Understanding Screenwriting #131
Dope, Tangerine, Inside Out, A Little Chaos, Mr. Holmes, Minions, Night Moves.
By Tom Stempel.
A Good “Write About What You Know” Movie…As Opposed To…
(2015. Written by Rick Famuyiwa. 103 minutes.)
“Write about what you know” is advice given to beginning writers, and it has produced more bad movies (and novels) than good ones. A lot of the bad ones are in the category of teen coming-of-age movies. Writers recalling their teen years tend to fall into sentimental clichés. As much as I liked Me and Earl and the Dying Girl in the previous column, there is a certain lack of freshness about it.
Dope is different. It’s not sentimental, but it is perceptive. Rick Famuyiwa grew up in The Bottoms in Inglewood California, and his script (he also directed, and well) is very fresh. It’s been a while since we have had a good black coming-of age movie like Boyz N the Hood (1991) and Dope makes up for lost time. The script starts out fast with the introduction of the three main characters: Malcolm, a nerd who wants to go to Harvard; Jib, who looks to be of Middle East descent but claims to be “14% African;” and Diggy, a lesbian tomboy. We get introduced to them visually and in a richly detailed voiceover. We like them right away because they are both funny and interesting. And they are different from typical black stereotypes. That gives Famuyiwa some room to play with other characters who as people seem determined to be black stereotypes. Because we see those characters from the viewpoint of our three, we can see how the others are adopting certain stereotypical behavior, which makes that behavior funny.
Our three are bullied in school because of their interest in “white stuff,” i.e., wanting to go to get good grades and go to college. Look at how Famuyiwa pays that off later with the change in attitude from the bullies. Other writers might just have let us watch our three hanging out, but Famuyiwa gets them into a tricky situation. They end up going to a dope dealer’s party (watch how Diggy uses her feminine charms to get past the doorman) because Malcolm has a crush on Nakia, the dope dealer Dom’s sort-of girl friend. Malcolm likes her not just because she’s cute but because she also wants to go to college, although her sights are not set as high as Malcolm’s. The party goes badly and Malcolm ends up with backpack full of drugs while Dom goes to jail. Several people figure out Malcolm has the drugs and are after him. Famuyiwa has some fun with all the euphemisms they all use for drugs.
Dom gets word to Malcolm to take the drugs to “A.J.” at a certain address. A.J.’s not home, but his two late-teens kids are. The daughter, Lily, wears very little around the house and seems intent on seducing Malcolm. On the one hand we’d like for Malcolm to get laid, but on the other we know Lily is trouble. She gets into the drugs he is carrying, which leads to the best end-of-seduction gag I’ve ever seen. Malcolm has realized he has supposed to get to his interview with a Harvard alum, and Lily, drugged out of her skull, insists on driving. She passes out, then wakes up needing to pee, which she does in the bushes by the side of the road. That’s caught on cell-phone video, and later in a wicked send-up of TV news coverage. Malcolm gets to his interview. Guess whose father the alum is?
At this point we are only half-way through the movie and our three, for reasons that are not as clear as they might be, have to sell the drugs to pay off the boss. Being good kids, they have no idea how to do it, although Diggy suggests going to Coachella and selling it all to white folks. Instead they get in touch with the only white character in the film, Will, a computer hacker they met at band camp. Famuyiwa avoids any obvious American Pie-band camp jokes; see why I mean about this film being fresh? Our three and Will discuss who may or may not use the infamous n-word. As elsewhere in the script, Famuyiwa gives everyone their own viewpoint, which is what makes the scene great. The four of them work out a system that they all seem to understand (but was way beyond me) involving secret websites and bitcoins. Malcolm outsmarts everyone else and we eventually get the impression he gets into Harvard. He shows up at his prom, hoping that Nakia, who missed her own prom, will be there. She’s not, but she is at his house when he comes home. She reminds Malcolm that it was not exactly the prom she regretted missing, but one of the other activities. Famuyiwa could have easily thrown in a montage of them doing that other activity, but by this time it’s late in the picture, and we don’t need to see it. It may also have been beyond the budget of the film.
So now, if you are white, you are wondering if you will enjoy Dope. I did, and I can tell you that all of the admittedly-small white audience I saw it with loved it. Although a lot of the cultural references went past me. I have no idea why the black actor Donald Glover is on their list of “white things” they are not supposed to like but do.
Fresh, And No, I Am Not Going To Go All The Way To “Fresh Fruit,” For Reasons That Will Become Obvious.
(2015. Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch. 88 minutes.)
“Merry Christmas Eve, bitch.”
This has got to be the best opening line of a script since “I believe in the church of baseball” in Bull Durham (1988). The line comes at the end of the credits over a black screen, and it tells us that this is a Christmas movie, but one in which the characters live in another world and speak another language than in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). And the reading of “bitch’ tells us that we are among friends. And we have no idea who is saying the line.
The film then starts with the two likely suspects. One is a black, transgendered prostitute named Sin-Dee. The other is a black, transgendered prostitute named Alexandra. Sin-Dee is freewheeling, energetic, emotional. Very emotional. Alexandra is quieter, more reserved, sensitive. They are having a celebratory donut at Donut Time, their hangout in Hollywood. They are celebrating Sin-Dee being released after 28 days in jail. So I assumed, watching the movie, that the line is from Alexandra, welcoming Sin-Dee back to the free world. The IMDb indicates in its Quotes section that it is Sin-Dee who says it. Well, the “bitch” part may be more likely to come from her. See the movie and make up your own mind.
When Sin-Dee says she has something special for her pimp Chester, Alexandra assumes it has to do with the fact that while Sin-Dee was in the slammer, Chester was “unfaithful” to Sin-Dee. Whoops, that’s news to Sin-Dee. She becomes determined to find Chester but more importantly to find the skanky whore he did it with. So the plot mechanics are set in motion very quickly, not more than five minutes into the film. And Sin-Dee starts walking the streets, in a literal sense, trying to find the girl. Nobody is much help, since they can’t remember her name, except that maybe it begins with a “D.” Some people (notice how the writers spread information out over several characters) tell her that the girl is, in what I think are Sin-Dee’s words, “a fish with a vagina,” i.e., a natural-born woman with all the appropriate plumbing. Sin-Dee eventually finds a girl who fits the bill and starts dragging her around town to try to find Chester, even though Dinah insists she has no idea who Chester is.
With no explanation we are also following Rasmik, an Armenian-born cab driver. We see a bunch of his weirder passengers and eventually we learn he knows Alexandra and Sin-Dee. When Alexandra tells him Sin-Dee is out of jail, he is delighted, since he has sort of a crush on Sin-Dee. A little later on we get a group of Armenian women and as with Rasmik, the writers don’t tell us right away what their connection to the story is, although we might correctly guess they are related to Rasmik, who joins them for Christmas Eve dinner. Here, as with the main characters and the weird passengers, Baker and Bergoch make each of the characters in the family scene who are crucial to the story very vivid. After dinner Rasmik goes out to work again, partially to make more money, mostly to escape his mother-in-law, and of course to try to find Sin-Dee.
Very late in the picture Sin-Dee, still dragging Dinah, finds Chester, who has finally shown up at his “office” at Donut Time. And the writers uncork what is easily the best scene in any movie so far this year. In the book Understanding Screenwriting I admired Robert Bolt for writing a great multi-character scene in the first scene in Feisal’s tent, where Bolt balances five characters, giving all their due. Getting the balance right in a multi-character scene is one of the trickier elements in screenwriting, which is why so many scenes are one, two or three character scenes. What Baker and Bergoch bring off here is a multiple scene with eight separate characters, several of whom we’ve met and some of whom we have not. Each one gets his or her moments, often more than one moment, and the characters we know are all consistent with what we know about them. I cannot recall even the great Preston Sturges bringing off a scene with this many characters at this level. Even if, for some reason, you don’t much care for wildly funny, black, transgendered hookers, you should still see this film to see how the writers (and the director, Baker) bring off this scene.
A Higher Standard, Take One
(2015. Screenplay by Meg Lefauve & Josh Cooley & Peter Docter, story by Peter Docter & Ronnie del Carmen, additional dialogue by Amy Poehler and Bill Hader. 94 minutes.)
In US #27, I wrote about the brilliant four-minute opening montage of Carl and Ellie’s marriage in Up (2009). Inside Out starts out with a pre-credit scene that is almost as good as the scene in Up. John Sayles once said that in the first ten minutes of a script, you can get away with anything because you are setting up the world of the film. (See above: “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch.”)
Here the writers have a very complicated “world of the film” to set up. The movie is about Riley, an 11-year-old girl who is unhappy with the family move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Easy enough to establish, but the opening also sets up that the film is about the dominant emotions in her head: Joy, Fear, Disgust, Sadness, and Anger. Each is personified by a character representing each one. They all hang out in Riley’s command central in her brain, pushing the controls of her emotions and reacting to what is going with her. They are established with all the wit and intelligence the GAPS (Geniuses at Pixar) bring to the table.
The problem then is that each of the emotions is a one-note character, and for all the skills of the GAPS, they keep hitting those same notes, over and over and OVER again. I have heard that the writers researched this by talking to child psychologists, and the writers may have taken them too literally and not let their imaginations take off from the ideas. Never let your research overpower your imagination. The film gets very repetitive very quickly, and the writers try to get beyond that by having Joy and Sadness trying to track down some missing core memories. Joy and Sadness go out into the emotion modules to track them down. I can see that the writers are hoping the spectacle of those modules will help carry the rest of the film, but they don’t. One module is called Abstract Thought, and my mouth waters at what the GAPS could do with that. Well, they don’t do much. The characters, including Riley’s old imaginary friend Bing Bong, turn into modern abstract painting versions of themselves, which a literal reading of the scene. Then they go to Imaginationland. And my mouth started watering again. Again, not much. It looks like any other amusement park. When I think of the great imaginative surreal scenes in classic Disney, such as the amusement park in Pinocchio (1940), the “Pink Elephants on Parade” in Dumbo (1941), the “life on Mars” sequence of Mars and Beyond (the Disneyland television show, 1957), the scenes in Inside Out suffer greatly by comparison. The writers and animators seem to have modeled Bing Bong after one of the pink elephants in Dumbo, which is just begging for a critical slam. I suspect that if this film were produced by a lesser studio than Pixar, we might let it pass, but Pixar has established such a high standard that we expect more and better.
And then we get more and better at the end of the movie. At one point near the beginning of the film we go quickly into the command center for her mother and father. It’s inventive and a nice counterpoint to Riley and her emotions, but then it does not appear again. Under the end credits we suddenly get command centers and their emotions for a lot of minor characters, as well as a dog (just a rambunctious as you can imagine) and a cat (just as haughty as you might imagine).
Peter Docter, who directed and who directed Up, has said he has no interest in doing a sequel, but the possibilities of one are set up near the end. Riley’s old command central control panel is replaced with a new one. There is a big red button on it marked “Puberty,” which does not get pushed. What could go wrong with that, one of the emotions says. What indeed? One thing would be a new character…Lust. Yeah, let’s see Pixar and Disney deal with that.
A Higher Standard, Take Two
A Little Chaos
(2014. Written by Jeremy Brock, Alison Deegan, Alan Rickman. 117 minutes.)
The people involved in this one are hardly chopped liver either. Jeremy Brock wrote the screenplays for Mrs. Brown (1997), The Last King of Scotland (2006), and the 2008 remake of Brideshead Revisited. He also created a British television series Casualty, which ran off and on from 1997 to 2004. Alison Deegan acted in that series, and she’s the newbie screenwriter of the bunch. Alan Rickman is a great actor, but wrote and directed The Winter Guest (1997), and he is the director here. He also acts in the film with his co-star from Sense and Sensibility (1995), Kate Winslet.
So what went wrong? It may be too another cooks & broth situation. The film tells the story of Sabine De Barra (Winslet), a French garden architect in the reign of Louis XIV (Rickman). She is given a commission to create an outdoor ballroom on the grounds of Versailles, working with the head architect, André Le Notre. He’s a hunk and he’s married. They are supposed to be attracted to each other, but the script gives them so little to do that it’s hard to tell. The actor played Le Notre is Matthias Schoenaerts, who has given good performances before (Rust and Bone ), but is real block of wood here. Rickman as director gives Winslet piles of close-ups, but Rickman and the other writers have not given her anything to do except look worried. The two actors give very monotonous performances. Rickman gives himself a great part as Louis XIV, and he ends up stealing the show from everybody else. He and Winslet have two terrific scenes. In the first one he is wandering in the nursery where she has come to get plants. She assumes he’s the owner. We know he’s not, so we are watching to see how long it takes her to figure it out. Then he asks her if they can go on pretending he’s not the king. That changes the dynamics of the scene. In other scene, she and the women of the court face off with the king and she makes a pro-women speech he respects, even if it is not going to change his mind. If the rest of the movie was up to those scenes, it would have been wonderful.
You Want Your Close-ups of Your Star? We Got Them Right Here!
(2015. Screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, and characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle. 104 minutes.)
The idea for the novel (the 93 year-old retired Sherlock Holmes is living quietly in Sussex becomes obsessed with solving the one case he could not crack) is a very literary one. Hatcher makes it into a film by focusing on Holmes’s character, giving Sir Ian McKellen a great role to play. Bill Condon, who directed, gives his Gods and Monsters (1998) star lots and lots of close-ups. A mean LOTS. Well, it’s McKellen and you want to see what he’s doing. What’s different from all the close-ups of Winslet in A Little Chaos is that Hatcher has given McKellen stuff to do, a LOT of stuff, so we don’t mind. Well, you may find it a little trying as the picture goes on, but then McKellen will do something to bring you back into the film. And when Sir Ian’s Holmes twinkles, he is almost as cute as Winslet.
More Is More Is Less
(2015. Written by Brian Lynch. 91 minutes.)
As screenwriters you should be aware of something called a throwaway line. It is a line that the writers and the actors treat lightly, as if they were throwing it away, hence the name. They generally work because they are nice counterpoints to the heavy lifting the other lines and action are doing in the scene. And some make a tremendous impact. At the end of Some Like It Hot (1959), Jerry as Daphne is explaining to Osgood all the reasons they can’t get married. He dismisses them casually. Finally Jerry takes off his wig and says, “Dammit, Osgood. I’m a man.” Instead of getting all upset, Osgood says, “Well, nobody’s perfect.” In Casablanca (1942) when Renault asks Rick why he came to Casablanca, Rick says he came for the waters. When Renault points out there are no waters in the desert, Rick replies, “I was misinformed.” After the fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally… (1989), the woman at the other table does not make a fuss, but says, “I’ll have what she’s having.” There can also be throwaway sight gags as well. Buster Keaton’s silent films are full of them. The best one is in The General (1927): a Union general has ordered a supply train to go across a bridge, even though the bridge is burning. The train goes out on the bridge and collapses. Keaton cuts back to the general, who has no expression on his face at all. Keaton holds on the shot until the general finally pulls out his sword and waves it toward the front lines. In all the times I showed that film in my class at LACC, the train and bridge collapsing did not get as big a laugh as the close-up of the general.
So what does all this have to do with Minions? The minions were in a sense throwaway characters in the first two Despicable Me movies (2010 and 2013). They were comic counterpoint to the main action. They did appear in two short cartoons on their own, but Minions is their first starring feature. Moving supporting characters to leads is a tricky thing. The creators of Frasier (1993-2004) managed successfully to take a supporting character from Cheers (1982-1993) and make a new series. The creators of After MASH (1983-1984) could not so the same with Colonel Potter, Klinger, and Father Mulcahy. Part of the problem of promoting the minions to the leads is that they have no individual character. The film tries to differentiate between the three main ones, but not very well. They speak a kind of gibberish in which an occasional word is familiar, but they have no substantial dialogue.
The plot is pretty much standard issue: minions get involved with an evil person and eventually save the world, or at least the British Empire. So you have a lot of sight gags with throwaway characters. There is nothing substantial for the characters to counterpoint, which makes the movie a complete lightweight.
That’s not necessarily an awfully thing, depending on how much you spent for your ticket, but it does not have the kind of depth and intelligence of a good, or even bad, Pixar film. It does have some funny gags in it, such as the opening sequence of the history of the minions through time, but throughout the film, you ought to get a sense there is more there.
A True Gem
(1975. Written by Alan Sharp. 100 minutes.)
The period from 1967 to 1977 is now considered to be the last Golden Age of American films. You are probably familiar with the classics from that period like The Graduate (1967), The Godfather (1972), Chinatown (1974), and Network (1976), among others. There were also a lot of smaller films that were almost as good, and sometimes even better than the more well-known ones. Night Moves is one of those, and one I used to look at almost every year in the eighties on the Betamax tape I had of it (ask your grandparents what Betamax was). I had not seen it in a decade or so, so I recently gave it a shot (off Turner Classic Movies; I’m not sure my Betamax machine still works). Boy, it is just as good as I remember it after all these years.
Alan Sharp was born in Scotland and left home at fourteen. According to the biography of him on the IMDb, he had “a long series of odd jobs working as an apprentice in shipyards, as the assistant to a private detective, as an English teacher in Germany, a construction laborer, dishwasher, night switchboard operator in a burglar-alarm company, and a packer for a carpet company.” Even allowing for a little writerly exaggeration (directors are not the only people in the movie business who lie), that is still the kind of resume you want as a writer. He learned about life, not just movies, and his scripts have a tough-minded view of reality that a lot of Hollywood scripts just do not have.
Harry Moseby is a former professional football player who is now a private eye. This being the seventies, he does not get an in-person visit from a female fatale trying to hire him. He gets a message on his answering machine. Nick, who runs a larger investigation firm, passes off a case to Harry. Nick has a pre-Columbian statue is his office, which Harry says reminds him of Alex Karras, the pro-football great. There was no way for Sharp to know that Susan Clark, who plays Harry’s wife Ellen, would marry Karras a few years later. Arlene Iverson, a one-time starlet who married a producer, wants Harry to find her sixteen-year-old daughter Delly, who has run away. It’s clear fairly early on that the only reason Arlene wants her back is that her late husband has set up a trust that gives her money only as long as she has custody of Delly. So Harry talks to a bunch of people, most of them stunt men, pilots, and mechanics who work in the movie business. That leads him to Florida, where Delly has gone to hang out with her step-dad Iverson, who was Arlene’s second husband. Delly doesn’t want to go back, but Iverson tells Harry he really wants her out of there: she is oversexed and he has been unable to resist her.
After Delly is disturbed by finding a crashed airplane underwater, she goes home, where she eventually dies in a movie stunt. Harry heads back to Florida and discovers a lot of people he has already met are involved in smuggling pre-Columbian art out of Mexico on assorted boats and planes. What, you thought the Alex Karras line was just a gag? This is the kind of movie where you have to pay attention. Bodies begin to pile up, so many that by the time a plane aims at Harry in a small boat, you may wonder who’s left that it could possibly be. I’ve seen the picture a lot, and I couldn’t remember.
That’s just a summary of the plot, and it does not give you any sense of the texture and richness of the film. Yes, Night Moves is not as rich as Chinatown, since the art smuggling plot does not expand the film the way the water issues expand Chinatown. The art smuggling plot might have been able to do it, but Sharp did not follow what was probably his inspiration. In Lawrence Grobel’s 1989 biography The Hustons, I was gobsmacked to read, fourteen years after Night Moves, that John Huston, Noah Cross his own self, made his 1960 film The Unforgiven primarily so he and his friends could smuggle art out of Mexico. Grobel covers the story in great detail on pages 458-474.
Night Moves also does not get into its characters as deeply as The Conversation did the year before. What Sharp does do is provide a great gallery of characters and the actors are up to the challenges. Gene Hackman plays Harry in both films, and Hackman understood that Harry Moseby is lighter, more open, and funnier than Harry Caul. Harry is a smart-mouthed P.I., but with a very seventies touch. When Arlene suggests Harry share a shower with her, he replies, “Maybe some other time. When I’m feeling really dirty.” Ellen suggests Harry join her at an Eric Rohmer movie, he says, “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry,” a line you may have come across in any number of reviews and stories about Rohmer and his films. Harry, because of his pro sports background, gets along well with the macho stunt men and mechanics that he talks to about Delly. The stunt coordinator is Joey Ziegler, played by the great character actor Edward Binns. Of his 177 film and television roles, this is probably his best performance.
O.K., you expect a lot of great character work with the males in a thriller, but I don’t know of any other movie of this kind that has four great women’s roles. Arlene is an aging femme who is not that fatale, trying to be saucy well past her sell-by date. Ellen, Harry’s wife, runs an antique store and seems to be the grownup of the couple. At least until Harry discovers her having an affair. She’s willing to fight about it and he’s trying to avoid that. Clark brings her natural strength to the part. Delly is played by an eighteen year old Melanie Griffith in her first big part, and you can see why grown men tremble in her presence. Like her mom, she is very hot to trot, and we learn that she and her mom have, at various times, slept with at least two of the men in the story.
And then there is Paula. When Harry arrives in Florida he meets Iverson’s live-in girl friend. She’s an adult, smart-mouthed dame. She takes a shine of Harry, and they have a lot of what Harry later calls her “ping pong talk.” In any other film of this type she would be wearing a slinky gown, laying on a couch, eating bon-bons while fingering the gun under the pillow. Paula is way too down-to-earth for that: look at her usual attire of jeans, a knit blouse and a wool cap, then listen to her go over her “resume” for Harry. You can believe she did all those things. She sleeps with Harry, we assume because she is attracted to him. But, as always in this kind of movie, she had other motives as well. Paula is played by Jennifer Warren, who had worked in New York theatre and had small parts in a couple of films. She is sensationally good, and if the picture had been a bigger box office success, she might have been a major star. As it is, she has worked constantly since, and even directed. This is the acting job she will be remembered for. It helps that Sharp created such a great character for her and all the other actors.
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