Understanding Screenwriting #156
Tom Stempel on Hidden Figures, Fences, Get Out, Eye in the Sky, Deadpool, and Mid-season Television 2016-2017
George and Shirley, Meet Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy.
(2016. Screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, Based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly. 127 minutes.)
We have discussed at great length the importance of a good opening for a film, and as this film started, I was afraid it was going to have a terrible opening.
It begins with childhood scenes of Katherine Johnson, an African-American girl in the South in the forties. The scenes are done in black and white and are as conventional as can be. So it looks like we are getting into one of those stolid, self-important films about a “serious” subject, the sort of thing Stanley Kramer made in the fifties and sixties.
And then Schroeder and Melfi (he directs as well) pull the rug out from under us. The film switches to color and we figure, rightly, we are in the sixties. There is a sixties car broken down by the side of the road. Katherine is there with her two friends, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, also African-American. A cop pulls up behind their car. You think you know what’s going to happen next. Yes, he is suspicious. But they explain they are on their way to NASA. Where they work. And they have the badges to prove it.
The cop is a bit gobsmacked, but quickly decides they are doing the Lord’s work because he very much wants to beat the Russians into space. He offers to get help for the car, but Dorothy finishes fixing the engine and it starts.
So the women drive off, with the cop car, siren blazing, clearing the road ahead to get them to work on time. Mary, the wiseass of the three (it always helps to write one in if you have a group), says, “Three Negro women chasing a white police office down a highway in Hampton, Virginia in 1961. Ladies, that there is a God-ordained miracle!” Not a quote from a Stanley Kramer movie.
So look what the writers have done to grab our interest. First, by using the black and white material before going into the main story, it sets up the switch to show us how this going to be different from other pictures about race you have seen. The women are established as interesting, lively characters on their own. We learn where they work and when. And the cop is a great change-of-pace from the usual Southern cop, so it will keep us on our toes about the white characters as well.
And the scene tells you this film is entertaining. Let’s see you write an opening sequence that does all those things that well.
We then follow the women to work and see how they are treated at work. Dorothy is a supervisor in practice, but not in title or in pay grade, to a group of black women known as “computers,” since the movie starts before the development of computing machines.
Their white boss, Vivian Mitchell, is very condescending toward them. (A word here of praise to Kristen Dunst, who is Vivian, and Jim Parsons, who plays a similar role later. It’s brave of both of them to take on very, very unlikeable parts. Not truly evil, which actors love to play, but just unlikeable, which actors don’t love to play. Think about the difference.)
As the film progresses, the “computers” are to be replaced by a huge IBM computer. But the white guys cannot get it to work. Dorothy steals a book on Fortran (a programming system used primarily for numerical computation) from the white section of the local library, and teaches herself programming. She is the only one who can get the IBM computer going. She eventually trains her “computers” to do the programming.
Mary is determined to become an engineer, and eventually gets a judge (listen to how she convinces him) to let her attend at least night classes at a local college. We get less of Mary’s story than we do of Dorothy and Katherine’s, but the writers make up for that by giving her most of the really great lines in the movie.
Katherine is the character we get the most of, since she becomes the only black woman in the unit that is working out the computations for John Glenn’s first voyage into space. Her boss, Al Harrison, supports her primarily because she is the best mathematician in the unit. He does not care about color, and at one point he tears down the sign saying a bathroom is only for black woman (that, by the way, is fictional, one of the few inventions in the script, and it does not quite work because it seems out of character for him, given how the script has defined him so far).
A word on the math in the film. Unless you work for NASA, you probably have no understanding what it means. Which is OK As I have mentioned in the past, you do not need a lot of technobabble in a film. Here the writers have only what we need to show us the characters.
If you have a tendency to write technobabble, then you should see this movie twice simply to look at how the writers use the reactions of all the characters to the math. All we know, and all we need to know, is that the math means something to them.
This movie came about because the producer, Donna Gigliotti, got hold of the 50 page book proposal by Shetterly. She approached Schoerder, who had studied math and science in high school (you can read about her background here; read the full article, which includes a great anecdote on why the film has so much meaning for Melfi as well).
Shetterly’s book focuses on four women, but they had to cut one for time. Schroeder thought that the main story was Katherine Johnson, but Johnson, who is still alive, insisted that at least Dorothy and Mary’s story be included. She was right, since it makes it a richer film.
Philip Dunne was assigned to work with another screenwriter, Julien Josephson, on the script for the 1938 film Suez.
Dunne mentioned he thought it was odd the Josephson had written films for George Arliss (an imperious British actor who played famous people in history, like a pre-rap Hamilton in Alexander Hamilton ) and the great child star Shirley Temple. Dunne said, “Julien, that’s quite a switch, isn’t it? You move from Shirley Temple to George Arliss and back.” Josephson replied, “No, it’s the same formula: the bright little character gets the best of the grown-ups.”
That’s the formula for Hidden Figures as well.
(The quotes are from an oral history interview I did with Dunne.)
Words, Lots of Them, But What Words, and Listen to How They are Arranged.
(2016. Screenplay by August Wilson, based on his play. 139 minutes.)
You should not try this at home.
It is not simply about the black community, there are no white characters on screen. And in spite of this year’s #OscarSortOfBlack, you would still have trouble getting this made.
The play was first on Broadway in 1987 and people have been trying to get a film made from it ever since.
It’s all dialogue, often in great long speeches, and we know how Hollywood frowns on that.
It’s got more depth of character than any three or four movies you want to name. And no superheroes, mad slashers, rocket ships, horny teenagers, mumbling 30-year-olds, or cameos by Stan Lee.
If you did something like this, no agent would handle you and no producer would make your film.
On the other hand, yes, you should try this at home.
August Wilson is the greatest American playwright of the last 35 years. He wrote what is called the Century Cycle of ten plays, each one set in a different decade of the 20th Century, and most of them set in the black Hill District of Pittsburgh.
African American actors love Wilson’s plays, and not only because he provides really great parts for them to play. They love his plays because they show the reality of the black community with a range and depth that no other American playwright has achieved.
As a white viewer of his plays, what also struck me was that his plays are also about the American community. Yes, the plays definitely deal with the issues facing black Americans, but there are also American issues.
Shortly after I saw the film, I saw a mediocre stage production, by people who should have known better, of Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night. The main character, an aging matinee idol from the late 19th century stage named James Tyrone, is mourning how his career did not get to the heights he wanted. In America you can accomplish anything, but there are always things that can keep you from getting it.
In Tyrone’s case, it was his own greed that drove him into doing a potboiler play on tour for years instead of sticking the classics. In the case of Fences, the main character is Troy Maxson, who was good baseball player in the Negro Leagues in the thirties and forties. But by the time the Major Leagues began to integrate in the forties and fifties, Troy was too old. And now in the mid-50s, he, like James Tryone, is very bitter about it.
The play Fences won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and the film rights were bought by Paramount. You can read more about the journey to the screen here in CS. Wilson wrote the screenplay in the 80s and kept revising over the years. He died in 2005.
Scott Rudin, who originally wanted to produce it, approached Denzel Washington to star in it, but Washington wanted to do it on the stage first, with him playing Troy and Viola Davis playing Rose, Troy’s wife. It was a huge hit in 2010 and won Washington and Davis Tony awards. Finally Washington was ready to not only star in it, but direct it himself, using most of his Broadway cast.
As producer Todd Black says in CS, Washington kept diddling with the script, mostly to put back lines he loved from the play that Wilson had taken out. Undoubtedly this made the film longer than it could have been, but you can understand Washington’s reluctance to give up Wilson’s writing.
Fortunately Washington and his cast understand the play and dig in as deeply as their can. For all the talking, look at how Washington the director shows us reactions the characters have that we would have missed in a theatre. That’s what you can do on film that you cannot do on the stage. If Wilson may not have known that, and he probably did, Washington certainly does.
The play is set entirely in the back yard of Troy’s house. It is in the long line of plays set in American back yards, such as Morning’s at Seven in 1939, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons in 1947, William Inge’s Picnic in1953, as well as Wilson’s later play Seven Guitars in 1996. (A theatre company could do a whole season of plays set in American backyards, probably using the same set.)
Wilson, however, moves the action in and out of the different rooms of Troy’s house, and even opens the screenplay with Troy and his friend and co-worker Bono at their job riding on a trash truck. Wilson does not push the opening up too much because he is interested most in the story and characters.
The story at first focuses on Troy trying to dissuade his teenage son from trying to get a college football scholarship. He doesn’t want Cory to be hurt the way he was when he had to get out of baseball.
We can see Troy being tough on Cory, and we see he believes he is doing the best thing for his son. We also see the tensions between Troy and Rose (and Viola Davis gives the best performance of that part I have ever seen, having seen two productions of the play), which explode when Troy has to tell her…well, I’ll leave that for you to find out.
So, why should you try something like this?
Simple. At some point in your career, you are going to have to challenge yourself. That’s whether you are James Tyrone or Troy Maxson. If you are going to throw your writing up against August Wilson’s or some other great writer like him, you are probably going to fail. And that would be the American way as much as if you succeeded. But you have to try to explore your talent as much and as deeply as you can. And you may succeed. The only thing I can guarantee you, is that pushing yourself that hard will be scary.
If it is any consolation to you, and it is probably not, it scared the shit out of me just to take on Wilson in this item.
Diversity, You Want Your Diversity? We Got Your Diversity Right Here!
(2017. Written by Jordan Peele. 103 minutes.)
One of the big discussions on the issue of race in movies is the whole question of diversity, which usually means: are there characters of color in the film? Last year was a reasonably good year for racial diversity in films, and with this film opening in February, it looks as though this year may do OK as well.
Hidden Figures told the true story of the three black women at NASA, which very few people knew about. Fences is a fictional drama that takes a deep look into African American emotions. Get Out is a…What is it? Part horror, part comedy, part sly social satire about American racial attitudes, a one-man band of diversity.
And it is terrific. I don’t just say that because after several months of talking about all the award-category films, here’s a movie that has not yet been talked to death. It had a surprise screening at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23rd, and then opened wide on February 24th. And opened a lot bigger than anybody predicted.
The writer, and also director, is Jordan Peele, whom you may recognize from the Key and Peele comedy show, or previously from Mad TV. He wrote on several of those shows, but Keanu (2016) was his first feature. I didn’t see it, but he has certainly learned his craft and has perfectly balanced the variety of threads in this one.
You may think the opening scene is about Chris, the main character, but it’s not. It is another black guy walking down a suburban street at night, trying to find out where he is going. Listen to his comments about the street names.
Well, a black guy out on a suburban street is obviously up to no good. So it does not surprise out at first when a car, although not a police car, makes a u-turn and follows him.
(Watch Peele’s choreography between the guy, the car, and in the camera in this scene. In an interview in the Los Angeles Times Peele mentioned some of the great directors whose work he studied, and believe me, it shows.)
The car stops ahead of him, two guys get out of the car and grab the guy and put him into the trunk and drive off. It sets the tone for the film.
Then we pick up our two main characters, Chris, a black photographer, and Rose, his white girlfriend. They are getting ready to go to her parents’ house in the country for him to meet the parents for the first time. Chris is a little nonplussed when he learns she has not told them he is black. Rose assures him that it’s OK, he father would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could.
When they get there, her father says the same thing, which unnerves Chris and us a little bit, but just a little bit.
On the way to the house, their car accidentally hits a deer. It’s a shocking moment, but most horror filmmakers would just leave it at that. With Peele, it comes back in at least two different ways in the course of the film. That’s true of a lot of the details in the film as well. This is one of the most tightly constructed scripts I have seen in years.
When Chris gets to the house in the country, he feels uneasy. We are assuming it is just that he is a black man uncomfortable in a virtually all-white situation, and Peele certainly understands how a black man can feel that. It helps that Chris is played by Daniel Kaluuya. He did not make much of an impression on me in 2015’s Sicario, but he’s a gem here. He has the most expressive eyes since Bette Davis, which bring us into his character.
Fairly soon, both we and Chris begin to feel that it’s more than just conventional racism going on, and film gets more and more into the horror mode. But it is always horror touched with racism. And it’s funny.
I am not going to give anything more away because Peele’s freshness deserves to have its full impact on you. I will tell you about my favorite gag in the picture: it involves Allison Williams (great as Rose) and a website of NCAA athletes.
And then there’s another one…nope, nope, I’m not going to tell you..
Eye in the Sky
(2016. Written by Guy Hibbert. 102 minutes.)
In between seeing all the Oscar-bait films in the last couple of months, I have caught up with a few 2016 films I missed in theatres. This is one of the best ones.
The plot is relatively simple. A joint British-American group is intending to capture terrorists in Nairobi. They want to take them alive, but when problems on the ground preclude that, the decision must be made as to whether to kill them by drone attack. Well, that should be easy: our operatives on the ground have found the ones they are after, including a British woman. And they are all in one house.
Everybody is set to pull the trigger when a little local girl who sells bread sets up her basket right next to the wall of the house.
Well, do you take out the kid, or possibly miss your best chance to get the terrorists? The first title of the film was Kill Chain, and in some ways that is more accurate, since we are introduced to all the people in the American and British government who have to sign off on this.
So yes, it is a very talky movie, but the discussion is fascinating and much more subtle than you might expect. You would be surprised the moral complexities these characters show. Hibbert gives his great cast attitudes to play. The actors include Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, the late Alan Rickman in his last live action role, Jeremy Northam, and Barkhad Abdi ( “I am the captain” from Captain Phillips) as our man on the ground, and none of them are collecting unemployment.
There are not as many big action scenes as you might expect, but that’s because this is a suspense film more than an action film. Study this one to learn how to write a suspense picture.
This is How You Get a Nomination.
(2016. Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, based on a lot of characters from Marvel Comics that are not credited on the film, but are in the IMDb, which you can read here. 108 minutes.)
As you know I am not much of a comic book movie fan, so although the reviews of this one were particularly good, I skipped it in theatres. I picked it up on HBO after it received a nomination from the Writers Guild for an award in the Adapted Screenplay category. I could understand it winning awards in other contests, for something like Best Fight Scene, but an award for its writing? So I had to take a look.
It is certainly a lively, funny movie, in keeping with the tendency of the Marvel Monolith to let filmmakers get in a lot of humor, something the D.C. Monolith generally avoids. And the fun comes from the characters’ attitudes, more than just from jokes. The script plays to Ryan Reynolds’s comedy chops, which are considerable.
A lot of the humor comes from really, really bad language. I think this is one thing the Guild members may have appreciated: being given free reign with language and then, more importantly, using that freedom very well. I generally don’t like movies with a lot of vulgar language, since it very quickly seems oppressive. Here Reese and Wernick really hit a nice balance. Listen to the dialogue and hear how they do it.
Deadpool also gets off to a great start with a very funny sequence of bogus credits, such as “Starring God’s Perfect Idiot”, shown as a picture of the magazine that announces Ryan Reynolds as the Sexiest Man Alive floats past. Others in the cast list include “A Hot Chick,” “A Moody Teen,” and “A Gratuitous Cameo” (and if you can’t guess who that is, you know nothing about the Marvel Monolith).
Then comes the writing credit: “Written by the Real Heroes Here.” I suspect that had as much to do with the nomination as anything else in the film.
It did not win, by the way.
More Comings and Goings.
Midseason Television 2016-2017
Supergirl has become the perfect dinnertime show. It’s on at 8 P.M., and you can watch it as you eat and not get lost. I still prefer the character scenes to the action scenes, so I can watch the former and eat during the latter. You can watch both NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles the same way, which I do.
I’m still disappointed they got rid of Cat, and reduced James Olson’s face time with Kara/Supergirl. They have turned James into a sort of superhero in training, which is not taking advantage of Mehcad Brooks’s charisma.
On the other hand, they have given Kara’s sister Alex a lesbian relationship with Maggie, a National City cop.
When last I wrote about Quantico I was about to give up on it, since the writing was repetitive, and the only watchable thing is Priyanka Chopra’s hair. Well, I stopped watching and was rewarded with Chopra doing a shampoo commercial currently running.
In writing about this one in US#151, I noted that the freshest thing in it were the scenes between Katie and her two women friends. Those have reduced and what remains are standard family sitcom stuff. Bring the girls back!
I also finally gave up on this one: too much repetitive sex and violence and not enough train wrecks.
This came back in the spring, but it was its own same stolid self. In US#141 I noted that it did not have “either the rich characterization or the narrative drive” of Gone With the Wind and that’s still true. Mary Elizabeth Winstead was much better in this past summer’s Brain Dead, as I noted in US#149, than she is in this. The writers just do not give her much variety in the stuff they have her do.
Killing Off Characters
We have discussed the business of television series killing off regular characters a few times before (Dan Stevens on Downton Abbey, anyone?) We have had two very different examples in the last few months.
On Jane the Virgin, we had thought everything was going fine for Jane and Michael. He had recovered from being shot, and decided to take the LSAT (the law school admissions test) with the idea of going to law school. In “Chapter Fifty-Four” (written by Micah Schraft & Jennie Snyder Urman), he takes the test, then drops dead of a stroke at the end of the episode.
But he’s a sweetheart, and they’ve been through so much this past season (and the writers have given Brett Dier, who plays him, lots more to do this season than in past ones), we were really rooting for them.
I have no idea why the show decided to kill him off, but they handled it in an interesting way. In the next episode, “Chapter Fifty-Five” (Written by Paul Sciarrotta & Jennie Snyder Urman), the show jumps ahead three years, which means we don’t have to wallow in Michael’s death. It still hurts Jane and the others, but different stuff is going on. Besides, over the next several episodes we do get flashbacks to Jane and Michael in their happier days.
It’s going to be interesting to see if the show’s audience stays with it. After all, Jane the Virgin is not Game of Thrones.
NCIS: Los Angeles had a different problem. Miguel Ferrer, who played Deputy Director Owen Granger, for 107 episodes, was terminally ill with throat cancer. Being a true collaborator, he obviously discussed it with the producers and writers.
After being stabbed in an episode, he was in the hospital for several episodes in critical condition. At the end of the March 5th episode, “Old Tricks” (written by Andrew Bartels), Hettie Lange, the head of the NCIS unit goes to see him in the hospital. But he’s not there.
He’s escaped, leaving a note for Hettie: he’s tired of hospitals and has one more thing he has to do. Hettie smiles one of those wonderfully enigmatic smiles that only the great Linda Hunt can do. So it’s a nice send off for Granger and Ferrer, and we may yet get some action that will make Hettie give us that smile and say, “Granger.”
The Good Fight
CBS decided to go ahead with a spinoff of The Good Wife, and got Michelle and Robert King to whip it up. It follows Diane Lockhart, who is retiring from Lockhart, Gardner.
They she learns that her financial advisor has pulled a Madoff and left her broke. So the obvious thing to do is come back to the firm. But she’s made some enemies there and they will not let her come back as a partner. “Inauguration,” the pilot (written by Phil Alden Robinson), ends with her going with Lucca to the low-budget law firm Lucca now works at. Good possible set up.
CBS ran the pilot on the network, but then to see the rest of the episodes you have to sign up for their streaming system. I cannot think of a better way for them to piss off potential audiences for the show. Especially this show, which could be a favorite of an older, adult audience. Many of whom may not want to be bothered with the whole streaming system.
Many of my contemporaries (and younger) are Luddites who feel they don’t have to get every new method the industry comes up to squeeze money out of us. After all, some of us bought cassettes on Betamax, then had to buy them again on VHS, then again on DVD, and then Blu-ray. And had to spend money on whatever cable systems suckered local politicians into letting them operate.
So the question you have to ask yourself is, is this show worth paying $5 a month for? I like it, but I don’t like it that much.
The Young Pope
This is another “It’s Not TV, it’s HBO” miniseries. It was created and directed by the Italian director Paola Sorrentino, who made The Great Beauty (2013) and Youth (2015). Like those two films, the miniseries shows the influence of Fellini (dream sequences, surreal moments) and Antonioni (architecture, the use of space).
It’s the story of a younger Cardinal, Lenny, who gets elected Pope, although nobody quite knows what he believes. It turns out he’s not a traditionally doctrinaire Catholic.
The acting is good, and there are great locations, but I dropped out after three episodes. As a Midwestern Episcopalian, I simply was not that interested in all the theological nuances.
Big Little Lies
Another HBO miniseries, and you cannot say they did not bring the first team. Based on a novel, it was been adapted for television by David E. Kelley (L.A. Law, Boston Legal). The novel is set in Australia, but Kelley has shifted it to Monterey, and it is closer in style to Kelley’s Picket Fences than to his other shows. The difference is that this one is about a rich small town rather than a middle class one.
There is a murder as sort of a framing device, but four episodes in it’s not that compelling, partly because we don’t know who was killed or why. We follow three of the rich mothers and one not so rich. The rich ones are played by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern, and the poor one by Shailene Woodley. Also first team, but I did not initially find the characters that compelling.
It’s not until the third episode that we begin to get their vulnerabilities, and the actors really get to dig into the characters.
Well, you expect that from Kelley.
Don’t miss our interviews with the writers, producers and directors behind films Tom has reviewed:
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