Monday, May 09, 2011

A Little Hard on The Beaver

Here's my entry on THE BEAVER screenplay written on 12/30/08. Now that the film has come out, I thought I'd re-run it.

Thought about running this on May 20, when the film was scheduled to open wider... but now it looks like that will not happen. According to the LA Times, THE BEAVER has flopped big time - so they have scaled back the "wide release" to only 30 cinemas after the film got mixed reviews and failed to sell any tickets.

Between writing new script tips and an article for Script Magazine and poking around on a spec about Country Western Bars, I’m reading some of the Black List scripts. First up was THE BEAVER, which got the most votes. Now, as someone who has been on a film fest jury or two, I know that just because something gets the most votes doesn’t mean it’s the best - often it means it’s the one more people agree on... and that is often the “most average” of the group. But I did go in with pretty high expectations - these are supposed to be the best scripts out there.

I should also mention that I have a huge problem with reading scripts (and this may even extend to writing them) - I am a real world, production oriented person. You may read a script for the beauty of a description - and I can appreciate that, too, but for me what is more important is: how will this look on screen? How will an actor deliver this line? How will this scene make the audience feel? Will there be enough donuts on set with sprinkles that I can snag one before the Teamsters get to them? So something that is pretty and practical is great, something that is pretty and not practical is just wasting my time and making me angry. When I read a script I’m looking at how it will translate to the screen... and then how it will translate to the audience.

The Black List "experiment" is an interesting one - the idea of finding the screenplays that development people think are the best. I think the weird thing from looking at the list is that it is skewed towards strange and quirky and arty and sometimes even "this is not a movie" screenplays. Instead of being great material that could easily be a *great* mainstream movie, it seems as if part of the criteria is that the scripts must be something no studio would ever touch... and THE BEAVER kind of fits into that theory. This is not a really clever genre script - the kind of great movie I wish Hollywood was still making - it's a weird non-genre story that I can not imagine ever selling... though I guess I'm wrong on that one, since it's now going to be a Steve Carrell movie. The Black List is like a rebel list: development people purposely picking projects their producer bosses would probably hate. At times it seems more like a "Fuck you!" list than a list of great scripts that need to be made. It'll be interesting to see how well THE BEAVER works as a movie... and any of the other strange scripts that made the list and now seems to be hot stuff in Hollywood.

THE BEAVER - the story is basically AMERICAN BEAUTY meets Triumph The Insult Comic Dog, about a upper middle class guy who comes to realize that his life is crap... but when he puts on a hand puppet, the puppet takes over in a strange version of Tourettes and he takes control of his life again. That’s a great idea for a comedy, though this is a drama - and the execution has some problems, but by the end the script has some solid emotional scenes that make it almost work.

If I’d had this idea, the problem I would see going in would be that the hand puppet could easily slide into becoming an exposition device that just blurts out what the character was thinking or feeling... and that is one of the big problems of the script. Much of the story is *told* instead of shown through the hand puppet... and on top of that, the writer decided to have the hand puppet narrate! Yikes! This results in long blocks of speeches by a hand puppet that tell us what is happening or what the protag is thinking or wants or needs. Much of the hand puppet interaction rings completely false - there is an endless speech to a board of directors (at our hero’s job) where not a single board member interrupts - even though the speech is major policy change and given by a talking beaver hand puppet. Everyone allows this hand puppet to drone on and on without interruption - which creates a pile of expositional speeches that litter the script.

The other thing about the hand puppet - it’s not funny or clever. There is *one* line about the CEO’s death by hooker, and all of the rest is just kind of bland stuff in a British accent. No great cutting remarks, nothing that you really wish you had said but couldn’t - because you didn’t have a hand puppet doing the talking for you. Since “sock puppet” is an online term for a false identity that says all of the things that you can not, I believed this sock puppet would say all of the things Walter could not. You know, the clever, cutting things that will get you fired or punched if you say them yourself. A couple of weeks ago I saw GRAN TORINO, which has got to have the most un-PC dialogue of any film in the past few years. Eastwood’s character is constantly saying things that are completely inappropriate - and that produces laughter. He calls people names to their faces! But here, the Beaver mostly just makes speeches or says something that is not clever or cutting... something that Walter might have easily said himself without fear. And, when you compare the Beaver’s dialogue to Triumph’s? Seriously - watch that first Triumph clip where he goes to the dog show and try not to hurt yourself laughing. That puppet says things you wouldn’t even think of thinking! Triumph is too honest... and you wish that the Beaver had been more honest and more funny.

And that may be because this script falls into no genre - it is not a Steve Carrel comedy and even says in the script at one point that it is not a Jim Carrey comedy. So maybe they weren’t trying for humor (in a script about a talking beaver hand puppet)... But if this script was supposed to be more dramatic, like AMERICAN BEAUTY, it still doesn’t measure up. Not only is AMERICAN BEAUTY *funnier* - Lester does say many of those fantasy things you’ve always wanted to say but would get fired or punched - it’s not as *dramatic*. When Lester snaps, he does all of the things he has always fantasized about... and basically relives the time in his life where he was most happy - he becomes a teen again. He buys the car he wanted as a teen, lives life as if there is no tomorrow, and even ends up working a teen type job at a drive through. He completely changes his life after the snap...

But once Walter finds The Beaver, he changes *nothing* - he has the same job, tries to get back to his old life with his wife and kids. He has this potential power to change - the Beaver hand puppet - and doesn’t use it. Once he has the beaver hand puppet - he does nothing differently, except talk in long speeches in a British accent (why doesn’t anybody ever interrupt him?). He just lives his old life, and more or less does it the way he used to. The changes - he takes his wife out to dinner and teaches his youngest son woodworking - are things he could have easily done without the puppet... and not really any big deal.

The great comedy idea of a guy possessed by a talking beaver hand puppet is also completely at odds with the serious tone of the script. I don't see how this is going to play on screen at all. When I imagine the serious scenes with dialogue coming from a hand puppet, it just becomes silly. The puppet undercuts the drama - and is going to create unintentional laughs no matter who directs it. On the page this may work, on screen I can't imagine it working at all.

The script also has these story cheats, like the woodworking. The youngest son is given a hunk of wood and many sharp and dangerous tools... and the kid is instantly happy! No actual dramatic scenes needed! And Walter’s failing company? Hey, they sell hunks of wood and sharp and dangerous tools to children - and they are back in the black! Like by magic! And everybody loves Walter! Walter writes a book... and it’s a best seller! He’s instantly on Oprah! Yes, I know it’s only a movie - but I like to see a little work done on things like this... even if it’s just a line about how kids are tired of passive toys and games, which give them nothing when they are done playing. They want something to show for the time spent playing other than a high score on some computer screen. Some *justification* for the woodworking set to become this massive hit. Though the Beaver says he did focus groups - we never see them, so I do not believe they existed.

These story cheats are most prevalent in the older son’s story track - from the cliche portion of wall where he bashes his head regularly to the cliche rubber band on his wrist he snaps when he catches himself acting like his father to the hot cheerleader who is secretly an artist and has murals hidden in her brother’s room... yet she never acts like an artist at all. We never see her as an artist pretending to be a cheerleader - she isn’t drawing on her peechee folders (or whatever they use these days). I drew on *everything* and was drawing in class when I was supposed to be listening - and still got good grades. And I’m not an artist - I was a bored kid with some basic drawing talent and lots of imagination. I wanted to believe she was an artist because she said she was, but the *evidence* didn’t support it... so I was always waiting for the twist that her brother was the real artist and she was just a silly cheerleader. By the way, she didn’t seem particularly bright, either... nor did Porter (oldest son). We get no *demonstration* - only what is told to us by the characters... and that might all be lies.

The script takes a strange, bloody turn at one point - that makes no sense.. But kind of reminds me of the Jim Carrey movie THE MASK - and, again, that’s a film with a similar premise that explores that premise much much better than this script does. The problem with this bloody scene is that it is so out of place in this tame story that you wonder if it will survive all of the way to the screen. Basic tone issues. If you think about the violence in AMERICAN BEAUTY, it is just as big as the other events in the story so it fits. When you are doing sound editing, you may get different volume levels from different sources, and there is a filter-gizmo that goes through the entire sound track and makes it all the same volume level, so that it doesn’t suddenly BLAST at you - like those loud commercials in the middle of a TV show. I think stories need something similar - sort of a tone adjustment - that makes sure you don’t have some scene so shocking and different than anything else we have seen so far that seems to belong in some other script. I am all for pushing the envelope, and even having that one scene in your script that you know will be cut because it goes too far... but you want that scene to fit the script that has come before. The violence in AMERICAN BEAUTY was completely within the world of that story... the scene in THE BEAVER just seems to come out of left field. Hard to imagine that violence working on screen at all.

But here’s the thing - a movie and a screenplay can be saved by their ending... and as a story continues, we tend to become invested in the characters... so by the time I reached the end of THE BEAVER I wasn’t thinking about all of the problems as much as I was thinking about all of the things it did well... and that end (which oddly uses the narration I disliked from the beginning) had me liking the script despite its flaws... even though the ending was also kind of a cheat. Instead of solving Walter's problems, he's kind of pushed aside in the story in favor of the older son and cheerleader subplot. It's the old switcheroo - which is not what you expect from a script that's #1 on the Black List, but at least gives us a big emotional resolution on the page. I can see why it got a bunch of votes - but still can’t see how it will work on screen as a Steve Carrell movie without some heavy rewrites. I'm wondering if that end that made me tear up on the page will just seem like some completely out of left field tack on when it hits the screen. Reading a script takes more time than watching a movie, and what seems like a gradual change from Walter's story to the oldest son and cheerleader story on the page might really seem like a cheat on screen. You have to read past the language in a script and see what ends up on screen... but maybe they'll fix the flaws and this will be Carrell's biggest hit since 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN?

Next, I think I’ll read Scott Frank’s script... which was at the bottom of the Black List.

Classes On CD On Sale!

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Holiday Block older tips that need a rewrite and haven't run for a while.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Mom's home cooking.
Pages: Poking around on this old thriller script that takes place in a Country Western Bar - I hope to kick off the new year by finishing this sucker.

MOVIES: GRAN TORINO - The Clint squint is back! The second Eastwood movie to come out this season is completely different than THE CHANGELING in almost every way. From the trailer, it looks like GRUMPY OLD DEATH WISH - and it is - but the film is also much more. It’s a comedy. Now, when you think Clint Eastwood and comedy, you instantly think of orangutans or chimpanzees... but Clint is the closest to a lower primate in this film. He plays an old, racist, foul mouthed and really grump retired auto worker named Walt who lives in the same house in the same neighborhood he has always lived in... only the world has changed around him. What was a great neighborhood in the 40s or 50s is now broken down slums filled with immigrants. Hmongs - from Laos and Viet Nam. He hates ‘em. He has a dozen names for ‘em, each one more outrageous (and funny) than the one before.

Walter is a guy who is too old for the bullshit of being polite - maybe he always was - so he has an insult for everybody. The movie opens with the death of his wife, making Walter all alone in his old neighborhood... and when people try to comfort him, he snaps at them. He calls his Priest a virgin, and then goes on to trash him and all of the BS parts of religion. When his sons try to get him into a home for “active seniors” he tells them off - saying things that no one would ever really say... they might think them, but they’d never actually say them. That is Walter’s charm - he says what we think but would never say. All of the terrible things, all of the impolite things, all of the funny things. He’s like the late, great, stand up comic Sam Kineson.

This character of Walter says so many evil, racist, impolite, and downright mean things - you wonder what would have happened if another actor had been cast in the role. We know Eastwood, we like him... and Eastwood has a way of saying all of these terrible things so that they are more comedy than derogatory. Instead of hating Walter - which we might have done if another actor had played the role - we grow to like him because he says exactly what he thinks without any filters. Eastwood makes him not evil, just cranky. But some other actor - even a well liked star of Eastwood’s caliber - might not have been able to pull off this character. This is about the most unlikeable lead character I've ever seen on screen. I can just imagine all of the development notes this thing might have gotten about making Walter "more likeable"... probably from the save Devos who voted for THE BEAVER!

The trailer might make you think this will be wall-to-wall kick ass, but the film does something different. It takes this grumpy old man who is set in his ways and hates the immigrants who surround him, and through the story, forces him to deal with the world around him and become a member of his new neighborhood. After the kid next door tries to steal his prized Gran Torino, Walter has to deal with the kid and his family - he can’t just hurl insults at them from his porch - and discovers that these people who look very different than him are actually more like him than his own family. He takes the boy under his wing and teaches him to become a man... and that’s the meat of the story. Sure, there are kick ass scenes and Clint does an interesting variation on DEATH WISH, but most of the film is the growing relationship between Walter and the family next door... and how he becomes so involved with them that their problems become his problems (then there’s that ass-kicking portion of our show).

I believe the Hmong actors are civilians, but they give really good performances for non-actors in a film shot at Clint-speed (he shoots really fast, few takes, usually no rehearsals). Sue, the girl next door, comes off really well - she has a great personality and you believe this old fart might be talked into coming over for a big family dinner (and free beer) by her. Tao, the boy, gets to act sullen and introverted - much easier for a non-actor, but the kid also pulls it off. You believe every single one of these characters. I think the Priest needed a little rewriting - he’s okay, but the character comes off very passive and kind of bland. I’ve been rewatching a bunch of Noir films, and one of the great things about casting someone like Robert Mitchum or Burt Lancaster in the lead in those films is that they brought personality to the roles. Both of those actors were incredibly versatile, even though you might not notice it from only seeing a couple of films, but when you cast someone like Lancaster he could make low key characters interesting with a line reading or a gesture or some other character thing he would bring to the role. If the Priest role had been played by one of those old school actors, it might have been more interesting.... but he comes off kind of flat in the film.


Okay, I always try to disguise things so that I don’t completely spoil the movie, but I thought I should warn you anyway. The big problem I had with GRAN TORINO was the end. Eastwood’s revenge plan requires that the ultra close-lipped Hmongs who would never rat on even the most evil member of their community actually talk to the police... or the whole revenge plan falls apart. It is clearly set up that the Hmongs would *never* go to the police - yet Clint’s plan requires it... so the whole revenge plan kind of folds in on itself. For Clint’s revenge plan to work, a Hmong must do what they never do and go to the police... but if the Hmong would go to the police we wouldn’t really need Clint’s revenge plan - the cops would take care of it. It wouldn’t be as exciting as Clint’s plan, but it would be a potential resolution. Oh, and for the Clint revenge plan to work, the Hmong character must talk to the police at a specific time in order for the police to act in a specific way at the specific time that all fits in Clint’s revenge plan. In other words - it’s all up to chance and coincidence. A *better* method would have been to use the Priest character (who has a silly scene at the end already) and have him be the one who brings in the police at the right place and at the right time for Clint’s revenge plan to work. Clint might have given the Priest some information about his revenge plan, knowing that he would go to the police, but also lied about time or place so that the police wouldn’t get there too soon and prevent him from kicking a bunch of low-life ass. The Cavalry would show up in time to see that it was a fair fight and not Clint going psycho (so we can have a happy ending), but Clint could still kick enough ass to give us the movie we paid to see. Those of you who have seen the movie know what I am talking about, those of you who haven’t hopefully won’t guess the details of the end from that.


So GRAN TORINO manages to be two movies in one - a heartwarming story of an old guy who is alone in the world and finds friendship and community... and a badass GRUMPY OLD DEATH WISH flick about an old Korean War vet who is completely underestimated by the gangs and drug dealers and scumbags who are ruining his old neighborhood. While watching, I wondered if this whole script was sparked by the line “Get off my lawn”. And no one growls like Clint!

PS: My interview continues on the Writer's Bloc Show on Virtual TV Network, with the LAST part, about the postponed movie #20 and VOLATILE:


PPS: More of my damned movies showing on Sky in the UK! I'm sorry...

M4M2 (UK): Friday Jan 2 - 15:10 - Black Thunder - When the world's most powerful stealth jet fighter falls into enemy hands, only one man can get it back. Starring Michael Dudikoff.

You have been warned.

- Bill


Christian M. Howell said...

I almost totally agree abotu tThe Beaver. I was thinkign about it a little while ago and I'm still amazed that there were no "beaver" jokes.

It seemed to be too dark to me. One kid bangs his head on a wall. The other is like catatonic. The father sleeps his life away as CEO?

And the incident with the saw really threw me. I mean, how the hell does a hand puppet graft itself?
And then the self-help section really lost me. 1000s of people with hand puppets talkign for them?

If I were you I'd read The Oranges. It's pretty plain and unexciting except for one part near the end. It made up for all of the droning VO and lack of "action."

I can say that this list gives me a lot of inspiration. I mean, my scripts may not be great but hey, I know how to introduce elements at the tright time. Maybe I'm sometimes cliche, but I have at least a joke per page.

Emily Blake said...

Huh. When I was scrolling through the list trying to pick which screenplay I wanted to read next, I breezed right over that one. I read all the loglines and something about that called out to me in no way whatsoever.

This doesn't really make me want to read it any more than I did before.

Luzid said...

I read it today at work, and I think you have to go into it knowing it's a dark comedy.

That said, you make excellent points about the dearth of jokes from the titular character -- who did draw me in and make me keep reading.

(I think the writer missed a great moment in the anniversary dinner scene, though: when asked about work, Wally could have said "Busy as a b..." to really nail the awkwardness of the beat.)

Any other suggestions on Black List scripts to check out?

Earl Newton said...

I don't know if I necessarily agree that protagonist (and his beaver/fist combo) needed to be making wisecracks. It didn't strike me as that kind of movie. In American Beauty, Lester Burnham is a repressed man: he's been stepped on by everyone and the movie is about him stepping up. In The Beaver, Walter isn't repressed, he's depressed. He just doesn't want to do anything, feels horrible about himself, and the Beaver is his way to live life safely for awhile.

I enjoyed the script, but you're right, the ending does cover a multitude of sins. Especially the fight scene and what follows it. I can't envision how you could pull off a legitimate, unfunny version of that scene.

Unless you gave the Beaver in that scene the same stark, austere creepiness as the Rabbit from Donnie Darko...


Either way, 90% of films live and die by its marketing, and no matter what you do, selling a beaver puppet movie that ISN'T a comedy is going to be a challenge. I sincerely wish them good luck.

ObiDonWan said...

I just saw A NIGHT AT MCCOOL'S and loved every minute of it. Great writing and characterizations. Why waste time watching new movies that aren't so hot when so many good old movies are available?

Anonymous said...

Scott Frank had one on the BL? Which one, I love his writing. I have a draft of the latest Night At Museum he did

wcmartell said...

This is a test to see if new comments can be added to an entry from 2008... it is only a test.

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