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Understanding Screenwriting #112: Before Midnight, Iron Man 3, Stories We Tell, Mad Men, & More

People who saw the film wondered if they met up again. So did the filmmakers.

Before Midnight
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Coming Up In This Column: Before Midnight, Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious 6, Stories We Tell, Some Late Spring and Early Summer 2013 Television, but first…

Fan Mail: A month or so ago a comment was posted to US#68. The original column ran on January 24, 2011 and included an item on Slave Ship. The comment was from Greg Lehman, whose grandmother, Gladys Lehman, was one of several screenwriters on the 1937 film. The story he got from her deals with Darryl Zanuck’s suggestion on the script. At first glance it makes Zanuck sound racist, but after studying him and his career for 45 years, my judgment is that he wasn’t, or at least he was less of one than most of his fellow studio heads. He may well be thought to be treading the fine line between being racist and accepting the potential audience’s racism. Also keep in mind he did not insist on not having blacks in the film; it was simply a suggestion that the writers did not follow. Read Lehman’s comment and make up your own mind.

Of the two comments on US#111, the most interesting one was from “A Very Bemused Commenter,” who thought that the example I gave of 42 dealing with racism in a subtle way wasn’t all that subtle. Reading the item over I can see why he thought that, since it sounds rather blatant the way I wrote it. In the context of the more horrendous scenes in the film, however, it plays as more subtle than I made it seem.

And David Ehrenstein and I are agreeing yet again, this time on what a wonderful actor Fabrice Luchini is. Well, David and I can’t disagree all the time.

Before Midnight (2013; written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke; based on characters created by Linklater and Kim Krizan; 109 minutes.)

Checking in with Jesse and Celine. It all started 18 years ago. Jesse, a young American, persuaded Celine, a young Frenchwoman, to get off the train in Vienna and spend the night with him seeing the city. They walked and talked. Boy, did they walk and talk. And fell in love. And the next morning agreed to meet each other back in Vienna in six months. They were young, in love, and stupid enough not to get each other’s addresses or phone numbers. Ah, well, it would make a good memory for each of them, and a nice minor film called Before Sunrise.

People who saw the film wondered if they met up again. So did the filmmakers, and because a follow-up story could be done on such a low budget, Before Sunset came into being in 2005. The original was written by Richard Linklater with Kim Krizan, but on the sequel it was Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy who worked with Linklater on the script. The actors not only knew their characters, but were collaborative enough to come up with details not just for their own character but for the other as well. Before Sunset takes place nine years later. Jesse has written a book about that night, and he’s at a book signing in Paris. Guess who shows up? If you’ve read what I wrote about the film in the book Understanding Screenwriting, you know that I like it better than Before Sunrise. It’s a tighter script, and the characters are older and less shallow. They’ve lived a little more. In one of the great endings in movies, it looks as though Jesse and Celine will stay together.

In Before Midnight, it’s now the requisite nine years later. We’re watching Jesse say goodbye to his son Henry from his first marriage at an airport in Greece. After the summer together, Henry is going back to his mother in Chicago, and it’s only after he goes through the gate that we get a great close-up of Jesse that shows us how deeply he feels about letting Henry go. That’s the writers knowing what the actor can give to a scene.

In one of the slickest bits of exposition since the opening of Rear Window, Jesse leaves the terminal and gets into a car. Celine is in the passenger seat, and in the back seat are adorable twin girls. No, Celine and Jesse aren’t married, but they’re together. And talking as always. We get some fill-in on what’s happened in the last nine years, and learn Celine is thinking about taking a job she sort of wants. When Jesse suggests they move back to Chicago so he can see Henry more often, the fat is in the fire. Celine is upset that Jesse doesn’t seem to want her to take this job she now says she really, really wants. Jesse is baffled at her reaction. In addition to that discussion, we also get an incredible amount of texture about these characters and this relationship just in this scene, done in two long takes. Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy know these characters inside and out, vertically and horizontally, and every other way you can name. This and other scenes show the quicksilver shifts in tone and attitude between Jesse and Celine that can only come as a result of the collaborators’ experience with these characters. In the arguments here and those that follow, Jesse and Celine are both right in what they say. This isn’t a good-guy/bad-guy situation. I’ll comment below about how Iron Man 3 gives the actors a little more to do than they did in the original film, but that’s nothing compared to this.

Jesse and Celine have dinner with an older author and his friends and family, young and old, and this is the first extended multi-character scene in the series. They all have their views on love and marriage, and the scene brings out the thematic substance of the series in a fresh way. Then for the rest of the film we’re back with just Jesse and Celine, first as they take a long walk down from the house they’re staying at to the village, the next a harrowing scene in a hotel room where their hosts have arranged for them a romantic evening that doesn’t turn out as planned. Though this scene has earned comparisons to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Scenes From a Marriage, it’s not as theatrical as anything in those earlier works, which makes it even more unnerving because it feels more lifelike. Finally there’s a coda on a patio that suggests that the couple will probably stay together, although it may be a close-run thing.

Before Midnight isn’t as focused as Before Sunset, but it manages to get deeper into their relationship. That’s because they have now been together as a couple for nine years, with all the joys and the agonies (and we get both in here) that brings. In Before Sunset, the discussion inside the car dealt with Celine’s professional disappointments and the failure of Jesse’s first marriage—two separate issues. Here the issues all relate to the relationship and give us a greater depth than we’ve seen in the series. I will be waiting patiently for the next nine years.

Iron Man (2013; written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black; based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, and Jack Curry and the Extremis miniseries written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Adi Granov; 130 minutes.)

Iron Man 3

Lots of cooks, one chef, good broth. I saw the first Iron Man in 2008 and wasn’t impressed. The idea of an iron suit that was that flexible just struck me as stupid. So I passed on Iron Man 2 in 2010, especially when the reviews weren’t that good. In early May, my 11-year-old grandson suggested we have a movie playdate to see Iron Man 3. He had liked the first two, especially the second one. He gave me a capsule summary of Iron Man 2 that was more entertaining than most movies I’ve seen lately, so I got the movie from Netflix. I enjoyed it a bit more than the first one, but it didn’t live up my grandson’s version. There was at least more effort at characterization, which gave the high-powered cast a little more to do. So then we went off to see Iron Man 3 (along with his sister, my daughter and son-in-law).

What first struck me was the plot’s similarity to Iron Man 2, where Tony Stark dealt with two villains, one the weird Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke at his grungiest), the other an industrial competitor of Stark’s, Justin Hammer, who’s in cahoots with Vanko. In Iron Man 3, we also have two villains, one the Mandarin, a weird cross between Fu Manchu and Osama Bin Ladin played by Ben Kingsley with an accent that’s half John Huston and half Richard Nixon, the other an industrial competitor of Stark’s, Aldrich Killian. They’re also in cahoots, but not in the way it seems. That leads to a great scene—way earlier than you think it should come in the film—in which Stark meets the Mandarin. If the first two films didn’t give the actors a lot to do, this scene makes up for it.

You’ll notice that the story material comes from a lot of sources, which could be a bad sign, but the key writer is Shane Black. He was The Hot Screenwriter of the Late Eighties and Early Nineties, having penned the Lethal Weapon series and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Then he went into an apparent decline, coming back, at least artistically, with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005, a wonderful off-the-wall thriller. It starred Robert Downey Jr., and it was clear that Black and Downey were on the same wave length. In the first two Iron Man films, a lot of the humor comes from Downey’s improvisations, which seem stuck in at random. What Black has done is bring that sensibility to everything in Iron Man 3, and the humor is as integral to it as it wasn’t in the first two. I’m also surprised that Marvel let them get away with some of what they do. For example, given my reservations about the Iron Man suit, I was delighted to see how, from the beginning of this film the assorted suits Stark has built sometimes don’t work. That is both funny and suspenseful.

As for my grandson, he’s getting more critical as he matures. He was bothered by the flaming creatures that seem to die and immediately come back to life, which didn’t bother me.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013; written by Chris Morgan; based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson; 130 minutes.)

Fast & Furious 6

Letty’s back and Dom’s got her. As big a Dorothy Malone fan as I was in 1955, I don’t recall seeing that year’s The Fast and the Furious, which was about an unjustly accused man escaping the cops by getting involved in a sports car race. I wasn’t impressed with 2001’s Fast and the Furious, since it seemed like a more expensive version of the hot-rod movies of the 1950s. The cast was multiracial, a good thing, but the only really interesting actor was Michelle Rodriguez giving great sullen as only Rodriquez can as Letty, the sort-of girlfriend to the film’s sort-of hero, Dom.

I passed on the next several films, including the fourth, in which Letty gets killed. If you’re going to kill off the most interesting actor in a series, the hell with you. However, the fifth one received good reviews and I eventually picked it up on cable and enjoyed it thoroughly. The series had gotten away from just having a lot of street racing and the fifth film actually had a plot-like substance. Dom and the gang were chased by federal agent Luke Hobbs while bringing down a South American drug lord. Luke was played by Dwayne Johnson, who has even more muscles than Vin Deisel’s Dom and more of a sense of humor. Like Iron Man 3, they aren’t so solemn about the franchise, and that continues into Fast & Furious 6. The writer, Chris Morgan, has been part of the team since the third film and understands the characters, who’ve also gotten a little deeper. Not a lot, but a little.

At the end of Fast Five, another federal agent discovers some photographic evidence that Letty isn’t dead. Not having seen Fast & Furious, I have no idea how explicit her death scene was, but Morgan has to do a lot of tap-dancing in Fast & Furious 6 to bring her back. She’s now working for the arch-villain Shaw, whom Hobbs wants to bring down. Hobbs gets Dom and his gang to work with him by showing Dom a recent photo of Letty. Car chases ensue. We eventually find out that Letty had amnesia as a result of the accident that supposedly killed her. Shaw found her and trained her to work for him. So even when our guys find her, she has no idea who they are. At one point, Letty is chased down by Hobbs’s assistant, Riley, and the two of them get into a brutal fight. Well, Riley, a newcomer to the series, is played by martial-arts master Gina Carano, so what would you expect? The seminar on whether this is a blow for feminism in movies will meet next Tuesday at Gloria Steinem’s house.

When Letty and Dom get together, Morgan is smart. He doesn’t have her memory come back instantaneously. Nor even over time. At the end of the film, Dom and the crew have gotten the pardons Hobbs promised them and are back at their old house in Los Angeles. Letty doesn’t remember it, but says it “feels like home.” And if you don’t care about sentimental crap like character and home, rest assured Morgan has written some great action scenes, including a big finish that director Justin Lin has been trying to figure out how to do for the last couple of films. It involves cars, naturally, a big cargo plane, and what has to be the world’s longest runway. One of the crew is supposedly killed in the action, but she may be another Letty.

Stories We Tell (2012; written by Sarah Polley; 108 minutes.)

Stories We Tell

Stories, you want stories? We got your stories right here. In the mid-aughts, Sarah Polley researched a family rumor that her family jokingly spread for years: that she looked nothing like her father, Michael, and that she was possibly the result of an affair her mother, Diane, might have had when she was off in Toronto doing a play nine months before Sarah was born. Diane had died by this point, so Sarah began asking her family and her family’s friends about the validity of the rumor. She tracked down the actor everybody assumed was her biological father, only he wasn’t, but she found the man who was. Most people would just keep quiet about something like that, but Polley is a filmmaker from a theatrical family.

So how do you deal with that on film? She could have written it in a fictionalized form, but she decided on doing it as a documentary. Here are the ways she tells the stories. When she found out about her biological father, she told Michael. Michael, whom Diane had encouraged to write but never had, eventually wrote about the events. But he wrote about them in the third person. In the film, Polley has him reading his text in a recording studio, and that becomes the narration of the film. Polley also interviews family and friends. But this is now six or seven years after her search ended. So what she had the interviewees talk about is how they felt about learning of Sarah’s situation, which means we get their stories about the past, not so much about how they feel about what’s going on now. Some of them aren’t so happy with what Sarah is doing with the film, her biological father most of all, who has an interesting take on whose story this really is. Sarah’s family took a lot of Super 8mm home movies of themselves, and we see the real Diane and can easily understand why everyone loved her. But in some of the Super 8 stuff, it’s not really Diane, but an actress playing her. Sarah has filmed some recreations, but in the style of home movies, not that artificial, arty style you see on the History Channel and elsewhere. We’re aware of it being a recreation, but that makes it a way of telling the story as well. What Sarah has figured out is that there are a lot of ways to tell a story, or stories, something any screenwriter needs to keep in mind. And since this is one of those self-reflexive documentaries that makes us constantly aware that we’re watching a movie being made, i.e. stories being told, the various styles reinforce the content of Stories We Tell. And stay tuned for the final punch line. Sarah puts it there because if she included it earlier, we might make an erroneous assumption about what it means. Its placement just makes it a great finish. At least I think that’s what it means.

Mad Men

Some late spring and early summer 2013 television. I’m not sure this season has been as bad as last spring’s was (see US#94), but it wasn’t particularly good.

Mad Men’s season hasn’t been especially impressive. The merger of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with Ted’s company hasn’t given the writers that much to work with. The disagreements between Don and Ted aren’t very compelling. Peggy’s comments about them both are true without being interesting. “The Flood,” written by Tom Smuts and Matthew Weiner, is set the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, but doesn’t handle it was well as 2009’s “The Grown Ups,” written by Brett Johnson and Weiner, dealt with the John F. Kennedy assassination. Don’s affair with Sylvia has its moments, but then sort of dithers away. The best episode this season was “The Better Half,” written by Erin Levy and Weiner. Betty, back at her fighting weight, runs into Don at the summer camp their son attends. They have a nice chat on the porch of their motel…and then they get it on. Betty is turning into Don. The next morning, Don comes into the diner and finds Betty and Henry calmly having breakfast together. No yelling, no screaming, no accusations. Yes, she’s becoming Don.

The season finale, “In Care Of,” written by Cary Wray and Weiner, brought some of this together, but not as well as it could have. The episode, and perhaps the series, reaches a climactic turn with Don blowing a pitch to Hershey’s. He starts by telling a wonderful sentimental story about his father giving him the money to buy a Hershey’s bar, then he cracks and tells the truth of where he got the cash. Don Draper telling the truth! Who’d a thunk it? He later takes his children to the house he grew up in, which is now a ramshackle mess. So the next season may be about the problems of having an ad man tell the truth. Or it may not. We’ll see what Weiner and his crew come up with.

Necessary Roughness and Burn Notice are both back. In Necessary Roughness, Dr. Dani has been let go from the Hawks, which is just as well, since it was limiting the kinds of cases the writers could have her deal with. Nico has returned after not calling her for months and helps her get a job with V3, a mega management firm that deals not only with athletes, but show-business types as well. That will give the writers a lot more options. It does mean that her occasional boyfriend, Matt, is leaving the show to make room for the new characters, and it looked as though TK was leaving as well, but thank God the writers got him signed with V3. He’s much too interesting a character to let go. Starting its seventh season, Burn Notice has gotten far away from its original premise of Michael being a burned spy. He’s now back working for the C.I.A., but still able to bring in non-Company friends like Sam and Jesse if needed, something his C.I.A. control officers don’t feel good about. In the early episodes, this has seemed awkward.

Behind the Candelabra, which was adapted by Richard LeGravenese form the book by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson, aired on HBO because no studio wanted to distribute it theatrically. It’s about Thorson’s relationship with Liberace, and like many films based on memoires, it has a rather limited view of events. Scott and Lee meet, have a long-term affair, and talk about it a lot. The level of conversation is nowhere near the quality of that of Before Midnight, and the film gets very repetitious. Nicely produced, but Lee’s costumes get just as repetitious as the dialogue.

King and Maxwell is a series about two former Secret Service agents who team up as P.I.s. It’s set in Washington D.C., so we’ve already begun to have some characters from their past show up. There’s also a bit of a Rockford Files vibe in that the officials they deal with aren’t smart in funny ways, which makes them very dangerous.

Graceland is a new USA show, which means lots of gorgeous people in bright sunlight solving crimes. The sun in this case shines over Venice, California, but I suspect the stock shots of bikini babes are the same ones used in CSI: Miami and Burn Notice. Graceland is a house where a variety of federal agents (F.B.I., DEA, Customs) live together. The first two episodes had some interesting plotting, even if they don’t pull all the people living in the house together as well as they could have. The third episode, “Heat Run,” written by Stephen Godchaux, does a little bit better at spreading the wealth around.

The Fosters is on the ABC Family Channel, which I don’t normally watch, but I caught the second episode of this. I had intended to see the pilot, but missed it. The second episode didn’t make me hunt down the first one. The setup is that a biracial lesbian couple (she’s white, she’s black) have one child of their own (sort of, he’s the result of the white woman’s first marriage) and then a pile of foster children. The second episode dealt mostly with the kids, who are all played by generically good looking Hollywood teenage types who haven’t yet learned how to act, and very little with the two women. I suspect this is a deliberate choice to make the women seem like just another couple, which on the one hand I admire, but on the other it means the writers aren’t using their premise very well, since we get very little sense of what it’s like for this couple to deal with marriage and children. And needless to say, the show attracted criticism from the right even before it aired. You can read the details of that here.

Rectify was a highly acclaimed miniseries this spring. I DVR’d it, but I’ve yet to watch it, so I will deal with it at a later date.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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