Coming Up In This Column: Friends with Benefits; Crazy, Stupid, Love.; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2; Point Blank (2010); Mr. And Mrs. Smith (2005); The Great Escape; MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot (book); The Fox Film Corporation, 1915-1935: A History and Filmography (book); Covert Affairs, but first…
Fan Mail: Contrary to what David E. thinks, I love films that are poetically structured. If you can find it, look at the great British documentary Song of Ceylon (1934), one of the most poetically structured films of all time. In my History of Documentary film course, the classes were always split: there were those who loved it and those who hated it because it didn’t tell a story. That gave me a chance early in the course to let them know that all films do not have to tell stories.
“Pippa” appears to be upset with David and me for taking things to “the Nth degree of irrelevance.” Then, alas, she goes on to provide a link to the “film structure in a circle” site that I wrote about in US#76. She ought to go back and read my comments on it. The problem I have with so much writing about screenwriting is that it is often only about structure (Syd Field’s plot points; the Hero’s Journey, etc) without a lot of understanding of the nuances of character, tone, et al involved. As in some of the films in this column…
Friends with Benefits (2011. Screenplay by Keith Merryman & David A Newman and Will Gluck, story by Harley Patton and Keith Merryman & David A Newman. 109 minutes)
Haven’t we recently seen this? Take one: No, actually we haven’t. In US#70, I wrote about No Strings Attached (2011) which has a similar plot: Two friends agree to have sex without any emotional attachments, but one of them naturally falls in love with the other and complications ensue. It was not particularly well done, for reasons I will come back to as we discuss this one. Friends is much better in a variety of ways.
One problem I had with Strings is that the characters were not equals. Emma was a doctor, Adam was a television production assistant who was just devoted to her since they were kids. So you can see where the story is going right away. In Friends, Jamie (Mila Kunis) is an executive headhunter who recruits Dylan to come to New York from California to become the new art director at GQ magazine. So they start out as equals. Will Gluck, who also directed, has said he wanted to do something in the vein of the old Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movies, and you can see and hear that influence. But Kunis and Justin Timberlake, who plays Dylan, don’t have that maturity or emotional weight. Which is OK, and Gluck and the others recognize that. These two are young professionals, but professionals nonetheless. The two characters and the actors who play them are much better balanced than Natalie Portman and Aston Kutcher are in Strings. Both Kunis and Timberlake have great chemistry on-screen and are hot, the latter of which is not normally said about Tracy and Hepburn. In Strings the sex was played mostly for slapstick jokes, but the sex here is very much in character.
One problem I have with most sex scenes in movies is that they tend to be very generic. The sex scenes here are not; you have probably never heard the word “burlap” the way it is used here. The writers focus on how these characters, having what they hope is unemotional sex, talk and screw and react. It is much funnier than just slapstick. It is very raunchy stuff—you are embarrassed to think of Tracy and Hepburn saying any of what gets said here—but it is not as off-putting as the raunch has been in other recent films, such as Bridesmaids (US#76) or Going the Distance (US#59). Character and attitude ground it.
Gluck, who directed but did not write Easy A (2010), also directs here, and he again shows a feeling for interesting supporting characters. They are not as well written here as those Bert V. Royal wrote in Easy A, but the script gives some nice moments to Woody Harrelson as Tommy, the gay sports editor at GQ. So it’s Dylan who has the gay best friend, not Jamie. Jamie’s mother Lorna shows up, played by Patricia Clarkson, who was great as the mother in Easy A. She’s not given as much to work with her, but there is a great running gag as to the ethnic identity of Jamie’s father, taking advantage of Kunis’s “ethnic” look (in Hollywood terms that means she is not a pasty-faced blonde). The most interesting supporting character is Dylan’s father, who is in first-stage Alzheimer’s. That’s a tricky character to throw into a rom-com, but the writers balance his crazy and sane moments nicely and everybody was smart enough to get Richard Jenkins for the part.
The writers also realize their film is coming along late in the current rom-com cycle, so there are a lot of jokes, a la Scream (1996) as to the rules of the genre. Jamie and Dylan never go the top of the Empire State Building, but to a rooftop where they can look at it. There is even a film-within-a-film that demonstrates all the cliches. Stick with Friends all the way through the end of the credits to see a funny payoff to that.
One way Friends is better than Strings is that it’s not just one character who falls in love with the other. Here both characters do, which leads to a nice scene where Dylan’s sister simply explains to him why the whole friends-with-benefits idea doesn’t work. We watch Jamie and Dylan truly sweat over the situation. We may not cry real tears over them, but we at least cry genuine cardboard tears.
The film also gets a lot of mileage out of the New York-California conflict, but I have to tell you this: My daughter saw the film in a suburb of New Orleans and she and her husband were the only two people in the theater that laughed at the New York and L.A. jokes. Maybe the rest of the country just doesn’t care about us, folks.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011. Written by Dan Fogelman. 118 minutes)
Tone: Back in the ’30s and ’40s, one plot in romantic comedies involved a divorced couple getting back together again. The great opening of The Philadelphia Story (1940) showed us the breakup in which Tracy Lords throws her husband C.K. Dexter Haven out of the house, golf clubs and all. But then we jump ahead to some time later when she is planning to marry someone else. His Girl Friday (1940) begins with Walter and Hildy already divorced (and Hildy planning on remarrying). What neither film shows us is what happens immediately after the breakup, because that is a little more serious than either film wants to be. Crazy, Stupid, Love. starts with the breakup and then follows what happens afterwards. So the tone is different. The film is funny, but there is an undercurrent of rueful sadness as well. While Friends With Benefits follows in the fast-talking spirit of films like His Girl Friday, Crazy, Stupid, Love. creates a different kind of balance. The almost completely forgotten 1957 film Divorce American Style tried something similar, but did not do it as well as the current film.
In the title sequence we can tell Cal and Emily are not on the same page by their shoes under the restaurant table. Emily tells Cal she wants a divorce and shortly thereafter he jumps out of the car on the way home. You could write that for pure laughs, but Fogelman gives it an edge, and the directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, capture the tone the script sets by keeping the action slow enough so that we can watch everybody’s reactions to the events. We get drawn into the characters and their situations. Fogelman co-wrote the screenplay for Cars (2006), worked on the story for this year’s Cars 2, and wrote the screenplay for 2010’s Tangled, so he knows both comedy and character. We get a subplot with Cal and Emily’s 13-year-old son, Robbie, who is madly in love with the 17-year-old baby sitter (Robbie has a younger sister, whom we don’t learn that much about) named Jessica. And Jessica has a mad crush on…Cal. The main plotline is Cal being taught by Jacob how to be a swinger, complete with a makeover of the kind one usually sees in chick flicks. It’s funny to see the shopping montage with guys.
Fogelman is very careful to set up the continuity of the film, usually letting us know what the next scene is going to be by having someone mention an upcoming event. That way we end up suspecting right away that when we do not see the teacher in Robbie’s classroom but only hear her, she will show up in some other situation, which she does. We can tell what’s coming and we anticipate it. Nice and tidy.
Then half an hour before the end of the film, Fogelman pulls off a real corker of a twist. I can usually see them coming, but not so with this one. Why does this one surprise the way it should? First of all, we assume the twist with the teacher is the film’s big twist. Second, Fogelman has done a great job preparing us by making us assume the characters involved in the twist are there for one function only in the plot. Third, he lays out everything else so neatly, we hardly expect something like this.
I also like the way Jessica, the babysitter is written and cast. She is not a raving beauty, but a gawky 17-year-old who does stupid things. I saw the movie with a fairly large crowd, and the two guys next to me were older teenagers who had no interest in Jessica until her final action in the film. It will endear her to teenage boys everywhere. And would probably get her arrested in real life.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011. Screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the book by J.K. Rowling. 130 minutes)
Finally: I have to admit I have never read any of the Harry Potter books, nor have I seen any of the films made from them. Mythical British schoolboys and their magic wands don’t turn me on. So what I am doing writing about this film in a column about screenwriting? Just this: I am incredibly glad to see the series end and end on a good note, according to everybody. I do not begrudge anybody who made a bazillion dollars from it. And why am I glad to see it all end?
From the first film of the series back in 1893, the Warner Brothers Marketing Department has been relentlessly congratulating itself for doing such a great job of selling the films to the public. I imagine they all broke their arms patting themselves on their backs. But in fact, the WB Marketing Department did not have a damn thing to do with the success of the films. Not one damned thing.
People went to see the first film because of one person and one person only: J.K. Rowling. She, the writer of the novels, created those character, those stories, and the overall arc of the series. Without the love that people felt for her novels and her characters, they would not have shown up for the first film. It’s the writer, stupid.
Audiences kept coming back because of Rowling, who has at least gotten some of the credit she deserves, and one other person. That would be David Heyman, who discovered the books before they were bestsellers and took the project to Warners. Then he produced all the films in the series. You think that’s easy? Think about all the moving parts involved in the series. Because Heyman kept the level of quality up, people kept coming back. Steve Kloves, who wrote all but one of the screenplays, helped with the quality as well, of course.
So I am celebrating the end of the series because it now means that the Warner Brothers Marketing Department will now, we hope, FINALLY SHUT THE FUCK UP about how they made the films hits all by themselves.
Point Blank (2010. Written by Fred Cavayé and Guillaume Lemans. 84 minutes)
Luc-alike: In US#20, I wrote about Taken (2009), a fast, action-packed thriller co-written by Luc Besson. When Besson had a huge hit with his 1990 thriller La Femme Nikita, The New Yorker’s one-line blurb for it was “The end of French Cinema as we know it.” It was not entirely, but it did introduce the French version of the high-octane thriller. Point Blank, not to be confused with the 1967 film of the same name co-written by the great Alexander Jacobs, is very much in the Besson vein. We start with Sartet, a wounded safe-cracker being chased by a couple of guys trying to kill him. Sartet ends up in a hospital where Samuel, a nurse’s aide, saves his life. This puts Samuel on the bad guys’ radar. After the first chase scene, we have been introduced in a nice slow scene to Samuel and his very pregnant wife, Nadia. So Sartet’s cohorts kidnap Nadia and tell Samuel to get Sartet out of the hospital or they will kill his wife. You may remember from the last column, US#77, I wrote about the 1947 film noir Desperate and mentioned that the leading character got his wife out of town before the bad guys could do her any harm. Here the writers don’t give Samuel a chance, which certainly ups the suspense.
Then there is a lot of running around. And I mean a lot. We know Samuel is a nice guy, but here he is mostly, well, desperate. Sartet is a rather cool guy, but that’s about it for him. There are a whole variety of criminals, corrupt cops, not-so-corrupt cops, and they are all very sullen. Yeah, I know they are French, but they are all one note, although the one cop who may not be is killed off earlier in the film than you might think. So there are plot twists and several good scenes (I particularly love how Sartet and Samuel break into the police station to get an incriminating video on a USB), but it is all on one emotional level. Taken at least had a little variety to it.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005. Written by Simon Kinberg. 120 minutes)
Not worth waiting for: About five or six years ago I was visiting my daughter in Denver. I had not seen this film when it came out, and she had it from Netflix. We had a couple of hours before we had to leave for the airport, so we figured we could get it in. We started it and it looked promising. John and Jane Smith are a married couple going through a bad patch (they are both bored), so they are seeing a shrink. We get a flashback on how they met, and it is clear both of them were packing guns at the time. They apparently got married without telling each other what they do. One day Jane gets an assignment in her work as an assassin, and she sees that John is there too…and about then my daughter’s DVD player went on the fritz. It just would not work. So we had to give it up. I kept meaning to get around to seeing the film, but it was not high on my list. Finally I got it from Netflix.
Maybe my daughter’s DVD player knew something we didn’t, since the film begins to go downhill rather rapidly about the point we stopped watching. John and Jane figure out they are hired assassins, working for different organizations. For some reason this makes them furious with each other. So they go from having a boring life to trying to kill each other. About midway through the film they have a shootout in their house, which pretty much destroys the house. It is way too big for its placement in the middle of the film. And then, having destroyed the house, they are so turned on they have sex with each other.
OK, I can understand makeup sex if you have been arguing, but after destroying your own home? I suppose Kinberg is intending it to be some kind of commentary on marriage, but the shootout is so big, so noisy, and so long (they are pretty crummy hit persons if they are not better shots than that) that makeup sex seems stupid under the circumstances. They eventually figure out that their organizations (about which we learn virtually nothing—this is really a two-character piece) have finally (what took them so long?) learned they are married to each other and want both of them dead. Why? Who knows? I would have thought a married team might be useful. So the movie ends up another big shootout, this one between the Smiths and a lot of faceless guys. In a stunning lack of imagination on Kinberg’s part, this shootout is in a home furnishings department of a big store. Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say. And when the shootout is over, the Smiths have killed all the other soldiers. Fade out. Huh? Aren’t their two organizations going to try to continue to kill them? Maybe this was intended to be a setup for a sequel, but thank God there has not been one.
The Great Escape (1963. Screenplay by W.R. Burnett and James Clavell and among other uncredited writers, William Roberts, Walter Newman, and Nelson Gidding, based on the book by Paul Brickhill. 172 minutes)
Even bankers think it is a nice little scene: I happened to see this again recently, since it is one of my favorite World War II movies and I look at it every couple of years. From the first time I saw the film in 1963, I have always like the little scene where Griffith, the tailor, explains to Big X how he is making civilian clothes for the escape. In the scene as written and played, Griffith behaves like a typical tailor as he lays out the possible materials he is using, what is he going to do with them, etc. It could be an on-the-nose scene, but Griffith’s attitude gives it some flair. The scene was almost cut out of the film.
I have mentioned Glenn Lovell’s excellent biography of director John Sturges, Escape Artist, before. I read through the chapter on The Great Escape before I looked at the film. According to Lovell, the writing was rather chaotic, mostly because of Steve McQueen, but also because there was so much material in the book. The rough cut ran five hours, which they cut down to a little over three. That cut worked well, but United Artists wanted it cut to under three hours. Sturges cut it, including the tailor scene. But when they needed extra money, they had to show the film to the Board of the Pacific National Bank to get the money. The bankers all asked how the prisoners got the clothes. The scene went back in.
I always pushed my screenwriting students to only include scenes in their scripts that they needed. The tailor scene may have seemed like one they didn’t need, but they did. See what I mean about screenwriting being a work of nuances?
MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot (2011. Book written by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, Michael Troyan. 311 pages)
The title gets its right: This is a big book, in many ways. It is wider than it is tall, and it is packed with an incredible amount of information about the old MGM studio in Culver City, complete with a list of what films and television shows were shot on which backlot sets. The studio is now owned by Sony, but the soundstages are still there. The backlots, of which there were several, were all torn down in the ’70s and replaced by real estate developments. An acquaintance of mine lives in a house on what used to be Lot Two. I think we figured it out that he is close to the old Grand Central Station set, where in 1959 alone, Marilyn Monroe got spritzed by steam from a train in Some Like It Hot and Cary Grant got on board the 20th Century Limited in North by Northwest. Hallowed ground indeed.
The writers have uncovered not only the MGM records that still exist, but photos of nearly all of the sets on the backlots. You will recognize many of them if you have seen any movies, and not just MGM movies, made before 1975. And you will be surprised to learn that movies you thought were done on location were done on the backlot. Only two shots in An American in Paris (1951) were actually shot in Paris. The rest were done on Lot Two or on the sound stages.
So what does this wonderful book have to do with screenwriting? More than you might think. Because writers at the studio knew what was on the lot, they could write for it. Betty Comden and Adolph Green came up with the idea for Singin’ in the Rain (1952) while wandering around the lot. The book’s authors have several quotes from television writers who were inspired to write scenes based on the standing sets. They quote from a newspaper interview in 1959 with Rod Serling in which he talks about walking on “St. Louis Street,” built for the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis. Serling said, “I was suddenly hit by the similarity of it to my hometown. Feeling an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, it struck me that all of us have a deep longing to go back—not to our home as it is today, but as we remember it. It was from that simple incident that I wrote the story ’Walking Distance’” for his series The Twilight Zone. The resources of a major studio could make television shows look much more expensive than they really are.
I had a first-hand look at how a writer used a standing set at MGM. In the spring of 1968, I was in a screenwriting course at UCLA. Williams Bowers was a guest speaker in the class, and we had read his wonderfully funny screenplay for Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), which had just finished shooting. In the copy of the script we read, the final shootout was missing. There was a page that said the details of the shootout would be written when they decided which western set they would use. They settled on the Western Street on Lot 3. As luck would have it, that summer I was a bus driver/tour guide at the slapdash studio tour. It was not run by the studio, but contracted out to a sleazeball who must have had incriminating photos of some MGM executive. He had three old buses, but had only registered two of them with the state, and he split one set of license plates between two busses. So I spent the summer going past the Western Street imagining the final shootout, based on what I knew of the characters and situations in the script. Needless to say, I was disappointed the first time I saw the shootout in the movie. It was not nearly as inventive as what I had come up with. On the other hand, mine would have run four hours…
The Fox Film Corporation, 1915-1935: A History and Filmography (2011. Book written by Aubrey Solomon. 384 pages)
It’s the writers, stupid: Solomon’s book is not the nostalgia-ridden piece the MGM book is, but a serious history of Fox before the merger in 1935 with the upstart 20th Century Pictures. It is also the only place I know of where you will see photographs of Theda Bara topless and laughing. Not in the same photo however. Now that I have your attention, let me mention the section that is interesting in terms of screenwriting. The founder of the studio, William Fox, was kicked out of the studio in the early thirties. Whatever his character flaws, and he had a pile of them, he was a showman. The people brought into run the studio were not, and Solomon makes it clear that a large part of the problem from 1930 to 1935 is that there was nobody running the studio who understood scripts. He has quote after quote from reviews on how bad the scripts of the time were for most of the Fox films. It was no wonder that in 1935 the studio merged with 20th Century. Twentieth Century had Darryl F. Zanuck, who had the best story mind in Hollywood, and helped the studio recover and grow with the assistance of screenwriters like Lamar Trotti, Philip Dunne, and of course Nunnally Johnson.
Covert Affairs (2011. “Welcome to the Occupation” written by Zak Schwartz. 60 minutes)
Haven’t we recently seen this? Take two: A group of terrorists burst into a meeting of energy executives. The terrorists fire their automatic weapons into the air and tell the executives they are being taken hostage. Right, it is the opening of the first hour of the second episode of Carlos (US#62), when Carlos and his men take over the 1975 OPEC meeting in Vienna. What we have here is a version of that domesticated for American television.
The terrorists in this case present themselves as eco terrorists, claiming the company GG&E is polluting Mexico, the country the meeting is in. They are not as uncontrolled as the guys in Carlos. Delgado, the leader, has even brought along an asthma inhaler, filled with the right prescription for one of the executives. That is not a touch from Carlos. Delgado is smoother then Carlos. With Carlos we never quite know what is going to happen. One of the women at the meeting is Megan, a C.I.A. field officer who has been working undercover at the company. She manages to get off a message to Langley before the terrorists take over. So while in Carlos our focus is on Carlos and his men, here we have other characters, including eventually Annie, the star of the show.
Annie, her boss Joan, and Ben, an operative Annie had a fling with, are set up as a eco television network unit and given permission to go in to interview the terrorists. It is made clear by Joan that their job is to provide information about the situation to a C.I.A. strike team, and they are not to take any other action. Yeah, right, who’s the star of the show again? And while Annie has warned Ben not to try any of the “cowboy crap,” we know that he will, simply because she’s told him not to. Annie eventually figures out that Delgado is not really into ecology, but just in it for the money, so she upsets him so much that he puts the three of them in with the hostages. She figures Delgado has no intention of freeing the hostages after the money transfer is made, and she’s right. Fortunately Ben has planted his camera bag there that, like all the stuff Q provides for James Bond, happens to be exactly what they need. He blows out a window, and the four guards come into the room. And Joan and Megan beat the crap out of them. Wait a minute, Annie’s the star, what does she get to do? Well, rappel down the side of the building with Ben to capture the escaping Delgado and the executive who was the inside man. This is the difference between a serious look at a terrorist and a light-hearted American summer television series: nobody rappels down buildings in Carlos.
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.