DESPITE THE FALLING SNOW
I was hired to cover this screenplay in 2016. My script report is below. The score I gave the screenplay tallies quite well with the film's rating on IMDb, which is 5.8/10. Do you think my comments were born out by the film and its performance? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
DESPITE THE FALLING SNOW
Script report by Nick Green
The enigma inside the mystery that is Russia and was the USSR still has an allure. The War still feels Cold. The milieu is not obviously commercial, however. It’s also in the past – a country occasionally ripe with potential but often risky. The past is expensive to synthesis on screen, and it doesn’t chime with audiences as readily as the present day because now is now, and we all know now inside out (or so we think) A defector searching for the truth about the love of his life – a woman who spied on him is a strong spine; but narrated as it is in this script, the potential of the story isn’t mined successfully.
Elements of IPCRESS FILE and RUSSIA HOUSE abound; but that was then and this is now, and for that reason this needs to be executed exceptionally well. Currently it isn’t.
We begin with Alexander’s defection. From the start, dialogue is overly expositional. We are spoon fed information. Alexander talks about Katya repeatedly. It feels too obvious. In the banqueting hall, Alex makes contact with his American operative: Jackie. He tells her he is also known as Sasha. We can find this out. He doesn’t need to say it. What purpose does spilling a drink on Oleg serve? It seems this must be the distraction that enables Alexander to escape; but Oleg reappears at the meal table. The beat is therefore pointless: it isn’t enough that this is done just to allow Jackie and Alexander to speak; the action sets up more than that but more doesn’t happen - yet. It needs to be smarter than that. Why does Alex ask the man at the table about the sauce? Great if it is a cypher or clever distraction; but it isn’t (or isn’t as fully as it needs to be). Alexander should now rouse Oleg’s suspicions when he goes to the WC again; but Oleg does nothing. Tension could be gained by Oleg’s suspicions being roused here, causing him to follow A; but Oleg does nothing and is abandoned. The character should be used to inject tension into the scene/s. Oleg might follow A to the kitchen (which currently seems to be in the toilet). There, he would rumble A. A conflict would follow, from which Alex barely survives. Perhaps he might even have to kill Oleg – something against the very grain of his nature. Little or nothing happens, however. A KGB man goes down, but this isn’t the kind of high octane drama required to engage an audience in a thriller – to promise much and then deliver it.
Alex’ freedom by defection to America in 1959 established, we cut to New York in 1992 – another historical period requiring production expense to simulate, and with which a young modern audience (the primary demographic) cannot relate quickly and instinctively. Why not set the historical timeline in the mid-1980s and the latter timeline in the present? IPhones and tablets will then provide a much more obvious counterpoint to history. We will all know where we are instinctively (idiomatically, behaviourally, culturally etc.)
The scenes on page 8 are redundant, adding production costs unnecessarily. We could just cut to Alexander in conversation with Jackie – something we have just cut away from. The segue would then be better mapped out, guiding the audience through time. On pages 9 and 10 there is far too much exposition. The audience needs to do more work and be respected more by the script. Alex now comes across as weak and insipid. He sort of wants to go and find out what happened to Katya but doesn’t really. He is OK for his niece Lauren to do it. Why? Why would she want to? Older Alex’ and Lauren’s actions here lack motivation and plausibility. He must be hell bent on finding out about K or L should, and if L is thus hell bent, A must go to any lengths to stop her because she could get killed. We must know that the Soviet authorities still have it in for Alexander even after all these years. He’s a wanted man and his niece is therefore at huge risk. There is a lack of risk in this section and throughout. Tension must be manufactured via the colocation of antagonistic and protagonistic elements. This currently isn’t the case.
Lauren being invited to show her work in Moscow doesn’t wash. If she was a relatively unknown artist as she seems to be, the gallery might take one or two of her pieces; and she wouldn’t need to be there. If she was star of the art world, Marina wouldn’t need to invite her via the curator. She would be there because she’s a star - as would the media etc. Lauren’s motivation for going to Moscow needs much work. It’s much better if it’s Alex who goes despite the danger. This would tell us something about his emotional state – his guilt etc., and abiding love. Yet even abiding love is worth cross examining at a distance of 30 years. We certainly don’t need to see him in bed with one side unoccupied ‘as if someone is missing’, or see a photo of Katya beside his bed. Such mawkishness diminishes his character, and is inherently unrealistic. Audiences won’t buy it.
Older Alexander feels like a dead character at present. He gets too little screen time. Sending him to Moscow instead of or with/after Lauren much sooner would give us more time with him, expose him to more events, and tell us much about him and his relationships with Lauren - and Katya. Alexander weakly allowing Lauren to go to Moscow (and her reason for going) undermines the rest of the story. Alex must have no choice but to go. Lauren ditto. Bringing older Alex to Moscow and exposing him to danger sooner would allow more time and action in order to allow his character to build.
Making Lauren Alex’ daughter by Katya is problematic re the defecting as discussed. The solution is to make Katya the one who defects. A pregnant female defector is original, and might invite much more sympathy in the audience. In this scenario the characters are swapped: it’s Alex who remains and is killed by Mischa. The scale of this change is considerable, but then to fully realise the potential of the concept, major surgery is ideal.
Asking an audience to recognise, relate to and invest emotion in different characters and times makes achieving audience by-in harder. Thus running two timelines is tricky/risky; it must be done very skilfully, such that the timelines are used approx. equally, or one dominates entirely. The latter is advised. It isn’t clear if this is a story about Alex and Katya or Lauren and Marina. The intention is obviously to tell Alex and Katya’s story through the prism of L and M’s experiences; but this doesn’t quite happen. The two timelines detract from each other rather than feeding each other. If the earlier (A and K) timeline is allowed to dominate as it should, there isn’t breathing space enough for L and M. Since there is a stated commitment to keep the L and M strand, the timelines could be visited on a more equal footing. The script would then walk (run – this is a drama/thriller) on 1950s and 1990s feet, one then the other equally. This timeline parity isn’t ideal but it will help. Giving L and M much more to do in the more recent timeline will make it logical that we spend more time with them. At present they don’t do enough and are not exposed to enough danger. Bringing older Alex to Moscow sooner will help. Lauren will react to him. His peril would cause Lauren to help him, complicating her through line.
On page 13, Alexander and Katya meet for the first time. Surely this should be engineered by Misha because Misha is aware of Alex’ potential as a source of government information? It doesn’t seem that way, however subtle the engineering. The honey trap must be understandably engineered Mischa, Alex’ best and perhaps only real friend.
Page 18: the scene on the first half of this page can be dropped. It feels like a distraction. It is representative of the problems with Marina’s character and through-line. She lost her father Dmitri because of A’s defection; she ergo wants to know what happened, and reels Lauren in via the art exhibition. It’s a nice level of complexity that is typical of the genre; but at the moment is feels manufactured. This is to some degree because the dialogue is linear in exposition (page 94: When Alexander defected. . .’); but it’s also because we have two timelines and we have two stories – or two different sides of the same story.
A defector abandons the love of his life to flee Cold War Russia; the success he finds in America therefore feels empty (how is A successful in America, and why? Perhaps he is an art dealer. Would it be stronger if he was down on his luck and broke?) At a distance of 30 years, he still seems to obsess about the woman he left behind, but then does nothing about it. His niece is lured to Moscow via an art exhibition by the daughter of the defector’s cohort: a grieving, orphaned investigative journalist who falls in love with her. Might it not better to simplify this? Against all advice and even sanity, an obsessive and very middle aged Alex of 2013 goes back to Moscow after, say, 25 years to find out what happened to the love of his life (and his life) just before the wall came down. His much younger wife (their marriage is failing because Alex has only ever really loved Katya) goes after him, helps him survive great danger, and in the process has a fling with a Marina character. The fling and their experiences and finding out what happened to K allows A to let K go, finally, and brings A and his wife back together. Or something.
Only one person should kill Misha and that’s Misha. He betrays his best friend and kills the woman he adores, the woman who is his only chance at redemption. He is then tortured. No amount of vodka will put out these fires. Only a bullet can. At present we leave him in pain? Why? This character’s arc must reach its terminus and be resolved . . .
. . . As must Alexander’s. Older Alex seems like a plot passenger. Where does he land, in reality? In his memory? It’s not enough. Older Alex finds a degree of peace; but he really only finds it in the past. He needs a future. He says on page 95 ‘Katya ended up shot and Dmitri hanged.’ Where is his redemption? He now says he must do something for Marina; but this feels off-plot. He’s worrying about Marina? He has no relationship with her.
If Lauren has become Alexander’s ‘Katya’, much would be changed. He will have endowed Lauren with all the idealisation and emotion that he once lavished on Katya. He has moved on because of her. His surrogate daughter Lauren (he may have just adopted rather than being her uncle) is just as precious to him as a biological daughter would be. This means that when art star Lauren is invited to exhibit in Moscow a can of worms is opened up for him. The hornet’s nest is kicked. Lauren goes to Moscow, where she meets Marina (who hasn’t lured her there). Knowing something of Lauren motivates Marina to meet Lauren. M tells L much about A and K. L is preoccupied by the exhibition. She isn’t really interested; but she soon becomes so when older Alex turns up and gets into hot water. Alex, Lauren (an archetypal Katya in A’s subconscious) and Marina now become our dramatic troika. Tension and peril ensure, during which time Lauren and Marina are obliged to find and help Alex. Alex unearths what really happened all those years ago. This through line climaxes in a confrontation with Misha, when Lauren stops Alex killing Katya’s killer and arch betrayer Misha. Misha kills himself. The late 1950s timeline could now become the secondary timeline seen in what are clearly flashbacks that occur when relevant info is unearthed and locations visited: places where Alex once loved Katya*.
Page 28: everyone lost their parents when young. Cliché.
Page 29: M – ‘How are you going to find info’? Big questions: why does L want to? Why is she prepared to take risks (we need more risks)? From the archives. Too easy. Peril here.
Page 37: It’s this easy for Misha to walk into an archive and take spy photos?
If Katya is the spy (with/for Misha), why is it Alexander who defects (page 66)? He wouldn’t leave her behind. It doesn’t matter what she’s done. Leaving her behind undermines the power of their love, which is the spine of the story. Page 72: A: ‘Are you sure they have a plan for you?’ It’s weak. He would make sure by any means she is safe. It isn’t enough and seems rather odd that when he has defected he ask about Katya. If steps have been taken to guarantee K escapes via a similar conduit, we need to see that. As it is, he leaves her in Moscow then asks Jackie in NY where his wife is. He seems either not to care or slightly simple. The difference between pure and simple is vast.
The plot requires out of the box thinking. Minor surgery (enriched characters with real emotions and motivations) will help, but big changes are advised.
The structure, as alluded to, is weakened by the dual timelines revealed with the duration and frequency as is at present. The above scenario* is a possible solution. Alternatively: dropping the more recent timeline or minimalizing it to no more than a frame (GREEN MILE) would mean losing the L/M strand; but this is (as discussed) not an option. The structure that carries the plot, then, should be modified to centralise one timeline* or to create a more even beat sheet involving the two timelines and characters therein. They can be meshed together using subtle interplay and action/speech/tonal overlaps. Alex’ psyche can be mined in order to nudge us back to the events that made him the man he has become. The subconscious is a location employed by outstanding screenplays well.
The pace could be improved by dropping redundant scenes and by abbreviating essential scenes using smarter dialogue that leaves more the audience’s intelligence/imagination. The story currently meanders and walks when it should be sprinting. The cinematic era in which this story is set (both eras) is long over, so IPCRESS FILE pacing will no longer do.
Characters need to be enriched. Their inner worlds must be alluded to. Some good work has been done here but it could be better. Ditto relationships. Pasion and urgency and fire and ice and complexity are lacking. This project needs more chiaroscuro to compete.
Older Alex/Lauren - Who are they? What do they really want? Do they love each other? If so, this should be in evidence. Is Lauren sick of his idealisation of her? Is this why she is more than happy to go back to that place he refuses to tell her about? To spite him? What lengths will he go to try to stop her? Is he her art dealer agent, and so MUST be at the Moscow show? Does this piss her off? Fire and ice. Love demonstrated through anger. Opposites. Currently in older Alex there is dithering and weakness and paper thin intentions not followed up on. Where are the signs of his past in his activities? Pictures and photographs and half empty beds won’t wash with smart modern audiences.
Young Alex/Katya – When they meet the world should stop. Even if they are a slow burn the tension must be undeniable. There is a wonderful purity to young Alex which is a major asset of the screenplay. He is beautifully innocent, and it’s clear that she falls for this and thereby loathes what she has been asked to do even more. The way her final admission of guilt is handled is good; but a more extreme reaction from him would be better. Sudden tearful rage that drives him to attack Misha? Maybe. It must be apparent that this is a total love. They are inseparable, thus their sundering becomes a cataclysm.
Page 70: A puts his parents into a car and waves goodbye knowing he’ll never see them again. This should be a vast moment over brimming with huge emotions . . . but that would detract from the emotional impetus of his relationship with K. Better to leave his parents out of this entirely; or if they are involved and we spend time with them, to have him simply not tell them he is going because he can’t. More pain for him to bear.
Lauren/Marina – Their relationship doesn’t have time to breathe, and thus build believably to the point of their intimacy. Their lovemaking currently feels shoehorned in. Having Marina steal Lauren’s drawings is weak. Consider the way smart films treat same sex intimacy. Something of the eroticism of BOUND could be employed to create something sharper and more memorable. Marina is more cynical. How might she seduce the more innocent/artistic Lauren? Let’s mine the potential of this eroticism usefully. Few words are required. Far more can be implied by actions at every stage.
Young Alex/Misha. It’s nicely done, but so much more is required to demonstrate the immense conflict within Misha at what he’s doing/done and his love of K and thus jealousy of A. Best friends betraying is a rich source of drama; it must be mined. Alex must be driven to turn against Misha and his own good nature and all but kill him when he finds out Misha has used K to honey trap him.
A better sense of time and place could be achieved by both describing the milieu more effectively, and by manifesting it through the prism of characters’ reactions to it. Locations can be characters as much as the people who inhabit them. Locations and climatic conditions can also be used as metaphors for characters’ states of mind. At the moment the descriptive text generally isn’t minimal enough to force the reader to conjure locations in their imaginations, or lyrical enough to describe those locations memorably.
Dialogue should be a last resort in a good screenplay. In this script, less dialogue less burdened by exposition would help sharpen it. Character’s inner worlds can be alluded to by little more than a gesture – or an object. Overlong or redundant scenes further hamper pace by the inclusion of expositional and less than pin sharp dialogue. The audience isn’t given enough to do, or respected. What’s left out of stories is often more important than what’s included. This maxim is well demonstrated by the use of dialogue.
On page 2, A talks about Katya far too much.
Page 7/9: Segue cut young J: ‘You can never go back’ with same dialogue on page 9. Omit all between. This IDs Jackie as older Jackie and thus implies Alex is older Alex. This opens up immediate agenda revelation about older A if he says ‘Yes I can’ or similar, and leads into a possible response from J like: ‘You defected. The wall may have come down but that doesn’t mean . . .’ etc. Danger and intent can thus be established quickly.
Page 10: Extreme exposition in J dialogue ‘Katya’s brother was . . . etc. very much undermines the script because it suggests a linear approach to narrative. Whatever plot is used, it can be revealed via implication and action – with a single line or an object.
Rather than lifting out examples piecemeal here’s a section of the script edited. This rationale (the infusion of tension and agenda) can be applied to the whole script.
Alexander turns to the American delegate JACKIE (30s), who stands beside him looking the complete smiling diplomat.
Alexander Ivanov. Kremlin
(shakes his hand)
Jackie Haven. State Department.
Alexander tries to hide his surprise.
I just make the coffee.
Jackie waves to a delegate politely and smiles. Beat then
It's all arranged.
I can see that. Some party.
And the service here is terrific.
Alexander follows her casual glance to a fair haired WAITER.
Stress makes Alexander’s PALMS WET. He swallows air.
Relax. You’ll scare the kids.
All you have to do is sit back
and enjoy the ride.
Perhaps you have me confused. . .
A beat between them suggests all. It makes Alex panic.
I can’t do this. My wife . . .
Alexander sees Dmitri watching him intently across the room. Alexander smiles - just. Dmitri smiles, approaches quickly.
Don’t be a child. (beat) Just
keep your head and wait.
(louder) Although I can’t imagine
why. Nixon is such a bore.
Gorgeous to meet you, Sasha.
She shakes hands pleasantly with Alexander as Dmitri reaches them and gets within earshot. She nods immaculately at Dmitri as she weaving elegantly through a sea of dinner jackets. Dmitri’s smile fades as he turns to Alexander.
Work is required to bring the script up to the standards required to make the film readily saleable. The package can only do so much. A concise, plausible and tense plot narrated by sharper and less linear narrative is required to enable the project to fulfil its potential.
Script Format, Presentation & Grammar:
In our world of gangster violence and CGI franchises, the commercial prospects of this premise are somewhat limited. For this reason, the story, structure and dialogue need to be highly innovative, logical and compelling. A modest rewrite as predicated by logistics of casting and timeframes must include subtle use of time and space and character and causality to strengthen this script by several orders of magnitude. A more thorough re-write that goes further and deeper to create and expound a watertight and more original plot in ways that can really compete in the modern cinematic world is recommended.
OVERALL SCORE: 15/32 = 46.8%