Friday, February 11, 2011

New Writer Friday - Wrong Number

Genre: Action
Premise: Eight hostages are held inside a city bank. Their only hope is a man who has called the wrong number and is told that if he hangs up the phone, the hostages will die.  Phone Booth meets Die Hard.
About: Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted.
Writer: Nick Everhart
Details: 98 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).

I thought as long as we’re on this Die Hard kick, why not tackle a screenplay that’s not only inspired by the action classic, but repeatedly references it as well. Wrong Number is the kind of spec idea that gives you the best chance of getting noticed as an unknown screenwriter. It’s contained, it’s intense, it’s short (98 pages) and it’s got a hook. Everhart definitely has the right idea here.

My question is, is the hook enough of a hook? Wrong Number’s premise dangles precariously close to parody, a fingernail away from falling into a Simpsons episode. If Funny or Die was around in 1988, might they use a premise like this to make fun of Die Hard? I don’t know but maybe. That was a big question going into this. Would it be able to make its premise compelling for a full 98 minutes?

We don’t know much about Carl when we meet him. He’s just a guy who spent last night in a Motel 6 and who doesn’t seem comfortable wearing his wedding ring.

So when his first call of the morning goes to the bank, we’re not sure why. But boy does his world turn upside-down when that call is made. A man – a very bad man – has answered the phone. This man is holding eight people hostage and for some odd reason, he wants Carl to stay on the phone with him. In fact, he tells Carl that if he hangs up, he’ll shoot one of those hostages.

Carl pleads with the man, who we’ll come to know as Jack, that he’s just a guy who dialed the wrong number and doesn’t want to be involved. But since Jack’s a high-functioning lunatic, he gives Carl a big fat “tough luck” and the game is on.

What the game is becomes the question of the day however. Jack doesn’t seem to have a plan here. He just spouts off his philosophies on human existence, concluding that sometimes you gotta shake shit up to remind yourself you’re alive. For most people this might mean quitting your job or running a marathon. For Jack, it’s holding a bunch of innocent people hostage.

Soon, we find out Carl’s secret, that this was not, indeed, a “wrong number,” but that he was calling his wife, Ashley, who’s actually one of the hostages. And somehow, between attempts to placate Jack’s insanity, he’s gotta find a discreet way to get her to safety.

Complicating the wife-saving is the huge police force that sets up shop in front of the bank, headed up by newly appointed Captain Holly, a woman trying to prove she’s “man” enough to handle the job.

(Spoilers) Little do she and Carl know, however, that Jack’s had a plan all along. This *is* a robbery, and every single moment has been carefully planned out, including this call with Carl. Carl will now have to ditch the confines of this phone call, race over to the bank, and save everyone before it’s too late.

Wrong Number is a tough script to analyze because while its structure is reasonably familiar, the limiations of the premise lead to some offbeat choices which I’m not sure do the story justice. For example, the script starts off with this phone call (and I have to give it to Everhart – less than 2 pages in and the call is made – we’re right in the thick of the story by page 5), but the villain has no goal. He just wants to talk.

And talk.

And talk.

And while Everhart does a pretty impressive job with most of the dialogue, that lack of a driving force starts to drag the script down. I’m not saying it ruined the script, because we know at some point a goal will emerge, but my biggest fear when seeing this premise was that there would be too much talking and not enough plot. Unfortunately, through the first half of the screenplay, that’s exactly what happens.

Now once the second half kicks in and the various threads shift into gear, the script picks up pace. Except it does so in the wrong places. The most developed character in the script is Captain Holly.  Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the depth here (her having doubts in herself - the force having doubts whether she can handle the job), but to me, Captain Holly is not the character we should be spending so much time on in Wrong Number. That character should be Ashley, Carl’s wife.

We barely learn anything about Ashley in Wrong Number and yet this is Carl’s whole motivation for staying on the phone. It’s for her. Think about Die Hard if we just got one 60 second scene with Holly, McClane’s wife, talking to Tagaki. That’s basically what we get here. We’ve been debating “unresolved conflict in a relationship” a lot lately. Well here, we don’t know what the hell the relationship is because outside of a couple of vague moments with Carl’s wedding ring in the opening scene, these two are a mystery to us.

This leads to my biggest problem with the script, which is that we don’t know any of the hostages. As someone pointed out in the Die Hard 2 comments, we didn’t really know the hostages in Die Hard either. But this is a different movie. It’s much more intimate, with only a single robber and a small group of hostages. We need to get to know these people, especially Ashley. The more we know her, the more we’re going to want Carl to save her. I’d actually recommend giving her all of Captain Holly’s screen time, or, if you wanted to try something different, making Captain Holly Carl’s wife.

Gary Oldman for Jack?

Another problem is that Carl knows too much about what to do for a random Joe Schmoe who paints houses for a living. How does he know, for example, every intimate detail of calming a person down who’s having a panic attack? And he seems to be quite comfortable jumping into the middle of this chaotic urban battleground in the final act. This is why writers usually make characters in these situations cops (like McClane). So it’s somewhat believable when they start kicking ass. I mean, would you have believed everything McClane did in Die Hard had he been an electrician? Or a janitor?

So yeah, there’s a lot of stuff here that makes you go, “Hmmmmm.”

BUT! Wrong Number has a lot going for it as well. First of all, I thought the dialogue was good for an action movie. If you’re writing a movie where dialogue is going to be featured, such as a movie based on a phone call, you better be good at dialogue, and I thought Everhart was. The back and forth between Jack and Carl didn’t reach the heights of classics like Die Hard, but it was better than most action flicks I see.

I also thought the ending was pretty exciting, even if there were a lot of loose ends. For example, the series of events that led to Jack kidnapping Carl in an ambulance were…ehhhh…how do I put this nicely?...eccentric? Jack going through all this trouble to isolate Carl alone in an ambulance would imply that he had been planning this whole thing from the very first second. Which would of course mean he’d have known Carl was going to call, known that Carl was going to come to the bank, etc. It was silly and over-the-top and fun, but one thing it definitely was not, was believable.

So in the end, there were too many plot holes in Wrong Number, the key characters (mainly the wife and the other hostages) weren’t explored enough, and I’m not sure this premise was enough to sustain an entire movie. But I’m definitely a fan of Everhart’s potential as a writer. If I were covering this for an agency or a production co., I’d recommend Everhart for a further look.

A flawed but fun script.

Script link: Wrong Number

Script rating:

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

Writer rating:

[ ] Stay away from the Final Draft
[ ] Still needs work
[x] On his way up
[ ] Moneymaker
[ ] The next Frank Darabont

What I learned: Be careful you’re not too subtle when setting up your characters and their problems. While I respect not hitting the reader over the head with a piece of information, you still need to give us enough information so that we understand a character’s predicament. In Wrong Number, we see Carl discard a Motel 6 receipt and then take off his wedding ring before calling the bank. It was enough to tell us that there was something wrong with his marriage, but I don’t believe it was enough. I wanted to know what led to their problems, how long ago these problems occurred, and overall, just a more specific detailing of their situation. Because I wasn’t clear on what had happened in their relationship, I wasn’t that interested in seeing them get back together.