UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Writing for Performance

Tom Stempel returns to one of his favorite subjects, writing for performance when you are writing a screenplay. He discusses this in relation to "Coastal Elites," "The Operative," and "The Captain’s Paradise." Plus some books to read while you are staying at home.
Author:
Publish date:

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

Writing for the Pandemic Years.

Coastal Elites (2020. Written by Paul Rudnick. 90 minutes)

coastal elites

Most of the filmed entertainment on television we have had since the COVID19 pandemic hit the U.S. in early 2020 was filmed before the pandemic hit. We may run out of that sooner rather than later. So what can writers do? Well, if you are Paul Rudnick, something interesting.

Rudnick has a long resume of screenplays, stage plays, novels and essays. In the screenplay category, he is best known for In & Out (1997). I am a big fan of his satirical columns that ran first in Premiere magazine from 1988 to 2007 and after 2011 in Entertainment Weekly. The set up was that they were supposedly written by an Upper East Side Jewish wife and mother named Libby Gelman-Waxner. Libby’s columns were mostly snide comic takes on movies and occasionally Broadway plays. Rudnick brilliantly, and definitively, nails the attitudes of New York’s Upper East Side.

Rudnick started writing short monologues before the pandemic hit and then continued as it did. He was thinking of them for the theatre, but theatres closed. So, he and director Jay Roach have done them as a collection called Coastal Elites on HBO, which premiered in September.

Over a black screen we hear the voice of Trump saying some of his greatest hits, then we come in on a simple set of a police interrogation room. Mariam Nessler is explaining to an unseen cop how she, a 70-ish Jewish grandmother, happened to be arrested for assault when she grabbed a MAGA hat off a man, which led to a tussle. Mariam is played by Bette Midler at the height of her powers, giving the scene an enormous variety of line readings and facial reactions. Rudnick’s writing gives her a lot to do, since he obviously believes in what I have been telling you in this column for decades: if you are writing for film (or digital or whatever), you are writing for performance. If you are writing for a great performer, you have to give her stuff to perform.

I was concerned as I watching this monologue that the whole collection was simply going to be rants against Trump. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a fan of Trump’s, but an hour-and-a-half of rants would simply be tiresome. The second monologue stars Dan Levy as Mark, a gay actor, trying to figure out how to handle an audition for a gay superhero, Fusion. I never got hooked on Levy’s Schitt’s Creek, but boy, can that kid act. Like Midler, he gives great variety and nuance to what Rudnick has given him. Unlike the first monologue, there is no mention of Trump, but late in this one, Mark brings in Mike Pence’s homophobia.

The third monologue gives us Issa Rae as Callie Josephson, a rich Black woman. If you have only seen Rae in her show Insecure, her performance will astonish you. Callie talks about knowing Ivanka Trump in boarding school, and then going with her rich father to the White House. Ivanka takes Callie aside and wants to be her pal, which Callie does not want. Rudnick writes some very sharp and perceptive observations to put into Callie’s mouth about the Trumps. Here we get the Trumps, not in Mariam’s rants, but in a nuanced look at Ivanka. I have no idea how real it is, but it seems real.

The fourth monologue is delivered by Sarah Paulson as Clarissa, who runs a meditation TV show. She stops in the middle of the show and talks about going home to visit her very, very Republican family. This is the weakest monologue, since Clarissa seems to be giving us mostly facts, and the payoff is not the surprise I think was intended. Either the writing does not give Paulson much to do (as the first three do), or Paulson, a terrific actor, could not find a way to make it come alive. Nobody’s perfect.

The pandemic is mentioned briefly in the fourth monologue, as Clarissa tells us that her mom in Wisconsin thinks there is no pandemic. In the fifth monologue we get Sharryn Tarrows, a nurse from Wyoming who flew to New York to help with the sick. She is at the end of a long, brutal shift at the hospital. The actress is Kaitlyn Dever, whom you may remember for her comic chops in Booksmart (2019) and her dramatic chops earlier as Loretta McCready in Justified (2011-2015). She lays in Sharryn Tarrows’ exhaustion, but uses it as a baseline for the other emotions she brings out. She particularly remembers one patient who seemed so full of life and sass. If you don’t get early on who the patient was, you should find another line of work. And if you think that Rudnick is going to do the obvious with her, you definitely should find another line of work.

[Script Extra: How to Find Screenplays to Read Online]

More Writing for Performance.

The Operative (2019. Written by Yuval Adler, based on the novel The English Teacher by Yiftach R. Atir. 116 minutes)

I sort of owe Diane Kruger an apology. In my book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning from Good, Not-Quite-So-Good, and Bad Screenplays, I described her as Helen of Troy in Troy (2004) as having a face that could only launch “three hundred, maybe four hundred ships, tops,” instead of the fabled one thousand. Part of the problem is that David Benioff did not write Helen as a very interesting character, which a lot of writers stumbled over. I did mention that Kruger had been more lively in National Treasure (2004) and in several other films since, such as Farewell, My Queen (2012), which I reviewed here, and the television series The Bridge (2013-2014), which I reviewed here. In that last review, I wrote about Kruger that she “is one of those actors who is great when you give them something to do, but can’t just stand there the way certain stars can.” The Operative is a perfect demonstration of my comment.

Kruger is playing Rachel, a language teacher recruited by, no, not MI6, and no, not the CIA, but by Mossad, the Israeli equivalent of the other two. They want her to go to Tehran and get a job teaching at a school. She meets and gets to know Farhad, the head of an Iranian company that the Mossad is arranging to sell, against all the anti-Iranian sanctions, machinery parts. Faulty machinery parts. We never see or hear Rachel being given instructions to cozy up to Farhad. Adler is great at not telling us everything.

What Adler, who directed, is also great at is giving Kruger all kinds of nuances she can bring to her performance. As a director, Adler knows what Kruger can do and takes advantage of that. As viewers, we are perfectly happy to follow Kruger around (some of the picture was actually shot in Tehran [don’t ask] and much of it was not) and see how she reacts to what is going on.

The picture begins with Rachel having gone missing and her Mossad handlers trying to figure out what happened. We get most of the story in flashback as the handlers get more and more worried and realize they will probably have to kill Rachel, since they do not know what she has said or done. So they make an attempt on her life. She runs away.

Several people commenting on the film think it just stops, rather than having an ending. I disagree. Look at the last shot of the film. Where are we? Who is there? More importantly, as the shot progresses, who is not there? Sometimes what does not happen is just as important as what does happen.

[Script Extra: 3 Mistakes Writers Make in Act I]

What is it About Boxed Sets?

The Captain’s Paradise (1953. Screenplay by Alec Coppel and Nicholas Phipps, story by Alec Coppel. 94 minutes)

The Captain’s Paradise

What is it about boxed sets of DVDs? Each one seems to have several classic films, and then one stinker. The boxed set of Errol Flynn movies has Captain Blood (1935), Dodge City (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940), They Died With their Boots on (1941), and then the awful The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). In one column I did a while back, I reviewed Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, and Elizabeth and Essex, and you can see the difference between the films there.

A few years back, I got a boxed set of early Alec Guinness comedies. It includes the classics Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955). The stinker in this bunch is The Captain’s Paradise.

The basic set-up has real potential. Henry St. James (Guinness) is the captain of a ferry that goes between Gibraltar and Ceuta, a Spanish territory on the North African Coast. The movie proper (after an odd introduction with a firing squad) begins with St. James taking the ferry out of Gibraltar and to Ceuta. He gets off in Ceuta and goes home to his wife Nita. She is not Black, but vaguely exotic, in other words, she is played by Yvonne De Carlo, back when she did those kinds of parts. They do out to dinner and dancing.

The next day St. James returns to Gibraltar and goes home to…his English wife. They have a quiet dinner at home and go to be by 10 p.m. Maude would like to go out more, but he insists on getting to bed early.

Well, you can see where this is going. One day Maude flies over to Ceuta and happens to run into Nita in a shop. Nita helps her deal with shopkeepers and they look like they are going to become friends. But St. James has seen this and gets a friend to break them up.

And the women never meet again, and never find out about each other. That would be like Lucas not blowing up the Death Star at the end of the first Star Wars movie. The whole first half of the film is setting up what will happen when the two wives find out about each other.

I won’t tell you how the film ends, but your homework assignment for this week is to come up with a better ending than the writers have.

Coppel and Phipps have written a terrific part for Guinness, but as much as I promote writing for performance, you also have to write more than that to make the script work.

Books for the Pandemic.

Funny Man: Mel Brooks (2019. Book written by Patrick McGilligan. 624 pages) and Alfred Hitchcock & Charles Bennett: The Rise of the Modern Thriller, Volume One: The Partnership and Volume Two: Hero’s Journey & Story Closeups (2020. Books written by John Charles Bennett. Volume One: 394 pages, Volume Two: 374 pages)

If you, like me, live in an area where the movie theatres have not opened and you have run out of interesting stuff to watch on the streaming services, you may want to read a book or two. I’ve been reading a bunch, in between watching Hopalong Cassidy B-westerns on the Encore Westerns Channel. Here are a couple I heartily recommend.

Patrick McGilligan is best known to us who study screenwriting as the editor of the five books in the Backstory series. I have referred to them often, usually as the gold standard of screenwriter interview books. McGilligan’s day job (one of his many) has been writing doorstop size biographies of directors. His subjects have included Fritz Lang, George Cukor, and Robert Altman. He now has a 624 page biography of Mel Brooks. Yes, Brooks is also director, which is probably why he could sneak the project by the executives at HarperCollins.

As usual, there is a lot of material about Brooks directing, but McGilligan has also focused on Brooks’s writing, since that his how he began. Brooks got his start writing for one of the classic television shows of the early fifties, Your Show of Shows. In my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing I described Brooks as the writer who would come in late and mess up everything (usually for the better), and McGilligan goes into a lot more detail of what that meant to the sketches in the show.

McGilligan, since he has over six hundred pages to fill, also gives us the enormous number of flops that Brooks had as a writer, such as the 1962 Broadway musical All American, or his work for Jerry Lewis. If you are feeling depressed at how your writing career is going, you may want to read the book to see how Brooks survived his bad years.

McGilligan also shows us how that even when Brooks was writing and directing films, he generally had several other writers working with him. We get a lot of detail about the writing of the major films. It will surprise to find out exactly what Richard Pryor wrote on Blazing Saddles (1974).

You may remember that six years ago I reviewed John Charles Bennett’s collection of his father’s autobiographical essays, Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense. You can read the review here. As I said then, without Charles Bennett, there is no Hitchcock. John has now followed up with a two-volume study of his dad’s work as a writer of stage plays and stage plays. The first volume, The Partnership, shows how Bennett took what he learned about writing thrillers for the stage and applied it to the film thrillers he did with Hitchcock. John got into some of that in his first book, but for this book he has studied his father’s papers, script, notes, etc. in greater detail.

The second volume, Hero’s Journey & Story Closeups, is what is going to drive Hitchcockians nuts, because he goes into all the ways Hitchcock downplayed Bennett’s work. And I mean ALL the ways. Alfred was not a nice man.

Both McGilligan and John’s books are long and very detailed. You could I suppose condense them, but why would you want to? Besides, it is about time screenwriters got big thick books written about them, don’t you think?

(Full disclosure: I read John’s earlier draft of the manuscript and made comments and suggestions, including areas to condense. He followed some of those suggestions.) 

More articles by Tom Stempel

Download Free Writing Resources as our gift to you!

BROWSE DOWNLOADS NOW!

free Downloads!