In this month's Understanding Screenwriting, Tom Stempel dives into his analysis of the films Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Miss Bala, and The Ballad of Lester Scruggs, and also shares his tribute to screenwriter Christopher Knopf.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Miss Bala, The Ballad of Lester Scruggs, Christopher Knopf: An Appreciation
If You Love Old Typewriters, You Will Love This Movie.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018. Screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on the memoir by Lee Israel. 106 minutes)
Lee Israel was a successful biographer (of Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen) until she wasn’t. Her biography of cosmetic magnate Estee Lauder bombed big time and Israel was out of work. She made a little money selling letters by celebrities she found in libraries, but then she got into forging letters, priding herself on capturing the voices of the celebrities whose letters she was forging. She was caught, got off without jail time and wrote her memoir. Which sold better than her other books and became the basis for this movie.
See children, crime does pay.
To make her forgeries look convincing, she started buying old typewriters from the time period when the letters were supposed to have been written. She put tags on them so she could remember which celebrity wrote on which machine. She had so many she kept them in a storage unit. (An item not about screenwriting, but the sound recording and editing of both the typewriters and the clinking of ice in the glasses of the drinks is great.)
Now here’s lesson number one you should learn about screenwriting from this film. In the movie, she keeps the typewriters in her apartment. Why did the writers have her do that? One, it means the typewriters are constantly in view when we are in Lee’s apartment, which adds to the atmosphere of the shots. Two, it means we don’t have to watch her go back and forth to the storage unit. If the storage unit was essential to the story, you might want to include it, but it’s not. They were right to leave it out.
In the movie Lee gets together with another drunk named John Hock, who has a real gift for selling the letters to collectors who sell them to other collectors. In Israel’s book Hock is hardly mentioned. So why build him up into a major character?
Here is lesson number two you should learn about screenwriting from this film. Without Hock as a major character, you do not have much of a film. It would be just Lee in her apartment typing away and stealing letters from libraries. One sequence of her making off with letters from a research library is a nice suspenseful scene, but one is all you need.
Having Hock around gives Lee somebody to talk to. Boy, do they talk, and they are fun to watch and listen to. Lee is played beautifully by Melissa McCarthy showing her dramatic chops, and Richard E. Grant is a great partner for both Lee and McCarthy as Hock.
Having a character your lead can talk to is always useful. That’s why B western stars always had a sidekick. John Hock is the Gabby Hayes (look at his IMDb entry if you don’t know who he was) of this movie. Or, to take an example from a more recent film you may actually have seen, he is Wilson to Tom Hanks’s Chuck Noland in Cast Away. But this one talks back.
You can see why both Grant and McCarthy got nominated by several organizations this awards season.
She’s a Little Livelier in This One.
Miss Bala (2019. Screenplay by Garth Dunnet-Alocer, “based on the Spanish language film” as the credits in this film, which lists no names, have it. The writers of that 2011 film were Gerardo Naranjo and Mauricio Katz, who need to get tougher agents. 104 minutes)
In the original Mexican film, the heroine is Laura. She goes to a beauty contest tryout with her friend, then to a club. A shootout ensues. Laura finds a cop…who takes her to the office of a drug boss.
I noted in my review of the original, which you can read here, that drug boss’s office is in a garage in a rundown neighborhood. I said in the review that in a Hollywood version the boss would live in a big expensive house with a lot of bling. Guess what his place is like in this version.
So this is a flashier affair than the original, but it still runs into trouble, although of a different kind than the original did. In the original, Laura, after the first shootout, spends the rest of the picture in a state of shock, totally unexpressive. I pointed out in my review that may be realistic, but it is not very interesting to watch.
At least Dunnet-Alocer here has given Gloria, as she is called here, more responses to what is going on. That makes her scenes a little more lively, especially since she is played by Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez. But the writer has not written her a character arc for the whole film, so Rodriguez’s performance is moment to moment.
Maybe the Chinese version will get her right.
The Coen Brothers Are Not Exactly This Generation’s John Ford.
The Ballad of Lester Scruggs (2018. Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen; Segment “All Gold Canyon” based on a story by Jack London, Segment “The Gal Who Got Rattled” inspired by a story by Stewart Edward White. 133 minutes)
You may not have thought of the Coen brothers as the makers of westerns, but look again at their films. Blood Simple (1983) and No Country for Old Men (2007) are both set in modern Texas. True Grit (2010) is a remake of the classic John Wayne western. One of the characters in their Hollywood satire Hail, Caesar! (2016) is a singing cowboy.
The Ballad of Lester Scruggs sort of combines all of the above and adds a few more. They had been writing a bunch of short scripts with the intent of putting them all together into one film. The rumor that they were planning a television series is untrue, according to the interview with them in the December 2018 Sight & Sound by Ben Walters. Well, what studio would let them do a feature like that?
Netflix, of course, which is trying to become a major studio and upset the industry. The company is spending a lot more money than they have to make a lot of movies they may not make their money back on. I recently said to an acquaintance that my guess is that Netflix will go down the drain financially sooner rather than later. The acquaintance, who has worked on projects for Netflix, replied, “Good.” We did not get into why he thinks that should happen.
In the meanwhile, Netlix is letting a lot of filmmakers like the Coens and Alfonso Cuarón make projects nobody else will let them make. But part of that deal is that the filmmakers are insisting on a theatrical release, but the Netflix theatrical distribution system is mediocre at best. You may have seen Ballad and Roma in theatres, but not the best ones and not in the best locations.
So with both Roma and Ballad you have beautifully photographed films that really should be seen in theatres and if you have seen them in a good theatre, count yourself lucky.
Back to the script for Ballad. The first segment, “The Ballad of Lester Scruggs” begins with a lone cowboy riding through Monument Valley. However, as I pointed out in my review of the 2013 version of The Lone Ranger, “There is a lot of Monument Valley, but the shots there prove once again that John Ford is the only director who ever truly understood the visual and emotional structure of the Valley.” The Coens let see that the cowboy, Lester Scruggs, is dressed as a B-movie singing cowboy of the type who was never seen in Monument Valley. It’s a disconnect that I think is supposed to be amusing but isn’t. Lester rides into a western town and, in another disconnect, meets up with a bunch of redneck peckerwoods from a Sam Peckinpah movie. There is a shootout, which leads to the one entertaining element in the film, the song that ends up the story.
The second segment, “Near Algodones,” begins with a bank robbery that goes hilariously wrong. The robber meets a bank teller unlike any we have seen in any western. The robber is about to be hanged, when he is rescued. But then he is captured again and is about to be hanged again. The Coens give him a great line that makes a perfect ending for the story.
In “Meal Ticket” the Impressario (Liam Neeson) wears a wonderful coat made out of about 30 IKEA shearling bath rugs cut up and put together. Mary Zophres, who has done a number of Coen films, creates a great variety of costumes for this one. She said, “Joel and Ethan wrote these great characters; I’m just the lucky one who gets to design them.” For more details, see the interview with her in the February 7, 2019 issue of the Envelope in Los Angeles Times, if you can find it online.
In the Sight & Sound interview, the interviewer is surprised to learn there are 800 digital effects shots. The Coens make the point that it is often cheaper and easier to clean up a shot digitally than keep reshooting to get it right. The everyday use of digital means that the Coens did not have to worry about casting one of the characters in “Meal Ticket.” They could write what they wanted to and knew they could handle details digitally. I will say no more here, but after you see the movie, you will want to check out one of the actors on IMDb and especially look at the photos of him there.
“Meal Ticket” also has a great, creepy ending, which is done with a heavy rock and a nice smile from Liam Neeson. With an actor like that, you do not have to overwrite the scene.
“All Gold Canyon” is the most visually beautiful of the segments. We follow the Prospector as he searches for gold in a stunning valley. I could just look at the valley for the whole segment, but there are two very Coen sort of twists at the end. They are disruptive in the way they need to be, and the more you are into the major part of the segment, the more disturbed you will be.
“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the most conventional of all the stories. Like all of them, it takes advantage of the Coens shooting the film in a great variety of locations over three states, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nebraska. They wrote the stories with a sense of how the places affect the characters and action. In this they are very much in the tradition of John Ford and other American directors like Henry King and Robert Flaherty.
“The Mortal Remains,” on the other hand, is almost a surrealist film. For most of the film we stay inside a stagecoach and listen to a group of five people talk. You may guess where at least some of them are going. Unlike John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), there is no Indian attack to break up the conversations. Like I said in the snarky sub-head, the Coens are not exactly this generation’s John Ford, but they are very much this generation’s Coen Brothers.
Christopher Knopf: An Appreciation.
You may not recognize the name Christopher Knopf, but if you have watched American television from the 1950s to the early 1990s you probably saw something he wrote and/or produced. He died on February 13, 2019.
His father was Edwin Knopf, a producer and director at MGM, and Christopher wrote his first produced screenplay for MGM in 1955. It was a swashbuckler called The King’s Thief, and when I interviewed him in 1990 for my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing, he said the film “almost ruined eight careers.” Shortly after it came out he was in line at the unemployment office and noticed that two actors from the film were in line as well. They were “glowering at me.”
As movie production declined, he moved into television writing at Four Star, a production company several stars had put together. He worked for Dick Powell, who had started as a crooner in Warner Brothers musicals in the Thirties, then moved to playing tough detectives in the Forties and finally into producing and directing for television. Knopf wrote for The Dick Powell Show, a film anthology show. Live television and its anthology shows were dying out, and production had moved from New York to Hollywood and film, mostly for episodic series. Among the young writers Knopf worked with at Four Star were Sterling Silliphant, Robert Towne, and Sam Peckinpah. Knopf felt Powell was “the greatest guy I ever wrote for. Dick was just majestic.”
After Powell died, Tom McDermott came in at Four Star. Knopf had an idea, but CBS did not like it, and McDermott pushed Knopf to write the script for a similar idea CBS had. Knopf reluctantly did the script, adding in some of the characters from his idea. After he completed the script, Knopf left Four Star. The script became The Big Valley, which ran for four years.
Knopf was the supervising producer on the 90-minute western Cimarron Strip in the late 1960s. He learned that he was demanding too much of the show, wanting it to be wonderful all the time. “We got our head handed to us sometimes, and sometimes we pulled it out like crazy.” He compared it to Gunsmoke, which ran twenty years: “They took one little idea and ran with it.”
In 1984, he wrote Pope John Paul II, a three-hour TV movie about the early years of Karol Wojtyla. Wojtyla had been in the anti-Nazi underground during the war, and one executive asked if they could get some action scenes out of it. Knopf pointed out that Wojtyla was just in a theatre group and said, “I cannot put a gun in the hands of the Pope.”
The executive said, “Isn’t that negotiable?” knowing that traditionally in Hollywood everything is negotiable.
Knopf replied, “I don’t think so.”
Ten years after I interviewed Knopf, I was in England and opened the London Times to find a picture of young Wojtyla…holding a machine gun. I cut it out and later sent it to Knopf. He did not write back.
In 1990, when I interviewed him he was working on what turned out to be his last show, a law drama about young prosecutors called Equal Justice. We had a great discussion of how you write a big ensemble show like that, some of which you can read in the book. Unfortunately, the show was cancelled after one season.
A few years before that, in 1988, he and his partner David Simons wrote a pilot that did not go to series. It was called Mad Avenue and was an ensemble drama about an advertising agency in New York. Knopf may well have been ahead of his time on that one.