Understanding Screenwriting #158
Tom Stempel on The Fate of the Furious, Baywatch, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Free State of Jones, and Tales of Wells Fargo.
It’s About, Well, You Know, Family.
The Fate of the Furious
(2017. Written by Chris Morgan, based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson. 136 minutes.)
In writing about Furious 7 here in US #127, I made the wiseass comment that you could do a drinking game while watching the film. Anytime anybody mentions the word “family,” you take a drink. I said that you would get blotto fairly quickly. Then, seriously, I added, the idea of family is talked about but not developed.
In 8, as we will refer to this film, it is developed. And the development comes from the writer, Chris Morgan. It was Morgan, who came on the franchise with 3, who began to realize that was the theme of the series. It was not mentioned in the first several films, but has become the stated theme of them.
Here’s why you should read me as well as any other critics you read: while some of the reviews note that “family” is mentioned, none of the ones I have seen are going to tell you how Morgan has developed it. That’s what I’m here for.
First we have a wonderful car race through the streets of Havana. Yes, Cuba; this is the first major American film to shoot in Cuba in over fifty years, and it makes for a colorful opening.
Dom and Letty are in Havana for their honeymoon. (Letty has completely gotten over her amnesia and smiles more in this film than in all the others combined. I sort of miss her sulk.) Then Dom is kidnapped by Cipher, the sleek, Bond-like villain. She wants Dom to pull a heist for her. Just him, not the rest of the gang.
But that’s a betrayal of his “family.” And he does it. Why? Cipher shows him something, and we do not learn right away what it is. So we have to try to figure out why. As do the other members of the family.
As Morgan told Brock Swinson in a good interview in CS you can read here, one of the tricky elements in the writing was: Why does the gang not go to talk to Mia (Dom’s sister) and Brian (her husband), who know Dom better than anybody else?
O.K., they can’t because Paul Walker, who played Brian, died. But in 7, the character was not killed off. (As I suspected in my review, it was Morgan who wrote that nice next-to-last scene in 7.)
So you could have them just go to talk to Mia and say that Brian was out getting his driver’s license renewed, but it would have been an awkward scene. You can see how Morgan handled it in the film. (I missed it, because at one point I had to go to the toilet. That’s what happens when you stoke up on popcorn and a large soft drink at the beginning of the movie, since you know it’s going to start with a great action scene.)
By the middle of the picture we learn what had made Dom go over to the Dark Side. Do you remember Elena from 5 and the others that followed? I didn’t either, but she and Dom had a thing while he thought Letty was dead. And she has had his baby.
O.K., but it had to be the longest gestation period in the history of pregnancies, since Letty has been alive and kicking since 6, and the baby is just a baby, not a young boy. Morgan gets a lot out of it being a baby, but I think he could have gotten even more out of an older kid.
So Dom is now working for Cipher and we get more of her than we do several members of Dom’s gang. The gang has gotten so big that some of the actors are not as well served as they have been in previous films.
I don‘t object too much to that here, since Cipher is played by Charlize Theron, channeling Buster Keaton. Theron realized that there is a lot of action going on, and like Keaton in his comedies, she plays Cipher with a deadpan look to create a fun counterpoint to all the mayhem.
Morgan has written several good action scenes, although I am not sure they are quite up to the plane-and-the-car sequence in 6 or the cars-parachuting-out-the-plane in 7.
And he’s written a nice quick tribute to Paul Walker in the final family scene.
Not as Bad as You Thought it Was Going to be.
(2017. Screenplay by Damian Shannon & Mark Swift, story by Jay Sherick & David Ronn and Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant, based on the television series created by Michael Berk & Douglas Schwartz and Gregory J. Bonann. 116 minutes.)
In discussing A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) here, I wrote that “A comedy can work if it makes you laugh a lot. It can also work, as this one does, by making you enjoy what you are, if not laughing at, smiling at.”
Baywatch does not work as well as that one did, but it had me smiling a lot. There was only one joke I laughed out loud at, which startled the two women sitting in the row in front of me. They had come in after the trailers had started and had not heard a peep out of me since.
For the record, the gag is Ronnie’s reply when someone where he learned to dance like that. Notice that the reply is only two words, but that’s all the writers need. Brevity is the soul of wit.
The plot is a lot more serviceable than you usually get in gonzo summer comedies. Not fresh or original, but serviceable. A new trio of trainees (Matt, Summer and Ronnie) learn the how to be lifeguards at Miami.
(The original television series, which ran from 1989 to 1990 on NBC and then forever in syndication, was set in Malibu. I have no idea why, other than perhaps for financial reasons, the locale was switched.)
The main plot line is that the lifeguards, led by Mitch Bucannon, foil an attempt to bring drugs into Miami via the beach. The training scenes, such as they are, give us a lot of gags, and the drug plot gives us a lot of “summer blockbuster action.” I can see why for a summer feature there’s a lot of action, but it’s nothing we really have not seen before. The writers could have come up with a much more compelling story.
The characters are also not particularly fresh, but they are also serviceable. Mitch is played by Dwayne Johnson. Johnson’s charisma helps, but the picture needs him more than he needs the picture.
His sparring partner Matt, played by Zac Efron, is a little more interesting. I don’t know when the script was written, but Matt certainly reminds up of Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, who screwed up at the 2016 Olympics and then lied to the cops. Matt won two gold medals, then went out partying and vomited in the pool during a relay race the next day.
Here’s one thing I like about the script. You might think that the backstory on Matt is just exposition, but look at how the writers bring it back later in the picture when Mitch uses it to point out that Matt is not a team player, which he isn’t. Needless to say, he becomes one.
The second trainee is Summer, and she and Matt bat their eyes at each other. She gets on him for staring at her breasts, but since she lets them bounce all over the place, you can see why he does. She is played by Alexandra Daddario, who played Johnson’s daughter in San Andreas.
The bouncing is part of the script. A typical summer comedy would leave it art that, but it becomes a running gag leading to Matt accusing her of looking at certain parts of his body. So what we have in this film is not only a critique of the “male gaze,” but also an acceptance of the “female gaze.” Johnson and Efron’s bodies are shot in as loving a way as the actresses’, maybe more so.
The third trainee is Ronnie, and we have no idea why they picked him to be a trainee. He is out of shape and very much a nerd, which comes in useful in the drug plot. He is played by Josh Gad, oops, sorry, by Jon Bass, who replaced Gad in The Book of Mormon on Broadway. I think this kind of part is now going to be known as the Josh Gad part.
The evil drug boss is played by Priyanka Chopra. She does not quite have the role down yet, and she is not as good as Charlize Theron is in the similar part in Fate of the Furious. But she does get in a good reaction to a comment about her being like a Bond villain.
There are also several in-jokes about the lifeguards running in slow-motion, as they did in the series, but they are more comments than jokes. The payoff to that jokes is the best one at the end.
David Hasselhoff, the original Mitch in the series, shows up a couple of times, but the writers have not given him anything interesting to say or do.
And Dwayne Johnson just blows him off the screen without doing anything.
Well, it’s Much Better Than #4
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
(2017. Screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, story by Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio, based on characters created by Ted Elliott & Terry Russio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert. 129 minutes.)
O.K., I know you’ll think that by saying this one—which I will refer to as 5—is better than 4 is not saying a lot, but you’ll notice I said “much better.” You can read my review of 4 here to see how bad I think it was.
The writers of the first four were Elliott & Russio. The first three made up one of the best written trilogies in the history of the movies, but the boys really dozed off with 4. One of the problems with it was that it was partially based on a novel, so it never felt like a POC movie.
Nathanson, new to the series, lets you know right up front that we are back in the real POC world. We open with a young lad letting us know that he is determined to find the Trident of Poseidon, which as we all know will give him the power to reverse all the curses that capture people at sea. Nathanson makes a real point of making the exposition clear, which Elliott and Rossio sometimes did not.
So what makes us believe it’s the real POC world? The young lad is named Henry…Turner. Yep, he’s Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan’s kid, and he wants the Trident to reverse the curse on his dad, whom you will remember from 3 can only come ashore every ten years.
The scene that establishes Henry is curious, in that Henry only talks about his dad. He makes no mention of his mom, and there is no additional mention of her. While they could get Orlando Bloom to come back to reprise his Will, obviously they didn’t want to pay whatever Keira Knightly was asking. Or else she was just too busy elsewhere.
We next see Henry as a young man, and he is searching for, well, of course, Captain Jack Sparrow. Watch how Nathanson gets Henry and Captain Jack together, and throws in the major female character, Carina Smyth.
She is an amateur astronomer (listen to the professional astronomer’s line when he discovers her illegally using his telescope), and later on tells us and a bunch of pirates she is also a horologist. You can imagine what the pirates think that means.
She is, in the tradition of Elizabeth, a spunky young thing. She also knows that through science she can figure out where the Trident of Poseidon is. And she’s right.
So here’s our trio. And Nathanson does not make the mistake Elliott & Rossio made in 4. In the trilogy Captain Jack is not the main character. As Elliott said at the time the third film came out, Jack is the trickster who screws things up for himself and others. Will and especially Elizabeth were the main characters in the trilogy. In 4, the writers made him into the main character, and it threw the whole balance off.
Here he is back to being the trickster. Unfortunately Johnny Depp’s acting is all over the place in this one; sometimes his mind seems on his work and sometimes it isn’t.
The villain, new to the POC world, is Salazar, whom we assume is a pirate as well, a dead one with the left side of his face blown off. We do not find out for a while that in fact he was a naval officer whose goal was to rid the seas of pirates.
We get a flashback about the time he almost did it. The one ship that escaped was the Black Pearl. The captain on it was killed, and a young Jack Sparrow managed to outwit Salazar. In return the crew elected him captain. Each crew member gave him an item in tribute. You will recognize the items if you have been paying attention to Johnny Depp’s costume in the first four films.
Another returning character is Barbossa. In 4 he was sort of a fifth wheel, since the novel they used featured Blackbeard as the main villain. Here he is back as a trickster his own self. But Nathanson goes a little further with him. Late in the picture he becomes part of a rather touching subplot, and Geoffrey Rush, who has been rolling his eyes with the best of them for the first four and a half films, gets to show another side of Barbossa.
It’s one of those little satisfying moments, like the tribute items. It also connects, thematically, to the Henry and Will story.
I’ve only seen one review of the film that picked up on this, but that’s typical of critics and the POC canon. Having dismissed the first ones, critics have given up paying attention. Sometimes, as with Charlie Chaplin and Clint Eastwood, the audiences are way ahead of the critics. As of June 8th, Rotten Tomatoes has the critics’ ratings as only 29% positive, while the audience was 69% positive.
On the down side, 5 does not have the interesting gallery of characters the trilogy did. I was surprised when I looked at the cast list and discovered that Murtogg and Mullroy were in the cast. In the trilogy they were the British soldiers who kept getting outfoxed by Jack and who eventually became pirates. If they are in 5 I did not spot them.
We do get Gibbs and Marty (the short one) back, but Gibbs does not get a lot of detailed exposition that the writers gave to him because Kevin McNally loved having long speeches to deliver.
The duo I miss most is Pintel and Raghetti, whose wonderful philosophical discussions enlivened the trilogy. We get a scene with two pirates that I think were supposed to be the equivalent of Pintel and Raghetti, but their dialogue was not up to the earlier standard.
The British officers chasing the pirates as not as well defined as the equivalent characters in the trilogy were. Since the special effects are not as elaborate as in the trilogy, they should have made more of an effort and giving us a complete gallery of characters.
Carina does lead them to the Trident of Poseidon, and Henry breaks the curse on his father (and maybe somebody else, depending on how you read the post-credit scene). Carina and Henry are now in love, although she is way smarter than he is, and they go with Will to return home.
You expect the POC films to give you laughs, thrills, chills, and scares, but the one thing you probably are not expecting is an emotionally heart-stopping scene. But that’s what Nathanson gives you. If you like the POC films, you may have a lump in your throat when it happens.
One more thing. An executive at Disney was recently quoted as saying they did not want to do another POC film without Johnny Depp. Given how bored he seems in this one, I think they might want to consider not using him. So here is your homework assignment for this: come up with an idea for a POC film without Captain Jack Sparrow.
Otto, Let My People Go.
Free State of Jones
(2016. Screenplay by Gary Ross, story by Leonard Hartman and Gary Ross. 139 minutes.)
This one is based on the true story of Newton Knight, a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. He gets tired of the gore of war and deserts, returning to his farm in Jones County, Mississippi.
He finds things are a mess there, with his fellow farmers, or those that are left, having their crops and everything else on their farms “taxed” by the army to support the war. He gathers together a group of farmers, including some former slaves, and resists the army. And the men finally form what they call the Free State of Jones, made up of several counties.
Now doesn’t that sound like a potentially dandy movie: action, adventure, a stalwart hero for your leading character, and if you do it right, some interesting commentary on the war and the South?
Alas, this is not a dandy movie. It’s a real mess.
It takes forever to get going. We start with a big battle scene, complete with lots of shots of today’s Civil War re-enactors looking semi-authentic. Newton carries not one, but finally two wounded soldiers to the medical tent before he leaves. The writers take 49 minutes into the film before Newton starts getting the farmers together.
Then the film fades out, and fades in on him with a whole lot more men with him. This is the sort of shortchanging writers do that I have been bitching about since I first started this column. Look at the item on Mongol (2007) in US#1 as an example.
The structure of the film is exceedingly clumsy. There are occasionally good scenes, but they do not really seem to flow in any narrative pattern. Here’s one scene, here’s another, and another. Oh, that’s a nice one. But that one’s not.
One reason for that clumsiness is there is virtually no nuance in the characterizations.
Newton is a stalwart guy and that’s about it. He is written as the star part, and Matthew McConaughey brings a lot of intensity, but not the kind of vitality we expect from him.
His friend Jasper is there throughout the movie just so Newton can have somebody to talk to.
Newton’s wife Serena leaves the farm for the big city shortly after Newton gets home, and Newton takes up with Rachel, a house slave from a nearby plantation. Rachel is the most nuanced of all the characters in the film, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives the best performance in the film.
But what happens when Serena returns and finds her hubby shacking up with a black woman? Not much. She looks a little disappointed and that’s it. Think what you could do with that character in that situation.
Serena and Rachel seem to come to an understanding, which is done in one of the flattest scenes in the film. Rachel is cradling her baby by Newton while trying to spin cotton, and Serena takes the baby to let her spin, and the two women smile at each other.
Wimpy, to say the least. Imagine the scene you could write for the two of them.
Eventually, a little before the two-hour mark, the war is over and Reconstruction begins. And all the faults of the film get worse.
The story is now told in a very disjointed collection of scenes. There are at least two books on this subject, although neither is mentioned in the credits, and eleven historical consultants are attached to the project. Yes, eleven. And the last twenty minutes feels like each one got to pick their favorite scene from Newton’s life and insist it be in the film.
Ken Burns uses even more historical consultants in his documentaries, but he is tough enough to put their contributions into a much smoother flow than Ross and Hartman do.
The last half hour or so reminded me of the 1960 film Exodus (written by Dalton Trumbo). It is about the founding of modern Israel, and directed by Otto Preminger. It runs 208 minutes. The establishment of Israel is finished a little before the three-hour mark, and then the script starts yet another narrative line. Legend has it that at that point, at one industry screening comedian Mort Sahl got up and yelled, “Otto, let my people go.”
At the two hour mark in Free State of Jones I knew exactly how Sahl felt. Longer is not better.
No, It’s Not an HBO Miniseries on the Slimy Behavior of Wells Fargo in the Last Few Years.
Tales of Wells Fargo
(1957-1962. Created by Nat Holt and Frank Gruber. Various writers. Half hour episodes 1957 to 1961, one hour episodes 1961-1962.)
“So Tom,” I hear you ask; “what are you doing writing about a fifties half-hour western? What can we learn about screenwriting from that?” By now I would think you would know I have something, or some things, up my sleeve.
I watched this series when I was a teenager in the fifties. I probably only saw the first two seasons on a regular basis, since I went off to college in 1959 and in those days there were no portable TVs that students could have in their rooms. There was one television in the one of the common rooms in my residential college at Yale, but Yalies in those days generally did not watch westerns.
The main reason I remember the series is because of one line of dialogue in it. The lead character was Jim Hardie, a troubleshooter for the Wells Fargo stagecoach line. In “The Prisoner,” a February 1958 episode written by Steve Fisher, Hardie runs into Bob Dawson, a retired outlaw Hardie sent to prison. Hardie tells Dawson he can get him a parole if he will help Hardie lead a posse to a gang’s hideout.
Their first scene is a surprisingly long one for a half hour western, but Dawson, played by the great character actor Edgar Buchanan, is worth it. He is shifty, at times open and at times not willing to give away anything. When Hardie asks him about something in his past, Dawson refuses to tell him, saying he’s “saving it for my memoirs.”
That’s a great line, funny because we don’t imagine outlaws writing their memoirs. It’s also a line that has come in handy in many circumstances. I’ve used myself more than once.
The producer Nat Holt, and story consultant Frank Gruber, must have realized they were on to something with Dawson, and in September 1958, Fisher wrote another Dawson story, “The Manuscript.” It turns out Dawson actually is writing his memoirs, but telling too many people about it, so someone hires somebody to kill Dawson and get the manuscript.
He fails of course, but we find out the memoir is not really that revealing, although it shows up in various forms in the three additional episodes Dawson appears in.
Holt, who had produced B westerns in the forties, appeared to love character actors, and along with Buchanan, he hired many to appear in the series. And the writers very often provided the actors with some of the best parts they ever played.
Bob Steele started in silent films, and in the thirties he began to appear on a regular basis as a star in B westerns, including a series in which he starred as Tucson Smith in the forties. Mostly he was just stalwart, but in the December 1958 episode “The Happy Tree,” written by Samuel A. Peeples, he played Jake Kramer, an outlaw about to be hanged. He arranges to see Hardie and asks Hardie to look after his young son. Steel does more real acting in his long scene than he did in any of his other films.
Another character actor who shows up in a good role is Eddy Waller. He started with uncredited bit parts in the thirties, and in the forties he was a sidekick to many of the cowboy stars at Republic Pictures.
In the April 1959 episode “The Last Stand” (no writing credit on the IMDb, unfortunately), he plays a Wells Fargo agent who has turned into the town drunk trying to live up to his one claim to fame: killing a famous outlaw in a gunfight. Like Steele in “The Happy Tree,” the role is more demanding than anything else he played, and he is up to the job.
Part of the fun of watching Tales of Wells Fargo now is that in addition to the oldtimers, there are a lot of younger actors at the start of their careers. In the February 1958 episode “Bill Longley,” written by Martin Berkeley and Clarke Reynolds, Steve McQueen plays the title role and is “Introduced” in the credits, although he had been in television since 1952. He’s not as impressive as he would become later on.
In the February 1961 episode “That Washburn Girl,” written by Charles A. Wallace from a story by Rudy Makoul, Jack Nicholson gives a few more jolts of energy than most of the other actors in the show. On the other hand, there are a lot of young actors who are in various episodes who have never been heard from again.
I know you folks are assuming you are going to be writing feature screenplays, but you may want or have to write a short film. The half-hour episodes are often—not always—models of how much you can get into half an hour. In the June 1957 episode “Stage to Nowhere,” written by Steve Fisher, nearly the entire show takes place in a stagecoach with just five characters. Even when the show goes a bit larger, they cheat.
In one episode I did not get the name of (I have been watching these on the Westerns Channel, though they are also available on DVD, and not alas making notes), the story takes place in a western fort. But most of the men are out on patrol and the Indian attack is mostly stock shots.
The fort, by the way, is the one built out in the San Fernando Valley for the 1948 John Ford film Fort Apache, and which was later used for a lot of films and television shows. You can read my review of one of them, Ambush (1950) here, in which I tell you how they use the set.
There is one budget extravaganza in Tales of Wells Fargo. As I pointed out in my essay on the B westerns of Tim Holt, generally in B westerns, stagecoaches are drawn by four-horse teams. It’s only in A pictures that they have six-horse teams. There is nothing in the credits of Tales that suggest Wells Fargo made any financial contribution to the series, but it would not surprise me to learn they sprung for the extra two horses, since nearly all the stagecoaches in the series have six-horse teams.