I’ve endured film school theory classes and burned through 35mm reels (that tells you how long ago this was) picking classic movies apart frame by frame. Periodically I revisit my inspirational Blu-Rays to find that new different thing that fires my awe and admiration. And hopefully seeps into my own work in some form of enhancement or outright referencing. So for a bunch of my favorite cinema classics, I’m going to seek out and pick one new aspect that relates to what I’m working on now to share that piece of the puzzle that may spark your imagination and inspire a revisit. This is by no means an analysis but picking a highlight to spark a later deeper look.
In that spirit, I propose looking at the Step Sheet for Roman Polanski’s 1974 film “Chinatown”. On the occasion of an excellent new book “The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood” by Sam Wasson - HIGHLY RECOMMEND READ! - the section that most intrigues is the story of how the original ideas and themes of Robert Towne crashes, burned and mutated through the brutal labors of script drafts and the tortures of crafting a masterpiece.
I love big theme movies that attempt the high-wire act of molding big ideas into drama that entertains, and that’s the divine trinity of successful cinema art. Themes, Drama, Entertainment, in any order.
In “Chinatown” macro themes are embedded within micro actions that resonate in character, and it’s genius how that happens seamlessly,
A step sheet (or Beat Sheet or Step Outline) briefly details every scene with indications of dialogue and essential story. The Step Sheet for “Chinatown” is a bare bones layout of just the simple scenes, but within the scenes it strips down to an object or an action that become breadcrumbs along the path.
Next we’ll dig into the Step Sheet and see how macro themes become micro scenes in solving the puzzle of “Chinatown” Step Sheet!