Monday, February 28, 2011

The Surprise Movie was... a surprise

The Surprise Movie is always my favourite part of the Dublin Film Festival and this year was no exception. This year I had all sorts of ideas of what it could be. Killing Bono and Hanna were possibilities cos of their Irish links. I thought it could be Sucker Punch (they showed 300 as the Surprise a few years back). Or even Your Highness.

Well, it was none of those! And as soon as the opening started, I knew what it was - I'd read the bloody script! Cedar Rapids was on the 2009 Blacklist - a brilliant spec script by Phil Johnston.

You often find that great scripts like that get made into terrible movie. I'm happy to report that Cedar Rapids transferred to screen pretty much as it was on the page, and it's all the better for not being messed with.

Ed Helms is small-town insurance agent Tim Lippe, who's never left Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He's in a sort-of relationship with his seventh grade teacher and is generally a nice guy who's going nowhere. When his firm's star salesman dies in a sex game gone wrong, innocent Tim is dispatched to give his boss's presentation at an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa instead.

What's brilliant about the concept is that this is the U.S. equivalent of being sent from Tang, Longford, to Mullingar. But to Tim, Cedar Rapids is the most sophisticated metropolis he's ever seen. He shares a room with the super-nerdy Ronald and the crazy drunk Dean Ziegler, and quickly starts to learn more than he ever wanted about the big bad world out there.

When I read the script I couldn't help thinking of John C. Reilly playing Ziegler, and that is indeed who they cast (he's hilarious). Everyone in this film is really well cast, from Anne Heche as Joan, the convention's femme fatale, to Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat as feisty teenage hooker Bree.

Sure, they made some changes. Tim's older girlfriend is plain and homely in the screenplay I read (she's played by Sigourney Weaver in the film). Tim is compromised in a rather complicated manner in the script and in a very simple way in the finished movie - both work well.

I laughed out loud reading the script and the movie delivered in spades. This is a smart comedy with some very stupid laughs, and the Savoy rocked last night. A case of a great spec script being made into a perfectly decent movie - it gives us all hope!

The Surprise Movie was... a surprise

The Surprise Movie is always my favourite part of the Dublin Film Festival and this year was no exception. This year I had all sorts of ideas of what it could be. Killing Bono and Hanna were possibilities cos of their Irish links. I thought it could be Sucker Punch (they showed 300 as the Surprise a few years back). Or even Your Highness.

Well, it was none of those! And as soon as the opening started, I knew what it was - I'd read the bloody script! Cedar Rapids was on the 2009 Blacklist - a brilliant spec script by Phil Johnston.

You often find that great scripts like that get made into terrible movie. I'm happy to report that Cedar Rapids transferred to screen pretty much as it was on the page, and it's all the better for not being messed with.

Ed Helms is small-town insurance agent Tim Lippe, who's never left Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He's in a sort-of relationship with his seventh grade teacher and is generally a nice guy who's going nowhere. When his firm's star salesman dies in a sex game gone wrong, innocent Tim is dispatched to give his boss's presentation at an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa instead.

What's brilliant about the concept is that this is the U.S. equivalent of being sent from Tang, Longford, to Mullingar. But to Tim, Cedar Rapids is the most sophisticated metropolis he's ever seen. He shares a room with the super-nerdy Ronald and the crazy drunk Dean Ziegler, and quickly starts to learn more than he ever wanted about the big bad world out there.

When I read the script I couldn't help thinking of John C. Reilly playing Ziegler, and that is indeed who they cast (he's hilarious). Everyone in this film is really well cast, from Anne Heche as Joan, the convention's femme fatale, to Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat as feisty teenage hooker Bree.

Sure, they made some changes. Tim's older girlfriend is plain and homely in the screenplay I read (she's played by Sigourney Weaver in the film). Tim is compromised in a rather complicated manner in the script and in a very simple way in the finished movie - both work well.

I laughed out loud reading the script and the movie delivered in spades. This is a smart comedy with some very stupid laughs, and the Savoy rocked last night. A case of a great spec script being made into a perfectly decent movie - it gives us all hope!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Some scary movies and a misfire - JDIFF continues...

The festival is still going - this week, I found myself at two horror flicks, both schlocky in their own way....

First up was Wakewood, the first Hammer Studios film in a very long time. Brendan McCarthy's arch script sees Eva Birthistle and Aidan Gillen's grieving parents move to a remote Monaghan village called Wakewood. There the villagers turn out to be able to bring your loved one back from the dead, but only for three days. The parents decide to take part in their ritual, planning to renege on the deal and escape with their daughter once she's back. Of course they find themselves pitted against the villagers (led by a scene-stealing Timothy Spall) and mayhem and scares ensue.

This is a Hammer film through and through. Hearts ripped out of chests, check. Lots of blood and guts, check. Tongue-in-cheek violence aplenty, check. I thoroughly enjoyed it - the script was smart and well-written and there were a couple of good scares every few minutes. Plus the little girl, played by Ella Connolly, was brilliant. If you're a horror fan, you'll enjoy this one.

Next up was a true classic in the B-movie horror genre, The Tingler, introduced by Bruce Goldstein from the Film Forum in New York. William Castle's 1959 scare-a-thon stars Vincent Price as a pathologist obsessed with proving that people can be killed by a spine-dwelling creature, the eponymous Tingler. If you're frightened and can't or won't scream, the sucker snaps your spine.

The acting in this film is hilarious. Price acts like he's in Macbeth, as does Judith Evelyn as a deaf-mute cinema owner's wife (can you see where she might fit in?). The rest of the cast act as if they're in a cute comedy, even while Price's doctor is doing strange experiments in his house and having unconvincing LSD trips (the first time a trip had ever been shown on film!).

Then there's The Tingler itself, which look like... I won't spoil it for you. Far and away the best thing about the movie are the stunts Castle used to put on to promote it, installing electric shockers in the backs of random cinema seats and having plants in the audience to jump up and scream at the right moment.

Modern health and safety means the shockers weren't possible at the IFI (boo, hiss!) but the festival did still manage a skeleton which dangled beside the screen as Price was trippin' and the famous blackout moment, as well as having screaming audience members and even a fake Tingler. Kudos, JDIFF, it was a scream from start to finish and the best night at the cinema I've had for ages.

Last night was one I'd been looking forward to, The Adjustment Bureau. Written and directed by George Nolfi (writer of Oceans Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum) and based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, it stars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. What could go wrong, right?

Well, let's just say that Blade Runner remains the only successful adaptation of a Dick story. This one just mixed too many genres for me - it was a political thriller, a romance and a sci-fi, and it didn't do any of them particularly well. There wasn't enough at stake and the tone of the piece was all over the place.

Plus, it was, as my cinema companion pointed out more than once, a tad silly. I think she meant by this that it lacked a sense of humour - say what you like about Minority Report, but I think IT knew it was a sci-fi popcorn movie.

Tomorrow is the one I've really been looking forward to, the Surprise Film. I have a shortlist of five films this could be, so I'll be doling an idea out to each of the four people I'm going with and hoping one of them is right...

Some scary movies and a misfire - JDIFF continues...

The festival is still going - this week, I found myself at two horror flicks, both schlocky in their own way....

First up was Wakewood, the first Hammer Studios film in a very long time. Brendan McCarthy's arch script sees Eva Birthistle and Aidan Gillen's grieving parents move to a remote Monaghan village called Wakewood. There the villagers turn out to be able to bring your loved one back from the dead, but only for three days. The parents decide to take part in their ritual, planning to renege on the deal and escape with their daughter once she's back. Of course they find themselves pitted against the villagers (led by a scene-stealing Timothy Spall) and mayhem and scares ensue.

This is a Hammer film through and through. Hearts ripped out of chests, check. Lots of blood and guts, check. Tongue-in-cheek violence aplenty, check. I thoroughly enjoyed it - the script was smart and well-written and there were a couple of good scares every few minutes. Plus the little girl, played by Ella Connolly, was brilliant. If you're a horror fan, you'll enjoy this one.

Next up was a true classic in the B-movie horror genre, The Tingler, introduced by Bruce Goldstein from the Film Forum in New York. William Castle's 1959 scare-a-thon stars Vincent Price as a pathologist obsessed with proving that people can be killed by a spine-dwelling creature, the eponymous Tingler. If you're frightened and can't or won't scream, the sucker snaps your spine.

The acting in this film is hilarious. Price acts like he's in Macbeth, as does Judith Evelyn as a deaf-mute cinema owner's wife (can you see where she might fit in?). The rest of the cast act as if they're in a cute comedy, even while Price's doctor is doing strange experiments in his house and having unconvincing LSD trips (the first time a trip had ever been shown on film!).

Then there's The Tingler itself, which look like... I won't spoil it for you. Far and away the best thing about the movie are the stunts Castle used to put on to promote it, installing electric shockers in the backs of random cinema seats and having plants in the audience to jump up and scream at the right moment.

Modern health and safety means the shockers weren't possible at the IFI (boo, hiss!) but the festival did still manage a skeleton which dangled beside the screen as Price was trippin' and the famous blackout moment, as well as having screaming audience members and even a fake Tingler. Kudos, JDIFF, it was a scream from start to finish and the best night at the cinema I've had for ages.

Last night was one I'd been looking forward to, The Adjustment Bureau. Written and directed by George Nolfi (writer of Oceans Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum) and based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, it stars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. What could go wrong, right?

Well, let's just say that Blade Runner remains the only successful adaptation of a Dick story. This one just mixed too many genres for me - it was a political thriller, a romance and a sci-fi, and it didn't do any of them particularly well. There wasn't enough at stake and the tone of the piece was all over the place.

Plus, it was, as my cinema companion pointed out more than once, a tad silly. I think she meant by this that it lacked a sense of humour - say what you like about Minority Report, but I think IT knew it was a sci-fi popcorn movie.

Tomorrow is the one I've really been looking forward to, the Surprise Film. I have a shortlist of five films this could be, so I'll be doling an idea out to each of the four people I'm going with and hoping one of them is right...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

JDIFF festival movies, plus a very frank screenwriting panel...

The film festival started on Thursday and I've been really impressed by the movies I've seen so far. Which were, in order:

Submarine, the opening night gala. This is a quirky comedy set in Wales, directed by The IT Crowd's Richard Ayoade. It has some very funny lines and a great cast (Sally Hawkins, Noah Hunter, Paddy Considine) and I guess can best be described as a cross between The Graduate and Skins. The story is fairly slight and the film's distinctive style takes over a bit at the end, but it's still well worth a watch. Ayoade was there in person, dressed exactly like his character from TV, Moss, and sounding just like him. He was hilarious - the guy doesn't need a script to be funny.

Then there was Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog's latest piece of madness. This documentary is easily the most sane Herzog film I've ever seen, dealing with a cave in France where 35,000-year-old paintings were discovered in 1994. The paintings are astonishing, as fresh and beautiful now as they were in paleolithic times. Herzog doesn't deal enough, in my opinion, with important facts like how the pictures were drawn, what materials were used and how paleolithic man understood perspective. Instead, he interviews a range of eccentrics, including an archaeologist who gives a really bad demonstration of how cavemen might have shot and killed horses. But the cave pictures are so amazing that they make up for it all. They elicit an almost emotional response in themselves.

Lastly for the films so far was Ballymun Lullaby, a doc about a music teacher in Ballymun in north Dublin, who started a choir for local children. Anxious to counteract the area's bad reputation, he teams up with a composer to record a song written and performed by the kids. Ron Cooney, the teacher involved, comes across as a truly inspirational figure. His efforts and the frank interviews with the locals who engage with the project make this a touching and highly entertaining piece of work.

I also made it to the Screenwriting Panel, which took place yesterday in a tiny, hot room in the Central Library. These events can be boring and unengaging, but this one worked really well, mainly because of one of the panellists, writer and director Carmel Winters. This is how the discussion went down:

The panel consisted of Barry Dignam from IADT (the moderator), Carmel Winters (Snap), Brendan McCarthy (writer of Wakewood), Brian O'Malley (writer and director of Crossing Salween) and Thomas Hefferon (co-writer and director of The Pool).

My comments in italics -

The writing process

Brian O'Malley ended up writing a 12 page script of Crossing Salween, based on a friend's short story, in 4 hours because of a funding deadline.

Snap started as a training piece for psychiatrists. The eventual script was written with specific parameters, for a low budget. Winters feels you need to reach the right temperature to write, commenting that avoiding writing is the most painful part of the process!

Thomas Hefferon prefers working in a writing team. He recommends trying to identify an "anchor scene" in your film, the most telling scene in it. In The Pool, this is where the bullied, overweight main character examines his own fat in a mirror. He likes to prepare a short script for about a month, then writes it very quickly.

Brendan McCarthy wrote Wakewood as part of the IADT MA course. He was already friends with David Keating, the director. Hammer then came on board as studio, but McCarthy wasn't keen to work with them at first, as several of their previous "comebacks" had failed. They shut the film down once, right before it was due to shoot, because they weren't happy with the script. McCarthy and Keating holed up in a country house in Ireland and rewrote the script, "refining the emotional journey of the audience" and that was the draft that was shot.

Carmel Winters remarked that you have to "love cutting"! Take out anything from your script that doesn't work or have a distinct purpose.

Script sales

Brendan McCarthy stressed the importance of identifying your audience. If it's an arthouse film, who's going to direct it? He has a theory that coming-of-age films don't do well at the box office, including one of his own (The Sun, the Moon and the Stars) and 32A. He might be right, but then again, I would mention Stand By Me and Almost Famous.

Thomas Hefferon claims he has written 30-40 one-pagers for film ideas, but has only chosen 4-5 of them to actually write.

Carmel Winters said she has 3 great scripts at home that haven't a hope of getting made. "You don't want to write stuff that no one will see". Also, "Write scripts that could never work as a play, that are cinematic".

Barry Dignam commented that 20% of his students scripts are copies of American films. The panel were generally down on Irish writers doing American scripts, but I think you have to write what you like. They also don't rate Irish scribes chances of selling in the States, but that sounds like a rule made to be broken...

Getting produced

Carmel Winters claims she's a full-time writer and therefore broke, even though she had a play put on at The Abbey last year! She remarked about her career, "The minute I based a script in Ireland, I became produceable. People give money to people, not to scripts. Get yourself out there - it's a relationship business". She also remarked that she's given up on some characters because she was unable to write them except as stereotypes. "You have to have insight into them".

Doing research

Brendan McCarthy - "Doing research is another way of avoiding work!"

Carmel Winters said she had to do research into what producer the Film Board would trust with a low budget. That was her big step - to identify what people to approach with Snap. "Put yourself in a position of influence and be prepared to step up to the plate". Everyone looks for "trust and reliability".

Thomas Hefferon said he kept the Board informed every time one of his short films went to a festival. He made sure they knew who he was and introduced himself at events.

Training

Carmel Winters was scathing about the training industry. "Don't wait to write. There's no replacement for it, including training".

Hefferon's last tip was to download the Blacklist scripts and to read one a week.

Overall, it was very good advice. My only gripe? They scheduled the event at the same time as The African Queen screening, with original script supervisor Angela Allen in attendance! Grr....

JDIFF festival movies, plus a very frank screenwriting panel...

The film festival started on Thursday and I've been really impressed by the movies I've seen so far. Which were, in order:

Submarine, the opening night gala. This is a quirky comedy set in Wales, directed by The IT Crowd's Richard Ayoade. It has some very funny lines and a great cast (Sally Hawkins, Noah Hunter, Paddy Considine) and I guess can best be described as a cross between The Graduate and Skins. The story is fairly slight and the film's distinctive style takes over a bit at the end, but it's still well worth a watch. Ayoade was there in person, dressed exactly like his character from TV, Moss, and sounding just like him. He was hilarious - the guy doesn't need a script to be funny.

Then there was Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog's latest piece of madness. This documentary is easily the most sane Herzog film I've ever seen, dealing with a cave in France where 35,000-year-old paintings were discovered in 1994. The paintings are astonishing, as fresh and beautiful now as they were in paleolithic times. Herzog doesn't deal enough, in my opinion, with important facts like how the pictures were drawn, what materials were used and how paleolithic man understood perspective. Instead, he interviews a range of eccentrics, including an archaeologist who gives a really bad demonstration of how cavemen might have shot and killed horses. But the cave pictures are so amazing that they make up for it all. They elicit an almost emotional response in themselves.

Lastly for the films so far was Ballymun Lullaby, a doc about a music teacher in Ballymun in north Dublin, who started a choir for local children. Anxious to counteract the area's bad reputation, he teams up with a composer to record a song written and performed by the kids. Ron Cooney, the teacher involved, comes across as a truly inspirational figure. His efforts and the frank interviews with the locals who engage with the project make this a touching and highly entertaining piece of work.

I also made it to the Screenwriting Panel, which took place yesterday in a tiny, hot room in the Central Library. These events can be boring and unengaging, but this one worked really well, mainly because of one of the panellists, writer and director Carmel Winters. This is how the discussion went down:

The panel consisted of Barry Dignam from IADT (the moderator), Carmel Winters (Snap), Brendan McCarthy (writer of Wakewood), Brian O'Malley (writer and director of Crossing Salween) and Thomas Hefferon (co-writer and director of The Pool).

My comments in italics -

The writing process

Brian O'Malley ended up writing a 12 page script of Crossing Salween, based on a friend's short story, in 4 hours because of a funding deadline.

Snap started as a training piece for psychiatrists. The eventual script was written with specific parameters, for a low budget. Winters feels you need to reach the right temperature to write, commenting that avoiding writing is the most painful part of the process!

Thomas Hefferon prefers working in a writing team. He recommends trying to identify an "anchor scene" in your film, the most telling scene in it. In The Pool, this is where the bullied, overweight main character examines his own fat in a mirror. He likes to prepare a short script for about a month, then writes it very quickly.

Brendan McCarthy wrote Wakewood as part of the IADT MA course. He was already friends with David Keating, the director. Hammer then came on board as studio, but McCarthy wasn't keen to work with them at first, as several of their previous "comebacks" had failed. They shut the film down once, right before it was due to shoot, because they weren't happy with the script. McCarthy and Keating holed up in a country house in Ireland and rewrote the script, "refining the emotional journey of the audience" and that was the draft that was shot.

Carmel Winters remarked that you have to "love cutting"! Take out anything from your script that doesn't work or have a distinct purpose.

Script sales

Brendan McCarthy stressed the importance of identifying your audience. If it's an arthouse film, who's going to direct it? He has a theory that coming-of-age films don't do well at the box office, including one of his own (The Sun, the Moon and the Stars) and 32A. He might be right, but then again, I would mention Stand By Me and Almost Famous.

Thomas Hefferon claims he has written 30-40 one-pagers for film ideas, but has only chosen 4-5 of them to actually write.

Carmel Winters said she has 3 great scripts at home that haven't a hope of getting made. "You don't want to write stuff that no one will see". Also, "Write scripts that could never work as a play, that are cinematic".

Barry Dignam commented that 20% of his students scripts are copies of American films. The panel were generally down on Irish writers doing American scripts, but I think you have to write what you like. They also don't rate Irish scribes chances of selling in the States, but that sounds like a rule made to be broken...

Getting produced

Carmel Winters claims she's a full-time writer and therefore broke, even though she had a play put on at The Abbey last year! She remarked about her career, "The minute I based a script in Ireland, I became produceable. People give money to people, not to scripts. Get yourself out there - it's a relationship business". She also remarked that she's given up on some characters because she was unable to write them except as stereotypes. "You have to have insight into them".

Doing research

Brendan McCarthy - "Doing research is another way of avoiding work!"

Carmel Winters said she had to do research into what producer the Film Board would trust with a low budget. That was her big step - to identify what people to approach with Snap. "Put yourself in a position of influence and be prepared to step up to the plate". Everyone looks for "trust and reliability".

Thomas Hefferon said he kept the Board informed every time one of his short films went to a festival. He made sure they knew who he was and introduced himself at events.

Training

Carmel Winters was scathing about the training industry. "Don't wait to write. There's no replacement for it, including training".

Hefferon's last tip was to download the Blacklist scripts and to read one a week.

Overall, it was very good advice. My only gripe? They scheduled the event at the same time as The African Queen screening, with original script supervisor Angela Allen in attendance! Grr....

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Oscar scripts part trois...

Round 3 in my lineup of the Oscar scripts and we have two adaptations: True Grit by the Brothers Coen and Winter's Bone by Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini.

These scripts are similar in that they were both written by the people who would ultimately go on to direct and produce them. And as such, they have their own unique stamp. Written with a director's eye and a producer's sensibilities, in the best possible sense.

The two scripts are similar in another sense, each dealing with a teenage girl who is trying to get justice for her father. To do this, both female protagonists must venture into dangerous territory, with only the advice of an untrustworthy and irritable older man to guide them.

Winter's Bone could be described as a 21st century version of True Grit, with crystal meth labs substituting for moonshine factories. Many other factors, including the conflicting personalities, ever-present violence and the grinding poverty all around are the same.

One joyful thing that strikes you from the first page of the Coen's script is the dialogue. It positively hums along and you find yourself reading it aloud in an Arkansas accent. It has some truly great dialogue scenes - the one in the courtroom where marshal Rooster Cogburn describes a raid on the outlaw Wharton household is a standout. You can see the events unfold as he talks - this is a great example of building a picture literally out of words. Mattie, the 14-year-old girl who leads Cogburn into Choctaw country looking for her father's killer Tom Chaney, is a teenage tartar with an acid tongue.

"How long have you been ineffectually pursuing Chaney?" she demands of a cocksure Texas Ranger, knocking him off his perch.

Later, she encounters an old Frank James (brother of Jesse) and he makes the mistake of not getting up to greet her. "Keep your seat, trash!" she spits at him.

But this is also a story with some tenderness. Cogburn is an irritable old drunk with no hygiene habits, but he shows pity for a dying young thief betrayed by his partner. He and the blustering Texas Ranger Le Boeuf care for Mattie's welfare - despite their bickering with her, this is a strange, never-to-be-consummated love triangle.

Characters surprise you in this script. Tom Chaney, when we finally meet him, is very different to the stone killer we'd imagined. Lucky Ned, his elusive gang leader, is a shrewd and pragmatic man despite leading a gang of thieves and killers.

Having seen True Grit, I'm only sorry that the Coens left out one or two little scenes from the script. In particular, the one near the end where a much-older Mattie talks about her life after the events of the film and why she never married. I felt this explained her outcome a lot better and made her seem more real.

This script would be a real contender for Best Adapted Screenplay were it not for the presence of The Social Network in that category. Game over. But this is a worthy second place winner - and it's a must-read for lovers of screen dialogue.

Then there's Winter's Bone, another strong contender in a very impressive category. Ree Dolly lives the kind of life you imagine no one has anymore - bringing up her young brother and sister in an inhospitable end of the Ozarks. The family are so poor they shoot squirrels for food and are constantly on the verge of going under. She has a catatonic mother and her mostly-absent father Jessup has a talent for only one thing: making crystal meth.

He is already missing when Ree receives a visit from the local sheriff with bad news: Jessup has put the family's house and land up as collateral for his most recent bail. And if he fails to appear in court, the bailiffs will take everything from them.

Determined to keep the house and avoid her younger siblings being taken from her, Ree sets out on a twisted journey to the truth, encountering every bit as many obstacles along the way as Mattie Ross. Her only guide - if you can call him that - is her father's mercurial and dangerous older brother, Teardrop. But this is a place where you must fear your relatives as much as your enemies.

This is another script with great dialogue and well-drawn characters. The female characters are particularly strong; there's a sense that as powerless as they are in one way, the local women are the force behind much of what happens. There's one jaw-dropping scene where Ree is taken on a boat ride into hell (not literally but close) that will stay with you long after reading the script.

I haven't seen Winter's Bone but on the basis of the script I'll be renting the DVD as soon as possible.

Sometimes you read over a list of Oscar nominated scripts and wonder what the Academy was thinking. But this year I've been really impressed with the scripts on offer - it's going to be a tough call, especially in the Adapted category.

Roll on February 27th....

The Oscar scripts part trois...

Round 3 in my lineup of the Oscar scripts and we have two adaptations: True Grit by the Brothers Coen and Winter's Bone by Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini.

These scripts are similar in that they were both written by the people who would ultimately go on to direct and produce them. And as such, they have their own unique stamp. Written with a director's eye and a producer's sensibilities, in the best possible sense.

The two scripts are similar in another sense, each dealing with a teenage girl who is trying to get justice for her father. To do this, both female protagonists must venture into dangerous territory, with only the advice of an untrustworthy and irritable older man to guide them.

Winter's Bone could be described as a 21st century version of True Grit, with crystal meth labs substituting for moonshine factories. Many other factors, including the conflicting personalities, ever-present violence and the grinding poverty all around are the same.

One joyful thing that strikes you from the first page of the Coen's script is the dialogue. It positively hums along and you find yourself reading it aloud in an Arkansas accent. It has some truly great dialogue scenes - the one in the courtroom where marshal Rooster Cogburn describes a raid on the outlaw Wharton household is a standout. You can see the events unfold as he talks - this is a great example of building a picture literally out of words. Mattie, the 14-year-old girl who leads Cogburn into Choctaw country looking for her father's killer Tom Chaney, is a teenage tartar with an acid tongue.

"How long have you been ineffectually pursuing Chaney?" she demands of a cocksure Texas Ranger, knocking him off his perch.

Later, she encounters an old Frank James (brother of Jesse) and he makes the mistake of not getting up to greet her. "Keep your seat, trash!" she spits at him.

But this is also a story with some tenderness. Cogburn is an irritable old drunk with no hygiene habits, but he shows pity for a dying young thief betrayed by his partner. He and the blustering Texas Ranger Le Boeuf care for Mattie's welfare - despite their bickering with her, this is a strange, never-to-be-consummated love triangle.

Characters surprise you in this script. Tom Chaney, when we finally meet him, is very different to the stone killer we'd imagined. Lucky Ned, his elusive gang leader, is a shrewd and pragmatic man despite leading a gang of thieves and killers.

Having seen True Grit, I'm only sorry that the Coens left out one or two little scenes from the script. In particular, the one near the end where a much-older Mattie talks about her life after the events of the film and why she never married. I felt this explained her outcome a lot better and made her seem more real.

This script would be a real contender for Best Adapted Screenplay were it not for the presence of The Social Network in that category. Game over. But this is a worthy second place winner - and it's a must-read for lovers of screen dialogue.

Then there's Winter's Bone, another strong contender in a very impressive category. Ree Dolly lives the kind of life you imagine no one has anymore - bringing up her young brother and sister in an inhospitable end of the Ozarks. The family are so poor they shoot squirrels for food and are constantly on the verge of going under. She has a catatonic mother and her mostly-absent father Jessup has a talent for only one thing: making crystal meth.

He is already missing when Ree receives a visit from the local sheriff with bad news: Jessup has put the family's house and land up as collateral for his most recent bail. And if he fails to appear in court, the bailiffs will take everything from them.

Determined to keep the house and avoid her younger siblings being taken from her, Ree sets out on a twisted journey to the truth, encountering every bit as many obstacles along the way as Mattie Ross. Her only guide - if you can call him that - is her father's mercurial and dangerous older brother, Teardrop. But this is a place where you must fear your relatives as much as your enemies.

This is another script with great dialogue and well-drawn characters. The female characters are particularly strong; there's a sense that as powerless as they are in one way, the local women are the force behind much of what happens. There's one jaw-dropping scene where Ree is taken on a boat ride into hell (not literally but close) that will stay with you long after reading the script.

I haven't seen Winter's Bone but on the basis of the script I'll be renting the DVD as soon as possible.

Sometimes you read over a list of Oscar nominated scripts and wonder what the Academy was thinking. But this year I've been really impressed with the scripts on offer - it's going to be a tough call, especially in the Adapted category.

Roll on February 27th....

Monday, February 7, 2011

Oscar Scripts 2: The Contenders

I've been reading more Oscar-nominated scripts - the ones that could be king. Next up are two scripts in the Original Screenplay category - The Kids Are Alright and The Fighter.

I was keen to read Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg's script for Kids, because it's a brilliantly acted movie. And in that situation, you always wonder how much of that is down to the screenplay. Would the performances have been so great if the script was crap? And on the other hand, is it possible to act in an Aaron Sorkin script and NOT do a good job?

I think the answers are no and yes. No, the script has to at least somewhat contribute to the great roles - and it does in this case - and yes, it is possible to be such a bad actor that you create defeat out of the jaws of victory.

Leaving all that philosophical stuff behind, Kids has really well-drawn characters from the off. We can tell from the first ten pages that Laser is a good kid with a bad friend, that Joni is in love with her friend but way too uptight to tell him, that Jules is a flake and that Nic definitely wears the trousers in the relationship.

Stir in the likeable but feckless Paul and leave to simmer - and that's exactly what the writers do. Paul lands like a grenade into this readymade family and it's immediately obvious that change is coming to Nic, Jules and the kids whether they like it or not. What I thought was brilliant about this script was the set-up and the ticking clock it created from the start. Joni is going to college soon. Nic and Jules are heading for a crisis point, even if neither of them is really aware of it yet. Laser's best friend may be about to lead him into trouble. The story doesn't just meander along, yet none of the plotting is obvious.

This is a script that benefitted greatly from the performances of the actors in the final product. The dialogue isn't incredible and I don't think it's going to win the Oscar. But Kids is nevertheless a worthy nominee and a good read for any writer as an a example of multiple characterisations.

The version of The Fighter I've been reading is, I now realise, quite an early draft by Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy. And the problem is, it's great. If they'd filmed this draft, I'd say they'd have a good shot at bringing home the little gold man. But instead, along the way things changed for the final movie version:

They took out the character of Dickie's ex-wife and added in a LOT more family members. Melissa Leo's character didn't change a huge amount from the early drafts but all those siblings weren't in there originally. And I think there's a bit too much family fighting in the final product.

The script used to start in the beginning back in the 1970s with Dickie about to fight Sugar Ray Leonard. He was a young guy with all his hopes and dreams - and all the dreams of his community too. Then it cuts after his defeat to the early Nineties and Dickie, now a drug addict, getting his car repossessed. It's heartbreaking - and it really pulls you in.

But in the film, we never see Dickie like he used to be (maybe they couldn't pull it off, appearance-wise? How would Christian Bale have done "both roles" as it were?) Either way, it feels like it begins way too far in now. Dickie is already a broken man and it's hard to imagine how he was ever a great fighter.

Lastly, I didn't care for the way Amy Adams played Charlene in the film - and there's no doubt that she was a far more sympathetic character in the early draft of the script.

What the final version still has is a brilliantly-drawn pair of brothers, a great (true) story. And a part that's going to win Bale the Oscar, hands down. But this script couldda been better. It couldda been a contenda... Sorry, couldn't resist!

If you want to spruce up your own dialogue (and who doesn't?) check out this great article on that very thing.

Oscar Scripts 2: The Contenders

I've been reading more Oscar-nominated scripts - the ones that could be king. Next up are two scripts in the Original Screenplay category - The Kids Are Alright and The Fighter.

I was keen to read Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg's script for Kids, because it's a brilliantly acted movie. And in that situation, you always wonder how much of that is down to the screenplay. Would the performances have been so great if the script was crap? And on the other hand, is it possible to act in an Aaron Sorkin script and NOT do a good job?

I think the answers are no and yes. No, the script has to at least somewhat contribute to the great roles - and it does in this case - and yes, it is possible to be such a bad actor that you create defeat out of the jaws of victory.

Leaving all that philosophical stuff behind, Kids has really well-drawn characters from the off. We can tell from the first ten pages that Laser is a good kid with a bad friend, that Joni is in love with her friend but way too uptight to tell him, that Jules is a flake and that Nic definitely wears the trousers in the relationship.

Stir in the likeable but feckless Paul and leave to simmer - and that's exactly what the writers do. Paul lands like a grenade into this readymade family and it's immediately obvious that change is coming to Nic, Jules and the kids whether they like it or not. What I thought was brilliant about this script was the set-up and the ticking clock it created from the start. Joni is going to college soon. Nic and Jules are heading for a crisis point, even if neither of them is really aware of it yet. Laser's best friend may be about to lead him into trouble. The story doesn't just meander along, yet none of the plotting is obvious.

This is a script that benefitted greatly from the performances of the actors in the final product. The dialogue isn't incredible and I don't think it's going to win the Oscar. But Kids is nevertheless a worthy nominee and a good read for any writer as an a example of multiple characterisations.

The version of The Fighter I've been reading is, I now realise, quite an early draft by Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy. And the problem is, it's great. If they'd filmed this draft, I'd say they'd have a good shot at bringing home the little gold man. But instead, along the way things changed for the final movie version:

They took out the character of Dickie's ex-wife and added in a LOT more family members. Melissa Leo's character didn't change a huge amount from the early drafts but all those siblings weren't in there originally. And I think there's a bit too much family fighting in the final product.

The script used to start in the beginning back in the 1970s with Dickie about to fight Sugar Ray Leonard. He was a young guy with all his hopes and dreams - and all the dreams of his community too. Then it cuts after his defeat to the early Nineties and Dickie, now a drug addict, getting his car repossessed. It's heartbreaking - and it really pulls you in.

But in the film, we never see Dickie like he used to be (maybe they couldn't pull it off, appearance-wise? How would Christian Bale have done "both roles" as it were?) Either way, it feels like it begins way too far in now. Dickie is already a broken man and it's hard to imagine how he was ever a great fighter.

Lastly, I didn't care for the way Amy Adams played Charlene in the film - and there's no doubt that she was a far more sympathetic character in the early draft of the script.

What the final version still has is a brilliantly-drawn pair of brothers, a great (true) story. And a part that's going to win Bale the Oscar, hands down. But this script couldda been better. It couldda been a contenda... Sorry, couldn't resist!

If you want to spruce up your own dialogue (and who doesn't?) check out this great article on that very thing.