Understanding Screenwriting #147
Tom Stempel casts his eye over Genius, Finding Dory, Central Intelligence, The Shallows, and Our Kind of Traitor.
So Why Are We Watching This?
(2016. Screenplay by John Logan, based on the book Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. 104 minutes.)
Within the first week of its American release, this film only had a 45% favorable rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes (the audiences liked it a little better, with a 58% approval writing.)
So why would you want to watch it?
Two reasons. John Logan has written a great screenplay about a tricky subject. It is a true story about the legendary editor in the New York publishing world in the twenties and thirties Maxwell Perkins and his attempts to wrestle two books (Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and The River) out of the piles of manuscript pages Thomas Wolfe brings into his office.
As much as screenwriters like to write about writers, writers are generally bad subjects for films. What do we watch other than the writer writing? And other than their drinking? The story of writers tend to be internal: what’s going on inside their heads, and how they get it down on the page.
How many great screenplays about writers can you name? I can think of only three (let me know if you can think of any others). Joe Gillis, the “hero” of Sunset Boulevard (1950), is a screenwriter and we see him working with his “co-writer” Norma Desmond, so we watch them collaborate, with Gillis trying to be an editor to the mass of material she’s written.
A second one is Shakespeare in Love (1998), and it’s great because it’s about a playwright collaborating with a lot of interesting people, not just Norma Desmond.
The third is the recent Trumbo (2015), and as you can tell from my review, it is mostly about how Trumbo deals with other people. Are you beginning to see a pattern here?
Genius is about Thomas Wolfe collaborating with Max Perkins. Yes, in the other three films do we get shots of writers writing, and here we get Wolfe writing in longhand on the top of the refrigerator. We also get Perkins at his desk marking up the manuscripts with his red pencil. Logan, however, is using those shots as a rhythmic visual counterpoint to the dialogue scenes.
Wolfe, a country boy from North Carolina, was a talker, as free with his words while speaking as he was while writing. Perkins was a New England Ivy Leaguer (Harvard, if you must know) and much more restrained, but what he says hits home, both with Wolfe and us. Wolfe was fond of country expressions. He uses an elaborate one with Perkins, who merely says, “You took the words right out of my mouth.” (Late in the picture we meet Wolfe’s mother, who talks almost as flamboyantly as Wolfe does, so we can see where he got it from; that’s a brilliant bit of writing by Logan.)
Some of the scenes between Wolfe and Perkins are like operatic duets, and the actors, Jude Law as Wolfe and Colin Firth as Perkins, sing them beautifully. You remember my mantra that when you are writing screenplays you are writing for performance? You won’t find a better example of that than you will here. The dialogue is not just dialogue. Logan uses it to give great characters for the actors to play. This is dialogue as character.
Logan made a perfect choice of selecting this story from Berg’s massive biography to make into a film. Berg covers all of Perkins’s life in his book, which has 452 pages of text and 28 pages of notes.
Perkins was also noted for editing F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and you cannot imagine the dialogue between those writers and Perkins as vivid as that between Wolfe and Perkins. We do get a little of Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) on his downhill slide and Hemingway (Dominic West) in full virility.
(As much as I love this movie, I have a sneaking preference for the Hemingway we see in Midnight in Paris. That Hemingway is Woody Allen’s and he is naturally funnier; that fits my taste since I always thought Hemingway was something of a windbag, for all the restraint in his writing.)
In the book we get a lot more of Scott and Hem, as well as material on some other very successful writers Perkins worked with, some of whom you have never heard of.
Even in just selecting the Wolfe story to deal with Logan has had to cut and condense. Wolfe and Perkins constantly wrote back and forth; when their relationship ended, it was in a series of long letters, which Berg quotes from. Logan puts it into dialogue and makes it more strikingly dramatic.
Logan and the production team are great at giving us the atmosphere of the time, which the book does not do. That is one advantage of doing the story as a film: we can see the costumes, the cars, and Perkins’ cramped office. Logan also captures the heavily masculine flavor of the world the film takes place in.
Logan is also fair to Perkins’s wife Louise, who is frustrated at how much a workaholic Perkins is, although Berg has the space to give us a more detailed character study of Louise.
Aline Bernstein, a married set designer, is Wolfe’s muse. She supports him until he gets to be famous and then, like Louise, she gets jealous of his relationship with Perkins. Bernstein could be nothing but an over-the-top whack job, but Logan gives her a rich variety of emotions so we always want to see what she is going to do.
That’s especially true in a scene not in the book that Logan has created. Aline, who has made at least one previous suicide attempt, comes into Perkins’s office with a gun, but she is not sure who she wants to kill. Watch Perkins’ reactions and how he deals with her. Well, he’s been dealing with crazy writers all this life, so he’s had some practice.
So, Genius is a terrific script about a difficult subject to make a movie about. What’s the second reason you should see it?
It is the best movie I have ever seen on the relationship of a writer and an editor. I have been on both sides of that table. As a writer I have dealt with many editors on my books and articles. Some have been very good (although, not to offend any of them, I don’t think they were up to Perkins’s stature—but then who is?), a few not so good. Logan nails the collaborative process between writer and editor that will be familiar to you if you have been involved in that process.
I have also been on the other side of the table. I have not edited books or even done that much on articles, but as a teacher of screenwriting for a long time I have worked in the role of the editor and I can speak on that as well.
It helps if as an editor you are on the same page both figuratively and literally with the writer. It’s not absolutely essential; the late Marvin Borowsky, my screenwriting instructor at UCLA, did not quite see what I was getting at with the script I was working on with him, but somehow that made his comments even more useful.
Perkins sees Wolfe from the outside, and he tells Wolfe he wants his, Wolfe’s, best book. I think that is crucial for an editor/teacher: to get the writer to write his book and not the book the editor/teacher would write. You may or may not have run into editors or teachers who fall into that trap. Logan gets how Perkins does not fall into it.
“Development” people in Hollywood often fall into that trap, where their ego gets in the writer’s way. You will have to learn how to negotiate around that.
One of the best ways to respond to a really stupid idea is to tell the person who threw it out that is “interesting” and you will have to think about it. Then if he or she ever asks about it again, you can say you did think about it and it does not quite fit into this script. You may gild the lily a bit by saying you like the idea and may want to use it in another script.
When Darryl F. Zanuck was head of production at 20th Century-Fox in the thirties and forties, he was noted for his story conferences. A Zanuck writer, Philip Dunne, remembered that Zanuck with come up with a hundred ideas, most of which were awful, but a few of which Dunne, by the time he got back to his own office, thought might be useful. Zanuck expected writers to take what was useful.
One interesting idea that Logan has Perkins bring up is the concern the editor/teacher has as to whether what they have done has actually helped the writer, or merely “stunted the growth” of the project. (This speech is not in the book, but Logan has developed it from what Perkins did say and write.) Perkins says it sometimes keeps him up at night. It’s why editors and teachers have to keep their ego in check.
And for that matter, writers have to keep their egos in check as well. Yes, you know your script is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but you will have to be prepared to accept that it might not be. Logan is great at how Wolfe managed to do that with Perkins. It is part of the collaborative process you need to learn.
I always got worried when people asked me to read their scripts and “tell me what you really think of it.” So I read it and told them. And they got furious: “But I like that,” “I can’t cut that,” “That’s what the script is all about,” “That scene is why I wrote the script,” etc., etc., etc.
One more story from a former student of mine, who is now writing, producing and directing films in his home country. He once had a meeting with a development executive, and my guy knew only two things about him: he had said he did not like the dialogue in the script, and he had just come out of rehab for his drug use. I told my guy that the executive probably was still shaky after rehab and picked on the dialogue because he knew he had not pulled himself together enough to deal with theme and plot.
So I told my guy he should ask the executive what specific lines of dialogue he did not like. I figured there were probably only a couple, and that was true. So my guy could change those and make a big point of thanking the executive for his help.
Unfortunately the deal fell through anyway. And the executive eventually for arrested by the feds for international drug trafficking. Hey, they can’t all have happy endings.
Or maybe they can. My guy found other money, made the film, and it got his career going.
The Zootopia Crowd is Going to be Ticked Off with Me on This One, Too
(2016. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Victoria Strouse, original story by Andrew Stanton, additional story material by Angus MacLane, additional screenplay material by Bob Peterson. 97 minutes.)
I, along with about a bazillion people loved Finding Nemo (2003). It was fresh, inventive, and funny. I had a couple of paragraphs on it as a Short Take in the book Understanding Screenwriting. I pointed out two elements that made it work. One was the brilliant animation of the undersea world. The creators at Pixar had taken up scuba diving to see that world firsthand. We had never seen anything like it.
The second element was that they had made the fish real characters. Like bazillions of others, I loved the character of Dory, the fish with short-term memory problems. We had never seen anything like that, either.
Well, now we have. We saw it thirteen years ago when the movie came out, and depending on the age of your children (and your own childlike side), many, many times since.
I am not sure there are bazillions who have now seen Finding Dory, but many of them are of the opinion, which I agree with, that as entertaining as it is, it’s not quite up to Finding Nemo. Why isn’t it?
The undersea world is just as visually striking as it was before, but we have seen that before, so it is not as much of a grabber as it used to be. One of the inventive aspects of Dory is that while Nemo spent most of its time in the ocean, a pretty fair hunk of Dory takes place at the Marine Life Institute. That gives the writers and animators a lot of new stuff to play with, and they do. However, most of us have seen aquariums of various kinds, so the setting is not as fresh as the ocean was in Nemo.
In Nemo Dory was a supporting character. She was a great supporting character, but a supporting character. She was comedy relief. Brilliant comedy relief but still a secondary character. Here she is the leading lady. And her gags about her short-term memory loss get little tiresome. If she announced one more time to a new character she met that she had short-term, etc., I would have screamed.
Several people have commented that the story of Dory is just a rehash of the Nemo story: searching for a member of the family. In Nemo it was the father searching for the son, here it is the daughter searching for her parents. I did not think it was that much of a rehash, given the different locale, and given the characters.
One of the new characters is Hank, an octopus (all right a septopus, since he is missing a tentacle), who is a nice grumpy addition to the team. There are a couple of sea lions nicely voiced by Idris Elba and Dominic West.
On the other hand, Marlin and Nemo are now supporting characters, but not that interesting in those roles. And Dory’s mom and dad are so bland that even the voice work of Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton cannot make come alive.
So if it’s not as good as Nemo, why is it doing spectacular business? I think because of all the good will we have developed over the years for Dory and the whole crew. We just want to see those characters again. But after Dory, will we want to see them again? Be care of what you make sequels of.
The Movie is Funnier Than the Outtakes
(2016. Screenplay by Ike Barinholtz & David Stassen and Rawson Marshall Thurber, story by Ike Barinholtz & David Stassen. 107 minutes.)
We have all seen those movies where the outtakes during the credits are much funnier than the movie itself. Make up your own list. What surprised me with Central Intelligence is that the outtakes at the end, while amusing, are not a patch on the film itself. How did that happen?
It’s the script, of course. On the surface, the story seems like a typical action comedy. Calvin Joyner, an accountant who is not happy with his job, runs into “Bob Stone,” whom he knew in high school under another name.
Bob is now with the CIA and needs Calvin’s help in cracking a computer code to find out where the sale of secret data is taking place. Except that the CIA thinks Bob is the bad guy selling the secrets. High jinks ensue. O.K., but what makes it special?
We start in high school, where Calvin is the Big Man on Campus, top athlete, brainy as well. Bob is a very, very fat kid.
On the last student convocation of their senior year some of the guys kidnap Bob from the showers and dump him naked on the gym floor as Calvin is making a speech. Calvin is the only one who is sympathetic and puts his letterman jacket on Bob, who runs out of the gym and never comes back to school.
So what you would expect is that Calvin went on to be a hotshot CIA guy and Bob a non-entity. But no. Calvin is now not happy that life has not turned out as he had hoped. And Bob shows up handsome and as well muscled as, well Dwayne Johnson, who plays him. Listen to Bob’s explanation as to how he got that way.
So Johnson, who usually plays straight-ahead heroic types, is given more of a character to play than he usually does. Bob is still sensitive about what happened in high school, and he thinks Calvin is his best friend, which surprises Calvin. So we get with Johnson an emotional vulnerability that we have never seen before, along with his usual physicality.
Calvin is played by Kevin Hart, who usually plays loud-mouthed, fast-talking know-it-alls, as in the Think Like a Man movies (2012, 2014). As with Johnson, the script gives him some quiet, vulnerable moments as well. And he handles them well in what may be his best performance ever. It is certainly his most varied.
So what we end up are two interesting characters, played by two actors terrific in great change of pace roles. The writing does not just leave it at O.K., here are these two characters, but develops the characters and their relationship. A lot of the humor comes from the characterization, which is why it is funnier and more interesting than just the gags in the outtakes.
I have no idea who among the writers decided to write these two characters this way, but my baseball cap’s off to them. And to Johnson and Hart for taking those characters on.
A Lively Movie
(2016. Written by Anthony Jaswinski. 86 minutes.)
This one starts off slowly in terms of action, but quickly enough that when the shit hits the fan we are caught up in it. In the opening scene we find Nancy, a twenty-something American talking to Carlos, the Mexican who is giving her a ride to a particular beach. We are in Carlos’s truck, no wasting time about her getting him to take her. Listen to how much information we get quickly in this scene: why Nancy is going to this beach to surf, why her friend ended up not coming with her, and assorted other details.
Carlos drops her off at the beach, and there are two guys surfing. Just two, not ten, not twenty, just two. That’s all Jaswinski needs.
Nancy gets into the water and we get some great shots of Nancy’s surfing double catching some knarly waves. She makes friends with the two guys, but there is no hint that they are dangerous or particularly interested in her sexually.
In addition to rocks in the cove, there is a buoy. And a dead whale. The latter attracts birds, some other fish—
And a shark. A big, nasty shark who takes a swipe at Nancy. She gets a big gash in her thigh. A bloody gash. So what does she do? Were you paying attention in the scene in the truck? Or did you miss the fact she has just dropped out of medical school? So Nancy takes her two earrings and uses them to suture the gash.
In other words, this is one smart, tough woman.
And obviously tasty from the shark’s point of view, since he keeps coming back and circling her, even after she gets up on a rock in the cove.
You may have heard of all the tales of how Bruce, the mechanical shark in Jaws (1975), misbehaved, which is why we do not see a lot of him in that film. It is now 41 years later, and CGI (Computer Generated Imagery, if you didn’t know) can do anything. The official running time of the film is 86 minutes, but about five of those are credits that include a lot of special effects companies. Their work is spectacular and all the scarier for it.
For years as a screenwriting teacher I had to warn students not to include stuff in their script that would be impossible to show. Now with CGI there is nothing impossible to show. I would guess that Jaswinski counted on that when he sat down to write the script. But this is a relatively low cost film, with an estimated budget of $17 million according to the IMDb. And every penny is up there on the screen. So you can take that into consideration when you write a script like this in a way you could not twenty or thirty years ago.
It also helps that Jaswinski has as his director Jaume Collet-Sera, who directed Non-Stop (2014). In that film he was limited to the interior of a jet plane and he managed to make it continually interesting visually. Here he is limited to one location again, and he gets the most out of it. He understands the dynamics of film is a way that a lot of directors do not.
So we have a terrific script, great CGI, and a director who understands how it all fits together. What else do you need?
Well, since this is virtually a one-woman show, you are going to need an actress who can hold the screen for 80-something minutes. They have smartly gone with Blake Lively.
She started acting as a teenager, and I thought she was bland as all get-out in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies. Then she knocked me out in The Town (2010), holding her own with Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner. In this film she is even better than in The Town and holds the film together, both in her acting and her sheer physicality, an essential element to the role.
So what we have here is the best kind of collaboration between a lot of first-rate people. They don’t give awards for summer programmers like this, but if they did, this would get a lot of nominations.
Meanwhile, Sony will have to be happy that this will make them more profit this summer than most of their other bigger budgeted releases.
Didn’t We Just See This Movie?
Our Kind of Traitor
(2016. Screenplay by Hossein Amini, based on the novel by John le Carré. 108 minutes.)
So we’ve got a Brit in the Middle East and he meets an exotic criminal. The Brit ends up with information he is to deliver to MI-6, but he ends up dealing with a former MI-6 guy running his own op. The former MI-6 guy gets the Brit to work with the crook to get more information. High jinks ensue.
Sounds awfully like The Night Manager doesn’t it? It is, but not as good. Amini has written some wonderful scripts, including the 1997 Wings of the Dove, and the 2014 The Two Faces of January, which I reviewed here. (For that matter, there are similar elements in January as well as Manager.) I have not read this le Carré novel, but I suspect the problems the film has are in the novel.
In Manager, the central relationship is between the Brit, Pine, and the arms dealer Roper. We watch them scope each other out. In Traitor, the Brit, Perry, is simply along for the ride, and his relationship with the Russian Mafia moneyman Dima is not nearly as interesting as Dima’s relationship with the ex-MI-6 guy, Hector. The Dima-Hector scenes have much more character dynamics.
Amini has given the actors playing Dima and Hector a lot to do. Dima is Stellan Skarsgård at his flamboyant best, almost overpoweringly so. Hector is Damian Lewis, channeling almost every suave British actor who’s played in any spy movie over the last seventy years. Lewis is much more entertaining than Olivia Coleman was in the equivalent role in Manager.
Amini has not given Ewan McGregor anything interesting to do as Perry. He has given him a romantic interest, but she’s not a patch on Manager’s Jed. The woman here is Gail, Perry’s…wife.
Well, the Hacketts did a lot with a married couple in their scripts for The Thin Man movies, but Amini leaves the couple stranded. Too bad, because Gail’s played by the current Miss Moneypenny, Naomie Harris, who was also Tia Dalma in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I kept expecting Harris to pull out a Walther PPK and start shooting, or else put a curse on them all, but no such luck.
Check out these great books on screenwriting from Tom!
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