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Understanding Screenwriting #110: Trance, Evil Dead, Admission, On the Road, & More

I always like a movie that starts out quick, and Trance certainly does that.



Understanding Screenwriting #110: Trance, Evil Dead, Admission, On the Road, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Trance, Evil Dead, Admission, On the Road, Alice’s Restaurant, Justified, but first…

A Changing of the Guard: You may have noticed that Slant Magazine has been redesigned over the past few weeks. Prior to that, Keith Uhlich, the longtime editor of The House Next Door, moved up to Editor Emeritus status. Keith hornswoggled me into writing this column in 2008, and it’s turned out to be one of the most enjoyable professional experiences of my life. I’m going to miss him. I’m not sure if I ever mentioned it in the column, but it was Keith who found the stills for these pieces, including ones for very obscure films I used to throw into my writing just to test him. When a new column was posted, I felt like a little boy on Christmas morning opening packages to see what wonderful trinkets and gizmos Keith had found. Some, such as the Polish film posters for ‘50s B movies, just made me laugh out loud.

In the reorganization I’ve ended up with Ed Gonzalez, Slant’s film editor and co-founder, as my editor. So far our collaboration seems to working very well, and I assume it will continue to do so. I’m looking forward to seeing what Ed comes up with in terms of stills. Yes, I know I should find them myself, but I’m an absolute Luddite about computers—I’m still surprised when all the words I write show up in more or less the right order in the column—and getting the pictures is way beyond me. I suppose I could learn, but I’m not convinced that at my age I could. Besides, who wants to forgo Christmas morning? And I have already laughed out loud a couple of times at what Ed’s come up with.

Fan Mail:

The one comment on #109 was from Rich Vaughn. His entire comment was “Henry King??? LOL.” This was in reference to my comments on King as a smart director who spent time with the screenwriters finding out what they intended. With the “???” I assume Rich is saying he is “Laughing Out Loud” at the idea of King as a good director. On other hand, he may be joining with me and such notable film historians as Kevin Brownlow and David Shepard who think King is the “Love of Our Lives.” Abbreviations can be confusing.

Trance (2013; screenplay by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge; story by Joe Abearne; 101 minutes.)

Going downhill fast. I always like a movie that starts out quick, and Trance certainly does that. We’re behind the scenes of an auction house, get some sense of how difficult the security system is to break into, and then watch as a crew comes in and steals a painting worth millions. In the process, Franck, the leader of the gang, hits Simon, a worker at the auction. Simon knocks his head on the wall. Okay, except that Simon is the crew’s inside guy, he’s hidden the painting from the crew, and the knock on his head has given him amnesia. Well, you’ve got me interested.

So how does Franck get Simon to remember? Franck eventually has Simon go to Elizabeth, a sexy hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson, enough said). Franck puts a wire on Simon so he can hear what Simon tells Elizabeth. But Elizabeth twigs to the wire, telling whoever is listening that she knows about the painting and wants her share. Still okay, but then we spend a lot of time on the hypnosis process, which is just as dull as psychiatric sessions. So we start getting time jumps, dreams, and imaginary sequences. Since the characters are pretty much one note, we don’t really want to follow them through all that. Then late in the film we begin to get several plot twists which aren’t particularly useful or interesting. Joe Ahearne first wrote and directed this as a 2001 television movie in England under the same title, but this is his first theatrical film. John Hodge has a longer film resume, which includes Shallow Grave (1994), Trainspotting (1996), and The Beach (2000), all of which were directed by Danny Boyle. I haven’t seen The Beach, but both Shallow Grave and Trainspotting have more substantial characters then Trance does. Unfortunately, it looks as though Boyle brought in Hodge not to beef up the characters, but to make this film more “cinematic,” i.e., a true “Danny Boyle” film. But, like Point Blank (1967, see US #108), this film gets over-directed, with all kinds of flashy cutting and camera angles that end up distracting us from the story. The night before I saw it, I watched the last two-hour segment of the British miniseries Spies in Warsaw, whose final sequence has the hero on a train getting the gold reserves of Poland out of the country as the Germans invade. The sequence was woefully under-directed. Maybe the producers of that should have hired Boyle to juice it up.

Evil Dead (2013; screenplay by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues (with dialogue by Diablo Cody, uncredited); based on the screenplay by Sam Raimi; 91 minutes.)

My scary film for the year. I’m not particularly fond of scary movies. I didn’t see the The Evil Dead (1981), or Evil Dead 2 (1987), or Army of Darkness (1992). Scary movies generally seem rather repetitive and often unintentionally funny in their excesses. But I do like to catch one every once in a while, and this one is it for the year. Why this one? Two reasons. Mia, the main character, is played by Jane Levy. I loved her in the TV series Suburgatory, at least until I stopped watching it this year when the writing simply fell apart. She’s certainly up to the physical challenges of this kind of film. The second reason is that Diablo Cody, one of my favorite young screenwriters, has been mentioned as having written the screenplay. Until the release of the film, she was listed as a co-writer on the IMDb page, but that’s now been changed. The idea of Cody doing a full-out horror movie sounded interesting, especially after she stuck her toe in the water with Jennifer’s Body (2009, see US #34). It might have turned out to be as much fun as The Slumber Party Massacre, the 1982 film written by no less than Rita Mae Brown. But she was apparently not that involved. As both an article in the Los Angeles Times and an online interview with Cody make clear, she came on the project merely to help out with the dialogue and whatever other assistance the two writers needed.

Unfortunately, Cody doesn’t seem to be very much present in the film. There are exactly two lines that are distinctively Cody-esque. One is at the beginning when somebody tells Mia she looks well, and she replies, “I look like road kill.” The other is late in the film and it’s Mia giving one of the demons a hard time. You can figure out which one it is. So if we don’t have Cody at full power, what do we have? A movie with a lot of flaws that’s not as bad as some I’ve seen. The setup is that Mia is trying to get off drugs and instead of taking her to a rehab facility, her friends take her to an isolated cabin in the woods. What could possibly go wrong with that, especially since one of Mia’s friends, Olivia, is a nurse? Well, there are demons in the house. The writers do spend at least a little time setting up the characters before all hell breaks loose. There’s some invention in the way the characters use stuff you would find in a deserted cabin. Somebody’s going to get at least a master’s thesis out of the use of the nail gun in this film. On the other hand, the blood flows so extensively that if this film had any pretense to realism, the entire cast would be dead 40 minutes into the film from shock at the loss of blood.

Neither I nor the audience I saw the film with was particularly scared by any of this, since there’s at least a slightly comic tone that seems partly intentional. That tone makes the film more palatable than it might otherwise have been.

Admission (2013; screenplay by Fede Karen Croner; based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz; 107 minutes.)

Dressed to Kill meets From Here to Eternity. This is another film that opens well, then goes downhill. We meet Portia Nathan and watch her work as an admissions person for Princeton University. There’s some very funny stuff in these opening scenes as she deals with potential students and parents of those wannabes. The admissions process to a prestigious Ivy League school is a very fresh subject for a movie, and one that’s been ripe for satire ever since U.S. News and World Report started making lists of the top colleges. The magazine then proceeded to go out of business as a magazine, mostly likely because they could make more money with the college reports. Why would you buy a used college from those guys? Both parents and colleges themselves take the ratings a lot more seriously than they should. At one point, Clarence, the head of the admissions office, mentions that Princeton has fallen from number one to number two and the admissions staff has to work harder. And then it’s never mentioned again. When Portia goes to an alternate school, the students challenge the idea that they should go to Princeton, and Portia’s defense is, ironically, not of Princeton, but of college in general. Boy, could a lot more be done with that. Several sequences were filmed on the Princeton campus, so we may have a situation that faced the makers of From Here to Eternity in 1953. The U.S. army insisted the excesses of James Jones’s novel be softened or else they would not give the studio permission to film on army bases. That shouldn’t have been a problem here since any ivy-covered school could serve as a stand-in; Princeton doesn’t have any Army Air Corps bases these filmmakers needed.

So we have a film that starts out fresh and entertaining, and then turns into a combination of romantic drama and soap opera. John, a teacher at the alternative school, is pushing Portia to consider for admission an odd-ball student, Jeremiah, who has terrible grades but great test scores. And John lets it slip that Jeremiah is the baby Portia gave up for adoption as a baby. So Portia begins feeling maternal and ends up cheating to get Jeremiah accepted. She loses her job and also finds out that Jeremiah isn’t really the baby she had. It’s not clear if John knew that (who else would have fudged the birth certificate?) and, if not, who else tried to convince him. The ending gets messier and messier.

I had assumed while watching the film that Croner had taken a comic novel and tried to make it serious, since her best previous credit is the 1998 weepy One True Thing. Boy, was I wrong. In reading a fascinating double interview with Croner and Korelitz, I learned that the novel wasn’t comic at all, but a serious look at a woman of a certain age dealing with her past. The comic stuff about the admissions process came from Croner. She says, “When I found [the novel] Admission, I had just gone through the horrific process of getting my son into a private middle school—which in L.A. is a kind of blood sport. I thought, An admissions officer suffering? That wasn’t sad to me; that had major comic potential. I wanted to write that story! And I relished the opportunity to take a good hard look at what the stress of the college admissions process does to kids and parents.” Well, that should have been like Kubrick working on adapting Peter George’s serious novel Red Alert, finding it funny, and turning it into Dr. Strangelove (1964). Here, to switch movies in the middle of the discussion, Croner ended up with something closer to Dressed to Kill (1980). The latter film starts out as a fresh look at the sexual adventures of a middle-aged woman, then turns into a rehash of Psycho (1960) and gets less interesting as it goes along. Croner needed to access her inner Kubrick instead of her inner De Palma.

On the Road (2013; screenplay by Jose Rivera; based on the novel by Jack Kerouac; 124 minutes.)

Past its sell-by date. Ever since On the Road’s publication in 1957 there’s been talk of bringing Jack Kerouac’s novel to the screen, but nobody could manage it until now. And Rivera and his director Walter Salles haven’t managed it very well, at least partly because the book is almost unfilmable. In 2004, Rivera and Salles collaborated on The Motorcycle Diaries, about the travels of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in South American. That story of men on the road at least had a structure: Che observes the volatile social conditions gripping many countries and it makes him a revolutionary. There’s no such structure to On the Road. Sal Paradise, the fictional version of Kerouac, rides around the country with Dean Moriarity, the fictional version of Neal Cassidy. They have adventures of the sexual, alcoholic, and medicinal variety, but nothing really comes of it. Which was part of the appeal of the book in its day: a rant against the conformity of the ‘50s that appealed to people, nearly all of them men, who wanted to break free from society. The book was a harbinger of the ‘60s, when everybody and his brother went on the road.

In addition to the structural problem of the material as the basis for a film, the film doesn’t have a sense of the conventional America of the ‘50s Kerouac was rebelling against. Salles is Brazilian and Rivera is Puerto Rican, and they were born a year or two before the book came out, so it isn’t surprising that they miss the texture of the times. In one sequence, Sal and Dean go with Ed Dunkle to pick up his wife Galatea, whom he has dumped with relatives in the south. The sequence would be a perfect opportunity to establish what was so constricting about life in the conventional ‘50s, but Rivera and Salles do not do it.

The novel always has appealed mostly to men, who love to get out on the road and be free. The women characters are hardly developed at all, and while that’s true in Rivera’s script, Salles has cast actors like Kristen Stewart, Kristin Dunst, Amy Adams, and Elizabeth Moss as the women. They completely overpower the men on screen. That in turn shows how dated the original material is, since we have had 40-some years of the women’s movement after the novel was published. I’m not suggesting the adaptation should be “politically correct,” but the filmmakers could have dealt with how Kerouac’s limited characterization of women was very much a product of distinctly male and dated point of view. We’ve also had a lot more films about men on the road (see below for one example) in the years since the novel, making this sort of the John Carter (2012) of road movies: Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novel was the inspiration for so many movies that by the time the original was made into a film, it seemed old hat. The novel was fresh and original in its time; the movie is not.

Alice’s Restaurant (1969; screenplay by Venable Herndon and Arthur Penn; based on the song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” by Arlo Guthrie; 111 minutes.)

Still fresh. Arlo Guthrie is the son of the great American songwriter and folksinger Woody Guthrie. Arlo is still singing, currently doing a tour called “Arlo Guthrie: Here Comes the Kid,” celebrating the 100th anniversary of Woody’s birth. “The Kid,” as he’s still nicknamed, is now 65. In the ‘60s he was in his teens and wrote a hugely popular song this film is based on. Arthur Penn, coming off his giant success with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, teamed with playwright Venable Herndon to write the screenplay based on the song and Arlo’s other adventures. The result, while not the cultural touchstone that Bonnie and Clyde was, is one of the best “hippie” movies of the period. It’s everything the movie On the Road would have liked to have been and isn’t.

Alice’s Restaurant seems to be a lot less structured than it is. We begin with Arlo getting a letter from the draft board saying he’s eligible for the draft. That provides an overall structure for the film, but the first hour or so seems very free form. Arlo tries to go college in Montana, but his long hair bothers a lot of people there. We get a sense of the conventional culture of the time in a few short bits, the kind of scenes that are missing in On the Road. Arlo leaves the college and goes on the road. He passes a tent revival meeting, hears the congregation sing “Amazing Grace” and says via narration, “Seems like Woody’s road might have run through here one time,” a beautiful line, which may have originally come from Arlo. Certainly there are lines later in the script, in Arlo’s voiceover, that are from the song, so maybe Arlo should have gotten an “additional dialogue” credit. Arlo sings in a club in New York City and is dragged off to a crash pad by a self-identified “teenybopper.” She lists the musicians she’s slept with and says she wants to sleep with Arlo because “You’ll probably be an album,” which defines the music scene a lot quicker and sharper than Almost Famous (2000). Arlo lands at a potential hippie commune run by Alice and Ray Brock. They’re an early-middle-aged couple who’ve bought a deconsecrated church. Alice is an earthy maternal figure, given much more characterization than any of the women in On the Road. Ray is something of a charismatic Peter Pan. So far, so rambling.

Then about 59 minutes into the film, a plot-like substance begins to seep in. Arlo and one of the guys go to dump trash from the big Thanksgiving dinner and are arrested for littering. They’re arrested by officer Obie and go before a judge who’s blind. All of that’s true, and not only is Arlo playing himself in the film, so are officer Obie and the judge. Shortly after they’re convicted and sentenced to get rid of the trash (they take it to New York City, of course), Arlo has to go for his army physical. That ends with the Army learning he was convicted of a crime, and they put him in group W, which consists of, as Arlo’s song on the soundtrack tells it, “father-rapers and mother-stabbers.” He’s out of the draft.

The last half hour of the film turns darker. We’ve always been suspicious of whether Alice and Ray can make the commune work, and they can’t. Shelly, one of their strays, dies form a drug overdose or suicide (it’s unclear), and Arlo is going on the road again, trying to figure out who he is. The collapse of the hippie dream the film shows always seemed to me to be more accurate than most of the similar films of the period. It comes organically out of what we see and know about the characters, rather than tacked on, as is the shooting at the end of Easy Rider (also 1969). Alice’s Restaurant is a better and more haunting film than Easy Rider, even if it’s not as well known.

Justified (2013; season four; various writers; approximately 45 minutes per episode.)

Mags Who? Most Justified fans probably think season two was the show’s best, simply because of the character of Mags Bennett, the ruthless matriarch of a backwoods crime family. She was a fascinating character, and Margo Martindale rightly won a pile of awards for her performance. Season three last year didn’t have anything quite that spectacular. Season four, which just finished, didn’t have a standout character like Mags, but it’s a better piece of storytelling.

The first episode, “Hole in the Wall,” written by Graham Yost, gets things going by starting when a man in a parachute falls to his death in Harlan in 1983. Thirty years later, Constable Bob, not exactly the complete doofus he sometimes seems, arrests two people trashing up Raylan’s father’s house. They’ve found a diplomatic pouch…with a lot of money in it. And a driver’s license that suggests the man was Waldo Truth. Meanwhile, Boyd’s Oxy sales are down, because of a local travelling preacher and his tent show. And Ellen May, one of the hookers Ava runs, has shot and killed one of her customers. So what’s going to be the main storyline for the season? Technically it’s tracking down Waldo Truth, who’s in fact Drew Thompson, who’s still alive. The other elements not only take up story time, but connect in all different kinds of ways. It takes real confidence of the part of Yost, Justified’s showrunner, to set all of this into motion.

We think that the travelling preacher is going to be a major character, especially when Ellen May gets religion with him. But in the third episode he’s bitten by a rattlesnake and dies. Boyd and Ava figure they have to get rid of Ellen May, so they send Boyd’s friend from the Army, Colt, to take her out and kill her. They tell Ellen May she’s going to get out of town on a bus, but she’s not as stupid as she seems, and escapes. We assume she’s out of the show after Colt can’t find her, but several episodes later, she shows up. She’s been protected by Shelby Parlow, a lawman supposedly on Boyd’s payroll. Meanwhile, the Detroit mob is looking for Drew Thompson, who knows a lot about their operation. Since the evidence suggests he’s still in Kentucky, they get Boyd to help. Boyd figures this is a chance to shake down rich guys who may make it possible for Ava and him to go legit. That leads to great scenes of Boyd and Ava dealing with the upper crust and imagining a legit life.

“Drew Thompson” turns out to be somebody closer to home, and for those of you who’ll watch the season on a busy weekend sometime in the future, it’s too good a twist to spoil. Now the writers are juggling their several balls very effectively, as Raylan and the marshals try to get “Drew” out of Harlan. Much easier said than done, and it takes them two full episodes, “Get Drew” (written by Dave Andron & VJ Boyd) and “Decoy” (written by Yost and Chris Provenzano), and all of the brain power of the different marshals and the writers to bring it off. The show spends the kind of time you could not spend in a feature, and it’s richer for it. And then “Drew” almost screws up his deal by…well, that’s a spoiler as well.

While no one is as dominant a personality as Mags, there’s the usual gallery of nicely drawn characters. Colt is a spooky guy, and gets a great death scene. Nicky Augustine is a slimeball representative of the Detroit mob who thinks he can outsmart his new boss, Sammy. We’ve met Sammy before and think he probably can. Their showdown, which Raylan sets up without leaving his fingerprints on it, shows us a new side of Sammy. And best of all, we ache along with Boyd and Ava for what they want and cannot have. The season ends with Winn Duffy, now Detroit’s man in the area who wants to Boyd to handle his drug sales. Just when Boyd thought he was out, they pull him back in.

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.



Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.



Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.

On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)

Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.

As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: First Reformed

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.



Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.



20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

Should Win: First Man

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