A Lesson in the Power of One Line – Leigh Brackett [Essay]

Watching a rerun of The Rockford Files the other day I noted 2 interesting things – things that came up in conversations with writers, producers and development execs who gave guest lectures at our Stephens College MFA in Screenwriting over our last workshop session. Particularly, what came up was the idea of what execs and showrunners look for when they read a spec script. Several producers and show runners said they look for solid scenes and one or two spectacular lines of dialogue – lines that stood out as well-written and never strayed away from character.

So watching a first season Rockford episode called “The Four Pound Brick” I noted a line of dialogue that stuck with me over a few days. An older woman was walking away from the cemetery plot for her 26 year old son. She was commenting on the (then new) policy of not allowing headstones in favor of flat stones that allowed lawnmowers to ride over and therefore keep the whole area neater. She said, “I think cemeteries ought to be a bit messy. Like lives.” A very nice line that struck me as something that would make me want to read more of that writer.

Then I used IMDB to get the writer’s name: Leigh Brackett. You might (or so I say you should) recognize her name from a number of successful hard-boiled, manly-man detective and western films such as The Big Sleep, El Dorado, and Rio Bravo. She also wrote a slew of science-fiction/fantasy books and often collaborated with Ray Bradbury.

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I don’t like the fact that this is a compliment, but it was then and still is: Director Howard Hawks thought Leigh Brackett was a good writer because – according to him – she wrote “like a man”.

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For my fellow Star Wars fans, you will recognize Brackett for her co-screenwriting credit (shared with Lawrence Kasdan) for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Long-time fan of her writing, George Lucas, wanted her and only her to write the sequel to his blockbuster film once he’d figured out he liked directing and world-building more than the nuts and bolts of executing those big dreams on the big screen. He wanted Han Solo to be a combination of Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne – a manly man with a sensitive side – and hired the woman who could do that. But she died of cancer after writing the first version of the script so Lucas did some work on her draft before asking Lawrence Kasdan to finish the screenplay. Both men respected and admired Brackett so much – and kept so much of her characterizations and structure – that her name remains on the final script. Apparently, there was only one copy of her version at an archive but eventually it made its way onto the internet where you can read it:

The Empire Strikes Back – Brackett Draft (PDF)

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I like Han Solo’s line about Hoth: “I doubt if God even remembers where he hung this star.” I wonder how many rewrite drafts it survived until either Lucas or Kasdan decided not to mention gods of any kind in their alternate universe…

But it was interesting to see that the advice of current showrunners helped me pick out a quality writer in the midst of her career. I haven’t researched how she came to write a Rockford episode but many screenwriters of the 40s and 50s turned to television for a while since it was such a lucrative market.

As a final note, the IMDB trivia page tells us that the character “Sheriff Leigh Brackett” in John Carpenter’s independent horror film Halloween (1978) was named after her. It’s a nice tribute, but a nicer one would be that more of us recognize her name more often.

Leigh Brackett on Wikipedia

Leigh Brackett on IMDB

Books by Leigh Brackett at Amazon.com

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