Monday, July 2, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Ends Of The Earth

Genre: Period
Premise: The true story of the Marlands, an oil magnate back in the 20s who were very controversial due to a shocking family development.
About: The writer here, Chris Terrio, has been kicking ass for a few years now.  He wrote Ben Affleck's upcoming "Argo," which I reviewed on the site, and I believe he also rewrote one of Scriptshadow's top screenplays, "Tell No One," also for Ben Affleck to direct.  But this is far and away his best script.
Writer: Chris Terrio
Details: 129 pages (September 2009 draft)

Jessica Chastain for Lydie?

This script had been sitting on my computer for awhile with a big giant virtual sign on it that said, "Avoid!" I briefly checked out the subject matter online and all I remembered was that it was a freaking period piece that sounded boring as hell.  But with the upcoming move and a million other things I need to do, I haven't had time to meticulously carve out which scripts to review.  Hence my lazy, "Oh, I guess I'll just read this one."

Well thank God for laziness!  Because Ends Of The Earth is one of the best scripts I've read all year!  I mean this is what screenwriting is all about!  This is how you fucking write a story.  I'm bursting with enthusiasm over this thing and scared I'm going to forget all the marvelous lessons it has to teach so I want to jump right into it.

However, before I do, I should encourage you to SEEK OUT THIS SCRIPT AND READ IT FIRST.  E-mail me if you have trouble and I'll try to point you in the right direction (subject line: "EARTH").  The joy of the read is the startling number of surprises that pop up along the way.  If you google these people, a lot of that will be ruined.  I'll be spoiling some of that here since it's public knowledge, but the story is SO MUCH BETTER if you don't know.

The Ends Of The Earth introduces us to an old broken down hotel maid in 1976.  She's relegated to cleaning up used condoms and a gallon of vomit in one of the hotel bathrooms.  It's an uncomfortable scene to read.  But it will become so much more uncomfortable in a few pages, when we learn just who this woman is.

While heading to the lobby, one of the elevators opens and an older man's eyes pop when he sees the maid.  There's a recognition between the two, resulting in her turning and running down the hall.  He doesn't get out of the elevator in time, forcing him to get off on another floor and come back around, eventually tracking her to a maintenance closet.  He bangs on the closet, asking her to come out, but she won't budge.  She's too terrified.  He finally slips a note under the door that reads..."IS YOUR NAME LYDIE?"

And so it begins.  Who is Lydie?

Cut back to 1906.  Yes, 70 years prior.  Lydie is just 6 years old, a guarded little girl on a train.  Think Newt from Aliens but a lot angrier.  Her alcoholic mother didn't even tell her she was getting rid of her.  She waited until she was asleep and shipped her off in the middle of the night to her brother, Ernest Marland, who's in Wyoming betting his entire savings on an ill-conceived search for oil, a bet that's looking worse and worse every day.

While no one seems to be able to get through to Lydie, Ernest does.  She softens a little around him, and a week later, Lydie turns out to be a good luck charm.  Ernest strikes oil. A LOT of oil.

Years pass and Marland becomes one of the biggest oil companies in the U.S.  He's not Rockefeller, but he's big enough to make Rockefeller nervous.  And Lydie?  Well, she's the heir to this fortune, since Ernest's wife dies of stomach cancer.

That, of course, means that every eligible bachelor in Wyoming is after Lydie.  Yet nobody seems able to snatch her up.  It's not that she doesn't like anyone.  It's just that her and her father are so close.  That angry vicious little girl has become funny, kind, and engaging, all attributed to the way Ernest raised her.

Well, this is where shit gets real.  Because - and this is the point where you're either going to check out or read faster  - Ernest and Lydie fall in love.  Yes, father and daughter develop a relationship.  It's a shocking development, especially since you know this is based on real life.  I mean it's one thing for this to happen in the backwoods of Kentucky.  But this is one of the most powerful men in the United States!  It's not like there are many places to hide when you're that public.

So while they sneak around for awhile, it soon becomes impossible. And in a precedent that Woody Allen would use for inspiration later in life, Ernest nulls the adoption of his daughter and marries her.

Ewwwwwwwww.  Right?

Well, yeah, ewwwwww.  But here's the great thing about this script. It sets up the most "ewwwwww" situation ever, and then works to make you sympathetic towards it!  And not only does it succeed,  you're fucking rooting for their marriage by the end of the script.  An incest marriage!  Yes.

That's because Lydie becomes one of the pioneers in helping workers and their families get medical care (relevant much??).  This was unprecedented back then.  If you got injured on the job - see ya.  You're useless to us now.   If your kid was dying?  Tough luck.  We'll send you a "Sorry for your loss" card and maybe let you come in late on Monday.  Lydie changed all that.  She wanted to do more for Marland's work force.

But the cost of doing so was overbearing.  And in the end, it would lead to the downfall of the company, which would eventually send Lydie down a path where she's cleaning up used condoms and vomit in hotel rooms where nobody knows who she is.  However, Lydie will get one last moment in the sun - a chance to put some closure on her life.  Maybe, she'll realize that despite all this pain, it was actually worth it.

Uhhhhh...can I just say this script was FUCKING AWESOME!  And so unexpected.  Period piece.  aka Boringsville 99.9% of the time.  Yet not this time!

Let's start with the opening scene.  When I open a period piece, I'm expecting it to be boring.  Women in period dresses.  People speaking funny.  Maybe some horses.  Here, we start with a maid cleaning up condoms and vomit who sees someone that makes her run for her life.  That's a freaking intriguing opening.  Who is this woman?  Who is this guy who recognizes her? Why is she running from him?  So right away, from the very first page, I'm hooked.

However, I should point out, everything that followed this scene, DID NOT UTILIZE my precious GSU.  That's right.  While there are elements of GSU (with STAKES being the most obvious - a relationship that threatens a billion dollar company!), for the most part, Terrio uses other story devices to keep us interested.

We start with the "building up" phase.  This is a device you can use that usually keeps the audience interested.  I've nicknamed it the "Goodfellas Tool."  We like to see people start from little and build up to become powerful.  I don't know if it's because we enjoy watching someone we like succeed or if we know that sooner or later, it all has to come crumbling down, which that sick part of us really wants to see.  But if you show your hero becoming successful over time, we're usually into it.

This, of course, is followed by the big development in the story - the Ernest and Lydie kiss.  This begins their relationship, which is intriguing because they must hide it from the world.  This is always going to be interesting to an audience because the stakes are so high (their lives, business, and reputation are on the line if they get caught).  So we're on pins and needles hoping nobody finds out.

But then Terrio makes the bravest decision of the screenplay. He decides to show Ernest and Lydie come out to the world and admit they're a couple.  I was really worried about the script at this point because I thought, "Well how are they going to keep our interest now?  There's no secret.  There's no more building.  Why would we keep turning the pages?"

This leads to the admittedly "softest" part of the screenplay, which focuses on Lydie realizing how little her company is doing for its workers and her determination to change that.  But it manages to stay afloat due to the conflict resulting from the aftermath of her marriage.  She's shunned by the world, particularly her peers, for marrying...well, her dad!

On top of that, we just develop a lot of sympathy towards Lydie.  While she may be the happiest she's ever been (being with Ernest) she's also the most miserable.  And we want to see her rise up from that and be happy again.  I'm not sure we would want that if Lydie wasn't desperately trying to help other people (the power of a likable protagonist!).

The script REALLY picks up again, however, when Rockefeller Oil gets involved.  They start seeing Marland as a threat, and decide to go in for the kill using incest as their primary weapon.  The result is so ugly, I teared up.  It was just horrible what they did to Marland and it destroyed their fortune, turning Ernest and Lydie into shells of their former selves.  A tragedy of epic proportions.

Seriously, this has to be one of the most amazing untold stories ever.  I can't believe they haven't made a movie about it yet.  It's one of those rare gems that's not just an interesting chronicling of events, but a story with the kind of drama and conflict and twists and shocks you couldn't make up if you tried.  Someone said this was Gone With The Wind meets There Will Be Blood.  And I'd agree.  But I think this is better than BOTH of those movies.

I think what really stuck out to me above everything else was the love story.  When these two first fall for each other, you're like, "No!" But by the end, you're rooting for them to be together.  It's one of the best examples of true love I've ever read.  Love means doing anything for that person - whether it's crossing familial boundaries or traveling halfway across the world to see them.  It doesn't mean words.  It means WHAT YOU DO.  And what these two do for each other is extraordinary and inspiring.  It's really beautiful to read.

I could go on for years about this script but I'm already late putting up the review so I'll have to stop here.  This is a wonderful screenplay and I'm hoping they get it cast soon because with the right actors and the right director, this has "Oscar" and "classic" written all over it.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn't for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (TOP 25!)
[ ] genius

What I Learned: So if you don't have GSU, how do you keep the reader's attention?  Well, it ain't easy. But my feeling is that the less GSU you have, the more CONFLICT you need.  That means more conflict in each scene, and it means the conflict itself has to be more potent.  From the very first scene we have conflict (a mysterious woman trying to escape a mysterious man), to later on when two people are trying to withstand their love for each other, to two people trying to hide their love from everyone else, to a woman trying to change a system that refuses to be changed, to an evil corporation trying to take our character's corporation over.  There's always an imbalance (the heart of conflict) in "Ends Of The Earth," and when you combine that with magnificent writing, you can write something GSU-light.  With that said, I'd wait until you've been writing for a LOOONNNNG time before you try it.  It requires a TON of skill.