Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Good Hunter

Genre: Thriller
Premise: An alcoholic owner of a wilderness sanctuary whose daughter went missing many years ago learns that a man is hunting young women on his property.
About: A Good Hunter is one of the five 2010 Nicholl Fellowship winners.
Writer: Micah Ranum
Details: 115 pages - undated (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).

We’ve spoken in the past about how The Nicholl Fellowship tends to favor weightier screenplays. Period pieces, death, a disease or two – all those things are preferable. But the competition occasionally saves a slot for a more visceral thriller type script that’s executed to perfection. A couple years back they gave the award to a groovy little contained car thriller called “Snatched,” and this year they gave it to the equally fun if slightly flawed thriller, “A Good Hunter.”

“Hunter” starts out in solid spec script form with an exciting opening scene that draws you right into the central conflict. A beaten up, scratched, bloody 17 year old girl is running through the woods, presumably for her life. I’ll call her Britney for the hell of it. All we see from her pursuer are a couple of dark black boots. Whereas Britney is frantic, our hunter is as calm as can be. Then, out of nowhere, we see a SPEAR whizz through the air and - Fwoomp! – impale poor Britney. Just like that, Britney gets speared. (bada-BUM!)

40-something Rayburn Swanson is not a very pleasant guy to be around. When he’s not buzzed he’s drunk. And when he’s not drunk, he’s wasted. And when he’s any of the above, he’s an asshole. When we meet him, he’s kicking a couple of hunters off his thousand-acre wilderness sanctuary for shooting animals they don’t have the right to shoot.

A couple of scenes later we learn why Rayburn’s such a drunken asshole. His little girl, Gwen, disappeared seven years ago. She’s been missing ever since, and Rayburn drinks to keep the pain at bay. He still holds out hope that one day he’ll find Gwen because that’s all he has. If Gwen’s dead, he might as well be the same.

On the other side of town we meet Sheriff Alice Gustafson, a tough cookie in her 30s who has some family issues of her own. Her pathetic brother Brooks hasn’t been taking his meds lately and when there’s something bad that’s happened in town, he’s usually the first person they look to. Leading the double life of protecting the town and protecting her brother is not easy.

Holed up in his house, Rayburn’s trying his best to drink away another weekday when he happens to glance up at his video monitors and see a young girl of 16 years old running through the woods on his property from – you guessed it – Black Boots Guy. Rayburn grabs his shotgun and heads into the forest to find the girl, which he eventually does. But now, instead of Black Boots hunting the girl, he’s hunting the girl and Rayburn.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Gustafson finds the body of the first girl, and is shocked to discover the gruesome manner in which she’s been killed – with a spear. She begins an investigation into the spear’s origins at the same time Rayburn and Girl #2 are being hunted.

Both of these hunted girls, strangely, have large scars on their necks. Whoever this monster is, he destroyed their voice boxes, so neither of them can talk (or scream). This becomes a big deal when Rayburn realizes that the girl he’s protecting knows his daughter! Which makes her the only lead he’s had for seven years. But the only way for him to find out the details is to get her out of here safely where she can write down what she knows. Talk about high stakes!

Eventually Rayburn and Gustafson’s paths collide, and because certain unexpected events transpire, let’s just say Gustafson doesn’t help the person you’d think she’d help, and this mystery of who Black Boots is and how he’s tied in to Rayburn’s daughter is deeper than you think.

A Good Hunter is a fun little ride. You have several intriguing mysteries driving the story, including the most compelling one – where is Rayburn’s daughter and is she still alive? You also have a strong main anti-hero. I was just talking about this in yesterday’s review of Megalopolis. Even anti-heros need traits that make us want to root for them. My argument in Megalopolis was that our anti-hero did a number of awful things and nothing good.

Here in A Good Hunter, Raybrun’s an asshole. He’s a genuinely unlikable guy. But he also lost his 7 year old daughter. That alone cancels out most of the bad and actually gets you rooting for this guy. Cause who doesn’t want to root for someone who lost their daughter? But it also EXPLAINS why he became this way in the first place. Since his negative traits exist for a reason, we’re more likely to accept them.

I also loved how we were introduced to Rayburn. Whenever you introduce a character, you want to show, through action if possible, who he is. So Rayburn starts off yelling at these shithead hunters for hunting on his property. Then, after he’s kicked them out, he jumps in his car, but it doesn’t start, something that’s clear from his reaction is not an isolated occurrence. He ends up having to ask the guys he just cursed out for a jump (which they don’t give him). As a result, in just one scene, we know our main character is both an asshole and a fuck-up. That’s what they mean when they say, “Tell us who your character is through action.”

Also, Ranum goes the extra mile to give each of these characters real lives. Gustafson could’ve been another obvious over-the-hill male sheriff we always see in these kinds of movies. Instead she’s a woman with a troubled brother as well as a complicated past with her father. While I didn’t agree with all the choices behind her backstory, I loved how much depth there actually was. Even if you don’t show it, all your characters need fully fleshed out backstories. That’s what makes them feel three-dimensional.

The reason why A Good Hunter doesn’t get that big fat “You Have To Read This” approval is that the ending gets really convoluted. I’m not going to spoil it but on top of a so-so reveal of who the killer is, we get a fairly complicated and not really rational explanation for why the girls were being hunted. The hunting aspect was one of the drawing points of the screenplay, so it should it should probably make sense.

Of course, that’s what the Nicholl is about. Finding talented writers and teaching them how to fix their stories. So I’m sure the next draft will address this. And hey, you can’t deny that it was a blast getting there. I thought A Good Hunter was a solid little thriller with more character development than you usually see in the genre. I can see why it was picked.

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

What I learned: I talk a lot about degree of difficulty. If you’re relatively new to the screenwriting game, or even if you’re a solid intermediate, why try and do the impossible 3 and a half backflip super twist at 40% efficiency when you can pull a one and a half at 90% efficiency? Your chances for success are way higher. A Good Hunter is a simple story. Guy tries to save girl from killer. So – relatively speaking – it’s not that difficult to pull off. I’m not saying you can’t pull off your sprawling 1950s crime epic that cross-cuts between Gandhi’s uprising in India. But since the degree of difficulty is so high, chances are you won’t.