Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Red Leaves

Genre: Mystery/Drama
Premise: When a young girl goes missing after a teenage boy babysits her, the boy’s family must endure a town who’s convinced that the boy killed her.
About: Nathan Parker is best known as the writer of the critically acclaimed sci-fi feature from Duncan Jones, Moon. Moon was Parker’s first produced credit but not his first assignment. It appears he was tasked with adapting this book, Red Leaves, a year before Moon made its way into production. Parker wrote another feature after Moon for Lionsgate, a little known film called “Blitz,” about a serial killer who slowly picks off London police officers. A motley crew of cops must track him down before he strikes again. While Red Leaves made this year’s Blood List for some reason (it’s now 3 years old), it’s not a horror film, which makes you wonder what the criteria for the list is.
Writer: Nathan Parker (based on the book by Thomas H. Cook)
Details: 122 pages – sept 15, 2007 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).

One of my favorite films from 2009, which I unfortunately didn’t see in time to rank in my Top 10, was Moon. I’ve seen a lot of “trapped in a small location” films before and they almost always run out of ideas by page 40. Seeing two Sam Rockwells in the trailer also made me cringe. It felt gimmicky, a cheap trick to land a name actor (allowing the actor to play multiple roles).

But man, that movie unfolded beautifully, never overstepping its reach, coming up with just the right amount of mystery to keep the story fresh while never insulting your intelligence. It was endlessly engaging, everything the Soderbergh Solaris remake should’ve been. So I was excited to see what Parker had written before that breakthrough script.

Red Leaves introduces us to the Moore family. We have Eric, the practical father, Meredith, the frustrated mother, and teenager Keith, the rebellious son. The family threw it on autopilot a long time ago and like a group of zombies, stumbles mindlessly through each day. This is exactly what Red Leaves wants to explore, that we’re all on autopilot until tragedy strikes, until something comes along and forces us to face the issues we’ve been sweeping under the rug.

Well that rug’s about to be lifted up.

Amy Gardino is a pretty nine year old girl who Keith babysits every week. He heads over on a Saturday evening  and does the job just like he’s always done, except the next morning Eric gets a call from Mr. Gardino asking him if Keith knows where Amy is. Eric checks with Keith, who seems more annoyed than scared, and when it’s confirmed that, no, he does not, the town begins a frantic search to find the girl.

While at first it seems that Keith is merely someone with information that could help the search, it becomes clear that detectives believe he’s the number 1 suspect. This forces Eric to hire a lawyer for Keith, which in turn convinces the town that Keith has something to hide.

As the mystery unwinds, it appears that Keith is hiding something. Eric watches as the events Keith recalls to the cops are not the same events he knows to be true. Just like that, Eric finds himself lying to protect his son and his son’s lies, in a rapidly descending situation.

Of course, what this event really does is force the family to face those issues they’ve been putting off. Meredith has been drifting away from Eric for years, and may or may not be involved with a co-worker. She must inform the detectives of this in order to avoid any suspicion that she’s hiding something.

The real crack in the family, however, is Keith, who has become a social recluse, for which Eric has been in complete denial about. His son has needed help, needed someone to reach out to, and he hasn’t been there as a father. Figuring out the events of that night is going to tell Eric who his son really is, and it’s looking like that person may be a monster.

As if that isn’t bad enough, Amy’s father, Bill, is 100% convinced Keith killed his daughter. When the cops won’t arrest Keith because they don’t have enough evidence, Bill decides to take the law into his own hands.

What I liked about Red Leaves was that it approached its story from a realistic point of view and from an angle we haven’t quite seen before. While I liked Prisoners (another script about a disappearance), that script sensationalized its story, basking it in what might be considered cheap serial killer conventions. In contrast, Red Leaves is more interested in how things would really happen, so we get the first questioning by the cops, we get the more intense second questioning, we get the hiring of the lawyer, we get the search warrant.

And we see this all through the eyes of the kid’s father, not the kid himself, which allows us to worry about things that we wouldn't normally worry about in these movies. For example, the father must struggle with the question of if his son is guilty or not. He has to do his own investigating into his son’s case, but in such a way that he doesn’t draw suspicion from the town. He has to make some tough decisions. Does he force his son to go back and tell the cops the truth, or will that truth lead to his son’s arrest, in which case he’d be better off keeping it to himself? I think that’s what makes Red Leaves so compelling, is all this inner conflict going on inside Eric’s character.

Unfortunately, there were a lot of things holding this script back. The first is a glaring plot hole that almost ruined the entire story for me. Eric gets the call the next morning from the Gardinos, who say they just checked Amy’s room and she’s gone. This means that the Gardinos would’ve been the first family in the history of babysitting ever – we’re talking hundreds of millions of families here – who came home from a night out and instead of checking if their daughter was in her room, they went straight to bed.

Wait a minute. WHAT???

When has this ever happened?? This is really poor storytelling because if there’s one part of your script where you can’t have holes, it’s in the premise. The setup has to be airtight or else we’re not going to believe anything that comes after it.

I also thought Parker made a poor choice by including Eric’s voice over. Over the course of the story, Eric has very intense dramatic observations about what’s going on such as, (not actual dialogue) “Our children are our lifeblood. We raise them, coddle them, protect them. What does one do once they leave the nest? Do you pull them back in or do you let them fly and figure out their problems on their own?” It was just way over the top melodramatic and gave the otherwise realistic-feeling story a hammy center. I just felt like we already knew all these things through observing Eric’s actions. For him to say them out loud was superfluous.

Finally, the ending was a little too easy. I’m not going to get into spoilers but I’ll just say everything came together rather conveniently at just the right time. You’d like your finale to be challenging for you characters. If it’s too easy we feel cheated.

Maybe the biggest testament to Red Leaves is that despite these problems, I was still eagerly reading along, excited to see what would happen. Parker does a nice job increasing the stakes and building the drama until the climax. One of the more common mistakes I see in amateur screenplays is the story petering out as we approach the ending. Here we really feel like all of the sides are closing in on us, and that we're truly building, so even though the ending was kinda disappointing, it was fun getting there. 

The script also excels by not making the plot the main focus. This becomes about the characters, and specifically the characters inside this family, who are now being forced to deal with each other - which is in many ways just as horrifying as dealing with this accusation. So overall, despite some pretty big problems, I’d still say this is worth the read.

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

What I learned: I think this is a prime example of how voice over can hurt a script. Voice over is best used to make jokes in a comedy and for expositional purposes in overly complicated stories (At the beginning of Braveheart, we get some voice over to tell us where we are in history, who the main players are, and what this has to do with the story we’re about to read). If you’re using voice over to hear the thoughts of a person whose actions are already telling us the same thing (as happens in Red Leaves) then it’s going to feel superfluous. The only exception to this rule is if Morgan Freeman is performing the voice over, in which case it will always work. I want to say that’s a joke but I don’t think it is.