Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Devil's Punchbowl

Genre: Thriller/Drama
Premise: A man inherits a huge piece of land in Montana only to learn that it comes with an enormous price: a longstanding blood feud with the neighbors.
About: This is a 2011 Blood List script that will go into production later this year. Adam Wingard will direct (Pop Skull, A Horrible Way To Die). This is what he had to say after reading the script: "I was instantly attracted to the authentic 70's style grittiness and the Terrence Malick/Sam Peckinpah feel of the script. It's got this sweeping scope that takes you in, lifting you up as it explores the beauty and mystery of nature, and then tears it all apart with sheer brutality and violence.”
Writers: Alex and Max Schenker
Details: 102 pages – August 1, 2011 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 don’t know what I was expecting when I picked this one up, but it definitely wasn’t what I got. Punchbowl’s about a young man named Dylan Massey, a 24 year old slaughterhouse grunt who’s probably going to be killing cows for the rest of his life. The only light in his life is Savannah King – the beautiful woman who puts up with him. Dylan knows that Savannah’s too good for him. And he knows that the second she realizes it, she’s out the door. Which is why he wants to provide a better life for her. Unfortunately, there aren’t many opportunities for a better life in rural West Texas.

And then Dylan wins the lottery, in a manner of speaking. Dylan’s grandfather just died and in the will left him a 4500 acre estate in Montana. People don’t have 4500 acre estates anymore. That’s like owning your own country. So at first Dylan is skeptical, but is corralled into driving up there by Savannah, his best friend Garrett, and Garret’s girlfriend Isabella.

The place is GORGEOUS. It’s like what the pioneers must have seen when they first travelled across America. And it’s all Dylan’s. He immediately asks Garrett to move up and work with him. They’ll be millionaires, living the life they always dreamed of. The girls are just as excited. It’s all like a dream come true.

Heh heh heh. Or so they think.

Our group gets the first hint that something’s wrong when they head into town. Everybody there is just NOT friendly. Lots of glaring. Lots of avoiding. They eventually run into the Sheriff, who tells them what’s up. There’s been a generations-old feud going on between the Masseys and their neighbors, the Shores. Dozens of Masseys and dozen Shores have been killed over the years. And word on the street is that Dylan’s next.

It’s not surprising then that they get home to see the words “Go away” on their front porch written in pig blood. Everybody’s freaking out, wondering if they should leave. But you don’t voluntarily wake up from a dream. You sleep for as long as you can.

So Dylan gets this crazy idea that he’s going to end the feud. He saunters over to Fallon Shore’s place, the most evil man you can imagine, and says he wants to talk. He’ll agree to give Fallon a few hundred acres if he ends the feud. Fallon wants to know if the acres include a water stream (known as “The Devil’s Punchbowl” because of how much blood has been shed over it). Dylan says “no” and Fallon says he’s sorry, but that means the feud is on. And boy is it ever. That night, these men are going to give a whole new meaning to the word “Hell.”

Man, this was a weird one. It was weird good for the most part, but for everything the Schenker brothers did right, they seemed to drop the ball on something else. The biggest issue with the screenplay for me was how abruptly it ended. So much time is put into the setup here that when we finally got to the actual feud, there were only 30 pages left, and that wasn’t NEARLY enough to tell the story. This is the kind of story that needs time to breath, and it would’ve had that time had it gotten to its story sooner.

This is why you always hear the advice: “Move your story along quickly.” Especially the setup. And especially in a movie like this where the central plot is 1500 miles from where the story begins. We needed to get to Montana sooner, establish the danger sooner, and then we could’ve worked our way through a few escalating skirmishes before we got to the big battle. As it stood, all we had was the big battle, which was sort of like being fed the main course without the drinks, bread, and salad. I kept thinking, “But we don’t even know the Shores yet. We’ve had like, two scenes with them. I’m not ready for a final confrontation.”

Another misguided choice was giving Dylan and Isabella (Garret’s girlfriend) a secret romance. Sometimes we can get so obsessed with adding conflict, that we add it even when the script doesn’t need it. Sure, a Dylan and Isabella affair created conflict and some dramatic irony, but it ultimately had nothing to do with the plot. It was only there to be there. And since the conflict between the families was SO intense, adding a silly affair plot almost seemed annoying, like something we have to put up with in order to get to the good stuff. I’m not saying to never add conflict between the group in movies like this, but if you force it, we’re going to notice, and that’ll kill our suspension of disbelief.

On the plus side there’s something very authentic about the details in this script. I FELT like I was in Texas. I FELT like I was in Montana. I felt like these characters were real people. And on top of that, these brothers can write. There were some great moments in Punchbowl. There’s a creepy scene where a townie approaches Savannah at the grocery store, starts massaging her pregnant belly, and asks her what it’s like to have the devil inside of her (a Massey). There’s also a great dinner scene where Dylan invites the Shores over for a truce talk that is just laced with tension. That’s when Punch Bowl was at its best. That’s where this script really shined.

And boy is Fallon a GREAT bad guy. You work so hard to create memorable villains in your screenplays yet so many of them come off as sloppy copycats of much better villains of past films. Fallon is just a nasty man. But more importantly, you believe in him. And you hate him. And you want to see him go down. If you can create a villain that gets to the audience THAT much, you’ve taken care of 60% of your movie. Just that NEED to see him burn, to breathe his last breath, can power an audience’s interest.

But ultimately this script is a mixed bag. It alienates you at the same time that it pulls you in. For example, there was all this senseless animal violence. And the feud itself was too vague. I mean we’re told that the town is split in its support for the families. But we never meet anybody who supports the Masseys. And then of course, there’s this sudden ending, where it feels like someone accidentally skipped 15 chapters on the DVD and threw us into the final climax. I wanted to see more of a build up there. I wanted to see more conflict between the families. Besides all that though, this is too interesting not to recommend.

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

What I learned: Whenever you have a story that has your hero(es) moving to a new town, you want to get to that town as SOON as possible. That’s because in addition to setting up your character’s CURRENT life, you’re going to have to set up their NEW life (and their new town). That’s two consecutive setup sequences, which is a lot of screenplay real estate. This is why you see most “new town” screenplays STARTING with the characters arriving in the new town. The Karate Kid for example (I know, I know, completely different movie) – we start with them arriving in California. Now in this case, the Schenkers wanted to establish the characters’ shitty lives before they got lucky, which is a choice I support. But we don’t get to Montana until page 35. That’s WAAAAAAY too long. We should be there AT THE LATEST by page 25, and preferably by page 20. Montana is where the meat of the story is so that’s where we need to be.