Premise: (from Black List) When a hard nosed liberal lawyer who has been fighting the good fight while others take the credit assumes the role of his crusading firm’s front man, he discovers some unsettling things about what they’ve done, resulting in an existential crisis that leads to extreme action.
About: Dan Gilroy wrote and directed the amazing “Nightcrawler” starring Jake Gyllenaal. He also wrote the just released, “Kong: Skull Island.” Inner City is his latest writer-director project. It will star Denzel Washington and Colin Farrell.
Writer: Dan Gilroy
Details: 100 pages
There are some who believe that Dan Gilroy wrote the best spec of the last half-decade in “Nightcrawler.” It’s the closest thing we’ll ever get to a modern-day Taxi Driver. So you’d think that anything he wrote next, I’d be tearing down the internet to read. Well, check out that logline above. That’s why there was no tearing, and no reading.
This is why concepts are so important in screenwriting. They are your screenplay’s sales pitch and they need to sell on every level. Writer to agent, agent to producer, producer to studio, studio to director. In every stage, your idea will be pitched by someone who isn’t you to someone who’s never met you and if your idea sounds like it could be boring, they say no thanks before they’ve even heard what your main character’s name is.
Of course, the rules are different if you’re Dan Gilroy. People will read your script if it’s about the Mildly Strenuous Oklahoma Half-Drought of 1978. But I got some sad news for you. You aren’t Dan Gilory. You haven’t written the next Taxi Driver. Not yet, anyway. And until you do, you have to think about that chain of command your script will be put through and if your script sounds good enough and marketable enough that every person on that ladder will want to pass it up to the next guy.
Now let’s all hold hands and pray that this script is more entertaining than its logline!
Roman J. Israel is the legal world’s #1 idealist. He’s been working in a small 2-man criminal law firm his entire career. He and his partner, William Jackson, have the perfect arrangement. William goes into court and fights the system while Roman stays back and does the clerical work.
And then William has a heart attack and dies.
A sharkish lawyer named George Patel who worked for William comes in and clears out William’s side of the business, essentially closing the firm down. But when he realizes that Roman is actually a brilliant law mind with an impeccable memory, he hires him. What George learns is that Roman’s intelligence comes with a price – he’s borderline autistic, a social justice warrior without social skills.
Due to Roman’s condition, he can only see black or white, right or wrong, and he’s preconditioned to always do the right thing. So when George loosens Roman’s leash on a murder suspect they represent, Roman can’t help himself from trying to get the man off, something he has no authority to do.
As Roman looks deeper into the case, he realizes that this man, a gang member, didn’t murder the victim. His gang leader did. He’s just taking the rap. When some family members of the victim put up a reward for the killer’s name, Roman discreetly gives them the name of the gang leader and collects the money.
But everything comes crashing down when that gang leader hires Roman’s firm specifically to defend him. But defense was never on his mind. He just wants Roman to know that he knows he turned him in. And that he’s coming for him. Roman responds by collecting all his things and making a getaway. But is it too late?
If you would’ve told me at the beginning of the week that after reading a Friday the 13th reboot script and a Dan Gilroy script, that I’d give the higher rating to Friday the 13th, I woulda told you you lost your skull spaghetti. But that’s screenwriting. It’s not always the best writers who come up with the best scripts.
One of the problems top-tier veteran screenwriters have is that they try to be great. They try to write a classic film. And when you’re statue chasing, you lose sight of what a good story should do. Which is simply to entertain the audience.
Don’t get me wrong. Gilroy gets credit for taking a chance here. But I couldn’t make heads or tails of that chance. I mean, I was 80 pages into the script before any sort of plot emerged (the gang leader threatening Roman). Before that it was Roman literally stumbling and bumbling around, muttering incoherent legalese to anyone within earshot. He reminded me of Mel Gibson’s character in Conspiracy Theory coupled with a John Grisham hero with a sprinkle of Forrest Gump for good measure.
The script is also bogged down with tons of legal inside baseball. There are a lot of lines like this one: “Fisher’s first offense. Could have been reduced to a misdemeanor with precedents and persistence but you plead him out to felony conspiracy and possession. That became your M. O. Take a retainer, waive cleints’ right to pre-lim then dump them on public defenders when they complain.” I felt like I needed to pass the BAR just to understand the conversations.
But the biggest problem is that I didn’t understand Roman. I didn’t understand what he wanted. The brilliance of Nightcrawler was that you always understand what he wanted. He was a capitalist. He wanted to become great at this thing so he could cash in. I never knew what Roman’s objective was. He kind of joins George begrudgingly and then bounces around like a pinball between fellow associates and clients, helping and chastising in equal measure, to varying degrees of success. Every time I thought I knew what Roman wanted, I fell down a chute and got sent back to the beginning.
The thing is, there’s a plot here. It just develops too late. Roman turns the gang leader in for the cash reward, then the gang leader ignorantly hires Roman’s firm. This would happen at the end of Act 1. Roman keeps the secret as best he can, but we know, at some point, it’s going to come out. It’s the old Hitchcock bomb under the table. With Roman’s money grab being the bomb.
We’d then focus the second act on this case as opposed to jumping around to 20 different cases, none of which are interesting or even become important to the story, and when the bomb is finally pulled out from under the table, the third act becomes about Roman’s survival and escape.
My guess for why Gilroy didn’t do this is because he wasn’t interested in plot. He was interested in this character. I just wish the character that was in his head was the same one who was on the page. Cause I still don’t know what the message was with Roman. I suppose it was: Don’t do good to the detriment of one’s own well-being? I don’t know. Roman’s going to be a fun character for Denzel to play, no doubt. I just hope there’s more of a point to the plot once it’s all said and done.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: You have to understand what your character wants. Because that will dictate their goals, their pursuits, their actions, and their choices throughout the screenplay. If you’re wishy-washy on what your hero wants, all of those things become wishy-washy as well and the movie gets messy. I mean what does Ben Affleck’s character in The Accountant want? He wants to be a good accountant. He wants to kill people for money. Like, what the fuck?? Clarify the want, which clarifies the character, which solidifies the plot. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen here in this draft of Inner City. Hopefully it does in future drafts.