Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Screenplay Review - Comancheria

Can an actor jump into the screenwriting world without a hitch? Past experience tells me no. But today's actor may break the mold.

Genre: Crime
Premise: Two brothers go on a bank-robbing spree in rural Texas with a determined near-retired Texas Ranger on their tail.
About: This script sold just a few weeks ago! The writer, Taylor Sheridan, is actually best known for a recurring role on the TV show, Sons Of Anarchy.
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Details: 113 pages - undated (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).

Today's writer looks the part!

Have to admit, didn’t know much about this one going in other than that it sold. Oh, and that the writer was an actor. So that made it interesting. Always curious to see if the front-of-the-camera guys can hack it behind the camera. Or hack it before the camera even starts rolling. Can’t be an easy transition having assistants waiting on you hand and foot one day, then being kicked by those very same feet the next. Being the lowest guy on the movie totem poll isn’t easy!

In fact, I have a writer friend who’s writing a project for someone right now and nobody cares what he says. They’re just changing everything. And I’m listening to these changes thinking, “They can’t be serious. They’re destroying the most BASIC things that make the screenplay work.” I mean, you’d think that common sense would take over at some point. And this is a known respected filmmaker he’s working for! Yet they’re just butchering the script. So sad.

The questionably titled “Comancheria” follows two brothers, Tanner and Toby, as they make rural Texas their bank-robbing playground. Toby is the sensible brother. He's clean cut and focused and doesn't take chances. Tanner, on the other hand, is a loose cannon if there ever was one. These brothers haven’t spent a lot of time together lately. Tanner’s been stuck in jail and Toby’s been taking care of their dying mother, whom neither of the brothers liked much.

Needless to say, the two have very different reasons for robbing these banks. Tanner just wants some easy money. Well, that and the thrill of the game. But for Toby, this is much more personal. His wife left him a long time ago and for that reason, he has to watch his kids grow up from afar. And since every person in the history of his family has been poor, he wants to break that chain and make sure his kids have the kind of money where they’ll never have to worry again.

So after they rob a few banks, 70 year old Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger about to become a Texas retiree, is called in to take a look at the robberies and see if he can’t figure out how to stop these guys. The thing with the brothers is that they’re robbing these tiny little banks out in the middle of nowhere and only taking the drawer money, which can’t be tracked.

It sure takes a lot longer than robbing a single bank vault but it's damn effective as it’s almost impossible to get caught. But as most bank robbing sprees go, at some point something goes drastically wrong or the bank robbers get a little greedy. With time running out on when they need the money, Tanner gets a little greedy, and it'll end up costing the brothers, potentially with their lives.

The thing that stuck out to me most about this story was how simple it was. We had two brothers with a clear goal - to rob a series of banks. We also had two “villains,” Marcus and his partner, with a clear goal, to capture the brothers.

The key to making a narrative like this work is to make sure that your hero’s goal is strong. Sheridan did a great job establishing how important stealing this money was for Toby. Everything he was doing was for his kids, who he had a very complicated but loving relationship with. As long as you establish that your hero desperately wants to achieve his goal, then by association, we’ll want him to achieve it as well.

The strength of a goal is determined mostly by motivation, and how well you establish that motivation. What that means is digging into your character and getting to know him and getting to know why he wants to do what he wants to do. Sheridan spends a lot of time in the conversations between Tanner and Toby discussing Toby's kids, the way they’ve pulled away from him, the way his ex-wife has facilitated that divide. This is a man with nothing in this world other than his children, and even though he doesn't know them that well, he loves them to the point where he’d do anything for them. The specificity of this relationship is what makes us believe that it’s real and go along with it. In other words, it’s not just slapped in there by a lazy phone call at the beginning of the movie from his son saying something like, “I miss you dad,” and the dad replying, “I miss you too, son.” Believe me, I see that kind of cheap tactic ALLL the time.

Another thing that stuck out to me here was the dialogue. Boring dialogue is usually normal dialogue. Characters speak in a very plain obvious way. They use very plain obvious sentences. Good writers find ways to play with the sentences, to give them a slightly different feel so they pop off the page. But it’s a tough skill to learn because you have to do it without it FEELING like you’re doing it. So these heightened lines must sound as relaxed and normal as everyday conversation. Lots of writers have trouble with that. But Sheridan nails it. Let’s look at quick exchange in the middle of the movie. Ranger Marcus is asking an old man at a diner if he saw anything during the robbery.

Ya’ll been here for a while?

Long enough to watch someone rob the bank that’s been robbing me for thirty years.

Perfect example. I can think of a million boring versions of this line that average writers would’ve written. “Not long, nope.” “I suppose so.” “I wasn’t keeping track.” I could go on. There's nothing wrong with these answers. They're just average. They’re not memorable. They don’t *pop*? Why go average when you can go heightened?

You say you saw them?

Saw the guy running from the bank.

What’d he look like?

Had a mask on. But he ran pretty good, so I’d gather he’s youngish.

That so ... What’s youngish in your book?

Younger’n you and me, but older than all these little girls running around here pouring tea.

We have another interesting answer here. He could have easily given an age. He could've said “25.” And again, that would've been fine. But when you're writing scripts, and especially when you're writing dialogue, you're trying to elevate the reality of the world you’re portraying. This answer is brilliant. It answers his question but in an unexpected interesting way.

The only reason this script didn’t rate higher for me was because I have no interest in this kind of movie. It just doesn’t appeal to me. With that said, I don’t think anybody could’ve executed this story as well as Sheridan did. I mean the writing is top notch. The dialogue is top notch. The character development is waaaay beyond what I’m used to in a screenplay. If I was into this kind of movie, Comancheira would get an impressive. As it stands, ‘double worth the read’ will have to do. Oh, and one last piece of advice to Mr. Sheridan – GET RID OF THIS TITLE. It screams “Don’t watch me.”

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

What I learned: Be careful about mimicking real-life dialogue. There’s a certain rhythm to real life conversation that’s important to capture, but as far as the vocabulary and the flavor, real life conversation is pretty dull. When you’re writing dialogue for a movie, you’d like for it to be slightly heightened. Not overtly so. But it should definitely have more pop. “No thanks” might become, “Not for me, compadre.” “What are you up to?” might become “What the hell happened to you?” Now all of this is dependent on the character delivering the dialogue (i.e. an average Joe will speak in an average way) and the story you’re telling (comedy dialogue will be more flavorful than drama dialogue), but in general, avoid stale dialogue by looking to invisibly heighten it. Don’t be afraid to add a little flavor.