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UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Stars and Actors

Script contributor Tom Stempel is looking at movies with, well, stars and actors, including 'The Outfit,' 'The Lost City,' 'Everything Everywhere All at Once,' and 'CODA'.

A Not Completely Brilliant Minature.

The Outfit (2022. Written by Johnathan McClain, Graham Moore. 105 minutes)

Mark Rylance stars as "Leonard" in director Graham Moore’s THE OUTFIT, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Nick Wall / Focus Features.

Mark Rylance stars as "Leonard" in director Graham Moore’s THE OUTFIT, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Nick Wall / Focus Features.

In last month’s column, I used the term “a brilliant miniature” to describe On the Rocks. A “miniature” is a film done on a small scale: limited sets, limited cast. Rocks focused on a father and a daughter trying to see if her husband was cheating on her. We spend most of the time just watching these two, although we do leave New York for a trip to Mexico.

The Outfit is even more of a miniature. We are in one set for the entire film: a 1956 Chicago cutter’s (notice how Leonard objects to being described as a “tailor”) shop. The film takes place over less than 24 hours, and there are only seven speaking parts. You cannot get more miniature than this.

Leonard is an Englishman who learned his trade working on London’s legendary Saville Row, and we eventually do learn why he moved to Chicago. He is a quiet man who keeps to himself.

In an interview in Creative Screenwriting you can read here, the authors, who are long-time friends, came up with the idea of the character years before and eventually developed the elaborate plot to fit around him. As Graham Moore says in the interview he thinks of the plot as “little logic robots who plan every move while Johnathan shaves off the sharp edges to make the characters more real.” That is known as collaboration, folks.

McClain is primarily an actor who wrote for one television series and Moore, who also directed, is noted for winning an Academy Award of his screenplay adaption of The Imitation Game. Given the small cast, they dig deeply into the characters, revealing aspects of those characters bit by bit. You want to avoid going to the bathroom in the middle of this movie because you would probably miss one or more important details about the characters.

By now you know that if you write great characters, you get great actors. In this case, they start with Mark Rylance as Leonard. He gets the quiet side, but he always suggests there is more than he is showing you and the other characters. We see different sides of him with different people, but we always know it is Leonard, even if we don’t know which Leonard it might be we are watching at this moment.

Rylance is one of the best actors in both theatre and film, and the other actors realized they had to try to hold their own on-screen with Rylance. This is Moore’s first feature as a director and his control of his cast is phenomenal. Just to take only one example, Zoey Deutch, plays Mable, Leonard’s assistant. We start out making assumptions about her and then Deutch unfolds her layers, some of which will surprise you. I have not seen much of Deutch’s other work, but none of what I have seen suggests what she brings to her part here.

So there are a lot of twists and turns, not surprising since many of Leonard’s customers are gangsters (well, it is Chicago). This leads to trouble, but it comes out all right for Leonard, at least by his standards. The writers have written a very satisfactory ending.

And then…

The movie goes on for another five minutes! Bad enough, but worse is it brings in the most stupid, offensive, and obnoxious cliché in contemporary film: a person we have seen killed and who has been lying around the floor for a while gets up and starts attacking people. Didn’t any filmmakers study anatomy in college? If you pump somebody full of lead, they are not going to get up. Period. You may want to watch the rest of it, but do not say I did not warn you.

Star Power.

The Lost City (2022. Screenplay by Oren Uziel and Dana Fox and Adam Nee & Aaron Nee, story by Seth Gordon. 112 minutes)

The Lost City. Paramount Pictures.

The Lost City. Paramount Pictures.

Didn’t this movie used to be called Romancing the Stone back in 1984? A sheltered lady author gets pulled into an adventure in the jungle. Great star power with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner.

This is not exactly the same story, but close enough. The stars here are Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum. The bad guy in Romancing was Danny DeVito, and here it is Daniel Radcliffe. Whoa, Harry Potter himself is having a lot of fun. He is wonderful.

And if that is not enough, Brad Pitt shows up in a large cameo near the beginning.

The film gets off to a quick start, letting Bullock show off both her verbal and physical comedy skills as the author of romantic adventure novels (I prefer the western movie opening of Romancing to the Indiana Jones opening here, although writers have some writerly fun with it). Tatum is the model who poses for the covers on her novels and wants to be taken more seriously.

Loretta is kidnapped by Abigail Fairfax (Radcliffe) who thinks she knows where the lost city is where there is a fabulous jeweled necklace. He flies her off to the island, and Allen manages to get there too. He has called in Jack Trainer (Pitt), a soldier of fortune who is everything Allen would like to be but isn’t. A big action scene occurs and Loretta is rescued. We are less than half an hour into the movie.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Connections]

And it begins to slow down. Trainer leaves the picture and we do not see that much of Fairfax as Allen and Loretta trudge through the jungle. You have at least temporarily lost your two most entertaining characters, so you are now depending on Bullock and Tatum’s star power. For that to work, the writers have to provide really great dialogue for them. Fox and the Nees have experience writing romcoms, but the dialogue here is repetitive and not very sharp. So for a long time, the picture is a drag.

Eventually, the necklace is found, and the writers provide a nice twist about it, which alas does not quite make up for the slow stretches.

Now This is Real Star Power.

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022. Written by Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert. 139 minutes)

Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wang in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Courtesy A24.

Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wang in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Courtesy A24.

Beat the Devil (1954)

The Magician (1958)

Psycho (1960)

The history of film has a nice collection of shaggy dog stories. (A shaggy dog story is a story that seems to take itself seriously but doesn’t.) Everything is joining the classics.

When I saw it in a theatre, the first trailer was for the new Marvel multiverse epic Dr. Strange in whatever it is. Marvel takes its multiverses seriously. It was a perfect trailer to run before Everything because it sets you up for all the ways the Daniels (they also co-directed) do not take their multiverses seriously.

We start in a nicely detailed real world, which helps establish the characters. Evelyn is a middle-aged woman running a Laundromat preparing her taxes. Her husband is a doofus and not very helpful, but he’s a nice guy. Her daughter Joy is a typical whiney teenager. Her father seems incapacitated. They all accompany Evelyn to a meeting with the IRS lady Deirdre Beaubeirdra. Save that name out loud if you don’t think this is a shaggy dog story.

Then all hell breaks loose as characters are transformed into different versions of themselves in different universes. The Daniels make it surprisingly clear what is going on, and boy, do they have a lot of help.

Evelyn is played by one of the greatest movie actresses of our generation, Michelle Yeoh. I know I am going to get a cease and desist order from Meryl Streep’s lawyer, but as great as Streep is and as wonderful as she would have been in the part, I do not think she would have been better than Yeoh. Yeoh grounds the character in realistic detail and nuanced reactions to everything, and I mean everything, that is going on. I don’t know how she could keep such a straight face in all she has to do. The Daniels give her a lot of elements that recall her martial arts films (they did not have the money to afford clips from her actual films). If you like seeing Yeoh kick ass, you will not be disappointed, although I noticed in the credits there are two women who are listed as Yeoh’s stunt doubles. Given all the action in the film, I can see why she needed two.

Just as in The Outfit, the other actors realized they had to bring their A games if they were not going to be blown off the screen by Yeoh. The first couple of times I saw the trailer I did not recognize the actress playing Deirdre Beaubeirdra. Well, it is Jamie Lee Curtis, and here is one detail that makes this a shaggy dog. In some of her universes, Deirdre is a sadistic would-be killer with a knife. Yes, Laurie Strode from the Halloween movies her ownself turning the tables on people, and boy, does Curtis look like she is having fun.

Evelyn’s daughter Joy is played by Stephanie Hsu, who has been around for a while, but in the few things I have seen her in she had not dazzled me in the way she does here. Not only is she terrific as Joy, but as bizarre versions of Joy in some of her other universes.

I don’t know the budget of the movie, but I suspect it is a small percentage of a typical Marvel multiverse movie. The Daniels have written effectively for what they could afford to do, and done it well. In my item on Lost City above, I mentioned that it drags in the middle and the script at that point lets down the actors. The script here never lets down the actors, and the actors rise to the level the script demands. That’s how you make a good movie, especially if you are making a shaggy dog movie.

Still not convinced it is a shaggy dog movie? Look at the image of power one of the bad people has. Just when you are thinking it looks like…the dialogue confirms it and gets some more laughs out of it. You may be hungry after the show.

Why This is Not a 1970s Disability-of-the-Week TV Movie.

CODA (2021. Screenplay by Siȃn Heder, based on the French film La Famille Belier, Scenario by Victoria Bedos & Stanislas Carré de Malberg, Adaptation by Éric Lartigau and Thomas Bidegain, Original Idea by Victoria Bedos. 111 minutes)

Emilia Jones in CODA. AppleTV+.

Emilia Jones in CODA. AppleTV+.

When this popped up on my radar a year or so ago, I thought it sounded like one of those 1970s disability-of-the-week TV movies. It is about a family all of whom are deaf except for the daughter, who serves as a translator for the family. She can not only hear, she can sing. Will she go off to be a singer or will she stay with her family? It’s a movie, folks, what do you expect?

Throughout last year it stayed fairly far down on my movies-to-see list. After all, I have over the years seen a lot of films with a similar story: young person wants to leave the family and go their own way. You can start with the 1927 The Jazz Singer, for one.

It did keep popping up on ten-best lists, and in the home stretch of the awards season it began to pull away from the pack. As movie people came to see screenings, and came back to see screenings bringing in their friends, CODA moved up in the betting pools.

Then, lo and behold, it won not only the Best Picture Academy Award, but the Best Screenplay Adapted from Another Source. (As you may have gathered over the time you have been reading my column, I make no effort to tune into the Hollywood game; I had not only not seen CODA, but I also have not seen the winner for Best Original Screenplay, Belfast.)

So I saw CODA and was very impressed by it. Here is how it is different from a 70s TV movie. They tended to be rather shallow, unlike a lot of TV shows today. CODA is very precisely nuanced in dealing with its characters. It is also brilliantly structured. It starts off quickly: we are on a fishing boat (the family in the French film ran a cheese farm; fishing boats are a lot more cinematic than cheese, although maybe not to the French) run by the family, but it is not until we get off the boat do we learn that all of them except Ruby, the daughter, are deaf. We get the details of their life, such as Ruby asking the family to turn down the music and other noise-making activities.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Secrets, Secrets. And More Secrets.]

We are put into the middle of the family. The older films tended to be “issue” movies. This one is not. Occasionally an issue is brought up, but it is totally in the context of the family and their lives. In an earlier film about a deaf person, Children of a Lesser God, we get a lot of discussion of the issues involved. The one American Sign Language gesture we learn is “bullshit.” In CODA you will learn a lot more interesting signs, many of which you might not want to use in polite society.

Unlike Lost City, CODA does not slow down. It keeps us involved in the family and their situation. Ruby is the star part, but it is the family dynamics that keep us involved. For that to work not only does the writing have to be top of the line, but so does the acting. Emilia Jones as Ruby holds the screen whenever she is on camera. Ruby’s dad Frank is played by Troy Kotsur in a spectacular performance. Like the rest of actors playing the family in the film, he is deaf, and had developed a career in various theatres for the deaf in the country, as well as films and television. What makes his performance so spectacular are the nuances he brings not only to signing, but to his visual reactions to what is happening. This helps the film because he is the parent most sympathetic to Ruby.

The biggest name in the cast is Marlee Matlin, the only other (besides now Kotsur) deaf actor to win an Academy Award. Unfortunately, she has saddled the role of the unsympathetic mother, which is an actor-killer part no matter who does it in what movie. I felt sorry for Matlin, who deserves better.

As for the ending, you pretty much know what’s coming, but it does not come in the way you expect, part of the artistic skill of everybody connected with the film.


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