.
You have Richard Harris playing English Bob, a terrific character who comes in very late in the story. Is there for a while and rides right out of town. And I want to get into sort of why he’s important and why he’s included in the film, because some of the early reviews said like, “Oh, you could just cut English Bob out of the movie.”
Craig: No. No.
John: Which is crazy. The other two I say fundamental characters are Jaimz Woolvett plays The ‘Schofield Kid.’ He’s the kid who arrives with the offer like hey let’s go kill these two cowboys. Finally, you have Saul Rubinek as W.W. Beauchamp, who is the journalist/novelist/author who is originally following Richard Harris’s character, English Bob, and ultimately is trying to document the myth of the West. Would you say those are the principal characters we need to follow most closely?
Craig: Yeah. I think the only other one that is well worth mentioning is Frances Fisher’s character of Strawberry Alice, who is the head prostitute of a group of prostitutes that work in town. And she is the main driving force behind their call for vigilante justice.
John: Absolutely. So, she plays a very central role early on. If I have a frustration with the film, which I’ll talk about later on, she and the other prostitutes do sort of disappear in a way that gets to be a little bit frustrating. They are magically there when they’re helpful and disappear other times. But you’re absolutely right in that if you want to say the inciting incident of this film is the assault on Delilah and her being cut up and then Frances Fisher’s determination to raise a bounty to kill these two cowboys, which definitely seems like the inciting incident, then she is the driving force behind that. She is the engine of the film and her frustration that this horrible act is going unpunished is what is setting the wheels of this plot in motion.
Craig: Yeah. And as Peoples introduces these characters one by one — this is the beautiful intention of these characters — each one of them essentially is displaying on the one half who they are supposed to be and on the other half who they really are. Everyone seems to be essentially some compendium of a fake story they’re projecting to the rest of the world.
We know — and this is why Clint Eastwood really was the only person I think who could play this part — we know who Clint Eastwood is when he’s wearing western clothing and a hat and when he has a gun in his hand. We know that he is the most dangerous man in the west because we’ve seen all those movies. Sometimes casting does an enormous amount for you. And yet in the beginning of the film he is a broken down pig farmer who can’t really shoot straight. Can’t even get on a horse.
We have Gene Hackman, the sheriff, who is an upstanding lawman, building a house. But his house is crooked and you get a sense pretty quickly that so is he. That he is, in fact, sadistic and does not understand the purpose of the law at all.
You have Ned Logan, who seems to be a happily married man who has left a life of crime behind him. But at the first offer of a chance to go out and live that life again, he jumps at it. He jumps at it, leaving his wife behind without even a word.
John: What I will say is he jumps at it, but he — and I think this is actually underscored a little bit more in the script than in the film. Like a few lines got cut. He basically says he chose the life with the wife because he wanted comfort. Because he was tired of sleeping outdoors. He just wanted a roof over his head. There’s actually a bit that got cut out of the movie where he talks about a roof. And I think it was a little too on the nose compared to Little Bill and his inability to make a good roof.
But he wanted that comfort and that stability. But your earlier point in terms of like it seems like he has a good life with a woman and all this, but he is the one who is eager to find a prostitute. He is the one who is happily going upstairs at the billiards room because that really is more of what he’s into.
Craig: Correct. And this comes up over and over, multiple times. You have Richard Harris’s English Bob who is incredible, and you can’t cut him out of the movie. He’s crucial. He’s crucial first because of what he allows Little Bill to demonstrate to the audience, which is a sadism. But also Richard Harris is the ultimate self-aggrandized liar. You begin to understand that all these legends we hear from the west, and he is one of them — he’s essentially presented as Billy the Kid — is not. He is a fraud. He is a fraud and a drunk. The stories that he has told his slavishly-admiring writer are bunk. The man that he heroically killed in a bar he didn’t heroically kill. That man shot himself in his own foot and then his gun blew up in his hand. And English Bob was drunk and walked right over to him and just shot him like a coward.
Even Strawberry Alice. So, the movie begins with this terrifying incident. Well, it begins with us seeing Clint Eastwood briefly. But the movie-movie, the plot begins with a terrifying incident. In a whorehouse in this little town a cowboy, whose masculinity is questioned by a whore named Delilah, attacks her with a knife and starts cutting her face. It’s terrifying.
And Frances Fisher, who plays Strawberry Alice, the leader of the prostitutes, decides that they are all going to pool their money together to take revenge, because Little Bill, the sheriff, will not give them justice. He actually says I’m not going to even whip them. I’m just going to make them give ponies to the man who owns the establishment, a guy named Skinny. So, there is no justice here whatsoever and they’re going to seek vigilante justice.
But what’s fascinating even then is you have two cowboys in the beginning, one is murderous and sadistic and evil, and then his friend who is almost just a boy. And who is as terrified and shocked by what his friend has done as anyone else is. But he’s now lumped in. And when they come back with the horses, that one who is lumped in with — Strawberry Alice says we’re going to hire people to kill both of those guys. Well, that young one, he wants to give a horse to Delilah, and we can see she wants the horse. And Strawberry Alice won’t let him. Everybody essentially is a bundle of terrible contradictions.
David Webb Peoples won’t even give us two clear-cut villains. He’s going to say I’m going to give you one villain and one innocent man and they’re both going to be at the end of a barrel of a gun and you’re going to have to watch it.
John: Yeah. Looking at Strawberry Alice’s arc here, and I don’t think it fully completes. There could be a way in which you could imagine a character who has a beat in the third act where you see her make a choice that clearly differentiates a path she could have taken or a path she couldn’t have taken. But this moment that you’re singling out is really crucial because there’s this moment where she could have taken the horse and they could have called it done. If her best interest was really for Delilah, she probably would be done. But her interest is sort of agency. She wants to take power, take control of the situation. And that means killing these cowboys kind of no matter what.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, in that moment you understand perhaps her anger is not at all about Delilah. Her anger is about herself and her position and the way they’re being treated. “We’re not cattle,” she says. And so if it means that this poor kid who didn’t do anything has to die, so be it. And if it means that Delilah, the victim, the perfectly innocent victim here needs to be deprived of something, so be it. It’s not about her anymore. Nobody is really about what they say they’re about.
John: So, let’s talk about this opening sequence where we’re basically setting up our world before Bill Munny goes off on the trail. Before he goes off on this quest to kill the two cowboys. So, what I really appreciate this, you know, now watching it 25 years later and reading the script is how Peoples does a really great job with some very difficult things that he makes seem so simple. Which is basically setting up the overall engines of plot and sort of like this is what’s basically going to happen. He does a time jump that’s really natural and smooth where we see the initial incident. We see the cowboy is told to come back in a year with these horses. We set up Bill Munny. And then we come back a year later and they’ve come back with the horses. And it feels really natural.
I can imagine so many other movies which would really creak and strain under this jumping ahead a year, and yet it feels really simple and natural the way Peoples does it. Just like, you know, it’s a new season. They’re back with the horses. You get a sense that everything is going to take a while here just because the distances are so great. It was just — it really struck me as really good writing and execution to be able to pull off this time jump and make it feel so good.
Craig: Yeah. There is no wasted movement here. Everything that happens is gorgeously compact. And you can see that there is nothing that isn’t by careful design. The nature of the attack is horrific. And it is immediately followed by the introduction of Little Bill. And everything he does and says there tells you everything you need to know about him. It also creates a situation that is a time bomb, which is wonderful screenwriting. To have already, I believe she says — we know on page eight she’s gathering money. Page eight she is gathering money to hire vigilantes to come kill these men. A fuse has been lit. It’s already moving. On page eight.
And yet we’ve also had a tremendous amount of exposition. We’ve met a lot of characters. We don’t particularly feel like the movie is moving breathlessly. This is kind of amazing.
John: Let’s take a look at page three. Bottom of page three is where we first meet Little Bill Daggett. And so cleverly Peoples is setting him up before he walks into the whorehouse, the billiards hall, so that we know who he is independent of this moment. It’s a conversation with Clyde. Clyde is not important. But so we establish Little Bill’s physicality. And the initial dialogue is:
LITTLE BILL …wouldn’t let you settle it, huh? CLYDE Hell, you know how Skinny is. Says he’s gonna shoot ’em…an I says, “Skinny, you can’t do that,” an’ he says, “Well, then get Little Bill down here an’ let’s settle this” an’ I says, “Bill’s sleepin’, Skinny,” an’…
So, in that little bit of dialogue we’ve established Little Bill’s name. We’ve established how important he is to the town. We don’t know necessarily he’s the sheriff quite yet, but we know that he is the guy you call when there’s a problem. And that Skinny, this guy who we just saw with a gun, is not going to do anything until Little Bill gets there. It’s such a crucial way of establishing the power and authority of a character before they’ve entered the scene.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, look at that last little bit is amazing. “An’ I says, ‘Bill’s sleepin’, Skinny.'” So, a guy comes to Clyde — this is Clyde, one of the lawmen in the town, and describes what has happened. Cowboys have come in. one of them has savagely cut up a woman. And Skinny is going to kill that man. And Clyde says you can’t do anything until we get Little Bill, but I don’t want to wake Little Bill up.
Well, that tells us so much about Little Bill and what happens when you do wake him up, because apparently waking him up is way worse than not telling him about all this stuff. And that is an enormous gift. Right in that little bit of dialogue we know that Little Bill already is probably bad.
John: Well we at least know you don’t want to cross him. You don’t want to wake him up. And what I think is so fascinating about the scene that follows is we see the two cowboys tied up and we establish now, OK, he must be the lawman, he must be the sheriff. And so he’s going to take care of this situation. And then within the course of the scene we realize like, oh no, no, he is the villain. He is a bad person. Is such a great revelation. Because basically all the men we see in the scene are bad people. They’re just different kinds of bad people. And the only people we can have sympathy for are the prostitutes who are upstairs who are being completely cut out of the situation.
So, it’s a great scene because we don’t know exactly where we stand with Little Bill at the start, but we see his actions tell us what we need to know about the character.
Craig: Yeah. And the nature of this scene is largely a little miniature trial. Which I thought was brilliant. Because he doesn’t come in there and start talking big and breaking hands and punching people in the face. He’ll do that later. This is actually an insight into how his mind intellectually works regarding the concept of justice. And he has an almost lawyerly negotiation with these men and with Skinny. Skinny literally pulls a contract out. He says, “This here’s a lawful contract… betwixt me an’ Delilah Fitzgerald, the cut-whore. Now I brung her clear from Boston, paid her expenses an’ all, an’ I got a contract which represents an investment of capital.”
Little Bill, and then in parenthesis, sympathetic to the argument, “Property.”
They are having a discussion of law. And when you get to the end of it you think, oh boy, the problem with this man isn’t that he is an emotional hot head, or a naturally violent person. Turns out he is. But right off the bat what Peoples wants you to know about this character is his intellectual concept of justice is completely corrupt.
John: Absolutely. I want to talk a little bit about this parenthetical which is “sympathetic to the argument.” And so every screenwriting guru will tell you like, oh, avoid your parentheticals. Here is a great and crucial parenthetical. Because without that parenthetical to properly phrase property, we could be reading that many different ways. We could say like, oh no, you’re a jerk to be saying that these are your property. Like it could spin you off in a different direction. But by making it clear like this is — that he’s going along with this argument, all his other lines thereafter are colored. It’s a small thing, but that parenthetical ends up becoming incredibly important for our understanding of the second half of the scene.
Craig: Yeah. It’s one of the reasons why I detest people that say don’t use these things. The reason that Peoples puts that in there, as you point it, is because it’s necessary. But more important I think to understand the writerly process is that David Webb Peoples understood it was necessary. That’s the part that a lot of writers miss. They will write these things and they will not have an innate accountability to the audience. Eventually this becomes second nature, I think, to a good writer. To know that this will be ambiguous unless I specify what I mean.
And when people say don’t use these things, they are not only saying something that is stupid, but they’re saying something that is dangerous, because it is literally cutting off a growth process toward being a better writer. This is part of good writing is clarifying ambiguity. And by doing it parenthetically, doing it in such a way that allows an actor to act something, which I think is wonderful.
John: This same scene, the same kind of scene took place later on in the story, you may not need that parenthetical because we would understand Little Bill well enough that it would be completely clear what the color was on that line. But because it’s his first scene, we need that to understand what’s happening.
John: The other thing I will point out just because there’s a zillion examples of really great dialogue throughout here, but just take a look at sort of how Peoples is setting up the dialect of people without killing us. And so it’s not every word is spelled out in a funny way, but the things that are interesting he’s choosing to call out. So the betwixt, the least ways, he’s using specific language for different characters so their voices sound different, but he’s not going nuts with the dialect. You don’t have to like stare at a sentence to try to figure out like, wait, what does that actually mean. You don’t have to sound it out. It’s clear what it is, but it’s also clear that it has a voice to it.
Craig: Yeah. He makes you feel like you’re in the place without feeling like you’re in a pretend version of that place. And he says here, you know, and in the hands of a bad writer this can start to choke the emotional payload from certain lines, but when you’re dealing with somebody like Peoples who is an expert, it somehow makes it better. Alice is reasonably upset because Little Bill isn’t even going to whip these guys, much less hang them, which is what she wants. He’s just finding them some ponies. And she’s protesting. And Little Bill says, “Ain’t you seen enough blood for one night? Hell, Alice, they ain’t loafers nor tramps nor bad men. They’re hard workin’ boys that was foolish. Why if they was given over to wickedness in a regular way…”
Hey Alice, they ain’t loafers, nor tramps, nor bad men. That’s a very archaic western construction. And somehow it makes the insanity of what he’s saying worse. I just love that language.
John: I also love that he’s calling Alice by name. So he does know who she is, knows exactly what she does here. And so he’s willing to speak to her, but he’s not willing to give her argument any weight whatsoever.
Craig: Exactly. Everybody is very familiar with each other. The town in another brilliant bit of sub-textual information that Peoples has delivered to us through this scene, we understand that this town is perfectly stable. That even when something like this happens, you cannot break the stability that Little Bill has placed over it. It is under control.
John: Absolutely. So I want to jump ahead to when The Kid comes to visit Munny to encourage him to come with him on this quest. There’s a moment which Peoples in the script describes the house. And I thought it was a terrific description and really indicative of what you can do with very few words to establish what a place is really like. So, this is on page 11.
INT. SOD HUT – DAY Munny selects a tin cup from a wash pan of dirty dishes. It is dark and cool inside his one room sod hut… and poor. The Kid checks one of the three chairs for stability before sitting down.
That’s the extent of it. I’m reading this after having watched the movie, so I’m not sure if that’s actually what was done in the movie. I’m not sure that the beat of checking the chairs actually happened, but it’s such a smart choice to be able to say this is what his place is like. He doesn’t have chairs that work properly. That he’s living in this little dirt hovel.
We’ve already seen him with the pigs, but to establish that the inside of his place is also so desperate is crucial. Because without the physical environment being right for us to be able to understand why Munny would go on this quest we’re not going to buy it. If things seemed OK, we’re never going to believe that he went on this quest to kill the two cowboys.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a terrific description. And it implies an instructive method for creating these places in a screenplay with just text in such a way that people feel like they’re there. I think sometimes writers create a place as if they were alone in a theater directing the creation of a set and then when it’s just the way they want it they call on the actors. But that’s actually not great. And it’s how you end up with actors moving around in sets that they’re disconnected from. Here is a situation where he builds the set with the actors in place. He’s tell us what the reaction and interplay between human and stuff is. And in doing so it now feels so much more vivid. I love that.
Very smart of you to call that out. And while we’re in this wretched hut, we’re meeting this new fascinating character. By the way, The Kid, he’s showing up here — Schofield Kid shows up on page nine. What a great name. We’ll get to that in a second. And we’ve met so many characters at this point. So many. Just to run it down we’ve met Alice, Silky, Delilah, Skinny, Little Bill, Clyde, the two cowboys. I’m missing a few other. I’m sure I’m missing more. And now we’re meeting more people. And it’s all working. It’s working gorgeously.
John: So we’ve met Munny. We’ve met Munny’s two kids. And now we’re meeting the Schofield Kid who is one of our last sort of new characters for a while. And but they’re all good. And this is classically a stranger comes to town. So we have established the normalcy of the house and now this new person is coming to town.
A thing which we skipped over in the very beginning is the script begins with that same crawl or that same sort of opening talking about William Munny’s wife. Weirdly the script does that over the attack on Delilah. And when you see the film, Eastwood does a bookend where it’s the same wide shot with the beautiful sunset. That’s where the crawl now reads, which makes a lot of sense. But the actual script started in a slightly different place.
So, and I think it was a good choice ultimately for the film because it let it be clear that the story is really about this man and not about this woman we’re about to see attacked.
Craig: It was a good choice. I think if they had let that voiceover or crawl play over the attack in the whorehouse, everything would have been robbed of value at that point. You would be reading while you’re supposed to be feeling. You’d be feeling while you’re supposed to be reading. You’d be talking about what guy that you can’t see. And you’re confused. There’s a hundred reasons why that change made absolute sense. But here we are with our main character, this guy that we’re told — and we are being told again by The Kid — is essentially the devil.
This kid shows up. He’s got this ridiculous name. He calls himself the Schofield Kid. So, again, we have a liar. Somebody who is selling his own legend. And this kid is acting tough. He’s so bad at acting tough it’s funny. We don’t buy it for a second. Nobody buys it, really. I don’t even think Clint Eastwood buys it.
John: Let’s pause there for a second. Because if I have an objection to the movie as I watched it this last time is I didn’t believe — I didn’t believe that anybody bought Schofield Kid from the start. And I didn’t believe that Eastwood would have gone along with him at all because he was so clearly out of his depth. I didn’t believe that anyone ever thought he’d killed a person. What’s your take?
Craig: I agree with you. I don’t think William Munny agrees to go along with this kid because he thinks that he’s got a partner that’s going to kill anyone. I think he agrees to go along with the kid because he needs money. He needs money and also underneath there is still that little itch of the adventure. This kid is related to a guy that used to work with William Munny.
And so all we’ve seen of William Munny is this broken down pig farmer who doesn’t look like much. And here’s what the kid says. Munny says, “You’re Pete Sothow’s nephew, huh? Hell, I thought maybe you was someone come to kill me…for somethin’ I done in the old days.” Notice not at all scared of the kid whatsoever. The Kid says, “I could of…easy.” Munny, “Yeah, I guess so.”
Kid says, “Like I was sayin’ you don’t look like no meaner than hell cold-blooded damn killer.”
And Munny says, “Maybe I ain’t.”
Now, let me pause for a second. Of everybody in this movie that is constantly selling their legend, William Munny does the opposite. He is the legend, and undersells it. He denies it over and over and over. So, the Kid says, “Well, Uncle Pete said you was the goddamndest meanest sonofabitch ever lived an’ if I ever wanted a partner for a killin’, you was the worst one. Meanin’ the best. On account of you’re cold as snow an’ don’t have no weak nerve nor fear.”
Now, who he’s describing here is a legendary killer and a very frightening man. And we don’t see that. We see an old broken down guy. He doesn’t even seem to be thrilled by this account. He seems sort of bummed out. And then, you know, then the Kid says, “I’m a damn killer myself, only I ain’t killed so many as you because of my youth. Schofield Kid, they call me.”
That’s ridiculous. And Munny goes, “Schofield? You from Schofield?” This is why William Munny is the only person who just cuts through truth. Like why the hell would you call yourself that?
And he goes, “On account of my Schofield model Smith and Wesson pistol.” That’s ridiculous.
So, anyway, the point being here’s somebody who is pitching the legend of you and you’re saying no. This is the only way that goes across. But in our minds, whether we realize it or not, here on page 11 David Webb Peoples, one of the most efficient screenwriters who ever walked the face of the earth, on page 11 he has essentially pulled a slingshot back. And the slingshot is this man is the devil. This man, William Munny, is the devil. And he’s going to hold that slingshot back the whole way through until…pretty cool.
John: Yeah. Another crucial moment that happens in this meeting with the Schofield Kid is the description of what they’re going after. So, going to kill a couple of no-good cowboys, what for, for cutting up a lady. They cut up her face and cut her eyes out, cut her ears off, and her tits, too.
So, it’s not enough that they cut up her face, like every time that her injuries are mentioned they keep getting added to which I think is just a brilliant choice. It’s like, you know, it has to be worse than what actually happened for it be worth going after these guys. So there’s a classic sort of like we have to save the princess thing, but because she’s a prostitute like well, you know, they did a terrible thing to her and it has to be a more terrible thing with each next person we meet to tell the story.
Craig: Yeah. Once again we live in a country of legends and lies. And nobody seems to have a handle on what’s real. Nobody. Which is awesome.
John: Yep. So this could be a 19-hour podcast as we go through scene-by-scene and talk about them being fantastic, but what’s another moment we should jump ahead to and really single out?
Craig: Well, there’s a few things we learn that we can sort of gloss over, but they support the points we’re already making here. We find out that the Schofield Kid is actually blind, or not completely blind, but can’t see very far. So there again is another possible just lie. And another indication that this kid is full of crap. But he also seems really angry, so something is going on there.
And Little Bill hearing about the vigilantes who are coming to town posts a big sign that says No Arms Allowed in Town. Here comes Richard Harris/English Bob, telling stories about how wonderful he is. And then Little Bill just beats the crap out of him. Savages him. And I’d like to jump ahead to the scene where he’s in the jailhouse and he’s got English Bob in a cell and he’s now coopted W.W. Beauchamp, the hagiographer, the mythologizer, I guess, and he’s now setting the record straight. And you see this writer pivoting from the guy who used to by my hero to my new hero because he has to aggrandize the west.
John: Absolutely. It’s an amazing scene which I had not recalled from my previous viewing of it. And I just didn’t know what was going to happen. It was a startling scene because I knew that Bill was capable of incredible violence. I knew that Beauchamp was an idiot, but also cocky. There were so many things that could happen that I was at the edge of my seat throughout the entire scene.
So, a really ingeniously done scene. Get us into it.
Craig: Sure. Some time has passed. They’ve cut away from the Little Bill story for a while. We’ve spent some time with our three heroes, Ned, William Munny, and the Kid. And now we’re back in jail. And it begins with Little Bill reading this book that W.W. Beauchamp has written about English Bob. And the book is called The Duke of Death. Little Bill keeps mispronouncing the word Duke as Duck. And he’s so amused by this, because he knows English Bob and we know he knows English Bob. The first time English Bob sees him he says, “Shit and scrambled eggs,” to himself. What a great phrase. Like, oh god, not this guy.
And Little Bill explains to Mr. Beauchamp that everything that he has been writing about the west is nonsense. He tells him the true story of what happened with English Bob. And the true story is the opposite of romantic. There’s nothing romantic about it. This dashing guy who is defending a woman’s honor is in fact completely drunk and acting like a jerk. The guy who is the villain is not a villain. He’s just unlucky. And we see W.W. Beauchamp’s — well we see the bubble being burst, right?
But what’s fascinating, and this is why I think this is David Webb Peoples’ critique of the danger of narrative, is that when the mythology is burst Beauchamp doesn’t just give up. He goes looking for a new one. And he begins to talk with Little Bill to try and get information. OK, tell me the real story. And what Little Bill does is he plays a game with Beauchamp ultimately which is I’m going to give you my gun because it’s hard to kill people. And you go ahead and you try and kill me. And he can’t. And Little Bill says, “Hard, ain’t it?”
And now we’re starting to see that everything that we thought about the way killing in the west worked just isn’t true.
John: Yeah. So this scene, basically page 64, there’s two scenes that are all taking place inside this jail. And the first is sort of setting up the mythology. The second is this test that Little Bill pulls on W.W. and on English Bob. And it’s really well done because as an audience member you don’t have any more information than English Bob or W.W. Like you don’t know if the gun is loaded. And you’re constantly thinking through like, OK, what are the options. You are game-theorying it of like, well, if I pull the trigger and it’s empty, then he’s going to kill me. But if I had it to English Bob…it really puts you in the place of this biographer in a way that’s fascinating and great.
And it’s such a great example of this is the kind of scene that would so often be on the chopping block in a normal development process. They’d say like, well, Munny is not in it. It doesn’t really affect the plot if the scene were to be taken out. It’s just an amazing scene. And so is it worth the time and the money and the screen time for this amazing scene? And the answer is absolutely yes. But it can be hard to convince people of that before you start shooting the movie.
Craig: Yeah. I think that the true value of the sequence is only felt a bit later. Because one thing that we learn from that scene is that in this world of liars and self-aggrandizers, Little Bill is actually the real deal. He is lying about who he is. He’s lying when he says I’m a lawman and I care about the law. Who he is in fact is a cruel sadistic man. But he is. You know that because he just proved it.
He proved it. He had no fear whatsoever. His hand was steady. He is not a liar like English Bob. He’s the real deal which is why Beauchamp then follows him to his house to hear more stories. But the reason this is so valuable is because it is setting up a confrontation that we know will be formidable. It’s going to be between two real people. And the next major sequence that happens in the movie is our heroes arrive in this town. Clint Eastwood’s character, Munny, is suffering from a terrible fever. He’s delirious. He has a gun on him. Little Bill comes into the bar and absolutely obliterates him. Beats him to a pulp, which is incredible.
Now there’s no question. The only question we have now is is William Munny the devil, or is he just a broken down guy? Because he sure seems like one.
John: Yeah. It’s a great choice to, like building that confrontation early, because classically you would hold off that confrontation for the third act. At the very end we’d have that moment, or there’d be some reason why the two heroes were separated. They have a class but they both go off. And to have our hero so profoundly defeated so early really by the weather, just by the environment to start with, and then by Little Bill is just terrific. We really have a question about like, oh, is this movie where the hero just dies off really and it becomes about Ned? It’s such a surprising turn.
And honestly the kind of turn that I can imagine so many A-list actors now would not let this scene happen. I can — you and I both know so many actors who would not put up with their characters being so squarely defeated this early in the story.
John: Like, no, it’s humiliating to me. It’s emasculating. Exactly what it should be. And it works so well here because it gives us a reason to really dig in and sort of explore this character more and be ready for that final conflict, that final comeuppance.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, being brought low is the best way to set up a triumph. You’re absolutely right.
John: But classically we also say like, oh, he’s beaten at the end of the second act and in the third act he rises, but this is still pretty early in the story. He’s just gotten to town and he’s been defeated. There’s still a lot of movie left here. And the worst of the worst, the low points, they’re still coming. And that’s what’s kind of great about how Unforgiven unspools. There’s still a lot more to go here. They still haven’t really started their mission of killing these cowboys. We’re not even there yet.
Craig: That’s right. And in this moment now where he has been beaten down and is sick, they get him away and he appears to be dying. He says so. He’s delirious. And he’s saying to Ned, “I seen the angel of death Ned, an’ I seen the river.” And he’s talking about these visions. And he’s saying I’m scared. And we’re like, god, he’s scared and he’s dying and he’s talking about his wife. And in the end of his vision, this is where you start to get a hint of what might be waiting. He says, he’s talking about the angel of death. “I’m scared, Ned. Ned, I’m gonna die. I seen her… I seen Claudia too…”
And Ned says, “Well, that’s good now, ain’t it, Bill? Seein’ Claudia an…?”
And he says, “She was all covered with worms. Oh, Ned, I’m scared of dyin’…”
And then he says, “Ned… don’t tell nobody… don’t tell the kids… don’t tell ’em none of… none of the things I done.”
He spoke earlier in a remorseful way about some of the things he did, which were horrifying, including shooting a man so that his teeth came out of the back of his head. But that’s on one level it’s a kind of a rational discussion of remorse. This is a feverish dying man expressing his greatest fear and his greatest wish which is that nobody know his story. And that, again, is just — we talk about thematic unity of a movie. Over and over and over, this is a movie about stories and truth. And Peoples never lets off that gas pedal on it. It’s just brilliant.
You know, when you ask the question, well, what am I supposed to be writing here, the theme will tell you.
Of course he comes out of this fever and what happens next is kind of remarkable. They go and they kill these two cowboys. The first one they kill is terrible because it is the opposite of everything we’ve ever seen in a western, where you show up, there’s either a standoff in the street or a big showdown outside of a saloon. It’s a non-descript valley. It is slow. It is drawn-out. The shooting is incompetent. And the man who is killed isn’t killed instantly. He’s hit once and lies there and they talk for a while, while he dies.
And it again is another reminder that the stories we tell are just junk. And the one person who isn’t surprised at all by how the truth unwinds is Bill Munny.
John: Absolutely. I want to talk about Little Bill and sort of the parallels between Munny and Little Bill. Because both of these men are trying to sort of move past what they were before and build a new life. And Little Bill has been more outwardly successful. He’s building this new house. He doesn’t have a family, he doesn’t have kids, but he has this new house he’s built for himself that’s completely crooked and the roof doesn’t work. But he is successful. He’s pulled himself out of this life of crime from before and is now the king of this little town.
Bill Munny is not successful. You know, he’s a pig farmer. He’s desperate. He’s sick. He is at his last ends. And that is the central conflict. You’ve created these two characters who come from a similar place who are inevitably going to have to come head to head with each other. And so this killing of the first cowboy is he’s essentially an innocent. He is a person who is collateral damage in this thing, in this bigger fight that’s going to have to happen. And we have to see it. And I agree with you. It’s the kind of death we don’t see in westerns because it’s a medium length death.
We’re used to the person who gets shot and immediately dies, who falls over and they’re dead. We’re used to the long drawn-out like there’s a bullet in my abdomen. It’s going to take a week to die and it’s going to be terrible. This is just a couple of agonizing minutes and it’s a cool death that we had not seen before.
Craig: That’s right. And when we come out of it, there’s more collateral damage, because the one person — two of the three could see this clearly. The Schofield Kid can’t. He’s too far away. But William Munny knows what he’s done and so does Ned. Ned was supposed to kill this guy but couldn’t. Lost his nerve. And as a result, having seen this, he says I can’t do this anymore. He just doesn’t want to do it. He has to leave.
And so we find out, OK, Ned is changed. That the truth here is he’s not that man anymore. But now the Kid is excited. He wants to be the next one to do the killing. And in fact he is. He’s the next one. The guy who does frankly deserve to die, the Kid shoots him. And in shooting him the Kid finds out that this is not at all who he is either.
John: A crucial moment that’s happened between these two killings though is that Ned has ridden off and he’s going to go back to his normal life. And in many movies he would either go off. In other movies we would see him being captured and that would be the central focus. Instead, like he’s just brought in to town like already having been captured. Even Ned’s death happens off screen, which is such a fascinating choice. Usually we would want to see the killing stroke that brought our guy to death. Not in this movie. This movie we are finding out with other people that Ned has died. And that is a great transformation. We are with Munny as he finds out that his friend is dead and we don’t have that information before him. That’s great. And that’s such a strong choice for this movie that is so smart about deciding what to show us and what to tell us about what’s happened.
Craig: That’s right. And it builds to one of the greatest scenes ever put on film. And it could only work if Peoples creates that flow of action the way he has. We know that Ned’s been caught. We see Little Bill torturing him, whipping him in a cell. We know he’s in trouble. We know that Munny and the Kid have just killed the second guy and now it’s just about getting their money. And so now we’re at a scene where he and the Kid are waiting on a hill under essentially the most perfect tree ever put on film for its purpose. And while we’re watching this rider, who is one of the prostitutes, slowly riding toward them with their money they have a discussion. And the Kid is essentially saying, despite his best attempts to convince himself, the way Peoples writes it is, “The Kid wipes whiskey from his chin. He has been working hard to make the hysteria he feels into a high… but it won’t quite come.”
And the Kid says, “That was…the first one.” He admits he’s never killed anyone before. And then he says, you know, I can’t do it — I can’t kill anybody else ever again. And one of the great lines ever, William Munny says, “It’s a hell of a thing, ain’t it, killin’ a man. You take everythin’ he’s got… an’ everythin’ he’s ever gonna have…” Which is profound, particularly within the context of a western, which is a genre in which people are constantly being killed. And in which we, the audience, are constantly cheering or meant to cheer. And suddenly here’s somebody who again refuses to go along with the legend. And he doesn’t have to because as it turns out he really is a terrible person.
When the prostitute shows up with the money she tells them that Ned has died. And she tells them that Little Bill killed him and made him say things. And while she’s talking, Munny starts to drink, which we know is the thing that he has not done because his wife cured him of that. But we also know that everything that he ever did that was terrible he did while he was drunk.
And this is what she says. This is just, ah, she said, “First Ned wouldn’t say nothin’… but Little Bill hurt him so bad he said who you was… He said how you was really William Munny,” I’m changing — the script is slightly different, “how you’re really William Munny out of Missouri… an’ Bill said “Same William Munny that dynamited the Rock Island and Pacific in ’69 killin’ women and children an’ all?” An’ Ned says you done a lot worse than that.”
Now, let me stop right there. She starts crying while she’s telling him this. And she’s not crying for Ned. She’s crying because she’s scared to death of the man she’s saying this to. She’s looking at him, understanding he is in fact the devil. And what happens next? The devil.
John: Yeah. So we’ve been promised the devil from the start of the film and the devil finally comes. And going back to the holding off the reveal that Ned is dead, you know, once we know Ned is captured our natural instinct is like, oh, well he’s going to have go save his friend. And so we always think that’s going to be a possibility. And so eventually we’re going to get there. And so we’re willing to put up with the Schofield Kid being all whiney about like, oh, it’s my first time ever killing a man because we know that, oh, he’s going to have to go out and save his friend. But then she comes and that’s taken away. That option is taken away. That pathway no longer exists.
And so the only things that are stopping him from becoming the devil are now here and that’s when he starts drinking.
Interestingly in the script, at least the script that I’m reading right now, does not show him drinking right then. But watching it in the movie, it’s such an incredibly strong moment because people are talking around him. He just takes the bottle and starts drinking. And you know —
Craig: You know.
John: Exactly what’s going to happen. And it’s fantastic.
Craig: Yes. So finally the slingshot is released. And now we cut to the town and it’s night and it’s rain and it’s thundering. Essentially it is now in fact a movie. It is a — so you wanted a western, we’ll give you a western. Here it is. Here comes the lone rider in on the horse. Here comes Clint Eastwood now.
You asked for it. You’ve been cheering for him. And now I’m going to frighten you to death with him. And I’m going to make you think about who it is exactly that you find so heroic. Because when he walks into the bar, he is, I mean, his face alone is terrifying. And he’s facing down this entire room full of men. He immediately kills Skinny. And then he points his gun at Little Bill and Little Bill says, “You be William Munny out of Missouri, killer of women and children.”
And in the script Munny says, “I have done that… killed women and children… I have killed most everything that walks or crawls an’ now I have come to kill you, Little Bill, for what you done to Ned.” And in the movie, what Clint Eastwood says before that is, “That’s right.” And it’s the scariest thing ever because this guy just says I guess you are and then rambles off this outrageous legend of a nightmarish person. And for the first time in this whole damn movie someone says, “That’s right. That’s me. And now I’ve come for you.” And it is terrifying. And in there you see Beauchamp leaning forward like, oh, this is it. This is the real thing.
John: So that last sequence, which would normally be like — it’s both kind of the orgy of violence that you expect to see in a western, but because of the setup and because this character is reluctant to do it, it plays so differently. It doesn’t have — I think Eastwood does a smart job of under-pedaling the fantasy of it. Because the whole movie has been set up so carefully. The script has set up so carefully to sort of puncture all of the excitement over this moment. So that it can both be a great guns a-blazing, but it’s not the end-all/be-all sort of like shoot them up amazing lucky shots coming through. It’s just what you want to see happen and you sort of know inevitably has to happen.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, essentially it’s real. You have one man who is a killer. And you have a bunch of guys who aren’t. And remember that scene that you’re right, dopier people would have said cut out, where Little Bill describes what it’s like. He said fast isn’t the thing. It’s keeping your cool. Well none of these guys can keep their cool. They are shooting not just wildly, but some of them are shooting straight up into the air. They’re terrified. They’ve never done this before. They’ve never killed anyone. We know they’re terrified even early on. They’re terrified to confront English Bob. Not Little Bill.
So William Munny starts shooting them. And he is moving slowly, just like Little Bill says a real killer does. He’s not fast. He is methodical and he keeps his cool. Everybody else is shooting wildly and quickly. And when it is over, a whole bunch of them are dead and the rest of them are leaving. Little Bill is on the floor, we think dead. And now Munny has an encounter with the second most important character in the movie, I’ll keep saying, W.W. Beauchamp.
And Beauchamp, the writer, who has gone from one person to another to another looking for the real legend has this discussion with him. He says, “You killed five men single-handed.” And Munny says, “Yeah.” And Beauchamp says, and god, it’s such a great bit of acting. Saul Rubinek, truly one of the great, great actors. Wipes his mouth, like he’s sweaty and he’s scared, but also excited. And he asks, “Who did you kill first?” That curiosity, that sociopathic curiosity of someone for whom reality is somehow subordinate to legend. He has to know. And Munny, the question to Munny is absurd. “Huh?”
And then Beauchamp, I love this, in parenthesis Peoples puts, “Reciting.” “Wh-wh-when confronted by superior numbers, the experienced gunfighter will fire on the best shots first.”
Munny goes, “Yeah?” I think in the movie he goes, “Is that right?” And then he starts going through all these questions. You killed him first. You killed Little Bill first, didn’t you?
And Munny says, “I was lucky in the order. I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killing folks.”
Beauchamp keeps going. Who is next? Was it Clyde or was it — ?
And Munny points his gun at him and says, “All I can tell you is who’s going to be last.” Which means essentially I don’t care about your storytelling. I don’t care about any of the lies or nonsense. I am the truth. Period. The end. And it trumps everything that you want to do here. Leave or die. And that, again, I think is Peoples great comment on what it means to mythologize things. That the truth has no time for the myth. But what happens after he kills, he finally kills Little Bill, a terrifying moment. Little Bill says, “I don’t deserve this, to die this way. I was building a house.” Lie.
Munny says, “Deserves got nothing to do with it.” Because this isn’t a story. Stories have morals and people deserve things and such. Not to this guy.
Craig: He kills him and when he comes outside he delivers this terrifying speech, terrifying, where he essentially in full flagrant Satan mode says, “I’m leaving and if anyone takes a shot at me I’m going to kill them, and I’m going to kill their family. I’m going to burn down their house.” And you believe it. You believe he will do these things. You understand who he is underneath.
And then I think cutting these other scenes and getting to that last bit really makes the last bit valuable. Because you understand from that last bit he returns back to the story that his wife told him that he needs to try and live. And he does. And you understand throughout the story that his intentions ultimately are to redeem himself. He’s trying. He’s the one person in the movie that’s actually legitimately good and honest to Delilah, the victim.
He’s the one person. He is trying to be good, but his nature is awful. And so the very end it says, his mother-in-law, “Some years later, Mrs. Ansonia Feathers made the arduous journey to Hodgeman County to visit the last resting place of her only daughter.” That was William Munny’s passed-on wife. “William Munny had long since sold the place and disappeared with the children… some said to San Francisco where it was rumored he prospered as a dry goods merchant under a different name.” And there’s nothing on the stone, meaning the gravestone of his dead wife. “And there was nothing on the stone to explain to Mrs. Feathers why her only daughter had married a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.”
Huh. What a way to end.
John: Yeah. It’s a great ending. So let’s look at how we actually resolve the film because this is a difference between the script and what we see on the film. So in the final film William Munny rides off. Then we come back to the farm and we basically come back to that same shot we saw at the start. So we do have the payoff, the celebration of sorts, that he does get to be back with his family. We’ve worried about his kids. His kids are OK. There’s a cross fade. And then we start our end crawl. So it’s literally a bookend to the story we’ve seen before and we find out he’s gone off to San Francisco to open a store.
The script has more. And there’s stuff there that I think if I were making this film I would say like, oh, well you’re going to absolutely need those moments because we want to see what happens with the kids. You’re going to want to see that everything resolved nicely, but I would be wrong. Because I think the film actually does a really good job at just sort of being done. Like once we’ve seen that violence and once we’ve seen that like, OK, once we know that he’s gotten back we don’t want to see those kids ever again.
And so the movie version we don’t spend time with those kids again. They have no more scenes. It’s just we’re into the next chapter.
So, that’s Unforgiven. And so I would encourage you to read the script in addition to watching the movie because you will see basically how good the script was before it became the movie, but also look for sort of what Peoples is doing on the page. You will notice a tremendous number of I-N-Gs. There are a lot of present progressive verbs being used where especially if we’re setting up the start of the scene, characters are in the middle of action. They’re in the middle of I-N-G’ing a lot of things. And it feels really nice and really natural.
The other thing you’ll notice, especially in the first half of the script, he is very kind of novel-ish about sort of his sentences. They sort of go on for a while. They’re not like tight and crisp a lot at the start. But they’re really good and they create a really nice feel. So look for the word choices he’s using but also the sentence length and sentence structures are really different and fascinating and I think work really well for the script.
They’re not often what we would point to in Three Page Challenges as like this is what you should do, but I can assure you that if we got these first three pages we would love them because they speak to a voice. They speak to a real understanding of what it’s like to read these pages and see the movie in your mind.
So, definitely do check them out. You’ll also notice that there’s some things that are in the script that are different that I actually really like a lot. So there’s a moment on page 53 where Schofield Kid, they’re talking about his being blind, and in the movie he throws a canteen on the ground and shoots it. And I didn’t know sort of how to take that as I watching this in the movie. In the script, there are these three turtles and he shoots them one-by-one. And it’s clear that he’s actually a really good shot, just at things that are close up.
And it’s a moment that I think plays better in the script than in the actual movie. It made me believe that Ned and Munny might think that the Schofield Kid could possibly kill somebody. That he actually has some kill. So it’s an interesting scene that didn’t make it into the script that way. I can understand why. It’s probably a little bit longer and a little bit — it’s just there’s a little shoe leather there that is not so great. But it was an interesting choice to let us understand like, oh, maybe the Kid is actually good at something. Because right now the Kid is sort of good at nothing.
Craig: Yeah. It could be that they were one a field and they didn’t have the stream and where would the turtles go. And then you got to get turtles. And you got to wrangle turtles. And you got to shoot turtles. And you got to rig fake turtles, because you can’t actually shoot turtles. Yeah, I understand it.
I also want to point out to folks that read the script here that David Webb Peoples apparently didn’t get the memo from all the brilliant script consultants and gurus out there who tell you to not put direction in your movies. He puts direction throughout. He slaters the script with direction. And I’m just picking one page at random, the very last page, here’s something in the middle. “VIEW ON MUNNY We are looking at him by now and there is nothing easy on his face, no big emotions, he is just looking at the grave.” We are looking at him. We. Oh my goodness.
Craig: Oh my goodness. No. This must be why he didn’t win the Oscar, because probably the script for Crying Game didn’t have any We in it. Oh, god.
John: So Peoples scene direction of choice is View On, so it’s an intermediary slug line. It’s not a scene header. It’s all caps, single line. And he uses it a lot. And I know he uses it a lot because this afternoon I was going through the script to get it into Weekend Read and sometimes Weekend Read was thinking that those were character names rather than slug lines. So I had to sort of go through and correct them.
So, almost always he’s using View On for these different things. Totally great and valid choice because View On is basically calling out a shot without saying it’s a shot.
I think the trend now has been to leave out the View On and put the noun that’s there, so you wouldn’t say View On, you might say On Munny, or just say Munny does the next thing. But he’s good and he’s consistent and you never have confusion about what it is we’re supposed to be looking at. And that’s good screenwriting.
Craig: Yeah. It’s good screenwriting. And people also will say Angle On. It’s all fine. The point is you are directing, absolutely, don’t run away from this. You are directing a movie on the page. You’re directing it in a way that doesn’t get in the way of the experience of the movie, but rather makes the experience of the movie possible. And that’s exactly what happens here.
When he tells you we’re looking at something, there’s a reason. But therefore if there is a reason you must tell us. He does a fantastic job here. The script is well worth studying for its dialogue, for its structure, for its economy. It is just wonderful in that regard.
Most importantly, I think, the script is incredibly instructive on theme and character and how they intertwine and how all characters are like spokes, all leading to the hub of the wheel of the theme. And I just don’t know how to do it better than what he did here. It is just a spectacular, spectacular example of the best of what screenwriting can be.
John: So Craig, this is my true confession is when you proposed Unforgiven I said, “OK.” And then you went on Twitter and immediately said we were going to do Unforgiven, so I was sort of stuck with it. And I kind of resented it for a little bit because I — like, ugh, I’m going to have to watch this movie, I’m going to have to read this script. And I will say after watching the movie I’m like, yeah, you know what, it’s really good. And then after reading the script I’m like, you know what, it’s really good. But I think the testament to why these conversations can be good and productive is at the end of this hour I do genuinely like Unforgiven much more than when I started.
And I think the process of talking through the choices that Peoples made and that Clint Eastwood made in making this film really let me see some of the beauty in what was actually happening here. So this is not a movie that I started out loving. It’s not a genre that I started out loving. But I think you have sold me on why Unforgiven is one of the great scripts and one of the great movies that we should be paying attention to.
Craig: Victory. Well, I’ll tell you what. Thank you. I very much appreciate that. You get to pick the next one, which I presume is going to be Tuff Turf.
John: 100%. If it involves people posturing aggressively, then that’s my kind of movie. I’ve never seen Tuff Turf.
Craig: Tuff Turf is a movie from the ’80s I think, or early ’90s, starring James Spader. Sort of a teen romance. Derek Haas is obsessed with Tuff Turf. There’s a song in the middle of Tuff Turf — we’re not making fun of Tuff Turf, I swear to god. But whatever, look, you pick the next one. I’m in all the way. Let’s do it.
John: Excellent. So, that is our show for this week. Our show is produced by Carlton Mittagakus. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth.
If you have an outro, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place to send longer questions, or questions that have audio files attached. We love those.
But on Twitter, ask us your short questions. I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
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You can find the notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. While you’re there, go to johnaugust.com/guide to download the episode guide to all the previous episodes and that will include the previous deep dives we did on Little Mermaid. God, help me out, Craig. What were the other ones we did deep dives on?
Craig: We did Little Mermaid. Well we sort of did The Addams Family. We did Groundhog Day.
John: We did The Addams Family as sort of a general franchise.
Craig: We’re missing a big one. Oh, Raiders.
Craig: That was the biggest one of all.
John: That’s why we have a guide. So, you can find the guide for all those things back there. If you want to listen to those back episodes, they’re available on the USB drive. Store.johnaugust.com, or at Scriptnotes.net where you can get the entire back catalog for $2 a month.
Craig, thank you so much for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: Cool. Bye.
- Where to watch Unforgiven, and on IMDb and Wikipedia
- The Unforgiven script
- Weekend Read
- Past deep dives on The Addams Family, Ghost, Groundhog Day, Frozen, The Little Mermaid and Raiders of the Lost Ark
- Tuff Turf on Wikipedia
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)
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You can download the episode here.