Understanding Screenwriting #148
Tom Stempel takes a look at Ghostbusters, Bad Moms, Jason Bourne, and Hell or High Water.
Funny Women, Take One
(2016. Written by Katie Dippold & Paul Feig, based on the 1984 film Ghostbusters written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. 116 minutes.)
When I first heard that they were planning a Ghostbusters reboot with a predominantly female cast, I thought it was potentially a good idea.
There were others, however, that did not. I mean, really did not think so, and the way they carried on in the anti-social media was, how shall I say, excessive. I liked the original well enough, which is why I was willing to give the new version a chance. A lot of other people seemed to think the original was Holy Writ.
Or at least they thought that having women in the film was sacrilege. The trolls were obviously of the “girls have cooties” crowd, and I could not help but wonder if the misogyny of the comments came from the general misogyny abroad in the land.
Follow me for a minute on this. After Obama was elected, there was a reactive racism that began to seep into the culture, giving lie to the idea that we were in a post-racial society. Now, with a woman nominated to run for president, misogyny seems to be rising in the same way that racism did eight years ago. The attack on the female Ghostbusters may simply be the first of many events if Hillary is elected.
So what does that have to do with Ghostbusters and screenwriting? Simply this: as writers you have to be aware of the attitudes of the time. You may want to avoid dealing with controversial issues, or if you are like most writers you will want to jump right into them. But they can bite you in the ass.
One reason I think the new Ghostbusters has not done as well at the box office as it might have is that with the exception of one line in the picture, it avoids the issue all together. (The line is in an online message the Busters get saying in very explicit terms that women should not be Ghostbusters, and from the look of it [tight close-ups in a scene done mostly in medium shots] it was added in post-production.) Dippold and Feig could have done a lot more with the subject.
That’s not the only element of the script that is too cautious. From the opening of the first film in 1984, Columbia has always seen it as a potential franchise. The difficulty was getting everybody together to do another one. And when they did with the 1989 sequel Ghostbusters II, it was a mess.
The studio has been trying to revive the franchise ever since. If you look at the credits, you will notice that Aykroyd and Ivan Reitman, the director of the original, are executive producers. If you look at the film, you will see that most of the original starring cast shows up in cameos that get excessive by the end of the film. That suggests desperation rather than fun.
The plotline is essentially similar to the first film and unfortunately the characters are too. An almost depressingly restrained Melissa McCarthy is playing Dan Aykroyd, the head of the bunch.
Katie Dippold is best known for her screenplay for McCarthy’s The Heat (2013), where Dippold created two great characters for McCarthy and Sandra Bullock to play. The storyline in that film is standard buddy-cop stuff, but the two characters make it fresh and funny. Here Dippold gives McCarthy some good lines, and McCarthy does well by them, but that’s about it.
Kristin Wiig plays the Harold Ramis character and is the most restrained of the lot, as Ramis was, but role does not take particular advantage of Wiig’s skills. Like McCarthy she does well with what she is given, but that’s about the limit.
Kate McKinnon is the best of the lot because the Bill Murray part lets her riff on almost anything that shows up in the picture. (If you ever have a chance to see the original trailer for the first film, you will notice that Bill Murray does not stand out the way he does in the film. Trailers are made looking at the script and try to avoid stuff such as Murray’s ad-libs, since you never know when they will be cut. I am sure the editor of the first film found Murray’s stuff too good to cut.) McKinnon brings more life to the picture than the others.
Since they had a black guy in the first film, they have a black woman here. As played by Leslie Jones, she comes awfully close to the cliché Loud Black Woman, but again that is dealt with too cautiously.
One flaw that shows up in the first Ghostbusters and a lot of the movies that followed is the tendency to overdo the special effects. The first Ghostbusters is not a bad as the second one, or as other late-eighties films such as Howard the Duck (1986) and even Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). The glory days of Howard the Duck are not what the new Ghostbusters should be returning us to.
Funny Women, Take Two
(2016. Written by Jon Lucas, Scott Moore. 110 minutes)
This one is a little fresher than Ghostbusters. It is not based on a previous movie and if we are lucky it will not turn into a franchise (although…).
Lucas and Moore (they use neither an “and” or an “&” in their credit) have done some interesting work before. They first came to my attention with a lively domestic comedy called Four Christmases (2008). It follows a yuppie couple as they spend Christmas with both sets of the couple’s parents. It’s got some nice characterization and is a fresh, satirical look at the yuppies. They followed that the next year with Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, a nice variation on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Again, good characterization and laughs.
Then they hit it big. Sort of. They were the only credited writers on The Hangover (2009), a huge, huge hit. It was such a huge hit that everybody and his grandmother popped their heads up to said they had done uncredited rewrites on it. You can read my discussion of that here.
There were undoubtedly rewrites, since Lucas and Moore’s original version was intended as a PG-13 film. As you know if you have seen it, The Hangover is not rated PG-13. That may be why they did not have anything to do with the sequels.
Lucas and Moore, however, may have seen the handwriting on the bathroom wall after The Hangover and especially Bridesmaids (2011) showed that audiences wanted raunch as a palate-cleanser after all those Pixar movies. So Bad Moms earns its R rating.
Amy is a 32-year-old mother of two. Like most young mothers, she is frazzled by all her responsibilities. She has a husband, Mike, who supposedly works in finance, which consists of lounging around the house talking on conference calls.
One day he complains that he had to be on two conference calls in one day. Amy is not sympathetic. She’s the one who keeps the house going, since she has one of those part-time jobs where she seems to work full-time.
She is also hassled by Gwendolyn, the longtime head of the PTA, over things like the bake sale. Finally it gets to be too much for Amy, and she begins to hang out with Carla, a single mom with a wild streak, and Kiki, the subdued mom.
So the three go wild. Well, not exactly. They don’t rob banks or join the CIA. They go out drinking. A lot. The drinking gets kind of tiresome for us. Lucas and Moore also have them run riot in a supermarket, which makes for an amusing but not spectacular montage scene.
One good scene from their adventures has Amy all glammed up and determined to score with a guy, any guy, in a bar. But she keeps falling back into mom-talk rather than seductive talk.
An even better, and wilder, scene is Carla demonstrating to Amy and Kiki, using Kiki’s hoodie, how to handle an uncircumcised penis. It is great, raunchy slapstick (and it was suggested by one of the producers…one of the women producers, Suzanne Todd; that shows up in a good interview with Scott and Moore in CS you can read here if you have not already), and has the advantage of having Kathryn Hahn as Carla. Hahn steals scenes here the way McKinnon does in Ghostbusters, by being wilder than the others.
You may get the sense that the tone of the film is uneven, and you would be right. Each of those three scenes are in a slightly different key. That was not a problem in Four Christmases.
Then, suddenly, a plot develops. I can’t think of any other movie that shifts so abruptly into a plot, although Alice’s Restaurant (1969), which I wrote about here, comes close. While normally I like plot, I was a little put off by the sudden shift here, since it seemed the film was moving away from what it was about. I was surprised the plot worked as well as it did: Amy decides to run against Gwendolyn for president of the PTA. Political highjinks ensue, but they are not as compelling as the wilder moments earlier in the script.
One review of the picture felt it would have been better if it had been written by a woman, but as we saw with Ghostbusters, that is not necessarily the answer. Lucas and Moore said in an interview that they learned about moms’s attitudes from their wives, but they could have dug deeper.
Stick around for the footage during the credits. It’s not outtakes, but a series of shots with the leading actresses and their mothers talking about their mother/daughter relationships. With the exception of the hoodie scene, it’s the best thing in the picture.
And yes, there is a line about Mila Kunis, who plays Amy, looking “ethnic.” It’s becoming a running joke in Kunis’ films. See here for an earlier version.
And Now For a Change, Some Testosterone, Take One
(2016. Written by Paul Greengrass & Christopher Rouse, based on characters created by Robert Ludlum. 133 minutes.)
After I saw Ghostbusters and Bad Moms in the space of a couple of days, I decided to replenish my testosterone supply, so I caught up with this one. Shooting, walking, explosions, running, more walking, more running, and more shooting. Ah, home sweet home.
This is now the fifth film about Jason Bourne. The first four were written in whole or in part by Tony Gilroy. The second and third were directed by Paul Greengrass, and he and Gilroy did not see eye-to-eye, to put mildly.
In reviewing the fourth one here I went into some of the details. Gilroy was bothered by Greengrass’s ignoring the dialogue, and Matt Damon, who starred, found Gilroy’s writing confusing. So Greengrass and Damon pulled out of number four and Gilroy wrote and directed it, with Jeremy Renner as a trained killer from a similar government program. As you can see in my review, I thought Gilroy’s writing was terrific. The fourth one was the best since the first one.
Damon figured there was still life in Bourne, so he got together with Christopher Rouse, Greengrass’s film editor and persuaded Greengrass to come back. The official version of how the project developed can be found here in the Los Angeles Times; you can read Rouse’s version here in CS.
As you can see from the credits, Gilroy was not involved and the script was written by a director, Greengrass, and an editor, Rouse. Rouse, by the way, is the son of the late Russell Rouse. Rouse Senior was a screenwriter who contributed to all kinds of films, from the film noir D.O.A. (1950) to the Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedy Pillow Talk (1959).
Greengrass and Rouse Junior could have used some help from the old man, if only he had not died in 1987. There are a lot of scenes designed to show off the primary skills, which are considerable, of Greengrass and Rouse, but the story is rather slim, and the scenes that tell it are not particularly well-developed.
Damon may have liked that the writers came up with an easier-to-follow story than Gilroy did, but it in fact gives him less to do as an actor. Mostly Damon and the other actors glower a lot. The exception is Alicia Vikander playing Heather Lee, the CIA operative who is charged with tracking down Bourne. Lee is supposed to be mysteriously unreadable, and Vikander certainly delivers that.
Greengrass, who has done a lot of work in documentaries and dealt with the real world in such films as Captain Phillips (2013), wanted to make sure this film was not just an action film, but one that connected to the real world. See the Times story for details. That does not work out as well as he had hoped.
In the beginning, Nicky Parsons, a CIA colleague of Bourne’s, hacks the CIA files and discovers information about Bourne’s father. She gets it to him in the middle of a riot in Athens. Greengrass intended that to connect with the riots about the austerity cuts in Greece. Unfortunately, Greengrass the director took over from Greengrass the writer and it is a whizz-bang action scene with no reference at all to the political situation in Greece. Maybe Greengrass ignored his own dialogue as much as he ignored Gilroy’s.
In other chase scenes, the film focuses on the mechanics of the chases rather than their political meaning. Greengrass is proud of the character of Aaron Kalloor, a Silicon Valley type, who is nervous about the CIA getting into his new app and violating the privacy of his customers, certainly a hot button issue, but dealt with more in plot terms than in terms of its ideas.
By the time we get around to the big finish in Las Vegas (Greengrass thinks he is making a comparison with Athens, but with all the running and shooting, I doubt if you will think that), which goes on longer than it should, Greengrass and Rouse are smashing up a lot of cars and trucks, something they are collectively wonderful at. You may be like me and want more than that, or that may be enough for you.
And Now For a Change, Some Testosterone, Take Two
Hell or High Water
(2016. Written by Taylor Sheridan. 102 minutes.)
First of all, this is not a remake of Hell and High Water, the 1954 submarine movie featuring that legendary international star Bela Darvi.
It is a fresh, smart, bank robbery-character study and one of the best screenplays so far this year. It was apparently on the Black List of good unproduced screenplays for several years, although that is not necessarily an absolute standard, since a lot of the Black List scripts turn into terrible movies. But then we all know those are the directors’ faults.
We are in modern day Texas. A car pulls into a small town, circles a branch of a Texas Midlands Bank. It is about opening time and two guys wearing ski masks break into the bank, threaten the teller and escape with small bills.
So now we should get a character scene, shouldn’t we? We don’t. We get a second bank robbery, similar to the first. Then the robbers take their car to their farm, drive it into a large ditch that had already been dug, and cover it with dirt. Sheridan is playing by his own rules, and we are going to see how that pays off at the end of the movie.
The two robbers are brothers. Tanner is the older one, and he’s been in and out of the slammer a few times. He’s the wild and risky one. Tanner is played by Ben Foster in one of his career best performances. Toby is the younger, quieter bother. Chris Pine plays Toby in what is definitely his career best performance.
Sheridan has given both of them a lot to do emotionally. The Scottish director David Mackenzie, who also has a real visual feel for the American Southwest, is good at getting out of the actors everything Sheridan, an actor himself, has written into the script.
Toby’s been taking care of the farm while Tanner has been away, although as one of them points out, the cows are so skinny you couldn’t get a steak out of any one of them. Their mother died recently, and there is $33,000 owed on the mortgage, and another $11,000 on the tax lien. And all of that is due by Friday. To the Texas Midlands Bank.
So the plan is to rob several of the small branches and get enough money to pay off the mortgage to the bank with its own money. Now which brother thought up that idea? He might think it was Tanner, but as adventurous as he is, thinking is not what he’s good at. Toby is the smarter one, and the nicer one. He does not plan to rob any big banks where there might be lots of customers and armed guards. Or video cameras. Toby doesn’t want to hurt anybody.
Because they are only robbing small amounts of money, the FBI doesn’t want to be bothered by the case. So it falls to Marshal Hamilton, who is about to retire. He’s played by Jeff Bridges in a performance as far away from his Rooster Cogburn as possible. Hamilton is about as easy-going as a western marshal can get, and he spends a lot of time comically insulting his half-Indian, half-Latino partner, who occasionally gets in a nice zinger in reply.
People talk a lot in this film, so the pace is not as fast as you would expect in a western about bank robbers, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s what differentiates this film from others. We get a lot of scenes of the characters sitting around and chatting. All that dialogue works because Sheridan has created some fascinating characters we want to listen to.
Sheridan wrote last year’s Sicario, which I reviewed here. My main problem with that film was that Kate Macer starts out as a tough FBI agent and then sort of wilts. That does not happen to anybody here.
One thing I did not deal with in my review of Sicario is the other characters Sheridan wrote, which were all interesting. There is no weak link in Hell or High Water. And lest you think Sheridan can’t write women characters, he has a whole gallery of women in wonderful supporting roles, especially a young flirtatious waitress who gets a $200 tip from Toby (and look how that works into the plot) and an older one at a T-Bone steak café accurately described as a “rattlesnake.”
Sheridan’s focus here is on the men, and we get a lot of detail about their attitudes about life. Tanner is hot for anything in skirts, but Toby still has a thing for his ex-wife, who has custody of their two kids.
We see how awkward Toby is with one of his sons. We know he loves them, so we are not surprised when we find out late in the picture that he intends to set up the farm in a trust for his sons and that oil has been discovered on the property. Well, what will happen to them if he gets caught, or worse? As Tanner says early in the film, “I never knew nobody who got away with anything, ever.”
And things do begin to go south. Hamilton has figured out their pattern for robbing banks and is close to the last one. That one ends up being a large branch, with a lot of customers. One of whom has a gun. Another of whom has a cell phone and calls for help. When the brothers come out of the bank, there are three carloads of guys, all armed and waiting.
They have a getaway car and Toby changes into that while Tanner leads the informal posse, added to by Hamilton and the Texas Rangers, on a chase. Tanner has obviously seen High Sierra (1941) a few too many times. Hamilton may be ready to retire, but he’s still a crack marksman with a high powered rifle.
Toby, who has earlier changed the small bills for chips at an Indian casino, changes the chips back into a check and pays off the mortgage and the tax lien, and he’s smart enough to outfox the banker who is trying to outfox him.
We jump ahead three months. Hamilton is retired and comes into the office in his civilian clothes. He talks about the case with a woman working there. I had to feel sorry for the actress playing the role, since she has to deliver a long monologue on where the case stands. But Sheridan has written it so well, we appreciate how smart Toby has been in planning all this.
We knew he organized it, but we did not know how well. He let Tanner take all the risks and left nothing that would tie him to the robberies. The woman tells Hamilton that they suspected Toby was involved, but that there was no evidence.
So Hamilton goes out to the farm. Toby is there, looking a lot more put together than he was with Tanner (I have never seen an actor do as much with a clean shave as Pine does in this scene). As soon as Toby paid off the mortgage, he had a couple of wells drilled. We have another of Sheridan’s great dialogue scenes in which it is obvious both men know a lot of how much the other knows about the robberies.
And something else is going on in this scene, I think. I’m not going to give it away because Sheridan has been so wonderfully subtle setting what might be the case. It is not a stunning plot twist, but a realization of what might have been going on.
Or might not. I have read a bunch of reviews of the film, and not one of them has suggested what I saw in it. Partly that’s because most film critics obviously do not pay the kind of attention to the scripts of films as yours truly does.
Here it is partly because of the brilliant way Sheridan writes the script. Now I am not going to give away the ending, but since the degree of difficulty of writing about a script in this way appeals to me, I’m going back over what I have told you and show you how Sheridan does it.
From the beginning of the script, Sheridan does things differently. The two robberies and the burial of the car (and another car later as well) means we are well into the film before we begin to get the characters and what they are up to. Sheridan takes a while before we learn it was Toby planning the robberies. And it is not until the end of the film we learn how much he has planned. The final revelation I see comes from that.
It also comes from the difference between the two brothers. Some of those character nuances the script and director get show us how the brothers relate to each other. That is where the nuances of the acting, especially Pine, are essential. We begin to realize how much Toby thinks, as we seeing him thinking about what he and Tanner are doing. That effects the ending as well.
A lot of the scenes with Hamilton and his partner are comic relief, but Hamilton is also smart as a whip and figures out what the robbers are doing, but Sheridan does not give him enough to understand it all. That’s why Hamilton comes to see Toby.
Since Hamilton has never met him, Hamilton does not realize how much Toby has changed since the robberies. Because Sheridan has Hamilton trying to figure out what more is going on that he does not know, we are sort of drawn into wondering what else is there that Sheridan has not told us. Because he doesn’t tell us a lot until as late as he can in the script, we are subconsciously feeling there may be more. I think there is.
See it for yourself and then come around and we’ll sit out on the porch like the guys in the film and jaw about it a spell.
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