Understanding Screenwriting #52: Inception, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Story of Louis Pasteur, & More

Chris, meet Fred and Alain. Fred and Alain, meet Chris.

Understanding Screenwriting #52: Inception, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Story of Louis Pasteur, & More
Photo: Warner Bros.

Coming up in this column: Inception, The Girl Who Played with Fire, City Island, The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola, but first…

Fan mail: David Ehrenstein opened up the whole can of worms, as is David’s wont, this time about famous script doctors that I will get around to dealing with when I write about a film that brings it up. He mentions particularly Robert Towne’s contributions to Bonnie and Clyde. Towne himself tends to downplay his work on that film, and my friend Elaine Lennon, who did her doctoral dissertation on Towne, tends to agree with Towne. At least on that issue.

Inception (2010. Written by Christopher Nolan. 148 minutes.)

Chris, meet Fred and Alain. Fred and Alain, meet Chris: I was a little surprised to read the Monday after Inception opened that the post-50 year old crowd liked the film least of all the demographics. With all the concerns going in about whether audiences would be able to keep up with the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream storytelling, I figured an age group that began their filmgoing careers with the films of Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais would have no trouble following the film. In 8 ½ (1963) Fellini is a master at jumping from reality to dreams to the past to conditional tenses without ever losing the audience. The viewers always think they know where they are, at least until Fellini pulls the rug out from under them. And in Providence (1977), Resnais and screenwriter David Mercer whip up an extraordinarily evocative and emotionally moving game involving dreams and reality, so much so that the film has a totally different feeling and meaning the second time you see it. One of these days I will have to see it for a third time and see what it turns into then.

What may have happened with my age cohorts is that they know Fellini and Resnais too well and were therefore not as dazzled as the younger generation. What may also have happened is that they found those earlier films more emotionally satisfying than Inception. For all their playing around with the medium, Fellini and Resnais base their films in the emotional reality of the characters and use their assorted cinematic devices to get into their characters. According to Jeff Goldsmith’s excellent article “The Architect of Dreams” in the July/August 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting, Nolan was very aware of the problem, and as the story evolved over the years he tried to get deeper into the emotional elements of the story. The problem is that he did not, certainly not on the level of Fellini and Resnais. There are scenes, particularly in the second half of the film with Cobb and his wife Mal as well as those with the senior and junior Fischers that should move us more than they do. Unfortunately they have not been emotionally prepared for. The Fischers are pretty much generic warring father and son, and Mal is an emotional enigma, even after we learn sort of what she is up to.

Nolan had the original inspiration for the film when he was 16. If there is any general rule the Matrix films (1999-2003) and Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) should have taught studios, it is never EVER let directors make films they first thought up when they were in their teens. Inception is not as stupid as those movies because Nolan has at least tried to develop the characters, but he has been unable to balance the concept of the film and the characters. Over the last eighty-some years since Un Chien Andalou (1929), surrealism has been domesticated in films and television, and Nolan is aware that he can take the audience anywhere. He is also aware that because movies can go anywhere, there had better be a reason why we are going there. He does make that clear, like Fellini on a good day, and the film is relatively easy to follow if you are paying attention. Nolan does a very good job at keeping the levels of dream and reality clear, but those levels are often mechanical and not as emotionally evocative as they could be. When Cobb goes into the deepest level to find Mal, we get a world he and Mal constructed. It is visually imaginative, but emotionally rather generic. The places they lived in obviously have meaning for him and for her, but not so much for us, since we don’t know what specifically they mean to Cobb and Mal. Getting across what something means to the characters is one of the most difficult things a screenwriter has to do because you have to figure out how to show it. That usually involves a lot of setting up, which Nolan foregoes here to deal with the mechanics of the invading of dreams.

Another problem of letting directors make movies they first thought up when they were in their teens, especially science fiction ones, is that the movies tend to be completely humorless. There are one or two hints of what might be jokes in Inception. I particularly liked the one about rain showing up in a dream because one character forgot to pee before they started, but Nolan is almost as humorless a director as Scorsese and Lang (see US#43 for details on those guys). Leonardo DiCaprio used to bring a certain humor to his roles, as in Titanic (1997) and Catch Me If You Can (2002), but lately he has begun to fall into the Harrison Ford/Kevin Costner/Denzel Washington trap of wearing a mantle of great seriousness he assumes becomes a star of his stature. See below for a classic early example of the problem. DiCaprio’s ponderousness makes his Cobb less interesting than he could be. Ellen Page, as the architect of the dreams, has a couple of reaction shots that suggest she sees some humor in here, but they are only in the early part of the film. Chris, would it kill you to put in a couple of yuks? Fred and Alain did.

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009. Screenplay by Jonas Frykberg, based on the novel by Steig Larsson. 129 minutes.)

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The last hour of Gone with the Wind: You may remember from US#47 that my wife managed to hobble out to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo before the fracture in her leg was diagnosed. She is now well on the road to recovery and walked well enough to get out to see this film recently, the second of the Lizbeth Salander movies. Unfortunately this one, with a different screenwriter than the first, is not a patch on Dragon.

I loved that Dragon moved at a lickety-split pace; this one drags badly. We are over half an hour into it before we get a connection between the story Blomkvist is working on (well, he’s not the one working on; a couple of freelancers are) and Lizbeth. Part of what made Dragon compelling on screen was the relationship between Blomkvist and Lizbeth, but in this film there are only together briefly in the final scene. This can work in a novel where the author can use all kinds of literary devices to make us feel the connection, but on screen we want to see them together. Blomkvist mooning over emails she sends is not the same as having them go at each other, in all senses, in front of our eyes.

Lizbeth here is not the bizarre Lizbeth we all know and love from the first one. Yes, she still has the tattoo, and a couple of nose rings, but other than that, she seems almost…normal. And who the hell wants a normal Lizbeth? This film also totally misses the social context of the first one. I mentioned in writing about Dragon that I thought it would be hard to do an American version since the central story of the Vanger family was so embedded in Swedish culture and history. That’s not true here. Yes, the chief villain was a Russian defector several years ago, but that has very little to do with the rest of the story. He could have been just any badass. I mentioned in writing about The Secret in Their Eyes that the filmmakers were very aware that they were making a movie, and not just an episode of a TV show. The criminal story here could easily have come out of Law & Order: SVU and in fact I seem to remember an episode of that show that dealt with a similar storyline. Yes, this film does tie it together with Lizbeth’s story, and we got a lot more backstory on Lizbeth than we did in the first one, but I am not sure that backstory tells us that much more than we already know. This whole film reminded me of the last hour of Gone with the Wind. In the first three hours, you get the pre-Civil War South, then the war, then the Reconstruction. In the last hour you have lost all that social context and end up with a lot of interior scenes of everybody dealing with their personal problems, which frankly, my dears, are not that interesting.

I particularly liked how the screenwriters of Dragon created, or picked up from the book, a wonderful gallery of supporting characters, particularly the Vanger family. Frykberg doesn’t do that here. The two reporters (well, one’s a sociologist) who bring the story to Blomkvist and Millennium are bland. The cops investigating the murders are standard issue. Neidermann is mostly reminiscent of Robert Shaw’s Grant in From Russia With Love (1963). Zala, the superbaddy, is like every other superbaddy you have ever seen, except his looks. He is supposed to be seventy, but his face is also supposed to be burned. He is played by a much younger actor with a makeup job that does not make him look anywhere close to seventy, even with the scars.

When a film goes wrong, especially if a sluggish pace is part of the problem, a viewer has the time and inclination to pick up on bits that don’t make sense. Here are four that bothered me: Lizbeth has a flashback of seeing Neidermann somewhere, but where did she see him before? Neither my wife nor I could figure it out. My wife thinks it was in a scene that was in the book but not in the film. Secondly, it is WAY too convenient that Lizbeth accidentally leaves her keys at the hospital when she visits Miriam. Third, how does Blomkvist know where Lizbeth is headed at the end? My wife’s mother was Swedish, so my wife realized that the one location Lizbeth finds is close to one the reporters find and tell Blomkvist about, but unless you know Swedish geography, you’re lost. Fourth, at the end, what happened to Neidermann? My wife says that in the book he thinks he sees a ghost and runs away. We get nothing that tells us that in the film. Let’s hope the third one in the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009), which will be released here in the fall, is more like Dragon and less like Fire. On the other hand, it is also co-written by Frykberg, so don’t get your hopes up.

City Island (2009. Written by Raymond De Felitta. 104 minutes.)

City Island

Boy, are marketing people really, truly pissed about this movie: Suppose one of my screenwriting students came in and pitched an idea for a film. It’s about a family, and every member has a secret or two he or she is hiding from the other members of the family. Vince, the dad, is a prison guard who wants to be an actor. Joyce, the wife, has told everybody she’s given up smoking but hasn’t. Vivian, the daughter, has not told the family she lost her scholarship and is now earning money as a stripper to be able to go back to college. Vince Jr., the son, watches porn on his computer. What would my reaction to the student’s pitch be? It sounds too schematic and mechanical. Everybody’s got a secret? Can you juggle all those and bring them all to a satisfactory conclusion? Well, De Felitta managed it. And to throw in another secret, which helps unveil all the others, Vince brings a prisoner, Tony, from his job to stay in the family home without telling the family that he is the son he had before he met Joyce.

De Felitta makes it all go. How? First, he makes the characters interesting beyond just their secrets. Look at the character details in the first family dinner. We also know the characters want things, not just to hide their secrets. Vince Jr. is not watching the usual kind of porn, and that leads to a relationship with a neighbor that turns out differently than we figured it would. Vince wants to be an actor, but he has very little confidence in his abilities. He is encouraged by Molly, his scene partner. The theme of secrets is carried through when their acting coach, Malakov, assigns the class an improv involving telling their partners their deepest secrets. De Felitta manages the neat trick of writing the Vince-Molly relationship so that we believe it is not a romantic one.

De Felitta then paces the script well, so that the secrets are revealed as we go along, not just in one rush at the end, although he has enough left for a big finish. He also helps his script by letting us know what the secrets are, so when somebody jumps to the wrong conclusion, we anticipate lively scenes when they discover the truth. De Felitta also makes elements serve more than one purpose. We think Vince Jr. is just being a dork when he talks to a pleasingly plump girl he knows and manages to piss off, but the girl shows up again by the end of the film. Tony “performs” the speech he used in prison to get guys to back off for Vince, and Vince uses it as part of an improv at an audition. And Malakov shows up outside the class in a way that is both funny and sad.

This is a small indie film, but as my mantra goes, you write good parts, you get good actors. Julianna “The Face” Margulies is wonderful, totally different as Joyce than she is on ER and The Good Wife. Andy Garcia is moving nicely from leading man roles to character leads, which is what Vince is. Alan Arkin is an obvious choice as Malakov, but he gives that scene a little extra zing.

OK, so it is a charming little film. It opened in March and is still running, having brought in about six and a half million dollars. Why is it pissing off marketing people? Because there was virtually no marketing budget for it. In other words, the audience found the film on its own and is turning out for it. OK, not in Toy Story 3 numbers, but enough so the film will probably break even. That’s a good thing, right? Not for marketing people. What happens if the industry realizes that most marketing spending is a waste of time and money? Guess whose jobs are on the line? Back in US#49, I reviewed Sharon Oreck’s book Video Slut. In it, she mentions producing one music video they had to rush into production. The record had come out and was selling well, and the marketing people couldn’t stand the idea that the record could sell itself without their help. So they wanted to get a video out so they could claim it helped the sales. And Sharon made the video. After all, it was her company on the line as well.

The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935. Story and screenplay by Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney. 85 minutes according to Leonard Maltin, 87 according to IMDb.)

The Story of Louis Pasteur

Scarface becomes Shirley Temple: In the late ’20s and early ’30s, Warner Brothers did a series of biographical films, nearly all starring George Arliss as assorted famous men of history: Voltaire, Alexander Hamilton, and Disraeli. The latter he played twice, once in a silent 1921 film and again with sound in 1929, which won him an Academy Award. You may remember from US#42 the quote from screenwriter Julien Josephson about the similarity of writing for Arliss and Shirley Temple: “…it’s the same formula: the bright little character gets the best of the grown-ups.”

When Darryl F. Zanuck left Warners in 1933 to form 20th Century Pictures, he took Arliss with him. Warners was busy making money with gangster pictures and early musicals, but they had a fondness for the prestige the Arliss films gave them. That is probably why they decided to do this film. The Arliss films were all under 90 minutes, as was this one. The question was, what actor could replace Arliss, who was a distinguished English theatrical gentleman of the old school? Well, Scarface of course. Warners had the star of Scarface and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (both 1932) under contract. Thomas Schatz, the author of the great study of the studio system The Genius of the System, says in his book that Warners thought of Paul Muni as showing the toughness of Cagney with the stage experience of Arliss. They gave him role of Louis Pasteur, and it worked. Paul Muni won the Oscar for his performance and became the primary star of the Warners biopics of the ’30s.

The Story of Louis Pasteur follows the Arliss pattern. The hero “gets the best of the grownups” who disagree with his scientific work, and he still has time to twinkle in approval at young love, in this case his assistant, Dr. Martel and his daughter Annette. Arliss twinkled better than Muni, and this side of the “great men” was dropped in future films. Now, since we all know that Pasteur developed the system that keeps our milk healthy, the film is going to be about that. Nope. It is thrown away in a couple of lines early in the film, since the film starts after he has developed the process. Well, they are limited to 85 or 87 minutes, but I suspect that the writers focused on his latter efforts to develop vaccines against anthrax and rabies because they are more dramatic. The writers changed his work on anthrax from being done with chickens to being done with sheep, I suppose because sheep are more cuddly and dramatic than chickens. The problem with the script is that everybody who opposes Pasteur is seen as idiotic. This is often the case in scripts about the Great Men of History. Gibney and Collings are not as bad as writers of some other films. Dr. Martel at first has his reservations about Pasteur, but then becomes his assistant. Dr. Charbonnet is Pasteur’s primary opponent, and the writers give him a nice scene near the end when he and Pasteur come to terms.

The film was made for about $300,000 and was a considerable success, both commercially and artistically. Not only did Muni win an Oscar, but so did Collings and Gibney.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937. Screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, and Geza Herczeg, story by Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg, source material Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson. 116 minutes.)

The Life of Emile Zola

Muni on his way to becoming Mr. Paul Muni: The Story of Louis Pasteur proved that Muni could carry a biographical film. The studio began looking for a follow-up. According to Schatz (the background on this film is from his book), Heinz Herald, an agent, approached producer Henry Blanke with an idea for a film on novelist Emile Zola’s defense of Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer unjustly convicted of treason. Blanke and Muni liked the idea and Hal Wallis, then the supervisor of historical films, asked Herald and German expatriate writer Geza Herczeg to work up a treatment. The treatment, 18 pages long, emphasized the connections with Pasteur: “Pasteur fought bacteria, while Zola opposed lies…Like Pasteur, who had to face obstacles, Zola had to suffer from defamation, prison, flight and deportation.” They eventually turned it into a two-hundred page script, which would have run over three hours. That was given to Norman Reilly Raine, then a staff writer at Warners. Raine is best known for his Tugboat Annie stories in The Saturday Evening Post, which became a series of films. Raine did the final drafts of the script.

The film opens with two guys in a grubby room complaining about the cold and the broken windows. It is well into the scene before we learn they are Zola and his best friend, Paul Cezanne. Yeah, that Cezanne. The first half-hour of the film depicts Zola’s rise to fame as a writer covering subjects many find distasteful. The French Army is particularly upset over his book The Downfall, which attacks the army general staff and its handling of the Franco-Prussian War. By thirty minutes into the film, Zola is successful, and Cezanne thinks he is too successful and too comfortable. Muni, by the way, is better in this first part of the film. Like Olivier and Welles, he loved covering his face with makeup (when he got his Oscar for Pasteur, the only person he thanked was his makeup man), but playing the younger Zola, he is clean-shaven and more of his charm shows through. Then the beard and the wigs begin, along with a pince-nez he works like worry beads. There is very little of the Arliss slyness we caught in Pasteur and more of the eyeball rolling that became his default setting as an actor.

In the second half hour, Zola is slowly drawn into the Dreyfus affair by Mrs. Dreyfus (one of the few errors I found in Schatz’s book is that he says that Mrs. Dreyfus is played by Josephine Hutchinson, who played Pasteur’s wife; Dreyfus’s wife is Gale Sondergaard) and by his friend Anatole France. The drama begins to pick up and go beyond the simple “get the best of the grownups” of Pasteur. The writers are using the longer running time to develop the story and characters in more depth. They even give us elements we do not need, as in a scene in the first half-hour where Zola meets the model for Nana. What we have here are the beginnings of the mature Warner Brothers narrative style of the ’30s and ’40s: piling on as much as you can get into the picture. While I love Schatz’s book, neither his nor others about the studio system got into the different narrative styles of the studios. (Sorry, that’s me being a little self-serving at Schatz’s expense; FrameWork, my book on the history of American screenwriting, which does lay out the studio narrative styles, did not come out until after he had written his book.)

Although Zola is very much a star vehicle, the writers give us a lot of other characters and provide scenes for them. Joseph Schildkraut won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Dreyfus. Zola is given a nice speech when he reads to his friends his letter to the president of France accusing the army, but then in his trial for libel, the other characters do all the talking. Or at least until Zola’s summing up, which the director William Dieterle shoots in a single five-minute-plus take. Muni is a like a pig in slop, addressing the camera as the jury. If you like ham, you’ll love this scene. But it works. The film is so full of life and details (this film cost nearly $700,000, over twice what Pasteur cost) that it manages to contain the excesses of Muni’s performance. A performance, by the way, that is richer and more varied than his Oscar-winning Pasteur.

The Life of Emile Zola won the Oscar for Best Picture, and the writers for Best Screenplay. Muni was nominated but did not win. But he was so important to Warners as their prestige star that he was soon being billed as “Mr. Paul Muni.” He shortly thereafter left Hollywood, supposedly dissatisfied, at least according to Wickipedia this week. Read Schatz’s book for details about the behind-the-scenes problems on the making of this film and you will see why Hollywood was glad to see Muni and his ego get out of town.

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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