Monday, August 22, 2011

Moving Elliott

It's going to be a great week here at Scriptshadow. We have an Impressive script and a new Top 25 script. In fact, I might even make it a Top 10 script. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I read it. So, is today that script? Read on to find out…

Genre: Comedy
Premise: An FBI agent whose family life is falling apart is tasked with escorting an eccentric bank robber to jail.
About: Moving Elliott sold to Universal Pictures back in 2001 for mid six figures and started the careers of Glenn German and Adam Rodgers, who went on to sell a few more scripts. Unfortunately, those careers never extended into produced credit territory, which is a shame since this script is so good. In fact, even though this script was sold back in 2001, its greatest attribute is that it's timeless (note to writers: the more timeless your story is, the longer its shelf life). You could still shoot this movie today as written. I really hope somebody takes that chance because this script does not deserve to be lost in development hell. Here is an interview that the writers did back in 2005.
Writers: Glenn German and Adam Rodgers
Details: 118 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).

A young Eddie Murphy would be perfect for this role.

Elliott Jenkins, an African-American armored truck driver, is picking up some moolah from the bank with his menacing partner Donald Griggs. Elliott is a unique guy. He can be laid back, he can be intense, he can play the dumbest guy in the room, he can play the smartest guy in the room. He's eccentric. A little off center. And all in all, a happy go lucky honest kind of dude. So it's a little strange then, as he and Griggs load the money onto the truck, that a second armored truck pulls up.

Oops. Maybe Elliott and Griggs aren't so honest after all. After a few distracting words with the second crew, our thieves hightail it out of there.

Halfway across town we meet Jack Traylor. Jack is an FBI agent whose family life is going to shit. His wife has left him and wants full custody of his two children, his young son and teenage daughter. These are the only two things Jack has left in his life, so he's going to do everything he can to hold on to them. Unfortunately, with the bills piling up and the neverending demands of being an FBI agent, the two worlds keep crashing into each other, and lately Jack has found himself in too many situations where his kids have been put in danger, not the kind of facts you want showing up at a custody hearing.

Anyway, while driving his kids home for the day, Jack runs into that armored truck that Griggs and Elliott are driving and becomes suspicious. He follows them into a Long John Silvers, and the next thing you know Griggs is opening fire on him and his daughter. Jack is able to nab Elliott but Griggs escapes.

Back at headquarters, Jack gets reamed out for yet again mixing family with work, and as punishment, his boss wants him to escort Elliott across town to jail tomorrow. Jack pleads with his boss to use somebody else because his custody hearing is tomorrow but his boss doesn't give a shit. In fact, he's ready to take Jack's badge right now. Not screwing this up may be the last chance for Jack to keep his job.

So Jack agrees to do it, but there's no way he's losing his kids, so he decides – against all reason – to do it all. After picking up Elliott, the first place he goes is to the bank to refinance his mortgage so he can keep his house (and therefore keep his kids). What he quickly finds out though, is that Elliott is not the easiest guy to shut up, and that wherever he goes, Elliott always has an opinion. Sometimes he helps him and sometimes he doesn't, but he's always got advice for Jack.

Complicating things is that Griggs is still out there and has a huge hard-on for finding Elliott. As the day goes on, Jack starts putting together the pieces, and realizes that something is off. Why would two guys who just stole hundreds of thousands of dollars stop at a Long John Silver’s anyway? Why did Griggs fight for his life while Elliott practically begged to get caught? And why does Griggs keep chasing Elliott? Jack suspects that he may be part of a bigger plan. The problem is that he's so consumed with keeping his family together that he doesn't have time to figure that plan out.

This script had so many things going for it. It had a tight urgent easy-to-understand goal. It had tons of obstacles that got in the way of that goal. It had two compelling main characters. It had conflict at the center of that pairing. It had a character with a ton to lose (high-stakes). It had a solid villain in Griggs, who was always on their tail. It had enough setups and payoffs to make Back to the Future jealous. It had a great sense of humor. And what put it over-the-top was that it had an intriguing mystery.

If this were just some movie about a guy escorting another guy across town, it would have been average at best. But where this script elevates itself is when Jack realizes that there might be more going on here. When we realize that Elliott could have a bigger goal in play, and that getting escorted was all part of a bigger plan, that's when I knew I was reading something special.

And you know, I actually loved all the family stuff too, which I normally don't. These guys have somehow managed to write a family movie without falling into that safe PG territory. The Disney promotional team would have a heart attack combing through this, but I think that's what makes it work. It's been a long time since we've infused a traditionally R-rated genre with a family theme. But these guys have done it, and done it well.

But these scripts don't work unless the central relationship works. And the key to making that central relationship work is to put the two characters as far apart as you can on the spectrum, and then over the course of the movie, get them to a place where they understand each other. Seeing two people who weren't meant to like each other eventually like each other is one of the more satisfying threads you'll find in a film - if it's done well. And like everything else in the script, it's done well.

I also want to highlight Moving Elliott for doing something that another recently reviewed screenplay did not do. My big problem with that script (amateur entry "Inhuman Resources") was that it was too thin. There were no subplots. It just barreled through to the end, never stopping to develop anything other than the main plot and the pursuit of the main goal.

Moving Elliott is an example of how to populate your screenplay with subplots. Instead of just barreling towards the jail, we have the custody hearing, we have the house foreclosure, we have a project he has to get to his son at school, we have his daughter secretly dating a guy behind his back, we have the mystery behind Elliott getting caught so easily. We have the pursuit by Griggs. That's what's so awesome about this screenplay. It's populated with so many little subplots and extra things that a simple movie about transferring a convict becomes a complicated story about an FBI agent trying to make it through the day with his family intact. I can't stress this enough. If you have ever wondered about how to integrate subplots into your script, check out this screenplay. It's a master class.

However, this is not the Top 25 script. Why? A few minor reasons. The dialogue wasn't punchy enough for this kind of movie. It's almost there. But this is the kind of film that needs those memorable one-liners that people will be quoting for weeks after leaving the theater. And right now it doesn't have them.

I also thought the opening scene was more confusing than clever. This may sound like nitpicking but the introduction of one of your main characters is one of the most important scenes in the entire movie. The idea here is that Elliott is supposed to be clever and intelligent – that plays out through the rest of the story. But the way he handles the second armored truck interrupting their pickup, is akin to something a 12-year-old would come up with. He babbles some stock nonsense about calling the guy’s supervisor if he mentions this to anyone, and for no other reason than that this is a movie, the guy goes along with it. If they could've improved this scene so that Elliott comes off as the clever "smartest guy in the room" he's supposed to come off as, that would have sold him as the person he needs to be.

Other than that, I loved this. I don't know if Universal still has the property. But if they do, they need to dig it up right now and take another look at it. Cause this script does not deserve to be collecting dust. It could be a great film.

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

What I learned: When you sell that first script, you haven't made it. I think that's terrifying to hear because we're sold on this whole idea that selling a script is the endpoint. It's the moment when we've officially "made it." But if you look at the career of these guys, they wrote a great script here – and yet they still don't have a theatrical credit to their names. That's baffling to me but it's far from unique. There are a lot of really good writers who still struggle in Hollywood purgatory. It's a great reminder that once you sell that first script, you need to fight and claw and write and work and put everything you've got into keeping it going. Because one of the sad realities is that if you don't keep moving up that ladder in those first 2 to 3 years, people will start to look at you as one of those average second rate writers who will never go beyond that intermediate level. It's not fair and, in this case, it's a crime. But that's the reality of the business.