Thursday, February 18, 2010

Safe House

Genre: Spy-Thriller
Premise: (from IMDB) When a group of villains destroy a CIA-operated safe house, the facility's young house-sitter must work to move the criminal who's being hidden there to another secure location.
About: This is a first time spec sale for David Guggenheim, but he’s not a complete foreigner to the business. David is a senior editor at US Weekly and, as Variety is reporting, the brother of Marc Guggenheim, one of FlashForward’s early showrunners. His other brother, Eric Guggenheim, may have given him some tips, as he’s a screenwriter himself, penning the 2004 film, “Miracle.” This particular spec sale is noteworthy as it’s the first big sale of the year (selling for 600k) and doing so without any talent attached. Between approving photos of whale-esque Kirstie Alley and Tiger Woods’ many mistresses, Guggenheim has another project he’s developing with McG titled, “Medallion.” Universal nabbed the spec after a multi-studio bidding war. Scott Stuber (The Wolfman) will produce.
Writer: David Guggenheim
Details: 111 pages (undated)

Matt Weston is an eager 28 year old worker for the CIA living in Rio De Janeiro with a Brazillian beauty who puts Matthew McConaughey’s baby mamma to shame. I say “worker” because he’s not quite an agent yet. In fact, Matt is barely above Ace Ventura on the company totem pole, relegated to the job of a “housekeeper” at a safe house. What this entails is hanging out at a special CIA approved "apartment" all day, awaiting any CIA agents who need a place to crash – sort of like a hotel room where you know you’re not going to be killed in the middle of the night (well, as we’ll learn, not even that is guaranteed).

On the other side of town is Tobin Frost, a 55 year old ex-CIA field officer. Imagine Jason Bourne in 20 years. That’s this guy. But Frost has gone off the grid for over a decade, and is believed to be selling CIA intel to anyone with a Swiss Bank Account or some juicy intel of their own. He’s apparently hit the motherload, as the latest information he’s acquired has him hunted by a lethal assassin named Emile Vargas. Frost may have been able to handle this guy a quarter of a century ago, but even the best have to admit when they need help. Problem is, the only nearby help is the very institution he’s betrayed, the American Embassy. So Frost does the unthinkable. He walks right into the Eagle’s Den.

The Americans send Frost over to Matt’s safe house until the CIA can get down here and extract him. But let’s just say Frost won’t have to worry about purchasing the weekly discount. The Safe House is immediately attacked by mercenaries we believe are led by Vargas. Frost and Matt somehow escape, and quickly find themselves on the run. Matt’s given orders to bring Frost to a second [not so] safe house four hours away, but Frost seems to have other plans, namely to get the hell away from Matt and out of Rio.

The script shifts its focus to two things after that: Action and more action. Safe House at times feels like one gigantic action sequence, and I have to admit, it’s written quite well. Guggenheim follows the unwritten spec rule of keeping everything lean and rarely, if ever, burdening us with a 4-line chunk of action. In fact, almost every action description is 2 lines or less, making sure that things read faster than a Shani Davis 200 meter run.

During all this action, we get a nice debate going between the idealistic Matt and the cynical Frost, mainly on the merits of whether it’s worth it to be a CIA agent, but also on Frost’s reasoning for obtaining the information that's gotten him into such hot water. Although Safe House never pretends to be anything more than a high-octane thrill ride, there’s some interesting discussion about idealism and trust, as well as the many shades of gray involved in the spy world. In fact, after a few pow-wows with Frost, Matt starts to wonder if the agency he’s held in such high esteem is as honorable as he once believed.

While the action does get repetitive at times, Guggenheim keeps it fresh with Frost repeatedly escaping Matt, and Matt having to go capture him again. And even though Frost is to Matt as Kobe is to Luke Walton, a nice twist is that Frost was Matt’s case study back at the Farm, so many times, Matt knows where Frost is going to be before he does.

Safe House is a fun spec, but there were a couple of things that bothered me about it. First off, I knew nothing about safe houses going into this script, and I can say that I don’t really know much about them now either. I mean, if you asked me the biggest lesson I learned about safe houses, it would be that they’re not safe at all! Every safe house they go to is breached within minutes. There are obviously extenuating circumstances here, but even taking those into account, from the way these places were described, they seemed to be no different than a local hotel room, except for a CIA officer holding court. I guess I expected them to be more heavily fortified or something. Or have some special qualities. Maybe a better explanation of what these things are in the next draft would be helpful.

I also would’ve liked a few more twists and turns before the final act, and a better explanation for why Frost flipped on the agency. His explanation was a little too general for my taste (his reasoning amounted to that the agency lies too much). A specific event that triggered this decision would make his motivation more personal, and his character deeper and more interesting as a result.

But those things are by no means deal breakers. Like I said, the script is still fast-paced and fun. And the specific reason behind why Frost is being chased plays out to a satisfying conclusion.

So why did it sell? Well, all we can do is speculate, but I’ll give it a shot. It did exactly what we talked about the other day in my article about surprise box office hits. It took a popular plot model, in line with the Bourne films, and added a twist, throwing a bit of a “buddy cop” angle at it. It also told the spy story from a unique perspective, that of the “safe house,” and I don’t think that's been done on the big screen yet.

Safe House is worth the read.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: So lean. People don’t understand why spec scripts have to be so lean. It’s because an unknown to little-known writer is basically given ten pages of leeway before a seasoned reader mentally checks out on them. You have to be lean to survive, to prove to your reader that you won’t burden them with a bunch of unnecessary nonsense. You’re saying right away: Listen buddy, I’m not going to waste your time. I’m keeping it bare-bones. This is never as important as it is in the action genre, where everything has to move FAST. How are you going to convey a fast action script with huge paragraph chunks? Finding a four-line paragraph in this script was like trying to find a salad in New Orleans. Spec scripts gotta be leeeeaaaaan.