Monday, September 19, 2011


Genre: Thriller
Premise: An air marshal finds himself in the middle of a unique terrorist attack.
About: This script sold very recently, I believe two or three weeks ago. It sold via the popular method of the writers developing it with a producer, who got it to a point where he liked it, then went out and sold it. This seems to be the best bet for selling scripts these days if you don't have anybody attached.
Writers: John Richardson and Chris Roach
Details: 109 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).

You know I have either read or heard about a dozen of these stuck on an airplane thrillers, mainly because I actively seek them out. I believe it's one of the most naturally tension filled situations you can put your characters in. You're stuck up at 37,000 feet. You're in a long metal tube with no way out. And on top of dealing with whatever problem you're dealing with, you also have to worry about keeping that damn plane up in the sky.

But for all these positives, there's one giant negative. You don't have a lot of room to play around in. I don't think I need to tell you guys how little space there actually is on an airplane. They got us packed in like sardines so they can offer us those nice cushy low prices. So cinematically, it's not an ideal location. On top of that, you have the issue of 200 or more extra people on the plane that you have to figure out what to do with. This is why you get scenes like the one in Knight and Day where there's only 15 people on the plane. Even though it doesn't make sense, it makes it easy to account for everyone. So anyway, this is a long prelude to me saying I'm always interested in what writers do with this set up and how they tackle these unique problems.

Bill Marks is a 50-something air marshal who’s mega bored with his job. Apparently these poor air marshals basically jump on one plane to the next without ever getting a break. Flying is their life and since 99% of the time, nothing dangerous happens on a plane, it's easy to get bored. And Bill is really bored.

About the only thing that keeps him going is women. Yup, Bill is a pretty simple guy. If he can strike up a conversation with a pretty woman, he just might make it through the flight with his sanity intact. So when he’s seated next to 29-year-old hottie Jamie on his Hawaii to LA flight, he thanks the lucky stars he's about to be 37,000 feet closer to.

The two get to talking and while she's hesitant at first (he is like 20 years older) she starts to actually like Bill. But before the sparks can start flying, Bill gets a text that grounds him real quick. The text says that unless he kills himself right now, one person will start dying every 20 minutes. Bill leaps into action, heading back into Coach, and indiscreetly starts searching for the culprit. As he centers in on the obvious suspects, the best twist in the screenplay occurs. He gets a text that says, "I never said it was a passenger." The plane starts flailing wildly and we learn that the Captain is dead.

Bill realizes now that this is serious and also realizes that the only person he can completely trust is Jamie, since she was sitting next to him when he got the first text. They also end up recruiting an Oakland police officer on the flight, who unfortunately turns out to be almost as gung ho in his pursuit of the terrorist as the terrorist is in pursuing them.

More people start dying. Bill searches frantically. The terrorist eventually reveals himself and it turns out that discreetly killing people was only the first part of a much more complicated plan. So Bill must search deep down for every skill he's ever learned and figure out how he's going to save everyone on this plane.

When I first wrote up this review, I read it back and realized how bitter it sounded. I want to make something clear. This appears to be these writers’ first sale and I couldn't be more happy for them. This business is a heartbreaking lonely relentless profession that rarely lets new members through the door. So it needs to be celebrated when one of us becomes one of them. And you know, I can see why this script sold. It's fast. It's intense. It's fun. It's got plenty of twists and turns. It has a solid part to play for a well-known actor.

But having said that, I couldn't get into it because I didn't believe it. I suppose if you take this as more of a fun tongue in cheek type thriller, you probably won't care about a lot of the things I'm about to bring up. And I did try to let myself go and not take things too seriously. But there were just some glaring issues that no matter how hard I tried to ignore, I couldn't.

My first huge problem was that Bill practically pranced around with a sign on his chest that read "I am an air marshal." While I don't know the exact protocol, I believe it's valid that the pilots and crew would know who the air marshal was on their plane. So that I didn't have a problem with. What I did have a problem with was Bill walking up right in front of every passenger on the plane and chumming it up with the Captain, the Co-Captain and the rest of the crew. Could you be any more transparent?

Then, about 90 seconds after meeting Jamie, she says "You're an air marshal aren't you?" Now I'd imagine that the answer you'd be trained to say would be: "No." But instead, Bill smiles and says "How did you know?" Is this the least professional air marshal in the history of air marshaling? So then later when Bill expresses some element of shock that the terrorist knows who he is, all I could think was, maybe if you didn't pull out your bullhorn and announce it to the entire flight every time you got on a plane, you wouldn't have this problem. So I really had no sympathy for the guy because he was so stupid. Once I'm not on board with the main character, it doesn't matter how well the rest of the script is written. I'm probably not going to care. And that's unfortunately what happened here.

And really, an oversight like this leads to a bigger problem. The second you give the reader something to doubt, they start looking for other things to doubt. They're counting problems instead of enjoying your story. So for example, we have a terrorist who's killing people one by one and yet this plane is flying through the sky problem free. As you may remember, just last Sunday, they sent two F-16s after a plane where a man was in the bathroom for too long. Hawaii and California have the largest defensive presence in all of the United States. So why F-16s weren't scrambled to intercept this plane is beyond me. Especially since the plane had internet access, and everyone on it was giving CNN a second by second update of the ordeal.

I'm not going to get into the ending here because I don't want to spoil it. But I'll just say that it was way too convoluted. The coolest thing about these movies is what happens at the beginning. Part of the reason it's so cool is because you want to know how and why it's happening. Why would somebody want an air marshal to kill himself? How is this guy killing these people one by one, especially the Captain himself? That's an intriguing question I want an answer to. So when the answer comes and it feels silly and doesn't really make sense, it's disappointing.

I received a handful of positive reviews for Nonstop, which is why I decided to read it. So I think there are people out there who are going to look at this as a fun ride and nothing more. If you're not as anal as I am and aren’t really concerned about authenticity, or you don't really know or care how things really work in a situation like this, there's a good chance you'll just go with the flow and enjoy this. And I'm guessing that that's what the company who bought it is banking on. But unfortunately, that lack of authenticity killed it for me.

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

What I learned: The lazy "doesn't really make sense" villain motivation. We've all done it. And I'll tell you why it happens. Nonsensical villain motivations occur when you fall in love with your setup even though you have no idea how you're going to explain it. You leave that up to your future self. Or, as the old saying goes, you "write yourself into a corner." This forces you to come up not with the best possible ending, but with the best possible ending that still allows you to keep your setup. Often times, this forces the writer to patch together a forced overly explanatory climax that makes little sense. The best endings usually come when you back engineer your setup after you figure out your ending. Unfortunately, this often means reworking your setup into something that isn't as exciting as you originally envisioned. But I still think it's necessary, because the ending has to make sense. It has to be an organic extension of everything that came before it. If you have your bad guy going through a 5 minute overly complicated "Exposition Eddie" explanation of why he did this, it's usually a sign that something is wrong.