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Understanding Screenwriting #23: ER, Duplicity, Coraline, Sin Nombre, Tokyo Sonata, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #23: <em>ER</em>, <em>Duplicity</em>, <em>Coraline</em>, <em>Sin Nombre</em>, <em>Tokyo Sonata</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: ER, Duplicity, Coraline, Sin Nombre, Tokyo Sonata, Pictures at a Revolution, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice, but first…

Fan Mail: For reasons that are too complicated to go into, I ended up not having comments in US#22 on comments on US#21, so here are a couple.

I may have given some people the wrong idea that I thought Sunshine Cleaning was better than Little Miss Sunshine. I don’t think it is, primarily because of the problems with the ending I mentioned. Joel thought that Little Miss Sunshine was just as dark as Sunshine Cleaning. I think it has its dark moments, but I think the overall tone of Sunshine Cleaning is darker. Tone seems to be a theme in this edition of this column, as you will see. I would agree with Adam’s witty equation: Sunshine Cleaning = In Her Shoes + CSI.

On US#22, Anonymous raised the question about the supernatural element of Saving Grace. I agree with him that those scenes seem unnecessary, but I read somewhere they are part of series creator Nancy Miller’s plan. I will deal with this a little more in the next column after the half-season ending episode.

ER (2009. Episode “And In The End…” written by John Wells. 120 minutes): Not great, but hugely satisfying.

This series finale episode will probably not go down in TV history as one of the great series finales. It is not as spectacular as the ending of Newhart, which is one of the few “It was all a dream” endings ever that actually works. In that one, Bob Hartley, from Newhart’s earlier The Bob Newhart Show, wakes up in bed with his wife Emily saying he had a weird dream about running a Vermont inn, i.e., Newhart. Nor is it as surreal as the ending of St. Elsewhere, where the entire series was shown to have been completely in the mind of Dr. Westphall’s autistic son. What Wells does is do a lot of different things very, very well.

Since this is an episode about endings, it is not surprising that there are two major deaths among the patients. A pregnant woman is brought in and, after a troubled delivery of twins, she bleeds out and ultimately cannot be saved. In a more extended death scene, we get the death of Mrs. Manning, whom we first met when she was brought in in the “Old Times” episode. She has come back in with her husband Paul, who hopes against hope to save her. As I mentioned in US#21 when writing about that episode, we do indeed see Ernest Borgnine as Paul again, and again Borgnine delivers the goods as he watches his wife die. ER has always been realistically ruthless about killing off patients, more so than any other hospital show. The show has also been good about putting together episodes that have internal thematic connections, although they have never taken it as far as St. Elsewhere did. Here the deaths connect with the fact that we are seeing these characters and this location and this institution for the last time—excluding syndication, DVD’s, YouTube and any other delivery systems to be invented in the future, of course.

Wells also makes connections for us with other episodes in the series. Early in the teaser, Lydia, a nurse, wakes up Archie, just as she did Dr. Greene in the pilot film, and the scene is shot the same way, not surprising since this episode’s director, Rod Holcomb, directed the pilot. The death of the mother recalls one of the series’s most devastating episodes, “Love’s Labor Lost” from the first season. The crew waiting at the end for the ambulances to arrive recalls the end of the first act of another season-one episode “Blizzard.” There are others, I am sure, some of them probably unrecognizable to anyone other than Wells himself. Combined, they give us a sense of the texture of the show.

Connections with characters are also crucial to this episode. Many of the characters, and not just the stars, are people we have known and lived with for 15 years. ER, while groundbreaking in several ways, followed the pattern established in the 1970s landmark series Police Story. When that series began, Joseph Wambaugh, ex-cop and novelist and the co-creator as the series, told the writers to “Play the emotional jeopardy, not the physical jeopardy.” Ed Waters, a writer and later story consultant on Police Story, said that this was later expressed as “The cop works on the case, the case works on the cop.” In police and medical shows before Police Story, the professionals went about their business untouched emotionally by what they did. That was not true in Police Story or the shows that followed in its wake: Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, NYPD Blue and many others. ER followed in that pattern and we have been through the wringer with the characters. Sam is still an active duty nurse, and she handles the death of Paul’s wife. Paul has been talking about how devoted he has been to his wife. His daughter shows up and tells Sam, out of earshot of her father, that her mother was hell on wheels and she does not completely understand how her father could have been so devoted to her. Sam calls her mother, with whom we have seen she has a similarly unhappy relationship. We do not need to see the mother, since the writing and Amy Madigan’s performance several episodes ago was enough to stick in our mind.

Wells brings on other characters from the past. Carter’s separated wife arrives, and it may or may not be a happy reunion. Wells writes a nice little scene between Benton and Corday, who once had a brief fling. They are a bit awkward and tentative and there is no way this is going to be a happy reunion. Two of Wells’s less interesting returns are Susan Lewis and Kerry Weaver, to whom he does not give a lot to do in this episode. Weaver was a great character: prickly, difficult, but not completely unsympathetic. Laura Innes, who played her, did a masterful job of straddling the line between likeable and unlikeable with the character, and it is too bad she was not given more to do in this episode.

Wells uses two other interesting characters, one we have seen since the beginning of the series and one we are only just introduced to in this episode. The first one is Rachel Greene, Mark Greene’s daughter. We saw her in the pilot and off and on throughout the series. She has been played by two actresses, Yvonee Zima from 1994 to 2000 and by Hallee Hirsh from 2001 to 2009. Here she shows up as a group of possible medical students touring the ER. Holcomb’s direction, presumably from suggestions in the script, just lets us catch a couple of glimpses of her, so we say to ourselves, “Wait a minute. Isn’t that Rachel?” Eventually it is revealed that she is and she talks to the staff, people she has known since she was a child. At the end of the episode, she is talking with the nurses and word comes in that eight patients from an explosion at a power station are on their way in. A young doctor says to Rachel, “You want to be an ER doc? This is the fun part.” Rachel joins them in the loading area to wait for the ambulances. The patients arrive and the crew goes into action. Carter is giving a set of scrubs and joins in. As he passes Rachel, he says, “Dr. Greene. Coming?” and Rachel, even though she is not even a med student yet, joins them going into the ER. A circle is at least partially closed.

Just as Wells and Holcomb are subtle about reintroducing Rachel, they give us another young doctor floating around in the early scenes. We eventually realize it is Alexis Bledel, the former Rory Gilmore of The Gilmore Girls. Rory did not go to medical school and the character we have here is Dr. Julia Wise, whom we have never seen before. She is involved in the treatment of the pregnant woman and watches the situation turn to shit with Bledel’s gorgeously expressive eyes. We can see the case working on her the way we saw the case work on Dr. Greene in “Love’s Labor Lost.” Dr. Wise will eventually grow into being a great…wait a minute, the series is over.

One of the great strengths of ER has been, more than almost any other television series, its openness to the real world. So many television shows exist in hermetically sealed universes. ER did not. Perhaps it was the central location of the series, but the show always made you aware that there was a real world out there, somewhere. Patients would come in and go out. Patients, like Paul’s wife, would return. And die. “Love’s Labor Lost” would make women aware of a potential medical problem in pregnancy. Doctors and nurses would leave and come back. Doctors and nurses and patients would leave and not come back. The world would go on. Dr. Wise will become a good doctor.

~

Duplicity (2009. Written by Tony Gilroy. 125 minutes): Duplicitous fun, for a while.

As I suspected when I saw the trailer for this one (see US#19), it’s a lot more fun than The International. Clive Owen smiles, laughs, seduces and has great chemistry with Julia Roberts. Julia Roberts smiles, laughs, seduces, and has great chemistry with Clive Owen. And Gilroy has written a script that really takes advantage of the starpower he has. Ray and Claire are spies, working for MI-6 and the C.I.A., respectively. They meet, go to bed, and she steals secrets from him all before the wildly funny opening credit sequence. We know Gilroy is writing in the major key of fun and games with spies and con men. They then end up working for two major cosmetic firms and run a con on them both. We get a lot of the mechanics of the con, which Gilroy keeps very clear, not always an easy task. If you are an adult and paying attention, you can follow it, even though Gilroy does several nice bits of jumping back in time. And Gilroy writes some wonderful supporting characters for such actors as Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Denis O’Hare, and Kathleen Chalfont. Yes, the same Kathleen Chalfont who starred in Wit on stage in New York. You write good parts, you get good actors.

Gilroy, as you may remember from Michael Clayton, is nothing is not ambitious. So he writes a relationship piece here as well, dealing with whether Ray and Claire can trust each other. Can spies trust anybody, especially those they love? The tone here is minor key, especially in comparison to the rest of the film. The problem with the script is that with the particular twist ending Gilroy uses, the film closes very much in the minor key of the relationship story. It doesn’t seem quite enough for what has gone on before. He could have used it to set up a sequel, but that does not appear to have been on his mind.

~

Coraline (2009. Screenplay by Henry Selick, based on the book by Neil Gaiman. 100 minutes): Writing for animation, or, where’s Walt Disney when you need him?

There is a reason that Walt Disney was the only animator of his time to make a successful, continuing shift from short cartoons to feature-length animated films. He knew the importance of story and characters. If you compare any of the Disney cartoons of the thirties to those turned out by other studios, his all have solid story lines. The others are collections of gags. The reason that DreamWorks Animation and Pixar have had continuing success in feature-length animation is because they have Jeffrey (EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE IN THE WORLD IN THE FUTURE IS GOING TO BE IN 3-D) Katzenberg and John Lassiter, respectively, in charge. Both of them have a strong sense of story and push the people they work with in that direction.

Henry Selick is a whiz at stop-motion animation, as seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996). Story, alas, is not his strong suit. Coraline takes FOREVER to get going. The girl and her mom and dad move into an old house out in the country, divided up into apartments. It is a long time before Coraline goes through the secret door and finds a “nicer” version of her mom and dad. Then, after she realizes they are not “nicer,” she has to collect several items to manage her safe return. The rules of that game are not clear. I thought she had to collect the eyeballs of the three ghost children, but it appears that each round ball contains both eyes, which does not make a lot of sense. Then when Coraline has escaped from the word behind the door, the film goes on for another ten minutes, including introducing a character we have only vaguely heard about before, and then not showing us what Coraline is going to tell her. Why bother?

As you may gather from my parenthetical jab at Katzenberg, I am not quite as devoted to 3-D as he is. The 3-D in Coraline is well-used and Selick has obviously thought about it a lot, but I am not convinced it is essential to the story. I do have to admire Selick the director for not throwing a lot of stuff in our faces. Stay through the credits, because there is a lovely use of objects floating out over the audience at the end.

~

Sin Nombre (2009. Written by Cary Fukunaga. 96 minutes): We’ve traveled this road before, and in better company.

Sin Nombre is not exactly the first film to show Latin Americans coming across Mexico to the United States. El Norte (1983), written by Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas, is still the classic in the field, and I think the 2004 film Maria Full of Grace, written by Joshua Marston, is the best of them all. After doing several years worth of research on people who work as “mules” bringing drugs to the U.S., Marston focused his script on one woman, Maria. He provided her with a lot of different motivations to get into that line of work, and then a lot of reactions to what happens to her.

Fukunaga, who also spent time researching people riding the freight trains up Mexico to the border, has not created any character as interesting as Maria. The girl in the film is Sayra and in spite of how the IMDb describes the plot, she really has no particular desire to go north. Her father, who has been living in the U.S., was deported to Honduras. He now wants to take her with him and his brother back to the states. She goes reluctantly, and we get very little of her reactions to what is going on. Then, an hour into the picture, she does something really stupid. She gets off the train and leaves her father. And almost every action she takes after that is more stupid than the last.

She gets off the train because of Casper. He is a member of a gang in Mexico who ends up killing the leader of his own gang for killing his girlfriend. Needless to say, the gang puts out a hit on him, and gang members, as well as gangs related to his gang, track him down. Casper is first established as the cliché of the sensitive tough guy, but we get very little of him beyond that. And the gang members all seem the same. That may be sociologically true, but dramatically it is not very interesting to watch. Casper and Sayra sort of develop a friendship, but you would be hard put to call it a romance, which is why her behavior makes no sense.

In Maria Full of Grace, Marston, who also directed, had the advantage of a great performance from Catalina Sandino Moreno as Maria, but Fukunaga either does not have the acting talent available to him, or simply does not know how to direct them. If he’d written better parts…

~

Tokyo Sonata (2008. Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Max Mannix, and Sachiko Tanaka. 119 minutes): Another one goes off the rails.

Sasaki is a Japanese salaryman who loses his job. Because it would undermine his authority in his house if it were known he was jobless, he doesn’t tell his wife and two sons. He tries to get work, but he spends most of his days at a field where a lot of other men in his position spend their days. At 45 minutes into the film, his wife happens to spot him at the field, but she doesn’t confront him. Meanwhile the eldest son, Takashi, decides to join a (fictional) unit of the American army to go fight in Iraq. Kenji, the youngest son, takes piano lessons without telling his parents because he knows his dad would refuse to give him permission. So far we are in a Japanese equivalent of The Bicycle Thief: a low-key, neorealist, look at contemporary Japan.

Eighty minutes into the film the family’s house is robbed and the robber takes the wife hostage. She sort of decides to go along with robber. She sees Sasaki in his job as a janitor at a mall when she stops to buy food for her and the robber, and Sasaki runs away from her. He runs into the street and appears to be hit by a van, which leaves him lying in the gutter. Kenji meanwhile tries to protect a friend from getting beaten by the friend’s father. It is like the writers have suddenly gone off the deep end in the way the characters have. Screenwriting instructors are generally so busy talking about structure they never get around to tone. The tone in Tokyo Sonata shifts so drastically at the robbery that we seem to be in a totally different film. Yes, you maybe could defend it on intellectual terms: it represents the rage going on underneath the placid exteriors of the characters. This is something Japanese horror movies and anime use very effectively, but the actions here really come from others in this sequence, not from the family members. In terms of THIS film, it is merely disruptive. The fact that when they all return home, they behave as though nothing had happened does not help, either.

~

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008. Book by Mark Harris. 477 pages): Imagine: mentioning screenwriters.

Harris’s book, which is now out in paperback, uses the five films nominated for Best Picture of 1967 as a way to examine the changes that were taking place in Hollywood at the time. It is a great, simple idea, and Harris does it more than justice. He seems to have talked to almost everybody who worked on the five films. He follows the development of each of them from the first idea through to the night of the Academy Awards (and his collection of comments from people who were at the Oscars will give you a great inside look at what it is like to be there as a nominee).

Harris is also one of the younger generation of writers about film who actually mention screenwriters and the writing process. Some of that may come from his being married to playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich), but there are a growing number of film historians who deal with the screenwriting aspects of films they write about. Sam Staggs, in his books about All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Imitation of Life, always goes into detail on the development of the story and script. Jennifer Smyth, in her monumental Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane, a look at thirties historical films, writes as much about writers as directors.

So in Harris’s book we get not only the development of Bonnie and Clyde, which has been written about before, but the writing of The Graduate, which included not only the two credited writers, but two others you may not have known about. William Rose, who wrote Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, turns out not to be quite as liberal in matters of race as you might think from the film. Most fascinating of all is Harris’s looking at Stirling Silliphant’s papers dealing with his ideas of In the Heat of the Night. None of the pictures (the fifth was Doctor Doolittle, and nothing could help it) would have been as good as they were without the development processes he shows you.

Harris’s book is remarkably error-free for a book of its size and scope, but there is one howler I must call him on. Talking about another 1967 film, The Dirty Dozen, he mentions that the first drafts were written by the “seventy-year-old” Nunnally Johnson, and that director Robert Aldrich thought Johnson’s script “would have made a very good, acceptable 1945 war picture. But I don’t think that a good 1945 war picture is a good 1967 war picture.” Aldrich brought in Lukas Heller to make it a 1967 war picture. Harris obviously saw this as part of the generational change he was writing about: the old making way for the new.

Having read the novel, Nunnally’s script, and seen the final results, I have to tell you that Nunnally’s script would have made more of a 1967 picture than the film was. This in spite of the fact that he was sixty-six, not seventy, when he wrote it (he turned seventy later in 1967, after the release of the film). In E.M. Nathanson’s novel, the author gets into the heads of the assorted criminals that make up the “dozen.” By the end of the novel that have all convinced themselves they have become heroes, although it is clear they have not. Movies cannot get into the heads of the characters the way novels do. What Nunnally did was show that in the attack on the chateau, which is only a minor afterthought in the novel, the “dozen” are just as criminally inclined as they were before. For example, early in the film, Franko (John Cassavettes) attempts to kill Major Reisman. In Johnson’s script he tries again at the chateau. That was dropped in Heller’s script and the film. It is only the army report in Johnson’s script that makes them out to be heroes. In the film they become conventional war movie heroes. Johnson’s script is much more anti-authoritarian than the film. The film suggests the army was right to try to turn them into heroes. Most of the ironies of Johnson’s script have been eliminated in the film.

You would think Mark Harris would know better than to take a director’s word in an issue involving a writer.

~

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (2008. Episode “Pilot,” screenplay by Richard Curtis & Anthony Minghella, based on the novel by Alexander McCall Smith. 110 minutes): A new P.I. joins the team.

We’re not in New York. We’re not in L.A. We’re in Botswana. Look it up.

This is the two hour pilot for the new HBO series, and I was shocked, I tell you, to see the TV rating come up at the beginning and NOT have it warn us of sex, violence, language. This on the network of Tony !&!!@#^! Soprano and Samantha #%^* Jones and Al %$^@!!*^ Swearengen. Who’da thunk it?

The lack of foul language and explicit sex and explicit violence is a wonderful relief. Here the detective setting up her own agency is Precious Ramotswe. She’s not an ex-cop, just somebody who is very observant. While even the women cops in the American shows are tough as nails, Mma Ramotswe is just a genuinely nice person who wants to help. So her clients discuss their problems over a very civilized cup of tea. Precious does get a secretary, since this is a pilot for the series. The secretary, who never tires of telling us she got 97% on her typing final, is a bit of a prig and a nice counterpoint to Precious (although I worry for the physical well being of the always wonderful Anika Noni Rose; she has developed a funny, awkward walk for the character that may require physical therapy when the series ends). The pilot also establishes a male garage owner who can help Previous out, and a gay hairdresser who works next door. The latter may be a cliché, but at least the writers avoided the obvious: Precious is a large black woman, but they did not give her a skinny white sassy friend.

The tone is very different from American shows. Not only is Precious’s manner quieter than most American P.I.s, but the stories (the pilot involves three cases) are obviously told, very much in the tradition of both African griots (storytellers) and African cinema. We are looking at them from the outside, as opposed to being sucked into the story. Precious does perform the western function of bringing us into the stories, but the stories of the cases have that exaggeration typical of African storytelling. This may not work over the long run for American audiences, since it may make the stories seem unrealistic. In the pilot, the story of the straying husband became slapstick comedy while the missing child story was done in a more melodramatic way. That all may have been part of the planning for the pilot, to let the audiences know there will be several different kinds of stories and storytelling in the series.

~

The Librarian: The Curse of the Judas Chalice (2008. Screenplay by Marco Schnabel, based on characters created by David Titcher. 90 minutes): He’s back!

Readers may remember from US#14 that in December I watched the first two Librarian films on DVD. This one had just been broadcast but I had missed it. I thought after the first two I would give this a watch some afternoon I had free, so I did.

The first two films were very much outdoor adventure movies in the King Solomon’s Mines/Indiana Jones tradition, but this spends most of its time indoors. Flynn, our hero, has gone off to New Orleans on vacation after having a meltdown. He gets involved with a bunch of baddies who are looking for the Judas Chalice, since it will bring vampires back to life and they can rule the world, etc. His female partner this time is Simone Renoir, a French singer. She is, at least for a while, a more conventional romantic foil for Flynn, which makes her a little less interesting than the women in the first two. In one way I am glad I did not get to see this one until now, since Simone is played by Stana Katic from Castle, and it is nice to see her doing something different. She does no eye-rolling here, but a little lower-lip biting, which becomes weird when we find out she is…a vampire.

Noah Wyle is more at home in the romantic adventure genre that he was in the first two, but Flynn is still something of a klutz, although the filmmakers cannot seem to settle on how much of a klutz. In the opening sequence he is neatly dressed in a tuxedo, then sneezes when he drinks some not-quite-real champagne. Fine, but then he immediately turns out to be an excellent swordsman in a duel with one of the baddies. In a museum. With a lot of people there for an auction. With guards. Who don’t try to stop the duel. Even when it threatens to destroy what we think is a valuable painting. The film barely recovers from the idiocies of that scene. It is not up to the first two.

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.