Understanding Screenwriting #121
Boyhood, A Most Wanted Man, Magic in the Moonlight, Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense (book), Fargo.
By Tom Stempel.
Now That’s a Writing Challenge
(2014. Written by Richard Linklater. 166 minutes.)
Writing most screenplays is relatively easy. (Writing them well is a whole ‘nother story, which is what this column is about.) If you are writing a script in a genre, you follow the rules of the genre. In a sci-fi movie you have one or more good guys who are battling, well, this year it seems to be large mechanical monsters. (One reason I was mildly amused by 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow was that the monsters were slimy, organic things rather than metallic ones.) You know the humans will fight and eventually win. In a slasher movie, the slasher will kill a bunch of people, and then somebody will kill him, although there will be hints he survives for yet another sequel. And so on. The structure is worked out early in the writing process, and the writing fills out that structure. The script can usually be shot in a couple of months with a cast gathered for the length of the shoot.
Linklater doesn’t do any of that in Boyhood. His idea back in 2002 was to follow a fictional boy as he grows up from six to eighteen, and shoot it over twelve years. So he started by writing scenes that establish Mason as six years old, the son of divorced parents. Mason has an older sister who causes him grief, as older sisters are wont to do. There was no way Linklater could know how that would turn out, or even if it would. The project required that Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, to stick with the project for over a decade, and who knows how a kid will feel at all those times. He may have turned out like some of the subjects in the famous Up documentary series (the closest cinematic equivalent to Boyhood) who opted out of participating along the way. What happens if he gets run over by a bus when he is thirteen years old?
But those were production problems rather than writing ones. Linklater and the cast and crew would get together every summer for a couple of weeks and shoot some material. As Linklater did with the second and third of his Before trilogy, he would stay in touch with Coltrane and the other recurring actors (the daughter is played by Linklater’s own daughter, and his mother and father by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) between shoots and collect suggestions from them about where their characters were emotionally. Coltrane developed an interest in photography in his teen years, and so did Mason.
What we get in the writing is not the usual tight structure of American films, but a much looser style. We meet mother’s second husband one year and he seems like a nice guy. Within a year or two it’s clear he’s an alcoholic. We get this not in a flow, but in the individual scenes in each year. Her third husband goes through an abrupt change over three year, from an open, friendly Iraq vet to a very tightly wound corrections office at a local prison. We don’t get to watch the transition as we would in a “normal” screenplay, but in episodes. It’s a storytelling rhythm that takes a little getting used to. Like Linklater’s writing, we have to keep on our toes to make the connections. And some things quite frankly don’t connect. At one point Mason starts in a new school, and the girls in his class look at him with interest, but there is no direct follow-up to that. Sometimes these one-time things work. In the opening scenes Mason is a big video game fan, but as the film progresses, he seems to have dropped the games. In the middle of the film is a sequence of Mason and his sister going to the midnight release of the book Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince that captures the Potter craze perfectly, but Harry Potter is never referred to again. In 2008 Mason and his sister are putting up Obama/Biden signs in people’s yards. In Texas. This produces two confrontations, one you would expect and one you wouldn’t. And Obama is never mentioned again.
There are scenes and character that Mason connects with over the course of the film. His dad is a divorced (until the last few segments of the film), but he is very much part of Mason’s life, taking him on a camping trip and teaching him the true “Native American” way of putting out a campfire. And when Mason is getting over a failed romance in high school, dad gives him a nice speech on how to deal with romance in the real world. We meet dad’s roommate Jimmy early in the film and we think he is just another pot-head musician wannabe. It is a surprise to us several years later when it turns out he has an actual music career. Life is like that, which is one point of the film. Stuff happens, some of it memorable, some of it not.
O.K., if all that is true, how can you end the film? It’s obvious there is not going to be a big finish. Mason is not going to blow up the Death Star, or even turn into Spider-Man. Like millions of other boys before him, he graduates from high school, and he starts college. Which at least temporarily gets him away from his parents and his high school teachers who keep telling him he’s not applying himself. For Mason that’s happy ending, and you can see how the material Linklater had laid in earlier pays off.
Good, not Great, Filmed le Carré
A Most Wanted Man
(2014. Screenplay by Andrew Bovell, based on the novel by John le Carré, additional writing by Stephen Cornwell. 122 minutes.)
I have been a big fan of both the novels by John le Carré and the films, theatrical and television made from them, since the late seventies. Somehow I missed the novel A Most Wanted Man, when it was published in 2008. When I first saw the trailer for the film, I was not surprised to learn at the end of it that it was based on a le Carré, even though I saw the trailer on a display video in the lobby of the Landmark Theatre in Los Angles, where it was run without sound. Just from the visuals, it felt like a le Carré story. When I saw the trailer with sound, it wasn’t quite as impressive.
Billy Wilder always said that somebody coming into a room through the window is more interesting than somebody coming through the door. The equivalent here is Issa Karpov, who in the opening scene drags himself, sopping wet, up a ladder on a dock in Hamburg, Germany. He is the son of a Russian general, come to collect money his father has hidden in a Hamburg bank. Karpov immediately attracts the attention of Günther Bachmann and his team. Bachmann is a mildly disgraced (his operation in Lebanon went south and his agents were rolled up; it’s only later we find out who did it) intelligence agent who runs a group that does things German intelligence is not legally allowed to do. Needless to say, German and American intelligence wants to get their hands on Karpov, since they all think he wants the money to fund terrorist activities. So that’s where the suspense in the film should be: can Bachmann outwit everybody else to do what he needs to do with Karpov?
The problem with the script is that Bovell has done a great job detailing the characters of Bachmann and the people he deals with, but he has not done as well by the people opposing Bachmann. The scenes with Bachmann, Anabel Richter (a lawyer representing Karpov), Tommy Brue (the banker holding the money, who apparently was much more of a major character in the novel), and even Abdullah (an occasional financier of terrorism) are great. Bachmann is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last leading role, and boy, are we going to miss him. Bovell does give us a couple of good scenes with Robin Wright as the CIA’s Martha Sullivan, but the German intelligence people of different organizations are not that well defined, and quite frankly, they don’t seen that dangerous. Bachmann, we are fairly sure, can outwit them, which limits the suspense. He can’t, which is a surprise, but it’s not that much of twist to overcome the lack of suspense leading up to it.
You will notice in the credits there is an interesting credit for “additional writing” by Stephen Cornwell, who is le Carré’s son, and a writer on his own. I have never seen this credit before, since the WGA has fought tooth and nail against anything like it. I think it’s a good idea, since there are often a lot of writers, particularly on comedies, that do work that helps the script, but not enough to get a full credit. Given all the various people who show up in the end credits for movies these days, I think giving writers a little extra credit is a good idea. We will see if this film starts a trend.
Rookie Mistake, Take Two
Magic in the Moonlight
(2014. Written by Woody Allen. 97 minutes.)
In the last column, I whacked Jon Favreau for making a rookie mistake in his script for Chef. The mistake was to spend way too much time in the first hour setting up the situation the main character finds himself in. In Magic, Allen spends way more time than he needs to in the first half hour having Stanley, a magician and professional debunker of spiritualists, telling us over and over again that he does not believe in spiritualism, things he cannot see, anything not rational, etc. Woody, we get it, get on with it. One review of the film I saw suggested this read like a first draft, and while they did not mention the repetition, I am sure that is what gave them the idea. Overwriting the opening is a standard rookie mistake.
Once the film gets going, it is not too bad, although not up to, say, Midnight in Paris (2011). Stanley, a Brit, is convinced Sophie, a mentalist, is a fraud. She is spending time with a rich family on the French Riviera. Sophie insists she is channeling the late husband of the family matriarch. The pace slows down as Stanley first tries to figure out how she is doing it, then finds himself believing she is real. And then the twists begin, making the last half hour the most fun of the film. Allen as usual has written some great scenes, especially for Colin Firth as Stanley and Eileen Atkins as his aunt Vanessa. There is one scene between them late in the picture where she casually talks him out of marrying his fiancé and marrying Sophie. I did not laugh that much at this movie, but I smiled a lot.
The Man Hitchcock Really Wanted to Be
Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett
(2014. Book edited by John Charles Bennett. 279 pages.)
I first met John Charles Bennett in 1996 at his wedding to Frances Young, who sang in a church choir with my wife. The reception was at his house, which had been his father’s house for years before his death the previous year. I was gobsmacked to see all the posters on the walls referring to Charles Bennett’s career as an actor and screenwriter. My wife asked, “Who is Charles Bennett?” I replied, “Without Charles Bennett, there is no Hitchcock.” But if you have read this column, you already know this. You can read about John and me discussing the play version of The 39 Steps here, and my latest Charles Bennett piece was only a few columns ago in US #116.
John and I began talking about his dad that day, and we continued for a while. He was going through his father’s papers and intended to write something about him. I encouraged him to write something for Creative Screenwriting (the magazine). He did not get around to that, undoubtedly swamped by dealing his dad’s papers, his new marriage, their first child, and having to both change jobs and move. I did not follow up, but fortunately Pat McGilligan did. Pat you know as the editor of the Backstory series of books of screenwriter interviews, but he also is the series editor of the Screen Classics books for the University Press of Kentucky. John, in his Preface, notes Pat’s “persistence” in getting the book published as part of the series. I can believe it.
Most of the book is a memoir that Charles Bennett wrote over a period of years. While the young Mr. Hitchcock was learning the mechanics of filmmaking from a lot of people whom he never acknowledged, Bennett was out living a wonderful life. He started young as an actor on film and on stage, with time out for action in World War I. He began writing stage plays in the twenties, and soon became better known as a playwright than as an actor. His play Blackmail became a Hitchcock film, and John has an excellent “interlude” in which he makes a comparison between the Bennett versions of the play and screenplay and the Hitchcock version. Charles Bennett became primarily a screenwriter. His scripts for the English Hitchcock films also include The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), The Secret Agent (1936), and Sabotage (1936). Bennett also wrote in the States for Hitchcock, including Foreign Correspondent (1940) and uncredited work on Saboteur (1942; in US #116, mentioned above, I implied Bennett did not work on Saboteur; see what you can learn from reading good books on the subject?).
Bennett also worked as a spy for England during the early days of World War II, although mostly that involved keeping an eye out on the activities of the British Colony in Hollywood. You get here a more accurate account of Errol Flynn’s “career” as a spy than in more lurid works. Later in the war Bennett worked on ten British propaganda films for the Ministry of Information. Bennett directed films as well, and wrote and directed for television in the fifties and sixties. Sci-fi fans may know him best for his work on films Irwin Allen produced, such as The Lost World (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1961). Bennett is more than a little condescending to his work on television and the Allen films.
Charles Bennett writes in the light, entertaining style you would expect of the man who wrote The 39 Steps. His description of his wife Maggie asking him for a divorce in 1944 is topped by his learning a few days later that his Hollywood mistress was dropping him as well. Bennett makes very little mention of Betty, his second wife and John’s mother. So in the last part of the book John takes up the story and you see why Charles did not want to get into it. In the first part of the book we get the writer’s view of his life and what it was like for him, complete with a charming wife. In John’s sections, we get what it was like for his son to deal with a mother with many mental and emotion problems. Charles walled himself off with his work, and John remembers being told as a boy not to bother his father when he was working, which was from 10 A.M. to 10 P.M. As your loved ones may already have discovered, being the family of a writer can be very difficult. As Naomi Foner, the screenwriter of Running on Empty (1988), once said, “Children of writers have to understand that sometimes the people in mommy’s head are more important than the people in mommy’s house.” You have to be tough to live with a writer, and not everybody can do it. John Bennett survived, and lived to tell the very interesting tale. His book will tell you a lot about writing and the writer’s life.
And you Thought Writing Boyhood was a Challenge
(2014. Written by Noah Hawley, inspired by the 1996 film written by Ethan and Joel Coen. 10 episodes, varying running times.)
When I first heard the idea that somebody was going to turn the classic film Fargo into a television series, I, like many people, thought it was a stupid idea. Fargo, which I wrote about at some length in my book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning from Good, Not-Quite-So-Good and Bad Screenplays (it was in the Good category of course), is a perfect little gem of a movie, complete in itself. But how could you turn it into a series? The lead, policewoman Marge Gunderson, is very, very pregnant in the movie and you couldn’t keep her that pregnant for a full season, let alone several. The other characters were either dead or in prison by the end of the film. If you had a murder every week, Brainerd, Minnesota would beat out Cabot Cove, Maine of Murder She Wrote for the Murder Capitol of Small Town America.
Noah Hawley’s idea, which he discussed with the Coen Brothers, was simply to set another mystery story in the world of Fargo. Aside from a bag with money in the snow, there are no other narrative connections to the film. Hawley told the Los Angeles Times that he felt the series clicked with audiences because “it was an idea that it wasn’t good versus evil. It was decent people grappling with something beyond their normal level of experience. And at the end, after all the grisly murders, it was still about two decent people waiting for a baby.” Notice how all that applies to the film as well. Yes, Carl and Gaear are probably evil, but Jerry Lundegaard is a bumbling car salesman who is in over his head with his scheme to have his wife kidnapped. Marge, who sees a lot of bad stuff as a cop, feels what happens is “beyond her normal experience,” which leads to her great speech to Gaear in the police car, “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here you are. And it’s a beautiful day,” and then her killer closer, “Well, I just don’t understand it.”
The Jerry Lundegaard equivalent here is insurance salesman Lester Nygaard. Like Jerry, he’s henpecked, but isn’t the type to come up with Jerry’s kidnapping scheme. He is being bullied by the same guy who bullied him in high school. To avoid being hit, he turns into a glass window and cuts his nose. This leads him to the ER, where he waits with Lorne Malvo, who got a cut when he unsuccessfully swerved to hit a deer. Malvo had taken the man in his trunk out, tied him to a tree where he froze to death, and put the deer in the trunk. We know by the time he and Lester talk Malvo is probably not a good guy. He encourages Lester to stand up to Sam the bully, and later Malvo follows Sam to a strip club and kills him. Why does he do that? Because he feels like it? Because he is an avenging angel? We have no idea, and it makes Malvo one of the most fascinating characters to show up in film or television in years. As we get into the series, we never know what he is going to do. At one point he is stopped by policeman Gus Grimly in Minneapolis, and we think he might kill Gus, but he merely suggests, in a malevolent way, that Gus let him off. Gus does and then is haunted by it the rest of the series. When Malvo is brought in for questioning by other cops, he convinces him that he is a minister of a church, and when they check it, there is a website for the church with pictures of Malvo on it. Maybe he is an avenging angel, as in the Biblical plagues he visits on Stavros Milos, who only lasts five episodes. It certainly helps the series to have Billy Bob Thornton playing Malvo because he can make us believe this guy will do anything. That becomes a major way Hawley creates suspense throughout the entire ten episodes, as in a scene late in the series where Malvo shows up in the diner run by Solverson. We know Solverson is a nice guy and we know what Malvo is capable of, and the suspense is excruciating. I won’t tell you what happens in case you missed the show and have not binged-watched it yet.
Lester meanwhile has beat his wife to death with a hammer the day he first talked with Malvo. He was trying to fix the washer in the basement, she was nagging him, and maybe Malvo’s evil is contagious. Lester calls Malvo for advice, Malvo arrives and kills Chief of Police Hess, who has shown up at Lester’s. Molly, Solverson’s daughter and a deputy, comes to Lester’s house and finds the bodies. She is suspicious of Lester, but the acting Chief, Bill, is rather clueless and keeps insisting it couldn’t possibly be Lester. Bill is one of those dense Minnesotans we saw in the movie. Unlike Marge, Molly is not on top of everything from the get-go. She also has to deal with Bill and the other law enforcement people. The killings not only of Sam, Lester’s wife, and Chief Hess, but others bring in the FBI, most of whom don’t pay any attention to Molly’s ideas. The two agents who do, Pepper and Budge, get assigned to a file room to get them out of the way. They eventually discover something useful and are in on the kill.
Oh, yeah, there are a lot of people who will try to kill Malvo. I won’t tell you who does in the end, but it may be the character you would least expect. Or at least that he does it in a way you would least expect. But Hawley has been very careful in the writing so that the person’s actions make perfect, if unsettling sense.
We end a year later with Gus, who always wanted to be a postman rather than a policeman, is carrying the mail. He got a commendation for his help in getting Malvo. He and Molly are married and by then she is now pregnant, just like Marge. And she is the new Chief of Police, since Bill decides to quit, giving a very Fargoesque resignation speech. Molly and Gus and just like Marge and Norm at the end of the movie.
It was announced in July that FX has renewed Fargo for another season of ten episodes. Great, we’ll get to see Gus and Molly and Molly’s dad and…wait a minute. None of the actors will be coming back as other characters as in American Horror Story. Well, we already know Hawley doesn’t do things the easy way. What we will get is a much younger version of Solverson played by another actor, with Solverson dealing with a case he mentioned in this season’s shows. I’m already packing my long underwear for another trip to Fargo-land.