Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Genre: Action
Premise: A young man sets out to uncover the truth about his life after finding his baby photo on a missing persons website.
About: Abduction represents that golden screenwriting ticket. A true spec sale that, right after selling, goes racing into production. We should all be so lucky. Former (and current?) rocker Shawn Christensen wrote one of my favorite popcorn specs, Karma Coalition, a couple of years ago, about the most important people in the world disappearing one by one. That script sold for a million bucks, and assuming his price remained consistent, I’m guessing this one sold for something similar. The script was purchased in part, no doubt, because Taylor Lautner decided to make it his first post-Twilight film. 2 Fast 2 Furious director John Singleton is helming the movie. In an unexpected connection to last month’s Comedy Week, Singleton received a “Special Thanks” on Dumb and Dumber. Lily Collins and Sigourney Weaver also star.
Writer: Shawn Christensen
Details: 108 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).

Christensen's first spec sale, Karma Coalition, is riddled with enough plot holes to resemble a pound of swiss cheese. But that doesn’t mean I don’t LOVE ham and swiss sandwiches. Especially when the cheese is melted on top of the ham? And you throw on a little mayo. Maybe toast the bread. I could eat a couple of those a day if you let me.

What I’m saying is this. Christensen may not have the characterization skills of the Coen Brothers or the thematic mastery of Frank Darabont, but boy does he know how to create a hook. What if you found out your parents weren’t really your parents? What if you found your own missing person’s picture online? How spooky would that be? Add to that a great sales pitch: Jason Bourne in High School, and you’re off to the spec sale races.

But what about the rest of the script? Any good?

Nathan Harper is a bit of an outcast at school. Not for any glaring reason. It’s not like he’s a bad looking dude. He just seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time a lot. For example, his neighbor, popular and bitchy Karen, tapes him clumsily falling off his roof and uploads the video to Youtube (don’t you wish you were back in high school again?), making him the laughing stock of Asshole High.

But afterwards, she feels bad and decides to help Nathan on a Social Studies project, to find and do research on a missing child of their choice. Nathan and Karen grow close during the project, and then one day, while scrolling through missing children online, they find a picture of a 3 year old boy who looks EXACTLY LIKE Taylor Lautner. I mean Nathan Harper. Not only that, but he’s wearing a shirt that Nathan STILL OWNS.

This discovery sets several wheels in motion, as there are apparently people monitoring Nathan, both good and bad, during his everyday life. Soon, Nathan is watching his parents get slaughtered in his house by mysterious agents, and he and Karen are forced onto the run. In a similar setup to The Fugutive, the police believe that Taylor, I mean Nathan, is responsible for his parents’ slaughter, which means from this point on, they’ll be shooting to kill.

An old man locates Nathan and gives him the lowdown. He’s been paid to monitor Nathan’s life from afar and keep him safe. His only chance for survival now is to get on a train and find a man named Rasmus, who will tell him what this is all about and help him transition into his new life. But the police and the bad guys and the CIA all have other plans for Nathan. So if he’s going to get to this Rasmus guy, this geeky weird high school kid whose biggest problem two days ago was how to get home from soccer practice, will now need to develop government agent-like escape skills, skills that for some mysterious reason, come very easy to him.

The Jason Bourne in high school angle was a good idea. It nails that often heard screenwriting advice, “Give us something the same, but different.” The same is Bourne. The different is high school.

The script also has a solid setup. There are several goals in place to make our hero active. First, he has to find out who he is. Second, he has to find out who these people chasing him are. Third, he has to find this Rasmus guy. In these types of movies, someone’s always being chased. But if ALL that’s happening is they’re being chased, the character tends to be passive and not that interesting. By giving him a series of goals like Christensen does here, it allows the audience to experience the excitement of the chase AND the strength of an active character.

The script was also tightly written. Remember, you want to write in a style that fits with the genre you’re writing. So if you’re writing an intense spy/action/thriller? Well then your ass better be writing 2-3 line paragraphs all the way through. And that’s exactly what Christensen does. Keeps the action beats simple, easily described, stays on point ALWAYS so there’s never any unnecessary description. I’m serious. I don’t think I read a single extraneous line.

But the one problem I always see with these kinds of scripts is that they run out of juice around the 60 page mark. The writer runs out of cool ideas, runs out of twists and turns, and generally runs out of steam. One of the reasons I liked Karma Coalition so much was that the unexpected story beats kept coming. The twists didn’t end. Even as we hit the ending, there was another twist. After Nathan gets picked up by the government around the midway point, the story loses a ton of momentum. Everything is explained to us (so the mystery disappears) and the major driving force of the film (the chase) is over. So we’re kind of sitting there going, uh, what now?

The final sequence was especially disappointing, as it was more about building a climax around the tallest tower in the world (the CN Tower) than it was about ending the story in an organic interesting way.

Another common issue with these scripts is the tag-along character. Having a hot girl as well as a second character for your hero to talk to may allow for more variety in the plot, but it still has to make sense. Why in the world would Karen come along here? She’s putting her life in jeopardy for a guy she didn’t even know three days ago (in fact, who she hated). The concept here is strong enough so that a previously sold writer can get away with it, but for you, the unsold writer, you don’t want to be this sloppy. If the girl who hated you 3 days ago is going to now risk her life for you, you better have a good reason why, or else you have 60% of the audience whispering to their friends during the movie, “Why is she going with him?”

There are some other issues I had as well. I thought the high school situations were a mite cliché (the tape someone screwing up and upload it to Youtube thing has probably been used on over a dozen 90210 episodes alone). But overall, this is a great example of a well-conceived spec, both from a conceptual and a marketing standpoint. This is the kind of thing that sells. I’m not saying write this type of script if you hate action thrillers. You’ll embarrass yourself and waste a lot of time. But if action thrillers are in your wheelhouse, this is a perfect example of how to do it right.

Despite its second half issues and some cliché story choices, Abduction is a deliriously quick read where you can see the movie on the page. I’d recommend reading it for that reason.

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

What I learned: There’s a moment early on in the script, after Nathan’s discovered the missing person picture of himself, where his parents say, “We need to talk to you tomorrow.” This may seem like an innocuous line. But it’s actually a very powerful writing tool, as it creates anticipation in the reader. By setting up a seemingly important event later, you’ve given the reader a reason to keep reading. Anything you now place between that moment and that talk is going to fly by for the reader, while they anticipate that scene. If there are slow periods in your script, see if you can’t set up a later anticipatory event like this one to keep your reader engaged.