UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Blockbusters and Women

Tom Stempel examines the blockbusters, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Year of the Spectacular Men, and Let the Sunshine In, to showcase the screenwriters’ choices for their female characters.


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Warning: Spoilers ahead. 

Move It Up a Category.

Incredibles 2 (2018. Written by Brad Bird. 118 minutes)

Tom Stempel examines the blockbusters, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Year of the Spectacular Men, and Let the Sunshine In, to showcase the screenwriters' choices for their female characters.

In my 2008 book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So-Good, and Bad Screenplays, I put first Incredibles (2004) into the Not-Quite-So-Good category. I loved the opening scenes of all the things that could go wrong if people with superpowers were actually living in the real world. The next section is about how the superheroes deal with retirement and it is equally fresh, as is the introduction of their costume designer Edna “E” Mode, a combination of Oscar-winning designer Edith Head and Linda Hunt.

Then the film runs into trouble. Once the Incredibles are costumed and back into shape, they get into standard superhero action scenes we have seen before. The visual style of the film loses its freshness and looks like an imitation of the great Ken Adams designs for the James Bond films. I asked at the end of the item, “Did Bird run out of imagination halfway through the film?”

Well, he might have on that film, but fourteen years later, he’s made up for it with Incredibles 2. The short answer for what he’s done is created a better structure for this film.

We pick up where the first film left off. Superheroes are now illegal, but the Deavors, brother and sister, are entrepreneurs who want to start a public relations campaign to make superheroes legal again. O.K., that’s going to give us action scenes, but the twist Bird gives us is that the Deavors only want Mrs. Parr (Elastigirl) to be the public face. Mr. Parr (Mr. Incredible) reluctantly agrees to stay home and watch the kids, Violet, Dash, and baby Jack-Jack.

Oh, you think that latter business is going to be run-of-the-mill Mr. Mom stuff. O.K., some of it is, but a lot of it isn’t. Yes, Mr. Parr dealing with Violet and her would-be boyfriend is conventional, but everybody dealing with Jack-Jack and his range of powers is wonderful. As someone points out, when a superbaby is born, he has a variety of superpowers, but he will only develop a few as he gets older. Which means that now he can do anything, which Bird takes advantage of. Pay attention to all the different things Bird has Jack-Jack do.


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Intercut are the action scenes of Elastigirl dealing with the schemes of the bad guys. So, unlike the first movie, the action scenes are not all bunched at the end. We get a good action scene, then a good Dad-and-the-kids scene, then another action scene and so on. I particularly like that Bird has Elastigirl as the action star of the movie, since he is astonishingly inventive with what he can have Elastigirl do. You just never know until you see it what sort of positions she can get herself into.

Bird handles the family politics of the wife going out to work and the husband staying home with a smart, light touch. You get the point and the jokes, but you never feel you are being hit over the head with it.

My only complaint with the script, other than some of the Dad-and-the-kids stuff, is that we do not get enough of Edna “E” Mode. She stole the first film and you would think that would give her more screen time in this, but it doesn’t happen. Well, I am sure there will be a 3 along in another fourteen years to correct that.

Meanwhile, 2 is making piles and piles of money. It opened big, probably for the same reason Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) opened big: we had not seen these characters, whom we loved in the first one, for a long time. And just as we were hoping, The Force Awakens was going to be better than the notorious Episodes I, II and III, we were hoping 2 was going to be as good or better than the first one. The fact that it is better is the reason the grosses did not fall off in succeeding weeks. That’s what makes a blockbuster, not just a big opening weekend.

Boots.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018. Written by Derek Connolly & Colin Treverrow, based on characters created by Michael Crichton. 128 minutes)

Tom Stempel examines the blockbusters, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Year of the Spectacular Men, and Let the Sunshine In, to showcase the screenwriters' choices for their female characters.

(L to R) Owen (CHRIS PRATT), Franklin (JUSTICE SMITH), Claire (BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD) and Zia (DANIELLA PINEDA)

Let’s get the most essential point out of the way first: in this movie, as opposed to Jurassic World (2015), Claire Dearing gets to wear boots, not high-heeled shoes, while escaping from dinosaurs. You may remember that there was a lot of razzing of the earlier movie, both in reviews and on social media, about Claire running around everywhere in spiked heels.

That was not the only problem with the movie, as I pointed out in my review. The characterization was flatter than that in most Michael Crichton novels and scripts. The plotting was sloppy, and plot details, like a teenage flirtation, got dropped.

Part of the problem with the script for the first Jurassic World was that, according to Colin Treverrow, he and Derek Connolly found the script they had (he does not mention who the authors were, but on the credits the team of Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver get both a story and co-screenplay credit) was unshootable. So Treverrow & Connolly rewrote it in three weeks. I can believe that script was written in three weeks. Treverrow’s direction was equally bad.

Well, never give up on people who have shown some talent, as Treverrow did directing his first feature, Safety Not Guaranteed (2012). The script for Fallen Kingdom, which presumably was written in more than three weeks, is much better. Structurally it is divided into two parts. The first half is more spectacle than horror movie. Isla Nubar, where the Jurassic World park is, is threatened by an erupting volcano, and the decision is made to try to rescue as many dinos as they can. The film was written and produced before the recent eruptions of Kilauea in Hawaii, but sometimes filmmakers get lucky that way. The eruptions and lava flow, presumably done with CGI, look just as convincing as the news coverage of Kilauea. And more importantly, they do not look like anything in any previous Jurassic movie, a useful element in the fifth film in the series.


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The second half of the movie is at the mansion of Benjamin Lockwood, as the rescued dinos become part of a scheme to sell them off to the highest bidders. Lockwood, in the tradition of Parks’ Richard Attenborough’s Hammond, is a kind-hearted multi-billionaire financier, who is being betrayed by his underlings. If you can’t tell early on who the bad underlings are, you have no business trying to write screenplays.

So if the first half of the film is a spectacular outdoor action film, the second half is a haunted house movie with dinos as ghosts who eat people. The two halves match up nicely, partly because Treverrow & Connolly are better at characterization than they were in the previous one. Not perfect, but good enough for this kind of movie.

In my 2008 book, I had a chapter in the Not-Go-Section on the first three Jurassic Parks, and I made the point that while the human characterizations were Michael Crichton-flat in the first one, a bit better in the second, and a lot more fun in the third, the real heart of the movies were the dinos. As a writer you have to understand what the heart of your movie is. In Fallen Kingdom Treverrow & Connolly understand that the heart is still the rampaging dinos. The writers just have them rampaging in some new places. Just what the audiences wanted to see, apparently. And the script, like the one for Incredibles 2, is good enough to keep the grosses up in succeeding weeks.

Women and Their Men.

The Year of Spectacular Men (2017. Written by Madelyn Deutch. 102 minutes) and Let the Sunshine In (2017. Screenplay by Christine Angot & Claire Denis, inspired by A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes. 94 minutes)

Tom Stempel examines the blockbusters, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Year of the Spectacular Men, and Let the Sunshine In, to showcase the screenwriters' choices for their female characters.

I happened to see these two in the same afternoon at the same art house theatre, without realizing going in the similarities between the two.

One of Year’s producers is Howard Duetch, best known as a director, particularly of Pretty in Pink (1986). The film is directed by Deutch’s wife, actress Lea Thompson (Back to the Future [1985]; she was Marty’s mom). The screenplay is by Madelyn Deutch, the Deutchs’ eldest daughter. She and her younger sister, the actress Zoey Deutch, play sisters in the movie. Madelyn’s script is based on her own writings and notebooks.

One of my suggestions to young writers is “Do NOT (necessarily) write what you know.” This script is an example of the problems of writing what you know. It is based on Madelyn’s first year after she graduated from college, primarily her romantic adventures. While I am quite willing to believe the real boyfriends she had were as uninteresting as the guys onscreen, you need to do more to have them in a film. If you are going to write about the real people in your life, you have to shape them into some kind of dramatically interesting characters. There are two reasons for that.

The first is that the more interesting they are, the more we will want to watch them. The second reason is that if they are not entertaining, then Izzy (the sister Madelyn plays) is also going to be less entertaining to watch. O.K., she’s cute, but can’t she find any more interesting guys to shag than these? And if this is supposed to be at least partially a romantic comedy, shouldn’t they be funny as well? The only guy I got a couple of chuckles from was the director of Sabrina’s (Zoey, playing an actress) new film that Izzy is working as a production assistant on. He and Izzy get it on, sort of, but he is so shy it does not work out. I was chuckling because I could not imagine a director who was that emotionally restrained. That is not a quality you find in movie directors.


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If Year is a very Hollywood film, then Sunshine is about as French as you can get. The French title, by the way, is Un beau soleil interior, which means your interior light, which one character says to Isabelle she should let shine out. The book that was the inspiration for the film was a collection of meditations about love by Roland Barthes, “a French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist, critic, and semiotician,” according to Wikipedia. You all are probably too young to remember when semiology was all the rage in films studies. Thank God we have outgrown that.

Tom Stempel examines the blockbusters, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Year of the Spectacular Men, and Let the Sunshine In, to showcase the screenwriters' choices for their female characters.

Anyway. In Sunshine we have a fiftyish woman, Isabelle, a modestly successful painter (although we only see her painting very briefly in the film), who has as much trouble as Izzy does in Year in finding a good man. We see her first having sex with her lover, a banker. It is not very satisfying for her. Nor are the succession of affairs she has with other men. This being a French film, they all talk about love. They talk a lot. I mean a lot. There is more action in Year, which makes it a more lively film, but not necessarily a more interesting one. In an encounter early in Sunshine, Isabelle has a long conversation with an actor who seems to be both talking himself into an affair with Isabelle and talking himself out of it. That’s their entire affair.

In both Year and Sunshine, the filmmakers are critical of the men, but that suggests they are also critical of the women for not hooking up with better men. Neither film is particularly feminist, but they are not particular not feminist, either. Is this an improvement over the past relationships in movies between the sexes? I’m not convinced it is. Go back and study His Girl Friday (1940).

You could probably never get away with the long talky scenes in a mainstream American film, although you could try in a small indie film. But the dialogue and the acting would have to be as good as they are in Sunshine. The final scene has Isabelle going to see a psychic to get his take on how her love life is going to go. He tells her all the obvious things, and she offers comments that can lead him into more detailed comments, which she tends to believe.

One of the reasons this scene works (in the showing I saw, the audience was completely quiet in this scene) is that Isabelle is played by Juliette Binoche and the psychic by Gerard Depardieu. Merely two of the greatest actors in French films. Ever. Now, if you can get them for your script…

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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