Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dream House

Genre: Horror/Ghost/Mystery
Premise: A family moves into their dream house in the suburbs, only to find that the house has a horrifying past.
About: David Loucka’s been writing for a long time, penning films as far back as 1989, when he wrote the Michael Keaton starrer, “The Dream Team.” Still, work was pretty erratic until recently, where he’s gone on a tear. In addition to writing Dream House, Loucka is writing the The Ring 3D and The House at The End of The Street. Basically, if there’s a dream or a house in it, Loucka’s writing it. Dream House has already finished production and stars Daniel Craig, Naomi Watts and Rachel Weisz. It’s directed by Jim Sheridan, who wrote and directed, “In The Name Of The Father,” “My Left Foot,” and one of my favorite films, “In America.”
Writer: David Loucka
Details: 116 pages – July 18, 2005 draft (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).

Reading Dream House was like plopping down in front of the TV on Sunday to watch your favorite football team, watching them run back a kickoff for a touchdown on the opening play, then proceed to get massacred over the next 2 hours, only to see them mount an incredible comeback in the last quarter that puts them in position to miraculously win the game. So the question is, did Dream House win the game? You’ll have to read on to find out. But I have to say, this is definitely one of the stranger screenplays I’ve read in awhile.

Will and Libby are a married couple with two daughters who have a few problems in their relationship, not unlike most couples. Will’s a hardcore workaholic, a fiction editor who’s lucky to slump into the house by 10 o’clock. Libby’s a simple housewife who just wants the best for her family.

Our story begins right after Libby threatens to take the girls and leave if Will doesn’t start giving them more time. The realization rocks Will into realizing what’s important, so he agrees to move his business out of city and into the suburbs, where he can be with his family and repair the damage he’s done.

They immediately find a broken down but beautiful house in the middle of a great suburb for an unbelievable price. But after moving in, strange things start to happen. There are weird cubby holes within the house where dead animals are strung up to the ceiling. They hear strange shuffling noises downstairs at night. Peeling away the old wallpaper, they find pentagram signs and horrifying drawings. Something is not right with this house.

But when Will goes back to the real estate agent who sold him the home, she professes to not know who he is. In fact, whoever Will speaks to either looks at him strangely or runs in the other direction. What the hell is going on??

Eventually (and we’re jumping into spoiler territory here), Will finds out that a man shot and killed his family in this house twenty years ago. The house has been abandoned ever since. Even worse, Will finds out that the killer is not in jail. He’s staying at a minimum security mental institution. Technically, he could show up at any second and blow them all to pieces. And then there’s the possibility that the town may have put him in this house on purpose. But why?

It’s hard to discuss Dream House without getting into spoilers but I’ll try and stay as spoiler-lite as possible. Still, be prepared for me to reveal a few plot twists.

Basically, Dream House is two separate stories, and I think that’s what makes the script so unique. The first story is, “What’s going on with this house and what do they do about it?” Normally, this thread would dictate the majority of the plot, a la what they did in Poltergeist. But Will actually solves this mystery pretty early on, and by the midpoint the story is effectively over. While it’s a strange choice, I’m glad he did it, because we start to figure out what’s going on pretty early (major spoiler – let’s just say it’s Shutter Island-esque), and all I kept thinking was, “Oh God, he’s not going to make us sit through another 70 pages of this even though we already know the twist, is he?”

So then this entirely new story starts, where we move from a freaky thriller into a bonafied ghost story. It’s a really strange choice that doesn’t quite work but it doesn’t quite not work either. The radical shift forces you to reevaluate everything you’ve read. And while I understand people throwing up their arms and saying, “Oh, give me a break!” once I committed to it, it actually got pretty good.

That’s because you thought you had it all figured out. As far as you were concerned the ending was a foregone conclusion. So when that ending came a full 60 pages early, it was like being abandoned. “Um, okay…what now?” I mean I challenge anybody to figure out this ending twist before it happens. Now I think Loucka could’ve done a better job setting it up, but this is an old draft, so he very well might have fixed it.

This story presents a myriad of problems for a writer, some of which were addressed well, others which weren’t. The first is logic. This goes back to my Wanderlust review but you have to have characters that think logically in stories. They can’t abide by this mysterious movie logic because "that's how people act in the movies."  That route gets you a lot of people throwing popcorn at the screen and calling "Bullshit!" (or at least it did in the 70s.  Now it just gets you more cell phones being turned on). I mean once you start finding Pentagram signs behind wallpaper, dead animals in cubbyholes, that no one’s occupied your house for 20 years because a family was murdered in it, and your realtor is saying she doesn’t know who you are – I mean aren’t you getting the fuck out of that house, like NOW? Logic dictates yes. But movie logic prevails, and as a result we lose faith in the writing. 

Also, you have to be careful with how many “What the fuck is going on?” moments you put in a movie like this. Too many and the audience gets impatient. For example we get about ten scenes with Will wandering around town, asking people what’s going on, only to have them respond, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” and run away. The first couple were creepy and fun. From that point on, it’s like, “Alright already, we get it.  People aren't helping him.”

As far as why this movie was greenlighted, look no further than my old article on actors attaching themselves to projects. (spoiler) What does Daniel Craig get to play here? Why, a crazy person! And what actor doesn’t looooove playing a crazy person. As cheap as this sounds, if you have a good idea where the main character is crazy, write it. Actors WILL want to play it.

Someone mentioned the other day Blake Snyder’s well-heeded warning of “double jeopardy,” the notion that you can make a movie about aliens, you can make a movie about vampires, but you can’t make a movie about alien vampires. I think there’s some of that going on here, though not as obvious. This is a mystery about a family stuck in a strange house. But then it becomes a ghost story. No doubt there’s something that feels sloppy about it. But I think Loucka just barely manages to tie it all together in the end. I was genuinely interested to see how it was all explained. This script is not without problems.  But it's just such an odd duck that I have to recommend it. 

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

What I learned: I love writers who can set up characters and relationships and situations efficiently. A lot of writers will set things up by having their characters blab on and on about it until it’s drilled into our heads twenty-fold.  Not recommended.  Here, Loucka needs to get across that Will and Libby have had some recent issues in their relationship. So we start off with Will on the train. Loucka describes him as “There’s a slightly distracted look to him as though he can never leave office problems behind.” Will then gets off the train to meet his wife, daughters, and the realtor, and the first thing the wife says to him isn’t “Hi.” She doesn’t smile at him. She says, “I wasn’t sure if you’d make it.” In less than two combined lines of screenplay real estate, Loucka has shown us that Will is a workaholic and that that addiction has severely affected his marriage. It’s great writing.