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Julian Fellowes (#110 of 5)

Understanding Screenwriting #108: Side Effects, Like Someone in Love, Point Blank, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End, & Smash

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Understanding Screenwriting #108: <em>Side Effects</em>, <em>Like Someone in Love</em>, <em>Point Blank</em>, <em>Downton Abbey</em>, <em>Parade’s End</em>, & <em>Smash</em>
Understanding Screenwriting #108: <em>Side Effects</em>, <em>Like Someone in Love</em>, <em>Point Blank</em>, <em>Downton Abbey</em>, <em>Parade’s End</em>, & <em>Smash</em>

Coming Up In This Column: Side Effects, Like Someone in Love, Point Blank, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End, Smash, but first…

Fan mail: David Ehrenstein, reacting to my comments on Cat Ballou, thought that all the things I liked about the writing and acting came together “thanks to efforts of that controversial new-fangled invention known as the Director.” I didn’t get around to mentioning the director, Elliot Silverstein, because this is one of those films, like M*A*S*H (1970), Chariots of Fire (1981), and Thelma & Louise (1991), that succeeds in spite of its director rather than because of him. Silverstein is very sloppy about where he puts the camera and the acting is all over the place. This was his only truly successful film, and he soon went back to television, where he started.

Side Effects (2013. Written by Scott Z. Burns. 106 minutes.)

Better than Hitchcock. Both Alfred Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick were interested in psychiatry. In the mid-’40s, Hitchcock persuaded Selznick to buy a novel that was, according to Hitchcock’s biographer, Donald Spoto, “a bizarre tale of witchcraft, satanic cults, psychopathology, murder, and mistaken identities.” (The background material here is from Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock.) Hitchcock presented some ideas on how a movie could be made out of the material to Ben Hecht, who wrote the screenplay for Spellbound (1945). Hecht’s version deals with an amnesiac who replaces a man scheduled to become the head of a mental hospital. The amnesiac is accused of murder and with a helpful female psychiatrist works out his problems. Since she’s played in the film by Ingrid Bergman, he falls in love with her as well. The film was a commercial success, but it’s rather clunky, like many ’40s films about psychiatry. And like many Hitchcock films, it’s less about character than about giving the director a chance to show off. As befits Selznick, the film is a slick production with stars (Gregory Peck as the amnesiac) in a romantic mode.

On Location Downton Abbey‘s Highclere Castle

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On Location: Downton Abbey’s Highclere Castle
On Location: Downton Abbey’s Highclere Castle

Along with the tail end of Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) faithful Labrador, Isis, it appears at the start of the opening credits of each Downton Abbey episode: That spectacular English manse that gives the series its name. In real life, the home of the well-to-do Crawley family and their entourage of servants is Highclere Castle, and it rests in Hampshire, on England’s southern coast. The Jacobethan centerpiece of a 1,000-acre estate, Highclere offers a setting of seemingly limitless shooting potential, with baroque state rooms, hallways, and pristinely primped courtyards ready to house all manner of high-society intrigue. On the hit show, created by Julian Fellowes (who also scripted Robert Altman’s Gosford Park), characters regard the home as a bona fide entity, as if those regal archways and amply-adorned walls could actually breathe. It’s an age-old cliché, but the estate is very much its own character on Downton Abbey, and moreover, it’s the character that unites all others. Of course, it serves as the embodiment of the ever-looming issue of Lord Grantham’s heir, representative of all that’s to be gained by whomever carries on the Crawley lineage. But it’s also the common ground between the aristocrats and the help, as all see the good of the house as the greater good. Downton is, to an extent, its own nation, with devoted citizens both upstairs and down.

Oscar Prospects: Moonrise Kingdom

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Oscar Prospects: Moonrise Kingdom
Oscar Prospects: Moonrise Kingdom

The Academy hasn’t exactly warmed to Wes Anderson, and it’s conceivable that they never truly will. It’s rare for such a popular, critically lauded, and artistically accomplished auteur to never cross over Oscar’s Picture/Director borderline, but Anderson may just spend his career being the anomaly, his whimsy always relegating him to the quirk-filled realm of Original Screenplay. His first nomination, in 2002, was in that very category, which pitted his now-classic script for The Royal Tenenbaums against the likes of Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) and Christopher Nolan (Memento). His latest, Moonrise Kingdom, is the first work since to give him a real chance of returning to the race, as it’s his most technically accomplished, touching, and accessible follow-up. Telling a tale of childhood love that’s amenable to his Peter-Pan sensibilities, Moonrise Kingdom is a fine transition piece to follow Fantastic Mr. Fox, which cracked the animation field in 2009, yielding Anderson’s only other Oscar nod. The afterglow of that stop-motion gem’s citation can only work in the writer/director’s favor, ditto his new film’s massive praise and solid theatrical showing. A screenplay nom seems inevitable, but will the love end there?

Understanding Screenwriting #67: True Grit, The Tourist, & Black Swan

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Understanding Screenwriting #67: <em>True Grit</em>, <em>The Tourist</em>, & <em>Black Swan</em>
Understanding Screenwriting #67: <em>True Grit</em>, <em>The Tourist</em>, & <em>Black Swan</em>

Coming Up in This Column: True Grit, The Tourist, Black Swan, but first…

Fan Mail: I’m sorry David, but Ryan’s Daughter is “all that bad.”

True Grit (1969. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts. 128 minutes; 2010. Screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen. 110 minutes. Based on the novel by Charles Portis.)

How is this movie different from the other?: Charles Portis’s novel came out in 1968 and everybody, and I mean everybody, knew that the role of “Rooster” Cogburn, a fat, one-eyed marshal dragged by a tough 14 year-old-girl into tracking down her father’s killer, was perfect for John Wayne. Wayne knew it and bid for the film rights. He was outbid by producer Hal Wallis. Wayne called Wallis to complain, and Wallis told him there was only one actor he wanted for the role: Wayne.

Understanding Screenwriting #41: The Young Victoria, The Last Station, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #41: <em>The Young Victoria</em>, <em>The Last Station</em>, <em>The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #41: <em>The Young Victoria</em>, <em>The Last Station</em>, <em>The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond</em>, & More

Coming up in this column: The Young Victoria, The Last Station, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, Horton Foote: America’s Storyteller (book), Libeled Lady, Return to Cranford, The Good Wife, Some January 2010 Television, but first:

Fan mail: Nobody’s logged in yet, so we will get right to the main events.

The Young Victoria (2009. Written by Julian Fellowes. 105 minutes)

We are not all that amused: It sounds like a great idea: the love story of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Although we are most used to the stuffy dowager that Victoria became in her old age (see The Mudlark [1950] for the genteel view), she obviously had some passion and intensity (see Mrs. Brown [1997] for the livelier view). We haven’t, however, had much of the younger Victoria. The Brits tried in the 1937 film Victoria the Great, but as Leonard Maltin notes in his movie guides, it is rather “stodgy.” The current film is not particularly stodgy, but it is rather flat and literal. Fellowes, who wrote Gosford Park (2001) and is an actor, just simply has not dug deeply enough to make the characters come alive. Given his experience as an actor, and given the characters he created for Gosford Park, this is a real surprise.

Here is a scene that gives a good example of the problems in the script. Fellowes establishes early on that since Victoria is the queen, she has to be the one to ask Albert to marry her. It is also established that Albert knows this. So naturally we are expecting a proposal scene. We have those setup lines, but later in the film Fellowes jumps into the scene without any other preparation. We do not see her getting ready to meet Albert to propose. We get no sense of any concern on her part that he might say no. Yes, she knows he loves her, but my God, what if he really doesn’t? As a queen, what is she going to do if he doesn’t say yes? What about him? When does he realize what she is going to ask? In the film he sort of gets it from the beginning, but what if she hit him with this on an off-day? He’s a nice guy, but what if he had been distracted? Or what if he gets it while she’s just warming up and plays with her a little bit. As it stands, she asks, he says yes, they hug, end of scene. Many other scenes in the film have the same problem.