Tom Stempel

Understanding Screenwriting #127

Understanding Screenwriting #127
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Furious 7, While We’re Young, Woman in Gold, Kingsman: The Secret Service, For Greater Glory: The True Story of Christiada, The Nun’s Story, American Crime.

By Tom Stempel.

Letty’s Back. Well, Sort Of. Maybe…

Furious 7

(2015. Written by Chris Morgan, based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson. 135 minutes.)

Paul Walker as Brian O'Conner and Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto in Furious 7

Paul Walker as Brian O’Conner and Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto in Furious 7

You may or may not remember that in Fast & Furious 6, Chris Morgan, who had taken over the writing of the Fast and Furious series, managed to bring back Letty from dead. As a viewer who thought Letty and the actress playing her (Michelle Rodriguez) were the two most interesting elements of the series, I said in US #112 that I thought this was a good thing. Morgan made it interesting by giving Letty amnesia, so she had no idea who Dom and the rest of the “family” was. (Here’s a drinking game for when you watch Furious 7 on TV: take a drink every time someone says, “family”; you will be blotto fairly quickly, although the idea of family is more mentioned than developed, since they have said everything they could about it in earlier films.)

I would have thought that Morgan would have started 7 out with Letty having recovered her memories. He doesn’t, which he means he can write some scenes where she still forgets and then write a great scene where she remembers. Well, that’s not how he does it. In a scene about two-thirds of the way through the film there are a couple of quick cuts to the past in the middle of the action and we think she may have remembered. But she gives no indication she has until (spoiler alert) very late in the picture when Dom has been wounded (not seriously, just a small trickle of blood on his forehead) and she says that in that previous scene she remembered everything.

So why does Morgan not tell us that at the time? I suspect he just wanted to keep up the suspense. But it means that he avoids the possibility of some interesting scenes. Lou Shaw, who wrote for Columbo, told me the secret of writing for that show in an interview I did with him for my history of television writing. He said, “The secret was, you don’t tell the audience, but as a certain point you as the writer know there’s a magic moment when in his heart Columbo knows who did it. And nothing changes. But it does. As a writer, there’s a whole attitudinal thing that occurs…”

Morgan could have done that with Letty and that moment, and given us some interesting texture in the following scenes. The question is whether it would have been too subtle for the franchise. It might have been. Joe Dougherty, another writer I interviewed, said that when he went to write a thirtysomething episode, he went into a “thirtysomething trance.” You go and mentally and emotionally live in that world, which Morgan has become good at with the franchise. But Morgan has done the whole amnesia bit with Letty, and I would think he could work something subtle into it.

One of the two big questions with the script is how does Morgan provide action scenes that will be part of the franchise. He does very well. Early in the film he shows us special agent Hobbs in his sleek, modern office. “Sleek” and “modern” means the walls are all glass, which means that when Hobbs has a big fight with the baddie, every single piece of glass in the office is broken. For scenes like that (and a later one in Abu Dhabi) make sure you write stuff that can be trashed, directors will love you for it. The most spectacular scene comes in the first hour, when our guys drive their cars out of an airplane, parachuting them onto a road to take on the armored convey to rescue a computer hacker. Morgan is good here and in the other action scenes at giving several of our guys different things to do so we can cut back and forth between them, which keeps the pace fast.

Dwayne Johnson as Hobbs in Furious 7

Dwayne Johnson as Hobbs in Furious 7

The second question is how the film deals with the death of Paul Walker, who was Brian in the series. He died while the film was in production, and the filmmakers were able to complete it using stunt doubles and two of Walker’s brothers, who could pass for him in longer shots. The most obviously rewritten scene is the next to last scene. After the gang has captured the bad guy, they are all on the beach relaxing. Brian is there with his wife Mia and their son. It appears the scene was expanded after it was originally shot, and I assume Morgan had something to do with the restructuring. We got more of a sense of finality and emotion in the scene than was probably there originally. It is a nice save, and then followed by Dom in his car on the highway. Brian pulls up beside him and smiles (footage from an earlier film, I suspect), then they race for a stretch of the road unto the road divides and Brian and Dom go their different ways. It’s nice ending and a nice sendoff for Walker.

 

New Yorkers, One And All

While We’re Young

(2015. Written by Noah Baumbach. 97 minutes.)

Ben Stiller as Josh and Naomi Watts as Cornelia in While We're Young

Ben Stiller as Josh and Naomi Watts as Cornelia in While We’re Young

Baumbach has always seemed more interested in characters than plot, and this film starts out that way. We begin with Josh and Cornelia, a couple in their mid-forties, and we first see them having trouble remembering the story of the Three Little Pigs they are trying to tell to a baby. That’s a nice way for Baumbach to tell us quickly the baby is not theirs. They are a couple that have spent their time working on their careers and have not had kids. Josh is a documentary filmmaker who had a successful film several years ago (Baumbach can be absent-minded about details: he never tells us what the first film was about), but has been working on his current film for eight years. Stuck in a rut, you might say. Baumbach shrewdly does not tell us until late in the picture what the new film is about. The scene where he pitches to a guy to try to get money is a funny scene, but it also tells us Josh has not brought the film into focus. If we had that scene earlier, we might not have been as sympathetic as we are to Josh.

Josh teaches a class and Jamie, one of the students, comes up and tells Josh how much he liked his first film. Josh is hooked, both on Jamie and his significant other Darby, who makes artisanal ice cream. The couple is young and freewheeling, everything that Josh and Cornelia miss. The two couples start hanging out together, and Baumbach gives us a lot of great detail about the differences in their lives. Look particularly at the montage he has of their various activities. I was struck by how early this montage comes in the film. In previous Baumbach films, it would have been much later, but here is setting us up for the development of an actual, honest-to-God plot. Josh offers to help Jamie on the documentary he is making. Josh begins to realize Jamie’s film is better than his. Look at the details about it that tell us that. Then Josh learns that Jamie has been cheating on how he is making the film. Look at the details that tell us that.

Ben Stiller as Josh in While We're Young

Ben Stiller as Josh in While We’re Young

Cornelia is the daughter of acclaimed documentarian Leslie Brietbart, whose films she has produced. (When asked why she does not produce Josh’s, she says, “He likes to work alone.”) Jamie worms his way into Leslie’s good graces, and here I begin to have some minor problems with the film. Leslie is set up as a documentary filmmaker in the company of Frederick Wiseman, Albert Maysles, Richard Leacock, and their like. Having taught a history of documentary film class for decades, I have had the chance to meet and talk with several of those filmmakers, and Leslie does not quite ring true. He is a little too pompous for the kind of Direct Cinema filmmaking we see in a clip he made. And when Josh points out to Leslie the ways in which Jamie had cheated, Leslie shrugs it off a little too easily.

Aside from getting a few of the documentary aspects wrong, and I may be the only one who objects to that, the other element that continues to bother me as I think about the film is that the characters are a little too New York for my taste. They are self-centered in a very New York way. Yes, I know people in Los Angeles can be even more self-centered, but the people in the film are those who believe that New York is “The greatest city in the world” as Letterman’s announcer insists on telling us every weeknight. I’ve known several people like that who do not understand there is a real world west of the Hudson River.

 

Standard Issue

Woman in Gold

(2015. Written by Alex Kaye Campbell, based on the life stories of E. Randol Schoenberg and Maria Altmann. 109 minutes.)

Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann and Ryan Reynolds as Randol Schoenberg in Woman in Gold

Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann and Ryan Reynolds as Randol Schoenberg in Woman in Gold

Here’s the true story behind the film. In the late nineties, Maria Altmann decided to make an effort to have returned to her the painting of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, completed in 1907 by Gustav Klimt. Maria and Adele lived in Vienna, but when the Nazis took over in the late thirties, they confiscated the painting and other art the family owned. Adele had died in 1925, but Maria escaped to America. The painting ended up after the war in the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. Maria wanted to be reunited with her aunt. She worked with a Los Angeles attorney, Randy Schoenberg, and eventually won the case in an Austrian arbitration. Whereupon she sold the painting for $135 million and it has been on display at the Neue Galerie in New York since 2006. So much for being reunited with her aunt.

In theory the story should be dramatic, but as Campbell tells it, it is not particularly. Maria is stubborn, which we admire, but the Austrians are also stubborn. Campbell really needed to make the Austrians a lot more interesting so we could get some dynamics in the script. Campbell has been primarily an actor (this is his first screenplay) and he has written a star part in Maria. Helen Mirren knocks it out of the park, but that’s nothing new. Campbell’s other characters are less well-defined. Randy is sort of a schlub who is in over his head, but Campbell never develops that. Ryan Reynolds is a much better actor than you see here as Randy, but he has not been given much to work with. And Kate Holmes as his wife has been given even less to work with. They have managed to get great actors such as Elizabeth McGovern and Jonathan Pryce to play judges, but then not given them much to do.

Our sympathies in the film are certainly with Maria, but she and her past are extremely sentimentalized. The scenes in old Vienna, like most of the movie, are pretty much standard issue, as is the rest of the film. The only character who makes the case for the Austrian position is a journalist who is helping Randy and Maria, and he says that the painting is “the Mona Lisa of Austria.” So when you learn in the end titles that Maria has sold the painting to the American gallery, you may have second thoughts about it. We don’t see the sale, since it would contradict the idealized portrait of Maria. The end title tries to gloss this over by mentioning her large donations from the sale to various characters, and that may be enough for you.

 

Agent Cody Banks Returns!

Kingsman: The Secret Service

(2014. Screenplay by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. 129 minutes.)

Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Even if you did not know going in that this was based on a comic book, you could pretty well tell, for many of the same reasons I could tell that in US #37 that Wanted (2008) was. The main character, a late-teen, early-twenties guy named Eggsy is recruited by a fictional secret service made up of very well-dressed gentlemen. No, it’s not MI6, and they are not James Bonds, but they are a teen boy’s idea of what MI6 and Bond are like. A real life Eggsy would be washed out of the program the first time he rebelled against it, but here is lack of obedience is seen as a positive thing. Even though the organization is run by older men in really great suits, a couple of the recruits are young women, but, and here’s the real giveaway that this is based on a comic book, Eggsy has no sexual or romantic interest in them. We saw the same thing happen in Agent Cody Banks (2003), where Cody’s mentor is the very adult and very hot Ronica Miles, and in Wanted, where Wesley’s even hotter mentor is Fox. Wesley gets a kiss from her, but it’s only in the presence of his ex-girlfriend, to make her jealous. Here Eggsy gets a slight flirtation with a captive Danish princess, and we are supposed to get the impression that they eventually consummate matters, but I didn’t believe it. At least the Bond movies are adult enough to allow Bond to have sex with women. Although you could make the point that Bond’s liaisons are very shallow, adolescent affairs.

There is a lot of fun to be had in the film. Eggsy’s mentor is Galahad, a very Bond like figure (although he has no liaisons either), beautifully played by Colin Firth as if to say, “See, why did you bother with Daniel Craig when you could have gotten me?” Arthur, the head of Kingsman, is the always welcome, if slightly underemployed Michael Caine, and the writers have come up with a nice villain for Samuel L. Jackson to sink his teeth into. The violence is very comic book-violent, and I appreciated the exploding head effects in the big finish.

The writers do write themselves into a corner about three-quarters of the way through the film. Galahad becomes unavailable for the big finish, and so Eggsy has to step into his role. I suppose this is a Hero’s Journey moment, but it does not really work. It does mean that he gets one of those really great suits to wear, but the actor, Teron Egerton, who is good as the street smart kid, is not even slightly convincing in the suit, especially after we have seen Firth and Caine, who know how to wear it. I did mention, didn’t I, that the tailoring for the adult men is great in this film. It is at this point that the film seems most like a comic book, or like Agent Cody Banks.

 

A Different Problem

For Greater Glory: The True Story of Christiada

(2012. Written by Michael Love. 145 minutes.)

Andy Garcia as Enrique Gorostieta and Santiago Cabrera as Father Vega in For Greater Glory

Andy Garcia as Enrique Gorostieta and Santiago Cabrera as Father Vega in For Greater Glory

As the subtitle tells you, this is based on a true story. In the mid-1920s, the Mexican government of President Calles decided to crack down on the Catholic Church. The government threw foreign-born priests out of the country and limited what services the Church could offer. A resistance movement grew up, eventually led by former general Enrique Gorostieta, and the government eventually changed its policies. You can read the historical details here on Wikipedia. It could be a great subject for a film, but this one is not it.

I know, I know, you are going to skip over this item because a) you’ve never heard of this movie, and b) you assume this is another one of my many complaints about writers just reporting the facts of a true story without dramatizing them. Nope, that’s not the problem here. The material is dramatized, and Love gives us a number of striking scenes, including some very good ones. But this becomes a movies of scenes, with very little connection between them or flow from one to another. The scenes are so self-contained they do not resonate with the other scenes. To do this right, the screenwriter would need to make each scene not only interesting on its own, but not too complete. The audience has to be ready at the end of each scene to move on while, at the same time, still be interested in the characters in the scene so that we will want to come back to them. It is a tricky balancing act. You might want to look at The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) to see how Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson do it, especially in connecting the scenes of Shears escaping the camp and getting forced into coming back with the scenes at the camp as the bridge is built.

 

Yeah, Pitch This One to a Studio Today

The Nun’s Story

(1959. Screenplay by Robert Anderson, based on the novel by Kathryn C. Hulme. 149 minutes)

Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke in The Nun's Story

Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story

O.K., so you go into a studio nowadays, say Warner Brothers, and here’s the idea you pitch. This is the story of Gabrielle, a young Belgian woman, who joins a convent into the late twenties and becomes a nun. She takes medical training (her father was noted surgeon) and becomes a nurse. She is sent to work in a mental ward, then to her dream assignment, a medical clinic in what was then the Belgian Congo. She works with a doctor her superior calls “a genius and the devil.” In the early forties she returns to Belgium and leaves the order, most likely to join the Resistance, since the Nazis have killed her father.

Well, does she fall in love with the doctor? No.

Can we focus on her years in the Resistance? No, that’s not the story. Well, can we make it the story? No.

When director Fred Zinnemann pitched the idea to Jack Warner in the fifties, Warner was not interested. Until Zinnemann told him Audrey Hepburn, one of the biggest stars of the day, wanted to do it. Warner wasn’t stupid and made the picture, which was one of the biggest grossing films of the year. Yeah, see that happening now.

Fred Zinnemann and the Cinema of Resistance, by J.E. Smyth

Fred Zinnemann and the Cinema of Resistance, by J.E. Smyth

Gary Cooper, whom Zinnemann had directed in High Noon (1952), read the novel and suggested it to Zinnemann. Cooper was not stupid either. He knew that Zinnemann was attracted to stories about people who struggle to keep their individuality, especially against institutional pressures, e.g., Prewitt versus the Army in From Here to Eternity (1953). For a great look at Zinnemann’s career, read the recent book by J.E. Smyth, Fred Zinnemann and the Cinema of Resistance, where much of the background on the film here comes from. It’s one of the best books ever written about that a director really contributes to a film, i.e., not all those things that writers do that critics credit to the director.

The screenwriter was Robert Anderson, who was just coming off writing the screen adaptation of his hit Broadway play, Tea and Sympathy (1956). The play and film were a sensitive look at a young man accused of being gay because of his gentleness, and the sympathy he gets from the wife of the headmaster of his school. The story ends when it is apparent that the wife is going to have sex with the boy to prove to him he’s not gay. Not politically correct these days, but a stunning moment in the fifties. The wife’s final line in the play and the film was one of the most quoted lines from films of the time: “Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, be kind.” A useful phrase for many occasions.

Zinnemann knew he needed a writer of great sensitivity to tell the story, and he and Anderson worked closely. Needless to say, they had to deal with the Catholic Church, which had two reservations about the material. The first one was that they did not want the church to appear to be the villain. Zinnemann had dealt with this with the Army in Eternity, but he also did not want to make it that simple a story. His interest was in showing Gabrielle’s individuality and how it worked and did not work in her life as a nun. Zinnemann guessed, and the nuns he and Anderson talked to agreed, that of the three vows the nuns took (poverty, chastity, and obedience), the most difficult was obedience. This was certainly true of Gabrielle, who was based on the real life character of Marie Louise Habrets, whom Hulme had meet doing relief work in Europe during and after the war.

Burt Lancaster as Stg. Milton Warden and Deborah Kerr as Karen Holmes in From Here to Eternity

Burt Lancaster as Stg. Milton Warden and Deborah Kerr as Karen Holmes in From Here to Eternity

The script Anderson wrote is one of the best examples I know of figuring out how to tell a story that takes place inside someone’s mind and heart. Easy to do in a novel, difficult to do on film, where we learn from what we see and hear. So Anderson’s job was to find what we see and hear that will tell us what’s going on in Gabrielle’s mind as she becomes Sister Luke. The script begins with her father accompanying Gabrielle to the convent, where he mentions her stubbornness twice. So we are set up to watch for signs of that from her. The first 47 minutes of the film is the training of a group of girls to become nuns. Think of it like the opening hour of Full Metal Jacket (1987) with Dame Edith Evans as Lee Ermey. Only quieter. Much, much quieter. Anderson gives us little moments when, for example, Sister Luke is prostrate on the floor with the other nuns, and she, unlike them, looks up at what is going on. When Sister Luke is sent to nurses’ training, one of her superiors asks her to deliberately fail the final exam as a favor for another student. Luke is gobsmacked at the idea. The superior asks her to ask God about it. We don’t see her do that, but at the exam (which is an oral exam; much more interesting to watch than a written one), we see Luke’s attempting to fail, but finally giving in and answering the questions. She’s ranks 4th out of the class of 80, but for her disobedience she is assigned as a nurse to a mental ward. After the quiet of the first part of the movie, we get noise and talk. Luke has been told not to go into a particular patient’s cell, but she thinks she can help. And the patient beats the crap out of her.

Luke eventually gets to the Congo, but instead of helping the natives (yes, it’s that kind of movie), she is assigned to the white only wards. She becomes the surgical assistant to Dr. Fortunati. Anderson and Zinnemann handle this relationship beautifully. Fortunati can say things about Luke and the business of being a nun that none of the other nuns can, articulating what we might not otherwise get. (Anderson uses some voiceovers, but he cut down many he started with.) There is a hint that Fortunati has a slight crush on Luke, but it is clear Luke is all business.

The question of Luke possibly leaving the order and joining the Resistance is brought up only in the last 15 minutes and then very subtly. The first two times I saw the film that did not make much of an impact on me. Smyth, whose book focuses on all forms of resistance in Zinnemann’s films, spends more time on the issue than the film does. At the end Luke leaves the order, walks out the door, down the street, looks both ways at the end, then turns to the right and walks out of the frame. You are free to assume she either does or does not join the Resistance. In one of the message boards on the IMDB, you can read that people have several different opinions on the meaning of the ending.

Peter Finch as Dr Fortunati and Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke in The Nun's Story

Peter Finch as Dr Fortunati and Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story

The final shot has no music to it. Franz Waxman, the composer, was furious that Zinneman cut so much of his score. History does not record if he changed his mind when he got an Oscar nomination for it.

I’ve always assumed it was Jack Warner who wanted the romance in the film. It may have been the producer Henry Blanke, whom Zinnemann calls in his memoir A Life in the Movies “one of the finest producers I have ever worked with.” Two years after The Nun’s Story, Blanke produced The Sins of Rachel Cade, about a woman doctor in the Belgian Congo during the early years of the war. The local administrator, played by Peter Finch, who was Dr. Fortunati in The Nun’s Story, falls in love with her, but she is in love with a young British pilot, who is also a doctor. Instead of Audrey Hepburn in one of her great performances, we get Angie Dickenson as Rachel. Maybe not being able to deal with the sexual tension in The Nun’s Story was just too much for Blanke.

 

I Didn’t Like It as Much as I Wanted To

American Crime

(2015. Multiple episodes, various writers. 60 minutes per episode.)

Timothy Hutton as Russ Skoki in American Crime

Timothy Hutton as Russ Skoki in American Crime

I wanted to like this show, I really did, but I gave up on after four episodes. The idea behind the series is to follow a single crime from the crime through wherever the story takes us, but to do it with a large gallery of characters. We have Barb and Russ, the parents of the guy who was killed. We have Tom and Eve, the parents of the wife who was seriously wounded in the shooting. We have Tony, the Latino kid who let the shooters borrow a car he shouldn’t have. We also have his dad and sister. There is Curtis, who at first appears to be the shooter. He’s a druggie, as is his girl friend Aubry. We get assorted other characters as well, as well as police and lawyers, but in the first four episodes, none of the cops or lawyers are developed.

The problem I had was virtually all of them behave stupidly. Tony is the obvious example, but Barb is a not-so-closet racist who assumes that all people of color are out to get her. Russ is ineffectual, but a little more reality based than Barb. Curtis is a junkie. Aubrey is a junkie who does not bail on Curtis when he is arrested. I think we are supposed to believe it’s true love, but she spends time turning tricks to be able to shoot up. At the end of the first episode we learn the victim may have been involved in doing drugs as well, and that his wife may have had sex with several other men. In Episode Three Tony’s sister gives him a hard time for doing stupid stuff, and she’s so right that we sort of lose sympathy for Tony. Later Curtis’s sister Aliyah shows up and gives him a similar lecture. She’s willing to help him only if he helps her make his case a political cause.

David Hoflin as Mark Skokie, Joe Nemmers as DDA Soderbergh and Cedric Duplechain as Timothy Little in American Crime

David Hoflin as Mark Skokie, Joe Nemmers as DDA Soderbergh and Cedric Duplechain as Timothy Little in American Crime

Contrary to what story development people tell you, you do not have make your characters “likeable,” i.e., you do not have to have them petting dogs in every other scene. A character has to be interesting (I’m not a fan of Southern Belles, but when Scarlett O’Hara is on-screen, shit happens) and someone we can relate to in some way. I have trouble relating to characters who behave stupidly, especially when all the characters in the film or the series do it.

The series was the brainchild of John Ridley, whose earlier work I liked, such as the story (and some of the screenplay, although he did not get the credit) for Three Kings (1999) and his script for Red Tails (2012). You can read my take on Red Tails here, and you can see what else he has been involved with here. Oh, yes, he did become the first African American screenwriter to win an Oscar last year with 12 Years a Slave (2013), even if I did have reservations about that script you can read here. So what happened here? I suspect that Ridley was so determined to make a major epic statement about race in America that his writing became a little too doctrinaire. His characters seem to be mouthpieces and not people. I hung around the first four episodes, since I hoped it would settle down, and because I wanted to see what he did with the Curtis’s sister Aliyah, the most political of the characters, but she is written as more a political point of view than a character.

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