Friday, August 19, 2011

Amateur Friday – Orphans of the Sword

Genre: Period/Historical/Adventure
Premise: The year is 1627: A headstrong Highlander, together with his uncle - an embittered veteran who hates him - must struggle across war ravaged Europe to rescue his young sister after she is kidnapped by a band of ruthless mercenaries,
About: I've just been informed that this script made the semi-finals of the Page Contest for the adventure/historical category. So make sure to send Graham some congratulations in the comments section. -- 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 in the review (feel free to keep your identity and script title private by providing an alias and fake title).
Writer: Graham Kinniburgh
Details: 120 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).

I picked Orphans Of The Sword for this week's amateur review for a couple of reasons. The first is nepotism. Going to be honest. I probably never would've read this otherwise. But Graham has been such a loyal reader and he's always been polite and nice when he sends in his submissions. He's not like some e-mailers who only e-mail me when they want something (cough cough – shame on some of you). I'm no different than anybody else in the industry. I'm more likely to give somebody a shot if I've heard of them before. So if I've gotten to know a person a little bit, even if it's just through a few e-mails, I'm more likely to read their stuff.

The second is I thought Orphans would be a great follow-up to Inherit The Earth. Both scripts are about an intense journey with our heroes encountering a lot of obstacles along the way. This is one of the most popular story templates out there so I wanted to compare and contrast the way a pro handled it versus the way an amateur handled it. So with that, let's get started.

It's 1627, the year Larry King was born. Jamie, a headstrong Highlander with a reckless streak, becomes aware of his father's existence through a lost letter. So he heads off to the army regiment that his father is supposedly in charge of in hopes of beginning a relationship with him.

But before he's allowed to meet his father, he runs into Duncan, one of the members of the regiment. If this were a Western, Duncan would be the guy who when he walked into town, everybody else ran for cover. It turns out, actually, that Duncan is his father's brother, and therefore his uncle. But the family connections don't end there. It turns out that his father has also married someone new and they have a daughter, Elizabeth, who is staying with the Army. That makes Elizabeth Jamie's half-sister.

While waiting to meet his father, Jamie also runs into a band of mercenaries who the Army have reluctantly allowed into their regiment. The mercenaries are basically a bunch of reckless warriors who take what they want when they want. And they're currently wreaking havoc on morale and protocol.

So when the Army has had enough, and gives them their pink slips, the mercenaries don't exactly go quietly. The next day, they retaliate with a surprise attack. They're able to kill most of the regiment, including Jamie's father. They also snatch up Elizabeth and disappear into the countryside.

Because Jamie wants to get his sister back and Duncan wants some cold hard revenge, the two agree to team up and follow the mercenaries across the country. But because Duncan usually works alone, he's none too happy to have to deal with this idealistic whippersnapper who tends to slash first and think later.

Now I want to make something clear. Orphans of the Sword is one of the better screenplays I've read for Amateur Friday. We have a solid storyline here. The goal is strong. The stakes are high. We have tons of conflict inherent in the central relationship. I mean this is a lot better than the stuff we usually review.

However, because I'm not a period piece guy, I tend to be a little more critical when these specs come around. And there were some choices that I think did a disservice to the story.

The very first thing that needs addressing is the lack of a title card. Whenever you have a period piece, especially if it's set before the 20th century, you need to provide some context for your audience. I have no idea what was going on in 1627. To be honest, I don't know the difference between 1627 and 1726. Or 1276 for that matter. So we need some context here, especially because our characters are jumping in and out of all these different armies and I'm not sure who these armies are or who they're fighting for or what they represent. A quick title card can clear all that up.

Speaking of time, I wasn't a fan of the big time jump in the middle of the movie. You set up a scenario whereby a couple of guys are chasing after a group of men to save a woman. That type of storyline lends itself to urgency. Every day that goes by is a day that something could happen to that girl. So when we jump forward two years and are thrown into this random war that Jamie is now a soldier in, it was unclear if the Elizabeth storyline even mattered anymore.

I think that's why The Last of the Mohicans worked so well. Once the woman was kidnapped, it was one giant race to get her back. Now I'm not saying a movie like this can't work any other way. I know that script Unbound Captives which sold for 4 million bucks (eerily written by the same person who played that female character in The Last of the Mohicans) took the same approach as this one, in that lots of time passes after the character’s kidnapped, but I didn't like that script for the same reason. Maybe there's a happy medium here. But I just thought it was strange that we were all go-go-go, only for the story to stop, jump forward two years, then reboot the chase storyline all over again.

Another issue I had was with the villain. If I understand this correctly, our original villain (the one who kidnapped Elizabeth) is later replaced by his son (the new villain). I'm not a fan of this. Villains are extremely important to movies. We attach ourselves to them with the same intensity that we attach ourselves to heroes. To just replace the villain 70% of the way through the story, to me, is like replacing the hero 70% of the way through the story. This is the person I've grown to hate. Therefore this is the person I want the final showdown to be with. Again, I think this choice was a victim of the big time jump. It allowed that choice to happen (as the son was able to grow older).

Moving over to our heroes, I liked how Graham infused the "buddy cop" model into a period piece. I thought that was really clever and worked well. For me, stories tend to work best when there isn't just external conflict, but also conflict working within the central character dynamic. Here was my problem though. I never understood why Duncan was such a reclusive asshole. He seemed to be an asshole only because the story needed him to be. It's important to remember that as a screenwriter, you're essentially a psychologist. Your job is to get into who your characters are and why they became that way. If your character is like Lester Burnham from American beauty, a spineless weakling who never sticks up for himself, you need to find out why he became that way. So we fairly quickly find out that Carolyn stole his masculinity. Maybe I missed it, but it would be nice if Duncan had some traumatic event happen to him that made him the person he is.

I'm probably being too harsh here because this is an amateur script. I mean, it really is better than a lot of the scripts I review on Amateur Friday. But I do think it needs fixing and I would love if the narrative was more streamlined and not interrupted by these big chunks in time. Part of the problem is that I don't understand what's going on during this time jump. I don't understand what all these wars are. So when the movie stops to thrust these characters into these battles, I don't care because I don't know what's going on. Maybe a better explanation of that would help.

Still, if you're interested in period pieces, especially from this time, you'll probably want to check this out. And I wish Graham further success with the screenplay in the Page competition. He's a good writer and someone to watch out for.

Script link: Orphans of the Sword

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me (but writer has potential)
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I think a late Second Act surprise storyline can recharge a road trip movie (or any movie that revolves around a journey). The thing about a long journey is that, no matter how you spin it, it's eventually going to become predictable. You're moving forward. There's only so many ways to do that. That's what I really liked about Inherit The Earth. As we hit the 70 page mark, the story was beginning to get stale. The arrival of the cult changes that because it gives us a different type of story to focus on. Much like how Cloud City came about in The Empire Strikes Back, we were thrust into a different rhythm than the previous 70 pages, which sort of rewired our expectations . After that story played out, we were recharged and ready to move forward again. That moment never happened in Orphans of The Sword. The chase was definitely interrupted, but because we were never clear why it was interrupted or what the interrupting storyline was (or why so much time had to pass), it didn't have the same effect as the cult sequence in Inherit the Earth. So don't be afraid to change things up in the second half of your second act. A story diversion might be just what you need before you throw your characters into the big climax.