UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Bag of Goodies, Part II

Tom Stempel tells you why the screenplay for "Bombshell" is better than you already thought it was. Then he will wrestle with "Ford v. Ferrari", "Little Women", "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker," "1917," and gives you an appreciation of Buck Henry, writer of "The Graduate."
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Here’s to Just Letting the Writer Alone to Write the Damned Script.

Bombshell (2019. Written by Charles Randolph. 109 minutes)

Charles Randolph’s second produced screenplay was the 2005 film The Interpreter. When he came on it, it was based on a story by two other writers. In his draft of the script, the character played by Nicole Kidman was revealed as one of the baddies. The next draft by Scott Frank turned her back into one of the goodies. The next draft by Steve Zallian emphasized the romance of Kidman and Sean Penn’s characters more than the thriller elements. It will not surprise you to learn that the director of that picture was the late Sydney Pollack, whom William Goldman once called a “writer killer.” The film was a mess.

Randolph’s next film was the 2010 film Love and Other Drugs. You can read what happened there in my review of it here.

By the time Randolph got around to The Big Short in 2015, he only had to work on the script with Adam McKay, the director. You can read here how well I thought it turned out and why. The Academy agreed with me, giving it the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

I admired The Big Short because of the writers’ handling of the degree of difficulty of making a film about the financial events leading up to the Great Recession of 2008. The degree of difficulty in handling the mechanics of the events leading up to the firing of Roger Ailes from his creation of Fox News is not quite as tough as the situation in The Big Short, but Randolph’s handling the nuances is just as good.

bombshell charles Randolph

To let you know this is not going to be a simple story, Randolph starts off with three different narrators, each giving you slightly different perspective. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is the queen bee of the channel, with her own nightly show, but we get her smart view of the situation at the channel. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is about to sue Fox News and Ailes for sexual harassment.

Both Kelly and Carlson are real people. The other narrator is Kayla Popisil (Margot Robbie) and she is fictional, a composite of the younger women working at Fox. She is not only political conservative, as is nearly everybody at Fox News, but she thinks she is there is spread the word about Jesus. Because Kelly and Clarkson are real people, Randolph has to stick to the facts about them, although he is very good at showing us their emotions. Popisil he can play around with. Given her religious point of view, we are surprised when she happily finds herself in bed with Jess Carr, who has been working at Fox News for longer than she has. Carr is played by Kate McKinnon in a more restrained performance than we usually see from her. The bedroom scene is a surprise, lively and very funny, but still within the tonal range of the film. It is matched by a later dramatic scene between the two of them.

[Script Extra: Creating Characters: The Behavioral Paradox]

The first sexual harassment scene is not with Ailes, but with a more junior executive and a woman we have not seen. It sets up the idea that this kind of harassment may just be with this one guy, or it may be, and turns out to be, part of the corporate culture at Fox.

Randolph creates a surprisingly nuanced portrait of Roger Ailes. Randolph gives us several scenes where we get how focused Ailes is on his demands on how Fox News is run. Here is where Randolph’s skill is at its best. He could have written Ailes and Fox News in much more satirical terms. It lends itself to that, as Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee demonstrate on their shows by simply showing clips from Fox News, which gets laughs from their audiences. Randolph has some of those kinds of moments, but not very many. Since the film did not do that well at the box office, he may have had too much for the people who watch Fox News, or that potential audience may just wanted to avoid any movie that was at all critical of Fox News.

We finally get a scene of Ailes’ approach to women at the channel when he leans on Popisil. It is just as creepy as it needs to be. John Lithgow picks up on the nuances Randolph has written into the script in his performance, which makes the drama of the scenes with Ailes all the more stronger and convincing.

The payoff, involving Carlson’s case, is a neat twist, which I will not reveal here. In the end titles, we learn that Ailes was fired and died shortly thereafter. Oddly enough, there are no titles that tell us what has happened to Kelly and Carlson. You might want to Google them and find out for yourself.

More Zoom, but More Character as Well.

Ford v Ferrari (2019. Written by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller. 152 minutes)

ford-v-ferrari-damon-bale understanding screenwriting

What I liked about this film is that it does not stick to the traditional structure for car-racing movies (and sport movies in general): race, people scene, race, people scene, etc, big race at the end. See Grand Prix (1966, written by Robert Alan Aurthur) for a classic example.

The other problem in those movies is that the characterization is often mediocre if non-existent. I knew someone connected to the production of Grand Prix who told me that Authur’s script originally had a lot more characterization in it; my guess is that the director, John Frankenheimer, was much more obsessed with the mechanics of shooting the races than the actors. Directors are like that. See below for another example.

Here the writers are telling the true story of car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles creating and driving a car, respectively, to beat the long-standing champion Ferrari at the 24 Hour Le Mans race in 1966. Shelby is free-wheeling but knows how to play well with others if necessary, while Miles is very much a lone wolf. Normally in sports pictures the two leads are racing or fighting against each other. Here they are, with some difficulty, working together. Often they are in conflict with the people at Ford who want to beat Ferrari.

The idea of building a car to beat the Italians comes from Lee Iococca, then working at Ford but who would later become a legend reviving Chrysler in the 80s. The company men at Ford really do not like the idea of an independent unit. That’s especially true of Leo Beebe, who keeps trying to take over the project. The dramatic conflict in the picture is between the guys at Ford and the guys making a racecar for them. As a result, the races are not just races, they are about how they are going to effect the creation and perfecting of the car.

The characterization is very rich. Matt Damon catches Shelby’s edge and Christian Bale more than captures Miles’s flakiness. Henry Ford II (the grandson of the original Henry Ford) is beautifully played by Tracy Letts, who gets the best scene in the picture when Shelby gives him a ride in the car. I’ll let you see what happens yourself.

There are several interesting twists at the end, all of them true to the characters.

Greta, Meet Fred and Buck. Talk Amongst Yourselves.

Little Women (2019. Screenplay by Greta Gerwig, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott. 135 minutes.)

There have been a lot of film versions of Alcott’s novel. There’s the 1913 version with Mary Pickford as Jo, and the Gish sisters as Amy and Meg. There’s the 1933 version with Katharine Hepburn as Jo, Garbo as Meg, and Jean Harlow as Amy. There’s the 1948 Warner Brothers cartoon, with Bugs Bunny as Jo, Daffy Duck as Meg, Wile E. Coyote as Amy, and Elmer Fudd as Marmee. There’s the 1951 Ealing Studio version, with Alec Guiness as all four sisters and Alastair Sim as Aunt March. There’s the 1956 Akira Kurosawa samurai version with Toshiro Mifune as Laurie. And of course the 1969 Martin Scorsese version with Robert De Niro as Jo, Joe Pesci as Amy, and Al Pacino as Beth.

O.K., O.K., so I got a little carried away. For the record, the previous actual versions were in 1918, 1933 (the one that starred Hepburn, but with a different supporting cast than my imaginary version), 1949, 1978, 1994, 2017, and 2018. The best known and best liked are the 1933 version, which had the enormous advantage of having Hepburn as Jo, and the 1994 version, with a solid script by Robin Swicord. The 1949 version was MGM’s attempt to recapture the feeling of their 1944 classic Meet Me in St. Louis. The 1944 film has Mary Astor and Leon Ames as the parents, and Margaret O’Brien as the youngest daughter, and they appear in similar roles here.

The 1949 version was given an MGM gloss so thick you don’t believe the Marches are suffering financially. The first 20 minutes or so are set at Christmastime, and any frame would be taken out and made into a Christmas card. The script was credited to Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, who won an Oscar for their script for the 1933 version, and Andrew Solt, whose job apparently was to take out all the humor in the Mason-Heerman script and turn it into a conventional love story. What killed the picture was that Jo was played by June Allyson, the sweetest thing on two legs in American films at the time. Jo is not sweet.

Not being a Katharine Hepburn fan, my favorite version is the 1994 one, where Jo, played by Winona Ryder, is one of the ensemble more than the star part. This version of both the character and the story may not be as funny as the Hepburn version, but it is less sentimental than the other versions.

So, what is Gerwig bringing to the table that’s different? The other versions, at least the ones I’m familiar with, tell the story in a straight-ahead way, starting with the girls in the family and then seeing them as they grow up. Gerwig starts with the girls already grownup and then goes back into the past. And then up to the present, and then back to the past, and then present, past, etc., etc. I would guess that Gerwig assumes we know the material well enough that we can follow what she is doing. (Gerwig seems to me to be a serious enough filmmaker—she is also the director—that she’s not just showing off.)

Unfortunately her plan doesn’t work, at least for me, even though I have seen three of the previous film versions. When we start with the grownups, I kept itching to get back to the kids. When are we going to get to the fun scene of the play they put on? Then when we get to the kids, no, I did not want to get back to the grownups, I wanted to stay with the kids.

[Script Extra: Oscar-nominated Greta Gerwig spoke to Script magazine about creating the compelling mother-daughter tale, Lady Bird.]

The bigger problem with her time-jumping is that it is badly done. Gerwig as both writer and director doesn’t clearly let us know where we are. The sisters are all played by the same actors, so we cannot tell if we are in different time periods. The costumes and production design do not make the time shifts notable. The dialogue does not help, since Gerwig does not include any hints of when and where we are.

Compare how she handles the time shifts with how they are handled in other movies that are constantly going back and forth. In Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), it is very clear by the race of the characters and the architecture of the buildings when we are in Japan in the present and when we are back in Nevers, France during World War II. In the 1970 version of Catch-22 Buck Henry (see below) solved what I thought was an insurmountable problem when I read the novel. Joseph Heller was constantly going back and forth in time periods. Henry, in his screenplay, throws in subtle lines of dialogue that makes us feel we think we know where we are, although some of them, like those in Heller’s novel, are wrong, or at least illogical. Some of the lines are just there to give us a sense of connection.

The master of this kind of time shifting is Federico Fellini, particular in his 1963 film 8 ½. We always think we know where we are in the film, but on more than one occasion we are wrong, as we realize when Fellini pulls the rug out from under us. Oh, we thought we were there, but we are over here. Fellini does it in such a playful way we don’t object.

With Gerwig, we do object, since it just gets confusing. Shortly after (spoiler alert) Beth dies (did you really need a spoiler alert for that?), suddenly there she is at a wedding scene.

Needless to say, with as many talented people Gerwig has gathered together, there are a pile of good things about the film. I was particularly fond of Florence Pugh as Amy. Pugh has a particular gift of being able to look a different age in whatever shot she appears in, which helps us deal with Gerwig’s time jumps.

Emily Watson and Eliza Scanlen are satisfactory as Meg and Beth.

Gerwig’s focus is on Jo and Saoirse Ronan’s performance as Jo. In the 1933 version Hepburn’s oddball personality worked well as Jo, capturing the pain-in-the-ass Jo would be in “real life.” Ronan has to act that, which she does beautifully. Sometimes you just want to slap Jo upside the head, as Marmee would probably would have liked to (why do you think Marmee admits at one point that she is angry every day; Jo would raise any parent’s hackles), but Ronan still gives us Jo’s charm and energy, often at the same time as she is being a pain. I could have done with Ronan’s Jo being less of a pain, but there are going to be a lot of people who love it.

There is a feminist touch to Swicord’s 1994 version, and even more of one here. (Talk about feminist solidarity: Swicord is one of the producers of this version. How many male writers would do that?) Gerwig is pushing the similarities between Jo and Alcott, since it is a truth generally acknowledged by scholars that the novel is autobiographical. Gerwig ties that together when Jo is trying to sell her novel to the publisher Mr. Dashwood and there is a funny negotiation between Jo and Mr. Dashwood. He gives in when his daughters insist he publish it. I assume this Mr. Dashwood is related to the British family of the same name which is noted for its plethora of daughters.

More is More is More is More is Even More Than That.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019. Screenplay by Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams, story by Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow and Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams, based on characters created by George Lucas. 142 minutes)

Star Wars- The Rise of Skywalker understanding screenwriting

Connolly & Treverrow were originally hired to write the screenplay for this film. They had had a success with Connolly writing and Treverrow directing the nice little indie film Safety Not Guaranteed (2012: you can read my review of it here.) As happens all too often, they moved immediately up to the big leagues, co-rewriting the screenplay for Jurassic World (2015: you can read my review of it here.) Their script for this film was a disaster and the movie was awful. But it made a pile, a BIG pile, of money.

So naturally the team was brought in to work on this film. The official reason (in a story in the Los Angeles Times) is that they left the project when they could never get the story right. I suspect that maybe somebody looked at Jurassic World again and realized the script was bad and Treverrow’s direction (he was scheduled to direct this film) was equally bad. So they were let go from the Lucasfilm kingdom (although there is some troll gossip on the Internet that their script is better than Terrio & Abrams’). And, this being Hollywood, they went right back to the Jurassic kingdom and wrote Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom (2018: you can read my review of it here.) Never give up on people with talent.

So Kathleen Kennedy, who has the keys to the Lucasfilm kingdom, brought in Terrio and Abrams. Terrio, after winning an Oscar for his smart script for Argo (2012: you can read, oh, never mind), got into the comic blockbuster business, writing on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017). Abrams of course had revitalized the Star Wars brand by co-writing and directing Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015: you will want to read the review of this one here).

By the time the Force Awakens was made, Lucas had sold Lucasfilm to Disney and was not connected with the production of any of the last Star Wars trilogy. When Force was released, Lucas showed up on Charlie Rose’s show with a lot of quibbles about it. Mostly he was objecting that it was written for the fans, whereas his scripts for the series were about his vision of the world he created. Abrams admitted he was writing for the fans, of which he, and most of the people working on the film were. And the fans loved it.

The second film in the new trilogy, Star Wars: Episode VIII-The Last Jedi was written and directed by Rian Johnson, who came to the project after writing and directing two successful low-budget indies, Brick (2005) and Looper (2012), although I generally prefer his 2008 film, The Brothers Bloom. Looper had enough si-fi elements, especially time travel, to draw interest at Lucasfilm. I think his Last Jedi is the best of this last trilogy. Unlike Abrams’s work on both Force Awakens and Rise of Skywalker, Johnson focuses more on characters, in a way that was unusual in the Star Wars universe. Johnson had realized that the trilogy is Rey’s movie, and focuses on her learning how to be a Jedi, taught by Luke just as Yoda taught Luke in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Johnson’s script and Daisy Ridley’s performance as Rey bring out the best performance by Mark Hamill in all of the films.

[Script Extra: Learning to Write to Theme with The Last Jedi]

Of course since Johnson was not an absolute devotee of the Star Wars theology, some of what he did in Last Jedi irritated the fans, such as actually having an Asian woman, Rose Tico, involved in a major way in the story. The misogynistic, xenophobic trolls really went ape over that, although they had accepted a woman, Rey, as the lead; a major black character, Finn; and even the sight of blood in The Force Awakens.

Abrams and his co-writers on The Force Awakens brought in a lot of new characters, but a lot of old ones, since the writers wanted to please the fans. They also filled up the screen with a lot of action and a lot of special effects.

Abrams and Terrio do the same thing in Rise of Skywalker. They were very aware that this is the last film of not only this trilogy, but of the two previous trilogies. So their attitude is that more is more. More special effects, more locations, more space ships, and more characters from the previous films, going all the way back to the first trilogy, with Lando Calrissian and even Emperor Palpatine, whom we thought was killed a while back. There are even Ewoks, although there are no scenes from their infamous Christmas special. And in a sound montage, there are voices from actors in previous films, including Hayden Christensen, Anakin in Episodes II and III. Given the damage those two films did to his career, I am surprised he showed up even if only on the sound track for this one.

All of this gets exhausting. Sometimes fun, but exhausting. I am, however, thankful for one thing Abrams and Terrio left out.

Jar Jar Binks.

Talk about your fan service.

No Sam, It Is. 

1917 (2019. Written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. 119 minutes)

When British director Sam Mendes was a wee lad, his grandfather told him stories about his experiences in The Great War, as World War I was called until an even greater war came along. Mendes decided to make a film about those stories, although he has not said that the script of 1917 is based on any particular one of those stories.

The story of the film is simple. Two Lance Corporals, Blake and Schofield, are ordered by their general to take a message to Colonel Mackenzie. The message is to not start the planned attack on German lines the next morning. The general has learned the Germans are setting a trap for the colonel’s unit. Oh, yes, Blake, that’s the unit your brother is in, so you are responsible for saving his and 16,000 other British lives.

Not a bad setup. But we don’t get a lot of characterization of either Blake or Schofield. They seem acquaintances more than friends. And they have taken forever to get to the general’s headquarters. They are walking through the trenches, and walking some more, and some more than that. Yes, I know Stanley Kubrick did some great trench-walking shots in Paths of Glory (1957), but he knew how much or how little he needed and he knew when to cut.

Mendes, who also directed, doesn’t cut. Ever. Well, with help of digital special effects, he can hide the cuts very nicely, but his vision is to tell the story in what feels like one long take. In an interview you can read here, he gives you all the reasons why he wanted to do it that way. He wanted to make it like a “ticking clock thriller,” to make you feel you were with the soldiers every step of the way. He also said it’s “not shot in a way that’s designed to draw attention to itself.” He’s wrong. It very much calls attention to itself, starting with the first tracking shots. Like John Frankenheimer, he’s a director, after all.

There have been other films shot in a similar way. In Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) Alejandro G. Iñárritu had the camera following his characters into all corners of the St. James Theatre in New York. It got very repetitive in places where he simply could have cut from one place to another. The same thing happens in 1917.

Earlier, Hitchcock shot Rope (1948) in what was supposed to feel like one take, although given the technical limitations of how much film the camera would hold, at every ten minute mark the camera would glide behind a chair or a lamp for the film change. With the technology of digital shooting that is not necessary. Hitchcock had the smarts to make his film based on a one-set play, so there were none of those walking moments you get in Birdman or 1917.

[Script Extra: MEET THE READER: Birdman OR the Importance of Keeping an Open Mind]

The best of the one-take films, which was actually shot in one take, is the 2002 Russian film Russian Ark (written by Aleksandr Sokyurov [who also directed] and Anatoli Nikiforov, with dialogue by Sokyuorov, Boris Chaimsky, and Svetlana Prokurina). The film follows a French count as he strolls through the great Hermitage Museum in St.Petersburg. It’s one set and we move very quickly from one work of art to another, along with meeting historical figures, all of them interesting characters.

With a few exceptions we don’t meet very many interesting characters in 1917. Midway through the film the two soldiers are separated and we only follow one of them, which means that Mendes’s directorial flourishes get flashier. One of the best is when the soldier finds himself in a burning village and escapes into a rushing river. Then it is back to trudging the landscape.

The writers also geek the most potentially interesting character in the film. Halfway through the trek, the soldiers meet an officer who warns them to have witnesses when they give the message to the colonel, since he may not pay any attention to it. So when he gets the message he looks at, thinks a minute, then agrees to follow the general’s orders. What would you do with the colonel if you were writing that scene?

Buck Henry, writer of "The Graduate" and "Get Smart": An Appreciation.

Of course Buck Henry (1930-2020) was going to grow up to be funny. While his father was an Army Air Corps general, his mother, actress Ruth Taylor, had started working in silent films with Mack Sennett.

Henry was interested in writing from the beginning. He wrote for the humor magazine at Dartmouth, and after college and a stint as a helicopter mechanic in the Army (Henry said to his interviewer William Froug in the early seventies, “You put that in there and nobody will believe it”), he started writing for television variety shows. He joined the improv comedy troupe, The Premise, in 1959, but he was always more interesting in writing than acting, although he accumulated 63 acting credits in films and television.

Dustin Hoffman and Buck Henry in "The Graduate"

Dustin Hoffman and Buck Henry in "The Graduate"

In 1965 he and Mel Brooks, who was hardly known at the time, created the television series Get Smart, a parody of spy movies and TV shows. There has been a lot of dispute over the years as to whether Henry or Brooks contributed to the creation of the show the most. However, Brooks left the show early and Henry wrote for most of the two seasons the show was on. 

Henry told Froug, "Get Smart is really straight-out satire, some cases parody, and is much more hard-edged and cartoony [than usual sitcoms]… Get Smart was successful because it was funny in that way, and Don Adams was perfect for it, and was the motor that made it run. The supporting cast was terrific. My theory about it, which is a trivial theory at best, is that it combined visual—slapstick comedy for the kids, the younger kids—with at times a rather sophisticated verbal satire for adults. And the combination sort of captured two different audiences. It was a theory after the fact. We wrote it as we laughed at it."

Henry then wrote the final drafts of The Graduate (1967). Other writers had worked on it, but when Mike Nichols brought on Henry, they went back to the book, flaws and all. (One flaw: the book and script never deal with Mrs. Robinson as Ben and Elaine start their affair.) The picture made everybody’s reputation.

Henry and Nichols started talking about doing Catch-22 while they were still working on The Graduate. It was an enormously complex book to adapt, but as I mentioned above, Henry found ways to connect the scenes. Nichols unfortunately let the actors ham it up more than he should have.

Henry did not write, but co-directed Heaven Can Wait (1978), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, but it was one of only four films he directed. He preferred to write.

The best of his later scripts was To Die For (1995), a devastating satire of local television.

He was also the multiple guest host on Saturday Night Live, which were merely some of his 64 appearances as himself on television in documentary films.

But Buck Henry will always be remembered for writing one of the greatest lines of dialogue in movies:

“Plastics.”

(If that line does not ring your chimes, go back and watch The Graduate again.)

More articles by Tom Stempel

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