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Understanding Screenwriting #11: Changeling, I’ve Loved You So Long, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, ER, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #11: <em>Changeling</em>, <em>I’ve Loved You So Long</em>, <em>Zack and Miri Make a Porno</em>, <em>ER</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Changeling, I’ve Loved You So Long, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, ER, 30 Rock, Some Quick Sweeps Updates, and Trailers, but first:

Fan Mail: I can appreciate theoldboy’s disappointment that I did not deal with the opening monologue in Crash. I often have a similar reaction after I send off a column to Keith and suddenly think, hey, why I didn’t I mention that.

I think Max Winter’s take on Sidney in Rachel Getting Married is a very interesting one, and I know there are a lot of people who feel as theoldboy does that the energy of the actors and the music make that film more entertaining than a lot of what is around. So far it has not been all that great a year for films and we have to take our pleasures where we can find them.

Changeling(2008. Written by J. Michael Straczynski. 141 minutes): The flaw in Eastwood’s iris.

One quality that has kept Clint Eastwood a major star, director and producer for over forty years is that he has a great eye for screenplays, not only to star in, but to produce and direct. And even more important for screenwriters is that he tends not to spend a lot of time in “developing” scripts. The original draft of a script is on white pages, and revisions are on different colored pages. Most “final” scripts look like rainbows on LSD. Frances Fisher, who was in Unforgiven, has said that it was the only film she ever worked on where all the script pages were white. You can see what that can get you with Unforgiven and Mystic River, just to name two of his best.

That’s the upside. The downside is that sometimes the scripts should have been developed more. Both Bird and Flags of Our Fathers could have been better focused. The Bridges of Madison County and Million Dollar Baby both go on much longer after their climaxes than they should. The latter problem affects Changeling, as in the long, long scene of the killer being hanged. Do we really need to see this at this late point in the film?

The screenplay’s author, J. Michael Straczynski, told Jason Davis in the September/October issue of Creative Screenwriting that the script first went to Ron Howard and his company. Straczynski and Howard worked on revisions, but when Eastwood came on board to direct, he wanted to see the writer’s first draft. Eastwood looked at the other drafts, but went with the first one, since he felt “the voice was clearest in the first draft.” That is usually true, and it is often the author’s voice that gets “developed” out of the script. The trick is to keep the author’s voice while improving the script. I have seen this happen with my screenwriting students and have to fight against it. It can be very tricky to improve the script without destroying what made it interesting in the first place. It takes executives and producers with restrained egos to do it right. You see the problem.

The story of Christine Collins is a true story, and Straczynski, a former journalist, compiled three file folder boxes of historical accounts, trial transcripts, and other material. Like many authors of novels, nonfiction, and screenplays, Straczynski tended to put as much of his research as he could into the film. In the second half, as Collins tries to find out what happened to her son, the film bogs down in commission hearings and trials, all of which are true, but get exhausting to watch. Those scenes could have been handled quicker.

The script also gets repetitive, especially with Collins. Her son Walter disappears and she bombards the police, repeatedly asking “Where’s my son?” When they bring her a boy they think is her son, she insists he is not, repeatedly stating, “He’s not my son.” OK, we get it, move on. The odd thing about these repetitive scenes with Collins is that instead of wanting to see the scenes with our star (Angelina Jolie plays Collins), we are relieved when she is not on screen asking about her son.

Straczynski has not focused the character of Collins as sharply as he might. We cannot tell exactly when this ordinary woman moves into being an implacable force. For all the power Jolie brings to the part, and it is considerable, it never quite comes together.

I hope you have not decided from all of the above to give the film a miss because there are things it does very well. The reconstruction of Southern California in the late 20s and early 30s is superb, as is the feel for the corruption of the police department at the time.

Straczynski has written some great scenes, not only for Jolie but the others. He said in the Creative Screenwriting interview that the one area he could not find any documentation on was what happened to Collins in the psychiatric ward. He based his scenes on what he was able to find out about treatments of the time. Since he is not tied down to the “facts” (i.e. transcripts, reports), he can use his artistic license, which he does well. Two of the film’s best scenes are in the ward. First is a nice little scene in which Carol Dexter, a prostitute, explains how the system works. This leads to a great scene in which Collins tries to outwit the shrink, using what Dexter has told her. Straczynski, Jolie, and Denis O’Hare as the doctor bring their A game to that scene, and Eastwood is smart enough as a director to just set back and let them go.

There are two great scenes in which young boys talk about what happened at the “ranch” where a serial killer took young boys. The first one is focused on the police officer interviewing the boy and realizing the horror of what the boy is telling him. The other, near the end of the picture, focuses almost completely on the other boy telling of his escape from the ranch. The scene leads to as much of a happy ending as this grueling film can provide.

I’ve Loved You So Long (2008. Written by Philippe Claudel. 115 minutes): Some movies move forward. Some movies move backward. This one does both.

We do not know much about Juliette when we first meet her, waiting at the airport. Her face has an emotionless expression. Her much more cheerful and open younger sister Lea picks her up. There are obviously things they are not talking about. As often happens, what people are reluctant to talk about it with their family gets discussed outside the family. We learn from other scenes that Juliette has been in prison. For fifteen years. For murdering her son. Don’t worry, that last is not a spoiler. We learn it half an hour into the film, and the revelation at the end if why she killed him. We work backwards, as it were, to that revelation.

We are working forward as Juliette begins her new life, and Lea and her husband adjust to having her around. At first Luc, the husband, is reluctant to have Juliette babysit their children and one can understand why. Eventually he suggests she babysit. Stated that way, it sounds obvious, but it is not. The film is a very subtle look at the changing relationships of Juliette, Lea, Luc, and their friends, most of whom do not know where Juliette has been. In one of the most suspenseful scenes in a film this year, a dinner at a country house turns into a guessing game as to where Juliette has been. The payoff is terrific.

Claudel, a French novelist and screenwriter, has written some great roles for the actors to play, and in his first directorial job, he does not fall into the trap Charlie Kaufman did with Synecdoche, New York (see US#10). The scenes, and the film, move. I knew I was in good hands when the opening shot on the great Kristin Scott Thomas as Juliette was not held too long. Thomas said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times there was “tension on the set,” since she kept telling Claudel she could do the role with less dialogue. He was smart enough to listen to her.

The one downside is the ending. I am not sure I agree with David Denby in the November 10th New Yorker when he says it is a “cheat.” It has been prepared for, but Claudel has gotten us so deeply into the characters both intellectually and emotionally that the ending does not take us a far as the film has. It also leaves open a gaping plot hole. I won’t of course tell you what it is, but let’s just say that if Grissom and his gang of CSIs were on the original case, the outcome would have been different.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno(2008. Written by Kevin Smith. 101 minutes): Not really.

The idea had potential: two slackers, male and female, who have been friends since grade school decide to make a porn video in order to earn money and pay their bills. They have been platonic friends, but decide to do a sex scene in the film, during which they discover they are in love. So far, OK, but the details of the making of the porno are not particularly well handled, and the characterization of the participants is limited. Miri is set up to be just as foul-mouthed as Zack and most guys in Kevin Smith’s movies. Fine, but she is something of a step down from the similar Becky character in Smith’s Clerks II. And that film suggested the two guys from the first Clerks were at least showing hints of growing up. The romance between Zack and Miri is supposed to serve the same function here, but if anything it seems more adolescent rather than less. What inventiveness the first part of the film has fades away as it becomes more conventional and even sentimental by the ending.

If you do see it, however, you should stay through the credits, because there is a great payoff in the middle of the credits as to what the porno led to. Smith would have had a better movie if he had told the story the payoff suggests rather than the one he did.

A word on language. Part of why we go to a Kevin Smith movie is that the characters are all foul-mouthed, and you never know what they are going to say. I suppose making Becky and Miri just as foul-mouthed is a triumph for feminism, but this is the first Kevin Smith film where I really felt the language was excessive, or at least unneeded. That may sound odd, given that the characters are making a porno, but the language seems more generic gross language than the language that would come out during the making of a porno.

ER (1994. Episode “Pilot” written by Michael Crichton. 120 minutes): Michael Crichton died on November 4th. While he will be remembered for his novels and screenplays, one of his more lasting legacies is the television series ER.

Crichton went to medical school before he became a writer, and in 1974 he wrote a screenplay titled EW (for Emergency Ward). Nobody wanted to buy it. As Crichton later told Janine Pourroy for her book Behind the Scenes at ER, “I wanted to write something that was based in reality. Something that would have a fast pace and treat medicine in a realistic way. The screenplay was very unusual. It was very focused on the doctors, not the patients—the patients came and went. People yelled paragraphs of drug dosages at each other. It was very technical, almost a quasi-documentary.” He is right. His script resembles Frederick Wiseman’s 1970 Direct Cinema documentary Hospital, not only in content, but in structure. While there were a number of fiction films of the period that borrowed the Direct Cinema filmmaking style (M*A*S*H, The Candidate), very few borrowed the structure.

Crichton put the script in a drawer, where it stayed for fifteen years. In the late 80s, it came to Steven Spielberg, who expressed an interest in doing a medical drama. As Crichton and Spielberg talked, the director asked Crichton what else he was working on. Crichton said his newest novel was going to be about the cloning of dinosaurs from ... well, that was the end of Spielberg’s interest in EW. A few years later Tony Thomopolous of Spielberg’s Amblin’ company found the script and suggested it might make a better television series than a film. Thomopolous put Crichton together with the former showrunner of China Beach, John Wells. By now several series, starting with Hill Street Blues in the 80s, had brought that multi-story, multi-character Direct Cinema structure to television. (For a more detailed look at how that happened, see my 1992 book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing.) There were still concerns about what was now titled ER.

The two-hour pilot of ER establishes the tone and rhythm of the series. In the first act, we start with Dr. Mark Greene asleep. He is awakened by Lydia, an ER nurse, since the incoming patient is Dr. Doug Ross, the playboy pediatrician, coming in to sober up. The quiet of the morning gives way to action as victims of a building collapse are brought in. We see that Ross is a top-flight doctor, even when a patient vomits on him. At the end of the first act, Greene and Ross are asking Carol Hathaway, the head nurse, if there are any more patients. Hathaway, who has wandered through several scenes, tells them no and quietly walks off.

In the second act, we learn that Greene’s wife wants him to interview at a plusher hospital. This is one of few recurring storylines in the pilot. He goes for the interview later and near the end of the pilot decides to stay in the ER. I suspect that in Crichton’s film version we get him telling his wife, but here it is left up in the air. In the ER, John Carter shows up. He is a third year medical student starting a rotation. In a “normal” script, we would have started with him, so he could have “introduced” us to the ER. Here he comes in after we have a sense of the action of the ER. The doctor he is assigned to, Peter Benton, gives him a quick tour, which makes more sense to us since we have already seen some of the places. Later Carter has to try his stitches on Frank, a cop who shot himself in the leg while trying to hit his wife. There was no way anyone, on the show or just viewing it, would know that Frank would return several years later to work the main desk at Admitting.

Shortly before an hour into the show, we have what is so far the longest scene as Dr. Lewis talks to a man who suspects, rightly, that he has cancer. He asks Lewis to level with him, which she does. His reaction is to think of all the things he wants to do with his wife. Since character has never been Crichton’s strong suit (see my book Understanding Screenwriting for a discussion of Crichton’s writing on the three Jurassic Park movies), I suspect this may have been written, or at least rewritten by John Wells. Crichton gets the sole credit on the screenplay, but the scene feels less like him and more like Wells.

Shortly after the hour mark, at the end of Act Four, a new patient is brought into the ER. The doctors and nurses are in shock. The patient is Carol Hathaway, who tried to commit suicide. Ross seems the most stunned. We learned earlier that Hathaway and Ross flirt, although she is now engaged and as she says to Ross, “You had your chance.” Crichton has upped the ante because this is a patient we know, at least slightly, and her suicide attempt has shaken the major characters we have been following. In the original screenplay for the film, Hathaway died, but that was rewritten so at the end of the pilot we do not know whether she lives or dies. She went on in the series to rekindle her affair with Ross and go off with him to live happily ever after.

In Act Five they are treating Hathway and trying to figure out why she did it, and we get additional patients. One element in the pilot episode that does not appear to be continued into the series is that the doctors and nurses are constantly pulling sheets over patients to show they have died. In the series, patients die, but usually with really impressive death scenes.

In Act Six, Benton has a patient he thinks needs surgery. Since all the surgeons are away at a conference (possible, but unlikely) he decides to operate, at least until Dr. Morgenstern, the head of the ER, can get there. This, in spite of the fact that in Act One, a surgeon has told Benton he is not ready for surgery. The operation, which turns out well, was obviously intended to be the climax of the film.

What Crichton laid out, and what Wells and the other writers on the series carried through, was a complex structure that allowed for a variety of characters and stories to be told, either in single episodes or over several seasons. Since it was an ensemble show, cast changes, including the death of Mark Greene, were relatively easily worked into the show.

ER (2008. Episode “Heal Thyself” written by David Zabel. 60 minutes): Speaking of Mark Greene…

As I noticed in writing about Dr. Banfield’s arrival in “Another Thursday at County” (US#8), she seemed to have a passing familiarity with County General, especially one of the examination rooms. This week we learn what that was all about.

Banfield and her husband discuss something he brought up at a party last night, and she is not happy about it. We don’t know what. Out running, Banfield comes across the site of an accident, where a little girl has fallen into the lake. We begin to get flashbacks of Banfield, her husband, and their son (so it appears my guess in US#8 that the father was one of the show’s doctors was wrong; but is the son in the photograph the same one in the show?). How do we know they are flashbacks? Yes, Angela Bassett has on a long-haired wig, but she also looks younger and more at ease. How do actors do that? It’s a mystery.

As Banfield in the present accompanies the child and her father in the ambulance, we get more flashbacks of a seizure Banfield’s son had and her reluctance to take him to the hospital. She finally agrees, and at the end of Act Two they arrive at County General. The door of the ambulance is opened by Mark Greene.

Both in the past and the present we are in Trauma One, the room Banfield reacted to. In the past, Banfield gives Greene a hard time, and she eventually realizes her son has leukemia. The son dies, but in the present the girl lives. The past and present are seen in the same scene; at one point Banfield in the present looks at Banfield in the past. The cutting between the past and present has gotten quicker, as have the medical discussions. Crichton’s idea that there would be a lot of technical stuff the audiences would not necessarily understand is still alive and well on ER.

In the last of the flashbacks, Greene sees Banfield out by the river and reassures her that there was nothing she could have done that would have saved her son. Having Greene deliver the message should probably work better than it does. If you are going to bring Greene back from the dead, it had better be to have an impact on Banfield now. We do not really see that in this episode. It is nice to see Anthony Edwards (Greene) again, but he is not doing anything we did not seem him do for eight years before on the show. The same is true with the brief cameos of Dr. Weaver and Dr. Romano.

30 R(2008. “The One With the Cast of Night Court” written by Jack Burditt. 30 minutes): November 13th seemed to be a “bringing back the dead, or at least canceled, night” on NBC.

In addition to Greene returning to ER, 30 Rock pulled a twofer. Liz and Jenna’s friend from Chicago, Claire, showed up and was played by former-Friend Jennifer Aniston, hence the episode title in the “The One…” form used by Friends. The show was smart enough not to make Claire a Rachel clone, but rather a total whack-job, determined to seduce Jack in as many different situations as possible. Great choice of character and Aniston, who looked like she was having the time of her life, knocked it out of the park. Brad who? See, I told you they should have been promoting the writing rather than the guest stars.

The other canceled show that was referenced was Night Court. Kenneth, the page, was upset that the show had been canceled before the wedding between Harry and Christine got married, so Tracy arranged for some of the cast to come and enact the scene. Not quite as high flying as the Claire scenes, but meta-enough.

Ah yes, one other small point. Let me extend my personal thanks to all the American voters who made it possible that Tina Fey will not have to be moonlighting as Sarah Palin and can devote her full time and talent to this show.

Some Quick Sweeps Updates: On Two and a Half Men, Alan had a brief affair with his ex-wife, but sanity prevailed and they broke up again. She got back with Herb, her second husband, and she is now pregnant. Doing the math, it is clear to everybody but Herb that the child is probably Alan’s.

On CSI we finally got an episode in which we see Grissom suffering from Sara’s leaving, “Leave Out All the Rest.” It came while the CSI’s were investigating a murder involving torture, S&M, and other good things. So Grissom naturally went to talk to Lady Heather, his friendly neighborhood dominatrix. She recognized the murder was just a pretext. At least the issue was being actively dealt with by the show, rather than just lingering on close-ups of Grissom looking depressed. On the down side, the new CSI, Riley, was introduced in her first episode as having a sense of humor, which subsequently went missing in the following episodes. A little levity might not be out of the questions, team.

On Boston Legal David E. Kelley and Amanda Jones came up with a new take on an abortion episode, Roe, in spite of Denny’s insistence that audiences would be turning it off. The episode, broadcast on November 10th, does not seem to have caused any outrage.

And CBS, not having the courage of Kevin Smith’s convictions, has canceled The Ex-List.

Trailers: I have written about movie trailers a couple of times in relation to specific films, but this is more general.

On one of the Mad Men episodes, they ran several trailers for the upcoming remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, presumably because Jon Hamm has a supporting role in the film. I am sure many Mad Men fans loved the quiet subtlety of the original, but the trailers make the new one look like a remake of Independence Day. I doubt if the Mad Men audience is the desired demographic for that.

On the other hand, on another episode of Mad Men, there was a trailer for Revolutionary Road, which may have been too close to Mad Men in setting and tone. But it may well appeal to that demographic.

With most trailers, my general reaction is “no way.” Only occasionally do I see one that immediately makes me want to see the film. One such, in theaters now, is for Last Chance Harvey. It sets up the situation quickly: Harvey has gone to London for his daughter’s wedding, but she wants her stepfather to give her away. Harvey gets a call that he’s been fired. He meets a woman to share his troubles with. I assume from the one review I have seen so far that it is not the whole story. The trailer also suggests the script is providing a couple of great roles for its two stars, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, who appear to have great chemistry. I turned to my wife at the end of the trailer and said, “Shall I go out now and get tickets?”

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.