House Logo
Explore categories +

Understanding Screenwriting #68: The Fighter, Somewhere, Shanghai Express, & More

Comments Comments (0)

Understanding Screenwriting #68: <em>The Fighter</em>, <em>Somewhere</em>, <em>Shanghai Express</em>, & More

Coming Up in This Column: The Fighter, Somewhere, The Other Boleyn Girl, Pirate Radio, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, Slave Ship, Two and a Half Men, but first…

Fan Mail: “Asher” raised a whole lot of very good, thought-provoking points on my comments about The Tourist and its relationship to Hitchcock. He is baffled that I seemed to think it was better than Rear Window (1954). I don’t think it is, but I do think The Tourist makes its point about voyeurism a lot quicker than the Hitchcock film. I brought that up to show how the filmmakers are going beyond what Hitchcock did, which includes doing things more quickly than in earlier films. Like the Coens speeding up the opening of their new True Grit, filmmakers now use for their own purposes what has been done in the past. By the way, I think Rear Window is infinitely better than The Tourist, mainly because the script is better.

What provoked my thoughts most in Asher’s comments was his standing up for Hitchcock dealing more with the emotions of the characters than I said he did. I do think that Hitch is not generally as interested in character as such directors as William Wyler, Fred Zinnemann and George Stevens, to name three of his contemporaries. Hitch is most interested in getting great scenes. John Grierson, the father of documentary and an early film critic, made this point about Alfred Hitchcock in the early ’30s, before he became ALFRED HITCHCOCK. But Asher makes a very good point that in some films Hitchcock does get into some emotional depths. Asher mentions Vertigo (1958), which I wouldn’t in this discussion, since while we do get Scottie’s emotions, one of the great limitations of the film is that we get nothing about the emotional life of the girl. I have for years encouraged screenwriters to do a remake of Vertigo from the point of view of the girl. But Asher is right on the money about Notorious (1946), which is as much a character study as a suspense film. The same is true of Shadow of a Doubt (1943). I am not convinced about Marnie (1964), which never quite goes as deep as it thinks it’s going. So thanks, Asher, for changing my mind, at least a little, about Charles Bennett’s Fat Little English Friend.

The Fighter (2010. Screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson, story by Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson and Keith Dorrington. 115 minutes.)

If you are going to do this movie, this is the way to do it: I must admit I have never been a big fan of boxing or boxing movies. The sight of two sweaty guys in their satin underwear beating each other to a bloody pulp does not appeal to my brand of testosterone. Charlie Chaplin’s 1915 Essanay two-reeler The Champion treats the subject of boxing will all the seriousness it should be treated with, which is to say, not much. The original Rocky (1976) is interesting less for its boxing than for how inventively Sylvester Stallone steals from On the Waterfront (1954) and Marty (1955). Raging Bull (1980) is repetitive and over-directed. On the other hand, the great 1996 documentary When We Were Kings is about a lot more than just boxing, and Million Dollar Baby (2004) is a wonderful character study (with a sweaty girl for me). The Fighter fits in that “on the other hand” category.

None of the writers on the film have extended lists of impressive credits, although Scott Silver wrote the 2002 Eminem film 8 Mile. The driving force behind the film was Mark Wahlberg, who plays Micky Ward. Wahlberg had long been fascinated by the real-life story of Micky, his step-brother Dicky, their mother Alice, and their family. Fortunately that led the writers to focus on the characters as much as the boxing. This is a family story, and it is a pip of a family. Micky is the straightest one in the family. Dicky had a brief boxing career, then slipped into drug use. He trains Micky, and Alice manages him. What could wrong with that? Nearly everything, which is what makes it interesting to watch. The writers pick up the story just before Micky is beaten rather badly in a match that was supposed to be an easy fight. Prior to that fight, Micky meets Charlene, a bartender, who pushes Micky to do more with his career. She is not just the typical ingenue, but tough enough to go up against Alice and, oh, did I forget to mention that Micky has six sisters? The writers are smart enough not to spend too much time defining each sister, so we get them pretty much the way Charlene does: as a pack ready to defend Micky against anything and anybody, especially her. Not only are all these characters based on real people, the writers make them very real on the screen. We all know lots of docudramas never manage that.

Given all those characters and the actors who play them, it is not surprising that Wahlberg, as the main producer, talked David O. Russell into directing the film. Look at Russell’s work with actors playing family members in his 1994 Spanking the Monkey and his 1996 Flirting with Disaster. This was not a passion project for Russell; Wahlberg’s passion provided the energy for the film. Wahlberg as both an actor and producer knew that there were going to be a lot of opportunities for the other actors and it is to his credit as a producer that he encouraged the writers and Russell to let those characters have their moments. Look at Wahlberg in the opening scenes with Christian Bale’s Dicky, letting Dicky and Bale’s flamboyance carry the shots. Wahlberg knows that in this film he can be the quiet one, since he is surrounded by great actors like Bale, Melissa Leo as Alice, and a real change-of-pace Amy Adams as Charlene who will take care of the big emoting.

The writers also manage to make the film more compelling as it goes along, always a potential problem in boxing pictures. Micky is given the opportunity to go with another manager and get paid for training. Dicky tries to scare up the money so he won’t have to, which lands Dicky in prison—scare being the operative word. Micky goes with the other manager and wins a big fight, although on suggestions from Dicky via a prison phone. So when Dicky gets out of the slammer, he and Alice assume he is going back to training Micky. Family versus career. This is known as conflict, folks, and it is at the heart of drama. The writers are good enough that we see both sides of the issue. They give us a showdown between Charlene and Dicky in which they work out the ground rules of Dicky’s return. Why not a similar scene with Charlene and Alice? Because 1) it would be repetitive, and 2) for the final fight, we have to know what Dicky, who is in Micky’s corner, has agreed to. This makes that fight about the family and the characters as much as about boxing. Smart writing.

Somewhere (2010. Written by Sofia Coppola. 97 minutes.)

Somewhere

Daughter of Lost in Translation: Like everybody else in the known universe, I thought Sofia Coppola was terrible as Mary Corleone in The Godfather III (1990), but my feeling was that she was very badly directed by her father. The part called for her to be sexual and sensual and Dad really didn’t want to deal with that. Two years later she was very good in Inside Monkey Zetterland under somebody else’s direction. So it did not surprise me in her first directorial effort, The Virgin Suicides (1999), that her direction of the actors, especially the female ones playing the Lisbon sisters, was excellent. As I discussed in writing about Tetro (2009) in US#29, one of Francis’s limitations is the unevenness of his direction of actresses. You can understand why Sofia has focused on doing something in her films that her father does not do well in his. The best example of this was the performance of Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation (2003).

According to Jeremy Smith’s interview with Coppola in the November/December 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting, she was starting out to write a vampire movie (this was before the Twilight phenomenon), but the character of Johnny Marco keep coming into her brain. He is a movie star who is constantly showing up in all the gossip columns, although as she has drawn him in the script, we really do not know why. It is not clear how big a movie star he is. He is concerned that he is being followed and photographed, but we see no hard evidence that he is, and there is no payoff that this is ego on his part. We get a press conference and a photo session for his new film, but without any indication what the movie is about. If the writers of The Fighter give us a lot about the world of Micky and his family, Coppola is not giving us nearly enough. Yes, minimalism is her style, and it worked beautifully in Lost in Translation, but there we got enough details about the characters and the situations to hold our interest. Johnny is living at the legendary Chateau Marmont in Hollywood while he is in L.A., and we get some texture about the hotel, but not that much. Movie people stay there. Yeah, so?

Johnny ends up spending time with his daughter Cleo, who is about 11 or 12, but we do not get much detail about her either. She loves her dad, and in her best scene she is a little sullen about one of his bimbos having spent the night, but beyond that we do not get much. In the middle of the film, Johnny and Cleo go off to Italy for a few days so he can accept an award, but there is very little in terms of her reactions to the trip, the people she meets, or the events. Johnny is played by Stephen Dorff, and he does not have enough presence to hold the screen when Coppola’s script does not give him something to do. Alas, Coppola’s skill with actresses seems to have failed her as well with Elle Fanning as Cleo. Fanning has been adequate in other films, but neither the script nor the direction give her enough to do.

Hmm, let’s see. Movie star and young woman hang out together in a hotel. Yes, it is reminiscent of Lost in Translation. In that film there was an undercurrent of sensual tension between Bob and Charlotte, which provided a simple structure for the film. Obviously there is not that between father and daughter here (Coppola is not making that kind of movie), but nothing replaces it. It is well into the movie before Cleo shows up, so we get a lot of setup that does not really set anything up. When Cleo and Johnny are together, they do not do much, certainly nothing that tells us about them. After Johnny takes her off to summer camp, he cries, but we are not sure why. Then we see him lying on an air mattress in the hotel pool and we watch as he floats out of the frame. That’s a great minimalist final shot. Except that the movie goes on for another ten minutes or so as Johnny drives out into the country and gets out of the car and walks along the road.

As disappointing as Somewhere is, let us not give up hope for Coppola. There is one short scene that suggests what the film, at least the Hollywood part of it, could have been. Johnny is doing a photo shoot with his co-star Rebecca. They are posing for the cameras, but between snatches of conversation we hear and their body language, we know they are not friends. Rebecca is Michelle Monaghan, and Coppola has directed her really well.

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008. Screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory. 115 minutes.)

The Other Boleyn Girl

Contemporary British screenwriters, take one: You would think that Peter Morgan would be the perfect screenwriter to adapt Gregory’s novel about Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary. His scripts about contemporary politicians include The Last King of Scotland and The Queen (both 2006), as well as Frost/Nixon (2008). He obviously understands politicians of all kinds. In 2003 he wrote a four-hour plus miniseries, Henry VIII, dealing with many of the same characters and situations as The Other Boleyn Girl. I am afraid on this one, which I finally caught up with on Netflix, he has gone to the well once too often.

One of the difficulties he faced was squeezing a 672-page novel into a film that runs less than two hours. The characterizations are very shallow, which is a problem as the plot twists and turns come fast and furious. We often cannot tell what the motivation for the main characters are. Mary, Anne’s sister, is a fairly straightforward nice young woman (unlike the real Mary, who was just as devious, if not more so, than Anne) and behaves accordingly. Anne’s motivations vary from shot to shot. Henry VIII wants to bed every woman in sight. That was certainly true of Henry, but there was a lot more to him than that. The Duke of Norfolk, who is manipulating the Boleyn girls and their family, is nothing but an obvious villain. I am surprised they did not give him a moustache to twirl. You know a script is not doing its job when terrific actors like Mark Rylance and Kristin Scott Thomas as the parents have one emotion each to play.

I would guess that the appeal of Gregory’s novel, and what I think is supposed to be the backbone of the film, is the relationship between the two sisters. Morgan does not make that relationship consistent, and there is no sisterly chemistry between Anne and Mary, not helped by their being no similar chemistry between the actors playing them, Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson. If the reason for doing this story as a film is to look at events that have been dealt with a lot in previous films from a different perspective, then you had better make that perspective an interesting one. Morgan doesn’t here.

Pirate Radio (2009. Written by Richard Curtis. 116 minutes.)

Pirate Radio

Contemporary British screenwriters, take two: Richard Curtis is one of the most prolific and commercially successful British screenwriter working today. Needless to say, given his commercial success, British critics tend to be very condescending towards him. Curtis started in television, most notably with two series, Spitting Image (1984) and Black Adder (1982-88). His first feature screenplay was the woefully underrated 1988 film The Tall Guy, which I usually watch once a year. How can you resist its presentation of a stage musical based on The Elephant Man? His most commercial successes were the two Bridget Jones films, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), and Love Actually (2003). The last one was his first time directing. Pirate Radio is second, and it is a disappointment. I had missed it in theaters, had it on my Netflix queue, and then it popped up on HBO.

As titles at the beginning tell us, in the ’60s BBC radio did not play rock and roll music. This led to several entrepreneurial types to set up radio stations on ships off the coast of England to broadcast rock. Pirate Radio is a fictionalized account of one of them. Mostly we are watching a collection of DJ’s that Quentin, the ship’s owner, has hired. They are all colorful, but they do not do very much. There are several scenes of them sitting around talking that do not really go anywhere. The original cut of the film was 135 minutes, and I suspect there are more of those kinds of scenes in that cut.

Curtis does provide a few storylines, but they are not that compelling. One is the arrival on the boat of Carl, a kid in his late teens. He has been caught by his mom smoking both cigarettes and grass, and she has sent him off to the ship to hang out with his godfather, Quentin. As several people suggest, coming to this ship as punishment for smoking may be counterproductive. With Carl we get a typical and not very interesting coming of age story, complete with a girl he meets on the ship during visitors’ Saturdays. We just don’t care much about Carl. The other major storyline is the attempt by the British government to shut down the station. The main character here is Sir Alistair, a very prissy bureaucrat, and his new assistant, Twatt, both standard issue twits. They are played by Kenneth Branagh and Jack Davenport, and both have been much better elsewhere. Curtis has attracted a lot of wonderful actors, but he has not given them that much to do.

A title at the beginning tells us that half the British population of the time, mostly the younger half, listened to the pirate radios. We do get a series of montages of people on land listening to the station, which does pay off in the end. The ship begins to sink and hundreds of people come out in small boats to save the ship’s crew. Curtis never mentions the similarity to the rescue of the troops at Dunkirk, and I suppose for an English audience he did not need to, but it seems to me a lot more could be done with a comic version of Dunkirk.

Shanghai Express (1932. Screenplay by Jules Furthman, story by Harry Hervey. 80 minutes.)

Shanghai Express

Now Joe, this is how you do it: I was slapping Morocco (1930) upside the head in US#65 and said at the end of the item that I would deal with the much better Shanghai Express some time. Welcome to some time. It popped up on TCM and I DVR’d it. Before I had time to watch it, I saw a notice that the New Beverly Cinema, the great L.A. revival house, was going to run it on a double bill with Blonde Venus (1932). Hmm, watch it on television, or see Lee Garmes Oscar-winning cinematography in a 35mm print on a much larger screen?

My chief complaint about Morocco was that it moved at a snail’s pace. What may have caused that was that Jules (Code: Kael: “half”: done—see US#46 and #65) Furthman’s screenplay was somewhat underpopulated. We had the three main characters, but not a lot of other people. Furthman at least recognized the problem, and Shanghai Express is teeming with assorted characters. Some of them are probably from the story by Harry Hervey. Hervey was a novelist, who adapted a novel of his into the 1928 Broadway play Congai. The Internet Broadway Database is not as thorough as the IMDb, but the cast and set lists suggest it was, like Shanghai Express, set in the Far East, probably French Indo-China, and dealt with the relationships between western military men and the natives. His first film, The Devil Dancer (1927) also dealt with exotic locations, and starred two actors who later appeared in Shanghai Express, Clive Brook and Anna May Wong. Hervey later provided the story for the 1943 Night Plane from Chungking, although it may well have been the same story that Shanghai Express was based on, since the situations are not that much different.

With whatever Hervey provided him, Furthman gives us a great gallery of characters boarding a train from Peking to Shanghai in the middle of revolutionary upheavals in China. The characters are quickly drawn, but Furthman then gives them twists as the film progresses. To name only one, the French officer Major Lenard has been drummed out of the army and is only wearing his uniform so he will not be shamed in front of his daughter in Shanghai. The director Josef von Sternberg does not have time to dawdle like he did in Morocco. It may have helped that Marlene Dietrich’s command of English is more assured than it was in Morocco, which means her line readings are much better. Her Shanghai Lily meets the British military officer Doc Harvey, with whom she had an affair five years before. He knew her by a different name then and asks if she has gotten married. Dietrich gives a great reading to what may be the best line Furthman ever wrote: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”

So after a minor Chinese revolutionary is taken away before the train leaves, we are on our way. And then the train is stopped by revolutionaries. It turns out Mr. Chang, a Eurasian businessman who told us he is ashamed of his white blood, is the leader of the revolution. He is looking for someone to use in trade for his arrested comrade. Since Harvey is going to Shanghai to operate on a high-level politician, Chang picks him, which is followed by a lot of negotiations between Chang, Lily (whom Chang wants to take away with him), and Harvey. Needless to say, Shanghai Lily is a little classier than everybody gives her credit for.

So, Furthman’s script is faster and fuller than his one for Morocco. It also gives von Sternberg a chance to do what he can do best: fill up the screen with the train, the other characters, the extras and the sets. Von Sternberg has gained a reputation over the years as having been very involved in the lighting of his films, but Lee Garmes in an interview with Charles Higham in Higham’s Hollywood Cameramen said, “He left the lighting to me at all times. He was very particular about one thing only: sets.” We will see the truth this in the next von Sternberg-Dietrich film Blonde Venus (1932). Fortunately Furthman’s script gives von Sternberg several great sets to play with, which he does very well, although the original set for the slum the train stops in was, at von Sternberg’s insistence, so close to the tracks that the train would have smashed into it unless they rebuilt it.

Blonde Venus (1932. Screenplay by Jules Furthman and S.K. Lauren, from, uncredited, a story by Jules Furthman and Josef von Sternberg. 93 minutes.)

Blonde Venus

Domestic rather than exotic melodrama: In writing about Morocco, I indicated Blonde Venus was one of the “exotic” films Furthman wrote for von Sternberg. Seeing it as the second feature at the New Beverly, I have to revise that comment. I was thinking, as does anybody else who has seen the film, of the sequence near the beginning where Dietrich’s character enters, dressed as a gorilla (although it is obviously a double in the suit, who simply does not move the way Dietrich ever did), takes off the gorilla head, and sings “Hot Voodo.” That’s about as exotic as they come.

Unfortunately the script the scene appears in is more a domestic melodrama than an exotic one. Equally unfortunately, neither Furthman, von Sternberg, nor Dietrich had any feel for cinematic domesticity. We think we are in the usual exotic territory in the opening: English scientist Ned Faraday and some American friends are hiking in some German woods when they discover, carefully hidden by lots of von Sternberg leaves and vines, a group of German actresses skinny dipping in a pool. Ned is attracted to Helen and poof, we are five years later. They are married and have a son. The domestic scenes start. Ned has contacted radium poisoning in his work and only expensive treatment from a mentor of his in Germany gives any hope of curing him. So Helen goes to work in a cabaret (cue the gorilla), dealing with a lot of earthy show business types. She gets the money for the operation from gambler-playboy Nick, and then has an affair with him. Very ’30s realistic domestic drama. Where is John Stahl when you need him? Ned is cured, comes back sooner than expected and learns the truth about Helen and Nick (mostly from a couple of gossiping neighbors, the liveliest characters in the film, or at least the ones with the best lines). Helen runs away. Taking their son Johnny with her. Mother love? From Dietrich? As you are beginning to realize, there is really an absence of a throughline to the script, as we jump from scene to scene and character to character. Helen and the boy are on the road, eluding the Missing Persons detective after them. He finally catches up to her, but doesn’t realize who she is. She knows who he is, and in the single interesting scene in the film (aside from the singing gorilla, of course), she almost seduces him. The kid goes back to dad, and a single cut later, Helen is the toast of Paris as a nightclub singer. We have no idea how she got from here to there. Nick finds her in Paris, brings her back to New York, where she eventually returns to Ned and her son.

You can find some thematic connections with other Furthman and von Sternberg films. Ned is older than Helen, like Monsieur Le Bessiare, Amy’s fiancee in Morocco, and she leaves him for a younger, handsomer (Gary Cooper there, Cary Grant here) guy. As the film progresses, Helen becomes a woman of the world, like Amy and Shanghai Lily, but she doesn’t seem to enjoy as much as the two earlier characters did. And as the quote from Lee Garmes suggests, there are a lot of sets here. Especially striking is a shanty town where the detective finds her. It is all picturesque slats, so we get some von Sternberg shadows. The cinematographer here is not Lee Garmes, however, but Bert Glennon. Glennon was a Hollywood professional, shooting such films as the Stagecoach (1939), Destination Tokyo (1943), and House of Wax (1953), but he wasn’t on the level of Lee Garmes. The lighting in Blonde Venus is not up to Garmes’s standard. See them together if you don’t believe me.

Slave Ship (1937. Screenplay by Sam Hellman, Lamar Trotti, Gladys Lehman, story by William Faulkner, based on the novel The Last Slaver by George S. King. 92 minutes by my count, 100 minutes on IMDb.)

Slave Ship

Certainly a subject for further research: In 1935 the doddering Fox Film Corporation was merged with the up and coming 20th Century Pictures. Darryl F. Zanuck, the boss of the latter company, took over as head of production. He knew he had to make more films for the bigger studio, so he asked one of his top writers, Nunnally Johnson, to produce films other than those he wrote. Zanuck wanted Nunnally to help other writers develop scripts. Unfortunately, as Nunnally told me, “I couldn’t tell other people how to write.” When I interviewed him thirty years later, he had very little recollection of the films he produced, including this one.

Nunnally had worked with Faulkner the year before on The Road to Glory, and both men realized Faulkner was not a very good screenwriter. When Faulkner was asked about his contribution to this film, he said, “I’m a motion picture doctor. When they run into a section they don’t like, I rework it and continue to rework it until they do like it. In Slave Ship, I reworked sections. I don’t write scripts. I don’t know enough about it.” (The quote is from Tom Dardis’s book Some Time in the Sun.) About the only thing that struck me watching the film recently that was at all Faulknerian was the prologue in which the bad luck of the ship that becomes the slaver is detailed. Bad things happened in the past and continue to affect the present.

Sam Hellman and Gladys Lehman were journeyman screenwriters and appear to have worked together on several films in the ’30s. Most of their other collaborations were on Shirley Temple movies, which raises the question of why they were assigned to this project, which is about a captain of the slave ship determined to get out of the business but opposed by his crew. Perhaps they were brought on to deal with the character of Swifty, the young cabin boy played by Mickey Rooney. Lamar Trotti was well into his career at this time, with several big films to his credit, so he may have been brought on to finish the script Hellman and Lehman started. Keep in mind the credits listed above were assigned by the studio, since this was several years before the Screen Writers Guild took over the credit arbitration process.

Long before the auteur theory took hold, film critics, especially those on the East Coast, tended to pay more attention to the directors than the writers. The credits for this film can suggest why. There is, as was common practice of the time, only one director credited, Tay Garnett in this case. On the other hand, there are four studio writers on the picture and the associate producer is also a writer. Much easier to pretend that it all comes from the director. Perhaps some day a film historian will go into the Fox story archives, which are at the University of Southern California, and figure out who did what on this interesting little film. It was a minor hit in its day, and the scenes below decks with the slave cargo are striking, even if no black character is given a full characterization. That would have to wait for Tamango in 1958, Roots in 1977 and Amistad in 1997.

Two and a Half Men (2011. “Skunk, Dog Crap, and Ketchup,” teleplay by Lee Aronsohn & Chuck Lorre & Don Reo & David Richardson, story by Alissa Neubauer. 30 minutes.)

Two and a Half Men

Getting to know Lyndsey: For several episodes, Alan has been dating Lyndsey, but we haven’t learned much about her. We know she is a divorced mom, with an idiot teenaged son who is a friend of Jake’s. In the opening three minutes of this episode, we learn more about her than we have in the other nine episodes put together. The writing in this scene is sharp and detailed. Lyndsey is having trouble sleeping since Alan is talking in his sleep. She comes out to the living room where Charlie is looking at odds on various sports. Lyndsey makes several smart betting suggestions and it turns out she worked in a sports gambling shop in Las Vegas. She then started a candle shop in Los Angeles, with bookmaking in the back room. As she says, the IRS got suspicious of a candle shop making a quarter of a million a year without selling a single candle. She was also in a softcore (notice it’s not hardcore) porn movie in college, called “Cinnamon Buns” (which leads to some nice business later when a tube of Cinnamon Buns in found in the fridge). Charlie points out he and Lyndsey seem to have more in common that Lyndsey and Alan. She shoots Charlie down right away, telling him that she’s done dealing with guys she has to dip in ammonia before she will touch them. She goes back to bed, and Charlie wonders out loud if he is that bad. From off-screen comes Lyndsey’s “Yes.”

So what we now have, after these three or four minutes, is a smart woman who’s got Charlie’s number and is not about to be seduced by him. That’s a nice addition to the show, and a lot can be done with her. I hope for all our sakes she does not fall into Charlie’s bed.

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.