Monday, November 22, 2010

Don Juan

Genre: Action-Adventure/Romance/Comedy
Premise: When the infamous womanizer Don Juan starts to fall for a woman for the first time in his life, he must decide if that love is worth giving up his woman-chasing ways.
About: Don Juan won the Scriptapalooza contest back in 2004. Not the actual Don Juan, but the writer who wrote Don Juan, Patrick Andrew O'Connor.  Believe it or not, this is the second script O’Connor ever wrote, which is a rare feat, winning a major screenwriting competition off your second script. O’Connor got his first produced credit last year with the indie flick “The Break-Up Artist” which he sold at the Cannes Film Festival. O’Connor recently optioned another script (whose title I can’t find) which is why people are going back and giving this script another look.
Writer: Patrick Andrew O'Connor
Details: 105 pages - undated (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).

I’m not the swashbuckling type.

I always thought The Three Musketeers were lame and that Zorro was a wussy for always wearing that mask. So to plop me down in the middle of the 19th century and force me to watch some primpy man trade clever barbs with another primpy man, slashing and dicing at each other in the 19th Century equivalent to Dancing With The Stars, it was akin to sending me through TSA at LAX for an extended pat-down.

But you guys have demanded more contest winners and since I work for you, the people, then dammit if I wasn’t going to review more contest winners.

Don Juan starts with, well, Don Juan standing at the foot of his dying mother’s bed. Before she kicks it, she tells Don Juan to make sure he finds love. Being only 12 at the time, Don Juan interpreted this to mean “find as much love as humanly possible.” And when we flash forward 15 years, that’s exactly what Don Juan’s doing, finding love, sometimes with three or four women a day.

In fact, Don Juan has a bet going with his biggest Lothario competition, Don Luis, on who can bed the most women in a single year. Since Don Juan is the ultimate lover, he wins handily, but not without some questionable record-keeping (he was supposedly with two women on the same day in two different countries – not an easy feat in 1830).

In order to clear his name, he proposes another bet. This bedding competition has left Don Luis yearning for the true love of a woman. As such he has asked the beautiful Ana for her hand in marriage. Don Juan proposes that he can bed Ana before Don Luis marries her in a couple of days. Under the tight scrutiny of an eager crowd, Don Luis accepts the challenge in order to secure his dignity (why this is considered “dignified” is something I can only assume people 180 years ago understood).

As soon as the challenge is accepted, Don Luis races home to his fiance to prepare her for the ensuing onslaught of Don Juan.

In the meantime, Don Juan runs into Ana’s best friend, the heartbreakingly beautiful Ines, who is a few days away from taking her oath as a nun. Don Juan is struck by the unbridled beauty of this woman and experiences something he’s never felt before while around a woman – feelings. The only problem is that Ana is the one woman on the planet not affected by Don Juan’s charms. Even his most time-tested methods fall flat with her.

And thus begins a most impossible conquest. Sleep with Ana before Luis marries her and get Ines to fall in love with him before she takes her vows as a nun. This isn’t going to be easy!

Along the way Don Juan is chased by Ines’ father, who happens to be the captain of the Sevilla Royal Guard, gets thrown into jail, helps his affable and hilarious servant hook up with Ines’ servant, breaks out of jail, and struggles to achieve these two impossible goals before the sun rises.

As you can probably tell from my exuberant review, I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. One thing I worried about right away was that this was yet another standard treatment of a character we’ve seen dozens of times before. In fact, Heath Ledger just played the kindred spirit to this character, Casanova, a few years ago. The forgettable generic treatment of that character is exactly what I was expecting with Don Juan.

Usually, the writers who rise up out of that giant amateur screenwriting stew are writers who take characters like this and find a fresh take on them. That’s why Baz Luhrman’s Romeo & Juliet worked, as he transported it to modern day Los Angeles. That’s why Steve Martin’s “Roxanne” worked, as they took Cyrano de Bergerac and found a present-day angle.  Here, we stay with the same character in the same setting in the same time period as we’ve always seen Don Juan. So how interesting could it be?


And there’s a reason for that. O’Connor nails the execution. It’s the hardest thing to do – take a story that we’ve seen before, tell it the same old fashioned way that everyone else has told it, and still make it exciting. The reason it's so hard is because you have to do everything perfectly. And this is made even more amazing by the fact that this is only O’Connor’s second screenplay. I would like to know the rewrite situation on this script (is this the draft that won the contest or a newer draft?) because there are so many things he does right here.

First, the goals are very strong. And I love how Don Juan bucks the traditional single-goal protagonist structure and instead gives Don Juan TWO goals, making his job twice as difficult. I love the dual ticking time bombs, ensuring that our story moves at a breakneck pace. I love that Don Juan’s being chased by Ines’ father, which adds even more momentum (and ups the stakes – if he gets caught, he could end up in jail for the rest of his life…or worse!). And I love the exploration of Don Juan’s character flaw, his confusion and rejection of the emotion he’s so terrified of feeling – love. These are all very basic story-telling devices, but O’Connor puts them to use with amazing results.

I also loved Ciutti, Don Juan’s noble servant, who’s stuck doing everything Don Juan does, even though he’s one-fourth as capable. I thought the dialogue was witty and funny, not an easy feat when this genre practically expects it. And I really grew to love and understand the advantage of writing a story around this character. Don Juan is that impossible to resist rogue lead – he’s a liar and a cheater, which gives him a dark side, but he’s eternally optimistic and funny, making it hard to dislike the guy.

All in all I’d say this was a rousing success. And yes, I’m using “rousing” because it’s a word they’d use in the 19th Century. I’m that inspired by this script. I kind of stumbled onto it after attempting to read two Brit List scripts (both of which were littered with misspellings and sloppy writing – what the hell man??), and boy am I glad I did. The only reason this doesn’t get an “impressive” is because the subject matter isn’t my cup of tea, so there were parts I couldn't get into no matter how well-written they were. But for a script that started at a “Wasn’t For Me” before I opened the first page, I’d say a double “worth the read” is impressive in itself.

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

What I learned: It’s important to always make it hard for your hero to achieve his goal. Anything that comes easy for him will feel like a cheat. However, I realized that sometimes, in a comedy, if you set it up properly, you can make a key plot point easy for your hero as long as it gets a big laugh. In Don Juan, there’s a guard guarding Ana’s house who’s both deaf and blind. We get some early exchanges with a worried Don Luis that the guard won’t be able to keep Don Juan out. The guard assures him that he can handle the job, and later when Don Juan sneaks past him easily in a funny scene, we accept it. Since it was properly set up and funny, we don’t feel cheated. Contrast this with a comedy script I reviewed the other week, We're the Millers. I was really upset that in a movie about smuggling drugs into America, that our criminals don’t encounter any problems at the U.S./Mexico border. It’s not funny and the reason it's easy was never set up, so we feel cheated.