Premise: A lost letter written to him by his idol, John Lennon, inspires an aging musician to change his life.
About: Dan Fogelman’s using the buzz from his recent writing triumphs to jump into the directing arena with his newest spec, Imagine. The script sold for 2 million dollars and Fogelman will receive another 1 million when/if the film is made. The 3 million dollar payday beats the 2.5 million dollar sale he made earlier this year with Scriptshadow favorite, “Crazy Stupid Love.” Fogelman’s muse, Steve Carrell, is said to be starring as the son in Imagine (he also stars as the lead character in “Crazy Stupid Love”). Fogelman made his name doing assignment work on large-scale animation projects such as Cars, Bolt, and Tangled. Fogelman made last year’s Black List with yet another script, “My Mother’s Curse.”
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Details: 111 pages – November 2, 2010 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).
There aren’t many writers whose scripts I eagerly await, but Dan Fogelman is one of them. He is the most successful screenwriter in the world at the moment, pulling in over 5.5 million dollars for original screenplays this year. That beats the next closest guy by about 4 million. And who knows what he's making touching up other scripts. I loved his last spec, “Crazy Stupid Love,” and although My Mother’s Curse didn’t blow me away, it was a solid read. So when I heard that Fogelman wasn’t done making money in 2010, I wanted in on his latest offering.
Imagine is about Danny Collins, an over-the-hill but embarrassingly successful 60-something rock star who makes his living touring the countryside, playing the cheesy but popular hits that made him a star a few decades ago.
But while Danny’s wildly rich in stature, he’s a broken man everywhere else. He’s got a fiance half his age who cheats on him daily. He’s got no real friends, no sense of home, and worst of all he has a son he’s never met, the result of some post-concert partying he did in the 60s.
But Danny’s life is about to change. On his 60-something’th birthday, his manager hands him a gift-wrapped letter from his idol, John Lennon. You see, when Danny was first starting out, he gave an interview for a Rolling-Stone like magazine where he talked about his fear of becoming a star. Lennon read that interview and sent him a letter, advising him how not to fall into the trappings of being a rock star. It was sent to the interviewer though, who greedily realized he could make a buck off it, and sold it to someone else. His manager figured this out through a fortunate mistake, and now here Danny was, receiving a letter from John Effing Lennon! To him!
The letter basically says that friends and family are what’s important in life, not material things (sounds very John Lennon'esque, doesn't it?). So Danny decides to become the person he would’ve been had he received that letter when he was supposed to. He politely tells his cheating fiancé (and her lover, who’s hiding in the closet) that they’re over, leaves his Manhattan mega pad, and moves into a hotel. His goal? Reconnect with his son and start writing music again.
But Danny has no idea how steep the hill is he’s about to climb. His son, Tom, hates him. Hates him with every fiber of his being. And when Danny tries to nudge his way into Tom’s family, which includes his perfect wife and asthmatic six year old daughter (Danny’s granddaughter), Tom tells him to fuck off.
Back at the hotel, Danny starts writing new music for the first time in forever, and befriends the pretty manager there, Mary, who may be the first age appropriate woman he’s fallen for since he was…oh…30.
He doesn’t give up on Tom either. Danny wants to help fix his granddaughter’s crippling asthma, and his star shines bright enough where he can get her into the best asthma doctor in the country. Slowly but surely, Danny gains his son’s trust. However just when things are looking up, some catastrophic news arrives that slams Danny back to reality. He’s about to learn that you can’t just make up for 40 lost years. Sooner or later, you’ll have to atone for your mistakes, and Danny’s mistake is that he’s never been responsible…ever.
A commenter brought it up yesterday and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. Dan Fogelman is the new Cameron Crowe. I don’t know how his scripts are going to translate once they hit the screen, but Fogelman is doing the same thing for the family dynamic that Crowe did for the romantic dynamic back in the 90s. Which is skating that fine line between emotion and humor. Both of these guys know how to walk right up to that line and milk it for everything its got, without crossing it.
Somewhere over the last five years though, Crowe's line has become scribbled, and while Imagine does make a critical mistake later in the script, Fogelman is now the only writer who can toe this line throughout an entire screenplay. Indeed, this feels almost like a movie Cameron Crowe would write. It’s based on a musician, it’s steeped in music, and it’s not afraid to test your stash of Kleenex. In fact, you might even call it an unofficial 30-years later sequel to Almost Famous.
Might Kevin Costner be in the mix to play Danny?
But let’s avoid the Crowe comparisons for now and look at what Imagine does well structurally. There’s a few things that make it work. First, you have the hook. There’s something magical about receiving a letter from someone who’s been dead for 30 years, especially since John Lennon is a mystical figure in himself. So it's a nice "gimmick" to pull us into what's essentially a family reconnection story.
Next you have the change. While there is a major plot point driving the story (which I’ll get to in a second) just from a character perspective, we have a compelling situation. A 60-something man, a man near the end of his life, decides to make a major change. There’s some irony in that. It doesn’t really make sense to try and change yourself that late in life, and since we're all trying to change, we think that if this man can do it (at this late stage), why cant' we? So there’s a vested interest in seeing Danny succeed right from the start.
Finally you have the unobtainable goal. Danny wants to be a part of his son’s life, but his son hates his guts. Remember, giving your hero a goal is good. But giving your hero an unobtainable goal is great. The more difficult the goal is, the more convinced we are that it can’t be achieved, and the more convinced we are that it can’t be achieved, the more we’ll want to see if our hero can achieve it.
So there’s a lot of good stuff going on here, but Imagine had some faults which I’m hoping Fogelman will address. The asthmatic daughter worked, but just barely. It felt like our heart strings were being tugged a little too hard with this girl, to the point where I could feel the writer’s hand. But the real gamble Imagine takes is a late-story twist that tests the threshold of what the audience is willing to accept.
It’s hard to talk about it without spoiling it so step away from the laptop if you don’t want spoilers. A key character in the story gets cancer. And here’s why I didn’t like it. First, it comes in late. As a result, it feels like the idea doesn’t have enough space to breathe. And second, we already have a major medical complication with another character in the granddaughter. To throw two major medical complications in the same movie….I’m just not sure the audience is going to buy that. I mean until that point, I was giving Imagine an “impressive.” But once that happened, it immediately dropped to a “worth the read.”
The story salvages itself though through the music subplot . I imagine Imagine will really come to life when its soundtrack is added, and I’m curious to hear some of the songs Fogelman’s team comes up with as Danny’s “hits” from his past, which are supposed to be in the vein of “Sweet Caroline.” That could be fun. There’s also a music related scene near the end where Danny has to make an in-the-moment decision about whether he truly wants to commit to this new life or fall back into that old worthless role. Since the choice gets to the essence of who he is as a character, since it forces him to make that choice at such a critical juncture, it’s extremely powerful, and shows why Fogelman is selling scripts for the GNP of small countries.
This had the potential to be better than Crazy, Stupid, Love but that aforementioned medical storyline kept it from obtaining great heights. Still another solid piece of writing from Fogelman though.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I love all the little mini-subplots Fogelman adds to his scripts. Even the tiniest characters have a little story going on. For example, two potentially throwaway characters, the valet and the hotel desk girl, have a little love story going on which Danny orchestrates. It’s just 1/8 of a page here and ¼ of a page there but when you add it all up, it’s a little mini-story. It’s these little touches and details that make Fogelman’s scripts stand apart.