Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Genre: Thriller/Contained/Drama/Post-Apocalyptic
Premise: A married couple is vacationing on the island where they spent their honeymoon, when a man in military fatigues washes onshore, claiming the end of the world is coming.
About: I thought that this sold last week but it was actually sold much earlier in the year. Last week was the announcement that Jason Isaccs was being replaced by Inception alum Cillian Murphy in the lead role. Thandie Newton will also star, and co-writer Carl Tibbetts will make his directing debut. Many are calling the film “the next Dead Calm,” which is high praise, as Dead Calm is one of my favorite thrillers.
Writers: Carl Tibbetts and Janice Hallett
Details: 91 pages – March 17, 2010 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 strolled into a rental store for the first time in four months last night listening to the audiobook of The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second novel in the now famous “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” trilogy. I was on the chapter about math. I did everything in my power to escape math once out of college, yet there it was, being piped down my eardrums by Martin Wenner, the audiobook reader for the Dragon Tattoo series, who was explaining to me, in a thick English accent, the root of the square root. I was confused and discombobulated by the conflux of these events, which may explain how I walked out of the store with a copy of “The Losers,” a movie with the cinematic ambition of an eighth grader with a flip phone at the skate park.

As I watched this movie, I was surprised to realize that technically, it was well-written. Sure the dialogue was way corny and it tried uber-hard to be the kind of film you quote with your buddies on a roadtrip, but the thing was so structurally sound you could practically see a graph of Blake Snyder’s beat sheet behind it. It was a reminder that structure is only half the battle. Your choices still need to be original. Your dialogue still needs to be fresh. A dirty little secret is that workmanlike gets it done when you’re an established professional, but when you’re an amateur, more is required in order for others to take notice.

I bring this up not because The Losers and Retreat are similar in any way, but because Retreat is a contained thriller, and there are so many of these flooding the market, you need to figure out ways to elevate the material beyond the obvious (which The Losers wasn't able to do). Now assuming you're a competent screenwriter and know your 3-Act structure, the place this happens is in the choices you make for your story. Are they different? Are they new? Are you challenging both yourself and the audience? There’s hundreds of directions you can take a story about a vacationing couple who get word that the world is ending. So did Tibbetts and Hallett merely get to the finish line, or did they come up with an original exciting thriller with loads of surprising twists and turns? Let’s find out.

Martin and Kate are a well-off Irish married couple in their 30s. The two are heading to Dinish Island, a tiny private island off the Irish Coast where they spent their honeymoon together a decade ago.

But it’s evident early on that something is broken in this relationship. Kate seems more interested in talking to the tugboat owner, Doug, on the way over, than she does her own husband. In fact, the more we get to know these two, the more we notice how rare it is for Kate to even *look* at Martin.

And that’s because Martin, a hardcore workaholic, was too busy working to answer Kate’s distressed call 8 years ago when she had a miscarriage. Kate still hasn’t forgiven him for not being there, and hasn’t forgotten that Martin never wanted the child in the first place. This vacation is a last ditch effort on Martin’s part to save this marriage, a venture that’s looking less and less likely by the minute.

Retreat eases into its story slowly - maybe too slowly - as Martin and Kate perform a number of couple-related tasks under a thick cloud of tension. And just when you want to personally kick the story in the behind to move it along, an unconscious man washes ashore with military fatigues and a gun. The two hurry him into the house to nurse him back to health, only to learn, according to him, that a pandemic has swept across the globe like wildfire. Pandemic, if you don’t know, is the deadliest of the “demics” as it’s the kind that spreads through the air. And this one is a doozy. Catch it and you'll be dead within 48 hours.

The man, Corporal Jack Corman, a member of the Royal Marines, dutifully starts boarding up windows and doors without consulting the couple, preparing for “when they come.” “They” is in reference to the survivors, who Jack predicts will be catching rides over to this island any minute now, in search of safety. And since they’ll probably be infected, it’s their job to make sure they don’t get in the cottage.

But Martin and Kate note an inconsistency in Jack’s comments and logic. There’s something off about the man, and it causes them to question whether he’s locking other people out, or locking them in. Unfortunately, with everything happening so fast, and no previous experience for “what to do when there’s a pandemic and a crazy man runs into your home and starts boarding everything up,” by the time Martin and Kate realize he might be dangerous, they’re already locked inside. With their only communication to the outside world an old CB radio that barely works, Jack becomes their only source to the outside world.

So when I’m determining whether something is elevating the material or just making the obvious choices, the first thing I look at is “Am I able to predict where this story is going?” I may not know exactly what’s going to happen, but if I generally know the twists and turns, that’s a bad sign. Obviously, you’re not being original if the reader can predict what’s going to happen.

Retreat, unfortunately, falls into this rut. For the first 50 pages or so, I knew every beat, every twist, every surprise, and while I wouldn’t say I was bored, I was disappointed that things were moving along so predictably. But I’ll tell you where the script saved itself. At a certain point, we think we know whether Jack’s lying or not. Then we’re not so sure. Then we’re sure again. Then we’re not so sure.

Retreat places that question front and center in the story: Is there a pandemic or not? And it keeps going back and forth on whether there is. After flipping back and forth so much, we really have no idea what to believe. And because we want to know the answer to this mystery, we’re compelled to read til the end. That alone makes this script worth the read.

But Retreat still suffers from the same thing a lot of these low-character contained thrillers suffer from. With only a single couple’s problems to explore during the second act, there’s a lot of extra time to fill, and so we’re given these scenes – particularly between Jack and Kate – that are intense and racy but lack a certain truth to them. Instead of servicing the story they feel like they’re trying to make up for the lack of it. I kept asking, "Why is Jack doing this? What's his plan here?" And I could never come up with a satisfactory answer, which implied that it was just filler until we got back to the story again. I didn’t think these scenes were bad, but they definitely felt forced, and pulled me out of the script.

I also thought the writers missed a huge opportunity. This story is essentially about a woman who wanted children then lost a child, and how that event affected her marriage. That theme keeps coming up again and again. So why wouldn’t you have Kate pregnant again? How much more intense would this be if they were reliving the very thing that tore them apart in the first place? With her pregnant, possibly due soon, every problem here would be magnified times a thousand. It would also give the story more places to go.

I have to give it to the writers though. It’s so easy to wrap these stories up in a nice little bow. But Tibbetts and Hallett don’t screw around, leaving us with a finale that’s both shocking and disturbing. Retreat doesn’t rewrite the book on thrillers by any means, but the storyline keeps you guessing enough to make it worth the investment.

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

What I learned: There’s a sizable percentage of writers who are resistant to any kind of screenwriting academia. I might say to someone, “Your main character needs a fatal flaw,” and they’ll reply with a scoff. “Don’t throw that screenwriting mumbo-jumbo at me,” their eyes say. I get that. Everybody has their own process. So let me take the technical side out of it and say it this way: every character should have a “thing” going on. Everybody’s got a “thing.” My friend Dan’s thing is that he’s obsessed with women, to the point where it’s ruined a marriage and a couple of other great relationships he’s had. My friend Claire’s thing is that she refuses to rely on other people for help. She has to do everything herself, even when at times it’s impossible. Kate’s thing here is that she can’t forgive her husband for putting his work before her. Think about all the friends in your life. You can probably break all of them down into having that one “thing” that identifies them. This “thing” is what you use your screenplay to explore. Sure this concept is about a deadly virus that could potentially end human existence. But really this script is about a woman trying to come to terms with what her husband did to her, forgive him, and move on. Once you identify what your main character’s “thing” is, you can use your screenplay to explore it. If you’re not doing that, I got news for you, you’re going to have a hard time writing a good screenplay.