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Posts Tagged ‘Bradley Cooper’

Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk to you again

The Sound of Silence
Paul Simon

”As the writer, you need to burn down houses. You need to push characters out of their safe places into the big scary world — and make sure they can never get back.”
—Screenwriter John August
Burn it Down

“Sometimes your strength is a double weakness” is a saying I first heard more than three decades ago. That could be said of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) in Nightmare Alley as well as the 2021 version of that film directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Stanton got lost in Nightmare Alley. Guillermo del Toro got lost in Nightmare Alley. And I got lost in Nightmare Alley.

Spoiler alert: This is not a lost and found story. (As a side note, I’d rather a movie be swimming around the culture for a few years before I write about it. But here we go.)

Stanton got lost in his own abilities.

Guillermo del Toro got lost at the carnival.

And I got lost in del Toro’s vision.

Now getting lost is not always a bad thing. If Stanton doesn’t get lost in Nightmare Alley there isn’t a movie. If he gets married, quits the carnival, is successful selling life insurance, buys a house in Cincinnati, and raises two above average kids, and lives a normal life there isn’t a movie. As former UCLA professor Richard Walter once wrote, “People do not go to the theater to see The Village of the Happy Nice People.

You won’t find many happy nice people in Nightmare Alley.

And if del Toro had of gotten just a little more lost at the carnival he might of had two movies instead of one. The opening carnival sequence in the first hour is its own spectacle. To borrow a question from the film, “Did I oversell it?” I think so. I think del Toro created a world he didn’t want to leave. I actually thought he or someone else could make a limited series on that world, then I realized HBO already had—Carnivale (2003—2005).

The Nightmare Alley carnival was more fantasy than Tod Browning’s 1931 classic Freaks. But these attractions have been around forever for a reason.

And an additional 20-25 minutes of the carnival to Nightmare Alley and they had feature film one in the can. Then the second film would start with the Stanton’s mentalist show in Buffalo with Molly (Rooney Mara), then jumping into Bradley Copper and Cate Blanchett sizzling on screen through to his downfall. It still would have made for an hour and a half movie. Yet, even as a single 150 minute film, I got still lost in del Toro’s vision. The film actually reminded me of how I felt after first watching Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Scorsese’s’ Raging Bull. Movies I still ponder over from time to time—though both are hard to grasp even after multiple viewings.

I bought a ticket and enjoyed the ride to Nightmare Alley. But not enough people did, and so the $60 million movie was a box office disappointment. Martin Scorsese even wrote a LA Times piece in January encouraging people to see the movie. The COVID pandemic was no doubt part of reason people didn’t show up. (And how amazing it is that a film of this scale got made during the pandemic?) But a 2 1/2 hour run time with dark themes, released at Christmas time, didn’t help. Nor did the heavy doses of exposition. Just show the magic tricks without explaining how they were done. When I did my little writing experiment of breaking down the book into a three act structure, I had the carnival sequence ending at the end of act one. That would have streamlined it down to a manageable two hour movie.

Here’s what I mean about the movie’s strength being double weakness. Nightmare Alley is a visual feast. I was lost in the wonder of it all. The set design, the cinematography, the wardrobes, the acting, and the overall production value was spellbinding. It was a delight to take it all in. The problem is I was lost in the filmmaking aspects of the movie rather than the movie itself.

But this is a screenwriting blog, so let’s talk about that aspect. I thought a nice opening scene was the way the book opened with Stanton seeing the geek—the man/beast act and wondering how you could get someone to bite the head off a live chicken or a snake. The major dramatic question being “How does one become a geek?”

I thought the best use of the first act would be showing Stanton finding his place in this world by joining the circus and moving up the ranks.He’s ambitious and resourceful, but not a bad guy. A guy who wants to make a name for himself. My arc was Act 1: Good guy, Act 2: Wrestling with good/evil, Act 3: Evil wins. The anti-hero’s journey. Del Toro opens with the the Stanton dragging a corpse and burning down a house. ”I needed a big question mark,” was what del Toro said about opening with the burning corpse scene. I guess to have the audience wondering who did he burn and why?

But I thought that burning house scene, and the continual flashbacks to it, took away from keeping the story movie forward. Plus it sets Stanton up as a bad guy at the start of the movie, so he doesn’t have much trajectory throughout the whole film.

In the book on the production (Nightmare Alley: The Rise and Fall of Stanton Carlisle) by Gina McIntyre, she writes that the novel and concept first got on del Toro’s radar back in the 1990s when he was making Cronos. So this film has been in the works for 30 years. Perhaps giving del Toro extra time to think about his vision for the film.

“The pre-production and scouting took longer than they have on most projects I’ve ever tackled: We needed to find the perfect doorway, the perfect street, the perfect street, the perfect field for every frame.”
—Guillermo del Toro

The only thing they didn’t find was the perfect script. (But how many of those have there been?) Or maybe I just yearned for that Rod Serling touch, where at the end of the film I recognized myself in Stanton Carlisle. (But how many Rod Serlings have there been?)

But I think where del Toro and Morgan exceeded the book and the 1947 movie version was the whole Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) sequence through to the ending. The book was too convoluted and the ’47 movie too unbelievable. Cooper does a brilliant job of showing Stanton’s emotional breakdown at the end. I hope I get to see the black and white version of Nightmare Alley in a theater some time.

P.S. After I wrote this post, I looked at some reviews of the film. I think Rex Reed said what I wanted to—but he did it in just 33 words:
”It’s too long, too uneven in some places, too slow in others, and too flawed to be a masterpiece, but even with its drawbacks I could not take my eyes off the screen.”

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“I’ve overcome the blow, I’ve learned to take it well…”
Jim Croce/Operator

“Rainy day people all know there’s no sorrow they can’t rise above…”
Gordon Lightfoot/ Rainy Day People

Perhaps the reason I decided to start a post about the movie Silver Linings Playbook with a couple of lines from seventies songs is the movie has a seventies feel. Not disco 70s—Annie Hall 70s.

You know, the kind of movie that centers on great writing and great acting. Movies that transcend entertainment and are about something human. I’m not a tentpole/vampire/contrived comedy kind of guy, so I relish when a film like Silver Linings Playbook comes along. This isn’t a movie review, but a look at the movie from the perspective of the script written by the film’s director David O. Russell. (As of this writing the script can be found at this link by The Weinstein Company.)

STORY/PLOT

The story of Silver Linings Playbook is actually pretty simple. Pat (Bradley Cooper) wants to get back together with his wife. And that happens on page 1 with Pat talking to himself in a psychiatric facility:

PAT: “I blew it. But you also blew it. We can get it back. It’s all gonna be better now. I’m better now and I hope you are, too.”

No big set up of where we are or what happened to Pat, the reader/audience is engaged and playing catch-up. And we also know that Pat is part of the “end-of-the-rope club” which is often a key ingredient in a lead character. So there is a stated goal on page one—get back together with Nikki (who we learn is his estranged wife). Of course, just one of Pat’s problems is he has a court order that prohibits him from coming within 500 feet of his estranged wife.

CHARACTERS
There are two central characters; Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). This is not one of those scripts you read where you’re flipping back and forth trying to keep track of the characters. And keeping with the idea that you should have a really good reason from cutting away from the central character, I believe Pat in the script and in the movie is in every single scene. But there is meat in the supporting roles which is why Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver were attracted to the roles and why both were nominated for Academy Awards (as Bradley and Lawrence were).

There’s no real need for an antagonist role (Officer Keogh may be as close as we get), because both protagonists Pat and Tiffany do a pretty good job of being their own antagonists.

There are a handful of other roles, but essentially the story fits the idea that the audience/reader really can’t get involved in more than seven characters.

CONFLICT
Silver Linings Playbook is full of not only conflict from beginning to end, but the best kind of conflict—meaningful conflict. Pat has inner-conflict with self and his illness, interpersonal with mom, dad, brother ex-wife, friends and Tiffany, and extrapersonal conflcit with neighbors, police, his doctor and people at football game.

STAKES
What’s always at stake for Pat is being sent back to psychiatric facility. But the worst part about that for Pat is that would mean he failed at his goal of getting back together with his wife. And the stakes are even greater than if he has to go back to the hospital losing his freedom and maybe his mind.

PACING
Screenplays are often difficult to read, probably because they are a blueprint to make a movie. But Silver Linings Playbook was a fun and easy read. That was in part due to the pacing. Scene descriptions were kept between 1-3 lines and dialogue was usually kept between one and three sentences.

LENGTH
The script came in at 152 pages which is longer than most tend to be these days, but it is a verbal rather than a visual story so the running time was 2 hours.

TITLE
There have been four films made with the title The Silver Lining (1915, 1921, 1927, 1932) and the expression “every cloud has a silver lining” has been around forever. So the title Silver Linings Playbook takes something familiar and gives it a fresh twist.

REGIONAL
The movie largely takes place in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania—a small working class suburb of Philadelphia.

SETUPS & PAYOFFS
Another writer’s tool used throughout the script/movie to bring a conhesivness to the story.

EMOTIONAL
You don’t have to ever have been in a psychiatric facility like Pat, or have the emotional relationship baggage Tiffany has to have an emotional connection to these characters. Everyone has their own emotional baggage and relationship issues and this film taps into what is called the laughter of recognition. What’s happening on screen is a reflection of our friends and family—and ourselves.

TRANSFORMATION
Last year I pulled a quote where writer/director Garry Marshall talked about himself and audiences being drawn to Cinderella stories, and another quote by writer/director Frank Darabont talking about having an “uplift” at the end of movies. Of course, not all stories are Cinderella stories nor have an uplift, but if you are writing stories for an audience it is important to know that everyone is looking for a silver lining. I didn’t say a “happy ending,” but a silver lining is a plus.

THEME

“I’m gonna take all this negativity and use it for fuel, and I’m going to find a silver lining, that’s what I’m gonna do.”—Pat (Bradley Cooper), Page 14

This is what I believe to be true. This is what I learned in the hospital. You have to do everything you can, you have to work your hardest, and if you do, if you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining.”—Pat, Page 35

There is a handwritten sign “EXCELSIOR” on Pat’s wall at his room at the psychiatric facility that we first read about on page three of the script and becomes a running motifs throughout the script—a rally cry of sorts for Pat. Excelsior is Latin for “ever upward.”

BOX OFFICE
Silver Linings Playbook is not the kind of movie that you would think that would have a long box office run. But despite a limited release in November and a wide release at the end of December it’s still in theaters as we approach the first week of February. Heck, in the traditional Hollywood cycle this movie should already be available on DVD. Instead it was actually third at the box office this weekend. Glad this film is getting good word of mouth reviews. And while it wouldn’t seem the most international movie this little $20 million dollar movie is on its way to breaking $100 million at the global box office.

OSCARS
The film has been nominated for a total of eighth Oscars.

NOVEL
Silver Linings Playbook originated as a novel by Matthew Quick and his real life story of quitting his teaching job and taking off three years to focus on his writing is a post for another day. The date on the screenplay says 2008, the year the book was released. If that’s when the script was written (or even just purchased) that means that it was a four/five-year journey to bring that story to the screen. (And I don’t know how many years it took Quick to write the novel.)

BROKEN WINGS
For those of you who haven’t seen the film I won’t tell you how it ends, just that the film is really about taking a step on the road to redemption believing that broken wings can be mended and silver linings found.

P.S. Didn’t make this connection until after I wrote this post, but singer Jim Croce was born in South Philadelphia and played in many tough bars in Philadelphia before heading to New York City and greater fame. Unfortunately he died at only age 30. His wife Ingrid owns Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar in San Diego. I had a memorable meal there a few years ago while sitting in their outside area and enjoyed watching the people in the historic Gaslamp Quarter walk by.

Related Posts:
Average Length of a Movie Scene (Tip #21)
Writing Actor Bait (Tip #64)
What’s at Stake? (Tip  #9)
“Goal. Stakes. Urgency.” (Tip #60)
40 Days of Emotions
Screenwriting by Numbers (Tip #4)
Writing Beyond the Numbers (Tip #8)
Setups & Payoffs (Tip #57) 

Scott W. Smith

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