Friday, January 28, 2011

Amateur Friday - Iris Of The Garden

Genre: Western
Premise: Appalled by the lack of concern following a brothel worker's murder, a young prostitute in the Old West sets out to find the killer while searching for her own escape from the world's oldest profession.
About: Iris Of The Garden is a 2010 Nicholl Quarter-Finalist. That tag has gotten Shaarawi some requests for her script, but so far nothing’s come of it. She wants to know what it’s missing. -- 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.
Writer: Lizz-Ayn Shaarawi
Details: 100 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).

Photo from the movie "Brothel" by Amy Waddell

When I finished “Iris Of The Garden,” I really took Shaarawi’s question to heart. “What’s missing here?” “Garden” had done pretty well at Nicholl and she’d gotten some read requests from the placing, but how come that’s where the trail ended? What is it that’s holding this script back?

It’s an important question. If you don’t understand why another script isn’t working, how can you understand what’s wrong with your own script? I mean sure you can just say, “I didn’t like it,” or “It was boring,” but that doesn’t help you become a better screenwriter. So I really had that question on my mind when evaluating Iris Of The Garden.

It’s the Old West. Iris, a pretty 19 year old young woman, has just finished her first “job,” which would be fucking the mayor of this town. Yes, Iris is a prostitute.

Her career path wasn’t by choice (it rarely is). Iris was simply coming to town to get some honest work, and found herself out of money with no place to turn. So now she’s here, in a brothel, the last place in the world she wants to be.

If that wasn’t depressing enough, her arrival is quickly followed by the killing of one of her co-workers. Petal, barely 17 years old, was a recluse, a one-time good girl who had since gone nuts.

Iris is shocked that nobody seems to care about this brutal killing, so she bestows it upon herself to figure out who was responsible. She eventually teams up with her best friend in the house, 17 year old Fern, to seek out clues that will lead her to the killer.

At first the assumption is that it’s Indians, then one of the customers, but over time it spreads to the owners of the brothel and beyond. The chief suspect is Mr. Donner, the big shot owner of the General Store and one of Petal’s main customers. Donner is notorious for being violent in bed, so Iris and Fern are certain he’s involved in this somehow.

Along the way we meet a few other suspects as well one of Iris’s customers, the loner Jimmy Wayne, who falls in love with her, proclaiming her “his girl” and promising that one day he’s going to take her away from here. Iris must also fight off Violet, the evil “queen bee” of the house who’s clearly threatened by Iris’s beauty, and who may be in cahoots with a couple of other main suspects.

There’s a few twists and turns along the way, and Iris is also seeking a possible escape from the brothel, but this is basically a simple story about one woman trying to solve a murder.

So back to that question. Why isn’t “Iris of The Garden” able to find a way past that “good but not great” label? I think there are a few factors to consider here, and it starts with the genre. Despite the amazing success of True Grit, Westerns are a tough sell, and rarely find their way up the development ladder. The only reason why Grit was made was because the Coen Brothers decided to make it. It was not a spec script that was brought to them. It was all them.

You have to remember that 99% of the people you give your script to are thinking, in one form or another, can this script or this writer make me money? Writers don’t think about that for some reason. The agent? The producer? The manager? These are all people with families, with mortgages, with car payments, with “Hollywood image” upkeep. So when these people receive a Western, they know immediately it’s going to be a writing sample, not a script they can sell, and that puts it low on the priority list.

Now that’s not to say a Western can’t start someone’s career or that I’m saying “Never write a Western.” Craig Zahler, who wrote The Brigands Of Rattleborge, got himself a ton of assignment work from that one screenplay. The point I’m making is, becoming a professional screenwriter is hard as it is. But it becomes even harder when you handicap yourself with a genre Hollywood's reluctant to embrace.

But I think the bigger problem with this script is in the setup, and it’s a problem that pops up a lot in this kind of story. For investigation scripts to work, the person investigating has to have a strong reason to do so. In most of these films, it’s a detective or a cop doing the investigating, which makes perfect sense because that’s their job. Over the course of the story, as they learn more about the murdered or kidnapped person, they become more attached to them, making their motivation even stronger.

When you don’t use a cop or a detective, you have to find some other reason why the protagonist would be strongly motivated. So in the million dollar spec sale, Prisoners, about a man whose daughter is kidnapped, he may not be a cop, but it makes perfect sense why he begins his own investigation. Because it’s his daughter!

I never once understood why Iris was trying to solve Petal’s murder. She never knew the girl. I don’t even think she spoke to her. So for her to become obsessively involved so quickly didn’t feel natural. It bordered on flippant, the way Nancy Drew might decide to investigate the random disappearance of her classmate’s favorite red scarf.

There’s certainly a sense of connection here, that these two girls are stuck in the same horrifying position. But no matter what twist or turn came up in the story, I always kept saying to myself, “Why is she doing this? Why does she care so much?”

The other big problem I had was that there was no urgency in the investigation, no ticking time bomb. One of the things that works so well in serial killer screenplays is that the killer is going to strike again. This results in both high stakes (another potential death) and a ticking time bomb (the impending next kill). We don’t have any impending doom in this story. There’s nothing dictating that our protagonist find out who this killer is RIGHT NOW. And there’s no stakes involved in whether she solves the case. Nothing will really change whether she finds the killer or not.

I realize it would make a different movie, but I think it might be more exciting if Iris showed up at this whorehouse with three of four girls recently murdered instead of one. Now she’s not just investigating a murder out of curiosity. She’s trying to prevent her own murder, to save the lives of herself and her friends in the house. I think that would be way more exciting.

As for the rest of the script, it was pretty good. You know, if you ignore the story problems I listed above, the writing itself is solid. It’s a nice sparse easy-to-read script. The prose is pleasant. The dialogue feels authentic. I felt like we were really in a whore house back in the old West, which is by no means an easy feat. Some of the characters were really well drawn, including the nasty Violet and the nastier Donner.

I thought the “romantic interest” could have been better handled, as it never seemed like Lizz-Ayn was truly committed to it (and the whole “I’m really rich” surprise at the end felt like a reality TV reveal, not a serious twist in a dramatic Western), but for this script to get where it wants to go, the whole motivation thing needs to be worked out, and I think there needs to be more danger involved in the pursuit. We have to feel like people don’t want Iris digging. We have to feel like more killings are coming. This thing just needs to be a little grander in scope.

Some good writing here, but the story definitely needs some work.

Script link: Iris Of The Garden

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

What I learned: Motivation is so important. Why is your main character doing what they’re doing? If there isn’t some strong reason for their actions, your entire script is doomed. Shrek’s going on his journey to get his swamp back. Colin Firth in King’s Speech goes on his journey because he has to give the most important speech in history. Even in the movie I didn’t like, Winter’s Bone, I admit that the main character had a very strong motivation for going on her journey – to save her house and her family. So make sure your protagonist’s motivation is rock solid in your screenplay.