Genre: Indie Drama Premise: A young man living in LA heads back east to help his aging folks, only to find himself stranded in a nearly deserted desert town after his car breaks down. While fixing the car, he meets and falls for a sexy traveler heading west to LA with her boyfriend. About: Zack Whedon co-created and co-wrote Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog with his brothers Jed and Joss. Before that he co-wrote an episode of Deadwood and wrote and acted in an episode of John from Cincinatti. Most recently, he's been working on J.J. Abrams and Orci-Kurtzman's show, Fringe. "Back East" was on the 2007 Black List with two votes. Writer: Zack Whedon
Details: 92 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting)
When it comes to the Brothers Whedon, sure, you can consider me a fanboy. From Buffy: The Vampire Slayer to Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, I usually love everything these guys do. But every now and then there's a bump in the road. For every Whedonesque Astonishing X-Men comic I like, there's an episode of Dollhouse I don't like. Which brings us to this Zack Whedon spec script, "Back East".
Is it unfair of me to say that I prefer Zack Whedon's writing on something like Fringe over this small Indie Drama, "Back East"? Maybe I just prefer tales where a guy transforms into a weird spiky monster in an airplane bathroom over a slow burn coming-of-age drama where a depressed twenty-something protagonist shares a few flirtatious moments with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who is already taken.
Or maybe it's just that I want more drama in my character studies. I want more personality, dammit.
Who is this about, Rog?
It's about a depressed twenty-four year old named William. William seems to be drifting through the days in his life, not really moving anywhere. The way he stares at the LA landscape with his headphones on, how he might be physically present at his boring office job while his mind is clearly somewhere else.
He seems numb.
Through a conversation with his mother in Connecticut, we learn that his father's health is failing. His mother, in an effort to connect to her son, brings up how she just found the ticket stub from when he played a part in the King and I in fifth grade. One wonders if this ties into whatever his LA dream is, and his mother responds to the lack of his reaction, "You don't care."
William contemplates his situation. Apparently he doesn't show up at work one day, and when they try to call him, he drops his cell phone in his fish tank.
He's made the decision to leave Los Angeles.
He packs everything he can in his little Chevy Nova, and before he leaves his apartment complex, his neighbor Susan catches him. She hands him an envelope. Inside is a joint. "For the road."
We learn more about William as he drives east, talking to himself, presumably addressing an audience in his mind:
"The thing you don't realize when you're writing something like that is the impact it is going to have for so many people...In the midst of writing it you're so caught up and wrapped up in simply getting it done, getting anyone to read it at all, that the reaction of a wide audience is beyond your realm of consideration."
Holy shit. Is William an aspiring screenwriter?
Zack Whedon knows readers should be smart. He doesn't need to spell everything out for us, instead giving us just enough information to make our own conclusions. I like that.
But yeah, based upon other snippets of conversation in the script, and because Los Angeles is the center of what was once William's plan, I have to deduce that he's an aspiring screenwriter.
At twenty-four, he's throwing in the towel pretty early.
It's not something we dwell on, but this giving up so easily, it's something that's gonna have to change for William. And that's where the town of Dry Lake comes in.
Is Dry Lake the desert town William gets stranded in?
Yep. William's Chevy Nova breaks down, but luckily, an old tow-truck operator named Jeffrey helps him out. Jeffrey is my favorite character. He's a retired mechanic, and seems to spend most of his days sitting out in his backyard, trying to remember life when he was younger.
Every now and then he mentions his wife, how she went east to watch the colors change with the seasons, how strange she was. How happy he was with her.
Jeffrey owns a shop, but he tells William, "I'm 79 years old, son. I don't fix shit anymore...I can do all the thinking and you can do all the working."
So William, who knows nothing about how to fix vehicles, is going to have to diagnose and repair the Nova himself.
Since this is going to take some time, he takes up residence at a nautical-themed motel and restaurant called The Mariner.
So who's the cast of characters at The Mariner?
Well, there's William's foil, Avery. A congenial guy in his late thirties who runs the reception desk of the motel. His parents, or more specifically, his mother, Joan, have spent the entirety of their lives in Dry Lake, running The Mariner.
Avery seems insecure that he's from Dry Lake, and although he's lived in places like Phoenix, he seems uncomfortable that he's back in Dry Lake, helping his mom run her business. He seems to have bigger plans, and they don't involve Dry Lake.
Then there's Tamara, a beautiful traveler heading west to LA with her rich boyfriend, Evan. Her and William automatically hit it off while she's drinking her iced tea at the bar, and William not only dislikes her boyfriend for existing, this stance is solidified when he sees Evan wearing socks with sandals.
I like the idea of Tamara.
I like the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. You know, that ephemeral Holly Golightly female that exists as salve for the emotional wounds of the broody male lead.
Unfortunately, Tamara's character ended up disappointing me. And this is where I lost interest with the script.
What sort of problems was Tamara having with her boyfriend, Evan?
I'm not sure exactly. I guess they're complicated. She loves Evan, who is from LA. She is not. But she is moving there, and this scares her. She doesn't seem gung-ho about ingratiating herself with all of Evan's wealthy LA friends.
But she really seems to like William. In fact, she spends most of her time in Dry Lake talking to William. And these conversations are the salt and light that William seems to crave, that he seems to need.
She represents hope and possibility, but it sucks for him because she's with Evan. He doesn't understand why she's with Evan. Hell, I don't either. I just didn't get why she was spending so much time with William.
So what happens?
William has to put some effort into learning how to fix his Nova. I suppose, for me, this was the best part of the script.
Jeffrey does teach William a valuable lesson about life, "You got to learn how to do something to know how to do it. The only things you're going to do without learning how first is waking up and breathing, after that it's up to you."
And to me, this is what the script is about.
From fixing cars, to learning musical instruments, to writing, you can't expect you're going to automatically know how to do it. You've gotta learn. You've gotta work at it. Not only is that a fine attitude with which to approach the craft of screenwriting, but it's the attitude that we should adopt while approaching life and our dreams in general.
See, I get that. I like that. That's what I took away from this read.
But William wants Tamara.
He yearns for her so much, in fact, he may sabotage Evan's Jeep Cherokee so that they're stuck in Dry Lake longer, buying him more time to try and convince Tamara to go east with him.
I guess it's supposed to be complicated, but if anything, it frustrated me. Although, I did like the final note of hope at the end of the script concerning their relationship.
So what was the problem?
For the first act or so, William intrigued me. And it also helped that Tamara seemed like a mystery (at first, anyways). I immediately wanted to know what sort of territory these characters were heading into, especially since Tamara had a boyfriend, yet spent a lot of her free time at Dry Lake with William.
But, because, to me, Tamara wasn't that interesting (other than that she pretends to really like ghost towns), I ended up clocking out of the script around the mid-point.
To me, "Back East" felt more like a short story I could find in a literary journal like Zoetrope or Glimmer Train. As prose fiction, the story could work because the writer could do much of the heavy lifting through use of language. But as cinema? I think "Back East" needs more dramatic meat. Perhaps one of the issues is that Whedon is going for notes that are delicate and subtle, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. When it works, I marvel at the craft (the drive belt in William's bag was a nice touch), but when it doesn't, it feels too understated, almost skeletal.
I saw what the writer was attempting to do, but because I wanted more (more personality, more depth in the relationships) from the characters of William and Tamara, I wasn't moved like I should have been. I think there are notes that could hit the right emotions on celluloid as a tone poem, but as is, the whole doesn't feel greater than the sum of its parts.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I wasn't exactly compelled by the characters in this script, and because this is a tale where not exactly a whole lot happens, my attention kept wavering. The weird thing about these coming-of-age Indie Dramas is that if the characters don't keep me glued to the page, I start to miss something like plot. Sometimes plot can do some of the heavy lifting when it comes to pace and narrative drive. Plot can keep you turning the pages even if you aren't ultimately moved by the story. In that way, plot can be like a band-aid for the existence of less-than-stellar characters. But when you have something like a character study or an Indie Drama, you can't use band-aids. The characters have to have be three dimensional, unique, and possess flaws and shortcomings that creates conflict amongst the characters and an anticipation to find out what happens next. In that sense, character is the engine that drives the story. But in my mind, even if you have awesome plotting, the story should still be character-driven. It should still be moving. At least that's the high watermark I think we all should aim for.
To get in touch with Roger, you can e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org