Understanding Screenwriting #113: The Bling Ring, The Heat, White House Down, & More

The robbers in The Bling Ring aren’t the professionals scripted by John Huston, W.R. Burnett, and Ben Maddow in The Asphalt Jungle

Understanding Screenwriting #113: The Bling Ring, The Heat, White House Down, Monsters University, & Unfaithfully Yours
Photo: A24

Coming Up In This Column: The Bling Ring, The Heat, White House Down, Monsters University, Unfaithfully Yours, but first…

Moving on: This is going to be my last Understanding Screenwriting column for The House Next Door. Don’t worry, it’s not going away for good, just moving to a new location. Earlier this year, I got an announcement from Erik Bauer, founder, publisher, and editor of Creative Screenwriting magazine. In addition to writing for the magazine, I was on the editorial board from 1994 to 2008, when the board was dissolved. Erik had sold the magazine and the Creative Screenwriting empire (website, screenwriting expo, etc.) to another man in 2007. Unfortunately, the recession came along the next year, and the magazine closed down in 2011. This spring Erik had what he called a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to buy back the Creative Screenwriting empire, and his announcement said that he’s intending to revive the magazine, beginning in 2014. In the meantime, he’s reviving the Creative Screenwriting website in August, and my Understanding Screenwriting column will be moving to it then. The new address will be www.creativescreenwriting.com, and he hopes to have the new website up the first week in August. I trust you will all come and visit and leave the kind of intelligent comments you’ve spoiled me with for the last five years. And I must finish my work here at the House with a great big “thank you” to both Keith and Ed for their support over the years.

Fan Mail: “shazwagon” raised the question in regard to the close-up of Jesse at the end of the opening scene in Before Midnight: “How do you know that it was the writer’s decision to show the close-up later?” That’s an easy case; since both the actor involved and the director were also the writers, we can pretty much be sure it came from them. In other cases, it can be a tricky question. Generally writers will make an effort to write in reactions for the characters (but not camera directions, since directors pay no attention at all to writers’ suggestions in that area). If, as in the close-up in Before Midnight, the reaction is related to everything else going on in the scene (here the counterpoint to the dramatic action with Jesse and Henry), then it almost certainly comes from the writers. If actors and directors in general are at the top of their form, you feel that the moment is happening now right in front of your eyes. Look at Jeff’s (James Stewart) reaction to the itch in an early scene in Rear Window. It seems the camera just happened to catch him when the itch did. Not so; it’s all laid out in John Michael Hayes’s great script.

David Ehrenstein is back to disagreeing with me and all’s right with the world. He thought Behind the Candelabra was better than I did. He especially liked the performances by Matt Damon and Michael Douglas. I liked the performances, but felt the script didn’t give them as much to work with as it could have.

The Bling Ring (2013; written by Sofia Coppola; based on the Vanity Fair article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” by Nancy Jo Sales; 90 minutes.)

Sofia Coppola, meet W.E. Burnett and John Huston. You may remember that, in US#68, I found Coppola’s Somewhere very disappointing, but I also said we shouldn’t give up on Coppola. The Bling Ring shows why, and it’s one of her best films yet. Never give up on talent. Here Coppola’s minimalist style, which was a little too minimalist in Somewhere, is perfect for the subject.

We start with the arrest of a group of teenagers who had been breaking into the houses of Hollywood celebrities, some richer than others; just look at the difference between Paris Hilton and Rachel Bilson’s homes. In the opening scene, we get bits of the Bling Ringers’ comments and reactions to their arrest (though not as much as we get at the end of the film). Then we get an extended interrogation scene involving Marc, the one boy in the ring, which leads us to flashbacks of how the group got into the robberies and Coppola intermittently using Marc’s comments as narration. For the first 45 minutes of the film, we’re watching the kids, and here Coppola’s writing and direction begin to remind me of John Huston. Both look at their subjects from a distance and watch them sweat. The robbers here aren’t the professionals scripted by Huston, W.R. Burnett, and Ben Maddow in The Asphalt Jungle, but Coppola is looking at them in the same way. You may think that’s just a directorial choice, but it’s there in the writing: the shallow dialogue, the cluelessness of their actions.

Forty-five minutes into the film we get the first shot that shows the cops are tracking the Bling Ringers, but then it’s another 15 before the arrests come. I would have preferred that to happen a little sooner, but Coppola is letting us wallow in the narcissistic stupidity of these kids. We do get some particularly well-written scenes early on, such as one where the mother of one of the girls gives her and another girl who’s sort of her foster child a home-schooling lesson on what they can learn from Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. But after the arrests, Coppola has a whole lineup of great scenes as we watch the girls react to being caught. Their coolness collapses, particularly that of ringleader Rebecca, who after a short beat starts ratting out her friends. Then we get an interview with Nicki and a reporter, but Nicki’s home-schooling mom keeps horning in on the interview, much to Nicki’s irritation. I thought Coppola was going to end with Marc being taken to prison, but she’s got one more great scene: a reporter interviewing Nicki after her jail time. Nicki was in the same jail as Lindsey Lohan, one of their victims, and the reporter is more interested in Lohan than Nicki, nailing the adult culture that made the Bling Ring possible.

The Heat (2013; written by Katie Dippold; 117 minutes.)

The Heat

This is why we have screenwriters. The setup is familiar from a hundred buddy-cop movies: Uptight and ambitious F.B.I. agent Ashburn is paired with scruffy Boston cop Mullins to bring down a drug lord. The difference here is that they’re both women, the former played by Sandra Bullock and the latter by this year’s “it girl,” Melissa McCarthy. The writer, Katie Dippold, wrote for MadTV and Parks and Recreation, so she knows about comedy. The conventional plotting rips through plot details we may miss, but we have seen enough of these films to figure what’s going on. The secondary characters are also run of the mill, but what Dippold focuses on are the two great characters she’s created for Bullock and McCarthy. They make the film work, and they especially help us get over the foul language.

Shortly before the film opened, Bullock appeared on The Tonight Show and made a point that there were, as she said, “149 F bombs” in the film. Then she shared a clip of Ashburn charging into a room and giving a bunch of male cops hell for their misogyny. On the show, there were a lot of bleeps, which made the scene seem dirty. The scene in the film doesn’t use the bleeps, and to my surprise, not all the words were F bombs. What makes the scene go is that Mullins is the primary user of bad language, and early in the film Ashburn calls her on it. So this scene is Ashburn trying to match Mullins. But she’s not very experienced and bungles it. It’s like the story of Mark Twain’s wife Livy trying to get him to stop swearing by swearing herself. He shook his head sadly and said, “Livy, you’ve got the words, but you ain’t got the tune.” The language in the whole picture isn’t as offensive as it might be because it comes out of character.

In writing about This Is 40 in US#106, I mentioned that Judd Apatow let McCarthy go on and on improvising in one scene. There may be some improvisation going on here (listen for speeches that go on and are too repetitive), but mostly it’s what Dippold wrote, with Bullock and McCarthy doing what actors are supposed to do: make it come alive. Just like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.

White House Down (2013; written by James Vanderbilt; 113 minutes.)

White House Down

Not fresh, but lively. An off-duty cop is trapped in a building taken over by terrorists. He eventually kills or captures them. Seen that before, have we? Exactly how many variations of Die Hard have there been? I’d already counted six by the third edition of my book FrameWork, and that was 13 years ago. James Vanderbilt, whose previous credits include Zodiac and The Amazing Spider-Man, has made this one a little livelier than most. Unlike a lot of big action pictures, which have gotten more solemn and ponderous in recent years, this one has an occasional light touch to it in Vanderbilt’s screenplay. By that I don’t mean clumsy gags and obvious jokes; it’s more a matter of tone, similar to Shane Black’s script for Iron Man 3 (see US#112). The director is Roland Emmerich, whom we don’t think of as a barrel of laughs, but he told the Los Angeles Times in an interview that he actually likes humor. Here he appreciates what Vanderbilt has given him.

The screenplay has some interesting political undertones that neither Vanderbilt nor Emmerich emphasize. The terrorists (there are different people with three distinct motivations, and if you want to be logical, there’s no way they would all manage to work together successfully on a project this big) are attacking the president because he’s worked out what appears to be peace in the Middle East. The motivation for some of the terrorists comes from people close to the military-industrial complex, which is afraid of losing their weapons contracts, both here and overseas. You could get into that in some depth, but nobody in this film is going for depth. Audiences for this film will get less about current American political issues than audiences in the 40s got about Vichy France in Casablanca.

Monsters University (2013; written by Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird, and Dan Scanlon; story by Gerson, Baird, and Scanlon; 104 minutes.)

Monsters University

Gunga Din meets Cars. As the credits began at the end of this, my wife leaned over and whispered to me, “Too many writers?” I pointed out that there were only three, but it looked as though they ran around the office a lot while working on the story and script, given the way order of the credits ended up. What she was noticing is that the storyline was not nearly as focused as it usually is in films from the GAPS (Geniuses at Pixar). On Monsters, Inc. there were eight writers (including Baird and Gerson), but the story was better (little girl Boo sneaks into Monsters, Inc. and disrupts the company, and “our” monsters have to get her back to her world to set things right). I suspect the quality of the story in Monsters, Inc. came from the working method at Pixar, where the top guys at the company (and nearly everybody else) would sit in on the story conferences and help out. Pixar has gotten a little sloppy about story construction, as we discussed in relation to last year’s Brave in US#97. It may be that John Lasseter has taken on too much running Disney Animation as well as Pixar.

Even though there’s a line in Monsters, Inc. that says that Sulley and Mike met in the fourth grade, the writers here have ignored that and have them meet at Monsters University. But Mike gets thrown out of the elite scaring program early on, and to get back in, he has to win at the Scare Games, which take up the middle hour of the film, and are very repetitious: Monsters try to scare mechanical kids, then do it again, and again, and again. There’s none of the freshness of the original.

The film is also overproduced. In many of the opening shots of the campus, there are a lot more “extras” than you need. It reminded me of Gunga Din, which is also overproduced with more of everything than they need. The Pixar film this one most reminds me of is the first Cars, where the storyline was overpowered, especially in the opening sequence, by the creators showing off their spectacular animation skills. The best of the Pixar films are like the best of the classic (i.e. Walt-produced) Disney features: The animation is at the service of the characters and story.

Unfaithfully Yours (1948; written by Preston Sturges; 105 minutes.)

Unfaithfully Yours

The Sturges Project, the final take. You may remember that in columns #85 to #91 I did the Sturges Project, looking at nearly all the major Preston Sturges films (and a couple of minor ones). I promised that eventually I would get around to Unfaithfully Yours, the writer-director’s last great film, and the final column for the House seemed like the time to do it.

The idea for the film first came to Sturges when he was working on The Power and the Glory in 1932. He was writing a scene that he intended one way, but when he read it back he discovered the tone was totally different. He figured out that someone had left the radio on in the next room and he had been hearing classical music. The story he whipped up was about a conductor, Sir Alfred, who thinks his wife is cheating on him and as he conducts the three pieces on the concert, he imagines three different ways of dealing with the situation. Sturges sent the story to both Fox and Paramount, and both turned it down. Sol M. Wurtzel at Fox admitted it was colorful, but did “not believe it would click with the average movie audience.” (The facts are, as before, from James Curtis’s biography Between Flops and Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges, edited and introduced by Brian Henderson.)

Sturges, by the late ’40s, had finished his glory period at Paramount, dealt with Howard Hughes, and landed at 20th Century Fox. He wrote The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (US #101) for Fox, but when there was a delay in setting up the production, he offered to whip out another film. Darryl Zanuck agreed to it, and Sturges went back to his 1933 story and began to develop it. The original story was more like a sketch, and Sturges now spent a lot of time writing the setup of the situation, not unlike the time he spent on the setup for The Palm Beach Story. According to Henderson, Sturges kept writing different scenes trying to figure out why Sir Alfred would think his wife Daphne was unfaithful to him. Sturges finally settled on Sir Alfred’s brother in law, August, having detectives trail Daphne after Sir Alfred told him to “keep an eye on my wife” while he was out of town. Sir Alfred just meant to take her out with his wife (Daphne’s sister) when they went out, but August, a rich, stuffed shirt, did what he would do in that situation. Sir Alfred keeps tearing up copies of the detective’s report, but then goes to confront the detective to eliminate the original. Now what kind of detective do you write for that scene? If you’re Sturges, you make him a huge fan of Sir Alfred’s, which irritates the conductor even more, although he does give the detective two tickets to that night’s concert.

In the February 3, 1948 shooting script Henderson reprints, the setup to the concert takes 78 pages (of a total of 154). The length of the section was always a problem, and most of the cuts in the film come from those pages. The pace picks up when the concert begins. The first piece is Rossini’s overture to Semiramide and the fantasy we see in Sir Alfred’s mind has him setting up a complicated murder plot, complete with a home recording device, a straight razor, and a telephone. It’s all designed to implicate Sir Alfred’s secretary, Tony, who’s the one he thinks Daphne had an affair with. The tone is Grand Guignol meets film noir. In the second fantasy, Sir Alfred is sad rather than homicidal as he and Daphne rue the end of their love, complete with a flashback depicting how they met. He writes her a check for $50,000 as a divorce present. The music is the overture and Venusberg music for Wagner’s Tannhäuser. In the third fantasy, set to Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, Sir Alfred challenges Tony to a game of Russian roulette and Sir Alfred ends up shooting himself. This third fantasy is the most melodramatic of them all. Presumably Sturges knew early on which pieces of music he was going to use, but only the Tannhäuser piece is mentioned in the script. Sturges’s scripts were getting even sloppier than they sometimes were at Paramount. He often didn’t use a full scene heading (e.g.Int. Study. Night), but only a detail. At one point he has just “DAPHNE—-ON THE TELEPHONE,” but we have no idea where the phone is.

The fantasies are what people remember about the film, but in some ways the final scene is even better. The concert is over and Sir Alfred goes home immediately and tries to set up the recording device. We know from the first fantasy what that means. In the fantasy, it all goes smoothly, but here it’s a slapstick disaster. Daphne shows up in the middle, and he gets out the checkbook, then the revolver. But there are no bullets in the revolver. None of his fantasies are working out. Finally, Daphne has a perfectly innocent explanation for what the detective saw, and Sir Alfred believes her. It’s a very satisfying ending.

Sturges had minor quibbles with the Breen Office, especially over the issue of adultery, and sex in general for that matter. Sturges wasn’t allowed to suggest in the pre-concert scenes that Sir Alfred and Daphne have sex, so what they’ve been doing in bed is anybody’s guess. The misunderstanding about Daphne comes from her trying to help cover up the affair her sister was having with Tony, but it’s been so carefully written that the affair hasn’t been made explicit. On the other hand, Sturges did slip some nice double entendres in. Sir Alfred is talking about just waving his wand a little to make the music come out, and his wife says, “A little magic wand, darling…dipped in a little stardust.”

The film was shot in the first half of 1948. James Mason was the first choice for Sir Alfred, but had other commitments. Rex Harrison had some success at Fox with Anna and the King of Siam and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, so he got the role. Which is something of surprise when we learn that Sturges thought of Sir Alfred as an autobiographical character. But Harrison manages all the turns that the script takes wonderfully. Linda Darnell is terrific as Daphne, especially in the fantasy sequences where she subtly shows the differences in her character in each scene. Our old friend Al Bridge is the house detective, Rudy Vallée is August, and Edgar Kennedy is Sullivan the detective.

Zanuck thought the final film was wonderful, but was concerned about the cost. (Henderson’s essay on the script is one of the best pieces I’ve ever read on Zanuck’s collaboration with writers and directors. He and Sturges really tried to make a go of it.) Its budget was large for the time, just under two million. Zanuck also thought it was too long. The first preview ran 126 minutes, and 94 people walked out of the film. Sturges cut some of the film, and then Zanuck whittled it down to 105 minutes. The biggest cut was the complete removal of the flashback of Sir Alfred and Daphne meeting. It reads well in the script, but it could have easily slowed down the picture. The mixture of wit, sophistication, classic music (the preview walkouts happened when the different musical selections started), murder, and slapstick comedy would probably have been too much for audiences at the time. Some people loved it, some hated it, but most never saw it.

The picture was completed in early July 1948. At that time, a young actress named Carole Landis committed suicide. She had been having an affair with Rex Harrison, and Harrison became box-office poison. The studio delayed the release until November of that year, but it didn’t help. Over the years, the film has become rightfully accepted as a classic, but it was too late for Sturges. After this and Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, he never made another picture in Hollywood.

So long for now, and don’t forget to check out the next Understanding Screenwriting in August at www.creativescreenwriting.com.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Tom Stempel

Tom Stempel is an American film scholar and critic. He is a professor emeritus in film at Los Angeles City College, where he taught from 1971 to 2011.

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