by Tom Stempel
Hi, I’m Tom Stempel, and I write about screenwriting. Well, if you have already been following this column at The House Next Door, you know that from the first 113 columns. If you are primarily Creative Screenwriting veterans, you may recognize me from my years on the Editorial Board there or from the writing I did for the magazine in the old days. Or you may have just read one or more of my books and Google me from time to time to find out what I am up to. Anyway, due to changes at the House, I am moving the column over to the new CS reboot. I thank the guys at the House for all their support over the five years I have been doing this column, but I am also glad to be working with Erik Bauer again. For those of you who are complete newbies to this column, let me explain what it is I do. I review movies and television from the standpoint of screenwriting. Most film reviewers mention the script or the screenwriters of films sparingly, if at all. I cannot tell you the number of reviews of film I have read where the critic goes on and on about structure, character and dialogue without ever mentioning all that comes from the screenwriters. So I will be looking at new movies, old movies and television movies and shows, as well as writing occasional other items, such as appreciations of screenwriters who have died, plays based on films, books on screenwriting and screenwriters and assorted other sundries. If you want to read some of the earlier columns, you can do so here. If you want to get my take on a particular film that I have written on, write “Understanding Screenwriting” (in parentheses) in the search box, followed by the name of the film, also in parentheses.
I should also explain what I DON’T do in this column. This is not a How-to-Write-a-Screenplay column. This is not a How-to-Get-An-Agent-and-Sell-Your-Screenplay column. It is not entirely a Craft-of-Screenwriting column, although the craft certainly gets mentioned. Far from a beginning level class, this is more of an advanced graduate seminar in the nuances of screenwriting. That means that, based on my years of experience as a film historian focusing on the history of screenwriting and my years teaching screenwriting at Los Angeles City College, I take a very jaundiced view of a lot of the ruling clichés of screenwriting. Here are just two to give you a feel for my kind of iconoclasm. The first one came from a question from a former student about the importance of the three-act structure in film, since a script he was working on seemed to have five acts. I did not have any other comments on the previous column, so I answered him in the column. Here is what I said:
“Just as you can divide any film into three acts, you can also divide it into five acts. I have a particular preference for four, but that’s only because I ran track in high school and one of my events was the mile run, which was four times around a quarter mile track. I just got used to thinking in terms of fours. If you think I am joking, look at all the screenwriting textbooks that talk about the three-act structure but disagree on exactly how long each act should be. The main thing is to keep the story moving forward and keep us involved with the characters and the story. If you do that, nobody is going to count the acts, however they count them.
The three-act structure, by the way, comes from the Broadway theatre of the ’30s and ’40s. Almost no stage play written now uses three acts. They are either a long one-act, or two acts. Shakespeare, by the way, used what was then the traditional five acts, so I supposed you could use a film of one of his plays as an example. Is this whole question to settle a bar bet? I can’t imagine it has a serious purpose.”
Well, that ought to settle that. One question that kept coming up from would-be screenwriters who read the column was why did I not deal with the Hero’s Journey, which everybody knows is required to make a good film. Finally I got so tired of the question, I wrote this in 2010:
“Learning about the mythology of the Hero’s Journey will not teach you a damned thing about screenwriting. It will only teach you what development executives think a movie has to have. The Hero’s Journey pattern of narratives in various cultures began in Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which is generally considered to be a ripoff of Sir James George Frazier’s epic late 19th-early 20th century study of comparative cultures. Campbell’s book would have been forgotten by now, except that George Lucas, trying to convince people that the first Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) was more than just sci-fi movies for kids, promoted the film as being influenced by Campbell. Campbell, being something of a celebrity whore, bought into that and kept popping up on PBS with Lucas to explain it all for you. The Lucas films a) made more money than God, and b) established the teen-fan boy audience as the audience primarily aimed at by Hollywood. So it is not surprising that Campbell’s ideas, especially as promoted in Christopher Vogler’s 1998 book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, became the standard clichéd structure that Hollywood believes in.
The Hero’s Journey follows a young man as he is called to adventure, resists the call, gets supernatural help, goes through a bunch of trials, is tempted by Woman, wins out in the end, and returns to his world. It is more complicated than that, and you can look it up on Wikipedia if you want to. Needless to say, it is a rather limited view of what a movie can be, especially with its patriarchal, teen-boy fear of women. You may be able, of course, to fit several classic films into the archetype. Just off the top of my head, you can do it with Citizen Kane (1941), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) without breaking too much of a sweat.
On the other hand. Again just off the top of my head, here are some great or at least good classic scripts that do not fit into that paradigm: It Happened One Night (1934), The Thin Man (1934), Nothing Sacred (1937), His Girl Friday (1940), Brief Encounter (1945), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Gunfighter (1950), The Narrow Margin (1952), Roman Holiday (1953), Some Like it Hot (1959), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Blow-Up (1966), Chinatown (1974), Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), Terms of Endearment (1983), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Thelma & Louise (1992).
And here are some more I have written about recently in this column: The Town, Easy A, The Concert, Life During Wartime, Get Low, The Kids Are All Right, Please Give, The Secrets in Their Eyes…”
I have since, from time to time, made it a point to mention when a good script does NOT follow the Hero’s Journey. If you are completely freaked out by my comments on the three act structure and the Hero’s Journey, then reading this column may do you a world of good, at least for your soul if not necessarily your bankbook.
I mentioned that my comments about the Hero’s Journey were driven by comments from readers. One of the great pleasures of doing this column at the House Next Door was the tremendous quality of the comments. There was, thank God, very little of the typical “You suck,” “No, you suck” that one gets all too often on the Internet. Let’s try to keep up the tradition of intelligent, perceptive comments. I will deal with the most interesting ones in the following column in a section near the top of the column called Fan Mail.
The Lone Ranger (2013. Screenplay by Justin Haythe and Terry Rossio & Ted Elliot, story by Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio and Justin Haythe. 149 minutes)
As Osgood Fielding III once said in slightly different circumstances, nobody’s perfect
It takes top-of-the-line professionals to make a movie that goes as wrong in as many ways as this film does. This is a failure, but an ambitious one. I am a huge fan of Terry Rossio & Ted Elliot. In writing about Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides (2011) in US#75 I went into some detail about their contributions to the first Pirates trilogy, which I still think is the best-written trilogy of all time. Alas, their work on Stranger Tides was not up to the first three, as my review makes clear. One of the many problems with that script was that they tried to make Captain Jack the main character. In the first three he is not the main character, but the comedy relief. Here the boys have tried to make Depp’s Tonto the main character, but they have botched it. As we get at the beginning of the film, Tonto is supposed to be the smartest guy in, well, not the room, but the West. He finds John Reid, the sole surviving member of an ambush by the Cavendish gang, and at the urging of his horse turns Reid into a rather clumsy Lone Ranger. We are supposed to admire Tonto for his Native American wisdom, but then two-thirds of the way through the movie, the script pulls the rug out from under us. We learn from his former chief that Tonto’s “wisdom” is entirely his own and completely made up. I think we are supposed to find that funny, but it destroys the character the script has built up. What we are left with is Tonto making jokes at the Lone Ranger’s expense. There are a lot of those jokes and they get very tiresome, although the last one about the Lone Ranger and Silver actually made me chuckle, not a small accomplishment after nearly two and a half hours.
One of my screenwriting mantras is that you are always writing for performance. Rossio & Elliot did a great job of that for Depp in the first three Pirates movies, but not here. I have no idea if it was the writers’ or Depp’s idea to base the look of his character on Kirby Sattler’s famous painting “I am a Crow,” but it’s a mistake for the film.
The single image (which you can see here) is striking in a painting you can look at for five minutes, but looks more and more ridiculous over two and a half hours. There are references to it in the script, but they may have been put there in collaboration with Depp. When I saw the first images in photographs and ads, Depp’s crow almost made me not see the film. In defense of Disney, after Depp’s success as Captain Jack, nobody wanted to second-guess him about the costume. Everybody assumed the same team could do no wrong.
The first Pirates trilogy hangs together on a story level much better than you might think. In those the stories of each collection of characters are tied together, in organic but sometimes surprising ways. The writers (and I have no sense of what Justin Haythe’s contributions are to this script; his previous credits include The Clearing  and Revolutionary Road , which don’t suggest the kind of flair required for this film) are trying for the same thing, but it does not work here. We have the Cavendish gang, Reid’s love for his dead brother’s wife, the railroad man Cole, Tonto’s backstory, and assorted other plot lines, but when they do connect, it’s only in mechanical ways.
I will not get into the gross historical inaccuracies of the script, but one advantage of the film flopping at the box office is that kids will not grow up believing the driving of the golden spike to connect the transcontinental railroad took place in Texas.
Now here’s the shocker. In spite of my disappointment in the script and the film being a mess, I sort of enjoyed it. I love Westerns and the film has a lot of action, horses, trains (the final chase is on the Durango to Silverton train in Colorado, with CGI providing a second track near the real one), and scenery. There is a lot of Monument Valley, but the shots there prove once again that John Ford is the only director who ever truly understood the visual and emotional structure of the Valley.
I’m So Excited (2013. Written by Pedro Almodóvar. 90 minutes)
Like one of his early, funny, sexy ones
When I first caught up with Almodóvar in the late ’80s, one of the elements of his films that appealed to me was his pan-sexuality. Yes, there were a lot of gay characters, but there were a lot of straight characters too. But you never quite knew who was going to end up sleeping with whom. Gays slept with gays, but sometimes with straights, and straights sometimes slept with gays. And let’s not even get into the transsexuals. And it was all done with a wonderful light touch, unlike any American films that got anywhere near the subjects. I liked the more serious films that came later, especially Broken Embraces (2009, see my review of it here), but I am not unhappy to see Almodóvar return to his sexual roots.
The setup is simple. We are on a plane going from Spain to Mexico. The flight attendants have drugged the Economy class passengers so they will sleep through the whole flight, so we are spending time in Business class. There are technical problems with the plane, and while the pilots try to deal with that, the flight attendants (all three attendants in Business are male and gay) try to keep the passengers’ spirits up. This involves lip-synching the Pointer Sisters take on the title song, but the passengers are only mildly amused. Some critics have pointed out that some of the personal and professional complications the Business class passengers have are critiques of the business and political classes in Spain. I don’t know enough about the politics of Spain to know if that’s true, but it’s not essential for audiences elsewhere. Fairly quickly the sex begins to take over, and in true Almodóvar fashion, it’s both wild and funny. Then in the last half hour the film turns slightly more serious, as if Almodóvar is saying, yes, I know this has been lightweight but you should remember I do serious stuff. I am not convinced he needed to go that way, since the raunch is pure and entertaining enough to carry the show.
You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012. Adaptation by Alain Resnais(under the name Alex Reval) and Laurent Herbiet, based on the plays Eurydice and Cher Antoine ou l’amour rate by Jean Anouilh. 115 minutes)
Alain Resnais and his writers
When Alain Resnais first came to prominence as a director in the ’50s and ’60s, he was noted for his expanding the art of the cinema. In his 1955 documentary Night and Fog, he cut between the past and the present, between live action and stills, and between color and black and white to present an emotionally overpowering look at the Holocaust. In his first fiction film in 1959 Hiroshima Mon Amour, he elegantly slipped between past and present, all the while juxtaposing fiction and documentary material. He was creating “pure cinema.”
What many viewer and critics were not aware of is Resnais’s love of writers, who make major contributions to his films. The narration for Night and Fog was written by the French poet Jean Cayrol. Resnais did not agree to make Hiroshima until the producer allowed him to get novelist Marguerite Duras to write the script. The novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote the script for the virtually abstract Last Year at Marienbad (1961).
The screenplay for Resnais’s 1977 English language film was by British playwright David Mercer. In recent years, Resnais has made two films from plays by the British playwright Alan Ayckborn.
In his current film, Resnais and his co-adaptor Laurent Herbiet have taken two Jean Anouilh plays and squished them together. They are an awkward fit, since the writers use too much of one and not enough of the other. Anouilh’s 1941 play Eurydice is a modern version of the Eurydice and Orpheus story, set among a troupe of actors waiting in a train station. Cher Antoine ou l’amour rate is a 1969 play about a group of friends, wives, mistresses and lovers of the late playwright Antoine. They are called together for the reading of the will, but an avalanche strands them in Antoine’s mountain house. Drama erupts. In Renais’s film, it is a group of actors, all of them playing themselves, who are called to the late Antoine’s house to watch a video of a rehearsal of a new production of his play.
The play is Anouilh’s Eurydice. The actors watching, all of whom have played in Antoine’s productions of the play over the years, start playing out the scenes along with the video. So we get virtually all of the play, with different scenes acted out by some of the great French actors of our time. I am always in favor of writing for performance, and it is fun to see the stars at work, but that is all we get. Resnais and Herbiet have used almost nothing of the second play, and we keep waiting for the characters of the stars to reveal themselves. We don’t get it, and since the setup promises we are going “behind the scenes” we are very frustrated. If you are going to promise us something in your setup, you’d better deliver.
Nightfall (1957. Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, based on the novel by David Goodis. 78 minutes), The Burglar (1957. Screenplay by David Goodis, based on his novel. 90 minutes), The Burglars (1971. Screenplay by Henri Verneuil and Vahé Katcha, based on the novel The Burglar by David Goodis. 120 minutes)
David Goodis Night on TCM!
In June, Turner Classic Movies had an evening of films based on the novels of film noir writer David Goodis. Goodis was a native of Philadelphia who worked a bit in Hollywood, but mostly wrote short stories and novels, many of which were made into films. TCM ran four films that night, and I watched the three I’ll be discussing here. The fourth was the 1960 François Truffaut film Shoot the Piano Player, which I’d seen before. The others I hadn’t.
Goodis had his first Hollywood success when his novel Dark Passage was turned into a 1947 film, but not much came out of it for him. The writer selected for Nightfall was Stirling Silliphant, who had some success two years before with a nice little heist movie, Five Against the House. Nightfall is an after-heist story. Jim Vanning is on the run from a couple of thugs who robbed a bank who think he’s got their money. Vanning was on a hunting trip with a doctor. They were taken prisoners by the robbers, who then ended up walking off with the doctor’s little black bag instead of their’s with the money in it. The thugs, John and Red, assume Vanning’s got the money.
We eventually get a showdown in the woods where the bag with the money is still under the snow. The storyline is inventive, but the film is not as dark as some films noir. According to the host of the evening’s screenings on TCM, Eddie Muller, the President of the Film Noir Foundation, Silliphant had beefed up the parts of the thugs, especially John (played by Brian Keith, who made a good impression in Five Against the House). The film has a slicker script than the one Goodis wrote himself for The Burglar. That comes from Silliphant, here at the start of a career that would include a lot of television (he created Route 66) as well as theatrical films as varied as In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Towering Inferno (1974).
After his first sojourn in Hollywood, Goodis went back to Philadelphia, where he wrote The Burglar. It has more of Goodis’s feeling for the underbelly of life in the City of Brotherly Love. We get details of a rich woman who runs a foundation before we see Nat and his gang rob her house of a diamond necklace. Then we wait with the gang while the case cools down before they try to fence it. Goodis is clearly within his element here as we watch the members of the gang sweat out the wait. The scenes are grungier and more focused on character than plot, as compared to what Silliphant has in Nightfall. Nat is sort of an unofficial guardian of Gladden, the daughter of the man who raised him when he was an orphan, but Dohmer, one of the gang, makes a pass at her, so Nat sends her to Atlantic City. (Gladden is played in one of her earliest roles by Jayne Mansfield, before she became a sex goddess. She does not do modest well, and probably made the right career move.) Nat meets another woman, Della, and overhears her talking with the policeman Nat managed to convince that his car just happened to break down at the house the night of the robbery. The detective, Charlie, is planning to kidnap Gladden and force Nat to give him the necklace. Nat gives him the necklace, but Charlie kills him anyway, only to be ratted out by Della. Not nice people. The film would be even better if it were not directed by Paul Wendkos. It was his first film and he seems to be determined to outdo Orson Welles in camera tricks, which are mostly distracting. Wendkos settled down and had a long career as a journeyman director.
Truffaut was not the only French filmmaker interested in Goodis. In 1971, four years after Goodis died at age 49, director Henri Verneuil did a loose adaptation of The Burglar. Very loose. Very, very loose. The Burglars is a very big-budget, star-driven film. The Nat equivalent is Azad, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, and we jump right into the robbery without a clue about whom he and his gang are robbing. The meeting with the cop, here Abel Zacharia , is a much bigger scene. Abel is played by Omar Shariff, the other top-billed actor, so we know he is going to get more screen time than Charlie did in The Burglar. What follows are a lot of pointless chase scenes and equally pointless scenes of various characters pointing large guns at each other. Since the film is shot on the coasts of the Mediterranean, it has none of the grit of the earlier film, and none of the characterization. Goodis probably turned over in his grave.
Camp (2013. “Pilot” written by Liz Heldens and Peter Elkof. 60 minutes)
Where is Almodóvar when you need him?
This is the pilot for a new one-hour dramedy about a summer camp. The focus is on both the kids and the adults. Both are interested in sex, sometimes with each other. Very, very interested in sex. Unfortunately it is handled in a very typically American heavy-handed way. We, alas, do not seem to have Almodóvar’s light touch. I have been both a camper and a counselor at different summer camps, and I know there are a lot of terrific stories to be told about camps. Yes, some of them are about sex (it’s summer and horny kids and adults are out in nature), but other stuff is going on as well. It may just be that this was a problem common with pilots: trying to set up everything in the first 60 minutes.
The woman running the camp is Mackenzie “Mack” Griffith, played by the always-welcome Rachel Griffiths. As written, the part is a terrible fit for her. Griffiths has a great down-to-earth quality, but Mack is a first class ditz who seems unable to do an intelligent thing if her life depended on it. If the writers had shaped the part for Griffiths’s talents, they might have been on to something.
The Bridge (2013. Multiple episodes. Created by Ellwood Reid & Meredith Stiehm, based on the Swedish television series Bron/Broen created by Måns Mårlind, Hans Rosenfeldt, and Börn Stein. Multiple lengths)
Now this is how to do it. Do what? Nearly everything.
The Swedish television series this is based on is set on and around the Öresun Bridge that connects the southern end of Sweden to the Danish island of Peberhom, with a tunnel continuing the road to the Danish mainland. I am sure you have read about all the crime and violence that takes place on that border. Well, nope, neither have I. The series filmmakers managed to get a critically acclaimed mystery series out of it in which a Danish detective and Swedish detective team up to solve a murder on the bridge. The American creators first thought of placing their version on the American-Canadian border. Yeah, then after you solve the first murder, what do you? Creative logic prevailed and they have set it on the U.S.-Mexico border, with El Paso on the American side and Juarez on the Mexican side. Let’s see, that gives you drugs, illegal aliens, the astonishing number of young women murdered over the last twenty years in Juarez, and God knows what else. Good choice guys.
So we start with a body on the middle of the bridge. Detective Sonya Cross from the El Paso Police Department comes from the American side, and Detective Marco Ruiz from the Mexican side. She is not just a by-the-book cop, but seems to have very little sensitivity to other people. He’s much more easy-going. He lets Charlotte, a rich American woman, who is taking her sick husband in an ambulance back to Texas, go across the bridge, which irritates Sonya, because it disrupts the crime scene. They are thrown together as a team when it is discovered the body is fact halves of two bodies, the top half an American woman judge, the body a Mexican woman who disappeared a year ago.
If the writers on Camp have bungled writing a great part for Griffiths, Reid and Stiehm have created two terrific roles with Sonya and Marco. Sonya has Asperger’s syndrome, although in the first three episodes nobody has named it. She shows no emotional connection to people, but she is great on physical details. The actress playing her is Diane Kruger, who has been awfully uneven in films. In Troy (2004) she was blank in the badly-written part of Helen of. In 2012’s much better written Farewell, My Queen, she was great as Marie Antoinette (see my review of this in US#99). Kruger is one of those actors who is great when you give them something to do, but can’t just stand there the way certain stars can. She does a lot with what she’s given here.
Marco is played by the great Mexican actor Demián Bichir and unlike Kruger, he is great at hanging around and silently reacting to what’s going on. His reactions to Sonya’s peculiarities enable Bichir to give a master class in screen acting. His reactions show us he is more sensitive to people than Sonya. He also has a warmth she doesn’t, especially with his wife. So when he suddenly has a roll in the hay in the third episode with a woman you would least expect him to, it’s a shocker.
The writers are setting up a variety of storylines and characters in the first three episodes (the only ones I have seen as of this writing) that will undoubtedly pay off in interesting ways. The Bridge is on FX, the channel that gives us Justified. If you like Justified, you’ll like The Bridge. Even if it does not have the wonderful Elmore Leonardish dialogue, but then as Osgood said….