Tuesday, December 13, 2011

First Ten Pages Week - The Fourth Horseman (2nd Place)

Genre: Action
Logline (2nd place): Hired by Homeland Security to envision terrorist attack scenarios, a skillful ex-soldier turned novelist must battle anarchists when they hijack his nightmare plot to destroy New York.
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 this week. With any of the five reviews, if the comments are positive enough, I’ll review them in full on a future Amateur Friday. But the reason I'm excited about this week is because I get to do something I rarely get a chance to do in reviews - and that's look at the specific aspects of screenwriting. Enjoy!
Writers: Stephen Hoover & Mike Donald

Full disclosure. I've given notes on this script.

I just want to say that Stephen and Mike are two of the nicest and coolest guys you’ll ever meet or trade e-mails with. They really care about screenwriting and really want to get better. This is such a tough business and sometimes all you have to get you through the day is optimism – and these two have it in spades. I just love their attitude and their approach to the craft. But does that translate into a great first 10 pages?? Let’s find out.

The first 10 pages of The Fourth Horseman follow Nathan Scorer, an ex-soldier, as he fights for his life on top of the Hoover Dam against an unknown group of terrorists who really want him dead. Before we can find out his fate, however, we flash back 48 hours earlier to see Nathan, who we realize is retired from his soldier days, hawking a novel at a local book fair about his battle stories. Afterwards, he’s recruited by a mysterious man who says he’s part of an organization that predicts terrorism scenarios, and he wants Nathan to join them. We also end up meeting the evil Seth Silver, who begins putting in place a plan to attack New York City.

Contrary to yesterday's script, this one starts out strong. Check out the first sentence (italics are mine):


The SOUNDS of high speed burst satellite transmissions. Machine code warbling -- bleeding into police radio chatter.

From the very first line, I’m HEARING a movie. Not only is it well-written, but it evokes a feeling in you. You're already transported into the theater. This is followed by:

STARS glitter against the black ink of space as the police transmissions build, become more urgent.

A picture is being painted in front of me. We have prose, but not prose that draws attention to itself. It’s prose with a purpose - to elicit an image juxtaposed with sound. This is good writing. I’m into it.

Intrigue builds. Satellite busted. Astronauts dead. At this point, I can't wait to see what this is all about. We’ll get to the rest of the pages in a second. But if you're talking about capturing a reader's attention within the first scene, this is a textbook example of how to do so.

The first roadblock – for me at least - is hit in the next scene though. I don't like names in action movies that are so obviously action movie names. Nathan “Scorer” feels like one of those names. It also looks and sounds weird. Say “Scorer” out loud. It doesn’t come off the tongue easily. I know this is nitpicky but nitpicky is what this week’s about. These are the kinds of things readers think about when they’re reading your script.

However, that’s okay, because then we’re brought into a really cool action sequence on the top of the Hoover Dam. There was a moment I loved in particular, where Nathan grabbed a vehicle hood from a car and used it as a shield to defend against the onslaught of bullets. Remember how yesterday I said not to go with obvious choices. This was a non-obvious choice to me. I’d never seen it before.

Unfortunately, we then CUT BACK 48 hours. We’ve discussed the crazy opening flashforward device ad nauseum on this site. It didn’t kill my interest here. But it was a hiccup, a moment that took me out of the story. You have to understand that I see this SOOOOO often in screenplays that I can’t help but groan a little whenever it happens, yet again.

But the big moment that gave me pause in these pages was when Nathan started talking. I don’t know what it was, but something felt off. We had all this great action and great imagery, and then when I expect my Bruce Willis-like action star to appear, I instead get something closer to Chris Tucker. There’s this jokey vibe to the way he addresses the audience at the book fair (“So now they’re really paying attention, Putty Nose is babbling some shit, eyes bugging out and I’m swinging it round my head with one arm and aiming the flare gun at them with the other...”). I like my action stars cool and collected, not goofy and awkward.

This is followed by the tried-and-true joke of us swiveling around Nathan after his big story only to see a single child standing in the audience eating his ice cream. At this point, all the seriousness I was hoping for from this movie has been zapped. This is starting to feel a lot more like an action-comedy than an action movie, which is not something I wanted. So I’m already starting to retreat from the material.

This is confirmed by lines like, “Jesus! Who are you, Dracula?" And when Nathan is asked why he worked for contractors instead of the government, he replies, “They had more stylish uniforms." Not only is that a goofy line but it's a line I know I've heard in three or four action-comedies before.

Later we cut to Nathan playing a skater video game. Now we've hit an official screenwriting problem. I don’t know who my main character is. So far I've seen this battle-hardened warrior taking on a dozen men with guns on top of the Hoover Dam, a goofy wisecracking storyteller professor type who’s looking for laughs, and now a man-child who spends his off time playing video games. When I put those three things together, I have absolutely no idea what they give me. And that's a huge problem. We HAVE to have a sense of who our main character is within the first ten pages.

As I told these guys, I love what they do with action. And you have to give them credit for jumping RIGHT INTO their story. I mean we waste no time here. We have our main character approached for this anti-terrorism job within the first five pages. But for me to connect with something - and really like something - I have to connect with the main character. And right now there’s just something false about Nathan. He wasn't a person I wanted to go on a trip with. My personal suggestion would be to make him a more realistic character. Give him funny moments. But don't make his entire personality a farce – an opportunity to look for as many one-liners or cool comebacks as possible. I believe in the writing here. But I don't believe in Nathan Scorer…yet.

Link: The Fourth Horseman (First Ten Pages)

Would I keep reading? – If I was a producer? Probably. Because I believe this idea has sale potential. But if this were just me reading for the sake of enjoyment? Probably not. The Nathan character just didn’t feel honest enough for me.

What I learned: Be wary of “too cool” banter between characters in an action movie. You know what I'm talking about - the kind of back-and-forth talk that has no basis in reality - artificial names on a page trying to one-up each other with clever comebacks. I find that this happens when writers don't do enough character work ahead of time. They don't know their characters’ histories so of course they don't know what to have them say. And when you don't know what your characters would say, you revert to giving them lines that you've heard in similar movies before, and I feel like that's happened here. Check out the dialogue between Nathan and Dorman that starts on page 4 to get an idea of what I'm talking about. That conversation doesn’t feel real. It feels like two people in an action movie trying to be cool.