Understanding Screenwriting #136


By Tom Stempel.

Not Marvin.

The Martian  

(2015.  Screenplay by Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir. 144 minutes.)

Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian

Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian

You should know up front that my wife did not elbow me in the ribs once during this film.  My wife is a scientist (molecular biology) and hates it when movies get the science wrong. She wanted to see this one because of all the hype about how scientifically accurate it was.  She has been known to elbow me in the ribs during sci-fi movies, when she agrees to see them with me, if the science is wrong.  She vocally complained all the way through Fantasic Voyage (1966), but fortunately we were at a drive-in with the windows rolled up, so it did not bother any of the other viewers.  As many other people have been, she was impressed by the scientific details of The Martian.

As you may have realized from reading this column, I am not a huge sci-fi fan myself.  Generally the stories seem preposterous, but my real objection is the lack of interesting characterization.  The people in sci-fi movies are generally cardboard figures because the writers and everybody else connected with the film care more about the imaginary world they are creating than about the people in it.  See my comments on the poor characterization of the woman astronaut in Gravity here.

It’s the characterization in Goddard’s script that makes it go, particular the character of Mark Watney, the astronaut left behind on Mars.  One reason Goddard gets Watney, and the other scientists, right in this script is that he grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, which you may remember was where the atomic bomb was developed. So he knew scientists and knew how badly they were portrayed in film.  (You can read a great interview with Goddard in the Los Angeles Times that demonstrates all the qualities a good screenwriter should have.)  Goddard is helped by having Matt Damon as Watney who gets as much out of the script as any actor could. I cannot think of another actor who would have been as good in the part.

Goddard gets things off to a great start.  A crew of astronauts on a mission to Mars has to leave the planet in a hurry when a gigantic storm comes up. They think Watney has been killed in the storm.  The blastoff takes place about fifteen minutes into the film, and most of the lead-up to that is action, with a lot of the technobabble you would expect in that situation.  We then find out Watney has survived, and at about twenty-five minutes into the picture he decides he is going to live.  So how do you survive alone on Mars?  

Fortunately Watney is a botanist and he figures out how to grow stuff on Mars.  Well, what can you grow on Mars?  Potatoes of course.  We get caught up in Watney’s efforts, which he tells us about in a video log he keeps, just in case the next mission to Mars finds it.  Goddard does not overuse the video log, but it allows the writer to show us Watney’s great sense of humor.  Goddard found that scientists often have great senses of humor because they fail so often.  They try something, it doesn’t work, they try something else, it doesn’t work, and eventually they get something that does.  There is a lot of this on Watney’s part and it is both fascinating and fun to watch, which is one big reason the movie is such a commercial hit.

Jessica Chastain as Melissa Lewis in The Martian

Jessica Chastain as Melissa Lewis in The Martian

So will Watney escape Mars?  And if so, how?  NASA satellites orbiting Mars find traces of Watney’s actions and the NASA folks on Earth come to realize he is still alive.  But in a great move by Goddard, they at first cannot communicate with him.  Watching how he and the earthlings finally communicate is more fun, and will probably cause any number of kids to take science and math classes.  Now does NASA tell Watney’s old crew, now on its return flight to earth, that he is still alive?  (One thing I love about this movie is it is accurate about how long it takes to get from Earth to Mars and back. OK, late in the picture they condense the time it takes for communications to go back and forth, but they don’t cheat.)  

Since this is a very optimistic movie, everybody – and it is very much a communal effort – works on a rescue plan.  Even the Chinese help, although that is, for political reasons, the least likely plot turn in the movie, but hey, China is a huge market these days.  Needless to say, the rescue does not go easily.

The picture is longer than it needs to be and particularly drags a bit in the last 45 minutes.  The director is Ridley Scott, who as we all know has a great eye, but he does tend to hold onto images a bit longer than he needs to.  The Mars exteriors were shot in Wadi Rum in Jordan, and if that name is familiar to you, that’s where David Lean shot the early sequences with Auda Abu Tyi (“Dine with me tonight in Wadi Rum!”) in Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Scott’s CGI guys have turned the sand from yellow to red, but you will recognize the geology.  We get a lot of those shots in the main part of the movie, so we don’t need as many of them as we get in the last 45 minutes.  Scott’s eye is impressive all through the film, but unlike some of his films, he has a great script to work with, and a real star in Damon as Watney, which is why this film works better than many of his recent ones.  You’d think by now that director would realize they get much better movies if you give them a really good script.

You’d think.  Wouldn’t you?



Bridge of Spies

(2015.  Written by Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Cohen. 141 minutes.)

Tom Hanks as James Donovan, in Bridge of Spies

Tom Hanks as James Donovan in Bridge of Spies

As this film began to heave into view, I checked the writing credits and was gobsmacked to learn that two of the three writers on it were the kings of snark, the Coen Brothers.  But, but, the director is Steven Spielberg, who has never let even a smidgen of snark into his films.  The Coen Brothers are the anti-Spielberg.  How the hell could that possibly work?  Very well, thank you very much.

I knew absolutely nothing about Matt Charman when I saw the film early in its run, so naturally I begin to dig up information about him.  The IMDb is not much help, since most of his credits are in British television, but he is also a British playwright who has had several plays produced in London. As the film has opened, there have been several interviews with Charman (imagine that, interviewing the screenwriter who is not even the “name” one).   Two of the best are at Awardsdaily (which was actually done a year ago) and of course here at CS

Strangers on a Bridge, by James B. Donovan

Strangers on a Bridge, by James B. Donovan

Charman had always been fascinated by America in the Sixties and came across a reference to James Donovan in a book on President Kennedy.  The reference was that Kennedy had sent Donovan, a lawyer, to negotiate a prisoner release with Fidel Castro, but there was a footnote that mentioned Donovan had defended accused Russian spy Rudolf Abel in the Fifties, and then later helped arrange the swap of Abel in Berlin for Francis Gary Powers, the pilot of a U-2 spy plane the Russians had shot down.  Charman decided that story about Donovan would make a better film, so he researched it extensively, talking to Donovan’s family, although he does not mention, nor does the film include in its credits, Donovan’s 1964 book Strangers on a Bridge.  Well, maybe Charman just wanted to go for an award for original rather than adapted screenplay.

He eventually worked up a 20-minute pitch.  His agents got him a round of meetings in Hollywood, probably because of his television work.  You don’t get pitch meetings unless you have shown you can write a script.  The pitch was obviously great, and hooked the interest of several studios; the executive at DreamWorks not only liked it, but felt Spielberg would love it.  So he had Spielberg call Charman, who was back in London by then, and had Charman tell him the story.  Spielberg asked him how long it was take him to write it.  According to one interview in 2014 Charman says he wrote it in eight weeks, but in a later 2015 one he says five weeks.  Writers tend to make stories better the more they work on them. 

Spielberg gave him notes, and the second draft of the screenplay got them Tom Hanks to play Donovan and Mark Rylance to play Abel.  So when critics go on and on about it being a Coen Brothers script, remember that Charman’s drafts got the big guns interested.  Charman provided the structure (a two act structure, not a three: the first act is the trial, the second the prisoner swap), and the characters of Donovan and Abel.  So what are the Coens’ contributions to the script?

The Coens had heard about the project and thought it was just at the pitch stage.  They have started to move from just doing scripts for themselves to direct to writing for others, although last year’s Unbroken is not one of their career highlights.  So they talked to Spielberg, who had been one of the producers on their 2010 film True Grit, and Spielberg thought they could help with the dialogue. They came in, made a pass or two at the script, which then went back to Charman for a final draft.  Charman was delighted to be working with the Coens as well as the other big kids on the film, calling it a great film school. 

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (2010)

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (2010)

Mark Rylance is quoted in an article in Den of Geek about the Coens’ work, “It was absolutely fascinating to then see what the Coen Brothers’ imagination does to a script, and I expect Steven’s as well in working hand-in-hand with them. My image for it is going to a very great masseur and feeling all of the blood and energy is going right to their fingertips… It wasn’t a different story. What mattered creatively was Matt’s body [of the story]. But they just really got the spine in place and massaged it, and clipped a few things. And it felt even more alive and whole.” Hanks felt similarly about the Coens’ version of his first scene, where Donaldson is negotiating with another insurance lawyer and gets the better of him. 

It is the tone that the Coens bring not only to the dialogue, but the way it tells us about the characters.  Early in his career Spielberg was less interested in character than he was in actors, but he has matured and become more interested in people, as in 2012’s Lincoln.  Spielberg has never been particularly good at comedy (1941 [1979] anyone?), although Catch Me If You Can (2002) is an exception.  Here he seems to work well with the Coens’ dialogue and characterization, playing it as a counterpoint to the dramatic intensity of the story.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can

Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can

One interesting aspect of the script, and I can only conclude it is deliberate on the part of all the creators, is that while Donovan, Abel, some of the American lawyers (look at the private meeting of Donovan and the judge on the question of sentencing), the East Germans, and the Russians are all vividly portrayed, the CIA and FBI people are almost totally emotionally blank.  I think that is a comment by the filmmakers on how that kind of work can damage your humanity.  It reminded me how Welles and Mankiewicz in Citizen Kane (1941) keep the new journalists of News on the March in the shadows, but showed the older print journalists are a more vivid and human bunch.

At the end of the film titles tell us what happened to Abel, Powers, and Donovan.  I can see why Charman tells us the story he does, but the titles mention that because of his success at this mission, President Kennedy asked Donovan to go to Cuba.  Donovan was to try to get 1,100 prisoners released.  Donovan got 9,700 released.  I can easily imagine a Bridge of Spies II: The Cuban Years.

“It’s not a ghost story, but there’s a ghost in it.”

Crimson Peak

(2015. Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins. 119 minutes.)

Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe in Crimson Peak

Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe in Crimson Peak

Since I am not a fan generally of gross-out horror movies, I have not seen a lot of del Toro’s films, but I am a fan of his 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone and a huge fan of his 2006 Pan’s Labyrinth.  Both use his fascination with the macabre to tell us about the real world, not just the hermetically sealed universes of his other films.  Both of those two earlier films deal with the affects of the Spanish Civil War, the first about a school haunted by the violence of the war and the second about the daughter of a fascist officer in 1944 who escapes into a fantasy world.  In Labyrinth, del Toro’s stunning visual sense as a director is used for more than just thrills and chills.

I had hopes that del Toro would go further than just a genre piece in Crimson Peak, but he does not.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that he makes a really great Gothic romance, but with some wonderfully bizarre del Toro twists.  His co-writer, by the way, is Matthew Robbins, whose experience goes all the way back to The Sugarland Express (1974), and includes MacArthur (1977), uncredited work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Corvette Summer (1978), and Dragonslayer (1981, which he also directed).  This is his second collaboration with del Toro, the first one being Mimic (1997).  They first met when Robbins was involved in a project from the Sundance Institute as a mentor.  He was assigned to del Toro and they have remained friends ever since.  Robbins talks about their relationship and working process in an interview here.

It is turn of the last century Boston and Edith Cushing is a young woman writing stories.  People assume one is a ghost story, but she corrects them, “There is a ghost in it, but it’s not a ghost story.”  That turns out to be the truth of Crimson Peak was well.  She is swept off his feet by Thomas, a British nobleman, and taken off to his castle, Allerdale.  So we know we are in Rebecca (1940) and Jane Eyre (1944) territory, with Thomas’s sister Lucille as the Mrs. Danvers of the place.  And it is indeed a dandy mansion, very much in the tradition of Manderly in Rebecca, but also reminiscent of the Amberson mansion in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).  Like Welles on Ambersons, del Toro had the complete mansion built on a sound stage. Unlike Welles, del Toro and Robbins use every inch of the set, one of the most creative uses of a set I have ever seen.  Remember, when you are writing a screenplay, you are writing for performance, and that includes the performances of the production and set designers as well.  You should study this script to see how to use your sets.

 Dolores Costello as Isabel Amberson Minafer and Joseph Cotten as Eugene Morgan in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Dolores Costello as Isabel Amberson Minafer and Joseph Cotten as Eugene Morgan in The Magnificent Ambersons

Edith begins to know things are “unusual” in the house, and this is where the writers bring in the ghosts.  Since the writers give it away in Edith’s line, it is not a spoiler to tell you that the ghosts are not the evil ones in the house, which is a lovely touch in the script.  We assume they are and del Torro and Robbins keep pulling the moth-eaten carpet out from under us.

Another thing I love about the script is that the emotions of the characters are not over the top.  I don’t think Edith screams once in the film, and that comes from the writers making her curious about what’s going on in the house.  How many times have you seen haunted house movies where the heroine goes snooping around the place just because the writer wants to get her to a place where something slimy can jump out and go boo?  The writers here are smarter than that, and it gives the actors a lot to work with.

All of those elements make it a very satisfying genre piece, not a small accomplishment.


She’s not even the (bleep) who finds the place, sir.


(2016.  Written by Taylor Sheridan. 121 minutes.)

Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro in Sicario

Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro in Sicario

I had not gotten around to seeing this when our old buddy Elaine Lennon told me she liked it and was impressed by the fact that the leading character disappears from the film for a long time.  Well, with a writing issue like that at stake, I couldn’t not go, could I?  I did not like the movie as much as Elaine does, but the disappearance works better than a similar aspect of Zero Dark Thirty (2012) when Maya is not there at the final takedown of Bin Ladin.  It’s the other parts of the script I have problems with.

Sheridan gets off to a lively start as an FBI unit in Phoenix takes down a house belonging to drug dealers.  People get shot, stuff gets blown up real good, and we know that Kate Macer is one tough cookie of an FBI agent.  But she and several of the guys find themselves unable to keep their lunches down when these discover dead bodies wrapped in plastic inside the walls.  LOTS of dead bodies.

Then Kate is assigned to a special task force, but Matt Graver, the casually dressed leader of the force, refuses to tell her what organization he works for or any of the technical details of their work, other than that they are trying to disrupt one of the Mexican drug cartels.  Kate is baffled and spends most of the rest of the film baffled, which limits what Emily Blunt can do with the part.  The opening sets Kate up to be more of a badass than she ever is in the rest of the film. Anyone with her experience would have demanded a lot more answers.  She does not get told until an hour and twenty minutes into the film why she was assigned to the force.  

Blunt was a lot more kick-ass in Edge of Tomorrow last year than she is allowed to be here.  Once we have seen her do what she did in the earlier film, she seems underemployed here.  In some sense she is a throwback to more genteel women law officers, but both movies and television have upped the ante on how tough we want our lady cops to be.  Sheridan does not take advantage of the change.

The task force’s efforts eventually cause enough upheaval in the cartel that somebody in the cartel is going to inadvertently lead them to the top boss, Manuel Diaz, which was their plan all along.  One member of task force is Alejandro, an ex-lawyer in Mexico, and he uses the task force so he can go after Diaz on his own.  At this point, Kate disappears from the film for ten to fifteen minutes, but we are caught up enough in the story we want to see what Alejandro, a somewhat mysterious figure, is up to.  (In Bridge of Spies, Abel disappears for a long time as Donovan goes to Berlin to set up the switch, but he is a secondary character.  We do miss him and the writers were smart to come back to him before he shows up for the swap.) And after Alejandro has dealt with Diaz, we get a terrific scene between him and Kate, so it is not like we never find out what happened to her.


Two Words: Mila Kunis. But Even That Would Not Have Been Enough.


(2015.  Written by Cameron Crowe. 105 minutes.)

Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha

Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha

I missed this one when it was in theatres for a minute and a half earlier this year, but now picked it up on Netflix. It got scathing reviews, not just from the critics, but from Sony studio executives in some of the emails that were hacked.  And regular folks attacked it as well.  Part of the problem was casting.  Allison Ng is supposed to be one quarter Hawaiian, but Crowe, who also directed, cast Emma Stone, who is about as white as you can get, in the role. Crowe apparently said at one point that the person the character was based on was just as white as Stone.  Here’s the difference between reality and believability on film, something you need to always be aware of as a writer (and director, and cinematographer, and production designer, etc.). 

The real woman may have looked like that, but you would have to go pretty far to convince us on film.  A line that Ng had some Swedish blood isn’t going to do it. And the more you explain, the more we are aware of the discrepancy.  And in a movie, we see the whiteness of the actress constantly.  I love Emma Stone, but in addition to her looks there is nothing in her performance that suggests anything Hawaiian about her.  If Crowe had cast Mila Kunis, who can play (almost) anything ethnic it might have worked a little bit better.  But only a little bit.  (For my take on Kunis and her “ethnic” look, read my comment in my 2011 item on Friends With Benefits.)

Justin Timberlake as Dylan and Mila Kunis as Jamie in Friends with Benefits

Justin Timberlake as Dylan and Mila Kunis as Jamie in Friends with Benefits

After the picture bombed at the box office, I read a couple of comments from people who said it was not quite as bad as the criticisms made it out to be.  It is certainly well-produced, with a good cast, and the Hawaiian locations look nice.  The problem is the script, of course.  Very often I will say about a script that it is a good idea, but not well developed.  I can’t say that about Aloha because I could never figure out what the idea was behind the movie. A lot of movies you can get the idea in one line, but here there is a jumble of stuff that shows up in the film and never quite coheres.  

Brian Gilcrest is returning to Hawaii, where he was once in the air force as part of the space program, but he’s had a bad few years, the details of which are rather foggy.  He is now working for Carson Welch, an entrepreneur who is working on a joint space effort with the government.  Another line of the story is that he runs into his ex-girl friend Tracy, who is now married to a friend of Brian’s, Woody.  They have two kids, but since the oldest child, a teenage girl is just old enough that she could have been Brian’s, we pretty much guess that she is.  We are way ahead of the movie in that regard. Crowe could have written the question of age a little more obliquely, but we probably would have guessed anyway. 

OK, so who is Allison Ng?  She’s an air force officer assigned to babysit Brian. They start flirting immediately, but as hot-to-trot as they are, we are not given any reason why it is nearly an hour into the movie before they have sex.  Tracy is sort of flirting with Brian, but not really.

Brian and Allison go off to talk to a group of native Hawaiians apparently about Welch’s project flying over their land.  It is thoroughly confusing, not helped by Stone at her least Hawaiian.  So Crowe has all these balls in the air and they don’t seem to fall into place, especially the Tracy storyline.  Brian comes to realize Welch may be sending nuclear weapons into space instead of just communications equipment.  He sabotages the rocket’s launch.  And then gets chewed out air force General Dixon, who tells him the payload was equipment to help starving kids (don’t ask). 

But wait: Brian is called to a board of inquiry, but instead of a formal hearing, it is a meeting in pool room, with the general dressed in an Hawaiian shirt rather than his uniform.  And he now tells Brian there was a weapon on the rocket.  I have no idea what the original script was like, but this scene looks as though it was a last-second addition, possibly shot in post-production, in an effort to make things come out right for Brian. It is just as contrived as it sounds.

I love Mila Kunis as much as I love Emma Stone, but I don’t think even she could have saved this script.

For Your Further Reading

panel featured

Creative Screenwriting’s Virtual Panel

If you have not read the recent Virtual Panel of several of us contributors to Creative Screenwriting, you ought to.  My colleagues have a lot of helpful information and observations to pass on, and I get in a few goodies as comedy relief.  You can read it here.

If you want a more academic approach, you might see if you can find the Journal of Screenwriting.  It is a print journal and while there may be ways to view some of it online, I don’t know what they are.  You may have to find a library that has it, such as the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills.  I mention the journal because in the current issue, Vol. 6, No. 3, it has two pieces that you may find interesting. One essay is Matthias Brutsch’s great takedown of the mythology of the three-act structure.  He looks at what the screenwriting textbooks say about it and discovers what none of them agree about any aspect of this sacred cow.   The other is an essay on the fantasy and war genre (The Hunger Games et al) by one of the journal’s editors Jule Selbo.  Fantasy films have never appealed to me that much but Jule makes the appeal clear.  If you want to write in that genre, you ought to read the article. 

Jule Selbo, who is a friend of mine, has been a busy little bee.  In addition to the article mentioned above, she is the co-editor of a massive (800pp plus) book Women Screenwriters: An International Guide, which has just been published.  It is a collection of essays about women screenwriters from all over the world from the beginning of film to the present.  I did two essays for it, once each on Anita Loos and Diablo Cody. I could have done more, but I wanted to give the younger generation a chance to show their stuff.  The “ouch factor” is that the price is $285.  You may want to track it down at a library, if any libraries you know can afford it.  Jule is working on setting up a public discussion in Los Angeles about the book, and I will let you know the details when they are set.



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>

Improve Your Craft