Premise: An American thief living in Paris (Paris. See?? French Week!) is coerced into pulling off a complex heist in order to save his kidnapped wife.
About: Today’s script finished low on the 2011 Black List. It was originally a pitch that started a bidding war, with Dreamworks delivering the winning bid over Warner Brothers. It’s currently in development at the studio. The writer, John Hlavin, wrote two episodes for the critically acclaimed show, “The Shield.” His biggest credit, however, came last year, when he wrote the latest film in the Underworld series, “Underworld: Awakening.” He also sold a spec to Warner Brothers a few years ago called “The Gunslinger,” which Roger reviewed for me. Oh yeah, baby. It’s a good old-fashioned professional spec script review here on Scriptshadow. ☺
Writer: John Hlavin
Details: 132 pages
Wow, after yesterday, I’m surprised some of you are still reading. It’s always funny to me how up-in-arms people get when you criticize any historic pillar of cinema or screenwriting. It’s as if these things can’t be challenged, that just because they’re talked about in film school or influenced great filmmakers, we must all fall in line, nod are heads, and agree that they are great.
Personally, I think that’s a load of b.s. If you think the French New Wave is a bunch of New Wave baloney, say so. If it’s harder for you to suspend your disbelief when you watch a black and white movie, say so. If you believe the latest Oscar contender that everyone can’t shut up about is a boring piece of pretentious hyena vomit, say so.
I can tell you this. The WORST thing you can do is to pretend to like something you don’t. Storytelling and cinema are about finding the truth within yourself and your story so that what you create is real. That was the spirit behind the rebellion that was the French New Wave, and I’d think those guys would be happy to hear people rebelling against them for the same reason.
There’s too much bullshitting in Hollywood, born out of a fear that you’ll sound inferior or stupid if you hate something everyone else loved or don’t believe in something everyone else believes in. Stick by your opinion. It’s what makes you you.
Where does that leave us today? With a heist film, of course! This one a pitch to Dreamworks. The whole pitch sale thing always confused me. It’s so damn hard to write a good script. Even the best screenwriters in the business struggle to do so. And you really don’t know if you have something until you’re finished and the script is out there. So to bankroll a script that hasn’t even been written yet is always a huge gamble (unless it’s based off a well-known pre-existing property of course). I suppose if the writer is proven and has an extremely specific outline, so you know exactly what you’re getting, maybe then it’s worth going for, but in my mind, you just don’t know what you got until those 110 pages (or in this case, those 130 pages!) are printed up. So why risk it??
35 year-old Michael Kitson does one thing really well – he robs banks. He’s been doing it all his life and he’s never been caught. His current city of choice is Paris. Why rob those lame bunker-looking buildings in the U.S. when you can rob a building with some style and history, you know? Then afterwards, you can stroll down the street and grab a fresh pain au chocolate from the café.
But Michael’s getting tired of the grind. And the love of his life, his wife Elise, is starting to nag him about quitting. So Michael makes the call. He’s officially retiring. He and Elise will head off to some island with a pretty name and never come back again. I mean why not? He’s got all the money in the world anyway.
Well not ALL the money apparently. Becker, Michael’s go-to middle-man, has a new job for him. The “French Blues.” The “Blues” are a set of blue diamonds that were thought to be made-up. No one’s actually seen them. But according to Becker, they’re real, and his client wants them badly. Sorry, Michael says, he made a promise to his wife. He’s out for good.
Except when Michael gets home, he learns that he’s not out of shit. Elise isn’t home, and it doesn’t take long for Michael to realize she’s been kidnapped. The call comes moments later. “Do the job. You get your wife back.” Shit. Michael freaks. He’s typically calm under pressure but when his wife is involved, all that goes out the finetre.
He puts together a four-man team and tells the kidnappers he wants to talk to his wife. He specifically wants her to tell him the story of how they met so he knows it’s her. What follows is two weeks of prep to steal the French Blues from a wealthy businessman who happens to be a former MI-5 agent.
During this time, we repeatedly flash back to Michael and Elise meeting, falling in love, him telling her he’s a bank robber, and her eventually accepting it. What begins as a set of mundane memories, however, turns out to be a carefully constructed code the two agree on should Elise ever be taken. Via this code, she’ll be able to communicate to him where she is and who’s taken her.
I’ve said it before. A good heist script is hard to do right because they’ve all been done before. Which is why I tell heist scripters to focus on something besides money. Money is a great motivator in movies, but since we’ve seen heists for 10 million dollars, 50 million dollars, 100 million dollars, there’s really no dollar amount you can throw at us that’s going to get us excited.
Hlavin’s Heist script does a good job in this regard, making these mythical diamonds the centerpiece of the heist. And when you think about it, the heist is really about the girl. That’s what we’re hoping he gets back.
However, this is where Hlavin’s Heist runs up against the same problem all of these kidnapping scripts do: How to make us care about the person kidnapped. You only have a few options. You can do it the Taken way. Spend the entire first act setting up the person who’s going to get kidnapped so we know and care about her. Knowing the character for this long, it’s almost certain we’ll care about her. The downside of this is that we might get bored waiting an entire 30 minutes for the person to be set up.
This leads us to option 2, giving the kidnapped character a really quick 1-2 scene intro before they’re kidnapped. This keeps the story moving along, but you risk us never really getting to know the victim and therefore not caring about her. You have to be a really good writer and write a set of perfect scenes to get us to give a shit about a girl we’ve known for 5 minutes. But it can be done.
The third option is to keep cutting to the person once they’ve been kidnapped, like they do with Silence of the Lambs. We can get to know them that way. However, this way you’re only getting to know them AFTER they’ve been kidnapped. You’d like the audience to care about them before it happens if possible. We’ll be more invested if we care initially.
This leads us to the final option, which is always the least desirable in my opinion: flashbacks to the victim’s past throughout the story. A heist film is about prepping the heist. That takes a long time and has the potential to get boring if you don’t keep things bopping along. Interspersing flashbacks has the potential to slow things to a crawl, since you’re stopping the story completely to go backwards all the time. For this reason, this option rarely works.
So it was surprising to see Hlavin’s Heist make that choice. We kept getting these on-the-nose flashbacks of Michael and Elise getting to know each other. Sure, it made us care about Elise more, but at what cost? Boring scenes. A story that was stuck in reverse for 2-3 minutes at a time. I hated that.
Luckily, Hlavin redeemed himself. Cleverly, I may add. Eventually, after the 7th or 8th flashback, once Michael’s revealed to Elise what he does and she’s accepted it, he says, “Now there’s something we have to talk about. There’s a chance, however small, that one day they’re going to take you in order to get to me. If that day ever comes, we’re going to create a code so that you can tell me exactly where you are. You’ll be telling me the story of how we met, but what you’ll really be telling me is how I’m going to find you.”
And so we realize that this whole thing where Michael has Elise tell him the story of how they met is actually a cleverly designed code between the two. They’re fooling the bad guys, and he uses the information to get the jewels AND save the girl, in one hell of a finale.
You see, in THIS specific case, the flashbacks worked, because they were working towards a cool payoff. However, you’re still dealing with a pretty substantial tradeoff. It took us 80 pages to GET to the point where we realized the flashbacks had a point. That means for 80 pages, this was your average run-of-the-mill Heist script. And I was getting bored as a result. That twist changed everything, and the last 50 pages were non-stop craziness as a result (there are a few more twists and double-crosses), but it’s a big risk to write something that straightforward for that long before you reveal all your magic tricks.
Hlavin’s Heist is a tale of two screenplays. There’s the decent by-the-numbers first two-thirds of the script, and then there’s the exciting “nothing-is-as-it-seems” final third of the script. If you can get through the first part, you’ll probably find it was worth the ride.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: With heist scripts, you HAVE to make the heist impossible. If we don’t think it’s impossible, we’re not going to wonder how our hero is going to pull it off, and if you don’t have that element, you don’t have a heist script. So if I were you, I’d write yourself into a corner with your heist. Write the most impossible situation you can think of. Then figure your way out of it. The heist here had a former MI-5 agent at the helm, a house with all the latest MI-5 security measures, only one way in, a personally designed safe that there were no blueprints for in the entire world, 1/20th the prep time they’d typically have, etc., etc. Make it impossible. Then try and find a way out of it.