Friday, December 2, 2011

Amateur Friday - Hightower

Genre: Thriller
Premise: (from writer) When Chanley Hightower hires an ex-con to kill his cheating wife, he doesn't count on the ex-con sub-contracting the hit and his old-friend-turned-enemy the Chief of Police taking a sudden interest in the health of his marriage. Hightower's a capable man, but this is a lot of shit to shovel.
About: Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted in the review (feel free to keep your identity and script title private by providing an alias and fake title). Also, it's a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so that your submission stays near the top of the pile.
Writer: Will Alexander
Details: 113 pages

Kevin Spacey for Hightower?

Will has been pushing HARD for me to review his script, making all sorts of claims to its awesomeness, saying it was better than Casablanca and Chinatown combined. He claimed it was going to win him an Oscar and that if I didn’t read it, I would be missing out an opportunity to discover the first classic film of the 21st century.

I’m just kidding around Will. No everyone, Will never said those things. But he definitely had confidence in his script, believing it was at least better than most of the stuff reviewed on Amateur Friday. So let’s take a look and see if he’s right.

Hightower opens up with Johnny Wayne Stubb and Deesa Hightower, both 26 years old, having sex. We pull away to see that this is happening on a closed circuit television which Dessa’s husband, Chanley Hightower, is watching. Needless to say, Hightower isn’t happy with this development, especially since it seems more like lovemaking than fucking. It appears that this relationship is real. And that means he and Deesa are on the outs.

Well, Hightower doesn’t plan on going quietly. In fact, he’s going to take care of this the old fashioned way: hire someone to kill his wife. So he locates some out-of-work stooge, a local named Chigger, to kill his wife for 50 grand. Since Hightower is the richest man in town by a country mile, 50 grand is a drop in the town well.

In the meantime, we meet Police Chief Garrison McElrath, a man who grew up with Hightower and apparently has a bit of history with the millionaire. That history is a complicated one and from their first interaction, we can tell there’s plenty of tension between the two.

In addition to wanting to kill his wife, Hightower also wants to buy some property off her. You see, there’s only one building in the entire town that he doesn’t own, and that property is hers. He ruthlessly attempts to get her to sign a deed transferring the building over to him, but she steadfastly refuses.

Hightower’s hitman, Chigger, also turns out to be a pretty lousy choice. Not only is he prancing around talking WAY too much, but he decides it’d be much safer to have someone ELSE do the hit, and therefore subcontracts the assassination to some drug dealer, who in turn (I believe) subcontracts it out to some druggy. Needless to say, the hit is starting to look less and less like a sure thing.

All this talk makes the chief suspicious and he heads over to the Hightower mansion to ask him what’s up. Once Hightower realizes McElrath is on to him, he makes the snap decision to kill him. And thus begins a mad dash to dispose of the body – not an easy task with the entire town now looking for the missing chief.

In the meantime, Deesa is planning to run away with Johnny Wayne, and we’re wondering if that’s going to happen before whoever the hell ends up as the hitman comes to kill her. And Hightower also has to settle one last secret with the mysterious and sexy Chevelle, a waitress at the local diner who clearly has some tangled past with Daddy Warbucks.

Hightower reminded me of a book in a lot of ways, with its numerous characters and intricate plot. Because of that, Will has created his own biggest hurdle: a complicated story. The more complicated your story is, the better a writer you have to be. We were just talking about this yesterday. We need to be CLEAR about what’s going on in order to stay interested. And the more stuff you PACK IN to your script, the harder it is to stay clear. So I guess the question is, did Will bite off more than he could chew?

Sort of. I say sort of because he ALMOST pulled it off. You see, I hadn’t read this logline in three months (since it was originally sent to me). So all I had to go on was the story as written, not the logline you read above.

And about a third of the way through, Deesa refers to Hightower as “Daddy.” All of a sudden, I was confused. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “Deesa is the daughter of Hightower??” I thought she was his wife. But the more I thought about it, the more it actually made sense. First, they never acted like husband and wife – I mean not even in a “We’re pretending to look like husband-and-wife to the rest of the world,” sort of way. They only saw each other in passing, which indicated more of a father-daughter relationship. There was also the hefty age difference. So I went back and re-read the opening scene to see if I misunderstood it. It clearly said Deesa was his wife. Okay, what’s going on here? Is she the daughter or is she the wife? In the end, I decided that “Daddy” was being used sarcastically. But it took me 15 full minutes to solve that mystery when it could’ve been solved in a second with a simple “sarcastic” in parentheticals or by putting “Daddy” in quotes. I’m willing to accept this as my fault, but remember, when you write extremely intricate plots with lots of characters, you’re going to run into this kind of problem. The reader is tasked with sorting out a lot of information. If you’re not clear on every single piece, they can easily get lost in the forest.

Another thing that confused me was the whole obsession Hightower had with this building he didn’t own. I couldn’t understand why he gave a shit about it or what it had to do with anything. But what really baffled me was why he couldn’t get a building from his own wife. First of all, since they’re married, don’t they both own the property? Once you get married to someone, isn’t all your property split evenly? If not, why wouldn’t his wife have given him the property? Maybe not now but earlier, when they were happy? Either way, there were no clear stakes (as I could tell) to owning this place so I just didn’t care about it.

Also, there was this strange subplot about Hightower fucking high school girls. A fairly large chunk of the story is dedicated to it and yet it had absolutely nothing to do with the plot. If you’re going to write an extremely complicated story, the last thing you want to include is an incidental storyline. The same could be said about the Chevelle subplot. It was more story relevant than the statutory rape stuff, but it ultimately had nothing to do with the present story, and since you already have a ton of more relevant balls you’re juggling, why confuse things by adding another?

Luckily, once Hightower hit the midway point, it started to rebound. Instead of drowning itself in multiple story threads, the script became more about the present and the actions our characters were taking to survive. A particular highlight was Hightower having to get rid of the Sheriff’s body as more and more townspeople closed in on him. It was nice to simply watch a tension-filled sequence unfold instead of having to remember 15 different things at once. A lot of that energy continued through the second half because Will didn’t have to spend any more time setting things up. All of his setups had already been taken care of.

I also thought the dialogue was pretty good here. Here’s an exchange Hightower has with Chigger, after he’s seen him chatting with too many people around town. “I don’t give a merry shit you tell me you “ain’t said nothing;” you’re a crook and a mental deficient. Talking to me, then my wife – IN FRONT OF THE FUCKING CHIEF OF GODDAMN POLICE – tells a story to a man like him regardless of whatever loose stool does or does not spew from that rancid hole in your face. Now, you fuck up again—“ CHIGGER: “—I just seen your truck there, I got some questions about—“ HIGHTOWER: “—I’ll kill you. I will kill you.” Hey man, I know good dialogue is subjective, but I was pretty darned impressed with that, as I was with most of the dialogue here.

I think Hightower is a screenplay worth pursuing. But it needs some work. Strip away the stuff that doesn’t matter. Chevelle adds context but not enough to warrant her inclusion. And please, get rid of the high school stuff unless you can make it more story-relevant. Hope you guys can give Will some more ideas. If I were working at a production company, I’d pass on the script in its current state, but I’d definitely recommend the writer for future submissions.

Script Link: Hightower

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

What I learned: “Kick the dog.” Just like you want to give your hero a “save the cat” moment so we love him, you want to give your villain a “kick the dog” moment so we hate him. But twisting kittens heads off? Come on. Guys, no animal cruelty in your scripts. Nobody likes animal cruelty. Even if you only include it to make us hate your bad guy, we’re still focusing more on you twisting the kitten’s head off than we are getting angry at your villain for doing it. Besides, you can be so much more creative than that.