Monday, October 4, 2010

It Is What It Is

Genre: Drama/Coming-of-Age
Premise: A dysfunctional group of friends living in San Francisco post-college find that making it in the real world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
About: This script finished with 9 mentions on the 2006 Black List. Not knowing anything about the writers, Susanna Fogel and Joni Lefkowitz, I did some research after reading the script and found out they’ve recently written the remake script for Little Darlings for J.J. Abrams. The original movie starred Tatum O’Neal and Matt Dillon and was about two 15 year olds from opposite sides of the tracks competing to see who could lose their virginity first (someone called this movie a hit - but it's not officially available on anything other than VHS). They also have another project in development with Elizabeth Banks in the lead based on the book “What Was I Thinking?: 58 Bad Boyfriend Stories.” It Is What It Is is listed as in development but doesn’t seem to have any movement right now.
Writers: Susanna Fogel & Joni Lefkowitz
Details: 120 pages – Sept 25, 2006 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. 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).

Black List Time Machine! I took the Black List Time Machine back to 2006 to find this gem. Those early years unfortunately didn’t benefit from the Scriptshadow/widespread script reading presence, so many have since been forgotten. Do not shed a tear though cause I'm bringin'em back baby!  

I’ll admit though, when I started reading this and realized it was a 20-something “trying to find our way in life” flick, I groaned. I actually like the idea of these films. Leaving institutional life for the first time and realizing  all the promises that were made to us weren't even close to true is a right-of-passage we’re all familiar with. But most writers take the subject matter to the self-important extreme, and we end up following a lot of depressed 20-something losers complaining about making the rent.  Borrr-innnnggggg.

Well I’m happy to say that “It Is What It is” is one of the best versions of this format I’ve read since Happy Thank You More Please. Sure it gets a little self-important at times, but the characters are all well thought out, the situations interesting, and the dialogue fresh. And oh yeah, it’s funny too!

There are four main characters here. We have the quirky semi-alcoholic Eliza, who’d really love to be a photographer but is stuck designing tween underwear for Forever 21. We have the unlucky-in-love trust fund baby Grant, our Jeff Goldblum character from The Big Chill – who no matter how hard he tries, can’t ever seem to get out of the “friend zone” with women. We have stiff-as-a-board Barry, whose disdain for spontaneity explains his desperation to be a lawyer. And we have Jules, a slutty tomboy who invades on our friends’ tight knit circle.

There are a lot of complications for our characters (as there well should be) and they start with Grant, who's been desperately in love with Eliza since the Renaissance Era, but has settled into that horrible best friend consolation bubble hoping that one day she'll change her mind. When she meets a guy on Myspace and falls head over heels with him, Grant realizes that that day isn't coming anytime soon.

Barry’s about to embark on his prestigious law career which will finally allow him to pay back the mountain of debt he’s left behind when his longtime girlfriend tells him no mas. She’s concluded that he’s more boring than elevator music and just like that, a man whose whole world is stability, is no longer in a stable relationship. Everybody somehow convinces Barry to make a “bucket list” of crazy ass things he’d never do and finish it before he enters the corporate world. Get high, have a one night stand, that sort of thing. He doesn’t want to do it but peer pressure gets the best of him. 

Later on, Grant meets the tomboyish Jules, who’s in town to visit her feminist lesbian mother she has a Coke Zero relationship with. When Grant brings her into the tight-knit fold of the three amigos, it throws the delicate balance of this triple-friendship off. Barry immediately likes her, but Eliza sees her as a potential threat.

For a moment it looks like everything’s going to fall apart (story-wise) when Jules’ mother reveals she has a brain tumor and a one night stand from Grant’s past shows up telling him he’s the father of their child. I thought, “Uh oh, and into Hallmark Country we go!” But the writers, thank God, ignore the sappy trappings of the tumor stuff and the Grant-baby story actually turns out to be the engine for some great character exploration. 

The only two people Grant’s ever had sex with are Eliza, on a drunken college night, and this girl, this *beautiful* girl, who clearly took pity on him one random evening. At first Grant is horrified by the prospect of raising a kid, but as they wait for DNA results to prove he’s the father, Grant becomes addicted to the feeling of having another half, a half he’s dreamt of having his whole life.

But the girl only wants financial help from Grant - nothing more. Watching him cling to her when she won’t even give him the courtesy of PRETENDING she’s interested, is so difficult to watch I had to stop reading a couple of times. You feel so bad for the guy.

Eliza has a great storyline as well. She falls in love with this guy online, they have a whirlwind romance, and for the first time in her life, she’s able to break away from her friends. But after he casually mentions a female friend of his, she looks her up on Myspace (I presume we’d change this to Facebook) and becomes obsessed with her and her strange philosophical blog ramblings.

ISWIS has what I’m looking for in every script. It doesn’t go the way you think it’s going to go. There were so many times where I was like, “Oh boy, here it is. Now we’re going to blah blah blah,” but five pages later, I was proven wrong. For example, I was sure that once Grant met Jules, the two would get involved and he would use her to finally get Eliza to like him. But one scene later, Jules ditches Grant at the bar and starts making out with a random bartender, making me rethink everything. I loved it.

I can also always tell when I’m reading a script with a female author (and in this case 2). In most dude-written screenplays, the women aren’t complex in any way. There’s a particular script I cite to others where there were 11 male characters and 7 female characters. Each male character had a 3-line introduction. Each female character never had more than a 3-WORD introduction!

It never occurred to me how insulting this might be to a female reader until I read an amateur script by a woman who approached her male characters the same way. Each had a short curt boring description, while all the women were elaborately complex. I remember thinking, “God, is this how women think of us? As a five word stereotypical blurb?” I completely changed the way I wrote women after that.

I didn’t see any glaring problems here. The script doesn’t have an all-encompassing plot, so the characters' journeys are the only thing driving the story, and I suspect that might make it boring for some, which I understand. While the tumor storyline wisely avoided melodrama, I think there’s a stronger more appropropirate choice for this story. And there are a few times where you wanted to slap these guys in the face for acting like their lives were just – so - horrible. You’re 26 and not in jail. Your life is fine.

This is updating Reality Bites with, I presume, a hip soundtrack to boot.  The difference is, this script is actually good. I liked it quite a bit and if you like these movies, you should check it out.

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

What I learned: This is why you should never include pop references in your work. One of the lines in the script is (paraphrasing)… ‘Ooh, someone’s just been watching the Meg Ryan boxing movie.” In that moment, I was totally taken out of the story. The Meg Ryan boxing movie? That film that was out for, what, 2 seconds in 2004? It just completely ruined the flow of the read and made me very aware that I was reading an old script. Hollywood doesn’t like old stuff. They like new stuff. They like the hot new script. So don’t give them anything that's going to clue them in on your script belonging in the Museum of Natural History.