Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Screenplay Review - Cristo

A writer who's been dead for over a hundred years pens today's screenplay. Well...kinda.

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: A sci-fi retelling of the The Count Of Monte Cristo.
About: Cristo sold last year to Warner Brothers and later made the lower half of the Black List. Alfonso Cuaron (Children Of Men) is attached to direct. Shorr, the writer, has recently worked on the remake of Ride!, an old John Wayne Western, and Substitution, about a murder plot spearheaded by a substitute teacher. The original writer of “Monte Cristo,” Frenchman Alexandre Dumas, penned an outline of the novel which his frequent ghostwriter then expanded upon. Dumas, of course, is also the creator of The Three Muskateers.
Writer: Ian Shorr (inspired by “The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas)
Details: 121 pages - undated (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).

Scriptshadow Pick: Armie Hammer for Coleman?

I don't know about you, but I really liked the 2003 adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. I thought it was tres well-directed, even though we haven't seen much of Kevin Reynolds since. You guys remember Reynolds, right? The infamous director of Waterworld? Oh wait a minute. Kevin Reynolds didn’t direct Waterworld. Kevin Costner did! Because Costner is INSANE. I suppose if I was part of that production, I’d take a decade or two between projects also.

What are we talking about again? Oh yeah, The Count Of Monte Cristo. What I was getting at was that this is one of those stories that resonates no matter what generation you’re in. It’s about injustice, greed, revenge, hope. It cuts to the core of what gets us human beings riled up. So it seems like a no-brainer, in retrospect, that someone would take this story into the future. And that’s where today’s review begins. The future. “The future Carson?” “Yes, Review, it’s time to look all the way to the year…2000.”

Actually, Cristo takes us much further into the future than that, where we meet 13-year-old Coleman. As a homeless orphan, Coleman doesn’t have many options other than to join a gang. So he finds himself bouncing around with the wrong crowd, burglarizing anywhere that has a whiff of money to it.

The leader of the gang, a slimy rat named Pheng, decides to make a much bigger score, though, and rob a house up in the suburbs. And when I say “up,” I literally mean “up.” Floating safely above the scum and lowest common denominators of the city is a suburb…in the air.

Pheng constructs the elaborate heist on one of the homes. But when the team encounters a few unexpected setbacks, Coleman gets left to take the blame. Talk about life on the streets! Or…err…*above* the streets.

To Coleman’s surprise, however, the owner of the estate, a kind man named McCormick, doesn’t press charges. He takes a liking to Coleman and gives him a job, to which Coleman throws every ounce of his soul into.

His exhaustive work ethic contrasts sharply with McCormick's son, Max, who's about the same age as Coleman, and works on the theory of privilege - that when you're born into the good life, everything should be handed to you. As the two boys grow up together, McCormick finds himself gravitating more towards Coleman than his own son, which is not lost on Max.

After years of being neglected for this scrapper, Max has had enough of both his father and Coleman. So he recruits none other than Pheng to off his dad and make it look like Coleman did it. The plan works perfectly and Coleman is sent halfway across the galaxy to a prison planet.

It’s there where he meets the eccentric Gabriel Maldestados. Gabrielle bides time by turning human beings into candle wax. Hey, a man’s gotta have some light to read! Gabrielle takes a liking to Coleman and teaches him everything he knows about conning and fighting and…turning people into candles.

Oh, and let's not forget that Gabriel also stole a few tens of billions of dollars and stashed it on another planet. So when Coleman escapes and finds the money, he's able to go back and exact revenge on Max, who has since taken everything Coleman once had.

I thought Cristo was kind of cool. First of all, I love this story. The setup of a man being deceived and then charged for something he didn't do is basically the ideal recipe to create sympathy for a character. There isn't a person on earth who isn't rooting for Coleman after what he went through.

And then there’s the neat twist of the “scrapper” becoming the billionaire. It’s kind of like the nerd who always got bullied showing up to the ten year reunion stronger than everyone. You can’t wait to see everybody’s reaction.

But what was cool about “Cristo” was that this was the first time I was looking at the story through the prism of script analysis. And from that end, I realized how difficult this story was to tell. I mean there is *so much plot* in this tale. We start out as a kid on the streets robbing a floating suburb. We cut to many years later when he's grown up and working for the people he robbed. Then we’re sent to a prison on another planet. Then we’re traveling around the galaxy on a ship looking for hidden money. Then we come back and finish everything on Earth.

If I were to see this in outline form, I’d be terrified for the writer. I don’t think that’s talked about enough in screenwriting – how the amount of plot can affect your story. Because if you add too much plot, then you’re spending all your time just working through the mechanics of your story. You’re forced into a lot of exposition (“We need to go here before we go here and then we gotta go here!”), and that can bog down the naturalism of the movie. So to navigate that can be tricky.

And yet I thought Shorr did a solid job. Despite all the jumping around, I still felt an emotional connection to Coleman, which is the most important thing. It also goes to show what a time-tested story can do for you. If something’s been popular for 150 years, there’s usually a reason for that. The story works. So you trust it.

Still, I’m amazed at how complicated the structure is here. The most interesting part, which is the Count coming back, newly rich, newly powerful, intent on enacting revenge, doesn't happen until the third act of the screenplay! So you’re squeezing the coolest part of your story all into a single act.

In today's approach to storytelling, you’d probably want this happening by the end of the first act. So you'd start your character in jail. Maybe have some flashbacks to indicate how he got here. Then you'd have him escaping by page 15, finding the gold soon after, and then arriving back on earth by page 30. You’d then use the bulk of the movie to see this newly powerful mystery man weave his way into Max’s private upscale society in order to finally murder him. This, for example, is how Gangs Of New York is structured.

But that's not really how they told stories back in the day, which means, once modernized, you have a structure that both hinders as well as sets the script apart. It’s similar, in that sense, to It’s A Wonderful Life, which also would be rewritten today to have George Bailey experiencing his life-changing moment on page 30, not page 90.

I don’t know, I just think structure is fascinating, so I found this one a delight to examine, especially because it still works despite its old-fashioned approach. I also loved the delightfully quacky Gabriel. I liked that the sci-fi update gave the material a fresh feel. And I liked our hero Coleman, who was sympathetic to the core. I’d still probably try to get to the jail segment faster and bring Coleman back to earth sooner, but I admit I have no idea how to do that. I liked Cristo. Solid script!

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

What I learned: One of the easiest ways to get a script sold or get people interested in material is to take a classic story and place it in a different setting. Maybe it's in a different location. Maybe it's in a different time. Maybe it's with a different class of people. These ideas always get producers excited because stories that stand the test of time are much stronger bets than new stories which haven’t withstood anything.