Monday, January 31, 2011

Are We Officially Dating?

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A group of 20-somethings must deal with the ever-complicated logistics of commitment.
About: Are We Officially Dating made the 2010 Black List, landing somewhere near the middle of the pack. Thomas Gormican, the writer, graduated from Brown University. He began his career at GreeneStreet Films in New York City. Afterwards, he partnered with Charles Wessler and the Farrelly Brothers to produce a short-films-compilation (Movie 43) in the vein of The Kentucky Fried Movie, to be financed and distributed by Overture Films.
Writer: Thomas Gormican
Details: 112 pages – 10-22-10 draft (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).

 Would James Franco make a good Jason?

The male bachelor afraid of commitment sub-genre is probably the most crowded sub-genre in the spec screenplay market. Makes sense, right? There are a lot of males between the ages of 20-30 writing screenplays. It’s only natural, then, that they write about what males between the ages of 20-30 think about. For that reason, if you’re going to add your name to this list, you better make sure your script is one of two things: 1) very well written or 2) a completely new take on the genre. I always advocate for #2, since people are more likely to pass around something that’s fresh and original. If you’re going to go with #1 though, know this: Even if you execute your story to perfection, there’s still a good chance it’s never going to be seen as anything other than an average comedy, and that’s exactly what we have here with “Are We Officially Dating?”

Jason is 28 years old, charming, handsome, and deathly afraid of commitment. He’s specifically afraid of the “So…” I think we all know the “So…” The “So” is when a woman has had enough of the fun, and after a particularly enjoyable sexual encounter sneaks in, “So….where is this going?” Yeah, Jason would rather sleep in an oven than deal with the “So…” So, as soon as a relationship gets to that border between fun and serious (The Great Wall of Commitment?) he bails.

Completing the bachelorhood lifestyle are Jason’s two best friends. There’s Mikey, a doctor whose wife just started banging their lawyer. Because Mikey has little respect for himself, he still allows her to use him for medical advice. Then there’s Daniel, whose best friend Chelsea is “one of the guys.” But when he sleeps with her, he too must deal with the question of whether to commit or keep it casual.

Jason’s problems start when he takes the cute Ellie home for a night of sexual adventure, only to realize she’s a hooker, only to later realize she’s not a hooker. They start hanging out, having fun, and in between these fun escapades, the guys, a la a younger better looking Seinfeld cast, discuss their predicaments in comedic detail.

Eventually Jason starts falling for Ellie, but when she gives him the “So…” he freaks out and tells her he can’t make a commitment. Jason then learns that Ellie is seeing a hot new author (both characters work in the publishing industry) and of course realizes that he loves her. He then becomes Stalk Machine 3000, breaking down cryptic updates on Ellie’s Facebook page like archeologists would hieroglyphics, eventually getting to the point where, as one of his friends puts it, he “looks like somebody Jamie Foxx would play in a movie.”

Jason has to pull it together to win Ellie back but there’s a chance he’s gone too far and that he’ll never experience the joy of a loving committed relationship.

 Maybe Blake Lively for Ellie?

I don’t have anything against “Are We Officially Dating?” There aren’t any big problems here. There’s a nice work goal that keeps the story on track. There’s plenty of conflict between the three pairs of characters. The dialogue is decent. The comedy wasn’t suited to me but I definitely laughed. What plagues “Dating” in my opinion is that there’s nothing new about it. I’ve read this exact kind of script two hundred times before. Was Gormican’s version of the story better than those other 200? It was better than most. But even though well-written, you can only read the same story so many times before it stops affecting you (and hence, another argument why you should find a fresh take on the genre).

There were some smaller issues here for me. Ellie isn’t a very exciting character. One of the things I constantly see in these male-written rom-coms – especially ones which sympathize with the male hero’s fear of commitment – is that the female leads aren’t very strong. And I’d probably make that argument here. Ellie is treated more as an ideal than a character. The focus is on what the guys think of her, of their situation, and of the developments on Jason’s side of the relationship, rather than Ellie herself. This is particularly true later on, when Ellie disappears for most of the third act. We’re focused more on Jason going crazy than what’s going on with Ellie.  For this reason (spoiler!), when he gets her in the end, we don't feel it, cause we don't really know the girl. 

I also found it strange that Jason was pursuing Ellie early on, despite the fact that he so adamantly didn’t want a relationship. The explanation we’re given for his contradictory actions is that he “wants her on the roster,” though it’s never explained what that means. So it felt like a cheat.

A lot of you are probably wondering, “Well then how did this get on the Black List?” It’s a fair question. I think it’s because it gets all the little things right. A big problem I see in amateur scripts is that writers don’t know how to get the script to the point where it’s being judged solely on the story. They haven’t learned all the little things required to make the story stand on its own.

For example, they may not know how to set up their main character. When we meet your main character, you need to tell us exactly who that character is, what their strength is, what their flaw is, what the central problem in their life is. We need to know this so we understand what it is our character will need to overcome during the course of the story.

I don’t see that in a lot of amateur scripts. Instead I see character introductions with our protagonist doing arbitrary things that tell us very little if anything about the character. The writer erroneously assumes that since *they* know who their character is, that it will just magically leak out onto the page. But it doesn’t work that way, and as a result, the whole movie’s point is muddled. We don’t know who our main character is, why they’re existing, what they’re trying to overcome, and how it relates to the plot, because nobody’s ever told us. I see this ALL. THE. TIME.

Are We Officially Dating begins with Jason explaining exactly what’s wrong with him. He’s a commitment-phobe. He avoids relationships. There isn’t a single doubt in our mind what’s going on with this character after that scene. And I realize that Gormican chooses to TELL us and not SHOW us this information (we can debate that another day), but the point is, when that opening scene is over, you don’t have any doubt in your mind who Jason is – and that’s important.

There are a lot of little things like that in a screenplay that you have to get right JUST TO HAVE YOUR STORY MAKE SENSE TO THE READER. And that’s why a lot of amateur scripts don’t stack up to “Are We Officially Dating?” even though there’s nothing particularly new going on here.

These are always the toughest reviews for me to write, because the script didn’t make me feel anything one way or the other. It showed a good command of the craft, but that’s about it.

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

What I learned: Up above, I went on a long rant about making sure we know who your main character is in his introductory scene. Well, I wanted to make sure you knew that there are times when you DON’T want to do this. In particular, when your character has a deep mysterious background. So say you’re writing a Western and start on a drifter riding into town. The appeal of this character might be his mystery. It might be counter-productive, then, to tell us everything about him right away. Instead, you'll want to install little pieces of his backstory and problems throughout the story.  Just make sure that the revelations about his secret past are worthy of being initially kept from us (in other words, make sure they're damn interesting).

Friday, January 28, 2011

Amateur Friday - Iris Of The Garden

Genre: Western
Premise: Appalled by the lack of concern following a brothel worker's murder, a young prostitute in the Old West sets out to find the killer while searching for her own escape from the world's oldest profession.
About: Iris Of The Garden is a 2010 Nicholl Quarter-Finalist. That tag has gotten Shaarawi some requests for her script, but so far nothing’s come of it. She wants to know what it’s missing. -- 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.
Writer: Lizz-Ayn Shaarawi
Details: 100 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).

Photo from the movie "Brothel" by Amy Waddell

When I finished “Iris Of The Garden,” I really took Shaarawi’s question to heart. “What’s missing here?” “Garden” had done pretty well at Nicholl and she’d gotten some read requests from the placing, but how come that’s where the trail ended? What is it that’s holding this script back?

It’s an important question. If you don’t understand why another script isn’t working, how can you understand what’s wrong with your own script? I mean sure you can just say, “I didn’t like it,” or “It was boring,” but that doesn’t help you become a better screenwriter. So I really had that question on my mind when evaluating Iris Of The Garden.

It’s the Old West. Iris, a pretty 19 year old young woman, has just finished her first “job,” which would be fucking the mayor of this town. Yes, Iris is a prostitute.

Her career path wasn’t by choice (it rarely is). Iris was simply coming to town to get some honest work, and found herself out of money with no place to turn. So now she’s here, in a brothel, the last place in the world she wants to be.

If that wasn’t depressing enough, her arrival is quickly followed by the killing of one of her co-workers. Petal, barely 17 years old, was a recluse, a one-time good girl who had since gone nuts.

Iris is shocked that nobody seems to care about this brutal killing, so she bestows it upon herself to figure out who was responsible. She eventually teams up with her best friend in the house, 17 year old Fern, to seek out clues that will lead her to the killer.

At first the assumption is that it’s Indians, then one of the customers, but over time it spreads to the owners of the brothel and beyond. The chief suspect is Mr. Donner, the big shot owner of the General Store and one of Petal’s main customers. Donner is notorious for being violent in bed, so Iris and Fern are certain he’s involved in this somehow.

Along the way we meet a few other suspects as well one of Iris’s customers, the loner Jimmy Wayne, who falls in love with her, proclaiming her “his girl” and promising that one day he’s going to take her away from here. Iris must also fight off Violet, the evil “queen bee” of the house who’s clearly threatened by Iris’s beauty, and who may be in cahoots with a couple of other main suspects.

There’s a few twists and turns along the way, and Iris is also seeking a possible escape from the brothel, but this is basically a simple story about one woman trying to solve a murder.

So back to that question. Why isn’t “Iris of The Garden” able to find a way past that “good but not great” label? I think there are a few factors to consider here, and it starts with the genre. Despite the amazing success of True Grit, Westerns are a tough sell, and rarely find their way up the development ladder. The only reason why Grit was made was because the Coen Brothers decided to make it. It was not a spec script that was brought to them. It was all them.

You have to remember that 99% of the people you give your script to are thinking, in one form or another, can this script or this writer make me money? Writers don’t think about that for some reason. The agent? The producer? The manager? These are all people with families, with mortgages, with car payments, with “Hollywood image” upkeep. So when these people receive a Western, they know immediately it’s going to be a writing sample, not a script they can sell, and that puts it low on the priority list.

Now that’s not to say a Western can’t start someone’s career or that I’m saying “Never write a Western.” Craig Zahler, who wrote The Brigands Of Rattleborge, got himself a ton of assignment work from that one screenplay. The point I’m making is, becoming a professional screenwriter is hard as it is. But it becomes even harder when you handicap yourself with a genre Hollywood's reluctant to embrace.

But I think the bigger problem with this script is in the setup, and it’s a problem that pops up a lot in this kind of story. For investigation scripts to work, the person investigating has to have a strong reason to do so. In most of these films, it’s a detective or a cop doing the investigating, which makes perfect sense because that’s their job. Over the course of the story, as they learn more about the murdered or kidnapped person, they become more attached to them, making their motivation even stronger.

When you don’t use a cop or a detective, you have to find some other reason why the protagonist would be strongly motivated. So in the million dollar spec sale, Prisoners, about a man whose daughter is kidnapped, he may not be a cop, but it makes perfect sense why he begins his own investigation. Because it’s his daughter!

I never once understood why Iris was trying to solve Petal’s murder. She never knew the girl. I don’t even think she spoke to her. So for her to become obsessively involved so quickly didn’t feel natural. It bordered on flippant, the way Nancy Drew might decide to investigate the random disappearance of her classmate’s favorite red scarf.

There’s certainly a sense of connection here, that these two girls are stuck in the same horrifying position. But no matter what twist or turn came up in the story, I always kept saying to myself, “Why is she doing this? Why does she care so much?”

The other big problem I had was that there was no urgency in the investigation, no ticking time bomb. One of the things that works so well in serial killer screenplays is that the killer is going to strike again. This results in both high stakes (another potential death) and a ticking time bomb (the impending next kill). We don’t have any impending doom in this story. There’s nothing dictating that our protagonist find out who this killer is RIGHT NOW. And there’s no stakes involved in whether she solves the case. Nothing will really change whether she finds the killer or not.

I realize it would make a different movie, but I think it might be more exciting if Iris showed up at this whorehouse with three of four girls recently murdered instead of one. Now she’s not just investigating a murder out of curiosity. She’s trying to prevent her own murder, to save the lives of herself and her friends in the house. I think that would be way more exciting.

As for the rest of the script, it was pretty good. You know, if you ignore the story problems I listed above, the writing itself is solid. It’s a nice sparse easy-to-read script. The prose is pleasant. The dialogue feels authentic. I felt like we were really in a whore house back in the old West, which is by no means an easy feat. Some of the characters were really well drawn, including the nasty Violet and the nastier Donner.

I thought the “romantic interest” could have been better handled, as it never seemed like Lizz-Ayn was truly committed to it (and the whole “I’m really rich” surprise at the end felt like a reality TV reveal, not a serious twist in a dramatic Western), but for this script to get where it wants to go, the whole motivation thing needs to be worked out, and I think there needs to be more danger involved in the pursuit. We have to feel like people don’t want Iris digging. We have to feel like more killings are coming. This thing just needs to be a little grander in scope.

Some good writing here, but the story definitely needs some work.

Script link: Iris Of The Garden

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

What I learned: Motivation is so important. Why is your main character doing what they’re doing? If there isn’t some strong reason for their actions, your entire script is doomed. Shrek’s going on his journey to get his swamp back. Colin Firth in King’s Speech goes on his journey because he has to give the most important speech in history. Even in the movie I didn’t like, Winter’s Bone, I admit that the main character had a very strong motivation for going on her journey – to save her house and her family. So make sure your protagonist’s motivation is rock solid in your screenplay.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Better Living Through Chemistry

Genre: Dark Comedy
Premise: A pharmacist whose wife regularly questions his masculinity starts an affair with a tortured trophy wife, who encourages him to explore the “fruits” of his profession.
About: This one was on the Black List this year and will star Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Jennifer Garner (13 Going on 30). The writers, Posamentier and Moore, have one other project in development, a sci-fi family script called “Grandma’s Intergalactic Bed and Breakfast,” but are relatively new on the scene. Posamentier worked as Zach Braff’s personal assistant on Garden State. The duo is also directing “Chemistry.”
Writers: David Posamentier & Geoff Moore
Details: 110 pages – Feb 18, 2010 draft (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).

Over the course of Scriptshadow’s life, I’ve read a lot of “Next American Beauties.” These days it feels like I read a new one every week. The problem with most of these explorations of suburbia is that they don’t find a new angle on the sub-genre. It’s essentially the same deal: Upper middle class suburbians hate their lives. They do self-destructive things. Then eventually have to deal with the consequences. Movie over.

What I liked about Better Living Through Chemistry was that it took a slightly different look at that world. You see it just by reading the logline, which actually has a hook. What if you were a pharmacist, with access to every drug known to man, and you decided to take advantage of that power? Already the story’s feeling fresher.

Douglas Varney isn’t a man. We know that because his over-exercised bitchy triathlete of a wife, Kara, tells him that every single day. The two stopped getting along a long time ago and their only real discussions outside of daily logistics revolve around raising their 12 year old reclusive son, Ethan, a job they’re both failing miserably at.

As if dealing with his wife and son isn’t enough of a chore, Douglas also has to deal with his wife’s father, Walter Bishop, who’s owned the pharmacy Douglas works at for the past ten years. Douglas is thrilled that he’s finally bought the pharmacy for himself, because maybe now people will take him seriously. This transition will be signified by a sign change from “Bishop’s” to “Varney’s,” a day Douglas' looked forward to for months.   But when Walter shows up with the new sign, Douglas is horrified to see that it still says “Bishop’s,” and that the store will always be called “Bishop’s,” a move he predictably doesn’t challenge.

Frustrated, Douglas finishes off the day delivering meds to a huge mansion at the edge of town, where he meets the eternally buzzed but stunningly beautiful (and married) Elizabeth Roberts. The two have an undeniable spark and immediately begin an affair.

It’s innocent at first, but Elizabeth implores Doug to bring a couple extra pills along to their parties. Doug is so blinded by his obsession for Elizabeth that he obeys, and before he knows it he’s hopped up on every drug known to man. Party drugs, performance drugs, uppers, downers, you name it, he does it. And when individually they’re not enough for him, he starts mixing and matching, creating new super-designer drugs, anything to get a bigger and longer high.

When Elizabeth mentions leaving their respective families and running off together, Doug is more than game. But things get tricky when she asks him to kill her husband. Doug’s not a killer, but if it’s the only way he can be with Elizabeth, he’ll consider it. It would actually be easy. Doug has sole control of the town’s med-supply, so all he’d have to do is change Elizabeth’s husband’s medication to something lethal and it would be untraceable. But as he gets closer and closer to the big moment, he has doubts about whether he can go through with it.

There’s a whole lot to like about Better Living With Chemistry, starting with all the rich characters. Everybody’s unique here. Everybody’s well thought out, has their own thing going on, has their own vices, has their own flaws. When you write one of these quirky suburbia flicks, you better make sure your character creation is top notch because that’s what these films are about. And Posamentier and Moore nail it.

But what really sets Better Living Through Chemistry apart is its final act. It’s been a long time since I’ve read an ending that truly elevates a script, and it’s been an even longer time since someone genuinely “got” or “tricked” me in a screenplay. The set up at the beginning with Doug getting arrested and how that plays out when the third act arrives thoroughly blindsided me (what happens with the cop was so clever I had a big smile on my face for five full minutes). I just didn’t see any of it coming.

And this was all accomplished because these writers are masters of the set-up and payoff. They snuck all these little set-ups into the script that you didn’t think twice about, only to have them all pay off in that final act. It was like watching a perfect line of dominoes fall. Afterwards you smacked yourself on the head and said, “How the hell didn’t I see that!” As someone who – as I just mentioned – is rarely surprised anymore, I have to give it to writers when they trick me. And these guys definitely tricked me.

This is also another script that proves how important it is to create unresolved relationships in your screenplay. A lot of new writers think you just have to come up with a hook, fudge around for 80 pages until you get near the end, then make a lot of exciting things happen and you’re done. No, the heart of every screenplay is that second act, and that’s where you explore all the unresolved conflict. So Doug and his wife don’t get along. We have to resolve that. Her father doesn't think Doug is good enough for his daughter. We have to resolve that. Doug’s son has pulled away from him. We have to resolve that. Sooner or later Doug and Elizabeth will have to decide if this relationship is just for fun or they want to be together for good. We have to resolve that.

When people talk about second acts being boring - being the black holes where stories go to die - their issues usually have to do with there not being enough unresolved relationships in the second act. Exploring those relationships is the engine that makes that second act go.

I did have a couple of problems with the script though. I never bought Doug jumping right into the drug thing. He seemed to take his job very seriously. He seemed to have a spotless record. He’s out to prove his ability to own his own pharmacy. Yet when Elizabeth suggests they start doing drugs, he hops on board faster than a standby ticket out of Siberia. There’s no transition, no contemplation. It’s just a shrug of the shoulders and a “Why not?” It was definitely a big leap of faith.

And also, I’d be remiss not to mention that, yet again, my celebrity cameo issues strike. For those of you who don’t remember, I took to task a writer on Amateur Friday who had thrown a celebrity cameo in his script, explaining to him that I see the celebrity cameo 8 million times a week in comedy screenplays and therefore to avoid it. That opinion sparked a mini-uprising in the comments section from writers who didn’t agree with me.

Well here, we have a celebrity cameo of Judi Dench. But it’s actually more than a cameo. Judi Dench narrates the story as Judi Dench. For no reason. Whatsoever. This was the one big thing that annoyed me because I thought the script was great and hearing Judi Dench pop up every ten minutes to tell us something we already knew felt like a cheap gimmick. Why impede upon something that’s working with a cry for attention? It was just way too broad for me.

I don’t think narrators in these movies work to begin with unless it’s the main character (American Beauty). In my opinion, Little Children was ruined by the strange choice of random voice over in the film. That’s not nearly the case here. But I’m hoping they reconsider it, cause it’s so not needed.

Anyway, this might be why I’m avoiding the impressive. But this was still a wonderful character piece with a fabulous ending.

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

What I learned: Make sure your set-up doesn’t draw attention to itself. The best payoffs are ones we’re not expecting, so if you tip your hand when setting something up, we’ll know a later payoff is coming. Take the scene in Back To The Future, for example, where Marty and Jennifer are chatting about their weekend plans and try to sneak a kiss. Annoying Lady thrusts a can into their faces and says “Save the Clock Tower!” then proceeds to give Marty a flyer explaining what happened to the tower 30 years ago. The scene is constructed to focus more on the annoyance of our leads being interrupted than it is the details of the clock tower’s demise. Zemeckis even uses a double-set up in the scene, when he has Jennifer write her grandmother’s number down on the flyer, ensuring that Marty will keep it. Later, when Doc is explaining that the only way they’ll be able to harness enough energy to jump back to the present is if they harness a bolt of lightning, Marty rips out the flyer and our set-up is paid off. Of course, this seems like a simple set-up and payoff in retrospect, but that’s only because it was seamlessly executed. A lesser writer might not have thought of the Old Lady. He might have said, “I have to figure out a way for Marty to bring up the Clock Tower to Jennifer,” and given the couple some awkward stilted exposition to set it up, something like: “Jennifer, did you know that 30 years ago today the clock tower was struck by lightning?”  The awkwardness of it would clue us in that something was up.  You can actually see, when the writers had less time, how their set-ups and payoffs got much clumsier and drew way more attention to themselves in the film’s sequels. Always make sure your setup stands on its own.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What Happened To Monday

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: In a world where families are allowed only one child due to overpopulation, a resourceful set of identical septuplets must avoid governmental execution and dangerous infighting while investigating the disappearance of one of their own.
About: This spec script sold to Vendome Pictures after it landed on the 2010 Black List. Vendome Pictures is a new production company who also happens to be the company that produced Source Code. This seems to be a major departure for Max Botkin, the writer, as his one other produced credit is a comedy called “Opposite Day.”
Writer: Max Botkin
Details: 116 pages, 9/9/10 draft (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).

The other day we talked a bit about assignment work. How the time constraint and lack of passion in assignments usually results in mediocre work. What Happened To Monday is the opposite of that. This is a script that is clearly a passion project for the writer. Whereas with Dibbuk, story parts came and went faster than hot Krispy Kreme donuts, the pieces in this story are intricately researched and weaved into an impressively complex plot.

However, this attention to detail brings about its own set of problems. Namely, can a world be TOO specific? Are the characters and situations so singular that they’re impossible for an audience to relate to? I’m not sure I can answer that definitively, but I can say that despite how character-driven What Happened To Monday is, its universe is as sterile as a surgeon’s gloves. How a script can feel so detached and yet so connected at the same time is a mystery to me, and it’s part of the complexity that makes “Monday” such an intriguing read. In the end I’m left to wonder whether the story is so unique that there’s nothing for the reader to grab onto.

It’s the future. How far in the future, we’re not sure.

But in this future, the combination of overpopulation and dwindling resources has become a huge issue. As a result, the government is forced to pull a China and limit every family to one child. Any more children than one and a newly formed bureau (headed up by the evil Nicholas Cayman) will take them away, to God-Knows-Where.

Around this time, a young woman named Karen Settman has septuplets. The law states that each child born after the first one must be taken away. But Karen, an architect, decides to keep her children, building them a specially designed condo with multiple hiding places for if the authorities ever stop by.

In order to give each of her children a life, Karen constructs a logistically elaborate set of rules whereby her seven identical sons can go out into the world, one day at a time, living life as a single person. This, of course, is why they’re named after the days of the week.

For those wondering how they pull this off, it’s by no means an easy sell (for them and for us). After each day they have to have an hours-long meeting relating back what happened during the day so that the others always know and understand the details of their singular life.

As they become adults, however, the brothers start getting restless. Nobody can express any individuality once they leave that building. They’re all living a lie. They can’t even experience the greatest thing life has to offer – love. And this starts to take its toll.

Some agents come sniffing around the building and Thursday, our narrator in this journey, realizes that somebody may have given them up. The brothers split up and one by one are either caught or killed, sometimes by agents, sometimes by unknown factors. Thursday realizes that if he doesn’t find out who sold their family out, that it’s only a matter of time before the whole damn week is dead.

If all that sounds complex to you, that’s because it is. Reading this screenplay was exhausting. You have to learn about the universe, you have to learn about the backstory, you have to learn about the rules, you have to watch the brothers grow up, you have to establish the relationships between them all. By the time we actually get to the story, your brain feels like a 50 pound anvil. That may be my biggest complaint here – there’s just…too much. What Happened To Monday feels a lot more like a novel than it does a screenplay.

There’s this popular theory (which I don’t subscribe to) that the best sci-fi is a commentary on some aspect of the modern world. District 9, for instance, was more about the ghetto districts in South Africa than it was about aliens coming down to earth. I get the sense that What Happened to Monday is likewise about a bigger issue, but I’m not sure what that issue is.

I mean is this about China? Is it a human rights film? Part of me thinks yes, but then you get into the whole “naming your seven characters after the seven days of the week” thing and the China connections end. I actually found it cute that each brother acted like their day of the week (Monday was always pissed, Saturday was a party guy, Sunday was the religious one). It was funny and clever. But it contrasted with the larger picture, which seemed to be making a grander statement. What that statement was still eludes me, so I’m eager to find out if any of you caught it.

I think the problem here may be theme. There’s a lot of interesting ideas in “Monday,” but unlike the seven brothers in the script, they don’t have a home. They don’t have a centralized unit to stabilize and unify their message. There are just so many competing elements here.

I think one of the reasons the script sold, however, goes back to a tip I gave you guys a couple of months ago, in my “How to Write For An A-List Actor” article. Write a part where an actor gets to play more than one role. They love that shit. And here, you give an actor seven different roles to play. Talk about challenging. It’s almost too many, but I can definitely see actors giving it a read for that reason.

And you know, once the story gets going, it’s actually pretty good. The mystery of who’s killing off these days of the week gets pretty intense, and while I wouldn’t say the ending was wonderful (again – we’re trying to keep track of so many things that it’s hard to keep up with the intricate plot), it was satisfying.

And I do admit that the script made me think. I kept imagining how miserable these characters’ lives must have been, trapped in this house for six days a week, having only a single day to go out and enjoy the world, and how even when that moment came, they had to pretend to be someone they weren’t. If there’s one thing “Monday” doesn’t lack, it’s complex characters.

But ultimately, the premise requires such a suspension of disbelief and there’s so much to learn before the story can actually get going, that I spent more time fighting this script than reading it.

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

What I learned: This is a complicated lesson but it’s definitely worth discussing. When you’re writing a sci-fi screenplay, you’re establishing a lot of rules. One thing you have to be careful about, however, is establishing a rule that makes sense in your sci-fi world, but not to the audience. In “Monday,” one of the things we keep asking is, “Why can’t these brothers just split up and live off the grid, each with their own separate lives?” What we’re told is that biometric machines are constantly floating around the city, scanning for “siblings.” This sort of makes sense, but how many of these biometric scanners do you think they’d have floating around in Gemini, Texas? Or Marxville, Wyoming? To you and I, going out of state is as simple as making a phone call. So it’s hard for us to imagine it being difficult for our septuplets, even if it is the future. My feeling is that the more influential a story element is in suspending the audience’s disbelief, the more convincing it has to be, and I was never quite convinced that these seven couldn’t just spread out and split up.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What's Going On With Kevin Smith?

Hip Hip Hooray! Oscar nominations day. Maybe I’ll get to my thoughts on that later in the week. As of now, Article Thursday has been moved up to today, and Thursday will become a review day. Also, I found a new draft of Dibbuk Box, so I decided to do something unprecedented: go back and remix my review. So if you want to see my review for the newest draft of Dibbuk Box, head back to yesterday’s review now. Now, it’s time to talk about the increasingly strange behavior of Kevin Smith.

What a strange day Monday was. I woke up and every single site I went to had some blogger ranting about how Kevin Smith had become the anti-Christ. At first I thought they were part of a viral marketing campaign for Smith’s new religious-themed horror film, but no, everybody seemed to be genuinely upset, though it was hard to figure out why. After digging around (and reading through 100-something tweets on Smith’s Twitter feed) I finally put it together.

To summarize it, Smith previewed his long in development horror film, Red State, at Sundance Sunday night. Apparently, he’d told the public for weeks that he would have a live auction for the movie after the screening. So all the major indie companies sent their people there to potentially bid for the film. Except afterwards, Smith went on a 25 minute rant (or so we were told – the actual footage is only semi-ranty) telling those very people that they sucked and he was tired of them stealing his money so they could suck his dick. He then proceeded to “sell” the movie to himself, subsequently pissing off a lot of distributors who could’ve used that time to target other Sundance material.

He then announced he'd be taking Red State on tour, one city at a time, and charging $70/ticket (presumably each screening would end with one of Smith's famous extensive Q&As – so the cost would cover more than the actual film). Smith's argument was that this old model of marketing movies, where you spend four times the budget of your film on advertising, forcing you to make five times what your film cost just to break even, was ridiculous, and he wanted to try something new.

So instead of traditional advertising, Smith was going to utilize the power of his Podcast and Twitter feed (which has over 1 million followers) to let everyone know where the film was playing and how to buy tickets. After the tour, he'd release the film more traditionally, but with himself distributing the film instead of some big money-sucking distribution company, giving theaters more lucrative terms as an incentive to work with him.

Now I know this isn't technically connected to screenwriting, but it kind of is. People with 1 million dedicated "can contact them at any time" followers simply weren't around two years ago. That gives a ton of power to the individual, whereas before the individual had to depend almost exclusively on the company who financed his film. It's a different ballgame and it might be time to start thinking about things differently. To think that the old model is going to transfer over seamlessly in this ever-changing world of social media is kind of silly.

With guys like Ed Burns foregoing traditional distribution and selling his movie directly on Itunes (where we'll likely be watching all of our rented films in two years) so that he could retain ownership of his film, rather than hand it over to some prodco, has both its pros and cons. You're not going to get that big marketing push, and thus your movie won’t be grossing nearly as much money, but you'll be receiving some hefty royalties from being the sole owner of your film for quite some time.

Back in the days of video stores (I can’t believe I’m saying that – “Back in the days of video stores”), where shelf space was limited, you wouldn’t have thought of that. Not having that juicy “Miramax” or “Lionsgate” tag on your film would keep corporate-minded Blockbuster from even glancing at your film. But a virtual porthole, such as Itunes or Netflix, where the system is intelligent enough to know which movies you like and recommend them to you, makes those companies excited about a small movie owned exclusively by Ed Burns. It doesn’t cost them anything to throw it up there, and targeted recommendations means people will keep watching it.

At some point I expect this to trickle down to the development stage. If you developed your script openly, providing numerous drafts on the internet and encouraged feedback from fans, it’s an easy way to build awareness for your film (not to mention improve your script) and thus create anticipation throughout the development process. A case can be made that the leaked scripts for Inglorious Basterds and Avatar helped make those films what they were, and I would anticipate that same kind of buzz would happen with any filmmaker who has a built-in fanbase. I know some form of this is going to happen soon. I’m just not sure which major name is going to do it first.

So I'm really interested in what happens here with Smith. What sucks, and what's turning out to be a distracting factor in this giant experiment, is that Smith may be heading off to Crazy Land. The guy is curling himself up into a cocoon of safety in order to protect himself from any sort of negative reaction whatsoever. First he takes on critics for hating a movie that was truly awful and says he's not going to screen his movies for critics anymore. And now he's giving a big fat middle finger to studios and production companies, which is allowing him to try this unique experiment, but creating an unhealthy amount of insulation in the process.

What he doesn’t realize, is that he’s effectively becoming the low-budget version of George Lucas. Just make movies in his own back yard and nobody's allowed to tell him if they’re any good or not. This is the absolute worst way you can approach writing, and almost always leads to subpar work. If you have any doubt about that, go read The Phantom Menace.

It's a weird scenario, and I don't know if Smith's post-modern Howard Huges-like behavior is going to get in the way of determining whether this is a viable option or not. Which sucks, because if it does work, it could be a game-changer. It could give birth to an entirely new generation of writer-directors, guys like Gareth Edwards and Neil Bloomkamp, who have a unique voice and realize that with emerging technology, they can make their movies on the cheap and distribute them outside the studio system, building followers on social media outlets through teaser scenes, short films, and word of mouth, then use those outlets to directly advertise screenings, whether they be in real theaters or online.

I think what Smith is doing is cool. I’m just worried that his questionable red state of mind may screw up the test. What do you think?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Dibbuk Box - (Remixed!)

Genre: Horror
Premise: Dibbuk Box is apparently based on the real-life events of people tracking and buying some box on ebay that was haunted. Every recipient of the box would have strange and/or terrible things happen to them. To show you just how spooky and haunted this box is, since I posted this review, the real live Dibbuk box has actually started commenting in the comments section. Scroll down to see what it said.
About: Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures started developing this project with Mandate a long time ago, going through a slew of writers. When Lionsgate ate up Mandate, they put some major money behind the project and brought in writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, who wrote the draft that finally lit up the green light. Snowden and White are hot horror writers, who got final credit on the Nicholas Cage film “Knowing,” and have also written a draft of the Poltergeist remake. White used to be a production coordinator, working on such films as Pearl Harbor and The Sixth Sense. Jeffrey Dean Morgan will star in Dibbuk Box, which will be hitting theaters this Halloween. Originally, this review was of one of the older drafts (which is why the beginning of the comments refer to a different storyline) but upon receiving the latest draft, I remixed the review to cover it instead.
Writer: Juliet Snowden and Stiles White
Details: 108 pages – Sept 30, 2010, 2nd draft (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).

All right, for those who didn’t tune in yesterday, I reviewed an earlier draft of Dibbuk Box. In short, I didn’t like it. The story was way too simplistic and there wasn’t enough tension or suspense. Though to the writer’s credit, I got the feeling that it may not have been entirely his fault. The safeness of the work smelled like overdevelopment, or at the very least a difference in opinion on where the story should go.

So when someone sent me this new draft from writing team Juliet Snowden and Stiles White (great writing name btw!), I thought I’d take a crack at it. It’s always interesting to see a completely different take on the same material. Unlike reading a singular screenplay, you get to compare and contrast the different choices that were made and pinpoint why some worked and others didn't. Overall I wouldn’t say this new premise was any better than the previous draft, but I thought the relationships between the characters and the direction of the story were more complex and interesting.

In the new version, Division III basketball coach Clyde Brenek has just moved in to his new home. It’s been bachelor central in Apartmentsville since his wife left him a year ago and in order to make things more comfortable for his daughters, 15 year old cheerleader Hannah and 10 year old adult-like Em, he’s purchased himself a house.

After settling in, Clyde realizes he’s forgotten to buy dishes. So they head over to a nearby yard sale where Em falls in love with a weird European-style box. She asks her dad if he can buy it for her and Clyde can’t break out his wallet fast enough. Hey, when you’re a father fighting for custody, keeping your daughter happy is priority number 1.

Well, it should’ve been priority number nuh-uh. Cause what Clyde doesn’t realize is that he’s just purchased…The Dibbuk Box!

Right on schedule, Em becomes inappropriately attached to the box, whispering and humming to it, becoming all “creepy horror film kid-like” whenever it’s nearby.

Clyde doesn’t think much of it, as he’s more focused on a head coaching job at Division 1 North Carolina. This is that once in a lifetime dream opportunity he’s been waiting for, except he knows that if he takes it, he’ll rarely see his daughters.

Things start getting downright creepy at the house. There’s scratching noises everywhere. A huge roach problem develops. And some rooms are trashed without rhyme or reason.

When Clyde suspects that the box is the problem, he buries it out in the forest. But the Dibbuk Box calls to Em, who runs away from home and digs the box back up herself!

Afterwards, she takes it to school so her father can’t hide it from her anymore. When her teacher finds out, she puts the Dibbuk Box in a closet. Em doesn’t like that, and locks her teacher inside, where the Dibbuk Box gets all dibbucky on her, making weird noises and whispering unpleasant phrases.

Eventually, like the previous draft, Clyde must go find someone to exorcise the demons from the box in order to save his daughter from the Dibbuk curse. The question is, will he be able to do it before it’s too late?

A lot of the problems I had with the previous draft were fixed here. In fact, there’s a lot of good stuff in this latest draft of The Dibbuk Box.

First, they’ve set up key unresolved relationships in the movie. You want conflict in your story and one of the easiest places to find it is in unresolved relationships. Here, Clyde is dealing with the separation from his wife, and more recently her finding a new boyfriend. Not only does this give us something to resolve over the course of the story, but it adds depth to our main character. We see what Clyde is going through. We can tell it hurts him. This adds dimension, which in turn makes him more “real” (three-dimensional) to us.

Also, we have characters with lives here. I always say to writers, if you took away your movie from your characters, would they still have something to do? Or is the story the only way they can exist? Cause if the story’s the only way your characters can exist, then you don’t have real characters.

Here, Clyde has a job as a basketball coach, and more specifically a job offer out of state that he’s considering. Even if there was no movie here, Clyde would have something to do (a job, goals, events to look forward to). Hannah, the older sister, has her cheerleading at school. So she, also, has something to do (albeit less developed). You want as many characters in your script going through the motions of life as possible. Ask yourself “What would they be doing if there was no movie for them to be in?” It’s a quick way to add depth to your characters.

We also have a pseudo-ticking time bomb here, which was smart. Sometimes a story doesn’t work well with a blatant ticking time bomb (i.e. Joe has 72 hours to save his sister or a mobster will kill her). But you still want time to feel contained in some capacity, as that gives the illusion of time moving faster for the reader (and the audience). Here, we’re told right off the bat that this is the true story of what happened to a family over 29 days. Every 15 pages or so, we’re then told what number day we’re on. So even though we’re not screaming towards the finish line, we feel like we’re progressing towards a conclusion. It’s a small thing but it helps if your story takes place over weeks or months.

I also thought there were some smart story choices here. When Em runs away to find the Dibbuk Box, Clyde is deemed an unfit father, and the girls are ordered by a judge back to their mother’s place. Of course, this is right when the Dibbuk Box becomes the most dangerous, and Em is in the most danger. So the moment Em needs Clyde the most is the moment he can’t be with her. There were a few story choices like this that I thought worked really well.

If I had a complaint, it’s that, in the end, we’re going with the well-tread “creepy horror film child” device. We’ve seen this used a lot, in movies like The Ring, like Sixth Sense, like Case 39, like The Omen. So despite some of the sound storytelling here, we’re basically rehashing previously-hashed territory.

This new draft of Dibbuk Box is nothing to write home about, but in a sea of bad horror scripts, it’s not too shabby. If you’re a horror fan, you’ll probably want to check it out.

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

What I learned: Every horror film should have at least one big memorable scene – something that an audience can’t stop talking about afterwards. Masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist. The rape scene in Rosemary’s Baby. The feet bashing scene in Misery. If your horror film doesn’t have that memorable scene, you might as well not even write it. Dibbuk Box might have that moment. I’m not going to spoil it, I’ll just say: The MRI scene.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Article - Biggest Mistakes I Encounter In Each Genre

On a day where they’ve announced that they’re remaking Lethal Weapon (remaking Lethal Weapon?? Really?) you’re probably wondering why I’m writing yet another article telling you what you SHOULDN’T do. But here’s the thing. I was reading away last weekend, burning through script after script, each one in a different genre, becoming more and more frustrated as each script ended. And I was wondering why I was getting so worked up. I go through bad stretches of scripts all the time. It eventually turns. So why was this bothering me more than usual?

And I realized that in each script I’d read, some basic common mistake was being made. These weren't unique problems that only pop up once every hundred screenplays or so. These were genre-specific mistakes that I see over and over again. So I thought, hey, if I knew the number one mistake to avoid when I started writing a screenplay, wouldn’t that give me an advantage over other writers?

So lo and behold, that was the genesis for this article. I marked the 15 most popular genres and the most common mistakes I run into while reading those genres. Other readers may have different experiences, but this is mine. So either silently curse me for pointing out, once again, what NOT to do in a script, or use this advice to topple your competition. Here we go!

PERIOD PIECES – Number one mistake I see in period pieces is writers getting lost in their work. We’re cutting to a king in France and a peasant in Russia and a little known uprising in Austria and dozens of years pass and the old characters die and new characters are born and blah blahblahblah blah blah blah. Jumping around to 15 different characters in 18 different countries for 2 and a half hours isn’t going to entertain a reader. It’s going to frustrate them. Instead, find the focus in your period piece. Make the main character’s journey clear. The King’s Speech is about a King who must overcome his speech impediment before giving the most important speech in the country’s history. It’s clean and it’s simple. If you do want to go “sprawling,” remember this: The more sprawling you get, the clearer your main character’s goal has to be. So the story of Braveheart encompassed dozens of years, but the goal (obtain freedom for his country) was always as clear as day.

DRAMAS – Many writers believe drama is a license to lay everything on thick as molasses. Cancer, death, car crashes, disease, abuse, addiction, depression. If you have more than a couple of these going on in your drama, consider taking them out now. Dramas are at their best when they pick and choose which moments to explore, not just hurl it all down in one giant depression sundae. It’s a delicate balance and by no means easy to navigate, but I always subscribe to the theory that less is more in drama.

ZOMBIE/SERIAL KILLER/ROM COMS – What the hell are all three of these doing in one category? That’s easy. All three inspire the same problem. Writers never do anything fresh with these genres. Zombie: Group of people gets chased by zombies, usually in a city. Rom-Coms: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again. Serial Killer: Serial killer leaves cryptic puzzle behind for detectives to try and figure out. I see these plots over and over and over again. You have to come up with a fresh angle! Look at Zombieland. They added comedy, silly rules, a voice over, and a road-trip story to the genre. It was fresh. Look at 500 Days of Summer. It mixed the whole damn relationship up. As for serial killers, I don’t have an example for you because since Seven NOBODY has done anything new with the serial killer genre (NOTE TO ALL SCREENWRITERS: IF YOU WANT TO CASH IN, FIND A FRESH ANGLE FOR THE SERIAL KILLER GENRE). Remember, all three of these markets are super-competitive. So beat em by coming up with something new.

SCI-FI/FANTASY – Most new writers get into sci-fi and fantasy for the wrong reasons. They’re more interested in the macro than the micro. In other words, they care more about the world than their hero’s journey. I remember reading a really ambitious incredibly detailed sci-fi script that didn’t have a lick of story to speak of, and the writer’s one big question to me afterwards was, “Do you think the disappearing mech suits on page 25 are realistic?” Of all the questions they could’ve asked, they didn’t want to know, “Was my main character’s motivation strong enough?” Or “Do you think the connection between these two characters worked?” but if a singular tiny sci-fi geeky machine that had nothing to do with the rest of story was realistic. This is representative of how writers think of these scripts. They’re focusing on the wrong things. Focus on the character’s journey first (The Matrix is more about Neo believing in himself than it is about cool wire-fu) and everything else will follow.

COMING-OF-AGE – Coming-of-Age is a commonly encountered amateur genre because most writers are in their 20s when they begin writing. Naturally, they start writing about their own confusing directionless lives. Unfortunately, this confusion almost always translates to NO STORY! The writer feels content to just let their character wander about, experiencing life and all its eccentricities, believing that the “realness” of the journey will be enough to capture the audience’s imagination. It isn’t. It just makes everything directionless and boring. If you want to write coming-of-age, give your script a hook and a story just like any other genre. A perfect example is Everything Must Go – very much a coming of age story, but structured so as to keep the story on track and so we always know what’s going on.

COMEDY and HORROR – I’ve said this a million and one times on the site. The biggest mistake comedies and horror films make, is to focus on the laughs and the scares as opposed to character development. Comedy and Horror plots don’t tend to be that complicated, which is fine. As long as you have a good hook, you’re okay. But the characters in these scripts are a different story. The audience *has to connect* with them in order for the script to work. Yet writers refuse to dig any deeper into those character’s lives than the width of a tic-tac. So figure out what makes your hero tick. What are they afraid of? What’s their biggest flaw? Then use your story to explore that flaw. Happy Gilmore had major anger issues. The story was just as much about him learning to overcome that anger as it was about winning at golf.

WESTERNS – Back in the heyday of Westerns, the world moved much slower. People had more patience, more time. That’s not the case anymore in this information-overload Twitter-centric multitasking world. So you have to update the way you approach the genre. By far, the biggest problem I see in Westerns is that they move too slow. So speed things up a little bit. Develop your characters faster, get to your story sooner, add a few more twists and turns to keep the audience interested. I’m not saying you have to use Scott Pilgrim pace (though that might be interesting), I’m just saying that the Westerns I read these days assume the patience of yesteryear.  Guess what?  It's not yesteryear anymore (and yes, I’m aware of the hypocrisy of this statement, seeing as I’m such a Brigands of Rattleborge fan, however I’m going to call that script the “When Harry Met Sally” of the Western world - a great big exception to the rule).

ACTION – The big thing with action flicks is the propensity to depend on clichés. Action writers are almost by definition uninterested in character development, and luckily the action genre is the least dependent on that area of writing, so you can actually get away with it. But if your script is just rehashing all the clichés we’ve seen in action movies of the past (a snappy line when disposing of a bad guy, the girl gets kidnapped by the villain in the end, the bad guy is bad for no reason) then you’re not trying hard enough. Some of these things can be done tongue-in-cheek effectively, but even that’s becoming cliche. The reason that the Bourne movies became so popular was because they updated the creaky action formula of the James Bond films, adding a mystery (a character who didn’t know who he was) making the story more sophisticated and taking itself more seriously. It was different, and that difference lured us in.

SPORTS – Cliché endings. Amateur sports scripts always end up with some variation of being down by 3 runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and the bases loaded. Then our hero hits the grand slam. It’s sappy, it’s predictable, it’s stupid. You have to find some other way. Look at Rocky. Rocky didn’t knock out Apollo to win the heavyweight championship of the world. He just lasted 15 rounds with him. Bull Durhum and Field of Dreams are considered two of the best sports movies of all time and yet there’s no “last at bat” scene. Find a unique way to end your sports story that doesn’t rely on the cliché last minute goal or home run.

BIOPIC – You’ve heard me drone on about this before. Biopic writers notoriously get caught up on the “best of” or “key” moments of the title character’s life, instead of looking for the most *dramatically compelling* moments of that person’s life. In addition to this, the biopic, more than any other genre out there (since our hero IS the genre) needs to have a *compelling character flaw.* Focus on the events in that person’s life that challenge that flaw and that’s where you’re going to find your story. So if your subject’s flaw is a fear of connection, then place him in a bunch of situations where he’s forced to connect with others. If doing this means leaving out the 3rd most famous moment from that person’s life, then leave that moment out.

THRILLER – The amateur thrillers I read don’t have enough story developments. The writer erroneously assumes that keeping the pace of the story up is all he has to do. But if you don’t throw us for a loop every once in awhile, if you don’t up the stakes, bring in a new character, force your character to deal with unexpected problems, then your thriller’s going to run out of steam. Just try to make sure something interesting happens every 15 pages or so. In Buried, we have the bad guys wanting him to make a video, we have the good guys needing his help to find him, we have snakes, we have sand seeping in. Some new story development is always happening to keep the story alive. Make sure you’re packing the same amount of story density into your thriller.