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Understanding Screenwriting #15: Bedtime Stories, Last Chance Harvey, Valkyrie, Waltz with Bashir, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #15: <em>Bedtime Stories</em>, <em>Last Chance Harvey</em>, <em>Valkyrie</em>, <em>Waltz with Bashir</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Bedtime Stories, Last Chance Harvey, Valkyrie, Waltz with Bashir, Meet Me In St. Louis, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Them!, and Jumper, but first…

Fan Mail: Matt Zoller Seitz, I figured you were kidding about the suggestion of using the Lubitsch line on the DVD box, but I could not resist replying. You are right about the difficulty of getting the right tone across in writing. That’s why we all need great actors to read our lines properly.

For Matt Maul, the story of Wise not being told that Klaatu was a Christ figure is from the same Creative Screenwriting article I mentioned. Edmund North had it in his notes, but never bothered to tell Wise. Well, he really didn’t need to know, did he? And if he had known, he might have made it more obvious. Although giving him the human name Carpenter makes it fairly obvious. And Matt, your line that “Given that Klaatu’s warnings are still basically backed up by his ability to destroy the earth, his admonishments comes across as ’stop hurting the planet or we’ll blow it up’” captures the problem with the film more succinctly than I did.

Bedtime Stories (2008. Screenplay by Matt Lopez and Tim Herlihy, story by Matt Lopez. 95 minutes): Also not Lubitsch, but also funny.

The first thing you have to know is that I have never been an Adam Sandler fan. For that matter, I have never been much of a fan of any of the man-child comedians. Harry Langdon always struck me as creepy, Jerry Lewis as bizarre, and Will Ferrell as infantile. The only time I liked Sandler was in Punch-Drunk Love, which was an Adam Sandler movie for those who didn’t like Adam Sandler movies. But the trailer for Bedtime Stories, which was probably the best trailer for all the Christmas releases, showed promise. Sandler seemed to be a little more reserved than normal, and the basic idea (a man tells his niece and nephew stories, which sort of come true) seemed to have possibilities. So I took my seven-year old grandson. Noam already loves Keaton and Airplane!, so I figured it was worth a shot.

What the trailer does not tell you is that there is a rather complex main plot, especially for a family film. Lopez and Herlihy set it up with surprising speed and without losing the kids in the audience. Sandler’s Skeeter has been cheated out of taking over his father’s motel, now a hotel. He wants to get the hotel back.

His sister insists he babysit her son and daughter while she goes off to Arizona to look for a job, since the school she is principal of is closing. Since Skeeter is the antithesis of a school principal, all he can do is tell them stories (and look how the writers have already set up that he and not his sister is the one who tells stories). The first one is a thinly disguised version, set in the Middle Ages, of his situation at the hotel. The additions the kids make to the story sort of come true, and Skeeter is now determined to make the storytelling help his quest for the hotel. So we have a purpose to telling the stories. As the film progresses, we go from recognizing the real elements in the stories to recognizing the story elements in real life. Not everything comes true in the way we expect. Birnam Wood does not literally come to Dunsinane, but sort of.

So, through the magic of CGI, we get the Middle Ages, Ancient Rome, and outer space, and for once the CGI is used to, a) tell the story, and b) tell the jokes. A character made up of snot in the outer space story not only gives us laughs in that story, but then connects with action in the main story. The script is surprisingly focused, with very little that is extraneous, not often true of comedies. Remember the sister’s school? It’s not just a setup.

The characterization is also focused, which keeps the actors from going all over the place. Sandler is restrained, but not too restrained. And who should show up in two extended cameos but Rob Schneider. If there is any actor I like less than Sandler it is Schneider, but he’s actually good here. (Don’t let that get around; it will spoil his reputation.) If you have a good script, you can reduce the temptation for the actors to improvise, always a good thing. Because of the variety of stories and time periods, the casting is crucial to the film, since they need actors who can play several different variations on their characters. At first you may think Guy Pearce of Memento is wasted in what seems to be a standard prissy villain role, but stick around until he unleashes, how shall I put this without giving too much away, his inner Hugh Jackman. The female teacher Skeeter gets involved with is played by Keri Russell and it is at least a little more than the standard girlfriend part. She gets a lot to do, and a lot to react to off from Skeeter’s character.

Bedtime Stories is an entertaining comedy, but not a great one. There are a lot of small laughs, but no belly laughs. When I ran my DVD of Keaton’s The Navigator for Noam, he was laughing so hard we had to pause for him to go to the bathroom so he would not pee in his pants. The same thing when we looked at Airplane! He liked Bedtime Stories, but he stayed in his seat the entire film.

Last Chance Harvey (2008. Screenplay by Joel Hopkins. 92 minutes): O.K. it’s not ... surprise ... Curtis, Linklater, Krizan, Delpy, and Hawke, but it’s charming.

Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman had a couple of scenes together in Stranger Than Fiction and seemed to hit it off professionally, so Thompson was on the lookout for a script they could do together. She mentioned this to Hopkins and he came up with this. That’s the way Thompson has been telling. On the December 28th Charlie Rose show, Hoffman said the script may have been written for them, or it may have been written before and then adjusted for them. He had at least one other version as well. I’d buy Thompson’s version, since Hoffman used to insist that his performance as Stanley Motss in Wag the Dog was not a Robert Evans imitation.

However it happened, the script is a star vehicle for the two of them. I mentioned in US#11 that my wife and I were taken with the trailer, at least partly because of the on-screen chemistry between Hoffman and Thompson. The script does write to their strengths, but it is a little too much in their comfort zone. It is fun to see Thompson play a woman who isn’t quite sure she is going to make a romantic attachment, as she did in Peter’s Friends and Sense and Sensibility. It is also fun to see Hoffman play a guy who can’t quite connect, as he did in The Graduate and Tootsie. But they both have been doing that for a long time. They do it well, which is the reason to see the film, but couldn’t Hopkins have gone around a couple of unexpected corners? I am sure both stars could corner well. And it suggests the scenes are not as strong as they might be when the wordless montages show more chemistry between them than the dialogue scenes.

Hoffman is Harvey, who has come to London for his estranged daughter’s wedding. She wants her stepfather to give her away instead. And he learns he’s lost his job. He and Kate meet, twice actually before they really meet, a nice touch, and walk around London getting to know each other. Ah, just like Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan’s Before Sunrise. Sort of, but more like Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke’s sequel, Before Sunset. In the latter film, Jesse and Celine are meeting ten years after they have had the fling in the first film, so the characters are older and wiser. So are Harvey and Kate, but Linklater et al dig deeper into the characters. Delpy and Hawke had been thinking about the characters for the intervening ten years and it shows.

If you know the geography of London, Harvey and Kate have to have been wearing hiking boots to get from here to there in a couple of scenes. Part of what Hopkins is trying to do is to make London seem as romantic as Paris generally is in movies. But Richard Curtis did that already, especially in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Both films feature extended scenes on the South Bank, but Curtis got there first.

Hopkins also shortchanges the secondary characters, always a potential error in star vehicles. See below for how to avoid the problem. For all the time they spend walking around London, the wedding reception is still going on when Kate convinces Harvey to go back to it. He takes her along. Now think about everything you could do when the shlub of a father suddenly shows up with a woman who looks like Emma Thompson. Sorry, none of that happens. Harvey has a quick line that his ex-wife is giving Kate the eye, but nothing more is done with it. Like the film, the scene is charming, but more could have been done with both.

Valkyrie(2008. Written by Christopher McQuarrie & Nathan Alexander. 120 minutes): No, it’s not Shakespeare, or even Nunnally Johnson, but it’s entertaining.

In 1950 Johnson wrote The Desert Fox, a film about German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Johnson’s script did not deal with Rommel’s fight against the British in North Africa, but his involvement in the July 20th plot to kill Hitler. Johnson said in the oral history interview I did with him that he thought the material was Shakespearean, “It is just so good, still so good. It was on a very high level, and I don’t pretend that I got anywhere near the level that it deserved.” He came close, and although the DVD is usually filed in stores in the Action section, it is more of a character study.

Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s Valkyrie is not so much a character study as it is a suspense and action picture. And they have a big star to deal with as well. The picture opens with a scene in the North African desert where we are introduced to our star character, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Some version of the scene was in the script from the beginning, but according to Christopher McQuarrie, the scene kept changing as the film went through production. In view of all the discussion on various blogs and websites about Tom Cruise playing a German with an eyepatch, some of the details of the scene may well have been written in the later revisions to get the audience used to him. The scene starts with von Stauffenberg’s voiceover in German before mutating into English, and the action is set up specifically to show his injuries, especially to his eye. The scene, like the brief opening scene with Cruise at LAX in Collateral, reassures us that we are in the theater where the Tom Cruise movie is playing.

That is important because we then get one of the earlier attempts on Hitler’s life, with von Stauffenberg nowhere to be seen, but with at least one of the top British supporting cast, Kenneth Branagh as Major-General von Tresckow. McQuarrie and Alexander do a good job of balancing off the von Stauffenberg scenes with other scenes that tell the plot. Cruise is well cast because it is necessary that von Stauffenberg be completely charismatic and nobody can deliver that like Cruise. His is the star part, he knows it and McQuarrie and Alexander know it. And the supporting Brits know it too and can play variations that bounce off Cruise. Particularly from the mid-eighties on, Cruise has been very smart about surrounding himself with classy older actors, e.g. Newman in The Color of Money and Hoffman in Rain Man. We also get scenes with von Stauffenberg’s wife, but these are very generic. The wife is played by Carice von Houten, and the star of Black Book is wasted.

As you would expect from a script that Christopher McQuarrie, the author of The Usual Suspects, was involved with, there are some ingenious twists and turns. (No, Hitler does not turn out to be Keyser Söze.) Even if you know the plot is the July 20th plot, you will probably be so caught up in the story that when von Stauffenberg goes to a meeting with Hitler on the 15th you will have forgotten. That attempt does not work out, but it shows us the process, so that shortly thereafter we do not need to see all the lead-in on the 20th. And the attempt on the 20th comes about an hour and ten minutes into the film. You would expect it to come later, with a quick wrap-up afterwards. But here is the inventive part of the script: the attempt fails, which only makes things worse. We, and von Stauffenberg, do not know for a long time whether Hitler has been killed. The rest of the plan goes into effect, but with not all of those Brit supporting actors going along. This ratchets-up the suspense and the action as the plot unravels. The script and the picture, in effect, deliver more than promised, always a good thing.

Waltz with Bashir(2008. Written by Ari Folman. 90 minutes): Where’s Ward Kimball when you need him?

In an interview with Ella Taylor in the LA Weekly Ari Folman, the writer/director of Waltz With Bashir, tells the genesis of the film. A friend of his told him of nightmares he had been having about his experiences in the Israeli army during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Folman, who had been there as well, realized he had no memories of the events. Folman began talking and taping others about their memories and working with a therapist to bring out his own memories. Then Folman decided to turn all this into a documentary. People often think the “writing” of a documentary is just the narration, but as I pointed out in writing about The Order of Myths (US#2), there is much more to it. The most crucial writing element in documentaries is finding the structure. Here it is Folman’s search not only for his own memories, but through the others, finding out what happened when the Israeli army stood by and let the Christian Phalangists massacre Palestinian refugees. So far, so good.

Then Folman decided to focus on the surreal aspects of his and the others’ dreams. Wait a minute, can you make a surrealist documentary? Does not surrealism seem to be at odds with the very idea of documentary as reality? Yes but. As anyone who has lived through any of the last seventy years or so knows, reality in the world we live in is almost surreal by definition. And even further back, Luis Buñuel (of course, who else would you expect?) proved you could make a surrealistic documentary with his 1933 Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread). It is all in how you put together the realistic details. So, so far, still so good.

Then Folman decided he wanted to make it an animated documentary. Wait a minute, can you make an animated documentary? Does not animation seem to be at odds with, well, you get the idea. But animation has been used in documentaries from the beginning. There are slightly animated maps in the first documentary feature, Nanook of the North, in 1922, and Walt Disney did some great propaganda animation for the Frank Capra World War II series Why We Fight. But a documentary that is totally animated? Well, yes, Disney again, with his 1943 Victory Through Air Power, where he uses animation to give us concepts and ideas that you cannot literally show, such as the size of 1943’s aircraft by showing the Wright Brothers plane recreating its original flight on the wing of an airborne B-19.

Yeah, fine, but still ... a surrealist, animated documentary? Disney again, although most of the credit goes to one of his genius animators, Ward Kimball. Kimball got the call from Disney to do the Tomorrowland films for the fifties television series Disneyland. For the 1957 episode “Mars and Beyond,” Kimball’s team talked to scientists about what life on Mars might be like. Then the team went across the street from the studio, got drunk on stingers, came back to the studio, drew up the weirdest things they could conjure out of what the scientists said. Then they went home, slept it off, and came back a couple of days later and animated the sequence. Voila, a surrealist animated documentary. (The backstory is from a visit Kimball made to my documentary class at LACC in the seventies.)

So how does Folman and Waltz With Bashir stack up against Kimball and “Mars and Beyond”? Not well, unfortunately. The first problem is that Folman and his animator Yoni Goldman have animated the interviews. Folman is insistent that his process is not the same as Rotoscoping, since the animation team does trace over the live action interview material, but uses that material as a guide. Either way, we lose an enormous amount of the facial expression of emotions that we would get in live action. The idea may have been to give us a little distance from the speakers, but there is too much distance. Think of some of the documentaries you have seen where interviews and emotions are at the heart of the story, such as Roger & Me or Paris is Burning. Norma Desmond was partially right; they had faces, along with the dialogue.

Too much time is taken up with the interviews, and the recreations of the action the men talk about get visually repetitive as well. Since one of Folman’s ideas was that animation can deal with the surreal elements of the dreams and the events, it is especially disheartening that the dreams are not MORE surreal. Granted he does not have the Disney studio structure behind him, but he and Goldman could have been more visually inventive.

The final structural choice is an odd one. At the very end, Folman cuts to live action television footage of the actual victims of the massacre. Since he has brought us into the world in a completely animated way, it is a disconnect to go to live action. I think his idea was probably to remind us that this all was real, but it has the effect of making us suspect Folman did not trust his own film.

Meet Me in St. Louis(1944. Screenplay by Irving Brecher & Fred Finklehoffe, based on the stories by Sally Benson. 113 minutes): Why are all Christmas movies deranged?

Turner Classic Movies ran this one on Christmas Eve, I suppose because it’s the one where Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” While the film is not as bizarre as Capra’s film noir Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life, it is strange enough.

The cute, adorable daughter, Tootie (played by Margaret O’Brien, of whom her occasional co-star Lionel Barrymore is reported to have said, “If that child had been born in the Middle Ages, she would have been burned as a witch”) is obsessed with death. She is constantly planning to kill off her dolls and give them elaborate funerals. I suppose that may come from the fact that her mother is played by Mary Astor, who only a few years before was Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon.

That’s weird enough, but the plot, which the writers take almost half of the film to get around to, is that the father has an offer of a job in New York. He wants to move, but the family is resistant. Resistant is hardly the word; they are closer to psychotic about the idea of leaving St. Louis. Now I am a Midwesterner by birth and have, as you may have read here, certain reservations about the East Coast, but the wife and children here seem to be determined to avoid anything that would in any way expose them to a wider world. I suspect that this film was the hit it was in 1944 and 45 because people felt that way at the end of World War II. They just wanted to go/stay home and be left alone.

Fort Apache (1948. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the story “Massacre” by James Warner Belllah. 127 minutes) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings, based on the story “War Party” by James Warner Bellah. 103 minutes): As a jobbing film historian and western fan, I feel obligated to check in occasionally with the Ford cavalry trilogy.

These first two films of the trilogy popped up on cable recently and I was struck yet again by how sloppy Ford let scripts be when he did not have a strong producer like Samuel Goldwyn or Darryl Zanuck to guide the scriptwriting process. In the case of Fort Apache, Ford had Nugent, a first-time screenwriter who had been a film critic for The New York Times, put in so much comedy “relief” that critic James Agee noted “there is enough Irish comedy to make me wish Cromwell had done a more thorough job.” Ford thought that comedy was one of his strong suits, but it wasn’t. The drunken sergeants scenes stop the picture in all the wrong ways. At least on DVD or DVR you can fast forward through them.

The drunken sergeant is reduced to one in Yellow Ribbon and is not as obnoxious. The problem with this script is the last half hour, which is incoherent on a dramatic level. Captain Nathan Brittles is due to retire, and he goes out on one last scouting party. He returns and says goodbye to his troop. They give him a watch, a nice emotional scene. Fine, “the end” as the troop rides off without him? Not quite. After Brittles has the drunken sergeant put in the brig for being out of uniform (Brittles has given him his civilian retirement suit), Brittles says goodbye to the women at the fort. O.K., “the end” ... not yet. The Indians are getting ready to drive the white men out and who shows up at the troop’s location? Brittles, still in uniform, claiming that his new watch says he is still on active duty until midnight. Brittles talks to the Indian chief to try to convince him to stop the attack. The chief says he can’t since the young braves want to go to war. Brittles runs off the Indians’ horses, stopping the attack. Now it is past midnight and he is a civilian. He is riding off into the west. “The end?” Not a chance. Sgt. Tyree comes after him to tell him his request to become a civilian scout for the Army, which has not mentioned before, has come through. So Brittles returns to the fort where, it being a John Ford movie, there is a dance going on. And then Brittles goes out to the grave of his wife to talk to her. Finally, “the end.” How could you do all that in a more coherent way?

Them! (1954. Screenplay by Ted Sherdeman, adaptation by Russell S. Hughes of a story by George Worthington Yates. 94 minutes) and Jumper(2007. Screenplay by David S. Goyer and Jim Uhls and Simon Kinberg, based on a novel by Steven Gould. 88 minutes): A highly informative double feature.

After writing about The Day the Earth Stood Still in the last column (US#14), the differences between fifties’ sci-fi and current sci-fi was floating around in my head. Them! popped up on Turner Classic Movies, so I gave it a look. Like the earlier Earth Stood Still, it begins in an almost documentary fashion. Two New Mexico Highway Patrolmen discover a little girl in shock, the remains of her parents’ trailer, and a roadside store that has been ransacked. Lots of questions are set up, and we don’t see the GIANT ANTS until almost half an hour into the picture. There is not only one scientist, but his attractive daughter is also a scientist. They give us a more or less buy-the-premise-buy-the-bit explanation: the rules of the world of the film are established and then stuck to. The writers have beautifully taken advantage of the desert locations and, more famously, the storm drains of Los Angeles. They have also given us some interesting characters, particularly a civilian pilot being held in a psych ward and a drunk who may or may not have seen something.

The same day I saw Them! I later caught Jumper on HBO. No restraint here. David Rice discovers he is a “jumper,” meaning he can jump from place to place. As in from New York to England. He discovers this ability when he is a teenage boy and runs away from home. So what does he do with his gift? He jumps into banks and steals money. He jumps to London, seduces a girl, then jumps out of the room. In other words, he behaves like a stupid teenager. Even after he has gotten older. Is that the best the novelist and three screenwriters could come up with him to do?

He eventually goes back to his home town and reconnects with the girl he had a crush on. He remembers she wanted to travel, so he asks her to go to Rome with him (on a plane, not through his jumping). How does she react to this proposition? She goes with him without a second thought. Wouldn’t you have a second thought if a geek from high school suddenly showed up and offered to take you to Rome? The daughter-scientist in Them! does do a certain amount of screaming, but she does seem to have some intelligence and character. This girl has neither.

So off they go to Rome and into the Colosseum. The Colosseum is used moderately well, but the rest of the picture jumps all over the world, given us postcard views, but never using the locations as well as Them! uses the few it has. The director, Doug Liman, is one of those indie directors (Swingers and Go) who have moved into big studio films. He did a knockout job on The Bourne Identity, and he seems to assume here that if he jumped around a lot in that film, he can do it here. The difference is that Bourne Identity had a great story and a great character. David is just a typical teenager, even in his twenties, and the rules of the jumpers’ world are constantly changing. Unlike the “rules” about the ants in Them!, David is being chased by one “Paladin,” and sometimes, depending on what they need for the scene, several, who are determined to kill him. If David’s life is a teen fantasy, then the Paladins are the equivalent of the grownups. Since David is doing a lot that is illegal, I was rooting for the Paladins to kill him.

Did I mention this is simply conceived as fantasy/nightmare for teen boys? David’s mom has left the family years before, and he has to deal with a difficult father. If only his mom had not run off. Boo-hoo. But when David and the girl are arrested by the Italian police, who suddenly comes through the door but Mom, telling him to ditch the girl and jump out of the situation. We later learn that Mom is a Paladin and left so she wouldn’t have to kill her own son. Now THAT would have been an interesting movie.

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.