Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Screenplay Review - Fire With Fire

There may not be any White Houses exploding today as previously planned, but we do get the man who played the part our White House exploding screenplay was inspired after. That's right - John McClane, aka Bruce Willis, adds another film to his arsenal.

Genre: Thriller
Premise: When a fireman witnesses a gang-murder, he must stay alive long enough to testify against the leader.
About: Tom O’Connor is the same writer who brought us the Black List script I reviewed/liked a few weeks ago called “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.” Fire with Fire has actually already completed production and stars Bruce Willis.
Writer: Tom O’Connor
Details: 105 pages – 5/12/10 (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).

So the other day I was reading some Twit-Pitch First 10 Pages, and I was feeling bad that I was reading them so late. I was exhausted. I was slow. I kept thinking I should be reading these under better conditions. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that these are the conditions most scripts are read under. Readers, and really anybody in Hollywood, are likely reading your script when they’re tired. Industry folks are notorious workaholics (as I’m discovering more and more), and always trying to fit that one more call in, that one more script in. Which means your script is probably being read in that 45 minute period between putting the kids to bed and brushing one’s teeth.

But in this case, I want you to magnify that exhaustion by a thousand - That’s where I was when I opened this script. I’d actually planned on reviewing a different script (let’s just say there was a White House involved) when the writer politely asked me to hold off for awhile. (note: No more live-tweeting script reviews!) Which meant I had to add another script onto an already endless day. Honestly, I think I started reading it at 3:30 a.m. All I could think about was the sweet nectar of my freshly washed sheets against my back. I could feel the coolness already. Oh sweet bed sheets. I love you.

So if ever there was a script that didn’t stand a chance, it was this one. But guess what? It pulled me in almost immediately. THAT, my friends, is good writing. Being able to wake a reader from his impending slumber. And it proves my theory – which is that no matter how distracted or tired or uninterested a reader is, if you write something good, you can get’em. So when you’re writing your next script, ask yourself that question – “Would a dead-tired reader stick with this?” Cause that’s likely your audience.

Anyway, Fire with Fire introduces us to Jeremy, a firefighter who’s so dedicated to his job that when a bar goes up in flames, he runs in to save a case of scotch for he and his buddies. In other words, if you can’t take the heat then take the scotch from the kitchen.

Afterwards, he and his boys decide to celebrate with some early morning snacks. So they head over to the local convenience store and Jeremy goes in to snag some food. An overworked Latino man and his teenage son are cleaning the place when a trio of very bad looking men enter. There’s Boyd, Sean, and Neil Hagan, the leader (a man with Arayan tattoos bursting out of his suit).

Doesn’t take long to realize these guys aren’t here for a Big Gulp.

Turns out Neil wants to buy this store as it’s a perfect location for his drug business. The owner stands strong, though, saying he’s protected by a Latino gang and that they should leave. Hagan responds by SHOOTING HIS SON and then him. Sort of an odd negotiating tactic if you ask me but this Hagan guy’s a bit unconventional.

With Jeremy being a witness, he’s now collateral damage. But a nifty move at the last second allows him to escape. If only that were the end of it. The Feds have been trying to catch this Hagan fellow for years. And now that they have a witness to one of his murders who’s willing to testify, Christmas has come early. But that means Jeremy will have to go into witness protection until the trial.

So he’s whisked off to the middle of Buttfuck, Nowhere, supposedly safe from the reaches of Hagan, especially considering he’s now in jail. But it doesn’t take long for Hagan to work his magic and find Jeremy. He then sends two hitmen to erase the problem.

Jeremy is able to escape, but soonafter, accepts the truth. Jail or no jail, this man will hunt him down until he kills him. So Jeremy does the unthinkable. He goes on the offensive – He’s going to kill Hagan. This seems insane at first, but it turns out that rival Latino gang is more than eager to help him out. And that just might be enough to tip the scales.

Lots of good things about this script. First thing I noticed was the plot device O’Connor used to frame the story – a trial. Specifically getting to a trial where one man could prove another man guilty. Just like The Hitman’s Bodyguard! This was not by accident. Notice how the device creates the trifecta of a goal, stakes, and urgency. The goal is to make it to the trial. The stakes are if he doesn’t, Hagan goes free. And the urgency is the ticking time bomb of the trial, coupled with Hagan’s men on his tail. I’m not surprised at all that O’Connor leaned on this device a second time, as it’s an effective way to frame a story.

O’Connor also followed the old Scriptshadow staple of making your bad guy REALLY BAD. The badder he is, the more we’ll want to see our hero take him down. Hagan shoots a fucking father and son without blinking. That’s bad. But note how he did it. Anybody can have the bad guy shoot someone to make the audience hate him. That’s a cliché choice and probably won’t resonate. So O’Connor has his bad guy shoot the man’s son first - right in front of him! That hits us way harder (a father watches his son get shot right in front of him!!).

The script had some really cool moments as well. I thought the convenience store scene was inspired. I mean you were IN that store, BEGGING for a way out just like Jeremy. That’s the scene that officially woke me up from my slumber.

Another great moment is the line-up scene. They put Hagan in a lineup with the classic one-way glass and Jeremy having to identify him. Each man is asked to step forward and read out the line that Hagan uses at the store. When Hagan finally steps forward to read the line, he reads his own line instead: JEREMY’S NAME AND ADDRESS! It was one of those f*cking awesome “movie moments” that people are going to be buzzing about when they leave the theater.

But Fire With Fire started running into problems in the second act. If you read the site often, you know I like clean narratives. I like when we know what the story is about and where it’s going. For example, The Disciple Program. We know what that story is about. It’s about a man getting revenge on the men who murdered his wife.

With Fire with Fire, the narrative kept changing. At first I thought we were in a firefighting movie (it’s called Fire with Fire, it’s about a firefighter, and the first scene is a fire). Then it becomes a witness relocation movie. Then it becomes a revenge film. Then it turns into a gang war film. I’m not saying you can’t change directions in a script. We were just talking yesterday about doing this at the midpoint. But if you keep doing it, the reader starts becoming confused. I know I was. “What kind of movie is this exactly?” I kept asking. You really have to be a great writer to pull this off and while O’Connor is a very good writer, I would’ve loved to have seen more focus in this area.

It’s too bad because the script started off so awesome. I was thinking it could be a classic. Then it never quite decided what it wanted to be. Still, the story’s fun enough to keep you entertained. And there’s easily enough here for a recommendation. It just didn’t quite reach the heights that it could’ve.

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

What I learned: Don’t blow your best scene on the first act. A lot of writers – especially young writers – make the mistake of putting their best scene in the first act. The problem with this is that every other big scene afterwards will feel like a letdown in comparison. If you’re going to put a great scene in the first act, then you have to be willing to top it again and again throughout your script. That was an issue I had here. The scene I remember most is the convenience store scene. And it happens inside the first 15 pages. You’re now going to have me sit around for another 100 pages and not read a better scene? I’m gonna feel let down. So when you get to those big scenes in your script, always try to top yourself from the previous big scene. You want your best most powerful stuff happening in the last third of the script if possible.