Understanding Screenwriting #130
Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect 2, Spy, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, Gemma Bovery, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Bessie, Olive Kittridge.
By Tom Stempel.
Has Nobody Here Ever Read the Book Understanding Screenwriting?
(2015. Screenplay by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Colin Treverrow & Derek Connolly, story by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, based on characters created by Michael Crichton. 124 minutes.)
In my 2008 book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning from Good, Not-Quite-so-Good and Bad Screenplays¸ the forerunner of this column, I did a chapter on the first three Jurassic Park movies. Given the variety of screenwriting quality in them, they were in the Not-Quite-so-Good section.
My problem with the script for I (1993) was the problem with the book. Michael Crichton was always more interested in themes and ideas than characters, and the characterization was rather flat, not helped by Steven Spielberg’s uneven direction. What carried the picture was the visualization of Crichton’s idea that dinosaurs could be resurrected from their DNA. Dinos made almost as good cinematic toys as trains do. The film focused on that, which was why it was a big hit.
The characterization in II (1997) was a little better, and the action scenes a little sharper, particularly the one with the baby dino in the two trailers on the edge of the cliff. But then the film “jumps the shark.” We have been on two islands (Isla Nublar for I, Isla Sorna for II), but suddenly the T-Rex gets shipped to San Diego. Spielberg has a shot from the back of a group of Japanese tourists running away, looking over their shoulders. It is straight out of a bad Godzilla movie, and the rest of the film is camp.
The first two had been written by David Koepp (with Crichton working on the screenplay on the first), but the writers on III (2001) included Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, who had written Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1999). In Crichton’s work, the characters are exactly who they say they are. In III, almost none of them are who they say they are. (All the Jurassic films, including the new one, have in the credits “based on characters created by Michael Crichton,” which is technically true, although only one minor character in IV is from the original.) Payne, Taylor, and Peter Buchman obviously knew they could not play the story as a straight horror film, as the first 1 ½ films did, so they built in wit not only in the dialogue but in the characters. III was half an hour shorter than the first two, but I thought it was the most thoroughly entertaining film of the three. At the end of the chapter I mentioned that plans were in the works for a fourth one and I asked, “Where can they go from here?” Well, back to the beginning.
There have been many writers trying to get a IV script, including John Sayles. Well, you can understand why Spielberg would consider him. Not only is Sayles great at character, but in his Roger Corman days he wrote Piranha (1978), which he said Spielberg told him was his “favorite ripoff of Jaws.” Sayles’s script was not used, although I would love to read it. Eventually the writing team of Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver were hired. Their previous credits include Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), so they know their way around the genre. According to the IMDb, they are currently at work on the two Avatar sequels. Spielberg called in director Colin Trevorrow for a meeting. Spielberg had seen his sole feature film as a director, Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), which was written by Derek Connolly. If you have seen the film, which I reviewed here, you can see why Spielberg might think Trevorrow might be right for a Jurassic movie. There’s a sort of sci-fi element to the film, and the character work is great, with good dialogue. So Trevorrow was hired and he read the script they had. He is quoted in the Los Angeles Times, “It was just a different film. There were two boys, but they were Chinese, and their mother was a Chinese paleontologist who had discovered a dinosaur, and she thought Jurassic Park had stolen the DNA. I said, ‘I can’t direct this screenplay. I can’t use a single word.’” All together now, in unison: “Typical director.” I don’t know if it was the Jaffa & Silver screenplay he was referring to, but you will notice they get both the story and screenplay credit in the film.
So Trevorrow and his Safety writer, Derke Connolly, got together and in three weeks, according to Trevorrow, they had a script, which included the three things that Spielberg insisted on: a park open to tourists, a raptor trainer, and a new dino that gets free and causes havoc. Trevorrow and Connolly also added genetic engineering (although that’s always been part of the franchise) and a love story (also part of the franchise, but the weakest element in this film). The result is a mess, and a major disappointment to those of us who liked Safety Not Guaranteed. Let me count the ways.
After the interesting characters they created in Safety, the writers have gone back to Michael Crichton’s flat characterization. Owen, the raptor trainer, is the macho hero, and that’s about it. Chris Pratt, who plays Owen, was wonderful last year in Guardians of the Galaxy in a similar part, but the script here does not give him the wit of that character to play. He was one or two good lines, but they only stand out because the rest of the dialogue is so flat.
Claire, the manager of the park, is supposed to be a super tough character, but as written she seems mostly stupid and unpleasant. Casting the ethereal Bryce Dallas Howard does not help. If they wanted a redhead for the part, they should have gone with Jessica “ I’m the motherfucker that found this place, sir” Chastain. Then there is the issue of Claire’s high heels. The Los Angeles Times ran an essay on the whole issue of the sexism of Claire’s character, but the best line about the shoes came in another article by Rebecca Keegan: “For future reference, male filmmakers, most professional women keep a pair of flats under our desks in case the apocalypse hits.” Claire running through the jungle in heels is a large part of what makes her seem stupid. Jurassic World also had the disadvantage of opening a month after Mad Max: Fury Road (see below), which has a great tough-woman character, so the sexism of Connolly and Treverrow stood out even more.
Hoskins, who’s up to no good with the military, is a standard issue bad guy, although Vincent D’Onforio does what he can with the part. The writers write in a few flirtations for Zach, the oldest of the two teenagers, but then just drop them instead of paying them off. The writers also do nothing with the visitors to the park. You could kill off all the park employees in the first twenty minutes and let the visitors figure out how to deal with the situation. Or, the writers could have had a meeting with several of the Tour Guides on the Universal Studio Tour and learned the weirdest things guests say and do. The writers of Safety should have done a lot more with the tourists.
Well, at least they got the action right. Not so fast. The action scenes are very repetitive, with none of the inventiveness of the two-trailers-on-the-cliff scene in II, or the flying dino aviary in III. It’s just one chase and one fight after another, and the tone is more straight horror of I rather than the others. Just as there are only one or two good lines of dialogue, there is only one good plot twist, which occurs when the velociraptors meet the new dino, the Indominus rex.
So, if the script is so bad, the obvious question is, how the hell did it bring over $200 million its first weekend and showing no hint of slowing down at the box office? In the book chapter on the first three films, I said that Spielberg’s direction of the actors in I was mediocre since he was busy getting the dinos right. I have often written about making sure you know what the heart of your movie is. With the Jurassic franchises, it’s the dinos. The ones in I were impressive, although less so if you look at them now. Technically we have come a long way since the first trilogy, and the movie delivers on that. The first trilogy, especially I, has stuck in people’s minds. I am one of the few people on earth that may notice that the script for IV does not follow tonally from the earlier trilogy. Plus, you have a whole generation of viewers who have only seen the first films on video and DVD, and they obviously jumped at the chance to see the (not-so) new dinos on the BIG screen. The box office from the Imax showings was particularly strong.
So, even if they have made the film badly, they have followed the prime directive for making movies: make movies that people want to see. Simple.
Imperator Furiosa, Meet Johnny Gray
Mad Max: Fury Road
(2015. Written by George Miller and Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris. 120 minutes.)
I almost didn’t see this one. I have not been a huge fan of the Mad Max films, which seemed excessively over the top. This one, however, is over the top, but not excessively so. And it works in some interesting counterpoints to its own excesses.
From the trailers and some early reviews, I thought it might fall into the trap of simply being exhausting, but it isn’t, although it does get a bit repetitive in the last half hour. The obvious way you write this kind of action film is give the structure the great William Wyler said was the basis for the silent westerns he made: action, plot, action, plot, action, plot, big action at the end. The writers here don’t follow that pattern. They give us the counterpoint to the action within the action scenes themselves. So they generally avoid the “sitting around the campfire plot discussions” that mar too many action films.
Most screenwriters think they need to explain everything. You don’t, as these writers understand. They know that if they plunge us into the action, we can more or less figure out what’s going on. So right off Max is taken prisoner by a bunch of baddies and before he can say much, a metal trap is put over his mouth. Then he is strapped to the front of a vehicle, with a tube delivering his blood to Nux, the driver. The actor playing Max is Tom Hardy, and it’s just as well he has the trap over his mouth, because he is a real block of wood, with none of the original Max Mel Gibson’s manic energy. Nux is off with his mates to track down Imperator Furiosa, or Furiosa for short. Furiosa drives a large tanker truck which is supposed to pick up a load of fuel at a refinery we only see in the distance. It’s enough to answer the question I have had from the beginning of the series: in a post-apocalyptic world, where do they get gas for all this driving? Furiosa splits off from the convoy and Nux and the others take after her. We are well into the picture before we find out what she is up to. She has secreted in the truck six of the women the boss of the land uses to have children by. We view them first as Max, who has escaped his blood bag duties comes around the back of the tanker and sees: six beautiful young women, skimpily dressed, wetting themselves down with water from the tanker. Anthony Lane in The New Yorker says it looks like a Playboy photo shoot, and it was so over the top it made me laugh out loud. Nobody else in the theatre laughed, so I kept my chuckles to myself for the rest of the film.
The film’s not-so-secret weapon is Charlize Theron as Furiosa. She seems to have an instinctive understanding of what kind of acting will work in this kind of film, and George Miller, who also directed, knows it. So instead of cutting to long dialogue sequences, Miller simply cuts to Theron’s compelling eyes. John Ford once said that “Directing a picture is not a mystery, it’s not an art. The main thing about directing is: photograph the people’s eyes.” Presumably Miller knew what he had with Theron, or at least what he was looking for, when he wrote the script. Charlize Theron’s eyes are a great counterpoint to all the action.
The script is very sparse in terms of dialogue and since a lot of the actors are Australian, some of what dialogue there is gets lost in the accents. But this is a film shows us, not tells us. Miller says in an interview in Creative Screenwriting that he was essentially writing a silent film (and I found it interesting that nowhere in the interview does he mention writing for or with Theron). Watch how late in the picture we learn crucial details, such as the location of “the green place.” And the writers give us a few surprises along the way, such as the nature of a biker gang Furiosa and Max discover. The writers have also borrowed a structural element from Buster Keaton’s 1927 Civil War classic The General. Keaton is a southern railroad engineer whose beloved engine is stolen by Yankee spies. The first half of the film he is chasing them. Midway through the picture he catches up to the engine and steals it back. Now they are chasing him. In Fury Road, Furiosa is driving away from the citadel for the first three quarters of the film and then for various reasons is driving back to it, dealing with all those who were chasing her. The writers’ last quarter of the film is not as inventive as The General, but what is? The reversal works well enough here.
A Cardboard Lump in the Throat
Pitch Perfect 2
(2015. Written by Kay Cannon, based on characters in the book by Mickey Rapkin. 115 minutes.)
You may remember from US #116 that I did not like the original Pitch Perfect. I thought that Kay Cannon, who wrote that one as well, had made every single character a cliché. The plot of that one was also standard issue: underdog group beats the favorites in a competition, in this case a cappella singing. So how come this one is so much better?
The plot still is vaguely standard issue. The Barden Bellas are put on probation by the national committee after a disastrous appearance at the Kennedy Center in front of President and Michelle Obama (playing themselves very well in stock footage). The follow-up news coverage is funnier than the disaster itself, including a great line from Rosie Perez on what happened in the presidential limo on the way home. So we get off to a funny start, always a good thing. Then Beca finds a loophole in the rules, and the Bellas go off to Denmark for the world championships, where they are again underdogs. What makes this version work is that in addition to their traditional underdog status, they are fighting to keep the Bellas from being disbanded. Which leads to a scene at the worlds that by every rule of screenwriting should not work. They are joined onstage by a group of people who, with one exception, we have never met. That’s awfully late in a film for that to happen. But it works because we may not know who those people are, but we know what they are, and what their being there means to the girls and the group. Yes, all the characters are rather cardboard, but I got a real cardboard lump my throat in that scene.
Cannon is also freer in this version to work variations on the characters. Beca is a little looser than before, and I may have to take back my comment in the review of the first film that Anna Kendrick can’t carry a picture as a star. This is an ensemble picture, but she stands out. Chloe is not the uptight bitch she was before. Fat Amy is the same as before, but since they knew from the first one that she was an audience favorite, she is given more to do, and the cardboard of her character is a little thicker than it was before. I also liked the addition of a couple of new characters. One is a Bella legacy, Emily, who is trying to live up to her mother’s expectations. She is entertainingly played by Hailee Steinfeld, showing comedy chops we have not seen in her before. The other is Flo, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala. Every time one of the Bellas whines about one of her trivial problems, Flo mentions some of the serious shit she had to deal with in Guatemala, on the way to the States, and here. Cannon has come up with some great lines for her that are sharp as well as funny, and yet keep within the tone the film sets, so they never take you out of the picture. That is not as easy as Cannon makes it look.
More Fun with Traditionally-Built Women
(2015. Written by Paul Feig. 120 minutes.)
Writing about A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) in US #27, I mentioned that I did not laugh so much as smile at the film. I found the surrealism more striking and charming than funny. I wrote, “A comedy can work if it makes you laugh a lot. It can also work, as this one does, by making you enjoy what you are, if not laughing at, smiling at.” I smiled a lot, and even chuckled a bit, during Spy, but I was not enjoying it as much as I expected to. It is a movie written and (especially) directed to make you howl with laughter. I didn’t, and the audience around me didn’t. (For a different view, see Wesley Morris’s review in Grantland; he seems to have been howling all the way through.)
I love the idea of Spy. Melissa McCarthy is playing the lead, not just the fat, messy, foul-mouthed second banana. The film is not making fun of her, but of everybody in it who underestimates her character. Susan Cooper is a CIA analyst working in the rat-infested bowels of Langley. She is very good at her job, but most people do not realize it. Bradley Fine (played by Jude Law, who, like Colin Firth in Kingsman: The Secret Service, shows he too can do James Bond) unfortunately sneezes at the wrong time on an assignment Susan is guiding him through. James Bond never sneezes, and that gives us the first good joke of the film. Fine is killed shortly thereafter, and Susan is put into the field. The cover identities the CIA gives Susan are condescending to her, but that’s the point. Feig, who also directed, understands and sympathizes with Susan, and as a result we do too. We like Susan as much as we like Melissa McCarthy. That Susan is a perfect role for McCarthy is the achievement of the script and the film.
The problem I had is that the film gets more frantic than it needs to be. Some of that is the script, but a lot of it is Feig’s direction. He has the actors pushing too hard for the laughs, and it just gets wearying. And if that was not enough about an hour into the film, there is suddenly a lot more foul language than there has been before. Yes, there has been some – this is not a church service after all – but for about fifteen minutes there is way more than they need. And then it just goes back down to its previous level.
Susan wins in the end, and it looks like they are setting up a sequel just in case. I will probably go see it to learn if they have settled down a bit, or as in the case of many sequels, decided that more is more.
A Shaggy Elephant Story
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
(2013. Screenplay by Felix Herngren and Han Ingemannson, based on the novel by Jonas Jonasson. 114 minutes.)
Allan Karlsson is exactly what the title says, and he does climb out the window of his nursing home (he does not want to be part of the party celebrating his 100th birthday), and then he disappears, but not, thank goodness, to us. We follow his adventures as one thing happens after another. He accidentally walks off with a suitcase full of money. The guy who had it comes after him. Allan and his new friend, who is not quite as old as Allan, manage to trap the guy in a food freezer. And forget to turn off the freezer part. So then they ship the frozen body off to Dubai. And then, and then, and then they end up with a woman with an elephant, and both the woman and the elephant become part of the team. And if that’s not enough, we get flashbacks of Allan’s earlier life, which involves meeting Einstein (O.K., not Albert, but his idiot brother), Harry Truman, Francesco Franco, and Joseph Stalin, just to name a few. Yes, it is that kind of movie, and the script works because each new “and then” is funny and charming. This is the model to follow if you want to write a shaggy dog story. The film is also often very dark—this is a Swedish film after all, and Allan has always loved to blow things up, a hobby he has kept over the years.
Delightful! Madame Bovary? No, Gemma Bovery.
(2014. Screenplay by Pascal Bonitzer and Anne Fontaine, based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds. 99 minutes.)
Ah, yes, how many films have been made from Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel Madame Bovary? About 312 by my count, including the John Ford western version, the Akira Kurosawa samurai version, the Warner Brothers cartoon version with Bugs as Emma Bovary. O.K., I’m just funning with you a bit there, but the point is that there have been a lot of them. And there is a new one in theatres even as we speak. They are all more or less straight adaptations. Gemma Bovery (note the spelling of the last name) is very different, and all the fresher for it.
The inventive idea comes from Posy Simmonds, who wrote the graphic novel. Her heroine is Gemma not Emma, and she is English, not French. She and her husband have moved to a small town in Normandy, and right away we get that one theme of this version is the difference between the French and the English. In a scene near the beginning, Valérie Joubert, the wife of the local baker Martin Joubert, says that an Englishman in the village will not commit suicide because the English are too polite. And we are in modern times, not the 19th Century. Simmonds’s idea, which Bonitzer and Fontaine (Fontaine directed) run with is that Martin Joubert is convinced from the beginning that Gemma is really a modern day Emma. And she’s not. Even if you don’t remember all the details of Flaubert’s novel Bonitzer and Fontaine give you enough recaps to let you see the connections and more importantly the lack of them.
What makes this work as a film is that Fontaine has cast the great French actor Fabrice Luchini as Martin. She and Bonitzer have written in lots of reactions for Martin to have, so we are not just watching Gemma’s story, we are seeing him react to it. It makes the film a film.
So here’s the takeaway for you as a screenwriter: instead of doing a rehash of an old story, find a fresh way into it. And, yes, I would have loved to have seen Kurosawa’s samurai version as well.
Imagine That: a Novelist Who Can Write a Good Screenplay.
And From His Own Novel, No Less.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
(2015. Screenplay by Jesse Andrews, based on his novel. 105 minutes.)
You may already have read the CS interview with Andrews in which he takes the position all novelists should take when their books are made into films: the book is still there, so let’s rethink it as a film. So while his script is talky (not excessively so), there is always a lot to watch: the characters’ reactions, the houses they live in (notice how both Greg and Rachel’s houses are full of books and how that pays off at the end), and the imitation movies Greg and Earl make. Andrews points out in the interview that while the book is told in the first person from Greg’s point of view, he had to develop the other characters, especially Rachel, because we will be seeing them a lot in the film. You can get away with half-formed characters in a book, but not so much in a film.
Andrews is also very inventive structurally. About 45 minutes into the film, Greg the narrator, tells not to be sad because Rachel is not going to die. Uh, Jesse, the title of your film refers to the Dying Girl. So either the film or Greg is lying and we become involved in trying to find out which one it is. I don’t think I have ever seen a writer bring that off before. What can you get away with that nobody else has done?
Typical TV Biopic Problems
(2015. Screenplay by Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, and Dee Rees, story by Dee Rees and Horton Foote. 112 minutes)
The credits for this are rather interesting and suggest it has been in the works for a while. Horton Foote died in 2009 (and Richard Zanuck, one of the credited co-producers, died in 2012). Cleveland and Gilois did the screenplay earlier this year for McFarland, which I liked in #126. Dee Rees, who also directed, wrote and directed the 2011 film Pariah. This may be one of those cases where too many cooks spoiled the broth.
As you might guess from the title, this is about the great blues singer Bessie Smith. As often happens in biographical films, and especially those made for television, the film is less a story than a collection of scenes. Some of the scenes are very good, especially those between Bessie and her mentor Ma Rainey. But they remain scenes, and the film has very little story or character arc. How does that happen? I suspect that the more people who get involved, the more different scenes from the life those people insist have to be in the film. In addition to the writers there are seven credited producers or executive producers, and one uncredited one, Hallie Foote, Horton’s daughter. You can just imagine the arguments that went on. If Richard Zanuck had not passed away, he might have been tough enough to bring a structure to the piece, but we’ll never know.
Yeah, She Pets the Dog, But Still
(2014. Screenplay by Jane Anderson, based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout. 223 minutes.)
Development people and producers are always after screenwriters to make their characters more likeable. These are usually referred to in the industry as “pet the dog” scenes. Well, Olive Kitteridge does pet her dog, particular after her husband Henry dies, but that does not make her any more likeable. This script is a model on how to write a compelling film, or in this case miniseries, about a character who is not at all likeable. I have not read the novel, but I gather the script is very true to Olive’s prickliness. So how come we are willing to watch her for four hours? Olive is a mostly retired school teacher who has a sharp comment for nearly everybody she meets and knows. Many of her comments are funny. Amazing what you can get away with when you are funny, and that applies to both Olive and the writers. And Olive knows they are funny. She has a wicked sense of humor, which we like. Some of the people she talks to deserve to get Olive’s version of the truth. Some don’t, and we feel for them.
Strout and Anderson also give Olive a great husband, Henry, who knows how to deal with Olive and how not to let her zingers get to him, at least not too much. If he loves her, and he is such a nice guy, then we feel she may be better than we at first think. It’s the equivalent of having Ingrid Bergman fall in love with Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942). Bogart had never played a romantic lead before, but if Bergman on screen loved him, then we buy him as a romantic lead. Always look to see what your characters can show us about the other characters in the piece. In part three of the four-part series, Henry dies, but he has helped us accept Olive, and because he is such a nice guy, we feel for her.
Strout and Anderson also give us other characters who play off Olive. In the last half hour of the series, Olive goes out on a date with Jack Kennison, whom we have hardly seen in the previous three and a half hours. It is a great scene because Jack, unlike Henry, calls her on her bullshit. It is as close as we get to seeing Olive get her comeuppance, and it is as hugely satisfying as it was to see Erik Brockovich getting hers from Ed Masry.
And my old standby: Write great parts, you get great actors: Frances McDormand, as Olive, Richard Jenkins as Henry, and Bill Murray as Jack. The rest of the supporting cast is wonderful as well. And the director is Lisa Cholodenko, who knows what she’s got both in terms of the actors and the script.
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