Understanding Screenwriting #115
Blue Jasmine; Elmore Leonard: An Appreciation, The Way, Way Back; The To Do List; Red 2; 2 Guns; Incendies
by Tom Stempel
FAN MAIL: So far there have not been any comments on my first Understanding Screenwriting column for the new Creative Screenwriting Website. I don’t know if that’s because nobody is reading it, or reading it and agreeing so much with everything I said that they feel nothing more is to be added, or reading it and disagreeing so much with it they don’t want to bother to write. I hope some of you step up to the plate because the comments on the older version at The House Next Door were a lot of fun. Especially when readers hated what I say. So get into it, folks.
BLUE JASMINE (2013. Written by Woody Allen. 98 minutes)
One of the best later, serious ones.
If you came into this movie after the white-on-black credits, you might never guess this was a Woody Allen film. First of all, it is shot in Scope (an aspect ratio of 1:2.35, as compared with the more conventional 1:1.85). I have been amused to see that critics who go on and on about directors do not seem to have picked up that this is the first of his forty-some films that Allen has shot in Scope. So much for critics paying attention to directorial style. Then there is not a single desirable young woman of the Mariel Hemingway-Scarlett Johansson type. Then there does not appear to be a single Jewish character in the entire film. Some of the film is shot in New York, but much of it is shot in…San Francisco. Maybe Allen finally decided to do what Timothy Leary suggested back in the seventies, that Allen should come to California and get a tan. Although that’s a bit hard to do with all the fog in the Bay Area. As many critics have pointed out, Blue Jasmine is sort of Allen’s riff on A Streetcar Named Desire, but he only uses that as a setup. Jasmine, who has lost her money and her house, arrives in San Francisco to stay with her working class sister Ginger, who has an equally working class boy friend, Chili. (And when has Allen ever dealt in such detail with people from the working class?) Allen avoids any Blanche-Stanley lust between Jasmine and Chili. Both Chili and Ginger’s first husband Augie hold it against Jasmine that her husband Hal, a Bernie Madoff type, has invested their lottery winnings and lost it all. Jasmine has also lost everything she has felt she was entitled to, taken away by the government when it sent Hal to prison. Yes, Jasmine is another of Allen’s neurotic women, but she’s not just neurotic. Allen has written the deepest, most complicated character, male or female, he has ever written. Jasmine is also charming (not as often as she thinks she is), extravagant, bitter, funny, and has a mind that runs over 100 miles an hour on a slow day. What she has trouble dealing with, like Blanche, is the real world, which is exactly where she now has to live. One of the few terrible reviews of the film I have seen is by Stephanie Zacharek in the LA Weekly, and in the review Zacharek complains that the world Allen creates for the film is not realistic. At one point she writes that Allen does not use the correct computer terminology when Jasmine is trying to learn computers. Well, Jasmine doesn’t know anything about computers, and like a lot of people I know who are only partially computer literate, terminology is not her strong suit. It’s perfectly in character. Allen could easily have done this as either one of his comedies or one of his ponderous dramas. Instead, he gets the best balance I think he ever has, with more drama than comedy, and with the comedy perfectly judged. One of the many great scenes is Jasmine telling somebody her problems. Early in the scene we learn she is in a diner talking to her two nephews, who are about ten or eleven. Jasmine is going into all kinds of emotional nuances that are way above their maturity level, which is funny and sad at the same time. As the end credits started, I leaned over and whispered to my wife, “Actors are going to be studying that performance for years.” That performance is Cate Blanchett’s as Jasmine. Just as Allen has written incredible detail into the role, Blanchett digs everything, and I mean everything, out of it, and often at warp speed. Look at her reactions in the diner scene to the kids and to herself. If the writers of some of the films discussed below do not give their actors enough to do, Allen shows them how it ought to be done here. The other characters are also interesting and provide actors good opportunities. One of the most interesting is Andrew Dice Clay as Augie. Not a typical Woody Allen actor, but he is good in his first scenes. Then he shows up in a short scene at the end and is just quietly brilliant. Yeah, I know, I never thought I would be writing that about Clay, but honor where it is due. Okay, since you asked. Allen probably decided to shoot in 2.35 to make us feel the difference between the huge houses and apartments Jasmine is used to and Ginger’s cramped apartment. See, writers also write for the performance of directors as well as actors.
ELMORE LEONARD: AN APPRECIATION
Elmore Leonard, the great American crime writer, died on August 20th. He was primarily known for his novels and short stories, but he had an interesting relationship with Hollywood and screenwriting. Leonard started writing short stories in the fifties as a break from his work in advertising. The stories sold to magazines, and he even sold a couple to the movies, one of which turned into the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957), another into the first of the famous Ranown westerns, The Tall T (also 1957, you can see my look at that script and Leonard’s influence on it in US #18). But it was not until he sold the novel Hombre, which was made into the 1967 movie, that he had enough money to turn to writing full time. He continued to sell his novels and stories to the movies, but most of the films were artistic disasters. He also wrote the two original screenplays Joe Kidd (1972) and Mr Majestyk (1974). As westerns died out, he turned to crime stories featuring funny psychopathic characters on all sides of the law. The sparseness of the narratives and the great dialogue should have made great films, but writers and directors kept not getting the point that the humor in the stories and dialogue comes from the characters. It finally was Scott Frank who nailed the Leonard aura in his script for the 1995 film Get Shorty. The script was so good that it overpowered the terrible direction of Barry Sonnenfeld, who seemed to have no idea where to put the camera in relation to the actors. Frank followed that up with his great Leonard adaptation of Out of Sight in 1998, and he also wrote on the television spinoff of that film, Karen Sisco. What Frank did was show other writers, as well as producers and directors, how to do Leonard on film. Some of them lived up to what Frank had done. The continuing FX series Justified, inspired by a Leonard short story, is a marvel at capturing Leonard’s tone and sense of character. Graham Yost, the showrunner, has kept the faith with Leonard, and if we will have no more Leonard stories, we will continue to have Justified. Leonard was of a generation of writers who had begun to realize the standard East Coast Intellectual Establishment view of writers and Hollywood was bullshit. From the 1920s until recently, the East Coast view was that any writer who left the cozy confines of, well, anywhere else in America, and went to work for the movies was doomed. As soon as he wrote “Fade In” on a page, he had sold his soul to the eternal fires of damnation. This is in spite of the fact that writers like Faulkner and Fitzgerald had moved back and forth between movies and literature, and writers like the team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett moved from the Broadway theatre to the movies and back again. Leonard realized you could work in several mediums at once without destroying your talent or your work, and make a bundle as well. And if you worked in film and television with the right collaborators, you could end up with an Out of Sight or a Justified.
THE WAY, WAY BACK (2013. Written by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash. 103 minutes)
Better than their Oscar-winning screenplay for The Descendants (2011).
On the other hand, I found the script of The Descendants very disappointing (you can see my review at US #89; their co-writer was the director Alexander Payne, who has a lot of good credits to his name). The script missed a lot of the humor of the book and piled on the problems for Matt King. And it did not do as much with the characters as it could have. So from my point of view Faxon and Rash had nowhere to go but up. Which they have. The setup is simple. Duncan, a 14-year old boy, is dragged off on vacation by his mother Pam and her new boyfriend Trent. We know that Trent is a jerk in the opening scene when he asks Duncan where Duncan rates himself on a scale of one to ten. Duncan has not really thought about this, but answers six. Whereupon Trent says no, he’s a three, which Rash has said happened to him with his stepfather when he was 14. As the late Phoebe Ephron told her daughter Nora, “Take notes. Everything is copy.” The group arrives at Trent’s house in a beach community, and we meet Trent’s friends, who are played by such first-rate actors as Allison Janney, Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet, while Trent is Steve Carrell and Pam is Toni Collette. That’s a little overkill. I love seeing them all, but we spend way more time with those grownups than we need to. Janney’s Betty is over-the-top and Faxon and Rash have directed her to push it even more. True, it helps us get as tired of the grownups as Duncan is, but we get it way before the script moves on to the best sequences. Duncan falls in with the workers at a water park called Water Wizz, and is taken under his wing by the manager, Owen. Owen and the other park employees are much more likeable but also better written than Trent and his crowd, and we are more than happy to have Duncan spend time with them. Unbeknownst to Pam, Duncan gets a job at the park and has the time of his life. Duncan matures, but not too much and not in the obvious “the summer that changed my life way” of so many other movies. His relationship with the girl next door is so tentative that they only kiss when he is leaving at the end. Given the lack of restraint in almost every other summer movie, this is a relief. At the end Pam drags him off with her and Trent, and we really dislike Pam at this point. Just to let us know there is hope for Pam, in the very last scene in the car, she does something (you’ll have to see the film to find out what) that connects her with Duncan more than Trent. It’s a nice detail by the writers and it connects with another scene at the beginning of the film.
THE TO DO LIST (2013. Written by Maggie Carey. 104 minutes)
If you make us laugh…
One of my longtime screenwriting mantras (it first appeared in my 1982 book Screenwriting, but I may well have been using it before then) is: “If you make us laugh, you can get away with almost anything. If you make us laugh and enjoy it, you can get away with anything.” If you make us enjoy the laughs, we will follow you anywhere. This film falls apart in both areas. We don’t laugh that much, and we don’t enjoy it as much as we should. Back in my 2011 review of Bridesmaids (see US #76), I said that I was afraid that Hollywood was going to learn the wrong lesson from the success of that film. This is what I meant by that. Everybody thought the success of Bridesmaids came from all the gross-out humor, but I thought it was the writers’ work in developing characters through whom we enjoy the laughs. Like the writers of Bridesmaids, Maggie Carey has worked primarily in short films and television series. Her credits include several 2011 Funny or Die episodes, and eight five-minute episodes of the The Jennie Tate Show in 2007. She also worked on the 30-minute sitcom In the Motherhood (2009). The To Do List is her first feature and she is not up to it. She has no idea how to shape the overall structure of a longer film structure and worse, she provides gags instead of characterization. The situation is that Brandy, a recent high school graduate who is a super brain, has never had much of a social life. She is determined to lose her virginity before she gets to college. She makes up a list of things she wants to do, some of which are obvious and some of which are not. I realize I am a grandfather and not expected to know this, but what the hell is “motorboating”? Then she goes about doing a bunch of them. So the structure is just one damned thing after another, with no suspense or buildup. Some of the adventures are funny: the “blow job” episode involving Brandy and Van, a rock singer with dyed hair, has a certain shape to it and a good, if obvious, punchline, or punchdribble in this case. You know the film is in trouble when the comically gifted star, Aubrey Plaza (Brandy), is given nothing to do but tell jokes. Most of the time, the jokes are not particularly inventive. At one point her friend Fiona asks Brandy, “You mean you’ve never masturbated?” Functional, but not a patch on the similar line in American Pie (1999) where Vicky tells Jessica she has never masturbated, and Jessica asks, “You’ve never double-clicked your mouse?” Think about why that is a better line. I had the misfortune to see this just two days after I saw The Way, Way Back. The Water Wizz sequences are the best in the picture because of the characterizations, but in this film Brandy works at a public swimming pool and these scenes suffer in comparison. The equivalent of Owen here is Willy, but he is just a slob, with no other features, redeeming or otherwise. (Carey is the husband of Bill Hader, who plays Willy. Hader is not nearly as good here as he was in a similar but better-written part in the 2009 Adventureland [see US #25]. Carey also directed, and I assume they are still married.) And you know a script is in deep doo-doo when it squanders the great Connie Britton in the one-note part of Brandy’s mother. Compare the mother-daughter scenes here with the great one between Patricia Clarkson and Emma Stone at the end of Easy A (2010).
RED 2 (2013. Written by Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber, based on characters created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner. 116 minutes) and 2 GUNS (2012, Screenplay by Blake Masters, based on the Boom! Studios graphic novels by Steven Grant. 109 minutes)
I hope I can keep these two straight while I write about them.
In the second Understanding Screenwriting column way back in August 2008, I set off a hornet’s nest of letters by dumping on the films made from graphic novels. A lot of fanboys took the gravest possible exception to my pointing out that there is often very little characterization in graphic novels and films made from them, and that the striking visual elements, which can be fun to look at for the half an hour you read a graphic novel can get exhausting for two hours. I later made a point that some readers actually agreed that because the images of a graphic novel are static, it is difficult to suggest the kind of character nuance that living, breathing actors can give you in film. The debate went on in the Fan Mail section for two or three weeks. (You may be able to dig all that out of the www.slantmagazine.com/house archives. If you go to the Attic and click on August 2008 you can eventually find the columns.) When the first Red appeared in 2010 I pointed out that in spite of its graphic novel origins, it was still entertaining. Being of a certain age, I appreciated it as a geezer-action picture without the excessive testosterone of The Expendables. The Hoebers had at least made an effort to provide a little characterization, and the cast of heavyweight actors gave us at least a small smidgen of nuance. My chief complaint was that the film took way too long to bring on Helen Mirren’s hit lady Victoria. I was not the only one who felt that way, and this time around the Hoebers have made sure she shows up earlier. Frank and Sarah are leading a quiet life, which in the most interesting character development is boring Sarah out of her skull. When it looks as though Marvin has been killed (don’t worry, he’s John Malkovich, and he’s not dead yet), Sarah is raring to go while Marvin tries to protect her. But she gets involved, and Frank eventually buys her her own gun, and she kills a man. And here’s why this is still a graphic novel adaptation: the script never takes a moment to let Sarah deal with the fact that she has killed a man. Instead it is back to the shooting and chasing, and as I said above, it gets rather exhausting about twothirds of the way through the film. Do we need more gunshots and more chases? Not really. 2 Guns has the same strengths and weaknesses of the genre. I don’t know what the graphic novels are like, but Masters has given Denzell Washington (as Bobby) and Marc Wahlberg (as Stig) dialogue and by-play that hold our interest in a way that only live-action film can. Since this is really a two-star show, that’s a good thing. Masters’s plotting is a little more complicated that the Hoebers’, and I like the way he spaces out the twists. Just as the Hoebers don’t let Sarah have her moment, Masters has not served Deb, the woman DEA agent, well. She seems more a sketch than a character. Paula Patton, who plays her, could make her a lot more interesting if the script let her. As in Red 2, exhaustion at all the shooting sets in about twothirds of the way in. In both films, the body count gets so high that the tone is nihilistic, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the humor. Seeing the blood splatter in live action is grosser and more affecting than it is in static frames in the graphic novel format.
INCENDIES (2010. Written by Denis Villeneuve, based on a play by Wadji Mouawad; script consultant: Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne. 139 minutes)
Not quite living up to its reputation.
This is a highly-acclaimed film from three years ago. It was nominated for a pile of awards and won a bunch of them. I finally got around to it via Netflix, although I had it for three months before I saw it. I was not as impressed as a lot of people have been. The opening has a great setup. In Canada an accountant reads the will of his late secretary Nawal to her daughter and son, Jeanne and Simon. Nawal was from somewhere in the Middle East. The film never tells us exactly where, just as it is not particularly clear on the chronology of events, which gets to be a big problem. Film is a very concrete medium and does not handle abstract generalities well. Nawal’s will asks her son to track down his brother and her daughter to track down her father. The kids never knew there was a brother. And in the next scene we learn they thought the father was dead. Simon doesn’t want to have anything to do with this, so he stays home while Jeanne goes off to the unnamed country. We get her searches, intercut with flashbacks to her mother’s story. This involves both of them wandering around the desert and the villages a lot. One advantage of watching a picture like this on DVD is that you can fast forward through all the walking scenes, then go back to play when the subtitles come on. We learn that Nawal had a son early in life with her lover who was of a different tribe or religion; again the film is imprecise, obviously trying to be a statement about humanity in general. Nawal later killed an opposition leader and was imprisoned for several years, during which she was tortured and raped. When Jeanne learns about the unknown brother, Simon comes out to join her. After more walking around the desert and the villages, we eventually learn the truth. I am assuming that the writers expected the revelations to be emotionally overpowering, and some of the reviews indicated audiences took them that way. I had two problems. I figured out well before the kids who was who, and I was merely confused, since the chronology I think makes it close to impossible to be true. If the writers had made everything more specific, it might have helped. On the other hand, it may have the lack of clarity and consistencies all the more obvious.
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