UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Movies and Television

In Understanding Screenwriting, Tom Stempel analyzes the movies and TV shows, Sicario: Day of the Soldado,Yellowstone, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Skyscraper, Killing Eve, Sharper Objects, The Bold Type, Dietland.


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Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Two mediums, but good mediums.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018. Written by Taylor Sheridan. 122 minutes) and Yellowstone (2018. Created by John Linson and Taylor Sheridan. One hour per episode)

I had some reservations about the first Sicario (2015), which you can read about in some detail here. That movie started off setting up Kate Macer as a real kick-ass FBI agent who gets assigned to an unnamed government operation designed to break up the Mexican drug cartels. Unfortunately, after a great introduction, she turns into something of a wuss as Matt Graver, the leader of the group, and his mysterious Mexican assistant Alejandro take over the story. Kate in fact disappears for a long stretch near the end.

The first film was written by Taylor Sheridan. He has been primarily an actor and Sicario was his first screenplay. His male characters were much more interesting than Kate, and he was great at suspense and action.

He followed that up with his best film so far, Hell or High Water (2016). You can read my take on it here. (And then, if you want to follow up on my suggestion on what’s really going on in the ending, you can read this.) The two main characters are brothers who get into the bank robbing business for some personal reasons, and Sheridan beautifully details their relationship.

Last year Sheridan wrote and directed Wind River (2017), and he continues his fascination with the American West and the males who live there. Yes, one of the leads is a woman federal agent, but Sheridan has not done as much with her as he could.

In Sicario: Day of the Soldado Sheridan is still focusing on the male characters. Kate is nowhere to be seen, but we get Matt and Alejandro again. The opening, like the opening of the first Sicario, is somewhat misleading.   Here there are three scenes (smuggling migrants across the border from Mexico, a terrorist attack on a big box store in Middle America, and Matt interrogating a terrorist in the Middle East) that tell us this film is going to be about America and terrorists. It’s not.

Matt is called in to run a government program to help disrupt the Mexican drug cartels. Alejandro assassinates a drug boss in the middle of a city street (one of the most vivid scenes in the film) and then kidnaps the teenage daughter of a rival drug lord, Isabel. While Matt is dealing with his government bosses, who begin to have second thoughts about the project, Alejandro is taking care of Isabel. And by “take care of” I don’t means he kills her. Sheridan has written a nicely developing relationship between Alejandro and Isabel, making her the most interesting female character in Sheridan’s filmography so far.

Needless to say, there are betrayals, both by individuals and the government, but Sheridan has it work out in a rather satisfying way, particularly in the last creepy scene with Alejandro. Well, you may not exactly find it satisfying…


Beyond Dialogue: Subtext Through Action, Description, and Silence


In both the Sicario movies, there is a lot of large scale action. I don’t know what the budget was for all the SUVs they shot up and wrecked, but it was not cheap. The car chases in Hell or High Water were fairly elaborate as well, and the shootout in Wind River was bigger and more brutal than you see on most, not all, television shows.

Taylor Sheridan has now moved into television as the co-creator, writer, and director of the ten-episode first season of Yellowstone. Like his films, it is very much about American masculinity, although in much subtler ways than the films, with the possible exception of Hell or High Water, are. Sheridan has ten hours to play with, so he can take his time both in laying out the storylines, of which there are several, and in delving into the characters. Unlike a lot of long, draggy miniseries, Sheridan uses the time well to create great scenes, both large and especially small.   These are the great advantages of a writer working in television today, particularly in the variety of cable and streaming systems, which tend to give the filmmakers more leeway than the more established networks do. Yellowstone is on the Paramount Network, which used to be called Spike and was called something else before then.

Yellowstone is about John Dutton, whose Yellowstone (named after the river, not the National Park) ranch is, as one character says, “Bigger than the state of Rhode Island.” He is, needless to say a tough old bird, although he is played by Kevin Costner, who looks appropriately weathered if not all that old. In addition to dealing with daily ranch life, John is dealing with Dan Jenkins, a real estate developer who wants to build near John’s ranch. John’s approach to that is to dynamite the river on his ranch’s land, changing its course so Jenkins won’t have the water he had assumed he would have. The new chief of the Native American tribe is Thomas Rainwater. Unlike Jenkins, he does not want to develop the land, but put it back the way used to be. It is several episodes into the show when we learn he got an MBA and has worked for a large corporation.

John has several sons and a daughter. One of the sons is killed in the opening episode in a shootout with a Native American, whose sister is married to Kayce, John’s youngest son. Kayce shoots his brother-in-law.   Jamie, another of John’s son, is a lawyer with political ambitions, but both John and his daughter Beth think Jamie’s a wuss. Beth is the real piece of work in the family and one of Sheridan’s more flamboyant female characters, played, sometimes not completely dressed, by Kelly Reilly, who is obviously having the time of her life with the part.

Yes, this being the West, even the modern West, the men can be violent, but not in the over-the-top way one gets in features such as the Sicario films. Because of the time Sheridan has to tell the stories, he can have a lot of quiet moments, such as a sequence in which Kayce’s son Tate, John’s grandson, falls into a river on an outing with his grandfather. John knows how and where to jump into the fast-flowing river to be able to rescue him. This leads to a sweet, yes, sweet scene between grandfather and grandson, the kind of scene that a writer generally cannot take time to have in a feature film.

By the end of the first ten-hour season, Jenkins and Rainwater are in cahoots to put John out of business. And John has cancer…

And-Man and the Wasp

Second String

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018. Written by Christ McKenna & Erik Sommers and Paul Rudd & Andrew Barrier & Gabriel Ferrari. 118 minutes) and Skyscraper (2018. Written by Rawson Marshall Thurber. 102 minutes)

The first Ant-Man (2015) was fresh and funny. This new one is definitely not as fresh and mostly not as funny. The first one was written by Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, with rewrites by Adam McKay & Paul Rudd. Wright had co-written and directed Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), so you can see why Marvel brought him onto the project. He was going to direct Ant-Man, but had a falling out with Marvel, probably because he wanted to get a little wackier than Marvel wanted to go. Still, a lot of his and Cornish’s (he wrote for British television comedies) humor survived in the film, especially bringing in Thomas the Tank Engine for the big, o.k., biggish, finish.

That freshness is gone in Ant-Man and the Wasp. The humor doesn’t zing the way it did in the first one. A second problem is the Wasp. In the first film she was a minor character and played by Evangeline Lilly like a block of wood. She is now a major character and Lilly’s woodeness kills a lot of the humor. Her stunt doubles (I don’t know which one did the great fight scene) Ingrid Kleinig and Renae Moneymaker are both livelier than Lilly.


Scotty Mullen on Sharknado 5, Pitchfests, and Casting the Films He Writes


Rawson Marshall Thurber co-wrote and directed Central Intelligence (2016), and either he or his co-writers had the good sense in that one to cast Dwayne Johnson not as the super smart CIA but as an accountant who was sort of a wuss (it is wuss week here at “Understanding Screenwriting,” isn’t it?), a great piece of counter-intuitive casting. Here the part he’s written for Johnson is just the standard hero part. The one smidgen of inventiveness is that the character has an artificial leg from his military days. There are a few good gags with the leg, but not as many as he could have written.

In the script’s favor, it does not have its first stupidly impossible moment until 40 minutes into the film. The script is a cross between Die Hard (1988) and The Towering Inferno (1974) and it keeps reminding you of both and not in a good way. Another point in the script’s favor is that the hero’s wife a real kick-ass played by Neve Campbell. Thank God for small favors.

Killing Eve

Spring-Summer 2018 Television

Killing Eve (2018. Developed for television by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, adapted from the Villanelle novellas by Luke Jennings. Eight hours) was easily the best miniseries of the season. Eve, an English cop, is the only person who suspects that the international assassin Villanelle is a woman, which gets her a position at MI6. Eve becomes fascinated by Villanelle and vice versa.

Waller-Bridge has developed two great parts for Sandra Oh (Eve) and Jodie Comer (Villanelle) to play and they are both great. It is wonderful see Oh in a big starring role after all those years in a supporting role in Grey’s Anatomy. You will notice that this was produced by the BBC. Why couldn’t American television do that?

Sharp Objects (2018. Created for television by Marti Noxon, based on the novel by Gillian Flynn. Eight hours) was an attempt by HBO (“We’re not television, we’re HBO”) to match last year’s Little Big Lies, but three hours in, it hadn’t. Camille, a big city newspaper reporter, is sent back to her home town of Wind Gap to do a story on how the small town is dealing with the disappearance and murder of one teenage girl and the current disappearance of another girl. The first three hours consisted mostly of many shots of Amy Adams as Camille driving around town drinking vodka out of a water bottle. I love Adams, but there is not much she can do with that. In the first three hours there was very little development of the story, and almost no forward movement. So I bailed on it. Somebody make a note in the comment section if they find a plot or a plot-like substance in it.

The Bold Type (2017ff. Created by Sarah Watson. One hour episodes.) This show started in the summer of 2017, but took until its second season this year to really click. It is about three twenty-something women who work for Scarlet, a magazine inspired, for reasons we will get into later, by Cosmopolitan. Jane is the writer of the three, writing on such subjects as “the perfect orgasm,” which is a little difficult for her since she has never had one (yeah, you have to suspend your disbelief a little on that plot point).   Kat has been assigned to improve the social media profile of the magazine, which in the first season leads to a lawsuit against the magazine. Sutton is an assistant to Oliver, the fashion coordinator, and in the first season she is the one who is having the affair with Richard, one of the members of the board of directors. At the end of the first season, she dumps Richard, which is smart of her, but then they get back together at the end of the second season.


Creating a Series Concept that Works: ‘Atypical’


Most of those plotlines are what you would expect in a series with this setup. What happens in the second season is much more interesting developments. Jane ends up writing an article on how she likes her roommate Sutton until she learns Sutton keeps a rifle in the house and likes to shoot. That was dealt with in more nuance and depth than you might expect. In the first season Kat falls into a lesbian relationship with Adena, a photographer, and in the second season the relationship is examined with a richer approach than in the first.

One element that got me into the series is that their editor, Jacqueline Carlyle, is not the typical Perry-White-yell-at-the-troops editor. She is the grownup in the room, very supportive of her charges. When Jane leaves Scarlet to work for another magazine, Jacqueline is o.k. with her choice. But when Jane wants to come back, Jacqueline does not let back at first. Jane has to prove herself to Jacqueline, and I will leave it to you to find out how. You can find the series streaming.

Julianna Margulies as Kitty Montgomery – Dietland _ Season 1, Episode 4 – Photo Credit: Patrick Harbron/AMC

Dietland (2018ff. Created by Marti Noxon, based on the novel by Sarai Walker. One hour).

Dietland is also set at a fashion magazine, but it has none of the realistic detail of Bold Type. The editor in chief is Kitty Montgomery and she is the typical bitchy editor. She is played by Julianna Margulies, but the character is way out of Margulies’s range. Jacqueline is played by Melora Harding and the role is perfect for her. The difference between the two shows is that Sarah Watson based Bold Type on the career of executive producer Joanna Coles, who has worked in the media world for over thirty years and was at one point editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan.

The other problem with Dietland is that it has three mostly unconnected story lines going at the same time. The Bold Type ties its storylines together through its characters. One storyline in Dietland is about the magazine. Another is about a mysterious feminist organization called Jennifer that attacks men who have been schmucks toward women. When we find out the truth about Jennifer at the end of the first season, it’s is much less interesting than we thought it would be.

The third storyline is about Plum, who writes Kitty’s editor’s column for her. Plum is extra-plus size and her storyline is about her dealing with her weight and men’s reaction to it. In some ways it is the most interesting because of the casting of Joy Nash as Plum. You cannot take your eyes off her when she is onscreen and she can express more with a flicker of an eyebrow than all the skinny women around her. I hope she gets a lot of work off this show, but Hollywood being Hollywood, I am not going to hold my breath.

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Film Reviews, How to Write a Screenplay, Screenwriter Blogs, Screenwriting How-To Articles
Tom Stempel

About Tom Stempel

Tom Stempel taught film history and screenwriting from 1971 to 2011 at Los Angeles City College. He has written six books on film, five of them about screen and television writing. You can learn more about his books here. His latest book is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning from Good, Not-Quite-So- Good, and Bad Screenplays. The book evolved into his column “Understanding Screenwriting.” In the column he reviews movies and television from the standpoint of screenwriting. He will be looking at new movies, old movies, and television movies and shows, as well as writing occasional other items, such as appreciations of screenwriters who have died, plays based on films, books on screenwriting and screenwriters, and assorted other sundries. If you want to read some of the earlier columns, you can do so at Slant Magazine and at Creative Screenwriting. Follow Tom on his Facebook page.

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