Understanding Screenwriting #120


By Tom Stempel.

 Alfred Kinsey, Amber Waves, Lady Mary Crawley, and Patsey Kick Serious Butt


(2014. Screenplay by John W. Richardson & Chris Roach and Ryan Engle, story by John W. Richardson & Chris Roach. 106 minutes.)

Liam Neeson as Bill Marks in Non-Stop

Liam Neeson as Bill Marks in  Non-Stop

Yes, this is another one of those Liam Neeson whoop-ass movies, in the vein of Taken (2008), Unknown (2011), and Taken 2 (2012). The writing is a little sharper here than in the earlier ones, and certainly more inventive than in the Taken films. Here he is Bill Marks, a U.S. Air Marshal, but he starts out a mess. He doesn’t like to fly, and he has been drinking before he ever gets on the plane. The senior flight attendant, Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery, knows him, or at least knows he is the air marshal, so when he orders an alcoholic drink, she brings him a non-alcoholic one. Look at how that is handled without being obvious in the dialogue. After a little maneuvering, he ends up sitting next to Jen Summers, the always welcome Julianne Moore. The other flight attendant you may or may not recognize from her award-winning role in 12 Years a Slave (2013). Lupita Nyong’o does not have as dramatic a part here as she does in Slave, but when the editor cuts to her, you can’t not watch her.

I mention the women in this film because they are better served by this script than the women in the previous Neeson action pictures were. See what I said about Famke Janssen in Taken 2 here. The setup is that somebody contacts Marks on his confidential cell phone and says that someone will die unless Marks transfers a pile of money to an off-shore account. If he doesn’t do it in thirty minutes, the voice will kill one passenger. If he has not done it by thirty minutes after that, another will die. Well, you try getting that amount of money in that sort of time. Marks talks to his boss, who tells him they have found that the account the money is to be sent to is in Marks’ name. The writers never show us the boss and it’s smart of them not to. For the majority of the film, we never get off the plane, which makes it all the more suspenseful. The writers are following in the giant footsteps of John Michael Hayes and his screenplay for Rear Window. You can stay in one location if you give us interesting characters to watch and interesting plot turns.

Here is where the women come in. Marks gets suspicious of people on the plane. Some look as though they could be thugs or terrorists. Some look innocent. One advantage of having classy actors like Moore and Dockery is that can seem both sympathetic and then suspicious. Remember that Dockery’s Lady Mary has a tough edge that the filmmakers here use effectively when they need to.

Eventually the baddies are discovered and the writers use a B-movie trick that had me laughing out loud. Obviously the whole setup of having a guy on the plane to handle the killing, rerouting calls, etc. was very complicated. When Marks asked how he did, the baddie dismisses it with, “It was easy.” It works here because this is the kind of a B movie script where you do not want a long explanation at the end of a fast-paced thriller. Whenever you think you will need a detailed explanation, remember that final scene with the psychiatrist in Psycho (1960). And restrain yourself.

Fey, but not Tina Fey

The Grand Budapest Hotel

(2014. Screenplay by Wes Anderson, story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guiness, inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig. 100 minutes.)

Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave and Tony Revolori as Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave and Tony Revolori as Zero in  The Grand Budapest Hotel

I liked the first few films of Wes Anderson. Bottle Rocket (1996) has a loose charm that showed an interesting take on the real world. Rushmore (1998) is also entertaining, but it is a little precious for its own good, as though Anderson was pulling himself into his own private world. That quality was even more evident in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which I have to admit I had trouble staying awake through. As each new Anderson film after that came out, I keep seeing that same precious quality to the films in the trailers. Since I knew the films wouldn’t work for me, I stayed away from them.

When I saw the trailers for The Grand Budapest Hotel, I was charmed, since it looked as though Anderson had finally found a script that fit his style. The film itself confirmed that. In the previous films there was enough reality in the settings, locations, and situations that made the script unconvincing. Here Anderson has completely given up on dealing with the real world. Like a lot of thirties comedies, the world of the film is completely imaginary. The exterior of the hotel of the title looks like a wedding cake, and the story and characters fit right into the décor.

Anderson tells us right away we are going to be living for 100 minutes in a collection of stories, some of which may have some relation to the truth, but not much. We first get a middle-aged author telling us he is going to tell about his experience as a young author talking to the former owner of the hotel. Then we see the young author in a flashback talking to Mr. Mustafa, who then introduces us to another flashback as his days as Zero, the assistant to M. Gustave, the manager of the hotel. M. Gustave romances the elderly ladies, one of whom mentions him in her will. He ends up stealing a painting from the woman’s house and high jinks ensue. Lots and lots of high jinks. And, like many thirties comedies the script moves like a bat out of hell. But Anderson is also good enough to give us an incredible gallery of characters for M. Gustave to deal with. If you saw the full ad in the papers, you saw a layout with all the stars Anderson has corralled. He has given nearly all of them something interesting or funny or both to do. One exception is Léa Seydoux, the star of Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), who just stands around as maid in the woman’s house. She is given nothing to do, which may be a joke on Anderson’s part.

When the film opened I got an email from my sister-in-law asking my opinion. I told her, but she replied that she had seen the trailer and hadn’t liked it. Given my experience with previous trailers for Anderson films, I told she should probably skip the film.

John and Woody, meet Ashton and Jon

Two and a Half Men

(2014. “Lotta Delis in Little Armenia” episode, teleplay by Ted Kelleher, Jim Vallely & Jim Patterson, story by Saladin K. Patterson, Don Reo & Steve Thompkins. 30 minutes)


Fading Gigolo

(2014. Written by John Turturro. 90 minutes.)

Jon Cryer as Alan Harper and Ashton Kutcher as Walden Schmid in Two and a Half Men

Jon Cryer as Alan Harper and Ashton Kutcher as Walden Schmid in  Two and a Half Men

On April 24th we watched this episode of Two and a Half Men, and the following night we went out to see the movie Fading Gigolo. It did not surprise me, having read about Fading Gigolo, that they were telling very similar stories. What we are going to discuss here are the differences.

Two and a Half Men is a TV sitcom now in its 12th season, and it’s been through some drastic changes. As it stands now, the main characters are Walden, a computer millionaire, who bought the Malibu house of the deceased Charlie Harper. Charlie’s bother Alan, who lived in the house with Charlie, is still living there, mooching off Walden. Alan’s a chiropractor whose business seems to have dried up. In this episode, he is reduced to giving massages in the house. Walden has seen Charlie’s old shrink, complaining he falls in love and wants to marry every woman he has sex with. The shrink tells him to go out and have sex with as many women as he can to get over the idea he has to want to marry every one. That’s a real “you buy the premise, you buy the bit,” but the shrink has been played for many years, going back to Charlie’s days, by the great Jane Lynch, who can sell anything. So when Alan is stuck in traffic one day and Tracey, a beautiful client shows up, Walden is agreeable to being seduced by her. It’s clear she is seducing him, and the shrink scene sets up why he gives in. The next day a friend of Tracey’s comes by and awkwardly lets Alan know she hopes to “have” Walden. Alan finally twigs to what’s going on, and sets it up. And then Alan becomes Walden’s pimp, which gives us a lot of pimp jokes, and a closetful of wild pimp outfits for the normally sedate Alan to wear. Walden finally figures out what Alan is up to and chases him off the balcony. In the final scene a woman comes to the house and starts to deal with Alan. She’s a cop and she arrests him. The topper is that she is not really a cop, but an actress hired by Walden and Charlie’s daughter Jenny to get back at Alan. The episode is tightly constructed and sharply written (note the difference between Tracey and her friend), with a lot of gags and a great payoff. And the tone is consistent all the way through.

Woody Allen as Murray and John Turturro as Fioravante in  Fading Gigolo

Woody Allen as Murray and John Turturro as Fioravante in  Fading Gigolo

Failing Gigolo gets off to almost as fast a start as the episode. Fioravante is a florist who is helping Murray pack up books. Murray has to close up his shop. He says his woman dermatologist mentioned she and her girl friend would like to have a threesome with a guy and did he know any guys who might be interested. He thought of Fioravante, who takes more than a little persuading. He is not a conventionally handsome or romantic figure. He does agree to meet Dr. Parker, and in a charming scene they do begin to get it on. So far, so good. There is not the fast pace of the episode, nor are there the relentless gags either. The comedy is a little lower key. So then the threesome should take place, right? Well, here is where the film begins to go off the rails. Murray sets up Fioravante with Avigal, an Orthodox Jewish widow. But not for sex, just for a massage. When did Fioravante get into the massage business? But the massage, at least on the first visit, doesn’t take place because Avigal is too shy and reserved. And Fioravante is such as gentleman, he doesn’t push. The tone of the film changes from comedy to romantic, and it begins to get serious when Dovi, a Jewish man who likes Avigal, gets suspicious and follows Avigal when Murray takes her to Fioravante’s. Dovi eventually drags her before a local Jewish court, where she proves her innocence.

Wait a minute. What happened to Dr. Parker and her friend? Well, we do go back to Dr. Parker, and we do meet her friend, Selima, but these comedy scenes are intercut with the Fioravante/Avigal scenes. There is no tonal match between these two. I have a romantic streak, but that’s not the movie I signed up to see. The threesome story is potentially much more interesting, and every time we cut away from it, I wanted to keep on it. Part of the problem is that Dr. Parker is played by Sharon Stone and Selima is played by Sofia Vergara, more restrained than she is on Modern Family. Nothing against Vanessa Paridis, who is great as Avigal, but her story is not as compelling as the threesome story. We do finally get the attempted threesome, but Fioravante is so in love with Avigal that he cannot perform. Selima realizes what has happened and she and Dr. Parker are sympathetic rather than pissed. I told you their story was more interesting.

Fioravante loses Avigal to Dovi and is about to leave town when he and Murray are sitting in a diner when a young woman sort of comes on to Fioravante, and Murray looks as though he’s about to do a deal. It’s an o.k. ending, but without the punch of the episode’s ending. The acting and the characterization are deeper in Fading Gigolo, the film is certainly more ambitious than the episode, but less satisfying.

Rookie Mistake


(2014. Written by Jon Favreau. 114 minutes.)

Jon Favreau as Carl Casper in Chef

Jon Favreau as Carl Casper in  Chef

I hated, hated, hated the first hour of this. And loved the second hour.

Carl is a chef at a semi-trendy restaurant in Los Angeles (although there is so much talk about Miami that I was not sure it was LA for a while). He was a critics’ darling several years ago in Miami, but now he is frustrated because his boss, Riva, insists he cook food that people like. Where’s the creativity in that? When Ramsey, a noted food critic, gives the conventional food Carl cooks a terrible review, Carl tweets him (his son Percy is a whiz at computer stuff), challenging to come back to the restaurant and Carl will cook him a real meal. Unfortunately the challenge goes viral (Percy’s instructions were not as complete as they might have been), and a big crowd shows up. But Riva insists Carl cook the regular menu. Carl stomps out and his sous chef does the meal. Carl is so furious he comes into the restaurant and verbally abuses the critic. Which is caught on a lot of cellphones and also goes viral. Carl is out of a job and nobody will hire him.

O.K., that is not a terrible way to start a movie, but Favreau handles it badly. The main problem is that Carl is an unpleasant jerk through all of this. Yes, he’s supposed to be a self-centered artiste, but a little of that goes a long way, and we get tired of him. Favreau could easily have cut down Carl’s rants and general boorish behavior. Favreau also throws in more characters than we need. Yes, we need Riva, but not so much of him, and we do not need at all Molly, the waitress Carl is having a fling with. Especially since neither one of them show up in the second half of the film.

In the second half of the film Carl goes back to Miami where his ex-wife’s ex-husband arranges for Carl to have a very used food truck. Carl, joined by Percy and his sous chef Martin, pretty up the truck and start specializing in the sandwich known as Cubanos (you’ll have to get the recipe from the film, and if you take notes, you can). Percy uses his computer smarts to build up the business as the truck travels back to Los Angeles. In the first half, Carl has been an absentee father, and what makes the second half work so well is we see the Carl-Percy relationship develop, and we watch Carl turn into a nice guy.

The truck gets to LA and it’s a big hit, but we are running out of time. If Favreau had condensed the first hour, he would have time to develop a third act. What happens is that a lot of story gets rushed, and not in a convincing way. Ramsey tastes the sandwiches and agrees to finance a restaurant for Carl, which is not the most logical ending. Carl gets back with his ex-wife instantaneously, also not that logical. And Favreau does not bring back either Riva or Molly. Considering they were played by Dustin Hoffman and Scarlett Johansson, we feel robbed we don’t get any more of them.

The tendency to overload the first part of a film is a standard mistake rookies and non-rookies alike make. Writers think they need to tell you everything. They don’t. Just ask yourself: what of this do I NEED?

Don’t Let an Amateur Direct Your Script!


(2014. Written by Linda Woolverton, based on the story “La Belle au bois dormant” by Charles Perrault, and the story “Little Briar Rose” by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, and the film Sleeping Beauty, screenplay by Joe Rinaldi & Winston Hibler & Bill Peet & Ted Sears & Ralph Wright & Milt Banta, story adaptation by Erdman Penner. 97 minutes.)

Angelina Jolie as the eponymous Maleficant

Angelina Jolie as the eponymous Maleficant

Linda Woolverton is a pro. In the seventies she founded her own children’s theatre company and performed plays all over California. In the eighties she moved into writing for children’s television shows. In 1991 she wrote her first animation feature, Beauty and the Beast, and followed that up three years later with The Lion King. In 2010 she provided a new take on old material in her screenplay for Alice in Wonderland. Yeah, the “Tim Burton” version.

Here she has come up with a new take on the Sleeping Beauty story. Instead of telling it from Sleeping’s point of view, how’s about we tell it from Maleficent’s point of view? She’s the witch who puts the curse on Sleeping. Eeew, who would want to see that? Well, if you tell the story in an interesting way, a lot of people might, and did. Especially if you cast Angelina Jolie and her cheekbones in the role.

So we start with a young Maleficent, who rules over the land of the fairies. She has a fling with Stefan, a prince in the kingdom of the humans, which occasionally does battle with the land of the fairies. But he’s an ambitious little shit, and he cuts off Maleficent’s wings to present them to his father. Dad’s impressed and makes Stefan his successor. Stefan gets married and has a daughter, Aurora. Maleficent sneaks into the Christening and puts the curse on Aurora. As the years go by Maleficent gets to know Aurora and tries to reverse the curse, but without luck. So Aurora goes to sleep, needing only the kiss from her one true love to wake up. A guy she’s met gives her the kiss and she…doesn’t wake up. You can see where this is going.

So the story is perfectly serviceable. What screws up the movie big time is that Disney turned over the directorial reigns to Robert Stromberg. Who has never directed a picture before. He has won two Academy Awards for art direction, and the film is art-directed within an inch of its life, if not beyond. Every shot is overly busy with lots of details. The problem is that he has never directed actors before and hasn’t a clue how to do it. Jolie is great casting, but somebody has enhanced her already formidable cheekbones with CGI, which makes her distracting to look it. She is great shot by shot, but never very consistent in her performance. Elle Fanning is the teen/adult Aurora. She is a terrific young actress; see my comments on her performances in Super 8 in US #77 or Ginger & Rosa in US #109 , but Stromberg’s direction appears to have been to tell her to smile when the camera was on. I had not checked the cast list before I went off to see the film, and during the film I wondered why they hired a real block of wood to play Stefan. Imagine my shock when the credits came up and it was Sharito Copley, who was wonderful as the lead in District 9 (2009).

Stromberg also seems so interested in individual shots that I think he misses some of the story details in Woolverton’s script. At one point Maleficent goes into a rage and keeps repeating that the curse is removed. But it isn’t, and the rest of the picture goes on rightly assuming it has not been removed. Was there some detail in the script that explained the curse was not removed that Stromberg passed over in his efforts to get the visuals right? And will anybody let him direct again? Given the picture was a huge success at the box office (Jolie in the right part), probably. He may learn his trade eventually. But for your script, you ought to get a director who knows what he is doing.

Epistemology and the Politics of Screenwriting


(2013. Written by Masan Sagay. 104 minutes)

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle and Sam Raid as John Davinier in Belle

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle and Sam Raid as John Davinier in  Belle

Before I went out to see this film, I browsed in the IMDb entry on it. I was particularly struck by a thread on the comments page “Writing Credit None for the Director.” Most of the contributors to the thread are outraged, OUTRAGED I TELL YOU, that the director of the film, Amma Asante, did not get a screenwriting credit on the film. As often happens on the Internet, great hunks of what the contributors wrote are wrong. This gives me the opportunity to teach you a little about the politics of screenwriting, which may be of use to you in your later careers.

There is basic agreement that Masan Sagay wrote the first drafts of the screenplay. You should look at some of the interviews she has given on how the project developed, such as those at and , just to name two of the better ones. You can Google Sagay and read some of the others. As you read, you will understand how much of what is in the final film is hers. You will also understand that while her script was not filmed, it was picked up by HBO, dropped, then picked up by producer Damian Jones and the British Film Institute. So the pro-Asante faction’s claim that nobody wanted to produce it are not true. In August 2010 Sagay left the project due to ill-health. Asante was hired to do another draft of the script and then to direct the film. According to some of the claims on the IMDb thread she wrote anywhere between 14 and 18 drafts, but I cannot find any quote from her directly that claims that many drafts.

Since Sagay is a member of the WGA and the script was originally at HBO, there was an arbitration on the issue of credit (there always is when one of the people claiming to have written the script is either the producer or the director). When the Guild was first formed as the Screen Writers Guild in the early forties, it took over the arbitration process. Before then, the studios assigned credits, mostly by whim and favoritism. The studios tended to assign top credits to those who worked last on the screenplay, although their contributions were often minor. The Guild tends to favor the first author, since he or she tends to do the heavy lifting on a project: finding the story, doing the research, structuring the script, creating the characters. Many second and third writers make changes simply for the sake of changes in hopes of getting a credit. Jim Whittaker was a student of mine in the mid-seventies and wrote the screenplay for Gray Lady Down (1977) in class. Howard Sackler came on to do the rewrite at Universal, and what struck me about looking at his version is how much Sackler had flattened out Jim’s dialogue, obviously in an effort to get a credit, which he did.

Screenwriters have mixed feelings about the arbitration process, which most of them feel is a variation of Winston Churchill’s line on democracy: it is the worst form of government, except for all the others. The Guild system is the best one anybody has come up with. Most screenwriters accept that they will win some arbitrations and lose others. Oddly enough, it tends to be directors who are more upset that their pet writers, who were on the set with them, did not get credit. William Wyler was furious that Christopher Fry, who wrote a lot of the dialogue in the 1959 Ben-Hur, did not get a credit. Barry Levinson went into a rant and threatened to quit the Guild when David Mamet had to a share a credit with first writer Hilary Henkin on Wag the Dog (1997).

The earliest account of the argument over the credit on Belle was a piece in the London Daily Mail in September 2013 when the tempers were flaring. The piece quotes actors Tom Wilkinson and Penelope Wilton as saying they only worked from Asante’s script, but that may be because that script only had her name on it. I recently was doing some research on the 1989 movie Shag. The final credits give a story credit to Lanier Laney and Terry Sweeney, and a screenplay credit to Robin Swicord and Laney and Sweeney. The copy of the screenplay at the Margaret Herrick Library dated September 1986 only has Swicord’s name on the title page. That’s another trick screenwriters learn to do. It does not necessarily help you in the arbitration process, but it can’t hurt. The arbitration panel looks at all the written material that the writers submit (never throw anything away) and since they are aware they are judging their fellow writers (although not by name—the scripts are judged anonymously), the panelists tend to be very thorough.

Lauren Julien-Box as young Dido

Lauren Julien-Box as young Dido

Tempers have calmed down a bit. In an interview on, Sagay says this about Asante, “Anna was able to take the baton and run with it, and run with her life with it, and she has done an extraordinary, extraordinary job. She’s been true to absolutely everything that was the aim from the beginning.” She added, “Whenever you see tough, opinionated women, you will see tough opinions. And I think that’s what we have here, but I have nothing but admiration and respect for what she’s done as a director and I think it’s a marvelous movie, marvelous.” That’s rather classy on Sagay’s part. The July 2014 Sight & Sound, an auteurist magazine if there ever was one, has a long interview with Asante in which she does not mention having written any or all of the film. And Sagay is referred to in the article, although not by Asante.

So who contributed what to the screenplay of Belle? We don’t really know because of the basic epistemological problem of film criticism and film history: how do we know what we think we know? Most of the contributors on the IMDb thread assume that the director did everything, one of the least logical outcomes of sixty years of the auteur theory. The interviews with Sagay and Asante tell us what they think happened, but keep in mind that information is from their point of view. Ring Lardner Jr. once said that Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, who worked separately on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), each claimed to have written 80% of the film. Probably the most accurate account comes from the Guild arbitration, where the panelists actually read the scripts involved. Nothing like looking at the facts, which doesn’t often happen in the movie business. But the panel was following the Guild rules, which may or may not lead us to the truth.

Well, can we tell by looking at the film? Not really. Based on the interviews with Sagay, where she talks about the research she did, such as reading letters and diaries from the Mansfield family, I suspect we have to give the call to her. With the exception of the opening scenes, where the dialogue is very flat exposition, the dialogue seems to be accurately of the period, so at least the tone and rhythm came from Sagay’s research. But Asante did her own research as well, although her claims in interviews are more general than Sagay’s. As of yet, neither writer has done enough to show us a recognizable style.

As for the film itself, taking it as the final draft of the screenplays, it is a good story (Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate child of a white sea captain and an African woman, is brought up by Lord Mansfield, the ranking judge in England in the late 18th Century), but the screenplay is not as sharply focused as it might. That may be the results of multiple rewrites by both writers. For example, Sagay mentions that she was drawn to the relationship between Belle and her white cousin Elizabeth, but in the film that relationship is glossed over. Both writers were interested in the issues of race and class, but the latter is not dealt with as well as it might be. The script does provide opportunities for great performances, particularly for Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle and Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield. The writers at least did that right.

I wrote most of this item in early July, when I thought, as I wrote above, that “Tempers have calmed down a bit.” Then in late July they seem to have flared up again. The Los Angeles Times had a detailed story on the argument. The only quotes the writer Mark Olsen got from the participants were from Sagay, with Asante and producer Damian Jones declining to comment. So it may be Sagay continuing the fight. But Olsen quotes Lesley Mackey McCambridge, the senior director of credits and creative rights for the Guild, as saying, “I’ve never seen anyone who seems to be sabotaging the success of their project.” Amen to that, and let that be a lesson to you.



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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