Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Darabont Collection

Hey guys,

Below are links to my somewhat recent reviews of Frank Darabont’s latest screenplays. I must say, Fahrenheit 451 was such a fabulous experience, probably the best read of the year so far for me, that the other scripts didn't quite measure up.

This brings to mind an interesting topic, something that all writers go through. What do you do when you write something everyone loves and then you follow up with scripts that don’t quite measure up? Everyone goes through this. Friends will tell you, “I liked this one, but it’s not as good as that last one you wrote.” There’s a mentality in the world, particularly Hollywood, that you’re only as good as your last script. Am I going to stop reading stories of friends and writers just because their last few scripts haven't been as good as some of their earlier successes? Perish the thought. We know better. Screenwriting is a long-term devotion to the craft. Stories aren't born great. They are shaped into greatness with a little help from our friends.

An inevitable part of life is that you will achieve varying levels of success and yes, that includes failure. So what do you do when this happens to you? You take the lumps and keep writing. You stay obsessively devoted to the craft. You find stories you’re passionate about and you apply everything you know about the craft to make each and every story you touch reach its fullest potential.

There's also a lot to be learned from stories that don't quite work.



Fahrenheit 451
…this is easily the best script I’ve read so far this year. The handling of the story is right down the line everything I would’ve done had I landed this assignment. It’s everything I would want to see in an adaptation of the book. Every strength in the book that I listed at the beginning of the article is evident in the script.

Law-Abiding Citizen
…what bugs me about this story is that it has such potential for greatness and yet the filmmakers, which I’m sure includes a lot of interference from this bloated committee of producers, seems content to let this story flounder in the realm of marginally above grade B-movie thrills.

I can pinpoint where the story lost me. It lost me in the 80-page range. It really lost me in the 90-page range. Then it pulled me back somewhat with a thrilling car chase sequence. After that, I was just waiting for the predictable events to play themselves out. And then I was disappointed that those events played out as predictably as I thought.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Script Review – “Law-Abiding Citizen”

I knew what I wanted to say about Law Abiding Citizen long before I ever finished the story, probably in the mid-60-page region.

First, the script. I’m looking at a September, 2008, shooting draft by
Frank Darabont (previous revision by Kurt Wimmer). This script was also in the hands of Sheldon Turner and David Ayer. Apparently, the story has changed dramatically over the last few years. The version I have concerns Nick (Jamie Foxx), an assistant D.A. who must deal with a victim-turned-vigilante-but-actually-a-twisted-criminal-mastermind (Gerard Butler). His name's Clyde. He wreaks havoc on the entire city of Philadelphia all from inside his solitary jail cell. It brings to mind aspects of other films like Silence of the Lambs, The Dark Knight, and Shawshank Redemption (with a smattering of The Green Mile). Kind of intriguing, isn’t it? How does he do it? Once they get that hook into you, once he starts wreaking havoc from inside his jail cell, you have to read to the end to find out exactly how it was all done.

Darabont feels like the natural choice for this kind of material. He was set to direct the film, but rumor has it there was an ugly parting of ways between the director and committee of ten producers on this project. Yes, I said TEN producers. I don’t know the details, but dealing with ten producers sounds like a recipe for a nightmare. Now the film is being directed by
F. Gary Gray who gave us The Italian Job.

I’m not sure how well I can articulate this, but what bugs me about this story is that it has such potential for greatness and yet the filmmakers, which I’m sure includes a lot of interference from this bloated committee of producers, seems content to let this story flounder in the realm of marginally above grade B-movie thrills.

You have a man named Clyde, who, in the opening scenes, loses his wife and daughter to a pair of murdering bad guys. Loved it. Totally gripping. Then, he deals with Nick and some other attorneys. He’s infuriated that only one of the two bad guys will be prosecuted. The other will confess, testify against his accomplice, and in return, he’ll serve a minimum sentence. The other will get lethal injection.

Cut to about ten years later. It’s come time for the bad guy to get his lethal injection, which goes horrifyingly wrong in a scene almost reminiscent of the botched electrocution scene in The Green Mile. The other bad guy is also coincidentally butchered beyond recognition around the same time. Naturally, the cops pick-up Clyde who gives himself over willingly. While they have Clyde in jail, he starts making demands. Give me a comfy bed and I’ll confess to the murder. So they give him a bed and he confesses. Then he says, give me my iPod and I’ll confess to something else. And they do. And this goes on until he starts promising that he’s going to kill every man in the room.

And they do, indeed, start dying in very interesting ways.

Great setup. Loved it.

How Clyde accomplishes these amazing feats, I would not dream of revealing. Why he does these things, however, is a cause for a script review, because this is where I believe the script falters.

Clyde is obviously doing these things because he’s never gotten over the deaths of his wife and daughter. Perfectly understandable. He’s also doing these things to exact revenge onto those responsible for the murders and subsequent injustice that followed. Okay, I get that. He wants to stick it to a justice system that only half succeeded for him. In his scenes with Nick, though, he only goes so far as to impress upon him the pain of losing one’s family and the need to be angry about injustices and compromises with murderers.

Eh. That’s rather weak.

A mastermind would not need to sit inside a jail cell and wreak havoc on a city just to make those minor points about pain and anger. A mastermind would sit inside a jail cell and wreak havoc on the justice system to make points about the system’s inherent weaknesses. And this is the core of my concern: there needs to be something deeper and more meaningful here to warrant the telling of this story. You may recall that, in The Dark Knight, the Joker wasn’t just crazy and committing random acts of terror on the city. He was out to make a point to Batman about human nature. Remember what he said?

Their morals, their code... it's all a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. You'll see - I'll show you... when the chips are down, these civilized people... they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster... I'm just ahead of the curve.

That’s what this story is damn near crying out to be, what it’s missing: a deeper point that Clyde should be making about the justice system.

Halfway into this script, I wanted to just rewrite all of the dialogue. And then I realized that the dialogue is weak because the setup is weak. The setup is weak because Clyde’s motivations and reasons are weak. You need a higher purpose here, an ongoing conversation between Nick and Clyde as to whether one should have faith in the justice system or not just as Batman and Joker were having an ongoing discussion about human nature. And this debate begins when they talk about how one of those two murderers gets away and continues through his time in incarceration. In the end, Nick should triumph, the system is faulty but still good. As it is, this story regresses into a who-can-outhink-the-other-contest, which isn’t as satisfying.

Three more points:

1) At first, Clyde demands that he only speaks with Nick and relents when other lawyers insist on participating in the talks. Why make such demands if he’s only going to relent and nothing becomes of it? If Clyde can get them to put a bed in his cell, he can certainly force them into letting him talk to Nick and Nick alone. That’s what this story calls for, an evolving relationship between Nick and Clyde, just as you had an evolving relationship between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter. This should only be about Clyde and Nick, a contest of beliefs and wills. So when, say, Clyde makes demands about having records in his cell and someone other than Nick interrupts and answers that question for Nick, you’re undermining an opportunity to develop that relationship between protagonist and antagonist.

2) A note about Nick’s temperament. Nick is quick to go off the handle, to threaten Clyde, and leap over a table to strangle him, etc. That’s dangerous, because that could undermine audience support of the protag. They will respect and support more a man who can stay focused and keep his cool. But the test, the inner conflict, for Nick could be him keeping his cool when he wants so much to kill Clyde. And Clyde’s always prodding him and trying to push him over the edge. That could create a tension and a battle of wills between the two characters that would add layers to the dialogue and the scene. And of course, ultimately, Nick would be able to defeat Clyde because he kept his cool and didn’t fly off the emotional handle as Clyde did in seeking revenge. For me, amateurish screenwriting is very much like that, sudden extremes of obvious emotions in characters. But, over time, when a writer matures, I think you delve more into subtleties, layers, and subtext in the scenes. Because you know enough to ask yourself: “what would be more interesting - a guy who is disciplined in keeping his cool facing his ultimate challenge and watching him struggle to keep his cool throughout the conversation or a guy who flies off the handle whenever he’s pissed?” You know good and well that Clarice wanted to scream her head off in the dungeon with Hannibal, but she didn’t. She kept her cool, stayed focused on the case, and struggled through it. We could see her struggling and supported her for the difficulties she was going through.

3) It’s a bad decision that the Spook would make himself known to Nick and the team in order to pass along a bunch of verbal exposition. THEY should be the ones to find HIM.

To everyone’s credit, there’s a lot of great suspense and thrills. How the murders play out and how Clyde accomplishes these things are the elements that would impress some people who see the film. But this could’ve been so much better. And what would’ve made this story and this film a classic, something that would make people want to revisit this again and again and again, is a deeper point and an evolving relationship between the two main characters.

I can already hear the argument: “what the hell’s wrong with above average B-movie thrills?” I say fuck that. Shoot for the moon.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Script Review – “Mine”

Hey guys,

I was so exhilarated by Darabont’s Fahrenheit 451 that I thought I’d read some of his other scripts I have lying around here beginning with his February, 2008, adaptation of Mine. This story is based upon the
book of the same name by Mr. Robert McCammon, who claims on his book cover and website that Mine “rivals Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs for sheer, riveting storytelling power.”

Come, come, Mr. McCammon. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

This is the story of Laura Clayborne, a journalist who gives birth to a baby boy and has her child literally stolen out of her hands in the hospital by Mary Terrell, otherwise known as “Mary Terror.”

Stop right there. What’s a more intriguing title: Mine or Mary Terror?

Mine makes me think of old WWII land mines or a maybe a big underground tunnel built for digging coal or something. If he had written the title as Mine! he may have conveyed better his intent.

What about Mary Terror? Now that piques my curiosity a little bit. This title practically guarantees big thrills and chills, and sort of like Planet Terror has an air of B-movie horror, which is really all this story could ever hope to become. Granted, Mr. McCammon has won some awards. Mine received the 1990 Bram Stoker award for Best Novel. But these characters and this story has no hope of reaching the heights of Silence of the Lambs on any level.

I can pinpoint where the story lost me. It lost me in the 80-page range. It really lost me in the 90-page range. Then it pulled me back somewhat with a thrilling car chase sequence. After that, I was just waiting for the predictable events to play themselves out. And then I was disappointed that those events played out as predictably as I thought. At least Silence of the Lambs had the twist ending with Lecter free. The problem here is that once Mary takes the baby and Laura goes after her, the script regresses into a big chase movie, about 50 pages of chase sequences, with a baby as a McGuffin. After the third or fourth time Mary gets away, you feel like the story’s being drug-out unnecessarily and, like me, you might find yourself disappointed that the story never aspired to be more than chase sequences.

Let’s talk characters. First, Laura, the “sympathetic” protagonist. While I was somewhat intrigued by Mary, I never crossed that threshold where I actually cared about Laura or her predicament. And I’m wondering “why is that?” We first see her sitting outside a café with her friend, Carol, who feels a bit like a wasted character as she reappears only one other time in the story. In any case, the scene, which was all dialogue, establishes Laura’s pregnancy, that she’s a journalist, that her husband works long hours, that they’re having problems, and that she’s having a baby mostly because she realized that she didn’t truly have anything in life “that’s mine.”

All in all, the scene is flat and unconvincing because it’s all a bunch of on-the-nose verbal exposition from Laura about her own motivations. We just have to accept it at face value. Words alone in the form of on-the-nose verbal exposition does little to persuade audiences to sympathize with a character. It’s actions that persuade. Put that character under a little pressure and watch her fight for what’s important to her. Then, you will get people to support her. Say, for example, that Doug, her cheating husband, was sitting with her at that café instead of Carol, and we had a scene of Laura desperately trying to salvage her marriage. Or something. The fact that she’s actively doing something to get what she wants persuades us to support her.

In a situation in which the protag is the one who has been wronged, like Laura who has been wronged by her cheating husband, I think one has to consider how well that character handles the situation. Because a sad, whiny, moaning, bitchy protag tends to turn off people even if that character’s mood is justified. Here, Laura kinda tells off Doug and argues with her annoying mother, which is understandable. Many people would do that. But what is Laura doing to really earn the support of the audience? In a scenario like this, I would have Laura rise above the situation and her stupid husband and her annoying mother, which I think would’ve earned some more emotional support from me. She’d avoid telling off her husband or arguing with her mother. She’d be putting on a strong front to Doug, act as if she doesn’t care, that she isn’t hurt, but when she’s alone, she weeps. Perhaps she does something extraordinary like wishing him a good time with his mistress. Something different, ya know? To be above the situation would add some layers and some subtext into those scenes to make them more interesting. Besides, she has what she wants. She has her baby and she doesn’t care about anything else in the world and nothing will ruin her time with her new baby.

That is, until Mary comes along.

I’m not saying that THIS is the solution to those scenes. I’m just saying that everything is so on-the-nose and so predictable and so flat, a writer should try to find ways to add layers to those scenes and
the dialogue. Even better, why address the affair at all? Why not have this couple living one big lie, which doesn’t get addressed until the end of the story? There are so many possibilities.

Now let’s talk about Mary Terror. Since Mr. McCammon felt the need to compare himself to Silence of the Lambs, let me ask a question: what made that film so great? Characters. It was the well thought-out evolving relationship between Clarisse and Hannibal Lecter, the head games, and the
depth of its characters, particularly Lecter. Remember what our good friend,
Pat, wrote about Hannibal:

That a sociopathic cannibal could be brought to tears by beautiful music, recall with delight the fate of a census taker who had the temerity to disturb him, behave so tenderly toward Clarice (the finger touch as he hands her the file), take such pleasure in tormenting Miggs, salivate at the thoughts of eating Dr. Chilton, patiently explain the delicate flavor of (human) brains to a child, gently guide Will Graham toward death, and disfigure himself instead of his captor (who happened to be the only person he loves or has ever loved) makes Hannibal Lecter my nominee for the most interesting and complex character in modern cinema, the only character I've loved, feared, admired, and despised all at the same time.

THAT is a character with depth. Unfortunately, Mary Terror pales in comparison. She is,
according to McCammon, “a scarred and battered survivor of the radical ‘60s. Once a member of the fanatical Storm Front Brigade, Mary now lives in a hallucinatory world of memories, guns, and above all, murderous rage. Prompted by a personals ad in Rolling Stone, she becomes convinced that the former leader of the Brigade, the man she knows as Lord Jack, is commanding her to bring him the child she was carrying when her life and the lives of the other Storm Front radicals exploded in a bloody shootout with the FBI.”

Yeah, she’s a crazy little bitch, but so much of what defines her as a character is her backstory. It’s what she does in the present that truly impacts how an audience feels about her and, for the most part, she’s flat as a character because she’s mostly psychotic most of the time. She can just barely hold a conversation before knocking off that person, usually with a shotgun. Lecter could carry an intelligent conversation, read you like a book, get inside your head and under your skin right before he feeds off of your body. With Mary, it’s just a few words and – BOOM – you’re done. The point shouldn’t be how psychotic the antagonist is or how quick she is to kill or what’s going on in her hallucinating mind, it’s in the interactions with other characters that molds great antagonists and great drama and great suspense. It’s hard work thinking through those scenes and giving them layers and making them somewhat unique and interesting.

But that’s what we have to do.

I’m not so sure what I’d do to fix this story. I’d cut much of the chase and save the best sequences for last. I might re-think Laura as a protagonist. I’d probably look for ways to allow Laura and Mary to talk and have some kind of evolving relationship. I might even let Mary live in the end. I’d probably cut Carol and expand Doug’s role. And I would seriously tone down Mary and make her less psychotic, at least, she could carry a longer conversation and have some

I’d like to end this on a note of praise. The opening scene was quite gripping – the dark room, the crying baby, the concerned mother trying to calm the baby, which gets worse and worse, until the mother totally loses it to the point where she slams the baby’s head down onto a fired-up stove burner. Only to find out that the crying was all in her head and the baby was actually a doll. Very cool.

There was also a gripping scene, which was a flashback of Mary giving birth. She was pregnant and her belly cut up after the FBI invaded her home, and she was lying on the floor in a gas station bathroom and she gives birth to her own baby by pulling it from her body with her own bloody hands. EW.

The highlight has to be the thoroughly gripping car chase scene that started around the mid-90 page range. Man, it had a police car in hot pursuit, a big-rig, which explodes, and two more cars chasing Mary, who is throwing grenades out of her window, and which bounces down the highway until it lands on your windshield and you’re toast. And all the while that baby is so close to death. Great stuff.

Shame about the characters, though.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

“Synecdoche, NY” Revisited

To my loyal readers,

Thanks so much for your patience with my rather infrequent blog posts of late and kind words of encouragement in e-mail, as I try to finish this film project that took up WAY more time than expected.

But on to the subject at hand! To this day, I get curious e-mails referencing my script review of
Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York and politely wondering if I’ve finally seen the film.

Yes, I’ve seen it. God help me, I’ve seen it.

I kept putting it off. I finally had to ask myself, “Why are you so scared to watch this film?” So I tried to articulate the reasons: because the script was the most deeply excruciating read of my entire life; because I felt emotionally tortured by all of those constant deaths and suicides; because there were many scenes I didn’t want to see, like all the various shades and colors of Caden’s shit, like the moment in the script when Hazel hits a dog with her car, runs over to it, and we are forced to see the bloody, gory mess of that poor dog, which was still alive and whimpering, or like the moment with the Salvation Army Santa spastically clawing at his own beard and revealing a tortured blue face right before he gasps and dies.

And then I thought, “ya know, those are damn good reasons.”

I sucked it up. I cracked open an Evan Williams single barrel straight bourbon whiskey bottle, the black label, and drank my way through it.

Two things:

1) Reading a screenplay is always a much more intimate experience than watching a movie. Don’t you think? You have the words of the script dancing in your head and you’re participating more in the experience of the story as you’re visualizing what’s on the page. I think you’re more deeply affected by reading a story than watching it.

2) Interesting how your feelings about a character can change when you put a quality actor in that role. On the page, I hated Caden with every fiber of my being. He was passive to the point of extremes. He let the things that are important in life slip through his hands. As a man, he offends me. He is the poster child for everything an artist (or a man) should not do, what not to say, and how not to live your life. Yet, I love watching Philip Seymour Hoffman. So what’s the result of this weird combination? Caden wasn’t as unbearable on the screen as he was on the page. At times, I almost felt for the big oaf, but mostly, I wanted to give him a swift kick in the ass. I guess, for me, there is value in watching the film if you view Caden as a tragic figure and walk away feeling that you don’t want to make the same mistakes he made.

To Kaufman’s credit, much of the finished film was different than what I read in his 152-page emotional lobotomy of a screenplay to the point where many of my complaints were actually addressed. There were fewer death scenes, only one or two shots of Caden’s shit, no dead dog, and no blue-faced Santa clawing at his beard. Whew! Without a doubt, there were isolated scenes of brilliance, but the story as a whole left me... less depressed than when I read the script.

Ebert gave the film
four stars. He said, “This is a film with the richness of great fiction. Like Suttree, the Cormac McCarthy novel I'm always mentioning, it's not that you have to return to understand it. It's that you have to return to realize how fine it really is. The surface may daunt you. The depths enfold you. The whole reveals itself, and then you may return to it like a talisman.

Another critic I enjoy reading, James Berardinelli,
said of the film, “I walked out of Synecdoche, New York feeling frustrated and a little cheated. If I look hard enough, I'm sure I could find something meaningful in the wreckage, but I don't feel compelled to dig through the detritus. Kaufman is inviting meaning-seekers to enjoy his masturbatory ride. He has sacrificed plot, character, and logic on the altar of self-aggrandizement. Yes, parts of the film work. Individual scenes are funny, or poignant, or thought-provoking. But the picture as a whole is a mess. Some will call this art. I'll content myself with thinking of it as an ambitious misstep by a creative individual who failed to realize what he was trying to represent.

All I know is that I will read or listen to anything anyone has to say about the film, but I hope to never see it again.


Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Follow Shot

Hey guys,

I love the video below. Longtime friend of this blogger and former film critic for The New York Times, Matt Zoller Seitz, put together a montage called “Following”
for The L Magazine that celebrates the Follow Shot, which I also love dearly. He wrote:

"Following" is a montage of clips illustrating one of my favorite types of shots: one where the camera physically follows a character through his or her environment. I love this shot because it's neither first-person nor third; it makes you aware of a character's presence within the movie's physical world while also forcing identification with the character. I also love the sensation of momentum that following shots invariably summon. Because the camera is so close to the character(s) being followed, we feel that we're physically attached to those characters, as if by an invisible guide wire, being towed through their world, sometimes keeping pace, other times losing them as they weave through hallways, down staircases or through smoke or fog...

You can read the rest
here in which he describes briefly the history and influences of the Follow Shot. In fact, I’d say that’s one of my favorite aspects of Kubrick and Scorsese films. It’s a way of marrying the characters to their environment and saying, “Hey, look, these characters are products of their environment” or “They are being horribly affected by their environment.” So how does one describe a Follow Shot in a script? You write about the character walking from room to room with the use of Secondary Headings.

So here’s the vid. Hope you enjoy it.