Understanding Screenwriting #154
Tom Stempel on The Edge of Seventeen, Moonlight, Elle, Loving, Allied, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
How Is This Film Different from All the Others?
The Edge of Seventeen
(2016. Written by Kelly Fremon Craig. 104 minutes.)
You’ve seen a million of them: sulky teenager feels unloved by everybody, both family and acquaintances, comes to realize things are not as bad as they seem.
What makes this one better than almost all the others? Well, duh, the script, stupid. And it is Craig’s first produced screenplay. And she got to direct it herself. How did that happen?
She managed to get the first draft of the screenplay, which everybody now agrees was not all that great, to the legendary James L. Brooks.
Brooks created The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi and wrote the screenplays for Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News, both of which he directed. Brooks has also godfathered younger writers and directors like Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe. You can see why Craig made the effort to get it to him.
(For more information about the background for the film, take a look at either from Ramona Zacharias’s excellent double interview with Craig and Brooks in Creative Screenwriting, or Craig’s article in the Los Angeles Times. Both are worth your while.)
What struck Brooks about the first draft was Craig’s voice, such as the getting-to-be-famous line when Nadine, the main character, describes her first view of her lifelong friend Krista as thinking she “dressed like an elderly gentleman.”
But Brooks encouraged her to figure out what the film was about and what she had to say about life, so Craig spent weeks writing what she calls in the Times piece “writing long, stream-of-consciousness journals in an effort to find the answer to his question.”
One thing Brooks recommended is that Craig spend time talking to real teenagers, which she spent six months doing. Bur Craig was smart about it. She was not picking up the current slang, but what the kids said that revealed their character.
You see that in the opening scene.
Nadine gets out of a car and strides into her high school. She goes into a classroom where her teacher Mr. Bruner is eating lunch as his desk. She tells him that she is going to commit suicide. Now this could be the start of a serious drama, but the way she goes on about how she might do it is funny.
As is Bruner’s response. When she runs out of steam, he picks up a paper on his desk and tells her he was just writing his own suicide note. Which he starts to read, and it becomes clear to us that it’s not written down, but he is just improvising. In other words, he is a high school teacher who knows how to deal with teenagers. So we have two interesting characters that are going to intersect over the course of the film.
Nadine then tells us in flashback how she got here, starting in her childhood. It goes by very quickly, including the demise of her father. He gives her such great at advice such as, if nothing else works in dealing with bullies, fart in their backpacks. You want to see more of him, but he has a heart attack in the car with Nadine and dies. We miss him, not as much as Nadine does, but we feel the loss along with her.
Nadine seems to pass over his death fairly quickly, but as Craig points out in the CS interview, a lot of Nadine’s emotional problems come from that, as do the problems of her mother and brother. Craig handles this with such brilliant subtlety that I missed those similarities as to how the death of the father created their problems as well as hers.
Craig did that by not making it obvious, as many screenwriters would. Craig simply lays it in as a subtext to their behavior, which means we are involved in the characters and the story, which is more compelling than us being lectured about the themes.
As a result of Craig’s approach, when Nadine and her brother and mother have serious face-offs in the latter part of film, we are more deeply involved than we often are in teenagers-and-parents-and-siblings scenes. I was particularly impressed by the scene with Nadine and her brother Darian where we finally get his side to all this.
Craig said in an interview that was an extra added to screenings in some theatres in Los Angeles, that the script is “semi-autobiographical.” What makes it so much better than most semi-autobiographical scripts is that Craig, after having hung out with teenagers for a while, was able to make her writing of all the characters deeper than in most teen pix.
Needless to say, Nadine develops a crush on one of those handsome, sulky hunks teenage girls fall for. She can’t get his attention, so she writes him a text telling him all the obscene things she wants to do to him. Then accidentally posts it. (She goes to Bruner on advice, shows him the text. What comment would you have Bruner make?)
And then the hunk asks her out. He parks in a secluded spot and begins to make out with her. He gets pissed when she resists, and the remains of the teenage boy in me can understand his feeling. She has written a really raunchy text that makes it seem like she wants hot and heavy sex. Now she just says she expected to talk and get to know each other. We may think he’s going to rape her, but Craig avoids the obvious. He just drives off and leaves her stranded
What does she do? She goes to Bruner’s house, where she and we learn that the version of him that she and the film have created is not entirely accurate, which leads to the scene with Darian mentioned the above. This is the overall arc of the film: Nadine learning that most of what she thinks is true is not.
By now you know one of my mantras by heart: you write good parts, you get good actors. Hailee Steinfeld gives her best ever performance as Nadine. Blake Jenner, who was rather bland in Everybody Wants Some!!, is more than up to the demands of Darian. Woody Harrelson is perfect as Mr. Bruner. And on and on.
So Craig is not only a wonderful writer, but a wonderful director as well.
The kid’s got a future.
Moonlight Does Not Become This One.
(2016. Screenplay by Barry Jenkins, based on a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney. 111 minutes.)
I know, I know, this one is highly acclaimed and has already won several awards, but this one pissed me off even before it said hello.
The credits are simply not very accurate. The piece of McCraney’s is not a story. It a project that McCraney wrote as a drama school project he titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. So technically it was supposed to be a play, but McCraney was writing it in a much more open, visual style, and he came to realize it probably was not going to be a stage play.
He went on to become one of the most acclaimed young (he’s only 36) American playwrights. The one play of his that has been performed in Los Angeles is Choir Boy, and it is a whole lot more vivid and compelling than Moonlight. In December it was announced that next year he will become chairman of the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama.
So how did McCraney’s project become a film? You can read about McCraney and the development of Moonlight here. Barry Jenkins, who not only wrote the screenplay but directed as well, found the project when he was looking for material for his next film.
The play is about three different times periods in the life of a young gay boy in Liberty City, a poor section of Miami. In the play McCraney has all three versions of the character on stage at the same time. In his screenplay Jenkins smoothed out the times jumps that McCraney had, and gave the story a standard narrative flow, although it is still in three acts.
The first act gives us the 9 year old boy Little. His mother is a junky and he falls under the protective spell of Juan, the local drug dealer. We see that Juan is a lot more supportive of Little than his mother is.
This opening act is the most compelling of the three because Juan, as played by Mahershala Ali, is a charismatic figure. He also does all the talking, which is entertaining, and sort of works because in that situation Little probably would not say much. We see some of his reactions, and the actor playing him, Alex Hibbert, is one of those people the camera loves. But we don’t get as much of Little’s reactions as we should.
So when we get to the second act, Little is now called by his real name Chiron, and he is played by another actor, Ashton Sanders, who is much less interesting than Hibbert. And he still does not talk much, and we see even less detail in his reactions.
Chiron has a brief homosexual encounter on the beach with his friend Kevin (I did not know until I was looking at the credits on the IMDb that we had seen Kevin in the first act as well.) The school bullies harass Chiron because they think he is gay, and after the beach scene, unseen by the bullies, the chief bully forces Kevin to beat up Chiron.
At this point the middle class white father and grandfather in me thought Chiron should take self-defense lessons, but Chiron takes direct action later in the classroom by beating the bully over the head with a chair.
The third act is now ten years later, and the actor who is now playing the grownup Chiron, now named Black, is even less interesting than the two previous actors.
He gets a call from Kevin, whom he has not seen in the intervening years. Black meets him at the diner Kevin works at and they talk. Well, Kevin does. As he rightly says to Black, “You haven’t changed. You still don’t say more than three words at one time.”
Very true, and it makes this scene the least interesting in the film.
In the Juan-Little scene in the first act, we want to hear what Juan has to say and how it might influence Little. Here we know where the scene is going, and it just takes forever, and I mean forever, to get there. Since the actor playing Black is even less expressive than the others, we get no sense of the dynamics between the two. Jenkins could have condensed that a lot and gotten to the good stuff a lot sooner. I want to know what happens after Kevin and Black sexually connect again.
So Jenkins has written a bad script, and then does badly by it in his direction. Early on in the first act, Little and his friends are playing in a field. Boys at play, fine, but then in a piece of overkill, the music he puts on top of the scene is Mozart’s Laudate Dominum from his Solemn Vespers. It’s about as inappropriate a selection as you could make, and it seems like a very conscious grab for the art house crowd.
Isabelle Huppert Almost Saves the Day.
(2016. Screenplay by David Birke, based on the novel Oh… by Philipe Djian, French Translation by Harold Manning. 130 minutes.)
So we start off with our heroine Michèle getting raped on her dining room floor. Since the film is directed by Paul Verhoven, you will expect a lot of wretched excess in the scene. But you don’t get it. The rape is over, the rapist leaves, and Michèle calmly gets up and cleans up the mess on the floor. The question we immediately have is why does she not have a stronger reaction to this.
Birke lets that carry us through the exposition which introduces us to the large cast of characters, none of whom Michèle tells. But we are naturally suspicious about all the men she knows. Is it one of them? Birke holds off on giving us the identity until the very end.
Michèle runs a company making rather violent video games, and in the first meeting we see with her staff, she is asking for more blood in the rape scene. Then somebody throws something at her on the street and yells at her about her and her father.
It is much further along that we discover her dad is in prison, and even longer before we find out why and much later we find out all the details and Michèle’s involvement in it all. Brice is terrific at holding off giving us stuff until we absolutely need to know it, if not longer.
Michèle is a tricky character to bring off, both in the writing and the acting. By holding off giving us information, Birke has made her rather mysterious to us. He is helped by her being played by the great French actress Isabelle Huppert. Her specialty, a mysterious reserve, is perfect for the part. Unlike the guys playing the lead in Moonlight, she gives us all kinds of reactions, which produce all kinds of reactions in us.
Birke is aware of the need for reactions. One of the best scenes in the film is a dinner party Michèle throws in which most of the cast shows up. It is the most obviously French dinner party you have ever seen in a movie, with lots of reactions, not all of them pleasant.
Because Djian’s novel is full of characters, and as Birke is trying to get the most out of them (an admirable goal), the film ends up running a lot longer than it needs to. It’s 130 minutes and really ought to be 105 or at the most 110.
But on the other hand, I would not want to give up the line at the end from the woman who lived across the street. I’d just want to get to it sooner.
The Quietest American Movie Ever Made.
(2016. Written by Jeff Nichols. 123 minutes.)
A couple is sitting on the porch of what looks to be a farmhouse. We don’t know when or where we are. The woman, who is African-American, says she is pregnant. The man, who is white, thinks for a few seconds, then says, “Good.” He reflects (watch the scene to learn the difference between thinks and reflects) for a few more seconds, then says,”Good…good.”
American movies generally start with a big bang, or series of bangs. And then have a few more along the way. All the American screenwriting books tell you how to do that, so you will grab the audience. But Loving starts quietly. And grabs the audience that way: by pulling us right into the characters of Richard and Mildred Loving. But quietly. And the film is just as quiet all the way through.
Jeff Nichols is from the South, as you learned in the interview with him here in Creeative Screenwriting, and he knows how Southerners act and talk.
The time is the early 1960s and the place in Virginia. State law forbids interracial marriage. So Richard and Mildred go up to Washington D.C. to get married. Richard goes to see Mildred’s dad where he is working on cars. Again a quiet scene. The father is there with other black men, and none of them make a big deal about Richard and Mildred getting married.
Surely they know there might be legal problems with the marriage, but there is no big discussion about it. As much as I love how quiet the movie is, I would have thought somebody would have brought it up, if not in this scene at least in another.
So they get married. And return to Virginia. And somebody tells the police about them. So the cops come and raid their house, taking them into jail.
Well, you know what kind of character the sheriff is going to be, right? You’ve a hundred redneck Southern sheriffs in nearly every movie about the South. Well, this one is not like that. He is relatively slim (I know, we all thought having a pot belly was a job requirement for law enforcement in the South), and he is just as quiet as everybody else in the movie.
But he is also powerful and believes in the law. We don’t get to see if he agrees with the law, but he is determined to uphold it. After the arrest, Mildred’s sister gets very upset with the Richard and Mildred, and this scene is as close to a loud scene as any in the film.
The Lovings go to court, and the judge agrees to suspend their sentence if they leave Virginia. So they go to live in Washington. In the city. But they are country people, and we can see in their reactions to the city, especially Mildred’s, that they hate the city.
So they go back to Virginia, since Mildred wants the baby to be born at home. The midwife who delivers the baby is Richard’s mother, who talks less than anybody. But we finally hear what she thinks of Richard and Mildred’s behavior. Because she has not talked a lot, we know she is serious when she does talk.
Richard and Mildred manage to get a deal to again avoid jail by going back to D.C. But she is then visited by a young lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU wants to take their case to try to eliminate the anti-miscegenation law. One way to do that is have them go back to Virginia and go to jail so an appeal can be filed.
Mildred, who is the one pushing the issue, agrees, but look at Richard’s reaction. Barry Jenkins of Moonlight ought to be made to watch this film several times to learn how to use reactions.
The case eventually goes to the Supreme Court, and you would expect a big, dramatic speech by one of the ACLU lawyers. Nope, look at how simply and quietly (of course) it is shown. Nichols is true to the tone of his characters and his film.
There are also no big speeches at the end of the film. Richard and Mildred and their kids are back on the land in Virginia where Richard is building the house he has promised Mildred. We have never had a big speech about it, and Mildred has likewise never had a big speech about how much more she loves the countryside than the city. But we have seen it.
So what you are going to learn about screenwriting from this film is how to write a terrific film without resorting to lots and lots and lots of dialogue.
The Most Sluggish American Movie Ever Made.
(2016. Written by Stephen Knight. 124 minutes.)
A Canadian working for British Intelligence in World War II parachutes into the desert in French Morocco. Then he starts walking, a lone figure in the desert. Well, who have we seen doing that? T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia(1962) of course. And sure enough, we get a shot, and I don’t know if it is in the script or not, of the figure Max’s silhouette, moving along the sand.
O.K., points for originality, in Lawrence it was the silhouette of a camel.
Soon Max is picked up by a man in a car and taken into a big city. He goes into a large restaurant (the camera is in front of him as it dollies in, instead of behind him, so points for originality for that). There he meets with his contact, Marianne, whose husband Max is supposed to be. We get introduced to several of Marianne’s friends and then Max and Marianne leave, and in the car, she welcomes him to the city.
The way she says the city’s name – Casablanca in case you had not already guessed – suggests to me that we are supposed to be surprised. But we are way, way ahead of the film.
If you are going to pay an homage to great films, you had better make better use of the homages than this film does. When Max and Marianne complete their mission by killing a high Nazi official by machine-gunning him at a big party, we are back at Inglourious Basterds (2009). Tarantino did it much, much better.
I may have misled you by my description of the first 40 minutes or so of the film by making it seem like an action-packed movie. Yes, there are action scenes off and on all the way through the film, but there is a big problem with the “off and on” element. Between the action scenes, the film drags. A lot.
Knight just does not give us enough else to keep us interested between the shootings. When you look at Casablanca (1942) again, look at how much the Epstein twins and Howard Koch have going on all the way through the film.
The casting does not help. If you are going to have Brad Pitt as Max, then you damned well better make sure Brad Pitt the actor shows up and not the movie star. Seeing the scene stolen from Inglourious Basterds simply reminds us how good he was in that movie and how stolid he is in this one.
That’s especially a problem when Marianne is played by Marion Cotillard, who just wipes Pitt off the screen. Jared Harris and Simon McBurney do well with what Knight gives them, but he doesn’t give them much. Again, go back look at how many wonderful, lively characters are running around Casablanca.
Knight wrote a letter that showed up on the website of the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles in which he tells where he got the idea for the film. It was many years ago when he met a woman who was the sister of the character Max was based on. The real events took place in France and London, not French Morocco.
Why did Knight add in Morocco? He does not say, but we can guess. It adds scope to the film, which the film does not necessarily need. It calls to mind Lawrence and The English Patient (1996) (one critic said that in the scene of Pitt and Cotillard in the desert he expected the camera would pan over to find Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas on the next sand dune) and most crucially Casablanca.
We have already discussed why that was not a good idea.
I’ve Seen Worse.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
(2016. Screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, based on characters created by George Lucas. 133 minutes.)
Jonathan Kuntz is a long-time friend whose office for twenty-five years was next to mine at Los Angeles City College. You may have seen him quoted in assorted media about film issues, as he is in a recent article on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in a recent issue of the Christian Science Monitor, which you can read here.
Jonathan particularly liked a quote of his they did not use, but which seemed to me to be much to the point. Here is his outtake: “With Star Wars, what is surprising is how few features have been made (8 in 40 years) — until Disney, Star Wars was very much an under exploited franchise.”
Disney is very much trying to expand the franchise. Look at that title. It is not Star Wars: Rogue One. Why not? Because this is the first of a planned series of one-offs, films about the world of Star Wars but not following the main line of the official Star Wars films. Variations on themes, so to speak.
It still starts with the title “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” But then it does not have the usual crawl that tells us “what happened in the first 12 chapters,” as a good friend of mine said of the crawl on the first one in 1977. And that has pissed off a few devoted fans of the Star Wars universe, but it’s done deliberately I think, to tell you this is not a “regular” SW film. It’s going to be different…but not too different.
John Knoll and Gary Whitta, who came up with the story, have connections to previous SW productions. Knoll has been a visual effects supervisor on two of the restored SW films of the first trilogy, and then on Episodes I, II, and III. This is his first writer credit on any film. Whitta has nine writing credits, including two on the television series Star Wars Rebels. So Disney would know they would not stray too far off base.
The first screenwriter on the credits is Chris Weitz, whose screenwriting credits include Antz (1998), About a Boy (2002), and the 2015 live-action Cinderella. Tony Gilroy came on the projects for rewrites. His credits include the first four Jason Bourne films, as well as writing and directing other films. So we are not talking amateurs here.
And the producer, well, one of them, is Kathleen Kennedy, whom I mentioned in some detail in my review of The Force Awakens. On that film I thought she did a good job of holding all the moving parts together, but I think she nodded off a bit on this one, since this one does not hold together as well as that one.
George Lucas—remember him?— only gets a credit for characters, and most of them show up only briefly. Luke and Han do not even make courtesy calls, and Leia has what amounts to a walk-on at the end. What is distinct about this film is that even more than last year’s official Star Wars film Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this is obviously not a George Lucas film. For better and for worse.
Like Force Awakens, the lead here is a woman. She is Jyn Erso, the daughter of Galen Erso. Galen was one of the original designers of the Death Star. He gets shanghaied by the Empire to finish the Death Star. (The time of the main action of the film is the lead up to the start of SWIV.)
By the time he finishes it, it is 15 years later and Jyn is now a young woman. She ends up getting shanghaied by the Rebel Alliance to try to contact her father, whom she has not seen in a long time, to get the plans for the Death Star.
She gets to hang out with a pilot named Cassian Andor ( I must say the names are not as silly as they were under Lucas). Ah, a pilot. This year’s Han Solo. But Cassian has none of Han’s wit or charm, just as Jyn is not as lively as Rey was in Force.
And here’s why you need a better script. Jyn is played by the “always fetching,” as I described her in my last column, Felicity Jones, and Cassian is played by the charismatic Diego Luna. The writers give Jones a nice “Henry V-ish ‘band of brothers’” speech to the members of the Rebel Alliance, but that’s about it. The writers of Force gave Daisy Ridley much more to do in that film than the writers here give their cast.
There is a greater diversity of characters than there are in the Lucas films, but they are not well-developed. There is another pilot, but he is too similar to Cassian, and in some of the darkly lit scenes it is hard to tell them apart. Donnie Yen and Wen Jian are Asian actors, but not much is done with that. Although we do get, briefly C3PO and R2D2, more time is given to a new robot, K2SO, but unlike BB-8 from last year’s Force, he is too much an imitation of another robot, C3PO.
One of the elements I liked most in the Lucas films was his insistence on clarity in the plotting. Sometimes, as in Episode II, that made you aware of how flat the storyline was, but at least you usually knew where you were. That’s not true with this one, and it’s the kind of problem Kennedy or somebody else should have picked up on.
Early in the film we get several different planets introduced with on-screen titles, but unless you are determined to memorize everything about the new movie, and I recognize there are viewers who do that, you will have trouble following them all.
The overall plotline is fairly simple: Jyn is going to try to get the plans for the Death Star and give them to the Rebel Alliance. What the writers have done is loaded up the film with a lot of action and special effects scenes.
The effects, as you would expect from a SW film, are dazzling. And sometimes creepy: they have made a CGI-created Grand Moff Tarkin by recreating the late, great Peter Cushing. Well, Tarkin was always rather creepy and now he is doubly so.
As dazzling as the action scenes are, they seem more the work of the second unit than the first unit: a lot of shots that do not always cut together well. That may be because the shots are too cluttered with action and effects.
The best action scene is one of the simplest: Donnie Yen and a large stick defeat several storm troopers. It is beautifully choreographed and shot in medium shots that cut together beautifully. And there is nothing else like it in the film.
The director is Gareth Edwards and his work is not quite up to, for example, J.J. Abrams’ work on Force. Edwards botches a scene where the second pilot has to come up with a name for the group going after the plans. He looks around the cockpit and sees something that gives him the idea to call them “Rogue One.” Edwards makes the action too busy so we do not get the full effect of what is, after all, the title of the film.
By now you may be asking why the snarky subhead. With all my complaints, what have I seen that’s worse? Star Wars: Episode II. Enough said.
Check out our interviews with screenwriters of films reviewed by Tom this issue.