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”

Now Playing: MEH

A friend of mine recently posted about being disappointed in the current crop of movies and pondered whether his expectations were simply too high.

I thought:

I used to feel this way about people until years of therapy educated me to the fact that since you can’t expect anyone to behave in the absolutely perfect way you would in any given situation, well, you can’t quite fault them for it.

But art is something else and movies are really something more than that.

If you can’t depend on a chunk of the films in the last three months of the year to be really great, or at least really, really good, what hope is there for the future of the country/world?

Even my pessimism is working against me

Or to put it another way:

What else can THEY take away?

THEY get to fill the majority of movie screens most of the year with super heroes, escapist action and the mindless romps of cardboard characters that pass for humor.  Surely the little sliver left for us adults, or people of any age with some discernment or taste, would not go undisturbed.

Would it?

Oh Chairy, you make me laugh

Well, I quickly diagnosed the condition.  The U.S. film industry has entered a state of artistic global warming and it’s going to take generations of action to reduce the trend and it’s effect on the world.  That is, if it’s not too late already.

Of course, this makes sense.  We have for a while been the #2 polluting country worldwide, responsible for 15% of the planet’s greenhouse gases/carbon monoxide emissions (Note:  Only China bests us at 30%)  Not to mention,  we recently pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord.

So if the choice comes down to huge corporate profits vs. the safety of the planet, be it from pollutants in the air, sea or mind, um, there is only one choice.

Money TRUMPS everything. 

You know I loathe to use the word!!!

This is not to say we’re doing nothing about pollution or that there are no good films to see.  We do and there are.  Though it sort of reminds me of the quality of work I did when my divorced working Mom assigned me my daily household chores.

Never did I NOT get the job but not once, EVER, did I achieve anything spectacular as a final product.  The amount of sheer commitment, single-mindedness and self reflection on the importance of the request that in turn would produce the ultimate load of uber clean and perfectly folded bathroom towels to please Mom could not be further from my #1 priority.

Listen… it was hard work!!

What I wanted was to do it my way, get my allowance money and not have to deal with what was clearly unwarranted and unjustified negative feedback.  We made a deal and I more than fulfilled my end of the bargain.  In fact I did a damn great job of it given all the amount of commitments I had to juggle and guff I was up against as a latch key teenager.

To not to see it my way was clearly ignorance, an inability to truly understand the task at hand with the funds available to me and the overwhelming nature of the job I was tasked with.

Or, so I thought.

See:

It’s not that The Irishman isn’t interesting or well made.  It’s just that, well, it’s a bit of a slog.

I think I aged 20 years watching this

It’s not that Marriage Story doesn’t try.  It’s just that, given the many (Note: So Many) problems in today’s world, it ultimately comes off as superficial, self-important, over-praised and naval gazing. 

It’s not that Knives Out isn’t fun and has nothing to say.  It’s just that, well, it’s not nearly as great as the first two and a half minute trailer and that’s a problem in an almost two hour spoof of an/all Agatha Christie film. 

and a criminal underuse of miss jamie lee

It’s not that Parasite doesn’t have a cool point of view and doesn’t subvert our much too comfortable expectation of “cinema.” It’s just that, well, it’s screenplay is far from seamless and it requires us to accept way, way too much fantastical stuff for a non-genre film.

It’s not that Jo Jo Rabbit is not entertainingly fantastical and welcome-ingly strange.  It’s just that, well, when reinventing the comic Nazi archetype en masse one needs to be much, MUCH more clever and A LOT more specific (Note: See Inglorious Bastards).

It’s not that Hustlers doesn’t have a really and truly quite compelling pole dance by an age-defying Jennifer Lopez and literally countless seductively glossy film montages.  It’s just that, well… an anthem of feminism and/or female empowerment?  R-R-R-Really?  No……really?????

OK but… how many de-aging cameras are on her?

I could go on and if you catch me in person I’d be glad to.  You might not be interested or glad about it, though, and certainly I’d understand that.  After all, there is enough disappointment, bitterness and anger in our overly polluted world already.

The point is, really, where are today’s cinematic equivalents of:

Citizen Kane, Singing In the Rain, Giant, All About Eve, The Graduate, A Clockwork Orange, Rosemary’s Baby, All the President’s Men, E.T., Sophie’s Choice, Do the Right Thing, Working Girl, Boyz in the Hood, Schindler’s List, Mulholland Drive, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Moonlight and yes, La La Land??

You said it Chairy!!

They (whoever they are) say that we get the best art in the most difficult of times.  Judging from the movie art this year this means either the times are going to have to get a lot worse or filmmakers and the industry at large need to figure out a way to go from the satisfaction of good/really good/highly profitable to the exhilaration of great/risk it all fantastic/not trying to thread the needle of commerciality and art and thus achieving both incredible.

No pressure.  At least no more pressure than past generations of filmmakers and their needy, more than willing to go on a journey, audiences ever felt.

Hozier – “Take Me To Church”

The Glory of Denial

Denial just ain’t a river in Egypt.   — Mark Twain

What a week!

A gaggle of witnesses in the impeachment hearings of Electoral College POTUS Donald J. Trump sat before the House Intelligence Committee all testifying to essentially the same thing.

That thing is that Trump explicitly or implicitly threatened to withhold many millions of dollars of previously approved military aid to the Ukraine unless its new president agreed to investigate Joe Biden, Trump’s chief Democratic rival for re-election in 2020, for corruption.

sighhhhh

Then, an even bigger gaggle of other candidates competing for the Democratic nomination against Biden, who, you might remember from the previous paragraph, is STILL the leading candidate vying to compete against Trump to become the next Electoral College (and maybe even Popular Vote) POTUS, stood on an Atlanta debate stage on one of those evenings trading verbal barbs, sincere looks and well-thought out albeit pre-scripted arguments, in support of themselves.

Maya Rudolph as Kamala on SNL is your Christmas present 2019

Though most of them were ostensibly aimed at each other what they all were really targeting was a growing national and international audience waiting with bated breath to see which of them will become THE lucky gladiator chosen to face Trump in a virtual death match at the Hillary Clinton Coliseum of Public Ridicule to become not only leader of the US but King, or Queen, of the Free World.

Can you even stand it?

That was a rhetorical question.

It’s difficult to be an American citizen right now and go for even a single day where the subject of Trump, impeachment, Democratic candidates and the ubiquitous expression of quid pro quo doesn’t come up somewhere or at some time.

Even if you choose not to discuss it, you will doubtless be in some coffee shop, office building or household where it’s the prime subject or find yourself dragged into a discussion or gibe simply because you’re in the vicinity of something or someone determined to make their own remark, get your goat or simply express an opinion that makes you want to set your hair on fire or eat a package of Ding Dongs.

Or both.

We’ve all been Liz Lemon since 2016

If you participate in any of this too often it begins to feel like abuse, often self-abuse.  But ignore it for too long, e.g. more than a day, and you feel like a partying extra at the Kit Kat Club in the movie version of Cabaret.

Speaking of movies, there is a brilliant one out now from famed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar called Pain and Glory.  It is a semi-autobiographical tale about a film director in chronic pain who turns to smoking heroin as a means of denying both the medical and psychological challenges in his life, only one of which is getting older.

See you at the Oscars Antonio!

It is a deep, riveting metaphor for the lives we are all living now, despite how much critics, audiences and award givers will prefer Joker, Marriage Story, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and even Knives Out.  Heck, after the week we’ve just had a spoof of an Agatha Christie film like Knives Out with James Bond-ian Daniel Craig as the 2019 bumbling version of Hercule Poirot enduring the bitchy bon mots of a stylish rich boy played by Chris (Captain America) Evans, sounds preferable to this American citizen.

CHRIS EVANS IN A SWEATER! CHRIS EVANS IN A SWEATER! #swoon

Still, despite the glorious denial escapist entertainment offers and fulfills, it is that very critique the Almodovar film cautions us about glorifying in for too long.

To deny the reality we are living by whatever means available to us is okay for a while.  Most people don’t die from a brief encounter with their drug of choice, be it heroin, big screen entertainment, a chocolate cake cleanse or even a small string of indiscreet online sexual encounters instantly regrettable the following morning.

… or a Billy on the Street Netflix Marathon #elenaforever

But a wise filmmaker like Almodovar warns us with Pain and Glory that escape and denial will only get us so far.  Go down that road for too long and you will lose not only your focus but your health and your moral center.  Yet he also assures us that to simply continue as we are and not try something else, some new means of escape, is to remain stagnant in our miseries.

It is only through our journeys to throw enough stuff up in the air and explore an alternate road that we get insight and, hopefully, wisdom into who we are and what we’ve lost, or actually gained, in the process.

Wait… isn’t this the plot of Frozen 2???

Each event in its entire story is a metaphor for the risks and benefits of trying something new, and the costs of denial when we refuse to admit that merely going down a new road where we pick up a few pieces of gold, or golden wisdom, is no excuse for throwing the rest and best of US, nee our lives, away.

If ever there were a movie for this week and our Trumpian times it is this one, not a biopic offering life lessons from Mister Rogers or a whodunit about the kind of cartoonish, unsavory characters that are all too recognizable when we turn on our TV news shows of choice and gawk at our favorite partisan heroes and villains in Washington, DC. Certainly there are pleasures to be had in the above two films as well as many other diversions of choice.

but but but.. JAMIE LEE!!!  #knivesout

But now is not the time for any of us to revel too long in the glory, and the glory of denial, that they offer.

Especially not after the week we’ve just had and the ones that are inevitably coming ‘round the bend.

Randy Rainbow – “He’s Just a GURL Who’ll QUID PRO QUO!”