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Connection: numeral in the title (3)
Three O’Clock High (1987)
Directed by Phil Joanou
Written by Richard Christian Matheson & Thomas Szollosi
Starring Casey Siemaszko, Anne Ryan, Richard Tyson, Jonathan Wise, Stacey Glick, Jeffrey Tambor, Philip Baker Hall, and John P. Ryan
101 minutes, rated PG-13
Odds are very good that most readers have never heard of this film. Odds are even better that, even if you have heard of it, you never saw it. I myself only watched this movie for the first time, fifteen years after its initial release, because I wanted to see if I had plagiarized it or not. And it turns out that, inadvertently, I had.
Let me explain . . .
In order to explain, though, I have to relate a complicated backstory that isn’t nearly as interesting as the movie I’m recommending. To save time and maintain reader interest, I have pared that complicated backstory into a short list of bare essential things that you need to know. The basic facts:
1. In the summer of 2002, I was the lucky recipient of a Creative Sponsorship through The (now-defunct) Young Playwrights Council.
2. I had submitted a series of ten-minute plays that were each inspired by lyrics in songs by R. E. M., a band that I have long admired.
3. I received this sponsorship after submitting and being denied for two consecutive summers prior to 2002.
4. The sponsorship was $800 a month for a complete year.
5. The sponsorship was renewable annually for up to five years, but to renew I had to submit a brand new stage play for approval every October.
6. I was also required to spend three months at one of six participating colleges to oversee and workshop a production of the previous year’s submission.
7. I was also required to do coursework and get a passing grade in one of numerous twelve-week writing courses that were provided by The Young Playwrights Council.
8. That first year, I had selected a seminar on the basics of writing episodic television because writing for television was, and often still is, the ultimate dream.
9. At the time, I was quite enamored of an independent film entitled “Entropy” and I had said so in a questionnaire on the first day of class. It was released in 1999. It starred Stephen Dorff. It was about a screenwriter trying to balance his love life with his creative life. It was written and directed by Phil Joanou.
Okay. I think we’re caught up. I’ll provide other little need-to-know items as we proceed. Such as . . . the fact that I had somewhat assumed that a class called “The Basics of Television Writing” would actually, you know, teach you the basics. Turns out that the class was intended to take what a student already knew and use that information as building blocks for creation of a pilot episode. I knew nothing and was in way over my head, a fact that did not sit well with one of the instructors.
There were two instructors. One of them was very laidback, offered constructive criticism, and was very patient with students like myself that needed a little extra help with the ins and outs of technique. The other instructor was a difficult taskmaster who expected every submitted assignment to adhere strictly to industry standards. Every script should have a distinct three-act structure. Every scene should have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Dialogue that didn’t advance the plot served no purpose and should be excised. Be careful of typos and wary of improper indentation. I tended to write non-linear narratives that focused more on character than plot. I had no concept whatsoever of proper script formatting and often needed tutoring in this regard. He and I frequently butted heads.
The content of the class forced us to hit the ground running. By the end of the first two weeks, we had already been required to create the main concept of an hour-long television drama. By the end of the first four weeks, we were to have completed a rough draft of a pilot episode. Using notes and feedback from peers and instructors, we were required to have a completed pilot episode by the end of the eighth week. By the end of the course, we should have a completed shooting script of the pilot as well as a complete map and outline of the first season trajectory. Subsequent levels of the course would expand on the work we had done in level one. In theory, by the end of the fifth year (assuming that we were continually able to renew our sponsorship), we would have completed scripts for an entire inaugural season.
I struggled. Writing for television was not the same as writing stage plays (or even screenplays) where running time was fluid. Television had strict guidelines. Every episode had to be the exact same length. To make room for commercials, scripts needed to have particular beats on particular pages, and I felt continually stymied by my inability to write toward a plot point rather than toward an ending. I often did more rewriting than actual writing and kept many, many notebooks of dialogue that I had really loved but was forced to cut due to the constraints of the industry standards.
My difficulty with the instructor did not help matters. Scripts were required to be 48 pages long for an hour-long episode (making room for twelve minutes of commercials), and I would swear on a stack of Bibles that this man would read the scripts aloud and time how long it took him to read them. One second over the allotted time and he’d return your script and request you make some cuts. He’d find nit-picky issues in the first couple of pages– formatting issues, typos, whatnot– and return scripts to students without having read the entire thing. I assure you that I was not the only student in this course that hated him.
The initial concept for my series (even if it eventually became something completely different) was simple enough. It centered around the high school in a small farming community. The drive of the main plot was that a former student was returning to the high school to teach a newly-installed program for the gifted. His high school sweetheart is now the principal. His students are the children of his former friends and classmates. It was important to me that the series be a mix of comedy and drama. It was also important to me that the series spend a good amount of time developing minor characters. I wanted the series to be just as much about the students as it was about the teacher. These things that I wanted, naturally, caused no end of grief between me and this asshole instructor.
You are probably wondering by this point what any of this has to do with the movie I have selected this week. This is the point where I get to that. Because of this movie, I almost did not progress past the initial first four weeks of this television-writing course. This instructor, with whom I frequently argued and disagreed, accused me of plagiarizing a one-off visual joke in the first five minutes of my pilot with a one-off visual joke in the first five minutes of this film. At the time that I was enrolled in this class, I had not even heard of this film, let alone actually seen it, but since it is directed by a man who also wrote and directed a movie that I had proudly pronounced as my favorite film on the first day of class, I had a very hard time convincing this instructor otherwise. Innocent of any wrongdoing or not (and I promise you that I was), I didn’t really have a leg to stand on. I had written a sequence that was right there in the other movie.
In retrospect, the joke itself wasn’t really all that funny. The protagonist of my pilot is running late for the first day of school. Due to events of the night prior (events that are relayed throughout the first episode in flashbacks), he neglected to transfer clothes from the washing machine into the dryer. He’s in a hurry, has no dry clothes, and so he puts a wet shirt in the microwave. See? Not all that amusing. Certainly not worth stealing.
In the end, the instructor could not prove that I had seen the movie and stolen the bit any more than I could prove that I had not, so it was agreed that I would remove the gag. Of course, I proceeded in class from that point on knowing that every word I put to paper was being scrutinized and, more than likely, cross referenced against any movie I ever mentioned enjoying. But I also wanted to see the movie in question because I just knew deep down that this entire fiasco was just one instructor’s convoluted way of removing a student he despised from his class. I just knew deep down that there was no conceivable way that my sequence was as identical to the one in the film as this instructor was claiming.
My girlfriend (who had also never heard of this movie) and I borrowed it from the library. We didn’t have to wait too long before the sequence in question. It is, quite literally, in the first few minutes of the film. Guess what? It turns out that my sequence was as identical to the one in the film as the instructor was claiming. Only the sequence in the movie actually ups the ante and gets a bigger laugh because the protagonist of Three O’Clock High throws a Pop-Tart into the microwave as well, conserving time by making breakfast as his clothes dry. It garners a pretty big guffaw in Three O’Clock High.
Ignoring the panic that accompanied the fact that I could have been kicked out of the program for plagiarism, I have to say that I really enjoyed this film. I’ve returned to it many times over the years.
Three O’clock High is a teen movie, but it isn’t your stereotypical teen movie. This isn’t The Breakfast Club or American Pie. This film is much, much darker in tone. In fact, it is so much darker than other bubbly teen films of the era, that Steven Spielberg reportedly removed his name from the credits as an executive producer. Roger Ebert, incidentally, hated it, but another critic (Derek Faraci) has this to say: “This movie was, in many ways, the anti-John Hughes film that teens who liked Dead Kennedys instead of New Kids on the Block needed.” I do wish that I had seen it back in the 1980s.
Three O’Clock High stars Casey Siemaszko as nerdy Jerry Mitchell. He’s given an assignment to write an article in the school paper of a new student named Buddy Revell (played by Richard Tyson). Buddy has a reputation for violent behavior, and has been expelled from prior schools. It is the hope of staff that this article can help dispel the exaggerated rumors and make him feel more welcome. Buddy, however, doesn’t like to be touched. Jerry doesn’t know this and after an awkward bathroom exeprience . . . well, touches him, prompting Buddy to prove that he is every bit as psychotic as he is rumored to be. Buddy challenges Jerry to a fight in the parking lot after school at 3:00 pm. The rest of the movie is Jerry’s increasingly more and more panicked attempts to prevent this fight from happening.
I don’t want to tell you more than that. This is a very well-done comedy and some big laughs will be spoiled if I divulge too much. I’ll say that Jerry’s friend, Vince (played by Jonathan Wise), has a plan that backfires. His friend, Franny (played by Anne Ryan), has contacted her spirit guide and has a plan that doesn’t sound like it would ever work at all. Another bully gets involved, but how will Jerry pay him? There is also a disastrous book report. And strange Nazi imagery in the office of Mr. O’Rourke, the high school’s Dean of Discipline (played by John P. Ryan). And a pep rally that is perhaps too exuberant. I’m already saying too much.
Of note here is the cinematography. This film does not look like any other teen comedy that I have ever seen. Fluid SteadiCam shots, excessive use of close-ups and forced perspective, long tracking shots that move up walls and across ceilings: all innovative techniques that you don’t typically see in films of this genre. Barry Sonnenfeld, who will go on to serve as Director of Photography for a couple of The Coen Brothers films and will eventually direct some distinctly stylistic movies (such as The Addams Family and Men In Black) is in top form here.
This movie may be one of the best movies of the 1980s. At the very least, it’s one of the best movies that you never saw. It’s very funny, it’s very innovative, and it had the power, once upon a time, to potentially end careers before they ever began.