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Understanding Screenwriting #63: The Social Network, Inside Job, Capitalism: A Love Story, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #63: <em>The Social Network</em>, <em>Inside Job</em>, <em>Capitalism: A Love Story</em>, & More

Coming Up in This Column: The Social Network, Inside Job, Capitalism: A Love Story, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Red, Two and a Half Men, CSI.

The Social Network (2010. Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, inspired by the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. 121 minutes.)

…and the rest of the movie’s not bad either: The Social Network has the best opening scene in a movie since that great montage of Carl and Ellie’s marriage in Up (2009). What I said about that applies here: “Pay attention to the details in the montage; EVERYTHING in it comes back throughout the picture, sometimes in surprising ways. Meanwhile, it works because you are so caught up in the story and the characters.” Like the sequence in Up, The Social Network’s opener is fast and inventive. But unlike that montage, this is an all-dialogue scene. Mark, a Harvard student, and Erica, a Boston University student, are having drinks in a bar. Mark is putting down Harvard and especially its social upper class. Listen to the details he mentions, such as the sport of rowing, the A Cappella singing group, and the Final (secretive) clubs, all of which show up again. Mark’s brain and mouth work at warp speed, but he seems unable to control them both in a social situation like this. This will also come back into play in several different ways in the film. We may agree with some of Mark’s put-downs of the social elite at Harvard, but he has no concept of how obnoxious he is to Erica. He is not a nice person, but you can’t take your eyes or ears off him.

No, the development people did not insist on Sorkin writing in a “pet-the-dog” scene to show you he is really a nice guy. He is not a nice guy, but we can’t not watch him. Casting Jesse Eisenberg is a smart move, because Eisenberg has that sensitive, hangdog look and persona in his other films that he plays against here beautifully. And Erica does not wilt under the onslaught of Mark’s words. She is played by Rooney Mara, who will take over as Lisbeth Salander in the American version of The Girl With… films, and after this scene, I have a little more hope about the American versions. Erica dumps Mark with a great final speech. She tells him, “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a tech geek. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you are an asshole.” She’s right, we agree with her, and we are still willing to follow Mark because we want to know what he is going to do about all this. This scene is great screenwriting, and her line “And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true” is one of the best set-up lines in movies since “Dammit, Osgood, I’m a man.”

Now jump ahead to the final scene. We have followed the deposition-taking in the two cases of people suing Mark. Marilyn, one of the young women attorneys on Mark’s legal team, has looked as though she might be interested in Mark. In the final scene she tells them his primary lawyer is working on a settlement agreement that Mark will be asked to sign the next day. Mark is baffled. He is ready to go to court. Marilyn tells him her job is as a jury analyst, and in less than a minute she lays out why Mark’s behavior in the deposition hearings will destroy his case if it goes to a jury. She’s right. Then she tells him that she does not think he is an asshole, but that he is trying to be one. And she leaves. And what does Mark, the founder of Facebook, do? He is on his computer, goes on Facebook and tries to befriend…Erica. Who is not responding. See how the opening scene plays out at the end?

To go back to the beginning: After the scene with Eric, we follow Mark as he goes back to his room, noticing all the other couples on campus. And being a computer geek, he writes nasty things about Eric in his blog, which come back to haunt him when he runs into her later in the film. So then he decides to set up a website of sorts in which Harvard guys can vote on who the hot chicks are. He does it very quickly, because we know he has a quick mind. One other way the opening scene sets the tone for the film is that the dialogue is as speedy as that in His Girl Friday (1940), so it establishes the pace of the film. We know we are going to have to run to catch up, always a good sign. Just as we may not have caught everything Mark said in the opening scene, we certainly, unless we are computer geeks ourselves, are not going to follow all of the techno-babble of setting up this website, or the Facebook that follows. Sorkin is smart enough and experienced enough, especially with The West Wing, to know that the audience does not have to understand everything the characters say. A lot of the political dialogue in The West Wing and the techno-babble here is the MacGuffin in the series and the film. The characters know what they are talking about, and we know they know what they are talking about and we don’t need to understand all the nuances.

As Mark begins to develop what becomes Facebook, we suddenly get thrown ahead into the two sets of depositions. Well, we know the film is moving at a fast clip, so we take the change in stride. We are also far enough along in the story that the depositions are not giving us anything new. What they are giving us are alternative views of what happened at Harvard in 2003-2004. Eduardo Saverin, the closest person Mark has to a best friend, comes up with suggestions and money to start Facebook, and then Mark pushes him out. The Winklevoss twins, the epitome of Harvard types, approach Mark with an idea for a social website. He agrees to work on it, then leads them on while he develops Facebook. Eduardo has one lawsuit against Mark, the Winklevii, as they are referred to, have another.

At about the halfway point in the film, Sorkin gives us a new character, Sean Parker. I have always thought the third quarter of a film is the most difficult to write. You have established your main characters and their situation, but you are not ready to end the story. You need to develop it in some way and/or divert us. Big action sequences, such as the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959) or the car chase in Bullitt (1968) are usually in the third quarter, and the arrival and departure of the Jack Nicholson character in Easy Rider (1969) takes up exactly the third quarter of that film. In The Social Network we have spent the first hour in the hothouse of Harvard, complete with everybody’s sense of entitlement that comes with it. The Winklevii arrange a meeting with the then-president of Harvard, Larry Summers, and Sorkin gives us a great scene of dueling entitlements. Mark, in his own way, feels entitled to join one of the final clubs as well as hitting on Boston U. coeds. At this halfway point Mark is not thinking beyond Harvard and perhaps a few other Ivy League schools. One thing the film gets beautifully is how haphazardly Facebook developed. Usually in “great inventor” movies, the genius sees it all at once, not so here. Sean Parker, an entrepreneur who invented Napster, sees a much larger potential for Facebook, so he helps Mark take it out of Harvard. Sean is also everything that Mark wants to be: handsome, sexy, free, and easy—a little too easy—with money. Mark realizes that he and Facebook do not have to stay in the gilded cage of Harvard. He also learns from Sean how to be an even bigger son of a bitch than he already was.

Sorkin’s screenplay is beautifully structured, with one notable exception. As Mark expands Facebook to other colleges, the Winklevii go off to England to row in a regatta. The regatta scene goes on, and on, and on, and then is followed by a scene of the twins meeting Prince Albert of Monaco, which has nothing to do with the story Sorkin is telling. All we need to know is that the twins are in England and learn that Facebook is now available in England. You could do that with a couple of stock shots of the regatta and a short scene in a British-looking room. So how did this sequence get into and stay in the picture? I have mentioned before that when you are writing screenplays you are writing for performance. That usually means for the actors, but it also means you should, particularly if you are writing a script on spec, give the director something to show off with. The director in this case is David Fincher and with the exception of the regatta sequence, this is his best film. It’s his best because unlike all of his others, it is not over-directed. As with many directors who come out of music videos, Fincher wants to stuff everything he can into every shot. Here he doesn’t really have time, since Sorkin’s script moves at such a blistering pace. Fincher’s direction is rich and full (look at the scene of Mark going back to his room after Erica dumps him), but unlike Se7en (1995) or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Fincher’s talents, which are considerable, are put to the service of the story and the characters. Amazing what a director can truly accomplish if he does that.

Inside Job (2010. Written by Chad Beck and Adam Bolt. 120 minutes according to IMDb, 107 minutes by my count) and Capitalism: A Love Story (2009. Written by Michael Moore. 127 minutes.)

Inside Job

The ways we got screwed: I finally got around to watching Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story a couple of weeks ago and found it had dated badly. At one point he is comparing the incompetence of American carmakers with the Japanese, who are wonderf—oops, this was done before the current troubles with Toyota. Since Moore’s film was made in the early months of the Obama administration, Moore assumes the problems are going to be taken care of. As Inside Job makes devastatingly clear, it didn’t quite happen. Moore’s filmmaking is his usual casually structured, funny, manipulative, over-the-top style, which is entertaining, but suffers very much in comparison with the narrative drive of Inside Job.

The director of Inside Job is Charles Ferguson, who previously made the great, chilling 2007 documentary No End in Sight. In that film, Ferguson managed to land interviews with a lot of government officials who were involved in the run-up to and management of the Iraq War. He treated even the idiots like adults and got great material on what happened. I have no idea how Ferguson gets those kinds of people to talk to him, but he does it well, and does again in Inside Job. We have talked before about how documentaries can introduce us to fascinating characters, and Feguson’s docs are beautiful examples of that.

In Inside Job he is dealing with the financial collapse of the last few years. Naturally he starts in Iceland. I was a bit surprised when I got into the theater showing the film and saw that the screen masking was set for the 2:35 to 1 widescreen ratio of Panavision, but in the opening scenes it is clear why Ferguson is going wide. Iceland is a gorgeous country. But what are we doing there in a movie about the financial meltdown? Well, Iceland is the perfect storm. They had a wonderful, conservative banking system that got deregulated and started making huge, ridiculous loans. It is a model for the American disaster in simpler terms and helps give us our bearings as the film tracks the American story. (The wide screen is also nicely used for the explanatory graphics.) We get economists who recognized the potential problems, and those who did not. Harvard, which took its lumps in The Social Network, really gets raked over the coals here, since its economists were heavy promoters of deregulation of banking and the stock market. Ferguson has some wonderful interviews with the Harvard economists who still don’t understand, or at least will not admit, that they contributed to the debacle. One of the great running gags in the film is Beck and Bolt’s narration telling how some of the big names (Bernanke, Geithner, etc) screwed things up and then having a title that each one refused to be interviewed for the film. One of those was Larry Summers. Yup, the same character we see in The Social Network. It’s not a good time for Harvard and Summers.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010. Screenplay by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, based on the novel by Ned Vizzini. 101 minutes.)

It's Kind of a Funny Story

Very lite: The credits on this one do not come up until the end of the film, so I did not know as I was watching it it was based on a novel. But early on I began to suspect. Why? First of all, it is very talky, and not in the good Social Network–Aaron Sorkin way. The characters are just standing around chatting about various situations. Not only will they not shut up, but Craig, the main character, has a voiceover that also will not shut up. I suspected the voiceover came from the first person writing in the novel, which turns out to be the case. One advantage to seeing a movie in a multiplex in a shopping mall is that you can go into the mall bookstore and check this stuff out after the film. Another giveaway of its novelistic origins is that it is not very dramatic. Craig, a troubled-but-not-too-troubled teen, is feeling suicidal and checks himself into a psychiatric hospital. He thinks he will only be there overnight, but they insist he stay five days. His stress, which mostly comes from having to fill out an application form for a school his father wants him to attend, is rather bland, and the film does not make us feel how stressful this is for Craig. It may come across in the writing in the novel, but not in the film. On film he is mostly a whiny teenager. So we assume he is going to come through this OK, which eliminates most of the drama.

The writers do try to give us some “cinematic” elements, but most of them fall flat. When Craig is promoted to being the lead singer in a musical therapy group session, the song turns into a music video. That could be fun, but the writers keep it as just a performance video, which gets tiresome rather quickly. Although Craig is a teenager, he is placed on an adult floor, with of course a cute teenage girl, Noelle, and late in the picture they “escape” the floor and dash to the roof. We are now in Truffaut-land or at the least in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), without alas the cinematic panache.

Craig meets and talks with some of the other patients, but we get very little characterization of them. None of them seem to have problems that are that serious. Craig very easily gets his roommate, who has not left his room in months, out into a music session. The most interesting character is Bobby, who is sort of Craig’s guide, but we learn very little about him. Zach Galifianakis gives a nice, muted performance as Bobby, but the writers have not given him much to dig into. Craig does have a sort-of girlfriend on the outside, Nia, but his being torn between her and Noelle turns the third quarter into typical teen romantic angst. Now what would have happened if instead of Noelle, the girl in the hospital had been Precious?

One of the lines several reviewers have used about this film is that it is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) lite. Very, very lite. There is not even an equivalent to Nurse Ratched, which certainly provided drama in the earlier film. Here the staff is loving and helpful. A note in the novel tells us that Vizzini spent some time as a patient in an adult psychiatric hospital the year before he wrote the book, so I suspect he feels grateful to the people who helped him. But if you are writing a novel or a film, you can give it a lot more edge. The great Viola Davis plays Dr. Eden Minerva—can the name be any more obvious?—and she is effectively collecting unemployment benefits. Imagine what she could do if they gave her even half a Nurse Ratched to play.

Red (2010. Screenplay by Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber, based on the graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner. 111 minutes.)

Red

Yeah, it’s based on a graphic novel. So what?: Readers from the very early days of this column in 2008 will remember that I got into trouble with the fanboy crowd by whacking graphic novels and the movies made from them. See US#2 and US#3 for some of the reactions, comments, and replies. So guess what, folks? I enjoyed Red enormously. Partly this is because it is one of those geezer action movies that we have had a couple of this year. I passed on The Expendables since it just seemed to be a bunch of aging muscle men, although audiences liked it. Here we have some interesting characters of a certain age. Frank Moses is a retired government official of some kind who spends his days tearing up his benefits checks so he can call Sarah Ross at the disbursement office and complain he did not get them. They have developed a nice little phone flirtation. Suddenly a lot of guys with guns show up and destroy his house, but he manages to escape.

He goes to Kansas City and semi-kidnaps Sarah, since he figures she is in danger. Well, she is once he kidnaps her. She’s not just a cute bimbo, but a smart woman who is worried she is not going to have any excitement in her life. Well, she doesn’t have to worry about that. The writers have given Frank and Sarah a nice relationship and some good lines, as in her “And I was hoping you would have hair.” It is not a part of great depth—none of the characters are—but it gives Mary-Louise Parker some nice moments. The same is true of the other characters. Frank begins to put together a team of retired operatives (he was a lot more than just the researcher he claimed to be) and each gets their moments. Yes, Marvin Boggs is a typical John Malkovich weirdo, but Malkovich doesn’t push it. Yes, I agree with some critics that we get to Helen Mirren’s Victoria later in the film than we might like, but who can resist Mirren using heavier artillery than she was allowed on Prime Suspect? The gravitas the actors bring makes it seem less like just another adaptation of a graphic novel, and more like a real movie. Even the bad guys are given some texture, notably the hit man given the job of getting Frank and the others. It turns out he has a family he loves very much. Richard Dreyfuss brings his best Dick Chaney impression over from Oliver Stone’s 2008 W. and it fits right in.

Yes, the plotting is a little sloppy, and maybe they did not need to fire that many rounds of ammunition, but the dry deadpan tone carries us through those excesses. And there is not a teenager in sight, glory be.

Two and a Half Men (2010. “Twanging Your Magic Clanger” episode teleplay by Eddie Gorodetsky & Chuck Lorre & Jim Patterson, story by Lee Aronsohn & Dan Foster. “The Crazy Bitch Gazette” episode teleplay by Dan Foster & Eddie Gorodetsky, story by Chuck Lorre & Lee Aronsohn. 30 minutes each.)

Two and a Half Men

Old age is creeping up on Charlie: As I mentioned in US#60, it looked as though the first episode(s) of this season were at least conceived when it was not yet clear if Charlie Sheen was going to be back on the show. These two episodes, broadcast immediately before and after his recent adventures in New York, focused on Charlie. In the first, he’s started dating Michelle, a dermatologist who took a growth off his ass. He is horrified to discover she is 47, at least, depending on who is counting, five years older than he is. Well, I can see his surprise. She is played by Liz Vassey, formerly Wendy Sims, one of the lab rats in CSI. Vassey is 38 and does not look older than 32, so in Hollywood terms, she was very brave to take this role. Charlie is bothered by the fact that he is dating an “older woman,” no matter how young she looks. He’s about accepted it when Michelle dumps him, telling him he is still thinking about Chelsea. Before then he’s learned Michelle has a babe-alicious daughter Shauna. We can tell he’s thinking of making out with her, but she tells him she once had sex with an old guy—who was 35. She says, “It was like having sex with my grandfather.” Charlie turns around, knocks on Michelle’s door and says, “Good news, I’m over Chelsea.”

In the next episode, Charlie and Michelle are having a nice dinner at a restaurant when Charlie’s mother Evelyn shows up. And then Alan. Michelle asks them to join her and Charlie. So she gets a first-hand view of his family. Here’s what makes the writing of this episode so good. We know Charlie and his family, so what we see and hear them do seems “natural” to us. But we can also see them from Michelle’s point of view. Charlie and Michelle go back to his house and are about to get it on when Jake knocks on the bedroom door. Charlie says he is not alone, and Jake starts guessing: Chelsea’s back? Mia? The hooker who—Charlie decides to let him have the car keys he asked for. Next morning Michelle meets Berta, who asks Charlie if she should make up his bed or if they are just taking a breather. Michelle seems to be taking all this surprisingly well, but then Rose, Charlie’s stalker, pops up over the railing of the balcony. It is just one crazy person too much for Michelle, and she leaves. Too bad, because Rose tells Charlie that she is getting married to a guy named Manfred Quinn. Alan starts looking for wedding presents, but Charlie is convinced the wedding will not take place. Alan and Charlie go to the church and peek inside and it looks like a wedding. They wander off and we see that except for Rose and the minister, everbody else is a plastic mannequin. We end with Alan and Charlie standing by a truck saying they are happy Rose is marrying good old Manny Quinn. They move and we see a truck labeled “Mannequins” on it. Rose triumphs again.

CSI (2010. “House of Hoarders” episode written by Christopher Barbour. 60 minutes.)

CSI

It’s full employment week for set decorators here at CSI: As I mentioned above, if you are writing screenplays, you are writing for performance. Usually that refers to the actors, or to the directors, as I did above, but it can also refer to the production designers and set decorators. In US#44 and the comments on it, we talked about what the writer of You Only Live Twice (1967) gave production designer Ken Adam to work with. In this episode of CSI, Barbour gave the set decorators a wonderful situation.

Nick and Sarah are called to a house full of junk. I mean really full, as in they can hardly get in the front door. The set folks have provided wonderful mountains of stuff they have to wade through. At which point they find a decaying corpse. Obviously the woman who owns the house. Except she soon turns up alive in one of the other rooms. OK, that’s the set-up, but having established the house full of junk, Barbour and the set decorators then develop it further. The corpse is the woman’s daughter. Ah, only one of the woman’s daughters. Eventually the CSI’s find a relatively clean area of the house where the owner has stashed stuff in nice, neat tupperware baskets. And the baskets are in a certain order. Which of course lead to…well, I’m not going to tell you, but it’s a corker and totally in keeping with what the writer and decorators have set up. You can look for the episode in reruns or on DVD or wherever you watch television these days.

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.