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Understanding Screenwriting #76: The Tree of Life, Bridesmaids, Too Big to Fail, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #76: <em>The Tree of Life</em>, <em>Bridesmaids</em>, <em>Too Big to Fail</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Tree of Life, Bridesmaids, I Died a Thousand Times, Screaming Eagles, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), Too Big to Fail, but first…

Fan Mail: I really want to thank “Lorraine” for giving us the link in her comments on US#75 to a site that has the best satire I have ever seen on screenplay analysis. Each bit takes on a given film by having a guy’s arm draw a circle on a dry erase board, divide up and explain a given film’s structure at about 300 words per minute. The specific one Lorraine linked us to was for Pirates 4. The guy gets a lot wrong about the movie (the stuff he puts in the first quarter of the film takes a lot less time; the ending of the film is not a closed circle but very open ended, etc), but goes so fast you can hardly tell. It will have you on the floor, even if you take “Hero’s Journey” more seriously than I do.

At least I’m assuming it’s satire…

The Tree of Life (2011. Written by Terrence Malick. 138 minutes)

Pure cinema, like Meek’s Cutoff: Sometimes in my Screenwriting class at Los Angeles City College, I ran a film in segments over the semester, and we discussed the screenplay as we went. Sometimes I did not decide on the film before school started. Once I had a student ask on the first day why he had to learn screenwriting, since he did not want to tell stories, but “create pure cinema, like Hitchcock.” I instantly knew I had to show Rear Window that semester. I did, and the student never uttered the words “pure cinema, like Hitchcock” again. I always found it odd that a director working in the mystery-thriller genre, which depends so much on suspense created by narrative, would claim he was making “pure cinema.” The student believed the term meant making films with less focus on narrative and character. There are other directors who can more legitimately claim they are attempting pure cinema. Terrence Malick is one of them.

As Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard have discussed in their two(so far)-part discussion of Malick and The Tree of Life at the House, Malick is part of the site’s DNA. So I should start by giving you some idea of where I stand in general on Malick. I have always had mixed feelings about his films. Badlands (1973) seemed to me mostly a very late addition to the Bonnie and Clyde genre, and I was not sure the girl’s narration added to the film. I would have been more impressed with Days of Heaven (1978) if a) the design of the ranch house was not so clearly a steal from Boris Leven’s gothic mansion in Giant (1956), and b) I could understand anything that was said in the voiceover. On the other hand, the film was beautifully photographed by Néstor Almendros and others, and it was one of the most inventive early uses of Dolby Stereo. You could hear every leaf on every tree rustle in the wind. It was obvious Malick had a great eye and ear for landscape, in the great tradition of Robert Flaherty, Henry King, and David Lean. I went to see The Thin Red Line (1998) with some trepidation, since it was obvious from the reviews that it bore no relationship to the James Jones novel it was based on. The film got off on a bad note for me. In an early scene, the characters are on board what is supposed to be an attack transport. It’s not. It is a restored Liberty ship (a cargo transport) called the Lane Victory, and perfectionist as Malick is supposed to be, it does not occur to him to have some CGI to add in some assault boats. (I often have this problem with “perfectionist” directors who seem to be so sloppy about the obvious stuff; did no one dare tell Kubrick that the font on the street signs in the New York street set built in London for Eyes Wide Shut [1999] simply was wrong?) But then The Thin Red Line began to put me under its spell, and I began to see what others saw in Malick: a poetic look at man and nature. The New World (2005) was a letdown for some of the same reasons The Tree Of Life is. The poetry overpowers the story and characters. The latter two elements are Malick’s weakest areas of filmmaking. Lean managed the combination of the beauty and power of nature and strong stories and characters.

A word here on screenwriting as it applies to Malick’s films. We know from the way he works that he does not sit down, write a script, and shoot it as written. The story, characters, scenes, and structure are constantly in flux. When talking about the screenwriting in The Tree of Life, I am talking not just about whatever written script or scripts Malick was using during production, but the way in which the screenwriting process continues throughout production and especially post-production. The structure of the film, which the written screenplay usually provides, clearly came here in the post-production process. This is not uncommon in documentary films. Frederick Wiseman has said that the editing of his film is “non-rational, that is to say irrational,” as he finds the connections and structure in the editing room. So it is possible to do that, even in fiction films, more often than people who write about screenwriting normally admit.

The opening twenty minutes of the film establishes the O’Brien family, although we do not get their name in the film, and we know they have children, but who and how many we do not know. The main “event” in this section is the news delivered to the family that one of their sons has died, but we have no idea which son. Putting the news of the death at this point in the film (you could recut the film and place it much later, after the main body of the family sequences) gives it an importance that the rest of the film does not support. It is like putting a tuba solo in the first movement of a symphony and then only getting a few notes from the tuba in the final movement. There is nothing in the main family sequences that set us up for the son’s death and what it may do to the family, especially since we learn he died at age 19. We only come back to it in the last fifteen minutes, when we get the “afterlife” sequence, but that is so badly shaped we cannot tell which son we meet there is the one who died.

The opening shot of the film is an abstract shot of a flame, so it is not much of a surprise that twenty minutes into the film we go into an abstract sequence of the evolution of the world. It is a higher-toned version of the “World is Born” sequence from Fantasia (1940), but without the energy or the fun or Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” to back it up. There are a lot of pretty pictures, but they do not connect, which makes the sequence into more of a Power Point presentation than a sequence in a film. Film takes place in time. It is a temporal as well as a visual medium, and as Ingmar Bergman observed, film may be closer to music than to theater. Part of screenwriting in the editing process is to find the structure that will pull the audience along and make viewers feel they are going somewhere. Enlarging the scope of the film at this point to include all of creation might work, but the connections with religion in the family scenes are limited. The family scenes show religion in a very domesticated way.

After forty minutes we return to the family. I am a couple of years younger than Malick and I grew up in a small town similar to the one in the film. I was looking forward to these sequences, but they turn out to be very generic: the kids throwing rocks, setting off rockets, swimming at the pool, etc. Malick not being very specific about the characters robs these scenes of the texture they should have. Malick is working more on the physical texture of the place, but it’s not enough. The same is true of the family scenes. The kids have very little individuality, except for Little Jack, but not that much for him. Mother is an abstract portrayal of grace, which gives Jessica Chastain, who plays her, very little to do. The Father at least has a couple of sides to him, loving and strict. In writing about Troy (2004) in the book Understanding Screenwriting, I said of Brad Pitt, “Fierceness is not really in his normal range, especially when he is going up against actors like Brian Cox (Agamemnon) and Brendan Gleeson (Menelaus) who can do fierce with one hand tied behind their backs… There seem to be two Brad Pitts. One is a terrific character actor, as seen in Twelve Monkeys (1995). The other is the movie star, who seems bland, as in The Mexican (2001). Unfortunately for Troy, the movie star showed up.” Fortunately Pitt the character actor shows up here and we get enough fierceness from him. Pitt shows us a lot of nuances in the close-ups Malick gives him, unlike Chastain, who doesn’t. When one actor in a film stands out as much as Pitt does here, it’s usually the actor and not the writer and director. Both the actor playing Young Jack and Sean Penn, who plays the older Jack, are stuck without a lot to do. This lack of specificity hurts the end of this segment of the film, where the family is forced to vacate their house. Compare what Malick does, or does not do, with what Nunnally Johnson and John Ford do with Ma Joad when she and her family have to leave their house. Nunnally and Jack are a lot more specific and poetic than Malick is here.

The last fifteen minutes or so of the film is either the afterlife or a dream of the afterlife by the older Jack. For a guy who is supposed to be creative (he’s an architect), he has a very unimaginative view of it. Everybody is on a beach and they all have semi-beatific smiles (not quite like people looking at flying saucers in a Spielberg movie, but close) and they all hug. Again, there is no texture to how these people relate. We think we find out which other brother died, but both of them show up. And they show up in their kid forms, rather than as 19-year-olds. The classic way to handle this sort of scene is the finale of Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), but Robert Benton’s graceful and poetic final scene in Places in the Heart (1984) does what I think Malick is after even better. And simpler.

I also have the suspicion from watching the film that Malick may have worked on it for so long that he has eliminated whatever was fresh and vital in the original material. This often happens in the screenplay “development” process in the studios, but it can also happen with individuals working on their own. There are, for example, some family scenes in the middle of the picture that look as though they have been cut to make them seem less like narrative scenes than they may have originally been. The way Malick should have gone is to bring up enough character and story elements to support the other things he wanted to do in the film.

Ah, the Meek’s Cutoff (2010) reference in my snarky subhead. You may remember in US#74 that I mentioned the audience at that film laughed at the end because they felt they had been taken in. Before I saw Tree, I was talking to my wife’s former boss. He had seen the film, hated it, and said there was a similar laugh at the end of Tree. There was not at the screening I attended. Some people hate it, some people love it. I was just disappointed.

Bridesmaids (2011. Written by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig. 125 minutes)

Bridesmaids

Hollywood is gonna learn the wrong lesson from this one: There has recently been a lot of writing in different places (The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, et al) about the difficulties of making a comedy about women that would do really well at the box office, where raunchy comedies about dudes regularly clean up. This is a historically myopic discussion, as most discussions of this kind are.

Hollywood is always amazed when movies by and for women open “surprisingly well.” Sixteen years ago I wrote a short piece for the Los Angeles Times decrying this and pointing out “women’s” films that had recently opened “surprisingly well.” The editor at the Times called me up after I submitted it and said that since it was not time-sensitive, there would be a little delay on running it. I said OK, just so long as it appeared before Waiting to Exhale (1995) opened. That was met with a baffled reaction on her part. The piece appeared a week before the film opened, and, sure enough, the Times noted the film opened “surprisingly well.” For several years thereafter, women in the industry put “surprisingly well” in at least air quotes when they used the term.

In the case of Bridesmaids, a lot of the discussion has focused on the fact that Judd Apatow has “godfathered” the film. He is the King of Raunchy Comedies, and when the film opened “surprisingly well,” most people in Hollywood assumed it was his touch as the producer that made it a hit. As has been mentioned in some reviews, the scene where the bridesmaids get a run, pardon the expression, of diarrhea during a fitting of gowns was suggested by Apatow. Two things. That scene does not really fit the tone of the rest of the script and in fact bends it out of shape. Secondly, while the picture opened well, it has shown even greater legs, with less decline in box office than any other film this year, including The Hangover II. Apatow’s assistance may have helped it open well, but it is Mumolo & Wiig’s screenplay, as flawed as it is, that will provide a “surprisingly” higher total box gross than anyone expected.

Yes, let’s get down to the script. The script opens with a long scene establishing the relationship of Annie and Lillian, who have been friends since childhood. The scene not only establishes the characters, but the rhythm of the film. It not only takes its time with the characters, but it takes its time with the scenes. This is not always for the best. There is a reason for the cliché that brevity is the soul of wit. Most films of this kind run about 90 to 100 minutes, but this one is 125 minutes, and as with most movies, longer is not necessarily better. There are scenes and sequences that should have been cut, such as the subplot with Annie’s two roommates. This is the first feature screenplay by the two writers, who are used to working in shorter forms. They will learn in the future not to get carried away.

So what we get is a character comedy rather than a gaggy one. In writing about A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) in US#27, I noted it was a film I smiled at more than laughed. In that case it was because I was charmed by the surrealism of the approach to the material. I smiled more than laughed at Bridesmaids, here because of the characters and their relationships. But the length and pacing cause a problem. Annie, a bit of a flake and not in the cute way movies usually show flaky women, is asked by Lillian to be her maid of honor at her wedding. Annie agrees, but keeps finding herself upstaged by Helen, the rich wife of Lillian’s fiance’s boss. The first of these occasions is when Annie and Helen end up giving dueling toasts at a reception. It’s funny, but goes on longer than it needs to. It also begins to show us Annie’s jealous side. That side comes out again when the bridesmaids are off on a plane for a weekend in Vegas. There is bonding between the bridesmaids, but Annie, seated in coach, keeps trying to sneak into first class, where Helen and Lillian are. The scene is the best in the film, because it successfully manages the mixture of Jane Austen and Blake Edwards the film is aiming for. But then the writers try to top that by having Annie go completely bonkers at the wedding rehearsal, and like the assorted scenes in the sequels to Star Wars (1977) that try to outdo the Cantina scene by having more of everything, we are in the land of overkill. We lose patience with Annie as the film progresses and she becomes less and less sympathetic. So when after the rehearsal, Megan, one of the bridesmaids, reads Annie the riot act, we are way ahead of the movie. We’ve wanted somebody to say that to Annie for almost half an hour. Annie and Lillian eventually make up.

Mumolo & Wiig have given us some well-rounded women characters, and provided great parts for the actresses. Megan is played by the wonderful Mellisa McCarthy (Sookie on The Gilmore Girls), who acts the shit out of the part, literally in the diarrhea scene. Rita (Wendi McClendon-Covey, late of Reno 911) is a married mother of several who hates her kids (when have you heard that in a mainsteam American film?) and tries to explain it all to a bright and perky Becca, who thinks marriage is going to be wonderful. As often happens (it even happens to Jane Austen), the two women writers have not developed the male characters very well. The fiance is almost invisible, and the highway patrolman Annie ends up with is standard issue. The writers also shortchange Helen. To nobody’s surprise, at one point late in the picture she breaks down emotionally and admits she has no friends and tries to buy friendship with money. OK, but the writers don’t go anywhere with that. Helen then continues to throw the most lavish wedding ever for Lillian, but we get no reaction shots of Helen to show us she is now embarrassed by her excess or has simply resorted to her previous default setting. Mumolo & Wiig are ruthless, but not yet Billy Wilder ruthless. I certainly hope they get there.

But I have to tell you, I still smiled a lot.

I Died a Thousand Times (1955. Written by W.R. Burnett, based (uncredited) on his novel High Sierra. 109 minutes)

I Died a Thousand TimesEverybody hated this movie, except for one person: I first saw this in 1955 when it came out and sort of liked it. It is a remake of the classic 1941 movie High Sierra, which I had not seen at that point. In the ’50s, Hollywood remade a pile of its old movies, I suppose partly for a lack of creativity (then as now), and perhaps maybe to persuade the anti-Communists that the movies could not be subversive if they were based on films that had made lots of money in capitalist America. Most of the remakes suffer in comparison to the originals. I liked High Society (1955) and couldn’t understand why critics thought it was so inferior to its source, The Philadelphia Story (1940). Until I finally saw The Philadelphia Story. In the case of Died, I originally liked the CinemaScope photography of the Southern California desert and its small towns. I have been trying to see the film again, but without much luck. Netflix doesn’t have it. I suggested it to Turner Classic Movies a year ago, without any luck. Until now. TCM ran it a while ago.

If you have ever read any reviews of it, you know the critics hated, hated, hated it. But one reason I wanted to take another look at it is that I discovered there is one person who liked it better than High Sierra. That would be W.R. Burnett, who wrote the novel, co-wrote the screenplay for High Sierra, and wrote the screenplay for this version. I’m always interested in what the writer has to say.

The story of High Sierra began when Burnett and a friend when fishing at June Lake and stayed it a cabin, which Burnett, ever the author, figured would be a good hideaway for Roy Earle, a killer and bank robber modeled on John Dillinger. The book was bought by Warner Brothers and assigned to John Huston to script. It was to be for Paul Muni (see US#52 for more on Mr. Muni), but Huston pissed off Muni, so Jack Warner assigned Burnett to work on the script as well. Muni still turned it down, and the studio was thinking of George Raft, but Bogart convinced Raft he was not right for the part (Burnett agreed) and Bogart took it over. The producer was Mark Hellinger, who was a problem for Burnett. One issue was that he insisted everything be explained in the script in detail, which Burnett did not think was necessary. The other was that Hellinger was what Burnett called a “sentimentalist.” Hellinger was not convinced that the crippled girl Velma would turn against Earle after he paid for an operation cured her. Burnett and Huston knew better, but they had to soften the character. (All of this background is from a terrific interview Ken Mate and Pat McGilligan did with Burnett for the 1986 book Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the first of four—so far—of the Backstory books.)

For Died, Willis Goldbeck, the producer, and Burnett saw eye to eye on the film they were making. Burnett cut a lot of the exposition Hellinger had insisted upon, and Velma, who does not get as many sentimental scenes as in the original, turns against Earle in a nice edgy scene. And the picture, at least in its DVD version, runs nine minutes longer than High Sierra. The script is better, but the picture is not as good. One reason is that Raoul Walsh has been replaced as director by Stuart Heisler. Heisler was a journeyman director about whom Nunnually Johnson said, “His main function seemed to be that he kept the actors from going home before 5 o’clock.” Heisler simply does not provide the energy and the drive Walsh did, which slows down the film. Another reason is that the film was shot in the early days of CinemaScope, and we spend a lot more time on the scenic shots of desert than we really need to. As much as I loved them when I was 14.

There is also the matter of casting. Yeah, you try following Bogart in one of his signature roles. Jack Palance is actually very good in the part, and it is one of his better performances, since he gets to show a more human side than he normally does. His moll, played by Ida Lupino in the original, is Shelley Winters, adequate, but not up to Lupino. Burnett was little more hard-edged about his two stars, “The remake is a better picture. Except we had two repulsive people in it—Jack Palance and Shelley Winters… Who gives a damn what happens to Shelley Winters? Or Jack Palance, for that matter?”

Screaming Eagles (1956. Screenplay by David Lang and Robert Presnell,Jr, story by Virginia Kellog. 79 minutes)

Screaming EaglesThe Longest Day, the lost episode: I got really rushed this Memorial Day and June 6th (end of semester at school, preparing to retire, and another small operation for my wife), so this B-picture is the best I could come up with for the occasions. It’s a story that could have become an interesting A-picture, but the script doesn’t do it justice.

The story is by Virginia Kellog, whose writing career was mostly providing stories for films (T-Men in 1947 and White Heat in 1949). It tells of a unit of the 101st Airborne (their nickname provides the film’s title) assigned to drop behind enemy lines on D-Day to take and hold a bridge. Sort of a cross between the Richard Todd and John Wayne sequences in The Longest Day (1962). As with the Wayne sequences, the platoon we follow is dropped in the wrong area and has to work their way towards the bridge. By the time they get there they discover another element of the 101st is already holding the bridge. You could turn this into a nice picture on the confusions of war, something the 101st sequences in The Longest Day come close to, but the script botches it. First of all, we spend an enormous amount of time on two new additions to the unit, one of whom, Pvt. Mason, is a sullen pain in the ass. And he’s supposed to be the main character of the film. Except after the action begins, he does not have that much to do. The first half of the film is the other guys in the unit complaining about Mason, and nearly all of those scenes take place in one setting, the barracks. Then we get a lot of stock footage of battle, and low-budget battle scenes with our ever-diminishing cast.

Thinking about this some more, it occurs to me that perhaps Kellog’s story was the Mason plot and Lang and/or Presnell got into the war stuff. Subject for further research, if anyone cares.

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958. Written by Mark Hanna. 65 minutes)

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman

You’ve seen the poster: The poster for this film is one that everybody knows: the 50 foot high woman standing over a freeway, holding one car in her hand and reaching for another one. As often with ’50s B movies, there is no scene like that in the film. This may have been a case where the poster was created before the script was written. That was a common practice at American-International Pictures, but this was released by Allied Artists.

The film does not get shown that much, and you can see why. The idea is terrific, in a ’50s sort of way, but badly developed. A married woman gets zapped with something from an alien in a space ship, and she grows to the announced height. She uses her height to get revenge on her husband and his slutty girlfriend. But most of that just happens in the last 15 minutes or so, and then gets rushed. Hanna spends way more time than he needs in setting up the love triangle, and then even more time with the spaceship, which looks like a volleyball painted silver. The special effects are less than cheap, even by fifties standards. There is no freeway, and the film is mostly set in the desert. The location is not for dramatic purposes, as in the opening scenes of Them! (1954, see US#15), but so they won’t have to hire any extras. The payoff, when it finally arrives, is not very inventive. The woman knocks down a building and the girlfriend is crushed. The actors mostly overact, although Yvette Vickers, whose body was recently found after she had been dead for some time, gives great slut as the girlfriend. For some teenage boys in 1958, I am sure that was enough.

Too Big to Fail (2011. Screenplay by Peter Gould, based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin. 95 minutes)

Too Big To Fail

Well, no, not really: This is one of those subjects (the chaos on Wall Street in the fall of 2008) that you could probably not get made as a theatrical release. Its director, Curtis Hanson, was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times, “The studios just shy away from dramas. And on the surface, this was about a bunch of bankers sitting around talking.” He’s right, that’s exactly what it is. And because it was for HBO, they could get a lot of great actors to sit around and talk: William Hurt, James Woods, Edward Asner, Kathy Baker, and the list goes on and on.

But there’s talk, and then there’s talk. The talk here is very plot-driven as I am sure it was with the bankers involved. And it may well be the way the people Sorkin interviewed remember they talked. But just because something is true does not make it interesting. There are only a few scenes where the great actors involved are allowed by the dialogue to bring their characters alive. A lot of the big names here could be collecting unemployment insurance for all the real acting they get to do.

We have discussed a number of times how documentaries these days very often give us more interesting characters than fiction films do. Go look at last year’s Inside Job as a companion piece to this film and you will see what I mean. The makers of that film got all kinds of financial big shots to talk about the debacle, and in the process the big shots reveal more about their attitudes than Gould gets here.

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.