Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Screenplay Review - You Are Here

The creator of Mad Men decides to tackle his passion project while on hiatus from the show.

Genre: Drama/Comedy
Premise: In the vein of Sideways, an alcoholic weatherman and his bi-polar unemployed best friend find out that the friend’s recently deceased father has left him a small fortune.
About: Matt Weiner, of Mad Men fame, writes a script that is just about as far away from Mad Men as Don Draper is from fidelity. Maybe that’s because Weiner has been writing and rewriting this script for over a decade! This is his dream project, and Mad Men’s success has finally allowed him to make it.
Writer: Matt Weiner
Details: 120 pages – August 21, 2011 (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).

Am I wrong in assuming that John Hamm is going to play Steve?

I am here!

So are you guys.

What a perfect way to start the “You Are Here” review.

I definitely need SOME way to start the review because…wow…what a weird script. It’s kind of devoid of structure. It’s more like following two friends around for a couple of weeks than it is a full-fledged story. Stuff *does* happen, but not that often. And when it does, it always feels like it happens too late. I mean I guess the first act turn – the reading of the inheritance - happens on page 30, technically where the end of the first act should be in a 120 page screenplay, but it sure felt closer to page 50. And that, again, is because so little happens before it.

Remember that the placement of your first act turn should be determined by the amount of plot you need to set up in your first act. For example, if you’re writing a movie like Inception, which has a ton to set up, then your first act turn is going to come later. But if you’re writing something with very little plot – say “Dumb and Dumber” – then you end your first act sooner. If you’re just hanging around in your first act until page 30 because the screenwriting books tell you to, then your first act is going to feel like it goes on forever.

And look, I’m not telling Matt Weiner how to write. The great thing about Mad Men is that it doesn’t follow conventions. It makes unexpected choices. The tone and the feel of that show are divinely unique. But I’m not feeling the desire to create something like Mad Men here. This is a pretty standard movie set-up, and it definitely takes too long to get where it needs to get.

On the character front, we do have ourselves a couple of non-traditional “heroes.” There’s Steve Dallas, a weatherman who moonlights, sunlights, and dusklights as an alcoholic. And then there’s Ben, who’s worse off than Steve if that’s possible. He’s a bi-polar nutbag who sits in his apartment all day and does nothing – regardless of the weather report. While they’ve known each other since high school, their friendship is primarily driven by a desire to abuse illegal substances, which they do a lot of.

Eventually, Ben gets called back to their home town for the reading of his father’s will, to which Steve attends. It’s there where they meet Angela, Ben’s late father’s widow. Oh yeah, Angela’s in her twenties. Ben’s dad was in his 70s. Doesn’t take a math major to figure out our dear Angela is probably a modern day gold prospector.

However, the estate reading turns everybody’s world upside-down when the land, the house, and the grocery store are all left to Ben – an estate totaling 2.5 million dollars! Ben’s sister is furious since she knows how much of a fuck-up he is and that he’ll likely squander all of it. But Angela is strangely unaffected by the reading. Which intrigues Dallas, who loves having sex with intriguing woman.

So Dallas makes an excuse to stick around for awhile, “comforting” the grieving Angela. But Angela’s the one woman who’s not falling for his charm and good looks. Which is really all Steve has. So when he can’t depend on that, what can he depend on? The only way to find out may be to sober up for the first time in 20 years, and it ain’t clear if Steven’s going to be able to do that.

Someone told me after reading this that it’s clear a TV writer wrote it. While I’m not quite sure what that means, I think I have an idea. There’s a scene early on where Ben talks forever about being a vegetarian. I’m not sure what the point of it is, but I know it doesn’t push the story forward. It just feels like one of those scenes writers write (we’re all guilty of this) because they’re interested in the subject matter and want to get it into their screenplay – story be damned.

Since TV storytelling evolves at a more leisurely pace, a scene like this might work. But in movies, where every scene must be an integral piece of the puzzle that thrusts the story forward, a scene like this dies on the page. And that was my issue with the first act. There were a lot of scenes that weren’t pushing anything forward.

But I think the thing that really baffled me was how the characters were projected. I’m still not sure who the protagonist was in You Are Here. The script starts out focusing on Steve, implying to us that he’s our main character. But this is actually Ben’s story. He’s the one whose father dies. He’s the one who all of the main shit happens to. So the whole script, we’re treating a character like the main character, Steve…even though he isn’t the main character.

I get the feeling that someone like Weiner would read this and roll his eyes, maybe even laugh - the implication being, “People like you are idiots. You don’t analyze this shit. Just enjoy the fucking story.” But that’s the thing: I had a hard time enjoying the story because of these issues. I didn’t know who to latch onto. I didn’t know who I was identifying with or rooting for.

There’s a segment in You Are Here, for example, where Steve takes off back to the city for awhile, and we stay with Ben and Angela. I was so confused! We’d started the story out with Steve. We’d rode that horse throughout. Now he was just…gone. Our “wacky” sidekick now became our main character, and I for one had a difficult time making that adjustment. It just didn’t feel right.

As far as our character triumvirate went, Angela was probably the most interesting of the three. I liked that Weiner avoided clich├ęs with her. We assumed Angela was a gold digger. She wasn’t. We assumed she was selfish. She taught special-ed children. We assumed she would fall for Steve. She didn’t. The reason a lot of the stuff at the house worked was specifically because we didn’t know what to expect from Angela.

However at a certain point, Angela became the epitome of what I thought was wrong with You Are Here. Which was that I never truly understood any of the characters. Steven is an alcoholic. But I didn’t definitively know this until the third act when Angela literally says it. I just thought he partied too much. Ben, also, starts the movie running up to Steve, trying to beat the shit out of him, then inexplicably bursting into tears. In retrospect I suppose this was to demonstrate his bi-polar personality, but at the time it was confusing. And with Angela, I just couldn’t figure out what she wanted. She seemed confused a majority of the time. And I couldn’t figure out if it was her who was confused or Weiner. She was a hell of a difficult character to pin down.

There are some good things about You Are Here. Stuff gets fun when the sister challenges the will. And I like the idea of Ben stuck in this house with a woman who was the wife of a father he barely knew. It made for an interesting dynamic. Especially with weirdo Steve popping in every once in awhile. I just wish there was more of a structure to the story. Everything felt too fast and loose. And in the end, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to take away from it.

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

What I learned: Look out for “Mouthpiece scenes.” These are scenes where you use your characters as a mouthpiece for your own theories and ideas. They never feel natural because we can tell that the character has been replaced by the writer, who just HAS to get out his feelings on this one topic. These became popular in the 90s after the famous “Why should I tip?” monologue in Resevoir Dogs. But now they just stop a screenplay cold. That was my problem with the early Ben vegetarian scene. I read it and thought, “This has nothing to do with the story.” I guess it told us Ben was a vegetarian but we could’ve easily achieved that in a much simpler way (i.e. Steve makes him a sandwich and Ben pulls the meat out before eating it). The point is, mouthpiece scenes tend to feel unnatural. If you absolutely have to include them, make sure the scene is pushing the story forward. Otherwise, they’ll stop the story cold.