Thursday, December 16, 2010

Out Of Breath

Genre: Multi-character Drama
Premise: A young Latino man with a gambling addiction starts receiving letters in the mail informing him that if certain people die, he’ll be awarded thousands of dollars.
About: Out of Breath won the 2008 Nicholl Fellowship. The writers, Kristensen and Marshall, co-wrote the script in a master’s class at Columbia. Prior to that program, Kristensen worked as a journalist, and Marshall worked in investment at Goldman Sachs. The two have since split to work on their own projects, but may still work together in the future. Recently, Kristensen, a huge comic book geek, penned his first graphic novel, “Todd, the Ugliest Kid on Earth,” which was illustrated by “Air” and “Cairo” artist M.K. Perker, for Image.
Writers: Ken Kristensen and Colin Marshall
Details: 105 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. 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).

Just the other day we were joking around about how the Nichol is obsessed with death. I had no idea what Out of Breath was when I first picked it up. But what do you know? It’s about death! And on top of that, it’s constructed in the incredibly tricky “mutli-character” format. But there are a couple of things that immediately gave me hope for this script. One, it’s got a nice little hook to it – the idea that the semi-main character keeps getting money when people die. I love when writers do this because it takes what looks like another misguided attempt at the next “Crash,” and gives it a mini-high concept twist.

And two, it adds humor. Whenever you’re writing about death, you want to undercut a lot of that drama with humor so your audience doesn’t get euthanized into the depression zone.

But what about the story and all the rest of the characters? How do they fare?

Well there are 8-10 central characters in Out of Breath. There’s Arnold, a funeral director who’s about to pass his business over to 20 year old Don. There’s Pedro, the gambling addict. There’s Lizzie, a pregnant nurse who sees Pedro in the emergency room night in and night out post bookie beatings. There’s Magic, an older gentleman whose wife, Stella, is being held together by hospital machines, days away from death. There’s Helen, an older woman who Magic falls for while his wife is dying. And then there’s Tucker and Ray, whose father, Marion, is also on life support. Lots of people are on life support here. Lots of dying!

But again, our main character is Pedro, who owes his bookie tons of dough. His addiction is so bad that whatever money does come in, he immediately heads over to the casinos and bets it, as opposed to paying off his bookie. So his bookie finally throws down the gauntlet. If Pedro doesn’t come up with the 15 grand, he’s going to end up in that big casino in the sky.

That’s when Pedro gets a strange letter in the mail. It’s a picture of an army officer and a note that says when this man dies, he gets $1000. A day later, he reads in the news that the man is dead, and what do you know, a thousand bucks shows up in the mail.

Of course Pedro is a total moron and instead of using that money to get out of debt, he simply goes back to the casino to bet it away.

Pedro then gets another letter in the mail. It’s another picture, this time of Stella. Magic’s wife. It says that when she dies, he gets $2000. Hey, how bout that? Can I get an upgrade? Well, Stella dies a day later and Pedro becomes $2000 richer.

Problem is, the thugs are square on his trail. And he has fewer and fewer places to hide. But the pictures keep coming, each one offering more money. And of course, because the squeeze is on, because Pedro starts depending on this money, he’s no longer interested in waiting. Why wait for someone to die when you can expedite the dying process yourself?

There are other storylines going on as well. For example, Magic and Helen are the main romantic storyline. We watch them fall in love, each dealing with the loss of their respective lifetime mates. And then there’s Tucker and Ray, who must run around town trying to find their dying father after he escapes from the hospital. Arnold and Bobby, the undertakers, occasionally pop in to deal with the increasing body count, but the story always comes back to Pedro and his mysterious money letters.

Out of Breath has a couple of really good things going for it. First is the aforementioned high concept low concept. If you have some character-based indie script you’re hawking, I want you to think ahead to that moment when you run into that “well-known” producer in the elevator. You mention you’re a writer and you have this script and he asks what it’s about (5 floors left – ticking time bomb!). You tell him, “Well it’s about these people intersecting into each other’s lives. And one of them has father issues, which he’s trying to overcome because his father is dying…” ERRRRRRRNT! The producer has already fallen asleep (or worse, mentally checked out even though he’s still nodding). But if you had some sort of hook, something to separate your character piece from all the others, imagine how much smoother that discussion would go. “What’s it about?” “It’s a multi-character piece that centers on a gambling addict who keeps getting letters in the mail offering him money if certain people die.” You see how that little hook makes your tiny character piece a thousand times more appealing? Never forget that at some point you’re going to want people to read your screenplay, so you better be confident that your idea can pass the elevator test.

Anyway, the second thing is the betting vice. I’ve talked about this before. Audiences are inherently drawn to train wrecks. It’s in our blood to want to see how far down the spiral can go. And the interesting thing about using gambling as the character’s vice is that it keeps things a little lighter and more bearable. When the character is an alcoholic or a drug-addict, it can be really depressing to watch them descend towards their imminent demise. But gambling doesn’t have that same effect. It’s a lighter vice and therefore easier to bear. And one scene that always works in screenplays is when the hero has all his money on one game and we show that game play out. Seriously, I’ve never seen it not work.

But I didn’t like the film in two capacities. First, I wasn’t digging Ray and Tucker as characters. When their father escapes onto the town and they have to go after him, the script slides into goofy territory. Not to mention we stay with them for way too long. The script works best when we’re with Pedro, whom we were seeing consistently throughout the first half of the script. But this “Dad escapes” segment dominates the entire second half of the second act, and we’re left checking our watch impatiently as we wait for Pedro to return.

And then, of course, there’s the payoff for the “death letters.” I’m not saying that the final reveal can’t work, but I don’t think it was properly set up, because there were way too many things you had to buy into, and you were being asked to buy into them all at once. If those things could’ve been set up progressively throughout the script, so we accepted most of them ahead of time, the big twist may have succeeded.

But this was still a fun and interesting screenplay. It’s a little lighter than the other multi-character piece I reviewed earlier in the week, and I think it’s better as well. Worth the read.

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

What I learned: Whenever you write a multi-character piece, I’d advise you to give one of the characters more screenplay time than the others. I find that creating a semi-protagonist works well because the audience likes having that one person to anchor the story. Out of Breath works in large part because Pedro is a main character in a genre that’s technically supposed to make all its characters equals.