Thursday, October 27, 2011

Halloween Week!!! - Zombie Baby

Genre: Horror Comedy
Premise: In a world that's gotten used to the zombie presence, a young couple finds themselves trying to raise a zombie baby.
About: This script finished in the middle of the pack of last year's Black List. This was Jones’ thesis script at the American Film Institute. He moved to LA after going to college at the University of North Carolina, which, correct me if I'm wrong, has a strong film department. So I'm assuming he started his examination of the craft there. This is his breakthrough screenplay.
Writer: Andy Jones
Details: 107 pages - undated (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).

The beauty of this job is that one day you can be reading about the man who cracked the code that ended World War II, and the next day you can be reading about A ZOMBIE BABY! I'll be honest with you. I was not looking forward to this. I didn't see any scenario under which this script could be good. How do you center an entire movie around a zombie baby? I can imagine maybe three jokes? Four tops? If you'd put me in a room and told me I’d be gassed in an hour if I didn't come up with a script idea that incorporated a zombie baby, I'd start writing my will.

But you never know which scripts are going to surprise you. I guess that's why they call it a surprise. Zombie Baby was the funniest comedy I've read in a while. It’s not perfect, but boy is it entertaining.

Mike Peters is 35 years old and married to his unfairly pretty wife, Sarah. Not a good start for Zombie Baby. I’ve read, I think, 16,215 scripts that start with an average looking guy who has an unfairly hot girlfriend/wife. Originality = -1. But hey, it’s the movies. And I know a zombie baby is coming. So I brush it off.

Sarah's parents, who come around way too often, are getting impatient about the non-baby situation. Mike and Sarah have been together forever. So where’s the damn little one? It’s getting so bad that Sarah can barely make it through the day without having a nervous breakdown. It’s not that SHE has to have a baby. But it would be nice to shut her parents up.

Oh, let me back up. The world’s also been overrun by zombies. But the good news is, the governments have it under control. They've pushed most of the zombies into big cities where they’re safely contained. But the occasional zombie does lurch around and it's up to you and your trusty sidearm to take care of it.

And this is really where our story begins. Mike and Sarah come home one night to find a zombie couple in their house. After splattering their brains all over the kitchen cabinets, they realize the zombie couple have left behind a zombie……….you guessed it……..BABY! Zombie Baby!!! And while it's easy to fill a full-grown zombie’s skull with lead, it's a lot harder to do so to a cooing and cawing zombie baby.

So they take a page out of the screenwriter’s handbook and put it off until tomorrow. The zombie baby doesn't have any teeth yet so technically they’re safe. The problem is, the more time you spend with zombie baby, the more you like him. Sarah even realizes that with a little make-up, you can actually make him look like a real baby. Wait a minute. Are they actually KEEPING zombie baby?

I guess so. And the reason this is a big problem is that recently, someone who was keeping their zombie mom lost her and she went on a 35 person zombie killing spree. For that reason, the government has made it illegal to house zombies. If you’re caught with a zombie, you’re getting the chair.

Eventually, Mike's redneck brother shows up to stay with the fam, which is problematic in that he LOVES KILLING ZOMBIES. After an odd babysitting adventure, he begins to suspect something is up. Mike and Sarah realize they need to do something with Zombie Baby now or his bro is going to kill it. Even worse, he might turn them in. If you thought raising a real baby was hard, try raising a ZOMBIE BABY! (can you tell I like saying “Zombie Baby?”).

I thought this was great. I can't remember a horror comedy that had this much fun with its premise. But what I really liked about Zombie Baby was that it wasn't truly about a zombie baby. It was about the challenges a young couple faces raising a baby for the first time. Yet explored in a unique way.

Think about it. How many "raising babies" movies and TV shows have we seen over the years? Somewhere between way too many and a googolplex. The worst is when it enters the sitcom scenario. We've watched a sitcom for five years, and in order to "spice things up" they add a baby. It always signifies the death of the show. And that's because we've seen it all before. There's nothing new you can show us.

That is, unless you make the baby a zombie. This opens it up to all sorts of new scenarios and it's fun to see what Jones does with these scenarios. For example, when it's time to clean the baby, they don't go to the bathtub and have their first bath. Mike drops him down in the middle of the driveway and shoots a hose at him for 5 minutes. You can't do that kind of thing in Three Men And A Baby.

Most of the story mechanics in Zombie Baby were sound too. There's this constant evolving (open-ended) goal of trying to figure out what to do with the baby. Jones was also wise to add high stakes to the scenario. If they were caught with the baby, they’d be killed. So there really was a lot at stake.

I was enjoying this so much, in fact, that at one point I had it as an impressive. But unfortunately, my fears were realized. Try as you may, try as you might, this is still a thin premise. It's hard to build an entire two hour scenario around it. And I could feel that in the second half.

Two story choices I had problems with were the brother and the painting. I can't figure it out, but something bothered me about the brother. He felt like an artificial storytelling device to create conflict in the family. What I mean by that is, I was never clear on why he came to the house. He just sort of shows up and says I'm gonna live here now. It's critical that pieces of the story like this make sense, because if they don't, we become aware that the writer is placing them in the story. This only gets worse when the brother becomes this radical hick who's willing to murder his own family because they’re housing a zombie baby. I never bought it.

The other plot point that didn't go anywhere was Sarah’s painting of the zombie baby. There's this whole thread where a weird senator falls in love with the painting and wants to buy it. I didn't feel it had anything to do with the story and really just got in the way.

One of the hardest things to do as a writer is recognize when something isn't working and cut it. It's hard because you know you’ll have to think of something else and rewrite a hell of a lot of the script. But I always say, if something feels wrong in your screenplay, it probably is. And if you don't do something about it, you're going to be chained to that bad choice for the rest of the screenplay. It's just going to lead to more bad choices. So it's best to take care of the problem at the outset.

Luckily, the script rebounds at the end when our couple realizes what they need to do with the baby. I won't spoil it for you but it was well set up and it ended everything on a good note. Which I was so happy about because I was getting nervous there for a while. This was a really funny script. I'm glad to see that Jones is getting so much publicity over it.

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

What I learned: I know I've talked about this before but I can't stress it enough. You have to find a unique way to tell an old story. Jones actually gave an interview about this. He loves zombies but when he sat down to think about a zombie movie, he realized that almost everything had been done. So he vowed not to write a zombie movie until he discovered a unique angle. He eventually realized he hadn't seen a zombie movie about taking care of a zombie - and that's where the zombie baby idea came from. This is a critical component to a writer's success - that moment BEFORE you write your screenplay and figuring out if the story is WORTH being written in the first place. I always say marinate on an idea for 2-3 months (at least) before you write it. Make sure you like the idea just as much now as you did originally.  Also, the best way into this business is still to find a unique way to tell an old story. You still have to execute it. You still have to nail all the beats and the structure. But you're way ahead of the game if right out of the gate you have something unique.