Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Screenplay Review - Ezekiel Moss

Genre: Supernatural Drama
Premise: Set during the Depression, a widow and her son are visited by a strange man who may have the ability to communicate with the dead. 
About: This is the writer’s breakthrough screenplay.  Before this, he was one of the writers on the HBO show, “In Treatment.”  He’s repped over at CAA.  Ezekiel Moss finished high on last year’s Black List. 
Writers: Keith Bunin
Details: 104 pages – Black List draft

Scriptshadow Casting Suggestion: Cillian Murphy for Ezekiel?

I’ve been meaning to read Ezekiel Moss for awhile but everybody keeps telling me, “It’s a good script but really slow.”  That “but” was the killer.  You don’t want any “buts” before you pick up a script.  You want “ands.”  You want “thens.”  But please, no “buts.”

But it turns out the slowness of Ezekiel Moss hit a reading sweet spot for me.  I was heading home from LA.  And since I find it impossible to do multiple things on travel days, I basically had one task – to read a script.  It was one of those rare times when I wasn’t rushed.  The script was slow-developing?  Fine with me.  I had hours to spare.

Add to that the melancholy feeling you get when going home after a trip and I was in the perfect mood for this story.  You’ve spent the last month of your life preparing for something, and then one day it’s just….over.  It’s like “What do I do now?”  You feel kind of empty.  Yet “empty” is the perfect mood to read Ezekiel Moss in.  The characters in this script are all empty.  They need something to fill up their lives.  And little do they know, that something is each other.

It’s 1934, the heart of the Depression.  It’s a small town, too small “for anyone to care about the name” according to the writer.  11 year old Joel Carson has a giant imagination and zero friends.  He lives with his widowed mother, Iris, an emotionally fragile woman, in the tiny Inn she runs.  Iris finds occasional moments of happiness sleeping with the salesman who stop by her Inn every week.  She hates herself for it, but if not for that, she’d be too lonely for words.

The thing with Iris’ job is that it’s predictable to the point of boredom.  The faces may change, but it’s the same travelling salesmen, the same practiced smiles, the same broken promises.  That is until the darkly intense Ezekiel Moss shows up with his witch-like partner, Hepzibah Webb. 

The two ask to stay in one of her rooms for a week and they come with two stipulations – stay out of their way and don’t ask questions.  Iris knows something is up but a girl’s gotta put food on the table so as long as it doesn’t incriminate her, they can do whatever they want. 

Joel finds the odd but vulnerable Ezekiel fascinating, and starts following him around, trying to figure out what it is he and Hepzibah do.  It turns out they travel from town to town to find people who’ve lost loved ones.  And that’s where things get interesting.  Ezekiel has a special talent – he can allow spirits to possess his body.  He can allow the dead to speak to the living.  Or, at least, that’s what he and Hepzibah claim.   

After seeing one of these possessions himself, Joel is a believer, and he runs to his mother to tell her what’s going on.  But because Joel’s imagination has always been so outrageous, Iris doesn’t believe him.  Nor does she want to believe him, as she’s begun to fall for Ezekiel. 

While all that’s going on, the town priest gets wind of Ezekiel.  He’s heard of these two. They’re wanted in towns all over the region for conning people out of money at a time when money is most in need.  It’s time to put a stop to this.

The thing is, all Ezekiel wants is to be normal, is to not live with this curse.  And if this priest tells him he can save his soul, Ezekiel’s ready to take that chance. He now has a child who looks up to him and a woman who’s falling for him.  If he can be “normal,” then maybe he can be part of a real family for once.  In a way, that’s his goal, even if deep down he knows it will never happen. 

Did I mention Ezekiel was slow?  Yeah, reading it feels like every two pages should be one.  But it still works!  Why?  Because the character development here is freaking top-notch.  I mean take a look at Iris.  Here’s a woman who was soul-mate in love with her husband before losing him.  During the accident, he shielded her to save her, ensuring his own death in the process.  She was pregnant with Joel at the time.  Which means there are moments, moments she’d never admit out loud, where she wishes he would’ve lived instead of Joel.  She seeks closeness from the company of other men, even though they’re gone before she wakes up.  The entire town calls her a whore behind her back.  She’s poor, can barely pay the bills.  She ignores the one sense of community the town has – church, alienating herself even more.  I mean that’s a f*cking complex character!  A sympathetic character.  The kind of person you want to know more about. 

But what’s great about Ezekiel is that everyone has a deep backstory – specifically about someone they lost.  And while in most stories, these tropes can become cliché and eye-roll worthy, here, they’re intricate parts of the plot.  Because Ezekiel can speak to the dead, he can bring these figures back.  The characters can resolve their issues with these ghosts.  That was my favorite part about Ezekiel.  People’s backstories actually mattered!

Another reason the slow-build works is that Bunin uses very simple but effective storytelling methods to keep you interested.  First there’s the arrival of Ezekiel Moss.  Everything about this man is interesting.  You want to know more.  You want to turn the page to see who he is and what he’s about.

Once you do find out, there’s a new mystery: “What are Ezekiel and Hepzibah doing here?  What’s their business?”  And as you gradually figure that out, a threat presents itself – the priest.  People are closing in on Ezekiel.  Their business is in danger (conflict).  So even though everything’s moving along at a deliberate pace, Bunin seems to use just the right amount of suspense or conflict or mystery to keep us involved. 

With that said, we could definitely move things along faster.  Bunin has a terrible habit of commenting after every line of dialogue. And not just commenting – but giving a really detailed comment that just sucks up page real estate.  For example, later in the script, Ezekiel is speaking to Iris and says, “Don’t you hope that someday you’ll get married?”  Immediately afterwards we get this action line:  “Ezekiel is asking this question for all kinds of reasons. Iris is deeply affected but she still keeps things light.”

I mean, just get to Iris’ response! That entire action line has already been implied.  This is done ENDLESSLY throughout the script and if Bunin could cut out 75% of these lines, the script would fly.  Right now, it’s in danger of being tossed because of Hollywood’s ADD epidemic.  And that’s too bad.  Because it’s a very powerful story.

For those interested in writing supernatural/horror movies, Ezekiel Moss is a good script to study.  The character development is top notch.  BECAUSE it’s top notch, the dialogue’s strong (a great understanding of character usually results in strong unique dialogue for each character).  And then everything just feels authentic – not easy to do when you’re setting your story 80 years ago.  I really liked this.  Speed it up a little and maybe we have something great. 

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

What I learned: Beware character descriptions that contradict themselves.  I see this all the time for some reason.  “Joe is intelligent yet a bit of an imbecile.”  “Linda is one of those people who’s both happy and miserable.”  Uhhh, what does that mean?  Which one am I supposed to go with? Remember, writing a character description is not about it reading cool on the page – it’s about conveying the character as clearly as possible to the reader.  So here in Ezekiel, Iris is described as having a “winning mixture of toughness and fragility.”  I suppose you can make an argument that this makes sense but to me it’s just confusing.  All I want to know is “Who is this character?”  And that line doesn’t tell me.  Go for clear.  Readers like clear.