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Understanding Screenwriting #2: WALL-E, The Order of Myths, The Da Vinci Code, 300, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #2: <em>WALL-E</em>, <em>The Order of Myths</em>, <em>The Da Vinci Code</em>, <em>300</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: WALL-E; The Order of Myths; Sailor of the King; The Da Vinci Code; 300, but first…

MAILBAG: When Keith, Matt, and Sarah Bunting were hustling me into writing this column, they assured me that HND has a really smart bunch of readers who would start interesting discussions. Since the only thing I like better than having an interesting discussion is starting one, I was delighted to see from the first comments posted that they did not lie. For a variety of reasons, I will probably not be responding to each comment as they come in, but will hold them for the next column, especially since some of them can be dealt with at once. For example, several people brought up Titanic. I won’t deal with it here because I have dealt with it at much greater length, discussing most of the issues the readers brought up, in the book that preceded this column, Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays. It is, as you might imagine, one of the scripts discussed in the Bad section. I go through the first draft, why it’s bad, why it’s better than the film (unusual for a film directed by its writer), what went wrong, and why I think it was such a big hit in spite of a bad script. For the book I deliberately picked bad scripts that had been reasonably successful commercially just so I could discuss that angle.

Matt and others brought up the whole question of audiences and their responses, which has always fascinated me. When I was about five or six I went to a Saturday westerns matinee and could not understand why all the other boys were running around the theater shooting off their cap pistols instead of sitting there watching the movies. As with Titanic, I have already had my say about audiences. The black sheep of my books (the only one not about screenwriting) is American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, which deals with audiences from 1948 up through the late nineties. It came out in 2001 and the University Press of Kentucky would love for you to take a few copies off their hands.

Several readers talked about writers and the visual element of films, and you will see that discussed in some of this episode’s films. “Withnail” would like me to look at failed screenplays, and since I loved doing the Bad section of my book, I am happy to comply, as you will see below. The only problem with doing bad movies is having to see them. I am experienced enough to be generally able to know if a film is not going to work for me and to avoid it. Matt would like to see scripts that break the rules and still work. To some extent Tell No One was like that, although I see some readers disagreed. There will be more rule-breakers. “JJ” would like to see unmade screenplays discussed, but I will probably avoid that, since I would be the only who had read the script, which sort of closes down the discussion. On the other hand, I would love to see one of the scripts he mentions, Robert Bolt’s two-film version of Mutiny on the Bounty, so if anybody has a copy of it… And to “MovieMan 0283,” yes, there is a Fox Movie Channel, and the only good thing about Time-Warner taking over from Comcast in my neighborhood was that I finally got it. In the middle of the night, they tend to run really great old stuff, as in most of the films that were in the “Ford at Fox” DVD box set. Thank goodness for DVRs. And now on to the main events:

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WALL·E (2008. Story by Andrew Stanton and Peter Docter. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon. 98 minutes): Well, I was wrong. As my wife and I came out of a screening of Pixar’s Cars in 2006, I said to her, “This is the beginning of the end of Pixar as we know it.” Previous Pixar films (the Toy Story films, Monsters, Inc., even The Incredibles) focused on characters and story. Cars, especially in the neverending opening race, seemed much more interested in how dazzling the animation could be. Pixar, it appeared, was declining into its decadent years. Last year’s Ratatouille left the question open.

In Wall·E Pixar has returned its focus onto character and story. Look at the ways (plural) Wall·E is introduced. We learn about him from what he does. We learn about him from how he does it. We learn about him from how he reacts to what is around him, including his little bug friend. What details do the writers pick to tell you about Wall·E? Why the songs from Hello, Dolly!? And why the film clips from Hello, Dolly!? Look at how the actions in the film clips (the hats and the handholding) are later used. And that’s just in the first fifteen minutes, which is all about character.

What do we learn about Eve when she first shows up? How is she different from WALL-E? What does she do that he cannot? What does he do that she cannot? Even before they zip off to the Axiom, we have one of the most detailed relationships between two characters in any recent American film. Screenwriting is writing for performance, and the writers here have written two great characters for the animators to “perform.”

Screenwriters also write for the performance of the other members of the creative team. Wall·E’s world on Earth is conceived by the writers so the design team can use the wide screen to isolate Wall·E in the desolation. (The Simpsons Movie is one of the few other recent animated films to use the wide screen. How and why does The Simpsons Movie use the wide screen differently than Wall·E?) The Axion is also written for the designers to show off, but unlike the opening race in Cars, it is at the service of the story and especially the characters. Yes, the chases may go on a little too long, but if we are with the characters, and we are, then we want to know what is happening to them in those chases.

Oh, yeah, screenwriters write dialogue. But there is very little dialogue in here, which should tell you something that silent filmmakers learned years ago: you can tell a story without a lot of dialogue. Although you should know in this case the writers did in fact write out in English dialogue what Wall·E was saying. Then they gave it to the sound genius Ben Burtt and he “translated” it into “Wall·E”-speak. See what I mean about writing for performance?

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The Order of Myths (2008. Written by Margaret Brown. 77 minutes by my count, 80 minutes by the Los Angeles Times’s count, and 97 minutes by the imdB’s count): But this is a documentary, and documentaries are not written, they’re just photographed life.

Guess again. There are at least three kinds of screenwriting going on in many documentaries, although only two here. The missing one is narration, although there are some details given in words in titles throughout the film. The second form of screenwriting in a documentary is a selection of a subject, which may automatically suggest a structure to the film, and as William Goldman so eloquently put it, screenwriting is structure, structure, structure, and structure. Here Brown is making a documentary about the preparations of organized groups, both black and white, for Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama, which rightly suggests the structure is going to be one that follows the processes the groups go through.

The third and often most crucial form of screenwriting in a documentary is in the editing of the material into the final structure. Here Brown gives us the complex look at Mobile that makes the film one of the best documentaries so far this year. One way she does this is by giving us material that we don’t immediately understand as connected to the basic structure. For example, there is a brief essay on how people in Mobile feel about their trees, with reference to the importance of roots, both with trees and culture. That is followed up later in the film by a reference to Mobile being the site of one of the last lynchings in America. In a tree. Then both of those scenes add a double context to a simple shot later in the film of someone removing a string of beads from a tree during one of the parades. Likewise, the single shots spread out early in the film in which young black girls read their essays about moon pies seem to have no relation to anything else in the film. But they do.

Brown “lets” us “discover,” or perhaps rather “uncover” the meanings as we go. A question that almost always comes up with documentaries is: what are we not seeing? What got left on the cutting room floor? The Order of Myths peels away a lot of information about Mobile and its history, but Brown is aware it does not tell all (as compared to some filmmakers who insist they have told the whole story). So the final shot is essentially an outtake from the rest of the film, with a character about whom we have at that point only recently learned several interesting details, suggesting there is a lot more that is not, and will not, at least this time around, be told. It is, one critic said, one of the most haunting movie endings in years.

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Sailor of the King (1953. Screenplay by Valentine Davies. Based on the novel “Brown on Resolution” by C.S. Forester. 83 minutes): I promised you that I would from time to time deal with screenplays from older films that showed up on cable and/or DVD. Sailor of the King is a virtually unknown jewel that never appears on television, not even on the Fox Movie Channel, was never released on videotape, and is only now finally being released on DVD. One reason its studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, probably ignored it was that it was one of the last small-screen black-and-white films Fox released before the company went whole hog for CinemaScope and color.

The script is based on a 1929 novel by the author of the Horatio Hornblower stories and novels, so you will rightly suspect it will be about naval adventures, with lots of duty, honor, and courage thrown in. Even though the story and production team is British, Davies was an American screenwriter, best known for his Oscar-winning work on the original Miracle on 34th Street. So while the script and film have British restraint, it also has American narrative drive.

It begins in 1914 with a young Royal Navy Lieutenant Richard Saville meeting and falling in love with a young British woman, Lucina. Look at how quickly Davies gets them together, without seeming to rush it. When Lucinda has to turn down Saville’s marriage proposal, she does so using the same logical reasons a navy officer should not get married that Saville has already said. And Davies is smart enough to put the Production-Code appeasing “What we did was wrong” (have sex without being married) up front in the scene so he won’t have to dwell on it, which would make it even stupider than it already it is.

Twenty minutes into the picture we are in the early forties and Saville, now a squadron commander, is chasing a German ship raiding convoys in the Pacific. On one of the ships is a signalman named Brown. Look at how long it takes for Davies to give us hints, and what those hints are, that Brown’s mother is Lucinda. Brown’s ship is sunk and he is taken aboard the German Raider. The Raider has to put into a large cove (talk about writing in a great visual location) to do repairs, and Brown, encouraged by the one other English prisoner, Petty Officer Wheatley, steals a gun and a life raft and sneaks ashore. (It will come as no surprise to modern viewers of the film that Wheatley can convince Brown to take action; he is played by Bernard Lee, who went on to play M in the first 6,734 James Bond films.) Brown, up in the hills of the cove, picks off the crew and slows down the repairs. The other British ships arrive in the nick of time and sink the German ship.

In the final scene, Saville, now an admiral, is with Brown as Brown is about to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Brown credits his mother with teaching him all about the Navy, as well as the marksmanship that proved useful. The two gallant men, not knowing they are father and son, await the King. The ending is touching and restrained and it has stuck with me since I first saw the film in 1953.

It was not the only ending. The new DVD has an alternate ending in which Brown dies, and it is his mother who is with Saville to accept the Victoria Cross. The first ending tested better (and it lets Jeffrey Hunter live; gay guys will love this film, by the way, since Hunter spends most of the second half with his shirt off), and it is better because we know what the characters don’t. The problem with the second ending as Davies wrote it is that Saville never twigs to the fact that Brown must have been his son. Lucinda does not tell him, and he seems stupider than he has been in the rest of the film not to guess. Part of the limitations of the scene may have been the Production Code again, since them talking about her having an illegitimate child would probably have not been allowed in 1953.

But let us think for a minute, as reader “Withnail” had wondered, about other ways Davies could have run the scene. We the audience knows who’s who, so a simple exchange of glances will tell they know. Or what if she recognizes Saville but he doesn’t recognize her? Or he recognizes her, but she doesn’t recognize him? Make the scene a little more complicated and have Brown there as well, and then what happens? Do they tell him or not? Does he guess? You could all do this in such a restrained way that you could have sneaked it past the Production Code.

I am not suggesting the film be remade now, since the film is perfect at 83 minutes, and making it into a two-and-a-half hour blockbuster would probably kill it. Besides, how many contemporary box office hits do you know that are serious about duty, honor, and courage?

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The Da Vinci Code (2006. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman. Based on the novel by Dan Brown. 149 minutes): I recently caught up with a couple of bad movies I deliberately avoided paying to see when they were in the theatres. This was one of them, and its primary value is to show you how not to adapt a novel. Brown’s novel is full of ideas, and Goldsman assumes (not entirely in error, given the box office success of the film) that audiences will care about the ideas. Mostly we don’t, and you can see why in the film. It means that Goldsman gives us enormous hunks of exposition, such as in the long, long scene with Sir Leigh Teabing. The scene has the kind of talk we will follow in a novel, where all we have are the words, but gives the actors virtually nothing to do while they talk. Sir Ian McKellen tries his best, and as an acting exercise it is almost but not quite fun to watch. The ideas of the novel are what Hitchcock called the MacGuffin: what everybody in the movie is concerned about, but about which the audience generally does not care. Quick: what were they chasing in North by Northwest? Yeah, but what was inside the statue? And what was on the microfilm inside the statue? We never find out. Did it make you hate the film?

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300 (2006. Screenplay by Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon. Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. 117 minutes): And this one was a lesson in the generic problems of adapting a graphic novel into a film. First, there is seldom much characterization in most graphic novels, and here it consists of everybody yelling at each other. The characterization is so shallow that when, in the middle of the picture, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and Theron (Dominic West) behave for a minute like real human beings, it is jarring because it goes against everything else in the picture.

Second, graphic novels are graphic, not so much in bloodshed, although that is true here, but in stunning visual images. Reading a graphic novel in half an hour or so can be fun. But making that visual dazzle so relentless for nearly two hours simply becomes exhausting, like all those first features MTV directors make. Yes, screenwriters should write for the performance of the designers and the CGI folks, but give the latter a variety of images to conjure up. As the writers of Wall·E did.

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.