Understanding Screenwriting #129
Clouds of Sils Maria, I’ll See You in My Dreams, Kings Row, Chariots of Fire, Mr. Arkadin, Mad Men.
By Tom Stempel.
It Certainly Passes the Bechdel Test
Clouds of Sils Maria
(2014. Written by Olivier Assayas. 124 minutes.)
As we were coming out of the theatre after seeing this movie, I said to my wife, “I can’t wait to go check out the reviews of this aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes and see if any of them can explain to me what the hell this movie was about.” I did, and none of the reviews I have found even bothered to deal with the major flaw in the film and its script. O.K., some of them say the film is “ambiguous,” but that’s rather, well, ambiguous. I suppose that since the problem is the last twenty minutes of the film, reviewers probably thought they would be giving away the ending. I’ll let you know when I am about to do just that.
The film gets off to a great start. We are thrown onto a train with the famous actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart). We get as much of Valentine as we do of Maria, watching Valentine on the phone arranging all the details of Maria’s life, of which there are a lot. From the beginning it is clear the movie is about the Maria-Valentine relationship, and we get loads of great detail about the relationship. They are intimate, not sexually or romantically, but more than just professionally. They seem to like each other. Some reviews have suggested that Valentine is Eve to Maria’s Margo Channing, but there is no indication that Valentine wants to take over Maria’s life or career. Valentine seems happy working for Maria, although they have their tough moments, since Maria leads a high pressure life. In the beginning they are on their way to a tribute to a writer Maria had her biggest early success with. Before they get there they learn he has died, so it becomes a memorial service, where Maria has to wing a eulogy. She is also approached to star in a revival of the author’s play, this time playing the older woman who has a sexual relationship with a younger woman whom she played in the first production. Maria is reluctant to take it on, for all kinds of reasons. She finally agrees and we get a lot of scenes of Maria and Valentine rehearsing, with Valentine reading the young woman’s part. There is no indication that Valentine is angling to get the part.
In fact, Valentine is talking up the actress the director has suggested. She is Jo-Ann Ellis, who spends as much time in the tabloids, print and video, as she does making films. Her big hit is a sci-fi film and Valentine takes Maria to see it. Maria thinks it is ridiculous, but Valentine thinks she brings a nice quality to the role. There is a wonderful scene of Maria and Valentine, both a liquored up, laughing at the absurdities of the film. The whole film, but this scene especially, passes the Bechdel Test: it has two named woman characters talking to each other about something other than men. Maria agrees to meet with Jo-Ann, who appears to be levelheaded and even charming. Maria agrees to do the play.
Maria and Valentine have been staying at the late author’s house in the Sils Maria, an area in southeast Switzerland. The area is notable for an occasional odd atmospheric condition called the “Maloja Snake” (also the name of the play), in which clouds come through the mountains like a snake. This being an art house film, we might assume that Valentine was supposed to be a snake like Eve Harrington , but we never get a sense she is and that metaphor, if it is one, falls flat. On the morning the snake is supposed to appear, Maria and Valentine go hiking up the mountains to see it. Maria does, then turns around and discovers Valentine has disappeared. You should stop reading now if you want not to know the ending.
O.K., so Valentine disappears, so what? The problem is we never find out what happened to her. Now those of you with long memories for European art house flicks may say that Michelangelo Antonioni and his co-writers Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra got away with not telling us what happened to Anna in their 1960 classic L’Avventura. But in that film Anna disappears early on in the film and the heart of the movie is her boy friend Sandro and her best friend looking for her and falling into an affair while they look. Even at that, the audience at the Cannes Film Festival threw things at the screen at the end of the film. In Clouds the main relationship in the film is between Maria and Valentine. There may be intellectual reasons why we don’t find out, but it is interesting that the critics, even those who love the film, have not made that case. The situation here is a great example of the difference between intellectual logic and dramatic logic. In the film we have been not only watching but getting emotionally involved with Valentine. Assayas’s writing of the Maria-Valentine relationship is wonderfully rich and he and his actors run with it. Both Binoche and Stewart are at their best, and Stewart won the César award (the French equivalent of the Oscar; she’s the first American to win a César) for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. In both theatre and especially film, we feel an immediate, personal connection to the characters (and the actors), often more than one feels on reading the script. That makes a character disappearing more frustrating for the audience than it is for the writer or director. You may remember that in US#101 I mentioned that in the first cut of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) we did not find out what happened to Marion, and it was only when Lucas’s wife Marcia pointed it out that they went back and wrote the scene on the steps with her. I also wrote in US #106 in a follow-up note about Argo (2012) that the scene of the maid crossing the border into Iraq was added after early audiences wanted to know what happened to her. If you are writing interesting characters, you’d better be aware that audiences may want to know what happens to them. They may just be characters in your mind or on your page, but if you do a good job, they will come alive for the audiences.
So, back to Clouds. Valentine disappears. Maria goes to London to do the play, Jo-Ann proves to be the jerk we always suspected, and the play goes on. Maria has another personal assistant. And there is no word, line, or scene that gives us any idea of what happened to Valentine. You can see why I was ticked off.
And now an explanation of how the film came to have the shape it did. In the June 2015 issue of Sight & Sound there is an interview with Assayas about the film. The inspiration for the film was Assayas wanting to write a film for Juliette Binoche. His focus in the writing was on her and her character. Valentine was sort of an afterthought, somebody for Maria to talk to, a Gabby Hayes to Maria’s Roy Rogers. Assayas talked to Stewart while he was writing it, but settled on Mia Wasikowska. Then Wasikowska had to leave the project for another film. Stewart heard about that and lobbied Assayas again. He asked her if she wanted to play Jo-Ann or Valentine. Stewart insisted on Valentine, although Assayas told her, “Are you sure, because that’s not the way I see you.” Stewart insisted. Assayas says in the interview, “In retrospect she was just more aware than I was of where we were heading with it.” When they got into the film, Assayas says, “I don’t rehearse at all and I don’t do table readings. I don’t discuss the characters with the actors and I don’t even rehearse on the set. Most of the big (dialogue) scenes…were usually shot in a day.”
So here we have a writer-director who does not understand what he was doing and what he did. He was stuck in his original idea that the movie was only about Maria. And he was clueless about the fact that audiences might get so involved in Valentine that they would want to know what happened to her.
A Similar Problem
I’ll See You in My Dreams
(2015. Written by Marc Basch and Brett Haley. 92 minutes.)
Basch and Haley make a similar mistake to Assayas’s in this film. Carol is a widow in her seventies. Her husband died twenty years before and now she has to have her pet dog Hazel put down. She has three women friends she hangs out with. Here’s the difference between an idea and developing an idea. In one scene the four women get stoned. It is the standard-issue stoned scene: giggles and the munchies. But then they go off to a store to get more munchies. They are stopped while wheeling the full shopping cart down the street by a young cop. That gives you a fresh and funny version of the situation that the previous scene did not.
Carol begins to develop new relationships. One of them is a romance with Bill. The scenes between them are nicely written and beautifully acted by Blythe Danner as Carol and Sam Elliott as Bill. There’s great chemistry between the characters and the actors. And then, O.K., spoiler alert, Bill, this movie’s Valentine, dies. Yes, the movie is about loss and dealing with it, but the Carol-Bill scenes are so great that we are frustrated we don’t get more of them. As with Clouds, it’s the difference between intellectual logic and dramatic logic.
We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Directors, Take One
(1942. Screenplay by Casey Robinson, from the novel by Henry Bellamann. 127 minutes.)
Casey Robinson was one of the greatest of all the Warner Brothers screenwriters during the thirties and forties. He wrote Errol Flynn swashbucklers (Captain Blood in 1935 made Flynn a star) and Bette Davis weepies (Dark Victory in 1939). In 1940 he was going off on a cruise in the Pacific and the head of production Hal Wallis gave him an advance copy of the novel Kings Row. Robinson read it on the ship and despaired of making into a movie.
It is a look at the dark side of small town America. Parris is in love with his childhood sweetheart Cassie, with whom he used to go skinny dipping as kids. She has grown up to be a nymphomaniac and is alas driven mad by her incestuous relationship with her father, Dr. Tower. Dr. Tower kills her and commits suicide. Parris performs a mercy killing on his terminally ill grandmother. Parris’s best friend Drake, with whom Parris may have had a homosexual relationship, is shagging two sisters who are the town sluts. A banker steals his inheritance, and he ends up on the wrong side of the tracks with Randy, a tomboy. He is hurt in a railroad accident, and the other doctor in town, Dr. Gordon, sadistically amputates Drake’s legs, one of many such operations he does. Well, you can understand why Robinson got so frustrated that he went to the stern of the ship and heaved the book into the ocean. Just as it splashed down, he suddenly figured out how to do it. But he was in the middle of the ocean without the book. Never throw anything away.
(This story is from an interview with Robinson by Joel Greenberg is Backstory I: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age, edited by Pat McGilligan. There is a much longer version of the interview at the American Film Institute’s Louis B. Mayer Library.)
Robinson returned to Los Angeles and convinced Wallis it could be done. He also helped Wallis convince Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code office, that it was doable, even after Breen rejected the script. It was very useful to have a writer who could talk to Goeffrey Shurlock of the Code, as Robinson did. Robinson’s shipboard revelation was to turn the nymphomania into insanity and to tell the story of Parris and Drake (minus the homosexual angle, of course) as young men growing up and accepting the responsibilities of adulthood. The skinny dipping and the nymphomania were cut (although in one scene in the shadows Cassie still shows an enthusiasm for sex, which in the forties was enough to suggest nymphomania).
There is no hint of the incestuous relationship and Dr. Tower kills her and himself because of the suggestion of hereditary insanity. The only hint of the mercy killing is a used hypodermic needle, but it may well have been used by Dr. Gordon. Drake hangs out with the sisters, but in just a friendly way. We don’t know until well after the operation that Dr. Gordon cut off Drake’s legs when he didn’t have to. Robinson’s script is a model of how to avoid the censorship problems of the time. You may well ask what that can for you as a modern screenwriter, when you can show almost anything on film and television. It shows you how you can be just as effective being subtle as you can being obvious.
Most likely it was cheapness of the studio that would not let the production build an entire small town. Robinson says it was director Sam Wood’s idea to show the town in bits and pieces, but other sources say that the great production designer William Cameron Menzies and the great Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe worked out the entire visual look of the film between themselves without talking to Wood. They probably did talk to Wood, but the reason the film looks better than any other Wood film is because of Menzies and Howe. Wood was given their sketches for camera setups to follow, which he did.
For some reason Warner Brothers borrowed Robert Cummings from Universal to play Parris and he is just too shallow for the part. The supporting cast, all of them excellent, included Betty Field, Claude Rains, Charles Coburn, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Judith Anderson. Randy was played by Ann Sheridan, and it provided a great boost to her career. Studio contract player Ronald Reagan gave his best performance as Drake, for which he was perfectly cast. To top it all off, Erich Wolfgang Korngold composed one of his greatest scores.
So here you have a great script, a great production design, mostly great acting, great cinematography, and a great score. You give a director all that and even a hack like Sam Wood can make a good picture.
We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Directors, Take Two
Chariots of Fire
(1981. Written by Colin Welland. 119 minutes.)
Back when I was teaching at LACC in the seventies, I used to be on the mailing list of a firm that handled promotion for several Warner Brothers films. The material they sent often included taped interviews with the directors and other behind the scenes people of the films. Once they sent a questionnaire asking what else we might find helpful. Naturally I suggested they have interviews with the screenwriters. Shortly thereafter I got a package of material on Chariots of Fire, and lo and behold, one of the cassettes had an interview with Colin Welland on one side and the director Hugh Hudson on the other. I naturally played the writer’s side first, and it was fascinating. Welland talked about how he developed the script based on the true story of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, who ran for Britain in the 1924 Olympics. What interested Welland was that both men ran for religious reasons. Liddell was a Scots missionary back from China. He had played rugby, but people began to notice how fast he ran. His sister was reluctant to have him turn away from God’s work, but he told her, “When I run, I feel His pleasure.” Abrahams was Jewish and dealt with the polite and not-so-polite anti-Semitism of the times. He was running to show he could beat the Gentiles at their own game. Religion is the main theme of the film.
Then I turned over the tape and listened to Hudson. He talked at great length about the mechanics of shooting the film. It became clear from how he talked that he did not have a clue what the movie was about. That is not as rare as you might think. In spite of what critics and directors themselves tell you, a director’s job is not really to have great thoughts about the movie, but to get the shots. You shoot what you need to and turn it over to the film editor and hope for the best. By the way, I never received another stash of stuff from the P.R. firm.
In late 1981 my wife and I went to see the film. She was brought up in Cambridge, England, and went to college at St. Andrews in Scotland. She started muttering underneath her breath early in the film. A bit later, as Abrahams meets Aubrey Montague at the Cambridge train station on their arrival at the university, there was louder muttering. She eventually settled down. After the film, she explained to me that the famous beach scene of the men running was shot at St. Andrews, while Montague’s voiceover identifies it as Broadstairs, Kent. The louder muttering was when the boys arrived at the Cambridge station. That was NOT the station at Cambridge, but at St. Andrews. The Cambridge station NEVER looked at that. Other than that, she enjoyed the film, as did I. Welland’s script is intelligent and perceptive, and the film was beautifully cast and acted. And Vangelis’s famous score helped turn the picture into a hit. Hudson got the shots, but he tended to overdirect, as in his use of slow motion in the running scenes.
The following year we visited my wife’s mother, Gunborg, who lived in a village outside Cambridge. Chariots was still playing in Cambridge. She had not seen it and wanted to, since she had known Abrahams slightly at Cambridge in the thirties. So off we went, with my wife telling her all the way into town not to be upset that the station in the film was not the Cambridge station. So we watched the movie. And the Cambridge station scene is not in the British version. Boy, was my wife pissed, since the film made her out to be a liar. The equivalent scene, where we first meet Abrahams and Montague, is at an indoor cricket game. I suspect it was cut from the American version because cricket is a thoroughly confusing game to us Yanks and it would have distracted from the point of the scene. As a writer you have to be alert to those kinds of problems.
The years go by. I finally bought the DVD of Chariots and looked at it again, this time without my wife grumbling too much. The film, and especially Welland’s script, holds up remarkably well. What is also striking is how many of the cast have gone on to have long and successful careers. Ben Cross, who played Abrahams, was in the 2009 Star Trek. Peter Egan, who played the Duke of Sutherland, was recently Shrimpie on Downton Abbey. Nicholas Farrell, who played Aubrey Montague, popped up recently on Call the Midwife looking exactly like he did in the old age makeup 34 years ago. Unfortunately Ian Charleson, who was terrific as Liddell, died of AIDS at the age of 40 in 1990.
Colin Welland continued to write screenplays, but mostly worked as an actor. Hugh Hudson, convinced he was responsible for the success of Chariots, persuaded Warner Brothers to let him take on Robert Towne’s script for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). Hudson botched it so badly that Towne replaced his name with that of his dog P.H. Vazak. P.H. was nominated for an Academy Award for his script. Hudson went on to bungle his epic of the American Revolution, Revolution, the following year and has not had a critical success since.
And Sometimes They Just Overdirect
(1955. Story and screenplay by Orson Welles. Original running times: 93, 95, and 98 minutes; 2006 restoration 105 minutes.)
This is the Orson Welles film that people who love Welles don’t really like to talk about. In his 1971 book The Films of Orson Welles, Charles Higham devotes 38 pages to Kane and only 4 to Arkadin. Not only is Arkadin a mess, but Welles made matters worse by having a plot that vaguely resembled Kane, which many critics noticed.
Orson Welles was the biggest liar of all the major American directors, with only John Ford a close second. So there are many versions from Welles as to how Arkadin came to be. Gregory Arkadin is a powerful multi-millionaire who may be based on Joseph Stalin, or a couple of millionaires Welles met in Rome, or Charles Foster Kane, or Welles himself. Arkadin hires Van Stratten, a small-time hood, to investigate Arkadin’s past, particular those years before 1927. Arkadin claims to be suffering amnesia about the early years. As Van Stratten tracks down people who knew Arkadin, they keep getting killed, ultimately because Arkadin does not want his daughter Raina to find out about his past. Barbara Leaming, one of Welles’s many biographers, talked to Robert Arden, who played Van Stratten. Arden said that Welles kept rewriting the script, changing everything from the scenes to the structure of the film. It was finally released in several different versions. The latest, and longest at 105 minutes, was put together by the Cinémathéque Municipale de Luxembourg in 2006, and that’s what I will be discussing. This version is not Welles’s definitive version, since the film was taken out of his hands by the producer when he went over-schedule and over-budget.
You may remember how quickly Kane starts: “Rosebud,” he dies, “News on the March” and Thompson is on the case. Here there is a guy is murdered on the docks of Naples who tells Van Stratten and his girl friend Mily Arkadin’s name, then we have to wait while Van Stratten meets Raina and eventually gets to Arkadin. We are half an hour into the movie before Van Stratten even meets Arkadin. When Van Stratten starts his search we get a montage of him in various places in Europe, then a long dialogue scene as Mily explains to Arkadin what he has found. The scene takes place on Arkadin’s boat and Welles shoots it with odd camera angles, a rocking boat, and Mily lurching around the room delivering what sounds like about 30 minutes of exposition of scenes cut from the film. Then Welles’s scripts give us a variety of scenes of Van Stratten talking to people.
In Kane we never see Thompson’s face in his interviews, but here Van Stratten is the main character, badly played by Robert Arden, who seems especially bland when he has to go up against great character actors like Akim Tamiroff as a dying man, Mischa Auer as the proprietor of a flea circus, Michael Redgrave as a fey seller of antiques, and Katina Paxinou as the woman Arkadin stole money from. Their scenes are lively, but Welles encourages them to overact. Before it comes to a dramatic ending, Welles throws in a slapstick sequence with Tamiroff’s character, the kind of thing directors do when they don’t have the script in focus. Welles also shoots much of the film in the kinds of weird angles Carol Reed used in The Third Man (1949), but Reed used them on a much stronger script by Graham Greene to suggest the moral corruption of post-war Vienna. Here Welles is just showing off as a director.
Welles’s friend, Laurence Olivier, who directed a couple of pictures himself, once said that if you have a good script, you don’t have shoot up the actor’s pants leg. We don’t know if he was referring to Welles, but my guess is that he was.
I’d Like to Buy the World a Better Ending
(2015. Final half-season, multiple writers. Multiple running times.)
By now you have probably read more than you ever want to about the last season of Mad Men, but if you stick with me here you’ll get some comments on the writing, as usual with me.
Back in the late eighties I was doing a proposed outline for my publisher for what became Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. Since at that point I had done very little research, the outline was very chronological. After I mentioned the more recent shows I wanted to write about, I sat at the keyboard wondering what else I should say. I suddenly felt as if an electrical current was running through my forearms and into my fingers. My fingers started typing and up on the screen there appeared: “The last chapter in the book is about women television writers.” I looked around and wondered where the hell that came from. I had no idea, and still don’t. But I left it in the outline, adding, “I don’t know why that is so, I just know that it is,” fully expecting somebody to challenge it. Nobody ever did. So then I began to think, if that is the final chapter, how does the rest of the book lead to that? If the butler did it, what clues and red herrings do we have to put in to make it work? So the structure went from being strictly chronological to chapters on types of shows covering several time periods, with women writers mentioned but only enough to make the final (it actually ended up the second to last) chapter work.
In the run-up to the series finale of Mad Men, it snuck out that showrunner Matthew Weiner had the idea for the final scene (Don Draper at a retreat in Big Sur Zenning out in a yoga position) between seasons four and five. That gave him three seasons to get to that ending. I am sure that viewers who memorized the series can spot elements that may have led to the ending in seasons five and six, but what struck me about the second half of season seven is that Weiner and his writing staff seemed to be marking time and then putting everything in the last two episodes. The series finale reminded me of the fourth season final episode “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” which Weiner also wrote. The pacing of the episodes before than had the usual restrained pace that we associate with the show, but as I noted in my column item on that episode, “We get enough plot turns in this episode to fill out any five previous episodes.”
In “Person to Person,” the series final episode, Weiner is again rushing it. We only learned in the previous episode that Betty has inoperable cancer, and while we do not get her death in this episode, most of the details of her dying (Sally coming home to take care of her) are rushed through. Stan’s admission to Peggy that he loves her has no real precedent, nor does them getting together, which is why it bothered some viewers, who saw it as too “Hollywood” an ending. If there had been more preparation for it, it would have worked better. Peggy meanwhile had passed on Joan’s offer to go into business with her, which at least two people I know thought was a huge mistake on Peggy’s part. Stan’s a semi-nice guy, but being a partner in running her own company would be a better fit for her. Joan and her company only come up in the last episode, and there is a lot more that could have been done with that in the lead-up to Joan’s offer.
Likewise, Don’s adventures on the road, while interesting and providing some good scenes (Don confessing killing the real Don Draper to the group of veterans), also got rushed. (Am I the only viewer that thought the final shot of the next-to-last episode of Don sitting at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere would have been a great ending for the series?) Weiner had to do some interesting tap dancing with Stephanie to get Don to the retreat. I was disappointed in the retreat scenes in general. From the beginning of the series, it has had a sly and sophisticated look at California in the sixties. “The Jet Set” which I reviewed in US #8, played like a combination of La Dolce Vita and L’Avventura (both 1960). I would have expected that Weiner might have brought the same sensibility to the retreat scenes. Instead he seems to take the whole experience a little too much at face value, something that Mad Men has almost never done. About anything.
I suspect that Weiner piled up everything in the last episode or two because 1) he had done it at the end of season four, and 2) he did not want to give too much away too early. Fans of the show were obsessive about guessing what was going to happen and particularly how he was going to end the series. In the last half season, the on-screen guides the show gave to cable systems were not only as ambiguous as they have been throughout the run of the series, but in many cases flat-out wrong. Weiner tried to protect his audiences from getting the details of his show in the wrong order, something that writers nowadays have to worry about. The relationships between a series and its audiences are even richer and more complex than we imagine. I am sure someone somewhere is, or is about to, write a book or a doctoral dissertation on the relationship between Mad Men and its audiences.
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