Understanding Screenwriting #137
Brooklyn, Spotlight, Our Brand is Crisis, Colin Welland and Melissa Mathison: Appreciations, Amarcord, Supergirl and The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?
Nuances Are Us.
(2015. Screenplay by Nick Hornby, based on the novel by Colm Tóibín. 111 minutes.)
Virtually every review of this movie I have read uses the word “nuance” in one form or another, and rightly so. This is maybe the most nuanced movie I have ever seen, and coming in the middle of the big-noise year-end releases, that’s a real relief.
On the one hand, the storyline is relatively simple. Eilis, an Irish girl in the early fifties, goes to America, meets and marries Tony, a nice Italian-American boy. Then she is called back to Ireland to deal with a family tragedy. She gets a temporary job that might become permanent and is attracted to Jim, a nice Irish boy with a great house. Does she go or does she stay?
What matters in the script and makes it work are the precise emotional details Hornby mines from Tóibín’s novel. Hornby does not waste any time in setting up how and why Eilis is going to America. We see she works for a rather bitchy shopkeeper, Miss Kelly, who lets her go as soon as she discovers her plans. So we see why Eilis wants to go, but we also see she loves her mother and sister, so like Eilis we are torn.
Eilis goes by ship and spends most of her time seasick and dealing with a roommate who does not like her at first, but eventually comes around to giving her advice on how to live in America. Note the change in attitude, and how quickly it comes. If you are being precise about your characters, you can do that. Eilis ends up at a boarding house run by Mrs. Kehoe. You should read the CS interview with Hornby here on writing the character of Mrs. Kehoe. As I have said on many occasions, you write great parts, you get great actors. The film has Julie Walters as Mrs. Kehoe, and Hornby says she only worked a couple of days. If you were an actress and read the stuff he has written for her, including her shifts of tone, you’d jump at the part. You should also read the Hornby interview on writing interesting minor characters and how to keep them in balance. Then see the movie and see how it works on film.
Here’s an example of the nuanced writing: Eilis reading her first letter from home. The letter itself is very bland, but her reaction to it is not, which tells us a lot about her homesickness. In US #125 I got on Hornby’s script for Wild (2014) for not getting inside Cheryl’s head. Here Hornby gets the emotional details that tell us exactly what Eilis is feeling. He also has the advantage of having Saoirse Ronan playing the role. She gets everything there is to play out of the part.
The major theme of the film is the sense of home. Eilis is leaving home at the beginning of the film, and for a long time feels homesick for Ireland. Then when she goes back to Ireland, she feels homesick for New York and especially for Tony, her husband. But then good things happen to her. She gets a job that may lead somewhere, and she meets Jim. I hate having to keep sending you back to the Hornby interview, but it is great in having Hornby explain the difficulties writing that character in that story. The reason I keep sending you back to the Hornby interview is that you can see what he’s talking about in the film. Like many directors in their interviews, some writers tell us a lot of what they think they put in the film, but which just isn’t there. Here Hornby is very, how shall I say, nuanced about his own work.
So Eilis is torn between staying and going. Hornby gives us a great scene, involving a character we already know, that provides the push. This is followed by a nice scene that parallels the shipboard scene in the beginning, which the theme of home is again articulated in ways that carry through what we have seen in this story, as opposed to a general statement.
Not Better Than All the President’s Men; Not Bad; But Not-Quite-So Good As.
Written by Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer. 128 minutes.)
Both the hype and the critics compare this one to All the President’s Men (1976), with some critics thinking it’s better, some thinking it is as good. My take is that it is not quite up to Men. That does not mean it is a bad movie, or one you should avoid at all costs. It’s got a terrific story to tell, some great scenes, and several great actors, and you can learn a lot from it, both about screenwriting and the issues the film deals with.
In 2002, the Spotlight team of investigating journalists at the Boston Globe began to look into the issue of pedophile priests and the Catholic Church’s failure to deal seriously with the situation. An alternate Boston newspaper the Phoenix had started the investigation, which the film mentions in passing, but it was the scope of the Globe reporting and that the fact that it was done by a major newspaper that had the most impact. (If you want to see some of the Phoenix articles, you can here.)
A slight problem with the script is that it treats the subject as thought we will be as surprised as the reporters by what they found. However, we are thirteen years later and if you live in any city of any size, not only in America but in other countries, you may already know a lot. In Los Angeles I read the stories in the Times about Cardinal Roger Mahony involved in the same protective behavior Cardinal Law does in the film. So the material is not as fresh as it might have been.
McCarthy (who also directed) and Singer’s script doggedly follows the members of the team as they collect information, and that’s the major flaw in the script. This is one of those films based on a true story where the writers figure the truth of the story will carry it. It does not quite here, because as presented in the script it lays out one detail after another without much drama.
In his script for Men, William Goldman had two advantages. Woodward and Bernstein constantly thought they were being followed and spied on. Woodstein, as the team was called, make it clear in the book that they were not, but Goldman’s script leaves us with the impression they were. The second advantage is the Woodstein would frequently run into dead ends, and find out their information was not correct, which gave a nice rhythm to the film. Here every piece seems to fit right into place. Yes, officials of the Church do give them a hard time, but in very genteel ways. That’s probably how it happened, but the writers could give it a little more texture.
The interviews with victims get repetitious, as good as those scenes are individually. A nice counterpoint to them is when reporter Sacha Pheiffer knocks on the door of one of the accused priest, not expecting much. He comes to the door and is perfectly willing to talk about how he “fooled around” with the boys, but insists he never got sexual pleasure from it. Pheiffer is astounded at her luck, but his sister comes to the door and quickly shuts it in her face. The scene reminded me of the great 2006 documentary Deliver Us From Evil, in which Amy Berg has an extensive set of interviews with a pedophile priest. If you want more from the priests’ point of view, check it out.
McCarthy co-wrote and directed the wonderful 2011 film Win Win, which I reviewed here. It has more plot dynamics than Spotlight does, possibly because it’s a completely fictional film. It also has some great characters, as Spotlight does, and McCarthy has put together a great cast here. I complained a bit about the very end of Win Win, suggesting you leave before the last scene. There is a problem here with the end, although of a different kind.
The climax of this film is the publication of the first of what turned out to be a series of articles. What McCarthy and Singer really needed to do was a montage of the reactions of all the characters we’ve seen, including the Catholics who pressured the Globe, to the articles. On the other hand, the writers do give us an interesting scene where the reporters and some extra staff are handling the phone calls that come in when the paper hits the stands. The people at the Globe assumed lots of people would be calling in to complain, but instead they get calls from a lot of other victims of the priests.
By the way, stick around for the end titles. There is more than one title card telling where else other than Boston the pedophile priests were active. A lot more.
Cats, Publishers, and You.
Our Brand is Crisis
(2015. Screenplay by Peter Straughan, suggested by the documentary by Rachel Boynton. 107 minutes.)
My wife has a “cat of the day” calendar, in which pictures of the daily cat are accompanied by a little tidbit of information. In a recent one, it informed us that when a cat is learning how to do stuff, it learns more from another cat struggling to do the same thing, rather than one who is already skilled.
When I was trying to get my book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning from Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays published, one publisher, who had a series it would have fit into perfectly, could not comprehend why I was writing about bad scripts. He thought I should just deal with the good ones. But just as business schools study the Edsel and New Coke to see how things can go wrong, you can learn a lot of scripts that have problems, which is why I write about them both in the book and here.
With that lead-in, you can guess that I am not a big fan of this script. The 2005 documentary of the same name that this is based on is a terrific look at an American political consultant group running a presidential campaign in Bolivia in 2002. Part of the fun is watching Democratic consultant James Carvelle, noted for helping elect President Clinton in 1992 (shown in the great 1993 documentary The War Room), use his skills to get a conservative (to put it mildly) candidate elected. I saw the documentary when it came out and liked it a lot, although I do not remember enough of the details of it to give you a point-by-point comparison with the current film. But I can tell you the documentary was a lot more focused than this film is.
If you were deciding to make a fiction film from this documentary, Peter Straughan is the writer you would naturally pick. In 2009 he wrote the wonderful shaggy goat story, as I called it, The Men Who Stare at Goats. He followed that with a great script for the 2010 The Debt, a tight, character-driven thriller I reviewed here. And if that was not enough, he did the 2011 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which I reviewed here. You can see why I thought he was the man for this job.
Unfortunately the script, as we see it in the film, is a mess. You do get a lot of the political campaign wheeling and dealing that made the documentary so entertaining, but since the documentary came out ten years ago, that is pretty much old news. The script focuses on the characters of the American campaigners. The one promoting the conservative candidate is “Calamity Jane” Bodine, and she is written as the star part. So we get Sandra Bullock being cute and tough but not much else. Jane takes the job, although she has had several recent defeats, because the opposition candidate is represented by Pat Candy, who was responsible for those defeats. He is played by Billy Bob Thornton, with a shaved head to remind us of “Serpenthead,” as his wife calls Carville. The problem is that the two campaigners are too much alike: both good at their jobs and both cynical. So for conflict between them, all we get is that they both want to win.
There are secondary campaign workers, such as Le Blanc, who digs up all kind of information but neither she nor the film tell us where she gets it. A lot more could be done with her. Straughan also adds in Eddie, a young Bolivian guy who joins Jane’s campaign because of his having met the candidate as a kid. Eddie is sympathetic, but not very interesting. Their candidate is emotionally unreadable, which makes him not as interesting to watch as he could be.
Throughout the film Jane has been the cynical political whizz, but then in a failure of nerve by the filmmakers, she gets sentimentalized. She sees Eddie upset at the candidate and she joins him in a demonstration against him. We later find out she’s joined a liberal NGO to fight the good fight. I am not sure how much of that ending may have been Straughan’s, or how much may have come from Bullock wanting to be ultimately sympathetic, or how much of it came from the producers, George Clooney and Grant Heslov, who produced the much better Argo. Unlike Argo, Our Brand is Crisis does not have the courage of its darkly comic convictions.
Colin Welland (1934-2015) and Melissa Mathison (195-2015): Appreciations
Colin Welland was best known in his native England as an actor. The IMDb lists 31 acting credits on film as opposed to only 13 writing credits. He also acted on the London stage. His earliest writing credits were for British television in the seventies, but in 1979 he wrote the story and co-wrote with Walter Bernstein the screenplay for Yanks, a romantic drama about American soldiers stationed in Britain in the time leading up to D-Day. Welland is best known as a writer for Chariots of Fire (1981), which I recently wrote about in this column. One thing I did not put into the item on Chariots because I did not know it showed up in the Los Angeles Times obituary. It was not Welland who came up with the idea for Chariots but its producer David Puttnam. I have mentioned, probably in more than one column, that you should avoid producer’s ideas because they are generally awful (“Let’s rip off this movie!” “Let’s rip off that movie!”) This is the exception that proves the rule.
Like Welland, Melissa Mathison (no relation to screenwriter Richard Matheson; different spelling) was primarily noted for one screenplay, but it’s a beaut: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). She had done a terrific script for The Black Stallion (1979) before it, and she was hanging out on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with her boy friend/soon-to-be husband Harrison Ford.
She and Spielberg got to talking about his idea of a boy who had an alien friend, somewhat like the aliens at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The rest of the details are Mathison’s, and they show the advantage of Spielberg teaming up with a real screenwriter. Close Encounters’ script is credited to Spielberg, although others worked on it.
That script’s basic flaw is that it is two hours-plus of foreplay: we spend a lot of time waiting for the aliens to show themselves. Every maker of B movie sci fi movies in the fifties knew the story is about what happens after they land. And that’s what E.T. is about, with richer characters than those in Close Encounters. On E.T. Spielberg learned that a) you don’t have to have a lavish budget to make a hit, and b) if you get real writers to write your script you get better movies. Both were very valuable lessons for him. Mathison continued writing scripts, although none of the others had quite the impact that E.T. did. But then how many films do? (Some of the details on Mathison are from Joseph McBride’s excellent biography Stephen Spielberg and some from the obituary in the Los Angeles Times.)
Amarcord (1975. Story and Screenplay by Federico Fellini & Tonino Guerra. 1223 minutes)
I remember I first became aware of Fellini in my teens in the fifties when I first saw La Strada (1954), one of the classic Neorealist films. Later on I was knocked out by La Dolce Vita (1960), his epic look at contemporary Rome, and three years later his 8½ became one of my favorite movies, which it still is.
In the early seventies I ran his 1953 I Vitelloni in my History of Motion Picture class, and several of my students recognized as a forerunner of the 1973 American Graffiti. Both are about a group of young men in a small town, one of who leaves town at the end of the film. By the seventies Fellini was about as far away from Neorealism as he would get, so I was curious with how Amarcord, another view of his home town, would match with I Vitelloni. It is richer and more inventive and of course a bit more surreal. Look for the peacock.
I saw Amarcord in early 1975 in a theatre and loved it. Later I saw it on a pan-and-scan Beta print and both the print and the film left a lot to be desired. Earlier this year it popped up on Turner Classic Movies. I DVR’d it, but I watched a smidgen of it as I was recording it, and I was afraid it did not seem a lot better than the last time I saw it. So I was a bit hesitant to look at the whole thing. But I did, and it is not just my nostalgia for the first time I saw it that makes it wonderful, but the way Fellini constructs it that pulls you in.
Unlike I Vitelloni it does not focus on a small group of characters in a village that is obviously a nostalgic version of his native Rimini. (One reason Fellini chose Antonioni’s screenwriter, Tonino Guerra, was that Guerra had grown up in a small town only five miles from Rimini.) You might think that Titta, the teenage boy we see the most of, is a stand-in for Fellini, but he is based on a friend of Fellini’s. On the other hand, Titta’s experience with Gradisca in the movie theatre happened to Fellini. In the opening scene we are pulled into the town the night of a huge bonfire to celebrate the puff balls that mean the coming of Spring. The writers give us a lot of quick definitions of the characters we see. You need this opening to bring you into the film.
We get a lot of detail, mostly in comedic terms, and then half an hour into the film, we spend time with the local Fascists (the time is the late thirties) and the film shows its serious side, which then hangs over the rest of the film. The film continues on its episodic way. We get a couple of scenes at the local Grand Hotel, where Gradisca gets her nickname by saying to a visiting prince, “Gradisca,” or “May it please you,” meaning herself. Nice scene, although after the film was a big hit in Italy, journalists tracked down the real Gradisca who swore it never happened. Well, it’s Fellini. It will not surprise you to learn that the title is a variation on the local dialect that means “I remember.”
As with the visiting prince and a wilder harem scene in the Grand Hotel, we get several other moments that make us aware of the world outside the town. The villagers go out in small boats to see the luxury liner the Rex pass in the night, and we see Gradisca looking it and dreaming of escape. At the end of the film it is her rather than Titta who leaves the village, after a lovely wedding scene. That scene mirrors the opening scene as the people leave rather than join together. In the novelization Fellini did of the script, there is an indication he intended to use a montage of photos at the end, but he obviously realized the wedding scene, especially as he directed it, was perfect.
Girl and Man of Steel and Spandex.
Supergirl (2015. Multiple episodes, various writers. One hour each) and The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? (2015. Documentary written by Jon Schnepp. 104 minutes.)
Last spring I saw on the Internet a number of short promotional films the networks had prepared for the “up fronts.” That’s when the networks show stuff from their coming fall shows in hopes of getting advertisers to buy ads in advance of the season. One that impressed me was Supergirl. I am not generally a fan of comic books movies and shows, but the woman playing Supergirl, Melissa Benoist, really popped off the screen. There are some people the camera loves, and she is one of them. The question then was, what kind of show the creators (Greg Berlanti, Ali Adler, and Andrew Kriesberg) would build around her.
That’s not as easy as it sounds. William Blake Herron, the creator of another show debuting late in the fall, Agent X, has a great star in Sharon Stone, but he misuses her. She is the Vice President of the United States, who due to a totally unbelievable gimmick involving the first draft of the U.S. Constitution, has her own secret agent. The idea of Richard Nixon, Dick Chaney, and Dan Quayle having their own secret agent is just plain scary. What happens in the show is that the agent goes out and does all the action scenes, of which there are more than enough, while Stone sits around the V.P.’s home and reacts to what he is doing. Not the best use of your talent.
Meanwhile, back in National City (Los Angeles to Metropolis’s New York), Kara Jor-El is working under his earth name of Kara Danvers as an assistant to media mogul Cat Grant. As Mary McNamara noted in her review of the pilot, Cat is “a character so wickedly similar to Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada that it’s difficult to believe arbitration wasn’t involved.” After the pilot the showrunners began to pull back on Cat and both the character and Calista Flockhart’s performance became a bit more restrained. Kara is wearing the geeky Clark Kent glasses so when she does come out as Supergirl no one recognizes her.
In the original comics, Supergirl was Superman’s younger cousin. Here she’s his older cousin. She was older than he was when she was sent off to Earth to protect him, but she got caught in a time warp. O.K., we don’t buy the bit with the Constitution in Agent X, but we do buy the time warp here. Why? Because in Supergirl we are going into a fantasy world whose rules we already accept and have for years. In Agent X we are going into a seemingly realistic world and the other version of the Constitution is unbelievable in that world.
So, yes, the time warp. What that means is that Kara is now younger than Superman. He has already established his identity and has been defending Truth, Justice, and the American Way for many years in many movies and many TV shows. So who is Supergirl now that she has been deprived of her function in life? That’s what the show is working out in amusing and inventive ways. Kara has avoided showing her super powers until one night her sister Alex is on an airliner that catches fire. Kara flies up and saves it and discovers she enjoys doing that stuff. Alex is against her coming out, but we later learn that Alex is part of a group called D.E.O. that protects Earth from aliens, and so there is tension between the D.E.O. and Supergirl, who is an alien.
I am generally tired of origin stories, but here the showrunners are establishing how Supergirl is different from Superman. In the “Pilot,” teleplay by Ali Adler from a story by the show’s three creators, Kara gets her co-worker Winn help her come up with the costume, which Kara wants to be similar to Superman’s but different enough. She’d like to do away with the cape, but learns it’s a little difficult to fly without it. I would think, aerodynamically, it would be easier to fly without it, but we’re in the Superman universe here.
So not only does Winn know she’s Supergirl, but another co-worker knows as well. He’s James Olson. Yeah, he used to be Jimmy Olson, but he’s all grown up now and in Mechad Brooks’s performance he’s sexy, something no one ever said about Jimmy. James has come to work with Kara on orders from Superman to help protect his cousin. James also has a hotline to Superman in case Supergirl needs help.
In “Fight or Flight,” written by Michael Grassi & Rachel Shukert, James calls on Superman to help Supergirl. Now how do you handle that? Is Superman going to be a recurring character, and if he does will he take over the show? What Grassi and Shukert do is show Superman only in shadow, so he is just a presence. At the end of the episode, they pull off a really inventive touch in the “How do we deal with Superman?” category: Kara and Clark are texting. It’s a perfect way to keep Clark on the show without him actually being on the show.
So the creators have built a good show for Benoist to star in, and boy, does she deliver. She’s cute, but cute is a dime a dozen on television. She’s got range, as in the family moments in the show; in a really nice touch, the producers have hired Dean Cain, who was Superman in the nineties series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman to play her foster father, and her foster mother is played by the star of the 1983 film Supergirl, Helen Slater. Benoist also has a feisty kind of strength that you need for Supergirl. A nice match of star and show.
While CBS was debuting Supergirl, Showtime ran the new documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? In the late nineties Jon Peters got ahold of the rights to the Superman movies and pitched the idea of a reboot of the Superman movies to Warner Brothers, who were astonished to discover they did not still own the rights.
Peters, a world-class flake, hired Kevin Smith to write the script, and gave him these instructions: “No suit. No flying. And get in a big spider.” See what I mean about producers’ ideas? Smith is the ultimate comic book geek and came up with a comic book script. Then Tim Burton was hired to direct and Smith’s script was thrown out. Wesley Strick, whose credits include the 1990 Arachnophobia and the 1991 Cape Fear, was brought in to do the new script. Well, with Tim Burton directing you want a writer with a darker sensibility. Then later Dan Gilroy was brought in.
Jon Schnepp managed to interview all of the writers, and nearly everybody else who worked on the project, and they all talk freely. Very freely. Smith mentions Peters’ demands, but Peters denies he said it. You get a very good sense of how the development proceeds on a big movie, and you also get a sense of how it can go wrong. It is quite clear from the beginning that virtually nobody is on the same page on this film. They also have way too much time and money in the development process, so you get a large number of creature designers working on characters. You also get a look at how complicated they made the suit for Superman. The result is picturesque, but gets away from what we like about Superman. Burton and the other filmmakers are so into their own heads they do not keep clear that they are making a Superman movie.
The creators of Supergirl appear to be all on the same page and are very sharp about what they take from the known Superman/girl myths and what they can play with. Watching the documentary, you will get a real sense of why so many big movies are so bad, and why so much television is so good.
The Superman Lives project was eventually killed by Warners because they had had a bunch of expensive flops. So instead of doing that film, they made The Wild, Wild West (which included a creature inspired by Peters’ spider) and lost a pile of money, because the filmmakers did not know what they were making. Warners tried with modest success to revitalize the Superman films in the oughts, but fans of Burton and Smith dream of what their version might have been. After all, Burton’s version was to star Nick Cage as Superman.
To read more about Brooklyn, reviewed above, don’t forget to check out our interview with Nick Hornby about his film: Writing Obsession.
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