A bit player, but one that won’t be ignored

Special to The Times

The LITTLE girl steals it. That’s why Carrie doesn’t have her cellphone. And that’s why Big can’t reach her to say he’s backing out of the wedding in the “Sex and the City” movie.

A clever technique for creating drama? Or a contrived way to keep the pair from speaking, in an age in which everyone has a cell handy?

Either way, the episode shows how our pesky pocket devices have become crucial to storytelling. The U.S. had 255 million cellphone subscribers (83% of the population) in 2007, according to the International Telecommunications Union, meaning that audiences expect almost all present-day characters to carry one. For dramatic writers in many media, cellphones’ ubiquity -- and the particular way they condense time and space -- creates both opportunities and obstacles.


“You would normally do scenes where people would come together face to face,” says Josh Schwartz, executive producer of the network TV shows “Gossip Girl” and “Chuck.” But now, “Why would they come to the door? They would just call.”

Could “24” exist without cellphones? Jack Bauer would spend 20 minutes every episode searching for a phone booth. The “Gossip Girl” characters would die of boredom without their stream of salacious electronic chitchat.

While cellphones appear to help storytellers, since they allow anyone to talk to anyone at any time, “that seeming freedom only makes it all the more difficult,” says Robert McKee, the screenwriting guru and author of “Story.” “It takes away a possible source of conflict -- the difficulty of communicating, the difficulty of calling for help.”

McKee compares the situation to the loosening of rules about depicting sexuality -- writers have more options, but they lose the tension created when they’re forced to be implicit rather than explicit. Still, he doesn’t see the development as negative. “All it means is that the writer has to be even more ingenious in building the conflicts and the tensions in a credible way,” he says.

Writers imagined a cellphone world even before the device existed. James Bond had a car phone, “Get Smart” (1965-70) had a shoe phone and Tony Roberts’ character in “Play It Again, Sam” (1972) tells his office the phone numbers for everywhere he’s going to be. When cellphones first became available, on screen they were shorthand for excess. Gordon Gekko uses one on the beach in “Wall Street” as do the spoiled teens roaming the school halls in “Clueless.”

Sure, law enforcement always had radios and walkie-talkies. But it’s the device you don’t see -- the phone in everyone’s pocket -- that really makes an impact.


That implied phone creates the potential for audiences to think, “Why doesn’t he just call?” For instance, in “Superbad,” after Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) appears to be getting arrested after buying alcohol with a fake ID, why doesn’t he call his friends to tell them he’s just partying with the cops?

The typical solution is simple: Kill the cellphone. It can be lost (“Sex and the City”), out of range (“Damages,” when Ted Danson is trying to re-call a hit man) or out of battery (Jamie Foxx at the end of “Collateral”). The cellphone death has become the 21st century version of the car not starting when a killer is after you.

Katherine Heigl and James Marsden’s car gets stuck with no cellphone service in “27 Dresses,” forcing them to seek help at a countryside bar, where sparks fly during a drunken dance to “Bennie and the Jets.” The screenwriter, Aline Brosh McKenna, says the scene isn’t a cliche, it’s relatable, and that audiences laugh when the two characters hold their phones through the car windows and wave them.

“Doesn’t it happen to you all the time?” she asks. “Maybe as cellphone service improves, writers will have to think up better excuses.” McKenna is trying to find a way to ditch a phone in her adaptation of Sophie Kinsella’s novel “The Undomestic Goddess,” in which a corporate attorney gets stuck in the countryside.

One solution is to get rid of the phone before it becomes an obvious burden, preferably in a way that reveals character, humor or suspense. McKee likes how it was done in last year’s Tim Roth-Naomi Watts film “Funny Games.” When two seemingly nice young men talk their way into a family’s house, one of them, in an apparent accident, breaks the family’s cellphone by nudging it into a sink of water, planting the seed for their terrorizing of the family.

“Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” uses a comic beat. Kumar gets halfway down the hall and realizes he left his phone in his apartment, but in his drug-induced stupor, he decides, “We’ve gone too far,” thus allowing for the night’s misadventures.


More downsides

Mobile technology affects each genre differently. “The cellphone has created more problems than benefits for horror screenwriters, because so many horror films involve so many people stuck outside civilization, who are being hunted and have no recourse,” says Scott Kosar, the screenwriter of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake and others.

“People thought it would be the death of the sitcom,” says Carter Bays, executive producer of “How I Met Your Mother.” With a few exceptions, “Cellphones have totally eliminated the existence of the ‘drop by.’

In some cases, cellphones create problems while opening up new possibilities at the same time. For instance, they lead to a larger number of phone scenes -- which, as every director knows, can be deadly to watch. But they make those scenes more dynamic, allowing the characters to be outside and on the go.

Schwartz defends the cell-heavy “Gossip Girl,” saying that phone conversations are “less dramatic, but they are becoming so accepted because the other version” -- conversing in person -- “is seeming so alien.”

Because cellphones are more private than land lines, the scene in which a lover calls the house and accidentally talks to the cuckolded spouse will rarely happen again. But a wife receiving a racy text from her lover while surrounded by her family can be just as dramatic, as proven in the 2006 film “Notes on a Scandal.”

“The Departed” was particularly creative in using cellphones to find new spins on old scenes. During a transaction between two gangs, the competing double agents played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon exchange info with their bosses via text. After Martin Sheen’s character dies, DiCaprio gets spooked when he gets a call coming from Sheen’s phone. A surprise ring on DiCaprio’s cell as he pursues Damon almost gets him killed.


“Cellphones added to the characters’ generalized anxiety, the same way cellphones add to our anxieties in everyday life,” William Monahan, who won an Oscar for the screenplay, wrote in an e-mail. “In the film, the phone can be a tool for deception, or it can expose you.”

Some recent suspense movies have been conceived around cellphones, exploiting society’s paranoia surrounding the device. In the 2004 film “Cellular,” a kidnapped Kim Basinger finds a land line, reaches a random beach bum on his cell and persuades him to save her. In Stephen King’s novel “Cell” -- set to be a film directed by Eli Roth -- everyone using a cellphone becomes a zombie.

“Eagle Eye,” opening Sept. 26, is about two regular people (Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan) forced to follow dangerous instructions via phone from a mysterious voice. “Whenever their cellphones ring they look at each other and go, ‘. . . something’s going down,’ ” says director DJ Caruso. “One of our mantras was that at the end of this movie, we want you to fear your BlackBerry.”

Making it work

Other stories find the lighter side of telecommunications. On “Entourage,” Ari Gold and his cellphone are like a high-intensity comedy duo. On “How I Met Your Mother,” one drunken night, Ted’s butt keeps accidentally calling -- a.k.a. “pocket dialing” -- his friend Marshall, and he later relives the evening by listening to all 17 voice mails. In Sarah Ruhl’s play “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” which begins at South Coast Repertory on Sept. 21, a woman realizes that the man at a nearby cafe table is dead and answers his cell when it rings. She takes it with her and uses it to enter his life.

“It’s a more interesting device in movies because you can talk anywhere on it -- you can be on a beach, you can be in a car -- whereas onstage it becomes proxy for a soliloquy,” Ruhl acknowledges. “I kind of find them pathetic, theatrically. Putting a cellphone at the center of the play is a way of having some irony about that.”

Bruce Wagner satirizes Los Angeles in his “cellphone trilogy” of novels: “I’m Losing You,” “I’ll Let You Go,” and “Still Holding.” Perhaps the most apt medium for the device is a video game, as in “Grand Theft Auto IV,” in which the player’s character can call friends or receive photos of people to kill.


One mini-trend is the climactic cellphone throwaway. Three emblematic city girls have done it: Andy in “The Devil Wears Prada” (into a fountain), Carrie in “Sex and the City” (the ocean), and Serena in “Gossip Girl” (a trash can). The gesture demonstrates that the character has rid her life of whatever the cellphone represents.

A powerful sign of cellphones’ impact is the number of famous stories of the past that wouldn’t work in the post-Verizon era. For instance, how would they affect the end of “The Graduate,” when Benjamin Braddock sprints through Santa Barbara to find Elaine before she gets married?

“I would imagine a lot of calls being made by a lot of people, suddenly,” says Buck Henry, who co-wrote the screenplay. “If he calls her and the parents know that he called her, then they’ve got to call somebody, then they’ve got to call somebody else -- the battle of the cellphones taking up five minutes.”

To some audience members, cellphones signify so many of society’s ills -- the reliance on technology, the faster pace of life, the disconnect among fellow human beings -- that the device is distasteful no matter how it’s used. Henry, who uses his only for emergencies, says that any time he sees one on screen, he inwardly (or outwardly) groans.

“It’s an instant cliche,” he says. And, even worse, “It reminds the audience -- or a large percentage of it -- that they might have a message in their pocket.”