Thursday, February 11, 2010

Oh Never, Spectre Leaf!

Genre: Comedy
Premise: After a freak plane crash, an awkward teenage boy must enlist the help of a sexually frustrated dwarf, a smokin' hot cyborg, and an idiot in a bunny suit to defeat the Nocturnal Wench Everlasting and restore sunlight to the bizarre land of Spectre Leaf.
About: This is the official winner of the Scriptshadow Logline/Screenplay Contest. 1000 Loglines were submitted, which were narrowed down to 100, of which I read the first 10 pages. From those, the 28 best were selected, of which I read the entire screenplay. "Oh Never, Spectre Leaf!" was the clear cut winner. As for C. Ryan and Chad, they wrote a script called “The Wake” (a zombie anthology) that won them Screenplay Of The Month on Triggerstreet in 2007. That led to signing with a manager (Jewerl Ross of Silent R Lit). The South Carolinans then came out to LA to take some meetings in 2008, but unfortunately nothing came of them. So they went back to South Carolina to think up their next masterpiece. Which turned out to be…THIS. Something I thought was really interesting to hear, was that Ryan reviewed 150 scripts on Triggerstreet in a single year. Now to some that might sound like torture, but the second I heard that, everything made sense. This script exercises the kind of skill that only comes from someone who understands all the pitfalls that make a read boring. Turns out those 150 reviews paid off.
Writers: C. Ryan Kirkpatrick and Chad Musick
Details: 110 pages

Oh man, where do I start with this one? I guess we’ll start with the logline. Because I almost didn’t pick it. Quite honestly, it’s not the kind of story that appeals to me. But it was so bizarre, I felt I just had to give it a chance, even though I was 99% sure that they wouldn’t be able to pull it off. These sort of “throw everything and the kitchen sink” at the logline approaches definitely make the logline stand out, but it’s rare that the writers can actually back it up. When I read the first 10 pages, I thought, “Hmmm…this is actually really good.” It was one of the few scripts I marked down immediately as a finalist. There was hope!

But again, I was skeptical. As I noted before, a bad First 10 Pages almost guarantees a bad script. Unfortunately, the flip side of that doesn’t hold true. A *good* first ten pages does not guarantee a *good* script. This is mainly because it’s not hard to write an intriguing first 10 pages. Have someone of prominence get murdered. Have a woman defy physics as she’s chased by mysterious “agents” across city rooftops. Throw a giant alien ship over Johannesburg. It’s really not that difficult when you think about it. But the second act is like an amateur screenwriter graveyard. It’s where scripts go to die. This is where screenplays truly get their mettle tested and I had already experienced too many screenplays that didn’t know what to do once they left the safety of the first 25 pages. Having a clearly definable goal. Building a story. Developing characters that arc. Raising the stakes. Placing obstacles in your characters’ paths. It’s that complex juggling act that you can only learn by doing it over and over and over again.

Now if just writing a good screenplay weren’t enough of a challenge, C. Ryan and Chad decided to make their job even tougher. The story (if you couldn’t tell by the logline) is a reimagining of The Wizard Of Oz. I can’t tell you how many scripts I've read that were reimaginings of The Wizard Of Oz or Alice In Wonderland. And every single one of them was, to put it nicely, not good. I’d even go so far as to say nearly every MOVIE that’s ever tried to reimagine these two classics has failed. The problem is, you’re trying to out-imagine two of the most imaginiative stories of all time. Talking lions, card people, tin men, shrinking heroes, flying monkeys. Writer’s attempts to put a new spin on this stuff usually ends up in cliché, failure, or worst of all, embarrassment. Oh Never, Spectre Leaf is the first script I’ve ever read where they reimagine all these things in a fresh new way.

But creating crazy characters is only half the battle. We still have to want to go on the journey with them. And while some of these characters are about as cuddly as a rabid porcupine, you’re always dying to hear the next thing that comes out of their mouths. Probably the thing that impressed me most about this script was just how distinguished all these weird characters were. The dwarf is sexually frustrated, Death is manically depressed, the Wench is eternally cocky, we even have a Shakespearean werewolf. Combine that with each character talking their own way, acting their own way, and the level of uniqueness here just leaps off of the page.

So how does it all go down?

I’ll be honest, it’s kinda hard to summarize Oh Never, Spectre Leaf. It wasn't designed to light up a coverage report, that’s for sure. But I’ll give it a shot. Holden Tucker is a typical geeky teenager with typical geeky teenager problems, namely that he can’t get laid. His best friend to the end is his pet iguana, Wyclef. When Holden’s single mom gets an unexpected call informing her her mother’s just died, Holden’s forced to jump on the next plane to attend the funeral (and just so you know these guys’ geek cred isn’t in question, the flight number is “815”).

We're off to see the wizard! The wonderful wizard...of.......Spectre Leaf?

The pilots must not have received the entire flight plan because the plane ends up disintegrating in mid-air and scattering across the mysterious island of “Spectre Leaf.” Why is it called “Spectre Leaf?” Because, as one of the characters explains, tongue-in-cheek: once you’re there, you can never “’spect to leave.” Spectre Leaf is basically Joss Whedon’s wet dream. There are enough creatures on this island to fill up every movie and TV show he ends up doing for the rest of his life.

As for Holden, part of his plane landed on and killed what we assume from the two hooker boots sticking out from under it, was probably a prostitute. And that prostitute happened to be a very angry dwarf’s date for the evening. Dink Ledbetter, four feet of muttonchops and the worst mouth this side of Richard Prior is livid. This was, for all intents and purposes, his one chance at getting laid, and Holden and his damn plane ruined it all. If you thought you were prepared for this script before, you might realign your prognosis when Dink hits you with this line: “I was on a picnic, jackass! And I was half a jar of full-moonshine away from cramming my funstuff in her shitbox!”

Despite how much the gun-toting dwarf would like to blow Holden’s face into oblivion, the two find themselves with other problems, such as the Siamese werewolf that just showed up. Mecutio and Pippi Hemingway inform Dink that the Nocturnal Wench Everlasting is on her way and she wants the boy. Not that Dink could give a shit, but he apparently hates the Nocturnal Wench more than he hates Holden, so he grabs him and the two make a mad dash into the sewers of Spectre Leaf.

Eventually they end up at Dink’s old Orphanage, where Holden learns his purpose. The land of Spectre Leaf has been expecting him. For the last three dozen years, the island has been cast into darkness by the Nocturnal Wench Everlasting, and if Holden can get his hands on a set of three golden keys, he may be able to unlock the chest that has kept this place in darkness, breaking the wench’s spell and bringing light back to the land of Spectre Leaf. A very unhappy Dink is assigned to protect him on his journey. And a half-retarded man-bunny named Harvey (of course) will also join them for…well, it’s not clear why Harvey's joining them but it’s a half-retarded man-bunny so I don’t think we’re supposed to ask questions. The trio (along with Wyclef his Iguana) jump onto the “Highway to Hell” and off they go.

Although all Holden wants to do is get back home, his journey takes him through a cast of characters unlike any you’ve ever seen. There are large-breasted cyborgs, serial killer ninjas, Cyclopeses, tiny men in large wheelchairs, and even Death himself (who’s a manic-depressive due to the Wench Everlasting’s relentless abuse). And that’s just the first half of the script. They say that watching the original Wizard Of Oz on acid is the quintessential “perfect trip.” I say Spectre Leaf is the result of C. Ryan and Chad going on this trip one too many times. :)

And yes, I can hear some of the skepticism now. I can hear it seeping out of your cynical brains and into your keyboards and clogging the internet. “It’s too much! It’s too crazy!” I think if I were in your place, I’d probably be saying the same thing. But here’s the difference. These guys know how to write. They’re talented enough and smart enough to make it work. As I mentioned before, I’m not the audience for werewolves and witches and angry dwarves. The writers even said to me themselves that due to my well-documented taste in quirky independent character fare, they figured they had no shot. And yet still, I made this leap of faith and I loved it.

Is it perfect? No. If I were offering feedback to the team (nudge nudge) I’d develop the characters a little more. When I look back at the original Wizard of Oz, Dorothy really isn’t the one who changed. It was everyone else (the tin man, the scarecrow and the lion). But that was the 30s and we approach characters a little differently these days. I feel like all of the main characters should go through some sort of transformation (however slight) and I have to admit, Holden felt a little thin. We know so little about his life beforehand (his wants, his desires, his flaws) that there really isn’t a whole lot to explore once we get to the island. I’d love to see that change.

Also, despite my earlier comment, there are a few places where it is sensory overload. There are so many crazy characters and so much going on that there are sequences that feel like great big blobs of shiny colors. I had to step back and go, “whoa, wait a minute, what’s going on here?” But for the most part, these guys maneuver their way through these moments skillfully – almost as if they’re sensing your concerns – and we're right back to the story before you know it.

I also sense that the main criticism will be that a script like this will never get made. The budget would be too high. I wouldn't say that criticism is outrageous, but I’m not so sure you couldn’t market this film as a reimagining (or different take) on The Wizard of Oz and get a decent box office return. You’d need to land a director who could handle the material but stranger things have happened. I actually think if “Alice In Wonderland” does well, it could propel the profile of this script quite a bit. But that’s neither here nor there. I’ll let the people with money answer that question.

My one final question for C. Ryan and Chad is…why no musical number? It seems like a natural nod, and would fit perfectly inside this bizarre world you’ve created.

This script is proof to me that there are talented writers out there who simply haven’t gotten their shot. All they need is a little exposure. Hopefully this review makes it a little easier for them.

First Ten Pages of Spectre Leaf: First Ten Pages (If you’d like to read the full script, contact C. Ryan and Chad at

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

What I learned: Putting your characters on a physical journey (walking, flying, roadtrip) is a great device for a story because the goal of the characters is always clear to us. They’re trying to get to [whatever place they’re trying to get to]. So you don’t have to manipulate the reader and come up with some forced artificial goal that propels them forward. The journey structure does all the work for you.