Tuesday, November 23, 2010

When Trumpets Fade

Genre: War
Premise: A private bent on saving his own ass in the forgotten Battle of Hurtgen Forest in World War 2, finds himself repeatedly promoted as those around him continue to die.
About: When Trumpets Fade was actually already made into a film back in 1998 (I believe it only played on HBO). But it has an inspiring screenwriting story behind it so it’s definitely worth a look. The script was passed to a development exec at Dreamworks named Nina Jacobson as a writing sample for a “new” writer (Vought had actually been writing screenplays for ten years – living out in Middle America, he hadn’t even met his agent, who had signed him based on this script). Already having read two terrible scripts that day, she almost gave up before giving this one a shot. She read it and loved it, so much so that she wanted to give it to Steven Spielberg, a bit of a gamble as he was already in pre-production on another World War 2 flick called “Saving Private Ryan.” Despite that, Spielberg read the script the next morning and loved it as well. He wanted to meet the writer. Nina, imbued by this confidence, wanted to buy the script and give the writer a blind script commitment. This is her account of her call to Vought: “When we speak, Bill (Vought) seems dazed and midwestern, delighted but unsure. It's as though he thinks this whole thing is a big snafu, an error in the lottery that will end up being noticed and rectified at any moment, so best not to celebrate and draw attention to the mistake.” A few days later Vought is on a plane to L.A. and a few hours after he lands, he’s in a room with Steven Spielberg, discussing his script. The ultimate screenwriting dream.  There’s a wonderfully detailed account of the whole story on WordPlayer. When Trumpets Fade was made in 1998 and directed by John Irvin. It’s based on a true story of the Battle of Hurtgen Forest in Autumn of 1944 during World War II. A few days later, the Battle of the Bulge began, leaving the battle of Hurtgen Forest largely forgotten.
Writer: W. W. Vought
Details: 116 pages – original 1996 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).

One of the cool things about Steven Spielberg and what’s allowed him to be on top of the movie business for so long, while so many others have faded into obscurity, is how much emphasis he puts on finding new writing talent. Spielberg realized a long time ago that writers are the lifeblood of the industry. Without their ideas, without their unique voices, without their stories, you have nothing.

And to you or I, who know what it’s like to stare at a screen for 10 hours a day, that may seem obvious. But there are so many other producers in this business who believe in shortcuts, who believe that all you need is an idea, the latest writer gun-for-hire, and a really good D.P., and you can slap together a 200 million dollar hit in six months. If you want to know why none of these guys have Spielberg staying power, look no further than that mentality.

I’m not sure how Spielberg’s operation works, but from what I can tell, he puts the same amount of effort into finding new writers as Apple puts into R&D. In other words, a whole lot. I can only imagine how much rough they have to trudge through to find those diamonds, but they eventually find them. And as long as they keep finding them, Spielberg will continue to stay on top.

So what was this script that got Spielberg and Nina so excited? Was it really that good?

Let’s find out.

Private Manning cares about one guy and one guy only. Numero Uno. Even in the heartpounding opening scene, as he carries a dying soldier to safety, the implication is that the only reason he’s alive and everyone else in his platoon except for this guy is dead is because he stayed back, hid out, stayed out of the fray in order to keep his own heart pounding. When he gets back, his superiors tell him as much. They call him a coward. A survivor only through fear.

Not that he doesn’t deserve to be scared. The Americans are located in an area known as the “Death Factory,” a forest so thick with Germans they might as well grow there. And they are massacring the Americans group by bloody group. With all the leaders dying, drastic measures must be taken. So Manning, who was hoping to go home, is instead promoted. The king of the chickens is now in charge of his own batch of chickens.

His platoon shows up a day later, a group of fresh-faced scared kids who have no idea what’s in store for them. The noobs are thrown into battle right away by Manning. And within minutes they’re getting shot at with real bullets, they’re being hunted by real Germans, they realize they could really die. And there’s nothing they can do about it.

After a few minor missions, Manning gets the news he’s been waiting for. If they can take out a few huge artillery guns that the Germans have perched up on the hills, Manning will get his wish to be sent home. So the normally passive Manning puts his game face on, and sets out to do what thousands of other men have been slaughtered trying to do.

When Trumpets Fade has some genius in it. Right off the bat you’re pulled in by Manning’s desperate attempt to keep this other soldier alive. We know the man’s going to die. He knows he’s going to die. But Manning tries his best to keep him calm, to keep him going. It’s not only an exciting way to open a script (make those first ten pages great!), but it makes us immediately like our hero – whose selfishness would otherwise make him hard to warm up to. I mean this is a really intense scene and even though we’ve seen it a hundred times before, there’s something real and authentic about their exchange. We don’t even know these people and yet we’re hoping against all hope that this guy makes it. After this scene, I was willing to go anywhere Manning took me.

Also, just like any good movie setup, you want there to be some irony in your story. In this case we have a guy who doesn’t want to lead who’s forced to lead. That right there is a compelling character whose very existence for the rest of the film is steeped in conflict. Conflict = drama.  And drama is what keeps your audience's interest.  

The strange thing about When Trumpets Fade is that no real story emerges until after the midpoint (when Manning is given orders to take out the artillery guns). Up until that point, our characters are repeatedly sent out on minor missions that don’t really have anything at stake. This would normally result in a bunch of boring scenes. But there’s something honest and authentic about these missions that keeps us reading.

Even though we get all the cliché war moments where you look to your right and the guy you bunked with last night now has half his face blown off, the dialogue feels real, the missions intense, and our desire to see how Manning reacts to it all, if he’ll learn, keeps us engaged. To simplify it, even though I’ve seen dozens of war movies, this script made me feel like I was in the war.

But there are still a lot of mistakes that are made , and raw ones at that. I guess we’ll start with Manning, whose flaw, while interesting, was at times unclear. Manning is selfish AND a coward. Last time I checked those are two completely different things, and while that may work fine in real life, it’s confusing when a main character has two separate fatal flaws he’s battling. We’re not sure which one to identify him with, which alters our interpretation of the story. In other words, the script reads much differently if we're assuming Manning is a coward as opposed to if we're assuming Manning is selfish.

I thought the supporting characters could’ve been better constructed as well. Warren, who plays the second lead in the movie, is someone I know absolutely nothing about other than that he’s fresh-faced and wears glasses. There were 5-6 other guys whose backstories were even thinner.  This was a big deal since whenever the group faced a dangerous encounter, the only character I cared about surviving was Manning. I cared more about that opening dying character than I did any of these guys.

The ending also needed work. Not only is there a manufactured plot twist where the other soldiers want to murder Manning (which doesn’t work at all) but the main story goal comes in so late, it’s hard to get into (I’m referring to the mission to take out the guns on the hill). Late-arriving story goals never have the same stakes attached to them as something that’s been set up throughout the story. I had the same problem with Saving Private Ryan. Once they found Private Ryan, they tried to tack on this supposedly big bridge finale. But the goal of securing the bridge came so late that we never really bought into its importance, and therefore didn’t care if they succeeded or not.

Despite these problems, the Manning character and the feeling of really being in this war won me over. I know that just a couple of weeks ago I harped on the staleness of World War 2 movies, but I have to remind myself that when something is written well, it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. It’s going to work.

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

What I learned: Stakes stakes stakes people. I know we can’t shut up about them here but writers are still making the same mi-stakes so we’re going to keep bringing them up. The success of your climax is directly related to how big the stakes are. The later you set those stakes up, the smaller they’re going to seem. Imagine Rocky if we followed Rocky around Philadelphia for 90 minutes. He falls in love with Adrian, helps Paulie battle alcoholism, collects money for thugs. Then, on page 90, Apollo Creed comes to Rocky and says, “I want to fight you for the Heavyweight Championship of the world.” Do you think that fight would have half the impact it has now? Of course not. What makes it so big is that every scene leading up to it addresses how important that fight is.