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Understanding Screenwriting #48: The Father of My Children, Shrek Forever After, Letters to Juliet, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #48: <em>The Father of My Children</em>, <em>Shrek Forever After</em>, <em>Letters to Juliet</em>, & More

Coming up in this column: The Father of My Children, Shrek Forever After, Letters to Juliet, Stalag 17, The Secret Invasion and The Longest Day.

The Father of My Children (2009. Written by Mia Hansen-Løve. 110 minutes.)

Producers, French style: Earlier in the day that I saw this, I got an email from a former student of mine who is now a writer-producer-director in Brazil. He has made several documentaries and is now trying to get his completed first fiction feature out of the clutches of a European film company that was officially a co-producer. A few weeks before production was supposed to start, the company reduced its investment in the film drastically, and he had to make it on a much smaller budget than originally planned. Now the company does not want to give up whatever distribution rights it still has… I have followed his adventures with the Europeans and hearing the latest twists and turns set me up perfectly for The Father of My Children.

In the first hour we meet Grégoire Canvel, very much a European, in this case French, film producer. The producer’s role in European films is a little different than in American films. European producers focus almost entirely on the money and the administration of the money. They are not as deeply involved as are American producers in “making an artistic contribution” to the film, i.e., messing around with the script for months on end. The Europeans find a filmmaker they like, and trust him to go out and make the film he wants to make. We almost never hear Grégoire talking about the artistic content of his films, other than to assure one of the money men he is on the phone to that this film by an artistic director is more “accessible” than his previous film. Mostly Grégoire is dealing with his company’s financial problems, e.g., owing a million Euros to a film lab, a director who is wasting money on a film he is making in Sweden, etc. Grégoire is a fascinating character because when he is on-screen, things happen. So we are concerned when the financial problems seem to be weighing heavily on him. It’s no surprise to us when he—spoiler alert—kills himself just under an hour into the film.

So where can the film go from there? Well, we have been introduced to his wife, Sylvia, but she has been a very bland character. We could follow her as she tries to save her husband’s company and finds her inner producer. We do get some of that, but Sylvia apparently does not have an inner producer to find. She goes to meetings with the financial people, and even goes to Sweden to talk to the arty director, but nothing happens in these scenes. OK, so maybe the second half of the film will be about Sylvia and her three daughters, Clémence, Valentine and Billie dealing with the tragedy in their lives. Hansen-Løve has said in interviews that that is how she saw it.

Unfortunately, she has not written any scenes that show us what the mother and daughters are going through and feeling. Clémence mopes around a lot, but she is in her mid-to-late teens, where moping is the default setting. Clémence learns that her father had a child by another woman, which Sylvia knew all along. Clémence visits the other mother, but never gets around to meeting her stepbrother. We get very little of how Sylvia and the kids react to Grégoire’s death. Maybe Hansen-Løve just needed an American producer to help develop her script.

Shrek Forever After (2010. Screenplay by Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke, based on the book by William Steig and screenplays written by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman; Andrew Adamson and Joe Stillman and J. David Stem & David N. Weiss; Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman and Chris Miller & Aron Warner. 93 minutes.)

The Father of My Children

Producers, American style: On the other hand… In the book Understanding Screenwriting, I wrote about the first three Shrek films. They, especially the first one, were in the category of the Not-Quite-So Good (as opposed to the Good or Bad). I liked the plot of the first one, but was put off by the “POUNDING, HONKING, OVERBEARING SATIRE OF DISNEY.” As I pointed out in the book, that came directly or indirectly from Jeffrey (3D Now and Forever) Katzenberg, the head of production at DreamWorks, who had been kicked out of Disney by Michael Ovitz. The satire of Beverly Hills and high school in the second and third films, respectively, was a little less obnoxious. I am growing very tired of non-stop pop culture references. One reason I loved The Secret in Their Eyes (US #46) was that I don’t think there was a single pop culture reference in it. In Shrek Forever After the pop culture stuff comes across mostly in the weirdest mixture of songs used on the sound track. It was a bit jarring to go from the Carpenters to the Beastie Boys to Stevie Wonder. Now having said all that, I think they do miss a good satirical opportunity in the middle of the film.

According to Danny Musso’s story on the writing of the film in the May/June 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting, it was the DreamWorks executives who came up with the idea of the film being about Shrek as a first-time father. That might have worked, but it got developed into a variation on It’s a Wonderful Life. Yes, that’s a pop culture reference, but not used satirically. It’s a Wonderful Life is overdue for a really inventive satirical takedown, and if the Shrek franchise will not do it, who will? The story became a serious look at Shrek thinking about his life. But who wants Shrek to turn serious? I suppose the idea was to deepen the material, but folks, he’s a green ogre. How deep do you want to get into an ogre? Commercially they may have been right, since the picture is doing well at the box office. I suspect this is because after three films, audiences love the characters enough to follow them down this road. My daughter and two grandchildren liked the movie a lot more than I did, I suspect for that reason, but it seemed to me to work against what made the first films so entertaining.

The studio also wanted to use Rumplestiltskin as a character. He becomes the villain of the piece, but he is not that interesting a character. He has none of Farquaad’s sleazy charm, and his manipulations seem forced and obvious. And his plan, which becomes the main action of the story, to put Shrek in a world in which he never existed, means that Shrek is meeting all of the other characters for the first time. As that great American philosopher Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again.

So, they have a potentially interesting idea, developed over many, many drafts of the script (the Shrek-Fiona argument went through 45 drafts), and most of the life got squeezed out of it. That’s a bad thing that can happen when producers get too involved in “making an artistic contribution” to the film.

Letters to Juliet (2010. Written by Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan. 105 minutes.)

Letters to Juliet

Guys in chick flicks: It used to be, back in the ’30s, you knew going into a romantic comedy who was going to get the girl. There may be two guys, but one of them was Cary Grant and the other one was Ralph Bellamy. No contest. In 1987 James Brooks changed the game. In his Broadcast News, TV producer Jane Craig is torn between handsome anchorman Tom Grunick and smart-mouthed reporter Aaron Altman. As Brooks was writing the script, he assumed she would pick one. He said, “My intent all along was that the piece itself would dictate who she’d end up with—and she’d certainly end up with one of them. I never imagined she wouldn’t. But it didn’t write. I didn’t plan this when I started writing it, but the movie turned out to be about people we don’t end up with instead of the people we do.” (The quotes are from an article by Stephen Farber in a story in the New York Times, January 7, 1988.)

Letters to Juliet is no Broadcast News. It is a much more conventional rom-com. Sophie, a fact-checker for the New Yorker, goes to Italy with her fiance, Victor. Victor is a chef opening a new restaurant and wants to talk to his suppliers. He is completely focused on his business, but has a puppy-dog charm as well, especially as played by Gael García Bernal. While he is off tasting wine, Sophie finds a wall in Verona where women leave letters to Juliet (of Romeo and…). It turns out there are—in real life as well (the film is inspired by nonfiction book about them, but you have to hunt in the credits for it)—a group of women, the “secretaries of Juliet” who gather up the letters each day. They answer the ones with return addresses. Sophie gets involved with them, and writes a reply to a fifty-year-old letter from an English girl who ran away from her Italian lover. Well, who shows up in Verona, but the woman’s grandson, Charlie, a real prig who is upset that Sophie has bothered his grandmother.

OK, prigs can be fun if they warm up a bit (Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby [1939], enough said). The problem is that Charlie is still sort of a prig even after he warms up. So here’s the problem: Sophie has two guys but both of them are deeply flawed. Sounds like a Brooksian ending to me, but as I said, this is more conventional. You can see the movie and find out whom she ends up with.

Meanwhile, the geezers steal the show. Charlie is accompanying his grandmother, who is not bothered at all. She is delighted that Sophie, using her fact-checking skills (not quite as useful as John Michael Hayes making Jeff a photographer in Rear Window [1954], but helpful), tracks down all the men in Tuscany with that name. It turns out there are a lot of them. Some are funny, some are sad, some are dead, one is fabulously wealthy but the wrong one, and finally we get two young guys with the same name, given to them by their father, who rides in on a beautiful horse. Since Claire, the grandmother, is played by Vanessa Redgrave, and this Lorenzo is played by Redgrave’s significant other, Franco Nero, the scene has all kinds of overtones. Unfortunately the writers do not give us a lot with Claire and Lorenzo before they end up together. That may be just as well, since Nero is nowhere near the actor that Redgrave is. We get a lot more time with Redgrave, but from a script point of view, I would have liked more of what Lorenzo has been up to this past half century. I would even be willing to sacrifice some of the scenes with, who were those kids again?

Stalag 17 (1953. Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum, based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. 120 minutes.)

Stalag 17

Memorial Day, Take One: As I mentioned last year in US#26, I usually watch a war movie on the Memorial Day weekend as a tribute to the people who gave their lives for their country. This past Memorial Day, I ended up watching a couple, neither one of them as obviously solemn as the occasion would seem to some to call for.

It took Hollywood a bit of time to warm up to the play of Stalag 17. It was written by two former prisoners of war about their experiences in German POW camps during World War II. The play was first submitted to Paramount in late 1948, according to Billy Wilder’s biographer, Ed Sikov (the information on the writing of the film is from Sikov’s comprehensive 1998 book On Sunset Boulevard). Paramount turned it down, as they did the next four times it was submitted to them. As was studio practice, it went to the same reader each time, who wrote, “All they did this time was type it over…It was a very poor POW play the first, second, third, and fourth times I read it, and it hasn’t changed a bit.” In May of 1951, the play opened on Broadway and ran for a year. The reader at Paramount was not the only one who did not like it. William Holden, fresh off Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, went to see it on Broadway and hated it so much he left after the first act. What problem did these people have with the play? The reader earlier wrote, “The play is too sprawling and monotonous, and too lacking in plot progression, action, suspense, to stand a chance with any ending.”

Since Wilder had broken up his partnership with Charles Brackett, he was looking for a new partner. This time around it was Edwin Blum, a journeyman writer whose best credit, aside from this film, was probably the 1939 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. He only lasted one film with Wilder because, like many other writers, he got tired of the constant insults that Wilder threw at his writing partners.

Wilder and Blum tightened up the storyline, although it retains some of its sprawl. The writers used very little of the dialogue from the play, and created the role of the camp commandant, who is not in the play at all. His first line is “Guten Morgen, sergeants. Nasty weather we are having, eh? And I so hoped we could give you a white Christmas, just like the ones you used to know.” Yes, that’s a pop culture reference, but it’s also funny and revealing about the man’s character. If anything, Wilder and Blum made the screenplay raunchier than the play, less an heroic Hollywood film. The business with the Russian women is not in the original play, nor is all the by-play between Animal and Shapiro, such as the dance they do while Shapiro pretends to be Betty Grable. Joseph Breen, of the Production Code (the forerunner of the ratings system), objected, writing to Paramount, “If there is any inference in the finished scene of a flavor of sex perversion, we will not be able to approve it under the Code.” It may have been toned down in the film, but not by much. Wilder, like everyone working under the Production Code, knew that in Hollywood everything is negotiable. The film turned out to be the raunchiest that Wilder had done, and very much a forerunner of Some Like It Hot (1959) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), which you may consider a good thing or not.

The main character is Sefton, one of the American POWs, who trades anything and everything with the Germans. Wilder eventually settled on William Holden for the part. Yeah, the same William Holden who walked out on the play. Holden was reluctant to play such a heel. All actors want to be loved, and Holden kept asking Wilder to add a line about how he really hates the Nazis. Wilder refused. Wilder understood that Holden was so appealing on camera that they could play his hard edge off that. When Holden and his wife were driving home after Holden won the Best Actor Oscar, she said to him, “Well, you know, Bill, you really didn’t get the award for Stalag. They gave it to you for Sunset Boulevard.” Many film historians would agree, but looking at both films recently, I think Holden’s performance here is better. He has a character with more depth and edges than Joe Gillis and, trusting in Wilder, he takes off with it. I won’t try to convince you that Stalag 17 is a better movie than Sunset Boulevard, because it’s not.

Stalag 17 was influential, however. It was the first film to deal with prisoners of war in World War II, and it set a lighter-hearted, as well as raunchier, tone than previous war films, but after all, that’s one way soldiers get through a war, whether on the battlefield or in a POW camp. You can see details that show up ten years later in The Great Escape: the escape tunnels, the tough commandant, and especially the character of Hendley “The Scrounger.” The less dramatic sides of Stalag 17 showed up in the 1965-71 television series Hogan’s Heroes. Sikov does not record what Wilder’s reaction to the series was.

The Secret Invasion (1964. Written by R. Wright Campbell. 95 minutes.)

The Secret InvasionMemorial Day, Take Two: Well, this story sounds familiar: a regular army officer in World War II collects a bunch of prisoners and molds them into a unit that operates behind Nazi lines. When I tell you the director is Roger Corman, you just know it is a rip-off of The Dirty Dozen. Except that it came out a year before The Dirty Dozen was published as a novel and three years before the film was released.

Corman had been making B- (and sometimes C-) pictures for American-International since the mid-’50s, many of them written by Campbell. He was eventually approached by United Artists to make a studio film, and Campbell pulled this script out. UA agreed and gave Corman a budget of $600,000 to shoot the film in Yugoslavia. That was twice the budget he had for his Edgar Allan Poe films, but UA then wanted some of it back to pay for an auditor to accompany production. Corman and his brother asked UA why they needed to send an auditor if the company trusted them to spend the money in the first place. No auditor.

The film may not rip off The Dirty Dozen, but if you are familiar with the big budget war films of the period, many scenes will seem like low-budget versions of old friends. The unit gets to Yugoslavia on a motorboat straight out of The Guns of Navarone (1961), complete with a (cheaper looking) attack by a Nazi patrol boat. The tunneling-under-the-castle scenes come from The Great Escape, and the climbing-up-the-cliffs-by-ropes is from The Longest Day (1962). There are also a couple of terrific twists at the end, one from a well-known Italian film from five years before. The Secret Invasion is trying for the heroic tone of those films, but is not quite well-written enough to bring it off.

Part of the problem may have been with the studio, which did not want the subtlety Corman says in his memoir, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, he wanted in the script. As a result, the actors are left to their own devices. Mickey Rooney overacts as usual and Henry Silva underacts as usual. Stewart Granger, great in swashbuckling roles, is miscast as the tortured army officer leading the group. Granger does not mention the film in his memoir, Sparks Fly Upward, but Corman tells an anecdote of Granger holding up production for half an hour one night because he wanted to say a line that was assigned to another character. Half an hour!? Corman has shot whole features in less time.

Corman does get the $600,000 up on the screen, with some good action scenes and great scenery. This film was influential in a different way than Stalag 17. It was the first of a number of films in the ’60s and ’70s that were shot in Yugoslavia. The Secret Invasion was not only the forerunner of The Dirty Dozen, but Kelly’s Heroes (1970) as well.

The Longest Day (1962. Screenplay by Cornelius Ryan, based on the book by Cornelius Ryan, additional episodes written by Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall, and Jack Seddon. 180 minutes.)

The Longest Day

D-Day: If I usually look for a variety of films for Memorial Day, this is the only choice for the 6th of June.

In US#44 I wrote at some length about how the James Bond films are producers’ films rather than writers’ or directors’ films. This is one of the greatest of all the producer’s films. The producer is Darryl F. Zanuck, who started as a screenwriter in the ’20s. Jack Warner later said that they kept him around because he was so good at acting out Rin Tin Tin in the story conferences. In the ’30s Zanuck was a co-founder of 20th Century Pictures in 1933, which merged with Fox two years later. Zanuck was head of production at 20th Century-Fox for over twenty years. His specialty was films with scripts that had a strong narrative flow, which made him the perfect producer for this film. In 1956 he left as studio head, but produced films independently for Fox. Most of them do not hold up very well. This one does.

According to Zanuck’s biographer Mel Gussow (Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking), Zanuck read Cornelius Ryan’s best-selling account of the Normandy invasion in October 1960. Even before he bought the rights, Zanuck did an outline for the film. Zanuck did not want it to be just accurate, although the book was, but to deal with the stories of the men at all levels and in all armies that fought the battle. Zanuck had always had an eye outside Hollywood, unlike some studio moguls. He took French lessons in the late ’30s, went on safaris in Africa, and made wartime documentaries for the Army during the war. French producer Raoul Levy has already purchased the rights and had Ryan write a screenplay, but Zanuck bought the rights from Levy. He and Ryan worked on the script together, with Ryan trying to keep everything from the book and Zanuck trying to shape it in the most compelling way. Hollywood versus the literary world. Guess which one wanted to keep in a couple of love stories? Wrong, it was Ryan. He and Zanuck were often at loggerheads about virtually everything. When Zanuck looked at the script Ryan delivered, he felt Ryan “had things completely out of proportion—twenty-six pages for something that should take three lines, three lines for something that should take twenty-six pages.” When Darryl tells you the script is wrong, pay attention to him.

When the script was completed, Zanuck sent it to writers from each of the four major countries involved (the United States, Britain, France and Germany) for comment. He ended up hiring the American James Jones, the author of From Here to Eternity, the Frenchman Romain Gary and the British team of David Pursall & Jack Seddon. Each wrote various episodes. Jones was hired to make the American soldiers sound like real soldiers, but the Production Code people cut out most of his lines. They sounded a little too real for 1962. Among the words and phrases that according to Gussow were cut were: “crap, stuff it, muck it, motherlover, s.o.b., bastards, Jeez, damn, puke.” The censors also wanted to make sure that the invasion did not seem like a “bloodbath,” so the reality of Omaha Beach would have to wait another 36 years before Saving Private Ryan would give it its due.

The script that Zanuck had cobbled together by various writers has not only Zanuck’s feel for narrative drive, but his appreciation of the seriousness of the business at hand. Look at the reactions of the senior American officers when they each get the word that the invasion, after many delays, is finally on. If Zanuck’s Normandy does not have the detailed violence of Ryan, it gives a better view of the collaborative effort involved, on all sides, of the battle. Go to the IMDb page for the full cast and crew and you will see why. Zanuck, through his skills as a producer, got many of the people who were involved in the real thing to be advisors, either technical, military, or personal, to the film. The souvenir booklet sold at the first-run engagements has photographs from the set of various actors meeting their real-life counterparts. Zanuck was faithful to their efforts and made a fitting memorial to them.

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.