Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Architect

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A down-on-his-luck architect hired to build a skyscraper in Dubai learns that he’s actually a pawn in a much larger game.
About: The Architect was making waves in Hollywood way back at the beginning of the year. Recently, it found its buyer in RKO. The script has been presented as a mash-up between the Hitchcock classic, North By Northwest, and the Liam Neeson thrill ride, Taken.
Writer: Craig Stiles
Details: 109 pages - February 2010 draft (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).

Out with the old, back in with the new. The Architect sold to RKO Pictures a month ago but before I get into my review, can I just ask a question? Didn’t RKO stop making movies in 1959? Did the ghost of Orson Welles pop out of the ground a la Thriller and start singing: “It’s close to miiiiid-nite. Time for me to restart a studio-oooo.” I mean what’s the product placement going to be like in this film? Nehi grape soda and S and H Green Stamps?

Oh man, a long weekend it’s been indeed!

So Mitch Avery is an architect. Unfortunately, his company doesn’t appreciate his awesome architectural abilities. On the day he picks out the gigantic ring that he’ll sling around the future ball and chain, Nick gets word that his big job, the one that’s essentially paying for this ring, has been ixnayed. All of a sudden this carefully orchestrated career, the one he’s been piecing together since he decided to become an architect, is crumbling right before his eyes. Brooklyn Bridge here we come.

Well lucky for Mitch, someone else does appreciate his vision. A distinguished British gentleman in his 50s named Walsh remembers a building Mitch entered in a high-profile competition 5 years ago. The building lost, but Walsh never forgot Mitch’s style, a style he believes was ahead of its time. Walsh runs the UK branch of one of the largest architectural firms in the world and he wants Mitch to jump ship to his company.

The reward? A brand new hulking skyscraper job in the new gem of the Middle East, Dubai. There’s one caveat. Mitch must convince a wealthy Sheikh to pony up 500 million dollars to start the thing. It’s a risky proposition but there’s something Mitch likes about this Walsh guy – something trustworthy about him. So after getting his fiancé, Carlie, to quit her job, the two fly over and prepare for the biggest meeting of their lives – one that makes these LeBron sit-downs look like drill team tryouts.

But things start going wrong immediately. Upon walking into his hotel, a boy SNATCHES his laptop – the laptop he’s giving his presentation on, and darts off -- It turns out to be a minor inconvenience because he has the presentation backed up, but it’s an omen for more bad things to come.

The next day, Mitch is inside the conference room staring down a small group of wealthy men, including the Sheikh himself. Mitch begins his presentation, which seems to be going well. But then a series of slides mysteriously come up empty. He’s able to improvise through it but notices the concerned looks on everybody’s faces. It’s not a look of embarrassment, but rather a look of grave concern. As if this was a carefully acted out play and one of the actors had forgotten his lines.

The next day Mitch calls Walsh to check on the status of his pitch…but no one answers. Mitch goes back to the presentation building…but no one’s there. In fact, the entire floor’s been cleared out! Mitch calls the architecture company that hired him. They’ve never heard of Walsh. He runs back to his hotel room. It’s been ransacked. There’s no worse feeling than knowing you’ve been had. And boy has Mitch been had.

The shitiness continues. Mitch’s fiancé, Carlie, gets kidnapped by the men, who aren’t giving her back until they get what they want. The question is, what do they want?? Mitch isn’t sure but figures that it has something to do with that computer, a computer that’s probably in a random dark room somewhere in the city of Dubai. So Mitch goes on a mission to find the computer while these men go on a mission to find him.

Along the way he meets another team of people who claim to be playing for his team. But after you get duped, you’re suspicious of everyone. Unfortunately Mitch has to trust someone because the police and even his own government won’t give him the time of day. Survive. Save Carlie. Survive. Get the hell out this godforsaken country. In that order. Can Mitch do it?

I like “stuck in a strange land” thrillers because they already carry a wealth of built-in conflict. When you go to a strange country, you don’t know the geography, you don’t speak the language, you don’t know the people, you don’t know the police system. If something truly bad were to happen, you’d be at a severe disadvantage. I had this friend who went to South Africa and was held at gun point and robbed. The police refused to do anything about it. All he talked about was how helpless and trapped he felt and how quickly he wanted to get out of that country. That “trapped” feeling is conveyed well here in The Architect. So right away I was enjoying myself.

I also dug the middle portion of the script, when Mitch is shipped back to America against his will by a group of Americans who inform him that everything he believes happened was imagined. He never got this job. He never even met Carlie. All of that was a figment of his rapidly declining state of mind. As we’re grasping for straws and trying to make sense of this madness, the script is hitting on all cylinders and we’re totally engrossed in the story. I was marbles in.

But I had a few problems with The Architect as well. First, the base mechanics of the plot were confusing at times. For example, the laptop-stealing was suspicious enough that I believed the bad guys were responsible. But if that’s the case, then the bad guys had already gotten what they wanted. Why go through the façade of the presentation the next day if they already had the info?

A big deal was also made out of the missing files in the presentation. Yet I couldn’t grasp what that meant. Were those files the files that the bad guys needed? Is that why they went after Mitch later? And how was it that only those particular files were not backed up but the rest of the presentation was? And why would they need the files if they’d already stolen the laptop that had the files in the first place? Unless, of course, the person who stole the laptop was indeed a completely random third party, in which case, isn’t that a bit of a coincidence? Eventually, that’s the explanation I went with because it’s the explanation that made the most sense. But the confusion there definitely affected my enjoyment.

I also wanted the love story to be better. I never felt like I knew Carlie (I only knew who she was in relation to Mitch – I didn’t feel like she was her own person). In the end, their love becomes a pretty significant part of the story, so you really needed to feel that bond and that electricity between them. Because Carlie was such a mystery to me, I didn’t feel that.

And while I think The Architect did a solid job working within the boundaries of the genre, I think we’ve reached a point where a new approach is needed for these paranoid thriller scripts. They all seem to follow the: everything’s great, then something bad happens, they question what’s real and what isn’t, then the last 60 pages are complete on-the-run chaos. That’s one of the reasons I liked the spec “Umbra,” so much, despite its catastrophically lousy ending. It had a very unique take on the genre, telling the story from a single point of view, and that was enough to give the genre a fresh feel.

The ingredients are here. And the similarities to Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” are fun to admire. I just get the feeling that this isn’t where it needs to be yet. So we’ll hope that future drafts clear up the storyline and explore the relationship more. I also wouldn’t mind more of that crazy “what the hell is going on” middle, which I thought Stiles did an excellent job with. Some of you will enjoy this, but it wasn’t there yet for me.

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

What I learned: There was one missed opportunity here. I’m a big believer that your protagonist’s unique identity should help him at some point in the film. So here you have an architect, someone adept at angles and math and building construction and physics – that’s gotta come into play at some point. He needs to be trapped in a situation (a unique building or room) where it looks like he’s screwed, and the very thing that got him into this mess (being an architect) is what gets him out. So in a movie like The Fugitive, Richard Kimble being a doctor allows him to go into a hospital, stitch himself up, and get the medical records of the one-armed man (there are actually several other places where it helps him as well). These scenes always work because of how clever they come off. And the audience always feels like they’re outsmarting the elements along with the hero.