Friday, January 14, 2011

Amateur Friday - Ascent: Day Three

Genre: Horror-Thriller
Premise: (from writers) After a member of their expedition sustains an open flesh wound, a group of mountaineers find themselves being stalked by a vicious high-altitude Snow Beast.
About: Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted.
Writers: Art McLendon & Beau McLendon
Details: 93 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).

First thing’s first. We need to address this logline. You don’t want to be too specific in your logline with a detail that’s ultimately unimportant in the grand scheme of your story. In other words, you don’t want to say, “sustains an open flesh would.” If you’re going to get specific, it needs to be about the character or a really important piece of the plot that’s part of the hook. Otherwise, leave it out.

But as far as the idea goes, this is a good one. Being trapped up on a mountain with a giant snow monster hunting you, is not only an idea I can see selling but one of the rare scripts that goes on to get made as well. Who can’t imagine a dozen great moments where a group of climbers is getting hunted by a Yeti?

Now that doesn’t mean you can just throw anything on the page. You still gotta execute. So do Art and Beau execute?

Simon Trudeau is a British Journalist who mysteriously wears a black ski mask when he does his news stories, the latest of which is about a hiking team that disappeared up in the remote Himalayan Mountains a couple of years ago. His cameraman is constantly annoyed by Simon’s insistence on wearing the mask, and its integration into his presentation is a regular point of contention.

Cut to 2 years ago where we meet the team that disappeared. We have Paul Brody, the leader, barrel-chested Gus Osborne, the tomboyish heart and soul of the group Anabell Cross, and her handsome sun-beaten boyfriend Mitch Russell.

The thrill-seekers are trying to hike their way to the peak of the 6th highest mountain in the world, but are upset to find out they’re not getting the Michael Jordan of guides like they expected. Instead, they’re getting new kid on the block, Nima, a 19 year old Tibetan who’s more nervous about screwing up than his group is about making it to the top.

But they’re all big tough guys (and girls) so they shrug it off and start up the mountain. Unfortunately things go wrong quickly. Mitch gets injured, and even though his wound isn’t that bad, it seems to coincide with a series of roars that follows the group up the mountain. Not your typical mountain lion roars either. These roars are decidedly more…angry.

Lima looks skittish, and when the roars get closer he admits that this may be a monster that hangs around on the mountain. His people call it a “Dzu-teh” which is pronounced “Psycho Snow Monster.” Naturally our team is pissed and wants to know why the hell they weren’t told about this BEFORE they went up the mountain. Uh, well duh, because it’s bad for business! (my assessment, not Lima’s)

Eventually, they run into this snow beast, and without hesitation it grabs Mitch and runs off. The group wonders what they should do now and after some heavy discussion, they decide to go after Mitch (I’m sorry but I would’ve been running down that mountain faster than Usain Bolt). Since snow beasts get plucky when you stroll into their lair, this turns out to be a bad idea.

During this time we keep cutting back to our British journalist Simon, who updates us on what they know about the disappearance through hindsight, all the while refusing to take off his ski-mask. Dzu-teh ends up picking off our doomed hikers one by one until there’s only one left – and it becomes a battle to the death.

“Ascent: Day 3” has some intense and really fun action sequences, taking the simplistic “Descent” approach to its story, where a group of adventurous people do something adventurous only to get stuck battling their worst nightmare.

However the Descent approach only works if you have a group of compelling characters and those characters are legitimately stuck, and I’m not sure the characters in “Ascent” are either. In Descent, once they were down there being stalked by these “whatever-they-were,” they had nowhere to go. There only choice was to fight for their survival. In “Ascent,” there seemed to be a lot more choices, since they are out on this huge mountain.

I liked the idea of Mitch getting taken, and the team having to make that decision of whether to save him or head down the mountain and save themselves, but I didn’t know anything about Mitch other than that he was Ana’s boyfriend. So sure, in the story world it makes sense that you’re going after your boyfriend, but to me, the audience, I don’t care about this guy because I know nothing about him.

Contrast that with a movie like Aliens, where when Newt was taken, we know a whole boatload about her situation and her struggle. She may have been annoying at times, but you never questioned Ripley’s desire to save her amidst an almost certain death if she does.

There just needed to be more going on with these characters. The action genre does not give you license to ignore flaws and backstory and personality and secrets and family situation and ideology and motive and everything else that adds to a character’s weight. I brought up Pitch Black in my Ark review and I’ll do it again here. Look at Johns. The guy had a secret (he wasn’t a cop – he was a bounty hunter), he had a past (he’s been chasing Riddick for a long time), he had problems (he was some kind of drug addict). You got the sense that there was really something going on with the guy. Outside of Anabell (and Simon – who I’ll get to in a second) I didn’t see that here.

And even though there *was* something going on with Ana, it didn’t seem to stem from her character. We had this whole backstory about how she always wears a whistle because her sister didn’t have a whistle or something and her sister died because she didn’t have a whistle. It’s there to give the character depth, yet it doesn’t have anything to do with the character. It’s backstory for backstory’s sake.

Good backstory is born from who a character is – and that’s usually identified through her flaw. The character of Lana in Risky Business is a hooker. Her flaw is her inability to trust or get close to people. That’s why she’s a hooker. Because it’s all business. Later, when Joel asks her, “Why did you run away from home?” She just looks at him and says, “Because my stepfather kept hitting on me.” The reason that backstory resonates with us is because it’s born out of her flaw. She doesn’t trust anybody because the person she was supposed to be able to trust the most tried to take advantage of her. So when you’re digging into that backstory moment for your character (which I recommend keeping as short as possible – like Lana did here), make sure it’s born out of your character’s flaw. If you do, your character will feel a lot more authentic.

The other big problem I had was with Simon. This whole idea of him having to wear this mask felt kinda gimmicky and didn’t make a lot of sense. Had he really spent the last couple of years as the masked news reporter? Or was this more recent? If it was recent, and his (spoiler) burn injuries had just happened, why would his cameraman be clueless about them? When a newsperson gets into a horrifying burn accident, people usually find out about it, especially people you work with.

Also, when he takes off the mask at the end, it’s supposed to be this cathartic character transformation but Simon is the least important character in the movie, so it makes no sense that he’s getting the most attention when it comes to a character arc.

In addition, Simon poses problems for the fear-factor of the screenplay. Instead of being stuck up on this mountain with our characters scared out of our wits, we get these nice cushy time outs with Simon that allow us to catch our breath and feel safe. Imagine The Descent or Paranormal Activity with us cutting outside to a news reporter every fifteen minutes. The movies wouldn’t have worked. The whole point is that we’re stuck in the same situation that our characters are stuck in.

I’m being pretty harsh on Ascent but that’s only because I see a lot of potential in the script. I could totally see this as a movie if a few things were changed around and more effort was put into the characters. Yeah this is one of those fun movies you simply sit back and enjoy, but you can’t enjoy a film, no matter how relaxed it is, unless you have that connection with the characters.

So good luck to Art and Beau on the next draft. Hopefully I’ve given them some ideas on how to make Ascent better. :)

Script link: Ascent: Day 3

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

What I learned: It’s so important to have conflict between your characters in these kinds of films. If everyone likes each other (which seems to be the case in Ascent), you’re going to put the audience to sleep. Remember, it’s not so much the monster that should cause the fear. It’s how the adversity caused by the monster brings out the conflict within the group. Read The Grey to see what I mean.