Understanding Screenwriting #24: Monsters vs. Aliens, Grey Gardens, Parks and Recreation, Southland, & More

Back up the truck.

Understanding Screenwriting #24: Monsters vs. Aliens, Grey Gardens, Parks and Recreation, Southland, & More
Photo: HBO

Coming Up In This Column: Monsters vs. Aliens, Grey Gardens, Parks and Recreation, Southland, 30 Rock, Saving Grace, Desperate Housewives, but first…

Fan Mail: In response to Matt Maul’s question about The Dirty Dozen, Franko does try to kill Reisman in the book, which Nunnally took over into the script. It would have made the ending a whole lot less conventional, but that’s true of Nunnally’s script as a whole.

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009. Screenplay by Maya Forbes & Wallace Woldarsky and Rob Letterman and Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger, story by Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon. 94 minutes): List-making, not screenwriting.

In the opening scene, a computer geek at an Antarctica tracking station knocks a paddle-ball out into the faces of the audience. Since this is one of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s hopes to dominate the world with 3-D movies, I thought it was kind of cutely nostalgic that the opening scene imitated one of the most famous in-your-face moments from House of Wax, one of the best of the 1950s 3-D movies. But then the other references began to pile up: The Day the Earth Stood Still, George Lucas (the movie starts in his home town of Modesto), Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, War of the Worlds, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Mulan, Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Blob, The Three Stooges, Star Wars Episodes II and III, and on and on and on. It was as if the writers felt it was enough just to make the connections, a technique that has thoroughly been discredited by such disastrous move parodies like Date Movie, Meet the Spartans, and Disaster Movie. Just referencing other films without doing anything more simply gets exhausting. Although I should mention that my wife, who has not seen as many science fiction movies as I have—she is a scientist and always objects to the science parts—enjoyed the film more than I did, as did the audience we saw it with.

The film is also very clearly one of those films and television shows (see below) that were conceived and created in the last years of the Bush administration and now seem slightly dated because of it. One of the characters is a general named W.R. Monger and in the beginning he sounds like Bush and acts like Cheney. When we get to the war room scenes, which are modeled on Ken Adam’s design for Dr. Strangelove, he morphs into General Ripper, but the damage has been done.

There is one character the writers have come up with that shows what the film should have been. He is a version of The Blob, here called B.O.B. In the original The Blob it was just that: a pile of Jello that ate people. Here is given a doofus personality, with a voice by Seth Rogen to match. Rogen may end up with Eddie Murphy’s career: much more successful doing voices for cartoons than live action films. B.O.B, in what may be a reference to Dory, the amnesiac fish in Finding Nemo, has no brain and simply picks up on what anybody else says or does. The character, both as written and animated, has a freshness the others don’t. The voice cast is first rate, but the writing for the rest of them blends together so that none of them other than Rogen shine.

Ah, yes, the 3-D elements. The system is used very effectively to give us a sense of the space the characters inhabit, which given that Susan/Ginormica changes sizes several times in the film helps. On the other hand, when Entertainment Weekly recently ran an article hyping the return of 3-D, their letters column a couple of weeks later had two replies, both of them complaining about the return of 3-D. I particularly agree with Mike W. Barr of Akron, Ohio, who asked, “how about some solid scripts and good stories?”

Katenzberg’s millenium is not quite here yet. And you still have to wear those damned glasses.


Grey Gardens (2009. Screenplay by Michael Sucsy & Patricia Rozema, story by Michael Sucsy, inspired by the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. 104 minutes): Back up the truck.

As we have talked about both in this column and in various comments on it, documentaries, particularly in the last forty years, have given us a lot of great characters. As cameras and sound recording devices became lighter weight, it began to be easier to show the audience what people are like. In America, this resulted in films mostly in the direct cinema style, in which the camera follows people as they run for president (Primary), attempt to integrate a university (Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment), treat the criminally insane (Titicut Follies), or sell expensive Bibles to people who cannot afford them (Salesman). In Europe and occasionally in the United States, the lighter-weight equipment was used to interview people, as in the French film Chronicle of a Summer or the American Word is Out. Using the lighter-weight equipment to interview is the style known as cinema verité, although that term has come to be used interchangeably with direct cinema and even documentary itself.

David and Albert Maysles were two of the pioneers of the direct cinema style, but in the late sixties, they began to sneak beyond it into a hybrid style called self-reflexive documentary, which was a mixture of direct cinema and cinema verité. In direct cinema you are usually not supposed to be aware that the filmmaker is there, but in self-reflexive films, you are aware that you are watching a film being made. Why pretend the camera is not there? So in the Maysles’s 1970 film, Gimme Shelter, we watch Mick Jagger’s reactions as he watches the footage the Maysles caught at Altamont of the Hell’s Angels killing a member of the audience.

When the Maysles came around to making Grey Gardens, about two bizarre relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who were living in a decaying mansion in the Hamptons, it was impossible for the film to avoid being self-reflexive. The two women, Big Edie and her daughter Little Edie, kept talking to the brothers. What the film gave us was a stunning and often hysterically funny portrait of two of the most memorable characters in the history of documentary film. Once you saw the original Grey Gardens, you never forgot the Beales. So Albert Maysles (David died in 1987) put together the outtakes into the 2006 documentary The Beales of Grey Gardens, and there was a 2006 Broadway musical Grey Gardens. You would think all of that would have exhausted the subject. Not so.

The original documentary, done in the combination of direct and verité, could only deal directly with the present, one of the limitations of the styles. We get the Edies’ versions of what happened in the past, but they are the epitome of unreliable narrators. The musical dealt with the past by setting the first act in 1941 and the second in 1973, but a film can, more easily than a stage play, jump back and forth between time periods. What Sucsy and Rozema do is set the “present” in the time when the Maysles are filming their documentary. So we get something similar to the self-reflexivity of the documentary, as well as a comment on the documentary making process, AS WELL AS the opportunity to see the Edies go through their routines once again. The documentary making process then becomes a structural element of the film. The second structural element is the backstory in which we find out how they came to be living the way they were. This involves going back to the thirties and coming up to the present. The documentary is not noted for its structure, although there are subtle structural elements in it. We tend to be more demanding of feature films, even if they do premier on HBO.

Sucsy and Rozema bring the two structural lines together in the scene of the Edies watching the completed documentary. This is followed by a brilliant scene in which Big Edie tells Little Edie it would not be good for her to go to the film’s premier, since Little Edie is “an acquired taste.” Little Edie runs out, comes back, and Big Edie admits it was her fault she did not let Little Edie stay in New York City, but insisted she come back to the house. Little Edie replies she could have gone away any time. The women have come to understand how they came to where they are. Little Edie goes to the premier and is delighted to be the center of attention.

That confrontation between them is not the only great scene in the film. When news gets out that two of Jackie O’s relatives are living in squalor, Jackie comes to visit (we have seen her as a seven-year-old earlier, not knowing who she is until someone calls her “Jacqueline”). Now how would you write this scene? You could make Jackie imperious, or disgusted. You could make the Edies ashamed. Or you could do it the way Sucsy and Rozema do it. Jackie is serious (this may be one of the few film portraits of Jackie that takes her seriously) and wants to help. Big Edie is trying to be the gracious hostess. Little Edie is more and more agitated as the scene progresses, then lashes out at Jackie. Little Edie insists she was dating Jack’s older brother Joe, who was supposed to be the one to run for president but was killed in the war, and Little Edie thinks Jackie ended up getting the life of First Lady that she should have had. After she is gone, Big Edie reminds Little Edie that she only met Joe once, at a party, and they never dated.

Another reason for doing a feature film on the subject, beyond giving us their backstory, is to let two actresses have at these two characters. Now let me explain what I meant by “back up the truck.” When you watch a movie, you know fairly early on if it is going to work (I knew a guy who insisted he could tell from the first shot, but I’m not that good). Then there are movies that you know immediately are doing everything right. This films opens with a bit of the scene of the Edies watching the documentary, and we see their reactions. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. This is it. This is the real deal. I felt the same way I did after the first ten minutes of John Adams: forget holding the Emmy nominations and ceremonies, just back up the truck and start shoveling them out to everybody connected with this. I am not an Emmy voter, so I do not know how I could choose between Jessica Lange’s Big Edie and Drew Barrymore’s Little Edie. Lange we are used to giving great performances, from King Kong on (yes, I know the critics slaughtered her for that, but look at it again: it is a brilliant comedy performance), but Barrymore is a revelation. She has done nothing to suggest she has this kind of range. Jeanne Tripplehorn is not obvious casting for Jackie O, but she nails the nuances the writers have given her. And for best supporting actor, look at Ken Howard husband and father, Phelan Beale: Phelan knows what he has to deal with and he knows when he has to get out. I have already told what makes the script great. And Sucsy’s direction follows my general rule for how directors should work: get a great script, get great actors, and then get the fuck out of their way. And, unlike Tom Hooper on John Adams, he does not screw it up by shooting everything at off-kilter angles. As Olivier once said to/or about Orson Welles, “If you’ve got a good script, you don’t have to shoot up the actor’s pantsleg.”


Parks and Recreation (2009. Episode “Make My Pit a Park” written by Greg Daniels & Michael Schur. 30 minutes): The bastard child of 30 Rock and The Office.

Here’s one problem with this new show: like Monsters vs. Aliens, it is very much of the George W. Bush era. In the 30 Rock episode “Cutbacks,” which aired the same night as “Make My Pit a Park,” Liz has to deal with the cutbacks that the company has asked for. We get a number of scenes of Jack firing, or about to fire, assorted people, and a discussion of where to cut Liz’s show, as well as her seducing the company hatchet man. In “Park,” on the other hand, the Parks Department seems to be going along just fine, with no budget problems. The satire is Bush-era “bureaucracies screw up all the time,” a descendant of Reagan’s “Gummit [I could never completely trust a man who mispronounced the name of the organization he worked for] is the problem, not the solution.” Bush seemed to make a concerted effort to make his government not work. Granted, though there has been a lot of satire of bureaucracies since long before Bush and will continue to be, the tone in Parks and Recreation still seems a little off. They may recover.

I love 30 Rock, as you have gathered, but I have never gotten into either the British or American versions of The Office. One reason for my not caring for both The Office(s) and this first episode of Parks and Recreation is the use of the faux-documentary style. Christopher Guest makes it work in short 90-minute doses in films, but it can get unwieldy over the length of a series. But wait a minute, this is just the 30-minute pilot for the new show. Yes, but the basic problem is the concept is inconsistently used. Are the characters being filmed in a direct cinema style or in a cinema verité style? It seems to be a combination of both, which certainly can work in documentary films such as Grey Gardens. If you are going to shoot the show in that way, then the writing has to be very particular to that style, and in Parks and Recreation it’s not. As JJ said in comments on my item on Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 in US#21, “documentaries are unbeatable resources for writers in regards to authentic dialogue and unforgettable characters.” Listen to what Frederick Wiseman HEARS people say in his documentaries. Daniels and Schur have not come anywhere close to that in this script.

The other part of what JJ said dealt with characters, and at least in this pilot episode, the characters are not nearly as interesting as those in Grey Gardens, the Wiseman documentaries, or the Guest mockumentaries. Here is also where 30 Rock has it all over Parks and Recreation. There is no one the equivalent of Jack or Jenna here. Amy Poehler may have a wider acting range than Tina Fey, but the character of Leslie Knope does not so far fit her talents the way Liz fits Tina.

Hmm. Could that be because Tina Fey also writes the character of Liz?


Southland (2009. Episode “Pilot” written by Ann Biderman. 60 minutes): FROM THE PRODUCER OF ER JOHN WELLS.

That’s the way the hype for this new show went, and you can understand why. With the series finale of ER, Wells was in the news. And NBC ran this in the old ER timeslot. And the IMDb seems to have gone along with the hype, since Biderman’s name does not yet show up on the page for the show, nor does her credit appear on her page (ed. note: Biderman’s name has subsequently been added). She already won an Emmy for writing the “Steroid Roy” episode of NYPD Blue back in 1994, and she is the co-writer of the new (lower voice here to show respect) MICHAEL MANN FILM Public Enemies. According to the on-screen credits, she is not only the writer of the pilot, but also the creator of the show. What does a girl writer have to do in this town to get noticed?

Unfortunately, what I am noticing is that her script is not very interesting. It is one more cop show that looks and sounds like all the others. One of the main cases, the cops deal with is a missing child, could have come straight out of Law & Order: SVU. The other is a gang drive-by shooting that could have come out of any number of shows.

Well, what about the characters? The pilot primarily follows new officer Ben Sherman on his first day of patrol. Standard way to start a series, even if it does bring to mind Training Day. But Ben is a blank (and it does not help that Benjamin McKenzie is no Ethan Hawke). We get no sense of his inner life, if he has one. We have no idea how he is reacting to what he sees and what he does. His partner is John Cooper, and his rants are not nearly as wonderful as those of Denzel Washington’s Alonzo. We also get very little sense of the other cops, with the slight exception of the black woman detective Lydia Adams, but she does not seem that swift when it takes her longer than the audience to figure out the significance of the ants at her crime scene. Yes, it is nice to have a black woman detective, but it’s been 35 years since Get Christie Love and even longer since S. Epatha Merkerson came to Law & Order. And while there is one cop that may be Latino, there are no Asians in Biderman’s LAPD. The racial and sexual makeup of the LAPD has changed a lot, but this series makes it look like the LAPD of Police Story in the 1970s. The cinematography, by the way, also recalls the bleached out look of Police Story, so at least they have the light right.

Even the one potentially interesting plot twist is 28-years-old. In one of the final shots we see macho training officer Cooper at a bar. He notices a guy he had previously seen arrested for gay prostitution. We notice it’s a gay bar. O.K., but the discovery at the end of the pilot for Hill Street Blues that Public Defender Joyce Davenport and Captain Frank Furillo, whom we have seen arguing all episode, are in the bathtub together got there first. O.K., that one was heterosexual, but still…


Parks and Recreation (2009. Episode “Canvassing” written by Rachel Axler. 30 minutes): Episode two.

Episode two is a slight improvement. I don’t know what the time gap was between when the pilot was filmed and when the second episode was written, but the writing has begun to take into consideration that we are now in the Obama era. Ron, Leslie’s boss, has a to-the-camera speech in which he talks about how with all the stimulus money coming in, the department will actually have to DO something, which obviously offends his bureaucratic heart.

Axler has also begun to add layers to the character of Leslie. In the pilot she was sort of a general doofus, but she gets an edge in here, since we see her manipulative side. While canvassing the public, she tells one of her co-workers that she learned from Karl Rove how to phrase the questions so you get the answers you want. We see her sneaky in some other ways. Amy Poehler can do all that and more, so this is a good trend. And she was joined in this episode by the great Pamela Reed as her mother Marlene, who appears to be successful in every way Leslie is not. If the writers are looking for ways to separate this show from The Office, they may have found it with Marlene.

I am still dubious about the faux documentary style, but with better character definition with Leslie, I did not find it as objectionable.


Southland (2009. Episode “Mozambique” written by Ann Biderman. 60 minutes): Second episode. And Biderman’s name is still not up on the Southland page on IMDb (ed. note: see above Southland entry).

This one has not improved. Ben is a little livelier than he was in the pilot, but we still do not get much of a sense of an inner life. The plot lines are still very conventional and the other characters are not showing much definition. And we get the old plot gimmick of one of the cops sleeping with a TV reporter, which Boomtown did better. There was one flicker of life in that storyline. The cop and the reporter are making out and his daughter sees them. And the daughter is not that upset, since she thinks mom’s a bitch. Boy, could you run with that, but Biderman doesn’t.

We also get no more about Cooper’s homosexuality, and we still don’t have the racial and gender mix of the real LAPD.


30 Rock (2009. Episode “Jackie Jormp-Jomp” written by Kay Cannon & Tracey Wigfield. 30 minutes): That’s how you do it.

Liz has been suspended for sexual harassment for seducing the corporate guy and is going nuts trying to figure out what to do with her days. She falls in with a group of rich women in her building who get massages and go shopping. The writers wrote in a nice semi-montage in which Liz is talking how she cannot spend the day with them as, behind her, the day passes by. Sharp writing, sharp acting, and a nice use of computer technology. And a great payoff: just as Liz thinks she can adjust to this lifestyle, she discovers the women are so lacking in any emotional connection to the real world that they are in fact a fight club. That’s taking an audience around a corner they did not even know was there.


Saving Grace (2009. Episode “But There’s Clay” written by Danitria Harris-Lawrence & Talicia Raggs. Episode “So What’s the Purpose of a Platypus” written by Mark Israel. Episode “I Believe in Angels” written by Nancy Miller and Roger Wolfson. 60 minutes each.): Hello Maggie. Goodbye Maggie. Goodbye Leon.

“But There’s Clay” introduces us to another new foil for Grace, now that Abby has gone back to IA. And Grace is just as restrained as she was with Abby, which suggests a change on the part of the showrunners about Grace’s character. The new character is Maggie, and the widower of Grace’s sister is attracted to her. We can see why: she is earthy and lively and fits right in. Grace is suspicious and in “What’s the Purpose of a Platypus” she discovers that Maggie is part of a two-person team of con artists who are out to scam Chuck, the widower of the money he got from his wife’s death. Too bad, because as played by Kathy Baker, Maggie could have been an interesting addition to the show. That’s always a problem with introducing new characters into an ongoing show: how does it affect the mix? It may have been that Maggie was too similar to Grace.

As I mentioned in my comments on reader’s comments in US#23, I have put off dealing with the increasing time spent with Leon, the man on death row, since I wanted to see how it played out. It did seem to take away from those two episodes mentioned above, but in “I Believe in Angels” the episode focuses on Leon’s execution. I think what they were doing was wrapping up Leon’s story, since they had gone about as far with him as they could. What the episode does do is end up with a suggestion of another plot line involving Earl and the black girl Grace goes to see at the end. Grace asks her if she knows an angel named Earl, and the girl’s lack of a “What the hell you talking about, crazy white lady?” suggests she does. I, for one, got tired of the Leon story and am interested to see where they take the new one when the series resumes.


Desperate Housewives (2009. Episode “Look Into Their Eyes and You See What They Know” written by Matt Berry. 62 minutes): Drat! Edie really is dead.

I did not write about the “A Spark to Pierce the Dark.” (This show, having run out of the titles of Sondheim songs for their episodes, is now using lines from within the songs; as one of the 73 straight men in the U.S. according to the last census who likes Sondheim, I find the habit only mildly amusing.) I noticed that at end of “A Spark,” after Edie had wrecked her car and been jolted with electricity, her hand was still moving. Yes, I know about all the on-and-off line discussions, arguments, etc. about Nicollette Sheridan leaving the show. But perverse character than I am, I hoped it was just showrunner Marc Cherry and Sheridan setting us up so they could pull a fast one on us. No such luck.

This episode does give Edie a very nice farewell. The surviving wives and Mrs. McCluskey are taking Edie’s ashes to, well, we don’t know where at first. In each of the acts, one of the wives tells of some dealing with Edie that gives us a rounder picture of her. Each one is appropriate for the character it is given to. I particularly liked the scene of Edie taking Lynette, suffering from chemo treatments, to a biker bar to “teach her how to flow her own pillows,” i.e., be the strong person that Edie knew Lynette is.

Given all the Sondheim references, I was a bit surprised by the end. As Edie’s ashes float around Wisteria Lane (her son did not want them), Edie gives us a voiceover that sounds cribbed from Emily’s speeches about appreciating life at the end of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Hey, if you are going to steal, steal from the best, whether it’s Sondheim or Wilder.

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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