Tom Stempel

Understanding Screenwriting #142

Understanding Screenwriting #142
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Mustang, Hail, Caesar!, San Andreas, A Most Violent Year.

By Tom Stempel.



No, Not a Remake of The Misfits.


(2015. Screenplay by Deniz Gamse Urgüven and Alice Minocour. 97 minutes.)

Ilayda Akdogan as Sonay in Mustang

Ilayda Akdogan as Sonay in Mustang

The Misfits (1961) was Arthur Miller’s script about a woman, played by his wife, who gets involved with modern day cowboys who capture mustangs (wild horses) and sell them for pet food. Mustang is not a remake of this.

Mustang is also not a remake of a fifties B western about a cowboy and his mystical horse.

Mustang is not even about the Mustang Ranch, a legal bordello in Nevada.

Now that we have that out of the way, what is it? It is a French-produced film about five teenage-ish sisters who live in a small Turkish village on the Black Sea. Nobody in the film ever mentions the word mustang, but you can see why the writers think the word applies to these girls.

What I like particularly about this script is that it is very different from American writing, even the occasional American script about girls and women. The opening scene is the end of the school year and the kids are saying goodbye to their favorite teacher. At first we might think the film is about the teacher, but it’s not. We follow some of the girls as they go off to the beach with several boys and have a fine adolescent time together. Fully dressed, they play in the surf, with some of the girls sitting on the shoulders of some of the guys, trying to push the other girls off. In an American, or even just a western film, this would be the opening to a light-hearted summer fun movie. We are not yet sure who all the girls are or if or how they are related.

Günes Sensoy as Lale in Mustang

Günes Sensoy as Lale in Mustang

Eventually the five sisters break off from the group and go to the house where they live with their grandmother. Their parents died several years before. The grandmother is furious with the shameful behavior of the girls: sitting on the boys’ shoulders with their private parts, eww, touching the boys’ necks.

So the grandmother decides it is time to keep the girls in the house and turn the house into a “school for wives.” That’s the only future the grandmother can see for the girls. So we get some nice learning to cook and sew montages. And we do not at this point get each girl individualized the way we would in an American movie. An American film would give each sister a cute little scene to make it clear who’s who. The writers here do not. We see the girls as one group, but with the most attention paid to Lale, the youngest and most observant of the sisters. She is about ten or eleven, and she is the one who plots their escape to see a soccer match.

I don’t know if this has a basis in some actual event in Turkey, but the film sets up that at one soccer match, the male crowd was so rowdy that the government decrees that the crowd for the next match will be women only. Lale tries without success to convince her uncle Erol to let them go. She pretends to be a big soccer fan, although we get a line of dialogue among the sisters that suggests that is not true. So Lale and her sisters organize an escape from the house, miss the bus going to the match, get a truck driver to drive them to pick up the bus, and have a wonderful time at the match.

Doga Zeynep Doguslu as Nur in Mustang

Doga Zeynep Doguslu as Nur in Mustang

Except that the village, which is timeless in so many ways, has television. Grandma and her women friends see the sisters at the match on television and manage, in ways I won’t give away here, to keep Erol and the men from seeing the girls.

Now, when in the film does the soccer match take place? If you are thinking the third quarter, you are thinking like an American screenwriter, since these kinds of big, flashy scenes, like the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959) and the car chase in The French Connection (1971), are in the third quarter. That’s after all the characters and dramatic lines have been established, and before the big finish.

The writers here put it before the film is half-way over. Why? Because it is an entertaining relief from the lock-up of the first part of the film, and it leads to the action of the second half.

Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur

Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur

When the girls get home, the grandmother’s reaction is very interesting, and I will let you imagine why she does what she does; it took me a day to figure it out. What those events lead to is the grandmother’s decision to start marrying the girls off.

Now we begin to get the individualizing of the girls. The two oldest sisters are the first to go. One of them gets to marry the boy she has been mooning over for the first part of the film. The other is stuck with a guy she dislikes. The matchmaking scenes are wonderfully sly, as the grandmother makes the case that each girl is “one of a kind.” We believe it, even if she doesn’t.

Pretty soon the next oldest is gone as well, in a way that upsets the two remaining sisters Nur and Lale. The lovely, idyllic–sort of–life of the sisters is being destroyed. Nur is engaged to a boy she does not like, and Lale, who has been planning to run away, convinces her to come along. One of the running gags of the movie is how Erol has tried to make the house more secure after each infraction by the girls. So now Lale, who has big ideas, has to deal with the reality of getting her and her sister out of the house during the setup for Nur’s wedding. It is a very suspenseful scene, more so than the escape to the soccer game because the job is tougher and there is more at stake. The ending is satisfying, even you don’t believe it will last.

Many foreign (and some American) films are good at taking us into a culture we don’t know. I think Mustang does that, although you may want to read some of the objections by those who know Turkey better here on the IMDb message boards.


Not observant. Not inventive. Not funny. Not fun.

Hail, Caesar!

(2016. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. 106 minutes.)

George Cooney as Baird Whitlock in Hail, Ceasar!

George Cooney as Baird Whitlock in Hail, Ceasar!

You may not ever have come across the one book I wrote about something other than screen and television writing. It’s called American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing (2001) and it’s referred to in our house as the “black sheep of my family of fine books.” It got scathing reviews, especially from academics.

Academics assume you can write about movie audiences in only two possible ways. One is sociological, with all kinds of statistics, pie charts, and bar graphs. The other is what is called “reception theory,” in which historians argue, with virtually no actual research, on how audiences perceived movies.

I took a simpler approach. I asked people about their moviegoing. The film scholars who reviewed the book were appalled that I talked to “civilians” rather than experts. This was especially true of left-wing critics who, although they love “the people,” don’t like real people very much.

American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, by Tom Stempel

American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, by Tom Stempel

Anyway, the focus in the book was on American film from 1948 to the then-present from the audiences’ point of view. I started at 1948, since that was when the Supreme Court decree in the Paramount case began the breakdown of the old studio system. At the end of the first chapter I wrote about that time, “The creative people in Hollywood, however, were reacting to the changes in the business by making films that examined movies and the industry, both present and past… Hollywood was starting to be haunted by its own past.”

In the space of two years, 1950 to 1952, three of the best movies about Hollywood were made: Sunset Blvd (1950), The Bad and the Beautiful and Singin’ in the Rain (both 1952). The first is a darkly comic look at how the business had changed from the silent days, the second a melodrama about how an unscrupulous producer works, and the third a witty Technicolor musical. They set the bar for Hollywood movies very, very high.

Hail, Caesar! would like to be thought of as being in the company of those films. It’s not.

The story focuses on Eddie Mannix, the head of production at Capitol Pictures in the mid-fifties, a time that is close enough to those older three movies that it makes us recall them. His name is borrowed from the man who served at similar function at MGM, but no particular point is made of it.

Mannix is a fixer who deals with the problems at the studio, especially the talent. The makers of those three fifties movies could have made a lot out of that basic idea, but the Coens don’t. I was rather baffled as the film started and there is not a single distinctively Coen line of dialogue. Ordinarily I am a great laugher, but I did not laugh once in this film. I chuckled a couple of times, but that was about it. The brothers are just not anywhere near Wilder or Comden and Green, at least not here.

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.

Nor is the characterization up to the usual Coen standards. The characters tend to be flat, with no texture. When you have a cast that includes George Clooney, James Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, and Jonah Hill, you had better provide stuff for them to do or say.

Ralph Fiennes at least provoked a chuckle as a fey director trying to get a performance out of a cowboy star cast in a drawing room drama. The best performance comes from an actor you may never have heard of named Alden Ehrenreich, who plays the cowboy star. While the big names are just larking about, he has worked to find a tone for his character, which makes him the most interesting figure in the movie.

Frances McDormand has a brief scene as a slightly deranged film editor who nearly strangles herself, letting her scarf get caught in a Moviola editing machine. That scene is not only not funny, but offensive if you know anything about the great women film editors of the period.

The film implies they were all locked away in dark rooms, but they did more than that. I knew Barbara McLean, the great 20th Century-Fox film editor. Bobbie would never have been stupid enough to wear a scarf in the editing room, and Darryl Zanuck, the head of the studio, asked her advice about everything, even if he was sometimes unhappy with her answers. So Hail, Caesar! is not only not funny, it is not very observant about the business of making movies.

Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran in Hail, Ceasar!

Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran in Hail, Ceasar!

We do get two musical numbers (and part of a third) in the film. The first is an Esther Williams-type water ballet, but it is just a duplication of what’s been done before. In the same way, a dance number with sailors on leave is equally uninventive about recreating what looks as though it was supposed to come from Anchors Aweigh (1945) or On the Town (1949).

Way back in US #29 I had an item on the book Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece (2009). One of the points I stressed about the book is that it shows how much hard work went into making something so light and charming. The Coen Brothers simply did not put in that kind of work.


Last Year’s Regularly Scheduled Earthquake Movie.

San Andreas

(2015. Screenplay by Carlton Cuse, story by Andre Fabrizo & Jeremy Passmore. 114 minutes.)

Dwayne Johnson as Ray in San Andreas

Dwayne Johnson as Ray in San Andreas

According to the IMDb, there have been 658 movies that deal with, in some way, earthquakes. Looking over at least part of the list, I think in many cases the earthquake material is relatively minor. In some, it’s a big part of the movie. San Andreas is one of the latter. In both Old San Francisco (1927) and the better known San Francisco (1936), the 1906 quake is simply used as a big climax to the more personal stories of the characters.

Earthquake (1974) is, as the title suggests, about an earthquake. The first drafts of the script were written by Mario Puzo between the first two Godfather movies and the later ones by George Fox.

Fox wrote the “making of” book on the film. He said that Puzo came up with marvelous characters but with a lot of unfilmable stuff. Fox came on the picture and worked with Mark Robson, the director, who had lived in Los Angeles for years and knew what he wanted to destroy in the film. One of Robson’s chief targets was the Hollywood dam. But when do you destroy it? For that matter, where do you put the earthquake?

Charlton Heston as Graff and Ava Gardner as Remy in Earthquake (1974)

Charlton Heston as Graff and Ava Gardner as Remy in Earthquake (1974)

Fox’s solution was to put the earthquake in the middle and the dam bursting at the end after being weakened by the quake. It was a smart way to go: Fox starts with some foreshocks, then hits you with the big one in the middle, then watches everybody deal with it until the dam breaks. The film is like many of the big disaster movies of the seventies with a whole group of diverse characters involved.

Cuse’s screenplay for San Andreas splits the difference between San Francisco and Earthquake. Like the earlier film, he focuses on a limited number of characters. The script gives us a great introductory scene for its hero, Ray Gaines. He is a rescue helicopter pilot for Los Angeles County, and in the opener, he almost single-handedly saves a young girl whose car has gone over a cliff. We know Ray is going to be great in a crisis.

Then we get into the earthquake world. Whereas in Earthquake, you only had foreshocks, here we are dealing with seismologist Dr. Lawrence Hayes of Cal Tech. He has worked out a method that may work to predict quakes, which is about where we are in reality. His system is showing some seismic activity around Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas. He and his team get there in time for the dam to break, undoubtedly a tribute to Earthquake. What the filmmakers are saying to those in the audience who remember the earlier film is: the dam was the big finish then, it’s just the opening number here.

Paul Giamatti as Dr. Lawrence Hayes and Archie Panjabi as Serena Johnson in San Andreas. Photo by Jasin Boland - © 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Paul Giamatti as Dr. Lawrence Hayes and Archie Panjabi as Serena Johnson in San Andreas. Photo by Jasin Boland – © 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

We get scenes that establish Ray is going to take his daughter Blake back to college. She’s been living with her mom Emma, who is about to move in with her new boyfriend, the rich developer Daniel. Well, you know what kind of character he is. When Ray gets the call to go help at the dam, Daniel flies Blake up to San Francisco in his private jet.

Hayes meanwhile is explaining about his system to a TV news reporter. Hayes is played by Paul Giamatti, who can make all that seismo-babble interesting. The reporter is Archie Panjabi, late of The Good Wife, here in a thankless part and Daniel is played by Ioan Gruffudd, wasted as well. While Hayes and the reporter are talking, the signs in his system show that, yes, here it comes, the Big One.

Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife

Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife

One advantage that Cuse has is that CGI effects can show anything. Nothing is unfilmable anymore. So the effects all the way through the film are much more impressive than in the earlier films.

And there are a lot more of them, maybe more than you need, but a movie like this is about excess. Sometimes you have to give the audience what they want, but it’s always smart to give them a little more than they want. Especially in a movie like this, which is not a serious film.

I did not see this last year when it came out in theatres because I did not want to spend $10 or more to see it, but I was perfectly happy to DVR it off HBO and have some fun of an afternoon.

So LA gets it. Big time. Ray gets to rescue Emma from a high rise as the city falls apart. And we are not that far into the movie. They’ve already used up the collapsing dam and the destruction of LA and we’re not quite half way through the film.

Well, as Hayes reminds us, the San Andreas fault runs up through the central valley and close to…San Francisco. And who’s in San Francisco? Daniel and Blake. So we get more city destruction, and Daniel’s building collapses. He runs away (don’t worry, he gets a great comeuppance later; he’s a rich developer after all), leaving Blake trapped with Ben, a Brit who was interviewing for a job in Daniel’s company, and his younger brother, the smart ass Ollie.

So is Ben going to be a knight in shining armor and save Blake? If you read my column on a regular basis, you will know that I was delighted to see that Blake, being the daughter of a rescue pilot, knows a lot of stuff the guys don’t: radio frequencies, what supplies fire trucks carry, etc. Blake does most of the rescuing.

Carla Gugino as Emma Gaines and Dwayne Johnson as Raymond Gaines in San Andreas (2015). Photo by Jasin Boland - © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Carla Gugino as Emma Gaines and Dwayne Johnson as Raymond Gaines in San Andreas. Photo by Jasin Boland – © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

What about Mom and Dad? After all, they are played by the two biggest stars in the movie, Carla Gugino and Dwayne Johnson. Blake had gotten a message out to them before the phones went out that she was trapped. So Mom and Dad take off to save her.

But they are in LA and she is in SF. Ah, but Ray still has his helicopter, so he says they are going to fly to SF. I doubt if the copter has that much fuel in it. At this point, if you were taking the movie seriously, you would get up and leave. But if you are caught up in it, even in its silly way, you stick around.

At least Cuse finds a way for the copter to malfunction over…Bakersfield. It lands, and Dad steals a truck. Don’t worry, it was already stolen by looters, so it’s not like he’s really stealing it. Then they come across a big gash where the San Andreas fault has split. They manage to find an airplane, and I am thinking this is turning into It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963; one of my favorite guilty pleasures) with all its means of transportation. But where can they land in a destroyed SF? When they get on the plane, notice what’s written on the side of the plane.

Sid Caesar as Melville Crump and Edie Adams as Monica Crump in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Sid Caesar as Melville Crump and Edie Adams as Monica Crump in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

So, we’ve had a dam burst, a couple of big cities destroyed. What can they have for a big finish? Well, by now we all know that earthquakes can cause tsunamis, i.e. giant waves. So a tsunami is headed for San Francisco. Uh, wait a minute. Earthquakes send waves out from the epicenter, and here the earthquake was in Central California, not out in the Pacific. So the waves should be going away from SF rather than into it. Do you care? Not if you are into the movie.

We have had some dramatic scenes between Ray and Emma about how their marriage broke up because Ray could not deal with the guilt of having their other daughter drown on a trip with Ray. We get a couple of quick flashbacks of that, which is enough so that when Ray has to rescue Blake, who is in danger of drowning, we know how much it means to Ray. Needless to say, it all comes right for our characters in the end.

Alexandra Daddario as Blake Gaines in San Andreas. Photo by Jasin Boland - © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Alexandra Daddario as Blake Gaines in San Andreas. Photo by Jasin Boland – © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

But then we get shots of the military and FEMA helping the victims of the quake. It takes us out of the movie because we have been living in the fantasy world of the film (Dwayne Johnson rescuing people, tsunamis that go backwards, etc.). It makes the ending something of a downer to be reminded of the real world.

I am not the only viewer to enjoy the preposterousness of the movie. When it was released, local TV stations interviewed Dr. Lucy Jones, the best known seismologist in Southern California. She laughed her way through the interview, pointing out in a good-natured way the ridiculousness of the film while making a case for earthquake preparation. That’s our “seismo-mom,” as she became known when she talked to the press after the 1992 Joshua Tree earthquake, holding her sleeping baby in her arms.

The film was a commercial success, and the IMDb tells us that San Andreas 2 has been announced. I am not sure what they have left to destroy, at least in California. Petaluma?


A Most Lethargic Year

A Most Violent Year

(2014. Written by J.C.Chandor. 124 minutes.)

Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales and Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales in A Most Violent Year

Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales and Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales in A Most Violent Year

The Godfather films have a lot to answer for. They led to a lot of movies and television shows about corruption and crime on the East Coast, such as Serpico (1973), Prince of the City (1981), Goodfellas (1990), The Sopranos (1999-2007), and a lot of very, very bad imitations of all of the above. A Most Violent Year would like to be thought of as part of that company (see what I mean about Hollywood being haunted by its own past?), but it’s not.

J.C. Chandor made a great writing-directing debut with 2011’s Margin Call. Writing about it in US #106, I said, “How can you top a cast consisting of: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Mary McDonnell and Stanley Tucci, just to name a few? Spacey is playing a sympathetic character so brilliantly that my wife did not recognize him. But everybody else is also on the top of their game, and Chandor has given them lots to do.” Chandor has a reasonably good cast in Year, but he has not given them lots to do.

Kevin Spacey as Sam Rogers in Margin Call

Kevin Spacey as Sam Rogers in Margin Call

The story in Year is simpler than the running time suggests. Abel Morales runs a heating oil distribution company in New Jersey. In the opening scene he is laying out cash for what I take to be a thirty-day escrow for a storage facility next to his that will provide not only storage tanks, but docks for ships to deliver the oil directly to him. But his competitors do not wish him to succeed. They steal his rigs and beat up his drivers. And the local D.A. is about to bring corruption charges against him, although he is the most honest man in the business.

Able prides himself on his honestly and does not want to turn into a gangster. I think that’s at least in part because his wife Anna is the daughter and sister of a gangsters. Chandor does not make this as clear as it might be, and he certainly does not develop it. At the first suggestion of it, you assume it will bring out some really violent action, but it never really does. To paraphrase the classic theatrical quote, they bring on a gun in the first act, but they don’t fire in the third act.

Chandor’s dialogue, which really crackled in Margin Call (which is why the actors in it popped off the screen), is very flat and literal here: people say exactly what they think and feel. There is no subtext for the actors to play, and the text is not that interesting.

Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales in A Most Violent Year

Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales in A Most Violent Year

Chandor’s directing brings out the worst in the script. He has the actors talking as though the dialogue was important and worse, significant. His pacing is so slack that we have time to think about how bad the dialogue is, never something you want to let the audience do.

When this film first came on the horizon in late 2014, it got a lot of critical praise (never underestimate the appeal of a slowly, stately East Coast gangster movie for film critics). It won some awards at assorted film festivals and critics groups, but mostly it got nominations rather than awards. It was assumed that it would get a pile of Academy Award nominations, but it got none.

And when it was given its general release in early January 2015, it bombed big time at the box office. According to the IMDb, it cost about $20 million and its total box office gross was $5.7 million. Ouch.

I used to have my screenwriting students ask themselves about their ideas and scripts: will people want to watch this? There was nothing in this film audiences wanted to watch. Now if Chandor had thrown in an earthquake…

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