Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How It Ends

Genre: Thriller/Sci-Fi/Drama
Premise: A man must race across the US to save his pregnant wife as the apocalypse rains down around him.
About: I think this is a brand-new writer. The script appeared in the lower third of the 2010 black list. It was picked up by a small production company soonafter.
Writer: Brooks McLaren
Details: 107 pages - August 2009 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).

You will have to excuse me if this review doesn't feel like a review. That's because I don't know if I'm going to review this so much as gush over it. I'll try to sporadically rein myself in and offer insights where I can, but I can't promise anything. This was a really powerful screenplay that totally took me by surprise and it did so when the odds were against it.

I talk a lot about the impossible to please reader – that tired flustered overworked screenwriter who's had four consecutive 16 hour days and just wants an hour to breathe, to, for once, enjoy his life. That was me last week. It was 11 PM and I'd been working since seven in the morning and I just did not want to read another script. But I had no choice. If I didn't read it now, it would just be added to the pile of work tomorrow. I picked up "How It Ends" and within 5 minutes, I had completely forgotten about being tired (or anything for that matter).

Now let me provide some context. I like end of the world scenarios. I already have one in my Top 25. Not because I want the end of the world to happen. But sometimes it seems like that's the direction we're heading. I don't know if that moment is going to come during my lifetime – I certainly hope it doesn't – but I always wonder what it would actually be like. How It Ends provides a window into how it might look.

It was the confusion that sold me. When the system shuts down, information becomes a mix of reality and rumor. We've never experienced anything like that in our lifetime because connective technology has become so ubiquitous. But all it would take would be a few carefully calculated "attacks" or breakdowns and in a week, or even 24 hours, we could be back in the 19th century.

I should probably tell you what the script is about first. It's a simple story. Will Reacher, the president of a large golf equipment company, travels to Milwaukee for the weekend to get some business done with his wife's father, who's also part of the business. His wife, back in Seattle, is pregnant, and this has obviously brought the two closer together, as Will is excitedly looking forward to becoming a father.

While getting the deal done, electrical grids all across the US start going out. There are earthquakes. There are fires. But this isn’t Roland Emmerich's 2012. What's really cool about How It Ends is that we usually only see people's reactions to things. We don't see the things themselves. This was a brilliant choice because when your imagination fills in the terror, it's usually more horrifying than anything a writer can come up with.

The cities start destabilizing. The airports shut down. So getting back to Seattle is looking less and less likely. But Will, who's having trouble getting through to his wife, is going to make sure that he finds a way to her through hell or high water.

So he and his father-in-law jump in their BMW and start driving across the US. The country is in a rapid state of destabilization. Within hours, the lack of any authority or lawkeeping has resulted in an "everybody for themselves" mentality. For example, Will gets pulled over by a cop, only to find out it's some guy who killed a cop. And who now plans on killing them. Not only is this a cool scene, but it's a clever one. It sets the tone for the rest of the film that nobody is trustworthy. If you can't trust a cop, who can you trust?

Gas quickly becomes the most important commodity and one of the coolest parts about How it Ends is the "mileage left" reading on the BMWs dashboard. I don't think I've been more obsessed with a display since the beeping "movement tracker" in Aliens. The moment that thing hits zero, we know these guys are dead. The highways are screaming with hooligans ready to kill for nothing, so the need to keep finding gas and keep getting that display up to a safe number keeps this script steeped in tension.

Eventually, the dad gets killed and Will stops at an Indian reservation and, as a favor, picks up a kid who's looking for his mother. I'll be honest with you, this was probably the worst part of the screenplay and yet I didn't give a shit. Everything here felt so visceral and so real that poor story choices didn't feel like poor story choices. They felt like reality.

I think that's when I know a script is great. I'm not thinking about screenplay related stuff. I'm just so wrapped up in what's happening that I might as well be there. And I felt like I was here. I felt like this is how it would happen.

I also loved not telling us what was going down. At first I really wanted to know. But then I realized this was a carefully calculated choice. We were put in Will Reacher's point of view so that we could see things the way they would be seen through a single human being's eyes. And in that scenario, you would be confused. You would be scared. You wouldn't know what was going on because there was so little dependable information out there. That may be even more scary than the world falling apart - not knowing why it's falling apart. If you don't know why, you can't fix it.

And really, that mentality permeates throughout the script, where we’re experiencing the end of the world peripherally as opposed to actively. For example, as we’re driving along we see this huge train going west packed with military vehicles and tanks and equipment. It's going off to fight something. But what? We don't know. All we know is that our imagination is going wild.

Then later, when Will gets further up, that same train has derailed. It's crashed. We have no idea why. Was it somebody who sabotaged the tracks? Was it whatever is causing this? Again, we don't know, so our imagination tries to fill it in, and in the meantime we’re experiencing the story how real people would experience it (and not movie people).

As I strain desperately to dole out some screenwriting advice, I think one of the things this script does well is the lack of character development. Yes, you heard me right. I actually just commended a writer's lack of character development. Let me explain. This script is supposed to feel real. It's supposed to feel like we’re really there. If you tried to throw in a Hollywoodized "fatal flaw," it would've pulled us right out of the story. The more realistic your story is, the more subtle your character arcs and your character development needs to be. There's little stuff here and there but all of it is kept under the radar so as not to bring attention to it, and take attention off the external situation, which is where all the story is.

The set pieces are also top notch. My problem with most set pieces is that the writer doesn't make it clear what the stakes are or what the goal is or what the time frame is. When you put together a set piece, you’re essentially putting together a mini-story. So you need all the things that a screenplay would need. Stakes. Goals. Conflict. Urgency.

There is a great set piece near the middle of the movie where they get flagged down by a woman, only to be attacked by some thugs, who siphon their fuel and put it in the Prius they stole from the woman (obviously, a Prius is going to be more valuable than a BMW in this new fuel conscious world) and then drive off leaving them there. There is about 5 miles worth of gas left in the BMW. Their only chance at survival is catching up to them and running them off the road.

So we totally understand the situation. The goal is to catch up to the bandits. The urgency is that they only have a tiny amount of fuel left. And the stakes are that if they fail, they're as good as dead. That's why this sequence was so exciting. Because we understood exactly what needed to happen.

I have a feeling that the ending is going to be a point of contention for some people. But I loved it. I thought it was the perfect way to end the script. I actually had no idea what they were going to do, but once Will finally gets to the finish line, the writer wisely puts one more obstacle in his way. And the only way out of it is to take care of that obstacle before it takes care of him. I thought it was a great choice and I pretty much thought everything here was a great choice. I'm sure if I went back and broke this down technically, I would find some faults. But the goal was so strong. The scenario was so interesting. The tension was so well crafted. And the writing itself was so good. That none of that stuff mattered to me. I was totally caught up in this story, which is why it's going into my Top 10.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (Top 10!)
[ ] genius

What I learned: You would think that with all this praise, I’d have some transcendent lesson for you to learn. But today's lesson is simple: Look for creative ways to convey character backstory. Remember, when a character just starts talking about his past in order to let the audience know who he used to be or what's happened in his life, it's often boring, "on the nose," and amateur. One of your jobs as a writer is to convey the past slyly, so that the reader doesn't realize it. There's a "blink and you miss it" moment early in the script where the father-in-law is speaking to a soldier. They're trying to find out what's going on but the soldier isn't talking. So the father-in-law says this: "You know what happened? You can tell me soldier. I've got a pair of fatigues just like those in my closet." The dominant purpose of this line is to create a bond between himself and the soldier so that the soldier will give him the information he wants. The hidden purpose of this line is to tell us that he used to be a soldier. That's what I mean by slyly conveying back story. Instead of our character driving along and pointing out, "Hey Will, you know that I used to be a soldier right?" It's thrown in there without us even realizing it.