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Understanding Screenwriting #61: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #61: <em>Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps</em>, <em>You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger</em>, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Whatever Works, Some Appreciations, Buffalo Bill, The Capture, The Good Wife, Modern Family, Law & Order: Los Angeles, Second Glances at New Fall 2010 TV Shows, but first…

Fan Mail: I cannot tell you how relieved I was when Fritz Novak’s comments showed up in the comments section on October 8th. Here I’d gone at least a little out of my way to whack HBO, Scorsese, gangster movies, and New Jersey fanboys, and for the first few days after the column was posted, nothing. Bupkiss. So I was glad to see Fritz speaking up. As for paying attention to audiences, I certainly do, although not to the detriment of what’s up there on the screen. See my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing for further comments on movie audiences.

He gives me a hard time for dumping on gangster movies while continuing to discuss westerns, “the most played out genre of them all.” Yes, there is another western in this column. But a couple of things. First, I do tend to take an historical view of film and screenwriting, and I know that genres come in and out of fashion. I remember reading a paper at UCLA in about 1971 saying the gangster movie was dead. The Godfather came out the next year. The problem I have with Boardwalk Empire (and still have—you will later read my comments on episode two in this column) is that it is not doing anything fresh in the genre. Fritz says that the HBO style is slow because there is a lot of exposition. Well, in Boardwalk Empire, there really is not much exposition. In the first two episodes, I didn’t feel I was learning that much about the characters and the situations.

Fritz also tries to defend Scorsese’s sense of humor by bringing up Goodfellas (1990), which he finds “one of the funniest movies I’ve ever scene [sic].” I must admit I was not amused. Fritz points out that the characters in the film laugh at their own violence, but that does not make the film itself funny. Now, maybe if Lubitsch had directed it…

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010. Written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, based on characters created by Stanley Weiser & Oliver Stone. 133 minutes)

Is this film necessary?: Oliver Stone, the co-writer and director of the 1987 film Wall Street, did not want to do a sequel. He avoided the writing of the new film and was not going to direct it until he read the script. He is not one of the credited writers and given that there are not any of the preachy monologues there were in the original, I am willing to believe his contribution to the script was minimal. He just directed it. And did such a good job that the picture is turning out to be one of his biggest hits in years. Hmm.

The order of the writing credits on the film suggest that Allan Loeb did the first drafts and Stephen Schiff did rewrites on it, but an article by Danny Munso in the March/April 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting says it was the other way around. Schiff had done a script well before the 2008 economic collapse. Neither Stone nor 20th Century-Fox was interested. As the implosion happened, Fox got interested and approached Loeb, who earlier got a stockbroker’s license. Fox wanted the script to deal with the collapse. And so it goes. Except that what I would take to be Schiff’s original story has nothing to do with the collapse.

The main story of the film is about a young stockbroker, Jacob, who is living with Gordon Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie. Gekko is released from prison in 2001, carrying the manuscript of his memoirs he has been working on in the slammer. Fine, but then we jump to 2008 and the book is just coming out. What happened in the intervening years? I can’t imagine Gekko being turned down by thirty publishers. It’s a New York book and New York publishers would eat it up. Well, it obviously comes out in 2008 so Gekko could be around for the crash. Against Winnie’s advice, Jacob cozies up to Gekko to get ideas on how to get back at Bretton James, a Gekko-type senior stockbroker whom Jacob blames for the suicide of his mentor, Louis Zabel. Gekko is happy to help. And then the crash happens. People have meetings with government officials, sweat a lot, and then the story continues as though nothing had happened. Gekko turns out to be the Gekko we remember and uses Jacob and Winnie to put himself back in the game. You could take out the collapse scenes and the picture would work better. Loeb simply has not rethought the story enough. The collapse scenes are moderately interesting, but distracting from the main story. Since the movie, like the original, is an inside look at Wall Street, it can never get far enough outside the world to seriously critique the system. Yes, the stockbrokers sweat a little, but not that much. Yes, you can make a case that they were so obtuse they did not realize how bad it was—there are a few elements of that here—but the film could also make it clear, which it does not, that they were so arrogant that they assumed they would get out of it OK. Which of course many of them did. Many did not. We get very little sense of that in the film. It seems to come down to blaming Bretton James for the 2008 collapse, a very Hollywood thing to do.

Having said all that, there are some terrific elements in the script. Louis Zabel is a great part for Frank Langella, although we realize that he is given so many scenes early on that he is obviously going to be out of the picture fairly quickly. I particularly like Zabel’s discussion of a conversation he had with financial guys from Dubai in which he did not understand what they were talking about. James is a nice if conventional villain, and his boss, Jules Steinhardt, is one of Stone’s standard wise, moral old men. I was not sure until Steinhardt’s final scene why they bothered to get Eli Wallach for the part, but when you see the look on his face when the final deal goes down, you’ll understand. Tuco, anyone? Gekko is a wonderful character as always, although here he’s a little much of a good guy for too long before he resorts to being the real Gekko.

You’ll notice I have not mentioned Jacob or Winnie. Both are fairly standard issue parts. Jacob is not as innocent as Bud Fox was in the original. As Loeb told Danny Munso, they could not have another Bud because “The guys on Wall Street now have grown up there and were making hundreds of millions of dollars in their twenties. And that’s where Jacob is coming from. He’s not corruptible like Bud was because, perhaps, he may already be a little corrupted.” (Bud, by the way, shows up in a cameo, and he definitely has stayed corrupted.) Winnie is a straight-arrow type, but we do not get much beyond that. Stone has traditionally in his scripts underserved the women characters, but as a director here he does right by Carey Mulligan as Winnie.

Several people have complained about the “happy” ending in the final scene. I am on their side.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010. Written by Woody Allen. 98 minutes)

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

This year’s minor Woody: This is one of Allen’s ensemble films, and as usual he has gathered a great cast. Unfortunately, he has not given them that good a script to work with. Most of the storylines are ones we have seen before, nearly always done better. Alfie, the older man, leaving his older wife for a ditzy young girl and regretting it has been the subject of more films and television movies than you can shake a cane at. It’s not helped that the younger girl is a prostitute in the Mighty Aphrodite vein, although there is a nice scene when Alfie has his first appointment with her and does not quite know the etiquette of hookerdom. Ray, a younger guy, is having fantasies about Dia, the even younger girl across the courtyard. Brian De Palma has done many variations on that in his films. Sally, Ray’s wife, is dealing not only with Ray, but getting her career going. A modern woman’s multi-tasking was done much better in Callie Khouri’s great script for the underrated Something to Talk About (1995). Sally is the most interesting character in the film. She does get the best scene in the film where she tries to confess to her boss that she has feelings for him while he avoids the subject by only talking about their business relationship.

The most interesting storyline concerns Ray’s failed efforts as a novelist. A friend of his has, he thinks, died (wouldn’t he have checked? Or wouldn’t it have come out in the conversation with their mutual friends? ), leaving the only copy (yeah, right) of the novel he was working on with Ray. So Ray submits it as his own, and the publisher who hated Ray’s own novel loves it. And as it is going to be published, Ray discovers the original author is alive, but in a coma. And expected to recover. Reaction shot on Ray, end of story. But, but, what does Ray do about the situation? We never find out, which would have been much more interesting. Allen did something similar in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), where Hannah never learns that her husband Elliot and her sister Lee got it on. This is what I call the David Mamet flaw: the tendency not to complete the story. In one of his drafts for The Verdict (1982), Mamet didn’t bother to put in the verdict in the trial. In his script for the 1981 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, he dropped the plot twist that gave the story its name. Finish the story, guys.

Allen does use Voice of God narration here, but it’s not as annoying as it was in Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008).

Whatever Works (2009. Written by Woody Allen. 93 minutes)

Whatever Works

Last year’s minor Woody: Courtesy of Netflix I finally caught up with this one. It falls in the category of Allen’s obnoxious films. Sometimes his grumpy characters are funny and fun to be around for a couple of hours. For example, Alvy in Annie Hall (1977). Sometimes, particularly in the later years, the grumpy characters are like nails on a blackboard. For example, Harry in Deconstructing Harry (1997). Boris Yellnikoff is in the latter category, and Allen lets him go on and on and on. We just want to tell him to stuff a sock in it, even when you are agreeing with him. Allen’s idea is that he ends up letting a southern white trash girl named Melody stay in his apartment. I don’t believe for a minute that this Boris would do that, but as Johnny Carson used to say, you buy the premise, you buy the bit. The next big problem with the script is that Allen as both writer and director simply cannot imagine a southern white trash girl. He and the film stay on the surface. She is played by Evan Rachel Wood, normally a wonderful actress, and here completely mis-directed. Since the script gives her nothing of substance to play, she just turns twitchy. I know Allen does not like to talk to his actors, but he really needed to get her to chill out. She is giving a performance that might have work if she was playing Linda Ash in Mighty Aphrodite (1996), but is wrong for this part.

And here’s the curious thing about writing and directing. Midway through the picture Marietta, Melody’s mother, shows up. She’s a ditz as well, better written than Melody, and Patricia Clarkson just knocks it out of the park. It may be that Clarkson is a more experienced actor than Wood and knows how to find the character, but my money is on the writing. As always.

Some Appreciations

Claude Chabrol

It has not been a good couple of months for screenwriters. Here are a few words on some of those who have left us lately.

Claude Chabrol, the great French writer-director, died on September 12th. We assume he was not murdered by the upper class French, who in his films always seemed about to murder somebody. But it would not surprise me to learn they had a hand in his death, since he nailed their attitudes so remorselessly for nearly sixty years. Like Eric Rohmer, whom I wrote about in US#40, Chabrol defined his own universe in his films, and it was always a pleasure, yes, a perverse pleasure, to go and visit. Even though I am not sure I want to live there. You can see what I mean in my comments on his film A Girl Cut in Two (2007) in US#5. Or look at Merci pour le chocolat (2000) or The Flower of Evil (2003).

Irving Ravetch died a week later, on the 19th. In some ways, you might call him the anti-Chabrol. He could write tough, as in his westerns, such as his story for Ten Wanted Men (1955), which I wrote about in US#28. There is toughness too in Hud (1963), but also sympathy for the characters who have to deal with Hud. Hud, Paul Newman’s looks aside, is a real son of a bitch. Ravetch wrote most of his stories and scripts with his wife, Harriet Frank Jr., and you can see why stars like Newman, McQueen, Wayne, James Garner and Sally Field wanted to do their scripts. When Field got into producing after winning an Oscar for her performance in Ravetch and Frank’s 1979 script for Norma Rae, she said, “I take everything to the Ravetches. About once a week, every Wednesday, I call up and say, ’Hey, guys, I’ve got something else for you.’” They rewarded her with one of her most charming films, Murphy’s Romance (1985). See what I mean about being the anti-Chabrol?

Stephen J. Cannell died on September 30th. Cannell and Roy Huggins had differing versions of how The Rockford Files was created. Huggins took more credit in his version, and Cannell took more in his. Yes, Jim Rockford is very much in the tradition of Bret Maverick, whom Huggins created for Garner. But The Rockford Files also has a little satirical sense that may have started with Huggins, but certainly was developed by Cannell. Look at some of Cannell’s episodes on The Great American Hero (1981-83). One of my connections with the intelligence community and Washington bureaucracies says that show may be one of the most accurate shows ever made about the government. And if you want serious, check out Cannell’s 1987-1990 series Wiseguy, a forerunner of The Sopranos. I never met Cannell when I was writing my book on the history of American television writing, but it is obvious from his output that, like most great television writers, he had an incredibly quick mind. He was also dyslexic. So what is your excuse for not writing?

William W. Norton died on October 2nd. You may not recognize the name as easily as you did Chabrol’s, Ravetch’s or Cannell’s, but you should look at his 1968 script The Scalphunters for a funny, sharp western about an illiterate white trapper and an educated former slave. He tended to write westerns and action-adventure movies like The McKenzie Break, a 1970 film about German prisoners of war trying to escape from a camp in Scotland. Norton had an adventurous life as well, according the Los Angeles Times obituary. He served in the Army in World War II, later joined the Communist Party, and when he retired from screenwriting at age 60, he got into gunrunning in Central America and for the IRA, which landed him in prison. He eventually sneaked back into the U.S. and died in Santa Barbara.

Buffalo Bill (1944. Screenplay by Aeneas McKenzie, Clements Ripley, and Cecile Kramer, based on a story by Frank Winch. 90 minutes)

Buffalo Bill

Too many cooks: William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was one of the legendary figures of the American West, and it would probably take a twelve-hour miniseries to do justice to life and legend, which were inseparable. Ninety minutes isn’t going to cut it, and it doesn’t here. Sometimes when there are a lot of writers, the results can be fun. Most of the time, no. This one is in the most of the time category.

We get a nice entrance for Buffalo Bill. Indians attach a stagecoach carrying a senator and his daughter, but Cody arrives and drives them off. The occupants of the coach are unharmed, and being this is a studio (20th Century-Fox) production of the time, not a hair is out of place on the daughter, nor has her makeup been smudged, even though the coach overturned. Naturally Cody and the daughter are going to get married. But at the fort is an Indian girl with the incredibly Hollywood name of Dawn Starlight who is mooning after Cody. Nothing comes of this and she eventually dies in one of the battles. There is an old geezer sergeant in the Army named Chips who seems to have wandered in from a later John Ford movie and we spend more time than we need on him and his retirement. Cody does take the Grandduke Alexei on a buffalo hunt, but nothing much is made of this. Cody does end up killing his Indian friend Yellow Hand at the battle of Warbonnet Gorge in 1876, although the film leaves out Cody’s scalping the Indian and calling it “the first scalp for Custer,” who had just been killed at Little Big Horn.

The real Cody got into show business portraying himself in plays while he was still working on the frontier, spending his winters in theaters and his summers on the plains. Cody as portrayed in the film is just a stalwart American outdoorsman, without a hint of the showmanship of the original. We only get a snippet at the end of the film of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show (“Show” was never officially part of the title).

Obviously the script was done at Fox while Darryl Zanuck was off in the Army making war documentaries. He would never have let such a messy screenplay get made while he was there.

The Capture (1950. Written by Niven Busch. 91 minutes)

The Capture

Sometimes mediocre writing can still help a director: Niven Busch is probably best known as the author of the novel that became Duel In the Sun (1946), but he had a long string of credits as a screenwriter going back to the early ’30s. In the ’40s he began to produce as well as write so he could maintain some control over his films. Probably his best film from that period is the 1947 noir western Pursued. The Capture is in somewhat the same vein, but the script is not particularly sharp.

Lin Vanner is an American working in a Mexican oil field. The payroll is robbed and he goes the opposite direction from the posse and finds a man he thinks pulled the robbery. He shoots him and the man dies, and Vanner begins to have second thoughts as to whether the man was the robber. He leaves his job and ends up meeting the man’s widow and working on her ranch. When he figures out who really did the robbery (an official with the company), a posse pushed by the official comes after him.

Busch has been credited with bringing psychology to the westerns of the later ’40s, and that’s true with this film. The most dramatic scene is not any of the chases, but a confrontation between Vanner and the widow in which he tells he has realized that she and her late husband were not in love. Because the film is produced by its writer, the entire film is a lot talkier than it needs to be. The dialogue scenes tend to go on longer than they should. The story is told in flashback as a wounded Vanner hides out with a priest, so we get a lot of voiceover narration, not all of it needed.

Soon after this film Busch gave up on Hollywood and went to live on a ranch. He found he spent six weeks writing a story, another six weeks doing the screenplay, and then a year producing the film. He figured he would rather spend his time writing novels, which he was very successful at. Meanwhile, in spite of the flaws in the script, the film was a turning point in the career of its director. The dramatic scenes are well handled, and the exteriors are good looking (although not in the DVD currently available, which looks as though it was transferred from a bad Super 8 print). The director is particularly good at setting up scenes. When Vanner arrives at the widow’s ranch, we know the layout of the ranch within a few shots. Dore Schary, who had been at RKO and was now taking over at MGM, looked at footage from The Capture at his screening room at home. One person there recalled, “Somebody in the room said, ’God, he’s good.’ He seemed to have a great deal of ability.” So the director went to see Schary and started moving from B pictures like The Capture to A pictures like Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and The Magnificent Seven (1960). He was John Sturges.

(The story about Schary and Sturges is from Glenn Lovell’s Sturges biography Escape Artist, and the other material about Busch is from an interview with him in Patrick McGilligan’s first Backstory collection of interviews.)

The Good Wife (2010. “Taking Control” written by Robert King and Michelle King. 60 minutes)

The Good Wife

“The Face” is back: We last left Alicia trying to decide whether to talk to Will on her cellphone or go up and support Peter. She goes up to support Peter, unfortunately leaving her cellphone with Eli Gold, never a smart thing to do. Peter calls and leaves a message that yes, they should call off their budding affair. Then he calls back and leaves another message that he loves her and wants to continue. Any guesses as to which message Eli deletes while Alicia is up there being the Good Wife? And that has consequences all the way through this episode and certainly future ones. Will obviously does not understand why Alicia is not talking to him about his second call, and she thinks they are broken up. Look at how the Kings play that off in the last scene of the episode, where Bond, the new partner, tells Alicia he is going to be her mentor. Because of the mix-up of the phone calls, we know she is wondering why Will is “dumping” her on Bond.

Bond is bringing with him a new staff, which includes a new investigator. We first meet him when Kalinda goes out to try to find some evidence in a house a potential witness has abandoned. The landlord is cleaning out the house and reluctantly lets Kalinda in after she flirts with him. She seems him dumping a bag of trash outside, goes out and finds the witness’s cellphone, but without the SIM card. She gets back to the office and discovers that the “landlord” is the new investigator and he has the SIM card. In other words, Kalinda is going to have to up her considerable game to play with him. That ought to be fun for us, if not for her.

And on the murder case Alicia is assigned by a judge, the current states attorney, Johnson, assigns Cary to take over first chair, since Cary thinks he can beat Alicia. He can’t, which ups the ante for both of them.

In other words, The Good Wife is back and on track.

Modern Family (2010. “The Kiss” written by Abraham Higginbotham. 30 minutes)

Modern Family

The perfect second-season episode: OK, in the first season we met the family and got a sense of where the pressure points are that are going to lead to hijinks. Now it’s time to expand and develop the characters and the situations. This episode does it as well as can be done.

Cameron and Mitchell are discussing public displays of affection, something that several viewers have been wondering about. After all, the straight characters get to kiss, but we have not seen Cam and Mitchell kiss. Obviously some of this comes from the network afraid audiences will go “Eeew!” and change the channel. But we love Cam and Mitchell and the audience for this show can probably deal with it. Mitchell points out that Jay, his dad, never kissed him. So when they all have family dinner, this comes up for discussion, and the big kiss we get is Jay kissing his son. On the lips, no less. And then in the background of a following shot we see Cam and Mitchell kiss.

Meanwhile Alex, Phil and Claire’s youngest daughter, is growing up and has a crush on a boy. Her slightly older sister Haley suggests she goes and confront the boy and tell him she wants to kiss him. Alex knocks on his door and says her piece when the boy opens the door. When Alex finishes, he opens the door further and reveals his team is standing there, listening all the while. Later Alex and the boy discuss it again and agree to kiss…later.

Meanwhile Gloria has decided to cook some of her grandmother’s Colombian recipes for the family dinner. We know Gloria is from Colombia, but aside from a few drug jokes, it hasn’t really been dealt with on the show. Now it is. Gloria has convinced Jay that tradition requires that he slap the meat before she cooks it and that he wears his shoes around his neck when the guests come. He buys it, although later Manny tells him that Gloria made up those “traditions.” I don’t know if I am just used to Sofía Vergara now or if she has grown a little more restrained or if the writers are not pushing it as much as they did in the first episodes. In any case, her Gloria seems less and less a cliched hot-blooded Latina. Not that she’s not still hot…

Law & Order: Los Angeles (2010. “Hollywood” episode written by Blake Masters, story by Dick Wolf. “Echo Park” episode written by Peter Blauner. 60 minutes each)

Law & Order: Los Angeles

Chung-chung, with palm trees: In the pilot “Hollywood” episode, we are definitely in Los Angeles. It starts with a car zipping through the streets of LA, with a crowd of paparazzi taking pictures of the starlet types who get out of the car. We see a lot of beautiful people, beautiful clubs, beautiful houses. The setup, about the robbing of houses of young starlet types, is inspired by a recent rash of such LA robberies. But we are also in Law & Order country. The setup is indeed from a real situation, but one of the things I have always loved, particularly about the mothership, is that while the setup is based on real events, the development starts almost immediately taking us into a fictional story. Here the robbers are not just a gang of kids, but people set up in a complicated plot by the mother of one of the starlets for reasons having to do with greed, lust, and all those other great motivations. The cops are fairly standard L&O issue, but nicely played by Skeet Ulrich and Corey Stoll. The deputy D.A. is played by the always-welcome Alfred Molina.

“Echo Park” introduces us to the detectives’ boss, Lt. Arleen Gonzalez, the equally always-welcome Rachel Ticotin, channeling her inner S. Epatha Merkerson. The District Attorney is now played by Peter Coyote, channeling Sam Waterston’s hair. The Deputy D.A. in this episode is played by Terrence Howard, who had the inspired notion to play him as soft-spoken. When was the last time you saw a soft-spoken lawyer? This episode’s story deals with the murder of a woman who was a former member of a wannna-be Mansion family sort of gang. The case has less to do with the gang than with the woman’s stay in prison and her release because of terminal cancer. The episode is another very Los Angeles story.

And a special shout-out to Dylann Brander and Megan Branman. And who are they? They are the casting directors for the series, and they follow in the great tradition of the L&O franchises of casting real actors, not just pretty faces. Look at the casting of the women in both episodes, or Jim Beaver as the father of the one of the robbers in “Hollywood.” There are a lot of great actors in Hollywood who don’t work in film and television that much, and I hope Brander and Branman continue to dig deeply into that pool, in the way the casting directors did for the original series.

Second Glances at Some New Fall 2010 Television Series

Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire: The second episode, “The Ivory Tower,” (written by Terence Winter) had all the problems I mentioned in writing about the first one in the last column. It is still slow, without any compensating rewards in terms of character or plot. I would have thought by the second episode the characters would have begun to show a little life, but F.B.I. Agent Van Alden is still a block of wood and Mrs. Schroeder is still sad.

The Defenders: Neither of the second two episodes got into specific Las Vegas crimes. In “Nevada v. Carter” (written by Peter Noah), Nick is defending a stripper accused of solicitation. OK, but it’s a story that could take place anywhere there are “gentleman’s clubs.” The “Blood Moon” episode (written by Treena Hancock & Melissa R. Beyed) of CSI the next night dealt with a vampire convention in Vegas, which was very Vegas. The showrunner of The Defenders is Carol Mendelson, who wrote 49 episodes of CSI, so it’s not like she doesn’t know Vegas.

Undercovers: “Devices” (written by J.J. Abrams & Josh Reims) was the third episode, and the production values were much more limited than they were for the pilot. Even so, the script is still bicker-and-banter. The script does mention several times that Sam and Steven have been out of the game for five years, but nothing is ever done with it. And the supporting characters are not being developed.

The Whole Truth: I am a bit surprised this one is not doing better in the ratings. But it may be that its basic gimmick is a turn-off for audiences. It follows a legal case, cutting back and forth from the prosecution to the defense. So it’s not emotionally clear who we are to supposed be rooting for. As soon as we think the prosecution has the suspect nailed, we get evidence to the contrary. I like the idea, and it’s been reasonably well-handled, but it may bother audiences who want things a little more clear-cut. The Defenders are obviously going to defend those who are innocent, while the L&O cops are going to track down the bad people. Maybe The Whole Truth would be a better fit on cable. It’s not ponderous enough for HBO, or light-hearted enough for USA, but how about TNT or FX?

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.