Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Priority Run

Genre: Action/Thriller
Premise: A small group of correctional officers and inmates must band together to fend off a mysterious attack when their prison bus is sabotaged on a remote stretch of highway.
About: This script originally went into select production companies late last year - which landed the writer, Terrance Mulloy, meetings all over town. This new revised draft went wide a few weeks back, garnering the interest of a few A-list producers, and as a result, the writer is now working on a variety of projects. Terrance is repped by UTA and FilmEngine.
Writer: Terrance Mulloy
Details: July 30, 2010 draft (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).

Back in the day, I used to trade barbs with Terrance on a few screenwriting message boards. I remember him steadfastly defending Avatar two full years before it came out, standing by it through thick and thin (including the advanced screening debacle), and him insisting that the movie and 3-D were going to be the next big thing. I told him 3-D was a gimmick and that people would never accept wearing bulky glasses in a theater. I think it’s safe to say Terrance won the Avatar 3-D battle, but I may still win the 3-D war. :)

Anyway, I was excited when I heard that Terrance was making some noise in Hollywood with his spec script, “Priority Run.” That’s one of the great things about the message boards, is you actually watch, in real time, as writers emerge and find their way into the industry, which makes you realize it’s not impossible – that it can be done. Anyway, I set out to find the script myself and finally, I have it in my grubby little hands.

Priority Run centers around single mother Anna Wilson, a correctional officer at a New Mexico state prison. Anna’s been working around the clock and feeling guilty for neglecting her daughter. So she carves out some much needed vacation time to make it up to her. Unfortunately, the captain’s got other plans. The facility has a priority run – a handful of monster criminals they need relocate to another prison – and the captain wants the experienced Anna on the bus. She says no thanks but it turns out not to be a question. I guess that trip to the aquarium will have to wait.

Anna’s joined on this ride of terror by a jumpy rookie named Calloway, a seasoned vet named Jim, and a generously pudgy driver, Keppler. The prisoners they’ll be transporting are some mean ass motherfuckers, the kind of guys who would make those pussies on Con Air give up an aisle seat. But none of these men comes close to William McBride, who’s what you’d get if you crossed Riddick, the Hulk, and Charles Manson. This guy’s his own fucking Armageddon.

So away they roll on this seemingly routine mission, when out of nowhere, in the middle of the desert, they lose radio and cell phone coverage. This is followed by some dark SUVs in the rear view mirror and all of a sudden this routine mission is looking decidedly un-routine. Sure enough, the cars close in and manage to flip the bus over into a ditch. However, this wasn’t exactly in the plans for the bad guys, as the flip positions the bus in such a way where Anna and the others have perfect cover. Flip fail.

But she and her men are now in a number of predicaments, starting with what they do with the prisoners. Do they unlock them? Can they trust them? They know if they just leave them locked up, they’ll be killed. But who’s the bigger danger? The guys outside the bus or the ones inside? Also, Anna doesn’t know what these bad guys want. Could it be they’re after one of their prisoners? And if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be better to keep them locked up? Whatever the handbook says, it clearly never covered this situation.

As the story unfolds, prisoners are indeed let go and start making up their own protocol. Some guys make a run for it, and just like you'd expect, they don't get very far. They also learn the real reason behind why they’ve been targeted, which may or may not involve one of the officers. Eventually, they have to make the biggest decision of all, whether to release William McBride. He may just be their only chance at survival, but that's only if he doesn't kill them first.

Priority Run is a good old fashioned action film. This isn’t Butter. Men shoot each other. Other men die. We like it.

One of the things I dug right away was the attention to detail. Terrance really sets up the correctional facility and the bus and the prisoners so that you believe this run is happening. Too many writers figure it’s an action film so who the hell cares if it’s authentic. But if we don’t believe in the world you’ve created, we’re not going to believe your story.

I also thought putting a woman at the center of this all was a great choice. Who worse to be in charge of a group of delinquent overgrown muscle-bound killers than a supposedly “week” little woman. It gives the story that “same but different” element which separates it from your average DTV Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle.

Nor is this overstylized nonsense. Anna’s just a working-class woman trying to support her child any way she can. She can’t run up the wall like Trinity or brandish double Berettas like Salt. She’s just a hard-nosed chick in a bad situation trying to survive so she can see her daughter again.

What surprised me was that this kind of thing really happens. They have women officers in male prisons believe it or not. Knowing what I've seen on some of those History Channel prison documentaries and how easily a prisoner can kill an officer, this was pretty shocking to me.

My issues with the story center around two things. The first is McBride. I think it takes too long to get him out. I love stories where a character has to depend on the worst possible person to help them out of a jam. That’s why Pitch Black was so good. They needed to depend on the crazy fucked up serial killer who cared about no one but himself to get out alive. Speaking of Pitch Black, imagine if they didn’t let Riddick out until 3/4 of the way through the story. That’s kinda how it felt here. I understood why Terrance did it. The location is extremely small – a bus – so if you bring him out too early, where do you go with him? It’s not like he has an entire planet to roam around on like Riddick did. But still, McBride is the draw here. He’s the potential break out star of this film, and it doesn’t feel like he gets the star treatment. For a large chunk in the middle, he disappears completely, and I don’t think that should happen.

My other main issue was that the plot lacked that one big twist to bust it over the top. Not to keep bringing up Pitch Black, but I loved all the little surprises that film had – when they found out the planet would be bathed in dark soon, that that’s when the aliens came out to feed, when we find out that Johns isn’t a cop, when we find out the boy is a girl. The script never lets you relax which is what made it so fun. In Priority Run, the only real twist is when we find out why they’re being targeted. And it’s not that surprising because we’re expecting an explanation anyway and the explanation is a mite predictable. I think Priority Run could benefit from a few more surprises.

But overall, this is a really fun ride. It’s a blast to see all of Terrance’s influences as he writes, which also happen to be my own: Die hard, Aliens, Pitch Black, The Road Warrior. And Terrance has all sorts of fun writing it, embracing an aggressive entertaining style that starts with the very first line of the script: “Buckle Up.” If Terrance plays his cards right, he could be one of the go-to scribes for Hollywood’s big action films. Really good stuff here. But I still think 3-D is going to die. :)

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

What I learned: Watching Terrance break in, it brought me back to one of the questions posed by a commenter Monday. He asked if a “nobody” writer could ever hope to get his scripts read in Hollywood. I thought Dan’s (writer of Monday’s script) answer was excellent, so I’m re-posting it here:

If you work hard enough you can get your script into many hands in the biz. It will take time and a lot of hard work so you need to be really dedicated to your craft and career.

Join a writers' group and an online community; read (many) other scripts and give notes and network with fellow writers in your position; you can all trade info and referrals when they come up. Use their notes (and ideally the notes of a pro reader, if you can spend a little extra money, and a pro writer if you can find one who will agree to read your work) to REWRITE and improve your craft. Enter some contests, see how you do, get some feedback. REWRITE. Improve your craft. Write another script, show it to your group, enter a few more contests. REWRITE.

Assuming this script is squarely in a commercially proven genre with a defined audience and at a low budget (hint hint) then post on Inktip.com; gauge the response, hopefully you'll get a few requests, maybe a few bites. Attend a conference or film festival, do more networking, meet people who may have ins with a manager or a producer so you can make a few more submissions.

When you're ready, get the WGA list of managers and agents that accept unsolicited material and submit to them. See how you do. You may get some notes, you may not. You may want to REWRITE an existing script based on feedback or you may want to work on a new script that is more focused on a commercial audience and genre so a Rep will look at it as something easier to sell in the current market.

When you feel you're ready, WORK THE PHONES to get into the bigger offices. It's not enough to send emails and enter contests, unless you're lucky enough to win a contest and immediately get signed by a rep, but for most of us, you're going to want to launch a flurry of cold calls and try to get an ASSISTANT on the phone who will listen to your logline and short pitch and agree to read your script. This will take time and a lot of tenacity but you may end up with a Manager or Producer that is interested in your script.

Rinse and repeat until you make some $$. Keep in mind that may happen at any one of these stages because you never know who might gel to your concept and your execution. It's all about finding the one person who really likes your material and is willing to sell it to others in town. This may be a scrappy young director with an award-winning short who has $10k from his dentist uncle and wants to make a feature, or it may be a junior agent at UTA or an assistant at Fox Searchlight.

It can be done. It's done every day. But if you're not in it to win it then don't bother. Good luck!