Wednesday, June 30, 2010


It’s Unconventional Week here at Scriptshadow, and here’s a reminder of what that’s about.

Every script, like a figure skating routine, has a degree of difficulty to it. The closer you stay to basic dramatic structure, the lower the degree of difficulty is. So the most basic dramatic story, the easiest degree of difficulty, is the standard: Character wants something badly and he tries to get it. “Taken” is the ideal example. Liam Neeson wants to save his daughter. Or if you want to go classic, Indiana Jones wants to find the Ark of The Covenant. Rocky wants to fight Apollo Creed. Simple, but still powerful.

Each element you add or variable you change increases the degree of difficulty and requires the requisite amount of skill to pull off. If a character does not have a clear cut goal, such as Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate, that increases the degree of difficulty. If there are three protagonists instead of one, such as in L.A. Confidential, that increases the degree of difficulty. If you’re telling a story in reverse such as Memento or jumping backwards and forwards in time such as in Slumdog Millionaire, these things increase the degree of difficulty.

The movies/scripts I’m reviewing this week all have high degrees of difficulty. I’m going to break down how these stories deviate from the basic formula yet still manage to work. Monday,
Roger reviewed Kick-Ass. Tuesday, I reviewed Star Wars. Wednesday, I reviewed The Shawshank Redemption. Today, like is like a box of chocolates.

Genre: Comedy/Coming-of-Age?
Logline: A simple man looks back at his extraordinary life.
About: Forrest Gump is the 23rd most successful film in domestic box office history, grossing 624 million dollars if you adjust for inflation. It stole the Oscar for Best Picture away from The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction (for those keeping track, the other two movies in the race were Four Weddings and A Funeral and……….Quiz Show???). Gump also won Tom Hanks a best actor Oscar.
Writer: Eric Roth (based on the novel by Winston Groom)

Degree of Difficulty – 5 (out of 5)

Yes! I love talking about Forrest Gump. It’s one of those divisive movies that always gets the opinions flowing. People either love it or hate it. I think it’s a great movie, but I understand where the non-likers are coming from. Let’s face it. It’s a smarmy feel good star vehicle that wants you to love it a little too much. But here’s the difference between Forrest Gump and all the other also-rans jockeying for that blatant heartstring tug-a-thon (like “The Blind Side” for instance). Forrest Gump is DIFFERENT. It’s unlike any movie you’ve ever seen and unlike any movie you’re ever going to see. This isn’t some by-the-numbers bullshit. It’s genuinely original. For that reason alone, it’s worthy of discussion.

Let’s start off with the span of time the movie takes place in. Movies are really good at dealing with contained time periods. Why? Because contained time periods provide immediacy to the story. Characters are forced to face their issues and achieve their goals right away and that makes the story move. This is why a lot of films take place within a few days or a few weeks. Once you start spanning months and years and decades, you lose that inherent momentum, and you’re forced to figure out ways to replace it (which isn’t easy!). Forrest Gump takes place over something like 40 years. Not looking good.

But that isn’t the biggest problem for Gump by a long shot. What truly makes the success of this movie baffling is that its main character is the single most passive mainstream protagonist in the history of film. Forrest Gump doesn’t initiate ANY-thing in this movie. He literally stumbles around from amazing situation to amazing situation like a member of the Jersey Shore cast. All of Forrest Gump’s decisions are orchestrated by someone else. People tell Forrest to jump and he says “how high?”. A main character who doesn’t drive the story? You’ve written yourself into Trouble Town. Next train leads to Screwedville in five minutes.

Another issue is, just like The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump has as much plot as an episode of Dora The Explorer (note: I’ve never actually seen Dora The Explorer but I’m guessing there’s not a lot of plot in it). There’s no overarching goal for the protagonist. There’s no drive. No first act, second act, or third act (although I’ve seen people try to break this into acts – it’s never been convincing). Instead, the film plays out like a series of vignettes – or better yet, a sitcom episode. Tom Hanks is thrown into a crazy situation. Something funny happens. Repeat. It’s a very compartmentalized approach to the story. Why these disconnected misadventures worked was a mystery to me for a long time. But I think I finally figured it out.

Why it works:

It came to me like a flash of light. I hadn’t seen Forrest Gump in forever but there the answer to my question was. Forrest Gump wasn’t a movie. It was a documentary. Documentaries don’t have first act breaks and mid-points and character arcs. They simply follow a person’s life and whatever happens to that person happens. All the documentary has to do is capture it. Now as all documentarians know, documentaries are made or broken by their subject. Without a compelling subject, you don’t have a documentary. And that’s why this film worked. Forrest Gump is one of the most fascinating characters we’ve ever seen. He’s “retarded,” yet doesn’t wallow in it. He does extraordinary things, yet is humble about it. His childlike enthusiasm appeals to the kid in all of us. His situation is ironic (he’s extremely successful yet has the intelligence of a 6th grader). This man has a ton going on underneath the hood.

But the characteristic that most ensures the character's success is that Forrest Gump is the ultimate UNDERDOG. I cannot make this clear enough. EVERYBODY LOVES AN UNDERDOG. When someone is picked on, looked down upon, is a longshot, we love to root for them. And Forrest Gump is the biggest underdog of them all. He’s physically handicapped (as a child). He’s mentally handicapped (as a child and an adult). Yet he achieves things the rest of us could only dream of. It’s entertaining as hell to watch, and it’s impossible not to feel good for the guy when it happens.

Another key component here is the detail given to the supporting characters, particularly Lieutenant Dan. Remember, some protagonists don’t arc. The story just isn’t conducive to them transforming. That happens here in Gump. But if that’s the case, you should probably have one of your supporting characters fill that role, because the audience wants to see somebody learn something by the end of the film (or become a better person in some capacity). Roth recognized that, which is why he has the eternally cynical character of Lieutenant Dan learn the gift of life over the course of the story.

Speaking of supporting characters, Roth also needed some kind of thread to hold the story together. The plot was so wacky, so disconnected, that had he not added a connective thread, it would’ve come off as a series of comedy skits. He needed a constant. And that’s where Jenny came in.

What’s so cool about the Jenny relationship is that everything goes so well for Forrest…except his relationship with her. I said up above that there's no goal for Forrest and that’s technically correct (Forrest doesn’t actively pursue anything). But he does keep bumping into Jenny. And he does want her. So because there’s an element of pursuit going on, we become engaged. We want to know, will he get her or not?

Remember, movies are essentially characters trying to overcome obstacles. That's it. And the greater the obstacle, the more involved we get, the more rewarding it is when our character overcomes said obstacle. What’s a greater obstacle than being in love with someone who will never love you back? It’s the ultimate underdog scenario. And our desire to see if he Forrest can pull off the impossible is what gives this movie purpose. Quite simply, we want to see if Forrest gets the girl. And that’s enough to keep us satisfied for 150 minutes.

I’d be interested to hear why you guys believed this movie worked (or didn’t). When I’m in a bad mood, I hate how cute it can be. But otherwise, I get a kick out of how weird and different it is. It fascinates me every time I watch it.

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

What I learned: If a character has a weakness, don’t allow him to wallow in it. Nobody likes the “woe is me” guy/girl in real life, so why the hell would we like them onscreen? Forrest has a serious disability but he doesn’t let it affect him. He pushes on with a positive attitude. It’s hard not to like someone like that.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

UNCONVENTIONAL WEEK - The Shawshank Redemption

It’s Unconventional Week here at Scriptshadow, and here’s a reminder of what that’s about.

Every script, like a figure skating routine, has a degree of difficulty to it. The closer you stay to basic dramatic structure, the lower the degree of difficulty is. So the most basic dramatic story, the easiest degree of difficulty, is the standard: Character wants something badly and he tries to get it. “Taken” is the ideal example. Liam Neeson wants to save his daughter. Or if you want to go classic, Indiana Jones wants to find the Ark of The Covenant. Rocky wants to fight Apollo Creed. Simple, but still powerful.

Each element you add or variable you change increases the degree of difficulty and requires the requisite amount of skill to pull off. If a character does not have a clear cut goal, such as Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate, that increases the degree of difficulty. If there are three protagonists instead of one, such as in L.A. Confidential, that increases the degree of difficulty. If you’re telling a story in reverse such as Memento or jumping backwards and forwards in time such as in Slumdog Millionaire, these things increase the degree of difficulty.

The movies/scripts I’m reviewing this week all have high degrees of difficulty. I’m going to break down how these stories deviate from the basic formula yet still manage to work. Monday, Roger reviewed Kick-Ass. Yesterday, I reviewed Star Wars. Today, I’m reviewing The Shawshank Redemption.

Genre: Drama
Premise: Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.
About: Often at the top of IMDB’s user voting list for best movie ever, The Shawshank Redemption was released in 1994 and subsequently bombed at the box office. It later became an immense hit on home video.
Writer: Frank Darabont (based on a Stephen King story)

Degree of Difficulty: 5 (out of 5)

Why the degree of difficulty is so high:

The producers of The Shawshank Redemption along with Frank Darabont expressed shock at how badly their movie fared in theatrical release. Sometimes I wonder if anybody in this business understands how the public thinks. If you give us a boring title, throw two actors on a poster who we don’t know very well, set them in a gloomy shade of gray, have them look depressed and confused, then avoid giving us any clue of what the movie’s about…chances are no one’s going to see your movie.

And even if you did find out what Shawhank Redemption was about, did that help any? A couple of guys wallow in a prison for 25 years. Wonderful. Opening Day here I come.

Besides the depressing subject matter, the movie embraces a 142 minute running time. While that’s not in the same boat as Titanic, it’s a questionable decision due to just how relaxed the movie plays. In fact, this wouldn’t be a big deal except that The Shawshank Redemption is missing the most important story element of all: PLOT. That’s right. A nearly 2 and a half hour movie has no plot! There’s no goal for the main character. Nobody’s trying to achieve anything. There’s no inherent point to the journey. Contrast that with another long movie like Braveheart, where William Wallace is on a constant quest for his country’s freedom. He’s beheading Dukes. He’s taking over countries. That’s why we’re able to hang around for 3 hours. We want to see if he’ll achieve THAT GOAL. What is it the characters are trying to get in The Shawshank Redemption? Pretty much nothing.

So when a movie doesn’t have a clear external journey, the focus tends to shift to the inner journey. This usually takes place in the form of a character’s fatal flaw. A fatal flaw is the central defining characteristic that holds a person back in life. Gene Hackman’s coach character in Hoosiers is bullheaded. He does things his way and his way only. Through his pursuit of a state basketball title, he learns the value of relinquishing control to others, which helps him become a better person.

Neither Andy nor Red have a fatal flaw. They’re not forced to overcome any internal problems. I guess you could say Andy keeps to himself too much and eventually learns to open up to others, but it’s by no means a pressing issue. Red speaks his mind at the end and it gets him parole. But refusing to speak his mind never hindered him in other parts of the movie. In other words, there's no deep character exploration going on with the two main characters. That’s pretty nuts when you think about it. You have an overlong movie with no plot and no significant character development. That would be like Rocky already believing in himself and not having to fight at the end of the movie. He’d just walk around Philadelphia all day hanging out. So the question is, how the hell did Shawshank overcome this?

Why it still works:

One of the main reasons The Shawshank Redemption works is because its characters are so damn likable. Let’s face it. We love these guys! There’s a segment of writers out there who break out in hives if you even suggest that their characters be likable. But Shawshank proves just how powerful the likability factor is. Andy and Red and Brooks and Tommy and Heywood. We’d kick our best friends out of our lives just to spend five minutes with these guys. And when you have likable characters, you have characters the audience wants to root for.

On the other end of the spectrum, Shawshank’s bad guys are really bad. I’ve said this in numerous reviews and I’ll continue to say it. If you create a villain that the audience hates, they’ll invest themselves in your story just to see him go down. Since Shawshank has no plot, Darabont realized he would have to utilize this tool to its fullest. That’s why there’s not one, not two, but three key villains. The first is Bogs, the rapist. The second is the abusive Captain Hadley. And the third, of course, is the warden. Darabont makes all of these men so distinctly evil, that we will not rest until we see them go down. If there’s ever a testament to the power of a villain, The Shawshank Redemption is it.

So this answers some questions, but we’re still dealing with a plot-less movie here. And whenever you’re writing something without a plot, you need to find other ways to drive the audience’s interest. One of the most powerful ways to do this is with a mystery (sound familiar?). If there isn’t a question that the audience wants answered, then what is it they’re looking forward to? The mystery in Shawshank is “Did Andy kill his wife or not?” Now it doesn’t seem like a strong mystery initially. For the first half of the script, it’s only casually explored. But as the script goes on, there are hints that Andy may be innocent, and we find ourselves hoping above everything that it's true. The power in this mystery comes from the stakes attached to it. If Andy is innocent, he goes free. And since we want nothing more than for Andy to go free, we become obsessed with this mystery.

And finally, the number one reason Shawshank works is because it has a great ending. The ending is the last thing the audience leaves with. That’s why some argue that it’s the most important part of the entire movie. And it’s ironic. Because Shawshank’s biggest weakness, the fact that it doesn’t have an actual plot, the fact that virtually nothing happens for two hours, is actually its biggest strength. The film tricks us into believing that the prison IS the movie so escape never enters our minds. For that reason when it comes, it’s surprising and emotional and exciting and cathartic! There aren’t too many movies out there that make you feel as good at the end as The Shawshank Redemption. The power of the ending indeed!

When you think about it, Shawshank actually proves why you shouldn’t ignore the rules. Doing so made the movie virtually unmarketable. It’s why you, me, and everyone else never saw it in the theater. Let’s face it, it looked boring. Luckily, all of the chances Shawshank took ended up working and the film was one of those rare gems which caught on once it hit video. I’m not sure a movie like Shawshank will ever be made again. That’s sad, but it makes the film all the more special.

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

What I learned: Shawshank taught me that you can lie to your audience. If you can trick them into thinking one way, you can use it to great effect later on. When Andy asks Red for a rock hammer, the first thing on our minds is, “He’s going to use it to escape.” But Red quickly dispels that notion when he sees the rock hammer himself and tells us, in voice over, “Andy was right. I finally got the joke. It would take a man about six hundred years to tunnel under the wall with one of these.” And just like that, we never consider the notion of Andy escaping again. So when the big escape finally comes, we’re shocked. And it’s all because that damn writer lied to us!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Uncoventional Week - Star Wars

For those just tuning in, it's a Theme Week. This week's theme is great movies that tell their stories unconventionally. The idea will be to try and break down why, even though the scripts bucked traditional structure, they still worked. Yesterday, Roger led us with Kick-Ass, and today, I'm taking on a little independent film you might have heard of called Star Wars.

Genre: Sci-fi Fantasy
Premise: Luke Skywalker leaves his home planet, teams up with other rebels, and tries to save Princess Leia from the evil clutches of Darth Vader.
About: One of my favorite movies of all time. I still watch it a few times a year. Although George Lucas is the sole credited writer on Star Wars, everybody knows he had a lot of help with this script. For proof of this, go watch any of the prequels to see what happens when no one helps George. This is also why I say “they” a lot when referring to the writers.
Writer: George Lucas

Before I go into my review, let me explain a little bit about my approach to this week. Every script, like a figure skating routine, has a degree of difficulty to it. The closer you stay to basic dramatic structure, the lower the degree of difficulty is. So the most basic dramatic story, the easiest degree of difficulty, is the standard: Character wants something badly and he tries to get it. That’s all. “Taken” is the perfect example. Liam Neeson wants to save his daughter. So he tries to. Indiana Jones wants to find the Ark of The Covenant. So he tries to. Rocky wants to fight Apollo Creed. So he trains to. As you can see, these stories are simple but can still be very powerful.

Each element you add or variable you change that strays from this basic structure increases the degree of difficulty and requires the requisite amount of skill to pull off. If a character does not have a clear cut goal, such as Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate for example, that increases the degree of difficulty. If there are three protagonists instead of one, such as in L.A. Confidential, that increases the degree of difficulty. If you’re telling a story in reverse such as Memento or jumping backwards and forwards in time such as in Slumdog Millionaire, these things increase the degree of difficulty.

I bring this up because all four of the movies/scripts I plan to review this week have very high degrees of difficulty and I’d like to break down how these stories deviate from the basic formula yet still manage to work. We’ll start with one of my favorite movies of all time, Star Wars. Star Wars looks like a simple story from the outside, but this quirky adventure film is actually extremely complicated, and it’s a minor miracle that the story works at all.

Degree of Difficulty: 5 (out of 5)

Why the degree of difficulty is so high:

We’ll start with how Star Wars approaches the single most basic element of the story: the character goal. Unlike how the goal would be presented in a traditional story (Shrek’s goal is to bring back the princess to retain his swamp) Lucas gives his central story goal to a trash-can shaped robot named R2-D2 who speaks a language the audience doesn’t understand. R2-D2 has the Death Star plans inside his “rusty innards” and is trying to get them to Obi-Wan Kenobi so Obi-Wan can get them to Leia’s stepfather so that they can destroy the Death Star. Hence, R2-D2, not our hero Luke Skywalker, is driving the story.

Now here’s the thing. WE DON’T KNOW THIS YET. We know that R2 has the plans to the Death Star, but we don’t know that these plans will allow the Rebels to pull off the ultimate goal, which is to destroy the Death Star. That information isn’t given to us until roughly 20 minutes before the movie ends, which makes the ultimate goal one giant shrouded mystery. But this mystery isn't one of those “we’re dying to find out” mysteries. It’s kept under wraps only because the writers don’t want us to know it yet. That means during the majority of Star Wars' running time, we’re not even sure what we’re going through all this trouble for.

So you have a main goal that’s a mystery being driven by a non-human character who doesn’t speak. Yeah, try to throw that into your next screenplay. But what’s even more fascinating is how this affects the other characters in the script. Because R2 is driving the story, all the other characters are following him. That means all your protagonists are passive. They’re lemmings, following a random robot wherever he wants to go. Again, you’d be called out on this in a second at a production company. ("Make your characters more proactive!" they'd say.)

So why in the world are we interested in all this nonsense? I’ll get to that in a second. But first, we must deal with one of the most outrageous script choices ever. The main character, Luke Skywalker, doesn’t arrive until 15 minutes into the movie! Every producer, manager, and agent worth their salt will tell you that by 15 minutes time, we should not only have introduced the main character, but we should understand what he’s about, what his central character flaw is, and what he’s after. This late arrival forces us to spend the next 20 minutes learning about Luke Skywalker, and the story is essentially put on hold while we do.

Further complicating matters is that Star Wars makes the decision to jump back and forth between the good guys and the bad guys, creating multiple subplots that must be kept track of ON TOP of an already complicated story and structure. And, oh yeah, did I mention that this entire story is piggybacking on top of a completely made up universe with complicated made-up mythology which Lucas must familiarize the audience with? And that he must move the story along at a quick enough pace that the script doesn’t get bogged down in all the necessary exposition to explain that universe? I mean Jesus Christ. Every screenwriting choice Lucas made here practically guaranteed failure.

Why it still worked:

The number one reason Star Wars worked was because of its characters. Every single big character in the movie was perfectly executed, starting with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. While Luke was a passive protagonist for most of the movie, he was still driven. He wanted to take down the Empire. And that dogged idealistic drive helped us forget that for most of the movie he’s just following everyone else. Also, Luke’s fatal flaw, that he didn’t believe in himself, was executed to perfection via his eventual acceptance of The Force. When he decides to go it alone in the Death Star trenches, we’re so into it because we’ve been waiting for Luke to finally see in himself what we’ve seen in him all along.

On the flip-side, Han Solo was the perfect anti-hero. He was the epitome of I-play-by-my-own-rules charm. And the guy was hilarious. Never was it more evident how important a wise-cracking rogue character was than when the prequels came out. Without a Han Solo character, Star Wars never had a chance. And while Han’s fatal flaw was very simplistic – his selfishness - it is one of, if not the most memorable execution of that flaw I’ve ever seen. I mean, who didn’t want to see Han Solo crack and finally embrace the others over himself? This is why when he takes out Vader’s fighter in the end, it’s one of the only deus-ex-machina moments in film history that doesn’t feel like a cheat. They did such a good job setting up his selfishness, that finally seeing him help others over himself ended up being more important to the audience than the fact that a rogue force-less thief-for-hire somehow took out the most powerful villain in the universe with a single shot.

But, the characters can only do so much. You still need to have a compelling plot. You still need to have a story that’s driving forward, that keeps us interested, and Star Wars does this in two ways. It took me awhile to figure this out but one of the big reasons Star Wars works is because it’s one giant chase movie. One of the things I always tell you to do is use a ticking time bomb. Whenever time is running out for your characters, it adds immediacy to your story, which subsequently ups the tension, ups the stakes, ups the conflict and ups just about everything else. Because your characters need to do their jobs RIGHT NOW, the story has a continuous energy to it.

Well, a close cousin to the ticking time bomb is the chase. Why? Because it accomplishes the same thing. If your characters are being chased, then there will always be an immediacy to their actions. They always have to move move MOVE. Here, wherever our protagonists are, the Empire is close behind. From when they slaughter the jawas to when they slaughter Luke’s family to when they follow Luke and Obi-Wan to Mos Eilsley to when they’re looking for them on the Death Star… We know that they’re always RIGHT BEHIND US, and because of that immediacy, it makes us forget about a lot of the deficiencies in the storytelling (such as the hero being introduced on page 15). We’re so concerned our heroes are going to get caught, we’re not judging any of that other stuff.

Now remember when I said how it increased the degree of difficulty to jump back and forth between the bad guys and the good guys? Well this is why they did it. Since we actually SEE our bad guys, we SEE that they’re right behind the protagonists. Had Lucas not done this, had we just stayed with the protagonists the whole time, then that chase aspect wouldn’t have been nearly as effective, and the story wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.

Now here’s the thing you have to remember. No chase, no matter how short or how long, works unless we care about the characters being chased! As I mentioned before, Lucas executes all of his character development perfectly. We like all of them. Shit, we even like the damn villain! So we actually care when the Empire closes in on them. It's also interesting to see how the successful execution of one story element (the well constructed characters) affects another (the chase). Have you ever been bored by a car chase scene? You’re not bored because the car chase is boring. You’re bored because you don’t give a shit if the characters get caught or not. Since we love these characters so much, it wouldn't matter if they were being chased down a straight featureless hallway for 20 minutes. We'd still want to see them escape!

Another thing Star Wars does really well is it understands that its main goal is murky (the protags aren’t aware yet that destroying the Death Star is the ultimate goal). So Star Wars needs a way to keep us focused in the interim. It does this by substituting a series of smaller goals for the big one.

For example, the first mini-goal is for Darth Vadar to get down to Tatooine and find the plans. When that doesn’t pan out, his new goal is to find the droids. Next, Luke must go find a wandering R-2. Afterwards, Luke and Obi-Wan must find a ship to get off the planet. Then, Luke, Obi-Wan, and Han must deliver the plans to Leia’s father. Then, Luke, Obi-Wan, and Han must save the princess. Then Luke, Obi-Wan, Leia and Han must escape the Death Star. Each one of these goals is strong and explained ahead of time. This makes sure we're always focused - the characters always have something they're trying to do. If you ever get the note that your script is wandering and random, not having any immediate goals for your characters is probably why. So whenever you don’t have a clearly stated ultimate goal, it’s essential that you keep your characters busy with a series of smaller goals. Star Wars does this wonderfully.

Now of course, I could talk about Star Wars for days. I didn’t even get into the inventiveness of the Star Wars universe, the brilliance of the force, the surprises in the story, the comedy, the greatest villain of all time, etc. All of those things had a big impact on this movie being so special. But when it comes down to the quirky structure of this screenplay and why it worked, I believe the elements I listed above were the keys. It just goes to show that any story can work, even nontraditional ones, but only if you understand what rules you've broken, and have the requisite tools to make up for those choices.

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

What I learned: Star Wars is the movie where I learned the power of the chase. Imagine for a second Star Wars without the Empire chasing the heroes. Or, if that's too dramatic, imagine never cutting to the antagonists in the story. Let’s say that Luke and the crew were trying to deliver Artoo to Leia’s father and just occasionally ran into bad guys now and then. This movie’s high energy is due in large part to The Empire always being on their heels. If you’re writing any kind of story where your characters are on the move, you should probably have some bad guys chasing them. And if it works to cut to those bad guys, even better.


In my eternal pursuit to keep you off-balance, I'm breaking out a Theme Week this week. The theme? Movies Roger and I love despite their nontraditional nature. The goal will be to figure out, to our best estimation, why these movies which strayed from conventional storytelling practices still worked. It's also a very busy week, so expect updates at weird unpredictable times. I wouldn't be surprised if all 4 of my reviews popped up at 3 a.m. Thursday morning. Roger starts us off with a movie he loved, "Kick-Ass." Feel free to go back and enjoy my review of the script afterwards. :)

Genre: Action Comedy
Premise: Dave Lizewski is an unnoticed high school student and comic book fan who decides to become a vigilante.
About: Kick-Ass is Matthew Vaughn's third directing effort (behind Layer Cake and Stardust). What some people don't know about Vaughn is that before he became a director, he was Guy Ritchie's producer, producing such films as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Kick-Ass stars Nicolas Cage and McLovin, as well as Chloe Moretz and Aaron Johnson.
Writers: Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
Director: Matthew Vaughn

Art is partly to entertain, but partly also to upset. You need those two. That's vital to keep our society alive. –Yann Martel

This movie so offended Professor Stark, that he leaned over to me at one point and gesticulated, "This is fucking depraved." I would have laughed at him, but I was too dazed to reply.

Kick-Ass shocked you into Stendhal syndrome, Rog?

I remember the moment in the theater when I started to shake.

My hands were trembling, and if I wasn't captivated by what was happening on the screen, I would know that my lungs had tightened and that my heart was beating faster. My nervous system was having a definite reaction to the images and noises my brain was trying to process.

Sure, I was on the edge of my seat when Kick Ass and Big Daddy were being tortured on live television by goons who were working for the villain, the local mob boss. As they were being dramatically bludgeoned with every type of weapon imaginable, I asked myself, "Is that the same backdrop they used in one of the torture scenes in Scarface?"

Our heroes were up shit creek, and the tension was milked for all it was worth. These guys were going to die on live television. But at every showing I was, all the audience members knew that Hit Girl was going to arrive anytime now. Sure, Red Mist shot her in the chest and the last time we saw her she had fallen into an alleyway, but we knew that she was trained by her father to take bullets in the chest. My friend leaned over to me and said, "Man, that girl is going to show up and rape all of these guys."

The power cuts out, the characters watching the online feed can't see anything. And suddenly night vision goggles flick on. The sound reminded me of that terrifying sequence in Silence of the Lambs when Buffalo Bill is stalking Clarice Starling through the pitch darkness of his house. But then I noticed a HUD.

It reminded me of several videogames, specifically first-person shooters. Doom to Quake to Counter Strike to the USP with tactical knife attachment in Modern Warfare 2.

Yep, Hit Girl was here to save the day, and we watch through the eyes of a child who has been honed into a brutal vigilante by her father as she starts killing everyone in the room.

But then, the goons set her father on fire and a familiar song starts to play. I'm thinking, is this from the Sunshine soundtrack? This sounds a lot like Kanada's Death Part 2. Holy shit it, is! I've listened to this song tons of times while I wrote.

And that's about the point my geek brain starts to melt and I haven't seen a firefight so emotional since John Woo's The Killer. This shit is epic on a Ripley fighting the Queen level.

Well, it didn't read like that on the page, Rog...

Of course it didn't.

Those were just blue prints for the sound and the fury as told by filmmakers who knew exactly what they were doing. We didn't have the performances of the actors, the soundtrack that triggered references to other movies and struck chords in the heart and mind and we didn't have all the millions of flourishes performed by camera operators and film editors and costume designers and art designers and every single person that added their sweat and blood to the movie.

Kick-Ass is a screenplay that every studio hated. I can only imagine their reactions when they read it. It was probably a litany of, "No no no no no!" "Why is there a twelve year-old girl massacring people in this? You can't have that! You have to change it!" "This thing changes perspective two-thirds of the way through! You have to change it!" "You can't have a twelve year old girl say the word CUNT!"

Carson even rated it a [x] Wasn't For Me.

I was blown away by the movie the first time I saw it. In fact, I saw it two more times the same week. I treated several friends to it, paying for their tickets, because they didn't think it was going to be a good movie.

It looks so strange. How can it possibly work?

Nicholas Cage gives such an oddball performance, like he became the host body for the ghost of Christopher Walken, who in turn invited along the iconic television spirits of Adam West and William Shatner. And what a bizarre ride it is, with his weird fucking mannerisms that elevate theatrical camp to inscrutable avant-garde. In probably any other movie fantasy circumstance, you would hate this character for what he subjects his daughter Mindy to, running her through a reverse-Clockwork Orange gauntlet, absolutely ruining her life by sharpening her into a tool of vengeance, brainwashed by comic books, videogames and John Woo movies. You would call the guy a douchebag and applaud loudly when he dies.

Except, the guy has a reason for doing it. He's an honorable cop that was fucked over by Frank D'Amico. His backstory inseminates empathy into the heart of the audience. Prior to his backstory, Big Daddy feels like a mystery, a puzzle piece. But then, his origin story is appropriately told through the device he used to brainwash Mindy, a comic book. And his origin story breaks the sympathy hymen. We start to feel for Damon Macready when we see how D'Amico's scheme sends him to prison with a disgraced reputation, we start to feel sorry and care for Macready when we see his wife commit suicide as an escape from her despair and loneliness.

By association, we think of these tragic circumstances and Mindy's birth, and although she's already a loveable character, we want to see her take up the mantle and turn her family's bad fortune around. When Big Daddy perishes, his mission not complete, he passes the baton to this little girl he poured all of his dreams into, including his vengeance. And isn't that what parents are supposed to do? To dream a better life for their children, or to dream so big their goals can only be completed by a generational passing on of the flame?

By the time Mindy is knocking down the castle doors of D'Amico's uptown stronghold set to the theme of A Few Dollars More, we have to stop and think what we're really about to see. Are we really about to see a twelve-year old girl, armed to the teeth, walk solo into a secure condo full of mob enforcers? And we already know Mindy is like one of those spy-thriller assassins who has been wiped clean and programmed via secret government experiments, except she's the freakish, geeky and bizarro Marvel Max Universe version of that. And we can't forget, she's a fucking twelve year old girl! Isn't at least some part of your brain curious about what that sequence looks like? And if you've made it this far into the movie, isn't your heart invested in the fact whether she's going to be able to complete her father's mission? I'm not even talking about the possibility of her dying. She's willing to make that sacrifice. But is your heart involved in her journey of vengeance? If the answer is no, then maybe you don't like revenge stories.

And what about Dave Lizewski?

Look, I have friends that are staunch superhero fans and refuse to see the movie. One has a compelling reason. She's a huge Avengers fangirl. I remember talking to her and she said, "I just can't do it. It's not what I read superhero comics for." And you know, I can understand that. Some people like their superhero stories and themes preserved in the purity that comes with the nostalgic and kid-friendly Marvel Universe.

They think Kick-Ass satirizes the world of superhero comics and its fans sans the courage, sans the heroics, sans the message that an ordinary person can rise up out of everyday circumstances and do something extraordinary. They think it's just being ugly, potty-mouthed, catering to immature fanboys, and making fun. Well, if they sat down to watch it, they would see that the movie would not work if it didn't have this courage, this heroism, this, "I'm an ordinary person but I am truly capable of super-heroic things."

It's a satirical, perhaps lunatic brew that possesses the same heart of the superhero tales that makes them mythic, iconic. The same blood pumps through Kick-Ass that makes our modern superhero mythology sacred.

Dave has a genuine sense of justice that seems hardwired into him, just like it may be hardwired into all of us. A moral, instinctual sense of right and wrong. How do we know? He doesn't like being mugged. He doesn't like seeing his friends being mugged. We see how upset he gets, that Travis Bickle inner-outrage bubbling underneath his skin when he witnesses lowlifes steal, cheat and murder.

It's moving when he defends a man against a trio of thugs and says his name for the first time. Isn't that weird? In any other circumstance, it would probably be cheesy. But here, it works. Out of breath, brutalized, but still fighting, he says with conviction through a bloody mouth, "I'm Kick-Ass."

Why does it work?

Because it's a nerdy kid with a sense of justice, who is tired of watching people be mistreated, who puts his life and the line and takes a stand for something he believes in. It's an act of courage, of heroism, and that speaks to our hearts. And no matter how campy it can be, there's something that still resonates with us.

The structure of the screenplay feels weird. It's handicapped by the superhero origin structure, but the third act feels like it's more about Hit Girl than Kick-Ass. If I wrote a spec that changed perspective and focus two-thirds of the way through, I'd be crucified on the spec market.

Maybe. But it doesn't really matter. Vaughn and Goldman are making a movie, they're not trying to sell a screenplay to a production company or studio.

And plus, it works.

The focus is flipping over to a character we haven't quite seen before. Perhaps Hit Girl's closest filmic prototype is Mathilda of Luc Besson's Leon, but only after she's been strained through a filter of Wuxia tales and first-person shooters. She has a strong heritage of badass female characters, everyone from Ripley of the Alien films to the femme fatales in Kill Bill, but the difference is we've never seen someone so young, someone that only a pedophile would view as an object of desire.

She's unique.

As such, we are itching to watch this diminutive killer unleash hell on all of her enemies. Even if takes her half an hour of screen time, we are willing to watch her do this. If we were switching to a lesser character, this perspective and focus shift would be a miscalculation, indeed. The movie would collapse on itself and would become victim to our ever diminishing attention spans.

Carson writes about the difficulties in crafting an origin story in the traditional three act structure. He posits that in most screenplays, the first act is about setting up the main problem the protagonist has to contend with. But with the superhero origin story, this main problem gets postponed until later in the story because the first act is all about introducing the character and how he becomes a hero.

Well, what's wrong with that?

Most of origin stories do both at the same time. While we're introduced to Dave and his metamorphosis into Kick-Ass, we're also introduced to Frank D'Amico, the mob boss, and the problem he's having with some very good vigilantes. Isn't that the introduction of the main problem? Everything is set up, and I can look at the structure of the movie and break down the three acts into three ideas: The first act shows us the dangers of being a vigilante in the real world; the second act is about smart, deadly vigilantes who are capable of heroics, and the third act becomes a paean to full-blown, mind-blowing superheroics we read about in comic books.

And although the third act focuses largely on Hit Girl, Dave must make a decision to accept responsibility and become a true hero. His actions have plowed through the city, exposing vigilantes who were effective in crippling a local mafia, and as a result his call-to-arms has gotten people killed, including Big Daddy. His courageous actions have tragic consequences, and instead of throwing in the cape, he chooses to accept these consequences by continuing to stand up for what he believes in, and in the process redeems himself by aiding Hit Girl in the completion of her mission (Dave is the audience's avatar for this crazy world).

There's a universal lesson there.

Sometimes, when we do the right thing, there's collateral damage. When that happens, we can let fear take over, we can stop. We stop believing in ourselves. We begin to doubt. We let our dreams and goals die on the vine because we're afraid of the consequences. The thing is, that's usually the moment we have to keep pushing forward.

And that's what Dave does.

Even in the face of doubting his own abilities, he continues to do the right thing.

The resolution is bloody, exciting, offensive, entertaining and satisfying. Hit Girl blazes and slices and dices her way through rooms and corridors full of bad guys. Dave gets to save her from a bazooka attack with jet-pack Gatling guns. Hit Girl goes head-to-head against the man who is responsible for the deaths of her mother and father, and Kick-Ass goes up against Red Mist. For a hymn to comic books, superheroes, John Woo movies, Sergio Leone and revenge sagas, the movie delivers on all fronts, emotionally and kinetically.

It's a successful mash-up for fans of superhero origin comics and the cinema of violence.

[x] impressive

What I learned: When Carson told me we would be doing another Theme Week, he presented me with a list of movies he chose that tell their stories in a slightly untraditional manner. Part of me thought, well, what's traditional? The other part of me knew what he meant. As a guy who studies modern spec screenplays, you could say I pay attention to mechanics, to formula, to pattern. If I read a screenplay and I feel that something isn't working, I'll dig in and try and find out why: nine times out of ten it's because someone doesn't have their storytelling basics down. Or they miscalculated and made a decision that hurts the story.

But it goes both ways.

In the screenplay world, there are oftentimes when the story isn't allowed to just be the story. People will come in with different opinions, and they want to change it, make it adhere to Joseph Campbell or some narrative pattern that can feel by-the-numbers and cookie cutter.

And you know what?

You should listen to these people. Sometimes they're right.

But sometimes, they're wrong.

I wonder if a great screenplay guarantees a good movie. I remember reading Law Abiding Citizen and thinking, man, this is fucking awesome! Then I remember watching the movie and thinking, man, what happened!

I don't think there's a form of storytelling that is subject to more scrutiny than a screenplay. But it makes sense. They're blueprints. You don't drop millions of dollars into a building without studying the blueprints to make sure it's sound and free of error.

But that's something we ought to remember.

Screenplays are just blueprints for light and sound.

And sometimes, the sound and the fury jumps off the page like a miracle, defying people and narrative weaknesses they calculated as odds, and the celluloid burns like a star that induces Stendhal syndrome if you stare at it directly.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Amateur Script Review - Mission Hospital

On the last Friday of every month, I review a Scriptshadow reader's script. If you'd like to submit your screenplay for a review on the site, and you're okay with your script being posted, go ahead and submit your title, genre, logline and pitch to

Genre: Horror/Thriller/Mystery
Logline: (from e-mail) Following a series of ghostly encounters, a medical intern stationed at a colonial era hospital in a rural, south Indian town soon discovers that under the hospital’s dilapidated surface lies a dark and terrifying secret.
About: (included from Sarmad himself) I am a film school drop out who was forced to move from Los Angeles to a small town in south India for financial reasons. But I've always believed that everything happens for a reason and that if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. At first I hated my situation. But then I discovered the century old C.S.I. Redfern Memorial Hospital in the center of town. That and a couple of trips into the back country where I observed the most bizarre occult rituals soon became the inspiration behind "Mission Hospital."
Writer: Sarmad Khan
Details: 101 pages – June 8, 2010 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Okay so if there’s one thing I’ve learned about reviewing these amateur scripts, it’s to explain why I chose the script that I did. But first, let me explain why I didn’t choose your script. The most likely reason I did not choose your script is because there were a lot of submissions. It’s as simple as that. There were hundreds of submissions and I didn’t have time to go through all of them so I skimmed through as many as I could. For that reason, please don’t gum up the comments section with comments such as “Really, this was the best you could find?” or “You picked this over [whatever idea or genre the commenter wrote].” There were just a lot of scripts and a lot of e-mails and I wish I could’ve read them all but I couldn’t.

So what made me choose Mission Hospital? Well, you may have heard me mention a time or two that I’ve been looking for the next great ghost story. I want the next Sixth Sense. I want the next The Others. But outside of the awesome The Orphanage, the last decade has brought us nothing in the ghost genre. So I received an e-mail from Sarmad informing me that he had a ghost story set in India. It just so happens that India fascinates me. It’s a vastly different culture from what I’m used to and I’ve always been intrigued by it. A ghost story set in India is something I’ve never heard of before. It was original. So I decided to take a chance on it.

One last thing before I get to the review. I was kind of being facetious when I said to send me your sob stories. I was more interested in hearing your general arguments for why I should read your scripts. But you sent them to me anyway and many of them were hard to get through. I’m not going to lie. I got a little misty-eyed after a couple. So I just want to let you know that I understand your pain and you’re not alone. There’s one universal feeling I think all screenwriters can relate to, and that’s frustration. Putting so much work into something and not even having a single person to hand it to. That takes a special kind of dedication to push through.

But I’m going to give you a little kick in the ass here. You know how they say the worst kind of main character to write is a passive one? Well that holds true in real life as well. If you want to succeed, you can’t be passive. Just like your hero, you have to be proactive. The writers I see succeed aren’t people who write in their basement 365 days a year and casually mention a few times to their best friends that they’re a screenwriter. They’re out DOING things. They’re on message boards, they’re writing blogs, they’re entering contests, they’re shooting short movies, they’re posting them on youtube, they’re joining playhouses, they’re joining tracking boards, they’re following what sells, they’re cold-querying managers and agents, they’re joining writing groups, they’re putting their scripts on Trigger Street, they’re getting jobs in anything that has to do with the industry (personal assistant, make-up artist, camera operator, actor, etc.). Writing is such an invisible profession that you have to work twice as hard as every other profession to be seen.

If you don’t get a response from someone or you send your script away to a manager and never hear back, don’t give up. The number one reason people aren’t reading your script is because they don’t have enough time. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. So never take “no” personally. Just keep trying and keep trying and if you’re doing all those things I listed above, trust me, opportunities will start presenting themselves. So get out there. There’s power in numbers. Nobody can see you in your basement.

Phew. Okay, now that I got that out of the way, let’s discuss Mission Hospital...

Ashok Balan is a young Indian doctor who’s sick of working at the big city hospitals where you’re sidelined from the real action. Checking people’s blood pressure isn’t exactly demanding work. So he takes a big chance and travels out to a remote Indian town to work at an old hospital where he’ll actually get some hands-on experience.

The lead doctor at the facility is Dr. Anand Kumar. The charming Kumar is a bit of celebrity in these parts because not too many "real" doctors work in rural areas. But if the city had their way, they'd mow this place down in a second and replace it with something more profitable. Anand's star power is basically the only thing keeping this hospital alive.

From the very first night, Ashok senses something strange about the hospital. It creaks. It groans. There are nuns roaming around in the middle of the night. And these small town hospitals are a package deal. The doctors don’t get an apartment off on the nice side of town. They live right here on the premises, which ensures that any creepy-crawlyness will be right at their doorstep.

Ashok meets and quickly falls for one of the nurses, the older Raziya, who can only be described as the Indian version of a Desperate Housewife. Her appetite for sex rivals porn actresses and the second she sees Ashok, she pounces. Of course we know that she’s really a black widow in disguise but Ashok’s in that early relationship stage where it's impossible to see past the cute smile and the great sex - you know, where you're unable to see the craziness? Don't look at me like that. You know you've been there.

Unfortunately Ashok keeps seeing all these freaky people walking around, and that’s when he starts suspecting that something’s up with Mission Hospital. When a patient with a straightforward injury dies unexpectedly a couple of days after being admitted, Ashok decides to do some digging and figure out what’s really going on at this House Of Horrors.

Indeed after checking through some hospital records, he realizes that an entire heap of people with harmless injuries have checked into the Mission Hospital and never checked out. So what is it that’s going on here? Is Dr. Anand involved? And more pressingly, is Dr. Ashok in danger?

Mission Hospital wasn’t half-bad, but if I’m being honest, I had a hard time getting into it. And there’s a few reasons why. First, the story is fairly thin. The main character isn’t actively engaged in any pursuit or goal until halfway through the script. As a result, we’re just sitting there watching a whole lot of strange things happen around Ashok. In The Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis’ goal is to try and help Cole figure out what’s wrong with him. Not only that, but it’s his first patient since his previous patient killed himself. So there’s a lot at stake for Bruce Willis to succeed. If he can’t help this boy, he may never be able to help anyone again. Or take The Orphanage, the goal is for the main character to find her missing child. You can’t argue with how strong that goal is. There isn’t any story element with that driving force here, so it’s hard to immerse yourself in the script. Now eventually, Ashok’s goal is to find out what’s happening here at the hospital. And once we really get into that, the story finds its way. But because it’s not personal (his life doesn’t change one way or the other depending on the outcome) and because it comes on so late, the story isn’t nearly as powerful as it could be.

Second – and this is really an extension of the first problem – there’s too much emphasis put on atmosphere. A lot of that has to do with there being no character goal for so long. With nothing for Ashok to pursue, you have to find other things to write about, so we get a bunch of scenes where Ashok walks around seeing strange things. Ashok has an eerie walk to the hospital. Ashok has an eerie walk in the middle of the night where he follows a nun. Ashok has an eerie shower. Ashok has an eerie brushing-his-teeth experience. Because these moments are packed so closely together, they get repetitive and lose their impact. I’m all for atmosphere, but there has to be some variety to it and there has to be some story being it.

Third – The choices weren’t original enough. Now this isn’t a blanket statement because as the story went on, it began to find some unique territory, but a lot of these scenes are scenes we’ve seen before. I mean how many times have we seen someone in a shower with a spooky entity walking up just outside of the curtain? How many times have we seen the open-the-mirror-medicine-cabinet shot where there’s a freaky dead person behind them, only to have the character turn around and see nothing? A billion times, right? And since you’re writing these scripts for people who have not only seen everything, but read five times that amount of material, you’re going to get some frustrated readers.

Finally, I wanted to see more going on with the main character. These stories have to ultimately be about your main character overcoming something. Maybe it has to do with a death, such as what they did in The Sixth Sense. Maybe it has to do with some vice, such as drugs. Or maybe it’s some deeply embedded flaw that’s been holding them back their entire lives. For example, instead of Ashok CHOOSING to come to this hospital - which is kind of boring - what if he was SENT here against his will? What if he was some big hot shot up-and-coming doctor who had a major screw up at the city hospital and in order to keep his license was sent her to complete a sixth month stay? He has no respect for the peasant townspeople. He has no respect for the doctors. He’s only here to complete his service and get back to the city. This isn’t the best idea (you’d have to rearrange a lot of story elements to make it work) but do you see how now we have a character we can actually work with? Now this guy has to DEAL WITH SOMETHING. He has to overcome his arrogance and learn to help people and not just work for personal glory or career advancement.

Anyway, I’m done pontificating. There’s some really brilliant descriptive writing here and a couple of really nice scenes. For example, I loved the check-up scene where Ashok places the stethoscope up to the patient's chest and hears no heartbeat or breathing. Freaky to say the least. But this script needs an aggressive storyline to emerge sooner, it needs stronger more original choices, and it needs a deeper more conflicted protagonist. With those changes, this could really be something. Because like I said, the setting is unique and intriguing, and Sarmad’s got a hell of a way with words.

Script link: Mission Hospital

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

What I learned: Whenever you’re treading through a well-worn genre, you have to push yourself to come up with original scenes/scenarios. It won’t be easy. When you’re competing with dozens if not hundreds of memorable films, it takes effort to come up with a scene the audience hasn’t seen before. Pick up your latest script right now. Go through every scene. Rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being the least original and 5 being the most original. Certain transitional and perfunctory scenes don’t require originality. But the key scenes – car chases, set-pieces, important character interaction scenes, scare scenes – you should be striving for 4s and 5s on all of those. One thing I see all the time in amateur scripts is that writers don’t push themselves. They settle for 2s and 3s. It takes effort to come up with something unique, but in the end, it’s worth it, because originality is what makes your script memorable.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Genre: Dark Thriller
Premise: A dangerous sociopath with a checkered history goes back to his home town island to pay respects to his recently deceased brother, and finds himself stuck in the middle of a major heist.
About: Remember when they did miniatures? Christopher Borrelli used to be the videographer who shot miniatures for movies like Armageddon and Con Air. He more recently moved into writing, tackling assignment work like The Marine 2 and getting his spec Whisper on the 2008 Black List. He busted through with his screenplay, “The Vatican Tapes,” about a leaked video tape revealing a Vatican exorcism gone wrong last year. The script landed on the Black List and was bought by Lionsgate. He followed that up with this script, Wake, which was purchased by Hammer Films earlier this year. Wake is being directed by Kasper Barfoed, the same director who’s helming the script I reviewed the other week, The Numbers Station. Small town!
Writer: Christopher Borrelli
Details: 113 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Wake bases its central character on this premise: 3% of all men are sociopaths, lacking concern for the well-being of others or for the consequences of their actions. 1% of men are born without the ability to feel fear. That means that there is a very small percentage of men who are both fearless and who do not have concern for other human beings. These are probably the most dangerous people in the world.

We’re informed of this at the beginning of the screenplay – actually right before the story begins. So when we meet the linebacker-shouldered Red Forester, we’re pretty sure he falls into this elusive category. I loved Red’s description. It’s one of the better character descriptions I’ve read in awhile: “Something permanently five o’clock shadowed about his soul.” To me, a good description is about giving me the essence of the character – about making me understand as much about that person in as little space as possible. That description captured Red’s essence perfectly.

Red is coming back home to tiny Naskapi Island after a long absence. His brother Sean recently died and he’s trying to make the wake. This is a huge risk for Red because he’s a serial killer – the kind so deadly he's landed on the FBI’s most wanted list. All Red plans to do is slip in, pay his respects, and slip out. But something tells me it’s not going to be that easy.

Once there, Red runs into his mother, Linda, the owner of the island’s Inn. There ain’t a lot of common ground to go over with your mom when your hobby is killing people, so it’s a decidedly frosty reception. And it doesn’t take long for the other members of the community to pick up on the vibe. Combine it with the fact that Sean never even mentioned he had a brother and soon everyone's rushing over to that internet thing to find out more about this Red guy.

Sure enough the criminal database tells them that not only is this guy wanted, but there’s a huge reward for him. So they lock Red up and call the FBI. The FBI says they're sending two agents over right away. But wouldn’t you know it, there’s a big a storm moving in, so it’s going to be awhile before anybody gets here. Well, except for the boat full of 7 really mean looking guys that just showed up.

Led by the menacing in stature but not in name, Phillip Cole, these men mean business. Underneath Red's mother's Inn is what’s known as an Icehouse. It’s an area built directly into the rockbed to keep things cold. It’s what they used to use before refrigerators. Well these days, this particular Icehouse works as a vault, and apparently it’s holding something really important, because these men are dead set on getting inside it.

What they don’t know is that standing in their way is a fearless sociopath serial killer. The core group of Islanders, holed up in this Inn, realize that their only chance at survival may require letting loose arguably the most dangerous man in the country. The question is, will he protect them against the bad guys' onslaught? Or will he put them in more danger than they would've been in anyway? The answer may surprise you.

So we really have all the ingredients for a good thriller here. We have an intriguing main character with a compelling character flaw (his inability to feel). We have a contained area so there’s nowhere to run. We have characters who desperately want something (the bad guys). And we have a ticking time bomb (the FBI guys coming). The story couldn’t be set up any better.

But what sets this apart from other scripts is the character of Red. The anti-hero is one of the most fun characters to write because anti-heroes do whatever the hell they want to do. They don’t have that annoying moral compass they have to live by. Having a guy save the kid and buy him an ice cream is boring. Having a guy push the kid out of the way and steal the ice cream is way more entertaining!

The thing you always have to worry about when writing an anti-hero though is getting the audience on his side. If the audience isn’t rooting for your protagonist, whether he’s good, bad, or dead, then you don’t have a movie. Making an anti-hero “likable” isn't an option because it's essentially an oxymoron. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get us to root for him, and the best way I’ve found to do this is simple. You make the bad guy worse. However horrible your anti-hero is, just make the bad guy more horrible. Because the more horrible he is, the more we’ll want “our” bad guy to take him out. And if we’re wanting our guy to take him out, that means we’re rooting for him.

Now I wouldn’t call Phillip Cole a particularly memorable bad guy. I would’ve preferred he be more extreme. But he kills anyone who gets in his way, he’s blatantly unafraid of Red, and he’s a dick. So we want to see him go down. And I don’t know what it is, but there’s just something fun about watching the “bad guy” play for your team. It’d be like getting Dennis Rodman or Bill Belicheck. You freaking hate the guys when they’re with someone else, but boy do ya love’em when they’re fighting for you.

The idea for this story may sound familiar to you. I reviewed a similar script called “Gale Force” last month about a group of modern day pirates who use a storm as cover for a heist in a small coastal town. I didn’t think Wake was as good as that script, as I thought the relationships were better explored and the characters deeper. But Wake has the more appealing main character, and I think the lure of playing a fearless sociopath to an actor may be the difference between this project moving forward and that one staying put. In fact, I’m betting the main reason this sold was that someone knew they could get a good actor interested in the lead part.

It’s a great reminder. Write a character that actors will want to play and good things usually happen.

Wake isn’t perfect. It feels like it’s still finding its legs, particularly in utilizing this awesome character of Red, but there’s enough going on to leave you satisfied.

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

What I learned: I really like when writers add an extra element of mystery to a story. In this case, I’m referring to what the bad guys are after. A lazier writer might have stuck with the old: “Money on island. We need to steal it,” storyline. Instead, Borrelli sets up this whole “Icehouse” vault and the mystery of what’s inside it. So on top of the bad guy heist, on top of the being defended by a serial killer, on top of all these other cool story elements, we’re also wondering, “What the hell are they after?” It’s just another layer that adds density to the story. -- And you can do this with any genre. Always look to add an extra mystery or two because it's an easy way to give your story additional depth (and it's fun for the audience!).

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Vault

Genre: Action/Comedy/Heist/Sci-fi
Premise: (from IMDB) When a terrifying plague destroys crops and causes starvation on a global scale, the world's greatest thief must break into the extremist-controlled Doomsday Vault to steal the one seed that could prevent the extinction of the human race.
About: Brian K. Vaughn is a comic book writer (Y The Last Man), a TV writer (Lost) and a screenwriter (Roundtable – recently reviewed on the site). The Vault is his newest spec, which hit Hollywood a couple of months ago and impressed many a people. It appears to be in one of those situations where they’re seeking out talent and/or a director before selling it.
Writer: Brian K. Vaughn
Details: 110 pages, January 2010 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I'm loving how this thing was modeled after a sandcrawler

One thing you gotta love about Vaughn. He doesn’t hold back. The man lets his imagination go hog wild and I think part of that is because he started in comic books. In comic books, every idea of yours can be realized by a jar of ink. You don’t feel the constraints because there are no constraints. Screenwriters don’t have that luxury because they know having their words realized as pictures is a virtual impossibility. Get too crazy with a character, location or situation (having your characters swoop in via space plane to a domed 2050 Tokyo for instance – one of the scenes in The Vault), and a producer might not be able to wrap their brain around it (or their checkbook). Hence a screenwriter is a mite more conservative.

That’s what took me by surprise with The Vault – is just how ambitious it was. This is basically Star Wars circa 2050. And we all know how eager Hollywood is to accept wild mega-budgeted material that isn’t part of a pre-existing franchise. But if there’s any one who can change their mind, it’s the man behind today’s script.

The year is 2050. Nearly all the crops in the world have been wiped out by something called “The Blight,” a malicious virus that has sent the entire world into starvation. Only the rich are holding on and even their stash is running out.

Introduce wisecracking Han Solo'esque Sebastian Card, a master thief. In fact, we meet Sebastian as he’s tunneling up and under Fort Knox, which doesn’t hold money anymore. It holds food. When Sebastian finally breaks in, we realize the whole point of this elaborate operation was to simply eat some cheese. No, I’m not kidding. He robbed Fort Knox for cheese.


Caught soonafter, the Secretary of Agriculture (the only 300 pound man left in existence – because he gorges on human meat) calls Sebastian in to propose a deal of sorts. In order to gain back his freedom, he wants Sebastian to go to an island near the North Pole where a vault is holding all the world’s seeds. Records have shown that the Vault contains a seed that is immune to The Blight. If they can get that seed, they can regrow the crop population and singlehandedly save the world.

There is a catch of course. The impossible to penetrate Vault is being guarded by someone named Baron, an African extremist with his own agenda. Baron is offering the seed to the first nation who gives him all of their nuclear submarines. He’s got the U.S. on the clock for 48 hours. If they don’t come up with the nukes, he’ll move on to one of the other superpowers. And if that happens, the most dangerous man in the world will have himself an arsenal of nuclear weapons which will allow him to basically make any demand he can think up. To put it simply, Sebastian has 2 days to break into the Vault and get that seed!

He’ll be joined by Maxine, a hot bald marine chick whose previous attempt at getting into the Vault resulted in capture by Baron. After months of torture she finally escaped. She knows the Vault inside out. Of course, Sebastian and Maxine dislike each other immensely, which makes their pairing entirely inefficient. However, since she’s the only one who knows her way around once they get inside, there’s nothing Sebastian can do about it.

The team zips around the world in a super plane capable of traveling thousands of miles in minutes, all in preparation for the biggest and most important heist in the history of the world.

Did you get all that?

I don't know for what part, but I think Patton Oswald needs to be in this movie.

The Vault is….weird. There’s no other way to explain it. Then again, I'm sure people described the script for Star Wars the same way. There's a guy in a black mask and cape? There's a giant walking dog who doesn't speak? While The Vault not only embraces its absurdity but flaunts it, there’s no avoiding just how absurd it gets in places. From characters breaking into Fort Knox for cheese to the Secretary of Agriculture feasting on human remains ground up from the prison population to a band of snowmobiling eco-terrorist soldiers. Sometimes these moments are fun. Other times they have you wondering if you’ve stumbled onto another screenplay. For example, it’s implied that Maxine was repeatedly raped and defiled while in Baron’s captivity. For a movie which I thought was a fun comedy, wedging in the whole rape angle felt a little out of place.

For me personally though, I just wanted the logic to be sound. I understand this is a comedy and that some leeway has to be given, but there were definitely logic issues that bothered me. For example, I had a hard time believing that the U.S. couldn’t break into the Vault on their own. If they still have nuclear weapons, they can probably scrounge together an army of 100,000 troops and I’m pretty sure that army could break into a Vault guarded by a couple dozen eco-terrorists. You put "eco" in front of anything and it immediately makes that thing four times more wimpy. So I'm not anticipating much of a battle there.

Then there’s Japan. Tokyo has domed their city to protect itself from The Blight. There's green grass everywhere and they can grow any plant they want. While I can buy into the idea that exporting these plants would still result in them being affected by the virus and therefore dying, the existence of thousands of healthy plants in the world, domed or not domed, made the pursuit of a single seed seem a lot less important.

And while I’m guessing Vaughn will fix this in rewrites, I wasn’t crazy about spending an entire sequence flying to Los Angeles just to walk through a replica of The Vault to see what they were up against, mainly because there was no drama to the sequence. It was obviously there for exposition and exposition only.

But I liked a lot about The Vault too. I liked the Han Solo/Princess Leia like banter between Sebastian and Maxine. Their whole relationship definitely felt like an updated version of that memorable duo. I liked how brave Vaughn was with his choices. He really wasn’t afraid to do anything that popped into his head. There are sword-wielding killer female androids for God’s sake. I love the discussion it inspires. This may be fiction but all it takes is watching one of those History Channel specials to realize that if the farming and food distribution system broke down in any significant way, there’s a good chance our government would fall apart within months, maybe even weeks. Seeing the extreme version of that here just got me thinking how thin the line between prosperity and chaos really is. And to top it all off, it's a good time. Most everyone I've talked to trumpets how fun the script is, and I can't argue that.

Still, I think Vaughn may have hit the streets with The Vault a little too soon. That may be due to his experiences with Roundtable, which was also a little rough around the edges when it was purchased. But the difference here is that this is an entire universe, an entire mythology that needs to be created. And as exciting and imaginative as it is, there are times when it doesn’t feel fleshed out. The pieces are there, but I wouldn’t mind seeing Vaughn take another couple of passes and really weave a tapestry as opposed to just laying out the yarn.

I think that anything Vaughn writes is worth reading, and The Vault doesn’t change that opinion. But there are a few too many puddles in the journey to make me go gaga. If you have it, read it, and tell me what you think.

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

What I learned: Vaughn uses a lot of underlining in his screenplays. A lot. And unlike how it affects most readers, heavy underlining, bold, or italics doesn’t bother me, as long as there’s a purpose and a uniformity to it. But I have to admit, the more you accentuate your text, the less effective the purpose behind it becomes. So if you underline 3 times a page, sooner or later I just tune out the underlining. As a reader, I’ve found that underlining works best when it’s used sparingly, and as a tool to set up an important moment later in the story. So for example, in Back To The Future, if you remember the opening scene, we pan around to all the clocks, then come down to the door as it opens and Marty’s foot appears. He kicks his skateboard over to the bed. And underneath the bed, we see a radiation suitcase. That radiation suitcase is the perfect thing to underline because everything else in the scene is so irrelevant. The reader’s reading fast and if you don’t bring to their attention this item that sets up a HUGE part of the story later, we might not catch it. Ideally, there are probably five or six of these “underline-worthy” moments in a story. I’m not going to say you can’t underline to your heart’s content like Vaughn – everyone has their own style – but in my experience, that’s the way underlining seems to have the most effect on a reader.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


Welcome to another week of Scriptshadow. This weekend my faith in movies was reinstated with the addition of the best movie I've seen all year, Toy Story 3. I've said this before but I'll say it again: Every studio should follow the development process of Pixar. They know how to get their scripts in shape. Even when I don't like their movies, the scripts themselves are solid. I mean the last 30 minutes of that movie - wow! So great. Anyway, tomorrow I'll be reviewing a flick hitting theaters in July. It's a bit of a touchy feely story so prepare yourselves. Wednesday and Thursday I'll be looking at some much talked about recent specs. Then Friday, as promised, I'll be reviewing an amateur script. For those not around for that post, I've vowed to review a reader script on the last Friday of every month. If you want to submit a script of yours, send the script, your logline, and your pitch (give me your sob stories, give me your frustration!) to Carsonreeves3@gmail. Just know that I will post your script and I will be honest in the review. So if you can't take criticism, do not submit. You can check out Amateur Week so you know what to expect here. Now, let's hand it over to Roger for his review of...Pandora.

Genre: Drama, Crime, Thriller
Premise: The residents of a small Texas town are shocked when 7 local residents are killed in a bank robbery gone wrong. Although the culprits are immediately captured, they are kidnapped from the local jail and held for ransom –- the town now has to buy back their killers –- and this is when things really start to go awry.
About: "Pandora" was on the 2007 Black List with 2 votes (Seriously, guys, that's all? Seriously?) Gajdusek was the Story Editor for the awesome Dead Like Me and wrote Trespass, which Joel Schumacher is directing with Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman attached to star. A seasoned playwright, he's also a member of New York's New Dramatists.
Writer: Karl Gajdusek

Why the fuck is this not a movie?

Seriously. Is there someone to blame for this? Because it seems like a tragedy to me that this doesn't have a home. If I'm wrong, and it does, then good. But, why is taking so long?
We all needed to see this like yesterday.
There's a moral sophistication to this script that burrowed into my conscience. A multi-thread character study that doesn't so much unfold, but ratchets tighter and tighter until the narrative cracks apart, laying bare a town and its people as they individually wrestle with their sense of justice, vengeance and destiny. Lives fall apart, minds shatter, and even villains become heroes in this exploration of right and wrong, of good and evil. About halfway through, I had to put it down, just emotionally exhausted, and go find information about the writer.
I wasn't surprised to find out that Karl Gajdusek is a seasoned playwright (my favorite of which is We Animals Are, available on his website), because the character work here is exceptional. Often I go through screenplays just hoping that at least one character not only reads and feels three-dimensional, but is also rendered with truth and depth. This script just doesn't have one. It has like seven or eight.
And we visit them at a time when life seems so tense, so urgent, so important, it's like they know someone is about to judge them for what they did with their lives here on earth.
How does it all start?
Like evil always starts.
With greed.
It's a quiet morning in Pandora, Texas. No one's paid much attention to the blue Ford Taurus that arrived in town the night before, much less when it pulls up to the Woodland's Trust Bank.
Not the Sheriff, Don Reese, nor his young Deputy, a former highschool football star, Jim Rice.
Nor ex-Marine, now general store owner, Harry Bell, nor his wife, Janet, who might also be having an affair with the Sheriff.
Nor the young widowed woman, Sarah Isles, who makes her living tending the derricks that suck crude out of the earth, who is having breakfast at Pandora Drug with the local wealthy businessman, George Hearst.
The re-united Claytons, a family of four who are reunited when their son arrives home from college, have no idea they're walking to their deaths when they enter the Woodlands Trust Bank.
Julie Clayton is the only person that survives the massacre inside the bank at the hands of Stockden and Edwards.
Stockden has been around the block, he's seen bad things. There's a "genocidal wisdom" about him. His partner, Edwards, is "young and empty". They reminded me of the two killers at the beginning of A History of Violence, and the stories have their own blood-red similarities.
We don't see much of the murders inside the bank, we get bits and pieces of via Julie's flashbacks throughout the story, but we are witness to the firefight that erupts between the Sheriff, the Deputy and Bell as they capture Edwards and Stockden during their getaway.
It's not without casualties.
The Deputy perishes, and we discover that everyone inside the bank has been murdered in cold blood (a concept we begin to question the deeper into the story we get.)
Stockden and Edwards are held in the cells at the Sheriff's office, and the town is cast into despair as they process the tragedy that has rocked their world.
Of course, the tragedy makes the news and that's when a thief at the end of his rope puts together a plan.
Who's the thief?
Jonas Jeremy Chance. I like the way he's described. In fact, I like a lot of the descriptions in this thing. "Broken every promise he's ever made...A big man to be feared when he's angry, a leader in his day."
You get the sense he needs last chance money, starting over money.
When we meet him, a safe-cracker whiz is telling him that his latest caper ain't gonna fly. Technology's gotten too good for his old-fashioned crew of snatch-and-grab con artists. Jonas doesn't like being told 'No' much, but what sends him into the red is when he finds out his sister, Debbie, has slept with this smart-aleck douchebag.
He beats him bloody.
See, Debbie is part of his crew. She's "foul-mouthed and fun". We understand much about their brother-sister relationship when she explains to Jonas, "When I drink, I get fun. When you drink, you let us down."
Her boyfriend is Cutts, "half Okie redneck, half rockstar." He loves taking other people's money. The last crew member is Oakley, a bear of a man who's seen it all.
They depend on Jonas as he's the brains of the group, and it's possible he's about to disappoint them again when he comes back with the whiz-kid's bad news.
That's when he sees the newscast on the bank robbery in Pandora, Texas. He sees footage of the townspeople staring at the jail. A bartender, also watching the footage, says, "I don't know what. But I tell you one thing. Those people...Not a one of them's gonna sleep until those boys is hanged."
And that's when Jonas gets the idea to break into the Sheriff's jail, kidnap Stockden and Edwards, and hold them for ransom. How does he know they'll pay?
Why, if they don't, he'll just let the murderers go free.
Do Jonas and his crew pull it off?
They even shame the FBI in the process.
But see, things get really complicated when we discover that Edwards and Stockden may be more than just murderers, more than just bank robbers. Jonas starts to question the identity of both men when he steals the case file on the murders and sees what kind of carnage these men are capable of first-hand.
The more he questions them, the more we realize that these men might be pure evil. It's chilling. It's disturbing.
But what's worse is, like all the other characters here, we begin to question if the townspeople of Pandora are really good ("Suffering doesn't make people good. It just makes 'em suffer.") men and women.
Specifically, the Claytons.
The Claytons are possibly harboring a secret, a dirty secret that reminded me a bit of the nastiness in Ursula K. Le Guin's short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, which is about a utopia and the source of its success.
I not only love the way this tale explodes with violence, but I love the detail and care administered to every single character. From Julie wrestling with survivor's guilt, to Sarah Isles rising up as a heroine, to Jonas' redemption, I was just blown away by the "character arcs" in this thing.
It feels primal and raw.
It feels true
I don't know if I would categorize this as crime noir, maybe transcendent noir, but there's no denying it has a Texas-saturated Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me, Pop 1280) vibe. Sans derangement (but there is that), perhaps, but it's disturbing nonetheless. It's scary.
It has sublime pathos.

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

What I learned: It's funny. Hand an ensemble piece to a reader, and they're so brainwashed by the standard "one protagonist formula" they won't know what to do. Usually they'll suggest it needs to be written to the formula they know so well, because they have trouble processing the break from "Da Rules". It's a mentality I don't understand, as I enjoy a good ensemble piece. I enjoyed the emotional depths of "Pandora" so much I didn't care this wasn't about one character and their journey. This is about a whole town and the antagonists pulled into its orbit. The town of Pandora, Texas is a character unto itself, and because all the individuals that make up the collective are so intriguing, so flawed, so human, I was absorbed into the emotional tapestry woven by everyone's actions and reactions to the moral dilemma that challenged them. Everyone has an internal conflict that has a definite beginning, middle and end. This means, just like in real life, everyone has their own story. Everyone has their own stuff they're wrestling with, and it always takes courage to face it and overcome it. That's how a villain can become a hero. That's how a man or woman can redeem themselves.
So, how do you generate external conflict in a story that's about a collective of characters instead of just one protagonist? And how do you make it moving? Well, like I talked about above, you need characters that feel like real people that are flawed like real people. But the way "Pandora" does it is that outside forces, antagonists to the collective, invade the town for different reasons. Stockden and Edwards arrive, perhaps under the guise of a bank robbery, and their presence results in the death of seven townspeople. This forcefully pushes the collective into two kinds of conflict. Internal conflict: With themselves, surely, but also against the two robbers. External conflict: How do they push back against the two men that committed violence against them? Then another group arrives to kidnap these men and hold them for ransom, complicating the situation and presenting the collective with a moral dilemma. The moral dilemma cranks up the internal and external conflict for the collective until some kind of resolution, individually and collectively, is reached. So, character is still the engine that drives the story, but instead of one or two people, it's a group or groups of people driving the story, an ensemble.
Stark and I were talking about Carson's 13 Points on How to Write a Great Script, and it's like Stark says, "If you're going to break the rules, first you gotta know the rules. And then, your script has to actually be good." So yeah, there's that, too. And it's pretty apparent from reading "Pandora", that Gajdusek knows the rules.