Tuesday, May 17, 2011

After Hailey

Genre: Drama
Premise: After a newlywed war photographer’s wife dies, he must decide whether to help out her troubled son from a previous marriage or move on and start a new life.
About: Scott Frank is one of the biggest screenwriters in town, the guy you pay a million bucks to to put your script on the development red carpet. Frank has over a dozen produced credits, including Dead Again, Minority Report, Out of Sight, The Lookout and Get Shorty, which got him nominated for an Oscar. After Hailey is an adaptation of a book by Jonathan Tropper (How To Talk To A Widower). It, like yesterday’s entry, made the 2008 Black List. I’ve done some digging and found that the script has a lot of fans in the industry (Bill Martell and Mystery Man on Film being a couple).
Writer: Scott Frank (based on a novel by Jonathan Tropper)
Details: 128 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).

I first busted out After Hailey two years ago and promptly threw it down 14 pages later. A heartfelt drama about an Iraq war photographer (NO! No more Iraq vets!) grieving the loss of his wife? Every sentence I read indicated this was going to be a slow sorry depressing “woe is me” snore-fest.

But one of our longtime readers has been telling me at every turn that I need to review more Scott Frank scripts, that in the battleground that is the Hollywood screenwriting business, Frank writes circles around even the mightiest money-earners. He is the guy you go to when you want to get a script right. He doesn’t come cheap, but he’s worth every penny. I squinted skeptically at the reader’s e-mail. Hmmm, I thought, do I really want to try After Hailey AGAIN and willingly bring depression into my life for the next two hours? Not really. But I popped the script open for a second chance anyway, hoping for a miracle.

Guess what? I got one.

24 year old Doug Parker is a talented war photographer. Buoyed by his fearlessness, he’s willing to get in close to capture the moment, however horrifying that moment might be. What Doug doesn’t realize is that the accumulation of these moments has stripped him of any feeling, of any emotion. He is a walking zombie. Photographs are all he has left.

Until he meets Hailey.

Hailey is a magazine journalist 14 years his senior. But that age gap means nothing to Doug. This is love at first sight. This is “spend the rest of our lives together at all costs magic.” Hailey, a divorcee, is hardened by real life the same way Doug is hardened by his career, and for that reason, she’s nervous about becoming involved with him. She wonders if he can handle being with someone who has a past, who has baggage. In the end she decides to take a chance, and the two get married.

Cut to two years later. A suburb of New York. Doug’s come back for a few weeks to sell the home he and Hailey bought together. Hailey’s dead. Died in a plane crash. And if he could run away and just let this home rot, that’s what he would do. But he’s trying to be strong. He’s trying to be responsible.

There’s one complication however. Hailey had a son, 15 year old Russ, who’s lived a real shitty life. Besides his mother dying, his father is a total asshole. So at the beginning of Doug’s week, Russ gets hand-delivered by the cops who say they won’t take him to jail if Doug keeps an eye on him for the rest of the night.

Although we only get bits and pieces of their past, we get the sense that Doug married Hailey, not Hailey and Russ, and that that caused a lot of distance between him and this boy. So with Hailey out of the picture, the last thing Doug wants to do is deal with her troubled son.

In addition to Russ, we have Laney, Hailey’s best friend, who keeps coming to check up on Doug, and is willing to do anything – and I mean anything – to make him feel better. There’s his twin sister Claire, who’s pregnant and wants to leave her husband, eventually leading to her moving in (Move in?? He’s trying to sell the house!). There’s Russ’s real dad, Jim, who’s moving to Florida and is trying to cast Russ off on Doug. And then there’s Doug’s family, highlighted by his brain-damaged-for-the-better father (who used to be a total dick but now is the life of the party). All of these people are pulling at Doug in their own way, when all Doug wants to do is get out.

If there’s a script out there that challenges my proclamation to stay away from passion projects, this would be the one. This is your horse in the “prove Carson wrong” race. There’s no strong character goal in this story. There’s no sense of urgency. It’s a straightforward character piece with the only thing driving the story being, “What’s going to happen with Doug and the rest of these people?” So why does it still work?

Well, let’s take a closer look. While the character goals don’t dominate the narrative like they would in a more traditional “Hollywood” movie, they are there. Doug’s goal is to sell the house so he can get the hell out of this town and never come back. Now because Doug is so passive about it, it never dominates the narrative, but it’s definitely there.

There are actually two soft ticking time bombs set up. The first is needing to sell the house (although I would’ve liked the time frame to be more defined) and the second is his younger sister’s wedding. Although it’s never said that this will be the finale of the movie, viewers are trained to know that usually, when there’s a wedding, it’ll be close to the end.

But what really makes this story great are the stakes. You quickly realize that unless Doug and Russ find some connection, unless they become a permanent part of each other’s lives, they’re doomed. And that feeling only grows as the script goes on. This, in turn, becomes the main engine that drives the story. We want to see if these two “get together” so that we know they’ll be okay. In that sense, it was a lot like the structure used in a Romantic Comedy.

The character work in After Hailey is almost flawless. I talked about this with Maggie the other week, how when you have a depressing situation, you need someone to come in and add some levity so the audience isn’t ready to slit their wrists by Act 2. Bringing in Doug’s twin sister, Claire, who calls it like it is (her commentary on Doug’s bedroom exploits with Laney are particularly hilarious), was the perfect remedy for distilling a script that could’ve easily slipped into melodrama.

And even the relationship that we barely saw, that between Doug and Hailey, was different and new. I can’t remember a movie where they so deftly explored the marriage problems between a younger man and an older woman as realistically as this one. This idea that some people are a package deal, and how that can be hard for a younger person to understand, helped contribute to the freshness of After Hailey.

Like all good writers, Frank/Tropper tell the story through ACTION instead of dialogue whenever possible. So as Russ starts enjoying time with Doug, instead of saying, “I don’t want you to sell this house. Let’s just keep it.” - which a rebellious teenager like Russ would never say – Frank/Tropper instead show Doug repeatedly coming home to find the “For Sale” sign hidden, trashed, even run over. I mean that’s really good writing.

Truth be told, almost all of Frank and Tropper's choices were spot on. In Doug’s younger sister’s wedding, for example, Doug takes the mic near the end and we think – oh, here we go – the typical heartwarming wrap up the theme of the movie speech. But we’re shocked to see Doug totally choke and then a drunk Russ pick up the mic and use the toast to propose his love to Doug’s younger sister – the one who just got married! It was unexpected and not like any movie I’d ever seen and therefore perfect.

I was sure at the beginning of the story that the photography stuff was going to be boring and stupid. One of my pet peeves is when writers give characters cool jobs even if it doesn’t fit the character. But here, Frank/Tropper use the photography to show how distanced Doug is from the real world (hiding behind a lens), he uses it to help bond Doug and Russ (Doug gives Russ a camera to go out and shoot with), and finally he uses it as a later plot point (the job threatens to take him out of the city). There was an actual plan here with the job, which is nice, cause I usually don’t see that.

If I have any complaints about After Hailey, they’re minor. Doug’s family may have been a little too wacky (the brain-beaten dad was kind of over-the-top). And since his younger sister was barely around during the screenplay, her wedding at the end felt thrust upon us. But Frank and Tropper did such a good job that most of these things slipped by unnoticed. Can’t say enough about this one. Great script!

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (Top 25!)
[ ] genius

What I learned: That you can take successful elements from other genres and use them in genres they weren’t meant for. I loved how this was essentially a romantic comedy format. We’re wondering if Doug and Russ are going to “get together.” Just like we were wondering if Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts were going to get together in Notting Hill. Just like we were wondering if Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock were going to get together in The Proposal (okay, maybe we weren’t wondering that, but you get the idea). That was a neat trick I plan to take with me.