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UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Tom is Writing About…Directors?

Tom Stempel is watching two new movies, one old one, and one about…yes, directors.

Third Generation Fellini; Second Generation Allen

A Rainy Day in New York (2019. Written by Woody Allen. 92 minutes.)

In my review of Allen’s 2012 film To Rome With Love, which you can read here, I pointed out that the episode about Antonio and Milly, a young Italian couple, was based on an early Federico Fellini movie The White Sheik (1952). In Allen’s film, they have come to Rome to meet his upper-class parents, but they get separated. She ends up almost seduced by a movie star, while he ends up with a high-end prostitute, and since he cannot find Milly, he takes Anna, the prostitute, to meet his family, pretending she is Milly.

The story in Rainy Day is about two college students, Gatsby and Ashleigh. She is a college journalist who has scored an interview with arty film director Rolland Pollard in New York. Gatsby decides to go with her to New York (their college is upstate… someplace; Allen’s never been too sharp on geography outside New York City) and they can make a day of it. The interview runs long and includes a screening of Pollard’s film. Ashleigh is hit on by Pollard, at least until his girlfriend shows up.

Meanwhile, Gatsby finds himself at a student film shoot by a high school friend. The friend asks him to do a bit in the film, which involves him kissing the girl in the film, Chan. Chan just happens to be the bratty kid sister of Gatsby’s ex-girlfriend. The kissing is awkward, but Gatsby and Chan are attracted to each other.

Gatsby has been avoiding going to a big bash his stuffy parents are having, but he has run into relatives who will tell his parents in town. So, he picks up a high-class escort, who accompanies him to his parents. That leads to the one really terrific scene in the movie, which is becoming known as “The Cherry Jones Scene.” The great actress Cherry Jones plays Gatsby’s mother, and she tells him the facts of life. It is a wonderful scene, even if you don’t believe a minute of it. Great actors can help you out that way. Gatsby ends up with Chan.

A Rainy Day in New York

So, what’s the problem, other than we have seen at least two variations of this before? Allen’s writing is not up to his best. We start with a voiceover by Gatsby that sounds very Woody Allen. Gatsby’s played by Timothée Chalamet, and the person in the credits listed as his vocal coach should be fired. Rather than getting Chalamet to sound less like Allen, the coach has made him sound more like him. This has been a problem before when actors like Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity (1998) fall into “doing” Woody Allen, although Owen Wilson managed to avoid it in Midnight in Paris (2011).

The biggest script problem in terms of character is Ashleigh. She is described by others in admiring terms, but her manner and her dialogue make her come across as a ditz. She is played by a miscast Elle Fanning. Fanning has been terrific in several films, such as Super 8 (2011) and especially Ginger & Rosa (2012), but here, she over-emphasizes the flakiness that is already too much in the script. Allen has directed her badly.

Allen is on much firmer ground with Chan, played by Selena Gomez. Chan is a smart-mouthed young woman who holds her own with Gatsby, and Gomez plays both with and against that. Almost from her first scene, we are rooting for her to get together with Gatsby. She can take care of him.

Hmmm. In To Rome With Love, the young couple and the escort are dark-haired Italians. Here, Ashleigh is a cute young blonde who can be a flake, rather like Mia Farrow was in her younger days. Chan has an Asian name but is played by a dark-haired Latina. Maybe Allen is returning to this material because he sees it as autobiographical. Barbara Kopple’s documentary Wild Man Blues (1997) shows Allen and his wife Soon-Yi Previn on a European tour with his band. One thing that struck me about the film is that Previn, who is decades younger than Allen, seemed to be the more adult of the two and seemed to be taking care of him.

(Storytelling Strategies: 'Blue Jasmine' Blues)

How She Became a Manic, Pixie, etc.

How to Build a Girl (2019. Screenplay by Caitlin Moran, based on her book. 102 minutes.)

A few issues back I reviewed the movie Last Christmas (2019); you can read the review here. The film was a perfect example of showing how obnoxious the traditional Manic, Pixie, Dream Girl can be. You just want to slap her upside the head. A lot.

Now comes How to Build a Girl, which has a slightly different and definitely better take on the subject. Moran based the screenplay on her autobiographical novel, and we get very much the woman’s point of view. The keyword in the title is “build,” and the movie shows us how she constructs herself. (Several of the writers on Last Christmas were women, but it didn’t seem to help.) So, we start with Johanna as a teenage girl, the daughter of semi-hippie parents, living in the West Midlands city of Wolverhampton. She is not exactly a typical film teenage girl, since we see her head is full of a variety of ideas. She has pictures of famous people, both real and fictional up on her wall. And they talk to her. Well, who wouldn’t want to get advice from Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Jo March?

Johanna wants to be a writer, and she eventually lands a piece in a rock music newspaper, even though she knows nothing about rock music. She talks herself into the job, but we can tell the male staff, lads one and all, do not take her seriously.

Johanna decides to turn herself into a character, a more flamboyant version of herself. She renames herself Dolly Wilde and tries to live up to her new name. She becomes a success as a writer, but she supports her family (I lost track of the number of brothers and sisters she has). She is trying to be nice, but her job makes it difficult, and when she does talk back to her parents you both agree with her and, yes, want to slap her upside the head. The script, and Beanie Feldstein as Johanna/Dolly, hit the right notes to make us feel ambivalent about her.

How to Build a Girl

Her father was once a rock drummer, now out of work, but because of her success, he tries to get back into the game. He makes a record on his own and gives it to Johanna to put in the stack in the office that the staff listens to and decides whether to write about. The ones they do not like they fling off their balcony and shoot like skeet (I told you they were lads). They do not know that this record is from her dad and suggest she shoot it. She does, but we can see from her reactions that she feels very ambivalent about it.

She begins to realize she does not like her life and what she has become. So, she pulls out of that kind of writing and actually calls over a hundred of the musicians she has criticized to apologize. The scene is very short and could have been much longer and better.

Eventually, Johanna, now dressed as herself (but still with her bright red hair) meets an editor at a more upscale magazine and gets a job doing a column for it. The editor is played by an uncredited guest star and the writing of her character and the actor’s performance ends the movie, which is rather uneven, on a high note. Moran, the real Johanna, has gone on to a long, successful career as a real writer.

(Want Complex Female Characters? Put Them in Action)

And How Was Your Thanksgiving?

What’s Cooking? (2000. Written by Gurinder Chadha & Paul Meyeda Berges. 109 minutes.)

I was amazed to realize I have never written about this movie before. It caught me right away when I first saw it, and I have loved it ever since. I would have thought I would have written about in my 2008 book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays, but thinking about it now it does have a problem that would have made it difficult to include in the book, where I would have had to get into the ending in more detail than I have to here.

The movie grabbed me from the first two shots. The first shot is of a photograph of a big, juicy Thanksgiving turkey. The camera pulls back to reveal the rest of the picture: an extremely white family standing around the turkey smiling.

But then the picture starts moving. It is a poster on the side of a Los Angeles bus. But we all know nobody rides the bus in L.A. So, the film cuts to the inside of the bus, and what do we see? The most diverse crowd of people you have ever seen in your life. All of them having a wonderful time. Ah-ha, I thought, finally, a movie that gets L.A. right. This is simply the best movie ever made about how real people live in L.A.

A few shots later, I was further hooked. We see Gina, the daughter of a Latino family, on the phone talking to her mother. Gina is away at school and talking about the long ride home. Except that the location was the campus of Los Angeles City College, where I taught for forty years. Well, why not? LACC stood in for Yale University in the 1946 Cole Porter biography Night and Day, so it can stand in here for the University of California at Berkeley.

What’s Cooking?

We are gradually introduced to four different families: the Latino Avilas, the Vietnamese American Nguyens, the Jewish Seeligs, and the Black Williamses. In several of the opening scenes, there are members of the different families at a school Thanksgiving pageant and at a grocery store, but they appear not to know each other. As the film progresses, we spend more time with each family. Yes, there are several examples of tension between the parents and the kids, but we see the love that sometimes gets awkwardly expressed.

We see them get on each other’s nerves. The mother and father in the Seelig family are worried that their daughter Rachel is bringing her lesbian lover to Thanksgiving, mostly because mom and dad think it will upset the older relatives (and yes, there is a sly turkey baster gag between the two gay women, done without dialogue but just their reactions).

One of the Avila sons runs into his divorced father at the grocery store and invites him to Thanksgiving dinner. Although the son later calls him and tells him not to come, the father shows up assuming it means he will get back together with his wife ... until her new boyfriend shows up. The Williams mother is upset that their son Michael is not coming to dinner, but she does not learn why until he shows up.

The one connection we see between families is that Jimmy, the oldest Nguyen son, is dating Gina, the Avila daughter. So, we assume that is going to lead to more connections, but it doesn’t. What are all these people doing in the same movie? Well, for one, they are all having their own Thanksgiving dinners, each in their different ways. Look at the way each family’s cook mashes potatoes. Family dynamics are an issue with each of the families. And they are all living in Los Angeles in 2000 (although the political discussion at the Williams home about a racist governor rang some extra bells seeing the movie again in November). Chadha, who also directed, and Berges, her husband, are extraordinarily perceptive about life in L.A.

(SHOW ME THE LOVE: Love of Family)

Late in the picture, the Nguyen family is having a family argument about the middle son having a gun that he insists he is just keeping for a friend. While the rest of the family are arguing, the youngest son, about 7 or 8, begins to play with the gun.

In live theatre, there is something called a coup de théâtre, which is when there is a sudden twist in the plot or the action, often accompanied by a theatrical effect. In the plays of ancient Rome, it was known as a deus ex machina, where a god was brought in by a flying machine to settle the complicated plot situation. The modern equivalent is Wilford Brimley’s appearance in Absence of Malice (1981).

What the writers bring in here is a coup de cinema. It is a reveal that does not change everything, as with the reveal at the end of The Sixth Sense (1999), which simply explains how all the things that did not make sense in that movie do once that you know that Bruce Willis’s character has been (spoiler alert) dead all along. What the reveal here does is expand thematically what the movie is about. If you want to get the most out of your coups de cinema, you should see this film several times, the first to get the full effect of the ending, and the others to see how the writers slyly build up to it.

Women Directors

Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (2018. No writer credited. 840 minutes.)

This is a 14-hour long documentary by the Irish filmmaker Mark Cousins that popped up recently on Turner Classic Movies. Cousins is probably best known for his 15-hour 2011 documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which also ran on TCM. In both miniseries, he spreads a very wide net over the history of film. He finds all kinds of films from all kinds of countries to show clips from.

(International Women's Day: Frances Marion—The Original Power-Woman of Hollywood)

Women Make Film is about women directors. I think part of the idea of the film is that women directors were just as inventive and artistic as male directors. The problem I had with that is that a lot of the clips he has made me think of similar ways male directors worked, in some cases better, in some cases not.

You have already guessed where I am going with this, right? You and I both noticed there is no writer credited. Where are the women screenwriters? We do not hear a thing about them. Cousins, like a lot of auteurists, seem to think directors, even women directors, make movies all by themselves.

May I suggest that TCM get on Cousins’s case to make a 15-hour documentary about women screenwriters? I’d watch, and I bet you would too.

Learn more about screenwriting in our SU course, The Fundamentals of Screenwriting.


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