Coming Up in This Column: Snow White and the Huntsman; Brave; Turn Me on, Dammit!; Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding; Safety Not Guaranteed; Bernie,; An Appreciation: Richard Zanuck; Two Semi-Appreciations: Andrew Sarris and Nora Ephron; The Conspirator; Bunheads, but first…
Fan Mail: Generally by the time Keith posts one column I have the next one written. I then wait a couple of days to read the comments, add my comments in this “Fan Mail” section and send it. On #95 I sent it off without yet having seen the very interesting comments by “DevilMonkey.” He had been sent a link to that column by a friend who thought that since DM didn’t like superhero movies, “it’s practically made to order for you.” DM thought that column was merely “okay,” but since he remembered reading my book Understanding Screenwriting, he decided to read some of the past columns and ended up reading all of them. That’s above and beyond the call of duty, and if I gave out medals DM would get one.
He particularly liked the Sturges Project and would like to see me do one on Billy Wilder. The advantage to doing Sturges that way is that he had that four-year period of great creativity, while Wilder was wonderful off and on for thirty years. But there are some Wilder films I really want to do. I got a DVD a couple of years ago of Ace in the Hole (1951) that I still have not watched and that I want to do in the column. What other Wilder films to pick? The list goes on and on.
DM raised the very interesting point that I have not done a lot of films from the ’60s and ’70s. He asks, “Is it a silent commentary on your sentiments about films from that era, a matter of personal taste, or just a question of priority and time?” I first wrote that the answer is all of the above, which is usually the best answer to a question like that. But I do like films of the ’60s and ’70s very much. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, and covered in depth in my Understanding Screenwriting book) and Fellini’s 8-1/2 (1963) are two of my favorite movies. And of course Coppola’s two, The Godfather (1972) and The Conversation (1974). I think part of the reason I had not dealt with the films of those two decades is that I dealt with them a lot both as a historian and writer (look at the Annotated Study list in my 1982 Screenwriting book) and as a teacher. At one of Coppola’s many bankruptcy auctions we picked up a gorgeous 35mm print of The Conversation, which I showed nearly every semester for thirty years. I covered several films from the period in my screenwriting class, showing them in sequences over the course of the semester and discussing them in screenwriting terms. So I sort of felt I had dealt with those. But I still have my notes. And scripts for some of them. Did you know that the “dream scene” of Harry and the wife (Cindy Williams) in The Conversation was a “real” scene in the screenplay? Or that Harry originally had a wicked sense of humor? So now that DM has provoked me, you may look forward to more films from the ’60s and ’70s.
Oh, like any good writer, DM saved the punchline until last: it turns out he had not read the book Understanding Screenwriting at all, but something with a similar title. I assume he is making up for that lack in his life even as we speak.
And now, on to the comments on #96: Matt Maul had a different reading of the last scene of the season finale of Mad Men. Matt thought that Don was walking away from the commercial shoot unhappy rather than satisfied. I am not sure there is the visual evidence for that in the shot, but it’s perfectly possible to read it that way. Which is the sort of ambiguity that we love about the show. David Ehrenstein noted that they did give the black secretary a nice scene with Peggy. It was a nice scene, but I still wish there had been more of them. Ah, well, that’s what next season is for. Maybe she’ll become romantically involved with Don. Or with Joan.
Snow White and the Huntsman (2012. Screenplay by Evan Daugherty and John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini, screen story by Evan Daugherty. 127 minutes.)
This is the script Tarsem Singh should have directed: You may remember that one reason I whacked Mirror, Mirror in US#94 is that I did not think Tarsem Singh was the right director for it. He did not handle the comedy well, and the producers hadn’t provided enough production values to make it live up to his visual sense. There is hardly any comedy in this script, and the producers give the director Rupert Sanders the kind of production values Singh would work wonders with. Sanders works enough wonders that when I first saw the trailer, I assumed it was Singh’s film.
I mentioned in my comments on Mirror, Mirror that the Snow White tale is “one hell of a scary story,” and this script is true to that. Mirror, Mirror was trying to be true to its idea of Disney, but this one is determined to make it different. We start with a raging battle sequence (Sanders obviously loves Kurosawa), and then discover exactly how sick a puppy Queen Ravenna is. Unlike the queen in Mirror, Mirror, she is more a terror than a diva. She’s played by Charlize Theron, who brings the same kind of intense evil that she brought to her Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003). Sanders does let her get a little too Norma Desmond in a couple of scenes, but this is his first feature and he’ll learn better. The seven dwarves are very minor characters here and basically forest trash, neither cutesy nor Robin Hood-like thieves.
I got on Mirror, Mirror’s case because it turned Snow White into a warrior princess in a clumsy montage sequence. She ends up a warrior princess here, but we get no montage. She starts out smart. We first see the adult Snow in prison, where she has been languishing for years. She’s inventive and figures out how to escape from the castle, so we know right away she’s no wuss. At the end, she dons a suit of armor to lead the attack on the castle, but the armor is a mistake on the filmmakers’ part. As several critics have pointed out, it makes her look like Joan of Arc, which takes us out of Snow’s story. Like I say, Sanders will learn. He also lets Kristin Stewart play Snow with a little too much of her trademarked sulk. It’s well over an hour before she shows us she has a captivating smile, but then we don’t see it that often. Like Sanders, she’ll learn.
Brave (2012. Screenplay by Mark Andrews & Steve Purcell and Brenda Chapman & Irene Mecchi, story by Brenda Chapman. 100 minutes.)
Why discuss the ones that are only not-quite-so good?: When I was trying to get my book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays published, one publisher who does a line of books it would have fit very nicely into objected to my writing about less-than-good and bad screenplays. Why not just write about the good ones? As I told him, and subsequently added to the Introduction, “After all, that’s why medical schools study disease and why business schools study the Edsel and New Coke. Part of the purpose of including the less-than-perfect scripts is to train you to look for problems, so that you can do that in your own scripts.” In this case, the film is by the GAPS (the Geniuses At Pixar), whose batting average is incredibly high, mostly because they know how to develop scripts properly. See my comments on any of the Pixar films of the last four years. So what went wrong here?
The story begins with Brenda Chapman, who worked on the stories for Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994) and Chicken Run (2000), so we are not talking about an amateur here. She wanted to do a film about a mother-daughter relationship similar to her own with her daughter. OK, Princess Merida is a tomboy in Scotland in the Middle Ages and she defies her mother’s wishes that she femme up to try to make a good marriage. Merida would much rather be an archer, the occupation of choice this cinematic season. Merida breaks up an archery contest among the dweebish sons of the neighboring kingdoms for her hand by beating them in the contest and declaring that therefore she can choose her own husband. Queen Elinor is none too happy and they argue. The dialogue between mother and daughter is very generic mother-and-daughter stuff. I have no idea if it was that way in Chapman and Mecchi’s screenplay, which in spite of the order in the credits came first, or if it has been flattened out in the rewrites. Merida goes off into the woods, where she lets a witch smooth talk her into putting a spell on Elinor. Merida just wants her to change, but the witch turns her into a bear. Which given that dad, King Fergus, had a fight with a bear years before and lost part of his leg to it, may make for awkward moments around the castle. Things work out in the end.
Chapman, who became the first woman to direct an animated feature with Prince of Egypt (1998), started directing Brave. But she was replaced by Mark Andrews, whose major credit seems to be the screenplay for this year’s John Carter. I have seen no reasons given, since everybody at Pixar appears to have signed confidentiality clauses. We may have to wait twenty years until they all write their memoirs. If the mother-daughter stuff is Chapman’s, the subplots about the legends of the kingdom are probably Andrews and Purcell’s, and they don’t help. As the film develops, it becomes more and more unfocused. When we want more of Merida and Elinor, we get instead the mythology of the kingdom. I also suspect that a lot of the comic slapstick comes from the guys rather than Chapman. I love Billy Connolly, who voices Fergus, but a little of him goes a long way. The characterization of the secondary characters is not up to Pixar at its best. Usually the group efforts at Pixar work out, here they don’t.
It being a Pixar film, there are some nice things. The animators give Merida great red hair, and Elinor as a bear has some nice reactions. There are also some good lines of dialogue, as in Elinor’s instruction to Merida that “A princess does not chortle.” And the film is also subversive in that Merida does not end up with a man. So she can chortle all she wants.