UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: There are Movies to Write About

Tom Stempel can only manage to write about an HBO movie, a Norwegian historical film, a 1933 MGM all-star stinker, and a rather well-known 1959 comedy. Well, nobody’s perfect.
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Zowwie! A Brand NEW Movie!

Bad Education (2019. Written by Mike Makowsky, based on the 2004 New York Magazine story by Robert Kolker. 109 minutes.)

O.K., technically it is not a movie-movie, but a made-for-television movie, but it debuted on HBO, which as the company used to beat us over the head with, is “not television, it’s HBO.” And yes, its copyright dated in 2019, but it did not play on HBO until April 2020.

Makowsky, a writer-producer, had gone to Roslyn High School on Long Island the year after the scandal portrayed in the film, so he knew the culture of the town. He was also helped by the details in Kolker’s article. Makowsky’s screenplay is very close to the facts of the case, with a notable exception I will deal with in a bit.

Frank Tassone was the superintendent of the Roslyn school system and was widely beloved. He was flashy, but seemed to care a lot about the students and the schools. Early in the film we see him take great pride in the number of graduates in that year that have gone to Ivy League colleges.

We also meet Pam Gluckin, the assistant superintendent for business for the school district. She is Frank’s best buddy, sharing a pastrami sandwich they both know he is not supposed to eat because of his diet.

Along with them, we meet Rachel, a high school journalist, who is writing a story about a new construction project at the school. She tells Frank it is just a “puff piece,” but Frank, ever the encouraging educator, tells her that it is only a “puff piece” if she wants it to be. Boy, does that come back and bite him in the ass.

Rachel is the only composite character in the film. In real life there were several student journalists who contributed to the reporting. Why combine them into one? It makes it more dramatic if the focus is on one person, as well as making it more typically American: one heroine fights corruption. It also gives Geraldine Viswanathan, whom you may remember as the Indian-American teenager in Blockers (2018), a terrific part to play.

After we have come to know and like Frank and Pam, the administration begins to realize there are financial irregularities. Here Makowsky takes advantage of the structure of what really happened. At first we think the problem is just that Pam has been charging personal stuff on the school credit cards. Frank convinces the board not to sue her, but just to let her go. Listen to the speech Makowsky has written for Hugh Jackman, as Frank, to deliver and how it builds to its climax: if there is a big scandal, it will hurt the property values, which hits home with the members of the board. There is no mention of that in Kolker’s article, but undoubtedly comes from Makowsky’s knowledge of the town.

So we think the scandal is taken care of, but then it expands. We and the town have thought Frank was a widower, but we see him start a romance with a male exotic dancer in Las Vegas. Then Rachel discovers that he has another male friend closer to home.

I have always said that, when you are writing a screenplay, you are writing for performance. As you watch this film, you can understand what drew Jackman, Viswanathan, and Allison Janney, who plays Pam, to the project. Jackman, particularly, is great at giving all of Frank’s corners, dark and otherwise. And he does not have to wear long fingernails in this one.

Sort of New, but Old-fashioned.

The King’s Choice (2016. Screenplay by Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and Jan Trygve Røyneland, based on a book by Alf R. Jacobsen. 133 minutes)

The King's Choice

The King's Choice

This film was Norway’s entry into the Academy’s Foreign Language Oscar category a few years back, but it did not end up with a nomination. I suspect it was too Norwegian for the Academy voters.

It is based on the true story of events that happened in Norway in a few days in April 1940. The Nazis were moving into Scandinavia. Their excuse for invading Norway was that the British had mined some ports in an effort to keep the Germans from using them. The Nazis wanted to make their invasion legitimate by having King Haakon VII sign the papers allowing this. The situation in Norway was that the King had been elected as King several years before, but the office was mostly ceremonial.

The film follows the King as he has to think about what to do. Well, that will be fun to watch. Well, no it is not. A lot of what is going on is going on in the King’s head, as he tries to decide what to do. That means there is not much to watch in that side of the story.

[Script Extra: Script to Novel Writing Tips: Why You Should Adapt Your Screenplay Into a Novel]

What the writers do is given us a lot of scenes involving others. In the opening scene we get so much of the Norwegian general trying to decide whether to attack the German ships that we think he may be the main character of the film. Later, as the king is on the road escaping from the Germans, at a roadblock he meets a young boy, Seeberg, and has a nice moment with him. But later we get a long sequence of Seeberg and his fellow soldiers holding off a German attack. You do not need that scene, certainly not at that length. I am sure the filmmakers thought an action scene would be nice, but look at the title of the movie. The scene is a perfect example of the writers (or the producers) not focusing on what the movie is about.

Spoiler alert! The king decides not to sign the papers and escapes from the country. This is considered by the Norwegians as a brave thing, which we may not think it was. The film mentions in the end titles that the king spent the war in England helping the Norwegian underground, and after the war he was welcome back to Norway and reinstated as the king. I told you, it was a very Norwegian movie.

What a Cast! Not What a Film.

Night Flight (1933. Screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett, based on the novel by Antoine de Sainte Exupéry. 84 minutes)

night-flight-1933

In the early 1930s, MGM got into the business of making movie with all-star casts. They had a great successes with Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933), but with Night Flight everything went wrong. The cast in the latter includes John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, and Myrna Loy. Wow!

So did it turn out so badly? The first problem is unlike Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight, which were based on plays, this one is based on a novel that appears to be mostly a collection of stories. Sainte Exupéry was an elegant prose writer, and the material in the book mostly gets inside of the character’s heads. It’s always a problem for a screenwriter to show that. Garrett, who was much more at home with material like Manhattan Melodrama, which he co-wrote the following year with Joseph L. Mankiewicz, was at a loss with Sainte Exupéry’s poetic prose. John Barrymore is the head of an airline in South America who is trying to establish night mail flights. His dialogue alternates between tough boss talk and quoting Sainte Exupéry’s poetry. Even Barrymore cannot bring that off.

A major problem with Garrett’s script is that it provides almost no scenes between the stars. Yes, John does have a couple of scenes in which he and Lionel try to upstage each other, but John plays most of his scenes with the office radio operator played by character actor Frank Conroy.

Clark Gable is one of the pilots, but we see him mostly in his plane, and he has at most about 10 to 15 lines. His character is married to Helen Hayes, waiting at home for him. The producer was David O. Selznick and David, if you have Gable and Hayes as a married couple, the least you can do is have at least one scene between them. Myrna Loy is married to William Gargan and they do have scenes together, but Loy has a lot more star power, even at this early stage in her career, than does Gargan, who was a character actor during his whole career.

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The one dramatic touch that Garrett added that was not in the book is that over the course of the film one of the planes is trying to get polio medications to a sick boy. Instead of coming across as adding to the suspense, it just seems simple-minded on the part of Garrett.

Hmm. An airline flying dangerous runs in South America. Sounds to me like a preliminary version of Jules Furthman’s script for 1939’s ---Only Angels Have Wings. Furthman knew how to write this kind of film. If you have nothing but time on your hands, which you may these days, you might want to watch these as a double feature and make your own judgments about them.

Zowwie! One of the Classics.

Some Like It Hot (1959. Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, suggested by a story by R. Thoeren and Michael Logan. 121 minutes)

some like it hot

While I am being a good boy and staying at home, I am watching two kinds of movies. One kind is just lightweight stuff, like the Hopalong Cassidy movies I mentioned in a previous column and some mediocre movies. The other kind is a bunch of the classic films, like The Long Voyage Home (1940), Bullitt (1968---I still have not figured out what that opening scene played under the credits is all about), and Chinatown (1974). You can guess which category Some Like It Hot is in.

Back in the early thirties, there was a French film called Fanfare d’Amour. R. Theoren and Michael Logan were two of the writers on it. I have no idea why they get credit on Some Like It Hot and the other writers don’t. In the earlier film two musicians, Jean and Pierre, join an all-girl band and fall in love with one of the girls in the band. The owner of the theatre, a man, falls in love with Jean dressed as a woman.

In 1951, the Theoren-Logan story was used for a German film called Fanfaren der Leiben. More time is spent on the transition of the men into women, but it does have a scene of the girls in the band on the train. Wilder thought this version was terrible, and Diamond thought it was too “Germanic.” But Wilder liked the idea of two men in drag joining an all-women’s band. In Fanaren they had done it because they were hungry. Wilder and Diamond thought there had to be a stronger motivation. Wilder thought it should be the threat of death. Diamond thought that they should make it a period piece, because if everybody is in period clothes, men in dresses do not look all that weird.

The next day Wilder came in and said the idea came to him in the car: Chicago, 1929, the boys witness the Saint Valentine’s Massacre. Diamond said later, “That was the breakthrough, and suddenly we had a wealth of material to work with---speakeasies, bootleggers, Florida millionaires.”

It struck me looking at the film this time how much the writers use those elements to set up the story. We start with a raid on a speakeasy, which is owned by a gangster. The gangster gets revenge on the guy who told the cops about the speakeasy by rubbing him out in the Valentine’s Day Massacre.

So Jerry and Joe dress up as girls and join the band. Wilder was a master at figuring out what the worst that can happen to his characters. Joe falls in love with the vocalist, Sugar Kane, and has to keep switching back and forth in and out of drag.

Jerry, dressed as a woman attracts the attention of a millionaire, Osgood Fielding III. Jerry hates the idea, until Osgood proposes. We don’t see him propose, but we see Jerry telling Joe about it in one of the classic scenes in the movie. Notice that Wilder, as a director, gives Jack Lemmon the maracas to play at the end of each of his funny lines. Wilder figured out they needed to time to get the laugh AND for the audience to hear the next line.

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The writers are great at keeping the story movie. The boys are in Chicago, then on the train. Then dealing with being women. Then Joe plays it straight with Sugar; well, not completely straight: Tony Curtis had the idea of doing a Cary Grant imitation.

So things are working out for our guys. Remember Wilder was a master of “what’s the worst that can happen?” The gangsters show up at the Florida hotel where the band is playing.

Wilder and Diamond knew what the final scene was going to be: Jerry in drag in Osgood’s motor boat admitting to Osgood he’s man. So what does Osgood say to that? The boys had no idea. Then Diamond remembered a line he’s thought of before for another scene, but not used. In desperation they put it in the script the night before the scene was to be shot. It works, but notice it works because as Diamond described it, it is a rhythm joke; it depends of the rhythm of the setup lines.

Ah, yes, Marilyn Monroe. The part was not written for her. Wilder had had some problems with her on their first film together The Seven-Year Itch (1955). He was thinking of casting Mitzi Gaynor in the part, since it was a supporting part. Arthur Miller, Monroe’s then-husband, called up Wilder and begged him to give the part to Monroe. He agreed.

After the film was over and was a success, somebody asked Wilder if he would work with Monroe again. He said, “My psychiatrist says I am too old and too rich to put up with that shit again."

(The historical material in here is from the IMDb, William Froug’s interview with Diamond in The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter, and of course Ed Sikov’s On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder.)

More articles by Tom Stempel

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