For those who have forgotten, this is one in a series of five scripts I'll be reviewing this week from represented writers who have not sold a script. The exercise is meant to explore the level of quality it takes to obtain agency representation. Enjoy!
Premise: After wrecking his marriage, his liver, and a 737, an alcoholic ex-airline pilot tries to put his life back together.
About: Matthew (one half of the writing team) is a blogger himself doing breakdowns of DVDs at Criterion Collection DVDs. He and Adam are repped over at UTA and managed by Circle of Confusion. The two are going out with a new spec soon.
Writers: Adam Price & Matthew Dessem
Clearly Matt and Adam have been waiting for this moment. They've been tracking my taste, planning and plotting, looking for just the right moment to storm the Scriptshadow beach and take the island. Because they obviously understand what I like. "Everything Must Go," a story about a man who sets up a living quarters on his front lawn when his wife locks him out of their house, plays to just about everything I like in a story (please find an actor for this and make it now!). So when I heard Matt and Adam's logline, a logline that sounded like "Everything's" second cousin, I couldn't control the magical download finger that transfers my next reading experience onto my hard drive.
But beware the follow-up blues. Whenever we see something great, something that personally moves, shocks or excites us, we want more of it. And we want it now. But when, in the history of mankind, has there ever been anything that's capitalized on the success of something else, and was actually better? After Pearl Jam we got Soundgarden. After Lord Of The Rings we got Dungeons and Dragons. After Pac Man we got Q-Bert. Ultimately, you end up disappointed, feeling like you just witnessed a shallower emptier version of your previous love affair. That's not to say that Adam and Matthew even knew about Everything Must Go when they wrote The Conquered. I'm speaking for myself, the reader's perspective. And these similar second endeavors almost always end up in disappointment.
So then what's the deal? Was the first script in our Repped Week any good? Was this a disastrous idea? Are these writers without a sale so far out of the big-timer's league that they don't even deserve any Scriptshadow love? Let's find out.
The Conquered is kind of like a cross between Everything Must Go and The Wrestler. Frank is this beat up guy. His wife, Kelly, left him for an "actuary," which is a job Frank's never even heard of. He's pissed about the ordeal, even though he has no right to be. Let's be honest. When your spouse is gardening in another man's lawn, chances are it's not because you're Husband Of The Year. In a move so monumentally moronic it makes my Freshman year at college look like a year in seminary, Frank, a pilot, stumbles into the cockpit of his flight, wasted beyond recognition. He proceeds to kick the co-pilot out, start the plane, pass out onto the controls, and roll a 737 into the airport lobby.
Needless to say, Frank loses his wings and six months later finds himself slumming it in Hollywood (note to non-Los Angelinos: Hollywood is very very dirty), selling off his things to pay for rent and food. Frank's best friend Virgil is a bit of an oaf but has a good heart. Ironically, Virgil just lost his life as well. After 16 years she didn't even leave him a note. He spends most of his days hunched over in Frank's apartment, weeping like a little girl.
Virgil nabs Frank a job at his brand new employer's, The Matchstick Company, pulling levers on an assembly line. On his very first day, Frank manages to somehow set both himself and Virgil on fire. But Virgil meets and falls in love with his Mexican boss, Elena. The relationship occasionally ropes Frank into doing things he doesn't want to do. Any time he's not getting shitfaced watching TV is considered unproductive. But a party at Elena's introduces him to Elena's drop-dead gorgeous 18 year old (and still in high school) daughter, Lily, a blossoming artist stuck in a going-nowhere situation. Her thug boyfriend, Nando, has just gotten out of jail, and Elena is desperate to keep Lily away from him.
Frank does everything in his power to destroy his life short of swallowing an atom bomb. He drinks, drinks, drinks, and when the liquor runs out, he lies, cheats, and steals to get more. Occasionally he'll rendezvous with the local bar owner, the mature but attractive Angie. Not only does he pull a one night stand on poor Angie, but also steals a stuffed dog of hers and names it "Mr. President." Mr President becomes Frank's best friend and unwitting accomplice in an ongoing attempt to throw his life away.
When Elena finds out that Lily's sneaking out with Nando, she starts sending him over to Frank's so he can keep an eye on her. They don't have very much in common and she seems baffled that Frank can sit there and watch The Weather Channel and infomercials for six hours straight (For the record, this does not even come close to my 8 hour ESPN marathons). Slowly, the two develop a friendship, and Frank starts to pull himself out of that 20-mile hole he's been digging. The friendship leads to a few dates and the dates lead to one night of sex. But ironically, after a lifetime of screwing others over, it's Lily who realizes she made a mistake, and she's the one who wants nothing to do with Frank. After this karmic taste of his own medicine, Frank's forced to square of with Co-Nando The Barbarian. And as you can probably guess, it doesn't go well.
There's an honesty in The Conquered that you don't find in a lot of scripts - an aversion to play it safe, a hesitancy to wrap things up in a neat bow. And that's what I liked about the story. Frank is pretty much despicable and has no real desire to better his life. He's trapped in that place in your life where you're supposed to have everything, yet you have nothing. So you start to think, what's the point in trying? What's the point in sticking it out? He drifts from beer to beer, shot to shot, and somehow, through it all, we still root for him. There's a part of us that wants Frank to get back up on his feet, because we think maybe, if he can, we can. It's always a daring choice to go with an anti-hero, Paul Newman as opposed to Will Smith. But when it works, the story is richer for it.
The script isn't perfect. I'm still not sure why Elena would leave her 18 year old daughter with a raging alcoholic she barely knows. Not exactly the daycare center I'd send my kids to. And I feel like the script lacks that one "big moment," near the middle. The drifting nature of Frank motivates a fairly straight-forward narrative, but I was looking for that one jolt, that one surprise to knock me out of my seat. I don't like it when I start to feel too comfortable in a script. And that happened a bit in The Conquered.
Needless to say, The Conquered was still an enjoyable experience. With a little exposure, it has Black List written all over it. Definitely not Top 50%, but somewhere in the lower half for sure. If you liked The Wrestler, or the scripts Everything Must Go and Up In The Air, you should check this one out pronto.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: A lot of writers just starting out leave their supporting characters out to dry. They're not concerned with them - their backstory, their goals, their purpose. Smart writers have something going on with all of their characters. In the case of The Conquered, Virgil, Frank's friend, plays a crucial part in the story. His own collapsed marriage and new relationship with Elena is what leads to the main romantic storyline between Frank and Lily. Inexperienced writers would probably bring Virgil in as the "funny guy" and not go any further than that. He wouldn't have any depth or any goals of his own. But by taking your time and really giving each character something to do, something to seek out in the film, you create a richer more fulfilling experience for your reader.