Saturday, February 27, 2010

For Aspiring Screenwriters - The Screenwriter Consortium

Hello all. Wanted to give you a heads up on a very cool project in the works. A friend of mine, Elsa, one of the smartest and nicest people you'll ever meet, realized one day that the model for selling screenplays was broken, specifically when it came to the Latino market (if you're ever in the mood to laugh for an hour, ask Elsa her opinion on the current crop of Latino-themed movies in theaters). Both a writer and a business woman herself, she decided to use her business acumen to correct that. As she reached out to the Latino community, she realized that there were all kinds of minority markets that were being overlooked, and decided to expand her original vision to include struggling writers from all walks of life. Basically, she's approaching the spec market from a radically different angle. But because she's the expert here, I'll let her explain it to you.

Howdy, Scriptshadow!

Thanks for the opportunity to appear on your insightful blog—an honor, a privilege, and I promise that check will clear next week—this time for real.

The Screenwriter Consortium’s intent is to develop script inventories for a variety of target audiences. We began the process targeting the Latino market because of the billion dollars per year this group represents. Success with the Latino market should open up opportunities in other markets, e.g., women, mature, genre marketing, other ethnic, etc., with the hope of providing writers another venue in which to sell his/her scripts.

Rather than solicit script sales on a script-by-script, writer-by-writer basis, the inventory method allows the buyer to evaluate scripts on a target market basis—scripts written to appeal directly to a chosen audience.

In addition, the Latino Heart Blog speaks directly with our target audience, serves to develop awareness of the lack of English-speaking, Latino-centric feature films developed by Hollywood while entertaining our readers. After all, we are entertainers, aren’t we?

Our primary goal is not for our writer members to obtain representation, win writing contests, or receive accolades for literary prowess…our goal is TO.SELL.SCRIPTS.

Thanks for listening,

P.S. If any of you haven’t tried Scriptshadow’s script consulting service…he’s brutal, vicious, ruthless, mean—and always right. I hate him.

Not really, I wanna impress the school yard bullies so I don’t get beat up, too.

For more questions, contact Elsa at

Friday, February 26, 2010

Weekly Rundown

Jessica Hall back again, doing what she does best. And no, for all you e-mailers asking, Jessica is not the love child of the mega-sensation 80s pop group "Hall and Oats." There's enough juiciness in here to open a Robek's. Superman being re-re-re-re-booted by Goyer. The It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia boys selling a Hangover clone. Christensen getting another million dollar payday when life has already been too kind to him (he's a rock star). A project about politeness and manners is being put into the pipeline. David Gordon Green is staying in the mainstream by directing The Sitter. And they're making a Zoolander 2 with Jonah Hill as the villain. And Russel hid Boston Rob's hat. Wow, we could talk about this stuff for months. -- My ass is too lazy to embed the links right now so you'll have to wait your equally lazy asses until later.

Russel says: "Do they know who's running the show? I'm the puppet-master. Except when Jessica Hall gives me the Scriptshadow Rundown. When Jessica gives the rundown, it's all cool. Cause I love Jessica."

New spec KILLER by Kenny Golde (dir. THE JOB) sold to Parkes/MacDonald and Hyde Park in a bidding war. Script uses the documentary-style footage (à la PARANORMAL ACTIVITY) to tell the story of a serial killer and the detectives trying to catch him. (

Paramount and Montecito picked up Lee & Walsh’s (“It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia “) spec 21 SHOTS. It’s based on an idea by writers Hurwitz & Schlossberg (GRANDMA VS. GRANDMA) who are also producing. While they’ve sold pilots to FBC and ABC, this is Lee & Walsh’s first spec. 21 Shots centers around a guy who, on his 21st birthday, loses his I.D. and needs to track it down over the course of a day. Montecito bought the spec preemptively through their Paramount discretionary fund. (

It took over a week, but Lionsgate finally won the bidding war over Shawn Christensen's (KARMA COALITION) spec ABDUCTION, reportedly for nearly $1 million. Taylor Lautner is attached to star. Lionsgate is expected to rush to get a director on the project and begin production before they lose Lautner to his many other commitments. (

Warner Bros. is out to writers after picking up a pitch from Underground Films’ Nick Osborne. Untitled picture is based on Emily Post’s bestselling book “Etiquette” and is billed as “My Fair Lady” with the genders reversed. (

Erin Cressida Wilson (CHLOE) is set to adapt Lisa See's book "Peony in Love" for Fox 2000 and Scott Free. Set in 17th century China, the book revolves around a young woman who starves herself to death after falling in love with a man she fears she'll never be allowed to wed. (

It’s a good week for writing team Posamentier & Moore. In addition to writing GRANDMA'S INTERGALACTIC BED & BREAKFAST for Disney and Mandeville, they will make their directing debut with BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY. INTERGALACTIC, an adaptation of the first book in Clete Smith’s series that Disney optioned last year, is about a boy who goes to visit his hippie grandmother and discovers her inn caters to vacationing aliens. CHEMISTRY centers on a meek small-town pharmacist who begins an affair with a trophy wife who introduces him to the wonderful world of prescription drugs. But when they begin to plot her husband's murder, everything falls apart. The duo, former execs at Double Feature and Mad Chance Prods., respectively, are also penning "Oh Happy Day" for Disney and Mandeville. (,

Fox announced that Alex Tse (WATCHMEN) will adapt the first book in John Twelve Hawks’ Fourth Realm Trilogy. THE TRAVELER is set in a U.S. society run by a secret organization who control the population via constant observation. Seeking to rebel against these constraints are an almost extinct group of people called Travelers, who can project their spirit into other dimensions, and their protectors, called Harlequins. Project was previously set up at Universal and Kennedy/Marshall with a script by Miro & Bernard (PRINCE OF PERSIA). (

Gregory Allen Howard (REMEMBER THE TITANS) is back to football for his next project. He’ll write THE MAGICIAN, a biopic about Marlin “The Magician” Briscoe, the first black starting quarterback. (

Greg Berlanti will rewrite and direct comic adaptation THE FLASH for Warner Bros. Previous draft was by Dan Mazeau (JONNY QUEST). Berlanti wrote GREEN LANTERN and was attached to direct until Martin Campbell boarded that project. ( - subscription required).

David Gordon Green (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS) will direct Gatewood & Tanaka’s 2009 spec THE SITTER. Comedy, a cross between SUPERBAD and ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING, sold to Fox in a bidding war. Jonah Hill (SUPERBAD) will star. (

Ben Stiller will re-team with writer Justin Theroux (TROPIC THUNDER) for ZOOLANDER 2 at Paramount. It’s not known if Owen Wilson will return, but Jonah Hill is in negotiations to play the villain. (

David Goyer (THE DARK NIGHT story) will write the UNTITLED SUPERMAN REBOOT for Warner Bros. Director Christopher Nolan (THE DARK NIGHT) is also involved as an advisor. Goyer is currently working with Jonathan Nolan on a script for the next Batman installment. (

Oscar nominated writer Sheldon Turner (UP IN THE AIR) will write and produce KISS AND TELL, a rom-com, based on a pitch by Shelby & Stevens (A FAMILY AFFAIR). The Universal pick up is about a woman who discovers she has the power to see exactly how a long-term relationship will unfold with a man after kissing him. (

Antonio Banderas will produce, write, direct and act in a biopic on Boabdil (Abu Abdullah Muhammad XII), the last Muslim ruler of Granada, Spain. Antonio Soler (SUMMER RAIN) will co-write. Project is still seeking financing. (

Reader Favorites Update

It's been a good 4-5 months since we did our first polling of reader favorites. Since I constantly update my list, I think it's only right that that list gets updated as well. So if there are some screenplay reads you've been putting off, get to them, cause in about three weeks, I'm going to ask everybody, once again, for their top 10 favorite unmade screenplays. Get that list figured out!

Titan Week - "Night Skies"


If you’ve been following Titan Week, here are the first four titans we reviewed:
1) Shane Black 2) David Benioff 3) Kurtzman and Orci 4) Frank Darabont - Today, we’re calling in the Big Kahuna, Steven Spielberg…sort of. I don’t have an actual Spielberg script, but I do have a script he developed with John Sayles titled, “Night Skies.”

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: A rural family must fight off a group of pesky aliens who invade their house.
About: Who’s a bigger titan than the man himself? Steven Spielberg! As has been the theme this week, I’m cheating a little, because Spielberg didn’t actually write Night Skies. The studio wanted him to come up with a sequel to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, but he was putting Raiders together, so he didn’t have the time. But instead of allowing the studio to screw up his franchise the way they did with Jaws, he commissioned John Sayles to write a script from an idea of his based off of a “true” story he heard. The thing was, Spielberg wasn’t into it, and the project never really had a shot. He did however read it to Harrison Ford’s future wife on the set of Raiders, and she was taken by the relationship between one of the characters and an alien. This connection inspired Spielberg to come up with the idea for E.T. In a funny twist, Universal was desperate for Spielberg not to make some schmaltzy kiddy Disney movie, and tried to get him to ditch the project. He ignored their wishes and made it anyway. And we got glowing fingers, the power of reeses pieces, and 7 year olds calling each other “penis breath” as a result. John Sayles is no slouch. He’s been nominated for two Oscars, 1996’s “Lone Star” and 1992’s “Passion Fish.” But seeing as he doesn’t have a single additional sci-fi flick on his resume, I wonder if he was the right man for the job.
Writer: John Sayles (based on an idea by Steven Spielberg)
Details: 100 pages (this is the only draft ever written)

John Sayles

Oh Priscilla. How did we end up here? Three foot tall aliens “terrorizing” a local farm family? I know this supposedly “happened” in real life (it’s since been criticized as one of the most blatant hoax attempts in history) but man, I’m not sure Spielberg ever sized this idea up. It's such a neutered idea, in fact, that if I were a betting man, I'd guess that Spielberg put this in development with the sole intention of preventing someone else from making a Close Encounters Of The Third Kind sequel. Speaking of interesting screenplays, how bout that one for you? If you ever want to watch a film that seems to follow no sort of structure or rules whatsoever, and whose entire story depends on our desire to see the aliens at the end, go watch that. In the meantime, let me try and break down Night Skies for you.

Tess in an 18 year old hot country girl who lives with a really fucked up country family. There’s her always angry father, her bible-thumping mother, her ganja-smoking little brother, her slightly deranged grandmother, and, of course, her retarded youngest brother, Jaybird.

Although not a lot happens in Bumblefuck, Nowhere, it’s been unusually busy as of late. There have been a series of cow mutilations making their way up the state, and the latest one has happened right over on their neighbor’s plot. But this isn’t any normal mutilation. The cow’s face seems to have been seared off with geometric precision, its brain plucked out as if a surgeon himself had done it. This gets the locals up in a tizzy, cause rural folk have a lot of patience, but one thing they don't like is when people mutilate their cows. Trust me, I know from experience.

Once the cow-killing chatter calms down, the characters spend a whole lot of time doing zippity-zilch. Tess cares after Jaybird because no one else will. The father complains a lot, especially about the fact that he has a retarded son. The mother says little unless a lesson from the bible is needed. The brother, keeping it real, protests that his parents are too strict. This is all about as exciting as you'd expect it to be. And we're jonzeing for something - anything - to happen.

Well later that night we get our wish because when everyone’s back home, the lights cut out and the family starts seeing little heads and arms zip past the windows. Not taking any chances, they lock down the house, but it isn't enough, cause whatever was outside finds a way inside. We come to find out that they’re being…I wouldn’t say “attacked”…but maybe “hassled” by 3 foot tall aliens. And these aliens are really good hasslers. They bang on the windows and sneak through the cat doors. They make funny faces and leap out of shadows. We're not really sure what they're doing, but their actions cause a lot of screaming and overall confusion. Soon everybody gets split up, and each character has an individual experience with an alien. Tess, for example, is taking a bath (why she’s taking a bath when there are aliens in the house I’m not sure) when an alien darts out from the corner and does the alien equivalent of yelling "bugga bugga bugga." This may have been a mating tactic for the alien, I don't know, but whatever it was, it doesn't work, cause Tess runs out of the bathroom.

In general, the aliens act the way I’d expect drunken Wizard of Oz munchkins to act. There’s no real method to what they’re doing, outside of darting and dashing from one shadow to the next. Since they pose no danger, their presence feels a little like a traveling stage show. Jump in, do a little dance, jump back out. On to the next town! It’d be funny if it weren’t so odd.


Eventually there’s some connection between the aliens and Jaybird, and, I think, the aliens tell the humans that they’re killing themselves and that everyone on earth is really sad. After that, they leave, and Tess's family is left to wonder the same thing we are: WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED??

Night Skies is plagued by that most troubling of script problems: It’s un-engaging. The people are boring. The relationships are boring. And the story’s boring. Now part of this is because of the 18 million alien films we’ve seen since the 80s. We demand more creativity from our sci-fi today than we did then. But that’s only part of it. The characters in particular don't have enough going on. They all have their own angle (angry, retarded, religious), but they're essentially townsfolk with absolutely nothing going on in their day-to-day lives. It’s as if these characters were written specifically to wait for this moment, and will cease to exist as soon as the moment is over. They don’t have any life. Even Jaybird, the most original character here, feels DOA. I was hoping to experience more of a connection with the characters. But it never happened.

But the biggest issue of all is that there are no stakes in the script. Now that’s a term we hear bandied about a lot in screenwriting . “Stakes.” But what does it really mean? I try to explain it by asking a question: What consequences does the situation driving your story have on the characters? Are the consequences big? Or are they small? In the case of Night Skies, the situation driving the story is a group of midget aliens badgering a rural family. Not trying to kill. Not trying to injure. Just badgering. What are the stakes of badgering? The worst thing that can happen is for the family to get a little spooked. Is that really so terrible? Of course not. And for that reason, we’re never truly invested in the story. Take Paranormal Activity on the other hand, where the antagonist was an invisible malevolent entity that had a connection to the devil. A horrifying death for both of our protags was a possibility at any moment. Or take Spielberg’s own “Poltergeist.” In that film, the girl is taken from the family. So the stakes are that they may never get her back, and that any one of them could be killed. In both those cases, the stakes were extremely high, and as a result, the tension was high, and the conflict between the characters was high. Now I’m not saying every movie has to have a life or death scenario, but if you’re not aware of the stakes of your story and how to increase them, you’re not going to have a lot of success in the screenwriting world.

I wouldn’t say this script was awful, but it’s pretty uninspired. And I think Spielberg and Sayles would admit as much. If this was a jumping off point, I’m sure they would’ve improved a lot of the bland choices in subsequent drafts. And there are some fun moments that give us glimpses into the origin of E.T. (an alien’s finger lighting up for example). But it’s pretty obvious why this was never made.

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

What I learned: This is proof that no screenplay is a waste. Outside of every script being a learning experience, many writers mine stories, characters, or scenes out of their old failed screenplays. Part of the progression of becoming a writer is identifying what the most interesting thing about your idea is, and then mining it for everything it’s worth. Beginner writers, for whatever reason, tend to focus on the least or only the mildly interesting aspects of their story, leaving their script feeling like a bowl of untapped potential. As writers begin to intrinsically understand conflict (outside of just making two people fight) and which concepts provide the best opportunity for conflict, this problem goes away. So head back to those old ideas with your new mindset and see if you can't find that nugget of a concept you overlooked.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Titan Week - "Fahrenheit 451"


We're 4 days into the Titan Theme Week. We started with Shane Black. Moved on to Amanda Peet's husband, David Benioff. Then we tackled the dynamo writing duo of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. And today, we're reading ourselves some Darabont.

Genre: Sci-fi
Premise: In a dystopian future, Firefighters start fires instead of put them out.
About: I don’t think there’s any question that Darabont is a true titan in this business. The Shawshank Redemption is one of those examples of screenwriting perfection. It does a lot of things most writers would tell you not to do. Its tone is depressing, it’s long and drawn out, probably has too many characters, depends too much on voice over, and doesn’t have a female lead. Yet it’s pure unadulterated awesomeness, and while credit obviously goes to Steven King, what Darabont did by taking one of King’s most unmarketable ideas and turning into an Oscar-nominated screenplay was pretty amazing. Darabont is easily one of the most respected writers in town. If a script needs fixing – not pampering or gloss, but actual fixing – this is the man that will come in and do it. – This particular script, Farenheit 451, has been in development for something like 25 years. Darabont’s adaptation of the material is believed to be one of the best unmade screenplays in Hollywood.
Writer: Frank Darabont (based on the novel by Ray Bradbury)
Details: 121 pages (September 2005 draft)

I have a secret.

I’ve tried to read Farenheit 451 on three separate occasions and couldn’t get past the first 10 pages. I’m sure you want to know why, so I’ll just come out and say it.

Robot dogs.

I’m sorry but I just can’t wrap my head around robot dogs. And I’m a sci-fi geek! Why would robot dogs ever need to exist?? If you need something that only dogs can do, why not get a real dog? But if something is so complicated as to require a robotic equivalent and you have the technology to create that robot equivalent, why not just create a robotic human instead? Doesn’t it make more sense in the context of what the human robot would be able to do? I understand this was part of the original novel, but in a post-Transformers world, robot dogs sound kinda lame.

The truth is, I chose this theme week specifically for this script, as I've wanted to read it for a long time, despite the robot dog issue. Lots of people who I’ve talked to love it, and I really wanted to at least say that I’d read the thing. So here goes.

Guy Montag is a fireman. But not the kind of fireman you and I know. Montag likes to start fires, not end them. In fact, all the fire departments we depend on when we accidentally throw a Wendy’s Chicken Club with the tin foil wrapper still attached into the microwave, have no interest in putting out fires anymore. Their purpose is to find people who still like to read a good John Grisham novel, and BURN THEIR HOUSE DOWN.

Cause in this future, the government hates books. Thinks they corrupt us. Brings out impulses we wouldn’t otherwise have. Man, if only these guys would’ve come around before Peter Jackson read The Lovely Bones.

Firefighters in this far off future, which by now is probably the far off past, since Bradbury wrote the novel back in the 1600s, are basically militarized. Their operation is honed and disciplined to take down offenders quickly, and to evoke a sense of fear in the community. We watch as they storm into houses, tear down walls and burst through ceilings to find these compilations of devil paper. And then burn them! If you don’t like it, you’ve got an angry robot dog to deal with.

Eventually Montag gets curious what all the fuss is about and sneaks home a copy of Lord Of The Flies. Even though he watches Lost every Tuesday at 9, the book is a revelation to him, and it feeds his curiosity for more. So now when Montag goes in with the crew to burn a house down, he stashes more books down his pants than The Situation stashes phone numbers. And the more he reads, the more enlightened he becomes.

Unfortunately, the Firefighter Chief starts getting suspicious of Montag, whose book reading has brought about a moodiness that didn’t before exist. People Montag has conspired with start getting caught, their houses burned and their families taken away. Montag’s wife pleads with him to get rid of the books, but he refuses. Eventually, Montag can't run anymore, and must face the consequences for his actions.

The problem with Fahrenheit is that the world has changed so much since 1953. As I listen to these characters confide in each other about how important or how scary books are, their plight doesn’t resonate on any level. I suppose there are some places in the world where Fahrenheit’s themes are actually still relevant, but America isn’t into burning books anymore and hasn’t been for a long time.

I’m not saying this couldn’t have been fascinating 50 years ago when people rode around on chariots. But today? The internet is essentially one giant book that we have access to 24/7. If Iran can’t keep its citizens from using Twitter, we ain’t going to be able to stop people from ordering the latest Dan Brown novel on Amazon. Not to mention Facebook! Can you imagine the outrage from the community if we destroyed Facebook?? The implications of a world without Farmville are too much to bear. The day I don’t know when my friend Alandra just planted a patch of strawberries is the day that civilization is dead my friend. The day it is dead.

But seriously, it’s an issue. Darabont doesn’t even mention the internet here, which implies we’re observing this through some sort of alternate future. And from what I understand, this is why lead actors like Mel Gibson and Tom Hanks keep dropping out. Trying to imagine a future without internet is like trying to imagine a future without cars and airplanes. How do you make that leap? This is not to mention music, TV and movies, which essentially pose the same problem as books, and yet for whatever reason aren’t held to the same standards.

Despite that, there’s still a lot of care that went into this script, a lot of love. And you can feel it on the page. The prose and the attention to detail are all top notch, and as a result, you’re able to ignore some of the problems. But in the end, the logistical issues run too deep, and I can’t see this being made without a major rewrite.

How would you rewrite it? I think you’d have to embrace technology instead of ignore it, and probably focus the script on the government wanting to destroy our access to all information, from the internet all the way on down to the written word, a true modern-day telling of the story. That could be interesting. Just please, for my sake, don’t include any robot dogs. :)

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

What I learned: What I like about Darabont is he doesn’t write to impress you. He writes to tell the story, yet ends up impressing you in the process. So whereas a lesser writer might over-write their descriptions to try and impress the reader, Darabont makes sure that everything he describes is motivated. For example, here, he describes the fire truck starting: “The ENGINES START, a turbine WHINE exploding to a DEEP BASSO ROAR. Like a dragon waking up. Ready to breathe flame.” So descriptive. But not gratuitous. Remember, descriptions don’t sell screenplays. Concept, story, characters, and plot do. So resist that 8 line poetic description of how your character walks from his house to his car, and just tell the story instead.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Titan Week - "Tell No One"


Day 1 we brought you Shane Black. Day 2 we tackled questionable titan David Benioff. And now on our third day of Titan Week, we bring in the two highest paid writers in the business, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman! This oughta be fun. :)

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A widowed social worker receives a strange message that forces him to reevaluate what happened the day his wife was murdered.
About: How can you have a Titan Week without Kurtzman and Orci!! The two most beloved and respected writers in Hollywood!? Heh heh. You knew I had to pull these guys out. They’re the highest paid and most sought-after writers in town. And absolutely nobody thinks they should be but the people who hire them. Kurtzman and Orci first came on the scene in 2005, when they wrote Michael Bay’s “The Island.” They followed that with the second Zorro film, Mission Impossible 3, Transformers, Star Trek, and of course, the single greatest movie to ever be made, Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen. But “Tell No One” is the script they wrote before all that success, all the way back in 2002. Now some of you may already be familiar with “Tell No One” as a French film that made some waves on the independent circuit in 2008 (it was released in France in 2006). I didn’t see it because I’d been burned too many times by supposedly groundbreaking French Films which turned out to be mind-numbingly horrible. I don’t think there’s anything worse than sitting through a bad French film. I’m glad I ignored it, because it allowed me to have this amazing reading experience. Now a few of you have probably noticed that the dates don’t quite match up. How can Orci and Kurtzman have adapted a 2006 film in 2002? Simple. Orci and Kurtzman have a time machine. It’s what allows them to know what we’re going to like before we like it. I’m just kidding. Or am I??? Actually, the French film was an adaptation of a novel written by American writer, Harlan Coben. I’ve never read a Harlan Coben book before, but people tell me “Tell No One” was one of his lesser efforts. Anyway, Kurtzman and Orci adapted the book before the French did. The French just beat them to the theaters. I still think this deserves the Hollywood treatment though. It’s a can’t miss baby.
Writers: Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (based off the novel by Harlan Coben)
Details: 122 pages (5th Draft, 2002)

Warning: If you know nothing about this script or this movie and you like thrillers, stop now, download the script, and read it. You’ll thank me.

At Transformers premiere. "Proud" is not the adjective I'd use to describe these expressions.

Uhhhhh, can someone tell me WHERE THE HELL THIS SCRIPT WAS HIDING??? What a freaking gangbusters screenplay. I haven’t flown through a story that fast since The Cat In The Hat. And I thought The Grey was a good thriller. This is the executive suite of thrillers. 3000 square feet. Sweeping views of Vegas. TVs that pop out of the floor. Tell No One? Tell everyone!

But I’ll get to that in a second. First, we gotta deal with Orci and Kurtzman.

Every burgeoning writer in town cites these two as the oozing puss-filled sores of the screenwriting world. They point to the Transformers movies as their main argument. Anybody, they say, responsible for writing those movies, cannot be a good writer. And I will say this. The Transformers movies are two of the most incomprehensible mainstream movies I’ve ever seen, especially the second one. The thing is, the fault doesn’t lie squarely with them. These guys were brought in to realize a vision from a director who has no interest or understanding of story, to plug in characters that the toy company forced them to, to come up with a believable scenario by which aliens came to earth taking the form of transforming motor vehicles, to integrate pre-existing action sequences into a story that hadn’t been written yet, and to push all of this together in a few weeks, due to the writer’s strike (on the second one). In short, they were set up to fail. Any single one of us would’ve failed as well. It’s hard enough coming up with a good script when NO ONE is telling you how to write it. But when everyone is? And in a few weeks? There's no way.

However, I’m not here to try and convince you to like Orci and Kurtzman. I was simply curious about reading a screenplay of theirs before they hit the bigtime. These are the scripts that usually GIVE these writers a shot at the big time, so it's interesting to see what warranted that shot. And holy shit, this shot hit the bullseye.

David Beck and Elizabeth Parker are in love. They have been ever since they were 12 years old, doing the whole “carve the initials in the tree” thing. There’s only one issue affecting their otherwise bliss-filled relationship. David has seizures. Intense full-on blackouts where he doesn’t remember a thing. And one day, not long after the two are married, David is hit by something, triggering a seizure, and he blacks out. When he wakes up, he learns that his wife has been brutally murdered - the only thing he’s ever loved, stolen from him forever.

Four years later, David, now a social worker for abused children in Philadelphia, is trying to put the pieces of his life back together. He’s even dating a doctor, Anna, who helps some of the kids he brings in. Even though it’s not what he envisioned for himself, it’s a job Elizabeth was passionate about, and he feels a duty to carry it on. But the job is taxing, difficult, and he’s thinking about moving on to something more lucrative, something that’ll give him a cozy life, something that will help him finally move on from Elizabeth.


And then David gets a message on his computer. He clicks a link. A live video feed. Of Elizabeth. At a park. Older. Today. Right now! Looking up into the camera!

It can’t be. There’s no way. His wife is dead. Isn’t she?

As David tries to make sense of the nonsensical, a car containing two murdered men is found in the lake next to where Elizabeth was murdered. These men were killed at the same time and with the same weapon that Elizabeth was. There are grave implications to this news. The serial killer who killed Elizabeth was thought to have only killed women. That’s why he supposedly left David alive. But if two men were also killed, why was David’s life spared? David has gone from mourning widow to number one suspect.

The worst thing about that? David’s not sure he *isn’t* a suspect. And actually, he’s not sure of anything anymore. Was the video feed of Elizabeth real? A fantasy? Could his fractured seizure-ridden mind be creating this vision to cope with the fact that he killed his wife?

Forced to go on the run or end up on the wrong side of the death penalty, David must scrape together the pieces of his wife’s secretive life, and find out what really happened to her that fateful day. Old friends, old family members, co-workers – no one can be trusted, and yet he needs all of their help to survive.

Tell No One takes its cues from the best, namely The Fugitive, and actually improves on the formula. Whereas The Fugitive has two gargantuan driving forces – the chase and Ford having to find out who killed his wife, Tell No One adds two additional mysteries: Is David the killer and is his wife still alive? With all these amazing threads going on at once, there isn’t a single sub-standard moment in the script. My admiration for this screaming fast story grew by the page because I’m so used to these things falling apart under their own weight. The twists stop making sense. The character motivations become ludicrous. The finale turns out to be a letdown. But Tell No One is the opposite. Every single story decision here is perfect. In fact, if I were teaching a class on how to write a mystery thriller, this is the script I would use to teach it. It’s that good.

And why is it that good? It’s no different than what we were talking about the other day with Taken. Tell No One gets the emotional component right. In the beginning, we see David and Elizabeth grow up together, fall in love together, get married, and start their life. So when Elizabeth is killed, it’s not just David who’s lost someone. It’s us. We watched this girl grow up. We watched her love. We watched her dream. We loved Elizabeth just as much as he did, and as a result, when she returns, we’re just as desperate for David to find her as he is. But the point is, if you stripped this thing of all its twist and turns, we’d still be pulling for these characters, because we like them that much.

As for the writing itself, it’s pretty solid. Kurtzman and Orci created a nice device that I really enjoyed. In general, I dislike unmotivated flashbacks because of their tendency to feel unnatural. Throughout the script, K and O use David's seizures as a way to flash back to the day of the murder. It’s a little thing, but it plays nicely because it’s motivated by character (specifically – this character’s seizures). Always look for natural ways to move into your flashbacks, as opposed to just hitting us with them out of nowhere. It makes a difference.

The one thing that drove me crazy were Kurtzman and Orci’s use of underlined dialogue. Normally, this kind of stuff doesn’t bother me. But these two, for whatever reason, underline nearly every word of their characters' dialogue (I guess to give it emphasis?). But instead of giving it emphasis, it gives us headaches, as we’re forced to change the way we read, starting and stopping so we can mentally annunciate the underlined words. It took me half the script to force myself to ignore it, and man was it annoying.

I’m sure some of you will be comparing this to the French film, and with that film nabbing a 93% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, I’m preparing for the barrage of reasons why this doesn’t match up to it. But I’ve never seen the film, so this was a totally new experience for me, and I think they hit it out of the park. Really great script.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (Top 10)
[ ] genius

What I learned: The "found key that leads to the mysterious lockbox" device is one of the few things you can count on to ALWAYS WORK in a screenplay. Every. Freaking. Time! Cause we’re inherently curious about what the hell could be in that box. You can never go wrong with this device. (Just try and make sure what’s inside is something unique!).

Monday, February 22, 2010

Titan Week - "Shadow Company"


Welcome to Titan Week, where we feature five scripts by writers who currently are or at one time were titans in the industry. What constitutes a titan? Maybe they're that writer every producer in town calls when they need a rewrite on their 200 million dollar film. Maybe they've sold multiple million dollar spec scripts. Maybe they're universally praised and respected. Maybe their style was so impressive they influenced an entire generation of writers. In order to keep things fresh, I'm going to let you suggest the last review of the week, as I haven't chosen a script for Friday yet. So if there's a particular script by a huge writer you think I should review, go ahead and suggest it in the comments section. In the meantime, let's start off with one of the biggest names in screenwriting history - Shane Black. I'll hand it over to Roger as he takes us back to a simpler time. A time where Pac-Man ruled and when Michael Jackson was cool...the first time. Here he is reviewing "Shadow Company."

Genre: Horror, Action, Science Fiction
Premise: Jake Pollard is a forever-changed Vietnam vet, a pariah just scraping by in American society. When he learns that the bodies of six MIAs, found sealed in a Cambodian temple, are being shipped back home for a military funeral at the National Veterans Cemetery, he transforms from drifter to man on a mission. When the six MIAs resurrect and start killing everyone in the town of Merit, California, Pollard makes a last stand, revealing both his ties to the townspeople and his shadowy past with the MIAs.
About: Shane Black's first script. Written in 1984. Got him his first agent. Optioned by Universal. After the success of Lethal Weapon, John Carpenter came on as director (this would have been his follow-up to They Live) and Walter Hill attached himself as executive producer. This draft is dated October 20, 1988 and is co-written by Black's pal, Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps, The Monster Squad). I'm not sure if Dekker was always a co-writer or if he came onboard to help Black write this particular draft. Do any of you dear readers out there know?
Writers: Shane Black & Fred Dekker

Shane Black
Not that it matters, but the first character we meet in Shane Black and Fred Dekker's "Shadow Company" is Lt. Col. Frank Nikko. Nikko dies a peculiar and interesting death, and his presence in the story exists only to give our monsters the appropriate shock and awe that is required for such horror movie introductions.
It's February, 1973 in Saigon and Nikko is looking for some action. Curiouser and curiouser, Nikko finds a backroom poker game inside of Torchy's, that ubiquitous den of vice found in many Walter Hill scripts.
A quick aside: In both format and language, Black and Dekker adopt the samurai-spare haiku style that Walter Hill acquired from screenwriter Alex Jacobs (Point Blank), and they use it with aplomb. The result is a hardboiled whiskey prose that fits the violent subject matter appropriately. It's no wonder that Mr. Hill was attached as executive producer to the project.
Six American commandos play a silent game of poker. Their matching black berets and tattoos (note: black snakes coiled around a machine-gun) denote Special Forces, and their silent and robotic demeanor in the face of Nikko's wisecracking makes them plain creepy.
Things get creepier when the stakes are raised and one soldier cuts off his pinkie finger and throws it into the pot. While most normal men would probably exit the room at this point, Nikko sticks around and is killed because he's a.) annoying and b.) a red shirt.
Our prologue ends when Major Garrett Stark (paging Professor Stark?) and Col. Woodhurst tell these same six men, "The mission you men are about to undertake does not exist...nor do you exist...You are not ordinary soldiers. Your training has purged you of the true enemies...Fear...Pity...Conscience..."
The men have names, but they are unimportant. What is important is these men are flying into the jungle to die, and that apparently, there used to be a seventh man.
Cool prologue. Who's our main guy?
Jake Pollard is a Vietnam vet who can't even afford a grilled-cheese sandwich at a greasy spoon. But like most badass Western heroes, he settles for a cup of coffee.
It's sixteen years later and people still harbor harsh feelings towards Vietnam. Case in point, the guy in the diner who calls Pollard a baby killer (which contrasts sharply with the moment beforehand when Pollard gets friendly with the shy kid playing with a toy gun behind the counter).
If we don't know it's a Shane Black script yet, then we should note that the story is set in the month of December. A Christmas setting is a Shane Black staple.
Perhaps it's the immediate nostalgia that accompanies the Santa Claus & Reindeer imagery, or perhaps it's the way this nostalgia mixes with our conflicted feelings that Christmas culls forth. Either way, if we have learned anything from Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, as setting, the month of December creates a helluva backdrop for mayhem and action.
Shane Black playing Hawkins in "Predator"
As Pollard is about to give Insulting Diner Patron a piece of his mind, a television newscast catches his attention (a heraldic device also used in The Long Kiss Goodnight). Some self-styled mercenaries have retrieved the bodies of six American MIAs.
The interesting thing about these bodies?
The Vietnamese sealed them in a Cambodian temple. Why? They were afraid of men they had already killed. They believed the men were more than just men.
The MIAs are gonna be buried at the National Veterans Cemetery in Merit, California, and soon enough (with reasons we can only guess at), Pollard is off to Merit.
Once there, he gathers so much firepower it's like he's preparing for Vietnam: Part 2.
Who are the rest of our players?
There's Kyle Traeger, an eighteen-year old kid who is so brooding it's like he field-stripped Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights and wears his skin as a cape. He lost his father to the horrors of Vietnam.
Kyle is in love with Heather Stockton, daughter of one of the dead MIAs.
Heather's stepdad is Sheriff Buchalter, who has married the widow, Doris Stockton.
Honestly, the characters peppered throughout the script are just cannon fodder and headshots.
The troubled romantic relationship of Kyle and Heather and their relationship to the MIAs and Jake Pollard is the emotional core of the story.
So these MIAs, they're zombies, right?
The town of Merit is in for a long and gory night (Black and Dekker-style) when the MIAs crawl out of their grave, bayonet and shoot the MPs in their way, and raid the armory.
There they acquire grenades, bouncing betties, c4, detonators, tripwire, and lots and lots of guns.
They don't eat flesh, they don't eat brains.
But what they do is kill.
A lot.
And they themselves are very hard to kill. At a point of crazed desperation, Heather asks, "Why...why can't they die?"
To which Pollard replies, "Because the Government won't let them."
So...what are they?
In 1965 Col. Woodhurst commissioned a team of scientists to experiment on twenty men assembled from seventeen Special Forces units. A two year program involving drugs, hypnosis and brainwashing to eliminate weakness and conscience.
To strip away a soldier's humanity and leave nothing but fight.
America, like the Nazi's, tried to create a Superman.
The only catch is, these men would have to die and be resurrected to complete the process.
And the resurrecting mechanism?
Agent Orange.
Only seven men survived the program.
They are Shadow Company. And they're credo is: My will is strong / My name is dread / I fear no death / 'Cause I'm already dead...
So lemme guess. Pollard is the seventh member of Shadow Company?
Yep. And not only that, but Kyle Traeger is his son.
Interesting. So how does it all play out?
How you would expect. Remember, Fred Dekker helped write this thing, so there's lots of bodily mayhem and gory explosions. If you've seen The Monster Squad, then you know there's going to be scenes with disembodied limbs and severed torsos trying to kill our heroes.
There are some nice classic creature feature moments as well. That couple making out in the car? Dude, of course it's going to end gruesomely. And as it should, amirite?
Some macho buddy-action moments between Pollard and Kyle. Sure, it's damn cheesy, but it's also damn entertaining. If you like Shane Black, and if you like Fred Dekker, it's all stuff that works on a visceral level. It's all stuff that would work in an action-horror movie.
Sure, as a guy that reads a lot of screenplays and forms opinions on how they could be possibly improved, I have my scruples. There's the usual suspect: Showing Versus Telling. I think the story could benefit by restructuring and rethinking some of the choices made in regards to the Pollard and Kyle relationship.
It's no surprise that Pollard has some type of emotional connection and backstory to Merit and the MIAs, so why not be up front with all this stuff? We know something is motivating the guy, so why try to present it as a mystery?
Again, so much is said through dialogue giving us all the information about Kyle and Heather's relationship...I would have preferred to just see it. Or would have preferred more subtlety.
An entertaining action-horror (cautionary) tale that pays homage to war movies, Westerns and low-budget zombie flicks, as distilled through the unique minds of a young Shane Black and Fred Dekker.

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

What I learned: If you're going to have a relationship reveal late in your script, it should really be something that actually surprises the reader. In "Shadow Company", I think the writers telegraphed Pollard and Kyle's father-son relationship. Why? As a reader, I was never presented with Pollard's motivation concerning his goal, which was to stop Shadow Company. Sure, there were hints that he was the missing 7th man of Shadow Company, but it was obvious there was more to his story. As soon as Kyle was introduced, I knew he was probably going to be Pollard's son. I think the story could have benefitted by serving us this information straight up. Think of the great relationship reveals in stories: Luke and Darth Vader, Luke and Leia, Jack and Claire in's all stuff that comes as a surprise and fleshes out a story. It makes us think of the events that came before in a different way. We rewatch, look for clues, find different meanings, recognize the subtleties as something more. And you know, these relationships aren't really the motivating factors for the goals of the characters. Or if they Darth Vader's case, it's presented in such a way that adds value to the story. In "Shadow Company", the relationship reveal feels unnecessary.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Weekly Rundown

Jessica Hall. JESSICA HALL! Back again, now with click-able links! We decided to bring this outfit into the present day. Lots of adaptation-type news. This Rothman pitch sounds kinda interesting. A comedy-horror set in deep space? Can't say it's not original. The rest of the stuff doesn't complete me unfortunately. :(

Universal picked up a pitch from writer Rodney Rothman for mid-six-figures. THE SOMETHING is described as an ensemble comedy/horror hybrid set in deep space. While this is Rothman’s first solo writing gig, he has several other projects around town and made his start as the youngest head writer in the history of "Late Night With David Letterman.”

Nick Pustay (RAMONA AND BEEZUS) will adapt the first book in Maggie Stiefvater’s YA series, SHIVER. Story centers on a bittersweet paranormal romance between a teen who becomes a wolf each winter and his girlfriend, who helps him find the secret to staying human.

VLAD, the re-imagining of the Dracula myth, will be rewritten by Scott Kosar (THE MACHINIST), shepherded by director Anthony Mandler. Actor Charlie Hunnam (SONS OF ANARCHY) wrote the original draft. Brad Pitt’s Plan B is producing for Summit.

Mike Newell (PRINCE OF PERSIA) will write and direct an untitled project about the mysterious death of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko. He’s working with 2009 Black List writer David Scarpa (LONDONGRAD). Project is set up at Warner Bros.

Hoping for a new franchise, Ralph Winter and Terry Botwick acquired the rights to Dean Koontz’s “Frankenstein” series. Project places the doctor -- a socially prominent and successful businessman -- and his super-human original creation in modern-day New Orleans. No writer has been announced.

Oscar nominated writer Geoffrey Fletcher (PRECIOUS) will write an untitled project about the true story of the 1971 Attica state prison rebellion in which 32 inmates and 10 hostages were killed. Doug Liman (JUMPER) will direct.

Writer David Scinto (SEXY BEAST) will make his directorial debut with NIGHT FLOWER. Ray Winstone has signed on to star.

Kevin Lima (ENCHANTED) will direct AVON MAN, written by Kevin Bisch from his pitch. Fox bought the project as a vehicle for Hugh Jackman, who plays a man who loses his job as a car salesman and becomes a successful Avon salesman.

Oscar nominated writer Oren Moverman (THE MESSENGER) will polish and direct ALL APOLOGIES, the Kurt Cobain biopic. David Benioff (BROTHERS) wrote the current draft for Universal.

Playtone producers Gary Goetzman and Tom Hanks are currently out to writers for the remake of the French film SUMMER HOURS. Pic tells the story of three children letting go of their childhood as their dying mother's home is evacuated of their belongings.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Safe House

Genre: Spy-Thriller
Premise: (from IMDB) When a group of villains destroy a CIA-operated safe house, the facility's young house-sitter must work to move the criminal who's being hidden there to another secure location.
About: This is a first time spec sale for David Guggenheim, but he’s not a complete foreigner to the business. David is a senior editor at US Weekly and, as Variety is reporting, the brother of Marc Guggenheim, one of FlashForward’s early showrunners. His other brother, Eric Guggenheim, may have given him some tips, as he’s a screenwriter himself, penning the 2004 film, “Miracle.” This particular spec sale is noteworthy as it’s the first big sale of the year (selling for 600k) and doing so without any talent attached. Between approving photos of whale-esque Kirstie Alley and Tiger Woods’ many mistresses, Guggenheim has another project he’s developing with McG titled, “Medallion.” Universal nabbed the spec after a multi-studio bidding war. Scott Stuber (The Wolfman) will produce.
Writer: David Guggenheim
Details: 111 pages (undated)

Matt Weston is an eager 28 year old worker for the CIA living in Rio De Janeiro with a Brazillian beauty who puts Matthew McConaughey’s baby mamma to shame. I say “worker” because he’s not quite an agent yet. In fact, Matt is barely above Ace Ventura on the company totem pole, relegated to the job of a “housekeeper” at a safe house. What this entails is hanging out at a special CIA approved "apartment" all day, awaiting any CIA agents who need a place to crash – sort of like a hotel room where you know you’re not going to be killed in the middle of the night (well, as we’ll learn, not even that is guaranteed).

On the other side of town is Tobin Frost, a 55 year old ex-CIA field officer. Imagine Jason Bourne in 20 years. That’s this guy. But Frost has gone off the grid for over a decade, and is believed to be selling CIA intel to anyone with a Swiss Bank Account or some juicy intel of their own. He’s apparently hit the motherload, as the latest information he’s acquired has him hunted by a lethal assassin named Emile Vargas. Frost may have been able to handle this guy a quarter of a century ago, but even the best have to admit when they need help. Problem is, the only nearby help is the very institution he’s betrayed, the American Embassy. So Frost does the unthinkable. He walks right into the Eagle’s Den.

The Americans send Frost over to Matt’s safe house until the CIA can get down here and extract him. But let’s just say Frost won’t have to worry about purchasing the weekly discount. The Safe House is immediately attacked by mercenaries we believe are led by Vargas. Frost and Matt somehow escape, and quickly find themselves on the run. Matt’s given orders to bring Frost to a second [not so] safe house four hours away, but Frost seems to have other plans, namely to get the hell away from Matt and out of Rio.

The script shifts its focus to two things after that: Action and more action. Safe House at times feels like one gigantic action sequence, and I have to admit, it’s written quite well. Guggenheim follows the unwritten spec rule of keeping everything lean and rarely, if ever, burdening us with a 4-line chunk of action. In fact, almost every action description is 2 lines or less, making sure that things read faster than a Shani Davis 200 meter run.

During all this action, we get a nice debate going between the idealistic Matt and the cynical Frost, mainly on the merits of whether it’s worth it to be a CIA agent, but also on Frost’s reasoning for obtaining the information that's gotten him into such hot water. Although Safe House never pretends to be anything more than a high-octane thrill ride, there’s some interesting discussion about idealism and trust, as well as the many shades of gray involved in the spy world. In fact, after a few pow-wows with Frost, Matt starts to wonder if the agency he’s held in such high esteem is as honorable as he once believed.

While the action does get repetitive at times, Guggenheim keeps it fresh with Frost repeatedly escaping Matt, and Matt having to go capture him again. And even though Frost is to Matt as Kobe is to Luke Walton, a nice twist is that Frost was Matt’s case study back at the Farm, so many times, Matt knows where Frost is going to be before he does.

Safe House is a fun spec, but there were a couple of things that bothered me about it. First off, I knew nothing about safe houses going into this script, and I can say that I don’t really know much about them now either. I mean, if you asked me the biggest lesson I learned about safe houses, it would be that they’re not safe at all! Every safe house they go to is breached within minutes. There are obviously extenuating circumstances here, but even taking those into account, from the way these places were described, they seemed to be no different than a local hotel room, except for a CIA officer holding court. I guess I expected them to be more heavily fortified or something. Or have some special qualities. Maybe a better explanation of what these things are in the next draft would be helpful.

I also would’ve liked a few more twists and turns before the final act, and a better explanation for why Frost flipped on the agency. His explanation was a little too general for my taste (his reasoning amounted to that the agency lies too much). A specific event that triggered this decision would make his motivation more personal, and his character deeper and more interesting as a result.

But those things are by no means deal breakers. Like I said, the script is still fast-paced and fun. And the specific reason behind why Frost is being chased plays out to a satisfying conclusion.

So why did it sell? Well, all we can do is speculate, but I’ll give it a shot. It did exactly what we talked about the other day in my article about surprise box office hits. It took a popular plot model, in line with the Bourne films, and added a twist, throwing a bit of a “buddy cop” angle at it. It also told the spy story from a unique perspective, that of the “safe house,” and I don’t think that's been done on the big screen yet.

Safe House is worth the read.

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

What I learned: So lean. People don’t understand why spec scripts have to be so lean. It’s because an unknown to little-known writer is basically given ten pages of leeway before a seasoned reader mentally checks out on them. You have to be lean to survive, to prove to your reader that you won’t burden them with a bunch of unnecessary nonsense. You’re saying right away: Listen buddy, I’m not going to waste your time. I’m keeping it bare-bones. This is never as important as it is in the action genre, where everything has to move FAST. How are you going to convey a fast action script with huge paragraph chunks? Finding a four-line paragraph in this script was like trying to find a salad in New Orleans. Spec scripts gotta be leeeeaaaaan.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Grey

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A group of oil drillers on a plane ride home, crash in the arctic tundra, where they become hunted by a vicious pack of wolves.
About: Many probably know Carnahan as the upstart testosterone-filled director who broke out with “Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane.” He went on to make the well-received “Narc,” which led to a pre-couch-hopping call from Tom Cruise to become the next director in his Mission Impossible super-franchise. Things fell apart, Carnahan followed up with the all-over-the-place dud “Smokin’ Aces,” and that promising future seemed to be slipping away. Thank God for the ghost of Mr. T, because Carnahan jumped onboard the director-for-hire train and took on The A-Team. It was there that he apparently pitched Bradley Cooper his long gestating project about a group of plane crash victims trying to survive a pack of wolves. Cooper signed on and the movie is apparently a go (though where in the Bradley Cooper go-picture cycle it is, I’m not sure).
Writers: Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (based on the short story ‘Ghost Walkers’ by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers)
Details: 120 pages (6/21/07)

Hell fucking yeah.

Plane crashes.


People trying to survive.

The Grey is a dark eerie thriller that deals with the most primal of human experiences: survival. Oh, and it does so in a way that puts all recent survival stories to shame. Because this script rocks.

We’re in the Arctic Tundra. An oil drilling station up in the coldest regions of the world. When your company gets up near the equator, you don’t exactly attract the lawyers and doctors of the world. You get the ex-cons, the fugitives, the murderers. The people no one else will accept.

In the middle of it all is Ottway, a sad, frustrated, conflicted man who it so pains to be away from the woman he loves, that he simply can’t take it anymore. Combine that with being out in this vast depressing ice desert, stuck with all these cro-magnums, sunlight peeking out two hours a day at most, and you understand why he’s out here, away from the other men, with a gun to his head, considering ending it all. But something…some unknown force…brings him back from the edge. He’ll live. At least for one more day.

Lucky for him and the others, the company is flying the team back to Anchorage for a little recuperation. So everyone jumps on a 737, and they take off into a blizzard. Ottway drifts off, but less than an hour into the flight, there’s a large jolt, a twist, a turn, metallic wheezing, and the plane goes tumbling down. Twisted metal, fire, fuselage everywhere. Almost everyone’s dead. Just a handful of men survive. There’s Ottway, Luttinger (a bear of a man), Flannery (a sort of Bill Paxton type from Aliens) and Pike (the troublemaker), along with a few others.

Nobody’s able to keep their shit together. They are out in the middle of the North fucking Pole, employees of a company they know is too cheap to send out a rescue team to find them. But the only one who understands the true severity of their situation is Ottway, and he quickly takes charge. They need to set up a fire and they need to find food. Fast. As the others gradually slide out of shock, they begin to notice they have visitors. Wolves. Off in the distance. Staring. Pacing. Observing.

But these aren’t ordinary wolves. They’re bigger. More viscious. Unafraid. A genetic result of being forced to hunt bigger pray out here in the middle of nowhere. So they’re stronger. And they’ve never seen humans before. So they’re not afraid of them. They simply see them as another animal species invading their territory. And for that reason, they need to be killed.

And that’s exactly what they start doing. Instantly picking off our men, one by one. At first they wait for them to walk off alone, to go the bathroom. But soon they’re impatient with even that approach, and literally run into the group, grabbing their prey, and pulling the helpless men back to the pack, as they’re chewed apart alive.

It would be over much quicker if it weren’t for Ottway. He’s been out in the middle of nowhere before. He’s hunted animals. Wolves in fact. He understands them. And he’s their only chance at survival.

And the assessment is that out here, they’re toast. They need to get to the forest, where they’ll have cover. But if dealing with hungry killer wolves weren’t bad enough, the lawless Pike disagrees with nearly everything Ottway suggests. Pike wants to be the leader here, and his continual insubordination is threatening to kill them from the inside before they’re killed from the outside.

There are no big plot twists here. No surprises. No trickery or unique structure. It’s a very simple story. Group of Men vs. Group of Wolves. Battle for survival. And what makes it so compelling, is that the men are so grossly overmatched. They’re out of their element, starving, freezing, and the only one that understands the gravity of their predicament is a man that just yesterday wanted to end his life.

What I loved about The Grey was just how realistic it all was. You could feel the ice on your fingers. You could hear the wind kicking up the snow. And Carnahan and Jeffers supplement it with an “in your face” style full of italics and underlines. Normally that stuff annoys me, but here, it feels appropriate, as it embodies the immediacy and second-to-second struggle these men are going through.

And there’s something about Ottway that just makes you root for him. I love characters who want to end their life, only to be thrown in a situation where they must fight for it. Outside of the irony, it’s moving to see that moment a character realizes just how valuable life is. Ottway spends much of the opening speaking in voice over and his words are so real, so intense, they pierce you, bonding you with this man forever. As the odds become stacked higher and higher against him, you pray that beyond all reason, he’ll somehow find a way to survive, to find shelter, to find help. And yet, instinctively, you know no one’s coming to help him.

And then of course there’s the wolves. Oh the wolves. They’ll do what no other wolves would dare do. Run right into the pack, snatch you away, and chow on your throat as they drag you back to their kill den. This ain’t the French-kissing Taylor Lautner kind of wolf, nosiree. But the most terrifying of them all is the Alpha Male, the wolf that’s even bigger than all the other abnormally large wolves. Watching him observe these men from a distance, seeing eyes that almost appear intelligent, plotting, is what brings the reality of this situation to bear. And one of the cooler threads was the parallel between the alpha male relationship to the wolves in the wolfpack, and the alpha-male relationship to the humans in the human pack. As we jump back and forth, we realize these carnivores aren’t that much different from each other. It was all just done to perfection.

If there’s something that can be improved, it’s probably the secondary characters. Outside of Flannery and Pike, none of the other men stood out. And there’s a lot of places you can go with a pool of murderers and ex-cons. I thought that could’ve been fun to explore. But this is a 2007 draft, so I have a feeling they may have addressed that issue. Still, I hope they haven’t messed with anything else. This was an intense harsh thrill-packed ride from cover to cover, and I think it works perfectly the way it is.

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

What I learned: Voice over is one of those things that, unless you know what you’re doing, you just shouldn’t fuck with. But when done well, it does a great job of quickly connecting you to the main character – helping you identify with and care for them in a manner that’s just not possible without hearing their thoughts. I dare you to read the opening 10 pages, hear Ottway’s voice over, and not sympathize with him, not want to root for him.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What We Can Learn From Five Box Office Surprises

Back before the internet, film studios used to spend untold millions on predicting the box office. The closer they could get to predicting a movie’s opening weekend, the more accurately they could plug the numbers into their “hit-maker” equation for the next round of summer tentpoles. Of course studios still spend a ton of money playing Nostradamus, but let’s face it - These days, anyone with a love for film and a few key movie blogs bookmarked can predict a film’s opening weekend within three million dollars. We know the hits before they hit us. We know the duds before they’re dumped on us. It’s not like the mid-nineties, where guessing a movie’s opening gross made you some sort of internet rock star.

However, even with all their tools and their stat-charts and their polling and their surveys and their test-screenings. And even with our Playlists and our Slash-Films and our First Showings and our Colliders…every once in awhile a film comes along that bucks the predictions. You would think this would be cause for celebration. But oh how it is not. It is a cause for fear. If a movie ends up being way bigger than the professional trackers thought it would be, that means they didn’t do their jobs. So everyone scrambles to try and figure out: What the hell went wrong?

Their answers quickly turn into a list of excuses. And most of those excuses revolve around two words: “Middle America.” Middle America can pretty much be used as an excuse for any miscalculation ANYWHERE. I’m not just talking about movies. You accidentally put too much ketchup on your hot dog? Middle America’s fault. Your boss is pissing you off? Middle America. Celebrity Trump? Middle America. Okay, maybe that last one is true. But come on, let’s be serious for a second. We can’t pin all our bad predictions on the that pudgy central section of the country. Sometimes, we have to take responsibility for our actions (the key word here is "sometimes" - not always).

So it's with this spirit that I want to take a look at five surprise hits and see what we can learn from them as screenwriters. I do not claim to have all the answers here. I merely want to figure out what I believe we can learn from each film, and open up a discussion for you guys to add your thoughts.

Now I know a lot of people are going to point out that marketing and casting and directing had a much bigger effect on these box office successes than anything a screenwriter did. While I won’t discount that there are many variables involved in a film’s success, I will say that it all starts with the writer, and he/she has a much bigger impact on that final number than he/she’s often given credit for. The writer (assuming the idea is theirs) is responsible for two things: A great concept – something that can be easily presented and marketed in posters, TV spots, and trailers. And secondly, of course, a great story – something that moves audiences, something that titillates, excites, and entertains them. The former brings them into the theater, the latter brings them and their friends back. Except for adapted material, writers are responsible for both of these things. So keeping that in mind, let’s see what we can learn from these surprise hits.

Rough Projected First Weekend Gross: 12-15 mil
Actual First Weekend Gross: 24 mil
Rough Projected Total Gross: 35-42 mil
Actual Total Gross: 75 mil
Written by: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick

What we can learn: People kept trying to get me to read this before it came out but as his been my M.O., I wasn’t exactly thrilled by another zombie clone. Then I saw the trailer and I realized this was anything but the newest boxcar on the stock zombie train. This was a film that took the zombie premise and turned it into something fun. That fun is what brought so many people into the theater. But where Zombieland excels, is in how it keeps you in the theater. The script does something rare for a film aimed at a young audience - it put its characters first. In a world where we’re used to zombie films birthing cardboard cutouts whose depth is measured by how many three-syllable words they can use, Zombieland dares to go deeper. And in a straight comedy no less. Each of these characters is trying to overcome a lifelong series of walls they’ve put up to guard against the world. Each of these characters is trying to learn how to connect with other human beings. In other words, they're going through the same types of things that a lot of us are. Columbus has led his entire existence shutting himself off from the world. Tallahasse hides behind his anger. Wichita refuses to trust anyone besides her sister. These clearly defined characters are what separates Zombieland from so many other horror films out there. Now you may be saying, “Carson, do you really believe that character development has anything to do with why this film did well at the box office?” Hell yes I do. Giving us characters with depth in a genre known for its lack of depth is exactly what gave this film such a fresh feel. When you don’t do that right in a horror comedy, you get Jennifer’s Body, a movie that by all accounts should’ve left Zombieland in the dust at the box office. It co-starred two of the hottest young actresses in Hollywood for Christ’s sake. And yet still it bombed. So never underestimate the power of character depth, particularly in genres where it’s usually ignored.

Rough Projected First Weekend Gross: 20-23 mil
Actual First Weekend Gross: 37 mil
Rough Projected Total Gross: 60-70 mil
Actual Total Gross: 116 mil
Writers: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell

What we can learn: There are two ways to approach spec screenplays. Two ways to write a screenplay that sells. The first is to take a known formula, and execute it perfectly. Think the heist flick Inside Man, the buddy cop film 48 Hours, or the romantic comedy Notting Hill. None of those movies rewrote the book on screenwriting, but they were all expertly executed for what they were. The reason I don’t favor this approach is that it’s really hard to execute anything perfectly. Of course it *seems* easy – but once you start writing, you realize it isn’t easy in the least. It’s much smarter (and easier) to do it the way District 9 did. Take a well-known story and find a new angle to it. I just talked about this yesterday in my review of “The Resident.” We’ve seen “Fatal Attraction”-type thrillers a hundred times. But we hadn’t seen it with shifting points of view. Same thing happens here with District 9. We’ve seen the “aliens invade earth” plot a thousand times. Aliens come down, aliens try to wipe out or enslave humans, humans fight back. So director Neill Blomkamp said, “Well what if aliens came down, and instead of them trying to enslave us, we tried to enslave them?” Every single thing you knew about the genre was flipped on its head. Every area you explored was going to be unique because it’d never been done before! This is why District 9 feels so fresh and new. And fresh and new is what brings people into the theater. So when you get an idea, you need to challenge yourself. You need to ask yourself if it’s been done before. And if it has? You need to pick at it and pry at it and flip it and redesign it until it’s unique. I’ll give you a scary fact. The number 1 reason a screenplay fails is that its concept isn’t interesting enough to be made into a movie. So stop worrying so much about what’s happening IN your story, and make sure it’s a story worth telling in the first place.

Rough Projected First Weekend Gross: 10-12 mil
Actual First Weekend Gross: 25 mil
Rough Projected Total Gross: 50-60 mil
Actual Total Gross: 145 mil
Written by: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

What we can learn: Taken explores one of the most powerful dramatic situations there is, the kidnapping. The genre itself is pretty simple. All you have to do is: a) Make us fall in love with a character. b) Have that character get kidnapped. c) Have our protagonist try to find him/her before it’s too late. But while most writers enjoy focusing on "b" and "c," they forget that the key to making the genre work is "a." WE - MUST - LOVE - THE - CHARACTER WHO GETS KIDNAPPED. Period. Surprisingly, writers don't spend enough time introducing us to this character. As a result, we don’t care if our hero finds them. And if we don’t care about the chase in a chase movie, honey child, you don’t have a movie. HOW much time you should take introducing the character is up to you. But the less time you give us with them, the more impactful those scenes must become. Great writers can make us fall in love with a character in a single scene. But for most of us, it takes longer. Taken actually takes a big chance– spending a full 25 minutes with the daughter before she’s kidnapped. In my opinion, this was the big risk that made Taken work. The first act definitely dragged in places, but because we were around this daughter so much, because we were allowed to see the love our protagonist had for her, it solidified our understanding of their relationship, and sent our desire to see them reunited through the roof. – A side note to all this is that the “kidnapped” genre is very similar to the “revenge” genre. In both cases, our protagonist is going after the bad guy. There’s one key difference though. In the kidnapped genre, there’s the benefit of the character being found alive. This not only gives us the hope of a happy ending (translates into: more marketable) but it includes a natural ticking time bomb. Every second that our protagonist doesn’t get to our bad guys is an extra second where the kidnapped character could be killed. In that vein, it’s a smarter genre script to write than revenge, because in the revenge script, there is no urgency or ticking time bomb (they’re already dead) and there’s no hope for a possible happy ending (did I mention they were dead). I liked “Edge of Darkness,” but it was clear as soon as the daughter died that the script was going to end very darkly. Unfortunately, as great as this formula is, the market’s been saturated with Taken-like scripts for the better part of a year. So you’ll have to wait awhile to write yours. The only way to make it work now is to put another spin on it (read “District 9” above). Set it in the Old West. Show both points-of-view. But please, don’t write another staright-forward Taken clone.

Rough Projected First Weekend Gross: 14-18 mil
Actual First Weekend Gross: 34 mil
Rough Projected Total Gross: 50 mil
Actual Total Gross: 245 mil
Writer: John Lee Hancock (based on the book written by Michael Lewis)

What we can learn: Whoa. Just give me a second here. Whoa. This is the one movie surprise that I still haven’t wrapped my brain around. And for that reason, I’m very tempted to blame Middle America. But being the good soldier and screenwriting-warrior-in-search-of-truth that I am, I will look to find another reason why The Blind Side became the most shocking surprise hit of the year. Maybe I should explain why I'm shocked first. It's quite simple really. The screenplay for The Blind Side wasn't very good. The story, as far as I could tell, is about a well-off family who takes a homeless kid in who ends up parlaying the opportunity into an eventual career in the NFL. Despite this, there isn’t a single down of football played until page 60! The first 59 pages are dedicated to the family getting to know the kid. Sixty! Pages! To make matters worse, despite all that extra time, the character development outside of Sandra Bullock and the boy is paper thin. But alas, as I dug further into this scrap pile for meaning, there IS something I realized we could can learn from it. It doesn’t exactly explain why the film made 245 million dollars. But it does help that struggling screenwriter looking for an advantage over his competition: Write a screenplay with a compelling female lead character. Remember, the majority of writers out there write screenplays with male protagonists. This leaves virtually no options out there for A-list actresses in search of a great lead role. This forces them to search out meaty parts on the risky independent circuit (i.e. Charlize Theron in “Monster”). And the problem with that is, that world is extremely hit or miss. So when a Super Femme A-Lister finds a great leading role AND that role is in a film that will actually be seen? They’re going to fight over that can of meat like a pack of rabid wolves. Once you have an A-Lister like Bullock attached to your project, you're going to get your big payday, and your shot to become next year's surprise shocker being debated on a tiny screenwriting blog. Like The Blind Side.

Rough Projected First Weekend Gross: 30-33 mil
Actual First Weekend Gross: 45 mil
Rough Projected Total Gross: 90-100 mil
Actual Total Gross: 277 mil
Written By: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore

What we can learn: Let’s get something out of the way quick. The Hangover gained a lot of momentum coming up to its release. So it wasn’t a total shocker like a few of these others. But nobody, and I mean nobody, expected it to make 277 million dollars and finish as the 6th highest grossing movie of the year! With that said, let’s get into it. -- If there’s any film on this list that owes its success to its screenplay, it’s this one. The script was widely accepted as one of the funnier scripts around town before it was made (It was in my Top 25 before it came out), it didn’t have any stars to guarantee an opening weekend, it went up against the best of the best – the 150-200 million dollar behemoths studios put out in the summer, its word-of-mouth was the best of the summer. If you are a comedy screenwriter and you are looking for your next idea, The Hangover is your bible. But what is it you're specifically supposed to take away from this film's success? Well, it reinforces one of the oldest and most important rules of screenwriting: Concept Concept Concept. The Hangover did 90% of its work before it was ever written: It came up with a high concept highly marketable idea that inspired an endless supply of comedic scenarios. I remember reading an earlier version of the script, and there were 3 or 4 main sequences that were different from the final film. And they were all just as funny. Legendary producer Lynda Obst once said about the film “Flashdance,” which was famously developed for over 10 years and had dozens of different incarnations, that in the end it didn’t matter. It was the concept of a female dancer who was a steel worker that ensured the movie would succeed. Same thing holds true with The Hangover. So before you do any writing, you need to make sure you have that great concept. But how do you know whether you have that great concept? Well, you gotta do something that not a lot of writers are comfortable doing and it’s something that Blake Snyder used to publish entire books about. You have to pitch your ideas to people and you have to force them to be honest with you. Preferably, do it to their face or on the phone. It’s so easy to tell if your idea is good just by the look on someone’s face. Do they look confused? Is there a long pause? Are their eyes dead as you explain it to them? Are they drifting? These clues tell you everything you need to know about your concept. You know your idea’s good when people immediately get excited about it. When their eyes come alive, when they’re offering suggestions or actively engaging you as you explain it to them. Another approach I’ve learned is effective is to mix in your idea with a few other ideas you have, and then include some other movie ideas as well (good ideas of films in development that the general public doesn’t know about). Send that list out to 20 of your best friends and ask them what their top 3 favorite ideas are. If your idea isn’t consistently finishing 1 or 2, I’ve got bad news for you, it’s probably not good enough.

To summarize, right now you should be thinking of a high concept idea that flips a typical plot on its head, where someone gets kidnapped, the lead role is played by a woman, and all of the characters are well-developed. Anyone care to pitch their new concept in the comments section?