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Understanding Screenwriting #27: Up, Summer Hours, A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #27: <em>Up</em>, <em>Summer Hours</em>, <em>A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Up, Summer Hours, A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Easy Virtue, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story, but first…

Fan Mail: Brandon suggested I may have missed some details of How I Met Your Mother, and he certainly has been a little more perceptive about the show than I was. He’s right that the significance of the meeting with Stella is the connection to Tony and that it leads Ted to teaching. I will also buy Brandon’s point about the story being told the kids over one day, but I was getting in a dig that has bedeviled series television from the beginning: the set-up that is difficult to sustain. Here are three examples from different decades.

Racket Squad was an early fifties show, first in syndication, then on CBS. As I wrote in my book on the history of television writing, they dropped an interesting approach: “In the first episodes, [Captain] Braddock [of the Racket Squad] narrates the stories, but in the second person, addressing the victim of the con. This supposes that Braddock knows everything about the con before the victim tells him, which makes him rather obnoxious.” They changed the narration to third person.

In 1963-64 there was a ninety-minute series called Arrest and Trial. In the first 45-minutes, the cop (Ben Gazzara) arrested somebody. In the second 45-minutes, the defense attorney (Chuck Connors) proved they were innocent. As Sy Salkowitz, who wrote a couple of episodes, said, “If Ben Gazzara made a good arrest, Chuck Connors couldn’t get him off. If Chuck Connors got him off, it made Ben Gazzara look like a stupid ass.” The show died after a year, and it took another 25-years for Dick Wolf to figure out the simple solution to make it work: the lawyers in the second half of the show are THE PROSECUTORS. Duh.

In the first season of Crossing Jordan in 2001, Jordan solved crimes with the help of her ex-cop father by acting out what they knew about the crimes. It was obvious and clunky, and it was dropped fairly quickly.

Up (2009. Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Peter Docter, story by Peter Docter, Thomas McCarthy, Bob Peterson. Yes, in the onscreen credits, they avoid the “and” and “&” completely; it’s known as collaboration. 96 minutes): Nobody cared.

Up has been driving me nuts. In my book Understanding Screenwriting, I made the point in writing about Finding Nemo that the GAPS (Geniuses at Pixar) make a point of writing films that can only be done as animated films. You could not do a live action film about fish having those adventures. You could not do a live action film about cars with those personalities. You could not do a live action film about Monsters Inc. In the book, I gave the 2003 animated film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas as an example of an animated film that could have easily been done live action (except for Eris’s hair, which was beautifully animated). So here’s the story of Up: Carl, a cranky 78-year-old man, decides to fulfill his late wife Ellie’s dream of going off to Paradise Falls in South America. Being a former balloon salesman, he attaches hundreds of balloons to the house and with the Wilderness Explorer Russell as a stowaway, they fly off. In South America they discover Charles Muntz, the aged explorer who originally inspired both Carl and Ellie as kids, but he turns out not to be very likable. Carl and Russell protect a bird Muntz is trying to capture, and then new best friends Carl and Russell return to civilization to eat ice cream. Anything in there that requires animation? No. CGI effects for the house flying maybe, but not animation. The characters are real human beings, not fish, rats, or trash compactors. The locations could be found. It could have easily been a live action film.

But it isn’t. And it’s a brilliant ANIMATED film. How the hell did they do that? O.K., I know it’s the GAPS, but how the hell did the GAPS do that? Let’s take care of the obvious things first. As usual with the GAPS, there is a strong, strong story. Danny Munso’s excellent article in the May/June 2009 Creative Screenwriting will tell you how much work went into the process of developing the story. They spend a LONG time developing the story at Pixar, going off to help out on other films as a way of refreshing their brains. The effort shows in the final product. Near the beginning there is a four-minute montage of the life of Carl and Ellie that has received great praise, and rightly so. An article in the Los Angeles Times mentioned that as they originally laid out the montage, it ran twenty minutes. They cut it back to just what they needed. Pay attention to the details in the montage; EVERYTHING in it comes back throughout the picture, sometimes in surprising ways. Meanwhile, it works because you are so caught up in the story and the characters.

Also as usual with the GAPS, there is great characterization. Carl is not just a cranky old man, although he is that as well. Having seen his life with Ellie, we know what all of the adventures he goes through mean to him. Ellie essentially disappears early in the film, but her presence stays with Carl and us. And, as the writers told Munso, the character of Russell calls to mind the character of Ellie, so we can see why, in these circumstances, Carl puts up with Russell, however grumpily. And Ellie’s character pays off beautifully at the end when Carl once again opens up her “My Adventure Book” and gets a surprise.

Writing about WALL-E in US#2, I mentioned that the GAPS are great at writing for the performance of the designers and animators as well as the voice actors, and that is true here. We get the house (and look at how much they get out of the house), the balloons, the scenery, and Muntz’s dirigible.

O.K., all of those things (story, character, visual look) could be done in live action, so we are back to the central question of today’s seminar: why animation for this story? A friend of my wife’s was for many years a medical illustrator at UCLA. Why have a medical illustrator when you can have photographs? Photographs give you so much more detail. Yes, but a good illustrator can draw only what the surgeon, for example, needs to see. How many times have I mentioned that as a writer you only should write what you NEED in a film? The GAPS have used that ability of animation to isolate only what you need to tell THIS story, which in turn focuses our attention on the essentials. They have done this because for twenty some odd years they have been working as a team refining their understanding of their medium (animation) and the stories they bring to it. I doubt if they could have brought off Up when they started, but that they can now is a tribute not only to their talents and collaboration, but to the institution of Pixar. Sometimes individual geniuses are great, but in filmmaking sometimes collaborative genius is essential.

Oh, one other thing. When my wife and I went out to see Up, our intent was to see it in 3-D. The 3-D showing was sold out, so we figured we’d see it in 2-D, since that show was only ten minutes later. Neither we nor the rest of the audience seemed to be bothered by the 2-D version. I am sure the 3-D version has some stunning visuals (mind the GAPS), but our audience was so caught up in the story and characters it gave it a round of applause at the end. In other words, Jeffrey Katzenberg, nobody gave a flying fuck it wasn’t in 3-D.

Summer Hours (2008. Written by Olivier Assayas. 103 minutes): An auteur film, but not really.

As French producers have discovered over the last several decades, you let an auteur director make the film he wants and it is usually a mess: lots of jump cuts, fancy camerawork, people sulking, and not very interesting scripts. So while Assayas is definitely an auteur (he directed as well as wrote this film), he has written a brilliant screenplay for himself, much more coherent than those for some of his other films. Tony Rayns, one of Sight & Sound’s regular critics, described the film in his August 2008 review as “Not exactly plotless but with no clearcut structure.” Which is what you get when you let auteurist critics try to deal with screenwriting.

The plot is very simple on the surface: When Hélène, the 75-year-old mother dies, her three adult children must decide what to do not only with her house out in the provinces, but with the artwork in the house. Frédéric, the oldest and the only one still living in France, would like to keep the house and artwork together and in the family. Adrienne, a designer who lives in New York, and Jérémie, who is living in China and about to move there permanently, would just as soon sell everything and split the money. In an American film you could see this quickly turning into a raging melodrama with lots of yelling and screaming and family secrets spilling out all over the place. It will surprise you to learn that there are only a couple of scenes in which voices are raised in this film. It is obvious the siblings disagree, but equally obvious they love each other.

That plot may justify Rayns’s “not exactly plotless,” but the structure is very rich and complex. This is not just about the family, this is also about France, French culture, and globalization. At the family get-together in the beginning, before Hélène dies, she goes over with Frédéric what is in the house and what she would like done with it. We can’t follow all the names and art pieces, but we get enough. Later, we see the representatives of the Musée D’Orsay and others going through the house and evaluating what is there. This scene works beautifully because we know what these things MEAN to the family. And that scene is matched near the end when Frédéric and his wife are “visiting” several of the objects on display at the Musée. American films tend to look more at individuals rather than the culture, but Summer Hours is as much about culture as character.

Assayas also beautifully structures the characters. In addition to the siblings and their stories, there is Frédéric’s wife Lisa, who is a classic example of someone who has married into the family and as a partial outsider sees it a lot clearer than the insiders. You know someone like that in your family. We first see this during the family gathering, then it pays off in the scene in the Musée.

Frédéric’s and Lisa’s daughter, Sylvie, the oldest of the grandchildren, is first seen in an informal treasure hunt at the family gathering. Then she disappears from the film, only to come back when Frédéric has to pick her up after her arrest for shoplifting. I thought this was an extraneous scene, but it’s not. The three siblings have figured out that the kids are not really interested in the house and therefore are not part of the discussion on what to do with it. Sylvie’s attitude in the police station would seem to confirm that. Then in the final sequence Sylvie and her younger brother and a group of their friends have a last weekend party at the house. You can see what’s going to happen. Only it doesn’t, as Assayas the screenwriter pulls off two or three twists, including a final one that provides the most sublime ending of a film since Julie Delpy’s lack of reaction to Ethan Hawke’s “I know” in Before Sunset.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009. Screenplay by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon, based on characters created by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon. 105 minutes): Bigger, better, but not necessarily funnier.

One thing before we start: Not only does Charlie Dickens need to get a new agent (see US#26), but so does Milan Trenc. And who’s he when he’s at home? He wrote the book that the 2006 Night at the Museum was based on. He was credited on that film, but not on the sequel, while the two screenwriters get credits not only for screenplay but for the characters. O.K., O.K., they did elaborate on what was essentially a children’s book, but since I am required by blood oath to defend writers, I’m just saying…

I was mildly amused by the first film, but it struck me as somewhat underdeveloped. While generally I am not in favor of sequels becoming bigger, this is something of an exception. The original focused on Larry Dailey, who ends up working as a night guard at the American Museum of Natural History. The exhibitions come to life at night and hi-jinks ensue. Some of them were funny, but I felt more could be done with the idea.

When Garant and Lennon were asked to do the sequel, they decided to take some of those characters they created for the first Museum to the Smithsonian in Washington. The setup for the sequel is that the old exhibits are being shipped off to storage in the Federal Archives, which for purposes of this film are under the Smithsonian. Larry, who has kept up his friendship with the exhibits, learns that the tablet that enables them to come to life has been shipped with them and could cause harm if it falls into evil hands, which of course it does. Since the Smithsonian is several different museums spread out over the Mall, this gives the writers a lot more to play with. The brother of the boy Pharoah in the first film plans to use the tablet to bring to life the most evil characters in history, including Napoleon, Ivan the Terrible, and Al Capone, to help in his plan to take over the world. He tries, Larry tries to stop him, hi-jinks ensue. Sounds like a plot to me.

What is it with reviewers and scripts? Both the reviewer of the film and columnist Peter Bart in Weekly Variety (May 25-31), complained, with Bart commenting, “Most important, this is a film that displays a truly surreal sensibility in that it has no tenable plot.” What they were both thrown by is the fact that structure in gag comedy is not as crucial as it is in other genres. Look at the reviews of the “early, funny” Woody Allen movies and they all complain about the lack of plot. Look up the original reviews of the Marx Brothers movies and you will find the same thing. The plot in the new movie is a very simple framework upon which to hang the gags. A picture like this depends on the gags, and they are as surreal and off-the-wall (literally in the sequences when paintings and photographs come to life) as anything in Duck Soup. The ratio of hits to misses is very high in this movie.

Yet I was not laughing, and usually I am an easy laugh. But I was not laughing because I was so charmed by surrealism of what they came up with that I did not mind not laughing. I have that response sometimes to Buster Keaton’s stuff as well. The way they use the famous photo of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square at the end of World War II is just plain ingenious. Watching one of Jeff Koons’ balloon pieces come to life is charming. The quick meeting of Amelia Earhart and the Tuskegee Airman comes with a throwaway line that contains more social comment that most films manage in two hours. A comedy can work if it makes you laugh a lot. It can also work, as this one does, by making you enjoy what you are, if not laughing at, smiling at.

The writers, who are performers as well as writers, have also written great parts for the actors, which help hold the film together. I think this may be Ben Stiller’s best work, surprisingly subtle in his reactions to the craziness going on around him. The evil Pharoah is Kahmunrah and is played by the great Hank Azaria. Azaria is imitating the voice of Boris Karloff, who starred in the original The Mummy. Bill Hader is as good a General Custer as Errol Flynn was in They Died With Their Boots On, but in a very different key. (Hader was equally good a few months ago in a more realistic role in Adventureland. I am not sure he is going to be a star, but he’s already a better character actor than his work on Saturday Night Live would lead you to believe.)

I love Carla Gugino, but she was not particularly memorable in the first Museum film. The equivalent part here is Amelia Earhart, played by Amy Adams as a combination of Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, and Claudette Colbert. Garant and Lennon have given her some great thirties dialogue and she runs with it. She more than holds her own against the great CGI effects. Shawn Levy, the director, was quoted in the June 1 New Yorker on what he discovered about male members of the audience, “I spent two years working on this highly complex movie, loaded with FX and C.G.I. [sic. Somebody tell David Remnick that Industry Standard is no periods] stuff, the most memorable visual turns out to be Amy’s, uh, rear in her jodhpurs.” Would you consider that writing for performance?

Easy Virtue (2008. Screenplay by Stephan Elliott & Sheridan Jobbins, based on the play by Noël Coward. 97 minutes): It’s Coward, but not as funny.

While Noël Coward’s great plays such as Private Lives, Design for Living, and Blithe Spirit (currently on Broadway; Congratulations to Angela Lansbury for her Tony for it; Geezer Power Rules!) are often revived, the 1926 play this film is based on is not, and with good reason. As Stephan Elliott told Peter Clines in an interview in the May 22 Creative Screenwriting Weekly, what we think of as the great Noël Coward wit simply is not there in this early drama. Coward himself did not think much of the play and those who have seen Eliot Stannard’s 1927 film adaptation are not that crazy about it, either. (Yes, yes, I know, the 1927 film was directed by the fat little kid Stannard was teaching everything he needed to know to make movies; see Charles Barr’s elegant English Hitchcock for details of Stannard’s importance to the kid’s career.)

When Stephan Elliott, who also directed, and his writing partner took on the project, they decided to bring some Coward-like wit to the story. There is some, some of it probably from the play, which Elliott found rather vicious, but the melodrama aspects of it keep crowding it out. In the play Larita is an older woman who marries a young British man, John, and goes with him to his parents’ country house, which she finds absolutely stifling. The play is set entirely in the house, but Elliott and Jobbins have opened it up, although that is not entirely the word for it, since they have made sure that even in the exterior scenes Larita is hemmed in by others. Though they have made Larita closer in age to John, there are still a number of lines that suggest a greater age difference than we can see. The writers have brought the period forward to 1929, to judge from a reference to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and Larita has now become a race car driver cheated out of winning the Grand Prix at Monte Carlo because she is a woman. She is first cousin to Night’s Amelia Earhart, but the writers here have not given her great dialogue Garant and Lennon have given Earhart. The costumers here have also not given Jessica Biel the formfitting jodhpurs the other costumers gave Amy Adams.

I have not read the original play, but it is obvious from its production history that Larita is the star part. The film is written that way as well, with the writers picking up and expanding on Larita’s wish to be rid of the stuffy upper-class English society. Jessica Biel has given some good performances (The Illusionist), and she gives a good performance here. Unfortunately, it is not the required movie-star performance. She does not come in and command the screen the way she needs to do. She is not helped by the platinum blonde hair, the makeup and the cinematography. Biel is not as physically luscious here as she usually is, which is too bad, because that could have given her performance an interesting texture. Kristin Scott Thomas does take command as John’s mother, who is determined to keep up appearances. Thomas knows her way around a bitchy line, and while Biel holds her own in that department, we have to score it advantage Thomas.

The drama sort of works, and there is a nice moment when John’s father, played by many women’s definitive Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth, does the tango with Larita when John won’t. Which nicely sets up the very satisfying ending.

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (2009. No writing credit. 101 minutes): Collaboration.

Robert (lyrics) and Richard (music) Sherman came to work for Walt Disney as the only songwriters on staff at the studio. They not only wrote the songs for Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, but “It’s a Small World” for the exhibit of the same name at the 1964 World’s Fair and the later rides at the Disney theme parks. The pre-credits sequence establishes most of that and then gives us the kicker: the two brothers couldn’t stand to be around each other when they weren’t working together. The film is made by Gregory V. Sherman and Jeff Sherman, two cousins, each one the son of one of the brothers. They had not spoken to each other for nearly forty years when they met up and decided to do this film. They were not able to reconcile their fathers, but they have come up with a terrific film that shows you how the brothers managed to create such terrific songs while not otherwise speaking to each other.

As we have talked about on many occasions, documentaries can give us wonderful characters, and the brothers, who are still alive, are definitely characters, in every sense of the term. They are surrounded by other interesting characters as well, many of whom we see interviewed for the film. We get not only interviews with actors like Julie Andrews and Haley Mills, but musicians like John Williams (there is some wonderful footage of a much younger Williams hanging out with the brothers; who knew the composer of Star Wars used to be a hippie?), Randy Newman (no slouch at doing songs for animated films himself), and Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin).

What is at the heart of the film is the collaboration of the brothers, and especially their collaboration with Walt Disney himself. I am not the only person to point out that John Lasseter, the head of Pixar, who is also interviewed, is the closest thing we have to Disney in his sense of story and his belief in the collaborative process. See the comments on Up above for details. Seeing this film the day after Up gave me a real sense of connection between the past and the present in animation. And quite frankly, it also made me appreciate how much better the animation is in some Pixar films than it is in some of the Disney classics.

As I mentioned in US#2 about The Order of Myths, one question that nearly always comes up with documentaries is what was left on the cutting room floor. One person who is never mentioned in the film, and who appears only briefly and unidentified in one clip, is Michael Eisner. Eisner took over Disney in the early eighties and revived the studio, bringing back animated musicals. He was the Emperor and Pope of the studio, appearing on television to introduce Disney shows. Why isn’t he here?

One possible answer to that comes from Alan Menken, who talks in the film about coming to the studio to do The Little Mermaid. He was told the Sherman Brothers had an office down the hall, but the person telling him said it in a rather dismissive way. That may have come from Eisner, since the Pope and Emperor sets the tone, in this case a deep lack of respect for tradition.

I was thinking about this after I saw the film and I was reminded of a visit I made to the Abbey at St. Florian, outside of Linz, Austria, in 1998. We were shown around the apartments that had been grandly decorated for potential visits from Popes and Emperors (you didn’t think I was just being snarky about Eisner, did you?). Nobody was particularly impressed, especially when we learned the Popes and Emperors almost never visited. But down at the end of the same hallway, there were two little non-descript rooms. One had a small bed, the other had a table, chair and piano. We were enthralled. These were the rooms when Anton Bruckner lived and composed.

Power fades, talent abides.


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.