Monday, January 05, 2009

Scott Frank’s Flaming Sperm

Okay, maybe I’m and old fart who is set in my ways like Clint’s character in GRAN TORINO, but BEAVER disappointed me... and Scott Frank’s AFTER HAILEY was just great writing that actually made me cry three times.... and I predict someone will win an Oscar for playing the role of Richard when this sucker’s made. This script - at the bottom of the Black List - makes me wonder if that crazy theory of mine that the scripts on the Black List are a big "fuck you!" to the producers these Devos work for is true. Is the Black List completely reactionary? Is it not about finding the best, but finding the scripts that symbolize the anti-Hollywood?

There is no such thing as a perfect script or a perfect movie or a perfect person - everything is a mix of good and bad. When you read a script or see a movie, there are things that don’t work and things that do - and when there are more things that work than not, it’s a good movie. When there are more things that don’t work than do, it’s a bad movie. And there are degrees of good and bad based on how much stuff works. Same with all of these scripts - and for me, AFTER HAILEY had more stuff that worked than didn’t... and even though it's an arty drama, it's the kind of story that works on screen.

The story is simple - plot 53B - a wayward son comes home for a family event. There have to be a hundred movies with the same basic plot... and there would probably be more of them if it weren’t so basic. Hard to get financing when your story is this routine. And that’s one of the flaws of the script - we’ve seen this a million times before.

Our protagonist, Doug, is a hot-shot young photographer for Newsweek who never gets involved or emotional while taking pictures of war or disasters or poverty - it ruins the shot. He sees the world through his view finder - detached. In Iraq he meets a beautiful recently divorced magazine editor at least a decade older than he is and they have an affair... and then get married. She is Hailey, the love of his life.

Two years later, Doug is returning home for his sister’s wedding... without Hailey. One of the cool things that Frank does is parcel out information a little at a time, creating a question, a mystery, and then answering it a few scenes later. Where THE BEAVER *told* the story in a bunch of exposition, here it unfolds before us - as if we are watching Doug’s life as it happens. As we watch Doug settle in to his old house - where he once lived with Hailey - we begin to piece together that she is dead... but not how she died. That mystery runs most of the script, and we don’t really get all of the information about her death until the very last scene.

Doug has got to be the least responsible person in the world, and seeing him deal with all of the things he has spent his life trying to escape from creates some great big dramatic moments. This is a small story, but really well written and *skillfully* written. Some minor scene that may have been blah in some other writer’s script is filled with big emotional moments, here. Doug must learn to stop seeing the world through the viewfinder and start actually living it. He is an extraordinary person in an ordinary story - a famous photo journalist who could probably walk into any bar anywhere in the world and be recognized - famous in Mozambique. His photos are famous. The reason he initially hooks up with Hailey is because he is this famous magazine photographer among dozens, maybe even hundreds of photogs and journos in Iraq. But now he’s back home, where he’s just Doug.

Doug has a stepson who isn’t that much older than he is, and he must learn to raise the kid. Hailey’s always-angry and usually violent ex-husband and his trophy wife are part oi this equation. Doug has another sister who is breaking up with her husband and crashes at his place... which used to be his and Hailey’s place. And because he’s the famous dude come home, he ends up sleeping with his best friend from high school’s horny wife... and almost getting caught again and again. Doug has *all kinds* of family issues - the most interesting of which is his father Richard who has suffered a stroke and is now hovering somewhere between absent minded and dementia. He doesn’t remember that Hailey is dead... and also doesn’t act like an adult. Completely unpredictable... and creates problems wherever he goes, I predict that the actor who plays Richard will be nominated for Best Supporting Actor - this role is so well written and so meaty I think the orangutan who played Clyde in those Eastwood boxing movies could get a nomination for playing this role. All of the characters, all of the dialogue, all of the scenes and situations are the best version of Plot 53B so far (except, maybe for HAMLET).

The stepson says that a gathering of Doug’s family is like having a brick of C4 explosives under the table that could go off at any moment, and that is one of the great things about this script. It is filled with “Oh crap!” moments where things go completely wrong, and at any time a quiet moment might turn suddenly dramatic or even violent. In every scene there is drama simmering below the surface - and it often explodes. But the script is also funny as hell, and has so many big tender moments that three of them actually had my tear ducts working. One of the great skills Frank has is to plant something that pays off again and again and again - in different and unexpected ways. Just when you think this thing was planted for one payoff... there is an even better pay off, then - later - a better pay off than that. And you never see them coming.

Because it’s Scott Frank (or, maybe this was in the novel it’s adapted from) someone does pull out a gun and actually shoot someone - those dramatic family explosions include fist fights and shootings - and what is amazing is how even the violence pays off in interesting character-oriented ways. One character has their greatest moment due to the presence of the gun. The film has a different story, but much of the same feel of Frank’s THE LOOKOUT - a character dealing with past mistakes and past tragedies. The strength is this script is the writing, not the story... and that may be why it only got 5 votes. It’s probably the least flashy script on the Black List.

The script is littered with “we see”s and camera direction stuff, and at 127 pages, I think it would have come out danged close to 120 without them... and you’d never miss ‘em. Those things take me out of the story and take up space. Another thing that bugged me was having everyone called MAN or WOMAN if they speak before being introduced - I have no idea whose fool idea this is, but if you’re doing breakdowns you end up with this character MAN in almost every scene, but when it comes to casting MAN it ends up not a character at all - but all of the male characters the first time they speak. I can understand if you are trying to keep the identity of a character secret, but when the same actor is going to play MAN and RICHARD, you’re just making it pointlessly confusing by referring to him by two names. The breakdown and scheduling programs go by the character name - and MAN and RICHARD are two different names and that makes them two different characters.

The bigger problem here may be that the story is plot 53B - it’s a great script with a generic idea... which means it’s all about the execution and the casting. The execution is great, but this is going to end up a prestige film - one of those movies released around this time of the year for Oscar consideration. The mass audience isn’t going to see it because of the idea - they’ve seen it before - so the cast is going to make or break this film... along with the critics. There’s a Dustin Hoffman/Emma Thompson “last chance at romance” movie (plot 27D) that’s coming out - and even with those two big names, the critics are tearing it apart and saying we have seen this story a hundred times before... we’ll see how the audience responds. The story we’ve seen before - no matter how great he execution - is a tough sell to most of the people who buy tickets. If the cast is appealing and the critics love it, it may still flop... but at least it has a chance.

This is a trap screenwriters seem to fall into when they get to make their own films. One of the reasons why I am a big fan of Scott Frank is because he usually works in the crime genre - his big break was DEAD AGAIN, a mystery thriller about reincarnation starring Emma Thompson as an amnesiac who was either a victim or a killer in her past life... and Frank kept you guessing until the very end. (Hey, also about regrets from the past.) Frank adapted two Elmore Leonard novels to the screen - and both were critical and financial successes (GET SHORTY and OUT OF SIGHT). Elmore Leonard calls him “his screenwriter”. I read the Cohen draft of MINORITY REPORT, and it was crap... then read the Frank draft and it was brilliant - all of the great things in the film are from the Frank draft. If you want a great crime-mystery-thriller type script, Scott Frank is the man.... But when he got a chance to make his own movie, he made THE LOOKOUT... which is more character study than crime drama. Look, I loved THE LOOKOUT - I wrote an article for Script about some of the swell, clever writing. I own the movie on DVD and watch it often. But no matter how great that film is, it is not MINORITY REPORT or DEAD AGAIN or GET SHORTY... and the film didn’t burn up the box office.

Take Tony Gilroy, who took a Robert Ludlum potboiler and turned it into a franchise that is not only the most freakin’ exciting action films made in a decade, they are also intelligent and character oriented and haunting. When the BOURNE movies are so powerful that they change James Bond... and recharge that series with CASINO ROYALE (until QUANTUM killed it) - you have a writer who knows how to please the audience and the critics. So they give Gilroy the chance to make a movie, and does he make something that will catapult him to the top? Does he write the script that will be a huge financial success and insure that he will be able to call the shots from now on? Does he write a critically acclaimed #1 box office filmn like BOURNE IDENTITY that will turn him into the new Spielberg? No, he falls into the trap and makes MICHAEL COLLINS, a really good character study that doesn’t make much money... though, I own that one on DVD, too and really like it. Basically, the writer’s trap is to make the film that other writers will really love... but won’t do very well with the mass audience that controls what films get made and who makes them. These guys end up making small films that either result in them being able to make more small films... or them not being allowed to make anything ever again. They make that one personal film that no one would ever buy or ever let them make in the past... without asking “Why?” Why wouldn’t anyone let them make it? Why wouldn’t anyone buy it? Why do they think this is the best script to make now? Why do they event want to make this script?

Instead, why don’t guys like Scott Frank and Tony Gilroy do what they do when they’re writing to sell - come up with a great genre story that will sell tickets like crazy... and write it with skill and passion and the focus on characters that makes them great writers? Do a variation on that Clint Eastwood "One for them, One for me"? Start with the *high quality* crowd pleaser that will make the studios so much money that they won't care if they make a personal film that doesn't make much money... they will *still* fund the next film. Instead of starting out by directing a tough sell, start out with a hit and write your own ticket!

I suspect Frank is looking at AFTER HAILEY as a potential directing follow-up to LOOKOUT... and it’s taking him in a difficult direction. Sure, if the film is well cast and becomes that must-see movie for us older audience members it might end up a hit... and if some cast members are nominated for Oscars, it can make some money and help his career... But he has proven that he can write an exciting genre movie that also makes you think and has all of the great character work and story-telling that AFTER HAILEY has, so why not do that for himself? Why write the intelligent and emotional crowd pleaser for Spielberg, and write the small film for yourself? Why not write the great crowd pleaser for yourself?

There is a Ross Macdonald novel with Plot 53B where the wayward son comes home for a family event... and there is a murder and the kid must not only deal with all of the “you can’t come home again” stuff, he has to solve the crime. Hell, the grand daddy of all Plot 53B stories is HAMLET - wayward son comes home for family event - father’s funeral - and must solve father’s murder... and that is one heck of a character oriented story that really digs deep into motivation and emotional situations and character growth... and it’s been a crowd pleaser for a few hundred years, now. The trap of writing something that will *not* be a big success with the audience, resulting in writers forever being the people struggling for power, is something to avoid. It hurts all of us. When you write enough big hits to get your own film - write another big hit! Do it right - make it a great script - but also make sure it’s something exciting enough to land you some more jobs where *you* are the one in power.

The story in AFTER HAILEY may be soft, but the writing is solid. We see Doug and his family trying to make their lives work, and get caught up in those lives. There’s a moment when the drunken stepson decides to make a speech at the sister’s wedding that has you cringing while you are reading it - expecting the worst... and when it begins to go *way* off course, you wonder if there will be more gunfire and fistfights - but as he drunkenly stumbles on, you realize this may be the best wedding toast you have ever heard. The script is a bunch of great moments, and no bad ones.

Oh, and the "flaming sperm" is Doug's description of his stepson's tattoo... which is really Hailey's comet.

I've read a few other BlackList scripts, and may get around to typing up my thoughts on them in the next month or two... but now I have to get back to work on these things called "screenplays".

Classes On CD On Sale!

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Twisted Chronologies Complete rewrite of a tip from 2003.
Yesterday’s Dinner: All you can eat at China Wall in Concord.

MOVIES: THE WRESTLER - Mickey Rourke is back... again... again again. Back in the days of BODY HEAT and DINER Mickey Rourke was The Next Big Thing and everybody knew it. He was this sexy, magnetic, talented actor who could play various types of bad boys with a charm that made you love them, whether they were felons in prison or that guy in high school who had sex with every girl you ever had a crush on. As his career took off, Rourke did the usual serious actor trying to self destruct thing by choosing roles that were interesting to him... but often in the wrong movies. You’ve got to read the whole script, stars, not just the highlighted portion that consists of your lines. So Rourke ended up in some bombs right when he needed to be in some hits, and his stardom began to fade. That’s when he scrambled and started making movies for the 9 AND A HALF WEEKS guy and his wife - steamy, sexy soft core movies where Rourke got to play the sexy bad boy and be nekkid with lots of hot women. While his acting career was in trouble, he decided to quit it all, get married to one of those nekkid costars, and take up professional boxing.

Huh?

Now Rourke was probably an okay boxer when he was a kid, but as an adult his career seemed to be getting beat up a lot. He did this for several years, until nobody wanted him as an actor or a boxer. Then he crawled back to Hollywood by way of Austin and played a crazy CIA snitch in Robert Rodriguez’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO... and everybody loved him and thought he was back. Of course, all of that boxing had done a number on his face, and he wasn’t the pretty boy he once was. Now he was kind of Frankenstein Monster looking. And his career faded again... But Rodriguez is a loyal guy, and cast him in SIN CITY... and he was brilliant and all of the critics loved his performance and announced his return to stardom and... then his career faded again.

So Rourke seems to have brought all of that real life backstory to THE WRESTLER... and maybe the writer-director Darren Aronofsky brought some of his own real life backstory to the writing - he managed to take a promising directing career where he was the chosen one to bring Batman back to the screens and completely screw it up. Chris Nolan was the guy who replaced him... and THE DARK KNIGHT is the second biggest domestic gross film of all time (not adjusted for inflation). Aronofsky’s career? Kind of where Rourke’s is.

THE WRESTLER seems to be some sort of riff on ROCKY, but don’t be fooled. It’s a gritty, emotionally savage story that pulls no punches. It's more like one of John Huston's later films, FAT CITY, about washed up boxers in Stockton, CA trying to earn a living between fights. Rourke plays Randy The Ram, who was a famous wrestler 20 years ago. Now he lives in a trailer... which he is behind on his rent for, so it’s locked up and he’s sleeping in his van until he can make back rent. He wrestles every weekend in some local exhibition at the Elks Club or something... and on weekdays he does my old job, unloading trucks at a grocery store part time. He does it by hand (you wonder why they don’t even have any hand dollies at this place). He’s always fighting for more hours, the verbally abusive grocery store manager is always giving him fewer hours probably just to piss Randy off. Whatever money Randy does not spend on performance drugs and painkillers, he spends on strippers, mostly on one that he has a crush on: Cassie, played by Oscar Winner Marisa Tomei. His fantasy is that they get married. She has a completely different fantasy, which we’ll get to in a minute. Randy also has an estranged daughter whom he has not seen in many years. He has a grade school photo of her with a half dozen phone numbers crossed off on the back. The guy is a mess.

The great thing about the film is that it takes you behind the scenes in wrestling. You see the wrestlers talk out the match before they get in the ring - and a funny scene has wrestlers arguing about which one will do a specific fight move... between *all* of the wrestlers fighting in *all* of the matches that night. You also get to see how they hide razor blades in their arm wrappings so that they can cut themselves and bleed in the ring. Real blood. Their blood. And you see how physical and brutal this form of entertainment is - these guys take a real beating putting on a fake show. I found all of that stuff interesting, and it is shown in interesting ways. A funny trip to the Dollar Store to find props to hit each other with is fun.

But this film is all about the characters and the acting, and Rourke does an amazing job playing a guy who craves the fame that has gotten away from him. There is a tragic, cringe inducing scene where he convinces one of the trailer park kids to play the Atari Randy The Ram Wrestling game with him. Rourke manages to be charming and funny and tragic all at the same time. It’s a great subtle performance. Many times in the film he must act like a big star in a situation where it is obvious that his star has faded, and he plays both things - a layered performance. There’s a scene at an autograph event - a great situation - where he looks from one ex-wrestler to another, noting each of their permanent injuries.

The two big relationships in the film are with the stripper and his daughter. Evan Rachel Wood plays the daughter, and she’s okay. There are some big meaty scenes between them, as Randy tries to make amends for a lifetime of neglecting her... but keeps screwing up. There’s a really well written scene and sequence where he invites the stripper Cassie to help him shop at a thrift store for a gift for his daughter... and that gift has a swell payoff and twist in the story.

Though Rourke is getting all of the Oscar buzz, Marisa Tomei gives another great performance as the stripper Cassie whose real name is Pam and has a son and dreams and tragedies and struggles of her own. Tomei is a fearless actress. When she won her Oscar for MY COUSIN VINNIE lots of people thought there must have been some mistake - maybe they got the wrong envelope or something. But since then, she has proven again and gain that she deserved that Oscar. Here she is a mirror to Randy’s tragedy - and has a bunch of great scenes where she gives a layered performance to match Rourke’s. She is the stripper long past her pull date, who must act like she enjoys her job when she hates it... but maybe secretly loves part of it. Name another Oscar winner who would give a performance like this - so sad, so tragic - in a microscopic G string? Tomei is topless for most of the scenes in the strip club, and she looks great for a woman no longer 20... Okay, I’ve always had a crush on her. But some other actress would have played the stripper fully clothed - and that would have been bullshit. You’ve seen that in movies before. For some reason the movie star stripper never strips. Here, she’s just one of the strippers... but older and with more mileage. Like Randy, she’s in a business where she must take care of her body by any means necessary - and her body looks just as good as the girls half her age. But Cassie’s eyes are old. She’s seen too much. There are several great scenes where Cassie is smiling with every part of her face but her eyes... I’m not sure how Tomei did that.

One of the interesting things about this story is that Cassie desperately wants to escape the spotlight and just live a normal life... she wants to live as Pam, not Cassie. But Randy desperately wants to live his entire life in the spotlight and never have to live a normal life... he wants to live as Randy The Ram and hates when people call him by his birth name Robin... the name on his W4 at the grocery store, so they put it on his name tag. These people are star crossed lovers - and are struggling with almost identical problems, just the mirror reflection of those problems. Opposite solutions.

I am not going to give away the big spoilers that actually kick the plot into gear, there is so little plot here that even to tell you the inciting incident will give away too much. This is a film with two great performances, and so many great little details that you feel like you are there... and Mickey Rourke is back! But for how long?

Pages: Friday I managed to write 25 pages of blog related material (including this entry). Yikes!

- Bill

4 comments:

E.C. Henry said...

GREAT job describing Scott Frank's "After Hailey." I'd pay to see it. And your true admiration for a fellow scribe shows great sportsmenship.

Concerning "The Wressler," I too am a HUGE Maria Tomei fan. She does IT for me, totally. That said, and having seen a trailer for the film, "The Wressler" looks like a lemon, a story I'm really not interested in watching for a couple hours.
Was a fan of Mickey Rourke. But today the more I think of him, the more, in my mind, he's locked into playing mob, shot 'em up, shows -- nothing else. His time came, his time went; bottom line, Mickey Rourke should have made better choices when he toyed with super-stardum.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Grant said...

I always thought it wasn't so much that writers turned directors were trying to make "writer's" movies, but that they were trying to make something simple so the stakes wouldn't be so high. Hedge their bets a little bit. So they don't end up getting AUSTRALIA/SPEED RACER/GIGLI type blow-back in the industry for a directorial debut.

I read some interview with Brian Helgeland where he mentioned that he got a little scared when Mel Gibson got involved with PAYBACK. He wanted to make a nice little movie and prove he was at least a competent director. He was afraid it'd get too high profile once Gibson was involved. That it'd become some 150 million dollar thing that needed to open Memorial Day Weekend. It didn't. But they fired him anyway. [He also pulled a SOLARIS and claimed that PAYBACK was based on the book, not POINT BLANK, but that my friends is another story.]

That was my take on THE LOOKOUT. To be honest I didn't even realize it played theaters. Maybe it was an NYC/LA only thing. I thought it was DTV. Thought it was a great little movie though.

Same thing with MICHAEL CLAYTON. It could have been made cheaper without A list actors and still would have been really good.

That's why I think these writers' directorial debuts weren't straight-up kick-ass genre pieces. They've already got enough pressure without having to promise a guaranteed blockbuster.

My $0.02.

Erik said...

I think for many writers turned directors it's a chance to get something made that they couldn't otherwise get made. They can't attach a director to these projects, but they love their script, and since it's small enough they can convince someone to front the money for a first time director.

At least in Tony Gilroy's case, I thought the film was well directed, putting the writing aside. It was nominated for 7 Oscars, and Gilroy has a follow up. So I think he played this one right.

The Moviequill said...

The Wrestler had me FROM the trailer, I just knew Mickey was going to shine -- awesome entry today, Bill

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