Anatomy of a Scene: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid might be one of the most meticulously well-written movies ever made. William Goldman scripts are almost always something special. He’s a master of creating something that’s interesting, every scene has a kinetic energy to it that keeps you moving. He’s a talented prose novelist as well. His novel of The Princess Bride might be even better than the screenplay and the film.
But today I want to talk about a scene in particular for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:
This scene comes early in the movie and we’re still working to understand the relationship between Butch and Sundance, as well as Butch and his gang.
Goldman does something amazing as he’s able to mix humor, character building, excitement, suspense, and an advancement of the story into the scene. There are so many building blocks at play here, and because the scene is so entertaining we hardly notice.
And the dialogue is so sharp I can’t even stand it.
One of the most important bits of character building here, though, is just how charismatic and likable Butch Cassidy is. Yes, part of that is what Paul Newman brings to the part, but by all accounts, this was how Cassidy was in real life. And how do you deal with something as dramatic as the gang turning on him and still display this? Because this scene could have been turgid drama.
Goldman goes the opposite way. He plays the serious for laughs, which is the right choice, but perhaps not the obvious one until you’ve seen it played out. That’s something I think this scene illustrates perfectly: try to approach things from a different and unexpected angle. Ask yourselves questions about scenes to see if there’s a more interesting way to play them. “Would this scene work better as a comedy than an action piece? Would this scene work better as a thriller than straightforward drama? Could that punchline be a scare rather than a joke?”
The scene begins with confusion, though. Butch is the leader of the gang, so why is everyone packing up to leave? There’s a tension there, even though everyone seems to like Butch. And that’s when the imposing Ted Cassidy (playing Harvey Logan) comes out to watch.
How charming is it that Butch plays it off as a simple misunderstanding. “You boys got what I told you all wrong…”
It’s no big deal to him. He knows exactly what’s going on, but this is how his brand of charm works.
As he speaks, we’re given an additional bit of information with the looks of Sundance, watching the gang gather to, more than likely, cause trouble. It’s an elegant and efficient bit of storytelling and something we can do more of in our own storytelling. Character’s reacting to things in juxtaposition to things that might seem unrelated…
When Harvey finally speaks with his booming, “No banks…” you know exactly who the new, would-be ringleader is, and who is spreading the dissent.
And how does Butch react? At first, he pretends he misheard. Then he tries to explain his perspective but find that no one cares. Then, when no one is convinced, he punctuates his argument with an assertion of his leadership.
The squeak in his voice when he says, “I run things here, Harvey…” makes him seem completely non-threatening, which helps build the tension, but is so adorable on some level you can’t help but sympathize with him. What’s working for the audience may well be working for the rest of the gang.
The next bit of character building comes in Harvey’s words to Sundance. Sundance doesn’t need to say anything for us to understand about his character by the way Harvey addresses him. He warns him to stay out of it. The way he talks establishes lethal intent for Harvey, but it also adds a history between Harvey and Sundance. Again, part of this is an economy in just the way they talk.
“Tell him to stay out,” Harvey tells Butch of Sundance. This line further adds to the relationship between all three of these characters.
“Well, he goes his own way, like always,” tells us just as much. Butch isn’t a very pushy leader. He leads with charisma. But he knows where Sundance will side on things. To double down on the leading by charisma, he asks a guy named “News” to read their news clippings, and he won’t stop until he gets to read his own name in print.
News is a character who will barely be in the rest of the movie, but we like him instantly for a throwaway moment that a less confident writer might have simply cut or never thought of in the first place.
Butch’s charisma turns into exasperation, especially when his gang starts throwing his words from before back into his own face. “You always said that any one of us could challenge you, Butch…”
And what better response to this could you get than, “Cuz I figured none of you would do it…”
That’s when he tries appealing to their logic. Butch is going through a gamut of strategies here, each line he gives through the scene illustrates his thought process. And because the dialogue is so sharp, we don’t actually even need to be in his head to see these shifts. His shifts in character are surprising but inevitable.
But they’re set in their ways. And Logan ends Butch’s pleading with the ominous, “Guns or knives, Butch.”
And, again, Butch tries defusing the situation with a plaintive, “Neither.”
Goldman’s beautiful use of understatement is one of the things that makes not only this scene but this whole movie stand out.
One of the most telling moments in the scene is when Butch says he doesn’t want to shoot with Harvey, and Harvey pulls his knife. It does two things: one, it is illustrative of Harvey’s determination to kill Butch and let it be on fair terms, and two, it shows Butch how he can manipulate the situation. It’s not apparent on a single viewing, but this is the moment Butch’s plan forms as he looks around at the determined band of outlaws.
With a plan in his head, he goes to Sundance and they exchange a moment that further strengthens the relationship they have with each other. “I would, but who would bet on you?”
And then Harvey inadvertently helps magnify that moment by telling Sundance that when Butch is dead, he’s welcome to stay.
And Butch’s response tells us everything we need to know about plan B, but it also sets expectations that maybe Butch isn’t as confident in his own plan as he might appear. His being unsure of the outcome adds a tension to the scene that we hadn’t had before. It’s a feint. We know as writers that Butch couldn’t possibly lose in this situation this early in the movie, but Goldman puts a nagging doubt in our head with this one simple aside with Sundance. “I don’t mean to be a sore loser, but when it’s done, if I’m dead, kill him.”
The subtle wave of Sundance’s to Harvey adds a final, grim laugh to the scene. Gallows humor works even better here because Goldman is setting us up to expect Butch to fail.
As the fight is about to start, though, Butch raises a hand. “Oh, no, not yet. Not until me and Harvey get the rules straightened out.”
“Rules? In a knife fight?” This is the moment we know that Butch has pulled a fast one. The laugh line, thanks to Harvey’s incredulity and anger, is a nervous one.
And before he can even finish uttering the line, “There’s no rules,” we know what Butch has done. He’s done the verbal equivalent of throwing sand in his opponent’s face.
And when Butch has Sundance count to start the fight and then knocks Harvey out, we laughing again without any of the tension. Butch didn’t kill anyone, so we’re still happy to root for him, he used his wits to defuse the situation, so we’re persuaded by his intelligence, and he did it with a smile, so we don’t feel like there’s any maliciousness in him. It’s actually an incredibly complicated bit of character building. And the scene could have been over at this point, but Goldman pushes it a step further, holding back the biggest laugh for last.
“Now what’s this about the Flyer?”
News elaborates on Harvey’s plan, which is a sound one. “Harvey thought of that?”
News is almost pained when he nods. “He did.”
Maybe Butch won’t like hearing it.
But above all, Butch is reasonable. “Well, I’ll tell you something fellas, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
This is one of those scenes that wastes nothing. It’s perfect in its construction, built as solidly as a mouse trap. On paper, the scene could look like this: Butch arrives at the hideout, the gang suggests a plan, Butch agrees, then they leave to carry out the plan.
But that’s boring. There’s no conflict. There’s no character building, and the construction suffers from inertia. But try it in the way Goldman constructed it: Butch arrives, his gang wants to mutiny, he’s forced into a knife fight to the death, and then when he’s triumphant, he steals the felled man’s plan.
Point A and Point Z are the same in both versions of that scene. The journey is so much more rich and interesting in the way Goldman designed it, though. I think that’s one of the great strengths of Goldman as a writer is to find the way to approach even the most benign and straightforward scenes from an odd angle and give us a different way to look at things. Try to think about how you can complicate these straightforward scenes.
I would also recommend reading both of William Goldman’s books on screenwriting. Adventures in the Screentrade and Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screentrade. He talks about his prose as much as his screenwriting, but the craft of storytelling differs little between screenwriting and prose at the level Goldman talks about it. And he goes into meticulous detail aboutwhy he makes the choices he does. They’re brilliant reads, as brilliant as this scene.
That’s it for this week’s writing post.
On Saturday, I will be teaching a class at the League of Utah Writers Spring Conference, if you’re at all interested. There are a lot of classes happening, I’ll be teaching one on expanding diversity in your work. Visit their website for more details.
As for my own writing, I’ve had quite a bit come out in the last couple of weeks.
First, there was a piece in City Weekly about one of the panels I did at FanX.
Then I had two different pieces come out at StarWars.Com. The first was a debate about why I think The Empire Strikes Back is not the best Star Wars film. The second is the latest in my Cinema Behind Star Wars column, and it’s a breakdown ofThe Raid: Redemption.
I also reviewed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for The Huffington Post.
My latest piece of Ridiculous History for HowStuffWorks.com is about the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 and I had a lot of fun with this piece.
I’ve also got some more work that I’ll be able to tell you about sooner rather than later that I couldn’t be more excited about.
As a reminder: The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.