Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Last Photograph

Genre: Drama
Premise: A war photographer is the only witness to a huge massacre in Pakistan. An ex special ops soldier with ties to the massacred party hires him to travel to Afghanistan and enact revenge on the men responsible.
About: This script came together as an idea by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, upcoming Superman movie) who hired the writer, Kurt Johnston, to write it for him. The script has been in development for a while and this is one of the early drafts. Christian Bale and Sean Penn recently signed on to play the lead roles and the director of the Swedish version of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" is set to direct.
Writers: Kurt Johnstad (story by Zack Snyder)
Details: 112 pages - 1.5 draft - October 10, 2008 (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).

So I wasn't going to review this one because it's an early draft and the movie Sean Penn and Christian Bale signed on to was a more recent draft. But I've gotten enough people to recommend it to me that I decided it was worth taking a look at.

Joe Wallace is an American war photographer in Pakistan who's been relegated to snapping photos of diplomats’ birthday parties. I guess America isn't the only place where the economy sucks. But what Joe is about to realize is that the war is a lot closer than he thinks. A group of men storm the party and massacre everyone there, except for Joe, who escapes by the skin of his teeth. But the event scars him deeply and when we meet him again a few weeks later, he's a full-blown heroin addict.

Ethan Black, an older ex-special ops soldier, had family killed in that massacre, and when he finds out Joe was the only witness, he seeks him out and hires him to help him find the warlord responsible.

So away they go, heading to Afghanistan at a time when you definitely do not want to be traveling through Afghanistan, meeting old friends and trying to piece together where this warlord might be hiding. Eventually they find out that his brother's wife was building schools to educate females, and we all know how the Taliban feels about educating females. So a statement had to be made.

The movie is a down and dirty look at what it would really be like traveling through Afghanistan at this time. They have to con their way through roadblocks, they have to maneuver their way through unfriendly towns, they have to figure out who to trust and who not to trust. There's no glamour here. It was almost like Zack and Kurt decided they wanted to make the most un-Hollywood movie possible. It's dark and it's depressing and it's probably exactly how it would really be if you tried this yourself.

One of the big changes made to the newer drafts is that it's now a kidnapping movie as opposed to a revenge movie. This is a really important distinction I've talked about before because it changes the tone of the story and it changes the pace of the story. When you're talking about a revenge film, the person is already dead. For that reason the pace is more leisurely. You're not in a hurry to take somebody down because they've already done their damage. That slower pace usually ends up hurting the screenplay because the urgency factor (UF) goes way down. And when you lose urgency, you lose a lot of what makes a story work.

If it's a kidnapping scenario, urgency is at the forefront. Every second lost is a potential second that the kidnapped party could be lost forever. Look no further than Taken to see how that plays out. In addition, the entire tone of the piece changes. Whereas with revenge, the tone is sad and fatalistic and hopeless, with kidnapping, it's hopeful and optimistic and exciting. There's always a chance that you could still find that person alive.

Now I'm not going to tell you that revenge is always the lesser of the two choices. The Brigands of Rattleborge is one of my favorite scripts and that movie is pure revenge. But it becomes a lot harder to make the movie work because you need to supplement your story with things to make up for the lack of urgency and hope. Rattleborge had amazing characters for example. It also did a top-notch job making you hate the villains so that you couldn't wait to see them go down. Unfortunately, I don't see either of those things in this early draft of "The Last Photograph." Not only did I never meet the bad guys, but I never knew the people who were killed either. I mean, if I don't know the bad guy and I never cared about the people killed, why would I be invested in this story?

From the opening page, every action is coated with despair. I've read scripts that are more depressing than The Last Photograph, but I'm not sure I've read a script that became so lost in its own hopelessness. Every line sounds like a line you'd hear from somebody right before they committed suicide. One of our heroes is a heroin addict who has no hope of ever being happy again. And the other is an introverted Bounty Hunter who's never allowed himself to feel anything.

That was another issue I had. Whenever you pair two people together, they need to be different in some way. These characters were almost exactly the same. The only difference I could see between them was that one had a drug problem and the other didn't. Since their interactions are the centerpiece of the story, you can imagine why it didn't work. They never really clash about anything. There are no real differences here. It's just a couple of guys who realize that life sucks and then you die. I think that some people gravitate towards that fatalistic mentality but I'm not one of them.

Having said that, I cannot think of two better actors to play these parts. Sean Penn loves these miserable 50 something types. And giving Christian Bale a heroin addict to play is probably more addictive to him then heroin itself.

But I'm trying to figure out what it is people liked about this so much. I imagine we're just into different films. I see them liking Biutiful and The House Of Sand And Fog and 21 Grams. Those films are too depressing for me. The only movie that's really depressing that I love is The Sweet Hereafter and the reason for that is that it's not just an exercise in hopelessness. There's actually a clever story being told. And while the narrative in The Last Photograph is clean and easy to follow, it seems like that story is secondary to showing how miserable two people can be.

But there are some things that worked. I thought the writer did a good job with imagery. One of the challenges of writing a screenplay is trying to get the reader to see what you see, using only words. That's not easy to do. There were many times where I felt like I was there in Afghanistan with these guys. Joey Ramon covering What A Wonderful World while Hindu porn is pumping away on the TV and our character is injecting Brown heroine into his veins is a powerful sensory filled image. And while I know some readers hate music cues, I like them, because they help me understand the tone the writer is going for. There were a lot of music cues that put me right in the heart of the moment here.

Unfortunately, the characters were too clich̩ (to be honest I don't know how you write a heroin addict that doesn't feel clich̩ these days) and the story too depressing for my taste. I also wouldn't have minded a few more surprises along the way. As we've talked about before, it's easy for a road trip movie to become monotonous. It's up to the writer to infuse it with surprises and twists, anything to place us on the less traveled path. I felt like we were too often on the traveled path, which is kind of ironic considering the subject matter. But hey, that's just me. If you love serious fare - if Babel is in your top five Рyou might want to check this out.

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

What I learned: This screenplay was a good example of a term Stacy Menear (writer of Mixtape) taught me. Monodrama. The entire screenplay hits only one emotion. And if you stick with one emotion for too long, that emotion loses its magical effect. People are more likely to respond when you take them through a range of emotions. Unfortunately, we don't get that here. I'm really hoping they addressed this in future drafts.