Friday, May 13, 2011

Amateur Friday - The Black Soul Of Elijah Harden

Note: Apparently Blogger's gone nuts.  They're supposed to have things figured out soon (or so they say) but until then, yesterday's Aliens post will remain an enigma.  Which begs the question: Did it really happen?  Did it?  

Genre: Thriller
Premise: Days away from his execution, the most notorious man in America awakens with amnesia and quickly discovers that his condition might be the result of more than a seizure induced head injury.
About: E. Joshua recently moved to L.A. where he’s secured an unpaid internship to write script coverage for a small production house. -- 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: E. Joshua Eanes
Details: 96 page – April 27, 2011 draft.

The last ten days have been pretty incredible. After going months without reading anything that even sniffed the Top 25, I’ve now read three Top 25ers in the last week and a half alone. In general, the quality of scripts being reviewed has gone up. That’s due in part to adding a fifth script read every week, so I can throw out the worst one. Just did that with The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen’s next movie. I don’t know how they’re going to film that thing – if it’s going to be Borat 2 or a more traditional comedy – but holy shit is the script bad. I mean there wasn’t even the barest sense of story present. Basically a guy comes to America and sits around all day doing nothing. (edit - I've been informed that I may have read a separate but similar project)

There’s a point to all this, that being that I didn’t expect my luck to extend to Amateur Friday. That would be asking too much, right? Especially since I picked this week’s script at random. But as I turned each page in my read of “Elijah Harden,” my confidence in the writing grew, and it wasn’t long before I realized, “Whoa. This guy knows what he’s doing.” That doesn’t mean “Elijah Harden” should be mistaken for a pro script. Eanes is a little rough around the fingertips, and the script is a teensy bit dense, but this is the kind of script I could see getting purchased. It has a very marketable hook.

81 year old Elijah Harden is a Nazi sympathizer. He’s a racist. He’s a harbinger of hate. If you thought Jimmy Flynn from Wednesday was a bad person, take a Sunday stroll with this guy. Elijah’s also the murderer of a young girl (whose body was never found) and on death row with 2 weeks to spare. He’s going through the normal last-second appeals process but things aren’t looking good. Elijah Harden is going to finally pay for his crime.

However, a strange thing happens. One night in his cell, Elijah cuts himself and uses his blood to draw a large triangle on the floor. Afterwards he passes out and when he wakes up the next morning, he seems to have obtained amnesia. Not only has he forgotten his crimes, but he doesn’t remember who he is.

Phoebe Gabler, the young defense attorney appointed to Elijah in his final days, is suspicious of this convenient timing but after a few meetings with him, she becomes curious enough to look into it. Even if it’s just a simple case of amnesia, is it right to send a person to death who has no recollection of the murder they committed?

In a desperate attempt to buy more time so she can figure things out, Phoebe makes a deal with Governor Charlotte Ackermann (who she happens to be in a salacious relationship with) that if Elijah gives them the location of his victim’s body, he gets a stay of execution for another five months. The problem is, Elijah, or at least this Elijah, doesn’t know the location of the body. So he’s forced to wade through Elijah’s journals, all of which are written in jibberish, to find the answer. With time ticking away, and his execution just around the corner, will Elijah be able to figure out the location of his victim’s body in time to save his own life?

Summarizing this script wasn’t easy. In fact, this is a way simplified breakdown of the story. “Elijah Harden” is packed to the gills with characters, story threads, and plot developments. So much so that they began to overwhelm the story. For example, we have Elijah’s original prosecutor, Henry Gabler, who got rich off of Elijah’s trial, and who also happens to be Phoebe’s brother, holed up in a mansion writing a book about Elijah. Then we have the relationship between Phoebe and Charlotte, the Governor, which felt a little too extensive and contrived for my taste. It also led to too many questions. If she’s got the Governor in her pocket, why does she need to do this “find the victim’s body” dance? Have the Governor make up some other reason for the stay. This is par for the course as we have numerous other players with major stakes in the outcome, but who pop up so infrequently that it’s hard to gauge just how important they’re supposed to be.

The reason this didn’t bother me too much, however, was that “Elijah Harden” kept the wheels in the attic turning. Sure I had a hard time keeping up with all the characters, but the puzzle at the center of it all was so exciting that I barreled through in hopes of solving it. The central question here: “Is Elijah telling the truth?” is not only captivating, but it leads to other questions, such as “What would you do if you woke up in a jail cell and were told that you were being executed in 2 weeks?” What if you believed you weren’t that person? That you weren’t the killer? But you couldn’t remember anything and therefore couldn’t prove it? The fear I had thinking about that situation made me fear for Elijah.

Not to mention this is an ideal structural setup for a spec script. There’s a tight time frame – two weeks – which gives the story the appropriate amount of urgency. There’s a lot at stake (potentially an innocent man’s life). There’s a lot of mystery (the aforementioned: Is he lying or not? If so, will he be able to get away with it?). Despite the Governor issue, I liked the development of finding the body. It gives our character a strong goal (find the location of the victim’s body and his execution is pushed back). I liked that the goal was realistic as well (there was no silly unrealistic scenario where he’d go free). So the mechanics here were solid all the way around.

Now if only we can hammer out these details. One thing you have to be careful of in any script, is making too many people related to one another. I didn’t like that Phoebe was related to the lead prosecutor on Elijah’s original case. I didn’t like that she was having an affair with the Governor. These weren’t script killers by any means, but they were such tidy connections that I was always aware that they'd been written. The goal when you write a movie is to make the audience FORGET that they’re watching a fictional story. And I felt these things reminded them that they were.

Also, as I already mentioned, we needed to cut down the number of characters. Someone named Zora became a big deal late in the script, but I couldn’t remember who Zora was. Same deal with Hosea. He gets a big finale, but all I kept thinking was, “Who the hell is Hosea?” One thing writers forget is that the more information they pack into a reader’s head, the harder it is for readers to follow threads (and characters) that only pop up every once in awhile. If I’ve been forced to keep track of six subplots and a dozen characters and then you write a scene with a guy who hasn’t been mentioned in 40 pages, how am I supposed to remember that?

There’s no real rule-set for getting this right. You just have to be conscious of it. Maybe, for example, you find a way to get that absent character into a couple of more scenes so we don’t forget them.

Speaking of, I would’ve loved to have seen more of Henry, the prosecutor and Elijah’s nemesis. This guy is a huge player in the story, yet he’s kept behind the walls of his mansion, unseen by us, for 98% of the script! Our only insights into his life come from other characters talking about him. That’s not enough. We need to see the guy. We need to get to know him. Especially because of his connection to the ending.

Before I go, I want to deal with some major SPOILERS, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know the ending. There’s one huge coincidence that we have to buy into in order for this to work. And that’s that right when Henry is thrown into Elijah’s body, he gets amnesia, which is of course required for the story and the final twist to work. Is it explained anywhere why this happens? If not, I would consider addressing it in the next draft. I think it’s a great finale and I believe it works, but the fact that he doesn’t remember as soon as he arrives in Elijah’s body, then remembers RIGHT BEFORE his death is kinda convenient. I’d like that to be ironed out.

Despite these criticisms, I think this is a strong piece of writing. This kind of movie hasn’t hit the market in a awhile so its timing is perfect. Yeah it’s a little confusing in its current state. But even with the shortcomings I mentioned, it’s easily worth the read.

Script Link: The Black Soul Of Elijah Harden

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

What I learned: Please, if you do nothing else, make sure there are no spelling or grammar or punctuation errors on the first page of your script. I saw “it’s” instead of “its” on the ninth line (the very first paragraph!) and just cringed. Professional writers don’t make these mistakes. If you want to be taken seriously, you can’t make them either.