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”

It Begins

One of my resolutions for 2020 was to not get sidetracked by what ifs and to stop worrying about things I can’t control.

Don’t give me that look!

Aside from personal issues of life, health and death, that includes everything from who will win at the Oscars this year to the harrowing prospect that Donald J. Trump could be re-elected president of the United States.

Three weeks into 2020, I’ve already broken my vow.

Don’t judge me!

And not just once but many times over.

Still, hope springs eternal and not only because Quentin Tarantino was given Oscar’s precursor, the Golden Globe, for best screenplay over Noah Baumbach’s overrated Marriage Story.

No, what gave me hope this week was the pomp and circumstance of the Senate hearing that inaugurated the impeachment trial of Donald John Trump.

Let’s say that again.

Actually, let’s allow the actual words of the Sergeant of Arms in the U.S. Senate to say it for us:

Hear ye, Hear ye, Hear ye –

 All persons are COMMANDED – to keep silent on PAIN OF IMPRISONMENT– while the House of Representatives is exhibiting to the Senate of the United States articles of IMPEACHMENT- AGAINST – DONALD JOHN TRUMP – president of the United States…

Pete Souza’s shade really cannot be matched 🍑

Now, I’m not one for pomp and circumstance.  In high school, I finally found a real excuse not to stand up for the National Anthem due to my opposition against the Vietnam War.

Even in elementary school I remember thinking it was silly to put my hand over my heart and pledge allegiance to a ….flag?  I mean, what would THAT prove when no one could know what I, or anyone else, was really thinking?

Not to mention that to this day, whenever I see anyone bow before the Queen of England I’m still one-step short of appalled. A crown?  A scepter?  …Really?  (Note:  And yeah, that was the sound of me cheering the no longer Royal Harry and Meghan, for flying away to Canada and choosing to live in our real world of multi-million dollar endorsements.  Well, sort of).

She drives! She’s free! #ohcanada

Still…I could watch the pomp and circumstance, the formality, and the antiquated ceremonial loveliness of the invocation to the formal Senate trial that inaugurated Trump’s impeachment on Thursday every day on a loop until Quentin Tarantino’s OSCAR win for best original screenplay on Feb. 9th.

In fact, here it is now!

Hands up, baby hands up!

I suppose this makes me a bit of a hypocrite along with 63 plus million other American voters.  But after three years of immigrant kids in cages, our leader’s embrace of murderous, authoritarian world leaders over our long held allies (many of whom stood by our side in times of devastating war, most recently after 9/11), and a list of daily lies, corruptions and/or general nastiness to support his frail ego and questionable financial empire, the formality of a public ceremonial Trump guillotine in a court of law is looking pretty damned good.

Excuse me while I enjoy my tea

Our steely, and it turns out quiet prescient Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, recognized this when she finally agreed some months ago to skillfully open charges of impeachment against our Electoral College POTUS, though not for any of the aforementioned insurrections that enraged me (Note: And I would imagine “she”).

Rather, it took a rock solid case of Trump using his office to withhold billions of dollars in much needed foreign aid to a small country (Ukraine) in order to pressure them into helping him win re-election (i.e., dirt that could scandalize the potential Democrat most likely to run against him and beat him at the time, Joe Biden), that finally crossed the line.

It’s happening, it’s really happening

Rather than anger or hubris, her motivation – and lest anyone doubt it look over her many statements opposing impeachment over the last three years – were the guidelines set down by our Founding Fathers over two centuries ago in the U.S. Constitution.

As she explained to Bill Maher on his HBO series Real Time over the weekend:

…He (Trump) used the office of the president to try to influence a foreign country for his personal and political benefit and in doing so he undermined our national security.  He was disloyal to his oath of office to protect the Constitution and he placed in jeopardy the integrity of our election.  So really, he gave us no choice…

Earlier on, some of the charges, violations of the law, I said ‘he’s not worth it.’  But once he crossed that bridge it wasn’t a question of HIS being worth it.  The CONSTITUTION was worth it.  He HAD to be IMPEACHED.

My religious moment of 2020

Yet lest any of us think Speaker Pelosi, is above gloating just a smidge, it is worth noting that when asked what she’d say to Trump if he were watching, she smiled slyly, looked straight into the camera and proclaimed:

You are impeached forever.  No matter what the Senate does, it can NEVER be erased. 

That was Nancy D’Alesandro — a woman raised in a political powerhouse family where her father was mayor of Baltimore and later it’s Congressman, and her brother became city council president and later mayor — who was speaking.

A woman who not only understands the Constitution but is a maestro in the mixed martial arts of politics.

She doesn’t get sidetracked by what ifs or people and things she can’t control.

She simply stays in the moment, studies her options and then takes appropriate actions the way she sees fit, letting the chips fall where they may.

Yes she can

She also claims, and I believe her, not to HATE anyone.

One day, when we all grow up, we might to take a collective resolution to stay in the moment and be more like her.  In the meantime, let’s focus and at least try to do it until Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

Lou Reed – “This Magic Moment” 

But… Why?: A Movie Story

This is not about hating a film.

It’s just that every so often there is a high-class movie that critics and audiences seem to love and you just don’t get.

At least it starts out that way.

Uh oh — the Chair is about to get real

Here’s the deal.  You’re watching a movie and there are moments in the first half hour that irk you.

-The actors seem to be trying too hard to make you feel something. 

-The story interests you but the choices the characters make feel written, or vague or just plain unbelievable. 

-The conflicts scream drama and real-life comic irony. Yet nothing you’re watching has any urgency.  These people seem to have it all in a 2019 world where land mines can literally lurk around every corner.

Finally, as you watch all of this unfold you want to run from the theatre screaming to every character appearing in this acclaimed work of artistic brilliance:

Jesus, get a real problem!!!!  What would you actually do if crime knocked at your door, your kid got sick, you truly couldn’t pay your bills or even one of the myriad of political issues we see played out on the news daily hit you squarely in the face? 

No comment (but really, comment)

This is all to say, is it enough these days to watch a film that is merely about successful, wealthy characters whose chief challenge in life is a lack of communication with each other and their own super human inability to get out of their own way?

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson poses that question.  Decide for yourself after you see it.  Or better yet, don’t see it and use the money to contribute to any one of the 7,235 Democratic candidates running for president in 2020.

Except this guy. No one should give money to this guy.

There have been wonderful movies about the dissolution of a marriage between wealthy, or at least well-off and politically unaffected, couples and the byproduct of pain it inflicts on both their children and themselves.

The haunting Shoot the Moon (1982) comes to mind (Note: Diane Keaton singing the Beatles’ If I Fell in the bathtub.  Unforgettable.).  More acclaimed and better known are Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982) and the Oscar-winning Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).

Boyhood also fits the bill

So you don’t have to be economically pressed or non-white or non-straight to warrant a big screen dramatization of your issues.

The problem with Marriage Story for what will likely be a vocal minority of many of us is, like its protagonists, it tries to have it all and takes no responsibility for its own actions.  It’s an overwrought and yet underdeveloped attempt to capture the superficial in a non-superficial way.

It is very loosely based on the dissolution of the real-life marriage of its prolific director-writer Baumbach to actress Jennifer Jason-Leigh so one immediately presumes it’s operating from a place of honesty.

Ehhhhh… maybe?

Yet some of us will leave the theatre pondering whether what is most difficult is to be honest about ourselves?  A second question might be whether what seemed life threatening, dramatic or even black comedy funny to us will register as anything more than Okay, boomer (Note: Feel free to substitute Gen X, Millennial, et al) to anyone else.

It’s not that we don’t at all care about Charlie, an avant-garde turned breakthrough N.Y. theatre director, his wife Nicole, an L.A. bred commercially acclaimed actress who married him and, in the process, rebranded herself as a deeper, more serious thespian.  Nor is it that we don’t have feelings for Henry, their adorable if somewhat odd, floppy-haired 8-year-old son whom both parents seem devoted to and truly love.

Sounds…. fascinating.  #vanilla  #very

It’s just, well, what do we do with two people who tell us their problems in long monologues about their lives and feelings, none of which seem pressing enough to justify the drastic decision they’ve made to junk the whole deal?  Every marriage has some level of neglect, betrayal, sacrifice and unexpressed anger.  So why is it these two people suddenly decide they can’t take it anymore?

Or, as many a writer instructor poses to their classes at least once every semester:

WHY. THIS. DAY?

Is she thinking what I’m thinking? #butwhy

This story of a marriage becomes a strange juxtaposition of over-explaining the big issues and leaving out the specifics of what would elucidate them.  That leaves it in the hands of two very capable actors, the dynamic duo of Driver and Johansson, to work it out for us.

It’s an unfair place to put them in yet each manages to rise to the occasion and create whatever sparks of resonance the story has.  They are so game and so committed that it is only the looks on their very raw and very photographable faces that drag the movie over its much hoped for finish line.

Is it interesting to spend half of your viewing time watching the onscreen antics of callow California divorce lawyers?  Not to mention, are there still people who think every second person in Los Angeles tries to sell the merits of the city to die hard New Yorkers by constantly proclaiming about our homes and apartments:

But look at all that space! 

Don’t get me wrong, I still love you, Laura Dern #youdeservebetter

It’s a 1980s view of the left coast that only someone steeped on the east could write.

Which is not to say that it’s untrue.  Nor are numerous other moments.  It’s that they’re unchallenged.  They hang in the air as facile explanations for behavior rather than offer us lacerating insight as to why.

This is never more exemplified than when Mr. Driver’s Charlie is tasked with performing Being Alive, Stephen Sondheim’s famed eleven o’clock number from Company, in its entirety.

As he sings: But alone, Is alone, Not alive as some sort of tremulous reflection and revelation for a marriage gone bad, we feel for the actor.

ADAM DRIVER SINGS?!

But it’s more for him and what he’s managing to pull off in the name of his character. He deserves the Oscar nomination surely coming his way for the herculean task of simply getting through it.

That cannot be said for anything else in the film, speaking for the very vocal minority of us who simply don’t get it.

Tina Turner – “Let’s Stay Together”