Understanding Screenwriting #159
Tom Stempel on Wonder Woman, The Hero, My Cousin Rachel, Twin Peaks: The Return, Fargo, and Brockmire. Plus a message for his readers.
Gal Gadot is this year’s T-Rex.
(2017. Screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston. 139 minutes.)
We open in modern times. A truck with the name Wayne Enterprises passes by the camera, so we know we are not in the Marvel Universe, but in the DC Monolith.
The truck delivers a package that is taken to Diana Prince, who appears to work there. She opens it and there is a framed photograph of her in some kind of outfit, with some people in uniform next to her. We will learn later he is Steve Trevor. But the uniforms are a bit old fashioned. Not World War II old fashioned, when Marston created Wonder Woman, but World War I.
Woa! Heinberg, who wrote several Wonder Woman comic books, and the other writers, obviously have DC’s permission to play around with the world of Wonder Woman. Given how bad many of the recent DC movies have been, this is an encouraging sign.
Marston (and the uncredited Harry G. Peter) created the character in 1941, and the comic books featuring her have been coming at a steady rate ever since. You can read about the character and her history in this article on Wikipedia, but I should warn you that the entry on Wonder Woman is longer than the entry on the Treaty of Westphalia.
There was a modestly successful television show that ran from 1975 to 1979, and she made a brief appearance in last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but this film is her first starring appearance in a feature theatrical film. A lot of people, and not just her female fans, have been waiting a long time as DC has wrestled with how to present her onscreen.
The picture Diana gets should, by dramatic logic, lead into a flashback to World War I, but this being the first film with her we get, yes, dammit, another origin story. I don’t think they needed to do that, but maybe they did.
So we go to the mystical island of Themysirca when the child who will become Diana (she’s the only child on the island and you have to wait a long time to find out why) is doted on by her mother Hypolita and the queen, Antiope.
Hypolita is played by Connie Nielsen and Antiope by Robin Wright. Heinberg’s writing is rather flat in these scenes, with the formality that often happens in films set in the past. Nielsen and Wright do what they can, but they cannot quite overcome the script.
Diana grows up to be acted by Gal Gadot, and she is even flatter reading the dialogue than the others. She is not very emotionally expressive. She can hit the note she needs to in a given take, but she can’t hit the chords that let her go beyond the single note.
A number of women who have seen the film have commented on how much they liked the scenes on Themysirca, since it is presented a paradise for a community of women. But there is a darker side. The women are warriors, prepared to take on Ares, the God of War, when he returns. So when the island is invaded they are fierce, and Diana is the fiercest of them all. I am sure that also appeals to women who want to develop their own power.
The peace on the island is broken when Steve Trevor crash lands his plane on the island. It’s not a World War II plane, but a World War I plane. Yup, the photograph was not a mistake. I have no idea why the writers put the main part of their story in World War I, but it does give us a different set of visuals than we have had in most of the superhero movies of the last few decades.
Steve is played by Chris Pine, and he is a much better actor than Gadot, which makes their scenes uneven. At the screening I saw, he got laughs from his dialogue and reactions (remember Gadot’s limitations?) while she did not. Gadot is good to look at but not very interesting to watch, while Pine is both.
At least Pine was smart enough not to pull a Robert De Niro. In the l976 film The Last Tycoon, his leading lady was the completely inexpressive Ingrid Boulting. De Niro figured he had to act for the both of them, which was not the right choice.
Steve Trevor is a spy for British Intelligence and he is tracking down General Ludendorf, who is working with the diabolical Dr. Maru on creating a lethal gas. When Diana hears that, she is convinced that Ludendorf is Ares, the God of War. The belief on the island is that if Ares can be destroyed, war will stop. So she tags along with Trevor.
They go back to London and the film begins to sag. To keep her identity a secret, Diana is now required to dress like the other women, in all the restrictive garments of the time. Heinberg gets some laughs out of this, and the general culture shock Diana has, but not as many as he could have.
Diana and Trevor get to the front lines and Diana strips down to her Wonder Woman outfit and leads the charge on the German lines. And the audience goes crazy, especially the women. The point of the too-long London scenes is to build up the pressure which is released when Wonder Woman takes charge. Women love this scene, with one of them admitting to having a tear or two. It’s not simply that Wonder is leading the charge, it’s that she becoming her best, fiercest, self.
A lot has been written about the film being directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, and the difference shows in this scene. I have not read Heinberg’s script, but I can imagine a male director downplaying that take-charge quality Wonder Woman shows here. And here’s where Gal Gadot works best in the film. This scene is mostly action and Gadot, who served in the Israeli army, can move in a way that commands the screen.
When I wrote about Jurassic Park in the book Understanding Screenwriting, I pointed out that Spielberg’s direction of the actors was bad, since everybody was busy making sure the dinosaurs worked. If they worked, the picture worked. Well, here Gal Gadot in action is the T-Rex of this picture.
So then Wonder tracks down Ludendorf and kills him.
Half an hour before the end of the film.
And the war does not stop.
Ooops. It turns out Ludendorf is not Ares. But if you have not guessed who it is, you are not paying attention to the cast. So she figures out who the real Ares is and the film falls into typical DC clichés: superhero and supervillain stand out in an open area and throw trucks at each other. You see it every week on Supergirl.
The writers have one more trick up their sleeve, which nobody else writing about the film has given away and I am certainly not going to here. But once you see it, think about what it means for the franchise.
After that twist, we pick up again with Diana in her office with the photograph, back in modern times. And Diana does not look any older than she did a hundred years ago in the war. Did it occur to you that the writers are setting it up that in future Wonder Woman movies they can go to any time period they want?
But Could You Give Him Something to Do?
(2017. Written by Brett Haley & Marc Basch. 93 minutes.)
Way back in US#129 I reviewed two 2014 films, Clouds of Sils Maria and I’ll See You in my Dreams, and they both had the same problem. In Maria, the character of Valentine disappears shortly before the end of the film and we don’t find out what happens to her. In Dreams, Carol’s romantic partner Bill dies well before the end of the film. The problem with both films is that we like the characters and actors and don’t want to see them leave the picture.
Oliver Assayas, the writer/director of Maria, decided to make it up to the actress playing Valentine, Kristen Stewart, and wrote and directed last year’s Personal Shopper, which I reviewed here. And boy, did he make it up to her.
The writers of Dreams try to do the same thing for Sam Elliott in this film. Boy, do they fail.
The writers have written what could have been a good part for Elliott, but they give him almost nothing to do. Stewart in Shopper gets a lot to do. Elliott’s Lee Hayden mostly stares a lot and sits around with his friend and neighbor smoking a lot of pot. I mean, like A LOT, man.
The movie starts out with potential. Lee is an aging actor, best known for his westerns. It’s now a long time between acting gigs. We first see him doing a voiceover for a barbeque sauce commercial.
The scene reminds me of the wonderful In a World… but neither the scene nor the picture have the same level of observation and wit of Lake Bell’s 2013 film. Here we have the off-screen commercial director just asking for take after take, with no other direction. If you can’t write stupid things for a director to say, you should give up screenwriting.
We learn Lee has serious cancer, but he does not tell anybody about it for a long, long time. We expect when he visits his ex-wife he will say something, but he does not. Lee’s ex-wife is played by Elliott’s long-time wife Katharine Ross. She still has most of the charm she had fifty years ago in The Graduate, but the writers do not take advantage of it.
Lee meets an attractive young woman, Charlotte, and they are attracted to each other. It’s only after they have seen each other several times that she tells him she is a stand-up comedian. She invites him to one of her gigs, without bothering to tell him that her new routine is about what it’s like to date a 70-year-old guy.
She spares no lurid details. After Lee has a snit, they very quickly get back together. I will grant you that Laura Prepon who plays her shows a lot more charm and vitality than she usually does, but still.
Lee gets invited to accept a Lifetime Achievement award and he goes to the (low-budget) banquet and makes a funny scene by giving his award to one of his fans in the audience. The writers, even given the low budget, could have done a lot more with the ceremony.
Needless to say, somebody has recorded Lee at the banquet. The recording goes viral, so he gets an audition for a real acting part, but then muffs the audition. (The scene he plays in the audition is too close to his real life relationship with his daughter.)
O.K., but is that the only audition he gets from going viral? For these writers, it is, which means they are missing a lot they could do with the situation.
The writers are just not getting as much out of the material as they could, and as a result they don’t get as much out of Elliott as they could. Now that’s waste.
Right Actress, Wrong Script.
My Cousin Rachel
(2017. Screenplay by Roger Michell, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier. 106 minutes.)
In 1952 my man Nunnally Johnson (my first book was a biography of him) wrote the first film adaptation of this Du Maurier novel. What worked in the novel did not work, at least for audiences at that time, on film. The picture was not a commercial success, although it got four Academy nominations, but no wins.
The story takes place in 19th Century Cornwall. Ambrose, the cousin and guardian of young Philip, is taken ill and goes to Italy to recover. There he meets and marries Rachel. His first letters back to Philip sing her praises, but then they begin to suggest she is trying to kill him.
He dies, according to the coroner of a brain tumor. By the time Philip gets to Italy Rachel has left, and he swears vengeance on her.
She later shows up back in Cornwall. Philip falls in love with her, but still suspects her of the killing. He suggests she go out for a ride along a path he knows is dangerous, and she falls and dies. Meanwhile he has searched her room and the evidence he finds suggests she is innocent.
But in the book and the first film, we do not definitely find out either her guilt or innocence, and Philip is left in torment not knowing for sure either way.
As Nunnally told me when I interviewed him in the late sixties, “I decided to follow the book. I’m sure that’s what killed it, because I don’t think movie audiences wanted to go home, at least at that stage [in the 50s], with questions. They wanted everything tied up neatly at the end.” I asked him if he felt that was still true of audiences in the sixties. He generally thought it was, except for art house audiences that liked confusion.
George Cukor was originally hired to direct, and he wanted Greta Garbo to come out of retirement to play Rachel. Nunnally tried to get her, but after a charming phone conversation, she declined. Cukor then left the picture, and in typical Cukor fashion he convinced Du Maurier that Nunnally’s script was no good.
Cukor was a master at being polite to writers to their face, then stabbing them in the back.
Nunnally’s choice for Rachel was Olivia de Havilland, who had played twins, one good, one evil in his 1946 film The Dark Mirror. (See US#51 for an item on a recent screening of it at the Motion Picture Academy.) So you would think she could do Rachel, but I think Cukor was right. He told Nunnally, “I can see right through her.”
She simply does not have the mystery about her that Rachel requires. She was also overpowered by a young Welsh actor Lauren Bacall had recommended to Nunnally. He was Richard Burton in his first American film, and he got a best supporting actor nomination.
So, finally, I am getting around to this new version. I think that of today’s actresses Rachel Weisz is the perfect choice for Rachel. Well, the Rachel in the book and the Rachel in Nunnally’s script. Weisz can manage to be both charming and dangerous in a way de Havilland did not.
The problem then is Michell’s script is that it takes a very modern feminist point of view: that Rachel is simply trying to make her way in a difficult world. That may make sense politically, but it takes nearly all the drama out of the story, and the story is nothing if not dramatic.
If Rachel is just plodding along, trying to make do, why would we suspect her of trying to kill anybody? So the picture plods as well. It is only eight minutes longer than the 1952 version, but it feels much longer and slower.
The script gives Weisz nothing to play, which is really a waste of a terrific talent. Unfortunately her co-star, Sam Claflin, is just as flat as she is, with none of Burton’s passion.
Now that’s the version I’d like to see: Weisz and Burton in Nunnally’s script. Or Garbo and Burton in Nunnally’s script.
Not a Damn Fine Piece of Pie.
Twin Peaks: The Return
(2017. Written by David Lynch and Mark Frost. One hour per episode.)
The original Twin Peaks caused a sensation when it premiered in the spring of 1990. We had occasionally seen small towns in series television where bad things happened, like Peyton Place (1964-1969), but nothing quite so bizarre as Twin Peaks.
The series begins with the murder of Laura Palmer, the Homecoming Queen, and the heart of the first eight episodes broadcast that spring dealt with trying to solve the murder.
And then the writers screwed up, big time. The series seemed to promise that by the end of the eight episodes we would learned who killed Laura Palmer. But the series did not tell us.
Boy, were audiences pissed. Big time. When the series continued in the fall of 1990, we did not learn the identity of the killer for several more episodes, so not telling us in the spring did not even work as a cliff-hanger for the summer. Boy, were people even more pissed.
But the writers had made another mistake. In the first eight episodes they were so focused on the murder plot, they failed to set up any other storylines that might carry us beyond the murder.
So once audiences learned the identity of the murderer, they began to tune out. And the writers did not help by making the series more and more surrealistic.
Surrealism on film can be fun, but in relatively short doses. You need some through-lines of character, story, and/or themes to carry you through a long piece.
ABC paired Twin Peaks on Saturday nights with the great China Beach for the second season, and Peaks’ falling ratings killed off both it and China Beach.
Twin Peaks stuck in its devotees’ minds and it became a cult object. Its bizarreness influenced many television series that followed, such as Lost (2004-2010), True Blood (2010-2014), True Detective (2014-), and—as we will see in the next item—Fargo (2014-). So it is not surprising that one of the premium cable channels, in this case Showtime, would decide to try again with a reboot of the original. As a cult series on cable, it would not have to get the kind of ratings it failed to get on broadcast television.
The results, alas, are not that impressive. Yes, there are a lot of the surrealist elements, just to let those who loved the last episodes of the first series that they have not forgotten you. Mostly they are simply distracting, although they occasionally reference something else in the show. But a little of the Red Room and the characters in it goes a long way.
The main character in the first series was FBI agent Dale Cooper, who came to Twin Peaks to investigate the murder. We pick him up in at least two different reincarnations.
One appears to be a Native American who kills people; this Cooper appears to be inhabited by the spirit of Bob, one of the bizarre characters from the original. This “Bob” Cooper kills more than a few people.
Another Cooper is now called Dougie Jones, and we pick him up first with a black hooker named Jade, but he turns into a sort of a zombie when he connects up with his wife. His zombie-like quality seems to go unnoticed by his wife and the workers in his office. Dougie works in an insurance company, which I am not convinced would put up with that kind of behavior.
In the first two episodes, which were run together on May 21st, after a semi-surreal sequence of a guy watching a glass box, we suddenly get a real shocker: a sequence that tells a story. I have a suspicion that it was Lynch who wrote the surreal sequences and Mark Frost, who wrote for Hill Street Blues (1981- 1987), who wrote the narrative sections.
We are in Buckhorn, South Dakota. A woman with a Minnesota accent smells a bad smell coming from Ruth Davenport’s apartment. The police are called and discover a dismembered body in bed.
Fingerprints leads to Hastings, the high school principal, and then a complicated relationship with his wife…wait a minute. Are we in Buckhorn or are we in Fargo? And what does this have to do with anything else in the show?
A character shows up at the end of this storyline that does indeed connect to other stuff in the show. But what about Twin Peaks? We occasional go there and meet some of the characters we may remember from the first series, but Lynch and Frost are not doing much with them.
The Log Lady does give Hawk, now a Deputy Chief, a message for agent Cooper, which sends Hawk and the others to looking into the old files on Laura Palmer’s death. This leads to a scene where the people in the police station all tell each other, over and over again, what the case was all about. There is a lot of this repetition in The Return, which slows the pace down to less than a crawl.
So what we have is a long, slow plod. And while Lynch’s direction (he directs all the episodes) can be compelling in a David Lynch way, it can also be mediocre in either the casting or the direction of the actors.
While Kyle MacLachlan gets into the rhythm of all of his characters, the actress playing Jade seems like an amateur.
In episode 106, the script has a scene where a young man gets a ride into town with Carl. Carl is played by the always compelling Harry Dean Stanton, and the guy is played by an actor who can’t hold his own with Stanton. O.K., most actors can’t, but Lynch and his casting people could have found a better one.
I gave up on The Return after that 6th episode. After six hours, the show did not seem to be going anywhere, and it was not going nowhere in any interesting fashion.
Son of Twin Peaks.
(2017. Noah Hawley and various writers. Episodes various lengths.)
This is the third season of Fargo, developed for television by Noah Hawley. I loved the first season, but did not like the second season as much. This third season has been terrific.
With the exception of the flying saucers at the end of the second season, Hawley has avoided bringing in any extended surrealism. He and his writers have focused on galleries of interesting characters screwing themselves up in a great variety of ways. The writers have also focused on the narrative lines, which can be complicated but also a joy to follow because of the characterization.
As you may gather from that last paragraph, I have been watching this season of Fargo as I have been watching The Return, and the former is much more compelling than the latter.
As you might imagine from the previous seasons, this season starts out fairly simple. We have two middle-aged brothers, Emmit and Ray Stussy (both played in a tour de force performance, uh, set of performances, by Ewan McGregor).
Emmit’s the rich one, running a parking lot empire. Ray is not so rich, working as a parole officer.
The reason Emmit is rich is that when they were in their teens, Emmit talked Ray into trading his stamp collection for Emmit’s bright red Cadillac. Emmitt sold all but one of the stamps and used the money to start in business. Ray has never forgiven him.
Ray wants to get the one remaining stamp back from Emmit, and sends one of his parolees to steal the stamp. That’s all, no violence, just the stamp. Well, the parolee is none-too-bright, loses the address, gets an address for another Stussy (you’d be surprised how many Stussys there are in this town), breaks in and kills the old man. Who happens to be the stepfather of Gloria, one of the town detectives.
Emmit is also plagued by a manipulator who is taking over his company, and who is not adverse to violence.
You had enough interesting characters yet? Well, there’s one more and she’s a pip. The wondrously named Nikki Stango is a parolee of Ray’s and he’s fallen in love with her. (You can see why: she’s played brilliantly by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.)
She may be the smartest person in the various rooms. It is Nikki who figures out how to deal with the other parolee.
Hawley and his writers love watching these characters stew in their own juices, and we do too. The writers give the actors a lot to do scene by scene. In my notes I have probably more notations of “great scene” than in any recent show, which is why I like this better than The Return.
And they have cast beautifully, unlike the The Return. I think Hawley and his writers have taken what Lynch and Frost did in the original Twin Peaks and developed it further.
Here’s an example. In “Who Rules the Land of Denial?” (written by Hawley and Monica Beletsky), Nikki is on the run after escaping the crash of prison bus. She goes into a bowling alley and sits at the bar. Next to her is a middle-aged guy who talks to her about religion and philosophy, which is not exactly what Nikki wants to hear.
You can see her thinking how she is going to get this guy to help her. Before she can figure it out, her offers her his car. She goes. Not only is it a nicely written scene, it is beautifully acted by Winstead and the actor.
He is Ray Wise, Laura Palmer’s father in Twin Peaks, and that fact adds a lot to the scene.
If You Loved Bull Durham as Much as I Did…
(2017. Various writers. 30 minutes per episode.)
This started out as a series of videos created by Hank Azaria about Jim Brockmire, a sportscaster down on his luck. He is a wonderful character and Azaria is great at doing him.
At one point there was going to be a feature film, but the money dropped out at the last minute. Azaria and his collaborators (Joel Church-Cooper is credited with the development of the show) eventually found a home for it as a half-hour series on the IFC channel. Like most film channels it wants to get into original programming.
Brockmire was a big league baseball announcer ten years ago. One day he came home to find his wife having an orgy. Some guys would just take to drink, but he went crazy on the air, which was videotaped. He was fired and left the country as the video went viral.
Since then, he has mostly been out of the country, calling “cockfights in the Philippines,” as he says.
Then Jules James, the owner of a very minor league team in Pennsylvania, gets ahold of him and hires him to call her team’s games. So we are back in the minor league baseball world of Bull Durham (1988), but from the point of the sportscaster.
Brockmire is even raunchier than Bull Durham, but not as romantic. Brockmire and Jules have an affair that is supposed to be only sex. (Did I forget to mention that Jules is played the Amanda Peet, in one of her most textured performances?) Romance rears its lovely head, but never at the expense of raunch.
It’s got good characters, lots of raunch, lots of laughs, and some reasonable interesting behind-the-scenes stuff about baseball and sportscasting. What more could you want?
You might want to catch up on this spring’s eight episodes (that’s only four hours, folks) before IFC pitches a second season at you.
A Message for My Readers
I have been writing this column for nine years now, and I love doing it. However, it is time for me to take a break. After all, in academia you get a sabbatical every seven years, so I may be two years overdue.
But don’t worry, I won’t be away too long. I intend to get back to the column in six months, just in time to rough up all the “For Your Consideration” contenders in this year’s Oscar race.
While I am on sabbatical, one of the things I will be doing is working on a special project for Creative Screenwriting. I won’t tell you any more about it now, but if it works out, you will see it starting in early 2018.
And in the meantime, you will just have to figure out on your own which of the screenplays you see are good, which are not-so-good, and which are bad.
See you in six months.