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Understanding Screenwriting #3: Transsiberian, The House Bunny, Tropic Thunder, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #3: <em>Transsiberian</em>, <em>The House Bunny</em>, <em>Tropic Thunder</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Transsiberian; The House Bunny; Tropic Thunder; Silent to Sound; Transformers; In Plain Sight; Mad Men, but first:

Mailbag: Well, I certainly seem to have ticked off the graphic novel crowd, haven’t I? As “futurefree” and “JJ” noted, I was careful to doubly qualify my comments, and I did that because I was aware there have been some fairly good films made from graphic novels. One that some readers mentioned was From Hell, and one that I am surprised nobody mentioned was A History of Violence, which was terrific until it went a little funny in the head in the last third.

My point, that several readers such as “futurefree” and “Ed Howard” picked up on, is that the form does not necessarily lend itself to complex characters. It is not just a question of panels, but that the images are static, so you do not get the nuances you do in actors’ performances in films.

I have been meaning to admit since US#1 my dirty little secret, which is that I am not a fanboy. As a kid in the ’40s and early ’50s I read comic books, but as I hit adolescence I gave them up, with of course the obvious exception of Mad Magazine; some things are sacred. I never got back into comics or later graphic novels, and the older I get, the less interest in mythical kingdoms I have. I can certainly understand people, particularly in the last seven years, who much prefer to live in mythical kingdoms rather than the real world. But I just find the jumps in logic one has to make a little much. At the risk of driving off all my readers, I have to admit that I have seen only the first Lord of the Rings movie and not the other two. I have not seen any of the Harry Potter films, and only the first Matrix, which struck me as one of the stupidest movies of all time. I avoided Batman Begins (I am a little too old for yet another version of the origin story) and The Dark Knight (even though a friend whose judgement I trust said I had to see it because it was “as if Kubrick had directed The French Connection”). I do try to see one comic book/graphic novel movie a year and this year it was Iron Man. I kept wanting to see a) the outtakes of Downey Jr. and his stunt man trying to move in that outfit, and b) that cast (Downey Jr., Bridges, and Paltrow) in a real movie.

Now then, have we got any readers left? The other issue in the readers’ comments on US#2 was the use of exposition. “JJ” wrote, and I think he is right, that a lot of exposition is so obvious because studio executives are afraid audiences will not understand subtlety. Partly that is because films are so expensive to make that studios are afraid of losing a single viewer. Often when you see a film, you wonder why they made that script. The answer is usually that it is not the script they started out to make. In the notorious development process, the edges get rounded off and the most interesting material gets dropped. It is also a question of the executives themselves not being able to read and understand a script.

Two general rules about exposition:

1. How much do you need? The correct answer is less than you think. Audiences will pick up fairly quickly what is going on. At some point you have probably walked into a film after it started. Think about how easily you picked up on what was going on.
2. When does the audience need to know something? Put it as late as you can in the screenplay.

There is also a tendency among writers and others to assume that exposition is only what somebody says. Not true. Look at how much we think we learn about Jeff in Rear Window from that wonderful pan around his apartment. (And then listen to the phone dialogue in the next scene between Jeff and his boss that ties all those visuals together.) One thing I have always loved about Chinatown is that virtually everything anybody says in the first half hour is a lie. The first Mrs. Mulwray is not Mrs. Mulwray, Hollis is not having an affair with the young girl, and the real Mrs. Mulwray seems unable to tell the truth until Jake slaps it out of her at the end of the film.

Before we get into this episode’s films and television shows, a brief scheduling note. When I agreed to do this column for HND, I told Keith that I could probably only manage to do it once a month. If you have followed it so far, you know I have done one a week. The day after Labor Day I start teaching at Los Angeles City College, which will slow down both my moviegoing and my time to write. So it will be a few weeks before US#4 appears. On the other hand, the Olympics are over and I may be able to get my wife out to see the growing list of films she wants to see, so who knows?


Transsiberian (2008. Screenplay by Brad Anderson & Will Conroy. 111 minutes): In his comments on US#2 Joel asked for a view of this film, but this is not a response. I had already done the first draft of this when the notes came in.

This is a first-rate addition to one of my favorite genres, the thriller on a train. In a couple of ways it is even better than the grandfather of them all, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Laudner’s script for the 1938 version of The Lady Vanishes. In the earlier film the lady vanishes and we know it is foul play. In the current film, when a major character vanishes, we assume, because we have been watching The Lady Vanishes and its many imitators, that it is foul play. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But Anderson and Conroy are using our genre expectations to keep us on edge. Late in the picture when one of the characters says she is going to the dining car to get some sugar for coffee, you know that no good will come of it. And it doesn’t, but in a way you probably do not expect. One thing that always bothered me about The Lady Vanishes is that just before the big finish, the train stops. I know there is a big shootout, but if you have a movie about a train, it ought to move. Look at how they play with that here.

Another way the current script is better is that Anderson and Conroy get into the characterization in more depth than Gilliat and Launder did. I know the earlier writers were writing for a rather shallow director, but still. We get the Russian police inspector in the opening scene investigating a murder, so we know there will be thrills. But having set that up, the writers can spend time establishing the characters. Shakespeare uses the father’s ghost at the beginning of Hamlet in the same way. The characters on the train are so evenly balanced it is well into the picture before we figure out who the main character is. They have written a great part for Rumpole’s granddaughter, Emily Mortimer (her father, the author John Mortimer, is the creator of Horace Rumpole, Q.C.), and she gives her best screen performance. The characters who are supposed to be suspicious are, but often we are suspicious of them for the wrong reasons. And they are written so the twists in their characters make sense with what we have seen or heard.

This is particularly true of the ending. At first it seems like a conventional sentimental happy ending. A couple is flying home, all cozy and safe. But then we get one more scene with another character. What she does tells us that the last—of several—things we were told about her are not exactly true. So the film ends on a darker, and I thought, more satisfying note.


The House Bunny (2008. Written by Karen McCullah Lutz & Kirsten Smith. 98 minutes): Lutz and Smith are developing their own mini-genre: women who at first seem dumb turn out not to be so dumb and win the day. Their establishing script of the genre was Legally Blonde and this one follows that template. I could even see it turning into a Broadway musical like the earlier film.

Speaking of verbal exposition, listen to how quickly they establish Shelly before we even see her. We hear her version of a variety of fairy tales, told in wonderfully fractured language that sets up her character in terms of rhythm and phrasing. The writers’ comic rhythms carry through the film in many scenes. Listen to some of the first scenes between Shelly, the Playboy bunny who becomes a sorority housemother, and Natalie, the leader of the sorority girls.

A defining scene in a female empowerment film is the makeover scene. Here we get two. The first, and most obvious, is that Shelly gives the unattractive sorority girls cosmetic makeovers, but Lutz and Smith throw in the makeover of the ramshackle sorority house as well to throw us off balance. This first makeover scene happens relatively early in the film. The second one, about an hour into the film, blew my mind. The whole thrust of most makeover scenes here, and in reality television, is that the women will use makeup, buy new clothes, and attract men. One should not be surprised that Lutz and Smith go beyond that. Shelly goes out on a date with a nice guy and tries all the tricks she has taught the girls. And they don’t work. How transgressive can you get? If the tricks don’t work, the entire cosmetic makeover, self-help, “how to get a man” mythology falls apart. So Shelly decides she needs to be smarter. And we get a mental makeover scene, with Shelly actually in classes. And in a funny bit in the library with a bunch of books. With a lot of books. And it works. She gets the guy; this is a Hollywood comedy, after all.

The transgressive nature of the film is not over. The sorority girls realize that after their makeover, they have become just as snobby as the girls in the other sororities. And they decide to go back to their original selves. Well, not all the way. They can’t quite decide whether they should be 50-50 or 60-40.

One other point. The Rating code will let you use the “f” word once, in a non-sexual way, in a PG-13 film. The House Bunny gets my vote for this year’s Best One-Time Use of “Fucking” in a PG-13 Film.


Tropic Thunder (2008. Story by Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux. Screenplay by Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen. 106 minutes by Variety’s and my count, 117 minutes by imdB): When I saw the trailers for this film, it looked like fun. When I looked at the scenes the actors brought to talk shows, it seemed flat. Seeing the movie, I had both feelings. The concept of the film is a smart one: a group of actors making a Vietnam War film are let loose in the jungle by a frazzled director who thinks he can shoot it documentary-style with hidden cameras. The actors run into a drug running operation, which they think is part of the “film.” There is a lot that could be done with the idea, and there is a lot the writers do. There is a fair mix of comedy and action, with maybe more of the latter than is needed. The characterizations of the various actors are dead-on right, as are the characterizations of the studio boss and one of the actor’s agents. On the other hand, some of the “inside baseball” stuff is so “inside” that the film stopped dead in its tracks, even for the Santa Monica audience I saw the film with, which probably had enough people connected to the industry to get at least some of the jokes. Although I must also say there were a lot more patrons under the age of 18 than there seemed to be parents or guardians in attendance. So much for the “R” rating. But even kids in Santa Monica know a lot about the industry, and if the film was too inside for them, it way well be for those east of the 310 area code.

The main problem comes in the writing of the individual scenes, or rather the lack of it. As often happens in comedies, particularly those directed by actors (Ben Stiller in this case), the actors have been encouraged to improvise. This is not always a good thing, and Tropic Thunder is Exhibit A for the prosecution. Improvisations are often very hysterically funny for the cast and crew and especially the director, but it takes a ruthless director to make sure those improvisations work in the context of the film, which here they very often do not. If you “had to be there” to get the humor, it’s not going to work on film. Actors, there is a reason Billy Wilder would not let his casts riff on his scripts.

Examples of the problem are the now-famous scenes (there is a lot more to it than just a cameo part) with Tom Cruise (not as unrecognizable as the publicity would have it) as a profane studio executive. Again, the idea is good, but what appears to be Cruise’s improvisations come out flat. The character is mostly foul language, and one is reminded of the famous story about Mark Twain. Twain swore a lot, and his wife tried to break him of the habit once by swearing back to him. Twain shook his head sadly and said, “Livvy, you got the words, but you ain’t got the tune.”
Which brings us to a look back at film history:


Silent to Sound: I had occasion recently to look at some films made in the late twenties-early thirties (hey, I’m a film historian; I do stuff like that) during the transition from silent films to talkies. The UCLA Film Archive had a double feature of two films they have restored. One is the silent version of Harold Lloyd’s Welcome Danger (1929) and the other is the sound version from the same year. Lloyd started it as a silent film, then decided to do it as a sound film. The silent version was released to those theaters not equipped for sound. Even though the sound version was Lloyd’s most financially successful film, both it and the silent version are mediocre.

In his famous essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” James Agee said of Lloyd that “out of his thesaurus of smiles he could at a moment’s notice blend prissiness, breeziness and asininity and still remain tremendously likable.” Maybe in the mid-twenties, but by the time of Welcome Danger the prissiness and asininity had taken over. It is a problem in the silent version, and an even bigger problem in the sound version, where he adds a verbal prissiness as well. The storyline of both films is a mess: something to do with him being the son of a famous police chief and therefore called in to stop drug traffic in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The dialogue in the sound version, credited to Paul Gerard Smith, is very flat and “on the nose.” It is written in the style of silent film titles, that is, carved down to only the most basic information, expressed in the simplest language possible. Unlike good screen dialogue, it gives the actors nothing to play. Like Cruise’s arias in Tropic Thunder there is very seldom any discernible rhythm to it, although there is a brief exchange between Lloyd and the great Edgar Kennedy (who was added to the cast when sound was added) that has a bit of comic rhythm to it. Smith, and other writers of the period, did not realize how important each line of dialogue should be and how limited it needed to be. In the sound version, there are many scenes where the script just has the actors babbling on, although some of this may be dreaded improvisations as well. It will a few more years before Robert Riskin, Preston Sturges, and Nunnally Johnson get the balance right on screen dialogue.

The filmmakers of the sound version at least make an effort to use sound creatively, as in a chase scene in a drug den where the lights keep going out. This is a slightly longer version of the scene in the silent film, and they use the dialogue in the darkness effectively.

Not only is Lloyd hampered by his verbal prissiness, but Noah Young, who plays a dumb policeman in both versions, seems stupider in the sound version because his voice is used to over-emphasize his stupidity. Several of the puns of the silent titles simply do not work in sound. Young’s policeman admires a decision Lloyd makes and calls him a “King Sullivan” as opposed to King Solomon. It works when you read it, but not when you hear it. There is another one later, when Lloyd’s character, who has developed a great interest in fingerprinting, is called “the Finger Prince” by another one of the cops. Again, it works in titles, but not in sound. I had a similar problem with the character of Alpa Chino in Tropic Thunder. Maybe I’m just getting old, but it took me hearing it a couple of times to get the reference.

By the time Lloyd did Movie Crazy in 1932, he should have improved more then he did, but the dialogue, while better, is still too “on the nose,” and there is too much of it that does not make a particular point. The writers and Lloyd have not worked out the balance between the words and his reactions, which still tend to be busier than they need to be. Something similar happens to Clara Bow in her best talkie, Call Her Savage, also in 1932. A great star in silent films, she did a few talkies, although the microphone scared her to death. In Call Her Savage, the screenwriter Edwin J. Burke, adapting a novel by Tiffany Thayer, has written a great part to help Bow make the transition from flapper to grownup. Bow handles it well, but Burke, Bow, and the director still do not have the balance right. There are dialogue scenes, but then long reaction shots with Bow in which she goes through the kind of wonderful reactions that made her a star in silent films. Bow has a perfectly good speaking voice and gives a great performance, within the melodramatic limitations of the story, but she shortly thereafter gave up acting. A great loss.

The problem of the balance between the visual and the verbal continues to bedevil filmmakers, particularly those working with a lot of slapstick. I happened to see the 2007 film Mr. Bean’s Holiday the day after I saw Movie Crazy and it struck me that Rowan Atkinson was running into the same problem Lloyd had. If you are going to write in a lot of visual humor, then you have to write the dialogue, if you have any for those scenes, very sparingly and very carefully. If you are going to interrupt a good piece of slapstick with words, they had better be essential, not the kind of nattering that Lloyd and Atkinson do. After all, the best interruption of a silent film with a line of dialogue was simply one word in Silent Movie (1976). I’m not going to tell you what it is. If you have seen the movie, you know, and if you have not, then I won’t spoil it for you.


Transformers (2007. Story by John Rogers and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman. Screenplay by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman. Based on the Hasbro Toys. 144 minutes): I deliberately waited to see this one on cable for the same reason that I waited to see The Doors on videotape in 1991. When you watch a film at home, you can turn down the overbearing soundtrack, which you cannot do in a theater.

If you are writing a movie based on toys, then you have to create characters for your script. One of the limitations of this script is that there is very little characterization for the Transformers. Presumably kids who have been playing with them for years will know who’s who, but the rest of us do not. There is a scene about an hour into the picture where the characters of the Transformers are finally introduced, but they are not given much characterization. And we get so little of their characterization later in the film that in the final showdowns, I was still lost as to who was who.

The writers also give us nothing but cliches for all but one of the human actors to play. For an example of what you can do with characterization in this kind of movie, look at the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Here Sam is a typical teenager, and his parents are typical stupid parents, which is a criminal waste, particularly of Julie White as his mom. The one semi-exception is Mikaela, the teenage beauty who tags along with Sam. At first we think she is just a stuck-up rich girl, but it turns out she is trailer-park trash, who naturally knows how to fix a car. A lot more of this could be made of this in the writing, especially since the actor playing her, Megan Fox, has either decided not to or has not been directed to have a little white trash fun with the part. Where is Jaime Pressly when you need her?


In Plain Sight (2008. Various writers): In US#1, I mentioned that the new series In Plain Sight spent way more time than it needed on the family life of Mary, the federal marshal who watches over people in the witness protection program. The series then went off the rails completely by focusing in the last two episodes on the problems of Mary’s sister, her drug-dealing boyfriend, and Mary’s mom. The final episode was more a family drama than a crime drama, and since the family was never as interesting as the witness stories, the air went out of the series. It may be retrievable next season.


Mad Men (2008. Episode #5 “The New Girl.” Written by Robin Veith): One way you tell us about character is what decision they make, especially when they are under pressure. In this episode, Don Draper is in an auto accident with Bobbie Bartlett, the wife of a comedian he is dealing with. He does not have the $150 he needs to pay the bail. Who does Don Draper call? He can’t call his wife. Any of the guys at SC would be obvious choices, but they would tell all the other guys at work. Joan, the head secretary? Word would get around even quicker. So he calls Peggy, the junior copywriter. Why her? Veith uses this choice to tell us a bit more about what Peggy was up to between season one and season two, and how Don was involved in that. And we see how Don and Peggy are similar, which leads to Bobbie suggesting to Peggy while Peggy is hiding her out at her apartment, that Peggy ought to think of herself as Don’s equal. Later Peggy stays in Don’s office after a meeting and politely requests repayment of the loan for the bail. When he gives it to her, she says, “Thanks, Don.” Look at how much Veith gets out of having her say “Don” rather than “Mr. Draper,” and how well we have been prepared for that.

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.