Monday, November 14, 2011

Scenic Route

Genre: Drama
Premise: Two old friends who’ve chosen very different paths in life reunite for a cross-country trip, only to get marooned out in the middle of the desert.
About: Kyle Killen is the writer of the top ranking Black List script of 2009, The Beaver. Killen, who had been at this screenwriting thing for awhile, famously gave himself 9 months to sell a script after his wife told him she was pregnant. If he didn’t succeed, he’d have to get a “real job” to support his family. He sold The Beaver with days to spare. He has since written the TV show Lone Star (which got canceled) and an upcoming series for NBC titled “Awake” about a family man who keeps waking up in different versions of his life. Scenic Route looks like it’s getting made soon.
Writer: Kyle Killen
Details: 8-04-11 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).

I will say this about Kyle Killen. He has fans. There are people who absolutely love this guy. In a medium where there aren’t many original voices, people see him as one of the few who speak to them. I didn’t overly heart The Beaver (the script – haven’t seen the movie). But I’ll be the first to admit the voice was original. I’d never seen somebody combine that level of darkness with that type of humor before. It probably would’ve made a lot more money if Mel Gibson hadn’t hit his “Cuckoo” time of year right before release.

Scenic Route follows two former college friends, now in their late 20s, who are driving cross-country to rekindle their friendship. Or I should say, Carter is trying to rekindle their friendship. Carter is a writer, which of course means he’s unshaven and a little overweight. Carter is the definition of an ‘artiste.’ He believes in suffering for your art. He believes in sticking it to the system. He believes in following your own path. Which is why Carter is broke and living out of his car.

Mitchell is the opposite. He once used to be like Carter. But that was back in college, when we were all like Carter (Oh man. I miss those days). Mitchell went and got married, got himself a respectable job, and now pulls down a 6 figure salary. Mitchell didn’t want to go on this trip, and all indicators point to him not wanting to hang out with Carter at all. If it were up to him, Carter would drift off into a faded memory, like everyone else from college.

Anyway, the two are driving along the “scenic route” of the Mojave desert when all of a sudden their car breaks down. Up until that point, they hadn’t been saying much, and that’s because Mitchell’s been sleeping. But now that crucial decisions need to be made, Mitchell has no choice but to talk to Carter. And that’s when the conversation begins.

Almost immediately, Carter starts attacking Mitchell’s life. He’s convinced Mitchell hates being married, hates his wife, and hates his boring 9-5 job. Mitchell shoots back that he’s being attacked for life choices by someone who lives out of his car.

And the two start arguing. And arguing. And arguing. And then talking. And then reminiscing. And then talking some more. And then arguing. And then a little more arguing. And that…my friends….is Scenic Route. It’s about two guy stuck on the side of the road arguing.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Later on, some bad things happen and it looks like they’re going to be stranded out here forever. But really, this is a two-man show with a hell of a lot of dialogue. In other words, it’s the kind of script I tell you guys not to write. So why was Kyle able to sell it? Because his first script topped the Black List. And he got two TV shows made. And a lot of people think he’s the next great original voice. That’s why he was able to sell Scenic Route. But let’s pretend for a moment that he didn’t have those successes. In fact, let’s pretend this script is from an unknown. Was it any good?

If you’re going to write a dialogue heavy script, you better be good with dialogue. Kyle Killen is pretty darn good with dialogue. I mean he’s no Tarantino but the discussions here, the way these two interact, the rhythm, the sentence construction, the subject matter, the word choices – definitely better than most of the scripts you read. And just to pimp one of my articles from a few weeks ago, the main thing that’s fueling this dialogue – making it work – is the conflict between the two characters. Not only do these guys disagree on just about every possible way to live, but there was conflict even before they started talking.

At the heart of every movie needs to be one or several unresolved relationships – relationships that start off looking like there’s no possible chance they’ll ever be resolved – but then over the course of the movie, common ground is found. If you aren’t trying to fix relationships IN SOME WAY, there’s a good chance your second act is going to be borrrrrrrr-ing.

Obviously, this entire movie is built on the unresolved relationship between Carter and Mitchell. These two drifted apart over the years and Carter isn’t happy about it. He wants to bring this friendship back together. And there, my friends, is the goal. Carter wants his friend back in his life. That’s what he’s trying to accomplish. But is it enough?

Usually, movies use a more dominant “plot goal” to form the bulk of the entertainment (40 Year Old Virgin is to get laid, Karate Kid is to defeat the bullies, Stand By Me is to find the dead body) and the relationship goal is secondary. So without that added security blanket, Scenic Route gambles that its unresolved relationship will be enough to entertain you.

Luckily, Kyle makes the wise decision to hit on a theme that resonates with a lot of people. “Take the safe route in life or follow your dream (the 'scenic' route)?” Pretty much everyone has a strong opinion on this and it’s something that resonates with creative people in particular, as we often struggle with our choice to give up the safe existence to follow a dream that has no guarantees, that’s dependent on a talent we may or may not have. For that reason, a lot of the conversation here (Is a six-figure salary worth a boring predictable life?) resonates.

But let’s not ignore the obvious. There are lots of “scenes of death” in this script. It’s the reason why a large majority of people, specifically mainstream audiences, will avoid this film like the plague. If they were to stumble into this theater by accident, they’d probably keep waiting for something to “happen,” and be baffled when nothing did. The art-house crowd is a little more forgiving in that department so they might go with it, but I’ve already received e-mails from people saying about Scenic Route: “It’s two fucking guys talking for two hours! Nothing happens! Most boring script ever!” And that’s a fair argument.

However, you’ll notice that the script picks up when something happens to one of the characters late in the screenplay. It’s the most exciting part of the story and the reason is, there’s finally a clear goal. Character A has to figure out what to do with Character B. This is why I preach goals so much. Whenever you add one – whenever there’s something a character DESPERATELY NEEDS TO ACHIEVE, the story almost always picks up.

I would never recommend writing a script like this. And I completely understand anyone who hates it. But there’s just enough energy and uncertainty to keep the average patient person turning the pages. Scenic Route has some sort of X-factor going for it – a unique trait I can’t quite put my finger on. I wanted to find out what happened next, which is why I found this worth the read.

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

What I learned: A simple way to build an entertaining unresolved relationship is to have one person want something in the relationship (usually to fix it) and the other person to resist. Now you have conflict. Now you have entertaining scenes whenever the two are together. Cal desperately trying to get Rose to love him in Titanic. Mickey Rourke desperately trying to earn his daughter’s trust again in The Wrestler. Ethan Hawke trying to get Denzel Washington to like him in Training Day. That’s the method used here in Scenic Route and it’s used well.