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Sonny

Plot

Sonny follows the day of a young Atlanta courier on August 17th, 1915- the day after Leo Frank was taken from his Milledgeville Prison bed in the night and lynched in Marietta, accused of murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan in 1913. Our eponymous hero is not made immediately aware of this. However, when a mysterious package is entrusted to him by his employer to be taken to Mrs. Frank, Sonny is unwittingly made a player in the aftermath of Frank’s death.

Before Sonny can deliver that package, though, we must follow his daily routine, as he delivers packages and letters. It is through his exchanges with his customers that Frank has been lynched. Though he was warned not to, he opens the mysterious package and discovers a note and a wedding band, along with the words, ‘The wedding ring of Leo Frank, taken from his hand on the Night of August the 16th, 1915 by the Knights of Mary Phagan’. Soon after, Sonny discovers that the Knights of Mary Phagan are very upset that their trophy has been taken from them, and will try to get it back through any means possible.

After dodging various trolleys and undesirable who have traced the ring to him, Sonny finally makes it to Mrs. Frank’s house on Washington Street, near the state capitol building. He is exhausted, but finally hands his mysterious package over.

Characters:

Sonny- Sonny is our main character, the audience’s eyes and ears through his day. He is 12 years old, tall for his age, black hair, medium complexion and skinny. His hollow eyes indicate hunger and that he’s seen more than a 12-year-old should have. His formal schooling ended the year before, when he took his job, but he knows how to read comprehensively, a skill that is rare for a low-income kid like him. On the whole, we don’t learn much about him, apart from the fact that he hates lynchings (his father took him to one once, and he had to leave because he was sobbing) and he will do his job, no matter what obstacles lay before him.

Mr. Robeson- Sonny’s boss. He is middle aged, mustachioed, gruff to many and kind to a precious few, including Sonny.

Though it is not explicitly said, it is implied that Mr. Robeson was either present at or immediately after Leo Frank’s death. It is not clear how he obtained the ring and hand-written note, although the KMP do track the ring to him. It is evident, however, that the lynching of Leo Frank so disgusted him that he went to great lengths for his dying wish to be honored.

(I don’t anticipate any other characters to feature as prominently or be as fleshed out as these two. Besides, this is pretty much a one-man show.)

Cinematography & Lighting

I have a vision of Atlanta as a town that looks new on the outside but is black on the inside: exteriors of white, clean sandstone on new buildings, and when we get to the less savory parts of town, grungy rotting structures. Much of the action takes place on the road, so we will be seeing a lot of the city, a lot of exterior shots. In terms of lens, I would like certain parts of the city to have an extra gritty feel, while during a possible dream-esque sequence (Sonny sees a pretty customer that he likes), I’d like to used the ‘smeared-on vaseline’ look.

In terms of lighting, my conception of Atlanta (at first) is suffused with sunlight. August days in Atlanta show no sign of letting up for fall, so it will still be very hot- everyone’s brow will be glistening, and it’s one of those cloudless, obnoxiously hot days. Most of the interiors will be darkened to cut down on the heat, but outside it is almost artificially light. As Sonny gets closer to his destination, however, the general lighting will become darker, to signify both the closing of the day and the plight of the bereaved widow.

Scenery, Sound & Costuming

This film, while taking artistic license with some of the events of the day, will be completely faithful to the pre-WWI look and feel of Atlanta, as a city struggling to magnify its name and break away from its past while still mired in the shadow of the Confederacy. I have wood in mind as an over-arching element of scenery- Sonny’s workplace, which is dark, warm, and full of moulding, or at the houses of Sonny’s customers. The wealthy ones will exhibit fine hardwood floors and elegant carving, while his poorer ones live in rotting wooden structures or crowded apartment buildings.

Costumes will feature a lot of white- whether the starched blouses and collars popular for the day, or the filthy undershirts of indigents, in addition to a palette of browns for wood, blue for the uniform of the couriers and blacks and grays, for the final scene at the Franks’ house.

In terms of sound, I would like the sounds of Atlanta to first take over the viewers’ senses- car horns, the screech of streetcars and Sonny’s bicycle’s breaks, the chatter of people on the trolley, etc. However, once we get closer to the ring’s final destination, I would like a moody, dark but minimal orchestral score to take over, to reflect Sonny’s anxiety as well as the audience. (For an idea of how this should sound, please refer to James Horner’s wonderful soundtrack for ‘A Beautiful Mind’, a sample of which you will find here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9srIGajVjDg)

Important Scenes

  1. The opening scene: Sonny enters Robeson’s office. He is still unaware of Leo Frank’s death. Robeson is about to give him the package before a desk clerk roars into his office. Robeson ushers the man into the hallway before he can ask about the lynching and they talk there, while Sonny only hears ominous snippets of conversation. The clerk asks (in a scene that only the audience can hear) about the events, and through a series of Robeson’s flashbacks it becomes evident that this particular lynching didn’t sit well with him. When Robeson returns, he gives the package to Sonny and tells him to keep it safe.
  2. A scene of exposition: Sonny has given back his courier’s bicycle and is now riding a crowded trolley in the general direction of his final package’s address. Of course, all anyone can talk about is the lynching, the ‘heroes’ who are rumored to have carried it out, and the spectacle of it. We hear several different people’s takes on it. Someone says they will bring their children to see him hanging if he hasn’t been cut down, which prompts one man to ask Sonny if he will go to see the body. Sonny clams up and says no. He doesn’t like hangings. For some reason, the man takes umbrage to that.

Budget and Justification

This film will put butts in seats because, quite frankly, everyone likes to see a) a true story (or at least ‘based on a’ true story) and b) an aspect of a tragic story spun in a positive way. This movie will jerk tears and give viewers meaningful thoughts to ponder. While the acting could go any way- and I’m not saying this is surefire Oscar material- the Academy has always loved movies with a theme of injustice (Sophie’s Choice, Gentleman’s Agreement).

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Matewan’s Two Worlds

After his arrival in town, Joe Kennehan walks the streets of Matewan, West Virginia, looking for a clandestine union meeting. At the same time, across town, Kennehan’s host Mrs. Radnor and her son Danny are attending a church meeting. While the two scenes and their subject matter may appear to have little in common with each other, director John Sayles is cutting between these scenes to give us insight into the minds of the citizens of Matewan.

The union meeting is secret, so naturally the room is mired in shadow, much like the coal mine itself. It is a quiet place- many of the men don’t speak louder than a whisper. The church meeting, in stark contrast, is bathed in light, with darkness consigned to the dark wall. It is a loud place, and instead of many men talking, there’s one loud speaker at a time, as well as singing. The fact that the preacher (played by John Sayles himself) badmouths unions and Reds in the same breath further sets the scenes apart.

But the juxtaposition articulates more about each scene. Both the union and the church are places where people seek comfort- comfort for earthly matters and for spiritual ones. (In a related note, Joe Kennehan can even be construed as a messianic figure, which strengthens the union/church comparison.) When Danny mentions the union in the course of his preaching, he causes agitation in the congregation- clearly, these two matters aren’t meant to mix. This kind of division is echoed in several other realms of Matewan life: whites vs. foreigners and African-Americans, the Company vs. the workers, Americans vs. ‘reds’. A general environment of ‘us versus them’ is fostered by the town’s citizens’ desire to keep even the simplest of issues separate, even though their goals are ultimately the same.

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Ed’s Deliverance

Ed has the deer in his sights- a young doe quietly grazing on a slope. Quietly he sets his bow string taut, selects an arrow, pulls back and aims. The scene is quiet enough to hear the beating hearts of hunter and prey. The scene starts quietly and ordinarily, as Ed would expect his canoeing trip to be. Then, Ed’s hands begin to quiver. It appears to be from the tension of the bow, but then his hands begin to shake violently. The camera cuts between the deer— sweet, innocent, unsuspecting— and back to Ed, who grits his teeth and grimaces. Finally, he loses his nerve and misfires, scaring away the deer. He wilts, disappointed, and heads back to camp.

This scene prefigures Ed’s journey down the river as one of personal discovery and change. Ed starts his physical journey as the typical yuppie- he has a wife, a child, and a home in the suburbs. He is somewhat emasculated, not a man of action at all. Strong, macho Lewis is the antithesis of Ed, and serves as a kind of gadfly to him, questioning why Ed even came on the trip. After Lewis murders a hillbilly sodomite, Ed’s resolve is shaken. Before the assault, he was fairly decisive, but now he is impassive, unable to decide whether to tell the authorities or bury the hillbilly. He withdraws, clinging to his old, ‘citified’ self.

Later, when Lewis is incapacitated, Ed is forced to find the shooter who possibly murdered Drew. He climbs up the gorge’s walls, in an almost half-hearted fashion. At one point, he accidentally drops his wallet that contains pictures of his wife and son into the gorge— a symbol of his old life and way of thinking. When he finally reaches the top of the cliff and finds the shooter, he draws another arrow and sets up to shoot. In a bookend scene, he begins to shake again, even tipping the murderer off to his presence. Ed does shoot what appears to be a misfire, then falls back and impales himself on one of his own arrows. The arrow wound represents the trip: it’s a scar that will never leave him. When the hillbilly lumbers over, it becomes apparent that Ed’s shot was true: he killed the second shooter, just as he overcame the trip and managed to survive.

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I would like to base my story proposal on the murder of Mary Phagan and the Trial, Imprisonment, and Lynching of Leo Frank, the Jewish man who was wrongfully accused of her killing.

I want to write about him because I have been fascinated with his story since the 90th anniversary of his murder brought the case to my attention. Even as a child of the South, used to nooses as a vague symbol and not a tool, I can scarcely believe that a man would be so cruelly put to death- not to mention the multitudes of others who were lynched in the late 1800s and early to mid 20th century and beyond. I was so taken by the case that I purchased a copy of Steve Oney’s book And The Dead Shall Rise for my birthday at a signing. I was 13- the same age as Mary Phagan.

There is no doubt in my mind that (a), the Frank affair captured the imagination of the public, at a time when Hearst journalism ran wild and the nation was easily persuaded by show and awe tactics, and was the catalyst for both the rebirth of the KKK and the founding of the Anti-Defamation League; (b), that he was almost certainly innocent, and (c) that, unbeknownst to me, the subject of Leo Frank is way, way, way overdone. There were several silent films, most portraying Frank unsympathetically. Even Oscar Micheaux made 3 fictionalized films based on the subject. Even unto the modern era, Frank’s case has been told through movies, books and even a Tony Award-winning musical. There’s even a docudrama that will be released later this year on PBS.

Despite this, the case hardly has the cache that Emmet Till does. I don’t even know if Northerners know about Emmet Till, or are aware of lynching as residents of the South are. As a Southerner, I have exposed to this sort of vitriol, or the specter of it, for all my life. It is inseparable in the Deep South and still a little unsettling. In the book Without Sanctuary, Rep. John Lewis writes, “Many people today, despite the evidence, will not believe— don’t want to believe— that such atrocities happened in America not so very long ago.” The emphasis in his quote is my own, because it is the operative phrase in that sentence. The America that turned and shook its head at tragedies like the Holocaust had its own shameful atrocities.

Storyline

I don’t want to take the Frank case head on; rather, I’d like to have it going on in the background while the players of the story go about their business in the story. Indeed, I think I’d like to focus on the effect of the Leo Frank case on several disparate characters that are linked by nothing other than that they all live in Atlanta at the time of the murder, during the court case, and shortly after the lynching, in a New York Stories or Paris, J’taime-style narrative. I’ll have some that focus more on the court case and lynching, while other stories only make mention of it. Certainly for my final submitted scene I’ll write a vignette that deals more directly with the lynching or the perception of the general public for the case.

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One of the first people we meet ‘In the Heat of the Night’, is Sam, a police officer out on his late-night rounds. One thing we may not notice immediately is that we’re very, very close to him- almost uncomfortably so. The camera’s close, almost invasive, presence in the film helps to bring the viewer in and keep a hold on them as long as the film is going. You can see the sweat rolling down his forehead, and the stuffiness of a hot Southern night is suddenly very palpable. Then, when Sam makes a sudden stop, the shot nearly runs into his left tail light. The viewer nearly feels as if they are in the car with Sam, jarred from their seat, having to hold onto the dashboard to keep from sliding off the seat.

The camera invades Sam’s space (and ours) again when he finds Virgil Tibbs waiting in the Depot. We have an extreme close-up on his face. His demeanor of almost curiosity turns to one of hardened hatred and resolution. Within the span of a few seconds, we see him make up his mind about the ‘guilt’ of Virgil. Later, when we watch the chase of a suspect through the woods, we are brought into the action by the camera. As we see the suspect and pursuing police leap over obstacles, the camera is low to the ground, blades of grass and leaves brushing up against the lens. The viewers are invited to join the chase. The score is anticipatory, mirroring the fears of the fleeing suspect. For a while, we feel like we are being chased, too.

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Scarlett O’Hara is first introduced to the viewer as a willful, petulant young thing who seeks her father’s counsel as they stroll through the grounds of their plantation, Tara. When she sulks about her unrequited love, her father admonishes her to focus on her home- the land is “the only thing worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.” Tara is a constant presence in the film, and symbolizes the safety of family and permanence.

That Scarlett fixates on Tara is strangely converse to her nature as she is in thrall to the transitory things in life, like love, beauty and fashion. After her first husband dies, she wants nothing to do with Tara: it’s like a prison to her. “My life is over! Nothing will ever happen to me again,” she wails. When she decides to go to Atlanta, she is setting out on her own and symbolically breaking her ties to the family and to Tara. But they can’t stay broken for long.

The turning point in Scarlett’s relationship with Tara comes with the siege of Atlanta. Enlisted as a nurse by Dr. Meade, she sees the suffering of men who have come from the front lines and is disgusted. She becomes determined to go home when it becomes apparent that the Yankees are putting Atlanta to the torch and Melanie needs attention after a difficult labor. However, home is not as welcoming as it once was: she finds Tara ransacked and empty, her mother dead, and her father insane. Scarlett no longer has the luxury of “worrying about it tomorrow”— she is now the de facto leader, the thought of which she doesn’t necessarily relish.

However, she puts aside her love of the transitory to help get the farm back on its feet again. She equates it with her family, too: when her younger sister Suellen, who has been enlisted for fieldwork, says she hates Tara, Scarlett slaps her hard across the face. “Don’t you say you hate Tara!” she screams, before letting a note of wistfulness enter her voice. “It’s like saying you hate Ma and Pa.” Scarlett’s love and desire to protect Tara even leads her to murder and to steal her sister’s beau to ensure the tax on her home.

Eventually, Scarlett feels wants to focus on trivial things again, and leaves Tara to live in Atlanta, first with her second husband, and then travels the country with Rhett. She revels in her old loves again, but when her life falls down around her with the death of her daughter, the revelation that Ashley wasn’t the sort of man she thought she was in love with, and the departure of the man she truly loves, she is lost. She crumples to the ground after Rhett leaves, sobbing. With all of the things she loves gone, she can only think of one thing: Tara. In Tara resides all the tools she needs to put her life back together again, and Scarlett finally realizes the true value of permanence over ephemeral concepts.

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