Draft Day

jennifer-garner-kevin-costner-draft-day-trailer-stillsToday’s script comes to us from writers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman. It finished number one on the 2012 Black List.

In my quest to find something interesting to read this year, I have boomeranged from Academy nominated scripts, to decades old scripts by Kubrick and Copolla, all the way to TV scripts. I began Draft Day hoping it would reward me for making it my first contemporary feature script in almost two months. The sort of meringue I believed Draft Day to be is not usually my fare, but beggars can’t be choosers. Can they?

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) Objectively, there is a lot of exposition in Draft Day. The stage must be set. We need to know who might be drafted by Sonny’s team given their current position in this year’s draft. The script must introduce us to these draft day options and also give us pros and cons for each option. Then it must describe the consensus number one pick and give us the reasons for this consensus. Aside from this procedural information we need about the day, we also need to know what Sonny’s standing is in the organization and how secure he is in his tenure as general manager.

If it takes a whole paragraph of reviewer-speak to “set the stage” for your story, you are going to be in trouble when it comes to exposition. And yet, Draft Day evades this trouble [mostly] with ease. I will give one example to illustrate the point. From pages 14-15:

Roger watches the whale jump again. Splash.

MOLINA (CONT’D)
Oh you poor beast. Jumping through hoops
for some half-dumb crazy old sonofabitch.

SONNY
You know Roger, I don’t know what the
hell you’re talking about sometimes.

MOLINA
Then let’s talk about the draft. As you
know, our shiny new head coach wants a
shiny new running back.

SONNY
You said you would stay out of it. Let
me do my job.

MOLINA
And I will but…whaddya say we get that
for Coach Penn? Coach Penn has Super
Bowl rings. He coached the Cowboys, you
know.

SONNY
Yeah. I know that, Roger.

MOLINA
(sadly)
The Cowboys have the best helmets.

SONNY
Look, you have to let me do my job or
there’s no reason for me to be here. I
don’t want Ray Banks. I want Vontae
Mack. He’s special. He’ll make our
whole defense–

MOLINA
Defense doesn’t make a splash.

SONNY
I thought we were talking about winning
football games.

MOLINA
We’re talking about making a splash.
Whale jumps. Splash.

MOLINA (CONT’D)
People pay to get wet, Sonny.

In this small exchange the entire expositional context for the whole film is delivered. We now know who all the parties are and how their needs entwine:

1. General Manager Sonny wants Vontae Mack
2. Coach Penn wants Ray Banks
3. Owner Roger Molina wants what Coach Penn wants so that he can get the mojo from Coach Penn’s previous Super Bowl wins

The implication is that if Sonny does his job and drafts Vontae [the best person for winning football games] Sonny will not be in a secure position with the person capable of firing him from his job. Everything in this exchange is exposition, and yet, it did not bother me when I read it. I noted it, but it didn’t distract me from the read.

Looking back you can see that the authors have replaced the pope in the pool with a whale in the pool, but this isn’t what keeps the lines from grating. In my opinion, this exchange works BECAUSE IT IS A THREAT. Molina is saying [without saying it] draft Ray Banks or start looking for another job. It works because it is exposition dressed up in subtextual camouflage:

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) Even though I just used an example that showed this script at its subtextual best, I don’t think Draft Day is a marvel of execution in this category. It does okay. Unfortunately, most of what lies beneath the surface dialogue is standard issue sports movie memes we’ve all seen a hundred times before.

At its core, Draft Day urges us to do the one thing we humans love to do—root for the underdog. In this telling of David versus Goliath, Bo Callahan is the villain and Vontae Mack is the hero. This type of story affects us on a primordial psychological level. We are [I believe] programmed to respond to this type of story the same way we are programmed to respond to sugars and starches.
Bo and Vontae give us dialogue that supports the narrative idea that their respective moral worth counts for more than their respective physical worth. This is traditional and typical and the script has nothing new to offer to the original mould.

Fortunately, Draft Day is NOT JUST [or even primarily] a retelling of David versus Goliath. It is also a story about the pressures, costs, and rewards, of being a great leader. Our hero [for this leader portion of the story] is Sonny. I’ll demonstrate with another example from page 72:

NIXON
You find something with him?

SONNY
I didn’t say that.

NIXON
You didn’t not say that.

SONNY
I’m not saying anymore. He’s a great
kid.

NIXON
Friend to a friend, Sonny, please, there
an injury I don’t know about?

A beat. Sonny really debates his next move. Bites his
lip and…does something he finds morally questionable.

SONNY
I’m in a tight spot here, Nate.

NIXON
So there is?

SONNY
I can’t say anything more. Good luck
tonight.

In this scene Sonny demonstrates that he is willing to sorta cheat to win. It doesn’t make him happy, but his commitment to his goal could make him miss the forest for the trees if he isn’t careful.

Overall, I found the subtext to be good but not great:

6 out of 10 points.

Part C) As with the subtext, the character individuation in Draft Day is good but not great. Don’t get me wrong, you know who these characters are and you wouldn’t confuse them without their cues, but there is no denying you’ve seen them all more than a few times before.

These are stock characters crafted to seamlessly fit the story the authors wanted to tell.

6 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

If you go back and read the first 10, you’ll see that everything in those pages is exposition. We learn about the predicament Sonny is in personally… his father has very recently died and… his girlfriend is pregnant. We also learn about the predicament he is in professionally… his team has been terrible for a while and… if he doesn’t do something to turn it around IN THIS DRAFT, he will lose his job.

Yes, it’s funny and well written and it also makes Sonny likeable [which is crucially important] but it is ALL exposition. I’ve already been lenient once about the exposition:

10 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) I like the way the reveals in this story unfold. They have an organic feel which is a natural by-product of the structure the authors chose. I will go as far as recommending this script solely for its structure [much the way I did with Gravity]. You could strip out the structural elements of this script, drape them over your script, and the resulting “tent” would probably place you at number one on Mr. Leonard’s list too.

The terms of the story are exquisitely defined. Determine whether or not to draft Bo Callahan with the number one pick and do this in less than half a day. This story depends for its efficacy on the inevitability of selecting Bo with the pick. In other words, the story only works if everyone thinks there is no other option.

This is what everyone thinks. The first 40 pages or so place us in Sonny’s dilemma [get the draft right or lose your job] while also establishing that everyone thinks Bo is a can’t miss pick. The reveals build organically from this premise. On page 39 we learn:

VONTAE
Watch it again. But don’t watch me.
Watch him. Watch me sack him four times.
Then watch what happens after.

In this exchange Vontae is telling Sonny that Bo “hears footsteps”. Get pressure on him and he will make a mistake. Some guys melt under pressure and some guys don’t. Vontae thinks Bo melts.

On page 40 we learn:

TONY (CONT’D)
Translation: Brian Drew is in the best shape of his life.

Brian Drew is Sonny’s current quarterback. If he’s in the best shape of his life, Sonny doesn’t NEED a quarterback.

From page 54:

RALPH
But last year at Michigan, Callahan and
some other kids in his dorm got busted
for a noise disturbance for some bash he
threw for his twenty first birthday…

SONNY
But…

RALPH
But…they took the names of everyone at
the party. Over a thousand kids. Musta
been a great time.

SONNY
But…

RALPH
Ask me who wasn’t there.

SONNY
Who wasn’t there?

RALPH
Any of his teammates. None of his
teammates came to the poor guy’s birthday
party, Sonny.

Translation, Bo is not a likeable guy. From 81:

SONNY (V.O.) (CONT’D)
Great football mind. Thirty two general
managers in the league in 1998 and every
single one of them would have taken Ryan
Leaf over Peyton Manning…

The quarterback in the clips is RYAN LEAF, the biggest
draft bust ever. We see HIM HOLDING A CHARGERS JERSEY,
then a QUICK HIGHLIGHT REEL OF HIM SUCKING IN NFL AND
BLOWING UP AT REPORTERS IN LOCKER ROOM.

Clearly Sonny believes Bo is Ryan Leaf. [I’d throw Heath Shuler in this category as well.]

From 83-84:

SONNY
All you guys at this level, you’re all
winners, you’ve always beaten everyone
else. Of course you have. You’re
freaks. You won the genetic lottery.
You’re the most gifted football players
on the planet. But I’m not as interested
in why you won right now, I’m interested
in how important it is to you to keep
doing it. That’s the twenty five million
dollar question.

Bo takes a second. Looks at Mackenmaker who mouths,
“What?”. Bo shakes him off, comes back with…

BO
I don’t know…very?

SONNY
Look, feel free to take a sec and really
think about–

BO
Hey, do you mind if we talk after you
guys make the pick? Everyone really
wants me to head downstairs.

SONNY
Sure, Bo. Good talking with you.

Of course, every football fan knows the answer to this question. Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. How hard is it for a guy who wants to be the number one pick in football to give that answer?

After this, there is a madcap sequence that results in Sonny showing up all his rivals, ending up with two first round picks, getting Bo shipped off to Detroit, and having his mom’s boyfriend be the new coach of the Bills after he fires the current coach.

This ending borders on the silly, but it also ends up as satisfying:

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) Sonny’s engine is to be a great leader. This script positions Sonny perfectly for this engine by making him HAVE to succeed on THIS draft day in order to be a great leader. We know at the beginning how we are going to judge him at the end.

Did Sonny make the right pick?

5 out of 5 points.

Part C) The Pinch Point for this script comes in the exchange between Sonny and Bo cited above. When Sonny lobs that softball question at Bo, and Bo whiffs, Sonny knows what he has known all along. Bo Callahan is Ryan Leaf. More importantly, Sonny now knows for certain what [this script claims] every great leader knows intuitively.

5 out of 5 points.

Part D) So, what is this knowledge that Sonny has all along but must allow himself to believe fully in order to complete his story?
Great leaders should always trust their instincts.

I must admit I believe this is true. However, I can’t ignore the after the fact feel this conclusion carries with it. That sentiment does qualify the assessment some. I mean, of course great leaders know they have to trust their instincts. The problem is: Poor leaders also trust their instincts; they just wind up with poor results.

6 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) This story is superbly structured. The containment in time, combined with the uncertainty about who Sonny will select and whether or not this selection will cost him his job is compelling. I think in some ways the structuring in Draft Day mirrors my thoughts about the structuring in Gravity. You can consciously imitate this framework and succeed. This story was built to sell. Perhaps there is a way in which I can stretch the word unique to make it mean completely ordinary—but I’m not convinced:

3 out of 5 points.

Part B) The writing is far above average without being great. These guys know what they’re doing, but they’re not likely to start any trends:

4 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? Did it make us want to be a better person? (10 points)

I take it that the theme of this script:

Great leaders trust their instincts

is not particularly inspiring. However, the scene where Sonny talks to Vontae after he picks him [instead of Bo] with the first pick… is inspiring. There seems to be a corollary at work here that implies:

When great leaders follow their instincts the world becomes a better place.

Again, that seems to have an after the fact essence to it. Yeah, I won’t deny this is true, but it’s also true we only anoint people with the term “great leader” when their instincts have already made the world a better place. In other words, this story and this theme work, but there is nothing in Draft Day to reward repeat reading:

5 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 70

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3 responses to “Draft Day

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