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Understanding Screenwriting #66: The King’s Speech, Tangled, Get Him to the Greek , & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #66: <em>The King’s Speech</em>, <em>Tangled</em>, <em>Get Him to the Greek</em> , & More

Coming Up in This Column: The King’s Speech, Tangled, Get Him to the Greek, In Love and War, but first…

Fan Mail: Well, I spoke too soon, didn’t I when I said the prospects of a “lively discussion” of the Hero’s Journey “sort of fizzled.” I am sorry it developed into a hissing contest between David Ehrenstein and “Juicer 243,” but they both made some good points first. As you know, I am more in tune with David’s view of the HJ than Juicer’s. Juicer seems to think it can apply to any movie, but he picked the three I mentioned that might fit, while ignoring the longer list of ones where the HJ does not seem to apply. Juicer seemed to assume that the writers of Citizen Kane (1941), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) were all students of the HJ, but none of them probably had ever heard of it. They were simply trying to make the most entertaining films they could. They succeeded, of course.

Juicer is also upset that I used the term “doctrinaire” about the HJ and uses the three films mentioned above as showing how creative the writers can be while seeming to fit their work into the pattern. The problem I have with a lot of screenwriting advice is that it is given and, worse, accepted as doctrine. Having taught screenwriting for forty years, I cannot tell you the number of students I have had that insisted they had to follow either the HJ, or Syd Field’s structure, or some other system. If the HJ helps you (and I was just talking this past week to a former student of mine who felt she learned a lot from Christopher Vogler’s book about it), then fine, but let’s not assume that is the only way to go.

While David and I agree about the HJ, we obviously disagree on Morocco (1930). He quotes the Fritz Lang line about how a screenplay is writing and a movie is pictures, as in, “Moving pictures they call them.” Well, yeah, but they need something more than just pretty pictures that move. If it were enough that you have beautiful pictures nicely cut together, Ryan’s Daughter (1970) would be the best movie of all time, hands down.

“Torontomovieguy” says he finds the column entertaining, “but I can’t say I better understand a damn thing about screenwriting because of it.” I suspect he is looking for the kind of truths the gurus like Field and Campbell et al provide, as in “The First Plot Point Should Be Between Pages 25 and 27.” This homey don’t do that. My approach is to see what we can tease out about screenwriting from watching films. So my tendency, as Juicer discovered, is not the Great Truths category but in looking at scripts and films with subtlety and nuance. I do agree with Toronto that the column, as all criticism is, is subjective. Guilty as charged on that one.

The King’s Speech (2010. Written by David Seidler. 118 minutes)

The King's Speech

Seventy years in the making. No, really: When Seidler was a small boy at the beginning of World War II he was sent off on a ship with a group of other British children to the safety of America. Some safety. Another ship in the convoy, full of Italian prisoners of war, was sunk by German U-boats. Seidler began to stutter. He listened to King George VI on the radio during the war and learned that the king had been a stutterer himself. Steidler wanted to write about the king from his undergraduate days, but did not get down to it until the late ’70s. By then he had heard stories about Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist who had helped the king. Seidler contacted Logue’s family, who said they would give him Logue’s notebooks only if he could get permission from the king’s widow, the Queen Mother. He wrote to her and she asked him not to do anything until after she passed away. OK, she was elderly at the time…and lived another 28 years. Seidler eventually got back to the script, and his wife and writing partner thought his first draft showed him trying to be too cinematic. She suggested he write it as a stage play. He did, but the stage producer he got it to told him, “This would make a really great movie!” Back to the screenplay format. About the time it was ready to go into production with the current director and cast, he got a call from Logue’s grandson, who wanted to know if he wanted Logue’s notebooks. Seidler almost did not look at them, but the director, Tom Hooper, insisted he did. Seidler found his other research had been accurate and the notebooks just added some nice details. Whew! (Seidler’s adventures are from Jeremy Smith’s article on Seidler and the film in the November/December 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting; the article has a lot more than what I have just given you.)

Some reviews have assumed the picture is just a standard “British heritage” film, and there are certainly elements of that. Some of those, such as the business of King George’s older brother David giving up the throne for “the woman I love,” are stuff we have seen before, although David is a lot less sympathetic than he is usually portrayed (and about time), as is Wallis Simpson, his paramour. Hooper, the director, loved the script when he first read it and told Seidler, “This is the best script I’ve ever been sent. If we were two weeks from filming, I would be sleeping well tonight.” Seidler comments, “Fifty drafts later, I reminded him of that.” This film is a great example of how much the development and rewriting of the script can bring out the best in the material. The David-Wallis scenes are different versions of what we have seen, and Seidler gets into “Bertie,” as George was nicknamed by his intimates, with astonishing subtlety and depth. Either because of his research or his own history as a stutterer, Seidler has a great feel for what drove Bertie. We get some scenes of Bertie with the royal family that suggest the lack of warmth and parental affection, but mostly Seidler gets Bertie’s agonies across in what he says and does, and doesn’t say and doesn’t do with Logue. This was probably all much more obvious in the earlier drafts. It is the sort of element in the script that can be improved with smart revisions.

That subtlety shows up in other ways. Seidler originally used Winston Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury as something of a comic Greek chorus commenting on the action. It would have been a legitimate and entertaining way to go, but at Hooper’s insistence, who felt it was too theatrical, it was condensed. What ends up in the script is something much subtler. The two men’s reactions, and those of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, to Bertie and his situation comment on the action without overtly commenting on it. Look and listen at the Archbishop’s reactions to the preparations for the Coronation in Westminster Abbey as an example.

The heart of the movie is the relationship between Bertie and Logue, and it is unconventional, to say the least. I suspect earlier drafts of the script had Bertie with several other therapists he had before Logue. We are now down to one, which is all we need, along with a quick line from Bertie about how he is not going to go to any more, letting us know there have been others. Logue insists on treating Bertie in his own very down-scale house (without telling his wife, which leads to a simply wonderful quiet scene when the wife comes home early one day and discovers the Queen Mother in her kitchen and the king in the parlor). We get several great one-on-one scenes with Logue and Bertie, and Seidler sets a great balance between the two of them. Logue is supposed to be a bit over-the-top, but Geoffrey Rush doesn’t take him too far. Some of this is the writing, some is the direction, and some may be Rush and Colin Firth, the latter in the best performance he has ever given, figuring out how to play off each other. Film, as they say, is a collaborative art.

Seidler has also written a great part for Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen Mother. She pushes her husband into getting the treatment he needs, and serves as a warm counterpoint to the more dramatic Bertie-Logue scenes. Seidler’s Archbishop is a much better role for Derek Jacobi than Peter Morgan wrote for him in Hereafter (see US#65). Churchill is pretty much standard issue Winston, but Stanley Baldwin is well-drawn as is Bertie and David’s father, King George V, who only has a couple of scenes, but that’s all he needs.

In addition to fine character work, Seidler has also beautifully structured the film. We begin with Bertie making his first public radio broadcast in 1929, and it is a disaster. So when he has to make a broadcast at the end of the film after WWII starts, we know what is at stake. Kudos to the production, by the way, for beautifully using what I take is a museum recreation of the BBC radio equipment room. We see it in the opening sequence and realize Bertie’s embarrassing moment is going out all over the world. And we see people reacting to it. At the end, we know his good speech is also going out to the world, and we again see the people’s reactions to it. David’s decision to give up the throne comes about midway in the film. Bertie has been working with Logue, but becoming king ups the pressure both on Bertie and on his relationship with Logue and moves the story forward.

A word on Tom Hooper’s direction. If, like me, you were appalled at his crazy-ass use of Dutch angles in the HBO miniseries John Adams (2008), you may be avoiding The King’s Speech. He does not use those angles here. Whew! His affectation this time is the overuse of the wide-angle lens. This distorts some of the faces in close-up, which is OK in scenes such as the one with the first speech therapist, but limits Hooper to not moving the camera in certain scenes. If you move the camera with a wide-angle lens, you can get very disorienting images, which you do not need here. So his affectation at least keeps him from moving the camera any more than he has to. Thank God for small mercies. And Hooper is just as good at directing actors as he was in John Adams.

Tangled (2010. Written by Dan Fogelman. Inspired by a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm, but since they don’t have an agent at the moment, there is no mention of it in the credits. 100 minutes)

Tangled

Good feet and subversion: In the book of Understanding Screenwriting, I wrote briefly about the 2003 animated film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas as an example of a bad screenplay for an animated film. I said that except for one thing nothing in the script required animation. The exception was the evil goddess Eris’s hair, which was brilliantly animated. Then I asked, “But will an audience pay ten dollars just to see great animated hair?” Judging by the box office for Tangled, you might think so, but the brilliantly animated hair in Tangled is not the only thing in it. Notice I used the word “just” in the book. As I have mentioned in talking about other animated films, you are writing for the performances of the animators. In this retelling of “Rapunzel,” everybody knew from the word go that the hair was going to be the star of the movie, and Fogelman and the animators are up to the challenge. Like the runaway train in Unstoppable (2010), it is a character unto itself. Look at all the different ways Rapunzel and the others use her hair: ladders, swings, ropes, etc.

There is more than just the hair, however. The story is a lively and entertaining. Not on a par with Up (2009) or Toy Story 3 (2010), but what is? Rapunzel wants to break out of the tower Mother Gothel has kept her prisoner in. Flynn Ryder, a charming thief, sets her free because he wants a satchel he stole that she took from him. Well, anyway, they meet cute. Her wanting to see the floating lights drives the story along and eventually connects her with her real parents, who, this being a fairy tale after all, are the king and queen. I do admire Fogelman, however, for not having a last-minute twist in which Flynn turns out to be royalty as well. If I were his new in-laws, I am not sure I would be totally comfortable having him gamboling about the palace, but he did return their daughter.

So Rapunzel and Flynn go on a journey, and as always, the question is, what are the details of the journey? Who do they meet and what happens to them? I particularly liked the den of thieves, who get a nice musical number (as does Mother Gothel—well, if you have Donna Murphy doing the voice, you’d damned well better give her a good number). The music is by multi-award winner Alan Menken and it may not be up to his best scores, but it does the job. The story deals mostly with humans, but there are a couple of nice non-human characters. One is Maximus, the horse of the captain of the guard, and the other is Pascal, Rapunzel’s chameleon. Pascal is a nice piece of animation because he never talks or sings, but shows us his emotions through his expression, both on his face and with his body and its changing colors. Fogelman and the animators do a lot of good comic work, as in a slapstick scene where Rapunzel is trying to push Flynn into the closet. There is a nice running gag involving a frying pan, which is almost as much of a character as her hair. And the animators also do feet well. Rapunzel is barefoot for a good portion of the film, and animators traditionally have avoided bare feet. Think about it and you can see why. I admire the animators’ courage and skill in taking on her tootsies in this one. If you have a fetish for animated feet, this is the film of the year for you. (Yeah, let’s see Disney use that as a blurb.)

Fogelman’s script also includes the most subversive line of dialogue heard in an American film this year. Rapunzel’s hair is gold all the way through the film, but when it loses its power (part of a couple of plot twists at the end that make no sense, but by then who cares?), it turns brown. And what does Flynn say? “Did I tell you I have a thing for brunettes?” That line goes by so fast it did not register with the audience I saw the film with, but think what that means for the Blonde Industry if guys start liking brunettes instead.

Get Him to the Greek (2010. Written by Nicholas Stoller, based on characters created by Jason Segel. 109 minutes)

Get Him to the Greek

Not such a good idea: I liked Stoller’s previous film as a director, the 2008 Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which was written by Segel. It is a rom-com, but unlike so many films, it actually gets better as it goes along. Peter, trying to get over a breakup with his girlfriend Sarah, flies off to Hawaii for a vacation. Guess who shows up at the same hotel? With her new rock star boyfriend. You might expect the usual rom-com high jinks, but the second half of the movie gets into the situation in increasing depth but without losing the funny. As Peter tries to deal with the situation, he meets an increasingly strange gallery of characters. The cute girl he meets turns out to have just as much of a dark side as the rest of them. And it all ends up with a puppet show. So I was interested to see the follow-up, but not enough to get around to it when it was in theaters this summer. Hello Netflix.

According to Adam Stovall’s interview with Stoller in the May/June 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting, Stoller got the idea for Greek during rehearsals for Marshall as he was watching Russell Brand and Jonah Hill play well together. He figured he could put them together in a film. He decided to take the rock star Brand was playing, Aldous Snow, and make him the main character. Bad choice. In Marshall, Snow is a great character in relatively small doses. His freakiness is a messy counterpoint to Peter and the other characters. But a little of Snow goes a long way, and making him the lead is going longer than is entertaining. Hill’s character is not the waiter from Marshall, but a minor music industry worker. He is given the job of getting Snow to appear live on Your Show of Shows…oops, sorry, that was the 1982 film My Favorite Year, where a TV production assistant is given the job of getting a Hollywood matinee idol onto a live TV show. Yes, the plot is essentially the same, but Stoller has not developed the characters and the situations as well as the writers of the earlier film did. Hill’s character, Aaron Green, is a very one-note character, and Stoller has not written in many interesting reactions for him to have to Snow’s antics. Hill’s performance becomes very repetitive very quickly, as does Brand’s, for that matter. Stoller has not written in many reactions for the other characters as well. Look at the scene with the airline check-in clerk who seems more amused with Brand’s performance than with what Snow is doing.

Stoller ran a series of rehearsals for what he called “focused improvising,” with material created put into the script and film. Unfortunately, this is mostly in the form of jokes, some of which work and some of which don’t. Instead of spending time with the characters, we are only getting jokes, which means that Stoller does not have anywhere to go. Well, he sort of did. He decided that he wanted the ending to be a threeway with Snow, Green and Green’s girlfriend Daphne. But Stoller has not really prepared us for that, or the other abrupt changes of character that Snow and Green go through. Whereas Marshall built and built to its ending, Greek dribbles away into not much.

In Love and War (1958. Screenplay by Edward Anhalt, based on the novel The Big War by Anton Myrer. 111 minutes by IMDb, 100 minutes for print run on Fox Movie Channel)

In Love and War

If you buy only one DVD of a 1958 World War II film scripted by Edward Anhalt… this is not the one to get: That’s the year Anhalt adapted Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions, which is one of the best of the ’50s WWII movies. Its characters have depth and the film deals with real issues.

In Love and War is from a lesser novel, although it was a bestseller in its day. The novel tells the story of three different Boston-area men who go into the Marines and fight in the Pacific. The film was going to be made in New England, but for budgetary reasons the locations were shifted to the San Francisco area. It makes for a much prettier movie. The producer of the film was Jerry Wald, whom I discussed a bit in talking about Wild in the Country (1961) in US#39. Wald was constantly having Anhalt rewrite scenes, and it looks as though whatever life was in the script got squeezed out. The director was Philip Dunne, who normally only directed scripts he had written. He got called in on this one because he was under contract to Fox and did not have any other project going on the time. He liked working for Wald, as frustrating as he could be, and later did Wild in the County with him. Dunne did some rewriting here, including the final scene, since he was ready to shoot it even though Wald had not yet signed off on the script. The next day the script with the official ending showed up and Dunne wired back to Wald, “Look, I shot the ending yesterday.” (The information on the film is from the oral history I did with Dunne and his wonderful 1980 memoir, Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics.)

Part of the reason the studio wanted to do the film was to provide a showcase for its younger stars, such as Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, Bradford Dillman, Hope Lange, Sheree North and France Nuyen. They are all adequate, but the script does not give them the kind of characters to play that Anhalt’s script for The Young Lions gives to Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin, and Maximilian Schell. Jerry Wald had one of his typical ideas: let’s write in a part for Mort Sahl, then a hot young comedian with a youthful following. The idea was that Sahl would just ad-lib bits, but that turned out to be a disaster, so old Hollywood hands like Dunne and Anhalt had to write stuff for him that more or less fit the story and scenes. The one everybody remembers is Sahl answering a radio with “Good morning. World War II.” Then having gone along with Sahl’s casting, the studio refused to give him any kind of top billing since it was not in his contract, so whatever box office he might have brought was eliminated. The Young Lions brought in $2 million more in film rentals than In Love and War, but it cost $2 million more, so they both made about the same profit for the studio.

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.