COMING UP IN THIS COLUMN: John Michael Hayes, Quantum of Solace, Boomerang!, Boston Legal, Law & Order, Two and a Half Men, Desperate Housewives, The Twilight premiere and opening.
JOHN MICHAEL HAYES (1919-2008): An appreciation.
Screenwriter John Michael Hayes died November 19th at the age of 89. It took The New York Times six days and the Los Angeles Times eight days to get around to doing an obituary on him. Score one for the East Coast.
Hayes was one of the best screenwriters of the fifties and sixties, moving into films after being a successful radio writer in the forties and early fifties. His most commercially successful film in the fifties was Peyton Place (1957). You might think that would be an easy one: adapt a hugely successful novel. But for the fifties it was virtually unfilmable because it told in lurid detail the secrets, mostly sexual, of nearly everyone in a small New England town. Hayes got the job because he had let his agent know he wanted to do a small town story since he had grown up in one. At first he could not get a handle on the book. Finally he talked to the producer Jerry Wald "because he was like Knute Rockne at halftime," as Hayes put it. Wald encouraged him not to give up. Finally the solution occurred to Hayes: tell the story from the point of view of Allison McKenzie, the teenage girl who was more or less the author's surrogate. The script humanized the story and, yes, certainly softened it, but as critics noted, it also made the film much fuller and richer than the novel.
Hayes went on to do many other high profile adaptations, including the 1964 film of the Harold Robbins novel The Carpetbaggers, a VERY thinly disguised take on Howard Hughes. Hughes was very much alive and so were his lawyers, to the point that Hayes said later, "The end of it was written more by lawyers than by myself." The film is not good, but is a lot of trashy fun, more so than some of Hayes's other Robbins adaptations such as Where Love Has Gone. Hayes was also the writer, credited or not, on such films as The Matchmaker, Separate Tables, BUtterfield 8, and The Children's Hour.
The headline for the Los Angeles Times obituary was "Screenwriter wrote 4 Hitchcock films," which is probably how Hayes will be most remembered. The films were Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, To Catch a Thief, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. When Hitchcock asked Hayes to adapt the Cornell Woolrich story "Rear Window," Hitchcock had not had a successful film for several years. Three of the four films that Hayes wrote for him put him back on top, and the fourth, The Trouble with Harry, I think is better than both To Catch a Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much.
The Woolrich story gave Hayes only a rough idea to work with: a man unable to get around suspects a neighbor of murder. Woolrich has his main character slowly realize what happened. Hayes has him jump to conclusions, proved wrong, jump to more conclusions, proved wrong again, etc, until it turns out he is right. Much more dramatic. Hayes created a character for Jeff, as well as a girlfriend for him and a wonderful insurance nurse, who can say all the grotesque things everybody in the audience is thinking. What Hayes brought to the table was a sense of humor and an ability to create characters. (For a more detailed look at the development of Rear Window, see the chapter on it in my book Understanding Screenwriting, and if that is not long enough for you, look up my article on it in the Winter 1997 issue of Creative Screenwriting, and if THAT is not long enough for you, read Steven DeRosa's excellent 2001 book Writing with Hitchcock, which deals with the entire Hayes-Hitchcock collaboration. Better yet, just start with DeRosa's book.)
Hayes brought something else to the table. When he and Hitchcock first discussed Rear Window, Hitchcock said he wanted Grace Kelly to play Jeff's girlfriend. Hitchcock was then making his first film with Kelly (Dial M for Murder) and told Hayes she was a little "stiff," which Hayes agreed with. Hayes and his wife Mel spent a week and a half with Kelly and discovered that she was "full of life, bright, and snappy," as Hayes puts it in the fifteen minute interview that appears on the DVD of Rear Window. Since Mel had been a fashion model, Hayes put Lisa into the world of fashion, and several of Mel's comments into her mouth. Look at Kelly in Dial M for Murder and then Rear Window. See the difference? That comes from Hayes both understanding Kelly and creating a character for her.
It doesn't come from Hitchcock. OK, sacrilege time. Hitchcock, like a lot of directors enamored of the technical side of movies, had very little interest in character, which made him a terrible director of actors. Yes, there are many good performances in Hitchcock's films, but they usually come when the writers have written great characters and the parts are well cast. When you have Charles Bennett (without whom there is simply no Hitchcock), Robert Sherwood, Thornton Wilder, Ben Hecht, John Michael Hayes, and Ernest Lehman creating characters for you, it is easy for the actors to be good. When the writing is not there, or when the parts are miscast, Hitchcock did not know how to work around it, as indicated by Kelly's performance in Dial M for Murder. Look at all the BAD performances in Hitchcock's films: Robert Cummings in Saboteur, Alida Valli in The Paradine Case, John Dall and Farley Granger in Rope, Ruth Roman in Strangers on a Train (Roman had a wonderful earthiness in her other films, but Hitchcock had not a clue how to make it work in this film), Kim Novak in Vertigo, Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie, Sean Connery in Marnie, and Julie Andrews and Paul Newman in Torn Curtain. And that's just the stars; the list goes on and on when you count supporting actors.
Hitchcock occasionally showed a brilliant instinct for casting, such as putting Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train and, in his wildest and most successful casting decision, putting Anthony Perkins, at the time a sort of junior-varsity James Dean, into Psycho. For all his use of stars, Hitchcock seems to have thought actors were interchangeable. Need a good looking guy in a suit and you can't get Cary Grant? Put Frederick Stafford into Topaz. It's not the same thing. Need a cool blonde and you can't use Madeline Carroll? Get this new girl Grace Kelly. It was not the same thing in Dial M for Murder. It was in Rear Window. Because of John Michael Hayes.
And Hitchcock's gratitude? When François Truffaut asked Hitchcock about Hayes's contribution to Rear Window, all Hitchcock said was, "John Michael Hayes is a radio writer and he wrote the dialogue."
QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008. Written by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. 105 minutes): William Wyler was right.
In 1958, when Wyler was directing the big budget western The Big Country, he recalled in an interview that the B westerns he did in the silent days at Universal all had the same structure: Action-plot-action-plot-action-plot-big action at the end. There you have the basic structure not only for B westerns, but boxing movies, auto race movies, musicals (musical numbers instead of action scenes), pornos, and almost any kind of action movie.
North by Northwest was the template for the James Bond series in many ways. One of Hitchcock's great looking guys in an even greater looking suit gets involved with suave spies and beautiful treacherous women. Outdoor action. Trains. Technicolor. Big Screen. And the old B western structure: plot and character scenes around the action scenes: driving the car while drunk, the killing at the U.N., the crop duster, the finale on Mount Rushmore. In writing contemporary reviews of Hitchcock's films in the early thirties (see the essay "Directors of the Thirties" in Grierson on Documentary), John Grierson noted Hitchcock's basic flaw was that he was more interested in scenes than stories. That remained true the rest of Hitchcock's career, and has often been true of the Bond films. And many contemporary action films.
The trick in writing the Bond films is to balance the plot and action. The writers of Quantum of Solace have unbalanced the formula by throwing in too much action. Or rather the plot and character scenes are underwritten and underdeveloped. Where are John Michael Hayes or Ernest Lehman when you need them? In the series reboot, Casino Royale, the writers gave us a younger, rawer Bond, which Daniel Craig was the perfect actor for. Here the "character" scenes do not give him the kind of emotional scenes he had with Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. Bond is one-note here. M and Felix Leiter seem to have more to do emotionally than Bond. The dialogue is very flat. I don't think they need to return to the wise-cracking era of the Roger Moore Bonds, but an occasional Conneryesque pun might provide a little counterpoint.
This is the first Bond film that is a direct sequel to the previous one, and the writers run into the problem of all sequel writers. How much of the previous story and characters do you need to recap for the audience? We all remember that Vesper was killed, but how many of us remember who was involved or why? This gets to be a problem at the very end, where we meet a character who was involved with Vesper, but for the life of me I could not remember how. So the scene did not have the impact it should have. See the chapters on the Jurassic Park and American Pie movies in my Understanding Screenwriting book for discussions of this problem and some of the other problems in writing sequels.
BOOMERANG! (1947. Screenplay by Richard Murphy, based on the article "The Perfect Case" by "Anthony Abbot" (Fulton Oursler) in the December 1945 Reader's Digest. 88 minutes): In spite of what the Fox DVD marketing department tells you in their packaging, Boomerang! is not a film noir.
Louis de Rochemont, the producer of Boomerang!, first came to the public's attention as the producer on the documentary series The March of Time in the thirties. One feature of those shorts was the recreation of events, often using the real people as themselves. You have no idea how bad an actor Albert Einstein was until you see him try to play himself in Atomic Power. After World War II, de Rochemont produced a group of semi-documentaries based on real events. Boomerang! was his third such film. It was acclaimed at the time for its documentary quality, since it was shot entirely on location in Connecticut.
Later the film was viewed as an early example of its director's work. He was Elia Kazan, and this was his third feature. Looked at that way, it was seen as a mostly a warm-up exercise for the masterpieces that came later, A Streetcar Named Desire and especially On the Waterfront, which was marked by its location shooting. Now that we are so familiar with On the Waterfront, it takes a little getting used to watching Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden, the antagonistic characters representing Evil and Good in that film, working together as cops in Boomerang!.
The recent DVD release of Boomerang! is part of the Fox Film Noir series. The only possible way you could consider Boomerang! a film noir is that it was made in 1947, is shot in black and white, and deals with a crime. There is no doomed hero, no femme fatale, no sense of existential dread. Film noir was not even a term in use when the film was made. In the seventies the term became a favorite of film critics and historians. In the 1971 first edition of Gerald Mast's A Short History of the Movies, there is no reference to the term. By the sixth edition in 1996, there are references on 18 pages. The term has worked its way so much into public use it is now a marketing ploy.
Looking at the film itself and not its marketing, Richard Murphy's screenplay is a fast, tight tale of an unusual case. A priest is shot on the street and a man is arrested. The case against him seems solid, but the prosecuting attorney begins to have doubts. When the case goes to trial, the prosecutor begins the case by laying out all the reasons he thinks he does NOT have a case. Not the usual situation with an ambitious prosecutor. The case is dismissed and I will not tell you what Murphy's (and probably Oursler's) great punchline to the whole story is.
What Murphy does so well is give you the case in the context of the small town. The prosecutor's wife is seen early as part of a committee trying to get a park built. That seems like just a textural detail, but one of the city fathers she is dealing with is also putting pressure on the prosecutor. The current local administration is a reform administration attacked by the local newspaper, which supports the previous administration. Murphy, a World War II veteran, would go on to write excellent scripts in the same vein, such as Panic in the Streets.
Kazan directed Panic as well, since he had come to appreciate Murphy. His first reaction to the script for Boomerang! was "I thought it a routine little drama, and it had no interest for me." It was his wife Molly, the intellectual one in the marriage, who convinced him "something good could be made of it," according to Kazan. Sometimes you have to hit directors upside the head with a two-by-four to get their attention.
Perhaps now that Fox is quickly coming to the end of films they can fit into their film noir marketing, they should consider marketing boxed sets of the work of their screenwriters. You could get several out of the films of Nunnally Johnson, Philip Dunne, and Lamar Trotti. How about a Richard Murphy four-pack, with Boomerang!, Cry of the City, Slattery's Hurricane, and Panic in the Streets?
BOSTON LEGAL (2008. Episodes "Kill, Baby, Kill" written by Lawrence Broch & David E. Kelly, and "Thanksgiving" written by David E. Kelly. 60 minutes each): Torn from the headlines!
One of the reasons Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of production at 20th Century-Fox, encouraged the Louis de Rochemont films mentioned above is that Zanuck started the whole "torn from the headlines" genre back when he was at Warner Brothers in the early thirties. Television has of course picked up on that, even more so these days than theatrical films, since television can speed things to audiences more quickly. These two Boston Legal episodes are such examples. "Kill, Baby, Kill," which was broadcast less than two weeks after the election, includes discussion of the election. But if you listen carefully, a lot of the discussion is very generic and was probably written before the voting. There are only a couple of lines that mention the outcome and were written and shot after the election. Setting up the script that way is rather tricky and very inventive. "Thanksgiving," in which most of the major cast members, and some minor ones, end up at Shirley Schmidt's house for Thanksgiving dinner, ran the following week. It includes long, typical David E. Kellyish discussions of the election. Kelly does love his talk, but at least the conversation occasionally goes around corners you did not know were there.
LAW & ORDER (2008. Episode "Falling" written by Stephanie Sengupta & Keith Eisner. 60 minutes): Talking as we were about stories torn from the headlines.
Dick Wolf is our Darryl F. Zanuck. In this series, which has been running since before the birth of Philo T. Farnsworth, he goes Zanuck one better. Zanuck and a million movie and television producers since simply tell the stories, with an occasional variation. (See my comments on Changeling in US#11.) Wolf, the super showrunner of the Law & Order franchise, has recognized that the docudrama approach has been done to death. When Law & Order, the mothership series, takes a well-known public incident, it uses it only as the jumping off point. Wolf's writers quickly turn it on its head, upsetting audience expectations. Although by now, our expectations are that Wolf's writers will do this, and we tune in to show how perversely inventive they can be. "Falling" is a good an example of their approach.
Everybody read the stories this past summer about a couple of construction cranes collapsing in New York City. A show of hands please as to how many of us knew that was an L&O episode waiting to be written. So we start "Falling" with a woman complaining of the noise on a construction site to Talbot, the foreman. She goes back to her apartment and almost before she can talk to her husband, the house shakes as the crane collapses. The two detectives tell the builder that until they determine the cause of death, the collapse is a crime scene. Ca-Ching, opening credits. I love, by the way, how the series writers come up with characters for the opening who have nothing to do with the main story except, usually, to discover the body.
Right away the cops discover the crane was smaller than called for, so to an L&O virgin, if there are any left, you would think the show is going to be about corruption and payoffs. The first act seems to be about that, including the fact that Talbot has been using money to pay for the medical care of Emilia, the wife of the workman who was killed in the collapse. But at the beginning of the second act, the corruption case is being put on the back burner, since Emilia's coma is now suspicious, as is Talbot paying money that was supposed to be for bribes for her care. The cops assume she and Talbot were having an affair. No, she was working for Talbot's wife Sandra, taking care of the Talbots' disabled daughter. Emilia was objecting to a surgical procedure the Talbots were going to have to—well, you see what I mean about twisting the "headline" story into something else all together.
Eventually Cutter, the Deputy District Attorney, tries to work out a plea arrangement for Sandra, who sort of attempted to kill Emilia. Part of the deal is that the Talbots will not have the operation, which would prevent her from growing into an adult, on their daughter. Jack McCoy, now the District Attorney, not only objects, but comes into court while Cutter is trying to close the deal. McCoy withdraws the provision. Later, Cutter is upset and points out than in a previous case McCoy had set up a similar provision. McCoy admits he had been wrong then. What we get is a nice character scene, which we generally don't get among the stars on L&O, if only because the storytelling is so fast. Look at this way: Wolf and his writers are squeezing a one-hour cop show and a one-hour lawyer show into a single hour. Speed is of the essence.
TWO AND A HALF MEN (2008. Episode "The Mooch at the Boo" written by Eddie Gorodetsky & Susan Beavers, story by Lee Aronsohn & Chuck Lorre. 30 minutes): Jake and a girl! Sort of.
In US#7, I made the point that this show was going to have to deal with Jake and Angus T. Jones, the actor who plays him, reaching puberty. The writers (the story is by the two show runners) sort of do that in this episode. Charlie catches Jake looking at their new next door neighbors, especially the daughter, and he takes Jake over to introduce him. Jake and the girl go off together. Then the dad, Jerome "Mad Dog" Burnett, an ex pro football player, comes looking for her, since he can't get her on her cell phone. The rest of this story is played out with Charlie and Jerome, rather than with Jake and the girl, Celeste. Charlie of course is the main character in the show, and him dealing with an alternately outraged and tearful father by telling him about all the women with father issues he has dated is right in the writers' comfort zone.
And they deliver at least one great scene. Charlie calls Jake on his cell phone. Which Jake has left on the table by the door. Its ring tone is a rather nasty rap song. Did I mention that Jerome and Celeste are black? There is approximately a minute of Charlie reacting to the phone, Jerome reacting to the phone, Charlie trying unsuccessfully to stop it, and Jerome glaring at him. Some of this I am sure was in the script. Given the way television shows are made, I am sure some of it was developed in rehearsal. The writers' job here was to set up the situation, provide the general action and let the actors and director see how they can develop it. It helps that you have Charlie Sheen as Charlie. Sheen does not get enough credit for making it look so easy. It also helps that you have Michael Clarke Duncan, who gives great glare, as Jerome.
Eventually Jake and Celeste come home and Charlie and Jerome find them kissing at the front door. That's the Act II curtain, and the end teaser has Jerome telling Charlie that Celeste said Jake was a perfect gentleman and she kissed him. Well, it is a 30 minute (22 minutes of actual screen time) sitcom episode, so you do need your happy ending.
DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (2008. Episodes "City on Fire" written by Bob Daily and "Me and My Town" written by Lori Kirkland Baker. 60 minutes): Plots and characters.
The "City on Fire" episode was the last sweeps episode and was designed to bring in twists to send us into the period before the next sweeps. In the episode the men of Wisteria Lane have actually arranged to play at a local club's Battle of the Bands, so nearly everybody in the show is there. Julie, Susan's daughter, has brought her much older and much married boyfriend to town. He has the club play a CD for Julie so he can propose, but she eventually, to everybody's relief, turns him down. She has always seemed the smartest person on the show. Lynette is trying to deal with Porter's affair with Anne, but in rather conventional scenes. Anne's husband runs the club, and Porter threatens the husband in public for beating up Anne. David's shrink is in Fairview, alerted by the call from the McCluskey sisters, whom we are seeing less and less of; I only hope the show is saving some good scenes for them for later. The shrink confronts David after realizing that "he" (presumably the person David has come to town to harm) is in the band. David kills him and sets a slow-starting fire, which destroys the club. David manages to save Mike, saying to his unconscious form, "Hang in there. I'm not done with you yet." In many other shows that would tell us Mike is the one he is after, but not on this show and not with David.
Somebody has died, but we do not learn who.
In "Me and My Town," we learn that seven people died in the fire, but we still do not know who. Mrs. Hildebrand, whom we saw talking to Gaby in the club, is the logical choice, since there is no appearance or even mention of her in this episode. It may have been the McCluskey sisters, since they don't appear either.
One of the difficulties of writing for a large ensemble is servicing all of the major characters. This is one reason actors leave what to us mere mortals seem like good jobs: not getting as much screen time as they want. Often a showrunner's time is taken up dealing with actors who want more scenes. And who then complain when they get too many. What Baker does in this episode is give us some terrific scenes with the major characters. Gaby becomes determined to get her looks back (although in any real universe there is nothing wrong with Eva Longoria Parker) and starts eating right. Parker gets a great scene with her two, ahem, zaftig daughters trying to convince them to eat right too. Later Gaby learns than an operation will let Carlos see again, so she is more determined than ever to get back into shape. When the operation is moved up three weeks, she tries to delay it. Parker has always been great at Gaby's turn-on-a-dime emotions and is so here.
Lynette drives Anne to the bus station, giving her cash so she can go away. We get a nice, slightly off-center scene between the two them, and one that plays to Felicity Huffman's (Lynette) strengths (edgy but powerful). The great punchline is Anne's: she is not pregnant at all. But by then she's got Lynette's money.
Orson has resisted Bree's request that he get an operation to cure his snoring, but after he messes up, a gleeful Bree explains to the doctor who proposed the operation that power shifts in relationships. Quintessential Bree. And Baker's punchline is good here too. After Bree leaves, the doctor calls his significant other to say he never wants them to become like that. The other is Andrew, Bree's gay son.
THE TWILIGHT PREMIERE AND OPENING: SHRIEK!
On November 17th I got a call from my daughter asking if I would be a good grandpa and take my 16 year-old granddaughter Ilana into Westwood to see the premiere festivities for Twilight. Ilana grew up in Denver and they only recently moved to the Los Angeles area. She is a huge fan of the books and wanted to see what a real Hollywood premiere (most of which are held in Westwood) was like. Well, sure, I'll do it, because that's the kind of grandpa I am. The pictures that accompany this item were taken by Ilana.
Don't believe what you heard about there being thousands of people there. It was MAYBE one thousand, tops, and some of those were just trying to get through the crowd to the local restaurants. The premieres are held in Westwood because there are two theaters on opposite corners they can use. (And you had better believe that there are screaming matches over which theater you are assigned if you have tickets. Hollywood people can turn anything into a question of status.)
The crowd was of course mostly teenage girls. They shrieked when each of the actors arrived. They shrieked when the actors were introduced by the local DJ's emceeing the event. They really shrieked when one of the actors came over and shook hands and signed autographs. They shrieked when the creators of one of the songs was introduced. They shrieked when the director was introduced. They did not shriek when the screenwriter was introduced.
She is Melissa Rosenberg. We need to start teaching the children earlier.
The following weekend the film opened to a weekend gross estimated at $70.5 million (later adjusted to just under $70 million). The highest estimate anybody in the industry made before was that it might, possibly, maybe, stretch to $60 million. As one studio guy (of course) was quoted, "It's only a quadrant and a half movie," meaning it would bring in young girls and some slightly older women, as opposed to a "four quadrant" movie that brings in young and old, male and female.
When the first Harry Potter movie opened, the Time-Warner marketing crew nearly broke their arms patting themselves on the back for "opening" the film so well. They were full of crap. The one person who "opened" that film was J.K. Rowling.
Twilight is being released by Summit Entertainment, a small company without the marketing manpower, skill, energy, experience, and clout of Time-Warner. The one person who "opened" Twilight was the author of the novels, Stephanie Meyer.
To paraphrase the slogan from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign: IT'S THE WRITERS, STUPID.
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.