Tuesday, March 9, 2010

They Fall By Night

Genre: Period/Detective/Drama
Premise: A morally corrupt detective is assigned to the kidnapping of a prominent socialite’s son in 1988 New York City.
About: Received 13 votes on the 2009 Black List. This is Baylin’s first script. He previously worked in the art department on numerous low-budget films.
Writer: Zachary Baylin
Details: 126 pages (2009 draft)

Is "They Fall By Night" in Citizen Kane's league?

They Fall By Night has some lofty ambitions. Very lofty. The script is clearly inspired by three of the most famous movies in Hollywood history, “Citizen Kane," “Chinatown" and "L.A. Confidential." I don’t know how long Baylin’s been writing but you can’t help but love his ambition. His attitude seems to be, if you’re gonna swim, why not swim with the best?

But does that ambition translate into a good screenplay? That’s hard to say. There are moments of brilliance here, just as there are moments of a wet-behind-the-ears writer trying to find his way. They Fall By Night wants to do so much, aspires to be so much, that it occasionally collapses under its own weight. But as a first script, it’s pretty damn impressive.

It’s 1988. Arthur Cody, a modern day Charles Foster Kane, has built his Xanadu right here on Manhattan island. But the tortured mogul has experienced a lifetime of hurt. Not one, but two of his wives have died horrible deaths. Unable to face the pain the world has thrown at him, he puts a gun to his head. He leaves behind his daughter, screen legend Vivian Lake, a woman almost as tortured as her father, but determined not to end up like him, and his grandson, the infant Charles.

Vivian, her husband and Charles inherit the Cody dynasty amidst a changing New York, a city that Commissioner Ray Denihan has vowed to clean up. Not only will the criminals be swept off the street, but the kickbacks and the bribes and the dirty cops will be identified and weeded out. The future is hope, and the morally corrupt don’t fit into the equation.

It’s appropriate then, that we meet our anti-hero, Detective Ryan Halas, a man as morally corrupt as they come. Halas has been on the take since the take was born. Amidst this changing ideal, where dirty cops will be handed over to Internal Affairs like slaughtered pigs, Halas has only one choice: Run away. If he stays, there's a good chance he'll end up in jail for the rest of his life.

But Halas catches a lucky break. Turns out Vivian Lake did something bad. Real bad. And she heard that Halas is the cop you call when you need a mess cleaned up. The “mess” is a 15 year old girl, a prostitute/drifter who got in over her head and tried to blackmail the wrong family. The job is easy. Take the girl to the docks and put a bullet in her head.

But that’s the old Halas. The new Halas can’t kill a 15 year old girl. So against his better judgment, he lets her run, and lies to Vivian, telling her he took care of it. As a reward, Vivian makes some calls and Halas receives a clean slate. Finally, he can be the cop he’s always wanted to be.

Then wouldn’t you know it, just when it looked like Halas was going to get his happy ending, Charles Lake, Vivian Lake’s son, is kidnapped, and a huge ransom is set (hey, why not a little Godfather 3 as well: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.") Because of their previous working relationship, Vivian calls in Halas to work the case. As you can imagine, this is no ordinary kidnapping. A ransom isn’t the only thing going on. There are secrets here, deep family secrets that need to stay hidden. And Vivian needs Halas to make sure they never come out. Unfortunately, that seemingly insignificant girl he let go of that evening may be the reason all this happened, a truth he'll have to answer to at some point.

They Fall By Night is dripping with depth, like a shirt you’ve been wearing through the worst storm of the year. You get a feel for this dark gritty pre-Guliani New York the way you do when Christopher Nolan puts you on the streets of Gotham. Every little pimp, every little crook, every little everybody burrows under your skin. Money is the only thing that matters in this cesspool, and people will do anything for it. Doesn’t matter what your profession is. Every character here evolves from this underworld, and it's what, ironically, makes them so lively, makes them so memorable.

But the script still contains the signs of a first-time writer. For example, the first act turn (when the son gets kidnapped) doesn’t happen until page 48. So much information and so much backstory is packed into that first act, it’s like it can’t help itself. And yet it somehow manages to work. This reclusive billionaire angle is naturally intriguing, and much like Citizen Kane, we’re willing to hang out in Exposition Alley a little longer than usual, as long as it’s peppered with the eccentricities of this private but sleazy secret world.

Where the script falters, unfortunately, is in trying to do too much. Baylin is trying to tell an epic tale here, and I’m not sure he has all the tools to do it yet. Outside of the kidnapping plot, we’re also experiencing the major transformation of the city, we’re following a commissioner who’s trying to become governor, we’re keeping track of mysteries that date back to multiple characters and multiple generations, and we’re doing this amidst tons of lesser characters who Halas meets on his investigation. It’s a ton to keep track of and I was confused just as much as I was riveted. Even after reading the ending twice, I wasn't sure what happened, and in a tale where a major mystery drives the story, and we don't get a clear answer to that mystery, that simply can't happen.

Still, there’s enough here to keep you turning the pages, and I couldn’t put it down. This is the kind of epic story that after some targeted rewrites could draw the attention of directors like Scorcese or Curtis Hanson. Will be interesting to see where this ends up.

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

What I learned: Let’s say you want a character to really stand out, to have weight. One way to do this is to build them up before we see them. Have other characters talk about them – allude to their eccentricities, their persona, their gravitas. It’s no different than when you meet someone in real life who you’ve heard a lot about. That person - when you meet them - appears to you as someone with a past, someone three-dimensional, someone with “weight.” Contrast that with when you meet some random guy you don't know from Adam. That person, at least in that initial moment, is nobody to you. Vivian Lake is highlighted in newspaper articles, on TV, and by other characters, so by the time we meet her, we truly feel the importance of her character. This is often done in films with the bad guy. You’ll hear characters speak about how terrifying the villain is, or stories of horrible things they did. So when they show up, we're just as intimidated and scared of them as our hero. But you can use this tool to build up any character, good or bad.