Monday, March 5, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Knoll

The JFK conspiracy is back in full force with this latest Black List screenplay. But does the script bring JFK back from the dead or just shoot itself in the foot?

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A rookie cop and his old flame witness JFK gunned down from the grassy knoll on November 22, 1963. Within hours, they’re on the run from the murderers who desperately need them silenced.
About: Finished with 19 votes on the 2011 Black List. Christopher Cantwell used to write on a comedy series called "Vicariously." Christopher Rogers is new to the screenwriting game.
Writers: Christopher Cantwell, Christopher Rogers
Details: 117 pages – Aug 5, 2011 (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 feel like a lot of air went out of the JFK conspiracy balloon after Oliver Stone's film. There was that three-month period where it's all anybody talked about and then, I don't know, it seemed like it just wasn’t important to people after that.

You can take that two ways. The first is that the idea is bankrupt. You're not going to get any more mileage out of a JFK conspiracy film. On the flip side you can argue that there’s reason to believe the JFK conspiracy is ripe for an update. The writing team of Christopher and Christopher would like you to choose Door #2.

Now before I get into this review, I'm going to share with you an observation. If you can nail all the technical aspects of formatting, structure and style in screenwriting, you can work in this business. Now that’s a lot easier said than done. But the thing is, all of it can be taught. You can be taught to keep your paragraphs lean. You can be taught where a first act turn and midpoint are. You can be taught to keep your scenes tight and focused. All of that is teachable. If you can plop all of that into a nifty concept, people will take notice.

But I’m not going to lie. That upsets me a little bit. Because I feel like more should be required for a screenplay to be celebrated. The Knoll is a quick exciting little thriller that nails its formatting and structure. And yet you don’t remember a thing about it after it’s over.

There’s no depth here. There’s no character development. Everything happens exactly the way you expect it to. See here’s my big problem with that – is that it’s great the script nails the fundamentals. But if that’s all it’s doing, then the reader is always aware he’s reading a screenplay. He never gets lost or pulled into the story. That’s what happened while I was reading this. I was *always* aware I was reading a script. I admired the craft in which it was written. But there was nothing extra – no X-Factor to really pull me in.

This is a consistent recent trend. I saw it in Selfless. I saw it in Flashback. I saw it in Bodies In Rest. Everything in those screenplays is technically correct. But there isn't anything extra.

The screenplays Run All Night, Source Code and The Disciple Program are examples where the writers are giving you a thriller, but they're also looking deeper. They've actually put some thought into their characters. They’ve actually challenged themselves not to make obvious choices – to take their stories in interesting directions. Run All Night for example. There’s a HISTORY between the main characters involved, leading to a much deeper and more nuanced story.

I didn’t get a whiff of that here. And with that ringing endorsement, let’s take a look at The Knoll’s plot.

The Knoll is set on that dreadful day of November 22nd, 1963. We happen upon a familiar face: Lee Harvey Oswald. He's getting ready to gun down the president in the most famous assassination in American history.

Cut to 18 hours earlier where we meet Jim Nolan, a young cop who’s…well, a young cop (there's really nothing more going on with him which is the reason for all my yakking above).

Jim happens upon Marina Oswald, Lee Harvey's wife, who's been beaten up recently. They're trying to find Lee Harvey to get some questions answered but it turns out an FBI agent named Barstow needs Oswald for other matters.

Jim is suspicious of Barstow but there's not much he can do about it so he leaves it alone. In the meantime, he runs into his old girlfriend, 22 year old Rebecca (Old girlfriend?? When did these two date, Jr. High?). She’s since become a journalist and is here getting documentary footage for a story. She’s not happy to see Jim but it turns out he can get her the kind of access she needs for a great shot, so she reluctantly joins him.

After setting up her shot, the president makes his fateful drive down that infamous street. A loud bang is heard followed by ANOTHER loud bang. It just so happens Rebecca has her camera trained on the grassy knoll where that second bang came from. Which means that – yes – she just recorded the notorious “second shooter” in the JFK conspiracy theory.

Jim also notices something amiss on the knoll and goes racing up there, only to be met by his old buddy Barstow, who is now calling himself a “Secret Service Agent.” Jim jumps on that. “Well which are you? FBI or Secret Service?” Before he can get a straight answer, the chaos escalates, and he’s torn in multiple directions.

Eventually Barstow learns that Rebecca has a film of him involved in the shooting. So he puts all of his immediate manpower – which isn't that much (another problem with the script) – into chasing her down to get the film. Jim then joins up with his old sixth grade crush to help her escape.

Okay, so, here’s what I liked about the script. I liked this idea that there's a fall guy in every operation. I actually thought the plan our bad guys executed made sense. They put Oswald up in a window taking a hopeless shot at the president so that when they killed JFK, he got blamed.

But everything else in the story was just too generic. The relationship between Jim and Rebecca, especially, had absolutely zero going for it. He's 26 and she's 22? Is this Spy Kids 5? These two need to be older. There at least needs to be the appearance of history, of some weight to their relationship. I kept expecting them to bust out cotton candy every time they went on the run. I don’t know. There was just no weight to these two at all.

On top of that, I never once feared for either of their lives. Barstow was definitely a meanie but he was not somebody who scared me. He never did anything clever or scary, something that would indicate this was a man worth fearing. I mean look at Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) in The Fugitive. He’s one of the most capable antagonists I've ever seen in a film. You really think he’s going to catch Richard. THAT’S what made him so scary. Barstow, on the other hand, felt like a grumpy agitated old man. Again, there was no WEIGHT to his character.

If you don't feel the weight of the protagonist and you don't feel the weight of the villain, how can you emotionally involve yourself in the story?

I get that sometimes you have to just let go and enjoy something – especially with thrillers. I can dig that. That's why I like Die Hard. That's why I like The Fugitive. That's why I like Taken. But there's still a minimum level of depth you need to achieve in order for people to suspend their disbelief. And I don't think that level was met here.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Your style of writing is your style of writing. But just remember that too much of anything negates its effect. So in The Knoll, every other paragraph is in all capital letters or underlined. So after a while, none of it means anything anymore. The whole point of underlining or capitalizing something is to bring attention to it. How do you bring attention to something when everything else is exactly the same? I know that one of the most successful writer combos in the world does this as well (Kurtzman and Orci), but just know that it's probably better to use a device sparingly, so that when you *do* use it, it means something.