Monday, December 13, 2010

Untitled Frank Baldwin

Genre: Multi-character Drama
Premise: A mysterious college girl, a pack of Princeton frat boys, a reformed gangster, and a mob boss come crashing together in one unpredictable 72 hour period.
About: We’re going back to a Black List script from yesteryear – 2006 to be exact. Frank Baldwin’s Crash-like tale finished with 7 votes on the list. While Baldwin hasn’t gotten that coveted produced credit since he broke through onto the Black List, he seems to be doing fine in the work department, working on such projects as “The Art Of Making Money,” with “It Boy” Chris Pine set to star (about a counterfeiter who produced more than 10 million dollars in fake cash), “Tokyo Underworld,” about the life of an American Gangster in Japan, and “Cooley,” about Robert Cooley's life story as a Chicago mob lawyer turned FBI operative.
Writer: Frank Baldwin
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).

I’m kinda fascinated by these multi-character stories (of which I’ll be reviewing two this week) because they’re notoriously hard to write. They seem like they should be easy because as soon as things start to get boring in one storyline, you just cut to another! Problem is, you can only bail ship so many times before you find yourself back on your maiden voyage, stuck having to figure out why your story got so boring in the first place.

I thought Crash did a good job tackling this problem, as each character in that script was dealing with some sort of problem or bias that they needed to overcome by the end – a character exploration at its finest. Haggis got a little overly sentimental in the end (that song! Oh God, that neverending song!) but it’s hard to argue against Crash being one of the best multi-character dramas ever made. (okay, I admit I made that statement in part to drum up the anger of Crash-haters in the comments section)

Baldwin’s untitled screenplay starts out with a slick uptown dude named Ramon jogging into a sketchy building in a bad neighborhood. When he comes out, he’s met with a bat. The unseen figure moves in to rob Ramon and is shocked when he sees the item Ramon came here to buy.

Meanwhile, in a nice suburban home across the city, we meet reserved and slightly weird hottie Brett, an au pair. After work is over, her horny employer drives her to a club she wants to check out. At that club, we meet three Princeton frat boys: Goody-two-shoes Ryan, just-got-dumped-angry Lyle, and Slide, the runt of the litter who uses Nietzsche to pick up women.

They spot Brett from across the way, buy her drinks, get her and themselves drunk, then invite her back to their place. Shockingly, although there’s only one of her and three of them, she agrees. As the four start playing a game of strip poker, the boys start to feel woozy. It’s a trap. She drugged them. Within seconds of finding out, it’s lights out.

Brett robs them and when the boys wake up, they have one thing on their mind: revenge.

Reggie Banks is 26 and just took his final test as a graduate student, which officially makes him a teacher. Reggie used to roll with some questionable cats but he’s left that world behind. That is until Fly, his old friend, tells him he hit the jackpot, stealing a brick of cocaine from some clueless idiot (who we, of course, realize was Ramon). Play their cards right and this brick could put them on easy street for the rest of their lives.

Reggie wants no part of it, but we learn that Reggie and Brett are internet friends through some Hemingway messageboard, and that the reason she’s stealing money from Princeton Frat Boys is because her father needs an expensive procedure to save his life. Reggie realizes that if they sold this brick, they’d be able to save Brett’s dad.

Of course nothing comes easy in this world, and that brick was supposed to be delivered to someone, namely the local Kingpin, Bolar. These are his streets and that’s his brick. Needless to say, all these people are going to converge in one monster finale, and my guess is that they’re not all going to live.

For the most part, I was really into this. I thought all the characters were interesting and well-drawn. Each one had a goal. Each one had issues they were trying to overcome. Each one had their own unique obsession. One of the typical complaints with most newbie scripts is that all the characters sound the same. That’s definitely not the case here, as each character has been extensively thought through, allowing them to all come off as their own person.

We also have a nice reversal that draws us into the story, as Baldwin uses our stereotyping against us. We have the three typical frat boy predators and the tiny little helpless female prey. But it turns out that Brett is actually the predator and they are the prey. Whenever you get tricked as a reader, you tend to perk up a little, as the writer has proven to you that they have an ability to control a story – and in turn you.

In fact, almost every character-related aspect of this script worked. I remember discussing showing character though action the other day and Baldwin’s script does a nice job of that. For example we meet Reggie finishing up his final test, so we know his “thing” is that he’s trying to better his life. We meet Slide tearing down a waitress, so we know he’s an asshole with issues.

The only character I didn’t connect with and understand was Brett, which was a problem, because her actions are the main engine behind the story. If I’m not connecting with the protagonist, if I don’t feel like I know or understand them, it’s hard for me to invest in the story. It’s no accident that it happened here either. When you’re forced to hide your hero’s true self in order to pull off a reversal later (in this case Brett robbing the guys), you lose the opportunity to create a connection between them and the audience. It’s one of those “either/or” things where you have to decide if it’s worth it.

My other problem with Baldwin’s story is that its final act doesn’t live up to the rest of the script. There’s a natural inclination to want to converge all the storylines into one big finale, but sometimes you can be so set on that, that the motivation for some of the characters being a part of that finale isn’t that strong (or at the very least, forced).

Basically, the guys kidnap Brett so they can exact revenge on her. She texts Reggie, who comes to save her. Bolar and his thugs, who find out Reggie has the cocaine, follow Reggie to the house, and one big crazy showdown occurs. I liked how ambitious it was, but in the end there just seemed to be way too much going on. I kept forgetting who was where and why they wanted to do what. Plus there’s a twist and a surprise, both of which I had a hard time buying. It’s hard to be organic when you're forcing characters into situations they probably wouldn’t be in in the real world. Finishing any script is hard though, especially these kinds of scripts, so I can appreciate Baldwin trying to make it work.

However, I did read this thing from cover to cover without taking a break and despite some of the craziness at the end, I still wanted to know how it played out. There’s some really strong writing here and some nice character work so I’d definitely say it’s worth the read.

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

What I learned: The key to making this genre work is to make sure each story is always moving forward, that the characters are always trying to achieve something. Brett’s trying to get her money to save her dad. The Princeton guys are trying to find Brett. Bolar is trying to get his cocaine back. Reggie is trying to get the cocaine to Brett. As long as each set of characters has their goal, and that goal is strong, then story should work.