Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Beyond The Pale

Genre: Drama/Thriller
Premise: When they find out he’s robbing graves, including their father’s, a brother and sister living in a small town decide to blackmail the local undertaker. But they soon find themselves in way over their head.
About: Chad Feehan, the writer of Beyond The Pale, produced the film “All The Boys Love Mandy Lane,” and wrote/directed “Beneath The Dark,” which came out in 2010. Beyond The Pale is actually an adaptation of the book, “Twilight,” by William Gay. Beyond The Pale finished 10th on 2011’s Black List with 27 votes.
Writer: Chad Feehan
Details: 109 pages – March 2, 2011 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 heard mixed things about this one and had been avoiding it mainly because of the title, which had me imagining a man wandering around the desert, carrying a pail. No, I’m serious. I imagined a Western where a mysterious man strolls into town with nothing but a pail. The big mystery would be, what’s in that pail? Rainwaiter possibly? Toiletries? I didn’t know. But whatever it was, I didn’t want to read it anytime soon. Then again, I thought if this script made the Black List with that title, it may be the best script ever written.

It turned out Beyond The Pale wasn’t a Western at all, but another small-town murder tale, which is like catnip to the Black List. We get 5 of these a year on the list at least, some of them good, some not so good. Where Beyond The Pale ranks is debatable. This is such a strange screenplay. It’s almost like two different movies, the first a small town blackmail tale and the second a chase film. If you can roll with that shift, you’ll like it. If not, prepare to be disappointed.

It’s 1973 and we start with a family getting killed, only to then jump back to, you guessed it, 13 days earlier! Yes, we have yet another screenplay that begins with a flashforward. I think you guys are finally getting an idea of how often I see this device. Multiply every time I highlight it in a review by five and you're getting close. It wouldn’t be so bad if EVERYBODY didn’t use it. But because they do, it starts your script off on a cliché note. Never good.

Anyway, the flashforward introduces us to Granville Sutter, a local murderer who has somehow evaded every murder he’s been accused of so is now living freely in this town, eager to target his next victim. He’ll get that chance soon enough.

13 days earlier we meet Corrie and Kenneth Tyler, a barely out of high school brother-sister duo. Corrie has really come into her own, and has all the men in town drooling over her every step, which has forced Kenneth into a protector role, something he’s had to get good at due to their family’s lousy reputation.

And then of course, it’s not going well for Corrie. She’s 72 hours away from losing her place and needs money fast. It just so turns out that the siblings lost their father recently, and discover that the local undertaker, Fenton Breece, has been grave robbing everybody he buries, including their pa!

But it gets worse. When they raid his office, they find pictures of Breece engaged in sexual acts with dead female bodies. Uh-oh. Spagettio. Necrophiliaism! Corrie, not the brightest firework in the New Year’s celebration, decides to use this information to bribe Breece. Breece, of course, freaks out, and contacts Mr. Murder himself, Granville Sutter.

Sutter is more than happy to add a couple more bodies to his tally so immediately jumps into action. (Spoiler) While the first encounter ends up in Corrie’s death, Kenneth is able to get away. Because the local cops are corrupt, Kenneth must trudge through an isolated Appalachian trail to the next county over where there’s said to be a clean cop. Unfortunately, Granville will do anything to make sure he doesn’t make it.

I quite liked the first half of Beyond The Pale. I thought the idea of bribing a grave-robbing undertaker was a unique one. The necrophilia reveal was a nice touch, and provided the story with an edge these scripts don’t usually have.

In general, blackmail is a strong story device as it leads to a lot of dramatic irony and subtext. Because of the secrecy that must be maintained on both sides, there are a lot of conversations and situations that must occur on the down low. Fox example, from that point on, every scene with Breece becomes laced with dramatic irony, as he must defend his secret. When his secretary finds out, he must kill her. When the police come looking for the secretary, he must feign ignorance. On the flip side, our bribers can’t go to the police, because what they’re doing is illegal as well. That means also fighting their battles below the radar. This is usually more interesting than fighting your battles out in the open.

Unfortunately, once Granville sets his sights on Kenneth, that’s exactly where we end up, fighting our battles out in the open. All that nuance we built up is kind of thrown out the window. Beyond The Pale becomes a simple chase movie. That’s what bothered me so much. The first half made me think - pulled me into this complicated web of a story. The second is no different from one of those cheap B-Movies Paul Walker always finds himself in.

I did admire some of the structural achievements of the script. You’ll notice that Beyond The Pale has a great example of the “changing goal.” Remember, you always want your main character to have a goal. But in some screenplays, that goal will change along the way. The first goal here is to blackmail Reece. When that plan goes awry, the goal changes to getting to the next county where Kenneth can alert the clean cop to what’s going on. So while I didn’t like this part of the story, I admit it was well-constructed. Had Kenneth simply been running for his life (with no destination), I don’t think it would have been as interesting.

Another thing to note is the “Midpoint Shift.” The midpoint is that place where you want to throw something new at the characters or the story to change things up a little. You do this so that the story doesn’t stagnate or start to feel predictable. So in Titanic, the midpoint is when the ship hits the iceberg, creating a much different second half than the first. The midpoint in Beyond The Pale is obviously (spoiler) when Corrie is killed and Kenneth goes on the run.

The thing is, there’s a risk involved if you go *too* far with this shift. It’s hard enough to create one interesting storyline, so to bet that you can create two in one screenplay is a big risk. Sometimes that risk hits, but if it doesn’t, you leave people wondering, “What happened to the movie we were just watching? Where did that go?” In my opinion, that’s what happened with Beyond The Pale. What happened to that clever small town murder-bribery story I was watching?

Overall, this is one of those scripts that hovered right on the line between a “wasn’t for me” and a “worth the read.” But since the second half left me pining for the original story, I’m afraid I have to give this a “wasn’t for me.”

[ ] Wait for the rewrite.
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: While I didn’t necessarily agree with the choice that Gay and Feehan made with the sharp midpoint twist, I respected the risk. It reminded me that while having a rule set which guides your writing is a good thing, you still have to take chances, you still have to take risks. I’m reading this book “IQ84” and in it, a publisher is giving advice to a writer. This is what he says: “There also has to be that ‘special something,’ an indefinable quality, something I can’t quite put my finger on. That’s the part of fiction I value more highly than anything else. Stuff I understand perfectly doesn’t interest me.” That really stayed with me. “Stuff I understand perfectly doesn’t interest me.” I think that’s the reason a script like “When The Streetlights Go On” is so memorable. You don’t understand perfectly why you like it. You just do. And that only comes from taking risks.

What I learned 2: If you’re worried about cell phones screwing up the believability of your story, set your script in a time before they existed. Beyond The Pale is one of those stories that doesn’t work in the cell phone era. So they set it in 1973. Problem solved.