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”

And All That Buzz

Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon were special talents.  He is still the only artist to win the Oscar, Tony and Emmy awards all in one year (1973) and she was the first musical theatre actress to win four Tony Awards.

More to the point, it’s not every estranged married couple who kept working with each other years after their estrangement that has an eight part miniseries aired about their lives decades after their deaths.

When you watch Fosse/Verdon on FX, and everyone should, it’s difficult not to marvel at the sheer breadth of their work that will forever live on long after all of our deaths.  Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Damn Yankees, Chicago and All That Jazz, to drop a handful of legendary landmarks, are only a few highlights.

Both director/choreographer Fosse, and Broadway star, muse and behind-the-scenes facilitator Verdon did all kinds of work in a wide variety of genres.  But what unites them, more than anything, is their dedication to a disciplined, single-minded type of artistry that seems to have disappeared from the cultural zeitgeist these days.

Let’s not get it wrong; there are contemporary artists with the type of discipline that both Verdon and Fosse shared with us all through their lives.  But in both their cases they left far more than that, as the miniseries shows us.

OK yes, him (and he’s producing Fosse/Verdon… go figure)

In a sense, Fosse/Verdon, and their lives, gives us a timeless roadmap to the world pre #MeToo.  It was an existence where men consistently had the upper hand, the best opportunities AND usually got sole credit for ALL of the work even when that wasn’t necessarily the case.

When females actually managed to shine in their own spotlight far brighter than their male counterparts, it was in the midst of the age-old expectation that they would eventually dim their bulbs and take time off from doing their own thing in order to help the guy’s light to shine just as bright (and often brighter) on a project of their own without basking in the glory.

Who is holding up whom? (hint: It’s Gwen)

It was either that or turn the other cheek when the man brooded and strayed into the arms of many other women because, well, how could HE not when SHE wasn’t around.   For those women choosing to go solo, well they might make it alone for a bit but much sooner than later they’d mostly age out and be left alone – a fate few would be able to happily survive when left to their own devices in the real world.

We’ve come a long way from those times, though likely not as far as we think we have, one suspects.  As one watches Ms. Verdon endure her husband’s serial infidelities as she bails him out in too many ways to count on Cabaret, it occurs to us, hmmm, and why didn’t I ever know that, how come she never got any credit?   As she continues to serve as his creative sounding board on so many other future projects and successes (Note: And notably doesn’t on several of the failures) we become clear of the extent of their partnership, and just how much we DON’T know about who did what and just how much on any uber successful project of any artist or in any artistic collaboration.

Truly a singular sensation  #yesiknowthatfsromChorusLine

None of this is to take anything away from the miraculous creative vision and accomplishments a talent of the caliber of a Bob Fosse leaves us.  It’s one thing for a chorus boy/dancer to turn expert choreographer and then director of Broadway musicals.  It’s another to then become a sophisticated movie director who not only reinvented the onscreen musical with the movie Cabaret  (Note: Beating out Francis Coppola’s work on The Godfather to win the best director Oscar that year) but then two years later go on make the critically acclaimed, black and white non-musical, biopic of Lenny Bruce, Lenny, and use a non-linear narrative from which to tell it.

Not to mention the release of the autobiographical biopic All That Jazz five years later, a thoroughly original multi-Oscar nominated film success he co-wrote and directed that pretty much presaged the reasons behind his own death (Note: 12 years later) for all the world to see in glorious living color on movie screens all across the world.

JAZZ. HANDS.

Gwen Verdon was at Fosse’s side in various ways all through those artistic leaps and bounds and together they define a certain type of show business special that today too often feels sorely lacking.

Though the special is still there.  In fact, you see it every day, all around.  But the show business special – hmmm, that’s another story.

I, for one, am soooo tired of hearing young talent is not what it used to be, not special, not on the level of a Fosse or a Verdon anymore.

Well, of course ability like theirs was, indeed, rare, as were their complex sensibilities and intellect for telling a sophisticated yet human story.  But there are many people who are special in all kinds of different ways now, some of them even similar to a Fosse or a Verdon, whose work has little chance of gaining recognition.  Even when it does, it almost never gets that same kind of mainstream acceptance.

This EXACTLY

For one, there is not the mass attendance for a single form of media that we once had.  There was a time when Broadway theatre was IT and it tackled primarily new and exciting subjects, or at least fresh and entertaining/thought-provoking ones that often broke into the cultural zeitgeist.

Movies also told primarily real life human stories sans gaping plot holes, and for decades later it was not unusual for the biggest successes to say something about our lives as we knew them (Note: Or didn’t know them) that year.  Sure, there were disaster films, spectacles, horror, sci-fi and mindless comedies, but they were not the overwhelming majority of the work.  Yes, they had special effects but to have a really SPECIAL affect on the world you had to do a lot more than simply launch a starship into an infinite universe or create a colorful costumed villain whose one goal in life was an unmotivated ambition to blow up the universe.

I mean.. is it really even the end?

Right, right, we can hear the hiss and boos about this type of grousing from this computer screen already.  Well, no one is saying these shows and films shouldn’t exist.  Or that it’s a shame that television has expanded to the point where there is so much programming that no one show ever seems to be particularly special to most of us.

But the facts are that in an age when media is so diffuse and so plentiful there is almost no young person that can create the level and sheer amount of narrative work or performance with the same amount of staying power, depth of story and cultural intensity of a Fosse or a Verdon.  There isn’t the mass popular audience for that kind of sophisticated worldview, that type of show biz special.  It’s just not how the industry is set up these days.

We have international stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and, dare I say it, Jordan Peele??   But can they do the kind of deep or stylized work of Fosse or Verdon and break through? Schindler’s List was 25 years agoRaging Bull came out FOUR DECADES ago.

I’m…. I’m… OLD

Star Wars is not Cabaret, or even The Godfather – it can’t be and wasn’t meant to be.  Because the truth is there is no longer a mass-market avenue for the latter two projects.  But even fluffier Broadway shows that catapulted Ms. Verdon to stardom like Sweet Charity and Damn Yankees would doubtless be made into theatrical films in the 2000/10s.  Chicago, her final starring vehicle finally was, but decades after the original closed on Broadway and barely broke even.  It was only when a stripped down, TV/movie star driven revival was launched and kept afloat with a rotating name cast that Hollywood came calling and a film was produced that was safe enough to appeal to mass acceptance.

To look at that film in light of Fosse/Verdon one realizes that despite its Oscar win it’s the anti-Cabaret.  Rather than move forward the medium or the film’s story it merely waters it down with an eye towards the present as it pastiches various Fosse-like moves from the past.  And it was released a full 17 years agoGet Out, for all its cultural significance, (Note: And add on Us) is nowhere near the class of storytelling of any of Fosse’s best work, or that of a Scorsese or a Spielberg.  #PlotHoleCity

For these reasons and many more, one can’t help but mourn a bit for the past during the Fosse/Verdon miniseries.  It gives us so much show biz special in an age when it’s not the thought behind the show, but the delivery system by which it comes to us, that feels the most special to us.

Liza Minnelli – “Maybe This Time” (from Cabaret)