UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Can’t We Get a Smile Here?

"Understanding Screenwriting" author Tom Stempel analyses Late Night, A Fantastic Woman, Rewriting Indie Cinema: Improvisation, Psychodrama, and the Screenplay (book), Toy Story 4, and The Farewell.
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"Understanding Screenwriting" author Tom Stempel analyses Late Night, A Fantastic Woman, Rewriting Indie Cinema: Improvisation, Psychodrama, and the Screenplay (book), Toy Story 4, and The Farewell.

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Not a Trump Joke in Sight.

Late Night (2019. Written by Mindy Kaling. 102 minutes)

One thing I was surprised by in both Long Shot and Booksmart is that neither of them had any Trump jokes. The writers on both could have easily put them in, especially in Long Shot, but they avoided them. Maybe they assumed, or hoped, that he would have been impeached, or resigned, by the time their movies came out, or maybe they just figured that we get so many Trump jokes in real life that they wanted to make their films a Trump-free experience. Late Night follows those films and good on it for that.

Now to get down to serious business. I mentioned in my review of Long Shot that the comedy works in it in a scattershot sort of way. That’s true of Late Night as well. You never quite know what joke or funny character bit is going to pop up, which makes the fun a surprise. (That’s as opposed to those movies where the humor and the pleasure is watching the build-up to what we know is coming.)

The plot here is about a young Indian-American woman Molly who gets hired to work as a comedy writer for a late night talk show. How she gets hired is perfectly ridiculous, but as we all know, show business works in ridiculous ways. As Johnny Carson used to say, you buy the premise, you buy the bit.

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One reason she gets hired is that the network is about to let the star of the show, Katherine, go. She’s been doing the show for 28 years (like a lot of other women late night hosts, like, uh, well…) and her ratings are down.

Mindy Kaling, who plays Molly, wrote the script specifically with the hope that Emma Thompson would play Katherine. Thank God Thompson was smart enough to take the role. She gives one of her better performances, getting everything she can and more out of Kaling’s script. Study this film as a great example for how to write a star part.

Kaling unfortunately underserves herself in the writing of Molly, at least in comparison with Katherine. She does not give Molly enough to do in terms of reactions to what’s going on, although Kaling the actress does what Kaling the writer gives her very well.

A lot of the details about the show and the show’s writing staff (all male when she arrives) come from Kaling’s experience as a “diversity hire” on The Office. The script is very sharp about problems that women writers and performers face in show business. That gives it a freshness that a lot of comedies today don’t have.

Kaling does run into a structural problem that she had not figured out how to solve. Molly is constantly being fired by Katherine, and it is written and played as merely repetitive. Kaling really should have a found a way to make it into a running joke, so we would laugh more each time it happens rather than less. How would you turn it into a running gag?

"Understanding Screenwriting" author Tom Stempel analyses Late Night, A Fantastic Woman, Rewriting Indie Cinema: Improvisation, Psychodrama, and the Screenplay (book), Toy Story 4, and The Farewell.

Would it Hurt You to Smile?

A Fantastic Woman (2017. Screenplay by Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza. 104 minutes)

This one won the Oscar in 2018 for the Best Foreign Language Film of 2017. I missed it in theatres, but eventually DVR’d it off one of the cable channels. Then I did not get around to watching for several months. You know how it happens: somedays you want to watch a war movie, somedays a western, and somedays a movie from Chile about a transgendered woman who loses her gentleman lover.

When we meet Marina and Orlando, they have been together for a while. We see her singing in a night club, smiling and flirting with Orlando, then they go back to his apartment. They have sex (Lelio, who directed, is very discreet here, since we do not find out until later that Marina is transgendered), and when she wakes up later, Orlando is sick. She drives him to the hospital, where he dies.

The police are immediately suspicious and start asking her questions.

Orlando’s son, a real jerk, shows up at the apartment the next day, demanding she move out. Needless to say, his family, especially his ex-wife, do not want her anywhere near the funeral. Bad shit continues to happen.

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O.K., she’s sad that her lover died. But Daniela Vega, who plays Marina, plays the scenes after his death all as one note. Humphrey Bogart noted that if you are in a scene where someone is pointing a gun at you, you don’t have to act scared. The audience knows that, so you can do other things in the scene. Lelio and Vega have not come up with anything else for her to play. We know from her first scene she has a great smile, but they do not give her a chance to use it in the rest of the film. Way too many of the scenes are either of the cops or Orlando’s family giving her a hard time. I can believe they would, but would it have killed Lelio and Vega to get a little counterpoint going?

The writers are also sloppy about setting up things and then not paying them off. We see Marina exercising with a punching ball, but when she is attacked by Orlando’s relatives, she does not raise a hand to protect herself.

In the opening scenes, we learned that Orlando has bought airline tickets for the two of them to take a trip to Iguazu Falls (on the border of Brazil and Argentina). He has mislaid them, so he gives her a letter promising to take her. Later, he says that he thinks he left the tickets at his sauna. Later still, Marina discovers the mysterious key she found is for a locker in the sauna. Well, you can see where that is going. Except it doesn’t. The tickets are not there. That’s hugely frustrating. I wanted to see Marina at the falls, smiling at least a little.

Ah, a Good Book I Can Argue With.

Rewriting Indie Cinema: Improvisation, Psychodrama, and the Screenplay. (2019. Book by J.J. Murphy. Columbia University Press. 337 pages)

I spent a month this summer reading a pile of articles and another pile of books about screenwriting. This is the most interesting of the books, and the one I would recommend, especially if you are going to get into making indie films. The author is J.J. Murphy, who wrote Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work (2007). I did not care for that book, since Murphy fell into the trap all of those of us who write about screenwriting fall into occasionally: he tended to spend more time summarizing the films that analyzing them.

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He’s learned his lesson, with a couple of minor exceptions. What he is up to here is writing about how indie filmmakers often use improvisation or psychodrama instead of conventional screenplays. He does have to admit, probably more often than he would like, that indie films often have written outlines and/or treatments. In the case of John Cassavetes, who had a reputation for using improvising his films, Murphy points out that Cassavetes wrote detailed scripts before he began the improvisation process in rehearsals.

You might not have heard about psychodrama before. It evolved out of a system of group therapy developed early in the 20th Century by J.J. Moreno. In a session, a person in the group is selected as a subject and the others portray characters in his or her life. You can see the possible advantages for use in the theatre and film.

Murphy gives us a lot of examples from indie films. The most vivid is from the 1992 film The Bad Lieutenant. In one scene the title character, played by Harvey Keitel, pulls over a car with two teenage girls and begins to abuse them by forcing one to strip for him. The girls, who were not actresses, had no idea how to react to Keitel. I have not seen the film, but the scene was widely discussed at the time. Many people found it appalling.

I am not as big a fan of the kinds of indie films Murphy is writing about as he is, but I love the detail he goes into about the films. You will get a lot about how these kinds of films work and, if you are like me, how they do not work. Both improvisation and psychodrama have severe limits as to what sort of films you can make using these techniques. Films with a lot of improvisation can just lose focus completely. Psychodramas make the assumption that a lot of psychology does: that the “real” you is a dark nasty person that comes out when you are pushed to yell and cry a lot. Do you think if a camera caught you doing that that you would want people to believe that was the real you?

The night after I finished reading Murphy’s book, I happened to be channel surfing before I went to bed. I came across Casablanca (1942) and watched about ten minutes of it. I would not like to see an improvised or psychodramatic version of Casablanca.

Fourth Time is not a Charm.

Toy Story 4 (2019. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton & Stephany Folsom, Original Story by John Lasseter & Andrew Stanton & Josh Cooley & Valerie LaPointe and Rashida Jones & Will McCormack & Martin Hynes & Stephany Folsom. 100 minutes)

The first three Toy Story movies are deservedly classics of animation, and not just because the first one introduced computer animation to feature films. The films were inventive in terms of plot, scenes, themes, and especially characters. Number 4 falls over a cliff.

In the opening scene, Woody is trying desperately to rescue a toy car that has fallen out of the house and is about to be swept away. We don’t (I think) know the car, and after Woody rescues him, he never appears again in the film. So, the sequence becomes just a generic opening action scene, like any other in a hundred action movies. Which makes it not a true Toy Story scene.

The plot gets going with Bonnie, Woody’s new owner, going off to school on her first day. On that first day, she ends up making a new toy for herself. He is Forky, made out of a plastic fork, a pipe cleaner, and a couple of other bits and pieces. That could be a wonderful idea for a character, but none of the writers and animators do anything with the character. Which makes him not a true Toy Story character.

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Since this is a Toy Story movie, Woody and some of the characters go off on a road trip, but it’s only been slightly over a week since I saw the movie, and I cannot remember what the trip was about. What I can remember is that the film leaves a lot of the supporting characters we know and love either out of the action all together or their involvement greatly reduced. Buzz Lightyear gets one or two good bits, but we expect more from him. Mr. Potato Head hardly makes an appearance. That is mostly because Don Rickles, who voiced him in the previous films, has died. But in the promotion for the film, Pixar claimed they were using a lot of verbal outtakes of Rickles from previous films. I cannot believe what we get here are the best of Don Rickles’s outtakes.

One good note is that Woody runs into Bo Peep. She had a large part in #1, a much smaller part in #2, and disappeared completely in #3. It is good to have her back and heavily involved in the action.

The gang ends up in an old toy store where the uninteresting villain is the female doll Gabby Gabby. Her cohorts are a collection of ventriloquist dummies (maybe a slight nod to the 1945 British classic Dead of Night) whom the writers and animators have not done as much with as the Brits did with one live-action dummy.

Speaking of movie references, there is a bit in the climax that steals from the carousel in Strangers on a Train (1951). How depressed the folks at Pixar must be to steal from Dead of Night and Strangers on a Train for a family film.

"Understanding Screenwriting" author Tom Stempel analyses Late Night, A Fantastic Woman, Rewriting Indie Cinema: Improvisation, Psychodrama, and the Screenplay (book), Toy Story 4, and The Farewell.

Another Unsmiling Heroine.

The Farewell (2019. Written by Lulu Wang. 98 minutes)

Before this opened I was talking to my daughter about it, and she said she was probably not going to see it, since it struck her that the star, Awkwafina, never seemed to smile in the trailer. Well, I saw it and my daughter had a point.

The situation is that Nai Nai, the Chinese grandmother of Billi, a Chinese-American woman living in New York, has stage four cancer. Nai Nai’s family does not want to tell her she has cancer, but Billi thinks she should know. Even though her parents ask her not to go to China, Billi goes. The family is planning a rushed wedding of Billi’s cousin and his Japanese girlfriend as an excuse to get the family together to see Nai Nai for the last time.

The first part of the movie, after she gets to China, is Billi sulking because nobody will let her tell Nai Nai her condition? Awkwafina, a comedian who was very funny in Ocean’s Eight (2018), and especially Crazy Rich Asians (also 2018), does not get enough things to do in a serious part. As the old line goes, dying is easy, comedy is hard. Wang could have written a lot more for Awkwafina to play, and I am sure she could have been up to it.

The film is very repetitive in the beginning with everybody repeatedly telling Billi she can’t tell Nai Nai. It is only later in the film that we get a good scene with Billi and her uncle, who explains to her, and us, the cultural differences that require Billi to keep silent. If this scene had come earlier, Wang could have developed it more later in the picture.

The upside of Wang’s script is that she gives a lot of great character scenes to the other members of the family. Some of the best of these are in the wedding scene, which is in the great tradition of movie wedding scenes.

And stick around for the credits. The story was based on Wang’s grandmother, and one of the lines in the credits tells us what really happened to her.

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