Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Titan Week - "Tell No One"


Day 1 we brought you Shane Black. Day 2 we tackled questionable titan David Benioff. And now on our third day of Titan Week, we bring in the two highest paid writers in the business, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman! This oughta be fun. :)

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A widowed social worker receives a strange message that forces him to reevaluate what happened the day his wife was murdered.
About: How can you have a Titan Week without Kurtzman and Orci!! The two most beloved and respected writers in Hollywood!? Heh heh. You knew I had to pull these guys out. They’re the highest paid and most sought-after writers in town. And absolutely nobody thinks they should be but the people who hire them. Kurtzman and Orci first came on the scene in 2005, when they wrote Michael Bay’s “The Island.” They followed that with the second Zorro film, Mission Impossible 3, Transformers, Star Trek, and of course, the single greatest movie to ever be made, Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen. But “Tell No One” is the script they wrote before all that success, all the way back in 2002. Now some of you may already be familiar with “Tell No One” as a French film that made some waves on the independent circuit in 2008 (it was released in France in 2006). I didn’t see it because I’d been burned too many times by supposedly groundbreaking French Films which turned out to be mind-numbingly horrible. I don’t think there’s anything worse than sitting through a bad French film. I’m glad I ignored it, because it allowed me to have this amazing reading experience. Now a few of you have probably noticed that the dates don’t quite match up. How can Orci and Kurtzman have adapted a 2006 film in 2002? Simple. Orci and Kurtzman have a time machine. It’s what allows them to know what we’re going to like before we like it. I’m just kidding. Or am I??? Actually, the French film was an adaptation of a novel written by American writer, Harlan Coben. I’ve never read a Harlan Coben book before, but people tell me “Tell No One” was one of his lesser efforts. Anyway, Kurtzman and Orci adapted the book before the French did. The French just beat them to the theaters. I still think this deserves the Hollywood treatment though. It’s a can’t miss baby.
Writers: Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (based off the novel by Harlan Coben)
Details: 122 pages (5th Draft, 2002)

Warning: If you know nothing about this script or this movie and you like thrillers, stop now, download the script, and read it. You’ll thank me.

At Transformers premiere. "Proud" is not the adjective I'd use to describe these expressions.

Uhhhhh, can someone tell me WHERE THE HELL THIS SCRIPT WAS HIDING??? What a freaking gangbusters screenplay. I haven’t flown through a story that fast since The Cat In The Hat. And I thought The Grey was a good thriller. This is the executive suite of thrillers. 3000 square feet. Sweeping views of Vegas. TVs that pop out of the floor. Tell No One? Tell everyone!

But I’ll get to that in a second. First, we gotta deal with Orci and Kurtzman.

Every burgeoning writer in town cites these two as the oozing puss-filled sores of the screenwriting world. They point to the Transformers movies as their main argument. Anybody, they say, responsible for writing those movies, cannot be a good writer. And I will say this. The Transformers movies are two of the most incomprehensible mainstream movies I’ve ever seen, especially the second one. The thing is, the fault doesn’t lie squarely with them. These guys were brought in to realize a vision from a director who has no interest or understanding of story, to plug in characters that the toy company forced them to, to come up with a believable scenario by which aliens came to earth taking the form of transforming motor vehicles, to integrate pre-existing action sequences into a story that hadn’t been written yet, and to push all of this together in a few weeks, due to the writer’s strike (on the second one). In short, they were set up to fail. Any single one of us would’ve failed as well. It’s hard enough coming up with a good script when NO ONE is telling you how to write it. But when everyone is? And in a few weeks? There's no way.

However, I’m not here to try and convince you to like Orci and Kurtzman. I was simply curious about reading a screenplay of theirs before they hit the bigtime. These are the scripts that usually GIVE these writers a shot at the big time, so it's interesting to see what warranted that shot. And holy shit, this shot hit the bullseye.

David Beck and Elizabeth Parker are in love. They have been ever since they were 12 years old, doing the whole “carve the initials in the tree” thing. There’s only one issue affecting their otherwise bliss-filled relationship. David has seizures. Intense full-on blackouts where he doesn’t remember a thing. And one day, not long after the two are married, David is hit by something, triggering a seizure, and he blacks out. When he wakes up, he learns that his wife has been brutally murdered - the only thing he’s ever loved, stolen from him forever.

Four years later, David, now a social worker for abused children in Philadelphia, is trying to put the pieces of his life back together. He’s even dating a doctor, Anna, who helps some of the kids he brings in. Even though it’s not what he envisioned for himself, it’s a job Elizabeth was passionate about, and he feels a duty to carry it on. But the job is taxing, difficult, and he’s thinking about moving on to something more lucrative, something that’ll give him a cozy life, something that will help him finally move on from Elizabeth.


And then David gets a message on his computer. He clicks a link. A live video feed. Of Elizabeth. At a park. Older. Today. Right now! Looking up into the camera!

It can’t be. There’s no way. His wife is dead. Isn’t she?

As David tries to make sense of the nonsensical, a car containing two murdered men is found in the lake next to where Elizabeth was murdered. These men were killed at the same time and with the same weapon that Elizabeth was. There are grave implications to this news. The serial killer who killed Elizabeth was thought to have only killed women. That’s why he supposedly left David alive. But if two men were also killed, why was David’s life spared? David has gone from mourning widow to number one suspect.

The worst thing about that? David’s not sure he *isn’t* a suspect. And actually, he’s not sure of anything anymore. Was the video feed of Elizabeth real? A fantasy? Could his fractured seizure-ridden mind be creating this vision to cope with the fact that he killed his wife?

Forced to go on the run or end up on the wrong side of the death penalty, David must scrape together the pieces of his wife’s secretive life, and find out what really happened to her that fateful day. Old friends, old family members, co-workers – no one can be trusted, and yet he needs all of their help to survive.

Tell No One takes its cues from the best, namely The Fugitive, and actually improves on the formula. Whereas The Fugitive has two gargantuan driving forces – the chase and Ford having to find out who killed his wife, Tell No One adds two additional mysteries: Is David the killer and is his wife still alive? With all these amazing threads going on at once, there isn’t a single sub-standard moment in the script. My admiration for this screaming fast story grew by the page because I’m so used to these things falling apart under their own weight. The twists stop making sense. The character motivations become ludicrous. The finale turns out to be a letdown. But Tell No One is the opposite. Every single story decision here is perfect. In fact, if I were teaching a class on how to write a mystery thriller, this is the script I would use to teach it. It’s that good.

And why is it that good? It’s no different than what we were talking about the other day with Taken. Tell No One gets the emotional component right. In the beginning, we see David and Elizabeth grow up together, fall in love together, get married, and start their life. So when Elizabeth is killed, it’s not just David who’s lost someone. It’s us. We watched this girl grow up. We watched her love. We watched her dream. We loved Elizabeth just as much as he did, and as a result, when she returns, we’re just as desperate for David to find her as he is. But the point is, if you stripped this thing of all its twist and turns, we’d still be pulling for these characters, because we like them that much.

As for the writing itself, it’s pretty solid. Kurtzman and Orci created a nice device that I really enjoyed. In general, I dislike unmotivated flashbacks because of their tendency to feel unnatural. Throughout the script, K and O use David's seizures as a way to flash back to the day of the murder. It’s a little thing, but it plays nicely because it’s motivated by character (specifically – this character’s seizures). Always look for natural ways to move into your flashbacks, as opposed to just hitting us with them out of nowhere. It makes a difference.

The one thing that drove me crazy were Kurtzman and Orci’s use of underlined dialogue. Normally, this kind of stuff doesn’t bother me. But these two, for whatever reason, underline nearly every word of their characters' dialogue (I guess to give it emphasis?). But instead of giving it emphasis, it gives us headaches, as we’re forced to change the way we read, starting and stopping so we can mentally annunciate the underlined words. It took me half the script to force myself to ignore it, and man was it annoying.

I’m sure some of you will be comparing this to the French film, and with that film nabbing a 93% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, I’m preparing for the barrage of reasons why this doesn’t match up to it. But I’ve never seen the film, so this was a totally new experience for me, and I think they hit it out of the park. Really great script.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (Top 10)
[ ] genius

What I learned: The "found key that leads to the mysterious lockbox" device is one of the few things you can count on to ALWAYS WORK in a screenplay. Every. Freaking. Time! Cause we’re inherently curious about what the hell could be in that box. You can never go wrong with this device. (Just try and make sure what’s inside is something unique!).