Friday, October 7, 2011

Amateur Friday - Manchester Black

Genre: Crime/Thriller
Premise: After being left for dead, a man plots his revenge against the Chicago mob family who killed his wife.
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.
Writer: Erik Fredsell
Details: 104 pages

I could see Bale as Michael

I have a feeling that this script is going to generate some interesting discussion. This is what Erik, the writer, wrote in his query letter: "I've asked you to review this script before-about a year ago. I thought it was the most erudite piece of writing that has ever been produced in the history of screenplay writing...I was wrong. I was forced to go back and take a look at it because a producer contacted me about it. The screenplay was filled with superfluous scenes that ate up pages and pages. The dialogue was far too pretentious, and the narrative structure was pedestrian. I spent months redrafting the script. I've brought it down to 104 pages from 139.”

First of all, I want to applaud Erik for making these changes. This tends to be one of the more monumental steps amateur screenwriters make in their journey. We all start off believing our scripts are worthy of being 130, 140, and 150 pages. The second we realize that we don't need all those extra pages, all those extra scenes, and all that extraneous dialogue, is the second we become better storytellers. The problem here is that, even at 104 pages, I'm still seeing a lot of those same problems. There are still extraneous scenes. There is still extraneous dialogue. And there are still traces of pretentiousness. So while I'm guessing this is way better than the previous draft, some pretty significant changes still need to be made.

I know this because, normally, it's easy for me to summarize a story. But when I have to stop, think about how I'm going to convey things, stumble through the points I need to make, and am constantly trying to remember the plot, that's an indication that the story was too confusing or too muddled. I'm still not exactly sure what happens in Manchester Black, but I'm going to give it my best shot.

Michael, our main character, is mistaken for somebody involved with the mob - I believe somebody who was supposed to deliver something called a "mandori box." So the mob takes him and his wife, tortures them to find out where the box is, but since Michael doesn't know what they're talking about, they end up killing his wife and leaving him for dead.

We then follow Michael through four very torturous years where he rehabilitates his body, all in preparation to get his revenge on the people who did this. The thing is, we don't go about this linearly. Nor do we always stay with our protagonist. In fact, the movie starts with us seeing our protagonist enact his revenge, and then we go back in time, bit by bit, to see why he enacted his revenge.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that Erik is a huge Quentin Tarantino fan, and I have a strong feeling that he's going to get bashed by the commenters for it. I mean we have influences from Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill blanketing the script at almost every turn. You have to be careful when paying homage to icons, because if you do so too blatantly, you're seen as a copycat, and people are just pissed that they have to trudge through a not-as-good version of a far better movie. That's not to say this is straight Tarantino. I found this script to be darker and less forgiving than Tarantino's work, sort of Tarantino by way of William Monahan. So Erik does have his own voice. But I'm not sure it shines bright enough to outweigh the clear influences in the screenplay.

Getting back on track, once Michael takes out some of the key men responsible for killing his wife, their mob boss, Vincenzo, orders some of his top hit men to take Michael out. We intermittently cut to these groups of hit men, sometimes on their way to kill Michael, and sometimes just hanging out shooting the shit. Eventually, they all fail, and Vincenzo will have to do the deed himself. Theoretically, this should be easy. He's one of the top mob bosses is in the city. But Michael has something going for him that none of these men can touch - the desire to avenge his wife's death.

I have so many things to say about this script, I don't even know where to start. First of all, I already know what commenters are going to say. They'll start with the script being overwritten. And they're right. Here is one of the very first sentences in the screenplay: "Michael, draped in an exanimate black suit, inexorably walks past the eponymously embossed window, towards three thuggish men sitting at a table.” I'm not even sure what half of those words mean.

The reason overwriting is a problem is that it takes the reader’s focus off the screenplay and places it on the writing. Screenplays aren't a writing contest. They’re a storytelling contest. Outside of Scriptshadow, these words will never be published anywhere. So it doesn't matter if you're a walking thesaurus. The goal of writing a story is to bring the reader into your world. If you try to be too flashy or too wordy, you're constantly pushing the reader out of that world. You want to be visual with your writing, yes, but the second it looks like you're trying too hard, you're dead. And it feels like the writing is trying way too hard here.

Second is degree of difficulty. Ambition is good. Trying to do something different is good. But tackling a degree of difficulty higher than your ability level is suicide. We have two things here that make telling this story extremely difficult. The first is an endless character count. The more characters you have, the less time you have to develop your main characters, and the more likely you're going to have a reader who's confused as hell about who everybody is. I couldn't remember half the people here, and even worse, I don't think a quarter of them were necessary. We'd occasionally jump to characters who didn't have anything to do with the story. They’d just talk. So that led to a lot of confusion.

The second problem is all the time jumping. Manipulating time is one of the coolest things film allows you to do. But conveying it on the page is way more difficult than conveying it onscreen, and if you don't know what you're doing, you're going to confuse the hell out of the reader. It took me about 40 pages, for example, to figure out what was going on. A big part of the problem was, I didn't understand why we were telling this story out of order. I kept thinking to myself, would this lose anything if it were told linearly? It might be more predictable, but it’d certainly be less confusing. So the jumping around felt like a cheap manipulative trick just to make the story different. It's a better idea to have your time jumping motivated in some way. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is a perfect example. We jump around in time there in order to take advantage of the characters’ memory loss. Stories always work better when choices are motivated.

The thing is, I can understand a guy like Erik's frustration. There is some serious talent on display here. I'm not an authority on mob flicks, but the dialogue here was pretty damn good. When these guys spoke, I felt like they were really those people - and I don't often see that in screenplays. Also, he's well read and intelligent. You can see that intelligence on every page. So here's this guy, with all this talent, looking out there and seeing scripts like the dumbed down "Nonstop" sell, and wondering, how the hell are these guys making a living at this and I'm not??

Here's the reason. Because the story has to come before everything. You have to display storytelling skills and not an ability to write random monologues, or crazy characters, or jump around in time a lot. I don't care how well you describe that stuff, or how different you can be. If it's not serving the story, if it's not easy to follow, if it isn't building the stakes, etc., etc., then it won't matter. There are pieces of this story that are really good. There are scenes in this story that are really good. But on the whole, it's a garbled mess. It's too difficult to follow and has too many unnecessary tangents. Say what you will about Nonstop, but the storyline is always clear, the stakes are always clear, and you can see it as a movie. With Manchester Black, at least in its current form, it's too hard to follow.

So how would I fix this screenplay? I'd start by cutting the character list by half. It would force you to only use the characters you absolutely needed to tell the story. The next thing I would do is cut out any scene with a monologue in it. I don't remember a single monologue in this script that was necessary. I’d then focus on the story elements that have the most punch. For example, this mandori box sounds interesting. But it’s essentially treated like the suitcase in Pulp Fiction (another reference people are going to kill you for). Let's make that box a bigger part of the story. Finally, continue to focus on the components that bring out the most emotion - avenging his wife's death for example. You do that well here. So I’d continued to feature it in the next draft. Once you strip the movie down, and we don't have to keep track of so many people, the time jumping should be easier to follow. I’d still like it to be motivated, but I could see it working a lot better if your script were streamlined.

And finally, don't end your mob movie at a warehouse. That's where every mob movie ends! :-)

Script link: Manchester Black

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

What I learned: I'm gonna say this again. A scene where all that's happening is one person giving another person their theory on life is a scene of death. Here's a monologue from one of the characters on page 49. It happens as two characters we don't know very well are randomly driving their car somewhere: "You’re talking about evil like it has any inherit meaning beyond its limited definition. My view is that if God is truly omniscient, he can see things from all perspectives. He knows why I do what I do just as well I do. And what is evil but perspective. It isn’t tangible, and there’s always a reason behind it, even if it can’t be seen. Look at it with total honesty-this whole argument. How do we weigh a man’s actions? He provides for his family, gives to charities, volunteers, but one day he murders his wife. You don’t even need to examine his reasoning. Just look at it like this: He built up a lifetime of goodwill, and does one moment negate all he has done throughout his life and make him evil? Same thing goes for terrorists. They’re freedom fighters and liberators to many people. Serial killers-sufferers from severe psychosis. Child molesters, rapists-an outgrowth from years of sexual abuse. There is no evil my friend just perspective.” Well-written? Sure. Does the story lose anything if the scene is erased? No. And that's the problem. If the scene can be erased and absolutely nothing is lost, you don't need the scene. Does that mean you should never have a monologue in your screenplay? No. Of course not. But you have to find a way to weave them into the story - to make them matter. Now I didn't love this scene in The Matrix, but it's adequate enough to make my point. There's a scene where Agent Smith has Morpheus chained up to a chair and is trying to get him to give him the codes to Zion. He goes on a rather long monologue about how humans are actually a virus. Let's apply the same test here. Does the story lose anything if the scene is erased? Yes. One character is trying to obtain highly important information from another character before his friends come and save him. Drop the scene and the movie doesn't make sense. So you can have monologues in your screenplay. They can even contain philosophical meanderings. But they have to be an essential part of the story to work.