Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Welcome To The Rileys

Genre: Drama
Premise: An upper middle class suburban man who loses his 15 year old daughter to a car crash befriends another 15 year old girl eight years later.
About: Welcome To The Rileys came out of Sundance with a lot of buzz. It has an interesting cast with James Gandolfini and Kristin Stewart playing the leads. Ken Hixon, the writer, is probably best known for writing City By The Sea, the Robert De Niro starrer from 2002, and Inventing The Abbots, from 1997. Rileys hits theaters at the end of October.
Writer: Ken Hixon
Details: 123 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).

Welcome To The Rileys is another one of these early Oscar contenders. “Early Oscar Contender," of course, is synonymous with  “Indie movie which desperately needs Oscar buzz to make money."  Which is fine.  James Gandolfini gotta eat.  But you always gotta be leary of these movies with Oscar buzz in September. 

Actually, I have to come clean on something. I’ve really soured on independent film. A lot of that world has become a breeding ground for directors and actors to play around and experiment with things that the studios would never allow them to do but the scripts themselves have been lacking.  Oftentimes they're too self-important (Rachel Getting Married) or too heavy (Frozen River).  It's rare that we get one that really rocks like the Alfonso Cuaron masterpiece, Children Of Men (btw, it sounds like Natalie Portman will be starring in Gravity). 

I can remember the moment I first started questioning independent film. I'd heard about this movie called “Maria Full Of Grace” that was, according to all the critics, phenomenal. I raced over to the Santa Monica theater on 2nd street for the 11:15 A.M. Friday opening day show and proceeded to watch…the – most – average – movie – ever! It was the big budget equivalent of watching “The International,” just an average plot with average execution that you forget one second after you leave the theater.  Up until that point, the indie marketing strong hand had convinced me that every one of their movies was a secret stash of gold that only cinephiles knew about.  After that, I had a whole new perspective.

In fact, I would argue that out of the roughly ten bonafied "good" movies that come out every year, studios are either even with the independent circuit or a little better.  

But low and behold, today's script might have found it's way into that Top 10 spot.  I don't know how well Welcome To The Riley's the film panned out (I'm personally a little worried about the casting), but as a script, it's good stuff. 

Rileys starts off with a car crash on a dark lonely intersection eight years ago. We don’t know why this crash is important yet, but we will soon. Jump to eight years later where we meet Doug Riley, the 56 year old president of a plumbing firm, and a man who’s clearly drifting through life. Doug lives in upper-middle-class suburbia with his wife Lois, who’s developed a severe case of agoraphobia, refusing to ever leave the house.

We find out the reason these two have essentially given up on life is because their 15 year old daughter was killed in that car crash we saw at the beginning of the film.

When Doug’s mistress, the only person keeping him sane, dies unexpectedly, he decides to go down to a plumbing convention in Savannah, if only to clear his mind for the weekend. On his first night out, he spots some men from the convention coming his way and in order to avoid talking to them, he ducks into a strip club. He immediately spots a clumsy young dancer dancing on one of the side stages.  Mallory is a dead ringer for his dead daughter. 

Doug finds himself ordering a private dance in order to talk to her, but Mallory is far from the refined middle class daughter he once knew. All she talks about is sex, all she asks for is money, and she seems genuinely baffled that Doug doesn’t want to have sex with her.

Their conversation leads them back to Mallory’s place, a dump in the icky part of Savannah, and within a couple of days, Doug is doing her laundry and cleaning her place, essentially becoming a surrogate father to this part time underage stripper/hooker. 

Back in Indianopolis, when Lois hears that Doug isn't coming home anytime soon, she does the unthinkable, forcing herself out of the house and into their car, beginning a blind drive from Indiana to Savannah. Since she hasn’t engaged in society in over eight years, her experience is not unlike an alien's on a new planet. She doesn’t know what to do, how to act, who to talk to. When the car starts chatting with her, for instance, she almost has a heart attack.  She's never heard of On Star before. 

As you’d expect, Doug and Mallory’s situation is akin to that trailer for the new Denzel Washington movie about a train full of chemicals barreling towards the heart of the city (Yes, the rumors are true, Denzel only does movies about trains now).  We know it's going to crash and burn unless she commits to his lifestyle or he commits to hers.  If they keep living in this dope den, nothing good is going to come of it. 

I admit that Welcome To The Rileys is a movie I usually give the Heisman to. In fact, some might argue that it’s the exact type of film I was referencing above, a laborious indie ride with no plot. But Welcome To The Rileys has more going on for it than you think, namely really interesting characters, and lots of conflict.

Take Doug for example. He’s unable to communicate with his wife on any level since she’s withdrawn from society, so there’s conflict between them. Doug doesn’t want Mallory doing what she’s doing, so there’s conflict between them. Doug still refuses to accept his daughter’s death. So there’s conflict inside of him. His business associate and friend doesn’t want him to sell the company because it will put him out of a job, so there’s conflict (pressure) pushing on him there. Each character here is experiencing conflict on several different levels, which really makes up for the film's lack of plot. 

Here’s what you have to remember. If you don’t have a plot, you have to have memorable, original, interesting characters steeped in conflict. This conflict is essentially the car that's driving your story, so it really has to be thought through. As soon as that conflict runs out of gas, you better find the nearest Conflict Station because you ain't going nowhere without it.

If Welcome To The Rileys runs into any trouble, it’s in that it’s dark and depressing, to the point where it will turn people off. This isn’t shiny happy REM people here so if you’re not in the mood for a rough ride, you’re not going to like it. Indeed I wanted more humorous moments like Mallory and Doug trying to find common ground, as these two were possibly the most opposite human beings on the planet.  But these moments are pretty sparse, and I'm not sure I would've responded if I weren't in the mood for something so bleak (why I was in the mood for bleak, I have no idea!).  I think that’s why I loved American Beauty so much. It nailed that perfect balance between humor and drama, bringing a smile to your face just as often as it brought tears. Having said that, Rileys does have a little bit of American Beauty in it, in that it explores the facade of the perfect happy family unit in suburbia (and in a totally unique way!)

If you’re in the mood for a dark piece with some good writing, I’d recommend you check this out. It’s quite good.

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

What I learned: Try to get those three elements of conflict into your script if possible. Conflict inside your character (internal conflict), conflict between your characters (intra conflict) and conflict pushing on your characters (external conflict). You want to do this no matter what kind of story you’re telling, but pay extra attention to it if you’re writing a character piece with little to no plot, such as Welcome To The Rileys.