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Understanding Screenwriting #65: Hereafter, Fair Game, Morocco, The Good Wife, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #65: <em>Hereafter</em>, <em>Fair Game</em>, <em>Morocco</em>, <em>The Good Wife</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Hereafter, Fair Game, Morocco, Casanova Brown, Yellow Sky, The Good Wife, but first…

Fan Mail: What we all hoped would be a lively discussion of the Hero’s Journey sort of fizzled out. As always David Ehrenstein had a couple of good zingers about the Journey’s use in Hollywood, and I loved “Joel”’s logic on why it makes all movies good. But “Juicer243” really let the side down. Rather than engaging with the issues I raised, he simply repeated his ad for a website and then resorted to the old, “if you don’t like it, it’s probably that you don’t really get it.” The other possibility is that I really get it and that’s why I don’t like it. As we have all discovered in politics, religion and film, it’s hard to have an interesting discussion with a True Believer.

The problem I have with any doctrinaire approach to screenwriting (or the creation of any art for that matter) is that it limits the creative mind. I mentioned three films in my rant that you could maybe fit into the Hero’s Journey: Citizen Kane (1941), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), but what makes those films interesting is not the Hero’s Journey pattern, but all the details the writers of those films use to fill out the patterns (yes, that’s plural) of the film. Look at them if you don’t believe me.

Hereafter (2010. Written by Peter Morgan. 129 minutes)

Will somebody around here please call rewrite?: I am afraid I have beaten you over the head (in US#11, 18, 40, among others) about how Clint Eastwood tends to shoot first drafts, even when the scripts need work. Well, here’s another one that needed a lot of revision, and Peter Morgan knew it, as he told an interviewer in the November 6th Creative Screenwriting Weekly. He had done a first draft and passed it to his agent, just to gets notes on it. The agent passed it on to producer Kathleen Kennedy, who passed it to her producing partner Steven Spielberg, who passed it on to Eastwood. Who wanted to do it and did not go along with Morgan’s request to do revisions.

As often with first drafts, the script is very slow getting going. That may sound odd since the opening scene is French journalist Marie LeLay getting caught in a large tsunami and drowning. She comes back to life, but is haunted by the other side that she has seen. The sequence is spectacular, but the script slows down after that. We then meet George, who has the gift for communicating with those who have passed over. He used to do it professionally, but has given up. He finds it more of a curse than a blessing, especially since he is legitimate. We get a lot more than we need about his not wanting to do it and a job he has on the docks of San Francisco. Why do we need all that stuff about his job? We don’t and it should have been cut. We then meet twin boys in London, Marcus and Jason, and we get a lot more than we need about them before Jason is killed in an accident. Then we get a lot more than we need about Marie’s job as a television host of a newsmagazine in France. She’s still feeling the effects of her death-experience, so her boss and lover encourages her to take time off and write a book. So she gets a contract to write a book about…François Mitterand. Huh? What does that have to do with death experiences? So after a long discussion with the publisher about Mitterand, she ends up writing a book about, well, it’s sort of hard to say what it’s about. Some of what we hear makes it appear to be about her own death experiences. But on the other hand, she goes to visit a scholar of death and death-like experiences, who assures her it’s all real and there are mountains of scientific evidence. The good scholar gives her piles of folders, but we never find out what is in them. Morgan is trying to do what Spielberg claimed he was trying to do in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Morgan is using a fiction film to try to persuade us of a scientific truth, just as Spielberg said that he hoped audiences would believe there really were flying saucers after they saw his film. Sorry guys, I love many films by both of you, but that’s something that fiction does not do. Why not? Because you are trying to provide fictional evidence of factual events. For purposes of fiction we will, at least for the length of the work, believe anything that entertains us, whether we accept it in real life or not. How many people who like Shakespeare’s Macbeth actually believe in witches?

So Marie takes her manuscript back to the publisher, who does not want to publish it, and the film implies he’s a bad person for doing this. Sorry, but Marie, who seems reasonably smart elsewhere in the film, comes across as the idiot here. She has contracted with a publisher of political books to do a book about a politician, and then violates her contract by delivering a manuscript that has nothing to do with politics. One of the elements I like in both Morgan and Eastwood’s work elsewhere is that both men seem to have a sense of humor, which has totally gone missing here. The French publisher suggests that maybe an English or American publisher might be interested, and it is written and played as though he is just trying to be helpful. Did neither Morgan nor Eastwood get the joke? The French guy thinks that the English and the Americans are the only ones gullible enough to want to read her story.

Back in San Francisco, George is taking a class in Italian cooking (and way too much time is spent on that as well) and he is paired up with Melanie. This leads to one of the best scenes in the picture, in which George tells her why he has given up doing readings, and then agrees to do a reading with her that does not go that well. In this scene there is something at stake emotionally for both of them, and it is dramatic rather than ploddingly literal the way other scenes have been. It is a given in the script that George truly does have the gift, but it might be more fun if we, and/or him, never knew for sure. Morgan does deal with the fake psychics, but confines them to a sequence were Marcus is trying to find somebody to connect him with his dead brother. Morgan and Eastwood skate over what could be a terrific counterpoint to the rest of the story.

With a lot of pulling and shoving, Morgan gets the three characters we have been following to London. Marcus, who has seen George’s website, recognizes him at a book fair, and wears him down into doing a reading. George connects with Jason, although I thought I detected a slight glint in Matt Damon’s eye that suggested George was just telling Marcus what he needed to hear, but by then it was late in a picture that was not working for me. George/Jason gives Marcus the sort of homilies you would expect a dead ten-year-old to give to his brother. Meanwhile, George has heard Melanie give a reading and is attracted to her. He writes a letter to her, presumably asking her to meet him at a mall coffee shop. She does and they are—wait a minute. What did he say in the letter? We never get to read it, and we never hear from it in either his or her voiceover. And why would George be interested, aside from the fact that Damon and Cécile de France, who plays Marie, are the two prettiest people in the film? We have no idea, since one of the big plot holes in the film is that while George and Marcus have a connection (George talks to dead people, Marcus wants to talk to one), George and Marie don’t. Yes, she was dead, but now she is back among the living, and we have had no indication that there was anybody on the other side she needed to talk to.

Another small point, this one about characterization. George listens to audio book versions of Charles Dickens novels and when he is at the book fair, he attends a reading from Little Dorritt by Derek Jacobi, playing himself. I saw Jacobi play Cyrano brilliantly at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles in 1984, and then off-stage with his cast-mates going wherever they were off to. Jacobi is a much more interesting character in person than Morgan makes him out to be.

Fair Game (2010. Screenplay by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth, based on the books The Politics of Truth by Joseph Wilson and Fair Game by Valerie Plame. 108 minutes)

Fair Game

A slightly different screenwriting problem: If Peter Morgan’s job on Hereafter was to get us to buy the premise so we would buy the bit, as Johnny Carson used to put it, the Butterworths have a more complicated job. Morgan simply had to establish for that film that the rules involved life after death. The Butterworths are condensing into less than two hours several events that not only happened in real life, but were publicly known and argued about in the media. In case you missed it, Valerie Plame was an undercover C.I.A. agent who was outed by the Bush administration. Joe Wilson, her husband, had pointed out in a New York Times piece that he found there was no evidence that Iraq was trying to buy yellow cake uranium from Niger. The sale of yellow cake uranium was one of the pieces of “intelligence” the Bush administration used to try to persuade people that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction. So what the Butterworths are dealing with is a very complicated story that is also politically controversial. They have to keep the story clear to the audience, but not simplify it so much we don’t believe it. They do an adequate but not perfect job.

They focus on Plame and Wilson, particularly the former. We meet her in the middle of an operation, and over the opening scenes she changes identity at least a couple of times. She is smart and professional. Once we get her established as an experienced agent, we get her with her husband, and one of the major focuses of the film is on how their marriage survived throughout their ordeal. I suspect this comes from the two books, but it is also in the American film tradition of telling political stories through individual characters. At least some of the reviews have felt there may be too much family material. I am not sure there is too much of it, but some of those scenes have the feeling of the writers reading them in the books or hearing about them from the principals and deciding, “That’s too good to pass up.” Some, such as Wilson’s pre-Iraq War talk to a small class, have some nice lines in them, but I am not sure you needed that entire scene. Even though they are telling a “true story” here, the Butterworths could have condensed the family material even more than they probably already did. I notice that there are a couple of scenes with the Wilsons and their friends, and I suspect there were probably more in the earlier drafts of the script, since the friends include such relatively high-priced actors as Ty Burrell and Jessica Hecht. We may yet see a “director’s cut” that includes more of those scenes.

The Butterworths have made some interesting choices in handling the political side of the story. President Bush and Vice President Cheney are only seen on television in news clips, while Karl Rove and Scooter Libby are played by actors. Adam LeFevre looks so much like Rove that when we see the real Rove in the TV clips, we hardly notice the difference. Rove is not a particularly well-written part, rather like Jacobi in Hereafter, and LeFevre does not do that much with it. David Andrews is fine as Libby, partially because he is given more to work with, and the character really carries the burden in the film of the nastiness of the Bush administration. We do get other scenes that at least show some of the determination of the administration to find the right kind of intelligence so they can go to war. There is a particularly good scene early in the film where a flunky from Cheney’s office comes to the C.I.A. to persuade them that the aluminum tubes are for nuclear materials, and the C.I.A. analysts, including Plame, just take him apart. It makes you wish the media had done that in the run-up to the war.

If you followed the story in the press, you may be bothered by missing details, since as the U.N. nuclear inspection teams visits to Iraq and what they found and did not find. I am sure that if you are a Bush supporter, you may be appalled that the film is making heroes about of people you feel were traitors. There is a nice emotional scene where Wilson is trying to restart his consulting business. He is having lunch with two potential clients in a Washington restaurant when what I think is supposed to be a reporter comes up and starts yelling at the potential clients about what a traitor Wilson is. It is the feature film equivalent of what Robert Greenwald has done in a number of his films that show the wretched excesses of the political right. That the filmmakers could have done more of. The filmmakers on this one may have tried to be too balanced.

Morocco (1930. Screenplay by Jules Furthman, based on the play Amy Jolly by Benno Vigny. 92 minutes)

Morocco

Good script, terrible direction: As I mentioned in writing about Nightmare Alley in US#46, the Screenwriting Historiographers Code require that any time Jules Furthman is mentioned, Pauline Kael’s line that Furthman “has written about half of the most entertaining movies to come out of Hollywood” must be used. You can read a little more about Furthman in that item. Now, down to business.

Furthman had been contributing stories and screenplays to movies since 1915, and in the late ’20s, he wrote five screenplays that were directed by Josef Von Sternberg. Those scripts tended to be in the realistic vein that Von Sternberg favored at the time, as in the 1928 film The Docks of New York. Von Sternberg went off to Germany and made The Blue Angel (1930), which made a star of Marlene Dietrich and convinced Von Sternberg to move more towards the exotic. Given Furthman’s versatility, it is not surprising that he wrote three films in that style for Von Sternberg. Morocco is the first of the three, and while Furthman found his footing right away, it took Von Sternberg another picture to get into the groove.

Morocco begins with a French Foreign Legion unit returning to town. Furthman had just written another Foreign Legion picture, Renegades, before taking on Morocco, so maybe he was in the right mood. As the soldiers are lined up in town, one Legionnaire, Tom Brown, is making hand signals to a woman he intends to meet later. His sergeant asks him what he is doing with this hands, and this being a pre-Production Code film, Brown replies, “Nothing…yet.” Unfortunately, Von Sternberg’s direction takes forever to get to the line. We see more marching of the Legion than we need, both here and everywhere else in the picture. And Von Sternberg loves his shadows, often holding a beautiful shot Lee Garmes, his cinematographer, has set up for him.

Brown becomes attracted to the new singer in the nightclub, Amy Jolly, and they flirt and more. Brown is played by Gary Cooper before he resorted to being excessively folksy (see below) and boy, is he sexy. Dietrich smolders as Amy, but Von Sternberg has her, and everybody else, read their lines at a snail’s pace, with enough pauses for any two Antonioni films you could name. Cooper and Adolphe Menjou, who plays the older man Amy is also involved with, are good enough to make the slow delivery work for them, but the others are at sea. So you have to wait for the good Furthman lines. Just try not to fall asleep.

Two years later Furthman’s script for Shanghai Express is even better and tighter and Von Sternberg learned how to direct that sort of thing. Someday I’ll deal with that film in this column.

Casanova Brown (1944. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the play The Little Accident by Thomas Mitchell and Floyd Dell, and the book An Unmarried Father by Floyd Dell. 94 minutes)

Casanova Brown

Gary Cooper, post Production Code: In 1943 Nunnally Johnson left his contract at 20th Century-Fox, and on the advice of his lawyers and agents became a partner in a new company called International. They pointed out to him that as a co-owner in the company he would be making money that was taxed at a lower rate than his salary at Fox had been. Johnson also thought he might not be tied down as much in terms of subject matter as he had been working for Darryl Zanuck at Fox. Johnson’s first International project is the sort of thing that Zanuck and Fox might have stayed away from.

Casanova Brown is based on a novel by Floyd Dell and a Broadway play by Dell and Thomas Mitchell. Dell is virtually forgotten now, but he was a very influential left-wing critic and author in the first decades of the twentieth century. He hung out with the New York left-wing intelligentsia, including John Reed and Louise Bryant (Max Wright, who is not nearly as handsome as Dell was, plays him in what amounts to a cameo in the 1981 film Reds). He actively supported feminist causes, and was writing about feminism early in the teens. His 1927 novel An Unmarried Father is about a man about to be married who discovers that a woman he had a quick fling with is giving up the baby she had with him. She has no desire to be a mother. The man kidnaps the baby and shows that fathers can take care of kids as well as or better than mothers. The following year Dell, who also wrote plays, collaborated with the actor Thomas Mitchell on an adaptation of the novel called The Little Accident. What appealed to Mitchell was the potential farce of a father taking care of a baby. The play had a good run of 303 performances, and became the basis for a 1930 film of the same name, although in that film the man discovers that his fiancée is the one who had the baby. There was also a French version in 1932 called A Father Without Knowning It (the title suggests it was more faithful to the play than the 1930 film), as well as a 1939 American film under the original title, but with the plot changed to be about the baby after the father gives it up.

Nunnally had seen the original play and liked it, but he realized that although International was an independent company, it still had to submit films to the Production Code. So while there are a lot of jokes that suggest Casanova Brown is an unmarried father, we learn about half an hour into the film that he had in fact married Isabel. James Agee hit the nail on the head in his review in The Nation (reprinted in Agee on Film, Volume One) when he noted “It is also the first production of International Pictures, a new ’independent’ corporation for which both [Gary] Cooper and Johnson will produce from now on. I put independent in quotes without vindictiveness or deep sorrow, merely to indicate that, judging by Casanova Brown, nothing independent in any interesting sense is likely to come from the new studio. It’s just Hollywood with its stays a little loosened; but even that is better than nothing, and far better than the bad serious stuff which independent producers sometimes attempt.” Looking at the film now, almost seventy years later, it seems even more dated than it did to Agee. We get a lot more explicitness about sex every night on network television, not to mention cable.

There was another problem with the script. I used to think that Nunnally, because he was something of an old-fashioned Southern gentleman, probably could not conceive, as Floyd Dell could, of a woman who would give up a baby. However, I was mentioning this movie to Nunnally’s daughter Roxie, and she told me that Nunnally’s first wife Alice left their daughter Marjorie (who grew up to become a film editor) with her mother after the divorce so she could go off and have adventures. I knew Alice was an adventurous free-spirit, but I did not know that included passing off the baby to her mom. So Nunnally had a first-hand example of Dell’s character in his own experience. Perhaps his Isabel is an attempt to write the Alice-Marjorie story. In Nunnally’s script, Isabel is obviously letting Casanova know about the baby because she wants to get back together with him. That is obvious to us, but not to Casanova, but which makes him a little on the stupid side. It also takes away any motivation to steal the baby. Nunnally was normally great at giving all his characters motivations, but he does not here. This is one of the very few films I know, from Nunnally Johnson or anyone else, where the movie is better than the script. It is not because of the director (Sam Wood’s direction is lethargic), but because of the star. Gary Cooper, even in his folksy mode here, makes us believe he is doing the right thing because, well, he is Gary Cooper, for God’s sake.

Yellow Sky (1948. Screenplay by Lamar Trotti, based on a story by W.R. Burnett. 98 minutes)

Yellow Sky

No, it’s not another adaptation of Burnett’s The Asphalt Jungle: See US#58 for an explanation of that snarky sub-head.

The 1950 film The Gunfighter is now considered one of the classic westerns, and a forerunner of the adult westerns of the ’50s and beyond. Yellow Sky, on the other hand, is almost forgotten now, which is too bad, because it’s a solid picture. Trotti gets things off to a nice start when a group of seven guys ride into town, have a couple of drinks at the saloon, lustfully eye the painting of the naked lady above the bar, and then very politely…rob the bank. A posse gives chase, killing one of the gang, but the gang escapes across what was probably Death Valley. The gang ends up in Yellow Sky, a ghost town. They intend to hide out while their horses recover from the desert. The only people living near the town are “Mike,” a tough tomboy, and her grandfather. It slowly dawns on the gang that the only reason Mike and the grandfather are there is that they must have struck gold or silver and are hiding it somewhere. We get a lot of nice character scenes as everybody decides what to do about the situation, and we end up back in the bank that was robbed in a scene that nicely mirrors the robbery.

Trotti, one of the top writers at Fox, gives us some wonderful characterizations for the gang members as well as Mike and Grandpa, so we are perfectly willing to sit around and listen to them. That is also because Trotti as producer, William Wellman as director, and Joe MacDonald as cinematographer have beautifully utilized the locations of the first town, the salt flats and especially the ghost town. According to a trivia item on the IMDb, Gregory Peck thought he was miscast as the gang leader, but he’s not. He’s tough, but not mean, and we can believe how gentlemanly he becomes.

I mentioned The Gunfighter earlier because in spite of its critical acclaim at the time, it did less business than Yellow Sky. Rudy Behlmer, in his book Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck, includes a memo Zanuck wrote to Nunnally Johnson, who produced The Gunfighter and wrote the last draft of the screenplay for it. Zanuck is writing during the first weeks of The Gunfighter’s release and comparing how it did in relation to Yellow Sky. He thinks that Gunfighter broke too many rules (Peck wearing a moustache, which audiences of young girls at the Roxy Theater in New York hated; Peck dying at the end, etc). He writes, “Yellow Sky, in my opinion, is not half the picture that The Gunfighter is. Yet it went more into a formula mold and obviously had broader popular appeal.” Then he added, “But, on the other hand, there was certainly no formula mold about The Snake Pit (1948; an exposé of conditions in mental hospitals that was a big hit) and look what it did…” According to Aubrey Solomon’s book Twentieth Century-Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Yellow Sky brought in $2.8 million dollars in film rentals, while The Gunfighter made only $1.95 million.

The Good Wife (2010. “On Tap” episode written by Leonard Dick. 30 minutes)

The Good Wife

Using the material the story gives you: This episode is one of the best examples I have seen of using a plot detail as fully as you can. Alicia’s firm is hired to defend Matthew Wade, a Chicago alderman, who is accused of taking money from Muslim extremists. Part of the government’s evidence that is turned over to the firm is hours and hours of wiretaps. O., you are the writer, what can you do with wiretaps from this case? The first thing is that they help the case. So our guys find that Wade was just joking around about Muslim extremists. Yeah, but was he really joking? Well, late in the episode (you don’t want to have it too early for obvious reasons), we learn one of the people whom he was joking with was a Chicago politician who now works for…a certain family living in a big white house in Washington, D.C. Needless to say, the prosecutors beat a hasty retreat. If you watch the episode, listen to how Dick lets us know slowly as we listen to the tape and the lawyers involved talk about it what the significance of it is.

Fine, that’s the main plot. But what else can you do with the taps? What else can Alicia hear? For one thing, she hears Eli Gold on the tapes, and realizes it is not just Wade’s phone that is being tapped, but Eli’s. Yeah, her husband’s campaign manager, whom she talks to all the time about…everything. Watch her try to avoid talking to Eli the next time he is on the phone. Does she tell Eli or not? In terms of legal ethics she is not supposed to reveal what she hears. Fortunately Diane takes that out of her hands and tells Eli, since Eli a) is a client of the firm, and b) Diane is setting up to leave the firm (I hope she doesn’t; we’ll miss her) and wants to take Eli’s business with her.

One of the reasons the firm is taking Wade’s case is that Will and Wade are buddies who play basketball together. So Will shows up on one of the tapes. Guess what he’s talking about? About how he sent those two messages to Alicia, one calling it all off, and the second saying he did not want to call it off between them. You may remember that Eli had Alicia’s cellphone at the time, heard both messages and deleted the second one. So Alicia never heard it, but Will assumes she did and did not want to restart their not-yet affair. Now Alicia knows about the second call. So she goes to Will’s office, and is about to say something when Will’s new fling comes in. Another missed opportunity.

And that’s how you use what may at first seem like just a single plot element in as many interesting ways as you can.

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.