Monday, September 12, 2011

Jamaica Inn

Genre: Thriller/Drama
Premise: A young woman comes to live with her estranged sister who is married to a mysterious and dangerous man.
About: Jamaica Inn was a best selling novel back in the 1930s which was eventually made into a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The script appeared on last year's Brit List, which is the British equivalent of the Black List. Rebecca Hall, the actress who played Ben Affleck's girlfriend in The Town, is said to be circling the lead role. Daphne du Maurier, the author of the book in which the screenplay is based on, also wrote the novel "Rebecca," which was turned into the movie that won an Oscar in 1940, and the short story, "The Birds," which of course Alfred Hitchcock went on to direct as a film.
Writer: Michael Thomas (based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier)
Details: January 1, 2010 draft - 124 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).

Whenever you read a script where the main font is something other than Courier, a bevy of red flags pop up and usually means one of three things. You're reading a script by the Coen Brothers. You're reading a script by a novelist who is writing their first screenplay. You're reading a script by someone who's never written a screenplay before. Now if it's option number one, you're still in good shape. If it's option number two, chances are you're going to get a lot of extensive prose accompanying a story that takes way too long to get going. And if it's option number three, you're in for a long afternoon my friend.

My guess is that we’re dealing with door number two. Thomas definitely has a way with words. When he described a room or a setting or a person, I could feel myself being transported into the story. But the prose was such a priority that the actual storytelling suffered. Transitions between scenes were confusing, setups of scenes were muddled, and I wasn't always sure what was going on within the scenes.

For example, I didn't know until I went over to Wikipedia that one of the main characters, Joss, was a ship marauder who, along with his band of hoodlums, would kill everyone on a ship and steal the loot. When I was reading the actual script, we'd just all of a sudden inexplicably be on a ship with a bunch of people throwing a bunch of other people off, and I honestly had no idea where any of it was coming from. I eventually chalked it up to one of the characters having some recurring nightmare, as that's the only logical conclusion I could come up with at the time. Again, this was due to the way that scenes just sort of bled into each other without any defining purpose or structure.

Now I suppose it's fair to ask if this is my fault or the screenwriter's fault. Here's what I'd say to that. When you write in a non-industry-standard font, the reader doesn't trust you, because they assume you don't know what you're doing. So when those weird moments happen, the reader is less likely to chalk it up as their fault and more likely to chalk it up as yours. If the formatting is correct - had the presentation been consistent with industry standards - then the reader is more likely to go back and reread something to figure out what they missed. Because of the presentation, I wasn't willing to do that. And that's usually the case with most readers. They just don't have time to dick around.

Having said that, it's important to note a couple of things. This script appears to be developed in-house, which means it's being written for only the producers. Also, I admit I've seen quite a few screenplays off The Brit List using a font other than Courier. So I'm wondering if they don't use Courier as a standard font over in the UK? Maybe somebody from across the pond can clear that up for me.

Anyway, it's time to tell you the plot. I'm guessing the story begins back in the 1930s, though I couldn't tell you for sure because no date is given in the script. I'm just going off when the novel was written. As those of you who read the site know, not giving the date of your story is a huge pet peeve of mine, but I've ranted about it before so I'm not going to do it again. A young down on her luck woman, Mary, has come to the city to live with her sister, Patience, at the Inn that her husband owns. When she gets there, she learns that said husband, Joss, is an alcoholic evil brood of a man.

Her sister is also a shell of her former self. Once beautiful, she is now shriveled and thin and haggard, the result of years of constant abuse. As Mary tries to reconnect with her sister, she encourages her to see what she's become and to think about leaving her husband. But what Mary will soon find out is that Joss is not an easy person to run away from.

He begins treating Mary much like he treats his wife, but Mary is not as easily scared, and does her best to stand up to Joss. However, her bravery starts to dissipate when she sees Joss kill a man. On top of that, Mary realizes that nobody ever actually checks in to the Jamaica Inn. Which brings up the question, how the heck does Joss make any money?

Of course, through the help of Wikipedia, we learn that Joss and his band of buddies rob incoming cargo ships and that's how he makes his dough. If all of this wasn't enough to handle, Mary finds herself sexually attracted to Joss, a temptation she must constantly battle but one in which she has little control over. I guess that's one way to go about proving to your sister that her husband isn't right for her. The Jerry Springer approach.

So again, my big problem with Jamaica Inn was that I was never quite sure what was going on. The emphasis seemed to be on the prose and not on the storytelling. I can't emphasize this enough for young writers. Readers don't care how well you can describe what a tree looks like in the morning mist. They care about how you craft your story. They care about how you create drama. They care about how you create conflict. They care that you can tell your story in a clear and concise way. I'm not going to say that the way you choose your words isn’t important. If I were writing the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan, I would use descriptive visually arresting words and phrases. But as far as everything else, just tell the story. Don't describe to me the sound Private Vin's pants make when they rub against each other. Save that stuff for your novel.

I think there's some good things about the script. Rebecca Hall is a hot actress at the moment and has her pick of the litter. So her interest in this is telling. Both of these female lead roles are juicy and the kind of stuff upper echelon actresses don't get a chance to play very often. I also thought the relationship between Mary and Joss was interesting. On the one hand she was terrified of him and on the other she was attracted to him. I'm not sure it totally made sense but there was definitely an intriguing chemistry between the two whenever they had a scene together.

The thing that will either make or break this movie is clarity. On the page, I wasn't exactly clear what was going on with all of the ship stuff. But I think onscreen, when we see the faces and the people involved it's going to be much easier to follow. Still, I'm hoping that they addressed the confusion surrounding that whole storyline and that they don't make it feel like a dream sequence, which is how I interpreted it in this draft.

The truth is, I was really hoping this was going to be a ghost story. When you have an Inn that nobody comes to, I think you're hoping for a bigger payoff than that the owner goes off and loots ships. Or at least that's how I felt. So with the payoff being disappointing and the writing being too confusing, I can't say I would recommend this. But I will say that the idea has potential.

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

What I learned: Remember, whenever you have a slow build to your story – and what I mean by "slow build" is that no real goal emerges in the story for a long time - you have to use other storytelling methods to hook the reader in the meantime. Slow builds are really dangerous because readers are impatient people. So you want to think long and hard about how else you plan to keep them interested. Here, there are two things. There's the mystery of what's going on at the Jamaica Inn, and there's the unique conflict between Joss and Mary (Do they hate each other? Do they like each other?). Now whether those are enough to keep one’s interest is up to the individual reader. But the point is, you need something there to keep the reader interested until the real story kicks in.