Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Screenplay Review - Shangri-La Suite

Genre: Drama
Premise: Two lovers/serial killers drive cross-country to Los Angeles in 1974, where they plan to kill Elvis Presley.
About: Scriptshadow favorites Eddie O'Keefe and Chris Hutton are back, with their third script reviewed on the site.  The first was the highly ranked Black List script, When The Streetlights Go On.  The second was the wild and eerie The Final Broadcast.  And today it's Shangri-La Suite.  I may be mistaken about this, but I don't believe this script is purchased yet.
Writers: Eddie O'Keefe and Chris Hutton
Details: 105 pages. Draft 8, May 3, 2012

Today was supposed to be that rare day where I actually reviewed a romantic comedy.  Not only that, but it was actually a pretty good romantic comedy!  Starring the Reester (Reese Witherspoon).  That's why I realized it was good.  Since Reese Witherspoon is the only actress left who can open a romantic comedy, it means all the best rom-com material is competing for her.  So if she's attached to something, it's usually pretty good.  But alas, the powers that be got in the way and disallowed a review, so all I can say about The Beard (the script) is that I enjoyed it.

So where does that leave us?  In a much better place as far as I'm concerned!  Cause it means I get to review another script by a couple of my favorite writers, Eddie O'Keefe and Chris Hutton.  When The Streetlights Go On made me a fan.  The Final Broadcast made me the president of the fan club.  So what did Shangri-La do?

I'll get to that in a second, but before I do, let's address Eddie and Chris' critics.  As much as their work is loved around town - and they've literally met everyone in Hollywood based on their two scripts - everyone's concerned that Broadcast and Streetlights AREN'T MOVIES.  They're great scripts with original voices.  But they don't fit into any genre.  They don't have any big movie moments you can put in a trailer.  Producers are afraid to put money behind them because they're not easy sells.  Which I think is dumb of course.  No, they're not Transformers.  But with the right director, both movies could tear up the independent market.

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is because Shangri-La is the most "movie-ish" script they've written so far. It's got a goal (kill Elvis), it's got a love story, it's got blood, shootouts, murder.  The narrative is much more conventional.  And it's got Elvis!  If ever one of their scripts was going to be turned into a movie, this would be it.  Which begs the question: Should it be turned into a film?

It's 1974 and 18 year old redhead Karen Bird has had every opportunity in life to become anything she wants.  She was born into a rich family, went to nice schools, is pretty and likable.  But Karen had a tough time with the whole religion thing and eventually started wondering what the hell the point of life was.  The sun was going to burn out at some point so why bother? This led to drugs which led to screwing a lot of guys (in a cemetery of all places) which led to her parents losing faith in her and sending her to a mental hospital to get better.

25 year old half-Chippewa Jack Blueblood had quite a different life.  His mother died during childbirth. His father hated him for it.  Which meant a lot of drinking and a lot of beatings.  As a result, Jack acted out, doing a lot of drugs and getting in trouble with the authorities.  This led to the state sending Jack to the mental hospital to get better.

This is where Jack and Karen met and fell in love.  It's where Jack told Karen his destiny - He believes he needs to kill Elvis.  Which doesn't make a whole lot of sense because Jack loves Elvis more than anything.  It's Elvis' music that helped him through all the hard times, all the beatings and the run-ins with the cops.  But Jack is convinced that when he listens to his favorite Elvis song backwards, his dead mother is telling him to kill him.

At first it's just a fantasy, but when one of the doctors rapes Karen, Jack goes apeshit and kills him.  Now they have no choice but to leave, and once that happens, they need a destination.  It turns out Elvis is playing a concert in Los Angeles on May 11th.  That becomes D-Day, the day Jack plans to fullfill his destiny.

The two aren't mindless killers like you've seen in some of these movies.  They kill because they're forced to or because the people in the way are really really bad.  They eventually pick up one of Jack's old friends, Teijo, who's convinced he was meant to be a girl and that he can fulfill that dream in Los Angeles.  But with the cops in hot pursuit of them and with Karen starting to have doubts, it's unclear whether they'll even make it to LA, where a beat-down end-of-his-career Elvis is waiting.  However if they do, you can guarantee it's going to be one hell of a finale.

Like I said at the outset, this is the most traditional script Eddie and Chris have written.  But their unique voice, their talent, and their distinct flourishes are still all over it.  Right away, for example, we're introduced to Jack, whose mother died giving birth and whose father is a Chippewa Indian.  I mean, who thinks of that??  The average writer will make a protag's parents two white garden-variety folks and think nothing of it - not realizing that who your parents are shapes everything about you.  A white mother who died giving birth to you and a deadbeat abusive Native American father is such a unique choice that Jack immediately feels unlike any character you've ever seen.  That's why I love these guys.  They don't do it like everyone else does it.

We also have a narrator for the story, which is usually a big no-no, but these guys manage to weave him into the atmosphere of the piece, making sure he doesn't feel like your typical exposition-vessel, but rather a necessary component of the quirky story.  These guys love voice overs, and they do it about as well and as naturally as anyone in the business.

Their dialogue also continues to be top-notch.  I don't know what Eddie and Chris drink before writing their scenes.  All I know is I want some.  Here's a line of dialogue from a broken-down Elvis in the middle of the script: "When I was young, Colonel, I felt things.  I had long hair.  Thick, long hair and good looks.  Life just tasted better.  Hurt harder.  All neon.  Now life is just a series of airplanes, limousines, and freaks carryin' luggage up to hotel rooms you ain't never been before.  Tellin' lies."  I mean how do you write dialogue for one of the most popular pop culture figures in history??  And yet these two do it with ease.  I would kill to be able to write something half as good.

On the flip side, the critics of Shangri-La say that the script is too derivative of Bonnie and Clyde and Natural Born Killers.  I guess that's the danger of writing something commercial.  The more commercial you get, the more likely that movie's already been done before.  I've only watched Bonnie and Clyde and Natural Born Killers once, and both were forever ago, so those viewings didn't affect my opinion.  However I can understand why it might've affected others.

For me, it's more about comparing Shangri-La with Eddie and Chris' other work.  What I loved so much about those scripts was that I never knew what was coming next.  I talk about that all the time here.  It's rare when I genuinely don't know where the story's going.  So I love it when a writer's able to keep me guessing.  Streetlights especially, having that passive uninvolved narrator become the main character for the final act was genius in my book.

With Shangri-La, I knew where the story was going.  I didn't necessarily know how it was going to end, but I knew where we were headed.  And I guess, again, that's a byproduct of writing something more traditional.  To be honest, I can't even call that a fault.  Movies with goals and clear directives are what I'm trying to teach readers of Scriptshadow to write.  I think Eddie and Chris are simply victims of their own voice here.  They'd established a style where you never knew what was coming next, so it was a heavy shift to read something more traditional.

Having said that, I still enjoyed the heck out of Shangri-La.  All the characters were unique and interesting, as is to be expected.  I loved how they tackled Elvis as a character.  I loved the love story.  And even though I knew where the script was heading, I did not expect it to end like it did.  So that was cool.  Once again, I think these two have proven why they're two of the best writers in Hollywood.  Now it's a matter of waiting for Hollywood to realize that.

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

What I learned: Remember, you have the power to make ANYONE in your script likable, even serial killers.  All you have to do is create a sympathetic reason for why the characters are doing what they're doing.  The reason we still like killers Jack and Karen is because each one of their kills make sense.  Jack kills one of the doctors at the hospital, but only because he raped Karen.  Jack kills his father, but we establish earlier that his father used to beat the shit out of him when he was a kid.  They kill some cops, but these are cops who were trying to kill them first.  If you DON'T create reasons for your protags to do bad things, there's a good chance we won't like them and hence, won't want to follow them.

What I learned 2: Know your characters' parents.  What kind of people were they?  What kind of people were they to your hero?   We are who we are, mainly, because of our families.  So make sure you know your hero's parents and how they raised/treated your protagonist.  Were they supportive, cruel, abusive, absent?  The answers to these questions will give you a wealth of information you can use to shape your character.