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Understanding Screenwriting #106: Zero Dark Thirty, This Is 40, Margin Call, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #106: Zero Dark Thirty, This Is 40, Margin Call, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Zero Dark Thirty, This Is 40, Margin Call, Red State, New Year’s Eve, Prince Valiant (1997), Vegas, but first…

Fan Mail: First, a couple of follow-up items about Argo, which I wrote about in US#103. I had admired the scene near the end where they show what happened to the maid. An article in the Los Angeles Times tells us that that scene was written and shot after the first test screenings of the film, since the audiences wanted to know what happened to her. Sometimes the audience tells you what it needs to have. (Another item in that same article deals with Moon Bloodgood’s marvelous performance in The Sessions, which I admired, also in US#103.)

It has also come out in the publicity for Argo that Chris Terrio’s first drafts of the script told the story more as a comedy romp. When Ben Affleck came on the film as the director, he suggested that if they start with the Iranian Revolution, it would set a serious tone which would provide a little more heft to the film and which the comedy could play off of. I know it goes against everything I preach in this column, but sometimes directors can actually make a serious contribution to a film.

And now on to the Fan Mail for US#105, of which there was a bunch, including one comment that got me in one of my occasional errors. The big dispute in the fan mail was between David Ehrenstein and “tkern.” David gave us some backstory on the actors in Amour, but tkern felt we should not have to know any “gossip” about the actors for the film to work. I am not sure that was exactly what David was proposing, and I agree with tkern that we shouldn’t need to know the actors’ private lives for the film to work. I don’t think you need to in Amour. I did not mention in my item that I thought both Trintignant and especially Riva gave brilliant performances. Even though I have seen them both before over the last 60 years, I think the performances stand on their own. If the script had been better, their performances would have also been better, although I am not sure if Riva’s could be better.

I will share with you a couple of revelations about gossip about stars that changed my life completely, and definitely for the better. Several years ago, I had the minor revelation that there were a lot of British performers whose work I liked but about whose private lives I knew nothing. The major revelation is…I didn’t care. I realized I did not need to know about their private lives to enjoy their work. Since then I have avoided, as much as possible in Los Angeles (and more on that later), reading and watching and learning about the private lives of the stars. I cannot tell you how much time that has saved me. Try it; you’ll see.

David thought I was asking for more backstory about the couple in Amour, but I wasn’t. I just wanted more detail about the way they live now. And I agree with David that Nunnally Johnson is a great screenwriter and that his 1964 film The World of Henry Orient is one of his best scripts. Even if, unlike David, you did not grow up in New York.

“lproyect” was gobsmacked to discover that Dr. Strangelove (1964) was as controversial in its day (actually more so) than Django Unchained. Yes, it is a classic now, and one of Kubrick’s best, but then its comic attitude toward nuclear war and the military upset a lot of people. There had been service comedies before, but nothing as ruthless as Strangelove. Keep in mind it came out in the middle of the Cold War, less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Speaking of Strangelove, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art currently has a large exhibition of Kubrick’s stuff, and for me the jewel in the crown were production stills from the food fight in the War Room that was the original ending of the film. But I still think Kubrick missed a beat when he did not have the lyrics of “We’ll Meet Again” printed along the bottom of the screen with a bouncing ball so we could all sing along.

Ah, yes, the error. Arthur Seaton asked about where I got the information that William Boyd was writing the next two James Bond movies. I thought I had got it from the IMDb, but it’s not there, and I cannot find it anywhere else. It may have been one of those things on the Internet that comes and goes quickly. However, in searching for it now I found his website and this article in the Los Angeles Times both of which mention he is writing the next James Bond novel.

And now that we have the housekeeping details cleaned up, it is time for The Main Event…

Zero Dark Thirty (2012. Written by Mark Boal. 157 minutes.)

Hey, folks, we’re making a movie here: When this movie was in production, the American Right thundered that it was being made by Godless liberal communists in Hollywood financed by the Democratic National Committee as a propaganda piece to re-elect that Kenyan who usurped the office of President of the United States. As in many, many areas, the Right was completely wrong.

As the release of the film drew closer, it was attacked in mid-December by the other side of the political spectrum. Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee had just approved a 6,000 page classified report which stated that torture was not useful in tracking down Osama bin Laden. And here comes a film that is reported to show that the “big break” in the case came from torture. While there had been advance screenings for some select audiences (mostly awards giving organizations), there is no indication any of the senators who complained about the film had yet seen it. As George W. Bush and Dick Cheney learned in 2003, going into battle without good intelligence can be problematic. (The factual information in this item comes mostly from the coverage in the Los Angeles Times in a series of articles written by Steven Zeitchik and Ken Dilanian, either separately or together, unless otherwise noted.)

In writing about Argo I rather cavalierly dismissed the claims that it was not completely historically accurate by using the old Hollywood line, “Hey, folks, we’re making a movie here.” The filmmakers are trying to make the most interesting movie they can, which occasionally means they change things from the way they really happened. Those changes are generally rather trivial, mostly good for general grousing on Wikipedia. Zero Dark Thirty raises much more serious concerns, since what is at stake is the basic political and moral issue of whether the torture used by the C.I.A. was effective and provided essential information. Zeitchik and Dilanian in their first article on December 14th stated that the film “shows torture as yielding a big break and setting in motion the chase” that got bin Laden. If they and the others criticizing the film had seen the film and paid attention to it, they would know that is not what the film shows. Boal’s script does begin with an extended torture scene, but it is clear in the film that no information that directly leads to bin Laden comes from it. Not only that, but later in the film, the limitations of torture are discussed (although not as much as they should have been, which may also have caused people to misread the film), as well as government’s decision to stop torturing. In an irony I love, the one shot of “that Kenyan” is a television clip from 2008 in which he says we have to avoid torture. So why did people assume that the film shows torture as working? I suspect partly it is because the torture scenes are the opening scenes in a film that ends with bin Laden’s death. In traditional dramatic structure, that suggests cause and effect. Boal could have helped himself by making it clearer than he does that the torture was not useful. He may be too subtle in dealing with that for his own good.

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