#MTOS – Screenwriting and Screenplays

MTOS is a weekly Twitter event taking place every Sunday at 8pm comprising ten film related questions related to a particular theme. I’m hosting this week and have chosen ‘Screenwriters and Screenplays’ as my topic. Here are the ten questions. One question will be asked every ten minutes. 

1) What’s your all-time favourite screenplay? 

2) Do you feel screenwriters get the credit they deserve for their part in the film-making process? 

3) Is there a screenwriter whose work you seek out regardless of the project or director?

4) Film is a collaboration and occasionally writers and directors fall out. What’s the most entertaining clash you’ve heard about? 

5) What is the best film made about a screenwriter?

6) Which adapted screenplay best captures the spirit of the work (novel, play) it is based on?

7) Does the traditional three-act structure lead to formulaic storytelling in cinema?

8) Not every screenplay gets made. Any examples of scripts you have read or heard about you would like to see made?

9) Do you feel writing for television offers more fulfillment for writers than working in film?

10) Pretend I’m a studio executive. Now pitch me your screenplay.  

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Top Ten Films of 2014

10) Bastards (Claire Denis)

Rugged sea captain Marco (Vincent Lindon) finds himself out of his depth in Paris as he seeks vengeance on behalf of his sexually traumatised niece. A tough quiet loner, Marco is the archetypal protagonist for a revenge movie but in this bleak and unforgiving anti-thriller Denis renders him useless.

9)Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)

Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s phantasmagorical take on the landscape of Hollywood. Despite the often laboured satire it works best as a ghost story, a study of people haunted by their past in a town which is always looking for new flesh and shows only a morbid curiosity in those whose moment has passed.

8) They Came Together  (David Wain)

 

David Wain and Michael Showalter’s loving send-up of the urban rom-com particularly those using New York as the backdrop for their story. It takes every cliché in these types of movies and raises them to new levels of absurdity aided by two demented comic performances from Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler. 

7)Her (Spike Jonze)

Spike Jonze’s sci-fi love story between an introvert and a sentient OS touches on prescient themes, emotional isolation, the complexity of human relationships, and how people mostly interact with the world now through technology. Its futuristic design is mostly understated and credible with the exception of those above the waist trousers.

6) Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)

A rarity these days, a smart emotionally involving blockbuster. Cruise is self-deprecating and charming as the coward who learns to become a hero and is matched by Emily Blunt as his mentor. Warner Bros still seem to be in the process of picking a title for this movie which might explain why they couldn’t persuade more people to go and see it in cinemas. 

5)  Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)

My enthusiasm for this was slightly tempered by its London-born director’s absurd diatribe against the Irish film industry and every Irish film ever made. Nevertheless Calvaryis still a moving exploration of religious faith with a wonderful performance from Gleeson.

 4) Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

 

 Wes Anderson’s colourful tale within a tale is infused with his usual mixture of comedy and melancholia. Ralph Fiennes performance reminded me a little of Dirk Bogarde in his late-period European work when he was often cast in films about the clash between the old aristocratic order and an emerging fascist regime. There’s a similar type of story here and while Anderson’s approach is comic in tone it’s as good a lament for the pre-war Europe of the 30s’ as you’ll see.

3) Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier)

Part I of von Trier’s exploration of female sexuality might well be the funniest film of the year. Part II is much darker. Sex is a weapon and there are casualties. Most notably a wronged wife played with astonishing rage by Uma Thurman. At the heart of both films is the oddly touching relationship between Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her lonely confessor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) which in the cruellest joke von Trier’s ever played on the viewer he undercuts in the final scene.

 2) Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)

Just shades What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi) as this year’s best movie about vampires sharing a house together. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are the centuries old aesthetes hanging out discussing great art, literature, and music. The only things that have survived for as long as they have.

1) Frank (Lenny Abrahamson)

Frank was an unexpected and moving surprise. I had doubts about this prior to seeing it. Chris Sievey’s (aka Frank Sidebottom) eccentricity seems intrinsically linked to his North of England background so turning him into an American felt wrong. However apart from appropriating his giant paper mache head Frank has little to do with Sievey’s life. Abraham’s film instead tells its own weird sad story and is illuminating about the nature of creativity and how mental illness can affect that process.

Withnail & I – Station Screening Notes (Dec 2014)

“We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell. Making enemies of our own future.”

Winter, 1969. Two young actors take a trip to the country to escape from London. Their careers are going nowhere and they’re broke. Getting away might relieve the boredom of hanging around their freezing Camden digs so they answer an ad in the Times offering a cottage in the Lake District for £8 a week. When they get there they find it’s a mess. Water pours through the roof when it rains and it never stops raining. There’s no fuel. They didn’t bring food with them either. It’s a nightmare. Now the city seems comfortable. They can’t wait to return. When they do get back one of them has an acting job waiting for him and leaves. Now 24- year old Bruce Robinson finds himself alone in a big house he once shared with other bright young things. So he begins to write a screenplay based on his experiences as a struggling actor and the bittersweet result forms what many years later would become Withnail & I.

Robinson sets aside his writing though when he finally starts working again. Sure he’d been in a big movie before playing Benvolio in Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo & Juliet (68) but most of his time on that film was spent dodging the sexual advances of the film’s flamboyant director. Safer ground then working with Ken Russell on his Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers (1970). Russell may be an eccentric but he has little interest in buggering his cast. Robinson’s beauty leads to his biggest role in Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele (75) as the emotionally cold army officer who becomes the object of Adele’s (Isabelle Adjani) infatuation. Though he cuts a dash in his officer’s uniform it becomes clear to Robinson and audiences that he is a terrible actor.

So Robinson starts writing again. The success of his screenplay for The Killing Fields (84, Roland Joffe) allows him to pitch Withnail to Handmade Films. A film company set up by musician George Harrison and American businessman Denis O’Brien initially to distribute Monty Python’s controversial Life of Brian (79, Terry Jones), but which would become one of the most successful production companies of the 80’s financing among others The Long Good Friday (80, John Mackenzie), and Time Bandits (81, Terry Gilliam). There’s trouble though with O’Brien who can’t see the subtle humour in the screenplay and hates its end of an era melancholy. He wants uncle Monty be more monstrously comic in his predatory pursuit of Paul McGann’s narrator, whereas Robinson and actor Richard Griffiths affecting performance create a sympathetic if slightly mad figure trying to alleviate his own loneliness. Robinson has to fight to film key scenes and spends his own money obtaining the rights to certain songs in the film.

Withnail & I did decent enough if unspectacular business on its initial release. Reviews were mixed Handmade even let Robinson and star Richard E. Grant make another film, the anti-Thatcherite satire How to Get Ahead in Advertising (89). The experience of directing a Hollywood serial killer movie called Jennifer 8 (92) caused Robinson to retreat from the film industry altogether. Yet the cult of Withnail & I was growing steadily and by the mid-90’s the film found a new lease of life with the ‘Cool Britannia’ generation. Robinson became bankable again selling screenplays for US studio films Return to Paradise (98, Joseph Ruben) and In Dreams (98, Neil Jordan). However he hated both films so much he gave up on the movie business again and quit to write a novel. It’s doubtful he would have directed again had Johnny Depp not personally sought out Robinson to adapt Hunter S. Thompson’s novel The Rum Diary. No studio interference this time. Everything went well during shooting film came out in 2011 to undeservedly poor reviews and died at the box-office. Shame. Maybe in twenty years people will learn to like it. Until then as Withnail would say, “chin chin." 

Gone Girl – Station Screening Notes (November 2014)

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“How was  your marriage Nick?”

Bar owner Nick (Ben Affleck) arrives home to find his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing, furniture overturned, and blood on the floor. As the police investigate Nick becomes the prime suspect. Especially in the court of public opinion when his poor handling of media appearances make him seem unsympathetic. Perhaps a man with something to hide. In contrast Amy is already a public figure thanks to a beloved series of books her father wrote based on her childhood called Amazing Amy. She is the beautiful, lost, perfect wife, while he is the mooch living off her money and sleeping around.

Director David Fincher’s films can often feel like stylistic exercises, see the clockwork tension of Panic Room (2003), or his disturbing but empty adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). At his best however his work moves beyond efficiency and incorporates grander themes. The religious overtones of the unfairly maligned Alien 3 (92), the anarchic anti-consumerism of Fight Club (99), or the implication in the Aaron Sorkin scripted Facebook movie The Social Network (2010) that technology only provides the illusion of being close to other people. Zodiac (2007), arguably his best film is a haunting procedural about the doomed search for one of America’s most notorious serial killers and the effect it had on those involved. Comfort is rarely found in Fincher’s movies making him the perfect choice to Gillian Flynn’s pulpy 2012 novel Gone Girl.

The film moves between the past and the present as we see their relationship deteriorate over a five year period. From the early days as a loved-up couple to the growing resentment of two people who have surrendered their futures to each other. Gillian Flynn adapts her own novel here and her screenplay makes this story darker and more satirical targeting the media circus which surrounds cases like these and presenting a nightmarish vision of a marriage gone awry. Affleck is adept at playing hopeless douches who are confused by women and Nick feels like a middle-aged version of the geek who begins a doomed romance with a bisexual comic book artist in Chasing Amy (97, Kevin Smith). Yet much angrier. Affleck can switch from calm to rage quicker than any actor around. Prior to Gone Girl Pike was best known for appearing in the Bond movie Die Another Day (2002) and since then has been largely wasted in workmanlike period dramas until now. The biggest revelation though is comedian Tyler Perry as a Johnny Cochran type lawyer at once shocked and amused at the behaviour of these rich entitled white people. 

The Great Gatsby – Station Screening (June 2013)

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F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at the age of 44 after years of heavy drinking took their toll. His friend Edmund Wilson edited together a draft version of Fitzgerald’s final work ‘The Last Tycoon’ for publication. In the foreword Wilson wrote about the people in Fitzgerald’s stories living for ‘big parties at which they go off like fireworks and which are likely to leave them in pieces.’ Traditionalists balked when the flamboyant director of ‘Strictly Ballroom’ (1992) Baz Luhrmann announced his plans to make a version of Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece ‘The Great Gatsby.’ Fitzgerald is a subtle writer, while Luhrmann’s movies are gaudy coloured confections which move at a breathless pace. They do not at first sight seem a good match. Yet Wilson’s comment about wonderful ruinous parties suits Luhrmann too. ‘William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet’ (1996) and ‘Moulin Rouge’ (2001) set up their doomed love affairs during lengthy and elaborately designed set-pieces that wouldn’t look out of place in an old-fashioned Hollywood musical. Fitzgerald and Luhrmann may have differing approaches to their respective crafts but both men clearly know how to party.

For all Luhrmann’s showiness though this is still at heart Fitzgerald’s story. 1922, young writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) attends a lavish party thrown by mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Luhrmann’s visually spectacular approach to filmmaking is evident in how he arranges the first meeting between Carraway and Gatsby. In the novel the two men happen to stand next to each other at a party and begin talking. Luhrmann’s encounter is a seismic moment, there are fireworks in the sky. Music soars. DiCaprio’s movie star smile lights up the screen. Like Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly Gatsby is a fake but a genuine fake. The parties are a ruse intended to attract the attention of the love of his life Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) who lives across the bay and is now married. As with ‘Moulin Rouge’ Luhrmann uses contemporary music which in a period piece should feel anachronistic but instead comments on either a particular scene or a character’s emotional state. Lana Del Ray’s joyously melancholic song ‘Young and Beautiful’ reappears throughout as a refrain as Gatsby and Daisy attempt to rekindle their love affair behind the back of her ruthless businessman husband Tom (Joel Edgerton).

Station regulars will remember F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda appearing in ‘Midnight in Paris’ as bright young things partying with the Lost Generation of writers and artists. Later they drank their fill, too many gin rickey’s and late nights did for them both but Fitzgerald seems to have known this would happen. In his novels the comedown from the parties and the damage done afterwards was always irreparable. Luhrmann maintains this undercurrent of loss. Gatsby is a difficult part and requires a movie star with enough presence to catch the attention at first glance and DiCaprio delivers. Not just in terms of beauty but in his easy charm and vulnerability. It is a great performance, anchoring this wild ride of a movie with the yearning of a man who wants the unattainable.