Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bobby Blue Sky

Genre: Dark Comedy
Premise: Three siblings deal with the fallout of their father's successful children's book series that based its lead character on their baby brother.
About: Bobby Blue Sky was purchased last year and will star Paul Rudd, Topher Grace and Kristin Wiig. The writer, Emily Kapnek, has been working in TV as both a writer and producer for five years now. She’s worked on the under-appreciated Parks and Recreation, and the hit HBO show, Hung.
Writer: Emily Kapnek
Details: 99 pages (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).

 Topher will play Bobby.

Awhile back I was talking about “degree of difficulty” and how it relates to screenwriting. If it were as easy as coming up with a great idea and executing it, every screenwriter would be a millionaire. One of the reasons a lot of scripts fail is because the writer doesn’t understand that they’ve established a degree of difficulty higher than what they’re capable of pulling off.

Once again, the simplest stories to tell are the ones with a clear main character who has a clear main objective (or goal). Rocky. The King’s Speech. Raiders of The Lost Ark. Shrek. Main character wants something. Main character tries to get something. The more you deviate from that formula, the more elusive a successful execution of your story becomes.

The problem, of course, is that the best way to separate yourself from the pack is to write something different – something unique. And therein lies the rub. The more unique the idea, the higher the degree of difficulty. Ugh. No wonder this screenwriting thing is so hard.

Bobby Blue Sky is a script that has a high degree of difficulty - maybe higher than it realizes - and for that reason, spends a lot of its running time fighting against itself. It’s a strange beast, because its quirky sensibilities really shine in places. But there are just as many moments where the light goes out and you find yourself desperately feeling for a way out of the room.

I don’t usually like quotes at the beginning of scripts, but this one sets up the story perfectly. “It seemed to me, almost, that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.” - Christopher Robin Milne (son of A.A. Milne, who wrote the “Winnie The Pooh” series).

That’s essentially what Bobby Blue Sky is about: A freakishly selfish author, Sid Bluestone, who uses his youngest of three kids to inspire a book series called “Bobby Blue Sky” that ends up becoming an empire. 25 years later, Bobby, the inspiration, and his older siblings, Todd and Lisa, are left to cope with the after effects of this strange form of fame (being a child celebrity, yet never having any personal celebrity experiences or making any money off the experience yourself).

Todd, the oldest, is the most bitter. Being ignored his whole life has led to him playing scratch off lottery tickets in order to pay off gambling debts. Lisa, the sister, ended up marrying a shrink and writing her own unpublished book series about, well, herself – a girl named Lisa who’s been ignored her whole life. And then there’s Bobby, who lives with the guilt of ruining his sibling’s lives, and therefore is racked with depression.

The story is cleverly narrated by Kiki, the East African nanny that used to take care of Bobby, in the same manner that a parent would read Winnie The Pooh to their children. Kiki is the lone beacon of hope in Bobby’s life, the only time he remembers being happy. And so to avoid spiraling down into an even deeper depression, Bobby decides that he must go on a trek and find Kiki.

In the meantime, Todd is desperately trying to come up with an idea to make money so he can pay off these thugs. What if, he thinks, Bobby wrote a new book continuing the adventures of Bobby Blue Sky? He could then manage Bobby and, voila, money problems solved. He’s shocked when Bobby (out of guilt) actually says yes, and thinks he’s in the clear. But things get complicated when Bobby starts writing some really depressing shit – the exact opposite of what Bobby Blue Sky represents - and Lisa gets in on the action, wanting her Angry Lisa book series included in the deal. Naturally, with so many unresolved weird issues from childhood, the dysfunctional family fight each other to achieve even the most mundane of tasks. The question is, will they be able to pull it together in time to solve their individual problems?

Okay so why is the degree of difficulty so high here? What is it that makes Bobby Blue Sky such a hard script to write? Well it starts with us having three protagonists instead of one (the three siblings). It’s hard enough to create a single compelling character that an audience wants to follow. So to now have to create three has just tripled the workload. Next is the voice over from the uninvolved party. I thought it was cute – the way Kiki narrates their story like a children’s book – but whenever you have the narration dictating the narrative, particularly from someone who’s not directly involved in the story, you lose some naturalism, because it’s the narrator that’s pulling the story along, not the characters.

Next, the subject matter’s a mix between depressing and angry. Most audiences like some form of hope, but this script is almost exclusively about selfishness and anger. That’s hard to pull off no matter how talented of a writer you are. And finally, there’s no clear goal set up for the characters (similar to what we dealt with in Red Harvest). It starts off about finding Kiki, but that problem is solved quickly. Next is writing the book, but that thread ends before the third act arrives. Without a plot we have no direction. Without a direction, we have no stakes. Without any stakes…I mean…you’re making it really hard on yourself to get the audience to care.

Having said that, I have to commend Bobby Blue Sky for giving me a reading experience I’ve never had before. The writing itself is good and to say the story is unpredictable is an understatement. I was constantly turning the pages wondering what the hell was going to happen next. That doesn’t happen very often when I read a screenplay.

The script’s weird subject matter leads to some really funny moments as well, like when Bobby has a fantasy where he teams up with an injured squirrel to write his book. Or when the president of the Bobby Blue Sky fan club takes matters into her own hands when she reads the atrocities Bobby has put the famous character through.

I guess I just wanted a little more…optimism. The characters were tough to root for because they were so mean-spirited, selfish, or hopeless. The one character who embodied hope, Kiki, was only in the story for an instant before being kicked aside. And the father – my God the father – was just a terrible human being. Who uses their child to make hundreds of millions of dollars and doesn’t give them a single penny? Or ignores them – is even embarrassed by them – when he sees them in public?

I always have trouble with villains like that, who are so one-dimensionally evil that they’re not realistic. I mean it’s one thing to not be interested in your children to the point where you never call them or don’t care about their lives. That happens every day. But to exploit your child to the tune of 200 million dollars and then act like they’re an annoyance whenever they call up or stop by…I mean, that’s just not realistic. At the very least the guy would *pretend* to be interested in his child’s life, particularly because he wouldn’t be where he was without him. Yeah, the father character was easily my biggest issue with Bobby Blue Sky.

However you see it, there’s no denying this movie is going to be different. I think the casting is exactly what it needs to be because the film is going to depend on its humor to offset all of the anger. And I love these three actors for the roles. But as a script, it just wasn’t for me. It was too nasty.

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

What I learned: Depression is a tough subject matter to tackle in a screenplay. Most of the people reading scripts and most of the people who go to movies don’t want to be depressed. Even the depressed people who can relate to the characters tend to go to movies to be cheered up, not reminded of how miserable their lives are. For that reason, I think films about depression need to be balanced with hope – and the best way to provide that hope is with a healthy dose of comedy. Little Miss Sunshine is the perfect example. Steve Carrel’s character is dealing with depression, but the film balances that out with a number of funny characters. Or the number 1 Black List script from 2008, The Beaver - another script about depression filled with laughs in the form of a British-accented Beaver puppet. It’s a dangerous subject matter to tackle, so just make sure you arm your funny bone before going in.