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Understanding Screenwriting #75: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Midnight in Paris, & More

Johnny Depp is an ungrateful miscreant.

Understanding Screenwriting #75: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Midnight in Paris, The Wooden Horse, & More
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

Coming Up In This Column: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Midnight in Paris, The Wooden Horse, The Colditz Story, Helen of Troy, but first…

Fan Mail: My comment in US#74 that Lance Loud was “the first gay character on American television that viewers of the time spent more than a minute-and-a-half with” upset David Ehrenstein. He thought I was using “character” as in “what a weird person” rather than as a person in a work of art. This led to a three-way debate between David, Matt Maul and me. You can read the comments at the bottom of that column. In his last comment, David suggested several films I could show in my course. As far as I can tell, most of those films are fiction films, and I was talking in my comments about my History of Documentary Film course.

However, the issue of showing films in my courses is now moot. As of this month I have retired after forty years of teaching film history and screenwriting courses at Los Angeles City College, so I will not be scheduling any more course screenings. It has been a terrific forty years, teaching at what is as far as I know the only community college film program whose former students have 12 Academy Award nominations (with five wins), 27 Emmy nominations (with at least three wins, but we are not done counting yet), and at least 2 Grammy nominations (we are not done counting all those either). And since the campus is located a block and a half away from the former site of the only film studio built for a woman director (Lois Webber in the ‘20s), it should not be surprising that we are the only film school, college or university, anywhere I know that had two films given wide releases in one year, each directed by a different woman alumnae.

Just because I am retiring from teaching, however, does not mean I am giving up this column. I intend to keep doing it as long as they will let me, since I don’t want my brain to atrophy. Although David Ehrenstein may sometimes think it already has atrophied.

Now, onto this load of films, and even though I am not yet dealing with The Tree of Life, I assure you I will eventually. I believe that is a legal requirement for writing for the House.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011. Screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, screen story by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, based on characters created by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert, suggested by the novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers. 137 minutes.)

Johnny Depp is an ungrateful miscreant: When Elliott & Rossio pitched the idea to Disney in the early ‘90s of doing a film based on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, they were told Disney was not making movies based on their rides. But Disney eventually rethought it and hired Jay Wolpert to come up with a story. Wolpert made a crucial decision: that the movie should be fun. There had not been a great pirate movie since The Crimson Pirate in 1952. There had been several B-movie pirate movies, but the big-budget ones, such as Swashbuckler (1976) and Pirates (1986) were ponderous. The producers of those seemed to have forgotten that the pirate movies of yore were written by Hollywood wits like Ben Hecht (The Black Swan [1942]) and Herman J. Mankiewicz (The Spanish Main [1945]). Wolpert was replaced by Stuart Beattie, who worked out the story and named the characters after birds (Swann, Sparrow, etc). Then Disney approached Elliott & Rossio, who by then had been nominated for an Academy Award for their screenplay for Shrek (2001). The boys went in and made the same pitch they had made ten years before: it will be a Gothic swashbuckler. When Disney hesitated, the boys said, “Hey, the ride starts with a talking skull.” The deal was on. When they were writing Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), neither they nor anybody at Disney had any notion of doing a sequel. So when Disney later wanted two sequels, to be shot at the same time, Elliott & Rossio had to decide: 1) do we make them totally separate adventures, like the Bond movies?, or 2) do we pretend we had a trilogy in mind all along? They went the latter route and came up with the best written film trilogy ever.

What? What? The reviews for #2 and especially #3 were terrible. But if you pay attention to the scripts, which most critics tend not to do, you will find that Elliott & Rossio have indeed told a coherent story, even though it is not the one you think it is. Yes, especially in the third film, people are constantly changing sides, but that’s because they’re PIRATES, folks. Yes, Elliott & Rossio had to make up a set of cards for themselves for the sea battle in the Vortex to remind themselves who was on what ship when. And at one point Johnny Depp told the director, Gore Verbinski, about a detail in the script, “I don’t really know what this means,” to which Verbinski replied, “Neither do I, but let’s just shoot it.” Now, the common way to read that exchange is that the script was a mess. The other way is that Verbinski, who had worked with Elliott & Rossio, knew that the writers knew what they were doing and trusted them and their script. At one point in #3, a navy officer says of Captain Jack Sparrow, “Do you think he plans it all out, or just makes it up as he goes along?” The correct answer for Sparrow and the writers is…both.

In Captain Jack Sparrow, Elliott & Rossio and the writers before them had created a great screen character, one that cemented Johnny Depp as a Movie Star. And Depp’s response? In the May 13, 2011 issue of Entertainment Weekly, Depp spends most of the article about the making of On Stranger Tides complaining about how confusing the script for #3 was. (The quote above is from that article.) A nice way to treat the boys who, in #1 gave Depp some exposition, which Depp hates to do, but added the word “miscreant” to the speech. Depp then thought it was a fair trade. Depp, by the way, never mentions Elliott & Rossio by name in the article, and they are mentioned only in passing in an article in the Los Angeles Times about the making of #4 (“On lower ‘Tides,’” May 19th in the print edition, but a search of the Times website shows no trace of it). When the first three Pirates films opened, there were interviews with Elliott & Rossio in Creative Screenwriting, but neither the current issue of CS nor the current issue of Script has interviews with them. Trouble in the Magic Kingdom, do you think?

The Times article, as well the stuff not about Johnny Depp in the Entertainment Weekly piece, make a point that Disney had told Elliott & Rossio that they had to cut back on the special effects to reduce the budget. So in Stranger Tides we get no sea battle in the Vortex, no Kraken devouring ships, and no Davy Jones with his CGI tentacles. And we do not get a hugely complicated story (although if this turns out to be the first of a new trilogy, they may be laying in stuff that will pay off later, like the broken compass in #1). This, unlike the first three, is not an over-the-top movie. The storyline is fairly straightforward: assorted groups of pirates and navies try to find the legendary Fountain of Youth. The novel that “suggested” the film is about the search for the Fountain by Blackbeard and his zombie cohorts, and we follow a young puppeteer, John Chandagnac, who gets shanghaied by Blackbeard. It appears that what Elliott & Rossio brought over from the book were just Blackbeard, the zombies (although they are not used very effectively), and the Fountain.

The review in Variety (May 16-22 in the weekly edition) notes early on that this film has dropped “two key protagonists without explanation,” which means the reviewer paid no attention at all to the first three films. Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann’s story was over at the end of the first trilogy. Here’s the thing many people do not realize about the first three films: they are not Jack Sparrow’s movie. He is not the main character in those stories. He is a supporting character. Yes, yes, I know, Johnny Depp, big star, name above the title, nominated for an Oscar for the first one for Best Actor in a Leading Role. But Brando won the same Oscar for The Godfather in what is a supporting role in Michael’s movie. Many critics complained that in #3, we don’t see Captain Jack for the first half hour of the film. No, we don’t. It’s not his movie, and Elliott & Rossio, trying to keep their name-above-the-title actor onscreen as much as they can, write in all kinds of surreal scenes for him that are not really needed in the story they are telling. See what I meant earlier about them not telling the story you think they are?

So now, with Will and Elizabeth gone, they move Captain Jack into the lead role, and it is not that great a fit. Owen Gleiberman, in his review in the May 27th Entertainment Weekly, begins to see the problem: “Jack, more than ever, is now front and center, the focal point of every scene, and the result is that he’s become less of a jester and more of a colorless expository hero. He ticks off the story for us, point by point, instead of standing to the side lobbing little verbal bombs at it. Depp’s delivery is still amusingly sozzled, but the performance has lost any trace of surprise or merry deranged zing. The more Jack says, the less funny he is.”

While Elliott & Rossio have had to cut down on the special effects, they have alas also cut down on the gallery of interesting supporting characters they came up with for the first three. Yes, Disney probably did not want to pay for those actors to return, but their “replacements” are just plain dull. There is no equivalent of Pintel and Ragetti, whose philosophical discussions were fun diversions. There is no equivalent of Murtogg and Mullroy, the British soldiers who keep popping up in the trilogy. The “young lover” leads are not a patch on Will and Elizabeth, and the actors playing them have none of the charisma of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. There is also a problem with taking Blackbeard over from Powers’ novel. He is essentially Barbossa. And Barbossa is back in this one, so we have two bad pirates it is hard to tell apart. Elliott & Rossio have made the “real” Barbossa a privateer for the king, but they don’t do a lot with that.

The one great addition to the cast is Angelica, a female pirate from the get-go. She doesn’t have to grow into it in the way Elizabeth did in the trilogy. It helps that they have Penélope Cruz at her most radiant and feisty in the part, although she’s sometimes caught without as much to do as they might have given her. The boys have also done better this time by Keith Richards as Jack’s dad. In #3 he showed up at the meeting of the pirate kings where Richards, not an actor, was blown off the screen by the other actors. Here he has a very short scene with Depp that gives him a great line and then he’s gone, a much better use of his limited talents.

Even within the budget limitations, the boys have given us some nice scenes. There is a chase through London that is fun, as well as a great swordfight with Captain Jack and a person who turns out to be Angelica. It is in the storage room of an inn, and like the first duel in #1 in the blacksmith shop between Captain Jack and Will, it very effectively uses the set and props. We do eventually get Ponce de Leon in his bed, a reference to a “scene” in the ride, and there is a nice special effect of one of the major characters dying. Less is more in that case. Well, dying for now, but there is very little feeling in this film of Elliott & Rossio’s idea that the first trilogy was a Gothic swashbuckler, so the character may actually be dead.

The script is also funnier than you will probably think it is as you watch it. Line after line went by with me thinking, “That was funny.” But the director of this one, Rob Marshall, apparently never got the memo from Jay Wolpert that these movies are supposed to be fun. Marshall can direct the action, but he is one of the most humor-impaired directors working in movies today. Chicago (2002) does not have nearly the laughs its predecessor Roxie Hart (1942) does, and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) is not exactly a barrel of yucks.

The last fifteen minutes of the film are the best, with a nice final scene for the two young lovers, and a funny scene with Captain Jack leaving Angelica on a desert island, even though she claims to be pregnant by him. And then the old freewheeling plotting that Elliott & Rossi are so great at finally kicks in. Gibbs has rescued something, or somethings, from Blackbeard’s ship. We saw them before, but just assumed they were part of a scene with Blackbeard. Not a chance. And as usual with the Pirates films, stay through the credits for the final post-credit scene. If you did with #3, you finally got the answer to the question of whose movie the trilogy was. Here we get yet another detail that we thought was a nice one-off that answers the question an earlier scene in these last minutes have raised. It suggests there will be a next one. Free Elliott & Rossio! And maybe bring back Gore Verbinski.

Midnight in Paris (2011. Written by Woody Allen. 94 minutes.)

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen is also an ungrateful miscreant: This is one of Allen’s most charming films in recent years. With one small exception, which we will talk about later, there is none of the misanthropy that mars many of his later films. See my comments on Whatever Works (2009) in US#61 for an example.

The setup is simple: Gil and his fiancee Inez have piggybacked a vacation in Paris with her rich parents. Gil loves Paris and thinks about moving there, but Inez is expecting him to stay put in Malibu. Gil is out walking one night and as the church bells ring midnight, a cab from the ‘20s pulls up and its occupants invite Gil to go to a party with them. He assumes it is a costume party until he gets there and realizes he is back in Paris. In the 1920s. And the couple he meets at the party really are Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and that really is Cole Porter playing the piano and singing. He keeps coming back to the same spot each midnight and meets more and more famous people from the ‘20s, some he gets to know well, some briefly. You never know whom he is going to run into, which becomes a great running gag.

Gil is a screenwriter working on a novel about a guy who works in a nostalgia shop, so if you had not guessed by the time you learn that, the movie is about nostalgia. Gil is nostalgic for the Paris he once visited and for Paris in the ‘20s. Adriana, a ‘20s artists’ muse and mistress he meets, is nostalgic for turn-of-the-century Paris, a great twist in the plot that carries out the theme of nostalgia. You can easily imagine Gil played by a young Woody Allen, but he is played by Owen Wilson, who is the perfect choice. Unlike John Cusack is Bullets Over Broadway (1994) or Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity (1998), he does not fall into an imitation of Allen. His California surfer-dude quality works surprisingly well delivering Allen’s lines and gives the character a charm that’s missing in the leads in a lot of Allen’s movies.

The other cast members are impeccable, especially those portraying the famous ones. If you only know Corey Stoll as the bald-headed cop in Law & Order: LA, you will probably not recognize him as Hemingway, but he brilliantly delivers Allen’s faux-Hemingway language. Adrien de Van as Luis Buñuel has a priceless reaction to Gil trying to suggest what obviously will become well, you figure it out. But the best combination of actor, character and the writing comes from Adrien Brody’s Salvador Dalí. Allen has written a scene in which Dalí becomes fascinated with the word “rhinoceros.” I have no idea how often the word was in the original script, but Brody does incredible things with it every time he pronounces it, and it gets funnier each time. A perfect example of my mantra that when writing a screenplay you are writing for performance.

Ah, yes, the one small exception. As much I loved this film (more than any Allen picture in years), I kept getting put off by his snotty attitude toward California and Hollywood screenwriters. OK, we are used to Allen’s anti-California zingers. The ones in Annie Hall (1977) was the reason the film was booed when it was shown at the Los Angeles International Film Festival. In this film, however, he has Gil being a Hollywood screenwriter who hates his work and is writing a novel. OK, but Allen is very, and I mean very, careful not to tell us anything about what Gil has written. For all we know Gil might have written something as rich and complex as the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, or as morally compelling as Steve Zallian’s script of Schindler’s List (1993), or as fast and funny as Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for last year’s The Social Network. I know Allen is a New Yorker born and bred and grew up with that New York attitude about screenwriting that is the reason for this column, but you would have thought that by now he would have learned better. I generally did not agree with a lot of what Timothy Leary said, but I loved his comment in the ‘70s that Woody Allen needed to come out to California and get a tan.

The Wooden Horse (1950. Screenplay by Eric Williams, based on his novel. 101 minutes.)

The Wooden Horse

Where’s Steven McQueen when you need him?: A sub-genre of World War II films that emerged in the post-war era was the prisoner-of-war film. Some of them became classics, like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Great Escape (1963). Some, like this one, didn’t.

Eric Williams was a POW during the early years of the war and his novel is based on his actual escape from Stalag Luft III, the site of the activities shown in The Great Escape. Why he turned it into a novel I have no idea, since it follows the events rather closely, but with the names changed. The story shows us how a group of British POWs come up with an ingenious idea for a tunnel. They don’t start under the barracks, which as you may remember from The Great Escape are a fair distance from the barbed wire fences. They construct a wooden vaulting horse from assorted wood found around the camp. It is closed on both sides so a man or two can hide inside. The prisoners bring the horse out to the exercise area and the man inside digs the tunnel while the others exercise. Then he crawls back up into the horse, covers the hole, and is carried back to the barracks. Yes, the Germans seem really stupid not to guess what’s going on, but they were big on physical health so maybe it all seemed natural to them. Eventually three of the prisoners escape and make their way to Sweden. If my telling of the story seems rather flat, it’s because the movie is flat. As I mentioned, the script is based on a novel. I have not read the novel, but based on the film, it does not look like Williams took advantage of fictionalizing the material. The script falls into the trap so many films “based on true events” do: the makers assume that because the story is true, it will be interesting. The characters are bland, and the storytelling is as slow as molasses. If the characters were livelier, we wouldn’t mind the pace. The film is not helped by casting Leo Genn in one of the two leading roles. He was a terrific character actor but not a leading man. The other “star” was Anthony Steel, who had a minor career as a minor star, but is, shall we say, charisma-challenged. When he came to Hollywood a few years after this film with his then-wife, you can understand why he was known around town as “Mr. Anita Ekberg.”

The Colditz Story (1955. Adaptation and screenplay by Ivan Foxwell and Guy Hamilton, from the book by P.R. Reid, dialogue by William Douglas Home. 94 minutes.)

The Colditz Story

When you have John Mills, you don’t need McQueen: This one is a better known and much more successful POW story. And that’s because the screenplay is much better. The source material is sometimes identified as a novel, but it is appears to be more a non-fiction account. Its author, Pat Reid, was the head of escape attempts at Colditz, a castle in Saxony where, early in the war, the Germans put the most incorrigible POWs. For some reason the Germans felt that the smart thing to do was to take all the prisoners who made the most escapes and collect them in one place. It did not work here, just as it did not work later in Stalag Luft III (see above and The Great Escape). Colditz had one of the highest escape rates of all German POW camps.

Reid’s book is apparently a livelier read than Williams’, going by comments on, and the script is a whole lot livelier than Williams. I am sure that it is helped by the dialogue writing of William Douglas-Home, working here without his hyphen. He was a hugely successful playwright, perhaps best known in this country for his play and screenplay of The Reluctant Debutante (1958). The later was remade in 2003 as What a Girl Wants starring Amanda Bynes. Sorry, but I could not resist a paragraph that connected Amanda Bynes to Colditz. You may sing a chorus of “It’s a Small World” if you like.

What the script, complete with Douglas-Home’s dialogue, does is give us a great gallery of characters. Pat Reid is right in the younger John Mills’s wheelhouse and he carries the picture. But Colonel Richmond, the senior officer of the British group, has several sharp corners to him. I first assumed the character Theodore Bikel was playing was Russian, but he turns out to be Dutch. The script gets some entertainment value out of the different nationalities at Colditz, including the Germans. It’s been a couple of weeks since I saw these two films, and I can’t remember Brian Forbes’s Paul in The Wooden Horse, but his Jimmy Winslow here is still fresh in my mind.

The Wooden Horse drags out its single escape attempt to 101 minutes, but within the 94 minutes here, we get several escape attempts, some of them successful and some not. You never know which ones are going to work and which are not. In Horse, you pretty much know they are going to get out. Here, not so much.

If you are beginning to think there were so many escape attempts at Colditz that it should have been a TV series, the Brits were way ahead of you. In 1972-74, the BBC ran the series Colditz, with some material from Reid’s book and another one he wrote about Colditz. In 2005, Granada Television in England did a four-hour television movie on the subject. I haven’t seen that one yet.

Helen of Troy (1956. Screenplay by John Twist and Hugh Gray, adaptation by Hugh Gray and N. Richard Nash, uncredited adaptation of The Illiad by Homer. 111 minutes.)

Not as bad as I remember it: In the book Understanding Screenwriting I have a chapter in the Not-Quite-So Good section called “Some Lawrence Wannabes.” I start the book with a discussion of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and this chapter deals with recent epics that are influenced by Lawrence. One of them was the 2004 film Troy, written by David Benioff. Benioff does some nice things in the script, but the film suffers from having Brad Pitt as Achilles. Achilles is the fiercest warrior of them all, and fierceness is not really in Pitt’s range. I mention in passing that Helen of Troy at least gets Achilles right and imply that is about the only thing it got right. My memories of the film, which I saw when it first came out, were not good. So when it popped up on TCM recently, I gave it a second try. It’s not that good a movie, not even as good as Troy, but it’s not terrible.

I had another reason to want to watch the film. As a grad student at UCLA in the late ‘60s, I had Hugh Gray as a teacher in a class or two. I was not impressed. He flaunted his classical education a little more than I thought seemly. I suspect he did it because of his credits on films like this one and the 1951 Quo Vadis? On the latter he contributed to the writing of the Roman songs used in the film. In 1954 he was one of the co-writers, along with Ben Hecht and Irwin Shaw of the clunky but entertaining Ulysses. He later got into academia, and was perhaps best known for his translation of André Bazin’s essay collection What is Cinema? In spite of the fact that several reviewers noticed that his translations were awful.

Gray and Twist run into the same problem that Benioff does: what the hell do you do with Paris and Helen, the great lovers? In fact, in The Illiad Paris is pretty much a narcissistic jerk and a coward, and while Homer is somewhat sympathetic to Helen, there are still problems using her as a dramatic character. As I wrote in the book, “William Shakespeare, who was no slouch at writing romantic heroines (Cleopatra in Antony and, Juliet in Romeo and), knew enough to avoid Helen as a major character. In his one Trojan War play, Troilus and Cressida, Helen is a very minor supporting role. And Christopher Marlowe just makes her a walk-on in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, so that Faustus can get off the great line about hers being the ‘face that launched a thousand ships.’ The problem dramatically is that Helen is inert: everybody adores her (why, other than her good looks?), but she is acted upon rather than taking action. Will was one smart playwright: Cleopatra and Juliet do stuff.”

Benioff focuses on Achilles as his main character, but Gray and Twist focus on the love story. While Benioff gets us right into the affair, Gray and Twist start out with Paris’s trip to Menelaus’s court to try to establish a treaty with the Greeks. That does not work out well. He meets Helen before he knows she is a queen. Then a lot of time is taken up with the romance. These writers’ Helen at least has a little grit to her, unlike Benioff’s. Paris is played by the French actor Jacques Sernas (here credited as Jack), but his voice is dubbed by the English actor Edmund Purdom. Both Sernas and Purdom are blocks of wood visually, but Purdom’s voice gives the character a little heft. Helen is the Italian actress Rosanna Podesta, whose face could launch three, four hundred ships tops, but who at least shows some spark of life.

Because we are so focused on Paris and Helen, the other major characters in the story become minor. As I remembered, Stanley Baker is the perfect Achilles, and he gets a great entrance. If the writers had given the other actors more to do, they could have done more than they do here. Since the writers are not focused on Achilles, they do not give us the most moving scene in The Illiad (which Benioff does). Achilles has killed the Trojan hero Hector and dragged his body around Troy. Priam, Hector’s father, comes to Achilles under a flag of truce to ask for the body back. We just don’t get that scene here.

The battle scenes are spectacular and this being 1956, not overload with CGI as Troy is. The original wooden horse (you don’t think I would have left that unreferenced do you?) shows up because, well, it has to. One thing everybody knows about the Trojan War is the Trojan Horse. Except it is not in either The Illiad or The Odyssey. It does not show up until Virgil’s Aeneid. But the audience would have thrown things at the screen if it were not included.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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