Thursday, December 2, 2010

Identity Crisis

Genre: Crime/Thriller
Premise: A small town roller skating rink manager prepares for marriage when a secret from his past comes back to haunt him.
About: This script was purchased by Cruise-Wagner about 15 years ago, presumably for Cruise to star in. The writer, Philip Jayson Lasker, has a roundabout connection – believe it or not – to yesterday’s script. Although he wrote on the hit show The Golden Girls for a few years (that’s not the connection), he found his way into the movie world with his one produced credit, “The Man From Elysian Fields” in 2001. The director of that film, George Hickenlooper (who directed the great “Hearts of Darkness” documentary and the short “Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade, that inspired Billy Bob Thorton’s feature length film) also directed the indie “The Big Brass Ring,” which, believe it or not, was another unfilmed screenplay by Orson Welles. Talk about a small world!
Writer: Philip Jayson Lasker
Details: 116 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).

The sale of Identity Crisis can be looked at in a couple of ways. There was a time when Tom Cruise owned the world. Not just movies. But the entire world. This allowed he and his producing partner, Paula Wagner, to buy up a ton of material and develop it, wait for the best stuff to emerge, throw in a dash of whatever Cruise was jonseing to do at the moment, and voila, movies would get made. In that sense, Identity Crisis could’ve been a chance Cruise took – one of those risky clothes purchases you’re not sure if you’re ever going to wear or not. But hey, why not? You can afford it. Then again, if you’re a more optimistic person, you might say, “Holy shit. This script sold to Tom Fucking Cruise at the height of his movie stardom!” Selling your script to *the* movie star of the moment is basically the screenwriting equivalent of the Super Bowl.

That alone is reason to study this script. Purchases like these get you into the mind of an A-List star.

Arthur is just your below-average roller skating rink manager in a small town in the middle of nowhere. He has a beautiful fiance, Ellen, who’s 3 months pregnant, and who he plans to marry in a few weeks. Despite his life looking up, it isn’t all roses for Arthur. He used to be someone important back in New York, someone who made a lot more money than what you make Tuesday afternoons at the bowling alley, that’s for sure. And it doesn’t help that his fiance’s mom thinks he’s a worthless loser who’s not good enough for her daughter.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the country, we meet Raincoat Man. Raincoat Man (not to be confused with “Rain Man”) is not a nice man. Raincoat Man specializes in one thing - killing people. And he’s awful good at it. If you have any doubts, he shoots a man right between the eyes while he's at the top of a ferris wheel.  I hear that shot's pretty easy at the bottom of the ferris wheel.  But at the top?  That's a hardcore killer there. 

After a few “hidden in the shadows” discussions with another shady character, we become aware that Raincoat Man’s next victim is none other than Arthur. This instantly leads to the question: Why? Arthur seems like a normal stand-up guy. Why would someone want to kill him? Hmm, he did have that mysterious job back in New York. Just how mysterious was it?

In a scene that was surely designed to bring teenagers everywhere into a hormone-inspired frenzy, Arthur is allowing a private late-night “naked roller-skating” party at the rink. Raincoat Man is not prepared for all the naked flesh when he strolls in to kill Arthur, and the distraction allows Arthur to escape, get back to his house and save Ellen before she’s a victim too. That’s when the truth comes out. Our boy Arthur is in the witness relocation program.

In a seriously weak logic oversight, Arthur storms back to New York to see how he was found, and actually leaves his wife back at the town. This allows Raincoat Man to kidnap her and drive her back to New York with him, where he’ll use her, if necessary, to complete the hit on Arthur.

This culminates in a couple of rather gigantic double-crosses, leading to the biggest double-cross of all, the answer to who put the hit out on Arthur.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “This sounds a lot like ‘History Of Violence,” you’re not alone. That film kept popping up in my head as I was reading this. The big difference, however, is how gritty and real that script was. This script has a little more fun – sensibly flavored to cater to the Tom Cruise “everything’s going to be all right in the end” mentality.

Figuring out why Cruise bought the script isn’t hard if you read my “How To Write For An A-List Actor” article. Once again, we hit on another actor staple – Actors like to play roles where they’re projecting one person to the outside world but are secretly someone else on the inside. That’s why they like to play CIA agents. That’s why they like to play superheroes. There’s an inherent complexity in playing someone who’s hiding something from everyone else that satisfies their acting needs.

As for the script itself, I don’t think there’s enough going on here in the first 2 acts to keep an audience interested. The third act gets kind of good when we make our way up the ladder and find out who’s behind all this, but up til that point we spend way too much time focusing on insignificant scenes that feel like they’re stalling. For example, we get a scene where Ellen is picking a wedding dress with her mom that doesn’t push the story forward at all (always push the story forward with every scene!).

I think Raincoat Man (who’s actually referred to as “Man in Raincoat” in the script - the reverse moniker was my own) had a lot of potential. He’s cold and calculated, yet chatty and practical. When he kidnaps Ellen and she tries to run away, instead of immediately going after her he yells out that they’re in the middle of nowhere, with nowhere to run, so it would be wiser for her to just get back in the car. We’re never quite sure what’s going to come out of this guy’s mouth, and that unpredictability goes a long way, making him the stand-out star of the script.

But despite him and the nice twists at the end, too much of this script went according to plan. I was way too far ahead of it most of the time, especially in the middle act, where everything was too "standard witness relocation genre" stuff. When you’re writing a script that depends on its twists and turns, those twists and turns must be frequent and inventive. If they’re just like every other twist and turn in the book, you’re not going to excite the reader.

I can see why this sold but I would’ve liked a more inventive treatment of the story and in particular a more exciting middle act.

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

What I learned: How far ahead of you is the person reading your screenplay? This is one of those things I don’t think writers think about enough – especially in “twist-centered” screenplays. Sometimes you *think* you’re ahead of your reader, but you don’t really know unless you put yourself in your reader’s shoes. A good rule of thumb in these types of scripts is to have something unexpected happen every 15 pages or so. I’m not talking about a world-shattering Sixth Sense like twist every 15 minutes, just something unexpected (big or small) to keep your reader on his toes. If you sail along for too long where nothing surprises the reader, he's going to get bored fast.