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Understanding Screenwriting #5: A Girl Cut in Two, Tired of Kissing Frogs, Towelhead, True Blood, 90210, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #5: <em>A Girl Cut in Two</em>, <em>Tired of Kissing Frogs</em>, <em>Towelhead</em>, <em>True Blood</em>, <em>90210</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: A Girl Cut in Two; Tired of Kissing Frogs; Towelhead; True Blood; 90210; How the West Was Won, but first…

Fan Mail: I agree with Chris about Jason Bateman being very good in Arrested Development and almost added a line to that effect after my comment on him and Garner in Juno, though I think the role in Juno is a much trickier part to bring off. In Development he is a straight man to the wonderful loons in the Bluth family, but in Juno he is revealing character while maintaining a balance between the light and the dark side. I give him points for “degree of difficulty,” like they do in diving.

“The Way of the Future” wondered about some of my other thoughts on Vicky Cristina Barcelona, since I only dealt with the narration, which in answer to his question I did find so overbearing I had trouble enjoying the rest of the film. I should note, however, that what I am doing in this column is exploring screenwriting rather than just writing reviews. So there are all kinds of things in the films and television shows I write about that don’t get mentioned. Later on in this column I write about the series True Blood without once mentioning that the great Lois Smith, whom I have been a fan of since East of Eden in 1955, is playing the grandmother. She’s a good reason all by herself to watch the show.

The issue that got the most discussion in US#4 was whether scenes have to move the story forward or just provide interesting texture to the film. In general, scenes in American films move the story forward, since that is often what the development process in Hollywood focuses on. I agree with the lines from Paul Schrader—one of the few times you will find me agreeing with him—that the best and hardest thing to do is write scenes that move the film forward without seeming to. That’s great screenwriting. I also can enjoy scenes that just give us texture, like the wonderful little scene in David Webb Peoples’s Unforgiven where his deputies sit around and talk about Little Bill and what a good sheriff and bad carpenter he is. Sometimes directors are smart enough and powerful enough to be able to keep a scene like that in the picture. Too often, of course, directors prefer to keep in flashier scenes, or as we all now know, pile them up on the DVD.

I agree with Rob, who admired the great Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. European films, when they are good, can be wonderful at moving the film along in subtle ways and then grabbing you by the heart when you least expect it. And that brings us to this column’s first subject, a French film that moves in some interesting ways.

A Girl Cut in Two (2007. Written by Claude Chabrol and Cécile Maistre. 115 minutes): Chabrol has been writing and directing great thrillers about the French haute bourgeoisie for fifty years. This is one of his good ones. The story is based on a true-life American story from the turn of the last century. Stanford White, a famous architect and playboy, seduced and debauched a beautiful young model and showgirl, Evelyn Nesbit. Nesbit later married another rich man, Harry Thaw, who grew so upset over what Evelyn told him happened with White that in 1905 he shot and killed White. You may remember the story from the 1955 film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (Nesbit was played by Joan Collins) or the 1981 film Ragtime (Elizabeth McGovern that time around).

Chabrol and his co-writer, his step-daughter and assistant director, Cécile Maistre, have reset the story in modern Lyons. White is now Charles, a snooty, reclusive author; Thaw is Paul, a slighty wacko drug company heir; and Evelyn is Gabrielle, a television weather girl. Well, sure, that’s the 2007 equivalent of a showgirl and artists model.

Chabrol knows this territory and how to run it on film. The characters, being French haute bourgeoisie, begin by playing their emotions very close to the chest, so Chabrol and Maistre do not write them as very emotionally expressive in the opening scenes. American characters are much more open and emotional, which makes them easier to write. We hear in the dialogue what the French characters think, but we are not quite so sure what they feel. Paul is an exception, but he comes into the story after the tone is set, so he seems to be the disruptive force he turns out to be. We do not see, for example, Garbrielle’s reaction to what happens to her “upstairs” at the club Charles has taken her to. We only learn about it later when she tells Paul.

The writers keep the story going by leaving out scenes we might expect to see, forcing us to think about the story, not just follow along. We don’t see what happens “upstairs.” We do not see Charles tell Gabrielle his lies about his relationship with his wife, but we do get Gabrielle telling her mother, which not only gives us the information, but the reaction of both Gabrielle and her mother to it.

The writers also give us several scenes that are so well written they are performed by the actors in more or less one take. You have to have good writing and good actors for the director to have confidence the scene can be done in one take.

One of the few major flaws in the script is the final sequence, which I suppose works on an intellectual level (you see and understand what the symbolism is), but less so on an emotional level. It is a little too “on the nose,” as Hollywood puts it.

Tired of Kissing Frogs (2006. Written by Joaquin Bissner. 95 minutes): The title, alas, is the best thing about this Mexican romantic comedy. It is inspired by the 70s feminist slogan/T-shirt: “Before you meet a prince, you have to kiss a lot of frogs.” In the film it is the name of the on-line dating services Martha, a designer, signs up for.

An acquaintance of mine once told me he could tell from the first frame of a film whether the film was going to work for him or not. I am not that good, which is a relief because I remember thinking at the time that it would be awfully depressing to have gone out, bought the ticket, and then know in a few seconds if you had wasted your time. It usually takes me a little longer. In the case of Frogs I got a little worried when the long, realistic party sequence that opens the film turned out to be a dream. Why go to all that length for just a dream? Then when Martha and her shrink friend think Roberto, her boyfriend, is cheating on her by going to a strip bar, the women get into the bar and dress as strippers to unmask him. That’s the sort of thing Lucy and Ethel or Laverne and Shirley would have done. The picture had lost me.

More cliches begin to pile up. Martha is a designer so her male assistant is—three guesses, the first two don’t count—gay. Her other assistant is female, so she is—three guesses, the first two don’t count—ditzy. When Martha finally, thirty minutes into the film, joins the dating service, we get the montage of terrible dates we have seen a hundred times before. When she finds what may be true love, we get the romance montage we have also seen before. The one fresh element in the latter montage is the two characters taking a bath together ... and brushing their teeth at the same time.

The cast is attractive and talented, but the director pushes them a little further than they need to go.

Towelhead (2008. Written by Alan Ball. Based on the novel by Alicia Erian. 115 minutes by my count, 124 by imdB’s count): September 2008 seems to National Alan Ball Month; there are worse things to celebrate. The writer of American Beauty and creator of Six Feet Under is back with two projects. First up is the film Towelhead, about a 13 year-old Lebanese-American girl’s sexual awakenings. Yes, that’s plural.

The novel is written in the first person and, as novels can do, it gets inside the head of the heroine. Ball bravely avoids first person narration and tries, mostly successfully, to show rather than tell. And that is the problem. In a novel you can get away with a lot by letting the audience imagine, up to their own discomfort level, how much they are willing to visualize the action. In a film, we see the reality of that person/actor going through those events. In this case, Ball as both writer and director is fairly explicit, if not in visual detail, then in emotional detail. Some of the scenes that work best are more emotional than overtly sexual. But since so much of the material is sexual, and about a 13 year-old girl, it starts out creepy and simply gets creepier. Some of that is no doubt intended, but I found it off-putting. On the one hand, Summer Bishil, who plays Jasira, is very compelling, but she was 18 when the film was made and looks at least 16 on the screen. That is sort of a relief, since having a real 13 year-old would be unbearable to watch. On the other hand, the fact that she looks older undermines the idea of the film, so Ball has caught himself in a bind. Although the novel is apparently at least partly autobiographical, Jasira on film, and not just Bishil, is simply not enough of an awkward klutz about sex to be a convincing 13 year-old. Jasira/Bishil behaves like a 13 year-old imagines she would behave in those situations, which romanticizes a story I don’t think Ball really wants to glamorize.

True Blood(2008. Created by Alan Ball. Based on the Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire Mysteries novels by Charlaine Harris. “Strange Love” and “First Taste” episodes written by Alan Ball. Episodes: 60 minutes): I kvetched in US#4 about Steven Bochco’s new series Raising the Bar not having very interesting characters, at least in the pilot. That is not a problem with Alan Ball’s new series. This may be one of the advantages of developing the material from a novel, or in this case a series of novels. Harris has provided a nice gallery of characters for Ball to choose from. The lead in the novel and series is Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress at a bar and restaurant in the bayous outside Bon Temps (Good Times), Louisiana. She’s cute and bright, and she can read people’s thoughts. For some television series creators that might be enough. In True Blood she becomes enamored of a vampire, Bill, who walks into the bar. Well, why not? He’s tall, dark, handsome, brooding and very sexy. Heathcliff with fangs. And vampires are now “out” and struggling for acceptance. Ball has said in interviews that he was not really trying to draw the comparison between vampires and homosexuals, unlike, the dreadful film version of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, although Ball cannot resist a dig or two. One marquee says “God hates fangs.”

Ball has written Sookie so that she is not only attracted to Bill because he is incredibly sexy, but because he may be dangerous and exciting. Sookie’s grandmother is not only supportive of Sookie, but wonders if Bill remembers the Civil War and could come to her club to discuss it with the ladies. Not all the characters are as rich. Sookie’s friend Tara is the Standard Sassy Black Friend, and the sheriff seems the Traditional Southern Sheriff, although he is played by William Sanderson, who is capable of a lot more if Ball and his writers are so inclined.

Like most pilots, there is more than there needs to be in “Strange Love.” The white trash married couple who mug Bill and try to steal his blood also deal drugs. Let’s just say it did not surprise me when, over half-way through the pilot, Sookie’s brother Jason is in the kitchen talking to her and Grandma, he is standing next to the kitchen sink.

The kitchen sink also shows up in the second episode, “First Taste,” (as does the “God Hates Fangs” marquee, which is now part of the main titles). The episode is slower paced. The white trash couple is killed early on, and we spend a lot of time walking and talking with Sookie and Bill, since Bill has to explain the rules of the universe the series is going to take place in. He tells what he can and cannot do, and what he will and will not do. “Laying pipe” is the industry term for this, and it is always a problem in sci-fi and fantasy films. If you show us a man on a horse with a gun, we pretty much know we are in a western until you tell us otherwise. But if you are creating a mythical world, even one as connected to reality as True Blood is, you will need to let us know the rules. Let’s hope they have gotten most of that out of the way.

90210 (2008. Developed by Rob Thomas and Gabe Sachs & Jeff Judah. Based on the series Beverly Hills 90210 developed by Darren Star. Part I: “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore” based on a teleplay by Darren Star, written by Rob Thomas and Gabe Sachs & Jeff Judah. Part II: “The Jet Set” written by Gabe Sachs & Jeff Judah & Darlene Hunt. Episodes: 60 minutes): Ordinarily, a show like the original Beverly Hills 90210 would not be my kind of entertainment, but I started watching it because Cindy Walsh, the mother of Brandon and Brenda, was played by Carol Potter. Carol had sung in the church choir with my wife but had to drop out when she got the 90210 gig. As the mother in a story focused on the teen characters, she did not show up much. I talked to her after a choir concert when the show had been on a while and said I thought she had an easy job. “You come into work, what, for half a day, say your lines and go home?” She said yes, but added “Last week we did the Christmas show and I had to come in three days. It was awful.” I think she was joking.

I did get caught up in the original show because it seemed so realistic: the kids behaved like real teenagers: idiotic, narcissistic twits, with that usual teen attitude of “I sulk, therefore I am.” It was like watching the proverbial train wreck, and I kept up with it for a season or two or three, then fell away. But I had seen enough to be curious about the new version on the CW network. The original, Beverly Hills 90210, had been such a cultural phenomenon that the makers of the new version only had to use the zip code, 90210, as the title. Alas, the new kids in the zip code seem to be based more on kids on all those other television shows, fictional and “reality,” than they are on the original kids or real-life kids. I mentioned in the last column that Steven Bochco’s new show Raising the Bar seems old-fashioned, and not in a good way, in the environment of current law shows. The same is true of 90210. We have seen these kids a lot in teen shows since the original series went off the air in 2000. Which means the new show may not catch on with what turned out to be one of the largest audience demographics for the original. Apparently that show was watched more by tweens than by teens. The teens knew how realistic it was about their attitudes and may not have liked it as much as their younger brothers and sisters, who knew their elder siblings were just like that.

The plotting is just as clunky as it was in the old show. In the first episode Annie, the new girl in town/school, suggests that Naomi, the spoiled rich girl Annie is for some unfathomable reason trying to be friends with, can look at a school paper she wrote. It just happens to have been done on the book Naomi has to write a late book report on. Annie says, “You can get some ideas from it.” Needless to say, Naomi just copies it. O.K., Annie is from Kansas and naïve, but then the teacher has Naomi read it in class, without his apparently reading it in advance. Annie and her father Harry, the new principal, learn about the copying. Nothing serious happens to Annie because of it.

The plotting is also just as soap operatic as the original. In the first installment Harry meets with Naomi’s parents, who have the usual “Our daughter can do no wrong” attitude of rich parents. Much more could be done with this, but the plot turn that comes out of the scene is that Naomi’s mom had once given birth to a son by her former boy friend, who is ... Harry. Who did not know anything about the baby.

There is a shout-out to the original in having Jennie Garth return as Kelly, who is now a guidance counselor at the school she used to attend. In the first two episodes nothing much is done with this, as indeed not much is done with the grownups. (Part of the problem may be that Garth, like Potter before her, is working shorter hours. Potter had a small child to take care of in real life. According to the September 1st TV Guide, Garth has a five-year-old daughter and two other children and only works two days a week.) A late addition to the first two episodes was Shannen Doherty, reprising her role of Brenda Walsh, and at an hour and twenty-eight minutes into the two-hour, two-part premiere she shows up at the Peach Pit, the old hangout, now a coffee-bar. Brenda and Kelly have a semi-heart-to-heart that seems as much about Garth and Doherty off-screen as their on-screen characters. The writing in the scene seems rushed. What would otherwise have been Doherty’s first scene, babysitting Kelly’s son, would have been a much less obvious entrance. It is suggested later that possibility that Brendon may be the father of Kelly’s four-year-old son. Whether he is or not apparently depends on which of the original show’s actors can be lured back to the series.

Some series plot out their entire season before they begin writing. 90210 is making it up as they go along. According to the September 12th Entertainment Weekly, the show was developed by Rob Thomas, late of Veronica Mars, but he was replaced by two new executive producers, Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, late of Freaks and Geeks. With those shows on these people’s resumes, you would expect 90210 to be better, and they may well pull it together. On the other hand, one of the actors, Dustin Milligan, said in the same Entertainment Weekly story that he felt Sachs and Judah “took the characters and really layered them.” Maybe, but there is no evidence in Part II.

How the West Was Won (1962. Written by James R. Webb. Based on the LIFE magazine series “How the West Was Won.” 164 minutes. Above screencap from DVDBeaver): This film is a mess, especially on the script level. And the script won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, beating out Fellini’s 8 ½, one of my favorite films. So I should hate it, but it has long been one of my guilty pleasures.

The film is out now in a new DVD Special Super-Deluxe, Extra-Special, Super-Special Edition, and if you like the film like I do, you will want to get it. They have restored the film and through the magic of computers they have eliminated the “seams” where the three-camera Cinerama images were joined together.

They have also added one of the best commentary tracks I have ever heard on a DVD. Ordinarily I hate commentary tracks, since they usually consist of the director telling you how he made this great film all by himself. The three credited and one uncredited directors of this film are all dead. So instead we get, among others, filmmaker David Strohmaier, film historian Rudy Behlmer, music historian Jon Burlingame, and stuntman Loren James. Burlingame is great on the Alfred Newman score (which of course you cannot hear on the commentary track), and Loren James talks about the stunts he did on the picture, which is most of them. Strohmaier made the good accompanying documentary on Cinerama, which he knows more about than anybody. And the reason I bring up this DVD in this column is that Rudy Behlmer, who knows more about Hollywood than almost anybody, actually went out and read the various drafts of the script for the film and talks about the changes on the track. Who knew Hope Lange had a role in the film as George Peppard’s first wife? And did anybody really know until Rudy tells us why Lee J. Cobb suddenly shows up with a bandage on his head in the last sequence? All that and no seams.

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.