Friday, November 11, 2011

Amateur Friday - Revisting "Blood and Fire" (rewrite special)

Genre: Drama/Thriller
Premise: A missionary moves his family into a third world town, only to find that the locals in charge don’t want him there.
About: This is our first ever REVISITING of an Amateur Friday script! --- 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: Karl Larsson
Details: 109 pages

As long time readers know, Karl is one of the best commenters on the site. I don’t know if there’s anyone better at suggesting creative fixes for the scripts I review. What’s surprising is that Karl has only written one script himself – this one – which I reviewed on a previous Amateur Friday. No doubt his University Of Scriptshadow degree has helped him break down screenplays intelligently, but it’s still impressive that someone with so little screenwriting experience is this story savvy.

The consensus on the previous draft was that the writing was good but the story wandered, jumping back and forth between different times and places for no discernable reason. So Karl took our comments to heart and went back for an almost Page 1 rewrite. I thought it would be fun to see how that rewrite went.

My prediction for the rewrite was this… I knew Karl would give us a better draft. But I also assumed there’d still be problems. Screenwriting is like flying a plane. You don’t know how to get out of a tough situation until you’ve experienced it firsthand. If you’ve only written one script, you can’t possibly know your way out of every problem. Couple that with non-commercial subject matter, and I knew it would be tough. So, with that in mind, off to the review.

In this new version of Blood and Fire, just like the last version, Shane Rider is a Captain in the Salvation Army. He’s just arrived with his family in Belize, where he plans to set up a church and spread the word of God to the locals. He encounters difficulty almost immediately when he finds a local cop, Fitzroy, blocking the main road. We don’t know why, but we get the sense this guy’s not on the up and up.

We’re proven right soonafter when Fitzroy and his brother kidnap and prepare to rape a local girl. When Fitzroy leaves to take care of something, Shane catches the brother with the woman and shoots him. The woman says there was another man, and the hunt is on to find out who. Problem is the person they’re reporting this to is Fitzroy, the OTHER MAN.

In retaliation for killing his brother, Fitzroy burns down Shane’s church. Ironically, the church happened to be where his brother stashed a bunch of drug money. Naturally, the drug lord who was owed this money is not happy. So what does he do? He storms into town and takes over the school Shane’s wife teaches at. He’s going to hold everyone there hostage until Shane gets him that money (being that it was his church that the money burned up in). So Shane has to rob a bank to get the money, or potentially lose his family.

Let’s start with the good. The second half of this script is ten times better than the previous draft of Blood and Fire. Once the drug lord comes in and takes over the school, this screenplay really picks up. We are in genuine fear for Shane’s family’s life.

I also liked Fitzroy. There’s no character more fun to root against than a villainous corrupt cop. And Fitzroy plays that roll to a T. When he kidnaps Chloe, Shane’s daughter, you just wanna burn the guy at the stake.

I also liked how in this version, Shane is forced to team up with Caron, the bad guy from the previous draft. I love when characters who hate each other are forced to work together because there’s so much inherent irony and conflict in the partnering. These two should not and cannot work together and yet they have to. Loved it.

And overall the script was just more focused. That was the biggest improvement. We weren’t jumping all over the world and flashing back to places. The story was more centralized, which made a world of difference.

My big problem with Blood And Fire Part 2: The Rewrite was that the first half of the script was way too slow. There simply wasn’t enough going on. And when there was something going on – such as the early Almost Rape scene – it didn’t seem to matter enough to the story. I kept waiting for a direction to emerge and eventually one did (with the school hostage scenario) but by that time, I’d sort of given up.

Let’s start with the first scene - Shane’s family on a plane. What happens in this scene? Absolutely nothing. Zip. Zero. There’s a brief moment where Shane gets mad at his daughter for something trivial but that’s it.

Let me explain why this uneventful scene is such a problem. Your opening scene is the VERY FIRST SCENE A READER GETS TO JUDGE YOU WITH. And believe me, they’re judging you. One of the worst things you can do then is give them an opening scene where nothing interesting happens. Because what that says to them is: “This writer doesn’t know how to write an interesting opening scene. So how is he going to write an interesting movie?” That doesn’t mean start with an action scene. But it means give us SOMETHING, ANYTHING of interest, intrigue, mystery, surprise. Make us curious. Make us care. All that’s happening here is people sitting on a plane.

True, afterwards we get this scene of a Mexican Drug Lord killing a guy, but that scene didn’t work for a completely different reason, mainly that it was too cliche. Boss Drug Guy kills Lesser Drug Guy. How many times have we seen that in movies? A billion times? Our boss even has a “scarred and pocketed” (pockmarked?) face like every other really mean Mexican drug dealer. It doesn’t resonate. In Wednesday’s review of 2 Guns, we start out with a similar scene but there we have chickens buried in the dirt for target practice. We have a guy standing up to a drug lord over bad passports. The setting was familiar. But the details were different – giving the scene a unique flavor.

But let’s get back to that plane scene. You can occasionally get away with a scene like this IF you’re telling us something interesting or relevant about the characters. This scene tells me nothing about the characters other than that Shane’s daughter is a typical rebellious teenage girl. And since she plays so little into the plot anyway, that means we spend the only bit of character development in this opening scene on an irrelevant character. Nothing about the wife (who plays a much bigger role in the story) is explored at all. And really nothing about Shane is either. This is your main character! And you’re telling us nothing about him in his introductory scene!

We then get 8 character introductions in the first 2 pages. That’s 4 per page! We get something like 15-18 character introductions in the first 10 pages. If I didn’t know Karlos, and I had no connection or commitments to this script, I would’ve quit right there. You have 10 pages to hook a reader, to convince them that you have a story worth telling, and in that time you’ve given them a pointless plane scene, a cliché drug killing, a ride into town, and a family looking at their new house.

If you absolutely have to start with their arrival, this is all you need:

INT. 737 – NIGHT

Shane Rider, 43 (description – maybe a quick action to tell us something about his character) notices the approaching city out the window. He checks his watch and looks over his family, a wife and three daughters, all asleep.


Then a quick cut to them being greeted. Then a quick cut to them arriving at the house. Now we’re at the house by the end of the first page! A discussion between him and his wife before they go to bed – probably sneak in some exposition (why they’re here, the major conflicts they’re expected to encounter, an unresolved issue in their own relationship), and that’s it.

Then cut to them arriving at the church the next day. Introduce Fitzroy as a potential antagonist and you’re on your way. If you need to plug through some “mundane” stuff to start your screenplay – which I strongly discourage – at least do it as fast as possible to show the reader that you’re not going to waste their time.

Once the first 20 pages pass, the script picks up, but not enough. Things were happening (the almost rape, the burning of the church), but I wasn’t feeling anything. I didn’t care for some reason. And I thought long and hard about why and I came to the conclusion that I didn’t know the characters well enough.

This is going to sound contradictory to what I said above, but nobody spoke long enough for me to get to know them. Once we get the setup out of the way, somebody needs to talk about what the hell they’re doing here. But nobody says much of anything. We SEE these people adjusting to their new life, but there’s something very generic about it all. It’s a reminder that “show don’t tell” only works if those “show” moments really connect with the audience.

For example, I should’ve connected with Shane when he saved that poor girl from being raped, but afterwards he still felt like a blank slate to me, like there was nothing going on behind those eyes. I didn’t know the guy well enough. I didn’t know why he was out here. The ONLY member of the family I felt like I understood at all was Chloe because she was the only one who had a clear angle (not wanting to be here). Everybody else was so muddled in unclear motivations that they never rose above the page.

I think with a transition this big (uprooting a family and moving them to a whole new country – a dangerous country at that), the writer needs to clearly delineate why they’re here, who’s responsible, and what everybody’s feeling about the matter. The more conflict you can infuse into those opinions, the better. For example, I kept thinking this movie would work a lot better if Shane’s wife was against coming here. It’s not that she doesn’t want to help others, but maybe she thought it was important their daughters not be uprooted at such a young age. Or maybe she’s worried this place is too dangerous – which would be perfect foreshadowing for what happens later. Anything to create some tension and meat to this family. Outside of Chloe’s harmless pouting, everybody here was either too agreeable or too invisible.

I actually had some other things I wanted to get to but this review has gone on longer than I planned already. I wanted to get into the writing which I think is too mechanical. You want to keep your sentences short and to the point in a screenplay, yes. But if there’s no flavor, no flow at all, the writing starts to feel robotic and alienates the reader. The “voice” here is too mechanical. For an emotional screenplay like this, I think it needs to be warmer, more inviting.

So my big advice would be to speed up the first act here. Get into the story quicker. Then look for ways to connect us with these characters more, especially Shane. As I was coming to the end, it was hinted at that Shane had this really dark past, the way he was before he found God – and that he needed to draw upon that darkness, despite a promise to himself that he never would again, to get out of this tough situation. I LOVE THAT IDEA! But it wasn’t hit on hard enough. His past was still too vague to me. Which is consistent with how I felt about Shane in general. I just didn’t know enough about the guy.

I’ll try to share more thoughts in the comments but I want to say that despite my intense reaction, I just want Karl’s script to be as good as it can possibly be. This is definitely an improvement over the last draft. It was more focused and more contained. I just think we could focus and contain it even more. Oh, and I think you (Karl) should start a new script, whether you write it concurrently with this next draft or on its own. Even if you whip Blood and Fire into the best shape possible, the subject matter still makes it a hard sell. By writing something more commercial, you’ll have another bullet in your pocket and a better shot at breaking into this crazy industry.

Good luck! :)

Script link: Blood and Fire (rewrite)

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

What I learned: How one applies notes is what separates the paper clips from the brads. Writing the story in your head is relatively easy. But being told what’s wrong with that story and being able to come up with creative solutions to those problems requires a deeper understanding of the craft. For example, if a reader tells you, “Pages 30-60 were too slow,” you need to understand why they read slow and have access to the proper tools to fix that problem.

So you might add a ticking time bomb. You might cut an insignificant subplot. You might raise the stakes. You might add suspense. You might add a mystery. There’s a lot of different way you can make something read faster but if you don’t have the tools, if you don’t know which options exist, then you’ll probably just add an action scene, figuring that will make it “faster” (note: It will not – it will just give you a pointless action scene).