10/30/2013 11:40 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Screenwriting 101

There's a movie in current release in which an unnamed hero, driven by largely unseen forces, decides to do something that most of us would not do. His choice may appear reckless and risky, and because we learn very little about him, it is up to us to fill in many of the blanks regarding motivation. And in fact, things go horribly wrong for this man. He must use all of his resources to try and make corrections, and in the end, it may not be enough. The message would appear to be that sometimes things move beyond our control, and acceptance is the only choice we have.

If you recognize the movie I am describing because you have seen it, I can only hope that you are thinking of J. C. Chandor's compelling new film All Is Lost. But I fear, based on box office and advertizing budgets, that you are instead thinking of Ridley Scott's wretched The Counselor.

I will not rehash all that is wrong with The Counselor. I only have a thousand words. Besides, Andrew O'Hehir has more or less nailed it in his scathing review on in which he speculates that it may just be the worst movie ever made. But I do want to take just a moment or two to talk about screenwriting, using these two movies as examples.

The Counselor, as you may know is a big budget, big star vehicle. Fassbender and Bardem. Cruz and Diaz. Pitt. But what had a lot of film (and writing) fans particularly jazzed about it was the screenwriter. Cormac McCarthy, the apocalyptic visionary author of No Country for Old Men and The Road (among others), would be crafting his first original screenplay. It would deal with capital I issues. It would have substance and wit, and would explore the darkest reaches of man's soul. It is possible that the utterly indecipherable plot line of The Counselor, along with its long passages of speeches (smugly knowing speeches made by smugly knowing characters) and its continual repetition of the word/name "counselor" in place of the Fassbender character's actual name, may have worked better in the form McCarthy has mastered over his long career -- the novel.

This is screenwriting 101. Complicated plots can work in a novel because the reader has the luxury of proceeding at her own pace. If something is confusing, she can go back and reread. If it ever gets to the point where her head actually starts to hurt, she can take a latte break, then resume later. A filmgoer has no such escape. Similarly, a long speech might play better when you can stop and think about it. When you are not assaulted by another, often redundant, speech, scene after scene. After scene. As for the repetition of the word "counselor," I can't stop thinking about this old Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode I saw as a kid in which an ex-con, who is trying to start clean, is tormented by a former cellmate who wants some help with a new caper. The bad guy con repeatedly refers to the good guy con as "buddy boy." Over and over. And over. He does it so much that what should be a tense drama becomes an unintended comedy. You just can't hear "buddy boy" that many times without laughing. "Counselor" may not be as funny as "buddy boy" but the idea is the same. This is a classic beginning screenwriter mistake. The reason beginning screenwriters do it is because, in isolation, adding the name of the character to the line of dialogue does impart a little extra emphasis. Had Bardem or Pitt said "counselor" three or even four times throughout, it would have worked. But, and this is an unofficial estimation, I believe they each say it fourteen thousand times. You can't help but laugh.

As for the darkness that everyone talked about in the build-up to the movie, I'll leave it at this. In all other movies, we do not even see one head cut off. Why in this movie do we see two? (And possibly a third -- it's hinted at but, like the rest of the story, remains unclear.) Granted, that line plays better if you are Jewish and familiar with the Four Questions. At times of great stress, and watching this movie did create great stress, and a lot of clock-watching, many of us turn to religion for comfort.

In this case, though, I turn to J. C. Chandor. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Chandor a few years ago at the Nantucket Film Festival, where he was winning one of many awards for his debut film Margin Call. He recalled how he had gotten some pressure during the filming to insert a sex scene, but said he ultimately rejected that because he didn't figure any of his characters, during the single worst day of all of their lives, would take time out for a quick fuck. He also said he never really considered himself a great writer, and only scripted Margin Call when he was left cold by all the screenplays that were being presented to him to direct. But Chandor, as he proved in Margin call and he reestablished in the taut, and deeply poignant All is Lost, is a director; a director who knows what works and what doesn't work on screen. There are no long speeches. The "message" is simply stated at the very beginning in the only scripted dialogue in the movie, and then is dramatized throughout by action. That action is entirely clear, right up to a pitch-perfect ending that is both crystal clear and beautifully ambiguous, and will have you talking, if not about what happened, then about what it means to you as an audience. This "non-screenwriter" is at core a filmmaker and has written something that works on screen. Cormac McCarthy, brilliant novelist that he may be, seems, sadly, far out of his element.