Premise: A naïve freshman at Yale finds herself caught up in a drug deal gone bad.
About: Mike White (Orange County, Chuck and Buck, School Of Rock) is back in the saddle with this spec script. All I’ve been hearing lately is, “You gotta read Babe In The Woods. You gotta read Babe In The Woods.” To be honest, the title made it sound like a Limp Biskit video, so I was reluctant. But then I found out the hottest director in town, Ruben Fleischer, was directing it, so that was the tipping point for me. EDIT: I've since learned that this is the draft of the first script Mike White sold back in 1996. Which means Ruben signed on to another current draft. May help partly explain reactions.
Writer: Mike White
Details: 112 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).
Saoirse Ronan for April?
When you’re thinking about what screenwriting “voice” means, there’s a good chance Mike White is one of the faces that pops into your head. Starting with Chuck and Buck, the guy created a unique blend of humor, darkness, and intelligence unlike any other writer out there. Even his lesser known efforts, like Orange County, are still interesting films.
But I haven’t seen much of Mike lately. I remember he was in line to direct that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (or whatever it was called) movie but pulled out due to creative differences. So it was fun to hear he had a new hot spec out there. So what’s it about?
18 year old April Granger is the definition of naïve. She lives in Nebraska. She was bred on corn. She’s got that small town beauty thing going for her. And everyone she’s ever met in her life has been earnest and honest. And she’d probably stay with those people if she weren’t so darn smart. But April’s been accepted into Yale. THE Yale. Not like the Yale Barn and Grill. So she says goodbye to Nebraska and her family and off she goes.
April’s roommate is Charlotte Hollingsworth, a debonair Real Housewife of New York in waiting. But in classic Mike White fashion, she’s far from cliché. Charlotte, while a total snobby bitch, also loves spy movies and her favorite person in history is a famous female spy. Anyway, she’s already determined that April isn’t worth her time.
Lucky then that April meets Jackie Belasco, a weird girl who’s much more accepting of April’s corn-bred upbringing. The two become besties and finally April feels like she fits in.
Therefore, when Thanksgiving comes around and April can’t afford to fly back home, Jackie invites her to her family’s house, in Jersey. April’s thrilled and immediately loves the camaraderie and closeness of Jackie’s family. Everyone seems so nice! Later that night, however, while out at a bar, Jackie’s cute brother asks April if she’d like to join him in the city. Go out on an impromptu date. She agrees, excited, and away they go.
Before they can officially hang out though, the brother just wants her to do one quick favor. Walk into a hotel, say she’s someone else, then wait for him up in a room. The naïve April says no problem, does as told, and waits for him. Except seconds after she gets there, a man enters her room with a bag and the brother is coming through the window and there’s a shooting and chaos and before you know it the wounded brother is asking April to take the bag and run.
She does, hurries out into the city, frantically calls Jackie, who asks her to please not go to the police or her brother will be in big trouble. April’s scared and confused but doesn’t want to mess things up for her friend, so she runs to Grand Central station, jumps on a train, and heads back to Yale. There, at a deserted campus, she meets up with her roommate, Charlotte, again, and the two realize April is carrying a bag full of money. When the bad guys trace April back to the campus, they come too, and Charlotte decides to help her roommate defeat them, as that’s exactly what her spy idol would do.
This was a great script to read after yesterday because both tread similar territory, yet Babe In The Woods was a thousand times more memorable. The tone here is less clinical and more….hmm, I’m not sure what word to use…”groovy” I guess. White has us laughing at our characters just as often as he has us terrified for them. It’s a unique combination for a thriller that I wasn’t used to.
He also takes his characters on quite a journey. Normally you’d set a story like this in one place (a la Kristy, on a campus). But we start in Nebraska, then go to Yale, then head to Jersey, then to New York, then back to Yale again. This can be dangerous in a bad writer’s hands as the story can quickly derail and feel unfocused. But White takes a page out of the Coens’ book and puts the focus on the bag of money, allowing him to take the story wherever he wants it to go (even if it’s kind of weird that we end up at the same place we started).
My favorite choice of White’s here was probably teaming up Charlotte and April. I love it when two “enemies” are later forced to work together. And it was great to see this girl who we’d previously hated turning into a cool chick. The reversal of expectations on both women (Charlotte and Jackie) was a neat trick. Again, nothing quite went how you thought it was going to go here.
White also does a wonderful job of building up April’s key personality trait – her naiveté. This story doesn’t work unless you believe April is naïve. So the first 30 pages are dedicated to showing us how much April trusts people and how she always sees the good in people.
The other cool thing White does is adds just enough humor so that you overlook some of the more preposterous plot points. I mean no girl would really set up a trade with a band of criminals at the top of the Empire State Building. And April using her gymnastics background to triple flip her way into a thug-takedown is beyond ridiculous. But White establishes early on that he’s winking at you. So you end up going with the moments.
That said, it wasn’t perfect. And if this is indeed a first draft, as it claims, that might be a reason why (though the setups and payoffs in this are numerous enough that I doubt it’s a true “first draft.”). I had a hard time believing that April wouldn’t do more to save herself at key moments during this story. When she’s lugging the bag around Grand Central Station with a crazy gunman chasing her for instance (a gunman who conveniently disappears whenever she tells someone about him), it was kind of like, “Enough already.” It’s time to take care of this.
And when she does finally find an officer, he becomes “movie officer,” the kind of policeman who conveniently has no intelligence or skill when asked for help. He takes one look back at where she said she saw the gunman, doesn’t see anyone, then shrugs his shoulders and says, “Sorry, can’t help.” I would think of all the people that policeman would be willing to help, number one on that list would be a beautiful 18 year old girl who claims that someone’s trying to kill her. Even with the comedy buffer, at some point characters in life and death situations need to act like real people. And at key moments during Babe In The Woods, they don’t. Whether audiences won’t care because of the purposeful absurdity of it all, we’ll have to see, but it would be nice if some of those leaps in logic were cleaned up.
Babe In The Woods was an awkward unexpected fun ride. Expect it to rank highly on the 2011 Black List.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Sometimes the flow of the story doesn’t allow you to properly introduce a character when we first meet them. For example, if you want to convey on the page a fleeting first glance between your main character and someone else who becomes important later, it would probably be a bad idea to stop the story and explain in detail who that person is. It’ll interrupt the “fleeting glance” effect you’re going for. So instead, just say, “We’ll meet him/her later.” That’s how Jackie is introduced here. We don’t have time to get into her character yet, but since she’s important, Mike White writes, “We’ll meet her later.” This is a common practice many writers use.