Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea

Genre: Drama
Premise: After a young man's wife dies, he befriends a strange homeless girl who's building a raft she hopes to sail away with.
About: The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea is based on the memoirs of Henry Hertzel Jr. and will star Zach Braff, Chloe Moretz, and Jessica Biel. Robbie Pickering, the writer, had his first produced credit with Natural Selection, a comedy about a woman who goes on a journey to find the mullet-headed son her husband secretly had via donating to a sperm bank. That film debuted at SXSW last year.
Writer: Robbie Pickering
Details: 107 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’m fully aware that I’ve reached the quota on dead wives scripts on this site (Dogs of Babel, Honeymoon With Harry, After Hailey), but I swear to you I didn’t know what this was about when I picked it up. Actually, I was a little bummed, as this specific script has some similar elements to a script I myself am working on (for the record, there are no dead wives in my script). But in the end, the similarities were negligible, and I was able to get through “Deep Blue Sea” confidence intact. As for whether “Deep Blue Sea” made it through intact, that’s another question. This is one odd puppy. And I’m not really sure what to make of it.

33 year old architect Henry Hertzel slips into a dress shirt, ready to begin his day, a day that will end with his wife, Cindy, driving their jeep into a pole and not living to tell about it. Of course, that hasn’t happened yet. Right now, we’re listening to Cindy get ready on the other side of the bathroom door while Henry goes through his own morning ritual. Just listening to these two talk, you can tell they’re deeply in love.

So when Henry gets the news later that day, it’s no surprise that he’s beyond devastated. And before he’s able to wrap his head around it, Cindy’s family is already putting him in charge of dispensing of her ashes.

Luckily, Henry becomes distracted by a peculiar 15 year old homeless girl who’s known for junk scavenging in the neighborhood. He remembers his wife mentioning the girl, and begins to take an interest in her. He eventually finds out that she’s hauling all this junk back to an abandoned barn where she’s building a raft to sail away to the Azores Islands.

So Henry, along with his contractors, Pele and Retard (yes, his name is Retard) offer to help her. She’s reluctant at first, as she doesn’t trust anybody, but his building experience becomes too valuable to pass up, and she decides to give him a shot.

The building of the raft begins to consume so much of his time, that soon he’s skipping work on a daily basis. Although it seemed inevitable, Henry finally realizes that he wants to join the girl (Millie) on her trip to the Azores. He wants to sail away into the great unknown.

The problem is his mother-in-law, Julie, learns about Henry’s exploits with this girl and becomes very concerned. She begs him to seek some help, but he refuses, becoming more and more obsessed with completing the raft. In the end, he’ll have to fend her and others off to reach his goal, as well as overcome a shocking truth about Millie.

I feel like I’ve read three scripts this week all with tons of potential, none of which realized that potential. There are so many neat ideas packed into “Deep Blue Sea,” but I’m not sure they come together in a cohesive or satisfying way.

These sort of quasi-mystical concepts are harder to pull off than they look, because the tone is so tricky. You don’t want to play up the magical/quirky aspects too much, because the story won’t feel realistic, but you can’t skimp on them either, since they're the hook that brought people in in the first place.

That’s why I liked Dogs of Babel so much. It walks that line with pinpoint accuracy. And it’s a great reminder of why that script is so awesome. It makes you believe in the impossible even if it isn’t possible. In fact, Dogs of Babel is a perfect comparison piece for “Deep Blue Sea.” When you read that script, you really feel like the writer had a plan, that they mapped out their story. In “Deep Blue Sea,” you feel more like the writer had an idea, and just scribbled it down stream-of-conscious style. As a result, the script comes off as a messier not-as-good version of “Babel.”

Indeed, I found myself frustrated by the sloppiness of the characters and the narrative in “Sea.” You have the funny guy named Retard. You have the raft made out of junk. You have the weird homeless girl with her strange way of talking. You have the imaginary flashbacks of pretend famous people sailing across oceans. There’s no structure here. Just ideas.

For example, I wasn’t sure why anyone was doing anything. Millie was building a raft to sail somewhere…but why? Because she wanted to sail somewhere? And while at first Henry’s motivation for hanging out with Millie made sense (his wife asked him to check on her before she died), it becomes increasingly unclear why he continues to hang around her other than the vague conceit that he’s having trouble moving on.

Or we’d get these moments of total randomness like a picture of Henry’s wife when she was 15 years old, who looks exactly like Millie does now, setting up a big revelation somewhere down the line. But then it’s never mentioned again. As a reader, when things are set up but never paid off, it makes me question just how much effort was put into the rewriting.

My biggest issue though, was the lack of any true character exploration. Don’t get me wrong. Characters are experiencing things here (the loss of a wife) and having deep conversations (discussing the dead wife), but much more emphasis is put on the external qualities of the characters as opposed to the internal. As a result, we get caricatures, characters who are defined by their quirky attributes (one named Retard, one who collects and wears trash). But what about the inside of these people? Why they are the way they are? Look at After Hailey, where we knew the main character’s flaw was his inability to settle down. This informed his entire character, as the central conflict was about him attempting to leave town (to avoid settling down) but constantly being pulled back (by his stepson, by his sister, by the house). In “Deep Blue Sea,” all I knew about the characters was their quirky exteriors, their weird mannerisms, and that made it hard to connect with them on a deep level.

The truth is, there may be some symbolism here that I’m just not getting (I’m notoriously bad at picking up on symbolism). The stuff with the sea, the dog named AHAB, the friend named RETARD. I’m half-expecting someone in the comments to say, “Don’t you get it Carson? This is about the slowly deteriorating state of the capitalist construct and our over-reliance on Middle Eastern oil.” Well, symbolism or no symbolism, I wanted to be entertained, and while there were some really neat ideas in “Deep Blue Sea,” they never came together for me.

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

What I learned: Now this doesn’t apply exactly to this script because we realize that Millie has only been homeless for a few days, but a word of warning to those of you writing homeless people into your scripts. Don’t do it. Unless you’ve been homeless and know what it’s like, do not write a major homeless character into your movie. Every single homeless character I’ve ever read in a script reads like an ignorant writer’s idea of what a homeless person would be like based on TV shows or movies they’ve seen. If you’re going to do research, go out and interview homeless people and figure out what their day-to-day life REALLY consists of? Then fine. But if you’re just going to guess? Don’t do it. Cause I promise you it will come off as a really shallow version of a homeless person. Go rent Pay It Forward and watch Jim Caveziel’s homeless character to see what I’m talking about (The “The first time you sleep in a dumpster” monologue may be the worst monologue ever written).

What I learned 2: When one character makes a quick off-the-cuff analysis of another character, try to come up with a more original response than, “Thanks Dr. Phil.” I’ve read that line somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 billion times.