Monday, April 25, 2011

Great Hope Springs

Genre: Drama
Premise: A woman forces her husband into couples therapy to save their marriage.
About: This script originally made the 2008 Black List under the title, “Untitled Vanessa Taylor Project.” It more recently gained the “Great Hope Springs” title when it secured heavyweights Steve Carell and Meryl Streep in the cast. Actors rumored to be playing the husband are James Gandolfini and Tommy Lee Jones, both of whom I think are spot-on choices who would do a great job – Jones in particular would be awesome. The movie was originally a directing vehicle for Mike Nichols, but is now being headed up by David Frankel, who’s become hot after having two surprise hits in a row: “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Marley and Me.”
Writer: Vanessa Taylor
Details: 108 pages – June 20, 2008 Black List 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).

Okay, we have two slow-moving stories this week and I didn’t like one of them. So I want to preface this by explaining why I liked Great Hope Springs a lot more than that Wednesday review. Remember, the biggest influence on a reader liking a screenplay is subject matter. If they’re interested in the subject matter, they’re miles more likely to be interested in that film/script. And this subject matter is right up my alley.

I’m fascinated by marriage. I think we’re at a point in society (at least here in the U.S.) where the institution of marriage is on its way out. Not only are more people getting divorced. But the divorce rate is causing more people to fear marriage, to not get involved in the first place. And I think that’s the result of a lot of things. But the biggest thing is that people don’t persevere anymore. When something goes bad, they don’t try and fix it. They just walk away. And without trying to sound too corny, I believe that the people who stand up and fight for their marriage are some of the last heroes out there, because it’s so much easier to pack it up and move on. And that’s exactly what today’s script is about. It’s about a woman trying to save her marriage.

52 year old Maeve Soames (“sweet and sexless”) doesn’t exactly have a wonderful marriage. She’s got two grown kids, but they’ve both moved out, and that leaves just her and Arnold, her hard-nosed husband, the kind of man who ends every day telling you how pissed he is about some client at work. Not exactly a bright bowl of cherries. If you have any questions about where this marriage currently stands, the fact that the two sleep in different bedrooms might give you a clue.

That’s not to say they don’t like each other. They just don’t see each other as emotional sexual human beings anymore. Their relationship has turned into a second business, one you try to manage and maintain but are ultimately emotionally absent from. And Maeve is sick of it. So sick, in fact, that she lays down an ultimatum. Either they go to an intensive marriage therapy doctor in Wyoming or she’s leaving. Arnold thinks this is a classic “wife bluff,” something you endure, wait for them to calm down, then move on from. But he quickly realizes she’s very serious, and therefore has no choice but to join her on the trip.

Cut to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere that’s looking a lot more like a prison to Arnold than the picturesque headquarters of a famous marriage counselor. Dr. Bernie Feld plays the unique role of both hero and villain in the story – hero to Maeve and villain to Arnold. Arnold’s hatred for this man and his practice stems mostly from the ridiculous $4000 price tag he’s set on this week. As he says to Maeve, “That could’ve been a new roof.”

Almost immediately, we jump into therapy, and this is where the meat of Great Hope Springs is. In every movie idea you come up with, you’re looking for areas that are going to provide the most amount of conflict, where the main source of resistance is going to come from. Here, it’s these sessions, specifically the fact that Maeve desperately wants to be here and Arnold desperately doesn’t.

Not only is Arnold unable to open up, but he believes therapy to be a crock of shit, so the sessions are packed with tension both from the marriage stuff AND from him not wanting to be here. So intense are these early sessions, you get the feeling that at any moment, the room could explode. At the core of the problem is that Arnold believes the marriage is fine. That sleeping in different rooms, not talking about anything meaningful, never doing anything fun or romantic, is perfectly okay. As long as you put in the time (the marriage is over 30 years old), then you’re entitled to coast.

So he’s shocked and angered that Maeve doesn’t feel the same way, not realizing that this is the main issue – that they don’t talk enough for the other to even know that there’s something wrong. But with Maeve now making it clear that if he doesn’t change, she’s out the door, Arnold realizes that he better at least try and give Dr. Feld a chance, or the one mainstay in his life could be gone forever.

One of the cool things I noticed about Great Hope Springs is that while it has that “indie” character piece feel, the structure is textbook. We have a clear goal – save the marriage. We have a ticking time bomb – one week. And the stakes are sky high – a 30 year old marriage is on the line.

But like I said, what really makes Great Hope Springs fly is the conflict, or more appropriately, Arnold’s resistance to change. Remember that. If you don’t have at least one character in your screenplay who’s resistant to change, there’s a good chance you’re not getting the most emotional punch out of your story.

And the less likely it appears that that character will be willing to change? The more compelling it will be. That’s the case with Arnold here. He hates admitting he’s wrong, he hates therapy, he hates this therapist, he hates that Maeve’s making him do this, he hates this town. We’re thinking, “There’s no way in hell this guy is going to change his mind.”

Another thing I like about the structure is that Taylor uses the therapy sessions as pillars to keep the story moving. Each session is packed with conflict, so they’re always interesting. But then you also have Feld giving them a goal to try before the next session (i.e. go have sex). That way, once we leave the session, we’re interested in whether they can achieve this goal, and we’re also looking forward to what challenge will be presented in the next session.

Another thing to note about Great Hope Springs is the unique way that therapy allows you to do things with your characters that you wouldn’t normally be able to do. Most scripts, especially emotional character-driven scripts like this, thrive on subtext, the unspoken words that live between the words that the characters are actually saying. But when you put a character in therapy, there’s no more subtext. Essentially, you’re allowing the characters to do what you, as a screenwriter, are told never to let them do, which is to speak “on the nose,” – say exactly what’s on their mind. But the reason that it works is because it’s motivated. They HAVE to say how they feel. They have no other choice. So if you’re looking for that opportunity to have your characters get right to the point, throwing them into a therapy session might be a good idea.

I do have a few problems with Great Hope Springs though. First, the last 35 pages don’t live up to the rest of the script. What I liked about this story was that the therapy kept building, kept providing new challenges every time they came in. But towards the end, once we get to the sex-related stuff, the therapy kind of becomes redundant. We’re battling the same problem over and over again and after awhile it just became stale. This is followed by a lackluster unimaginative ending. In fact, it felt so tacked on that I wondered if it wasn’t a placeholder ending.

Finally, I wish there was more humor here. And with Steve Carell coming on, I’m guessing that’s a direction they took in subsequent drafts. Which is a good idea. Because while the conflict in this script is excellent, there aren’t enough laughs to release all that tension. If they fix these few issues, this could be a superb character study, and one of the better movies about marriage ever made.

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

What I learned: Somebody has to change in your story. It may not be the hero. It may not even be the love interest. But change – or the attempt to change – is the key emotional component that drives an audience’s interest, so at least one character should experience it. And the more resistant they are to that change, the more compelling their journey tends to be.