Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Screenplay Review - Can A Song Save Your Life

Genre: Dramedy (Romantic Dramedy)
Premise: On the brink of suicide, a washed up alcoholic A&R man hears an amazing song by an unknown singer and asks her to make an album with him.
About: John Carney is best known as the writer/director of Once. Before Once, Carney struggled mightily to get his scripts read in Hollywood. He said the most frustrating thing about hawking your scripts was that everyone would try to pigeonhole them into a genre. “There isn’t enough comedy in this to be a romantic comedy,” they’d say. Or “There aren’t enough thrills in this for it to be a true thriller.” He got so sick of everyone trying to label his scripts into one specific area, that he wrote Once – a movie he knew nobody could categorize or try to fit into something. I’d say the strategy worked out well. Right now, “Can A Song Save Your Life,” is in pre-production and appears to be starring Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johannsen.
Writer: John Carney
Details: 135 pages

It’s been awhile since we’ve seen John Carney. I don’t know what he’s been doing since the crowd-pleasing “Once” but it seems like he should’ve directed something by now. Maybe it’s because a movie like “Once” doesn’t scream out to anyone, “Great director!”

But the thing you have to remember about Once is that it was anchored by two non-actors. And someone had to get the performances out of those actors – one of the most important jobs a director has. So the fact that Carney was able to get those two to convey a believable love story, when we’re usually subject to the most non-believable love-stories imaginable (anybody catch Ashton and Portman in No Strings Attached?), says something.

Also, in case some of you don’t know, Carney is attached to direct my number one script – Dogs of Babel. So I have no choice but to get behind the guy and tell him to start making movies again. We’ve waited long enough, John!

And this looks like a logical step. I mean, when you hear that the director of Once is directing something called, “Can A Song Save Your Life,” you think, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” If anyone knows music and movies, it’s Mr. Carney!

Our hero, Dan, is basically Jerry Maguire 10 years down the road had Jerry never written that “mission statement.” He was at the top of his game in his early 30s, signing brilliant artists to his record label left and right.

But times they have been a’changin. Dan’s 40 now (but looks 50), is divorced, has a teenage daughter (Violet) who dresses like a hooker, and hasn’t signed a good band in a decade. Oh, he’s also an alcoholic, with a problem so severe that he sold his share of his company basically for drinking money.

Things have gotten so bad, in fact, that Dan’s ready to end it. He heads down to the local subway station with plans to jump in front of a train, but right before the train shows, it’s announced that there will be a 20 minute delay. Dan can’t even commit suicide right!

Dan decides to have a drink in the meantime and hops up to a local bar. That’s when he hears Gretta. Gretta’s one of those artists so obsessed with not selling out, that she goes to the other extreme, trying to look as dumpy and “non sellout’ish” as possible. Despite that though, there’s something raw and real and magical about her. When she sings, you feel her pain. Dan especially.

Afterwards, he gives her his card, for which she’s rightfully skeptical. This man looks like he’s drunk and homeless (which he basically is). But after putting on the charm, he convinces Gretta to meet with him and talk about her music.

When the two can’t convince Dan’s partner that she’s anything special, they decide to get creative. Instead of finding a crap ton of money to rent a studio, they’ll record Gretta’s album OUTSIDE throughout New York, with real New York sounds in the background – real ambience.

The experience is nothing short of life-changing for both of them. Mark’s relationship with his ex-wife and daughter improves tremendously, and Gretta is finally able to tackle some big issues with her ex-boyfriend. But when they finally finish the album, Dan and Gretta will have to figure out one last thing – who they are to each other.

First of all, let’s call this what it is. It’s Once on steroids. There are a LOT of similarities between the two stories. Two struggling down on their luck people. Both hurt badly by previous relationships. Music steps in to soothe a lot of the pain. The relationship between those two people becomes caught somewhere between friendship and love.

The difference here is that Can A Song Save Your Life is a better screenplay. I would go so far as to say it’s a WAY better screenplay. Carney has a surprising penchant for repeatedly avoiding the obvious choice, which always keeps you guessing where the story’s going to go. For example, early on, when we meet Gretta, Carney does something I tell writers NEVER to do. He jumps into an extensive flashback, chronicling Gretta’s previous relationship and how she got to this point. At first I thought…NOOOOOOO. Why break into a flashback that has the potential to destroy all the momentum your story’s established?

But as the flashback went on, I found Gretta’s past storyline just as interesting as Dan’s present storyline. When it was all over and we rejoined Dan’s life, I was WAY more interested in what would happen between him and Gretta due to knowing so much about Gretta’s past.

I’d still advise against doing this (it’s a big reason why this script is 135 pages long) but Carney found a way to make it work. And it was weird unexpected choices like this that set “Song” apart.

I was surprised by Carney’s strong dialogue as well. I guess I thought that Once didn’t have a script. That the characters sort of improvised their lines. So I was skeptical of Carney being able to write good dialogue. But a lot of his dialogue was both funny and clever.

For example, in a scene where Dan is just finding out that his daughter, Violet, is seeing a psychiatrist, he angrily replies. “You’re fourteen. You don’t need a psychiatrist. Believe me. I know. I know you better than anyone.” Violet: “I’m fifteen.”

Or later, when Gretta is giving boy advice to Violet, who’s trying to get a boy to notice her. Gretta tells her to ignore him and he’ll come around. Violet responds: ““How can you get someone to notice you’re ignoring them, if they’re ignoring you?” Ahhhh! So true!

Or just the way he sees the world. There’s a sequence centering around a headphone “splitter” which allows two people to walk around town listening to the same ipod. Dan opines, “I hate listening to headphones on my own. I feel cut off. But you do it with someone else, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s like you’re plugged into the same, private vibe; but just the two of you, against the whole world. --I wanna try this with someone!

And it just goes to show HOW MUCH John Carney loves music. I mean you can feel his passion for it on every page. And that makes a HUGE difference, believe me. When a writer is passionate about something, they will go to the ends of the earth to make sure every single period is just right. And I got that sense here.

On the ‘not so good’ side, the script IS long. I mean, come on, this could easily be cut with a little discipline. There’s a character – Steve – for example, a friend Gretta stays with after her boyfriend leaves her, who seems to offer no inherent value to the story. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing there. Get rid of him and 7-8 pages are gone right there.

And maybe try to cut down those backstory flashbacks. You can still include them – but you don’t have to include every little detail. You can offload some of it into the present-day dialogue.

But in the end, this script really works, and I think what sets it apart most is the characters. You just like all these people. You want all these people to succeed. If you have that going for you, the story doesn’t even have to be that great. But the thing with “Song” is that the story kicks ass too. Can’t wait to see what Carney does with this.

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

 What I learned: The “wait for the call” device is a nice little device to keep an audience turning the pages. Here, Gretta anxiously waits half the screenplay for her ex-boyfriend to come to his senses and call her. The device was aslo popularly used in Swingers (Mikey waiting for his ex to call) and recently in the Reese Witherspoon unproduced project, “Rule #1,” where she believes her ex will come around and call her. Because the stakes are so high (we establish how much the call means to the characters), we just HAVE to stick around to see if those people will call or not. A cheap device but very effective!