Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Gardener

Genre: Indie Drama
Premise: An illegal immigrant in Los Angeles tries to start his own gardening business, only to see it ripped away from him, threatening he and his son’s future.
About: So you just directed one of the Top 20 franchise pictures of all time. You’re offered the opportunity to direct the next two movies in the franchise and probably double your already large salary in the process. Do you do it? Not if you’re Chris Weitz, who many of you know as the director of Twilight: New Moon, About A Boy, or, if you go back a ways, American Pie. No, Weitz said, I would rather direct a tiny independent film about an illegal immigrant living in LA who speaks in subtitles and that, in all likelihood, will be seen by 1/1000 the amount of people who saw Twilight. Had you heard that story, you’d probably call the guy nuts, right? I mean who walks away from all that money and power? Except it makes a little more sense when you consider Weitz's path. The producers of the Golden Compass didn’t consult their moral compass when they dumped all over Weitz's vision and basically pried the movie from his furious hands. And while his experience on Twilight was supposedly better, indications from an under-enthused press tour imply that he didn’t exactly have a blast on that film either. So there’s something very comforting about going back to a world where nobody looks over your shoulder (particularly in this case, where even if they did, they wouldn’t understand what the hell the actors were saying). And I, for one, admire Weitz for turning down the dough. The question is, did he turn it down for the right project? And that’s where we segue to Eric Eason, the writer of “The Gardener.” Eric is a writer-director himself, and this is the first script he’s written that someone else will direct (his most well known work is 2006’s “Journey To The End Of The Night,” starring Brendan Fraser and Mos Def. The plotline sounds surprisingly similar: “The tale of a son and his father separately plotting to escape the desolation of their lives in the lurid underworld of Brazil's sex industry.” - I, like you, am hoping Brendan Fraser does not play Mos Def's father) Anyway, it’s always exciting to see a passion project come to the big screen. So let’s see what it’s about.
Writer: Eric Eason
Details: 121 pages – Sep 20, 2009 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Those who have read this script have described it as “heartbreaking,” “honest,” and “beautiful.” Sounds like an Oscar advertising campaign to me. But it’s rare I hear those kinds of adjectives thrown around with scripts these days. So I wanted to be prepared. Now I don’t personally own any Kleenex because, you know, I’m a man and I don’t cry. But let’s just say if I did – and I don’t – but if I did, I would’ve placed them directly to the right of me just in case, all things considered, anything happened. Of course nothing would and I don’t own any Kleenex so this is all hypothetical but I’m just saying.

"The Gardener" is about a 40 year old immigrant worker from Mexico named Carlos Riquelme, who illegally lives in Los Angeles, California. Carlos used to dream of a bigger life. But after having a child and watching his wife leave him for another man, Carlos’s grand plans descended, like so many do, into just trying to make it through the day. The problem is, Carlos is at a crossroads. The man he works for, another immigrant, is retiring, and when that happens, Carlos won’t have an employer anymore. This means he’ll have to go all the way back to the bottom, working the corners of the lumber yards and the Home Depots, hoping to get picked for work every day. Not exactly stable income.

Carlos has an option though. His boss is offering to sell him his pick-up truck along with all his gardening tools for 14 thousand dollars. With it, Carlos can start his own business, and maybe, just maybe, finally get a shot at those dreams he had when he was younger. The problem is, Carlos isn’t legal. He can’t officially own the truck. He can’t officially get a license. So if he were to get pulled over for any reason, it’d be a trip on the Tijuana Express. Now even if Carlos *were* to explore that option, he doesn’t have the money. He can’t afford the truck. And, in all honesty, he can’t afford to risk getting deported and leaving his son here in America by himself. But his boss brings up a good point. On his current path, in his current East L.A. neighborhood, it’s only a matter of time before his 14 year old son starts gangbanging. They both see it. They both know it. So if Carlos doesn’t find a way to pull himself out of this poverty, out of this neighborhood, and into a new life, his son is fucked anyway. As far as he’s concerned, his boss says, Carlos can’t afford *not* to buy the truck.

So with the help of his sister, Carlos scrapes together the money and buys the truck. And in that moment, Carlos has never felt more hope. He’s actually doing it. He's actually living the American dream. He immediately heads down to “Workers’ Corner” and grabs an honest-looking Salvadorian man, heading off for his first job in Beverly Hills as his own boss. And as he climbs up that first tree, preparing to clip it, he can only watch in horror as the Salvadorian man snatches his keys and phone, runs off, and STEALS HIS TRUCK. Carlos slides down the tree and barrels after him, but it doesn’t matter. He’s long gone. Carlos has just lost everything. Faced with this terror, Carlos grabs his son and the two go on a hunt through Los Angeles to find the Salvadorian and get the truck back.

Now I’m no expert, cause the only gardening I do is in Farmville. But from what I read, The Gardener plants a lot of the right seeds. Where this script truly shines though is in the way it raises the stakes. As I’ve mentioned before, amateur writers tend not to care about the stakes of their story. As a result, there are no real consequences to their characters’ actions. But if you know how to build stakes, you can make a tiny indie story just as riveting as the latest Steven Spielberg blockbuster. And that’s what we have here. First we find out Carlos is about to lose his job. Then we find out his kid will join a gang if he doesn’t get him out of the neighborhood. Then we find out he has to borrow the money to buy the truck, money he'll then owe. Then we find out that even if he gets the truck, one traffic stop could send him back to Mexico. And on top of all of that, Eason stresses just how important it is for Carlos to provide for his son. For all these reasons, when that truck is stolen, you physically lift your hand to your mouth and say, “No.” It’s that powerful. It’s that horrifying.

In addition, Eason knows what to do once the truck *does* get stolen. That may seem obvious (FIND THE TRUCK!), but if all you show us is a bunch of attempts at getting the truck back, your story is going to get old fast. Eason has gently hinted at a rift between father and son in the earlier parts of the screenplay, so that when they’re finally forced together on this journey, the focus slyly shifts over to their broken relationship. And what I loved was how Eason approached that dynamic. It is so easy to turn a father/son relationship into a melodramatic mess of cornmeal mush. What Eason does to prevent this is he flips the old “son trying to earn his father’s respect” angle around to a father trying to earn his son's respect. There’s something very, yes, heartbreaking about this approach. Carlos knows that his son sees him as some faceless illegal immigrant who whores himself out on a corner for work. That he is incapable of providing a real life for them. That he's, for all intents and purposes, a screw-up. Watching Carlos try and reverse this perception is both sad and endearing. It really works well.

My only reservation about the script is ironically the thing I gave it the most credit for. Whereas the stakes were high in almost every respect, they weren’t high in the most important respect of all. The overarching threat throughout the story – if Carlos is caught by the police, he’ll be sent back to Mexico – isn’t really a threat at all. Several times throughout the script we’re reminded that if Carlos were to be deported, getting back to the United States would be a piece of cake. That unfortunately undermines every obstacle Carlos tries to overcome. Cause in the back of our minds we’re saying, “So he gets thrown out of the country for a week? Big deal.” This bothered me enough that it’s the key reason I didn’t give the script an impressive rating, which, throughout the first half, I was sure it would get.

However, this is an early draft, and there’s always the chance that this problem was addressed. Either way, this was a really entertaining script and there are enough powerful moments to make it a strong recommendation. If you like Sundance films or movies a little off the beaten path, check this script out for sure.

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

What I learned: This isn’t the prettiest script in the world. It has its share of bumps and bruises and screenwriting class, “You can’t do thats!”. For example, emotions are explained right there in the action lines (i.e., “When he was younger, upon arriving here in this country, he brought with him many dreams…”), paragraphs bloat up to ten lines long, and there are formatting issues scattered throughout. But here’s why I overlooked them: The emotional core of this script is awesome. No matter how clumsy your screenplay is, if you get the emotion down, the reader will forgive you. Focus on your characters. Focus on their journey. Focus on them overcoming their weaknesses and becoming stronger people by the end of the story. If you do that, the reader will forgive a lot.