Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bodies At Rest

Genre: Contained Thriller
Premise: A group of masked thugs break into a morgue, demanding access to a body that contains evidence to a crime they recently committed.
About: Information on this one is mixed but I believe it originally went wide in 2010 and then finally ended up selling (possibly after a few rewrites) at the end of 2011. David Lesser, the writer, has been around for a long time, working mainly in TV. He wrote for “Who’s The Boss,” and wrote episodes for “Coach” and “Sabrina The Teenage Witch.”
Writer: David Lesser
Details: 106 pages - undated (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 guess what happens when you get into the later stages of your screenwriting career is you stop writing spec scripts. You usually have a family, children, people who depend on you. So you don’t have the luxury of spending those precious few hours each day on writing something that doesn’t guarantee a paycheck. Instead, you go where the money is. And the money is in a steady paying TV job or assignment work.

For that reason, it’s always cool to see a veteran writer still writing specs - still taking a shot. And to that end, I love what Lesser has done here. He’s come up with a cool little idea with plenty of conflict and a cheap production tag.

With that said, Bodies at Rest is one of those screenplays that exists in the floating netherworld of spec sales. It’s good enough to get purchased, but something’s missing from making it that break out “talked about” screenplay. Sometimes I bring up the notion that certain stories (namely dramas and thrillers) need TEETH. They need to bite down on you, wrestle you, make you feel like you’re not going to get away. They need to feel DANGEROUS. That’s how I felt yesterday. I felt like The Stanford Prison Experiment dug its teeth into me and wouldn’t let go. With this script, I feel more like the characters are blowing bubbles at me. They’re winking and smiling when the cameras aren’t looking. Nobody ever feels threatening or threatened. For that reason, it was hard to become invested.

For example, it seemed like over a dozen times the villain said to our hero, “If you try and screw around ONE MORE TIME I’m going to [some clever saying about the method in which he was going to kill him].” But that moment never came. Once you get past 3 empty threats, it’s hard to take anything the villain says seriously. The irony is that in The Stanford Prison Experiment, we knew with 100% certainty that those characters were safe - that nothing terrible was ever going to happen to them. And yet I was a thousand times more terrified for them than I was the characters in Bodies At Rest. And that’s because that script had TEETH.

Anyway, Bodies At Rest follows the beautiful Lia and the mischievously handsome Abe. Both of them work together at the morgue, tearing up dead bodies and trying to figure out how they died. The two have a bit of a romance going, but Lia wants more out of it than Abe, and that causes just the slightest bit of friction between the two. She’s ready to take the next step. He’s not.

Well that white picket fence Lia’s so obsessed with is about to get mowed down, because three armed men in masks burst into the morgue, demanding to see a woman’s body. Now you’d think our body carvers would be terrified by this development. I mean, it’s not every night that someone breaks into a morgue and threatens to kill you. But for whatever reason, our heroic duo is as calm as the dead body lying on the table in front of them.

We soon learn that the trio wants a bullet taken out of a female body. Abe, who is somehow more relaxed now than he was when Lia was asking for a commitment, shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “Sure, why not?” He goes in the back room to extract the bullet from the woman. The thug watching him is so grossed out, he can’t look. Abe gives the man his bullet and the group leaves.

Once they go, Abe reveals to Lia that he didn’t give the men the bullet they were looking for. He extracted a bullet out of a different female body. Now he wants to find out why the men wanted that body. Hmmm. So instead of calling the cops, Abe wants to play Sherlock Holmes? Of course, the thugs realize that they’ve been had and charge back into the morgue all over again, demanding the REAL bullet.

What follows is a psychological game of cat and mouse as Casual Abe leads the thugs on and the thugs keep catching on, menacingly threatening Abe each time but never actually doing anything about it. In the end, when they’ve really truly honestly had enough of Abe’s antics, it looks like they’re REALLY going to kill him. Casual Abe will then have to come up with one last trick to get he and Lia out of this mess.

So I’ve already given you my main problems with the script. But here’s the thing I’m stumped over. There are certain movies where the main character is essentially a super-hero. He’s not afraid of anything because he knows he’s more powerful than everyone else. Many of these movies are popular (Mission Impossible, James Bond). But isn’t it more interesting when the main character actually exhibits fear? When he (and we) feel like there’s a possibility that he can be beaten/defeated/killed?

Because if we’re not worried that anything’s going to happen to our protagonist, then what are the stakes? What’s dramatically interesting about a person who can’t be hurt? That was my issue with Abe. He just seemed WAY too sure of himself and was never once afraid. Since he wasn’t afraid, I wasn’t afraid. And if I’m not afraid, I’m not going to be into the movie.

Still, I admit this kind of character works in some scenarios. One of my favorite characters of all time, Wesley from The Princess Bride, is this kind of character. He always knew he was going to come out okay and so did we. So what’s the difference here? Why does Wesley work and Abe not work? Or do we only accept these characters in larger than life scenarios?

This same approach was extended over to Lia. There’s a moment early on, when the thugs send Abe off to extract the bullet, and Lia is left standing there with the men. What is the first thing she says to them? “Do you mind if I get back to work?”

Uh, wait a minute. What did you just say?


Oh yeah, that would definitely be my reaction if someone was pointing a gun to my head. “Hey guys? I know you want to kill me n’stuff but I REALLY need to get this blog entry up. If you can just hang out for a moment? There’s food in the fridge. Believe me, if you knew Grendl, you’d know why I need to do this pronto.”

Anyway, this gets to the heart of why the script didn’t work for me. Nobody acted like people would really act in this situation. For example, when one of the bad guys is about to rape Lia, she tells him she’s into weird kinky sexual shit and asks if she can spit on him. The thug answers “yes” for God knows what reason and she asks him to hold out his hands. He does, she spits on them, and then kicks him backwards into a freezer where his wet hands get stuck on the frozen doors. This, apparently, was her plan all along. I mean let’s be serious for a second. Is this in any way believable?

My philosophy is always to put yourself in your character’s shoes. Ask the question, “What would I do if I were in this situation?” If your characters are doing something completely different from that, you better have a great reason for why. And I couldn’t find that reason with Bodies At Rest.

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

What I learned: I think it’s important that the audience FEARS your villain. If we don’t fear the villain, there’s a lack of tension and uncertainty in the script that’s hard to make up for. Star Wars has a great moment early on when Darth Vader holds a rebel soldier up off the ground by his neck, choking him to death. So right away, I’m scared of Darth Vader. But it’s not just that he killed someone (the villain in Bodies at Rest kills a few people). It’s the manner in which he does it. It’s cold, it’s heartless, it’s brutal. I just never got that feeling here from the villain. He was never very frightening.