Monday, July 19, 2010

Untitled Chef Project

Genre: Drama
Premise: A selfish workaholic chef tries to get back into the restaurant game after a much publicized meltdown years ago.
About: Like a lot of projects that gain instant notoriety in Hollywood, Untitled Chef Project burst onto the scene after David Fincher attached himself to it. This would have paired him with thespian Keanu Reeves had it happened, but the project fell apart for reasons unknown. I’ll tell you one thing, these damn “Untitled” monikers sure do suck the life out of a script. Who gets excited for a project with “Untitled” on the front page? Anyway, the script made the 2007 Black List, and in a case of complete coincidence, had the exact same number of votes – three - as Jeff The Immortal. Hmm, could the low end of the 2007 Black List contain a secret stash of amazing unknown screenplays? -- You may also know Knight as the writer of one of last year’s highly rated Black List scripts, the Bobby Fischer bio, Pawn Sacrifice (which you may remember I didn’t like very much).
Writer: Steven Knight
Details: 116 pages - July 25th, 2007 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).

I am going to admit something that I don’t admit to many. I love Gordon Ramsey. And I love Kitchen Nightmares. I love watching Gordon Ramsey tell a chef that their food is awful. I love when he goes into a kitchen, turns over a box and finds roaches. I love when he discovers mold on a tomato, stuffs it in a cook’s face, and tells him serving that tomato is the same as pointing a gun at a customer’s head and pulling the trigger. And I love how every time, after his assessment of the restaurant, even though it's all so clearly planned, he says there’s nothing he can do to help them and walks away. I love how we stay on the owners, who are deciding whether they should go after him or not, even though Gordon Ramsey is always exactly 500 feet away, standing on a mark determined hours ago so that he’s in the best possible light when the camera arrives. And I love how even though there’s still 45 minutes left in the show, I’m still sitting there wondering, “What if he doesn’t come back? What if he doesn’t help them?? Will the episode just….end????” If you are not a Kitchen Nightmares fan, I implore you to seek out the one where Gordon Ramsey goes into an Indian restaurant in New York. You will become a convert.

Ironically, this is exactly why I DIDN’T want to read Untitled Chef Project. I was afraid it was a script meant to capitalize on the whole Chef reality TV craze. And as far as inspiration goes, basing a movie on a reality show is one step below basing a movie on a board game.

But if there’s one thing Fincher has proved, it’s that he gets his grubby paws on the best material in Hollywood. By far, this man finds the coolest books, scripts, articles, and bios to develop. No one else even comes close. This is the only thing that gave me hope that Untitled Chef Project would be good.

Adam is an amazing chef. People wait months to eat his food, he has one of the best restaurants in Paris, and he has two Michelin stars to his name (getting a Michelin star is akin to winning three World Series in a row and being the MVP in each one). Adam has a problem though. HE’S FUCKING INSANE! The guy snorts coke while he’s preparing tuna tar-tar and would probably do heroin as well if it weren’t so logistically demanding. Not only is Adam a lunatic, he’s insanely dangerous. He’s violent, self-destructive, and maybe even suicidal. When we meet him, all of this has finally caught up with him. Adam self-destructs, losing his restaurant and losing everything else in his life.

Cut to a few years later and Adam has picked himself back up. He lives in London and he’s been getting that urge to start a new restaurant, which means finding a team. For those of you who saw Inception, this is like the first half of that movie but without all the exposition. It's time to find out who's going to go to war with him.

The key to every team, and particularly every chef, is a great sous chef (the right hand man).

So Adam sets up an interview with his top prospect, the talented, beautiful, and guarded Sweeney. But Adam doesn’t have any money for an office yet. So where does he interview Sweeney? Why McDonald’s of course. And this was the first moment I realized that Untitled Chef Project was different. Well, when Adam was ingesting lines, fighting off drug dealers and preparing a meal at the same time, I knew the script was different then. But when the best chef in the world starts philosophizing about how great McDonald’s is, you know you’re in for something fun.

Anyway, Sweeney knows about Adam’s shady history, but can’t pass up the opportunity to learn from someone of his stature, so she says yes. Adam completes his rag-tag group of culinary-geniuses, talks someone into giving him a million dollars, and opens his restaurant in the middle of London.

You’d think with someone as genius as Adam, building a great restaurant would be easy. But Adam is…different. Not even perfection is perfect enough for him. This is a man who refuses to allow even a single mistake. Michelin stars are only awarded to those dining experiences which are perfect. Not a single thing can be out of place: not the service, not the food, not the atmosphere, not even the damn silverware. And because Adam is trying to achieve something that no other chef has done – get a third Michelin star - he demands of his workers that they be Gods. Every. Single. Day.

As if to show just how serious he is, one of the early nights has a couple of screw-ups. Adam gathers everyone in the kitchen and proceeds to lose his shit in a way that would make Bob Knight say, “Whoa, you went too far there dude.” Adam becomes so angry in fact, that he actually holds a knife to Sweeney’s throat. And you really believe that in that moment, he’s thinking about killing her. You believe he’s actually considering it. Let me give you some perspective here. THIS IS THE FEMALE LOVE INTEREST! You have your protagonist about to KILL the female lead in your movie!!!

As the script hits the second half, it begins to focus more on this love story. But fear not all you readers who hold Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey DVD burning parties. This is not romance of the pillow talk variety. Knight wisely keeps these two separated for as long as possible, so that the tension and conflict are maximized. We’re wondering if Sweeney can see this man as anything but the crazy lunatic he is. We’re wondering if Adam can find enough of his heart to let another human being in. It does not read cheesy. It does not feel saccharine. It’s harsh and it’s real and it's pitch-perfect.

This is a character piece that explores one of the most interesting characters I’ve seen all year. It’s about a man obsessed with himself and obsessed with his work. He’s unable to enjoy life, unable to enjoy the people around him, and he takes that out on anyone who steps in his path. There is a great emotional scene near the end of the script where Sweeney asks Adam for a day off to celebrate her daughter’s birthday, and his answer and the subsequent scene afterwards hit you in a way that scripts just aren’t supposed to do. You’re supposed to need the sweeping music and the perfect cinematography and the actor's faces for this shit to work. Here, it works right on the page.

There is WAY more to this than I'm letting on. But it would take me too long to get into it all. Likewise, it would take me forever to discuss all the great scenes here. There’s a hilarious scene where Adam adds marijuana to a dish to influence a local food critic. There’s his insistence that, after a bad night, they give away free food for a week, something he knows very well could bankrupt the eatery. There’s a wonderful date scene where Adam and Sweeney finally go out, but with so much sub-text going on that it becomes one of the best “first date” scenes I’ve ever read.

But I think probably the coolest thing about this script is that the lead character is both the hero and the villain. He’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And it’s such a great reminder that if you want to get your script noticed, write a part that an A-list actor would love to play. Go read this script right now and tell me if you were a movie star, you wouldn’t want to play this role. I dare you.

And you know what’s nuts? You know who the perfect actor would be to play this part? The one who would heads and tails kill it? Mel Fucking Gibson. I’m not kidding either. He would be perfect for this role. But the guy had to go TNT on his career last week and I don’t think we’re ever going to see him again as a result. It’s probably deserved but if this guy ever wants to jump back into acting , this better be the first script he looks at.

Anyway, this script is fucking awesome, and it’s not just going in my Top 25. It's going in my Top 10.

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

What I learned: In Untitled Chef Project, Adam has a rival who owns a competing restaurant. Naturally, he’s trying to take Adam's restaurant down. So Adam’s manager wants Adam to go there and check the restaurant out – see if there's anything they're doing better there than they're doing here. But he knows Adam's rage will get the better of him so he suggests that Adam take someone with to prevent him from beating the shit out of the other owner. Well Adam doesn’t know anybody. He’s too wrapped up in work to have friends. This leaves him with only one option: Sweeney. Now, after 80 pages of this sexual tension building up between the two, they’re finally going out on a date. But they’re not REALLY going out on a date. No, this “outing” is all under the pretense of business. So Sweeney can’t really say no. Now since Adam knows his rival is a slimy piece of shit, he can't let him know that Sweeney is his sous chef, since he knows he’d try and steal her. So he suggests that the only way they can do this is if Sweeney pretends to be his girlfriend.

Now the reason I went into such extensive detail about this is because THIS is how you build a great date scene! You create a series of situations that work against the date. By doing so, you add mounds of conflict and subtext, which makes the date way more interesting than it ever would’ve been had it just been two people going out. When I read amateur scripts, the date scenes are always boring because they don’t have ANYTHING ELSE GOING ON. Look at how much is going on here. Adam didn’t want to take Sweeney in the first place. Sweeney is excited to be here but knows she shouldn’t be. The two have to act like they’re together, even though they’re not. Adam has to concentrate on what his competitor is doing, so he can make his restaurant better. Adam doesn’t want to ruin the work relationship he has with Sweeney, and is trying to keep this professional. Do you know how easy it would be to write dialogue for this scene? There’s so many things going on to draw from.

Now I’m not saying that every date scene has to be this complicated. Complications will vary depending on when in the story the date happens and what kind of story you’re writing. But you should always look to complicate the surrounding variables of the date to make the scene more interesting. Two people just straight up talking at a table is the most boring thing you can do in a film. Look to make it interesting by adding other variables to the mix.