Screenplay by… Adam Schiff

Everyone likes a good story.

But what is a good story and how do you construct it?  Then, how do you tell it?

I brought my students to a panel this week at the Writers Guild Theatre that featured the 2020 WGA nominees for best screenplay.  Overall, they had a great time listening to writer-directors Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Rian Johnson (Knives Out) and Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), as well as the screenwriters responsible for Joker, The Irishman, Booksmart and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, among others, talk about how they do what they do.

Allow me to sweep up all those names you just dropped

Even if they aren’t always the best at speaking in person about it, these women and men know a ton about story construction and how to seduce an audience through visual, verbal and other means.  They are tasked daily with figuring out what makes people tick and give them a computer screen, a piece of paper and/or a camera, you would undoubtedly be dazzled by what they come up with.

In the last 12 months, many of you already were.

But as they spoke, I couldn’t help but think of another former screenwriter, my congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA).  On that very night he had just spent hours on the Senate floor, as the lead House manager for the Impeachment of Donald J. Trump, trying to convince a recruited audience to vote for the removal of a president many voted for and still continue to support.

For those disgusted with politics, think of it like the nasty studio head purposely test marketing your new movie (Note: The one he hates) before a hostile audience he gleefully assembled in order to determine whether it will be released or not.

Or just think of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell…doing anything at all.

The purest definition of #ShtEatingGrin

The screenwriting skills of Rep. Schiff, who back in the nineties actually moonlighted as a screenwriter (Note: He received an offer from film producer Nick Weschler (The Player) to option his crime thriller The Minotaur while working as an assistant U.S. attorney) were on great display all week.

Though he had a lot of help from six other extremely articulate fellow male and female managers in proving his case, he was the one principally tasked with how to structure and execute the narrative they were about to perform.

Is it any wonder then that he chose to start with a quote from Alexander Hamilton and end with another from Atticus Finch?

My 15 minutes will never be up!

Too much a reach?  Consider that Rep. Schiff was primarily trying to put pressure on a handful of senators to allow key witnesses Trump had previously refused to allow testify before Congress to at least finally be heard.

To do this he had to not only construct a legal narrative but present his case in a way that the public could understand so they might also apply some outside pressure on their representatives to hear those stories and vote in favor of impeachment.

So what better way to prove his case to them than to quote Hamilton, the only Founding Father to have a musical named after him that is currently an international phenomenon, one that has grossed more than half a BILLION dollars on Broadway alone, has more than 20 touring companies worldwide, a Pulitzer Prize for drama and a record-setting 11 Tony awards.

… and here’s a #ShtEatingGrin that is deserved!!

I mean, when Congressman Schiff starts out by likening Trump to the type of charlatan none other than HAMILTON warned us about, a man unprincipled in private life… bold in his temper… known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty… to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day it carries some weight, right?  Not to mention it doesn’t hurt when Hamilton also characterizes that man as someone who, much like Trump, could only be trusted to pursue his own interests.

Which is to say nothing about Atticus Finch, hero of THE great American classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.  That’s the same one that none other than Aaron Sorkin recently adapted into a hit Broadway play that is just about to start its own two-year international tour.

BONUS: Ed Harris with Hair!

Every writer knows the moral weight Atticus Finch’s words carry when we seek to convince an American audience (or any American) to use the common sense their parents taught them when they were kids about the differences between right vs. wrong.  But it takes a screenwriter’s knowledge of both drama and the audience they’re tasked with seducing to know where to place it.

Gotta say as a screenwriter and teacher of writing myself, I was incredibly pleased my very own congressman was smart enough to give the Atticus quote his key ACT THREE moment in the Trump case.  Especially when Schiff himself confessed on the Senate floor that as a young lad he first heard those words from his own father (Note: Just as Mockingbird’s own writer Harper Lee had heard them her own Dad, fictionalized as Atticus).  To drive the point home further, Rep Schiff revealed that he even attributed Atticus’ words to his own father before learning years later they were actually being passed on to him by his very moral Dad only because he had taken the time to actually READ the classic story and PARENT with it. (Note: Nice touch when speaking about the well known to be NON-READING Trump).

This will be the worst school trip ever

But that wasn’t all.

As one watched Rep. Schiff and his colleagues unspool the case against our ELECTORAL COLLEGE POTUS (Note:  Full Confession; I was riveted to my DVR), it was hard not to once again recall the WGA event.  Particularly that moment when Greta Gerwig told the audience that it was only because she found out LW’s writer Louisa May Alcott managed to hold on to the copyright of her novel at a time when women were mostly powerless, that SHE was able to come up with the boldest female empowerment moments for Jo, Alcott’s heroine, in this new movie version.

Greta deserved Betta #saoirseknows

This idea of digging deep into the facts and constructing your narrative around real actions your main character takes (or took) rather than claims he/she makes was also on display with each Trump video clip Schiff and his posse unspooled on the Senate floor as they were crosscut with evidence of the true real-life contrary actions taken by Trump and documented by staff, cabinet members and in some of his own candid audio tapes in the House managers’ presentation.

It also brought to mind Rian Johnson’s confession about tricks he uses as a screenwriter as he plans his stories for ultimate dramatic effect.   He freely confessed that 80% of his writing process is outlining and structuring his story just as The Irishman’s screenwriter Steve Zailian’s admitted that in order to figure out how to execute every film story on which he’s hired (Note: See his IMDB page and be impressed) he needs a plan and OUTLINING is a good way to come in with a PLAN.

First note in outline: This line must appear every 10 minutes

No wonder after the über-outlined case against Trump unfolded on that very first day even arch adversaries like Sen. Lindsey Graham took Schiff aside and privately shook his hand at the intricately planned and structured way in which he laid out the story he was telling, convincingly taking the senators, step by step, through the Trump narrative HE had decided to tell in order to prove his case.

Of course as everyone in Hollywood knows, particularly screenwriters, you can do everything right and still not get the results you want.

Think of that film recut at the last minute (Note: Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons).  Or consider that terrific cult movie not released properly that first time around (Note: Harold and Maude or The Rocky Horror Picture Show) that had to be rediscovered months or even years later because their messages were sabotaged by the arbitrary moment in which they were determined to first arrive.

Once upon a time this film was a box office bomb

I can’t help but worry whether this will be the case for the storytellers in the Schiff posse, no matter how well constructed and executed their narrative might be.  Particularly when I read this sobering statistic in the Cook Political Report:

A majority of seats in the U.S. senate represent just 18% of the country. 

This means that ANY hope for a majority vote on any one issue in the Senate could conceivably be SUNK by a GROUP OF SENATORS accounting for UNDER ONE FIFTH of all voters in the country.

In other words, the will of more than EIGHTY PERCENT of the country that agree with my Congressman, and me, on the Trump of it all, could EASILY be ignored in the next week.  Or even two or three.

You got that right, Sutton.

This is not the Hollywood ending Schiff or anyone on the WGA panel that evening would write.    But, and not to be a downer, it is also important to remember that for all his wisdom at the end of To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus LOSES his case.

Will we settle for an ending to a similar story that took place almost a full century ago?

Or will we create our own narrative?

Hmmmmmm.

Original Hamilton Cast – “My Shot”

New to the Neighborhood

This past week the democratically led House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald J. Trump right out of the Oval Office.

There were seemingly endless hours and days of sober, nasty, angry and all around contentious testimonies, cross-examinations and speechifying none of us could get away from.

Even if you didn’t tune in, read about it or experience it via a random social media post/tweet, it was in the air.  Try going into any public place and someone, somewhere said somethingOr you I thought they did.

Of course, this is merely act one.

For those dreaming of a white christmas

In the next month we have a trial in the Senate that looks to be eerily similar except for the outcome.  Since that body has a Republican majority it’s likely that all of those legal and ceremonial bickerings will end with Trump exonerated/still in office and both sides of supporters feeling similarly aggrieved.

It’s about the only thing we all agree on as a group.

This weekend I watched the new movie about famed children’s TV star Mister Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.  I watched it on a screener at home because I was so similarly aggrieved that I was too lazy to go out to the movies and too wrung out to actually spend time looking at anything that I even vaguely cared about.

Yeah, I never got the TV show Mister Rogers Neighborhood OR the man himself.  In fact, full confession, as a kid he REALLY gave me the creeps.

I’m not kidding.

Enjoy your nightmares

The sweater, the monotone, the dumb songs and the STARE into the camera made my skin crawl.  It seemed like any minute his red wooly arms would reach through the camera, grab me and then touch me in a place he didn’t belong.

Intimacy issues?  Trauma?  Challenge with trust?   Perhaps so or maybe it is all of the above?  But, I mean, who didn’t in those days?  Not to mention, which of us doesn’t have at least one of those in these days?

That’s why I can only point to current events as the reason why I bought A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a film about a journalist interviewing Mister Rogers in the late nineties, hook line and sinker.

Wait… what?!

Sure, you could argue that the fact the film centered on a jaded, too-smart-for-the room journalist with childhood daddy abandonment issues was what made this cynical, smart-mouthed writer and child of divorce with childhood daddy abandonment issues like it.  And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

But neither would you be even close to being entirely right.

There is nothing less than this writer wants to see than Tom Hanks starring as yet another onscreen heroic character (Note: Particularly in a sweater).  In fact, for the first 20 minutes of the film I literally found myself so majorly annoyed and offended I began shouting fuck you out loud to Mister Rogers, the WGA, the screenwriters and anyone else who would listen (Note:  My poor dog) for subjecting me to this mess.

seemed like a good time to dust off my favorite gif

But then at some point something hit me.  It was a line from the beginning of the film and I had to pause, then eject and then replay the DVD from the beginning to get the exact quote.

Yes, I shudder to repeat this out of context but it’s something…Mister Rogers says to one of his…..ugh……..puppets in the first five minutes.  And that is:

Do you know that means, to forgive?  It’s a decision we make to release a person from the feelings of anger we have at them.

Yeah, I know.

.. and then the Chair’s heart grew three times

A purple prose bromide that is just another part of the never-ending Toolkit of New Age Logic.

Not to mention, it’s not even original to me.  I was a faithful Oprah watcher and to this day I still get O Magazine.  Plus, I’ve literally had decades of therapy where this very issue – and very line – has been covered ad infinitum.

But usually it is in reference to me and my personal issues, not those of national neuroticism and consciousness.

OK.. and well this too

As a left leaning Democrat who used to feel like he was a liberal  (Note: Until the last year where I’ve been yelled at for being what is now considered a MODERATE) well, let’s start with I’m angry with everyone and anyone categorizing me as that.

But then there’s also:

1- A president who hate tweets a 16-year-old climate activist because he was jealous she got the cover of Time Magazine as Person of the Year instead of him. (Note: And his wife, the faux anti-bullying activist, among other fauxs).

What it’s actually like to BE BEST

2- His various enablers, from Congress on down, who don’t mind him consistently meeting with powerful Russians, including Putin, on the phone and this week in the White House, and laughing about it even as he’s being prosecuted for actions relating to it.

3- Staunch conservative Republicans who turn a blind eye to his attacks on people who have spent their lives trying to defend the freedoms they claim to hold dear (Note:  This week it was calling the FBI scum, and last month it was referring to the press as traitors and very bad people)

4- His loyal base of EVERY voter (Note: Whoever they are) who are okay with base insults against every non-white, non-straight or ethnically specific group under the sun from the Oval Office, as long as said base get to watch those who oppose their politics squirm while he throws then a bone on some issue near and dear to their hearts.

I didn’t say it — he did!

There are also:

5- The Democrats, liberals, et al, on social media who loathe Trump but rant and rave about how NO ONE but THEIR candidate (Note: Often Bernie Sanders, sorry) will do.  This is usually accompanied by endless posts and stories about some failing among the many, many, many others in the Trump-opposing field.

6- The women who are threatening to sit it out if the Dem nominee isn’t female, the gays who claim they won’t vote until the nominee is queer, the people of color who will willingly stay home unless…..well, you get the picture.

Posted without comment

7 – The woke culture that has gotten my students to the point where they are often afraid to write, or even say, anything controversial in class for fear that they might micro-agress/offend.

8- The vitriol, threats and sheer meanness from the top on down, that has turned young people mostly off to politics and given them little faith that they or anyone else can make a difference until this generation of boomers die out and they are able to take control.

Okay, boomer, indeed.

All of this and more has brought me to the point where, in the search for a solution, I actually find myself, all these decades later, turning to….Mister Rogers for comfort????

I draw the line at the puppets though #STILLCREEPY

Well, if that’s what it takes, fine, I do forgive them.  Trump and his followers, every last one of them.  Seriously, I do.  I only wish they could forgive whatever they think me and my ilk did to them (Note:  This includes all those who now claim the mantle of 2019 liberal).

Mister Rogers, and now I, might be a little naive but at the moment this seems the only solution for any of us in this country to have even a fighting chance.

Mister Rogers – “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (Opening Theme)