Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Does Anybody Here Remember When Hanz Gubenstein Invented Time Travel?

Genre: Sci-Fi/Comedy
Premise: An eccentric inventor invents a crude time travel device which allows him to send messages back to his earlier self. Although his intentions are initially noble, he soon begins to use the device for his own selfish needs.
About: Many of you might recognize this script from the first (or was it second) season of Project Greenlight, as it was one of the scripts that made it to the finals. It didn’t get the big prize, but landed a pretty sweet consolation: Ben Affleck optioned it. Speaking of Project Greenlight, I really miss that show. Still the best reality show ever put on air. The problem was how the show conflicted with the ultimate goal. They showed how terrible everyone was at their job, showed everyone screwing up the movie, then expected us to run to the theater and pay our hard earned money on opening night. Another thing I remember is that that show was supposed to be the Hollywood buster – proof that the guys in the Armani suits with their cushy studio offices didn’t know what they were talking about. Ouch. How did that work out? Anyway, Project Greenlight, and by association Hanz Gubenstein, disappeared into the ether after that. But I recently found the script, which means we can finally find out what got Affleck so excited (and so can you – a link for the script is at the bottom of the review).
Writer: Rick Carr
Details: 112 pages (maybe?)

There are times in the script reading process where you come across scripts that defy explanation. Not necessarily bad scripts. Just scripts that have you squinting your eyes, shaking your head, and unable to ditch the frozen “what the f*ck” expression plastered to your face. I want you to imagine the screenplay for Primer. Now I want you to cross it with Back To The Future 2. Now I want you to imagine some Groundhog Day thrown in for good measure. Combine those three movies and you have Hanz Gubenstein.

OH WAIT! I forgot to add one important detail. Imagine if this script were written by someone who had no idea how to write a movie.

Hanz Gubenstein is the epitome of the anti-structure. For those of you who have championed the downfall of the foundation-based screenplay, of the screenwriting gurus and the 3 day expos… For those who believe that a story is simply inherent, that you need only follow your passionate fingertips to a 100 page conclusion, well guess what, Hanz Gubenstein is your script.

To get you into the mindset of how freaky out-there this thing is, Hanz Gubenstein is not a main character in the movie. Nope. This is not that kind of film - where you place the character who’s in the middle of your title into the heart of your story. No no no. Not doing that here. Too obvious. This story belongs to Dr. Jeffrey Jeffries, who we’re told is the 4th inventor of time travel. Hanz Gubenstein was actually the first. And there were two other guys as well. Not that they play any part in the story. Why would they?

So our crazy inventor Jeffries invents a crude time machine, whereby you can send messages back to yourself from the future in order to give yourself guidance about said future. For example, you might send a message that says, “Hey, don’t go out with that girl you met today. She’s actually a man.”

Jeffries enlists his humble apprentice, Sid Hackenpfuss, to help him test the machine, and before you know it they’re receiving messages from their future selves. At first the messages are innocent and playful, but after awhile, the two start wondering how they can take advantage of this technology. If they won the lottery for instance, they could give the money back to charities and save the world. The two quasi-idiots decide that this is the best course of action so they send themselves back that day’s winning lottery numbers.

Previous Jeffries and Sid then win the lotto, but for some reason decide to have fun with the money instead of donate it to save others. I think you know where this is going. The next thing you know they’re playing other state lotteries and winning those as well. When that isn’t enough, they begin playing the stock market, sending themselves back tons of market data they then use to make hundreds of millions of dollars.

Eventually a federal agent named Agent Aghnet suspects that the two are up to something and starts following them. Jeffries becomes deathly concerned by the fact that the two aren’t receiving any messages past two days from now, which he assumes means that in two days, something terrible is going to happen to them. His “obvious” solution (of course) is to start doing the exact opposite of whatever he thinks he should do, so as to trick fate and avoid doom.

Doomsday arrives however, and Jeffries is killed by Aghnet just before he’s able to send a message back warning himself of Aghnet’s plan. But when Aghnet sees the message onscreen, he presses it out of curiosity (he still doesn’t know it’s a time machine) inadvertently warning Previous Jeffries of his death, and by association altering the time continuum. However, in the end, this only gets Jeffries, Sid, and Aghnet stuck in a never-ending time loop whereby Jeffries keeps trying to prevent his death and Aghnet keeps trying to ensure it.

And uhhh…that’s pretty much Hanz Gubenstein for you.

So last week I was listening to Creative Screenwriting’s podcast with Ben Affleck and he was asked about this screenplay. Affleck’s response was a strange one. In a very non-committal way he offered, “Oh yeah…(nervous laugh)…well, I guess nothing ever came of that.” Now even though Affleck didn’t actually say anything, his tone inferred everything I suspected. You read Hanz Gubenstein and you think, “There’s something here.” I mean there’s some really funky comedy revolving around the ridiculous characters and the insane amount of time folding back onto itself over and over again. The problem is, it’s so scattered, so all over the place, that the thought of trying to mold it into something comprehensible is too daunting. It’s like being given the pieces to the Golden Gate Bridge without a blueprint and told, “Now go figure this out.” Where the hell do you start?

Still, this is a great script to study for beginning screenwriters because it epitomizes what happens when there’s no structure at play - when you’re just following your whims and writing each scene as it comes to you. For example, there’s a twenty page scene in the first act – I kid you not – where Jeffries and Sid are in a room talking about time travel. They’re in a small room TALKING ABOUT TIME TRAVEL. For 20 minutes!!!

Within those 20 pages there is a 4 page long drawn out joke where Sid keeps trying to defer time travel credit to other people besides himself. A FOUR PAGE LONG JOKE!

Obviously, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. But all you need to do is look at some other successful screenplays to see where this one missteps. Take Hanz Gubenstein’s older more established rich uncle, Back To The Future, for instance. Look at how visual the scenes of Doc explaining time travel are. We have the Delorean. We have nuclear fuel. We have the flux capacitor. We have Einstein being used for a demonstration. We have invisible fire tracks shooting through our heroes’ legs. Now I want you to imagine all of those things disappearing and instead, Marty and Doc in a small room discussing it. That’s Hanz Gubenstein.

Repetition has been a big buzzword in my recent posts and the R-word rears its ugly head here as well. Not only are we stuck in a small room for 60% of the screenplay, but there’s no real evolution to the story. The two just keep trying to win the lottery over and over again! Eventually Aghnet shows up and throws a little wrench into the story but even *his* involvement becomes trivial and repetitive after awhile.

The truth is, ignoring good storytelling mechanics WILL hurt your story unless you know what you’re doing. For example, what the hell is Jeffries’ motivation for wanting all this money?? The only reason he seems to want it is to make more money. Yet we never know what he plans to use this money for. In fact, everything we’ve been told about Jeffries has indicated he *doesn’t* want money. So why is this story revolving around someone who’s desperately trying to make as much money as possible, even though they don’t want or plan to use it??

I could go on. There’s enough randomness here to start an entire new blog on, but using that alone to assess Hanz Gubenstein probably wouldn’t be fair. Ben Affleck’s optioning of the material reinforces a long standing  truth in the industry – that a unique voice will get noticed. It may not lead you from rags to riches, but it will help you stand out and get your shot. HOWEVER, it’s also a well-known truth that you need the chops to back that voice up. You need the voice AND the craft. You can’t have one without the other. And unfortunately for Jake, he hit with a script that showed unique talent, but with no ability to hone it.

Hanz Gubenstein just about made my head explode. And it does so many things wrong I can’t possibly recommend it. But I will say that it’s an interesting read, and that you probably haven’t read anything like it before. Check it out if you’re so inclined.

Script link: Does Anybody Here Remember When Hanz Gubenstein Invented Time Travel? (note: Scrib’d is a funky site that makes it hard to read this script. Good luck.)

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

What I learned: While just “letting the story take you where it wants to go” is a fun way to write a first draft, that draft will never be anywhere close to a finished product. At some point you’re going to have to sit down and do the real work – mapping out the structure, creating the story beats that keep the plot moving, building the character arcs – all those things that take the genius you discovered in your idea, and craft it into a fully fleshed-out story. Hanz Gubenstein has no structure, and that’s ultimately what dooms it.