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Understanding Screenwriting #86: Tower Heist, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Lady Eve

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Understanding Screenwriting #86: <em>Tower Heist</em>, <em>Martha Marcy May Marlene</em>, <em>The Lady Eve</em>

Coming Up in This Column: Kawasaki’s Rose, Tower Heist, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Lady Eve, Page Eight, Enlightened, but first…

Fan Mail: Glad to see from David Ehrenstein’s comments on US#85 that he finally thinks I am doing something right by getting into Preston Sturges’s work. David is right that Sturges’s “direction is part of the writing process.” See below how that happens on The Lady Eve.

Kawasaki’s Rose (2009. Written by Petr Jarchovský. 100 minutes.)

Wild Strawberries meets The Lives of Others: This film, which is finally getting an American release, gets off to what I found was an unsettling start. It is a Czech film about a psychiatrist who stood up to the Communist regime in the ’70s, but the opening shots are of a very wide river that seems to open into the ocean. There are several ocean-going ships along the river and bridges large enough for them to pass under. Nice shots, but the Czech Republic is a land-locked country. Some nice rivers, but none go to the ocean. So where are we? What struck me about the river and the bridges is that the place looked awfully like Gothenberg in Sweden. I have never been there, but my wife’s grandfather was a well-known Swedish painter in the area. We have several prints of his paintings of the river and harbor on our walls.

But soon we are clearly in the Czech Republic. A television crew is interviewing the psychiatrist, Pavel Josek. He has been awarded the Memory of the Nation Medal for his stand against the Communists. The interview team includes his son-in-law Ludek and Ludek’s mistress Radka. Ludek has always resented Pavel, whom he feels looks down on him, which may or may not be the case. Ludek brings Radka to meet Lucie, Pavel’s daughter. Typical guy: he thinks he can work out some kind of arrangement with his wife and his mistress. So we are in family territory here, not unlike the set-up of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), where the professor is getting an award.

But at 35 minutes into the film, Ludeck shows up with Pavel’s file from the old days. Well, yes, Pavel was cleared of any hint of collaboration with the old regime. But this is the complete file. Does Ludek, who has betrayed Lucie, now betray the father-in-law he resents? Yes, and Ludek, who has seemed to be a major character in the film virtually disappears. Radka, who has seemed smarter and more ruthless than Ludek all along, starts finding people mentioned in the file. And who is Kafka? Not the novelist, but the interrogator who got Pavel to work for them. And what did Pavel do? He arranged for his now-wife Jana’s boyfriend at the time, an artist named Borek, to be hospitalized. Why? Because Pavel liked Jana before and she was now pregnant with Borek’s child. And just to make it more complicated, Borek did not want to marry Jana or have anything to do with the child. Yeah, the child is Lucie. Borek managed to escape the country, all hills and woods, and is living in…yep, you guessed it, Gothenberg, with its open waterways and the sea. Never has landscape seemed as political as it does in this film.

So we then get one of the most unnerving sequences I’ve seen in years: we intercut between Kafka, an aging version of the Stasi officer Weisler in The Lives of Others (2006), telling how he interrogates people and Borek being interviewed in Sweden about the same events. What is so dazzling about the sequence is Jarchovský has given Kafka a straightforward explanation of how you get people to talk. No waterboarding or torture, but just collecting information and using it against the person. It is a perfect lesson in how it’s done, but I hope to God that no present or future interrogators learn from. Well, maybe it’s OK if our side does it.

And we are still only halfway through the film. When Lucie finds out she takes her daughter to Sweden to meet Borek, her father and the girl’s grandfather. Layers of emotions begin to unfold among all the characters. Yes, there were betrayals, but going to Sweden worked out well for Borek. And Pavel’s betrayal of Borek appears to have made him more intent on resisting the Communists afterwards. Would he have done what he did later if he did not feel at least some guilt at what he had done?

Borek comes back to Sweden for the awarding of the medal to Pavel. We learn it was Borek who designed the award. The final scene is Borek and the family having dinner after the ceremony. Borek reads off a long list of names he could have called Pavel, but then says he is not going to use them. The end. Not quite. There is a coda afterwards with Kafka that is just as chilling as his earlier scene.

Petr Jarchovský has been writing screenplays since 1991, and this one was directed by Jan Hrebejk. They have collaborated on several films before, most notably Divided We Fall (2000) about love and betrayal during the German occupation. As I came out of Kawasaki’s Rose, I felt it was not quite up to Divided We Fall, but the more I think about it, the better I like it. Nothing like great writing about interesting, flawed characters in the real world.

Tower Heist (2011. Screenplay by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson, story by Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Ted Griffin. 104 minutes.)

Tower Heist

The broth is only lukewarm: And those are just the credited writers. According to a Los Angeles Times story in November there were at least four other writers who worked on it. The idea started over a decade ago when Eddie Murphy suggested doing an all-black version of Ocean’s Eleven (2001). The story evolved into a group of employees in a huge apartment building pulling off a heist, but since most buildings like that have multi-racial staffs, the idea of an all-black version got dropped. The other part of Murphy’s original idea, that people doing the robbery had no idea how to pull it off, remains, and Murphy’s character Slide is now a small-time crook who teaches them how.

As often happens with this much rewriting, the focus gets a little fuzzy. The picture takes an awfully long time to get going as the script establishes the characters and their situation. Arthur Shaw, a Madoff type who lives in the penthouse, had invested the employees’ savings and lost it all. The employees are convinced that he has some running away money stashed in his penthouse. Since most of the employees get fired, they have to find a way to not only break into Shaw’s penthouse, but the building itself. So we get a lot of exposition about the building in the first forty minutes, but more than we actually need. We only should get what we need to know as we watch the heist. Then when the heist starts, it is not as clear as it needs to be who is doing what and why. You know exactly where you are in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Rififi (1954).

The script does provide some nice scenes, especially for Murphy. He tries to teach his “crew” how to pull this stuff off. He has a nice scene with Odessa, a flirtatious maid from the Caribbean with lock-picking skills. Odessa, by the way, is played by Gabourey Sidibe, a long, funny way from her Precious. And Murphy and Ben Stiller have a great scene in a car talking about their school days. Are you beginning to suspect that director Brett (“rehearsals are for f—s”) Ratner just let Murphy go in these scenes? Maybe, but it might be interesting to see what was in the script they were working from.

The big finish involves a car and several characters dangling off the side of the tower. Better than the tall building scenes in Feet First (1930, see US#85), but nowhere near those in Safety Last (1923).

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011. Written by Sean Durkin. 102 minutes.)

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Well, the setup is not bad: We are in a farm or commune of some kind. Everybody is doing chores. One young girl carefully packs up a few things, sneaks into the woods. And runs like hell. She eventually gets to sort-of civilization and calls her sister Lucy, whom she has not seen in years. The sister picks her up in her car and takes her to the nice, modern house on a lake she shares with her husband Ted. Lucy lets her sister, whom she calls Martha, stay as long as she likes to recover from…well, what? Here’s where the script begins to go downhill.

Martha doesn’t tell them anything about what happened to her. And Lucy is too polite to ask. So Martha mopes around the house. And swims nude in the lake when people can see her. Mopes some more. Learns how to drive Ted’s boat. Mopes some more. Meanwhile we get flashbacks of her at the commune, which we begin to learn is really a cult. The cult leader is Patrick, nicely played by John Hawkes as a quiet, seemingly nice fellow who decides Martha should be called Marcy May. We see some of the less pleasant activities of the cult, as in Patrick having sex with whomever he wants, but voices are seldom raised. Marcy May does go along on a robbery attempt that ends in murder, but we are not sure if that was what drove her to escape. There is essentially no build to any of the characters, no development or revelations, and no forward movement to the story. One could take most of the scenes in the middle of the film and shuffle them around in any order you like.

Finally, five minutes before the credits begin, after Martha has a fit at a party Lucy and Ted are giving, Lucy angrily asks Martha, “What the fuck happened to you?” Excuse me, five minutes before the credits? That moment should have been about five minutes into the film. The story should have been how Martha recovers, either with professional help or just by being at Lucy’s, but all we get is the moping.

Elizabeth Olsen has been getting raves for her performance as Martha etc., and not without justification. She is fascinating in the beginning, and she has a face that registers every emotion. The script does not support the performance in that it does not give her a variety of emotions to register. Olsen is a terrific actress, but even the best need a script they can work from.

Ah, one other minor point. Late in the cult flashbacks someone calls Martha/Marcy May “Marlene,” but we have no idea why. In answer to Lucy’s question, sloppy writing is what happened to her.

The Lady Eve (1941. Screenplay by Preston Sturges, based on the short story “Two Bad Hats” by Monckton Hoffe. 97 minutes.)

The Lady Eve

The Sturges Project, Take Three: First of all, if you are not aware of what I am up to with the Sturges Project, read the first two takes in US#85 to get some of the background. Or not, as you wish. You can catch up with me quick enough, especially if you are a Sturges fan.

When The Great McGinty was still shooting in early 1940, William Le Baron, the studio head, asked Sturges for a second project. Sturges decided on what became Christmas in July (1940), but one other project he considered was this one, which he took up after July. He had actually worked on the script for producer Albert Lewin in 1938. It was originally conceived as a star vehicle for Claudette Colbert, but after working with Barbara Stanwyck on Remember the Night (1940: See US#38), he told Stanwyck that he was going to write a great comedy for her. She said later, “I told him that I never get great comedies” (quoted in James Curtis’s Between Flops). It’s true, and given the work she does here and in Ball of Fire later the same year, it’s hard to understand why.

Brian Henderson in Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges was unable to find out where, if ever, Hoffe’s story had been published. It may just have been sold directly to Paramount. By Henderson’s account, it is an incredibly complicated piece about Kitty Ardelaire, the “one bad hat” in a British family who runs away with a horse dealer, has twin daughters, one of whom dies. Kitty continues telling her British family the dead daughter is alive so she can collect support checks from the family. Kitty and the surviving daughter Salome return to England, run a card game that is raided by the police. The family cuts off the money, but Kitty has Salome pretend to be the dead Sheba, who returns to the bosom of the family. Salome/Sheba marries a nice young man, but he takes up with a notorious woman. Then the man meets Salome in a club, thinking she is Salome, and the two of them go off with her mother to America. The only things in the story that survives into The Lady Eve are the parent/daughter card players, the women pretending to be somebody, and a steamship. There is a reason why it’s called adaptation, folks.

Henderson found in the files a treatment (he thought it might be just a synopsis, but it varies too much from the Hoffe story to be that) by Jeanne Bartlett. Henderson was not able to find anything out about Bartlett, but then he was working in the ’80s before the IMDb. She was an actress and writer, who has story and/or screenplay credits on three films in the ’40s. She acted in Werewolf of London in 1935 and wrote Man-Eater of Kumaon in 1948. Her treatment cut all the backstory of the family and started with the romance. Salome meets a stuffy British aristocrat and seduces him after he complains to a mutual friend of theirs that she is vulgar. He is in love with her, but appalled at his own taste. The gambling house is raided and Salome pretends to be her dead sister, attacking the aristocrat when he shows up for seducing her sister. He starts courting “Sheba” but ends up telling her it is Salome that he loves. He tells “Sheba” that he knew all along she was really Salome, but none of us believe it. Well, we are getting a bit closer to Eve. As Henderson points out, the focus shifted from the aristocrat being the sexual adventurer in Hoffe’s story, to the woman in Bartlett’s version. (You can believe that Bartlett went on to write The Man-Eater of Kumaon, although the man-eater in that one is a tiger, not Barbara Stanwyck.) For some reason that appealed to Sturges. The women in both McGinty and Christmas are much better behaved. Neither Catherine in McGinty nor Betty in Christmas are particularly sexual creatures. Both are supportive of the man in their lives, even if Betty does disagree with Johnny from time to time. The love stories in both those films are not the main plots.

One reason Sturges may have been ready to let her rip is that both McGinty and Christmas had B picture budgets, and without major stars. Dick Powell, who plays Jimmy in Christmas, was finished with his boy crooner days at Warners and not yet into his private eye phase. He gives a good performance, but it’s a minor star performance at best. Now that Sturges was moving up to A budgets he could demand stars. He fought for Stanwyck as Jean/Eve and agreed to let himself be loaned out to 20th Century-Fox for a film in exchange for Henry Fonda as Charles. Even if the negotiations had not been completed as he was writing the script, he knew he was writing star parts. And boy, did he ever. There is the usual Sturges stock company: Demarest as Mugsy, Charles’s valet; Al Bridge does wonders with his three or four lines as opposed to the great scene Sturges wrote for him in Christmas. There are also newcomers: Eugene Pallette in, alas, the only Sturges film he ever did, as Charles’s father; Eric Blore in the first of only two Sturges films he did, as a British con artist. But the secondary characters are just that, secondary to Stanwyck and Fonda.

You know you are in A movie territory when the main titles, which Sturges writes “will be in an airbrush rendition of the Garden of Eden complete with snake,” are replaced in the film with a delightfully animated main title sequence. He wrote elaborate main title ideas in McGinty and Christmas, but they were not used, presumably for budgetary reasons. Sturges’s descriptions as camera directions are much more simplified and are more like things to keep in mind. When he sets up Jean and her father, Colonel Harrington in the bar before she trips Charles, he writes, “i.e., I must be able to SHOOT PAST Jean AT Charles while she is looking at him, and Jean must able to trip him up as he passes.” The trip does not happen until late into the scene, but we do need to get a sense of the geographical layout.

Sturges’s pacing is a little slower than in Christmas, but that’s because he focuses on Stanwyck and Fonda. When they go back to her cabin after she has been scared by Emma, his snake (a nice rhythmical shift in the script: she’s been in charge from the first trip and before, but how he’s as much in charge as he ever gets), he “takes her in his arms and seats her on the chaise longue,” but Sturges does not say where he sits. In an inspired bit of direction, he has Charles sit on the floor so Jean is above him, hovering over him. She plays with his hair and head as they talk and he looks totally uncomfortable. Once the scene gets going, Sturges does three minutes and fifteen seconds of it in a single take. Having Stanwyck and Fonda, Sturges knows he can do that. We get here and throughout the film a much greater number of closeups than we did in the two previous films. Sturges knows the material and the actors are up to it. It also changes the tone of the material from the script to the film. The film, because we are so physically close to the two “lovers,” becomes more romantic than the script seems on reading it.

The skill of the two stars is, I think, one reason that Sturges cut a scene that would seem to be a crucial one. At the end of the boat trip, after Jean and her father have seduced and cheated Charles, he learns from Mugsy that they are con persons. He pretends to Jean that he has known all along, and she is upset because she thinks he conned her. As they are getting off the boat, Jean is telling her father how irritated she was that “we let that sucker get off Scott free.” Colonel Harrington pulls out the check that Charles wrote for his losses and that the Colonel appeared to tear up. He didn’t of course, and in the script Jean and her father go to a bank in New York to cash it. The teller is a little suspicious, but Charles is at the bank as well and tells him the check is good. The bank scene was shot, but cut in the editing (which is why there is a jump cut in the final scene of the film in her cabin: in the script she asks Charles “Why didn’t you take me in your arms that day in the bank…Why etc.” The words “in the bank” have been cut and you can see the slight jump if you know what to look for). I suspect that the previous “Scott free” scene was enough when the film was cut together because of the romanticism of the Jean/Charles scenes before it that Stanwyck and Fonda give their full force to.

Sturges the screenwriter has shaped two latter sequences in the film particularly well. Our first scene in the home of Charles’s father, Mr. Pike, shows the chaos of the house as it prepares for a party that night. Mr. Pike’s attempt to get breakfast in all of this gives the scene a structure so the scene is not the chaos the house is in. The scene is greatly condensed in the film, as is the second sequence. Jean shows up as the British aristocrat Lady Eve. Mugsy is the first to suspect, of course, and we follow her entrance into the house as Mugsy watches through the windows. I suspect both sequences were condensed because both are awfully late in the picture for all the filigree Sturges puts into the writing.

Jean gets her revenge on Charles by marrying him, then on the train on their honeymoon she tells him about all her, “Eve’s,” lovers. He gets off the train in the middle of nowhere. Now, are all those stories true? We don’t really know, but we suspect Jean if not Eve has had an active social life. So in standard Hollywood morality she should pay for her sins. But she doesn’t. She ends up back on a ship and meets Charles again, this time as Jean, and he is happy to see her. He did not want the wild Eve, he’s perfectly happy with the wild Jean. So much for American men wanting innocent, wholesome women. And Sturges is not done yet. She lures him into her cabin, although he insists he has no right to be there because he’s married. She replies, “But so am I, darling, so am I,” and closes the door. I assume that since they are actually married to each other, Sturges got this scene past the Production Code, but he was skating near the edge. Later, of course, he would go over the edge.

Page Eight (2011. Written by David Hare. 99 minutes.)

Page Eight

All together now: you write good parts, you get good actors: David Hare, one of the great contemporary British playwrights, wrote this intending it to be a feature film, but nobody would give him the money for a theatrical film. So he made it for British television, and it showed up recently on PBS and is now out on DVD. Even on a television budget he got a cast that includes Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Rachel Weisz, Judy Davis, Saskia Reeves, Felicity Jones, Ewen Bremner, Alice Krig, and Ralph Fiennes. And none of them are underemployed.

Hare is great at writing about British politics and culture, as in his 1978 play Plenty, adapted by Hare into a film in 1985. The play and film deal with post-World War II disillusionment among the spying classes. His 1990 play Racing Demons looked inside the current state of the Church of England. Page Eight takes into MI5, the Secret Service that protects Britain from spies and terrorists in Britain (MI6, its more glamorous cousin, sends spies into other countries). Benedict Baron (Gambon) comes into possession of a file he passes on to two of his subordinates, Johnny (Nighy) and Jill (Davis). They are to read it and be prepared to discuss it with MI5’s boss, the Home Secretary (Reeves). Johnny is the only one who reads it thoroughly and discovers on page eight a couple of lines that suggest that the Prime Minister (Finnes, great in one day’s work) knew, not just guessed as everybody else did, that the Americans had their hidden prisons where they tortured people. And the PM got information from the Yanks that he did not pass on to MI5. That’s really bad form.

Baron dies and Johnny tries to figure out what Baron wanted him to do with the information. Needless to say, there are betrayals of a variety of sorts as several MI5 types are perfectly willing for career reasons to kiss the PM’s ass. To confuse Johnny more, a woman in the neighboring apartment, Nancy (Weisz), is taking an interest in him and he can’t quite figure out why. So you have a collection of characters keeping secrets from each other, which gives the actors wonderful scenes to play. Hare also directed, which he does from time to time, and like Sturges in Eve he knows what he’s got, both with the scenes and the cast.

Obviously the PM is inspired at least in part by Tony Blair and his sucking up to the Yanks on the Iraq war, so you can see why Hare portrays him as an asshole. I guess I am not really surprised that Hare did not allow the PM to make a case for his actions by comparing himself to Winston Churchill in World War II. The Brits broke the German codes and had massive amounts of information on the enemy. Great. Except if you use too much of it, or in the wrong way, the Germans would have figured out their codes were broken and change them. The general policy was that the Brits would not take action on a piece of intelligence unless they had confirmation from a second source. But what happens when British lives are at stake and the Ultra decrypts are the only thing you have? Churchill had to make some tough, nasty decisions on that and Hare’s PM could have made the case that he was protecting the source of information on terrorists. Even so, it not only bad form, but not smart not to trust your own intelligence agency.

Enlightened (2011. Various episodes, all written by Mike White. 30 minutes each)

Enlightened

I’m still not sure: I have been putting off writing about this new HBO series because it is a little difficult to nail down. Most series make their franchise clear early on: doctors will save lives on medical shows; police will arrest bad guys on cop shows; defense lawyers will get them off on lawyer shows. In Enlightened, it’s a little trickier, but here that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Amy had a nervous breakdown and has gone off to a rehab center in Hawaii. She has done New Age stuff (sitting around the beach talking about her feelings) and has come back to the Inland Empire of California (east of Los Angeles) enlightened. She tries to get her job at a big company back, but her assistant has already taken that job. To keep Amy from filing a lawsuit against the company, she is assigned to a group doing what looks to be data entry in the basement. So is it a workplace comedy? Not really. Sometimes we are with that group and sometimes not. A recent interview with Mike White really did not clear up matters that much.

What I take to be the franchise of Enlightened is that White is showing how somebody who becomes “enlightened” has difficulties dealing with the realities of the world when those realities do not match hers. This has always struck me as a problem with a lot of rehab and self-esteem programs. Once you work out all your problems, how do you deal with the real world that may have a lot of ways at looking at life that are not yours. Twenty years ago my wife and I had dinner with a couple that had just recently gotten married. They both were in twelve step programs and had done all the “work,” but they really had no idea from that how to live with another person in a marriage. My wife and I gave them what advice we could. I am not sure we should take any credit for it, but they are still married, and quite happily too. But it took a lot of effort on their part. A former student of mine, Tony-award winner Tonya Pinkins, wrote a book a few years ago called Get Over Yourself, which was aimed at women. Tonya was showing them how to take charge of their lives and not let men, other women, society, etc define their lives. Good and useful book, but in an email to Tonya I asked her if her next book was going to be about how to get along with the rest of the world once you have gotten over yourself. She never replied and has not brought it up in the conversations we have had since.

So you can see, I am ready for a show that demonstrates how difficult taking over your own life can be, and that’s the sweet spot of Enlightened. Amy is convinced she is all right with the world, but she’s not. When she tries to talk to her ex-husband in the pilot, he accuses her of coming over with all that “self-help spiritual shit.” She calls her former boss, with whom she had an affair, telling him she is driving by his house. He comes out and tells her off. She accidentally hits his car with hers and reacts to it by asking, “Do you want my insurance?”

In “The Weekend” she and her ex-husband Levi go off on a group river-rafting trip on the Kern River. They enjoy the scenery, especially Amy in her New-Agey way. Then she discovers Levi has brought his stash of drugs along, and she throws them in the river. He is furious, makes a scene, and insists they leave the group to go into town where he scores some more.

In “Sandy,” Amy’s friend from rehab shows up for a visit. So far Amy has been dealing with people who don’t get where she is coming from, or maybe get it and just don’t want to be part of that world. Sandy is exactly like Amy, which could be bad writing, but it isn’t. Laura Dern has beautifully captured the emotional hairpin turns Amy makes, and Robin Wright gives a mirror image of that. It’s a great double act. So you think they would hit if off, but as close as they are, there are still personal differences that rub Amy the wrong way. Amy’s mom Helen, who doesn’t have much sympathy for the new Amy, has even less for Sandy. So Amy takes Sandy over to Levi’s, since he has a spare room. When Amy can’t contact them, she begins to think Sandy and Levi are getting it on. She goes to Levi’s and hears what she thinks are the sounds of sex, which matches an earlier scene when Helen thinks she hears Amy and Sandy having sex, but then sees they are just doing yoga. Amy opens the door and sees Sandy giving Levi a massage. Sandy has been talking to him all day and getting him to “open up.” After Sandy leaves the room, Levi says she is like a “Nazi interrogator.” Like Helen, Levi does not want to spend all day talking about his emotions. People like Amy and Sandy don’t realize that other people have their own lives to live and don’t necessarily want to live them the way Amy and Sandy live theirs. Amy is, as she would be in real life, an extremely annoying person, but then she’ll have a moment of enlightenment or bliss (on the river, for example) so you cannot completely hate her. I think, but I’m still not sure. Maybe I just need to get over myself.

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.