Monday, March 12, 2012

Screenplay Review - Winter's Discontent

A 10 Year American Pie reunion? How bout a 50 year American Pie Reunion! Winter's Discontent is American Pie spiked with Viagra.

Genre: Comedy
Premise: (from Black List) When Herb Winter’s wife of fifty years dies, the faithful but sexually frustrated widower moves into a retirement community to start living the swinging single life.
About: For a script that was so well received and for a writer this good, I find it strange that we haven’t heard more from Paul Fruchbom since 2008, when Winter’s Discontent finished #7 on the Black List. He does seem to be developing another property with Columbia, the same studio that bought Winter’s, called “Career Counselors,” but very little is known about it.Winter's Discontent occasionally pops its head up into my Top 25.  I originally read it 3 years ago but this is the first time it's being reviewed.
Writer: Paul Fruchbom
Details: 105 pages – 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).

Tailor made for Jack?

There are so many professional comedy writers who don't know how to write that when one comes along who actually does, I'm not sure the industry knows what to do with him. When I say "don't know how to write," what I mean is, they can obviously construct a joke, but they lack the skills to create a compelling structured story with three dimensional characters.

Winter's Discontent is one of the few outrageous comedies I've read that still has heart and an actual structure to it. I mean just the fact that the writer starts out with an ironic premise should tell you he’s ahead of most of his peers. Senior citizens in an old folks home who only care about getting laid. It's the exact opposite of what we expect an old folks home to be like (Never forget! The best comedy premises tend to be ironic!).

Anyway, Herb Winters, a 75-year-old retiree, has just lost his wife of 50 years. I think this is the moment where I officially fell in love with Winter’s Discontent. I was expecting some sappy on-the-nose funeral scene. Instead, the service is interrupted by Herb’s voice over as he explains how psyched he is that his wife’s dead. I sat up and took notice. Hmm, I thought, that’s not what I was expecting.

For example, at the wake, we get this gem: “God, I hate this fucking house. Look at that wallpaper. Ellen loved that wallpaper. She must've been retarded.” This is followed by someone offering their condolences: “I'm sorry for your loss." Herb replies, via voice over, "Loss? If you want to talk about loss, let's talk about that piano. It hasn't been touched in 30 years. It has a lot in common with my balls.”

And that's the real issue here. Herb's wife stopped having sex with him a long time ago. The man has simply forgotten what it’s like to be a sexually active male. And now that his wife is finally dead, he can find out what that feels like again.

So Herb grabs his best friend, Jules (a “Jewish Mr. Rogers.” Talk about a great description!), and the two head off to Spruce Gardens, a popular old folks home. The plan is to have sex with as many women as possible there. And when they arrive, it looks like that’s exactly what’s going to happen. The women outnumber the men 2 to 1 in this place and they’re all raring to go!

But just when things look like heaven, hell shows up. In the form of Mike Miller. He's tan. He's good-looking. But worst of all, HE’S IN HIS 60s! That's like cheating in this place. And boy does Mike take advantage of it. Every single woman here wants the young meat and poor Herb and his buddies become wallflowers as a result.

As if getting laid wasn't tough enough, Herb starts falling for one of his 50 year old nurses, Kate. Nabbing that kind of prime filet is going to take a lot more than funny jokes. It’s going to take a time machine.

In the meantime, Herb’s friendship with Jules starts to fray over Herb getting over Ellen so quickly. There seems to be something deeper going on here, to the point where the lifelong friends break up. Kate puts the kybosh on him as well once she realizes what he’s up to. And Mike somehow makes every single woman at Spruce Gardens unavailable. Herb's dream trip to Spruce Gardens has officially become a nightmare!

I think one of the reasons this script brings a smile to our faces is that it faces a scary situation, one nobody likes to talk about, and has fun with it. We’re not used to laughing about death, yet this script makes it easy to do. There's something refreshing about that. It’s almost like the script itself becomes a sympathetic character.

From a technical perspective, the script is both traditional and non-traditional. The goal is clear – to get laid. But the stakes are dependent on our character’s conviction. Herb doesn’t really lose anything if he fails, but he so intensely wants his goal (your character should always desperately want his goal!!!) that we do feel like he loses something if he doesn’t get it.

However, there really isn’t any urgency here. There’s no time limit on this goal. But here’s why I don’t think it matters. Fruchbom did a great job always keeping his characters focused on an immediate goal. Either they were trying to have sex with one of the women. They were getting sex lesson to update their moves. Herb was teaching Kate piano so he could get closer to her. If you can keep those smaller goals coming one after another, the reader doesn’t have time to notice that there isn’t a ticking time bomb in the story. It’s when there are large gaps between those goals that the reader starts checking the page count.

Also, when you're writing a comedy, you want the humor to be PREMISE-SPECIFIC. That means all the humor should stem from your premise. This is a movie about old people desperate to have sex. So you have these nice little gems like Mike Miller being able to drive at night (which means he has the advantage of going on night dates with all the women - something unheard of to the rest of the seniors).

Fruchbom also creates a scenario where if a woman dies during sex, the man involved is blacklisted by the rest of the women. So Herb and crew set up this plan to get Mike to have sex with the most frail likely-to-die woman at Spruce Gardens. If he kills her, he’ll get blacklisted, and they’re all back in the game again. The key here is that the humor is *based on the premise*. It wouldn't be as funny, for example, if they tried to murder Mike to get him out of the picture. Murder is boring. You can find murder in any movie. You can't find men sacrificing an 80 year old woman so they can get laid again.  That's premise-specific.

I know why, despite how well-written it is, “Winter’s” has had trouble getting laid (oops, I mean "made"). Studios only put out these senior citizen flicks once every blue moon. But of all of the geriatric projects floating out there, this script is clearly the best of the bunch. Personally I think it would be a huge hit, but then again I’m not the one who has to put up the money. I hope this finds its way to production at some point though because I believe Paul Fruchbom needs to be in charge of more comedies in Hollywood.

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

What I learned: The success of this script reminded me how important it is to think outside the box with your comedy idea. So many writers focus on that comedy sweet spot of a 30 year old male caught up in some crazy situation. And I understand it. That’s where all the bankable comics are. But if you want to stand out, think outside the box a little. Look for ideas outside the sweet spot. We saw it with the success of this script and we saw it recently on the big screen with the success of Bridesmaids.