Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Screenplay Review - Nathan Decker (Guest Review)

Oh man, I'm Twit-Pitched out. Last night it all hit me and I just crashed, leaving a ton of work on the table, which I get to make up for today. Yahoo! Luckily, I have my trusted readers to pick me up when I'm down. Today's review comes courtesy of longtime Scriptshadow reader and former reviewer Christian Savage, who takes on one of Scriptshadow's favorite writers, Dan Fogelman. It's another day at the office for Dan, selling ONCE AGAIN, a 2 million dollar spec. God do I want to be this guy.

Genre: Dramedy
Premise: Disgraced Senator and presidential hopeful, Nathan Decker, returns to his hometown after stepping down from office in the wake of a sex scandal, but can he find a way to reconnect with his family and salvage his reputation?
About: Dan has another huge payday, with rumors that both Tom Cruise and Ben Affleck are interested in playing the title role.  I don't think anyone's signed on the dotted line yet, but we should see a major star attach themselves soon.  This is too fun of a role not to sign up for. 
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Details: 125 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plots 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).

Okay, I have to admit it. I kind of love Dan Fogelman. If I were a Hollywood producer looking for a solid family comedy, he's the first person I'd ask to write it. He has to be one of the more dependable screenwriters working today. Every time I crack open a Fogelman script, I know exactly what I'm getting. Some people might think this predictability is a bad thing. But, it's not. He learned what kind of story best showcases his strengths, and he has stuck to that formula for much of his career. And that formula has made him a lot of money, not to mention the most important thing: His scripts get turned into movies that do well at the box office. So, what are the qualities that define a Dan Fogelman script? I think we can find some answers in Nathan Decker, one of his latest spec sales.

When we first meet Nathan Decker, he's a 40-something Pennsylvania senator, on the fast track to becoming a great man. Maybe even president of the United States. His winning smile gleams from the cover of Time magazine. Random people walk up to him on the street and request autographs. Wives across the land would leave their families for him. But, Nathan's more than a shallow celebrity politician. He has genuine ideals and substance. He reaches out to people facing hard times, and turns down corporations wanting to buy his loyalty. He also helps pass a $4 trillion infrastructure bill, in both houses of a polarized Congress. For any other man, that would be the greatest accomplishment of his life. For Nathan Decker, it’s Thursday. He's absolutely perfect, which is why it's inevitable something awful must happen to him.

All is not well, with the most popular man in the country. When Nathan comes home at night, it becomes clear there are some people who aren’t that impressed with him: his family. He’s expected to eat dinner alone. His cold meal is left on the kitchen counter, with a terse note providing heating instructions. No “I love you’s” written anywhere. When he tries to talk to his wife, Tracy, about his potential run for president, she’d rather lie in bed and finish reading her book. His 14-year-old daughter, Zoey, isn’t much better. She hides in her bedroom with her shady girlfriends and tries to pretend her father doesn’t exist. The Nathan Decker love parade ends at his own doorstep.

The surprising thing is that this isn’t a case of a well-oiled political machine not knowing how to be there for his family. Nathan makes a strong effort to engage in the lives of his wife and daughter. But, they’re burned out on his schmoozing, his enchanting public persona. It's all too much. During a tear-stained confession, Tracy tells him she doesn’t love him anymore. And on top of that, she can’t stand the selfish person their daughter has become. All she wants to do right now is get away from both of them. At this point, Nathan can’t deny it any longer. His marriage is a shambles. For the first time in his life, he has failed at something.

So, Nathan does what any heartbroken man would do. He gets drunk at a seedy bar and meets an attractive young woman in the ladies’ restroom. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but Nathan soon learns the media will take anything they can the wrong way. As you can guess, Nathan experiences a moment of weakness. He takes his new friend, Debbie, back to her motel room, where he proceeds to have the best sex he’s had in 10 years. But, in situations like this, happiness always seems to have consequences. The bartender tips off the paparazzi that Nathan’s putting the moves on someone who isn’t his wife. The incriminating photos get released nationwide and, within 48 hours, Nathan is a talkshow punchline. So, he resigns from his position in the Senate.

With his life in ruins, Nathan receives a call from his overbearing father, Bill, a former Speaker of the House, who suggests he come back to his hometown for a fresh start. Nathan agrees and takes his daughter, Zoey, with him to Doylestown, the place where he grew up. But it turns out nothing's an easy fix. Zoey's distraught over her parents' looming divorce, and Bill's furious that his son's scandalous behavior has tarnished the family legacy. The only bright spot in Nathan's life is his new job as a history teacher at the local high school. This is where he meets Joan Flaherty, another teacher, who helps him step out from his father's shadow, and find his own way in the world.

Okay, let's talk about why this script sold for $2 million. First and foremost, Nathan Decker is a character that A-list actors want to play. He's active, talented, and likable. He also faces a problem that's easy to relate to: public humiliation. Quite simply, this is the kind of character that could make any actor look good. Considering both Tom Cruise and Ben Affleck have looked at the script, it's obvious there's something memorable here. The best thing any writer can do is create characters that are irresistible. Once you've done this, you're so much closer to having a script that everyone wants. Fogelman knows this; even his supporting players are treated with care. The cast is kept small, but nicely textured. You won't see 15 characters introduced in the first three pages. But you will find a handful of well-drawn people, each of whom has a distinct voice. Not once did I confuse one person for another. That's a classic sign of a writer who knows what he's doing.

I also want to point out Fogelman's mastery of structure and pacing. Nathan Decker is almost nothing but setups and pay offs. Just about every plot point and character quirk has a reason for existing, and there are no loose ends. If something is introduced in act I, you can bet you'll see it again in act III. For example, before they meet each other in person, Joan sends a letter to Nathan's government office, complaining about a dangerous intersection in desperate need of a traffic light. So, of course, in the third act, Nathan recklessly enters that same intersection and gets in a car accident. Another instance is when Bill expresses his disappointment in Nathan, by giving everyone in the room a huge serving of ice cream, except for Nathan. It struck me as a fatherly punishment, a reminder that, in Bill's house, Nathan is still a child. But then later, when Bill finally forgives his son, he doesn't give a sentimental speech about it. He just hands Nathan a big serving of ice cream and walks away. The moment is simple, visual, and effective. Other smart choices like this are sprinkled throughout, and they really enhanced the overall quality of the script.

As mentioned before, the pacing was truly a revelation. Fogelman has a great sense of when to speed things up or slow them down, depending on the story's needs. There was almost no conflict in the first 15 pages, and that was okay because it was important to see Nathan at the top of the food chain. The better the man, the more powerful the tragedy when he falls. On the other hand, take notice of how fast Nathan met his one night stand. It happened about half a page after his marriage was over. And when Nathan and Debbie started talking in the bar, they got to know each other for eight pages, before they went back to the motel together. Fogelman knew the audience would need that extra time to accept Nathan falling for another woman, so they'd sympathize with him when things went badly. And it was great when Nathan resigned from the Senate, less than two pages after the one night stand. No detours, just straight to the good stuff. So, the lesson here is that each scene has it's own rhythm. Some scenes are more effective if they linger just a bit, and then others work best by skipping the foreplay altogether. I loved that about this script.

There were a couple scenes that bothered me, though, and both of them were recycled from another Fogelman movie. At the climax, all three of Nathan's women - the wife, the fling, and the teacher/love interest - show up at the big family dinner. It felt a little too reminiscent of the famous scene from Crazy, Stupid, Love, when all the separate love stories crashed together in the protag's backyard. It didn't work as well this time around, because there was no delicious pay off. There were no surprise connections between the characters. No revelations that made you reassess what you thought you knew about these people. So, the dinner scene here felt like a wasted opportunity. Also, Fogelman seems to have a weakness for ending scripts with a corny "Here's What I Learned" speech. He did it in Crazy, Stupid, Love, and does it again here. The saving grace for Nathan is that he was a politician speaking at a city council meeting. So, the situation naturally allowed some leniency. But, if I never see another big finale speech in a Fogelman script, I'd be okay with that.

Otherwise, I thought this was a shining example of a mainstream comedy drama that could play well in the marketplace. It's a crowd-pleaser that feels warm and light, like a loaf of bread baking in the morning. Can't wait to see it on the big screen.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] Wasn’t for me
[ ] Worth the read
[X] Impressive
[ ] Genius

What I learned: If you want to sell scripts in Hollywood, a good way to do it is to find your niche and master it. Fogelman has had a lucrative career mainly from writing family comedies, and he rarely strays outside of his wheelhouse. That's not to say you shouldn't stretch beyond your comfort zone as a writer. But if you can come up with a mainstream story template that plays to your strengths, then you can create a brand name for yourself. It's possible to develop an identifiable voice, by sticking to a special set of qualities that studios can associate with your work. If you become known as the go-to person for comedies or thrillers or whatever, then you could be one of the first writers that get called for an assignment. After all, isn't it the brand names that have the longest careers in this business?