Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Free Country

Genre: Slow Burn Drama/Thriller/Comedy
Premise: When a college kid discovers a million dollar jewel in their tourist cave, the owner accidentally kills him, and forces his brothers to help cover up the murder.
About: This script finished fairly high on the 2010 blacklist. I don't know much about the writer but I believe this is the first screenplay that got him attention.
Writer: Josh Parkinson
Details: 110 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 doubt that today’s script is going to get nearly as much attention, or experience nearly as much controversy, as yesterday’s script.  I enjoyed Free Country more than Grand Piano, I can assure you that, but everything about this script feels half realized, from its unsure tone to its uncertainty on which storyline it wants to focus on. It's almost like the writer knew all of the characters that were going to be in his story, but didn't yet know what he was going to do with them.

Pierce is the owner of one of those small town shady tourist caves where you can go in and panhandle to try and find jewels. The chances of finding anything of course are next to zero, but people come around anyway because it's fun and, who knows, you might get lucky.

Pierce has two brothers. The first is Lloyd, who's been out of town since he went and had sex with Pierce's wife. He's recently returned but he and Pierce still haven't discussed the matter. Then there’s Don the baby. Don is probably the purest and nicest of the three, and has parlayed that into a relationship with the most beautiful girl in town. Of course his girlfriend has a secret crush on Pierce, making the family dynamic complicated to say the least.

Anyway, back at the cave, an arrogant little college kid named Kevin buys himself an entry into the cave, and magically, within a few minutes, finds a startlingly gigantic jewel. He races out and excitedly tells Pierce about it, who’s so thrown by the ordeal that he demands Kevin give it to him. Kevin resists, a brawl breaks out, and the next thing you know Kevin hits his head and dies.

Horrified, Pierce calls up his brothers and asks them what he should do. Since telling the cops will probably result in Pierce going to jail for dozens of years, the guys decide that the best course of action is to get rid of the body.

However, a problem pops up when Kevin's twin brother, who was supposed to meet and hang out with Kevin, shows up an hour later looking for his brother. The only thing he knows is that his brother was at one of these tourist caves (which there are several of in the area). At some point he narrows it down to Pierce’s cave, and begins personally looking into the matter. In the meantime, Pierce’s wife, who saw the aftermath of the murder and then fled the scene, is out there and an ongoing wildcard to potentially tell the cops. So the brothers must find her quickly and prevent her from ruining everything.

Like I said, Free Country wasn't bad at all. But it suffers from a case of unfocused-itis.  Once our character is killed, I don't think the screenplay knows where it's going. For the most part, the characters stay in one place – headquarters – and argue with one another. When they do go outside and try to solve the myriad of problems facing them, it doesn't feel as urgent or as dangerous as it should.

The script actually reminded me of another screenplay that handled this same territory much better – the upcoming "30 Minutes or Less."  The reason that screenplay was so focused was because the task was always clear. He had to rob the bank, and therefore we were never confused about the direction of the story. Plus the hometown hicks were much funnier in that script. It just seems like the writers understood them better.

One of the wishy-washy areas here was the humor. I'm not sure Parkinson knew how broad he wanted to go. I personally thought he should've gone further. There was a moment in the screenplay where it was implied that Pierce sort of believed in ghosts. So when Kevin's brother shows up, looking exactly like him, I thought for sure he was going to believe that the kid he’d killed had come back from the grave to haunt him. I don't know if that would've been more funny or less funny, but at the very least the script would've taken an angle. My problem was that from the second Kevin died, the screenplay sort of vacillated between the brothers bickering and Kevin's brother stumbling around trying to find out what happened. There is no conviction in any of the characters actions.

Another thing that told me Parkinson hadn't yet figured out what he wanted to do, was that as the screenplay went on, the writing became sloppier. While there were definitely some large chunky paragraphs early on, they got even larger and chunkier as the script continued. By the time we hit the third act, it seemed like every paragraph was 20 lines long. As most of you know, I'm a big believer in keeping your action paragraphs short and to the point. Three lines or less will usually do, with a four line paragraph being busted out only when it's absolutely necessary. So when the writing is getting sloppier as it goes on, you lose faith in the story.

My approach to this story would probably be bigger. The idea is, you want to make things as bad for your protagonist as humanly possible, especially in a movie like this, where your protagonist has done something to deserve the bad karma. So instead of stopping at Kevin's rather inefficient goofy little twin brother, I probably would've made the brothers the sons of some prominent politician. That way, you could send in either their senator dad or special agents or extra policemen and have everybody in the state looking for Kevin. You would then put Pierce in contact with as many of these people as possible and force him to try to get out of each situation.

In the meantime, I would probably reverse the relationship between Lloyd and Pierce and make it so that Lloyd's wife had cheated on him with Pierce. Then, I would make Lloyd a loose cannon, still bitter about the whole ordeal, and therefore a major candidate for going to the cops and revealing that his brother is at fault. This forces Pierce to fight a battle on multiple fronts. He has to stave off all the external forces, as well as his own brother. Parkinson kind of tried to do this with the wife but her character was absent so often that she never came off as a true foil. After that, I'd probably make the little brother just really really dumb, and incapable of lying on any level, and then put him in situation after situation where he's forced to recount the story and lie. Again, you want to make it as difficult as possible for your protagonists.

Anyway, I think this screenplay has some potential, but right now it feels very much like first draft territory – which it might be.  With an approach that focuses harder on the second act, I could see this becoming a fun little script.

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

[ ] worth the read

[ ] impressive

[ ] genius

What I learned: Don't start your screenplay until you have your second act figured out (or at least have a very good idea of how it's going to play out). Whenever a writer gets an idea revolving around a fun hook, they can't wait to start writing and get to that hook.  The problem is, since they haven't thought about what happens after that moment, their creativity comes to a screeching halt, and they just start writing a bunch of nonsense for 60 pages so they can get to the climax. It's a much better plan to map out your second act ahead of time. The second act is never as fun as writing up to your big hook, but it's the part of your screenplay that will make or break you, so it has to take precedence. This is why so many professional screenwriters outline ahead of time, so they know where their story is going.