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Understanding Screenwriting #25: State of Play, Adventureland, Every Little Step, Sugar, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #25: <em>State of Play</em>, <em>Adventureland</em>, <em>Every Little Step</em>, <em>Sugar</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: State of Play, Adventureland, Every Little Step, Sugar, The Soloist, In Plain Sight, Two and a Half Men, but first…

Fan Mail: “Wrongshore” suspected that one of the reasons I did not find the faux documentary style as much of a problem in the second episode of Parks and Recreation was that the director, Seth Gordon, had made documentaries. Yeah, it always helps when you have a director who knows what he is doing…

State of Play (2009. Screenplay by Mathew Michael Carnahan and Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, based on the television miniseries by Paul Abbott. 127 minutes): Three screenwriters, four counting the original TV writer, but you can’t tell.

Many times when there are multiple screenwriters on a film, the result is a mess. It can also often make it easy to tell who wrote what. Only Quentin Tarantino could have written the “comic book” scene in Crimson Tide that comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere. Fortunately that is not true with State of Play. Not only does the script hold together very well, but some of my guesses as to who wrote what turned out not to be the case, according to Peter Clines’s article on the writing of the film in the March/April issue of Creative Screenwriting. The first writer to come on the project of adapting a six-hour British miniseries into a 127-minute film was Carnahan, whose 2007 film The Kingdom has the kind of narrative drive and political awareness that was useful for this film. Fortunately what we end up with in State of Play does not have the ponderous talkiness of his Lions for Lambs (2007) script. It was Carnahan who changed the villain from big oil in the British miniseries to a Blackwater type security operation, although he was working on the script before information about Blackwater came out. Unfortunately, not as much is done with the organization as he could have, and some of this may have come from the British original. In cutting it down from six hours, the focus becomes mostly plot, and the kind of political nuances that I gather the British series had are not duplicated here. One of the weaknesses of the film is that, for all of Carnahan’s interest in politics, the film never feels entirely right in its depiction of Washington politics. Everything is a little too polite for Washington. Where is the Dick Cheney character breathing fire and brimstone when you need him? Of course, everyone connected with this film probably realized that Cheney would be out by the time the film was released and a Cheney-like character would seem dated.

The second writer was Tony Gilroy, whose scripts include those for the Jason Bourne films. I assumed the narrative drive came from him, but it was there from Carnahan’s work. Gilroy of course is also good at organizational corruption, as in Michael Clayton (2007), but a lot of his work on State of Play was in developing the character of Cal, the reporter, to make it more age-appropriate for Brad Pitt, the originally announced star. I suspected the press details might have more likely come from the third writer, Billy Ray, given his script for Shattered Glass (2003), which is about a magazine writer who makes up stories for his non-fiction pieces. Gilroy’s drafts focused on getting the newspaper mechanics right, but it was Ray who changed Delia from a standard issue cub reporter to a blogger for the paper who gets involved in breaking the story. Unfortunately not as much is done with that as could be in the film. Ray told Peter Clines that in his four weeks polishing Gilroy’s draft, he was primarily concerned with consistency, making sure it all fits together, and at that he succeeded.

That does not mean there are not loose ends. A point is made that the new owner of the paper will not let them publish what they have found, but then it is never mentioned again. And the ending seems to undercut a lot of what the film seems to be about. Like the ending of Gilroy’s Duplicity, the ending turns personal when it should probably be political.

The film is still one terrific thriller, with echoes of All The President’s Men. I assume the parking garage scene is a direct homage to that film. The story line is a lot simpler than Gilroy’s Duplicity, since it is structured on what Cal, our stand-in, is discovering as he goes, rather than the filmmakers telling us stuff everybody else but us knows. The writers have written great characters for Pitt, Edward Norton, Natalie Portman and—wait a minute. They are not in this film, although they were announced for it. Pitt pulled out at the last minute, and Russell Crowe, who pulled out of Nottingham, took over the role of Cal, with no time to lose the weight he had gained for Body of Lies. There was also no time, because of the Writers’ Guild strike of 2007, to rewrite it specifically for Crowe. It is one of his best performances. Hmm, what should that tell movie stars? His face is alive on the screen every second, in a way that Pitt’s never is, especially when Pitt the Movie Star rather than Pitt the Character Actor shows up. See my book Understanding Screenwriting for the distinction, or look at my comments in US#16 on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. We always want to see how Crowe’s Cal is going to react to what he is learning and whom he is dealing with. Ben Affleck takes over the part of Representative Stephen Collins from Norton and I cannot imagine Norton would have been better. Rachel McAdams is Delia instead of Portman and the part is so underwritten that it would be a draw. Jason Bateman has a spectacular cameo as a p.r. guy. I gather from Clines’s article that this role was bigger in the miniseries, but sometimes bigger is not better.

Adventureland (2009. Written by Greg Mottola. 107 minutes): Writing the silences, take one.

Sounds like a hundred other teen movies: young guy gets summer job and falls in love with cute girl co-worker. Let us count some of the ways this is different. The guy, James, is not a teenager. He just graduated from college and his parents have backed out of a deal to send him to Europe. The job is at a low-rent amusement park, which we haven’t seen before. The girl is cute, but she has problems.

Yes, Mottola did direct Superbad, but this is a more level-headed look at young people. The characterizations are much more like those in his terrific 1996 indie film The Daytrippers. James is not a standard nerd. He is bright, probably more articulate than he needs to be, and somewhat adrift. He is certainly overqualified for the job of running games at the park. Em, like Norah in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, is a real person, not just the standard issue cutie. There are more sides to the husband and wife owners of the park than we first expect.

Mottola, who worked in a park like this in his youth, is very observant about the setting. Look at the scenes of the park repairman fixing stuff. It is real stuff and we see him fix it. The customers are just as sharply drawn as the park workers. “Write what you know” is often terrible advice, but here it works.

Mottola also writes great silences. Look at James and Em’s first scene in the car. Because Mottola understands these characters, he knows that a lot of what is going on emotionally with them is going on inside. Fortunately he has Jesse Eisenberg as James and Kristen Stewart as Em. Like Russell Crowe in State of Play, their faces are constantly alive. Mottola can write quiet scenes for them that work better than louder scenes would. Mottola does it for the other actors as well. Look at James’s father after James has taken the blame for the bottle of booze the father has left in the car. Sometimes, as a screenwriter, you just have to know when to let your characters shut up.

I have quibbled over a number of endings of movies lately (see above for one quibble), but the ending to Adventureland seems to me to be perfect, with just the right weight for the rest of the material.


Every Little Step (2008. No writers credited. 96 minutes): James Kirkwood. Nicholas Dante. Ed Kleban.

In the early seventies the great stage director and choreographer MICHAEL BENNETT gathered around a group of dancers and asked them to tell him stories of their lives. He turned it into A Chorus Line, one of the great modern musicals. The original show ran for a record 6137 performances. In 2006 there was a revival of the show on Broadway, directed by MICHAEL BENNETT’s friend and co-choreographer Bob Avian. This film is a documentary, and structurally it runs along two tracks. The first is the audition process for the show, which in case you have been out of the country for over thirty years, is about the auditioning process for a show. From that we get a sense of how exhausting the audition process is for everyone connected with it. By the end of the film, you are so worn out you may not want to see another production of A Chorus Line for several years.

Since the film is co-produced by the lawyer for MICHAEL BENNETT’s estate, the filmmakers also have access to the original tape recordings of the sessions with the dancers that BENNETT molded into the show. BENNETT died in 1987, but there are some tapes of television interviews he and Avian gave at the time of the original show, as well as his speech accepting the Tony. There are new interviews with Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie in the show, and Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote the music.

There is no mention at all in the film of James Kirkwood, one of the co-writers of the show’s book. Nicholas Dante, the other co-writer, is mentioned only as a dancer who told the story assigned to “Paul” in the show. Ed Kleban, the lyricist, is mentioned only once in passing by Hamlisch. Kirkwood, Dante and Kleban have all passed away and obviously did not have attorneys for their estates with the power of MICHAEL BENNETT’s attorney. You might have thought that among people who obviously love the theater you would not find all this Hollywood-style privileging of the director over the writers.

Oddly enough, for all the idolatry of BENNETT floating around, the creative team of the revival eliminated BENNETT’s most stunning image. At the end of the show we see the dancers who have been cast doing a dazzling dance routine to the song “One.” In the original production, the music got more relentless and mechanical and the lights came up to a white glare to emphasize how hard the work of the dancers, after they got the job, was. In the revival, the music does not become relentless and the lights fade out instead of getting brighter. You can see it in the film. The new ending sentimentalizes what the great MICHAEL BENNETT made brilliantly disturbing.

Sugar (2008. Written by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck. 120 minutes): Where is Annie Savoy when you need her?

The pitch for this one might have been El Norte meets Bull Durham. It’s the story of Miguel, nicknamed Sugar, a baseball player in the Dominican Republic. He is at a camp run by the American major leagues and is called up to the States and sent to minor league baseball. Unlike the kids in El Norte, he comes into the country in a jet rather than crawling through a dirty, smelly tunnel. He’s a pitcher, but unlike Nuke in Bull Durham, he is not a very interesting character. In fact, his teammates both at camp and on the farm team in Iowa, are all more interesting than he is. The writers have not given him anything revealing to do, say or show in his reactions. The man playing Sugar is a non-pro and unlike Crowe, Eisenberg, and Stewart his face is totally inexpressive. We have not a clue what he is thinking or feeling.

Then in the last half hour, the film goes structurally haywire. He leaves the Iowa team. Why? He is asked and he says he does not know. We do not know either. So the storylines and characters from the Iowa scenes are just completely dropped, and the film essentially starts over with the most boring character in it. We are introduced to a whole new set of characters, none of whom are particularly compelling. The final sequence is an adequate ending, but Boden and Fleck could get there a lot quicker and in a lot more interesting ways.

Ron Shelton, who wrote Bull Durham, had played in the minor leagues and it shows. In that film we get the texture of small town baseball in virtually every detail. Boden and Fleck have researched a lot, but the film feels researched rather than felt. They do not give us anything fresh about minor league baseball, the people who play it, small towns, the Midwest, or even in spite of one plot element, fundamentalist Christians.

The Soloist (2009. Screenplay by Susannah Grant, based on the book by Steve Lopez. 117 minutes): Delusions of grandeur.

This film was originally scheduled for release last winner as a potential Oscar contender, and it suffers from the assumption of apparently everyone connected with it that it was going to be a contender. The script is based on a series of columns and subsequent book by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. He became friends with a homeless, schizophrenic classical musician, Nathaniel Ayers, and the columns followed the story of his trying to help Ayers in a variety of ways. There is a nice 90- to 95-minute movie in that story. Grant’s script tends to lose focus as the relationship develops.

The film skips very quickly over one of the most interesting elements in the story. In a brief scene, Dave, the head of the Lamp organization, which provides shelter and food for the homeless, mentions that many of the people he deals with have been diagnosed many times and in many different ways and have tried a variety of medications. His point, which almost never appears in American films, is that sometimes people cannot be cured of mental illness. Usually the third act of films about the mentally ill is that the patient finds the magic doctor with the magic cure, and he, in Rita Mae Brown’s great phrase, “rubs a little therapy on it” and everybody lives happily ever after. (Brown wrote one of those for television and knows the formula.) Not enough is made of Dave’s point, although we do see that Nathaniel is never cured. The script then never really discusses what many in the mental health field have come to realize: that not only the cheapest but the best solution for the mentally ill who are homeless is to provide them with free apartments and a minimal structure. This ends up less costly than more elaborate treatment programs. The playing out of Nathaniel’s story suggests that, but it could be better articulated in the script without turning the film into a message picture.

What ends up taking the place of what could be good scenes and good discussions are efforts to pump up the “cinematic” elements of the film, leading to its overlength. Not having read the script, I am not sure how many of the repeated scenes of the homeless on skid row are in the script. There are a lot more in the film than needed, and they become very circus-like. Likewise, when Lopez takes Nathaniel to a Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsal, Nathaniel’s reaction to the music is to see a psychedelic light show that is so chintzy it looks like it came out of a sixties Roger Corman acid movie. Beethoven, the L.A. Phil and Jamie Foxx’s face is all you really need.

Grant’s script does provide the opportunity for two great performances by Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez and Foxx as Nathaniel. The best scenes in the film are simply the two of them, such as the moment when Nathaniel plays a cello that has been donated to him and Lopez realizes exactly how good a musician he is.

In Plain Sight (2009. Episodes “Gilted Lily” and “In My Humboldt Opinion” written by David Maples. Episode “A Stand Up Triple” written by Michael Angeli. 60 minutes each.): Is Mary Shannon turning into Grace Hanadarko?

Early readers of US#1 and US#3 may remember that while I like Mary McCormack in this show, I have some problems with the plotting and especially with the characters of her mother and sister. Well, they are all back in the first three episodes of this new season. “Gilted Lilly” spends most of its time working us back to normal after the big shootout at the end of last season. Mary is officially on administrative leave, although she still helps out on a case. The legalities of her sister Brandi’s involvement with the drug dealer have not been ironed out, but don’t appear yet to be sending anyone to jail, which would be one way to get rid of Brandi. Just to aggravate Mary a little, there is a new office manager, Eleanor, who keeps rearranging the office furniture, which pisses Mary off. But then Mary is a lot more fragile than she looks or pretends to be. In the first episode she has such extreme mood swings, I thought she was becoming Grace.

The second episode settled down a bit and got Mary back to handling potential witnesses. This one was one of their more interesting plots: a zoned-out pot farmer who is supposed to testify against the bad drug dealers. The problem is that the farmer has a major jones for the weed and cannot operate socially, as in testifying in court, without a little chemical help. Needless to say, the prosecutor frowns on this. So Mary has to keep him clean, as well as deal with her mother’s drunk driving case and her sister in general. The bureau has assigned a psychologist to ride along with Mary and make recommendations as to what sort of treatment she needs. The scenes with the psychologist gives some nice counterpoint to the action, and Eleanor is willing to call Mary on her rude behavior. Eleanor also has some connections higher up which turn out to be useful.

The psychologist determines that Mary is indeed stressed out, but that the job is her way of dealing with her stress. Fortunately for the series, she is not going to send Mary to the funny farm, at least not yet.

As for her mom and sister, “A Stand Up Triple” comes up with an interesting development for each of them. While Mary is dealing with another flaky witness, Jinx, Mary’s mom gets a look at the dashboard camera video from the car of the cop who arrested her on drunk driving. Like a lot of suspects in these cases (which is one reason police use video), seeing herself behaving very badly causes her to change her plea from not guilty to guilty. So she is being shipped off to rehab for 28 days. The downside is that she will lose her title role in a local stage production of Sweet Charity so that means we won’t get to see the multi-talented Lesley Ann Warren sing and dance for a while. It’s the price we have to pay.

As for Brandi, the air-head sister, Jinx had convinced her to go to the required AA meeting Jinx was supposed to attend before her case went to court. Brandi agreed in one of the best lines of dialogue she’s been given: “It must work or they wouldn’t make all those TV movies about it.” (See what I meant above about the formula?) So she goes to a meeting, pretends to be Jinx and ends up telling her version of Jinx’s life story. Which the AA members, especially Peter, buy completely. When he finds out what she did, he walks off in a huff, since he has a great loyalty to the program. What Angeli is flirting with is the possibility of dealing with the humor of AA, which most films and TV shows do not do, usually because the people who create them are in various 12 step programs themselves. They take them very seriously. On the other hand, one smart guy I know once told me that AA meetings are the greatest pickup places in the world. Everybody is very tense, because what they really want is a drink, which they know they cannot have, so they look to release their tension in sex. A former co-worker of mine who was in AA regaled us with stories of a set of meetings he went to in which everybody was deliberately and hilariously unsympathetic to anybody who got up and talked. So how about spinning Brandi off into a half-hour comedy set in AA?

You can see why they do not let me anywhere near the actual making of films and television shows.

Two and a Half Men (2009. Episode “Above Exalted Cyclops” teleplay by Don Foster & Eddie Gorodetsky, story by Chuck Lorre & Lee Aronsohn. 30 minutes): Writing the silences, take two.

In the teaser, Charlie tells Alan that his fiancee wants to set Alan up with a friend of hers. We find out the friend is Rose. And who is Rose, in case you missed the first seasons of the show? She is a woman Charlie had a one-night fling with and thereafter was always showing up. She’s a wacko stalker, brilliantly played by Melanie Lynskey. Lynskey first came to prominence in Peter Jackson’s 1994 classic Heavenly Creatures, more than holding her own in a great double act with Kate Winslet. Winslet went on to get yelled at a lot by directors who thought they were kings of the world, but Lynskey has built up an impressive resume, mostly on television. She is one of those characters actors that makes the audience smile and relax when they come onscreen because we know we will be in good hands while we are with her. And Rose is her definitive creation, so you know interesting stuff is about to happen.

So Alan and Charlie meet Chelsea and, gulp, Rose at the restaurant. Now how do you write that scene? Do Charlie and Alan make a big scene, with lots of funny lines? No, the writers have them be so gobsmacked that Rose has shown up again that they do not say much. Like Mottola in Adventureland, they know how to write the silences. Watching Alan and Charlie suffer is wonderful. By the end of Act One, Alan is in bed with Rose, although he tells her, “This is crazy,” to which she replies, “No it isn’t. We just met.”

In the morning Charlie tells Berta what happened, and then Chelsea comes in and asks Berta if she has met Rose. Remember that long silent take I told you in US#22 that Conchata Ferrell had during the shooting of “My Son’s Enormous Head”? They didn’t use it there, but they give her the long, non-verbal reaction here, after which she decides to go home early. The writers, by the way, never let Chelsea know about Rose’s backstory with the boys, probably because it would take too long to deal with.

Later in the episode, Rose decides she does not like the new “forceful” Alan and breaks it off. Needless to say, we see her peeking over the balcony in the final shot of the Tag scene at the end. We have not seen the last of Rose and Lynskey, or at least I hope not.

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.