UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: What Would Billy Wilder Do With a Pregnant Teenage Girl?

Tom Stempel has found some relatively new movies to write about, including "Last Christmas," "The Way Back," "Queen & Slim," and examines how Billy Wilder might have approached "Never Rarely Sometimes Always."
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A Manic Pixie Dream Girl And Christmas?

Last Christmas (2019). Screenplay by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, story by Emma Thompson and Greg Wise, inspired by the song “Last Christmas” written by George Michael. 109 minutes)

Last Christmas

Before I get into the script, I want to know who paid the electricity bill for this movie and how much was it? This movie has enough Christmas lights to fill up ten Hallmark Christmas TV movies. Wear your sunglasses.

Very quickly we get introduced to Elf (real name Kate), first as a child and then as a semi-grownup. She takes the name Elf because she works in a Christmas themed store that is open year around. She is the epitome of the classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but the writers have made her one of the most obnoxious examples of the cliché. She is homeless and impinging on her friends to let her stay at their places. At one apartment, she sneaks in a guy for a quickie at night, and then the following morning manages to destroy a paper art piece the husband of the couple was making. I would suggest they cut this scene, but Elf is obnoxious in every other scene as well, and Emilia Clarke’s charm cannot save her.

So, she has a cute meet with Tom, a handsome guy who tells her to “Look up.” She does and gets a load of pigeon poop in her eye. They hang out a lot and he seems to civilize her, but the damage done in the opening scenes with her is too much to make her changes believable.

Yes, there are supporting characters, played by the likes of Emma Thompson and Michelle Yeoh, but Thompson and Kimmings have not made them that compelling. Yeoh comes close as Elf’s boss, but Thompson has written a terrible part for herself as Elf’s mother.

About 20 minutes before the end we get a big twist, and the problem is that it has not been properly prepared for. For a twist like this, we ought to feel “Of course that is where it was leading to,” but the writers have been too messy for it to land as it should.

The big finish has a lot of people singing the George Michael song, but that is no help in making the story the writers have come up with work. Stick with Hallmark.

Which Basketball Coach Movie is This?

The Way Back (2020. Written by Brad Ingelsby. 108 minutes)

There have been a lot of movies about high school athletic coaches, especially basketball coaches. What makes this one different?

The focus here is almost entirely on the coach, Jack, played by Ben Affleck in one of his best performances. We learn very little about the guys on the team, although if you have seen enough basketball movies, you can fill in the blanks.

Jack was a basketball star at Bishop Hayes High School back in the nineties and led the team to state championships. For reasons we only find out later, he turned down a full basketball scholarship to the University of Kansas and has not touched a basketball since. He works in construction and drinks a lot. I mean, A LOT. The story gets going when the priest running the high school asks Jack to take over coaching the team.

Ingelsby gives Jack/Ben a great monologue as Jack tries to decide whether to take the job. Listen to how much Ingelsby leaves out of the monologue, and how well it works because of that. Ingelsby appears to be a master of not overwriting; look also at the scene in the cemetery between Jack and his ex-wife and how little dialogue there is in it.

Of course Jack takes the job; if he doesn’t, there is no movie. But the movie is really about Jack dealing with his alcoholism and how it affects him and those around him. If Ingelsby is good at leaving stuff out of the dialogue, he does tend to give us a lot of reasons Jack became an alcoholic. About three quarters into the movie, I was amazed that Jack could stand up, let alone coach a team. I was about to throw a penalty flag on Ingelsby for piling on, but that is a different sport.

Well, you know the big finish: Jack stays sober and the team wins the state championship. Except that’s not what happens. The priest realizes Jack is bringing liquor into his office on campus and fires him. The team does win a big game, but they are not even yet in the playoffs. And Jack is back in rehab.

The final, poetic shot is Jack on an outdoor basketball court by the ocean shooting a few hoops. Most movies about recovering alcoholics have them get treatment and then they are cured. In real life, alcoholics tend to relapse. Ingelsby has Jack fall into that, but the fact that he is on a basketball court and holding a basketball, I take to be a positive sign. Of course the priest is not going to hire him back at Bishop Hayes…

Bonnie and Clyde on the Walk Rather Than the Run.

Queen & Slim (2019. Screenplay at Lena Waithe, story by James Frey and Lena Waithe. 132 minutes)

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Lena Waithe is the first Black woman to win an Primetime Emmy for writing a half hour sitcom (The 2017 episode “The Thanksgiving” of Master of None), but she has also written for other TV shows, and acted in both television and film. Queen & Slim is her first feature film. And it’s not a bad start.

We come in on Angela and Ernest having dinner in a diner. Waithe quickly sets up that this is their first date, and it came about because Angela had a bad day at the office (she is lawyer) and decided Ernest was the most interesting person on her Tinder feed. So we get a nice first-date scene, and then they drive off in Ernest’s car. We can’t tell from this scene what kind of movie we are in, which is O.K., because they are interesting enough we don’t mind spending time with them.

A cop pulls the car over. Oh, did I forget to mention Angela and Ernest are black? And the cop is white. And as white cops sometimes do in the presence of persons of color, he gets a little trigger happy. He shoots Angela in the leg (and the film’s continuity person should be docked a couple of days pay at least, since the bandages on her wound seems to shift all over her thigh in the course of the film) and Ernest gets the cop’s gun and kills him.

Here is where I begin to have some small problems in the film. Angela is a lawyer. Surely she knows other lawyers and can call one up. She doesn’t suggest that. When Ernest’s car runs out of gas, he forgets his wallet in his car when they get a ride from a guy in a pickup. There are a bunch of small stupidities by the couple in the film, fortunately not enough to ruin it all together.

[Script Extra: Interview with Emmy Winner Lena Waithe, Writer of "Queen & Slim"]

So, Angela and Ernest are on the run, but it’s more of a walk. The pacing of the film slows down. Waithe is ignoring Callie Khouri’s great line about writing Thelma & Louise (1991): “You can have people having meaningful conversations screaming down the road at 120 miles per hour.” Angela and Ernest very seldom go over 50 miles per hour.

Waithe does use the slower pace to give us some great character scenes, not only with the leads (Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out [2017] is Ernest; Jodi Turner-Smith is Angela and they are great individually and together), but with the supporting actors. There is a wonderful sequence with the great Bokeem Woodbine as Angela’s uncle/stepfather, who is a very low-rent pimp. He puts the couple up for the night, leading to Angela taking one of the hookers’ dresses when they escape. I suppose there were a limited choice of clothes, but Angela might have picked one with a longer hemline that would cover her wound.

One of Waithe’s interesting thematic elements is that Angela and Ernest become folk heroes in the Black communities as they are escaping. But not all that community thinks so. That produces some interesting scenes.

We do not get much of the law enforcement crowd who are after the couple, which is O.K., since the movie is too long as it is. We do get that a reward is being offered for information about them. You may or may not be surprised who collects it.

O.K., Now About Billy Wilder and the Teenage Pregnant Girl.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020. Written by Eliza Hittman. 101 minutes)

Never-Rarely-Sometimes-Always

If you have read this column for any time at all, you will know that I am a big fan of Billy Wilder’s approach to screenwriting: what is the worst that can happen to the lead characters. If two out of work musicians have to dress as women to get jobs, what’s the worst that can happen? One of the guys can fall in love with a woman and have to keep changing clothes; the one has a rich, much older man, fall in love with him. Then what is the worst that can happen? The two guys had witnessed a gangster shootout and the gangsters show up at the hotel where the all-girls band is playing. Wilder, unlike a lot of beginning writers, can be very hard on his characters. Many writers tend to love their characters too much and don’t want anything bad to happen to them. You have to be Billy-Wilder ruthless with your characters.

[Script Extra: How to Fix Your Story - Digging in the Wrong Place]

I have not seen Eliza Hittman’s first two films (she also directs), It Felt Like Love (2013), about the coming of age of a teenage girl, and Beach Rats (2017), the coming of age of a gay teenage boy, but they sound as delicate and sensitive as Never Rarely Sometimes Always is, but this newer film is a lot tougher than the descriptions I have read of the earlier films.

The film opens on a teenage talent show, and the first acts we see are sort of talented. Then we watch Autumn sing, not well. That’s a risky move by Hittman, since it might turn us off, like we saw in Late Christmas, but we are not unsympathetic, since she seems sad. Later at a diner with her family, Autumn is not in a good mood, and not just because the show did not go well. Like Brad Ingelsby in The Way Back, Hittman is awfully good at not overwriting. There is often not much dialogue, and what there is is quiet.

[Script Extra: Writing (Not Overwriting) Description]

Why is Autumn not in a good mood? Well, she suspects she is pregnant. Non-Billy Wilder: she isn’t, and we have no movie. Wilder: she is. Autumn turns down her mother’s suggestion that she go to the family doctor if she not feeling well (Mom has no idea her daughter is preggers). Autumn goes to a local clinic, gets the test. It’s positive. They do an ultrasound and the woman at the clinic says Autumn is about 10 weeks pregnant. We, and the woman, can see that Autumn does not know what she is going to do, so the little old lady says she wants to show her a video before she makes up her mind. Autumn, and we, can tell very quickly that it is one of those ghastly anti-abortion videos. Autumn, and we, get out of the clinic as quickly as possible.

So far we are in a small town in Pennsylvania. (The Summer 2020 issue of the British film magazine Sight & Sound has this film as its Film of the Month, and review includes a short interview with Hittman in which she talks about the locations.) The law in Pennsylvania is that girls under 18 cannot get an abortion without their parents’ permission. Like a lot of pregnant teenage girls, Autumn does not want to tell her folks what her problem is.

Here’s where we begin to get the differences between this film and previous films about teenage pregnancies. In the 1959 film Blue Denim (screenplay by Edith Sommer and Philip Dunne, based on the play by James Leo Herlihy and William Noble), the two kids do not tell their parents. When the girl goes to get a back-alley abortion (this was more than a decade before Roe v. Wade), the boy finally tells his father, who rides to the rescue and keeps the girl from having an abortion. That’s seen as a happy ending. Forty-eight years later, in Juno (2007) Diablo Cody has Juno tell her parents in one of the best scenes in the picture that she is not only pregnant but has already been in contact with a couple who want to adopt the kid. Hittman never goes for the melodrama of Blue Denim or the comedy of Juno. She is just following Autumn very closely as she goes through this.

Autumn works as a cashier at a local grocery store, along with Skylar, her cousin. Skylar and Autumn scrape up enough money to take the bus to New York. But, as Hittman points out in the S&S interview, it is not the glamorous New York we usually see in movies. They do not dance in the streets as in On the Town (1949), or stroll along the tree-lined streets talking to Woody Allen (make up your own gross Woody Allen joke here). They go to a clinic Autumn has found on the Internet, but the ultrasound there shows she is 18 weeks pregnant, and that clinic cannot do second trimester abortions. So they have to go to a larger clinic.

At the new clinic we get the central scene in the film. Autumn has to answer a series of questions one of the women in charge asks her. The possible answers are what give the film its title. Hittman directs the scene as simply as possible: the camera stays in on a single close-up of Sidney Flanagan as Autumn and we watch her react to the questions and to her own answers. The questions and answers get tougher as the scene goes on, and the answers are incredibly revealing through Flanagan’s answers and her expressions. By the end of the scene Autumn is, for the first time in the film, in tears.

Autumn gets the abortion, and the last we see of her and Skylar, they are back on the bus on the way back to Pennsylvania, quiet as usual.

More articles by Tom Stempel

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