Monday, February 24, 2014

Storyteller's Rulebook #203: Everybody Can’t Have the Same Metaphor Family

I don’t want to turn this into an attack on the writer: I know full well that if you’re a professional screenwriter than your job is to write it their way, and it could well be that the screenplay floating around the internet (if you search, it shouldn’t be too hard to find) was written to the tastes the producers. And, of course, my whole point is that the flaws of this screenplay are things that script-readers sometimes perceive as strengths, so maybe he was just influenced by that. That said, I think it’s instructive to contrast this script’s testosterone-soaked flaws to the empathy-filled final product.

This project began when Eric Warren Singer pitched producers he was working with that he should write a screenplay based on ABSCAM, so he got them to pay Mel Weinberg for his life rights and spent three weeks interviewing Mel in his Florida condo about his memories of that time. The result is a classic “life rights” script:
  • Constantly trying to justify unjustifiable behavior to the audience.
  • Making every other character into a two-dimensional straw man in order to make the hero look better.
  • Making it all way too heroic. There’s a ridiculous moment at the end when Mel goes to the press to force the FBI to prosecute the politicians, as if Mel or the audience really cared about seeing the targets of this fiasco brought to justice!
  • But the biggest problem is that, because we’re getting everything from one scummy guy’s point of view, then, even more than in most bad scripts, everybody talks the same.
And what makes that really obvious is that the way they talk ain’t pretty. Most of us use the term “bullshit” as a figure of speech, but not here. This is simply the most scatological screenplay ever written. There are references to actual, physical shit every few pages, regardless of each character’s background. This is set in a bizarre parallel universe in which everybody from every walk of life has the same metaphor family: excrement. Here’s the assistant US attorney:
  • TUCCIO (Jersey accent): Your client either testifies, or he's on the bus to Marion where he’ll be spending his days eating the crust out of his cellmate’s shithole.
Here’s Mel himself a few pages later:
  • BOYLE: I want Errichetti, Mel ---
  • MEL:
Yeah? I wanna tit-bang Racquel Welch while eatin a Porterhouse steak -- still don’t mean it’s ever gonna happen. […] Errichetti’s been playing his game and winning since you were shittin’ yellow.
Speak of the devil, here’s Errichetti himself a few pages after that. (Granted, no actual feces is mentioned, but we’ll count it):
  • ERRICHETTI: Guy’s a lush and a whoremaster. Harry’d fuck a snake if you held its head for him. He’s good people ---
And here’s the patrician head of the FBI!
  • HOUSEMAN: I understand this is difficult, Mel -- and I don't blame you for being upset --- but when it comes to protecting the foundations of our democracy ---(dry, almost empathetic smile)...Sometimes you need to take it in the ass for the team.
But here’s the really exasperating thing. It’s not the just the characters who talk the same…it’s the descriptive paragraphs, such as this one...
  • Mel looks about as comfortable as a priest in a pussyhouse.
It is literally as if Mel himself is writing the movie! Here’s the ultimate example: There’s a bizarre scene in which Mel finds his mistress Max having sex with the real Wayne Newton, whom the writer describes this way:
  • THE BEDROOM: Where Mel is stupefied and disgusted by the grisly sight of MAX in bed with WAYNE NEWTON […] Wayne Newton has the most disgusting bitch-titted body you've ever seen in your life. Just fucking revolting.
Mel then makes it clear that he agrees with his own writer about Mr. Newton’s body:
  • MEL: Wayne fuckin’ Newton. Man I just gotta say. You seriously have the most disgusting body I have ever seen.
Folks, you have to maintain some distance between yourself and your characters, especially if you’re writing a biopic about a real, still-living sleazebag! This brings us to a more profound problem with screenplays like this one, so we’ll talk more about that tomorrow…


j.s. said...

You write: "It is literally as if Mel himself is writing the movie! Folks, you have to maintain some distance between yourself and your characters, especially if you’re writing a biopic about a real, still-living sleazebag!"

But that's precisely what Scorsese consciously choose not to do with THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. It's a scumbag's tale through and through, told ecstatically by fully embracing his disgusting point of view. And, um, he sort of directed the sh*t out of it.

How do you know the original writer and producers weren't aiming for something like that? Granted, Terence Winter managed a bit more variation within a pretty intense and narrow range of nonstop cussing. But still, the similarities in basic intent are striking.

Unknown said...

I feel obligated to say this first and foremost!!!! I love allot of things about your blog, and even when I don't entirely agree with you I still respect your point of view and the way you masterfully explain your critiques in an objective way (well as objective as a subjective individual can be hahaha)... BUT the series you are currently attempting seems like such an awkward hill to die on!!! From the start I was skeptical; however I said let me hear this guy out he might come at this from an angle I didn't foresee. The claim it seems you are trying to make has no basis in reality because you are not a mind reader. Let's take this step by step... First you say American hustle is a great movie despite the fact it started off as a terrible script. Which suggest that the filmmakers had to contend with a bad script in order to make a great movie. Well it just doesn't work that way buddy and you know that!!! A bad script can NEVER make a good movie!!! A good script can make a bad movie but a bad script can't be saved by great actors or big budgets... I think we can both agree on this so far. But that's not the worst part. Than you go on to say the director did a page one rewrite sooo maybe it's just the premise that got preserved from the original awful script. If that's the case than why even mention the original script to begin with!??? I understand that writing is a process and this a screenwriting blog BUT everyone knows most scripts start off terrible and get better with revision (for the most part). Even Pixar says they work on a script for 5 years and for 4 years the script sucks... No news there, sooo that makes me question what this series you are creating is really about... Than it hit me and my heart just sank in my chest. You, my friend, are a fan... Plan and simple. And the reason I say that is because you are trying to describe the filmmakers "intention" ... BUT YOU ARE NOT A MIND READER!!!! You don't know what they were thinking when they made the movie. Nobody does, except the filmmakers themselves. And you're not expected to know the intension. We don't look at the Mona Lisa and say he was trying to draw a woman with masculine features or he was trying to make the most famous painting in the world. We judge are solely on the finished product alone!!! And although we can understand and appreciate the process because we have familiarity with the medium and industry knowledge we can never assume intention!!! What If the filmmakers loved the script and tried to make the movie as written and the final result just sooo happend to be what we love sooo much about American hustle. A great example is the movie American history X: the director hated the movie and fought tooth and nail with the big wigs but in the end the world loved the movie and it's considered a great movies on many levels universally. Although his intention might have been vastly different the result is a movie people liked. Another example is the movie eyes wide shut. Stanley Kubrick died before final cut sooo who knows what that movie could have been and even more famously the movie artificial intelligence directed by Steven Spielberg in honor of Kubrick. We can only fathom what A.I. Would have been in kubricks hands. Clearly it would have been worlds different. Also the infamous orsen wells film, touch of evil, which got completely edited by the studios and turned into something that did not represent the artistic vision of the creator... But we can never look at these movies and say well the intention was this or the intension was that. We have to take them as is for what they are... That's like those stupid sudo intellectual film losers who watched 400 blows and think they know everything about films ever. And when you criticize a movie they like they always have the same dumb answer "you just don't get it" ugh.
Be better than this my friend. Don't fall into the trap of fandom and think you can see the intention of a filmmaker because you can not EVER!!!!

Swinefever said...

I thought the point of this was to look at the difference between the script that the producers (we assume) wanted written, the one that will 'impress' the readers, with it's profanity, scatological references and 'cool' asides Vs. the actual script that gets made into a film, the one that's smart, witty, erudite and well written.

To compare and contrast.

To that end a few side-by-side, before/after comparisons of the writing would really help so we can see the changes and the way the style/tone switches from one to another. But if the two scripts are so completely different (I haven't read both so I don't know) then I'm not sure what the point here is. Surely you're not advocating we dumb down our scripts to make them more attractive to the average 22 year old reader, and just accept the fact that we'll be re-written if it ever gets made.

Matt Bird said...

JS: But that's the whole source of the backlash against WOLF, right? I know that when I was invited to a screening, I didn't go because I thought, "Ugh, I don't want to spend three hours in this guy's head." I later read some intriguing reviews that made we wish I had gone, but at that point I certainly wasn't going to spend $14 to spend three hours in that guy's head!

Lawrence: Well, my favorite novel is Frederick Exely's A FAN'S NOTES, about how he came to exactly that conclusion about himself, so you may be onto something.

Take from this what you can, folks, I'm just having a little fun!

Nick said...

OT but just to lighten the tone (as it feels somehow necessary today!) - check out the laughably bad craigslist writing gigs thread over at Amazon Studios: http://studios.amazon.com/discussions/Tx25246NR3P78Z5

The one to beat seems to be:

"Payment is on an unpaid basis.

Hi there,I have written an adventure series,targeted at 7-18 years of age.A young girl with her unicorn on action adventures with a happy ending.These stories have substance..action,laughter and drama.They have been read in to classrooms and libraries.I really need a screenwriter and a producer to make a pilot for t.v...we can start with a 5 min shooting. I need someone who believes in the stories being successful like I do.I am willing to work with someone out of school. I am sorry there is no funding right now. Expenses will be covered.

We will work with costumes and a real horse!

Thankyou so much for your consideration."

Matt Bird said...

Those are great. Craigslist writing ads make my blood boil. The best are those that say, "10 years experience required in SEO, javascript, and cellular biology...College credit is available." Was I supposed to be building up that experience since I was 8?

j.s. said...

I'm sure you'll see WOLF eventually. And it will probably make an excellent addendum to Jerk Week.

Scorsese's approach is tricky. He makes the film so fun to watch and so funny that the audience really can see the appeal of a life like the protagonist's from the inside. And yet there's something about the director's unblinking eye that also at the same time exposes the hollowness and perfidy of all that excess, even before the hero's arc hits a downward slope.

It reminds me of Errol Morris' approach to documentary. He lets his subjects talk and talk, almost one-sidedly stumping for their very particular and often particularly narcissistic and deluded points of view. Until somehow in the process of all that unchallenged, self-serving rambling they reveal their true ugliness and damn themselves. And it's all the more powerful because it feels like they've done it to themselves, with no outside commentary or intervention.

Joshua Oppenheimer, a Morris protege, takes this technique even further in THE ACT OF KILLING, where he not only lets his morally repugnant subjects -- mass murderers -- speak at length, justifying themselves almost completely unchallenged, but he also literally lets them direct parts of the movie themselves.

The extreme approaches tend to work best when the films are using the individuals whose points of view they indulge to get at some much broader sickness in society. In Scorsese's case, it's the rot at the core of the entire financial system. For Morris, it's the haughtiness of the modern American military leadership in THE FOG OF WAR, STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE and THE UNKNOWN KNOWN. For Oppenheimer, it's the brazen perpetrators and political class behind the Indonesian Genocide.

Maybe AMERICAN BULLSHIT was mostly just lacking a sufficiently large or coherent societal problem? Because I can see how hanging out with a jerk for a few hours would be tiresome if he really stood for nothing outside himself.

It's cool to see so many new names joining in the conversation. I hope we can all keep in mind that, casual though this may feel, we're here because in a very real sense Matt's a teacher and this blog is his virtual classroom. He takes an awful lot of time and care to gather, compose and format his thoughts for us. So I'm hoping we will aspire to pay him similar respect when we're responding to his posts. I'm all for passionate disagreement, but I'm also for paragraphs and punctuation. This isn't YouTube or Tumblr and we're not texting rants to our besties.

Anyway, I love A FAN'S NOTES too.

Matt Bird said...

I heard Morris talk about how he had to reluctantly deviate from his preferred "let them hang themselves" method with MR. DEATH because he felt he didn't dare let this holocaust denier go uncontradicted onscreen.

It interesting to compare the public reaction to WOLF vs. GOODFELLAS: In both cases, the guy does horrible things and gets off with a light sentence, in both cases the victims are not empathized with, and in both cases Scorsese makes all the crimes look fun. (I'm basing this on having read the script for WOLF.)

And yet audiences have been much more offended by the morality of WOLF (in which the hero doesn't actually kill anybody) than they were by GOODFELLAS. The most obvious reason is that Belfort is a profiting off WOLF while Hill didn't profit off GOODFELLAS. A secondary reason is undoubtedly the public perception that we as a society are still too tolerant of financial crimes, and this feels like a symptom of that.

Beyond that, I do want to see the movie to see other ways in which Scorsese seems to have pushed some of the wrong buttons this time.

j.s. said...

For me there are are few key differences.

The first is that GOODFELLAS sort of ignores the broader, more abstract ill effects of the Mafia on society. For instance, we're not really asked to think about all the theft, kickbacks and protection money as a trickle down tax on everyday folks.

Instead, the film largely pits gangster against gangster, so that even the relatively innocent victims mostly knew what they might have coming. And the film doesn't shy away from showing us the ugliness of what happens to these victims.

There's a purity to Henry Hill's world, too, where he's constantly risking exposing himself to the exact same sort of violence he uses every day on others. The worst that could happen to him is the worst that he's done to others.

Belfort, in contrast, is guilty of more abstract crimes that affect much larger numbers of people we never see. And not only has he profited handsomely from them -- then and now -- but his brief incarceration at a Club Fed style minimum security prison was more like a writer's retreat for him than a punishment.

But I'd say even more important than that is how Belfort never really exposes himself to the level of total financial ruin he's wrought on others. The film shows something of a downfall, where it's clear he experiences losses. But he's living in a beachfront property in SoCal today. And even Scorsese's best attempt to show us what a chump he is presently seems like a pale reflection of the ending of GOODFELLAS. Which might be precisely the uncomfortable idea he's intending to impart: this guy's doing exactly what the system allows!