Friday, November 4, 2011

Amateur Friday - Reunion

Genre: Thriller/Horror
Premise: At their ten-year reunion, a formerly bullied outcast decides to enact revenge on the cool kids who made his life miserable.
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: Adam Zopf
Details: 116 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).

Let me give you some background on this read. It was 10:30pm. I was preparing to read my Amateur Friday script for the week. Chose one with a good premise. 13 spelling mistakes by page four. Went back to the well. Pulled out the next one. I had to read the first sentence four times to understand it. Threw it out. Pulled out another one in which the writer promised it was better than famous movies A, B, and C. By page 5 I realized I’d drifted into a daydream about Uncrustables. I tried to keep reading but it was like swimming through bricks. There wasn’t a friendly sentence in the lot.

I considered the possibility that I was too tired to read and decided to call it a night. Then I thought, ehhhhh, maybe I’ll try one more, and begrudgingly picked up Reunion. It's not that I didn't like the premise. It was okay. But I've read a lot of these high school thriller scripts and they always end up being lame. Advanced Placement was a perfect example. And that was one of the BETTER ones. So I ain’t gonna lie. I was expecting bad things from Reunion.

My fears were verified almost immediately when I was barraged with these huge paragraphs in the opening pages (Adam, you gotta get rid of these). I was doing that thing where your head falls back against the chair, you stare up at the ceiling, and you plea to the Script Gods to make it end.

But then…a strange thing happened. My exhaustion started to dissipate. Those huge paragraphs? They evaporated like snow on a warm Spring day. The words started to flow together like chocolate and caramel. The characters, who at first seemed cliché and boring, started to grow on me. Most surprising of all, I wasn’t thinking about Uncrustables anymore. Which is just not possible once I start thinking about Uncrustables. When it was all said and done, I realized that I had just read the best Amateur Friday script I'd ever read on the site.

John Doe is your average 28 year old dude. Holds down a normal job. Lives a normal life. Type of guy you’d pass on a busy street and not think twice about. It so happens that John’s just received an invitation to his 10-year High School reunion. Although it’s not clear to us why yet, John looks like he’s been waiting for this invitation for a looonnnng time.

Jason and Maria are the perfect couple – high school sweethearts who never lost the spark for each other. Jason was the popular athlete and Maria the prettiest girl. These two also receive their reunion invitation, but while Maria’s thrilled to mix it up with all her old friends, Jason’s kind of moved on with his life. He’ll go, but only because Maria wants to.

They get to the banquet hall (not in the high school) and within minutes the gang is back together again. There’s Vicki, little Miss Perfect and former valedictorian. There’s Derek, the name you see in the dictionary when you look up “meathead.” There’s his meathead brother-in-arms Wes. There’s Quincy, the smart one of the bunch. Ryan, the face-man of the group. And finally the desperate duo of Molly and Claire. Never as popular as Maria or Vicki, yet 5 times as likely to abuse their power.

During the reunion, the group gets a mysterious invitation to continue the party back at the high school. They look at it as a spontaneous opportunity (just like they used to do in high school!) and head over there. It’s there that they find a big fat keg in the middle of the gym floor. They get to drinking but pretty soon find themselves woozy. They pass out, and the next thing you know wake up in desks with collars around their necks.

The P.A. system sputters to life and a mysterious man claims to have Meathead Derek with him. If they don't follow his orders, Derek will be hurt. They of course think this is all a joke. But there's something unsettling about the voice. He explains that the collars they're wearing are a combination of poison and acid. If they try and run, they will die a painful ugly death. Hmmm. Now everybody’s getting worried. This IS a joke, isn’t it?

John reminds them of who he was in high school. Grossly overweight. 300+ pounds. And these guys let him know it every single day. They’d scream out “FAT PIG!” and squeal whenever he was nearby. Every day for him was a nightmare. And it was all their fault.

So he's giving them a chance to redeem themselves. If they can tell him his real name, he’ll let them go. But until then, he's going to put them through a series of “tests” so they can learn what it was like to live every single moment in fear.

We go from classroom to pool to woodshop to almost every location in the school, and each time, they’re tested. Sometimes the tests are as simple as answering questions. Other times they’re as complicated as swimming to the bottom of a pool teeming with piranhas. And John Doe is no joke. If you don’t do your job, you die. And members of the crew start dropping like flies. Will anybody survive this? Will they stop John Doe’s insane experiment? Or will he eliminate them all?

Okay, as I indicated before, I expected a really shitty script here. It’s just hard to make anyone believe in or care about a situation that’s so obviously manufactured. I mean, something like this would never happen in real life. So the challenge of getting an audience to suspend their disbelief is immense. Which is probably the biggest achievement here. Just the fact that Adam got me to believe in this scenario was amazing.

In my opinion, what made the script work so well is that I was torn between who I was rooting for. I mean we have this crazy psycho lunatic executing these innocent people left and right, and yet as the story goes on, and we learn WHY he’s doing this, we slowly start to root for John. I mean I’ve never experienced such an intense divide in who I was rooting for before - the "hero" or the "villain."  I could make an argument for both sides.

And that doesn’t happen unless the character work is great. And the character work is just really strong here. John Doe is the kind of character you will continue thinking about for weeks after you finish this screenplay. Why? Well, because Adam decided to ignore one of those crusty screenwriting rules all of us screenplay enthusiasts preach: Avoid flashbacks at all costs.

Reunion THRIVES because of its flashbacks. It’s in these flashbacks that we experience John’s life in high school. We see his loneliness. We see what it was like for him going to school every day. People laughing at him. People calling him “Fat Pig” wherever he goes. And because Adam tells it in basically the first person, we feel like WE’RE the Fat Pig. We feel like WE’RE being made fun of. It’s a brilliant decision. Because we really start to identify with and understand John. And that’s where great scripts separate themselves – by creating complicated complex characters. John is KILLING people. So then why is there a part of us that wants him to succeed? Why is there a part of us that understands him? It makes us uncomfortable. It confuses us. It frustrates us. In other words, it makes us FEEL something. It makes us THINK about something. Most scripts just wanna make things explode. Which is why Reunion is so powerful.

I think what I liked best about Reunion though is that it never quite went how you thought it was going to go. For example, I just assumed the flashbacks were going to be a series of repetitive ventures showing us again and again that John got bullied. Instead, there’s an entire STORY within the backstory. There’s an arc. John actually has a heroic moment. The school actually falls in love with him. It’s stuff like this that really separates the men from the boys. If you can surprise the people who read everything, you’re doing a good job.

But it’s the last image of those flashbacks that will stay with you. It’s that moment that will have you thinking about Reunion long after you’ve put it down. It’s the reason you’ll find yourself rooting for John to take out the last of these hyenas, even though you know it’s wrong.

Now the script isn’t bulletproof. It does get sloppy in places and some of the choices are questionable. I was not a huge fan of the math scene. I understand that we have to start small and build up with each lesson. But it felt a little silly with them sitting at desks with their lives in the balance over a math question. And the piranha scene was a bit much. I mean, how do you even get several hundred piranhas into a high school without anybody noticing? It was silly.

That’s the challenge with this screenplay. It’s a situation that would never ever happen in real life. So anything that reminds us of that should be avoided at all costs. I understand the use of the pool. You need some cinematic elements to this and if everything is in a classroom, it will get stale. But there has to be a more believable way to use the pool. Maybe he weighs one of them down and they’re pulled to the bottom of the pool and have to be saved. I don’t know. But come on. Piranhas?

Other than that, I loved this script. Fat Pig is a character for the ages. And you know what? Not only is this the best Amateur Friday script I’ve ever read, but it’s something that could actually be made – be marketed. People would go see this I think. If you’re a producer out there, I would jump on this before it gets snatched up.

Script link: Reunion

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

What I learned: Tell a story with your flashbacks. I think the flashbacks that bother me most are the isolated ones. When they’re unconnected one-offs that serve as lazy ways to convey backstory. But when they’re their own story, each one building off the previous, then we’ll be looking forward to them. The backstory becomes a story in itself. This is one of the better ways to use flashbacks in my opinion.