Monday, November 30, 2009

The American Way

Genre: Period Drama
Premise: In the early 1900s, after their family is brutally murdered, two brothers choose different paths in life, one becoming an FBI agent, the other a criminal.
About: The 19th ranked script on last year’s Black List (right behind “Going The Distance” and above “Nowhere Boy”), The American Way was purchased by Anonymous Content and The Film Department. Described as a cross between Once Upon a Time in America and The Untouchables, the spec was Brian Kistler’s first sale right out of AFI Film school. It has since been retitled, “Murder Inc.” and will be directed by Ericson Core. Core was a D.P. on “Payback,” “The Fast and the Furious," and "Daredevil."
Writer: Brian Kistler
Details: First Draft, September 2008 (draft that landed him on the Black List)

So here we are, just two weeks away from the 2010 Black List. You can expect some mighty intense coverage here on Scriptshadow. As a prelude, I’ll be reviewing some Black List scripts from years’ past. The downside to this is, the only reason I haven’t already read them is because they didn’t sound interesting. Today’s script is a perfect example. It’s a mobster-centric movie set in the 1930s. I wouldn’t say I dislike period mobster films. If they’re done well, I’ll go see them. But they’re not must-see TV in the Reeves household. Still, I’m hoping with the Black List seal of approval, that this and a few others will turn out to be gems.

The American Way grabs your attention in the first half page. 12 year old Billy has just watched the horrific massacre of his parents and 4 year old sister. Only minutes after the killer's left, with his mother’s body still twitching on the floor, Billy’s 10 year old brother, John, strolls in. It is a life-changing moment for both brothers not just because they lost their family, but because from this point on, John will always blame his brother for not doing more to stop the murder.

Cut to 20 years later. It’s 1938. Some guy named Hitler is crying for attention in Europe, and America is obsessed with making sure communist propaganda doesn't ooze its way into society. So much so, that nobody’s really concerned about the local mob scene, allowing organized crime to flourish. Billy, all grown up now, is an FBI agent with a reasonably decent home life. When mutterings inside the mob indicate a possible assassination attempt on Senator Gordan Gance, Billy’s division must figure out a way to protect him, without the financial backing of a government with bigger fish to fry.

Things get personal though when Billy finds out that the man who plans to kill the senator, Charlie Cohen, is the same man who murdered his family. Billy comes up with an outside-the-box idea. Release his estranged brother John (now doing life in prison for an undisclosed crime), and task him to go undercover in Cohen’s gang, allowing them to get the skinny on any potential moves the bad guys make. A small caveat is that John will not be told that this man is the man that murdered his family.

These days, John is just as dirty and sketchy as Billy is moral and by-the-numbers. He still hates his brother for being a coward that day (didn’t really understand this – what did you expect a 12 year old to do?) and the only reason he takes the job is that after he’s done playing pretend, he inherits a get-out-of-jail-free card.

In a very “Gangs Of New York” scenario, John works his way up Charlie Cohen’s chain-of-command, developing a conflicting relationship with the man in charge, and begins to question whether Cohen’s murderous ideology is all that bad. Since his primary victims tend to be Nazi affiliates, Cohen complex character is tough to form an opinion on.

Kistler does a great job continually upping the stakes in The American Way. For example, John stupidly starts sneaking around with Cohen’s woman. And at a certain point, Cohen assigns John to kill his own brother. I have to say, the final act, which starts paying off all these setups, really makes up for the slow deliberate pace that takes us through the first two acts. It was easily the best part of the script.

But it’s those first and second acts that prevent The American Way from becoming that gem I so desperately wanted it to be. It takes forever for John to infiltrate Cohen’s gang, and the character of Bill has very little to do during that time. He basically hangs out with his wife, waiting for either good news or bad news from the front. John occasionally visits his bro, spicing up the script with a little conflict, but it wasn’t enough for my taste, particularly because their relationship is the most interesting part of the story.

One thing I couldn’t get past was this notion that – in real life - they would send John into Cohen’s gang without telling him that Cohen killed his family. I mean, I’m no FBI agent, but if there was ever a plan that sounded more like a disaster waiting to happen, I certainly haven’t heard of it.

But The American Way is well-written and deftly (if a little slowly) plotted. I would’ve picked this to be made over Public Enemies any day of the week. For you period mob-heads out there, cancel work tomorrow and give this a read. Even though it wasn’t my thing, I recognize that this is a solid effort from first-timer Kilster.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Pick up the pace people! No matter what genre you're writing. -- I’ve been preaching this to anyone who will listen lately. The pace of your average movie has picked up over the last 15 years. We’re getting into the story faster and faster. But I’m finding that people who write period pieces aren’t changing along with it. They’re still writing at the same pace period pieces were written 15 years ago. Particularly because readers see these stories as difficult to market (remember, their job is to find movies that can be *made*), they’re already going into your script with a bias. Don’t give them a reason to tune out. I felt it took us so long to get through the first and second acts that at times my patience almost gave out. Now luckily, the great third act paid off that patience, but I only kept reading because this was a Black List script. Had this came to me naked, I’m not sure I would’ve stayed around to enjoy the view.