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Understanding Screenwriting #35: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bright Star, & More

I suspect that the children’s book this is based on is probably a charmer, and I can see why kids would love it.

Understanding Screenwriting #35: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bright Star, & More
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Coming Up In This Column: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bright Star, Whip It, The Phenix City Story, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mad Men (2), The Following Weeks of the 2009-2010 Television Season, but first:

Fan Mail: dfantico suggested the ways he would rewrite Law Abiding Citizen in his comments on US#34. I generally avoid telling people how to rewrite a script, although I sometimes fall into that trap. As a screenwriting instructor I try to not to tell students how to rewrite their scripts. I just point out the problems and let them figure it out. They learn more that way.

Since I did not do any comments on the comments on my piece “Talking Back to Documentaries,” let me just throw in a thanks to the people who wrote in on it. I was glad to give you some ideas of stuff to watch. I was particularly touched by the comments from joan, who seemed from the comments to be Betsy MacLane, the co-author of the textbook I use. Glad to know the class meets with your approval.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009. Screenplay by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, based on the book by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett. 90 minutes): O.K. banana, but a great credit.

I suspect that the children’s book this is based on is probably a charmer, and I can see why kids would love it. Flint Lockwood invents a device that takes the water in clouds and turns it into food: cheeseburgers, pizza, pancakes with butter and syrup, etc. The food drops on the small town Flint lives in and makes it famous, but then the device gets out of control. Nice little story. The problem is the film is 90 minutes long and there is not enough story for 90 minutes. The filmmakers have, pardon the expression, larded up the story with more and more and more food sight gags. It gets relentless. An additional problem is that the characters are rather bland and one-dimensional and they cannot sustain a 90-minute film either. Once the plane takes off to try to stop the device, it is all action, all the time. And of course it is a huge hit, especially with kids, who love the excessive food jokes. I suppose this means that the writers know their audience, but still…

There are the occasional nice moments with the characters, but not enough of them. Sam, the TV weather intern given her big shot at covering the story, has a habit of saying something very smart and then realizing it was too smart for the room. She then resorts to pretending to be stupid. Flint, finally, after way too many examples, calls her on it and she admits she really is smart. Flint changes her look from cutsie weather girl back to nerd, complete with glasses. We are supposed to applaud, but can’t she be cute and smart at the same time? Flint’s father is a fisherman who talks (with James Caan’s voice, a perfect bit of voice casting) in fish metaphors, which also gets tiresome, but the father has a good gag when he tries to e-mail the kill code for the device to his son.

In writing about The Mouse That Roared, I mentioned that it got off to a great start with the gag of a mouse scaring the Columbia logo lady. This film starts off with a banana falling from the sky and hitting her. Not as funny. But then the film recovers beautifully with a main credit that starts: “A Film by…” and then adds “A lot of people.” For once, truth in the credits. Too bad the rest of the film is not up to that joke.

Bright Star (2009. Written by Jane Campion. 119 minutes): Define bright.

My wife and I were really in the mood for a romantic drama, complete with English poets (Keats in this case) and the lovely countryside (my wife is English and I have a nostalgic view of the good old sceptre’d isle). I do have to tell you that my wife stayed awake through the entire film (she is notorious for sleeping through the first act of plays—where do you think I developed by skill at quickly summarizing a play or movie?), but I had trouble keeping my eyes open.

John Keats, as written and directed by Campion, is a real drag. He hardly ever does anything but cough, and he does not seem to have much of a reaction to anything around him. Surely a guy who writes stuff like his would be paying at least some attention to the world. Campion’s real interest is in Fanny Brawne, a seamstress who falls in love with Keats. Now she is paying attention to everything that is going on, and that’s in the writing as well as the directing and acting. Abbie Cornish gives a star performance as Fanny, blowing Ben Whishaw as Keats off the screen, which is not what you want in a love story. Compounding the problem though is that Abbie is not all that sympathetic a character. She mopes a lot (not as much as Keats, but still) and seems rather silly a lot of time. I know people in love act silly, but as screenwriters you have to protect them a little. Just to make matters worse, Keats’s friend and protector, Charles Brown, is set up to be the minimal bad guy in the piece. He keeps dragging Keats away from Abbie to get him to work on his poems. Which makes him the most sympathetic as well as hard-headed of the characters. Referring to another poet entirely, Faulkner said, “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one… If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

The England we see in the film is rather dreary, although Campion has provided us with some nice butterflies, but even Rome is dark and gloomy when we see Keats’s coffin there. I realize it is a tragic story, but a little sun might be nice as a counterpoint. The closest we get is Fanny’s little sister “Toots,” who has more charm than anybody else in the movie.

Whip It (2009. Screenplay by Shauna Cross, based on her novel. 111 minutes): Not just Juno joining the roller derby.

Bliss is a teenaged girl who joints the roller derby, unbeknownst to her mom Brooke, who forces Bliss to compete in teen beauty pageants. In the middle of the picture Brooke and her husband Earl find out. The confrontation scene between Bliss and Brooke is the only mediocre scene in the entire script—very flat and “on the nose.” The rest of the script is terrific.

Cross has a great feel for the locale of her film: white trash Texas (and the production design is very convincing; I was amazed to discover in the end credits that it was filmed in Michigan), and she gets the details of the lives of her characters right. What would you say to get your best friend to vomit up the alcohol she drank when she doesn’t want to? Listen to what Bliss tells her best friend Pash. More importantly, Cross is not condescending to the characters. They all are not only rich and funny, especially the derby girls, but Cross gives them nice counterpoints. It comes as a surprise to learn that Brooke, for all her pretensions, is a mail delivery person. Earl is not as dumb as you may first think. Pash has an interesting relationship with their boss at the diner. Late in the film, in a charming little scene in a car, we learn that “Maggie Mayhem,” one of the Hurl Scouts team, has a very interesting relationship with a much younger guy. Much, much younger.

This is Cross’s second screenplay, but it is the director’s first film as a director. She is Drew Barrymore, and she has been producing commercially successful, if not exactly critically acclaimed, movies for years. Her DNA from one of America’s greatest acting families shows up in her direction of the actors, most of whom haven’t been this good in years. Look at what Barrymore does with the reactions Cross has given to Marcia Gay Harden’s Brooke in the first scene in the film. Ellen Page as Bliss gives a wider-ranger performance than she did in Juno. Barrymore, unlike a lot of directors, LOVES actors, and it shows. Cross has given Barrymore a great set of characters to play with and Barrymore lets the actors go. True, she lets herself overact a bit in a supporting role, but she’ll learn. The outtakes at the end show the great time everybody had making the movie, and unlike some movies with outtakes at the end, the film gets that feeling across to the audience. Barrymore has given the film an energy and drive that Campion does not give to Bright Star. Now if Campion had just put Keats on roller skates…

The Phenix City Story (1955. Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring and Crane Wilbur. 100 minutes): Doesn’t quite live up to its reputation.

Writing about The Captive City in US#8, I mentioned this film as “an example of how it [a script based on a true crime story] ought to be done.” I wrote there that it never showed up on DVD or on television. Well now it has appeared on Turner Classic Movies and I have to revise my opinion a bit. I saw this film when it first came out and found it stark and compelling. Since I was also about 13 at the time, some of my love for the film came from the early scene when actress-singer Meg Myles, a very buxom young lady in a low-cut dress, sings the “Phenix City Blues,” but I remember the impact the rest of the film had.

Phenix City, Alabama, was the legendary Sin City for most of the first half of the twentieth century. It was right across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia, and therefore near Fort Benning. Soldiers went across the river for gambling, prostitution and whatever other vices they could find. During World War II the bordellos drove “mattress trucks” up to the gates of Fort Benning to cut down on the soldiers’ travel time. In 1954, Albert Patterson, a local lawyer who had just received the Democratic nomination for State Attorney General, was assassinated, which finally provoked a cleanup of Phenix City. The story made the newspapers and magazines around the country, and the film came out the following year.

This is shot on location in Phenix City, but it is a lot more relentless about making sure we know this than, say, On the Waterfront was the year before about its location shooting. When actor Edward Andrews, playing Rhett Tennant, the owner of the worst club, runs into a little old lady on the street and has a nice chat with her, people at the time knew she was the real notorious town madam. Nowadays, who cares? Like The Captive City, the script is so determined to document the story that it comes out rather flat. There is one really good scene near the beginning where Tennant goes to persuade Patterson not to join the crusaders. Andrews and John McIntyre, two first-rate character actors of the period, get a lot out of the scene. Too many of the rest of the scenes are very flat, and others, particularly those with Richard Kiley as Patterson’s son John, are too melodramatic. Another problem with the script is that it is vague about several points. There are suggestions, but only suggestions, that the sin merchants are connect to organized crime. Part of the vagueness may be that several trials were still going on at the time and the filmmakers could not be too specific. It does hurt the film. There are moments that still shock, such as a death of a little girl, but the script is not good enough to have the film impact today as it did then.

Georgia O’Keeffe (2009. Written by Michael Cristofer. 120 minutes): Another back-up-the-truck film.

In US#24 I brought up the idea that some movies and television shows are so good that instead of having all the nominations and award shows, you can just back up the truck and start shoveling out the awards. I raised that while writing about Grey Gardens. Check the list of Emmy winners this year.

Although the title is Georgia O’Keeffe, this made-for-television movie is about the long, difficult relationship between O’Keeffe, the painter, and her mentor, lover, and salesman, Alfred Steiglitz, one of the great American photographers. One of the comments on the message boards at IMDb complained that the film did not go on after his death and show the rest of her life. Well, you got to leave something for the sequel. And there is more than enough material in her life for another film.

Michael Cristofer is an actor and a playwright. He is best known for his 1977 play The Shadow Box, but he has done several screenplays. His screenplay for The Witches of Eastwick (1987) may have been messed up during that troubled production, and his script for The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) certainly was. I always found it interesting that Julie Salamon, who wrote the book The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood appears never to have talked to Cristofer. Salamon started the project intending to show how a great director, Brian De Palma, makes a great film. What happened of course was a disaster, and in a spectacular failure of nerve, Salamon fails to acknowledge in the book what is clear from everything else in the book: the problem with the film was that De Palma directed it very badly. Cristofer’s comments would have been very illuminating.

Because Cristofer is an actor as well as a writer, he has written a lot of great scenes for Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Steiglitz to play. Look at the first scene in the apartment he sets her up in. Look at the argument they have late in the picture and how the emotions turn on a dime. Look at the scene with her in the hospital and him trying to persuade her to let his gallery have a show. That last scene is a beautiful example of making a scene work where only one person talks.

Cristofer also lets us see her development as an artist. When she temporarily leaves Steiglitz in New York and goes to New Mexico, we see what attracts her about the place. One of the commentators on the IMDb boards complained that the cinematography made the East Coast scenes look all blue and green. Yes, and they are supposed to look that way so we feel the contrast when she comes West.

The film was shown on Lifetime and should pop up again. Look for it, especially if you have a big screen TV. Do NOT watch it on your iPhone.

Mad Men (2009. “The Gypsy and the Hobo” episode written by Marti Noxon & Cathryn Humphris and Matthew Weiner. 60 minutes): The Best Commercial Break of the Year.

Rather than look at the entire episode (Todd VanDer Werff and Luke de Smet are doing great jobs on their summaries/commentaries, aren’t they?), I want to look at one, or two, of the best scenes of this year. Not just on Mad Men, but in any movie or television show this year.

In the previous episode Betty had found the key to Don’s secret drawer. She looked in the old shoebox and discovered his “stuff,” including the fact that he had been married and divorced before. She did not do anything then, but we knew the day was coming. In this episode she takes the kids off to Philadelphia to see her brother, but as we discover, also to talk to her family’s lawyer about her situation with Don. The lawyer pretty much tells her to stick with Don, since the other options are not good. Meanwhile, Don is planning a getaway with Miss Farrell. They drive by his house and he leaves her in the car to go in for a minute. But he finds that Betty and the kids have come home early. Betty tells the kids to go upstairs to bed and says to Don, “I need to talk to you.”

So how would you write the scene that follows? Yelling, screaming, throwing things? Not with these writers. What we get is a very quiet but very tense scene in which Betty confronts Don. What the writers are very good at in this scene are the silences, which give the actors a lot to do. We see Betty’s anger, hurt, and bafflement, as well as her determination to find out what the hell is going on with the man she thought she knew. Don is devastated that his secrets have been found out. He says he can explain and Betty tells him he is good at that. So Don is forced to tell the truth for a change, and the one time he strays from it (about when he got the divorce) Betty nails him on it. We know he is telling the truth because we have seen nearly everything he says take place.

Now, what makes this a great scene? First of all, it delivers what we have been waiting for, and as much as I love the show, I keep wishing it would speed up the days of reckoning. I feel that way even more now that I see from this scene how the reckonings will be delivered. Second, the scene rewards the longtime viewers because we know what all this means, even if we don’t know where it will end up. Third, the scene provides, especially in those silences, great opportunities for the actors. Jon Hamm has shown Don skating through a lot, but here he is stunning, particularly in his first closeup when he realizes that Betty knows what is in the drawer. January Jones matches him in suggesting, not telling, all the conflicting feelings Betty is going through. Fourth, the scene provides the opportunity for the director, Jennifer Getzinger, to do it right by not doing much. Getzinger is smart enough to know we just want to watch these characters in this situation. With this quality of writing and acting, all she has to do is let the camera watch. Anything more would be redundant. Fifth, the writers let our knowledge of Miss Farrell out in the car hang over the entire scene (much later we see her get out of the car and walk home). Sixth, the writers and producers are willing to let the scene run longer than any scene I can remember in this series, and longer than almost any other scene in any television series. The entire scene runs nine minutes, which is an eternity in series television. It breaks the rhythm of the show, which is generally shorter scenes, intercutting with other scenes of other characters. This scene stays on these characters as long as it does because the artists know we want to see these characters and how they deal with this situation.

And then we get a commercial break. After which we come back to some of the other characters? Nope. We come back to Don and Betty in their bedroom as Don explains who the people in the photographs are. This scene runs five minutes, also long for a television scene, but again we want to be with these characters and see how it plays out. Don, talking about his brother, begins to cry, and for the first time Betty seems to have at least a little sympathy for him. Would this scene seem too much if there were not a commercial break between it and the previous scene? It might, which is why the writers place the commercial break where they do. I think it is probably easier for us to get back emotionally to Don and Betty if we are completely out of the story than if they had just cut to a scene of the other characters. We are used to commercial breaks by now, and this is one of the best uses of the commercial break I have ever seen.

I said that I would only deal with this one scene, but I cannot resist a comment on the final line of the episode, one of the best fadeout lines of recent years. In the two scenes discussed above, Betty is constantly trying to find out who Don is, not just in terms of names, but of character. In the final scene Don and Betty take their two older kids trick-or-treating. At one house, the guy who comes to the door correctly identifies the kids as a gypsy and a hobo, then looks at Don in his ad man suit and asks, “And who are you supposed to be?” Todd thought in his comments the line was “incredibly on the nose,” but I disagree. “Who are you?” would be on the nose. “Who are you supposed to be?” is a whole lot richer. When you are writing dialogue, one word can make all the difference.

Mad Men (2009. “The Grown Ups” episode written by Brett Johnson and Matthew Weiner. 60 minutes): Structure, structure, structure, and structure.

As I write this on November 7th, I have not yet read Luke’s comments on this episode, nor watched the season finale, but I wanted to get this column finished and into Keith. I am not going to go into this episode as deeply as I am sure Luke is going to (see comments in previous item). However, having dealt with just a couple of scenes in the previous item, I want to say a word about the structure of this episode, which is brilliant. I had assumed Weiner and his team were saving the Kennedy Assassination for the final episode of the season. I think the filmmakers were assuming we were assuming that, and they protected their episode by sending out completely bogus loglines to TV Guide and newspapers: “A candidate makes an impression on Don. Peggy is questioning her taste in men.” Well, that worked. I for one was caught off-guard when Pete goes in to talk to Harry and the television is on. Harry dismisses it as saying he has to watch to check the commercials, but he does turn off the sound. The notice of a news bulletin comes up on the set, and Pete and Harry just continue talking. We are well into the scene before others come in and they turn up the sound. It is twenty some minutes into the episode, which means the writers are giving themselves enough time to show the immediate impact of the assassination on nearly everybody in the cast.

So right away we get the famous Cronkite footage? Guess again. We see Betty and Carla, sitting at opposite ends of the couch, watching the NBC announcement of Kennedy’s death. Using that footage tells us in a subtle way that we are not just going to get the obvious clips or obvious reactions; a shoutout here to the show’s researchers, who found all kinds of interesting footage for this episode. We do get the Cronkite stuff, but only after Duck has unplugged the TV set in his hotel room before Peggy shows up for their tryst. He plugs it back in and they watch Cronkite together.

Don tells his kids at home that everything will be O.K. (how Don of him) and we will just have a new president. Pete matches that with the comment to his wife that nothing will change with Johnson as president. Joe Dougherty, whom I interviewed for my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing, said that one problem they had on thirtysomething was that the networks would never let them have a character be wrong. About anything. Thank goodness television has grown up a little bit since those ancient days in the eighties. Mad Men could not exist under those rules.

We of course have assumed that the wedding of Roger’s daughter would be called off, since it was scheduled for the day after the assassination. No, big public events were canceled or postponed, but the wedding goes on, which gives the writers a lot to work with. Not all those invited show up. Several attendees are in the kitchen watching the news coverage, which give us another great selection of footage. They seem to be watching the Texas lawmen whom we know from the famous clip of Oswald being shot, but the shooting does not occur here. The writers also have time to give us a wide variety of reactions to the assassination. I believe it was Peter’s wife who says, “You don’t shoot the President of the United States,” which was my reaction when, as a 21 year-old Navy officer, I heard the news. (My second thought was, “What about Jackie?” and my third thought was “Well, that ruins Vaughn Meader’s career.” Look him up.)

We then get the clip of the Oswald shooting at the end of the episode, with Betty watching. She goes out for a walk “to clear her head,” but meets Harry. He sort of proposes, and they kiss, but she returns to Don. Don thinks she’s just upset at the assassination, but she tells him he can’t hear her. Don may have a point, but it may be that the writers have in mind a line that someone said at the time. It was that America could recover from the Kennedy Assassination, but probably not from the Oswald killing.

So, what the writers have done here is shaped an episode around the public event and brilliantly interwoven it with the private lives of the characters. Which certainly anticipates the sixties.

The Following Weeks of the 2009-2010 Television Season: Carrying on.

As you may have noticed, the newer movies I have looked at in this column have been in theaters for a while. I did not get out to any new movies during the month of October. Some of that is that there were not that many I wanted to see, but mostly it was that I was busier than usual teaching at Los Angeles City College. At least partially due to the tanking job market in California, our enrollments are higher than ever. Since I require papers and essay tests in my film history classes, that has meant a lot of paper-grading. Add to that a whole bureaucratic hassle involving the state assessment of our classes, and time was short. I did, however, manage to keep up with the television season. Here are some comments on some shows from the last several weeks.

Community just got so stupid that I had to give up watching it. I eagerly await someone doing a really good, sharp, funny comedy about community colleges.

The Good Wife is turning out to be as good as I thought it would be (see US#34). The writers are keeping a nice balance between Alicia’s private and public life. In “Conjugal” (written by Angela Amato Velez), Will and Diane, the two heads of the law firm Alicia is working for, discuss what Alicia brings to the firm, which is that she thoroughly buffaloes all those lawyers who used to work for her husband. The series writers have been very good about developing the supporting characters. I mentioned in US#34 that the pilot did not overdo establishing the other characters, but you just knew that if they had hired Josh Charles as Will and Christine Baranski as Diane, it wasn’t to keep them unemployed. This scene shows why, as does the way the “Fixed” episode (written by Todd Ellis Kessler) gives Diane an interesting B story about a potential addition to the firm. Cary (Matt Czuchry), the other new associate, is in competition with Alicia for the full-time job. Czuchry was Logan Huntzberger on Gilmore Girls and caught Logan’s Ivy League arrogance and smarmy charm a little too well. I know it was a good performance, but Logan was wrong for our Rory (that’s the grandfather in me talking), and I was glad to see she dumped him. Czurchy, who I am sure in private is kind to widows and orphans, brings some of those same smarmy qualities to Cary. The “Home” episode (written by Dee Johnson) has him working on a case with Alicia, and Johnson lets us know that he has had virtually no trial experience. This gives him a legitimate vulnerability, as well as providing an opportunity for Alicia to shine in court. I also loved that Johnson had Alicia take her two kids back to the suburbs where they lived. The kids really wanted to go back to living there, but by the end of the episode they had come to see the suburbs’ flaws and were perfectly happy in their new big city digs.

Eastwick is still mostly charming, although it has been slow about developing the women’s powers. I found the “Bonfire and Betrayal” episode (written by showrunner Maggie Friedman and Rina Mimoun) particularly irritating in that the three women kept saying, “I’m sorry” to each other and everybody else. Come on, folks, we watch this show to see the women use their powers, not apologize for them. I was thinking of suggesting an Eastwick drinking game where you take a drink every time one of the women says “I’m sorry,” but everybody would be completely blotto by the thirty minute commercial break.

Castle has gotten a little off its game. The mysteries are getting more complicated, and until the “Famous Last Words” episode (written by Jose Molina), the show was in danger of getting away from what made it special: the relationships between Castle, Beckett, Castle’s daughter Alexis, and Castle’s mom. The “Famous Last Words” episode got that balance back.

Cougar Town settled down a bit in subsequent episodes. Some were about sex, some were not. In “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (written by Sanjay Shah), Jules, out of desperation, has a date with a man old enough to be her father. We don’t see the date, which turns out just to be a setup for a neighborhood barbecue. Too bad, since the show could have gotten some mileage out of a woman wanting to date younger guys stuck with an older guy. The show this seems to be turning into is a more conventional sitcom than it started out to be. That may or may not be a good thing.

Modern Family is growing on me. They have pretty much cut out the idea that this is a documentary, at least in the way the story scenes are shot. The interview material is still there, and some of that writing is very good. The writers are developing the characters beyond the stereotypes the show started with, always a good sign. I particularly like Mitchell and Cameron, the gay married couple. They are both so ordinary and so gay at the same time, something that a lot of other shows have had problems dealing with (were you ever really convinced that Will of Will and Grace was gay? I wasn’t). I loved that Cameron once played college football and is as big a football fan as his father-in-law Jay.

The Barney-Robin relationship is still providing much more entertainment on How I Met Your Mother than Ted’s supposed search for the mother. I was particularly impressed with the writing of the “Bagpipes” episode. The writer was Robia Rashad, who was new to me, although she has written for other shows I have watched, including the wonderful Aliens in America. Her speech for Marshall in which he describes himself as a master of relationships (i.e., watching Sandra Bullock movies without complaining) was nicely crafted, as were a couple of other speeches. She has been hired this season on the show as a story editor. Obviously a talent to watch. And listen to.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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