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Understanding Screenwriting #40: Police, Adjective, The White Ribbon, Sherlock Holmes, & More

Who said writing Romanian screenplays was easy?

Understanding Screenwriting #40: Police, Adjective, The White Ribbon, Invictus, Sherlock Holmes, & More
Photo: IFC Films

Coming up in this column: Police, Adjective, The White Ribbon, Invictus, Eric Rohmer and Natalie Carter, Sherlock Holmes, In Which We Serve, O. Henry’s Full House, How I Met Your Mother, but first:

Fan mail: Since this is the first column I have written since we moved over to Slant, I want to welcome any new readers we have picked up. When I started the column in August 2008, I said that the purpose of the column was to Bring The Gospel of the Importance of Screenwriting to the Heathen of New York City. I must say the Heathen have been very hospitable, and usually weigh in with interesting comments. I notice that so far there have been no comments on US#39, which I hope is just a temporary glitch, because the comments from readers make the column a lot more fun for me, even when the readers give me a hard time about something I said. So log in, folks. And here’s some stuff you can log in about:

Police, Adjective (2009. Written by Corneliu Porumboiu. 113 minutes)

Time, Romanian style: I was a big fan of Porumboiu’s 2006 film 12:08 East of Bucharest, which deals with a group of Romanians recalling how they were all involved in the revolution that overthrew Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1989. The film ends with a spectacular sequence. No, not a recreation of the revolution, but a long scene of a television talk show in which three of the characters we have followed discuss which of them got involved when and which should really be considered hangers-on of the revolution. Porumboiu, who directed, just sets his camera down and looks at the trio in almost a single take as they rewrite their own and others’ history. The sequence is typical of what is called the Romanian New Wave, which includes such films as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007). All three of those films, as well as Police, Adjective, play around with the prolonging of time. The Romanians are not the only ones of course. Jonathan Romney in the February 2010 issue of Sight & Sound calls the films that play with time in this way “Slow Cinema,” and he gives several examples, none of them Romanian. American films, with a few exceptions, try to move as quickly as possible, but the Romanians are perfectly willing to let a film or a sequence run not only in real time, but in longer than real time, if such a thing is possible. It can be frustrating for viewers used to American tempi, but it can also be hypnotic.

Police, Adjective is a little bit of both. Cristi is a cop who has been assigned to shadow a teenage boy who is suspected of selling drugs. On Law & Order, the cops would have gotten several misleading clues by the first commercial break and nailed him by the half-hour mark. Porumboiu is more interested in showing how boring and repetitious surveillance is. We watch Cristi follow the kid, pick up their cigarette butts to test for drugs, follow the kid and his friends some more, and some more and some more. Porumboiu breaks up those scenes with long discussions done in real time, often in long single takes. Cristi talks to the prosecutor about his doubts about the case, but the prosecutor tells him to do what his captain asks him to do. Cristi has a couple of long discussions with his wife, the first about a popular song that his wife insists on playing at full volume and then deconstructing for Cristi. The second is a discussion in changes in the Romanian language. Both scenes tell us a lot about Cristi and his wife, but they also set up what you might consider the climactic scene of the film. Cristi and a fellow cop go in to see the captain, whom we have not seen before. Cristi says it goes against his moral conscience to arrest the kid when he is convinced the kid is only using and not selling. The captain talks him out of it by having his assistant get a Romanian dictionary and having Cristi read the passages on police, the law, and moral conscience. As with the final scene of 12:08 East of Bucharest the conversation is done in real time, mostly in one take, with a stationary camera. The dialogue pulls us into the scene and gives us a sense of how the police process is being corrupted.

I am not sure that final scene works as well as the one in Bucharest. Partly it may be that Bucharest was the first of the Romanian films I saw and the scene was such a surprise. Partly it may be that in Bucharest, we have several other scenes and other characters, written and shot in different ways so that the final scene stands out more. In Police, Adjective we are only focused on Cristi, who is not as compelling a character as those in Bucharest. The similar dialogue scenes before the final scenes on the one hand set up the final scene. On the other hand, they may take away a bit from its impact, since it is not that different from the dialogue scenes we have seen before.

Who said writing Romanian screenplays was easy?

The White Ribbon (2009. Written by Michael Haneke. 144 minutes)

The White Ribbon

Time, German style: This is one of Haneke’s subtle films, more Hidden (2005) than Funny Games (1997 & 2007), which means you really have to pay attention, especially after the narrator tells you up front that he cannot vouch for the truth of much of what we are about to see. The narrator is the older version of a young teacher in a German village in 1913-14 who is telling us about a set of strange occurrences in the village. And why should we pay attention? Because Haneke’s narrator tells us it may reveal something about what happened in Germany later. I may have to reconsider my “subtle” description of the film on the basis of that bit of narration alone. With that line, Haneke has told us how to look at the meaning of what he is going to show you. If the same occurrences happened in an English village of the period, they would not have the same resonance Haneke gives them for us with that one line.

In an interview in the December 2009 Sight and Sound, Haneke said he wanted to get the film off to a fast start, even at the risk of confusing the audience. He felt the audience would catch up. I have to admit it took me a while because we are introduced to a large cast of characters, a lot of whom are similar. (The casting of the film is superb, with the faces looking very 1913-14; printing the film in black and white also helps establish the period.) One of the most inventive elements in Haneke’s script is something I have never seen anybody else try, let along bring off. Haneke will have a scene with one of the families in the film and then cut to another family in a similar kind of scene. It usually takes a couple of seconds to realize we are now in a different house with a different group of people. That should be confusing, but it is not, although I am not sure why. What it does do is give the audience a sense of the town as a community, with similar attitudes.

In theory we are trying to solve the mystery of who has been setting up accidents, beatings, fires, etc. It is a mystery that never gets solved, although the narrator thinks he knows who committed them. But when he presents his suggestions to the town pastor, the pastor rebuffs him. The teacher thinks the children of the town have done them, but the pastor cannot believe it of his and the town’s children. We can because we have seen the way the adults treat the children. Haneke’s first draft would have run three-and-a-half hours, and the material that got cut to get it down to the current running time showed the children having mock trials. It would have made the film more explicit and not as compelling. It is enough that we see several harrowing scenes of the grownups arguing with each other and treating their kids badly for us to believe in the teacher’s point of view. Many of those scenes are long, some done in one take, and they show us how deeply embedded the attitudes are in village. The time Haneke spends on those scenes, both as writer and director, pays off in our understanding of the world he is showing us.

Invictus (2009. Screenplay by Anthony Peckham, based on the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation, by John Carlin. 134 minutes)


Time, Eastwood style: The information above on the script is a bit misleading. Anthony Peckham, who had been raised in South Africa, is a screenwriter living in the United States. A producer he had worked with before approached him about a book proposal the producer had received. The book would deal with the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Peckham prepared a pitch that he and the producer took to Morgan Freeman. Freeman had long wanted to play Mandela, even before Mandela said in public that he wanted Freeman to play him in a movie. Freeman liked the book idea and his company came up with money for Peckham to go to Spain to talk to John Carlin. Carlin had been a journalist in South Africa from 1989 to 1995, and it was his book proposal that Peckham had seen. Peckham looked at all Carlin’s research and began writing the script as Carlin began writing the book. (All of this is from Adam Stovall’s article on the film in the November/December 2009 Creative Screenwriting.)

Peckham did two drafts and Freeman sent it to Clint Eastwood. Unlike a lot of people in Hollywood, Eastwood does not like the development process. If he likes a script, he makes it, end of story. Frances Fisher, who was in Unforgiven (1992), said that was the only shooting script she had ever seen with all white pages (white pages are original pages, rewrites are printed on different colored pages). Well, look at Eastwood’s credits and you can see it generally works for him. Sometimes, as with Bird (1988) or The Bridges of Madison County (1995), another draft or two would not have been a bad idea. With Invictus, a little more focus might have helped. Peckham collected wonderful material from Carlin, including the scenes of Mandela’s bodyguards, white and black, bonding over the game. Peckham extended that into a running subplot of the bodyguards and their racial animosity toward each other, and as much as I liked those scenes, I am not sure they are all needed. The same thing is true with a lot of the scenes of Mandela. Yes, Freeman is one of the producers and the star, and he gives a great performance, but I am not sure all of that material is needed as well. On the other hand, a lot of Peckham’s additional characters help the reaction shots of them during the game pay off very well at the end.

Without having seen the actual screenplay, I suspect most of the problem is that Eastwood as director and producer has not had the film cut as sharply as he could have. The final game scenes go on, and on, and on. And, oh yes, on. I am glad it was full employment week for the CGI team who filled the stadium, but just a couple of sweeping shots of the grandstands would make the point more vividly than all the ones we see. Eastwood has always favored a slow pace, both as an actor and a director, but here he’s almost Romanian.

Eric Rohmer and Natalie Carter

I think I am in love: Eric Rohmer, the great French writer/director, died on January 11th. I was reminded of the story of the funeral of Ernst Lubitsch. William Wyler said to Billy Wilder, “It’s so sad. No more Lubtisch.” To which Wilder replied, “Worse. No more Lubitsch pictures.” I loved Rohmer’s films because they were so distinct and such a pleasure. After seeing a bunch of big, stupid films, it was such a delight to slip into a Rohmer film, live in Rohmer’s world, and just listen. While a lot of people thought his films were too talky, I thought the talk was great because, like all great screen dialogue, it played against what his characters thought and felt. They were always trying to think their way out of being human. And failing, thank God, which is not as trivial an issue as some of Rohmer’s critics thought it to be. I suppose I should discuss a scene or two from one of his films, but I tend not so much to remember scenes or even individual films but the whole of his work. Alas, no more Rohmer films.

Meanwhile. In the January 11-17 issue of Weekly Variety there was a section on Unifrance Rendez-Vous, an upcoming Paris film festival. The section had a two-page piece on new filmmakers titled “Gallic Talent on Fast Track.” The first thing that struck me was that of the ten boxes, three were for writers. Not something you would expect from the land of auteurism. But the French have begun to appreciate scripts and screenwriters. What really struck me was this quote from screenwriter Natalie Carter: “In France there is a tendency to make narcissistic films about trivial matters. I like to broaden the focus and bring some lightness and impertinence into each story.” Au revoir Eric, bienvenue cher Natalie.

Sherlock Holmes (2009. Screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg, screen story by Lionel Wigram and Michael Robert Johnson, based on characters, novels and stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 128 minutes)

Sherlock Holmes

Sweeney Todd meets Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin: This is certainly not your father’s Sherlock Holmes. Or your grandfather’s. Or your great-grandfather’s. But it is not as far from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes as we were all afraid it was going to be. I am not sure you really need to re-imagine Holmes as a 21st Century action hero, but if you have to, this was probably the way to do it. Lionel Wigram, the writer-producer who got the project going, loved the original stories. He discovered in going back over them that Conan Doyle makes references to Holmes’s physical skills, but does not show them. As Wigram told Peter Clines in the November/December 2009 Creative Screenwriting, he realized, “I can make Holmes an action hero without actually betraying the character or betraying what Conan Doyle set out to do. All I have to do is put on screen what he made happen off-screen.” What Wigram and the other writers then do is use the scenes where Holmes is explaining how he figures stuff out as a nice counterpoint to the action sequences. This probably is why the script is not as offensive to me as it might be to devotees of the earlier film and television versions of Holmes. An earlier version of the script had Holmes chasing Lord Blackwood all over Europe and Asia, but that seemed too conventional. They keep him in Victorian London in a collection of sets that look left over from Sweeney Todd (2007) and which fit the story they tell.

The writers have also developed the relationship between Holmes and Watson into a real bromance, which makes them reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy getting into and out of scrapes. The tone of the relationship then affects Holmes’s relation with Irene Adler and Watson’s engagement to Mary Morstan. Neither of the women characters are particularly well drawn. Rachel MdAdams is not that convincing as femme fatale Irene, and Kelly Reilly as Mary is done a considerable disservice not so much by the script but by the desaturated color, which wipes out her normal light red hair and freckles. The scripting of Holmes and Watson is much more detailed and give Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson a lot to do.
The big action setpieces are inventive. I particularly liked the one that ends up with Holmes and Watson inadvertently sending a not quite completed ship down the skids into the water. It casually sinks in the background in a two-shot of Holmes and Watson. It is basically a silent movie gag. Downey has said in interviews that playing such an iconic figure as Holmes was similar to playing Chaplin in 1992. You can occasionally catch Downey twitching just the way his Chaplin did.

About the only way you can tell that Guy Ritchie was the director is that several very big, mean-looking thugs have been written into the film for him. My eight-year-old grandson loved watching Holmes zap them with an early form of a taser. Fun for the whole family.

In Which We Serve (1942. Written by Noël Coward. 115 minutes)

“Mad Dogs and Englishmen” meets Rosebud: Almost from the beginning of his career as a playwright and actor in the twenties, people were trying to write off Noël Coward. He was too witty, too charming, too gay (in both senses of the word) and, in spite of all that, was way too prolific. Anybody with that light a touch could not possibly have written 140 plays, but he did, as well as countless songs such as “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” “Mad About the Boy,” “Sail Away,” and “Why Must the Show Go On.” Check out the IMDb on Coward and see how many of his songs have shown up recently in films. And how many of his plays have been adapted for films and especially for television.

Coward did not just do light comedy. In the late twenties he wrote the play Cavalcade, the history of a British upper class family from the Boer War to the twenties. It was made into a film by Fox in 1931 and won the Academy Award for Best Picture, although it is one of the more unwatchable Best Picture winners. Coward had nothing to do with the screenplay for it.

In Which We Serve was his first real attempt at screenwriting, and he started out badly. According to Kevin Brownlow, Coward was asked by Lord Louis Mountbatten to find out what sort of films sailors in the Royal Navy wanted to see. While Coward was checking that out, he heard Mountbatten tell the horrifying story of having his destroyer HMS Kelly sunk out from under him off Crete in 1941. Coward thought the story of this one destroyer would make a film and Mountbatten agreed, although he wanted a fictionalized version so he would not be seen as self-aggrandizing, which he was. Coward read the first draft of the script to a group that included some producers and a film editor who had been recommended as a sort of co-director for Coward, but who had never directed a film before. The reading went on for three hours and the script was, as Brownlow calls it, “a sort of maritime Cavalcade” covering the story of the Navy from 1922 to 1941. One estimate was that it would have run six to eight hours on film.

Everybody tried to convince Coward that while in a film you could go everywhere and do everything, you really didn’t need to. The film editor, David Lean, asked if Coward had seen Citizen Kane, which had just been released in English. Coward had not. According to Brownlow’s definitive Lean biography, Lean said later, “He went off to see it, and from Kane he got the idea of flashbacks. Quick as a knife, he took the narrative, cut it up, introduced the Carley float, which was a sort of raft all these ships carried, and he used the men clinging to the Carley float to jump from one part of the story to another.”

It is not as simple as that, nor as simple as Citizen Kane. In Kane we get the flashbacks in the order in which the reporter talks to people. It takes us by the hand. In Which We Serve does not do that, although it does have the annoying, very ‘40s habit of having the screen go all watery when we go into a flashback. Well, they are in the ocean, but still. What this script does is jump from one man’s flashbacks to another, and sometimes it includes several in one sequence. The major characters we follow are Captain Kinross (based on Mountbatten, with Coward virtually copying many of his speeches), Chief Petty Officer Hardy and Ordinary Seaman Blake. At one point, Coward cuts from Christmas celebrations of the families of the three men without going back to the float. The immediate juxtaposition of the three similar scenes gives us a vivid sense of the class differences between the men and their lives.

Coward has not only written a great star part for himself, but wonderful roles for a terrific ensemble of actors. Unlike Battle Cry (see US#39), the focus is not on the sex lives of the men, but on their romantic and familial attachments. It is like the play of Cavalcade but with a broader view, something that Coward continued two years later in his play and film This Happy Breed.

Turner Classic Movies ran this in early January as part of the 75th anniversary of the New York Film Critics. TCM was running films that won the best of the year critics’ award that were different from the Oscar Best Pictures. In Which We Serve beat out Mrs. Miniver. Both films are about the British in the early years of World War II, but Mrs. Miniver is another unwatchable Best Picture now, with only one brief shot in a pub that looks authentically British. The rest looks like what it was: MGM’s idea of England. In Which We Serve, studio shots and all, is the real deal.

O. Henry’s Full House (1952. Various writers. 117 minutes)

Writers versus directors: In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, British filmmakers did three movies based on short stories by W. Somerset Maugham, Quartet (1948), Trio (1950) and Encore (1951). The success of those inspired 20th Century-Fox to try the same thing with the stories of O. Henry. The idea was that a different writer would write a script for a story, and a different director would direct each one. As Henry King, one of the five directors involved, told me in an oral history interview I did with him in 1970-71, most of the directors did not take the assignment seriously, since they were making a short film rather than a feature. The screenwriters took it a little more seriously, and it is an interesting film to look at in terms of how the directors did or did not bring off the scripts.

The Cop and the Anthem (screenplay by Lamar Trotti, directed by Henry Koster) is one of the two best written of the five. Trotti of course was one of the major screenwriters at Fox until his death in 1952. In this script he is working in a slightly more literate vein than he usually did, since O. Henry has the major character, a vagrant named Soapy, talking in an elevated style. Soapy is played by Charles Laughton and his pal Horace by David Wayne. Koster has let both of them overact. The best performance is by the young Marilyn Monroe, who is only on-screen for a minute or so. She hits exactly the right notes her part calls for.

The Clarion Call (screenplay by Richard Breen, directed by Henry Hathway) is about a detective who realizes an old friend of his is probably a murderer. He can’t arrest the friend because he owes him a thousand dollars. The friend gives a passing newspaper editor a hard time for not cracking the case. The editor’s paper offers a thousand-dollar reward for information on the murder. The detective collects the reward, pays off the friend, then arrests him. Nice story, but both Breen and Hathaway let the murderer go on longer than they should. This is particularly a problem in Hathaway’s direction of Richard Widmark, who has been encouraged by Hathaway to play the murderer as if he were Tommy Udo, the part that made Widmark a star in Hathaway’s 1947 Kiss of Death.

The Last Leaf (screenplay by Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts, directed by Jean Negulesco) is rather plodding. We see where it is going very early on, and both the script and Negulesco’s direction assume we don’t know. There are very few twists and turns in the story until the last twist, and then the script and direction beat it home.

The Ransom of Red Chief (screenplay uncredited, but written by Nunnally Johnson, directed by Howard Hawks) is the worst of the lot. Nunnally was so upset with Hawks’s direction he asked that his name be removed from the credits, which it was. The story is about two con men on the run who decide to kidnap the son of the most important man in a small town. Unfortunately the kid is a holy terror, and the father makes the kidnappers pay him to take the kid off their hands. Nunnally had written it with Clifton Webb and William Demarest in mind for the kidnappers, but the film ended up with Fred Allen and Oscar Levant in the roles. They are too similar in style to work as a team, and not as good actors as Webb and Demarest. Nunnally felt Hawks’s direction was too farcical, but watching it today, my feeling was that it was not farcical enough. Hawks’s direction has no energy to it. He may have been trying, unsuccessfully, to pick up on the small town rhythms of Nunnally’s dialogue, much of which is still in the film. Johnson had a similar problem with John Ford on Tobacco Road (1941). Nunnally was from Georgia, where Tobacco Road was set, and he said to me about Ford, “Since he didn’t know anything about [Georgia] crackers [an early form of “redneck”], except me, and he did know about the Irish, he simply changed them all into Irishmen.” The Ransom of Red Chief episode was so flat that it was later cut from release prints, but it has been restored.

The Gift of the Magi (screenplay by Walter Bullock, directed by Henry King) is the best of the bunch. Bullock was primarily a songwriter who occasionally wrote screenplays, although none of his other scripts that I am familiar with are as good as this one. Maybe he was just better at the shorter length. This one is about a poor young couple who doesn’t know what to give each other for Christmas. She cuts and sells her beautiful hair to buy him a fob for the family watch he carries. He sells the watch to buy her a comb set for her hair. Like The Last Leaf we can pretty much see where it is going, but Bullock gives us twists and turns along the way. We follow her to get her hair cut and buy the fob, but we don’t see what he has bought for her until after he has opened her present and seen she has cut her hair. King, who was one of the best directors of actors in Hollywood, gets livelier performances from Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger than any other director did. Bullock has written a nice scene with the barber who cuts her hair, and King does not let Fritz Feld, who usually overacts, get carried away. Likewise, King restrains Sig Ruman as the jeweler in the nice little scene where she buys the fob.

Arthur Knight, in his classic 1957 film history book The Liveliest Art, wrote about the film as an example of a studio production. Mentioning that there were five directors, he wrote, “Yet when the picture appeared it was impossible to detect any stylistic differences. It might have been the work of a single individual. And in a sense, it was—the corporate individual known as 20th Century-Fox. The quality of the film’s photography and sound, its settings, the characteristically lively tempo of its editing all bore the unmistakable stamp of the Fox personality.” Knight simply was not looking deeply enough. And it probably never occurred to him to think about the differences in the writers.

How I Met Your Mother (2010. Episode “Girls vs. Suits” written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas. 30 minutes)

How I Met Your Mother

We meet her—no we don’t: We know that Ted will meet “Mother” at school and that she was in his class. So this episode starts out with him beginning to date Cindy, a grad student who is not actually in his class, but was in the class he stumbled into on his first teaching day. Ted’s narration before the first commercial break leads us to think she is the one. She is cute, and they hit it off. But she is not “Mother.” She has serious roommate issues, not helped by Ted liking the stuff in her apartment that all turn out to be her roommate’s. As the episode progresses, Ted’s narration makes it clear the roommate is “Mother,” but we still don’t see her, and he does not meet her. Cindy is certainly not going to introduce them. Near the end of the episode, Ted gets a brief glimpse of “Mother’s” bare foot as she goes from the shower to her room, but it is not enough to make him go into her room and introduce himself. Bays & Thomas, the showrunners, have promised us we will get to meet “Mother” this season. It will be about time.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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