Friday, April 15, 2011

Amateur Friday - Shadows

Genre: Horror
Premise: A group of paranormal researchers move in to the most haunted mansion in the world to try and prove the existence of ghosts.
About: One of our longtime commenters has thrown his hat into the ring. Very excited to finally be reviewing Andrew Mullen’s script! -- 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: Andrew Mullen
Details: 146 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).

Andrew’s been commenting on Scriptshadow forever and I like to reward people who actively participate on the site, so I was more than happy to choose his script for this week’s Amateur Friday. Seeing that Andrew had always made astute points and solid observations, I was hoping for a three-for-three “worth the read” trifecta over the last three Amateur Fridays. What once seemed impossible was shaping up to be possible.

And then I saw the page count.

Pop quiz. What’s the first thing a reader looks at when he opens a screenplay? The title? No. The writer’s name? No. That little box on the top left corner of the PDF document that tells you how many pages it is? Ding ding ding! I saw “146” and my eyes closed. In an instant, all of the energy I had to read Shadows was drained. I know Andrew reads the site so I know he’s heard me say it a hundred times: Keep your script under 110 pages. Of all the rules you want to follow, this is somewhere near the top. And it has nothing to do with whether it’s possible to tell a good story over 110 pages. It has to do with the fact that 99.9% of producers, agents, and managers will close your script within 3 seconds of opening it after seeing that number. They will assume, rightly in 99.9% of the cases, that you don’t know what you’re doing yet, and move on to the next script.

Which is exactly what I planned to do. I mean, I have a few hundred amateur scripts that don’t break the 100 page barrier. I would be saving 45 minutes of my night to do something fun and enjoyable if I went back to the slush pile. But then I stopped. I thought, a) I like Andrew. b) This could serve as an example to amateur writers WHY it’s a terrible idea to write a 146 page script. And c) Maybe, just maybe, this will be that .01% of 146 page screenplays that’s good and force me to reevaluate how I approach the large page count rule.

So, was Shadows in that .01%?

Professor Malcom Dobbs and Dr. Butch Rubenstein are founders of the premiere paranormal research team on the planet. They’re the “Jodie Foster in Contact’s” of the paranormal world, willing to go to the ends of the earth to prove that ghosts do, in fact, exist. And they’re currently residing in the best possible place to prove this – a huge mansion with sprawling grounds known as Carrion Manor – a house many consider to be the most haunted in the world.

But with their grant running out, so is their time to prove the existence of ghosts, so the group is forced to take drastic measures. They head to a local nut house and ask for the services of 20-something Brenna, a pretty and kind woman with a dark past. Her entire family was slaughtered when she was a child, and that night she claimed to have heard voices, whispers, contact from another realm. This “contact” is exactly what our team needs to ramp up their experiments.

Basically, what these guys do is similar to the “night vision” sequence in the great horror film, “The Orphanage,” where they use all their technical equipment like computers, and cameras, and microphones, to monitor levels of energy as Brenna walks from room to room throughout the manor. This is one of the first problems I had with the script. There isn’t a lot of variety to these scenes. And we get a lot of them. Brenna walks into a room. The levels spike. Our paranormal team is excited. Some downtime. Then we repeat the process again.

During Brenna’s stay, she starts to fall for one of the team members, a child genius (now 27 years old) named Dr. Schordinger Pike. This was another issue I had with the script, as the development of Pike and Brenna’s relationship was way too simplistic, almost like two 6th graders falling in love, as opposed to a pair of 27 year olds (“She’s way out of my league. Right? Right. Not even the same sport!” Pike starts hyperventilating). Also, I find that when the love story isn’t the centerpiece of the film (in this case, the movie is about a haunted mansion) you can’t give it too much time. You can’t stop your screenplay to show the two lovers running through daisies and professing their love for one another. You almost have to build their relationship up in the background. Empire Strikes Back is a great example of this. Han and Leia fall in love amongst a zillion other things going on. Whereas here, we stop the story time and time again to give these two a scene where they can sit around and talk to each other. Always move your story along first. Never stop it for anything.

Anyway, another subplot that develops is the computer system that’s monitoring the house, dubbed “Casper.” Casper is the “Hal” of the family, and when things start going bad (real ghosts start appearing), Casper wants to do things his way. You probably know what I’m going to say here. A computer that controls the house is a different movie. It has nothing to do with what these guys are doing and therefore only serves to distract from the story. You want to get rid of this and focus specifically on the researchers' goal (trying to prove that there are ghosts) and the obstacles they run into which make achieving that goal difficult.

I will say there’s some pretty cool stuff about the eclectic group of former house owners, and the fact that a lot of them had unfinished business when they died clues us in that we’ll be seeing them again. And we do. The final act is 30 intense pages of paranormal battles with numerous ghosts and creatures coming to take down our inhabitants, some of whom fall victim to the madness, some of whom escape.  But there are too many dead spots in the script, which makes getting to that climax a chore. 

So, the first thing that needs to be addressed is, “Why is this script so long?” I mean, did we really need this many pages to tell the story? The simple and final answer is no. We don’t need nearly this many pages. The reason a lot of scripts are too long is usually because a writer doesn’t know the specific story they’re trying to tell, so they tell several stories instead. And more stories equals more pages. This would fall in line with my previous observation, that we have the needless “Casper” subplot and a love story that requires the main story to stop every time it’s featured.

Figure out what your story is about and then ONLY GIVE US THE SCENES THAT PUSH THAT PARTICULAR STORY FORWARD. Doesn’t mean you can’t have subplots. Doesn’t mean you can’t have a minor tangent or two. But 98% of your script should be working to push that main throughline forward. So if you look at a similar film – The Orphanage – That’s a film about a woman who loses her son and tries to find him. Go rent that movie now. You’ll see that every single scene serves to push that story forward (find my son). We don’t deviate from that plan.

Another problem here is the long passages where nothing dramatic happens. There’s a tour of the house that begins on page 59 that just stops the story cold. We start with a couple of flirty scenes between Brenna and Pike as we explore a few of the rooms. Then we go into multiple flashbacks of the previous tenants in great detail, one after another. After this, Pike offers us a flashback of his OWN history. So we had this big long exposition scene regarding the house. And we’re following that with another exposition scene. Then Pike shows Brenna the house garden, another key area of the house, and more exposition. This is followed by another character talking about a Vietcong story whose purpose remains unclear to me. The problem here, besides the dozen straight pages of exposition, is that there’s nothing dramatic happening. No mystery, no problem, no twist, nothing at stake, nothing pushing the story forward. It’s just people talking for 12 minutes. And that’s the kind of stuff that will kill a script.

Likewise, there are other elements in Shadows that aren’t needed. For example, there’s a character named Lewis, a slacker intern who never does any work, who disappears for 50-60 pages at a time before popping back up again. We never know who the guy is or why he’s in the story. Later it’s discovered he’s using remote portions of the house to grow pot in. I’m all for adding humor to your story, but the humor should stem from the situation. This is something you’d put in Harold and Kumar Go To Siberia, not a haunted house movie. Again, this is the kind of stuff that adds pages to your screenplay and for no reason. Know what your story is and stay focused on that story. Don’t go exploring every little whim that pops into your head – like pot-growing interns.

This leads us to the ultimate question: What *is* the story in Shadows? Well, it’s almost clear. But it needs to be more clear. Because the clearer it is to you, the easier it will be to tell your story. These guys are looking for proof of the paranormal. I get that. But why? What do they gain by achieving this goal? A vague satisfaction for proving there are ghosts? Audiences tend to want something more concrete. So in The Orphanage, the goal is to find the son (concrete). In the recently reviewed Red Lights, a similar story about the paranormal, the goal is to bring down Silver (concrete). If there was something more specific lost in this house. Or something specific that happened in this house, then you’d have that concrete goal. Maybe they’re trying to prove a murder or find a clue to some buried treasure on the property? Giving your characters something specific to do is going to give the story a lot more juice.

Here’s the thing. There’s a story in here. Paranormal guys researching ghosts in the most haunted house in the world? I can get on board with that. And there’s actually some pretty cool ideas here. Like the old knight who used to live on the property who was never found. There’s potential there. But this whole story needs to be streamlined. I mean you need to book this guy on The Biggest Loser until he’s down to a slim and healthy 110 pages. Because people aren’t going to give you an opportunity until you show them that you respect their time. I realize this is some tough love critiquing going on here, but that’s only because I want Andrew to kick ass on the rewrite and on all his future scripts. And he will if he avoids these mistakes. Good luck Andrew. Hope these observations helped. :)

Script link: Shadows

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

What I learned: This script was a little too prose-heavy, another factor contributing to the high page count. You definitely want to paint a picture when you write but not at the expense of keeping the eyes moving. Lines like this, “A dying jack o' lantern smiles lewdly. The faintly glowing grimace flickers in the dark as if struggling for life,” can easily become “A flickering jack o’ lantern smiles lewdly,” which conveys the exact same image in half the words. Just keep it moving.

Not that I need to remind you but remember, we’re here to help each other, not trash each other. So keep the comments constructive. Andrew’s one of our own.