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Understanding Screenwriting #7: Miracle at St. Anna, The Tall Target, How I Met Your Mother, Ugly Betty, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #7: <em>Miracle at St. Anna</em>, <em>The Tall Target</em>, <em>How I Met Your Mother</em>, <em>Ugly Betty</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Biden-Palin Vice Presidential Debate; Miracle at St. Anna; The Tall Target; How I Met Your Mother; Two and a Half Men; CSI: Miami; Boston Legal; Ugly Betty; ER; Desperate Housewives; You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story, but first…

Fan Mail: And a tip of Viggo Mortensen’s hat back to Michael Peterson. I am looking forward to more of his Comics Column.

The Vice Presidential Debate (2008. Written by Joe Biden, Sarah Palin, and others. 90 minutes): While I will occasionally deal with documentaries in this column, as I did with The Order of Myths in US#2, I will generally avoid “reality television,” since the writing, especially the structuring of the shows, is so obvious and klunky. To take one guilty pleasure of mine, you always know that Carson will convince the woman of the week on How to Look Good Naked that she does look good naked.

However, what struck me about last week’s Vice-Presidential Debate was the subtle structure that emerged, which is a tribute not to Gwen Ifill and the debate sponsors, but to its two primary authors Biden and Palin and their anonymous co-writers.

Biden had the most difficult job, since he had to appear both knowledgeable without being overbearing and not condescending to Palin. Palin played right into his hand by asking if she could call him Joe. He agreed, then called her Governor Palin the rest of the evening, so that her “Joe” seemed shallow. It was, as Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live noted, Palin trying to set up her “Say it ain’t so, Joe” zinger, but as a performer she bungled the zinger, sliding it into Reagan’s famous “There you go again,” dulling the impact of both lines.

Palin wrote herself a folksy character, but her playing of it was forced, and in comparison with Biden’s integrated smoothness, she seemed artificial. Her lines became repetitive over the 90 minutes, as did her winks, nose wrinkles, etc. A better director than the McCain prep staff might have helped, but particularly in the last half hour, she had written herself out of the original freshness of the character. As I guessed after the Republican National Convention, she was going to wear out her welcome fairly quickly. (I may not be the only person who realized this: Have you noticed that none of the four major Democrats [Obama, Biden, and both Clintons] have mounted a full-scale assault on Palin? I assume that comes from Obama; it has been a brilliant, gutsy, and counter-intuitive maneuver: let her self-destruct.)

Biden restrained himself, particularly when he was not talking. As I have written before, reaction shots are the lifeblood of film and television, and the main set Biden wrote for himself was to listen to Palin. One of his sons has said that while Biden is noted for being a talker, he is also a listener. By at least appearing to listen to Palin, he appeared to be taking her seriously. It also eventually let him beat the Republicans at their own game, something recent Democratic national candidates have not done. The Republicans have focused on story and emotion rather than issues. Late in the debate, after Biden realized Palin couldn’t get beyond the character she had created for herself, he let his voice slightly break when talking about his family tragedy (and we may eventually find out whether that was planned or not). It made him more human than Palin. The look on Palin’s face was similar to the look on Dan Quayle’s face in 1988 after Lloyd Bentson unloaded his famous “You, sir, are not John Kennedy” line: she knew something had gone wrong, but didn’t know what it was.

On the other hand, remember that Quayle’s boss, George H.W. Bush, won that election.

Miracle at St. Anna (2008. Screenplay by James McBride, based on the novel by James McBride. 160 minutes): I have not read the novel, but James McBride’s screenplay is a mess. There appears to be no overall structure to the material. In the opening scene, one of the characters, Negron, is watching a bit of The Longest Day. Now there is a World War II movie with a structure: the Allies are going to land at Normandy on D-Day, the Germans are going to try to fight them off and lose. Or take The Guns of Navarone: a small band of allies try to blow up the huge German guns on the island of Navarone, meanwhile dealing with the traitor in their midst. Or The Great Escape: a group of Allied soldiers in a German POW camp plan and execute an escape, but are mostly captured.

Of, if you want a World War II film that deals with racism, look at the 2006 French film Days of Glory, which follows a group of Algerians through basic training and into their experiences in the Italian campaign. The scenes in that film are about the racism they face and what they do and do not do about it.

Miracle begins, after The Longest Day clip, with a postal clerk shooting a customer, which certainly grabs our interest. And the cops and a newspaper reporter find a stone bust worth millions in the shooter’s apartment. So far so good. Then we meet an American in Rome who specializes in antiques, but he is so busy making love to his Italian girlfriend that he throws the newspaper with the news of the bust out the window. We never see the American again. The paper lands near an Italian, who seems awestruck by the news, and he runs through Rome, the only shots of Rome in the film, and then we don’t see him again until the very end of the movie. We eventually get to the main flashback about a group of Black American soldiers in Italy, one of whom is carrying the bust with him into battle, which does not sound like good soldiering to me. Besides, we the audience know how much the bust is worth and every time it goes into battle we fear as much for it as the characters, if only because in McBride’s script the characters are so fuzzy they hardly rise to the category of stereotypes. (Look at how Rachid Bouchareb and Olivier Lorelle, the writers of Days of Glory create and define their characters.)

Four of the soldiers are separated from their unit and get involved with a little boy, a village, partisans, as well as the Germans in the area. But at this point they have no mission: no guns to blow up, no prison break to make, no Normandy to take. They sit around and talk. Needless to say, they talk about racism in the U.S., but these scenes seem added on, not part of the story of the film. Very little that happens to them in the middle section of the film has to do with racism. At one point we get a flashback (yes, within a flashback) to an incident in Louisiana that has nothing to do with the stories the film is about. Meanwhile the scenes with the Germans and the partisans take us out of the soldiers’ story.

We do eventually find out why Negron shot the customer, but it is a long haul to get there. And just to make matters worse, the miracle, if I am reading the film correctly, did not happen at St. Anna, but at another place entirely. At least it is the bridge on the river Kwai, not some other river, that gets blown up in the film of the same name.

The Tall Target(1951. Screenplay by George Worthington Yates and Art Cohn, from a story by George Worthington Yates and Daniel Mainwaring, writing as Geoffrey Homes. 78 minutes): When they talk about those great little B pictures that were better than the A pictures, this is the kind of film they are talking about. It popped up recently on Turner Classic Movies, and if it does again, look at it. It is a great example of how much you can get into a tight little screenplay. And it was written to the sets, as a lot of B pictures were in the studio days. Every set in the picture was part of the MGM back lots (I was a bus driver/tour guide in 1968 when they had a very cheesy tour at the studio, and I saw all the since-destroyed back lot). The one true exterior, late in the picture when someone is thrown off the train, probably was filmed a couple of blocks away from the studio.

The plot is simple: A New York City detective named John Kennedy (yes, get over it) has uncovered a plot to assassinate Lincoln before he can get inaugurated. He gets on the train taking the assassins south, but then has to figure out who’s who. Look at all the characters Yates and Cohn set up and how they use them. Look at how they use the characters to comment on the politics of the time. All in 78 minutes, half the time of Miracle at St. Anna.

How I Met Your Mother(2008. Episodes “Do I Know You?” and “The Best Burger in New York,” both written by Carter Bays and Craig Thomas. 30 minutes): I have dealt so far with series pilots and series finales, or half-season finales. Now it’s time for opening episodes of returning series.

A lot of television series are originally set up with a gimmick. My Mother the Car (1965-1966) is the most obvious example: a man’s departed mother talks to him through his car. The gimmick can get tiresome very quickly; again, My Mother the Car. How I Met Your Mother began in 2005 with a doozy of a gimmick: many years in the future, a man is telling his kids how he met their mother, but as we watch his story in flashbacks, we don’t know which of the women is the future mom. The most obvious choice in the first seasons was Robin, but the writers wrote themselves into a corner early on when the older Ted’s narration refers to her as Aunt Robin. And the producers put themselves in another corner by casting the beautiful, charming, and funny Cobie Smulders as Robin. The writers and producers have eventually managed to extract themselves from Ted’s romance with Robin, and last season introduced another serious possible mother in Stella. Ted proposed to her at the end of last season.

So you would think the first episode of this season would deal primarily with her reply. We first see in the teaser several ways she could answer, and then her answer: yes. And then we jump ahead to the end of the summer after they have been dating for a while, skipping over the development of the relationship. Ted’s friend Marshall does raise the question of how well Ted knows her, and some minor fun is derived from him trying to find out more about her, including making her watch his favorite movie, Star Wars, which she has somehow never seen.

The B story of the episode, however, overshadows the A story. Barney, one of Ted’s friends who sleeps with any woman he can have (and as a clever scene shows us, he is able to get at least one at 3 A.M. by text messaging her “?” to which she replies “!”), slept with Robin at the end of last season. Now he realizes he is in love with her and he cannot deal with it. On the advice of Marshall’s wife Lily, Barney tries to behave like a nice guy to Robin, which merely baffles her. He seems to be going back to his bimbo ways, which leads to a wonderful speech to Lily in praise of bimbos, but the writers give us a moment of wistfulness at the end to let us know he is still in love with Robin.

Why spend so much time on Barney? I suspect that Barney is one of those characters whom writers love to write. Robert Ward, a writer on Hill Street Blues, told me no one wanted to write for the upstanding Captain Furillo and everybody wanted to write for the sleazy cop Buntz. And Barney, the original horn dog in love, has to be a wonderful character to write for. We have seen Ted in love. We are only beginning to see Barney in love.

The season’s second episode may well have been one of those written before the writers’ strike last spring and only now produced and shown. I suspect this because there is nothing in the episode about Barney and Robin: no jokes, no references, no longing looks by Barney. The Barney-Robin story made such an impact in the first episode, it was not until the second episode was over and done with that it finally occurred to me that there was no mention of Stella either.

Two and a Half Men (2008. Episode “Taterhead is Our Love Child” written by Mark Roberts & Don Foster & Jim Patterson. 30 minutes): The top-rated network comedy show comes back with an episode that shows its many strengths and one potential future weakness.

Charlie, the swinging bachelor, sees a former girlfriend in a coffee shop with a young boy who looks, dresses and behaves like Charlie. He is convinced the kid is his love child. He goes to his neighborhood pharmacist to ask him about the possible failure of condoms. Now how do you write this scene? First of all, they are smart enough to make him a neighborhood pharmacist, so it is someone Charlie knows. The pharmacist mentions that he gets Charlie a bulk rate on condoms. The pharmacist is surprised Charlie doesn’t know all this information about condoms. And he complains about losing sales to the big box pharmacies, asking Charlie to buy anything: “Maybe the little bastard would like a whiffle ball bat?” Now before you say that of course the pharmacist is funny because he is played by Martin Mull, notice how much character and attitude the writers give Mull to play. All in a scene that runs no longer than three minutes. The series’s writers have over the show’s five seasons created a great gallery of characters for the stars and guest stars to play.

Charlie goes to see the ex-girl friend with a whiffle ball bat for the kid. Did you think the writers had forgotten that detail? She kicks him out, but he eventually comes back, giving her a check for child support and saying one will be sent every month. As he is leaving, another woman comes to the door of the ex’s apartment to pick up the kid, which is hers. The ex has been babysitting him. So how do we know that the other woman is not another one of Charlie’s exes? One simple detail: Charlie is standing at the elevator as she arrives. She does not recognize him, and he does not recognize her. Sometimes, even in a sitcom, you have to make your points quickly and subtly.

The potential problem the show faces is that the “half” in two and a half is more than a half now. Angus T. Jones who plays Jake, the son of Charlie’s brother, started the show in 2003 as a kid. Now he is a teenager and appears to have had a growth spurt over the summer. Which means the kid jokes the writers have used for the last five seasons are not going to work, simply because we will want to see how swinger Charlie deals with Jake’s puberty. There were a couple of efforts last season, but the show cannot ignore it much longer. The problem is how do you write the raunchy stuff the show is known for (see the pharmacist scene above) in dealing with a 14 year old without it seeming creepy. My money is on the writers to find a way.

CSI: Miami(2008. Episode “Resurrection” written by Barry O’Brien. 60 minutes): The cliffhanger for last season was that Horatio Cane, the lead CSI, was shot. This episode opens with a replay of the shooting and then Horatio’s body being zipped up in a body bag. For those of us tired of David Caruso’s mannerisms and who watch the show in spite of him rather than because of him, this might be good news.

No such luck. Horatio has “arranged” his assassination so he can go undercover to ... wait a minute. Do CSIs go undercover? One of the continuing problems, particularly with this series in the CSI franchise, is that the CSIs behave more like detectives than CSIs. They are constantly interrogating witnesses and getting involved in street shootouts, as they are in this episode. The other problem, and it is in all the CSI shows, is that the CSIs are constantly explaining to each other things they should already know about their techniques. You can sort of accept that on the mother show, CSI, since the characters are fresher and more original, here it gets less and less acceptable.

The plotting in this episode is incredibly complicated, since O’Brien is tying together and finishing off a large number of plotlines that were percolating through the last season or two. Like many series, this one assumes that audiences remember more details than less-than-devoted viewers may care to.

Boston Legal(2008. Episode “Smoke Signals” written by David E. Kelley. 60 minutes): This series left us with no specific cliffhanger, so it was free to start this season with whatever popped into David E. Kelley’s mind. So we get Alan Shore and Denny Crane in Coast Guard uniforms (they joined the Coast Guard Reserve several episodes previously) out in a boat finding a yacht full of babes in bikinis. Shades of CSI: Miami. The only follow-up to this character/comedy scene comes when Denny tells Alan he could not get an erection with the girls. Denny is convinced it comes from what he calls his “Mad Cow” disease, which leads to a line that nobody on television but Denny Crane would say: “My penis has Alzheimer’s.” He eventually “cures” it by getting ahold of a cheerleader costume Shirley Schmidt, one of the firm’s partners and one of Denny’s former lovers, gives him. Now what would you do with Denny and a cheerleader costume? Kelley’s solution: Denny and Alan take different parts and dance with it. We are certainly still in Kelley-land.

The main case in the episode finds Alan facing off against an attorney, Phoebe, with whom he was previously in love. We have come across his former girlfriends before, but not somebody he was in love with. Kelley shows us she means something to Alan long before we get, in several separate scenes, what she meant to him. This in turn leads to a charming scene where Denny asks him if he is still in love with her. Alan says he is not, but simply remembering what it was like to be in love. In Kelley-land there is subtlety as well as over-the-top excess.

Ugly Betty(2008. Episodes “The Manhattan Project” written by Silvio Horta and “Filing for the Enemy” written by Joel Fields. 60 minutes): This show’s cliffhanger was Betty being proposed to by Henry at the same time Gio asked her to go to Italy with him. Both of these plot elements are almost instantly disposed of when we find out she turned them both down and went off touring America by herself.

She comes back with ideas for Mode magazine, but in the meanwhile Willie has take over Mode and sent her boss Daniel to run Player “the third best-selling men’s magazine with no nudity.” Betty goes to work with Daniel and the clods that run Player. So what Horta, the showrunner, has done is split the focus of the show, and not in a good way. We now have to follow the machinations at Mode, which do not yet at least seriously involve Betty; watch Betty find her way at Player, where there do not yet appear to be characters as interesting as there were and still are at Mode; and deal with Betty moving into an apartment in Manhattan. The latter storyline comes from the move of the production from Los Angeles to New York, which Horta rubs in LA’s face by having scene after scene of Betty and the cast on the streets of New York. Does he really intend Ugly Betty to become another Law & Order franchise?

The second episode manages to get both Betty and Daniel back at Mode, but not without a lot of pushing and shoving. All of which leads to Marc, the gay assistant, saying to Betty, “Well, here we are, as if nothing’s changed.” We are, however, still on location in New York, and still dealing with several separate plot lines.

ER (2008. Episode “Life After Death” written by Joe Sachs. 60 minutes): The cliffhanger that this show left us with at the end of last season was an ambulance explosion in which Abby and Pratt may have been killed. We are relieved in the teaser to see they both have survived, although with injuries. But this is the beginning of the 15th and final season and nobody is safe. Pratt has complications that get more complicated and he dies, complete with a farewell party at the local bar. It is grim, but it is setting the stage for the final season.

Because the focus is on Pratt’s condition, there are fewer guest stars than usual as we pay more attention to the recurring cast. We want to see how they react to and deal with Pratt’s death. It also helps in a subtle way to remember who is who and how they are all related.

Desperate Housewives(2008. Episodes “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” written by Marc Cherry and “We’re So Happy You’re So Happy” written by Alexandra Cunningham. 60 minutes): Cherry made a HUGE leap in this show in the last season finale by suddenly jumping ahead five years. The writing problem he created for himself for the first episode of this season was, how shall we say this, HUGE. What he needed to do in the season opener was 1) show how the main characters and their situations had changed while at the same time reassuring audiences that 2) the particular delicate balance of snarky humor and over-the-top melodrama is still intact. Talk about degree of difficulty.

We get quick scenes that update us. Susan is carrying on with a guy we do not know (after a car crash that suggests, wrongly, that Mike is dead; he shows up again at the end of the episode). Bree is now a celebrity cook using Katherine’s recipes, which Katherine is not happy about. Lynette’s twin boys seem to have aged more than five years and are full-fledged juvenile delinquents. Gaby has become the mother of an overweight daughter and let herself go to seed (one side note of this: Eva Longoria Parker is so deglamorized now that audiences may realize she is a wickedly funny comedienne and not just one of the most physically luscious women on television). Edie has come back to town with a new husband, Dave. And that’s just the first act.

What appears to be the one development that will be the overarching storyline of the season is Dave. We see early that he is determined to live on Wisteria Lane. He seems to control Edie, much to the amazement of the other Housewives. And in the final scene we learn he was in a institution. He tells his shrink that he is no danger to himself and “As for the others, there’s only one person who should be worried.” So Cherry has solved one cliffhanger and set up another one. I’ll give him a 9.5 out of 10, but that’s only because hormonally I miss the original Gaby.

For the second episode, I’d lower the grade. The Dave überplot is moving along nicely as he kidnaps Mrs. McCluskey’s cat to get her to apologize to Edie, but the individual stories are less interesting. Lynette pretends to be a teen girl on-line to talk to her son, but the son falls for the girl. The outcome is flat and obvious. And Gaby is turning into a shrill. One of the joys of Gaby was Longoria Parker’s ability to change attitude at least twice and sometimes three times in a single line. Now her lines are one-note.

You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story(2008. Written by Richard Schickel. 300 minutes): Schickel’s history of the studio is fun, particularly in the first couple of hours, but the last hour, about the contemporary Warner Brothers, is so relentlessly self-satisfied as both stars and executives praise each other for their boldness and integrity.

The series is not deep, but at least there are a few writers mentioned. Darryl Zanuck, later a producer and head of 20th Century-Fox, started by writing Rin Tin Tin stories in the twenties. We do get a couple of smidgens of interviews with Julius J. Epstein and Howard Koch, two of the writers on Casablanca, although the Epstein interview does not get his well-known disdain for all the fawning over the film, which he thought was just another Warner Brothers melodrama. There are a couple of good moments with Frank Pierson on Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon. Robert Towne is interviewed about Bonnie and Clyde, although as he has admitted elsewhere, he made relatively minor changes to the original Robert Benton and David Newman script.

I suppose we should be thankful for small favors, but would it have killed Schickel to mention Casey Robinson? Captain Blood, It’s Love I’m After, Dark Victory, Kings Row, Now, Voyager and the Paris flashbacks in Casablanca. Yeah, that Casey Robinson.

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.