Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Honeymoon With Harry

Genre: Love Story/Drama/Comedy?
Premise: After eternal ladies’ man, Todd, falls in love for the first time, he must learn to get along with his new girlfriend’s overbearing father, Harry.
About: Honeymoon With Harry is a project that’s been kicking around Hollywood for awhile, and is thought to be one of the better unproduced screenplays out there. It’s based on an unpublished novel by Bart Barker, which is also supposed to be really good (I don’t know why it’s never been published). The project is set to star Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper (though De Niro’s been waffling recently) with Johnathan Demme directing. This is an early Paul Haggis draft (from 2004) and I guess there have been a lot of writers since, with the most recent being Jenny Lumet, who wrote Rachel Getting Married.
Writer: Paul Haggis
Details: 131 pages – November 8, 2004 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).

Paul Haggis is a solid writer. The guys knows his shit. So after watching/reading his last two writer-director projects, The Next Three Days and In The Valley Of Elah, I guess you could say I was disappointed. Neither script was bad. But neither was that good either. You know how I pointed out the other day in my Breakfast Club breakdown that every script needs a few “memorable moments?” The bag blowing scene in American Beauty? The egg-eating scene in Cool Hand Luke? Neither of those Haggis films had any memorable moments. You forgot about them as soon as you left the theater. This was surprising, since Crash, Haggis’ controversial but most accomplished effort, had a ton of memorable moments. Having heard on several occasions that Honeymoon With Harry was one of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood, I was eager to see if he was sitting on a goldmine, something that brought him back to those Crash days. What I got instead was two movies wrapped into one.

The first of these movies is GREAT. It’s a love story. We have our hero, Todd, who admittedly sleeps with one too many women, instantly falling in love with Haley, who he meets at a bar. This girl is THE ONE. She’s sweet, she’s nice, she’s funny, she’s beautiful. And the dialogue between them is great. After noticing that she’s wearing a ring, he offers, “That’s one beautiful ring.” “Thank you.” “I’m hoping that the guy who gave it to you died in some tragic way and you’re wearing it to remember him.” A charmer indeed. But Haley’s no easy target. She takes his number and tells him she “might” call.

After sleepwalking through a few weeks of torture, Haley finally calls Todd and the two begin dating. And it’s…perfect. Even Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan would look at these two and say, “Wow, now that’s a couple.”

Of course no story works if your central couple is happy for too long. You have to introduce some element of conflict to give yourself a movie! And that conflict comes in the form of Harry, Haley’s overbearing powder keg of a father (who she still lives with). And the worst thing about Harry? He sees right through Todd. He knows his kind. And there is no way in hell he is allowing this piece of shit to be with his little girl.

This makes things pretty awkward because Todd isn’t about to give up. Even when Harry threatens to KILL HIM, Todd is right there the next day, inviting (or is it daring?) Harry to join he and his future wife for dinner.

And then – just like that – everything changes.


Halfway through the movie, Haley dies in a car accident. I have to tell you, since I didn’t see this coming, it was a shock. One of the things I always recommend here is that whatever your movie is about, make sure it starts being about that by page 30 (the end of the first Act). The reason is, if you wait all the way until halfway through the film to hit the main storyline, the audience is going to get impatient, or worse, confused. It’s just not the way people are used to digesting stories.

However by ignoring this rule, Honeymoon With Harry was able to surprise the hell out of us. So you have to give it to Haggis for that. I was devastated. I mean, I really liked this girl. And just like that – just like in real life – she’s gone. Where do you go from here?

The problem is that in the script world, the answer to that question poses all sorts of problems. Now that *that* story’s over, you have to start up a whole new story, and starting up a whole new story halfway into your screenplay is really fucking hard. And that’s where Honeymoon With Harry falters. Its second story isn’t one-tenth as interesting as its first one. And there are a couple of reasons for this. Todd and Harry.

I don’t know why the original author or Haggis did this. But Todd is a slimeball. I mean he’s a really sketchy dude. I didn’t mind him banging every female that strolled into the club BEFORE he met Haley because that was BEFORE he met Haley. But to keep doing it afterwards? I mean, HE FUCKS HALEY’S BEST FRIEND ONLY DAYS AFTER HER DEATH. And I get that it’s supposed to be an emotionally confused screw but still, it’s like the author is deliberately trying to make us hate this guy.

And yet despite this, Harry’s even worse! He’s mean, he’s abrasive, he’s an asshole, he’s irritating, he’s unruly, he won’t shut up, he whines, he’s a dick. There isn’t a single likeable trait on this man’s body. And yet he and the sperminator are who we’re spending the next 70 pages with! It’s like watching two people argue on Celebrity Rehab. You don’t care who wins cause you hate them both.

Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you what the rest of the movie is about. After Haley dies, Harry and Todd fly off to the tropical island where Haley wanted her ashes thrown. Despite each having their own ideas on how this should be approached, they must work together and compromise to get it done.

So I guess the big question is, how do you save this story? A much more traditional setup would have Haley dying at the end of the first act. Although if you do that, you lose that amazing mid-story surprise. But I don’t think you have a choice. It poses too many problems to change your story up so late in the game (plus people are going to know going in that she dies anyway). The bigger issue is that you have to rewrite Harry. This man needs a Final Draft intervention. Just an obnoxiously annoying person from top to bottom. I get that you need to create conflict between these two to keep the story juicy, but if it’s forced, if the character is all the way to one extreme, it’s never going to feel right. And Harry and Todd’s interaction never felt right.

A frustrating script with a lot of potential. I wonder if they’ve solved these problems by now (or if they even saw them as problems in the first place).

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

What I learned: I feel, as writers, we go through phases in the way we write our protagonists. It starts when we learn how important it is to make our hero “likeable.” Once we learn that, we go to the extreme, making our hero the greatest nicest coolest most charming person ever. But after doing that for a few scripts, we realize it isn’t realistic. And that all that glitter and gold actually makes our hero feel artificial and off-putting. So we go through phase 2, which is to start adding unlikable traits to balance out the likeable ones. “Ahh,” we say, “You thought I was going to make this character perfect? Well how bout him dumping his girlfriend at her sister’s wedding! Now you’re not so sure about him, are you?” We do this for a few scripts, proud at how balanced our heroes become, but then somewhere around this time, we hit Stage 3, which is to start pushing the envelope on our hero’s unlikeability . I’m not sure why we do this but I think it’s to prove that we aren’t slaves to traditional screenwriting structure. We want people to know that we take chances. So we load up on the unlikeable traits, making sure they outnumber the likeable ones, and almost dare our audience to root for our character. The problem with this is, of course, that if you flirt too close with the edge, you run the risk of falling off it. And that’s what happened here, with both characters. When Todd is funny and charming, we like him. But then when he sleeps with some random chick on the night he meets the girl of his dreams? We hate him. And when he continues to bang girls at the tropical resort? We hate him more. And don’t get me started on Harry, who I don’t believe has any likeable traits. Once the unlikeable traits outnumber the likeable ones in your hero, your audience is going to turn on them. Never forget that.