THE TOWN: A MASTER CLASS IN SCREENWRITING…
September 2, 2012 § 2 Comments
“The Town: A Master Class in Screenwriting” by Mark Dark
A masterclass in screenwriting, The Town works on many different levels, and in some areas is so complex it’s taken me until the third and fourth viewing to tie all of the pieces together. It’s a deep well of complex character histories, broken relationships, brotherly love, friendships, unrequited love, the underclass, drugs and their effects, gangs, gangsters, criminal hierarchies, and romance.
As the protagonist, DOUG MACRAY (Ben Affleck), says at one point ‘There’s a lot going on here.’ There certainly is. I’m writing a complex story right now with a character web that’s proving tricky to pitch. I wonder how these writers pitched such a complex plot to the studios? My guess is they’d have condensed it to a 25 word logline, which I’d love to know. My quick effort would be:
“A tough bank robber falls in love with a hostage, and desperate to change, discovers not everyone wants him to leave his life of crime.”
If anyone knows a writer on this movie, perhaps they can post the logline (not the tagline for the posters, but a logline the writers worked with during the writing process). Or better still, the pitch itself. Interestingly, I hear there’s a new ‘Ultimate Collectors Edition’ out on DVD with an alternative ‘darker’ ending which Ben Affleck prefers. The ending of the novel the movie’s based on — Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan — certainly has a darker ending.
Let’s look a little at the characters and story:
Doug Macray is a bank robber, an ex user – cocaine and Oxycontin, and a young hockey star who threw his chance away. But he goes to recovery meetings. He’s cleaned up. Now he wants to escape the life of crime he’s caught up in, was born into. We learn from his glance up to the sky as a plane soars overhead that he dreams of flying away, of leaving The Town. Doug has a ghost from his past. His mother walked out on him when he was six. He remembers his father crying, howling like an animal.
Doug says he ran around the streets looking for his mother, putting up posters on lampposts like you would for a lost dog. During a visit to prison Doug asks his incarcerated FATHER (Chris Cooper) why he never looked for his mother when she left. His dad replies:
“Look outside. How many 22 year-olds do you see fucking around, with kids they don’t want? Your mother was no different. I didn’t look for her because there was nothing to find.”
Shattering. Your mother didn’t want you. But not as shattering as the truth about her that’s revealed later. Yet a visual motif in the climax shows us that no matter how vilified his young mother was, she still takes place of honour in Doug’s heart. The maternal bond is thicker than the paint on the brush she’s been tarnished with.
Script note: there seems to be a running technique in this screenplay to pay-off a line of dialogue with a visual — a technique I’ve decided to borrow.
The movie opens dramatically with a bank robbery. But something goes wrong, a fire alarm is tripped, and wild card gang member JEM (Jeremy Renner) decides to take the young female bank manager CLAIRE KEESEY (Rebecca Hall) hostage. They get away, and let her go, but when the gang later find out that she lives in the same area as them, Jem decides she needs to be ‘taken out of the equation’. Doug says he’ll ‘deal with it’ and follows her to the laundromat where she initiates conversation looking for change. But, traumatized, she breaks down. Doug seizes the moment and with some charming smooth talk asks if he can buy her a drink. In his car Claire explains about her bank being robbed. The dramatic irony, we know what she doesn’t, makes the scene painfully tense.
I’m sure I’ll recognise their voices.
It might be harder than you think.
And so we’re set up for an intense and complex action-thriller-romance, with layers and layers of subplot and subtext. When you watch this film also look out for motifs — pictures in frames and plaques on walls — offering value for unsung heroes — whether of society (Doug’s uncle) or of our hearts (his mother). Look out for ingenious dialogue / visual set-ups and pay-offs. And beware of seemingly throw-away lines of dialogue becoming intensely significant later. I love writing like this.
So, a masterclass in screenwriting, dialogue, character webs and subtext — The Town has everything. It’s not easy to cross romance with crime, but Ben Affleck has directed a film I’ve now watched four times, and am still discovering nuances, themes and underlying meanings. It’s the mark of a great film that can keep showing us something new.
However, if you want to download the screenplay to read, don’t. That is, unless you want to see how different the screenplay is to the finished film. I obviously got an early draft, whole chunks of dialogue are entirely different to what’s on the screen. My advice is to study the finished film. If you haven’t seen it yet, treat yourself. And if you’ve seen it once, watch it again. And tell me if it surprises you.
He’s had two screenplays optioned, Man or Mouse and The Judge of Petticoat Lane, currently in development.
Man or Mouse also won the British Writers’ Forum Short Fiction Prize. You can buy it here.
Other writing awards include the Ether Books Award for Best Use of Social Media.
Mark currently lives in Cambodia where he spends his time teaching and working on the screenplay of The Judge of Petticoat Lane.