Understanding Screenwriting #152


Maybe Not.

Hell or High Water

(2016. Written by Taylor Sheridan. 102 minutes.)

Chris Pine as Toby Howard in Hell or High Water

Chris Pine as Toby Howard in Hell or High Water

Wait a minute, didn’t I review this movie in US #148? Why yes I did, and you can read that review here.

Some movies are so good that I go back to see them again. In theatres. Paying money a second time. Others I have done that with are Argo (2012), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Lincoln (2012; 2012 was a good year for movies), and Bridge of Spies (2015). Hell or High Water is that good.

The other reason I went back to see this one is to clear up in my own mind a suggestion I had made in my original review. This is the first time I have written a second item on a film I saw again, but the situation seemed to demand it.

The suggestion was that there was a revelation that Sheridan had kept hidden until the end and then not overtly revealed, but brilliant analyst that I am, I had found. What I wanted to do was look at the film again to see if Sheridan had laid in any other hints in the rest of the movie. A second viewing showed me he had not.

The “revelation” was that Toby had planned, or at least assumed, that Tanner would get himself killed in their adventure. And Toby may have been relieved to see that happen so that Tanner would not be any more trouble to him or, more importantly, Toby’s kids.

Looking at the movie again, there are no scenes that suggest Toby had that in mind. There is nothing in his reactions to Tanner’s actions, like robbing the second bank at the beginning, that suggest anything rather than just brotherly irritation.

It is not Toby, but Tanner who brings the truck along to the last robbery, and Toby is reluctant to let him do it, rather than suggesting it or encouraging it. And Toby does not seem to be worried about him and Tanner going their separate ways after the last robbery.

So that settles that.

Unless Taylor wants to call me and say I was right in the first place.

You Could Have Gone a Little Longer, Clint.


(2016. Screenplay at Todd Komarniki, based on the book Higher Duty by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow. 96 minutes.)

Tom Hanks as Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger in Sully © 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Tom Hanks as Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger in Sully © 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

After I had seen this movie, my son-in-law asked me how they could make a feature about an event that took three minutes. I explained Komarniki had done an excellent job dealing with just that problem, which as he noted in the interview with him in CS, was the question everybody asked him.

The screenplay starts with Sully in the cockpit of the plane, which is going down…and then it crashes into a building. Wait a minute, the whole story is he landed the plane in the Hudson River. But he wakes up from the nightmare and gets ready for the transportation board’s hearing into the crash. Komarniki lets us know early on we are not going just in chronological order.

The transportation board seems rather hostile to a man who has been acclaimed as a national hero. The only explanation we get is a single line saying the airline and the airline’s insurance company are irritated he lost their plane. There is no further explanation beyond that, and we don’t get any sense of the character of the people on the board.

The head of the investigation is a rather bland character, not even the sort who would twirl his moustache if he had one. Komarniki thinks the antagonism is “not the investigators, it’s the investigation,” but that leaves a hole in the script.

Here is where the film could be a little longer. This is the shortest of the films Clint Eastwood has directed, and they could have taken some extra time here to develop the investigators. But you will notice this is based on a book by Sullenberger and his co-writer, and I suspect the book did not get into those characters in any depth. The script does give us Sully in depth, with all the feelings he has about all this.

Komarniki then gives us the preliminaries to the flight, intercut with the investigation. We get the crash, but just the crash, before more of the investigation. And then we get the rescue of the passengers, which is not only longer than the crash itself, but more suspenseful.

Finally we get Sully facing off the investigators. They are saying the computer projections show he could have had time to return to the airport, then the live simulations which show the same thing. However, it comes up that it took them seventeen tries to get back to the airport. They crashed the other sixteen times.

Sully points out that that was with the pilots knowing what was going to happen. He gets them to add in 35 seconds to allow for time to think about what was happening. That proves they would crash. For all the action of the crash and rescue, this is the most compelling scene in the film because it is one character we know so well trying to show he knew what he was doing.

My son-in-law never got around to seeing the movie. I’m not surprised given the amount of air travel he does in his work.

Bridget and Mr. Darcy Are Together Again, but So Are Bridget and McDreamy.

Bridget Jones’s Baby

(2016. Screenplay by Helen Fielding and Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson, based on characters and story written by Helen Fielding. 123 minutes.)

Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones in Bridge Jones’s Baby © Universal Pictures

Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones’s Baby © Universal Pictures

You may remember, if you are old enough, Bridget Jones from Bridget Jones’s Diary in 2001 or Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason in 2004. She’s sort of a klutz who stumbles through life, especially its romantic aspects.

In Diary she falls for Daniel Cleaver, her boss, who has his way with her, then gets engaged to somebody else. Meanwhile, she realizes Mark Darcy, whom she’s always thought of as a stuck-up prig (which he is), is maybe a little more attractive than she thought.

In Edge of Reason she is wrestling as to whether she’s in love with Mark at all. The second film was not as well liked (it seemed rather sloppy after the first one), which is why we have not a sequel until now.

So I, for one, am glad to see her back (as well as Renée Zellweger, who’s been off the screen, with one exception, since 2010). She’s as ditzy as ever, screwing up a television broadcast by getting a general’s chauffer on camera for an interview rather than the general. But the story this time is a little more focused.

Bridget goes off with a friend to a carnival and ends up staggering into a tent that’s not hers. And sleeping with a guy she’s never met. She runs out in the morning, but he shows up with breakfast after she’s gone. And who is it but McDreamy? O.K., it’s Patrick Dempsey and his name here is Jack, but still.

Emma Thompson as Dr. Rawlings and Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones in Bridge Jones’s Baby. Photo by Giles Keyte © Universal Pictures

Emma Thompson as Dr. Rawlings and Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones’s Baby. Photo by Giles Keyte © Universal Pictures

Shortly thereafter she goes to the funeral of Daniel Cleaver. His ex-girl friend’s are all there, and we learn (look how the writers tell us) he used the same pickup lines on all of them. I would have liked this scene a lot better if it was not a much lesser version of Charlie’s funeral in the “Nice to Meet You, Walden Schmidt, Part One” episode of Two and a Half Men. You can read my item on that, which goes into more detail than Baby does in its scene.

At the funeral Bridget meets Mark…and his wife. Which does not stop the duo from making the beast with two backs. You can guess where this is going.

You may have noticed in the credits that the last writer on the film is Emma Thompson, whom you may remember won an Oscar for adapting Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1995). You may also be aware she is an actress, and she shows up here as Bridget’s obstetrician. My mouth started to water when she showed up on screen with Zellweger, and while they do have some good scenes together, the scenes are not up to the level they should be.

Needless to say high jinks ensue as Bridget tries to avoid telling each of the guys that one of them might be the dad. Interestingly enough, we never find out who the biological father is, although we do find out who she is going to live with and raise the baby. Oh, did I not tell you, Mark has divorced his wife.

We would believe they would all live happily ever after, but this is Bridget Jones, of course, and at the wedding there is also a page of a newspaper on a bench that says Daniel Cleaver has been discovered alive…

Stagecoaches! Horses, LOTS of Horses! And Lots and LOTS of Guns! But no Trains.

The Magnificent Seven

(2016. Screenplay by Richard Wink and Nick Pizzolatto (and, uncredited on screen but on the IMDb, based on the screenplay Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni, and uncredited on both the screen and IMDb, based on the screenplay for the 1960 The Magnificent Seven by William Roberts and, uncredited, Walter Brown Newman. 133 minutes.)

Gianni Biasetti Jr. and Denzel Washington as Chisolm in The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Gianni Biasetti Jr. and Denzel Washington as Chisolm in The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Seven Samurai is considered by many to be one of the greatest action movies ever made. I am one of the many. But one element that makes it great is that Kurosawa and his writers take the time to get into the characters, not only of the seven, but of the village the samurai are hired to protect.

There are many different versions of who thought of the idea of doing a western remake. You can read about most of them in Glenn Lovell’s excellent biography of that film’s director, John Sturges, one of the great American action directors.

Unfortunately, in all the rewriting (Walter Brown Newman did the first draft and William Roberts went down to Mexico to do the production rewrite), the characterization got flattened out. Sturges and Roberts were developing characters for the stars as they were shooting. That was not an easy task, given the huge egos of Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen particularly. When Newman saw the result, he asked to have his name taken off the credits, which it was.

The 1960 version became a semi-classic, not because of the script but because of the cast of stars in the making (McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn), Sturges’s handling of the action, Charles Lang’s great cinematography (which set the visual style for the Sergio Leone westerns that followed), and of course the Elmer Bernstein score, considered by many as the greatest western score ever. I am not one of that many, since I give the call to Jerome Moross’s score for The Big Country (1958).

The Magnificent Seven (1960) © 1960 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) © 1960 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

There were several sequels to the 1960 version, as well as a 1998 television series. There has also been talk of a film remake for years. And here it now is.

The two writers are an interesting combination. Richard Wink specializes in action films, such as the two (and the upcoming third) Equalizer movies and the new Jack Reacher movie). He certainly delivers the action, although the last forty minutes or so he is rather excessive.

Interestingly, we see very little blood onscreen, since they were going for and got a PG-13. Still, the body count is very high, I think higher than the 1960 film and Seven Samurai. If anybody wants to correct me, feel free to do a body count of all three films. Partly it seems excessive here because we don’t connect with the characters.

Nick Pizzalatto is best known as the creator and writer of the first two series of True Detective (2014-2015), so you would expect more characterization than in the 1960 film. That’s not the case.

What we get instead is a group of seven who are distinguished only by the diverse casting. All the seven in Kurosawa’s film were of course Japanese, and in the 1960 there were all white. Here, Chisum, the leader, is Denzel Washington.

Denzel Washington as Chisolm and Chris Pratt as Josh Faraday in The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Denzel Washington as Chisolm and Chris Pratt as Josh Faraday in The Magnificent Seven (2016)

The director, Antoine Fuqua, said in an interview that he wanted to do the film just to see Washington on a horse. He’s good on the horse, but not quite as good on the ground; he does not have a westerner’s walk the way John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood do.

Chris Pratt (whom one of the writers gives some funny lines) and Ethan Hawke are white, as is Vincent D’Onofrio. The writers make him a mountain of a man, and they give him a death that’s a steal from another Kurosawa film Throne of Blood (1957). Byung-hun Lee is Asian, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is Mexican, and Martin Sensmeier is Native American. Not much is done with those characteristics.

In both Seven Samurai and the 1960 version, the seven hire on to do the job for money, but then find they morally support the villagers. That comes from Kurosawa and his writers dealing in all their character scenes with the moral and philosophical issues. In this version it turns out Chisum had his family killed by the villain several years ago.

So we have gone from the thoughtful action film of Kurosawa to a standard revenge movie. It is not an improvement.

And while it has lots of the accoutrements of a western, it does not have an old-fashioned train, which I consider a serious lack.

Maybe Too Australian For the Room.

The Dressmaker

(2016. Screenplay by P.J. Hogan and Jocelyn Moorehouse, based on the novel by Rosalie Ham. 118 minutes)

Kate Winslet as Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage in The Dressmaker © Universal Pictures

Kate Winslet as Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage in The Dressmaker © Universal Pictures

A beautiful woman, very stylishly dressed, gets off a train (yea) in the middle of the night in a Godforsaken part of the Australian outback. She looks around the empty streets of the down, then says, “I’m back, bitches.”

Well, goodness gracious me, that’s almost as good as the opening line of last year’s Tangerine. We pretty much suspect the woman, Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, is back for revenge. That does not turn out to be the primary reason, exactly, but she does shake up a lot of people’s lives.

The town looks like the western town in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), with the exception of a large house at the top of a hill overlooking the town. That’s where Tilly’s mom Molly lives in absolute squalor. She is not happy to see Tilly back.

Slowly the writers give us the backstory. As a much younger girl, Molly was accused of the murder of a young boy, her fellow playmate. She was banished from the town, went out into the big world, including Paris, where she learned dressmaking. But nobody is happy to see her back in town.

Kate Winslet as Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage and Hugo Weaving as Sergeant Farrat in The Dressmaker © Universal Pictures

Kate Winslet as Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage and Hugo Weaving as Sergeant Farrat in The Dressmaker © Universal Pictures

She returns the favor by teeing up golf balls in her front yard and hitting them against the buildings in the town, “announcing her presence with authority,” as the great pitcher Nuke LaLoosh would say.

She also shows up at a local footy (Australian Rules Football) match in two different exotic dresses. The first distracts all the male players, then after explaining to one of the town’s  players which she is up to, she changes into an even sexier dress patterned after the dress Anita Ekberg wears in the Trevi Fountain sequence in La Dolce Vita (1960).

Our town’s team knows not to look, the other team doesn’t, and we win. So at least some people in the town begin to appreciate her.

She starts making dresses for the women in the town, including the plain Jane daughter of the local shopkeeper. Tilly gives her more than just a dress, but a complete makeover, and Trudy captures the rather geeky man of her dreams.

So what is Tilly back in town for? She cannot remember the events leading up to the death of the boy. She wants to find out what really happened, but there are a number of people who don’t want her to know.

Kate Winslet as Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage in The Dressmaker © Universal Pictures

Kate Winslet as Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage in The Dressmaker © Universal Pictures

Needless to say, she finds out. About 25 minutes before the end of the film. So the rest of the film feels anti-climactic. She has the information and a relationship with the one hunk in town, but then that does not work out. She works with another town’s amateur actors on costumes… We have been entertained by the scenes with the townspeople in the first half of the movie, but we assume those scenes are taking Tilly to finding out what happened with the boy. They do, but the scenes after she finds out are just filler.

The film was a huge hit last year in Australia and you can see why. It gets the sense of the life of a small outback town down perfectly, perhaps too perfectly for an American audience, but small town dramas about America have been a mainstay for American films.

On the other hand, the film does have Kate Winslet and Judy Davis at the top of their forms as Tilly and Molly. The local policeman with a secret is Hugo Weaving, whom you may remember as Agent Smith in the Matrix films. So you can see why distributors decided to release it in America, but it just seems not to have caught on very well. I’m not sure if they had condensed the last 25 minutes it might have worked better in the U.S., but it might have.

If you have any love of Australian movies, you probably have already seen it. If you haven’t seen it, you really ought to.

It May Surprise you to Learn this was Hitch’s Favorite.

Shadow of a Doubt

(1943. Screenplay by Thornton Wilder & Sally Benson & Alma Reville, from an original story by Gordon McDonell. 108 minutes.)

Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt

Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt

You may remember that I have mentioned my Irish friend Elaine Lennon in this column several times. She’s a film historian who has written for a number of publications, including CS.

She is not one to suffer fools gladly, and she’s had it up to here with book publishers. So she is self-publishing on-line several of her book length works. One is her massive book on Robert Towne, excerpts of which appeared in CS. It’s called China Towne, but it’s about his whole career, which includes working for Roger Corman, writing for television in the sixties, and all kinds of other stuff. The book will give you a good sense of what a screenwriter’s career is like.

Her newest one is Pathways of Desire: Emotional Architecture in the Films of Nancy Meyers, the first study of one of the most successful current women screenwriters. Another new one is The Girl Who Knew Too Much: Shadow of a Doubt, in case you wondered where I was going with this. (You can see all Elaine’s work at her page on

I read the latter book, and as happens with a good book about a film, I wanted to see the movie again. I was about to put it on my Netflix queue, but it suddenly popped up, in 35mm, at one of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Tuesday afternoon screenings How could I avoid that?


Charles Bennett’s Fat English Friend, as he is referred to in these parts, said that Shadow of a Doubt was his favorite film. That may strike you as odd, since it is more of a character study than any other film he did. Hitch was looking for a story for his next film after the debacle that was Saboteur.

Hitch was under contract to David O. Selznick, but Selznick was perfectly happy to make a little extra money by lending him out to independent producer Jack Skirball. Still, it was one of Selznick’s story editors, Margaret McDonnell, who suggested a story by her husband, Gordon McDonnell to Hitch. It was about a serial killer of rich women who comes to live with his sister in a small town. The killer is found out by his favorite niece, but she keeps his secret after he is killed.

Hitch was partially attracted to the story because he wanted to make his American films more American. (The details of the work on the film are from Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock.)

To help get a more small-town America feeling, he asked Thornton Wilder to work on the script. Wilder had just had a huge Broadway success with the play Our Town, one of the best plays about small-town American life. He and Hitchcock went up to Santa Rosa, California, and Wilder gave him the kind of detail he needed. Wilder wrote a prose treatment, but then he went into the army. He gets top billing on the screenplay out of Hitchcock’s generosity, as well as a separate title card thanking him for his contribution to the film.

Alva Reville, the third billed writer, was Hitchcock’s wife and contributed to most of the scripts of his films, sometimes with credit and sometimes without.

The least known of the screenwriters was Sally Benson. If that name rings only a faint bell for you, you should be aware that she was the author of the novel that was made into a film the year after Shadow of a Doubt, Meet Me in St. Louis.

Judy Garland as Esther Smith and Tom Drake as John Truett in Meet Me in St Louis © 1944 - MGM

Judy Garland as Esther Smith and Tom Drake as John Truett in Meet Me in St Louis © 1944 – MGM

What the hell? Being involved in a Hitchcock thriller and an MGM musical? Well, yes, and if you look at the pictures you can see the connections. The script for Shadow, like that of St. Louis, focuses on a typical American family, particularly the daughters. As I said in my item on St. Louis in US #15, “While the film is not as bizarre as Capra’s film noir Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life, it is strange enough.” And very dark. The adorable daughter Tootie, for example, is obsessed with death, having funerals for her dolls.

So what Benson brings to the table are some richer characterization than you usually see in Hitchcock’s films. The writing for Uncle Charlie and Little Charlie is superbly nuanced, and Hitch lets Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright run with what Benson has written.

Benson has also supplied some great small town characters. James Agee, writing about Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), quoted a friend as saying that it was more a John Steinbeck (he wrote the script) than a Hitchcock one. Agee agreed and added, “In Shadow of a Doubt, too, I felt Hitchcock was dominated by his writers.”

Keep in mind this was a good ten years before the beginning of the growth of the Hitchcock Industry, which, following Hitch’s lead, downgraded the contributions of screenwriters.

Presumably what Agee wanted were more typical “Hitchcock touches.” There is only one real “Hitchcock touch” in the film, but it’s a doozy. It involves the two Charlies on a train…and a second train. Charles Bennett’s Fat English Friend loved trains almost as much as I did.




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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