House Logo
Explore categories +

Understanding Screenwriting #8: Eagle Eye, American Gangster, The Captive City, The Ex List, & More

Comments Comments (0)

Understanding Screenwriting #8: <em>Eagle Eye</em>, <em>American Gangster</em>, <em>The Captive City</em>, <em>The Ex List</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Eagle Eye; American Gangster; The Captive City; 9 to 5 (stage musical); The Ex List; Mad Men; CSI, ER, The Starter Wife, but first:

Fan Mail: No, Anonymous, I do not think you were obnoxious for bringing up a grammatical point. As someone who writes about writing, I have always made every effort to write as well as possible. However, I am only human and bad stuff does sneak through, in spite of my best efforts and those of the various editors I have worked with. It is very disconcerting when I open up the first copy of a new book of mine and inevitably fall on the biggest grammatical error that slipped through. I try to keep up the quality of my writing, but I do depend on the kindness of strangers to keep me on my toes. I think what I meant by the line was that Gaby was getting shrill. A latter episode suggests the writers are finding a way to write the new version to Longoria Parker’s strengths.

I was delighted to see that my comments on the Biden-Palin debate entertained some readers. I must say that the comments on all the debates by the HND writers have been well above what I have read elsewhere. And now to this column’s haul of goodies.

Eagle Eye (2008. Written by John Glenn & Travis Adam Wright and Hillary Seitz and Dan McDermott. Story by Dan McDermott. 118 minutes): Last year director D.J. Caruso and star Shia LeBeouf teamed up for Disturbia, probably the best of all the Rear Window ripoffs. For their efforts, they got sued by a man who owns the rights to the Cornell Woolrich story Rear Window was based on. I don’t think the plaintiff has much of a case, since all the things Disturbia ripped off came from John Michael Hayes’s screenplay, not the woefully undernourished short story.

Caruso and LeBeouf are back this year with a film that rips off both North by Northwest (an innocent man on the run, a scene in a flat landscape) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (a killing set to a music cue). The word on the street in Hollywood is that next year they will do a film ripping off Jamaica Inn, The Paradine Case, and Family Plot.

Johnny Carson used to use the phrase, “You buy the premise, you buy the bit,” which is show-biz for what academics call “the willing suspension of disbelief.” In practical terms it means we may not think flying saucers exist, but for two hours-plus of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we will accept them. The premise of Eagle Eye is that there is a massive computer built by the government that can not only keep track of everybody but order changes in traffic lights, electric signs, etc. at will. Anyone who has ever dealt with real computers knows they are marvelously prone to a variety of what the techno-geeks I know called “fuck-ups.” That is not the case here until the supercomputer begins to go a “little funny in the head,” to quote another Kubrick film rather than the obvious one being ripped off here. What this means in practical terms is the first half to two-thirds of the film is relentless, and not in a good way. The computer always does things right, so there is no hope for the puny humans.

What the script needed were a few grace notes, a little counterpoint to the relentlessness. Billy Bob Thornton plays an F.B.I. agent and he gets a couple of good lines, but not enough. The relationship between the guy on the run, Jerry (LeBeouf), and the woman with him, Rachel, is never developed enough to provide a counterpoint. Look at Roger and Eve in North by Northwest or Jeff and Lisa in Rear Window.

This being a big-budget American film, there is the obligatory car chase, not bad of its kind. Of the film’s chases, I preferred the one through the luggage-handling area of a big airport. At least the locale is different.

American Gangster (2007. Written by Steve Zaillian based on an article by Mark Jacobson. 157 minutes): In writing about Transformers (in US#3) I mentioned that one of the advantages of watching a movie at home, whether on DVD or on cable, is that you can turn down the sound. American Gangster, which I’d DVR’d off HBO, provided another reason: you can fast-forward through the interminable drug-taking montages. Yeah, it is a movie about a drug dealer, so we should see the damage he does, but we get it with the first montage. More is not better.

The big script problem with this one is that, for all the development it went through, it has the standard first-draft flaw: way too much time is spent establishing the characters and their world. We have seen drug dealer movies and television shows before; we get it. What this excess exposition usually means, and it really does here, is that what should be crucial later gets rushed. The film tells the story of Frank Lucas (who rose to power in the seventies as the Black head of a drug operation) and, in parallel scenes, the story of Richie Roberts (a detective trying to track him down). OK, so for most of the film we do not seem them in the same scene. After Richie finally arrests Frank we do get a good scene: Richie trying to convince Frank to turn on his own, especially the dirty cops he supported. Of course Frank won’t because he is a man of honor—wait a minute, he does agree to turn snitch. Now that’s a story we have not seen before, but Zaillian has not allowed himself enough time to tell it as fully as he could. This is also unsatisfying because it means we are not going to get what could be great scenes between our two stars, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, which is part of why we came to see the movie in the first place.

The Captive City (1952. Screenplay by Alvin B. Josephy Jr. and Karl Lamb, Story by Alvin M. Josephy Jr. 91 minutes): In my last column I gave you an example of a fifties B movie (The Tall Target) that was much better than A movies, both then and now. This film is an example of why they were called B movies.

The story is similar to many films of the period: a crusading newspaper editor fights the mob infiltration of his small town. See The Phenix City Story, if you can find it, for an example of how it ought to be done. Here everything is flat and literal, probably from the writers’ assumption that since it was supposedly based on a true story, people would believe it anyway. Not a chance. No matter how true the events, the filmmakers have to make it believable on film. This film is made in the “documentary” style of the late forties and fifties, but it just lays there on the screen. The one upside is that Lee Garmes’s cinematography is terrific. But that does not count for much if what he is photographing is not interesting.

After the main story is over, we get a little speech from Sen. Estes Kefauver, who in 1950 and 1951 ran the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce. Since the film was released in March 1952, one can’t help but believe that at least someone was thinking this would be a great advertisement for Kefauver and his attempt to get the Democratic presidential nomination that year. If it had been a better film, he might not have lost to Adlai Stevenson.

9 to 5 (2008. Stage musical book by Patricia Resnick, music and lyrics by Dolly Parton. Approximately 150 minutes—depending on how much the audience laughs. Based on the film 1980 film 9 to 5, screenplay by Colin Higgins and Patricia Resnick, story by Patricia Resnick. 110 minutes): The new musical is now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, and is scheduled to move to Broadway in a few months, so I thought I would give you a head’s up.

The movie would seem to be a logical choice to turn into a stage play, especially a musical: it has a relatively small cast, and an even smaller number of sets. Broadway tending to overdo things, the cast of the stage musical is larger than that of the films, and the sets are so complicated they had problems throughout previews and even on opening night. More is not necessarily better.

Resnick has done a very good job of adapting the screenplay. There are more characters and more character development, especially for Violet (played in the film by Lily Tomlin, on stage by Allison Janney). She is now given an accountant boyfriend, although Resnick does not use him as well as she could in the main plot. Doralee, the part played in the movie by Parton, has been conceived here as very much a Parton substitute. A look at the poster in the lobby made before the costumes were finished shows you how much has been added to Megan Hilty’s figure so she can do the Dolly Parton boob jokes. It may seem unimaginative, but since the songs are by Parton, having someone bringing Parton’s good-natured quality to the stage adds to the fun of the evening.

Because Parton is a performer as well as a songwriter, she really knows how to write songs that can be performed. Allison Janney is not much of a singer or dancer, but she acts the hell out of the stuff that Parton gives her. Those songs include “One of the Boys,” beautifully choreographed in that Broadway style that keeps the dance crew busy so we won’t know how much she is not doing, and “Let Love Grow,” which is a small number but wonderfully shaped for the actors.

The sequences that people remember from the movie are the dream sequences, which show up here in the first act, though structurally, the first act goes on too long afterwards. This will probably be where cuts are made, if any are, before it gets to New York. On the other hand, Resnick has, I think, sped up the latter part of the film, which is now the second act, and that is all to the good.

No, it’s not Sondheim, but the tourists are going to love it. Since the previous balance of New York theatergoers of 60% New Yorkers to 40% tourists has shifted to 60/40 the other way, that’s good business news. Take your parents when they come to town.

The Ex List (2008. Based on the Israeli series Mythalogical X by Seghal Avin. Developed for American television by Dianne Ruggiero. Episode “Pilot” written by Dianne Ruggiero, based on the episode “The X Jonathan Diamant” of the Israeli series written by Seghal Avin and Rinat Ydor. 60 minutes): Talk about “buy the premise, buy the bit”! Bella, a mid-thirties flower shop owner, is told by a psychic that if she does not get married in the next year, she will never get married, and she will marry someone she already knows. And Bella believes her. Because if she does not, there is no series.

Ruggiero recognizes the problem and handles it in several interesting ways. First, the psychic is an interesting character. She ought to be brought back. Second, Bella did not seek her out for herself, but as a gag for her sister, who is getting married. Third, the psychic, unlike most such characters in films and on television, is occasionally wrong, guessing that Bella has a son, whereas it is her dog. But the psychic makes a prediction about the dog having trouble with water, seaweed, and fish. Bella retrieves the dog from her ex-boyfriend, whereupon her drunken sister throws up her sushi dinner all over the dog. Well, won’t that make you believe in the psychic?

The other problem with the premise is that it means that each week Bella is going to have to deal with an ex-boyfriend. I have no idea how long the Israeli series ran, but if this one runs more than a couple of years, Bella is going to look like a total slut.

Which may be where the series is going. It is surprisingly raunchy for a network rather than a cable show, with a subplot about Bella’s female roommate having shaved her genital area. But the network is Two and Half Men’s CBS; we are a long way from The Andy Griffith Show’s CBS. The tone of the show is otherwise light, romantic dramedy, and the raunch may get in the way of it. Ruggiero has left the show after the first few episodes, so we will have to see how the balance develops.

Mad Men (2008. Episode “The Inheritance” written by Lisa Albert & Marti Noxon & Matthew Weiner. Episode “The Jet Set” written by Matthew Weiner. 60 minutes): I knew the day would come, and it finally did with “The Inheritence” episode, that Mad Men would have a scene that was cliched. As you might expect, it took them a while: ten episodes into the second season.

Betty’s father has had a stroke, and she and Don get together long enough to visit him. Don is actually being supportive, as he sometimes tends to be. The father not only occasionally thinks Betty is his late wife Ruth, but actually fondles her breast at one point. Betty handles it well, but then has a talk with the Black housekeeper who has been with the family for years. What we end up with is the standard Large, Strong, Supportive Black Woman who protects the Emotional White Woman. Surely they could have done something more interesting with this.

As in fact they do in a wonderful scene later in the episode. Paul, one of the guys at SC, had been scheduled to make a business trip to Los Angeles, irritating his Black girlfriend, who wanted him to go south with her to help on a voter registration drive. When Don takes over the trip, Paul pretends to his girlfriend that he decided to join her instead of taking the trip. We see them on a bus in the South filled with Black people as Paul, quoting Karl Marx, tries to explain how advertising will bring change to their lives. One of the themes of Mad Men is how far removed from reality the men at SC are; this scene is a little jewel expressing that theme.

“The Jet Set” is one of the jewels of the season so far. Mad Men is very much a New York City show, and putting Don into L.A. provides the kind of subtle tension the show specializes in. We have been watching the tensions between the men and the women in the show, as well as the tensions between the world of the ad men and the real world (see above). There are also the tensions between the past (beautifully handled in the writing, the direction, the art direction, the set decoration, the props, and the costuming: the ladies’ lingerie is about as early sixties as you could get) and the present (we know where all that smoking is going to get them).

The first shot in L.A. is Don in his gray flannel suit, surrounded by a lot of people wearing a lot less beside a swimming pool. Don and Pete have gone to Los Angeles to a convention of aerospace companies. Pete seems to be taking it more seriously than we would expect Pete to do, but it is obvious from his comments when he returns to SC that he has not been paying attention at all. Don is undone by the openness of the California style, all sun and exposed bodies, and the presentation at the convention of a slide show on nuclear missiles unnerves him even more. He lets himself be picked up by Joy, a 21-year-old he meets at the hotel. She drives him to a house she is visiting in Palm Springs, which is filled with seemingly well-to-do “nomads” who stay at friends’ houses. They are refugees from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita or Antonioni’s L’Avventura, both of which came out two years before the time of this episode. Don faints, supposedly from the heat, but also from disorientation. Don sleeps with Joy, only to discover the older man who introduced them is her father. Who does not seem concerned about their affair. As she tells Don, “My father likes having you around. You’re beautiful and don’t talk too much.” The writing, as well as the directing, captures the inchoate feelings many East Coasters get when they first come to Southern California.

As you know if you saw the episode, there is a lot more going on as well.

CSI (2008. Episode “For Warrick” written by Allen MacDonald & Richard J. Lewis, story by Carol Mendelsohn. 60 minutes): Last season’s cliffhanger was the shooting of CSI Warrick Brown. Would he survive or not?

He’s dead before the main credits of this episode, which deals nicely with not only capturing his killer, but the grief felt by his co-workers. Most series usually do not spend a lot of time grieving about the death of a character. ER’s characters got through Pratt’s death and their grieving fairly quickly, although there is a brief mention of it in the next episode. This CSI episode spends so much time on the grieving process that the characters seem to be swimming underwater for most of the episode, which is a nice change of pace from the usual episodes. The grieving process may also be being used here to help set up Grissom’s decision to leave the unit later in the season.

ER (2008. Episode “Another Thursday at County” written by Lisa Zwerling. 60 minutes): Well, it’s fall, it’s time for the ER at County General to get another new head. You know the drill: a big guest star comes in, yells at everybody, thinks they are all incompetent, and several episodes later comes to appreciate them.

Well, we get about half of that in this episode, but with some twists. The big guest star is Angela Bassett as Dr. Cate Banfield. We don’t see her face at first as she does her kickboxing exercises at home, which is intercut with yet another new set of interns arriving at County. After they have introduced themselves in straight-to-the-camera comments, Banfield strides through, telling one intern on his cellphone to “Put down the mobile penis.” She sits down facing the camera and says, “I’m your new boss” with all the power that Bassett can bring. Have I been telling you to write for performance?

Yes, she chews out the doctors and interns, but there are counterpoint moments to this. Nurse Haleh, who has been on ER from the beginning, tells Banfield she thinks she has seen her before, which Banfield dismisses. When Banfield goes into a particular examination room, she seems to have a reaction to it, but we are not clear exactly what the reaction is. When Neela does not want to waste time letting a mother have a moment with her son before he goes into surgery, Banfield lets the mother have the moment (and a very conventional moment it is, too). In the final scene, Banfield is alone in her apartment, nursing a drink, and we see a picture of her, a young boy, and a man whose face we cannot see. Which of all the many male doctors we have seen over the first fourteen seasons do you think he is?

The main story of the episode involves a ricin scare in which Gates and three of the interns are quarantined with a man who has a packet of the powder under his shirt. After they get out, the intern with the cellphone begins to feel ill. What did I tell you in the last column about nobody being safe in the last season of ER? We’ve got a pile of young interns plus the regular cast, so we can kill one of them off. Surprise: he was only having a psychosomatic reaction, and the ricin was not enough of a powder to get into people’s lungs. He lives. For now.

And you have to wonder about bringing Bassett in for the last season. Does this mean that final episode will be Tina Turner waking up in a hospital after a beating from Ike and our realizing the whole series has been the dream she had while she was in a coma?

The Starter Wife (2008. Episodes “The Only Forty Year Old Virgin Queen” and “The Diary of A Mad Ex-Housewive” written by Josann Gibbon and Sara Parriott, based on the novel The Starter Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer. 112 minutes for both episodes together) The USA network ran the miniseries version of The Starter Wife in the summer of 2007 and it did “surprisingly” well.

Let me explain about “surprisingly.” Whenever a film or television movie or series aimed at women opens well, it is always described in the press as doing “surprisingly” well. In 1996 I did a short piece for the Los Angeles Times pointing out that Hollywood and the press should not be surprised when something aimed at women does well. After I submitted it, I got a call from the editor handling it for the Times, who said they were going to have to delay running it a few weeks. I said, “OK, just so long as it runs before Waiting to Exhale opens.” That was met by the phone equivalent of a blank stare from the editor. The piece ran a couple of weeks before Exhale opened. According to the press, it opened “surprisingly” well. So much for my influence on Hollywood thinking.

Since the miniseries did well, it naturally occurred to USA to do it as a series, which they have. The film opens with Molly, the titular heroine, explaining that the happy ending of the miniseries “blew apart.” She is now the ex-wife of a Hollywood executive, who seems a little nicer both in the writing and recasting than he was in the miniseries. Molly is still living remarkably well for someone who keeps complaining her ex is not keeping up with support payments. She has a nice apartment, she’s not starving, but she cannot afford $1200-a-pair shoes. There are people worse off in the world, but then this is not supposed to be realism. What we are tuning in for is the satirical look at Hollywood and its excesses. At least in these first two episodes, the satire is rather lightweight. Joan, Molly’s friend, a veteran of rehab, has taken a job driving celebrities to and from rehab. Her first customer is a boozing British actor, but very little is done with that. Molly makes the point later that one of the good points of her writing is her power of observation, but we are not seeing it in the scripts for the show.

The plotting is incredibly sloppy. Molly joins a writing workshop and the hunky writer who runs it encourages her to bring her journal to a party at his apartment. Someone steals the journal from her purse when she leaves it on a shelf. Now this is not a small journal. It’s about 8 ½ by 11, hardcover, but when Molly leaves, she picks up her purse and does not notice it is missing until she gets home. If she noticed right away, of course, she would have found it and the subsequent storyline of elements of it showing up on the Internet would fall apart. Likewise, when she goes back to the writer’s apartment and they dig around in the trash to try to find it, they come up with a manuscript he has been working on but threw out. This guy is a professional writer and he does not work on a computer? And he’s a Hollywood liberal who does not recycle his paper copies? OK, OK, I said it’s not realism, but a smidgen of verisimilitude shouldn’t be out of the question.

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.