Monday, March 26, 2012

Screenplay Review - Rule #1

Reese Witherspoon and I invite you to a weekend spa retreat to read her newest project, Rule #1.

Genre: Comedy
Premise: When a woman’s husband leaves her because of her severe OCD, she writes down a list of all her tics and tries to conquer them one at a time.
About: I'm not sure if Reese Witherspoon jumped on this project recently or she's been developing it for a while, but I know she's planning to star in the film. The writer, Terrel Seltzer (One Fine Day) adapted the screenplay from the book, “Little Beauties.”
Writer: Terrel Seltzer (based on the novel "little beauties" by Kim Addonizio
Details: 114 pages - August 22, 2010 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 had no idea what I was getting myself into when I opened this. All I remember was at the time, I was cooking a pound of steak, watching SportsCenter, practicing my “bro hug,” and cracking open the floors to fix my own plumbing.

I realized that I would have to abandon all of these activities immediately. Out with the steak, in with the ice cream. Off with SportsCenter, on with Real Housewives of Orange County. Out with bro-hugs, in with bubble baths. Adios plumbing. Hello red wine. I had to transform myself into my estrogen equivalent if Rule #1 had any chance of making it to Rule #2 (Carson finishes the screenplay).

So did I make it? In some ways, yes. In others, not really. I learned about a multi-tasking breast pump device which I’m sure I’ll never recover from. Let’s be honest, this is the kind of movie you pray your wife never hears about. The kind of thing you will lie incessantly about if they manage to catch the preview. “Oh yeah, I heard they accidentally killed ten puppies during the making of this movie.” Come on. You’ve all done it. But here’s the thing. Maybe, just maybe, this script is pretty good? Maybe you don’t lose your man card by reading it? Can it be? Is it possible?

Diana, our hero, is just really fucked up. When we meet her, she’s working at a baby store. Our first thought is: “Awwww, she must be so happy!” I mean, what woman doesn’t like looking at cute babies all day? Diana, that’s who. She HATES IT.

It’s not personal or anything. Diana just detests being around anything… filthy. And babies are as filthy as it gets. In fact, after her dress rubs against some stroller marks on the store rug, she’s so disgusted that she pretends to go to Starbucks to get coffee for her boss in order to go home and take a quick shower. Diana actually takes a lot of showers. It’s her sanctuary. The only time she feels at peace.

Anyway, Diana eventually runs into this wreck of a younger girl named Jamie, who’s like a pregnant tattooed version of Audrey Hepburn without the…good parts. When Jamie has her baby, it’s like the coolest experience of her life. Problem is, Jamie doesn’t have a plan in place for the baby. She SAYS her boyfriend (who’s on tour with Cirque De Solei) is coming home soon, but we get the feeling that the old bf’s left her high and dry.

When Diana then learns that Jamie’s been kicked out of her apartment and is living in a motel…WITH HER NEW BABY, that’s the end of the line for her. She can’t handle that thought. So she invites the thrilled Jamie to live with her until her boyfriend “comes home.” She certainly has the space since her husband moved out.

Oh yeah, Diana’s OCD was so bad that her husband left her. Marriages tend to go that way when your wife takes 10 showers a day. Diana (ironically just like Jamie) is under the delusion that her husband is coming back as well. If she can just conquer this OCD, he’ll love her again. So she’s written a list of 40 OCD ticks she must conquer (i.e. “allow someone else in your car.” “don’t clean your towels after every use”) and is crossing them off one at a time.

Well, the list goes through a speed round when Jamie moves in and the baby starts spitting up and bopping around all over the place. Diana must adapt or die. So she chooses to adapt. But will it be enough to win her husband back? And speaking of missing men, is Jamie’s man coming back? Check out the book or the script to find out. If you dare!

I'm surprised I'm gonna say this but this script was pretty good! The thing that really set it apart was the writing. As I've mentioned before, my issue with most comedy scripts is that they feel like they were scribbled together over a weekend. No thought has been put into the characters or the story. It’s just a bunch of comedy scenes.

One of the easiest ways to tell if a comedy script (or any script for that matter) has depth, is if the characters feel like they’ve been around before the story started. I could easily imagine the moments that destroyed Diana’s marriage. I imagined the events that led to Diana working at the baby store. I imagined Jamie’s life before this baby came around. It was all alluded to in a non-intrusive way so as to make these characters feel like they’d lived a full life, not just the life of a screenplay!

Once you add a fatal flaw to the mix (Diana’s flaw is about as big as it gets), you have a character who’s bigger than a stack of pages. That’s what people mean when they say “make your characters three-dimensional.” You have the character WE see. You have the character’s past. And then you have the character’s flaw.

And let's not discount another Scriptshadow truism - You should have a protagonist that a name actor would want to play. And Diana is about as actor-bait as it gets. I'm not even an actor or a woman and I want to play this role! It's certainly more interesting than the kind of role female actresses usually get offered, which is the wife of a big actor. So it doesn't surprise me at all that one of the A-list female actresses scrapped this up.

The big fault in the screenplay is the male love interest. You know, it's funny, because we talk about scripts written by men where the female love interest is underwritten all the time. So it's kind of surprising to see the opposite going on here. I don't even remember this guy’s name. I just remember him showing up when nothing else was happening in the story - almost like they decided, “Well, he has to be *somewhere* so let’s throw him in this sequence where Diana’s bored and not doing anything.” Then again, this is a draft from 2010 so maybe they've since given him more of a presence.

But yeah, this was a good script. It has good characters (on the female side of things), real depth, and it wasn't like anything I'd read before. That’s what really stood out about it for me. It wasn’t a romantic comedy. It wasn’t a comedy. And yet it had laughs and it had romance. It was unique. I don't know if any guys will be able to pull through it without a trip to the liquor store. But if you have some time, pick it up. You might be surprised. And may the odds always be in your favor!

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

What I learned: There are two types of stakes. There's the big picture stakes (if they don’t destroy the Death Star, millions of people will die) and there's personal stakes (if Lester Burnham – American Beauty - doesn’t make a change in his life, he’ll be miserable forever). Character driven stories tend to only have personal stakes. So you have to make sure those stakes are as high as they can possibly be. And that basically comes down to you doing whatever you can to remind the audience how important the protagonist’s goal is. Throughout this script, Diana is constantly pointing out how much she wants her husband back. She's constantly pointing out that as long as she gets rid of all her tics, her husband is coming for her. The psychiatrist scenes are specifically designed to allow Diana to talk about how much she wants her husband back. Because of this, the personal stakes are EXTREMELY HIGH. A lesser writer might have had a single scene where Diana mentions to one of her friends that she misses her husband then expect *that* to be enough to set up the stakes. It isn’t. You have to convey the importance of the goal in order for the personal stakes to be high.