Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Screenplay Review - How To Disappear Completely

For all you child prodigies out there desperate for a movie that conveys your pain, I've found just the screenplay for you!

Genre: Drama
Premise: A child prodigy goes to extreme lengths to save his parents’ troubled marriage, which has imploded because of him.
About: This is written by Ed Solomon, who wrote the first Men In Black, and also one of the more underrated screenplays of last year, “Now You See Me.” Really liked that one! His latest finished in the middle of last year’s Black List.
Writer: Ed Solomon (based on the film “Vitus”)
Details: 117 pages (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 love me some child prodigy scripts! Bobby Fischer is one of the best first halves of a movie that eventually turned sucky I’ve ever seen. Right up there with The Beach.

I can't tell you what our fascination with child prodigies is but there's something strangely appealing about them. Or maybe “appealing” isn’t the right word. Fascinating? Spooky? Unsettling? I mean they’re basically little mini-adults. And that’s just…weird. Yet I can’t look away!

“Disappear’s” Bobby Fischer is 6 year old Adam. Adam can pick a piano apart faster than a NASCAR pit crew. As the author points out, watching Adam play the piano isn't just amazing because he's six years old. It's amazing because it's amazing. Adam has this innate ability to learn any song – even ones he's never heard before – within seconds. Not only that, he can play one song with one hand and another song with another hand. Oh, and just a reminder. He’s 6!

Naturally, parents Tom and Debbie are proud of their son but at the same time, being parents of a prodigy isn’t easy. It's not easy being the second smartest guy in the room whenever your six year old is around. Tom must deal with that every day. And while Adam is the best piano player in the country, Debbie struggles just to land a seat on the local symphony.

Another thing that comes with the child prodigy territory is the responsibility of cultivating your child’s insane talent. You have to give your son the best teachers in the country. You have to give him the best tools available. You don’t want to be the parents who squandered a rare once-in-a-generation skillset.

But it’s this very obsession that takes a toll on Debbie and Tom. Debbie has to give up her dream of being a cellist in order to carpool Adam around. The strain also contributes to Tom getting fired, forcing the family to scrape by on what the English call, “a pittance.” Their world soon revolves completely around Adam. And it’s killing them, because in the process, they’re forgetting who they are.

And it’s not like Adam doesn’t notice. He understands the pressure as well. And to deal with it, he obsesses over the only thing that gives him comfort – bats. Yeah, I know, a little weird. Most of us obsess over normal things like love and Star Wars action figures. But when you’re a freakish genius mini-adult, you don’t exactly have normal obsessions. So Adam finally gets to the end of his rope, creates a bat costume, goes up to the top of his roof, and jumps off it.

Adam may be smart when it comes to Chopsticks, but he obviously knows very little about Isaac Newton. He lands on his head, giving him a severe concussion. And the next thing you know, Adam is “normal.” He can no longer ace the impossible tests. He can no longer play the piano like Mozart. He's just like every other kid.

His parents freak out. The thing that’s made them celebrities has vaporized in a big puff of smoke. When your special son is no longer special, who are you? But once Adam starts doing “normal” things and acting like a “normal” little boy, his parents realize they can go on living normal lives, becoming a normal family. In the strangest way, the loss of Adam’s gift ends up saving them. However, there's one last piece of the puzzle that will throw a wrench into everything – a secret that threatens to turn all the events that have transpired upside-down.

“Disappear" starts off in a unique way. We get thrust into the everyday happenings of this young prodigy family without a warm-up. So much for first acts. It’s just – BAM! – we’re in there watching a genius kid. It was a unique approach, but it did have an effect on the rhythm and structure of the screenplay. It felt like we’d been plopped down into the beginning of the second act. And when you start there, where do you go?

Usually, when you write a screenplay, you have an “inciting incident.” It’s the moment responsible for sending your character on his journey. In Juno, for example, it's when Juno finds out she's pregnant. She can't turn back after that. So her journey begins. It's a rhythm and structure thing we’re used to. So it’s what we expect when we go to a movie.

We understand after Luke's Aunt and Uncle die, for example, that he must now help Obi-Wan deliver this message. We understand after Juno gets pregnant that she has to decide what to do with the baby. These incidents “incite” our characters (and at the same time us!) into the central plot of the story.

I didn't see that here. We’re thrown into the mix of a child prodigy who's already a child prodigy. There's no "inciting incident" where we find out, for example, that he's special. For that reason, it took a lot longer to figure out what the story was about. And I’m not saying this is “wrong.” There’s no such thing as “wrong” when you’re writing. I’m just saying it was a risky choice, one I’m not sure paid off.

But what really pushed me away from this story was Adam. Your hero does not need to be likable. But he does need to have something that makes you want to follow him around for two hours. Adam was petulant, cruel, selfish, disrespectful, annoying, and just an overall asshole. He was one of the most unsympathetic heroes I’ve ever encountered. He did have some interesting things to say about bats, but other than that, he seemed to think he was better than everyone else. I was so alienated by this character that I couldn’t give myself in to the story no matter how hard I tried.

Another interesting choice Solomon made was the inclusion of a love story with the babysitter. Adam has a 13-year-old babysitter when he's six who decides to break out a bottle of champagne and her and Adam get drunk and she basically tells him they're going to get married when they're older. Without going into the oddness of this scene (getting drunk with a 6 year old??), I was miffed that this tiny moment would then become a major subplot.

When Adam reaches 13, he starts pursuing the babysitter. Like, a lot. And it was confusing. I wasn’t sure what pursuing an old flame had to do with the burden of being a genius and ruining your family. It just felt like a totally isolated storyline that never fit.

I like the way Solomon was thinking. You want to give your character a goal – something that keeps him active. Pursuing a girl achieves that. But thematically and story-wise, it didn’t feel right. And so it left me scratching my head.

It's probably a surprise, then, when I say my favorite character in the script was Jeannie – the babysitter! While I may not have agreed with her storyline, she was beautifully written. She had personality and chutzpah and life. Here dialogue was top-notch, representative of her type (overly positive, quirky) yet never over-the-top, never written to draw attention to itself. It was almost like Solomon was so burdened by the drama he had to explore in Adam’s family, that he needed an outlet. And Jeannie became that outlet. If only her presence was more natural in the story, it would’ve been perfect.

This script is nicely written, but the wavy slow-starting narrative and a main character who was almost impossible to root for doomed it for me. :(

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

What I learned: “Out on an island” subplots. Be careful of subplots that feel like they're out on their own island – far away from the rest of the story. In other words, you can't just add a random subplot to fill up screenplay space. It has to tie in closely with the rest of the story, feel like it’s part of the whole. This Jeannie storyline – to me – felt like it was out on an island. If you erased it, very little about the story would change (almost always a bad sign). Every once in awhile, if the writer is skilled and the “Island subplot” is fascinating, it can work. But I’d avoid it if at all possible.