Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Premium Rush

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A bike messenger has 90 minutes to get a mysterious package across town.
About: From spec-kings David Koepp and John Camps, this script recently sold to Columbia with Joseph Gordon-Levitt attached to play the lead. Koepp is also planning to direct. Gordon-Levitt is set to star in another thriller as well, this one for a sci-fi script written and directed by Rian Johnson (Brick) called “Looper.” Is Gordon-Levitt finally ready to become the next DiCaprio?
Writers: David Koepp and John Kamps
Details: 111 pages – September 18, 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).

David Koepp and John Camps come to play. They wrote a little script a decade ago called The Superconducting Super Collider from Sparkle Creek Wisconsin and sold it for 2.5 million. They wrote Ghost Town a few years back and that sold for 2 million. Koepp, on his own, wrote Panic Room in 2000 and that sold for 2 million. That’s three specs sold for 2 million or more. Only a few writers have that kind of track record. So when Koepp and collaborator Kamps write a new script, the market is ready to listen. I was particularly interested in this script after posting yesterday’s article, “How To Write a Great Script.” I was curious to see how many points out of the 13 listed it hit on. Surprisingly, it hit them all. So what’s it about?

Wilee is a modern day Puck. You remember Puck, right? The San Francisco bike messenger who liked to taunt Pedro by putting his fingers in the peanut butter? Too obscure a reference? Understood. I’ll start over (but 10 bonus points for the first person to point out where the reference is from). Wilee is a 26 year old bike messenger in New York City. He zips around town tempting serious injury and/or death at every intersection, at every car door, at every bus he speeds by. This is not a job for the faint of heart, or, you know, people who value their life. But the rush is what Wilee lives for. If you need a package taken from midtown to downtown in 20 minutes, he’s your man.

So on this particular day, Wilee receives a seemingly innocent package from an Asian Woman to be delivered to Chinatown. It is very important, the woman stresses, that the package get to its destination, and that it gets there within the next 93 minutes. Yeah yeah, Wilee says. If it didn’t need to get there fast, they wouldn’t be calling him. Every package is a rush – piece of cake.

Except it’s not a piece of cake. Less than a block after leaving the pick-up, Wilee runs into a man named Barry Monday (I love how Koepp and Kamps introduce him: “His name, no matter what he says, is BARRY MONDAY”), who claims that the woman who gave him the package did so unlawfully, and he’s going to need it back. Wilee sizes him up, senses something suspicious, and rolls out. But this will not be the last time Wilee runs into Barry Monday.

That’s when Premium Rush starts making some interesting choices. I usually hate flashbacks, mainly because they put the story on hold until the flashback is over. If you have a ton of momentum, why would you want to pause your story? But as has been previously noted, this isn’t Koepp’s and Kamps’ first trip to the rodeo. They understand that if we’re going to flash back, there needs to be something revealed, something that, essentially, pushes the story forward instead of holding it in place.

So what we do, is cut back a few hours to the individual characters in the story and how they reached this point. We learn about why Barry Monday is chasing Wilee. We learn about why the Asian woman needed Wilee to deliver the package. And we learn about Wilee’s own issues via the romantic relationship he’s involved with.

As soon as these flashbacks are over, we zip back into the present-hour situation, which mostly entails harrowing chase scenes throughout New York City. I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t expect to like this. Mainly because I thought bike messengers were extinct once the internet hit. It just seemed like old hat to me. But it turns out it actually has the opposite effect. The zipping and zapping through New York City felt fresh and alive, different from anything I’d recently read or seen.

Let’s start with the best part of the script: bike-o-vision. Yeah, you heard that right. Koepp and Kamps have created their own Matrix-style stop-motion technique. When Wilee’s zipping through the streets and gets into a tough spot (door opening, cross-traffic ahead, baby stroller), everything slows down so he can assess his options. Then, out of nowhere, a small area will light up, and that’s the direction he zips into.

Also, this script should be a template for how to write action. The description here is so clean it practically shines. I can’t tell you how often I stumble through sentences because of bad description. Each line feels like downtown Chicago once spring hits – potholes everywhere. Here, I felt like I was on one of those sleek Japanese magnet trains – everything was smooth as silk. I haven’t been able to visualize action like that in forever.

But now for the fun stuff. Let’s see how the script stacks up to the 13 qualities of a great script I posted yesterday...

1) AN ORIGINAL AND EXCITING CONCEPT - Haven’t seen a movie about bike messengers before. Rushing through New York City on a bike almost getting killed at every corner? Definitely exciting.

2) A MAIN CHARACTER WHO WANTS SOMETHING (AKA “A GOAL”) - He wants to deliver the package. Check.

3) A MAIN CHARACTER WE WANT TO ROOT FOR - Wilee fends off the bully Barry Monday after receiving the package. We also slyly see him get screwed over by another biker early on. Instantly-built sympathy. We like this guy. We want to see him succeed.

4) GET TO YOUR STORY QUICKLY - We get to our main story goal (deliver the package) on page 13. And I give you guys til page 25! I'm thinking I was way too generous.

5) STAY UNDER 110 PAGES - Script is 111. I’ll give Koepp and Kamps a break on that extra page seeing as they’ve sold 7 million dollars worth of scripts.

6) CONFLICT - I don’t think there’s a single scene in this script that doesn’t have a healthy dose of conflict. The nature of the premise practically ensures it.

7) OBSTACLES - Rarely does 10 pages go by without some major obstacle getting in the way of Wilee delivering the package.

8) SURPRISE - Lots of surprises here. From the way the story is structured (flashbacks) to the revelations of who these people are and why they’re in this predicament. Monday is a whole basket of secrets.

9) TICKING TIME BOMB - He only has 93 minutes to deliver the package.

10) STAKES - The stakes are extremely high for everyone. Wilee’s life is on the line. Monday’s career is on the line. The Asian woman’s package contains the highest stakes of all (which I won’t spoil).

11) HEART - When we find out what the Asian Woman is transporting, that’s about as much heart as you can pack into a thriller.

12) A GREAT ENDING - The ending here is solid.

13) THE X-FACTOR - The script has a beautiful combination of kinetic energy, surprising revelations, and fresh plot points. Nothing here feels old or rehashed. It’s the old “same but different” every producer is looking for.

Now does this mean I think Premium Rush is perfect? No. This isn’t Casablanca or Chinatown. It’s a thriller. But it’s a thriller that’s executed pretty much perfectly. The only thing the script is missing is a slightly more emotionally engaging main character. I would’ve liked to connect with Wilee more, and that’s why this just missed an impressive rating. But this is really good stuff. Check it out.

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

What I learned: Whenever you write a script like this where your main character is being chased by dangerous people, you have to address the question of “Why doesn’t he just go to the cops?” When writers ignore this simple question, it indicates they don’t give a shit about reality, and the script loses credibility as a result. If real world rules don’t apply, then you’re writing a fantasy. Here in Premium Rush, a great reason is given for why Wilee doesn’t go to the cops (don’t want to spoil it), so we never consider the possibility again.