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Understanding Screenwriting #14: The Reader, Milk, The Day the Earth Stood Still, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #14: <em>The Reader</em>, <em>Milk</em>, <em>The Day the Earth Stood Still</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Reader, Milk, The Day the Earth Stood Still, two Librarian films, but first…

Fan Mail: As usual, the discussion among the readership on Novak and Vertigo was fascinating, especially the nuances of the actor-director relationship that several commenters got into. Now if I can just train you all to look at the writer-actor and writer-director relationships with the same kind of nuance… I do agree with “Tom” that I do not want to turn this into the “Kim Novak Channel.” Fifty years ago when Novak burst on the scene about the same time I burst into puberty, I would have loved to have spent all day thinking about Novak, but time passes and things change.

I also want to avoid this column being as much or more about directors than writing, although I realize I bring some of this on myself, since I do a lot of director-bashing. Filmmaking is very much a collaborative art, and the writer-director collaboration is central. The subject comes up again in this column, particularly in the discussion of The Reader.

Another issue that came up about Vertigo is the fact that we can like movies in spite of their flaws, including flaws in the script. This is true even of a pro-writer fellow like me, as I demonstrated in US#5 in talking about How the West Was Won. I love Kings Row for its script, art direction, and cinematography, even though the acting is generally awful.

Thanks to “st” for the item on Scorsese and Stone. It did not surprise me in the slightest.

As for Matt and Anonymous’s suggestions for using a couple of my lines about Four Christmases as blurbs on the DVD box, the company is welcome to try, but I doubt if most of the potential fans of the film would even know who Lubitsch was. I do, by the way, try to avoid writing stuff that would turn me into a quote whore. There are more than enough of those in the world. See if you can find any potential blurbs in the following:~

The Reader (2008. Screenplay by David Hare, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink. 123 minutes): Sometimes the magic works. And usually that’s because of all the time, talent, and effort everybody puts into it.

According to David Hare, The Reader was a difficult book to adapt. Talking to Charlie Rose on the December 24th edition of Rose’s PBS show, Hare said he found two problems. The first was that the novel was written in the first person, so he had to create scenes that represent what the “author” is telling us. In other words, the age-old problem screenwriters always face: How Do You Show This? The second was that the novel is written by “Michael,” the middle-aged German, to tell the secret of his relationship at the age of 15 with an older woman he later discovered was an SS guard at Auschwitz. Since nobody ever made a movie to reveal a secret, Hare had to develop a different structure. In Hare’s screenplay, the adult Michael is building up slowly to tell his estranged daughter about his affair. Thus we get—interspersed with the scenes of young Michael and his lover Hanna and scenes of Michael as an adult—scenes in which his daughter is referenced or appears. One, in which he tells the daughter he has never been an open person, manages to suggest in the shortest possible time the beginning of a reconciliation between the two that will pay off in the final scene.

Hare, one of the great contemporary British playwrights (Plenty, Racing Demon) has also written screenplays and directed films himself. His brilliant 2002 screenplay The Hours was directed by Stephan Daldry, who does the honors here. They are not only friends and co-workers, but they share a deep understanding of how both theatre and film work. Hare gets the current script off to a fast start, since, like The Hours, he has a lot of material to cover, and he knows that Daldry and his cast can hit the right notes quickly. Look at how fast Hanna’s character is established (and just established, since Hare is going to develop it in much greater depth from what we first learn about her). We see her take charge of Michael and lead him into the affair almost before Michael is ready and without Hanna realizing the moral implications of the affair with a boy of 15. Look at how those qualities of character come back in what we learn about her later. Kate Winslet fills the character out with precise, actorly details. She even walks like a German. From the first few scenes with Winslet there is the rare blending of the script, the direction and the acting that make it difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. The young German actor David Kross is not as expressive as Winslet (but then who is?); Daldry uses that lack of expressiveness to suggest how unformed a person Michael is at 15. Think about that in relation to what we have discussed over the last several weeks about Hitchcock’s use of Novak’s “blankness” in Vertigo. Ralph Fiennes takes over as the adult Michael, using his minimalist style to match Kross’s, but which also suggests how the love affair stunted Michael’s emotional growth.

Hare, Daldry and Winslet told Charlie Rose that they did not want to make the character of Hanna “likeable” or “humanize” her, and they do not in the traditional sense. They do make her a human being that we can believe has done the things we later learn she has done. The love story always makes us a little uneasy because we can see what Michael (infatuated and not able at 15 to have a distance on the affair) and Hanna (with her moral blindness) cannot. We begin to sense the damage the affair is causing Michael in his scenes with his schoolmates.

After Hanna disappears from Michael’s life, we jump ahead to Michael in law school. His class goes to a trial in the mid-sixties of several women on trial for working at Auschwitz. Look at how Hare lets us know how Michael knows one of them is Hanna. The trial scenes are compelling because Hare has written a double set of reactions. Michael is reacting to learning all about Hanna, and Hanna is only barely beginning to come to grips with what she has done. Trials are notoriously talky, but Hare’s use of reactions make these very cinematic scenes.

The script does slow down a bit in the law seminar scenes. There the issues of German guilt and how it affects the next generation of Germans are discussed in a couple of scenes that are too “on the nose,” as opposed to the subtle elements discussed above in the actual trial scenes. I suspect the seminar scenes are much longer in the novel and that Schlink considered them the heart of the book. Hare and Daldry may think they are the heart of the movie, but as often happens with scenes screenwriters think are essential, the rest of the film handles the material so well that these scenes may not be needed. At least they do not have to be as long as they are. The same is true of Michael visiting Auschwitz. I am not sure exactly how long that montage lasts, but we get the point well before it ends.

Hanna goes to prison and the adult Michael sends her tapes of his reading great novels, just as he used to read them to her before they made love. What he has realized in her trial is that she is deeply ashamed she is illiterate and would rather go to prison than admit it. Look at the great, quick scene where the other defendants turn on her because they know that about her. From Michael’s tapes, she learns to read during her twenty years in prison. Being literate is a good thing, right? Yes and no, in Hanna’s case. It makes her come to understand what she has done, so much so that she kills herself when she is to be released from prison. Hare has written two two-character scenes for the end of the film. The first is the adult Michael coming to visit Hanna right before her release. She thinks he still loves her, but when she touches his hand, he pulls it away. She says, “Then, it’s all over.” That’s what thirty years of writing plays and screenplays and directing films has led Hare to: giving us that important moment in a gesture and a simple line. The gesture and the line are not in the scene in the book, which Hare has beautifully developed from what Schlink has given him. The second two-character scene is the adult Michael talking to a woman who testified against Hanna. The scene articulates, through character rather than speeches, volumes of emotion and attitudes about what happened and how the woman and Michael have dealt and are still trying to deal with it. Which is what the movie is all about. Hare said he thought Michael’s affair with Hanna was a metaphor for Germany’s affair with Hitler. Metaphors are a bitch to bring off in film. Hare and the others do it, especially in this scene.

O.K., I can’t resist. One other great, short scene: Hanna and the young Michael are in the bathtub. He is reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover to her. Watch and listen to her reactions, especially her last line.

Milk (2008. Written by Dustin Lance Black. 128 minutes): As often happens, the documentary is better than the feature film.

The documentary was the 1984 The Times of Harvey Milk, which looked back on the life and political work of the first openly gay San Francisco city supervisor. What the documentary filmmakers did was introduce Milk through interviews with people who knew him and worked with him. The interview that always sticks in my mind is one with a straight male union representative who talks about how Milk charmed him into working with him. The interview tells us a lot about Milk, but a lot about the other people as well.

There have been many attempts since the documentary to make a feature about Milk, but this is the one that got made. In the November/December Creative Screenwriting, Dustin Lance Black gives credit to the success of Brokeback Mountain, saying, “If it weren’t for that movie ... doing so well, I don’t think we would have been able to make this movie the way we did.” One sign of that is the scene, very early in the picture, of Milk picking up Scott Smith, his first lover and campaign manager. It is obviously a pickup scene, with a long kiss between the two men out in the open, not hidden in any way. Black and the director, Gus Van Sant, let us know right up front this is going to be a movie about gay males. As the film progresses, there are more love scenes between men and they seem perfectly natural in the context. Yes, as both Keith Uhlich and Dan Callahan have pointed out in their comments on the film (November 26th and 25th HND, respectively), we do not get the actual sex scenes out in the open, in the way we do with Michael and Hanna in The Reader, but I’ve always been a bit squeamish about explicit sex scenes in movies, gay or straight. They all seem to be rather generic: naked bodies of the stars or their stunt doubles rolling around in the shadows. At least in The Reader, the sex scenes tell us a LOT about Hanna and Michael’s character.

And character, or rather the lack of it, is one of the biggest problems with Black’s screenplay. Scott Smith appears to have almost no character at all. He is described as being a brilliant campaign manager, but we never see his brilliance. When he tells Milk “I can’t go through another one [campaign],” we have no idea why. Black has the same problem with most of the other supporting characters. Cleve Jones is one-note enthusiasm. Anne Kronenberg is given a great entrance, but then we don’t see that much of her again. And Jack Lira is strictly a cliché. Dan White, the ex-supervisor who shot Milk, is developed a little more, with at least some texture to him. Milk himself is well-written and provides a great opportunity for Sean Penn to be loveable, a word not usually associated with Penn’s performances, for the first time since Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The other major problem with the script is that Black is very “on the nose” about the political elements of the story. There is none of the texture that Hare provides in The Reader. Black is preaching to the choir, with the exception of some of the Dan White scenes. Anita Bryant is seen only in news footage, while John Briggs, who promoted the Proposition 6 that Milk helped to defeat, is an on-screen character, but very much a cliched one. Bryant is too, or at least the selection of clips of her turn her into one. It is not surprising then that, at the end of the film when we are given titles that tell us what happened to most of the people, we never find out what happened to Briggs and Bryant. Briggs continued in politics until the early eighties, then got into consulting. Bryant went through bankruptcy and divorce.

The end titles also give us pictures of the “real” characters, and with all deference to the actors playing them, the real people look a whole lot more interesting than the actors do in the film. Sometimes, reality is just better.

The Day the Eearth Stood Still (2008. Written by David Scarpa, based on the screenplay by Edmund H. North. 103 minutes): What, no Klaatu barada nikto?

Julian Blaustein, the producer of the 1951 original The Day the Earth Stood Still, didn’t really want to make a science fiction movie. Science fiction was then the province of B-pictures and B-picture studios, not majors like Twentieth Century-Fox. What Blaustein wanted to do was a film commenting on the Cold War. In view of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Blacklist, Blaustein figured a frontal assault would be too controversial. He had the genius idea that a minor little genre like sci-fi was a way to sneak a message by. He found a willing partner in screenwriter Edmund H. North and a willing studio head in Darryl F. Zanuck. It was North who took the Harry Bates short story “Farewell to the Master” and turned it into a political story. Zanuck, from his years of doing message pictures like The Grapes of Wrath and Gentleman’s Agreement, knew that the secret was to make the story and characters compelling, which he pushed North and Blaustein to do. (The backstory here is from James Shaw’s article “The Day the Earth Stood Still: Dramatizing a Political Tract” in the July/August 1998 Creative Screenwriting and Zanuck’s August 10, 1950 memo to Blaustein and North reprinted in Rudy Behlmer’s Memo From Darryl F. Zanuck.)

Zanuck, who had virtually no experience with science fiction, pushed them to establish the reality of the story by starting, not as one draft did in the spaceship, but with the real world reacting to the news of the ship. The director, Robert Wise, shot a lot of the film on location in Washington D.C. in the style of the “torn from the headlines” films of the period, such as Boomerang! (See US#12 for a discussion of that film and its style). Wise’s directing style is straightforward and gets us through the story with a minimum of flash. The one scene that has never really worked is the one in the cab when the spaceman Klaatu has to explain to Helen how to communicate with Gort, his rather large robot. He is teaching her to say “Klaatu barada nikto.” There always has seemed to me the wrong kind of tension between the actors, Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. Recently Neal has said that the most difficult thing about doing the film was the language, by which she obviously means this phrase. If you look at the scene knowing that, you can see that Rennie and Neal never look each other in the eye during the scene, since they obviously had trouble keeping straight faces saying such gobbledygook. I have no idea if somewhere in the Fox archives are outtakes of them breaking up, but I would hope there are.

The first version of The Day the Earth Stood Still was made for a relatively modest $995,000 and brought in theatrical rentals of $1.85 million. A hit, but not a huge hit. But even films that are not huge hits can have a long life and influence the culture. Little boys around the world, not being trained as classical actors like Patricia Neal, ran around for years easily yelling “Klaatu barada nikto.” On a more serious level, Blaustein’s idea of putting political content into science fiction pictures was eagerly taken up by the makers of such fifties sci-fi films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Godzilla. And later science fiction films, most of them made by the now-grownup little boys who had run around yelling “Klaatu barada nikto,” became an A-picture genre, with budgets to match. So it is not surprising that someone came up with the idea of remaking the film.

David Scarpa said in an interview with the WGA that he was not particularly familiar with the original film when he heard Fox was planning a remake. He threw his name into the ring, and was surprised to discover that he was the only candidate. Instead of looking at the film, he started developing his own ideas of what a new version would be, based on the setup of the original: a man from outer space comes to earth with a message for earthlings. It was not until well into the process that he saw the film. He was smart to do it that way, since, as he recognized, if he had seen the film first, he would have been too intimidated to write the new one. He said that if you tried to do a literal, shot-by-shot remake, it would not work because the times have changed. He is right in more ways than one. In the original, Klaatu has come to warn earth to give up their nuclear weapons, a major political concern of the early fifties. That horse has left the barn. Scarpa’s idea, which is a good one, is that Klaatu has come to warn earthlings not to destroy the planet, i.e., Klaatu as Al Gore. That makes the story more contemporary, but Scarpa has followed Zanuck’s original advice and focused on the characters. The original film is pretty much told from an omniscient perspective. The new version tells the story from Helen’s point of view. In the older film, Helen is simply some kind of office worker. Here, forty-five years after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, she is an astrobiologist (according to the film) or a xenobiologist (according to a story on Scarpa in the November/December Creative Screenwriting). This gives her greater involvement in the story.

Scarpa also realized the story would have to have more action than the original. The look and feel of the earlier film is simple, but audiences today expect science fiction films will have A-picture budgets ($90 million in this case) and A-picture action and special effects scenes. So the sequences of Klaatu in the original walking around Washington, learning about humans, have been replaced by his being chased by a lot of military people and equipment. There is not, thank goodness, action overkill, as there might have been.

As inventive as Scarpa has been, he has not carried through as well as he could have on the idea that Klaatu is warning us about the ecological problems on earth. When Gort, now much larger than the original but with the same lack of personality, disintegrates into what look like little metal termites, he/they are just rampaging monsters, with little connection to the ecological point. In the original Gort can stand up to weapons, since it proves that Klaatu has the power to destroy earth if they do not stop the arms race. Here, Gort and the Gortlets are just used for special effects scenes. The idea of earth standing still, central to the original as a show of Klaatu’s power, here seems tacked on, as if they got well into the script and realized that if they were going to use the name of the original, they had to use that gimmick. Couldn’t Scarpa have come up with some ecological variation on that?

In the original film, Klaatu makes an admittedly long-winded speech to a group of important people, so we know they have heard his message. The current film is missing a similar scene. Klaatu tells Helen he will not destroy the earthlings if they change their ways, but has that message gotten through to anybody in any position of power? We don’t know.

Scarpa has developed the characters more than North did. This is especially true of Helen. It is alas also true of her son, Bobby in the original, Jacob here. Bobby shows Klaatu around, but Jacob spends more time than we need dealing with issues of his dead mother and father. Helen is his stepmother, who married his father after the death of his wife. Which is spending a lot of time just so Jacob can make a lot of comments about how his dad would have killed the aliens. Which, since Helen is white and Jacob is African-American, is a lo-o-o-ng way to go for an inside joke: Jacob is played by Jaden Smith, the son of Will Smith, who kicked alien butt in Independence Day.

Scarpa has given Klaatu an interesting twist. This Klaatu has just been morphed into the human body we see him in, and Scarpa gives Klaatu a line that it is going to take him some time to adjust to his new body. Keanu Reeves works that effectively in his minimalist style. Scarpa was also smart enough not to force Reeves and Jennifer Connelly to try to say, “Klaatu barada nikto.”

So. Is it as good as the original? No. But it is not as bad as we were all afraid it was going to be. On the other hand, consider this: several of the supporting roles are taken by actors we are familiar with from television, such as Jon Hamm from Mad Men and Kyle Chandler from Friday Night Lights. Their presence only makes you aware of how much better the writing is that they work with on television.

The Librarian: Quest for the Spear (2004. Written by David N. Titcher. 106 minutes) and The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines (2006. Written by Marco Schnabel, based on characters created by David N. Titcher. 92 minutes): Saturday afternoon movies.

By Saturday December 20th, I had finished my classes and assigned the final grades. My wife was off at church choir practice, so I wandered down to the neighborhood Blockbuster in search of a Saturday afternoon movie: fun, not too challenging, probably with a lot of action. I had seen the promos for The Librarian films on TNT, but had not bothered to see any. Blockbuster had the first two, and I picked up the second one, primarily because it had Gabrielle Anwar in it, whom I love in Burn Notice. It was entertaining enough that a couple of days later when I had the time, I went back and picked up the first one. I suppose I could be flashy and write about them in the order in which I saw them, but I am just not that much of a show-off. Really.

The setup is that Flynn Carsen, a bookish geek with a multitude of degrees (David Titcher seems to think getting advanced degrees is so easy you can just pile them on), gets hired at the mysterious Library, which is a combination of library and Smithsonian Institute. Not only does it have books, but rare items, such as the Lost Ark of the Covenant and Excalibur, which seems to float around on its own. Quest for the Spear begins with Flynn being hired by Judson, who seems to run the place, along with his administrative assistant Charlene. We get a long introduction to the library, which I suspect is part of the additional fourteen minutes added to the DVD from the original broadcast. It is not long before Flynn, who is a complete geek, is sent to South America to retrieve part of a Spear that, when combined with the two other parts, gives great power, yadda, yadda, yadda. The fun of the film is that Flynn is a complete klutz, but he knows stuff that can get him out of most situations. He is protected by Nichole, a strapping blonde, who rightly tells him he is the brains and she is the brawn. That’s a nice twist, and one that has been picked up on by more than a few television shows such as Chuck. Flynn is played by Noah Wyle, who explains in the introduction to the DVD that he wanted to do the part because he had been doing heavyweight drama (ER, of course) and this film had comedy, romance, and adventure. Not bad, but he is not yet as comfortable in those genres as he is in drama. Nichole is played by Sonya Walger, whom any geek would love to have protecting him. The characters and Wyle and Walger develop a nice chemistry over the course of the film.

The action is Indiana Jones on a budget, but the CGI effects work well enough on even a large-screen television. The humor is above average, such as when Nichole slaps one of the women villains upside the head for thinking romantically about Flynn and says, “Get your own geek.” The best line comes when Flynn is back at the library, trying to keep the bad guy from putting together the parts of the Spear. Flynn has called Judson and asked him to bring the Marines. Judson shows up alone and when Flynn questions this, Judson shows him his Marine Corps tattoo. A fair amount of martial arts ensues, ending with Judson asking the bad guys, “Anybody else want a piece of me?” O.K., now if Judson is played by Tom Selleck, that’s a conventional line. But Judson is Bob Newhart.

At the end of Quest, Flynn is trying to set up a meeting with Nichole and his mother, who does not really believe that Flynn finally has a girlfriend. Nichole rides up on a motorcycle, tells Flynn she is being chased. Flynn gets on the motorcycle and they drive off, chased by some baddies. His mom is stupefied.

So Return to King Solomon’s Mines should pick up at that point, right? Nope. Nichole has disappeared, which is a loss for the film. (She may well be missing in action because after this movie Sonya Walger got a lot of work in recurring roles on television series, such as Lost.) She is replaced by Anwar, playing an archeologist as a variation on Fiona from Burn Notice. I love her in the series, but here she and her character do not develop the kind of chemistry that Wyle and Walger did with their characters. Flynn is less of a klutz here than he was in the first one, which also cuts down on whatever natural tension the character might have had with Anwar’s character. David Titcher has been replaced as the writer and Schnabel’s dialogue is not up to Titcher’s.

The Judson and Charlene characters are given more to do in this film than in the first one, taking advantage of the experience of both Newhart and Jane Curtin as Charlene. Charlene has become a combination of Miss Moneypenny and Judi Dench’s M. The setting this time is Africa, with South Africa filling in for Egypt, Morocco, and what appears to be Utah in the opening sequence, which owes more than a little to the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But then both of these films owe a lot to their predecessors, not only the Indiana Jones films, but those films’ predecessors. After all, in this second film, they are not heading for Joe Smith’s Mines, but H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. Part of the fun of the Librarian movies is to spot the references.

The third film in the series, The Librarian: The Curse of the Judas Chalice (Hmm, DaVinci Code, anyone?) was broadcast in early December. Maybe when I have a free Saturday after it comes out on DVD…

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.