Monday, October 31, 2011

The Silver Linings Playbook

Genre: Drama/Love Story
Premise: A man is released from the mental hospital with his mind set on getting his wife back. He’ll unfortunately need the help of a woman as crazy as him.
About: This is perfect subject matter for David O. Russell, since it's pretty well known he's a bit nuts himself. Playbook’s been in the headlines a lot lately, first for having a female character that every actress in Hollywood wanted to play, and then because it broke up the long-time friendship/partnership between David O. Russell and Mark Wahlberg. Apparently, after The Fighter’s success (Wahlberg brought David on to direct when nobody else wanted anything to do with him), Mark just figured he'd automatically be cast in Playbook. Instead, Russell went with Bradley Cooper, and Mark was pissed. Next thing you know it’s Selena Gomez and Demi Lavato all over again. Or is it Samantha Ronson and Lindsey Lohan all over again? Oh I don’t know. I’ll check PerezHilton and get back to you.The film also stars Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Stiles, Chris Tucker and Robert De Niro.
Writer: David O Russell (based on the novel by Matthew Quick)
Details: 127 pages - 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).

It's hard to talk about David O. Russell without mentioning all the controversy that follows him. This guy creates so much drama, you could throw him on the cast of Jersey Shore and the show wouldn’t skip a beat. I've been lukewarm to Russel’s work. I’ve always thought he was interesting, but there’s this consistent lack of focus in his storytelling that's always bothered me. For example, Christian Bale’s character was so dominant in The Fighter that the whole boxing match at the end with Mark Wahlberg felt tacked on. To be honest, I’m still not sure who the main character was in that movie.

Well that's about to change today. This is my favorite thing Russell has done by far. Just last week, in my review of Black, I talked about the need to exploit a genre and give it something new. This is the perfect example of that. It's the most offbeat love story I've read in a long time.

30 -year-old Pat Peoples, a former high school substitute, has just gotten out of the mental hospital, and is moving back in with his parents. All he can think about is getting back together with his wife, Nikki. Unfortunately, the reason Pat got stuck in the hospital in the first place is because he mercilessly beat up the man who Nikki was cheating on him with.

What Pat didn't realize was that the reason Nikki was cheating on him was because he’d given up on life. Now that Pat has been allowed back into the world, he's decided to change. All he cares about is getting in the best shape possible and being as optimistic and positive as possible, so he can prove to Nikki he’s worthy of being hers again.

Pat’s brother eventually sets him up with Tiffany, who’s a piece of work herself. Her husband recently died, and she was so traumatized that she started having sex with every guy she worked with. Obviously, this became problematic for the company so they let her go. That means Tiffany's living with her parents just like Pat! The blind date is a disaster. Pat’s disgusted by this woman, and when the night is over, he hopes to never see her again.

Unfortunately, when Pat goes jogging the next day, Tiffany joins him, staying a perfect 10 paces behind him. This leads to a hilarious conversation where Pat explains he wants nothing to do with her and Tiffany explains she wants nothing to do with him, yet they keep running exactly 10 paces from one another the entire time. This becomes a daily ritual between the two until Pat realizes that Tiffany, through a mutual friend, has access to his wife (who, it should be mentioned, has a restraining order against Pat).

Tiffany agrees to deliver a secret letter to Nikki if, and only if, Pat agrees to become her partner in a modern dance competition that takes place in three weeks. The last thing Pat wants to do is dance, but he realizes it's the only way he’ll be able to communicate with his wife, so he agrees to it. These two oddballs get to know each other during their extensive practice time, and Tiffany starts to fall for Pat. With the eventual meeting of Pat’s wife looming, it remains to be seen whether Pat will reciprocate that love.

First thing’s first. Remember people, this is a writer-director draft. That's why there's all of this long text on the page. Why the description gets too specific in places. Why it feels overwritten here and there. Russell does not have to impress any readers. He just came off a box office hit and can make anything he wants. The thing is, despite this alienating style, the actual writing is simple and poignant, so the script reads well.

It's funny though, the more I think about it, the more I realize Russell probably never had to deal with the spec market. He just wrote a script and directed it (Spanking The Monkey), which is probably why his style is so reader-unfriendly. If you don’t have to impress readers, you never have to learn what impresses readers. This is why Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) has a somewhat unique style as well (some may call him the King of Parentheticals). He too never had to write a spec script. He was hired to write projects right out of college.

Anyway, I thought this script was great. The big lesson that came out of it for me was “anticipation.” If you can make the audience anticipate something - if you can make them want to see something badly - the story will fly by, because we'll be looking forward to “that” moment. That’s what the device of Nikki (Pat’s wife) does here. Pat is so obsessed with her, he so believes that they're going to get back together (even though we know he’s got no shot), that we can't wait for that meeting to come. And this is created through Russell’s detailing of Pat’s obsession. None of this works if Pat is only mildly interested in seeing his wife again. It works because he’s CONVINCED, beyond a reasonable doubt, that she’ll take him back once she sees him. As strange as it sounds, we can’t wait to see his reaction when that dream is crushed.

Another thing I wanted to point out was this running gag (no pun intended) of them jogging 10 paces away from one another. Whenever you write a romantic comedy or a love story or any relationship movie, one of the biggest challenges is coming up with interesting places to put your characters when they have conversations. If it's just a bunch of talking in coffee shops and rooms, it’s boring. So you want to look for locations/situations that can make an average conversation dynamic in some capacity.

The jogging scenes here are a great example of that. First of all, you have conflict. He doesn't want her jogging with him. And second you have the unique conversational component. She's in back of him the whole time. They both have to yell in order to talk. It's 1000 times more interesting than putting your characters across from one another at a table. That's not to say you won’t have those scenes. There's usually going to be one or two dates in a relationship movie where the characters are at a dinner table (and actually Pat and Tiffany’s first date is at a diner). But the idea is to minimize those locations as much as possible.

The thing that worried me the most about the script actually ended up being one of its best attributes. The introduction of this dance contest had the potential to be a really cheesy forced plot thread. I'm actually not sure how Russell and Quick pulled it off but somehow it became an organic extension of the story and quite sweet and moving. When the competition nears, and he hears his wife may be coming, you are on pins and needles waiting to see what will happen.

The presentation here was a little clumsy but the story was top notch. Just barely missed an impressive.

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

What I learned: Occasionally in your screenplay, you'll need to highlight documents, usually for expositional purposes. The best way to handle these documents is not to go into detail about what they say, but only highlight the relevant words needed to sell the exposition. For example, when Pat’s mom picks him up from the mental hospital, the audience needs to know that the only reason he’s getting released is because he's going into his mom's care. Therefore, this is what Russell writes:

“ …she signs 'Jean Peoples' as we see phrases: 'ASSUMES FULL RESPONSIBILITY' and 'HOSPITAL BEARS NO LIABILITY.'”

All you need to do is highlight the relevant phrases on the document and then move on. Don't give us a word by word account of the entire paragraph. It takes up space and this other way is so much easier.