Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Repped Week - Skin

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." Tuesday, I reviewed the 80s'esque comedy "Duty." Yesterday, I reviewed the JFK thriller "The Shadow Before." And today I'm reviewing another thriller called "Skin."

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A New Orleans tax lawyer finds himself mixed up in the world of rare animal smuggling after investigating the death of a homeless man with the same name as him.
About: Our 4th script for Repped Week. Brannstrom is managed by The Radmin Company.
Writer: Johan Brännström
Details: 104 pages

Of all the scripts I’ve read these past couple of weeks, this one has the most potential, and I’ll tell you why. The majority of thrillers I read these days are about some guy from the future running around trying to escape the bad guys. Or a CIA agent being swindled by the government and/or some secret organization. And I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m reviewing a script next week that falls under that category. But I think the thriller genre has become stale lately, and this trend needs to change. “Skin” is the first thriller I’ve read in awhile that really tries to approach the genre from a different angle. It’s about a tax attorney wrapped up in an exotic animal scam. That’s about as far away from the future and the government as you can get.

And for about 55 pages, everything here was clicking. The setup was intriguing, the twists were original, the subject matter was fresh. The problem “Skin” runs into is that it’s playing in a sandbox as rare as the animals it dramatizes. There aren’t a lot of “zoological thrillers” out there to use as reference points if your plot starts running amok. And, unfortunately, for the second half of this screenplay, there’s a lot of “amok” running around. And “Skin” never quite recovers from it.

Still, there’s something really neat about this idea. It’s just “out there” enough to be different but not so “out there” that it alienates you. The closest movie I can think of is the underappreciated “The Freshman” with Matthew Broderick and Marlon Brando. But that was a comedy. So while I think Brannstrom runs out of rope here, it sure was a fun rope to climb on.

Robert Deville is a tax lawyer in a still devastated New Orleans. As a result, his clientele can be quite diverse. “Sumo” Suma is his latest defendant, a trader in the lucrative rare animal business. He’s currently trying to get a tax write-off on an extremely rare yellow turtle, but the judge doesn’t think the turtle exists.

So off Robert goes to get proof of this turtle at a local zoo, when he runs into a strange non-talking homeless man, who, after a quick “conversation,” hands the missing turtle over to Robert. Hmm, that was weird. Why would this man have the turtle? And who is he? Before Robert can get answers, the homeless man shoots off.

Later the next day, Robert finds out that the homeless man committed suicide. And not only that. But the man had the same name as him! Whoa, this is getting weirder by the second. Naturally curious, Robert decides to do a little digging, and finds out that this man hasn’t always been homeless, and may have been employed as recently as a couple of weeks ago. His curiosity turns out to be a devastating mistake though, as he comes home later that day to find his wife brutally murdered.

Exacerbating the problem, his wife’s father, a powerful judge, believes that Robert is the killer, and tells all the policeman in town to shoot first and ask questions later. Within 24 hours, Robert’s on the run with no one to turn to. And it’s not lost on us that Robert’s situation is starting to look a lot like that other homeless guy, the one with the same name. What’s going on here? And what does the trading of all these rare animals have to do with it? Robert better find out soon. Or he could be the next person who “committed suicide.”

There’s a lot of good in this script, and most of it comes from how the mystery is set up. Every twist adds more pieces to the puzzle, and we’re just dying to figure out how they all fit together. Brannstrom’s biggest strength though, is how he creates tension in his chase scenes. He makes sure his hero is in a bad situation. Then he makes it worse for them. And worse. And worse. There’s a scene in a Bingo parlor for example, where Robert’s pretending to be one of the players, and the cops come in looking for him, and just one thing after another goes wrong (i.e. the person playing in front of him turns around and recognizes him), so it was really fun watching Robert continue to escape these impossible to escape situations. In general, all the chase stuff was top notch.

Where this story falls apart though, is when Robert meets the wife of the homeless man who was murdered. From their very first meeting, something felt off. Robert has never met this person before, yet just seconds after meeting her tells her her husband is dead. Her reaction? Nothing. She doesn’t cry or get upset or anyting. But that’s not what bothered me. Because maybe she hasn’t seen her husband in a couple of years, or maybe they’ve grown apart, or whatever. What bothered me was that Robert just assumed he could hit her with this and start asking questions about who he was. The scene just had no truth to it.

If you’re going to tell someone their husband is dead, you’re going to do it very carefully. And you’re definitely not hopscotching into the details of his life after a 15 second cool down period. You’re going to ask if they need to sit down. If they need a minute. And odds are, they’re going to need a lot of minutes before they can say anything. So that one single scene really changed the way I saw the script. Because up until that point, people were acting realistically. Now I started to wonder if “Skin” was falling into that tragic trap, where a writer is making choices solely because it’s convenient for the plot.

The scene then unexpectedly becomes a key turning point in a lot of ways, because the wife then becomes a central character, and eventually a love interest. Introducing a key character halfway into the script is always a risky proposition, but introducing the main romantic interest halfway into the script is almost impossible. This combination of a late-arriving character, a tough-to-buy love interest, and circumstances that make it nearly impossible to believe these two would be together, really hurt the second act. In short, it feels like someone told Brannstrom “You need a love interest here,” and he complied with them, even though he never truly bought into it.

Another thing I was hoping for was that the plot would hinge more on the rare animal element. That’s what makes the script different. That’s the worm that hooks us. So when the animals become more Beyonce’s background singers than Beyonce, I was disappointed. They’re actually a big McGuffin when you think about it. This is really about a group of back alley thugs orchestrating run of the mill scams. The animals could easily be substituted for anything: drugs, weapons, pirated DVDs, what have you. My point is, you don’t want to hint at an exotic mystery thriller, only to finish the story with something we’ve seen a million times before. You want to deliver on the promise of the premise.

But as I mentioned earlier, this script has a lot of upside. I would just keep going at this thing until I got it right. A fun read. Just gets way too messy in the second half.

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

What I learned: I’ve actually encountered this situation a lot lately, so I think it’s relevant enough to address in a “what I learned” section. Here’s the deal: It’s really hard to kill off your hero’s spouse in a movie, then try to give them a romantic interest later on. Think about The Fugitive. What if they would’ve added a love interest for Harrison Ford’s character? How wrong does that sound? Now there are circumstances where it can be done. For example, in Braveheart they do it, and it works because years have passed since his wife’s death. It can also work if a couple is having serious problems in their marriage, then the wife dies. Since we know the hero had already emotionally moved on, we buy into him hooking up with another woman. But if two people love each other, and one of them dies, and your script doesn’t have any large time jumps, it’s really hard to buy into that person falling for someone else. That’s why I always say, kill that person off before the movie starts if you can. That way you have romantic reign in the story.