UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Art Isn’t Easy

Problems of screenwriting in two films, 'In the Heights' and 'Da 5 Bloods', and solutions in one television series, 'Big Sky'.
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Making Art is Tricky.

In the Heights (2021. Screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on the musical stage play, and book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, concept by Quiara Alegria Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda. 143 minutes)

In the Heights, Warner Bros.

In the Heights, Warner Bros.

If you look at a lot of the classical musicals of the thirties, you will notice the scripts are generally not very inventive. You might be one of those people who fast forward through the “book” scenes to get to Fred and Ginger dancing. On the other hand, if you are watching The Great Ziegfeld (1936), one of the all-time worst winners of a Best Picture Oscar, you will have your thumb on the remote to get through the piles and piles of dated vaudeville acts in the film’s excruciating 176 minutes.

I’ve always thought the best book for a screen musical was Adolph Comden and Betty Green’s script for Singin’ in the Rain (1952). There are good story, comedy, and character scenes that hold their own against the brilliant musical numbers. And the numbers are beautifully placed within the script. As another musical genius, Stephen Sondheim once wrote, “Art isn’t easy.”

In the Heights is set in the area of New York City known as Washington Heights, and the film is about the whole community (although there have been some complaints that there are not any Afro-Latinx characters). We get a lot of characters and a lot of plotlines. Usnavi, a young store owner, is enchanted by Vanessa, who wants to move out of the Heights and into downtown. Nina, the college age daughter of Kevin, is back in town after her first year of Stanford, and she does not want to go back college, since she feels out of place there. Kevin insists she returns. Benny, Nina’s ex and current boy friend, wants her to stay. Daniela, who runs a beauty shop, is planning on moving her shop to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Looking over them all is Abuela Claudia.

O.K., now you try to get a pile of musical numbers in that crowd. There is a reason the film runs 143 minutes.

Most of the big numbers are in the first half of the show. They tend to be group numbers with a lot of dancing by a lot of people, not just the less heavily populated gangs in West Side Story (1961). Miranda’s songs give us a real sense of the community. The individuals with their own storylines fit nicely into those numbers. The best number is “96,000,” which evolves out of Usnavi realizing he sold the lottery ticket that won that much money. Nobody knows who has the ticket, but everybody in the neighborhood is happy about it. They have all gone to the public swimming pool and boy, do they carry on. Choreographer Christopher Scott lets his inner Busby Berkeley loose with a water ballet/dance that looks like those that Berkeley created in the forties and fifties for Esther Williams. (If you are so young none of those names means anything to you, look them up.)

By placing nearly all the big community numbers in the first half of the film, the second half seems to drag. On the one hand, the energy of those early numbers, which can get exhausting, probably could not be sustained for the whole film. Having established all those characters and plotlines in the first half, Hudes must now develop and resolve them. That really requires more conventional dramatic scenes, which she provides, but they do tend to slow the film down.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Tom Sees You Two Taylor Sheridans and Raises You a Brad Ingelsby]

There are two striking numbers in the second half. One is a dance duet between Nina and Benny that starts on a fire escape and then continues…on the side of the building. It is an homage to Fred Astaire’s famous dance on the walls and the ceiling in Royal Wedding (1951). Astaire’s dance was done simply with a set inside a revolving drum and a camera locked down. The dance here requires more elaborate CGI, and while the dancing may not be up to Astaire’s, the visuals of it are dazzling.

The second striking number is the surrealist dream sequence with Abuela Claudia. It is like the artier dance sequences Astaire and Gene Kelly occasionally allowed themselves, but Claudia is not involved in the major storylines, and while we love her, giving her a big number like this takes us out of the other storylines. The sequence is so striking that you may not care. That can happen in musicals, one reason they are so tricky to write.

The film began almost 2 ½ hours before with Usnavi telling a group of kids on the beach in the Dominican Republic about his days as a storekeeper in a place called Washington Heights and how he decided to come back to his native country. One of the themes of the movie (yes, you need them in a script for a musical) is where your community and your home are, which leads us back to Usnavi, the kids and Hudes pulling a neat twist ending, or rather an ending with multiple twists. Nicely done.

In the Heights was assumed to be one of the blockbusters of the summer, given that it was from a Broadway hit and the composer-lyricist was Lin-Manuel Miranda, who later created the theatrical monster that is Hamilton. It was estimated that its opening weekend gross would be between $15 and $20 million. It only made $11.4 million, and was just the second highest grossing film of that weekend. There are a lot of explanations being written for why it did not do better: no stars, musicals don’t do well, the film not crossing over to general audiences like Black Panther (2018) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018) did. Some people thought that since the film premiered on HBO Max the same time as theatres, the streaming may have kept audiences for it at home. Warner executives told Ryan Faughnder of the Los Angeles Times they thought streaming and theatre audiences are two different kinds of audiences, but that may be just be the executives trying to keep their job.

Faughnder also wrote (and typical of the LA Times website I cannot find his article to give you a link to it) that nobody blamed the Warners marketing department, since they spent $23.3 million in national sales ads. I think they may have over-promoted it, making people feel they had already seen it by the time it opened. We may see more of that this summer.

Faughnder also mentioned that the film did better tickets sales in New York City than anywhere else. I suspect that the film may simply be too New York for the rest of the country. Its second weekend went down $4 million, which dropped it to the 6th highest grossing film for the weekend.

So what does this tell you as screenwriters? Making a movie is a huge undertaking with a lot of moving parts. And making a musical adds more moving parts. And then when it is completed, there are even more moving parts. Art is definitely not easy.

You sure you want to stay in this business?

Making Art is Difficult.

Da 5 Bloods (2020. Written by Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee, and (uncredited) Matthew Billingsley. 154 minutes)

Da 5 Bloods, Netflix

Da 5 Bloods, Netflix

You may remember that in my review here of Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) that I liked the body of the movie, which told its story with a lot of interesting characters and scenes, and then did not like the editorializing at the end with all the news clips. I think enough people liked the clips that Lee decided to start his Vietnam film Da 5 Bloods with another collection of newsreel and television clips from the sixties. At least the stuff at the end of BlacKkKlansman was contemporary. The material here is from fifty years ago and we have since seen a lot of it many times. It makes for a clunky opening for the film.

We are then in modern Ho Chi Min City, formerly Saigon, with four American vets: Paul, Otis, Melvin, and Eddie. They are talking about the war in the same kind of clichés that we saw in the film clips. The dialogue stays flat and literal all the way through the film.

The film is based on an original screenplay by Danny Bilson and his partner, the late Paul De Meo (yes, it is spelled differently in the credits; I don’t know why). Bilson and De Meo were writing partners for several decades. You can see Bilson’s credits here and De Meo was a co-writer on most of them. A lot of their recent credits were on video games, and they wrote for comic book type series, such as The Sentinel (1996-1999) and Viper (1994-1999). I would love to see the draft they sold to Spike Lee, since I suspect it was a more conventional action story than the film turned out to be. It may have had more of a comic touch to it than the final film does.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Writing Real and Fictional People]

There are references to other films, and I don’t know how seriously they were intended. Early in the film our guys go to a bar called Apocalypse Now. Later when they start upriver, we get composer Terence Blanchard’s genteel version of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” “Valkyeries” is not a genteel piece of music, and certainly not in Apocalypse Now (1979). If it’s intended as a joke, it is a tone-deaf one.

We get established early on that the four guys, who are joined by Paul’s son David, are in Vietnam to try to find the remains of Stormin’ Norman, their leader, who was killed in a helicopter crash. Wait a minute, Stormin’ Norman was the nickname of General Norman Schwarzkopf, who led American troops in the Gulf War in 1991. Applying that to the Vietnam War is equally tone deaf.

Soon after we learn they are looking for the remains of Norman, we learn that also in the helicopter was a big pile of gold bars that the guys are after as well. That seems to me to be introduced a little too soon, but I suppose they help set up the people who are going to help them get the gold out of the country.

We get a lot of overlong scenes in Ho Chi Min City before we finally get on the river and into the jungle a little over an hour into the picture. Needless to say, the river scenes are not up to those in Apocalypse Now, and the trek in the jungle is not a patch on the trek to the bridge on the river Kwai in the 1957 film of the same name. Lee as a director here cannot match David Lean’s elegant camera moves and cutting. No other review has mentioned the connection to Kwai, but it is obvious when one of our guys says late in the film the last words from Kwai, “Madness. Madness.”

Other reviewers have mentioned similarities to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), in that we have a group of guys going into the wilderness to try to find gold, but this film’s writers are not as tough on their characters as B. Traven and John Huston were on theirs. The writers on Bloods do give their actors some good scenes, and the actors, all the way through the film, are first-rate.

Needless to say, given the references to Sierra Madre, when the Vietnamese army guys show up to steal the gold and one of our guys asks them why they are not in uniform, the Vietnamese soldier says, “We don’t need no stinking uniforms.”

As I have said before, if you are going to steal, steal from the best. The problem with that is if you don’t do something interesting with your loot, you will just look like thieves.

Art is Hard.

Big Sky (2020--- Multiple writers; Series Created by David E. Kelley, based on the Highway series of books by C.J. Box. 1 hour episodes)

Big Sky, ABC

Big Sky, ABC

The pilot episode of Big Sky, back in November, pulled off a neat double twist. It’s a cop show in the wilds of Montana, and the biggest name in the cast was Ryan Phillippe as the lead cop, Cody Hoyt. Two white teenage girls were abducted by Ronald, a trucker, who was part of a ring that kidnapped hookers and sold them to nasty people in Canada (yeah, I didn’t know there were people that nasty in Canada, either). He picked up the girls because of a road rage incident.

Cody is investigating and talks to State Trooper Rick Lagarski, played by the other semi-name in the cast, John Carroll Lynch. Lynch is known for his comedy work, so we assume his doofus cop will be the comedy relief. In the final scene of the pilot, Lagarski shoots Cody. In the head. He’s dead, not just wounded. We are surprised not only by the star being killed, but by a guy we thought was just a doofus.

Well, what does that leave us with? Two private detectives who don’t really want to work together. One is Jenny Hoyt, Cody’s widow. And the other is Cassie Dewell, who was Cody’s…mistress. You can understand the tension in the office.

As often happens in cop shows, the supporting cast is more interesting than the leads. The two women playing Jenny and Cassie are rather bland, and the writers do not give them much to do other than the usual cop work. By the end of the first half of the season they have shot Legarski, who survived but who may or may not be mentally incapacitated. Ronald, a charming, nasty, unstable guy (brilliantly played by Brian Geraghty) has killed his mother, and gotten away.

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In the second half of the season, Jenny and Cassie are investigating a ranch family, a much darker version of the family in Yellowstone. But Ronald has found the love of his life, but even he may not realize how deranged she is. And he is still haunting Jerrie.

Wait a minute, who is Jerrie? She was the third person in the truck with the two girls, and she is much more interesting than the girls as a character and an actor. Their name is Jesse James Kietel, a non-binary actor, and they have a terrific presence on camera. A good part of the suspense I felt in the first season was whether the writers would give up and kill the transgendered hooker. Thank goodness they haven’t, since they are the most interesting character and actor in the show. They now work with the other two women, and I hope the writers do more with them, both Jerrie and the two stars.


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