Friday, December 10, 2010

Amateur Friday - Served Cold

Genre: Heist
Premise: (from writer) A Detroit bank thief accidentally steals from the Canadian mob and is forced to lift a rare painting from the Detroit mob to pay them back.
About: Served Cold made it to the semi-finals of the Screenwriting Expo competition but that’s where it topped out. Pryor, who’s about as far out of the Hollywood loop as one can be, living in Atlanta, wanted to know why his script didn’t advance to the next round. --- Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted.
Writer: Steven Pryor
Details: 101 pages (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).

When you’re combing through queries trying to decide which scripts to read, there are two kinds of scripts that catch your interest. Subject matter you like and scripts that make movies. The first one is a wild card. You can’t control it because everyone likes different shit. But you have a little more control over the second one – whether your idea is “a movie.” In order to find out, you simply have to ask, “Is this an idea someone who’s looking to make money (In most cases – lots of money) would want to buy?” I’m not the biggest fan of the heist genre, but heist stories are inherently “movies.” People have proven that they’ll pay to see them. So this was the thinking behind picking “Served Cold.” I wanted to read something that producers would conceivably bet some cash on.

The script starts out somewhat predictably, introducing us to our team of heisters. There’s Fisher, the 20-something no-nonsense leader. There’s Worm, Fisher’s number 1. There’s pony-tailed Biggs, the muscle. And there’s chubby Carter, the “brain.”

We also meet the bad guys, the leader of the Canadian mob, Frenchmen and style aficionado Louis Garnier, his number 1, Roland (who I imagined to be Steven Seagal on a bad day) and a few other baddie underlings.

Fisher’s team starts out robbing a small bank with expert precision, not a hitch in their step, so when the FBI show up later, they’re curious why a group of pros would have any interest in such a small job. The answer, of course, is that they’re practicing. Practicing for something bigger.

But when Fisher heads home after his day’s work, we realize there’s more to this guy than simply nailing the big score. Turns out he’s got a younger brother with cancer and a mother who refuses to deal with it. Instead, she ducks responsibility by getting blasted every day. That leaves Fisher in charge of the bills.

But Fisher doesn’t want to be doing this forever, so he finally commits to that big job that’s going to put all of them on easy street. He and his team coordinate what should be the easiest 7 million dollar bank heist in history.

There are a few hitches in the execution but they do manage to grab the money – for a second. Turns out their pony-tailed teammate Biggs was playing them like an Xbox. He takes the seven million and jets. This is where it gets interesting (or more complicated depending on how you look at it). That money they stole was money owed to Louis Garnier. And as far as Garnier’s concerned, that means they owe him 7 million bucks. When Garnier’s rival (who I think ended up with the money Biggs took somehow) buys a 7 million dollar painting, Garnier orders Fisher and his team to steal the painting to clear their debt.


There are actually several more twists and turns, which was one of the problems I had with Served Cold – the plot gets a little convoluted and overextended (especially in the second act). However, I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. It started off too conventional (a gruff voice over intro to our crew before they take down a bank), but what’s cool about Served Cold is how unpredictable it becomes. 70 pages in and you’re still wondering how it’s all going to shake down.

So then why didn’t “Served Cold” make the finals of the Screenwriting Expo Contest? Or why doesn’t it stack up to a recent heist script like “The Town?” That’s easy to answer. There’s a) not enough conflict going on between the characters in the story and b) the relationships between the characters aren’t explored enough.

Let’s look at The Town, which I thought was great. Renner’s character is Affleck’s character’s best friend. There’s a lot of history between the two. And Renner is a ticking timebomb. We know it’s only a matter of time before the guy blows up. Renner also wants the girl that saw them during that first heist dead. You know, the girl Affleck’s falling in love with? The girl Affleck is SNEAKING around with?

This is an extremely complicated three-way relationship that plays into every heist and provides numerous situations packed with conflict because of the unique dynamic between the three. So when Renner unexpectedly shows up at Affleck and the girl’s lunch, it’s a terrifying scene, because we know psychos don’t take kindly to their best friends lying to them AND keeping a girl alive that can put them in jail for the rest of their llives. Served Cold doesn’t have any of that. Each character in the crew is their own individual island, and there’s no sense of history or conflict between any of them.

Speaking of the girl, look at the differences between the love interests in The Town and Served Cold. In Served Cold, Adelle, the romantic lead, is cast off to the side – someone Fisher simply visits between heists. Contrast that with the romantic lead in The Town, who’s right in the mix of the story. She worked at the bank they robbed at the beginning. She might remember them at any minute, which means every moment Affleck spends with her jeopardizes his own and his best friend’s safety. Affleck’s best friend also wants her dead. Notice how much better the story is when your romantic lead is right in the thick of things.

I also had a hard time with Cancer Brother. One of our jobs as screenwriters, especially when we give our heroes unsavory lifestyles, is to come up with a way to make them sympathetic so the audience will root for them. But sometimes we go a little overboard. On paper, Fisher making money to pay his brother’s medical bills is noble, but in this particular situation, it comes off as manufactured and schlocky, like the writer is trying too hard to make you love his protagonist. It’s the right idea, I just think Pryor went too far.

We also have to talk about the beginning of the script. You can’t introduce 10 characters in your first four pages. It’s so important for these pages to flow. They have to hook the reader. If your reader is going, “Wait…um….who is that again?” Or “Okay so that guy is friends with that guy but that other guy is friends with…this guy?” or, "I might need a notepad to keep track of all these people," you’re gumming up the portion of your script that’s supposed to be the easiest to read.

If I were tackling this rewrite, I’d probably back off all of the plot developments and focus more on the characters. Find out who these people are to each other. Create bonds that can be broken, rivalries that can be renewed, love that threatens to get in the way. A heist is so much more than busting into a bank. It’s about the people busting into the bank. I didn’t get that sense here (other than with Fisher).

But on the writing end – this was pretty good. The style was easy to read and the script has story density to spare, so I can see why this would advance in a big competition. I’ll tell you what I loved. I loved that Pryor killed a major character in his story. I love when any writer does this because it sends a subliminal message to the reader: “You don’t have a fucking clue what’s going to happen in my script.” Readers can usually predict everything because they’ve seen it all before. When someone who’s supposed to be safe dies, that comfy little cocoon they’re in disappears. “How could that have happened?” the reader thinks. “That character never dies.” It’s definitely the moment that pulled me into the script.

This was a tough call because I like Pryor’s writing, but since the relationship aspects were barely explored and the romantic interest exists outside the main plot, I’ll have to give this a “wasn’t for me,” just barely missing a “worth the read.”

Script Link: Served Cold

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

What I learned: The character descriptions here were too generic. When you’re writing a genre that’s been done a million times before, and therefore has a high probability of coming off as generic, you don’t want to confirm that likelihood by giving the reader unimaginative character descriptions. “Cropped hair, muscled but not bulky.” “Ponytail.” “Chubby, scar on neck.” That’s how you’d describe a criminal to the cops, not how you describe characters in a screenplay. Give us more. Be creative.  Tell us if their eyes are damaged, what their demeanor is, a unique characteristic that sets them apart from everyone else in the world (a scar is too simple). I want to connect with characters. If the writer doesn’t tell me anything about them, I just imagine a stick figure and a blurry face.