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Understanding Screenwriting #17: Slumdog Millionaire, Dodge City, Ride Lonesome, ER, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #17: <em>Slumdog Millionaire</em>, <em>Dodge City</em>, <em>Ride Lonesome</em>, <em>ER</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Slumdog Millionaire, Dodge City, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, His Nibs, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, CSI, ER, but first…

Fan Mail: Several interesting issues this time around. Both Andrew and Kevin H. raise the question of judging the script in comparison to the film and how fair that might be. Traditionally, criticism has dealt primarily with the art object (i.e., the final product), but more recently, criticism (particularly of the kind I do) has included an historical element of looking at the process as well as the object. We get exhibitions now in museums that look at the process leading up to the final object, such as a painter’s sketches and small scale versions as well as the final work. There has been a growing awareness that art is a process as much as an object. As someone who writes about screenwriting, which is the beginning of the process of filmmaking, I always take an interest in the earlier steps. I think it is perfectly fair to look at the materials created in the process to see the ways the film did, and did not, end up.

One of the things my research has taught me is that in most cases the films are not better than the scripts, in spite of what directors might tell you. Partly that is because filmmaking is an enormously complex undertaking, with any number of things that can go wrong. Of all the scripts I’ve read and the films made from them, I know of only two where the film was better. One was a Nunnally Johnson script called Casanova Brown, where Nunnally had ended up leaving out the motivation for the heroine, so we just had to take on faith that the hero was doing the right thing. The hero was played by Gary Cooper, so we accept his actions. The other was a film made from a script a student of mine wrote. In the writing she never overcame the problem that one of the minor characters was a cliché. Being an actress herself, she corrected it in her direction of the actor playing the part.

So we can, and I think should, look at the scripts and how they develop. In my book Understanding Screenwriting, I have a chapter on Kinsey, which follows the film through three drafts of the script onto the final film. There are those who think it is the best chapter in the book. You can begin to understand how the process works, and get over the idea that the producer, director, or star just waves a magic wand and the film appears. Yeah, it’s more work looking at all this, but it is always more rewarding and informative. So I am going to continue talking about scripts. Both Kevin and Andrew get into some detail of the ways the process works, and we will have to admit sometimes it does not work out as well as we might like.

On the Forrest Gump front, of the options Matt Maul suggests, I think it was the conservatives (and not JUST the conservatives by the way) cheering for what they thought was the message of the film. Although I am not sure they thought of the film as a message picture in that sense. I don’t think they were seeing the irony in a movie that unintentionally presented that point of view. I think the film just fit in their minds with their own point of view.

Pacze Moj asks if there are any subjects that cannot be handled in scripts “according to the basic laws of Hollywood screenwriting.” Probably not, but some you would have to be a genius to make work in a way that Hollywood executives would believe and audiences would accept.

Eric Y, after saying he likes this column’s format (thank you), raises a procedural question as to how long it takes to do the column. That’s hard to say, since it is done over a period of time. I’ll see a movie, TV show, whatever, and I will make some notes on it, then a day or so later I will write up an item. Sometimes I will let several items pile up and write them all in a day. When I get enough, I send them off to Keith, who is the one who comes up with the great photographs that accompany the column. When I was wondering whether I had time to do this column, a friend of mine said, “Come on, Tom, that’s the kind of stuff you do all the time in e-mails to your friends.” She was right. In fact, the item in US#15 on Meet Me in St. Louis started life as something I was adding to my Christmas thank-you e-mails. I have pretty much always looked at films from the standpoint of screenwriting, so this column is just formulizing what I do anyway.

Slumdog Millionaire(2008. Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel by Vikas Swarup. 120 minutes): Angels With Dirty Faces go to Mumbai. On steroids.

It is only fitting that after a lot of huffing and puffing, Slumdog Millionaire ended up being partially released by Warner Brothers. Originally it was co-produced by Warner Independent Pictures, and then Warners closed down WIP. The company was about to sell off the picture for spare parts (i.e., cable and DVD) when Twentieth Century-Fox got interested as a result of people writing about the picture from film festivals. Warners figured they might make a buck or two and they settled on a co-distribution deal with Fox. Warners will make more in absolute dollars with The Dark Knight, but they may make a greater return on their investment with this one.

The reason it is fitting it ends up at Warners is that the screenplay very much fits the traditional 1930s Warner Brothers narrative style. Whereas other film historians have written about the differences in studio looks, themes, et al, in my book FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, I laid out the differences in narrative styles of the major studios. The Warners style is what I called “piling on.” I wrote, “There always seem to be more characters than needed to tell the story, more relationships between the characters, and more plot complications.” There is a LOT of piling on in Slumdog Millionaire.

The basic setup is that Jamal, a poor young man working as a tea server at a phone call center, wins and wins on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Nobody can understand how he can possibly know the answers to all the questions. The police interrogate him, and as he tells his life story we learn in the flashbacks how he happened to know the answers to each question. That would not necessarily hold our attention, but we come to learn he got on the program to impress Latika, a girl he grew up with in the slums. She is now a gangster’s mistress, watched over by Jamal’s brother Salim. Are you beginning to see the similarities with the Warners gangster movies of the thirties?

In addition to the similarities in content, Beaufoy piles on incident after incident after incident as we watch the three grow up. Beaufoy tells the story at a breakneck pace, which appears to have seemed like mere dawdling to director Danny Boyle, who speeds it up even more. As I started watching the film, I thought, “This is horribly over-directed,” but I eventually saw what Beaufoy and Boyle were up to. In a scene late in the picture, the Police Inspector comments that Jamal’s story is “bizarrely plausible.” Well, no it’s not. The coincidences involved in Jamal knowing the answers to THESE questions would be too much if the script and film were not going so fast that we don’t have time to consider the preposterousness of it all. This is a standard way of telling a tall tale: go so fast we do not have time to think. Beaufoy does this very well, which also covers up the fact that the characterizations are very shallow and cliched. But who wants depth in Cinderella?

Dodge City(1939. Original Screenplay by Robert Buckner. 104 minutes): Santa was good to me, take one.

Among the other things under the tree was a boxed set of five Errol Flynn movies, including four of my five favorite Flynn films. This is one of those, the best of all the big Warner Brothers westerns. As such it is a perfect example of that narrative style of Warners in the thirties and forties. Here is a checklist for Dodge City:

Great old-fashioned train. Check.

Stagecoach. Check.

Race between stagecoach and train. Check.

Buffalo. Check.

Stalwart hero (with some Southern sympathies, courtesy of Southern-born Buckner-—see also his Santa Fe Trail). Check.

Two, count ’em two, comic sidekicks for the hero. Check.

Two nasty sidekicks for the villain. Check.

Boot Hill Cemetery. Check.

Ceremony welcoming the railroad. Check.

Cattle drive. Check.

Cattle stampede. Check.

Covered wagon train. Check.

Indians attacking covered wagon train. No.

Dramatic scene for de Havilland and Flynn. Check.

Sing-off in saloon between Northern and Southern supporters, “Marching Through Georgia” vs. “Dixie” (See Buckner above). Check.

The most overpopulated saloon brawl in film history (until the parody of it in Blazing Saddles). Check.

Worried townspeople appoint hero sheriff (almost an hour into the picture because of all the other activity; see how much quicker Wyatt Earp becomes the marshal in My Darling Clementine). Check.

Crusading newspaper editor. Check.

Comedy scene for de Havilland and Flynn. Check.

Murder of crusading newspaper editor. Check.

Assorted jail scenes with comic and nasty sidekicks. Check.

Romantic scene for de Havilland and Flynn. Check.

Fight between good guys and bad guys in burning railroad car. Check.

Double happy ending: Flynn gets de Havilland and she agrees to go with him to clean up Virginia City (No, Virginia City the following year is not technically a sequel, but still…). Check.

Kitchen sink. No.

O.K., YOU try to get all that into 104 minutes and have it still make sense.

Ride Lonesome(1959. Written by Burt Kennedy. 73 minutes) and Comanche Station(1906. Written by Burt Kennedy. 74 minutes): Santa was good to me, take two.

We are definitely not in the Warner Brothers A-picture business here. Look at these two films and see how little of that checklist is included in them. These are the last two films in the Budd Boetticher Box Set Matt Zoller Seitz and I were drooling over in US#13. They are spare, low-budget, short films, which simply emphasizes how important a good script is when you don’t have a lot of money. Comanche Station has always been my favorite of all of the series, mostly because it was the first one I saw when they were first released. Seeing them together recently on a Saturday afternoon (when else would you watch them?), my reaction was that Kennedy’s script for Ride Lonesome is a little bit better.

Ben Brigade rides alone (the only thing I object to in Ride Lonesome is the title, which makes it sound like a forties singing cowgirl western), without even a single comic sidekick. He is a bounty hunter who tracks down Billy and outwits him, taking him prisoner. Billy insists his brothers, especially Frank, will come to rescue him. We see Billy’s four henchmen ride off to get Frank. We’re not even ten minutes into the film.

Ben and Billy find a stagecoach swing station that has two more bounty hunters there, Sam and Whit. Very different from Ben and each other. Ben is sly, always thinking the angles, Whit seems rather slow. (Ben is Pernell Roberts in his best performance, just before he fell into Bonanza, Whit is James Coburn in his first screen appearance, before he had developed his distinctive walk.) Sam and Whit would love to take Billy off Ben’s hands, since the wanted posters say anyone who brings Billy in gets an amnesty. Sam obviously needs one, although we never really find out why; Kennedy is very sparse on giving us information, which makes us pay attention even harder. And there is also Mrs. Lane, the wife of the station manager, who has gone missing. And there are Indians who are none too friendly. So obviously it is in Ben’s best interest to get Billy to Santa Cruz as soon as possible. Here is Kennedy’s genius: Ben is in no hurry to get there. He’s taking his own sweet time and taking the long way around. Look at how long before we find out why he’s doing that. And look at the nice little scenes Kennedy gives us between gorgeous shots of them riding in the Eastern Sierras. At one point Sam is discussing ALL his options with Whit, and in a short scene we get everything there is to know about the two of them. Some of the scenes are so good, and the actors are so good, Boetticher can shoot them in a single take.

Sam is talkative, Ben is laconic. When Sam goes on and on about Mrs. Lane, Ben replies, “She’s not ugly.” When she says to Ben, “You don’t seem like a man who would hunt for a man for murder,” he replies, “I am.”

Eventually we get to the spot where even Frank has realized that Ben intends to wait for him: the “hang tree,” an almost dead tree in the middle of a meadow where Frank hung Ben’s wife. Ben doesn’t care about Billy; he just wants Frank. Sam is willing to help him, but will Sam then turn on Ben to get Billy? Kennedy gives us a quick shootout with Ben and Frank and then a faceoff between Ben and Sam. And a perfect ending to that relationship. And the hang tree gets burned at the end.

The opening of Comanche Station is even better than the opening of Ride Lonesome. Jeff Cody is riding through the Eastern Sierras. When Indians come upon him, he simply gets off his horse, lays out the blanket he has with a lot of trinkets. The Indians want to trade two horses for his stuff. He turns them down. They take him into their camp and he trades his trinkets and his rifle for a white woman captive, Nancy Lowe. As they ride away, she tells him who she is. His reply, “I should have known.” Who is she? Why is he rescuing her without knowing who she is?

They come across a stage stop and three men, Ben, whom we later learn Jeff testified against at his army court martial, and two guys who look enough alike that we think they’re brothers. Ben, alas, is not quite the fascinating rouge that Sam was, and so the tension between them is not as interesting as that between Ben and Sam in Ride Lonesome. When Nancy finds out her husband has posted a $5,000 reward, she assumes Jeff is out for the money. Of course, but he’s not. Look at how long it takes before we find out what his real motive is, and how it figures in the ending. The stage does not come and so the five of them have to ride to Lordsburg, going past a lot of great scenery, including a small lake with ... what the hell, the hang tree from Ride Lonesome. But it was in a meadow and was burned. Obviously a prop tree that Boetticher and his gang carried around with them. After all, we only saw it on fire in the earlier film, not destroyed.

Ben has told Frank and Dobie, the two non-brothers, of his plan to kill Jeff, then kill Nancy, since the husband is willing to pay for her, dead or alive. Ben’s motivation is revenge and money, which makes him less interesting than Sam. But at least we get a nice scene between Frank and Dobie discussing whether or not they will go along with Ben, or just maybe have to get honest jobs.

Jeff of course ends up delivering Nancy to her husband, and Kennedy delivers a real kicker of an ending, picking up on something that I have not mentioned that has been discussed all the way through the film. A terrific little movie, if not quite as fresh as Ride Lonesome.

His Nibs(1921. Written by Arthur Hoerl. 59 minutes): New York vs. Los Angeles.

Richard Koszarski, a professor at Rutgers, has a new book out called Hollywood on the Hudson: Film and Television in New York From Griffith to Sarnoff. It’s about exactly what the title tells you. As part of the promotion for the book, Koszarski and the UCLA Film & Television Archive are having a series of screenings of surviving films (several of them preserved by the Archive) Koszarski writes about. This is one of the odder ones.

As Koszarski explained it in his introduction to the screening, he thinks what happened was that the Chic Sale, a big star in vaudeville, was hired to appear in a comedy-melodrama called The Smart Aleck. It was shot in Los Angeles but never completed. A year or so later, this film came out with Sale playing several roles, including the proprietor of a small town movie theater. The theater is showing what is obviously The Smart Aleck, although under a different name. We see a lot of the earlier film, with the proprietor saying he cut out the titles. He then narrates and comments on the film. As Koszarski put it, sort of a forerunner of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

What I found interesting is that The Smart Aleck is a much more interesting film, as much as we get to see of it. It’s better scripted, more coherent, more ... well, serious. And shot in Los Angeles. According to Koszarski, the framing material was shot in New York. It is lightweight and frivolous. Sale overplays all of his characters, as opposed to underplaying the lead in The Smart Aleck. By 1921 movies had settled in Hollywood, and the backlash in New York had begun (see US#1 for a brief history of that). This film is a beautiful demonstration of that backlash.

How I Met Your Mother (2009. Episode “Benefits” written by Kourtney Lang. 30 minutes): Taking care of business, take one.

I have mentioned in comments on several Met episodes this season that the writers keep avoiding one of the most interesting storylines they had previously set up: horn-dog Barney in love with Robin. Lang comes back to it with a vengeance in this episode. Robin and Ted have broken up romantically but she had moved in as his roommate. They discover they argue more as roommates than they did when they were dating. Robin thinks they should have sex to release the tension. They do, but the gang finds out. Ted and Robin agree to stop, to maintain their friendship. Fat chance. Meanwhile, Barney is more and more upset and pretending he is not. Whenever the talk in the bar turns to Ted and Robin, he goes outside and trashes a TV set. He runs out of sets and finally has to buy a new set to trash. Ted realizes Barney is in love with Robin, but Barney denies it. Since he can’t talk to the gang about it, he goes to Lily’s grade school class on “sharing feelings day.” Finally he goes to the apartment and confronts Robin, but he bungles it, and she does not pick up on what he is trying to say. By dealing with all of this, Lang gives the entire cast, but especially Neil Patrick Harris as Barney, a lot of great material to work with. And there is something at stake.

On the other hand, they have a running gag in this episode about “reading a magazine” as a euphemism for masturbation. O.K., but then somebody actually says that it is a euphemism for masturbation. Would Seinfeld have needed to spell it out? I don’t think so.

Two and a Half Men (2009. Episode “Thank God for Scoliosis,” teleplay by Chuck Lorre & Mark Roberts, story by Eddie Gorodetsky & Jim Patterson. Episode “I Think You Offended Don” written by Lee Aronsohn & Don Foster & Mark Roberts. 30 minutes): Taking care of business, take two.

I have mentioned in comments on several Men episodes this season that the writers keep avoiding one of the most interesting storylines they have available: Jake is hitting puberty. So in these two episodes they eventually do.

In the first, Alan and his receptionist Melissa flirt, kiss, both apologize, kiss again. They are like Ted and Robin in Met. Alan and Charlie have a nice scene talking about Melissa. The next morning Berta the cleaning lady eventually gets into the discussion about Melissa, or as she refers to her, “Tinkerbell with knockers.” Berta recommends against sex between an employer and employee, recalling a fling she had in the seventies with Telly Savalas. She says “Sooner or later you wake up with a broken heart and a lollipop stuck to your keester.”

A brief pause here to consider the glory that is Conchata Ferrell, who plays Berta. She has been a great American character actress for thirty years. She is one of those performers who, when she shows up on screen, the audience smiles and relaxes because we know we will be in good hands for however long she is there. Berta originally was supposed to be just a one-shot part, but the showrunners realized what they had and have kept her on as a regular cast member. She gets more lines in the scene under discussion here than she usually does, and she delivers. Usually she only has a couple of lines per episode, but she knocks those out of the park as well. And here is how seeing somebody do well in a great role like Berta can affect how you see them in real life. I know Conchata slightly, since I work with her husband. And whenever I see her, I am always a little surprised that not every line out of her mouth is one of Berta’s zingers. Even great actors require great writing. Listen to her deliver the “keester” line and you’ll see what I mean.

To return to tonight’s symposium. Jake. As Alan is dealing with Melissa and her truly wacko mother, Charlie takes Jake to dinner at a bar, where Janine, the waitress, takes a shine to ... Jake. In a big sister sort of way. She invites Jake and Charlie to her place for a real dinner. After dinner Charlie wants Jake to wait in the car, but Jake is determined to stick around, thinking in his adolescent way (or maybe he just saw The Reader) he may have a chance with Janine. He doesn’t, but he outwits Charlie, a first for Jake. Sniff, sniff, our boy is growing up.

In “I Think…” the writers are also dealing with the fact that Judith is pregnant and Alan and we know it was from her one-night quickie with him. She insists they never had unprotected sex. Charlie thinks Jake is upset at the idea of a baby sister, but he’s not. There is a girl who wants to “hook up” with him at a party. He feels embarrassed that he is not more experienced sexually. Charlie gives him advice (and actually not bad advice to give to a 14-year-old boy in those circumstances: admit you don’t know much and hope to learn from her) and Jake is determined to go to the party. But then he decides not to. Sniff, sniff, maybe our boy is not growing up.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit(2009. Episode “Hothouse” written by Charley Davis. 60 minutes): A small step for one actress, a giant leap for all actresses.

Back in the seventies, when women cops showed up in television shows, they seemed to spend most their time working undercover dressed as hookers. The TV Guide logline for this episode was “Benson poses as a madam.” Wow, undercover women cops have graduated from prostitutes to madams.

Except that is not what the episode is about. Dead girl, 14-years-old, from the Ukraine. Everybody assumes from the bruises that she was a hooker. So Benson goes undercover as a madam and approaches a guy they think brings girls in from the Ukraine. She dresses much better than the women cops in the seventies. They arrest the guy, but the only thing he can tell them is that she was not a hooker, but a math whiz. End of Act One. And Benson’s pseudo-madam is out of the story for good.

Now if we can just stop promoting shows with “Benson poses as a madam”...

CSI (2009. Episode “One to Go” written by Carol Mendelsohn & Naren Shankar. 60 minutes): What, Grisson hasn’t left YET?

In US#13 I complimented the writers on CSI for handling Grissom’s leaving in a relatively realistic way. It may just be that this episode comes so long in real time after the previous one, but it struck me they were dragging it out. Several short scenes with some of the team repeat what we have seen in previous episodes. When they finally solve the case and Grissom is actually leaving, the writers do give him a nice walk through the lab. He’s looking at everybody doing their jobs. And he gets a nice goodbye wink from Catherine.

On the other hand, the writers do not quite have the range yet on Professor Langston and Laurence Fishburne. Perhaps it is obvious because they do on the other characters and the actors who have played them for years. The writers need to work this out as they figure out who Langston is and what Fishburne can do with him. If you look at the early episodes of many great TV series, it takes both the writers and the actors (that’s why it is called a collaborative medium) a while to find the groove. The smart money is on these writers and Fishburne.

ER (2009. Episode “Dream Runner” written by Lisa Zwerling. 60 minutes): Domesticated surrealism.

One of the tricks of writing for a television series is that a series over time sets up its own rules. You know there are certain things you can do in ER that you can’t do in Grey’s Anatomy (like have intelligent characters behave intelligently). And unless the showrunners are willing to or have to make big changes (letting Grissom go and bringing Langston onto CSI) you can’t bend the mold too much. Zwerling does some interesting playing around with the character of Neela in this episode, and does it in a way ER normally doesn’t.

In the first two acts we get the basic situation set up: Neela is still dealing with Anna, a young girl with Sickle Cell Anemia. Meanwhile, a patient who is a “Dream Runner” is brought in. A Dream Runner gets up while he is dreaming and behaves as though his dream was real. In this case the guy jumped out a window.

Then in the third act, we get an alternative version of the same day. The Dream Runner, who died in the pervious version, stays alive in this one. In the fourth act, we get another alternate version, this time with Anna appearing to die. In the fifth act, we get another version where Anna lives. In other words, what we have is sort of a Run, Lola, Run episode, but a lot of the variations are relatively minor, such as Neela passing different people in the stairwell, or either Jerry or Archie riding Archie’s father’s motorcycle. The most interesting of the variations is that in all of them Neela is more forceful about suggesting treatments. She has always been a bit of a wuss, and it is nice to see her man up, but how much of that will continue in “real life” in the series? How much can you change in a series?

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.