Friday, September 30, 2011

Amateur Friday - North Korean Musical

Genre: Comedy
Premise: (from the writers) An American screenwriter and his nemesis, “The South Korean Julia Roberts”, get kidnapped and taken to North Korea, where they’re forced by Kim Jong Il to make a propaganda musical glorifying the revolution, all the while falling in love and plotting their escape.
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 in the review (feel free to keep your identity and script title private by providing an alias and fake title). Also, it's a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so that your submission stays near the top of the pile.
Writers: James Luckard & Gordon Smith
Details: 117 pages

Probably one of the biggest things I've learned from reading all these screenplays is how similarly people tell stories. When we start out, we believe that we're this unique treasure that Hollywood has never seen before. We believe that we see the world in a way that nobody else can possibly see it. We think we’re more imaginative. We think we’re funnier. We basically think we’re going to change the system and become the biggest thing since George Lucas.

But then you start reading screenplays and you realize that you're not nearly as imaginative or funny or interesting as you thought you were. You see people using the same jokes, the same characters, the same plot points, the same concepts. The truth is we’re all tapping into the same stream of information. That story you just read on CNN about a murderer who escapes prison disguising himself as a woman - sure, that might be the genesis for a good movie idea. But guess what? 20,000 other screenwriters read that same story. Which means you're going to have some competition.

This is one of the biggest reasons why longevity improves screenwriters. Because after a while they realize how similar their ideas are to everyone else, and they start challenging themselves more, trying to come up with truly unique choices. You wouldn't think you would need to be trained to imagine, but you do.

How does this all come back to North Korean Musical? Well, I wanted something different. I was tired of reading screenplay after screenplay that was the same. When I read this logline, it looked like somebody had come up with something truly different. A comedy musical set in North Korea? If that doesn't promise a unique experience, I don't know what does. So I was eager to be transported into this outrageous world.

We're on the set of Yoojin Park’s latest film. Yoojin is the Julia Roberts of South Korea. Her success there has allowed her to make some inroads into Hollywood, but she's a bit of a diva, and in this instance, refuses to film a scene until it's better written. Enter Tom Collins - not the drink but the person - a "working writer." Now his resume isn't gonna sets IMDB Pro on fire - it's mainly a bunch of B action movies - but hey, at least he’s in show business. Problem is, Tom wasn’t Yoojin’s first choice, so she's kind of furious that he's there.

Boy is she going to wish that was her only problem. Soon after, both of them get kidnapped by ninjas. Why ninjas? I have no idea. I didn't know that North Korea was a big ninja country. But anyway, when the blindfolds are removed, they find themselves in North Korea. It turns out that Kim Jong Il wants to produce the greatest musical ever made to inspire his people, and he specifically wants Tom to write and direct it, and Yoojin to star. I think he believes that once this movie is shown, South Korea will finally want to reunite with North Korea.

Why Tom? Because Tom wrote some B action movie way back in the day called Double Barrel which is one of the most celebrated movies in North Korea history. It's only natural then, that he write and direct North Korea's greatest movie ever. The problem is that he and his star don't get along at all. But since making this movie is the only way that the great leader will allow them out of the country, he has no choice but to buckle up and make it work.

What follows is hijinks galore. The great leader insists that many of his own family members star in the film, family members who couldn't act their way out of a Jersey Shore episode. An undercover FBI agent with really bad Asian makeup is also constantly trying to get Tom to play pranks on Kim Jong Il. And a seductive Chinese government official keeps offering him freedom if he will publicly admit that America is stupid. Oh, and of course Tom and Yoojin get to know each other better and eventually start to like one another. I think that's all you need to know.

I've realized that after I summarize a screenplay, that nine times out of 10 when I start the following paragraph with "Okay," it's usually bad news.

Okay, so the big question is, did this achieve what I was hoping it would achieve? Well, the setting was definitely different. But I would have to say, sadly, no. This was basically yet another example of a screenplay where the comedy took precedence over the story. As we all know, this drives me nuts, although I'm going to take some of the blame for this one. I mean, it was a comedy titled "North Korean Musical.” So what was I expecting?

Well, the first thing I was expecting was A MUSICAL! I was hoping for wild and crazy musical set pieces and instead I got a story about people making a musical. I'm just not sure you can write a movie titled North Korean Musical and it not be a musical. So I was really bummed there.

Another thing that bothered me was the central relationship. There's nothing that gets to me more than a romantic comedy couple who hate each other only because the plot requires them to hate each other. There's no basis for that hate. There's no back story driving that hate. It's just: This is a comedy, so the lead male character and lead female character have to hate each other.

Look at a movie like The Proposal. Not a great film by any means. But you actually understood why Ryan Reynolds hated Sandra Bullock. He’s been working for her for three years and been treated like dirt the whole time. Of course he's going to hate her. You always want your comedy to emerge from your story and your characters. If things just happen because the writer wants them to happen, the story’s going to be thin.

There were other sloppy choices as well. Tom is a writer. He was brought in to write this film. But then, once he gets there, he's told that he's also directing the film. This just seemed like a lazy choice. I know this is a comedy but these are two completely different skill sets. I thought with just a little more effort, they could've come up with a creative solution to this problem.

For example, why not make it so he has to work with a director who’s already there? And he's this crazy North Korean director who’s terrible? Maybe halfway through the production he goes insane and Tom is forced to take over. Or why not make Tom a director instead of a writer? That would make more sense anyway. If you're going to bring in somebody to make a film, it's probably going to be a director and not a writer. Or maybe Tom is a writer who spent the last 10 years trying to break in as a director but no one would give him a shot. This ends up becoming his shot, and he realizes that even though he's making a musical for North Korea, that if he can make it great, it can be his calling card for Hollywood. Now you have a character who really cares about the outcome of the film.

That would solve another problem I had, which is that there are no stakes to Tom doing well (I guess he gets out of the country, but it never feels like it's that hard to get out of the country anyway). If your main character doesn't really care whether he achieves his goal or not - in this case to make a good movie - then why should we care? Even if it's a goofy comedy. This is why I'm constantly repeating this. Your screenplay is going to be in much better shape if your main character desperately wants to achieve his goal. If he doesn't, then the audience is constantly wondering why they're supposed to care about this person who doesn't care about what he's doing.

I could go on but I’d just be piling on. I'm going to say something to all future screenwriters who want to submit comedies to Scriptshadow. Unless you give me some substance to your comedy, I'm probably not going to like it. I'd like your main characters to be properly developed. I'd like your main character to care about his goal. I'd like some sort of thematic through line. I want the comedy to stem from the story and the characters as opposed to random craziness. That's the kind of screenplay I would love to review on amateur Friday. I am not saying that that's the only kind of comedy that does well in the marketplace. We live in a world where a Jackass movie can make $40 million on opening weekend. I'm just saying that that's the kind of comedy that I personally respond to. I really hope that some of you guys who aren't as anal as I am enjoy this, because it does have some funny moments. But because of the reasons I listed above, it wasn't for me.

Script link: North Korean Musical

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

What I learned: We have another example of something that drives me crazy. A 120 page comedy. There are really two factors for a screenplay being long. The first is a large character count. Laying out character storylines takes time, which takes up pages. The second is a complicated plot. When you have lots of developments and twists and turns - the kind of stuff that needs a lot of setup and exposition - that's going to take up time as well. The thing is, comedies shouldn’t have either of these problems. Comedies usually center on a small group of people, or even one person. And the plots themselves should never be that complicated. Don't believe me? When is the last time you went to a comedy to see an extremely complicated plot? That's why you get readers and producers and agents who look at a 120 page comedy and roll their eyes. Because they know that the writer has included stuff that they shouldn't have. So keep your character counts down and your plots simple in comedies. Do so and you shouldn't have a problem with too many pages.