Friday, October 14, 2011

Amateur Friday - Truck Stop

Genre: Sci-fi
Premise: On their way to California, a family stops at a truck stop, only to realize it’s inhabited by a strange alien force.
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: Peter Tom Maatta
Details: 97 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).

I think Peter was a little nervous about throwing his script out there for the world to judge, and since last week got a little nasty in the comments section, I want to remind everyone that the idea behind Amateur Friday is not only to discuss amateur screenplays, but to help the writer make their screenplay better. So the more constructive you can make your comments, the more educational Fridays will be.

That's not to say I want you guys sugarcoating anything. I think it's important to let the writer know when something isn't working, even if it's the whole damn shebang. If you hated it, say you hated it. But instead of focusing on coming up with the perfect witty Francis-like put down, use that brain power of yours to suggest how to fix the script, even if it's a minor suggestion. We're all in this together so let's be supportive.

Okay, on to Truck Stop. This script fucking sucked.

No, I'm kidding. I'm kidding. That was a joke everyone. Calm down.

In staying with the theme of this week's selections, this script had a weird vibe to it that isn't quite like anything you've read before. I definitely sensed some David Lynchness to the story, so if you dig the Lynchster, you'll probably find something here to like.

40-something Kevin Ford and his wife Danielle are taking the kids, 15-year-old Katie and 10-year old Nathan, on a road trip to California. It's a needed getaway since Kevin recently experienced a home invasion while the family was gone. But this wasn't any home invasion. He believes he saw creatures break into his house. So his therapist tells him to get out of Dodge, enjoy life a little bit, and that's what he plans to do.

Oh if it were only that easy. About halfway there, the family stops at a truck stop to get a bite to eat. As we were notified at the beginning of the script, this truck stop had a little reeses pieces phone home experience back in the 50s. So we already know something weird’s going on with this place.

On this night, however, it's fairly packed, with typical inbred-fare no less. In fact, the clientele is so sketchy that the family starts getting nervous and prepares an exit plan. The problem is that Katie is off talking on her phone and Nathan is off playing hide and seek with himself, so even though Kevin has a really bad feeling about this, he can't get the family together in time to get out. And boy is he going to regret that.

Up from the basement comes one of the restaurant workers who’s drenched in blood. And outside there’s a large contingent of men in black refusing to let anybody leave the truck stop. Apparently they're aware that this place has alien activity. And that means the truck stop is quarantined. As things spiral out of control and truck stoppers start dying, Kevin finds himself waking up at the beginning of his vacation, like none of it ever happened.

In fact, he doesn't remember the truck stop at all. He just has some fleeting moments of déjà vu. So when they get to the truck stop again, he's trying to figure out why he feels like he's been here before. Once he does, he tries to get the family out again, but runs into the same problems. Cut to Kevin waking up in his car once again. I think you get the point. This keeps repeating itself as Kevin remembers more and more each time, and has to use that knowledge to try and save his family.

In short, I thought there were some really interesting ideas here. I liked the idea of a strange truck stop in the middle of nowhere with an alien presence. There's all sorts of things you can do with that and I was curious to see what Peter would come up with. I also liked the family angle. Approaching this from the point of view of a family that has to escape together makes for some good drama. So the core of this story has potential.

Unfortunately, I don't think the script is ready. It feels like it was rushed out before all of the crazy ideas were molded into something coherent. In fact, coherency is a big problem here, and it starts with the tiniest of details. There were a lot of spelling mistakes and misused words in the script. Just in the first 15 we get "he" instead of "the." We get "hoping" instead of "hopping." We get "possible" instead of "possibly." We get "slowing" instead of "slowly." On a good day, I can handle a few mistakes, but when they start affecting my enjoyment of the story, it becomes a problem. Plus it just makes it seem like the script was rushed. No reader likes to read a script they feel was slapped onto the page haphazardly.

That sloppiness continued in other places as well. For example, this script started back in the 40s. It then jumped to the 50s. Then it jumped…….. I don't know when. We just cut to a new scene. I didn't know if we were still in the 50s, if we had jumped forward another 20 years, or if we were now in the present day. Because it was never stated. Those are important details that need to be conveyed.

This then permeated into the story itself. I couldn't understand, for example, why this alien in the truck stop had waited to strike for 40 years. Or if it *had* been striking that entire time - killing people left and right - why hadn't the authorities gone to check it out? And what did Kevin's previous experience with aliens have to do with his current experience with aliens? I'm thinking the odds of running into an alien are one in a billion. Yet our main character runs into them twice. If there was a connection there somehow, it would be okay, but as far as I could tell, each event was isolated.

And then there were moments like Kevin going over to talk to a weird guy in the diner who's giving him déjà vu. He has a quick conversation with the man then heads back to his wife, who asks, "Who was that?" And Kevin's response is, "Just somebody I thought I knew." And apparently that's good enough for his wife. Wouldn't you be curious how your husband would know somebody a thousand miles away from your home at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere? Wouldn't you ask, "Who would you know out here?" But she doesn't say a thing. She just rolls with it. It didn't feel thought through - like Peter was thinking about how the characters would really react to one another. This is something I probably would've shrugged off under normal circumstances, but all of the sloppiness I mentioned earlier made it so I didn't trust the script. Any time something didn't make sense, my first thought was to blame the author. That's what a sloppily written script will do to a reader.

The plot itself kind of loops in and out of coolness. I liked the men in black characters hanging out outside and not letting anybody leave. And probably my favorite sequence was when (spoiler) all of time stops and the sky opens up and we see these giant aliens coming down and resetting the truck stop. It was just so trippy and weird I was totally captivated. The problem was that the narrative was so mushy and strange, that these moments were more surprising than they were dramatically compelling. What I mean is, I was never clear on what these moments had to do with the story. I wasn't even sure what Kevin had to do to get out of the time loop. Even at the end of the script (spoiler) when he makes it out, I wasn't clear how he had made it out.

My suggestion would be to give this story a different slant. I’d start off by getting rid of the opening flashbacks. It's not clear why we need a scene of the atom bomb blowing up or even why we need to see the truck stop owner bring the alien into his restaurant. That feels like back story to me and I’d rather just jump into the real story.

I'm also not convinced that the looping time thing is the way to go. We already have a truck stop with a strange alien presence inside. Throwing in a time loop might be one sci-fi additive too many. If we can just get this family to the truck stop and have the alien (or aliens, or MIB) start wreaking havoc on the people, and they have to escape, that could be enough.

For example, maybe the alien arrives and starts killing a few people and somehow the people in the diner are able to kill it. So they think they're okay. Then these strange men show up to take care of it, and they realize that these men (the men in black) are actually more dangerous than the aliens themselves, and are planning to kill them because they’re a witness to alien activity. Then add some twists and turns (maybe more aliens show up). But at the heart of the story is a family trying to get out of this crazy situation alive.

Originally, I thought that the humans inside this truck stop were actually going to be aliens. That might be cool in itself. The family shows up. Everybody there acts really weird. They can tell something is up. And maybe the family happens to be there right at the moment the men in black have finally figured out that this truck stop is a haven for aliens and have come there to kill them off. So our family is actually collateral damage in the ordeal and must work with the aliens to get out alive. I don't know, something a little less trippy.

Anyway, I don't think this was quite ready for consumption, but it had some cool ideas that could be harnessed for future drafts. Thanks, Peter, for letting me read it. :-)

Script link: Truck Stop

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

What I learned: Don't set up something if you're not going to pay it off - if you're not going to explain its connection to the rest of the story. A huge deal is made out of this alien home invasion that happened to Kevin. Yet it's never explained what that has to do with the alien presence at the truck stop. Were they trying to warn him? Were these the same aliens? What was their intention for breaking in? If you're gonna set something like that up, you eventually have to connect it to the rest of the story. Otherwise it feels random and sloppy.