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Understanding Screenwriting #46: The Secret in Their Eyes, Nightmare Alley, Treme, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #46: <em>The Secret in Their Eyes</em>, <em>Nightmare Alley</em>, <em>Treme</em>, & More

Coming up in this column: The Secret in Their Eyes, Nightmare Alley (film and stage musical), Treme, Ugly Betty

Fan mail: In a late comment on US#44 “erdbeermund” thought my comments on Ajami “pretty much screamed THE UGLY AMERICAN” and said “It may behoove one to periodically leave the hazy comfort of Southern California.” I can’t disagree that I was rather cavalier about the politics of the Middle East. As often happens, I write something, then as I am revising I have second thoughts about it. Sometimes I change it, and sometimes, as in this case, I let it stand figuring, rightly as it turns out, that it will provoke people to think. Some lines I have left in on those grounds surprised me by not getting any reaction at all. As for the idea that the comments display a provincialism on my part, you may notice that over the many columns I have dealt with films from many countries and many cultures, sometimes dealing with the cultures in some depth. At least part of that lack of provincialism is that I do live in Southern California, which is made up of a vast array of cultures. I get even more exposed to a variety of cultures in my teaching at Los Angeles City College, where I have had students from every continent except Antarctica. Yes, in its early days Los Angeles was rather provincial, but that is a lot less true now. Hollywood, as an industry, on the other hand…

Erdbeermund also said that he thought I had a missed some points about the film, and I am sure that is true. Matt Zoller Seitz in his comments on my item on How to Train Your Dragon in US#45 gives a different interpretation of the film that never occurred to me. On the other hand, since I am writing about the writing of the films, there may well be details about a film that I get, but which really don’t fit into what I have to say about the writing.

Matt also noticed that the first four items in US#45 “are all of a piece.” Since one of the jobs of a film historian is to make connections, it should not be surprising that when I come to write about a bunch of stuff I end up making connections. Let’s see if I have done that this time out…

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009. Screenplay by Juan José Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri, based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri. 127 minutes.)

The Secret in Their Eyes

It’s not TV. It’s a movie: Juan José Campanella, who also directed this film, has a resume most people would kill for. He is Argentine, and he has written and produced television shows and films in Argentina. He has also directed extensively in American television, including a CBS Schoolbreak Special in 1995, an episode of Ed, an episode of 30 Rock, and more to the point in relation to this film, several episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

He has not only practiced, he has learned. The Secret in Their Eyes sounds from the description as though it could have ended up as just another two-hour episode of L&O:SVU. A detective investigates a rape/murder in Argentina in 1974, but the suspect is not convicted. After he retires in 2000, he tries to write a book about the case, and eventually finds out what happened to the suspect. But Campanella understands the difference between a television show and a film. The L&O franchises, bless their hearts, are great at plot. I have always loved the way an episode of the mothership, Law & Order, stuffs two hours of regular TV story material (one hour for the cops to crack the case, one hour for the lawyers to convict) into one hour, with as many twists as possible. While there are nice character bits in the franchise shows, they are normally reserved for the great guest stars. SVU is a little different, with more time spent on the characterization of Benson and Stabler. Since those characters are dealing with really upsetting crimes, it makes sense to focus on their reactions. But in series television, particularly on a crime procedural on network television, too much characterization of the leads can take you away from what audiences expect from the franchise.

What Campanella and Sacheri have done is focus on the characters as well as the investigations (both in 1974 and 2000). Esposito is the lead detective. His somewhat comic partner is Sandoval and no network TV series would be allowed to have a major cop character get that drunk that often; the cops on American TV are always just out of rehab and “going to meetings.” The presiding assistant judge is Menédez Hastings. In the Argentine legal system, the investigation is led by a judge, who is the equivalent of the captain of the squad; think Dann Florek and S. Epatha Merkerson with law degrees.

I should also tell you that Judge Menédez Hastings’s first name is Irene. You remember Veronica Hamel as Joyce Davenport in Hill Street Blues? No wonder Esposito has a major crush on Menédez Hastings. But she is from a very rich, very upper class family and he knows she is way out of his league. Besides, in the 1974 part of the film, she is getting married. So we watch Esposito watch her as they work the case, and we see the secrets in his eyes. And the discovery of the murderer turns on the secrets they see in his eyes in photographs of the victim in her younger days. One of the many elements I love about this script is the way it connects THIS case with THIS private story.

The cops finally, after a brilliant bit of intuition by Sandoval between drinks, track down the murderer in a spectacular shot that appears to be one single take. It starts from a helicopter over a soccer stadium, follows the cops until they discover the murderer, and then follows the chase through several levels of the stadium. I don’t think it could possibly be a single take, but it looks and feels like it. I doubt if Dick Wolf could get NBC to spring for the time and money to set up a shot like this, but in a film you can. Though the shot is spectacular it is used not just to let Campanella show off but to tell the story. How many of those flashy Steadicam shots in the films of Scorsese and De Palma can you say that about? Campanella has learned storytelling well from working with Wolf and his team.

The film begins with a slightly out-of-focus scene of a couple saying goodbye at a train station, and we then learn it is a version of the scene Esposito is writing for his book, which warns you in subtle ways not to believe everything you see all the time. We assume at the time the man and the woman are Morales and his now-dead wife, but we later learn differently in a great train station scene that rivals those in Casablanca (1942), Brief Encounter (1945), and Love in the Afternoon (1957), just to name a few. And if that isn’t enough, Campanella and Sacheri top that with a beautiful counterpoint scene immediately afterwards.

The reason the suspect is not convicted is that he is never brought to trial. A senior judge, whom both Esposito and Menédez Hastings have pissed off in a variety of ways, has let him go so he can work for the Junta’s secret police as an enforcer. Which leads to a great, single-take, “nothing happens” scene with the murderer, Esposito and Menédez Hastings alone in an elevator. In 2000, Esposito, in his research for the book, finally tracks down Morales and we find out what happened to the murderer. Well, maybe. We get at least two variations of what might have happened. I think the first one is enough dramatically at the end of a long film, but I can understand intellectually the appeal of the second variation, and it might have been dramatically stronger without the first variation. An embarrassment of riches. I also have a little trouble with the coda after the second variation, which almost seems too Hollywood for this film. My God, you don’t suppose the coda was why this otherwise brilliantly deserving film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year, do you?

Nightmare Alley (Film: 1947. Screenplay by Jules Furthman, based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham. 110 minutes. Stage musical: 2010. Book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Brielle. 135 minutes.)

Nightmare Alley

Double your nightmare, not necessarily double your fun. Pauline Kael once wrote that Jules Furthman “has written about half of the most entertaining movies to come out of Hollywood.” I apologize for that, but Screenwriting Historiographers Code require that any time Furthman is mentioned, that quote must be used.

Of course Kael had a point. Furthman started in the teens, with the first credits we can definitely attribute to him appearing in 1915. He made the transition to sound very nicely, as in fact did most of the writers, directors, and actors of the silent period. Most of the writing about Furthman seems to have been in the ’70s at the height of the auteur theory. He is most often discussed in terms of his scripts for Josef Von Sternberg (Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus, both 1932) and Howard Hawks (Only Angels Have Wings [1939], To Have and Have Not [1944], and The Big Sleep [1946]. The best article on Nightmare Alley is by Clive T. Miller and appears in the 1975 book Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System, but Furthman is only mentioned a couple of times in the piece.

Adapting Gresham’s book was not an easy task, given the requirements of the production code at the time. Even cleaned up for Hollywood, it is clear from the film that Stanton Carlisle, the main character, has sexual dalliances with three different women on his way to the top. Stan is a carnival roustabout who becomes hugely successful as a mindreader, first in the carnival and then in fancy nightclubs. He steals the Code for the mindreading act from Madame Zeena, takes off with Molly (the most innocent character in the film; her act is to pretend to be electrocuted), and works out a deal with Dr. Lilith Ritter to con a rich businessman patient of hers. Molly will pretend to be the businessman Grindle’s long-dead fiancee in a phony séance, but she confesses in the middle of it. Stan ends up back in the carnival as a geek. In carnival terms a geek is an alcoholic who eats the heads off live chickens.

According to a newspaper interview with the film’s producer, George Jessel, at the time of production, Jessel had read a review of the book but not the book itself when he convinced Darryl Zanuck, the head of Fox, to buy it. Zanuck bought it, then was appalled when he read it, telling Jessel it as “full of censorable stuff.” Jessel, who was a famous vaudevillian, probably just liked the carnival background. Screenwriter Philip Dunne, who worked on another picture Jessel was producing, said he was “pretty much of a joke as a producer,” merely showing up on the set the first day, asking the director, “Everything okay? You got all the cast? You got everything? Okay, fellows, see you at the preview?” So while Furthman probably worked with Zanuck, he was pretty much on his own, since Zanuck did not care for the material.

Fortunately Tyrone Power, the leading male star of the studio, did. He saw a great opportunity in the role of Stan. You can see why. Power had been playing conventional leading man parts at Fox. Given the emphasis on story in the Fox films, the roles were not shaped in the writing for the stars as they were at MGM and Warners. Furthman wrote a great star part, capturing the energy of the character in his early days and the slickness when he makes it to the top. Power always thought it was one of his best performances, and he was right. Furthman also wrote a great character in Zeena for Joan Blondell to play; look at her early in the picture when she is riding in the truck with Stan and telling him how her husband and partner Peter became an alcoholic. Furthman, who was coming off To Have and Have Not and who was great at writing tough dames, wrote a really tough one in Dr. Ritter. She could fit into any of the films Furthman wrote for Hawks.

The director was Edmund Goulding, who had just directed Power as a real spiritualist the year before in the big hit The Razor’s Edge. Power asked him to direct this one. Between the censorship of the time (Stan’s adventures as a revivalist preacher are ignored, although one scene in his tabernacle was shot but cut from the film) and Goulding’s gentility, the film is never as completely satisfying as it might be, but it is about 85% of what it could be.

One reason I was watching the film is that a new stage musical based on the book is premiering in Los Angeles at the Geffen Theatre. According to the program note by Gilbert Cates, the director, the show has been in preparation for several years, with two full workshops before the current production. Sometimes writing scripts fast and dirty as Furthman probably did is better. The writer of the book, Jonathan Brielle, has not had a big hit before, although he has had some shows done Off Broadway. He is not untalented, but he gets less right than Furthman did. A chief problem is that he had not really written Stan as a star part. We know from the beginning of the film that Power’s Stan is on the make, looking for a big score. We are not sure what Brielle’s Stan wants, and James Barbour does not have much to play in the way of emotions and attitudes. This leaves a hole in the center of the show. Brielle’s Molly is a lot sharper in the beginning than Furthman’s, but then in the second act she seems to have had a lobotomy and turned back into the more innocent Molly. Brielle’s Dr. Ritter does not seem that tough. Smart, but not tough.

Brielle’s plotting is not as rich as Furthman’s. Possibly because of the limitations of the stage and the budget, we do not get any of the nightclub scenes Furthman gave us. We go directly from the carnival in Act One to the tent revival in Act Two, which requires a little slight of hand to get the Dr. Ritter and the businessman (Grindle in Furthman’s script, Grimble in Brielle’s) into the tent. Brielle is also limited to the number of actors he has, so several have to play different parts. In the first act, Larry Cedar is Pete, and then in Act Two shows up in drag as Mrs. Peabody at the revival tent, which suddenly pushes the show into more lighthearted camp. A show entitled Nightmare Alley should not be camp.

Even though the film was made in 1947 with the censorship restrictions of the industry, it captures the seediness of the carnival and Stan’s activities better than the musical. You think, after such shows as Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, and Assassins that Brielle would relish getting into all the stuff in the novel that Furthman had to dance around. It is not even as clear in the show as it was in the film that Stan is having his way with all three women. Brielle’s music does remind us a bit of Kurt Weill in his Threepenny Opera days, and the Tarot Ladies, a kind of Greek chorus, are like the Kit Kat Girls in Cabaret, but with less sleazy costumes. That’s what’s missing. More sleaze, please.

Treme (2010. Created by David Simon & Eric Overmyer. “Do You Know What it Means” written by David Simon and Eric Overmyer. 90 minutes. “Meet De Boys on the Battlefront,” teleplay by Eric Overmyer, story by David Simon & Eric Overmyer. 60 minutes)

Treme

It’s not TV. It’s HBO: Which is exactly the problem. HBO’s famous slogan suggests that they are more than a little stuck on themselves. You can see why they use it: to convince television viewers that it is worth tuning in because you are going to get more on HBO than you are over on those mere “over the air” channels. And sometimes they deliver. I have written about a number of HBO films in this column, usually with the suggestion they can just back up the truck and shovel the Emmys into it. HBO does try to be different. They see themselves as indie filmmakers going up against the big studios of the networks. The problem is that it leads them to shows that are so self-absorbed that they are difficult to watch. Treme fits into that category for me, although it may not for others.

The series is set in New Orleans a few months after Hurricane Katrina and the broken levees. As much of the hype makes clear, the show is trying to give you the atmosphere of New Orleans (and the hype, typical for HBO, suggests that no other film or television show has captured that atmosphere as well as this HBO show is going to). The show does capture the atmosphere and the attitude, which is, not unlike that of the attitude of HBO, that we New Orleans people are smarter and better than any of the rest of you. In “Meet De Boys…” a couple of local street musicians are playing and draw three young people to listen. The young people are in town to help build houses. But the musicians give them a hard time, at one point suggesting that the music the kids want to hear is “When the Saints Go Marching In.” When the kids say they would, the musicians give them a hard time about going for the conventional. Yeah, but it was the musicians who suggested the song in the first place.

What bothers me is that it seems from the first two episodes nearly all atmosphere and very little else. The characters may turn out to be compelling, but they are not yet. And the biggest problem I have is that so far there is no what thirtysomething writer Joe Dougherty called “plot or plot-like substances” anywhere to be seen. The second episode seemed to get a slightly better balance between the scenes and the music than the first episode did. For some viewers that structure may work, especially since the music is great, but I would like at least a little plot-like substance.

Ugly Betty (2006 - 2010)

Ugly Betty

Bye Bye Betty: Any of you longtime readers will know I liked this show a lot and have written about it on a number of occasions. It came to the end of its four season run in April, and I was trying to think what I could add to the farewells that showed up in various newspapers and magazines. Two things stand out.

The first is that they went through an enormous amount of story material, which is befitting a show developed from a telenovela. Sometimes the plotting seemed excessive to this white guy from the Middle West. I am still not sure I can tell who is related to the Meades and in what ways, but the show moved along a lot faster with its plot-like substances than Treme is doing.

What I loved most about Betty were the characterizations. As I have mentioned before, as television series progress, the writers learn what the actors can do and write the characters to take advantage of that. On Betty, the character of Marc started out to be just another flamboyant queen, but the writers and actor Michael Urie kept adding layers. Marc being sympathetic big brother to Justin as he went through his coming out stage was marvelous without being the slightest bit preachy. As a father and grandfather, I appreciated the way Ignacio, Betty and Hilda’s father was portrayed. He loved them both, even if he some time did not understand them. In “Hello Goodbye,” the final episode which was written by the showrunner and developer Silvio Horta, Ignacio cooks some haggis for Betty to either a) toughen her stomach for London food, or b) convince her not to go. Then he turns right around and tells Betty that it is OK to go, since he and her mother went from one country to live in another. Tony Plana has been in movies and television for over thirty years and he has never had a part as good as this one.

Several years ago my wife and I saw Vanessa Williams in the revival of Into the Woods, and it was obvious she was having the time of her life playing the ugly witch. Which made her transformation back into her normally ravishing beauty in the second act all the more stunning. Williams was obviously having the time of her life as well playing Wilhelmina Slater. It fell to her to handle several of the wilder plot turns, which she cornered nicely. Horta gave Willy a great sendoff line when she told Betty, “You’ve got big balls, Betty Suarez,” to which Betty replied, “That’s the nicest thing you have ever said to me.” Both lines are true and funny.

The key to the show was Betty and America Ferrera, and again the writers gave Ferrera great material to work with and played to her strengths. Ferrera and Betty were just plain likable, and never underestimate the usefulness of that in the main character in a television show. Robert Lloyd, one of the television critics of the Los Angeles Times said that Ferrera was “by the standards of your average TV heroine too broad, too short, too brown, which is part of what made the show valuable.” Exactly.

I must admit that I was surprised that it took Betty so long to develop a more conventional dress style, although if she did as fast as she would have in real life, they might have had to change the title of the show. By the final scenes in the series, Betty was a lot more stylish than she was at the beginning, but Ferrera, with all those qualities Lloyd mentioned, made her real. And when the final scene ended with Betty walking off in Trafalgar Square, the title “Ugly Betty” came up. If you started to look away, you may have missed that the “Ugly” faded out, leaving us just with “Betty.”

Now, of course, Ferrera will have a problem that has plagued “different” actors (and especially actresses) for forever. Who will dare to write roles for them? Most screen and television writers are out there right now writing stuff for the Blonde of the Month, because they know that is what sells. Maybe Ferrera and Ugly Betty broadened everybody’s horizons at least a little bit. I’m praying for it, but I am not sure I’d bet on it.

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.