Understanding Screenwriting #50: Toy Story 3, Knight and Day, Cyrus, & Wild Grass

Toy Story 3 is a grand balancing act of character and story.

Understanding Screenwriting #50: Toy Story 3, Knight and Day, Cyrus, & Wild Grass
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

Coming up in this column: Toy Story 3, Knight and Day, Cyrus, Wild Grass, but first…

Fan mail: I have always enjoyed reading David Ehrenstein’s articles and reviews in such varied places as the Los Angeles Times, Film Comment and Sight & Sound, so I was delighted he showed up in the comments on US#49, even if he and I disagreed A LOT on I Am Love. One Ehrenstein piece I liked was his 2006 review in the Los Angeles Times of the dreadful David Kipen book, The Schreiber Theory. Kipen was then Director of Literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, which explains why the book was hyped beyond all reason. Kipen proposed that it was about time critics and historians paid attention to screenwriters. Ehrenstein compared him to Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957) discovering love in Paris and singing, “How Long Has This Been Going On?” I assumed when I first read it that Ehrenstein was referring more to Kipen having ignored all the stuff that had been written about screenwriting, not only by me, but by everybody else who had been writing about it for the previous thirty years. Looking at the review again, I think Ehrenstein was just talking about Kipen discovering screenwriting himself rather than the historiography of screenwriting. In the review he agrees that more attention should be paid to screenwriting.

Given that, I was surprised that (after opening with a suggestion of what kind of sexual act I should do with Syd Field; I am sure Syd is cute, but I would prefer to do what Ehrenstein suggests with Valerie Bertinelli now that she’s ripened) he starts by saying “So the script [of I Am Love] went through a lot of drafts and further changes were made during the shooting—SO WHAT!” One of the articles of confederation for this column, maybe the prime one, is that it increases our knowledge of film to look at the scripts of the films. Yes, that includes their development over several drafts. I think my brief description of I Am Love’s writing gives us at least some idea how it ended up not being as good as it should have been.

Ehrenstein then takes me to task for not “getting” the love scenes in the film, since I thought they were generic. Obviously viewers like Ehrenstein who love the film, and there are many others who do as well, felt it got enough of the details right, whether about the family or the sexual activities, to make the film satisfying. I obviously didn’t. Ehrenstein then ends with “You children should get laid more!” I assume that is aimed at me, and I guess Ehrenstein thinks that if I write for a blog I must be younger than he is. He may not have read enough of my columns to have picked up on the references to my adult daughter and my two grandchildren. In fact, I am six years older than he is, and while my memory for many things is not what it was, my recollections of sexual congress are still pretty strong.

I am going to have to pass on commenting on Matt Maul’s interesting comments comparing The Desert Rats and Downfall (2004), since I never got around to seeing the latter. I do agree with “missusk” that while James Mason does not use a German accent in The Desert Fox, he certainly acts Teutonic. That’s why it’s called acting, and Mason was very good at it.

Toy Story 3 (2010. Screenplay by Michael Arndt, story by John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich, and a whole pile of the GAPS. 103 minutes.)

Toy Story 3

Everything Shrek Forever After tried to be but wasn’t: Michael Arndt wrote the screenplay for the 2006 indie hit Little Miss Sunshine, and won an Oscar for it. Obviously Pixar decided to go with an Oscar-winning screenwriter and let him alone to do his wonderful thing all by himself, which is why Toy Story 3 is so great. Guess again. According to Danny Munso’s wonderfully thorough look at the making of Toy Story 3 in the May/June 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting, the sort of thing Ehrenstein is not likely to read, Little Miss Sunshine had not even finished production and still had no distributor when, on the recommendation of its producer, Pixar talked to Arndt. And hired him to work with Lee Unkrich, the co-director of Toy Story 2 (1999) on an idea Unkrich had. They seemed to get along, and after Disney changed management and bought Pixar, the handling of a third Toy Story was rightly handed back to Pixar. (Disney, under its former head Michael Eisner, figured since it owned the rights, it could do the sequel themselves without any input from Pixar. Aren’t you glad Eisner left?) Unkrich was given the project and since he was getting along with Arndt, they went off on a “story retreat” with the GAPS (Geniuses at Pixar), including Lasseter, Stanton and several others. Out of that Stanton came up with a 20-page treatment that had the beginning and the end. And most of what he had was changed. As I told you in writing about Up in US#27, Pixar spends a long time on story, and Munso’s article will give you some idea of what was involved here. But just because somebody takes a long time does not make the final result good, as we saw in US#48 with Shrek Forever After. It is not how long you spend, but the creativity you show in the work you do in that time.

Toy Story 3 begins with a rousing action sequence with Woody, Jesse, Buzz and the others. It reacquaints us with our old friends, but it is also a bit misleading. From it you might expect this will be a romp, but the film isn’t. In the next scene we get the setup for the film: Andy is now grown up and going off to college. Well, it has been eleven years since Toy Story 2. And what is he going to do with his toys, which he has not played with for years? (So who was playing with them in the first scene? See how that connects to the situation) Arndt wrestled with this scene until he was saved by a fire drill at the studio. As they were gathering out in the yard, Arndt talked to Stanton about his difficulties, and Stanton suggested doing it from the toys’ point of view. So what we get is not just exposition, but a character scene. That happens again after the toys end up at the Sunnyside Day Care Center. Woody thinks they have to go back to Andy, since they belong to Andy. The others think that since Andy was going to get rid of them (he actually was going to save them, but by accident they were put out with the trash), their duty as toys is to let the kids at center play with them. I said about Shrek Forever After in US#48, “I suppose the idea was to deepen the material, but folks, he’s a green ogre. How deep do you want to get into an ogre?” You could say the same thing about Woody, Buzz and the gang, but the GAPS have always been great at character. See my comments on WALL-E in US#2 and Up in US#27, or if you are looking at the Munso article, read Karl Iglesias’s excellent column on the emotional core of the Pixar films in the same issue. In Toy Story 3, Arndt and the GAPS create one of the best balances I have ever seen between character and story. This discussion between the toys is a perfect example of that. It is not just a philosophical discussion or on-the-nose plotting, but a beautifully integrated scene that takes us deeper into the characters.

And then Woody escapes the center in one of the most inventive pieces of slapstick filmmaking I have seen a while. Look at how Arndt and the GAPS have Andy use everything in the bathroom when he is escaping. Somewhere Buster Keaton is, well, not smiling of course, but at least nodding in admiration. And that is just one little scene.

One problem that Arndt had to deal with, as do all writers of sequels, is how much time to spend on all the old familiar characters like the Potato Heads, Rex, and Hamm and how much time to spend on new characters. He and the GAPS get the balance right, and a lot of that has to do with the precision of their work. Look at the reaction of the Bookworm when he sees who he thinks is Ken in a space suit but with high heels. It’s what, three seconds at most? But it is the right three seconds. Keaton will be nodding at that as well.

In writing about WALL-E, I mentioned that the GAPS know how to do a lot without dialogue. There is a lot of dialogue here but also a lot of great character animation, something they learned paying attention to the great old Disney animated features (and shorts). One example out of many: Buzz’s control panel gets screwed up and he turns into Spanish Buzz. It would have been easy, lazy and funny to leave it at a Spanish voice, but look at the way Buzz moves differently when he is Spanish Buzz. That’s Chaplin nodding at this one.

It has been mentioned in various places that the ending of the film has left grown men with tears in their eyes. Yes, it is a moving scene, but that is because it builds on everything we have seen, heard, and been through, in this film and the two previous ones. I suspect the scene affects men so strongly because we get sentimental about our toys, whether they are the action figures of our youth, the cars of our adolescence, or the big screen TVs of our adulthood. Arndt and the GAPS nail that feeling.

Showing in theaters before Toy Story 3 is a great six-minute Pixar short, Day & Night. At the theater I saw it at, it came after fifteen minutes of big, loud, stupid trailers for movies that are trying to impress you by how much money they spent. Day & Night is simple, ingenious and extraordinarily inventive. I could try to describe it, but it has been so beautifully thought out in visual terms it would be unfair to the film to use mere words. See it for yourself. It was made by some of the “students” at Pixar. The company’s future is in good hands.

Unless of course Robert Iger, the new head of Disney, insists that Pixar do nothing but the sequels and tent-pole movies he prefers rather than the fresh, inventive stuff that is the heart of Pixar. I have every confidence that the GAPS can outwit Iger.

Knight and Day (2009. Screenplay by Patrick O’Neill, and a whole pile of uncredited writers. 110 minutes.)

Knight and Day

Now this is a star vehicle: I have no idea how much of Patrick O’Neill’s original screenplay survives in this film. As a fascinating article by Steven Zeitchik in the Los Angeles Times tells us, there were at least a dozen writers who worked on the script over the years. You can check out the article to see who some of them were. On the other hand, the Writers Guild arbitration on the script felt that none of the others had done enough to warrant a credit. What is surprising, although it may not be of any interest to David Ehrenstein, is that the film does not have the cobbled together feeling of most films with that many writers. Zeitchick seems to think the consistency came from James Mangold, but that is whom his article is focused on, and besides, he’s the director. I suspect it was that all the writers were pretty much on the same page. If you have seen the film, this may surprise you, because it is constantly shifting in tone throughout the movie. What the writing (and the acting and directing, since all those people also seem to be on the same page as well) does is lead you early on to expect those shifts. Roy, who may or may not be a rouge whack-job spy, meets cute with June in an airport, but we can see that he is arranging it. After he flirts with her on the plane, she goes to the toilet to freshen up. She discusses with herself how far she should go with him. That would be a typical rom-com scene, but Mangold and the writers cut between her and Roy killing everybody else on the plane. The juxtaposition of those two elements clue us in to expect anything.

We get a similar contrast later when June is given a truth serum to get her to tell where the MacGuffin is. Except that she tells truths on a totally different issue. Scott Frank, who wrote Out of Sight (1998), worked on this script at two different times, and that scene feels like his writing. But it could well be one of the others. Whoever wrote it, it is the funniest scene in the picture. There is also a nice scene in a different key where June tracks down Roy’s parents, who don’t even know their son is still alive. This is a darker scene than the “truth serum” scene, but it does not clash with the film we have seen so far.

I tell people that one of the ways you can tell a film is well written is whether it holds together. Do the details connect and add up? They do here. We first think that Roy has picked a toy knight to hide the MacGuffin in because it’s cute; we later learn the emotional significance of it. A scene where Roy tells June how he got her into a bikini is repeated later when June tells Roy how she, well, see the film. Another element of consistency in the script is its total disregard all the way through for telling us how all these people on the run got from country A to country B. About the third or fourth time the characters suddenly jump from one country to another, you realize the writers are at least partly writing a shaggy dog story, which may be why it did not open that well. For a great look at the marketing problems they had on this film, read Patrick Goldstein’s “Big Picture” column, one of the best pieces I have ever read on the limits of film marketing.

Various stars were attached to the project over the years, but they ended up with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. The script is shaped for them, particularly Cruise, and he gives a true movie star performance. The writing of June is not quite as good for Diaz, but she more than holds her own. I think what the writers, and certainly Mangold, intended was that the “star” scenes would be the quiet counterpoint to all the running, jumping, shooting, and chasing. Under Mangold’s direction, they don’t exactly work that way. Mangold shoots Cruise and Diaz in VERY BIG close-ups and those shots can become almost as annoying as the excess action. My recommendation is you sit near the back of the theater.

Cyrus (2010. Written by Mark Duplass & Jay Duplass. 92 minutes.)


Didn’t get your fill of close-ups in Knight and Day?: The Duplass Brothers, who made a name for themselves in the low-budget indie world, have moved up to the slightly higher-budget Fox Searchlight indie world. That means they can get stars like John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill, but to do that you have to write good characters for them to play. Which the Brothers, who also direct, do. The movie begins with John (Reilly), a shlub who compares himself to Shrek. He has never gotten over his divorce several years before from Jamie (Catherine Keener). He ends up meeting the attractive Molly (Tomei), who seems unattached. Except she has a 21-year-old son Cyrus (Hill), to whom she is very close. Very, very close. As in he walks into the bathroom while she is taking a shower and neither of them think that is unusual. Cyrus is creepy, and the Brothers have written a great, unnerving part for Hill. He is wonderfully ambiguous in the part, so much so that when he apparently stops trying to drive John away at the end, we are not entirely sure we believe him. When he goes into the garage at the end, is he going to bring out John’s stuff, as he says he is? Or is he going to kill himself? Or kill John? Or his mother? The Brothers’ great writing and Hill’s astonishing performance (this is how indie screenwriters get great actors: give them something more challenging than a Judd Apatow comedy) don’t let us know, which makes what follows less a conventional ending than it might otherwise be.

Unfortunately, the Brothers are still directing as though they were in the lower-budget arena. The first ten minutes or so have a lot of shakeycam shots, which you may remember from my comments on Rachel Getting Married in US#9 I dislike. I have the same problems here, especially since the Brothers seem to be devoted to what I would call a “stutter zoom” shot: a shot that begins at one distance from the actors, then makes a short zoom in. The image size does not change that much, so it seems useless and annoying. There are fewer of them as the film progresses, but they are irritating every time they show up. The Brothers also go in for very close close-ups. I love these actors, especially in these roles in this film, but I don’t need to be that close to them all the time. Like the use of the stutter zoom, the close-ups later in the picture are not quite as close as in the beginning. I know movies are not shot in chronological order, but I get the feeling that somebody told them their style was grating after the early rushes. On a big theater screen it is probably worse then seeing on DVD. The brothers should watch the films of John Ford, who was a master of knowing exactly where to put the camera in relation to the actors and the action.

The publicity about the film has relentlessly insisted that a lot of the film was improvised. I can believe that. The Brothers as writers set up a fairly simple situation, and then get into the characters in some depth, the kind of thing that improv can help. There are entertaining details that probably came from improv (I love Tomei’s quick smile when she is putting John’s clothes in her closet), but there are limits. The final heart-to-heart scene between Molly and Cyrus is interrupted by cuts to several other subjects, which suggests that the scene did not come together in improv. The Brothers were shooting in some cases with three cameras, which gives them a lot of coverage, but cutting it together with all the improvising obviously proved difficult. Improv makes everybody feel creative while they are doing it, but it is not necessary the best thing for a film.

Wild Grass (2009. Screenplay by Alex Reval & Laurent Herbiet, based on the novel L’Incident by Christian Gailly. 104 minutes.)

Wild Grass

You lost me at cat munchies: Georges finds a wallet that has been stolen from Marguerite. Does he immediately track her down and give it back? Nope. He dithers about it. He thinks about it, calls, hangs up when there is no answer, and thinks about it some more. Well, he does learn she flies planes, which always interested him. He eventually takes the wallet to the police, who return it to her. And then she dithers about it. Even given their interest in planes, flighty is too tame a word for these two. They get more and more annoying as the film progresses. They are sort of, maybe, attracted to each other. We don’t get enough information about either one of them to care much. There are hints that Georges has at least a semi-criminal past, but we never get any payoffs from that. Marguerite is a dentist, but so unprofessional it is a wonder she has any patients left.

If Cyrus has a good script but mediocre direction, this one has a weak script and great direction. Maybe it was just that I saw it a couple of hours after I saw Cyrus, but I really appreciated the elegant cinematography, especially the camera moves. The director is 88-year-old Alain Resnais, who was doing elegant camera moves at least twenty years before the Duplass Brothers were born. Resnais, unlike a lot of directors, loves to work with strong writers, and the best of his films have a nice tension between the writers’ literary sensibilities and Resnais’s cinematic sensibilities. Here the direction overpowers the weak script, which is not necessarily a bad thing, since it gives us something to look at while Georges and Marguerite are dithering. Look at the way Resnais shapes the sequence when Marguerite goes out to find Georges at a movie. In script terms she is waiting around for him to get out of the film, but Resnais sets up the action and the shots so we sense a connection between them and the romance of cinema in general. You see, in spite of my love of writers and screenplays, I can appreciate interesting direction when I see it.

Resnais’s direction kept me watching through all the dithering, and I had high hopes for the ending. Marguerite arranges to take Georges and his long-suffering wife Suzanne up in a plane. OK, but the aerial footage is rather bland; American money and technology would have helped. Then we get several shots of a plane’s eye-view going over a greater variety of scenery than we have seen. At the end of this we are driving up a country lane to a farmhouse. OK, so it is supposed to work like the end of Cyrus: is Marguerite going to crash the plane into the house and kill them all? Except we are not as deep into the characters as we are in Cyrus and don’t care. And then we are in the farmhouse and a little girl asks her mother, “When I become a cat, can I eat cat munchies.” Fade out. Huh? As I was walking up the aisle after the film was over, a couple of elderly ladies stopped me and asked if I understood the ending. I had to admit that I didn’t.

Thinking about that ending for a day, I suspect it is part of Resnais’s very sly sense of humor. We don’t think of Resnais as the second coming of Lubitsch, but there has always been some deadpan humor in his films. Look at the scene in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) with the two lovers and the Japanese woman between them. Or note that he has directed two films from plays by the witty British playwright Alan Ayckborn, Smoking/No Smoking (1993) and what I think is the best of his recent films, Private Fears in Public Places (2006). There is certainly some of that humor here, especially in the sequences with Bernard, the cop involved in all of this. Maybe cat munchies is just one more sly joke. I wouldn’t put it past the man who inadvertently gave us the model for every television perfume commercial since its release in 1961, Last Year at Marienbad.

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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