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Understanding Screenwriting #113: The Bling Ring, The Heat, White House Down, Monsters University, & Unfaithfully Yours

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Understanding Screenwriting #113: <em>The Bling Ring</em>, <em>The Heat</em>, <em>White House Down</em>, <em>Monsters University</em>, & <em>Unfaithfully Yours</em>

Coming Up In This Column: The Bling Ring, The Heat, White House Down, Monsters University, Unfaithfully Yours, but first…

Moving on: This is going to be my last Understanding Screenwriting column for The House Next Door. Don’t worry, it’s not going away for good, just moving to a new location. Earlier this year, I got an announcement from Erik Bauer, founder, publisher, and editor of Creative Screenwriting magazine. In addition to writing for the magazine, I was on the editorial board from 1994 to 2008, when the board was dissolved. Erik had sold the magazine and the Creative Screenwriting empire (website, screenwriting expo, etc.) to another man in 2007. Unfortunately, the recession came along the next year, and the magazine closed down in 2011. This spring Erik had what he called a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to buy back the Creative Screenwriting empire, and his announcement said that he’s intending to revive the magazine, beginning in 2014. In the meantime, he’s reviving the Creative Screenwriting website in August, and my Understanding Screenwriting column will be moving to it then. The new address will be www.creativescreenwriting.com, and he hopes to have the new website up the first week in August. I trust you will all come and visit and leave the kind of intelligent comments you’ve spoiled me with for the last five years. And I must finish my work here at the House with a great big “thank you” to both Keith and Ed for their support over the years.

Fan Mail: “shazwagon” raised the question in regard to the close-up of Jesse at the end of the opening scene in Before Midnight: “How do you know that it was the writer’s decision to show the close-up later?” That’s an easy case; since both the actor involved and the director were also the writers, we can pretty much be sure it came from them. In other cases, it can be a tricky question. Generally writers will make an effort to write in reactions for the characters (but not camera directions, since directors pay no attention at all to writers’ suggestions in that area). If, as in the close-up in Before Midnight, the reaction is related to everything else going on in the scene (here the counterpoint to the dramatic action with Jesse and Henry), then it almost certainly comes from the writers. If actors and directors in general are at the top of their form, you feel that the moment is happening now right in front of your eyes. Look at Jeff’s (James Stewart) reaction to the itch in an early scene in Rear Window. It seems the camera just happened to catch him when the itch did. Not so; it’s all laid out in John Michael Hayes’s great script.

David Ehrenstein is back to disagreeing with me and all’s right with the world. He thought Behind the Candelabra was better than I did. He especially liked the performances by Matt Damon and Michael Douglas. I liked the performances, but felt the script didn’t give them as much to work with as it could have.

The Bling Ring (2013; written by Sofia Coppola; based on the Vanity Fair article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” by Nancy Jo Sales; 90 minutes.)

Sofia Coppola, meet W.E. Burnett and John Huston. You may remember that, in US#68, I found Coppola’s Somewhere very disappointing, but I also said we shouldn’t give up on Coppola. The Bling Ring shows why, and it’s one of her best films yet. Never give up on talent. Here Coppola’s minimalist style, which was a little too minimalist in Somewhere, is perfect for the subject.

We start with the arrest of a group of teenagers who had been breaking into the houses of Hollywood celebrities, some richer than others; just look at the difference between Paris Hilton and Rachel Bilson’s homes. In the opening scene, we get bits of the Bling Ringers’ comments and reactions to their arrest (though not as much as we get at the end of the film). Then we get an extended interrogation scene involving Marc, the one boy in the ring, which leads us to flashbacks of how the group got into the robberies and Coppola intermittently using Marc’s comments as narration. For the first 45 minutes of the film, we’re watching the kids, and here Coppola’s writing and direction begin to remind me of John Huston. Both look at their subjects from a distance and watch them sweat. The robbers here aren’t the professionals scripted by Huston, W.R. Burnett, and Ben Maddow in The Asphalt Jungle, but Coppola is looking at them in the same way. You may think that’s just a directorial choice, but it’s there in the writing: the shallow dialogue, the cluelessness of their actions.

Forty-five minutes into the film we get the first shot that shows the cops are tracking the Bling Ringers, but then it’s another 15 before the arrests come. I would have preferred that to happen a little sooner, but Coppola is letting us wallow in the narcissistic stupidity of these kids. We do get some particularly well-written scenes early on, such as one where the mother of one of the girls gives her and another girl who’s sort of her foster child a home-schooling lesson on what they can learn from Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. But after the arrests, Coppola has a whole lineup of great scenes as we watch the girls react to being caught. Their coolness collapses, particularly that of ringleader Rebecca, who after a short beat starts ratting out her friends. Then we get an interview with Nicki and a reporter, but Nicki’s home-schooling mom keeps horning in on the interview, much to Nicki’s irritation. I thought Coppola was going to end with Marc being taken to prison, but she’s got one more great scene: a reporter interviewing Nicki after her jail time. Nicki was in the same jail as Lindsey Lohan, one of their victims, and the reporter is more interested in Lohan than Nicki, nailing the adult culture that made the Bling Ring possible.

The Heat (2013; written by Katie Dippold; 117 minutes.)

The Heat

This is why we have screenwriters. The setup is familiar from a hundred buddy-cop movies: Uptight and ambitious F.B.I. agent Ashburn is paired with scruffy Boston cop Mullins to bring down a drug lord. The difference here is that they’re both women, the former played by Sandra Bullock and the latter by this year’s “it girl,” Melissa McCarthy. The writer, Katie Dippold, wrote for MadTV and Parks and Recreation, so she knows about comedy. The conventional plotting rips through plot details we may miss, but we have seen enough of these films to figure what’s going on. The secondary characters are also run of the mill, but what Dippold focuses on are the two great characters she’s created for Bullock and McCarthy. They make the film work, and they especially help us get over the foul language.

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