Understanding Screenwriting #146
Tom Stempel takes a look at Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Nice Guys, Obvious Child, A Bridge Too Far, The Night Manager, and Roots.
Well, It’s Not as Badly Directed as Linda Woolverton’s Last Screenplay…
Alice Through the Looking Glass
(2016. Screenplay by Linda Woolverton, based on books by Lewis Carroll. 113 minutes.)
Linda Woolverton wrote the 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland, which as you can read here, I liked in spite of Tim Burton’s direction. Her last script, Maleficent (2014), fell into the hands of an art director who had never directed before and it was a mess. You can find the details in my review here, which also gives you a bit of Woolverton’s background.
The problem here is not the direction. The director is James Bobin, who at least has directed before. The fact that he has directed several Muppet movies may explain why he cuts back and forth between really long shots (so you can’t see the wires on the Muppets) and extreme big head close-ups (so you can’t see the wires on the Muppets). He needs to learn how to use medium shots for people.
The problem is Woolverton’s screenplay. In her first Alice movie, she upped the age of Alice from a child to a 19-year-old, which I thought was an improvement. So Alice was returning to Wonderland in that movie and setting everything to rights by beating the crap out of the Jabberwocky. At least the world of Wonderland was at stake.
Woolverton begins the new film with Alice now a bit older and the captain of the sailing ship her father left her. Her ship is being chased by a group of Chinese junks, and with a great, if slightly improbable, bit of seamanship, she gets her ship safely through the reefs. You almost expect Captain Jack Sparrow to show up.
Alice returns to London to find out her mom is planning on selling the ship out from under her. Mom has already turned over her shares in the company while Alice was out sailing the seven seas, and now has to sell the ship to keep her house.
Well, I’m hooked. The hell with Wonderland, I want to see this Alice get out of all this.
But instead, she goes through the mirror and winds up in Wonderland again. But, but, but…the ship.
Instead, we’re back with the same old Wonderland characters and Woolverton does not do anything really fresh with them. I thought Anne Hathaway’s ditzy White Queen was the best thing in the first film, but here Woolverton suddenly gives her a backstory that undercuts what she and Hathaway did in the first one. So Hathaway is reduced to standing around not knowing quite what to do.
We also get what I take is a version of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party that is rather inert.
The storyline here is not saving the kingdom, but helping the Mad Hatter out of his funk. He had believed his parents were dead, but finds some evidence they are still alive. It’s not as compelling as saving the kingdom or saving Alice’s ship.
One new character who plays a large part in the film is Time, played by Sacha Baron Cohen (Bobin had directed some of Baron Cohen’s Ali G. shows in England). The character gives Woolverton a chance to use every, and I mean every time joke or pun there is. It’s as close as she gets to Carroll’s playing with the language, but she has not followed it up with any visuals that match it. Yeah, we get a lot of shots of clocks, but they are not particularly expressive.
As with the first Alice film and Maleficent, this picture is art directed to within an inch of its life, but in all three films the visuals seem tacked on, rather than thought out. Yes, as a writer you have to figure out how you are going to use visuals to tell your story and get your ideas across. No, that does not mean you have to design the film yourself, but it does mean you have to give your production designers sets, locations, and ideas to play with.
Just What We Need Now, a Good, Unpretentious Shane Black Action-Comedy
The Nice Guys
(2016. Written by Shane Black & Anthony Bagarozzi, sort of suggested by a book listed way down in the credits, which went by so fast that I couldn’t get it; the IMDb does not yet have it. 116 minutes.)
We begin in a nice, middle class house. A pre-teen boy gets out of bed at night and goes into his parents’ room. While they are still asleep, he crawls under their bed and gets his dad’s girlie magazine. He takes it into the bathroom and opens it up to a picture of a beautiful naked woman.
Then he hears a noise, looks out the window, sees a car fly off the road and crash in their backyard. He goes outside and sees that the dead naked woman is the woman in the magazine.
So whose world does that tell us we are in? Definitely not Jane Austen-land, not Preston Sturges-land, and not Diablo Cody-land. The obvious choice would be Shane Black-land.
Black hit the big time with his 1987 screenplay Lethal Weapon, with its combination of action and off-the-wall comedy. The film set the style for comedy action pictures ever since. Black followed it up with The Last Boy Scout (1991), The Last Action Hero (1993), and The Long Kiss Goodbye (1996).
Creative Screenwriting started in printed form in 1994, and Black has been one of its favorite subjects. His scripts, like those of Woody Allen, were seen to be written. You were very aware there was a distinctive writer behind them. In the Winter 1996 issue of CS there was an extensive interview with Black you can read here in the CS archives.
Unfortunately Black fell into a fallow period after the commercial and critical failure of Last Kiss Goodbye, but he came back in 2005 with a terrific, smaller scale action comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The emphasis in that one was more on character and humor than on big scale action. It also had the perfect actor for Black’s writing, Robert Downey Jr. This undoubtedly led Black to working on 2013’s Iron Man 3. I noted in my review of that that it was probably Black who added on the script level the kind of humor that Downey had been ad-libbing in the earlier two.
The Nice Guys is, as some people have said, a spiritual (if that’s the right word) cousin of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. What’s refreshing about it is the lack of pretention in the film. It is not part of a franchise or world of a comic book organization. It is a stand-alone film, although in the very last scene we get a hint that it may be an origin story.
Holland March is a very low level private investigator who mostly takes money from old ladies who think someone in their lives has gone missing. Jackson Healy is a free-lance enforcer. So March and Healy meet cute when Healy beats up March and tells him to stop looking for his latest job, missing girl Amelia (Margaret Qualley). They end up teaming up to try to find her and figure out her connection to the dead porn star. Like most good detective stories, the case is not that simple, revealing deeper societal corruption.
The plot is not as crucial as the characters Black has written for his actors. Ryan Gosling is March, and he uses his deadpan look to great effect. At one point when he discovers a body, Gosling is even channeling Stan Laurel. Russell Crowe is Healy, so we naturally assume he’s a tough guy, but Black gives him a lot of grace notes. This film will not go on the top of the resume of either actor, but they bring a lot to the table.
Black has also thrown in a 13-year-old daughter for Healy. Her name is Holly and she is smarter than Healy and March combined most of the time. The main old lady in the film is played by Lois Smith, whose credits begin as the shy barmaid in East of Eden (1955), where she shared scenes with James Dean. In 2002’s Minority Report she wiped Tom Cruise off the screen, so you can believe me when I tell you that Gosling and Crowe are doing well when they hold their own against her. As does Angourie Rice as Holly.
Oh, and don’t worry. Black has made sure there is more than enough action as well.
Writing Stand-up as Part of a Film.
(2014. Screenplay by Gillian Robspierre, story by Karen Maine and Gillian Robspierre and Elizabeth Holm, based on a short film written by Anna Bean and Karen Maine and Gillian Robspierre. 84 minutes.)
Donna is a 28-year-old stand-up comedian who talks about her private life. The film starts off with her and one of her routines. The audience in the club is laughing harder than we are. This is nearly always a problem with screenwriters trying to write stand-up material to fit into a film.
Obviously the writers want us to love the character and her frankness, but in a theatre we have not had a couple of drinks and seen a bunch of other comics who may or may have been funny. So we don’t start out ready to laugh, which means the routine the writers come up had better be really good. They almost never are. David Seltzer, whose screen credits include documentaries as well as The Omen (1976), had the same problem in his 1988 film Punchline.
It is not helped here that Jenny Slate, playing Donna, doesn’t have a very good standup delivery. And still the club audience laughs at her first routine in the film.
Then we get into the story proper. She is dumped by her boyfriend, and becomes obsessed with losing him. If she had been worried about that, she might have been better advised not to use so much of their sex life in her routine. We do get to meet her parents, who are separated. Both are maybe more sympathetic than I might have been with my daughter in a similar situation.
One problem with the writing of the film all the way through is that the writers are not very observant about audiences. Audiences can have a variety of nuanced reactions to stand-up, as well as to film, theatre, music, politicians and any other public performance. See Judd Apatow’s book of interviews with comedians, Sick in the Head, in which they all talk about different audiences.
Donna has a one-night stand with Max, about as white-bread as a Jewish girl can stand. Through some fumbling with a condom, she ends up pregnant. And almost immediately decides to have an abortion.
By now we are well into the dramatic scenes in the picture, which are better written and performed than the stand-up routines. When she is not trying to do stand-up, Jenny Slate is much more subtle and appealing as an actress. She has a wonderful scene with her mother, nicely played by Polly Draper, in which her mom reacts in an unexpected way to Donna telling her about the abortion.
In Donna’s last routine before the abortion, she talks about how she is going to have it. And the audience is responding in a positive way. Really? Wouldn’t some think it was too much information? I’m not asking for a pro-life demonstration to break out, but a little nuance would not be out of place.
Obvious Child is a small film (look at the running time), and does not dig too deeply into the characters. It also has a very, very sentimental ending. Just what you want in a film about abortion?
Not Great, but Better Than Most Critics Thought.
A Bridge Too Far
(1977. Screenplay by William Goldman, based on the book by Cornelius Ryan. 175 minutes, with shorter versions existing.)
Nearly every Memorial Day weekend I try to watch at least one film in honor of the men and women who served and died in the military. Sometimes I just pick something out of my tape and DVD collection, but since TCM runs a whole weekend of war films I can often find something there to watch.
This year they ran A Bridge Too Far, the film about Operation Market Garden, the ill-fated attempt in the fall of 1944 to drop paratroopers at important bridges in Holland, and then have ground troops connect up with them on a lightning drive. As its architect, British Field Marshall Montgomery, described it, it was “90% successful.”
The producer was Joseph E. Levine, who had been an exhibitor and distributor before he turned producer. As a producer he is best known for The Graduate (1967), although the people who worked on the film felt he had not a clue what the film was about. Actually that’s trait that can be useful in producers.
The screenwriter he hired to adapt Ryan’s book was William Goldman, who was just coming off his Oscar-winning scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President’s Men (1976). President’s Men was an adaptation of the big, complex, non-fiction book about Watergate, so you can see why Levine hired him.
The book of Bridge was a bear to adapt simply because there was so much great material. For example, there were five Victoria Crosses (the highest British military medal for valor) awarded—but Goldman could not find room for any of them in the script.
One British general described one aspect of the small boat crossing at the bridge at Nijmegen as “the most single heroic action of the war,” but Goldman could not figure out how to make it work in screen terms (more details later).
(Goldman has written about working on the film in two places. In 1977 he wrote a short paperback called Story of a Bridge Too Far about the making of the film. In 1983 he recycled that material in a slightly condensed form in Adventures in the Screen Trade, which, if you have not read, you should.)
Goldman of course is a great believer in finding the spine of the story. He found an idea for the spine in a speech that British General Horrocks gives to the ground troops before they start off to relieve the paratroopers at the bridges. Here it is:
I like to think of this as one of those American western films—the paratroops, lacking substantial equipment, always short of food—these are the besieged homesteaders. And the German, naturally, are the bad guys.
(he pauses: then—)
And we, my friends, are the cavalry—on the way to the rescue.
Notice how Goldman makes it clear in a way that movie audiences, and not just American ones, will understand.
The problem, as Goldman points out, is that here the cavalry does not rescue the troops at the bridge at Arnhem. That is the one the Allies needed to be able to drive right into Germany. As General Browning says at the end, “I always said we were trying to go a bridge too far.”
So, unlike say The Longest Day (1963), a film about the invasion on D-Day (and based on an earlier book by Ryan), the Allies do not break through off the beaches at the end. Nor do they liberate Paris as they do in the dreadful 1966 film Is Paris Burning?
In the first part of the film, we hear a variety of men involved in the operation worried about what could go wrong, and in the second half we see everything they discuss go wrong. It is rather much a downer of a story, and the all-star cast does not quite make up for it, at least for American audiences.
Levine ended up with fourteen major stars in the film, and the one he had to hustle the most to get was Robert Redford, then at the height of his popularity. Redford plays Major Julian Cook, who led the first wave of boats at the Nijmegen bridge.
Great choice, given what the general said about the crossing being the single most heroic action of the war. Except that the general was not talking about the first wave of boats that Cook led. Cook’s wave had the element of surprise and smoke cover. The second wave was going over in broad daylight and knew exactly what they were facing. How can you show that the second wave, not led by the star, is more heroic than the first? Goldman could never manage it.
Another problem for American audiences. The Nijmegen bridge scene is two hours into the picture, after we have gotten a lot of the other stars (Sean Connery, Michael Caine, James Caan, et al) in longer scenes. Audiences were audibly pissed that Redford’s scenes were so late and so short.
The picture was not that successful in America, but was a much bigger hit around the world. Levine had told people when the film was in production that it would be a big hit in Japan. People looked at him funny. He explained, based on his years of experience, that the Japanese liked to see white guys killing each other.
Very Good if Not Quite Great Le Carré
The Night Manager
(2016. Screenplay by David Farr, based on the novel by John Le Carré. 360 minutes.)
David Farr has written, among other things, seven episodes of the long-running British series MI-5, about the British domestic intelligence unit. So you would think he has the chops to take on the master, John Carré. You would be right.
The Night Manager was published in 1993 and is not considered one of The Master’s finest. It is one of his post-Cold War novels, whereas the Cold War was Carré’s bread and butter. He’s never really done a great novel since the end of the Cold War, but he has written several entertaining ones.
The Night Manager is one of those. Jonathan Pine is a night manager at a series of hotels. At one in Cairo, he is given information about Richard Roper, an international arms dealer working on a big deal with Colombian drug cartel. Pine passes it on to a friend in the British embassy. Pine is approached by Leonard Burr, who has set up an operation not officially sanctioned by MI6, to deal with arms smuggling.
Pine agrees to go undercover and gets into Roper’s operation. He falls in love with Jed, Roper’s mistress. Burr’s operation goes south, and he has to make a deal with those in MI6 in cahoots with Roper to let Pine go. He does, the arms sale to the cartel goes on, Burr is discredited, and Pine and Jed live happily ever after.
Farr has made some interesting changes. The cartel is out, and now Roper is selling arms to unnamed terrorists in the Middle East, which brings a fresh feel to the material.
Leonard is now Angela Burr, played by a very pregnant Olivia Colman. I am not sure making Burr a woman makes much difference to the story. While Coleman is fine, the part is not as much of a challenge as her role in the series Broadchurch.
Steadman, the CIA man, is now black, but casting David Harewood, who plays the alien leader of the anti-alien group on Supergirl, suggests the film may go weirder than intended.
Farr adds a terrific scene that I do not believe is in the novel (I read it when it first came out, but I can’t locate my copy—spies probably got it). Roper gives a demonstration of the firepower he is selling to his buyers. Burr and Steadman are following the trucks that picked up the goods from a ship to Roper’s desert hideout where the demonstration takes place.
The demonstration is spectacular and if you are of a mind to, you’d want to buy some of those toys. Burr then follows the trucks to the border of Syria, where Steadman arranges American soldiers to intercept them. Except things don’t work out. Excellent suspense and surprises.
Another change Farr made is the ending. Burr and Steadman do not capture Roper, but he is taken by the buyers he sort of swindled, and the impression is he won’t last the day. And Pine and Jed say goodbye at the hotel. He says he will come to see her and her son, but we do not see them together after that like we do in the novel.
What? Not giving us the sentimental happy ending Le Carré wrote? It turns out there are now thoughts about turning what was a one-shot miniseries into a recurring series. Maybe, but without Roper, you’ll have a big hole.
What is so great about the miniseries is the acting. It is almost, but not quite, a two-hander between Hugh Laurie as Roper and Tom Hiddleston as Pine. They are incredible individually and especially in their scenes together. Both actors don’t usually get this much good writing to play with and boy, do they run with it.
Almost is good is Elizabeth Debicki. Who is she when she’s at home? You may remember her as the only good thing in last year’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E., where I wrote, “The female head of the baddies is played by Elizabeth Debicki, and you believe every evil thing she does.” She is totally different as the sad and wistful Jed.
Oh, another minor point. The director is the Danish female director Suzanne Bier. You are welcome to use this factoid when any of your misogynist friends say women cannot direct big action movies.
The Return of Kunta Kinte, Kizzy, Chicken George, and the Rest of the Family.
(2016. Episodes one and four written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, episode two written by Allison McDonald, episode three by Charles Murray. 540 minutes.)
I almost gave up on this remake of Roots after the first two episodes, but I am glad I did not.
For some reason I had missed the first couple of hours of the classic 1977 miniseries, so I was curious to see how the writers handled it here.
You will notice in the credits that the Haley book is now listed as a novel. It was supposed to be a non-fiction account when it first came out, but it has turned out that Haley had fictionalized some of it and borrowed without acknowledgement from another novel. Furthermore, there has been a lot of research since the seventies on the area in Africa where Haley’s family came from.
So in the first two-hour episode we get a more historically and anthropologically accurate look at the life of the Mandinka ethnic group. That’s informative, but it plays more like anthropology than drama.
Part of the problem is that Kunta Kinte, the main character, is written as a mythical figure rather than a person. There is no texture to him. This is not helped by the casting of Malachi Kirby as Kinte. (The casting of the whole miniseries is incredibly uneven, as you will see.) He certainly looks the part of a Mandinka warrior, but he’s not very expressive. LeVar Burton, who played him in the 1977 version was not as striking looking as Kirby, but he had a lot more screen presence.
This becomes a real problem by the end of part one, when he is captured by slave traders (black not white ones, one of the most interesting historically accurate updates) and shipped off to America. The Middle Passage, as is the entire miniseries, a lot more graphically violent than the earlier version.
When Kinte ends up at a plantation in the South, he is taken under his wing by Fiddler, a slave who provides music for the Big House. Fiddler is a much richer character than Kinte is, and Forest Whitaker just wipes Kirby off the screen.
The portrayal of slavery is pretty much what we saw in the first version and what we have seen a lot of since. It was fresher earlier, but this second episode still has the white people purely bad and the black people purely good.
Everything changes in episode three, written by Charles Murray, whose previous credits include Sons of Anarchy and some of the Star Wars television series.
First of all there is the character of Kinte’s daughter Kizzy. We first meet here as a teenager in episode two, played by a rather bland actress named Emyri Crutchfield. At the end of episode two, she is sold off to Tom Lea, a farmer who is not quite up to the image of the typical Southern plantation owner. He rapes Kizzy.
At the beginning of episode three, she is an adult and played by one of the best actresses around, Tony winner Anika Noni Rose, whose television credits include The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (you can read my review of it, which mentions Rose, here) and The Good Wife. Boy, does she pop off the screen the way Crutchfield does not. I don’t know how many of her reactions Murray has written and how much Rose came up with, but you can’t take your eyes off her.
Murray also takes advantage of the fact that the section of the book he is dealing with has a lot more and a lot better defined human drama. Kizzy is the mother of Chicken George, the product of her rape by Tom Lea. George is grown by now and knows who his father is. George is played by Regé-Jean Page, who is also a compelling presence on-screen. And Tom Lea is played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who is not chopped liver, either.
So you have all these tensions, occasionally coming to a boil. George gets his nickname by being sort of a chicken-whisperer, who trains Tom Lea’s chickens for cock fights. Lea seems to make more money off the cockfights than the farm, so he has a soft spot for George, although I don’t think we ever see him openly admit he is George’s father.
George is a shrewd character and we see him try to figure out how to get Lea to free him. Lea of course doesn’t want to do it because he depends on him too much. If the first two episodes have more story than drama, the third is more drama and more compelling. It is also a lot more psychologically nuanced about the relationships between slaves and their owners.
At the end of episode three Lea sells George to an English aristocrat and George is taken off to England. Episode four, written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, who wrote the first episode, is not as good as three, but better than one or two.
We see George in England, but then he comes back to find out that alas, Kizzy is dead (and Rose out of the picture, also alas). His wife Matilda and his children are there, including his son Tom, who is not very fond of his absent father.
Matilda is written and played as a generic long-suffering wife. She is played by Erica Tazel, who looked vaguely familiar. She was Rachel Brooks, one of the deputy marshals on Justified. The writers there gave her a lot more to do there than they do here.
Episode four takes us up to and through the Civil War, so we get action as well as drama. So I suppose I could just tell you to watch episodes three and four if you want to see the best writing in the miniseries.
Before you go, why not check out our interview with Shane Black: I Like Violence?
Or take a look at the books mentioned in this article on Amazon.com.
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