Understanding Screenwriting #119
Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks, Lone Survivor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, The Monuments Men.
By Tom Stempel.
A Gem, but Not Without a Flaw
(2013. Written by Bob Nelson. 115 minutes.)
For all the beautifully filmed (in glorious black and white by Phedon Papamichael) shots of the wide open spaces of Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska, this is a small-scale film. Woody, a geezer well past the beginnings of Alzheimer’s, gets it into his head that he has actually won one of those publisher’s contests and sets out to go to Lincoln to collect his million dollars. On foot. Finally his younger son David agrees to drive him. They get there and of course he has not won anything. Spoiler alert: he does get a cap that says “Prize Winner” on it.”
Simple story, so what makes it interesting? Character, character, character, and more character. Or rather more characters. There is Woody’s wife Kate, who has some of the greatest dialogue of last year’s movies, especially about some of her relatives. There is Ross, Woody’s oldest child and more successful in every way than David. Ross does not even have to rub it in to keep David aware of it. The trip stops off at Woody’s home town of Hawthorne and we meet his relatives, great characters all. (Some people, generally big city dudes, have complained that the film is very condescending to the small town folks, but those of us who grew up in the Midwest know exactly how accurate the film is.) Best of all, there is David, who at first seems to be a straight man to Woody, but we watch his reactions to what Woody does and does not do. His reactions create the character (with the help of Will Forte, formerly of Saturday Night Live, showing a great acting talent probably very few of us suspected).
The flaw in this gem of a movie, and it turns out be much smaller in terms of the impact of the film than I would have thought, is that Nelson has not given Woody a lot to do or say. And what he does say and do tends to be repetitive. Well, folks with Alzheimer’s are like that, so Woody is not as full a character as he might be, or as some of the others are. He does get some good moments; I particularly like his takedown of Mount Rushmore, saying things we have all thought but wouldn’t dare say. Bruce Dern does everything he can, which is considerable, and the rest of the great cast help make up for it.
Nick Pinkerton, writing in the January 2014 Sight & Sound, said he was afraid as he watched it that the movie was going to end up a Big Speech: Woody would have a lucid moment and explain himself to everybody in “a highlight-reel-stuffer and a petition for the Academy voters,” as Pinkerton so ably puts it. There is no Big Speech. Woody is himself to the end, but because Nelson has paid attention to the other characters, especially David (and no, he does not get a big speech either), he has written one of the most satisfying movie endings in a long time. I would not dream of giving it away, but when you see the movie, look at how consistent it is with what has happened, and yet how surprising. I am sure you can see many movie endings coming from a great distance, as can I, but this one was a total surprise.
I Stand Corrected
The Wolf of Wall Street
(2013. Screenplay by Terence Winter, based on the book The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort. 180 minutes.)
In writing about Shutter Island (2010) in US #43, I noted that what always bothered me about Martin Scorsese is that he seemed such a humorless director. There are not a barrel of laughs in his films. In Shutter Island, there seemed to be some comic moments in Laeta Kalogridis’s script, but it was not clear to me is Scorsese knew they were there. Well, Terence Winter’s script is funny and there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that Scorsese knows it’s funny. There are more out and out laughs in this film than there are in all of his other films. Combined.
The film is the story of Jordan Belfort, one of the legendary sleazy stockbrokers of the eighties and nineties. Early on we see him as a naïve 22 year-old get a lesson in how the stock market really works (keep customers in investing whatever you can sell them so you keep collecting commissions) by Mark Hanna, his boss. Winter gives Hanna a great, funny aria (some of it improvised, we have been told) and Scorsese doesn’t get fancy with his direction. He just has the camera sit there and watch Matthew McConaughey give, what, the tenth of all the great performances he’s given in the last two minutes? The scene is funny and appalling in all the right ways to get the film off to the kind of start it needs.
We then get great scenes with the sleazebags Belfort builds into his very successful company. I particularly loved the scene where they are discussing the legal, not moral, implications of the sport of dwarf-tossing, an activity in their office parties. Look at how much that tells us about their character, or lack of it. Winter has even written a great physical comedy scene in which Belfort and his second in command get completely wasted with supposedly out-of-date drugs. The business with the phone line is within hailing distance of Buster Keaton, something I never thought I would be writing about Scorsese.
There are great dramatic scenes as well, and a wonderfully subtle first meeting between Belfort and the FBI agent who is after him. Winter is best known as a writer on The Sopranos and the creator of Boardwalk Empire (neither one are shows I admire, I must admit), but his earlier credits include an episode of Flipper in 1996 and three episodes of Xena, Warrior Princess in the late nineties. In other words, he can write great characters but also has a light side that serves him well here. On the other hand, he may be too used to the extra length of a television series. The flaw in Winter’s script and the film is that it is enormous repetitive. As much as I love naked women, we don’t really need to see as many scenes of them at the office parties as we do. I am not a fan of cocaine, so I could do with a lot fewer scenes of virtually everybody in the film snorting nose candy. I suppose Winter and Scorsese’s defense of all this excess is that this is a story about excess. But we get it, we get it. If I and the former student editor I mentioned in talking about Blue is the Warmest Color in #118 could cut that down to a couple of hours, we could do the same with this one. Or at least two and a quarter hours.
The Movie The Wolf of Wall Street Wanted To Be but Wasn’t
(2013. Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell. 138 minutes.)
I whacked The Fifth Estate in US #117 for getting off to a fast but confusing start, using the traditional idea of starting in media res (the middle of the things, in case you forgot your high school Latin). The opening scene of American Hustle is a demonstration of how to do it right. We see several people setting up what appears to be a sting of some kind in a hotel room. We don’t yet know who these people are, but they seem to know what they are doing. And they seem colorful. Singer and Russell have given us enough to want to know more about what they are doing and about them. In other words, they have hooked us in the first five minutes. You should do as well in your script.
It is a fast opening scene, and then the movie proceeds to move like a bat out of hell for the rest of its running time. Unlike Wolf, there is virtually no repetition or extended scenes, nor are there any naked women, and although the cleavage of the women is spectacular, their breasts are all in the service of the story. After the opening, we go into flashbacks where we meet a second rate con artist named Irving Rosenfeld. How do we know he is second rate? Look at the details Singer and Russell give us in his first solo scene: the obvious paunch and the spectacular comb over. Then we see him meeting (and not in a cliché meet-cute) Sydney Prosser, who becomes his partner. And just when they get their scams going, FBI agent Richie DiMaso arrests them and gets them involved in a bigger scam he wants to run against some politicians. And only then, well into the picture, do we learn that Irving is married to Rosalyn, whom we first take to be just a dim Jersey housewife. And she gets involved as well in the scam against a Jersey Mayor, Carmine Polito, who seems to be the most honest person in the film. These are five great characters who provide all five actors playing them the opportunities to give career-best performances.
What makes these characters great in this film is that Singer and Russell have structured the story so that each character becomes richer and more complex as the film progresses. Irving likes to think of himself as a ruthless hustler, but he realizes he is in over his head, and he actually develops a great sympathy for Carmine as they close the noose on him. Sydney starts out one of the smartest and toughest people in the room, but her emotions keep shifting. She’s attracted to Irving, but then to Richie, knowing all that can screw up the con. Rosalyn turns out to be a lot smarter than anybody, possibly including herself, thought. She has a real knack for the hustle. Richie starts out just an ambitious FBI agent, but we can see him caught up in the glamour and the glitz of the con. Later, we get a brief scene of Richie at home, where we meet his mom and a woman his mom wants him to marry. Because the writers place that scene so late in the picture, it tells us quickly why Richie is attracted to the glamour of the con. Putting that scene early in the film would not have had the same impact. As John Ford used to say, don’t tell the audience anything until they need to know it. Singer and Russell are masters of this. We first assume Carmine is a corrupt politician, and while he is, we constantly get the sense that he does have the interests of his city foremost in his heart. Which is what makes Irving have some sympathy for him. In the true case the film is inspired by, the FBI was focused on politicians a lot higher up than the mayor. We do get a montage of them at the end, but the Singer and Russell are right to focus on the characters they do rather than try to cover everything that was involved in the real case. Selection of the material you need is crucial in good screenwriting.
It will not surprise you to learn that in addition to those five great leading characters, the writers have created a gallery of supporting parts. Thorsen is Richie’s boss and he is not the traditional by-the-book boss we have seen in so many buddy cop movies. The con eventually involves a Miami mobster Tellegio, and the actor playing his lawyer is given a great scene in his office, and then a terrific payoff scene a little later. Tellegio is played in an uncredited cameo by Robert De Niro. The character does not do much in the scene, but is mostly a presence. Given De Niro’s work in The Godfather Part III (1974), Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), his presence is enough. And it is the only time in his entire career that he has underacted. David Russell also directed the film and anybody who can tamp down De Niro while letting the other actors do great stuff obviously knows what he is doing and how to do it.
How Much of the Outback Do You Need?
Saving Mr. Banks
(2013. Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. 125 minutes.)
This started out to be a much different script than the one you see up on the screen. According to a nice article on the development of the film in the December 2013 Sight & Sound, the project began with Australian producer Ian Collie, who had done a 2002 documentary on P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books. He thought there might be a film in Travers’s relationship with her father, the model for Mr. Banks in the books. The first drafts were written by Sue Smith and focused more on the father than her dealing with Walt Disney. Eventually Kelly Marcel was hired to rewrite it in an effort to get approval and help from the Disney studio. Allison Owen, a British producer, thought that Marcel “has terrific humor, dialogue, and character depth, and is second to none on structure.” She and Collie agreed that Marcel’s second draft “really nailed it.” The producers took the script to Disney, who loved it, and opened up their archives to Marcel and the producers. Owen said “All this great material didn’t materially affect the structure of the story, so the cake was already there, but we certainly got some pretty marvelous icing.” Indeed. Under the end credits we hear the original tape of a meeting between Travers and the writers of Mary Poppins, which lets us know how Marcel and her collaborators have nailed it in the film.
In the development of the script, the focus shifted from Travers and her father to Travers and Walt Disney, but not as much as it probably should have. There are a lot of scenes with father and daughter, but we do not need them all. Like the wretched excesses in The Wolf of Wall Street, we get it quicker than the writers think we do. This is a point I made over and over again to my screenwriting students: you do not need as much as you think you do to get your point across. This becomes a problem in this film because the story of Travers’s time at the studio is much more compelling than her childhood. Partly that is because Marcel and Smith have created two great characters in Travers and Disney, and they are played by two of the best actors around, Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks. Both of them are at the top of their game, so much so that whenever the film went into the Australian flashbacks, I groaned. Colin Ferrell is very good as the father, but I would much rather have been watching Thompson and Hanks. The scenes with Travers and screenwriter Don DaGradi and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman are wonderful demonstrations of how difficult collaboration can be. When Travers actually gets involved in singing “Go Fly a Kite” with them, there wasn’t dry seat in the house.
At the premiere of Mary Poppins in the film, Travers is in tears. I think we are meant to believe she was moved by the film. In fact she did not like it. With tears in her eyes, Travers tells Walt she still did not like the animated penguins. It’s a nice payoff to the running gag of her not liking the penguins, but what really happened is much more interesting. After the premiere Travers insisted the penguins had to be taken out. Disney simply told her, “That ship has sailed.” That makes him a little tougher and truer to the original Walt than Hanks’s performance suggests.
One complaint several people have had about the film is that it seems to be praising Disney for overriding the original artist. Since childhood we have all been made to believe in the sacredness of the artistic vision, so people assumed that the film, released by the Disney studio, is simply deifying its founder. The film is a little more complicated than that. It is really about collaboration, and it is aware that Disney is aware of what’s going on. At one point he mentions to his crew that he can sympathize with Travers’s feelings, since he can recall an executive early in Disney’s career who wanted to take control of a character he created. Disney says he couldn’t give him up, “The mouse was family.”
Act of Valor with Better Actors
(2014. Written by Peter Berg, based on the book by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson. 121 minutes.)
A couple of years ago I wrote about Act of Valor in US #94, a movie based on the activities of the Navy SEALS, using real SEALS as the actors. As I pointed out in my review, there was very little characterization, since the dialogue tended to be flat, declarative sentences because the “actors” couldn’t deal with anything more nuanced than that. The action was terrific, but that was about it.
Lone Survivor runs into a similar problem. It is based on the book that describes Marcus Luttrell’s experience in a SEAL raid in Afghanistan that turned into a disaster. Luttrell and his three comrades were delivered by helicopter near a village where one of the Taliban warlords was known to hang out. On the way to the village, the SEALs came across a goat herder and his two sons. Do they kill them to protect the mission? Or do they just tie them up and hope somebody finds them after the mission? Or do they take a chance and let them go? The rules of engagement are that you don’t kill civilians unless they are trying to kill you, and our guys let them go. One of the sons goes directly to the Taliban and the fight begins. Three of the four SEALS are killed. Luttrell escapes and is helped by a man in another village. He is eventually rescued.
The battle sequence is terrific, but the dialogue is just as much on one level as that in Act of Valor. Berg started out as an actor (thirtysomething), but has moved into writing and directing. He wrote the film Friday Night Lights and he developed and wrote for the television series of the same name, so he should have written a better script than this one. Surely anybody involved at his level on Friday Night Lights should be able to write more nuanced scenes between men with extra testosterone. Nobody in this film says another or talks in any way we do not expect. There are no surprises in the characterization. As a director Berg has better actors than the non-actors in Valor, so they do more with what they have been given, but look at any of the credits of the majors actors and you know what they could have delivered with a better script.
The script also misses several opportunities to get us inside the Afghan characters. The man who rescues Luttrell insists on protecting him in his village, even with the threat of destruction by the Taliban. Why would he do that? In the film we never find out. At the end of the film there is a lengthy title that explains the Afghan tradition of hospitality and protection. The character would have been a lot more interesting on screen if we had seen some of the dynamics of that in action.
The film is mostly straightforward, but it suddenly turns grotesquely sentimental at the end. I think it is perfectly O.K. to give us pictures of the real men who died during the mission, but then they gild the lily by showing photos and videos of them on their wedding days. There have only been brief mentions of their wives in the picture, so it’s a real attempt to jerk tears at the end, something the rest of the film avoided.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
(2014. Written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp, based on characters created by Tom Clancy. 105 minutes.)
One of the most depressing trends in Hollywood over the last fifteen years or so is the constant films that insist on dealing with the “origin story” of its characters. How many origin stories of Spider-Man, Batman, and Superman have we had in that time? I suspect that it was the successful origin story of James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale that may have inspired, if you want to call it that, the producers to try the same thing with Tom Clancy’s spy Jack Ryan. Ryan has been played by four actors in five films, and they have all been adults: Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck. Clancy never wrote an origin story for Ryan, but then he also never wrote much of a character for him. We know who James Bond is, no matter who plays him, just as we know Batman and Superman. I had to laugh when I saw “based on characters created by Tom Clancy” in the credits, because with Ryan’s character there is not a lot of there there. Which could have inspired the writers, but they seem to have been weighed down, possibly by the producers, at least one of whom, Mace Nuefeld has been with the franchise since it started. Which has not stopped the Bond films, since the Broccoli family knows how to make movies.
So what we get is very much an origin story by the numbers. After 9/11, Ryan joins the military, is wounded, is healed with the help of a beautiful doctor (female—I told you the writers are not allowed to stray off the reservation), and recruited by the CIA. He works undercover in a large bank where he discovers some mysterious accounting that suggests foul play and a possible collapse of the United States economy. Needless to say, he gets sent to Moscow, people try to kill him, and he ends up running around New York City trying to prevent a terrorist attack. It will not surprise you that he succeeds. Unfortunately, because there is very little characterization, we don’t care much about what happens to these people. Chris Pine, who plays Ryan, is a terrific actor, but the writers have not given him anything to act here. Kevin Costner plays Howard, Ryan’s recruiter, but he is also given nothing to do. The doctor is Keira Knightly, and all she is given is a chance to show off her shiny new American accent. There are a couple of good action scenes, but you have seen them before. The final chase through the streets of New York to stop a bomb was much better done, for example, in the 1997 film The Peacemaker.
I suppose as a screenwriter you could look at this film and figure out how to do all of this better, but you will learn more by looking at American Hustle a second time.
Fun but Disappointing
The Monuments Men
(2014. Screenplay by George Clooney & Grant Heslov, based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. 118 minutes by my count, 112 or 116 by other counts.)
In US #10 I reviewed the great 2006 documentary The Rape of Europa, which dealt with the efforts of the Allies in World War II to protect and rescue the great art of Europe Hitler and his gang had stolen. It told the story in an exciting, compelling way, and is one of the few films, let alone documentaries, that I wish were longer. Given that, I have been looking forward to The Monuments Men, since it was first announced. It is not based on the same book as the earlier film, but focuses on a small group of art historians, architects, and the like in the last year of the war.
Clooney and Heslov, who have collaborated on such films as The Ides of March (2011) and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), have simplified the story, focusing on eight of the men involved, as opposed to the original three hundred. Dramatically that makes sense, since you can get into the characters in a little more depth. They have provided good characters for their starry cast to play, but in doing do they have made it seem as though these eight were doing all the heavy lifting. A line or two about the others would have solved the problem. The writers, both of whom are actors and appear in the film, have also left in scenes that are good as showcases for the actors, but which disrupt the flow of the film. At one point Campbell and Savitz come across a young German soldier and they have a stare-down until they all walk away. Nice, but nothing to do with finding art. In another scene Savitz plays a record Campbell’s family has sent him, and Campbell is in the shower when he hears it. It is a great scene, beautifully acted by Bill Murrary as Campbell, but again, having nothing to do with the story. As the old expression that every screenwriter and would-be screenwriter should memorize goes, sometimes you have to kill all your darlings.
Part of the problem is that Clooney and Heslov started out to make one film and found themselves making another. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the writers originally thought of the film as a lighter-weight caper film, more The Great Escape (1963) than Saving Private Ryan (1998). The script had more jokes and more slapstick comedy than the final film. They discovered as they shot it that when characters started dying, it was difficult to maintain that level of comedy. The multitude of screenwriters who worked on The Great Escape (see US #78 for a list of a few of them) managed to make the combination of comedy and drama work better by starting as a comedy, bringing in the drama as the film progressed. Chris Terrio managed a nice balance between the drama and the Hollywood satire in Argo (2012). So it can be done, but Clooney and Haslov don’t manage it here.
Having said that, I still enjoyed the film. The basic material is still a great idea for a film, even if it is not as well done here as it should be. The writers have focused on two pieces of art rather than trying to deal with all of it, and that provides an adequate spine for the film. And I imagine you will be cheering near the end when the Monuments Men save some of the art from the advancing Russian troops in the nick of time. The cast is great, and the writers have given them a lot to do. The thorny relationship between Granger (Matt Damon), the American, and Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), the French woman who knows a lot more than she is telling, is so good that even Clooney and Heslov dragging in some completely fictitious romantic feelings between them does not kill it, although it throws the focus of their final scene off. That’s the film in a nutshell: the good and the bad together.
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