Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Repped Week - The Shadow Before

For the month of May, Scriptshadow will be foregoing its traditional reviewing to instead review scripts from you, the readers of the site. To find out more about how the month lines up, go back and read the original post here. Last week, we allowed any writers to send in their script for review. This week, we're raising the bar and reviewing repped writers only. The caveat is that they cannot have a sale to their name. The idea here is to give aspiring writers an idea of the quality of writing it takes to have a professional manager or agent take an interest in your work. Monday, Roger reviewed the Western, "Quicker Than The Eye." Yesterday, I reviewed the 80s'esque comedy "Duty," and today, I'm reviewing the JFK thriller "The Shadow Before."

Genre: Thiller/Drama/Love Story
Premise: John F. Kennedy made a speech in Cork City, Ireland five months before he was assassinated. This is the story of the two weeks leading up to that speech.
About: This is the third script of Repped Week. Martin McSweeney is represented by Conrad Williams at Blake Friedman UK. This script is an adaptation of his own book, “Two Weeks In June,” which you can find here.
Writer: Martin McSweeney
Details: 113 pages

I’m by no means a Kennedy conspiracy freak. I watched Oliver Stone’s “JFK” when I was a kid but I was more consumed with the strange directing style of this off-his-rocker director than I was the actual movie. But it is a shady slice of American history and it's clear the entire truth has never been revealed. So when the subject pops up in a concept, I usually take notice.

I was particularly intrigued by this premise, which wasn’t focusing on the actual assassination, but rather something that happened a full 5 months ahead of it. Could an event that took place in a small Irish city 8000 miles away from Dallas have had something to do with what happened on November 22nd, 1963? I didn’t know, but I wanted to find out. Strangely, any expectations of what I thought I was about to read were dashed within the first act. This Irish tale is a curious cross between a drama, a love story, and a thriller.

It’s June, 1963 in Cork City, Ireland. In two weeks, John F. Kennedy will be arriving to deliver a speech. It’s a turbulent period in Ireland, with a large portion of the population upset that the British keep sticking their noses in Ireland’s affairs. Since Kennedy’s speech is rumored to address some of these issues, and since the word is that it will be Pro-British, there’s a lot of fidgety Irish folk preparing for the worst. The IRA, in particular, is worried about the fallout if America publicly sides with Britain.

The Brady Bunch-sized Horgan family has lived in Cork City their whole lives. And the gem of the family is 19 year old Mary, a beautiful shop worker who, like most women of that era, is on the hunt for a husband. Unfortunately, her pursuits have led her into a disastrous date with Willy, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks type who, even though Mary has moved on, believes that the two are still together. A day in the life of Mary involves being on the lookout at all times, as she’s never sure where Willy is or what he’s capable of.

Luckily for Mary, she meets a dashing 30 year old American named Dean Reynolds. Although nobody knows what Dean does, a thick layer of charm and the non-invention of google keep the suspicions at bay. He seems nice enough. And he’s from America. So who cares what he does?

In the meantime, Mary is unaware that her two older brothers have joined the IRA. The Kennedy speech fears are reaching a fever pitch, and Cork’s IRA chief wants the brothers to deliver a letter to the local paper. The letter subtly warns Kennedy that if his speech is pro-British, there will be repercussions.

Cork City

Back to Mary, who’s quickly falling in love with Dean. So blind is this love that she doesn’t much notice when her pervert boss is severely beaten. And that old Willy character? Yeah well, he hasn’t bothered her much recently because he’s DEAD. Doesn’t take Einstein to figure out Dean may be connected somehow. The suspicious-o-meter hits car alarm levels when Mary’s brothers spot Brendan out in a secluded field with a souped up sniper rifle, taking down targets hundreds of meters away. Could Dean have been sent to Ireland to assassinate Kennedy?

When the IRA gets wind of this, they start sweating the same bullets Dean's shooting. They just put a public letter out vowing that if Kennedy showed support for Britain, they would retaliate. But they didn’t plan on actually *doing* anything to Kennedy. Now, if things shake out the way they’re looking to, and Kennedy is harmed or killed, the IRA could be in some hot water.

So what’s the deal? Is Dean really trying to kill the president? If so, will he be able to before the IRA get to him? And how does this affect Mary? Dean’s expressed interest in marrying her after Kennedy’s speech is over. Is she in trouble too ? Hmmm. I guess you’ll have to read the script to find out.

The first thing I noticed about The Shadow Before was that it was an odd way to approach a thriller. I think that worked both for it and against it. “For it” because I love reading scripts where I have no idea what the next page will bring, and because the love story and the mystery are so heavily intertwined here, I was always wondering which aspect would dictate the next plot point. I mean, I knew we were going to end up at Kennedy, but I had no idea how we were going to get there. “Against it” because I had no genre to ground me. “Thriller” and “love story” are such odd genres to mix that I always felt off-balance. It’s kind of like taking your girlfriend to the gun range on Valentine’s Day. Something doesn’t feel right about it. I think the bigger issue here though is that the concept hints at a JFK thriller, so that’s what I was anticipating. Disappointment crept in when that anticipation was only partially met.

(non-specific spoilers from here on) Another issue The Shadow Before runs up against is that we already know no one’s going to kill Kennedy, because, well, it’s history! And that takes away a good amount of suspense. This is why I dislike the idea of prequels in general, and why I don’t like films such as 2008’s Valkyrie. The entire movie is geared towards a climax that we already know the outcome of. That takes away one of your most powerful tools, the element of surprise. But there are ways to make this foreknowledge work for you, and it’s all in how you handle the characters. In American Beauty, for example, Lester tells us he’s going to die at the beginning of the film. Yet we’re still riveted because we see each of these characters develop motives to kill him. There’s still a big mystery involved. WHO is going to kill Lester? The Shadow Before uses a bit of that magic itself, as it takes the focus off of Kennedy, and puts it on Dean. The central question becomes, “Is Dean good or bad?” Is he here to kill the president or save him? And what happens then, if the IRA prevents him from doing either of these things?

But I think whenever you base your concept around JFK, and specifically his assassination, you’re tapping into an audience that’s eager for tidbits about the conspiracy, especially when you imply that the conspiracy is dealt with in your logline. For that reason, it was a little disappointing that this was such a self-contained story.And what I mean by "self-contained" is there's nothing here that makes you look at the real assassination, which happened five months later, in a new light. And the hook kinda hints that there will be.

Still, this is a very well-written script and an engaging character story. I enjoyed never quite knowing where it was going, and for that reason, I think it’s worth the read.

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

What I learned: Whenever you tell the audience your ending ahead of time, especially at the beginning of the film, you’re putting the primary load of your screenplay on your characters. Since we know where the story’s going, the only uncertainty left is the characters who take us there. For this reason, you need to be extremely strong with character development if you use this device. If you don’t know what a central character flaw is or how a character arcs or how to set up original and compelling relationships between your characters, I would stay away from this device.