Friday, May 27, 2011

Amateur Friday - Untitled Man Camp Project

Genre: Comedy
Premise: When a controlling fiance-to-be loses her boyfriend and descends into bitterness, her friends send her to “Man Camp” to learn how to date again.
About: 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 (feel free, however, to use an alias and a fake title).
Writers: Amie Kelbing & Eva Taylor (story by Ami, Eva, and Danielle Morrow)
Details: 90 pages

It’s probably unfair to put Man Camp under the spotlight a day after reviewing the best movie about bridesmaids ever put to paper. However, it’s a great opportunity to compare a professionally sculpted screenplay shepherded by a dozen industry pros to one written by a couple of amateur scribes still figuring things out. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Wiig and Mumolo’s first draft looked similar to this one, more of an unfocused collection of thoughts than a fully fleshed out story.

That’s the big problem with Man Camp. It’s majorly unfocused. The narrative feels like it’s been strapped to an overanxious rabbit set loose in the jungle. You think you’re going one way, but oh wait, let’s go over here, but oh no, how about checking this out, wait, let’s go back to where we started, no, changed my mind, let’s go this way again. Structure is so important for a screenplay. And there isn’t a lick of it here.

Man Camp has a surprisingly similar setup to Bridesmaids. Annie (same name!) is in a relationship with Ryan, the key difference being she expects to be marrying Ryan soon. The problem is, Annie can’t shut up. She makes all the decisions, she takes all of the control, she doesn’t let her boyfriend get a word in edgewise - about anything. As a result, Ryan dumps her, and there Annie is, back to square one.

Even worse, Annie’s friends all start finding husbands and having babies, leaving Annie further and further out of the loop. She begins to feel sorry for herself, gives up on dating, and becomes a hermit. Worried she’ll become a cat lady, her friends set up an intervention and send her to “The Center” - a place that teaches destitute women how to get back out there and start dating again.

Except The Center is run like an insane asylum, which is appropriate because Annie’s rambunctious roommate, Nina, is about as crazy as they get. While everyone else conforms to the “warden’s” strict rules, Nina’s running around wreaking havoc, trying to get the girls, and in particular, Annie, to live a little. Eventually Annie learns enough from the camp to land another man, Eric.

In a kind of unclear development, the very friends that cared so much about getting Annie help, have now completely forgotten about her, instead wrapped up in their own married pregnant lives. Eric is Annie’s ticket back into that selective group, and she carefully grooms him for reinsertion. But just before they get to the party, Annie can’t help but be too demanding, and loses Eric right before going in. In a lucky coincidence she convinces the bartender, a flamboyant weirdo named Javier who she met while at The Center, to pretend he’s Eric so that her friends won’t know she’s alone again.

And if that doesn’t test the boundaries of believability, Annie then convinces Javier to marry her, and the next thing you know the wedding is set! But at the last second, Annie’s old friend from The Center, Crazy Nina, shows up, drugs Javier, and dresses up like a man so she can scold Annie for marrying just to get married. The moment causes outrage from the wedding party, and Annie is forced to come clean about the whole ordeal.

Okay, first of all, Amie and Eva? I want you guys to know that I love you. But it does neither of us any good if I sugarcoat my notes here, so this is going to get a little bumpy. It’s important for readers of this script to remember, before you go crazy in the comments, that this is likely a first or second effort from the writers, and as anyone who writes knows, the first and second efforts are usually best left as learning experiences. So, let’s get into what’s wrong with Man Camp.

The problem here is a maddening lack of structure. First, we have a main character, Annie, who’s given up on dating. So her friends send her to a “Man Camp,” to learn how to date men again. The script then switches gears and becomes sort of a broad comedy version of Girl Interrupted. And even though we just met an entire cast of Annie’s friends, we’re asked to meet and remember a whole new cast of friends.

But what’s strange about Man Camp is that the actual Man Camp ends halfway through the script. We then cut to THREE MONTHS LATER with Annie now in a relationship with Eric. It’s a little jarring that we’ve now left a second set of characters in the dust, but we try and go with it. But in an ongoing trend of “this is the story, oh wait no it isn’t," Nick disappears from the script three scenes later! Another seemingly key character left in the dust!

This leads to the impossible-to-believe development of Annie spotting a bartender she barely knows and paying him to pretend that he’s her boyfriend (and subsequently marry her). This is the fourth time now that the focus of the script has changed. First it was about a woman losing her boyfriend. Then it was about a Man Camp. Then it was about the relationship that stemmed from Man Camp being a success. Now it’s about a woman paying a man to pretend that he’s her boyfriend. In other words, you’ve officially said to your audience, “We have no idea what this movie is about anymore.”

So first and foremost, this script needs focus. If it’s about Man Camp, then Annie needs to be in Man Camp for 80% of the movie. If it’s about paying a man to pretend he’s your boyfriend so you can hang out with your married friends, then that needs to be explored for 80% of the movie. The fact that Man Camp keeps switching around on us is what makes it so damn frustrating.

Man Camp also cares little about making sense. I get that this is a comedy, but that doesn’t mean characters can just do things because the writers want them to. Actions need to be rooted in some sort of reality for the audience to go along with them. Annie’s friends love her enough to have an intervention for her. Yet we’re to believe they won’t hang out with her unless she has a boyfriend? Nina hates Man Camp. Why doesn’t she just leave? Random bartender Javier agrees to marry Annie on a lark for a few extra dollars? This is nonsensical even by broad comedy terms. Every character here acts like they’re in a cartoon, like there are no consequences to their actions, and because there are no consequences, we stop caring.

Also of note is how Annie’s character is constructed. In Bridesmaids, (the other) Annie is getting screwed over by an asshole, creating instant sympathy for her. In Man Camp, it’s Annie who’s doing the screwing over (of her boyfriend), leaving us sympathizing with the boyfriend as opposed to her. I’m not saying you can’t make your protagonist unlikable or be the one with the unflattering problem. But it’s important to note how this seemingly minor approach dramatically changed how we perceived these two protagonists.

Also, like I was talking about yesterday in the Bridesmaids breakdown, you gotta spend time on your secondary characters. I couldn’t remember any of the characters in this movie besides Annie, Javier, and Nina. There was nothing distinct about any of the original group of friends. There were no memorable characters inside The Center besides Nina. You need to sit down and create big full backstories for these people if you expect them to come alive. Then and only then will you discover the unique characteristic that will help them stick out.

But these problems are minor when compared to the structural issues of Man Camp. The lack of focus and a clear plan is what really hurts the script. Figure out what this movie is about, make sure the entire movie follows that plan (not just parts of it), and you should be okay. Remember, you’re making one movie, not 5-6 mini-movies. Good luck on the next draft! :)

Script link: Man Camp Project

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

What I learned: Unless you’ve set up a comedy that logically progresses over a long period of time (Knocked Up, Juno), you don’t want to throw a random huge time jump into the middle of your story. The 3 month jump in the middle of Man Camp is so awkward, so random, that it deflates everything that came before it. Good comedies usually have some kind of immediacy to them, a ticking time bomb, a feeling that things need to happen RIGHT NOW. Hangover. Liar Liar. Meet The Parents. Even Knocked Up, which takes place over 9 months, has that feeling of, “Oh boy, we’re running out of time!” If you can just randomly fast-forward your story to 3 months later? That tells me you were missing urgency in your story. I mean imagine in Bridesmaids if, in the middle of the movie, we just cut to 3 months later. How awkward would that have been? Condense your storyline into a more stable time frame and make everything happen inside that timeframe. Random large time jumps in the middle of your movie are momentum killers.