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In Plain Sight (#110 of 6)

Understanding Screenwriting #95: The Avengers, Think Like a Man, Desperate Housewives, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #95: <em>The Avengers</em>, <em>Think Like a Man</em>, <em>Desperate Housewives</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #95: <em>The Avengers</em>, <em>Think Like a Man</em>, <em>Desperate Housewives</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Avengers, Think Like a Man, The Pirates! Band of Misfits!, Thomas Ince: Hollywood’s Independent Pioneer (book), Forever Amber, The King’s Thief, In Plain Sight, Desperate Housewives, but first…

Fan Mail: I agree with “Snarpo” (is he a lost Marx Brother?) that Eugene Levy should work more, and one advantage to appearing in a hit movie/series is that it gives you more work. And I agree with David Ehrenstein (it happens!) that in Damsels in Distress Stillman has no interest in the male characters. On the other hand, I disagree with David (now that’s more like it) that Stillman makes the girls “loveable.” More like fingernails on a blackboard.

The Avengers (2012. Screenplay by Joss Whedon, story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon, based on the comic book by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby. 143 minutes.)

Summer—Swoosh! Bang! Crash! Pow! Smush! Whump!—is here: Those of you who have read this column from the beginning in 2008 may remember that early on I pissed off the fanboy crowd by dumping on graphic novels and the problems they presented for potential filmmakers (Look at columns #2 through #4 and the comments on them). The lack of serious characterization is one problem. The relentlessly excessive visual dazzle is another. So you may have noticed that I have not discussed several of the recent adaptations of graphic novels in this column. So what prompted me to see The Avengers?

Understanding Screenwriting #49: I Am Love, Winter’s Bone, This Is Korea!, Hot in Cleveland, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #49: <em>I Am Love</em>, <em>Winter’s Bone</em>, <em>This Is Korea!</em>, <em>Hot in Cleveland</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #49: <em>I Am Love</em>, <em>Winter’s Bone</em>, <em>This Is Korea!</em>, <em>Hot in Cleveland</em>, & More

Coming up in this column: I Am Love, Winter’s Bone, Video Slut: How I Shoved Madonna off an Olympic High Dive, Got Prince into a Pair of Tiny Purple Woolen Underpants, Ran Away from Michael Jackson’s Dad, and Got a Waterfall to Flow Backwards so I Could Bring Rock Videos to the Masses (book), This Is Korea!, The Desert Rats, Hot in Cleveland, Some Summer 2010 Television, but first…

Fan mail: If you read #48 right after its posting, you may have missed an interesting comment on it from Ed Sikov. He’s the author of On Sunset Boulevard, the great Billy Wilder biography I mentioned in the item on Stalag 17. I said in the column that Sikov had not told us what Wilder thought of the TV series Hogan’s Heroes, which bore a more than passing resemblance to Wilder’s film. Sikov commented that he did not include that because he never got to interview Wilder for the book. His description in his comments of meeting Wilder later is worth going back and looking at.

I suppose I picked up while reading his book that he had not interviewed Wilder (he mentions it in the Preface), but I had forgotten it in the twelve years since his book came out. His book is so good and so thoroughly researched that it does not make any difference. This goes to a point I have made about this column before: there are a lot of ways to understand screenwriting. You will notice sometimes I have quotes from the writers. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I discuss producers’ contributions, both good and bad, to screenplays. Sometimes I will discuss studios and networks and their part in the collaborative process. What I try to do in the column, and what Sikov does brilliantly in his book, is gather as great a variety of information as we can and organize it in ways that will educate and entertain readers. If you have any interest in Wilder, you probably have already read Sikov’s book. If you haven’t read it, it really is required reading.

Understanding Screenwriting #31: Funny People, In the Loop, Julie & Julia, The Answer Man, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #31: <em>Funny People</em>, <em>In the Loop</em>, <em>Julie & Julia</em>, <em>The Answer Man</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #31: <em>Funny People</em>, <em>In the Loop</em>, <em>Julie & Julia</em>, <em>The Answer Man</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Funny People, In the Loop, Julie & Julia, The Answer Man, Budd Schulberg and John Hughes: an appreciation, Middle Passage Summer Cable Season 2009, but first…

Fan Mail: Great collection of comments on US#30, folks. I always appreciate them.

Daniel Iffland raised a very good question as to why all the discussions about writers on serialized TV dramas in the mainstream media have not led to more writing about screenwriting in film. Part of the reason is historical: the tradition in writing about directors extends back beyond the development of the auteur theory. There is also the disdain of the East Coast Intellectual Establishment for screenwriters, which I discussed in US#1 as one of the reasons I was doing this column. From the beginning of television, especially in the Golden Age of live dramas in the fifties, there was a greater critical awareness of the writer. Another reason is that films are generally seen as a one-off event, whereas a series is a collection of stories with connecting elements. Once the series is set up, the creative function of the producer/showrunner is to feed the maw: a 22-episode season of a one-hour drama requires a LOT of story material. That’s why showrunners are usually writers: they know how to deliver scripts. You can read more about all of this in my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing.

Welcome to new reader “AJ,” who likes the writer’s perspective the column gives. That’s what I’m here for.

Understanding Screenwriting #26: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Angels & Demons, In Plain Sight, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #26: <em>Ghosts of Girlfriends Past</em>, <em>Angels & Demons</em>, <em>In Plain Sight</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #26: <em>Ghosts of Girlfriends Past</em>, <em>Angels & Demons</em>, <em>In Plain Sight</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Angels & Demons, The Dam Busters, In Plain Sight, Glee, The End of the Television Season, but first…

Fan Mail: First of all, thanks to those who mentioned in their comments on US#25 that they liked the column even if they disagreed with it. As I said near the beginning of the run of the column, I like to start discussions.

A couple of readers took me to task for not understanding Sugar. “Wrongshore” listed a number of reasons he felt Sugar had left the farm team, so it was clear to him as it was not to me. I agreed with him that every one of the reasons he mentioned might be the reasons, but I just did not think the film did the work that Wrongshore did in figuring out what the reasons were. “Anonymous” mentioned that a Chinese woman and a Thai woman at a Q&A in San Francisco both felt the film was their lives. I’m glad they did, but there are a number of films that cover the immigrant experience better. I have mentioned El Norte in writing about a couple of films and it is still one of the best. A more obscure one that I just love (and showed again a couple of weeks ago in my History of Documentary Film class at LACC) is Mai’s America, about a teenaged Vietnamese girl who comes to the U.S. as an exchange student. My foreign students feel that film is their life. I think it’s available on DVD, or you could just come and take my class the next time I show it.

I agree with “Max Winter” that State of Play is not as rushed as we were all afraid it might have been, what with condensing a mini-series into a feature. Credit the three screenwriters with knowing what they needed to have. “Anonymous” thought the miniseries was great, which means I will have to check it out some time. Meanwhile, here’s some stuff I have checked out lately.

Understanding Screenwriting #25: State of Play, Adventureland, Every Little Step, Sugar, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #25: <em>State of Play</em>, <em>Adventureland</em>, <em>Every Little Step</em>, <em>Sugar</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #25: <em>State of Play</em>, <em>Adventureland</em>, <em>Every Little Step</em>, <em>Sugar</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: State of Play, Adventureland, Every Little Step, Sugar, The Soloist, In Plain Sight, Two and a Half Men, but first…

Fan Mail: “Wrongshore” suspected that one of the reasons I did not find the faux documentary style as much of a problem in the second episode of Parks and Recreation was that the director, Seth Gordon, had made documentaries. Yeah, it always helps when you have a director who knows what he is doing…

State of Play (2009. Screenplay by Mathew Michael Carnahan and Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, based on the television miniseries by Paul Abbott. 127 minutes): Three screenwriters, four counting the original TV writer, but you can’t tell.

Many times when there are multiple screenwriters on a film, the result is a mess. It can also often make it easy to tell who wrote what. Only Quentin Tarantino could have written the “comic book” scene in Crimson Tide that comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere. Fortunately that is not true with State of Play. Not only does the script hold together very well, but some of my guesses as to who wrote what turned out not to be the case, according to Peter Clines’s article on the writing of the film in the March/April issue of Creative Screenwriting. The first writer to come on the project of adapting a six-hour British miniseries into a 127-minute film was Carnahan, whose 2007 film The Kingdom has the kind of narrative drive and political awareness that was useful for this film. Fortunately what we end up with in State of Play does not have the ponderous talkiness of his Lions for Lambs (2007) script. It was Carnahan who changed the villain from big oil in the British miniseries to a Blackwater type security operation, although he was working on the script before information about Blackwater came out. Unfortunately, not as much is done with the organization as he could have, and some of this may have come from the British original. In cutting it down from six hours, the focus becomes mostly plot, and the kind of political nuances that I gather the British series had are not duplicated here. One of the weaknesses of the film is that, for all of Carnahan’s interest in politics, the film never feels entirely right in its depiction of Washington politics. Everything is a little too polite for Washington. Where is the Dick Cheney character breathing fire and brimstone when you need him? Of course, everyone connected with this film probably realized that Cheney would be out by the time the film was released and a Cheney-like character would seem dated.

Understanding Screenwriting #3: Transsiberian, The House Bunny, Tropic Thunder, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #3: <em>Transsiberian</em>, <em>The House Bunny</em>, <em>Tropic Thunder</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #3: <em>Transsiberian</em>, <em>The House Bunny</em>, <em>Tropic Thunder</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Transsiberian; The House Bunny; Tropic Thunder; Silent to Sound; Transformers; In Plain Sight; Mad Men, but first:

Mailbag: Well, I certainly seem to have ticked off the graphic novel crowd, haven’t I? As “futurefree” and “JJ” noted, I was careful to doubly qualify my comments, and I did that because I was aware there have been some fairly good films made from graphic novels. One that some readers mentioned was From Hell, and one that I am surprised nobody mentioned was A History of Violence, which was terrific until it went a little funny in the head in the last third.

My point, that several readers such as “futurefree” and “Ed Howard” picked up on, is that the form does not necessarily lend itself to complex characters. It is not just a question of panels, but that the images are static, so you do not get the nuances you do in actors’ performances in films.

I have been meaning to admit since US#1 my dirty little secret, which is that I am not a fanboy. As a kid in the ’40s and early ’50s I read comic books, but as I hit adolescence I gave them up, with of course the obvious exception of Mad Magazine; some things are sacred. I never got back into comics or later graphic novels, and the older I get, the less interest in mythical kingdoms I have. I can certainly understand people, particularly in the last seven years, who much prefer to live in mythical kingdoms rather than the real world. But I just find the jumps in logic one has to make a little much. At the risk of driving off all my readers, I have to admit that I have seen only the first Lord of the Rings movie and not the other two. I have not seen any of the Harry Potter films, and only the first Matrix, which struck me as one of the stupidest movies of all time. I avoided Batman Begins (I am a little too old for yet another version of the origin story) and The Dark Knight (even though a friend whose judgement I trust said I had to see it because it was “as if Kubrick had directed The French Connection”). I do try to see one comic book/graphic novel movie a year and this year it was Iron Man. I kept wanting to see a) the outtakes of Downey Jr. and his stunt man trying to move in that outfit, and b) that cast (Downey Jr., Bridges, and Paltrow) in a real movie.