House Logo
Explore categories +

Understanding Screenwriting #67: True Grit, The Tourist, & Black Swan

Comments Comments (0)

Understanding Screenwriting #67: <em>True Grit</em>, <em>The Tourist</em>, & <em>Black Swan</em>

Coming Up in This Column: True Grit, The Tourist, Black Swan, but first…

Fan Mail: I’m sorry David, but Ryan’s Daughter is “all that bad.”

True Grit (1969. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts. 128 minutes; 2010. Screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen. 110 minutes. Based on the novel by Charles Portis.)

How is this movie different from the other?: Charles Portis’s novel came out in 1968 and everybody, and I mean everybody, knew that the role of “Rooster” Cogburn, a fat, one-eyed marshal dragged by a tough 14 year-old-girl into tracking down her father’s killer, was perfect for John Wayne. Wayne knew it and bid for the film rights. He was outbid by producer Hal Wallis. Wayne called Wallis to complain, and Wallis told him there was only one actor he wanted for the role: Wayne.

The screenplay was assigned to Roberts, whom I wrote about in US#45. She had been blacklisted in the ’50s, but came back in the ’60s, and by this time had already written one western for Wallis, Five Card Stud (1968). She was a perfect choice for the script. She had grown up in Colorado and California, loved horses, and loved men. Since the main character of the novel was the girl, Mattie Ross, Roberts’s being a woman helped as well. Roberts agreed with interviewer Tina Daniell that True Grit was probably her “most fully realized screenplay,” at least in part because nobody changed anything. (The interview with Roberts is in Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle’s hugely entertaining and informative 1997 book Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist. The material above on Wallis and Wayne is from Bernard F. Dick’s Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars and Randy Roberts and James S. Olson’s John Wayne: American [the most thorough biography of Wayne I’ve found]. Additional material is going to be from and Polly Platt’s oral history interview with Henry Hathaway in Henry Hathaway, edited by Rudy Behlmer.)

Roberts’s screenplay begins with Mattie’s father about to go off to Fort Smith to buy ponies for their farm. He is shot and killed there by his drunken farmhand Tom Chaney as he tries to keep Chaney from killing somebody else. I suspect Roberts spends as much time as she does on these scenes because the story is Mattie’s story and Roberts wants to establish her at the farm with her father before Cogburn shows up and Wayne takes over the picture. Roberts also foregoes what must have been an enormous temptation to use the language of the novel as narration. Portis writes the story as an older Mattie’s first person account of what happened, and more than one critic has compared the writing, not unfavorably, to Mark Twain, particularly The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Roberts foregoes narration and lets the story play out on its own, letting Portis’s dialogue carry the literary load.

Mattie “hires” Cogburn to go into the Indian territories to hunt down Chaney. Accompanying them is a Texas Ranger, La Boeuf, who is on Chaney’s trail as well. La Boeuf, as Roberts writes him, is a young guy who is not particularly impressed with Cogburn, so we have a now standard-issue young cop-old cop relationship. Cogburn is colorful and bombastic, but Roberts has written some nice quieter moments for him as well, including a campfire scene where he tells Mattie about his wife going back to her first husband. Roberts, as well as everybody else on the picture, knew this was a John Wayne movie, and her writing plays to his strengths. That’s not only his image as the great American cowboy, but also his warmth, which had begun to show up in his westerns in the ’60s. Ethan Edwards was not a warm person. Roberts of course gives Cogburn and Wayne the scene everybody remembers from the film: Cogburn riding down on the Ned Pepper gang, reins in his teeth, firing guns in both hands.

But then Roberts, following the novel, goes on for nearly another twenty minutes as Mattie falls into a cave with snakes, and Rooster has to rescue her, since Chaney has killed La Boeuf. We then get a long ride to civilization to get medical help for Mattie. All of this could have been condensed a lot. Roberts also gives a final scene not in the book. In the novel the story jumps ahead to Rooster’s death many years later, while Roberts ends the film with a scene on Mattie’s farm where she offers Rooster a plot in the family grave. It is shorter and simpler than the ending of the book.

When Daniell asked Roberts why she thought the film turned out so well, Roberts replied, “The chemistry was right. It was a marvelous little novel. The casting was very good. The direction was perfect.” She is right about it being a marvelous novel, but less so about the other elements. The chemistry was adequate at best, and there were two major casting flaws. The minor one was to put country singer Glen Campbell in the role of La Boeuf. Granted Roberts’s writing of the part is not that great, but Campbell simply was not an actor. The major casting flaw was Kim Darby as Mattie. Wallis was originally interested in Mia Farrow, who was 22 but looked younger. She wanted to do it until Robert Mitchum told her what a son of a bitch the director Henry Hathaway was. Wallis settled on Darby, who was 21 and looked only a little bit younger. Mattie is supposed to be 14, and Darby is so unconvincing that Roberts’s script never mentions her age, which takes some edge off the story. Darby and Hathaway did not get along, and Hathaway nailed the problem in his interview with Polly Platt: “Her bag of tricks consisted mostly of being a little cute. All through the film, I had to stop her from acting funny, doing bits of business, and so forth.” Cute may be what Darby was about, but cute is not what Mattie Ross is about, and she puts a big gash in the center of the film.

Other than not getting more out of Darby, Hathaway’s direction is excellent. He knew how to handle Wayne (they had worked together on several films by this time), and he had a feeling for the wonderful grotesque characters Roberts had included from Portis’s novel. Strother Martin has a wonderful scene as Stonehill, the owner of a stable being out hustled by Mattie in a horse trade, and Jeff Corey nails Chaney. Roberts focused on Chaney’s insistence that it’s not his fault all these bad things happen, and Corey runs with it. Hathaway is also perfectly at home with the violence and the blood in the story, within the limits of a family film in 1969. In the dugout scene, you know the fingers are being cut without closeups.

I saw the 1969 version of True Grit the night before I saw the new version, and what struck me about the ’69 version was that it was perfect material for the Woodchipper Brothers, sorry, the Coen Brothers. There is more than enough darkness in the material for the makers of Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007), as well as the kind of quirky characters they love. They could have shot Roberts’s script and still had a Coen Brothers movie. And while that is not quite what they did, there are a lot of scenes in the new version very similar to those in the Roberts script.

The new version gets off to a great start by not having a God-awful title song, which the ’69 version did. The song was nominated for an Academy Award, but the Music Branch of the Academy was way behind the times in those days. The Coens’ screenplay starts much faster: we see the dead body of Mattie’s father in the street as a voiceover from the book tells us what we saw in the first fifteen minutes of the ’69 version. The Brothers know that we will learn about Mattie by what she says and does once she gets to Fort Smith. And so she arrives, and the Brothers as directors give her a big, long closeup in the train window. She is Hailee Steinfeld, who is 14, like Mattie, and her face just pops off the screen. She is more expressive in her first two or three shots than Darby is in the entire ’69 film. And she does not have a cute bone in her body, at least as far as she lets us know in this film. She can also read Mattie’s long, complicated lines as fast as the grownups read theirs. If the ’69 version was a star vehicle, this one is more of an ensemble piece.

We get the trial scene where Cogburn testifies and it is a little longer and more detailed than Roberts’s version, but much of the dialogue is the same, as is the scene where Mattie approaches Cogburn about the job. If Roberts provides a few warm moments for Wayne, the Coens provide some darker moments for their Cogburn, Jeff Bridges. If anything, Bridges’s big moments are bigger than Wayne’s (look at the shooting contest between him and La Boeuf), so the quieter moments are more useful and noticeable in his performance. The Brothers do unfortunately play the “first wife” scene on horseback instead of at a campfire, so we do not get as much of an impact from it as we did in the earlier version. We are, however, constantly aware that Bridges—and maybe Cogburn—is acting, whereas Wayne seems to be the character. I generally prefer Wayne’s version, but that may just be because of everything I bring to his performance. Ask somebody in forty years what they think of Bridges’s performance.

The Stonehill scene is very close to the ’69 version. The great character actor here is Dakin Matthews and he is just as good as Strother Martin was. I suspect you could take the Matthews version and cut it in in place of the Martin version, and vice versa and they would work. One of the great improvements in the Coens’ script is the character of La Boeuf, who is much more specifically drawn. (I cannot seem to find my copy of the novel, and it has been forty years since I read it, so I cannot tell how much of the Coens’ version is from the book.) It helps, of course, that they have Matt Damon playing the part. He gets everything there is to get out of the role, although the Coens having him bite his tongue never quite works. On the other hand, the Coens have not really focused the Chaney character the way Roberts did, and Josh Brolin’s performance is similarly unfocused. Other details that seem very Coen-inspired are in the ’69 version, such as the outlaw who talks in animal noises. Their version of the finger-cutting scene is a little bloodier, but well within the limits of the PG-13 rating. The man in the bearskin is, however, not in ’69 version. I have no recollection if he is in the novel or not.

The Coens still go on way too long after the shootout with Ned Pepper and his gang (and I think Hathaway directs the shootout better than the Coens do), but unlike Roberts, they do not kill off La Boeuf. They also add the ending from the book: an older Mattie (with the return of the voiceover narration, which they have wisely dropped everywhere else) going to get Cogburn’s body at a sideshow and meeting an elderly Cole Younger and Frank James. (An historical note here: The Coens, and this may be in the novel, make Cole the polite one, whereas in real life Frank was more of a gentleman.) At this late date in the picture, we do not really need this scene. The film ends with Mattie having buried Cogburn in the family plot, although because the film has a somewhat limited budget, we never see the farm, since we never saw it in the opening scenes.

So which version is “better”? Hard to say. I much prefer Steinfeld to Darby, but Wayne over Bridges. Damon beats out Campbell. Martin and Matthews are a tie, but Corey outscores Brolin. Lucien Ballard’s autumnal cinematography of Colorado in the ’69 version is more expressive than Roger Deakins’s cinematography of New Mexico and Texas in the new version. Hathaway’s direction is more rousing, but the Coens’s is more nuanced. I love Elmer Bernstein in general, but his score for the ’69 version is one of his lesser ones; Carter Burwell’s is better although it leans more than it needs to on “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” As for the screenplays, I’d call it a draw.

The Tourist (2010. Screenplay by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes, based on the screenplay by Jérôme Salle for the film Anthony Zimmer. 103 minutes.)

The Tourist

Not Hitchcock: The Tourist opened in America to scathing reviews and not as much business as people thought a Johnny Depp-Angelina Jolie movie should open to. Hi, I am one of the few people in America to like this film.

I think both the critics and the public assumed that since a) it starred Depp and Jolie, b) was being released in the middle of “Kudos Season,” c) seemed to have some action in it, that this was another imitation Hitchcock: big stars, witty comedy, and given that it is a modern film, a little more action-packed than Hitch might have made it. It is not that, but in many ways a much more interesting film. I once heard Robert Benton talking about his then-latest film Still of the Night (1982). He said he started out trying to avoid imitating Hitchcock, but then he realized “Hitchcock owned the farm.” Hitchcock defined a certain kind of picture, and not just suspense films. If you were working in Hitchcock’s genre, it is very difficult to do things differently. I suppose Benton could have had the femme fatale in Still of the Night be a brunette not a blonde, but…I thought from time to time that Brian De Palma was getting beyond Hitch, but he never quite managed it. In his 1980 film Dressed to Kill, De Palma starts out as though he is going to be dealing with the sex life of an adult woman, not a usual Hitchcock subject, but then he kills her off and the film turns into a bad imitation of Psycho (1960). What we are up to now is a generation of writers and filmmakers who have internalized Hitichcock and can go off down different paths. The guys on The Tourist have made, in all kinds of ways, a non-Hitchcock film. Which is probably what pissed everybody off.

Von Donnersmarck is best known as the writer and director of the brilliant film The Lives of Others (2006). It’s about an East German Stasi surveillance specialist who gets emotionally involved with a playwright and his girlfriend he has been assigned to follow. Well, that sounds sort of Hitchcockian, but von Donnersmarck gets more into the emotions of the characters and the nuances of their behavior than Charles Bennett’s Fat Little English Friend did. What he brings to The Tourist, as both co-writer and director, is a European sensibility that is not as obviously witty as the Master’s, but slyer. The film begins in von Donnersmarck territory: several people are engaged in surveillance of Elise Clifton-Ward. She’s a sleek, glamorous, well, she’s Angelina Jolie at her most mysterious. When she leaves her Paris apartment, one of her watchers asks another in their van if he thinks she is wearing underwear today. And we cut to a shot following Elise down the street. Go on, try to convince me you are not trying to figure out if she is wearing underwear. That’s a lot quicker, a lot subtler, and a lot slyer than Hitchcock looking at voyeurism in Rear Window (1954), and just as involving.

Elise is the mistress of Alexander, who stole a lot of money from a British crook. The crook and several law enforcement organizations are looking for him. She gets a note from Alexander telling her to take the train to Venice, and pick some man on the train who vaguely resembles him. This is obviously to throw everybody off Alexander’s track. She ends up with Frank, a community college teacher from Wisconsin. Lots of running around in Venice follows, with a few dandy plot twists. Very likely because of those twists, the characters of Frank and Elise are not written so that Depp and Jolie need to give big movie star performances. They don’t, but they give great acting performances, and I suspect that if you go back and see the film a second time, knowing what plot twists are coming, you may admire their acting even more. Audiences who were expecting Captain Jack Sparrow and Evelyn Salt were disappointed.

One of the running gags in the film is Frank’s tendency to try to speak Spanish rather than Italian, which gets a nice payoff in a clever little scene with Frank in an Italian police official’s office. Another running element, although it is not funny until the end, is the character identified in the credits as The Englishman, played by Rufus Sewell. We think at various times we know who he is, although our thinking changes over the course of the film. I talked to my daughter after she had seen the film, and her thinking about him and the other characters changed at different points in the picture than mine did, always a nice sign that the filmmakers are mystifying in the way they need to be. We find out the identity of the Englishman at the end in a slight, charming scene, followed by a nice payoff line from Jolie to Depp.

Changing the locale from Nice in the original French film this was based on to Venice does give the film a little larger scope. We get elements of Venice seen in past films, such as Summertime (1955) and Don’t Look Now (1973), which is a little unnerving, which is exactly as it needs to be for the film. Look at the prisoner exchange at night along a dark canal. Yes, the dialogue in the train scenes is not up to Ernest Lehman’s great exchanges between Roger O. Thornhill and Eve Kendall. Here we are encouraged to look at their characters and their reactions to each other, not just to watch Photographs of People Talking, as one famous director once put it.

Black Swan (2010. Screenplay by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin, story by Andres Heinz. 108 minutes.)

Black Swan

Thank the Lord for Mila Kunis. Amen: Nina is a ballerina at a New York City ballet company. In Andres Heinz’s original screenplay The Understudy, according to information on the IMDb, the setting was the theater world. It was the director Darren Aronofsky who suggested the change to ballet, probably because he hoped people would be less likely to notice the story was All About Eve (1950). Thomas, the director and choreographer of the company, has eased out Beth, the reigning prima ballerina, and is casting a new white swan/black swan for Swan Lake. He picks Nina early in the film. I would say the film falls apart at this point, but it has already fallen apart. Nina is beyond tightly wound. She is obviously mentally disturbed, which is clear from the beginning. Now why should that be a problem for the movie? Because her lack of mental balance is both not convincing and not very interesting.

Yes, we all know artists are crazy. There is a reason Plato did not want them in his Republic. Artists are anarchists and if you are trying to run a country or a company, you want people who see things your way rather than some really odd way. Which is the public value of artists: they let us see the world differently. But artists are crazy because they are creative, and most creative people have masses and masses of ideas. I have never met an artist yet who was not incredibly prolific with his or her ideas. This is why Nina is not convincing. She is a very one-note character, focused on her fears. Yes, artists can be and often are driven by their fears, but that usually expresses itself in a variety of ways. Nina is not interesting because she does not get beyond the surface of her fears. She, and Natalie Portman’s performance of her, becomes repetitive and not compelling to watch. This has to be one of Portman’s worst performances and every moment she is onscreen, you keep wanting the camera to move to something or somebody else.

So why does Thomas pick her? Well, he’s not all that bright either. He explains at one point what he sees in her that he thinks will make her a good white swan, but the only quality he mentions that we see in Portman’s Nina is fear. And the character is so tightly wound I was surprised she could dance at all. Artists need a balance between concentration and relaxation to get into their groove, and Nina is all concentration and no relaxation. So Thomas tries to get her to loosen up so she can play the black swan as well, and this being a movie, he does this by suggesting she have sex. Nina insists she is not a virgin, but I am not buying it, especially since she has a mother who stalks her every step. Given all that build up, when Nina finally makes a breakthrough as the black swan, the moment is almost glossed over.

Thomas may have realized he miscast Nina, since he brings in Lily, a dancer from San Francisco. I assume the writers have her from San Francisco to let us know she is going to be free and easy, unlike Nina. So Eve, sorry, Lily seems to start undercutting Nina, but is she really? One element of Mankiewicz’s script for All About Eve is that there is never a point where he tells us exactly what Eve is up to. When do you know Eve is a bitch? The writers may have been trying the same thing here, but it seems more confusing than in All About Eve, since we are seeing all this through Nina’s mind and we know from before Lily’s arrival that she’s a little funny in the head. So Lily’s behavior seems more a function in the film of Nina’s brain than anything she does in “reality.”

As if all that were not enough, Nina, Thomas, Beth and Erica (Nina’s mom) are, how shall we say, humor impaired. As is the film. No, I am not asking for the wit of All About Eve, but does nearly everybody in this film have to take themselves so bloody seriously? Artists are not only creative, they are also funny, as are, quite frankly, most professionals if you get them talking about their work. None of the four mentioned ever make a joke, and the one or two smiles they crack seem painful to them. Lily is an exception, and I have no idea how much of that is in the script. While the other characters are caught up in their neuroses, Lily is by definition more free form. The casting of Mila Kunis helps enormously. She does not seem to be given any funny lines in the script, but Kunis is alive on the screen in the way nobody else in the picture is. Did Aronofsky encourage this, or did Kunis slip it by him when he wasn’t looking? You would be surprised how often that happens in films. I have written about Kunis before, in US#42 and #47, and it may just be the company she keeps in this film but she steals the whole picture here by being the only person on screen worth watching.

Black Swan has received very mixed reviews, but it is turning into an art-house hit, particularly among younger moviegoers. This surprises me, since this is one of the most un-ironic movies to come down the pike in years. Maybe it is the Recession we are in that makes people take it seriously. I suspect that some of it is that younger people can relate to the Nina-Erica mother-daughter relationship. With movies and their audiences, you just never know for sure what is going to work and why.

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.