Monday, October 15, 2012

Screenplay Review - Promised Land

Genre: Drama
Premise: When a large natural gas corporation comes into a small town to buy up its natural gas deposits, a few resistant residents make the reps pursuit a living hell.
About: This is the script that Matt Damon and longtime "The Office" co-star, John Krasinski, wrote together.  This would be the first script of Damon's since Good Will Hunting. The film has been shot and I believe is coming out later this year.
Writers: Matt Damon and John Krasinski
Details: 113 pages - undated


And Matt.

And Matt.  And Ben.

And John?

From The Office?

Wait a minute.  What's going on here?  A love triangle?

Alas, it seems the most famous bromance of the last 15 years is officially kaput.  Matt has moved on to someone younger and prettier.  Not sure how Ben feels about this, but maybe making the dark and brooding Argo was his way of dealing with the pain.

I'll be honest, when I heard about Promised Land, I was worried for a couple of reasons.  First off, two actors writing a script?  I mean, I don't want to stereotype or anything, but what do actors know about writing?  Is that any different from Aaron Sorkin saying, "I'm going to go star in my own movie?"  Even if Damon had written a script before, he certainly doesn't have the time today that he did before Good Will Hunting.  And who's to say Krasinski can write?  Why do all of these actors all of a sudden think they're Ernest Hemingway?

And then there was the whole political thing.  Damon's not shy about voicing his political views, and I'd been told this script was a political statement about something called "Fracking."  Ugh, so now I was being preached to by an actor about his political stance on something that sounded like a bad debate topic?  Kill me now.

And then I read Promised Land.  And I really fracking liked it.

Closing in on 40, Steve Landsman is ready to take that big leap in his career - the one that comes with the free car, the top level medical benefits, and the bank-busting salary.  He's going to be a vice-president in one of the biggest natural gas companies in the world.  All he's gotta do is close this one last town, McKinley, NY, which should be as easy as the drive down from Manhattan.

For a little background, these natural gas companies are trying to pick up the ball that the oil companies dropped.  We're so dependent on oil-rich countries, many of which drive up the prices cause they hate us so much, and yet we have our own huge energy supply right here in our own back yard - natural gas!

This gas is buried deep in deposits all over North America, and all it takes to extract it are these big wells that the natural gas companies build.  Problem is, most of the land where you find these deposits is privately owned, which means you have to pay the owners lots of money to allow you to drill on their land.  Which usually isn't a problem.  Throw a million bucks at Honey Boo Boo and Co. and chances are they're going to help you build the drill themselves.  Assuming they don't eat it first.

"A dolla makes me holla!"

That is until McKinley, New York.  You see, Steve and his partner, 55 year old Sue Thomason, are thrown a curve ball when one of the local science teachers, a man who used to teach at M.I.T., starts educating the townspeople on the dangers of "fracking."  It turns out that the side effects include gas-tainted drinking water, to the point where you can light an icy glass of H2O on fire!  Escaped gas can also end up killing farmland and animals.  You can say the word "natural," all you want.  But it's still gas.

To make things worse, an environmentalist named Dustin moves into town representing a group called "Athena."  It turns out the science teacher spiel was only the tip of the iceberg.  Dustin starts giving the town a full-on crash course in the harms of fracking.  All of a sudden, money doesn't seem so important to these folks anymore.

Back at headquarters, the company starts worrying that Steve isn't up to the task, and considers sending in a clean-up team.  Knowing that would be the end of any vice-presidential standing in the company, Steve refuses the help and ensures HQ that he can get this done.  However, he has a big fight ahead of him, as it seems like with every passing hour, the town is less and less interested in buying what it is Steve's selling.

John Krasinski

Promised Land possesses some good old-fashioned storytelling in its bones.  I loved that even though this was a "small" "independent" project, it still relied on tried and true storytelling tools, particularly GSU.  The goal was to make the deal with the town's residents. The stakes were Steve's promotion (and potentially losing his job). The urgency was the town vote coming up.  It just goes to show that simple storytelling techniques can work magic when integrated naturally.

I've also found that these "big city know-it-alls" vs. "small town hicks" storylines usually work.   The conflict is already built into the situation.  It's a very familiar conflict at that, so it doesn't take much for an audience to get invested.  And what I liked about Promised Land was that it put you inside the shoes of the "bad guy" during that situation.  That's not easy to do because it's hard to like the bad guy.  What I think made it work though is that Steve believed he was doing good.  He's making these people rich.  When he realizes maybe that's not the best thing for them in the long run, that's when he starts questioning himself, resulting in some inner conflict he must deal with.  Any time your character has to battle with something inside himself, you've probably got yourself an interesting character.  In all the bad scripts I read, the characters are usually too simple and have nothing going on inside.  Not every hero will be struggling with something inside, but if it works for your story, I'd suggest doing it.

The script also introduced new plotlines right when it needed to.  One of the common problems with amateur scripts is that they run out of story somewhere in the second act. Introducing new developments is a great way to keep the second act alive.  So with Promised Land, the key development was the introduction of Dustin.  Now, instead of just having to worry about the people of the town, Steve had to worry about this whole other organization, making his job even more difficult.  And the way Dustin weaved his way into the very fabric of the town, even going so far as to steal Steve's girl, made him a great bad guy.

Although I'm not going to spoil it here, I also loved the twist ending, which I didn't see coming at all.  Twist endings in scripts that don't usually have twist endings are often the best kind, because you're so not expecting them at all.  I mean we're not talking a Sixth Sense twist level here.  But it was still a nice surprise.

I don't have many complaints about Promised Land.  I thought the love story between Steve and Alice could've been better handled.  It felt like the writers weren't sure where to go with it.  And I thought they could've done more with the science teacher, Yates.  It's such a great surprise when they find out he's some legendary professor teaching high school science here for fun.  But then he sort of fades into the background, allowing Dustin to take center stage.  Yates never got his moment.

I admit, going into this I expected some pretentious self-important story about the dangers of fracking.  Instead I got an accessible entertaining story that nailed exactly what it was trying to do.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn't for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Remember, if you have a main character who's tough to like, introduce an oppositional character who we hate even more.  We'll like our tough-to-like character if only to see him topple this annoying asshole. This was the role that Dustin played in the story.