Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Screenplay Review - Outside The Wire

Genre: War/Thriller/Conspiracy
Premise: A grizzled contract driver in Iraq stumbles upon a conspiracy to kill a U.S. soldier who holds information regarding a cover-up that threatens an 8 billion dollar corporation.
About: This script was one of the five winners of last year's Nicholl Fellowship!
Writer: John MacInnes
Details: 111 pages

No brainer: Denzel for Schmidt

Usually, when I see "soldier" and "Iraq" in a logline, I cringe.  Iraq war scripts are the equivalent of death by potato peeler to me.  There's an old saying that nobody wants reality when they go to the movies.  They want to escape.  If we want Iraq, all we have to do is turn on CNN.  It's why Hurt Locker, which won a freaking Oscar, couldn't muster up 20 million bucks at the box office.  So I'm not going to lie.  I saw Iraq here and groaned.  However, I had to take into consideration that this script beat out 7000 others, and therefore had to have something going for it.  As long as it wasn't another soldier returning back from the war trying to integrate himself back into a society scenario, then maybe, just maybe, Outside The Wire had a chance.

And you know what?  John MacInnes capitalized on that chance.  The first act of Outside The Wire was stupendous, pulling me in like a warm blanket.  A warm blanket of death and destruction!  (Whoa,  I was trying to add emphasis for effect there and it didn't turn out the way I planned.  Writing fail.  Let's move on.)

"Wire" begins in Iraq with Private Lavena Torres video-chatting with her little boy, Antonio.  It's a tender heartfelt moment, with Antonio showing his mother a picture he drew of her.  But more importantly, it instantly gave me confidence in the writing.  I thought I was getting that "returning from home" 25 year old male soldier storyline that I always read, but instead I'm introduced to a female soldier. That was different.  That told me this writer knew how to avoid the obvious, the cliche, and 9 out 10 times when I read amateur scripts, that's not the case.

After the chat, Torres goes back to her quarters, only to find military police searching her bed. They snatch her up, and she begins asking what she's done wrong.  But no one tells her.  No one tells her a damn thing.

Afterwards we meet Larry Schmidt.  I was a little upset regarding Larry's intro because his age wasn't given.  This is a huge pet peeve of mine.  A 33 year old is different from a 43 year old is different from a 53 year old.  Whichever one of those ages we start with indicates a completely different person in a completely different stage of their life.  You don't tell us that, and now I have no idea who I'm dealing with.  Later on we figure it out, but we shouldn't have to wait until later on.

Anyway, Schmidt's not what you'd call the most social dude.  He's got an ex-wife and an ex-daughter who he doesn't talk to anymore.  He used to be a marine, but now contracts himself out for big money driving through the streets of Iraq.  It ain't easy doing errands in a war zone, but if that's what you want, Schmidt is your homie.

So Schmidt signs himself up for another contracting tour of duty, and on his second route, finds his men picking up a mystery passenger with a bag over his head.  They head to some alley, pull the guy out, take off the bag and we see...Lavena Torres.  One of the contractors puts a gun to her head, about to pull the trigger, but Schmidt sees that she's one of theirs and shoots the contractor first.  A firefight with the other contractor ensues, and Schmidt is able to grab Torres and get away.

Being the veteran that he is, he's able to find them shelter for the time being, but it isn't going to be long before the military finds them, and if Schmidt's going to get out of this, he's going to need to know what  Torres did.  The short of it is that she knows that one of the U.S.'s targeting programs has been malfunctioning and killing U.S. soldiers.  The corporation that creates this software, who's about to go "all in" in Iraq, doesn't want this little girl ratting out their mistakes, so they've ordered her to be killed.

Schmidt's already too deep in to bail out now.  He knows the only way they're staying alive is to get out of the country.  So he sets his sites on Jordan.  But in order to cross the border to safety, he'll need to overcome a priority APB form the U.S. military, bounty hunters, roadblocks, IEDs, and a hell of a lot of local bad guys.  He'll also have to overcome that hard shell he's placed over himself and get to know this Torres chick on a level that he's never known another human being before.

Okay, a couple of things right off the bat here. I loved starting with a female character.  I also loved that we were dealing with contractors.  Immediately, this felt different.  It felt unique.  It didn't feel like that super-generic movie, Green Zone, with Matt Damon.  In fact, if they would've substituted this script for that one, Green Zone would've been a thousand times better and actually made some real money. This is a story.  That script was a hot mess.

But I digress.  Another thing I want to point out was the choice to start on Torres talking with her son, Antonio.  This was a BRILLIANT choice.  Through it, we saw that this woman loved someone.  We saw that she had someone to come home to.  It established stakes.  It established a relationship that we cared about.  This way, when that bag is torn off the soldier's head early in Act 2 and we see it's Torres, we care.  This is the girl with the child.  This is the girl who we want to see get back to that child.

Ask yourself this question.  If we hadn't had that scene with Torres and her son?  And we just saw her get taken by the military police?  And then we saw her in this same situation, about to get shot by the contractors?  Would we have cared?  No.  Because she's just some woman.  We don't know who she is in the world.  We don't know if she has kids or a family or anyone who cares about her.  She's just a face.  So we would've shrugged our shoulders and went, "Yeah, sure, shoot her.  I don't give a shit."  It's sad but true.

It's your job as a writer to establish reasons why we should care about your characters.  If we don't have those reasons, then they're just names on a page.  A great way to do this is through relationships.  Establish that there's someone to come home to at the end of the day, that there's someone who cares about your character.  We see this at the beginning of film Training Day.  Ethan Hawk's character has a quick scene with his pregnant wife before his first day at work.  That scene is why we want to see Hawk's character come home.  Because he has somebody.

We even see it here with Schmidt, if on a lesser level.  Schmidt's doing this job because the life insurance will set his daughter up for life.  Even though he hasn't spoken to her in years, he carries a picture of her wherever he goes, and we see how much she means to him.  He may have been a bad parent, but he wants to make sure his little girl is going to be secure.  If we don't have those reasons to see your characters succeed or survive, then it's harder for us to root for them.

On the downside here, I thought Torres became less interesting as the script went on.  She had that great opening that really connected us to her character, but then you gotta keep building on that. You have to peel back layers so we can learn more and more about the character.  Torres just stayed the same after that point, and as a result, I kinda became bored with her.

Contrast that with Schmidt, who we're learning new things about all the time.  We're learning he took a bullet for a very important man once.  We're learning that he's befriended a lot of people in Iraq because of how much time he's spent out here.  His character keeps evolving, where I felt that Torres' character stopped.

And also, I wasn't thrilled with the climax.  It all seemed rather clumsy to me.  (spoiler) Basically, Schmidt has to jump on the windshield of the car of an ambassador to get his attention so he'll save Schmidt and Torres from the bad guys.  The lead-up to that moment was a little confusing, the idea itself felt unimaginative, and it really didn't allow our hero to be the hero that he was.  Schmidt was a badass this whole time, always knowing what to do.  Having to leap onto a windshield felt like something the local idiot might think up.  So I wish that ending would've been as good as the beginning.

Still, all in all, this was a solid screenplay.  I loved that opening so much and I loved a lot of the second act.  For that reason, it's worth a read.

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

What I learned:  If your hero is going to be going through a life or death situation in your story, use relationships to establish something for them to come back to.  If you do this well, our need to see our hero get back to that person/people will drive our need to see them survive.  This happens here with Torres and it happens in classics such as Die Hard, with McClane needing to get back to and save his wife.