Genre: Period Political Thriller
Premise: Set in one of the most volatile cities during one of its most volatile eras – Beirut in the 1980s – High Wire Act follows a bottomed-out alcoholic diplomat who’s called upon to negotiate the release of a CIA agent who used to be his best friend.
About: From the writer who brought you Michael Clayton and FOUR of the Bourne scripts (Tony Gilroy) comes this hot project, which will star Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike.
Writer: Tony Gilroy
Details: 120 pages

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High Wire Act got me thinking about the types of movies Hollywood makes these days. Cause it ain’t movies like High Wire Act. Unless you have a prestige director and an Oscar campaign ready to roll, I know execs who’d be more welcoming to the Zika Virus than an obscure period political thriller.

Remember when they used to make movies like Boiler Room? Or Rounders? You didn’t even need a concept! All you needed was a subject matter. Uhh… traders on Wall Street. Uhh… poker players! We’ll figure out the story later.

Truth be told, I’m kinda glad those movies don’t get made anymore. They sucked. I mean go back and try and watch one of them. You’re sitting there going: This is basically about a guy named Matt Damon playing poker. They didn’t even try and hide it.

Luckily, High Wire Act is more sophisticated than those scripts, plus it has the benefit of being written by someone who actually understands screenwriting.

Mason Skiles, an American diplomat in 1972 Lebanon, has managed the rare feat, along with his wife, of becoming friends with many of the locals. There’s one boy in particular, 15 year old Kamir, who Mason has personally mentored and will soon send to school in the United States.

Unfortunately, however, school will not be in session for Kamir. A group of masked men crash one of Mason’s parties and take Kamir, who it turns out is the brother of a high profile terrorist. During the scuffle, Mason’s wife is shot and killed.

Cut to 10 years later and Mason is a drunk back in the states with a bargain basement arbitration practice. Just when things can’t sink any lower, he gets a call. It’s the CIA. They want him on a plane to Beirut pronto. But they won’t tell him why.

Mason reluctantly goes, where he finds out that his former best friend and fellow diplomat, Desmond, has been taken. And the kidnappers are requiring they deal with Mason only. Hmmm… that’s interesting.

So Mason goes to meet them and wouldn’t you know it, guess who the kidnapper is? That little boy, Kamir, is all grown up and ready to make a deal. The Israelis have kidnapped Kamir’s troublemaker brother. If Mason can get him back, Kamir will deliver Desmond.

And that’s where things get REALLY complicated. Kamir’s brother is essentially Osama Bin Laden to the Israelis. There’s no WAY they’re going to give him up. Which means Mason is going to have to pull off the greatest negotiation of all time in order to save his friend. Can he do it?

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This script starts with a bang and never lets go. My issue with these scripts is that the writer will get too wrapped up in the politics side of things. That stuff isn’t interesting to me. Nor is it interesting to most. What audiences care about are people. If you can set up a cast of characters who are interesting and put them in dramatic situations that are compelling, it doesn’t matter what the overarching storyline is. WE WILL CARE.

And that’s what Gilroy does. He opens with a flashback that introduces us to our happy main character, his happy wife, his happy best friend, and the happy teenage boy he mentors.

Immediately after making us fall in love with them, the terrorists arrive and kill Mason’s wife. I was devastated. And why? It’s just words on a page. But this is the power of good screenwriting. You create moments between characters, make us care about them, then take those characters away.

Even more brilliant? PERSONAL STAKES. What bad writers do in these scripts is they introduce a bunch of random people with random ranks who we don’t know, and expect us to give a shit if one of them is kidnapped.

What Gilroy does is he makes the kidnapped guy our main character’s best friend (PERSONAL STAKES). And who’s the kidnapper? The kid Mason mentored (PERSONAL STAKES). Everything here is personal, which makes the bonds and thus the plotlines stronger.

Gilroy doesn’t stop there. He utilizes what I’ve deemed the “mystery goal.” The mystery goal adds flavor to a goal, it adds a spike. When Mason is called upon 10 years later to go back to Beirut, he isn’t told why. It’s a MYSTERY. So you’re not just sending your character somewhere (their goal) but strengthening it with a mystery along the way. Of COURSE we’re going to want to keep reading. Just like Mason, we want to find out what the fuck they want him for.

Another key tip is to make your mystery goal IMPORTANT. Typically, when you lay down a mystery, you can keep that mystery going for 10-15 pages and the reader’s going to stay invested. People naturally will stick around until the mystery is solved. But the more IMPORTANT you make that mystery, the longer you can stretch out the reveal.

The way the CIA talks to Mason about this Beirut trip, they make it sound like a really big fucking deal. Like this is one of those things you can’t pass on. As a reader I’m going, “Ooh, this seems big time. I have to know what this is about.” If the same person had come to Mason and said, “I heard these people are sorta interested in talking to you. Maybe you should check it out.” Does that sound important enough to make you care? Of course not.

Lots of great scenes here too. Bad writers take common scenes and play them out the way they alway play out. Good writers take common scenes and they TURN THEM in a way where they play out unexpectedly. So when Mason goes to meet with the kidnappers for the first time, there are two men in masks he’s talking to. The main one, the older guy, is screaming and yelling at Mason, telling him that Mason’s going to play by their rules. After about 3 minutes of this, the other masked man calmly raises his gun and shoots the man in the back of the head for being difficult. He then takes over the negotiation.

WHAT THE FUCK?? Wasn’t expecting that.

After all this, you’re probably expecting me to give this an impressive. I was actually going higher than that at the midpoint. This was going Top 25. But then the script started doing exactly what I said you shouldn’t do at the beginning. It started focusing on the politics, the web of lies, the world of the impersonal as opposed to the personal.

One of the issues here was that Beirut had a dozen warring factions inside of it in the 80s. So there were SO MANY bad guys. So many different clubs who were part of the problem. Add onto that people double-crossing each other and after awhile, you couldn’t keep track of it anymore.

It’s the double-edged sword with these types of scripts. As they move towards their climax, they have to get bigger. But the bigger they get, the harder it is to keep track of what’s going on. So you have to either deftly calibrate how much the audience can take, or be an expert at keeping loads of information clear and easy to digest.

I eventually got lost in all the madness. And that’s too bad, cause this script had a hold on me for a big portion of its page count.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: One of the oldest writing tricks in the book. Place your hero where he least wants to be. The last place Mason wants to be after his wife was murdered there is Beirut. So where is he sent to? Beirut. You do that and I’m telling you, most of your movie will write itself.

What I learned 2: You’re never going to write the perfect screenplay. The goal is simply to do more good than bad. If you can achieve that, you’ll have a script worth reading.

  • http://apairoftools.wordpress.com/ Sebastian Cornet

    I actually don’t remember Boiler Room or Rounders. But then again that was probably Carson’s point.

    • Scott Crawford

      I enjoyed ROUNDERS, I’m sure what poker players thought of it, but I thought it was a good look at addiction. And a good look at Gretchen Mol before she started having to wear bras.

  • Lucid Walk

    “So there were SO MANY bad guys. So many different clubs who were part of the problem. Add onto that people double-crossing each other and after awhile, you couldn’t keep track of it anymore.”

    Having lots of characters may not be a great idea, but what having very few characters?

    For my F#&%ING Screenplay entry (sorry, I don’t know what else to call it), I only plan on having five characters from Act 2 onwards. Think Ghostbusters or Guardians of the Galaxy, except we don’t cut to anyone else, because there’s no one else to cut to; we stay with the team of 5 for the entirety of the film. Is that good or bad?

    Now, I’m thinking this could work. They just have to be the FIVE COOLEST PEOPLE ever, right? Good thing we’re supposed to be writing our character bios.

    • Scott Crawford

      My classic example of reduced cast is YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, it’s almost like a stage play, which in many ways it is, because Frankenstein was a stage play.

      There are relatively few characters in OUTLAND, even though it takes place with 1,200-odd people, it’s only about six characters (two heroes, four villains) in Act III.

      Ultimately, most movies are about the top five or six characters – the hero, his confidant, the love interest, the major villain (the heavy or big bad), his henchman (the dragon), another ally character, and maybe one or two others.

      Speaking of GUARDIANS, I was just reading yesterday that they think the next two AVENGERS movies might have a combined budget of $1 billion, because all the heroes are going to be in there, even the Guardians. So about $400 million will be above-the-line for the director, producers, writers and actors, with Bob Downey, Jr. taking half the actor’s budget for himself.

      But they might be wrong.

  • http://apairoftools.wordpress.com/ Sebastian Cornet

    A word on stories getting better toward the climax. It’s an axiomatic statement that stories must get bigger and bigger, but let’s not immediately assume it means bringing out the big guns in terms of spectacle, explosions, and what have you, though that is most certainly a valid path.

    It can also mean heightening the personal stakes, the character moments.

    The best example of a blockbuster pulling this off has to be Empire Strikes Back, a movie which features its coolest battle and action sequences in the first and second act of the story. So if the spectacle fizzles out, the personal stuff has to step up: Leia admitting she loves Han and losing him right after, Luke recklessly going after Vader and learning the harrowing truth about his parentage.

    These moments deal heavy emotional blows, and are just as relevant and memorable as the Death Star Trench run and the Battle of Endor–if not more so.

    All I am saying is, when you are planning for getting bigger by the climax, ask if you want the battle sequence to end battle sequences, or character moments that will affect the way we see them forever.

    Or even better, try to have both.

    • Scott Crawford

      Or putting the airport battle in the middle of the movie. And you thought we’d moved on!

      MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION puts its biggest scene (arguably) at the beginning, makes the ending more of a surprise.

      The counterargument to that comes from Jim Cameron who talks about THE RECENCY EFFECT, that people remember most what they last see or read. That means Act III.

      Some movies had to ADD a big action scene to Act III because there wasn’t one for a while.

      * Bobby Towne wrote the Channel Tunnel chase at the end of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, replacing the original “Maltese Falcon” ending.

      * THE BOURNE IDENTITY originally had NO action after the shootout at the farm. Producer Frank Marshall urged director Doug Liman to add SOMETHING, so they came up with a novel twist on the shootout, a 3-D gunfight in a stairwell.

      * Paul Haggis wrote the “Fall of a House in Venice” setpiece for the end of CASINO ROYALE. Originally there was no action, just Vesper dying and James Bond tracking down Mr. White. Allegedly, Haggis read the script and said “You haven’t got an Act III, do you want me to write you one?”

      • TajRoy Duane Calhoun

        I think there’s a benefit to both. But regardless, I usually like the setup where the biggest set piece happens midway/end of second act. I personally like to call this the “spectacle climax”.

        It’s all about escalation, but people don’t realize there are two ways to escalate. Going bigger, or going smaller but deeper/more penetrative. You can have the spectacle climax halfway through but still escalate into a, technically smaller, but more powerful emotional climax. And the “emotional climax” doesn’t necessarily mean having no action—Civil War [SPOILERS] did it with a still action-y and incredibly well choreographed final fight, but though it was smaller it was more driven by emotion. The emotional climax aso doesn’t mean turning into a drama—it can still be a scene focused on “thrills”, but a different kind. You can follow an edge of your seat rollercoaster of a spectacle climax with a smaller, but arguably more powerful edge of your seat and nail-biting final climax built on wire-sharp tension.

        The climax for Django Unchained wasn’t the biggest shootout. But it was the probably coolest one, and most emotionally powerful too.

  • Dan B

    Sounds interesting – anyone got this one?

    Dblixbreen at gmail.com

    • Scott Crawford

      Sent!

      Do you wanna be like Dan B and have your own copy of this script?

      Email me mr.scottcrawford@hotmail.com

      Keep me busy and I won’t have to keep posting comments here!

  • pmlove

    Come on now, Carson. ROUNDERS is great.

  • brenkilco

    Rounders? You didn’t even need a concept! All you needed was a subject matter.

    Rounders is not a great movie. Though I’m rather surprised Carson thinks less of it than I do. It has all kinds of GSU. You have 48 hrs to gamble your way to enough money to pay off the loan shark or you die. What’s not to love? It still isn’t great. But it’s a not so great movie that has some great scenes. And damn few movies these days have great scenes. I’m not talking about superhero airport battles. I mean a bunch of characters in a room. Tension, well etched characters and genuinely memorable dialogue. Damon and Norton tag teaming to fleece the frat guys, the botched game with the deceptively friendly cops, the final head up with Malkovitch(“You feeling satisfied now Teddy? Cause I can go on busting you up all night long?”) I can watch those scenes anytime. Not all movies with great scenes are great movies. But all great movies are built on great scenes.

  • Scott Crawford

    Sent!