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Understanding Screenwriting #107: Quartet, Tabu, 56 Up, The Gatekeepers, Cat Ballou, The Americans, 30 Rock, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #107: Quartet, Tabu, 56 Up, The Gatekeepers, Cat Ballou, The Americans, 30 Rock, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Quartet, Tabu, 56 Up, The Gatekeepers, Cat Ballou, The Americans, 30 Rock, but first…

Fan mail: The main bone of contention among the folks who wrote in about #US106 was that I had missed the point in Zero Dark Thirty—that, as Bill Weber wrote, it’s “supremely clear in ZDT that information INDIRECTLY leads” to Osama bin Laden. “Carabruva” agrees with Bill. I didn’t miss that point when I watched the film, since I was looking very carefully for any connection. What I didn’t do, unfortunately, was make mention in the item that it was very, very indirect and nowhere close to the “big break” that critics of the film were claiming. I fear both Mark Boal and I were nodding a bit on this point.

Some of the most interesting comments on the Zero Dark Thirty item came off the record from some of my “acquaintances.” I’d emailed them with a link to the column, and one of them replied, “I do not know if torture worked or not, but I am appalled by the fact that any senior officer or congresswomen would agree to it. However, one DCI [Director of Central Intelligence] felt it was important, and another does not. Most intelligence officers I respect felt that the producer wanted it both ways: torture sells and (gasp!) torture is bad. They were more amused by the portrait of the analyst. She is a composite of women in the bin Laden cell, all of whom were strong, bright, and opinionated. But C.I.A. is a paramilitary organization. You simply don’t talk to superiors the way our hero did.” As for my feeling that the “I’m the motherfucker” line was the best line in the film, it was even if it was not “accurate,” but hey, we’re making movies here. By the way, I later heard from another “acquaintance” that the real person Maya is based on is even better-looking than Jessica Chastain. I doubt that’s possible, so that may just be more C.I.A. disinformation.

I spent some time in the item whacking Boal and the film’s team for not responding better, especially to the complaining senators. An article in the Los Angeles Times that appeared the day after my column was posted nicely covered what happened at Sony and why they took the road they did. I understand their point of view, but I think they were wrong. The article was a Link of the Day, and if you missed it, you can read it here. The article included a great comment from Boal, and since I’ve been beating him about the head and shoulders, I feel obligated to quote it, since it nails down what happened. He said, “We made a serious, tough adult movie and we got a serious, tough adult response.”

Quartet (2012. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on his play. 98 minutes.)

The Best Exotic Marigold Musicians Retirement Home. The first thing I loved about this movie is that it’s short. One of the downsides of having to slog through all those two-and-a-half-hour-plus end-of-the-year films is that they cost you money to park. In Los Angeles, the tradition is that at indoor malls that have multiplexes, the first three hours of parking are free, and then you have to pay through the nose for anything beyond that. By the time you get from your car to the theater, get your tickets, sit through 20 minutes of trailers and the film, and get back to your car, you’re probably over three hours. Some, all right, a few, films are worth the extra cost. So I went into Quartet happy knowing it was not going to cost me any more than the ticket price.

When Ronald Harwood came to England from his native South Africa in the early ’50s, he became part of an acting troop run by Sir Donald Woolfit, whom you may remember as General Murray in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). For several years Harwood was Woolfit’s dresser. That led to Harwood writing his play The Dresser, which he adapted into a film in 1983. Harwood has a fascination with performers, having also written a play about the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt. Harwood heard about an Italian home for retired opera singers, transposed the idea to England, and came up with the play Quartet. About six years ago, according to a piece by Charles Gant in the January Sight & Sound, Tom Courtney suggested to Harwood that he adapt it into the film. Harwood worked on it for years as directors came and went. It finally ended up with a first-time director with some acting experience, Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman worked with Harwood, adding texture to the situation. Hoffman suggested visitors to the home, which leads to a scene with Reginald, Courtney’s character (you didn’t think Courtney wasn’t thinking about this sort of thing when he suggested the idea to Harwood, do you?), giving a talk to a group of teens about opera and hip-hop. Hoffman also suggested casting real musicians in smaller parts as the elderly residents, which leads to several musical numbers.

The problem that Harwood faced both in the play and the screenplay is that the four leads, Jean, Reginald, Wilf, and Cissy, need to be performed by actors, in this case Maggie Smith, Courtney, Billy Connolly, and Pauline Collins. Since the plot turns on the foursome singing the quartet from Rigoletto, how do you handle their singing? In the film we get a couple of montages of them rehearsing, but without hearing their singing. The obvious solution for the film would be to have them lip sync to tracks of real singers. Harwood avoids that, but since the film is building toward the quartet singing, how do you write a satisfactory ending? Harwood, with some help from the real musicians Hoffman wanted, manage it. We get to hear the other musicians do their numbers, and then the quartet gets on stage. As they open their mouths, the film cuts to an exterior shot of the home and we get a recording of industrial-strength opera stars, including Dame Joan Sutherland, singing the quartet. Yes, real logic tells us the aging singers we see in the film would not reach those heights we hear, but creative logic says we can imagine this is how they sounded in their prime, which is enough for the film.



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