UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Bags of Goodies, Part 1

Tom (Santa Claus) Stempel, as a Holiday and New Year Bonus, gives you the first of two double issues, at no extra cost to you. The reviews start with his connecting Marriage Story to the Hopalong Cassidy B westerns of the 30s and 40s. Yes,and there is more on Pain and Glory, The Laundromat, The Report, Richard Jewell, Harriet, The Good Liar, Knives Out, Give Me Liberty, and Midway.
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Silence is Golden.

Marriage Story (2019. Written by Noah Baumbach. 136 minutes)

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I had some trouble recently with my cable TV. I could not get some of the movie channels, including one of my favorites, the Encore Westerns channel. After a few attempts to get it to work from their tech center, they sent out a techie who fixed it. So I have been catching up on some of the Hopalong Cassidy westerns from the thirties and forties.

Hoppy was played by William Boyd. He had been a leading man in silent films for Cecil B. De Mille, but a scandal in the early thirties involving another actor with the same name left him working in B movies. The Hoppy movies made him a star again, and you can see why. He had great screen presence, a terrific voice, and a wonderful laugh.

But he also had a great instinct how to use what he had learned in silent films about expressing emotions without dialogue. Not all silent film stars could merge dialogue and quiet. Mary Pickford was one of the biggest stars in silent films, but in the sound film Secrets (1933), her last film, her acting is disjointed. She is o.k. reading lines, then seems to shift gears and go into a whole different type of acting.

Have you guessed where I am going with this? Baumbach’s script, which might more honestly be entitled Divorce Story, is about a married couple, Charlie and Nicole, splitting up. Needless to say, there is a lot of talk and a fair amount of yelling and screaming. But Baumbach, who also directed, and his two leads, Adam Driver (Charlie) and Scarlett Johansson (Nichole), pay as much attention to the silent moments and reactions as they do the dialogue. And like Boyd, they integrate them into the film and do not make them separate moments as Pickford does. The result is that we are brought deeper and deeper into the characters and their story.

I often ping on other movies for not getting deeply into their characters. As painful as this movie can be to watch, you really ought to see it to see how the team does it.

Of course, if you have been through a divorce, or are going through a divorce, or thinking about a divorce, you might find the film unbearable. I should also mention it is often very, very funny. If that helps you, and it may not. But you might want to see how Baumbach and his team manage that balance.

Almodóvar’s 8 ½.

Pain and Glory (2019. Written by Pedro Almodóvar. 113 minutes)

Let’s see, this is about a film director who has writer’s/director’s block and cannot come up with ideas for his next film. This leads him to thinking about his past, including his childhood, and he finally comes up with a story.

Yep, that certainly sounds like Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963). As I pointed out in the column in which I reviewed both Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces (2009) and Nine (2009; the film musical based on the stage musical based on 8 ½), a lot of people have borrowed from 8 ½. Other filmmakers use it as a model for their own autobiographical films, most notably All That Jazz (1979). Pain and Glory is in that latter category but is more autobiographical that most 8 ½ rip-offs.

The director in this film is Salvador who, unlike Fellini’s Guido, is in late middle age. Also unlike Guido, he has a lot, and I mean a lot, of medical conditions. I am not sure how he can still be alive with all those problems. At least one of the conditions is cured by the end of the film, but it seemed to me to be a very minor one. I would not have been surprised if he dropped dead at the end of the film.

Fellini handles his story in relatively short scenes with Guido dealing with all kinds of different people: his wife, his mistress, his actors, his crew, reporters, etc. Almodóvar limits the number of characters, which means he can get into them and Salvador’s relationship with them in more depth. That makes the film more a drama than the kind of melodrama he often does.

[Script Extra: Rewriting and/or Writing Scenes Can Be Fun (I Hope)]

One of the first of those scenes is between Salvador and Alberto, an actor Salavador had a success with thirty years ago and has not spoken to since. A restoration of the film is being shown and the people presenting it want both Salvador and Alberto to attending the screening. Salvador goes to see Alberto and in a long conversation they discuss the past. Part of the reason for their breakup is that Alberto was not playing the part as Salvador wanted him to. Now that Salvador has seen the film again, he thinks Alberto brought more depth to the role than Salvador thought was there. (It’s depth week here at “Understanding Screenwriting,” isn’t it?)

The scene does not have a sentimental ending, but Salvador gives Alberto a play (mostly a monologue) he has written and tells him he can do it on the stage. We see some of the play and can understand perhaps why Salvador had problems with Alberto on the film. The monologue tells of the character based on Salvador having an affair one summer.

We don’t see Salvador watching the play, but we do see another man drawn by the poster to see the show. The man tracks down Salvador. He is Federico, the man Salvador had the affair with when they were both much younger. The tone is completely different from the Salvador/Alberto scene: looser, more charming, and sexier. Federico is now happily married to a woman, with children, and has not had a relationship with man since Salvador. He brings up the possibility of a quickie with Salvador, but Salvador passes. With all his medical problems, I was not surprised.

Salvador eventually finds a story for his next film, not one from either Alberto or Salvador, but from further back in his past. I am not sure there is enough material in that story for a feature film, but that’s not the film we are watching.

There are some women in the film, fewer than in most Almodóvar films, but none have very challenging roles. Penelope Cruz plays Jacinta, Salvador’s mother, in the flashbacks, but the role is not as demanding for her as it is for Julieta Serrano who plays her in the present in one terrific scene.

Antonio Banderas, who has appeared off and on in Almodóvar’s films for thirty years, is terrific as Salvador, getting all the nuances and more out of the script. I have no idea how many of the little physical details he brings to the part he stole from Almodóvar. It always helps if you are working with people you know.

A Shallower Version of The Big Short.

The Laundromat (2019. Screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, based on the book The Laundromat: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite by Jake Bernstein. 95 minutes)

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When I wrote about The Big Short (2015) here, I made the point that one reason the film worked as well as it did was that the writers, Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, told the story through an interesting selection of characters. We stayed involved in the financial complications of the sub-prime mortgage scandal because of the people involved with it. The problem with The Laundromat, which is about the financial dealings of a bank in Panama, is that the characters are not nearly as interesting as those in The Big Short.

We are introduced to two of the bankers involved, Jürgen and Ramón, in the opening. They narrate the film, giving us a lot of exposition and explanations. Jürgen is played by Gary Oldman with a thick German accent, and Ramón is played by our buddy from Pain and Glory, Antonio Banderas, with a thicker than usual accent. The writing and the acting are already sliding the movie into camp.

Then we get individual stories of people caught up in the Panama scandal. Some of those stories are interesting, but some of them are not. Meryl Streep plays Ellen Martin, whose husband dies in a boat accident at the start of the film. She is determined to get the insurance money and even goes to Panama. She is sort of a one-note character that not even Streep can do much with. After several other episodes, we get a weak twist ending that pushes the film even farther away from reality. On the one hand, I did sort of chuckle at the twist, but it almost seemed like a desperation move by the filmmakers.

Also, unlike The Big Short, we do not get Margot Robbie in a bathtub explaining anything. Ya gotta entertain the audiences, folks.

Who Are These People?

The Report (2019. Written by Scott Z. Burns. 119 minutes)

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Here is Scott Z. Burns in a more serious mood. He is directing this one, as opposed to Steven Soderberg’s goofing around with The Laundromat. The characters here are very flat, with no texture and very little humor to them.

The script is based on the true story of Senate staffer Douglas Jones, who is asked by his boss, California Senator Diane Feinstein, to investigate the CIA’s use of torture (waterboarding, etc) in the years after 9/11. We don’t get a lot of detail that you don’t already know if you kept up with the story in the papers or wherever you get your news from.

[Script Extra: Keep It Simple Storytelling]

Obviously, the CIA and especially the people involved do not want the truth to get out and they pressure Jones and Feinstein not to tell the whole story. Jones’ 4,000 page account gets whittled down to about 400 pages, and even that is heavily redacted. This is not a lot of fun to watch. Jones is played by Adam Driver without the richness he brings to Charlie in Marriage Story.

Who is This Guy?

Richard Jewell (2019. Screenplay by Billy Ray, based on a 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” by Marie Brenner, and the book The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle (2019) by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen. 131 minutes)

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Now this is how you do it. This is based on the true story of Richard Jewell, a security guard at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He discovered a bomb. He and the police managed to get enough people away before the bomb exploded, killing only one person, but wounding 100 others. Jewell was first acclaimed a hero, but then became a suspect since the FBI couldn’t find anybody else. The FBI and the media, especially the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, convicted him in the court of public opinion.

But not in the court of law, since there was never enough evidence, and his lawyer, Watson Bryant, fought for him like we would all want our lawyers to fight for us. He was eventually cleared of all charges.

If you don’t see the structure for a film in that story, get out of the business. Fortunately Billy Ray has the experience at telling true stories on the screen to see the story here. He is best known for Shattered Glass (2003; the story of a corrupt journalist who makes up his stories) and Captain Phillips (2013; Tom Hanks fighting off modern pirates). Unlike the two Scott Burns scripts above, Ray’s script has great characters. Sam Rockwell, as Bryant; Kathy Bates, as Jewell’s mother; and John Hamm, an FBI agent convinced of Jewell’s guilty after he has to let him go; give career best performances.

Jewell is played by Paul Walter Hauser, whom I had thought I had never seen or heard of. When I got home from seeing the film, I looked him up on the IMDb and discovered not only that he has been in the business since 2005, but has appeared in several things I had seen. He was Shawn in I, Tonya (2017), whom I mentioned in my review: “I particularly enjoyed Tonya’s ex-husband’s friend Shawn, who makes himself out to be a lot more of a smart operator than he is.”

Why does Hauser standout here? In his earlier films he was cast when they needed an overweight guy, and he was always shot in medium shot to emphasize his weight. Here he is given a lot of close-ups because the director, Clint Eastwood, realized Hauser has a great expressive face. Watch his eyes. Eastwood has always been a favorite example of my theory that a director should get a great script and great actors, then stay out of their way. Or at least photograph their eyes.

Finally, a Film About Harriet Tubman.

Harriet (2019. Screenplay by Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons, story by Gregory Allen Howard. 125 minutes)

Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross, was a slave in the American South in the middle of the 19. She escaped the plantation she was part of and worked her way north to freedom. Well, what’s different about that? Just this: she went back to the South and led over 70 slaves (in different trips) to freedom. She later was a spy for the Union army, led a troop of Union soldiers into battle, and spent the rest her life fighting for votes for women. What have you done for humanity lately?

Howard and Lemmons (the latter also directed) focus on the central part of Tubman’s story: rescuing slaves, which is the right choice. They do bring in her later activities, but those seem tagged on, as though they were obligated to try to get everything in. It’s not the first biographical film to fall into that trap.

As we saw earlier in The Report and will see later in Midway, Harriet has a tendency to not develop the real-life characters in the story. The development of Harriet herself, from a rather downtrodden slave to a leader, is well done and gives Cynthia Erivo good scenes to play. Unfortunately the writers do not do as much for their secondary characters as Ray does for those in Richard Jewell. Gideon, the white slave owner, who shared a childhood with Harriet is particularly shortchanged. With their backstory, the writers could have done more with the relationship between the two. William, the black supervisor of the Underground Railroad, is bland, even though he is played by Leslie Odom Jr., Aaron Burr of the original Broadway production of Hamilton.

Which One is the Liar?

The Good Liar (2019. Screenplay by Jeffery Hatcher, based on the novel by Nicholas Searle. 109 minutes)

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Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren have known each other for decades and appeared together in plays. Now they show up together for the first time in a film. Well, if that’s not a joyous occasion, I don’t know what is.

Fortunately they have picked a good screenplay that uses both of their skills. McKellen plays Roy, a con man, and we have seen McKellen play baddies before, especially his Richard III, filmed in 1995. If you have seen a man play Richard, you can believe he is capable of anything.

We assume that Mirren’s Betty is the innocent potential victim, but here is why you have Mirren in the part. She can play both the innocent and the potentially not-so-innocent. At the same time, in the same scene, in the same sentence. And not let you know which side is the “real” person. This is the writer taking advantage of Mirren’s skill set.

So we know there are going to be twists and turns, and there are. But when the big twists begin to come at the end, they are still a surprise, but perfectly set up in the way Hatcher has laid out the two characters. Details are revealed about both of them that we were not expecting. See this if you want to learn about writing for actors.

[Script Extra: Liar, Liar, Career on Fire]

Slice and Dice.

Knives Out (2019. Written by Rian Johnson. 130 minutes)

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See this one if you want to learn how to write to keep your actors happy. Knives Out gives a bunch of big name actors lots of amusing things to do and say. The actors seem happy to do and say them. Maybe too happy. This is one of those movies where the actors appear to be having more fun than the audience (not unlike Jimmy Fallon’s TV show).

The plot is one of those “closed house” movies, where death takes place in a big, spooky house, the family is all there together, and the detective figures it out by deduction rather than by technology. Agatha Christie and her assorted other British mystery writer friends wrote them by the dozens. Johnson, who also directed, has a lot of twists and turns, but unlike those in The Good Liar, they seem artificially tacked on. Since they have a lot of good actors, sometimes the actors can make them work, and sometimes not

[Script Extra: Rian Johnson Talks Screenwriting and What Classic Movies Can Teach Us]

Half Good, Half Semi-Good.

Give Me Liberty (2019. Written by Kirill Mikhanovsky and Alice Austen. 110 minutes)

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Give Me Liberty gets off to a rousing start. We are focused on Vic, a Russian-American in Milwaukee, who drives a medical van, taking people with various health problems to and from places where they get their treatments. Well, that sounds exciting. In this case it is, because the writers (Mikhanovsky also directs; Austen also produces) have picked this day to follow Vic around.

Their model is probably The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) in which T.E.B. Clarke follows a timid little clerk for the Bank of England not during the years when nothing happens but when he decides to rob the bank. Pick the most interesting time to follow your character.

Vic’s day starts out like an ordinary day. He picks up a blind man in a wheelchair and delivers him. Then he runs into a group of elderly Russian people who talk him into taking them to the funeral of Lilya, a friend of theirs. Who can resist the pleadings of a group of babushkas? Plus a man who plays an accordion for them. Plus Dimi, a nephew of Lilya’s who showed up to visit her and learns she has died. And later Tracy, a young black woman with ALS, who won’t shut up. And they are all in Vic’s van bouncing off each other. Preston Sturges would have loved it.

In spite of the cops blocking off several streets, Vic gets the elders to the grave site. Then the elders get into a fight over what language they should use. Tracy’s wheelchair has broken down and she calls for Vic and Demi to carry her to the grave site. When they finish, they learn the grave they are praying and singing over is not Lilya’s. Hers is over there. So we then get a slightly shorter version of the service.

That’s the first half of the movie and I have tried to do justice as to how funny and lively it is. The second half is not so good.

Part of the fun of the first half is all these different people (I did not even mention the woman with Down Syndrome who sings at a talent show) interacting. In the second half, the movie narrows its focus to groups of two or three. The Russian elders disappear almost completely. Vic and Demi seem to be developing crushes on Tracy, although Demi develops crushes on almost any woman he meets. Vic and Demi get stuck trying to move a sofa out of Vic’s mother’s small apartment, since she is having a recital for one of her singing students. We have not seen them before and we would rather be back with the people we first met.

Tracy somehow has her wheelchair back and working, although we never find out how that happened. As a riot breaks out in the city (we can only guess why), Tracy learns her brother has been arrested and she needs bail money. Vic’s mom tells them she has left her cash in the couch, and Demi, with Vic along, seem to find it. Vic and Demi take Tracy to the police station and she somehow talks the cop on the line of defense let her in. Since Tracy has been established as a motor-mouth, we really want to hear what she says to the cop, but we don’t. The script gets sloppier as it goes along, leaving several holes in the plot.

Eventually the brother is released on bail and it looks like Vic and Tracy will end up together.

After I got home from seeing the movie, a thought occurred to me. Is Dimi really Lilya’s nephew? We never see a picture of them together. Her friends did not know she had a nephew. Did he just happen by the assisted living center? We learn over the course of the film that he is something of a hustler. Maybe he is hustling the babushkas. Am I going to complain we don’t find out for sure? No, because this is the kind of movie where that is just part of the fun.

New Film, Old Reviews.

Midway (2019. Written by Wes Tooke. 138 minutes)

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No, this is not the 1976 film of the same name, but it is the same story (the U.S. Navy beating the Japanese Imperial Navy at the battle of Midway Island in 1942). And the reviews are almost identical. Critics noted that both films are very weak on character and story, but very flashy in the action scenes and special effects. In the 1976 film, a lot of the action scenes were shot with real planes, real explosions and real locations. In the new version, almost everything is done with CGI, which makes it more spectacular (why have just one plane being shot down when the computers can give you five in one shot?), but less believable. CGI stuff never makes you feel you are there.

In the ’76 version, there were a number of fictional characters, but here Tooke sticks to real people. I am not sure it makes a lot of difference, since Tooke does not give them much characterization to play. The main pilot we follow is Dick Best (Ed Skrein, who is given two expressions) and his wife, Ann, played by Mandy Moore. Moore is a good actress (This is Us), but all she is given to do here is look worried.

The most interesting character is Admiral Chester Nimitz, who takes over the Pacific Command after Pearl Harbor. He is played by Woody Harrelson, whom I would not have cast in the part, but Harrelson gives him a smart, sly tone that carries him through his scenes. I don’t think that is the script as much as Harrelson knowing how to protect himself as an actor.

Harrelson does well in the best scene in the film. Layton, his intelligence officer, takes Nimitz to see Rochefort, Layton’s code breaking genius. Nimitz has not been convinced Rochefort can be that much of a genius. Rochefort is not only not in uniform, but in a robe and slippers as he explains how the decoding works. Nimitz is convinced.

Tooke also gives us a number of extraneous scenes, including more of the attack on Pearl Harbor than we need, more of Jimmy Doolittle’s raid on Japan, and in at least an amusing extraneous scene, John Ford, who is shooting his famous documentary on the battle.

By the way, if you want to get a military man’s view of the film, you can read it here.

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