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Understanding Screenwriting #103: Argo, The Sessions, Cloud Atlas, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #103: <em>Argo</em>, <em>The Sessions</em>, <em>Cloud Atlas</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Argo, The Sessions, Cloud Atlas, Seven Psychopaths, The Conspirators, The Racket (1951), but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein thought I was getting too much into the mise-en-scene of The Master, but I read the item again and I don’t think so. There are many other items over the years that you say that about, but most of the material in the Master item is about story, character and themes. In other words, the stuff that writers contribute.

Since David is such a devoted reader of this column and asked that I tell the story of my meeting with Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, here it is. It was the fall of 1967 and I had just started graduate school at UCLA. I would take our 2-½ year old daughter out on Sundays so my wife could clean the house. One Sunday we were on the beach just north of the Santa Monica Pier. I was carrying my daughter on my shoulders, and a beautiful woman came up to gush about how pretty my daughter was. As we were talking I noticed off to her right was a little guy who was drawing a large dragon in the sand. What was so interesting was that he was drawing it with great loops right near the water’s edge. As the waves came in, they would cut the dragon into pieces. When he was satisfied with that, he turned to the beautiful woman. I realized then he was Roman Polanski and she was Sharon Tate. Of course Polanski would draw a dragon that the ocean would dismember, and of course Tate would be interested in kids. She got pregnant a year or so later, but as we all know, that ended badly.

Argo (2012. Screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on the article “How the C.I.A. Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran,” listed in the credits as “Escape from Tehran,” by Joshuah Bearman. The credits in the film also list another source as well, but I did not write it down, the IMDb does not have it, and I have been unable to locate it anywhere else. 120 minutes.)

No superheroes: No one in this film wears their underwear outside their clothes. Nobody wears a cape. Nobody wears an iron suit. Nobody flies, except on an airplane. And Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Paul Dano and Jesse Eisenberg don’t appear anywhere in the picture. This movie is about real adult human beings doing exciting stuff. It is a more or less true story. See the Wikipedia entry here for all the quibbles by different people about its accuracy, but, hey folks, we’re making a movie here. “Hey folks, etc” means the writer is taking the real material and shaping it into a script. That’s what writers do. The film is about the rescue of six American Embassy personnel who escaped from the Tehran embassy during its takeover in November 1979. With all of that, as you might expect, I was very much looking forward to seeing this.

There was another reason I wanted to see it. You may remember from my assorted discussions of various spy movies and television shows that I have a few acquaintances who were, as one of them described it, “source(s) with several years experience working closely with the intelligence community.” One of those acquaintances was an advisor. Not on the movie. On the original operation. He was an American who worked in Iran for several years up to and including the Revolution. He got out of Iran before the November takeover, and in the months of the hostage situation he showed up in Washington once a week to, as he described it to me, “give them advice whether they wanted it or not.” He knew the Embassy people and most of the Iranian leaders as well, so it was not surprising that Tony Mendez, the “exfiltration” specialist, contacted him. My daughter, after seeing the movie, wondered where Mendez got all the information about what was going on in Iran. Now she knows; that’s the kind of scene Terrio felt he did not need. One area my acquaintance discussed with Mendez was the three checkpoints for passengers leaving through the airport. In the actual event, getting through the airport turned out to be a lot easier than it is in the film, possibly because the Americans were well prepared. The sequence in the picture is a lot more suspenseful and filled with twists than the original event was, but hey, we’re making a movie here. My acquaintance loved the movie, by the way.

The film starts with what some critics have called an “Iran for dummies” prologue. The events leading up to the Revolution are told against what appear to us first to be drawings from a comic book, but you may realize later that they could also be storyboards for a film. The prologue begins with the C.I.A. engineering the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and his replacement with the Shah of Iran. This is first implied to be a bad thing, but the narration undercuts it by pointing out that the Shah was bringing western values to Iran, including the education of women. So we are on the Shah’s side, but then on the Revolution’s side after a mention of the Savik, the Shah’s secret police. But then the Revolution turns violently against the Americans, so we are back on the Americans’ side. In other words, the prologue is a little sneakier than the “Iran for dummies” line. I have no idea if the prologue is part of Terrio’s original script or was added late in production. I suspect the former, since it seems a piece with the tone of the rest of the film.

By the end of the prologue we are into the takeover of the Embassy. Terrio is here, as throughout the script, very precise about the reactions people have. He stays with the six rather than showing a lot of other Embassy personnel. People often assume that reaction shots are all from the director (Ben Affleck here, showing his first two directorial jobs, Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), were no flukes), but there are so many that they had to be in the script. Affleck knows how to get the most out of them. We then go to Washington as they try to deal with the situation. Terrio’s government people talk and act like real government people. And Terrio distinguishes between them. There is a scene in which various State Department and C.I.A. types discuss options. Most of the options are bad, but the script does not make the people pitching them idiots. They are pros trying to work out a solution. It is in this meeting that we meet Tony Mendez (Affleck), and we watch him watch and listen to what’s going on. We know the star has arrived, but his first scene keeps in mind both what has been established and how Mendez is going to be a watcher as well as a man of action.

It is Mendez who comes up with the idea of using a fake movie with the six listed as Canadian production people on a location scout. As Jack O’Donnell, Mendez’s “boss” at the C.I.A. points out to the Secretary of State, “It’s the best bad idea we’ve got, by far.” Terrio gives O’Donnell some great lines throughout the film. Then Mendez has to set up the false production, and he goes to Hollywood. Some critics have complained that there is too much Hollywood satire in the film, but I disagree. Yes, you maybe don’t need all of it, but it’s a terrific counterpoint to the suspense of the main story. It’s also more than that. Terrio has written a great montage midway through the picture that contrasts the humorless Iranian woman revolutionary reading a statement to the press with the table read, in costume, of the sci-fi script. Yes, the table read is silly, but it, like the whole plan, shows the inventiveness of the Americans. I am not sure we should let this montage stand in completely for the differences between Iran and the United States, but it makes the point in an entertaining, off-beat way.

In comparison with movies like the recent Taken 2, Argo is more about suspense than it is about action. Action is easy to do, suspense a lot harder, and Terrio and Affleck do it extremely well. Particularly striking is a location scout by Mendez and the six to the bazaar, which did not happen in reality, but, hey folks, well, you know the drill. The six are only just getting into their production roles, and they are accompanied by a cultural official who wants to tell them what he hopes the movie will be about. Then the “Canadians” are verbally attacked by people, but we are not sure why. Nothing the Iranians say is translated: it may be political, it may have to do with the bazaar, but we and the six have no idea. The lead-up to the flight out is also mostly suspense, although with some action on the runway added in. Check the Wikipedia article above for details.

The film ends with a couple of terrific ironies. The first involves the maid at the Canadian ambassador’s house. We and they don’t know if she is a spy, and we find out the truth but they never do. Finally we see her escaping from Iran, going across the border to…Iraq. Because the operation was classified until 1997, Mendez and the C.I.A. were unable to take public credit for it at the time, and we see the Canadians get and take all the credit. Read the Wikipedia piece and see how some Canadians are reacting to the film.

The Sessions (2012. Written by Ben Lewin, based on the article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” by Mark O’ Brien. 95 minutes.)

The Sessions

A good thing: You may remember from US#98 that I was blown away by the trailer for this film when I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild. Well, the film is almost as good as the trailer, and that may only be that the freshness of the trailer has worn off. It is still a terrific movie, for some of the reasons I suspected when I saw the trailer.

Like Argo, this is a movie by, about and for adults. Adam, Andy, Paul and Jesse don’t show up here either. Also like Argo, this is based on a true story. Mark O’Brien was a poet and writer who lived most of his life in an iron lung. He decided at age 38 to lose his virginity. He had several sessions with Cheryl Cohen Greene, a licensed sex therapist. And he indeed lost his virginity. It will not take you much time to think of at least 50 ways this could have gone south as movie.

Fortunately, it all goes right. Movies are made up of a lot of moving parts, and they are all in place here. Lewin had polio in his youth and still uses crutches, which gives him an advantage in his writing the character of Mark. Mark is sexy and funny, or as much as he can be in an iron lung. We are first introduced to him when he gets a new assistant, Amanda. He falls in love with her and proposes marriage, which she runs away from. We are not really introduced to his second assistant, Vera. She just is there, and while she is great looking as well (she is played by Moon Bloodgood, who has mostly been in action/sci-fi stuff, and this is the best thing she’s done), Mark does not seem that interested in her romantically. As in Argo, Lewin has written in a lot of great reactions for her to the goings-on, especially in her scenes with a hotel clerk.

So we get Mark established as a character we are sympathetic with. He’s not just a horny teenager who wants to lose his virginity before the end of high school; he’s a grownup. He visits his Catholic priest, Father Brendon, who is understanding, and, referring to a statue of Jesus, says, “I think he will give you a pass on this.” Helen Hunt said in a recent interview that Lewin, who also directed, did not realize until he was shooting the scenes between Mark and the priest how funny the material was. Lewin called up Hunt, who had not started her scenes, to tell her that they were making a comedy. We are well into the movie before Cheryl Greene shows up. She is very straighforward, explaining the difference between a prostitute and a sex surrogate. A sex surrogate is a teacher and a coach. A prostitute just satisfies you enough for you to want to hire her again; a sex surrogate wants you to go out on your own after her strict limit of lessons is done. Cheryl’s job is to teach Mark how to understand sex. She tells him not to read the sex manuals he has been perusing (great advice, by the way). The writing of Cheryl and Mark is just as matter of fact as Cheryl is, which helps us get into the treatment. And the treatment is equally matter of fact.

As I mention in my note in US#98 on the trailer, it is the charming Helen Hunt that shows up as Cheryl, and she nails a very tricky role. A lot has been written about how much she is nude in the film, but it’s natural in the context. What she captures is Cheryl’s open and helpful attitude. I can see why several critics have thought that John Hawkes’s performance as Mark is even better than Hunt’s, and they may be right. Because of Mark’s medical condition, we are always seeing his face horizontally rather than vertically. Which means we can’t “read” his face the way we normally do. Lewin is very daring to write and direct this character this way, and Hawkes is up to the challenge.

There have been several articles, theses, dissertations, etc. on how sex is shown in American films. Sex generally is portrayed rather badly in American movies, like it’s an evil, awful, ugly, dirty thing. Most male American directors (Coppola, Scorsese, Stone, De Palma, just to name a few) hardly ever show sex in a positive way. In this film, sex is a good thing. A very, very good thing. Yes, Mark and Cheryl stumble around some times, but that happens. And they are both open and free about what they are up to, especially Cheryl. Even though the film is rated R, it really ought to be shown in every high school sex education class.

The sessions end, actually at four sessions rather than the usual six, because Mark had learned what he needs to. Both Mark and Cheryl know that it might be emotionally dangerous for them to continue and agree to stop. A little later Mark meets a hospital volunteer named Susan and falls in love. And he assures her he is not a virgin. Nice touch.

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