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UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Three Screenwriting Nominations and One Coulda

Tom has three films nominated for Oscars for screenwriting and one that could have been: 'Nomadland', 'Minari', 'Promising Young Woman', and 'Ammonite'.

Back to the Big Screen, Sort Of.

Nomadland (2020. Screenplay by Chloé Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder. 107 minutes)

Nomadland, Searchlight Pictures

Nomadland, Searchlight Pictures

You may remember from last month’s column that I went out to a recently re-opened movie theatre to see News of the World (2020) in hopes of seeing great American western landscapes on the big screen. The director of that film had no feel for those landscapes. Nomadland’s director (Zhao) does, and shoots in several different states with a variety of landscapes.

Unfortunately I saw the film in one of the smallest auditoriums in the multi-plex and because of social distancing I had to sit in a seat in the front row on the far side of the auditorium. The views of the scenery were sort of impressive, but distorted.

As you can see here, Nomadland was been nominated for and won several awards. It won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. I can see why the film casts an hypnotic spell over some people, but it lost in the Adapted Screenplay category. Deservedly so.

Fran is a late middle-aged woman whose husband has died, and who loses her job, and whose town is turned into a ghost town when the sole industry dies out. So she packs up a van in the opening scene and hits the beautifully photographed road. O.K., we have seen trek movies before, but the basic problem of this film is that it and Fran are not going anywhere. The film has been compared to The Grapes of Wrath (1940), but look at the differences. In Grapes, the Joad family is leaving their farm in Oklahoma because it has been foreclosed. We do take more time here to get the background than we do in Nomadland, but it is also time we get to know the characters.

Then the Joads hit the road, but they are going somewhere: California. They have seen flyers advertising work there. Fran on the other hand is aimlessly driving from one location to another. We want to see the Joads get to where they are going. We have no particular feeling about Fran’s journeys since nothing seems to be at stake. She can pick up odd jobs when she needs to.

In Nomadland Fran meets a lot of people in her situation. Nearly all of these people are real nomads whom Bruder wrote about in her non-fiction book. So we get scenes of them telling their stories, some of which are mildly compelling, but not as compelling as the scene of the man talking about his daughter’s death in Grapes. This first part of the film plays as though it is a documentary, and not as compelling as really great documentaries. As I have mentioned before, very often real people in documentaries are more compelling than their fictional counterparts. That is simply not true here.

By the time the Joads get to California, we really want to know what is going to happen to them there. One of the largest changes Nunnally Johnson made in adapting John Steinbeck’s novel was to reshape the material in the last third of the novel to have a more dramatic structure.

Early in Nomadland we notice a guy at the edge of the frame in several shots and we think “He looks like the actor David Strathairn.” It turns out to be Strathairn, playing Dave, one of the people Fran meets. They work together, like each other, but Zhao nicely keeps them from turning into a conventional couple. Their relationship at least gives the film a hint of forward momentum.

Late in the picture Fran goes to visit her family, and we very quickly realize why she did not decide to try to move in with them. Then she visits Dave and his family. He has been estranged from them for a time, but he has come to visit and likes it there. His family is much nicer than Fran’s. We think we may be headed for a conventional happy ending, but she is so used to sleeping on the road that she sleeps in her van rather the nicer guest room. She leaves.

[Adapting a Novel or Play for Film or Television]

The movie’s not over yet. Zhao has several endings. Fran talks to one of the other nomads, and it is such a general scene I suspect it may have originally come earlier in the picture and been moved to later in the editing. Or it may have been a new scene written during production. Its function is to push Fran to visit her old, now-deserted home. One reason I think it may originally have been earlier is that the scene might have worked better to get us into why Fran is the way she is and given the film more of a forward movement. Or maybe not.

The Movie Nomadland Wanted to Be But Wasn’t.

Minari (2020. Written by Lee Isaac Chung. 115 minutes)

Minari, A24

Minari, A24

Unlike Nomadland this film has a lot of forward movement, but done with great subtlety. And with great, detailed character scenes. It was nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category, but lost. I would not have objected if it had won.

In Minari, we start with the Yi family at the end of their road trip. They have left their home in California and come to live in Arkansas (yes, that does reverse the standard westward movement of most American films). Jacob, the father, has bought a farm and hopes to be successful at it. Watch his wife Monica’s reactions as they unpack and move into the house. Even before she says anything, we know she is not happy about the move. Chung directed as well as wrote the script.

They have two children, Anne the older daughter, and David, the younger son. We spend more time with David than we do with Anne because he is usually up to something adventurous. Before we see him running around, there a quick, quiet scene where Monica is taking his blood pressure, after which he asks to listen to his heart. Monica pulls out a stethoscope and lets David listen. Why the stethoscope? Monica is not a nurse, but she is constantly warning David to behave himself. Look at how late in the picture Chung goes before letting us know what that is all about, and he does it in a scene that brings another surprise to us.

About half an hour into the picture Soonja, Monica’s mother and David’s grandmother, arrives to stay with them. Traditionally you would have her in from the beginning, or introduced earlier, or else bring her in at the half-way mark to liven up the second act. Chung brings her in here so he can begin to develop the relationship between her and David.

You may think it is going to turn the picture into one of those sentimental pieces between an old person and a kid. It doesn’t. David does not like Soonja. He accuses her of not being a real grandma. Soonja asks why, and David says, “Grandmas bakes cookies. Grandmas don’t swear.” Soonja does not bake, but boy, does she swear.

One advantage Chung has by bringing Sonja in as early as he does is that it makes her part of the family, and the movie is about the family. Later in the film we get less and less of David and Soonja, but their presence hangs over the film as we see Jacob and Monica argue about the farm. We are just as involved with them as we are with David and Soonja.

The story moves forward as Jacob tries to make a go of the farm. Some things work and some things don’t. Monica is ready to leave and take the kids back to California.

The one slight problem I have with the script is the final scene, which I am obviously not going to tell you about here. The scene is, or at least could be fine. As it stands it does not have the impact it should have. I am not sure rewriting the scene would give it more impact, since it would make it more obvious. I do think that there should be a scene or two or three before the final scene to help set it up better.

So children, your homework assignment this week is to see the film and then come up with the scenes you think would be needed to make the final scene pay off better. The film runs 115 minutes now, so limit your new scenes to five minutes or less to keep the picture two hours or under. And make the scenes consistent with the wonderful writing of the rest of the script. Good luck on that.

Better Than the Trailer.

Promising Young Woman (2020. Written by Emerald Fennell. 113 minutes)

Promising Young Woman, Focus Features

Promising Young Woman, Focus Features

The trailers for this film showed up in movie theatres in early 2020, and then they disappeared along with the theatres. The trailers made the film seem a lot more conventional than it is. I always like a film that delivers more than it promises.

The trailers established the film as a nasty thriller, with a woman, Cassie, pretending to be drunk, letting guys pick her up and take her home. Then she reveals she is cold sober, which scares the hell out of the guys. In the trailer we do not see what she does, but we can imagine the worst. Most of the scenes in the trailer are from the first twenty minutes of the movie.

The screenplay is more inventive. In the first scene she lets a guy take her home, but then the scene ends with her announcing she is sober. We do not find out what happens to the guy. We do see her making marks in her notebook, each one suggesting a guy she has done this to. She has been a busy little bee: the marks fill up several pages, some marks in black, some in red. We never find out what the color differences mean.

The next scene begins in another man’s apartment, so we don’t have to watch the pickup scene again. We just get her giving the guy (he is played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, the “McLovin’” of Superbad [2007]; an inspired casting choice) a hard time, so we get more of her method of operation. The scene is funny as well as suspenseful.

Then there are a number of scenes with Cassie and other characters, where we begin to get some of the backstory. Cassie’s best friend Nina when they were both in medical school was gang-raped at a party and nothing was ever done about it. We can guess from the number of marks in the notebook that Cassie is not just getting revenge on the guys involved. But she does talk to a former classmate of hers and Nina’s, Madison, who does not want to be reminded of any of this.

Cassie has drugged Madison’s wine, and we learn she has hired a guy to take Madison to a hotel room. We imagine the worst, but as with other incidents, we learn it is not as bad as we thought. The one she pulls on a dean of the medical school is a dandy, once you find out what really is going on.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Sometimes Books are Better than Movies]

Meanwhile Cassie has met up with another medical school classmate, Ryan, who seems to be one of the few good men around. They have a rocky relationship, but it seems to develop into real love.

But that’s only halfway through the movie. We now think we are in a romcom; Fennell is great at shifting tones. But no. Madison has remembered…something. That gets Cassie back to work with an elaborate revenge plot on the guy who raped Nina. Except it goes wrong.

Or does it?

Fennell, who also directed, is a master not only of shifting tones, but ingenious plotting, although both of those elements irritated some (male) critics. Well, what would you expect from somebody who wrote most of one season of Killing Eve?

Oh, yes, this script won in the Best Original Screenplay category. Yea. Then Fennell really let our side down by giving a terrible, unfocused thank-you speech at the awards ceremony. Folks, we depend on the screenwriters to write and deliver really great acceptance speeches. Preparing and practicing those is part of your training as a screenwriter.

Didn’t We See This Picture a Year Ago?

Ammonite (2020. Written by Francis Lee. 120 minutes)


Two women on a rocky beach in 19th Century costumes. They become close. They fall in love. They separate.

That sounds to me like Portrait of a Lady on Fire (1919), which I reviewed here.

Portrait was a French film, with a very French delicacy to it. Ammonite is a British film, and a little more solid. The main character here is Mary Anning, an important British paleontologist, who found incredible fossils on the beaches of Dorset in southwestern England. Because of the misogyny of the British scientific community, Anning never received her proper due in life. Lee’s screenplay imagines a romance between Anning and Charlotte Murchison, the wife of a colleague of Anning’s. The husband is rather clueless in many ways. Charlotte is suffering from depression and he leaves her to stay with Anning and her mother while he goes off to hunt for fossils in France.

Charlotte slowly recovers. Anning is a very self-contained person and does not want to have to deal with Charlotte, but one thing leads to another… There is some indication in the film that Anning had an affair of some sort with an older woman Elizabeth. I say some indication because the sound mix on the film is so bad it is often difficult to understand the dialogue. Usually in films in which the writer directs, as Lee does here, the director makes sure his dialogue is clear, but not here.

Fortunately the story is compelling as a silent film. Portraits had two good French actresses in the leads. Here we have Kate Winslet as Anning and Saorise Ronan as Charlotte, two women bringing their total star power to their parts. If you want to see what stars can give you, this is one to watch.

The ending of Portraits shows the delicacy I mentioned. The artist sees a portrait of the subject that has a special meaning, and then the artist sees her at a concert and watches her reactions to the music. Lee’s ending is more dramatic. Charlotte goes back to her husband, then later asks Anning to visit. She does, but Charlotte has ulterior motives. That leads to a scene you find familiar if you have ever tried to re-connect with a former lover.

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