Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Grand Piano

Genre: Thriller
Premise: As a pianist readies to play his concert, he is told that if he misses a single note, he will be killed.
About: Chazelle optioned a script last year titled “The Claim.” He went out wide with this spec in June but it didn’t sell (for those counting, roughly 25% of specs that have OFFICIALLY gone out this year have sold). Still, a longtime Scriptshadow reader highly recommended it to me so I thought I’d give it a shot. It’s always interesting to take a look at the professional stuff that *doesn’t* sell, so you can try and determine why.
Writer: Damian Chazelle
Details: 119 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).

When I see ‘thriller’ and I see 120 pages, I don’t immediately think, “Good.” I think "Uh-oh, what's going on here?” Thrillers are supposed to be taut. They’re supposed to move fast. So why would you create a thriller with all those extra pages? It makes me skeptical. It makes me suspicious. So I went into this one with my guard up.

27-year-old Tom Selznick is flying into Chicago. He's not doing too well because Tom is a terrified flyer. At least that's what we think at first. It turns out, however, that Tom is more terrified of what happens after the flight, not during.

Putting together the pieces, we learn that Tom is a pianist. But not just any pianist. One of the top pianists in the entire world. And tonight he's going to give a concert that will define him for the rest of his life. You see five years ago Tom was at the top of his game. Nobody could touch him. But Tom had a big weakness. Stage fright. At any moment, he could crumble like an old Chips Ahoy cookie. Eventually he couldn't take the pressure anymore, so he retired and planned on never performing again. But recently, his teacher and mentor died, forcing him out of retirement to give one last concert.

So Tom sets up with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and prepares to perform. Naturally, he's terrified out of his mind. His girlfriend, Emma, is in the audience, cheering him on. The word around town is not so much, will Tom be great? But will he screw up?

Well Tom's about to realize that stage fright is the last thing he'll need to worry about. As he's getting ready, somebody whispers into his headset, "Play one wrong note and you die." At first, Tom thinks this is a joke. But our mysterious hidden killer offers a few visual cues which make it clear that this is anything but a joke.

With no time to figure out what the hell is going on, Tom must begin the concert. To make matters worse, our mysterious killer in the shadows is threatening to kill Emma if Tom tries anything funny. So not only must Tom play a piece that's already impossible and not miss a single note, he must save his girlfriend.

Also of note, is that Tom is playing on his mentor’s old piano. And his mentor was like a billionaire or something. I don't think I need to put two and two together for you. Clearly, there's likely something very important inside that piano that our mysterious killer wants.


I want to make clear that I have nothing against the writer here. But Grand Piano didn't work for me on pretty much any level. And it all came back to the concept. If your concept is flawed, it doesn't matter what you write afterwards, because the audience already doesn't believe in your story. The concept here is preposterous. I don't know any other way to put it. We are to believe (spoilers) that, first of all, a man would lock his money inside of a grand piano, then set up a complicated locking system in which the only way to get the money would be to play the most impossible to play piano piece in the world.

That alone is difficult to buy. But then we're also to believe, that in order to steal this money, a man would hide in the shadows of a concert and hold the piano player at gunpoint, telling him if he messes up he will be killed.

So let me get this straight. In order to coerce someone who's notorious for screwing up under pressure into playing the perfect piece, you tell him that if he screws up, he'll die? I don't know how that makes sense.

I mean, wouldn't the far easier method be to get the piano alone, break it open, and steal the makeshift safe that's inside? Then you could have a month, two months, six months, however long you wanted, to break the thing open. If you have the resources to break in to an auditorium and set up a gun in a hiding place, I'm sure getting the piano alone wouldn't be too difficult.

The thing is, even if you buy into this, the events that follow become even more absurd. At one point, the red targeting laser from the killer’s gun is plastered on Tom's forehead. Nobody seems to notice. At another point, Tom is playing with his right hand while texting on his phone with his left hand. Not only does the audience not seem to notice this, but the person who is obsessively watching his every move doesn't seem to see it either. Finally, during the entire concert, Tom is talking back and forth with the killer into his headset microphone, and nobody in the audience seems to notice. I don't see how these logic problems can just be swept under the rug and treated as if they're not happening. There's no way any of this goes unnoticed.

When you write a story, there are going to be leaps of logic, sure, but if those leaps are too big and too numerous, it becomes impossible to believe in the story. It seems like every choice here is a choice that would never happen in the real world. And I couldn't ignore that.

I don't think the characters were well thought through either. For example, if Tom is known for his extreme choking, how is he the most famous pianist in the world? It seems like the writer is trying to have it both ways. He needs the pianist to be great so that the concert can be big, but he also needs him to be a bumbling moron to add tension to his goal. I just don't know how you can be one of the top three pianists in the world and also be blatantly incapable.

The friend characters were also a problem. They weren't even Tom's friends. They were Emma's friends. So when Tom sends out a text to these non-friends for help, we feel like we're jumping into another story. We don't even know these guys. They don't even know our hero. So we have no feelings towards them one way or another as they sort of try to save Tom.

Topping this all off, I'm going to jump back to my first concern, the length of the screenplay itself. No thriller. None. Should be 120 pages. Of all the genres you can write, the one that you cannot come up with a legitimate excuse for needing 120 pages to tell is the thriller. A thriller is supposed to thrill. It needs to move. If it's a sentence over 105 pages, you're probably doing something wrong. Either you're including scenes you don't need to include, or you're repeating beats that don't need to be repeated. The only reason for a thriller to be a bit on the meaty side is if you're adding character development. And there isn't any character development here in Grand Piano.

I'm probably beating up Grand Piano too much. The thing is, I can see why an agent or manager in theory would go out with this script. It does have something happening. There is a story here. It's intense. This isn't some self-indulgent semi-autobiographical piece about a twentysomething trying to figure out his life. At least there's a story.

But I just don't think the concept, in its current form, is believable enough for people to suspend their disbelief. Maybe if you create a more traditional story throughout the first two thirds of the screenplay and then make the concert, which we've been leading up to, the climax, there might be something there. But you have to totally rethink this idea that a man has to play a perfect concert in order to unlock a secret piano safe. I just don't see how that works.

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

What I learned: It's very important you put yourself in your villain’s shoes and ask the question, "If I was this person, would this be my plan?" Ask yourself if the plan makes sense. Ask yourself if there are better options. If there are better options, then why would you use this option? If you don't have a good enough reason for using the least efficient option, then you probably need to rework your story. Because you can bet that the reader and the audience are going to be asking that same question. "Why wouldn't he just do this instead?" The closer your plan mirrors reality, the more likely it is that the audience will buy into it.