Understanding Screenwriting #62: Carlos, The Plainsmen, 30 Rock, & Mad Men

Carlos is the exception that proves the rule.

Understanding Screenwriting #62: Carlos, The Plainsmen, 30 Rock, & Mad Men
Photo: IFC Films

Coming Up in This Column: Carlos, The Plainsmen, 30 Rock, Mad Men

Carlos (2010. Written by Olivier Assayas and Daniel Franck, based on an idea by Daniel Leconte. 335 minutes)

I don’t know if this is a great movie, but… it’ll do until something better comes along. According to an interview with Assayas by David Thompson in the November 2010 issue of Sight & Sound, Assayas was sent about four pages of material by Daniel LeConte, the producer of the film. It was a summary of the life and career of the notorious terrorist “Carlos,” aka the Jackal. Assayas was interested in the character (always a good sign), but not the summary. So Leconte sent him research done by journalist Stephen Smith, an expert in the field. What Assayas discovered was that there was more material available about Carlos’s operation and the geopolitical background than he had thought. In other words, it was getting longer. The film was originally supposed to be a 90-minute film for French television. Assayas told that to Leconte, who was reluctant, but they got approval from Canal Plus to do two 90-minute films. Then Assayas sat down with Daniel Franck, a screenwriter attached to the project, and after one meeting they both realized that three hours was not going to be enough, especially when they got into the material on the attack on the OPEC meeting in Vienna in 1975. Back to Canal Plus and an OK for a three-part film. Now as you know, if you have read this column for any length of time, that I do not believe as a general rule that longer is better. Look at any “director’s cut” if you don’t believe me. Carlos is the exception that proves the rule. Yes, there is a 2 ½ hour version that will play theatres, and it may be wonderful, but try to see the full version.

Part One, the first 105 minutes, gets us off to a nice start. We see a guy we don’t know in bed with a pretty woman. OK, he may be our hero. He gets dressed, goes outside. And checks his car for any car bombs. Smart guy. He doesn’t find any, so he gets in the car, turns on the ig—KABOOM. He’s not quite as smart as he thought, and we are now on our toes, knowing anybody can get it at any time. What the writers have done in the rest of the first part is alternate the terrorists’ actions with quieter scenes with Carlos, whom we learn had set the car bomb in the opening scene, although we never learn exactly why.

The action scenes include the invasion of the French embassy at the Hague and two wonderfully bungled attempts to shoot down an airliner at Orly Airport in Paris. The writers pace these scenes throughout the first part, so you know during the dialogue scenes that there will be some blow-’em-up-real-good stuff coming soon. Carlos was so active that there will always be some action right around the corner. Indeed, Carlos is going around corners a lot. In US#30 I got on the script for last year’s Public Enemies because there was so much running around from one place to another. I wrote at the time that may be true of Dillinger’s life on the run, but it makes him rather shallow because the script then does not provide scenes that give us the character. Assayas and Franck give us the character scenes between the running around. In the first part we get scenes of Carlos, who never seemed to be without a girlfriend of one kind or another, using his “revolutionary” ideas to seduce women. We are never quite sure, especially in this part, how serious a revolutionary he is. Is he in it for his beliefs? Or for the adrenaline rush? Or both? The writers are certainly establishing Carlos as a man of action, but Part One speeds along so fast we don’t get any deeper into him. At this point. Which is part of what the writers are doing, setting up questions in our mind while holding our interest with the action. Carlos is not a sympathetic character, but we want to watch him because when he is on-screen, stuff happens. Not very nice stuff, true, but stuff.

By the end of Part One, Carlos has convinced Wadie Haddad, the chief terrorist of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), to let him handle their operations for Europe. We have seen Carlos cool and collected, but in the suspenseful scene where he kills two members of DST, the French security services, we also see he can be impulsive. So Haddad wants him to run the OPEC operation. Carlos and his crew, including Angie and Nada, two Germans, get off the streetcar at the OPEC meeting as Part One ends.

The first hour of the 110-minute Part Two is the OPEC operation. That’s a long time, but it is a change in rhythm from the first part of the movie, and we are perfectly willing to slow down, especially since we see Carlos in action. In several of the operations in the first part, we only see the people working for Carlos, and they are often close to incompetent. Carlos at OPEC is very competent, maybe a little too much so. When they first invade the conference room, one of the people Carlos inadvertently kills is the OPEC minister from Libya. This pisses off Qaddafi, whom we never see in the film, and ends any chance they can land in Libya as part of their escape. Carlos’s discussions with the various ministers tell us a lot about Carlos as well as the ministers. As does the outcome. Haddad wanted Carlos to kill the Saudi oil minister, but Carlos could not resist the opportunity to accept a $20 million ransom. Carlos and Haddad have a great scene where Haddad “fires” Carlos from his group, saying Carlos is now a celebrity and “celebrities don’t take orders.” Haddad assigns the next big operation to friends of Carlos, a group of pro-Palestine Germans. It is the highjacking of an Air France airliner, which they take to Entebbe. Needless to say, that does not end well for the terrorists.

Carlos now has to create his own group, financed by Baghdad. His previous friends are getting out of the business, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Angie, who was wounded in the OPEC operation, goes on the run. Nada is eventually arrested. Magdalena, a German woman, comes to Baghdad, and we get a great “job interview” scene between her and Carlos that ends with sex. His use of revolutionary rhetoric for seduction has become more complex.

Andropov, a Russian, comes to tell Carlos that they are offering $1 million for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Needless to say, the pro-Palestinians would be delighted to get rid of the man who signed the Camp David accords. You don’t remember that it was Carlos who killed Sadat? Well, he didn’t. The writers structure this very nicely, with several mentions of the money that is out there for someone to take out Sadat and how difficult it is going to be. The preparations are ongoing, until a group of fundamentalists do the job, leaving Carlos and his crew with two wasted years of planning. Sometimes the amateurs can screw up the lives of the professionals. By the end of Part Two, Carlos has the backing of Syria. But the world is changing.

According to the Assayas interview, much of the material in the first hour of Part Three has been cut from the shorter theatrical version, which is too bad. The first two parts have dealt primarily with Carlos and his connections in the Middle East, but in Part Three, we begin to see how connected the terrorist groups were with the communist countries. One of the points Thompson brought up in his interview is that most movies about terrorist groups suggest they were a local or national phenomenon, whereas Carlos shows us the international connections. Part Three opens with Carlos, Magdalena, and Weinrich, a German collaborator, living in a safe house in Budapest. The Hungarian State Security Service knows they are there and also knows that it cannot bother them or the Soviet Union will cause problems. The Hungarians still try, without much success, to get information on Carlos using undercover hookers. The writers give us a couple of nervous, maybe even bumbling, Hungarian Security men who are sent to the house to tell Carlos they are going to take care of his security. Carlos is not impressed. The Stasi tell Carlos he is no longer welcome in East Berlin, since the East Germans are afraid the Western Intelligence services will bug them and track them down. We get a real sense of how complex the political connections are in the terrorist world, a situation that has only gotten worse in the years after Carlos.

Carlos sets up a bombing of an Arab newspaper in Paris, but it goes wrong. Magdalena fights a lot with Carlos because she does not want to stay cooped up in her darkroom forging passports (Carlos has to do it on his own, as opposed to the days when the PFLP provided all of that). She wants to do “field work,” so he lets her go on the bombing. But the person who left the Peugeot with the bomb in a parking garage forgot to give them the parking ticket and Magdalena gets arrested. Carlos sends letters demanding her release, without success. He sets off a bomb intended to kill Chirac, then the mayor of Paris, but it only wounds him and stiffens the French resolve to fight back. If other films on terrorist groups are hermetically sealed in the worlds of the groups, one of the great things about Carlos is that it has such a broad vision, at least in the longer version, of the place of those groups in the real world. This has the striking effect of showing, not telling, how mentally isolated such groups are. Which is why so many of their activities are ultimately counter-productive. I know of no other film that shows that.

The nervous Hungarian Security Service guys tell Carlos that Western Intelligence is on to him and they have to dismantle their safe house in Budapest. Carlos ends up in Syria, supposedly a “successful businessman.” Magdalena is finally released from prison. She almost got out once before, but was kidnapped by the French—yes, the same people who had her in prison—and turned over to the West Germans for another term. She joins him there, and they seem happy. But Syria doesn’t want him any more. Neither does Libya. The Berlin Wall has fallen, and the Cold War support with it. As Weinrich says to Carlos, “The war is over and we lost.” Carlos has a child with Magdalena and we see him chasing the child around the garden. This is likely a conscious reference to the garden scene with Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972)—two similar domesticated monsters. Magdalena gets fed up and takes the child with her to Venezuela? Why Venezuela? Because that is where Carlos is from. She is going to live with Carlos’s mother and brother. And what was the brother doing while Carlos was being a celebrity terrorist? Making a fortune in the construction business. The writers don’t beat us over the head with this, but just give it to us as a throwaway line. Like I say, the writers are very aware of the outside world, which I always admire in a screenplay.

Carlos and the girlfriend Magdalena knew he had are now in Khartoum. He is a teacher. In one short scene he is teaching guerilla tactics in a classroom, using as one of his textbooks Seven Pillars of Wisdom. By T.E. Lawrence. As in, of Arabia. Again, not stressed by the writers, but part of the pattern. At least one review of the film said that they felt the last half-hour or so goes on too long, and I can see what they mean, since we are waiting around for Carlos to get captured. Nothing blows up real good. But because of the context the writers have established in the first five hours, it makes every scene suspenseful. In this film, you never know when something is going to happen, which adds to the tension in the last thirty minutes. Carlos is finally captured, but in a very Carlos way. Ali, one of his connections to the Arab world, has to prove his loyalty to Syria, so he gives them Carlos’s address in Khartoum. Which Syria sells to the C.I.A.. But the C.I.A. don’t want him. So they trade him to the French, who definitely want him. So members of the DST—remember that Carlos killed some of their colleagues at the end of Part One?—pick him up and take him back to France. We don’t see the trial or Carlos in prison, but I am not sure we need to see that. What we do get in the end credits are photographs of the actors and their real-life counterparts and what happened, if known, to the real people. I was impressed by the casting and performances as the film was on, but even more so when I saw the photographs. The woman playing Nada does not bear a perfect physical resemblance to the original, but boy does she capture the attitude that comes across in the still photograph.

Now you may well ask, if there is all this good stuff in the script and the film, why were you quibbling at the beginning on whether it is a great film or not? As I was watching the film, I kept having niggling problems. I was not sure in Part One if they were getting into Carlos’s character as deeply as they could. Even in the remaining parts I had some reservations. On the other hand, they do suggest that Carlos was not that deep. He certainly was not an intellectual, and he used the revolutionary ideas as an excuse to get into action. Here I am reminded of the critics’ reaction to Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Many critics felt, and still feel, that the film does not get into Lawrence’s character as deeply as it should. I dealt with this in the book Understanding Screenwriting, where I wrote, that the film, instead of “explaining” his character, “shows us, which is what screenwriting ought to be about… One of the smartest comments in the original reviews was one critic’s line that Lawrence was most himself not in close-up, but in the long shots where he is riding a camel across the desert.” True for Lawrence, and maybe true for Carlos, but I still came away feeling I wanted a little more on Carlos. There is also the last half-hour, which could be shortened a bit. Maybe those are just minor complaints.

Consider this as well. One thing a great movie does is make you see the world in its terms, which often affects the next movie or piece of art or music you see or hear. If you see D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance, you will see its influence in almost every movie you see afterward. After I finished the last part of Carlos, I cued up on my DVR the “Harbor City” episode of Law & Order: Los Angeles (written by Judith McCreary). The speed and rhythm seemed very like Carlos. That night my wife and I went to see a new musical premiering at the Ahmanson Theater. It is Leap of Faith, based on the obscure 1992 film of the same name. The book for the show is written by Janus Cercone, who wrote the screenplay, and Glenn Slater, who also wrote the lyrics. It’s a hodgepodge of material, pushed together in a rather haphazard way. I kept thinking of Carlos, where the writers take an enormous range of material and find the ways to make it fit, in ways the musical never manages. And the next night, we heard the LA Philharmonic play Olivier Messiaen’s Turnagalila-symphonie, an eighty-minute epic consideration of love in all its forms. Messiaen used the long form the way Assayas and Franck do: to tie together multiple related themes. Messiaen and the screenwriters do it brilliantly. They made their work part of my world. You can’t ask for more than that.

The Plainsman (1936. Screenplay by Waldemar Young, Harold Lamb and Lynn Riggs, from material compiled by Jeanie Macpherson, based on stories by Courtney Ryley Cooper and Frank J. Wilstach, with additional uncredited writing by Wallace Smith, Stuart Anthony, and Virginia Van Upp. 113 minutes)

The Plainsman

Way too many cooks: When I was in a western mood a few weeks ago, I got this one from Netflix, along with Buffalo Bill (1944), which I wrote about in the last column. If too many writers spoiled that one, the boys and girls here really made a mess of this one. Well, not surpising. The producer-director of this was Cecil B. DeMille, and I talked about him and his 1939 film Union Pacific in US#30. Much of what I said there applies to this one. DeMille was coming off the lack of financial success of his 1935 spectacle The Crusades. (The background on the film, including the uncredited writers, is as before from Robert S. Birchard’s Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood.) Paramount wanted DeMille’s spectacle, but they really didn’t want to pay for it. DeMille first wanted to do a film on Buffalo Bill, which could have been a wonderful subject for him, but the 1935 film Annie Oakley had covered a lot of that. So he settled on Wild Bill Hickok as the main character, with Buffalo Bill as a supporting character (the two were friends) and Calamity Jane as the love interest. Hickok and Jane knew each other, but since she was as ugly and sin and seldom took a bath, there was probably not a romance. As in the later Union Pacific, DeMille had his writers focus on the love story. Paramount insisted DeMille use their biggest star, Gary Cooper, as Hickok, and DeMille got Jean Arthur for Jane, probably because a few month before The Plainsman went into production Cooper and Arthur had a great teaming in the 1936 film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. In that film they had Robert Riskin writing a great script for them. Not so here. There are some nice scenes, but nothing that shows them, especially Arthur, at their best.

Waldemar Young has been writing movies since the early silent era, and he was one of the writers on DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra as well as The Crusades. Harold Lamb worked on The Crusades as well, and spent most of his time in the business with DeMille. Lynn Riggs, hmm, where have we heard that name before? Probably not for her screenplay credits, but as the author of the stage play Green Grow the Lilacs, which became the basis for the great American stage and later so-so screen musical, Oklahoma!. So at least two of the three writers knew the DeMille style: epic action and a love story, with not a lot of concern for dramatic structure or historical accuracy. The love story is very much a star vehicle for Cooper and Arthur, although as noted above, not a very good one. The epic elements have their limitations, and not just because of the budget restrictions the studio put on the film. I noted in writing about Union Pacific that a lot of it was shot on sound stages. That is even truer of The Plainsman. According to Birchard, 29 days of the original 46-day schedule were on the sound stages. Thirteen days were to be on the studio backlot. Only four days of principal photography were to be shot on locations near the studio. DeMille, unlike directors such as John Ford, Henry King and David Lean, appears to have preferred not to go on location. DeMille was a notorious control freak and he could control the production better on the lot. He did send director Arthur Rosson up to Montana to shoot a lot, and I mean a lot, of second unit footage of the cavalry, the Indians, and assorted other outdoor stuff. His footage was cut into the film, and used as rear projection on the sound stages. Like Union Pacific, it’s very stage-bound for a western. DeMille knew that was going to be how the film was done, so that was how he had the writers write the script.

In spite of all that, the picture was a big hit, and DeMille followed it up with more American historical films. They are not any better.

30 Rock (2010. “Live Show” written by Robert Carlock and Tina Fey. 30 minutes)

30 Rock

Boy, did this not work: Remember the Golden Age of American Television? It was the ’50s and all the major shows were live. Yes, live. From New York City, the home of live theatre. None of this crappy little cheap filmed stuff that was syndicated to local stations. Live! It was great. Well, no, it really wasn’t all that great. While many of the television writers who worked in live television that I interviewed for Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing thought live television was great, some had their reservations. The late E. Jack Neuman told me, “The best of it was really a third-rate movie, the very best. [On] Playhouse 90 I was always thinking about what I could do on a movie set, and how terribly limited and awkward [it was].” And here comes 30 Rock to prove how right Neuman was.

Yes, this episode was done live, once for the East Coast and once for the West Coast. I saw the West Coast feed, so if you want to tell me the East Coast version was better, you can try, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me. Doing it live killed the rhythm of the show, which is based on short, quick scenes. Here they dragged out the scenes to the point of killing the jokes. There were what I take to be some joke references to doing a live show, but they were not particularly subtle and often played directly to the camera, which also not part of the world of 30 Rock. Because of the limitations of the live studio in which they were broadcasting from, the sets looked a lot smaller and cheaper than the ones in the filmed episodes. See what E. Jack Neuman meant? And the live audience also threw off the acting, since the actors had to wait for the audience reactions. This led to the actors overacting, which also killed what funny stuff there was in the screenplay. The quick subtlety of the show was lost. Back to film, please, where you can do it right.

Mad Men (2010. “Tomorrowland” written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner. 62 minutes)

Mad Men

And so ends one of the best seasons of Mad Men: You know now that I like Mad Men, in spite of it moving at a snail’s pace during the first few seasons. One thing I loved most about this season was that they picked up the pace, without losing any of the other elements that make the show so great: great characters, great scenes, and a wonderful sense of the period the show is set in. Most of those elements are present in this episode. Don has written off Lucky Strike and any tobacco clients with his ad in the New York Times, but he’s got a meeting with the American Cancer Society. They are interested in starting an anti-smoking campaign and why not get the best guy around to do it? And Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce needs the business, since they haven’t landed a new client in weeks.

Betty fires Carla, the Black nanny who has been with them forever, since she let Glen, the creepy little boy, say goodbye to Sally. Don is upset that Betty did this now, since he is taking the kids on a trip to California and he was expecting Carla to take care of them while he was in meetings. Geez, who can he get at the last minute to go to California? Well, Megan, his new secretary, was good with Sally several episodes back when she showed up at her dad’s office. See how Weiner and the gang have been setting things up? Now what would have happened if Mrs. Blankenship had not died? Actually, Mrs. Blankenship as a nanny could have been fun…

Meanwhile Peggy learns that Topaz pantyhose has fired their agency. How does she find out? Her lesbian friend brings around a model who was part of the fired ad campaign. Harry Crane is busy flirting with her, but Peggy sees an opportunity and arranges a meeting with the guys at Topaz. Peggy being Peggy, she comes up with a couple of ideas on the spot, and she lands the first big account SCDP has gotten in weeks. Boy, is that going to be a big deal at the office. Not so fast.

Because of budget limitations (do you want to pay to recreate the Disneyland of the mid-’60?), we don’t see Don and the kids go to Disneyland, but we hear about it, but not so much we miss the scenes there. Mostly we see the kids and Megan in the hotel swimming pool. Don, who had sex once with Megan in the office, has sex with her again in California. After all, she has seen him with Stephanie, Anna’s niece, and knows he is a good guy. Megan tells him, “I know who you are now,” which probably means more to Don than Megan intends. He later tells her, “I feel like myself with you.” You can understand the impact of that on Don, who has very seldom felt like himself anywhere. No wonder he proposes, using Anna’s engagement ring from the “real” Don Draper that Stephanie has told him Anna wanted him to have.

So when they get back to SCDP, Don tells Joan, Lane, and Roger, who are a bit gobsmacked. Even more gobsmacked is Peggy, for about six million reasons. See the advantage of the way the writers for the series have developed the Don-Peggy relationship? Is she pissed because she wanted Don for herself? Wanted him sexually, or just professionally? Or is she pissed, as she says to Joan in a wonderful scene, because his news has overshadowed hers in everybody’s mind. Remember the elevator scene in “The Summer Man”? Their relationship is developing as well

My God, what about Faye, the audience analyst he’s been sleeping with? He calls her, and she refuses to meet him. That’s smart writing. It’s better to do this scene on the phone so we can have some “privileged moments,” as actors call them, with her. Faye is not happy.

Joan has a nice phone conversation with her husband. Remember that abortion she had? Well, neither she nor anybody else ever said she went through with it. She’s still pregnant, but has convinced her husband it’s his. Joan is very persuasive, as we know. And what is Roger going to think when she goes all swelly-belly in the office?

Don ends up at his old house to meet with a real estate agent, and who shows up with Betty. She is not surprised he is getting married again, and she knows without being told that it is the secretary. We can tell she’s a little envious. Things are not going well with her and Henry.

So, we have come through a season in which the new agency got its start, and went through a rocky period. It’s also been a season that has seen Don more depressed and disconnected than we have ever seen him before. It’s a season where Peggy is coming into her own in all kinds of ways.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the next season.

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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