Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Brigands Of Rattleborge

Genre: Western
Premise: A group of bandits use the cover of a torrential thunderstorm to rob the occupants of a small town.
About: The Brigands Of Rattleborge was the number 1 Black List script back in 2006. Warner Brothers later optioned it. It has since gone through some revisions but is still waiting to be made.
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Details: Original 2006 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).

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to review Brigands. It’s one of my favorite scripts. Better late than never, right? Before I get to the actual review, let me give you a little backstory on my mindset when I read it. I knew this was a highly rated Black List script, but I was far from a Western fan. Something about that era and that time is just hard to relate to for me. And let’s be honest, Westerns aren’t exactly burning up the box office. The system will take a shot with one every few years (Jonah Hex – albeit a stylized Western – is an example), but they’re usually considered a risky bet. However, this is the very reason I wanted to read Brigands. I figured if this many people liked a Western, one of the hardest genres to sell, then there must be something special about it.

Part of the reason I wanted to review it today was because we’ve been talking about what a “great script” is these last couple of weeks and I’ve been giving you examples of scripts that perfectly fit my “13 Keys To A Great Script,” but I wanted to show you the other side of the coin. I’d consider Brigands a great script and yet it DOESN’T follow a lot of the “great script” protocol. It’s 137 pages. It definitely doesn’t start off fast. So I thought it would be interesting to look at why it still works.

Brigands begins with two cowboys asking an Indian Chief to perform a fierce rain dance to bring a lethal storm down on a nearby town. What we’ll later find out is that the rain storm is a cover for our baddies to go in and steal from the town’s richest residents. This is where Brigands deviates heavily from convention. It uses the next few days and 60 pages (SIXTY!) to introduce us, in exquisite detail, to each and all of the main characters who live in the town. These, of course, are the people who will later get robbed.

Now 60 pages of character work and no plot are akin to strapping a REAL ticking time bomb to yourself and jumping off the Sears Tower. In short, it’s a quick recipe to el scripto destructiono. But what we find out is that Zahler is a master at creating characters, from their picturesque descriptions to their inner and exterior conflicts. Every single person in this script has something interesting going on.

More importantly, there’s a reason he decides to take so long in this part of the script. Zahler knows you won’t care about any of these characters dying if you don’t know them intimately. This is why we spend so much time with them. When these people do end up getting murdered, you feel it. It hits you because you know them so well. You've just spent 60 straight pages with them!

The story is anchored by three of these characters. You have Billy Lee, the heartless gunslinger who would shoot his own child if it got him an advance on his paycheck. He’s the man who will be doing all the killing. You have Pickett, the 50-something by-the-books Sheriff whose only concern is keeping the peace. And finally you have Abraham, the dark mysterious doctor/drifter who somehow knew the town was in trouble before they did. He’s here to settle a score, a score that goes back a long ways.

When the storm finally hits, Billy Lee and his gang slip in and out of the houses, leaving a trail of ruin wherever they can. The gang tortures, rapes, and murders anyone in their path. Most of this is described in horrific detail. We truly feel the horror of what's happening. When it’s all over, when they’ve got the money and have hightailed it out of there, Pickett receives devastating news. Someone very close to him has been killed by the bandits. As a result, he’ll have to put all that moral highground aside, and team up with a most unlikely adversary – Abraham.

The reason the script works is simple. Its character goal, the driving force behind the story, is the strongest character goal I think I’ve ever read. Revenge on its own is an incredibly powerful driving force. But here, we got to know the person who was murdered. We know how much it hurts our hero. We felt that love between them. For that reason, we desperately want retaliation. This isn’t just his revenge story, it’s ours.

What I loved about Brigands though, is it adds this second mysterious element in Abraham. This man who dresses in all black, who makes his own bullets, who’s a doctor (what's a doctor doing here??). The evolving mystery behind his character is the perfect counterpart to Pickett’s revenge story. We need something to balance the relentless horror of that thread, and he does it perfectly. Not to mention, the actual revenge scene, the way Abraham takes care of one of the bad guys, is probably the most memorable revenge moment of any movie in the history of film. Yes, I just said that. It’s that good!

So the closeness we feel to these truly unique characters combined with the unstoppable driving force of a relentless revenge story are the reasons this script has always hit me on a deep level. It will stay in my Top 5 until it gets made. It’s just a great script.

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

What I learned: Very simple. I learned from The Brigands Of Rattleborge how important it is to have a great villain. Billy Lee is so evil, so despicable in this script, that all we can think about for 2 hours is him getting his just due. You’d be surprised at just how into your script a reader will be just to see the villain fall.