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UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: A Great Read, and Some Sundries.

Tom Stempel offers you a good book, Beyond the Hero’s Journey, a so-so film, 'Three Thousand Years of Longing,' and a bunch of oldies.

Ya Gotta Read This.

Beyond the Hero’s Journey: Crafting Powerful and Original Character Arcs for the Screen (2022. Book written by Anthony Mullins. 319 pages)

If you have read this column long enough, you know I am very snarky about the “Hero’s Journey” being essential to screenwriting. If you have not seen what I said about it, check out my first column for Script here.

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I am not the only one who casts a dubious eye on the HJ. Anthony Mullins is an award-winning (BAFTA for one---if you don’t know what BAFTA is, look it up) screenwriter, and his new book Beyond the Hero’s Journey (I will leave off the clunky subtitle, which was probably added by the marketing department so they could claim to have made a contribution to the book; marketing departments are like that) goes into more depth and is more thoughtful than I have been. I am snarkier and funnier, but still you ought to read his book.

I am not sure studios are still beating the idea to death that you have to have the HJ in your script, but I am sure there are still enough producers, studio executives, story editors, and studio readers who believe it. Perhaps we should set up a GoFundMe page and send copies of this book to every person concerned with stories and scripts in the business.

Mullins starts by pointing out that lots of characters have arcs that come nowhere near the Hero’s Journey, then he spends a little time on those that do, giving the devil his due I suppose.

The heart of the book is Mullins writing about all the different kinds of character arcs you can have. For each one he gives you usually three examples from a wide selection of films. The more examples he gave, the more amused, entertained and importantly informed I was. He starts with Change Characters with Optimistic Arcs (Star Wars: A New Hope (1977); Lady Bird (2017); and Moonlight (2016), probably the only time you will see those three films together in one sentence), then has Change Characters with Pessimistic Arcs (The Godfather (1972), Under the Skin (2013), Burning (2018)---I told you he has a wide selection of films; yes, there are several I had never heard of).

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: A Great One, and Some Others.]

Well, of course, he has Change Characters, because we all know our main characters have to change over the course of the film or we have no film. Guess again. He has a section on Constant Characters, including ones with Optimistic Arcs (Erin Brockovich [2000]) and ones with Pessimistic Arcs (Mulholland Drive [2001]). Then there are assorted other character arcs, such as Minimalist, Reactive and even Passive. But, but, but, characters in movies are supposed to do stuff, like blow up something, but he is right about there being some passive characters that we like to watch reacting, or not, to what is going on. Being There (1979) is his most obvious example.

Mullins is so good on character arcs for films, my only regret about the book is that he does not go into more detail on character arcs for television. The section he has is very interesting, but not nearly long enough. Maybe he is at work on a second volume.

By the way, this book was voted this year’s Outstanding Book on Screenwriting by the international Screenwriting Research Network, and if you don’t trust me, you can trust those folks. The book is published in England, but you can of course get it on Amazon.com.

Thinking Like a Director.

Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022. Written by George Miller & Augusta Gore, based upon the short story "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye" by A.S. Byatt. 108 minutes)

[L-R] Tilda Swinton stars as Alithea Binnie and Idris Elba as The Djinn in director George Miller’s film THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc. 

[L-R] Tilda Swinton stars as Alithea Binnie and Idris Elba as The Djinn in director George Miller’s film THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc. 

You are probably most familiar with George Miller as the director of the Mad Max movies, but he also wrote them as well. You can tell from those scripts that he writes like a director: he is writing big action scenes so he can have fun on location shooting them.

Well, with this film Miller is still thinking like a director, but in a different key. (His co-writer, by the way, is his daughter. See what happens when you bring your kid to Take Your Daughter to Work Day?) There are some action scenes but nothing like the stuff in the Mad Max movies. The focus here is supposed to be on narrative.

Alithea is an academic going to a conference in Turkey to deliver a lecture on narratology. Bonnie Johnson, writing in the Los Angeles Times (August 26th), says that Miller & daughter have dropped a lot of the feminist view that Byatt had in her story. They have made Ailthea something of an uptight academic. Fortunately, she is played by Tilda Swinton, who brings a lot of warmth and life to the character.

Alithea buys a small bottle at a market and when she gets back to the hotel it breaks and sets the Djinn loose. At first, we only see his very, very large hand, but soon he adjusts his size. He is played by Idris Elba, who brings a lot of nuance to a guy who has been in a bottle for a thousand years. Needless to say, he offers her three wishes, but as an academic studying narratology, she is aware that every story involving three wishes is a cautionary tale, so she is reluctant to take him up on his offer.

The Djinn tells her three tales of his life. The first involves Solomon and Sheba, the second Suleiman the Magnificent, and the third a woman mathematician. You would think Miller would be in his element with those stories. Yes and no. They are visually striking, but they are dramatically inert. Alithea and the Djinn are full-blooded characters played by actors who can hold the screen with and against each other. I would have been perfectly happy to watch Swinton ad Elba chat about narrative in her hotel room for the entire film. OK, not really, but you get my point.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Women From Across the Pond, Clothed and Unclothed]

The stories are not really stories, but sketches, without much dramatic structure. There is very little characterization in the people, and what there is, is covered up by makeup and costumes. None of the actors in the story stand out in the way Swinton and Elba do. Miller was simply thinking not about telling stories, but about playing with the plastic elements of the film (sets, costumes, makeup, etc).

After the three tales, Alithea takes the Djinn back to her home in London, but for a movie supposedly about narrative, there is not much to be found in the London scenes. Johnson points out in the story they are in love and have a sexual relationship, but there is not even a hint of that here. Miller does not help his case here by throwing in fades to black after every few scenes. We assume each time that the fade means the movie is over, but then another uninteresting scene pops up. I do have to admit the final shot is nice, if you can stick it out to the end.

Summer Odds and Ends.

Since there were a somewhat limited bunch of interesting new films in theatres this summer, as well as severe heat outside, and medical limitations on my movements (relax, nothing serious), I spent even more time watching movies on what Peter O’Toole rightly called “The Haunted Fishbowl.” Here are notes on some of them.

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Duel in the Sun (1946) was producer David O. Selznick’s attempt to make a western that would outdo his Gone With the Wind (1939). He had fewer writers on this than he did on Wind, but the script is a mess. We get a collection of scenes, but there is no narrative flow.

With Samson and Delilah (1949) producer/director Cecil B. De Mille returned to Biblical spectacles after decades of dealing with American historical films. It was a critical disaster, but a huge success at the box office and inspired a lot of 50s spectacles, both Biblical and otherwise. The writing is not as clunky as it often is in De Mille’s films. The actors are pretty much left to their own, but they manage, especially George Sanders and Angela Lansbury as Delilah’s older sister, although she was considerably younger than Hedy Lamarr as Delilah. Victor Mature as Sampson is convincing; not his greatest performance (see below) but adequate. Mature was heavily muscled in the chest area and Lamarr was not, leading to Groucho Marx’s great line that he did not see the picture because he did not like to go to movies where the leading man’s tits were bigger than the leading lady’s. De Mille could not fit in a train wreck, but he had Samson pulling down the temple as his big finish.

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One of the spectacles that came a little later was 1954’s King Richard and the Crusaders. It is listed in the 1978 book The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time. Seeing it today, an update of the book might not include it. It is very clunky and a very young Laurence Harvey has no idea how to play a romantic lead, but it has George Sanders as a less than-hyper masculine King Richard the Lionhearted and Rex Harrison having a lot of fun as Saladin. You would like to see the movie Harrison thought he was in. The leading lady is Virginia Mayo and she gets stuck with the film’s worse line, “War! War! That’s all you think about Dick Plantagenet. You burner! You pillager!” To Miss Mayo’s credit, she says it with a straight face and almost makes it convincing.

Moving along to later epics of sorts, I caught Where Eagles Dare (1968), not one of my favorite World War II action films. My Irish friend Elaine Lennon likes it a whole lot more than I do (and she recommends a book by Geoff Dyer called “‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’: Watching ‘Where Eagles Dare,’” a funny account of Dyer’s relationship as a viewer of the film over the years; I probably won’t read it since I have spent as much time as I want to on the film). The film’s screenplay is by Alistair Maclean, who wrote the novel but not the script for The Guns of Navarone (1961). The first half of Eagles is nearly all plot, with very little action (Navarone spreads things out much better), but then uncorks the best scene in the film. You may have been wondering for the first hour why they have cast a classical actor, Richard Burton, as the lead in an action movie. The scene with a variety of notebooks shows you why. Then the rest of the film is all action, with a very, very high body count, but who cares, they’re Nazis.

I caught two of the Indiana Jones movies. First was my least favorite Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). The scene inside the Temple is just plain gross and out of keeping with the tone of the rest of this film, and the rest of the Indy films. Somebody should have rewritten it. The Last Crusade (1989) is my favorite for the obvious reason: Sean Connery as Indy’s dad. He does not show up for a long time, but when he does, the film shifts into high gear: the writing, the acting, the direction of his and Harrison Ford’s scenes are divine.

I saw at least one earlier big sale action film, Warner Brothers’ 1940 Virginia City. It was intended obviously as a follow-up to the previous year’s Dodge City, which is a much better movie. Virginia was written by Robert Buckner, a Southerner who put in characters who were sympathetic to the South in the Late Unpleasantness. In Virginia the main character is Kerry Bradford, a Union officer sent to Virginia City to stop a group of Confederates who are trying to steal gold to help support the South. They are led by Vance Irby, a Confederate officer. Bradford is played by Errol Flynn, Irby by Randolph Scott. You can guess who wins, but Irby is a very sympathetic character. One of the people who rewrote the script (probably Norman Reilly Raine) wrote in a scene of Irby talking to the woman he has known since childhood about the pre-War days. Buckner called the scene “pure piffle straight from Gone With the Wind.

The studio did not remove the scene, nor a long prison scene originally written for another film that Buckner pointed out screwed up the structure of this film. Buckner was right and the picture is not as good as it could have been. There are some great views of the American west, rousing action scenes, and great production values. The one other thing, however, that killed the picture was that the Mexican bandit was played by…Humphrey Bogart. Warners had not yet figured out what do with him.

I was not only watching the biggies, but B pictures as well. One was It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), which is sort of a cheap ripoff of the previous year’s Godzilla. An extra large octopus comes to the surface and attacks San Francisco. Before that kind of fun begins, there are long, static dialogue scenes, much cheaper to shoot than the action scenes. Some of those scenes are played by Kenneth Tobey. He did a lot of these low-budget sci-fi movies in the Fifties, but here the screenwriters have given him a romantic subplot. The woman in question is a Howard Hughes “discovery” Faith Domergue, who is less stolid than usual. 

The film is notable for its special effects, the second feature where the future master Ray Harryhausen got credit. He was working on a limited budget. The monster is supposed to be an octopus, but they could only afford six tentacles. Harryhausen hides the limitations nicely. 

The other B picture was The Monster that Challenged the World (1957) about large mollusks who show up in the Salton Sea (an inland lake in southern California). The creatures are definitely not up to Harryhausen’s, but the desert locations make it more interesting than it might otherwise be. The star is former cowboy star Tim Holt five years after he stopped making westerns. He had put on weight and his distinctive waddle was more noticeable than before. He still saves the world.

Toward the end of the summer, I caught up with After the Fox (1966). It has an unusual set of credits. The script is the first original screenplay by Neil Simon, not bad, but not one of his best. The director was the great Italian neo-realist Vittorio De Sica. The star was Peter Sellars, just coming off Dr. Stangelove (1964). People were surprised that De Sica was doing a farce, forgetting he had acted in romantic comedies before the world and had directed Italian comedies in the fifties.

So whose picture is it? The movie is stolen by old Samson, big-chested Victor Mature, giving a great performance in a parody of himself. You watch old movies and you never know what you are going to see.


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