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Understanding Screenwriting #22: Race to Witch Mountain, Frost/Nixon, Two and a Half Men, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #22: <em>Race to Witch Mountain</em>, <em>Frost/Nixon</em>, <em>Two and a Half Men</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Race to Witch Mountain, Frost/Nixon, Millard Kaufman, Two and a Half Men, Saving Grace, 30 Rock, ER.

Race to Witch Mountain (2009. Screenplay by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback, screen story by Matt Lopez, based on the book Escape to Witch Mountain by Alexander Key. 98 minutes): A Red Letter Day.

If you have read any of these Understanding Screenwriting columns, you will know that I think the heart of good screenwriting is writing in reactions. Therefore, you will be astonished that I think this film has TOO MANY REACTION SHOTS. I would not have thought that that was possible, but it is. The setup is that Jack Bruno, a Las Vegas cab driver, picks up two rather creepy teenagers who order him to drive them out into the desert. They are aliens looking to return to their mother ship, but we and Jack don’t know that. Right away the cab is chased by a bunch of black SUVs. We get a lot of reaction shots of the kids. But the writers have not written any particular reactions for them to have, other than a sort of general surprise. Jack has a bunch of reactions, at least partly because he thinks the SUVs are from a gangster who wants him to do a job, but nothing from the kids. Both the character of the kids and the actors playing them are rather inexpressive, but the writers and director do not take advantage of that to give the deadpan, Buster Keatonish reactions.

Generally I am in favor of pictures starting off fast, but here it backfires a bit, since it is almost 45 minutes into the film before we find out where the kids want to go, and even longer before we find out why. We stick with the film because the action scenes are well done (Mark Bomback, one of the last writers on this script, wrote the screenplay for Live Free or Die Hard), and, quite frankly, because Dwayne Johnson, who plays Bruno, is a star: you can’t not watch him. I am not sure I would want to see him try King Lear, but he has a great ease on-screen and his reactions make sense.

The writers do provide some variety to the chases. Early on, Jack and the kids get stuck in a small town, and later they end up at a sci-fi convention in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, not having established the characters of the kids, the writers now fall down by not really developing the kids’ reactions to everything they see at the convention. The great Galaxy Quest did that sort of thing a whole lot better.


Frost/Nixon (2006. Stage play by Peter Morgan. Approximately 110 minutes, depending on whether “Nixon” gets a standing ovation): Play versus screenplay.

In US#16 I wrote about the screenplay for the film Frost/Nixon and indicated I might return to it after I saw the play, which is now finally hitting Los Angeles. The screenplay is better than the stage play.

In the play, Morgan uses the characters of Jim Reston, Frost’s research assistant, and Jack Brennan, Nixon’s military aide, as the dueling narrators. In the film, Morgan uses montages to cover the exposition, but on stage we get those two characters telling us the story. It is a valid theatrical device, but it makes both of them less interesting on stage than they are on film. I mentioned that in the film Morgan is great at setting up the secondary characters, and on film Reston and Brennan are much more interesting since Morgan can deal with them as characters and not just mouthpieces. The screenplay also makes the other supporting characters, particularly on Frost’s side, more substantial than they are on stage.

I also mentioned that reactions are crucial in the film, and that is one area that film in general has it all over the stage. As I suspected, Nixon’s late night phone call is “his” scene in the play, whereas in the film we are continually seeing Frost’s reactions. In the staging of the play, there is a large video screen that shows the interviews as they are happening, and Nixon’s realization of what he has admitted works as well as it does because we see him in ... a reaction shot.

Officially Stacy Keach is the star of the touring company playing Los Angeles, but he suffered a minor stroke the first week of the run. His understudy has taken over the role, and he is probably somebody you have never heard of. His name is Bob Ari, and like 7 of the 13 members of the cast, he has at least one Law & Order to his credit. As actress Mary Stuart Masterson said recently, Law & Order is an annuity for actors working in New York. Ari got a deserved standing ovation at the end of the performance we saw. Dick Wolf would be proud.


Millard Kaufman (1917 - 2009): An Appreciation, sort of.

Millard Kaufman was what one might call a journeyman screenwriter. After serving in the Marines during World War II, he got into writing cartoons, and he created the character of Mr. Magoo in the 1949 cartoon Ragtime Bear. Kaufman based Magoo on an uncle of his. The uncle was not near-sighted like Magoo, but simply saw the world from his own distorted view of reality. Kaufman, possibly because of his wartime experience, was a little more realistic.

Kaufman got the first of his two Academy Award nominations for the story and screenplay for the 1953 film Take the High Ground!. I saw it again a few years ago, and it baffles me how it even got nominated. It is a standard issue army basic training story, just like a hundred others.

You will get no similar quibbles from me about his second nomination, for the screenplay of the 1955 film Bad Day at Black Rock. I have not seen Howard Breslin’s story “Bad Day at Hondo” or Don McGuire’s adaptation, but the screenplay is a model of efficiency and tension. Macreedy, a man in a black suit, arrives at Black Rock, a dusty hole in the wall in the middle of the Mojave Desert. He wants to locate a man whose son saved his life during the war to give the man his son’s medal. Nobody wants to talk to him. The threat of violence is in the air; well, if the townspeople are played by Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, and Ernest Borgnine, three of the best villains of the period, of course there is going to be violence in the air. And to up the tension, Macreedy, played by Spencer Tracy, has one arm that was wounded in the war. It turns out the son was a Nisei, second generation Japanese-American, and the town had killed the father out of prejudice. Oh, a thriller that turns out to be a message picture. Not exactly what you might expect of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the home of more stars than there are in the heavens.

But Hollywood and MGM were changing. In the late forties, MGM hired Dore Schary to be head of production. Schary had started as a screenwriter at MGM, and he won an Academy Award as one of the writers of the original story for Boys Town (1938). He eventually left MGM and was the head of production at RKO in the mid-forties. Politically liberal, he made a series of successful low-budget message pictures and film noir, many of them with writers and directors who were later blacklisted. He began to get a reputation as something of a boy wonder, and MGM was in desperate need of another boy wonder, since Irving Thalberg died in 1936. Unfortunately, Schary’s ideal movies did not fit in with the grand MGM high gloss tradition. Schary was constantly fighting with the studio. Nicholas Schenck, the head of MGM’s parent company, Loew’s, hated the idea of Bad Day at Black Rock and tried to argue Schary out of it. Schary stuck to his guns, the picture was a hit, and even Schenck eventually came to like it.

Schary admired Millard Kaufman and wrote in his memoir Heyday that Kaufman had “a combination of toughness and hard intellectuality.” Their next collaboration damaged the career of both men. In the forties, MGM had started a contest that awarded a prize of $150,000 for the movie rights to a novel. In 1947 it was won by Ross Lockridge Jr.’s Raintree County, a virtually unfilmable (at the time) novel. Written under the influence of John Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, Sherwood Anderson, and who knows who else, it was an epic look at 19th-century Indiana, told in a series of flashbacks looking back fifty years from July 4th, 1892. It was an all-out, no-holds-barred, wrestle-the-devil-to-the-ground attempt to write the legendary Great American Novel. And it damned near succeeds. It is epic, funny, sensual, political, historical, and almost any other adjective you can think of. The book was a big best-seller, with wonderful reviews. And nobody at MGM could figure out how to make a movie out of it.

So Schary had Kaufman give it a try. Kaufman, who liked the novel, laid out the story on 1,791 note cards. He gave up the flashback structure and kept the story to the period immediately before, during, and after the Civil War. As Larry Lockridge, Ross’s son, writes in his excellent 1993 biography of his father, Shade of the Raintree, one critic noted that the novel is written like a film and the film is written like a novel. Kaufman may simply have been too much of a realist to deal with the material. Orson Welles might have turned it into a mixture of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (another Indiana story), but Welles would not have caught the sensuality of the novel. Kaufman’s script, 206 pages long, was passed on to director Edward Dmytryk, who later admitted he never read the novel. It shows. Whatever feeling Kaufman may have had for the material got lost. The film was given a lavish production, which was halted when Montgomery Clift nearly died in an auto accident. He came back, but with his face less expressive than it had been before.

Raintree County is one of those films where everybody had different agendas. Schary was interested in the way the story dealt with race during the Civil War period, which is why Kaufman focuses on the character of Susanna, a southern belle who thinks she may be part black. In the novel, she is simply one of many women the hero Johnny knows. The character of Susanna gives Elizabeth Taylor a couple of great mad scenes, and she was nominated for an Academy Award. The physical production pleased all the department heads at MGM. And the publicity department was really pleased, since they could advertise the film as “In the great tradition of Civil War romance.”

The picture bombed big time, and Schary was out of a job. Kaufman never worked on a script for that big a picture again. He wrote other films and wrote for television, including for Police Story. And at 86 he started his first novel, Bowl of Cherries, which was published last year. The New Yorker described it as a cross between Catcher in the Rye and Die Hard. Writers never stop writing. Thank god.

And Raintree County? It would make a great TV miniseries. At least on basic cable if not HBO.


Two and a Half Men (2009. Episode “My Son’s Enormous Head” teleplay by Susan Beavers & Eddie Gorodetsky, story by Lee Aronsohn & Jim Patterson. 31 minutes): Bappy Hirthday. Oh, shit.

Ilana, my granddaughter, turned seventeen in February and for her birthday asked me to arrange for her and a friend of hers to go to a filming of Two and Half Men. It is one of her and her mother’s and my wife’s and my favorite shows. So off the five of us went to Warner Brothers. This is the episode we saw filmed.

Sitcoms filmed in front of live audiences are done on studio sound stages, with the audience on raised bleachers against one of the long walls facing the set area. The permanent sets for this show are, from left to right, the living room and the kitchen, with the TV viewing area in front of the kitchen. There is room on either side of the main set for individual smaller sets. Charlie’s bedroom is a separate set at the left end of the bleachers that cannot be seen directly by the audience. When scenes in the bedroom are being shot, the audience cannot see the action live, but watches it on monitors in front of the bleachers. While much, if not most, of the show is filmed in the living room, kitchen, and TV room, there are also scenes that are filmed on sets without an audience the day before the major filming. Those are played back on the monitors when they appear in the show. For this episode, the first and last scenes were filmed the day before, since they required Jennifer Taylor, who plays Charlie’s current girlfriend Chelsea, to look her usual glamorous self. The other bedroom scenes require her to look really, really sick, and the makeup changes would have taken too long. When she came out to take her curtain call at the end, her nose did not look as red as it did in the broadcast episode on the rather ordinary monitors the studio provides (given the amount of dough the show is raking in, you’d think they could afford hi-def). Her nose may have been tweaked with CGI, and I suspect her cough was tweaked in the sound mix (the sound on the monitors, oh, never mind).

The other scene that was pre-filmed was the scene in the pharmacy, with Martin Mull in his recurring role of Russell, the pharmacist. I am not sure why that was done in advance, since the set was off to the right of the main set the night we were there, but it was.

In the third scene of the first act, Charlie comes into the kitchen and asks Berta, the cleaning woman, to fix Chelsea some tea and muffins. In the first take, Berta replies, “Sure. I could” in a way that tells us she won’t. In the second take, the line was dropped and Berta just looks at Charlie. It got a bigger and longer laugh than the line. And the version with the line was used in the broadcast. I suspect this was a function of time. Notice that the running time of this episode was 31 minutes, longer than the usual 30, so it had to be cut as tight as possible. If you ever watch a sitcom being filmed, listen carefully to the constant adjustments they make in lines as they go along. Filming a sitcom is like an out-of-town theatrical tryout and movie sneak preview rolled into one.

In the fourth scene of the second act, Charlie and Alan go to Chelsea’s apartment to feed and clean up after her cat, since Chelsea is staying with Charlie while she is sick. (After she asked him earlier to do this, she then got huffy when he would not say “I love you” back to her. Charlie replied in a typical Charlie line: “I’m going to pan for cat turds. If that doesn’t say ’I love you,’ nothing does.” That’s not an Alan or a Jake line.) In the first take of Alan and Charlie cleaning out the cat box, they simply crawled out of the door at the end. OK, but in the second take, Alan accidentally flipped one of the cat turds up in the air and he and Charlie had to dodge it. The third take perfected the action and was I think the one used in the show. I think the flip was not an accident on Jon Cryer’s part, since the first reaction was a little too good to have been completely improvised.

In the last scene of the second act, we see that Berta has been taking care of Chelsea as well. She has a speech before Charlie comes in explaining to Chelsea that Charlie trying to take care of Chelsea is like a dog playing the piano. He may not get it completely right, but you have to applaud the effort. Ordinarily, Conchata Ferrell, who plays Berta, is rock solid on her lines. This speech gave her trouble and she made three or four flubs before she got it right. She told me after the filming that the speech “had given me nightmares all week.” We did not get into why, but I think it was because some of it is awkwardly phrased. My guess is that Conchata assumed she would get it, and the showrunners assumed she would get it and nobody felt the need to change it. She eventually got it.

As she said to me later, “All my bloopers are ’Oh, shit.’” Look for them on the blooper reel when the season goes to DVD.


Saving Grace (2009. Episodes “Heart of a Cop” written by Denitra Harris-Lawrence, “Do You Believe in Second Chances” written by Joseph Daugherty, and “Take Me Somewhere Earl” written by Annie Brunner. 60 minutes each.): She’s b-a-a-ck. Sort of.

When this new half-season of Saving Grace started, the tag line in the print ads was something like “You say hellraiser like it’s a bad thing.” That seemed appropriate for what we know about Grace Hanadarko: a police detective who drinks excessively, screws everything in sight, and is generally a pain in the ass. And Holly Hunter has certainly played her like that in spades, so much so that sometimes the show was difficult to watch. I could never figure out if it was Grace or Hunter who was more over the top.

In this three-episode arc, both of them seemed to have calmed down a bit. Only at the beginning of the third episode do we see Grace drinking and hooking up with an unnamed guy in a truck. For her, that is almost Sunday School behavior. Part of the change may be that Grace was faced with a new partner, a regular cop doing a 28-day rotation in the detective branch. She was Abby Charles and she was played by Wednesday Addams her ownself, Christina Ricci. Ricci is a more subdued actress than Hunter and the writers and Hunter may have felt they had to tone Grace down a bit to match Ricci’s Abby. The relationship between Grace and Abby was, like all of Grace’s relationships, thorny, but there was an element of that old hellraiser Grace actually being something of a mentor to the younger policewoman. It was a nice reversal of the usual younger wild cop versus about to retire “I’m too old for this shit” older cop. The writers wrote some nice scenes for the two.

Alas, it turns out in the third episode that Abby was IA (Internal Affairs for those of you who never watch cop shows) and put in the squad to gather information on Grace. Given Grace’s previous behavior, I am surprised she wasn’t tossed off the force years ago, but then we wouldn’t have a series, would we? It may have been that Grace was more subdued because she guessed that Abby was IA, but as written that did not seem to be the case. It was only in the third episode that Grace began to check Abby out through back channels and found out she was IA. We will have to see if now that Abby is gone Grace will resume her old ways. I like the more subdued Grace/Hunter, but that just shows you how bourgeois I am.


30 Rock (2009. Episode “Generalissimo” written by Robert Carlock. Episode “St. Valentine’s Day” written by Jack Burditt & Tina Fey. Episode “The Bubble” written by Tina Fey. First two episodes 30 minutes, last episode 29 minutes): O.K., it wasn’t The Godfather III, but still.

30 Rock had this trilogy of episodes about Liz Lemon’s romance with the gorgeous Dr. Drew, but the network ran in three other episodes between the first two and the last, which is rather frustrating. When the third one finally ran, it was clear it was not quite up to the first two.

“Generalissimo” begins with Liz accidentally getting Dr. Drew’s mail, since they live in the same building. Jenna of course reads the mail and we discover he is getting divorced and is a pediatrician. When more mail comes in, we find out more about him. Now that’s inventive, if rather creepy. What would somebody think they knew about you if they read a couple of day’s worth of your mail? He and Liz have a date, but he accidentally gets a roofie and dozes off. He is just not sure he wants to date again.

In “St. Valentine’s Day,” the best of the three, Liz and Dr. Drew meet in the lobby and agree to a date on Valentine’s Day, which Liz had not realized was coming up. Liz cooks stew at home rather than going out, but her boob falls out. Dr. Drew later sees her on the toilet, and when he has to drop his tween daughter off since he has an emergency, it turns out the daughter starts fires and drinks Liz’s wine. This relationship is not going well. But Dr. Drew is played by Jon Hamm, and he is gorgeous.

Too gorgeous, according to “The Bubble.” We had been waiting for a month, imagining in our own minds how it might work out, or not, since Hamm has to get back to Mad Men. So how to get rid of him. Suddenly we learn he is so gorgeous that everybody does everything for him. He can get a reservation at a restaurant simply because he is gorgeous. He was a “tennis pro,” teaching young kids, even though he is a terrible tennis player, because the moms thought he was dreamy. OK, not a bad idea, but we have seen no indication of this before, and it is not handled very believably in this episode. The whole episode gets very rushed.

Liz tries to show him that he lives in what Jack calls “The Bubble,” where nobody tells you the truth because you are so good looking. He at first thinks he does not want to live in the bubble, but ultimately decides he likes it just fine. He wants Liz to move into the bubble with him, but she passes, having her feet very much on the ground.

Hey, two out of three isn’t bad.


ER (2009. Episode “Shifting Equilibrium” written by Lisa Zwerling. 60 minutes): A nice goodbye to Neela.

This episode is not as good as the previous “Old Times” (see US#21), but very few are. It does provide a nice farewell to Dr. Neela Rasgotra, whom we have come to love and admire over the last six years. We have also watched her grow as a doctor, especially over the last several episodes (see US#17), and we only want the best for her. In this episode, she is finishing off her romance with Dr. Brenner, whom it was always clear was not good enough for her. They come to a nice resolution. She also stands up for herself in diagnosing a patient and is right. We also get a goodbye party, and a nice scene of her putting her nametag up on the wall with the others of those who have left. This includes some flashbacks of people she has dealt with, but none with the star power of Clooney and Margulies. We do get a brief flashback with Maura Tierney’s Abby, which sets up Neela getting a goodbye phone call from Abby at the airport. ER is one of those shows where you can believe that life for its characters goes on outside of what we see in the show, and this minor scene plays off that nicely.

All this is intercut with her at the airport, finally get off the ground, and arriving at ... where? Zwerling has been very slick at not telling us where she is going. Several possibilities have been set up over previous episodes. We finally see she is in a rehab center and about to start helping Ray Barnett, a former boyfriend who had lost his legs in an accident. Neela’s happy, Ray’s happy, we’re satisfied.

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.