Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The East

Genre: Thriller
Premise: An agent infiltrates a dangerous eco-terrorism unit only to find herself falling for the unit’s leader.
About: This is from Sundance sensation Brit Marling, whose film Another Earth has broken out of indie obscurity into slightly less indie obscurity. Supposedly, Brit would be playing the main character here, but I've also heard that Ellen Page would be playing the lead. So I'm not sure what's going on. Brit is a multi-hyphenate. She writes. She directs. She acts. She bakes cookies. Let's see Britney Spears do that! Not that innocent my ass! (only on Scriptshadow do you get pop culture references this current).
Writers: Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling
Details: 113 pages - March 15, 2010 draft - draft 2.0 (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).

While today's script doesn't compare in zaniness to the first two scripts of the week, it isn't exactly chopped liver in the originality department. In fact, on any other week, it would probably be the most original script of the bunch. The subject matter is kooky. The execution is unpredictable. The characters are strange. I can't remember ever seeing a movie quite like it. But does that mean it's good?



Here's the thing - and I've said it before. Eco-terrorism and movies don't mix. It's been attempted over and over again and it just doesn't work! The main reason for this is that the stakes of an eco-terrorist attack are dramatically lower than real terrorism. I mean how dangerous can a bunch of disgruntled uber-hippies be? Unfortunately not that dangerous. That means lives aren’t at stake. And that means the stakes of stopping them are never high. Teaching a pharmaceutical company a lesson by o.d.’ing them on their own drugs might be an interesting story in real life, but in a movie, it doesn't have enough drama sauce.

The East follows Sarah Moss, a private agent at a security company that specializes in investigating enemies of major corporations. Kind of like a privatized version of the FBI. One of these corporations - it's not clear which – hires the company to look into an eco-terrorist unit called "The East." These aren’t the guys who stand in front of local supermarkets and threaten to drink chemical laced water from polluted lakes. These guys kidnap CEOs and force them to swim in their own chemical created sludge.

The agency decides that Sarah is the best agent for the job, so she transforms herself into a grungy "save the earth" hippie and burrows herself inside the group. Everything about The East is predictably weird and the members are all under mind control by a charming [decidedly less dangerous] Charles Manson-like leader named Benji.

Sarah is scared of Benji at first, but then finds herself attracted to him, something that isn't going over well with his current girlfriend, Izzy, even though this place is supposed to be about the free love man. On top of that, Sarah has only lived a life for herself. She is selfish to a T, and isn't used to having feelings for others.

So she must navigate the peculiar dynamics of the group to monitor their upcoming marks, and then report back to the agency, who for some reason she’s still able to visit whenever she wants (I guess she can just come and go as she pleases?). I wouldn't say that Sarah ever becomes understanding of The East's ideals, but she does start to like Benji and is torn by whether to take him down or not. However, in the end, that's exactly the choice she'll have to make.

Whenever you write an infiltration movie, they are certain mainstays you want to explore. The biggest one is you want your character to be torn. The more that the main character sees the other side's point of view, the harder her choice becomes. That inner struggle leads to tension and that tension leads to drama, the lifeblood of any screenplay. This is what you see in Avatar for example. Jake Sulley is torn between what the humans stand for and what the Na’vi stand for. I didn't think The East explored this enough. Sarah never sides with what these guys are doing so there was never a dilemma. Yes, she did start to like Benji, but that development came in way too late, almost like it was discovered on the last pass of the script and then thrown in as an afterthought. Therefore the script didn't have nearly as much conflict as it could’ve had.

That's not to say there was no conflict. Just the fact that our character could get caught at any moment created a good deal of drama. But because the cult weren’t killers - just advanced hoaxers - you always felt that if she did get caught, she'd simply be abandoned at the nearest town. Lack of true danger = lack of true drama.

The screenplay also suffered from MSS (Murky Story Syndrome). This is when the story isn't laid out clearly for the reader - a huge problem in most amateur screenplays I read. I had a hard time figuring out, for example, who the agency was doing this job for and why doing it for them was so important.

I knew Sarah was infiltrating the group to get information on future attacks. But for who? Why does it matter if we don't know who hired them? Because if I don't understand the point of the infiltration, I don't understand the stakes, and if I don't understand the stakes, nothing else matters, because I won’t care. If I told you a story about how I got a flat tire right before work, and I had to race to put a spare on to get there in time, you probably wouldn't care. But if I told you that the previous day, my boss said that if I was ever late to work again, he'd fire me, now that story becomes a lot more interesting, because there are actual stakes involved in me succeeding.

There were some things to like. As I said in the beginning, it didn't feel like anything I'd read before. I was never quite sure where the script was going. I thought some of the stuff inside the cult was creepy. There's a scene early on where they put Sarah in a straitjacket and tell her to eat some food without her hands. It's a strange scene that works in a weird way. There's a scene later on where Sarah sees members of the cult doing a strange Wicker Man-like ritual that’s also pretty spooky. And finally there's a scene where they cleanse a naked Sarah in the river that gave me the heebie-jeebies. I actually wish they would've taken this a step further. The weirder and crazier you make the cult, the more interesting this movie gets. Because right now you don't have any stakes. It never feels like anybody is truly in danger. But if you created this really whacked out unprecedented cult-like atmosphere, it might be enough to keep us entertained. That's why The Wicker Man is such a classic - because you never knew what was coming next - you never knew just how wacky the people on this island could get.

So I would try to make this story clearer. I would try to add higher stakes within the cult. I would put more lives at risk. For example, I'd probably add a scene early on where they killed one of their own members for screwing up. That way for the entire rest of the movie we'd be terrified for Sarah - because we know if she got caught she was dead. I guess I just wanted more danger here. I wanted to feel more of an edge. Despite some original twists and turns, the story was too soft for me.

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

What I learned: The East taught me something pretty cool - that you can use specific word phrases as callbacks for later on in the script. They're kind of like visual setups and payoffs in word form. So early on, the agency headquarters is described like this: "A building you might not notice from the road, but once you do, its design and simplicity haunt you.” Later on, the reemergence of this building becomes a key surprise plot turn. So when we round a corner, the writers describe the building in the exact same way: “A building you might not notice from the road, but once you do, its design and simplicity haunt you.” The payoff is more dramatic because the exact same description is used.