To Live and Write in LA

‘Opening Night’ – A Screenwriting School in Ninety Minutes

(First published on Blogcritics.org)

opening night

‘N Sync veteran J.C. Chasez and Topher Grace on LA Film Festival red carpet

The Opening Night world premiere on June 3, at the LA Film Festival (#LAFilmFestival), in its new home in and around historic Culver Studios, was Screenwriting 101 in 90 minutes. Filmmakers did everything right in this film starring Topher Grace, who also produced, as a failed Broadway star turned stage manager.

I will admit to some confusion when I saw “Opening Night” in the film festival program. When I figured out this was actually a movie, not an event, and that it starred “Eric Forman” from That ‘70s Show it went on my must see list. I wasn’t disappointed.

I loved the film before the opening credits were finished. It was clever, funny and upbeat. In a world where many indie film loglines sound like “Somebody dies and his son must return home to discover everything he believes about his family is a lie and his ex wants to kill him,” I was ready for a heartwarming story with laughs and singing. Yes, it’s a musical, too.

Straight Outta the 1940s

The story sounds like it should have starred Alice Faye and John Payne. It’s opening night for a Broadway show and the stage manager (Grace) must prod and cajole an eccentric cast and crew to make things work. Then, the leading lady (Anne Heche) hits her head and must be replaced by a chorus girl understudy (Alona Tal), who happens to be the stage manager’s former girlfriend.

Seen this before? Not like this. The film is very modern, sexy, and hilarious. The amazing supporting cast includes Taye Diggs (Murder in the First) as leader of the oh so gay dancers, Lauren Lapkus (Orange is the New Black) as Grace’s introverted assistant, Rob Riggle (Funny or Die) as a loudmouth producer, and ‘N Sync veteran J.C. Chasez as JC, the show’s leading man.

Chasez plays a semi-fictionalized version of himself. This opens the door for lots of Mouseketeer, Lance Bass and Christina Aguilera jokes.

The Writing

opening night

Taye Diggs’ plays the leader of the dance troupe

Amazingly, this is the first theatrical feature for director Isaac Rentz and writers Greg Lisi and Gerry De Leon.

We are immediately introduced to the leading character, who becomes likeable because he is well intentioned, competent, but put upon by everyone, and has some sad secret. We learn that he was a star of his own Broadway show, which closed after opening night. After that, he gave up performing. The backstory is provided in small chunks without any long speeches.

Throughout the beginning of the film, various things are set up which are paid off in the last third. In some movies, this is obvious and heavy handed. This is done so well in Opening Night that you just don’t see them coming. Grace’s character is not the only one who has a character arc. When certain characters come through in a pinch, you want to cheer.

The name of the Broadway show inside the film is One-Hit Wonderland. It’s about one-hit wonders, performers like Toni Basil (“Mickey”), Billy Ray Cyrus (“Achy Breaky Heart”), or The Baja Men (“Who Let the Dogs Out?”), who were famous for a moment, then faded rapidly. The story within the play parallels what happened to Grace’s character and as opening night progresses, his personal story parallels what is happening to the production. This is not easy to write.

There are also several entertaining “B stories” within the movie — series of events that don’t involve the main character directly, but have an impact on him.

The climax is classic Hollywood. I won’t spoil it for you. You’ll love it.

The Music

opening night

Lesli Margherita knows what boys like

A running gag in the film is that Grace’s character hates it when people just “break out into song.” So, of course, this happens all the time.

My favorite musical scene is when Taye Diggs’ character battles with Jessica, played by Lesli Margherita (Fame L.A.), through a dance-off for the affections of the newest member of the cast. You can view a clip of this below.

There is a lot of music, but it is never operetta; it is always real in the world of the film and makes sense in the story.

Opening Night captures the excitement and camaraderie that occurs when putting on a show. Hey, get a move on. You’re on in five minutes.

 

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