Friday, December 16, 2011

First Ten Pages Week - Deep Burial (5th Place)

Genre: Contained Thriller
Logline (5th Place): Posted out to a remote nuclear waste dump site in the Australian Outback to secretly assess the mental state of the ex-addict Aboriginal worker who mans the plant, an anxious young female psychiatrist is forced into a fight for survival when they find a mysterious stranger stranded in the desert.
About: Welcome to the first annual “First Ten Pages Week.” What I did was have readers send in loglines then vote on their favorites. The top five loglines, then, would get their first 10 pages read. With any of this week’s reviews, if the comments are positive enough, I’ll review them in full on a future Amateur Friday.
Writers: Adam Gyngell and Fred Fernandez-Armesto

Some people expressed surprise by the fact that this logline made the top five, and I can understand their skepticism. Although the idea clearly has potential, it sure takes a long time to explain it. It seems like we're getting some unnecessary pieces of information here. The trick with loglines is to give the reader every single piece of relevant information to your story in as few words as possible. This logline could clearly benefit from a Dianne Cameron intervention.

The first 10 pages of Deep Burial begin with a scientist killing himself for mysterious reasons. Afterwards, we meet the seemingly unaffiliated Robinson, a mixed race Aboriginal who’s taking care of a nuclear waste dump facility out in the middle of the Australian desert. Soon after, a young woman named Abby shows up. She's been sent by the corporation to make sure the place is running smoothly. She’s surprised to learn that Robinson has been here all by himself for a couple of years now. She also learns that he doesn’t take kindly to visitors.

Deep Burial starts off strong and not so strong. We watch as a scientist sets up a camera, tells his family he loves them, then shoots himself. That’s a compelling way to open a movie. But I don't like that the scientist is described as thin, receding hairline, with birdlike features. In other words, he looks exactly like the prototypical scientist. What were we just talking about yesterday? BE DIFFERENT! Don’t go with the first, most obvious, choice!

Generic choices within the first ten pages indicate that I’m going to be reading an entire screenplay full of generic choices. So now I’m grumpy. Why can’t this scientist be well-built? Why can’t he be handsome? Why can’t he be Spanish? Why can’t it be a woman instead of a man? Anything but the prototypical version of a scientist we’ve seen so many times before.

This is also the third script this week that’s had a mistake on the very first page. “The Scientist’s stares straight into the camera." There should be no “apostrophe s” there. And why is “Scientist” capitalized? If the word “the” is in front of it, “scientist” shouldn't be capitalized.

Luckily, things quickly get better. I absolutely love the image of a man in a hazmat suit whacking a golf ball in the middle of the desert. That's a great image that I've never seen before. In addition, it tells me a lot about this character. Clearly, this guy is a little off, and that makes him intriguing. I want to learn more.

We then jump to a helicopter, where we meet Abby, and now I’m starting to see some skill on display here. I love the way the exposition is handled. As the pilot gives Abby a rundown of who this guy is, it feels like the exact sort of conversation that would happen in this circumstance. So the fact that it's all exposition explaining Robinson’s past doesn't really register with us. It’s sort of a “resume moment” coming from a third party. The only thing about the scene that doesn’t work is that Abby’s surprised Robinson is out here alone. I'm pretty sure she would've been briefed about this before coming out.

When Robinson is finally introduced to us, I get the best description, and therefore the best sense of a character, of any of the characters introduced this week (italics are mine):

Leaning against the door, a mixed-race Aboriginal Man. Sallow, grey skin, dark bags under the eyes.

Abby’s visibly surprised. She didn’t expect him to be...

This is ROBINSON: late-30s, but he wears the years heavy. Three day beard on his face. Sinewy. Weathered. He’s taken a few hits, but he rolls with the punches.

That's a character I can imagine. I especially love the line, “but he wears the years heavy.” I do have an issue with the last sentence, but I'll save that for the “What I Learned” section.

Unfortunately, the arrow starts pointing down when Robinson starts talking. Up until this point, we've been presented with the notion that this guy is nuts, he's crazy, he's off his rocker. I've been anticipating this moment for the last six pages. However, when he opens his mouth, it turns out he's just a bitter old curmudgeon. There's nothing very interesting about him to be honest. And I'm annoyed by him fairly quickly. His vocabulary seems to revolve around different ways of saying, “Get out of my way.”

This leads to a bigger issue, however. And it's something I see a lot. You're always looking to create conflict in your screenplay. That's what makes a story dramatic. But you have to do so INVISIBLY. You can’t force it. There may be more to Robinson we learn later. But right now, I find it odd that he doesn't seem to have any reason to hate this person and yet he does. I mean I could imagine him being distant. But his reactions are way over-the-top whenever Abby tries to say anything. So the conflict feels forced and therefore false.

On the plus side, I like that the goal is established right away. Abby is here to inspect the place and make sure everything's working efficiently for the company. If it isn't, the company is going to shut the place down. Since Robinson needs this place, that means we now have stakes and a ticking time bomb. So right away, within our first 10 pages, we've established our characters as well as the goals for those characters. That's a good sign.

So overall, this is a mixed bag. The writing is clear. The writers understand how to set up characters and a story. There's a lot of intrigue (remote nuclear waste dump has all sorts of possibilities). But there are a couple of cliché choices and our star character comes off as underwhelming. You can’t build up this crazy character then leave us with Average Angry Dude.

Go back and do a character biography on Robinson. Where did he grow up? What is his relationship with his parents? What kind of person was he at school? Did he have friends? Was he a loner? Has this man ever been married? What was he doing in the five years of his life previous to this job? What was he doing five days ago before your story started? The answers to these questions are going to filter into your character’s actions/personality/dialogue/etc. The more questions you ask, the more rounded your character will be. The golf stuff was a good start. But you need a lot more.

Would I keep reading? – Yes. Right now I’m on the fence about this script but as you guys know, I love these types of stories. Remote area. Just a few characters. Lots of potential for conflict. Lots of potential for secrets, twists, surprises. If I were to start a production company tomorrow, this is the kind of movie I would probably make first. Even if the script wasn’t perfect, I’d have confidence that I could develop it with the writers.

Script link (First Ten Pages): Deep Burial

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

What I learned: Don't double up on your character description. Here's the description of Robinson again: “This is ROBINSON: late-30s, but he wears the years heavy. Three day beard on his face. Sinewy. Weathered. He’s taken a few hits, but he rolls with the punches.” That last sentence is redundant. “But he wears the years heavy,” combined with “three-day-old beard” implies that he’s taken a few hits and keeps going. Yes, we want to describe our main character as best we can. But it's annoying when the writer repeats information, especially if it’s information from one sentence ago.