Thursday, September 30, 2010

Amateur Friday - The Black Way

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. :) Here’s this month’s review, a sci-fi thriller by John Worsley!

Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller
Premise: (from writer) Five survivors of a deadly archeology dig uncover an ancient alien plot while investigating a friend's suspicious death, and find themselves drawn into a war between the aliens.
About: Amateur Friday script!
Writer: John Worsley
Details: 107 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).

The Black Way follows a group of friends/archeologists as they explore the remote forests of Belize, presumably for remnants of ancient Mayan civilizations. While there, they’re attacked by a mysterious group of people who kill three members of their group.

Fast-forward five years and Merida Zamora, a member of the group who lost her sister on that fateful day, gets a call from the leader of the expedition, Kyle Woodson, a professor type. He has a job for her, and actually wants to include the whole gang . So everyone flies to the same airport where Kyle is scheduled to meet them.

But uh-oh, when Kyle shows up, he’s acting like a deranged emu, refusing to engage anyone in conversation. He quickly marches into the airport and when the others give chase, they watch in horror as Kyle charges outside, into the middle of the road, where he's hit by a car and KILLED.

Well that definitely didn’t go as planned.  The group concludes that instead of heading back to their respective homes, they need to find out why Kyle was acting like a robot.

They’re given a lead after Kyle’s wake when they spot a strange female intruder at Kyle’s house. Sensing that the group is onto her strangeness, she runs, they chase her, and when they catch her she convulses and dies. I think this is the point in the script where I knew it wasn't going to work. We start off with the slaughter of the three friends. A few scenes later we get the death of Mysterious Kyle. A few scenes later we get the death of this woman. And I should mention that the movie starts 2500 years ago where we see the death of a Mayan man. It just seemed like there was a lack of inventiveness or imagination here. Death after death after death after death?  Usually one death is the jumping off point for a story. So getting four consecutive instances of it was too much.

Anyway, the group snoops around town, running into more mysterious figures, eventually finding a SECOND KYLE! But how can that be?  Kyle is dead! Well, they follow this Kyle into an alley where some strange alien-men beat the hell out of him and take him away.

At a certain point they realize this is all related to the experience they had in Belize and seek out some ancient Mayan tablets, which inspire them to head back to that dreaded country to finally confront what happened to them that fateful day. 

What I liked about this script was John’s ability to build mystery. Building up questions that the audience wants answered is a surefire way to keep the story entertaining. I also thought the writing style and general flow were solid. But there's a huge problem looming over this script, and it has to do with the structure. 

You don’t want to wait until the middle of the script to get to the heart of your story. When you come up with an idea, whatever the heart of that idea is, that’s where you should have your characters by page 25-30. If you’re writing Indiana Jones, you don’t have him teaching classes and stumbling around town searching for clues to the Ark of The Covenant until page 60. You send him on his adventure as soon as possible! If you’re writing The Matrix, you don’t have Neo stumbling around the city finding different secrets about the Matrix until page 60. You have him in the real world by page 30! As far as I can tell, the hook for this movie is the creepy Mayan mystery. For that reason, we need to be in Belize by page 30! Not stumbling around finding multiple Kyles and Mayan tablets and weird women and alien thugs. Or, if we are doing that, we should be doing it in Belize or the Mayan jungle, not a completely benign location. Get us to the heart of the story ASAP!

I also think the characters need to be beefed up here. I’m not sure I even know who the main character is in The Black Way. It appears to be Kyle, since he’s the leader of the Belize mission and the one who calls everyone together. But he goes AWOL so we’re forced to accept another main character, who I guess is Merida. But Merida doesn’t really act like a hero. She has no flaw, her personality is neutral, she doesn’t possess any heroic qualities. She’s more like a tour guide, reminding and encouraging everyone where they need to be, than an active driven heroic individual. I didn’t see any passion in her, any fight, anything that made her jump off the page.

In addition to this, none of these characters stand out. Everybody acts the same. Whenever you include a group of people in your script, your first job is to differentiate them. Look no further than Aliens to see the best example of this ever put to film. As soon as those characters are introduced, each one is distinct, each has their own character flaw, each has their own quirks, each has their own agenda. One of the archeologists in The Black Way is described as having an attitude, which, on paper, is great. But I never once saw her attitude in action. Remember, we have to SEE it to feel it.

I think a lot of this comes down to an unfocused story. Blake Snyder, for all the controversy his Save The Cat series inspires, said something that I didn’t initially agree with, but have since realized is so true. He said if you can’t figure out your logline, you’re not going to be able to figure out your story. And what he means by that is that your logline is a reminder of exactly what your story is about. If it’s mushy, if it’s unclear, if it’s weak, then your story is going to be mushy, unclear, and weak. To be honest, I’m still not sure what the central storyline is here. So if I were John, I’d focus this logline to represent a group of people going back to Belize to confront a terrible tragedy, only to uncover a deep secret once they got there.

I say all this, of course, with an encouraging smile and pat on the back. Despite my problems with the script, I see some promise for John as a writer. Just need to get that structure in shape and make those characters come alive. Good luck on the next draft!
Script link: The Black Way

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

What I learned: Today’s “what I learned” isn’t in regards to The Black Way, but rather query letters. I know Amateur Fridays is a learning experience and that you’re trying to present an honest portrait of your work when you write me, but it’s hard to get excited for a screenplay when I read, “I know my script needs work but…” or “I think my script is pretty good…” When someone has so many scripts to choose from, the tiniest lack of confidence eliminates you from the competition. I mean, I have scripts from people saying, “This is funnier than 99% of the scripts you’ve read. I guarantee it.” Now of course I know they’re wrong, but when someone says that, I have to admit I’m intrigued and want to take a look, if only to satisfy my assumption. Of course I’m not saying you should start every query letter with “THIS IS THE BEST SCRIPT EVER!” But just have an air of confidence about yourself. Sure you might have doubts about your work, but that doesn’t mean you should convey them to the person who's going to read it.