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”

Ham and Dregs

He drinks a DOZEN DIET COKES per day.

He watches at least FOUR HOURS of TELEVISION (and sometimes up to EIGHT HOURS) per day.

He is often surrounded by guests at dinner where everyone consumes STEAKS (well-done) with tons of GRAVY, salad with gobs of BLUE CHEESE dressing topped with BACON crumbles, and MASSIVE slices of CAKE with EXTRA SCOOPS of EXTRA RICH ICE CREAM for dessert.

Melania in the vegetable garden: “He’ll never find me here!!”

He enjoys belittling employees, friends and enemies, particularly in front of others, loves to gossip, and gets moody after a couple of days of “peace.”

No – he’s not a SUPERHERO.

He’s…THE VILLAIN.

You don’t believe me?   Check this out.

It’s sad to learn – from 60 DIFFERENT SOURCES no less, many of who work or worked for him – that a sociopathic toddler daily dirties the rooms where Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy and Obama once stepped.

Talk about bad real estate

Though – full confession — he and I agree on one point. The entire liberal left as well as the vast MAJORITY of the country IS out to get him. We want to get him OUT OF OFFICE before the country crumbles under the weight of his overinflated ego and underinflated supramarginal gyrus.

The latter would be the part of the brain that helps us to distinguish our own emotional state from that of other people and is responsible for empathy and compassion.

Whole studies have been done on this. So perhaps he can finally make himself useful to society in his post-White House years (2018? 2019?) by volunteering his brain for scientific research.

Never gonna happen, Chairy.

Yeah, like that’ll happen. Volunteering, I mean. With nothing in it for him.

Though maybe if Putin orders it so….

Oooooo SHADE

If this sounds like a bit of an irrational rant, well perhaps it is. Rant, I mean. Because it’s certainly not irrational. In fact, reading it over feels incredibly rational. Especially for anyone who has lived in the United States for the past year and endures occasionally watching the news, reading a newspaper or has generally listened in on anyone else’s conversations around lunch or dinnertime.

This weekend my husband and I are finally getting to see Hamilton. This is that musical about one of our greatest unsung Founding Fathers who was never really credited with being a founding father and never became president.

Yet, he fought numerous bloody battles in the Revolutionary War, literally created our financial structures and helped end the international slave trade before dying at age 49.

Not throwing away his shot

No, he didn’t have bone spurs. He was a poor IMMIGRANT whose mother died when he was a child and whose father abandoned him until an older cousin took the poor kid in.

The rest of the story is, as they say, history, if not the type we were all taught in school at least the subject of a 2016 American musical that won the Pulitzer Prize (only one of nine musicals to do so) as well as 11 Tony Awards.

I, for one, would rather have the awards. They’re shinier, no one can take them away and history gets rewritten every few centuries or decades, depending on the era in which one lives.

Get Lin-Manuel’s ready #onlyOscarleft #matteroftime

It’s hard not wonder in which era we all reside. In terms of history, I mean.

Though it’s easy to illustrate we’ve evolved from the time of Hamilton. One doubts he could ever have dreamed a man with no governmental or legal experience – only gobs of money from personal business interests– could assume the presidency when the majority of the country hated him.

#nuffsaid

Certainly, the dentistry is better today. I’ll personally offer myself up as testimony to that. But not to the rest of it.

The burden of proof is on which indeed is more preferable will unfold as the weeks and month trudge on.

Do we choose steak, blue cheese, double ice cream and bacon?

Or do we subsist on something just a little more sensible?

Does googling cute pictures of the Obama family count? #comeback

What history will tell future generations – well, that’s a whole other story – and depends who’s in charge.

But I always check the art of the time if you really want to know the truth. Lord (or whomever you believe Him or Her to be) knows what they’ll find for 2018.

Hamilton — “The Room Where It Happens”