Tom Stempel

Understanding Screenwriting #116

Understanding Screenwriting #116
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In a World…, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Planes, The Spectacular Now, William Froug: An Appreciation, Pitch Perfect, Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, End of the Summer 2013 Cable Television Season

by Tom Stempel

A CORRECTION: In #115 I wrote that in Blue Jasmine Woody Allen was shooting in ’scope (2.35:1) for the first time.  He had used ’scope in one other film, Manhattan (1979).  I suspect he used ‘scope and black-and-white for Manhattan to distract viewers from noticing its similarities to Annie Hall, which was in color and regular wide screen (1.85:1).

In a World

In a World

IN A WORLD… (2013. Written by Lake Bell. 93 minutes)


It’s not just the dialogue, stupid.

This film made a big splash at Sundance in January, where it won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, with the notation that is was “For its laugh out loud comedic moments, its memorably drawn characters and its shrewd social commentary.”  So the people who voted for the award got it. When the film opened in August, one local Los Angeles film critic just said it got the award for its dialogue.  Typical critic: clueless to everything a writer contributes to a film. Let’s start with the characters.  Lake Bell is also an actress and she knows how to write playable characters.  She plays the leading role of Carol, a thirtysomething actress who does voiceover work in movies and television, in addition to being a vocal coach.  Bell is an attractive women who did a photo spread for Maxim magazine a few years ago in which she showed she had learned that great truism the late Hedy Lamarr said: if you are a woman and want to be thought of as sexy in Hollywood, just stand still and look stupid.  Carol neither stands still nor looks stupid.  She is actively (very actively; you might want to nail her hands to her side—okay, not really, because Bell’s hands are so expressive) looking for work.  She particularly has her eye on a gig doing the voiceover for the trailers for a “quadrilogy” of four epic movies.  One of the many spot-on observations about the movie business is that women are not allowed to do the voiceovers for trailers.  It has to be a guy, like the late, great Don LaFontaine, who was the master of the “In a world…” bombastic voiceover, as a nice tribute at the beginning lets us know.  Carol’s competition is her father, Sam, who has always suffered in comparison to LaFontaine.  Sam is very condescending to Carol and her sister Dani.  He is a sexist pig as well, which Bell as the writer handles not as a big deal but as just an everyday occurrence.  It’s much more potent that way.  We also meet Gustav, Sam’s protégé.  Sam will encourage him in all the kinds of ways that he will not encourage Carol.  At least one of those bits of encouragement, about a woman Gusatv is sleeping with, comes back to bite Sam in the ass.  Bell has written a great reaction for Sam for that moment.  We also get a lot of other great supporting characters.  Bell is generous as a writer, an actress, and a director.  (No, this not Bell’s Citizen Kane, but she handles all three jobs well.) The storyline follows Carol as she goes through her daily work doing voiceovers for television and commercials.  The film takes us into that world and because we care about Carol, we care about the voiceover business.  Bell has done a lot of voice work and knows the profession well.  But the story is not just an inside-show-business story.  Dani and her husband Moe are, as Variety used to put, non-pros, so we get a sense of the real world.  Bell’s writing handles the balance well.  Yes, most of the characters are wrapped up in show business, but that is not all that’s going on here. Bell has more than just characters and story on her mind.  This is film is very much from a woman’s point of view.  There is Sam’s sexism, as well as the sexism of the industry in not conceiving that a woman can do voiceovers on trailers.  When the final decision is made as to who gets the job, the producer of the quadrilogy tells Carol in realistic terms who got the job and why.  The producer is a tough professional, a great character that gives Geena Davis who plays her the best five minutes or so she has had on the screen for a long time.  You write good parts, you get good actors.  There is also a brief scene in the middle of the picture where Carol gives a young woman a hard time about talking in a babyish voice.  We think it’s just a political point, but it is also a setup for a great payoff at the end. One of the things I liked best about Bell’s script and film is that it is so fresh.  We have not seen these characters and this world on film before.  Particularly when it came out in the summer, where almost every other movie in theatres was a variation on something that has been done before, this freshness was enormously satisfying.  It adds enormously to all the other good qualities of the film.  I can hardly wait to see what Bell comes up with next.

Lee Daniels' The Butler

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER (2012. Screenplay by Danny Strong, based on the article “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” by Will Haygood.  132 minutes)


Not a great movie, but never a boring one.

You all know Danny Strong.  You saw him as Jonathan Levinson in the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer or as Danny Siegel on Mad Men.  Like Lake Bell, he’s another actor who can write.  Boy, can he write.  His first produced screenplay was Recount, the terrific 2008 HBO movie about the court fight over the 2000 presidential election. Then he followed that up with Game Change, the 2012 HBO movie about Sarah Palin.  Obviously a perfect choice for a movie about a man who was a butler in the White House from the Eisenhower to Reagan administrations.  Strong does manage to cram a lot of American history into 132 minutes, which means the picture moves at a blistering pace.  There is good news and bad news about that approach. The good news is that he keeps the director, Lee Daniels, from going off the deep end into melodrama.  Daniels doesn’t have time to let the emotions flow like the Mississippi River at floodtide, as he did in Precious (2000).  He’s got to get the actors focused on the specific elements of this scene.  Fortunately Strong has given him and the actors a lot to work with.  There are some terrific scenes in the film.  I particularly like the one where Cecil, the butler, and his wife Gloria get into an argument with their radical son Louis over Sidney Poitier.  The family scenes in general work better, partly because we get a real black family, not a stereotypical family.  Strong is white and Daniels is black and those scenes are examples of a great writer-director collaboration.  The White House scenes are a little more conventional, but there is a terrific scene late in the film where Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda of all people, and she’s great) asks Cecil to come to a White House dinner… as a guest. The bad news is that the script moves along so fast Strong cannot get into many scenes, and this includes the family scenes, in as much depth as he should have. Some of the scenes are very shallow, although some are not, but he and Daniels don’t have time to stop.  The historical range of the story means we are constantly getting new characters.  The producers have assembled a great cast, but it almost becomes like Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) as we play Who’s That Guest Star?  Is that Robin Williams as Eisenhower?  Yes.  But who’s that under the makeup as LBJ?  It takes us out of the picture.  For every scene that works in one way or another, there are others that don’t.  At least with the latter, you know another one will be along shortly and it may be better. Strong’s structure is also rather choppy, which is perhaps inevitable in this kind of picture, but he really runs into problems at the end.  One of the major storylines is the relationship between Cecil, who is very restrained, and Louis, the radical. They are at each other’s throats until the end when Cecil shows up to join a protest Louis is leading.  Their reconciliation should be a bigger scene, but I assume Strong thinks that the Cecil-Louis storyline has been so powerful he can get away with a much subtler scene.  He can’t.  That scene is followed by a general scene giving us exposition that it is 2008 and Obama is running for president.  You can suggest that in less time, or in a later scene.  This is followed by the death of Gloria, which seems a loose end.  Then we get election night.  And then when you think Strong is going to geek it completely, he writes a scene where Cecil, now retired, has been asked to the White House to meet Obama.  A guide tries to lead him to the Oval Office, and Cecil says simply, “I know the way.”  That’s good screenwriting.



PLANES (2013.  Screenplay by Jeffery M. Howard, story by John Lasseter and Klay Hall and Jeffrey M. Howard.  91 minutes)


GAPS, j.g. 

This one is not an official Pixar film.  The original intention was that it would go straight to DVD, so it is not as lavishly produced as most “real” Pixar films are.  And that is not a bad thing.  As you may have read in Ari Eisner’s interview with Howard here at the CS website, the work on the script started out like the GAPS (Geniuses at Pixar) usually work.  Howard, Lasseter, and Hall started throwing ideas out for what was essentially a movie about airplanes “in the world of Cars.”  Lasseter as usual was pushing Howard, who had loved airplanes for years, to do research into planes and pilots.    This is standard operating procedure at Pixar; see my book Understanding Screenwriting for how that worked on Finding Nemo (2003). Because this was going to DVD, the production values were not as lavish as on, say, this year’s Monster’s University, which was overproduced.  Here the simplicity of the story is matched by simplicity of the visuals.  They are striking, but not overpowering, so you can relax and enjoy the story. There is a nice match between the writers’ imagination and research and the production values of the visuals.  This may be junior grade Pixar, but like a lot of classic B movies in the studio days, it’s more entertaining than the more expensive productions. And its theatrical release made a pile of money for Disney. Sometimes simpler is better and smarter.

The Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now

THE SPECTACULAR NOW (2013.  Screenplay by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, based on the novel by Tim Tharp. 95 minutes)


Not that spectacular.

This one has gotten some great reviews and my wife and I were looking forward to it. We were both disappointed. Tharp’s novel, which I have not read, is told in the first person by Sutter, a high school senior.  We get some of his narration at the beginning establishing that Sutter is a highly popular high school senior, and we see him doing things like jumping into a swimming pool at a party fully clothed.  From what we see of the reactions of people, his version of how they feel about him seems reasonably accurate.  The problem is that about half way through the film a guy who is dating Sutter’s ex tells him everybody thinks he is a joke.  And nothing happens to Sutter; we see he is surprised at the comment, but then it is never brought up again.  We see nothing in the reactions of his friends after that which suggests the comment is true.  Writing in prose, Tharp has the advantage of not having to tell you about anything other than what his narrator, Sutter, tells us.  In a film, we see a lot that a narrator in prose does not have to tell us.  Neustadter & Weber have not figured out how to show the things Sutter does not tell us.   That’s a real problem in film, and in this film in particular.  How would you handle the “joke” line and its aftermath on screen? As we get to know Sutter, we realize he’s a borderline alcoholic.  He is constantly drinking a variety of beverages of the alcoholic variety.  In prose, Tharp could avoid unpleasant details about his behavior that we would see in real life.  In the film we never see him with any more than a light buzz on.  He never vomits on his shoes.  Nor do we get any sense that he smells like a brewery. We do pick him up asleep in a yard near the beginning, but it’s intended to set up a cute meet with Aimee.  She’s less social than Sutter, and he brings her out of her shell.  We are supposed to admire that, but late in the film his ex asks Sutter, “Have you turned her into a lush yet?”  That, like the “joke” comment, should produce a reaction from Sutter, but it doesn’t.  The writing, and I assume this is from the book, is constantly bringing up interesting actions and observations and then just letting them float away.  There is a spectacular example of this near the end involving Aimee that should have been a turning point in all their lives, but the writers sort of ignore it and what it may mean for the characters. Aimee gets up the gumption to insist her mom let her go to college, but we never see that scene, nor the mom.  A scene with her mom would break open the hazy good feeling about Sutter the film (and I am sure the novel) maintains.  Tharp and the screenwriters fail the Billy Wilder test.  Wilder never let his characters off the hook, but made things worse for them.  Tharp, Neustadter & Weber like Sutter too much to put the pressure on him.  At the end Sutter goes to see Aimee at college.  They just sort of look at each other.  Go back and watch the final scene of The Way We Were (1973) or the end of John Sayles’s Baby, It’s You (1983) to see how it ought to be done. 

One of William Froug's Books

One of William Froug’s Books

William Froug: An Appreciation.

William Froug died at age 91 in late August.  He started out writing radio dramas in the forties, the moved into television. He was both a writer and producer.  He produced, among others, The Twilight Zone and Gilligan’s Island.  You can read his obituary in the Los Angeles Times here.  What struck me is that the Times failed to mention the two books that he will be most remembered for by those of us in the film history trade.  In 1972 he wrote The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter, the first of the flood of screenwriter interview books that have come along in the last forty years.  He interviewed classic writers like Ring Lardner Jr., I.A.L. Diamond, and Nunnally Johnson, but some newer ones of the time such as Jonthan Axlerod and Buck Henry. There is a lot of great material in the book, which I have quoted from on more than one occasion. Froug followed that up twenty years later with The New Screenwriter Looks at the New Screenwriter.   In a review in the Spring 1995 issue of Creative Screenwriting I said that as entertaining as the new book was, it was not quite up to the first one.  He did mostly contemporary screenwriters rather than established ones, and many of the younger ones had been his students at UCLA.  Froug, probably because some of the subjects had been his students, was not as tough an interviewer as he might have been.  He let Jack Epps, Jr., and Jim Cash’s claim that their Legal Eagles (1986) was a failure because of the critics stand, whereas it was a case of a script being “developed” into incoherence. Still, you could do a lot worse than reading both books. In the review I did I also wrote about another collection of interviews, which shall remain nameless.  Froug, even when not at his best, still had it all over the others. 

Pitch Perfect

Pitch Perfect

PITCH PERFECT  (2012. Screenplay by Kay Cannon, based on the non-fiction book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin. 112 minutes)


The pitch may have been perfect, but the movie’s not.

This is one of those movies I missed in the theaters and picked up on cable.  My wife sings in a choir, and we liked the talent involved, so we gave it shot.  This is one of those you are glad you did not pay full fare for. Rapkin’s book follows three different groups from different parts of the county through the 2006-2007 school year. Cannon’s screenplay focuses primarily on one woman’s group, with their primary nemesis the misogynist male group at the same campus.  Not having read Rapkin’s book, I have no idea if any of the characters in the film bear any relation to the people in the book.  I would guess not, since Cannon has made every single character, and I mean EVERY SINGLE one, into a cliché.  The girls’ group is headed by Aubrey, the queen bee control freak.  Her second in command is Chloe, who trembles at every word Aubrey says.  Our heroine, Beca, is the traditional off-beat loner, who eventually takes over the group and makes them do more up-to-date music.  You know where the story is going from the beginning and it takes way, way too long to get there. Beca is played by Anna Kendrick, and the script does her a real disservice.  She is a terrific actress (see her in 2009’s Up in the Air), but Cannon does not give her much to do.  Kendrick is much better at acting then just being, which is one quality you need as a star.  I hate to say it, but on the basis of this film, she may end up a great character actress rather than a star.  Unless somebody out there, hint, hint, writes a really great star part for her.  Cannon didn’t here.

Storyboard for Foreign Correspondent

Storyboard for Foreign Correspondent

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940. Screenplay by Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, dialogue by James Hilton, Robert Benchley, inspired by the book Personal History by Vincent Sheehan. 120 minutes); SABOTEUR (1942.  Original screenplay by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, Dorothy Parker. 109 minutes)


What a difference Charles Bennett makes.

Producer Walter Wanger bought the film rights to foreign correspondent Vincent Sheehan’s memoirs in 1936, and then spent over $140,000 trying to get a script.  No luck. (The details in this item are from Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius: the Life of Alfred Hitchcock unless otherwise noted.) When Alfred Hitchcock was borrowed from David O. Selznick to do the project, he brought his protégée Joan Harrison along, and then he called up Charles Bennett, who had written most of the best of the English Hitchcocks.  I usually refer to Hitchcock as Charles Bennett’s Fat Little English Friend.  Hitchcock, Harrison (taking notes on what Hitch said), and Bennett sat down and in a month had a script. Like screenwriter Chris Morgan with director Justin Lin on this year’s Fast & Furious 6, Bennett knew what kind of stuff Hitchcock wanted and he shaped the assorted elements into a story. He also provided the lively characters.  John Jones is an American crime reporter sent by his editor to get some facts about the European situation. He is a nice fellow, but out of his depth as he meets a variety of Europeans: Van Meer (the elderly politician), Fisher (the head of a pro-peace organization), Carol (Fisher’s lively daughter), ffoliett (whom we assume is a bad gut since he is played by George Sanders), and Rawley (a nice little old man… who kills people).  Bennett provided the kind of setpieces Hitchcock loved: an assassination in the rain, a windmill with the blades going the wrong way, and a spectacular airplane crash in the sea. The picture was a big hit. Two years later Hitchcock, Harrison, and a young Peter Viertel worked on Saboteur.  Barry Kane is accused of deliberately causing a fire that destroys the factory he works in. He works his way from California to New York trying to track down the arsonist and the pro-Nazi group he works for.  The ending is a spectacular scene on the Statue of Liberty.   Well, that certainly sounds like a Hitchcock movie to me.  Except it is dull as paint.  Barry is a very one-note character: he is upset people think he caused the fire.  He does not have the variety John Jones does.  At one point Barry is taken in by a traveling circus, but all they do is talk about democracy.  The writers simply do not create the interesting characters we get in Foreign Correspondent.  With the exception of the Statue of Liberty scene, the supposed Hitchcockian set-pieces just lie flat.  A large party at the bad guy’s house is flaccid compared to the one in Notorious (1946).  For a director who pontificated about “pure cinema” as much as Charles Bennett’s Fat Little English Friend did, he was really at the mercy of his writers.  When they were good (Bennett, Wilder, Hecht, Chandler, Hayes, Lehman), the pictures were much better.  And no, I have no idea what Dorothy Parker did on Saboteur.  There is not a single line in the film that struck me as typical Parker.

Necessary Roughness

Necessary Roughness



Losing the franchise.

It has struck me that several cable shows last summer have been falling prey to the same problem: getting away from what their original franchises were. (Because this new CS website has had its growing pains, I’ve got a backlog of items to get in, as you may have gathered; I’ll start covering talkies shortly.)  In the early summer I wrote about both Necessary Roughness and Burn Notice in US #112 and mentioned they were changing.  I thought that Necessary Roughness might be going in an interesting direction by having Dr. Dani hired by the big sports and show business management company V3.  It gave the writers opportunities for Dani to handle a greater variety of patients in her role as psychiatrist.  That was true for the first few episodes, but then the show degenerated in storylines about the political infighting in the company.  That material was conventional and not as interesting as the patients Dani was dealing with, which became the B stories in the episodes rather than the A stories. Burn Notice was going into its last season, but with Michael back working for the CIA.  The Company had recruited him with a deal to keep his friends out of prison.  He was to infiltrate a terrorist organization the Company had been after for ten years (that’s long, even in CIA terms).  So instead of Michael being on his own, he was on the clock, not the original idea of the series.  What the writers did was try to turn a reasonably light-hearted comic adventure series into a character-based drama.  They generally managed it as Michael went deep undercover and seemed to lose his bearings about who the good guys and the bad guys were.  At the start of the last episode “Reckoning,” written by Matt Nix, Michael abruptly realizes he’s been mistaken and works with Sam, Fiona, and Jesse to bring down the superbaddie James. As much as we want to see Michael do this, his sudden clarity of purposes was a little too sudden.  But then we watch as the team works together.  Nix manages to give Fi another turn with her line from the credit sequence “Do we shoot them?” and Sam his line “Spies are a bunch of sissy little girls,” amusing for those of us who have memorized the opening spiel. Nix also gives Maddie, Michael’s mom, a great sendoff, which I am not going to reveal for those of you expecting to binge watch it in the future.  At the end of the episode and the series, we cut to a small cottage in the snow in Scotland (o.k., how does Nix tell us we are in Scotland?), which after all sunshine of the series made me laugh out loud.

Covert Affairs

Covert Affairs

Covert Affairs also got away from having Annie going on assorted missions for the CIA.  Most of the season was taken up with office politics, as was Necessary Roughness. Henry, the former boss of Annie’s unit, was determined to bring her and her co-workers down, since he blamed them for the death of his son.  For most of the season he became a supervillain out of a James Bond movie: can go anywhere and do anything, always a couple of steps ahead of Annie and her friends.  Like Burn Notice, the show started to get a little more serious than it started out.  With both Burn Notice and Covert Affairs, regular viewers were so caught up with the characters that we tended to go along for the ride.  If you are going to bend if not break the franchise on a show, then you had better have characters we will want to follow in the new direction.  By the end of the summer season episodes Annie is presumed dead, but with the help of an old friend (longtime readers of the column will remember that when this character seemed to leave the series I suspected he would should up again, and he does it here just in the way you would expect him to) she’s just gone off the grid.  In the fall second half of the season, Annie and her friends did manage to eliminate Henry with extreme prejudice, as spooks used to say, and they got a great trip to Hong Kong to do the job. Also in US #112, I wrote about the opening episodes of Graceland.  Its franchise seemed to me to have potential:  a group of agents for a variety of federal organizations (FBI, DEA, etc) live together in a mansion on the beach (well, it is on USA, like Burn Notice and Covert Affairs, so it had to have the channel signature of beautiful people and a lot of sunshine).  The idea was that the housemates would work together on different cases.  As the show evolved it became less of an ensemble piece and more focused on the story of the house newbie Mike, who was sent in to investigate Briggs, whom the FBI suspected of corruption.  So what was fresh about the original concept got downplayed as we got more conventional cops, drugs, and corruption stories.  At least the final episodes pretty much finished off the Briggs story, although the final episode, “Pawn,” written by Jeff Eastin, left a whopping big loose end with the discovery of a recording everybody thought had disappeared.  It will undoubtedly show up in the next season.

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