Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Genre: Thriller
Premise: Two war veterans play a deadly game of cat and mouse up in the mountain wilderness.
About: This is the project John McTiernan, director of Die Hard and Predator, signed onto right before he started his year stint in jail for lying to the Feds over wiretapping. The script has actually been around for a while, making the 2008 Black List, and the writer may be familiar to you, since I just reviewed his 1.5 million dollar supersale of “Snow White And The Huntsman” a couple of weeks ago. As I mentioned in that post, this is the script that won the 2008 Script Pimp Screenwriting Contest. After the win, Evan was contacted by several managers and ultimately signed with Energy Entertainment. He moved to LA and a few months later he met with some agents, finally signing with UTA.  Daugherty went to NYU Film School and had written 9 screenplays before he broke through with Shrapnel.
Writer: Evan Daugherty
Details: 91 pages, 10-3-08 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).

Your script length is what it is. If you’re telling a sprawling epic over six time periods, it’s going to be long. If you’re telling a thriller about a man stuck in a coffin, it’s going to be short. But as a gentle reminder, nobody has time in Hollywood. Or at least the people who matter don’t. So when they stare down a 130 page behemoth, they already hate you. They hate you for making them say they’d read a script that’s going to take 130 minutes out of a schedule that's already requiring them to work 2 hours longer than they or their family want them to that day.

Now I’m no Hollywood producer, but Friday I had a million things going on, so there was no way in hell I was picking a script that was taking two hours. I needed something in the 90 minute range. When I saw Shrapnel at 92 pages, I said, “Perfect.” I’m not trying to start another page length debate here. Brigands of Rattleborge is humongous (which it should be) and it’s number 3 on my Top 25 list. All I’m saying is, keep in mind who your audience is – people who are constantly in a hurry. You want to make their experience as enjoyable as possible.

Anyway, Shrapnel is a simple story in the vein of Deliverance or The Most Dangerous Game. It’s the 70s, around the time of the Vietnam War, and an out of shape 50 year old World War II veteran named Ford has decided to live the rest of his life in the wilderness, free of society, free of complications or relationships. This man has paid his dues. Now he just wants to be left alone.

His only inconvenience is the shooting pain up the side of his leg that comes around every so often, the result of some wayward shrapnel from back in the war. It slows Ford down but it never stops him.

One day, while driving through the winding mountain roads, Ford’s car breaks down. It just so happens that a man is passing by at the time. He’s ragged, late 40s, talky but for the most part unremarkable. We’ll get to know him as Osterman. Osterman helps Ford fix his car which leads to Ford inviting him to his cabin to wait out the approaching storm.

The two get to talking and Osterman encourages Ford to join him for some hunting the next day. Ford’s reluctant but Osterman seems like good company and it’s not like Ford’s planner is bursting with activity. It’s pretty easy to cancel “Stare at plants for an hour.”

So off the two go, splitting up at one point, staying in contact via walkie-talkie, innocently concocting a strategy, when all of a sudden Osterman starts blurting out random German, his cordial friendly tone ditched for a sinister-as-shit one. It doesn’t take us or Ford long to realize that Osterman didn’t come here to hunt animals.

He came here to hunt Ford.

And so begins a mano-a-mano duel in which Ford tries to escape Osterman, whose relentless pursuit indicates that there is something personal going on here, something that goes back way before two guys meeting on the side of a mountain. So when these two men clash, when they twist and turn and squirm and try and take the life from one another, a troubling secret will be revealed that ties it all together in the end.

Shrapnel is one of those simple concepts that, if done right, can be really good. But with only two characters, it’s hard to stretch these puppies out to feature length. They usually require a handful of things to make them work.

The first is the surprises or twists in the film. If you have a large cast of characters in your script, when things slow down in one storyline, you can always jump to another one. Can’t do that here. These are the only characters you’ve got. So when things get slow or when it starts to feel like not much has happened in a while, you need to throw in a surprise or a twist to spice things up again.

In this case, during one scuffle, Ford notices a permanent scarred “O” on the back of Osterman’s neck. His reaction tells us he knows what this “O” means. This seems to change Ford’s assessment of the situation. We’re not exactly sure why, but we know that at some point we’re going to find out. So this little “twist,” this little “surprise” spices the screenplay up at a moment where it was getting repetitive. I mean what are we going to do, watch these men battle for 70 straight minutes? You need to break up the monotony somehow.

Next, it’s really important to change the dynamic of the situation at least once in the script. Again, because the plot is so simple, it’s easy to get bored. So at some point, Ford turns the tables and gains the upper hand on Osterman. Ford is the hunter and Osterman is the hunted.

Finally, the ending has to be really satisfying in these flicks. Remember, you’re not giving us a whole lot to work with here. The plot is merely one man versus another. So you want to make the journey worth it. You want to reveal something at the end that makes us reevaluate everything we just watched. Indeed, there’s a specific reason Osterman is hunting Ford, and that reason comes out in the end. Is it a good reason? Well, it wasn’t bad. I mean it didn’t knock my socks off or anything but I thought it was strong. Regardless, I liked the attempt at the ending. The writer took a chance and came up with something unexpected and interesting.

I also thought the theme was strong here. We’re exploring the atrocities of war and how they affect the soldiers of that war, no matter what the time period. What happens to soldiers, people trained to kill, when they’re thrown back into a society that sees killing as the ultimate atrocity? It’s obviously going to fuck with your mind. And the ones who adapt without a hitch are probably the ones you need to worry about the most. I thought Shrapnel tackled that subject matter well.

Shrapnel isn’t a world-beater but it’s a solid script. I liked it much better than a similar script that got a ton of pub a couple of years ago titled “Villain.” Let’s hope that the Los Angeles Correctional Institution allows for some pre-production offices in its cells so McTiernan can set this thing up faster than a wiretap.

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

What I learned: World War 2 is the single most mined real-world event in the history of movies. Which is fine. It’s one of the most important events of our planet. But when you start making World War 2 movies about a guy and his piano…I think it’s time to admit that the well is dry. I didn’t mind the World War 2 connection in Shrapnel because it was more of a backdrop and not a piece of the present-day storyline. So I’ll just say this. If you’re going to explore World War 2 in your story, make sure you have a unique angle that’s never been used before. “Life is Beautiful” is a perfect example. A comedy set in World War 2? In a concentration camp no less? I still remember hearing that idea and thinking, “Man, I have to see that. I’ve never heard of a story like it before.” This goes back to the same principal I was harping on with Memento. Take a concept, a genre, an idea, and turn it on its head.