Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Executive Search


Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: A female CEO hires a sleazy private investigator to help her find the perfect husband.
About: This script sold for 2 million dollars to 20th Century Fox back in 1999. Gerald DiPego has written half a dozen novels and has a number of produced credits, such as Phenomenon and Message In A Bottle. But don’t let that fool you. This script is his masterpiece.
Writer: Gerald DiPego
Details: 108 pages (November 7, 1998 draft)

Rachel McAdams would be perfect for the role of Chase.

I’m so happy to be able to end Big Money Week with this script because whenever I go back into the unproduced specs of yesteryear time capsule, I usually find screenplays that prove why they've been forgotten. The last three Big Money scripts were perfect examples (still haven’t read Smoke and Mirrors). But this. This script surprised the hell out of me. Not only was it a great script. But it’s better than EVERY. SINGLE. ROMANTIC. COMEDY SCRIPT. OUT THERE. RIGHT NOW. I’m not kidding. Which gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, someone will wise up, stop fucking around with all these 18 Ways To Eat Your Spouse shitty rom-com projects and make Executive Search. This is a writer who actually understands what makes a romantic comedy good. This is someone who actually understands that it’s not simply a catchy title, a hilarious hook, a bunch of knee-slapping set pieces, and a billboard that says, “Heigle Vs. Butler.” It’s about the characters. For the love of God, it’s about the characters!

Chase Banner is a 35 year old CEO of a software company that’s launching a game-changing software product in a few months. Chase is a tireless meticulous worker. So meticulous, in fact, that she schedules her meetings to the second. She doesn’t have time for anything else in her life. If you report to Chase, you don’t give her the fat. You give her the meat. If you can’t consolidate information into a few key sentences, go home. This girl operates on Cliff’s notes.

Problem is, Chase is starting to get that itch. No, not that itch, but the kind where you wanna, like, settle down. Get yourself a man. Start a family. But Chase barely has time to make personal phone calls. The last thing she has time to do is spend hours upon hours on the dating circuit in the hopes of maybe possibly potentially finding a man. So Chase has an idea. Since the kind of man she wants is exactly like herself – driven, passionate, successful - She’ll hire a headhunter to find her a “co-CEO” to “run her company.” Of course, she has no plans to actually partner with a CEO. She’ll simply treat the top choices as her potential future mates, finding a way to meet them after the search is over.

I know, I know. It sounds a little gimmicky. But the great thing about DiPego’s writing is that despite the obvious set-up, he manages to make it all sound plausible. Even reasonable! While I was reading this I started thinking, “Hmmm, this wouldn’t be such a bad idea to try out myself.” Unfortunately there’s a flaw in Chase's plan. The Headhunter won’t research personal lives. Seeing as this is the man she’ll be spending the rest of her life with, she wants to know if he has any skeletons in the closet. This is before Google, you know? So it was a hell of a lot harder to stalk people. So she decides to hire the best private investigator in town to do background checks. But in a major mix-up, she instead gets a 45 year old gambling drinking mess of a man who can barely keep his apartment in order, much less his life. Meet Buddy Hallibeck.

Despite Buddy’s off-putting pedigree, he possesses just enough charm to convince Chase to take a chance on him. And it’s a good thing she does. Buddy may not look it, but he’s one hell of a P.I. When the headhunter brings back the top 3 “CEO” choices, Buddy immediately goes to work, breaking the men down with the skill of a forensics analyst. It's through these ongoing updates that the two develop a tenuous if barely respectful relationship. Although this is where you'd typically find a lot of artificial fighting between the two swooning-but-refuse-to-admit-it future lovers, there's none of that in Executive Search. Even though Chase’s resistence to Buddy feels familiar, it also feels honest. Sure she sees something in Buddy. But she’s also smart enough to know it’d never work. She’s a successful CEO. He’s a slimy private investigator. It’s not even worth considering.

That kind of honesty continues throughout Executive Search. Nothing here feels forced. Even though the scenario has a movie quality set-up to it, you never feel like you’re watching a movie. You feel like you’re observing two self-absorbed stubborn people, both with complicated lives, both trying to find stability in their own fucked up ways. The conventions are either absent or don’t feel like conventions. These two aren't desperately in love but won’t “admit it.” They don't get stuck in the same bed together at one of their parents' house. There's no obligatory montage with heartwarming music. Everything here is real. Gritty. Honest.

And the character work here is just awesome. Each of these characters has a flaw in their lives that’s holding them back – something relatable, something all of us can understand. And you truly feel that they’ll never be able to find happiness until they overcome it. There’s also a wonderful subplot with Buddy’s 17 year old daughter, a girl Buddy is desperately trying to win the admiration of, as well as a perfectly integrated sub-pot involving somebody trying to steal company info from Chase. And it all fits.

That’s why I love this script. It’s that rare screenplay puzzle where every single piece fits. You can feel the care that went into this, particularly after being exposed to a decade of rom-coms that stink of being slapped together over a couple of Saturday afternoons. I liked this so much that I’m putting it in my Top 25. And I’m asking whoever owns it (I think 20th Century Fox?) to pull this one out of the vault and give it another shot. Give us a romantic comedy with depth again. Revive the genre. And don’t use any shitty rewrites either. Use the spec draft. It only needs a couple of technology updates and you’re set. Seriously, why the fuck are you wasting money on all this shit when you have something that’s actually good? I don't care about the politics of this ridiculous business. Make a great movie and watch the money and accolades role in.

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

What I learned: Once you have your gimmick down, once you have your hook, forget about it. Forget about how you’re going to sell the thing. Switch your focus over to the story and the characters. Make them the best they can possibly be. I think that’s the problem with a lot of today’s writers. Is they rely too much on their premise. They think that that’s going to do all the work for them. It’s a casualty of movies like “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” doing well. Because so much of the joke is implied in the title and the marketing, that writers assume if they get that part squared away, their job is over. But Executive Search goes back to a time where writers still cared about their characters. You need to do the same thing in your rom com.

Gene Bullard

Ugh, yesterday was not a fun day at all. As a lot of you already know, the mediafire library that PJ had posted has been taken down. The reason it’s been taken down is because Fox has sued PJ for 15 million dollars. It’s just a sad day, not because scripts will no longer be available or nobody can come to a consensus on whether what PJ was doing was right or wrong. It’s sad because I know PJ is a good person and gained nothing personally from having the library up. She just wanted amateur writers to learn the craft of screenwriting through professional writing. She wanted to help others. I think what a lot of you are wondering is, will this affect Scriptshadow? The answer is a definitive yes. I’m not sure how yet but it’s a safe bet that the format of the site will change significantly. While reviewing scripts isn't illegal, when billion dollar companies put their foot down, you have no choice but to ask how they’d like their shoe tied. If you want to help PJ with her legal fees, I know they’ve started a collection fund over here on this site. If you feel that you’ve in any way become a better writer because of what she provided, please please help her out.

Genre: Drama/Heist
Premise: A group of thieves invade a small southern town during a weekend festival in order to rob the town’s lucrative mill.
About: If you know anything about the history of film, you know James Dickey. He wrote one of the great movies of all time, Deliverance, which he adapted from his own novel. Dickey actually came to prominence as a poet in the 60s, writing several compilations that became very popular. This led to him reading one of his poems at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. Despite the popularity of Deliverance, it is Dickey’s only produced screenwriting credit. Gene Bullard was his follow-up screenplay, which was never made.
Writer: James Dickey
Details: 121 pages – 1975 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).

Deliverance is one of my favorite movies. I dare you to go home tonight and watch that movie and not fall under its spell. That film wraps its finger around you and pulls you in until you don’t even know which way is up. It’s that spellbinding. And yet, it’s a really strange screenplay. When you go back and watch a lot of movies from the 70s, you get frustrated with the drawn out deliberate pacing of anything but the classics. But even in its slowest moments, Deliverance still dazzles, and it’s not easy to figure out why. I mean, who would’ve thought that stopping the story for five full minutes while two characters have a banjo showdown would not only work, but become one of the most famous movie scenes of all time?

Needless to say, when I heard that Dickey had written another screenplay, I got excited. Why wasn’t it ever made? Was it bad? Was it too genius for others to wrap their heads around? What’s the story behind Gene Bullard? I wanted to find out.

Gene Bullard starts with four criminals driving into a small town. There’s Makens, the dangerous leader, Jimbo and Leon, his loyal sidekicks, and Joby, the young handsome outsider. Through their conversation we learn that Joby’s just gotten out of jail and is leading Makens and his crew to his old town, where he plans to help them rob the lucrative mill that employs most of the town’s residents.

The town itself is gearing up for a festival and the star of this festival (and the star of the town) is Sheriff Gene Bullard. Bullard is a jovial type who grew up in this town as a virtual pariah. He was a high school sports star and the person everyone wanted to be friends with. He also was a surrogate father to Joby, who he’s ecstatic to see back from jail. Joby introduces Bullard to Makens and the others and Bullard has no idea that this man is going to rob his town blind within the next 48 hours.

This is where Gene Bullard gets a little strange. Instead of getting to business right away, Makens and his buddies decide to enjoy the festival for awhile. They head over to the main bar and get drunk. They head over to the town hall and dance. They stalk out any woman who will have them. They figure, if we’re going to rob this town, we might as well have some fun in it first.

Concurrently with Makens mini-ratpack adventures, we’re cutting back to Gene Bullard, who seems to have involved himself in multiple female endeavors, some of which he keeps under wraps and some of which he’s quite open about. There is one woman he can’t seem to get a handle on however. That would be Joby’s twin sister, Lila – easily the best thing about this screenplay. Lila is a master loomer (loomstress?) whose movements and demeanor feel almost ethereal in nature, like she’s floating above the rest of the world. She’s weird, mysterious, and dangerous. Gene has no idea what to do with her.

If this is all sounding a bit random, that’s because Gene Bullard is very random. Between the moment we get into town and the moment when Makens attempts the robbery, we’re basically just watching a lot of characters enjoy a crazy festival. After all the festival stuff finally ends, Makens makes his way over to the mill to rob it, and in a very Coen Brothers like finale, a lot of things start going wrong, which results in a final showdown between Bullard and Makens.

This was a strange one. I think the most frustrating thing about Gene Bullard is the character Gene Bullard. This is a man who the screenplay is named after, and yet he has no goals, no real point – he’s just this passive character who stumbles around from situation to situation. I still don’t know how Dickey wanted him to be perceived, as he’s in some places popular, other places moronic, other places a clown, and other places a ladies’ man. If this script should’ve been named after any character, it would be Makens. He’s the one driving the story. He’s the one with the active goal (rob the mill). He’s the one who really sticks out as a character.

Dickey is almost able to overcome this deficiency with the inclusion of some Dickeyisms. I call them Dickeyisms since they’re strange Deliverance-like moments that only Dickey would write. For example, there’s a scene where Lila plays the harp that feels very similar in tone and mood to the famous dueling banjo scene in Deliverance. There’s also one scene in particular where, if this movie would’ve been made, would’ve been a classic that fans would still be talking about today. In it, Bullard is seduced by Lila, who, just before they’re about to have sex, pulls out a rattlesnake. It’s a bizarre scene where we don’t know if she’s going to kill him or have sex with the thing, but it was a great sequence that was impossible to forget.

I think where this script struggles to attain the greatness of Deliverance is in its point-of-view. Deliverance was awesome because our point-of-view was with the friends the whole time. We saw the hillbillies only through their eyes, allowing us to imagine for ourselves how dangerous they were. In Gene Bullard, we’re jumping back and forth between the good guys and the bad guys freely, to the point where we know Makens well, and therefore we’re not really afraid of him. I know this can work (it worked in No Country For Old Men) but it didn’t work here. Deliverance just had this overwhelming feeling of dread that Gene Bullard never attained. And I think knowing the bad guys too well is what caused it.

Obviously, this script is a product of its era. We have long wandering scenes that remind you of the wedding scenes in The Godfather or Deerhunter – scenes that just don’t work nowadays with people’s attention spans the way they are. There still might be a movie here (I’d love to see the character of Lila onscreen) but it would have to be rewritten considerably. Either way, it’s a fascinating look back at what could’ve been.

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

What I learned: Splitting screenplay time equally between two main characters is hard to pull off. It’s advised that you focus on one main character and give the majority of time in your screenplay to him/her. However, if you want to split time between characters, make sure that each one is active, that each one has something going on. I think this script faltered because one of its main characters didn’t have anything to do. Gene Bullard just stumbles around from location to location until he’s called into action in the final act.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Jeremy Orm Is A Pervert

Genre: Comedy
Premise: In 1985, a 13 year old socially challenged boy obsesses over finding pictures of nude women while his preacher father tries to become a bishop.
About: This is Phil Johnston’s first sold script, I believe, which landed him on the 2006 Black List. Johnston would later write “Cedar Rapids,” which would make last year’s Black List and get produced earlier in the year (it stars Ed Helms). Johnston was a broadcast journalist in the Midwest who moved to New York to attend film school at Columbia. While details are sketchy, I believe this is the script that got him representation at UTA. You can also find some storyboards Johnston did for the script on this site
Writer: Phil Johnston
Details: April 7, 2006 draft – 107 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Last year, Cedar Rapids, Phil Johnston’s kooky tale about a straight-laced small-towner trying to survive a weekend in the “crazy” big city of Cedar Rapids, climbed its way into the Black List Top 10. The script made Johnston one of the hotter writers in town. But it actually wasn’t Johnston’s first script. In fact, it wasn’t even his first foray into the Black List. That happened back in 2006 with another script called “Jeremy Orm is a Pervert.”

I had no idea what to expect from "Orm," but I quickly found out that Johnston’s unique take on small-town America which served him so well in Cedar Rapids, was actually sculpted and framed long beforehand.

Let’s jump back to 1985 Neenah, Wisconsin. Jeremy is a 13 year old “chubby bowl-haired oddball” who’s just trying to survive junior high. He and his “unnaturally thin” best friend, Gordon Pinto, are, like most junior high boys, obsessed with seeing girls naked. Now for you younger folk, let me just tell you, it was a lot harder to do this before the internet. Jeremy and Gordon have scrapped together bits and pieces of material through the years – a possible nip-slip from a JC Penny catalogue, some naked National Geographic African women, even some naked pictures from the Holocaust – yeah, there’s some major desperation here.

But when an acquaintance from their class brings them the real deal – a Playboy – it’s like their world has been turned upside-down. These are “real” real naked women.

Jeremy would be spending all his time on nudie hoarding if he could, but he has other problems to tend to. His preacher father wants him to get in shape and is therefore obsessed with the idea of Jeremy making the basketball team, a sport Jeremy doesn’t even play. After being cut immediately, Jeremy is so afraid of his father’s reaction, he lies and tells him he made the team.

He then goes and begs the coach to allow him to play, who says he’ll let him on the team if he pays him 100 bucks a week under the table. I’m not even sure Morris Buttermaker would pull that one. It looks like Jeremy is screwed. However, after some brainstorming, he realizes that he might be able to buy Playboys from his Playboy supplier and sell them to school kids at a marked up price. He, Gordon, and Swati (a smart pushy Indian girl) throw together a business and soon he’s making just enough money to pay the coach so he can stay on the team.

In the meantime, his slightly racist fairly sexist preacher father is up for the esteemed title of Bishop, and happens to be running against a woman. Over the course of the story, when it looks like the race will be surprisingly close, he resorts to darker and slimier tactics in order to land his dream job. This include exposing her gay son to the world. But what Jeremy’s father will learn is that he has a far bigger mess to clean up with his own family, especially Jeremy, whose increasingly unsavory antics are about to blow up in his face.

The term “voice” can be thrown around a little too liberally at times. Truth be told, of all the new writers I see jumping onto the scene, it’s rare that they have a truly unique vision of the world that nobody else has. I love Source Code. But I don’t think the voice in that script is doing anything we haven’t seen before. It’s just a really well-told story.

But when you open up a Phil Johnston script, you really do feel like this guy has a unique view of the world. Each of his characters are steeped in this quirky exaggerated Midwesterness that makes them slightly different from any character you’ve read before.

He mixes that in with the contradictory nature of Midwesterners, specifically their dogged attention to morals, which they circumvent on a daily basis. Watching Jeremy’s preacher father make racist comments and tear down women, while believing he’s the perfect candidate for state bishop, is the kind of conflict Johnston loves to explore.

But what sets Johnston apart from other writers who like to write these kinds of character-based quirky movies, is that Johnston makes sure his characters have strong goals driving the story. So here, Jeremy’s dad is desperately trying to become bishop. Jeremy is desperately trying to stay on the basketball team so as not to upset his dad. Those two goals keep the story focused, and that can’t be stressed enough. Character based stories that fall off the rails fall off because the characters have flimsy goals with no stakes. This may be a small story but the characters’ goals feel big because they’re so obsessed with them.

If “Orm” has a problem, it’s when its characters skew a little too broad. The basketball coach here is a Nazi-sympathizing German. I felt we’d gone a little too far into left field (and maybe even into the bleachers) on that one, and in the process took some of the edge off Jeremy’s goal. There’s also a deaf-mute assistant coach who speaks in sounds that would’ve worked great in a movie like Airplane. But here it was just a little too weird and “out there.”

In the end, however, this is really solid writing. Since a unique voice is so rare to find these days, when one emerges, it’s impossible to ignore. And I haven’t read anything like either of Johnston’s scripts. I don’t think this is quite as good as Cedar Rapids, which was a little bigger and a little more fun, but it’s still a very deserving script.

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

What I learned: I’ll be honest, I don’t know all the qualities that make up a “unique voice,” but I know that the dominant quality is how a writer sees the world. If you see the world just like everyone else, then there’s probably not a whole lot of uniqueness to your script. But if you see people differently, situations differently, objects differently, theories differently, chances are people will recognize you as having a unique voice. One of the reasons Tim Burton is so successful is that he sees the world differently from everyone else. You can tell that by watching any of his movies. When you read The Voices or Mixtape, you feel like they see the world differently. This is by no means the only way to get your script noticed, but it is one of the more established ways.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Amateur Friday - 360

Genre: Thriller/Mystery
Premise: (logline sent to me) After surviving a violent car accident, a woman is attacked in her home by a masked assailant and finds herself living out a time loop that has her experiencing the attack from several points of view.
About: On the final Friday of every month, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur review, send your script in PDF form, your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Keep in mind your script will be posted.
Writer: Tim Earnheart
Details: 97 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Assuming you’re not stuck in a 48 hour turkey coma, it’s time to disco dance with another Amateur Friday script! This one caught my eye immediately after opening the e-mail. It felt familiar but different, somewhat high concept, and had a low holiday-duties-friendly page count of 97 pages. The query wasn’t desperate. It was confident and to the point. The script got him noticed by CAA and a well-known producer. I also liked the title. 360. It was simple and yet hinted at more. Everyone evaluates potential script reads differently. But this is the kind of script I’ll give a chance to.

360 is an intense thriller-mystery and starts with our two main characters, Doug and Alexis Marshall, racing along a deserted highway in their very expensive German import. Actually it’s not totally deserted. That’s because someone with either a death wish or some serious road rage is trying to ram them off the road. After a couple of failed attempts, they succeed, and the couple goes crashing into a tree. They both survive but not for long. The masked driver walks up and puts a gun to their heads, killing them both.

Cut to Alexis, waking up as she’s being rushed to the hospital. What’s going on? Did she survive the shooting? After being transferred to a room, she gets a visitor. It’s none other than Doug, her husband. Wait a minute. Huh?

After Doug and the rest of the doctors assure her that whatever she thought she experienced was a dream, Alexis and Doug drive home to their mansion on Pugent Sound. Apparently these two aren’t just well off. They’re billionaires.

But it isn’t long before this nest of heavenly billionairism starts to dissolve. When Doug goes upstairs, someone rings the doorbell, and when Alexis answers it, she sees a strange shadowy figure through the window who begs to be let in. When Doug comes back down, the figure is gone, replaced instead by Alexis’ psychiatrist. Did Alexis just imagine that whole exchange?

After going upstairs to collect herself, Alexis overhears her husband talking to someone. Assuming it’s Paige, she peeks over the bannister. But it’s another woman, a woman Doug professes his love for. Seconds later Paige comes stumbling out of the bathroom, blood gurgling from her mouth, followed by the masked assailant.

Alexis runs for her life throughout the cavernous house, where she eventually escapes. Afterwards she hears a car approaching, walks outside, only to see…a SECOND DOUG and a SECOND ALEXIS. For reasons I’m still not sure about, she attacks and kills both of them. After ditching the bodies, she comes back only to find another car driving up. With a THIRD DOUG and a THIRD ALEXIS.

Confused yet?

This time Alexis takes a wait and see approach, stalking the two from afar, but eventually decides to warn the 3rd Alexis of what’s happening. So she goes to the door, rings it, and proceeds to ask Alexis to let her in. We quickly realize that the earlier shadowy figure who was asking the original Alexis to come in was actually this Alexis. And that we’re now seeing the situation play out from this new point of view.

This point of view change happens a few more times, as we realize there are several Alexis’ and several masked assailants. In order to survive, Alexis realizes that she will have to destroy the loop that’s causing this pattern to repeat, and the only way to do that is to get rid of all the other Alexis’. But while trying to accomplish her mission, she also learns that Doug is not being completely honest with her, and that becoming the only Alexis isn’t her only problem.


This was an interesting one for sure. I want to begin somewhere but I feel a lot like Alexis. Unsure where I stand. I guess I’ll start with the good. 360 kept me turning the pages. When you strip away all the screenwriting mumbo-jumbo, that’s pretty much the only thing that matters. Does the reader want to keep turning the pages? And I did. This mystery was weird enough and compelling enough that I wanted to find out how it was going to end.

Now was it gimmicky? Yeah, sure. There were definitely some gimmicky aspects going on here. We’re not being led by any character related developments. The story is being steered by surprises and twists. A hushed phone call, a shadowy figure trying to get in, a second Alexis, a third Alexis. Usually you can only do that for so long before an audience starts demanding answers. However we like Alexis enough whereby we’re willing to follow her until she achieves her goal. Not to mention Earnheart wisely makes us believe that Alexis has been wronged in some way, that there’s a conspiracy against her. A character who has been wronged usually draws sympathy from the audience and that’s exactly what happens here. We want Alexis to “win,” to defeat the “bad guys,” whoever those bad guys might be.

Earnheart also uses a lot of familiar devices to up the tension. We’re trapped on an island. There’s a heavy storm. Our hero’s memory is damaged. There’s a confined clausterphobic element to our protagonist’s plight, and while you can argue that using these tools is cliché, that only matters if they’re used badly. I felt all the elements here were used successfully to maximize the conflict.

However not every deal here is a Black Friday super-sale. There’s some marked up prices that will have their way with your bank account. First, I don’t think it all adds up. In the Spanish sci-fi indie, Timecrimes, we have a similar situation. A man goes back a few hours in a time machine, only to find out that he has to kill other versions of himself. While confusing, at least we understood why things were happening. Here, I never understood why new Alexis’ and Dougs kept showing up.

Was there a time machine I was unaware of? Is her mind creating these time loops? Is this a pseudo dream? Without that ever being explained, I have to admit I felt cheated when it was over. I think there needs to be a foundation for the crazy shit that happens for the crazy shit to resonate. Unless, of course, I missed it. And 360 is trippy enough where I’m not discounting that possibility.

Where this becomes a real problem is in the final act. I read it twice and I’m still not sure what happens. (Spoiler) Most of the script takes place at the house, but in the end, Alexis goes into the city and somehow arrives at a time before any of this started happening. When she runs into yet another Alexis there, my brain almost exploded. It just felt like we’d gone too far off the rails.

I thought the naming for the Alexis’ needed to be improved as well. The Alexis we started with should always have the same name. But Earnheart decides to change his hero’s name (to Alexis #1, Alexis #2 and Alexis #3) as each new Alexis enters the story. It would’ve been much easier to follow if the new Alexis’ were given the numbered names (i.e. the second Alexis that arrives should be named Alexis #2).

There’s also the issue that this story has a lot in common with the aforementioned Timecrimes and the cult favorite, Primer. It’s different enough where it’s its own movie, but those influences may be a little too heavy at times.

Still, if you like movies where the answers aren’t simple, where you have to do a good portion of the work yourself (movies like Timecrimes, Primer, Memento, or Donnie Darko), I feel like you’ll dig this. Earnheart is not at the pro level yet. But I think he can make it there. This is the kind of script that could be developed into something interesting. I’m going to give it a tentative “worth the read.”

Script link: 360

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

What I learned: Strip away all the screenwriting terms – the books, the lingo, the gobbledygook. Now pull your script out. Ask yourself this simple question: “Does my script make people want to keep turning the pages?” Be honest with yourself. If not, ask yourself what it is you can add to change that. If interesting things keep happening, we’re going to want to keep reading.

More Thanksgiving Week Movie/TV Deals!

Been flipping through Amazon, trying to find some great deals and indeed there are a bunch. Personally, I'm hopping on Community and Princess Bride.  I've been meaning to get The Wrestler forever.  Toy Story 3 is a no-brainer.  Finally saw Train Your Dragon and liked it, though not enough to purchase it. Avatar Collector's Edition I was going back and forth on.  But I'm assuming there's some awesome "making-of" shit since it's from the guy who can make anything out of anything, James Cameron.  Black Fridayers unite!  Time to shop!

Community Season 1 for 10 bucks.

 The Princess Bride 20th Anniversary Edition for 4 bucks

Roger's favorite, "Kick-Ass," Blu-Ray/DVD combo for 10 bucks.

Reservoir Dogs 15th Anniversery Blu-Ray for 8 bucks.

Slumdog Millionaire for 4 bucks.

Office Space Flair Edition for 5 bucks.

The Wrestler for 5 bucks.

Edward Scissorhands 10th Anniversary Edition for 5 bucks.

Pre-release (Dec. 7) Inception for 17 bucks.

Where The Wild Things Are for 9 bucks.

How To Train Your Dragon Blu-Ray/DVD combo for 18 bucks.

Toy Story 3 Blu-Ray/DVD combo for 25 bucks.

Avatar Extended Collectors 3-Disc edition for 15 bucks.  Blu-Ray version for 25 bucks.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

When Trumpets Fade

Genre: War
Premise: A private bent on saving his own ass in the forgotten Battle of Hurtgen Forest in World War 2, finds himself repeatedly promoted as those around him continue to die.
About: When Trumpets Fade was actually already made into a film back in 1998 (I believe it only played on HBO). But it has an inspiring screenwriting story behind it so it’s definitely worth a look. The script was passed to a development exec at Dreamworks named Nina Jacobson as a writing sample for a “new” writer (Vought had actually been writing screenplays for ten years – living out in Middle America, he hadn’t even met his agent, who had signed him based on this script). Already having read two terrible scripts that day, she almost gave up before giving this one a shot. She read it and loved it, so much so that she wanted to give it to Steven Spielberg, a bit of a gamble as he was already in pre-production on another World War 2 flick called “Saving Private Ryan.” Despite that, Spielberg read the script the next morning and loved it as well. He wanted to meet the writer. Nina, imbued by this confidence, wanted to buy the script and give the writer a blind script commitment. This is her account of her call to Vought: “When we speak, Bill (Vought) seems dazed and midwestern, delighted but unsure. It's as though he thinks this whole thing is a big snafu, an error in the lottery that will end up being noticed and rectified at any moment, so best not to celebrate and draw attention to the mistake.” A few days later Vought is on a plane to L.A. and a few hours after he lands, he’s in a room with Steven Spielberg, discussing his script. The ultimate screenwriting dream.  There’s a wonderfully detailed account of the whole story on WordPlayer. When Trumpets Fade was made in 1998 and directed by John Irvin. It’s based on a true story of the Battle of Hurtgen Forest in Autumn of 1944 during World War II. A few days later, the Battle of the Bulge began, leaving the battle of Hurtgen Forest largely forgotten.
Writer: W. W. Vought
Details: 116 pages – original 1996 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).

One of the cool things about Steven Spielberg and what’s allowed him to be on top of the movie business for so long, while so many others have faded into obscurity, is how much emphasis he puts on finding new writing talent. Spielberg realized a long time ago that writers are the lifeblood of the industry. Without their ideas, without their unique voices, without their stories, you have nothing.

And to you or I, who know what it’s like to stare at a screen for 10 hours a day, that may seem obvious. But there are so many other producers in this business who believe in shortcuts, who believe that all you need is an idea, the latest writer gun-for-hire, and a really good D.P., and you can slap together a 200 million dollar hit in six months. If you want to know why none of these guys have Spielberg staying power, look no further than that mentality.

I’m not sure how Spielberg’s operation works, but from what I can tell, he puts the same amount of effort into finding new writers as Apple puts into R&D. In other words, a whole lot. I can only imagine how much rough they have to trudge through to find those diamonds, but they eventually find them. And as long as they keep finding them, Spielberg will continue to stay on top.

So what was this script that got Spielberg and Nina so excited? Was it really that good?

Let’s find out.

Private Manning cares about one guy and one guy only. Numero Uno. Even in the heartpounding opening scene, as he carries a dying soldier to safety, the implication is that the only reason he’s alive and everyone else in his platoon except for this guy is dead is because he stayed back, hid out, stayed out of the fray in order to keep his own heart pounding. When he gets back, his superiors tell him as much. They call him a coward. A survivor only through fear.

Not that he doesn’t deserve to be scared. The Americans are located in an area known as the “Death Factory,” a forest so thick with Germans they might as well grow there. And they are massacring the Americans group by bloody group. With all the leaders dying, drastic measures must be taken. So Manning, who was hoping to go home, is instead promoted. The king of the chickens is now in charge of his own batch of chickens.

His platoon shows up a day later, a group of fresh-faced scared kids who have no idea what’s in store for them. The noobs are thrown into battle right away by Manning. And within minutes they’re getting shot at with real bullets, they’re being hunted by real Germans, they realize they could really die. And there’s nothing they can do about it.

After a few minor missions, Manning gets the news he’s been waiting for. If they can take out a few huge artillery guns that the Germans have perched up on the hills, Manning will get his wish to be sent home. So the normally passive Manning puts his game face on, and sets out to do what thousands of other men have been slaughtered trying to do.

When Trumpets Fade has some genius in it. Right off the bat you’re pulled in by Manning’s desperate attempt to keep this other soldier alive. We know the man’s going to die. He knows he’s going to die. But Manning tries his best to keep him calm, to keep him going. It’s not only an exciting way to open a script (make those first ten pages great!), but it makes us immediately like our hero – whose selfishness would otherwise make him hard to warm up to. I mean this is a really intense scene and even though we’ve seen it a hundred times before, there’s something real and authentic about their exchange. We don’t even know these people and yet we’re hoping against all hope that this guy makes it. After this scene, I was willing to go anywhere Manning took me.

Also, just like any good movie setup, you want there to be some irony in your story. In this case we have a guy who doesn’t want to lead who’s forced to lead. That right there is a compelling character whose very existence for the rest of the film is steeped in conflict. Conflict = drama.  And drama is what keeps your audience's interest.  

The strange thing about When Trumpets Fade is that no real story emerges until after the midpoint (when Manning is given orders to take out the artillery guns). Up until that point, our characters are repeatedly sent out on minor missions that don’t really have anything at stake. This would normally result in a bunch of boring scenes. But there’s something honest and authentic about these missions that keeps us reading.

Even though we get all the cliché war moments where you look to your right and the guy you bunked with last night now has half his face blown off, the dialogue feels real, the missions intense, and our desire to see how Manning reacts to it all, if he’ll learn, keeps us engaged. To simplify it, even though I’ve seen dozens of war movies, this script made me feel like I was in the war.

But there are still a lot of mistakes that are made , and raw ones at that. I guess we’ll start with Manning, whose flaw, while interesting, was at times unclear. Manning is selfish AND a coward. Last time I checked those are two completely different things, and while that may work fine in real life, it’s confusing when a main character has two separate fatal flaws he’s battling. We’re not sure which one to identify him with, which alters our interpretation of the story. In other words, the script reads much differently if we're assuming Manning is a coward as opposed to if we're assuming Manning is selfish.

I thought the supporting characters could’ve been better constructed as well. Warren, who plays the second lead in the movie, is someone I know absolutely nothing about other than that he’s fresh-faced and wears glasses. There were 5-6 other guys whose backstories were even thinner.  This was a big deal since whenever the group faced a dangerous encounter, the only character I cared about surviving was Manning. I cared more about that opening dying character than I did any of these guys.

The ending also needed work. Not only is there a manufactured plot twist where the other soldiers want to murder Manning (which doesn’t work at all) but the main story goal comes in so late, it’s hard to get into (I’m referring to the mission to take out the guns on the hill). Late-arriving story goals never have the same stakes attached to them as something that’s been set up throughout the story. I had the same problem with Saving Private Ryan. Once they found Private Ryan, they tried to tack on this supposedly big bridge finale. But the goal of securing the bridge came so late that we never really bought into its importance, and therefore didn’t care if they succeeded or not.

Despite these problems, the Manning character and the feeling of really being in this war won me over. I know that just a couple of weeks ago I harped on the staleness of World War 2 movies, but I have to remind myself that when something is written well, it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. It’s going to work.

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

What I learned: Stakes stakes stakes people. I know we can’t shut up about them here but writers are still making the same mi-stakes so we’re going to keep bringing them up. The success of your climax is directly related to how big the stakes are. The later you set those stakes up, the smaller they’re going to seem. Imagine Rocky if we followed Rocky around Philadelphia for 90 minutes. He falls in love with Adrian, helps Paulie battle alcoholism, collects money for thugs. Then, on page 90, Apollo Creed comes to Rocky and says, “I want to fight you for the Heavyweight Championship of the world.” Do you think that fight would have half the impact it has now? Of course not. What makes it so big is that every scene leading up to it addresses how important that fight is.

Pre Black Friday Deals!

Slash Film has alerted me to some sweet Pre Black Friday deals. 

The Criterion Collection version of the greatest movie about high school ever told, Dazed and Confused for under 10 bucks.  I'm buying this one right now. 

Time Bandits (who doesn't love Time Bandits!??) on Blu-Ray for 6 bucks.  

Fight Club on Blu-Ray for 10 bucks. One of the most imperfect masterpieces ever created.

Terminator on Blu-Ray for 8 bucks.  I haven't seen this in over five years.  Must rewatch now!

And The Hangover on Blu-Ray for 10 bucks.  A great comedy, yet its quality is often debated for some reason.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Don Juan

Genre: Action-Adventure/Romance/Comedy
Premise: When the infamous womanizer Don Juan starts to fall for a woman for the first time in his life, he must decide if that love is worth giving up his woman-chasing ways.
About: Don Juan won the Scriptapalooza contest back in 2004. Not the actual Don Juan, but the writer who wrote Don Juan, Patrick Andrew O'Connor.  Believe it or not, this is the second script O’Connor ever wrote, which is a rare feat, winning a major screenwriting competition off your second script. O’Connor got his first produced credit last year with the indie flick “The Break-Up Artist” which he sold at the Cannes Film Festival. O’Connor recently optioned another script (whose title I can’t find) which is why people are going back and giving this script another look.
Writer: Patrick Andrew O'Connor
Details: 105 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).

I’m not the swashbuckling type.

I always thought The Three Musketeers were lame and that Zorro was a wussy for always wearing that mask. So to plop me down in the middle of the 19th century and force me to watch some primpy man trade clever barbs with another primpy man, slashing and dicing at each other in the 19th Century equivalent to Dancing With The Stars, it was akin to sending me through TSA at LAX for an extended pat-down.

But you guys have demanded more contest winners and since I work for you, the people, then dammit if I wasn’t going to review more contest winners.

Don Juan starts with, well, Don Juan standing at the foot of his dying mother’s bed. Before she kicks it, she tells Don Juan to make sure he finds love. Being only 12 at the time, Don Juan interpreted this to mean “find as much love as humanly possible.” And when we flash forward 15 years, that’s exactly what Don Juan’s doing, finding love, sometimes with three or four women a day.

In fact, Don Juan has a bet going with his biggest Lothario competition, Don Luis, on who can bed the most women in a single year. Since Don Juan is the ultimate lover, he wins handily, but not without some questionable record-keeping (he was supposedly with two women on the same day in two different countries – not an easy feat in 1830).

In order to clear his name, he proposes another bet. This bedding competition has left Don Luis yearning for the true love of a woman. As such he has asked the beautiful Ana for her hand in marriage. Don Juan proposes that he can bed Ana before Don Luis marries her in a couple of days. Under the tight scrutiny of an eager crowd, Don Luis accepts the challenge in order to secure his dignity (why this is considered “dignified” is something I can only assume people 180 years ago understood).

As soon as the challenge is accepted, Don Luis races home to his fiance to prepare her for the ensuing onslaught of Don Juan.

In the meantime, Don Juan runs into Ana’s best friend, the heartbreakingly beautiful Ines, who is a few days away from taking her oath as a nun. Don Juan is struck by the unbridled beauty of this woman and experiences something he’s never felt before while around a woman – feelings. The only problem is that Ana is the one woman on the planet not affected by Don Juan’s charms. Even his most time-tested methods fall flat with her.

And thus begins a most impossible conquest. Sleep with Ana before Luis marries her and get Ines to fall in love with him before she takes her vows as a nun. This isn’t going to be easy!

Along the way Don Juan is chased by Ines’ father, who happens to be the captain of the Sevilla Royal Guard, gets thrown into jail, helps his affable and hilarious servant hook up with Ines’ servant, breaks out of jail, and struggles to achieve these two impossible goals before the sun rises.

As you can probably tell from my exuberant review, I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. One thing I worried about right away was that this was yet another standard treatment of a character we’ve seen dozens of times before. In fact, Heath Ledger just played the kindred spirit to this character, Casanova, a few years ago. The forgettable generic treatment of that character is exactly what I was expecting with Don Juan.

Usually, the writers who rise up out of that giant amateur screenwriting stew are writers who take characters like this and find a fresh take on them. That’s why Baz Luhrman’s Romeo & Juliet worked, as he transported it to modern day Los Angeles. That’s why Steve Martin’s “Roxanne” worked, as they took Cyrano de Bergerac and found a present-day angle.  Here, we stay with the same character in the same setting in the same time period as we’ve always seen Don Juan. So how interesting could it be?


And there’s a reason for that. O’Connor nails the execution. It’s the hardest thing to do – take a story that we’ve seen before, tell it the same old fashioned way that everyone else has told it, and still make it exciting. The reason it's so hard is because you have to do everything perfectly. And this is made even more amazing by the fact that this is only O’Connor’s second screenplay. I would like to know the rewrite situation on this script (is this the draft that won the contest or a newer draft?) because there are so many things he does right here.

First, the goals are very strong. And I love how Don Juan bucks the traditional single-goal protagonist structure and instead gives Don Juan TWO goals, making his job twice as difficult. I love the dual ticking time bombs, ensuring that our story moves at a breakneck pace. I love that Don Juan’s being chased by Ines’ father, which adds even more momentum (and ups the stakes – if he gets caught, he could end up in jail for the rest of his life…or worse!). And I love the exploration of Don Juan’s character flaw, his confusion and rejection of the emotion he’s so terrified of feeling – love. These are all very basic story-telling devices, but O’Connor puts them to use with amazing results.

I also loved Ciutti, Don Juan’s noble servant, who’s stuck doing everything Don Juan does, even though he’s one-fourth as capable. I thought the dialogue was witty and funny, not an easy feat when this genre practically expects it. And I really grew to love and understand the advantage of writing a story around this character. Don Juan is that impossible to resist rogue lead – he’s a liar and a cheater, which gives him a dark side, but he’s eternally optimistic and funny, making it hard to dislike the guy.

All in all I’d say this was a rousing success. And yes, I’m using “rousing” because it’s a word they’d use in the 19th Century. I’m that inspired by this script. I kind of stumbled onto it after attempting to read two Brit List scripts (both of which were littered with misspellings and sloppy writing – what the hell man??), and boy am I glad I did. The only reason this doesn’t get an “impressive” is because the subject matter isn’t my cup of tea, so there were parts I couldn't get into no matter how well-written they were. But for a script that started at a “Wasn’t For Me” before I opened the first page, I’d say a double “worth the read” is impressive in itself.

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

What I learned: It’s important to always make it hard for your hero to achieve his goal. Anything that comes easy for him will feel like a cheat. However, I realized that sometimes, in a comedy, if you set it up properly, you can make a key plot point easy for your hero as long as it gets a big laugh. In Don Juan, there’s a guard guarding Ana’s house who’s both deaf and blind. We get some early exchanges with a worried Don Luis that the guard won’t be able to keep Don Juan out. The guard assures him that he can handle the job, and later when Don Juan sneaks past him easily in a funny scene, we accept it. Since it was properly set up and funny, we don’t feel cheated. Contrast this with a comedy script I reviewed the other week, We're the Millers. I was really upset that in a movie about smuggling drugs into America, that our criminals don’t encounter any problems at the U.S./Mexico border. It’s not funny and the reason it's easy was never set up, so we feel cheated.