Monday, September 20, 2010

Blank Slate

Genre: Spy Thriller/Sci-fi
Premise: A female convict is implanted with the memories of a CIA spy who died under mysterious circumstances.
About: Bold Films acquired this spec a little while ago. The script comes from high concept kings Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, who wrote everybody’s favorite, The Rock, as well as the Ashley Judd - Tommy Lee Jones hit, Double Jeopardy. The two have Will Smith attached to one of their other scripts, Greenbacks, about an American ex-pat in Morocco who stumbles upon a plot to disrupt the world's economy by counterfeiting U.S. currency.
Writer: Douglas Cook and David Weisberg
Details: 106 pages – undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. 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).


All right all you spy freaks, I got one for you. Are you ready for CIA agents, double-crosses and a googleplex of chase sequences? Do you go to sleep dreaming of a handheld Matt Damon leaping over speeding trains? If so, Blank Slate is definitely for you. This script is the happy love child of Salt, Safe House, The Bourne Identity and……Robocop? Yes, it takes the familiar spy-chase element and adds a sci-fi twist. Does it work? Let’s find out.

Devon Pope is a CIA agent. But we don’t know that yet. All we know is that she’s been beaten and tortured and shot and now the poor girl is running from somebody. A group of men to be specific. Mustering all the strength she has, she stumbles out onto a street in a last ditch attempt to escape them, only to get PLOWED INTO by a car. She doesn’t explode into a mass of gobbledy-gook like that guy in Robocop but she’s definitely dead. Or is she?

Devon is transferred to a medical facility where Dr. Michael Franks, a neurologist, is waiting. Devon knew something about someone before she died and the CIA is willing to do anything to get that information. But how do you get information out of a corpse? Easy. You transfer their memories into another person. All you need is to find the right person.

Enter Kenzie Stuart, a half-wit murderer taking up permanent residence at the female Shawshank. Kenzie’s here because she popped a few caps into a Walmart shopper in front of her kids. Why she did this is beyond me. All you have to do to kill a Walmart shopper is wait for ten minutes until they have a coronary in their motorized scooter. Then again, that’s why she’s a half-wit, and that’s why she’s the perfect candidate to pull the memory transfer.

A few beeps and a couple of boops later, Kenzie has officially taken on Devon’s memory. Well, parts of it anyway. The technology is a bit like Windows Vista. Some things work and some don’t. One of the problems here is that Devon’s life only comes to Kenzie in flashes. But one thing that comes back nice and clear is her CIA training. So she Angelina Jolies her way out of confinement and all of a sudden the CIA has a 50 million dollar experiment running around with the physical capabilities of Bruce Lee.

Immediately afterward, Kenzie remembers, via Devon, that she left a stash of money in a book at a library. Kenzie likes money so it’s time to renew that library card. The CIA tries to pursue her but it’s not easy anticipating someone’s movements who’s literally of two minds.

The bad guys (or good guys) chasing her are split into two groups. First there’s her boss, the endearing George Onesti. Onesti was one of Devon’s best friends and he wants nothing more than to see Kenzie/Devon back safe and sound. The other is Admiral Jerrold Lance, who is so ruthless in his pursuit to terminate Kenzie, that you gotta wonder if he has some ulterior motives.

The library money doesn’t work out, unfortunately, but that’s okay because Kenzie gets a memory flash that tells her where Devon lived. Surely there will be something to steal there so away she goes. She’s surprised, however, to find Devon’s husband and daughter at the house. Kenzie ties them up and takes what she needs, but then realizes that her pursuers are going to find her sooner or later, and if she wants to survive, she’s going to need to find out who Devon Pope is, and what information she stumbled upon that fateful night.

Blank Slate is a tough script to get a handle on. It’s fast-paced and intense, like every action-spy flick should be, but there’s something missing here. It starts with the premise. I didn’t feel there was enough of a juxtaposition between Kenzie and Devon. Kenzie is a badass who can kick the shit out of anyone. Devon is a badass who can kick the shit out of anyone. Devon, with her training, just does it more gracefully. This mutes the hook to a certain degree, since if you’re going to get the most out an idea where one person’s mind is transferred into another, you want those minds (and those people) to be as different as possible. If they’re both the same (or close to the same), what’s the point?

Now obviously their intelligence levels are miles apart. Kenzie is dumb as a rock. Devon is the smartest person in the room. So that difference had potential. But any effort to bring attention to this was limited to Kenzie opining about how weird it was to feel smart. We don’t ever get to *see* the benefits of her being smart because Devon’s memories are the driving force behind all of Kenzie’s actions, not Devon’s intelligence.

The narrative also feels clumsy because each of Kenzie’s actions is conveniently dictated by a Devon memory right when she needs it. So as soon as the library sequence is over, Kenzie remembers where Devon lives. As soon as she leaves Devon’s house, Kenzie remembers where she worked out. I thought this should’ve been messier, more difficult to discern what to do or where to go next, as it would’ve forced Kenzie to make some choices, in turn making the story less predictable and the narrative less convenient.

The script must also overcome a protagonist who’s difficult to root for. Kenzie is ruthless and unpleasant in most of her interactions with others so I found it hard to get behind her. Part of this is that we know so little about Kenzie and what we do know is pretty horrific. She killed a mom in front of her kids. She ties up Devon’s husband and daughter. I don’t mind anti-heroes or unconventional protagonists but I wanted at least one reason to care about and root for her.

To me, the best moments of the script were the character moments. When Kenzie starts remembering Devon’s life and realizing its messy imperfections. When Devon’s husband asks Kenzie about things he never knew about his wife and Kenzie must decide whether to offer that information or protect it – all in the spirit of what Devon would’ve wanted. When Kenzie gets more insight into her friendship with her old boss, Onesti. These were the moments where I felt closest to the character, and the moments that truly explored this potentially fascinating concept – the idea of being injected with another person’s memories.

Also, from a technical standpoint, the story is well-constructed. The central question – what happened to Devon – is a question we want answers to and will turn the pages until we get them. And by keeping our antagonists right behind Kenzie the whole time, the read is very quick, which, as you all know, is the key to any good spec script.

In the end, I think there’s a movie here. But we’re going to need to know more about Kenzie to make it work. She seems like she’d have a fascinating backstory and if we knew her better, it would elevate every other aspect of the script. I’ll be interested to see where this goes after it’s developed, but couldn’t get into it in this current draft.

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

What I learned: Remember, whenever you write a protagonist who’s abrasive or mean or contains any anti-hero like elements, you need to consider how you’re going to make your audience root for them. In both Cool Hand Luke and Pitch Black, two of the more popular anti-hero movies, both of those characters were selfish in their own ways, but they were also charming and funny, which made us forget about what assholes they were being. I don’t think a charming Kenzie is right for this particular story, but there are other things you can do. Speaking of the Bourne films, Matt Damon is a pretty abrasive, selfish, at-times-assholish, character in Good Will Hunting. But we see a) how much he loves his friends and b) what a miserable childhood he had, and that helps us sympathize with him. There wasn’t a single characteristic in Kenzie that made me identify with or care for her.