Monday, December 20, 2010

College Republicans

Get ready for my Top 10 scripts of the year post on Thursday. Also, I somehow dug up yet another forgotten impressive script, which I’ll review Wednesday. Right now, it’s time to tackle the number 1 script on The Black List, College Republicans!

Genre: Political Drama/Biopic
Premise: Aspiring politician Karl Rove runs a dirty campaign for national College Republican Chairman under the guidance of Lee Atwater, his campaign manager.
About: Number 1 on the 2010 Black List. A couple of months ago, Shia LaBeouf was rumored to be up for one of the roles, though it’s unclear whether he was to play Rove or Atwater. Wes Jones, the writer, does not yet have any produced credits, but did associate produce the John Cusack film, Grace is Gone. For another take on the script, News In Film did a review a while back
Writer: Wes Jones
Details: 122 pages – December 2009 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).

I’ve said it before. I’m not a political geek. Most of my political experiences revolve around my mom sending me CNN articles which warn me that my taxes are about to go up unless I vote for certain people. My obsession with movies and screenplays just doesn’t give me enough time to worry about imaginary people shooting at Hilary Clinton or what that wacky Joe Biden is going to say next. And quite frankly, it doesn’t interest me anyway. So under normal circumstances, I would never read College Republicans. But finishing number 1 on the Black List changes that. It is no longer a matter of whether I want to or don’t want to read the script. It’s now a duty. A civic duty for America!

It’s August 1973 and a cocky young whippersnapper named Karl Rove decides to run for the chairman of the College Republicans (against the advice of his peers). I’d never heard of the College Republicans before but I guess they were (or are?) a pretty big deal.

After some discussion, it’s deemed that the key to winning this election is through the South. So on a plane Rove hops and upon getting to Atlanta, he meets his wily no-holds-barred campaign manager Lee Atwater, a pint-sized little bugger who’d sell out his own brother if he thought it would get him a couple of steps ahead in his career.

The straight-laced Rove despises Atwater immediately but the two have no choice but to work together. It’s been ordered by the higher-ups.

Rove’s competition is a man named Terry Dolan, a pompous chap who figures this will be a cakewalk over the relatively unknown Rove.

But Atwater is a fierce (and dirty) competitor (his motto is: “You just figure out whatever it is that gets people most riled up, and you hang it around the other guy’s neck.”) who immediately goes after Dolan’s girlfriend in order to find out his secrets. When he discovers that Dolan is secretly gay, he spreads the rumor through backchannels and within a week, Dolan’s reputation is ruined and he drops out of the race. Never mind the fact that Atwater was wrong and Dolan wasn’t gay. Whatever gets the job done.

A young Karl Rove.

As they hop from southern state to southern state, Rove has more and more scruples about Atwater’s tactics, but they seem to be working so he puts up with it.

Eventually a man named Robert Edgeworth emerges as their main competitor and is a force enough to effectively end any chances Rove has of winning the election. But in a last-ditch effort, Atwater orchestrates some nifty underhanded moves to get Rove back into the race and take the election down to the wire.

I’m usually the first person defending The Black List, but I’ve received numerous e-mails from suspicious readers about the inclusion of College Republicans as the number 1 choice.

Here’s their beef, and I have to admit, it has some merit. There’s nothing exceptional going on here. The script is well-written. The story is fine. But there’s nothing in CR to indicate it deserves exceptional status. Whether you liked The Muppet Man (last year’s winner) or not, you have to admit that the script was unique. Whether you liked The Beaver (2008’s winner) or not, you have to admit it was unique. Both were examples of writers trying something different, which is why they were awarded the top prize.

What’s unique about College Republicans? What is it you look at and say, “Whoa, that is above and beyond anything I’ve read this year?” What chances does it take? I couldn’t find anything. And I’m not picking on Jones here. He’s written a solid script. I’m just shocked that a straight-forward retelling of events about two people as random as Rove and Atwater captured the imagination of so many readers.

Okay Carson, stop your bitching. Can you talk a little bit about the writing already so we can actually learn something?

Sure. Why not.

There were definitely some good things in the writing here. We have a clear story goal – win the election. So the script is always focused. The stakes are also high. It’s made clear numerous times that losing this election could end their careers before they begin. So things felt like they mattered. Atwater is a great role for an actor. He plays by his own set of rules. He’s dirty, he’s a liar, he’s a rogue. This character is going to pop on screen. You also have some nice conflict going on between the leads. At times it actually plays out like a buddy cop movie -- two guys with opposing views on life stuck together trying to achieve the same thing (if there’s an argument for College Republicans taking a chance – this would be the area it took a chance in). And to top it all off, you have a solid villain in Dolan.

Things went bad for me on a couple of fronts though. First, Rove is a boring character. He’s basically resigned to being stubborn and whining when he doesn’t get his way. And because Atwater’s personality is so outrageous, the longer the script goes on, the more Rove disappears. It’s like trying to get attention at a party when you showed up with Cosmo Kramer.

Lee Atwater

In addition to that, the script puts too much emphasis on everything surrounding the characters instead of the characters themselves. We get too many details about getting people to support them and how these elections work and what the stages are that lead to the final election and whose asses they have to kiss. All of it lends a degree of authenticity to the story, but it takes time away from and prevents us from getting to know these characters, especially Rove.

At least Atwater’s relationship with Kate and his love of playing guitar give his character some depth. But I was still never sure who Atwater was. When the lights went down. When all the people were gone. Who was he then? We got to see the performer. But we never got to see behind the mask. And Rove, I can’t tell you anything about him other than he wanted to win this election. He was so one-dimensional, he might as well have not even existed. It’s not easy to make these bull-headed conservative characters interesting, but I felt there should’ve been more aspects brought out about his personal life.

If I had to guess why this did so well, I’d venture to say Franklin (who orchestrates the Black List) hangs out with a lot of political-minded folks in the entertainment industry. This would explain why even though political movies never do well at the box office, two political scripts (Recount and Farragut North) also did well on the 2007 list – finishing 1 and 3 respectively. I mean if you’re a political geek, you’re going to go kookoo for Coco Puffs when a young Professor Clinton makes a cameo in College Republicans to bestow some wisdom on Rove (not surprisingly – he comes off as a God). But for me, this is just so far away from what I’m interested in, that I’m not even sure the best version of this script would’ve won me over.

What did you guys think of College Republicans?

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

What I learned: To really make your resume moment work, introduce it inside some element of conflict. For those who’ve forgotten what a resume moment is, it’s when a character’s history is read out by one of the characters as a quick and dirty way to give us information about that character’s past. The most obvious use of this is via a job interview, where the interviewer reads from the hero’s resume, “It says here Mr. Clark that you owed one of the biggest plastics factories in the world before selling it to buy an island in the Pacific where you’ve lived for the last 15 years.” -- Unfortunately your hero isn’t always in a job interview, so you have to look for other ways to pull this off. Having someone bring up the resume as an unwelcome surprise or against the hero’s wishes will put the audience’s focus on the hero’s disappointment rather than the information itself, allowing you to tell us a lot about a character without it seeming obvious. So in an early showdown between Rove and Dolan, Rove puffs his chest and says, “You have no idea who you’re dealing with.” Dolan replies, “Hmmm. Karl C. Rove, born Christmas Day 1950. Olympus High School…etc., etc., etc.” We’re so wrapped up in the standoff between Rove and Dolan, it’s not obvious to us that a resume moment is happening.