Monday, August 31, 2009

The Sound

Genre: Drama
Premise: The oldest son of the Ashby fortune comes back to take over his family’s billion dollar company. There’s only one problem. He’s supposed to be dead.
About: Not much is known about this project. William Wheeler (The Hoax) was hired to adapt the novel, “Brat Farrar”, which was originally written in 1950. The novel is either a classic or a cult favorite, depending on who you talk to, and has inspired quite a few stage productions, as well as a UK miniseries back in 1986. Producers have been trying to turn it into a proper movie since its publication.
Writer: William Wheeler (based on the novel “Brat Farrar” by Josephine Tey)

If there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it's probably on Fishers Island, where financial titans go to battle for the creme de la creme of North American real estate. It also happens to be the home of the Ashbys and their four children: Patrick, Ellie, Simon, and Elenor. Despite owning the second largest company in the United States, the tight-knit group is fairly grounded, as their father is a firm believer in family above all else. We actually meet him on an evening where he reinforces this point to his children. Whatever may happen in the world, stick together, support each other, and love one another. If you do that, you'll live a happy life. He then proceeds to get on a helicopter with their mother, and crash into the lake. There are no survivors. In an instant, the Ashby children are orphans. Patrick, the oldest and leader of the group, is so distraught that a few days later, he swims out into the lake and allows himself to drown, his body never to be found again.

Flash-forward 14 years and Simon, the second oldest of the children, has just turned 25 and is therefore about to inherit the reigns to his father’s company. The will states very clearly: the oldest of the Ashby boys will inherit the company after the father’s death. That time has finally come and the cold and calculating Simon couldn’t be more excited.

With only days left before the transfer, their Aunt Claire comes rushing into the house, crying. There is somebody out front. A visitor. It’s important that they come right away. Everybody runs to the guest house and are shocked to find none other than…Patrick. Or, at least, the spitting image of Patrick, now 27 years old. But how could this be? Patrick is dead. He killed himself. Everyone is confused, particularly Simon. If this is Patrick, where has he been all this time? Patrick does his best to explain the circumstances. He couldn’t live here after their parents’ death, so he left and has been living a normal life out in the real world. He came back because of his father’s words. That a family sticks together. But Simon isn’t listening. He knows what this means. If this is the real Patrick, then he, not Simon, will be taking over the business.

Stevie, the longtime head of security at the Ashby estate, is already putting a plan into motion. Old family members showing up to claim untold fortunes is a scam that’s been going on since the Caveman days. They’ll surely be able to sniff out the impostor with an extensive background check. And thus begins a painstaking investigation into whether this is or is not the real Patrick Ashby.

A typical house on Fishers Island

So everyone is shocked when Patrick passes the DNA test, the psyche evaluations, and the quizzes Simon and his sisters put into place about their childhood. Whoever this person is, he knows intimate details about their family. Clearly, this has to be Patrick. Even we’re convinced. I mean, how do you fake a DNA test??

He didn’t have to. Turns out Stevie and Patrick have conceived of an elaborate con, planned months in advance. The DNA tests were doctored. Old family videos were meticulously studied. Stevie clues him in on all the family tricks that will come his way. Once Patrick gets a hold of the company, the plan is simple. He will siphon out millions of dollars to himself and Stevie, then after a few months, he’ll declare his return a mistake, and disappear back into his old world, never to be seen again.

Because no family just hands over a 20 billion dollar business overnight, Patrick has to jump through a lot of hoops, and the more hoops he jumps through, the more Simon doubts he’s dealing with the real Patrick. Another problem (which should be noted – things not to do if you’re trying to steal a 20 billion dollar family business) is that Patrick falls in love with Ellie, who is supposedly his sister. And Ellie, in a creepy twist, is just as enamored with Patrick – even though *she* believes that he *is* the real Patrick. Will Patrick slip up before the board anoints him president? Or will he continue to fool everyone and pull off the biggest con in history?

As we barrel towards the end, twists and turns start popping up like whack-a-moles at a carnival and for the most part, they work. But there’s a lingering sense as you’re reading ‘The Sound’ that something like this couldn’t possibly happen in real life. Especially in post-meltdown Wall Street, where things are checked, double-checked, re-checked, then checked again. Although to be honest, that didn’t bother me that much. My big problem with The Sound is its decision to tip us off that Patrick Ashby is a fake. To me, that was the most intriguing mystery of all: Is this or isn’t it the real Patrick Ashby? Instead, the script wants you to focus on “Will Patrick get caught?” Which was interesting, but I’m not sure as interesting as the alternative.

Another issue I had was that the characters didn’t have enough depth. I understand the challenge involved in a story like this. There’s so much plot and so many secrets, it’s not easy to map out a clear and distinct character arc for everyone. Still, all I knew about Fake Patrick was that he had a rough life. I wanted to know more about who he was and how he got to the point where he actually conned people for a living. Had we dealt more with his pain, had we understood the depths of his predicament, we probably would’ve rooted for him more.

Despite these issues, The Sound is a satisfying read. It’s funny because I started thinking of Rob Pattinson and his attachment to Bel Ami, and I thought – this is a much more interesting portrayal of a poor man infiltrating the social elite. Where that world felt stale and uninteresting, this one felt alive and unpredictable. I could definitely see him playing Patrick Ashby. Of course, you’d probably have to add a dozen sex scenes (with his sister?) to get him interested, but it would be worth it.

The Sound was something I knew nothing about going in, but was happy I found it.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Every decision you make in a screenplay has a ripple effect. Make sure you not only understand what you gain by making a choice, but also what you lose. So in the case of The Sound, Wheeler chose to tell us very early on that Patrick and Stevie were conning the family. We gain a sense of fear: “Will Patrick get caught?” But we lose a sense of mystery: “Is this the real Patrick?” Ultimately it’s up to you to decide which is more important in telling your story. But you can’t make an informed decision unless you’re aware of the effect each choice has.

Producer note: It is my understanding that the original book had Patrick and Simon as twins, with Patrick a few seconds older. I'm curious as to why they changed this in the screenplay. It would seem to me that if you kept the twin storyline, you could go out to talent offering both characters to a single actor. And we all know how much actors love playing two parts in the same movie. Easy way to snag an A-lister methinks. Thoughts?