Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Genre: Thriller
Premise: While investigating a recent murder spree, a cop gets lured into the unique lifestyle of his main suspect, an ex-rocker turned club owner.
About: This script sold back in 1994 to Savoy Pictures. At the time, it was the richest deal for a screenwriter ever made. Joe got $1 million up front with another $4 million production bonus, plus 2.5% of the box office AND video gross and finally 1% of the soundtrack sales. Keep in mind this is when Eszterhas was at the top of his game and selling badly scribbled to-do lists for millions of dollars. He still remains the most successful spec screenwriter in cinema history. Oh, and this is a first draft. Whether this is the draft that got the deal done, however, is unclear. I can see Joe sending this off to someone to give them an idea of what he was going for and them just throwing a bunch of money at him, assuming he’d get it perfect in the subsequent drafts.
Writer: Joe Eszterhas
Details: 110 pages - first draft (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).

The theme of the week seems to be the 90s. Yesterday's script felt kind of 90s retro, but this script takes it to a whole new level with pop culture references and everything. And really, if you want to get right down to it, it feels like Basic Instinct except the main suspect is a man instead of a woman. That definitely makes things interesting for the first half of the script. I was right there with it. But then, either because this is a first draft or he just ran out of ideas, the story nosedives faster than Taylor Lautner's acting career.

30-something Vince Cochran probably isn't the cop you want working your case. His veins are usually juiced with a fresh coat of whiskey, and he often looks like he just got off of a three day bender. Anyway, Vince is pulled into a case where a woman has been sliced and diced and left on the beach. She's one of a handful of recent victims who’ve been killed in a similar manner. Nobody has any idea what the connection with all the victims are, except that they were all seen at one point or another at a really hot downtown club.

That club is owned by Billy Hawks. Billy is in his 40s and used to be quite the famous rocker. But he gave that life up to own a few high profile clubs and reap the benefits of being a local icon. And boy does he reap those benefits. Usually decked out in an Armani suit, he's always on the prowl for young ladies to add to his growing list of sex groupies. This guy makes Charlie Sheen look like Jon Cryer.

Naturally, Vince wants to ask Billy some questions, but the police force isn't keen on the idea. Billy makes a lot of money for the city and contributes a lot of it back to the city, making questioning him a bit of a risky proposition. Say the wrong thing and maybe that year's donation doesn't come in.

Vince goes in there anyway, his question gun cocked, but has no idea just how out of his league he is. Billy is a master at identifying people's weaknesses, and can tell that Vince is a bit of a partier, so he encourages him to join him for a night out on the town. While Vince asks questions, Billy introduces him to lots of drugs, lots of alcohol, and lots of ladies. The next thing you know, Vince wakes up with no idea what he's done, but the implication is that he got into a wild sexual encounter, one that didn't just involve women, but may have involved Billy himself.

In the meantime, Vince starts drooling over Billy's prized prospect, a hot sweaty reckless rocker named Trish. Trish is either a master at playing hard to get, or really doesn't want to be gotten. Either way, Vince is infatuated with her, and tries to make headway whenever he can steal a minute or two. Naturally, none of this stuff is really helping his pursuit of the killer, but in the end, maybe none of that matters.

Like I said, this script is pretty awesome through the first half. Eszterhas is a master at creating characters whose work lives and personal lives overlap. This creates a dangerous gray zone where a mistake in one has profound implications in the other. How is it that Vince is able to objectively do his job if he's hanging out with the main suspect?

Eszterhas is known for his dialogue and part of the reason his dialogue is so good is because he works in that gray zone so often. Lots of the dialogue is laced with subtext because people are hiding things or covering up things or keeping information from each other. For example, because Vince spent this crazy night with Billy and doesn't remember any of it, Billy can use that against him. So when they have discussions, Billy throws out an implication here or there about the things Vince did that night. Because it's Vince’s job to be in control, he has to act as if he knows what happened. As a result the dialogue feels more like dancing than the straightforward on the nose "I'm telling you exactly what I think" dialogue you see in a lot of amateur scripts. For that reason, if you're a beginning writer, Eszterhas is a great scribe to study when it comes to dialogue and subtext.

Ironically, this is what ends up getting the script into trouble. All the lying and the deception is great for a while, but sooner or later the reader has to know what's going on, and I'm not sure I ever did. I don't know what Eszterhas’ process is, but it seems like he gets a sense of what he wants, then tries to discover the rest along the way. That's why the second half here seems to fall off a cliff.

There's a random thread where it turns out that Trish ran away from her rich parents a long time ago. But when they try to reclaim her, she claims her father used to have sex with her. Huh? It's a familiar situation we writers go through. We don't know where our story is going, so we just try to throw in something shocking to make up for it.

Then there's this whole thing with some killer in jail who somehow married a really rich woman and they go and interrogate this woman, who may or may not be a psychic. By that point I had no idea what was going on or what the point of anything was anymore.

But it gets even more wacky in the end when Vince’s partner, an older cop who's completely baffled by all the sex and drugs and craziness that goes on in today's world, goes postal because he can't take it anymore. It's such a weird choice and a complete detraction from the main storyline that it just felt, again, like a writer who didn't know where he wanted to take his story so he just came up with something crazy to distract you from the fact that there was no story.

If there's something wrong with your third act, you probably need to fix your first act. I think Eszterhas was so focused on creating this interesting relationship between Vince and Billy - which was definitely the highlight of the script - that he didn't set up where he wanted the story to go. Maybe subsequent drafts fixed this. If they did, producers may want to pull this script out of development hell. There's definitely some cool stuff in here. But this draft is too messy to recommend.

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

What I learned: The less you outline your screenplay ahead of time, the more work you're giving yourself in the rewrites. Why? Because the rewrites will be less about making what you already have better, and more about fixing the faulty structure and character work. As every good writer knows, restructuring the story and figuring out where everything goes is what takes the most amount of time. If you get all that stuff figured out ahead of time, there will be less moving scenes around, less moving plot points around, less re-of imagining your characters, less trying to figure out character motivations, and you can just work on making what's already there better.