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Understanding Screenwriting #13: Four Christmases, Australia, Ugly Betty, Boston Legal, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #13: <em>Four Christmases</em>, <em>Australia</em>, <em>Ugly Betty</em>, <em>Boston Legal</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Four Christmases, Australia, Ugly Betty, 30 Rock, Boston Legal, CSI, and the Budd Boetticher DVD Box Set, but first…

Fan Mail: “Tom” took exception to my comments in US#12 about Kim Novak’s performance in Vertigo. He thinks it’s “not bad,” since the character is supposed to be cold and mysterious. He’s got a point, but I think Novak, whom I love it a lot of other films, is more blank than mysterious. A lot of the problem is that the script gives her very little to play and Hitchcock seems happy with that. I have often suggested to my writing students (and to many others) that instead of pulling a Brian De Palma and remaking Vertigo endlessly from the man’s point of view, how about doing a rip-off from the woman’s point of view? What does she think about all this? She’s having fun running around pretending to be the wife, knowing there’s a guy looking out for her, but what does she do when she finds out it’s part of a murder plot? Does she get revenge on the husband? Does she get revenge on the Jimmy Stewart character? So far nobody has taken me up on the challenge of doing that script, probably because, to use John Sayles’s wonderful phrase, you could make the movie, but you couldn’t get it made. What would happen is that, somewhere in the development process, some male executive, producer, or director would insist it be told from the man’s point of view.

Tom also says that we “all know” that it takes more than just a good script and a good actor to get a good performance. No, we don’t all know that. I was struck during the release of Scorsese’s Casino that it appeared that not a single American interviewer asked him about Sharon Stone’s performance, which the critics generally agreed was the best thing in the film. Did the interviewers not think to ask him, or did they ask him and not like what he had to say? When the film was released in English, there was a cover story in Sight & Sound with the cover proclaiming “Martin Scorsese on Sharon Stone and Casino.” I read the interview, and when the interviewer asked about Stone, Scorsese said, “De Niro really helped her through those scenes. He’s very generous with her and you can see how he’s always helping,” adding she worked out the costume details herself. (Sight & Sound, January 1996, page 10). He does not have anything else to say about her. In other words, Scorsese essentially admits he had nothing to do with the best performance in the picture. Other examples from other directors provided upon request.

Four Christmases(2008. Screenplay by Matt R. Allen & Caleb Wilson and Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, Story by Matt R. Allen & Caleb Wilson. 88 minutes): No, it’s not Lubitsch. But it’s funny.

The critics hated, hated, HATED this movie. And it was number one at the box office two weeks in a row. With good reason.

A couple ends up having to visit his dad, her mom, his mom, and her dad over one Christmas day. The idea struck me as having potential when I saw the trailer, but then the critics hated it, so I put off seeing it for a couple of weeks, during which it made a pile of money. So I went in with the question: why do the critics hate this movie? The first obvious answer is that the couple, Brad and Kate, are yuppies, i.e., not unlike many film critics. And while the couple is relatively sympathetic, they are also made fun of, particularly their self-absorption. If they had been nothing but charming and the families were as bizarre as they are, the critics would probably have loved it.

The first family they visit is Brad’s dad, a macho geezer with Brad’s two brothers who are worse then dad is. The brothers are constantly beating up on Brad, and when Kate gets him to stand up to them, they beat him up some more.

The second family is Kate’s mom and aunts and sisters, who embarrass Kate by bringing out the pictures of her when she was young and fat. She’s never told Brad about that, and he is not only interested, which makes things worse, but is rather flattered to be surrounded by all these women, a real change from his upbringing. Then the womenfolk drag the couple off to the fundamentalist church for Christmas services. Certainly this should be the kind of satirical jibe that yuppie film critics would love. Ah, no. Yes, the emotional excess of the church is funny, but a lot of the humor comes from Brad and Kate being drafted to play Joseph and Mary at the last minute in the church pageant. Brad’s a lawyer, i.e., a performer, and he is determined to save the show, which only makes him look more ridiculous.

Now if you were being strict about structure, the next house would be Kate’s dad. It’s not. It’s Brad’s mom, who is now shacking up with ... one of Brad’s childhood friends, who assures Brad that he “never had sexual feelings about your mom until I was thirty.” Brad is not reassured. The way the film is set up, you think there is going to be no overlapping of characters from sequence to sequence. Not so. One of Brad’s brothers shows up here, and he and his pregnant wife, both of whom seemed like white trash at the dad’s house, beat Kate and Brad at a ... wait for it ... word association game.

Finally we get to Kate’s dad’s house, where his wife has welcomed his first wife and the fundamentalist minister and Kate’s sister. We are getting more into character now and Brad and Kate are evaluating their relationship. Their semi-final clinch is an earned heart-warming moment, but the topper at the end of the movie brings us back to the humor we started with.
Not a single review I have read noticed that each of the households (by the way, guys, nice writing for the production designers and set decorators) has an Oscar-winning actor in it. None of the Oscar-winners are heavily challenged, but all the actors bring a precision to their work, since they know they are not going to be on screen that long. The movie moves briskly and if you are really turned off by one of the families, you know there will be another one along shortly.

A directing note. The director, Seth Gordon, has shot the brother-and-his-wife-word-association game in essentially one long take, and it is the sharpest thing in the picture. We see the actors develop the comic rhythm of the scene, with no interruptions. Tamra Davis, a former student of mine, told me that when she directed the Adam Sandler film Billy Madison she learned that a large part of directing comedy is putting your talents at the service of the actors. If the audience cannot see or hear what the actors are doing, they are not going to laugh.

Lubitsch knew that.

Australia(2008. Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann & Stuart Beattie & Ronald Harwood & Richard Flanagan, story by Baz Luhrmann. 165 minutes): So-so script, execrable direction.

Australian novelist Richard Flanagan was called in as the last of three writers to work with Luhrmann on the script. Flanagan is quoted in an article in the November/December issue of Creative Screenwriting about the process: “Baz is great in that once you have an idea he loves chasing it to the endpoint. Once we got a good idea he was happy to plow up the rest of the movie to make it work, so the more good ideas we had, the more work we created for ourselves.” Let’s just say this field has been plowed over a few too many times.

The script starts with Nullah, an Aborigine boy, telling us in voiceover the first time he sees “Mrs. Boss,” Lady Sarah Ashley, who has come from England to get her husband back. Fine, except that we then go back to England to see her deciding to come. And we get a meet-cute with the Drover when he is in the middle of a bar fight. The Drover drives her to her husband’s ranch, Faraway Downs, and we get, twenty minutes into the picture, a repeat of the opening scene. We do not need it twice.

Sarah’s husband has been killed and she decides to take his cattle herd to Darwin to sell to the army. She knows nothing about running cattle, so the Drover heads up the cattle drive, along with Sarah, her husband’s drunken accountant, Nullah, and some others. Several reviewers have complained that the movie goes on too long after the cattle drive, as if you could not have a large trek early in the picture. That’s not the problem. After all, in Lawrence of Arabia the trek to Aqaba starts at 53 minutes into the picture, ends 53 minutes later, and the picture goes on another 110 minutes. But the attack on Aqaba makes it necessary for Lawrence to then go to Cairo to tell the British, which in turns sets up Lawrence’s future raids on the Turks. The problem in Australia is that the end of the cattle drive halts the film’s momentum. Almost every plot question brought up so far (can they get the cattle there? Will Faraway Downs be saved? Will Sarah and the Drover realize they are made for each other?) is answered at the end of the drive. The script then has to start all over again, and the remaining hour or so of the film is taken up with several plots lines, none of which have the momentum of the cattle drive. At many different points in the last hour, the music could swell up and we would accept the film is over. Then as we get closer to the end of the film, the scenes are dragged out at an interminable length. There are quicker ways to get the characters together and give them a happy ending.

Stuart Beattie, the earliest writer with Luhrmann on the film, said in the same Creative Screenwriting article that he and Luhrmann studied, among other epic romances, Casablanca, Giant, and Gone with the Wind. They learned badly from Gone with the Wind, which also has the flaw of going on way too long in its last 45 minutes, and they learned nothing from the speed and character development of Casablanca. But they truly missed learning from Giant, especially in the older film’s handling of the Mexican American characters. The Aboriginal material in Australia feels very tacked on, and was handled much better in Rabbit-Proof Fence.

The film could scrape by if Luhrmann’s direction were not so awful. He is not cutting quite as frantically as he was in Moulin Rouge!, but his twitchy style almost ruins the meet-cute at the beginning. It does ruin the arrival of the Faraway Downs herd into Darwin, since he kills his best joke of one high-society lady seeing a calf wandering down the street by cutting away to several other people before cutting back to the rest of the herd going by. Luhrmann has to be the most humorless director since Peter Jackson.

Luhrmann’s direction of the actors wanders all over the map. Hugh Jackman as the Drover and Brandon Walters are wonderful (and Jackman has a good, if not great hat). On the other hand, Nicole Kidman, one of the great actresses of our time, is a mess here. Luhrmann has let her get away with being overly fidgety in her first scenes, so much so you just want to not look her. It takes a lot for me not to want to look at Nicole Kidman. She settles down a bit later, but never really finds the character. Jack Thompson, one of Australia’s first team, overacts badly as the drunken accountant. He is suffering from a problem many actors have: he read the script. He discovered his character gets killed off early in the film and became determined to do as much as he could in the screen time he has. You have seen other actors do this, I am sure. Directors have to keep an eye out to avoid that.

Like Seth Gordon did with his Oscar-winners in Four Christmases.

Ugly Betty(2008. Episode “Bad Amanda” written by Chris Black. 30 minutes): Developing relationships.

Betty is getting tired of Amanda, the be-yotch at the office, being her unwanted roommate. So sweet little Betty is unhappy when Daniel likes her idea for an article for their online edition about living in New York City without a lot of money, but insists that Betty and Amanda do it together. Normally we are more sympathetic to Betty than anyone else, but Daniel is right this time. Amanda knows how to cage free stuff, such as taking dresses out for a spin and then returning them. Amanda picks up a couple of guys at a gallery opening who take them to dinner at a fancy restaurant. And leave them with the bill. But Betty has learned a thing or two from Amanda and persuades the restaurant owner that Mode will be doing a spread on the restaurant, and the owner comps them. What Black is doing is developing the relationship between Betty and Amanda, going beyond their usual scenes (Amanda snips at Betty, Betty looks hurt). By the end of the episode, Betty is not too upset when Daniel suggests that she and Amanda do a regular column on the subject. However, Betty does not bother to tell Amanda this and lets her suffer through the second job she got.

He does the same thing with Wilhelmina and Christina, who is carrying a baby for Willie. Usually their scenes have been Willie barking at Christina, but Black has given them a nice heart-to-heart about the baby.

There have also been some other episodes earlier in the season that have done similar things with the other characters, including Marc. So far the writers have done well at deepening the relationships.

30 Rock(2008. Episode “Reunion” written by Matt Hubbard. 30 minutes): A high school reunion episode? What a cliché. Not.

For writers of television sitcoms, there are certain standard episodes you go to when you cannot think of anything else. The surprise birthday party. The talent show. The trip to Hawaii (usually at the beginning of the third or fourth season). And of course the high school reunion.

Usually a reunion show has the main character discovering his or her old love has gotten fat or bald or both. Or that the people who bullied him or her have turned into falling down drunks. Or, if the writers are really adventurous, the main character comes away happy he or she is not in high school any more, although with the focus by advertisers on the younger demographic, you won’t see a lot of those any more.

In this episode, Liz is afraid to go to her reunion because everybody bullied her in high school. Guess again, Liz. THEY think SHE bullied them, and they really don’t want her and her snippy sarcasm around, even if it has made her rich writing for television. Not your usual reunion show. And to make it even better, not a big-name guest star in sight. Now that Oprah, Jennifer and Steve have kickstarted the ratings for 30 Rock, it can get back to doing what it does best.

Boston Legal (2008. Episodes “Made in China/Last Call,” teleplay by David E. Kelley, story by Susan Dickes & David E. Kelley & Lauren Mackenzie. 120 minutes): Farewell to Alan and Denny and Shirley and Jerry and Katey.

In the “Thanksgiving” episode I mentioned briefly in US#12, it was also brought up that Crane, Poole, and Schmidt was financially failing. This comes home to roost in the first of these two series finale episodes when the firm is bought by a Chinese company, which would just as soon have Alan and Denny leave. Alan, making one of his wonderful summations, tells the Chinese he will beat them in court because his case is more winnable and the jury will like him. The Chinese agree to keep them. At their weekly balcony meeting, Denny suggests that he and Alan get married, so Alan can inherit Denny’s money and start a legal aid firm Alan is thinking about. Alan agrees, complete with references to “jumping the shark” and finding a new network, “one that cares.” Kelley again munching on the hand that feeds him, as he and the writers did a few episodes previously when Carl in a case about ageism mentioned that there was only one show on television that featured actors over fifty. He started to say Boston Legal, then said, “But that would break the wall,” as though there were any wall left by how.

In the second episode, Shirley and Carl’s wedding plans get disrupted by a priest and a rabbi who get into an argument. Alan and Denny are hit with an injunction against their marriage by the gay and lesbian group who thinks they are making a mockery of gay marriage, since they are relentlessly heterosexual. Alan goes before the Supreme Court to argue for Denny’s right to an experimental drug, but he and Kelley cannot help but whack the current court over the head a few times before they actually argue the case. Denny and Alan have planned to go off fishing and get married at the lodge. When Justice Scalia mentions from the bench that he is about to go on vacation, you know exactly where this is going. Denny and Alan have invited Carl and Shirley, along with the judge who dismissed the complaint, to join them and make it a double wedding. Yes, Scalia shows up and he marries the two couples. I have heard no indication of what, if anything, the real Scalia thought about all this. Maybe he was happy being portrayed in a positive light.

Denny and Alan are back on the balcony—-no, wait a minute. It’s two of the Chinese lawyers, talking about how crazy Denny and Alan are.

Which explains why Jerry and Katey did not decide to make it a triple wedding. We need the scene of Jerry walking her home and kissing. Kelley is at least showing some restraint, and setting up the final scene:

By the time we cut back to the balcony, Alan and Denny are there. And they have their wedding dance. Sweet and funny, and a great sendoff to a show that has given at least some of us as much pleasure as any other David E. Kelley series.

Even if, in the real world, the firm would have insisted Denny retire years ago. But this is television, which gave us Jed Bartlett as President of the United States for most of the time where, in reality, we had to make do with George W. Bush.

CSI (2008. Episode “19 Down,” written by Naren Shankar & Carol Mendelsohn. 60 minutes): Transition game.

We know that Grissom has been building up to leaving. The writers handle his statement to the team in an understated way. He is passing out the daily assignments, then adds that he is leaving. And that’s the teaser for this episode.

The writers then follow up with scenes with Grissom and members of the team individually, most of whom are surprised. Catherine is not. She’s seen it coming. I’ve always thought she was the smartest one of the bunch. These scenes are spread out during the case they are working on, the way they might be in real life.

The case involves a serial killer they had put away years ago, and the only way Grissom can talk to him is sign up for a course given by a college professor. Dr. Raymond Langston has set up teleconferencing calls between his class and the killer in prison. Grissom hasn’t told Langston he is a CSI, so Langston’s a little put out when he finds out. We do find out that Langston is also a medical doctor but got away from it when he was at a hospital where an “Angel of Death” nurse killed several patients. Langston had seen the evidence, but couldn’t crack the case. Grissom and Langston work together, and eventually they find the killer’s outside assistant. Unfortunately, he’s been murdered, which lead Captain Brass to say to Grissom, “I guess you won’t be leaving any time soon.” There is no indication in this episode that Langston will take over, especially since it is established earlier that Catherine will run the unit.

The writers, on this episode and the entire show, are certainly taking their time easing Grissom out, but it at least feels like a more realistic progression than we often get on series television. Sometimes television is Denny Crane and Jed Bartlett, sometimes it’s real.

The Budd Boetticher DVD Box Set(2008. Films: The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station): Required viewing.

I was delighted to see Matt Zoller Seitz’s smart essay on this box set. He is dead on right when he writes “They are marvels of economy and elegance-—a tutorial in classical narrative cinema.” That’s true not only of Boetticher’s direction, but also of the screenplays. Just as the direction does not have a single wasted shot, the screenplays do not have a single wasted scene or line of dialogue. And Charles Lang Jr. (he is not, by the way, the cinematographer of the same name) and especially Burt Kennedy create a wonderful galley of characters for a wonderful gallery of character actors to play. Kennedy wrote some other interesting westerns in the later sixties, but none were as good as these.

I would write more about this, but I have not seen several of these films in years. I am trusting that Santa Claus herself will do as I asked and give me the set for Christmas. Happy Holidays!

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.