Thursday, August 26, 2010

Amateur Friday - La Petite Mort

On the last Friday of every month, I choose an amateur script submitted by you, the readers of the site, to review. If you're interested in submitting for Amateur Fridays, send the genre, the title, the premise, and the reason I should read your script to Note that your script will be posted online and that you shouldn't submit if you're allergic to criticism. :) This month's script is La Petite Mort!

Genre: Horror/Zombie/Comedy
Premise: An alcoholic stilt walker must save the small town that loathes him from an invasion of zombie midgets.
About: Okay, so the reason I picked this as my Friday Amateur review is because of the writer’s e-mail. I ask everyone submitting for Amateur Friday to include in their message why I should review their script. This is what Mike wrote: “You'll probably never have another chance to read a script that has two guys fucking a chicken, an elephant with diarrhea, or this many midgets dying. Plus, I make fun of handicapped people. All in good taste, I assure you.” Couple that with the title being French, and well, I obviously had to choose it.
Writer: Mike McLarty
Details: 93 pages

The tiny town of Weaselton has fallen on hard times. The only thing that once made this town relevant was its yearly “Weasel Parade,” one of those strange annual festivities small towns have that nobody outside the town understands or cares about, kind of like Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania or butter carving contests in the middle of rural Iowa.

It’s no coincidence that Mort Weasleton, having the same last name as the town, has also fallen on hard times. The one time golden child, whose great grandparents, I presume, founded the town, used to be the star of the parade. He would tower over spectators on stilts in his weasel costume (why a weasel would be 18 feet tall I have no idea), bringing goodwill and cheer to all the boys and girls.

That is until.......…the accident.

Yes, you see Mort, a practicing alcoholic, was drinking that morning and probably shouldn’t have been on 18 foot stilts. But he was the BEST. Nothing could stop Mort from getting in his costume and bringing that town joy. Not even alcohol! But something happened. Who knows what or why, but Mort’s stilts hit a bad patch and the best weasel stilt walker in the world came tumbling down. Everyone was able to get out of the way before the crash. Everyone, that is, except for Little Suzie Jenkins.

Poor Suzie was permanently disfigured by Mort’s stilts (her head is now shaped like a ‘U’) and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. The accident resulted in the famed Weasleton parade being canceled forever. Which brings us to today. Mort lives with his morbidly obese mother and spends all his free time getting drunk at the local bar. Whenever anyone sees him, they remind him of how great this town used to be before he went ahead and SCREWED it all up!

Meanwhile on the outskirts of town, a ragtag circus is preparing for an upcoming show. It’s led by four angry midgets: Stubby, Dodger, Hyde, and Atlas, and the aforementioned diarreah-spewing albino elephant, Hannibal. When a meteor comes crashing down nearby, they make the mistake of going to check it out. Naturally, it transforms them and the rest of the circus freaks into zombies, who soon go looking for humans to feed on.

Once the townmembers find out that their town is being attacked by circus zombies, they hole up at Gus’s Diner and try to come up with a plan to survive. At some point Mort realizes this is his chance for redemption. If he can find a way to save the town, everyone will forget about what he did to Suzy Jenkins that day and maybe, just maybe, he’ll be able to piece his life back together.

Okay, so let’s start at the beginning. I keep seeing this over and over in amateur scripts. TOO – MUCH – DESCRIPTION. 5-6-7 line paragraph chunks. To the writer, this seems obvious. “I need to tell my story. My story’s important and unique. Therefore it requires large chunks of description.” To the reader it screams “amateur.” It screams “slower read.” Readers are like Matrix operators. They’ve seen so much code that they can just look at a page and tell what kind of writer they’re dealing with. And big chunky paragraphs are the biggest amateur tell of all.

I’ll say it again. In action and horror and comedy, keep your paragraphs LEAN. 3 lines tops. 4 if you’re really describing something important. There should maybe be two 5-line paragraphs in your entire script IF THAT. In drama and period pieces and the like you have a little more leeway cause they’re naturally slower reads but even there I'd watch out.

And yes there are exceptions on the pro level. I’m reviewing one next week (although it’s a drama). But if you’re an amateur, don’t bring attention to that fact by taking 9 lines to describe a character showing up at his buddy’s place.

Despite that, I found the structure and story of La Petit Mort to be pretty sound. You have a fallen hero looking for redemption. You have an evil force trying to come in and destroy a town. You have a group of people who don’t like each other who must work together to fight the evil off. And you have a clear exciting protagonist goal – save the town. Looking at this from afar, it’s a fun sounding movie.

I also like Mike as a writer. He’s obviously trying to do something different here and he’s got a unique voice. I anticipate a lot of people are going to be offended by the comedy (A girl with a U-shaped head? An elephant with diarreah? Really?) but for me, I’d rather have comedy that takes chances and offends people than the next joke on Jay Leno’s opening monologue. More importantly, all of the comedy here fits inside the world he’s created. No joke here feels like it doesn’t belong.

I think where Mike runs into trouble is in the actual mechanics of the story. Once we get to the middle act, the story loses focus. It becomes a free-for-all of funny fucked up zombie situations. And I get that this is a zombie comedy so there’s going to be plenty of that, but the focus was so lax that you stopped caring about what was going on.

I think this could’ve been solved by focusing more on Mort. Mort is a potentially great character with a great backstory to draw from. And yet on the page he’s kind of slumpy and boring. His personality doesn’t live up to his potential. If you look at “down on their luck” protags in good movies, they’re pissed off, sure, but they’re also kinda funny. Take Michael Douglas’ character in “Romancing The Stone” for example. He’s a down-on-his-luck cup-is-half-empty guy but you love the guy because he says what’s on his mind and it usually makes you laugh.

This is further hampered by a misguided and/or confused love story. We have this big city female journalist who comes into town to do a story on Weasleton and we assume this is going to be Mort’s love interest, which would’ve worked great. Instead, we focus more on Ariel, Mort’s childhood sweetheart who left him after the “accident.” We waste too many scenes on these two and we don’t really care about Ariel so all of the scenes are boring. Focusing on a fresh new relationship (maybe even creating a love triangle between the three) would’ve worked much better imo. I mean why bring in a female character from out of town if you’re not going to use her?

In the final act, Mike is trying to juggle so many balls, that Mort’s big moment where he gets on the stilts and finally saves the day falls flat. This moment should’ve brought the house down. And I asked myself why it didn’t. The answer, I realized, was that I didn’t really know Mort. I knew ABOUT him from what we’re told. But I didn’t know HIM. So that's a huge problem that needs to be addressed.

You know here’s the thing. I think if Mike had someone guiding him and developing this script, that this thing could sell. It’s a neat concept and it’s funny and different, but I’m not sure Mike’s strong enough with character yet to make it work without some guidance. 80 line paragraphs aren't helping either (that's an exaggeration btw).

Lots of potential here, but this script isn’t ready for primetime. Or is it? Decide for yourself with the link below.

Script link: La Petite Mort

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me (but has a lot of potential)
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Beyond your character’s backstory, beyond their character flaws, quirks and habits, they still need a personality – something interesting about the way they talk or what they do that makes us want to watch them, especially in a horror comedy, where the characters are supposed to be larger than life. Even if that character is a broken down has-been. Maybe the character’s like Larry David where he always complains but in a funny endearing way. If he’s going to be downbeat, at least make him downbeat FUNNY. This is actually the point I was making in yesterday’s “What I learned” section. The main character is so depressed that it ends up making him boring.