The Write Stuff
Critics are always complaining that movies aren’t as good as they used to be. After a year of high profile flops and disappointments, 2001 was considered by many to be a low point in cinema. In the April 2002 issue of Movieline magazine, an uncredited writer looked back at some of the gems of the previous year. What did they all have in common? Good writing.
Many critics singled out 2001 as one of the worst years for movies since the heyday of the nickelodeons. It is true that we witnessed a deadening slew of expensive, truly terrible movies encompassing The Mummy Returns, Evolution, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Planet of the Apes, just to name a few, with the highest-profile being the overhyped Pearl Harbor. Some of these movies made a fortune, a tribute to the sleight-of-hand skills of studio marketing departments, but it’s hard to believe many viewers found them satisfying. What was the common denominator linking these stinkers? Most of them had a combination of dazzling special effects and wretched scripts.
Everyone in Hollywood pays lip service to the idea that scripts matter, but when studio chiefs are trying to engineer a blockbuster, they don’t really take writers seriously. If they did, how could they have allowed Tomb Raider (which had half a dozen credited writers) to degenerate into a murky morass of pointless pyrotechnics? While not quite in the same stupefying category, the script for Pearl Harbor was all too typical of the dumbed-down writing found in Hollywood spectacles. Every plot development was crushingly predictable, and the characters were ciphers. Consider the romantic triumvirate of Pearl Harbor: Kate Beckinsale was spunky, Ben Affleck was cocky and Josh Hartnett was loyal. Those single adjectives summarized their dramatic identities.
Despite the high-profile clunkers that cast a pall over 2001, though, the year did have quite a few memorable movies. What’s particularly interesting about these films is that all of them sprouted from electrifying scripts.
Perhaps the most astonishing of these movies was the year-end prize winner, In the Bedroom, a character drama brimming with intensity. Director Todd Field began from a harrowing short story by Andre Dubus and fleshed it out (along with cowriter Robert Festinger) into a riveting tale of loss and revenge. The adaptation required invention and courage in confronting such pitilessly hard-edged material. Field altered the story to include the Maine seaport culture that he knew firsthand, and this precisely observed social milieu helped to ground the movie. Field highlighted the subtle class conflicts that lie just beneath the surface of many American communities, and he zeroed in on the tension between an upper-middle-class couple (Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson) and the working-class woman (Marisa Tomei) dating their son (Nick Stahl).
In spinning this tragic tale of how the parents’ worst fears are realized when their son is killed by his girlfriend’s estranged husband, Field built tension meticulously so that every violent cataclysm grew convincingly out of the fabric of envy and grief. He also paid attention to every nuance in the family relationships. Wilkinson subtly encouraged his son’s dalliance, living vicariously through this hot-blooded liaison. Spacek, in contrast, did not try to conceal her disapproval, and Stahl pursued the romance partly to rankle his overbearing mother. After the murder, when the husband and wife lashed out at each other with savage recriminations, we could see the truth in each of their accusations. The strength of the screenplay is that it dramatized all the minuscule mistakes and misjudgments that led inexorably to catastrophe. When the parents, frustrated by the legal system, decided to take their own revenge against their son’s killer, the movie might have degenerated into a kind of tony Death Wish. But Field refused to provide any catharsis. This act of vengeance only created greater torment for the survivors. There are no simple heroes or villains among the denizens of In the Bedroom; the characters have the complexity that you find in a great novel.
Monster’s Ball was another intimate, sharply drawn character study. When writers Will Rokos and Milo Addica originally wrote their script more than five years ago, the dark story frightened studios, who kept asking for changes that the writers refused to make. Their script finally found a home at Lions Gate Films, and the finished movie created a convincing portrait of people caught in dead-end lives–a bigoted death row guard (Billy Bob Thornton) and an angry black woman (Halle Berry). The writers presented these characters with curiosity and openness rather than condescension, perhaps drawing on their own background as actors to find believable behavioral touches as they charted the painfully slow growth of this pair of outcasts. Arguments between Thornton and his sensitive son (Heath Ledger) and a drunken seduction between Thornton and Berry unfolded unpredictably, with startlingly abrasive moments that rang true. The disturbing outbursts of violence seem integral to a story about stunted people shattered out of their complacency and propelled to break through the barriers that have imprisoned them.
The sleeper hit of the year was The Others, a ghost story of remarkable subtlety and, to my mind, a perfectly achieved suspense thriller. Instead of coming out with guns blazing like most contemporary horror films, it took time to establish the sinister aura of a creepy old house haunted by otherworldly inhabitants, and then gradually tightened the vise. In its emphasis on spooky atmosphere rather than visceral jolts, The Others recalled a couple of ’60s movies of understated menace, The Innocents (adapted by William Archibald and Truman Capote from Henry James’s classic story The Turn of the Screw) and the original version of The Haunting. Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar conjured an eerie mood without relying on the grisly violence or eye-popping special effects so fashionable today. But the movie’s hypnotic spell began with Amenábar’s beautifully constructed original screenplay. He was careful not to reveal at first why there’s so much tension in the big, cold house in which Nicole Kidman and her son and daughter live. He sprinkled clues throughout the film–the children are allergic to light, the father has mentally checked out–but cleverly introduced more credible reasons for the unusual goings-on. The movie was suffused with a slowly mounting mood of dread that might have pleased even Henry James. The surprise ending reminds one of The Sixth Sense, but it has its own nightmarish power.
The Bosnian film No Man’s Land, writer/director Danis Tanovic’s absurdist tragicomedy, dramatized the futility of war in vivid, concrete terms that were skillfully orchestrated in the script. A Bosnian and a Serb soldier find themselves stranded along with another soldier pinned on top of a land mine that cannot be disengaged without blowing him to bits. As UN peacekeepers, journalists, and other combatants try without success to free the man from his booby trap, the Bosnian and the Serb are forced to communicate but unable to overcome their deep-seated hostilities. Ultimately, the film depicts the hopelessness of rational action in an insane conflict, but it doesn’t play like a heavy-handed message movie because Tanovic injected a note of originality in the form of black comedy. As the Bosnian soldier hands a cigarette to his trapped comrade, he mutters sardonically, “I hope you’ll die of cancer.”
The Australian art-house entry Lantana was another foreign film that boasted a superbly sophisticated script. Adaptations of stage plays are often static and claustrophobic on-screen, but writer Andrew Bovell transformed his play into a densely cinematic mosaic that interweaves the stories of four couples all connected to the mysterious disappearance of a woman. Bovell got at the deception that poisons so many marriages by having each of his couples turn out to be hiding secrets, but there is nothing schematic about the script. Bovell managed the difficult challenge of juggling lots of characters and story lines without sacrificing depth or compromising the vibrant individuality of each character.
Lukas Moodysson, the writer/director of the Swedish film Together, executed an equally deft juggling act by etching a full-blooded gallery of fascinating characters on a commune in Stockholm in 1975. Moodysson brought to life an abusive husband, his long-suffering wife, her passive brother and his unfaithful girlfriend, plus a number of politically correct firebrands and some confused adolescents, all the while infusing the proceedings with bursts of ebullient humor. On top of that, he captured the poignant predicament of the children trying to survive their parents’ selfish pursuit of their own carnal satisfaction.
The interweaving of multiple characters and subplots reached a dazzling peak in Julian Fellowes’s brilliantly written script for the year-end hit Gosford Park. The film was masterfully directed by Robert Altman, but it might be remembered that several of Altman’s recent pictures have been far less satisfying. Fellowes’s contribution to Gosford Park shouldn’t be underestimated. His witty repartee provided plenty of urbane delight, and he artfully surveyed some two dozen characters in this upstairs-downstairs universe, capturing the intricacies of their twisted, tormented relationships. Most movies with large casts flatten out all the characters to make them instantly comprehensible. Fellowes took the opposite approach–even characters who had only small amounts of time onscreen, like Alan Bates’s alcoholic butler, retained their mystery.
While Fellowes and Altman skewered a gaggle of English lords and ladies, Wes Anderson and cowriter Owen Wilson took a sardonic look at a cockeyed family of American aristocrats, The Royal Tenenbaums, and came up with a script that lent sharpness to the task. Anderson has admitted he I was inspired by writers like J.D. Salinger and Tames Thurber, as well as by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s screwball comedy play about an eccentric family (later turned into a Capra film), You Can’t Take It With You, and the result is an unapologetically literary movie, populated with gleefully articulate characters. Anderson and Wilson demonstrated a knack for quirky comedy, and yet the humor didn’t get in the way of a number of serious themes–the challenge of surviving success that comes too early and the even more formidable challenge of forgiving family members guilty of unconscionable cruelty. Their script struck a neat balance between satire and pathos.
Another American saga peppered with dark humor, Ghost World stood out in a year of so many mindless teen romps by introducing brainy, subversive teenage characters. Daniel Clowes created this unique adolescent universe in his comic book and then adapted the script with director Terry Zwigoff. The two heroines, played by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, scorn the popular kids at school and revel in their own outsider status. They gravitate to loners and oddballs, in particular a geeky older man played by Steve Buscemi, with whom Birch develops a relationship that defies categorization. Clowes and Zwigoff trusted us to come to our own conclusions about this complicated, unlikely liaison, and took real risks in confronting all the uncomfortable implications of this cross-generational communion.
No discussion about original screenwriting of recent films can fail to mention the groundbreaking thriller Memento, which introduced an almost revolutionary approach to storytelling. Christopher Nolan, working from an unpublished short story (later printed in Esquire) by his brother Jonathan, had the tantalizing idea of telling the story backwards in staccato flashes that aim to suggest how a man with amnesia might try to reconstruct his lost memories. Nolan built a fresh notion of suspense as the hero pushes back in time toward the traumatic murder that deranged him in the first place. To my mind, Memento collapsed at the climax because the pieces ultimately didn’t fit together (I saw the movie twice and found it more confusing on a second viewing), but it was fun to see a film that required a viewer to pay so much attention. Studios are terrified of making that sort of intellectual demand on moviegoers. Newmarket, the company that financed Memento, released the movie itself because all the other distributors shied away. The film turned a nice profit, so maybe there is a smidgen of justice, even in Hollywood.
While it should be clear by this point that most of the year’s best screenplays were penned for small, indie films–and that is not an accident–there were a couple of big studio movies that also featured good writing. Akiva Goldsman’s script for A Beautiful Mind certainly stood out from the typical Hollywood dross. A movie about schizophrenic mathematical genius John Forbes Nash Jr. could easily have fallen into disease-of-the-week platitudes, but Goldsman avoided affected piousness by conceiving the film as an unorthodox mystery story with a surprise kick. He may have simplified Nash’s sexual life and his tortured marriage, but he found an ingenious strategy for dramatizing what schizophrenia might actually feel like to someone suffering from it. Goldsman also deserves credit for having created intellectual characters who sounded believable, an exercise that foils most Hollywood filmmakers. The performances by Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly have earned well-deserved accolades, but if they’d been reduced to uttering the banal blather that usually comes out of big-screen big-brainers, they’d never have had a chance.
I was also surprised and impressed by Training Day, a brutal action movie that has been justly praised for its stunning central performance by Denzel Washington as a satanic cop who’s steeped in corruption. But Washington wouldn’t be getting the praise without a boost from the script by David Ayer. Like such very different movies as In the Bedroom and Monsters Ball, Training Day benefited from Ayer’s own firsthand experience. He grew up on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles, and he seems to have an intuitive understanding of the complicated, decadent dynamics that connect cops, gang members and drug dealers in an unholy alliance. He also has an ear. The seductive, scatological monologues he wrote for Washington are brilliant. Apart from the dialogue that revs up Training Day, Ayer devised an intricate plot that unravels in one 24-hour period. Seemingly casual moments planted early on turn out to be absolutely crucial to the denouement. Most people assume that action movies are socked home by the director, the editor, the stunt coordinator and special effects team, but Training Day reminded us that good action movies also depend on complex characterizations, richly colloquial dialogue and well-structured stories.
Studios are wedded to tired formulas because they want to attract the broadest possible audience. Training Day and A Beautiful Mind were the rare exceptions among the big-budget, numbingly obvious Hollywood pictures of 2001. But let’s be grateful for these and the other small miracles. After all, in a lackluster year, we were treated to a few screenplays that provided the foundation for some graceful, pleasingly mature screen entertainment.