A busy day at Scriptshadow so this is a repost from the newsletter. Enjoy!
Premise: A joint American-Chinese task force enlists the help of a jailed hacking legend to look into a mysterious cyber attack on the Chicago Stock Exchange.
About: Cyber (or “Untitled Cyber Story”) is Michael Mann’s newest directing project, which has already been shot and is now in post-production. The most surprising thing about this project is that it’s written by a writer without a produced credit, Morgan Davis Foehl. To see someone of Mann’s stature working with an unknown writer is quite a shock. Foehl’s industry experience up to this point has been as an assistant editor. He worked on a couple of Adam Sandler flicks, Click and I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. So… yeah. That’s pretty exciting for any young writer looking for a big break. “Cyber” will star the new Channing Tatum, aka Chris Hemsworth, whose goal is to star in every movie from now until 2016. Unfortunately, that still won’t beat Tatum’s record, who was able to star in 617 movies between 2012-2014. This marvelous feat was achieved despite there only being 602 movies released during that period. An investigation found that he achieved this by studying Mark Wahlberg and advancing his techniques, occasionally playing two roles in the same movie, and changing his name in order to secretly secure other parts in the films. In fact, he was kicked off of 22 Jump Street when it was discovered he was impersonating Jonah Hill through the first week of shooting (he’d conned Hill into not showing up, telling him the production had been moved to next year). After apologizing, he was able to come back to the movie.
Writer: Morgan Davis Foehl (story by Michal Mann & Morgan Davis Foehl) – Current revisions by Michael Mann
Details: 127 pages – THIRD DRAFT – 7/13/12
The great Michael Mann hasn’t been as crazy great as he once was. After directing a couple of my favorite films of the 90s (Heat and Last of the Mohicans), his more recent films (Public Enemies and Miami Vice) have been okay, but not as good. Of course, they’re Michael Mann films, so you always find something good in them (this guy can combine an image with a score like no other), but they just don’t contain that same magic his earlier films had.
Speaking of, I always felt like Mann’s early pioneering of video hurt him. The technology wasn’t up to snuff when he used it on Miami Vice and Collateral, which is an issue when part of what made Mann’s films so cool was that smooth rich palette only 24 fps can provide. Public Enemies looked particularly strange to me, as it was the first period piece to be shot on video. Something about that aesthetic didn’t jibe with the period, so it always felt like an awkward film.
Of course, all that is moot now. Everything’s shot digitally and they’ve figured out 99% of the glitches. Which means “Cyber” will depend entirely on its story. Let’s see if that story’s any good.
Unbeknownst to the computers at the Chicago Stock Exchange, a Trojan horse has invaded their system and begins raising the price of soy beans four-fold. Half a world away, a ship carrying soy beans is turned away from a port because its insurance only covers ¼ the cost of its newly affected payload.
Cut to China, specifically the Peoples Liberation Army, who own a ton of soy bean stock. We quickly learn that soybean affects the price of a lot more than soy beans. Most notably, it’s a protein filler in animal feed. Which means food prices everywhere are skyrocketing. The Chinese send their best man, Chen, to America, to find out what the fuck is going on.
Clearly, allowing the Chinese access to sensitive financial market data is not in the U.S.’s best interest, but with trade between the two countries being so vital, they don’t really have a choice. They must work with Chen. But things are about to get worse when Chen demands his old college roommate, the best hacker in the world, be brought in to help. Problem? His roommate is serving 20 years in jail for cyber crime.
After a lot of arguing, Chen gets his buddy – Nicholas Hathaway – out of jail. Hathaway quickly realizes how bad the U.S. needs him and makes them a deal. If I figure out who did this, you free me. They reluctantly agree and Hathaway’s motivation is established.
They eventually track the hack to a Middle-Eastern Man named Kassar. Kassar raised the prices of soy beans in order to make a quick 150 million dollars for… what? That’s the question. He’s clearly going to use the money to fund something terrible. A later hack by Kassar of a nuclear reactor raises those stakes even higher. This Kassar guy is up to no good. So Hathaway, Chen, and the rest of the special team chase Kassar all around the globe in hopes of finding him before he’s able to unleash his plan of destruction.
“Cyber” was a very ADULT thriller. In other words, this isn’t Taken. You’re going to do a lot more thinking as you make your way through this story. You’re going to find yourself challenged. At times, that’s a blessing, but other times it’s a curse. Throughout the first half of the story, I was right there. I loved the intrigue and mystery of this soy bean hacker (that’s a weird phrase: “soy bean hacker”). It seemed like such an innocuous thing. But then that innocuous thing kept leading to bigger and scarier realities.
I just don’t think the payoff (at least in this draft) was any good. Somewhere after the mid-point, the story began to get murky. We needed to go to Turkey, and that felt like one country too many. We’d been hopping all over the globe, and at some point I got tired of the chase and just wanted answers.
And when those answers were finally given, they didn’t pay off. 150 million bucks. Funding for an attack. A nuclear reactor breached. We’re thinking something REALLY BAD is going to happen, right? But without spoiling anything, the big “attack” is something done halfway across the world in a place I didn’t care about. I wanted Americans to be in danger – the country that was actually doing the investigation. Not some random country we only learn about at the very last second.
Outside of the plot, I liked the stuff Foehl added inside the task force. Chen’s sister is part of the task force, and Hathaway ends up falling for her. When Chen finds out they’re fooling around, he’s not happy. So there’s conflict within the group, which is good. That was one of my big problems with yesterday’s script. The two main characters on this trip were perfectly fine with each other. There was no conflict whatsoever, and therefore very little drama.
But Cyber didn’t go as far as it could’ve in that respect. Chen’s mad about his sister, but he eventually gets over it, and I don’t think it affected the investigation that much. I actually wondered if the script would’ve been better had Chen and Hathaway NOT known each other, had NOT been friends (and possibly even been enemies).
Think about that for a second. A huge hack in the financial system that potentially threatens the two biggest countries in the world, China and the U.S., forces them to work together. The American character wants to do things his way. The Chinese character is obviously going to want to do things differently. Talk about the perfect concept to explore the current lukewarm relationship between these two behemoth countries. By making Chen and Hathaway former friends, any potential exploration of that dynamic was destroyed. These two needed to distrust each other and have a world of secret motives coming from their respective countries to really make this investigation pop.
I do think there’s enough good here to recommend the script. It just could’ve been better. I’d love for it to be tightened up but I’m not sure that’s going to happen. Mann likes to run his films a little long and he’s shown he knows how to do that so I’m not going to question him. But something tells me this had the potential to be something much bigger.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Don’t let your story linger at the end. Don’t take us on that one extra journey if you don’t have to. Nip it in the bud and get to the good stuff. Remember that the end of the script must feel like it’s building, not deflating. By going off to Turkey late in the story, this script lost all its momentum. I think it needed to clip that section and get us to the climax. Of course, that very well might’ve been something they did in subsequent drafts.