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Understanding Screenwriting #37: The Blind Side, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Up in the Air, Wanted, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #37: <em>The Blind Side</em>, <em>The Men Who Stare at Goats</em>, <em>Up in the Air</em>, <em>Wanted</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Blind Side, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Up in the Air, Wanted, For a Few Dollars More, 30 Rock, and Monk, but first…

Fan Mail: Well, well, well. I really pissed off the Bitter Victory crowd in US#36, didn’t I? Luis M took me to task for being concerned with verisimilitude and said that “Unless you come out of that error, a discussion can’t even begin.” I take another view of discussions about films, as you may have gathered from this column. I have found over the years that people have an enormous variety of responses to any given film at any given time they see it. I wrote a book about it, American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, which upset the academic reviewers because I pointed out the variety of ways people feel about movies and moviegoing. There is no one right way, and there is no one right view of a given film.

Doniphon, both in his comments, and especially in his blog piece which Keith was nice enough to link to, made what I think is probably as good a case as could be made for the film. I did notice he mentioned a number of elements that bothered me on the script level. He attributed them to the film showing the confusion of war, but I attribute them to confusion in the scriptwriting process. Doniphon led me to the Jeff Stafford piece on the Turner Classic Movie website, which is a good summary of the production problems with the film, and helps explain where the confusions in the film come from. Script problems can come not only from the writers, but the producers and directors as well.

Tray took me to task for talking about the film as though it is “some stupid war action movie, as opposed to what it is, a meditation on war.” Well, it is a stupid war action movie, and its confusions not only hurt it as an action movie, but also as a meditation on war. The Bridge on the River Kwai manages to be both an action-adventure film and a meditation on war. As one reviewer of the time said of it, “It hilariously reveals the ridiculous things men fight for, and subtly reveals the sublime.”

And speaking of David Lean and his films, I want to give a real shoutout to Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard for their conversation on Lawrence of Arabia at the House. I first saw the film two days after its opening in New York and I have seen it countless times since. Needless to say, I have read a lot of what has been written about it. Jason and Ed’s piece is the best single essay I have ever read about it. What I particularly liked was how they dealt with Lean’s direction. Too many people writing about directors talk mostly about what in actuality the writers contributed to the films, but Jason and Ed focused on his use of space and timing of the sequences. If you want a view of the screenplay of the film, including why the first five-and-a-half minutes (which they had reservations about) is essential to the film, read the first chapter of my book Understanding Screenwriting. But don’t be surprised if you put on the DVD as you read the chapter and end up taking 4 hours to read what should take you about twenty minutes.

And now, let’s see who I can piss off this time..

The Blind Side (2009. Screenplay by John Lee Hancock, based on the book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis. 128 minutes): Maybe the marketing people got it sort of right this time.

In US#29 I took the marketing people who handled The Proposal to task for their first campaigns for the film. They emphasized Sandra Bullock as the Boss From Hell without showing any of the charm of the character. Audiences turned up anyway, and the later trailers had at least one shot of Bullock smiling. The first trailers for this current film made it sound like a gooey, sentimental “white-folks-helping-out-the-underprivileged-black folks” movie. But the second trailer focused on Bullock finding her inner Erin Brockovich and tearing up the screen. Audiences turned up in droves, and although the second trailer is somewhat misleading, the word of mouth is so good (viewers questioned by Cinemascore gave it an A+, which hardly ever happens) that audiences are still turning out in droves. Critics, who hated the movie, would probably say that Bullock’s performance is letting audiences feel good about liking a sentimental film. But the film is much better than just that, and Bullock’s performance is more subtle than the trailer makes it out to be. It is also one of the most generous performances I have ever seen by a star of her magnitude.

John Lee Hancock, using only one element from Lewis’s book, starts the script showing us Michael Oher, a large black 17-year-old whom a cousin talks a private school into admitting. Michael had been passed along from grade to grade in public school and not learned anything. Well, yes he had, it turns out, but he just was unable to write it out on tests. The teachers begin to figure out how to get to him and—wait a minute. This is a SANDRA BULLOCK film and she hasn’t shown up yet, other than in voiceover at the beginning explaining what the title is all about. What the hell is Hancock up to? He is focusing on Michael because the movie is Michael’s story. Michael is so quiet, Hancock as the director has to let us spend time with the character and Quinton Aaron, the actor who plays him. This is Hancock’s extended version of George Roy Hill’s minutes-long close-up of Redford at the beginning of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: letting us become accustomed to somebody we have not seen much of before. These scenes establish Michael as a character and Aaron’s rhythm as a performer. There may be a film editing textbook somewhere that mentions the following but I haven’t seen it: in editing films you often have to key off on the leading actor. If you are cutting a Mel Gibson film, it is going to be cut quicker than a Clint Eastwood film. Hancock as writer and director is setting the tone and rhythm of the film based on Aaron.

So eventually Bullock’s Leigh Anne Touhy shows up. She takes over Michael’s life like she takes over everything else: she and her husband and their two kids take Michael into their house, help him develop his football skills and eventually get him into their alma mater, Mississippi. Hancock has written Leigh Anne as pushy (and by most accounts the real Leigh Anne is even pushier than Hancock and Bullock’s) but also with quieter moments of reflection as she thinks about what she is doing. And Bullock is more than up to the challenge. She could have played it like Roberts played Brockovich, all guns blazing, but she instinctively (or perhaps after a lot of discussion with Hancock) understands that she is playing off Aaron and it’s his movie.

In earlier columns I have written about movies and television series that were Bush-era entertainments in the Obama-era. The Blind Side may be the first Obama-era movie, since it handles race in some subtle and sometimes unnerving ways. On the surface the film can be seen as a “white folks doing good” movie, and undoubtedly a lot of white audiences take it in that simpleminded way and miss the nuances. While Michael is pretty much a saint, most of the other black characters are not. The only other young black men we see are drug dealers who try, late in the picture, to get Michael into the trade. His mother is a druggie who can barely remember him. But in each of those cases, the characters are given more than one dimension. One of the dealers clearly has second thoughts, and the mother is obviously suffering from the embarrassment of her situation when Leigh Anne comes to visit her. The NCAA representative that raises questions about Michael’s admission to Old Miss is a black woman. She is pretty much one-dimensional, and I really wish Hancock had either written her or had the actress playing her act as though the character had a legitimate case to investigate. If you listen to the dialogue in her two scenes, she really does have a case. Unfortunately Hancock rushes the last twenty minutes or so of the film and does not do justice to her character.

An example of the subtle ways the film deals with race is a sequence beginning with Leigh Anne having lunch with three of her pals. One of them wonders if Leigh Anne is not concerned about having a black boy living in the same house with her teenage daughter. Leigh Anne, who is established as a conservative Christian (and not in a satirical way as in most Hollywood films; no wonder the film is a smash hit in middle America), shames the woman for suggesting such a thing. Liberal viewers will be satisfied, but then we see Leigh Anne thinking about it and later asking her daughter if she feels uncomfortable with Michael in the house. It is fairly clear that Leigh Anne is not a racist, but she is a mother concerned about her daughter as well as Michael. As a father and grandfather, I was concerned about the situation when the other woman brought it up, not because of Michael’s race, but because he’s a teenaged boy. I think that’s Leigh Anne’s concern and I share it. Her daughter, Collins, like a lot of young people today, simply doesn’t see what the big deal is about Michael’s race. Later, in the school’s study hall, she leaves the table where she is sitting with some of her white girlfriends and sits with Michael at a table where he is all alone, saying it is just like when they study at home.

Michael eventually gets into Old Miss, with the help of Miss Sue, a tutor hired by the Touhys. Kathy Bates is a bit underemployed in the role, but Hancock has written her a couple of nice scenes: her reactions to “Charge of the Light Brigade” and her little aria on why Michael really does not want to go to the University of Tennessee. All of which lead to the worst scenes in the film where a huddle of real-life football coaches play themselves very badly. I suppose if you write great scenes you get great actors, but if you write mediocre scenes and get amateur actors…

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009. Screenplay by Peter Straughan, inspired by the book by Jon Ronson. 94 minutes): A shaggy goat story.

I love shaggy dog stories, and I love shaggy dog movies. You know, those that you think may be seriously intended and turn out not to be. Like Beat the Devil (the granddaddy of all shaggy dog movies), Bergman’s The Magician, Touch of Evil, the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, and perhaps the greatest of them all, Psycho. Come on, you don’t think Hitch intended that last one as a serious study of mental illness, did you?

Peter Straughan loved the non-fiction book, but found it had no strong narrative line. Straughan told Peter Clines in the November/December 2009 issue of Creative Screenwriting that it was just a collection of beads. Straughan said, “So the job was really to take all those beads, or as many of them as I could, and string them together into a narrative.” The storyline he settled on was reporter Bob Wilton discovering the assorted beads. But what Straughan does is brilliantly match the structure and the tone of the film. The structure allows him to wander off the main line as he gets assorted information. The information does not lead to the truth, or even a truth, but to wackier and wackier bits of information. Well, that’s not surprising, since the guys Wilton is talking to are part of an Army experiment in the uses of psychic energy. Each character has his own truth, and sometimes it’s a lie. I wrote in US#35 about how Mad Men allows its characters to be wrong. The characters here are wrong as often as they are right. Sometimes their psychic magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t. We and Wilton are on shakier ground with each passing moment. So when we get to a certain kind of reality in Iraq, it seems just as crazy as the stuff we have seen before. As an opening title says, “More of this is true than you would believe.”

The dialogue carries through the tone. Characters tell the most outrageous stories, some of which are true. The stories are nearly always told with a straight face by people who believe them, which makes those people seem even weirder than they are. The tale-telling is a long-established part of American culture (see my comments in US#32 on Inglourious Basterds), and Straughan captures it beautifully.

In spite of an interesting ad campaign (“No Goats. No Glory”), the film has not done well with the public. Shaggy dog movies very often don’t, since audiences are often put off by the tone of the films, which suggest the filmmakers are a little smarter than the audience. Which they are, which is why they are filmmakers.

Up in the Air (2009. Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn. 109 minutes): Not Precious.

My wife and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary the other day (save your applause; it is not a record, even for Los Angeles). We settled on dinner and a movie, and decided to try a new restaurant called the Westside Tavern on the bottom floor of the Westside Pavillion. It is right at the foot of the escalators that go up to the Landmark Theater, the multiplex that features a mix of art films and Hollywood stuff. We go to the theaters not because they’re great (the screens are too big, they stupidly insist on reserved seats, they don’t hire union projectionists, and they don’t have any water fountains), but because it’s close to our house and it shows movies we want to see. We have watched the Westside Tavern being built over several years and it finally opened, to a good review in the Los Angeles Times. The food was great if expensive, the portions were neither too large nor too small, the service was good, and the music was soft enough you could carry on a conversation. Yeah, I did have a little gastric distress the next morning, but you pay for your thrills.

Our original idea was to go up the escalator to see Precious, but the more we thought about it, the less that seemed like a choice for a celebration, especially for a happy marriage. So we got to the Pavillion early enough to get tickets for Up in the Air. A much better choice for the occasion. Don’t worry, I will get around to Precious eventually.

Sheldon Turner read the novel when it first came out in 2001 and thought it would make a good movie. He did a script for it sort of on spec, and Kirn decided to go with another production company. That proposed production fell through and eventually the project ended up with Jason Reitman. When the WGA arbitration panel looked at both Turner and Reitman’s scripts, they thought there were enough similarities that Turner deserved co-credit. Since most of what you have read everywhere else assumes it was all Reitman all the time, since Reitman directed the film, you ought to be aware of Turner’s participation. Thanks to Jeff Goldsmith for his article on the making of the film in the November/December 2009 issue of Creative Screenwriting for the details.

And after all of that, how is the script? Terrific. Ryan Bingham was written by Reitman with George Clooney in mind. Reitman was right. It is a perfect part for him. We get all his charm, and not just in the one-note way we do in the Oceans movies, and the quieter side we often saw in ER. Screenwriting manuals generally tell you not to use voiceover, especially at the beginning of the film with the main character telling the audience about himself. But Bingham sort of demands that, since he is a talker of the first rank. He works for a company that sends him and others around to fire people at companies that are too scared to fire their employees themselves. Bingham and Clooney’s combination of charm and sincerity make them the perfect match.

Reitman created the role of Alex, a woman Bingham gets involved with. In the novel he slept with many women while he was flying around the country. What Reitman wanted to create was the female equivalent of Bingham, or as she tells him, “I’m you, with a vagina.” Again, a great role, since she is not like anybody else we have seen in movies. She has sex with Bingham whenever they can arrange it between their flights. It is never established what she does, but she flies as often as Bingham. While they do not have a “cute meet” in the traditional Hollywood sense, their first set of scenes is beautifully written: funny, charming, and surprising. And when their relationship ends, look at how little it takes, in one short scene, for us to know why it is not going to work for them.

The other character Bingham has to deal with is Natalie, a recent college grad who has come up with a system to fire people over webcams and not in person. Her and Bingham’s boss send them out together so she can find out what firing people is like in the real world. Natalie is also a fresh character we have not seen before: smart, contained, and able to play with the big kids. That is also true of Anna Kendrick who plays her. Kendrick has a scene in which she sits across from Clooney and the great Vera Farmiga as Alex and discusses what has recently happened to her. You try holding your own against these two. Well, Reitman wrote her the scene to do it.

The tone Reitman sets is not just conventional romantic comedy, but with an overtone of seriousness. Some of this developed as the film was being made while the economy was tanking last year. How do you make a film about a guy who fires people that people will want to see in these times? Yes, having George Clooney helps, although he did not help The Men Who Stare at Goats with the public. Reitman shot a series of interviews with real people who had been fired and cuts them into the film, along with some scenes with established actors. The choice and the organization of those documentary elements (yes, that is part of the writing process as well), give a weight and balance to the film. Talk about a high-wire act. And as in any high-wire act, you are either good or you are dead. They are all good in this one.

Wanted (2008. Screenplay by Michael Brandt & Derek Haas and Chris Morgan, story by Michael Brandt & Derek Haas, based on a comic book series by Mark Millar & J.G. Jones. 100 minutes): Agent Cody Banks with an R rating.

I missed this one in theaters. It was sort of on my list, but not that high up. I caught up with it recently on HBO and since the credits are at the end of the film, I did not know going in it was based on a comic book series.

So as I am watching it, I keep thinking that this is hitting all the comic book cliches. The hero, Wesley, is a drone who is put upon by all the adults in his world, who are portrayed as gorgons. His girlfriend is cheating on him with a guy who is apparently his only friend. Wesley is over twenty-one, but it feels like a bad day in high school.

But suddenly he is picked up by Fox, a beautiful, sleek woman with one expression in her repertoire: a fashion model “I sulk, therefore I am” look. She takes him to what looks like an old castle where he meets Sloan. Sloan tells Wesley his father was a gifted assassin who worked for The Fraternity. The Fraternity is a centuries old group who get their orders from, as Anna Russell used to say when describing plots of grand operas “I am not making this up,” an ancient weave, whose missed stitches are ones and zeros that are decoded into the names of the targets. Wesley’s dad left him when he was a baby and, like most kids with distant or missing dads, Wesley eats up the idea that his dad was out having adventures of the sort that would appeal to a teenage boy. So he goes into rigorous physical and mental training to become an assassin, specifically so he can kill Cross, the man who killed his father. Fox becomes his minder, which is where the movie sneaks into Cody Banks territory. The teenage special agent in that one had an adult woman minder who was also, like Fox, very sexy, and way out of his league. The age difference between Wesley and Fox is not as great as that between Cody and his minder, but it never occurs to Wesley that he might have a chance with Fox. He wouldn’t of course, but still. And then Fox provides the essential teen male fantasy moment: she and Wesley go back to his apartment to retrieve something, and she gives him a big, long, sexy kiss right in front of his unfaithful girlfriend. When you were in your teens wouldn’t you have loved to have someone who looks like Angelia Jolie plant one on you in front of your ex-girlfriend?

So Wesley gets trained, in some moderately lively action scenes, and eventually has to go to Europe to track down Cross. Except guess what? Cross is his real father and is trying to protect him from The Fraternity. Is he a great dad or what? When you were a teen, wouldn’t you have liked to have had a professional assassin as your dad to protect you? More action scenes happen, including the best one in the picture, involving a train, a car, and a bridge. Like most everything else in the picture, I didn’t believe it for a minute, but at least this one I enjoyed, being a long-time connoisseur of trains, train wrecks, and especially train wrecks involving bridges. See, Luis M, I can do without verisimilitude when the film has no intention of delivering it. Wesley eventually tracks down and single-handedly kills almost everyone in The Fraternity. Killing Sloan is reserved for the final scene in the film.

The film is intended as one of those “Cinema of Attractions” that I mentioned in US#36, and if you are into high-tech action, you may enjoy it. I generally prefer at least a little sense in the story. And a little humor, of which there is none in the film. The director is the Russian Timur Bekmambetov, and if anybody found any humor in his Night Watch or Day Watch, neither of which I have seen, please let me know.

For a Few Dollars More (1965. Screenplay by Sergio Leone and Luciano Vincenzoni, scenario (story) by Fulvio Morsella and Sergio Leone, additional (English) dialogue by Luciano Vincenzoni; and uncredited, Fernando Di Leo and Segio Donati. 131 minutes): The best of the three.

I had missed A Fistful of Dollars when it was first released in the United States, so this one was my first experience with Leone’s westerns. I saw it in the summer of 1967, and I liked Lee Van Cleef more than Clint Eastwood. I had seen Van Cleef in a whole pile of American westerns in the fifties, and Eastwood had not yet made much of an impression on me. I am not sure I have seen the whole film since 1967, although I have caught bits and pieces on television, but usually in a pan-and-scan format, which is NOT the way to see this film.

When I did get around to A Fistful of Dollars I was not particularly impressed. I thought its obvious source, Yojimbo (1961), was much better. And the third film in the trilogy, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, seemed way overdone. In Fistful there was not enough money for the production, and for Ugly there was too much. The budget for this one is just about right for the script. The script provides a nice balance between the two major characters, Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Van Cleef) and Monco (Eastwood), sort of like the relationship between the old marshal and the kid in N. B. Stone Jr.’s story that became the basis for Ride the High Country (see US#36). Van Cleef was only five years older than Eastwood at the time, but he has a maturity and gravitas that Eastwood does not yet have. The script lets them play off nicely not only against each other, but against the Italian Opera villains of the piece.

One thing Leone understood as a director was how to use Eastwood’s minimalist style against the overacting of the Italian actors. What Leone apparently did not understand was Eastwood’s sense of humor. That is on display here probably because (according to Eastwood’s biographer Patrick McGilligan) Eastwood worked with Luciano Vincenzoni, who spoke English, on the dialogue for the film. It seems odd to praise a visual film like this for its dialogue, but listen to it and what Eastwood does with. It shows up more in this film than in any other film in the trilogy. Or in any other Leone film. The Eastwood dry, deadpan humor may be why the trilogy did so well commercially. Much, much better than any of Leone’s other, humorless movies. No wonder Leone held a grudge against Eastwood in later years and seldom missed an opportunity to put him down. Directors often get pissy about actors whose absence in their movies shows up the directors’ limitations.

30 Rock (2009. “Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001.” Written by Kay Cannon. 30 minutes): Uninspired.

The problem I have been having with the fall season’s 30 Rock is that it is simply not as inspired as previous seasons. This episode is a prime example. Liz is getting set to do a talk show based on her bestselling book Dealbreakers. Jack is nervous about it because his archenemy Devin has called to tell him that Devin will smear Jack in front of the economic stimulus people if Dealbreakers fails. Liz is nervous because she is not really a performer. So she behaves like Jenna and locks herself in her dressing room. So Jack cancels the show. That’s it. But what about Devin? Surely there are a lot more inventive ways to deal with the talk show and even to get her out of it, which 30 Rock needs to do or else it changes completely. The only funny bit was Frank, who took over running TGS, turning more and more into Liz, complete with wig. I would have liked that a lot more if the rest of the show had been as funny.

Monk (2009. “Mr. Monk and the End, Parts I and II. Written by Andy Beckman. Each episode 60 minutes): Goodbye and farewell.

Scott Collins, writing in the Los Angeles Times, has covered the details of what Monk has meant to cable television very well, so I will not repeat what he wrote, but I do want to add a note about what it meant for writing for cable. On the one hand, the writing of Monk is rather seventies: a detective with some peculiarity (raincoat, wheelchair, etc) solves a single crime in each episode. That style went out with Hill Street Blues in the eighties and all of what I call The Children of Hill Street: crime shows with multiple storylines, story arcs, and huge casts. The production costs for a cable series simply could not match what the networks were doing. So while on the one hand Monk was a throwback, on the other hand, it took the peculiarity further than the earlier shows did. Columbo, Ironside, and Mannix were all heroic characters, Monk was not. And just as we accepted the less heroic on the network shows, e.g. Sipowicz in NYPD Blue, we accepted a character like Monk. Monk was not as elaborately produced as the network shows, but the writing and the character held us. And that led to a whole pile of less than heroic heroes, or at least deeply flawed characters: Grace on Saving Grace, Brenda Lee on The Closer, and many others. If it were not for Monk, the USA network would never have had as its slogan “Characters welcome.”

And as Monk goes away, knowing who murdered Trudy and that he has a 25-year-old daughter to drive crazy, we know that characters will always be welcome.

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.