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Understanding Screenwriting #31: Funny People, In the Loop, Julie & Julia, The Answer Man, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #31: <em>Funny People</em>, <em>In the Loop</em>, <em>Julie & Julia</em>, <em>The Answer Man</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Funny People, In the Loop, Julie & Julia, The Answer Man, Budd Schulberg and John Hughes: an appreciation, Middle Passage Summer Cable Season 2009, but first…

Fan Mail: Great collection of comments on US#30, folks. I always appreciate them.

Daniel Iffland raised a very good question as to why all the discussions about writers on serialized TV dramas in the mainstream media have not led to more writing about screenwriting in film. Part of the reason is historical: the tradition in writing about directors extends back beyond the development of the auteur theory. There is also the disdain of the East Coast Intellectual Establishment for screenwriters, which I discussed in US#1 as one of the reasons I was doing this column. From the beginning of television, especially in the Golden Age of live dramas in the fifties, there was a greater critical awareness of the writer. Another reason is that films are generally seen as a one-off event, whereas a series is a collection of stories with connecting elements. Once the series is set up, the creative function of the producer/showrunner is to feed the maw: a 22-episode season of a one-hour drama requires a LOT of story material. That’s why showrunners are usually writers: they know how to deliver scripts. You can read more about all of this in my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing.

Welcome to new reader “AJ,” who likes the writer’s perspective the column gives. That’s what I’m here for.

Craig liked (500) Days of Summer because he felt it did not force us to see it from Tom’s (the character, not me, as Craig made clear in his second post) perspective. I am not sure I agree, since we certainly see Summer very much from his perspective. We learn her feelings about all this only when she tells him late in the picture. Craig also had a problem with James running all over town in The Hurt Locker trying to get vengeance for a kid he hardly knew. I did too, but I looked on it as the kind of intense focus a person develops in that kind of situation. You need something to hang on to to keep from going completely bonkers.

“Socalsun” made a nice comparison of The Hurt Locker to Generation Kill, but he felt the film “left [us] with no real sense of who James is.” I’d disagree, since I think we learn a lot about James by how he acts and reacts. One of the smartest reviews of Lawrence of Arabia when it came out said that Lawrence was most himself riding a camel across the desert in long shots rather than in closeups. Action is character.

“DS” hopes he will one day write a script that I will end up reviewing in this column. Be careful what you wish for, of course, but keep at it. I used to keep up on one of my workboards a quote from Norman Mailer that every writer should be aware of. It went something like this: “Tell yourself that no matter what, and what other people say, you deserve to write one more day.” How true.

Funny People (2009. Written by Judd Apatow. 146 minutes): Where’s Billy when you need him?

The idea for this film has potential: George Simmons, curmudgeonly comedian and movie star, learns he has a possibly fatal disease. He becomes a better person because of it, but when he learns the medicine he’s been taking has stopped the disease, he reverts to his former bad self. You can imagine what Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges or Ben Hecht (look at his 1937 script for Nothing Sacred, a forerunner of this film) would have done with it. Alas, Apatow is neither as skilled nor as ruthless as Wilder, Sturges, or Hecht.

The central problem is that the script (for reasons I will mention later, I am counting the film as the final draft of the script, as I have done other occasions) is unfocused and very repetitive, both overall and in individual scenes. We get scenes that take forever to get to their point, if they ever do. When we do get a good scene, such as George’s assistant Ira crying in a restaurant, it comes as so much of a surprise it does not seem to fit into the film. Apatow’s first cut was rumored to be three-hours-and-forty-five-minutes long. Part of the problem is that since the film is about comedians, Apatow let them improvise. That occasionally works in comedy (see the comments on In the Loop below), but if the career of Robert Altman has taught us anything, it is that sustained improv in drama will make a mess of your film. Extended improv can take you out of the characters and especially take you out of the story. There is a reason that Wilder and Sturges tightly scripted their films, even their comedies.

Apatow wrote a better mix of comedy and drama in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. There he gave us a strong set of characters, including the women. The man-child friends of Andy were kept as secondary characters. The drama became whether Andy was willing to grow up and deal with Trish, an actual adult female, and the scenes focused on that. In Knocked Up, Apatow moved one of those men-children into the leading role. The basic problem with that film was why would who appeared to be a smart, talented, intelligent woman want to have anything to do with a guy like that? OK, she was pregnant by him, but still. I think the dramatic shape of Knocked Up was supposed to be that Ben Stone begins to grow up, just like Andy in the previous film. Unfortunately, Apatow spent so much time on the hi-jinks of Ben and his friends that he never really showed us that development. We were just supposed to take it on faith when he started ordering people around in the delivery room.

After George finds out he is getting better, he and Ira descend on his former girlfriend Laura. Nikki Finke in her “Deadline Hollywood” column in the LA Weekly reported that Universal had asked Apatow to shorten this section of the film, and you can see why. Laura, the ex-girlfriend, is not a patch on Virgin’s Trish. She still has some feelings for George, although God knows why, but she also seems to be happily married to Clarke and the mother of two not-entirely adorable girls. (The kids are played by Apatow’s two daughters. The officials who look into child abuse should check out Apatow’s letting one of his tone-deaf off-spring sing “Memories” not only once, but twice.) It does not take much for Laura to have sex with George, even though she does decide finally to stay with Clarke. She describes Clarke as just like George, which, alas, he is. Is it humanly possible for Apatow to write a male character who does not talk a lot about his penis? Clarke would be a lot more interesting if he were really different from George.

For all its flaws, there are some good things in the script. Apatow has written George as a character with a variety of edges, which lets Adam Sandler give one of his best performances. If you never caught Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, you’ll be surprised. Likewise, Ira stretches what Seth Rogen has done before. Apatow has also written an odd little character in Daisy, Ira’s sort-of girl friend, and an actor whose talent I apparently failed to notice on the Parks and Recreation episodes I saw, Aubrey Plaza, gives her a distinctively off-beat rhythm.

In the Loop (2009. Written by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche, additional dialogue by Ian Martin and other uncredited contributors. 106 minutes): Sex and the City Redux.

Back in the Dark Ages, in US#1, I wrote about the difficulties of transferring a half-hour television series into the feature Sex and the City. Many of those problems show up in In the Loop, which evolved out of a 2005-2007 British cult TV hit called The Thick of It. It was a foul-mouthed, Mamet-on-steroids look at the British government in the Tony Blair era. Its main character was the government’s head of communications, Malcolm Tucker, who was constantly reaming out assorted bureaucrats. Tucker returns in the film and the question is, do we really want to spend 106 minutes with this guy? If you like this sort of thing, you might, but at that length he gets rather tiresome. Fortunately the writers have provided some other terrific characters to break up his rants. The storyline is a thinly disguised version of the run-up to the Iraq War, complete with a totally unreliable intelligence source. I have mentioned before that some films and television programs now in release seem dated because they are very “Bush era” and we are now in the “Obama era.” That’s a problem here, but the wit and energy help overcome that.

The filmmakers hired a bunch of first rate British and American actors, and then let them go, shooting the script, but also allowing for improvisations. I have no idea how much of the last scene between Peter Capaldi’s Tucker and James Gandolfini’s American General Miller is written or improvised, but it is a beautiful example of the filmmakers’ methods working. The editors, Anthony Boys and Billy Sneddon, have done a great job in shaping the film (this is another example of taking the film as the final draft of the screenplay), leaving in a lot of great stuff while keeping the story moving. The improvs work here because a) there is a strong storyline, and b) this is a comedy. In a comedy, you can get away with almost anything if it makes the audience laugh. The wit of the script and the improvs may help you not to notice that much of the dialogue is very “on the nose,” with people saying exactly what they think. On the other hand, because you are dealing with government bureaucrats, a lot of the dialogue shows people avoiding saying what they really think. The focus on dialogue re-enforces our awareness of this as a former television show, since the film is not particularly visually striking. A lot of the dialogue goes by so fast you may want to check out the quotes on the film’s IMDb page after you see the film to catch the lines you missed.

Julie & Julia (2009. Screenplay by Nora Ephron, based on the book Julie & Julia by Julie Powell and the book My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. 124 minutes): Food Porn.

Nora Ephron loves food almost as much as Judd Apatow loves penises. All the 6,238 articles, interviews, and recipes about or by Ephron that have appeared in The New York Times in the last months have told us that, if you did not already know from her novel Heartburn. So here we have a movie about master chef Julia Child and Julie Powell, a blogger determined to cook all the recipes in Child’s cookbook in one year, all mixed together. The question is, is there anything in this film that would satisfy those of us who are happy picking up a couple of burgers at a drive-thru?

The answer is yes. Julia Child turns out to be a terrific character for a film: big, talented, focused, and without a whining bone in her body. Because Child and her personality are so well know, Ephron, the queen of the whiners, could not turn her into one of her typically Ephronesque neurotics. You have seen them in nearly all her films. We are supposed to love them because they are neurotic instead of in spite of it. But really, if Sleepless in Seattle’s Annie Reed were a guy, wouldn’t she have been sent up the river for stalking? Child won’t let Ephron get away with that here, and the script and Meryl Streep’s performance turns her into an heroic figure.

Several reviews of the film have suggested that the film should only have been about Julia and that the Julie story does not hold up its end. That’s partially true (the film only tells Julia’s story up to the publication of the book, and it could have gone on to show her becoming a celebrity TV cook) and partially a tribute to Streep’s performance. But Streep’s Child is such an outsized character, we might have grown tired of just her for two hours. The central problem with the Julie story is that Ephron has reverted to form with her. She whines, and as charming as Amy Adams can be, the concept of the character hurts those scenes. Adams gives us a lot more than charm and she’s taken some unfair hits from critics for Ephron’s writing of the character.

Ephron has also provided several other lively characters, especially in the Julia story. Peter, her husband, is supportive in a variety of specific ways. The great Jane Lynch shows up for a couple of scenes as Julia’s sister, and she steals the one in the restaurant from Streep. That’s not petty larceny, that’s grand theft acting. When the film comes to DVD you should look at that scene several times over to see how she does it. The characters in the Julie story are not as interesting. Her husband Eric is supportive but in a more general way than Paul. Eric is such a bland character we have no idea why he leaves her midway through the film. Don’t worry. He comes back. Ephron assumes good cooking will cover a multitude of sins. In the New York scenes, would it have killed Ephron to have at least one character who just didn’t give a shit about cooking?

The Answer Man (2009. Written by John Hindman. 95 minutes): Minor, but not without interest.

One review of this film made a big deal about how it is nothing but a ripoff of James L. Brooks’s As Good As It Gets: Cranky anti-social guy is warmed up by a nice woman. Excuse me, it’s a genre that goes back a lot further than 1997. How about Hunchback of Notre Dame, Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast and the assorted films made of them? It’s a romantic genre that men love, since it says that while us guys are pigs or worse, women will understand there is something sweet there and love us. Yeah, good luck on that.

The grouch here is Arlen Faber, who wrote a hugely popular self-help book twenty years ago and almost immediately turned into J.D. Salinger. The woman who brings him out of his shell is Elizabeth, and fortunately Hindman has become the first feature screenwriter to write a part for Lauren Graham that does justice to her ability to take you through a whole run of emotions in a matter of seconds. Compare that to the way she was underused in Evan Almighty and Because I Said So. Hindman has also written nice little roles for Kat Dennings (Norah in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) and Olivia Thirlby (Juno’s friend in Juno). Female stars looking for someone to write a rom-com with a really good role in it for them should check out Hindman and this film.

On the other hand, he does not write the part of Elizabeth’s young son very well. Depending on how you feel about kid characters and kid actors, that will be either a plus or minus for you.

Budd Schulberg (1914 - 2009) and John Hughes (1950 - 2009): An appreciation.

Two screenwriters, Budd Schulberg and John Hughes, died one day apart, Schulberg on August 5, Hughes on August 6th. You cannot imagine two more different writers, masters of writing films in their own times.

Schulberg was the son of occasional studio head B.P. Schulberg, and he grew up playing on the backlot of Paramount. Schulberg developed a sharp eye about Hollywood, which showed up in his first novel, What Makes Sammy Run? It tells the story of Sammy Glick, a Hollywood hustler, based in part on writer-producer Jerry Wald, who rises to the top. Sammy is an iconic figure, and the godfather of The Player’s Griffin Mill and Entourage’s Ari Gold. The book was published when Schulberg was twenty-seven and is still considered one of the two or three best Hollywood novels. When it came out in 1941, it was roundly condemned by the studio bosses. Louis B. Mayer told B.P. that Budd should be deported. B.P. laughed and replied, “Deported? Where? He was one of the few kids who came out of this place. Where are we going to deport him to? Catalina?”

The book also upset the Communist Party. Schulberg had been a member of the Party for a few years in the late thirties, but he refused the Party’s insistence that they be allowed to “help” him write the novel. A reviewer in the Communist paper The Daily Worker wrote a favorable review and then was forced to recant the review a few weeks later. The Party insisted they thought the novel was anti-Semitic, but the book exposed the anti-Semitism in the Party. And the Party felt the novel did not give the Party enough credit in the fight to establish the Screen Writers Guild. You can begin to understand why Schulberg was a friendly witness before HUAC in 1951, although like a number of friendly witnesses, he only named names the committee already had.

Schulberg had started as a junior writer in the thirties (he did some uncredited work on Ben Hecht’s Nothing Sacred), but is best known for his scripts in the fifties, especially On the Waterfront (1954). The film’s director, Elia Kazan, had worked with playwright Arthur Miller on an earlier screenplay called “The Hook” about corrupt labor unions on the New York waterfront. Miller broke off with Kazan when the latter also became a friendly witness for HUAC. Kazan picked up the project with Schulberg as the writer. In the Schulberg obituary in the Los Angeles Times Schulberg is quoted at great length as denying the script and the film were any sort of apologia for his testimony. He said, “I was interested in social conditions on the waterfront and drawing a truthful story, not in justifying my position.” It is true that the focus in narrative terms, as in Miller’s script, is on the labor union. For Miller, however, the main dramatic question is whether Marty, the longshoreman, will make a fight against the leadership of the union. In Schulberg’s script, the question is whether Terry will testify against the leadership. Schulberg’s script does not end with Terry’s testimony, but goes on for another ten to fifteen minutes showing us how he is treated by his community after his testimony. I think the film gets its power from Kazan and Schulberg’s understanding of the emotional and social price paid by Terry for his testimony.

Schulberg and Kazan followed up Waterfront three years later with A Face in the Crowd, a film that was neither a critical nor a commercial hit in its days, but which has gained in reputation over the years. Based on a short story by Schulberg, it tells the story of “Lonesome” Rhodes, a redneck ex-con who becomes a huge star, first on radio, then on the new medium of television. A lot of critics at time insisted that the film’s satire of television was too unbelievable, but virtually everything in the film has come true in one way or another. Paddy Chayefsky’s acclaimed 1976 script for Network owes a lot more to A Face in the Crowd than it admits, as does 1994’s Natural Born Killers.

One reason Face in the Crowd was not a commercial success in 1957 was that it was one of those dark fifties movies like Wilder’s Ace in the Hole that told us a lot about ourselves that we did not want to hear. Kazan also made a serious misjudgment in his direction. He pushed Andy Griffith, in his first film, years before Mayberry, to such emotional levels at the start of the film that Griffith had nowhere to go later, and his performance as Lonesome gets exhausting to watch. On the other hand, when I showed the film in class in 2000, six years after Natural Born Killers, the class admired its restraint. Schulberg’s film was 43 years ahead of its time.

Schulberg and Kazan often talked of remaking A Face in the Crowd, but never got around to it. And in later years, Schulberg was appalled to learn that young people in Hollywood were reading What Makes Sammy Run? not as the cautionary tale he intended but as a how-to-succeed-in-the-industry manual.

John Hughes grew up in the Midwest and spent his teen years in Chicago, which became not only the location for many of his scripts, but where he retreated after he got tired of dealing with the Sammy Glicks of Hollywood. He worked in advertising for a while, then at the National Lampoon. While his name or his pseudonym Edmond Dantes appears in some writing capacity on 39 films, he is best remembered for the eight films he directed as well as wrote. Hughes did not have the wide range of Schulberg, but like many movie stars who don’t have much of an acting range, he could be superb within a narrow range.

I was in my early forties when the classic Hughes films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were released, so they did not have the emotional impact for me that they did for people who were in their teens then. I thought Bob Clark’s scripts for the first two Porky’s films with their emphasis on male hormonal excess were more accurate representations of adolescence, but what Hughes got better than anybody else was the emotional temperature of teens. His teens were not as intense as those fifties kids in Rebel Without a Cause or as raunchy as the late nineties kids in the American Pie movies. Teens saw in Hughes’s films both an idealized view of themselves, but also an accurate view of the emotional fluctuations in their lives in suburban America.

Both men were screenwriters for their time. Schulberg looked at the real, wide adult world, which American films did, even in the restricted fifties. By Hughes’s heyday in the eighties, American films were focused more on the teen market, with all the restrictions that implies for filmmakers.

Middle Passage Summer Cable Season 2009: Comings and goings.

The Closer has continued to avoid showing us much of how Brenda and Fritz are adjusting to marriage. He shows up in cases from time to time, but that’s about it. In “Identify Theft” (teleplay by James Duff & Steven Kane, story by Ken Martin) Brenda’s mother shows up with Brenda’s niece Charlie, a teenage girl who is having discipline problems. Brenda puts her to work making friends with a teenager who may be a murderer. Charlie sort of comes to appreciate what Brenda does, which may or may not do Charlie any good. Not surprisingly, since she is played by Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon’s daughter, Sosie Bacon, she was back in “Smells Like Murder” (written by Duppy Demetrius). Since she was staying with Brenda and Fritz longer than she thought, she had a friend of hers mail a box of marijuana-laced brownies. Brenda, well-known for her sweet tooth, had several. Hi-jinks ensued. Demetrius also wrote in a nice set of reactions of members of Brenda’s team as they deal with a box delivered to the office that contains a dead body.

In US#29 I noted that on Saving Grace Grace and Rhetta were behaving more and more like teenagers and less like grownup employees of the police department. They have only gotten worse. And Grace has not learned a lot more about “coma girl,” at least until the “Looks Like a Lesbian Attack to Me” episode. “Coma girl,” or Neely, shows up there as a stripper working a pole and calling herself either Angel or Angela (I am not sure because most of the actors in the show are following Holly Hunter’s lead and trying to talk without moving their lips; mediocre sound mixing does not help). Earl takes her away in a “vortex of light,” as Grace describes it. But then Grace later meets her in a bar and discovers she knows as much about college football as Grace and her colleagues do. I am not sure if the show jumped the shark or just a dolphin or two with its “Popcorn” episode, written by Sibyl Gardner & Annie Bruner. The whole murder plot set up in the first half of the show turned out to be an elaborate practical joke that the cops were playing on Butch and his television reporter girlfriend. And when I say elaborate, I mean elaborate, with phony bodies, phony informants, the works. Now wouldn’t some supervisor logically object to spending so much of the department’s time and effort on a practical joke? Especially when there are real crimes to be solved. The nadir of the episode, the season, and the show came in one of the final scenes where Grace and Ham come to Rhetta’s lab and crawl around on the floor while talking to Rhetta. Is it something in the water?

Hung is not living up to its potential. In various episodes we are getting a lot of material about Ray, his ex-wife, his kids, and their problems, and less and less about his job as a “happiness consultant.” And the details about that job seem skipped over. I am not asking that it turn into hard-core porn (that’s what the Internet is for), but if the show is going to be about a guy who provides sex to women, then the episodes and scenes ought to be about that.

Drop Dead Diva continues to be uneven. In “The Chinese Wall” episode (written by Thania St. John), Jane represents Deb’s mother in her divorce while Grayson represents her father. There are some great reactions for Brooke Elliott as she deals with her/Deb’s mom, especially as she finds out that the marriage had not been a happy one but that they had stayed together for Deb. On the downside, the B story was about dog cloning, which Boston Legal would have done better. I have been glad to see they have had no more balcony scenes that I complained about in US#30. The other mediocre element in “Chinese Wall” was that Fred, Jane/Deb’s guardian angel, is trying to learn how to romance Stacy by…watching romantic movies. Haven’t we been there a lot before?

Burn Notice finished up its half season. In the last four episodes the show introduced Tom Strickler, who is sort of an agent for spies and other ne’er-do-wells. He pitched Michael the idea that if Michael would work for him, he would use his connections to get Michael back into legitimate intelligence work. Strickler is the kind of wonderfully sleazy character this show handles very well. He was as good as his word, which was something of a surprise. In the final episode, “Long Way Back” (written by Craig O’Neill), Irish thugs come to get Fiona. Michael, Sam, Fi, and Fi’s brother set up the lead thug O’Neill with a bomb with O’Neill’s signature. They also seem to have made up a second bomb, which they leave with Strickler’s body, whom Michael kills when he realizes Strickler has betrayed him by telling O’Neill where they are. Sorry to see Strickler get it, but at least he got the agency interested in Michael. Diego, the agency’s man dealing with Michael, calls him up to tell him his file is being renewed. Sure. And then Diego is killed by friends of Strickler. So we now have a different bunch of baddies to chase Michael when the show resumes in the winter. As I suspected, the question of Fi’s not wanting Michael to go back into the agency has been a recurring issue, but it generally has only been alluded to. At the beginning of “Long Way Back” Fi is leaving Miami to go back to Ireland, and that is left up in the air at the end of the episode.

In Plain Sight has, fortunately, been spending less and less time with Mary’s obnoxious family and more on her cases. A favorite episode of mine in this season was “Let’s Get It Ahn” (written by the series creator David Maples). Most episodes are relatively simple in terms of narrative, but this one was so complicated I had to stop taking notes. Helen, an artist, was counterfeiting money, maybe for the North Koreans, or the C.I.A., or who knows who. Everybody official is denying any connection with her. But Mary is protecting her, although she keeps slipping away. Who is trying to find her? And why is somebody planting clues to lead them to her? And that’s just the first half. You have to like a show that keeps you running to catch up. On the family front, Mary has almost inadvertently gotten herself engaged to her boyfriend, ex-minor leaguer Raphael, but most of the complications of that do not distract us too much from the main stories. In the season finale, “Don’t Cry for Me, Albuquerque” (written by Jessica Butler), Mary is assigned to protect Latin American political organizer Francesca Garcia, who is just as outside the box as Mary is. The State Department has abducted her from her unnamed country and spread the word she is in prison in that country, hoping this will start the revolution. So baddies from that country will come to take her out? Nope. Francesca decides she does not want to live in the very luxurious house the State Department is providing, and moves into what Mary calls a “dangerous area,” with druggies and drug salesmen as her neighbors. She thinks they are just like the guys she grew up with. When Mary gets shot, Francesca thinks it was Mary’s fault for challenging those nice drug dealers. We are left at the end with Mary in critical condition and the extent of her injuries not completely known. Are you betting like I am that she will recover and the show will not turn into a rehab drama?

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.