House Logo
Explore categories +

Understanding Screenwriting #28: The Hangover, The Brothers Bloom, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, & More

Comments Comments (0)

Understanding Screenwriting #28: <em>The Hangover</em>, <em>The Brothers Bloom</em>, <em>The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Hangover, The Brothers Bloom, The Taking of Pelham 123 (2), The White Sister, Ten Wanted Men, Night Train to Munich, Berlin Express, but first…

Fan Mail: Since there were as of this writing no comments on US#27, let me just throw in a promotion for any fans of the column who may be in or around Bloomington, Indiana on Saturday, August 1st. I will be doing a discussion and book signing that day from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Borders Bookstore in Bloomington. The address is 2634 E. Third Street. I would love to meet any of the column’s readers who can drop by.

The Hangover (2009. Written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. 100 minutes): A thousand fathers…

As I have mentioned, I am not a fan of movies about men behaving like little boys, but I like the team of Lucas & Moore as writers. In addition, the first weekend exit polls were showing that a lot of women were going to see the film, and the weekday business was staying high. So off I went to see it on June 11th, the Thursday after it opened.

Lucas & Moore have set the situation up nicely. We learn at the beginning that Phil, Stu and Alan have somehow misplaced the groom during a weekend bachelor party in Las Vegas. Then we get nearly twenty minutes of flashback setup as the guys go to Vegas. This establishes their characters, which is crucial to the film working. We LIKE these guys, even if they are crude. And each one is different. Phil is the horndog, Stu the uptight one and Alan is only semi-housebroken. Doug, the groom, is rather bland, but we lose him fairly quickly. Lucas & Moore then cut from their arrival in Vegas to the next morning, when they discover not only that Doug is missing, but their suite now has baby, a chicken and a live tiger in the bathroom, among other things. So we have likable characters, some mysteries and a quest, if not quite a Hero’s Journey. The writers come up with some funny gags and a couple of very nice scenes including one with that old charmer, Mike Tyson. Tyson’s scene is a great change of pace in the middle of the film. Needless to say, all works out well in the end.

There are downsides. The characterization, while adequate, is not up to the usual Lucas & Moore standard. The one older character, the bride’s father, is standard issue. The real downside in characterization is the women. Jade, the hooker, is about as standard issue heart-of-gold as you can get, and it does not help that she is played by Heather Graham, who has done many better versions of this part over the last fifty years. The bride here is not as interesting as the bride in Lucas & Moore’s Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. And Stu’s girlfriend is about as obnoxious a woman as we have seen lately in the movies. What happened?

In the interview with Danny Munso in the May/June issue of Creative Screenwriting, written and published before the film opened, Lucas & Moore talk about how they developed the idea on their own, with no mention of other writers or producers working on it. The day I saw the film, Patrick Goldstein’s regular column, The Big Picture, appeared in the Los Angeles Times. He was reporting that Todd Philips, the director of The Hangover, “checked in the other day, calling from London.” Why would a director call the Times from London? Philips told Goldstein that the Lucas & Moore script was really intended as a PG-13 film and he and Jeremy Garelick had done an uncredited rewrite in which “we really pushed the limits and turned it into an R comedy.”

There is a longstanding Hollywood tradition that when a picture opens really well, as The Hangover did, any number of writers come out of the woodwork to claim they did “uncredited rewrites” on the film. When Speed opened well in 1994, there were at least two writers who claimed to have written the final drafts, although the script I saw, which was essentially the film, only had the name of the credited writer, Graham Yost, on it. When Erin Brockovich was released in 2000, suddenly the word on the street was that Richard LaGravenese had actually done the final drafts. That may have caused the credited writer, Susannah Grant, to lose the Oscar. Thanks, Richard.

When I was walking home from seeing The Hangover, I picked up a copy of the freebie LA Weekly, which includes a column, Deadline Hollywood, by Nikki Finke. She is a very snarky writer, but her batting average for accuracy is fairly high. Her column in this issue was all about not only the writers who were claiming to have worked on The Hangover, but the assorted producers who claim to have contributed to the story, none of whom were mentioned by Lucas & Moore. Success has a thousand fathers…I assure you that the same week there were no writers coming out of the woodwork to claim to have done “uncredited rewrites” on Land of the Lost.

When Finke mentions Philips and Gerelick’s rewrites, she says, “Some say the duo was ’robbed’ of a credit by the WGA arbitration.” Probably not, although they may not see it that way. Time for a brief—I hope—discussion of the Writers Guild of America arbitration process. Take out your crayons and notebooks children, there will be a quiz later. Back in the thirties, before the Guild, the studios assigned the screenwriting credits. Favoritism abounded, and the tendency was to give credit to whoever worked on the film last. Writers felt this was unfair, since the hard work of “breaking” the story defined the film more than a few additional dialogue bits. So when the studios finally recognized the Guild, the Guild wanted to establish an arbitration process. The studios fought it, as they saw it as giving up their power, but as screenwriter Philip Dunne said to me in the early seventies, “Now of course the studios couldn’t agree with you more. This takes a big headache off them and puts it on the Guild.”

The arbitration process works this way. When a film is completed, the producer submits to the Guild his suggestion of what the writing credits should be. Every writer who ever worked on the project is then informed of the suggested credits. If everybody agrees (and it does happen. Really), those are the credits. If a writer disagrees, then the credits go to arbitration. Every writer involved submits the material he thinks shows his contributions to the film. (This is why I always tell my screenwriting students to save EVERYTHING.) Three panelists for the Guild, working screenwriters, read through the material without, in theory at least, knowing who the writers actually are. The panel then decides on the credits, with writers having to have written specific percentages of the script to get credit. Usually the writer or writers who worked on the material first are given the first credit. As Winston Churchill said of democracy, it’s the worst system ever invented, except for all the others. Every writer sometimes feels he gets screwed. Some writers even feel they get credits they are not sure they deserve. But generally writers accept the system as a necessary evil and figure if they lose this one, they will win on the next one.

The people who complain about the arbitration system the most are directors. William Wyler was upset that Christopher Fry, who was on the set of Ben-Hur constantly rewriting the dialogue, did not get a credit. Barry Levinson threw one of his patented hissy fits when the Guild awarded top credit on Wag the Dog to Hilary Henkin with David Mamet only sharing the credit. Directors, like the studio producers of the thirties, tend to favor their little pet writers, whose work, when looked at (more or less) objectively was not as big a contribution to the film as the directors thought.

There is nothing, alas, in the Guild rules that say that the contributions of the additional writers have to be improvements. Which leads me to suspect that the problems I had with the script of The Hangover came from the uncredited rewrites. Those problems may have also come from the development process. Producer Chris Bender worked with Lucas & Moore and the material was submitted to New Line, which has released such “chick flicks” as Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and My Sister’s Keeper. New Line passed, and the film ended up at Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers Group President Jeff Robinov, whom Finke describes as “little-liked,” was quoted last year as saying that there would no longer be any films at Warners starring women, since he did not think they could carry a picture. He sort of denied saying it, but the fact that industry people believe he did say it tells you something. Finke includes a quote from Warners studio chairman Alan Horn, Robinov’s boss, giving all credit to Robinov for shepherding The Hangover to its great success. Wait a minute, isn’t success supposed to have a thousand fathers? Finke did not seem to realize that what Horn may have been doing was telling people in Hollywood that the partial reason the women in the film were so misogynistically portrayed was Robinov’s stewardship of the film. Welcome to Hollywood, Jeff.

The Brothers Bloom (2008. Written by Rian Johnson. 113 minutes): I like the movie it started out to be.

As you can tell from the trailers to this film, it is a con-man movie, with lots of charm from Rachel Weisz as a madcap heiress and Rinko Kikuchi as the “muscle” in the con. The film starts quirky: we see the two brothers Bloom, the older one called Stephen, the younger one just Bloom—uh-oh, cuteness alert—as kids running their first con. It’s fun, as is the next one we see now that they are grown up. But Bloom wants to get out of the business. Stephen pulls him back in for one more, this one involving Penelope, the aforementioned heiress. Except Penelope, who has been locked up in her family’s mansion, LOVES the idea of being part of a con. She pushes them further and Bloom of course falls in love with her. OK, it’s not Lubitsch’s (and Samson Raphelson’s) Trouble in Paradise, but what is? Still, we are with it. But remember that the story started with the two brothers. And it keeps getting serious about them. Now if there is one thing I do NOT want in a con-man movie, it is for it to get serious. Especially when, as in this case, it begins to lose the charm that pulled us into it in the first place. I am not saying you cannot change tone in the middle of a film (Psycho, enough said), but we had better want to go where the tonal shift is taking us. In the case of The Brothers Bloom, it is taking us away from what we like in the film. Not a smart move. I kept expecting Johnson to pull off another con or two, either on the characters or on us, but what I take to be his final con is not all that interesting, or much of a surprise.

Still you do get Weisz and Kikuchi, who are terrific. This is a very different part for Weisz and her performance should inspire someone to write a great screwball comedy for her.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3: (Two versions: 1974. Screenplay by Peter Stone, based on the novel by John Godey. 104 minutes. 2009. Screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by John Godey. 106 minutes): Directors, can’t kill ’em, can’t make a movie without ’em.

The 1974 version is one of those gritty, New York City crime dramas that multiplied like alligators in the sewers in the early seventies as a result of the huge success of The French Connection in 1971. The setup is simple: Four guys take a car of the New York subway hostage and the good guys try to figure out how to stop them. The idea of taking a subway car hostage is at the ingenious heart of the story. Peter Stone’s screenplay plays like a procedural, following the mechanics of the heist and the efforts to stop it. Since Stone is also the screenwriter of Charade, one of the two best Hitchcock movies Hitchcock did not make, there is a certain amount of wit in the dialogue and characterization (I love the mayor in bed with the flu), which are a nice counterpoint to the suspense. The actors are all journeyman actors who look like New Yorkers, and those that are still alive work on the various Law & Orders. The director is the competent journeyman Joseph Sargent and he gives it speed and a New York attitude, making it the best Sidney Lumet movie Lumet did not make.

So why bother to remake it?

Well, it is highly thought of, and the setup is still ingenious. The writer this time is Brian Helgeland, who did the screenplays for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River. I don’t know what the budget was on the 1974 version, but it probably was not much over $5 million, if that. The budget for this version is reported to be in the $100 million range. For a gritty little thriller? No, for a star vehicle. The two leads of the ’74 version were played by Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, who were terrific actors and gave excellent performances, but for a Major Studio Motion Picture today, you need STARS. Matthau’s Garber was a New York City Transit Inspector, Denzel Washington’s Garber is a shlub of a guy who is working the phones in the situation room. In the ’74 version Garber was more of an everyman, in spite of his position. In the ’09 version Garber is an EveryMan Played by A Star. In ’74, the methodical and efficient head crook was coolly played by Robert Shaw. In ’09, Ryder is a raging psychopath overacted by John Travolta. Helgeland has focused on the relationship of the two, while Stone focused on the mechanics of the two men’s story. Helgeland has Ryder come to like Garber and to demand he talk only to him. Garber also gets an elaborate backstory that plays into the situation. Scenes of the mechanics of the story in ’74, such as a look at how the ransom money is counted and packaged, are dropped so we can get more of the two stars.

While the sick mayor in ’74 is fun, Helgeland’s ’09 mayor is even more fun, more of a tough guy and more involved in the story. Which means scenes and lines for James Gandolfini, who reminds us he is a lot more than Tony Soprano. Helgeland has also added a hostage negotiator, Camonetti (John Tuturro), who comes to respect Garber. Wit is not Helgeland’s strong suit, so we don’t get Stone’s zingers spread out among the more minor supporting roles. Helgeland has also had to drop the original’s naming of each of the hijackers with colors: Blue, Green Grey, since Tarantino stole that and made it his own in Reservoir Dogs. I don’t know how much Washington was paid, but it was probably a lot, which means that Helgeland has to turn him into something of an action hero in the last twenty minutes. Since Washington put on weight for the character, he is not quite believable running around the streets and bridges of New York without appearing to be winded.

So. Helgeland’s script is not awful and has some nice moments. Then they got Tony Scott to direct it. The credit sequence alone has more cuts than in the entire ’74 version. The camera whips around a LOT, and various film speeds are used, too often. When Scott gets into the scenes with Washington and Travolta, the camera slows down and we watch the stars. In very big closeups. This may be one of those films that plays better on television than on a big theater screen, since the jerky-cam shots and the huge closeups will be a little less obnoxious.

I’ve been thinking about why Washington has now done three films with Scott. The closeups may be the answer. Scott, for all his flashy style, appears to love his stars and gives them their head. Washington is better than Travolta here, though the scenes where they finally meet in person are rather nice. But that is Scott getting out of the way of the script and the stars. The rest of the time he is just showing off. Joseph Sargent, by the way, shot the original in not-as-casual-as-they-seem medium shots, and the performances work just as well, if not better.

The White Sister (1923. Scenario by George V. Hobart and Charles E. Whittaker, titles by Will M. Richey and Don Bartlett, based on the novel by Francis Marion Crawford. 135 minutes): They had FACES then.

This is the second of at least four different films made from this novel. I cannot recommend it as an example of great screenwriting for silent films, particularly in terms of plotting, although the problems there may come from the potboiler novel it was based on. Angela, the daughter of an Italian nobleman, is done out of her inheritance by her wicked sister in ways that defy any kind of reality but at least get the story going. Angela falls in love with the dashing officer, Giovanni, but before they can be married, he is sent off to Africa, where he is reported killed. What’s a girl to do? She becomes a nun. Guess who’s not dead? And he shows up just as she is taking her final vows, and the writers really have to twist and turn the action to keep him away from her until after she has taken her vows. In the novel, apparently, he persuades her to renounce her vows and run away, but being an expensive picture, this was changed so they don’t run away. He dies a noble death trying to save people from an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, placating the Catholic Church, which in those days had a certain power over which movies its flocks would attend. The Church in return loaned director Henry King the director of ceremonies at the Vatican to stage the taking of Angela’s vows.

So why bring this movie up in a column on screenwriting? Because it shows you how much story you can tell and how much emotion you can get without dialogue. Unlike a lot of middle-to-late silent films (such as King’s Romola, which like this film was shot in Italy), there is not an overabundance of titles to disrupt the flow of the film. King has been an underrated director, but if great film historians like Kevin Brownlow and David Shepard tell you he was good, pay attention. King understood emotion. Lillian Gish is Angelina and more restrained and subtle here than in many of her Griffith films. Her brilliant leading man was a young actor who had done small parts in a few films. I wrote in US#19 how screenwriter Casey Robinson had created the definitive Errol Flynn part for Flynn. In this case I think the credit for this actor’s impact goes to Henry King for realizing and using the way the camera loves him. A few years later when sound came in, at least some people worried that the actor, who was by then sort of a junior-varsity John Gilbert, would not make the transition to sound. They thought he had a strange voice. If you ever see The White Sister, try NOT to hear Ronald Colman’s voice as you watch him.

Ten Wanted Men (1955. Screenplay by Kenneth Gamet, story by Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank. 80 minutes): Not quite one of the Ranown westerns, but you can see them coming.

IN US#13, 17 and 18, I wrote about the Budd Boetticher DVD box set and the films in them, which are known as the Ranown films, Ranown being the name of the company formed by producer Harry Joe Brown and actor Randolph Scott. The films in the box set are considered the classics, but Brown and Scott had been making films before those. This is one of them, and its cast includes not only Scott, but Richard Boone and Skip Homeier, all three of whom appear to better effect in other Ranown films.

The story is by Ravetch & Frank before they became famous. He had been writing westerns for several years, and he did two before this one that were particularly good, Vengeance Valley and The Outriders, both from 1950. He did the screenplays as well as the stories for them. In this case, the screenplay was done by Kenneth Gamet, whose credits are mostly run-of-the-mill westerns. The ending of this is such a mess that I suspect it came from Gamet rather than Ravetch & Frank. Ravetch & Frank were about to do a couple of adaptations of Faulkner (The Long Hot Summer [1958] and The Sound and the Fury [1959]), and you can see a hint of that in here with Wick Campbell’s lusting after his Mexican ward. The characterization is not as sharp as in the Burt Kennedy or Charles Lang scripts for the later films.

The director is H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone, who directed films from the twenties through the early sixties without making a good film. Why did he work so much, other than being “Lucky”? To use Nunnally Johnson’s phrase, he got the stuff. Not great stuff, sometimes not very good stuff, but the stuff. He got the action and the acting, which is not all that good here, on the screen. He shot Ten Wanted Men in the Arizona desert, in and around the classic western town set at Old Tucson. He’s no Budd Boetticher, but he gives good cactus for the money.

Night Train to Munich (1940. Screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, based on a story by Gordon Wellesley. 90 minutes): Train Day on Turner Classic Movies, Track One.

In US#3 I wrote that The Lady Vanishes was the granddaddy of all train thrillers, but I had fogotten that Sidney Gilliat wrote the real granddaddy of all train thrillers, Rome Express, in 1932. His regular partner was Frank Launder and in 1938 they wrote The Lady Vanishes. As a result of the enormous success of that, they got hired to do this one. Boy, experience tells. A world at war helps to. The Lady Vanishes is very much a between-the-wars thriller, with very general details about spies and their ilk. By the time they came to write this one, the war in Europe had started, and it gives the film a little more weight. The film begins with a newsreel montage of the events leading up to the war. Then we are in Czechoslovakia as the German invasion is about to begin. We are in a munitions plant that the Nazis are aiming for, and as planes fly over, one of the executives says, “Ours?” Another replies, “No, theirs.” See what I mean about experience counting? That is simple and effective screenwriting. The scientist/technician the Nazis want manages to escape to England, but his daughter is left behind and thrown into a concentration camp. Her escape is the model of efficient screenwriting: a searchlight is turned off by a mysterious hand, the light comes back on, the camera pans to a hole in the fence. We know she’s gone.

Watching this today, we know she is in good hands because the man who helped her escape is identified as “Karl Marsen,” but we know he is really Victor Laszlo in disguise, since he is played by Paul Henreid. Look at the date of the film again. If you don’t know the film, it’s a shock to learn Victor Laszlo is a Nazi. He has been assigned to get her to England to find her father, so Marsen can kidnap him and take him back to Germany, which he does. Look at the exchange of closeups between Anna and Marsen at the submarine when she realizes he’s not a nice man. That’s depending on your actors and not your dialogue.

So now the father is back in Germany, and how are we going to get him out? Gus Bennett (and look at how inventively Gilliat and Launder set up him up), part of British Intelligence, pretends to be a Nazi officer, finds the father and soon we are on the train of the main title. How can you believe a Britisher as a Nazi officer? Well, he’s played by Rex Harrison, whose natural imperiousness seems perfectly at home in a Nazi uniform.

Two of the more amusing characters that Gilliat and Launder created for The Lady Vanishes show up here, again touring Europe. There are two very obtuse Englishmen, Charters and Caldicott. In the first film they were comedy relief, constantly worried more about the England-Australia Test Match results than the intrigue. Here they are involved in the final rescue, and because they are so obtuse, we are not confident they will not mess things up. This is a perfect example of taking characters from an earlier film and using them in inventive ways. Experience tells.

And in answer to the question you want to ask, yes, I do think it is better than The Lady Vanishes, even if the director is “only” Carol Reed. This is the other best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock did not make.

Berlin Express (1948. Screenplay by Harold Medford, story by Curt Siodmak. 87 minutes): Train Day on Turner Classic Movies, Track Two.

TCM was running these together in the middle of the night, so since I was DVR-ing the first one… As Ernie Banks used to say, “It’s great day. Let’s play two.” Alas, this is not quite up to Night Train to Munich.

The earlier film was almost entirely studio bound, but this is very much one of those late forties films where the studios sent the cast and crew to foreign countries to use up the theatrical revenues that were frozen by those countries. So we get scenes shot in Paris, Frankfurt, and Berlin. Boy, did our bombers do some damage on those last two. It also has the late forties documentary style of narration. Too much narration. Way too much narration.

A group of multi-national passengers on a train from France to Germany are sort-of witnesses to the killing of a peacemaker who has a plan for the unification of Germany. Except that it was someone pretending to be him on the train and not the main guy himself. OK, I realize this was only the late forties, but wouldn’t a politician/statesman as important as this guy have had his photograph in the newspaper at least a couple of times? And wouldn’t one of the passengers realize it was not him on the train?

Well, since he is still alive, he almost immediately gets kidnapped. Why didn’t they just kidnap him at first? And why is it so crucial to the neo-Nazis (who are interestingly portrayed as thugs, not suave villains) that they learn his plan? After all, it is just a political plan, not the specs for an atomic bomb.

So he is kidnapped and several of the passengers join in the hunt for him. This being a late forties film supervised at RKO by Dore Schary (see the item on Millard Kaufman in US#22 for more on Schary), each of the passengers is from one of the four countries running Germany. The film becomes a message-y model for international cooperation. It was released in May 1948, which means it was probably written before the famous October 1947 HUAC hearings in Washington. This may explain why the Russian soldier in the group is not portrayed as the epitome of evil. Everybody connected with this film wants us all to get along, which is not quite how it all worked out in the years following 1948.

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.