Understanding Screenwriting #4: Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I Served the King of England, Juno, & More

Talk about rookie mistakes.

Understanding Screenwriting #4: Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I Served the King of England, Juno, & More
Photo: The Weinstein Company

Coming Up In This Column: Vicky Cristina Barcelona; I Served the King of England; Juno; Raising the Bar; Writing for video games, but first…

Fan Mail: Keith, Matt, and I have been wrestling with a title for this section of the column. My original choice was “Fan Mail,” but they understandably thought it was a little too self-congratulatory. They preferred the more neutral “Mailbag,” which always sounded to me like something out of 1950s local radio in Chicago. I always thought of “Fan Mail” as ironic, even snarky, rather than self-congratulatory, since I figured at least some of the comments would not particularly be of a typical “fan” variety. That has certainly proved to be the case. So we’re going try the ironic approach. Feel free to jump in with your comments. As you always do.

Much of the discussion over the last two columns has been about graphic novels and I would really like to get back to what this column is all about. After all, the title is “Understanding Screenwriting.” Given all the interesting comments about comics and graphic novels, maybe Keith ought to get someone to start a column on them.

“Anonymous” brought up a question that is absolutely central to the understanding of screenwriting, and others followed with some terrific observations. What he wondered was how to judge a screenplay from the completed film, since that may be assuming “what’s on screen is exactly what was written, and very often it isn’t.” This is the screenwriting version of the problem that has bedeviled critics since the beginning of movies: who gets credit for what. With a novel or a painting, it is generally easy: the author or the painter did it. Film, on the other hand, is an enormously collaborative art, and unless, as one reader said, you were there at every meeting, every day of the production and editing, you cannot tell who did what. This is true about the producing, writing, directing, acting, and editing of the film. From the early days, the critical “shorthand,” as Matt calls it, has been that the director came up with it all, since he was the “captain of the ship.”

But the director was not always the true captain. In the thirties and forties, the producers often made the crucial decisions. The director-as-God became enshrined with the auteur theory in the fifties and sixties. It is rather embarrassing now, however, to read a lot of what was written about directors in those days. The articles and books tended to focus on the structure and characterization of the directors’ films, both of which are more the purview of the writer than the director. Since we have the bad example of the autuer theory in front of us, many of us who write about screenwriting are cautious about giving credit only to the screenwriter. But what Andrew Sarris said about directors is true about writers: if you look at lot of their work, certain styles and thematic elements recur. In US#3 I mentioned a previous script of the two writers of The House Bunny, Karen McCullah Lutz & Kirsten Smith, to show how their new film fits in with that work. On the other hand, the day after that column was posted, an article in the Los Angeles Times discussed how the star of the film, Anna Faris, had come up with the idea for the character, and took it to Lutz and Smith. Faris’s original thought was that the story of a glamour girl who was past what our culture considers her prime would be more dramatic. It was Lutz and Smith who came up with the comic idea of making her a sorority housemother.

When we look at a film without knowing its writing and production history, we need to be careful not to assume that everything in the final film is exactly as written by the credited writers. We are making a first judgement, always subject to correction, based on the film. What I am doing in the items in this column is generally giving a first, or as you will see below, sometimes a second response to the screenwriting elements of the film. There are questions I ask to determine if it is a good script. Is it coherent? Does it make sense? Are the characters interesting? Is the dialogue consistent? We can look at those elements in any film, regardless of its writing history.

I am a jobbing film historian specializing in writing about screenwriting, which means that in many cases (see the in-depth chapters in my book Understanding Screenwriting) I have gotten into the writing history of the film. There are more and more film historians, and some journalists, who are also doing that. In addition to my own book, I would recommend for those interested in this question David S. Cohen’s new book Screen Plays: How 25 Scripts Made It to a Theater Near You—For Better or Worse. This is a collection of his columns, expanded and developed from Script magazine, on the writing history of the 25 films, and it is a fascinating look at the process as practiced in Hollywood. Both Script and Creative Screenwriting have very good articles on the development of contemporary scripts.

The question of how to judge a script from a film has been debated for many years. Even film historians who should have known better often tended to assume that the film is exactly what was written. We definitely know that is not true. There are contributions along the way by many others. The producer usually works with the writer over several drafts. Other drafts are done in collaboration with the director. Others are done in collaboration with, or because of, the stars. Cohen, for example, is very good in discussing what having Julia Roberts as the star meant for the writing of three different films. The editor has to find the film in all the stuff that was shot. Someone who knows him told me that the great European film editor Hervé de Luze says he only reads the script once, and then never looks at it when he cuts the film. That sounds brutal, but he has a point: he has to “make” the “final draft” of the film out of what was shot, not what was intended in the script.

I tend to think of screenwriting as a process that includes all that, and that the film is the “final draft” of the script. If the producer and director and editor are smart, they will include the screenwriter in the editing process, since he or she often has an overall view of the film and its story that the others do not have. So when I am writing here about the script of a new film, I am writing about that final draft unless I tell you otherwise. I assume that the credited writers have a lot to do with it, but I am always aware that there are many other collaborators. You should be aware of that as well.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008. Written by Woody Allen. 96 minutes): Talk about rookie mistakes! You would think that a screenwriter who has written some fifty movies, including several that use brilliant narration, would know how to do it. But no, the narration of his new film falls into all the traps newbie writers make. In the beginning, over shots of the characters in Barcelona, the narration tells us Vicky and Cristina are in Barcelona, along with the details of how they got there. O.K., except that in the next scene, the dialogue tells us exactly what the narration has told us. This pattern continues throughout the film, which makes me suspect the narration was written after the film was completed. This often happens in studio productions, where executives (and to be fair, sneak preview audiences) think the film is not clear enough. Here Allen seems to have lost faith in the intelligence of his audience.

The second flaw of the narration is that it tells us what is going on in the characters’ heads, which can be a legitimate use of narration, but here tells us what later scenes tell us in dialogue. For example, late in the picture Cristina is seen thinking and the narration tells us she is thinking about leaving Juan Antonio and Maria Elena and why. And in the next scene with the three of them, her dialogue tells us exactly the same thing.

Another thing Allen does badly with the narration is assign it not to one of the characters, but to an unknown Voice of God, which takes us out of the picture. The Voice of God kind of narrator, which started in the thirties, can be used seriously (Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film The Killing) or for humor (Allen’s own 1969 Take the Money and Run), but here it is just flat.

If you want to learn about a good use of Voice of God narration in a modern film, listen to Y Tu Mamá También and/or read the chapter on that film in my book Understanding Screenwriting.

I Served the King of England (2006. Written by Jirí Menzel. Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal. 118 minutes by my and the Los Angeles Times’s count, 120 minutes by the imdB): This is a semi-epic, semi-comedy about a waiter who survives both the Nazis and the Communists. In other words, it’s a Czech film. The problem is that the Nazis don’t show up until about an hour into the picture. The first half spends way more time than it needs to to establish Díte as a waiter with ambitions. There are some very charming and erotic scenes along the way, and I love charming and erotic, but any picture is in trouble if I am sitting there checking my watch waiting for the Nazis. (As you can see from the review on HND posted August 31st, N.P. Thompson had a similar reaction to mine.) The problem then becomes that Menzel has not allowed enough time to develop Díte and his relationship with the Nazis. His romance with a Nazi sympathizer is a potentially fascinating story that Menzel does not get the most out of. This is even truer of Díte’s dealing with the Communists after the war, which is reduced to a scene in prison.

A much better look at an Eastern European country dealing with the evils of the twentieth century is the 1999 Hungarian film Sunshine, which does justice to the subject. Not as erotic and charming, but a better film.

Juno (2007. Written by Diablo Cody. 96 minutes): I recently had occasion to look again at this year’s Oscar-winner for Best Original Screenplay, and it holds up even better than I thought it might.

One of the complaints that several people had is that all the characters sounded alike. That is not true, but the scene near the beginning with Rollo the pharmacist gives you that impression. Cody has given him such Juno-esque lines as “Pay for that pee stick when you’re done” and “That ain’t no Etch-A-Sketch. This is one doodle that can’t be undid.” But if you listen to the other characters in the film, they do not all sound alike. Mac, her dad, sounds very different from Bren, her stepmom.

While everybody was debating about the freshness of the dialogue, they missed Cody’s skill at characterization. She has written great roles not only for Ellen Page (Juno), but J.K. Simmons (Mac), Allison Janney (Bren), Jennifer Garner (Vanessa) and Jason Bateman (Mark). Have Garner and Bateman ever been as good as they are here?

The second thing critics missed was Cody’s structure, which first captures us with Juno’s charm (if you are charmed by her) and then subtly reveals the emotions of all of the characters.

I was looking at the film on DVD, which has some features useful to those of us interested in screenwriting. Cody unfortunately shares the commentary track with the director, so we get more about the production of the film than the writing of it, although it will not come as a surprise that Cody was a big fan of My So-Called Life. There are about fourteen deleted scenes. The first one is from the very beginning, introducing us to a colorful old woman. It was a scene Cody and director Jason Reitman say in their commentaries that people loved in the screenplay and you can see why, but it is unnecessary for the story, as well as misleading because we never see the woman again. If the scene had stayed, we would be waiting for her to show up again. A long scene with Juno singing in a club just goes nowhere. More interesting is a scene with Mark and Vanessa in their bathroom. As written and performed by Garner, it makes Vanessa a little too cold. The rest of the film, and Garner’s great performance, keeps it all much more ambiguous.

The DVD also includes several screen tests, including one of the scene in which Juno admits to her parents she is pregnant. I thought when I first looked at the test that the script had been improved by the time the scene was shot, but looking at the scene it is not all that different, with only a line or two dropped, probably in the editing process. What makes the scene better than the test version? First, it is a bit condensed, and shorter is better. Second, the scene is better shot and edited. The editing particularly makes it sharper. Third, the performances are better. Page is not as good in all the screen tests as she is in the film, although you can see why she got the role. Simmons is good in the test and great in the scene. The other two characters, Bren and Juno’s friend Leah, are not played by the actors in the film. Trust me: Allison Janney makes a BIG difference.

Raising the Bar (2008. Created by Steven Bochco and David Feige. “Pilot” episode: Teleplay by David Feige. Story by Steven Bochco and David Feige. 60 minutes): In the eighties, Steven Bochco changed American dramatic television with Hill Street Blues, which brought a new level of complex plotting and characterization. Instead of merely a main plot and a subplot, the pilot of Hill Street has at least seven plots going, as well as introducing a plethora of interesting and bizarre characters. The influence of the show’s complex plotting can be seen in Lost, Heroes, and Battlestar Galactica, to mention only current and recent examples. The richness of the show’s characterization can be seen in ER, The Sopranos, and The Wire.

It would be nice to report that the Master is back at full power, but the pilot of his latest show is rather disappointing, and critics who have seen the first three episodes say it does not improve much. The story in the pilot follows essentially one rape case, and through it we meet the major characters of the series. The case is unfortunately not a very interesting one. David E. Kelley, a former lawyer Bochco brought onto his law show, L.A. Law, has taken the genre beyond conventional cases in his shows The Practice, Ally McBeal, and especially Boston Legal. The case in Bar’s pilot is the sort of the earnest case The Defenders were doing in the sixties, and Bochco deliberately wanted to get away from that earnestness in L.A. Law. Kelley of course may have gotten a bit too far beyond earnestness in his shows, but Kelley’s shows are now the environment law shows live or die in.

The plotting would not be a problem in Bar’s pilot if the characters were more interesting, but they all seem to be stereotypes with very little texture to them. This is a problem that many pilots face: trying to get as much as possible in to show the network executives what the series will be like. Bochco’s co-writer on the story is David Feige, a public defender whose book Indefensible is the basis for the series. Feige may know the law, but he needs to learn characterization. One area they might go in, suggested by the title of Feige’s book, is to have some of the clients the idealistic public defender represents be real bad guys. His client in the pilot was a man unjustly accused of rape. Again, Kelley’s The Practice in particular had a rich gallery of pond scum defendants.

One should not count this series out just yet. Very few series arrived fully formed in their pilots. Hill Street Blues was one of the few. While the October 1986 pilot for L.A. Law set the sly tone for the series, it took several episodes before the show found its groove in January 1987.

Writing for Video Games: I had lunch recently with Emily VanDerWerff, whom HND readers know for his pieces on Battlestar Galactica and Big Love (which proves he’s a writer with range). We were talking about his current project, which is writing a script for a video game. The video game industry realized many years ago that they really needed writers who could tell a story. Over the years Creative Screenwriting has done a few pieces on writing for games; you can check them out at your local library.

Anyway, Todd was telling me about working with the programmer who came up with the idea and the world which exists in the game. I mentioned that I tell my screenwriting students that writing for film and television is writing for performance, including not only the actors, but the cinematographer, art directors, et al. In this case I said he was writing for the performance of the programmers and designers. He then made the sharp observation that in video games you are also writing for the performance of the players of the game. For example, he felt the programmer who created the world of the game would have just been happy to wander around in that world, but Todd knew that players needed motivations to move to different levels. Just like real characters in a movie.

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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