Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Past Imperfect

Genre: Romantic Dramedy?/Sci-Fi
Premise: As his wedding approaches, a young man gets a visit from an older gentleman claiming to be him from the future. The man tells him that whatever he does, he cannot get married.
About: David Gilbert and George Ratliff worked most recently on the film Joshua, starring Sam Rockwell and Vera Farminga. They seem to be interested in challenging indie fare, as Ratliff’s latest directing effort was about a born again Christian on the run from members of a mega church (that film stars Ed Harris, Pierce Bronson, Greg Kinnear, and Marissa Tomei).
Writer: David Gilbert (story by David Gilbert and George Ratliff)
Details: 114 pages - December 9, 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).

Monday we reviewed a script about relationships. Tuesday we reviewed a script about time travel. So it's only natural that Wednesday we review a script about relationships and time travel! Now before I go on, I should let you know that one of the scripts I've always wanted to write was a time travel romantic comedy. I just haven't been able to find an interesting enough idea. Plus, time travel sucks. I don't mean that I don't like time travel. Who doesn't like time travel? I wouldn't mind going back in time and rewriting this paragraph. But time travel is tricky because even when you plug up all the holes that time travel plots create, there's still going to be a dozen or so holes that you missed. Seriously. It doesn't matter how many you fix. There will always be a dozen more.

Past Imperfect introduces us to Charlie, a cautious individual whose job it is to troll through building sites and make sure there are no historically important artifacts that have been left underneath. You never know what you're going to find once you start digging. I remember that story from a few years back, where they were working construction in the middle of New York, and found a civil war boat just buried right there in the middle of Manhattan. I wonder at what point those guys realized they were off course ("Captain! We seem to be smack dab in the middle of fifth Avenue! We also stopped moving three days ago! Should we attempt to catch the south wind?") Anyway, Charlie's flying home one evening and is lucky enough to be seated next to Prudence, a happy-go-lucky alternative chick who likes to do origami in her spare time.

The two hit it off from takeoff to landing and you can tell that they were meant for each other. Which is a huge problem, because after getting her number, Charlie goes home to meet up with his fiancé. Yes, Charlie has a fiancé, Sadie.

Across town in a zoo, we see an elephant give birth to a 65-year-old man. I've personally seen this three times in my life and let me tell you it's not a pleasant sight. This man, Chuck, is able to secure some clothing and make his way over to the nearest convenience store, where he buys a lottery ticket. He wins the next day and, just like that, is a millionaire. It doesn't take long for us to figure out that Chuck is actually Charlie from the future and is here on a mission.

That mission is to get Charlie to make two calls. The first is to Prudence and the second is to call off his wedding. You see, Chuck explains to Charlie after finding him, he has spent every day of his married life miserable because he believes he was supposed to end up with Prudence and not Sadie. Sadie is too reserved, too buttoned up, and just not the fun exciting unpredictable person he was meant to be with.

Charlie, of course, thinks this guy is a nut and ignores him. But Chuck starts making calls to these girls as Charlie, determined to make sure Charlie and Prudence get together. Where it gets complicated is that Chuck starts hanging out with Sadie, and actually starts to, gasp, like her. He finds out that Sadie was secretly a standup comedian and she never told him because she was embarrassed. What she doesn't know is that this is exactly what Chuck believes was missing from the marriage – unpredictability, fun, spontaneity.

In the meantime, Charlie and Prudence, who in the previous timeline never met after that plane ride, are now hanging out left and right, and Charlie is starting to wonder if this old man is right and he was really meant to end up with Prudence. So Charlie is falling for Prudence and Chuck is falling for Sadie, creating one of the weirder quadrangle relationships you've ever seen, unless of course you watch Bachelor Pad 2 on Monday nights.

The best way I can describe Past Imperfect is "uneven." The script has some really nice moments and admirably attempts to explore its premise. But often it gets wrapped up in its own ambition and lost in its own overly quirky atmosphere.

Some of the choices here were just plain odd. For example, this idea that Sadie had a secret crazy fun side that she never showed her husband of 30 years is ridiculous. That implies she's been living a lie for half her life for no other reason than not to be embarrassed around her husband. It usually works the opposite way. The person you were before the marriage tends to be the fake you. The real you always comes out over time. Plus a standup comedian is way too exaggerated of a choice. I mean if there is a more on the nose option for trying to make a character look outrageous and "fun," I want to know what it is. For that reason, it comes off as one of those "writerly" choices, a moment where we can clearly feel the writer's hand manipulating the world above us.

Another thing that bothered me was the introduction of cool elements that were never explored. I talk a lot about characters’ jobs on this site and how important they are to understanding your characters, and here Charlie has one of the more interesting jobs I've ever seen in a screenplay. He goes to construction sites, digs into them, and makes sure there are no important ancient artifacts underneath. There's sort of a magical element to that job in that who knows what he's going to find?

The problem is, it's a total misdirect. We keep waiting for it to become a part of the story and it never does. It would seem to me that in combination with the time travel storyline there would be a lot of cool ways to take it. I was sure Charlie would find something on one of his sites that implied a time travel connection to the past as well, inferring that maybe more than one time jump occurred here, and that this ordeal is more complicated than he originally thought. But it turns out just to be a neat job. You know what I have to say about that?


Logical issues seeped in as well. The fact that this sixty-something man is able to hot trot his way around and randomly pick up these women 35 years younger than him is a stretch to say the least. I mean I guess he’s rich, but it sure was easy for him to waltz into these young women's lives and set up dates with them.

Now that's not to say this was all bad. When I was trying to figure out what I would rate this screenplay, I thought back to a similar script I reviewed a while ago – that Ashton Kutcher Justin Bieber thing: What Would Kenny Do? In that script, the older version of the character also comes back to guide the hero. But the script plays out more like an errand list (the older character just gives him a list of things to do and the younger character follows it). Not once do you feel like the writer is exploring the premise.

At least here there’s something going on. People don't always do what other people say (creating conflict). The characters encounter unexpected setbacks (changing the story’s course). Complicated situations arise resulting in difficult choices (requiring character development). I like, for example, when Charlie comes back to see Sadie only to find her in bed with Chuck. I think it's safe to say that being cheated on by your future wife with your future self is exploiting your premise.

I thought Prudence was an interesting character as well. But again, it seemed like opportunities were missed left and right. Prudence makes really eccentric dollhouses. However, Chuck implies that in the future, she becomes a famous architect. Why the writers didn't connect Charlie's job of looking at building sites and Prudence’s job of building on building sites, I'm not sure. It just seems like so much story was left on the table here. That's what frustrated me so much, seeing all these cool storylines they could have explored but just didn't. Whether they ran out of time or weren't interested, I don't know. But man do I wish that they had put more into this.

So I think I'd recommend this one but with heavy reservations. It's a good premise and a good starting point, but I think it has a long way to go before it reaches the potential of its premise.

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

What I learned: When you're writing a time travel script, you're probably going to need 10 to 15 more drafts than you normally would. That may sound ridiculous, but trust me, if you want your time travel script to be kick-ass, it's going to take more work than your average screenplay. The reason for this is twofold. First, you're going to run into way more logic problems when you write time travel movies and you have to make sure you have the time to address all of them. The second is that time travel movies offer a lot of clever story opportunities but it takes lots of time to explore and find those opportunities. By clever, I mean your future wife cheating on you with your future self. If you don't have those moments, you're not taking advantage of your time travel premise. That's why Back To The Future was so great. They took the time to rewrite the shit out of that movie until they found all those clever little connections/moments. Past Imperfect had a few of those moments but not nearly enough. So go ahead and write that time travel film. Just make sure you're willing to put in the extra time to make it work.