Understanding Screenwriting #157
Tom Stempel on Personal Shopper, Colossal, Five Came Back, Their Finest, The Intervention, The Son, and the season finale of Big Little Lies.
Let Me Make it up to You, Kristen.
(2016. Written by Olivier Assayas. 105 minutes.)
Olivier Assayas’s previous film was the 2014 Clouds of Sils Maria, which I gave a hard time in my review.
The problem with that one evolved from the fact that he had conceived it as a vehicle for Juliette Binoche. She plays Maria, a famous actress who has a personal assistant named Valentine.
The film goes into great depth about their relationship. So far so good. But the problem was that Valentine disappears twenty minutes or so before the end of the movie. And we never find out what happened to her. Assayas was so focused as both writer and director on Maria that he did not realize how involved audiences would get with Valentine.
The reason they got so involved is because he had cast Kristen Stewart in the part. Originally he cast Mia Wasikowska, and had talked to Stewart about the minor part of a young actress who had great success in science fiction movies and now wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. That would not have been a challenge for the star of the Twilight films.
When Wasikowska dropped out, Stewart lobbied hard for the part of Valentine. She was so good in the role she became the first American actress to win a César, the French equivalent of the Oscar.
And Assayas finally realized how good she was. In a story on Stewart in the March 17/24, 2017 issue of Entertainment Weekly, he was quoted as saying, “I really discovered the scope of what she can do during filming [of Maria]. I continually realize just how much more there is to her talent.”
That may be revisionist memory on his part.
However, Assayas is smart and talented enough to realize how much he could do with Stewart, and has written Personal Shopper just for her. (I generally do not recommend that beginning writers, or even established ones, write a spec script for a particular actor. What do you do with the script if he or she does not want to do it? There are truckloads of scripts just like that moldering away somewhere.)
Stewart is Maureen, a personal shopper for Kyra, whose main job is to wear fashionable clothes to public events. Maureen very seldom sees her, and the one time she is with her at any length Maureen spends most of the time talking to her lover. (Note here how long into the scene we are before we learn he is her lover, and not her husband. Assayas loves to not tell us stuff until well after we need to know it.)
So we get a lot of shots of Maureen going to fashion houses in Paris and collecting stuff for Kyra to wear. She even goes to London to pick up some stuff. These scenes probably tell you more than you want to know about being a personal shopper. Well, that is the title of the movie after all.
But in keeping with Assayas’s style, it is well into the picture before we learn what Maureen’s job is. And that is not, primarily, what the movie is about.
The first scene, on the other hand, establishes her as a medium who is waiting for word from her recently deceased twin brother. He had promised her that he would send her a sign from the beyond. So she is wandering around the house he lived in, which is being put up for sale. She is alone, except for things that go bump in the night.
Later, on the rail trip to London, she starts getting mysterious text messages on her phone. She thinks it may be her brother. So she spends the trip to and from London texting and reading texts.
Now that may not seem very cinematic to you. But with Stewart, whom you cannot take your eyes off of, it is. She is in nearly every shot, except for a clip from a supposed seventies movie about mediums, and even then we want to get back to her.
Assayas finishes up the personal shopper story surprisingly abruptly, and then has Maureen take off to visit a friend in Oman. Huh? But you can see why Assayas sends her there, since her last line raises a question nobody has asked in the entire movie. I would not have thought that would work, but Assayas and Stewart have pulled us into the rest of the film so deeply it does.
What did I tell you about Assayas not telling us stuff until after we need to know it?
Not as Good as Get Out, But Almost.
(2017. Written by Nacho Vigalondo. 110 minutes.)
First of all, if you have not read Ramona Zacharias’s excellent interview with Vigalondo here in CS, you should. I will be referring to it from time to time.
Right away Ramona raises the question of what sort of genre this fits into. She is right that it is a mash-up of several. That’s part of the fun of it, and that element makes it similar to Get Out, which I reviewed a few months ago here.
Vigalondo does not quite throw in as many different genres as Jordan Peele does, and he doesn’t reach for the social satire that made Get Out so astonishing.
On the other hand, what he does, he does well.
In the first scene, we get a small Korean girl finding her lost doll and suddenly seeing a Godzilla-like monster. Then the monster story gets dropped for a long time. But putting this scene first tells us this kind of story is part of the film, and that we will come back to it.
The focus then shifts to Gloria, a drunk who gets thrown out of her boyfriend’s apartment. He’s fed up with her, and while we can see why, we are just meeting her and are willing to cut her some slack. Gloria goes back to the small town where she grew up, and soon meets an old childhood friend Oscar. He’s sympathetic and gives her a job. As a bartender in the bar he owns. Hey, that’s OK, since Oscar gets into his own booze from time to time as well.
Soon we learn from television that a monster like the one we saw in the opening scene is on a rampage in the streets of Seoul, Korea. Well, not exactly on a rampage. He sort of shows up, snorts fire, and then disappears.
At this point in the reviews of the film, the critics usually wrote something like “Gloria realizes she has some connection to the monster.” As soon as I see that in a review, I automatically reach for my old “How Do You Show This?” rubber stamp from my teaching days.
Back when I started teaching screenwriting, I wrote that on so many ideas, treatments and screenplays, that two sisters I had in class had a rubber stamp made of it for me. I wore out the first one and had a second one made.
The line refers to screenwriters writing lines exactly that. What are we going to see or hear that will tell us that? Vigalondo handles it brilliantly.
In the television coverage, Gloria sees the monster make a gesture that she makes. It is distinctive enough that we can understand that she thinks there is a connection between the monster and her. So then we watch her do a lot of other things that we see are her trying to figure out the connection. Look at what some of those things are.
While that is going on, Vigalondo is also giving us a lot of character development with Oscar and Gloria. In the interview with Ramona, he said that his main focus as he was developing the story was to find the characters that would be the best to tell the story. He started with two men, but realized it made a much better story with a man and a woman. This is the monster-film version of His Girl Friday (1940), where one of the male reporters in the stage play was turned into a woman.
The relationship between Oscar and Gloria gets more and more complicated the more it involves the monster and a robot that shows up in Seoul. Early in the attempts to sell the script, Vigalondo got it to Anne Hathaway. Yes, Princess Diaries’ Anne Hathaway. Gloria is very much in the tradition of Kym, the troublemaker Hathaway played in Rachel Getting Married (2008, which I reviewed here), but Jenny Lumet’s script for that one did not know what to do with Kym once she was established, while Vigalondo knows exactly what to do with Gloria.
So you can see why Hathaway attached herself to the project early on. Vigalondo told Ramona that that made it an easy sell: not just a monster screenplay, but one with Anne Hathaway. It is worth reading his whole statement about that process.
So you have Anne Hathaway giving a great performance, but the surprise for me was how good Jason Sudeikis is as Oscar. I never imagined he had the kind of range he shows here. Like Hathaway he recognized a great opportunity when he saw it.
Eventually we get an explanation of sorts as to what happened that connects Gloria to the monster in Korea. And it’s not a lot of technobabble. In fact it’s no dialogue at all, but a montage of shots. If you think about what it shows, you may question whether it really explains it, but we are so late in the film we don’t care. We’ll take any explanation we can get.
Then stick around for the final scene. Gloria goes into a café and sits at the bar. The woman behind the counter asks her something. I suspect there may well have been a line written for Gloria, but what we get is the perfect collaboration between director and actress: Gloria’s only response is a great expression of Hathaway’s. And that’s all you need.
Movies About Movies About World War II, Take One.
Five Came Back
(2017. Written by Mark Harris, based on his book. 188 minutes.)
I had not originally planned on writing about this one. It is a documentary, and I only occasionally write about them. But Five Came Back raises some interesting issues about structure, adaptation from prose, and character that may be of use to you. If it’s not, skip on to the next item.
I read Harris’s book in 2014 when it came out, and loved it. You can read my review of it here. It is about five major Hollywood directors (John Ford, Frank Capra, John Huston, William Wyler, and George Stevens) who made films for the government during the Second World War.
Harris is a very thorough researcher and looked at everything from government archives to the private letters the directors wrote back to their families from overseas. The letters are particularly touching, and give us a very different look at these men, showing their sensitivities more than their interviews and biographies do.
The letters do not show up in the film. Harris and his crew could have had them read in voiceover, which God knows has been done a lot in documentaries. But the makers of this film work in a much more cinematic way.
First of all, they have clips from the films, outtakes, and home movies shot when they were on location. Harris can describe all that footage in prose in the book, but it is so much more vivid to see it with your own eyes.
The documentary filmmakers also do something Harris could have done in the book, but might not have been as effective there. They have five contemporary directors, each one talking about one of the older directors.
Well, that makes sense, but the wild cards the film plays are that the match-ups are not at all what you would expect. You would imagine that Steven Spielberg would talk about Frank Capra, given their sentimentality about middle-class American life. Nope. Spielberg deals with William Wyler.
Wyler’s style as a director is so much more restrained that Spielberg’s, but Spielberg says he watches Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) every year. (Really Steve? Every single year?) He also observes that since Wyler lost a lot of his hearing in the war, his post-war films are more visual. The filmmakers give us two shots to prove the point, one from The Big Country (1958) and one from Ben-Hur (1959). You can see why a director like Spielberg would notice that.
And who gets Capra? Why, Mexican horror director Guillermo del Toro of course. He grew up watching Capra’s films, which taught him about America.
Francis Ford Coppola gets John Huston. Well, that makes sense. They are both rebels. But there is a more interesting connection.
There had been rumors that scenes from Huston’s war documentary The Battle of San Pietro were entirely staged, and in the book Harris had discovered that this was true. The film shows the shots that make the case, which are followed by an old television interview in which Huston talks about the horrors of shooting in the middle of combat. Remember what I’ve always told you about directors and the truth.
Huston’s interview is followed by Coppola discussing shooting wartime footage and recreating it. Which is then followed by a clip from his Apocalypse Now (1979), showing the cameraman shooting in the middle of the war. You could construct a sequence like that in the book, but it is much more powerful to see the footage from both films and listen to both directors.
I saw Five Came Back during its one-week Oscar qualifying run, and now it is available on Netflix. You may remember from the last column my opinions on streaming. But if you decide to get into streaming, Five Came Back is a film worth doing it for.
Movies About Movies About World War II, Take Two.
(2016. Screenplay by Gaby Chiappe, based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans. 117 minutes.)
First of all, do not pay any attention to the stupid title. I have no idea why they did not go with the complete title of the book, which makes more sense when you get the connection to Winston Churchill’s line about Britain during the Blitz as “their finest hour.” I smell the dreadful influence of the marketing department in the diminished title.
It is 1940 in London, and the war is in its early stages. The Ministry of Information is trying to make propaganda movies, but one problem they are having is that all their screenwriters are men. So they decide to hire a woman to write “the slop,” as the male writers called women’s dialogue. The woman they pick is Catrin Cole, an advertising copywriter.
Well, you can see why I wanted to see it. In my History of Documentary Film class, we saw several British documentaries from before and during the war. So I knew about them, and how they were made. The problem I had with this film is that it is not very sharp about how the Brits made documentaries during the war. My wife, who spent her childhood during in England during the war, liked the film better than I did.
Yes, the British documentaries before and during the war were written, so the film is accurate about that. And there were undoubtedly some of the kinds of discussions we hear in the film between the writers, since they are generic writers’ discussion. But the writing of this script does not bring anything particularly fresh to the table.
Catrin is assigned to look into the story of two young English women who took their father’s boat to go and rescue British soldiers at Dunkirk (see Christopher Nolan’s movie Dunkirk this summer if you don’t know anything about it). But she discovers that the women never got to Dunkirk, since their boat had mechanical problems. However, Catrin goes ahead and pitches the fictional version to her bosses, and she appears to do it without a second thought. Adding two or three lines about this would make it more convincing.
We watch as the story gets “developed” so that it’s further and further away from the truth. But Their Finest never deals with that. There is not even the obligatory scene where we find out what the real women think about what happened to “their” story. Since there are two of them, they could have very different reactions.
Part of the problem with this script is that it spends way more time than it needs to on a quasi-romance between Catrin and her writing partner Tom. In the first half of the movie, we are led to believe that Catrin is married to the artist with whom she lives. It turns out she’s not, but that does not help with Tom.
Catrin is played by Gemma Arterton and Tom by Sam Claflin, and neither of them bring as much to the table as Hathaway and Sudeikis in Colossal. The picture is easily stolen by Bill Nighy as a ham actor, but that’s no real surprise.
At one point the head of the film unit is talking about selling the film to the Americans, and he makes the point that the Yanks like “lots of oomph” in their films. He’s right, there is not enough oomph for us Yanks in this film.
Having said all that, I do have to admit the final scene comes close. Catrin has not seen the completed film, and goes into a theatre where it is playing. We watch her watch the reactions of the different people around her. If Their Finest were a better picture, we’d be in tears along with the audience in the movie.
Grandson of Return of the Secaucus Seven and Son of The Big Chill.
(2016. Written by Clea DuVall. 90 minutes.)
This is one I recently caught up with on DVD.
Four couples in their thirties get together for a weekend. Yep, it sure sounds like John Sayles’s 1980 classic. Or, if you are a few years younger, it sounds like Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 not-quite-so classic The Big Chill.
The Intervention is not quite on the level of those two, but it is better than a lot of other imitations.
One thing the new film is lacking is any sense of the political and social context for the events in the film. With Sayles, the main connections with the characters had been their political activities, including their arrests, in the sixties. Kasdan tried to suggest similar political activities for his characters, but without the specific detail of Sayles, and gave give us some sense of the culture surrounding them.
DuVall not only wrote and directed the film, but stars as Jessie, one half of a lesbian couple. She is primarily an actress, and you if you don’t recognize her the minute you see her, you have not been watching movies and television for the last twenty years. This is her first feature as a writer and director, and she focuses on the characters and the performances.
Or rather, she focuses primarily on the women characters. This often happens with women writers (Jane Austen did that too), just as male writers often shortchange their female characters. A general rule: if you are writing a character who is different in some way from you, make a particular effort to make them believable and interesting.
The Intervention has more of a plot than Secaucus Seven and Chill. Three of the four couples are, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, planning this weekend to convince a fourth couple they really need to get divorced. You can see why when you meet the fourth couple, since they are obviously not happy. But DuVall also shows us that not everybody is as enthusiastic about the intervention as Annie, who is the prime mover on the weekend.
You can guess what happens, but the fun is in getting there, especially with a cast that includes Melanie Lynskey, Cobie Smulders, Natasha Lyonne, Alia Shawkat, Jason Ritter, and DuVall herself. DuVall obviously enjoyed getting her friends together, and you’ll probably enjoy them as well.
Pierce Brosnan is No Rock Hudson.
(2017. First episode written by Philipp Meyer & Brian McGreevy & Lee Shipman, second episode teleplay by Daniel C. Connolly, based on the novel by Philipp Meyer. Episodes 60 minutes.)
This is a new ten episode miniseries from AMC. I caught the first two episodes and pretty much gave up on it.
The novel is a four-generation saga of life in Texas from the early 19th century up to the present, although for this season they have cut it down to three generations.
I don’t know about the novel, but the structure of the first two episodes borrows from the novel (but not the film) The Godfather. In Puzo’s novel we cut back and forth between Michael’s story (how he came to take over as the godfather) and the story of Vito’s coming to America and rising to power. Yes, that’s the material used in The Godfather II.
Here we get the young Eli McCullough, who in the 1840s is kidnapped by Cherokee Indians. He is assigned to one of the Cherokee women, Prairie Flower, who beats him with the stick if he does not do his work. At the end of the second episode, he fights her and is allowed to join the men. Whereupon she sneaks into his teepee that night, jumps his bones, as I believe the Cherokee expression goes, and becomes the most interesting character in the film.
Meanwhile, we also get a much, much older Eli, who has built up a cattle empire. But by the time we see him, it is 1915 and he realizes the cattle business is fading and he wants to get into drilling for oil.
Aha, Texas, cattle and oil. It may not remind you of Giant (1956), in which cattle baron Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) reluctantly gets into the oil business, but it sure does me.
Yes, in The Son there is a much greater historical sweep, but the characters are simply not that interesting. Brosnan’s Eli is basically a bad ass. Bick Benedict certainly had his bad moments in Giant (much more than you might suspect in a fifties big budget movie), but he also had his nice moments.
Edna Ferber’s novel and Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat’s script for Giant also gave the actors a lot more to work with. This may be one of the few times you can say that Rock Hudson, who plays Bick, is much more interesting to watch than Pierce Brosnan, whose Texas accent is variable, to say the least.
The secondary characters in The Son are not as interesting either. We don’t see Eli’s wife, presumably because she died. One of Eli’s sons seems to have the hots for one of the Mexican-American women, Maria, and she is played by Paola Nuñez, who is almost as gorgeous as Elizabeth Taylor is as Bick’s wife, Leslie, in Giant. But in the first two hours at least, Nuñez is not giving much to do but look beautiful. By comparison, look at what Taylor is given to do in the first twenty minutes of Giant.
In the 1915 storyline in The Son, there is really no strong counterpoint to Eli. Eli’s son Peter disagrees with him from time to time, but neither the part nor the actor is up to James Dean’s Jett Rink in Giant.
Giant is also a lot sharper about the relationships between the Texans and the Mexican-Americans than The Son appears to be. One thing that bothered me about Mark Harris’s book Five Came Back is that it did not deal as well as it might have with the films the directors made after the war, and how they were affected by the directors’ wartime experiences. The film is a little better than that, but still does not deal with how Giant was George Stevens’s reaction to the evil of racism in the world. After all, he photographed the liberation of the camps.
Big Little Lies
(2017. Teleplay by David E. Kelley, based on the novel by Lianne Moriarity. Seven episodes, one hour each.)
In my last column, I wrote very briefly about the first three episodes of this mini-series. I had not been that impressed with the first two, but third began to dig into the characters. So I stuck it out to the end, and was considerably rewarded.
The setup was there was a murder at a school fundraiser among the well-to-do of Monterey, but we were not told who the victim or the suspect were. As the series went on, the Greek chorus of townspeople interviewed by the police suggested nearly all the main female characters had reason to kill all the other female characters.
Meanwhile we got deeper and deeper into the four main female characters, which gave Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, and Shailene Woodley the chance to really show their stuff. Boy, do they. There will be Emmy nominations galore this year. Well, it is HBO after all.
The final sequence is the fundraiser where all the characters, male and female, gather. Kelley does a great job of weaving together all the characters in this sequence, and the director, Jean-Marc Vallée, makes it very visually elegant.
Finally we get Celeste (Kidman), Madeline (Witherspoon), Renata (Dern), and Jane (Woodley) having to deal with Celeste’s abusive husband Perry, who’s pissed that Celeste is finally leaving him. Jane imagines that Perry is the man who raped her, getting her pregnant with her son. We don’t know if he is or not.
As the arguments continue and Perry threatens to get even more violent, a fourth woman, Bonnie, shows up. She is the second wife of Madeline’s first husband, and she and Madeline are not buddies. Perry ends up dead, impaled on an iron piece of a stairway. But it’s only after bits of the police investigation that we learn it was Bonnie who pushed him. Jane is willing to take the fall, but nobody believes her.
So what started out, and spent most of its running time, as an almost misogynistic look at rich women, turns out to be a feminist empowerment tale. Neat twist Kelley and I assume Moriarity.
The final shots show all the women, without the men, picnicking on the beach. There are rumors there might be another season of the show, although this one pretty much covered the book. On the other hand, there are still a few more husbands they could kill off.
[woocommerce_products_carousel_all_in_one template="compact.css" all_items="88" show_only="id" products="" ordering="random" categories="115" tags="" show_title="false" show_description="false" allow_shortcodes="false" show_price="false" show_category="false" show_tags="false" show_add_to_cart_button="false" show_more_button="false" show_more_items_button="false" show_featured_image="true" image_source="thumbnail" image_height="100" image_width="100" items_to_show_mobiles="3" items_to_show_tablets="6" items_to_show="6" slide_by="1" margin="0" loop="true" stop_on_hover="true" auto_play="true" auto_play_timeout="1200" auto_play_speed="1600" nav="false" nav_speed="800" dots="false" dots_speed="800" lazy_load="false" mouse_drag="true" mouse_wheel="true" touch_drag="true" easing="linear" auto_height="true"]