Monday
Jul262010

Script to Screen Review // Splice

BY ERIC CORSON

writer bio 

Splice is exactly the kind of Hollywood movie that targets the coveted demography of 18 to 35 year old white men. It has a monster in it, a hot scientist chick, awesome techno babble and a simple storyline anyone with two brain cells can follow. It is fairly cheap to produce, a little provocative and is sure to make more than enough money on foreign rights and rentals. It is also a spectacular showcase of Hollywood's idea of women's role in our society, insofar catering even more to the target demographic of dumb fratboys.

You see, Elsa, the hot scientist chick in our script, is really a brilliant scientist. She is more brilliant, more successful than her boyfriend Clive. It is even she who convinces him to take drugs on a party and when they have sex, she insists they use condoms because she doesn't want to get pregnant and compromise her career. Clearly, Elsa's the boss. A triumphant specimen of the post-feminist era.

Except, she's not. She's a laughably thin rendered character who, in the first 20 pages, solely functions on the binary successful woman-no kids please! It doesn't get any deeper than that. And of course, Hollywood can't stomach that for long. A woman who doesn't want kids? Impossible. So the writers decide to punish Elsa. She refuses to procreate? Fine. We'll throw an artificial life form at her she develops feelings for (because she has to have a maternal instinct) and make her suffer so badly for it, that she wishes she had traded business cards with Brystol Palin at pre-natal class.

You seem confused. So let's take a step back and start from the beginning. Elsa Kast and Clive Nicoli (two of the most awesome names I have read in a while) are young, hip and hot scientist who excel at creating and cloning artificial life by combining genes from different animals. Why, you ask, would they do such a thing? I will leave it to Elsa to explain it to you: "Millions of people are suffering and dying with no hope. We might be sitting on the key to save them." Suffering from what? Dying of what? Saving who? And How? Never mind giving an answer to these boring details, as long as we can see our outstanding couple in the lab, listening to "funky hip-hop, hyper-beat trance fusion music" (sic!) while staring at cool animations on flat screens that must somehow indicate the process of life creation. Elsa and Clive never have to lift a finger. Just how cool is playing God nowadays?

The movie cuts right to the chase and doesn't bother with the little character development that was in the draft of the script I am basing this review on. There is no party and drug taking, no sex, no intimate scenes of the couple. Hence, Elsa and Clive are even more one-dimensional. On the other hand, Elsa doesn't appear that bossy and in charge anymore. I guess this is the studio's idea of a successful rewrite.

Things get tricky when, seemingly on a dare, our scientist couple creates another hybrid specimen they later name Dren (which, cleverly, is "nerd" spelled backwards). It has human features but looks hideous. It is exactly at this point that Hollywood ideology takes over and we say goodbye to any sense of character logic. Dren shouldn't have existed in the first place. Our two world-saving heroes only created it to prove to themselves they can do it (see how much they care about rescuing sick people through science?). And at first, Dren seems highly hostile to it's creators. It almost kills Elsa the first time they get in contact. This would be a pretty good reason to quit playing with live toys and go back to work on a real project, right?

Well, yes. Clive, the Man of our story, rational and calm, wants to gas Dren when it escapes from its cage. But Elsa, silly, silly emotional girl that she is, extends her hand to the abominable creature, saving it from death and creating a bond between the two. Here we have it: the story has given her a kid. Or better yet, a kid surrogate that will only cause huge problems, teaching Elsa that she had better had a normal child that would have prevented her from creating such a major shitstorm.

It is interesting to consider how the script changed from the draft that is available to me. In it, the divide between Clive and Elsa is much bigger. Elsa's attachment to Dren seems ridiculous (and it really is something that would only happen in B-movie world) and Clive takes a long time to adjust to it. There are many scenes in which Elsa plays with Dren like you would with a toddler and Clive looks at them from afar with a worried expression on his face. We don't get that in the movie. Here, Clive, although reluctant at first, is much more prone to ride along with Elsa. His main concern is to avoid getting caught by their employer.

It would seem that this would make this film a less radical manifesto against emancipated women, since the male seems to be in on it. In reality, it makes things worse. One of the more cringe-worthy moments in the movie comes when Clive engages in a sexual act with Dren (oops, spoiler alert). In this draft of the script, this seems just utterly ridiculous. Although Clive was a little more sympathetic towards Dren in the scenes before that unfortunate encounter, an incest-like erotic scene with an alien just seems like something an overly eager writer's mind would come up with, but nothing to be taken seriously. In the movie, Elsa, Clive and Dren almost seem like a family. The incestuous nature of that scene is heightened, which makes it even more shocking for Elsa, especially since her relationship with Dren was strained because the artificial creature was going through a rebellious phase, forcing Elsa to apply more severe educational methods.

What is the message behind all this? Elsa's refusal to give birth doesn't only put her career in jeopardy, it destroys her relationship, stains Clive morally and crushes herself emotionally when she gets raped and impregnated by Dren at the end, pushing the punishment part of the movie way too far. Women are not supposed to be more successful than their men, they're supposed to be pretty ("My mother wouldn't let me wear make-up, Elsa tells Dren. She said it would debase women. But who doesn't want to be debased once in a while?") and procreate and please only apply their emotions to their own offspring because look at what happens if we let women give in on their feelings. Thank you, Hollywood, for choosing an ugly, half-human artificial creature as a metaphor to remind us of this. And writers, way to go for conceiving a character arc, where the main character appears to be a strong scientific mind at the beginning and ends the movie running through the woods screaming because her baby wants to harm her.

So, which one is better, script or film? The script is actually well-crafted and a good display of how to write action and suspense that catches the reader's attention. There is even a tiny bit of character development. The movie, on the other hand, has almost nothing visually interesting to show. Go for the script. 

(Splice (2010) Written by Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry and Doug Taylor. 4/10/07)

Thursday
Jul222010

Script to Screen Review // Solitary Man

BY ERIC CORSON

writer bio

Those who have tried their hand at screenwriting or have a general interest in the craft know that a conventional Hollywood film is comprised of three acts. Syd Field coined this terminology which in fact means nothing more than that each film has a beginning, a middle and an end. Of course, other schools of thought exist and you can find all kinds of teachings ranging from the four-act structure, over the seven-act structure to Blake Snyder's hilariously generic 13 story beats that brought us such masterpieces as Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.

Approaching a screenplay from a three act point of view makes the most sense, so let's try to do so for Solitary Man, a very good script written by Brian Koppelman who has been in the screenwriting game for over ten years but only recently appeared on the mainstream media's radar when he wrote The Girlfriend Experience about a high-end call girl played by pornstar Sasha Grey. 

Act 1: The Beginning

Meet Ben Kelman (Michael Douglas). A few years ago, Ben was the most successful car dealer in the tri-state area, but some questionable financial practices have resulted in him losing everything. Now he is a 60-year old sex addict who has engaged in a fake relationship with 40-year old divorcee Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker) in order to get closer to her well connected ex-husband, who could help him secure financing for a new car dealership. 

When Ben has to accompany Jordan's daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots) to a nearby college he attended back in the day so he can introduce her to the Dean, both of them end up together in bed. Because she loves to provoke her mother, Allyson relates this to her and Ben can say goodbye to his relationship with Jordan, the money for his dealership and the last shreds of his moral integrity.

A good first act is fairly hard to write because the screenwriter has to put up with exposition. He spends a lot of time feeding the audience the information they need in order to appreciate what comes in the second and third acts. And exposition is terribly hard to get right, because nothing is more boring than bland characters spelling out exactly what they think, feel and want.

The general rule to avoid boring the audience to tears is "show, don't tell". Reveal your character through action, not through dialogue. What Koppelman accomplishes in Solitary Man is to reveal Ben's personality in an interesting way, even though all he does all the time is talk. Koppelman gives him a series of interesting monologues at various occasions, where Ben never talks about himself, but about topics he considers important, thus revealing all we need to know about his character. Ben is a salesman. Selling himself to other people is the action here and it is a delight to hear him muse about failure, about how to pleasure young women in bed, and what made him so successful at talking these young women into his bed.

Unfortunately, what is a great accomplishment on the page, doesn't translate to the screen. Ben seems like a lost character stumbling from scene to scene, bragging and boasting to others while ruining his own life. Douglas is the perfect actor for Ben's part and he plays him with a lot of charm, but since the character doesn't actually do anything except giving speeches, a lot of the scenes seem static and the movie drags. 

Another problem is the editing. Although not very much his happening, the movie seems restless. A lot of the scenes are cut off immediately after a character has spoken  his last word, leaving no room for the scenes to breathe. A few reaction shots more, a camera that lingers a little longer would have done a lot of scenes a lot of good.

Act 2 : The Middle

In the second act, the main character is sent on his journey, which is supposed to be as difficult as possible, thus testing his beliefs and transforming him profoundly. Koppelman doesn't shy away from making Ben suffer. 

In the first act, Ben is shown as someone flawed but successful, or at least sure of what he does. He then loses his financial stability, his family and his future and this is where it gets really interesting to watch him react. When he loses the financing for the car dealership, he asks his daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer) for some money. But he hooks up with one of her friends and almost misses his grandson's birthday. Needless to say, Susan is not amused and tells him to stay away from her and her family. He loses his apartment and can barely make rent to pay for his dim studio. Ben's bank throws him out. He has no one to turn to. But we know from earlier that failure is not an option for him. His choice about what to do is a great way of showing who he really is deep down and what is important to him.

Act 3: The End

Although a lot of stuff happens to Ben, it is always the result of his actions. This is another screenwriting rule. Make your main character proactive. And the third act is usually described as the part where our main character either kicks ass or gets his own ass kicked. In Solitary Man, we get the full scope of Ben's actions. All he does in act two results in him getting stomped in the ground. A lot of what he does in act three helps him to rebuild a better life. He is not a one-trick pony. His decisions can bring a lot of bad, but also some good.

Act three also showcases Koppelman's superior understanding of structure. In act one, the truly important stuff happens at Ben's old alma mater. It is there too, that we see him on top of his game. Act two takes place in New York where we see Ben suffer and screw up most of the time. In act three, Ben gets back to campus to take a job at his old friend's deli. It makes total sense for his character to physically get back to the location where we have seen him the most at ease, in order to solve his problems. It is the perfect use of location and how it can stand as a symbol.

The emotional scope of Ben's journey is so broad that the last 10-15 pages have an incredible impact, because we fully understand what it means for Ben to come to terms with his emotional struggles. Unfortunately, Koppelman feels the urge to over-explain and justify Ben's behavior, something American films love to do and which is without a doubt one of the reasons a good portion of the Lost audience wasn't satisfied with the series finale because they wanted a scientific explanations of the events on the island more than a concluding send-off for the characters. 

It his also because of this that Koppelman added a scene at the very beginning of the film, that is not included in the draft of the script I am basing my review on. We see Ben at the doctor's office being told that something's wrong with his heart. We never know exactly what it is, but throughout the film it is made very clear that Ben is basically running away from his health problems. He begins his day by popping aspirin. He refuses to see doctors. When his health then has to account for his actions, the audience can only feel cheated. If Ben would have never known that he has heart problems, he would have led another life completely and the movie would have never happened.

So which one is better, film or script? Definitely the script. Visually, the film is rather bland and never finds a solution to it's main problem: an overly chatty main character who spends a lot of the time lecturing others and standing in the way of some real action. On the page, this is not as much of a problem. Solitary Man is a very enjoyable read.

(Solitary Man (2010) Written by Brian Koppelman. 8/25/08 Draft)

Monday
Jun282010

THROWBACK REVIEW // DO THE RIGHT THING

 By ERIC CORSON

 writer bio

The script for Brooklyn Loves Michael Jackson, the next feature Spike Lee will direct as soon as production wraps up on Inside Man 2, begins like this: "AND WE BEGIN WITH CRYSTAL BALL SCENE FROM MY 3RD JOINT, 'DO THE RIGHT THING', which I wrote in way, way back 1988."

In honor of that, let's take a look at this fabulous movie for our first throwback script-to-screen review. And let me say this right off the bat: Do The Right Thing was as enjoyable a script reading experience I've ever had. The script is just 92 pages long, has a very distinct, wacky voice, and has incredibly cool and funny dialogue. Spike Lee is not trying to prove a point, but definitely has something to say. He handles some powerful themes that are reflected through the storylines. He mastered the structure beautifully and paced the plot perfectly. The characters are very memorable and all have a precise and distinct role to play within the narrative. I would be hard-pressed to find something negative to say about the script.

The 1989 film has been my favorite movie for a long time. Needless to say, I have very few criticisms about the film as well. Comparing script and film though has definitely changed my perception of Do The Right Thing.

Spike Lee is a director who always delivers visually compelling films, but oftentimes does so by clogging the narrative. This can be a good thing, like Monty Brogan's infamous "Fuck you"-monologue in 25th Hour, but can also be aggravating like some of the more sketchy sequences in Mo' Better Blues or Jungle Fever.

With Do The Right Thing Lee struck the perfect balance between style and substance. The story in itself is designed to be a stylized and a somewhat artificial account of some 24 hours on a Bed-Stuy streetcorner. But it's precisely that fact that enables Lee to fashion characters that stand in as proxies for a specific issues.

With as many as ten main characters, he could have easily gotten lost, as it is often the case with this kind of multi-layered storytelling. He avoids this by giving each character a very specific yet simple task to accomplish. Buggin' Out tries to organize a boycott of Sal's famous pizzeria. Da Mayor tries to steal a smile from Mother Sister's hardened face. Radio Raheem just wants to blast the loudest music on the block. Tina wants to see Mookie. Pino simply wants to get out of there. And Mookie, arguably the main character of the film, just observes this all impartially and waits to get his pay from Sal. All Lee now has to do as a writer is to let these characters bump into each other on various occasions and watch the conflict unfold.

Both script and film pull this off beautifully. The script I'm basing this review on is dated March 1, 1988 and is labeled second draft. And I suspect that in subsequent drafts, Lee lost his confidence in the audience. I can only guess, but the final shooting draft must have been at least 20 pages longer. He didn't change anything to the story, but painted everything in brighter and more extravagant colors to make sure that everyone gets it.

The scene Lee refers to as the "crystal ball scene from my third joint" is the one where a white guy steps on Buggin' Out's new Jordans, prompting him to make a huge scene out of it and to declare "Motherfuck gentrification!". It is two and a half pages long in the second draft, and close to four pages long as seen in the movie. What Lee does here is accentuate what was clear in the first place. In the second draft, there is already a sense of menace to the scene, as a small crowd gathers around Buggin' Out and the white guy, encouraging Buggin' Out to get physical. But they never spell it out in as many words. It's simply clear from the context of the scene. In the film, the crowd shouts "Yo man, break his feet", "Black Panther would whup his ass" and "Fuck him up". Lee wants to make really, really sure to get his point across. There are a lot of scenes in which he did that.

In some instances this works though. There is a scene in which Pino tries to convince Sal to close their business in Bed-Stuy and open a new pizzeria in their own neighborhood. But Sal won't hear it. "The kids around here grew up on my food, he says. I'm proud of that". It's a beautiful little character moment that is not included in the second draft. The scene is not as good.

This is not to say that the script is vastly superior to the movie or that the film hits the emotional beats generally better.  But at some point someone made the decision to make the scenes in the film more obvious. Which doesn't mean that Spike Lee doesn't pull it off beautifully. Yet, it alters the entire feel of the movie.

So which one is better? Script or film? I would have to say the script. I love the movie as it is and it's still my favorite. But the script has the kind of verve that instantly absorbs the reader. And Lee's subtler approach to the writing makes it just that more enjoyable.

 

(Do The Right Thing (1989) Written by Spike Lee. Second Draft, Started March 1, 1988; Brooklyn, N.Y.)