Premise: A recently downsized father moves his family into a dying town, only to find out that it's infested with killer mutated insects.
About: This script made the lower third of the 2009 black list. It sold to Paramount earlier that year. The writer, Marc Haimes, used to be an executive at DreamWorks. He also produced The Legend of Zorro and Hotel for Dogs.
Writer: Marc Haimes
Details: 103 pages – October 2009 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).
Get ready as I plan to fully contradict myself, only to make excuses as to why I'm fully justified in doing so. You see, one of the elements I've been trumpeting nonstop on the site – urgency – is a huge part of this screenplay. However, the excessive reliance on this tool brings up an important question. Is it possible to add too much urgency to your script? It's a strange question because so rarely is it actually a problem. 99.9% of the time, when there's a pacing issue, it's that the script is too slow. But the answer is yes, you can push things along too quickly, and Jitters is an example of that. I'll explain in a second but let's find out what this is about first.
Off in Nowheresville, USA, some scientist-types have been working on breeding genetically modified bugs. At first it's just to help some nearby plant life. But the results prove that the potential for these bugs is much bigger. In fact, it becomes clear that some of these insects could be constructed for…duh duh duhhhhhh, military purposes. So they invite some government dudes in to show them (we have moths that can camouflage themselves, tarantulas that can fly, ladybugs that can…think?) and let's just say a few of the insects get out of their cages and bug these men to death.
A couple of weeks later Walt Hatcher and his family ride into town ready to start their new lives. Besides the wife and baby, Walt has a 13-year-old daughter Kate, who believes every passed minute is a minute you could have been spending saving the world, and a 15-year-old son Jackson, a selfish smart-alec whose number one priority is to make his sister miserable.
As soon as they roll in, they notice that this isn't going to be like life in the burbs. You see, Walt had a nice job and a nice life but all that went to hell with the economy. Unfortunately, the only jobs left were in the middle of crappy dying towns like this one.
Well, maybe "dying" is a strong word. The insect population around here seems to be doing just fine. In fact, the bug problem is so intense that the entire bug spray shelf at the local hardware store has been cleaned out.
Almost as soon as they get to the house, everybody is off to do their own thing - mainly explore this crapola "town." Kate runs off to spy on a couple of nerdy kids who build remote control mini-robots and Jackson goes after the hot girl who lives next door. But when Walt realizes that the insects are out for blood (courtesy of the town’s lone homeless man who has uncovered the giant insect conspiracy) he must round up his family and get them the hell out of here before they all become bug food.
I have to give it to Jitters. I was laughing a lot more than I expected to. All the characters here are really funny, especially Jackson. There's a line he gives early on that perfectly encapsulates his character. A mosquito is caught in the car and everybody's bickering about whether to kill it or not. Kate, of course, is begging to save it while Jackson nonchalantly offers, "We must kill it. It's the only way it will learn."
It's actually a perfect early scene and one of the classic ways to introduce characters. You present a problem to a group of people and use everybody's differing reactions to tell us what kind of characters they are. So it's in this scene that we learn that Katie is the "all life is precious" save the world girl, and that Jackson could care less about anyone.
There's also a funny scene right afterwards where Jackson follows a hot girl in a white tank top to the freezer section of a convenience store, trying to discreetly tape her on his camera phone while pretending to talk to someone. It's juvenile and silly and yet it's something I totally would've done when I was 14 so I loved it. In fact, all the character stuff here in the first act is top notch.
Where Jitters runs into trouble is that it moves at the speed of some of these flying insects. I'm not sure what the time frame is, but I think the whole thing takes place inside of 12 hours. Now you know me. I'm Mr. Urgency. So why didn’t this work for me? Well, it's quite simple. If your whole movie is going to take place in a town, it's important that we get to know that town. And we never get to know or understand or feel the character of this place because we're off and running before we've even settled in.
For example, we meet the hot girl neighbor and geeky robot building twins, but since we've only known them for a few hours, when they find themselves in danger, we don't care. Had we gone to school with them for a few days or had more than one scene to get to know them, I'm sure we would've found ourselves rooting for them because they're actually solid characters.
I also thought the theme of trying to keep the family together could've been better executed. There are times when you're reading a script and you get to that final act and all of a sudden the characters start spouting out universal themes that up until this point have never even sniffed the story (i.e. "Seize the day." "It's better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.") And you're asking yourself, "Where is this coming from?" It's coming from the writer feeling the need to make up for the fact that he hasn't tried to say anything with his story so far. So he has no choice but to wrap everything up in a bow before it all ends.
I feel a lot of that going on here. When Walt starts talking about how family is the most important thing in the world and that's why he needs to save the day, I'm sitting there going, when exactly did this become important? I never got the impression that Walt didn't care about his family at all. And I think the reason for that is, we never spend any time settling into the town. Had we settled into the town, we could've showed Walt being more obsessed with work than he was with his family. But since things move so fast, we never get that opportunity.
On the plus side, you don't really have time to think about all that stuff. The urgency masks a lot of the deficiencies and you find yourself simply trying to keep up with the pace. On top of that, this script is just packed with fun moments. One of my favorites was when the hot girl neighbor tricked Jackson into believing he was being attacked by a giant spider. After she leaves, a real giant spider arrives, and Jackson "isn't buying it this time" and begins messing with the "fake" giant spider, going into this whole routine of petting it and taunting it. Needless to say, it doesn't end well.
That's the true strength of this script. It has this fun lighthearted vibe to it that reminds you of movies like Tremors and Gremlins. It never quite reaches the heights of those films but I can still see this being a really fun silly time at the movies.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I'm going to take a few steps back here. While I've been touting the importance of urgency a lot lately, this script reminded me that you first need to build up to that urgency. For thrillers like Buried and Source Code, yeah, you want to sprint right out of the gate. But certain stories, such as this one, require that set up time to pull the audience in. Only then do you want to start upping the urgency with ticking time bombs and chases. Jitters never took the time to settle its characters in and I think that's why the script feels too fast for its own good.