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Understanding Screenwriting #96: Battleship, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Mad Men, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #96: <em>Battleship</em>, <em>The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel</em>, <em>Mad Men</em>, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Battleship, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Girl in Progress, Where Do We Go Now?, My Life as a Mankiewicz (book), Hemingway & Gellhorn, Mad Men, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein wondered if I have written about Ring Lardner Jr. at any length before. I haven’t in the column, but you might want to take a look at Chapter 13 in my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. There I do a case history of M*A*S*H starting with the first movie about a MASH unit—the terrible Battle Circus (1955)—the Robert Altman film, and then the TV series. I point out how Lardner’s script for the film was brilliant and nearly destroyed by Altman’s direction.

“Snarpo” says his nickname comes from mis-typing “Sopranos.” If he says so, but I still think he should claim to be a lost Marx Brother.

“outsidedog” is upset because he thought I was implying Joss Whedon could not write the one-liners for Iron Man. I was not intending to say that, just that the tone of them is just enough different from the rest of the script that I had my suspicions. Yes, understanding the difference in tone in dialogue is part of understanding screenwriting. A script-doctor, by the way, is different from a writer a director or star keeps on the payroll. A script-doctor works on the script overall, while the “pocket writer,” as they are called, usually focus on one or two aspects of the script. If you read the Tom Mankiewicz book I review in this column, you’ll begin to see the difference.

Battleship (2012. Written by Erich Hoeber & Jon Hoeber. 131 minutes.)

The Monster that Challenged the World on steroids: Welcome to another episode of “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” film critics division. How many times have I beaten movies about the head and shoulders for not focusing on characters? And how many times have I made the point that perhaps the best way to get us into your story is get us involved with the characters? The answer to both questions is “lots.” So here comes Battleship just to prove I can be wrong. You know with that title there is going to be a lot of things being blown up real good, but the film starts out slowly. Alex Hooper, a ne’er do well young guy, gets arrested for breaking into a store to get Samantha, a girl he just met in a bar, a burrito. Stone, his brother, is a Naval officer, and insists that Alex go into the Navy rather than go to jail (in real life the judge in the case would make that call, but reality is not a strong suit of a film inspired by a board game). And in no time flat Alex has gone through Officer Candidate School and has risen to the rank of Lieutenant. Which would normally take three or four years, but reality is not, etc. So we know Alex is going to be a maverick, in the Tom Cruise not Sarah Palin sense. But that is about all we know of him. The writers don’t give him much more than that. Taylor Kitsch plays Alex. There are those who liked him as part of the ensemble cast on Friday Night Lights but he did not make a good impression as a leading man in John Carter a few months ago. So he is not a character we will necessarily want to follow. Stone is a block of wood. Samantha turns out to be the daughter of Admiral Shane, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, but she is not given much texture, and the Admiral is just a tough guy. If this were a 1943 movie, Samantha would be a nurse, but here she is a physical therapist who spends most of the movie doing a physical therapy hike with Lt. Colonel Canales, who has lost both his legs. His lost legs are not CGI like Lt. Dan’s were in Forrest Gump (1994), but belong to vet Gregory D. Gadson, who is indeed a double amputee and is the most real person on-screen.

We finally put out to sea for the RIMPAC war games, in which navies from the Pacific Rim work together. Well, they have their job cut out for them. Scientists have been sending out messages to planets that may be like ours, which has led to the arrival of a bunch of Transformer-like vessels in the waters off Hawaii. The message transmitters are on the Big Island in Hawaii. The aliens put a protective shield around their vessels, trapping the Guided Missile Cruiser John Paul Jones within the shield. Alex leads the charge, his brother having conveniently been killed, along with enlisted personnel including Fire Control Petty Officer Raikes, who also has no character, but is played by singer Rihanna. We don’t know if she can act yet, but the camera loves her. The first battle between the ship and the aliens goes on forever. I mean forever. In 1957 the Navy dealt with a beast in the Salton Sea in The Monster That Challenged the World (story by David Duncan, screenplay by Pat Fielder), which according to the IMDb cost $254,000. Battleship cost close to 1,000 times that and is only a little more entertaining.

The John Paul Jones does some damage to the aliens, but the JPJ is a cruiser and not a battleship. And the title of the film is Battleship. Fine, except the Navy no longer has any active battleships. The USS Iowa has recently been towed from the ship graveyard in Suisun Bay east of San Francisco to Los Angeles, where it will be a floating museum. Ah, but remember I said this movie was set in Hawaii. And at Pearl Harbor we have the most famous American battleship, the USS Missouri. So Alex and the gang get it underway in what appears to be a matter of minutes. In real life it would take about six months to de-mothball it. And what do you do for a crew for a seventy-year-old ship? And here’s where the picture finally began to work for me. All I will tell you is that I saw this one on Memorial Day with my friend, the son of an admiral, whom you may remember from US#94 (his wife is out of the hospital and recuperating, thank you for asking) and we laughed more at that moment than anybody else in the theater.

And to add to the fun, the other crew that helps Alex is…Japanese. And nobody makes any references to the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor or the Japanese signing their surrender in 1945 on the Missouri. I can’t help but think there may have been a couple of references in the script, but if there were, there are none in the film, and I think it works better without them. It makes you think.

Battleship opened overseas a month before it opened in the United States. It played fairly well there, but did not take off here at home. Part of the problem is that it opened shortly after The Avengers, which sucked all the air out of the box office. In addition to the bland characterizations, most of the characters seem like cliches from World War II movies. In the book Understanding Screenwriting, I put the 2001 Pearl Harbor (written by Randall Wallace) in the “Not-Quite-So Good” category, because it seemed to me to use all the World War II cliches. I wrote, “Pearl Harbor is one-stop shopping for all you World War II film needs.” In spite of that, there was enough of what Wallace intended in the script to make it interesting. There is nothing similar here.

Oh, one other thing. I mentioned in writing about The Avengers in US#95 that you should stick around for the scene after the end of the credits. There is a similar post-credit scene here, but do yourself a favor and get out of the theatre before it comes on.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011. Screenplay by Ol Parker, based on the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach. 124 minutes.)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

All the good jokes are in the trailer: Now I bet that was something you never thought you would hear about a movie starring the two Great Dames, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.

In addition to being a novelist, Deborah Moggach is also a screenwriter, most notably of the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice. So why did she tell this story as a novel? The obvious answer is that it’s about a group of elderly English people who come to live at the Indian hotel of the title, and who wants a movie about geezers? Lots of people apparently; it just crossed over the $100 million mark at the worldwide box office. But I suspect she also did it as a novel since she could get inside the heads of the characters in a way that’s difficult to do on film. Which may be one of the reasons she did not do the script (or it may have just been studio politics). Ol Parker, who did write the script, has not found any way to get into the characters’ internal emotions other than have them say exactly what they are thinking and feeling. So the scenes are very flat, even with Her Majesty’s First Team of actors, including Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson. Parker does give them jokes, but a lot of those are older than the actors. Maggie Smith’s Muriel says at one point that she is so old she does not even buy green bananas. That’s quite a ways from the line Julian Fellowes gives her in the second season of Downton Abbey, “Do you promise?” “Green bananas” is just a generic joke; “Do you promise?” is a great character line.

I don’t know if Parker is just following the book on this, but he does not seem to get very deeply into the characters. Near the end of the film a faithful servant to the family that owns the hotel reminds the mother of Sonny, who runs the hotel, that her husband’s parents objected to her as she is currently objecting to the woman Sonny loves. She immediately softens, happy ending, end of story. But it would not take more than an additional line or two for her to make a case that she wants Sonny and the girl to avoid the fights she had to go through. What’s missing in any texture to nearly all the characters, Tom Wilkinson’s gay judge being the exception. The other actors try hard, but the material is just not there. They do the jokes well, of course, which is why those are in the trailer.

I also felt the story misses the texture of India. There are a lot of postcard shots, but the script skims over other details, such as the workers at a phone answering center that Evelyn teaches English customs to. She and the kids have a nice scene where she teaches them how to talk on the telephone, but it is pretty much a stand-alone scene. On the other hand, after I wrote the first part of this paragraph I had brunch one day with my son-in-law and his business partner. They have offices around the world, including one in India, and they thought Sonny was exactly like the guy they had running the Indian office (“Right away, right away, right away in three months”). The partner’s wife saw the film twice and then went again with him. So I have to bow to their experience, but it still did not seem to me to get the texture of the country as well as it could have. The partner suggested it may have been because you don’t hear any car horns in the movie, and you hear nothing but in India. But if we heard them, then maybe we would have missed the jokes. As in…

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