Monday, March 01, 2021

The need for WRITERS

In the new movie, LET THEM ALL TALK, playing on HBO Max, Meryl Streep, who plays a novelist in the film, talks about the importance of just the right words and how it took her sometimes a week before she could find the perfect word.  

What’s ironic about that is that LET THEM ALL TALK is mostly improvisation.  the credited screenwriter had a beat sheet and director Steven Soderbergh let the actors provide the dialogue.

And the result: a boring movie with uninteresting dialogue and scenes that lasted for five minutes that should have lasted for two.  

Where is the respect for those “perfect words?

The movie stars Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, and Candice Bergen.  Candice steals the movie, primarily because she was the only character that had a real drive.  Wiest was there to play Monopoly with Bergen.  

Most of the film takes place aboard  the QE2 as it crosses the Atlantic from New York to London.  Soderbergh filmed on the ship during the cruise (prior to the pandemic of course).   And he shot the film on the fly.  

I’ve read a number of interviews where the cast praised the process and how much fun it was.  Fun for them but not the audience.  

How would actors like it if we writers just took starring roles ourselves?  No training, no talent, but who cares?   If we wear the right costume and are lit properly that’s all that matters.  Anybody can act, as I’m sure many actors believe anyone can write.  

The difference is writers KNOW they can’t act at the level required to star in a motion picture.  Many actors think they could write better than writers. 

I went to see the reaction on Rotten Tomatoes and found yet another disconnect between critics and viewers.  On the critics’ scale there was 90% approval.  “Oh, it’s so brilliant.”   Among the public the Rotten Tomatoes scare was 50%.   Talk about a big discrepancy.

I think it was Hitchcock who said, “Movie are life if you took out the boring parts.”   There were lots of boring parts.  The movie takes almost two hours to tell several very minor stories.  

The title is  LET THEM ALL TALK   And that’s all they do.  The title should be LET WRITERS TELL THEM WHAT TO SAY.  
 They'd have a way better movie. 


alkali said...

Candice steals the movie, primarily because she was the only character that had a real drive.

Note also that Candice Bergen has written a couple of pretty good books, which I think goes to your point.

Arlen Peters said...

Re the disconnect between critics and viewers: I got a link to stream BARB & STAR GO TO VISTA DEL MAR. Thought I'd check out this new "comedy". The key words were "check out" ... after about 15 minutes of feeling like my head was being jack hammered, I said bye-bye. Kristen Wiig and her co-writer/co-star seemed to be doing a movie length mediocre sketch from SNL ... and what an irritating, shrill, one note, unfunny performance. I checked out some online reviews: critics loved this! "A comedy gem" ... "Wiig and Mumolo a hysterical team" ... what film were these critics watching? Has the bar on comedy and comedic performances dropped so low that literally anything done that even touches on "comedy" is considered brilliant and hysterical?

Daniel said...

A few comments:

I saw this film about a month ago and mostly enjoyed it at the time, but immediately forgot that I had seen it until reading this post. It was as ephemeral as the non-existent script.

I'm always wary of casts that talk about how much fun they had on a set. Fun sets rarely seem to translate into entertaining movies.

Hitchock's other (related) quote was that his movies were not slice of life. They were slice of cake.

And then this quote from you:

"...a boring movie with uninteresting dialogue and scenes that lasted for five minutes that should have lasted for two"

For me, this has become a MAJOR issue in the HBO and streaming era. There are way too many series that run on for way longer than they need to (at the scene length, at the episode length, and at the series length). I think it's a combination of self-indulgence and lack of discipline at the creative level paired with a need at the corporate strategy level to keep eyeballs on the screen (compared to the theatrical movie experience which has been to keep movies short so as turn over the theatre as many times as possible in a day to get the most number of paid admissions).

The current worst offender is WandaVision which, to me, is a pretty good 90-minute story that has been needlessly stretched out to four or five hours. The first three episodes (the mediocre sitcom pastiches) could easily have been condensed from 90 minutes to 15 minutes. I think writers and directors are losing sight of what is actually essential and relevant information in a scene, and using the excuse of "character development" to pad out scenes beyond their natural length.

I say phooey.

A film like "The Squid and the Whale" from 2005 was just over one hour and fifteen minutes and hit had more character development than the four hours (so far) of WandaVision.

And not to pick on WandaVision, I also think that a series like Game of Thrones (which I really liked) could have been cut by one-third to one-half and not only been just as effective but also more effective as engaging drama.

kitano0 said...

To Arlen Peters:
I haven't seen "Barb and Starr..." but I can relate to your sentiments. I felt the same way about that movie when I saw the trailer. I was thinking recently that our "pop culture", if not American culture in general, elevates mediocrity to ridiculous heights. I was triggered into that train of thought after seeing yet another photo of a certain comedy actress who I think is ugly AF (as the kids say), who seems to get every other gig in the biz.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

From an improvisation standpoint, this seems like an extended variation of "The Interview" episode of "M*A*S*H"...although "The Interview" worked beautifully and was one of the best and most revered episodes of the series. (Special kudos to Harry Morgan and Mike Farrell who were in their season when "The Interview" was produced.)

Robert Lewis said...

I’d like to hear your take on Curb Your Enthusiasm in this vein. Sloppy dialogue, funny stories.

Covarr said...

This reminds me of 2016's GHOSTBUSTERS, another film led by some quite talented actresses, which could've been good if they'd been given a lot more script and a lot less freedom to improvise, which also had scenes that lasted way longer than they needed to.

I think if you're going to do this sort of thing, it's absolutely vital to put together a cast of people with serious improv chops. The old Adult Swim show Home Movies pulled this off fantastically, because it had a cast that was suited to this style of not-writing. Of course, I'm fairly certain that show had some pretty merciless editing as well.

Glenn said...

Glad to see people brought up your Curb your Enthusiasm, another show that's mostly improvised. I find parts of it funny, but certainly not as funny as most others seem to. I would also apply this to the mostly-improvised Christopher Guest films. Some parts are funny, but I don't see why they're considered comedy classics. Maybe I'm just not as big a fan of improv as a lot of my friends are...

stephen catron said...

I get your point, but I see nothing wrong with a bit of an experiment in filmmaking which is what I would call this.
As to your point this is why I hate improv theatre. People are not as funny as they think they are on the fly. Improv usually ends up being dull with a couple of chuckles..
However, going against your point. 90%+ of all entertainment does have a writer or more, yet most movies, TV shows, songs, plays, etc, suck. And usually because they are boring or stupid.
So who's to blame?

Jahn Ghalt said...

Thanks for taking a bullet on this (and living to tell about it)

Max said...

To me, this....

>>> uninteresting dialogue and scenes that lasted for five minutes that should have lasted for two. a capsulization of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE since the 90s.

LMNtrees said...

I haven't seen the movie but as a viewer I sympathize with you. I've started picking shows based on the writers and it's working for me! IMDB is good about giving the option to see all the work done by a particular writer and that is nice for leading me to new shows I would never have picked out otherwise.

Buttermilk Sky said...

To be fair, a couple of writers have tried acting without disgracing themselves, Jerzy Kosinski (REDS) and Gore Vidal (GATTACA, BOB ROBERTS). Then there are actor-playwrights Sam Shepard, Christopher Durang, Wallace Shawn and Noel Coward. But yeah, not many.

Long before his disgrace I gave up on Woody Allen movies because he was letting the actors improvise their dialogue. I don't want to, you know, listen to people talk, like, I mean, the way they do in reality because, uh, it's like boring, you know?

basketball1082 said...

The late great Christopher Plummer made the point about the importance of writers when he talked about working with Terrence Malick.

Plummer: Terrence is one of those directors who insist on doing everything themselves. He's a talented guy but he's not much of a writer and advising him on that, how difficult it is to give a performance.

He's right of course and I can't blame him for not working with a guy who doesn't get dialogue.

Stu West said...

I've spent years thinking that I'd like to do the Atlantic crossing on the QE2, but that was before we all learned that cruise ships are huge floating Petri dishes. So this movie is probably as close as I'll ever get, and I don't mind having watched it for that reason. You're right that it was too long and too dull, but maybe the vicarious cruise ship experience during a pandemic accounts for at least some of the positive reviews.

I love Gemma Chan in just about everything, and I liked the dynamic between Streep's serious author and the guy who wrote trashy thriller novels. Without wanting to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn't seen it, I thought the resolution for Streep's character was a total cop-out. Maybe the beat sheet could have used another polish.

Kevin FitzMaurice said... their first season... .

Anonymous said...

"Anybody can act." I watched Elizabeth Berkley in "Showgirls" they can't. But Joe Eszterhas can't write either so it was the perfect shit storm. Now Joe is trying to spin it 25 years later by saying it was supposed to be "satirical", and "a comedic take-off on Las Vegas." No, it wasn't.

Mark Solomon said...

Friday question:
Ken, speaking of writers, I noticed that your daughter and son-in-law, whom I believe have been a writing team for some time, are now
Co-Executive Producers of the new Kyra Sedgwick comedy “Call Your Mother.” After watching their episodes air, does your Writer/Producer instinct kick in to “offer notes” to Annie and Jonathan? Would it be something of a bucket list item to someday direct an episode of your daughter’s show?

Mark Solomon

Mike Bloodworth said...

It happened again. I had a response written, hit the wrong button and erased it all. Rather than try to rewrite the whole thing I'll give you the condensed version.

The problem is not with improvisation per se. The problem is that many directors don't use actors trained in improv. Or if they do they don't rein them in. Good improv training teaches people to eliminate extraneous dialogue and get to the heart of the scene.
I agree with Ken. "...many actors believe anyone can write." I would add that many actors believe anyone can improvise. But,they can't.

Eliminating writers trivializes what Ken does. Letting non-improvisers improvise cheapens what we do.


P.S. Ken may not like actors that think they can write. But,since Ken also does improv I'm pretty sure that deep down has a grudging admiration for those that can do it well.

YEKIMI said...

Speaking on "improv"......that's what it felt like everyone was doing while I watched [on and off] the Golden Globes. And for the first time ever, every show/thing/whatever that won or was nominated.....I had not seen a single one of them. It looks like the regular OTA TV networks were shut out. I can't afford to pay [nor am I inclined to] pay for streaming networks like Paramount+, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. ESPECIALLY if they're going to jam ads down my throat.

VincentS said...

"Most actors think they're good at making up dialogue but most of them are terrible at it."
-Sidney Lumet

And let's face it: The reason it probably got such high praise from the critics is because most of them are frustrated writers themselves. Too bad Diane Weist was wasted again. Ever see THE SCOUT?

Kendall Rivers said...

Huh, this disrespect to good writers is probably why 98 percent of television stinks to high heaven! I remember a time in television where the writer was king, especially over at MTM. No wonder we're in such a nostalgic place as tv viewers because the class, style and genuine effort made to make amazing television is mostly lost nowadays.

Mike Doran said...

Re Improv Vs. Writing:

I once read an interview with Jonathan Winters, in which he told of the first time he worked with Bob and Ray.
This was a TV special with an historical theme; Winters suggested a skit in which he would be George Washington and Bob & Ray would be minutemen.
Winters wanted to put the skit on its feet right then and there - and discovered that B&R preferred to write scripts and work from there.
Winters's quote (approximately): "They were so good I'd assumed that they were all improvised, but they had to have it written out ahead of time." (Emphasis mine.)
Winters seemed quite disappointed by this ...
This is not to say that Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding didn't improvise when the occasion presented itself; it does indicate that B&R always had a plan of action, which (I think - indeed I hope) is what you were driving at.

Pat Reeder said...

As I've had occasion to say many, many times over the years, both movies and politics were better before actors were allowed to talk.

Pidgy Gordon said...

Bang on! I was so excited to be able to watch my favourite actresses in one show! I believe this is what is known in your industry as a ‘package deal’...when popular actors are bunched together for a sure thing.
What a disappointment!
If I had had the misfortune of sitting down for a chat with any of those characters on a cruise ship, I would have jumped overboard. A complete waste of Diane Weist. Meryl...coasting on reputation.
I tried to watch it several times, but kept falling asleep. I thought I might be missing something interesting so I kept trying to stay awake, to no avail.
Eventually, I used it to cure my insomnia.

Stephen Gallagher said...

This has jogged my memory of the THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN episode where the main cast argue over what movie to see, and the choice is between an action flick and Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis and (iirc) Meryl Streep in THEY CAME TO TALK

MikeN said...

Ken, what you just said, always felt like what Matt Weiner intended as the theme for Mad Men.