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“Let Them All Talk”: Do Actors Need Writers?

screenplay screenwriter writer
Pixabay credit Lucas Bieri

New Improvised Movie Leaves Me With Questions

Last night my husband and I tuned in to watch the new movie on HBO Max called “Let Them All Talk.” I knew nothing about it aside from the trailers advertised on Facebook and the fact that it boasts a star-studded cast including Meryl Streep, Candace Bergen, Dianne Wiest, and Lucas Hedges. The trailers led me to believe that it might be a poignant comedy-turns-drama about three old friends who reunite to resolve past differences.

The movie is indeed about a prize-winning author, Alice (played by Streep), who travels on the Queen Mary 2 to collect a literary award and insists that her old friends (Roberta-Bergen, Susan-Wiest) accompany her, along with her favorite nephew, Tyler (played by Lucas Hedges). There are hints that there’s been a strong rift between the author her friends, Roberta in particular, for basing her best-seller on their lives and subsequently ruining them ( in Roberta’s case). But we never learn how. We never learn what she did. We never learn a lot of things.

I found myself glancing at the clock as the movie stretched on aimlessly. Overall, as a viewer, I was feeling frustrated and confused. Storylines were hinted at without any details and certainly no closure. One theme involves Alice’s desire to honor a 19th Century author she reveres by visiting her grave. She alludes to the author in a speech on board the ship but never explains the connection. Another unsatisfying plotline is Roberta’s anger over Alice’s betrayal and her demand for financial compensation for her ruined life. The big confrontation feels flat and unfinished. The third friend, Susan, was nothing more, it seemed than a sounding board for Roberta’s rants. She had little to offer aside from a lovely comment about the stars at sea and Elon Musk’s satellite launches that would mimic them now. It came out of the blue without much context. The movie pitched and rolled like the ocean they were traversing, but without going anywhere.

Without a Screenplay, But Not Totally Improvised

After much discussion about the movie, we looked up reviews and learned it was an innovative improvised movie by Steven Soderbergh. Aha! Now the title was clear and so clever! He hired Deborah Eisenberg as the screenwriter to flesh out the premise of the movie but not to write a traditional screenplay. The actors were given the premise in the scene, the “narrative beats” of the story, and an outline of what they might say, but not a script. As a viewer, it felt as if I were an eavesdropper on various conversations that I caught mid-stream without knowing the context nor the conclusion. This new way of filming created some fresh, organic-feeling exchanges, but for a story as a whole, I feel it went off the rails. It rambled. It opened themes and topics without any closure. I felt cheated because I was emotionally invested in learning the fate of these characters, but never really did.

A Queen Mary 2 Travelogue

The best part of the film was viewing the various scenes shot on the actual Queen Mary 2 including the “backstage” areas such as the kitchen and laundry. The ship was stunning and a character in and of itself in the movie. It provided a beautiful backdrop to every scene and I enjoyed the atmosphere of the dining rooms, bars, clubs, decks, and cabins. Setting this on a ship during a “crossing” (not a cruise, as one character sternly points out) was genius for the story because it conveyed the feeling of being stuck together in a limited space yet at the same time traveling to a destination.

In Conclusion, Do Actors Need Writers?

You may glean by now that I was not a fan of this movie experiment. Although the actors likely came up with brilliant words to express who their characters were, I still felt the overall story arc was missing. Perhaps it did not need a word-for-word screenplay, but it needed ??? If you’ve seen it, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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