Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Andrew Henry's Meadow

Genre: Family/Fantasy
Premise: 13 year old aspiring inventor Andrew Henry begins to suspect that the world he lives in is not what it seems.
About: Didn’t research this until after I wrote the review, but it appears that Andrew Henry’s Meadow is a well-known children’s book, which would make this an adaptation, not a spec script, as I had originally thought. Although I don’t know as much about Adam as I do Zach Braff, I’ve read in several of Zach’s interviews that Adam is interested in writing children’s books, which would make this adaptation a logical choice. Zach Braff starred in the NBC sitcom, Scrubs, and went on to surprise Sundance back in 2004 with his well-crafted writing-directing debut, Garden State. This is an early draft of the script.
Writers: Adam and Zach Braff (based on the 1965 children’s book by Doris Burn)
Details: 126 pages – 2004 draft (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).

Well, for reasons I won’t get into here, today was supposed to be the review of my first “impressive” script (possibly even Top 25!) that I’d read in a long time. The script was “Seeking A Friend At The End Of The World,” which I’m guaranteeing will end up top 10 in this year’s Black List. But a series of events have prevented this from happening so instead I’m going to review Zach Braff and his brother’s script, Andrew Henry’s Meadow. However, if you’ve read “Seeking a Friend” and want to comment on it in the comments section, feel free to.

I didn’t know anything about Andrew Henry’s Meadow but the title made it sound like a more fantastical version of Garden State (Meadow? Garden?), so I was down. I’ll be the first to admit that Garden State’s script lacked some punch, but the movie was different and definitely captured the frustration and uncertainty that we often experience at different points in our lives. I was in that kind of mood so it sounded like a nice fit.

Well, as I would quickly realize, this wasn’t that script at all. Andrew Henry’s Meadow reads like a mix between Meet The Robinsons and The Goonies. It also has a healthy dose of the 2004 thematic soup du jour, “Governments control us with fear.” (as seen in The Village and Fahrenheit 9/11).

13 year old Andrew Henry lives in a Truman Show like suburb where all the houses are the same and all the people are the same. In this fantastical version of our world, a single dominating company named Omnimega rules everything. OmniMega has built walls around our city to keep us safe from the “killer mutants” who would eat us up, regurgitate us, and eat us again if they only had the chance.

An aspiring inventor, Andrew finds a secret room in his house that contains an old book which states that, gasp, there are no mutants! That there’s nothing evil or scary outside of the city! So off he goes to test this theory, and finds that, indeed, all there are are big beautiful meadows as far as the eye can see. He begins to build the Michael Jackson mansion of all treehouses in this meadow, and soon other outcast kids, like himself, join him to help.

Naturally, he learns that Omnimega has made all this stuff up to scare people (hey, just like leaders in the real world do!) so he and his outcast friends must find a way to expose them before it’s too late (the Omnimega president is transmitting content through TV waves that keeps the populace in a zombie state). The plan is to break into the Omnimega TV tower, seize the production floor, and transmit the truth to everyone out there.

Okay, so, I’m sure you’ve already identified several things wrong with this script just by reading my summary. Most notably, it reads like an amalgam of two writers’ favorite movies. We have scenes straight out of the The Truman Show, The Village, The Goonies. Although I’m forgetting which one, the whole “TV static in people’s eyes” thing has been done in several super hero movies before. We have The Running Man ending with them trying to bust into the TV tower. That was easily the biggest fault in Andrew Henry’s Meadow. Every single development felt like something I had seen before.

But the problems with Meadow began before that. This is a laborious read. Open this up to any page and you will find skyscraper sized paragraph chunks that go on forever and ever. Over-description is an easy way to spot a new screenwriter, as they approach their scripts more like a novelist (since that’s where the bulk of their fiction reading has come from). You don’t need to tell us every little place your character walks, every little thing they see, every little way they react, every little crevice in their apartment. Only tell us what’s necessary for the story to continue. If you can’t describe an action beat in 3 lines or less, you’re probably writing too much description.

The direction of this story is all wonky as well. I understand that this is called “Andrew Henry’s Meadow,” but I’m not sure why we’re spending 20 some pages off in this meadow with all these kids building a tree house. To me, the story is that this Omnimega villain is trying to take over the city. When they’re out here in the meadow enjoying life and building things, there isn’t any story being advanced. It’s a completely separate storyline, which made most of the second act boring.

There’s a really good script that made the 2009 Black List called “Toy’s House,” where a high school kid builds a house in the forest and starts living there with his friends. That made sense because THAT WAS THE STORY – his building of that house and how it changed his life. In Andrew Henry’s Meadow, going to build this house feels like an unnecessary detour. Had they eliminated it, the story still would’ve made sense, which usually means it’s unnecessary.

Everything here takes too long to get to. It seems like we spend years before the inciting incident happens (he finds the book). It takes way too long for him to then get out of the city. I guess the “have fun in the meadow” stuff is supposed to be the second act, but since the second act is, by definition, the conflict stage of your story, it’s weird that this whole section is happy happy joy joy with no conflict whatsoever. This is followed by the “comes out of nowhere” Omnimega uses TV to hypnotize people subplot. Had that been set up earlier, it might have had a chance of working. Here it just…comes out of nowhere. And then the last act is so much like The Running Man that all we can think is, “Man, this is exactly like The Running Man.”

Now, it’s not all doom and gloom. Clearly, Zach Braff’s experience as an actor has taught him the importance of character, and while I didn’t fall in love with any of the characters in Meadow, I acknowledge that all of them were unique and interesting. We’ve seen the young shunned inventor protagonist before, but Andrew Henry’s underdog starry-eyed determined persona was easy to root for. Whereas in yesterday’s TV pilot, 17th Precinct, we only got the Cliff’s Notes version of each character, here, with Andrew, his parents, the girl he liked, his nerdy best friends, there was enough detail where the story could’ve centered around any one of them. And that’s not easy to do.

But the attention to character detail was the only thing that really worked for me. One of the most important things a script must accomplish is telling a story in a way that an audience hasn’t quite seen before. In other words, surprise us. If we can guess what’s coming around the corner every step of the way, if every plot development feels like, “Hmm, I’ve already seen this in another movie,” then the reader’s going to lose interest. And that’s how I felt reading Meadow.

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

What I learned: In any script where you’re introducing a made-up world, there’s going to be more description than usual. However, there isn’t a more suicidal tactic in screenwriting than writing huge paragraphs. First of all, it depresses the reader. They know their reading time just went up by 50%. They hate sloshing through tons of extraneous detail to get to the important stuff. And sooner or later they just start skimming through those paragraphs anyway, causing them to miss key important details, which leads them to become confused later on. So only include the details in your description that are necessary to tell your story and NOTHING MORE. The reader will love you for it.