Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nowhere Boy

Wait, it’s only Wednesday?? I coulda swore it was Thursday. I’m telling you, B-Day (Black List Day) can’t get here soon enough. Stay tuned for heavy Black List coverage here on Scriptshadow.

Genre: Biopic
Premise: We follow the teenage years of John Lennon, right before he joined The Beatles.
About: Proof once again that a trip to the Black List is a first class endeavor – every year more and more of these Black List scripts are getting made. It’s no wonder producers, managers, and agents are jockeying to get their clients on it. Nowhere Boy landed in the Top 20 of last year’s list with 13 votes. It will be hitting UK theaters on Christmas and in the U.S. sometime…after that I presume. A relative unknown is playing Lennon (Aaron Johnson) and his aunt is being played by powerhouse actress Kristin Scott Thomas.
Writer: Matt Greenhalgh
Details: 123 pages (March 31st 2008 draft)

The reason I hadn’t read this yet despite it being a town favorite last year is because a) I am not a connoisseur of the biopic. And b) it feels a bit like someone scrounging for the few remaining scraps of Beatles history we don’t already know about. I mean what’s next? Ringo’s kindergarten years? Going into this, I imagined a moping John Lennon experiencing “tough times” for an hour and a half, then ending on a shot where he goes into an audition and sees three strapping young lads named, Ringo, George, and Paul. Cut to black. That’s exactly what I didn’t want to see. I was hoping (but not hopeful) to learn about a new side of Lennon, a layer that added to his legacy, something that convinced me this was a story worth telling. Is Nowhere Boy that story? Or is this just a documentary with bigger production value?

We meet John Lennon as a rebellious 15 year old in Liverpool. Although the circumstances behind his situation are murky, John lives with his tightly-strung aunt, Mimi, whose lack of a husband makes John her only priority. His real mom – the gorgeous sparkplug Julia, is nothing but a distant memory to John, as the only thing we know about her is that she gave John to Mimi. That abandonment plays a big role in how John approaches the world, and as you can guess, not in a positive way.

Like lots of artists, John was not an ideal student. The man remembered for his overwhelming ability to love was actually a bit of an asshole in his younger days. Ignoring schoolwork, challenging authority, chasing after girls. While everyone else studies obsessively to make it into college, John pinballs his way around Liverpool, looking for the next temporary high.

But when the highs refuse to add up, John gets it in his head to find his mother. On a whim, he and a friend travel to her house and just like that, there she is. Julia is thrilled to see her little boy, so much so that she pulls him in and screams with delight. As John wraps his brain around the events, they head off for the kind of spontaneous day saved for Audrey Hepburn movies - it's everything John dreamed for.

This begs the central question of the screenplay: Why did Julia give John away in the first place?

As the first visit leads to a second, and the second to many more, that answer creeps up on us. There's something slightly off about Julia. Her moments of boundless joy are followed by bouts of sadness. There’s a disregard for social and moral norms around her, as we watch her change in and out of clothes right in front of her 15 year old son, and cozy up to the endless wave of shady men who gawk over her. We know there’s something wrong with Julia. We just don't know what.

However, it's Julia who introduces John to rock and roll. This was a time when rock and roll was considered to be the devil, so when this "authority figure" bucks the norm and introduces John to bands like The Delinquents, and his early idol, Elvis, it's like he's fallen in love for the first time in his life.

It’s impossible not to readjust your screen when you read the words, “a quaffed up 15 year old in a white sports jacket and pink carnation [approaches] – this is Paul McCartney.” Listening in on Lennon and McCartney’s first conversation feels like you’ve discovered an ancient 8mm film showing the Beatles first jam session. Since Greenhalgh’s such a strong writer, you believe every word that’s uttered, even though you know it’s completely made up. A few scenes later, baby faced future Travelling Wilbury George Harrison, who John initially rejects because of his age, joins the group. Three-fourths of the Beatles are born.

These early stages of the band coincide with John’s climactic confrontation with Julia, where he finally finds out why she left him. The moment is powerful if a little detailed (the explanation gets complicated), and afterwards, there's an unexpected development that's so shocking, you're convinced it's a the author taking creative license. But it did indeed happen.

Nowhere Boy succeeds where most true stories fail because Greenhalgh spins the story around John’s troubled relationship with his mothers. What could have been (like I mentioned at the outset) our character wandering aimlessly, feeling sorry for himself, looking for “meaning” in his life, is grounded by John’s obsessive drive to be loved and accepted by Julia. You almost assume that if he doesn’t figure it out, he won’t be able to become the musician that would one day change the world.

The only time I wasn’t immersed in Nowhere Boy was when we drifted away from the mother-son relationships, or we weren’t with John, Paul, and George. Seeing John at school and out with other friends, while necessary to set up his life, didn’t have enough focus or firepower to keep us involved. A more focused subplot might’ve been helpful here, but Greenhalgh chose to keep it loose. Luckily, once we get into the second act, the story shifts into those more engaging storylines.

One thing that crossed my mind while reading this, which I think would be super cool, is if you made four of these movies, one for each member of the Beatles. Set them during the exact same time, and have the four weaving in and out of each others’ films, so we could see similar events from different Beatles’ perspective. Come on, that’s way cooler than putting the Beatles in a video game, right?

Oh, and I just have one more question. Where the hell's Ringo? Why no love for Ringo??

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

What I learned: Try to keep one unanswered question that we’re dying to know the answer to all the way to the end. Writers tend to associate mysteries only with thrillers and horror films. But you can create a mystery (or “unanswered question”) in any genre you write, even a biopic. The central issue of, “Why did John’s mom leave him?” is really what drives the story. It’s why we keep turning the pages. Without that, Nowhere Boy would’ve felt like it was going nowhere. Never force the issue, but if you can add a key mystery or question to your script, it’ll keep the audience’s attention all the way to the end.

trailer note: Is it just me or is this a terrible song choice for the trailer? I mean, when you're doing a movie about John Lennon, don't you want to use a song a little more - I don't know - Beatle-y?