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Understanding Screenwriting #109: The Call, No, Ginger & Rosa, Castle, & More

I’d sell my grandmother for a long shot.

Understanding Screenwriting #109: The Call, No, Ginger & Rosa, Joyful Noise, San Antonio,  Castle, & More
Photo: A2

Coming Up In This Column: The Call, No, Ginger & Rosa, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: An Appreciation, Joyful Noise, The Law West of Tombstone, Background to Danger, San Antonio, Castle, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein was shocked, shocked I tell you, that I was critical of a director he loves, John Boorman, and especially his work on Point Blank (1967). I’m sure David realizes that part of a brief in a column dealing with screenwriting and screenwriters is to keep a jaundiced eye on directors. Given that, I don’t consider the director “as some species of sous-chef.” While any idiot can direct a film, directing a film well is a whole other matter. The problem I have with directors in general, and Boorman in this case, is that they assume that directing style is all. It’s not, and directors like Boorman who sometimes treat it like it is end up making very uneven films. I tend to prefer directors who make a real effort to understand what the script is about and how best to present it. One of the reasons Henry King had such a long and successful career is that, every time he’d be assigned a screenplay, he’d sit down with the writer and spend at least a couple of weeks going over the script in excruciating detail to get a sense of what the writer intended. You very seldom hear of directors doing that these days, and I think movies are poorer for it.

I agree with David on Alain Resnais’s Providence (1977). There’s one that really needs a DVD release. Your attitude toward it will change every time you see it. And for his suggestion that Smash should deal with a revival of a Stephen Sondheim show, how about Merrily We Roll Along? There are at least a couple of stage directors, including one here in L.A. who have figured out how to make it work.

The Call (2013; screenplay by Richard D’Ovidio; story by Richard and Nicole D’Ovidio and Jon Bokenkamp; 94 minutes.)

Finally! The first three months of 2013 weren’t a good time for American films (and the audience noticed, as attendance is down 12% from the same time last year). The only new American film I came up with before this that I wanted to write about, let alone see, was Side Effects (see US #108), and I avoided Gangster Squad, Identity Thief, and Jack the Giant Slayer because of bad reviews. Though reviews for The Call weren’t that good, my wife was having people in for the day to shampoo the carpets, so I really wanted to get out of Dodge. And boy, I’m glad I did, since it’s a terrific little thriller. The writers have limited credits among them, but they’ve done a good job on this one. We jump right into the action as Jordan, a 911 operator, takes a call from Leah Templeton, a teen alone at home who hears somebody breaking in. Jordan tells her what to do, and Leah ends up under the bed. Leah’s phone disconnects and Jordan hits redial. The phone rings, the intruder hears it, finds Leah and we learn later on kills her. Boy, talk about a bad day at the office for Jordan.

When we next pick up Jordan, she’s a training instructor for potential 911 operators. We have already seen a little of how “the hive” works, so Jordan’s job gives us exposition that we need at that point. Jordan is taking her trainees past an operator who picks up on a call from…another teen, Casey, who’s been kidnapped. The young operator is too rattled to handle it and Jordan, very reluctantly, steps in. And we’re off and running. The writers have really done their research, and the first two thirds of the film is a brilliant use of what 911 operators can and cannot do. Usually in a movie they’re just a voice on the phone; here we get great details of how the system works. Casey has been thrown into the trunk of a car. Her cellphone has been smashed, but she has her friend’s cell, which is one of those nothing-facy throwaways…without a GPS system. So Jordan has Casey knock out the taillight of the car and wave out. Well, that sort of helps and then it doesn’t. Casey ends up sharing the trunk with a dead body, which proves useful.

Yes, a film with a woman in a 911 call center and another in a car trunk is action-packed. The producers were originally going to shoot it in Canada, but at virtually the last minute they got a tax break from the state of California and so filmed in the Los Angeles area. That gives the filmmakers the chance to show lots of action above, on, and below the freeways. But all that non-stop action does get repetitive and the writers were right to shift gears from action to suspense, in spite of some critics complaining about the last third. We get Jordan on her own, and for her personal reasons, figuring out where Casey and her abductor are. And she can’t call for help because she’s out of range for her cellphone. As she’s looking for them, we discover more or less why the abductor has taken Casey, and it’s not what we suspected, but much, much creepier. So the writers shift again, this time from suspense to horror—and a very knowing horror. At one point we’re introduced to a room in the basement and see Casey’s horrified reaction, but we don’t see to what. We assume that the film’s Mrs. Bates is there, but that’s not exactly it. We do get more action when Jordan finds them, and then a twist ending that I love, even if I know it’s at least partly to allow for a sequel. And although the way it’s handled is hugely satisfying on its own, I’m not convinced a sequel is such a good idea. What makes this film fresh is the look at the job, and we will have already had that by the time the sequel rolls around.

Speaking of directors, here it’s Brad Anderson, who has an interesting résumé. He wrote and directed the charming Next Stop Wonderland (1998) and the strange but amusing Happy Accidents (2000). He wrote and directed the wonderful Transsiberian (2008), which I wrote about in US #3, and a lot of what I loved about that film (suspense, action, interesting characters) are at play here. I have no idea how much he worked on this script with the writers, but he was a perfect choice to direct. And Halle Berry was the perfect choice to play Jordan. She’s interesting to look at (as is Queen Latifah; see below for details), and you may have forgotten she’s a terrific actress. This film opened much better than expected. If there was any questions before it opened that Berry was a star, both commercially and artistically, consider them now answered.

No (2012; screenplay by Pedro Peirano; based on a play by Antonio Scármeta; 118 minutes.)

Good idea, not as well developed as it could be. In Chile in 1988, Augusto Pinochet was pressured by the international community to hold a plebiscite on his regime. The voting was simple: If you wanted Pinochet to remain in power, you voted “YES,” if you didn’t, you voted “NO.” Everybody assumed that the election was rigged and the “NO” side would lose. It didn’t, and the film tells you how it happened. It’s not a documentary, but a recreation, although it uses television news coverage and, more importantly, the real campaign materials from both sides.

No begins with René Saaverda, a young advertising man introducing a campaign, telling his audience it fits with the “social context” of the time and yet “looks to the future.” If you know anything about the film, you will assume it’s a political commercial, but it’s a campaign for a soft drink. Later he’s approached by the “NO” people, and Peirano gives us some nice details of their attitudes (and the attitudes of the regime as well). The “NO” folks think it has to be a serious campaign, showing all the horrible things Pinochet has done (torture, killing, etc.). When René suggests a lighter campaign, they are horrified at trivializing politics. Obviously they don’t know about American campaigns. René’s commercials are exactly like his ones for soft drinks, and he first presents them to the “NO” team as part of the “social context” of the time, yet looking to “the future.” Ultimately the campaign works and Pinochet is defeated.

Peirano does give us some good reactions, but not enough of them. When René takes his son to his estranged wife’s house, he finds her with another man, who’s wearing one of the rainbow T-shirts of the “NO” campaign. As René walks away from the house, director Pablo Larraín stays on a sad-looking Gael García Bernal’s face. I love watching Bernal, but there are more reactions Peirano can give him. Doesn’t he feel a bit of the irony of the situation? I can understand Larraín holding on Bernal’s face as much as he can, but Peirano really needs to give him specific things to react to. Larraín keeps the pace so slow we’re always way ahead of the film. I happened to catch of bit of Wag the Dog (1997) shortly after I saw No, and it’s not only got character detail this film has, but the wit and the pacing it could have used.

Still, there are nice moments. On election night, the police outside the “NO” headquarters are suddenly pulled away. Does this mean the administration is giving up, or that the police are leaving the headquarters vulnerable to pro-Pinochet rioters? Both the audience and the campaign workers don’t know. When the election is over, we see René presenting a new ad for a soap opera, introducing it as, yes, part of the “social context” and looking to “the future.” Before he makes his presentation, his partner, Guzmán, who had worked for the “YES” side in the campaign, introduces René as the guy who won the “NO” campaign. Let bygones be bygones when there’s money to be made.

Ginger & Rosa (2012; written by Sally Poter; 90 minutes.)

I’d Sell my Grandmother for a Long Shot. This is the story of the intimate relationship (emotional rather than sexual) of two teenage girls in London in October 1962. Their mothers were in the maternity ward together in 1945 and Ginger and Rosa have been best friends ever since. Ginger is concerned about the threat of nuclear warfare (it’s the time of the Cuban missile crisis), while Rosa is dreamily hoping for a great romance. For the first 50 minutes we get a lot of nuanced detail about the girls and their relationship. My wife lived in England in the early ‘60s, and she was struck by the accuracy of the music the girls listen to. But the film doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. According to Potter, the story is vaguely autobiographical. Through it she’s reliving her youth, which is why we get lots of close-ups of the delicate and precise emotions of the girls, especially Elle Fanning as Ginger. I was not much of a fan of Fanning in Somewhere (2010; see US #68), but thought she was terrific in Super 8 (2011; see US #77). She’s wonderful here as Potter gives her lots of reactions, but they’re almost too much of a good thing, and all the close-ups make the film claustrophobic.

Finally, after a lot of throat-clearing by Potter in the script, we get a dandy plot turn. Rosa falls into an affair with Roland, a womanizing scum who happens to be…Ginger’s dad. Tears and yelling ensue, and we get dramatic action. The relationship between Ginger and Rosa is over, at least for now. Whether either one of them has come of age is an open question.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: An Appreciation. In US #81, I discussed Shakespeare Wallah (1965), the second film written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who died on April 4. With the film, she hadn’t quite found her footing, though she certainly did later on. While reading obituaries of the Booker Prize-winning author and Oscar-winning screenwriter and mulling over her career, two things struck me. Firstly, she had a real gift for understanding different cultures. She was a German Jew, born in 1927, who escaped with her family to England in 1939 during the start of WWI. Her education was in the English system, and she read most of the great English novels (as well as other classics) at that time. Some of her best films are adaptations of English writers, particularly E. M. Forster. But she also adapted American writers like Henry James and Evan Connell. After her life in England, she married an Indian architect, Cyrus S.H. Jhabvala, and moved to India. She wrote novels and eventually screenplays about India, and she was just as sharp about Indian culture as she was about English and American culture. She later moved to America.

Secondly, with the exception of writing Madame Sousatzka (1988) with and for director John Schlesinger, all of her work was for director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant. In the studio days of the ‘30s and ‘40s, it was not unusual for a writer to work for one studio for a decade or two, but since the ‘60s, when Jhabvala started writing films, it was unheard of. Merchant told The Times of London shortly before his death in 2005 that the trio’s four-decade collaboration was “a strange marriage…I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!” That quote was reprinted in the best obituary I’ve read of Jhabvala, which you can read here. Another good source on Jhabvala is the interview Vincent Lobrutto did with her for Backstory 4. In the interview, Jhabvala goes into detail on how she worked with Ivory and Merchant, and you can see why the collaboration lasted so long. They didn’t just talk about collaboration, they believed in it and acted on it.

Joyful Noise (2012; written by Todd Graff; 118 minutes.)

The perils of plastic surgery for actresses. This is one of those I missed last year, and since my wife sings in a church choir, I thought we might both enjoy it, so I DVR’d it off HBO. My wife doesn’t sing in a gospel choir (Bach and Mozart are more her speed), but she was still able to point out some of the film’s more questionable elements, such as how members typically don’t practice in their choir robes.

Tood Graff’s story has potential. In it, Bernard Sparrow, a choir director, dies of a heart attack. The church committee selects Vi Rose Hill to take over, upsetting Bernard’s widow, G.G., who obviously wants the job. So Vi Rose and G.G. snip and snap at each other. I’m not sure, looking at the film, how big a part G.G. was originally supposed to be. Graff has larded up the story with more plotlines than you can shake a stick at, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d intended this as a TV pilot. The lead role is obviously Vi Rose, and Queen Latifah is perfect for it. She’s not only a great singer, but a terrifically expressive actress. G.G. is played by Dolly Parton, who’s had a pile of plastic surgery, so much so that her face is simply expressionless. Latifah dominates every scene they’re in together, and looking at the cutting of the film, I suspect there may have been more scenes with G.G. that got cut. Was G.G. intended as the co-starring part? If so, she really isn’t in the film as it stands. Was she intended as just one of many plotlines, and then sort of built up in the script when Parton signed on? Either way, the result is a mess. But Parton can still sing, and she’s great singing the ballad she wrote for the film, “From Here to the Moon and Back.”

Late in the film, Vi Rose and G.G. have a knockdown, drag-out fight. Vi Rose mentions for the first time the plastic surgeries G.G. has had, which seems tacky, but presumably Parton signed off on it. It just comes as a shock since no one else in the film previously mentions it. And in the same argument, G.G. never even once refers to Vi Rose as black. She just gets angry at Vi Rose in general, but doesn’t let fly any racial invective, which wouldn’t have been surprising coming from a Southern white woman of a certain age who’s being personally attacked. The choir, by the way, is multiracial, as is the romance between G.G. grandson and Vi Rose’s daughter, and nobody makes a point out of this either. Boy, are we ever in a post-Obama world.

The Law West of Tombstone (1938; screenplay by John Twist and Clarence Upson Young, story by Young; 73 minutes.)

How many legends of the West can Harry Carey play in one 73 minute movie? Speaking of movies with plot stuffed to the gills, here’s another one. Harry Carey, the great silent-screen star, plays Bill Barker, a notorious teller of western tales, not unlike Buffalo Bill Cody. He’s in New York trying to hornswoggle a big businessman into investing in his bogus goldmine. The law runs him out of town and he lands in Martinez, Arizona. He appoints himself mayor and judge, holding court in a saloon and dispensing very rough justice. In other words, the character is inspired by Judge Roy Bean, who was played in later movies by Walter Brennan and Paul Newman, among others. But he takes an avuncular interest in a young outlaw, the Tonto Kid. So he’s sort of like Pat Garrett looking out for Billy the Kid. But there’s also a good-for-nothing family called the McQuinns, who are not unlike the Clantons. So Barker turns into Wyatt Earp, along with his friend “Doc” Howard (i.e., Doc Holliday), and they have a shootout with the McQuinns, not at the O.K. Corral, but at the train station. Yes, the same train station where Barker has brought the local Native Americans to ship them off somewhere. And the Native Americans seem happy to go.

I have no idea what Young and Twist were up to with this. There’s so much plotting and so many lose ends that they may have intended this as a major feature and had to cut it down. Or maybe they just had too much sarsaparilla at the local saloon and tried to see how much they could get into 73 minutes. It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s still enjoyable. Carey is wonderful and charming as always, and the Tonto Kid is played by a young actor named Tim Holt. He went on to be Georgie Minafer four years later in The Magnificent Ambersons, but his heart was never far from the west.

Background to Danger (1943; screenplay by W.R. Burnett, based on the novel by Eric Ambler; 80 minutes.)

W. R. Burnett, take one. I have written often about W. R. Burnett in this column, since his name pops up in credits for a lot of interesting movies. He wrote the novel and screenplay for High Sierra (1941) and its remake, I Died a Thousand Times (1955), which I wrote about in US #76. Whenever I want to dig up some information on Burnett, I usually go to the first of Pat Mcgilligan’s Backstory books, which has a nice interview with him. I recently came across a reference to an Oral History interview with Burnett done for the American Film Institute by Dennis L. White. So I figured I’d go over there and browse through it one afternoon. Well, it’s over a thousand pages long, and I have to take it in easy stages, since I don’t get over to the AFI’s Mayer Library that often. But it’s worth the trip.

I saw Background to Danger a few months ago and I was sure I had written about it, but when I tried to find it in the index I keep for the column, it wasn’t there. I suspect I just dismissed it as yet another attempt by Warner Bros. to repeat Casablanca (1942): American in a foreign land during World War II, dealing assorted baddies played by Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. You can see why Warner Bros. bought Ambler’s novel, which deals with an American businessman in Turkey getting involved with the Russians and Germans. It was given to Jerry Wald to produce, who had several scripts developed on the project. One was a partial script by John Huston, who left it when he went into the army. Wald talked to Burnett and they threw out the other scripts and started telling each other ideas. The idea that the Nazis are trying to get Turkey into the war on their side by showing them a map of a proposed Russian invasion isn’t in the novel.

George Raft was assigned the leading role, but he insisted that instead of the salesman in the novel, he had to play an F.B.I. agent. On the one hand, Raft was right, since he isn’t convincing in the early scenes as a salesman, but on the other hand, it completely changed the nature of the story. Burnett and Wald were scrambling, and when White mentioned to Burnett he couldn’t tell who was who in the film, Burnett replied, “We couldn’t either.” But Burnett felt that this helped the film, as both the writers and the audience didn’t know who was going to turn out to be a spy and for which side. Burnett was right, given the context of the film.

San Antonio (1945; screenplay by Alan LeMay and W.R. Burnett; 109 minutes.)

W.R. Burnett, take two. Warner Bros. had hired Frederick Faust to write a film for Errol Flynn. Under his pen name, Max Brand Faust, he’d written many stories and novels, particularly westerns. So he came up with an ingenious idea for a story: a western with no action. Warner Bros. wasn’t pleased. They had a shooting date, a commitment from Technicolor to make the film in color, and they had Flynn scheduled. So they called in Burnett and, by his account (in the interview with Ken Mater and Pat McGilligan in the first Backstory book), he came in and wrote the screenplay in three weeks. Burnett doesn’t mention LeMay, the author of the novel of The Searchers.

Warner Bros.’s intent was obviously to do another big Flynn western in the spirit of Dodge City (1939; see US #17), and this is okay, if not quite up to the original. Burnett’s brilliant idea was to pair Flynn, playing a cattleman getting the evidence to take down a slick cattle-rustling operation, with Marlene Dietrich as the dance-hall singer; after all, she had a similar part in Destry Rides Again (1939, based, coincidentally, on a novel by Max Brand). Everybody liked the idea, even Jack Warner at first. But when Wald and Burnett went up to his office, he opened his desk and said, “Look at all these contracts in here. All these no good sons-of-bitches sitting around on their asses, earning $1,500 a week, $2,000 a week. Why should I go out and get Dietrich?” So they ended up casting Alexis Smith. I actually generally like Smith better as an actress, but they didn’t have time to rewrite the part for her, so there’s a bit of a disconnect between the actress and the role; the role as written is more restrained, in the Dietrich manner, but Smith is a more open performer. The script is also sloppy in other ways. Roy Stuart, the villain, is very bland as written. There are two shootouts, one in a very large one inside a saloon, an homage to the brawl in Dodge City, no doubt. The second is in the Alamo, and that’s just plain weird. Undoubtedly they were trying something like Hitchcock did by setting the big finish of Saboteur (1942) on the Statue of Liberty, but here the choice is anticlimactic, as well as creepy. Instead of Hitchcock’s razzle-dazzle, we have a dark interior set that gives the scene the feel of a film noir.

The writers do get in a tribute to the great Michael Curtiz, who didn’t direct this, but in shooting The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) had asked the wranglers for a riderless horse with the immortal Curtiz line, “Bring me an empty horse.” Here the line goes to Sasha Bozic, played by the great character actor S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, who like Curtiz was Hungarian-born. As an indication how sloppy the script is, they have him say the line in two different scenes.

Castle (2013; “The Lives of Others” written by Terri Miller and Andrew W. Marlow; 59 minutes.)

Learning from the Master. John Michael Hayes’s screenplay for Rear Window (1954) has been stolen from a lot over the years, and this episode does an even better job of it than the 2007 film Disturbia. While Disturbia turned the major characters into teenagers, Miller and Marlowe have kept them as adults. In this case Jeff has become Castle, and Lisa has become Beckett. Castle has broken his leg skiing. As in Hayes’s script, we don’t see the accident, and the writers don’t give us the photograph and broken camera that Hayes does. We get it in dialogue, and it’s also quickly established that Beckett is going to continue working on cases while Castle recuperates, Castle’s mother goes off on vacation, and his daughter is busy with college. So he’s alone in his apartment. Now, you would think that since Castle is a writer of mystery novels, he’d welcome the opportunity to stop running around solving cases with Beckett and get some serious writing done, but then there wouldn’t be an episode.

There are a number of references early on to Rear Window, and one of them covers the detail that Beckett has given Castle a pair of binoculars as a joke. After crashing a model helicopter he flies around the house, he picks up the binoculars and looks across the way. He sees a woman and a man whom Castle takes to be her lover, who manages to sneak out of the house when her husband arrives. The husband finds the lover’s hat, and later takes a large knife in the bedroom, where the blinds are down. Well, what would you think was happening, especially since we don’t see the wife after that? Miller and Marlowe fortunately follow Hayes’s pattern and not that of Cornell Woolrich in his original story. Woolrich’s main character mentally collects details that make him think there’s a murder. What Hayes and the writers here do is have each idea that their hero comes up with shot down by the cops. In both cases it makes the material a lot more dramatic. Castle is mostly in a wheelchair, but does get around on crutches, so at one point when the others don’t believe him, he gets into the neighbor’s apartment and finds blood splatter on a wall. He gets the contents of a shredder which has a receipt for a storage unit, after which he and Beckett go to it and break in. The rug Castle thinks has the body in it is there, but no body. And so on. Finally Castle convinces Beckett to enter the apartment, and as with Lisa in Thorwald’s apartment, the husband comes back. And there’s an electrical blackout and a commercial break during which Castle goes over to the apartment. He enters in the dark, the lights go on, and it’s a surprise birthday party Beckett has set up for Castle, with Martha having provided the actors from her acting class. That’s a satisfying ending because, given what we know about Rear Window, it’s a surprise.

Oh, yes, one other thing. I do recognize the title of the episode is from the great 2006 German thriller written by Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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