Monday, February 15, 2010

The Resident

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A woman moves into a large apartment, only to realize that someone may be watching her…from the inside.
About: The Resident will star Hilary Swank, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Christopher Lee. Newcomer and hot video director Antti J. Jokinen is directing from a script that he co-wrote. The new production arm of Hammer Films is producing. They are probably best known as the company who will bring us the American remake of "Let The Right One In." And they are not in any way affiliated with MC Hammer. As far as I know.
Writers: Robert Orr and Antti J. Jokinen – rewrite by Erin Cressida Wilson
Details: 99 pages (April 9, 2009 draft)

"Hi, I'm not crazy or anything. Totally normal guy. You can trust me. Here's a flower I made out of skin from my last girlfriend."

Hilary Swank's film "Amelia" was one of those doomed projects from the outset. It had to be made, because in this age of biopics, Earheart’s story is too compelling not to make, but – and I hate to say this because of how Hollywood it sounds – there’s something about Earheart’s look that doesn't appeal to me. I don’t know if it’s the short hair. I don't know if it's the energy. I don't know if it's the subject matter, but just like I wasn't interested in watching Johnny Depp play gangster dress-up, I wasn't interested in watching Hillary Swank play doomed pilot dress up.

And here Swank is, by most accounts a perfect choice for the role, getting sucked into that black hole. She could’ve given the best performance of her life, and no one would’ve known because nobody showed up to see it. So when you’re a star and have a public bomb, the next project you choose is an important one. Hollywood may be a little more tolerant of their actors than their directors, but string a trio of duds together, and you’re looking at a co-starring role opposite Val Kilmer in a movie called “Passion Kill” that’s cutting side-deals with local Redbox Kiosks to have their poster featured on the new release panel.

Hillary Swank right before hair and make-up.

And when you’re in that quagmire, the thriller is the perfect genre to take a chance in. Because when you think about it, you’re really not taking that big of a chance. Thrillers are cheap to make, so if the studios realize they’re bad after they're done, they can skimp on the advertising and cut their losses. We the consumer don’t notice that “Big Name Actress A” is in a new film, so when it bombs bigger than Nagasaki, it does so under the radar and the star’s profile is kept intact. It’s like getting a mulligan. On the flip side, a good thriller has the potential to really break out. Silence Of The Lambs, Seven, Kiss The Girls, Double Jeopardy, The Ring (Horror-Thriller), these kinds of movies can propel a struggling actor/actress back onto the radar. It’s the movie equivalent of low-risk high-reward.

So it’s no surprise that Swank has hinged her next effort on the genre. Now all you need is a good script and it's back to battling for Oscars. Simple, right?

Juliet Dermer is an ER doctor whose life drastically changes when she finds her husband in bed with another woman. Forced to go on her own for the first time in a long time, she faces a far more challenging task than fixing a marriage. Yeah, I'm talking about finding an affordable apartment in New York. After the expected glut of garbage options (studios barely bigger than a walk-in closet) she happens upon a beautiful sprawling living space in an old building, and guess what? It's going for 1/10 the asking price of similar apartments. One of the first lessons my dad ever taught me was that if it's too good to be true? It probably is. Juliet's father obviously never taught her this lesson.

I heard Morgan spent an entire month practicing hiding for this movie. As we can clearly see, it paid off.

Max, a studly man's man who looks an awful lot like that guy who died in Gray's Anatomy (not that I've ever seen it) is the kind but slightly odd owner of the building. About as comfortable in a social situation as your local Spelling Bee champ, Max spends every waking hour working on and improving the building. He plays off the super cheap apartment price by pointing out its many problems (including an underground maintenance train that runs through every so often). But you still get the sense that it's just a little...too cheap. Well, at least we get that sense. Juliet, on the other hand, is fed up with looking. She just wants a place to sleep at night and this building, with all its imperfections, is far and away her best option.

So Juliet moves in, and her and Max begin a slow but meaningful friendship. During this time, she's sizing him up. Here is a man who could have any woman in the world, yet has such a warped sense of his self-worth, he's barely able to look them (or her) in the eye. Now to you or me that might equal: Red Flag. To Juliet though? Boyfriend material!

In the meantime, Juliet's picture perfect apartment is starting to show its imperfections. All the things she fell in love with about it initially, don't seem so charming anymore. That warehouse-type space? It sure causes a lot of shadows at night. And she knows its not possible but every once in awhile she feels like someone might those shadows. Watching her.

Oh yeah, this looks healthy.

Juliet then makes the intriguing decision to invite Max over for dinner, afterwards hopping into the bedroom with plans to go to the bone zone. Only right before the deed is done, Juliet has a change of heart, and tells Max that the date was a mistake. Uhhhhhh…yeah. This is going to go over well. Cause the guy who sometimes acts a little "weird?" The guy who has a key to every room in the building? Those nights you think you’re being watched? Well, they might be more connected than you think, sister.

As I was reading The Resident, I couldn’t help but feel like it was too plain. I really like simple thrillers, and for the most part, I was enjoying myself, but I wanted something more from the material. Luckily, after we head into the second act, I got my wish. The Resident shocked me by jumping back in time, and telling the same story but this time from Max’s point-of-view. This was exactly the twist I needed and it really works. We begin to see why Max is so strange, and just how deep that strangeness goes. But the reason it works so well, is that we learn that Juliet was right. She was being watched. And now we get to see where and how Max watched her. Now I’m not going to lie. The Resident makes some questionable choices with this technique, flipping back and forth between terrifying and silly. But for most of the story, we're pretty fucking terrified by what's going on.

There’s quite a few things I enjoyed about the script. First of all, it does a great job at shaping sympathy for both characters. Everybody knows how awful it feels to be cheated on, so we like Juliet right away. But strangely, we also sympathize with Max. The guy's clearly had a fucked up childhood and when it comes down to it, Juliet screwed him over in a big way, so when we’re in Max’s point-of-view, spying on Juliet, there’s this tiny evil part of us that almost understands him. As much as you can understand a fucked up psychotic weirdo potential serial killer who watches a woman from the shadows of an apartment, of course.

I’m also starting to better appreciate how writers texture their screenplays. Once you’ve done all the heavy lifting (plot, character, structure), how do you give your story a distinctness that sets it apart from everything else? I loved how Orr, Jokinen and Wilson placed this building over an underground maintenance train that rolls through every once in awhile, shaking its bricks and rattling its pipes. We've seen this kind of thing before, but making it a maintenance train - a train devoid of any human beings - almost ghost-like - that's what really got me. It’s a minor detail and yet it brings the building alive, almost makes it a character. It’s easy to forget how much of an effect those kinds of things can have on a reader.

The Resident is a cross between Fatal Attraction and Psycho. It’s got enough going for it to justify its existence, and I quite enjoyed the read.

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

What I learned: Where I’m from, there’s two type of folk. Those who ain’t. And those who are knee-high on a grasshopper. Which type ain’t you ain’t? You all come back now. --- Okay, that’s not what I learned. But that is the funniest line I’ve heard in ages. And 10 extra credit points for anyone who can tell me what show it’s from. – As for what I learned. This script was a great reminder to never give up looking for a different way to tell your story. Most beginner/amateur writers would’ve written this story with a straight-forward approach. And while it probably would’ve been decent, it wouldn’t have stood out the way it does by switching POVs. So take a step back from the script you’re working on and ask, “Is there some way I can make this story different from every other story like it?” You don’t want to force anything. In other words, switching POVs wouldn’t have worked for every script out there. But I guarantee you there’s something you can do to make your script stand apart from the pack.