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Understanding Screenwriting #79: The Help, The Whistleblower, Fury, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #79: <em>The Help</em>, <em>The Whistleblower</em>, <em>Fury</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Help, The Whistleblower, Red-Headed Woman, Hold Your Man, Fury, They Won’t Forget, but first…

Fan Mail: Rob Humanick is thanking me for making sure I got the period at the end of the title of Crazy, Stupid, Love. I would love to accept kudos, but I only put in the commas. It was Keith Uhlich, our eagle-eyed editor, who picked up on the period business. This is not the first time, nor the last, that Keith has saved me from looking like a total idiot in print. Or rather in pixels.

I am afraid I am way too straight to see what David E. calls the “gay envy” in straight films. In the case of Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love. (see, I got the period right this time) Gosling’s character seems to me to be a living embodiment of a guy obsessed with Hugh Hefner’s 1950s Playboy ideal. As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a straight guy is just a straight guy.

The Help (2011. Screenplay by Tate Taylor, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett. 146 minutes)

Yipee, it’s August, take one: That means there is finally a film in the multiplexes without stuff we have been inundated with all summer:

There are no comic book heroes.

There are no comic book characters from other Marvel comics that are only in this film to help promote future comic book movies.

There are no explosions, other than dramatic ones.

It is not, in any theater, in 3-D.

Nor is it in any Imax theaters.

There are no aliens.

It is not a tent pole for a future film series.

It is not the next, nor the last, tent pole from a previously established series.

There is not a single teenager in the film.

No actors change bodies in the course of this film.

There are no couples that are trying to have sex without emotional complications.

Except in reference to a certain pie, there is no use of bad language.

There are no fart, dick, or homophobic jokes.

There are no pirates, talking animals or talking cars in this film.

The African-American characters are not just in the film to be killed off so the white hero can get revenge.

However, just to let you know this is indeed a film from the summer of 2011, Emma Stone does appear in the film, but in a serious role.

By now you have probably read the backstory of the film. Taylor and Stockett are friends from childhood, and she gave him the film rights for her novel before it ever became a best seller. He in turn, with the help of some friends, convinced the industry that he should direct the film as well as write it, since he and Stockett felt that he understood the South better than a non-southern director would. They were right, and it makes up for Taylor not being a slicker director. He brings his considerable talents as both writer and director to the service of the material, like most great directors do, whether they want to admit it or not.

You may have read some reviews that say this is yet another film in which a white person saves the day for black folks. It’s not. Let’s start with the film’s narration. Stockett’s book has first-person narration by three people. One is Skeeter, a young white woman who just graduated from Ole Miss’. She decides to write a book in which black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963-64 talk about their lives. So naturally, if you are making a film to play in the multiplexes (i.e., for white audiences), Skeeter is your heroine and you let her do the narrating. Guess again. The narration Taylor uses is from Aibileen, the most serious of the maids. So while us white folks may think this is Skeeter’s movie, it is as much Aibileen’s. At the end of the film Skeeter is going off to New York, but we don’t see her leave. The film goes on to show us what happens to Aibileen (although I gather the book goes even further), making it Aibileen’s film, and making clear both Skeeter’s influence and lack of it. The third narrator of the book is Minny, the maid who can’t keep her mouth shut even when she should, for her own safety. Minny is as much a major character in the film as Skeeter and Aibileen. Once Aibileen and Minny and the other maids start talking, Skeeter becomes a secondary character.

Taylor is also smart to keep Aibilieen and Minny as equal characters, since it means we are not getting just one black person standing in for all black people. Aibileen and Minny are about as different as you can get, and Taylor as both writer and director serves both of them well, as do the actresses playing them. I caught Viola Davis (Aibileen) and Octavia Spencer (Minny) on a talk show and seeing them in “real life” made me appreciate both their performances even more. Both Davis and Spencer are so detailed, vivid and “in the moment” that they overcome any sense of stereotyping of their roles or any “white girl saves the black women” cliches.

Because so many of the white women who hire the maids are so obviously racist, I thought as I was watching the movie that Taylor was underserving the white characters. Thinking it over later, I think he does give us a variety of white characters. Skeeter is of course a good person, but she is also ambitious (which gives Stone a lot more to work with than in some of her recent films). Her mother is a ditz who plays her ill-health card to the max. The unofficial leader of the white wives is Hilly, and while she is a bitch, she is a nuanced bitch. Somebody was quoted recently as saying, presumably on the basis of Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance as Hilly, that pretty soon Ron Howard will be known not as Opie, Richie, or a director, but as “Bryce Dallas Howard’s father.” I had reservations about Ms. Howard’s Southern Belle in The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond (2008) and I wrote in US#41 that “Bryce Dallas Howard should take lessons from the original Kitten with a Whip,” Ann Margaret, who was in that film. She obviously took my advice (yeah, right), and she is sensationally good here. The white-trash outcast among the white wives is Celia and Taylor has written a much better role for Jessica Chastain that Malick did in The Tree of Life. Chastain gets to do stuff here, unlike Tree.

The male characters are definitely secondary. The white husbands are interchangeable, as they probably were in real life, but Skeeter’s editor, Mr. Blackly, gives Leslie Jordan a couple of nice scenes. Unlike The Color Purple (1985), we do not see any of the black men, but they are talked about. And for all the maids’ perfectly justified bitching about white folks, Taylor gives us a nice white guy whom we never see. One of the maids tells about a doctor she worked for. When a farmer objected to her walking to the doctor’s house across part of his farm, the doctor bought two acres from the farmer so she could use her shortcut. See what I mean about the advantage of having somebody who knows the South writing and directing the film?

So we do get a range of white characters, but the focus is on Aibileen and Minny and the other maids. That’s the right thing to do with this material because the script shows us something we have not seen before in movies: what are all those black maids in movies, and life for that matter, have been thinking and feeling. Like the late August Wilson’s plays, this film is not just about African-American history, but about American history.

The Whistleblower (2010. Written by Ellis Kirwan and Larysa Kondracki. 122 minutes)

The Whistleblower

Semi-yipee, it’s August, take two: OK, there is a car crash in this one, but it’s a dramatic one, not a spectacular one.

This one is based on the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska policewoman who went to work for a private military company as part of a peacekeeping force in Bosnia in 1999. On the ground in Bosnia she begins to discover sex trafficking going on that not only involves the company she works for, but the U.N. peacekeeping mission as well. Needless to say, all this does not go down well with the company, the traffickers, and the U.N. She sends an email to the head of the U.N. Mission, but all that does is get her fired. She manages to sneak a pile of her files out and reports it all to the BBC.

Now that sounds like it could be a dramatic and compelling film, and it certainly has its moments, such as a raid on a bar/brothel out in the woods. Like The Help, it takes us into a world we generally have not seen, except perhaps in snippets on Law & Order: SVU. The Whistleblower takes us into a part of the world where it all starts, and makes us aware of the details of the situation. But the film suffers from a problem we have seen before with movies based on true stories. The writers (Kondracki also directed) have assumed that because it is true it will be interesting. It is, to a degree, but a lot of it is very on the nose. They also sort of pull their punches by using a fictitious name for DynCorp, the actual company. Well, it is a low budget film and they don’t want to get sued, but it takes until the middle of the film for anybody to mention that Bulkovac is working for a private company and not the U.N. They also don’t mention that in real life the prostitutes were 12 to 15 years old. There are of course practical reasons for that: if you have actresses those ages, you simply cannot do the kind of torture and sex scenes the movie has.

I also have a problem with the characterization of Bulkovac. She is a Nebraska policewoman, divorced, with three kids. But there is virtually nothing in the writing that gives us any sense of that background. The real Bulkovac, who is showing up on television and the Internet these days promoting her book on the subject as well as the film, is a big strapping corn-fed Middle Westerner. The film Bulkovac is played by Rachel Weisz. I love Weisz as an actress, but she is not big, nor strapping, nor corn-fed. She gives a good performance, particularly in closeups where we read her sympathy for the suffering women, but it is rather one-note. They probably should have, in addition to rewriting the character, got Mary McCormack from In Plain Sight.

The film also gets rather repetitious, with shot after shot of suffering women and Bulkovac being sympathetic. The officials she deals with are also one-note, either for good (Vanessa Redgrave as Bulkovac’s supportive boss) or bad (mostly the guys). David Strathairn at least is given a little bit of both to play.

Red-Headed Woman (1932. Screenplay by Anita Loos, based on the novel by Katharine Brush. 79 minutes)

Red-Headed WomanWriters and stars, take one: In early August the UCLA Film & Television Archives ran a series of Pre-Code films starring Jean Harlow. This was in connection with a new book by Darrell Rooney and Mark A. Vieira, Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928-1937. On August 6th, the Archives ran a double bill of two Harlow films written by Anita Loos. This is the first one, and the one that made Harlow a star.

We often think of great star-director combinations: John Wayne-John Ford, Marcello Mastroianni-Federico Fellini, and Grace Kelly-Alfred Hitchcock, just to name a few. What you may not realize is that there are also great star-writer collaborations as well. In the early silent days, it took C. Gardner Sullivan’s scripts to turn William S. Hart from a stage Shakespearean actor into the first big western star. The pattern continues to this day. Sharon Stone was in movies for ten years before Joe Eszterhas wrote the part in Basic Instinct (1992) that made her a star. In Harlow’s case, she had been in small parts until she had a hit in Hell’s Angels in 1930. But she was a rather bland glamor girl in that and the movies that followed. Her career began to slide until she came to MGM. The novel of Red-Headed Woman was pretty much all melodrama, all the time, as it follows Lil Andrews sleeping her way to the top, breaking up a marriage in the process.

Irving Thalberg, the “boy wonder” head of MGM had originally put F. Scott Fitzgerald on the script, but Fitzgerald had no feeling for the character, or for Thalberg’s idea that if you make Lil funny, the audience can laugh with her rather than at her. According to Gary Carey in his 1988 biography Anita Loos, it was Paul Bern, Harlow’s mentor, who suggested Loos be put on the script. Not surprising, since a decade before it was Loos’s witty scripts that made Constance Talmadge into one of the great silent comic stars. Fitzgerald was off the project, Loos was on, and within a month she had finished the script. The director assigned was Jack Conway, whom you may remember from US#41 that I don’t think much of. He also did not find the material funny. He complained to Loos, “You can’t make jokes about a girl who deliberately sets out to break up a family.” Loos replied, “What not? Look at the family! It deserves to be broken up!”

Conway, ever the obedient studio hack, shot the film. It was not well-received at the first sneak preview. Here is a reason Thalberg was known as the “boy wonder.” He told Loos, “People don’t know whether they’re supposed to laugh or not. We need an opening scene to set the mood.” So Loos wrote a prologue. Lil is looking at herself in the mirror, especially her red hair (Harlow was already known as a blonde) spies the audience in the mirror, and says, “Gentlemen prefer blondes? Sure,” a reference to Loos’s famous book. Then Lil is seen in a dress in a shop and asks the off-camera sales girl, “Can you see through this?” The girl replies, “Yes,” to which Lil says, “I’ll wear it.” (Carey may have seen a different print. He has Lil’s line as “Is this dress too tight?” to which the clerk replies, “It certainly is.” Lil’s response is “Good.” Kate Lanier and Norman Vance Jr., the writers of the 2005 Beauty Shop, may have read Carey’s book. In their opening scene Gina [Queen Latifah] is struggling to get into a pair of jeans. She asks her young daughter, “Vanessa, do these pants make my butt look big?” Vanessa replies, “Yes, they do,” to which Gina slaps her own ass, smiles, and says, “Good!” You could have heard a pin drop in the nearly all-female audience I saw the film with. I still think that “Good!” was the most subversive line of dialogue in that entire decade.)

Loos’s prologue does set us up to laugh, but Conway’s direction does not get as much of the humor out of the material as could be gotten. And there are scenes that are pure melodrama. In spite of that, the picture made a Harlow a star, even though the mixture of comedy and drama was uneven. Then later in the same year, John Lee Mahin’s screenplay for Red Dust showed that Harlow could not only be funny, but say funny things.

Hold Your Man (1933. Screenplay by Anita Loos and Howard Emmett Rogers, story by Anita Loos. 87 minutes)

Hold Your Man

Writers and stars, take two: After Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust, Harlow’s star persona was set: a smart-mouthed, sexy, working class, funny woman. How could Anita Loos resist writing for her? Well, she couldn’t. And MGM appreciated Loos. Sam Marx, the story editor at MGM, told Carey that “shady lady” stories were always a potential censorship problem, even in the Pre-Code days, but that “Anita, however, could be counted on to supply the delicate double entendre, the telling innuendo. Whenever we had a Jean Harlow picture on the agenda, we always thought of Anita first.”

The picture starts like a house afire. Eddie Hall (Clark Gable, Harlow’s co-star in Red Dust) is a street con man who, while running from the police, hides in Ruby Adams’s apartment. First-rate wise-ass banter ensues. Ruby is sort of engaged to the sweetest guy in the world, but who can resist a character based on Loos’s old friend Wilson Mizner? (Loos went to the Mizner well often, especially for the roles she wrote for Gable; look at his Blackie Norton in her 1936 San Francisco.) Ruby gets involved in his cons, then gets arrested when Eddie accidentally kills a guy. So far, so good. I don’t know what was originally in the second half of the script, but it got dumped. There were enough complaints about Harlow and especially Mae West that pressure was building up to the institution of the 1934 revision of the Production Code. So Loos and probably Rogers turned the second half of the script into a drama of poor Ruby going off to a Reformatory, which Carey describes as “sort of a strictly disciplined Seven Sisters sorority.” All that was light and fun and sexy in the first half gets dropped, and everything becomes serious. And Harlow is not that good at serious, or at least not as good as she is at comedy. And Gable has a scene where he is, I think, sincere about convincing a minister to marry him and Ruby. But Gable’s fake sincerity in the con man scenes is so much more convincing that I was not persuaded his Eddie was being sincere. Everybody gets reformed by the end.

There are occasional Loos-type lines in the second half, as when during a church service one of the inmates is not singing. A matron asks her, “You don’t like the hymn?” to which the woman replies, “It was a him that got me in here.” As I mentioned in my comments on Rogers in US#41, he was one of Hollywood’s arch-conservatives, so I have to assume that the smart funny black girl in the reformatory is Loos’s, as is her minister father. I can’t find any reference to these African-American characters in any of the standard books on African-Americans in film, but the very casualness of their appearance probably was more subversive than scenes in more serious films. The first half of the film is great Loos-Harlow-Gable, the second half is bad traditional Hollywood.

Rooney and Vieira introduced the films at the screening and made particular mention of Loos, at least partly because her grand-nephew was in the audience. The audience remembered. As I was going up the aisle at the end, one guy in front of me said, “Anita Loos wrote great stuff.” Score one for writers.

Fury (1936. Screenplay by Bartlett Cormack and Fritz Lang, based on a story by Norman Krasna. 92 minutes)

FuryThe Great American Sport of Lynching, take one: In late July Turner Classic Movies had as one of its theme nights films about failed justice. This film and the next one in the column were two of the ones TCM ran.

Joe is an average guy, in love with Katherine, who as the film opens to going off to another town where she has landed a better job. Joe promises to come to her after he earns enough money. Several months later he is on the way when he is arrested as a suspect in the kidnapping of a young woman. A montage shows the town gossip building up to the point where the townspeople burn the jail down, with Joe in it. Several of the townspeople are put on trial for murder. Joe has survived the fire and works through his two brothers to help convict the defendants. Joe finally reveals to the court he is still alive. Sounds like a typical torn-from-the-headlines mid-’30s Warner Brothers film, doesn’t it?

It was made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Here’s how it happened. One day Norman Krasna was talking to Joseph L. Mankiewicz about a bunch of things. Krasna had already developed a reputation as a playwright and screenwriter of light comedies, which make up most of his screen credits. Mankiewicz, already an established screenwriter, had just been promoted to producer at MGM. He wanted to direct, but Louis B. Mayer told him he had to “learn to crawl before you walk,” which Mankiewicz later said was the best description of a producer he had ever heard. Mankiewicz and Krasna talked about a famous case of a year or two before in which an innocent man was accused in a kidnapping case and subsequently killed. Krasna wondered what would happen if he had survived. The two men went their separate ways, but the story stuck in Mankiewicz’s mind. He called up Krasna and asked if he had written it down. He not only hadn’t, he could hardly remember it. He never wrote it, but dictated what he could remember to Mankiewicz. Krasna was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Story for the film.

Producer David O. Selznick had brought the German director Fritz Lang to MGM, but nobody could find any material for him. Lang expressed interest in this story, and the studio put him together with a story editor and writer named Leonard Praskins. The script they came up with was virtually useless, due at least in part to Lang’s lack of English. Mankiewicz in later years was still baffled as to why Lang’s name turned up on the credits, but that was when studios assigned credits however they wanted. Mankiewicz turned the script over to Bartlett Cormack. Cormack is virtually forgotten now, at least partially because he died in 1942 at the early age of 44, but he has several interesting credits. He came to Hollywood’s attention with his 1927 Broadway play The Racket, and he worked on the 1928 silent film version. It was remade in 1951. A former reporter, his first full credit was for the 1929 talkie Gentleman of the Press, which is exactly what it sounds like, and the 1931 version of The Front Page. The story twists in Fury, whether from Krasna, Lang or Cormack, are dramatic, and I would guess that the individual characterizations of the townspeople are Cormack’s, probably coming from his days as a reporter. I am sure that the few scenes with the state governor and his political hatchet man, which are brilliantly written, come from Cormack.

All this background comes from several sources. The information on Krasna comes from a biographical article on him in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 26. Mankiewicz’s involvement is from Kenneth Geist’s 1978 biography People Will Talk. The most detailed account of the writing of the script is from Patrick McGilligan’s 1998 biography Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. While we all know and love Pat from his Backstory collections of interviews with screenwriters, his day job is writing doorstop biographies of directors. But being a pro-writer guy, Pat is careful to find out as much about the writing of the scripts as he can. The section on Fury is done in a wonderfully McGilliganesque way: he gives you all the quotes from Lang on how it happened and then tells you how it really happened. From a director’s point of view, the worst aspect of contemporary film historiography is that studios have opened their files (well, shipped them off the lots to universities and other research facilities), which means that historians can find facts that contradict the legends directors like Lang built up about themselves. Yippee.

So Mankiewicz et al got a good solid script about a lynching. And they got it by Louis B. Mayer even though Mayer hated it. It did not look and feel like what he thought an MGM film should be. But according to Mayer’s biographer Scott Eyman (Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer), Mayer liked Mankiewicz and decided this would teach him a lesson. He promised Mankiewicz he would publicize the film as much as a big production, proving to him that it was something the public did not want to see. He kept his word. Oops, sorry L.B., but the picture made a profit of $248,000 on a cost of $604,000. And it made Lang’s critical reputation in Hollywood.

It also almost got Lang killed. He offended everybody on the production and at the studio. Most of the cast and crew would have cheerfully bumped him off, since he was obnoxious and dictatorial. He also directed the film well. Look at the way he emphasizes the individual reactions of the townspeople that Cormack has written for him. Look at his staging of the attack on the jail (you may recognize the jail, which was built on MGM’s Lot 2 for this film, from many other small town films, including the Andy Hardy series). Lang also insisted on one scene that did not survive in the final film. Towards the end Joe is walking through the streets trying to decide whether to reveal that he is still alive. He stops in front of a store with a bedroom set on display, just like the one he and Katherine saw the in the opening scene. He sees the faces of the 22 defendants reflected in the window of a flower shop. Then, in Lang’s version he is chased down the street by ghosts. Everybody else was dubious about this scene. At the first sneak preview of the film, the audience laughed and never got back into the film. Lang refused to cut the scene, so the studio cut it for him and fired him. He never forgave the studio or Mankiewicz, and spoke disparagingly of the whole experience the rest of his life.
There are those who are more Fritz Lang fans than I am who think Fury is his best American film. They will get no argument from me, and that’s not just because it shows the advantage of collaborating, however grudgingly, with good writers.

They Won’t Forget (1937. Screenplay by Robert Rossen and Aben Kandel, based on the novel Death in the Deep South by Ward Greene. 95 minutes)

They Won't ForgetThe Great American Sport of Lynching, take two: I have no idea if it actually happened this way, but it would not surprise me to learn that Warner Brothers, looking at Fury, got pissed that MGM was poaching on Warners turf, and decided to show them how to do a lynching film. You would have thought Warners could do it better, but not this time.

If you caught the critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful 1998 musical Parade, you may be familiar with the story of Leo Frank. He was a New York Jew who managed a company in the South in the 1910s. He was accused of raping and killing Mary Phagan, a teenaged girl who worked for him. He was convicted on extremely circumstantial evidence. The governor thought he got a raw deal and commuted the death sentence to life. A mob broke him out of jail and lynched him.
Ward Greene’s novel and the film made from it change the story more than a little. Hale, as he is called here, is a teacher at the Buxton Business College. There is no indication he is Jewish, and the film does not even hint at anti-Semitism.

Mainstream Hollywood would not deal with that for another ten years. He is, however, from New York, which may have been sort of a code for Jewish in those days. The prejudice the film focuses on is the attitudes the North and South have against each other. The film begins with two quotes, one from Abraham Lincoln and the other from Robert E. Lee. Lee’s quote is about how all the South wants to do is live in peace and unity with the rest of the country. Needless to say, the quote is not dated.
When Hale is accused of killing one of his students, the very ambitious district attorney, who has been looking for a big case, decides that Hale must be guilty. The cops first interview the African-American janitor, but the D.A. dismisses him, telling his assistant that “anybody can convict a Negro.” The North takes a great interest in the case, presumably because of its prejudice against the South. Hale does get a hotshot New York lawyer, but he is convicted anyway. The governor commutes his sentence, but Hale is taken off a train going to prison and lynched, off-screen. In the final scene, Griffin, the D.A., and the reporter who covers the case wonder if maybe Hale was innocent.

The script is not as good as that for Fury. The character detail of the townspeople is not as sharp. Hale is a bland character played by an even blander actor, Edward Norris. Joe is played by Spencer Tracy. You have heard of Tracy, you probably haven’t heard of Norris, and with good reason. Unlike Taylor’s writing and direction of The Help, there is no real Southern atmosphere here, in spite of a Memorial Day parade with veterans of the Civil War. In the bar, all the Southern layabouts are wearing suits, for God’s sake. There are a couple of strong scenes, probably written by Rossen, who went on to write All the King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961). In one, the town’s leading citizens come to Griffin and ask him not to incite the public. He replies by reminding what each one of them has done to rile up the town. In another, a local lawyer comes to talk to the janitor to persuade him to tell the facts the way Griffin wants them told. The film’s director, Mervyn LeRoy, was proud of what he saw was the positive portrayal of an African-American, but he seems very stereotyped to us, at least after seeing The Help a week or so before, and Hold Your Man a few weeks before that. As written and played, the character is nothing but fearful. And LeRoy lets Claude Rains, dreadfully miscast as Griffin, chew more scenery than Warner Brothers could afford.

Not only is the script not a patch on Fury, but LeRoy’s direction is not a patch on Lang’s. I can’t agree with Ephraim Katz’s description of LeRoy’s career in The Film Encyclopedia as “on the whole distinguished.” He made a lot of successful movies, but very few of them are particularly well-directed. Little Caesar (1931) is very stolid except for Edward G. Robinson’s performance. I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) has a certain power, but it comes more from the script and Paul Muni’s performance than LeRoy’s direction. LeRoy made a lot of films and he was very likable personally. He was also very down to earth. Peter Ustinov played Nero in LeRoy’s 1951 Quo Vadis? and tried to get LeRoy’s take on the character. LeRoy’s comment on Nero was “He’s a guy who plays with himself nights.” Ustinov wrote in his memoir Dear Me, “At the time I thought it a preposterous assessment, but a little later I was not so sure. It was a profundity at its most workaday level, and it led me to the eventual conviction that no nation can make Roman pictures as well as the Americans.”

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.