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Understanding Screenwriting #2: WALL-E, The Order of Myths, The Da Vinci Code, 300, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #2: WALL-E, The Order of Myths, The Da Vinci Code, 300, & More

Coming Up In This Column: WALL-E; The Order of Myths; Sailor of the King; The Da Vinci Code; 300, but first…

MAILBAG: When Keith, Matt, and Sarah Bunting were hustling me into writing this column, they assured me that HND has a really smart bunch of readers who would start interesting discussions. Since the only thing I like better than having an interesting discussion is starting one, I was delighted to see from the first comments posted that they did not lie. For a variety of reasons, I will probably not be responding to each comment as they come in, but will hold them for the next column, especially since some of them can be dealt with at once. For example, several people brought up Titanic. I won’t deal with it here because I have dealt with it at much greater length, discussing most of the issues the readers brought up, in the book that preceded this column, Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays. It is, as you might imagine, one of the scripts discussed in the Bad section. I go through the first draft, why it’s bad, why it’s better than the film (unusual for a film directed by its writer), what went wrong, and why I think it was such a big hit in spite of a bad script. For the book I deliberately picked bad scripts that had been reasonably successful commercially just so I could discuss that angle.

Matt and others brought up the whole question of audiences and their responses, which has always fascinated me. When I was about five or six I went to a Saturday westerns matinee and could not understand why all the other boys were running around the theater shooting off their cap pistols instead of sitting there watching the movies. As with Titanic, I have already had my say about audiences. The black sheep of my books (the only one not about screenwriting) is American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, which deals with audiences from 1948 up through the late nineties. It came out in 2001 and the University Press of Kentucky would love for you to take a few copies off their hands.

Several readers talked about writers and the visual element of films, and you will see that discussed in some of this episode’s films. “Withnail” would like me to look at failed screenplays, and since I loved doing the Bad section of my book, I am happy to comply, as you will see below. The only problem with doing bad movies is having to see them. I am experienced enough to be generally able to know if a film is not going to work for me and to avoid it. Matt would like to see scripts that break the rules and still work. To some extent Tell No One was like that, although I see some readers disagreed. There will be more rule-breakers. “JJ” would like to see unmade screenplays discussed, but I will probably avoid that, since I would be the only who had read the script, which sort of closes down the discussion. On the other hand, I would love to see one of the scripts he mentions, Robert Bolt’s two-film version of Mutiny on the Bounty, so if anybody has a copy of it… And to “MovieMan 0283,” yes, there is a Fox Movie Channel, and the only good thing about Time-Warner taking over from Comcast in my neighborhood was that I finally got it. In the middle of the night, they tend to run really great old stuff, as in most of the films that were in the “Ford at Fox” DVD box set. Thank goodness for DVRs. And now on to the main events:

~

WALL·E (2008. Story by Andrew Stanton and Peter Docter. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon. 98 minutes): Well, I was wrong. As my wife and I came out of a screening of Pixar’s Cars in 2006, I said to her, “This is the beginning of the end of Pixar as we know it.” Previous Pixar films (the Toy Story films, Monsters, Inc., even The Incredibles) focused on characters and story. Cars, especially in the neverending opening race, seemed much more interested in how dazzling the animation could be. Pixar, it appeared, was declining into its decadent years. Last year’s Ratatouille left the question open.

In Wall·E Pixar has returned its focus onto character and story. Look at the ways (plural) Wall·E is introduced. We learn about him from what he does. We learn about him from how he does it. We learn about him from how he reacts to what is around him, including his little bug friend. What details do the writers pick to tell you about Wall·E? Why the songs from Hello, Dolly!? And why the film clips from Hello, Dolly!? Look at how the actions in the film clips (the hats and the handholding) are later used. And that’s just in the first fifteen minutes, which is all about character.

What do we learn about Eve when she first shows up? How is she different from WALL-E? What does she do that he cannot? What does he do that she cannot? Even before they zip off to the Axiom, we have one of the most detailed relationships between two characters in any recent American film. Screenwriting is writing for performance, and the writers here have written two great characters for the animators to “perform.”

Screenwriters also write for the performance of the other members of the creative team. Wall·E’s world on Earth is conceived by the writers so the design team can use the wide screen to isolate Wall·E in the desolation. (The Simpsons Movie is one of the few other recent animated films to use the wide screen. How and why does The Simpsons Movie use the wide screen differently than Wall·E?) The Axion is also written for the designers to show off, but unlike the opening race in Cars, it is at the service of the story and especially the characters. Yes, the chases may go on a little too long, but if we are with the characters, and we are, then we want to know what is happening to them in those chases.

Oh, yeah, screenwriters write dialogue. But there is very little dialogue in here, which should tell you something that silent filmmakers learned years ago: you can tell a story without a lot of dialogue. Although you should know in this case the writers did in fact write out in English dialogue what Wall·E was saying. Then they gave it to the sound genius Ben Burtt and he “translated” it into “Wall·E”-speak. See what I mean about writing for performance?

~

The Order of Myths (2008. Written by Margaret Brown. 77 minutes by my count, 80 minutes by the Los Angeles Times’s count, and 97 minutes by the imdB’s count): But this is a documentary, and documentaries are not written, they’re just photographed life.

Guess again. There are at least three kinds of screenwriting going on in many documentaries, although only two here. The missing one is narration, although there are some details given in words in titles throughout the film. The second form of screenwriting in a documentary is a selection of a subject, which may automatically suggest a structure to the film, and as William Goldman so eloquently put it, screenwriting is structure, structure, structure, and structure. Here Brown is making a documentary about the preparations of organized groups, both black and white, for Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama, which rightly suggests the structure is going to be one that follows the processes the groups go through.

The third and often most crucial form of screenwriting in a documentary is in the editing of the material into the final structure. Here Brown gives us the complex look at Mobile that makes the film one of the best documentaries so far this year. One way she does this is by giving us material that we don’t immediately understand as connected to the basic structure. For example, there is a brief essay on how people in Mobile feel about their trees, with reference to the importance of roots, both with trees and culture. That is followed up later in the film by a reference to Mobile being the site of one of the last lynchings in America. In a tree. Then both of those scenes add a double context to a simple shot later in the film of someone removing a string of beads from a tree during one of the parades. Likewise, the single shots spread out early in the film in which young black girls read their essays about moon pies seem to have no relation to anything else in the film. But they do.

Brown “lets” us “discover,” or perhaps rather “uncover” the meanings as we go. A question that almost always comes up with documentaries is: what are we not seeing? What got left on the cutting room floor? The Order of Myths peels away a lot of information about Mobile and its history, but Brown is aware it does not tell all (as compared to some filmmakers who insist they have told the whole story). So the final shot is essentially an outtake from the rest of the film, with a character about whom we have at that point only recently learned several interesting details, suggesting there is a lot more that is not, and will not, at least this time around, be told. It is, one critic said, one of the most haunting movie endings in years.

~

Sailor of the King (1953. Screenplay by Valentine Davies. Based on the novel “Brown on Resolution” by C.S. Forester. 83 minutes): I promised you that I would from time to time deal with screenplays from older films that showed up on cable and/or DVD. Sailor of the King is a virtually unknown jewel that never appears on television, not even on the Fox Movie Channel, was never released on videotape, and is only now finally being released on DVD. One reason its studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, probably ignored it was that it was one of the last small-screen black-and-white films Fox released before the company went whole hog for CinemaScope and color.

The script is based on a 1929 novel by the author of the Horatio Hornblower stories and novels, so you will rightly suspect it will be about naval adventures, with lots of duty, honor, and courage thrown in. Even though the story and production team is British, Davies was an American screenwriter, best known for his Oscar-winning work on the original Miracle on 34th Street. So while the script and film have British restraint, it also has American narrative drive.

It begins in 1914 with a young Royal Navy Lieutenant Richard Saville meeting and falling in love with a young British woman, Lucina. Look at how quickly Davies gets them together, without seeming to rush it. When Lucinda has to turn down Saville’s marriage proposal, she does so using the same logical reasons a navy officer should not get married that Saville has already said. And Davies is smart enough to put the Production-Code appeasing “What we did was wrong” (have sex without being married) up front in the scene so he won’t have to dwell on it, which would make it even stupider than it already it is.

Twenty minutes into the picture we are in the early forties and Saville, now a squadron commander, is chasing a German ship raiding convoys in the Pacific. On one of the ships is a signalman named Brown. Look at how long it takes for Davies to give us hints, and what those hints are, that Brown’s mother is Lucinda. Brown’s ship is sunk and he is taken aboard the German Raider. The Raider has to put into a large cove (talk about writing in a great visual location) to do repairs, and Brown, encouraged by the one other English prisoner, Petty Officer Wheatley, steals a gun and a life raft and sneaks ashore. (It will come as no surprise to modern viewers of the film that Wheatley can convince Brown to take action; he is played by Bernard Lee, who went on to play M in the first 6,734 James Bond films.) Brown, up in the hills of the cove, picks off the crew and slows down the repairs. The other British ships arrive in the nick of time and sink the German ship.

In the final scene, Saville, now an admiral, is with Brown as Brown is about to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Brown credits his mother with teaching him all about the Navy, as well as the marksmanship that proved useful. The two gallant men, not knowing they are father and son, await the King. The ending is touching and restrained and it has stuck with me since I first saw the film in 1953.

It was not the only ending. The new DVD has an alternate ending in which Brown dies, and it is his mother who is with Saville to accept the Victoria Cross. The first ending tested better (and it lets Jeffrey Hunter live; gay guys will love this film, by the way, since Hunter spends most of the second half with his shirt off), and it is better because we know what the characters don’t. The problem with the second ending as Davies wrote it is that Saville never twigs to the fact that Brown must have been his son. Lucinda does not tell him, and he seems stupider than he has been in the rest of the film not to guess. Part of the limitations of the scene may have been the Production Code again, since them talking about her having an illegitimate child would probably have not been allowed in 1953.

But let us think for a minute, as reader “Withnail” had wondered, about other ways Davies could have run the scene. We the audience knows who’s who, so a simple exchange of glances will tell they know. Or what if she recognizes Saville but he doesn’t recognize her? Or he recognizes her, but she doesn’t recognize him? Make the scene a little more complicated and have Brown there as well, and then what happens? Do they tell him or not? Does he guess? You could all do this in such a restrained way that you could have sneaked it past the Production Code.

I am not suggesting the film be remade now, since the film is perfect at 83 minutes, and making it into a two-and-a-half hour blockbuster would probably kill it. Besides, how many contemporary box office hits do you know that are serious about duty, honor, and courage?

~

The Da Vinci Code (2006. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman. Based on the novel by Dan Brown. 149 minutes): I recently caught up with a couple of bad movies I deliberately avoided paying to see when they were in the theatres. This was one of them, and its primary value is to show you how not to adapt a novel. Brown’s novel is full of ideas, and Goldsman assumes (not entirely in error, given the box office success of the film) that audiences will care about the ideas. Mostly we don’t, and you can see why in the film. It means that Goldsman gives us enormous hunks of exposition, such as in the long, long scene with Sir Leigh Teabing. The scene has the kind of talk we will follow in a novel, where all we have are the words, but gives the actors virtually nothing to do while they talk. Sir Ian McKellen tries his best, and as an acting exercise it is almost but not quite fun to watch. The ideas of the novel are what Hitchcock called the MacGuffin: what everybody in the movie is concerned about, but about which the audience generally does not care. Quick: what were they chasing in North by Northwest? Yeah, but what was inside the statue? And what was on the microfilm inside the statue? We never find out. Did it make you hate the film?

~

300 (2006. Screenplay by Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon. Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. 117 minutes): And this one was a lesson in the generic problems of adapting a graphic novel into a film. First, there is seldom much characterization in most graphic novels, and here it consists of everybody yelling at each other. The characterization is so shallow that when, in the middle of the picture, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and Theron (Dominic West) behave for a minute like real human beings, it is jarring because it goes against everything else in the picture.

Second, graphic novels are graphic, not so much in bloodshed, although that is true here, but in stunning visual images. Reading a graphic novel in half an hour or so can be fun. But making that visual dazzle so relentless for nearly two hours simply becomes exhausting, like all those first features MTV directors make. Yes, screenwriters should write for the performance of the designers and the CGI folks, but give the latter a variety of images to conjure up. As the writers of Wall·E did.

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.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

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.

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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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