Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Keep

Genre: Ghost/Horror
Premise: Two friends reunite as adults to renovate a castle. But their inability to get into the castle’s Keep raises questions as to what, or who, is inside.
About: The Keep is an adaptation of a bestselling book by Jennifer Egan. Ehren Kruger (who adapted The Keep) has received some heat over the years, and I’m not sure why. He broke in with Arlington Road, a great screenplay. He then went on to write Reindeer Games, The Ring, and the underrated The Skeleton Key. I suppose he gets shit for writing Scream 3 and 4, as well as Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen. But I mean come on. Those are obviously million dollar assignments where quality is not of the utmost importance. Would you turn down a million bucks to rewrite an unsaveble Transformers screenplay? I know I wouldn't. An interesting side note here is that Niels Arden Oplev is attached to direct The Keep. Niels is the director of the original “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” trilogy.
Writer: Ehren Kruger (based on the novel by Jennifer Egan)
Details: 119 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).

99 times out of a 100, if a script hasn’t hooked me by page 20, it’s not going to hook me. I’ve had the pleasure of proving this statistic often as I rarely, if ever, stop reading a script. That means even though I know a script is terrible 1/5 of the way through, I continue enduring all the gory details until the bitter end. So count me surprised when I’d all but given up on The Keep 20 pages in, only to watch it perform a miraculous comeback Dallas Mavericks Game 2 style. I’m not sure what happened or how it pulled it off, but I’ll do my best to figure it out.

30-something rough and tumble Danny is on his way to an old discarded European castle which his former friend, Howard King, recently purchased to turn into some kind of new-age hotel. The old friends could not be leading more different lives. Danny is single and always looking for his next paycheck. Howard is embarrassingly successful with a beautiful wife and son, both of whom are joining him on his first visit to his new purchase.

The reason they’re here is to start preliminary efforts on the renovation. But perhaps more importantly, Howard would like to get inside the Keep (the tower at the edge of the castle), which hasn’t been opened in more than a century. For those who don’t know what a Keep is, it’s the last line of defense in an attack, a 17th century version of a “Panic Room” if you will. This Keep has been closed up pretty good, and that means it’s going to take everything they’ve got to get inside.

Halfway across the world (back in California), 33 year old Holly Farrell, a failed writer, has taken a job to teach prison inmates how to write. Now I’m not sure I’d personally approve of an endeavor where I put a hot young vulnerable woman in front of a bunch of horny murderous inmates for a few hours a week, but hey, to each warden his own.

It’s here that Holly meets Ray Dobbs, a reclusive inmate who seems to be the only one in her class interested in learning. Holly assigns the group a series of writing assignments, and Ray attacks them with particular vigor. While the rest of the inmates laugh at Ray’s over-enthusiasm, Holly sees in him a writer with immense talent, more talent than she’s ever dreamed of having herself.

What frustrated me most about The Keep was that these two worlds had seemingly zilch to do with one another at first. Why the hell were we cutting back and forth between a stupid pretend haunted castle and a woman giving writing lessons to a bunch of rapists? But then the first of many twists in The Keep arrives. Danny and Howard’s tale is the story Ray is writing in Holly’s class. Not coincidentally, this is when The Keep began to get good. Really good.

Back at the castle, Howard and Danny are doing everything they can to get into the Keep, to the point where Howard sends his young son into a tiny hole in order to unlock the Keep’s door from the inside. Howard’s son sees something inside the Keep, but we don’t. We’re on the outside, hearing all of this play out invisibly - forced, like any great scary story - to fill in the gaps with our own imagination.

Danny also starts seeing things, like an old woman up in the Keep’s window, only to find out later that the castle is full of pictures of her – a woman known as the Baroness, who used to own the castle. Danny could’ve swore he saw a real person. But maybe it was just one of the paintings. Impossible to know for sure.

Back at the prison, Holly starts finding strange invitations to The Keep, invitations that only existed in Ray’s story. As her husband and the guards start to fear for her life, they beg her to give up the class. But she is so taken by Ray’s enormous talent that she’ll stop at nothing to see his story through til the end. But what will the ending be? What is inside The Keep? And is this just a story? Or something more?

I’m just going to say it. This was awesome. Let’s start with the uniqueness of the idea. I always ask for something different, something we’re not used to. And the dual-storylines here present a unique narrative. Not only are we jumping back and forth between two opposing story threads, but each thread is so different from the other that you really have no idea how they’re going to come together.  All you know is you want to find out. .

Despite the unorthodox structure, the writers still use powerful tried-and-true storytelling techniques to keep our interest. Our characters aren’t just bumbling around a castle running into ghosts. They have a strong goal (to get into the Keep) and a strong mystery to solve (find out what’s in the Keep). These two things alone would've made this story worth reading, but the great thing about this script is that they’re just two small pieces in a much larger puzzle.

To build on that curiosity, they also incorporate a huge screenwriting no-no…….FLASHBACKS. No! Not the F Word! There’s good reason for screenwriters to avoid flashbacks. They often stop the story cold, killing the momentum. Since 99% of writers struggle to keep the momentum WITHOUT using flashbacks, using flashbacks is typically a death knell. Even worse is when the flashbacks contain characters that aren’t in the story! In fact, we were just talking about this during Andrew’s Amateur Friday entry a couple of months ago, where the flashbacks, while imaginative, didn’t add enough to the story to justify their existence. The difference here is that each of the flashback stories are extremely well-crafted and entertaining. I mean there’s no other way to put it. They were just good stories. From the secrets of the Baroness’ past, to the slaying of one of the former families, down to the Monk fire. All of them had this intense detailed depth. And even better, they’re all paid off later in the screenplay.

But what really sets The Keep apart is the ending. Any story is elevated by a great ending, but especially ghost stories, where there are often many unanswered questions going into the third act. Keep’s ending is a doozy and I’m going to partly spoil why, so look away if you need to. The Keep keeps (no pun intended) your focus on the “A” storyline, which (in my opinion) is the castle, while secretly using its B storyline for a series of setups that will pay off later in a huge way. The jail storyline is almost one big diversion tactic, in that the writers keep it just uninteresting enough so that we’re more focused on the castle storyline, but interesting enough so that we still care. In the end, we believe it’s only there so Ray can skip around in the story, kind of like they do with The Princess Bride. However, when that’s flipped on its head, and we realize that there’s actually much more going on there, it ends up resulting in a brilliant payoff. Endings are so hard to get right. But when you nail one, you can easily have a classic on your hands. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say The Keep’s ending is a classic, but it’s easily the best ghost story finish since The Sixth Sense and The Ring.

For the record, there are a few warts here. The latter half of the “prison writing contest” is clumsily executed and almost kills the awesome late reveal. Also, Holly’s boyfriend (or husband) is such an over the top asshole with no nuance whatsoever that you might as well have changed Holly’s name to Smurfette and called the boyfriend Gargamel. I don’t know why writers make this mistake. Your bad guys can’t be one-dimensional assholes, constantly berating your protagonists for no other reason than you want the reader to hate them. It always comes off feeling false.

But outside of that, this script brought the goods. Just good enough to sneak into the Top 25.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (Top 25!)
[ ] genius

What I learned: Today is a good reminder to look at your idea from all angles before you start. Sometimes we jump on the easiest ride because it’s the one we feel the most comfortable on (the single protagonist single goal story). But that story’s been told so many times before, it’s hard to make it stand out. This dual-protagonists dual-storyline approach really keeps The Keep fresh all the way through, and that’s what makes it such a memorable read. So remember: The most obvious way is not always the best way.