Understanding Screenwriting #93: The Deep Blue Sea, A Separation, Pauline Kael, & More

Terence, meet Terence.

Understanding Screenwriting #93: The Deep Blue Sea, A Separation, Pauline Kael, & More
Photo: Music Box Films

Coming Up In This Column: The Deep Blue Sea, A Separation, The Forgiveness of Blood, The Kid With a Bike, Salt of Life, Letters to Young Filmmakers: Creativity & Getting Your Film Made (book), Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (book), but first…

Fan Mail: I will take David Ehrentstein at his word that he was serious about Mandingo (1975) is one of the best films about race in America, but I am not sure anybody else will. On Smash’s Ellis I don’t think I made it clear that I think he is bi as well. And I agree completely with David that the “Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking” number is the best one so far in Smash. That episode had not shown up at the time I wrote US#92. Interesting though that they only showed the rehearsal/audition version and did not cut to the fully produced number as they sometimes do. Well, some people can look forward to seeing all those chorus boys in just their towels.

The Deep Blue Sea (2011. Screenplay by Terence Davies, adapted from the play by Terence Rattigan. 98 minutes.)

Terence, meet Terence: Terence Rattigan (1911-1977) was one of the leading British playwrights of the middle of the twentieth century. The period of his greatest success was from 1946 to 1956. His dramas were literate and restrained, usually about members of the upper class stifling their emotions. His work became almost instantaneously unfashionable with the arrival of the Angry Young Men playwrights like John Osborne. But even before his death, Rattigan’s reputation began to regain some of its luster, as did the reputation of his contemporary Noël Coward, and for some of the same reasons. Both wrote dramas about people with restrained emotions, which gives actors a lot of subtext to play. Both were also extraordinary theatrical craftsmen, especially in the area of dramatic structure.

The stage version of The Deep Blue Sea was produced in both London, where it was a hit, and New York, where it was not, in 1952. Rattigan himself wrote the screenplay for the 1955 film version. (He also wrote original screenplays for such films as Breaking the Sound Barrier [1952], The V.I.P.s [1963], and The Yellow Rolls Royce [1964].) The play takes place over 24 hours in a furnished flat in North-West London. Hester Collyer, the wife of a judge, William Collyer, has left him for a passionate affair with former RAF pilot Freddie Page. That relationship has not worked out, and she has tried to kill herself. There is a lot of exposition before we even meet Hester, and then dramatic scenes with her and William and Freddie. In the 1955 screenplay, there is an attempt to “open up” the play by including a trip to Switzerland. Well, the film was made in the early years of CinemaScope. It didn’t help, although there are those that love Vivien Leigh’s performance as Hester.

The current film version was the inspiration of its producer Sean O’Conner. He had known the director of the original stage production and thought a new film could help celebrate the 100th anniversary of Rattigan’s birth. O’Conner went to the Rattigan estate and they approved the idea. O’Conner then went to writer-director Terence Davies, noted for his deeply nostalgic films about Britain in the postwar period (Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988, The Long Day Closes in 1992). Davies did a first draft screenplay, and the Rattigan estate’s reaction to it was “Be radical!” So he was. (The background details on the film are from a group of articles about it in the December 2011 issue of Sight & Sound.) The play begins with a lot of exposition about Hester and her situation. Davies has condensed that into nine minutes of visuals giving us quick scenes of what happened to Hester before the suicide attempt. It is a much more cinematic way to cover the same material. And it does not spell everything out for us the way Rattigan the playwright felt compelled to do in the ’50s.

Davies as the director lays on the nostalgia about the period a little thicker than he needs to. There is a brief sequence in the Aldwych tube station that is a direct steal from one of the final scenes in Brief Encounter (1945), but if you look at Brief Encounter, it does not fetishize the period as Davies does. And Davies makes it worse in the middle of the scene by throwing in a flashback to a group of people using the station as an air raid shelter during the war, singing along on a chorus of “Molly Malone.” It’s a very Terence Davies image (a single long traveling shot), but it is a complete interruption to the film. Oddly enough, Davies is at his best in the scenes that come straight from the play (or at least seem to; more about that in a minute). Davies carries into his script Rattigan’s sympathy with all of the three major characters, so in any given scene any one of them, or all of them, may be right. With Davies’s skillful direction of the actors, Rattigan’s dialogue scenes become the most moving elements in the film.

In the film we get flashbacks, and one of them is a total invention on Davies’s part. But it feels completely at home in a Rattigan film. The scene has Hester and William visiting William’s mother, who is not only unpleasant to Hester, but to William as well. Davies places this scene in the film nicely, so we are surprised and amused later to learn he is a judge. The scene came out of Davies’s experience living with a woman (“I thought the love of a good woman might cure my homosexuality, which of course was not the case!”) and visiting her mother. Davies turned her into William’s mother, and out of a terrible weekend, he got a great scene. As Phoebe Ephron told her daughter Nora, “Take notes. Everything is copy.”

A Separation (2011. Written by Asghar Farhadi. 123 minutes.)

A Separation

Judge Judy in Farsi: Nader and his wife Simin are arguing in front of a judge in Iran, but for most of this opening scene we only see them, facing the camera, making their cases to us as well as the judge. Simin wants to take their teenage daughter Termeh to live in another country, where she feels there is more opportunity. Well, as a feminist and democrat, I think she’s right, of course. But Nader feels he has to stay in Iran and take care of his father, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s. As someone who has dealt with elderly relatives, I think he’s right too. So Farhadi, who also directed, is setting up the best kind of drama: not good versus evil, but good versus good. You have heard me talk at great length on many, many occasions about the importance of the opening scene of the film and how crucial it is to set up the world of the film. Boy, this scene does that in spades.

But there is a flaw in the opening scene that continues through the film. Nader and Simin are angry. All the time. Not just in this scene, but throughout the movie. Which may be true of them (if I had to live in Iran under the current administration, I’d be pissed too), but we never get much of a counterpoint to their anger. I think their daughter’s quiet (mostly, but she has her loud moments as well) observations of her parents, and the reactions of the young daughter of Razieh, who is hired to look after the father, are supposed to work as that counterpoint. Unfortunately as written and directed they are not quite strong enough to take on that role. You may remember I got into trouble with some readers when I said something similar about Ajami (2009, see US#44) and all the yelling and screaming in that film. Because there are more quiet moments here, it’s less of a problem than in that film.

So the judge decides not to give them a divorce, and Simin goes off to live with her mother. That’s the first of a number of bad decisions the characters make. Nader hires Razieh to look after his father, which goes south as well. Razieh is a very religious woman who has not told her husband Hodjat she has the job. She has also not told Nader she is pregnant. Well, a chador hides a multiplicity of sins. Razieh has to rescue the father when he wanders out of the house and the next day she has to leave him so she ties him to the bed. Bad move; guess who comes home early? Nader, and there is more yelling and she falls/is pushed down the stairs. Now the script gets interesting, setting up a lot of questions about everybody’s behavior. Why did Razieh go out that day? Did she fall or did Nader push her? Did the fall cause the miscarriage? What will Hodjat’s reaction to all this be? Well, he’s not a happy camper, and he’s a yeller and a screamer as well. At this point, in spite of my dislike for the Iranian system of government, I was feeling sorry for the judge having to put up with all this. I have, as you can tell, reservations about the script, but I can see why people love it and the film, and why the script has picked up a pile of awards and nominations. Farhadi has beautifully structured the film so that the answers to those questions raise more questions and put everyone under pressure to do whatever they think might be the right thing. Nader, for example, has a scene late in the picture when he discusses with his daughter what he knew, why he said what he did about what he knew. Which then leads to an interesting action on his part when Simin, against his wishes, has worked out a settlement with Razieh and Hodjat. He asks for a simple favor from Razieh that she cannot do because she can’t swear on the Koran to something that is not true. So Nader and Simin “win” their case, but they may have lost their daughter. Farhadi leaves that up in the air when the judge asks Termeh who she wants to live with after the divorce. She does not want to tell him in front of her parents, and they are sent out of the room. But Farhadi does not tell us what her reply is. Normally I would want that resolved in a script, but he’s right here, because his ending makes you think about everything you have seen so far. I cannot fault a movie that makes you think, as many quibbles as I have with the script.

The Forgiveness of Blood (2010. Written by Joshua Marston & Andamion Murataj. 109 minutes.)

The Forgiveness of Blood

Sophomore Slump: Joshua Marston wrote and directed the great 2004 film Maria Full of Grace. In it he follows Maria, a pregnant Colombian teenager, who becomes a drug mule taking cocaine (you don’t want to know how) to New York City on a regular airline flight. In the first act, we learn the reasons (all of them, not just the obvious ones of poverty) she does it. The second act is the trip, one of the more suspenseful sequences in recent movies, and then the third act payoff is what happens to her in New York. Marston wrote the first draft in 48 hours, then spent three years rewriting it. There is not a wasted word in the script, and Maria is a character we come to know and root for, especially as played by Catalina Sandino Moreno in her sensational film debut.

In the years since Maria Marston has been directing for American television, including episodes of The Good Wife, In Treatment, Law & Order, and Six Feet Under. This is his second feature, set in Albania. We mostly follow Nik, a teenager in a small town. His father and uncle kill a man who now owns the property the father crosses with his bread wagon to get to the main road. The uncle is caught by the police, but the father goes into hiding. So now, according to the mechanics of blood feuds of the area, Nik can no longer go outside, since the victim’s family can kill him if they find him out in the village. He’s a horny teenage boy, so he’s not happy with being locked up all day. His sister, Rudina, takes over the bread route, since women are exempt from the blood feud.

So we wait around to see what happens. If Nik goes out and gets killed, the movie is over. He can sneak out at night, but not often, to see his sort-of girlfriend. Mostly we are just waiting, which makes the film a lot less dynamic than Maria. And Tristan Halilaj, who plays Nik, is simply not as compelling a presence as Sandino Moreno is. The other characters are not as well developed as they could be. Rudina is interesting, but their mother has no characterization at all. The family elders, who are trying to figure out how to get out of this predicament, are rather grumpy old men. Marston and Murataj are not as clear as they might be on the mechanics of the feud, but we can mostly keep up. Apparently feuds can be mediated, and one of the best scenes in the film is the family talking to a “professional” mediator.

Near the end Nik goes to talk directly to the victim’s family. They are impressed he takes the chance, so they do not kill him on the spot. But they tell him to get out of town in 24 hours or they will kill him. So Nik packs up and leaves. The end. That ending ought to have more of a kick than it does, but the writers have not developed the characters enough, especially Nik and his attitudes town his town and his family, to make it pay off. I kept hoping that the writers, and Marston as a director, would give us a little twist at the end of Nik smiling as he leaves town to go out into the big world.

I admire the ambition of the script, and Marston’s interest in dealing with other cultures, but it does not quite pay off here. On the other hand, the film received screenplay awards at both the Berlin and Chicago film festivals. My guess is that those may have been for the attempt rather than the execution. Or it may have been a lousy year for scripts at those festivals.

The Kid with a Bike (2011. Written by Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne. 87 minutes.)

The Kid with a Bike

On a human scale, take one: After months, nay years, of big noisy action movies, it’s nice to come across a film done on a very human scale. There are no big car chases and crashes in this film. We have a kid on a bike, not an SUV with a machine gun, and it’s thrilling in a quieter way.

We are in the Belgian town of Seraing. The Dardennes, who also directed, have made several films in Seraing, but they usually made it look dreary, shooting in the winter. This one was shot in the summer. Seraing is an industrial town, but here we mostly seem to be in the suburbs. One review from a Los Angeles critic thought the scenery was beautiful, and it is, but not in a Monument Valley-David Lean sort of way. It looks like a real world that real people live in, and when we see the kid riding his bike, it’s like your own childhood. The town looks just like the kind of town I grew up in in the American Middle West.

The main character is Cyril, a boy of about ten or eleven. His father has left him in the care of a state home, and we meet Cyril when he is trying to contact his dad. He is fiercely trying their old apartment phone number and keeps getting the “disconnected” message. But Cyril keeps trying. And he wants his bike back almost as much as he wants his dad. It’s clear to us that the dad has no intention of coming back and that he’s sold the bike, along with his motorcycle. Cyril connects with a thirtyish hairdresser who agrees to let him come to stay with her on the weekends. She even manages to locate the guy who bought Cyril’s bike and buys it back from him. We have no idea why Samantha is doing all this and when Cyril asks her later in the film, she says she doesn’t know. The Dardennes do not give us a lot of psychological explanations for everything. We don’t know why, other than money, the father left. We don’t really know why he doesn’t want Cyril around in his new life, although there is a hint that the women he lives with may have a say in the matter. The script does not give us the full psychological stories on the characters, but we get enough to be involved. And thank God the Dardennes never bring in a shrink to “rub a little therapy on it,” in Rita Mae Brown’s phrase, and make it all better.

While staying with Samantha, Cyril gets involved with a petty crook (who is kind to his grandmother and has cool video games for Cyril to play) named Wes. Wes sets up Cyril to rob a news agent and his son, whom it turns out Cyril knows. The son has been stealing Cyril’s bike off and on throughout the film, but the script does not push that. Samantha has to step in and settle the case, agreeing to pay out damages to the news agent. We don’t really know why she does that, but we believe her. Cyril has one more run-in with the son, which seems to end badly, but doesn’t. The ending very much has a feeling of life going on. As does the film as a whole.

Salt of Life (2011. Written by Gianni Di Gregorio & Valerio Attanasio. 90 minutes.)

Salt of Life

On a human scale, take two: This one’s a semi-charming Italian film starring and written and directed by Di Gregorio, and it works on the same scale as The Kid with a Bike, but not as well. Di Gregorio is mostly a screenwriter (he wrote the 2008 gangster film Gomorrah) but recently turned to directing as well. In 2008 he made Mid-August Lunch, in which he plays a character named after himself who has to take care of his 90-something mother and her friends. This is a followup to that one, but not a sequel. Di Gregorio is a Gianni again, and again he is dealing with his 90-something mother, played, as in Mid-August Lunch, by Valeria De Franciscis. Gianni’s mother is spending all of her money, and Gianni, married with a daughter in college, is living on his pension. He was involuntarily retired at age 50 and he is close to 60 now. The heart of the film is Gianni hoping to find love, or at least a quickie, with another woman. Particularly after he learns that a guy even older than he is getting it on with a young clerk in a store. We watch his fumbling attempts that go bad. The attempts are small and sweet rather than slapstick. In one sequence, he gets invited to the home of the daughter of one of his mother’s friends. Except when he gets there she is singing opera arias with her male accompanist and hardly seems to remember she asked Gianni to come by. The humor is in Gianni’s reactions to this situation, which Di Gregorio does almost exclusively with his eyes. The film begins to drag toward the end, since he still does not score. At the end his daughter’s on-again, off-again boyfriend asks Gianni what’s going on in his head, it would seem to be a clue for a great montage sequence. Given the small scale the film is working on, it does not mean we need a version of the harem scene from 8 ½ (1963), but all we get are a collection of shots of the women we have seen in the film. A LOT more could be done with that.

Letters to Young Filmmakers: Creativity & Getting Your Films Made (2011. Book by Howard Suber. 190 pages)

A contrarian: Full disclosure up front. Howard Suber was my mentor when I was a graduate student at UCLA in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and he has remained a trusted advisor ever since. I think I have talked with him about every book I’ve written while I was working on them. From 1967 to 1970 I was getting a Master of Fine Arts degree in screenwriting, but in the process I got involved in Howard’s Oral History of the Motion Picture Project. That led me to doing the long oral history interview with Nunnally Johnson. After I was at the American Film Institute for a year, Howard encouraged me to be a guinea pig for him. He had finally persuaded the UCLA Film and Theatre Department to introduce a Ph.D. program specifically for film. Previously if you got a Ph.D., it was officially in Theatre. Howard wanted me to be the first student in the program, probably because he figured that as a Viet Nam vet I was tough enough to put up with all the bullshit that was going to be involved, particularly from the theatre people who hated the idea. Howard was right about that, and I got one of the first two Ph.Ds. in film in 1975. Typical Howard: not many academics at the time would have encouraged me to do a biography of a screenwriter as a dissertation. Not a smart career movie then, and only a little more so now. If Howard’s name is familiar to you, by the way, you probably recognize it from Brian Kellow’s biography of Pauline Kael (see below). Howard was the scholar who did the research that Kael stole for her “Raising Kane.” More on that later.

Howard has had a rather odd academic career. He was so busy setting up the film Ph.D. program, the UCLA Film Archive, and the Producers Program that he did not publish much when he was teaching full-time. His first book, The Power of Film, only came out in 2006. It evolved out of his observations of how films work, and is wonderfully contrarian. I particularly like his chapter entitled “Endings, Happy.” It lists 53 classic films, then tells us that none of them have a conventional “happy” ending. In another chapter he mentions that nearly all heroes in American movies are reluctant heroes, like Rick in Casablanca (1942) and Terry in On the Waterfront (1954). After I read the book I asked him, “What about Patton?” He allowed as how that might be the exception that proves the rule. The Power of Film is probably of more help on the screenwriting level than this new one.

Letters comes out of his work with students in the Producers Program, and is aimed at not only writers, but directors and producers as well. But Howard is still, as ever, the contrarian. He forms the book from the letters he has got from current and former students and his replies to them. One chapter is “If the screenplay is so Important, how come screenwriters are so often treated like shit?” Howard’s answer is three-pronged: “(1) everybody thinks he is a writer, (2) the writer leaves the job site early, and (3) sometimes the writer deserves it.” The first two comments are about what you would expect, but the third is surprising and very, very true. Some writers just behave like assholes and give producers and directors a lot of reasons to kick them off the film. Writers tend to work in solitary confinement and often the collaborative nature of film is difficult for them to handle. At LACC we had an Industry Advisory Committee and one thing they insisted on us drumming into our students’ heads was that they had to learn how to play well with others. True. The only reason I don’t like this book quite as much as The Power of Film is that the kind of advice he gives here is the same kind of advice I was giving to students myself. I am sure I picked up some of it from Howard, some of it may just have come from two great minds thinking alike, and he may actually have picked up a couple of things from me.

Howard, who has testified in several copyright cases, is very good on the issue of copyright. He also has a great chapter called “Being Screwed,” in which he asks whether it is worth your time and emotional energy to sue somebody who has screwed you over, and his opinion is that it is probably not. In the cases he has testified in, there is usually a settlement with nobody admitting wrongdoing, which is hardly the revenge you may be looking for. And that may have come out of his experiences with Pauline Kael, which brings us to….

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (2011. Book by Brian Kellow. 417 pages)

Love/Hate: I loved reading Pauline Kael’s stuff. I first got hooked in 1966 when I picked up the paperback edition of her collection of reviews and essays, I Lost It At the Movies. She was a lively and earthy writer, and I found either I agreed with her completely on a film (it was like she had been in my mind as I watched it) or disagreed completely (what movie did she see?). But when we disagreed, she was more interesting to read than any other critic writing something I agreed with. Her classic essay on Bonnie and Clyde was published in October 1967, shortly after I had started working on my Masters in screenwriting at UCLA, so I was excited that here was a critic actually paying attention to screenwriters. Well, it did not come as too much of a surprise, because Lost It included her legendary attack on the auteur theory. As I continued studying and moving into studying the history of screenwriting, I appreciated her even more. That is even though one of her Lost It essays attacked my man Nunnally Johnson’s 1954 film Night People as right-wing propaganda. It wasn’t, and she misread the film. Kellow has obviously not seen the film and accepts her reading. It is also interesting that he does not mention that the other part of that review attacked a dreadful left-wing propaganda film Salt of the Earth (1953).

Then came her “Raising Kane” essay. I knew the backstory of this, since I was part of it. Howard Suber had been collecting material on the script of Kane to be part of a book on the film, with essays by other writers. On the first night of my interviewing Nunnally Johnson, he told me the story of Herman Mankiewicz being offered money to take his name off the script and the advice Mank got from Ben Hecht: “Take the ten thousand dollars and double cross the son of a bitch,” i.e., sue to get his credit back. I passed this on to Howard the next day, and it shows up in “Raising Kane.” The other writers on the proposed book did not come through (Kellow does not get this detail), and Kael persuaded Howard to let her use his essay in the proposed book on the script of Kane. She kept promising that there would be a contract drawn up, but there never was. Howard was surprised when he got his copy of the issue of The New Yorker with her essay and found his name mentioned nowhere. Nor did Kael ever mention him in the book that followed.

Kael was attacked, not only for using Howard’s work without acknowledgement, but for suggesting that Orson Welles did not do everything all by himself on Kane. Kael’s essay did what it was supposed to do: remind people of Mankiewicz’s contribution to the film, but the Wellesians never forgave her. Kellow is good at dealing with the controversy that followed.

It did not occur to me until several years later that after “Raising Kane,” Kael never wrote seriously or extensively about screenwriters and screenwriting again. As Kellow points out, she became almost more auteurist than Sarris, particularly with the younger directors that she was a mother hen to, including Sam Peckinpah, James Toback, and Brian De Palma. Why did Kael quit writing about screenwriting? Kellow does not tell us. My guess is that she was a coward. As Kellow points out, she was often thought of as a bully, and my experience has been that most bullies are cowards. Kael could certainly dish it out (Kellow is clear she had very little empathy for other people), but I don’t think she could take it. I may also have contributed to her not writing about writers.

In 1972 I had started working on my dissertation, the biography of Nunnally Johnson, based on the Oral History interviews I’d done with him. I had done some sample chapters, which one New York editor was enthusiastic about but could not get his editorial board to come up with a contract. I showed Nunnally his letter and Nunnally said that I should get an agent. He did not want me to use his agent (he knew his agent would kick me off the project and get a “real writer”), so he arranged a meeting with a big agency at the time. One of their agents was Marcia Nasatir, formerly an editor at Bantam Books, and later a producer and studio head. Marcia was also Pauline Kael’s agent, a fact Kellow does not mention. He says that Kael did not have an agent at this time, but Nasatir certainly was her agent. Nasatir set me up with a couple of meetings with editors, but when I insisted the heart of the book was Nunnally’s artistic contribution as a screenwriter, I got looks from the editors that said, “What planet are you from? I read Andrew Sarris and I know directors make up their movies as they go along.” Nasatir then proposed that I sell Kael my research. Remember what happened with Howard? I sure did. So the agent and I parted ways. I learned later that the “word” was spread around the publishing world that Kael was doing a biography of Johnson. It was an obvious attempt to pressure me, but Howard was right: I am a tough cookie. What I did instead was get a contract from the University of California Press. I did the first draft and sent it to my editor, Ernest Callenbach, telling him it was just a first draft and I only wanted notes on it and it should not be sent out for review. At university presses the procedure is that a manuscript is sent to two readers. If they agreed it should be published, the editorial board normally goes along with their suggestions. Several months went by and I had not gotten any notes from Callenbach. I finally contacted him and he told me the first reader loved it. What? It wasn’t supposed to go out. But Callenbach was sure the second reader would like it. Well, the second reader not only did not like it, but did not like it in such virulent terms that Callenbach felt that even if a third reader liked it, he could not get it past the editorial board. Since Callenbach and Kael knew each other and she wrote occasionally for his Film Quarterly, I have always had the sneaking suspicion that Kael was the second reader, but that information is lost in the mists of time. Anyway, after being turned down by over thirty publishers, many of them twice, my book Screenwriter: The Life and Times of Nunnally Johnson was finally published in 1980, to good reviews and modest sales.

Now here is a question: would the historiography of screenwriting been different if I had let Kael use my research? On the one hand, a book by her would have drawn more attention than mine. And it might have encouraged her to continue writing about screenwriting. But a full biography may have been beyond Kael’s capabilities. She never wrote anything much longer than “Raising Kane,” and she may not have been equipped either stylistically or emotionally to do a biography. Her attempt may have become one of her projects that never worked out. And I would have lost my research. But that didn’t happen, so for better or worse, you’ll just have to make do with my book.

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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