Friday, April 03, 2009

Script Review: Scott Frank’s “After Hailey” (Or How to Manage Your Emotions and Learn to Embrace Drama)

Hey guys,

I thought I might get back into script reviews & analysis beginning with stories from the
2008 Blacklist, which can still be obtained here. I know many of my readers weren’t excited about the Blacklist scripts, and honestly, I wasn’t either. But weak scripts make for good reviews because you can always learn something new.

Ever since I read fellow Script columnist Bill Martel’s
article on Scott Frank’s After Hailey, I’ve been curious. Scott Frank, the man who fixed Minority Report and gave us Out of Sight, Dead Again, and Get Shorty wrote a melodrama about a man recovering from the death of his wife. Really? The story is based on a novel by Jonathan Tropper in which a 20-something man’s older wife dies. He returns to his old home for his sister’s wedding, and he is reunited with the troubled teenage son from Hailey's previous marriage. Ho hum, right? Martel called it “Plot 53B” because we’ve seen it a million times. Hell, I’d say it’s beyond clichéd to have this kind of setup. If a couple of producers asked me to write this kind of story for them, I’d pass. I can foresee all the potential problems – the clichés, the passive protagonist moping about over the death of his wife, and the stomach-churning melodrama. You’d have to be insanely careful to avoid so many career-halting pitfalls in this kind of setup. But – Scott Frank took this on. SCOTT. FRANK. How the hell would he handle this subject? Thus, I had to read it.

I found this script to be a great platform to talk about something I’ve been thinking about for a while – Managing Your Emotions.

So let me cover
Bill’s article first. I agreed with every word he wrote:

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 in 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.

And I have to share this, too, which is about writers who take on personal stories when they’re finally given the chance to direct:

This is a trap screenwriters often 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. 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. 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? No, he falls into the trap and makes MICHAEL [CLAYTON], 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 even want to make this script?

I completely agree. And I can hear the complaints already: “It’s not always about the box office.” You’re right. It’s not. But you better make damned sure you don’t lose money either. And these little personal stories can very easily sink your backers, which will in turn sink your career. This is more about establishing yourself (as a new director) with solid hits before you move on to personal stories. Building a following as a screenwriter is one thing. Building a following as a director is another and you have to build trust first. There’s a lot of wisdom in waiting before you get personal. You need to know what you’re doing and hone your craft first, and I’ll tell you why: personal stories can be unbelievably deceptive as you write them.

It’s like this. You sit down and start writing your story. You know the characters inside and out. You’re in a scene and you’re feeling the feelings of all the characters. That’s a good thing. Nothing wrong with that. But some writers can get swept away and distracted by those feelings. And they assume that the feelings of the characters that they are feeling as they write the scene will also be felt by the audience. That’s deceptive. That may not be the case. The scene may not play well at all. So you have to be careful. You have to Manage Your Emotions as you write a story. You have to know the emotions of the characters certainly, but you also need the discipline to step back and understand the emotion of the scene, have a feel for the rhythms and beats of solid drama, and consider how well it will play to audiences.

So, for example (and this is common), I read a scene in which all of the characters are having a fun moment together. They’re getting along and feeling good and laughing. And the writer is feeling the happy feelings of those characters as he writes the scene. And he assumes that the readers will also feel those same happy feelings as well. But, more likely, they won’t, because a scene like that is static, has no conflict, no tension, no drama, and usually fails to advance the story in a substantive way. You may be feeling those happy feelings of the characters in that moment, but you need the discipline to know that this scene may not play well for all the reasons I just listed and cut it. This is not to say that you can’t have a scene like this, but you have to be damn careful. If your script is filled with scenes like this, you better believe your readers will be bored out of their minds. I think this is a big pitfall for
timid screenwriters, because they write a bunch of happy scenes like this and want the readers to feel happy and praise the writer, but all it does is put the readers to sleep. It takes conflict and drama to hold the attention of all your readers.

How you’re feeling when you’re writing your scenes and how the reader feels when he’s reading your scenes are many times totally different perceptions and experiences. You have to Manage Your Emotions and step back, look at your story as a whole, and work hard to make the reader feel the emotions you want them to feel, which does not necessarily mean you will be feeling them as you write.

Here’s another example: a newbie writes a story from his personal life experience and wrote the script EXACTLY as it happened. And then he’s stunned and angry that he’s getting bad reviews. “This is real life! This is what happened!” That doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes for a good screenplay or an engaging drama. That doesn’t mean it’s cinematic or a story well told. Or the characters are fleshed-out. All it means is that the writer committed an act of personal indulgence because he was thinking about himself, his friends, how it all happened, re-experiencing the emotions he felt at the time, and never once thought about the craft of drama or how well this might play to audiences. But he felt all the emotions of the scenes as he wrote them! Except they didn't play well because he hasn't had enough writing experience to stand back, consider how it plays to an audience, and work hard to create effective, engaging drama. Also, because it's so personal, the newbie will inevitably lose all sense of objectivity about his story. When someone tells him, “you should cut this one character - he’s a waste,” the newbie resists because… that’s his friend. He’s not thinking about the craft of drama and screenwriting. I always tell newbies – avoid personal stories. Learn the craft first.

And so we have a setup like After Hailey. We have a man coming home for a wedding after his wife has died. This kind of setup can be deceptively appealing even to the pros. Writers can be attracted to this kind of story because they want to go on that emotional journey of the protagonist. They want to feel the feelings of that sad protag and go with him on the journey of emotional rehabilitation. (I’m not suggesting this is why Frank chose to take on this story. He may very well be doing this story for a myriad of other reasons. But this is usually why a writer would tackle a story like this.)

Now, just because you’re feeling the feelings of that sad protag and also the changing feelings of the protag over the course of the story does not necessarily mean that the audience will be feeling those feelings, too. What the character is feeling and how effectively those feelings are being conveyed to the audience are two completely different scenarios. Because what are they seeing? A boring, sad, passive protag moping about his house for two hours accompanied by a bunch of sad music. This is how writers can fall into a trap with their personal stories because they’re committing acts of emotional indulgences as opposed to writing a story for an audience. And they’re not effectively managing their own emotions as they write because they’re not stepping back from the characters to look at the scene and story as a whole and consider how well it will play to audiences.

And you think I’m setting you up for big complaints about Scott Frank, don’t you? No, just the opposite. This is where I find praise for Scott Frank. The setup is clichéd as hell, but Frank never fell into writerly indulgences and he never lost sight of the audience as he wrote his story. That is such a refreshing, admirable quality to find in a setup like this. He kept it simple and brought in a lot of humor so the movie would play well. The humor was the highlight for me.

There is, however, a fatal error in my opinion. In a setup like this, I think you have to show the death of Hailey in the beginning, because that guarantees the audience will be feeling the feelings of your sad protagonist as he mopes about. You have to do that. Here, Frank saves the revelation of how she dies for the end, which didn’t work for me. How her death took place isn’t such a big deal that it should be saved for the end. You need to show that in the beginning in order to ensure that the audience is on the same page as the protag. You can fill in the details later with the kind of flashbacks that are already in the script, but showing the death early will sink a deeper hook in the audience, make them more invested in the protag’s arc, and ensure that they are on the same emotional page as the protag.

A few other random thoughts:

- Let me just quote Bill Martell again, because I completely agree. 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. I thought the exact same thing!

- At times, the story dipped into

- I thought the tone was uneven. The beginning of the story was deadly serious with Doug taking photos of dead babies and their crying mothers but then the story shifted gears into comedy, which was odd to me. That’s too big a shift in the tone.

- Doug, the protag, was too passive. Of course, that’s the nature of the beast in this kind of story, because he is reacting and dealing with Hailey’s death. But things were always being done TO him instead of him doing anything to push the plot forward. Hailey approaches him in the bar. Russ is brought to Doug to deal with. Laney makes the move on Doug. Claire pushes the plot forward with her own problems, etc. Because he’s a passive photographer, because he keeps himself disconnected from the subjects he’s taking photos of, because things are always being done TO him, his personality gets lost in the process, and you never really connect with him. The best example of this kind of setup has to be
Kieslowski’s Blue. When her husband and daughter were killed in the car accident, Julie (Juliette Kinoche) was still active in all the ways she was running away from life.

- For me, too much of the dialogue was on-the-nose, characters saying exactly what they are thinking and feeling. I’d like to see Frank aspire to more layered dialogue, more
subtext. (BTW - I loved Claire.)

- And the ending. I thought it went on for too long and it was filled with too much dialogue. He needed a stronger emotional punch than what he gave us, one that really justifies us sitting through this terribly clichéd setup we’ve seen a million times. Frank crammed many things into that ending, and all things considered, I just wasn’t moved. I’d suspect that the ending was weak because the setup was weak.

- Having said all of these things, I do love Scott Frank, man. That man should keep writing to the end of his days.