Understanding Screenwriting #153
Tom Stempel on The Birth of a Nation, The Accountant, Inferno, Denial, Arrival, Beauty Shop, and All the President’s Men.
Oh goody goody, two comments on the last issue, both on the item on The Dressmaker. (And I mean those goodies sincerely; I love comments; more please!)
The first was from Barbara Neri. She found the tone of the film rather uneven. It started out light and got much darker at the end.
I did not have a problem with this, since the tone from the beginning seemed to me to be very freewheeling and the darker elements were at least suggested in the opening parts of the film. After all, she does arrive at night and is looking into the death that the town covered up. But I can see why Barbara felt the dark parts got a little too dark. And the whole question of tone can be a very tricky thing for the writer.
While Barbara was dealing with thematic issues, Paul Mahoney did the other thing the comments section is good for, correcting my mistakes. He pointed out the teams were not playing soccer, as I wrote, but footy, which he tells us is Australian Rules Football.
Not be a devotee of international sports, the distinction is lost on me, but that’s one thing I have found, which is the readers often know stuff I don’t.
So keep those electronic cards and letters coming in folks. I love to read what you have to say.
On the whole, I prefer Intolerance.
The Birth of a Nation
(2016. Screenplay by Nate Parker, story by Nate Parker & Jean McGianni Celestin. 120 minutes.)
No, this is not a remake of the D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film of the same name, but it is a distant relation to it.
For those of you who missed the screening of Griffith’s film in your film history class (or were students at a college or university that was afraid to show it), Griffith’s film was a epic story of the events leading up to the Civil War, the war itself, and the Reconstruction period that followed it. It was brilliantly done, using all the basic film techniques that Griffith had been developing in his shorter films for Biograph.
The problem was that Griffith was from Kentucky and his father had fought for the South in the “late unpleasantness,” as they call it in that part of the country. Griffith was born ten years after the end of the war. He grew up hearing stories about the war. So Griffith had the prejudices of his place and his time. The film is the story of that period from the Southern point of view.
You can see why that caused problems in 1915 and later. The first half of the film, up through to the end of war, is no worse than many films that came later, but the second half, about the Reconstruction, is appalling. That section is based on a novel by a Southern minister named Thomas Dixon. The great American film historian Anthony Slide rightly called his biography of Dixon American Racist.
Griffith and his co-writer Frank Wood softened a lot of Dixon’s excesses, which in the end made the film more subtly racist than the book. At Dixon’s suggestion, Griffith dropped the title of the book, The Klansman. Dixon thought the film needed a grander title, and they settled on The Birth of a Nation, I suspect because Griffith felt the Reconstruction (which he shows as the Ku Klux Klan riding to save the white south) was the true Birth of America.
The film was hugely controversial, with southerners loving it and northerners appalled by it. Because Griffith told the story with a great set of characters, audiences got caught up in it, and then, at least in the north, hated it and themselves. Because of the controversy, the film made millions in a time when it was assumed movies could only make thousands.
Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation showed that movies could be both and art and a big business, and no film before had done that. It is the original sin of American film.
Parker and Celestin are also telling a story of race in the South, but from an earlier period. Nat Turner, a slave, instigated a rebellion among the slaves in Virginia in August 1831. It only lasted two days, but 65 white people were killed. Turner was eventually caught and hanged. In his jail cell, he told his story to Thomas Ruffin Gray, who published it as a book, The Confession of Nat Turner.
Parker and Celestin start with exposition about Turner and his early life. We get a lot of material about the life of slaves at the time, but the writers did not need all that, since just in the last few years we have had 12 Years a Slave (2013), which won three Academy Awards the year before people started complaining about the Oscars being too white, and this year’s miniseries remake of Roots.
It is forty minutes into the film before Turner even begins to get the idea of a revolution, and then another thirty-five minutes before the revolution starts. That would not be a problem if all the details of the build-up then paid off in the revolution scenes. They don’t.
It is probably true that the revolution was a mess, since it was over in two days, but that does not make it very interesting on screen. Parker and Celestin have not created as interesting a set of characters, both black and white, as they could have, and as Griffith did. That means that when the black characters are killing the white characters they know, it is not as affecting as it could be.
The scenes of the rebellion are just a lot of bloodshed on both sides.
The writers could have gotten into more nuance among both the revolutionaries (how do they feel about it at the beginning, and at the end) and whites, who are obviously terrified, but what do they do? How do they react to the bloodshed? If the writers had spent less time on exposition, they could have spent more time on the heart of the story.
This Birth of a Nation was a sensation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It arrived just as the #oscarssowhite movement was ginning up for this year’s awards show. The film was greeted with sustained applause at Sundance, and Fox Searchlight picked it up for distribution for $17 million.
During the summer word got out that while they were in college Parker and Celestin were tried on rape charges. Parker was acquitted, Celestin was convicted, but freed on appeal. Needless to say, the news coverage of this did not help when the film was released in October.
By early November, it has grossed a little over $16 million in the US, which may mean Fox may eventually make some of its money back overseas, but nowhere close to the $50 million Griffith’s film made.
Ben Affleck Channels Buster Keaton.
(2016. Written by Bill Dubuque. 128 minutes.)
A week before I saw this, my wife and I were at the Annual Parish Dinner at our church, and I ended up sitting next to a charming man who had seen the film. He did not like it as much as his husband did. He felt it got off to too slow a start. His husband, a bigger movie fan than this guy, loved it, opening and all.
I told the guy that he had been spoiled by all those pre-credit sequences in the James Bond films. So I was a bit surprised that the film does open with not really an action scene but a suspense scene, as a character whose face we cannot see walks through the remains of a bloodbath in a shop of some kind.
It is not a big Bond-like scene, but it sets the tone for this film. As a writer you don’t want to get carried away and screw up the tone of your film. (O.K., all together now: the director will screw it up on his own. Gavin O’Conner is the director here and he follows Dubuque’s lead, bless his heart.)
We then get some expository scenes, starting with our hero Christian Wolff as a little boy being established as autistic when he, his mom and dad, and his brother visit an institute where he will be treated. Christian’s obsessive nature is shown beautifully as we see how he puts together a jigsaw puzzle in record time. Dubuque comes up with a great visual punchline for the scene.
Christian grows up to be an accountant in a small office in a small town in America. But the Treasury Department is on his trail, although they don’t know who he is, or at least so Ray King, the agent in charge, tells Marybeth Medina, the woman he puts in charge of the case. King has surveillance photos of Christian meeting with some of the biggest drug dealers and gun runners around.
King thinks, and he’s right, that Christian is a forensic accountant. He goes over the books for the baddies when they are missing money. Sometimes he later finds out what happens to the people who stole it, sometimes because he arranges what happens to them. He also does this work for legit companies, and he gets hired by such a company. On the job, he meets the account in the company who first suspected problems.
Christian is played by Ben Affleck, giving a great performance in a tricky role. The character is mildly autistic and Affleck plays him with a deadpan. Like Buster Keaton, the Great Stone Face, Affleck uses a collection of wonderful small facial and body gestures to bring you into the character. Both Affleck and Christian are interesting, entertaining, and often amusing to watch. This is a great collaboration between Affleck, Dubuque, and O’Conner.
The company accountant is Dana Cummings, played by the always charming Anna Kendrick. Kendrick gets the character’s intelligence and we believe her as an accountant. We also get Dana’s reactions to Christian’s peculiarities, and Kendrick is lively in ways Affleck can’t be. They have great chemistry on screen.
This is the sort of film with a lot of plot twists. One I got early on that my wife missed is set up in O’Conner’s direction of the early family scenes, which tell me what I think they did not want me to know about a couple of the characters.
The biggest twist, although it is messy screenwriting and rather irritating, is that King has known a lot more than he has told Marybeth and us. If he knew that all along, then he should be fired for incompetence for not telling her sooner. He gives no explanation for not telling her in the long scene where he gives her the details. Fortunately, they hired J.K. Simmons, the actor you want to make the scene more convincing that it is on the page.
There is another, twist, or reveal, at the very end, and it went right past me. My wife got it (you see why her mother thought we were a great match). If you listen to the movie carefully all the way through, you might get it. Or not.
Third Time’s a Charm, Not That it Matters.
(2016. Screenplay by David Koepp, based on the novel by Dan Brown. 121 minutes.)
If you have read this column from the very beginning, you will know I am not a fan of the movies made from the Dan Brown novels about Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist. That’s a guy who reads signs and finds hidden meanings in them. Needless to say, what he usually finds is not benign and violent action ensues.
The first film in the series was The Da Vinci Code (2006) with a screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, who had won an Oscar for his script for the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, so you know he knows his craft. The problem with Code is that he spends way more time on the theories and ideas in the story than the drama and action.
The film was a huge hit, with its opening week grossing $77 million dollars (the financials in this item are from Box Office Mojo, as quoted in the November 11 issue of Entertainment Weekly). You can see my brief review of it here.
The second film was Angels & Demons (2009) and you can read my review of it here. It was much livelier than the first one, since here the plot was more than just discussing a doctrinal issue. Langdon was trying to stop the Vatican from being blown up. There was a lot of running around. I mentioned in my review that if they did not have physical trainers for the actors, they should have. And there was a lot less talking. The screenplay was by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, in that order, which suggests Koepp worked on it first.
Koepp is the sole credited screenwriter on Inferno and it’s the best of the lot. Angels & Demons had an opening weekend gross of $46 million, and Inferno only grossed $15 million. It may have been that there is just a law of diminishing returns on the series, as if the mediocre quality of the first two have finally sunk in for audiences.
Koepp gets it off to a rousing start. Langdon is in a hospital in Florence, apparently suffering from a brain injury after he was attacked. He also has partial amnesia. But he gets lively dreams and hallucinations. They are the equivalent of a Bond-like action scene. His doctor is Dr. Sienna Brooks, played by the always fetching Felicity Jones. Langdon, like Bond, seems to have a different leading lady in each picture.
When the baddies are coming to finish the job on Langdon, she sneaks him out of the hospital. He has been given a copy of a painting of Dante’s Inferno, but he notices there are things in it not in the original.
That leads them to the great Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Well, if you are going to set at least part of your film in Florence, you had better use the Uffizi. So Langdon and Brooks run around in the halls a lot. I kept thinking they should slow down and admire the art, but this is not Russian Ark (2002). The scene has a spectacular ending, and I have no idea how they got the Uffizi to let them do it.
Then it’s off to Venice, which is not used quite as well as Florence, and then to Istanbul.
By the time they get to Istanbul, Brooks has gone missing from many of the scenes, which is a real problem, since she is a good companion to have around and Jones has made her wonderful. But Langdon meets up with a woman he had once was seriously involved with. Gosh, two women in one film; Langdon is turning into a real James Bond.
Meanwhile, there are any number of double crosses and a lot more running. And very little talking about what it all means. Koepp has really streamlined the story.
The big finish is in an underground cave, but one that is being used for a concert. Langdon and his cohorts have to stop a set of bombs going off that will release a potentially deadly virus all over the world (don’t ask). So what Koepp gives us is a modern equivalent scene to the Albert Hall concert in Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Here’s the difference between 1956 and 2016. Hitchcock’s version has a limited number of story elements (the orchestra, the assassin, and the wife who sees him), which focuses on the suspense. The Inferno version has multiple characters and multiple actions and much busier direction, more spectacle than suspense.
The Langdon stories tend to have no recurring characters, but at the end of Inferno, one of the baddies is supposedly killed. We see the body bag that is supposed to have the body of the baddie in it, but neither we nor Langdon actually sees the face of the body in the bag. Interesting character I would not mind seeing come back.
Degrees of Difficulties.
(2016. Screenplay by David Hare, based on the book Denial: Holocaust History on Trial by Deborah Lipstadt. 110 minutes.)
David Hare is one of the great contemporary British playwrights and screenwriters. I gave you some background on him here in my review of his great 2011 television movie Page Eight. The story of Denial would seem to be tailor-made for him, and it turns out to be. The film is also a great example of dealing with the difficulties of a real-life story.
The book the film is based on is by Deborah Lipstadt. She is a professor of history who takes on Holocaust deniers. She is sued for libel by one of them, David Irving. O.K., that’s going to give you great courtroom scenes with the two of them, and undoubtedly either footage of the Holocaust and/or dramatic testimony by survivors, or both. Guess what? You don’t get any of that.
The case is brought in England, and Lipstadt’s barrister (the lawyer who tries the case), Richard Rampton, decides that it would be a smarter strategy not to have her on the stand. Irving is serving as his own lawyer, and Rampton does not want to give him a chance to attack her on the stand. He wants to focus on getting Irving talking about himself. Rampton is right and it works, but it handcuffs Hare.
Likewise, Rampton does not want to put survivors on the stand, because he does not want to expose them to the kind of cross examination Irving would give them. Both of these choices are made to keep Irving from grandstanding in court.
So how does Hare get around not having great dramatic scenes to play with? First of all, he realizes this is not going to be a flamboyant, theatrical drama, but a small scale one. This could have been a movie for television, except for a compelling sequence in which Rampton and Lipstadt go the remains of Auschwitz, reminiscent of a similar scene is Hare’s 2008 screenplay The Reader. Director Mick Jackson takes full advantage of the wide screen in a scene that deliberately, after all the talking lawyers, has relatively little dialogue.
The focus of the drama is as much on the behind the scenes preparation of Rampton and his crew of lawyers, with the drama coming from Lipstadt not understanding and objecting to Rampton’s approach. The relationship between the two shifts over the course of the film.
How does Hare dealing with not having survivors on the stand? He has one survivor, Vera Reich, who approaches Lipstadt insisting she and/or others much take the stand. Lipstadt explains Rampton’s reasoning, but Reich is not buying. Hare has a great final bit with Reich and Lipstadt that ties it up.
One of the best talents of Hare is ability to write great characters for actors to play. See my comments in the item on Page Eight for an example. Here he has a relatively understated Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt, a great Tom Wilkinson in the flashier part of Rampton, and a wonderfully rich Timothy Spall as Irving. As a screenwriter you should see this film not only for how Hare gets around the problems of the story, but also for seeing what he gives the actors to do.
The Day the Earth Stood Even More Stiller Than That.
(2016. Eric Heisserer, based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.116 minutes.)
After what we take to be flashbacks of Dr Louise Banks and her daughter, we get into the main story. Large black banana-shaped objects have suddenly shown up on earth. Louise, a linguist, is dragged out by the Army to see if she can decode their language. And how long does it take until she gets to “meet” the aliens?
Forty minutes. Really. Go back and look at the great 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still and look at how far Edmund H. North gets his story at forty minutes in. The space ship has landed, Klaatu has come out, he’s been wounded, he talks to be people in the hospital, he escapes…well, you get the point: if the movie is going to be about Louise trying to converse with the aliens, get onto it.
Then their language turns out to be large circles of smoke. The look the same to us, but Louise sees the difference. By late in the picture, she has many photographs of smoke rings, but we don’t know what they mean, so we are taken out of the story.
image: film 2, existing
Heisserer is certainly no David Hare. Louise is an interesting character and shows the fascination for the unknown that academics do, at least in real life, but not often in films. Amy Adams does great with what she has been given. There is another academic she is assigned to work with, Ian Donnelly, but he is given nothing to do but stand around and smirk. That is a real waste of Jeremy Renner’s talents. And the rest of the characters are non-entities.
We get no sense of Louise and Ian’s relationship, and that makes the center part of the film a whole lot less interesting than it could have been. And it kills the twist ending. If Heisserer had developed the characters better, the ending could be a knockout, but it isn’t.
The climax to the alien story also has, as often happens in this kind of story, a number of holes in it. My favorite here that in trying to stop a war from starting, Louise seems to know by heart the phone number of the admiral in charge of the Chinese navy. And she gets through to him immediately. What’s even worse is that later we find out what she said to him, which does not make a lot of sense. I suppose people who love the movie (and there are a lot of them) assume it’s part of the time shifts, but I’m not buying it.
Let’s Laugh Again…Maybe.
(2005. Screenplay by Kate Lanier and Norman Vance Jr., story by Elizabeth Hunter. 105 minutes.)
In #144 I did a review of this year’s Barbershop: The Next Cut in which I mentioned that I had liked Beauty Shop the 2005 spin-off of the first two Barbershop movies. I mentioned that I particularly like an opening exchange between Gina and Vanessa, her teenage daughter. Gina asks, “Vanessa, do these pants make my butt look big?” Vanessa says yes, and Gina slaps her own butt and says, “Good.”
That was met by a stunned silence from the almost exclusively female audience. I always thought that was the most subversive line of dialogue in that decade.
The filmed showed up several months ago on HBO and I took another look at it. My reaction was rather different from seeing it the first time. You may well have had that experience yourself with a film, and as a writer you should be aware that can happen. It may well drive you nuts.
(If you want to explore that phenomenon of the various audiences having a variety of responses to a film, you can read my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing. I had a lot of “civilians” fill out a questionnaire on their moviegoing experiences and wrote the book with that as its basis. I should warn you it got terrible, terrible reviews, especially from academic critics, who were appalled I asked civilians rather than professionals, such as themselves, what their experiences were.)
When I first saw the film, it was in a large theater with a large crowd, almost exclusively female. Once they got over the shock of those first lines and realized the film was going to freely discuss butt sizes and shapes, they really got into it. The film, like the Harry Potter films, creates a community with the audience, and that takes the audience response to another level.
My guess is that this happens in those situations because the subjects of the film are a community as well: the students at Hogwarts, the rebels fighting the Empire in the Star Wars films. I have noticed that while watching the Marx Brothers at home on television, I don’t laugh as much as when I see them with an audience. The Marx Brothers are a community by themselves.
The same thing happened with Beauty Shop. I did not laugh nearly as much at the film at home as I did in the theatre. A lot of that comes from watching it without a crowd laughing with me.
There is another element. What impressed so much the first time was the freshness of the material. It is now eleven years later, and there have been a lot of butt jokes in movies. An older film seeming less fresh the additional times you see it can happen with any film, particularly one that opens up a whole world of material that others use in subsequent films.
I have to tell you, though, I liked the film just as much the second time as the first. There is a difference between laughing at a film and liking it, and we have discussed that from time to time in this column.
The Graduate and the Sundance Kid Get the President.
All the President’s Men
(1976. Screenplay by William Goldman (and several uncredited others), based on the book by Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward. 138 minutes.)
In 1972 Robert Redford appeared in the film The Candidate about a young guy running for U.S. Senator from California. When the film was released, he let himself be talked into doing an imitation whistle-stop tour through Florida, arriving in Miami the day before the Democratic Convention opened.
There were a number of reporters on the train. The burglary of the Democratic offices at the Watergate hotel had just happened. Redford was reading some of the coverage by two young reporters at the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Redford wondered aloud to the reporters why there were not bigger names covering the story.
The reporters, typical cynical newspapermen, said they doubted the whole story would ever come out. As the stories progressed, Redford thought there might be a film in the story of the reporters. He met and talked with Woodstein, as the two were nicknamed. They were planning a book on it, but the focus of it was the story itself. Redford suggested it would be more interesting about the two neophyte reporters uncovering a big story. They took his suggestion and the book became the best seller All the President’s Men.
Redford had already begun to produce the movie. He hired William Goldman as the screenwriter. Goldman had won an Oscar for writing the movie that made Redford a star, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Goldman had written two scripts Redford had starred in, The Hot Rock (1972) and The Great Waldo Pepper (1975). Goldman started working his way through the manuscript of the yet-unpublished book, as well as other material that he got from the reporters.
He decided there was way too much material, and decided to end the film half-way through the book. He went to Redford and Redford agreed.
Goldman’s idea was to stop at the point where Woodstein were at their lowest point: they had made a mistake that had got into the paper and threatened to screw up their whole pursuit of the truth.
His thinking was that everybody knows how the story ends, so you don’t need to see it. It’s an approach that I would not generally recommend, since it could frustrate an audience who want to see the whole story.
It works here because Goldman gives us so much rich detail leading up to his ending, we feel we have got enough of what we need. I don’t know how you can know if that is going to work. The fact that neither Redford nor anybody else objected tells you that Goldman presented his version to them in a convincing way.
One of the reasons it works so well is that a lot of the detail comes from the enormous variety of characters Woodstein has to deal with. Many of them do not want to, or are afraid to, talk, which makes the scenes with them rather tense.
One woman they interview wants to talk about how bad Watergate is, but she is not the woman of the same name they want to talk to. Some do talk, like Donald Segretti, who was in charge of dirty tricks for the Nixon campaign. In #137 I complained that Spotlight (2015) did not have the richness of characters that President’s Men does. Look at both of them and you will see what I mean.
On the other hand, to juice up the ending a little bit, he has Woodstein talking to their editor Ben Bradlee about how they think they are being followed and spied on. Goldman just leaves it at that, so we think it is probably true, but Woodstein admit in the book there was no evidence they ever found that showed that was actually happening.
Most of the information in this item comes from a paperback put out in 1976 as promotion for the film, A Portrait of All the President’s Men, and more importantly, from Goldman’s essay on the film in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade.
In Goldman’s essay, he lays out the terrible things that happened to him and the script after his first draft. Carl Bernstein and his then-girl friend Nora Ephron wrote their own draft of the script, which downplayed Woodward and played up Bernstein’s as an all-round ladies man. Redford insisted Goldman read that draft, then wanted scenes for Woodward (Redford played Woodward) to show a romance.
Goldman wrote them, but they were never used, and only one of the Bernstein-Ephron scenes was used. It’s the one where Bernstein hustles his way past a secretary.
The director who came on the film was Alan Pakula, and he kept wanting rewrites from Goldman, giving every variation he could come up with. Pakula told him, “Don’t deny me any riches.”
Eventually Goldman was taken off the picture and other writers were hired. When Goldman saw the final film, he recognized his structure, although some scenes were rearranged from his order, and new scenes were added.
Goldman, the only credited screenwriter, won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, but as he writes in his book, if he had it to do all over again, he would not go near All the President’s Men.
You sure you still want to be a screenwriter?