Sunday, January 31, 2010

Full Circle

Roger and I get scripts thrown at us from every direction. And if we could read them all, we would. But there are only so many hours in the day, and as much as I would love for the Scriptshadow audience to demand Joe Nebraska's very first attempt at a screenplay, the reality is, there probably wouldn't be a Scriptshadow if that's all we were reviewing. However every once in awhile we come across a script with some admirable credentials that just hasn't found its way through the system. Roger bumped into this script by chance, enjoyed it, and found out it won the Creative Screenwriting Screenplay Contest. After getting in touch with the writers, they were more than happy to have it reviewed on the site. So, we get another little peak into what it takes to do well in a respected contest. Let's check out Roger's review of "Full Circle."

Genre: Action (Ninjas!), Fantasy
Premise: A supernatural thrill-ride about a struggling artist forced to share his body with the soul of a dead ninja who is determined to stop a malevolent sorcerer from transforming the human race into an army of demonic slaves.

About: Winner of the AAA Screenplay Contest sponsored by Creative Screenwriting Magazine. "Full Circle" came out on top in a field of 1,200 entries. Now, Mr. Regan is set to direct another script he and Mr. Henderson wrote, titled "Sherwood Horror" (a vampiric retelling of the Robin Hood legend set in the modern day American South), which has been optioned by Collective Development Inc. and will star actor DJ Perry.
Regan and Henderson met in High School in a TV production class, collaborating on short movies. As proof of how important having a mentor is, the two were initially doing poorly in the class, working under a teacher who could care less about the arts. Just as John was about to drop out, the teacher was replaced with someone even Mr. Holland would be jealous of. He encouraged them to just take the cameras out and shoot whatever inspired them, and it ended up changing their outlook on the medium. The two wrote this script because at the time they had never seen a really good Ninja movie that wasn't treated with B Movie production value. Full Circle is still available. So if you're a ninja fan, time to snatch it up.
Writers: John Regan & Ben Henderson

Look, this thing has fucking ninjas in it.

And for some people, that's worth the price of admission alone.

Yes, I'm the kid who gasped in the theater during Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai when, out of nowhere, ninja assassins attack our bushido-practicing heroes. Yes, I'm the dude who paid to see Ninja Assassin in a theater, wherein I learned that shurikens leave contrails in the atmosphere.
If you're not a fan of comic books, kung fu, Japanese sorcerers, or hot Asian chicks, man, I guess we really don't have anything in common, do we? Go play a round of golf or something.
Fans of John Carpenter's (and W.D. Richter's, David Z. Weinstein's and Gary Goldman's) Big Trouble in Little China, or more generally, those who still have their sense of awe and wonder intact, you
may continue forward to find a seat in our reading room.
What's this sucker about, Rog?
Last week I looked at a script that turned to Chinese mythology and culture for its inspiration (The Bone Orchard), and now this week we'll continue this Eastern mythology theme and jaunt over to ancient Japan.
That's where "Full Circle" opens, in the Koga Mountains where a father and son are fishing. Hope of a peaceful night and good eating is shattered when demonic kappa (usually mischievous water sprites, but straight up killers here) emerge out of the lake and attack the village.
This village has a temple that's home to a ninja clan who take up their arms against this reptilian sea of trouble. You would think a clan of ninja could keep a situation like this under control (Demons? No problem, eat my throwing stars and katana), but there's a problem. Not only are the kappa infecting the villagers, creating more kappa, but they are led by a rather nasty sorcerer named Izanagi.
Izanagi wields a mystical amulet that gives him his Lo Pan-like powers. He can summon energy blasts, which comes in handy when tengu descend out of the sky, "Powerful creatures said to be able to shape-shift into human form. Supposedly they were a dying race, older than man, who needed allies in their battle against their adversaries, so they trained defenseless villagers, turning them into warriors, and that's how the Ninja began."
Izanagi has some kind of blood feud with the leader of the ninjas, Toshiro (perhaps a nod to Toshiro Mifune?), and he's here to collect. Of course, the key to defeating Izanagi is taking away his amulet, and we're treated to a flight and fight through the trees as the army of kappa and tengu battle around them.
The tengu, looking to end this wholesale bloodbath, try to stop Izanagi as well, but in a magical snafu, end up trapping the souls of Izanagi and Toshiro in a Black Stone.
Sounds like a cool enough prologue. What happens in the modern day?
At the age of eleven, Tom Rafferty appeared on the cover of TIME magazine with the headline, "American Masters: It this Child Prodigy the next Picasso?"
Like many parents that have a kid who turns out to have a profitable talent, Tom's parents used him. They denied him of certain freedoms, so much so that Tom learned to hate painting. When he decided to stop altogether, they betrayed him and shut him out of their lives and kept everything he earned for themselves.
So by the time we finally meet Tom in present day San Francisco, he's become the rebel type who loses his (and his girlfriend's) rent money street-racing crotch-rocket motorcycles. Gemma Soto, Tom's cute and dorky Asian American girlfriend, is none too pleased with his acting out. One could say she's at her last straw with all this selfish behavior.
She doesn't understand why he won't simply sell some of his work so that he can begin to secure his future financially, and more than that, she's tired of babysitting her regressing boyfriend.
She breaks up with him so she can focus on her upcoming museum exhibition, an exhibition which will feature ancient Japanese paintings and artifacts.
But like any spurned boyfriend who doesn't want to lose a good thing, Tom continues to harass Gemma. Fortunately for him, he works as a forklift operator at the same museum Gemma is having her exhibition at.
It should be noted that Gemma wears an amulet on a necklace around her neck, the same amulet that belonged to Izanagi.
Of course, while Tom is at his forklift gig, a crate falls from a shelf, splitting open the Black Stone that rests inside of it.
It's not long before Tom is haunted by the ghost of Toshiro, allowing for a few comedic Ghostbuster-esque antics. Eventually, Toshiro manages to explain the weight of the situation to Tom. If Toshiro doesn't kill Izanagi (whose spirit was also in the Black Stone), Tom is going to find himself in the middle of an end-of-the world scenario. Only problem is, Toshiro needs Tom's body to do so. He needs consent for a full possession.
Tom has a decision to make: It's either help Toshiro or be haunted and annoyed by the spirit of a pranksterish ninja before the world is destroyed by a demon army.
What else will Toshiro throw into the pot? Oh yeah, some of those mad ninja skillz. Now, what would you do?
Okay. So if Toshiro possesses Tom, who will the evil sorcerer possess?
Ah sooo...our villain. One Charles Caspian. A sweater-vest wearing museum file clerk who has a stalker hard-on for our protag's ex, Gemma Soto. Constantly treated like shit by his boss and made fun of by Tom, Charles is kind of like the Eddie Brock of "Full Circle". If given super-powers, he would just love to make Tom, Gemma and the world see what he's truly capable of.
And he does.
As Izanagi slowly tempts him to the dark side, convincing him that not only Gemma can be his, but the world, Charles dons a decorative Japanese mask and goes on a crime spree, honing his newfound powers.
But true to character, his main interest is Gemma. With the boost in confidence that comes with having an evil sorcerer on your side, Charles convinces Gemma to go out on a date with him. Although Charles likes his new abilities, he is faced with a dilemma.
Does he merely woo the girl, or does he obey Izanagi's bidding and rip the amulet from her neck? Well, there's a compromise in such matters. Charles will take the amulet once Izanagi helps him bed Gemma.
As we want it to happen, Tom/Toshiro and Charles/Izanagi clash at Gemma's exhibition. What starts out as an argument over a girl explodes into a full out ninja versus sorcerer brawl that leaves a swath of destruction through San Francisco.
Charles has had a little too much action and evil for his fragile personality, but Izanagi takes the reins and all bets are off as he attempts to execute his master plan of rebuilding the kappa, raising a demonic army, and taking over the world.
In true action movie personal stakes fashion, Gemma is ultimately kidnapped by Izanagi and Tom must go full ninja to save her.
Crazy. But does this script work?
If all of this sounds very comic-booky and cartoonish to you, it is. But in a good way. If you look below the surface, there are some really interesting things going on with these characters.
Toshiro and Izanagi act as opposing moral consciences to our protagonist and antagonist. Angel and devil, ego and id.
Tom and Charles are characters who seem to suppress their true natures, and Toshiro and Izanagi do their best to convince their respective vessels to take off their masks, to let the world see who they really are.
On one side, Toshiro is trying to convince Tom to tell Gemma how he really feels, to drop his façade and defense mechanisms so she can see his soul laid bare. On the other, Izanagi is trying to convince Charles to stop hiding his sins and reveal his true nature as a killer to the world. It's about vulnerability.
This was a surprising thing to find in such a pulpy and action-packed script, but you know, this is what makes it a solid screenplay. It remembers to anchor the plot and the action in character.
The execution might seem a little on-the-nose at times, or unabashedly comicbooky, but this is a solid and entertaining adventure yarn that manages to mix together some too-hot-to-handle explosive ingredients: Ninja action, Japanese mysticism, supernatural shenanigans, and most of all, characters who really have something personal and intimate at stake other than just saving-the-world, all set against the backdrop of modern day San Francisco.
It's crazy alchemy.
Just look at the logline again. If a writer can take flight with such bombastic pulp material and create an original genre spec that's not based on a comic or a novel, while managing to stick the landing, then they get cool points in my book.

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

What I learned: Chances are, a script that has demons, bird-men, possession, ninjas, sorcerers, katanas, guns, and energy blasts isn't going to be for everyone. In fact, when you have these type of elements, many readers (honestly, how many Hollywood readers are well-versed in literature, B-movies and comicbooks? Not many, I'm guessing. Something like this speaks to the right people, i.e. directors or industry people who like this kind of material) are going to think you're a fucking lunatic or that your script never had rails to begin with. So what do you do? You create characters that not only have goals, but have flaws and shortcomings that they are trying to overcome. Flaws and shortcomings, that, emotionally and psychologically, we as humans can understand. In this script, Tom is intriguing because he's developed a defense mechanism that frustrates the shit out of his girlfriend. If he wants to get her back, he's going to have to learn how to let his guard down and trust people. Even Charles, the antagonist, is trying to overcome his nebbishness so he can get a little more respect from his employer and the girl he has a crush on. These are real flaws these characters are trying to overcome. Focus on that stuff about your characters, and you're focusing on Story.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Weekly Rundown

Here's Jessica Hall once again with our Weekly Rundown! Some great info here. Oh, and the Efron project she's referring to (the time travel one), I believe is titled "Algorithm" and I'm desperately searching for it. So if you can get your paws on it, please send!

Still no action on specs this week and very little lit news until everyone returns from Sundance. A few announcements came out of the Festival, but acquisitions were still light.

Chris Sparling’s 2009 Blacklist script BURIED was the first narrative sale at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film, directed by Rodrigo Cortes, was picked up by Lionsgate for just under $4 million. The ScriptShadow favorite is about a civilian contractor in Iraq who is kidnapped and awakens to find himself buried in a coffin in the desert. (

Writer/director Michael Winterbottom will take on “Promised Land” as his next feature. Project explores events leading to the 1948 partition of Palestine and the subsequent creation of the state of Israel. Winterbottom currently has THE KILLER INSIDE ME showing at Sundance. (

The Butcher Brothers aka Altieri & Flores have announced their next writing and directing project. BLACK SUNSET, about seven friends on a surfing trip to Mexico that turns deadly, will be financed by Queen Nefertari Productions, a film finance fund run by Gersh Agency. Writer/Directors also have THE VIOLENT KIND at Sundance. (

2006 Black List writers Calpin & Jakubowski (ASSASSINATION OF A HIGH SCHOOL PRESIDENT) have written an Untitled Time Travel script. Zac Efron is set to star in the Action/Adventure project for Warner Bros. and Mark Gordon Co. (

2008 Spec THE COMMUTER by Byron Willinger & Phillip De Blasiwas was set up at Gold Circle with Olatunde Osunsanmi (The Fourth Kind) to direct and possibly rewrite. In the action/thriller, a mysterious cell phone caller directs a former NYPD detective to find a federal witness aboard his commuter train, and kill him before the train reaches the end of the line. Willinger and De Blasi are currently rewriting "The Fourth Horseman" for Intrepid and writing "Paradise Lost" for Legendary. Osunsanmi is also set to write, and potentially direct an adaptation of the yet-to-be-released video game Zero-G. (

Martin Scorsese signed on to direct THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET from John Logan’s (SWEENEY TODD) script. Scorsese replaces Chris Wedge who dropped off the project about 12-year-old orphan Hugo, who lives in a train station and must finish what his late-father started by solving the mystery of a broken robot. (

From the 2008 Black List, PASSENGERS (script review here) by Jon Spaihts may be getting a new breath of life with the rumor that Gabriele Muccino (SEVEN POUNDS) is circling the project. Highly regarded script is about a man who accidentally awakens from hypersleep with ninety years left in an intergalactic journey and decides to wake up a beautiful fellow passenger to keep him company...even though doing so means she too will die before they reach their destination. (

With The Mulroneys hard at work on the script for SHERLOCK HOLMES 2, Warner Bros. and Silver Pictures announced that Guy Ritchie, director of the first installment, is set to direct the sequel. (

Writer/Director Boaz Yakin (REMEMBER THE TITANS) is in early pre-production on SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, the story of two Baton Rouge Detectives who find themselves involved in a case that escalates into a cosmic confrontation between Heaven and Hell. Samuel L. Jackson is set to star. Film marks Yankins return to mainstream fair after directing the ill received film DEATH IN LOVE, which showed at last year’s Sundance Festival. (

David Berenbaum (ELF) will write a new project that George Lucas will produce. The untitled animated musical will be directed by Kevin Munroe (TMNT). (

Gotham Group optioned DARK LIFE, the first book in a series by Kat Falls. Producers are currently out to directors. Books are set in a near future world, where rising ocean levels and catastrophes have led some people to homestead on the ocean floor. Story focuses on an underwater boy, and a surface girl who join forces to uncover a government conspiracy. Book was featured on the 2009 Book List. (

Permut Presentations is developing a biopic about controversial civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. They have yet to announce a writer on the project. (

Doug McKeon will write and direct HARD WIRED from Kari Lee Townsend’s book. Pic is about a girl with a lousy sense of direction who becomes Techno-Girl when she touches a meteor while talking on the phone and gets all the capabilities her cell has (GPS, phone, text, camera). McKeon last directed COME AWAY HOME.

Warner Bros plans to remake fight/action film MORTAL KOMBAT, based on the popular 1992 video game. 2009 Black List writer Oren Uziel (SHIMMER LAKE) is in talks to write. (

Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald to adapt "Eat, Sleep, Poop: A Common Sense Guide to Your Baby's First Year" into a feature comedy for DreamWorks. Allen & Wilson (FOUR CHRISTMASES) are set to write. Scribner is publishing the witty guidebook by Beverly Hills-based pediatrician Scott W. Cohen on March 30th. (

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Romantics

Gonna wrap up my not-so-comprehensive Sundance Week here. Just the other day we had my review of the Sundance film, "The Company Men," and now we've got another one for you called "The Romantics." To read some past reviews of this year's Sundance crop, check out my posts for HappyThankYouMorePlease, Nowhere Boy, and of course, Buried.

Genre: Drama/Ensemble
Premise: Seven friends from college reunite when two of them get married.
About: Starring Katie Holmes, Anna Paquin, Malin Ackerman and Josh Duhmal, this was one of the films playing at Sundance. Nierderhoffer has quite a history behind her. She's been producing small independent films for over a decade, focusing on dramatic offbeat fare such as Lonesome Jim (Casey Affleck) and Saving Grace (John Cusack). During that time, she's also written a few novels, such as The Taxonomy of Barnacles, and The Romantics, which she adapted into the screenplay herself. She will now become one of the few people who can claim to be an author, screenwriter, producer, and director, as she has directed this movie as well. I hear next year Galt will be up for the part of Mary Jane in the Spiderman reboot.
Writer: Galt Niederhoffer
Details: 113 pages

I always wanted to get back together for one weekend with six college classmates that, because of time and space and distance and life, I wasn’t able to keep in touch with. I wanted an unlimited supply of beer and to be out in the middle of nowhere and have seven sunsets a day so the lights’ always perfect and sexual tension so thick even the walls couldn’t stop it and music from ten years ago that makes you both cringe and smile at the same time, and unfinished business and decade old drama. But most of all, I just want to put life on hold for a few days and enjoy the company of people I spent four intimate years with, but don’t know anymore. I want to catch up and make out. I want to see where we all ended up.

But since none of this is likely, I wanted The Romantics to bring me as close to that place as possible.

Did it?

Holmes will play Laura.

The Romantics follows 7 friends from college: Laura, who we’re told is a “beauty,” Tom, who we’re told has “puppy-ish green eyes”, Lila, who has a “cascade of blonde hair,” Weesie, who’s “put together even in her pajamas,” Tripler, who sounds like a guy’s name but since there was no pronoun in his introduction, I figured out was a girl 60 pages later, Pete, who’s “handsome and athletic,” and then there’s Jake, who gets the only introduction that actually gives us a sense of who he is and what he looks like, described as a “shaggy haired modern-day Victorian poet," despite the fact that he's probably the smallest character of the bunch.

These 7 are the bestest of best friends. So best friends-ish in fact, that they’ve given themselves the nickname, “The Romantics.” There’s a lot of heavily implied history between the group, but unfortunately we don’t get any of it. The only piece of information that makes its way to us is that Laura and Tom are together and that Laura and Lila are closer than peanut butter and jelly. Waking up after a crazy night of drinking, the 7 realize that they’re all late for graduation, so they hurry up and get ready, only to run outside and see a sea of caps flying into the sky. The seven have missed their own graduation.

Duhmal will play Tom.

Flash-forward 10 years and we’re shocked to find out that Lila is getting married. No, that’s not the shocking part. The shocking part is that she’s getting married to Tom, Laura’s old boyfriend. The seven besties reconvene at Lila’s mansion, ready to reignite old times, with no one seemingly concerned about the fact that Lila is marrying her best friend’s boyfriend of five years. It’s as if no one thought this was going to be an issue. Laura pretends that everything’s fine. Tom bumbles around, rarely saying anything to anyone. It’s a really weird vibe and an awkward set-up to the weekend’s events.

Despite this triangle of non-fun, the rest of the group does their best to get drunk and live it up. There’s laughing, flirting, even a little bit of kissing. But it always comes back to Tom and Laura. How did they break up? Why would Tom end up with her best friend? Why is he marrying Lila??

Ackerman will play Lila

Apparently, the reason Tom and Laura broke up was because…well, actually I don’t know why they broke up. But the reason they’re not together anymore, according to Tom, is that he loves her too much. And they had such a great time together, he doesn’t want to screw it up. He wants their time together to remain perfect. Which brings us to his relationship with Lila. He hates Lila. For all intents and purposes, he despises her. Isn’t a single trait he likes about the woman. So obviously, he’s marrying her. Why? Um, I believe it’s because it makes him feel like less of a fuck-up. To complicate matters, Laura and Lila, who are still supposedly friendly with each other, have NEVER SPOKEN ABOUT THE FACT THAT SHE’S MARRYING THE MAN LAURA STILL LOVES. Am I the only one who thinks none of this makes any sense at all?

But that’s not the only problem with The Romantics. I never knew any of these characters. I was barely given a description of them in the first place so I had no idea what they looked like, and once we got to the present, I was never told who they are out in the real world, what they do, what their dreams are, what their problems are. And the person I’m told the least about, Tom, is probably the most important character in the entire story. And I know absolutely nothing about him. There’s vague notes thrown out like, “lawyer” and “married” but that’s all they are is notes. The lack of time you have in a screenplay prevents you from getting into a character's autobiography, but if all I'm told about someone after 110 pages is that they're "put together" and "married," I mean... how can I root for that character. It's like asking me to root for the stranger I watched cross the street the other day. And I probably know more about him than I do these characters, as I could at least take an educated guess about who he is based on what he was wearing.

I get it. This is a writer-director project. Not everything needs to be spelled out, as long as the director understands what she needs. But in leaving so much on the cutting room floor, in preventing us from truly understanding these people, all we're left with is a bunch of pretty faces.

The script does some things right. We have an obvious ticking time bomb here (the wedding) and potential for a dramatically played out love triangle. The opening and closing images were perfect. But it didn’t matter cause none of it felt real. I was miles away from ever understanding where these characters were coming from.

What's so odd about all this, is that the adaptation of her other novel, The Taxonomy of Barnacles, which I reviewed here, has some really nice character work in it. It was adapted by someone else but still. I came out of this one stumped.

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

What I learned: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Ensemble pieces are a bitch. And my advice is to stay away from them. Why are these films so hard? I’ll tell you why. Coming up with an interesting character that an audience wants to watch for 2 hours is one of the hardest things there is to do in the world. That is not hyperbole. It’s why studios pay half a million dollars for screenplays that get it right. It’s why they then back up that investment with 100 million dollars to put it on screen. In what other medium is such a huge investment made on something so tiny? - So when you essentially say, “I’m not going to just come up with one compelling character, I’m going to come up with seven!”, it’s like asking if you can enter your lottery numbers in a drawing that’s seven times bigger than the normal lottery. And that’s just the beginning of your problems. As I mentioned above, one of my issues with The Romantics was that we didn’t know anything about these characters. Well, when you spread your movie out between seven different characters, there’s not a lot of time to *go into* these characters, which forces you to have to do *more* in *less* time. So it’s just a really hard type of script to get right. I am not saying it can’t be done. It has obviously been done before. I like these types of movies and have even tried my hand at a couple myself. But you just have to know that you’re stacking the odds against yourself when you do it. My advice is, if you’re still in the early stages of your writing, try to write a script that has a single compelling character for 120 minutes. If you can do that successfully first, and you still want to tackle the ensemble, then go for it. God be with you.

Edge of Darkness

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A straight-laced but depressed cop goes on a mission to find out who killed his daughter.
About: On the eve of the announcement that Mel Gibson is reteaming with Shane Black, we get his thriller, Edge of Darkness, an adaptation of an old BBC mini-series, in theaters this Friday. This is the first project Mel’s starred in in a long time, and there were whispers it was because he was blacklisted in Hollywood after his drunken rant a few years ago. For awhile, DeNiro was actually attached to this project, but dropped out a few days into shooting because of “creative differences.” Usually, we never find out what these “creative differences” are, but in this case, we learned that it was because DeNiro didn’t memorize his lines! How cool would that have been, seeing Gibson and Deniro work together? Aww man, what could’ve been.
Writer: William Monahan
Details: 127 pages (undated)

Monahan holding up the little gold guy, looking as uncomfortable as I've ever seen a man.

Let me start off by saying I have no idea which draft this is because there’s no title page. Its 127 pages implies it’s a draft from earlier on in the process though, so this is likely a little different from the final film.

Surprising as it may sound, I’ve never read a William Monahan script before. "Surprising" because if there’s one writer who I’m continually told other writers are in awe of, it’s Monahan. The thing is, I haven’t been impressed enough by his movies to seek out any of his scripts. Despite a few nice scenes and a couple of good performances in The Departed, I thought the story was all over the place. I know some people think I'm batty for saying so, but look at Kingdom of Heaven, which also supports the case that his stories are unfocused (and yes, I saw the extended cut as well – which turned unfocused and short into unfocused and long). Body of Lies would’ve been a bad direct-to-video title had it not been for Scott, Crowe and DiCaprio’s involvement. So I was struggling to figure out just why people were so impressed with this guy.

Ten pages into Edge of Darkness, I found out. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but Monahan has a command over his words that brings even the most mundane passages alive. The thing about Edge of Darkness is it’s so relentlessly depressing that you want to give up by the end of the first act. But Monahan’s writing – the way he builds mystery, the way he builds character, the way he writes dialogue – keeps you pushing down deeper into the darkness…and enjoying it. Make no mistake, this script is about one thing – death – and never has the subject matter been so exciting.

Craven is one of those salt-of-the-earth blue collar honest Boston guys who happens to be a cop. Problem is, he’s Irish. And us Irish aren’t very good with emotions. So when his beautiful MIT-educated daughter, Emma, comes home, there are echoes of an un-nurtured relationship there, but neither of them are able to express it because of that damn Irish DNA. The irony is, this is the last chance they'll get to break the code, to give in and emote, because there is something wrong with Emma, something very wrong.

Less than a few hours after getting home, she's vomiting worse than a coed after her first keg party. Even now, Craven can't muster the courage to ask her what's wrong, and it isn't until she's barely able to walk that the two realize, maybe we should get you to the hospital NOW. The two make it on to the front porch when a man in a ski-mask and a shot gun screams out “Craven!” and pumps a couple of shots into Craven’s daughter. She dies instantly. He runs.

Initial investigation presumes a botched attempt on Craven’s life. Happens to cops all the time. Criminals they put away come back for their own brand of justice. But there’s a problem. Craven doesn’t have any enemies. He’s one of the good ones. As Monahan writes in his dialogue, Craven could “put you away for life and you’d agree that he had a point.”

But Craven knows what these men don’t know. His daughter was the target. They did something to her. But why?

It’s no coincidence this script is titled Edge of Darkness. As far as Craven is concerned, his life is over. He just has one more thing to do before he crosses over to the other side – find out who killed his daughter, and make them pay.

The reason a non-procedural fan like myself enjoyed this procedural is because it’s not another Mel Gibson driving around kicking the shit out of a bunch of deadbeats snoozer. The mystery here, which involves Emma’s employment at a secret nuclear government facility perched atop Boston, clashes blue collar with big government, and watching a nobody cop take on an establishment that normally eats nosy guys like Craven for dinner, is, for lack of a better phrase, funner than shit.

Come on! There are clearly too many edges and too much darkness in this picture.

Some of the story devices used here are as old as the medium itself, but boy do they work. These government officials are used to being able to make one phone call. “Chief, tell your guy to back off.” But Craven’s not answering to the Chief anymore. He’s gone rogue. So watching him inch his way up the company ladder, discovering the truth behind why his daughter was on the verge of dying when she came back to him that day, and outsmarting everyone in his path, is like watching dawn turn into daylight.

Now I’ll be the first to admit, what they were covering up wasn’t as cool as I wanted it to be. (Spoiler) My advice to anyone writing this kind of story. Please, for the love of God, don’t include tree-hugging environmentalists in your conspiracy. The second you involve any sort of environmentalist group into a hardcore thriller, it's like asking the Backstreet Boys to play halftime at the Super Bowl. It weakens everything. But in the end, it doesn’t matter, because the real reason we're here is to watch Craven get revenge, one asshole at a time. And in that respect, Edge of Darkness is a 70 yard touchdown.

"You talking to him? You talking to him??" 'Uh no Mr. De Niro, it's "You talking to me?"

Lots of things to like in this script. A risky but neat device Monahan uses is to have Craven talk to his daughter during the mission, even though she’s not there. We hear her voice, helping him along, and it’s a great little tool that both strengthens our understanding of how much he loves her, and constantly reminds us why he’s doing this.

Also, Monahan’s style reminds me of Esztheras’ in that once he hits a conversation, he doesn’t gum it up with unnecessary description. When a reader says, “It was 125 pages but it read like it was 90,” this is what they mean.

Edge of Darkness is still hard to read because of the thick stench of death around every Bah-stan corner. Everybody here is either dead, dying, wants to die, or trying to avoid death. It’s a little overwhelming at times and would probably be too much to take if the story weren’t so entertaining. I guess I should be happy that I’m still alive after reading it. And I am. It’s a tough and depressing script to get through, but worth it.

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

What I learned: Edge of Darkness combines two key storytelling devices that work extremely well. Revenge and the Underdog. We like to follow characters who fight back after they’ve been wronged (Taken, Gladiator, Kill Bill). And we love watching an underdog take on a much stronger opponent (Rocky, Braveheart, Die Hard). Combine that with a highly sympathetic character (he just lost his daughter), and you've got a winning formula.

Watch only if you want to see the entire movie.

Completely unrelated comment of the day: I do not have a single solitary need for the Ipad. It would not improve my life in any noticeable way whatsoever. I don't even understand why it was made. It doesn't do anything that other devices can't already do. And yet, I want one. I hate my consumer side.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Interview with Stacey Menear (writer of "Mixtape")

I am so happy to be able to share this interview with you today. Stacey Menear is the author of one of my favorite scripts of the last few months, "Mixtape," a coming of age story about a young teenage girl who finds a mixtape that belonged to her deceased parents. When she accidentally destroys it, she uses the song list to go on a search for all the music. For those who read my review of Mixtape, you'll remember Stacey's script was on 2009's Blacklist with 14 votes. But more importantly, it's number 19 on MY LIST. This is probably my favorite interview so far because Stacey gives some great advice. Stacey is managed by Jim Wedaa and repped by Valarie Phillips and Ida Ziniti. I'll shut up now so we can all learn something.

SS: First of all, how long have you been writing? How many scripts had you written before you wrote Mixtape?

SM: I visited my parents over the holidays and my mom reminded me that before I could actually write I would dictate stories to her about the further adventures of Indiana Jones. I don't remember the particulars, but apparently in my version Indiana befriends a talking snake and the two of them travel the world together going on exciting archeological adventures. Sounds like a good reboot for Indian Jones, if you ask me. So I guess I've been making up stories as long as I remember and while I haven't been writing screenplays all that long I've always written short stories and stuff like that. I'd written around 3 screenplays before Mixtape - with various starts and stops and other projects along the way.

SS: I’m sure I’m not the first one to erroneously assume that because your name was Stacey and because the script was about a 13 year old girl, that you were, in fact, female. Two questions. Do you think that assumption helped you (i.e. gave you more credit for understanding what a 13 year old girl would go through?) and what inspired a grown man to write a 13 year old female coming-of-age story?

SM: My name definitely throws people off. Though my mom denies it, my dad, who is a very manly logger living in Oregon, claims the name was a sort of "Boy Named Sue" attempt to make me grow up rough and tumble - an attempt that failed. But I've had more than one person tell me that my name is a benefit. I think its surprising when, instead of a 21 year old girl, this sort of nerdy looking guy with a receding hairline walks in - and if I surprise people hopefully they'll remember me. Every little bit helps, right?

As for the inspiration...I think it came from a lot of different places. I grew up in the Northwest and I remember thinking that the Riot Grrrls were the COOLEST thing ever. I still do actually - in fact, I'm listening to Cadallaca as I write this. Unfortunately for me, I was decidedly uncool back then. I played sports, stayed at home doing homework and rarely, if ever, stuck it to the man. But I've always been interested in the movement/era and in girl bands in general. I also knew I wanted to do something about music - and a specific kind of music that you don't necessarily hear on the radio. And, as you might guess, I'm a big fan of mixtapes. I still have a box full of mixtapes given to me over the years - many of them are broken, but I still have the cases and the amazing art work that someone obviously spent hours on. It was really fun over the course of Mixtape to go back and listen to some of them. They really are these frozen moments in time that capture events and emotions. One of my favorites is a break-up mixtape and on the cover is this really simple drawing of a broken heart and then the tape is just "Forever Young" playing over and over. As for why, specifically, a 13 year old girl? I just kept picturing the girl, Beverly Moody in my head; this chubby, awkward looking girl with big headphones on. I could hear her voice really clearly and it just went from there.

SS: I've recently received some e-mails about writers stuck in a rut, thinking their current screenplay sucks, and unable to muster up the enthusiasm to work on it. How long did it take you write Mixtape? Were there any tough times where you thought it wasn't working? And how did you get through them?

SM: I usually work on two scripts at once - I'll be doing the actual writing on one while doing the early outlining/brainstorming for the next one. The actual writing for Mixtape took around a month. It was really quick and easy by the time I sat down to write it. Most of my tough times on a script come in the outlining/earlier phases. My writing method includes feeling so anxious that a story won't work that I stay up all night in bed unable to sleep and just go over the story again and again in my head. And then waking up the next day, still feeling anxious and doing a lot of pacing and mumbling and eating many bowls of cereal. How to get through the tough times is something I'm still working out. I think doing two scripts at once is one solution. It takes some of the pressure off. If you're having trouble with one, simply go to the other one. I also don't write scenes in order. I write the scenes that I'm excited about first. If I'm having trouble on a scene it usually means there's a piece of the puzzle missing, so I'll move onto something else and come back it later. For me there's always at least one scene, character, detail that I'm excited about writing. If I focus on that one part I can keep going. It's when I start thinking about the script as a whole - and the parts that aren't working - that that I lose enthusiasm for the story.

SS: As everyone in filmmaking knows, music rights are expensive. Was using rare music in Mixtape purely a creative choice, or were you thinking about keeping the budget low to make the script more appealing to buyers?

SM: The musical choices were almost entirely chosen for creative reasons. I wasn't writing this script for anyone but myself - not a studio or producer - and so I thought I might as well choose the music that I liked and that I thought the parents in the story would have actually listened to and put on this mixtape. In some cases the songs were taken from mixtapes that people made for me, like the Bikini Kill song, and in other cases they were songs that I researched. For the Blue Hearts song I knew that I needed a song in a foreign language, but it took a while to find a song that I thought worked well and fit the story. I never really thought about budget concerns during the course of writing it. I always figured that if someone was really interested in the story I could change the music to fit their tastes.

SS: The thing I like best about your script is the emotional component, which resonates very powerfully in places, yet never goes over the top. Can you tell me how you approach the emotion in your screenplays, and what the key is to not tipping over into melodrama?

SM: That's nice of you to say. I don't know if this is a good answer, but my approach is this: I write a scene, then I read it over and ask myself, "Is this cheesy?" And I do that over and over. I was aware that Mixtape could wander off into terra-melodrama - and so, I think just being aware of what kind of story you're writing is one of the keys. Also, I think that when we talk about melodrama, what we're actually talking about is monodrama. The film is hitting the same emotional beat again and again. The best films - and most emotional films in my opinion - are the ones that take you through a whole range of emotions. E.T. comes to mind. It's scary when Elliot first meets E.T. It's somber when they mention that dad is in Mexico (a scene I love). It's sad, of course, when we think E.T. is dead. And then unbelievably joyful when he's not and the boys all fly away on their bikes. And so when you get to the end and E.T. is leaving, you've been through all these different emotions - you've been up and down and all over - and, if you're not crying at this point, then you simply don't have a soul. If the movie was just an alien dying for an hour and a half the movie would suck, for one, but also wouldn't resonate emotionally the way it does. And so I think if you're going to do an emotional story you need to hit on a variety of emotions.

SS: How did it feel to land on the Black List? And did getting on the Black List open any previously closed doors for you?

SM: It felt great. Honestly, I had never heard of the Black List until about 2 months before it came out, so it was a pleasant surprise for me. And it feels pretty rad to see your name on the same list as people like Aaron Sorkin. It's also generated some additional interest in me. There was a first wave of interest when Mixtape first began to leak out and get passed around and being on the Black List has helped keep the momentum building, as well as generate another round of meetings.

SS: I was informed in the comments section of my review that your script won the Zoetrope screenwriting competition. I feel like with you winning, the answer to this question is obvious, but do you support screenwriting competitions? Had you entered a lot of them before? Was Mixtape rejected by any notable competitions?

SM: I love them! When I finished Mixtape I really didn't know what to do with it. I was living in Los Angeles but didn't know anyone working in film. This always seems to surprise people, but it is, in fact, possible to live in L.A. and be completely outside the film industry. So, without any idea of how to get Mixtape in someone's hands, I entered it into Zoetrope (and another competition that I never heard back from). My manager, Jim Wedaa, found the script through the competition and then hooked me up with my agents Valarie Phillips and Ida Ziniti. I'm very thankful to Zoetrope for helping me along - and, from my experience, would highly recommend people try it out if they think they have a good script.

SS: In one of the greatest interviews I’ve ever listened to about screenwriting, Christopher McQuarrie noted that when he wrote his Oscar-winning screenplay, “The Usual Suspects,” it was really a patchwork effort just to get through the thing, and he really had little idea what he was doing. It was only afterwards that he learned the “rules” of screenwriting, and although he doesn’t say it, he implies that he’s still never written anything as good . What are your thoughts on the rules? Do you follow a set structure when you write? Do you break the rules? Should writers follow rules at all?

SM: This is actually something I've thought about quite a bit and here's what I've come up with: for geniuses rules are obstacles, and for the rest of us rules are helpful. I feel like rules and limitations in what I can and can't do in a script frees me up to be creative. Having said that, I don't necessarily use the rules I've read online and from books. I've made up a lot of my own rules as I've gotten better at writing. And I think that's what it's about - the rules should fit your story and they should fit what you do as a writer. I tend to write in four act structures and always build stories around, what I view, as three premises that could stand on their own as films. I can imagine that as McQuarrie was writing "The Usual Suspects" having little idea of what he was doing was perfect. It helped create this hugely surprising and satisfying twist in the film because not even the writer saw it coming. But I imagine that same style wouldn't work in doing something like adapting a novel. Anyways, the point is - unless you're a genius it's probably a good idea to use the rules. But find the ones that work for you and your writing style.

SS: What is that one thing in a script you try to get right above all else, and what's your process for achieving it? (ie, plot? character? dialogue?)

SM: I have a sign above my desk (I'm looking at it as I write this) that says, "Character, Dialogue, Motivation, Archetypes, The Unexpected and A Hook". So I guess those would be the aspects that I focus on. To that list I would add simplicity. I really like simple, elegant scripts. I like scripts that let me know a clear goal, the obstacles, etc. And I like my scripts to read quickly. One of the best compliments I can get for a script is, "I read it in one sitting." I always think of the person reading my scripts. They've read tons of scripts, they don't want to read mine - so how can I keep them reading?

SS: Let’s go back to the day you decided to pursue screenwriting. When having an agent or a manger seemed a million miles away. If Present You could go back and give that young buck advice on the fastest way to breaking into the business, what would you tell him?

SM: I would pass on this article to my past self My first script was pretty much the most lugubrious, melancholy and hopeless script ever written by man. I would let you read it, but I'm pretty sure it would make you lose the will to live. Not only was it depressing, but it had no real hook at all, no premise. It was just this embarrassingly personal exaggerated account of living in a small logging town. And the worst part was that I worked my ass off on that script. I spent hours and hours writing it and re-writing it. So, if I could go back and to talk to my past self, I'd give him that link and tell him to work on things that at least have some small chance of ever getting made. And also, something that I strangely only learned after writing two full scripts, write the kind of movies you like watching.

SS: Care to tell us what you may be working on next?

SM: Right now I'm finishing up a spec script that will hopefully done in the near future and will be a much different - and much bigger - story than Mixtape was. I'm also sorting through open assignment and trying to find something that I can really get excited about and that I feel fits my writing style. It's actually a really interesting place to be in - and one that I haven't heard many people talk about. There are lots of websites and books about writing, but not much about the process of choosing projects and doing pitches etc. So I'm enjoying learning about the next stage and hopefully you'll be hearing from me again soon.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Company Men

Genre: Drama
Premise: Three corporate men must deal with the specific challenges of getting laid off during a recession.
About: The Company Men debuted at Sundance with many impressed smiles, despite its downbeat subject matter. Many are calling it, “The film Up In The Air should’ve been.” Man, are we already committing verbal terrorism on the 37,000 foot Clooney vehicle? Well, I certainly had problems with it, but this isn’t the time or the place to get into that. The Company Men stars Tommy Lee Jones, Ben Affleck, and Kevin Costner. Its writer, John Wells, is also its director. Wells has spent the majority of his career executive producing such films as Infamous, One Hour Photo, I’m Not There, and over a dozen more. He’s also written and produced a ton of TV, including that tiny passing fad on NBC known as ER. This is his first feature writing and directing project.
Writer: John Wells
Details: 120 pages (January 2, 2009 draft)

Affleck will play Bobby

Being an executive producer for over a decade, I’m betting John Wells has read a thousand scripts. Looking through his resume, the man clearly thrives on risky independent fare, and you have to respect him for it, because producing films that sunbathe on the indie circuit more often leaves you with a bright red sunburn (both literally and in the old bank account) than a bronzy head-turning tan. I suppose residuals from ER even it all out though. That pedigree of limitless TV work, and not just reading tons of scripts, but reading tons of scripts that actually strive to be different and good, gives Wells a huge advantage on his first trip to the big screen as a writer-director.

I have no idea if this is Wells' first feature script or simply the first one he's done something with, but The Company Men suffers from a technical style that, combined with its technical subject matter, makes for a tough read. As always, it should be noted that this is a writer-director script, which means he's writing it just as much for himself as for others (namely actors he's trying to lure). Combine that with the fact that this seems to be a shooting draft, and I'm prepared to excuse at least some of the clinical storytelling. Still, there's so little warmth, in both the style and subject matter here, that I felt it difficult to connect with the material.

The Company Men follows three employees on different rungs of the company ladder. There’s Bobby, the 30 year old “corporate warrior” with the pretty wife, the two kids, the mortgage, the Porsche, and the membership at the most expensive country club in town. There’s Phil, the aging “Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross” type whose difficulty keeping up with current trends may be why he can’t pull in the same mega-deals he used to, and then there’s Gene, one of the few corporate men who still has a heart, trying to save as many employees as he can, at the expense of the bottom line.

Jones will play Gene

All of these men work for a huge company called GTX, a sort of “does-it-all” super-corporation whose divisions are vague enough that I can’t remember any of them. This is one of the first things that turned me off of The Company Men. The company, in its vagueness, obviously acts as a stand-in for every mega-corporation in the U.S.A. Which would’ve been fine, except we spend an enormous amount of time discussing the boring specifics of how the company operates and what's going on inside of it. I wasn’t sure if I was reading a screenplay or hanging out with Warren Buffet.

When the script gets hunkered down in this discussion about stock shares and sub-divisions and conglomerate theories, it almost enters the realm of anti-entertainment. I didn't understand any of it which means I had to work twice as hard to enjoy the story. And the problem is that Phil and Gene's stories through the first half of the screenplay are stuck inside this world. So it's nearly impossible to get into them.

The good news is that the script has a saving grace. And that grace is in the man who saved our planet from an asteroid. Or at least, the actor who's playing that part saved us. Bobby's (Ben Affleck) story isn't about stock shares or consulting tactics or board room politics. It’s simply about a guy with a family and a mortgage who loses his 120,000 dollar a year job and quickly begins to freak the fuck out when he realizes he may not find another one. Every time we’re with Bobby the script feels like it's been lifted out of molasses, because it becomes about something. Bobby hasn't hit any roadblocks in his life before this. He's one of those people who assumed the good life would just keep on being good. So when his shiny cars are threatened, when his country club membership is threatened, when the very bed he sleeps in is threatened, he refuses to accept it. He goes into Stage 4 denial and simply keeps on living the life he's used to living. But it doesn't last. It can't last. And watching his meltdown is depressing but also the most entertaining part of the script.

Costner will play Phil (now "Jack")

Unfortunately, Bobby only pops up every once in awhile, his story getting wedged between Phil and Gene's redundant boardroom politics and backroom parties. And we have to tread through all that molasses to find that little bottle Bobby's hiding in again, if only for a few minutes or a couple of scenes. Eventually, the Gene and Phil storylines take on a less technical tone, and focus more on the personal side of their journeys, and while it's a desperately welcome change, it's too little too late. I had a hard time caring by that point.

The weird thing is, I didn’t feel much sympathy for any of these characters, despite their sympathetic situations. I mean, it’s not like these are high-school flunkies working at Wal-Mart, getting fired from the only job they know how to do. That, to me, is the true definition of a catastrophe. These men all have nice houses, ‘59 Corvettes, and VIP memberships at every establishment in town. I mean, they’re pissed at their company’s outrageous overspending which resulted in their termination. But they’re just as guilty, lavishly overspending in every aspect of their own lives. Who makes 120 grand, 300 hundred grand, 1 million dollars a year, and isn’t smart enough to put a big chunk of it away in case things get bad? And maybe that’s what Wells is trying to say. That we all live above our means and haven't shit-proofed enough of our fans. But I wanted to root for these characters and their stupidity gave me enough pause to think twice about it.

I guess people are now saying that Up In The Air is “The Company Men for Dummies.” But I’d switch that around. I’d say The Company Men is “Up in the Air For Rocket Scientists.” It’s so entrenched in corporate-speak and CNBC’isms and the technical details of what’s happening at the top, that unless you’re familiar with that world, it’s a tough story to get lost in. It’ll be interesting to see if the movie stresses those things, or focuses more on the personal aspect, which is the where the focus should be.

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

What I learned: The Company Men was a huge reminder of how important it is to focus on your characters and their relationships. Whatever subject matter you choose to tell your story in, it’s obviously important to give us enough of the details that it feels authentic. But if you go overboard, you’re going to lose your general audience, the ones who don’t know enough to be able to follow the specifics of that subject matter. Never forget that the thing your audience cares about is your characters’ journey. We don’t walk out of a theater remembering how GTX fucked over Phil by stonewalling his stockyard division by cutting a secret deal with the Koreans. That’s not what stays with us. What stays with us is an embarrassed Phil having to tell his daughter she can’t go on her school trip to Italy because he can’t afford it. Never forget that. It’s always about the characters.

Scriptshadow Contest Winners Announced Feb. 8

Lots of people have been asking about the contest. I apologize I haven't given an update. Some unexpected work has made reading the scripts take a little longer than planned. So the official announcement of the winner, as well as the two runners-up, will be announced on February 8th. Come back then to find out who takes the crown.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Congratulations to Buried and Chris Sparling

Wanted to give a congratulations to everyone associated with Buried, the risk-taking trapped-in-a-coffin project that had a big night this weekend, becoming the first film sold at Sundance, when Lionsgate picked it up (for between 3-4 million). I always saw this as something that could light up the independent circuit, but the strong word of mouth from the festival as well as the Lionsgate pick-up means this project could have much more ambitious goals. Check out some of the reviews from Aint-It-Cool , Firstshowing, Variety, as well as Slash-Film. You can also go back and read my original review of the script back in June, as well as my interview with its writer, Chris Sparling. To this day it remains the second most downloaded script from the site (the first is Source Code) and I truly believe you guys helped build the pre-buzz that made sure a lot of eyes were on the film when it debuted this weekend. I'm telling you, this is the new way to get buzz for your film. Get your script out there. :)

The Bone Orchard

Should be a fun week. With Sundance going on, I decided to review a couple of popular scripts from the festival. Make sure to sign up for my Twitter or Facebook (links to the upper right) so you can be informed when those reviews go up and maybe snag copies of the scripts. Don't know how long they'll be up so act fast. I also have an interview coming from a recent Top 25 writer. He gives some great advice so you're going to want to check that out. And finally, expect a review of a flick opening this Friday by one of the biggest writers in town, William Monahan. Right now, Roger brings us that rare genre mash-up, the vampire western! Let's see if he liked it.

Genre: Western, Horror
Premise: Wanted in their home state of Texas, a brother-and-sister gunslinger duo lie low in the Old West town of Bone Orchard. When the "Coolies", Chinese immigrants slaving away on the Transcontinental Railroad, summon an ancient Chinese vampire to avenge their collective mistreatment, the gunslingers are forced to form an uneasy alliance with the Texas Ranger who hunts them if they want to survive.
About: Optioned by U.K. based production and development company, Red Sparrow. John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, Animal House) is attached as director. Russel Brand and Mila Kunis are said to be circling.
Writer: M.D. Presley

I can see why "The Bone Orchard" appeals to John Landis. Like me, he obviously shares a love for the Genre Mash-up. Not for the faint of heart, mashing two genres together is an alchemical balancing act of irony and contrast. Not only do you have to understand the intricacies of each of your chosen genre's conventions, you have to have a bit of the lunatic in you to even attempt such a narrative feat. In the early 80s, financiers thought John Landis' werewolf script (a little screenplay called An American Werewolf in London) was too frightening to be a comedy and too funny to be a horror film.
Silly suits.
So this is a mash-up of the gunslinging Western and the fang-banging Vampire Horror film?
Correct you are. But these ain't cliché Eurotrash vampires. The writer turned to Eastern mythology for this particular creature feature. A wise choice, because gone are the familiar vampire mythos staples such as crosses, garlic and holy water.
Instead, we get salt, fire and holding your breath.
You see what the writer did? He took a classic monster (and its mythos) that everyone knows so well, and spun it on its head to present his audience with something new.
With something unfamiliar.
The result is a fresh take on a classic genre. This simple decision helps lend a latent intrigue to the story that separates it (and its logline) from all the other vampire scripts out there.
Sounds cool. What about the Western aspect?
Fortunately, it's more than just setting.
Twenty-something gunslingers Deacon and Lucretia "Cree" Corley are on the run. Cree shadows the jovial and loquacious Deacon as they ride into the town of Beauton, nicknamed the Bone Orchard for the cemetery that seems to be growing just as fast as the booming town. Perhaps the sullen and mysterious Cree did something bad to warrant their exodus out of Texas. Or perhaps not.
Like in any Western, the first matter of business when arriving to a new town is finding the saloon. It's here that Deacon finds his old friend Clement, who insists on being called "Tex" because he's from Texas. Deacon won't humor his friend in this regard, but Cree won't humor him at all. She's quick to expose him as a cheat at cards to the rest of the patrons, and because she's the cleverest Corley, she doesn't trust the guy.
Clement has a pretty sweet gig with the Transcontinental Railroad as a hired gun. He protects the stagecoaches from Sacramento that carry the company wages. But because Clement is a bit of a con-man, he likes to work both sides of the law. He's not above paying bandits to pretend to rob the coach just so he can collect and split up the reward money. Deacon learns of this con firsthand as Clement shows him the ropes.
Cree ain't too privy about this kind of work, because (1) she doesn't trust Clem, and (2) she's concerned with keeping a low-profile.
Why is Cree so surreptitious?
I won't give it away, but let's just say that Cree is a cold-blooded gamine.
And all gamines have stalkers, but Cree's is particularly worrisome.
He's a mean mother by the name of Manny, a poncho and sombrero wearing Texas Ranger who has ventured out of his jurisdiction not so much for justice, but for a Cree-shaped bounty.
She can lie low in the Bone Orchard, but it's no guarantee that Manny and his Colts won't find her.
Isn't there another side of the Bone Orchard that exists in sharp contrast to the Old West iconography?
Yes, and that's where it gets interesting.
At about the same as the Corleys arrive in Beauton, so does an ornate Palanquin, a wheel-less carriage born on the shoulders of four Chinese men who carry it to the Chinese Side of town.
The Palanquin carries Bei Sheng, a Chinese dignitary who has come to the Bone Orchard "to see the treatment of our people." He has brought a Box with him, "A weapon; one my family has wielded for generations."
The box catches the attention of Jin, the daughter of Shi Man Tau, a "Coolie" who lives the equivalent of a slave existence at the tip of the Transcontinental Railroad's whip. He appeals to Bei Sheng to take Jin back to China with him. This wild land is too dangerous for her and he wants her safe in her homeland.
Bei Sheng agrees, and because Jin speaks English, he also takes her on as his translator during his time in the Old West.
When Jin gets too enraptured with the Box in his possession, he tells her, "Like any weapon, we have adorned it in trappings tempting to the eyes. And that the eye covets the hand must touch."
As we can all guess, when Bei Sheng witnesses a tunnel collapse that traps and possibly kills ten to fifteen Chinamen, he is not too pleased. But somehow, he maintains a stoic façade when the callous Mr. Maxwell (the train company boss) convinces a foreman to continue tunneling with dynamite with complete disregard for Coolie life.
What the hell's inside Bei Sheng's Box?
Sweet, undead poontang, mein friends. Sweet, undead poontang.
Bei Sheng requests an audience with Mr. Maxwell during dinner. He wants to impart a gift to the Transcontinental boss-man. He opens the lid, revealing our Bride with White Hair: Jiong Zhao, a beautiful Chinese woman adorned in traditional attire. Obscuring her face is a yellow parchment covered in Taoist characters.
A former concubine nicknamed "Bright Dawn", Jiong Zhao is a vampire who has been captured by Bei Sheng's family, "Like you, she lives off the blood of others. She too is an evil thing, so I find it fitting she puts an end to you."
But when Jiong Zhao slaughters Mr. Maxwell and Bei Sheng and rips the parchment that binds her to Bei Sheng's family, all bets are off.
Jiong Zhao is not too pleased to find herself in a barbaric land called California, and enslaving Jin as plaything, tour-guide, and translator, she begins infecting the townspeople.
It takes hardly any time at all before the Corleys, Manny, the Sheriff, his Deputy, and the salty Scottish barmaid Maddie find themselves in a 30 Days of Night-esque pressure cooker.
Except, you know, this is better than that film. For starters, this is just plain fun.
Think Crouching Gunslingers, Hidden Wuxia Vampire, and you'll get the idea.
How are Chinese vampires different from the traditional Eurotrash vampires?
Ahhh so...but first we must ask: How many souls does one have?
You said one?
Wrong. There are two. The higher and the lower.
Jiong Zhao explains, "Sometimes though when one dies the lower soul is caught as breath within the body, and when the body is not buried it rises as Jiang Shi. When they awaken, they have only the lower soul. With an animal's hunger, they seek food from the blood of the living. It is only with time that thought and control return, and when they do the Jiang Shi's hair turns white as a sign of power."
Weaknesses are salt (rocksalt was never so fun) and fire.
But the coolest thing, and something I wish was used to create more tension and drama, is that if you hold your breath, the undead can't see you.
This is such a great device and opportunity to create a tense and claustrophobic scene, but I felt it was never fully milked or exploited for maximum effect.
If anything held this script back for me, it was the fact that I wanted more. I wanted more of The Funny, more of The Action, more of The Horror. It wraps together pretty fast, and I felt like there was a major loose thread that was never tucked in. Overall (and this is just my comicbook geek opinion), I wanted more bombastic storytelling that milked this premise for all it was worth.
Overall, a fun and competent mash-up that somehow never goes over-the-top (and you think it would). "The Bone Orchard" not only has a great contrast of cultures for director John Landis to explore, but it's also a refreshing take on the vampire mythos with hopeful franchise opportunity.
I love Cree, and I want her to have her own James Bond-like series. What do you think?

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

What I learned: Show your audience something it hasn't seen before. Sure, we've all seen plenty of vampire movies. We live in a media climate where a Mormon gal de-fanged the traditional vampire into Tolkien High Men or Emily Bronte Heathcliffs whose skin *sparkle* in the sunlight. And everyone seems to love it. It's a constant source of argument between me and my teenage concubines who don't know the difference between a real vampire and the emasculated caricature of what they think a vampire is.
The point is, if you're working with familiar tropes, try to create something new. Or if you're mining material that's become common knowledge, turn to other sources, other mythologies that a western audience might not be so privy to. Generally, if people don't want to necessarily learn about new things, they want to be entertained with something novel. Something new or different. I wouldn't recommend writing about vampires (or zombies or werewolves) unless you have a take on the subject that's so unique an audience is willing to spend cash-money to see it for themselves.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Weekly Rundown

So here's a feature I hope will become a regular thing on Scriptshadow, where we run down the major events in the writing world each week. It may even one day replace the Friday review. But don't worry, I'd add another supremely awesome feature to offset that - namely a quick synopsis of a script too hot to review traditionally (like, say, a PTA script). Anyway, I'd like to introduce you guys to Jessica Hall, who will be providing us with this feature. Let me know if this is something you want to see more of...

Just a week after SPIDER-MAN 4 was officially scrapped, it’s back on again with a new director and a slew of [false] casting rumors. Marc Webb ({500} DAYS OF SUMMER) is set to direct the franchise reboot geared towards teens and tweens. Rumors about Robert Pattison and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt were quickly quashed in favor of a yet to be determined cast of relative unknowns. New storyline will center on a teen struggling with the knowledge that he could have saved his uncle. Working from Jamie Vanderbilt’s (ZODIAC) script, shooting is expected to start this year with a budget of around $80M. (

Lots of news this week about writer Michael R. Perry. It’s rumored that Ben Stiller is circling his 2009 Black List script THE VOICES (ScriptShadow says it’s “Impressive”). Meanwhile, Perry has signed on to write Paramount’s PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 with Kevin Greutert to direct.

The Duplass Brothers (BAGHEAD) are set to write and direct JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME with Jason Reitman producing. It’s about a stoner who sets off on an elaborate search for wood glue.

THE CHANCELLOR MANUSCRIPT attached Marc Forster (QUANTUM OF SOLACE) to direct and Peter O’Brien (2008 Black List script UNLOCKED) to adapt from Robert Ludlum’s novel. Previous drafts have been penned by Allessandro Camon and Michael Seitzman. O'Brien is also writing the game story for the Microsoft game "Halo: Reach." Marc Forster is also set to direct MACHINE GUN PREACHER, which Gerard Butler is circling. (

Summit continues their fascination with the undead, hiring Jonathan Levine (THE WACKNESS) to write and direct zombie love project WARM BODIES. (

DreamWorks added attachments to two projects. DJ Caruso (EAGLE EYE) signed on to direct I AM NUMBER FOUR from a script by Gough & Millar while Ronald Harwood will write UNTITLED MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. BIOPIC. Harwood, who hails from South Africa, won an Oscar for THE PIANIST and was nominated for THE DRESSER and THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY. Caruso is also attached to direct THE DEFENDERS for DW and Kurtzman/Orci. (;

British director Andrea Arnold is the third director to attach to WUTHERING HEIGHTS. She replaces Peter Webber, who replaced John Maybury. This is the first time Arnold has not directed from her own material instead working from Olivia Hetreed’s (GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRINGS) script. (

PROTECTION has replaced its lead actor and director with director Patrick Alessandrin (District 13: Ultimatum) and actor Clive Owen. Brandon Noonan, who wrote the script, also has ARROW set up at WB with Rob Cohen attached to direct. (

Sundance has arrived and Paramount Pictures has claimed the first acquisition of the festival. Studio plans a fall release for Davis Guggenheim’s new doc “WAITING FOR SUPERMAN. This time around, Guggenheim (AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH) tackles the crisis in public education. (

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Manhattan Ghost Story


Genre: Paranormal Love Story
Premise: An odd twist-filled love story set in New York City.
About: Robert Lawrence Productions optioned T.M. Wright's novel, "A Manhattan Ghost Story," in 1990, then sold the rights to Carolco Pictures, who exercised the option in 1993, but not before paying Ron Bass a record amount, 2 million dollars, for an adaptation. In 1996, Disney bought the rights to the script in the Carolco bankruptcy sale, for 1.7 million. This script is known these days for basically one thing. I’d tell you what that thing was but it’s too big of a spoiler. What I’ll recommend you do is read the script first, then come back here and read the review, because in the review, I’ll be getting into all the spoilers. I’m really interested to hear what people who have no prior knowledge of this script will have to say.
Writer: Ron Bass (based off the novel "A Manhattan Ghost Story" by T.M. Wright)
Details: 123 pages (1996 spec draft)


So as people familiar with the plight of Manhattan Ghost Story (a title play, of course, on “Manhattan Love Story”) know, this is the script that thought up the “main character is a ghost” twist before M. Night wrote The Sixth Sense. In fact, I remember reading an article on AICN back in the day which brought up the notion that M. Night flat out plagiarized Manhattan Ghost Story. With this script selling in 1996 and The Sixth Sense selling in 97, it would be difficult to argue that Night hadn’t at least checked out the script. But there’s one major difference between these two stories. Night executes his version of the idea into one of the best spec screenplays of all time. And Bass executes his into a passable diversion which leaves more questions than answers. At the very least, it’s a great exercise in seeing how two people can have the same idea and take it in two completely different directions.

Manhattan Ghost Story stirred up memories of one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, which ironically, was a huge spec sale of its own. I’m talking about David Benioff’s “Stay” (1.8 million – note: I’ve actually never read the script, so I can only go on the movie). This movie spent its entire running time showing us weird people doing weird things that made no sense. It was supposed to build suspense and mystery. And hey, if you do five minutes of that then yes, it is intriguing. But 2 hours of it is akin to stabbing your brain repeatedly with an ice pick. All of this was to be tolerated because each script had an ace in the hole – its “twist ending.” But that’s the problem. They relied so heavily on their big “oh my gosh” moment, that they forgot what it is in a screenplay that requires the most attention: the actual story.

The good news is, Manhattan Ghost Story isn’t nearly as bad as Stay. After the laborious first 40 pages, a story starts to emerge. Aaron Cray, an unassuming photographer, is going to be living in New York for a few months while he does some photography work. Strangely, an acquaintance he never got along with named Paul DeGraff has allowed him to stay at his apartment. Which, you know, makes no sense whatsoever. When Aaron gets to the apartment, he’s surprised to see the beautiful but mysterious Julianne Potter there. Julianne is Paul’s old girlfriend. But right away she starts flirting with Aaron for some reason. There's an odd sexiness to this woman. But it's complicated by a detached sleepwalking quality, as if she’s not really there. In fact, there’s a detached sleepwalking quality to everybody in this script, which is part of the reason it takes so much effort to get into.

Well, it’s on page 40 that we learn that Aaron sees dead people. He’s been given a gift, like few others have been given, where he can see the dead walking around with the living. He learns, unfortunately, that Julianne is one of those dead, and that therefore he’s fallen in love with a ghost.

Through the help of a psychic, Aaron learns the rules of the ghost universe. Ghosts can only hang onto the real world through emotional attachment. The less emotions they feel, the more they fade away. When all of their emotional attachment is gone, they disappear completely. The two most dominant emotions are love and anger. So all of the ghosts still living in Manhattan are either really angry or really lovesick. That’s why Julianne can be seen so clearly by Aaron, because of her love for him.

Click for the novel on Amazon.

Carrying on a relationship with a dead person isn’t easy, but Aaron puts his best untagged foot forward. They figure as long as their love remains strong, Julianne won’t disappear. This dreamy scenario is ruined, however, when Paul tumbles back into the picture. You remember Paul, right? He’s the one who lent Aaron the apartment, the one who used to date Julianne, and, oh yeah, the one who MURDERED HER. Paul still isn’t over his ex-living gf. And, in fact, is pissed off that she’s still partly alive. I mean how have you murdered someone if they’re still walking around banging other guys? In Paul’s mind, he has to kill her. Again. And this is his plan. If he kills the person she loves (Aaron), her love will die and she’ll disappear. Which will make her really truly dead.

So Aaron and Julianne go running around, trying to avoid Evil Paul, but they can only hide for so long (they do happen to live in his apartment) and Paul’s finally able to corner them. He moves to kill Aaron, only to watch his weapon *swing through him*. Wait a minute. What??? We learn that, gasp, Aaron’s been dead this whole time too! And hence, the same “twist” as The Sixth Sense (albeit before Night thought of it). But here’s where things get loco essay. Because unlike The Sixth Sense, the twist doesn’t answer all our questions, but brings up a boatload of new ones.

It turns out Julianne had been cheating on Paul in real life with Aaron. So Paul murdered both of them and, I believe, killed himself. The only way for Paul to stay “present” in this world as a ghost was through emotion. Since he didn’t have the emotion of love, his only chance to stay was to utilize his emotion of hate. So he set the two up again, which is why he gave them his apartment (His apartment is still empty even though he’s dead?), so he could continue to experience his rage-filled hatred, so he could stay alive in the ghost world.

Now stay with me here. Cause I’m just as confused as you.

How was Aaron able to have a photography job with a boss who greeted him every day? How was she able to see him if he was a ghost? Good question. I don’t’ know. Something about how Aaron died recently so his presence was still strong with her. Why can’t ghosts remember how they died? It seemed the only answer was that it was convenient for the plot (if they could remember how they died, we wouldn’t have a story). There’s a bunch of other questions that popped into my head. Like why would Paul attack Aaron, trying to end his life, if he knew Aaron was already dead? It would have to mean that Paul was pretending to end his life (he knows he's dead so he knows the weapon won't harm Aaron). But since Paul knew that would end the façade he’d set up in order to stay angry, wouldn’t he be threatening his own existence, since he couldn’t be “angry” anymore? And how do you “set up a scenario” so that you’re angry in the first place? Aren’t you either angry or not angry? Ugh, I don’t know what’s going on.

But I’m glad I read the script because I think it helps illustrate just how genius The Sixth Sense was. When the big twist comes at the end, we *get it*. There’s no backtracking to explain huge plot holes. There’s no head-scratching accompanied by endless questions, “But then how…” It’s just: boom. Understood. Ironically, in all the rest of Night’s movies, he made the exact same mistakes that Manhattan Ghost Story did (anyone remember The Village). It’s the true test of if a twist works. When the twist comes, do we *get it* or do you have to start explaining everything? If you have to start explaining, go back to the drawing board and start again. Your twist doesn’t work.

Another thing to learn from this script is to be careful whenever you’re creating a new world that you don’t overburden it with rules. The more rules you have to bring into your story, the more you’re asking your reader to remember, which puts too much of the burden on them. Instead of you doing the work (and simplifying it), you’re making them do the work. And you reach a point where you’ve over-ruled your script. A certain part of the reader’s mind has shut down, either voluntarily or involuntarily (they simply can’t remember anything), and so even though “technically” speaking everything makes sense, it doesn’t make sense to them because they haven’t been able to keep track of it all. Always err on the side of simplicity. If your rules are too convoluted, back up and either get rid of some or simplify them. You’ll be doing the reader and the story a huge service.

Ultimately, this was a frustrating experience. The story doesn’t work without the twist. And the twist is too convoluted to make the story worthwhile. Some of the relationship stuff is okay, but hampered by the odd “ghost-speak” the characters are forced to use.

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

What I learned: The key thing I learned from Manhattan Ghost Story is to never depend on your twist too much. The greatest twist stories will work whether you add the twist or not. That’s what makes the twist so great in fact, is that the audience believes the movie is over, but then BAM, there’s one final surprise. That’s why The Sixth Sense worked so well. Had you never shown the twist, it still would’ve been an enjoyable story. A therapist finally finds redemption from being responsible for one of his patient’s suicides by helping a boy overcome his unique curse. Stop it right there and we’re satisfied. Take out the twist in Manhattan Ghost Story, and you don’t have a movie at all. Take out the twist in Stay and you don't have a movie at all. Never depend too much on your twist!

So why did it sell?: I’m not sure why this sold. We have to view it in the context of pre-Sixth Sense, and that’s not easy to do. I suppose a story, however well executed, where the main character is revealed to have been a ghost the whole time, would’ve been quite an awesome surprise to read at the end of a spec, much like Remember Me was somewhat average when you read it, but then was elevated by its surprise ending. Bass himself was a huge writer at the time, with impressive credits like Sleeping With The Enemy, Dangerous Minds, and Rain Man. So I’m sure his track record played into it. It’s just really hard to imagine how this script would’ve resonated had I never seen The Sixth Sense before. I’m sure I would’ve thought it was much cooler though.