Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Alternative Draft Week - Entrapment

It's Day 3 of Alternative Draft Week, where we look at alternative drafts from the movies you loved (or hated). In some cases, these drafts are said to be better, in others, worse, or in others still, just plain different. Either way, it's interesting to see what could've been. We started out with Roger's review of James Cameron's draft of "First Blood 2". We followed that with my review of "The Last Action Hero." And today we're taking on Ron Bass' draft of "Entrapment." So enjoy.

Genre: Action/Espionage/Heist/Romance
Premise: An undercover insurance agent is sent by her employer to track down and help capture an art thief. But to do so, she must befriend him, gain his trust, and help him with his next heist.
About: Ron Bass wrote the original draft for this 1999 caper, which was widely praised. But over the course of a dozen drafts, Don Macpherson & William Broyles Jr. took it in another direction, creating what some believe was a lame excuse to pair together two hot actors at the time, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sean Connery. Ron Bass, who we’ve reviewed before, began writing at the age of six while bedridden with a childhood illness. Although he loved it, he decided on a more practical career after his college professor told him he’d never be published. He graduated from Harvard Law and began a successful career in entertainment law, eventually rising to the level of partner, but the writing bug never left. So he returned to it and had his first novel published in 1978 ("The Perfect Thief”). Producer Jonathan Sanger optioned his third novel "The Emerald Illusion", opening the door for Bass to become a screenwriter.
Writer: Ron Bass
Details: 118 pages (1st Draft, December 2, 1996)

It would be nice if I could lay out all these stories with the same kind of detail I did “The Last Action Hero,” but, contrary to popular belief, I don’t have access to the Hollywood Development Archives. Much of what I have here is cobbled together from lore and heresay. What I can tell you about Entrapment though is this: Ron Bass’ first draft is something I’ve been hearing about forever. Supposedly, he’d whipped together a wickedly sharp romance-caper that had everyone in Hollywood talking. Unfortunately, over the course of 12 drafts, much of the greatness that was in that early draft was left on the typing room floor – or so it is said. The big complaint was that the producers had taken a cool edgy flick and turned it into a mountain of cotton candy, a lame piece of Hollywood fluff. But fluff turned out to be exactly what the masses wanted (doesn’t it always?) The movie opened on May 7th of 1999 to a surprising 20.1 million, dethroning a little film called “The Matrix” from the top spot. It ended up making 220 million dollars worldwide, but was quickly forgotten three weeks later, like a lot of movies at that time, its memory swallowed up by the behemoth of George Lucas’ long-awaited return to Star Wars, “The Phantom Menace.” Either way, no one can argue that the movie didn’t do well. The question is, could it have done more? Would this draft have made Entrapment the kind of film we still talk about today? My memory of the flick is that of a geriatric old warbler and a woman young enough to be his granddaughter, running around and flirting a lot, which, to be honest, made me very uncomfortable. I also remember tons and tons of really cheesy dialogue. So I was interested to see if this initial draft was free of all that.

Gin Baker is a young sexy insurance agent whose job it is to recover stolen paintings for high-class clients. When an expensive painting is stolen out of a 70th floor John Hancock Building condo, the crime scene’s handiwork points to one person, Andrew McDougal, an internationally known super-thief. There’s only one problem. Andrew is 60 years old and has been off the thief-circuit for over a decade. Why would he come out of retirement to steal a relatively unknown painting?

Well that’s what Gin is going to find out. She travels halfway across the world and finds McDougal (or “Mac”) at a major art auction. She uses plenty of skin and her big smile to lure Mac in, but he’s immediately wary of her, knowing this game is full of people pretending to be someone they’re not. But Mac’s not immune to the temptation of flesh either, and allows Gin into his circle, at least for the time being. After an impromptu theft, the two head back to his suite for some seriously age-inappropriate sex.


I’m not going to mince words. This portion of the script is awful. It amounts to two people trading cheesy supposedly sexually-charged barbs in the same 1-2 “setup and payoff” rhythm you’d get from a Sesame Street skit. There’s no spontaneity, no originality to the dialogue. It’s just “setup” “payoff” “setup” “payoff” over and over again. For example, Mac would say to Gin something like “Better get an umbrella. I hear it’s going to rain.” Her reply: “That’s okay. I like being wet.” Or Gin would say, “Escaping those guards will be hard.” Mac’s reply: “I’d rather be hard than soft.” That’s not real dialogue from the script. But it might as well be. This is what you have to trudge through in these first 50 pages.

This is exacerbated by the overuse of commentary in the action, where every single nuance, every single eye flicker, every inner thought is supplied in detail in between the dialogue. Here’s what I mean:

I stole your suitcase when I left you at the bar. I have since sent it on to the States, with three chips, well hidden.

Are you following.

Since you aren’t there to claim it, the bag will sit at Customs. Safe. Unless…

No smile. No smile at all.

They receive. An anonymous. Tip.

Jesus Fucking Christ.

That’s entrapment.

No. Entrapment’s what cops do to robbers.

We can feel her heart pounding from here.

That’s what it’s like for the entire script, or at least the first half. The biggest problem with this, especially when combined with the endless flirty dialogue, is that it makes the entire romance come over as if it’s trying too hard. We feel like it’s being forced down our throats: These two like each other! They really fucking like each other!!! And I understand that this is a first draft and that the tone and originality of the dialogue will be worked out over time, but it’s just I heard such good things about this script and I’d assumed that meant addressing my main problem of over-the-top cheesiness.

The real reason Entrapment made all that money?

The structure during this portion of the screenplay is a mess as well. Although we know that Gin is trying to retrieve the original stolen painting, we never met the person who had the painting stolen, and therefore don’t really care whether they get it back or not. Nor is there any specific urgency in obtaining the painting, no timeframe or time limit. For that reason, the only reason for the story to exist is to listen to an over-sexed Nursing Home patient and a playmate with grandfather issues to banter mindlessly amidst an occasional fuck.

It isn’t until Mac (spoilers here) “reveals” to Gin that he’s an art thief and wants to include her on his next job that the story picks up. But even here, as he trains her for the job, the plot device feels like an excuse to give these two more time to exchange sexual innuendos and flirtatious quips. The training sequences, which involve stuff like jumping out of planes, are devoid of any tension, because there are no stakes at all. We aren’t told what Mac’s after and therefore don’t care if he succeeds. It’s all really boring.

But then…

It’s as if Bass all of a sudden realized what his story was about (more spoilers) and the script does a complete 180. There’s a couple of well-executed twists, the primary of which is Gin revealing that she’s not really an insurance agent, but a thief. Her job is cover, as well as a sly way to figure out where and how to get the very paintings she’s supposed to be protecting. And that while Mac thought he’d been testing her to see if she was capable of pulling off his job, all this time she’d actually been testing *him* to see if *he* was capable of pulling off *her* job. And that job is what brought me back on board – the plan to steal 8 billion dollars.

And this is where the draft and the film differ. Whereas the film places the climactic heist in the Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur, Bass’ draft focuses on the 1997 Hong Kong change-over back to China. While the execution of this storyline is superior to the film version, I can’t help but notice that it’s a change that needed to happen. You can’t release a technology-heavy movie in 1999 about 1997. It would be like making 2012 in 2013.

Whatever the case, the last 50 pages of this script are really well-constructed. The twists are executed to perfection. The multi-stage heist (which includes invading a mountain guarded by an army) is both inventive and exciting. We see things we’ve never seen before in this type of movie. And whereas the first half of the script has zero tension, the pursuit of 8 billion dollars really gives the second half the kick in the ass it needs, since the stakes for pulling off the biggest heist in the history of the planet are naturally pretty high.

So to me, Bass’ draft is two separate screenplays, the lame first half and the sizzling second half, which I’m sure can be attributed to this being his first crack at the story. What isn’t solved, unfortunately, is the lame back and forth cheesy dialogue between the two main characters. That was always the big issue for me. And my impression was that this draft would come off as a smarter edgier version of what we saw in theaters. That wasn’t the case.

But you can’t deny the fact that this ending rocks, and if I were 20th Century Fox, I’d extract the big Tapei Mountain Sequence and put it into one of their other big franchises, cause it really is well done. The 8 billion dollar heist is also nicely executed. My experience tells me it should be impossible in real life, but Bass sold it well and I bought it.

Anyway, another interesting peek into development, and an excuse to run to the video store, grab Entrapment, and do some serious procrastination on whatever script you're working on. But you’ll have to beat me there, cause I’m going right now. :)

P.S. If you’re a fan of these kinds of films, don’t forget to check out my old review of Lovers, Liars, and Thieves.

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

What I learned: Chemistry between your romantic leads is essential, but chemistry isn’t as simple as nailing the casting. It needs to start on the page. Now there are exceptions to every rule, but one that’s fairly consistent is: keep your leads from kissing and/or having sex until the third act. Why? Because chemistry is built on the unknown, on our curiosity of if they're going to consummate the relationship. Think about how sexually charged your relationship is with that certain guy or girl. Why is it that way? Cause you haven’t done anything about it yet! Once you “do it,” the unknown disappears. That sexy spark which permeates through every sentence goes bye-bye. Characters in screenplays are no different. Making them sleep together = losing the fun. Gin and Mac sleep together within the first 40 pages here (I don’t remember if they did this in the film or not) and there's no doubt that something is lost in the process. Now I’m not saying this is a blanket rule. In a movie like “The Notebook,” for example, which is a memoir that takes place over an extended period of time, the plot dictates that we experience that first kiss and that first sexual experience fairly early. But here, in a movie like Entrapment, which is basically built on the chemistry of the leads, that choice is disastrous, cause you eliminate the big thing we're all wondering if they're going to do or not. Interest over.