Sunday, June 14, 2009


Genre: Thriller
About: A man finds an old cassette tape, the contents of which reveal something horrifying.
About: A very hot script that a lot of people are talking about in Hollywood: Karczynski sold this to Relativity Media last month. The property has garnered the interest of "No Way Out" and "The Recruit" director, Roger Donaldson. Although I haven't been able to confirm it, this appears to be Karczynski's first sale.
Writer: Steven Karczynski

Imagine your best friend shows up at your door. He's hurried, excited. He dashes into your living room, "You gotta see this! You gotta see this!" He brings up Facebook and shows you the profile of the hottest girl you've ever seen in your life. He then says to you, "This girl saw your picture today and she wants to meet you." "What??" you ask. "Yes! She's at the coffee shop waiting for you right now!" You can't believe your good fortune. You and your friend hop in the car, speed over to the coffee shop, run inside...but it's empty. Your friend gets a text. "Oh, she left. She's at the bowling alley. Let's go!" You rocket over to the bowling alley, look around. She's not there. Your friend gets a call. "She said her friends got bored and went to get some food." So you drive over to the restaurant. Hurry inside. She's not there. Your friend calls her. Oops, they decided to go to a movie. But she wants you to come to this party she'll be at tonight. So you go home, get ready, look as good as you've ever looked before. Possibly even put on cologne. You're bursting with anticipation. It's finally time. You go. You look around. You can't find her. You start asking people where she is. "Has anybody seen Jane?" Then someone walks up to you and says, "Didn't you hear? She just died in a car crash."

And that pretty much sums up my experience with Umbra.

Umbra is one frustrating-ass script. David happens upon a strange package jammed halfway into a mailbox in front of his house. He can't resist opening it (would any of us be able to?) and finds a cassette tape inside. He buys an old tape player so he can listen to it. At first, we don't hear what the tape says. All we see is David's reaction as he listens. This is par for the course with Umbra, and what, for better or worse, sets it apart from every other script out there. There's a lot of playing with time, playing with space, playing with sound and voice over. We're hearing things, we're not hearing things, we're watching one thing while hearing another thing, etc. etc. It works quite well in my opinion, because it keeps you off-balance -- just like David.

Midway through the tape, David gets a look on his face of such profound fear, we realize he's heard something horrible. And here's where Umbra will either get you or lose you. The rest of the script is David going to work, suspecting he's being watched, suspecting he's being pursued, is pursued...all while we get bit by agonzing bit of the tape. The whole thing feels like an American Idol results show. As we're teased and teased and teased with pointless and uninteresting performances, we must wait until the very last minute to find out who gets voted off.

Actually, that's a little harsh. The portion of the script where David gets chased is quite good. Particularly the way we see him get chased. Part of the brilliance of Umbra is it really takes you into the mind of a single person. David doesn't have any relationships in his life, anyone to talk to. The point-of-view is so specific to this one character, that everything feels incredibly claustrophobic and personal. When things start going bad for David, we feel like they're going bad for us too.

I'll tell ya, the last 20 pages of this thing, I don't know if I've ever read a script that fast. Some crazy ass shit starts happening. But the critical moment of the tape hasn't played yet and we're dying to know what's said on it. We have to know what evokes that reaction on David's face. We have to hear that final piece of the puzzle.

And when it comes...

When it comes...

It's so disappointing that it's beyond disappointing. Not because the idea is stupid, but because it doesn't answer anything. It's deliberately vague, and in that sense, a huge cheat. You basically dragged us along with this recording, taking advantage of the fact that you knew we'd go anywhere with you until you revealed it...and then you finish with this...non-answer. You killed the beautiful Facebook Girl.

Afterwards, when I sat back and thought about it, I realized that for 98% of the read, the screenplay was amazing. Because the job of the writer is to make the reader want to see what happeens next. and for 95 pages, that's all I wanted. I wanted to see what happened next. Because of that, Umbra leaves me feeling very conflicted as to my final reaction to the story. There's such great stuff in here and yet it's ultimately disappointing.

I guess I'm giving it a "Worth The Read". I mean, it did enough right that I can't not recommend it.

[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: There's a passage early on in Umbra where the character is running for his life. This is how it reads: "The Caller rips through several backyards. It’s as if we’re tied to the Caller’s back as he runs. He falls. We fall. He stumbles. We stumble." Ten years ago, a writer would have been sent to prison for saying "it's as if we're tied to the Caller's back as he runs." "What are you doing??" a reader would say. "You're not allowed to direct the action! That's the director's job!" People used to (and still do) really get in a hissy-fit about these kinds of things. But this is how I see it - if directing action helps me imagine the movie, why not use it? As long as it's used in moderation, I don't see anything wrong with it. Hell, it might even give the director some better ideas.

P.S. As always, if you're going to discuss the ending in the comments, please post *SPOILER* before you do. And if I misunderstood the ending (it is open to some interpretation), please let me know. I certainly feel like I missed something. But I still think it was the script that didn't provide it.