Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cut Bank

Genre: Drama/Thriller
Premise: After a young couple accidentally records the killing of a mailman, they try to collect on a little-known reward the government hands out for proof in the killing of federal workers.
About: This is Roberto Patino’s first breakthrough script, which landed on the bottom half of the 2009 Black List. Right now, Matt Shakman is attached to direct. Shakman has directed tons of TV over the last decade, including episodes of House, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Chuck, Weeds, and Six Feet Under.
Writer: Roberto Patino
Details: 100 pages - August 24, 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).

I've seen a few comments lately about how if "these" are the scripts that are making the Black List, then the Black List can't be that hard to make. A couple of thoughts on that. As I've already reviewed most of the top rated Black List scripts, most of the Black List scripts I review these days are from the lower half and lower third of the list. So when you're using these scripts to identify the quality of the Black List, remember they're scripts with the lowest amount of votes.

My feeling on the Black List is this. Just like there are only 10 to 15 really good movies a year, there are only about 10 to 15 really good screenplays a year. Since the Black List has around 100 screenplays, that means you're going to have a considerable amount of scripts that aren't "great." But it's important to remember that just getting your script to a point where people judge it on its story (and not on how many screenwriting mistakes you've made) is really difficult, because most screenwriters don't have the experience yet to write a story that can stand on its own. They can write individual scenes and individual characters that stand on their own. But they have trouble putting the whole thing together. That's what the Black List tends to be. 10 to 15 really good (and sometimes great) screenplays and 70 to 80 "good" screenplays. Now every once in a while, something really bad creeps in for who knows what reason (I'm still trying to find out what The Arsonist’s Love Story is doing on there), but for the most part, you know you're not going to deal with any trash, which is unfortunately what you deal with on a regular basis when you read random scripts.

Now the cool thing about The Black List is that sometimes there are gems from smaller agencies that don't get circulated as much as the bigger stuff, which means that every once in a while you find something really great near the bottom of the list. That's why I try to read as much from the Black List as possible, because who knows when you're going to find the next How It Ends? That brings us to today's script. Is Cut Bank deserving of its low vote total? Or is it another gem?

Cut Bank (the name of the town the story takes place in) is about a 21-year-old kid named Dwayne who's out with his girlfriend recording some practice footage she plans to send out to news agencies, when off in the background, the camera picks up a man in a mask stopping a mail truck and killing the mailman.

Later on, Dwayne and his girlfriend call the Sheriff over to show him the footage, and learn about a little-known clause that awards $100,000 for proof of the killing of any federal worker. Since this is very clearly proof of said type of killing, Dwayne stands to earn a lot of money for his footage.

Soonafter, however, we find out that things aren't exactly as they seem. It turns out that mailman is still alive and part of an elaborate scam Dwayne has put together to get he and his girlfriend out of this small shit town. Unfortunately, people are starting to get suspicious. Dwayne's girlfriend’s father thinks it's awfully convenient that they were taping right in the spot where the murder happened. And when a federal agent rolls into town wanting a body, it's something that, for whatever reason, the crew isn't prepared for.

But things really start getting crazy when the local recluse gets involved. A man known simply as Derby, who many thought was dead he's been holed up in his house for so long, seems quite upset about the fact that a really important package never made it to him. Derby is no fool. He doesn't need to watch any videos or talk to anyone in town to know that this is a scam. So he methodically works his way up the chain of command, finding those involved one by one, and if they don't tell him where that truck is, giving them an express ticket to that big mailbox in the sky. That's right. Express Mail bitches. He doesn't care that these guys are trying to pull one off on the government. All he wants is the location of the hidden postal truck so he can get his package.

As you'd expect, the scammers, the law enforcement, and the third parties all start clashing and people start dying, turning what was supposed to be an easy $100,000 into a game of survival for Dwayne and his girlfriend. The only way they're going to win that game is if they somehow figure out how to take down Derby, and as everyone else involved can attest, that's not going to be easy.

Cut Bank is about as close to a Coen Brothers film as you're going to get without it being a Coen Brothers film. This is obviously heavily inspired by the famous siblings' work, and while the dialogue and the intricacy of the plot aren't as impressive or smooth as anything you'd find from the masters, there's enough here to make it a worthy attempt.

My biggest issue with Cut Bank was the first 40 pages. The plot just didn't unravel as smoothly as it should have. For example, it seemed awfully strange to me that these guys would've gone through this whole plan and not known that they eventually would've needed to provide a body. I mean, come on. I don't know the first thing about scamming the government but I do know that if you want to collect reward money in regards to somebody being killed, you're going to need physical evidence. So then later (spoiler) when Derby kills the mailman, it just seemed like a nice convenience that they now had an official body to collect the money with, when that wasn't originally the plan.

There were other hard to buy moments as well. For example, instead of going right to the police after capturing this "murder” on tape, Dwayne and his girlfriend go hang out at her house for the evening. They then casually call the Sheriff over, who also seems strangely unaffected by the murder (I'm guessing this is a small town where there's never been a murder before) and figures he'll deal with it when he feels up to it. Again, I can't claim to know much about police procedure in small towns, but this seems like a decidedly lazy reaction when weighed against the enormity of the situation.

To me, authenticity is so important in a script. The second I feel like things are happening in the screenplay that wouldn't happen in the real world, I start to question the story. I am now no longer involved in your imaginary world. I'm questioning it. And the second I start questioning your world, your screenplay is basically screwed. Because the suspension of disbelief is dead. And not dead like that mailman. Really dead.

But I'll tell you what saved this script for me. Derby. What a great freaking character. I love the idea of this random dude who could care less about what these guys were trying to pull off, and only wanted his package. Without him, I'm afraid this script would have been too straightforward. But adding this wildcard factor created a whole new twist to everything, ensuring that you wouldn't know how this was going to end up.

It also added a nice mystery. We really wanted to know what was inside that damn package. Now I'm not going to say that the conclusion to that storyline was satisfying, but it had me curious and guessing all the way up to the end.

I would call Cut Bank a mixed bag. You got some junk mail in here. You have some personal letters. You have some bills. You have an eBay item you've been waiting forever for. It's not the perfect bag of mail but there's enough good stuff here to keep you happy.

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

What I learned: I think this script taught me to always keep in mind the possibility of a wildcard. We often think in terms of the "good side" (the side our main character is on) and the "bad side" (the side trying to prevent our character from getting what he wants). Since that's the way most stories are told, we often get locked into that line of thinking. But you can always complicate a story and make it more interesting by adding a third element – or wildcard. Derby here was the wildcard that sparked this story and turned it into something unique. Without him, it would have been another average small-town mystery thriller.