Premise: (from IMDB) When a group of hard working guys find out they’ve fallen victim to a wealthy business man’s Ponzi scheme, they conspire to rob his high-rise residence.
About: While I’m not exactly sure what happened here, it appears that this script used to be about some guys ripping off Trump in Trump Tower. It has since changed considerably, focusing instead on ripping off a fictional “Bernie Madoff” type character. Tons of writers have taken this on, so clearly it’s had many iterations. Currently it’s shaping up to be Brett Ratner’s next film, starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy.
Writers: Adam Cooper & Bill Collage, revisions by Russell Gerwirtz, Rawson Thurber, Ted Griffin. Current Revisions by Leslie Dixon.
Details: 117 pages, revised draft Jan 28, 2010 (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
I’m not sure when Brett Ratner became the most hated director among movie geeks in America, but I guess that’s where we’re at. I know a lot of it has to do with Harry Knowles’ out-of-character vitriolic tirades against the man, but regardless of where it came from, I was always shocked by just how quickly the piling-on happened.
I don’t know if it’s Geek PC to say this but…I thought Rush Hour was funny. It’s a silly movie but it makes me laugh every time I watch it. Maybe the fact that Ratner started getting Hannibal prequels and comic book films without cutting his teeth in those genres rubbed a lot of geeks the wrong way.
Whatever the case, it’s probably good he’s getting back to his roots, directing action comedy. Or at least I think he’s directing action comedy. Now that I’ve read the script, I’m not sure if I’d call it a comedy. There’s nary a joke throughout the first 80 pages. Unless I’m just completely misreading the thing, there isn’t any attempt to be funny here. Which makes the script quite an enigma. It’s got Stiller and Murphy in the leads. It’s set up to be funny. But this is a drama through and through.
Tower Heist follows Cole Howard (Stiller?), a stuffy building manager for an upscale Manhattan highrise. A typical occupant might have a few hundred million in his Swiss account, so everything around here has to be catered to that kind of clientele. Cole is the man who caters it, due to his inscrutable attention to detail. This is a man who hasn’t smiled since the 80s – all because this job is his life, and it’s a never-ending race in which every stride must be perfect.
This was the first problem I had with the script. Cole is bo-ring. I mean, if I owned a billion dollar building, I’d hire him this second. But to play a character in my film? Don’t you need to have a personality to be a character? Not in Cole’s case. This man is as straight as an arrow, and about as interesting as one.
Anyway, one of Cole’s occupants is Arthur Braniff, a cocky selfish Bernie Madoff knockoff who quivers in ecstasy at the thought of people waiting hand and feet over him. Braniff’s the richest man in the building, and when the big crash comes, he’s exposed as having run a Ponzi scheme. The judge decides not to put Braniff in jail however, but instead places him on house arrest, back in his building. I’m still trying to decide if this is clever or ridiculous but it turns out that all of the building’s workers (doormen, concierge, maids) had their entire life savings wrapped up in Braniff’s company. This, of course, means that the people waiting hand and foot over our villain are the same people’s lives he’s ruined.
I have to admit, that’s a pretty good setup, having the workers serving the man who ruined their lives. But the strange thing about this twist is that it’s never explored. I think there was one scene that dealt with this unique conflict, and that scene was actually a dramatic one (again, isn’t this a comedy?).
Anyway, at some point, Cole gets so fed up that this guy ruined everyone’s lives, that he scrapes together a band of building workers to steal the rumored 20 million dollars that Braniff is said to be hiding in his penthouse. This was another weird choice in the script. The big heist is built on money that the heisters aren’t even sure exists. ?
The best part about Tower Heist is the final act, when they realize what it is they really have to steal, and I’m not going to spoil that here. But I will say it’s the saving grace in a script that’s obviously spinning its wheels until it can get here. What I’m surprised the writers didn’t realize is that the story would’ve been a thousand times better if they would’ve announced this as the heist object from the get-go. The object is so crazy, so ludicrous, so impossible to steal, that the suspense and expectation of how they were going to do it would’ve added the awesome quotient this story was so desperately lacking. I mean isn’t the best thing about heist films the impossibility factor – going after something that can’t be gone after? Why would you hide that information from the audience until the last act?
Indeed this was just one of my problems with the script. The story itself takes forever to unravel. The writers decided that the first act break should be Braniff’s Ponzi scheme reveal, so we don’t get that until page 30. They then decide that the midpoint is when our characters should decide to pull off the heist, so that doesn’t come until page 60! Which means in pages 0-30 and 30-60, there’s absolutely nothing going on in the script. We’re just biding time until we hit these crucial story points.
In my opinion, Braniff’s Ponzi scheme should’ve been revealed inside the first 10 pages, and the decision to go through with the heist should’ve been the first act turn. I mean the plot of the movie is the heist, right? And we should know our plot by page 30 at the latest, right? Why do you want to invite people into a heist film (with “Heist” in the title) when nobody even decides to pull off a heist until an hour into the movie??
Now I admit if you do move that moment up, you run into some new problems, such as having 60 preparatory pages for the heist instead of a more manageable 30, but if you cut this down to 100 pages instead of 117, you knock off 17 pages right there. Add a couple of obstacles via subplots to complicate the heist and that can easily take us through the 50 pages of Act 2.
I think part of the problem here is that the writers put too much emphasis on the theme and not enough on plot. The theme of “Rich vs. Poor” is definitely everywhere you look in Tower Heist, and in this day and age when the less fortunate have grown increasingly frustrated with the rich, it’s a theme that can resonate. But in the end it won’t matter if the story doesn’t move at a brisk clip or doesn’t have an interesting story to tell.
I know Leslie Dixon is a good writer. She wrote one of my favorite scripts of the year in The Dark Fields. So I don’t know how much of this is hers and how much is everybody else’s, but this feels like a victim of over-development. I have no inside information to back this up but it sounds like this used to be a silly comedy about some schlubs who decide to rip off Donald Trump.
Over time, people were clearly in the writers’ ears saying, “We need to make the robbers more sympathetic. We need to make them more likable.” And so reason upon reason upon reason was added for why it was okay for these building workers to rob Trump. So it’s not enough to simply have our villain deceive our heroes. He has to literally steal everybody’s life savings in the entire building so we have no choice but to root for them. I mean at one point, to gain even more sympathy from us, the doorman, who Braniff’s already went out of his way to rip off, tries to commit suicide! If this script proves anything, it’s that you can clearly go overboard with trying to create sympathetic characters.
Anyway, this is a January draft and not the draft that went out and grabbed the actors, so let’s hope they fixed the problems and make the movie the fun piece of entertainment it can be.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I think a lot of people mix up the inciting incident with the first act turn, placing the inciting incident on page 30 and the first act turn on page 60. Remember, the inciting incident is where your hero’s world is thrown out of whack. In Shrek, it’s when Donkey shows up. In Star Wars it’s when the droids escape. This should happen early, preferably within the first 15 pages. The first act turn is then when your hero’s goal is established. So in Shrek, it’s when Shrek learns he has to go save the princess to get his swamp back. In Star Wars, it’s when Luke decides to help Obi-Wan deliver the plans to Alderran. This usually happens between pages 25-30. If you mistake these two events, pushing the first to the 30 page mark and the second to the midpoint, your script will crawl. Imagine Star Wars if the droids didn’t escape Princess Leia’s ship until page 30 and Luke and Obi-Wan didn’t go to Mos Eisley until page 60. Or Shrek if Donkey didn’t show up til page 30 and Shrek didn’t go after the princess until page 60?? You’d have these long 30 page chunks to fill up that are going to feel endless to your audience. And that’s cause you’ve spread things out too far! Even if you don’t believe in stupid screenwriting terms like “inciting incident” and “first act turn,” I’ll break it down for you in simpler terms: “Make the important things in your script happen sooner.” That’s all. Just make shit go down earlier than you think it has to because that’s what keeps your script moving.