Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Jones Party

Genre: Dark Comedy
Premise: Two royally screwed up roommates secretly in love with each other throw a massive Jim Jones party on the eve of their suicide.
About: This was Joshua James’ first screenplay, which has been optioned on two occasions and has gotten him numerous writing jobs around town, including an adaptation of the book, DOWN & DIRTY PICTURES. Although he’s moved mainly into thrillers (He’s working on “A Black Heart” with Captivate Ent. and “Block Island” with Adler-Grey), The Jones Party is a favorite of his which he’d like to see made one day. James has his own blog where he ruminates on screenwriting whenever he gets a chance.
Writer: Joshua James
Details: 106 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).

One of the things I tell new writers is to just write that first script and get it out of the way. Cause it’s going to be bad. Actually, I’m being generous. It’s going to be terrible. That’s not something to get discouraged by though. It should be freeing. It means you get to go crazy, experiment, have fun, and enjoy the high of writing without consequences. Well not so fast, Carson. While the club is limited, there are writers out there who have thrived on their first script, and Joshua James is one of them. True, he’s rewritten it to death over the years, but The Jones Party is his first foray into the craft.

33 year old Derwin is one of those people who just oozes cool, who oozes nonchalance. Volleyball-sized meteor chunks could be raining down around him and he’d still find time to smoke a cigarette and ask you how your day went.

Hope is the polar opposite. Young and pretty, she’s got Woody Allen’s neuroses and Russell Crowe’s temperament. She’s strange and fleeting and bi-polar and moody. It’d take her a couple of minutes just to find and light the cigarette, much less smoke it.

I guess that’s what makes them perfect roommates. Their weaknesses are the other’s…non-weaknesses. I wouldn’t say strengths because I don’t know that they have any strengths. Sure, Derwin is cool, but he’s so emotionless and detached. And Hope? Well, a good day to her is just making it to the finish line.

Which might explain why they’ve decided to kill themselves. But being that they’re Derwin and Hope, they’re doing it in style. Instead of just hopping in the car and letting the exhaust take them to happy land, they’re executing a Jim Jones style “End Of The World” party. You know Jim Jones. That crazy religious dude who convinced 900 people to kill themselves with him so they could get into heaven through the back door or something?

Yeah, so Derwin and Hope invite anybody and everyone who wants to terminate their policy early to come over for one rockin party where there are no rules, no consequences, nothing to do but drink, get high, and have sex. Then, at 5 a.m., they drink some specially spiked Kool-Aid, and call it a life. With a lot of people out there sick of the way the big blue marble has treated them, let’s just say the party is a lively ticket.

While we bounce around from partygoer to partygoer (which includes a really clever device by James of having a “confessional” room where people just randomly rail on life), we keep coming back to Hope and Derwin. Though their relationship seemed to be so cut and dry at first, flashbacks (yes, dreaded flashbacks!) paint a more complicated picture, and we soon realize that these two are in love with each other but so afraid of emotion, of closeness, of committing to life, that they’ve been unable to admit it. So will they be able to admit it before it’s too late?

The Jones Party was a fun script and the neat thing about it is that it feels very much like a first screenplay, yet one that’s been reworked through the eyes of a wily vet. What I mean by “it feels like a first screenplay” is that there’s all this emotion, all this frustration, all this dialogue, all these flashbacks, all these fun little asides. When you first start out, you want to try a lot of things and you want to scream out to everyone and let them know how YOU feel, what YOUR position on the world is. A first screenplay tends to be the bullhorn that allows you to do that.

The problem is that, normally, that’s all it is – a big bottle of opinions and emotion. There’s no structure. There’s no form. And I don’t know what the very first draft of The Jones Party looked like, but I’m willing to bet it was a lot more ranting and a lot less direction than this.

Clearly, over the years, James has learned to give his stories purpose, and the mystery of what’s going to happen to Derwin and Hope helps guide this story to a perfect climax. To be honest, I was a little worried that this was going to be Dialogue Fest 3000, just a bunch of characters telling you how they felt about the world. But the flashbacks of Derwin and Hope not only brought direction back to the screenplay, they moved the story forward.

Wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute.  How did flashbacks move the story forward? Isn’t that a paradox? Here’s how. Each flashback revealed a key piece of information about Derwin and Hope’s relationship that we didn’t know before. We thought they were just roommates. Oh wait, we find out Hope has feelings for Derwin. We think Derwin is impervious to feeling, but oh wait, we learn that he does indeed feel. These increased our appetite for an answer to the question - will Derwin and Hope realize they love each other in time to call off the suicide? It’s a powerful question. And one we desperately want answered.

And to me, that's what really separated this script from all the wannabes - the ending. (Spoilers!) The script’s tone dictates that anything other than suicide will be a cheat. So the story is kind of handcuffed in that sense. It has only one option. Kill off its characters. Somehow, and I’m still marveling at how he did it, James managed to accomplish this but still keep his characters alive in a believable satisfying way. You’ll have to read it yourself to find out how. But I thought it was the perfect ending.

Longtime Scriptshadow readers will be quick to point out that there is no character goal (other than to kill themselves – although that’s not really a goal since it’s already pre-determined). But remember, if you don’t have a character goal driving your story, you need a compelling question in its place, and The Jones Party has one: Will Hope and Derwin get together before it’s too late? As long as we care about the answer to that question, we will stay interested the entire time. Not to mention, the time frame is so tight here (less than 8 hours) that the structure becomes focused almost by necessity.

I liked the dialogue a lot. I liked that the script got me thinking what I would do with 8 hours to go and no consequences. Always good when a script breaks that fourth wall and makes you an active participant. My complaints are few. I didn’t like the opening. It was confusing. Something happens in the closet and then Hope breaks out in a clown suit with a gun. It felt like a very “writerly” moment. In other words, I could feel the writer’s hand from above. And it led to more confusion than intrigue, at least for me.

And the only reason I don’t give this an impressive is because it’s not the kind of film that I'm personally into. Yes, it wisely peppers its story with humor. But we’re still talking about suicide here, not the kind of subject matter I typically block out my Friday nights for. In a strange way, this is a script you battle with just as much as you enjoy, and it’ll be interesting to see how people react to that.

Still, this was really solid writing, and I can totally see why it’s helped James carve out a career.

Edit: Josh has ok'd me posting the script.  Link: The Jones Party

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

What I learned: Again, if you’re going to write about something really depressing, it’s a good idea to do so from a humorous angle. If The Jones Party would’ve been a straight drama, it would have been dead (no pun intended) by page 10. It would have been a Depressing Fest, the worst kind of scripts there are. Humor is to depressing subject matter what the Iron Man suit is to Tony Stark.