Genre: Drama – True Story
Premise: During the Cold War, a crashed pilot becomes a hero after surviving 54 days in the wild, only to see his heroism disintegrate when details of his survival come into question.
About: I’m not going to make a definitive statement here, because I don’t know why Parter and Hillborn wrote this script. But if you put a gun to my head, I’d guess that they saw a picture of the story’s subject, David Steeves, realized he looked EXACTLY like Bradley Cooper, and wrote the script figuring it’d be a formality to get Cooper to sign on. Also, part of their genius was to PLACE THE PICTURE I INCLUDED BELOW AT THE BEGINNING OF THE SCREENPLAY. Think they didn’t know that producers would alert Cooper to the resemblance? This script finished in the middle of the pack on the most recent Black List.
Writers: Evan Parter and Paul Hilborn
Details: 130 pages
If you want to know what Hollywood’s buying, all you have to do is look through 2016’s Black List. The list is dominated by four categories…
Female-driven action movie.
Female-driven comedy movie.
I’ve already made my opinion known on this. I’d prefer something original, something different. But if you’re someone who surfs with the trends, you’ll want to write in one of these genres.
Today’s script goes with choice number 2 and follows David Steeves, a Cold War Air Force pilot who emerged from the Sierra Mountains after being presumed dead for 54 days, after his jet had crashed.
If you thought Sully was a big deal, Steeves became an instant national sensation. He had the looks, the beautiful eyes, and that glorious beard. That beard alone sold headlines.
So big was Steeves that the Post paid him 10 grand for the exclusive rights to his survival story. The man assigned to the story was Clay Blair Jr, a 30-something journalist new at the Post with plans to shake the newspaper up.
As Blair interviews Steeves about his story, we intermittently flash back to Steeves’ perilous journey, most of which hinged on him finding a shack in the middle of nowhere. He used that as his home base, and would’ve starved to death had he not come across it.
At first enamored with Steeves, Blair begins to see little gaps in his story, particularly regarding Steeves’ crashed jet, which was never found. A narrative begins forming that Steeves may have hoaxed his survival story to cover up that he’d sold his jet to the Russians.
The problem with Steeves is that he was far from the model citizen. A drunk and a womanizer, Steeves would routinely cheat on his wife. This painted a picture of a man who built a life around deceit. If he could deceive his wife, why couldn’t he deceive the nation? When Blair decides to cancel the story, the nation swarms in, wanting to know why, and that’s when Steeve’s story, and his life, really begin to fall apart.
If you forced me to pick between the above four trends, I would pick ‘true story’ without hesitation. It allows you to cherry pick a superb story. But more importantly, if you can find a killer true story, it does the work for you. You don’t have to be a great screenwriter to pull it off. You just need to know what you’re doing and let the story write itself.
Think about it. One of the hardest things about writing fiction is when you get to page 50 (or 60 or 70) and run out of story. With a true story, you know what happens ahead of time and can structure the script out accordingly.
A biopic, by comparison, requires a ton of skill, since you have to shape an entire person’s life into two hours, not to mention make it dramatic and entertaining. Since there’s a lot of dead time in a person’s life, it gets tricky figuring out what to include and what to ditch.
This is why Kings Canyon works. A man becomes a hero based on a lie. And both the “hoax” and the “lie” are highly dramatically compelling. That’s what you’re looking for when you’re trying to find a true story. Are its key plot points HIGHLY DRAMATICALLY COMPELLING?
For shits and giggles, let’s pretend this was a real life story about a man who stole $1000 from his employer, then was brought into his boss’s office where he was told they’d caught him. He then had to prove his innocence. Is there drama in that scenario? Sure. Is it HIGH DRAMA? No. The stakes are tiny. With Kings Canyon, you have a man who potentially sold military secrets to our country’s biggest enemy during a time when we all thought a nuclear war with that country was imminent. That’s high drama.
But there are some issues. Because we can’t tell the audience what Steeves is hiding for most of the movie, we’re only ever subjected to his surface. When he’s with his wife, we’re never privy to what he’s thinking. Even in the flashbacks, we only see Steeves’ struggle to survive. We don’t get inside of him.
I would argue that there are 4 other characters we know better than Steeves through the first half of the screenplay. Parter and Hillborn seem to realize this was a problem, and therefore shift the main character role over to Blair. He’s the one with the goal anyway (find the real story), so it makes sense.
But if you’re writing a movie about what happened to someone, are we ever going to feel satisfied if we don’t get to know that someone? Once the “lie” is exposed, Steeves is finally able to come alive as he fights for his dignity. But it’s a long wait, and he’s only active for the final act.
Regardless of that, the script works because the entire thing is a ticking time bomb slash mystery. We know the truth is going to come out sooner or later, and we also want to know what that truth is. As long as you have a compelling question driving your narrative, it’s impossible for your reader to stop reading.
By far the script’s most powerful engine is that of its flashback structure. As the story unfolds, we’re told more and more often that Steeves is a fraud who perpetuated a hoax. However, every time we flash back, even deep into the screenplay, Steeves is in the wild, clearly injured, and clearly trying to survive.
That contrast only deepens our curiosity. If there’s a hoax, what is it? Because it isn’t that Steeves made up his tale of survival.
I also thought the ending was great. There are a couple of late story twists that make you feel like the journey was worth it. So many times you read scripts with these inevitable endings. Like Rogue One. We know the ending at the beginning, so there’s only so much satisfaction we can gain once we get there. Kings Canyon not only throws you for a couple of loops, but it makes you think long and hard about the media-obsessed culture we live in.
I have a feeling they’re going to have a hard time getting Cooper or an actor of his caliber to play Steeves, only because the actor doesn’t have much acting to do for the majority of the story besides look happy. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they’ll be drawn to the survival scenes so much that they’re willing to do nothing for the first 3/4 of the present-day narrative. We’ll see. Whatever the case, this screenplay rocked.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: I don’t know if this is a lesson so much as an observation. But I loved how the flashback structure didn’t match up with the present-day narrative (the present is saying he’s a hoaxer, but the flashbacks are saying he’s telling the truth). That alone kept me fascinated throughout Kings Canyon. So maybe our lesson is “contrast between flashbacks and present day creates curiosity?” What I do know is that when your flashbacks tell us exactly what we’re being told in the present, they’re boring as shit. So definitely don’t write your flashbacks that way!