Skip to main content

Understanding Screenwriting: Back to Semi-Normal

Tom Stempel doesn’t exactly disagree with the Academy voters about Parasite, but he has more reservations than they do. Then he gets onto new movies like The Rhythm Section and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and gives you an appreciation of Harriet Frank Jr.

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

And Then All Hell Breaks Loose.

Parasite (2019. Screenplay by Bong Joon Ho and Jin Won Han, story by Bong Joon Ho. 132 minutes)

parasite-Keon-kyo Yeo-jeong Jo in Parasite_rgb

I loved this movie, but maybe not quite as much as the Academy voters (and many, many critics) did. The voters named it the Best Original Screenplay of last year.

Bong, who also directed, and Jin get off to one of the best starts of any recent movie. We are in the small apartment of a poor family in South Korea. We can tell they are poor by the socks drying on a line in the window. There is the father, mother, son and daughter. We can tell immediately that they are all con artists from their dialogue. Or, if you don’t read he subtitles, look at the action of the kids trying to get illegal Wi-Fi, which tells you a lot, not only about the kids, but about the apartment.

Then the friend of the son shows up with an offer. The friend has been teaching English to the daughter of a rich family, but he is going off to college and suggests the son take over. Well, the son knows some English and his sister is a whiz at forging a diploma from Oxford. Those of you who use the usual clichés of screenwriting will call this “the inciting incident.” I avoid that term, since most beginning writers tend to think of it in very mechanical ways. The writers here don’t, since they know how to write in such a way that the scene flows naturally. Pay attention to how they do that.

So, the son goes to the house of the rich family. And boy is it a great house, supposedly in the film built by a great architect, but actually built by the production team. We don’t want to spend any more time in the poor family’s apartment than they do, but we do want to spend as much time as possible in the rich house. We do spend nearly all of the rest of the film there, which is satisfying, even when things go wrong.

[Script Extra: INTERVIEW: "Parasite" Editor Jinmo Yang]

The son gets the job and we learn about the rich family (also a father, mother, son, and daughter), but a lot more slowly than we did with the poor family. The writers are smart to take their time (look at how long it is before we meet the rich father), because we want to hang out, not only with poor family and their conning skills, but we also want to hang out with the rich family and see how the poor family can manipulate them.

Eventually, and the writers are right to take their time putting all in place, the entire poor family has managed to get the household staff kicked out and get themselves hired to replace them.

About an hour into the film the rich family goes off on vacation, and while they are gone, the poor family moves in. We see them eating and make the kind of mess they have in their own apartment. They are also discussing how they can take over the house. It is raining outside, and there is a knock at the door. Loud knocking. It is the housekeeper the poor mother has replaced. Can she come in? She’s left something in the basement.

Then all hell breaks loose.

And here’s where I begin to have problems with the film. Traditionally, bringing in a big action scene in the third quarter of a film is a good way to keep the audience’s interest up. The chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959) and the car chase in Bullitt (1968) are great examples of it. You can also bring in a new character, like Jack Nicholson’s George Hanson in Easy Rider (1969), and if you like, you can do what the writers of Easy Rider did with Hanson: kill him off at the beginning of the fourth quarter. So, it is possible and sometimes desirable to bring in a twist for the third quarter.

For that to work, however, it has got to be a change that is interesting. The problem I have with Bong and Jin’s twist is that it takes a movie that is fresh, inventive, and very nuanced about its characters and situations and makes it a much more conventional horror film than the movie we have been watching. It is exciting, like the car chases mentioned above, but in a way that takes away what was so interesting about the first hour of the movie.

On the other hand, the writers manage to work those horror movie elements back into the original tone of the film in the fourth quarter. The endings, and there are several (I am not sure they needed all of them), are all satisfying in different ways. Like I said, I loved the movie, but with reservations.

A January Movie.

The Rhythm Section (2020. Screenplay by Mark Burnell, based on his novel. 109 minutes)

I have written, not every year, but every few years, about one or more of what I call "January movies." That’s a movie that gets released in January after all the hype of the awards season is over. Some such films are A pictures that the producers and distributors had award hopes for until they previewed it with an actual audience. A lot of them are B pictures. For years January was just a dumping ground for awful movies. That changed after 2009 when the Liam Neeson action picture Taken was released in January and made a big pile of money. Since then filmmakers and companies have actually aimed movies for January release.

I don’t know if that is the case with The Rhythm Section. On the one hand, it is an action-packed thriller. On the other hand, it is produced by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. If those names do not ring a bell for you, it is because you are watching rather than reading the title scenes of the James Bond movies, which they are producers of. And the star is the up-and-coming Blake Lively, whom I have liked in The Shallows (2016) and A Simple Favor (2018).

[Script Extra: Indiana Jones and the Curse of Too Much Action]

This is first produced screenplay by the writer, Mark Burnell, and it has a passable idea, badly handled. Stephanie Patrick lost her family several years ago in a plane crash. She learns from an investigative reporter that the crash was not an accident, but the result of a terrorist bomb. Stephanie begins to explore what he gives her, but then he is killed. She is picked up by B, a former MI-6 agent, who trains her to kill her way up to the mastermind of the bombing. Chases and fights follow.

It could be a serviceable idea, but Burnell’s writing is very flat, with very little characterization. Lively is trying to give it as much depth as she can, but the script does not support her efforts. If anything, Lively may be trying too hard. Not helping is that the script is about as lacking in humor as you can get. I know, I know, we all groan and complain about the bad puns in the Bond movies, but they provide a counterpoint to the action. Here, the tone is one-note all the way through, which makes for a very flat picture.

A Simple Romance.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019. Written by Céline Sciamma. 122 minutes)


If you have seen the trailers for this film, or even stills from it, you think you know what you are going to get. The impression you have is that it is a big, sweeping, historical romance, like Gone With the Wind (1939) or Doctor Zhivago (1965), with an overpowering score like those by Max Steiner or Maurice Jarre.

It may surprise to learn there is very little music in the film. The two main characters sit at a piano and tickle the ivories, a group of women sing a folk song in the night, and one of the characters listens to some music at the end of the film. That final scene is emotionally devastating because this film is nuanced in every way possible, thanks to Céline Sciamma’s script and her direction.

A lot of the shots in the trailer are of the second sequence in the picture as Marianne, an artist, arrives by boat on the coast of Brittany in pre-revolutionary France in the 18th century. She has been hired to paint a portrait of the young lady of the house, Héloïse. Héloïse has just returned home after living in a convent, and her mother, the Countess, wants the portrait made so she can send it to a wealthy suitor in Italy. If the suitor likes the portrait, he will marry Héloïse. Héloïse is not happy at the idea of either the portrait or the marriage and refuses to pose. So, the Countess has Marianne pretend to be just a companion for Héloïse, going for walks with her along the cliffs. Where, we learn, Héloïse’s elder sister has jumped to her death rather than be forced into a marriage she does not want.

I am always on your case to make sure you start off your script fast, in the American way. But Sciamma, to the best of my knowledge, never took my screenwriting course at Los Angeles City College, and besides, she’s French. It is twenty minutes into the film before Marianne finally meets Héloïse. From what the Countess has said about her, we are dying to meet her, but holding off on that only makes us more interested. Besides, we get to know the house and the servant girl, Sophie, while we are waiting.

Then we and Marianne do meet Héloïse. She is very quiet and withdrawn, as befits a girl who grew up in a convent. Marianne eventually tells Héloïse what she is up to, and Héloïse tells her if she will burn the portrait she is working on, Héloïse will pose for her. Ah, they are sort of becoming friends, but as with everything in this picture, it is happening in a very slow, nuanced way. Yes, they are attracted to each other, but it is an hour and twenty minutes into the film before they kiss. They, and the film, are very restrained.

Marianne finishes the portrait and must go back to mainland. Well, in most great love stories the lovers are separated at the end: Gone With the Wind, Casablanca (1942), Doctor Zhivago, Love Story(1970), and The Way We Were(1973).

[Script Extra: Christopher Schiller wraps up his film reviews from Telluride Film Festival with a look at The Report, Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Two Popes, and Marriage Story.]

Sciamma’s not finished yet. Marianne’s been telling the story in flashback, and she now tells us of the two other times she saw Héloïse. The first one, appropriately enough, is in a painting done after he was married. She has an adorable child beside her and a book in her lap. Her finger in the book is marking page 28. You can hear the audience gasp for reasons you will understand when you see the film. Sciamma could end the film at that point and we would be satisfied.

But then Marianne tells of seeing her at a concert. Even if, like me, you have a tin ear, you will know what is being played. And we see Héloïse’s reactions, yes, several of them, in one take. We know what the music means to her and how it and her relationship with Marianne opened her up emotionally. I always point out that showing what something means on the screen is difficult. Here Sciamma makes it seem easy.

Harriet Frank Jr.: An Appreciation.

Harriet Frank

Associated Press Photo

Harriet Frank Jr. (1923-2020) got her first job at a movie studio the old-fashioned way: nepotism. Her mother was a story editor at MGM, with a specialty of being able to tell stories to producers who could not be bothered to read. Frank started as a junior writer at MGM in the thirties, when studios had programs for junior writers. Irving Ravetch was writing for the short film series, Crime Does Not Pay. He saw that she had an office next to a friend of his and he got the friend to swap offices. Talk about a cute meet.

The couple continued writing separately until one night they decided it would be easier if, instead of each one working on the problems of separate scripts, they could just collaborate on the problems of a single script. As a team, they began to make a name for themselves in the fifties, writing literary adaptations. Their first notable film was The Long, Hot Summer (1958), based on a novel and a short story by William Faulkner. Ravetch and Frank made a lot of changes in the material and were relieved when a friend of theirs who knew Faulkner said that Faulkner said to him about the film, “I kind of liked it.” The following year, they did an adaptation of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. It was a highly simplified version of a very complex novel.

In 1963, they adapted Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By into the movie Hud. McMurtry was disappointed they did not correct the flaw in the end of the book that his editor had forced on him (the father dies, falling off a horse). In 1969, they adapted a lighter weight Faulkner novel, The Reivers. In 1979, they wrote Norma Rae, and in 1985, they wrote Murphy’s Romance. Those two films were directed by Martin Ritt, who had directed six of their other scripts.

Norma Rae

Norma Rae

Ravetch and Frank had a long, very successful artistic relationship with Ritt. Ritt let them alone to do the first draft of the script and only then did he talk to them about it. Both Ritt and the Ravetches liked stories with character and story as well as some substance beyond that. Ritt was perfectly happy to have them on the set, but like most directors he did not want them talking to the actors, which can disrupt the process of making the film. So, when Pat McGilligan asked them what did they do when they were on the set, Ravetch replied, “Not much.” They had already done their work on the script. 

The material in this appreciation is mostly from McGilligan’s interview in Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 60s. It is one of the few interviews the Ravetches gave. You can read my appreciation of Ravetch here.

More articles by Tom Stempel

Who doesn't want to save money? We're here to help! Get great writing products at discount prices! 


writers store sale