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Understanding Screenwriting #82: Contagion, Detective Dee, Drive, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #82: Contagion, Detective Dee, Drive, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Contagion, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Drive, Backstory 5: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1990s (book), Up All Night, Free Agents, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, 2 Broke Girls, Castle, but first…

Fan Mail: I was rather disappointed that none of you folks took the bait and commented on item in #81 on the Cirque du Soleil production Iris. I figured some of this column’s readers would feel strongly one way or the other on my whacking the Canadians, but as I have learned over the years doing this column, you never know what people are going to respond to.

For our Korean fans, the Korean language version of my book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning from Good, Not-So-Good, and Bad Screenplays has just been published in South Korea. Given the interest by some people in the North Korean regime, I am sure a few copies will drift across the border.

Contagion (2011. Written by Scott Z. Burns. 106 minutes)

The (cough, cough) feel-bad movie (cough, cough) of the fall: There is no narrator here. Thank goodness Scott Z. Burns got that out of his system, for now anyway, with The Informant! (2009, see US #54). Here is he is telling the story with the same speed and skill that he brought to The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and it works for about the first three-quarters of the movie.

where Henry gives Karen a gun to hide. Karen has no reaction either. Surely there could be shock, awe, sexual excitement, something. And in Drive, we never find out what happens to the body of the guy. It was left in a public elevator for God’s sake. Somebody would have noticed.

The picture really goes downhill in the last half hour, when characters are turned into bodies at a furious clip, so fast that it begins to get funny. The film is so portentous, not unlike The Driver, that we can’t help laughing. Charles Bennett’s Fat English Friend understood we sometimes need a relief from the suspense, as in Marion’s car sinking partway into the swamp…and stopping. Better the filmmaker provide the laugh than risk the audience laughing on their own.

Backstory 5: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1990s (2010. Book edited by Patrick McGilligan. 252 pages)

DriveHow did I not know about this?: I have mentioned the Backstory series of books a number of times in this column. I quote from them all the time, since they are the gold standard of screenwriter interview books. The series has been going on since in 1986, organized and edited by Pat McGilligan. Pat rounds up a great bunch of interviewers and turns them loose on groups of screenwriters. Given how highly I think of the series and how much stuff about screenwriting I read, you would have thought I would have known about the book as soon as it came out. But I didn’t. Why not?

Well, it may just have been that I am slowing down in my old age, but I think it also has to do with the way the recession has hit the publishing business over the last three years. This is especially true for serious books about screenwriting, as opposed to the “Write a Screenplay Following My Rules and By Tuesday You Will Make a Million Dollars” type. My friend, the Austrian film scholar Claus Teiber (see US#20), has now published two books in German on screenwriting, the last one about screenwriting in silent film, but has been unable to get an English language version of either one published. I know other authors and would-be authors having the same problem. There is also the question of the lack of advertising. Often I have learned about books from ads in assorted magazines and journals, but there is less advertising now. There are also fewer reviews in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, which dropped its Sunday book section a few years back. Pat and I email back and forth from time to time, but he probably assumed, like I did, that I would know about the book.

So I finally came across a reference to it while looking up some information on Pat’s book on Fritz Lang (see US#79). After I got over the shock of not knowing about it, I got my favorite film bookseller, Jeff Mantor, the owner of the Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood, to round up a copy for me. And it is, not unexpectedly, wonderful. It has one of the best interviews I have ever read with John Sayles. It has a rare interview with John Hughes. You want dinosaurs and gorillas? David Koepp, who wrote the first two Jurassic Park films, tells you what it’s like to work with an 800-pound gorilla like Spielberg. Barbara Turner tells about working with another 800-pound gorilla, Robert Altman, who deliberately cut out Turner’s favorite scenes in her script for The Company (2003). The book collectively gives you a sense of the collaboration that goes into making films, and the screenwriters’ role in that. Koepp also tells you why directors all wear baseball caps.

Pat has more non-American screenwriters this time around, so we get Tom Stoppard on Spielberg as well. I am glad Pat found an interview with the great French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. In 2006 I mentioned to Pat I was going to Italy and England and he asked me if I wanted to swing by Paris and interview Carrière. I told him I would have to pass, since I felt I couldn’t do justice to Carrière without spending at least a year reading all his stuff. Pat and I have talked about my doing an interview or two for the series, but so far it has not worked out. So far.

Ah, one other thing. Richard LaGravenese is the only, the ONLY, screenwriter interviewed to mention the hero’s journey. And it is without capitalization. He does not mention Joseph Campbell at all, but a psychologist named Robert Johnson, who wrote about Jungian archetypes. Johnson’s work helped LaGravenese get a grip on The Fisher King (1991). None, and I mean NONE, of the other writers mention the Hero’s Journey. And these are writers who written some of the best and most successful screenplays of the last thirty years. If you really want to understand screenwriting, forget Joseph Campbell, and read all five of the Backstory books. And this column, too, of course.

Up All Night (2011. “Pilot” created and written by Emily Spivey. 30 minutes)

Up All Night

Not that funny: The idea for this new series could be funny, but it’s not. A couple in their thirties, Reagan and Chris, have just had a baby. He is going to be a stay-at-home dad and she is going back to work as a producer on a daytime TV talk show with a star, Ava, who bears a more than passing resemblance to Oprah. In the pre-credit sequence they are talking to the baby, but swearing, which is bleeped and a fuzzy patch is put in over their mouths. OK, it’s NBC, not cable, but why bother bringing up the language issue at all if you cannot deal with it? It gives us a bad first impression of the couple.

They don’t make a better impression later. When Reagan and Chris argue, the arguments are not funny. Then they decide to have a night on the town like they used to have when they were young, karaoke and all that. And they are hung over the next morning. Well, duh, of course you are. And you still have the baby to take care of. We think Ava is going to be a bitch with Reagan, but when Reagan has to pull out of a celebrity BBQ to be with her kid, Ava/Oprah perfectly understands. Yeah, right. Where’s a little Billy Wilder ruthlessness when you need it?

Free Agents (2011. “Pilot” developed for American television and written by John Enbom. 30 minutes)

Free Agents

That funny: This new show was based on a British series of a couple of years ago. BBC America ran the first two episodes (written by Chris Niel) of the British series in early October, just about the time NBC cancelled the American version after just four episodes. The first episode of both versions opens in the same way. Alex and Helen wake up in bed together. He’s a bit put off by all the pictures of her late fiance. He starts to cry about his kids; he’s recently divorced. Obviously these are two strangers who stumbled into bed by accident.

No, they aren’t, in either version, and that was what made the American version so promising. They are co-workers in an ad agency (a talent agency in the Brit version) and in the American version have been friends for a long time. The Brits are more just co-workers. This is the first time they have slept together, and they both feel very uncomfortable about it, since they both bring the baggage we learned about in that first scene. So they go to work, but Alex is enough of a mess that the guys in the office assume he has had sex. In the British version it is just his boss who asks. Since they know this is his first time since his divorce, they want all the details. He obviously cannot tell them it was Helen, so he makes up an outrageous tale of wild sex. Here is where the American version is better: Helen joins in just like one of the guys asking him questions. It’s not only a funny scene, it is charming because Alex and Helen are long-time friends trying to protect each other as well as themselves. While Up All Night does not use the charm of its two leads, Christina Applegate and Will Arnett, this one gets the most out of Hank Azaria, who can probably do anything, and Kathryn Hahn, who like Azaria has been mostly a character actor. And they both bring great acting chops as well as charm to the show. We believe these two as real people. The two actors in the British version are a bit more “real,” i.e. scruffy, but they are not as charming as Azaria and Hahn.

In both versions, Helen tells Alex she does not want to continue the sexual relationship, but go back to being friends, as they were before they slept together. She thinks he is “a mess,” but we see she is not much better off. The British version pretty much leaves it at that, with them talking about sex. A lot. The British version has tons of very explicit language, more so than I think they need. And when BBC America showed it, they bleeped a lot, which made some speeches incomprehensible. The language simply took away from the humor of the characters and the situations.

In the American version, Helen helps him pick out new clothes so he can start dating again. He disagrees with her choices, pointing out that one shirt “would be great if I was going to an Armenian gangster’s acquittal party.” The line is off the wall, but not so far that we would not believe these characters would say it. They are obviously still attracted to each other and decide they need a “safe word” if one or the other is getting too romantic. What would you pick as the safe word? The choice here is “potato,” which, like the characters is down to earth. So later they are staring at each other and he says, “Potato.” Guess what we cut to. They are in bed and he says, “We need a new safe word.” There is no safe word in the British version.

Up All Night got huge ratings and Free Agents didn’t and was cancelled. I suspect Up got huge ratings because Christina Applegate is a beloved TV star and the show’s franchise is more immediately clearer than Agents’. I wish NBC had held onto Agents a little longer. The other three episodes were not quite up to the pilot, but the show still had potential.

How I Met Your Mother (2011. “The Best Man” written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas, “The Naked Truth” written by Stephen Lloyd. 30 minutes each)

How I Met Your Mother

Nope, still haven’t met her: The last episode in the spring left us with a flashforward to Barney’s (of all people) wedding. So we pick up at that wedding in “The Best Man,” but in keeping in the grand Bays/Thomas tradition, we never find out whom he is marrying. The setup is just bringing us back to the present, with some flashbacks to Ted’s disastrous best man speeches, then on to Punchy’s wedding, where people have come from Finland to see Ted screw up the toast. His best man speeches have made him an Internet star to them. This time he cries when he makes the toast, since he and the gang have just learned that Lily and Marshall are pregnant. In “The Naked Truth” Marshall is up for his dream job at an environmental law firm run by Garrison Cootes, but is afraid You Tube videos of his streaking in college will lose him the job. They don’t of course, since Cootes is played by Martin Short, who may be a lively addition to the cast. Meanwhile Ted has gone of to the Architect’s Ball where he’s insisting to Robin he wants to see someone and be swept off his feet. He spots…Victoria. Yeah, except she’s been around the show for several years, so she’s probably not Mother.

Two and a Half Men (2011. “Nice to Meet You, Walden Schmidt, Part One” written by Chuck Lorre, Lee Aronson, Eddie Gorodetsky, Jim Patterson. 30 mintues)

Two and a Half Men

Nice Funeral: The question before the house is: when your leading man leaves a series, how do you handle it? Assuming the network wants the show to continue. Given the way Charlie Sheen left Two and a Half Men, it does not surprise us to learn the creators, whom Sheen did not have kind words for, have killed off Charlie Harper. So do you mention his death in passing, as some shows have done, or do you get some comedy mileage out of it? You can guess which way Lorre, the showrunner, goes. We open on Charlie’s funeral, with Alan trying to say nice things about Charlie. The crowd is not having any of it. The crowd is made up mostly of Charlie’s old girlfriends. From a sheer production standpoint, I was in awe of the show being able to assemble in one place and one time, presumably at a semi-reasonable cost, an incredible number of the actresses who had played those parts over the last eight years. Courtney (Jenny McCarthy) is irritated that the casket is closed, depriving her of the chance to spit in his face. Spitting on a casket is not the same thing. When Alan mentions that Charlie was a giving person, different women talk about the sexually transmitted diseases he gave them. Then there is one who says Charlie used her panties to strain tea. I would have loved to have been there the day that was shot, and I trust that on the DVD there will be a lot of outtakes of the scene. In the middle of the funeral Evelyn, Charlie’s mom, starts promoting the sale of his Malibu house, telling the crowd to pick up brochures on the way out and come to the open house. Where can you go from there? Well, Alan introduces the last person to see Charlie alive, a woman dressed in black with a veil. The veil comes up and it’s Rose, Charlie’s stalker. She and Charlie had a great time in Paris until she found him in the shower with another woman. She was with him when he fell in front of a Paris Metro train. We can tell from the crowd’s reaction that nobody believes Charlie “fell.”

It’s a great opening. But then…well, some other good stuff. At the open house the first person we see is an unnamed guy played by John Stamos, who realizes he has been in the house before. He and Charlie had a threesome with a girl and when she fell asleep they continued. Well, we never saw that on the show. Maybe more payback to Sheen by the writers. Next up is a couple, Dharma and Greg, from the 1997-2002 series of the same name co-created by Chuck Lorre. Played by the stars of that show, the couple’s marriage has completely fallen apart. OK, you could replace Charlie Harper with a married couple, but would they let Alan and Jake stay there? Nope.

So, halfway through the episode, morose billionaire Walden Schmidt shows up at the window to the patio. He just tried to kill himself by walking into the ocean, but it was too cold. Obviously he is going to be a barrel of laughs. Not. I think the idea is that he is even worse off emotionally than Alan, who takes pity on him. The writers don’t appear to find much humor in that. Alan takes Walden out to a bar, where Walden and Alan pick up two bimbos (we are miles from the smart women in the funeral scene) and take them home. Walden is depressed over his wife leaving him, and the bimbos sympathize with him. They take him off to bed upstairs while Alan is making drinks. Alan comes back into the empty room, hears sounds from upstairs. He says, “This is depressingly familiar,” then picks up the Dustbuster he has used to clean up Charlie’s ashes and says to it, “Shut up.” Well, there are some laughs with Walden, but not very many. It is not clear now where the humor sweet spot is going to be with him. There is also the problem of Ashton Kutcher as Walden. Earlier this year I thought he was OK in No Strings Attached, but here he is just stolid. That might not matter much if he were not walking into a show that functions at such a high level. Jon Cryer is working Alan all he can, but Kutcher is not yet getting the ball back across the net. In spite of the scenes where Walden is stark naked, the writers have not given Kutcher the right balls to play with.

2 Broke Girls (2011. “Pilot” written by Whitney Cummings & Michael Patrick King. 30 minutes)

2 Broke Girls

Now those are some balls: In the opening minutes we learn Max, a waitress in a small diner, is a tough cookie. She verbally takes down a couple of obnoxious guys in one booth. The Russian waitress screwing in the walk-in fridge doesn’t seem to bother her. OK, who are you going to pair off with her to make an interesting show? The Russian waitress gets fired and the boss, “Bryce” Lee hires the thin blonde Caroline. It is immediately apparent to Max that Caroline has NO experience as a waitress. Well, of course not. She’s a rich girl, whose father pulled a Madoff-type scam. Caroline cannot get at any of her money, and none of her friends will let her stay with them. Now given that Max is so smart, obviously Caroline will be dumb. Here is the intelligence of the show: she’s not. She went to college and studied business. Now she is just not in the world she’s lived in. She reminded me of Annabelle Lee in Keaton’s The General (1926). Annabelle Lee is a nice Southern belle who happens to find herself on a train driven by her former boyfriend Johnny as they are escaping the Union soldiers. What does she know about trains? Nothing. She tries to be helpful by tying a rope between two trees to stop the trains chasing them. Johnny is exasperated; the rope can’t stop the trains. But it does. It pulls the trees it is tied to onto the tracks and into the wheels of the engine. Annabelle is not stupid, she’s just inexperienced in Johnny’s world. The same is true for Caroline in Max’s world. Max makes cupcakes she sells to the diner. Caroline tells her she can charge more than she does. Max doesn’t believe her, until Caroline pulls out the money she made selling the cupcakes to customers at the higher price.

By the end of the pilot Caroline has moved in with Max and come up with a scheme for them to save money and start their own cupcake shop. Of course, she’s also stolen her own horse and is hiding it in the exceedingly minuscule back yard to Max’s apartment…

Castle (2011. “Rise” written by Andrew W. Marlowe. 60 minutes)


Darker: At the end of last season Beckett was shot by a sniper at Captain Montgomery’s funeral. As she lay seriously wounded Castle told her that he loved her, a big step up for their relationship. This episode picks up with Beckett being brought into the hospital, where her boyfriend doctor works on her. She eventually recovers, but tells Castle she cannot remember anything after the shots were fired. Whew, they dodged a bullet there. Because this episode is dealing with Beckett’s near-death experience, it is a lot darker in tone than their usual episodes. And it’s darker visually as well. Beckett eventually gets back on the job, although she freezes the first time she has to face a perp with a gun. Not the second time, though. The new captain, Gates, has stopped Beckett’s partners from continuing the investigation into the shooting, since no new information has come up. They of course have not told her about Captain Montgomery’s involvement and the connections to Beckett’s mother’s death. So Beckett and the guys have to investigate that on their own. Castle convinces Beckett she’s a little too emotionally fragile to work that case, but indicates when the time comes he will help her. He goes home, opens up his computer and we see he has all the information on the mother’s death and related stories on it. Beckett goes to the department shrink and admits she lied the last time. She remembers everything about the shooting. So we are going to be dealing this season with the mother’s case and how Beckett deals with Castle. And the next-to-last scenes bring back a bit of the light touch we love in the series.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.



Oscars 2019: Who Will Win? Who Should Win? Our Final Predictions

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them.



Photo: Netflix

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits. Across the last 24 days, Ed Gonzalez and I have mulled over the academy’s existential crisis and how it’s polluted this year’s Oscar race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again. We’re spent, and while we don’t know if we have it in us to do this next year, we just might give it another go if Oscar proves us wrong on Sunday in more than just one category.

Below are our final Oscar predictions. Want more? Click on the individual articles for our justifications and more, including who we think should win in all 24 categories.

Picture: Green Book
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Screenplay: Green Book
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Foreign Language: Roma
Documentary Feature: RBG
Animated Feature Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence
Animated Short: Weekends
Live Action Short: Skin
Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Production Design: The Favourite
Cinematography: Cold War
Costume Design: The Favourite
Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Song: “Shallow,” A Star Is Born
Sound Editing: First Man
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Visual Effects: First Man

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.



Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.



Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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