Thursday, February 2, 2012

From Screenplay To Screen: The Grey

I take a look at the movie for one of my favorite screenplays, The Grey. But does a major script change derail the experience?

I have seen The Grey!!!

The question is, have I lived to tell about it?

Barely. I almost had heart attacks on three separate occasions. After recovering, I went back to the Tweetdeck where I went over everyone’s responses to the film and realized this movie is seriously dividing people. I think I know why.

Actually, that’s the understatement of the year. I KNOW why. This darn ENDING. Talk about a risky choice. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the rest of this movie first, which was pretty damn awesome!

The first difference I noticed between the script and the movie was just how relentless Carnahan was. I mean he took everything on the page and amped it up tenfold. The sound in particular was just relentless. People who’ve survived plane crashes say the noise of all that metal mashing together is like no noise you’ve ever heard. I think Carnahan captured that noise – and then some. I can still hear the shrieking and the tearing of that metal a day later.

And that wind – it’s just whipping at you so loudly, you feel like you’re standing out there right next to Ottway. I’m not kidding. I found myself subconsciously closing my shoulders to stay warm.

And the howling of those wolves. Oh my God! I got chills up my spine. It was like every corner of that theater was transformed into an Alaskan forest.

I also loved the Jaws approach Carnahan took with the wolves. When we first see those glowing eyes staring us down through the darkness? Yikes! That’s the kind of stuff that’s hard to convey on the page.

And I especially loved the kills. I was caught off guard by nearly every one of them – and I knew when they were coming! It was just like it would really be - complete silence one second and then BAM! A wolf’s got you by the neck and is yanking you back into the darkness. Awesome!

Now it’s been awhile since I read the script but that “jump-tether” scene is new right? Even though the idea was completely ridiculous (those trees looked really far away), it quickly became one of the best scenes in the movie. One thing you can’t write is how Carnahan holds the camera on Dermot Mulroney’s face (who’s terrified of heights) for a full minute before it’s his turn to shimmy across the tether. Then, without cutting, we follow him as he gets on the rope and starts crawling across, a 1000 foot drop underneath him.

When you’re writing a scene like this, you want to look for any opportunity to make things even worse for your character. So I loved the choice to give him a broken hand (forcing him to use his elbow to hold on instead of his hand). And then of course when his foot buckle gets caught on the rope (what the hell do you do now??).

And I loved how Carnahan used the moment as a red herring, making us think the sequence was going to be about getting his foot unhooked. Except a second later – SNAP! – the rope breaks, and he goes swinging into the trees where we follow him crashing into each and every branch as he falls with brutal force (THWACK! THWACK! THWACK!!!). Until finally – THUMP! – he SLAMS into the ground. You could hear his bones break.

And then of course, before he dies, the wolves come shooting out of the forest and eat him. AWESOME!

Everything up to that point, I loved. From there, though, I think the film lost some steam. And I remember the script losing a little steam around this area as well. But here, Carnahan really starts to take his time, and I think it’s a dangerous choice. Remember guys, the end of the second act is where 95% of scripts lose their footing. There’s a tendency to meander in this section, to let things play out instead of keeping the script moving and building up to the finale.

Diaz’s farewell, in particular, felt a good 2-3 minutes too long (however I loved how Carnahan pushed in on him from behind afterwards, all alone, the low grumbling of wolves nearby, getting ready to feast.).

I also had some issues with the characters. And this was my one gripe with the script itself. The secondary characters didn’t make enough of an impact – they weren’t memorable enough. Outside of Ottway and Diaz (the asshole) none of the other characters really popped.

And I remember wondering if casting would fix that. I actually thought the casting was quite good. But the result proved what I suspected – you can’t fix underwritten characters with casting. It has to be on the page.

Obviously, Ottway was memorable, with everything he was going through. Diaz was memorable because he was the opposing voice – the dissident. But what about everyone else? The big dude was just “the sick guy.” I can’t remember much about Mulroney’s character except that he was scared of heights. The guy who lasts til the end with Ottway – I couldn’t figure out what he brought to the table. Flannery looked interesting but he got killed early on (I remember him lasting longer in the script).

It’s just so important to define each character with a strong memorable trait or they’ll disappear onscreen. The thing is, those “middle” characters are always tough to write. If they’re not your alpha dog hero or the boisterous asshole, how do you make them memorable? How do you make them stick out? Anybody can be memorable if they’re yelling at someone. I think all writers deal with this problem. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this. How do YOU make YOUR middle characters memorable?

I’ll tell you another place where Carnahan made a major change: the theme. The script to me was more about man vs. nature and how man wasn’t that much different from animal. There’s still a lot of that here but this film seems to be more about faith, about holding out hope and believing in something, whether it be a higher power or that you’re going to make it out of this alive.

I thought it worked in places, but it felt like one of those deals (and we’ve all been here) where you decide to make that change late in the writing process, and so SOME of the script reflects it, but the other part’s still about your original vision. The first 3/5 of The Grey still feels like man vs. nature to me, while the last 2/5 is about faith.

Had Carnahan had more time, he probably could’ve weaved that theme in there a little more effectively. But I think this is why people are having problems with this last 2/5 of the film. Thematically, it feels slightly different form the movie we were watching earlier.

I’m not saying I didn’t like it. I’m just saying it didn’t quite fit.

And that brings us to our ending. When Ottway cracks those fucking liquor bottles and tapes them to his left hand then tapes that knife to his right hand, I got goose bumps. I was ready for the battle that I had read in the screenplay. This is why I came to see this movie. Ottway vs. the Alpha Wolf.

And then…. (spoilers)

And then…the movie ended.

I’m still trying to figure this choice out. Was it artistic? Was it budgetary? Did the animatronic wolf break down? Did the fight look fake? Could they not use the footage? We know the battle was in the script so we know Carnahan wanted it (at some point at least). So why the decision not to use it?

Was it because of the change in theme? Because Carnahan decided it really wasn’t about man fighting wolves? But about faith?

I don’t know. But I felt like the audience deserved that fight. Could you imagine kids walking out of the theater after that battle? They’d be telling every friend they know how awesome it was.

And yeah, I know if you wait until after the credits (spoiler) you see Ottway lying on the wolf, seemingly victorious. But that left me with more questions than answers. It indicated that there might have been a fight that was cut out of the film. Also missing from the script was the helicopter coming down after the fight. Because that GPS device was so heavily set up during the film, that also tells me the original ending was filmed but not used.

But I guess this discussion is fruitless until Carnahan talks about it or we get an alternate ending on the DVD. I’d love to see a version of this film with that fight. Maybe even when they re-release it in October.

Still, I really enjoyed this film. I’m still thinking about it almost every second of the day, and it’s rare a movie makes me do that. I mean it was just raw in-your-face filmmaking. Definitely worth checking out.

[ ] What the hell did I just see?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the watch
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I love the use of quick flashbacks. Long flashbacks take up too much time in your script and slow the story down. But quick flashbacks are great. They convey what you need to convey but do so quickly. We needed to see that Ottway had someone back home. So Carnahan would momentarily cut to he and his wife together for maybe 5-10 seconds and then we’d cut back to the present.