Tuesday, December 28, 2010

History Of Fools

Genre: Comedy
Premise: 13 year old Miles Calhoun excels in…just about everything. So when his parents continue to hold him back, Miles decides to do what any exceptional 13 year old boy would do – file for legal separation.
About: History of Fools finished in the Top 13 of the Scriptapalooza contest back in 2005. The notoriety got it some reads around town and it ended up on the Black List a year later with 5 votes. Eric Podell did a video Q&A about the script which you can find below.
Writer: Eric Podell
Details: 114 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).

Wes Anderson once said that he starts all his screenplays with a character. My brain doesn’t work that way. I need the stabilizing force of a concept before I can start building a story but the more I think about it, the more I think starting with a character is an intriguing way to go. Because if you only start with a character, you have no choice but to make him interesting.

However this leads to a problem. If you get too caught up in your character, you run the risk of neglecting your story. Or your character becomes bigger than your story. This is exactly what I believe happens in History of Fools.

When we meet Miles, the 13 year old maestro of mischief, he’s typing a manifesto to his parents detailing why they don’t understand him. He’s a great painter. Plays bass with the best of them. He even writes award-winning short stories. And yet his parents impose ridiculous archaic notions on him such as “curfew” and “rules.” All Miles wants is to be set free so he can fly. Fly away into genius’s embrace.

I knew I liked Podell as a writer right away when we get the “beautiful girl moves in next door” scene. You know, the scene we’ve seen a billion times before where the family of the beautiful girl moves in next to our hero? Except that’s not what Podell does. Instead, Miles welcomes the family in their house search, posing as a (13 year old!) real estate agent as he shows them their potential new home. At the end of the tour we find out, of course, that this is HIS HOME, which Miles is trying to sell off in order to piss off his parents.

And just like that, we’ve set up the central conflict in the movie.

The funny thing is, his parents are great. They’re the nicest parents in the world. They just don’t treat Miles the way he believes he should be treated – like an adult.

Miles is able to pass the time pursuing his new neighbor, but when his father gets laid off and his parents’ watchful eyes become even more imposing, conflict within the household reaches an all time high. Eventually they send him off to camp, which infuriates Miles so much, he leads a revolt during lunchtime and gets kicked out.

We can practically hear the water boiling over back home, and after his parents force him to get a job, Miles has had enough. He goes to a lawyer to find out what it will take to get a legal separation from his parents. The lawyer gives him a list of what the requirements are (neglect, abuse, etc.) and Miles goes about manufacturing scenarios to obtain the evidence needed to make his case.

I’m not going to tell you how it ends other than to say Miles might learn a valuable lesson: Mainly, be careful what you wish for.

I loved this character. I think you’re always going to get an interesting character when that character’s actions play against his or her age. So if you’re a 35 year old acting like you’re 14, you’re going to have some funny stuff. Likewise when you’re 14 acting like you’re 35. There’s a built-in conflict there that manifests itself without you even having to try (which is probably why I liked The Escort so much). Throw in a dose of arrogance and cup of selfishness and you’ve created a character who pops off the page.

On top of that, the dialogue was great, especially anything that came out of Miles’ mouth. And why should we be surprised? When you create an exciting interesting character, they’re likely to say exciting interesting things. Listening to Miles’ acceptance speech for his short story is the culmination of all these factors at work: “Wow, this was totally unexpected. Okay, let’s be honest... it wasn’t. Seriously, did anybody read the third act of Vaghars’ “If My Dog Could Talk?” Entirely void of realism. An unintentional farce. I think if his dog could talk he’d politely ask him to put the pen down.”

My big problem with History of Fools was the story, which doesn’t get started early enough and once it does get started, isn’t convincing. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Whatever your movie is about, whatever the hook is, you have to expose that hook by the end of Act 1. So if your movie is about a lawyer who can’t lie, he better not be able to lie by page 25. If your movie is about a bachelor party where they lose the groom, they better lose the groom by page 25. This is a movie about a kid who wants a divorce from his parents. But he doesn’t try to get this divorce until the midpoint, which is why 40 pages into History of Fools, you’re sitting there going, “What in the world is this script about??”

This ends up causing the next problem in the screenplay, which is that Miles’ attempts to build a case against his parents aren’t convincing. They feel slapped together. And the reason they feel slapped together is because we’re trying to cram them all into the final half of the screenplay. Had we had 30 extra pages, we could’ve added some real depth to these pursuits. Since we don’t, they come off as simplistic and questionable. Tricking his parents to go near their computer which has been set to a porn page and taking a picture of it (for evidence) betrays the more intelligent aspects of the screenplay.

My last complaint has to do with the central relationship between Miles and his parents. Miles hates his parents. HATES them. Yet his parents love Miles and will do anything for him. As his other friends note, they’re basically two of the best parents in the neighborhood.

So we feel like at some point we’re going to get insight into why Miles has grown to hate them. And really, I thought that was going to be what the script was about – how a family gets to this point. But it’s never explored or explained, leaving us to take the family conflict at face value, which isn’t easy to do since it doesn’t make sense. I remember in Rushmore, Max was ashamed of his father for a reason – because he was a barber, an unacceptable profession for the parent of a private school student. There wasn’t any reason behind Miles’ hatred here. And if there was, it wasn’t clear.

So I definitely think History of Fools has problems. However, Podell has created a memorable main character and has some great dialogue he’s working with. If he can manage to wrap a more compelling story around it all, I think this script could be awesome.

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

What I learned: A lot of the most memorable characters in cinema have a mischievous side. Whether it’s Lester Burnham secretly lusting after his daughter’s best friend. Captain Jack Sparrow screwing over anyone who gets in his way. Han Solo selfishly doing it all for the money. Vince Vaughn constantly degrading women in Swingers. The nastiness is what makes these characters pop off the page. But creating them is like playing with fire. Give them too much gasoline and they explode. There were a number of times here where the things that made Miles so memorable (his arrogance, his hypocrisy) also made him annoying because they went too far. I wouldn’t say he ever became unlikable, but he certainly got close. So add a little attitude to your characters to give him/her life, just be careful you don’t go overboard.