Understanding Screenwriting #155
Tom Stempel on Manchester by the Sea, Things to Come, 20th Century Women, La La Land, Sophie and the Rising Sun, Julieta, and Railroad Tigers.
Manchester by the Sea
(2016. Written by Kenneth Lonergan. 137 minutes.)
Kenneth Lonergan has had a quintessentially American career as a writer. He started out in the nineties writing plays that were all performed off-Broadway. One of them, the l996 This is Our Youth, was revived on Broadway in September 2014, but only ran until January 2015.
He also wrote movies for other directors, starting with Analyze This (1999) and continuing with Gangs of New York (2002). He directed on stage, and in 2000 wrote and directed the film You Can Count On Me. It is a charmer, about a ne’er do well man who comes back to the small town he grew up in, primarily to borrow money from his sister, the one person he was close to. It is small-scale but very sharp, with characters you want to follow anywhere.
Then Lonergan wrote and directed one of the worst movies ever made, Margaret, which was shot in 2005. Fights with the production company over the editing continued for six years. A two and a half hour version was released in 2011, and a three hour version is available.
It is about a young woman chasing after a bus driver to find out where he got his hat. The driver is distracted and runs over and kills another woman. Lisa, the young woman, believes she is at least partially responsible for the accident.
And becomes an absolute bitch about it. She is one of the most grating characters ever to be the lead in the film. Normally if I am watching a movie I usually stick with it until the end, but I stopped watching Margaret about half an hour into it. Reviews I read later said Lisa got even worse as the film went on.
So which Lonergan shows up with Manchester by the Sea? The good one. And this, children, is why you should never count people with talent out. Manchester is like You Can Count on Me, only better, darker and more complex.
We first meet Lee Chandler as a janitor for apartment houses in Quincy, Massachusetts. He is emotionally walled off, occasionally snapping at the residents, and then getting into fights in a bar. But we also see flashbacks of Lee and his brother Joe and Joe’s young son Patrick having a wonderful time out on Joe’s fishing boat.
The first draft of the script was told in chronological order, but as a result, had no dramatic tension. As Lonergan recalls in his interview with Creative Screenwriting:
The flashback structure unlocked the whole script for me. I had been working on it for months without much luck, and when I thought about rearranging the material as parallel lines, so to speak, I was off and running.
Lonergan was absolutely right to tell the story that way. Without the occasional flashbacks in the first part of the story, we might not want to follow Lee (maybe Lonergan learned his lesson with Margaret). We realize he was happy and certainly livelier once than he is now, and we get a sense of the happiness he had living in the small town of Manchester.
This first section of the film tends to be slower than I think it could be, but Lee’s character and especially Casey Affleck’s mesmerizing performance keep us hooked in.
Lee gets word that his brother has had a heart attack, and Lee drives back to Manchester, but we sense that Lee is not happy going home. And look at the details Lonergan uses to show us this. People notice that he is back in town, some of them with surprise. One friend of Patrick, who is now a teenager, says to somebody else, “The Lee Chandler?” Another one says that it was “probably all rumors.” Lonergan only needs those six words to keep us involved.
By the time he gets to the hospital, Joe has died, and Lee is even more unemotional than we have seen him. We get a lot of practical detail, probably more than we need, about Lee dealing with the hospital and the details of Lee’s death. Again, Lonergan could move this along quicker, but he certainly keeps us in the small town rhythm.
We get scenes with Lee and Patrick as they reconnect. Yeah, you expect this is going to all sentimental, but there’s not a drop of sentiment here. And some of it is very funny.
Then Lonergan throws Lee and us the haymaker: Joe’s will appoints Lee as Patrick’s guardian. We’ve heard suggestions as to what could happen to Patrick: his aunt and uncle live in Minnesota, Joe’s ex-wife is a lush, and it would be asking too much for Joe’s friend George and his wife to take in Patrick. So it’s going to be up to Lee.
The scene where Lee learns about the will is in the lawyer’s office, and it goes on much longer than you might expect, because Lonergan keeps cutting away from that scene to Lee’s former life in Manchester, and ultimately why he had to leave. Lonergan’s flashback structure, beautifully established in the first hour of the film, pays off big-time in this sequence. Lee and we are trapped in the lawyer’s office while Lee remembers the horror of what happened.
So now we get scenes of Lee and the others trying to figure out what to do. Elise, Patrick’s mother, wants him to come live with her. She and her new husband invite Patrick to dinner. You may be expecting a big melodramatic scene, but Lonergan is pulling the rug out from under you again. It’s a very quiet, unnerving scene. Everyone is tense at the dinner table, then Elise has to excuse herself to go to the kitchen. And doesn’t come back.
Both in the flashbacks and in the first hospital scene, we have met Randi, Lee’s ex-wife. She’s remarried and now has a child, and once you know what drove Lee out of town, you will see how this hurts him. Late in the picture, Lee and Randi run into each other in the street.
It is the scene in the picture everyone is talking about, and rightly so. It is beautifully written, but not in any kind of flowery dialogue for either one; Lonergan is true to the tone of his film. The great Michelle Williams as Randi admits how she now feels about Lee, and he does not know how to deal with it, which in turn is why he knows he cannot come back to Manchester, although I think the dialogue could be a little clearer on that point.
A workable plan for Patrick’s future is worked out.
In my 1982 book Screenwriting, I had at the back what I called an Annotated Study List, the forerunner of this column. I had three categories: Some Great Ones, Flawed Gems, and Disasters to Learn From. In the flawed gems there were some that were more gems than flawed, and some the other way around.
Manchester by the Sea is one of those that is more gem than flawed. The flaw is the pacing, which makes the film run longer than it needs to. On the other hand so much of it is so good, you may want to put it in your Some Great Ones category.
The Other Isabelle Huppert Film.
Things to Come
(2016. Written by Mia Hansen-Løve. 102 minutes.)
No, this is not a remake of the 1936 sci-fi film I wrote about in my article on production designer William Cameron Menzies.
Hansen-Løve writes much smaller and certainly more delicate films than the 1936 film. This one is generally inspired by her mother, a high school philosophy teacher. (Yes, it is set in France, where they do teach philosophy in high school.)
The main character here is Natalie, a late fifties-early sixties teacher with what impresses us at first as a comfortable life. She is married, has grown up children, publishes books in her field, and supports her mother. That’s the first rub we see: Yvette, Natalie’s mom, is a little funny in the head, and a bit of a handful to deal with. That may be a small price to pay for an otherwise happy life.
We get all this backstory established very nicely, but then things begin to fall apart for Natalie. Her husband leaves her for, of course, a younger woman (look at Natalie’s reaction when she finally sees them together out of the window of a bus). Her daughter is moving away. Her mother dies. Her publisher decides not to publish her new book. At some point in this litany of horrors, Natalie says to one of her friends, “At least I am intellectually fulfilled.”
That line should have been at the end of the movie, although I am not sure how you would show it. But what Hansen-Løve shows us is just Natalie going on with her life. I think that is the point of the film. Philosophically that makes sense, but it is not very satisfying in terms of film. It makes the last half of the film rather bland and repetitive.
Hansen-Løve wrote the film very much with Isabelle Huppert in mind, and she is perfect for the part. The role is not as rich and ingenious as her role in Elle. In the September 2016 British film magazine Sight & Sound, there is an interview with Hansen-Løve. She says,
I’ve been very lucky to be able to write films as a kind of translation of my world view, without having to pass through a screenwriting system, full of ideas about what’s good and bad, efficient and inefficient. I’ve always had confidence in the spectator in their ability to put together a story, to manage ellipses, to fill gaps. I think it can be stimulating for them. And that’s why my films are perceived as so ambiguous. At film school they teach writers to say things very clearly, it’s more black and white—I’m simplifying, of course—but in effect I have the right to write in shades of grey because no one ever forced me to be more explicit.
Being an American critic of screenwriting, I don’t entirely agree with her, but I don’t entirely disagree with her. Her scripts can be subtle, but the problem in this film is her subtlety ends up reducing the narrative drive in the film, making the last half of the film not as compelling as it should have been. Elle is just as ambiguous as this film, but it holds its audience’s attention in a much more compelling way.
20th Century Women
(2016. Written by Mike Mills. 119 minutes.)
This seems to be the season for dramas about middle-aged women, i.e., awards season. Well, for those of us who are or who like middle-aged women, we’ll take them whenever we can get them.
The set-up for the film this. Jamie is a 15 year old boy growing up with his single mom in Santa Barbara, California, in 1979. His mom, Dorthea, was born in the twenties, survived the war, wanted to learn how to fly but never managed to, married, had Jamie, had her husband walk out on her, and works as a draftsperson for a small company. How many other middle-aged women in American films do you get that much about?
To add to the family purse, Dorthea takes in a boarder, a budding photographer named Abbie in her twenties. And a neighbor girl, the seventeen year old Julie, hangs out at their house and sleeps with Jamie. O.K., they don’t have sex, but she does come over and spend the night in bed with him.
Writers get told all the time to write what they know, but long-time readers of this column will know I am rather skeptical of that. This is a classic example of why you should not. Mills’s script is based as his teenage years, and he weighs the script down with a lot of very 1979 stuff. If you were a teenager in 1979, I suspect the film will work a lot better for you than for someone who was not. The imitation posters of unknown rock bands get a little excessive, as do the references to all the feminist books Jamie reads.
Not having known Mills’ mother, I have no idea how accurate his version of her here is, although it does given Annette Bening a rich character to play. The character of Abbie is based on Mills’s sister, but by making her not his sister, Mills makes her less interesting, since it makes her relationship with Jamie blander.
Mills spends a lot of time setting all this, and more, up, primarily by giving all, or nearly all, the characters monologues. There is a lot, and I mean a lot of, telling and not showing. Sometimes it is telling us stuff we cannot see, but a lot of the time it is giving us stuff we would like to see for ourselves.
Early on in the film, Dorthea, who can be something of a flake, asks Abbie and Julie to help Jamie learn how to be a man. No, she does not mean they should gang up on him and screw his brains out. It’s not clear to us, and it’s not clear to Abbie and Julie, exactly what Dorthea means.
The young women get him reading the feminist literature of the time, which does lead to a nice scene in which Jamie tries to explain to another teenage boy what a clitoris is and how it should be, hmm, handled. All that gets Jamie is a punch in the eye from the other boy.
Abbie and Julie’s efforts are supposed to make up the storyline of the film, but this is one of weakest American narrative films in a long time. What is supposed to be the semi-big finish is Jamie and Julie running off together. But then they call up Dorthea, who comes and gets them.
When I was teaching, I used to attend the end-of-semester screenings of the student films. I made notes and developed a series of abbreviations for my notes. CS means a collection of scenes, and that fits 20th Century Women perfectly.
Mills writes some wonderful scenes, which give the actors a lot to do. Annette Bening is at the top of her form as Dorthea, and Greta Gerwig gives her best, i.e., less whimsical, performance as Abbie. Elle Fanning finds the dark corners of Julie. Lucas Jade Zumann is Jamie, but Mills’ screenplay does not give him as much to do as Kenneth Lonergan’s script for Manchester by the Sea gives Lucas Hedges to do as Patrick.
Another abbreviation I used was NS, for No Structure. We get a lot of interesting scenes, but the film does not go anywhere. I think Mills is trying to tie it all together by using a whole pile of voiceover narration at the end to let us know what happened to everybody. That’s a help, but not as satisfying as it should be.
I Like it, but I Don’t Love it.
La La Land
(2016. Written by Damien Chazelle. 128 minutes.)
After Debbie Reynolds died, I was thinking about running my DVD of Singin’ in the Rain (1952), but I had not yet see La La Land, and I thought that might not be fair to La La Land.
Alas, Singin’ was still rattling around in my mind when I got to see this one, and that was not fair to La La. I think Singin’ is the best musical of all time, and as fun as La La is, it’s not quite up to that standard.
That’s particularly true of the script. The script for Singin’ by Betty Comden and Adolph Green is beautifully balanced between the story’s scenes and the musical numbers. The script is zingy enough to hold its own with the brilliant musical numbers.
If anything the script of La La Land is a little too heavy with some overlong dramatic scenes. The dramatic scenes are often compelling, but we keep waiting for the numbers. The two main characters, Sebastian, a jazz pianist, and Mia, an actress, are compelling, and as played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, respectively, we want to hang out with them.
For example, Chazelle starts the film with the dazzling dance number set on an LA freeway. You may have had a reaction similar to mine: I can go home now, I’ve had my money’s worth. I stayed and was rewarded with a terrific non-musical scene with Mia giving a great audition. Chazelle sets up the idea of the balance with these two scenes, but he does not always carry through as efficiently as he might.
The film takes a long time to get going. We are about 55 minutes into the film before we get the traditional “we are not in love, but we sure are dancing like we are.” Check the old Fred Astaire movies and see how quickly that number shows up. Then after they do admit they are in love here, the movie gets rushed a bit tying it all together.
One of the delights of the Comden and Green script is that they wrote a great gallery of secondary characters. In addition to the couple, Don and Kathy, there is Cosmo, the wise-ass pianist; Simpson, the studio head; Roscoe, the frantic director, and one of the greatest characters in movies, Lina Lamont.
In La La, we get virtually no supporting characters. It’s Sebastian and Mia non-stop. J.K. Simmons has what you would hardly call a cameo as a club owner, and John Legend has not much more to do as a musician who gives Sebastian a job. For all the dancers who show up in the number, the film seems under-populated.
Some people have complained that Gosling and Stone are not as good singers and dancers as, say, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. They have a point, although if you check out the great 2009 book Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece, you will learn that Reynolds was rather limited in her skills, especially dancing. But she worked her ass off to keep up with Kelly and O’Connor.
Chazelle has written to Gosling and Stone’s strengths, which are their acting skills. I was reminded of how I felt about the 2002 film Chicago: that you will never see a better acted version of the show. Chazelle gives them, especially Stone, terrific material and they run with it.
Because the film takes so long to get going, the big “what-might-have been” number at the end seems too much of a good thing. That’s true of several of the numbers, since Chazelle is determined to show off as a director (the number on an actual freeway, a single take for the entire “we’re not in love” dance, etc.)
I do love the idea of this final number, and it is wonderfully done, throwing in references to An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ of course, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and undoubted others. Like the “Bye Bye Love” number at the end of All That Jazz (1979) it is too much and it is wonderful.
Which can be said about La La Land as well.
One of Our Own
Sophie and the Rising Sun
(2016. Screenplay by Maggie Greenwald, based on the novel by Augusta Trobough. 116 minutes.)
I have to start this one with full disclosure. Maggie Greenwald was a student of mine at LACC, well, a long time ago. She was smart and talented then, and if anything she has gotten smarter and more talented.
She started off writing and directing low-budget genre pieces, but she really came into her own with The Ballad of Little Jo (1993). It’s a western about a young woman who comes west on her own and finds that it is easier for her to survive if she pretends to be man. It is gorgeous (Greenwald has a better sense of landscape than most other directors do these days), subtle, and has Sir Ian McKellen in a great supporting part.
Her next one was Songcatcher (2000), set in the Appalachians near the beginning of the 20th Century. A woman musicologist goes to visit her sister in the mountains and begins to collect the folksongs of the area. That may not sound like of a grabber as a plot, but the film really takes you into the world and especially the music. I recommend both of those films highly. Once you see them, they will stick in your mind.
I also recommend Sophie, since it has those virtues of the other two. We are in Salt Creek, South Carolina in 1941. Autumn 1941. So when the bus comes through and leaves a Japanese man who’s been beaten up badly, that’s as close to a grabber of an opening scene as we are ever likely to get from Greenwald. But it does what you want your opening scene to do: pull the audience in.
What’s going to happen to the man, Ohta? Well, some of the folks of the town are neighborly, like the widow Anne Morrison, who lets him stay in the old shed in her backyard. As his health improves he works in her garden, which he has a gift for.
Wait a minute. Isn’t this a movie about somebody named Sophie? Well, yes. She’s a local crab fisherman, and she finds herself more and more attracted to Ohta. (Ohta, by the way, is his surname; his first name is too good to give away here.) They both paint and love to paint along the same spot at the river.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for one thing we are in a small Southern town. Now in a regular Hollywood movie, the citizens would all be members of the KKK and lynch Ohta 10 minutes into the movie. One of the things Greenwald is great about, both as a writer (much of this may come from Trobough’s novel) and director, are the nuances of attitudes in small town life. (Greenwald as a director is also great about the sounds of small town life. Having grown up in a small town, I can say this is the best sound track for a film about small town life ever.) Yes, there are some racists in the town and others like Anne a lot more open-minded.
Well, Ohta is recovering, he and Sophie are falling in love, and autumn 1941 is turning into December 1941. That brings out the dark side of the town, and Anne and her maid, Salome, try to help Sophie and Ohta escape.
Ah, yes, I have not mentioned Salome. She turned up out of nowhere and talked herself into a job at Anne’s. She seems to know a lot, and the one flaw I find in the script is that nobody, and I mean nobody, recognizes her from the past. When it does happen, it is way later than you would expect, and not as convincing.
When the movie was over I went to the restroom and a guy in there, who’d just seen the film, said, “Flawless.” I allowed as how I would not go quite that far, but close.
Oh, what happens to Sophie and Ohta? Here’s good writing and lovely directing: we learn in a single shot. It’s a crane shot that starts where you would expect it to, and then keeps revealing more. Very economical storytelling. Although the matte painting at the very end of the shot is not as accurate as it could be. I guess maybe that’s two flaws in the picture. See the movie anyway.
(2016. Screenplay by Pedro Almodóvar, based on three short stories by Alice Munro: “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence,” from the collection Runaway (2004). 99 minutes.)
I am a big fan of Almodóvar’s, both of his wild comic films (see my review of I’m So Excited  here and his serious films (see my review of Broken Embraces  here). This one does not live up to his best, and the problem is with the script. The classic line about Homer was that even Homer nodded and geeked a line or two from time to time, so Julieta is Pedro nodding.
When I was watching the movie, I had forgotten it was based on three short stories, but it seemed to me rather lumpy. Seeing the end credits made it clear what the problem was. I have not read Munro’s stories, but she is a noted short story writer. That means each of her pieces is tightly constructed about a single event. I do not know if all her stories deal the same character, but Almodóvar does that in the script. The result is that Julieta is overwhelmed with crap falling on her.
As the film starts out, Julieta is a middle-aged woman who meets an old friend of her daughter’s. This unhinges Julieta, because later we learn Atia, the daughter, ran away from home twelve years before. Then we get flashback in which the young Julieta meets the man who becomes her husband and Antia’s father. There are complications in the family relationship, perhaps with material from two stories, and the husband dies. All that just seems to be pouring it on, although by breaking the details up into pieces, Almodóvar almost makes it work.
In the end, Julieta learns where Antia is and she and her new boy friend go to meet her. They are on the road wondering what will happen when they go around a corner and the camera pulls back to a wide shot of the scenery. And the end credits come up. I’m sorry, Pedro, but by making the Julieta-Antia story the framework, you make us really know what’s going to happen.
In a short story that takes you maybe fifteen minutes to read, we are not as invested in the characters and situations as we are after an hour and a half. In a short story you can get away with not giving us the final scene, but in a movie you’d better.
Jackie Chan is the New Liam Neeson.
(2016. Written by He Keke, Ding Shen. 124 minutes.)
In 2009 Liam Neeson started a profitable second career in action movies with Taken. Most of the ones that followed came out in January, when there is always a market. You can see my review of the 2012 Contraband here for a brief discussion of the anthropology of a January release.
Jackie Chan’s movies usually do O.K. business any time, but maybe they figured they’d try January to see what happened. Unfortunately it bombed at the box office in the U.S. after being a big hit in China.
It’s not really a very good movie. It moves quickly, but so quickly that we get no sense of each of the characters. Several characters, including several minor ones, are introduced with a freeze frame and titles identifying them by name, occupation, and catchphrase. Some of them I do not think we see much of, if any, after that.
The plot is fairly simple. It is 1942 in China and a group of Chinese workers on the railroad do minor sabotage on Japanese trains. O.K., that gives you some nice action scenes. But the guys are determined to pull off a big job. They get the chance when they find out from a wounded soldier that he was supposed to help blow up a bridge to hold up the Japanese advance. So they do.
The final sequence, trains, bridges and all, runs forty minutes. If you thought that last number in La La Land ran long, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Forty minutes is almost half the running time of Buster Keaton’s The General (1926).
If you love trains in movies, train wrecks, and bridges getting destroyed, you are going to love this movie. If you don’t, you won’t. Sometimes the subject of the film is all you need to know, and the fact that it’s a mediocre script is not going to make any difference to you.
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