Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Spellman Files

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A family of private investigators investigate each other just as much as they investigate their cases.
About: This is a low-level 2008 Black List script based on the novel of the same name, written by Lisa Lutz. Lutz started out as a screenwriter, writing a screenplay titled "Plan B," which by all accounts ended up being a terrible movie. She later began writing novels, and her first one, The Spellman Files, reached number 27 on the New York Times bestseller list. The screenwriters adapting the book may sound familiar to you. That's because Bobby and Josh still hold the record for the highest selling spec sale by unproduced screenwriters in Hollywood history - 1.5 million - for their sale of The Passion Of The Ark, which I reviewed a while back.
Writers: Bobby Florsheim & Josh Stolberg (based on the novel by Lisa Lutz).
Details: 122 pages - August 26, 2008 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).

This week we have a script written by an Academy award-winning screenwriter. A script written by the man who made in the vicinity of 40 million dollars in his screenwriting career. And a script written by the guys responsible for Evan Almighty. Which one would you bet got the impressive?

One of the prerequisites of comedy scripts is that they be…you know…funny. Unfortunately, if you look at the recent track record of comedy scripts here on Scriptshadow, there have been about as many laughs as the season premiere of Two And A Half Men. I'm beginning to wonder if the screenplay format is just not conducive to laughs. Maybe it's so technical, that even getting someone to chuckle is a monumental achievement.

Still, this sounded like a premise with potential. It's not exactly the kind of movie I'd see on a Saturday night, but I knew if the writers could find the comedy in the situation, we might have a winner. So is this just another in a long line of failed comedy attempts at Scriptshadow, or that rare five-star knee slapper in waiting?

20-something Izzy is out on a date with a young suitor. We get the sense that Izzy isn't very good at dating, but boy does she try her darndest. Unfortunately, just when the conversation is getting good, Izzy can't help but notice a car that's driven past the restaurant a third time in the last 10 minutes. Her date thinks she's a little nutty for pointing it out, but she insists they're in danger.

The next thing you know she's screeching through the downtown streets with her date hanging on to his seat for dear life. Eventually, after a few deft maneuvers, Izzy pulls up around the car, gets out and storms over to the passenger window. The window rolls down and we meet a slightly older man and woman. These are Izzy's parents, doing reconnaissance on her date. Welcome to the Spellman family.

The Spellmans operate a private investigation business that's run sort of like the mob. If you're born into the family, you’re born into the business. Besides Izzy and her parents, there's Ray, the grandfather, who started the business. And then there's little Rae, a preteen devil of a girl who loves private investigation just as much as Izzy hates it.

And that's really the issue here. Izzy wants out. At the very least, she wants her family to stop butting into her private life so she can meet a man, get married, and start a normal life. And when she finally finds the man who fits the bill, a handsome conservative dentist, it's full steam - and lots of free toothpaste - ahead. The problem is she has to solve one more difficult case before she can officially be let go.

That case involves a brother and sister whose ancestors were involved in one of the biggest unsolved bank robberies in US history. It happened in San Francisco back in 1906, where three brothers stole millions of dollars worth of rare government bonds. The thing is, the brothers hid them, and nobody's been able to find them since. So the brother and sister hire the Spellman family to find the money.

In an interesting choice, we repeatedly flash back to 1906 to learn about the brothers: how they planned the robbery, how they were able to do it without getting caught, and what eventually happened to the money. To me, this is what elevated the script beyond your average comedy. While I thought the Spellman's comedy was solid, it wasn't anything "fall on the floor" worthy. So this added element of depth and mystery took some of the load off. This is what I always say. Create an interesting story and characters first, and then try to find the comedy within that - as opposed to trying to find a bunch of funny situations, and then building characters and story around it. The former always ends up in a better screenplay.

I have to admit though - I was skeptical of The Spellman Files at first. It seemed like one of those screenplays that thought it was a lot more clever than it actually was. Everybody's double-crossing each other. Everybody's secretly following each other. Everybody's got something on everybody else. It just seemed a tad predictable. But then a funny thing happened. The script actually did become as clever as it thought it was.

For example, later in the script, little Rae sneaks off to monitor the bad guys, something her parents specifically told her not to do because the bad guys were getting dangerous. Because the parents are always one step ahead, they’re already on Rae’s trail as soon as she leaves the house. Then, across the street, they see a man behind the bushes watching Rae. They sneak up on him (figuring he's one of the bad guys), and tell him he's dead meat if he doesn't explain who hired him. "She did," he replies. Huh? “She gave me 20 bucks to follow her and take her picture. She said I could stop when two lunatics came up to me.” When they look up, Rae’s gone.

And really there's all sorts of fun little plot developments. Later on, for instance, the sister (the client) comes back in, convinced that her brother already has the money and is hiding it from her. So she hires them a second time to look into him. Now, the family isn't just trying to find the money. They're trying to find out if this brother is conning his sister. Usually when you try to cram too many plot points into your script, it can become confusing. I was impressed by how many layers this story had, and yet how simple and easy it was to follow. That's not easy to do.

But in the end, it's all about the main character. Your main character has to be compelling in some way - they have to be going through something - trying to overcome something. And even though the idea of breaking free of the family business is kind of silly, we really felt Izzy's struggle and her need to be an individual. The boyfriend himself was probably a little lame, but I totally understood this character, identified with her and felt like her struggle was real. I love when a script is trying to say something with its characters. And breaking free of your family is a theme that everybody can relate to at one point or another in their life.

How this movie does is going to depend on how they make it. If they make it like Spy Kids, it's going to suck. If they treat it with the weight and sophistication that are present here in the script - don't add any fart jokes or pop culture pandering nonsense - I think this could be a really good movie. It's fun. It's fresh. It's one of the better scripts I've read in awhile. Bobby and Josh have really improved since that first sale of theirs way back in the day.

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

What I learned: This is a good example of how to use flashbacks effectively. Remember that most of the time, it's best to convey backstory in the present storyline. That's because every time you go backwards, you stop your story. So for instance, if we were to flash back and show Izzy’s early years with her family - see that her struggles with her family have been going on since she was a little kid - that's basically a pointless flashback. That can easily be implied in the present day storyline - which is exactly what they do. But the flashbacks here tell the story of the three brothers who robbed the bank. Because that story helps push the present day story forward (the more we understand about their story, the closer we get to finding the money in this story), it doesn't feel like a flashback. It feels like a natural extension of the story. Again, always be wary of using flashbacks, but there are occasions where they can be effective.