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Understanding Screenwriting #16: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, 30 Rock, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #16: <em>The Curious Case of Benjamin Button</em>, <em>Frost/Nixon</em>, <em>30 Rock</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Seven Days to Noon, Desperate Housewives, NCIS, Privileged, 30 Rock, and Damages, but first…

Fan Mail: Matt Maul raises the question of Robert Wise’s complicity in the gutting of The Magnificent Ambersons, so let me shock you with this: I think the film is better for Wise’s cutting. And worse than that, I think the final scene as it appears in the film is better than the one in the script.

I had an opportunity years ago to read Welles’ screenplay for the film. I liked the script, but it is very wordy. There are a number of long dialogue scenes that were blessedly cut from the final film. In the end of the script, Eugene goes to the hospital, but no scene is played there. Instead he goes home and writes a letter to Isabel, describing being with Lucy at George’s bedside in the hospital. We hear it in voiceover. Putting the scene in as a scene works better in the film, I think.

And both the script and the film have a major problem: we don’t see George’s accident. We only see a newspaper clipping of it, and get some narration. I’m sorry, but the movie has been promising us George’s “comeuppance” since the opening montage. Not showing it to us is like not blowing up the Death Star at the end of Star Wars. If you are going to promise the audience something, you had better deliver it.

The Curse of Benjamin Button (2008. Screenplay by Eric Roth, screen story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. 166 minutes): Poor Scott.

F. Scott Fitzgerald spent time as a screenwriter in Hollywood, but never truly learned the craft. The films based on his novels, missing the elegance of his prose, do not work. The current film, even though based on a whimsical 1922 short story that is not his finest writing, continues the trend.

The short story follows the life, from birth to death, of a man who is born old and grows younger, eventually dying as a baby. It is set in Baltimore from the beginning of the Civil War to the 1920s as we watch his family and friends deal with his peculiarity. He attends Harvard, later tries to attend Yale, gets married, and inherits his father’s button business. The story is about Benjamin dealing with his world. Characterization is slight, which is acceptable in a short fable.

You can see why the idea of the story has appealed to any number of film people along the way. There are all kinds of ways to play with the central conceit. What Roth has done is update the story, taking it from Benjamin’s birth at the end of World War I through to 2005. The script is a picaresque tale, very similar in structure to Roth’s screenplay for Forrest Gump: Benjamin has a strong mother figure, then goes out into the world and meets a gallery of characters, including the love of his life. Both Forrest and Benjamin are primarily reactive characters. In Gump, part of the fun is the blankness of Forrest’s reactions to the world, since he does not quite know what is going on. In Button, Roth has not created much of a character for Benjamin, and his reactions seem very conventional. Look at the scene where the middle-aged Benjamin meets his love, Daisy, during her dancing days in New York and realizes she has other friends and probably lovers. He is pained. Yeah, so? Roth is not helped here by Brad Pitt, who is awfully uneven as Benjamin. In my book Understanding Screenwriting, I made the distinction between Brad Pitt, the character actor, and Brad Pitt, the movie star. The character actor is the more interesting of the two, as we see here in the earlier scenes when he is an old man, but Pitt is not all that good as the middle-aged Benjamin. As Benjamin grows “younger,” we get the movie star, who is gorgeous but inexpressive.

The other characters should take up the slack, but they are simply not that interesting. Queenie, his black adopted mother, starts out as a quiet, solid mother figure, but in the middle of the story she shows up as a noisy black stereotype. The tug captain Benjamin sails with is a conventional sea dog. The wife of a British trade representative he seduces/is seduced by has a little more edge to her, but that may come as much from the wondrous Tilda Swinton as the script.

For all the traveling in the film, we don’t get as much of a sense of activity of the world as we did in Gump. In that film, the people Forrest met, such as Jenny, Lt. Dan, and Bubba not only have more character than the people in Button, but have more connection to the real world. Daisy in Button is a dancer, Jenny was involved in all kinds of issues. Gump’s lack of understanding of what was going on in their worlds was part of the intended satire of the film. (What, you didn’t realize Forrest Gump was intended as a satire of the stupidity of average Americans? Audiences took it seriously, which conservatives loved, because the film suggested white male Americans who accepted everything they were told would survived, but those who wanted change in the world, women like Jenny and blacks like Bubba, would die. Robert Zemeckis, the director, was gobsmacked that people took the film as seriously as they did, a fact he has generally avoided discussing, although if you listen to one of the interviews with him on the DVD of Gump it sort of slips out. Look at Zemeckis’ Used Cars and Back to the Future to see where he was coming from.)

Because of the lack of characterization and reactions, the scenes do not have the emotional punch they should have. Would they have worked better with a director more suited to the material? Possibly. Look at the emotions John Ford gets out of the scripts for Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which I discussed in US#15. Ford was a master at getting the emotions in a scene, or even a single shot. Look at the farewell scenes in those films, or any scene in any Ford film. David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) is a rather cold director and the material needs more warmth than he can provide. He is so focused on the production values and technical aspects (and the film is vastly overproduced, with more sets, costumes, extras, and CGI effects than needed) he loses the core emotions of the story.

And Fincher is not the only director not appropriate for Fitzgerald. Entertainment Weekly is reporting that Baz Luhrmann is considering directing a new film of The Great Gatsby. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Frost/Nixon (2008. Screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on his play. 122 minutes): Character. Drama. And Opie.

I was sort of not looking forward to seeing Frost/Nixon. It is in theaters now and the stage version will finally show up in Los Angeles later this spring. How much Tricky Dick can one person be expected to absorb? Well, having seen the film, I am dying to see the play.

If you did not know it going in, you would probably not guess that the film is based on a play. Not having seen the play (and I may return to this after I see it), I do not know how Morgan handled it on stage, but the script flows as though it was conceived for film. We get a montage that establishes the fall of the Nixon presidency, and short scenes setting up both Nixon and Frost. We SEE by their actions how different they are. Frost is a smarmy talk show host, Nixon is a lion in winter. Morgan is also great at setting up the secondary characters, especially the three who help Frost. Nixon’s entourage is slightly smaller and Morgan focuses on Jack Brennan. Given how rich most of the characters are, I assume it is part of the joke that one of Nixon’s assistants, Diane Sawyer, yes, THAT Diane Sawyer, is given virtually nothing to do or say.

Very quickly Morgan sets up not only the characters, but the drama. Unlike Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon is FOCUSED. Frost sees the interviews with Nixon as a way to regain his diminished celebrity. Nixon sees them as a way to get some sort of redemption. Everything is at stake for both men. We are rooting for Frost (well, at least most of us are) so Morgan gives him the most difficult problems to overcome (the networks refuse to be part of the programs, major sponsors pull out, Frost has to invest his own money). Both Frost and Nixon are their own worst enemies, Frost a lightweight, Nixon too much a heavyweight.

When the taping of the interviews begins, a little after halfway into the film, you might expect the film to get less interesting as it gets more talky. Was it talky? It didn’t seem that way to me. Yes, on the one hand it is, but on the other hand, well, if you have been reading this column for any length of time you know where I am going with this ... Yes, dammit: REACTIONS. At least half of what we get in the second half of the film we get from the reactions. Remember how I said that Morgan is good at setting up characters? Here is where it pays off. When any one of the characters (except Diane Sawyer) reacts, we know where the reaction comes from and why.

Much of the film is based on the public record, but Morgan has created a scene that probably never took place. He has a drunk Nixon call Frost before the final interview. This is probably Nixon’s scene on stage, since he has most of the dialogue. After all, Nixon is the smarter of the two, so it makes sense that he can articulate how the two men, whom Morgan has made us see are so different, are in fact very much alike, which Morgan has much more subtly set up. But Frost’s reactions are crucial. We can see him realizing, finally, what he is up against and what he has to do to win. And Morgan gives us a great moment in the final scene between the two, days after the final interview. Nixon cannot remember the phone call. He asks Frost what they discussed, and Frost accurately if not completely tells him. “Cheeseburgers.”

If David Fincher was the wrong director for Benjamin Button, Ron Howard is the perfect director for Frost/Nixon. I had not thought so when I first heard he was doing it, but seeing is believing. Howard is an underrated director critically. He is not very flashy in his direction, although here he uses the differences between film and video effectively. He shoots in video for the “after the fact” interviews with the participants that are so convincing that my wife, who is not stupid in these matters, thought they were interviews with the “real” people rather than the actors. As an actor for fifty years, he understands actors, and better, he understands character (not always the same thing; look at early Spielberg). All the actors are on the top of their game here, one of the best signs a picture has been well directed. Even the often stiff Rebecca Hall, playing a girlfriend of Frost’s, is loose and charming.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940. Screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood, adaptation by Grover Jones, based on the play by Robert E. Sherwood. 110 minutes): Different president, different film.

Of the two Lincoln films from 1939-1940, this is the one that rarely gets shown. Everybody knows Young Mr. Lincoln, simply because of John Ford’s reputation, but it works better because Lamar Trotti’s screenplay is thought out in terms of film. I am sure it was the script that gave Ford the idea to say to Henry Fonda, when Fonda demurred about playing the future president, “He’s not the president. He’s a young, jacklegged lawyer out in Springfield.” (Ford undoubtedly threw in some harder-edged expletives, but that’s the gist of what he said.)

Abe Lincoln in Illinois is based on Sherwood’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning play and you can see the scene breaks. There are some cinematic details (a flatboat stuck on a film dam), but mostly it is talk (a bit of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln’s farewell as he leaves for the White House). Even in his early scenes, Lincoln is talking like he is going to be president. A folksy president, but still. The dialogue is theatrical rather than cinematic. Lincoln is played by Raymond Massey, who won plaudits for his performance on stage. Unfortunately, the director here, John Cromwell, was not John Ford, and let him get away with playing the Future President of the United States. Look at him as he takes the oath of office as postmaster for New Salem, Illinois. Massey was 44 when he made the film and is completely unconvincing in the early scenes where he is playing Lincoln in his twenties. He is better in the later scenes, but it is still a stage performance of a stage play.

Sherwood, who was best known as a playwright, had written for movies off and on since the twenties, but he really only developed as a screenwriter after this film. He eventually won an Academy Award for his near-great screenplay for the hugely popular film The Best Years of Our Lives. He won three Pulitzer Prizes for drama and one for his nonfiction book on Franklin Roosevelt. If there was anybody the Pulitzer committee would have given a Pulitzer Prize for screenwriting to, if they gave such a prize, it would have been Sherwood.

Seven Days to Noon (1950. Screenplay by Frank Harvey and Roy Boulting, story by Paul Dehn and James Bernard. 94 minutes): The granddaddy of all “red wire, blue wire” thrillers.

A letter arrives at 10 Downing Street. It is passed on to Special Branch at Scotland Yard. An underling does not take it seriously. Superintendent Folland thinks it is worth looking into. He goes down to the government laboratories and inquires about a Professor Willingdon, who seems to have gone missing. He takes one of Willingdon’s assistants to the professor’s house. The professor’s wife and daughter don’t know where he has gone. We are ten minutes into the film and we still don’t know what’s in the letter. As Folland and the assistant drive away, Folland tells him the letter says that unless the PM declares by the following Sunday that England will destroy all its nuclear weapons, Willingdon will explode an atomic bomb in London.

Now that we are on the edge of our seats, we are all going to sweat while Folland and the cops try to find Wellingdon, since the technology he has can only set off the bomb on a 15 minute timer. We have learned that the device is small enough to fit into his suitcase. Lots of shots of the suitcase, anyone? We meet the professor and he is not the wild-eyed crazy we expect, just a man who has been driven to this act by his awareness of what he has been doing by creating bombs. We also meet a cross section of Londoners whom he and the police meet.

The script works in the first half because of the documentary quality not unlike that in a number of police procedurals both before and after this film. Made only five years after the end of the war, it harks back to the British wartime documentaries, especially when we get into scenes of the more or less calm evacuations of London. With all the ghostly shots of empty streets, the film is also at least a granduncle of the end-of-civilization films of the fifties and later, such as The World, the Flesh, and the Devil and the more recent I Am Legend. As the net tightens around the professor, the film starts to go a little flat, at least for a contemporary audience, simply because we have seen so many of its children, grandchildren, grandnephews, and great-grandchildren. The restraint, which helps the suspense in the first half, seems a little too much toward the end, although the writers and directors (the Boulting Brothers) do give us a lot of sweaty close-ups as Wellingdon’s assistant tries to disarm the bomb. No, there are no discussions of which wire to cut. You can’t expect grandpa to do everything; he’s got to leave something for future generations to do.

Desperate Housewives (2009. Episode “Home is the Place,” written by Jamie Gorenberg. 60 minutes): The laughers.

The networks, including the cable networks, have finished running their repeats of old holiday specials and are back with some new episodes. This one is a relatively minor one, but Gorenberg does something I have been waiting for a long time for the show to do. In her talk show appearances, Eva Longoria Parker has demonstrated that she has a wonderful, borderline lewd, laugh. Gaby takes herself so seriously we never get to hear the laugh on the show. In this episode, Gaby is listening to Susan dither over whether she had sex with Lee, one of the gay men in the neighborhood, and Gaby lets loose with Longoria Parker’s great laugh.

That alone would have made the episode for me, but Gorenberg also introduced a new character, Melina, who is the mother of Alex, the gay doctor Bree’s son Andrew is now engaged to. Bree and Melina duel over who can get the kids to love each of them the most. Melina is a definite contrast to Bree: casual and earthy. And the show has cast in the role Joanna Cassidy, perfect for the part. Gorenberg has given her and Marcia Cross a lot of fun scenes to play. But here is the potential beauty part: Cassidy has one of the greatest laughs in the history of movies. You don’t get her laugh in this episode, but I for one am looking for a laugh-off between Cassidy and Longoria Parker. As a British critic wrote several years ago, there is no more revolutionary image than that of a woman laughing. How about two?

Alas, in the following episode, “Connect! Connect!” Malina was nowhere to be seen. Bring back the laughs and the laughers.

NCIS (2009. Episode “Caged” written by Alfonso H. Moreno. 60 minutes): Know it all.

I’ve never gotten caught up in NCIS, since it is usually on Tuesday nights when I teach and I have enough on my DVR. My wife is a big fan (she remembers when hunky Mark Harmon was the quarterback at UCLA), so since I am off teaching during January, I gave it another watch. Nice set of characters. Interesting actors. In this episode, McGee, the geekiest investigator of the bunch, is sent into a woman’s prison to try to get a confession from a woman prisoner for a decades-old murder. The inmates riot and McGee is held hostage. So Harmon’s Special Agent Jethro Gibbs comes into the prison and gives the warden a hard time, repeatedly asking him if he has ever dealt with this kind of situation. The warden gets flustered, and Gibbs takes over. Why is it that the stars in these shows always know best? Why doesn’t the warden tell Gibbs that he has dealt with these situations many times. Or why doesn’t he ask Gibbs if HE has ever dealt with this situation? I know, the star’s the star, but still. Make your supporting characters strong and interesting and it challenges you to make your lead characters all that much more stronger.

Privileged (2009. Episode “All About What Lies Beneath” written by Anna Fricke. 60 minutes): Clueless meets The Gilmore Girls.

I had never seen this show before, but in the coverage on LA’s Channel 5 (the local CW outlet) of the Rose Parade they kept running trailers for this episode. It had a scene you don’t often see in teen romantic comedies. One of the girls is trying to seduce one of the guys and jumps on her bed. Forgetting the bedspread is satin. She slides off and lands on the floor.

So I gave it shot, without looking up anywhere what it was about. There are three girls whom we take to be teenagers, although played by actresses in their twenties. I assumed they were sisters, but it turns one of them is actually supposed to be in her twenties, and she has been hired to tutor the younger girls. The younger girls are living in a mansion in Palm Beach, I think with their grandmother, although in this episode we do not see her. In this episode we never see Megan, the Yale grad in her twenties, teach the kids anything. The kids decide that since they have to give away some of their foundation money, they will have a benefit lunch for Cuban children. They decide on this since one of the girls has the hots for the Latino chief of the house, assuming he is Cuban. He is not, and the girls’ lack of interest in Cuba is about to be revealed to all at the lunch when it turns out one of the girls actually knows about Cuba. Where did she learn that? Or rather when did she learn that? The show is trying to have it both ways: the girls are silly rich girls, but they are not that silly. The movie Clueless sort of managed that, but Privileged is rather clunky about it.

Oh, the scene with satin bedspread? Funny, and there ought to be more of it.

30 Rock (2009. Episode “Senor Macho Solo” written by Ron Wiener. 30 minutes): Do not adjust your set. Salma Hayek is taking over Thursday nights on all networks.

In US#13, I expressed delight that 30 Rock was getting away from using guest stars. Well, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, as Madonna always says. Here we have two guest stars, both beautifully used. Liz is still obsessed about having a baby and is cooing at every baby she sees, as well as patting kids on the head. Oops, that one is not a kid. It is Stuart, a little person, played by Peter Dinklage. Liz insists she did not think he was a kid, and they try to date. It does not work out. She wants another chance and they agree to meet on the Brooklyn Bridge at a certain time. Well, of course, the Empire State Building is booked for years in advance for that sort of thing. They meet, she screws up again. So we may not see Stuart again, but I hope we do. Anytime you can get Dinklage being testy, you are ahead on points.

The other guest star is Salma Hayek. Not content with exec producing Ugly Betty, here she’s a nurse Jack hires to take care of his mother. The writing between her and Jack is not as sharp as the Liz-Stuart scenes, since it involves Jack getting sentimental about her family, but the acting chemistry between Alec Baldwin and Hayek is dandy. They kiss at the end of the episode, so she may be back. Unless she shows up as Laurence Fishbourne’s new boss on CSI in the May sweeps.

Damages (2009. Episode “I Lie, Too,” written by Todd A. Kessler & Glenn Kessler & Daniel Zelman. 70 minutes): Patty’s back.

I watched most of the first season of this show, but eventually it got wearying. All those people doing nasty things to each other, most of them in secret. Yes, the acting was great, but the plotting got excessive.

Now the gang is back, including Arthur Frobisher, whom we all assumed was dead. This first episode spends most of its time setting up the several hundred plot and character lines we are going to have to follow. Like a lot of good openings—see the summary of the opening of Seven Days to Noon above—it raises more questions than it answers. But it is 70 minutes’ worth of questions, and the question I was left with is, do I really want to invest the amount of time it is going to take to work all this out? The characters are not as fresh as they were last year, and we are EXPECTING the surprises this year, so they probably won’t be that surprising.

What Damages is running into here is the problem that many shows have: they develop such complicated plots and mythologies (24, Lost, Battlestar Galactica) that it takes an enormous effort to keep up. Is it worth it? As you may guess from that, I’m still undecided on Damages.

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.