Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Genre: Crime/Thriller/Western
Premise: An ex-boxer on the run for an accidental murder picks up a young woman with a dangerous secret.
About: You may remember Zach Dean from his spec sale I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, Layover. He’s the high school teacher who was on that infamous Jetblue flight with bad landing gear. It seems like a lot of crazy things are happening on Jetblue flights these days. Like, oh, I don’t know, flight attendants GRABBING A BEER AND RUNNING AWAY DOWN THE EMERGENCY SLIDE! I suspect we’ll be talking about the adaptation of that event soon enough, but right now we’re going to discuss Dean’s first spec, Kin, which got him enough attention in Hollywood that he was able to sell his follow-up.
Writer: Zach Dean
Details: 113 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. 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 I gave Zach’s previous script, Layover, a positive review, it didn’t go ever very well with you guys. Outside of a few people e-mailing me and saying they liked it (which I never understand – if you have an opinion about the script, add to the discussion by posting in the comments!), the consensus seemed to be that the script was too “workmanlike.” It hit all the beats perfectly, but didn’t have any flair or substance. It was like the perfect technical screenplay and nothing more. I don’t know if I’d go that far. I thought the opening scene was original and the script never quite went where I thought it would, which is always good, but in retrospect I agree that it could’ve flashed some more style.

I’m reviewing Kin because it’s always interesting to read the script that got a screenwriter noticed, particularly if that script doesn’t sell. You get a unique glimpse into the difference between what Hollywood deems "worthy" and what Hollywood deems "worthy of buying." I also received two e-mails about the script from other readers. One of them said it was the best script he’d read all year, and the other said it was the worst script he’d read all year. Smelling a good screenwriting discussion, I threw it into this week’s pile.

Addison, a handsome southern gentleman with a mean streak, has just robbed a casino with his younger black widow of a sis, Liza. They seem to have gotten away scott-free, with nary a car in pursuit, when all of a sudden their car hits a bad patch of road and spins out, tumbling down an embankment. Addison and Liza live, but when a clueless cop comes to help them and notices the piles of money strewn about, Addison has no choice but to shoot him dead. And just like that, everything’s changed.

Jay Mills, a beaten down ex-boxer, has just been released from jail. Jay took the fall for his corrupt boxing manager, Reuben's, numerous shady underground dealings. Naturally, the first place he goes after getting out is Reuben’s gym to ask for his share of the money he so dutifully took the fall for. But Reuben doesn’t like people asking him for money and proceeds to beat the shit out of Jay with a bat. Jay’s boxing skills take over, and he’s able to lay a Tyson style skull-cracker on Reuben that inadvertently kills him. Uh-oh. Time to go on the run.

In the meantime, Addison and Liza are trudging through the forest trying to get away when, at a certain point, Addison believes for whatever reason that they have a better chance of living if they split up. He tells Liza to grab some sucker off the road and hitchhike up to Canada, where they’ll meet back up again. Liza reluctantly obliges and the first car that comes by is, guess whose? You guessed it, Jay.

Up until this point, Kin is working pretty well. But as soon as Liza gets in that car, the story loses itself, becoming part Coen-style-carnage-everywhere flick and part gritty love story. The love story actually works on some levels, since both parties are hiding such big secrets from each other. But eventually Jay tells Liza about his broken relationship with his parents, who live a few hours up the road, and Liza gets this idea that they should go spend Thanksgiving with them (which is tomorrow). From that point on, the central story question becomes “Will Jay or won’t Jay go spend Thanksgiving with his parents?”

In the meantime, Addison is stumbling around in the forest and, because he has nothing to do for awhile, engages in this murder spree with a random family he runs into. Eventually, he makes his way up north where he comes across a house in the forest that belongs to....You guessed it, Jay’s family.

I think you’re getting a sense of my central issue with Kin. There are way too many plot contrivances. Addison and Liza crashing the car and having to escape, I can buy, because it’s the first contrivance, the one that sets the story in motion. But then you have Jay accidentally killing someone one hour after he gets out of jail. That’s a bit convenient for the story. Then you have Addison suggesting that they split up and meet in Canada, which makes absolutely no sense, but helps the story go where it needs to go.

Then the first person Liza runs into on the road is Jay. Another convenient plot point. Then when we need to keep the cops from catching up with them, a blizzard roles in. That certainly helps the story. Then, of course, Jay’s parents just happen to be stationed up north, directly on the path they’re already driving. Then of course it just happens to be Thanksgiving, creating a big enough “event” whereby Jay would consider going home. Then of course of all the houses Addison were to run into wandering through the forest, he runs into Jay’s parents.

Now I get that the story is called “Kin” and that there’s this theme of “family” pulling these characters together in some strange cosmic way, but the sheer number of convenient events ruin any sense of reality. At a certain point we just go, "All of these things would never happen like this in a million years."

That’s not to say everything here is bad. Dean creates gritty memorable characters that are fun to follow. And I like the way he weaves his different storylines together, both here and in Layover. It’s clear that his Coen Brothers influence has given him a strong sense of story.

But until this plot is restructured in a way whereby the audience doesn’t have to buy into so many coincidences, I don’t see it working. Some solid writing here, and I definitely see where everybody else saw potential, but the script needs some work.

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

What I learned: This may be a personal pet peeve of mine, but I don’t like it when one character says to another, “So tell me about yourself,” or “So tell me something about yourself.” The reason is, the question is obviously used so the writer can reveal backstory or character information about the character being asked the question. It feels pre-planned, stilted, stale, and always results in a boring overarching answer. It always works better when a character’s backstory is hidden inside the natural flow of the dialogue. Take these two examples…

JANE: So tell me about your life.
FRED: Well I was born in Indiana and when I was ten my sister died of pneumonia. My parents never recovered so we moved west to San Diego…


JANE (suspicious): You told me you were from San Diego.
FRED: I am.
JANE: Then how come your car has Indiana plates?
FRED (doesn’t answer)
JANE: We gonna be friends or are you going to keep lying to me?
FRED: That’s where I grew up.
(conversation continues while Fred reluctantly explains why he left Indiana)

Hey, it ain’t going to win dialogue of the year but you see how much more interesting the second one is than the first? Always try to reveal character through the natural flow of dialogue. You don't want to sound like your characters are interviewing each other (I see a lot of this in love stories/romantic comedies).