Friday, October 31, 2008

Understanding Screenwriting by Tom Stempel

Tom Stempel. Understanding Screenwriting: Learning from Good, Not-Quite-So-Good, and Bad Screenplays. New York: Continuum, 2008.

Screenwriter Phoebe Ephron advised “Take notes. Everything is copy”.

Stempel described several good movies. One is “Lawrence of Arabia”, based on Thomas Edward Lawrence’s autobiography. Screenwriters Michael Wilson’s third and final draft was 273 pages and consisted of political insights yet the dialogue while good and was often flat. Robert Bolt, in his first screenwriting effort, revised the script. Wilson, a blacklisted screenwriter, was not listed as a screenwriter on this film until the film was re-released 40 years later. Stempel compliments the screenplay for being written with performance in mind and consideration for what audiences wish to see. Stempel praises the fast paced script and shows reactions to events. The main character is transformed and the audience sees this evolution.

“Bull Durham” is another movie Stempel rates as a good movie. The film, about a minor league baseball player, was written by Ron Shelton, a former minor league baseball player. His first script didn’t sell so he added a female baseball fan character. The movie successfully breaks a general screenwriting rule by starting the movie with a dialogue. The female fan delivers a great line, “I believe in the church of baseball”, which gives the feel of the movie with being on the nose.

Stempel declares “Rear Window” is a good movie. The screenplay, written by John Michael Hayes, took a good idea from a short story by Cornell Woolrich, and crafted that idea into an excellent movie. Hayes wrote a script filled with action instructions. Alfred Hitchock’s direction of the film was excellent although Stempel considers the film as more a product of Hayes’s creativity.

“Fargo” is a movie Stempel considers as good. He credits screenwriters Ethan Cohen and Joel Cohen with creating likeable characters (something lacking in many of their other films) and made villains more excitingly dangerous by making them less intelligent.

“Kinsey” is a movie Stempel rates as good. The screenplay by Bill Condon makes good use of composite characters in this story based on the life of a real person. It addresses sex scenes seriously while appealing to audiences.

“Y Tu Mama Tambien” is a movie Stempel rates as good. Stemple sees the movie as a contradiction to Ken Dancyger’s theory that movies worldwide are moving towards a similar model. Stempel sees this as a distinct Mexican story yet appeals internationally.

Stempel also states good screenplays include “All That Jazz” for its intelligent dialoge, “E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial” with good characters and story structure, “Unforgiven” for its strong characters, “Clueless” which properly condensed a longer story, “Something to Talk About” with an enticing story structure, “Bound”, a rare film noir with a happy ending, “Finding Nemo”, an animated movie with a strong story, “Ameriican Splendor”, which presents a good character study, “Bon Voyage”, which is hilarious, “Love Actually”, which manages to merge nine stories into one movie, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, a well done movie of complexities, “Maria Full of Grace”, an insightful script that was researched for three years, “Before Sunset”, with its sublime conclusion, and “Saving Face”, a good story presentation specific to Chinese culture.

“Collateral” is a movie Stempel consider “not quite so good”. Stempel argues its first plot point, where a body falls onto the main character’s windshield, occurs too soon. The main characters downgrade their intelligence in the last 25 minutes of the film.

Stempel rates all three “Jurrasic Park” movies as “not quite so good”. The movies skillfully suggest violence without presenting it. Stempel believes the films present action at the expense of character development. A scene that mimicked “Godzilla” was a point where the series jumped the shark.

“Troy” is a movie Stempel considers “not quite so good”. He sees it as a lesser version of other historic films.

Stempel views “King Arthur” as “not quite so good”. The audience is not overly inspired by one of the central dilemmas in this movie.

“Alexander” is a movie Stempel rates as “not quite so good”. The story is epic but lacks drama.

“Kingdom of Heaven” is considered by Stempel as “not quite so good”. Some characters are not believable.

“Something’s Got to Give” is “not quite so good”, according to Stempel. He finds the final half hour as lacking.

The “American Pie” movies are called “not quite so good” by Stempel. The raunch is misplaced. It has a good set up for a hilarious payoff line. The sequels are too repetitious of the previous formula. The characters are shallow.

Other movies Stempel rates as “not quite so good” are “Speed”, which follows the Syd Field formula yet becomes too busy and fails to develop secondary characters, “Deep Impact” which has a story that is poorly structured, “Armageddon” which overuses comedy in a movie about tragedy, “Shrek”, which has a good story yet overdoes its parody of Disney films, “Pearl Harbor”, which has great effects yet lacked character development, “Sleepover”, which has some story elements some audiences found as too creepy, “The Incredibles”, which begins fresh then turns conventional, “The Upside of Anger”, which as a flawed story, and “Junebug”, which fails to show characteristics ascribed to characters.

Stempel rates “Titanic” as “bad”. It has characters being repetitious. The movie is too long, has a bad script and has some bad acting.

“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” is rated by Stempel as “bad”. It is an unfunny comedy.

The “Star Wars” movies are rated as “bad”. The sequels fail to satisfy audiences’ curiosity about known characters by overemphasizing new characters.

Stempel rates as “bad” other films, such as “Dune” which is too descriptive for a movie, “Howard the Duck”, which was meant to be a darker film that the studio insisted be made brighter and the result was disappointing, “Willow”, which has a boring story, “The Bachelor”, while failed to make a 1920s storyline appeal to a modern audience, “Gods and Generals”, which is too preachy, “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” which did not work an animated film, “The Stepford Wives” (2004) and “Manchurian Candidate” (2004) which both improperly updated old movies, and “Broken Flowers”, which has poor character development.

When viewing a move critically, it is good to consider the time period being shown, notice how characters are presented, consider how dialogue is used, determine whether the characters fit the story, consider how characters develop during the story and if they are developing properly, see if the story is too formulaic, and watch if the ending is satisfying and resolves the story.

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