Monday, October 10, 2011

A Many Splintered Thing

Genre: Comedy/Romantic Comedy
Premise: Told in the first person, a disgruntled screenwriter falls in love with a taken woman, and decides to do anything in his power to get her.
About: This is one of this year’s (2011) Nicholl finalists. The Nicholl Fellowship is the biggest screenwriting competition in the world.
Writers: Chris Shafer & Paul Vicknair
Details: 104 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).

Shia seems like the perfect choice to play "me."

Where do I start with this one? Let's see. I'll begin by giving these guys a couple of gold brads. This script is unique. As someone who’s read upwards of 50 screenplays in a single week, I can't tell you how frustrating it is to read the same stories told the same way over and over again. You're not going to get that here. A Many Splintered Thing differentiates itself right away by telling its story in the first person. On top of that, it's a self-referential feast. We've seen this kind of thing before (Passengers for first-person and Balls Out for self-reference), but never together. On top of that, these guys are actually good writers. If this were attempted by some hack, it wouldn't work. But you can tell these guys have been around the block.

So then, why didn't I like it? I'll get to that in a bit. First, let's break down the story.

The main character in Splintered is Me. Not "me" me. But you. Actually, no. You're the main character, which is me. Wait. I'm the main character. Hold on. The main character doesn't have a name. So he's referred throughout the screenplay as me. Or I. Because the story is told in the first person. There you go. I think that's right.

We are a writer. We have an agent. We’re asked to write the kind of screenplays we hate. So we’re frustrated with our job. We also have sex with a lot of women. We don't believe in love because love sucks. We say this a lot. Love really sucks.

We spend most of our time hanging out with our writers group and because we have a new form of attention deficit disorder that only allows us to pay attention for 3 seconds at a time, in order to make it through these sessions, we insert ourselves into our writer group friends’ stories. So for example, if someone starts telling us about their new Korean immigrant script, we imagine ourselves as that Korean immigrant, and experience the story as them.

Still with me?

Anyway, we eventually meet a beautiful girl at a charity event. This is the first time we've ever actually liked a girl. But it turns out she has a boyfriend. So when we go our separate ways, we’re really bummed out because all we can think about is this girl. But then we realize that if this girl was at one charity event, she may be at more. So we start crashing every charity event in town, pretending to be some big time philanthropist (our specialty is saving a very rare form of frog). We eventually run into this girl again (hooray!), and she's impressed by how much we care about charity, so soon we’re spending time together -as friends.

Of course, there's that whole pesky boyfriend thing getting in the way, and when the friendship starts to approach the make or break point, we’re not sure what we want to do. Because we hate love, we're leaning towards ditch city, but then there's that feeling we have that we haven't had before, pulling us back into her arms. So will we get her in the end? Will we finally learn that love is good? That is the question.

As you can see, the story itself is pretty basic, which was probably a good idea, since we need some sanity amidst all the storytelling chaos. Now back to the question. Why didn't I love this?

As I've stated over and over again, what I care about most is story. I want to be transported into another world. I want to believe in the characters. I want to believe in the situations. I crave that suspension of disbelief. I still find it fascinating that I can read something that's completely made up inside somebody's imagination, and believe it. It's bizarre isn't it? I mean you watch movies and all they are is a group of people getting together in front of a big camera, reading lines. Yet you believe it. You actually believe that Luke Skywalker is destroying the Death Star.

So if everything is a joke – if everything is designed to rip me out of that false reality - it's hard for me to care. And I'm not saying that's the case for everyone. Some people appreciate goofy self-referential nods, the purposeful flipping of clich├ęs. That can be fun. But I'm looking for the screenplay that moves me, that takes me to another place. A great example of a script that took a similar approach (told in the first person) but was able to bring me into its world was Passengers. The difference was, they used the first-person to put you in the mind of the main character as he gradually went insane. So the first-person had a story purpose. It wasn't a gimmick.

I had a few other issues as well. The problem when you're trying to be different all the time is that sooner or later those "different" moments start feeling artificially manufactured. It's like you've set this impossible bar for yourself because you want everything to be something that the audience has never seen before. But you just can't do that for an entire screenplay, so moments like the Korean mini movie, while cute, end up coming off as "writerly."

Then there's the whole "I hate love" stuff. Not believing in love is actually a solid inner conflict. The problem is, this trait isn't shown visually in Splintered. It's just beaten into our heads via dialogue, mostly from the main character. It was almost like the writers kept getting the note - "Not feeling the main character's hatred of love enough," so they simply added more scenes where the main character would say, "I hate love."

But remember, one great "show" moment is worth a dozen "tell" moments. Had they just shown him hating love, it would have been enough. For example, if you want to convey that a character is a cheater, you don't write 13 scenes of him saying how much he loves cheating. You show him meet a hot girl at a bar, and when she looks the other way, discreetly slip his wedding ring into his pocket.

Also, after a while, this screenplay hit a predictable rhythm. We’d get a scene where our main character pursued the girl, then a scene where he'd talk about it with his writers group. Then another scene with the girl. Then another scene with the writers group. It was almost like an episode of Seinfeld, where you have the event, and then the recollection of the event. Except it went on for two hours instead of 23 minutes.  They should probably fix this because the first-person writing style doesn't work nearly as well once the novelty has worn off. So the second half of the script is tougher to get through. If they changed up the rhythm a bit, made the story a tad more unpredictable, we wouldn't be focusing so much on that writing because we'd be into the story.

But I have a feeling a lot of people are going to like this. Not everybody is Snobby Carson who’s read a billion screenplays and finds something to complain about with all of them (except Drive of course). No matter which way you slice it, this script is unique. It's sort of like the illegitimate stepchild of Sequels Remakes and Adaptations, Passengers, 500 Days Of Summer, Balls Out and The F Word. If you liked those screenplays, you'll definitely want to check this out. Despite it not being my thing, I probably would've put it in the Nicholl finals as well.

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

What I learned: Cut your script down via diet and exercise, not pills. --- Guys, don't cheat. It comes back to bite you one way or another. As I was reading Splintered, I was getting frustrated by how long it was taking me so to get through it. It was confusing because it wasn't like the script was badly written, which is the usual reason scripts drag, but it was taking way longer than it should have. Afterwards, a Scriptshadow Nation reader brought to my attention that the writers had formatted their script to 66 lines per page instead of 55 (the standard). This allowed them to "save" 20 pages on the page count. Sure, that looks good on the surface, but if you think that's not affecting the read, you are wrong my screenplay loving friend. Anything that slows down your script, whether it's hidden or not, is going to hurt our enjoyment of it, as was evidenced by my frustration. So don't try to cut pages by cheating (pills). Cut them the old-fashioned way (diet and exercise). Get rid of characters you don't need. Get rid of scenes you don't need. Kill those scenes you love that have nothing to do with your story. Pare down your description. I know it's hard work but in the end it will pay off. I promise you.