Monday, February 14, 2011

Red Harvest

Genre: Period/Gangster
Premise: A cop rolls into the corrupt 1920s town of Personville, only to find that the man who hired him has been murdered. He must now navigate the town’s seedy underside to solve the murder and clean the town up.
About: Dashiell Hammett's book Red Harvest was the material that inspired Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More and Kurasawa's Yojimbo. After “Last Tango In Paris,” Bernardo Bertolucci decided he wanted to adapt the book for himself. He ended up writing two screenplays, this one about socialist syndicalism in the late '20s in America, and a second one that was more faithful to Hammett's original story, where the setting was changed to 1934. Actors considered for the main character were Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson. In Rome, Bertolucci and Warren Beatty talked in great detail about the film, and in 1982, Bertolucci left Europe for Los Angeles where he was to shoot Red Harvest, but never ended up making the film. Bertolucci has written and directed “1900,” the Oscar-winning “The Last Emperor,” the Liv Tyler starrer, “Stealing Beauty,” and his most recent film, 2003’s “The Dreamers.”
Writers: Bernardo Bertolucci and Marilyn Goldin
Details: 144 pages – First Draft, June 1982 (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 don’t know if I hold Bertolucci in the same high regard as most people in the film business. I understand that The Dreamers was far from his Sistine Chapel, but the movie was so messy and disjointed and sent out such a confusing message, it was as if I was watching someone who had never tried to convey a story on celluloid before. Honestly, it just seemed like an excuse to get some gratuitous incestual sex on tape.

Likewise, I’ve tried to watch Last Tango In Paris several times, but have yet to make it past the 30 minute mark. It just wanders aimlessly, with a lot of drawn out meaningless dialogue and nary a story thread to latch onto. But Red Harvest was a passion project of Bertolucci’s conceived at the peak of his powers, and a few people have written me to tell me it’s a good script. I’m not sure if these people were drunk or on the wrong end of a lobotomy, but this script isn’t good. This script is a mess.

“The Op” (cool name even if I don’t know what it means) shows up in the 1920s city of Personville - what many of the locals call “Poisonville” – to take on a job he was hired for by the town’s mayor, Willsson. But see, Personville is one of the most corrupt, most dangerous cities in America. And before The Op can even meet his employer, he finds out that he’s been murdered.

So The Op figures, hey, he traveled all this way. He might as well find out who killed his boss.

So he starts snooping around, and all avenues point to a woman named Dinah Brand, the femme fatale of femme fatales. This stunning but dangerous black widow glides between high class cocktail parties and neck deep street gutters with the craftiness of, well, a politician. She leads The Op to the killer rather quickly, leaving us to wonder: Where does the story go from here?

Well there’s a big boxing match coming up and of course it’s fixed. So when The Op figures this out, he gets the boxers to reverse the verdict, leaving every nasty crook in town out of a lot of money. The reason The Op did this? Ehh, just to fuck with people – piss’em off. Sounds like a sound plan to me. Make all the killers, rapists, criminals, and mob bosses in a city hate you (I’m being sarcastic if you can’t tell).

Anyway, the boxer who was supposed to win is murdered for not doing his job, and now The Op has a second murder to solve, a murder that, once again, Dinah Brand seems to have all the answers to.

Eventually all this leads to The Op deciding he's going to stick around and clean up this town. Why? Eh, cause he’s got nothing better to do. No outside motivation. No backstory that would dictate a need to help others. He just “feels like it.” Yeah, I know tons of people who do this sort of thing. Makes complete sense (more sarcasm btw).

When I talk about writing period pieces, this is exactly the kind of script I tell writers NOT TO WRITE. The period aspect of the story already requires a more concentrated and patient effort from the reader, since it’s a world they’re unfamiliar with. To add on an unfocused constantly changing narrative is like asking your reader to learn the Chinese alphabet…..with a blindfold on. There are just too many moving parts you’re requiring your audience to keep track of.

This is why I celebrate The King’s Speech as a period piece. It’s a simple story. Guy needs to get rid of his stutter before his big speech. We get it. We understand what he’s trying to do and what’s at stake if he doesn’t do it. Halfway through Red Harvest, you don’t know what the fuck is going on. The primary reason for this is the constantly changing narrative.

When you write a story, you have two main options. You can give your character a giant goal (like The King’s Speech) or you can give them a series of goals (like The Social Network). The second option is always harder to pull off because the audience gets restless when they don’t have that overarching purpose to look forward to. They instinctively want to know what the point of it all is.

One thing's for sure.  If you do lead them along one tiny goal at a time, those goals better be damn interesting. And therein lies the problem. How do you come up with 8 or 9 extremely interesting goals in a row? You usually can’t. That combined with the audience’s impatience of not knowing what the point is results in the story running out of steam, and that’s exactly what happens here.

Red Harvest starts out with a compelling murder. Who killed Mr. Willsson? If that story had lasted the length of the screenplay (the "main goal"), Red Harvest probably would’ve been in good shape. Instead, it’s solved by page 30! Uh oh, the story needs a new goal now. What’s the new goal? An upcoming boxing match! Not even really a goal. It’s just an event. Technically, Op should’ve left by now. But okay, he’s going to a boxing match. We’ll roll with it.

At the end of the boxing match, there’s another murder. Okay, I guess that works. It’s a little weird that we had a way more compelling murder earlier that we chose to wrap up so we could replace it with this smaller less interesting one, but at least the main character has something to do again. Unfortunately, the story tells us who the killer is in *this* murder a little after the midway point. Which leaves us once again with…no goal.

Bertolucci decides the new goal is “to clean up the town.” That’s what The Op sets out to do. Clean up the town. Not only is this a vague goal but it’s boring and not properly motivated. Why the fuck does The Op care about cleaning up this town? He has nothing personally invested in this place. He just showed up a week ago. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that we quickly get bored. A weak goal combined with a weak motivation is screenplay suicide. You might as well change your font to comic sans and print your screenplay on green construction paper because your script is done.

And it’s too bad, because the seeds were here for something cool. The lone mysterious stranger who rides into a corrupt town, the genesis for many a great Western, is a solid one. We enjoy seeing the lone hero put all the bad guys in their place. And for the first 40-50 pages, when the script is focused and therefore maximizing this dynamic, Red Harvest is pretty damn good. Even the wishy-washy boxing thread works because the whole town’s excited for it (and we get excited by association)

But in the end, the fact that there’s no overarching goal kills this thing, and is the reason why it becomes a rambling incoherent mess by the time the third act arrives.

The solution to this is quite simple. You see, the best movies are movies that implement both types of goal-set narratives. There should be a giant goal and then a series of smaller goals that lead to that final goal. So why not make Willsson’s death a mystery that lasts the entire movie? Then you can kill off other people along the way, and each murder represents a goal he must achieve before he can get closer to understanding the big murder (Willsson’s). It’s such a simple fix, I feel like I cheated.

Red Harvest isn’t a total disaster. Just its second half is, and should serve as a warning for those of you with weak goals and weaker motivations in your screenplays. You want to make sure that that stuff is strong as a rock, ESPECIALLY in period pieces where it’s easier for the reader to get lost or lose track of things. And remember, if these kinds of mistakes can happen to an Oscar winner, they can happen to anyone, so stay on top of it kemo sabe.

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

What I learned: Don’t allow your writing to get lazier as the script goes on. I know we say “Make your first ten pages great!” And that’s definitely good advice. But one thing I notice is that a lot of writers will make their first 10-30 pages perfect - Paragraphs short, descriptions crisp, prose is beautiful – then get sloppy after that. That’s what you see here. The first 20 pages are really well written, then the paragraphs get chunkier. You can smell the lack of effort creeping onto the page. It gives off the impression that Bertolucci is slacking, that he’s not trying as hard. The second you’re not giving us your all, we smell it and are ready to move on.