Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Paper Airplane

Genre: Indie Dramedy
Premise: After sabotaging another family vacation, a travel agent who's afraid to fly battles his irrational phobias in order to win back his wife and daughter.
About: Paper Airplane landed in the middle of the pack of the 2010 Black List. Karger has written and directed a few shorts over the last five years, but this is his breakthrough script.
Writer: Sid Karger
Details: 104 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).

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Paper Airplane, it’s in the logline, specifically the easy to identify ironic component: “After sabotaging another family vacation, a travel agent who's afraid to fly battles his irrational phobias in order to win back his wife and daughter.” Not every story has an ironic hook or character, but I’ve found ones that do get a lot of reads. There’s no guesswork involved because the meat of the conflict is right there for an exec to see.

However as a screenplay, I had some problems with Paper Airplane, and part of that has to do with high expectations. See The Black List is renowned for finding and championing quirky material. You might even call it the preeminent source for doing so. The Beaver finished atop the Black List two years ago. Muppet Man last year. We have The Voices and Butter and Juno and Everything Must Go and Little Miss Sunshine and The Oranges and The Ornate Anatomy of Living Things. These scripts take quirky characters and dysfunctional families to another level. But what’s often forgotten, despite the contradictory nature of the declaration, is that quirky can easily become cliché. And for me, I think that’s what happened here.

Henry Tripp is Mr. Risk Averse. He’s settled into that middle-aged safety-net phase where you’re aware of every possible thing that has the potential to end your life. And for that reason, he avoids it all. There is nothing he avoids more vehemently however, than flying. Getting on one of those long metal tubes and barreling through the air six miles above the earth for hours on end is the equivalent of repeatedly stabbing yourself with a rusty fork as far as Henry is concerned.

And it’s killing him. Or more specifically, it’s killing his family.

His selfish powder-keg of a wife, Joyce, is sick of all the fear. She’s sick of Henry being such a fucking wuss. And his cute but dark 17 year old daughter, Carolyn, has been around this for so long that she’s in danger of actually thinking it’s normal.

So one day, Joyce says she’s had enough and reads a letter to the family explaining that she’s decided to leave. So she takes her things and moves out. Henry and Carolyn are jaws-to-the-floor shocked. Didn’t see that coming. If only that were all they had to worry about.

In one of the more original choices of the screenplay, it turns out that Joyce, the wife, is the one who has the mid-life crisis. In a desperate bid to find that freedom and that happiness she had before her marriage, Joyce makes a play for Ethan, Carolyn’s overly pretentious artsy boyfriend. Ethan, who believes he’s an adult anyway, is all too eager to take Joyce up on the opportunity, and so starts banging his girlfriend’s mom.

In the meantime, Henry believes that if he can just overcome his fears and find the courage to fly, that Joyce will fall back in love with him and he can save the family before it’s too late. So he joins an “afraid to fly” Support Group and makes one last desperate bid to destroy all his phobias.

Paper Airplane plays out as an amalgam of a lot of quirky scripts and movies that you’ve seen before. In fact, it almost feels like it’s competing against them. The problem is, it’s really hard to compete against what came before you. The Monkees never measured up to the Beatles. Remo Williams never measured up to The Karate Kid. And Paper Airplane never quite reaches the heights of its successors, most notably the gold standard in the dysfunctional family genre, and its biggest influence, American Beauty.

Part of my problem with the screenplay is that it’s so….cruel. A mom who steals her daughter’s boyfriend?? I mean how unlikable can you make a character? Even if the point was to make her unlikable, the problem is that the driving force behind the story is Henry trying to get Joyce back. So if we don’t want Henry to achieve that goal because his wife is so despicable, then what’s our incentive to keep reading?

I think I might've been able to stomach this if Ethan came on to Joyce first.  But she clearly is the hunter in this scenario.  And the only word I can think of to describe it is...disgusting.  This is your own daughter we're talking about!  And Carolyn isn't even the person you have the problem with.  It's Henry.Why would you hurt her

But that’s only part of the problem. The biggest pitfall you can fall into when writing one of these scripts is focusing too much on the quirkiness and dysfunction-ality of the universe and not enough on the reality of the characters. In essence, you say, “Okay, what fucked up thing can I add next?” instead of building your characters from the inside out so that their actions stem from reality as opposed to a need to shock the audience. And I saw too much of that going on in Paper Airplane.

A perfect example (spoiler) was later in the script when Carolyn was spending a lot of time with her girlfriend. And I kept saying to myself, “Please don’t realize you’re a lesbian. Please don’t realize you’re a lesbian.” And sure enough, a few scenes later, a goof-around session results in them making out and Carolyn realizing she's a lesbian. The problem was, there was nothing previously set up in Carolyn’s character to indicate she had any interest in girls whatsoever. But it was shocking and dysfunctional, so it was used.

Contrast that with a film like “The Kids Are All Right.” Julianne Moore gets absolutely zero positive feedback from her wife. She starts working with Mark Ruffalo and he’s Mr. Positive Feedback, the exact quality that she’s missing from her partner. On top of that, he’s the biological father of their kids. So there’s a natural intrigue and chemistry and connection and curiosity between the two. That way when they start having an affair, it makes sense, because it was born out of character.

Anyway, there were some things here to admire. While I didn’t enjoy the wife storyline, I totally admired Karger for creating such a daring female lead. I’ve definitely never read a character like this in a script before so that was different. And there was something quietly likable about Henry. His dogged determination to get his family back together, no matter how misguided it was, was fun, and slightly inspiring, to watch.

In the end though, this just didn’t do it for me.

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

What I learned: In the eternal struggle to “show” and not “tell” in your screenplays, pictures can be your best friend. Instead of building a whole scene where your characters argue about how good things “used to be,” just show your hero catch a glance of a picture on the fridge showing the family in happier times. In fact, look to use photographs in every aspect of your script to convey quick easy backstory about your characters (i.e. need to convey that one character is adventurous? Show a picture of them rock climbing).