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Understanding Screenwriting #1: Sex and the City, Tell No One, Mongol, Mad Men, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #1: <em>Sex and the City</em>, <em>Tell No One</em>, <em>Mongol</em>, <em>Mad Men</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Sex and the City (film); Tell No One; Mongol; In Plain Sight; Mad Men, but first…

I’m Tom Stempel. I write about screenwriting.

Yeah, I stole that from John Ford’s famous “I’m John Ford. I make westerns.” But since directors have been stealing from writers for as long as there have been movies, it’s about time we started stealing back. Welcome to my new column on screenwriting at The House Next Door.

I’m aware of what directors have stolen from writers, or at least have been credited with what screenwriters actually contributed, because I’ve been studying and writing about screenwriting for forty years. I got a Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting at UCLA, but as all those things that happen to screenwriters before they become famous happened to me without, thank goodness, my becoming famous, I began to study the history of screenwriting. This was at a time, the early seventies, when people literally looked at you funny if you suggested that writers were anything other than drunks who came up with a good line of dialogue. Meanwhile I began to teach screenwriting at Los Angeles City College, where my students included such writer-directors as Maggie Greenwald (The Ballad of Little Jo) and Karen Moncrieff (Blue Car).

While I was at UCLA I did an extensive oral history interview with Nunnally Johnson, the great screenwriter of, among others, The Dirty Dozen, The World of Henry Orient, The Three Faces of Eve, The Gunfighter, The Desert Fox, Woman in the Window and, of course, The Grapes of Wrath. This led to my first book, a 1980 biography of Johnson. That was followed by a screenwriting textbook in 1982. In 1988 I wrote a history of screenwriting in the American film, and in 1992 a history of American television writing. My most recent book about screenwriting is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays, which was published earlier this year. In that book I discuss several scripts in each category in depth, then several others in the form of what I call Short Takes.

What I am going to be doing in this column is similar to the Short Takes sections of the book; if you want more in-depth looks at scripts, read the book. What I will be looking at are new films currently in theaters (unless they flop so quickly they are gone by the time I write them up; in that case you can pick them up on DVD). I will also be commenting on the occasional classic film that shows up on DVD, or Turner Classic Movies and the Fox Movie Channel. And since as I pointed out as early as my 1992 book, Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing, there is more good writing on television than there is in films, I will be writing about television as well.

As you might gather from that, I will be going wide rather than deep, although you never know when I may surprise and do just one script in depth. There are several other writers at The House Next Door that will discuss films and television shows in depth (I recently particularly liked Keith Uhlich’s nuanced look at The Dark Knight and Andrew Johnston’s coverage of the episodes of Mad Men), but I will focus on the script aspects. I won’t overload you with information, but simply suggest what you can learn from looking at the writing of the films and shows.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, I am not doing this just to promote my book. I didn’t seek this job out. I happened to meet Matt Zoller Seitz, who suggested I get in touch with Keith Uhlich not with the idea of my doing a column, but just as someone useful for Keith to know. Keith came up with the idea of my doing the “Understanding Screenwriting” series, so send your complaints to him. I was reluctant to do it because of time considerations, but ultimately I could not resist doing it for a New York City-based blog. To understand why you have to know a bit of the history of the East Coast Intellectual Establishment and screenwriting.

American film started in New York, where it was seen as a minor popular amusement. American movies did not become an art until D.W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. In Los Angeles. The East Coast Intellectual Establishment was appalled, and Hollywood, alas, fell right into the trap. The early studios figured that if movies were an art, they should get “real” writers to write films. You can read about what happened in my 1988 book FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film. The “real” writers were disasters and skulked back to New York City to sit around the Algonquin Round Table complaining what heathens Hollywood people were. The same thing happened again a few years later with the introduction of sound: Hollywood called out the playwrights, and most of them were disasters at screenwriting. More complaining at the Algonquin. I will from time to time give you examples of the East Coast Intellectual Establishment attitude toward screenwriters, and here is an early favorite. In 1946 Harold Ross, the editor of The New Yorker and a friend, friend mind you, of Nunnally Johnson’s, said of Nunnally, “He has been sucking around the diamond merchants of Hollywood for the last fifteen years and hasn’t written anything. There is a misspent life.” I’m sorry Harold, but I do not consider writing the screenplay for The Grapes of Wrath a misspent life.

When I wrote FrameWork in 1988, I thought that those kinds of attitudes were changing, particularly since the films of Woody Allen were seen to be written. I think I was wrong. (Pop quiz: what film won the Pulitzer Prize for Screenwriting this year? I will give you the answer below.) You can see why I decided to do this column: to bring the Gospel of the Importance of Screenwriting to the heathen of New York City. That’s my missionary position, and I am sticking to it.

Now that we both know where I stand, let me give some examples of the kinds of things I am going to be doing.


Sex and the City (Screenplay by Michael Patrick King. Based on the television series. Based on the book by Candace Bushnell): Yes, it’s great to see the girls again, and get caught up on what and who they have been up to, and there are the occasional good dirty jokes. But at 148 minutes? Several reviews said it was like five regular episodes strung together, but it is not. Each of the episodes on the show had a particular structure and shape. One of the advantages of writing series television is that, like the sonnet form, the episode length forces the writer to focus on a structure. In comedy particularly, there is no margin for error. Like high wire walking, you are either good or you are dead. This is why many television comedy writers have difficulty breaking into feature films, or even television movies. The rhythm of a half-hour comedy is different from that of a two-hour, or in this case, two-and-a-half hour movie. Or even a one-hour drama. In my book Storytellers to the Nation, Phil Mishkin said he found adjusting from writing sitcoms to one hour dramas a bit tricky: “I still have a hard time having a character in Matlock leave a scene without a blowoff line, the line that says, ’I’m gone,’ big laugh, boom. [In an] hour [drama] a guy can actually say, ’Goodbye,’ and leave a room.”

In Sex and the City King has piled on so many story elements and so many minor characters from the show that what I think is the main focus of the film gets lost. You could make a good film out of the matching betrayal stories of Carrie and Mr. Big and Carrie and Miranda, but as it stands now in the script, the scenes that connect them, including the repeated dialogue, are simply swamped by everything else.

A basic question any screenwriter, for movies or television, has to ask himself is: do I want to hang out with these people. This is another problem with taking a half-hour show to a two-and-a-half hour movie. Do we really want to spend that much time with these people? We may for a half-hour a week, and Sex and the City’s foursome seem to me to fit into that category. Dragging their stories out longer makes the viewer increasingly aware of how shallow they are. There is a funny comic strip called Cathy about a very neurotic woman. She is funny for the ten seconds or so it takes to read the strip. There was an attempt in 1987 to do a half-hour animated version for television. It won an Emmy for Best Animated Program, but it did not last very long, simply because at thirty minutes, Cathy was the proverbial fingernails on the blackboard. Carrie and the others were not quite that bad, but almost….


Tell No One (Screenplay by Guillaume Canet. Based on the novel by Harlan Coben): The novel is an American novel and was originally optioned by American filmmakers. Thank goodness it fell into the hands of the young French writer-director Guillaume Canet. The set up is terrific. Alex Beck is a doctor with a beautiful wife, who is murdered. Eight years later, he gets sent to a website that shows a video that suggests his wife is ... still alive. And that happens at fifteen minutes into the movie, not twenty-five to twenty-seven minutes as Syd Field used to insist.

That’s not the only reason it’s better as a French film. As Beck tries to track down the truth, what we see is how his search psychologically affects not only him, but everybody he comes in contact with. In an American version, the focus would have been solely on Beck because his is the nominal star part. Because Canet has given full treatment to the others, he has been able to get a great cast. Note to writers: if you want to get great actors, write great parts. Jean Rochefort, a great French actor, has a relatively small part, but a great, important scene late in the picture.

Canet is also wonderful at keeping the movie just a little bit ahead of the audience. We meet a fair number of people in the opening family dinner, but we don’t know who they all are yet. Look at how long it is into the film before we find out how Kristin Scott Thomas’s character is related to Beck. Canet does this not only in the overall structure of the film, but within the scenes. Look at the scene where the two cops who originally investigated the wife’s murder are in an apartment. Whose apartment? Well, probably Beck’s. But they are putting away groceries. And the older cop is very fussy about where they go. His apartment? Nope. By the time we find out, you really want to know.

A problem with traditional mystery stories is that they are very talky. Detective or innocent bystander talks to people and eventually we have a big dialogue scene that explains it all. Thank God The Thin Man films had William Powell to do that heavy lifting. Here it is another great French actor and, with the help of a flashback or two or three, he makes it work.


Mongol (Screenplay by Arif Aliyev and Sergei Bodrov): The ad line for the film is “The untold story of Genghis Khan’s rise to power.” This is intended as the first of a trilogy about Genghis Khan, who here bears the name Temudjin. We meet him first as a young boy who falls in love at age nine with the girl who eventually becomes his wife. He is taken prisoner several times by assorted baddies. He marries the girl, then she is kidnapped, also by assorted baddies. When Temudjin gets her back, she has had a baby by her captors. Which he accepts. Which could be very interesting, but not much is made of it. He’s captured again. Eventually he escapes and goes to the cave of the wolves, where he gets the idea of bringing the Mongols together under a basic system of rules. Cut to: he has brought the Mongols, all except his fiercest enemy, together and now they must fight—

Wait a minute!

Cut to?

If the movie is about his rise to power, why are we cutting from him in the cave to him in power? I like the scenes with his wife, which are much better than the John Wayne-Susan Hayward scenes in the Duke’s Genghis Kahn movie The Conqueror, but that’s not what the film is supposed to be about. If you’re writing a script that promises the audience something, you had better deliver.


In Plain Sight (Various writers): This is a new summer series on USA about a female federal marshal working the witness protection program. The plotting is often sloppy and the writers are only beginning to nail down what the series is about. The scenes with the marshal’s mother and sister stop the show dead, and not in a good way.

The reason to watch is that the writers have created a great character, Mary Shannon, for Mary McCormack to play. I beat into the heads of my screenwriting students that if you are writing for the screen, big or small, you are writing for performance (and not just for the actors, but we will take that up some other time). The actors have to be able to do what you want them to do and say what you write for them to say. Mary McCormack is a journeyman actor who has appeared in many films, such as Deep Impact, and had recurring roles on ER and The West Wing. She always gives good value for money, but nothing she has been given has shown the range she shows here. She also has a chance to use her physical presence in a way she has not before. Let’s hope the rest of the writing catches up with her.


Mad Men(Various writers): Just a quick note on how wonderfully spare the writing is on this show. Andrew Johnston mentions the scene in the elevator in the first episode of this season, but look at how little dialogue, besides the other guys talking, is needed to show you Don’s attitude. Similarly, the scene between Don and the CEO of Mohawk Airlines near the end of the second episode: you were probably expecting a big long scene, which other shows could give you. But by having the CEO already know what’s coming, you can do the scene shorter, as well as give it a twist.


Two things before we finish:

1. No, I will not read your screenplays. I have read more bad screenplays that any human being should be forced to read and am not reading any more.
2.Answer to the pop quiz: there was no winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Screenwriting this year. That’s because THERE IS NO Pulitzer Prize for screenwriting. Think about that for a minute. We have had a hundred years of films and scripts, and it apparently has not occurred to the folks at Columbia University that it might show that they have caught up with the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first, if they added a screenwriting category. Talk to the people you know at Columbia about this.

Tom Stempel is the author of Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.