House Logo
Explore categories +

Understanding Screenwriting #19: Teaching the Young, Minsky’s, Captain Blood, In Old Chicago, & More

Comments Comments (0)

Understanding Screenwriting #19: Teaching the Young, <em>Minsky’s</em>, <em>Captain Blood</em>, <em>In Old Chicago</em>, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Teaching the Young, Minsky’s (stage musical), Definitely, Maybe, Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,In Old Chicago, ER, Two and a Half Men, The Closer, Burn Notice, but first…

Fan Mail: A nice collection of comments on US#18.

I will bow to R.A. Porter’s expertise on the explosion in Burn Notice being a shaped charge designed to explode outward. I will not ask where he got that expertise.

Matt Maul and I are certainly on the same wavelength on Ride the High Country, which several critics and historians have called the unofficial last film in the Ranown cycle. I saw it twice in two days when it opened. I hate to tell you though that it may not “hold up pretty well even if you have no idea who Scott and McCrea are.” Several years ago I ran it in my History of Motion Pictures class, and it left the class cold. They had not grown up with Scott and McCrea. I can certainly see why Elmore Leonard liked Richard Boone in The Tall T, since he feels more like an Elmore Leonard character than any of the others.

Steve Santos called for more discussion on the issue of dialogue being “on the nose” and several people complied. So here is at least some of what I think about it. As Steve points out, there is a difference between dialogue on the page and on screen (or on stage for that matter). Dialogue on the page has to carry its weight on its own. In a performance on screen we are also watching the person, so we need to SEE more than what we just hear. That is why I keep hitting (and I will again later in this column) on the issue of reaction shots. What we need to see when someone is talking (if we are not watching the other person’s reaction—look at the famous last scene of Casablanca and notice how much of Bogart’s speech is played on a closeup of Bergman reacting to it) is something more than just what is being said. So if the line is “I like baseball,” what is there is see beyond the basic information? That is why, even though we cannot even see her, Annie Savoy’s “I believe in the church of baseball” is one of the great opening lines in movies. The phrasing of the line tells us that she has a strange mind, as does the rest of the monologue. So much so that by the time we see her, we will follow her anywhere.

This is why I don’t think the dialogue in Gran Torino is as “on the nose” as some of you think. The way Walt expresses himself tells us as much about him as the specifics of what he says. I agree that the talking to himself lines are probably not needed, but some of them are colorful enough to make me want to listen to him. That was not true for me in the Revolutionary Road dialogue.

Dialogue can also be funny, but it is better when it’s not just jokes. I read the Mel Brooks-Gene Wilder screenplay for Young Frankenstein and what struck me about it is that there are not that many JOKES. Mostly the dialogue captures the attitudes of the characters. Wilder’s Frankenstein saying goodbye at the train station to Madeline Kahn’s Elizabeth does not appear to be that funny a scene in the script, but the scene gives both actors attitudes to play: he’s trying to kiss her, she’s trying not to get her hair mussed. Years later, when Brooks did Spaceballs, he passed around the script and asked people to check off the stuff that worked. They did, and they were mostly jokes, and the picture suffered accordingly.

Dialogue can also tell things in subtle ways. Take Bonasera’s opening monologue in The Godfather. On the surface it is an “on the nose” telling of what happened, but more importantly, it brilliantly establishes character. No, not Bonasera’s character, but Don Corleone’s. Bonasera’s speech tells us that the Don is more powerful than the police and courts of law and that people come to him for their idea of justice. I have always contended that by the end of the speech, you could cut to the chair and have Daffy Duck there and we would believe he is the Godfather.

Todd brought up the problem of exposition in dialogue. Actors hate it, since it gives them very little to play, although the “exposition” in Bonasera’s speech gives Salvatore Corsitto a lot of attitude to play. Exposition is a particular problem in science fiction movies with all their technobabble. As Harrison Ford famously said to George Lucas on the first Star Wars film, “You may be able to type this shit George, but you sure can’t say it.” For a more detailed look at the technobabble problem, see the chapter on the Jurassic Park trilogy in my book Understanding Screenwriting.

Teaching the Young: Get them early.

A few weeks ago my wife and I were getting ready to take our seven year old grandson Noam to the Natural History Museum. While waiting for Grandma to get ready, I was channel surfing on the TV before turning it off. Noam was running around like a seven year old. I stopped on one channel. Wide screen. A British officer and an Arab guide had stopped at a well. The officer was playing with his compass. He and the guide notice something in the far distance. Noam started watching, wondering what it was in the distance. I told him to wait. He asked me to turn up the sound. I told him there was no sound in this scene. The figure in the distance was moving closer. Noam was standing completely still. The figure got closer. Noam said, “Grandpa, I want to watch this movie with you.” The figure got closer. I explain the movie is four hours long.

Tafasrantohiscamelandpulledagunand…

BANG!

...theblackfigureshothimandLawrencelookedathiminhorror.

I turned off the TV set and we went to the museum.

Someday I will sit down with Noam and watch the movie. Or better yet, I will take him to one of the annual showings the American Cinematheque has of a 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia.

Minsky’s(2009. Stage musical, book by Bob Martin, original book by Evan Hunter, Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. 155 minutes [for now]. Based on the book The Night They Raided Minsky’s by Rowland Barber and the film of the same name written by Arnold Shulman, Sidney Michael, and Norman Lear; 1968, 99 minutes): Another new musical playing Los Angeles before it hits New York.

This started out as a 1960 book by Barber, then was turned into one of the legendary film disasters of the sixties. We have occasionally discussed the issue of how one can critique a screenplay from the final film, since there may be changes as the film is made. Boy, is this ever true with the film of The Night They Raided Minsky’s. Norman Lear, before he became NORMAN LEAR (All in the Family, etc), thought he and the other writers had come up with a good script, and Lear’s judgment about scripts should not be sneezed at. Then, alas, they turned it over to an egomaniacal 27-year-old wunderkind director who had only made one low budget film. They were all hoping he would provide what everybody around the production called the New Look, i.e., not an old MGM musical look but something closer to what Richard Lester had done with The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!. The shoot was fraught with tension, since the wunderkind thought he had to intimidate the older professional actors to get their respect. It didn’t work. Then Bert Lahr, playing an old vaudevillian, died late in the production, and some of his shots had to be done with a body double. When the first cut was shown, everybody felt it didn’t work. Rather than stay with the editing process, the wunderkind took off to shoot another film, later badmouthing Minsky’s before it was ever released.

The re-editing fell to an experienced film editor named Ralph Rosenblum, who later worked with Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Rosenblum wrote a great book on film editing called When the Shooting Stops ... the Cutting Begins (1979), and the first two chapters deal with his trying to save Minsky’s. He presents it as sort of a textbook case of how a film is “saved in the editing room,” as film editors like to call it. Except he never mentions that the film was a total disaster, even after all of his work. In spite of what film editors say, you cannot “save a film in the editing room” if the basic material, i.e., screenplay, is not there.

Charles Strouse worked on the music for the film and always thought there might be a stage musical in the material. Minsky’s has been in development, to use a Hollywood term, for several years. Bob Martin, the writer of the new book, wrote The Drowsy Chaparone, a modest Broadway hit of a few years ago, and the new show has something of a similar attitude of sharp-eyed insider nostalgia for musical theater. The opening number, “Workin’ Hot” is all about creating an opening number, and the first act finale, “Every Number Needs a Button” is about how numbers and acts need, well, you get the point.

The show is professional but not particularly inspired. For a while during the first act, it looks as though the scenes are going to be variations of vaudeville sketches (especially a funny one involving two shrinks and their patients, the two leads who have not met cute yet), but that is not carried through in the show. The main character is Billy Minsky, who is trying to save his burlesque theater, especially from the threat of a local censor. Naturally he falls in love with the censor’s daughter. She eventually comes to realize that show people are real people (OK, some of us may argue that point), but that is not as thoroughly developed in the second act as it could be. That is an area they should be working on.

There are more than a few “The theater is great, who would want to be anywhere else” numbers, but at least they are offset by “I Want a Life,” a song sung by two people caught up in the theater who don’t want to be. “Tap Happy” is a typical tap number, but it is not clear what it is doing in THIS show. The numbers for the showgirls are some pretty good parodies of those kinds of numbers, but, OK, I have been trying to avoid the obvious comparison, they are not as good as the faux show numbers in Sondheim’s Follies. To use the late Ron Haver’s great phrase, if Follies was the opening of the West, Minsky’s is the coming of the settlers.

So far in Los Angeles, there has been no report that the wunderkind director of the film has dropped in to see the show. He went on to make such disasters as Sorcerer, The Brink’s Job, Deal of the Century, Jade, and Bug. Amazing how a couple of big hits can keep you working among all those flops. He also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist. He is William Friedkin.

Definitely, Maybe(2008. Screenplay by Adam Brooks. 112 minutes): Where is Richard Curtis when you need him?

My wife and I couldn’t get out to one of the current rom-coms on Valentine’s Day, so it was stay home and watch one of last year’s, which I DVR’d off HBO. Will Hayes is getting divorced and his 10-year-old daughter wants to know how he and her mother met. Wait a minute, isn’t there already a TV series called How I Met Your Mother? Yes, and as often happens, the TV series is better. The characterizations are sharper and it is just plain funnier. Here Will tells the girl, Maya, about three possible contenders, saying he has changed the names to make her (and us) guess which one it was. Will, as written, is a rather uneven character: he is supposed to be interested in politics, but he doesn’t seem obsessive enough to be a political junkie. Brooks spends a lot of time with Will on the 1992 Clinton campaign, but those scenes do not capture any of the texture of the campaign. As with Milk, the documentary (in this case The War Room) is not only better but funnier, as documentaries often are.

Definitely, Maybe does not have the supporting characters either How I Met Your Mother or The War Room have. Emily, the first woman, is rather bland. April seems the most fully fleshed out character, but a lot of that maybe be Isla Fisher managing to make her variations more interesting than they might have been on paper. Summer is blander than you expect anything Rachel Weisz would do, although Weisz does have a nice scene with Kevin Kline, playing a lecherous professor. It suggests what the film could have been. Part of the reason that scene may work is that it does not feature Will, played very blandly by Ryan Reynolds, who so far seems better in supporting roles than starring ones.

One of the production companies involved in the film is Working Title, which has produced most of the good comedies written by Richard Curtis, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually. Curtis knows how to do all the things Brooks doesn’t do well here.

Captain Blood (1935. Screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini. 119 minutes) and The Sea Hawk (1940. Screenplay at Seton I. Miller and Howard Koch. 127 minutes) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex(1939. Screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine and Aeneas MacKenzie, based on the play Elizabeth the Queen by Maxwell Anderson. 106 minutes): Olivia de Havilland versus Brenda Marshall versus Bette Davis.

Yes, I am still working my way through the Christmas goodies. The first two of these are classic Errol Flynn swashbucklers in the Flynn box set. Captain Blood is the film that made Flynn a star after his appearing in smaller parts in a few Warners pictures. One thing that impresses me about the script this time around is how perfectly Robinson writes for Flynn. We all know Flynn as a star, with everything that means, but Robinson was pretty much guessing. Look at all the details of wit and charm that Robinson gives Peter Blood. We tend to think of actor-director combinations (Ford and Wayne, Cukor and Hepburn), but an actor, no matter how charismatic, needs a role that will make him or her a star. Jean Harlow was just another blonde until John Lee Mahin and Anita Loos created “Jean Harlow” for her. Sharon Stone was just a jobbing actress until Joe Eszterhas created Catherine Tramell for her in Basic Instinct. If you don’t believe me on the latter, go over to the IMDb and look at all the stuff Stone did before Basic Instinct and see if you remember her in any of it.

The other thing that impressed with Robinson’s script is that he gave Olivia de Havilland a very interesting character to play. She meets Blood when he is on the auction block in the Caribbean. Amused by his smarts, she buys him, but turns him over to her uncle. She and Blood later come to know each other, but when he gets forward with her, she pulls back. Nowadays, we are so used to scripts in which the couples disagree at the beginning simply because it is expected of them. Here you believe the differences between them. It also helps that de Havilland and Flynn have great chemistry together.

Alas, the same is not true of Flynn and Brenda Marshall in The Sea Hawk. By this time everybody at Warners knew what they had with Flynn and were taking advantage of it. The script is weirdly structured, with the biggest sea battle in the opening half-hour. Most films start off with smaller action sequences and build to the larger ones, but The Sea Hawk goes in reverse. Brenda Marshall plays Doña Maria, the niece of an ambassador to Spain, both of whom Flynn’s Geoffrey Thorpe capture in that sea battle. She comes to appreciate and love Thorpe, but mostly by sitting around Queen Elizabeth’s court. De Havilland’s Arabella is actively involved in the plot. And de Havilland is alive on the screen in the way Marshall is not. Marshall has an angular beauty, but she is very unexpressive, which will kill you in a Warners swashbuckler with Errol Flynn, Claude Raines, Flora Robson as QEI, and with Anton Grot’s great art direction for your eyes and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s wonderful score dazzling your ears. You are going to have to ACT to keep up with that. Warners put de Havilland and Flynn together in nine films. The Sea Hawk is the only pairing of Marshall and Flynn.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is the one picture in the boxed set I had never seen. Now I’ve seen it. And I never have to see it again. It is based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, and you understand why it might have worked on stage. There is a certain drama to the romantic attachment of QEI and the Earl of Essex, but the play and the movie are mostly talk. You can easily see the scene and act breaks. Especially in comparison to the two swashbucklers, the film is inert. Warners has gussied it up with Technicolor, good sets, and gorgeous costumes. The film was nominated for a lot of the “pretty” awards at the Oscars, although the Irish battles, all done on a sound stage, look awful, especially in comparison with The Adventures of Robin Hood the year before. Bette Davis is QEI this time out and Flynn is Essex and they do all right chattering away, but there is not the chemistry Flynn had with de Havilland. De Havilland has a small part in this one, but nothing that gives her a chance to shine.

In Old Chicago (1937. Screenplay by Sonya Levein and Lamar Trotti, based on a story by Niven Busch. 115 minutes in the roadshow version, 95 minutes in the general release version. The current DVD has both): And versus Alice Faye.

In addition to catching up on the year-end movies and the DVDs Santa left me, I spent some of January doing what we academics call a “resume enhancer.” That’s a scholarly article (this one is for a forthcoming book of essays) that you do not get much money for but which looks good on your resume. The article I was doing is called “19th Century-Fox,” and it’s about the historical films Fox did in the thirties and forties. One of the films I focused on was this one.

When Darryl Zanuck, the head of the studio, saw the enormous success MGM had with San Francisco in 1936, he figured Fox could do an epic historical disaster film. The part of the saloon singer was conceived for Jean Harlow, with all her wisecracking sassiness. Harlow fell ill and died, and Zanuck decided to go with contract actress Alice Faye, who had not yet become a big star. Unfortunately the part was not rewritten for her. She simply does not do sassy as well as Harlow. Zanuck noted it in the rushes and sent a memo to director Henry King saying he thinks Faye is playing it “too sweet and girlish,” especially given her character’s background. He is right, but there is no indication in the film that King corrected the problem.

And the picture made her a star. Go figure. Sometimes an actor carries a film (Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler) and sometimes the film carries the actor (Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde). As Zanuck said in a later memo about another film, “We live and learn.”

The film, by the way, is a lot of fun, especially the full 115 roadshow version, which includes a wonderful trial scene, cut from the shorter version. In it a man is accused of registering to vote under several names—this is Chicago, after all—and he manages to wiggle out of it. I suspect that of the two writers, this scene was written by Lamar Trotti, who had a real feel for that kind of Americana.

Oh, and the fire is great too.

ER (2009. Episode “A Long Strange Trip” written by Joe Sachs. 60 minutes): Nice idea, not well enough developed.

An old man who has been mugged staggers into the ambulance entrance of County General. As the doctors take him inside, we see his view of them, in which they are dressed and wearing the hairstyles of the sixties (great wig work by the hair department here). As the episode proceeds, we see him viewing the nurses and the hospital as though it was back in the fifties and sixties, complete with medical equipment of the period (great work by the prop department). He has no I.D. He can’t talk, but he manages to write “T.B.” on a piece of paper and point to another patient. The doctors all think she has cancer, but a T.B. test confirms the old man’s diagnosis. So who is this guy? Eventually Archie Morris figures out he is Dr. Oliver Kostin, who literally wrote the book on emergency medicine. Dr. Morgenstern, who ran the ER early in the series, shows up. He is Kostin’s proxy, since Kostin is suffering from dementia and has walked away from his nursing home. Morgenstern tells the doctors and nurses everything that Kostin did, including changing the ER from a walk-in clinic to the ER we know and love. He also set up the 911 system and established the paramedics and the use of hospital ambulances and probably created sliced bread as well. He dies in the ER, with the cast all around him.

Now that should have been a lot more moving than it actually was on screen. Unfortunately, Kostin’s story was only one of three or four, so not enough time was devoted to it. Given that this is the final season, and the show has had “one-off” episodes in the past, they could have made the entire episode about him. We do not know Kostin, since he was never a part of the cast of the show. Rance Howard, who plays him, is a familiar face, but not a strong enough presence to overcome how little Sachs gives him to do. The “flashback” views he has in his dementia are mildly interesting, but a lot more could be done with them, especially given all the footage the series has from the last fifteen years.

Two and a Half Men (2009. Episode “I’d Like to Start with the Cat” teleplay by Don Foster & Mark Roberts & Susan Beavers, story by Chuck Lorre. 30 minutes): Also old-fashioned.

In writing about Monk (in US#18), I described it as “old-fashioned,” in the sense of being slower and less flashy as well as focusing on character. The same is true of this episode. Charlie is still dating Chelsea, whom he has been seeing off and on for a couple of seasons. She complains he doesn’t know anything about her. He goes to his therapist and we have a fairly lengthy scene between them. Dr. Freeman, a recurring character, is the incomparable Jane Lynch. I have been told by people who pay more attention to this sort of thing than I do that she actually stood up in one episode years ago. However, as her work was described by one of the showrunners on one of the DVD special features, Lynch comes in, sits down, and just does it. She and Sheen have great chemistry, which the writers write for, and I am perfectly happy watching them go it, just as I was with Rowlands and Shalhoub on Monk. And if that scene was not enough, Charlie brings in Chelsea for couples counseling with Dr. Freeman. Another great scene. Simple.

The Closer (2009. Episode “Power of Attorney” written by Michael Alaimo. 60 minutes): Law & Order.

This is more of a Law & Order script than a conventional Closer episode. Twist, twist, twist. A woman is raped and murder. The cops find the suspect hiding in a tree. The suspect has priors for sexual charges, but was not convicted. A witness cannot pick him out of a lineup. The suspect’s attorney, whom the suspect has on speed dial, will arrange a plea bargain in which the suspect gives up his partner. Since the cops have no physical evidence on the suspect, the district attorney agrees. The suspect gives up his partner ... the attorney. But the attorney has seen all the evidence in the case against the suspect and knows they have no evidence against him either.

Ingenious, but it means we do not get much of the character humor that is part of this series. The secondary characters only get occasional lines, but very few reactions, which I had written was one of the strengths of the show in US#6.

Burn Notice (2009. Episode “Bad Breaks” written by Michael Horowitz. 60 minutes): The heart of the show.

This is one of the best of the recent Burn Notice episodes because it does well what this show does best. Yes, we still have Michael trying to track down who put out the hit on him, but that really only involves scenes at the beginning and end with government agent Jason Bly. Yes, we have the standard other plot of Michael agreeing to help out somebody. In this case, it is a friend of his mom’s who is feeling hinky about a guy she met on the Internet. As the friend is telling Michael the questions Prescott, the guy, has been asking her, he shows up. In her bank. With a bunch of guys with guns. To rob it.

So what we have here is Michael in Dog Day Afternoon meets Inside Man. Michael uses ALL, and I mean ALL, of his skills and experience to outwit the robbers. In many episodes, he only uses one of two tricks. Here he is messing up their tools, and their guns; giving them the wrong medications; managing to get Sam and Fiona to set up what turn out to be several diversions. I would go into more details, but the episode was moving at such a breakneck pace my notetaking couldn’t keep up. As far as I am concerned, the more tricks the better.

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.