Monday, November 19, 2012


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Friday, November 16, 2012

Twit-Pitch Review - Ring Of Liar

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: (Original Twit-Pitch Logline) A lifelong bachelor accidentally proposes to his clingy girlfriend then tries to trick her into dumping him, but the tables soon turn.
About: For those recently joining Scriptshadow, I held a contest a few months back called "Twit-Pitch," where anyone could pitch me their screenplay on Twitter, as long as it was contained within a single tweet.  I picked my 100 favorite loglines and read the first 10 pages of each (which I live-reviewed on Twitter), and then from those, picked the Top 20, which I've been reading the entire screenplays for.  Today is the final Twit-Pitch review.
Writers: Graeme McPhail & Kristoffer McKeown
Details: 105 pages

James Franco for Jeff?

A month back, Twit-Pitch came to me and was like, "I need a vacation."  I was like, "Vacation?  But you only have one script review left!"  "It's hard doing what I do," she told me.  "Putting up my pages in front of the world, week in and week out.  I need a break."  So after much deliberation, I paid for Twit-Pitch to spend a month in Honalulu.  She was able to relax, get some sun, and let loose a little.  I figured, with that kind of rest, she'd be primed for a big return.  And so here we are, with the final Twit-Pitch entry.  There's an old saying that goes, "saving the best for last."  Does Ring Of Liar give us Twit-Pitch's best?  Or should she have stayed in Hawaii and left us alone forever?

Jeff Bloom is almost 30 and LOVING LIFE.  He's got a cushy advertising job.  He's got lots of friends.  And he's got a longtime girlfriend who he hasn't had to make the big commitment to.  Well, that's about to change.  Sam (the aforementioned girlfriend) is ready to take that next step.  She wants the house, the kids, the whole ball of wax.

Except Jeff's just fine with the wax he picks out of his ears.  So he makes a tough decision.  In order to avoid those dreadful wedding bells, he's going to break-up with Sam! However, he doesn't want to go out on bad terms so, before the break-up, he buys her a friendship ring (huh???).  That night while Jeff is sleeping, Sam stumbles across the ring and thinks Jeff is proposing to her.  Before he's even fully awake, she's calling her friends and family.  "Oh my god.  We're getting married!"

Jeff considers telling Sam the truth, until Sam's big scary Irish step-brother, SHAY, shows up ready to pummel anything that so much as glances at Sam.  Which means, now, if Jeff breaks up with Sam, I.R.A. over here is going to give him a taste of his brass knuckles.  So Jeff moves to Plan B.  He'll just be the worst boyfriend ever and make Sam break up with him.

His first order of business is buying a dog to terrorize Sam's kitty.  But it backfires when the dog and cat become best friends.  He then pretends to like really kinky sex, hoping it will scare Sam away.  But it doesn't.  It turns her on.  He even goes so far as to become a Rastafarian, something he knows Sam hates.

It's then that Sam realizes something is up.  After a little investigating, she becomes keen to his plan.  But instead of calling him on it, she decides to play right back.  She starts tempting him with a bunch of marriage bait such as promises of 3-ways, and even pretending to win the lottery.  The plan is to get him to the altar, call him out, and then leave him there, a total humiliation smackdown.

This leads to Jeff finding out that Sam is going to screw him over which leads to Sam finding out that Jeff knows she's going to screw him over, which leads to one whacked-out crazy wedding.

I remembered the first ten pages of Ring Of Liar immediately.  You had this amusing guy, dribbling a basketball around his agency, trying to figure out how to market it.  It was fun and promised a light-hearted marketable comedy.  Unfortunately, the script didn't keep that up, and I believe it's because writers McPhail and McKeown fell into a lot of romantic comedy traps.  

First, it's hard to make this kind of set-up work.  You're telling the audience to root for a guy who's screwing over a girl we like.  It's by no means impossible to pull this off, but I can assure you it's really hard.  Why would we want to root for that to happen?

But if you are going to go with that premise, you have to commit to it 100%, and I was disappointed by how safe the writers played things.  Jeff's first attempt to get Sam to break up with him involves buying a dog to mess with her cat??  I don't know.  That's pretty tame.  And even when Jeff tries to use sex to get out of the relationship, it's tame (he threatens to wear women's boots when they have sex?).  Seinfeld had an episode with a similar premise once, and in order for Jerry to get out of the relationship, he told his girlfriend he wanted to have a 3-way with her roommate.  Things backfire when both women are into it and Jerry gets cold feet.  If a sit-com is pushing the boundaries of comedy further than your feature, that worries me.

The writing was also lazy in key places.  For example, we go through this elaborate yet nonsensical set-up whereby to break up with Sam, Jeff decides to buy her a "friendship" ring to soften the blow.  There's no way in a million years anyone would do this, so it looks super-lazy when we realize it was only so Sam could mistake the ring later on for an engagement ring.  Why not have Jeff holding an engagement ring for a friend and that's the one she finds?  It would've been so much smoother.  You never want to be lazy around your plot-points, because that's when your storytelling has to be the most invisible.  If you try to force anything during a plot point, the reader will always spot it.

When I really gave up, though, was when Sam decided to dual with Jeff.  Not only was it not in her character to do so, but it was so far removed from what would really happen that it was impossible to go along with.  I know romantic comedies are not real life - that the rom-com world is a more exaggerated world.  But you have to play within the boundaries of believability.  You'll find that in most great Rom-Coms, characters make logical decisions.  They don't start acting wacky because it's a rom-com and in rom-coms, characters act wacky.

The character with the most potential here was Shay, the Irish step-brother.  I liked how McPhail and McKeown used him to raise the stakes.  If Jeff tried to get out of this relationship, he'd pay a steep price.  He was easily the funniest character (his issue with horses was my favorite part of the script).  I also liked the attempt by the writers to dig into Shay's character, making him afraid of girls.  My problem was that it had nothing to do with the rest of the story.  It was like this subplot occurring off on Subplot Island that didn't affect anything or anyone.  Why not give Sam a female co-worker (or heck, male!) that Shay likes, and Shay needs Jeff to help him talk to her.  That way, his character arc is happening within the main plot as opposed to off in the middle of nowhere.

This is another analysis I hate doing because Ring Of Liar does have a relaxed, fun feel to it.  I was certainly smiling a lot.  But for these types of scripts to sell, the reader has to be laughing a lot, and that only happened a few times.  The reason for that is the underpinnings of this screenplay aren't where they need to be.  You're asking us to root for someone to screw over a character we like.  Your plot points are way too forced and obvious to the reader.  Neither character is acting logically most of the time.  Cleaning these things up is going to bolster the believability of your script so that we start caring about what's happening.  With that said, comedy is the most subjective of the genres.  And I have seen scripts like this sell before.  So maybe I'm totally wrong on this one.  Ya never know.  What did you guys think?

(As for the "winner" of Twit-Pitch, I'll name both him and the runner-up this weekend! :)

Script link: Ring Of Liar

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn't for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: When the big problem in your comedy is set up, it's important that your characters consider the most logical solutions first.  So if your character is a 10 year old boy who wakes up in the body of a 30 year old man, you have to ask, "If this happened to me, what's the first thing I would do?"  You'd probably go to your mom, scared, and ask what's happening.  Then you might go back to the machine where you made the wish to be "big" last night.  See if it could turn you back.  I think once you establish that your character tried all the logical avenues, you can start playing with the more ridiculous ones.  So if you want your girlfriend to break up with you, is the first thing you do really going to be to buy a dog to scare her cat?  Come on.  I would probably leave messes all over the apartment, leave the bathroom seat up, play video games all day, pretend I got fired from my job, make a list of everything that pushed my girlfriend's buttons and do all of them.  It just didn't feel like the writers treated this situation logically so I never bought into it.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Movie Review - Skyfall

Genre: Action
Premise: When a former MI:6 agent-turned-hacker starts hunting James Bond's boss, M, Bond will have to turn back the sands of time to save her, as well as himself.
About: Bond is back!  And in an unconventional choice, the director of American Beauty, Sam Mendes, is at the helm.  Turns out all it took was a chance encounter with Daniel Craig at a party and for Craig to ask, "Fancy doing the next Bond?" and that was it - Mendes was in.  That's the secret to success in this industry.  It's not about spending millions of hours practicing your craft.  It's about practicing how to get Daniel Craig to ask you if you'd fancy doing the next Bond.  Don't you guys know this? -- Skyfall has already made 2.5 trillion dollars at the box office and, from my understanding, they're going to use the profits to build a life-size diamond replica of the abandoned island featured in the movie which they will name "Diamonada Island."
Writers: Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan (based on characters created by Ian Fleming).


"James Boring."

Oh calm down.  I'm just kidddd-ing.  Okay, so I'm only half-kidding.  I mean let's be real - Daniel Craig doesn't exactly exude personality. And extended periods of his huffy brooding stares can make a man lose faith in the entertainment spaceship.  I know we've graduated from the wise-cracking winking-at-the-audience Bonds of the past, but it wouldn't hurt to loosen up a little bit, would it?  It's hard to identify and care for a hero who's sooooo guarded.

With that said, this had to be one of the wackier Bond films I've ever seen.  In fact, I was just telling someone, "That didn't feel like a Bond film at all."  Yet I was mostly entertained.  And I say "mostly" with reservations because there were long stretches of this script where not much happened.  Most of the good stuff came from the bad guy, played by Javier Bardem.  Yeah, Bardem's played versions of this character before.  But he's such a blast to watch that you went along with it anyway.

Although here's the thing with Bardem's character.  Even though he ignited the film, he kind of tainted it also.  I don't know what movie he thought he was in, but it definitely wasn't the one I'd been watching for the previous hour.  Since the dawn of Daniel Craig Bond, the Bond character is more serious, the Bond tone is more serious, and the Bond villains are more serious.  So to see Bardem play this creepy broad 80s Bond villain, I thought I'd been slipped whatever drug Mendes was on when he conceived of that opening title sequence.

And that wasn't the only time I confused Skyfall for an acid trip.  Mendes brought a more "artsy" vibe to the series, and decided to turn Bond into poetic opera as opposed to hard core action.  The Shanghi high-rise assassination sequence was a personal fave, with all the neon lights dancing along the endless panes of glass.  I'm not sure why Bond sat there and watched a man assassinate his target before doing anything - but why should that matter when there's an 80 foot digital jellyfish swimming around behind him???

Screenplay-wise, I'm not sure what to make of Skyfall.  The pacing never felt quite right, and instead of past Bond films where a writer would solve a problem with an over-the-top action scene, Mendes solves his problems with slow deliberate talky scenes.  I mean yeah, it's sexy watching a Bond girl shave Bond in a backlit apartment terrace in some strange beautiful country, but do we really need that scene?  Doesn't it bring the movie to a screeching halt?  (note: I've been told by Bond-heads that this woman's later name-reveal is a big deal - still, you could've done a lot more with her than this scene) There were numerous moments like this, where I said, "Let's see some action!  Let's see some fun!  This is Bond!"  When the annoying little douchey youngster dude tells Bond that they don't do exploding pens anymore, I was like, "WHY NOT???"  When I was a kid watching Bond films, I liked those exploding pens!  Are you telling me now we're too good for exploding pens??  Humph.

Anyway, I'm going off book here, so maybe I should get to the plot.  I'm excited to report that I was able to follow the entire plot of Skyfall!  The reason for my enthusiasm is that I wasn't always clear on the happenings of the last two Bond films, particularly Quantum Of Solace.  At one point I remember thinking Bond's goal was to visit as many countries as he could before the end of the week.  The Amazing Race meets Goldeneye.  Here, they did a much better job of keeping the plot clear, even if they took their precious time between actual plot points.

Skyfall starts out with a brilliant hacker who manages to get his hands on an MI:6 operative's hard drive which happens to be carrying the identities of every major MI:6 agent embedded in terrorist cells around the world.  This playful little programmer decides to start releasing these men's identities on Youtube every week five at a time.  If they don't find him soon, more and more of these superstar agents will die.

Bond, who's been weakened by a mission-gone-bad, probably isn't the one to be put on the job, but finds himself on it anyway because...well because if he wasn't, we wouldn't have a movie and Sam Mendes would have to film a bag blowing in the wind for 120 minutes.  Hmm, come to think of it, Javier Bardem giving the rat monologue to that blowing bag would've been a hell of a scene.

So Bond finally finds this do-badder who turns out to be a former agent, Silva, who's since gone rogue.   But Silva's not really in it for the exposing of agents, like we initially thought.  That was just a ploy to get their attention.  What he really wants to do is kill Bond's boss, M, for leaving him to die in the field and forcing him to get some serious dental work afterwards that MI:6 did NOT cover.

With Bond and M outmatched in the modern world due to Silva's technological superiority, Bond makes the call to go "back in time" to his childhood foster home where he and M will wait out Silva and force him to take them down without a single computer chip or text message.

So, what can we learn from the screenwriting here?  Well, the most pronounced aspect of the screenplay was the focus on theme.  The writers really pushed the "Everybody gets old" stuff, and while I found it admirable that theme took such prominence in a Bond screenplay, I'm not sure I agreed with the theme they chose to explore.  Bond getting old?  Bond is eternal.  The guy's had, what, 20 movies?  He's like the Simpsons or South Park.  He will never age!  So I just found it to be a curious choice.  In addition to that, they pushed the theme way too hard in the opening act (every other scene was about Bond getting older) and it added even more darkness to a franchise that already had its feet firmly planted in darkness.

You'll notice, however, that the script really started to pick up upon the arrival of Silva, and not just because Javier Bardem is a great actor, but because now we had a face to the villain.  Until that point, the characters spent most of their time having quiet conversations in big rooms about "who could this mysterious person be?"  It got tiresome and the writers didn't move that part of the story along nearly fast enough (see above - chick shaving James Bond's face).

But once Silva was in the picture, his goal of killing M FORCED Bond and the agency to work faster.  Gone were talky scenes in rooms, replaced by real honest-to-Goodness action.  That's what we came to see!  And look, I know you have to use the first half of your script to set up a lot of these second and third act scenes.  The scene where Bond and Silva engage in a game of "who can shoot the glass off the hot girl's head first"  succeeded mostly due to the earlier Bond scene where he struggles during target practice.  But there's ALWAYS a way to move things along faster.  You can combine scenes, cut scenes, accelerate scenes.  I just felt they were taking too much time.

Having said that, I was surprised at my reaction to Bond revisiting his childhood foster home.  The thing about these Bond movies has always been that Bond is a blank slate.  He doesn't have "issues" and "troubled backstory."  He just kicks ass and beds women.  I know they've changed that with the re-boot into "Breaking Bond," but this was the first time where I actually felt some depth to the character.  And I kind of dug it!  For once Bond felt human, and that made me want to root for him more.  He was one of us.

Unfortunately, I don't think that final sequence worked as well as it could've.  If they're giving you 200 million dollars to make a film, your set pieces better be big and they better be unique.  I mean that's the whole point of having that kind of money - you can do whatever you want.  Bond using a bulldozer to reattach a train car so he doesn't lose the target?  That's something I hadn't seen before!  A villain inhabiting a deserted city island?  Hadn't seen that either!   People using mirror tricks to shoot the bad guys invading their farm?  I've seen that plenty of times.  I'm not saying it was bad.  It worked for the film.  But this is Bond.  I wanted something more...betterish.

As you can see, this movie perplexed me.  I liked it, it lost me, I liked it, it lost me.  I felt a little bit like that 80 foot jellyfish, which is a good analogy because Bond 23 chose to swim where past Bond films would've run.  And that was sorta cool, if a little confusing.  Skyfall doesn't hold up to my nostalgic memories of the Roger Moore Bond years, but of the three Daniel Craig films, I believe this one to be the best, if only because of its unique unexpected tone.

[ ] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn't my kind of movie
[x] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Don't overstate your theme.  Usually we're talking about writers not having a theme.  But it's almost as bad if you're overstating your theme - if every scene, characters are hammering it home to the audience.  "You're getting old, Bond."  "It might be time to retire."  "It's a young man's game, Bond."  Oh, here comes the super-young handler dude to remind us how old Bond is again!  For theme, you usually wanna go with one scene (sometimes two) that states your theme out loud and then try and subtly weave it into the rest of the film underneath the surface.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Screenplay Review - Somnia

Genre: Horror
Premise: When a grieving couple adopts a young boy, they soon learn that his dreams manifest themselves into reality.
About: This script finished high on this year's Blood List.  It appears that the writers are just now starting to make some noise.  They wrote and are directing a feature called "Oculus" in which two sibling orphans witness a haunted mirror killing someone - a murder the young brother is charged with. Looks like these two like orphans!
Writers: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard
Details: 114 pages - February 7, 2012 draft

Were tears shed during my reading of Somnia?  I will neither confirm nor deny this rumor.  I will confirm this though - Somnia is probably the best straight horror script I've read since The Ring.  Just when I was ready to declare the death of intelligent horror, this comes around.  Actually, I wouldn't call Somnia "intelligent" so much as well-crafted.  Nobody crafts horror screenplays any more.  They just slap together a bunch of creepy-looking children or old women who move in that creepy herky-jerky motion and expect us to shell out big bucks.  Why would we do that?  You haven't given us anything new and you haven't given us anything deep.

 I mean seriously - creepy imagery is going to compose of 10, maybe 15 pages of your script.  What's happening during the other 100 pages?  You need to build a story with characters we care about going after things we care about, and present it in a way that's relatable but unique.  Not an easy task by any means but I can tell you this - putting forth the effort is the first step.  If you treat your horror script with the same kind of love and attention that you would a drama -- making sure every single emotional beat is played just right -- then you've quadrupled your chances of writing a good horror flick because most horror writers don't care about depth.

Somnia is about a kid, Cody.  He's six years old and an orphan.  He's actually had a couple of sets of foster parents already but neither set worked out (for mysterious reasons).  Enter Mark and Jessie, a young and eager-to-adopt couple who unfortunately experienced a horrible tragedy.  Their son, Sean, drowned.  Finally, after a couple of years of mourning, they're ready to move on, and adopting Cody is a big part of that process.  Is it a little freaky that they're adopting a boy who's the same age as their dead child?  Yeah.  But both parents have good intentions.  Well, at first anyway.

The couple quickly learn that Cody doesn't like to sleep.  In fact, he stashes soda and sugar in a secret box underneath his bed so he can stay awake.  At first it seems like a minor quirk Mark and Jessie have to deal with.  I mean foster children aren't exactly known for being trouble-free.  But then things start getting weird.  For example, Cody loves butterflies.  And when he sleeps, butterflies start appearing all around the house.  Hmmm...

Then, one night, after Cody sees a picture of Sean, Mark and Jessie are shocked to see, in their bedroom, SEAN!  Like, ALIVE!  Well, kind of alive.  He looks just like he did in the picture, unmoving.  But he's there, in 3-D.

The next day Jessie puts 2 and 2 together.  Their new little boy can manifest his dreams into reality.  This gives Jessie all sorts of ideas, so she starts showing Cody some home movies of Sean.  Sure enough, that night, Sean shows up!

Marc, being the more psychologically stable of the two, realizes that this is so not okay and encourages Jessie to stop trying to recreate their dead son through their new son.  But Jessie's already hooked on this creepy version of Tivo.  Unfortunately, it isn't just dead sons that manifest themselves in Cody's dreams.  It's this really freaking scary-ass monster dude called "The Canker Man."  The Canker Man is thin and tall and toothless and moany and really f*cking f*cked up!  Like he eats people n shit!

Things start getting worse not just at home but at school since Cody can only go without sleep for so long.  I did read an article once about this Vietnam man who claims to have not slept in 40 years.  Oh, and I saw a Dateline Special (is Dateline ever not special?) about this family who had this super unique genetic mutation that made it impossible for them to sleep once they reached a certain age.  And they went into detail about how if you don't sleep for a week, you start turning into a zombie.  It becomes impossible to think.  And then after a couple of months your brain pretty much turns to mush.  The point being that Cody's going to fall asleep sooner or later.  And when he does, nobody in his life is going to be safe.  Cause the Canker Man is coming to get them.

With these horror scripts, I'm always looking for an emotional component, some "in" I can latch onto so I care about the characters.  Of course, you're trying to do that in every script, but I think it's especially important in horror scripts because it's the difference between the scares feeling cheap and the scares feeling deep.  The more we care about the characters, the more we'll fear for them, and by association, the more we, ourselves, will be afraid!

You do this by establishing strong relationships with characters who have [typically] troubled backstories.  In this case we have Cody, who's had to go through all sorts of shit including being left by his real parents and two sets of foster parents.  On the other side of the fence, we have this couple who lost their son to a terrible tragedy.  In other words, we have two very sympathetic situations, and audiences/readers latch onto and care about people they sympathise with.  By pairing these sympathetic entities together, you establish a dynamic that we want to see work.

To keep us invested, this opening is followed by a mystery phase where we get the feeling there's something wrong with Cody.  He smuggles sugar under his bed so he doesn't have to sleep.  Butterflies appear whenever he goes to bed.  Then there's that whole opening scene where his last foster-parent tried to shoot him.  What's going on??  We want to find out!

Now truth be told, it's not that difficult to write the above.  I wouldn't say it's "easy" because a lot of young screenwriters still haven't learned how to make their characters sympathetic.  But most professional screenwriters can achieve this opening.  Where I realized that this wasn't just another script was when Jessie started using Cody to see her dead son.  Now we were introducing a dynamic I haven't seen in this kind of story before.  Most writers would've stopped at just "kid projects crazy spooky shit when he's asleep" and called it a night.   Here the writers utilize pre-established emotionally-charged backstories (the loss of their child) to twist the story in a new direction.  I sat up after that and said, "Oh.  OKAY.  These guys are writers."

And they continued to deliver.  I loved all the little touches they added.  For example, Cody's love of butterflies plays prominently whenever he's dreaming.  But whenever he gets mad or upset or sad, butterflies become these dark gray musty moths that tease the arrival of the Canker Man.  Now was the Canker Man the most original monster I've ever seen?  No.  But like a lot of things here, he was just different enough to make it feel fresh.

Now I'm not going to spoil the ending but for me that's what put this over the top and into the "impressive" category.  I always tell writers that if you really want to impress a reader, write something that connects with them on an emotional level.  I'm not talking melodrama here.  I don't mean go write a sequel to The Notebook.  I just mean make us care for the characters and want to see their issues resolved.  When we find out what happened to Cody and why he's like the way he is, I'm not going to lie, I choked up a little bit.  It was powerful stuff.  And that moment stemmed directly from the writers going that extra mile and making this more than a screenplay full of empty scares (like some other scripts I've reviewed recently).

So yeah, I thought this was really good stuff.  Nice to see some great writing in the horror genre.  I've been looking for a script like this for awhile!

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn't for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Don't fall in love with your clever 3rd Act explanation. The only complaint I had about Somnia was that the writers were too on-the-nose with their final act Cody explanation.  It was a good explanation.  I actually loved it.  But it felt like they knew it was good so they really - hammered - it home.  "And it's because A happened to you that B happened to you which is why C and that's why you're going to be okay now, Cody!"  I think you have to give your audience more credit.  They like connecting the dots themselves.  If you have to spell it out for them, they'll feel cheated and pandered to, and that can actually ruin a solid ending.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Yay! Sanctuary sells!!!

For those who missed it, I was excited about a big script that I thought could become the next Matrix, with a supernatural twist.  After going into all the studios last week, Joel Silver picked it up as his first non-WB deal.  Alex Heineman, who works with Silver, championed the project.  Really excited.  This project could not only be amazing - but spawn a hell of a franchise (pun was not intended - I swear!).  I'm still a little bummed that I couldn't be part of it but very pumped for the writer. :)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Screenplay Review - Giant Monsters Attack

Genre: Comedy-Drama-Supernatural
Premise: A boy and his father move to Tokyo only to learn that it's routinely invaded by giant monsters set on destroying the city.
About:  Lawton has been working in the industry for a long time and is best known for writing "Pretty Woman," or more specifically, the dark spec draft titled "3000" that would eventually become the playful romantic comedy, "Pretty Woman."  Since then he's worked on a ton of things, including creating the Pamela Anderson TV show, "VIP. " This script landed on the 2007 Black List, although I believe this is an updated draft.  Lawton appears to be a guy who likes to experiment.  He avoids the more traveled path, as evidenced by today's script.
Writer: J.F. Lawton
Details: 130 pages

Friday's script was offensive.  Yesterday's script was boring.  Today's script is racist.  Script reading is like a box of choc-co-luts.  You never know what you're gonna get.  Okay okay, maybe "racist" is going a little far.  But to assume that our neighbors in the far east must deal with giant monsters constantly invading their cities because they're Japanese - I'm thinking somebody out there's going to be offended by that.  It's not me.  But somebody.

On the plus side, the idea here is beautifully original.  When you're searching through hundreds of loglines, you're always looking for the one idea that stands out, that promises a unique voice, that clearly states, "Hey, I'm different from everyone else," - because the truth is, 99% of us are the same.  We're rehashing the same ideas with the same characters and the same plots.  Doesn't mean we can't become professional writers if we master those elements.  But for script readers, the true gems are the scripts that don't sound or read like anything else, and I think it's pretty safe to say that a script about a father and son who move to Tokyo only to find that the city is overrun by giant monsters is a unique script.

William Smith works in upper management at your standard Fortune 500 tech company.  Unlike most characters we meet in this situation, however, William loves his job.  But what he's really excited about is a Japanese company he just convinced his bosses to buy.  It's the kind of acquisition that, if it turns out how he thinks it will, will solidify his standing in the company and lead to that big promotion he's been anticipating.

Well that promotion - if you want to call it that - comes sooner than expected.  Turns out the company they just bought is falling apart!  And it's William's job to go over there and fix it.  Or else the only promotion he's going to be getting is the one to the front of the unemployment line.   So he grabs his energetic son, Johnny, and the two fly to Tokyo.

They immediately meet Seiji, William's passive-aggressive handler.  Seiji likes to say things like, "It's alright, Smith-san. We consider all Westerners to be barbarians.  You will be cut considerable... if I may say... slack.  Johnny-san will have time to adjust."  "Barbarians?"  "I mean it in a good way.  Your most modest effort to adapt will be met with accepting amusement.  Please follow me."

Before they even have time to grab their luggage, however, a giant monster named Mongomash comes stumbling towards the airport, destroying everything in sight. Within a few short minutes, William learns why their new acquisition is struggling.  It's not because of TPS report mismanagement.  It's because giant monsters are constantly destroying all their factories!

While Johnny seems to think this is the coolest thing ever, William is justifiably freaked out.  But it's about to get weirder.  Once they reach their new home, they're met by a couple of female ninja neighbors, one of them Johnny's age.  And then there's a samurai waiting outside (complete with badly dubbed English) who declares it his duty to always keep Johnny safe.

So Johnny goes off to school and William goes off to work, trying to solve this giant monsters destroying factories problem.  The big (no pun intended) issue seems to be Cyclotron, an angry reckless monster who likely doesn't have any specific issues with William's company, yet reeks a ton of collateral damage whenever he goes out on one of his morning rampages.  If William has any chance at saving his company, he's going to need to kill Cyclotron.

And they really only have two options to achieve this.  The first is to use one of the company's giant robots to fight off Cyclotron.  The other is to send Johnny to Monster Island so he can ask Megamonster to come back and take down Cyclotron.  Megamonster loves kids but is apparently sick of helping every little boy and girl who asks for safety from some new giant monster, so convincing him is going to be difficult.

The stakes are pretty high because if William doesn't figure this out, he'll have to limp back to America with nothing to his name, bringing Johnny with him, who's become so in love with Tokyo that he can't imagine leaving.  Well Johnny, you better display some hard core convincin' skills then, cause without Megamonster, your chances of defeating Cyclotron are slim.  Says the guy who knew nothing about giant monsters before reading this script.

I liked "Giant Monsters Attack" immediately.  And I actually read it without knowing J.F. Lawton wrote the thing.  I thought this was some crazy young writer trying to make a name for himself, not a veteran who had carved himself a place in spec lore with a script 20 years ago.  I mean if you had told me the writer of "Pretty Woman" had penned this script, I would've told you you were nuts.  And yet I was stoked when I found out.  What writers out there, particularly writers of famous romantic comedies, are trying to push the boundaries of their writing 20 years later with totally out-there concepts?

Besides the neat premise, I loved the sweetness Lawton established with the father-son relationship - how they were going off on this journey together and how their individual happiness was dependent on one another.  I also loved the clever little ways he would explain the absurdity of what we were witnessing.  For example, we needed a reason for why nobody in America knew about these giant monsters.  Lawton has one of the characters explain that Japan has been sending out giant monster reenactments to America in the form of documentaries for years, but apparently the Americans mistook them for entertaining TV shows.

The structure for Giant Monsters Attack is quite solid.  Our main character, William, has a clear goal - to stop Cyclotron before he destroys the company.  The stakes are his job and therefore his family's livelihood.  And the urgency is that Cyclotron is going to strike again soon.  So they have to act fast.  Characters are always doing things here - going after things - so the script, the first half especially, is always moving along, which is what a well-structured screenplay needs to do.

The problem is Lawton falls too in love with his idea.  Once William sets off to build a new robot to kill Cyclotron and Johnny heads off to recruit Megamonster, the script, speaking of monsters, becomes a bit of a Jeckyll and Hyde act.  The big mistake in my eyes was the inclusion of the bandit subplot.   Johnny has to battle these rogue bandits while on his journey to Monster Island.  The problem was...WHO CARES ABOUT THESE BANDITS???  They don't have anything to do with the plot.  They were a random speed bump that destroyed any momentum the script had.

I see this sometimes - a writer including a subplot that doesn't need to be included.  You especially have to be wary of these in a script that's 130 pages long.  If your script is 130 pages long, stuff needs to be cut out, and the whole bandit thing, particularly because the bandits were so disconnected from the rest of the story, would seem like an easy cut.

Unfortunately, this drifty approach of focusing on things that didn't need focusing on continued.  William's storyline with the construction of a new robot really started to go off the rails, at one point including a secondary character being an alien-in-disguise with a secret master plan.  It was there that I confirmed the second act had gotten away from Lawton.

The second act is so key because it's the biggest act by far and therefore the easiest to get lost in.  If you're not on top of your game - if your characters aren't constantly targeting specific goals and objectives that are plot-relevant - pretty soon you're going to be writing vague scenes with unmotivated characters talking about stuff that doesn't tie in with your story.  When William went off to ask the old boss how to build the perfect robot, that's where I gave up.  I mean it was fine.  The character was still pushing towards his goal.  But at a certain point, you have to move your story along, not have your character searching days for a solution.

Despite all that, I still recommend this script because it's funny, it's original, it's got charm, and I loved the father and son characters.  If Lawton could tighten the plot up, I would LOVE to see what a director like Spike Jonez could do with this.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn't for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Avoid throwing subplots into your second act unless they're 100% relevant to the plot.  For example, the bandits.  If those bandits would've been, say, working for our villain, Senjei, their inclusion would've made a lot more sense.  Instead they were random obstacles with no real connection to the story, making defeating them seem irrelevant to the reader.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Screenplay Review - Back East

Genre: Drama
Premise: A young writer, sick of the LA scene, decides to head home to Connecticut, but when his car breaks down in a nowhere town, he befriends a young woman, on her way to LA with her boyfriend, and starts to fall for her.
About: Did you know that the Whedon family is full of screenwriters?  Their dad was a screenwriter.  Their grandfather was a screenwriter.  Joss, of course, is a screenwriter.  And then they have another brother who's a screenwriter, in addition to Zack here.  Imagine the Thanksgivings at that place.  You wouldn't be able to get a turkey leg without establishing a character flaw for the stuffing.  Zack has worked on a lot of TV shows including Deadwood, Rubicon, and Fringe.  This is one of his earlier efforts, which landed on the bottom half of the 2007 Black List.
Writer: Zack Whedon
Details: 91 pages

Back in the day, I used to be a lot more open to down home simple character pieces - stuff like "Beautiful Girls."  Remember that movie?  A guy comes back home and has to deal with a bunch of "home-like" shit.  It's relatable.  It's identifiable for writers especially. It's one of those stories you can imagine yourself reading by the fire with a glass of wine (even though I don't drink wine).

But the more screenplays I read, the more I realize how "non-movie-like" these types of scripts are.  That's not to say they shouldn't be purchased or made.  It's just that movies work best with stuff that's actually - well - moving.  And these stories don't move.

Most people go to the movies to see things a little more exceptional than everyday life.  When you get to a movie and all you see is characters sitting around talking about life, in the back of your head you're thinking, "Can't I get this back home with my family and friends?"  What is it about this movie that's different?  That necessitated you leave your home?  I'm not saying everything has to be James Bond.  But these simple character pieces have to be almost perfect to work - like American Beauty.  And finding another American Beauty is like finding a brad in a studio garbage dump.

Having said that, a part of me still has a soft spot for these scripts.  I still wanna find that golden character-driven brad.  There's something beautiful about the drama of everyday life, that if you can capture it, people will relate to it and allow it to impact their lives.  That's what I was hoping to find when I opened "Back East."  I mean, there's some strong screenwriting pedigree here, so you figure it has a shot to kick butt, right?...

William is 24 years old and lives in LA.  I think he's a writer but Whedon never really makes that clear.  Whatever the case, he's having a tough go at the whole LA thing.  You get up.  It's 70 degrees out.  You go to a job you hate to make money so you can write, you go back home.  You're tired.  You wanna go to bed.  But you know you have to write.  But it would be so much easier to just go to sleep now and write tomorrow.  Yeah, tomorrow will be the day.  That's when you're going to write 50 pages!  Tomorrow it is.  Today is a day of rest (none of this is actually in the script - I'm assuming that's what's going on in William's head though cause he's a writer).

William is tired of pretending tomorrow's going to be the day though.  He wants to go home.  Back to Connecticut.  Back east.  So he grabs all his stuff and begins the cross-country trek.  Somewhere between point A and point B, though, his car breaks down, and he gets towed to a little nowhere town called Dry Lake by an 80 year old grouchy mechanic named Jeffrey.

It isn't until they get to town that Jeffrey tells William he's retired, and that if William wants his car fixed, he'll have to fix it himself.  Jeffrey will give him some guidance, but he's too old to be doing any physical labor.  Great, William thinks.  Like most upper white class offspring, he doesn't even know how to change windshield wiper fluid.  How the hell is he going to fix a car?

However, it's not all bad.  While hanging out at the local hotel, he meets a beautiful young lady named Tamara.  Tamara's fun and flirty and up for having a good time.  But she's also with her boyfriend.  The two are traveling the opposite direction, going from the East coast to LA.  Our aforementioned boyfriend, the perpetually angry "Evan," notices this little flirty friendship developing between Tamara and William, and does everything in his power to stop it.

And this is pretty much how the next three days go down.  William goes over to Jeffrey's body shop to work on his car, then comes back to the hotel where he repeatedly runs into Tamara.  The two run off to flirt with each other but never quite take it to an inappropriate level.  However it's clear that that's exactly where William wants to take it.  In fact, he really likes Tamara, which means he's gotta find a way to somehow steal her from Evan and get her to come back to the very place she left so they can be together.

Well, I wanted something simple.  AND I GOT IT!

Really simple.  Dangerously simple.

But was it good simple?

I'll say this.  The first half of this script was boring.  And it clearly stood out as one of those early efforts we're all familiar with reading.  You know what I'm talking about.  The story tends to be personal, maybe even autobiographical.  The writer uses huge paragraphs detailing things that soooo do not need to be detailed.  Like strapping up the car to the tow mechanism.  Like getting out, walking over, opening the garage, and pulling the car in.  I think young writers believe they're keeping it real by putting a spotlight on the mundane, but all they're really doing is boring us.  I don't need to know how the strap is hooked up to the car when someone's towing it.  Just get us to the next scene where, hopefully, something interesting happens.

You also see the occasional camera action: "Track in extremely slow."  And at least one character will be introduced sans capitalization, making us wonder if they were introduced beforehand and we missed it, so we go back and check and find out they weren't, annoying the hell out of us.  The thing is, all these little "first effort" flags pop up and it sucks because you out yourself as a beginner, lessening your credibility to the reader, resulting in them trusting you less.  Which is why even though these are all ultimately unimportant things, tallied together they do have an effect on the read, whether fairly or not.

I think what surprised me was that "Back East" eventually won me over.  If you're going to write a simple story based around a few characters, you better have some lights-out character development.  The first half of the script didn't have any.  Even the character who had the most potential for depth, Jeffrey, was being used as a sort of quasi comedic sidekick.

But once Whedon started capturing the loneliness of that character, and William fixed his car on his own, helping him realize how capable he really was (and thus, the emergence of a character arc), the script came to life, as if the entire time it was hiding in the bushes, waiting for the right time to strike.  I mean, it wasn't world-changing or anything.  I thought all of that could've been explored way deeper (and earlier), but at least now the script was breathing.

Strangely, the second half of the Tamara/William relationship was also way better than the first half. (Spoiler) Once the relationship got to that "all or nothing" point, where a decision had to be made, I was genuinely curious which man Tamara was going to choose.  And more importantly, I wanted it to be our protagonist, which meant that Whedon had done his job of getting me to care about our tow leads.

But in the end, this script runs into the very problem I brought up initially.  It's fun.  It's cute.  It's fine.  But that's all it is.  It isn't a movie people are going to grab their friends over and say, "We gotta go see this!" or "We gotta rent this!"  It just doesn't carry that kind of excitement behind it, which is why the script can end up on the Black List but that's where it stops.  Managers and agents can't do anything with it beyond that.

The only way these scripts tend to get sold/made is if the script is impeccable (American Beauty) or if the writer is also the director and scrapes up the money to shoot the film himself (Garden State).  I thought Back East was cute.  But I didn't see anything beyond that.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn't for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: If you're new to screenwriting and you have access to somebody who reads in the industry, have them read your script and ask if there are any telltale "early effort" signs.  If you don't have that access, take note of some of the ones here:  1) Really basic semi-autobigrophical story, usually about a guy disenfranchised with life (and at only 24 years old!!!)  2) camera directions.  3) lingering on mundane unimportant shots for too long.  4) huge paragraph chunks that could easily be cut by 75% and lose nothing.  5) lots of extremely basic dialogue scenes with no real tension or suspense - it's more about the characters trying to be cute and quirky.  --- There are, of course, more of these signs (and feel free to list them in the comments section).  But this is a good starting point.