Sunday, October 5, 2014

FELONY: “This early draft screenplay of FELONY has promise but there is much work to be done for this promise to be realized.”

Mal, a basically decent man, is torn between the dictates of his conscience, his need to tell the truth, and his desire not to hurt his family or damage the career of his boss/mentor (Karl) by telling the truth. Screenwriter Joel Edgerton is several drafts away from fully realizing FELONY’S potential and producing the brilliant screenplay that lurks within the material he has chosen to work with.

Mal’s problem, the incident that places his personal and professional life in jeopardy,  is an error of judgment made on the spur of the moment, whilst drunk. He tells what he thinks at the time to be a ‘harmless’ lie. He has no reason to believe that the boy he has knocked from his bicycle is seriously hurt. The boy will recover, he thinks, and there is no need for him to jeopardize his career and the future of his family by telling the truth. A wrong spur-of-the-moment decision but one that we, the audience, can relate to. We do not, I think, judge him too harshly. We might do the same were we in his position.

Mal is supported in what I am referring to as a ‘harmless lie’ by Karl – the senior policeman to whom he is answerable. Again, Karl’s spur-of-the-moment decision to cover for Mal is understandable. It’s what mates do for each other in the real world. There is no need, Karl may think, for Mal to jeopardize his career for what, when all is said and done, is a minor accident from which it seems the boy will recover quickly.

(A NOTE: In the next draft, Edgerton might consider letting the boy regain consciousness and appear to be only mildly concussed. The boy could even speak to Mal, tell him he is OK; his head just hurts a bit. Mal still needs to go through the same procedure – calling an ambulance etc. Under the circumstances, the fact that he was driving the car does not seem all that important. And Karl covering for him, to prevent him from being breathalyzed, does not seem to be such a bad thing. Having the boy merely concussed at this point in the story will make audience identification with Mal easier. And with Karl also. In such a scenario the boy could slip into a coma after the initial lies have been told by Mal and Karl. Having the boy regain consciousness, talk with Mal, would make what happens later all the more poignant; tragic. Even if he only has one line, make the boy into a real character – the cheeky boy his mother refers to him as. At present he is just a ’statistic’.)

So now we have two seemingly ‘harmless’ lies that are difficult to undo without causing damage not only to Mal but to Karl also. Mal obeying the dictates of his conscience and confessing that it was he who hit the boy, would destroy Karl’s career along with his own.  The ante is being upped – as it should be at this point in the screenplay.

Mal’s wife, Julie, doesn’t want him to tell the truth  because the truth will not help the injured (and soon to be dead) boy but will cause irreparable damage to Mal’s career and their family. This is a great starting point for a story. The central character is confronted by a choice between two alternative courses of action that will radically alter his life and the lives of people he cares for and loves. One is the frying pan; the other the fire.

If Mal does not tell the truth he will have to live with his conscience and he and we realize, pretty quickly, that he is not going to be able to do that with ease.  We admire him for his conscience. If he tells the truth, however,  if he obeys the dictates of his conscience, he will have to live with the knowledge that he destroyed Karl’s career, caused irreparable damage to his relationship with his wife and has jeopardized his family’s future. What is he to do? What is the right course of action for him to pursue?  Which is preferable – the frying pan or the fire?

This is the stuff of drama. It is classic tragedy with, it seems, no possibility of a ‘happy’ ending. I want to see this film. And am on the edge of my seat waiting, with some concern, to know which choice Mal will make – the frying pan or the fire? There seems to be no third alternative! When the third alternative becomes a reality (Ankhila forgives Mal) the audience will be reaching for their Kleenex tissues. But Ankhila’s forgiveness has to make sense psychologically. It has to come from something in her character that we have witnessed; been privy to. At present it does not and so has a tagged-on feeling to it that is deeply emotionally unsatisfying.

I am working on the presumption that what I have just written here is what Joel Edgerton had in mind when he set out to write this screenplay. Or something close to it.  If I am wrong, many of my observations here may be off beam. If I am wrong, however, I would certainly like to know what Edgerton’s intentions are?

This early draft screenplay of FELONY has promise but there is much work to be done for this promise to be realized. Rather than talk in generalities I would like to address some specific problems that I believe need to be addressed. The first is an easy one and probably requires no more than a day’s work in rewriting. It concerns Jim, Mal’s police colleague who, right from the outset, reveals himself to be a man of considerable professional and personal integrity.

At the outset we are invited by the Edgerton to respect Jim as a cop who plays by the rules. He is our (the audience’s) moral beacon, if you like. Mal is a cop whose moral compass, for a moment at least, failed him. He knows it and it is gnawing at his conscience. How can he get his moral compass back without hurting Karl, his wife, his family?  Oh, and destroying his own career also.

The potential for drama between Jim and Mal is enormous but is there one scene in the entire film in which these two men go head to head and grapple with the question of professional integrity? No. Mind you, the ‘integrity waters’ are somewhat muddied when Jim proves himself to be less then the moral beacon he has been presented as being when he comes on to Ankhila - the mother of the boy who lies in a hospital bed in a coma, at death’s door!

Up until this point Jim is an interesting character – a man prepared to face down his boss (Karl) on a matter of principle; even if, in doing so, he jeopardizes his own career path. His own integrity as a cop is more important to him that remaining part of a team of cops whose integrity has been compromised by being complicit in the lie that protects Mal. And then, just a few days after the accident, he comes on to Ankhila sexually! He tries to kiss her!

What kind of man would come on to a woman under these circumstances? What kind of cop would do so? Is such a cop, such a human being, anyone we, the audience can identify with? Care about? I think not. He is a crass oaf and it is hard to imagine many members of an audience thinking otherwise of a man coming on to a grief-stricken mother in circumstances such as these. (The notion that Jim has ‘fallen in love with Ankhila during this time is just nonsense. We have been shown nothing between Jim and Ankhila to suggest that this is the case and the notion that Ankhila is, at this point in her life, open to the possibility of ‘romance’ is absurd.)

This problem is easily solved, however, and requires no more than a day’s work. Maybe only ten minutes work if the most radical solution to this problem is embraced: lose the scene in which Jim comes on to Ankhila entirely. The scene serves no useful dramatic function. It does, however, seriously undermine Jim as a character. I would suggest that it destroys him as a character we, the audience, can care about.

If the full day of work option is taken, let this moment between Jim and Ankhila be complex and ambiguous – one that either or both might mis-read. Here’s a suggestion:

Ankhila is, understandably, distraught. She has not slept for days. She is at the end of her emotional tether. Her injured son’s father is absent but here is this kindly man, Jim, a policeman, offering her emotional support at a time when she sorely needs it. She is an emotional wreck. She bursts into uncontrollable tears. Jim, perhaps somewhat tentatively, puts his arms around her to comfort Ankhila. She clings to him tightly, looks up at him with tear-filled eyes – needy and vulnerable. Here is the man she wishes her absent husband could be. Here is a man she could, possibly, love. In her neediness, her emotional vulnerability, she kisses him. Jim responds, kisses her back. Perhaps he is vulnerable and needy also. (Backstory). The intense kiss is broken by Jim when he realizes that this is not appropriate – either in his role as a cop or as a supportive friend to a woman in the midst of the worst possible crisis a mother could be confronted by. He pulls away. Both he and Ankhila are surprised and confused by what has just happened. Very confused. There is great dramatic potential in a scenario such as the one I have described here. And the relationship between Jim and Ankhila has the potential to feed into the climactic scene when Mal confesses to Ankhila and she forgives him. (Suggestion: Ankhila suspects that it was Mal who knocked her son off his bicycle. She does not blame him but wishes he had the courage to admit to his mistake. After getting Jim to promise that he will keep her secret, she confides her suspicions in him. Now Jim not only has his own suspicions but has promised Ankhila that he will not voice them. Interesting dramatic territory!)

What is contained in the screenplay just now – Jim leaning forward in hopes of a kiss with a woman whose son lies in a coma – is wrong on every level. It is lazy writing. It is writing that arises from not getting into the mind and heart of both Jim and Ankhila and imagining, given their back stories, what this moment of intimacy might mean to both of them. This problem is not only easily solved but can also lead to an intensification of the relationship between Mal and Ankhila that feeds into the gut-wrenching Kleenex tissue ending that is possible in this story.

Another problem that is relatively easy to solve has to do with Mal’s and Julie’s relationship as husband and wife. Much more than a day‘s work but achievable over a couple of drafts.

In this current early draft screenplay we get no real sense of a relationship between Mal and Julie other than that required by the plot. Do Mal and Julie love each other? Are they good buddies? Is their marriage on the rocks? Is their marriage shaky but just getting back on track? Is Mal a man who tells the truth? Or is he a man who lies to his wife? If he has told lies to Julie, has his justification been that the truth can often cause more trouble than a lie? He does not want to ‘upset’ her with the truth. We have a glimpse of this in his not telling Julie he has been shot but more needs to be made of this. If Jim lies about being shot (a sin of omission, in this case) what other lies does he tell? Or what other lies does Julie think he tells? The question of lying lies at the very heart of this story and is worthy of exploration.

I mention this because, in terms of making the relationship ‘real’ between Mal and Julie, and fraught with dramatic tension, it would be interesting if Julie were someone who is committed to total honesty in a relationship and as someone who has trouble with Mal’s propensity to lie – even if his reasons are ‘noble’. Going down this path would see our central character, Mal, a liar, wishing to tell the truth about the accident and his wife, committed to telling the truth - telling Mal that he must lie to protect himself, his family, his children and Karl. Not asking, not suggesting, but telling him. An ultimatum. Poor Mal – neither the frying pan nor the fire looks to be an attractive option!

Again, there is great dramatic potential here but in the current draft there is no confrontation between Mal and Julie that delves, in any depth, into their respective positions vis a vis Mal’s telling the truth about what happened on the night of the accident. Instead, we have a scene in which Julie, her head turned away from Mal in bed, staring at the camera, tells him he cannot tell the truth. Another missed opportunity for dramatic confrontation and compelling drama. (This scene is a classic example of what is wrong with most Australian feature screenplays – a shying away from dramatic confrontation. If I were teaching a course in Australian drama I would point to this scene as emblematic of what is wrong with Australian feature films. In brief: emotional cowardice.)

I want to see Mal and Julie deal with the dilemma they are both confronted by – in dramatic terms. Perhaps their marriage hangs in the balance. Perhaps this is the last straw. If Mal tells the truth, Julie is going to leave him. Simple as that. She delivers this as an ultimatum. They fight. Perhaps the biggest and worst fight they have ever had in their marriage. Then the fuck. At this point they may hate each other but this energy is poured into their fucking.  It is wild, animalistic, cruel, painful and passionate all at the one time. It is not love-making. It is fucking.

I mention this possibility for some obvious reasons (at least I hope they are obvious!) but also because such a scene would mirror, in a way, the scene in which Jim and Ankhila kiss. Sex if full of complexities, ambiguities and can be (though rarely is) used as a way of giving the audience access to hidden dimensions of characters.)

Perhaps (I’m just throwing out off-the-top-of-my- head suggestions here) Mal and Julie’s intense fucking of each other brings them back to a place they have not been in for a long time. It is a good place. Problematic though their marriage might be, they belong together; they are a good team. They love their kids and wish the best for them. Why would Mal want to risk losing ‘all of this’ when his confession will not bring the injured boy back to life?

Again, we understand Mal’s dilemma. Fuck, how’s he going to get out of this one? How can he reconcile the demands of his conscience with his responsibilities for/towards his wife and kids!? We, the audience, don’t want him to ruin his life, his wife’s life, the life of his family (and Karl’s also) but we also sense, deep down, that he has to tell the truth; that he will not be able to live with himself, his conscience, unless he comes clean about the role he played in the death of the boy. We admire Mal, we feel for him, we wish him well. We are with him on his journey, experiencing his dilemma. This is the stuff of classic tragedy – from Oedipus Rex to Hamlet. Edgerton’s story is growing in fertile dramatic ground! It has the potential to be brilliant. It may take half a dozen more drafts but it can be done.

There is a serious problem with the film’s ending – a problem less easily solved but one which can be solved over the next few drafts.

At present Mal does not go of his own free will to confess to Ankhila and this undermines his character. He has an accident, hurts his head and, in a clearly addled state, stumbles to her front door and, after she has called the police, confesses to her.  Edgerton is, here, resorting to tortuous plot mechanics to solve a craft problem when the solution should come from Mal’s character; from his decision to confess to Ankhila regardless of the consequences. (Mal’s accident, his head wound, his walking away from the scene of the accident, his arrival at the front door is all clumsy and lazy writing anyway. First draft ‘place holder’ scenes. This is not an episode of Home and Away, for fuck’s sake! Or shouldn’t be!)

Would Mal have confessed if he had not had that accident? What dramatic purpose does the accident serve in terms of his confession? None. It undermines the integrity if his confession.

It would be much more powerful, dramatically if, after much soul-searching, in the clear light of day (metaphorically speaking, and maybe literally) and stone cold sober, Mal were to turn up at Ankhila’s to confess. He has made a moral/ethical choice and is prepared to live with the consequences. I would even consider having a scene between Mal and Julie in which, much as she does not want him to tell the truth, she understands that he has to and she supports him in his decision. She loves him for his integrity, even though she is, understandably shit-scared of how Mal’s ethical/moral integrity is going to impact on hers and her family’s lives.

So, Mal turns up and knocks on Ankhila’s door. He is going to tell her the truth. Perhaps he does. The police turn up (for whatever reason, this is a craft problem easily solved) and Ankhila is placed in the position of either telling the police that Mal has confessed that he killed her son or of letting him go free, back to his family, to live his life. Again, one of those moments in the story that is filled with edge-of-the seat dramatic potential. Will she lie to protect the man who killed her son? Or won’t she?

She decides to lie to protect Mal. There will  not be a dry eye in the cinema but for such a ‘wow’ heart-rending ending for the audience we need to understand why Ankhila makes this decision. At present it is just tagged on, a form of modern day deux ex machine. Her decision comes from nowhere we understand psychologically. And so it has none of the power it should have; is capable of having in subsequent drafts.

If Edgerton and his team recognize that there is a problem here, one possible way of solving it is as follows: Establish that for Ankhila, family is everything. All her dreams as a girl were bound up in having, being part of, a happy family. It has not worked out for her. Her husband left. The reason is not that important other than that Jim seems to have the qualities Ankhila would have wished for in a husband.

Ankhila becomes aware that Mal is essentially a decent man and has the happy family, fragile though it might be, she so dearly wishes she had herself. Mal loves his kids. She would not want to do anything to harm such a man or his family. Her own son is dead and will not be brought back to life through the destruction of Mal’s career, marriage and family. Her lying to the police  in the final scene is an act or extraordinary heroism on her part and renders her a major character in the film – because of who she is as a character and not because she serves the useful plot function of letting Mal off the hook in the final sequence.

At present Ankhila is barely a character at all. She is there to serve the plot but does not have a life of her own; has no backstory. And because she is not really a character, but a cipher, her forgiving of Mal at the end carries not even a fraction of the dramatic potential this moment contains.

How Ankhila gets to know what kind of a father Mal is, how important his family is to him, is a craft issue easily dealt with. In part, she can learn some of this from Jim – enough to reinforce what we, the audience, have already seen of Mal with his family. And, when the family comes to visit her and her son at the hospital, an opportunity is there in the current structure to give Ankhila an opportunity to witness the dynamics of Mal’s family.

OK, now let’s address the problem of Mal’s family. The scenes that exist now are generic. We have seen scenes like them countless times. They lack one scintilla or originality. What is required, very early in the story, is a scene or a sequence of scenes in which Mal’s family, his relationship with Julie and his kids becomes real and complex. Here is the opportunity for the audience to learn, early on, to care about Mal and his fate; to want to go on a journey with him – a journey complicated by his initial lie. Given the role that lies play in the unfolding drama, one possibility is to see Mal telling one of his kids why telling lies is not the right thing to do. Perhaps one of them has told what appears to be a harmless lie (It wasn’t me who took the cookie!) and Mal has to explain why even a small lie such as this is wrong. This could seque into a discussion/argument with Julie about Mal’s own propensity to lie – even if his lies are only to protect Julie from worrying about him. It need not be serious. It can be playful between them – discussing the difference between good lies and bad lies. “OK, your bum does look big in that,” Mal might say.

In its current draft, lies play a major role. This motif can be used in subtle ways. And the audience can be invited to participate in a lie. Consider constructing the first Act of the next draft in such a way that it ends with Mal being confronted with the question: Do I tell the truth, that I knocked the boy off the bicycle, or do I tell a lie? If you can get the majority of the audience thinking, “For fuck’s sake, Mal, you don’t need to tell the truth. It’s going to cause nothing but trouble. The kid is OK,” its members are now complicit and on the same journey as Mal. The audience’s complicity will be easier to achieve if the boy regains consciousness and seems not to have suffered any serious injury.

I would suggest either dispensing entirely with the opening sequence  in which Mal gets shot or reducing it to a 90 second pre-credit sequence. It serves very little dramatic function in the story to be told – other than to give Mal a reason to lie to Julie by not telling her he was shot. Other than that we have seen this scene, or scenes like it, so many times. It is run-of-the-mill and run-of-the-mill is not the way to start a film that the filmmakers hope to attract a cinema-going audience to pay $18 to see.

If a decision is made to begin the film in this way, (Mal being shot etc) cut it back to its bare bones. All that needs to be established is that Mal is a cop, that he has had a shit day at the office, one too many drinks and lies to Julie. That is all that is required. This is a story about a man‘s battle with his own conscience; a battle that leaves him with no choice but to take one of two equally unpalatable courses of action. Tell the truth and hurt others. Live in a lie and hurt himself.

I would consider another radical change to Act One – but one relatively easy to bring to fruition. Before Mal knocks the boy off the bike, establish what is at stake for him if he tells the truth about the accident. And what is at stake is (a) his career, (b) his marriage, (c) his family and (d) his relationship with Karl. This would involve holding off on the accident with the boy until close to the end of Act One.

At present we have no idea what Mal’s relationship with Karl is prior to the accident. Making Karl a viscious drunk is, in my mind, both unnecessary and lessens the dramatic impact of what takes place later on when Karl pleads with Mal not to tell the truth. An alternative opening for the film, (after the adrenalin pumping high-impact pre-credit sequence opening) would be a family scene with Karl present. Karl has been like a dad (or an uncle) to Mal. His mentor. Karl loves Mal like a son and the feelings are mutual. And Karl is like a granddad to Mal’s kids. He is part of the family. He is basically a decent man but, as any father could attest, prepared to tell a lie to protect his son; his surrogate son. So, when Karl lies to protect Mal we understand, emotionally and psychologically, why he does it. The boy is conscious when the police and ambulance arrive (m suggestion) and no useful purpose is to be served by Mal’s telling the truth, having to undergo a breathalyzer test and so on. We understand Karl‘s decision. Yes, it is morally wrong, it is contrary to how a policeman should behave but we understand. Karl is not a bad man. Nor is Mal. There are no bad men in this story. There are just good men who make bad decisions that come back to haunt them.

Seeing the story in this way, the sub-plot played out in court (where the young man gets off and Karl is pissed off) is of no relevance at all and should, in my opinion, be cut out entirely. It serves no useful dramatic purpose. This is a story in which a simple accident has thrown the following characters together in a way in which all have to make life-changing decisions – Mal, Jim, Karl, Julie and Ankhila. The decisions/choices made by each will have a profound effect on the lives of all the others – whether they like it or not. Great dramatic material to work with.

In the current draft Mal eventually makes his decision to tell the truth under the influence of a severe jolt to his head. Implicit in the sequence from his accident to his arrival at Ankhila’s front door is that he is not fully responsible for the choice he has made. If he had not had this accident, would he have decided to confess? This is not a time to confuse your audience about Mal’s motivations. Mal must, I believe, make a conscious decision to tell the truth. No ifs and buts. And his wife, Julie, should not be forgotten here. It seems that he has given Julie no warning that he plans to tell the truth – undermining himself as a character and the value he places in his marriage.  Another wasted opportunity for dramatic confrontation.

I would like to suggest an alternative approach to the climactic scenes:

Mal turns up of his own volition at Ankhila’s (no car accident), he tells her the truth. Her response, “I have known from the beginning that it must have been you.” Mal is dumbfounded. Before he or she have a chance to say anything else, the police arrive.

Now this might be gilding the lily somewhat but I would also play around with the idea of having Julie and hers and Mal’s kids in the car, parked outside. This could be a powerful cinematic moment. The police ask Ankhila about Mal. She is torn between telling the truth and telling a lie. She can see, beyond Mal, beyond the police, Mal’s family waiting for him in the street. She decides to lie. “This is the man who helped me and my family.”

Such an ending gives rise to some script problems that need to be solved but the solution only serves to add to the drama. What are Julie and the kids doing there, outside Ankhila’s?

Suggestion. Much as Julie wishes Mal would not tell the truth, she understands. She supports him in his decision and will live with the consequences – whatever they may be. And they are not going to be good. Mal and Julie have, before he goes to Ankhila’s front door, explained to their kids that sometimes, in life, doing the right thing is more important than doing the thing that will make life comfortable, easy or leads to happiness. Mal warns his kids, in the gentlest possible way, that maybe things are going to be difficult for a while for the family but that if they all pull together they will get through this.

A scene such as this would make Mal a character whom we admire as a father, a husband and as a moral human being. He has made a mistake and he is going to do all he can to rectify it. When he gets out of the car and makes his way to Ankhila’s front door he is a protagonist who had, consciously made a decision to act in accordance with his conscience. He is now totally responsible for the consequences of his actions – all of which seem, at this point, to be bad.

The audience is with Mal, in every sense of the word, as he walks up the path to the front door – knowing that when the door opens he is, both literally and metaphorically, opening up a new life for himself and his family. Ankhila opens the door. Don’t shy away from this moment. Milk it. Play it for all it is worth. It is not easy for Mal to do but be tells Ankhila the truth. I like the idea that she has suspected this all along and would play around with the idea of her saying something along the lines of, “I have been waiting for you to tell me this. Why has it taken you so long?” She can say this with sufficient anger such that we do not know, in what happens next, whether she will tell the police the truth or lie.

When the police ask her right up front why Mal is there, play this for all it is worth. Ankhila looks at Mal. He stands proud. He is neither asking for or expecting forgiveness. He is prepared to take the bad medicine that will shortly be forced down his throat. Ankhila looks past Mal and the police to the car in the street – around which Julie and the kids stand, waiting. Perhaps one of the kids even waves to Ankhila. She turns to the police and says, “This is the man who helped me when my son was hit by a car.”  Cut to Mal. A close shot. He registers what has just happened. In the background, in soft focus, is his family.

Fade to black. The story is over.

The current ending, Jim waiting with a cup of coffee sitting on the roof for Mal, gives the audience nothing to take with them from the cinema other than the thought: “Police are all fallible and corrupt and aspire to none of the high ideals that we expect of police; that we expect of the central characters in a film that has, at its base, important moral and ethical questions. Instead of the audience leaving the cinema on an emotional high, wiping tears from their eyes, the current ending will have them searching for the nearest bar to drown their sorrows at having had confirmed their worst suspicions that the police are rotten to the core.

This screenplay has huge potential but requires a lot of work in subsequent drafts for the potential to be realized. I would suggest to Edgerton, if he has not already seen it, that he study A SEPARATION as an example of the kind of film that can be made in which characters we care about and whom we do not wish to see harmed, tell lies to protect the people they care for and love.

FELONY has the potential to be a drama of similar quality to A SEPARATION. Keep writing new drafts until it is.

James Ricketson

5th October 2014

1 comment:

  1. Yes, a screenplay written by an actor who does not understand his craft. A screenplay greenlit by film bureaucrats who do not understand the difference between a good, bad and indifferent screenplay.