Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Genre: Action/WarPremise: (from IMDB) America relies on 1940's technology to defend itself against an invasion after an electromagnetic pulse leaves the country vulnerable for an attack.
About: This spec script was sold a few years ago. There is some information on IMDB like the fact that Ericson Core (The Prodigy) is the director and Chris Moore the producer, but I’m not sure how recent or accurate the information is. Core is also listed as director on the XXX threequel, “The Return Of Xander Cage,” though that may be a tough movie to direct, since as of today, Xander Cage has announced he’s not returning.
Writer: Sean Bailey, Revisions by Andrew W. Marlowe

I have to admit, I love movie ideas like this. I like movies with worldwide consequences. Not necessarily disaster movies, but any movie where the world or a country is threatened by some force that’s greater than anything they've dealt with before. My interest always peaks when the projects take preview form because these movies were born for the trailer medium. When Trailer-Voice Guy goes home to practice at night, these are the movies he practices to. Deep Impact, The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day. Even the trailer for 2012 leaves me smiling. Destruction on a mass scale can be a beautiful thing on a 900 square foot screen.

Here’s the problem though…

These movies never turn out any good. They can’t possibly live up to their galaxy-sized expectations gleaned from their eye-popping trailers. And I think I know why. It is my contention that the wide-scale destruction/action movie is the hardest genre to write. You must tell a story that focuses on the effects of millions (sometimes billions of people) while at the same time focuing on a core group of characters in a localized place. And you must do so in two hours. If our characters are in New York City but you want to show the Golden Gate Bridge getting flattened, someone has to get a phone call and go, “My mom’s in San Francisco. She says the Golden Gate Bridge is about to buy it!” Cut to the Golden Gate Bridge buying it. Cut back to our characters in New York and continue our story. There’s no emotional connection to the event because it doesn’t have any immediate effect on our characters. You can cut to Tibet or Brazil or Niagra Falls or the Hoover Dam and show them all blowing up in unique wonderful ways, but since our characters can’t possibly be in all these places at once, the shots become exploitation. Destruction porn. Unconnected sequences ideal for a TV spot but unimportant to our main character’s journey.

That's one problem but there are many. The dialogue is another issue. Most of the time the movies are supposed to be “realistic,” requiring you to write your characters in that vein, yet because these films are “event movies,” the characters must add a “grandiosity” to their words. Everybody's forced to talk in overly dramatic tones that nobody on earth talks like. This creates a weird overly serious melodramatic fog that just hangs over every scene, making it impossible to buy that you're watching real life.

For these reasons, we’ve never really had a perfect destruction movie. They’re almost all disappointments. Which is why I was both excited and cautious when I heard about Liberty. First of all, why more people don’t write movies about a modern day America getting attacked is beyond me. That idea alone is cool enough to get me in the theater. But the cherry that pushes this sundae over the top is its twist: What if the biggest army in the world was forced to defend itself with 1940s weaponry? The irony in that premise is just too juicy not to love. So is this just like every other “destruction” film that doesn’t live up to its potential? Or does Liberty discover the secret ingredient to success?

General Ivan Galkin has just pulled a coup on the Russian government and declared martial law. Ivan misses all those separated Soviet states that left his great country and would like for nothing more than to bring them back together. In a time where it’s difficult to come up with an enemy for the United States, this take feels oddly believable. We saw the Soviet Union fall apart in a day. Why couldn't it come back together in that time?

Back in the U.S., Maggie Heflin, the Secretary Of The Interior (yeah, I don’t know what that means either) is coaching her little girl’s soccer game and having quite a hard time leading the team. A few minutes later, a couple of serious looking men show up and tell her she’s needed immediately. She jumps in a car and is ushered to the White House, where she’s placed in a room with all the other members of the cabinet. She asks around, speculating on what this means. Well, this tends to happen under only one condition – the president (who was visiting Russia) has been assassinated.

Uh oh.

If that weren’t bad enough, satellite radar has detected a large mass of ships blazing through the Pacific Ocean towards Santa Monica. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this fleet is headed up by General Galkin. Galkin gives his Yankee comrades a call and lets them know that he’s not coming to catch the latest performance of Wicked. The U.S. laughs off the attack because, well, even a huge Russian fleet is no match for the United States’ army. They probably shouldn’t have laughed it off. Five seconds later, using advanced electro-magnetic pulse technology, the Russians shut down every single electric and computerized piece of equipment in the country. The United States has just been transported back to the 1940s.

In one of the better twists in the story, the president, vice-president, and numerous top officials have been assassinated by the Russian government. As the White House scrambles through the books to figure out who is supposed to lead them, it turns out that Maggie Heflin, the little woman who couldn’t lead her daughter’s soccer team to victory…is next in line to become the leader of the United States.

The fun in the script comes from both us and the characters trying to figure out how to defend a country when all the technologies we’ve become so dependent on are stripped away. “I want an analysis of our options when the country’s electrical grid goes down.” “I can’t get it,” the aide says, “All that info is on my laptop.” If you don’t have computers, if you don’t have e-mail and internet, if you don’t have TV or cell phones or transportation…how do you accomplish *anything*?? To give you an idea of just how dire and desperate their situation is, if this really happened, there would be no Scriptshadow updates! There would be no Scriptshadow website!! Yes, I know.

Eventually Maggie figures out that the only way they can defend themselves is by scrounging up all the pre-computerized military equipment in the U.S., which basically amounts to cars, planes and tanks used back in World War 2, and use that to defend the west coast. A radio call is sent out to any veterans who fought during the 2nd war who know how to operate this ancient machinery. All these young Air Force hotshots have to learn how to fly planes that actually require you to *fly them* (as opposed to do all the work for you).

Overall, the script is fun, but it does run into those requisite cheesy problems these types of movies have trouble avoiding. For instance, the old highly decorated codger comes back to fight one more battle. The writers try a little too hard to make you love the guy and therefore his journey doesn’t ring true. Cliché isn’t avoided either. There’s the Top Gun ace who’s a cross between Tom Cruise and Die Hard Bruce Willis. His every utterance screams, “I’m in an action movie and I’m badass.” I would’ve liked to have seen a more original human side to both these characters, but they do their job.

The final battle is intricate and elaborate enough that no amount of scriptwriting can do it justice. A director with a strong vision has the tools here to create one of the most action-packed drool-inducing battles of all time. 1940s American army vs. the state of the art Soviet army – how cool would that be? Even though it didn’t blow me away on the page, I fully recognize that seeing it would be a different experience.

A couple of cliché main characters keep this from being exceptional. I thought the writers could’ve taken more chances as well, dived into some areas we haven’t seen in this kind of movie before. They’re almost too cozy, resting on an idea that they know is going to smooth over a lot of the problems. But for the most part, I dug what I saw. This script isn’t ready for its close-up just yet, but it’s on its way.

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

What I learned: It’s really hard to make elaborate action/car chase scenes pop off the page. It’s not that it can’t be done, but most filmmakers recognize that the director is going to choreograph these scenes anyway, and therefore speed-read through them. I know some professional writers are so sure of this, they merely write: “Big action/chase scene here” instead of writing everything out. Not that you should take that approach on a spec script. My advice to you on writing good action scenes actually has very little to do with the action at all. Make us obsessed with your character. Make us care about him/her more than we care about members of our own family. That way, even if you place your character in a straightforward no-frills sidewalk chase, we’ll be gripping our seat hoping he makes it out alive.