Masters of Screenwriting – Preston Sturges

Happy Thanksgiving! Today let’s appreciate the masters of the silver screen… The makers of our celluloid dreams… The magi of imagination… Their storytelling sorcery continues to entrance, delight and sustain new generations of film lovers. Here’s Peter Bogdanovich’s on one of them, Preston Sturges.

In addition to the old Thanksgiving movie classics, I recommend Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. Even if it doesn’t take place on Thanksgiving, it’s about being grateful for the escape movies provide us.

Anatomy of a Script: “Gallipoli”

Some weeks ago, I caught Peter Weir’s Gallipoli for the first time on Amazon Prime. The movie drew accolades when it came out in 1981. I caught scenes here and there on TV, but never watched from beginning to end. Anyway, from those snatched, distracted viewings, I got the idea that it’d be another bloated epic from the 80s that had been much praised when it came out but that didn’t hold up. But, man, was I wrong!

Gallipoli is a war movie about the disastrous WW I campaign, in which Australian and New Zealander soldiers were slaughtered at Anzac as the Allies attempted to open up a sea route through the Dardanelles. It sounds like an epic, but the emotional power of the movie lies in Weir’s focus on two Australian boys and their friendship. Archie Hamilton (Mark Lee) is 18, a naive, idealistic farm boy, living in the middle of the Australian outback with his family. In contrast, Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) is from the “big city,” a few years older, street-wise and a bit of a hustler. The only thing they have in common is that they’re both talented runners.

To tell a big story, go small and take your time. So I’m going to analyze how David Williamson, the scriptwriter, and Weir structured the script. (This structure, by the way, can also work if your story has two protagonists.)

Continue reading Anatomy of a Script: “Gallipoli”

Homage Sequences – “Night of the Hunter” vs. “Do The Right Thing”

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

— Pablo Picasso

Jazz musicians “quote”, rappers “sample”, and filmmakers pay homage. They take snippets of other works and incorporate them into their own stuff. It might seem like stealing. I see it more as tipping the hat to the masters. Imitation is the best kind of flattery, right? In that vein, I’m kicking off the “homage sequence” series in which I compare and contrast the original inspiration sequence and the homage version. Sometimes the inspiration is clearcut and other times not so much…

But I’ll start with an obvious example: Spike Lee paying homage to Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. Laughton’s only movie as a director is a classic, a mashup of a fairy tale and a film noir, in which Robert Mitchum plays one of the best villains in film history, the psychopathic Rev. Harry Powell.

In the state penitentiary for car theft, Rev. Powell’s cellmate is a bank robber and murderer named Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Before the police arrested him, Ben stashed the cash inside his little girl Pearl’s rag doll. Then he swore her and his ten year-old son, John, to secrecy. Before he’s executed for murder, Ben tells Powell he hid the loot — but doesn’t tell him the exact location. Fooled by Powell’s gentle demeanor, Ben begs him to look after his wife and kids when Powell gets out. Rev. Powell readily agrees, secretly salivating over the cash. I’m not going to spoil the rest of the movie. Suffice it to say that it’s a must-see for any film buff.

Anyway, on to the sequence in question: Rev. Powell’s first meeting with Ben’s wife Willa (Shelley Winters), in which he charms everyone with a memorable take on the Cain and Abel story. Everyone that is, except for young John (Billy Chapin).

And here is Spike Lee’s updated take, from his own classic movie, Do The Right Thing, featuring Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem and Lee as Mookie:

Both sequences make a larger, ironic point about each movie’s message and it’s achieved in an entertaining, visually arresting manner.

Do you know any other homage sequences in movies?

Hidden Gem: “Midnight”

1939 was such a bumper year for movies that Midnight got lost in the shuffle. It’s one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time, a fizzy, glamorous escape full of sparkling dialogue, memorable characters, and doses of true romance. The script, by the legendary team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, is a master class on elegant exposition and character building. The movie’s not on any streaming outlet, so if you happen to come across it on EBay, snap it up! You won’t be disappointed.

Claudette Colbert is winsome as Eve Peabody, a street-smart New York chorus girl who’s lost everything in a casino in Monte Carlo — except for her gold lamé gown, and the pawn ticket in her bag. She ends up in a Paris train station during a downpour. Broke, she meets Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche), a taxi-driver and makes a deal with him: If he helps her find a job as a cabaret-singer, she’ll give him double the tip. She doesn’t snag a gig — “I guess mine is strictly a bathtub voice,” she shrugs. And while sparks fly between them, she’s looking for a rich man, so she douses the flame of their attraction and flees… Only to find herself crashing a very boring recital full of filthy rich patricians. And that’s where she runs into Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore), a wealthy nobleman whose wife Helene (Mary Astor) is having an affair with a cad named Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer). Luckily for Eve, Jacques is immediately taken with her, which gives Georges the idea of playing along with her lie that she’s a Hungarian countess just so she can win Jacques away from Helene and restore the Flammarion’s marriage. It sounds like a convoluted plot, but Wilder and Brackett unfold it so elegantly that you’re never lost and you’re always laughing.

One of the things I admire about what Wilder and Brackett pull off in Midnight is the elegant way they dole out information through the use of witty, seemingly throwaway lines. (Thankfully, all the actors are old hands at delivering them with the necessary dose of insouciance so that you never feel you’re being hit over the head with facts.) For instance, here’s how we learn that Eve has lost everything in a Monte Carlo casino, barely two minutes into the movie:

Train porter: Can I get your luggage?

Eve: I wish you would!

Train porter: (Looking around) Where is it?

Eve: Municipal pawn shop, Monte Carlo!

The biggest obstacle in this particular romantic comedy is Eve’s reluctance to marry someone poor, like handsome, working-class Tibor, despite their obvious rapport. An internal hurdle like this can be difficult to establish onscreen. Again, Wilder and Brackett resort to dialogue to get over this hitch. Over a cheap dinner at a cabbies’ bistro, Eve outright tells Tibor the reason she doesn’t think they’re right for each other:

Tibor: Listen if you want peace of mind, get yourself a taxicab.

Eve: No one ever found peace in a taxi, I’m looking for a limousine.

Tibor: They don’t ride any better.

Eve: They ride better than the subway. I spent most of my life in a Bronx local. Squeezed, trampled, stepped on! One day I said to myself, “That’s enough. You’re going to get somewhere!” That’s why I came abroad. I shipped to London in a can of imported chorines. You know, most of those gals ended up with a lord or something.

Tibor: Is that what you call getting somewhere?

Eve: It’s a step in the right direction.

The writers pull off what may seem like “on the nose” dialogue because the exchange works on several levels. First, just a few minutes earlier we see Eve and Tabor’s growing attraction when they dance together. Second, this information about their philosophies is new for us as the audience and for each of the characters involved — given their attraction, it’s not an unlikely conversation on a first date. The fact that this is an impromptu first date amps up the romantic element to the scene, giving the audience a reason to hear them out. Lastly, it serves to build up the characters. Eve’s use of dialogue, for instance saying she was shipped abroad in “a can of imported chorines” instead of sardines, shows she’s smart and has a sense of humor — softening the edge of what could come off as harshly materialistic. This has the added advantage of rounding out Eve’s character — she wants to be ruthlessly hard-nosed, but keeps running up against her own better instincts and internal ethics. She’s not just a good, pure girl, in other words.

It wasn’t uncommon for female characters in 30s movies to be this hard-nosed. In the middle of a world-wide depression, audiences were more sympathetic to women wanting to marry for money and many of the plots that Hollywood churned out in those days were frank about depicting women willing to do anything to get rich. However, Eve is a bit different from the typical gold digger. The whole point of the movie is that she’s actually a romantic at heart, she just has to find it out for herself.

I hope you give Midnight a chance. Asides from being a comedy classic and a genuinely romantic movie, it’s a great example of topnotch screenwriting on multiple levels and well worth watching over and over again.

Flashbacks – Are they necessary?

Continuing my exploration of whether or not flashbacks are a necessary device in modern screenwriting, today I’m going to write about a movie whose entire plot hinges on events that happened before the action starts — and the filmmaker doesn’t rely on flashbacks to convey their significance. The movie is Asghar Farhadi’s The Past.

The story centers around Marie (Bérénice Bejo) , her second husband, Ahmad (Ali Mossafa), and her new boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim). Ahmad abandoned Marie and her two daughters five years earlier to return to Iran. He’s come back to Paris to grant Marie the divorce she requested so that she can marry Samir, who has a young son himself. But it turns out Samir is already married — to a woman languishing in a coma. Marie’s relationship history — or baggage — is constantly impinging on her current plans with Samir. When it comes to love, you can never completely free yourself from the past, (particularly if you have children.) And, like I said earlier, director Farhadi conveys this complicated history without a single flashback. In order to achieve that, Farhadi relies on a different narrative technique: by using Ahmad, in the role of the newcomer.

This works particularly well because Farhadi does not just use Ahmad as a device; he is an integral part of the love triangle. Also, Ahmad has been away for a long enough period of time that his complete ignorance of the current facts makes sense; his questions don’t jolt the audience out of the story or smack us as unrealistic. Yet Ahmad has not been away so long that the children have completely forgotten him. He is also a natural peacemaker, so it makes sense when Marie asks him to draw out her teenage daughter, who resents the new fiancé.

Farhadi is an elegant storyteller, so Ahmad’s inquiries also drive the plot. Maybe this is one reason Farhadi’s movies often feel like thrillers: there’s always a mystery at the heart of the story. In The Past, Ahmad delves into the reason Samir’s wife attempted suicide and ended up in a coma. Also, much like in film noir, the plot is further complicated by the fact that all the characters have their own motives for being less than honest about their own complicity in that suicide attempt — including Ahmad himself and the kids. Farhadi’s elegant use of character dynamics gives us a deeper grasp of human relationships, particularly in connection to truth and culpability.

When it comes to the elusive nature of ever knowing what truly happened, Farhadi has learned from Rashomon. Except he undergoes that exploration without any flashbacks. In a way, this involves the audience more because it feels like we’re finding stuff out along with Ahmad.

Have you seen “The Past”?