Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Numbers Station

Genre: Dramatic Thriller
Premise: A black ops agent is assigned to protect a female operator who works out of a “numbers station” deep in the Arizona desert.
About: This sold a few weeks back once Ethan Hawke attached himself to the project. It is F. Scott Frazier’s first sale. He previously worked in the video game industry. Kasper Barfoed, a Danish filmmaker known for his film “The Candidate,” will direct. Production starts this September.
Writer: F. Scott Frazier
Details: 108 pages – not dated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I remember in an interview Ethan Hawke gave a few years back, he said (paraphrasing) “You’ll never see me in a movie like some of these actors make, Beethoven 2 or Transformers, because I’ve never lived above my means. A lot of star actors take gigs because they have house payments. I’ve never made a decision to be in a film based on anything other than the material.” Now you may not like Ethan Hawke’s choices, but I love the fact that he stays true to his craft. You can count the number of actors on one hand who do that. And it’s for that reason that I always pay attention when Ethan Hawke signs onto a project. I know he’s basing his decision on the quality of the project, and in most cases, the quality of the screenplay.

The Numbers Station is a dark, somewhat twisted, story about an agent, Emerson Little, whose job it is to “retire” other agents when they’re no longer necessary. As far as what kind of agency Emerson belongs to, that’s anyone’s guess. I suppose it could be the CIA, but like a lot of things in The Numbers Station, “supposing” is about as close as you’re going to get. This story is shrouded in mystery, which is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness.

Whomever it is that employs Emerson, they do so with an iron fist. Emerson and his fellow agents live in constant fear. One little slip-up and it might be them getting “retired.” So when Emerson does slip up on a routine job, he’s thinking it could be lights out. Instead, he’s given a reprieve. He’ll be sent to a “Numbers Station” way out the fuck in the middle of the Arizona desert. His job will be to protect the operator at the station. The job is meant as an insult – the easiest of all the jobs an agent can have.

So out into the desert Emerson goes and sure enough there’s a lone tiny building in the middle of nowhere. Inside the deceptively but heavily fortified building are a few rooms and a “broadcast station.” A woman named Katherine - pretty, simple –reads numbers into an encrypted frequency all day. She doesn’t know what the numbers mean. Nobody knows what the numbers mean. Except, we assume, the people who they’re being broadcast to.

As agents, everything is supposed to be kept professional. No smiles, no personal talk, no “real life.” She reads the numbers. He protects her. That’s all.

But when you’re out in the middle of nowhere with no one to talk to, with nothing to do, sooner or later something’s going to break. Katherine and Emerson develop a quiet friendship. It’s wrong - he knows that - and he knows one more slip-up is going to place him in the middle of the desert permanently. But what can he do? She's so full of life. In fact, Katherine who erroneously believes that one day she’ll have a "normal" life, is eager to crack Emerson’s icy exterior. It’s a delicate line Emerson must walk, and it’s one he struggles with the more he gets to know here.

Then out of nowhere, one day between shifts, the station is compromised. And even though it seems to be empty now, they find out that whoever broke in is nearby, and they’re not leaving until they get one more thing. And that one more thing is still there, in the station, with them.

The Numbers Station is a bizarre script. It takes its time, and in the first 30 pages, could’ve gone several different ways. For that reason, it took me awhile to settle in and really feel comfortable.

Once we’re at the Numbers Station though, the story picks up, and that mainly has to do with our fascination over what these numbers are that are being broadcast. What do they mean? Where are they going? Who’s receiving them? What are they doing once they receive them? Does this kind of thing exist in real life? Whatever they are, it becomes clear that they’re important, and the obvious reason for why the station is compromised.

Now if you’re hoping for a clear-cut answer on these numbers, you’re not going to get one. The Numbers Station goes out of its way to give you pieces of the puzzle, but never what it looks like when it’s put together. Strangely, for someone who usually hates a lack of answers, I was captivated. Cause there is just enough information to make your imagination run wild. And like I stated above, I kept coming back to that question: Does something like this really exist? How horrifying would that be?

The crux of the story, however, is what goes down once the station is compromised, and I think the script, in its current draft, falls a little short here. As Emerson and Katherine (interesting character names btw) try and figure out what to do, the surprises aren’t surprising enough, the bad guys plan isn’t clear enough, and there’s something in the back of your head whispering, “We’ve seen it go down this way before.” There are a few nice revelations, and I’m a sucker for the “play back the audio/video and look closer” device (which plays a big part in the mystery), but if they could nail this aspect of the script, this could really be something special, because I was truly fascinated by this tiny but compelling world that F. Scott Frazier created.

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

What I learned: You want to make your main character’s defining characteristic clear. If we’re unsure what that characteristic is because you focus on too many sides of your hero, the character can quickly become confusing (and muddled). Han Solo’s defining characteristic is that he’s selfish. We’re never confused about that. Woody’s defining characteristic in Toy Story is that he’s jealous. We’re never confused about that. Once you know that characteristic, you can shape the storyline to repeatedly challenge it. So when the Millennium Falcon gets stuck on the Death Star, Han Solo isn’t concerned about saving a stupid princess. He’s concerned about how he’s going to get his money. Only when Luke presents the idea of a reward does Han become interested. Later, when Han can either fight for the Rebel Alliance (help others) or leave (save himself), he of course chooses to leave. So there’s a huge advantage gained by making your hero’s defining characteristic clear. Here, Emerson’s defining characteristic is his emotional distance. He refuses to allow anyone in. When you read the script, pay attention to how that plays out during the course of the story. Always make sure the hero’s defining characteristic is clear!