Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Red Lights


Genre: Thriller
Premise: (from IMDB) Centers on a psychologist, and her assistant, whose study of paranormal activity leads them to investigate a world-renowned psychic.
About: Red Lights is the follow-up effort of Rodrigo Cortes, the director of Buried. Not only is Cortes directing the movie, but he also wrote the screenplay. The cast is a good one, including Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, and new breakout star after her performance in Sundance darling, Martha Marcy May Marlane, Elizabeth Olsen. The movie started shooting a couple of weeks ago.
Writer: Rodrigo Cortes
Details: 124 pages – October 2010 draft (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).

One thing I worried about after reading Buried was, “Will an audience be able to handle staying in a single enclosed space for the entirety of the movie?” The answer to that, of course, would depend on the director. So when I finally saw the film and spent 90 minutes in a coffin never once wishing we were cutting to an exterior location, I knew they picked the right guy. It’s probably not a surprise, then, that Cortes has found himself as one of the more in-demand young directors in Hollywood, evidenced by the sweet cast he’s secured for this project.

But then I found out Cortes would also be writing the movie. Directors, by their very nature, tend to put more emphasis on the visual than the written word. They’re thinking of crafting that perfect shot or that unique sequence nobody’s ever seen before, not rewriting the living hell out of a plot point until it sings on the page. There are exceptions of course (early Cameron Crowe, early James Cameron, Tarantino) but I always feel like we’re getting the short end of the writing stick when a director writes his own script, and although I love to be proven wrong, it usually doesn’t happen.

But hey, I was willing to give Red Lights a chance. The premise sounded cool and his debut American movie worked. So why not?

59 year old Dr. Margaret Matheson has dedicated her life to debunking psychics, those fakers who claim to have otherworldly powers, who are able to peek into the unseen dimensions that exist just outside our realm of consciousness. If you say you saw an alien, can talk to the dead, can read minds, can move objects with your brain, Matheson will calmly walk through your door and prove that you can’t.

She’s accompanied by 33 year old physicist Thomas Buckley, who has a little more faith in the supernatural than Margaret, but is quietly shocked as again and again Margaret is able to expose every “real” case they encounter.

While the two debunk cases including a haunted house (that turns out to be one of the daughters banging on the wall) and a faith healer (who’s being fed information about his victims through an earpiece), the most popular psychic in history, the blind Simon Silver, is gearing up for a comeback. The man used to be an iconic figure, one of the only popular psychics to have ever stood up to scientific scrutiny. When he books a series of shows, Thomas is eager to go after him. If they can prove that this guy is a fraud, they can basically prove that the whole field is a sham. But for whatever reason, Margaret refuses to mess with Silver. There’s something different about this one, something that doesn’t quite add up.

But when Silver finally agrees to allows his powers to be scrutinized by top level scientists to once and for prove he’s not a sham, Thomas will do anything to get on the committee, as he suspects Silver will try and manipulate the results. However when Silver gets wind of this man’s personal vendetta, he becomes fixated on him, and Thomas quickly realizes that he may be in over his head.

Red Lights is a funky little thriller that captivates you when it’s working and baffles you when it’s not. Imagine Fringe mixed with The Prestige and you have a pretty good idea of the script. I think the big problem here is that the story is weighed down by too many unneeded scenes, scenes that go on for too long, and scenes that are redundant. For example, you really only need one scene to establish your hero’s abilities – in this case the scene where she exposes the fake haunted house. But we also get two additional scenes reinforcing this ability. This would be fine if they pushed the plot forward in some way.  But they do not.  One of those scenes in particular, when they go to the preacher’s sermon, just goes on forever. It could’ve accomplished the same thing in half the time but refused to end. These are things pure screenwriters will endlessly work out until they get it right. But here, the mantra seems to be “more is more,” and as a result, it takes us a really long time to get to the plot.

In fact, I would say that the plot (take down Silver) isn’t revealed until halfway through the script . Complicating this is that it’s never entirely clear what the motivations of our main characters are for doing this. Margaret has an experience from her past that sort of explains why she’s so intent on exposing these people, but she doesn't want to mess with Silver, so it's not really applicable.  Thomas, on the other hand, never explains why he needs to take down Silver so bad, which is problematic, since he eventually becomes the driving force behind the story.  If we’re unclear on why our main character is doing what he’s doing, your story is in some trouble.

But all is not lost. What Red Lights loses in the structural department, it finds in the mood/tone department. The entire script is eerie, especially the character of Silver, who we’re constantly trying to figure out. It’s a nice little dance. Silver seems to not want to be exposed for something. Yet if he’s afraid of being exposed, how is he able to make all these otherworldly attacks on our heroes? That simple question drives our need to find out how this ends.

In fact, I would say Silver is the key to this screenplay working. Much like both characters in The Prestige or Edward Norton’s character in The Illusionist, that central mystery of “How does he do it?” implores us to watch on. We want to know how Silver is pulling it off. So even though the story takes too long to get going, and gets bogged down in redundancy, the power of that question keeps us intrigued.

And really, this is what writing comes down to. How do you keep the audience’s interest? You should be able to randomly point to any page in your script and explain why, at that very moment, the audience will still be interested in what’s going on. Is it because you desperately want the character to achieve his goal (get the Ark in Indiana Jones), is it because you desperately want two people to be together (When Harry Met Sally), or is it powerful mystery (Is Silver real or not?). That just might be enough for your script to work.

Do I have some issues with it? Sure, of course. Besides the issues I mentioned above, this is yet another script where there’s very little conflict going on in the central relationship (Margaret and Thomas). But Red Lights is a spooky script with an intriguing antagonist that has enough mystery and a unique enough story rhythm to keep you guessing til the end. I’d 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: When I see a script that’s this long (125 pages), the first thing I think is, I'll bet anything there's too much fat here. But I always ALWAYS allow the writer to prove me wrong. If I read that first act and the writer isn’t reintroducing his character three times, if he isn’t staying in scenes for 2-3 pages too long, if he’s not writing scenes that don’t push the story forward, if we get to the inciting incident early, I gladly tip my hat and say, “Okay, you proved me wrong.” But after reading hundreds of 125+ page screenplays, you know how many times that’s happened? Once. These huge page counts go hand in hand with these mistakes. I mean, do you really think it's a coincidence that in a 125 page screenplay, the plot doesn't emerge until page 60?  So if you’re going to write a 125 page script, prove that you need all 125 of those pages! Don’t rewrite the same scene in a slightly different location ten pages later. Don’t write scenes that establish the same things about your character you've already told us. Don’t write scenes that aren’t pushing the story forward. You have to be sparse. You have to be diligent. You have to get to your story quickly.  Cortes has a little bit of an excuse because he may be shooting stuff he knows he’s going to cut, but in the spec world, you don’t have that luxury.