Sunday, October 4, 2009


Roger comes with both a review and a surprise today. The review is for a Joss Whedon spec written many moons ago. And the surprise is a...hmmm...shall we say a "not entirely real query letter" he and his writing partner created. This query letter isn't just bad, it's downright awful. Yet awfully entertaining. So go check it out over at The Deep Thoughts Of Great Importance Blog. In the meantime, as those of you trolling through the spec underbelly know, The Brit List was released last week, and I plan to delve into a few of these scripts here on the site. The Brit List is basically the UK's answer to The Black List, which will surely whet our appetite for 2009's Black List, which should be right around the corner. Oh, and I've decided to have a horror week on the week of the 31st where I review...yes, you're hearing this right...a full 5 horror scripts. So get your suggestions in now. -- Here's Roger with his review of "Afterlife."

Genre: Thriller, Action, Science Fiction
Premise: A resurrected government scientist escapes his handlers to find his wife, who believes he is dead.
About: Back in the early 90’s, before Joss fled screenwriting to build his television empire, he wrote and sold two high-selling specs. This is one of them. At one point, Andy Tennant (Hitch, Sweet Home Alabama), was attached to direct.
Writer: Joss Whedon

In 1994, three whole years before Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on our television screens, Joss Whedon wrote and sold a spec called “Afterlife”, a high-concept thriller about a government scientist named Daniel Hoffstetter.

Doesn’t Daniel die in the first 8 pages?

Indeed, he does. But let’s back up. Daniel is in his mid-fifties. He’s a thin and frail world renowned scientist doing important DNA research. So important, that like a lot of academics, he seems more married to his work than to his wife, Laura.

Daniel loves his wife, but sometimes he has to do things like show his boss, Leonard, the new program he’s been working on rather than take Laura to the annual fair.

A dark cloud hangs over their marriage.

Daniel is sick and we’re not even ten pages in when he dies. Laura never has a chance to say goodbye, because she falls asleep in a hospital chair when his disease-ridden body finally fails him.

But this script is 130 pages long! He can’t die!

You’re right. But don’t worry. Daniel wakes up and notices that there are no tubes connected to his arms. In fact, his arms look different. Strong and powerful.

His boss, Leonard, explains to him that the bio-electric matrix of his mind has been imprinted onto the tabula rasa of another brain.

A mind-transplant.

Daniel has been given a second-chance. The new body his consciousness now abides in is younger and stronger than his old one. An able specimen for fighting and shooting things...should he ever need to do that.

And fight and shoot he’ll choose to do, because, you see, Daniel works for The Tank now.

What’s The Tank?

The Tank is the part of the government the CIA doesn’t even know about. Resurrected scientists who work on secret government stuff, monitored by the watchful eye of Colonel Kendrick and his head of security, Bo.

Daniel doesn’t look at his predicament as a second chance. He sees himself as a prisoner. All Daniel wants to do is talk to his wife, but of course, he’s not allowed. If the CIA doesn’t know about his existence, why should civilians? This is his new life, secluded from the rest of the world in a clandestine facility miles underneath the desert.

When Bo tells Daniel that he should forget about his wife (by callously informing him that she’s now seeing a math teacher), Daniel comes up with a plan. He studies the security tech, the routines and protocol of the bunker.

And in a pretty gratifying action-set piece, Daniel escapes the bunker and makes it to the surface. There’s a car chase involving helicopters (and a tow truck; awesome!), and it’s a great example of how to write action. In fact, the script is one big example of how to write action set-pieces that aren’t there just for the sake of it, but actually serve to move the story along.

But there’s a twist to Act 2 (and to Act 3) that turns on the heat.

When Daniel makes it into a store to use a phone, there’s a reason the little boy sitting atop the Coke cooler keeps calling him “Snowman”. It’s an eerie detail, and we sort of forget about it until the store owner starts yelling expletives, pulls out a gun, and tries to kill Daniel.

Why did the store owner start shooting at him and what does that have to do with the word “Snowman”?

Snowman is the nickname of the executed serial killer, Jamie Snow. His other nickname is The Beast, but I guess that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Jamie Snow is Daniel’s new body.

So, not only is The Tank after Daniel, but Daniel can’t really blend into crowds or enter civilized establishments without being attacked by pawnshop owners, scared policemen, earnest security guards, and concerned citizens.

If that weren’t enough, when Connecticut Homicide Detective Bob Moody learns that the serial killer he captured, the serial killer that was supposedly executed, has returned and is mingling with the hoi polloi, he obsessively joins the chase, too.

Can Daniel make it to his wife? More importantly, can he convince her that he really is Daniel, and not just a psycho killer (by the way, this script is way better than Andrew Kevin Walker’s “Psycho Killer”) whose path of most resistance is making national headlines?

He can. And he does. Act 2 is a Fugitive-esque race, an entertaining game of cat and mouse that is worth studying, especially if you’re interested in writing scripts that contain action set-pieces. Not only is it great to examine to see how Joss so easily entertains, but it’s worth looking at to see how Joss writes people.

I don’t think it’s a stretch at this point to declare that, simply put, Joss knows that people (characters) make the best stories. He understands relationships. If you don’t believe me, look at the end of the 2nd Act and pay attention to what he highlights.

This is an action script, but he focuses on Daniel and Laura rediscovering each other. He writes their intimate scene (the heart of this script) as if this married couple are two new lovers consummating their love for the first time. A flame reunited. Now that’s vertical relational depth, and that’s why Joss Whedon Is Your Master.
Roger, you mentioned there was a twist as we enter into Act 3?

There is, and it’s one you’ll see coming. (But there’s another one that comes right after it that will either work or piss you off.)

Back at The Tank, the resurrected scientists begin to have problems. Those bio-electrical matrices that have been supposedly imprinted on tabula rasa(s)? Well, they’re sort of going bye-bye. The minds of the “donors” are starting to resurface, erasing the minds of the government academics. In a nutshell? Serial killers are reclaiming their bodies.

And here’s the train-wreck: We know that Daniel is going to fight for control over his new body with the mass murderer, Jamie Snow. And he’s going to be doing it whilst isolated in a cabin with his newly reunited wife.

So Act 3 is a collision of ingredients: (1) A Sybil-like struggle over control of Daniel’s body, (2) Laura trying to escape from Daniel (which goes back and forth; she’s confused), (3) the Tank company men trying to clean up their mess, (4) Detective Moody confronting Daniel in his quest for the truth and (5) local law-enforcement thrown in the mix to complicate the man-hunt.

And yeah, there is another twist which I don’t want to give away here. Read it for yourself and see if it works.

Like at the end of any good Buffy (or Faith, amirite?) episode, conflict is resolved with a healthy dose of fisticuffs. It’s an action movie, what do you expect? It’s also a Joss-tale, so we get a final scene that serves as a bittersweet coda to the end of Daniel and Laura’s journey together. And it connects. It makes you feel.

All in all, a solid script that tells a tale and tells it well. Great dialogue, tangible characters, and action sequences written by a master craftsman. Definitely one of the specs to study if you want to play by the rules (and perhaps the germ for Dollhouse?)

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Even if you’re writing stories with fantastic elements, this script reinforced my theory that it’s best to focus on the human elements. Even though this is science-fiction, it doesn’t feel like it’s set in an imaginary world. It feels like it’s set in the real world, and I think that’s a wise choice. It’s good to remember, that for an average movie-going audience, people are subconsciously willing to invest into suspension of disbelief. More-so than people in the industry. They are more willing to just go with a story, unlike those who are studying the craft, or story-telling in general. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim high. Where is the line that people start to clock out of a story because they judge it “unbelievable?” And what kind of people are more willing to suspend disbelief and be content to experience awe and wonder? It’s worth thinking about.