Genre: Dark Comedy
Premise: A man loses his wife to a car crash and then loses himself. The only person who can save him is a marijuana addicted candy bar vending machine customer service rep who’s too anxious to meet him in person.
About: This script was on the 2007 Black List and forgotten until last year when Jean-Marc Vallee, the director of Dallas Buyer’s Club, read the script and wanted to direct it for his next project. Here are his thoughts: “Demolition is such a powerful and touching story, written with a strong and sincere desire to try to understand the human psyche, what makes us so unique, so special, what makes us love. This is a script of a rare quality, of a beautiful humanity.” Wow, how could you not want to read the script after that? Now with all that being said, Vallee is one of the most sought after directors in town after Dallas Buyer’s Club’s double-Oscar win, so I don’t know if this is still in his plans. I know his next film is with Reese Witherspoon, the adaptation of the non-fiction phenomenon, “Wild.” But I’m not sure if that was the film he replaced Demolition with or one he was doing when he decided Demolition would be next. Writer Bryan Sipe has been writing and directing small indie movies for over a decade, still looking for that first major writing credit.
Writer: Bryan Sipe
Details: 113 pages
I was eyeing up spec sale 40,000 Man, the Six Million Dollar Man spoof about a guy who’s built by the government on a budget, knowing it was going to be a really breezy read and therefore an easy review. But I realized that when you read 40,000 Man, you’re getting exactly what you think you’re getting. There are no surprises there. That’s a boring read and a boring write-up.
So I decided on Demolition instead. After I read Vallee’s endorsement, I felt this could be one of those sleeper scripts. I always pay close attention to when a director loves a script because directors are what make the business go round. All the good actors are desperate to work with the good directors, so these are the guys you need to impress to get a script greenlit.
Demolition’s director catnip was all the little dream cutaways. For example, our main character would be looking at everybody walking around the airport and, via voice over, wonder what all their luggage would look like if it was all dumped into one big pile. And so we’d jump-cut to that pile.
Then he’d wonder what it would be like to hold one of the military guard’s guns. And then to shoot a fleeing terrorist. And we’d see that. Directors LOVE this kind of shit. Because it’s visual. It’s something they can show off with. You can’t do that with a straight-forward script. And that’s what sets Demolition apart from its competition. It’s not a straight-forward script.
38 year-old Davis Mitchell is absent-mindedly listening to his wife yap away while she drives them to work, when all of a sudden a car crashes into them. Davis walks away with a few scratches. His wife, however, dies.
Later in the hospital, Davis tries to use the vending machine, only to have the candy bar get caught in the metal thing. After the hospital refuses to help, Davis sends a letter to the vending machine’s customer service division, expressing his desire for a refund. But what starts as a “You owe me 75 cents” letter turns into a series of long confessionals about how he never loved his wife and how he has no idea what to do with his life anymore.
The customer service rep who receives these letters is Karen, a pot-addict with anxiety issues and a 17 year-old son who uses M-80 firecrackers to drive home his point during oral presentations at school. He’s pretty fucked up too.
Karen falls in love with Davis’s letters, and by association falls in love with Davis. She starts to follow him around town, eventually calling him, but avoiding a meeting. They get to know each other on the phone, finally meet, and Davis is enamored with her. So he starts stalking her back, eventually showing up at her house, and oh yeah, she forgot to tell him, she’s engaged.
The two keep seeing each other anyway, because they’re drawn to one another’s self-destructive nature. During this time, Davis creates an unhealthy desire to demolish things. Doesn’t matter if it’s an espresso machine, a vase, or his own house. He seemingly needs to destroy whatever he comes across.
As his professional and personal life implode, Davis must figure out why to keep going, now that his life doesn’t have structure anymore. The biggest question of all is, will Karen be a part of that new life?
So yesterday I saw Leonardo Dicaprio sign onto yet another book adaptation. And I can’t help asking, why do these big actors keep choosing these book adaptations over spec screenplays? It’s not always because the books have built-in audiences. I doubt The Reverent has sold a hundred thousand copies.
The more I look into it, the more I realize it’s because in a book, you can be right there in a character’s head with him. That kind of access moves people in a way scripts have a hard time doing. In scripts, you can only develop character through choices, actions, and interactions. You don’t have that first-person advantage a book does. And when Leo signs onto a project like this, I think he’s playing that big thick character whose head he jumped into in the book. I don’t think he’s playing that thin little guy you see in the screenplay.
But! There’s hope! There is one tool left for us screenwriters, one that brings the audience just as close as a first person novel does. It’s called “voice over.” Now voice over gets a bad rap, but if you look back at a lot of the movies you love, you’ll see a lot of voice over, whether it be The Shawshank Redemption or Taxi Driver (or really any of Scorcese’s films). By getting in that character’s head, we feel like we know them in a way that no “choice” or “action” or “interaction” can give us.
BUT, I still think straight up voice over is lazy. The good writers find a way to do it cleverly, or at the very least, motivate it. That’s what I loved about Demolition. Sipe uses this whole “write a letter to the vending machine company” as a way to get into Davis’s head. It starts off as him wanting his money back, but soon he’s able to dish on his whole life. And we don’t question it. The setup for the letters was so fun and believable (he’s gone a little nuts after his wife died) that we go with it.
But what really sets Demolition apart is it’s a different kind of love story, which is exactly why Silver Linings Playbook did so well. This is what writers don’t do enough of. They don’t give us new takes. They simply re-hash old takes. Demolition is not an old take.
Another thing you’re stuck with when you’re writing these “love story” scripts, whether they be drama, comedy, or whatever, is that things can get boring between the characters quickly. With only two people, there are only so many conversations you can give them to keep us interested. So it takes a good writer to figure out other ways to keep us engaged. Sipe did a really good job of this.
First, he kept our romantic leads away from each other for awhile. You have to tease the audience. The first few times these guys talk, it’s on the phone only. Karen is too scared to meet him.
Then, Sipe created a couple of mysteries. There’s a mysterious car that keeps following Davis around everywhere. Also, Karen keeps promising to tell Davis something she’s never told anyone before. These are carrots you’re dangling in front of your audience to keep them reading. If done well, we will want to eat those carrots.
Finally, he added an extra relationship. Again, if it were only Davis and Karen, we’d be bored, so Sipe gave us Karen’s teenage son, Chris, as well. He and Davis begin a rocky friendship that plays into their development as the script goes on.
Demolition was an unexpected treat, a sort of cross between Silver Linings Playbook and American Beauty. If you like non-traditional love stories with fucked up characters taking center stage, this one is for you.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Feelings that are the OPPOSITE of what the character is supposed to be feeling are usually more interesting than feelings that are exactly what a character is supposed to be feeling. Think about it. If a woman loses her husband in a car crash and can’t stop crying, it’s both expected and, if done poorly, melodramatic. But if she has no reaction. Or if she seems happy about it? That throws us off and tends to make us curious. We want to figure out what’s going on with this character and why she would act this way.