UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Now These Are, Mostly, More Like It

In Understanding Screenwriting, Tom Stempel analyzes Green Book, Roma, Mary Poppins Returns, and The Mule, sharing his thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of all four films.
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In Understanding Screenwriting, Tom Stempel analyzes Green Book, Roma, Mary Poppins Returns, and The Mule, sharing his thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of all four films.

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Fan Mail: When I started doing this column eleven years ago at The House Next Door, I developed a policy of not responding to each reader comment as they were made. I would save them all up and deal with them in this section called Fan Mail. Even though it was quite clear some of the comments were not fan mail in the usual sense of liking what I had said.

Fortunately nearly all of the comments were really smart and intelligent even though, and sometimes because, they disagreed with me. One of the disappointments when the column moved to Creative Screenwriting and last year to Script is that there were much fewer comments, good or bad, than there had been at the House. There was a real troll, of which I have not had many, who disagreed violently when I disliked Zootopia (2016). His funniest line, although I am sure he did not intend it to be funny, was that I was “not young and not hip.” I have not been young in decades, and I have tried as hard as I could to avoid being hip, although some of my grandchildren’s friends think I am cool.

Depending on when you got to reading the previous column, you may have noticed an extensive comment by Nicolas Ciccione objecting to my comments on The Other Side of the Wind. In keeping with my policy, I did not respond to it in the column.

However, I first saw Nic’s comments when he also posted them on my Writer’s FaceBook page. Since the format is more casual on the page, I wrote a note in reply, and he replied to that. You can read the first exchange here. You can read the subsequent exchanges here. I think that covers them all.

The problem with the exchanges, as you can see, is that Nic and I ignored the great advice from the ancient Romans, De gustibus non est disputandum, or, about matters of taste, there should not be disputes. He and I fell into that trap and kept going around in circles. So, we finally stopped.

Now to this month's analyses...

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I would not have minded if this film had gone on forever.

Green Book (2018. Written by Nick Vallelonga , Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly. 130 minutes)

You may remember that in the last column I was dealing with three films, all by very talented filmmakers, all of which were severely disappointing. Green Book is such a relief after those.

You may know Vallelonga and Currie more as actors, as the IMDb resumes here for Vallelonga and Currie show you, although both of them have written and produced and Vallelonga has directed as well. Farrelly of course is the best known of the three as the writer and director of such gems as Dumb and Dumber (1993) and The Three Stooges (2012). So how did these guys all come together to make one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year?

Vallelonga is the son of Tony (Tony Lipp) Vallelonga, who was the bouncer at the Copacabana night club in New York in the fifties and sixties. In 1962, when the Copa was closed for repairs, Tony was hired to drive classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley on a concert tour of the South.

So?

So, Shirley was African American. You can see why he wanted somebody with Tony’s, umm, experience to go on the road with him. Nick grew up hearing stories of the trip (which actually took place over a longer period of time than the film indicates), and he knew Shirley as well and collected stories from him. Eventually he and his friend Hayes sat down and worked out the script. Hayes pitched the idea to Farrelly (Nick had thought he would direct it himself as a small indie film, the kind he had been making) and Farrelly loved it. Nick did not object because he could tell from Farrelly’s enthusiasm it would be in good hands. Farrelly then worked on the script with the other two until, as Nick said, “We all agreed on how the finished product should read.” (The background on the writing of the script is from an article in the Los Angeles Times you can read here.)

The script first introduces us to Tony and the world of the Copacabana. Watch for the details the writers bring in, such as the subplot of the hat. Then we are introduced to the much more dignified and civilized Shirley, with a colorful robe and what can only be called a throne. Tony asks Shirley for more than Shirley wants to pay. How does it happen that Shirley agrees? He talks to Tony’s wife Delores. Would you have written that? And look how Delores continues to play a part in the story, although we do not see her that much. But what we know about her leads to the great closing line in the film.

Susan Kouguell Speaks with Patrick J. Don Vito, Editor of Green Book

One thing I love about the script is that it does not lay on the exposition too heavily. Look at the first mention of the Green Book and how long it takes for us to get a complete explanation of what it is. The writers just give us as much as we need and not a bit more.

The heart of the movie is the relationship between Tony and Shirley, which the writers develop in all kinds of subtle ways. Yes, they are an “odd couple,” but each one is beautifully defined in the writing and the acting. The writing does not pound home how each of them affects the other, but lets it happen. And it does not sentimentalize it like many pictures of this kind tend to. Tony, for example, gives Shirley a hard time for not knowing what Tony thinks is true black music, such as Little Richard. When we see Shirley cut loose at the end, listen for the line at the end of the scene that lets us know this is not just Tony’s influence.

Yes, the movie is mostly about these two guys riding in a car talking, but they are such interesting characters we love being with them. I could just go on riding with them and listening to them forever.

Which does not mean there should be a sequel. Unless Nick has some more family stories he did not use in this one, but I still don’t think he should press his luck.

 Roma - Photo Credit: Carlos Somonte Netflix

Roma - Photo Credit: Carlos Somonte Netflix

Is this writing about what you know?

Roma (2018. Written by Alfonso Cuarón. 135 minutes)

No, we are not in Italy, but a middle-class suburb of Mexico City. We are in a reasonably nice house, with many books on the bookshelves. Cuarón has said it is sort of a nostalgic look at his childhood. But I defy you to tell me which of the sons is going to grow up to be an award-winning filmmaker. Usually in a piece like this it is very clear who is the one who grew up to be the artist. It is not so here because Cuarón is focusing on somebody else all together.

In the opening scenes we follow Cleo, the maid/nanny in the house, as she goes about her daily chores. We get a sense of the house and the family simply by watching her do her daily chores. The family is very middle class and they do not quite appreciate Cleo and one of the through-lines of the script is how that changes, and how it does not change. Look at the final shot in relation to what has happened just before it.

Like Green Book, the story does not move in obvious ways, but it does move. The rhythm is mostly that of daily life, with the occasion disruption. The father in the family supposedly goes off on a business trip to do research of some kind in Quebec, but then doesn’t come back. So we get the mother trying to keep the information from the kids. It turns out he has come back, but not to the family. Look at how Cuarón plays Cleo finding out about that at the end of a long take about something else.

INTERVIEW: Academy Award®-Winning Film Editor Tom Cross Discusses 'First Man'

Meanwhile, Cleo has a boyfriend, Fermin, who loves to show off his martial arts skills, in the nude, after he and Cleo have made love. In another long take, Cleo and Fermin are watching a movie (and boy is it an obscure one) and she tells him she is pregnant. At first he says nothing, then says he is happy, then announces he has to go get some cigarettes. He leaves. And never comes back.

Cleo eventually tracks him down to a village where he and several other guys are doing martial arts training. The guest instructor, whom we have seen in a very different context, tries to teach the guys how to balance themselves on one leg. None of them can. Cuarón, and we, notice that Cleo is the only one who can. Fermin refuses to help out Cleo. We do see him again, in a totally unexpected situation but one that connects to what we have before about him. Cuarón fills the script with those kinds of connections to give us a richly detailed look at life among the middle class in Mexico in the early seventies.

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My previous favorite of Cuarón’s movies is Y Tu Mamá También (2001). I wrote about it in some detail in the book Understanding Screenwriting. I compared the screenplay to Cesare Zavattini’s script for the classic Italian neo-realist film The Bicycle Thief (1948) in that they both use a simple story to tell us a lot about “the social, culture, and political climate of their country.” The same is true of Roma, although visually it is done on a more epic visual scale than the two earlier films. Cuarón shoots this one in wide-screen, with several long takes and several long traveling shots, including a dazzling one at the beach near the end. The epic visual look never gets in the way of the story and the characters, but helps fill them out.

Meanwhile, in Morro Bay, California.

Mary Poppins Returns (2018. Screenplay by David Magee, screen story by David Magee & Rob Marshall & John DeLuca. Based upon the “Mary Poppins��� stories by P.L. Travers. 130 minutes)

The worst thing about living in Los Angeles is having to suffer through the Awards Season, from September through February. There are billboards all over town announcing many, many films as “the best picture of the year,” as well as the Los Angeles Times stuffed with ads announcing “For Your Consideration,” complete with quotes about “the best picture of the year” written by people you never heard of. It is not a pretty sight.

So when my daughter and her family suggested we get out of town over Christmas, I agreed. My daughter made arrangements for us to stay in a wonderful Airbnb in Cambria on the Central California Coast. Cambria is a small town, population 6000. Cambria has no grocery store. And it has no movie theatre.

INTERVIEW: David Magee Talks the Adventures of Mary Poppins Returns

My granddaughter, who is in her twenties, suggested we should all go see Mary Poppins Returns as a family outing. The closest theatre to Cambria is in Morro Bay twenty miles south. It is not a multiplex, but an old-fashioned, one-screen theatre. As luck would have it, Mary Poppins Returns was playing there. So off we went for the 4 P.M. matinee on Christmas Eve.

The theatre looks as though it was a remodeled barn, but there was a good-sized crowd, mostly of mothers and kids (presumably the dads were home trying to assemble the presents). The program did not start off well. There were only three trailers, all for upcoming Disney films, and all three of them live-action remakes of classic animated films. Talk about a lack of creativity, although I may have been the only person who was bothered by that, since the rest of the crowd had come to see a sequel.

The film starts off quietly, with the new character Jack, a lamplighter, singing about the London sky, which, contrary to the song is a dismal gray. Then we pick up Michael and Jane Banks, who were kids in the original Mary Poppins (1964). It is now thirty years later and they are grown up. And Michael is still in mourning for his wife, who has died the year before.

Here I had a problem. Some of you who have read this column back in the House Next Door or Creative Screenwriting days may remember my several references to my wife and her comments on the subjects of the column. She died this past January. One reason we decided to go away for Christmas was we felt it might have been too sad to celebrate it at home. But you can imagine having that situation come up in the beginning did not put me in the best mood for a cheerful movie.

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But then Mary arrives, in the person of Emily Blunt, and I and the rest of the audience perked up. Both Blunt and David Magee had read through all the Mary Poppins stories and realized Travers’ Mary was a little thornier than the Walt Disney-Julie Andrews version. Magee wrote her and Blunt plays her that way. That puts a lot of spice into the picture.

So Mary shows up in the Banks home and takes over taking care of the kids. She dumps them all into a bathtub and jumps in after then and we are off to the first of many, many I tell you, many lavish production numbers. Magee was the primary writer of the script, Marshall is also the director and DeLuca is also the choreographer, and I suspect that the overload of production numbers comes from Marshall and DeLuca. One of the tricky elements of writing a book for a musical is to find the balance between the story and the numbers. For the perfect way to do it, look at Singin’ in the Rain (1952), where the wit of the Comden and Green book makes a nice counterbalance to the musical numbers.

Part of the problem here is the basic plot is really small potatoes: the bank is going to foreclose on the Banks home unless James can find the papers that prove he is a shareholder in the bank. You can see why the production numbers overwhelm the show. The running time of the film is 130 minutes, but it feels a lot longer, and I got the feeling the audience was exhausted at the end of the film. They waited a little while as the credits started to make sure the movie was over so they could applaud, which they did. I listened in to a little of the conversation of the audience in the lobby afterwards and they seemed to like the show, which is why it made more money in its second week of release than it did in its first.

 Credit: Warner Brothers

Credit: Warner Brothers

Yet Another Musical.

The Mule (2018. Written by Nick Schenk, inspired by the New York Times Magazine article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-year Old Drug Mule,” by Sam Dolnick. 116 minutes)

Nick Schenk first made his reputation as a screenwriter with his 2008 screenplay for Gran Torino. You can read my review of that here. You may notice that Gran Torino stars Clint Eastwood. So does The Mule. Eastwood is now 88, and his Earl Stone in this film is 90. Who says they don’t write scripts for geezer actors anymore?

This one is not quite as sharp as Gran Torino, which deals with a grumpy old white guy and his relationship with a family of Hmong people in Detroit. The plotting there is sharper than here.

Eastwood’s Earl is a horticulturist whose house is foreclosed and who ends up driving drug loads from Texas to Illinois. The cartel likes him because he has a perfect driving record and the cops are not likely to stop him. They don’t, at least for a long time in the film.

So we spend a lot of time on the road with Earl, who sings along with the radio. The “musical numbers” are not as lavishly produced as those in Mary Poppins Returns, but they provide a lighter-weight kind of fun. Depending on your age and taste in music, you may recognize some of them and start singing along with Earl. Eastwood’s direction has always tended to be on the slow side, and that’s true here.

Schenk’s scene writing, especially in the first half of the film, is not as sharp as it was in Gran Torino. I mentioned in my review of that film that the exposition in the funeral scene was lumpy, and the same thing here in a scene where Earl shows up late for his daughter’s wedding. It is not clear in this scene that the younger girl in it is his daughter’s daughter, most likely from a first marriage. We get at least some of the details later on.

When the plot begins to kick in in the second half, the scenes get sharper, such as one between Earl and the FBI agent on his tail who does not realize that Earl is the man he is after. They eventually have a showdown, but not a bloody one. Earl goes to prison, where he can go back to tending flowers.

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