Scenes are the dramatic units of films — the building blocks of cinematic storytelling. It is said that scenes should have a beginning, middle, and end. Additionally, all scenes should also have a goal, move the story forward, and present an emotional shift for at least one of the characters.
On a tightly constructed film, no scene is wasted! Whereas first-time writers focus on twists and big events, connecting the dots between “exciting moments” to fill in the pages, a skilled writer knows that every scene must be infused with purpose and exciting in its own right.
Analyzing film scenes is an amazing process to learning the craft of screenwriting. In this series, Anatomy of a Scene, we read or watch a scene from a movie and deconstruct it, asking ourselves what the writer intended to do. Does it work? Why or why not? And of course, what makes the scene great? Or awful?
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992)
Spoilers level: low
Today under the spotlight is the David Mamet-scripted GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, where we will focus on the 7 pages from Act I that kick the story in motion — a story beat often called Inciting Incident. Because this scene takes place between pages 8 and 15 (very early in the story), you can proceed to read it even if you haven’t seen the movie. As a quick set-up, the story revolves around a group of real estate agents. The scene at hand starts in the middle of page 8:
Notice how the very first paragraph in this scene introduces the setting with a description of “the large banner proclaiming ‘Rio Rancho Estates'”. Right after that, we get a sense of the real estate agents with the following exchange in which Aaronow broods over a failed sale. To which Levene responds, “You let her check with her lawyer…?” This conversation is important because it establishes the universe of the film within their contextual obstacles of making a sale (this is what they live for).
At the end of page 8, the antsy Aaronow spots someone new talking to their boss (note how quickly we get here; half a page into the scene). Immediately, there’s a sense that something is out of the ordinary (“Who is the guy…?”). After all, a movie about realtors in their regular routines would be boring. So what the audience needs — much like these characters — is a day different from the others, with higher stakes and an overwhelming pressure to close contracts.
Next, Aaronow discusses the “lead,” which in Real Estate and sales terminology means information on a prospective buyer — info so valuable it is often acquired from a research or marketing firm. The concept of leads is something very important in this film and this scene, so the writer establishes this as soon as possible.
In the middle of page 9, the office manager, Williamson, enters with the new guy to start the meeting. After a quick dialogue about Roma’s whereabouts, the big shot from downtown Blake begins his spiel in the first half of page 10. Right away, he minimizes the realtors in the room, reducing their problems to trivialities (“Let’s talk about something important”).
Just like that, conflict and tension are created — even before the financial stakes are explained. As we’ll see, the reason why this scene works so well is because it’s one gut-punch after another, each blow more violent than the one before. When poor Levene gets up to get coffee, Blake proceeds to destroy his sense of entitlement, “Put the coffee down. Coffee’s for closers only”. If Blake’s first speech was directed to the office at large, this line about the coffee is targeted to Levene; Blake is putting on boxing gloves and creating enemies in the room, “You call yourself a salesman, you son of a bitch…” As if the professional insults weren’t hurtful enough, Blake continues his attacks with personal attacks (“You son of a bitch”).
At the top of page 11, Moss starts for the door. Action-reaction. Do you know how to avoid a prick? You walk out of the room. Except Moss can’t leave that easily because in the next line, Blake tells it like it is: “The good news is: you’re fired.” This locks everyone in; you can’t just walk out now. It’s crucial that at least one of the realtors tries to leave the room because they’re all thinking about it. By having one character try and not be able to, the audience assumes that the other realtors are in the same boat, and they are.
And to add flavor as well as some dark humor to the scene, the author illustrates the stakes of the sales contest in the middle of page 11: “First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. […] Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” (I wonder if Mr. Mamet was also going for a play in words: steak vs. stake. Undoubtedly he was! Well done!)
The scene continues with the salesmen asking for better leads, but Blake shoots them down (“The leads are weak? You’re weak.”). Action-reaction. Attack-counterattack. For each point or question the salesmen raise (“What’s your name?”), Blake strikes back (“Fuck you, that’s my name.”) And Blake always has the final word, going the distance to mortify his victims (“‘Cause you drove a Honda to get here tonight, I drove a sixty-thousand dollar B.M.W.”) The scene would play like a pissing match if it wasn’t for the fact that Blake is the only bully here; everyone else is just trying to survive.
The second half of page 12 comes with a free lesson on sales tactics and acronyms (ABC and AIDA). Not only does this shed light on their system and environment, but also Blake uses those elementary notions to make a point.
Again on page 13, Moss pokes the beast: “You’re such a hero, you’re so rich, how come you’re coming down here, waste your time with such a bunch of bums.” And Blake attacks again, “This watch cost more than your car.”
Now the next piece of dialogue at the top of page 14 is particularly interesting because Blake addresses some points that the salesmen might be thinking about, “Nice Guy? I don’t give a shit. Good Father? Fuck you. Go home to your kids.” This line is great because it reminds the audience that these men have lives outside of the office, and it comes as a form of insult. These “lives” make them weak in the predatorial coliseum that is real estate.
After the brass balls bit, Blake introduces the Glengarry leads, which sparks the interest of the salesmen here, but will also provide more conflict later in the movie. These leads are the MacGuffin — an object of interest that everyone wants.
At the top of page 15, Blake signs off with another insult, “I said the real favor, follow my advice, and fire your fucken’ ass because a loser is a loser.”
And like that, the conflict of the story is established — the Inciting Incident. Four salesmen. Two will be fired. They all want the Cadillac, but only one can. Such is life in the trenches of the sales battlefield.
Notes on Format and Structure
David Mamet included a lot of camera directions in his script such as “ANGLE – CU LEVENE AND AARONOW” or “ANGLE – THE FACES OF THE MEN”. If you are writing a screenplay for the purposes of selling it, this style of writing should be avoided — it is frown upon to specify camera directions like the ones above. The director knows what he or she is doing. Plus, it takes up precious space in your script. Trim the fat and tell the story. (If you are directing and producing your own script, then you can do whatever you want. But I would make sure it is reader-friendly and not laden with directions.)
As far as the overarching structure goes, page 15 is usually where the first sequence of the movie ends. (Sequences are usually between 10 and 15 pages in length.) Thus, this scene covers and wraps up the second half of the first sequence of the movie. By page 10, you want to hook the reader. By page 15, you want the conflict established so that the characters can start considering solutions.
Glengarry Glen Ross: “Put the Coffee Down!” [Videoclip]
Here’s the scene as directed by James Foley for your viewing delight:
Even through real estate agents are often demonized, here they are the victims. As screenwriters, we have to be attuned to the “other side”, to different perspectives. In this film, David Mamet successfully makes us empathize and feel for these characters.
If you’re looking for inspiration for your own stories, consider a profession or a persona that’s universally hated and try to make the audience feel for them. Or at least tell a story from their perspective. It’s a challenge, but it can be dramatic gold.