Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Vatican Tapes

Genre: Horror
Premise: Three priests fly to Poland to investigate a girl who’s supposedly possessed by the devil.
About: I reviewed one of Chris Borrelli's scripts, Wake, a month ago. This one, “The Vatican Tapes,” landed on last year's Black List. Picked up by Lionsgate, the film will be directed by James Marsh, who, as many know, was the director of the critically acclaimed documentary, “Man on Wire.” Marsh has been dying to make a feature film since his previous effort, 2005’s “The King,” starring Gael Garcia Bernal. Hmm, might they change Father Matt’s race and cast Garcia Bernal in the role?
Writer: Christopher Borrelli (story by Chris Morgan)
Details: 79 pages – 6/23/09 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Over the years I’ve developed an inability to completely give myself over to a movie. The reason is obvious. I’m always breaking down films while I watch them. When the hook comes, when the act turns come, if the obstacles are big enough, if the dialogue works. What can I say? It’s the screenwriter in me. But one movie I give into every time, one that always makes me forget I’m watching a film, is The Exorcist. The Exorcist is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen and I don’t think anything else comes close.

I don’t know why this is. I’m not a huge horror fan. And the devil doesn’t scare me any more than a guy in a purple dinosaur suit does. Actually, the guy in the dinosaur suit scares me more. But dammit if whoever played that little girl didn’t make me believe something was possessing her. I think the moment for me was when she urinated on the floor. That just broke like a 100 year movie code or something so that as soon as it happened, I didn’t think I was watching a movie any more.

Now I didn’t go see The Last Exorcism but I heard it was great save for a majorly fucked up ending. The Vatican Tapes, like that film, takes a documentary approach to the material. I know I know. We’re sick of seeing these cheesy gimmicky “lost footage” flicks and I was definitely worried when I saw that. But here’s the thing about The Vatican Tapes. It’s good enough where it doesn’t need the documentary angle. In fact, twenty pages in and I had completely forgotten about it. They should just go ahead and shoot this as a real movie because it totally works as one.

There are three protagonists in The Vatican Tapes: Father Antonio, an older Italian by-the-books priest, Father Matt, a young American priest still learning the ropes, and Father Karl, a 20-something Polish priest who has joined the two as a translator.

The God group is heading to Poland to potentially perform an exorcism. Now these days, the Vatican likes to document any potential possession case, which is why Matt and Karl have their camcorders. While Father Matt is excited by the prospect of his first exorcism, Father Antonio is less than enthused. He’s encountered hundreds of these supposed “possessions” before and none of them has ever panned out. This is likely one big waste of time.

The three descend upon a tiny poor Polish house in a rural neighborhood. When they get there, the father, a 300 pound man named Leslaw, is passed out on the floor with a four year old child playing nearby. Father Antonio angrily wakes him up and asks where the possessed girl is. He’s horrified as he watches the man point to the floor.

The group lifts a trap door and heads down into a makeshift dirt basement where a dirty emaciated 16 year old girl has been chained to the wall. Horrified, Antonio immediately orders for them to unlock her. They bring the girl up to her room and start asking her questions. But she’s noticeably distant. Antonio concludes that this girl is very sick, but far from possessed.

That is until the girl slips out, goes back into the basement, and starts digging a hole in the ground. Not common practice for any 16 year olds I know. Soonafter she attacks Antonio and the others with the strength of five men and when they learn that the girl and her friend were recently playing around in the nearby catacombs, Antonio begins to believe that maybe, just maybe, this *is* a real possession.

They begin the exorcism but apparently exorcisms aren’t like Harry Potter spells. You don’t just say them and voila, out pops a bunny. It’s a constant process that involves continual “exorcising” of the subject and despite everything they’re doing, it doesn’t seem like she’s getting any better. Actually, she may be getting worse. The others start to wonder if they should just shoot her and get it over with. But Antonio insists that somewhere deep inside that body is an innocent 16 year old girl desperate for their help. He will stop at nothing to save that girl.

There was lots of good stuff here. I loved how they were stuck in a place where they didn't know the language. The reason I don’t think the remake of “Let The Right One In” will work is because a lot of the power of the original comes from the characters speaking in a language you don’t understand. It almost makes their situation seem otherworldly, and that adds a layer of originality you can’t replicate. The girl here never says anything we understand, and that creeped me the hell out.

Likewise, being stuck a million miles away from familiarity adds an additional layer of fear. Like the famous tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream,” “In Poland, no one can hear you scream.” In fact, one of my favorite lines in the script comes when they realize that this girl is possessed. Father Matt is terrified and utters, “We’re going to need help, right?” Antonio looks back at him. “We are the help.” It’s that moment when people realize they’re in a situation that’s way over their heads, and yet *they’re* the best equipped people to handle it.

There’s also a handful of shocking moments here. Antonio has a secret that comes out of nowhere and really worked for me. There’s a scene involving the child that’s so horrifying some people won’t be able to read it. And I loved the whole subplot involving the catacombs (I actually thought he could’ve done a little more with it).

There weren’t any glaring issues to be honest. I guess Father Antonio and Father Karl each had such interesting storylines and backstories that Father Matt gets lost in the mix. He needed something extra so we remembered him. He definitely pops the least.

The biggest misstep for The Vatican Tapes lies in the ending. It’s another one of those chaos over clarity scenarios, which is a shame, because this was so tightly written and so well built up, we wanted some clarity. I’m still not sure exactly what happened so I can’t discuss it but, in short, I was mildly disappointed.

But in the end this was so quick and so enjoyable, I’m recommending it to you. So get your hands on a copy and enjoy.

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

What I learned: Exorcism movies are great low-budget films for you to write and shoot yourselves. I mean you could shoot this movie for 20 grand if you had to. My only suggestion is your possessed victim not be a young women. The Vatican Tapes may be able to slide in there as the last one. But let's face it, we’ve seen it so many times that you can’t execute the idea in an original way anymore. The good news is, this is a fairly untapped genre. You have a lot of storylines you could explore outside of “girl gets possessed.”

Monday, August 30, 2010

Owen's Manual

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A mild-mannered IT guy receives an 'owners manual' that tells him how to fix his life.
About: Made last year’s Black List with 5 votes. Very quietly the heavy-duty comedy producing team of Will Ferrell, Chris Henchy, and Adam McKay are attached. Might this be a future Will Ferrell vehicle?
Writer: Greg Ferkel
Details: 108 pages - undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

A possible candidate to play Owen?

I must admit I like these kinds of comedies - one step removed from reality, somewhat fantastical, an intriguing hook. Yet I also know that a lot of you hate them. And so I’ll just tell you right now, if you don’t like high concept comedies, there’s no use in continuing with this review. You’re going to hate Owen’s Manual with a passion. But if you like them, you’ll be happy to know that Owen’s Manual is a nice little entry into the genre.

So why do writers favor struggling average-looking heroes who’ve let themselves go, have no direction, and can’t get a girl to save their behinds? Because that character is the average screenwriter! I mean not all screenwriters of course, but a lot of them. And since those are the people writing your stories, you’re damn skippy they’re going to use those stories as wish-fulfillment. Translation: Seth Rogan and Michael Cera aren’t going anywhere!

To that end, Owen is no different. He’s a schlubby IT guy who works at a magazine called “Hip Parent,” where he’s perfected the art of getting stepped on. Owen gave up his life a long time ago to play the role of lewwwwwssserrrr.

Then one night, Owen catches an infomercial promoting one of those gyrating weight-loss belts. Figuring “what the hell,” he grabs the phone and orders one. A couple days later a UPS box shows up except there’s no gyrating inside. Just a manual. But this isn't any ordinary manual. It's a “how-to” guide for fixing Owen’s life. The table of contents reads like it’s been sitting on his shoulder for the last five years. “How to get your boss off your back” “How to get that girl at work,” “How to make sure nobody takes advantage of you anymore.”

Owen dismisses it as a practical joke, but when his boss calls to have Owen, once again, fix his laptop, Owen, out of curiosity, follows the instructions in the manual. The exchange reveals that the boss’s 10 year-old son has been surfing porn (hence why it’s had so many problems), which he happens to be fixing just as his wife walks by, which results in his wife believing he’s a porn addict, which results in the boss taking an extended leave of absence from work.

Freaked out, Owen calls the help number on the manual and gets in touch with the smooth-talking Rajeesh, a call tech for these life manuals. Owen asks him all the obvious questions and Rajeesh assures him that if he just follows the manual, all his problems will be solved.

Owen’s suspect at first but eventually starts following the manual religiously. He takes Cara out. He stops allowing others to step on him. He becomes nicer and more accepting of people. Sure enough, his troubles begin to dissolve away.

In the meantime, Owen gets a call from his old girlfriend, Hayden, who’s drop dead gorgeous and since their time together in college has won the Nobel Peace Prize. She’s getting married in a couple of weeks and because Owen knew her before the fame, she wants him to give the toast at her wedding. There’s a part of Owen who’s, of course, still in love with Hayden, which complicates his evolving relationship with Car.

The problem is that Owen starts getting too dependent on the manual, and when he realizes that the manual only solves problems up to the date of its publication, that means he’ll have to solve any new problems by himself. Because Owen’s become so dependent on the manual, he doesn’t know how to figure things out anymore. And we’re left to wonder if he’ll be able to figure it all out in time for the big wedding toast.

Owen’s Manual is both funny and clever, especially the first half of the script, which really moves. I love this concept because I think we all wish we had an owner’s manual to our lives. If the answers were written down in an instruction booklet that we kept on our ipods, everything would be a lot easier. So to watch that fantasy play out and the complications that arise from it was fun.

But this script is not without problems, starting with Cara (the hot girl at work). Cara is our female lead, and I never trusted her. We meet her as she takes advantage of Owen, slyly convincing him to write her article for her. I always say watch how you introduce your character because that first impression is what's going to stick with the audience the strongest. If you have a character taking advantage of our hero in her very first scene, are we going to like that character?

The script also dips into dangerous territory by making its protagonist passive. A passive protagonist isn’t a death sentence, but when your hero isn’t dictating the action in the film, it’s usually a lot slower than when a protagonist *is* dictating the action. To the script’s credit, the reasoning for Owen’s passiveness is directly linked to the concept (he has to *follow* a manual), so it didn’t hurt the screenplay too much.

Probably the biggest misstep though was the Hayden storyline. Our hero’s being lured to this wedding for a character we haven’t met, don’t know and don’t care about. It never felt organic and as a result, we’re physically watching the strings being pulled as they’re being pulled. If you look at a very similar story, Office Space, and imagine Peter Gibbons getting a call from his fiancé in Hawaii and flying out there for the third act, it just feels all wrong. And that’s how it felt here.

I think the reason for this straying had something to do with the lack of a clear theme. I couldn’t figure out what the script was trying to say. Was it saying you need to make your own decisions? That you can’t depend on others? For awhile, yes. But then in the end, all of that is completely abandoned in order the hash out the complexities of the Hayden marriage storyline, leaving me with a big question mark on my face. Uh…okay? What was the whole point of that again?

Those types of things make this feel like an early draft, which it very well might be. But in spite of these issues, I enjoyed it enough to recommend it. If you’re a high-concept comedy guy like myself, you’ll want to check this out, for both the good and the bad.

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

What I learned: Sometimes storylines weren’t meant to come together. If you’re flexing every single writing muscle you have to force two storylines together in a finale - if each word is dripping with sweat from the Herculean effort you’re making to somehow combine these two worlds, maybe it’s time to admit that those storylines can't coexist. That’s the case here with Owen’s Manual. The Hayden stuff just never gels with the story, which is why the third act derails. Never be afraid to cut out that storyline that isn’t working.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Woman in Black

This is going to be a good week at Scriptshadow. We don't have a single script that receives less than a "worth the read." One of those scripts is shockingly good exorcism story, one a comedy, and one a script that wasn't very good but has an insane approach to it that, combined with the "universally loved by all geeks" director, is going to make it a must read. Finally, we'll finish off with a new Top 25 script, a crime drama that blew me away. And I don't even like crime drama, so you know it's good. Right now Roger's going to review a genre and a screenwriter he knows well. Let's give him our full attention.

Genre: Old Fashioned Ghost Story, Gothic Horror
Premise: When Arthur Kipps, a young widower and solicitor, leaves his son in London to settle the legal affairs of the recently deceased Alice Drablow, proprietor of the Eel Marsh House in Crythin Gifford, he finds himself in a life and death struggle with a specter whom is killing all of the town's children.

About: Based on a 1983 novel by English author, Susan Hill, "The Woman in Black" was adapted into a stage play (which still runs today in the UK), a couple of radio plays and a TV Movie for Britain's ITV. Under the newly resurrected Hammer Film Productions, the script was written by Jane Goldman (
Kick-Ass, Stardust, The Debt, X-Men: First Class) and is set to star post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe with James Watkins (Eden Lake) as director. Presumably this is the first script coming out of Goldman's recent signing with William Morris Endeavor.
Writers: Jane Goldman, inspired by Susan Hill's 1983 novel.

Details: 2
nd Draft. Dated August 3, 2010.

This is how it's done.

Let's forget the pedigree for a moment. Let's forget this was a novel written by Susan Hill, a lady inspired by English ghost story masters M.R. James and Daphne du Maurier, a lady who understood setting, suspense and atmosphere. Let's forget that said novel was creepily satisfying enough to be adapted into a stage play, a radio play and a TV movie in Britian. And, let's forget that newly resurrected Hammer Horror returns to the cinemas swinging, not only with Let Me In and The Resident, but with this deliciously Gothic ghost story written by the foxy Jane Goldman (a former paranormal tv show host) and helmed by Eden Lake (have you seen this flick?!) director James Watkins.
Forget all that.
You can be completely ignorant of the history, tradition and the modern filmmakers involved and still be creeped-the-fuck-out by this terrifying M.R. Jamesian ghost story.
Why do you compare this tale to the work of M.R. James, Rog?
Jamesian storytelling can be categorized by (1) a protagonist who is a reserved and rather naive gentleman-scholar, (2) a characterful setting in an English village, seaside town or country estate, and (3) the discovery of an object or secret that attracts the attention of a malevolent supernatural menace.
James is also known for saying, "Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious; amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story."
So, Arthur Kipps is a naïve gentleman?
Arthur is a young English solicitor who has been labeled as excess cargo by Mr. Bentley, head of the law firm which employs him. When we meet him, he's getting ready for his trip to the seaside market town, Crythin Gifford, where he is to retrieve the legal documents for the recently deceased Alice Drablow. Mr. Bentley has put Arthur in charge of handling her estate, retrieving the deeds and resolving any matter that my hinder the sale of Drablow's property, Eel Marsh House.
This is his chance to prove himself as more than baggage to the firm, and we're immediately interested not because matters of real estate law intrigue us, but because we feel sympathy for Arthur Kipps and his situation.
You see, Arthur is a widower. His wife Stella died during childbirth, and he's been left alone (save the Nanny) to tend to his frail and sickly son, Edward. Edward is only six years old and he receives medical treatment that Arthur can barely afford with his current wage. It's not an option for him to lose his job, so this is a job that turns into a quest that will either make or break him.
His motivation is simple: Keep his son alive.
It seems easy enough. Gather all the dusty documents at Eel Marsh House and retrieve some papers from the local Crythin Gifford solicitor. It's a simple snatch and grab job, right?
Arthur's quest is immediately met by resistance as soon as he arrives in Crythin Gifford, elevating what should seem like a stroll in the park to a task that goes from annoying to impossible in a matter of hours.
What's going on in Crythin Gifford?
Nothing good.
This place is either cursed or haunted or both, and in fact, this is something Arthur is gonna have to figure out if he wants to get out of this place alive.
On his train, Arthur meets Samuel Daily and his little dog, Spider. Samuel is a businessman who resides in Crythin Gifford. As him and Arthur get to talking, he suggests that Arthur is gonna have his work cut-out for him if he's trying to sell Eel Marsh House. Daily deals with property himself, and he says that no one will touch the house.
No one in the little town owns an automobile, except for Daily, and fortunately, he offers to give Arthur a ride from the train station to the quaint market town.
At the Gifford Arms Inn, we learn that all of the rooms are occupied, even though there are only three or four people at the bar. The innkeeper and his wife say they'll be able to host him in the attic for the night, but they say that even that space is booked for the rest of the week, despite Arthur's firm telegraphing a reservation in advance.
The message is clear. These people are trying to get Arthur out of their town.
Arthur has a creepy night in the attic, and this is why: The beginning of the script opens with a chilling scene where three little girls, dressed in Victorian dresses and pinafores, are playing tea-party with their stuffed animals. As they play, we hear the market chatter outside...then suddenly, all three girls "stop and look up simultaneously, their eyes fixed on something across the room, their faces suddenly, disturbingly, blank."
One by one, in synchronized movement, the three little girls stop what they're doing, and in perfect unison, jump out the window.
We never see what they saw.
That's on page one. One of the best first pages I've ever seen in a screenplay. Moving forward, that room they were playing in, that room they lived in, that's where Arthur has to sleep the first night. Although he's able to rest, it's the atmosphere and expectation that contributes to the sense of dread that begins to bleed from the story, and by the time you make it to the mid-point, it's all but saturating the pages.
The next day Arthur ventures to meet the local solicitor, Mr. Jerome. It's this stroll through the town that we begin to notice that the townspeople are very, very, VERY protective of their children. They peer from behind picket fences while the fathers scowl at Arthur. The scenario reaches grotesque tones when we learn that Mr. Jerome and his wife are possibly keeping their daughter locked in a dungeon-like cellar to protect her from...death.
Jerome is hasty with Arthur, wants to get him out of the town. He's gathered all documents and has arranged his assistant, Mr. Kenwick, to take him by pony and trap to the train station. Arthur wants to do a thorough job, and refuses to leave the town with missing documents.
He bribes Kenwick into taking him to Eel Marsh House.
What separates Eel Marsh House from other haunted houses?
Imagine a house on its own little island, separated from the mainland by "an incredible vista of shining marshland". Nine Lives Causeway is the path that leads to the house, and at hightide, the causeway disappears and the house is unreachable.
Or inescapable.
For a few hours at least.
Not only is this a brooding, creepy and Gothic setting, it also adheres to the number one rule for all haunted houses: Aside from being haunted, the exits must be guarded with peril. These exits must be seemingly unreachable. If Alien was a haunted house story in space, the only exit was the airlock. And Ripley didn't escape out of it. Instead, she blew the creature out of it. In the novel House of Leaves, the house had doors, but they became unreachable as the architecture of the house elongated and shifted to keep its victims inside, lost forever.
To make the island even more atmospheric and sinister, there's a gnarled tree, a gatekeeper's cottage and a family graveyard.
It seems that Mrs. Drablow was unorganized, and Arthur has given himself a week to hunt down and find all the appropriate documents, and it doesn't help that the house is in ill-repair and that there's a malevolent specter following his every move.
This Woman in Black seems content to just watch him, but by the time he returns to the town, his job still unaccomplished, children start to die in gruesome and creepy fashion. Not only do they start to die around Arthur, but the townspeople start to blame him for stirring up the town's dark past and blame his arrival for the deaths of their little ones.
To further raise the stakes and give the situation a ticking clock, Arthur keeps a calendar that his son Edward drew. He crosses off the days till Edward arrives in Crythin Gifford with his Nanny. Since no one in the town owns a telephone, and the only telegraph is situated in the post office that always seems closed for business, Arthur has no way of communicating with the outside world.
With the help of Samuel Daily, he must uncover the town's secrets and put this ghost to rest, lest his own son be put in lethal proximity to this phantom child killer.
Does it work?
Hell yes. A good ghost story is all about creating suspense and atmosphere. Insert a character into this atmospheric scenario that we care about and feel sympathy for, who has an impossible task with some high stakes, and you've got a recipe for unsettling, creepy goodness.
From a grotesque sequence featuring Samuel Daily's wife being possessed by a dead child that wants to communicate with Arthur to bizarre tar baby-like apparitions climbing out of the marshes to terrorize our characters, there are many twisted and powerful scare scenes that pull us, leading us with dread, through this mystery.
The script is also peppered with sorrowful touches and images that build the atmosphere and tone of the world. Birds are a motif. A fireplace with a nest full of dead baby birds is a striking detail that's impossible to forget. Arthur's grief for his wife is reflected in his scene with a Mynah bird that has mimicked his dead wife's voice, "Again. Say it again."
But, what I liked best was the ending.
I'm not going to spoil it, but it was so layered and fantastic and heartbreaking and satisfying, that I might have shed a tear or two.
My verdict? "The Woman in Black" might be better than The Sixth Sense, which I regard highly. One of the best ghost stories I've had the fortune of reading. Can't wait to see this on the big screen. It's gonna be a classic like Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.

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

What I learned: Setting. Are you telling a story about a haunted locale? Well, this is a genre that's been done to death, so you're gonna have to make your setting memorable and original. And, it's going to have to fit in the world you build. I've never quite seen or heard of anything like Eel Marsh House, this creepy old Gothic structure that exists on an island in the middle of a vast marshland that's only reachable at certain hours of the day. It's gloriously Romantic and Victorian. This setting, coupled with the strange phenomena we saw in the marshlands, reminded me a lot of the weirdness and the unsettling tricks of perception that were used in the great Algernon Blackwood story, "The Willows".

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sunday Book Review – King of the Sunset Strip

Watch Scriptshadow on Sundays for book reviews by contributors Michael Stark and Matt Bird. We try to find books that haven't been purchased or developed yet that producers might be interested in. We won't be able to get one up every Sunday, but hopefully most Sundays. Here's Michael Stark with his review of "King of The Sunset Strip."

Genre: True Crime / Memoir
About: Young Hollywood actor leaves the Mickey Mouse Club for Mickey Cohen’s gang. Think Public Enemies meets What Makes Sammy Run with a dab of The Freshman thrown in.
Writer: Steve Stevens (who has constantly worked in Hollywood for over 50 years) and journalist, Craig Lockwood
Staus: According to the book, Steve’s son, Mark, had written a screenplay, but I can’t find the development stats anywhere. Trust me, this one would make a great flick.

“Someone’s gonna die cause some broad is banging a bullfighter? It ain’t gonna be me.” -- Mickey Cohen on both Sinatra’s and Bugsy Siegal’s women troubles.

Hey there, Hi there, Ho there!!! Welcome to another sporadic Scriptshadow Sunday Book Review, where we brave paper cuts and funky, old paperback stench to bring you the books we wanna see turned into movies. It’s our way of helping our nation’s starving writers, the dying logging industry and all those underdeveloped development gals.

With my own bookshelves bare and not enough scratch for a coffee to beard my word thieving ways at Barnes and Noble, the search for my next column brought me back to a place I vowed never to return to -- the damn library. I asked the bookish blonde behind the counter what was good. She dutifully told me to go take a hike in the biography section…

…Where I got jumped by the stunning, Saul Bass reds and blacks of this little honey’s spine. Hypnotized, I read the blurbs and knew I had found the one! King of the Sunset Strip instantly intrigued me cause it’s about two of my favorite subjects: Old Hollywood and true crime noir.

It’s the late 50s in the city of angels, mere moments before the Raging Bulls and Easy Riders would seize power. The mighty studio system still ran the town and it was all so deceptively glamorous and magical like Cuba before Batista fell.

19-year-old, Steve Stevens, a graduate of the Hollywood Professional School and the Mickey Mouse Club, is getting a little too long in the Ultra-Brite-white tooth for the kid roles he’s been playing. He knows damn well that not every child star makes the transition to the adult’s table. For every Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor, there’s the cautionary tale of a Bobby Driscoll (Treasure Island and the voice of Peter Pan) who ended up dead at 31, just another junkie on skid row.

(Actually, Driscoll’s story would make a great movie too if Disney would allow the slight besmirch of their hallowed name.)

Waiting around his pad for his agent to call (No 4G or answering machines back then), Stevens was way closer to going broke then breaking in. But, then, a mysterious piece of fan mail arrives under the slot that will change the spin of his axis forever. An admirer named Mr. Michael invites him to his ice cream shop, saying “You play tuff guys real good.”

That Mr. Michael, for those gangland challenged, turned out to be the colorful, celebrity criminal, Mickey Cohen, the East Coast, Jewish mob boss who was sent out West to keep an eye on Bugsy Siegal. Ax ex-boxer and Chicago enforcer, Cohen pretty much organized all of the organized crime in the great state of California.

Cohen, a skilled blackmailer, had so much dirt on the denizen of Tinseltown, that the media had to protect themselves, painting him as a modern day Robin Hood. Newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, was a close friend. Or perhaps Cohen knew who Rosebud was? Even the FBI stayed away – supposedly the mob had the cross-dressing goods on J. Edgar too.

He was a bulletproof survivor, who lived through gang wars, feuds, assorted attempted hits and all forms of federal prosecution. The man was definitely charismatic but also totally ruthless.

Does it seem a little contrived that a notorious mobster would send a young actor a fan letter? Well, put that in the truth is stranger than fiction department, cause it happened. When adapting the screenplay, this may have to be finessed a bit. Stevens played a lot of juvenile delinquent roles and Cohen must have seen a little bit of his younger, scrappy self in those portrayals. Childless, perhaps he was looking for someone to groom.

Stevens starts hanging with the mobster and the mentoring begins. A natural charmer, the kid soon wins over Mickey’s gang of tough thugs with his heartthrob smile and autographed pictures of Annette Funicello.

Against the warnings of his friends, Stevens is soon a junior member of their little crime family. The flash, the cash and the hot women were just too enticing. Now, Stevens wasn’t exactly an innocent. He had an ulterior motive too. Cohen knew everyone from the Rat Pack to studio chieftains to then Senator Richard Nixon. Being seen with the smooth criminal might just kick-start his career – if he doesn’t get kicked in the head first.

With all the sexy star treatment came some real, fucking serious danger too. Cohen was Public Enemy Number One for good reason. His hair trigger temper was infamous.

Not only did he have the cops in his pocket, but most of L.A.’s best maitre d's as well. At the exclusive Villa Capri, while Stevens is starstruck by his fellow diners, Cohen overhears a rude comment, extracts a champagne bottle from the bucket and proceeds to wail on the loose-lipped fella with it. After the lug is knocked unconscious and dragged outside, Cohen nonchalantly returns the bottle to the shocked patrons, sits down and puts the napkin around his neck.

The gentleman mobster was sometimes something of a sociopath.

My favorite scene is when Stevens accompanies Mickey and his goons to a comedy club and the brave (or perhaps suicidal) Don Rickles unleashes his trademarked “Mr. Warmth” tirade on the gangster. The kid and the gunmen are shocked silent, waiting for a reaction from their boss. Is he gonna a grab a baseball bat and show the disrespectful comedian just how it’s done in Brooklyn? Finally, after what seems like an eternity of deliberating, Cohen doubles over in laughter. The usual mercurial mobster can take a joke tonight. It’s one of the many moments that will kill on the screen.

When Steven’s parents get into a little scrape with some hooligans in the apartment upstairs, he calls in his first favor from his “Uncle Mickey”. Goons are quickly dispatched to take care of business. It’s another good, comic scene, cause we only hear the ruckus of broken furniture and ass stomping from his parent’s living room below.

Now, favors in the mob have to one day be returned. Stevens is soon dragged into some rather unsavory and increasingly dangerous errands for his uncle.

When he botches one of them up, Cohen explodes. To make sure it doesn’t happen again, he uses a little negative reinforcement, unmercifully kicking the living shitlights out of the kid. Good thing there weren’t any auditions that week.

In a parallel plotline, Stevens lands a juicy role in the B-movie, High School Caesar, as a sycophant patsy to the vicious JD running the school – a part he’s been basically preparing for the past two years. Shooting on location in a small Missouri town, he thinks he’s finally escaped from Cohen’s grasp till two goons from Kansas City come down to watch over him and show him a good time.

Returning home, the errands Mickey has him running get more and more dangerous, one landing him a savage beatdown from the LAPD. Another has him witnessing a near gangland slaying of a skimming nightclub owner.

With friends avoiding him and his acting career faltering, Stevens realizes that hitching his star to Cohen’s wagon might not have been the brightest idea. Hey, did you do anything stupid when you were 19? With more hit attempts on the gangster’s life and the FBI closing in, the kid may not even get out of there alive.

King of the Sunset Strip is a quick zip gun of a read, but it ain’t James Elroy. It’s more the chatty memoir of a very talented schmoozer. Thus, If it’s gonna get made into a movie, I suggest taking a few liberties and have it merely “based on a true story.” Also, we need to focus more on the famous gangster. After doing some research, I’m shocked that Hollywood has never made a movie solely about Mickey Cohen before. Both Bugsy and L.A. Confidential feature him in smaller roles.

As the book is told through Steven’s POV, we need to have more scenes cementing Cohen’s reputation – His scandalous Hollywood shakedowns, his escalating war with Jack Dragna, the Senate Select Committee on organized Crime and, of course, his involvement with Johnny Stompanato.

Stompanato was Cohen’s bodyguard and something of a legendary chick magnet. The sex tape Cohen recorded of Stomp and Lana Turner made the mobster a load of dough. He pressed copies of the starlet’s ecstatic squeals and sold them at fifty bucks a pop. When Turner’s daughter murdered Stompanato, the ruthless businessman pressed up a few thousand more. I have yet to see one of these platters turn up on Ebay.

There’s plenty of material to flesh this film out, including Cohen’s own autobiography and Brad Lewis’ Hollywood's Celebrity Gangster. As biopics need clear arcs to keep them from meandering, Mickey’s friendship with the Mouseketeer is the perfect frame, keeping the crux of the tale in this two or three year period.

While clearly the comedic elements make it reminiscent of the charming Brando & Broderick team-up, The Freshman, (Man, why isn’t the great Andrew Bergman making movies anymore???) it could also aim towards a more sweeping crime epic like L.A. Confidential.

Either way, I’d love Brian DePalma to take a crack at it. He can atone for The Black Dahlia and prove he can make yet another Untouchables. Step up to the plate, sir. Step right up!

For Discussion: What Biopics would you like to see? And, please tell my fucking tightwad editor to give me a damn book allowance. GA rural libraries aren’t the finest funded these days.

Stark’s further rants and ramblings can be followed in his blog: www.michaelbstark.blogspot.com

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Amateur Friday - La Petite Mort

On the last Friday of every month, I choose an amateur script submitted by you, the readers of the site, to review. If you're interested in submitting for Amateur Fridays, send the genre, the title, the premise, and the reason I should read your script to Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Note that your script will be posted online and that you shouldn't submit if you're allergic to criticism. :) This month's script is La Petite Mort!

Genre: Horror/Zombie/Comedy
Premise: An alcoholic stilt walker must save the small town that loathes him from an invasion of zombie midgets.
About: Okay, so the reason I picked this as my Friday Amateur review is because of the writer’s e-mail. I ask everyone submitting for Amateur Friday to include in their message why I should review their script. This is what Mike wrote: “You'll probably never have another chance to read a script that has two guys fucking a chicken, an elephant with diarrhea, or this many midgets dying. Plus, I make fun of handicapped people. All in good taste, I assure you.” Couple that with the title being French, and well, I obviously had to choose it.
Writer: Mike McLarty
Details: 93 pages

The tiny town of Weaselton has fallen on hard times. The only thing that once made this town relevant was its yearly “Weasel Parade,” one of those strange annual festivities small towns have that nobody outside the town understands or cares about, kind of like Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania or butter carving contests in the middle of rural Iowa.

It’s no coincidence that Mort Weasleton, having the same last name as the town, has also fallen on hard times. The one time golden child, whose great grandparents, I presume, founded the town, used to be the star of the parade. He would tower over spectators on stilts in his weasel costume (why a weasel would be 18 feet tall I have no idea), bringing goodwill and cheer to all the boys and girls.

That is until.......…the accident.

Yes, you see Mort, a practicing alcoholic, was drinking that morning and probably shouldn’t have been on 18 foot stilts. But he was the BEST. Nothing could stop Mort from getting in his costume and bringing that town joy. Not even alcohol! But something happened. Who knows what or why, but Mort’s stilts hit a bad patch and the best weasel stilt walker in the world came tumbling down. Everyone was able to get out of the way before the crash. Everyone, that is, except for Little Suzie Jenkins.

Poor Suzie was permanently disfigured by Mort’s stilts (her head is now shaped like a ‘U’) and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. The accident resulted in the famed Weasleton parade being canceled forever. Which brings us to today. Mort lives with his morbidly obese mother and spends all his free time getting drunk at the local bar. Whenever anyone sees him, they remind him of how great this town used to be before he went ahead and SCREWED it all up!

Meanwhile on the outskirts of town, a ragtag circus is preparing for an upcoming show. It’s led by four angry midgets: Stubby, Dodger, Hyde, and Atlas, and the aforementioned diarreah-spewing albino elephant, Hannibal. When a meteor comes crashing down nearby, they make the mistake of going to check it out. Naturally, it transforms them and the rest of the circus freaks into zombies, who soon go looking for humans to feed on.

Once the townmembers find out that their town is being attacked by circus zombies, they hole up at Gus’s Diner and try to come up with a plan to survive. At some point Mort realizes this is his chance for redemption. If he can find a way to save the town, everyone will forget about what he did to Suzy Jenkins that day and maybe, just maybe, he’ll be able to piece his life back together.

Okay, so let’s start at the beginning. I keep seeing this over and over in amateur scripts. TOO – MUCH – DESCRIPTION. 5-6-7 line paragraph chunks. To the writer, this seems obvious. “I need to tell my story. My story’s important and unique. Therefore it requires large chunks of description.” To the reader it screams “amateur.” It screams “slower read.” Readers are like Matrix operators. They’ve seen so much code that they can just look at a page and tell what kind of writer they’re dealing with. And big chunky paragraphs are the biggest amateur tell of all.

I’ll say it again. In action and horror and comedy, keep your paragraphs LEAN. 3 lines tops. 4 if you’re really describing something important. There should maybe be two 5-line paragraphs in your entire script IF THAT. In drama and period pieces and the like you have a little more leeway cause they’re naturally slower reads but even there I'd watch out.

And yes there are exceptions on the pro level. I’m reviewing one next week (although it’s a drama). But if you’re an amateur, don’t bring attention to that fact by taking 9 lines to describe a character showing up at his buddy’s place.

Despite that, I found the structure and story of La Petit Mort to be pretty sound. You have a fallen hero looking for redemption. You have an evil force trying to come in and destroy a town. You have a group of people who don’t like each other who must work together to fight the evil off. And you have a clear exciting protagonist goal – save the town. Looking at this from afar, it’s a fun sounding movie.

I also like Mike as a writer. He’s obviously trying to do something different here and he’s got a unique voice. I anticipate a lot of people are going to be offended by the comedy (A girl with a U-shaped head? An elephant with diarreah? Really?) but for me, I’d rather have comedy that takes chances and offends people than the next joke on Jay Leno’s opening monologue. More importantly, all of the comedy here fits inside the world he’s created. No joke here feels like it doesn’t belong.

I think where Mike runs into trouble is in the actual mechanics of the story. Once we get to the middle act, the story loses focus. It becomes a free-for-all of funny fucked up zombie situations. And I get that this is a zombie comedy so there’s going to be plenty of that, but the focus was so lax that you stopped caring about what was going on.

I think this could’ve been solved by focusing more on Mort. Mort is a potentially great character with a great backstory to draw from. And yet on the page he’s kind of slumpy and boring. His personality doesn’t live up to his potential. If you look at “down on their luck” protags in good movies, they’re pissed off, sure, but they’re also kinda funny. Take Michael Douglas’ character in “Romancing The Stone” for example. He’s a down-on-his-luck cup-is-half-empty guy but you love the guy because he says what’s on his mind and it usually makes you laugh.

This is further hampered by a misguided and/or confused love story. We have this big city female journalist who comes into town to do a story on Weasleton and we assume this is going to be Mort’s love interest, which would’ve worked great. Instead, we focus more on Ariel, Mort’s childhood sweetheart who left him after the “accident.” We waste too many scenes on these two and we don’t really care about Ariel so all of the scenes are boring. Focusing on a fresh new relationship (maybe even creating a love triangle between the three) would’ve worked much better imo. I mean why bring in a female character from out of town if you’re not going to use her?

In the final act, Mike is trying to juggle so many balls, that Mort’s big moment where he gets on the stilts and finally saves the day falls flat. This moment should’ve brought the house down. And I asked myself why it didn’t. The answer, I realized, was that I didn’t really know Mort. I knew ABOUT him from what we’re told. But I didn’t know HIM. So that's a huge problem that needs to be addressed.

You know here’s the thing. I think if Mike had someone guiding him and developing this script, that this thing could sell. It’s a neat concept and it’s funny and different, but I’m not sure Mike’s strong enough with character yet to make it work without some guidance. 80 line paragraphs aren't helping either (that's an exaggeration btw).

Lots of potential here, but this script isn’t ready for primetime. Or is it? Decide for yourself with the link below.

Script link: La Petite Mort

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me (but has a lot of potential)
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Beyond your character’s backstory, beyond their character flaws, quirks and habits, they still need a personality – something interesting about the way they talk or what they do that makes us want to watch them, especially in a horror comedy, where the characters are supposed to be larger than life. Even if that character is a broken down has-been. Maybe the character’s like Larry David where he always complains but in a funny endearing way. If he’s going to be downbeat, at least make him downbeat FUNNY. This is actually the point I was making in yesterday’s “What I learned” section. The main character is so depressed that it ends up making him boring.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Genre: Horror Biopic
Premise: A biopic of Edgar Allan Poe’s life.
About: This is Sylvester Stallone’s passion project which he’s been trying to make for 30 years. He explains, "I keep telling my producer Avi Lerner, 'Make Edgar Allan Poe!,'" "He says, 'Does he have a gun?' 'No, he doesn't have a gun', 'Can he throw a knife?' I say, 'No, he writes poetry!'" With the success of Stallone’s recent action entry, The Expendables, however, he may have enough clout to finally push this through. He plans to direct, and it’s said that his ideal actor to play the part would be Johnny Depp.
Writer: Sylvester Stallone
Details: 2003 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

We all know how I feel about biopics. How they don’t adhere to natural storytelling structure, and essentially become an adaptation of the subject’s Wikipedia page, the “best of” of their life. The sole purpose of the writing then does not become to tell a story, but rather to link all these moments together in a way where we’re not bored to death in the meantime. For this reason biopics always feel messy and directionless, and in some cases, like Poe, it seems like the end goal is simply to wait for the character to die. Needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled about reading this. But it’s one of the few well-known older scripts in Hollywood that hasn’t been made, so I erased my preconceptions and gave it a shot.

Poe is dark. I mean, he’s Edgar Allan Poe, so duh. We’re not performing dance numbers in the streets with the cast of Glee here. But it’s something you need to be prepared for, as the character in this story is a depressed, confused, frustrated outsider trying to make his way in a world that isn’t very kind to him. If you have a dark streak and have ever been interested in the Cliff’s Notes version of Edgar Allan Poe, this could work for you. But as a self-contained story, like many biopics, I just couldn’t get into it.

It’s 1833 at West Point and Edgar Allen Poe, a seemingly average dude with a thick southern accent, hurls a slew of sarcastic excuses at his captain for why he’s always late and why he has no interest in fighting for his country. Poe’s kinda funny, kinda cool, and hey, pretty interesting.

But shit starts going sour soon after that. When he gets home, the love of his life, Sarah, is being married off to a rich guy with big plans, two things Poe is sorely lacking. It’s the first moment Poe truly understands his place in the social pipeline and it’s an issue he’ll battle with for the rest of his life.

The irony is that Poe’s step-father, John Allan, is one of the richest men in town. But he’s completely cut Poe off, and even on his death bed, the prickly old man insists that Poe will never receive any of his money. If that’s not bad enough, almost everyone in Poe’s family is sick, dying or dead. He has a brother who just died. He has a 19 year old retarded sister. He has a cousin with the mental capacity of Forrest Gump. Disease, in one form or another, has always plagued Poe’s bloodline.

Naturally, Poe searches for an outlet to express his frustration and finds it through poetry. At the time, most everyone writing offered up happy optimistic views on life. Poe’s poems were dark and different, and nobody knew what to do with them.

But Poe’s talents were such that he eventually got a job writing for a newspaper, and was able to parlay that into a series of jobs in several cities. Along the way, he married his 13 year old cousin, Virginia, and naturally, like all the people in the family, she eventually falls ill as well. This is just a guess, but if you’re marrying your own family members, that may have something to do with them all being diseased.

His wife’s sickness and his continual professional struggles eventually drive Poe batty. He willingly submits himself to a mental hospital, but unfortunately never gets better. Before he passes on, Poe writes what some consider to be the most famous poem ever, the macabre tale of “The Raven.”

I had problems with Poe right from the start. First off, Poe starts off as a wise-ass. His character is colorful and different and has some edge to him. I’m thinking this might be better than I thought. But whoever that person was, he disappears the second that scene ends. For the rest of the script Poe is depressed or upset or frustrated or sad. What happened to sarcastic fun Poe?

Also, the writing is really bland and boring in the beginning. The scenes are written as if they’re being crossed off a to-do list. For example, Poe goes to see if he can marry Sarah. She says no. He goes to make up with his step-father. He says no. He goes to say hi to his retarded sister. She says hello. It was like, “Let’s follow Poe around for a day.” What is this? Keeping up with The Kardashians?

I also thought the most famous thing about Poe – his insanity – was handled too sloppily. One second Poe’s out there writing and doing his thing, and the next he’s back home admitting himself into a mental institution. This is what we’ve been waiting for the whole script, is to see how this man gradually lost his mind. And all of a sudden it’s – BAM – he’s insane? This is the movie! Shouldn't we ease into his illness gradually? Shouldn't we see how it affects his life?

What I’ll give Stallone credit for was solving a huge problem. The only thing more dangerous than writing a biopic is writing a biopic about a writer. You always want to avoid making your lead character a writer because it’s difficult to make writing cinematic. You can’t SHOW it unless you want to put your character on camera for an hour feverishly scribbling into a notebook. Oh my gosh! What adjective is he going to use next?? Because you can’t show them doing what they do, they often appear to lack drive, making them boring. But throughout Poe, we get these beautiful dark sequences where we go into Poe’s head as he imagines his fucked-up view of the world that inspired his work. These will definitely be the highlight of the movie and even though it was hard to visualize some of them, I could tell they were going to work.

But hey, let’s be real about this. The draw here is that the guy who mumbles “Yo Adrian” is writing a movie that’s essentially an English thesis paper. Those two worlds don’t ever cross so we’re curious to see if he can pull it off. I’m not going to definitively say he doesn’t, because this was never my cup of tea to begin with, but I think for Poe to work, it has to be less about a recap of his life and more about a single dramatic event. For example, if this was about the struggles of getting “The Raven” published during a time when the world turned their backs on writers who were different, that would’ve resonated with me. If I understand it correctly, Poe became very famous after The Raven, but didn’t make any money off of it because no one paid writers back then. That also would be an interesting story to tell. A famous man who has nothing to show for his fame. Here we just seem to be following Poe around on this long depressing journey and there isn’t enough drama or conflict to justify it.

Anyway, this wasn’t for me, but it may capture the attention of some of the more literary types at Scriptshadow.

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

What I learned: Think twice about writing a story with a depressed protagonist. While they’ve been known to work in niche independent fare, it’s tough to make them work in any movie where you actually want to make money. And I can confirm that readers hate reading depressed protagonists stumble through stories complaining and feeling sorry for themselves. The exception would be if the depression is part of the character’s fatal flaw, and therefore a prelude to his change. For example, in 2008’s top Black List script, The Beaver, our protagonist is depressed, but then attaches the Beaver Hand Puppet and is “happy” for the rest of the script. Or in Little Miss Sunshine, Steve Carell’s character is depressed, but starts to change as the script goes on (that script also benefited from using other characters for comedy relief in the meantime). I’m NOT saying it’s impossible to make it work, but you’re severely stacking the odds against you if you do.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Priority Run

Genre: Action/Thriller
Premise: A small group of correctional officers and inmates must band together to fend off a mysterious attack when their prison bus is sabotaged on a remote stretch of highway.
About: This script originally went into select production companies late last year - which landed the writer, Terrance Mulloy, meetings all over town. This new revised draft went wide a few weeks back, garnering the interest of a few A-list producers, and as a result, the writer is now working on a variety of projects. Terrance is repped by UTA and FilmEngine.
Writer: Terrance Mulloy
Details: July 30, 2010 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 23, 2010

Vanishing On 7th Street

Genre: Horror/Supernatural
Premise: A strange event results in nearly everyone in the world vanishing into thin air. A small group of survivors find each other and try to figure out what happened.
About: Brad Anderson, the director of “Vanishing,” has always been an interesting filmmaker to me, but truth be told his films have left me wanting more. Session 9 was cool, but I still couldn’t tell you exactly what it was. Was it a horror movie? A serial killer movie? It seemed like an excuse to shoot at a creepy location more than anything. The Machinist was okay, but confused me more than it entertained me. It too lacked conviction. I wanted that movie to slug me in the face and it seemed more intent on tickling me to death. So I think the jury’s still out on him. Anderson’s found a solid cast in his latest though, with Hayden Christensen, John Leguizamo, and Thandie Newton onboard. Anthony Jaswinski, the writer, has written a couple of movies for TV, has another couple in development, but is best known around these parts as the writer of the spec script “Kristy,” which has poked up on the Scriptshadow Reader Top 25 before. The script is about a girl who’s terrorized on a deserted college campus.
Writer: Anthony Jaswinski
Details: Blue Rev. 9/22/09 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

The Vanishing on 7th Street is a script that starts off strong but, like a lot of these scripts, gets swallowed up in its own ambition. The ultra high-concept premise lures us in like fresh garbage to a family of raccoons. The question is, is the premise *too* high concept? Wha? Huh? Buh? ‘How can that even be possible’ you ask?? A premise is too high concept when no matter what you do with the story, it will never be as interesting as the concept itself. In other words, you bite off more than you can chew. And unfortunately, I think that’s the case with Vanishing.

Paul is a quiet keeps-to-himself projectionist in his 40s who lives a very similar existence to his job – isolated, alone, doesn’t want to be bothered. He spends his free time like all of us do, gobbling up quantum physics in textbook form (Come on, you know you dig the quantum). When the projector stops, Paul gets up to check out what’s going on in the theater, only to see that everyone is gone. Did Paul accidentally screen The Switch? No, the audience simply…vanished.

Paul wanders into the adjacent mall, hearing the occasional scream, but notices that he’s the only one there. Instead of raiding Cinnabon though, Paul stumbles out into the streets where he realizes that all the cars have stopped, all the phones are out, and poor dogs are walking around without owners. The Vanishing has apparently spared canines.

72 hours later we catch up with Luke, our brooding hero played by Hayden Christensen. Luke split up with his wife to work here and he’s never quite found peace with the decision. As is always the case, you don't start missing someone until the damn world's about to blow up.

Eventually Luke runs into a group of people. The first is Paul, our projectionist friend. The second is James, a teenager who’s waiting for his mom to come back (it ain’t happening kid), and then there’s Maya, a nurse who’s a few bad meals from going off the deeeeeep end.

The group holes up in a tavern and tries to figure out why the hell people are, you know, disappearing. Some believe it’s a pissed off God. Some think the universe is systematically closing down. Others think that there’s no reason at all. It just simply…happened.

But while theories are flying fast and free, a far more pressing problem arises. The group starts to hear voices in the shadows, and become aware that the light is the only thing keeping them alive. Slip out of it and into the darkness, and the beasts/monsters behind those eerie voices pull you away. The group must formulate a plan to escape before the light runs out.

The Vanishing on 7th Street has a lot of scenes and visuals and sounds that would get any director excited. There’s a baby stroller lit under a lone streetlight. A character opens a door to another room only to find a concrete wall. Characters in hoods slide through a city bathed in pockets of light. Voices spookily taunt characters from behind the shadows. Visually and aurally, there is definitely a movie here. I just don’t know if there’s a story.

The big hook – the actual vanishing – wears off quickly and we’re stuck with these characters who technically all have solid goals (to survive) but aren’t all that interesting. They seem only a quarter or a half realized. For example, Paul, who’s a science geek, comes up with this cool theory that whoever created the universe is shutting it down piece by piece, and the people of this planet are the first to be turned off. Yet that’s all I can remember about Paul, was his theory. I couldn’t tell you about any character flaws or what happened in his life that pushed him into such an isolated existence. He’s like the hand and the leg of a person instead of the entire body.

Luke is more thought out and has the backstory with his wife, but this information doesn’t inform the story or the character at all. Besides a quick throwaway conversation, Luke doesn’t seem that interested in finding or getting back to his wife. He spoke of it being an issue, but we didn’t FEEL it was an issue. Which leads me to a bigger problem. Nobody here really had a plan. There’s this vague notion that they should find a working car (all the cars are dead) and drive somewhere. But where? I always say that once your character’s motivations are unclear, your movie is dead, because the audience isn’t interested in watching characters without a point, without a plan. And that’s how I felt once the second half of Vanishing rolled around.

Instead, the script focuses on middle-of-the-road conversations the characters have which contain little to no conflict beneath them. “Who are you?” “What do you think it is?” “I want to find my mom.” One of the reasons Aliens is so awesome is because those characters had so much going on underneath the surface. Ripley is trying to save this little girl. Burke is planning to sacrifice Ripley for money and glory. Bishop is an android, who our hero hates but must trust to survive. There was a real dynamic between the characters ripe for conflict. Here, it’s like each character is on their own island, inflicting no cause or effect on any of the other characters. It was frustrating.

Admittedly, Anderson and Jawinski seem to be tackling some really deep issues and thoughts in this movie, and I’m not sure if I’m smart enough to understand them. I definitely felt like something bigger was happening here, that symbolism and metaphors and a multi-layered narrative were all present. But because I wasn’t engaged in the storyline, I didn’t care to figure out any of that stuff.

Vanishing is a strange cross between Flashforward, The Darkest Hour, The Langoliers, and The Happening. It’s very Steven Kingish, and I anticipate King fans will dig the vibe. But the script is never better than in its opening act, and that can’t happen in a script.

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

What I learned: Think long and hard about whether you can deliver on your huge premise before you write it. If the concept that sends your story into motion is the best thing about your script, then you only have one-fourth of a script. What if aliens invaded our planet tomorrow? Okay, great concept. But then what? How do you keep that interesting for the 100 minutes after they invade? If you want to see how bad someone can screw this up, go rent Independence Day. Just make sure to also rent a gun, as you’ll want to shoot yourself by the midpoint. I think the key to these high concept ideas is making sure you have a story ready on the personal level after you hit your audience with the hook. So in District 9, the hook was, “What if aliens got stuck here and we enslaved them in a ghetto?” But the personal story was, “What if a human started turning into one of these aliens and had to find a way to turn back before it was too late?” That’s a story that can sustain itself the whole way through. The story within the story baby...the story within the story. :)


Doing something a little different today. Roger is reviewing a script from a professional reader. Does he have what it takes to write a great script? While reading a ton of scripts helps your own screenwriting, I'll be the first to admit it doesn't ensure success. Each script has its own unique challenges and there's no guarantee, regardless of whether you're an amateur, professional or semi-professional, that you'll be able to overcome them. I look back at shitty scripts of mine all the time and think "This sucks. There's no way it can be salvaged." What I love is that Dan was like, "Have at it. Grade it just as hard as you grade everything else. Grade it harder." One thing I love about readers - they know the value of straightforward criticism cause nobody tells you the truth in this town. I know Dan offers notes, as do I (feel free to e-mail me for prices: carsonreeves1@gmail.com) so if you're interested, drop me an e-mail.

The rest of the week is Odd Fever. I tackle a straight action script, a moody spooky period piece that a certain star has been trying to get made forever, and at the end of the week, for Amateur Friday, I review...a zombie script?? What the hell is going on?? Anyway, it promises to be a different week at Scriptshadow. Hope you enjoy it!

Genre: Supernatural Thriller, Horror, Drama
Premise: An orphaned teen returns un-aged from a mysterious 10-year journey to battle a powerful minister for control over a gateway to hell.
About: Dan Calvisi was a Senior Story Analyst for Miramax Films for over five years and now runs the script consultation service, Act Four Screenplays. As a professional reader, he worked for Fox 2000, New Line Cinema and Jonathan Demme's former production company, Clinica Estetico.
Writer: Daniel P. Calvisi

"Donnington" has the type of logline I eat up.

Not only does it mention a gateway to hell, but it has the phrase, "un-aged from a mysterious 10-year journey". It's such a bizarre detail (Why is the character un-aged? Where did he go? What happened to him? Again, why didn't he age?) that captured my imagination and made me want to read the script.

Weaned on horror movies, Ghostbusters and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, I am always very interested in gateways to hell. All of my favorite myths involve characters like Orpheus or Hercules entering such gateways to rescue or retrieve loved ones or creatures from the shadowy, fiery underworld.

And, I'm here to report, this script is about a boy who disappears into such a doorway to claim a mythic mantle and returns to the ordinary world (yep, un-aged and ten years later) with a supernatural boon that may bring death to every other person he encounters in the natural world.

Cool. Who's the boy?

Seventeen year-old Ben Danvers officially becomes an orphan when his father dies in jail. We meet our protagonist at his father's funeral, where we also learn that the townspeople hate his father. Donnington is a town devastated by a horrible mine explosion that killed thirty-three people in the early 80s (in fact, the script begins with a creepy cool prologue that captures events in the mine just before the cave-in, which involves a miner fleeing into a red light with a baby in his arms).

Ben's caseworker has enrolled the pagan teenager (during the funeral, he spouts his knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology to the minister) at a top-notch school, a prestigious private institution called the "Donnington Lamb of God Evangelical School for Christian Leadership and Development". So, not only do the townspeople express resentment for Ben because of his paternal pedigree, but he's being placed in an educational environment that violently clashes with his own personal beliefs.

It's at the evangelical school that we meet Cassie Harken, a goth-y gal who is immediately attracted to Ben, especially when he announces that his topic for his senior term paper will be disproving the existence of Hell. Her own topic for Senior Themes? Vampirism in the bible. This is a match made in the bowels of a heavily religious and right-wing environment, the common denominator being that both characters have a mutual disdain for authority figures.

They bond when they visit the cemetery and start to make myths, or make-up stories about the people behind the names on the headstones of the graves.

At this school, not only do we get to meet Ben's reluctant teacher, Mr. Grabash, we also witness the school's painful version of required chapel, which is the daily assembly led by the school's figurehead, Brother Gabriel.

What's the story behind Brother Gabriel?

Brother Gabriel is known for dressing all in black and delivering not so much a fire and brimstone sermon to the young sheep at his school, but for pontificating about a place he calls "Outer Darkness". I suppose the place is related to the Cormac McCarthy novel in that both are about the concept of Hell, although Brother Gabriel also refers to it as a physical, geographical place while McCarthy seems to only be concerned with the moral and emotional metaphor.

Basically, Gabriel makes kids weep by talking about the complete solitude of Hell and paints word scenarios where they must imagine being trapped there, and that it's too late to call on Jesus for help. It's important to know that Gabriel and his school rose to power because he's the only known survivor of the Golgoth mine cave-in of 82. He reminds the kids and the townspeople that not only is survival a miracle, but that his purpose on earth is to save the youth from Hell.

Ben gets in dire straits with Brother Gabriel while trying to interview him for his term paper. Not only does Gabriel dislike Ben, but he doesn't appreciate him challenging his authority. To complicate the situation, Ben also learns that Gabriel is also possibly molesting Cassie.

Does supernatural stuff start to happen?

Yeah. One day, at the Jesuit house Ben lives in (where his caseworker finds him lodging) he receives a mysterious letter that has strange symbols and glyphs on it. There's a phrase that says, "Return back. Mine." So, accordingly, Ben is drawn to the Golgoth mine, but the townspeople warn him that it's condemned because of mercury poisoning. Undeterred, he explores the hillside and encounters the Charon-like Duey, the old punch-in clerk from the prologue who now wanders the hills as a sort of guardian. In their first encounter, he demands to inspect Ben's tongue.

The first act turn approaches when Ben learns about Cassie and Gabriel and when the strange birthmark he has on his body starts morphing into a map on his body. He lines it up with another map and it all leads to a particular entrance of the mine called Raven Hill. Under the cover of night, Ben goes to the mine and encounters three men (perhaps the mysterious authority trio Gabriel answers to at the school) in hazmat suits are inspecting creek water. He's chased into the mine...

...where he disappears for, apparently, a really long time. Now, for me, this was the most intriguing part of the script. We're treated to a time-lapse of the outside of the mine, and although we're not sure how much time is passing, we suspect that whatever is happening must be supernatural. Sure enough, Ben emerges from the mine with a beard and his face is weathered by the elements.

And, he's holding a lacquered wooden strongbox with iron latches.

It reminds us of the circular, mossy door he fled into in the mine.

What's in the box?

That's part of the mystery. No matter what Ben does, he can't seem to open it. And no matter where he leaves it, it seems to magically reappear wherever he's at. Yep, it's an inanimate object that follows him around. There's also a scene where the villains are searching for the box, and although it's in plain view, they're unable to see it. Ben spends the rest of the script carrying the box around with him.

So, ten years passed while Ben was in the mine?

Yep. Ben returns to Donnington to find that the town is eclipsed by the gigantic new mini-mega church that spires up into the sky. He meets Mr. Grabash, who is now a drunken hobo that wanders the streets, and Cassie, who is ten years older while Ben isn't. She's super confused, and tells a tale where she thought he disappeared for good.

We discover that Brother Gabriel is now calling himself Prophet Gabriel, and that he's built an institution that seats fifteen thousand people. Parents from all over the state enroll their kids at the school. Gabriel seems to employ most of the town. Gabriel isn't too happy to discover that Ben has returned, and the mysterious three men are on alert to snatch him and interrogate him about his experience in the mine.

Which he has no memory of.

He gets mysterious flashes of what happened to him down there, and well, they're not always pretty.

And, now, Ben is plagued with more strange events. While he tries to discover who Gabriel really is and what he's up to, he becomes aware of phenomena with the box. Disconcertingly, everyone in contact with him seems to die soon after. There's a cool detail when he interrogates a photographer and we learn that, in the photos of himself, he seems to have a dark smudge-like tail following him around.

Does Ben learn about the mysterious men that employ Gabriel?

Yep. We learn that they're part of a consortium called The Alchemy Group, and that they've been interested in the mine for a very long time. And they're very intrigued by Ben and his bloodline.

It all culminates into a bloody finale (one that actually made me sick to my stomach) where Ben may or may not become a popular mythical figure. Pay attention to the clues: references to the Valkyrie, gargoyles, Tartarus and a certain scythe-wielding icon.

Does it work?

It's a very intriguing mystery. In a good way, it reminded me of "Donnie Darko". The tone and the element of mystery is both its strength and weakness.

There's some character and plot stuff that can get confusing at times. Just lots of goals that seem to get lost in the 2nd act shuffle: Ben is trying to clear his father's name, but he's also trying to expose Gabriel, and he's also trying to solve the mystery of not only the mine, but the Alchemy Group, and his true nature. It can feel convoluted.

I also felt that, at times, the author was grinding an axe rather than simply telling a story.

All in all, it's a cool puzzle narrative that reminded me of "Carnivale" and stuff by Stephen King. It also has a really cool concept at its heart: It's about a boy whose inheritance is related to the Grim Reaper. And for that, it's definitely worth reading.

Please contact Dan at dan@actfourscreenplays.com for the script.

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

What I learned: There's a quote by Richard Kelly that I'm pretty fond of, "For me, for fantasy to truly work, there has to be an undercurrent of absolute realism." When you have birth marks morphing into maps, a character disappearing into the underworld for ten years and returning with no memory of the experience, an ornate box that you can't open but follows you around no matter where you leave it, and encounters with a supernatural realm that culminates into a boy becoming a scythe-wielding mythical figure, it's important to ground everything in a realistic setting with characters that feel like real people. I think Donnington could benefit by not only making its setting, the town, more realistic, but by depicting the town in such a way that makes it feel like an actual character. From "It's a Wonderful Life" to Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" to the more modern "Lars and the Real Girl", there's something to be said for giving a community, a collective of people, a character arc. Donnington is a town that has suffered a great tragedy and has turned belly-up, but the setting never quite felt realistic. I think it could benefit from being fleshed out more. How do you do this? You depict more characters from the community who have different backgrounds. For example, I'll point to Karl Gajdusek's "Pandora", which portrayed multiple characters who inhabited a town. They were all different ages and from different social stratas with different jobs. All together, the varying perspectives felt like a tapestry of characters that gave weight and soul to the setting. I'm not advocating turning this script into an ensemble piece, but if "Donnie Darko" can make a town feel like a character, so can "Donnington". At one point, a character says, "God left this town long ago." It's a literal Ichabod (the departure of God's glory). For the audience to believe that a setting is truly cursed, first they have to truly believe the setting.

note: Okay, comments seem fixed.