Understanding Screenwriting #118
Blue is the Warmest Color, Frozen, Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave, Philomena, Go For Sisters, About Time.
By Tom Stempel.
Another One Where I Would Sell My Grandmother For a Long Shot
Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013. Scenario, adaptation, and dialogue by Abdellatif Kechiche & Ghalia Lacroix, from the graphic novel Le Bleu est une couleur chaude by Julie Maroh. 179 minutes.)
On the script level this is a nuanced, sensitive study of a teenaged French girl Adele who falls in love with a slightly older woman Emma. I have pinged on graphic novels on numerous occasions on the grounds they don’t really do character nuance very well. I have not seen the graphic novel this film is based on, but I would guess it is more character-oriented than most. The screenwriters have certainly focused on the characters, especially Adele. We follow every shift of feeling as she goes from being a typical adolescent with an amorphous sense of her sexual identity to someone deeply in love with another woman. We see what might be politely called the ups and downs of the relationship, including its final breakup.
Writing last year in US #106 about Ginger and Rosa, another film about the close, although in that case non-sexual, relationship between girls, I started the piece with the snarky sub-head that I would sell my grandmother for a long shot. That is true here. Kechiche also directs and loves his close-ups. His two actresses, especially Adèle Exarchopolous as Adele, are brilliantly alive on screen, and you can see why Kechiche wants to stay on their faces. But as brilliant as they are, the close-ups get very repetitive, and they slow the film down. It runs one minute less than three hours, and I am sure you could shoot the script so it would run two. For that matter, I said to my wife after the film that if you gave me the film, an editing room, and at least one of the great film editors I had as students at LACC, we could get it down to two hours fairly quickly. Kechiche, like many directors, has fallen in love with his footage, and as a result we get a lot more than we need to make the points he wants to make. The script is not flawless. We learn in a scene with Emma’s parents that they are very accepting of her gayness, but in a similar dinner scene with Adele’s parents, it is obvious the women are hiding their relationship. Well, talk about bringing on a gun in the first act. We wait around for the scene where the parents learn the truth. It never comes, and we never see the parents again. One person in the IMDb comments section suggested such a scene would be a cliché. It could be, but given the quality of the writing of Kechiche and Lacrois elsewhere in the film, I am sure they could avoid the clichés and make it fresh and original.
Better Than Brave but Not Up to Tangled
(2013. Screenplay by Jennifer Lee, story by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Shane Morris, inspired by The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen. 102 minutes.)
I have lost the card that I used to carry, so I can no longer claim to be a card-carrying feminist. However, if you have read enough of my stuff, not only the columns but the books, you pretty much get the picture that I support women filmmakers and strong women characters in the movies. In the case of animation, I liked the 2010 Tangled, and not just because of the cute animated feet, as you can see in my comments on it. Rapunzel was a tough chick who was smart enough to use her resplendent mane of hair is all kinds of inventive ways.
Frozen is not quite up to Tangled, although there have been critics who liked it better and it has proved to be a bigger hit at the box office. I may have been put off by a row of people in the audience behind me who kept whispering in Chinese during a lot of the film, but my problems began earlier. Elsa and Anna are two princesses who happen to be sisters. O.K., Tangled dealt with mother-daughter conflict, so why not sisterly conflict? Well some of that works, but the starting point of the script is flawed. The king and queen learn early in the kids’ lives that Elsa has the power to inadvertently freeze everything. As in people, plants, castles, etc. So they lock her up in a room in the castle. O.K., I can understand that, but then they never tell Anna what the problem is with her sister. Yes, this is one of those movies where if somebody says something intelligent at the beginning, the whole structure of the film collapses. After the kids grow up, Elsa gets pissed and lights out for the territories, freezing stuff as she goes. And Anna goes to try to find her. So we see Anna and Kristoff and Kristoff’s funny reindeer and the very funny snowman Olaf journey to Elsa’s ice castle. We do get a lot of nicely designed sets of ice, and some good slapstick, but it is not as fresh as it thinks it is. I kept being reminded of how much better Tangled handled this. Rapunzel’s mom in the earlier film was voiced by the great Broadway star Donna Murphy, and the filmmakers gave her a great number. Else is voiced here by the equally great Broadway star of Wicked, Idina Menzel. They give her a couple of numbers, but they are generic Broadway power ballads rather than something specifically for her character. (Obviously I am alone in my feelings about the songs, since the soundtrack album is a huge hit, and one, “Let It Go,” won the Oscar for Best Song.) Eventually the sisters get back together, but there is still the problem of Elsa’s freezing capabilities. This is dismissed by the film when it turns out if she loves things, she won’t freeze them. What the hell? Didn’t she figure this out at some point locked up in her room in the castle? The writers are once again rather sloppy.
On the other hand, the writers are not as sloppy as those on last year’s Brave, which featured another Disney/Pixar tomboy princess. You can read my comments on that one to see what went wrong there. What all this means is that we are now at a time when women writers and directors are given the opportunities to be just as good or as bad as the men. Isn’t that what feminism is all about?
Sometimes You Take Your Wife to the Movies, Sometimes You Don’t
Dallas Buyers Club
(2013. Written by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack. 117 minutes.)
As far as I am concerned, the worst thing about living in Los Angeles is having to suffer through the four-month award season when ego and provincialism dominate the landscape. Well, more than usual, anyway. You can read my take on that last year here in my discussion of Zero Dark Thirty. One problem with the season is that there is suddenly a backlog of potentially interesting movies stacking up in the theatres. Most of those are ones my wife also wants to see, so we get behind in our moviegoing while dealing with the details of real life. That occasionally means I have to see something we both want to see before it disappears from nearby theatres.
That’s what happened with Dallas Buyers Club. She would have hated the film, but she would have helped me deal with the issues of the film. The film is one of those American films that pop up from time to time that are anti-science. You know the type: the scientists, usually mad, are the villains while the loner outsmarts them all. It’s a standard underdog story, which is why Hollywood loves it. Dallas is not as bad as some sci-fi movies, and an end title undercuts its own premise. The film is the semi-true story of Ron Woodruff, an electrician and grafter in Texas in the mid-eighties who learns he has AIDS. He can’t get into the official medical trials for the drug AZT, but he hustles some from an orderly at the hospital. Then he begins to read some medical journals and discovers there are other treatments being approved overseas, but not here by the FDA. He eventually gets an American doctor in Mexico to prescribe some of them, which he smuggles back into the country. Woodruff sets up a buyers’ club, where patients can pay a monthly fee and receive the drugs for free (so Woodruff cannot be accused of selling drugs). Both the maker of AZT and the FDA are seen as the bad guys since they will not make that drug, or the European ones, instantly available. Granted there was a lot, and I mean A LOT, of foot-dragging by the American medical establishment in the early days of AIDS, but the film tends to downplay the need for drug trials before the drugs are available to the public. Look up the history of Thalidomide if you want to find what can go wrong. The film assumes the lone hero is right and never deals with any negative results from his patients taking the drugs he gets them. We do learn that the earlier large doses of AZT produced horrid side effects, but after demonizing the drug and its producer, we are caught up short by an end title that notes that with lower doses and in combination with other drugs, AZT has saved millions of lives. My wife, who in her working days was involved in scientific research, does not take kindly about movies that get the science wrong. You should have heard her on the physiological errors in Fantastic Voyage, the 1966 film about a miniaturized submarine going through the body: “That’s not that color,” “The texture’s all wrong,” and the ultimate: “You can’t there from there.” Thank God we were in our car at a drive-in for that one or we would have been thrown out of the theatre.
Aside from the scientific issues, the film has a lot of virtues. Woodruff is a wonderfully entertaining character to watch, and Matthew McConaughey gives a great performance. Unfortunately the director Jean-Marc Vallée thinks so too and he holds the camera on McConaughey as much as Kechiche does on Exarchopolous in Blue is the Warmest Color. Jared Leto, a long way from Jordan Catalano in My So-Called Life, is great as Rayon, a transsexual the homophobic Woodruff works with. Leto is especially good in the scene where he dresses as a man to talk to his father, and we get the sense of how uncomfortable he is dressed essentially in drag as a man. Great idea for a scene, and nicely written and played.
Not the Feel-Good Movie of the Season, Thank God
12 Years a Slave
(2013. Screenplay by John Ridley, based on the book 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. 134 minutes.)
Northup’s book presents a real challenge for an adaptor. Northup was a free black man in the North in the 1840s. He went off for a job with some show business types and ended up sold into slavery in the South. He endured twelve years as a slave before he was able to get word back to his family, who were able to provide the papers and witnesses that proved he was a free man. In 1853 he wrote his book, which was a sensation in its time, coming on the heels of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin the year before. There have been a bazillion film versions of Stowe’s novel, but this is the first film of Northup’s book. Northup’s story does not have the over-the-top melodrama that made Stowe’s story appealing to theatre and film creators. Northup is kidnapped, he endures slavery, and eventually he is rescued. The evils of slavery were what the book was about and the reason for its impact. We are now over 150 years later and we have read and seen a lot more about slavery. The book has the impact of hearing in the first person from someone who was there. The film does not, but it does have the ability to show you in fairly graphic detail what went on; pictures in this case being worth several thousand words.
Structurally the material is a problem, since there is very little Northup can do to escape, which means the story has almost no dramatic arc. Like slavery itself, it is one damned, God-awful thing after another, which makes the film drag. I am surprised that Ridley did not sneak in some humor as a counterpoint (look at his script for the 2012 film Red Tails to see how he could have done it; I dealt with that in US #91). There may not have been any in Northup’s book, but I suspect there was more than a little dark humor among the slaves. I am not asking for complete Richard Pryor routines, but just something in the reactions of the slave characters that would vary the tone a bit. The director, Steve McQueen (no, not the late motorcycle guy, but the black British director), does vary the tone in a way that should not have worked but does. This is known as artistic logic as opposed to real logic. Real logic says that emphasizing the natural beauty of the South in cutaway shots should trivialize the story by making it seem cute. Instead it gives us, although not so much the slaves, a brief visual relief from the horrors we see. In the first fifteen minutes of the film, McQueen tends to overdirect, using enough fancy angles of the kind he used in his earlier art house films. He settles down as the film progresses. In one scene Northup hustles his evil master into believing the man who betrayed Northup’s trust about taking a letter to the north was in fact screwing with the master’s head. McQueen smartly plays it all in one long single take, and it’s terrific. He does the same thing later when Northup finally joins in the singing of “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” which suggests he is semi-accepting his lot as a slave. When I wrote about Lincoln (2012) in US #104, I particularly praised Tony Kushner’s dialogue, which captured the many flavors of the way people talked in those days. Ridley is trying to be true to the period, but it only works part-time. Spielberg and his casting people hired actors who could handle Kuchner’s period dialogue. McQueen and his casting people don’t manage that. Some of the actors, like Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender, speak the dialogue beautifully. Others, like Saturday Night Live’s Terran Killam and Brad Pitt (who is one of the producers of the film and helped get it made, bless his heart) are very uncomfortable with the language. Moral for writers: if you are going to write dialogue in interesting ways, make sure the actors can say it. A Big Plot Twist Philomena (2013. Screenplay by Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope, adapted from the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith. 98 minutes.)
First off, before I get to the spoiler (and I will warn you when it’s coming up), you should look at this script as a perfect example of writing characters and giving the actors enough character detail they can play. When Judi Dench’s Philomena is being pleasant to the food service people in her plush American hotel, it’s a brilliant character moment, as is her delight at the particular movie she can get on the hotel television.
The story is obviously going to be a character study. It’s the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irishwoman who got pregnant from a one-night stand in the early fifties. She was sent to a Catholic abbey, where she gave birth to the child. She could at least see him once a day until he suddenly disappeared with an American couple who adopted him. She has thought about him ever since and wondered if he ever thought about Ireland or her. You could write the character as a depressed old lady, but Coogan and Pope give her many different shadings. She gets involved with journalist Martin Sixsmith, a very lapsed Catholic, who gets talked into trying to help her find the son. He is more than just a cynical journalist, with his own personality quirks. Coogan, who is known primarily as a comedian and comic actor, plays it very straight, although he and Pope do give his character some great lines. Martin uses his connections to find out the adopted name of the boy and that— O.K., Spoiler alert. If you don’t want to know the big twist, do not read the rest of this item until after you see the film. O.K.? Midway through the film they find out the son has died several years before. What? We all knew film was going to lead to a big tearful reunion of mother and son, giving Judi Dench yet another shot at all kinds of awards. The fact she was still up for those awards tells you how well the writers have structured the rest of the film. They have laid in enough stuff, some of it very subtly, before the big plot twist that we want to find out what happens to Philomena and Martin after their search is apparently over. I hinted at least one of them in how I wrote about the film before the spoiler alert, but you can find others. What all that means is that the film does not have to start all over again after they learn the son is dead. If you are going to write a big twist like that halfway through the picture, you’d better be as sharp as Coogan and Pope are in setting stuff up so that we will want to follow the film after the twist. Didn’t I Just See This on Television? Go For Sisters (2013. Written by John Sayles. 123 minutes.)
Yes, sort of. You may remember that in US #114, I wrote about what a terrific new show The Bridge was. It was about an American female cop and a Mexican male cop dealing with a lot of criminal issues on the Texas-Mexico border. It had a variety of storylines and a galley of very interesting characters. It got a little sloppy about its plotting near the end of its first season, but not enough to keep us from wanting more. So here’s what Sayles’s new one is about: Bernice, an LA parole officer, has an old high school friend of hers, Fontayne, show up in her office as a client. When Rod, Bernice’s son, goes missing, Bernice gets Fontayne to help get her into the world of human traffickers that Rod may be involved with. When they find out Rod is probably in Mexico, they enlist former detective Suarez to help them find him in Tijuana.
As you might suspect with Sayles, he is more interested in character than plot. He takes a lot of time with Bernice and Fontayne and their relationship, but many of their scenes are just recapping their past friendship and giving us exposition. Sayles has always been interested in working class characters, and here he has two working class black women. However, the scenes with the two of them that work best are those where they are involved in the search, including an early one, in which Fontayne shows her skills in badassery that would have made her a great cop. Suarez is old, saggy, and not seeing very well, which he finesses in a particularly inventive way in a shootout with some TJ cops. Unfortunately all the other secondary characters are uninteresting. We got interesting speculation from Suarez about Rod, but we get no payoff with Rod at the end. The Bridge handles its secondary characters much better, and that is not just that its writers had thirteen hours to Sayles’s two. One of the joys of Sayles’s earlier films, such as Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980) and Lone Star (1996), is the collection of characters they provide. As any of the ten best movies you want to come up demonstrate, you can create great characters in a two-hour film. The difference between The Bridge and Go For Sisters is not simply the difference between writing for television and writing for films. In 1992 I started the discussion of that issue in my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing by noting that what I discovered “as I worked on the book in the mid-eighties was that the volume of good writing was higher in those days in television than it was in film.” There is certainly great writing in television now, as there has been for the last thirty years, and The Bridge is only one example of that. But great screenwriting is certainly still possible in films, especially if you are as rigorously independent as Sayles is. He seems to have gotten sloppy in his last few films, as I mentioned in writing about his 2010 film Amigo in US #80. God forgive me for suggesting it, but he may need to get some serious feedback on his scripts before he shoots them. Mark this down as one of the few times that I have ever called for more “development” rather than less. Disappointing About Time (2013. Written by Richard Curtis. 123 minutes.)
Richard Curtis has been a favorite screenwriter of mine since his 1988 screenplay The Tall Guy. You can read my general take on him in US#68 in the item on his Pirate Radio (2009), a very sloppy and unfocused movie. About Time is also disappointing, especially since it is in a genre he owns the way Hitchcock owns thrillers. Curtis is the master of the romantic comedy. Much of this film is about the romance of Tim, a gangly, ginger-haired lawyer, and Mary, a book editor. They get married in a wedding in a picturesque setting that is disrupted by wind and rain. The scene plays like a deleted scene from Curtis’s 1994 hit Four Weddings and a Funeral, but it is amusing, as is a scene where Mary keeps trying on a variety of dresses as Tim tries to react the appropriate way to each one. So what, other than the charm of the two leads (Dohmnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams) is going to hold us for over two hours?
The gimmick, and boy is it ever a gimmick, is that the men in Tim’s family have the ability to travel in time, but only to the past and never in a way that will interfere with great historical events. Curtis doesn’t give us an explanation for this, but just barrels ahead in the first scene with Tim’s Dad explaining the rules. This is a classic “You buy the premise, you buy the bit.” The problem is that Curtis never uses the time travel for more than minor jokes, e.g., Tim going back a few minutes to kiss a girl he did not kiss at a New Year’s Eve party. It gets frustrating for the viewer that Curtis and Tim are not more inventive with the gift. The best scenes, like the wedding, have very little to do with the time travel elements. While the film is supposed to be about Tim and Mary, the last fifteen minutes or so is more about Tim and Dad. Their final scenes seem to have come from another movie all together. About Time is one of several films in the second half of 2013 that were particularly disappointing to me because they were written by writers whose work I generally love. As I mentioned in my review of The Lone Ranger in US #114, Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot’s work on the first Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy was wonderful, but The Lone Ranger is a mess. I loved J.C. Chandor’s script for Margin Call (2011), but he didn’t do as well on All is Lost, nor did Peter Morgan live up to his talent in Rush. Alfonso Cuarón’s work on Gravity suffers in comparison with Y Tu Mamá También (2001). Diablo Cody’s script for Paradise never clicks into place. John Sayles’s Go for Sisters is one of his lesser recent ones. And now Curtis. I would like to believe that my liking these writers did not bring down a curse on all their heads, although that may be possible. One thing that happens with people of talent is that they go through fallow periods. You will too, I guarantee it. That does not mean that we should count them, or you, out. Never give up on talent. As depressing as it is to see a good screenwriter’s bad film, keep in mind the comment the great Yale playwriting professor John Gassner made: “Playwrights exhibit their mistakes, doctors bury theirs.” As I said in my review of Sayles’s Amigo in US #80, one or two bad pictures is not enough to make me give up on him; the same with the other writers. [mc4wp_form]
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