Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Screenplay Review - Wencesles Square

The Captain America screenwriters tackle the Cold War with this 2009 Black List screenplay

Genre: Spy/Romance
Premise: (from the Black List) Two spies fall in love while participating in separate Cold War missions in Prague during the 1980s.
About: This finished in the middle of the pack of the 2009 Black List. Markus and McFeely, the writers, have a list of impressive credits on their resume which include all three Chronicles of Narnia films and, most recently, Captain America.
Writers: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (based on the short story by Arthur Phillips)
Details: 123 pages – May 14th, 2009 - 2nd 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'm not sure even Captain America could've saved this script.

Okay, I have a lot to say about this one but before I do, I'm going to put forth a theory on what I think went down. This is just a theory. I have no inside information. But it’s the only thing that makes sense. Especially because today’s writers are no slouches. You don’t get writing credit on some of the biggest movies of the year by being a hack.

Remember, almost all the money writers make in this business is from assignment work. For that reason, writers are forced to consistently take on material that isn't very good. It's sort of the same predicament non-A-List actors are in. Sure, they’d all love to be in the latest David Fincher or Quentin Tarantino movie, but only a few actors in the world are lucky enough to get those opportunities.

For those who don’t, they need to make a living. And that usually means, at least occasionally, being in Spieces 4: The Egg Layer. Especially if they're willing to pay you a trunk full of cash to be in it.

That's the big misperception about screenwriting - that it's an all or nothing deal. You're either Joe Nobody, or Dan Fogelman, making 2.5 million dollars per spec. I got news for you. There's this whole area in between where writers are jockeying for position to get on any project that’s going to pay them money, regardless of whether the project’s any good or not.

I mean, if you were offered $200,000 to adapt some book you knew was terrible, would you do it? Of course you would.

I bring this up because this is the only way I can explain today’s screenplay. I'm guessing that the short story this script was based on was so boring that it had no hope of being turned into a good script. These writers did the best that they could, and delivered the best possible draft they could, but because the material was so devoid of story, the screenplay was doomed from the start. Let’s take a look at the plot, if that’s what you want to call it.

It's the 1980s. 20-something Tyler Vanalden is working as a low level US official in Czechoslovakia. Tyler is sly. Tyler is charming. He’s a guy you’d want to hang out with on a Friday night.

At the beginning of the story, he walks into a local bar and runs into Jarmila, a beautiful Czechoslovakian woman. He's instantly smitten by her, or so it seems, and they start chatting. As we will later find out, Tyler is targeting this woman for possible information gathering. I think. Actually I have no idea because it was never adequately explained.

Eventually we realize that Jarmila holds a similar low level position at her country’s own information gathering agency. She, in fact, is targeting Tyler just like he's targeting her. But what she doesn't know is that Tyler knows she's targeting him. I think. Maybe?

So as the two start a love affair – or “fake” love affair - Tyler starts feeding her enough low-level information to gain her trust. In the meantime, he’s also extracting information from her. Or at least, that’s what he tells his bosses. I personally never saw it. The only thing I ever heard them talking about was some boyfriend of hers that the script dedicates 50% of its time to even though we never meet the guy or understand what he has to do with anything. I wish I could wrap up this synopsis with some kind of definable climax but there really isn’t one. The two just keep talking the entire script in repetitive scene after repetitive scene until the screenplay runs out of pages.

Now it should be noted, this is a second draft. So you have to give the script some leniency. However, it’s the draft that made The Black List, which is why I’m reviewing it.

Okay, so, where to start here. This is actually a situation that *should* work for a movie. You have two spies, both hiding their identities from each other, who start falling in love. You have built-in dramatic irony, conflict, tension. So why doesn’t any of it work?

Simple. There aren’t any stakes! Not only are these two on the lowest rung of the ladder in their respective agencies, but absolutely nothing will happen to them if either of them get caught. Seriously, ask yourself, what happens if one of these two catches the other? I’m guessing they shrug their shoulders, smile, say “You got me,” and walk away.

This is a huge issue in a script like this. Stakes are everything. But what makes the script so bad is that the motivations are ALSO non-existent. We’re never sure why anybody is doing anything. What is it these two agents/agencies are trying to get from one another? We’re never told. So now you have no clear motivation and no clear stakes. That is a recipe for screenplay disaster.

The lack of these two critical components puts all of the focus squarely on the love story– on the interaction between the two leads. And that too is below average. Which means there’s nothing in this screenplay to get excited about.

The thing is, there’s potential for a story here somewhere. We find out near the end that this was all happening right before the fall of communism. But even though that information would’ve benefited the story greatly, nobody ever gives us a hint that it might happen.

Why not put the state of the entire Cold War on the shoulders of these two characters? Now you have stakes. Now their lies to one another actually mean something. Now lives are the line. Freedom is on the line. Nuclear war is on the line. Doesn’t that sound just a tad more exciting than the stakes of the current script –Jarmila’s husband being angry with her?

There were also a lot of confusing choices in the screenplay. For example, one of the Czechoslovakian agents is named Johnny 1950. No, you didn’t read that wrong. A Czech agent is named “Johnny 1950.” How does that even make sense? Wouldn't that be like a CIA agent named Yvgengy 1812? I don’t know man, I just kept shaking my head during this script, wondering if it was some sort of joke.

And then people would say things that made no sense. Here’s a character line from after the Berlin Wall is torn down: “Look, our primary job now is to sift the fallout for gold. If the Communists bail, there are going to be a lot of spooks in the wind, and not all of them want to go house hunting in Moscow.” I don’t have any idea what that means.

I will throw up this disclaimer. I’m not the biggest spy movie fan. So I may have missed a lot of nuances here. And I had a similar reaction to that German film everybody loved, “The Lives Of Others,” so who knows? Maybe I just didn’t get it. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t find anything good about this screenplay. I don’t understand how it made the Black List. Maybe spy fans can enlighten me.

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

What I learned: “Love” cannot be the only thing at stake in your movie. There must be something bigger. If you look at another love story – Titanic – Rose deciding whether or not to be with Jack isn't just about her. Her father left her family in a boatload of debt (no pun intended). For that reason, if Rose doesn't marry Cal, she's not just hurting herself, she's hurting her mother, who will likely have to become a seamstress. And then, of course, there's the whole second half of the movie, where the characters' very lives are at stake. This was my issue with Wencesles Square. The only thing at stake was the characters’ feelings for one another. That can carry a small portion of the movie. But it can’t carry the whole thing.