Monday, July 18, 2011

Sidney Grimes

Genre: Crime/Drama
Premise: An ex-cop just out of jail seeks revenge on the partner who set him up.
About: Brian Helgeland is an example of having to pay your dues before you make it to the big time. Many may know him as the writer of L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, and Man On Fire. He also scripted the currently in pre-production behemoth, Cleopatra. But did you know Helgeland’s first credit was “A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master?” And that he followed that up with 976-EVIL. Then the Friday the 13th TV series? New screenwriters don’t realize that there is a progression to most screenwriters’ careers. You start at the bottom and work your way up. Sidney Grimes is a spec script Helgeland wrote to direct himself. It ended up on last year’s Black List.
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Details: June 14, 2010 draft – 117 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).

Norton for Grimes?

I have to admit, I used to lump all these cop/crime flicks in together with each other. They all seemed to hit the same beats, have the same look, follow the same story. They, along with cops in general, just didn’t interest me. Then one day I realized it’s almost impossible to write two screenplays in a row without, at some point, having to write a cop character. Movies – at least the interesting ones – tend to be about things going wrong in some capacity. And if things are going wrong, cops are going to get involved to try and make it right.

And here’s the problem. If you try and fake it? If you base your cops on all the cop movies or cop TV shows you’ve watched, your cops are going to come off as really lame. That’s because you’re basing your character on entirely fictional elements. If you want to write cops that feel real (or write any job that feels real) you have to dig in and do the research. Read a few books about what a real cop’s life is like. Watch some TV shows or documentaries about real cops’ lives. Once I started doing that, I not only began to write better cops, I began to respect the complexities of their job. And I found a new appreciation for stories like “Sidney Grimes.”

Now I pay particular attention to specs from writers like Helgeland. Helgeland’s one of a handful of elite screenwriters who can’t make the 3 block trek to his local In and Out Burger without being offered a million dollar rewrite. The guy could easily make millions upon millions every year writing for others. So to gamble his time away and write something of his own? Something he has no guarantees will be bought or made? He must think that script is pretty damn special. And I want to know why he thinks that.

Title character Sidney Grimes has just gotten out of prison. Sidney used to be a cop. But through bits and pieces of conversation we gather that he was doing some bad shit on the side and eventually got caught for it. We also learn that Sidney had a sick wife, real sick, and that while he was in prison, she died. So yeah, it ain’t exactly tea and strumpets at the Grimes household.

After Grimes reclaims a stashed gun at his old home, he walks into a backyard barbecue, and coldly kills his old partner, Ray Childress. Word on the street is that Ray was the real one doing the dirty work and that he set Grimes up. That – my friends – is how you take advantage of your new found freedom.

Grimes meets up with his best friend, Roman Cahill, who’s also a cop, and who also had a beef with Childress. Needless to say, he’s pretty happy Grimes whacked him. And now he wants to work with Grimes again. Just like old times. Work with him? How can they work together? You can’t exactly rejoin the police force after using it to stock your own personal drug emporium. Well, Cahill actually runs a side business ROBBING BANKS. Sweet!

In this sea of corruption, there are a couple of good guys. There’s Lisa Bell, a hot little number, and her straight-as-an-arrow partner, Fowler. Naturally, these two work for Internal Affairs. And they suspect that Grimes is the one who killed Ray Childress. They just can’t prove it yet. So Bell and Fowler trail Grimes (and Roman), slowly piecing together just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Problem is, Grimes does some piecing together himself. And he may be surprised when the puzzle finally comes together.

Let’s start with the obvious. GREAT character name. Coming up with a name for your hero (or antihero) is the perfect way to define your character. I don’t even have to describe Sidney Grimes to you. You read that name and you immediately form a picture of him in your mind. That’s the power of a good name (and probably why Helgeland titled the movie after him).

Also, there’s something inherently compelling about corrupt cops. Remember, irony plays a big part in a lot of memorable movies. If you can create opposition between who a person is supposed to be and who they actually are, an audience is going to be drawn to that character. A cop is supposed to protect. So a cop that hurts others makes us feel unsafe. It’s why movies like Training Day and TV shows like The Shield are so popular.

The only problem with the corrupt cop route is that it’s been done to death. It doesn’t matter how wonderfully ironic a character is. If an audience is tired of seeing that kind of character, they’re gonna be bored.

So once you establish that irony, go back to what matters. The character himself. Try and make that character’s life as interesting, as compelling, as complicated as you can, so that they stick out on their own, so that they don’t need that “irony crutch.” It’s simply another extension of who they are.

Let’s take a closer look at Grimes. The woman he loved more than anything died. His good friend and partner betrayed him. The first thing he does when he gets out of jail is kill him. He’s closed off emotionally (because of his wife’s death). He’s less likely to trust others because of that betrayal. A main character in a movie like this has to have a lot of conflict going on inside of him. And Grimes is practically the definition of the word “conflict.” That’s what separates this script from its competition.

That said, “Sidney Grimes” did feel a little cliché at times. How could it not? It’s a cop flick. I could’ve done without the naked intense workouts to opera music (haven’t we seen that before?) And while the wife death did a good job of informing his character, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d seen too many similar backstories for characters like Grimes.

That leads to an unavoidable reality. On a macro level, Grimes feels a little familiar. But Sidney Grimes requires a micro look to appreciate. It’s the little details like walking into your old house (now occupied by a happy family) to grab your stashed gun. It’s your do-gooder female cop banging a random dude she could care less about to open her story. It’s Grimes begrudgingly trusting his old friend Roman again, despite his instincts telling him to trust no one. I wouldn’t say that Sidney Grimes is breaking any new ground. But it gets all the details right. And Helgeland really shows us why he’s one of the top dogs.

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

What I learned: Reality TV is your friend. Boy did I never expect to write that sentence. Did you know that 15 years ago, the only way for writers to research something was to GO TO THE LIBRARY??? Imagine that. Physically getting up and driving to the library to do research. Wow. I can’t even comprehend. These days, you have EVERYTHING at your disposal right at your computer screen. And one of the best places of all for research? Itunes. You can find a reality show for just about every profession out there. My two current favorites are The Police Women Of Maricopa County and Lockup (I have a female cop and a jail playing prominently in a screenplay). You get to see what their real routine is like, what they really talk like, procedures, how criminals really act. Not how it happens in the movies. This is a godsend as it adds a level of authenticity that ten years ago you just would not have been able to find without riding along with an officer or visiting a jail yourself. Take advantage of it!