Understanding Screenwriting #117


By Tom Stempel.

Pirates Not of the Caribbean

Captain Phillips

(2013. Screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty. 134 minutes.)

Barkhad Abdi, Tom Hanks and Faysal Ahmed

Barkhad Abdi, Tom Hanks and Faysal Ahmed

When Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were writing their script for the first of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie, they came to a simple realization: “We didn’t want to make a movie about real pirates. We wanted to make a pirate movie. There’s a difference.” There sure is, and in Ray’s screenplay there is not a single “Yo ho, Yo ho,” nor a secret medallion, nor a dog with a key. Know the kind of movie you’re writing. This a movie about real pirates in the contemporary world, in this case off the Somali coast hijacking ships for ransom. The script is based on the first-person account of Richard Phillips, captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, which was taken by Somali pirates in 2009. Ray has not fallen into the trap than many screenwriters working from autobiographical sources. Yes, Captain Phillips is the main character and star part, but we get some sense of the other members of the crew, and more importantly we see the pirates, particularly the four of them that end up on the ship, as individual characters. Since the second half of the film is mostly Phillips and the four pirates in the ship’s lifeboat, it enriches the script that we have some sense of who they are. Early on we see them recruited to do the job, and we see the disagreements among the four of them. The opening sequence, in which Phillips prepares to go to sea and his wife drives him to the airport, is quiet and rather bland. I guess that is intentional on Ray’s part, but he could have done more with Phillips and especially his wife. If you are going to all the trouble to get Catherine Keener for the part, you’d better give her something to do. See below for how the script for Enough Said does that. When Phillips boards the ship, the interest picks up. We have not have a great sea movie about cargo ships since…uh, maybe never. So we watch Phillips go about his work being a captain, and the film becomes partly a procedural: so that’s how they do that on cargo ships. Soon enough they are under attack, and in a nice twist, Phillips out maneuvers the pirates and gets away.

But they come back and with four guys with guns take over the ship. They want money and Phillips says he has $30,000. Muse, the leader, asks if Phillips thinks he looks like a beggar. Well, he does, but he hopes for a bigger score for his bosses. So there is a lot at stake. Phillips and the crew manage to disable the ship, and Phillips and the pirates leave the ship in the lifeboat. The Maersk Alabama is a United States-registered ship, which brings on the US Navy: a cruiser, an aircraft carrier, and the Navy SEALS. The suspense in the film is great, although it does get a little wearying for us (we are not as strong as Captain Phillips) before the final rescue. You may want to cheer the work of the Navy, and it is impressive, but you also may have a bit of sympathy for the Somalis.

Phillips is rescued and taken aboard one of the Navy ships, where he is checked out by a Navy corpsman, or corpswoman in this case. The first version of this scene was more conventional: Phillips, all cleaned up, talks to his wife on the phone (which is why they may have hired Keener). They shot it, and it was O.K., but not great. Someone said Phillips would have gone to the infirmary first. According to director Paul Greengrass, they went down to the infirmary, grabbed the corpswoman and said to just do what you would regularly do in that situation. Her medical professionalism is a great counterpoint to Phillips’s emotional state. His lines are basically those in the original script, but played in a slightly different context. It is a great scene, with some of Tom Hanks’s (Captain Phillips) best work. And that is saying a lot. Greengrass talked about the shooting of the scene in an interview in the Los Angeles Times you can read here. In another interview with the Times a month later, he let stand the interviewer’s suggestion the whole scene was improvised without a script. Somebody had obviously told him the directors’ branch of the academy would never nominate a director who admitted to more or less shooting the script. The first interview meanwhile did its damage. Greengrass was not nominated.  

Yea, Pretty Much All is Lost

All is Lost

(2013. Written by J.C. Chandor. 106 minutes.)

Robert Redford

Robert Redford

A man, never given a name in the film, wakes up in his oceangoing sailboat and discovers there is a hole in the side of the boat. It is from a cargo container that probably fell off the Maersk Alabama, although it is in a different ocean. The water pouring in has blown out his radio and navigation equipment, so he has to patch up the hole and navigate by dead reckoning. He is helped a bit by a sextant that he has never used before—how does Chandor show us this? He has limited the dialogue to almost nothing in the film, so the script is a good lesson in showing, not telling. The storms eventually wreck the man’s boat and he takes refuge in the lifeboat (which is equipped with a lot of stuff, but apparently no battery driven radio). And then things get worse.

Chandor, who wrote the terrific Margin Call (2011), has set himself a challenge, and fails to live up to it. Unlike the great character work in the earlier film, we learn almost nothing about the man. Unlike Ray with Captain Phillips, Chandor has not given the man anything but standard emotions to play, which leaves Robert Redford with no emotional line to play. Ray gives Hanks a lot of reactions, but Chandor doesn’t do that with his man. The character does what he does to try to survive, but it is just one damned thing after another. There is no counterpoint, emotional or in plot terms, to the man’s efforts to fix the boat and stay alive. I am not asking for flashbacks to his life ashore, or even the kind of rescue effort we see in Captain Phillips, but something more than just a procedural on survival at sea. What would you have written in?  

The Creature from the Black Lagoon Without the Swimsuit


(2013. Written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón. 91 minutes.)

Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone

Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone

This one did not impress me as much as it has both critics and audiences. It is certainly visually spectacular in its creation of outer space, and especially in showing the weightlessness objects have in space (although have some viewers have noticed Sandra Bullock’s hair does not float the way real female astronauts’ hair does; couldn’t they CGI it?). I am not a big fan of 3D, but Alfonso Cuarón, who also directed, has used the 3D as well as director Jack Arnold did in the 1954 film The Creature from the Black Lagoon. In the earlier film Arnold has some striking underwater footage which gives the viewers a sense of the volume of space that exists underwater. Cuarón uses 3D to give a similar sense of the volume of space in space. Arnold also of course had Julie Adams in a classic white swim suit, while Cuarón has to make do with a brief shot of Bullock in her skivvies.

The problem with Gravity is that the script is not up to the visuals, not an unusual situation in science fiction movies. Two astronauts, Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), are cut loose from the Shuttle by a field of debris from an exploded Russian satellite. As a letter in the Los Angeles Times on October 19th by Peter Navarro pointed out, in a real incident, it was the Chinese, not the Russians, who blew up their own satellite, but hey, China it a really big market Hollywood is trying to break into, so should know not to offend them.

Meanwhile Stone and Kowalski are trying to survive, and the suspense is terrific in most of those scenes. Kowalski is the veteran astronaut, talks a lot, and knows how to do stuff. Stone is a medical doctor/research scientist, and she is just frightened. Well, yes, we all would be, including Kowalski, but he covers it up, which gives Clooney stuff to do and say. The Cuaróns (Alfonso is the father, Jonás is the son; you can read an interview with Jonás on writing the script on the CS website here) have given Stone only the one note to play, which for all of Bullock’s efforts makes her not very interesting to watch.

One reason her character bothered me is that my wife is a scientist and I have known several other women scientists, and they are much more well-rounded than Stone is here. This was also a problem with Eleanor Arroway in the James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg screenplay for the 1997 Contact, where Arroway just wanders around looking gobsmacked at what she finds. Real women scientists are much more adventurous then these film counterparts. Scientists basically have a great curiosity about whatever it is they are doing. Stone should have been a lot more intellectually as well as emotionally involved.

One is reminded of Bogart’s wise advice to actors: if you are in a scene where somebody is pointing a gun at you, you do not have to act scared. Audiences assume that you are, and you can do other things. The Cuaróns could have done more along those lines, and Bullock certainly could have played it if it were in the script. The Cuaróns wanted the film to be philosophical, but that element does not live up to the visuals. Late in the picture there is a philosophical discussion between Stone and Kowalski, but it’s shallow, especially for coming as late as it does. The visuals of the film certainly give you depth, but the script does not.  

Do We Repossess Her Oscar?


(2013. Written by Diablo Cody. 86 minutes.)

Julianne Hough and Russell Brand

Julianne Hough and Russell Brand

As you might guess from the fact that Diablo Cody holding her Oscar for writing Juno (2007) is part of the photomontage at the top of this column, she is one of my favorite younger screenwriters. I have enjoyed even her lesser efforts, such as Jennifer’s Body (2009), as well as her great stuff: Juno, The United States of Tara (2009-2011), and Young Adult (2011). Unfortunately her newest script is a disaster. The idea for Paradise has promise. Lamb is a young woman brought up in a very strict religious community. She was in a plane crash and burned over most of her body. She decides to blow off her family and church and go to Las Vegas to sin.

The problems begin in the opening scene where she has been invited to talk to her church about her recovery process. Instead, she tells them she thinks there is no God. The church members are horrified. Yeah, that makes sense, but Cody does not give them any other reactions to play. Cody does the same thing when Lamb gets to Vegas: Lamb’s sole reaction to everything that happens is a wide-eyed stare. We expect a lot more from a woman who has deliberately come to Vegas to sin. The sins turn out to be relatively minor: drinking alcohol, rhythmic dancing, etc.

Each sin is given its own written title, so the movie becomes one damned sin after another, with virtually no build, not unlike The To Do List, which I criticized for the same thing in US #115. Instead of meeting bizarre people, Lamb takes up with a couple of sweethearts, William, a bartender, and Loray, a black singer. But all they do is talk about Lamb’s situation. Loray does have a bit of an edge (I did like Loray’s insistence that she was not going to be a “magic Negro” who makes everything right for the white chick), but Cody could find a lot more interesting people for Lamb to do deal with. How about having her run into Lady Heather, the dominatrix that Grissom used to hang out with on CSI? She’s probably still in Vegas.

Take a minute now and think about who you could come up with for Lamb to meet. Right, yours are better. The closest Cody comes to Lady Heather is a hooker named Amber. Lamb gets one of those cards that get handed out on the streets of Vegas advertising hookers. This one has Amber’s picture on it, but when she runs into the real Amber while puking in a bathroom, it’s obvious the picture was taken a long time ago. But Amber is also a sweetheart and becomes in Lamb’s phrase “my magic prostitute.” Again, a lot more could be done with that. Especially when Cody throws in a late-in-the-movie twist about the outcome of the plane crash that seems like a desperate attempt to find a way out of the story. If she had placed that earlier in the script, the movie could have been a lot better.

The script is not helped by the director, who is Cody herself making her directorial debut. Cody is not very sharp about where to put the camera, and she’s let it be lighted like a TV sitcom, with glamour close-ups of Julianne Hough, who plays Lamb. Hough is a disaster in the role, without the kind of screen presence or acting talent Ellen Page, Toni Collette, and Charlize Theron brought to Juno, The United States of Tara, and Young Adult, respectively. The more professional actors, Russell Brand (William), Octavia Spencer (Loray), and Kathleen Rose Perkins (Amber) are terrific, but Cody’s inexperience dealing with actors hurts her with Hough.

According to the IMDb, Hough has only seven credits as an actress, but 63 credits for “self,” meaning she is at this stage in her career more of a celebrity than an actress, and it shows. Paradise has been released primarily on Video on Demand, but it was given a small theatrical release in the Los Angeles area last October. It played one week, with only two screenings a day, at the AMC 8 in Burbank. The audience the afternoon I saw it totaled five people. In an interview in the LA Weekly, Cody said she really had not wanted to direct and after the experience does not want to do it again. “I would never have directed in the first place if I hadn’t felt obligated to increase the number of female directors by putting myself in that position. I have no idea how somebody makes a movie like Saving Private Ryan. Are you fucking kidding me? This was my fucking Avatar, and it killed me.” This may just be like women complaining after giving birth that they never want to have another child, but Cody’s probably better off devoting herself to writing great scripts.  

Good Writing Beats Mediocre Directing Every Time

Enough Said

(2013. Written by Nicole Holofcener. 93 minutes.)

James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus

James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus

In writing about Holofcener’s 2010 film Please Give in US #47, I mentioned that Holofcener’s earlier films were very loosely constructed, with a lot of people walking and talking. What was nice about Please Give was that it was a little more tightly structured than the earlier films. The talk and the wonderful characterizations were still there, but they paid off in ways they had not before. Enough Said is even better. Eva is a late forties-early fifties masseuse. No, not a “Hi sailor, new in town?” masseuse, but a real one, schlepping her massage table all over town, including up a flight of stairs to an apartment of a young guy who never thinks to help her wrestling with it.

Holofcener’s very quick exposition gives us three clients that show us what a drag Eva’s work can be. (Writers should always remember the rule of three: you need three to establish a pattern. One is an event, two is a coincidence, and three is a pattern.) Eva goes to a party and meets a couple of interesting people. One is the poet Marianne (Holofcener regular Catherine Keener, much better utilized here than in Captain Phillips, giving us all sides of the character at one time), who becomes a client and friend of Eva. The other is Albert, a rather large, fiftyish television librarian. Holofcener’s writing creates two terrific characters for the actors to play, in this case James Gandolfini as Albert and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Eva. Holofcener has given them both a lot to do, both individually and collectively.

At about forty minutes into the film, Holofcener gives us a great twist. Eva learns Albert is Marianne’s ex-husband, whom Marianne has been bad-mouthing the whole time. Then Holofcener develops that idea: Eva starts asking Marianne more questions about Albert, and each time Marianne says something awful, Eva, semi-believing her, begins to think worse of Albert. It’s very easy to throw in a twist like this, but a lot of writers then don’t do anything with it. Holofcener gets as much as she can out of that before, forty more minutes into the movie, Albert and Marianne’s daughter, who’s met Eva over dinner with Albert, shows up at Marianne’s while Eva is there. And then Albert shows up. Think about why this is much better screenwriting than all of them discovering this separately. Albert and Eva break up, but there is a faint promise they may get back together at the end.

The only flaw in the script, and it is a minor one, is that it never gets beyond the characters to deal with a larger world. I suppose the detail that the daughters of both Eva and Albert are going away to college in the fall is supposed to broaden out the picture, but it’s not quite enough. The bigger problem with the film is that Holofcener’s direction is a lot sloppier than it has been in past films. Particularly near the beginning, there are a lot of awkward camera angles that cut together rather badly. Holofcener is better when she just sets the camera down and watches Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus say and do the great stuff Holofcener has written for them. Particularly good is a scene done in a single long take in which the two sit on the back step of a house and eventually talk themselves into kissing. The scene is a beautiful example of a director having a great script and great actors and then just getting the hell out of their way. More directors need to learn how to do that.  

Where Is John Sayles When You Need Him?

The Fifth Estate

(2012. Screenplay by Josh Singer, based on the book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and the book WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Lee and Luke Harding. 128 minutes.)

Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl

Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl

I have to say there is a great credit sequence in this film, made by a company called Prologue, that gives a surprisingly complete mini-history of communications from caveman days up to computers. I wish the rest of the film was as good. As the credits end, the film jumps into the story of computer leaker Julian Assange and his most spectacular trick: releasing thousands of classified American documents provided by a lowly Army private named Bradley Manning. Well, nothing like starting in media res, as Homer and a lot of other classic writers did.

Singer unfortunately does not make the events clear. We get a lot of detail about the orchestration between Assange’s Wikileaks and newspapers like The Guardian and The New York Times, but Singer gives us so much detail we get lost, especially if you are not as computer savvy as the people in the film.

It is generally considered bad form to lose the audience right away. You can certain raise questions (“Rosebud” in Citizen Kane, who is that guy on the motorcycle and does he “really deserve a place in here?” in Lawrence of Arabia), but you shouldn’t confuse the viewers, which Singer does. On Apollo 13 they brought in John Sayles to make the technobabble clear. When the lunar module has to cut back power, one character says, “You can’t run a vacuum cleaner on 12 amps.” Singer gets off one line like that late in the picture when Assange realizes his former colleague Daniel is sabotaging Wikileaks. Assange says, “Nobody will be able to get on the submission platform.” That works because we have learned over the course of the film what the submission platform is (it’s where leakers can submit their material to Wikileaks).

After the opening, Singer gets into telling us how Daniel (the author of one of the books the film is based on) came to be involved with Wikileaks. These scenes are still rather busy, not helped by Bill Condon’s equally busy direction. Singer is trying to get way too much material into the first half of the film, and we get lost at the mention of all the leaks Wikileaks managed to do. The dialogue is not helpful, and between the accents (British, Australian, and German, just to name three) and the fact the sound recording, rerecording or mixing is not that good, the details are hard to follow. If you are going to have a film with this much talking, you’d better make sure the crucial stuff is clear. Look at The Social Network and Argo to see how it ought to be done.

Speaking of The Social Network, it is a much better portrayal of a computer geek conquering the world because the Zuckerberg character has more interesting characters to play off. Here it is mostly Assange and Daniel, which probably happened because Singer, unlike Sorkin on Social Network, stuck too much with Daniel’s book as his source. Social Network also is more strictly focused on the development of Facebook and the characters associated with it. The Fifth Estate wants to cover a wider view and loses us in the process. See how inconsistent understanding screenwriting, both the process and this column, can be? In the item right above this I pinged on Holofcener for not going wider.

Screenwriting is a question of balance, folks. The film does pick up in the second half when it focuses on the Manning leaks. We begin to see the reactions of people to the leaks. We get a couple of State Department types, Sarah Shaw and James Boswell, as they deal with the fallout. We see Sarah lose his position because of a leaked email in which she was critical of a foreign diplomat. That may have happened to one or two diplomats, but what was really interesting was how little upheaval in diplomatic circles there were about those cables. That’s because diplomats in other countries knew they were saying the same things about our people and Wikileaks just had not caught them.

The current leaks from Edward Snowden have been much more damaging and caused a greater furor because they show the degree of spying we are doing on our allies. Our allies have had to object more to that, although there is a growing sentiment that our allies either are doing that kind of snooping, or would if they could. The Fifth Estate has been a commercial bomb both here and abroad, and some of that may be that the Snowden releases have taken the spotlight away from Assange, who is now holed up in the Uruguayan embassy in London avoiding sexual harassment charges. I think it may also have bombed in America, in addition to the script problems I mentioned, because in the age of Facebook, Twitter, et al, a lot of people don’t care about their privacy so much. After all, how can you become a celebrity if you keep your private life private?  


Don Jon

(2013. Written by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. 90 minutes.)

Scarlett Johansson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Scarlett Johansson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Jon is a young guy who likes his stuff: car, apartment, church, girls, and porn. He is a porn addict. He watches it a lot, and I mean A LOT. Unless you are as addicted to porn as Jon, this gets to be a problem in the script. We see some of the porn he watches (check out the names of the porn stars in the credits: there is some great original writing in the names they have come up for themselves), and we quickly get the idea. But Gordon-Levitt keeps repeating the porn (not literally the same scenes, although it is kind of hard to tell, since most porn looks alike), so much so that it just gets irritating. There is no real payoff for the repetition of the porn, as there is for two other elements he repeats. Jon goes to confession every week, and we hear the penances he is given.

Late in the film he confesses to less than he has before, but gets the same penance, which baffles him and amuses us. In another repeating gag, his sister Monica has no dialogue until very late in the picture. She is constantly texting on her phone, even during family dinners. When she finally speaks, she turns out to be the smartest person in the room. So as a writer if you need to repeat elements, make sure they pay off in interesting ways. Here the porn doesn’t and the church and the sister do.

Gordon-Levitt has created several interesting characters, as we have seen screenplays by actors do (e.g., In A World in US #116). He nails Jon as both a writer and an actor. Barbara is his ideal dream girl, oozing sexuality in everything she does. At first she seems to be addicted to romantic comedies as much as Jon is addicted to porn, but Gordon-Levitt drops that midway through the film. Instead she turns out to be a control freak, which he shows us in a funny, bizarre scene in which she gets upset when she learns Jon cleans his own apartment. We know at that point she’s weirder than we thought since most women would kill for a guy who does the cleaning. Jon then meets Esther, an older woman, who is real (Julianne Moore, enough said). Gordon-Levitt does a nice job of writing her as the antithesis of Barbara. Jon is torn between his fantasies and the reality of Esther. It’s fun to watch him struggle, and very more satisfying to see the resolution. Unless you are a guy stuck in your fantasies.  

Petrolheads Will Love It


(2013. Written by Peter Morgan. 123 minutes.)

Daniel Brühl and Chris Hemsworth

Daniel Brühl and Chris Hemsworth

An Irish friend of mine who describes herself as a “petrolhead” likes this movie a lot better than I do. She grew up with a mad crush on James Hunt, one of the two Formula One drivers the film is about, so she loved inhaling the film’s exhaust. However, she does agree with me that Chris Hemsworth, who plays Hunt, is a block of wood and blown off the screen by the great German actor Daniel Brühl, who plays Hunt’s rival Niki Lauda. The focus of Morgan’s script is on the rivalry of the two, particularly during the 1976 season.

You would think that Morgan would be the perfect writer for this project. He is best known for two screenplays based on real life events, The Queen (2006) and Frost/Nixon (2008). In those two, the confrontations were very themselves very focused: Tony Blair trying to get Queen Elizabeth to deal with the public response to Princess Diana’s death in the former, and David Frost grilling Richard Nixon on television in the latter. The basic material of Rush does not lend itself to that sharp a focus. The script starts off with a lot of backstory in a collection of scenes that confuse as much as explain. We get their first meeting as Formula Three drivers, then jump ahead I think to their Formula One days. We see how Lauda got there, but it’s not clear how Hunt did.

Unlike Blair, the Queen, Frost and Nixon, they don’t get a lot of face to face action, and when they do, they mostly just snip at each other. Meanwhile we get a lot of scenes that are off the main line of the story. There is a terrific scene in which Lauda meets Marlene, his future wife, when he hitches a ride with her as they are both leaving the same mansion. They banter, with him telling her everything that’s wrong with her car. The car breaks down and he tries to hitch a ride, but the next car doesn’t stop. Marlene does not say specifically that she has seen the hitchhiking scene in It Happened One Night (1934), but she uses her good looks to stop a car. At which point the two men jump out of the car and run towards…Lauda. They recognize him and want him to drive their car rather than just giving him a ride. In the car Marlene asks Lauda, “Who are you?” It’s a cute meet, but it goes on longer than it needs to in the film.

About half way through the film Lauda has an accident on the track that nearly kills him and the film becomes more dramatic as he tries to come back and Hunt has to deal with it. The second half of the film is much tighter than the first as we concentrate more on Hunt and Lauda and what they mean to each other.

From the script standpoint, the racing scenes are rather generic, as opposed to those in Robert Alan Aurthur’s screenplay for the 1965 film Grand Prix, where each race has a specific meaning for one or more of the characters. The racing scenes in Rush are done with a lot pretty good CGI, but those in Grand Prix were shot during real races with real people in the crowds and are generally more convincing. There are limits to CGI, you know.




Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is <a href="">Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays</a>. <br><table> <tr> <td><a href=""><img src="" style="height:25px"></a> </td> <td><a href="">Tom on</a> </td> </tr> </table>

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