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Script Talk: PRISONERS

PRISONERS screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski

This is one of the better screenplays I read this past year. Was it a top 10 or 20, no, but I enjoyed it and as a father I connected with it. The writer bridged that emotional gap with me. That's half the battle.

The script breaks some rules: it’s dark, edgy, and at times bleak and depressing -- which is what I loved about it. But as agents and executives keep telling me... my writing is really freaking dark.

For instances, we are always told our Protagonist has to be someone we the audience sympathizes with. There has to a redeeming quality for the audience to relate to. And at first that is achieved very easily in this story. Keller Dover is a family man, fiercely loyal, Christian, very religious, actually. He’s a protector, provider, and always ready for anything. Indeed, his basement is loaded with end of the world supplies: water, canned food, ect.

So all is good until his young daughter (and her friend) come up missing on Thanksgiving while they have a family  dinner with neighbors/friends. Now, as a parent I’d kill if someone did something too my child. Still the idea of taking the protagonist down that potential dark road that this script does is flirting with danger to some degree.

*** Spoiler Alert ***

Keller doesn’t kill the suspect (Alex Jones) but he probably would have had things turned out different. When Jones -- the main suspect -- is released because of a lack of evidence, Keller (who is also convinced Jones had a hand in the kidnapping) takes matters into his own hands and kidnaps Jones. You get the feeling the whole time that Keller had resided himself to the outcome that Jones will have to die. Now there are two important scenes that we experience with Keller that tells us Jones is indeed somehow involved, so when he kidnaps Jones it’s palatable at first. I accepted it but with concern as the line had been crossed. Either Jones has to be the abductor or Keller is going to jail (and he might go to jail now anyway). My thinking at this time was that Guzikowski (screenwriter) was going to take us on an even darker journey and in the end Keller would end up killing Jones and his daughter would never be found. (Something like THE PLEDGE where retired police detective Jerry Black goes literally crazy  unaware of the fate of the killer. ) Now what ultimately happens I'll leave that alone.

*** End Spoiler Alert

So having a Protagonist take action is good, it’s what he/she has to do or there is no story. By the end of the First Act something has to change and take the story in a new direction -- this is when the Protagonist takes action. And indeed Guzikowski does this nicely  when the police release the main suspect in the case for lack of evidence (his RV had not a single DNA trace of the little girls) and this triggers Keller’s decision to act. This new direction of the story now takes the Protagonist on a journey where he will have obstacles. 

This thriller works on a lot of levels. It draws you in with the suspense, but it’s also a character driven piece with well fleshed out talking heads. I will say that Jake Gyllenhaal's character (Detective Loki) was both intriguing and frustrating. At times he seemed so aloof and almost incompetent. I would say his character was the only negative. At first I thought there would be something more to him than there was. More about his character later.

But overall, you get a sense of each person as a man, woman, and who they are and who they are not. This script was honed, crafted and perfected to a sharped edged dramatically. I will note that some critics hated this move and blamed the script; I'm not one of them.

The twists and turns of the plot keep us guessing and this brings up a good point. Guzikowski in an interview said that he wanted the characters to kind of take control of the story and send it in whatever direction while he was writing.  He stated, “The plotting was difficult in a different sort of way, and the writing was sort of like a maze unto itself. I tried not to overtly plot the whole thing out, because I wanted to see where each character went.” (Source)

Plotting for a crime thriller with the kind of twists this story has (a “maze” as he stated), demands you have to know your ending.  This almost demands that you build the narrative with what I call “Backward Design.” You have to start with the twist in mind so you can make the narrative  as complex and mysterious as possible, and then rebuild the storyline backwards so you can get your plot line to that point effectively. Then write with the idea of letting your characters move the narrative trajectory. Because it is true, you truly are tuned into your characters when they start speaking to you as you write. (Not in a creepy sort of way,  you know what I mean.)

There is an important character that every crime whodunit thriller has: the lead detective. In this case Detective Loki. He’s mysterious, yet intriguing and presents a nice contrast to Keller who lets it all out and wears his emotions on his sleeve. The relationship between these two is very well written and offers some intrigue when Loki starts to follow Keller for several reasons that I will not reveal. However, as noted, it left me wanting more and feeling cheated that we really don't get a great character here.

Finally, this script benefited from a production team and director (Denis Villeneuve) who had the good sense to not mess with it much. It’s pretty much filmed verbatim including most dialogue. The acting was superb and the final product made this one of the better movies of 2013 in my opinion.

Here's the SCRIPT to read and here is the movie trailer:

About the Author

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(Follow on Twitter) Christopher Wehner is a published author and produced screenwriter, EL CAMINO CHRISTMAS @Netflix and AMERICAN DREAMER  (later this year); visit his IMDB page for future projects.   Christopher has been a leading member of the online screenwriter's community going back to the 1990s.   In 2001 he published the groundbreaking book Screenwriting on the Internet: Researching, Writing and Selling Your Script on the Web,.

To contact Chris visit his website:  Warm Beer Productions.

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