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UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Better Than, Not as Good as…

Tom Stempel, the old professor, cannot resist a little compare and contrast, this time with 'No Time to Die', 'The French Dispatch', and 'They’ll Never Believe Me'.
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Better Than Spectre, Not as Good as Skyfall.

No Time to Die (2021. Screenplay by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Cary Joji Fukunaga and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, story by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Cary Joji Fukunaga, based on characters created by Ian Fleming. 163 minutes)

Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in NO TIME TO DIE, an EON Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios film Credit: Nicola Dove © 2021 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in NO TIME TO DIE, an EON Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios film Credit: Nicola Dove © 2021 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

No Time to Die is an uneven movie because its script is uneven.

Most Bond movies are action-thrillers. This one is more a drama-thriller. Yes, there are of course big action scenes, but nothing as memorable as those in previous Bond films. The focus is more on character and plot. Normally in a Bond film, there is not a lot of plot: Bond is trying to stop the bad guy, action ensues, and Bond wins.

Here the script and film are more focused on Bond in his retirement years and his being called back into action. Bond has settled down with Madeleine, whom you may remember (I didn’t particularly) from Spectre (2015), but then Bond gets caught up in a chase, which Bond either thinks she provoked or did not, so he sends her off on a train. No, the scene is not as potent as the finale of Brief Encounter (1945) but then what is?

I have never been that compelled by Daniel Craig’s Bond, since he seemed one-note. Here he gets to show his range as an actor more. It is his best performance as Bond, and gives the film some of its dramatic heft. We see more of the emotions he feels. Fukunaga, who also directed, said in an interview in the LA Times that he went back and read the Fleming novels and found there was more emotion in them, particularly in scenes where we read about his thoughts and feelings. That may be the case, but generally, that has been avoided in the films, although On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) is something of an exception.

So Bond is called back into action, not by MI6, but by his old friend Felix Leiter of the CIA. This leads to a sequence in Cuba, where Bond is teamed up with a Cuban agent named Paloma. In previous Bonds, she would be the “first girl,” whom Bond beds but who is then killed. Here he does not bed her and she is not killed. She is more lively than Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine. She is played by Ana de Armas, who had fun with Daniel Craig in Knives Out (2019). At the end of the scene, she promises to see Bond again, but unfortunately, she does not in this film.

James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Paloma (Ana de Armas) in NO TIME TO DIE, an EON Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios film Credit: Nicola Dove © 2021 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Paloma (Ana de Armas) in NO TIME TO DIE, an EON Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios film Credit: Nicola Dove © 2021 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The scene between Bond and Paloma is supposed to dazzle us because it involves the supervillain of the piece Lyutsifer Savin, who has stolen a technique that allows him to kill all the primary bad guys of Spectre. Two things about this sequence. We don’t get to meet Savin in person. We have no idea who all these people being killed are. When we get a similar bloodbath at the end of the first Godfather, we pretty much know who they are and why Michael wants them dead. Here they are just extras with ketchup on their shirts.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: LEFTOVERS]

So Bond gets back with MI6 (the slyest line in the movie is here, and it’s one we have heard a lot before, but in a new context; you’ll recognize it when you hear it). Bond has been retired for five years, and so they have given his 007 number to Nomi. She is Black, and she is a woman. And that’s about all we get from her as if the writers figured that would be enough. It’s not. She does get a couple of digs at Bond being old, but that’s not a character. Later in the film, she suggests to M that Bond be given 007 back as his number. What a wuss. What would you do with a young Black woman as 007?

Nomi (Lashana Lynch) is ready for action in Cuba in NO TIME TO DIE, an EON Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios film Credit: Nicola Dove © 2021 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Nomi (Lashana Lynch) is ready for action in Cuba in NO TIME TO DIE, an EON Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios film Credit: Nicola Dove © 2021 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Ralph Fiennes is still M, and he gets some acting to do. It turns out he knew about the research project that Sivan has stolen and had no idea it could be weaponized. Lack of imagination on M’s part, and it gives Fiennes some moral qualms to play. On the other hand, Miss Moneypenny is reduced to an extra, which wastes Naomie Harris. On yet another hand, we get a scene with Christoph Waltz returning as Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He’s in prison, but he is more interesting in his five minutes than anybody else in the film except de Aramas.

Now here’s a huge problem with No Time to Die: Lyutsifer Savin. He is a block of wood as written and as played by Rami Malek. The Bond movies are noted for their over-the-top villains, like Dr. No, Goldfinger, and my favorite recent one, Javier Bardem’s Silva in Skyfall. They are not only trying to take over the world but kill, and in Silva’s case molest, Bond. Savin just wants to rule the world. Compared to Silva he’s an empty tunic.

Needless to say, Savin has an underground lair where his team develops and produces the virus. Nearly all Bond villains have underground lairs. Savin’s is on an island, like several past lairs. There is always an island in a Bond film. In the earlier Bond films, the designer was the great Ken Adam, who also designed the war room in Dr. Strangelove (1964). Adam designed most of the sixties and seventies Bond films. Look at his interior of a volcano lair for Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (1967). It is not only great looking, but useful in every detail, unlike large sets in many movies (yes, I am looking at you, D.W. Grifith, and the forecourt of Babylon in Intolerance [1916]).

Alas, the lair in Time is not a patch on anything Adam created. It is dull, gray concrete, with no interesting nooks and crannies. It is vaguely reminiscent of Adam’s design of the submarine pens in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), but without the sense of space that Adam had. Yes, there is a lot of running around in it and people getting shot and blown up, but the action, like the set, is not very inventive.

Ah yes, the ending. The New Yorker used to have a blurb that noted that in the Bond movies Bond lost every battle but the last one. That’s true here, but also not true as you may find out from the film or from somebody who gives away the ending, but you did not hear it from me. The ending is darker in tone than is traditional in the Bond movies, which explains why there has been a more serious tone to the film all along. It makes sense in terms of the story they are telling, but it also makes this a very atypical James Bond film. The Bond franchise has always been more lightweight than this film, and I missed that in Time. I would hope that now the Craig years are over, the films may get a little lightness back.

Better than The Royal Tenenbaums, but not as good as The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The French Dispatch (2021. Screenplay by Wes Anderson, story by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola & Hugo Guiness & Jason Schwartzman. 108 minutes)

Wally Wolodarsky, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Wally Wolodarsky, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

OK, you may have loved The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), but I had trouble staying awake during it, which is why I put it where I did in the sub-head. You can replace it with some other Anderson film you did not care for.

You can read about my general attitude toward Anderson in my review of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) here. Everything seemed to click in Hotel, so when the trailers for French Dispatch seemed to be in the same vein, I went to see it. I was not disappointed, even if it is not quite up to Hotel. It’s not quite as fresh, fast, or funny.

As a reader of the great magazine The New Yorker since I was a child, I was intrigued at the idea of Dispatch. It is about a magazine very similar to The New Yorker. No, it is not set in New York, but in a French village called Ennui-sur-Blasé, although the tone of the pieces are very New Yorkerish. That tone is one of the main reasons the movie holds together. Anderson is interviewed in the October 2021 issue of Sight & Sound by Tilda Swinton, one of the stars of the film. (Anderson and Swinton look enough alike that at first, I thought the cover photograph of Anderson was Swinton in drag; I’m still not completely convinced it is not.) In the interview, Anderson talks a lot about how difficult it is to write a portmanteau film, that is, a film consisting of several different stories. Because of the consistency of tone, he has managed to do it here.

The tone is one of sophistication, but with a light touch as well as an ability to deal with serious stuff. After a brief obituary of the magazine’s founder, Arthur Howitzer Jr., we get as the opening story Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson in a beret) bicycling through the village and describing it. As several critics have observed, it is very like a “Talk of the Town” piece in The New Yorker.

The first “feature” story is about a genius painter who happens to be in prison for a double homicide. You may wonder when we are first introduced to him how he manages to get a nude woman modeling for him. Stick around, you’ll find out. His “muse,” by the way is Léa Seydoux, whom I whacked both in my reviews of The Grand Budapest Hotel and above in No Time to Die. Anderson has finally figured out how to get the most of her deadpan approach. And like many naked women, she is more interesting with her clothes on.

Benicio del Toro and Léa Seydoux in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Benicio del Toro and Léa Seydoux in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

The next feature is not quite up to the others. Frances McDormand plays a middle-aged woman reporter who gets involved with a bunch of French revolutionary students. Presumably, this is based on the coverage of the riots in 1968 in France, but the detail is not as precise as it should be or would have been in The New Yorker. The real magazine was legendary for its fact-checking; in all the years I have been reading it, I only caught them in one error.

This story strays from its main lines, as in a scene from a play supposedly written years later by the poet and revolutionary McDormand is reporting on and sleeping with, which leads to the best lines of dialogue in the film when he admits to a certain detail in his private life and she responds. I don’t know if any real New Yorker writer slept with his or her subject, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

The final feature is about a writer interviewing a police commissioner whose son gets kidnapped. The crucial figure turns out to be the commissioner’s cook, the kind of touch a New Yorker writer would look for.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Art Isn’t Easy]

That story ends up with an elaborate car chase. A car chase in a Wes Anderson film? Well, I think Anderson realized that was probably not in his comfort zone, so it is done in mildly amusing animation. Come on, Wes, if Billy Wilder can start the comedy Some Like It Hot cops-and-bootleggers car chase, you can do it. Maybe Anderson is afraid that would get him drafted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Remember that obituary of the boss at the beginning of the movie? In the final scene, we get most of the writers on the magazine in the boss’s office writing or at least talking out the obituary. It is a nice finale to a movie that both shows and admires collective creativity.

[L-R] Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

[L-R] Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Redoing the Lesser Ones.

They Won’t Believe Me (1947. Screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, story by Gordon McDonell. 95 minutes)

The Won't Believe Me, RKO Radio Pictures.

The Won't Believe Me, RKO Radio Pictures.

You may remember that back in February I reviewed Christina Lane’s terrific biography of Joan Harrison, Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock. You can refresh your memory by reading the review here.

One of Harrison’s productions that Lane goes into detail on was this 1947 thriller. I had never heard of it, but in May it popped up on Robert Young day at Turner Classic Movies. The movie is OK, but it would be even better now.

The set-up in the unpublished novelette that was the basis for the script was that Larry Ballentine was on death row and before his execution, he is dictating his account of what happened. Harrison and her screenwriter, Jonathan Latimer, changed that so that he is making a statement to the jury at his trial. That gave them more dramatic scenes.

Larry is married to Greta, but he has flings on the side (and we get the sense that she does not object). He is going to run away with Janice, a professional writer, but Greta set him up with a great job in Los Angeles. They move there, and Larry starts an affair with Verna, one of the secretaries. Greta goes up to their house in the country, where she dies in a fall from her horse. Larry and Verna are in an automobile crash. Larry survives, but Verna is burned beyond recognition. Larry tells the cops the body is Greta, since there is no sign of Greta.

Larry’s partner in the firm gets suspicious and happens to get Janice to explore the situation. Larry is arrested and goes on trial.

Sounds like a typical forties film noir, doesn’t it? And it is, but very much within the forties limitations set up by the Breen office, the censorship office in Hollywood. Harrison had long fights with Breen and his people. Breen was very big on showing the sanctity of marriage on the screen. So out went any suggestion that Greta was OK with Larry’s flings.

Breen suggested cutting any hint of promiscuity, any female being scantily glad, and anything dialogue that Breen thought was dirty. As Lane writes, “Breen continually reminded Harrison’s team that neither Janice nor Verna (in other words, the women committing adultery) should express more than the bare minimum of romantic or sexual desire.” Any kisses not deemed essential to the story were cut.

The result is a picture that is much blander than it ought to be. There is a bit of miscasting with Robert Young as Larry. He just came across during his long career as the nicest guy in the room. On the other hand, Greta, Janice, and Verna are played by Rita Johnson, Jane Greer, and Susan Hayward, all of whom could have delivered what those characters were all about. The picture was not a hit, and a lot of that was probably the casting of Young. But with the original script and a bit of recasting, it could have been one of the great films noir.

Here’s the reason I am writing about it. Hollywood is always willing to remake their hits, which often turn into disasters. Better to take a picture that did not work and do it right. You could go into the RKO story files at UCLA and find the earlier drafts of the script and see if you can get it right. After you deal with the lawyers, of course.


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