“Yeah I think I know what my father meant when he sang about his lost highway…”
Hank Williams Jr.
All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)
“You must break from cliché. You must ‘Give us the same thing…only different.'”
Save the Cat
The movie Country Strong is no Tender Mercies. And there are some pluses and minus associated with that. While Tender Mercies is one of my all time favorite films, it did only make $8 million at the box office. Country Strong almost did that this weekend. But since I’ve been writing a good deal recently about movie clones it’s a good time to talk about avoiding clichés.
Tender Mercies is the 1983 Bruce Beresford directed movie for which Robert Duvall earned an Academy Award for Actor for playing a fallen (and alcoholic) county star. Horton Foote also earned an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Country Strong is the 2010 film written and directed by Shana Feste which stars Gwyneth Paltrow as a (recently) fallen (and alcoholic) county music star . And while Paltrow may get an Oscar nod, the screenplay won’t.
Feste is not Foote, and it would be unfair to compare her to him. He wrote Tender Mercies about 50 years into his career. A career that included Broadway plays and an Oscar for Adapted Screenplay for writing To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962. (And later a Pulitzer Prize.) County Strong is just Feste’s second film. (Who knows what Foote’s early plays were like decades before he became known as “America’s Checkov”?)
And to Feste’s credit she not only wrote the film but directed it putting together a great cast that do their best with a script that crosses the line into a melodrama with a cliché or two—or three. It doesn’t help that last year Jeff Bridges just happened to win an Academy Award in Crazy Heart for playing a fallen (and alcoholic) county music star. In fact, bio pictures of fallen and or musicians struggling with fame, drugs and/or alcohol is such a well travel path (The Doors, Walk the Line, A Star is Born, Glitter, Sweet Dreams) that Judd Apatow found it fertile ground to parody with his 2007 film Walk Hard: The Dewey Coy Story.
“When it seems like you’re stealing—don’t. When it feels like a cliche—give it a twist. When you think it’s familiar—it probably is, so you’ve got to find a new way.”
Save the Cat
“Clichés are shortcuts. The more you avoid taking them, the more interesting the places you’ll end up.”
When you start sampling movies about musicians you have to work hard not to hit a wrong note—be diligent to avoid the clichés. (Wait, did I just use a cliché?) I’ll give you one example of good and bad writing. In the opening scene of Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake pulls into the parking lot of a dive bar and empties a jug of urine. Not a word has been spoken and we’ve learned a lot about this character and we’ve seen something that no other film has shown before. Here’s a guy who lives on the road and doesn’t want or can’t take the time to make a proper restroom stops between gigs. (A little like the true “stalking astronaut in a diaper story” a couple of years ago.)
Now contrast that with (not really a spoiler, folks) Paltrow’s character finding a baby bird while in rehab and her husband played by Tim McGraw carrying the beat-you-over-the-head-metaphor-in-a-box through half the film. At least one point in the making of the film McGraw had to think, “Is this bird thing working? Seems a little forced to me.” And I don’t even recall a payoff with the bird.
Country Strong is the kind of movie I used to walk out of when I was younger (ie: Bolero) but now I’ve learned to enjoy the good things about any film. Here the music is top-notch and the studios gave Feste the great director of photography, John Baily (As Good As It Gets), so the film looks wonderful. And despite the 17% Rotten Tomatoes rating from top critics, the film has its moments. I thought the opening scene was a fresh twist and great start to the movie. But somewhere along the way my mind started drifting and I started to wonder how actor Tobey Maguire (Superman, Seabiscuit) got attached to this project as producer.
Later I found out and that’s where the story gets interesting. I discovered that Feste was once Maguire’s nanny. That’s not meant as a knock. That’s interesting stuff. Everyone needs a job until they break through and Feste was savvy enough to work as a nanny in LA to make connections in the industry. It worked. (I’d definitely recommend being a nanny over some of screenwriter Diablo Cody’s previous income streams. Heck, maybe you could be a nanny for Cody.)
“I went to work as a nanny for people who were in the entertainment business, so that I could get any information I could, even while I was watching their kids. I love children, so it was an easy gig.”
MovieMaker, December 2010
Along the way, Feste also cut her chops getting a BA at UCLA, a master’s in creative writing from University of Texas at Austin, and another graduate degree from AFI. Solid credentials. After AFI she went to work as an assistant at CAA for Richard Lovett, who was president of the agency. Again, brilliant move. Her first film The Greatest premiered at Sundance in 2009. Country Strong may not be the best film of the year, but I imagine there are few grads that she went to school with at UCLA, UT-Austin, and AFI who are in the position that Feste finds herself as a Hollywood player writing and directing features.
P.S. Feste was once a nanny for Courney Love. I imagine Love and many others will have a “no screenwriter” request for future nannies. I also have a feeling that the nanny agencies will be getting a lot of calls this week from filmmakers with MFA’s looking for work. So if you happen to live in LA and decide to sign up at one of the agencies like Buckingham Nannies you may want to keep that screenwriter thing to yourself.