Best of 2013 #1: American Hustle (Assets, Liabilities, Interrupted Dialogue, and Cast How They Feel))

And so we finally arrive at American Hustle and three rules it exemplified. We'll do one long and two short:

Know Your Assets and Liabilities: So I’ve spent this week wiping my feet all over the original screenplay by Eric Warren Singer, but now’s the time to admit that it actually did a few things right. For instance, some people have said, “An ABSCAM movie--Of course, what a great idea!” but it’s actually not an inherently appealing movie concept. Yes, it’s a mind-blowing true crime story, but it comes with a set of massive marketing liabilities that Singer’s script (and Russell’s version even moreso) neatly evades. Let’s look at each of these liabilities, how Singer addressed it, and how Russell improved on what Singer did...

#1: ABSCAM is mostly forgotten.
  • Singer solved this by taking advantage of our very vague memories of the events to get away with a huge amount of fictionalization. He was counting on us remembering only one thing: that it was a big, messy entrapment fiasco. Knowing that, we would be inclined to believe anything.
  • The problem: He fictionalized it in clichéd ways, adding a bunch of generic mob violence.
  • Russell then improved this by keeping Singer’s creative license, but getting rid of all that added violence. In its place, he added things that humanized rather than dehumanized the story, such as the G-Man/mistress romance, or the wife/mobster romance.
#2: The true story has a huge cast of characters and no obvious hero.
  • Singer wisely centered in on Mel Weinberg as the most ironic hero of the story, even if it meant that he had to fictionalize quite a bit.
  • The problem: Mel is ultimately too sleazy to carry a movie, even with a lot of fictional embellishments added on.
  • Russell kept Singer’s choice of Mel as our main point of identification, but widened the movie back out to include a more complex web of five compelling characters, which gives us a chance to keep our distance from Mel’s sleaze.
#3: Like all complex FBI cases, ABSCAM ended anticlimactically
  • Singer just created a more satisfying finale out of whole cloth having Mel double-cross the government and steals a lot of money from them.
  • The problem: In the script, this twist was clunky and poorly-camoflaged, because everything is way too linear. Even worse, it didn’t represent any growth: Mel is still just scamming.
  • Russell decided that if he was going to fake it, he might as well fake it in a more romantic way: In the movie, the twist is well-camoflaged because it’s surrounded by lots of other storylines filled with emotional and physical jeopardy. Even better, it represents growth because Mel (now Irving) does four things at one time: gets his wife out of danger, makes amends to the mayor, gets money to start a new life with his mistress, and screws over the FBI agent. A far more thrilling and satisfying ending. (Russell also earned a much greater license for fictionalization by changing the names.)
And now two quickies: People try to finish each other’s stories! (and here too) There’s been lots of talk about how good the top five performances were in this movie, but that leaves out number six, Louis C.K., who is also fantastic. His witty rapport with Bradley Cooper really drives home a rule I always come back to: People are always trying to guess what the other person is going to say and cut them off, so nobody should ever get the chance to finish a speech!

Finally, as with The Spectacular Now, this was even moreso a case of cast for how they feel, not how they would actually look.  All five big roles in this movie were totally miscast, in terms of age, ethnicity and body-type, but they all work beautifully.

Storyteller’s Rulebook #205: Hurt Your Hero In a Way That Would Only Hurt Your Hero

Let’s finish that Wayne Newton scene from “American Bullshit” we started on Monday:
One way you always know you’re reading a testerone-soaked spec is when there’s only one major female character (the wife is barely there in this version, and even the mistress has a much smaller role) and she has a man’s name, so that the writer doesn’t have to switch into “girl mode”. Thus we have Mel and his mistress Max (Note to writers: Mel and Max aren’t easy names to tell apart on the page!). It would feel weird to put these manly-man lines in her mouth if her name was Louise...and there’s a good reason for that.

This speaks to a bigger problem with these scripts: everything is generic, not specific. Nowhere is this more clear than in the defining quality of this script: the violence. These scripts always have a lot of squishy, bizarre violence, and I could pick any (including ones that involve, yes, excrement), but let’s go with the first scene...

Both the original script and the finished movie begin with a later crisis and then flashback to the beginning, but the choices of scene are instructive. The opening scene of the screenplay plays like someone made a teen spoof called “Tarantino Movie”: Mel is called brought before a sinister but blasé mobster, who recommends the cheese from his local village in Sicily. Our cocky hero responds:

I don’t want to live in a world where some reader finished this opening scene and nevertheless kept reading, but here we are! This is the definition of generic thinking: The action of the scene is one man stabbing another man’s hand, but you have to come up with an original way to get there…so let’s see, what pop culture reference from our childhood hasn’t been over-used yet…I’ve got it: Operation!

You could plug any lippy hero from any thriller into this scene. Compare this to the scene that begins the finished movie: The big moment of violence is when one man touches another man’s hair…and yet the impact is tenfold! We’re only five minutes in, and we already understand that a hair touch is worse for this guy than a mere stabbing. Write scenes that are specific to your characters!
And One More Rule From This Movie: Read Your Dialogue Out Loud Before Your Ask Anyone Else to Say It

Presented without comment, two actual lines from this screenplay:
  • “Only the existentially terrified play to break even, Max.”
  • “What'd you pulling the pit off Polk have to do with your family?”
The horror.  The horror.  Okay, enough of the script.  Tomorrow, let’s move on to the movie and wrap this up.

Storyteller’s Rulebook #204: Let Us Empathize with the Motivation, But Don’t Force Us to Empathize with the Logic

As I said yesterday, the original screenplay of American Hustle wasn’t just presenting Max (Irving in the re-write) as a flawed hero to feel for, it was aggressively cramming his worldview down our throats.  Thankfully, the rewrite by David O. Russell stepped back for some much needed perspective. One thing that the original really really drove home for me was the bogus appeal of the “I have an idea!” scene.

We all know you should maximize empathy between your audience and your hero, even if its an anti-hero…but what exactly are we empathizing with? One of many things that Russell wisely cut out in his rewrite are scenes where Mel has the brilliant idea to tap into anti-Arab sentiment:

Not only are these types of scenes way too on-the-nose, they put the audience in a rotten position, because they attempt to lead us by the nose until we to come to the same racist logic that the character does.

Let’s go back to Dallas Buyers Club and another benefit of its many leaps forward: What if we we had seen a moment where McConaughey was stumped: “Hmm, I can’t sell these AIDS drugs through my normal channels, hey wait just a second, I just overheard my buddy say that gay guys do a lot of drugs in their clubs…wow, flash of genius: maybe I should start hanging out there and dealing!”

Instead, Dallas Buyers Club and the final version of American Hustle just cut out those scenes, jumping ahead to show McConaughey in those clubs (which makes us roll our eyes at his bigotry and audacity) and showing Bale with his fake arab (ditto).

In both of these movies, we empathize with the characters’ motivation and goals, but we never identify with their bigoted and short-sighted logic. Just skip over the “I have an idea” scenes.  Jump ahead and let us figure out the hero’s next scene in action, then let us decide what we think of it.  This makes the plot and the theme more interesting, because in both cases it’s not leading us by the nose into one predetermined path.

Storyteller’s Rulebook #203: Everybody Can’t Have the Same Metaphor Family

I don’t want to turn this into an attack on the writer: I know full well that if you’re a professional screenwriter than your job is to write it their way, and it could well be that the screenplay floating around the internet (if you search, it shouldn’t be too hard to find) was written to the tastes the producers. And, of course, my whole point is that the flaws of this screenplay are things that script-readers sometimes perceive as strengths, so maybe he was just influenced by that. That said, I think it’s instructive to contrast this script’s testosterone-soaked flaws to the empathy-filled final product.

This project began when Eric Warren Singer pitched producers he was working with that he should write a screenplay based on ABSCAM, so he got them to pay Mel Weinberg for his life rights and spent three weeks interviewing Mel in his Florida condo about his memories of that time. The result is a classic “life rights” script:
  • Constantly trying to justify unjustifiable behavior to the audience.
  • Making every other character into a two-dimensional straw man in order to make the hero look better.
  • Making it all way too heroic. There’s a ridiculous moment at the end when Mel goes to the press to force the FBI to prosecute the politicians, as if Mel or the audience really cared about seeing the targets of this fiasco brought to justice!
  • But the biggest problem is that, because we’re getting everything from one scummy guy’s point of view, then, even more than in most bad scripts, everybody talks the same.
And what makes that really obvious is that the way they talk ain’t pretty. Most of us use the term “bullshit” as a figure of speech, but not here. This is simply the most scatological screenplay ever written. There are references to actual, physical shit every few pages, regardless of each character’s background. This is set in a bizarre parallel universe in which everybody from every walk of life has the same metaphor family: excrement. Here’s the assistant US attorney:
  • TUCCIO (Jersey accent): Your client either testifies, or he's on the bus to Marion where he’ll be spending his days eating the crust out of his cellmate’s shithole.
Here’s Mel himself a few pages later:
  • BOYLE: I want Errichetti, Mel ---
  • MEL:
Yeah? I wanna tit-bang Racquel Welch while eatin a Porterhouse steak -- still don’t mean it’s ever gonna happen. […] Errichetti’s been playing his game and winning since you were shittin’ yellow.
Speak of the devil, here’s Errichetti himself a few pages after that. (Granted, no actual feces is mentioned, but we’ll count it):
  • ERRICHETTI: Guy’s a lush and a whoremaster. Harry’d fuck a snake if you held its head for him. He’s good people ---
And here’s the patrician head of the FBI!
  • HOUSEMAN: I understand this is difficult, Mel -- and I don't blame you for being upset --- but when it comes to protecting the foundations of our democracy ---(dry, almost empathetic smile)...Sometimes you need to take it in the ass for the team.
But here’s the really exasperating thing. It’s not the just the characters who talk the same…it’s the descriptive paragraphs, such as this one...
  • Mel looks about as comfortable as a priest in a pussyhouse.
It is literally as if Mel himself is writing the movie! Here’s the ultimate example: There’s a bizarre scene in which Mel finds his mistress Max having sex with the real Wayne Newton, whom the writer describes this way:
  • THE BEDROOM: Where Mel is stupefied and disgusted by the grisly sight of MAX in bed with WAYNE NEWTON […] Wayne Newton has the most disgusting bitch-titted body you've ever seen in your life. Just fucking revolting.
Mel then makes it clear that he agrees with his own writer about Mr. Newton’s body:
  • MEL: Wayne fuckin’ Newton. Man I just gotta say. You seriously have the most disgusting body I have ever seen.
Folks, you have to maintain some distance between yourself and your characters, especially if you’re writing a biopic about a real, still-living sleazebag! This brings us to a more profound problem with screenplays like this one, so we’ll talk more about that tomorrow…

Best of 2013 #1, Part 1: The Most Remarkable Thing About American Hustle

There hasn’t been a lot of love for this movie in the comments, so I suspect that I’ll get some blowback on this one, but what can I say, I loved it! At the end of the week, we’ll get to what I loved about the finished movie, but first let’s devote most of this week to the most remarkable thing about this movie: how much better it was that the repugnant spec script that it was based on.

In my “How to Give a Note” series, I mentioned that Hollywood went absolutely crazy for a certain type of script for a while, marked by the following qualities:
  • Omnipresent misanthropy.
  • Squishy, bizarre violence.
  • Fanatical levels of profanity, in both word and deed, preferably including an unproducible title (in this case “American Bullshit”) which makes the script-reader feel like an outlaw just for recommending it.
  • Most importantly, it doesn’t once ask the reader to care. The characters are all strutting roosters who cockfight each other until one comes out on top.
It’s not hard to figure out why these scripts became so popular, when you consider the economics of the script-reading profession. It’s one thing to ask somebody to care when they’re sitting in a darkened theatre, with heartfelt performances, sumptuous cinematography and sweeping music, but when the poor script-readers are quickly flipping through a pile of paper, then the last thing they want to read is some ham-handed attempt to suck into moments of vulnerability, or earnestness, or, worst of all, poignancy, sitting there naked on the page, unenhanced by any of those things.

Readers would be embarrassed to have to tell their bosses, “You should buy this because it touched something inside me.” Instead, they want to say, “Finally, boss, we got a script without any of those old clichés!” They want wall-to-wall “Holy Crap!” moments. They want “too-cool-for-school”.

So “American Bullshit” hit the market, and made the Black List (an annual list of which scripts the readers liked the most in the previous year), and sold for big bucks, and started to attract some attention from stars…but then something amazing happened. David O. Russell, one of our very-best writer-directors, got hold of it, saw some slight merit buried deep beneath all that attitude, and totally rewrote it from the ground up, reconceiving every scene and writing entirely new dialogue. The result was American Hustle, which became, against all odds, the best movie of a very good year.

So now we arrive at the great irony: For all the reasons I listed above, I don’t think Russell’s American Hustle screenplay would have ever sold as a spec script. The only way to get movies like this into the pipeline is to start with the script-reader-friendly version, then bring in a writer-director with enough talent, vision and clout to transform it into something heartfelt and meaningful.

“American Bullshit” exemplifies the current screenplay market: showing why these scripts are so bad and also why they sell, so I think it might be interesting to take a closer look at it for the next three days, until we finally arrive at American Hustle and how it turned this lump of lead into gold…