Thursday, September 1, 2011

F*cking Jane Austen

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: Two friends angry at Jane Austen for creating unrealistic romantic expectations among women today get sent back in time to the 19th century. The only way for them to return home is for one of them to get Jane Austen to fall in love and sleep with him.
About: This script finished with five votes on the 2010 black list. It appears that Blake has been at this for a while, at least since 2005, when he was making short films. But this is the first script he's written that's gotten any play.
Writer: Blake Bruns
Details: 106 pages – April 24, 2010 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).

Hey, Jane Austen was kind of hot.

A while back a writer came to me with a sob story that, as screenwriters, I'm sure we've all experienced before. He had written a screenplay he thought was a totally original idea about a couple of slackers who become convinced that Jane Austen had created unrealistic expectations for men, and therefore they decided to go back in time and kill her.

I have to admit, that's pretty original. However, the writer and his partner were stunned when that year’s Black List came out and they heard of another Jane Austen script about, well, a couple of slackers who were convinced that Jane Austen had created unrealistic expectations for men and therefore go back in time to eliminate the problem. Now this isn't one of those stories where the writers claim that somebody stole their idea. They know that Hollywood is a big place and no matter how original your idea is, there's a good chance somebody else out there already came up with it.

But the writer proposed a challenge to me. He said he had read the other script and was pretty confident that his script was better. If I had a penny for every time an amateur screenwriter told me his script was better than the professional screenplays out there, I'd currently be flying off to tropical islands with Richard Branson every other weekend. And the thing is? They're always wrong. The scripts are never as good. But I thought it would be an interesting challenge. So I decided to review the two scripts back to back. Today I'll be reviewing the professional script, the one that made the Black List, and tomorrow I'll be reviewing the amateur version. Let's find out which one is better.

20-something Hallmark Greeting Card employee Doug Gracy is having trouble with the ladies. In particular, his sexual escapades with his girlfriend have dissolved into her giving him manual like instructions as to how to give her an orgasm. When he's unable to do the job, his not so better half informs him that she's splitting the whole.

But that's not the only person who's breaking up with Doug. Hopper, his wily roommate and best friend, is moving out so he can take the next step with his girlfriend. This leaves the already depressed Doug with a rent budget he can no longer afford.

Somewhere around here, Doug becomes convinced that this is all Jane Austen's fault. I have to admit I'm not sure why, and what a girl getting mad at a guy for not bringing her to orgasm has to do with Jane Austen, but then again, I've never actually read a Jane Austen novel.

So anyway a few nights later, Hopper convinces Doug to go out with him to a strip club so he can forget about all his worries, but after getting really drunk, Doug becomes convinced that if Jane Austen had really lousy sex with a man like him, she wouldn't have spent the rest of her life writing about all this love gobbledygook. So when a stripper comes along and asks them what they want, Doug says he wishes he could make love to Jane Austen.

That turns out to be a mistake because when the stripper takes them back to the private room, she quickly turns into an old hairy wench and the next thing you know they're no longer in a modern-day strip club, but a brothel back in the 1700s.

Needless to say they’re shocked and confused but they quickly become convinced that the way to get back to the future is for Doug to complete his wish and have sex with Jane Austen. So they find out where Jane lives, pose as a couple of well-to-do types, and Doug starts a courtship of Jane.

Of course, after he gets to know Jane, he begins to like her, and starts having some moral issues with going through with it all. But since the 18th century is full of things like scurvy and polio and leprosy, Doug doesn't really have any choice. The question is, what's going to happen with Jane when he leaves?

Structure is a screenwriter's best friend. If the story doesn't have structure, it's just a random series of events that eventually spins out of control. To that end, F*cking Jane Austen is probably one of the best structured comedies I've read in a long time. I mean, every single beat is hit exactly when it's supposed to be hit, and you never once believe that the writer isn't in control of his story.

Unfortunately, that's also the script's biggest weakness. One of the dangers of becoming so proficient at structure is that you can write something that's too predictable. The reader or the audience never becomes fully engaged because they always feel like they know what's coming next, sort of like a ride at the carnival you've already been on.

The way to combat this problem is to throw two or three big unexpected moments into your screenplay. If you do something unexpected early on, it goes a long way towards disturbing the reader’s story radar. If you look at another romantic comedy, Notting Hill, we’re never quite sure how that story is going to play out. Julia Roberts comes in, she hangs out for a few days, she has to go back out and work, some tabloid pictures surface, she has to come back to him. Then she has a movie to film. While we understand the general direction of the story, the specifics aren't clear, and I think that's really important when you're writing movies that are steeped in formula, such as romantic comedies. You have to find moments to be unpredictable.

My other big problem with the script was that the “Jane Austen reasoning” wasn't explained enough. Not having read any Jane Austen myself, all I had to go on was what the script told me. And from what I could gather, Jane Austen's big contribution to the world was a belief in romance and love. Presumably then, what Doug was so frustrated with, was that the modern day woman had adapted an unrealistic expectation of love and romance, and the modern-day man couldn't live up to those expectations.

Why then, do we start off this screenplay with Doug having to mechanically follow orders from his girlfriend on how to give him an orgasm? That would seem to be the worst example of a woman who was obsessed with love and romance. Furthermore, I don't know how Doug, after experiencing that, would come to the conclusion that women are infatuated with romance. If anything, he probably would have concluded the opposite, that women didn't care about romance anymore.

So when you're ramping up to your inciting incident, make sure that your main character has actually experienced something that that inciting incident relates to. For example, if the opening scene had a girl who was obsessed with making sure Doug opened every door she went through, and pulled out every chair she approached, and ordered food appropriately, and treated her like a lady, and Doug couldn't live up to those expectations, then I would believe his theory that Jane Austen had created unrealistic expectations in women. It may be harder to find the funny in that kind of scenario, but that's what you're paid to do as a screenwriter. Anybody can come up with a crazy sex scene to open a film. But if that scene doesn't relate to the theme and premise of your movie, it's not going to make sense.

Unfortunately, those two issues so dominated my reading experience, that I could never get past them. Doug and Hopper are kind of funny and there are definitely some funny scenes (one of my favorites by far was the "pimps and hoes" party), but as I've stated a million times on the site before, I'm not really laughing at anything unless I’m invested in the characters and I believe the story, and because of those two issues above, that never happened.

Definitely a cool premise but, in my opinion, these things would need to be addressed to get this script cracking. But how does it compare to Friday's similarly-premised amateur offering? Tune in tomorrow to find out.

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

What I learned: Avoid double-explaining things in a script. For example, on page 48, Doug is forced into talking about what he does for a living and starts rambling incessantly.

I do a lot, to be honest. Some business, philosophy, engineering, pre-law. I'm kind of a Jack of all trades.
(Changing subjects)
That's a lovely piano, by the way.

He deflects attention to the pianoforte in the corner.

The fact that Doug is referring to a piano here in his dialogue means we already know there's a piano. So there's no need to write an action line pointing out that there's a piano. This is by no means a huge issue. But scripts are supposed to be lean and to the point. So you don't want to write out anything in an action line if it's already implied.

p.s. It's a travel day so if your comments don't go up right away, they will come up later.