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UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: It’s (Bleep)kicking and Elderly White Guy Week at Understanding Screenwriting

Script contributor Tom Stempel is dealing with 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings', 'Cry Macho', 'The Father', 'Scenes from a Marriage', and 'Impeachment: American Crime Story'.
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What, There’s Not Just One True Ring?

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021. Screenplay by Dave Callaham & Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham, screen story by Dave Callaham & Destin Daniel Cretton, based on the Marvel comics by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin. 132 minutes)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Marvel’s Black Panther (2018) was not only a monster hit at the box office, but it was a particularly well done movie. It was not a dreary Hero’s Journey story, since T’Challa was already king when the movie started. Unlike most superhero movies, we get a lot of culture of Wakanda. We got a lot of interesting characters, including the women, such as T’Challa’s sister, a combination of a bratty kid sister and Q from the James Bond movies.

Having moved away from all-white movies with Panther, Marvel decided to do a movie with a nearly all-Asian cast. It has been a huge success at the box office, but it is not as good a film.

Did they think they really had to go back to an origin story and make yet another Hero’s Journey? They did, but they did not have to. True, there is a lot of backstory to cover, some of it covered in flashbacks and some of it covered in long, expository speeches delivered by, thank God, Ben Kingsley, and Michelle Yeoh.

We start with Xu Wenwu falling in love with Li, a beautiful village girl. She gives him a son and daughter, and Xu turns out to be the arch villain of all arch-villains, so much so that he has many names and many identities. Not having read any of the Marvel comics about this set of characters, I have no idea if that follows what can only be called sloppy writing on the part of the writers. So far, so mystical.

We then jump to modern-day San Francisco. The son is now a grownup named Shaun, who is a parking valet. His best friend and co-worker is Katy, a much livelier character than Shaun. When the film was first released, there were several articles by a variety of Asian and Asian-American writers talking about how well the film caught the Asian-American culture, right down to the posters on the walls of Shaun’s apartment and Katy’s house. Being an elderly white guy, the cultural references did not impress me as the ones in Black Panther, which seemed fresher and more inventive.

We get our first big action scene as some baddies take on Shaun on a city bus. Although we have not seen Shaun practicing the martial arts skills Xu taught him as a kid, they all seem to come back to him, like riding a bicycle. At first I thought of this as a variation on The Bourne Identity (2002), where Bourne has amnesia but discovers he can kick major league ass. The fight scene, as are all the fight scenes in the movie, is well done, but as the film progresses, we get a lot more of the martial arts stuff than we really need, although I suppose the fans love it.

[Lessons 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings' Can Teach Screenwriters]

Shaun, now admitting he is really Shang-Chi, and Katy go off to China. Thank God Katy’s along. Simi Liu, who plays Shang-Chi, is not an interesting actor. Notice that in scenes with the other actors, the director and the three film editors spend more time on close-ups of the other actors than on Liu. Well, you can understand why: Katy is Awkwafina, who pops off the screen like only she can; Xu is the great Chinese actor Tony Chiu-Wai Leung who makes every shot he is in a master class in acting for the screen; and late (way too late for my taste) the great Michelle Yeoh shows up as Shang-Chi’s aunt. I don’t know how old Yeoh is now, but she still kicks ass as well as she did in her younger days. Simi Liu does not have a chance on screen with those three. You may remember that in Panther T’Challa was played by the late, great Chadwick Boseman, who dominated every scene he was in and some he wasn’t. That’s the kind of actor you need for your lead.

They all end up back in the village. Xu has become convinced that his dead wife is still alive and calling to him from a cave. Why a super-smart guy like Xu does not see that it is a set up I don’t know. Even Tony Leung cannot make that completely convincing.

Just like they have to blow up the Death Star at the end of the first Star Wars movie because we are expecting it, the cave gets opened up and we get the second-best action scene in the movie, a spectacular fight between two enormous dragons.

And then of course the obligatory scene of the characters in our film talking with a couple of the Avengers characters who were between gigs. They are settling up, yadda, yadda, yadda.

An Elderly White Guy Movie.

Cry Macho (2021. Screenplay by Nick Schenk and N. Richard Nash, based on the novel by N. Richard Nash. 104 minutes)

Cry Macho, Warner Bros.

Cry Macho, Warner Bros.

Over the years there have been a lot of movies about young kids learning about life from elderly white guys. One of the best of the recent ones is the 2008 Gran Torino. Walt is a retired autoworker, who gets testy about the Hmong family in his neighborhood. He makes friends with the son, Thao, and teaches him how to use very American racist language. It was a big commercial hit for its star and director Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood is back in a similar story with Cry Macho and with the writer of the Gran Torino screenplay Nick Schenk (who also wrote Eastwood’s 2018 movie The Mule). Cry Macho’s co-writer is N. Richard Nash, who died in 2000. Sometimes it takes a while for scripts to get made.

Nash was best known for the stage play The Rainmaker and the 1956 movie made from it. He first wrote the Cry Macho screenplay in the early seventies. It was turned down by every studio it was sent to. Nash decided to try it as a novelization, which he wrote in two weeks. The novel got good reviews and three of the studios that had turned down the screenplay now wanted to buy the book. Nash asked if he could write the screenplay. The studio that bought it said yes. Nash turned the script he had already written and they had previously turned down. This time they bought it.

Over the years there were frequent attempts to film with stars like Roy Scheider and Arnold Schwarzenegger attached, but none of them got made. Eastwood was aware of the script and finally got around to making it. (The background is from the Wikipedia entry on Nash.)

I don’t know what in the film is from Nash and what is from Schenk, but the end result is very uneven. The movie starts OK. Mike Milo, a former rodeo rider, is fired by his boss, who a year later asks Mike to go into Mexico and, well, kidnap his son. The son, Rafo, is living with his mom, who is a drug lord. Mike finds the kid and the kid’s fighting rooster, named Macho, and they are off.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: LEFTOVERS]

Well, you can see what the action is going to be. Mom’s minions are going to go after Mike and Rago. Ass-kicking will ensue.

Only it doesn’t. There seems to be only one minion giving chase, and he’s not very competent. I don’t know if there was ass-kicking in the earlier drafts of the script, but there isn‘t much here. Part of that is that Eastwood is now 91, and neither he nor his stuntmen seem to be up for that.

The picture improves about an hour into it. Mike and Rafo get stuck in a small village when their stolen car breaks down. Mike has a flirtation with a local waitress and Rafo hangs out with her grandchildren. Mike also teaches Rafo how to ride bucking broncos. There is a sweetness to these scenes that make them the best thing in the picture.

Eventually, Rafo is delivered to his dad, but only after Mike gives him one of the flattest, dullest speech in any Eastwood movie I can remember. The speech is about being macho, but you guessed that already, didn’t you?

Another Elderly White Guy Movie.

The Father (2020. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller, based on the play by Florian Zeller. 97 minutes)

The Father. Photo by Sean Gleason. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The Father. Photo by Sean Gleason. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

When Peter Shaffer was adapting his stage play Amadeus into the 1984 movie of the same name, the director, Milos Forman, gave him wise advice. He said not to think of it as adapting the play, but as writing the story as a film. The advice worked for Shaffer. Ironically he won the Academy Award for Best Adaptation.

One scene that Shaffer added to the film was not in the play. The composer Salieri, very jealous of Mozart and his talent, arranges a commission for a Mass for Mozart. Mozart is dying and working on the piece. Salieri comes to visit him and offers to help. He sits at the end of the bed and takes dictation. The camera cuts back and forth between Mozart, who is somehow pulling this great music out of the air, and Salieri, who is writing it down and trying to figure out how the hell Mozart does it.

After the movie came out, Shaffer revised the play and put the scene in the play. It did not work on stage. On stage, we cannot see the nuanced reactions of Mozart and Salieri. On film, we can.

Zeller, in his first feature film as a director, understands the difference between stage and film. How much Christopher Hampton helped I don’t know. Hampton has written for both the stage and film and had done the English translation of Zeller’s play.

[INTERVIEW: Florian Zeller, Writer/Director of 'The Father' and Co-Writer Christopher Hampton]

The play and the film are about Anthony, yes, an elderly white guy, who is suffering from dementia. In most stories about the subject, we watch the character with dementia from the outside, from the point of view of those dealing with him or her. What Zeller does is let you see it from Anthony’s point of view. The fact that you can in film focus on character with close-ups and reactions, as Shaffer and Forman did in Amadeus, provides us with a way to see intimately Anthony’s reactions to what is going on, what he understands, and more importantly what he does not understand.

For that of course you need a great screen actor. I am sure there are other actors who could be wonderful, but none would be better than Hopkins for the film version. Fifty years of experience acting for film helps when the film requires the nuances Hampton and Zeller give him to play.

In the play, Anthony’s dementia was also suggested by changes in the set from scene to scene. Unless you have an enormous budget for the play, you can only do so much or else the scene changes will slow down the performance. So does Zeller now go for the kind of really elaborate set changes? No, the changes are still subtle, but more complex than I suspect they were on stage. They are just enough so that we feel the disconnect that Anthony feels. We can also see angles on screen that make us aware that there are changes, even if we don’t immediately realize what they are.

On stage, Zeller had some actors play more than one role, and in some cases two actors in the same role in different scenes, which helps us to see them from Anthony’s point of view. Here Hopkins is always Anthony, and Olivia Colman is always Ann, his daughter, when she appears. That is not true of the other actors. David Parfitt, one of the producers of the film, said in one of the Blu-Ray extras that he was surprised they could get really great actors to come in for a few days at a time. Olivia Williams shows up as two different characters during the film in brief scenes, but then she shows up as third character in the final scene. Her performance in that final scene is easily the best thing she has ever done.

But you know that, don’t you? After all the times I have told you if you write great parts, you get great actors.

Not only did Peter Shaffer win an Academy Award, so did Hampton for his adaptation of his own play for Dangerous Liasons (1988), and so did Hampton and Zeller for The Father. Learn from the best.

Actors, actors, actors, actors…

Scenes from a Marriage (2021. Teleplays by Hagai Levi and Amy Herzog, developed by Hagai Levi from a series by Ingmar Bergman. 300 minutes), and Impeachment: American Crime Story (2021. Developed for television by Sarah Burgess, based on the book A Vast Conspiracy by Jeffrey Toobin. 10 episodes)

These two current limited series run into the same problem: the writing is not up to the acting.

Scenes from a Marriage, HBO Max.

Scenes from a Marriage, HBO Max.

Scenes is based on the 1973 Ingmar Bergman Swedish miniseries. The current series stars Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac as Mira and Jonathan, a couple whose marriage falls apart. In the first episode, we see them with another couple and a woman doing a project studying marriage. After that, the remaining episodes (I have seen all but the last one) are all Chastain and Isaac, all the time. They argue, they make up, they make out, they argue some more, they make up some more; you get the idea. As great as the two actors are, the script is monotonous. The episodes become acting exercises, with little else to watch.

WDS-2021-FallBackIntoWriting-500x500

Charles McNulty, the drama critic of the Los Angeles Times, wrote a long essay on the series, which he compared to the Swedish series, which he, unlike me, has on DVD. One difference he notes is that in the Swedish series, you always get a sense that the couple is connected to the outside world, whereas in the American version they seem to live a hermetically sealed life in their house. It makes the characters seem more like characters and less like real human beings.

Impeachment: American Crime Story, FX Network.

Impeachment: American Crime Story, FX Network.

Impeachment is the story of Monica Lewinsky’s affair with President Bill Clinton, which led to his impeachment. I have only seen the first five of the ten episodes, but they are monotonous in the same way Scenes is. The focus is on Lewinsky’s friendship with Linda Tripp, a colleague at work. Beanie Feldstein as Lewinsky and an unrecognizable Sarah Paulson as Tripp are spectacular, but the scenes are repetitive. They could have condensed the first five hours into one and gotten on with the story. The secondary characters are hardly developed at all.

Chastain, Isaac, Feldstein, and Paulson were all producers or executive producers on their series. Not necessarily a good idea. 


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