Thursday, June 24, 2010

Amateur Script Review - Mission Hospital

On the last Friday of every month, I review a Scriptshadow reader's script. If you'd like to submit your screenplay for a review on the site, and you're okay with your script being posted, go ahead and submit your title, genre, logline and pitch to

Genre: Horror/Thriller/Mystery
Logline: (from e-mail) Following a series of ghostly encounters, a medical intern stationed at a colonial era hospital in a rural, south Indian town soon discovers that under the hospital’s dilapidated surface lies a dark and terrifying secret.
About: (included from Sarmad himself) I am a film school drop out who was forced to move from Los Angeles to a small town in south India for financial reasons. But I've always believed that everything happens for a reason and that if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. At first I hated my situation. But then I discovered the century old C.S.I. Redfern Memorial Hospital in the center of town. That and a couple of trips into the back country where I observed the most bizarre occult rituals soon became the inspiration behind "Mission Hospital."
Writer: Sarmad Khan
Details: 101 pages – June 8, 2010 draft (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).

Okay so if there’s one thing I’ve learned about reviewing these amateur scripts, it’s to explain why I chose the script that I did. But first, let me explain why I didn’t choose your script. The most likely reason I did not choose your script is because there were a lot of submissions. It’s as simple as that. There were hundreds of submissions and I didn’t have time to go through all of them so I skimmed through as many as I could. For that reason, please don’t gum up the comments section with comments such as “Really, this was the best you could find?” or “You picked this over [whatever idea or genre the commenter wrote].” There were just a lot of scripts and a lot of e-mails and I wish I could’ve read them all but I couldn’t.

So what made me choose Mission Hospital? Well, you may have heard me mention a time or two that I’ve been looking for the next great ghost story. I want the next Sixth Sense. I want the next The Others. But outside of the awesome The Orphanage, the last decade has brought us nothing in the ghost genre. So I received an e-mail from Sarmad informing me that he had a ghost story set in India. It just so happens that India fascinates me. It’s a vastly different culture from what I’m used to and I’ve always been intrigued by it. A ghost story set in India is something I’ve never heard of before. It was original. So I decided to take a chance on it.

One last thing before I get to the review. I was kind of being facetious when I said to send me your sob stories. I was more interested in hearing your general arguments for why I should read your scripts. But you sent them to me anyway and many of them were hard to get through. I’m not going to lie. I got a little misty-eyed after a couple. So I just want to let you know that I understand your pain and you’re not alone. There’s one universal feeling I think all screenwriters can relate to, and that’s frustration. Putting so much work into something and not even having a single person to hand it to. That takes a special kind of dedication to push through.

But I’m going to give you a little kick in the ass here. You know how they say the worst kind of main character to write is a passive one? Well that holds true in real life as well. If you want to succeed, you can’t be passive. Just like your hero, you have to be proactive. The writers I see succeed aren’t people who write in their basement 365 days a year and casually mention a few times to their best friends that they’re a screenwriter. They’re out DOING things. They’re on message boards, they’re writing blogs, they’re entering contests, they’re shooting short movies, they’re posting them on youtube, they’re joining playhouses, they’re joining tracking boards, they’re following what sells, they’re cold-querying managers and agents, they’re joining writing groups, they’re putting their scripts on Trigger Street, they’re getting jobs in anything that has to do with the industry (personal assistant, make-up artist, camera operator, actor, etc.). Writing is such an invisible profession that you have to work twice as hard as every other profession to be seen.

If you don’t get a response from someone or you send your script away to a manager and never hear back, don’t give up. The number one reason people aren’t reading your script is because they don’t have enough time. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. So never take “no” personally. Just keep trying and keep trying and if you’re doing all those things I listed above, trust me, opportunities will start presenting themselves. So get out there. There’s power in numbers. Nobody can see you in your basement.

Phew. Okay, now that I got that out of the way, let’s discuss Mission Hospital...

Ashok Balan is a young Indian doctor who’s sick of working at the big city hospitals where you’re sidelined from the real action. Checking people’s blood pressure isn’t exactly demanding work. So he takes a big chance and travels out to a remote Indian town to work at an old hospital where he’ll actually get some hands-on experience.

The lead doctor at the facility is Dr. Anand Kumar. The charming Kumar is a bit of celebrity in these parts because not too many "real" doctors work in rural areas. But if the city had their way, they'd mow this place down in a second and replace it with something more profitable. Anand's star power is basically the only thing keeping this hospital alive.

From the very first night, Ashok senses something strange about the hospital. It creaks. It groans. There are nuns roaming around in the middle of the night. And these small town hospitals are a package deal. The doctors don’t get an apartment off on the nice side of town. They live right here on the premises, which ensures that any creepy-crawlyness will be right at their doorstep.

Ashok meets and quickly falls for one of the nurses, the older Raziya, who can only be described as the Indian version of a Desperate Housewife. Her appetite for sex rivals porn actresses and the second she sees Ashok, she pounces. Of course we know that she’s really a black widow in disguise but Ashok’s in that early relationship stage where it's impossible to see past the cute smile and the great sex - you know, where you're unable to see the craziness? Don't look at me like that. You know you've been there.

Unfortunately Ashok keeps seeing all these freaky people walking around, and that’s when he starts suspecting that something’s up with Mission Hospital. When a patient with a straightforward injury dies unexpectedly a couple of days after being admitted, Ashok decides to do some digging and figure out what’s really going on at this House Of Horrors.

Indeed after checking through some hospital records, he realizes that an entire heap of people with harmless injuries have checked into the Mission Hospital and never checked out. So what is it that’s going on here? Is Dr. Anand involved? And more pressingly, is Dr. Ashok in danger?

Mission Hospital wasn’t half-bad, but if I’m being honest, I had a hard time getting into it. And there’s a few reasons why. First, the story is fairly thin. The main character isn’t actively engaged in any pursuit or goal until halfway through the script. As a result, we’re just sitting there watching a whole lot of strange things happen around Ashok. In The Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis’ goal is to try and help Cole figure out what’s wrong with him. Not only that, but it’s his first patient since his previous patient killed himself. So there’s a lot at stake for Bruce Willis to succeed. If he can’t help this boy, he may never be able to help anyone again. Or take The Orphanage, the goal is for the main character to find her missing child. You can’t argue with how strong that goal is. There isn’t any story element with that driving force here, so it’s hard to immerse yourself in the script. Now eventually, Ashok’s goal is to find out what’s happening here at the hospital. And once we really get into that, the story finds its way. But because it’s not personal (his life doesn’t change one way or the other depending on the outcome) and because it comes on so late, the story isn’t nearly as powerful as it could be.

Second – and this is really an extension of the first problem – there’s too much emphasis put on atmosphere. A lot of that has to do with there being no character goal for so long. With nothing for Ashok to pursue, you have to find other things to write about, so we get a bunch of scenes where Ashok walks around seeing strange things. Ashok has an eerie walk to the hospital. Ashok has an eerie walk in the middle of the night where he follows a nun. Ashok has an eerie shower. Ashok has an eerie brushing-his-teeth experience. Because these moments are packed so closely together, they get repetitive and lose their impact. I’m all for atmosphere, but there has to be some variety to it and there has to be some story being it.

Third – The choices weren’t original enough. Now this isn’t a blanket statement because as the story went on, it began to find some unique territory, but a lot of these scenes are scenes we’ve seen before. I mean how many times have we seen someone in a shower with a spooky entity walking up just outside of the curtain? How many times have we seen the open-the-mirror-medicine-cabinet shot where there’s a freaky dead person behind them, only to have the character turn around and see nothing? A billion times, right? And since you’re writing these scripts for people who have not only seen everything, but read five times that amount of material, you’re going to get some frustrated readers.

Finally, I wanted to see more going on with the main character. These stories have to ultimately be about your main character overcoming something. Maybe it has to do with a death, such as what they did in The Sixth Sense. Maybe it has to do with some vice, such as drugs. Or maybe it’s some deeply embedded flaw that’s been holding them back their entire lives. For example, instead of Ashok CHOOSING to come to this hospital - which is kind of boring - what if he was SENT here against his will? What if he was some big hot shot up-and-coming doctor who had a major screw up at the city hospital and in order to keep his license was sent her to complete a sixth month stay? He has no respect for the peasant townspeople. He has no respect for the doctors. He’s only here to complete his service and get back to the city. This isn’t the best idea (you’d have to rearrange a lot of story elements to make it work) but do you see how now we have a character we can actually work with? Now this guy has to DEAL WITH SOMETHING. He has to overcome his arrogance and learn to help people and not just work for personal glory or career advancement.

Anyway, I’m done pontificating. There’s some really brilliant descriptive writing here and a couple of really nice scenes. For example, I loved the check-up scene where Ashok places the stethoscope up to the patient's chest and hears no heartbeat or breathing. Freaky to say the least. But this script needs an aggressive storyline to emerge sooner, it needs stronger more original choices, and it needs a deeper more conflicted protagonist. With those changes, this could really be something. Because like I said, the setting is unique and intriguing, and Sarmad’s got a hell of a way with words.

Script link: Mission Hospital

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

What I learned: Whenever you’re treading through a well-worn genre, you have to push yourself to come up with original scenes/scenarios. It won’t be easy. When you’re competing with dozens if not hundreds of memorable films, it takes effort to come up with a scene the audience hasn’t seen before. Pick up your latest script right now. Go through every scene. Rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being the least original and 5 being the most original. Certain transitional and perfunctory scenes don’t require originality. But the key scenes – car chases, set-pieces, important character interaction scenes, scare scenes – you should be striving for 4s and 5s on all of those. One thing I see all the time in amateur scripts is that writers don’t push themselves. They settle for 2s and 3s. It takes effort to come up with something unique, but in the end, it’s worth it, because originality is what makes your script memorable.