Monday, February 28, 2011

Drunk Dialing

Genre: Comedy
Premise: 24 year old Ronnie Epstein wakes up after a night of drinking to learn he drunk dialed 200 people. He’ll spend the next 24 hours dealing with the consequences.
About: Drunk Dialing was one of the ten finalists for the 2010 Nicholl Screenwriting Competition.
Writer: Sebastian Davis
Details: 101 pages – 4/08/10 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).

 Oh yeah. We've all done it.

I’ve seen a few of these “dunk dial” premises floating around over the last couple of years and I’m not surprised why. It’s a great premise for a comedy. I mean who hasn’t woken up after a night of exceeding their adult beverage limit, only to find they’ve sent out ill-advised e-mails or made ill-advised calls to the last people they should’ve made them to? I’m still dealing with the consequences from a night five years ago where my friend somehow managed to mass text “I miss you,” to all 500 contacts on my phone. Old girlfriends, work contacts, friendships that had fallen by the wayside…I even had the number of one of my clients’ ten year old son on my phone for some reason. Boy did I have some explaining to do after that one.

But the question remains the same as it always does with these funny premises. What about the execution? Is Drunk Dialing the perfect connection? Or is it a dropped call?

24 year old Ronnie Epstein has just woken up in Tokyo. Now THAT’S what I call a night. To make matters worse, he checks his phone and realizes he made 200 calls last night! Calls to his boss, calls to his old girlfriend, calls to people he hasn’t seen in years. This is ugly. But before he can enact Operation Damage Control, the third strike hits – a petty thief steals his phone!

As Ronnie stumbles outside, he realizes he’s not in Tokyo, but rather Little Tokyo in LA. Before he can process that thought, Mary-Lou Whitman, a hot chica in a pink corvette and a girl Ronnie spent one night with five years ago, screeches to a halt in front of him. He called her needing help last night and, voila, here she is.

Mary-Lou explains to Ronnie that he changed her life when, after making love five years ago, he told her that she should do this kind of thing as a profession. So she followed his lead and is now a porn star! In fact, they’re going to the set of her latest porn film right now.

In the meantime, we flashback to 3 years earlier when Ronnie was a college student/street artist. Back then he had the hottest girl, DJ Keoko, by his side, and the two spent every second partying and living it up. But when it was time for Keoko to pursue a job in another country, Ronnie chose to let her go and stay in LA. This fateful decision led to a series of safe choices, culminating in him becoming a floor mat salesman.

Anyway, we jump back to the present where Ronnie’s old friends keep popping up out of nowhere, responding to Ronnie’s drunk dials from the night before. They include Marcus, an ibanker who drained the bank accounts of some angry Wall Street investors, and an Irish drug dealer, whose questionable dealing habits have him mixed up with the Irish mob. And then, of course, there’s Keoko, who keeps asking Ronnie if he meant what he said on her voice mail last night, a question Ronnie can’t answer because he doesn’t remember what he said.

Naturally, Ronnie will have to save his job, ditch his clingy new/old friends, and get the girl, all before the day is done. Can he do it? Or has he drunk dialed his way into oblivion?

Drunk Dialing was a tough script to get a handle on. While I was reading it, I wasn’t sure if we were exploring the most interesting version of the story. In particular, the flashbacks to college seemed to intrude on the pace and rhythm of the script, giving what should have been a straightforward operation a herky-jerky unsure-of-itself feel.

Flashbacks are dangerous. It’s just so hard to get them right. And when you think about it, unless we’re talking about a well-crafted Oscar-bound mystery film from Argentina, audiences are usually interested in what’s happening *right now,* not a week ago or a year ago or five years ago. They want to see our hero encounter problems this minute, because those are the problems that are affecting his immediate goal – not what happened back in 2008. Now, of course, the past can shed light on your character, giving us a better understanding of them, but most of the time, all that work and page space you put into those flashbacks can easily be handled by a quick present day exposition scene.

On the plus side, if you like “24 hour crazy fucking night/day” comedies, Drunk Dialing is for you. Our hero is running all over the place, staving away various lunatics he drunk-dialed the night before, and doing so with characters we haven’t seen in these types of films before (I can’t remember ever seeing I-bankers or the Irish Mob in this kind of movie). The comedy’s really broad, so you’re either going to love it or hate it, but there are definitely some funny moments.

Besides the flashback choice, the structure’s pretty solid. We establish that our hero’s in line for a promotion, creating stakes for the main character. Our character has a passion he’d rather pursue (street art), which means he has some inner conflict he’s trying to resolve during the film. He’s got a girl he’s trying to get back - yet another goal that’s pushing him and the story forward. And the script has a very young hip feel, almost like Scott Pilgrim, but easier to digest. I can see a bunch of high school and college kids wanting to check this out.

But here’s the thing. Of all the genres I read, comedies are the sloppiest of the lot by far. And I guess it makes sense. Writers think, “It’s a comedy. Who cares about making the story perfect?” As a result, I end up reading all these comedies with tremendous potential, but that never make it to the finish line. It’s like the writers stop at the 17k mark and say, “That’s probably good enough.” It’s rare that I see a writer try to craft a comedy with the same attention to detail that they might craft, say, a drama. That’s why it’s so rare to find a great comedy spec. Cause the writers are only giving you 60-70%.

And while Drunk Dialing makes it closer to the finish line than most, it still feels like one of those comedies that bowed out before finishing the race.  The pieces don't quite fit into a whole. I don’t feel like the script has been reworked and reworked into the best possible version of itself.  It's basically a string of funny set-pieces.  Maybe the past stuff was an attempt to create something more meaningful, but it's not fleshed out enough in its current form.  It needs more work.

But hey, you know my standards are impossibly high for comedies. What did you guys think?

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

What I learned: Having one of your leads move/leave/fly to another state/country at the end of your movie is one of the easiest ways to create a ticking time bomb. For that reason, it’s a great device to use. But you can’t use the “race to the airport” scene at the end of a movie anymore. You just can’t do it. It’s become a cliché within a cliche and if you put it in your screenplay, 80% of the people who read it are going to groan. Be creative. Look for other ways to write the climax. I read a script not long ago where a guy was going to the airport to stop his girlfriend from leaving but his car broke down. He realized he could still catch her at  her place. So the final scene is him running through the suburbs trying to catch her before she gets in the cab, rather than running through an airport. It’s a small change but it’s different from what we’re used to seeing, so it works. Always avoid cliché choices, particularly at the end of your screenplay.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscar Picks!

Here we are, only three days away from the 2011 Academy Awards. I’m so excited! Yeah, I know, I know. The Oscars are worthless. It’s a popularity and “Who You know” Contest. Blah blah blah. But every time I begin to think that way, I look at the candidates, and you know what? They’re pretty damn accurate most of the time. I mean look at the Best Picture Category. Are there any movies that didn’t make the cut that you think should have? Well, actually, there is.  But I'll get to that in a second.

Anyway, I got some bad news. I’m not going to be live-blogging on Sunday. It’s not cause I don’t love you guys. It’s because live-blogging is hard! Last year they kept screwing up the presentation order, forcing me to write out my prediction and thoughts for each category within five seconds, post each thought, then post an opinion thought after the result. Inevitably something would go wrong and I would have to go back and clean it up, all while the next category was starting, forcing me to simul-post. And let me tell you, I’m not good with simul-posting. I mean come on. Aren’t these Oscar producers thinking of the hard work and dedication bloggers everywhere are putting into this?

For that reason, you’re going to be getting my predictions in all the big categories right here and now. Naturally, all I really care about is the screenwriting competition, but I have some pretty strong opinions on these other categories as well. There’s something about the acting and directing categories in particular that bring out the nasty in me. People who’ve endured my past thoughts on Matt Damon and George Clooney know this well. Anyway, let’s dig in here. Feel free to leave your own pick in the comments section. I know I’ll be coming back here Sunday night to celebrate my 8 for 8 victory.

Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids are All Right
The King's Speech
**The Social Network**
127 Hours
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

To me, Inception and Black Swan are the most cinematic experiences of all these ten movies. But the name of this category is not “most cinematic.” It’s “Best Picture.” Toy Story 3 is probably the most complete movie in this group from top to bottom. It’s got the best story. It’s got the best characters. It creates the strongest connection between itself and the audience and has the fewest flaws. Buuuuuut…it’s a cartoon and something wouldn’t feel right about a cartoon winning this category. The King’s Speech has really come on late in this race and is a great “1a” choice. It would be my personal pick for Best Picture. But when it’s all said and done, The Social Network has the most buzz, and probably the most money, behind it. You can already smell the victory. But before I leave this category, I’m still trying to figure out all the love for The Fighter. I thought the movie was okay but I mean, come on, isn’t it just an excuse for Christian Bale to let out all that repressed energy he had to hold back during the Batman films and win himself an Oscar? Here’s why this movie fails for me though. I keep comparing Mark Wahlberg to Sylvester Stallone in Rocky on the charisma scale. Wahlberg’s a solid 3 and Stallone’s a 10. I just didn’t care if he won that fight at the end or not. Oh, and the one tragedy here is WHERE IS THE TOWN!??  That should've gotten in over The Fighter, Inception, 127 Hours and Winter's Bone easily.  Grrrrr.  Bad Academy! Anyway, Social Network for the win!

Annette Bening (The Kids are All Right)
Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone)
**Natalie Portman (Black Swan)**
Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)

I don’t have a chicken in this fight but I do have a…swan. Heh heh. Get it? No? Okay, I’m saying I’m picking Natalie Portman to win. That movie is so haunting and it’s the best job Portman’s done in forever. It almost makes me forget Queen Amidala. Almost. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the inclusion of Miss Boring Face from Winter’s Bone though. Is there a single moment in that performance where you think, “Wow, great acting?” And while I loved The Kids Are All Right, I’m not sure Annette Bening had much to do either. She was fun. But it’s not an academy award performance.

Javier Bardem (Biutiful)
Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
**Colin Firth (The King's Speech)**
James Franco (127 Hours)
Jeff Bridges (True Grit)

Whaaaat? Jesse Eisenberg for best actor? He acted like an asshole for two hours! I would’ve nominated his turn in Zombieland over this. Javier Bardem’s film is flying way too under the radar for him to win anything. That leaves Firth, Franco, and Bridges. Bridges won last year so he’s not winning twice in a row. And Franco can’t hang with these actors. So Firth takes the prize. That was easy.

**Christian Bale (The Fighter)**
John Hawkes (Winter's Bone)
Jeremy Renner (The Town)
Mark Ruffalo (The Kids are All Right)
Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech)

This is always the best race since supporting roles don’t need to anchor the movie and therefore tend to be the flashiest. While I thought The Fighter was pretty average, Bale definitely did something unique with his part. Having said that, I really liked Renner in The Town. When he looked into people’s eyes? I honestly believed he could kill them. John Hawkes gets a nomination for grabbing a 17 year old’s hair. Ruffalo’s role doesn’t have enough sizzle factor. And Rush is good but for some reason isn’t getting a lot of mileage from this role. I want Renner to win but Bale’s got this locked up.

Amy Adams (The Fighter)
Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech)
**Melissa Leo (The Fighter)**
Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)
Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom)

Say what you will about David O. Russel. I’m not sure he even knows what the word “narrative” means. But the guy always gets some unique performances out of his actors. So I’m leaning towards the two people he directed in this category, Adams and Melissa Leo. I know Hailee Steinfeld is the new young “it” girl, but I’m not buying it. The dark horse here is Jacki Weaver.  I thought she was really good.  But that movie's so small.  I don't think enough Academy members have seen it.  Three months later and I’m still remembering Melissa Leo’s performance from The Fighter, so I’m taking an underdog shot with this one and going with her.

**Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)**
David O. Russell (The Fighter)
Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)
David Fincher (The Social Network)
Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit)

This is a GREAT category. You have some real monsters in this group. But I think we can kick Russell and Hooper out easily. That leaves us with visionary titans Aronofsky, Fincher, and the Coens. You know, I still don’t know what people base the criteria of best director on. Is it for the overall vision? Is it for the amazing performances? It seems to me that the best directing decisions probably happen in the heat of the battle behind closed doors. But I think it’s safe to say Fincher isn’t stretching his muscles here. And out of the remaining competitors, Aronofsky is taking way more chances and way more of those chances are paying off. So I’m saying Aronofsky for the win, a win he rightly deserves.

127 Hours (Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle)
**The Social Network (Aaron Sorkin)**
Toy Story 3 (Michael Arndt, story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich)
True Grit (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)
Winter's Bone (Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini)

There’s about as much suspense in this category as there was in the movie, Blue Valentine. I never saw 127 Hours as a strong screenplay and find it odd that it was nominated. Like I said back in my review, it’s a film way more than a script. Toy Story 3 is great and all but it does suffer a little from not being fresh. True Grit’s alright but nothing special. Winter’s Bone…I mean, this just seems like a lazy pick to me. A very standard story. Very sparse. I don’t know what it is about the screenplay that would get anyone excited. That leaves, of course, our clear cut runaway winner, the best reading experience I had of 2009, The Social Network. A-duh.

Another Year (Mike Leigh)
The Fighter (Paul Attanasio, Lewis Colich, Eric Johnson, Scott Silverand Paul Tamasy)
Inception (Christopher Nolan)
The Kids are All Right (Stuart Blumberg and Lisa Cholodenko)
**The King's Speech (David Seidler)**

This is a really interesting category. Inception must be in here for imagination, because it violates so many good screenwriting principals and is so lazy in its storytelling practices that it’s hard to argue for its inclusion. The Fighter is just a complete mess on the page, often confused about which character’s story it wants to tell, and concludes its turbulent 120 pages with a last second fight we’re all of a sudden supposed to care about. Can you imagine if Rocky would’ve found out he was fighting Apollo Creed 20 minutes before the end of the movie?? Okay okay! I’ll stop ragging on The Fighter. Of all the films in the two screenplay categories, Mike Leigh’s is the only one I haven’t seen or read, so if that script is brilliant, my apologies for missing it. The two best scripts on this list by far are The Kids Are All Right (old review here) and The King’s Speech (old review here). Personally, I love both of these scripts. And because there’s more to juggle, I believe The Kids Are All Right is the better script, but The King’s Speech is the one that makes you feel better inside after it’s over, and for that reason, that’s my pick. And how awesome would it be to have a 76 year old screenwriter win the Oscar!!

I’ll be reposting this on Sunday to keep the debate going. Oh, and for anyone who’s interested, here’s a link to all 10 of the Oscar nominated screenplays.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Repped Friday - The Bridge

Genre: Action
Premise: A convict and a construction crew inadvertently spark a gun battle when they rescue a woman on the run from her violent husband and his dangerous associates. Trapped on a mile-long bridge and cut off from the outside world, they have to band together to survive a 5 hour siege.
About: Usually, every Friday, I review an amateur script from you, a Scriptshadow reader.  But today, I’m going to change it up a little. Today is a “Repped Week,” where I’ll be reviewing a script from a pair of repped writers who have not yet made a sale. The change-up is meant to help writers understand the level of quality it takes to secure representation. If you are a repped or unrepped writer, feel free to submit your script for Amateur/Repped Friday by sending it (in PDF form) to Please include your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script. Also keep in mind that your script will be posted. The Bridge made this year’s “Hit List” of best spec screenplays, and its writers are managed by Jewerl Keats Ross and represented by APA.
Writers: Dominic Morgan & Matt Cameron Harvey
Details: 100 pages – Dec. 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).

The Bridge is one of those titles that you can’t say without using Trailer Man Voice, harkening back to the days where everything was “Die Hard On A…” and every promo was a tongue in cheek inside joke between you and the moviemakers. You both knew where this was going, and you were both going to have fun getting there.

This isn’t the first “Die Hard On A Bridge” premise though. There’s been a few of them over the years, including “Suspension,” a near million dollar sale from Joss Whedon back in the late 90s. So how does The Bridge stack up? Does it get you from one side to the other? Or does it collapse midway through?

Destin Ryder (whose name pretty much guaranteed he’d be in an action movie one day) has earned the coveted right of work leave, a way out of the 24 hour prison cycle that’s dominated his life. Once a very bad man, Dustin’s made some big changes in his life, and he’s ready to leave the thug life behind.

The job he’ll be working is construction on a mile long cantilever-truss bridge spanning the Mississippi River. His new co-workers are noticeably wary of him, beginning with the heart and soul of the construction crew, fellow alpha male Steve Knapps. Knapps considers this crew to be his family, and Destin is the drunk uncle who's flown in to fuck up Thanksgiving.

Before these silverback gorillas can tango, however, a speeding car driven by the pretty but dangerous Marlie Steward swerves out of control, causing a huge multi-car pile-up spanning both lanes. McDonald’s trucks, 18 wheelers. This shit makes those crashes on Chips look like fender-benders.

They save Marlie, but soon learn she was being chased. And not just by anyone. By The Dixie Gang. A nasty glut of organized rednecks with blood on the brain. Marlie has something they want, and because these  construction workers are witnesses, the Dixies are going to mow them down like crab grass on a Sunday.

Destin realizes he has no choice but to draw on his mysterious past and organize this hodge-podge group into a military unit if they’re going to survive. He quickly puts together make-shift weapons like Molotov cocktails, using them to keep the Dixies at Bay, who are closing in from both sides of the bridge.

This all-night battle gets more complicated as time goes on. The big boss of the Dixies rolls in to organize the assault. They realize the cops in the area have all been bought off. Half the men don’t trust Destin. Redneck snipers start taking them out from the adjacent forest. Can the group hold out til morning when the prison SWAT team comes looking for Destin? They sure hope so cause holding out is the only way they can survive. On….(Movie Trailer Voice) The Briddddgggee.

The Bridge takes a simple premise and adds just enough complexity to it to make it worth your while. I liked it quite a bit. It definitely suffers from some of the clichés impossible to avoid in the straight-action genre, but overall there were just enough tweaks to keep you entertained.

The first thing that gave me confidence in the script was how the writers set up the bridge. One of the complaints a couple of weeks ago in the amateur script “Wrong Number,” was that we were just thrust into the story before getting a feel for the geography and the situation. If we’re not introduced to the uniqueness of the space our movie takes place in, our mind’s forced to substitute a generic version of it. And if your reader is imagining a generic space throughout the story, there’s a good chance they’re going to think the entire movie is generic by association.

Here we get a detailed layout of the bridge as well as a description of what the workers are doing. We see them lift the steel girders off the back of the truck then send them up to the “skywalkers” on the top of the bridge. It does take a page or two of crucial “first ten pages” real estate to lay this stuff out, but because this bridge is where we’re going to be spending the next 100 pages of our movie, it’s something you have to do if you want your story to be taken seriously.

As far as screenwriting basics, The Bridge does a solid job. We keep a 40 yard dash pace here. 100 pages. Perfect for an action spec. Paragraphs are nary more than 2 lines long. We have our ticking time bomb (hold them off til 6 a.m. when the SWAT team shows up). The stakes are high for both sides. In fact, one of the things I really liked about The Bridge was that it made the stakes high for BOTH parties. (Spoiler). We find out that if the Dixies don’t get these diamonds, they can’t pay off the cops. They can’t pay off the judges. Their whole operation comes to a halt unless they can secure these diamonds. So you really feel the urgency of their pursuit.

I thought Destin was a solid protagonist. There were lots of things to like about him. First, you have the anti-hero thing going for him. A hero who’s dangerous and who has problems is always more interesting than a hero who’s perfect. You have the built-in mystery behind his past, so we’re eager to find out what’s going on with this guy. Although they could’ve done more with it, I liked how Destin was fucked either way. If he didn’t do anything, the Dixies would move in and slaughter them all. But if he fought back, he was going to jail for the rest of his life. And I loved how clever he was. Whenever you can make your hero outsmart your villain in some way, your audience is going to fall in love with him. When Destin holds those diamonds over the bridge in the trade-off, knowing they’d otherwise shoot him dead and take the loot, then grabs Walt Jr. afterwards, taking him hostage and ensuring them a shot at survival, I was onboard with whatever this guy did.

On the downside - like I already mentioned – no matter how you look at it, there’s always a feeling of “been there, done that” that plagues The Bridge. It’s an action movie on a bridge. There are only so many new angles you can introduce.

Also, there were a couple of plot things that bothered me. First, after the big multi-car pile-up, the police and ambulances and firetrucks come to take all of the wounded/dead away. By my estimation, in a pile-up of this magnitude, this is going to take something like 3 days of non-stop work to clean up. Instead, for some reason, the cops and everyone else just leave this huge unattended pileup on the bridge, which, conveniently, is when our bad guys decide to strike. It’s almost as if the Script Coincidence Gods showed up to clear out all the plot inconveniences so that the story could begin.

Also, I didn’t completely understand why the Dixies had to kill the construction crew in the first place. The reason given is that the construction crew saw who they were, and could therefore identify them. But if the Dixies own all the police and judges, why are they worried if some construction dudes know they were chasing a crazy chick who stole some diamonds from them? And if “being discovered” is really their fear, aren’t they worried that the tens of thousands of bullets and the organized attack left at the scene might point towards the most well-known gang in the area?

Still, I love movies where an underdog group has to take on a much stronger enemy. And I love when the conflict inside the group is just as dangerous as the conflict outside the group. The Grey. Pitch Black. And here with The Bridge. Again, it’s not perfect, but this is a solid little action script, and more importantly, something I could see on the big screen.

Script link: The Bridge

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

What I learned: Been seeing writers screw this up lately and The Bridge handled it well so I thought I’d bring it up. The size of your action paragraphs should be in accordance with the pace of your story. If your characters are sitting down in a bar after a long day, the length of the paragraphs can be 3-4 lines long. But if you’re in the heat of an action scene, keep your paragraphs razor-thin, two lines at most. Read The Bridge to see how they do this.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Does Anybody Here Remember When Hanz Gubenstein Invented Time Travel?

Genre: Sci-Fi/Comedy
Premise: An eccentric inventor invents a crude time travel device which allows him to send messages back to his earlier self. Although his intentions are initially noble, he soon begins to use the device for his own selfish needs.
About: Many of you might recognize this script from the first (or was it second) season of Project Greenlight, as it was one of the scripts that made it to the finals. It didn’t get the big prize, but landed a pretty sweet consolation: Ben Affleck optioned it. Speaking of Project Greenlight, I really miss that show. Still the best reality show ever put on air. The problem was how the show conflicted with the ultimate goal. They showed how terrible everyone was at their job, showed everyone screwing up the movie, then expected us to run to the theater and pay our hard earned money on opening night. Another thing I remember is that that show was supposed to be the Hollywood buster – proof that the guys in the Armani suits with their cushy studio offices didn’t know what they were talking about. Ouch. How did that work out? Anyway, Project Greenlight, and by association Hanz Gubenstein, disappeared into the ether after that. But I recently found the script, which means we can finally find out what got Affleck so excited (and so can you – a link for the script is at the bottom of the review).
Writer: Rick Carr
Details: 112 pages (maybe?)

There are times in the script reading process where you come across scripts that defy explanation. Not necessarily bad scripts. Just scripts that have you squinting your eyes, shaking your head, and unable to ditch the frozen “what the f*ck” expression plastered to your face. I want you to imagine the screenplay for Primer. Now I want you to cross it with Back To The Future 2. Now I want you to imagine some Groundhog Day thrown in for good measure. Combine those three movies and you have Hanz Gubenstein.

OH WAIT! I forgot to add one important detail. Imagine if this script were written by someone who had no idea how to write a movie.

Hanz Gubenstein is the epitome of the anti-structure. For those of you who have championed the downfall of the foundation-based screenplay, of the screenwriting gurus and the 3 day expos… For those who believe that a story is simply inherent, that you need only follow your passionate fingertips to a 100 page conclusion, well guess what, Hanz Gubenstein is your script.

To get you into the mindset of how freaky out-there this thing is, Hanz Gubenstein is not a main character in the movie. Nope. This is not that kind of film - where you place the character who’s in the middle of your title into the heart of your story. No no no. Not doing that here. Too obvious. This story belongs to Dr. Jeffrey Jeffries, who we’re told is the 4th inventor of time travel. Hanz Gubenstein was actually the first. And there were two other guys as well. Not that they play any part in the story. Why would they?

So our crazy inventor Jeffries invents a crude time machine, whereby you can send messages back to yourself from the future in order to give yourself guidance about said future. For example, you might send a message that says, “Hey, don’t go out with that girl you met today. She’s actually a man.”

Jeffries enlists his humble apprentice, Sid Hackenpfuss, to help him test the machine, and before you know it they’re receiving messages from their future selves. At first the messages are innocent and playful, but after awhile, the two start wondering how they can take advantage of this technology. If they won the lottery for instance, they could give the money back to charities and save the world. The two quasi-idiots decide that this is the best course of action so they send themselves back that day’s winning lottery numbers.

Previous Jeffries and Sid then win the lotto, but for some reason decide to have fun with the money instead of donate it to save others. I think you know where this is going. The next thing you know they’re playing other state lotteries and winning those as well. When that isn’t enough, they begin playing the stock market, sending themselves back tons of market data they then use to make hundreds of millions of dollars.

Eventually a federal agent named Agent Aghnet suspects that the two are up to something and starts following them. Jeffries becomes deathly concerned by the fact that the two aren’t receiving any messages past two days from now, which he assumes means that in two days, something terrible is going to happen to them. His “obvious” solution (of course) is to start doing the exact opposite of whatever he thinks he should do, so as to trick fate and avoid doom.

Doomsday arrives however, and Jeffries is killed by Aghnet just before he’s able to send a message back warning himself of Aghnet’s plan. But when Aghnet sees the message onscreen, he presses it out of curiosity (he still doesn’t know it’s a time machine) inadvertently warning Previous Jeffries of his death, and by association altering the time continuum. However, in the end, this only gets Jeffries, Sid, and Aghnet stuck in a never-ending time loop whereby Jeffries keeps trying to prevent his death and Aghnet keeps trying to ensure it.

And uhhh…that’s pretty much Hanz Gubenstein for you.

So last week I was listening to Creative Screenwriting’s podcast with Ben Affleck and he was asked about this screenplay. Affleck’s response was a strange one. In a very non-committal way he offered, “Oh yeah…(nervous laugh)…well, I guess nothing ever came of that.” Now even though Affleck didn’t actually say anything, his tone inferred everything I suspected. You read Hanz Gubenstein and you think, “There’s something here.” I mean there’s some really funky comedy revolving around the ridiculous characters and the insane amount of time folding back onto itself over and over again. The problem is, it’s so scattered, so all over the place, that the thought of trying to mold it into something comprehensible is too daunting. It’s like being given the pieces to the Golden Gate Bridge without a blueprint and told, “Now go figure this out.” Where the hell do you start?

Still, this is a great script to study for beginning screenwriters because it epitomizes what happens when there’s no structure at play - when you’re just following your whims and writing each scene as it comes to you. For example, there’s a twenty page scene in the first act – I kid you not – where Jeffries and Sid are in a room talking about time travel. They’re in a small room TALKING ABOUT TIME TRAVEL. For 20 minutes!!!

Within those 20 pages there is a 4 page long drawn out joke where Sid keeps trying to defer time travel credit to other people besides himself. A FOUR PAGE LONG JOKE!

Obviously, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. But all you need to do is look at some other successful screenplays to see where this one missteps. Take Hanz Gubenstein’s older more established rich uncle, Back To The Future, for instance. Look at how visual the scenes of Doc explaining time travel are. We have the Delorean. We have nuclear fuel. We have the flux capacitor. We have Einstein being used for a demonstration. We have invisible fire tracks shooting through our heroes’ legs. Now I want you to imagine all of those things disappearing and instead, Marty and Doc in a small room discussing it. That’s Hanz Gubenstein.

Repetition has been a big buzzword in my recent posts and the R-word rears its ugly head here as well. Not only are we stuck in a small room for 60% of the screenplay, but there’s no real evolution to the story. The two just keep trying to win the lottery over and over again! Eventually Aghnet shows up and throws a little wrench into the story but even *his* involvement becomes trivial and repetitive after awhile.

The truth is, ignoring good storytelling mechanics WILL hurt your story unless you know what you’re doing. For example, what the hell is Jeffries’ motivation for wanting all this money?? The only reason he seems to want it is to make more money. Yet we never know what he plans to use this money for. In fact, everything we’ve been told about Jeffries has indicated he *doesn’t* want money. So why is this story revolving around someone who’s desperately trying to make as much money as possible, even though they don’t want or plan to use it??

I could go on. There’s enough randomness here to start an entire new blog on, but using that alone to assess Hanz Gubenstein probably wouldn’t be fair. Ben Affleck’s optioning of the material reinforces a long standing  truth in the industry – that a unique voice will get noticed. It may not lead you from rags to riches, but it will help you stand out and get your shot. HOWEVER, it’s also a well-known truth that you need the chops to back that voice up. You need the voice AND the craft. You can’t have one without the other. And unfortunately for Jake, he hit with a script that showed unique talent, but with no ability to hone it.

Hanz Gubenstein just about made my head explode. And it does so many things wrong I can’t possibly recommend it. But I will say that it’s an interesting read, and that you probably haven’t read anything like it before. Check it out if you’re so inclined.

Script link: Does Anybody Here Remember When Hanz Gubenstein Invented Time Travel? (note: Scrib’d is a funky site that makes it hard to read this script. Good luck.)

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

What I learned: While just “letting the story take you where it wants to go” is a fun way to write a first draft, that draft will never be anywhere close to a finished product. At some point you’re going to have to sit down and do the real work – mapping out the structure, creating the story beats that keep the plot moving, building the character arcs – all those things that take the genius you discovered in your idea, and craft it into a fully fleshed-out story. Hanz Gubenstein has no structure, and that’s ultimately what dooms it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Genre: Noir/Fantasy/Serial Killer
Premise: A recently retired police captain, Hook, is called back in to action when a boy goes missing under mysterious circumstances. He enlists the help of a woman named Wendy who, since her own kidnapping as a child, has been diagnosed as clinically insane.
About: Ben Magid is a writer who’s been earning plenty of street cred recently, working on a number of assignments and selling a couple of scripts, including his most recent sale, sci-fi spec Invasion, which sold to Summit for mid six figures. Pan is the screenplay that got him through the Hollywood door, selling to New Line back in 2006 (and also making that year's Black List). The script has recently found new life as the director of the (I’m told) amazing animated sequence in Deathly Hallows Part 1, Ben Hibon, has signed on to direct. Now I’m assuming this thing has gone through the rewrite blender dozens of times since 2006, but this is the original 2006 draft that got Ben noticed.
Writer: Ben Magid
Details: 117 pages – 6/24/06 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).

A couple of weeks ago, you may have heard me declare this statement: “If you want to make a lot of money, reimagine the serial killer genre.” (or something to that effect). Well look no further than Pan, a serial killer script based on…Peter Pan?? Where the good guy is Captain Hook?? I’m not sure you can get anymore original than that. What kind of screwed up individual thinks this shit up? Ben Magid.

Pan opens with an 11 year old boy getting yelled at by his mom for being afraid of the dark. During his mother’s rant, the boy notices that her shadow isn’t mimicking her actions. In fact it’s…signaling him. Little Michael is scared as boysenberry pie, but when his mom finally leaves, there’s nothing he can do about it. The shadow whisks him away…never to be heard from again.

When standard police work doesn’t turn up any leads, Commander Smee seeks out the recently retired James Hook, who was known for his uncanny – some would say otherworldly – ability to solve child abduction cases. But Hook is one emotional motherfucker. And committing to a case means reliving every case he’s ever been a part of. So it takes a lot of convincing before Hook’s finally in.

But when Hook is in, he’s *all* in. Unfortunately, one missing boy case quickly becomes two, and Hook realizes that they’ll need to move fast before others are taken. He finds out that there is one child who supposedly escaped this maniac 15 years ago. The problem is, she believes that her abductor took her to a mythical place called “Neverland” and held her captive there for years. The woman’s name? Wendy.

So off to the insane asylum Hook goes to see if the now-grown-up Wendy can help. After a little negotiation, the on-staff doctor allows her to leave with him. The clock continues to tick though, as yet another boy is kidnapped. Eventually Wendy herself gets taken, and Hook must find her in time to save her, as well as figure out the mystery of who this kidnapper is.

First thing I thought of when I picked this up is that Pan is the perfect “get noticed” script. Even the most cynical commenter (of which there are a few on this site – ahem) has to admit that the idea is clever and original, a mash-up of such intriguing proportions it would rise to the top of any logline slush pile.

But as we all know, concept and execution are two different things. And while I’m sure Magid is a better writer five years later, Pan falls into the kind of screenwriting traps that Peter Pan himself might set if he concentrated his efforts on story sabotage.

First, the script is bleak to a fault. There’s not a ray of sunshine in any of the 117 pages of Pan, and after awhile it starts to wear on you. If you don’t give your audience a moment to laugh or breathe or smile, you can wear them into the ground. Overuse of any emotion eventually desensitizes the audience to that emotion. Indeed it all became too much in Pan, and I eventually stopped feeling anything.

Next issue - and this is real huge in any serial killer/detective/mystery script - repetition. Pan is too repetitive. Go to the scene of the crime, interview witness, discover a new clue, another kidnapping, go to the scene of the crime, interview witness, discover a new clue, another kidnapping. If you get too caught up in that rhythm – which is really easy to do – the reader gets way ahead of you and the script just gets boring. And I’m afraid that’s what happens here. We continue on that loop of a standard investigation, with the added bonus of discovering the Peter Pan references, which is fun, but by no means able to carry an entire story.

Look at a movie like Silence Of The Lambs and what they do to break up the monotony. We actually have three storylines we’re following. We have the regular investigation. We have the Hannibal Lecter storyline. And we have the  Buffalo Bill stuff at his home. So there’s a lot of things in that movie to keep the plot fresh. That doesn’t happen in Pan, and our interest wanes as a result.

Another problem I had was that Hook wasn’t a very interesting character, and this is another easy trap to fall into when you’re writing a serial killer film. Because the tone is so dark, you make your lead investigator dark and assume that’s enough. Here, Hook yells at other fathers when they neglect their sons, he stares off into the night with the thoughts of a million missing children on his mind, he takes out all his anger at the local gun range. The inner battle with himself is technically there, but it’s so overdone and so general, that it doesn’t resonate with us.

In Silence Of The Lambs, Clarice had a strong desire to prove herself, as well as prove wrong preconceived female stereotypes. Don’t even get me started on all the weird shit that was going on in Norman Bates’ head. The point is, just making your character an angry depressed curmudgeon for 2 hours isn’t enough for an audience. They need to see some struggle, or at least something interesting going on inside the character.

And I’m not pretending this stuff is easy. As someone pointed out in the Chinatown comments, this type of story isn’t constructed in a way to get you close to the characters. But some complexity, some inner demons or conflict have to be there that you can identify with so that at the very least, you find yourself understanding or sympathizing with the character.

That said, Pan is a visual project with the kind of unique twist that’s always going to get directors and actors excited. It always comes back to the hook (no pun intended). A unique hook keeps you in the game, which is why five years after being purchased, Pan is still on track to be made into a film. If they solve the script’s repetitiveness and make the lead character more dynamic, this flick could end up becoming pretty cool. But this draft? This draft wasn’t ready.

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

What I learned: Wash rinse repeat. Wash rinse repeat. Does your script fall into that “wash rinse repeat” pattern? If so, look to mix things up. Add a subplot if you have to (the Hannibal interviews in Lambs). Change up the dynamic of the relationship (in When Harry Met Sally, instead of having Harry in the power position, put Sally is in the power position). Focus some scenes on the other characters (show Hanz and Franz cutting up the phone wires in Die Hard). Redundancy and repetition are HUGE problems, especially in these types of scripts. So look to keep things fresh by mixing it up.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Villain (Amazon Contest Winner)

Genre: Sci-Fi/Comedy
Premise: One of the top villains in the world is pushed out of the villain coalition when it’s suspected that he has too much compassion for others and might actually be – gasp - good.
About: Villain is one of the first two Amazon Screenwriting Contest $20,000 winners. The writer, Richard Stern, tried to push the script on Hollywood a couple of years ago and while he got a lot of reads around town, nothing came of it. There is apparently a lot of controversy surrounding this script in that it resembles some recent Hollywood release. I believe Megamind maybe? (not sure – I’ve never seen it). One thing I do know. I’m terrified of the comments section for this post.
Writer: Richard Stern
Details: 112 pages – 8th 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 most e-mailed question I’ve received over the last couple of months has been, “Carson, what do you think of the Amazon Script Contest?” And my answer has always been…I don’t know. I knew I couldn’t give an opinion until reading that long list of rules on the site. And because the last thing I want to do is carve out an entire afternoon to read some rules, I’m still pretty ignorant about the whole thing.

I’ll admit that what I’ve heard isn’t good though. Something about anybody can change your script whenever they want to (sabotage anyone?). Something about they hold the rights to your script for a year. And I’ve even been told there’s a site dedicated solely to pointing out how bad most of the scripts are.

But if you’re going to tear the contest apart, you have to give it its due as well. The one thing Amazon does that none of these other contests do is it allows the readers to see what beat them. That’s a huge deal since it helps writers learn about their competition and the craft.

Of course all I care about for today’s purposes is if the script is any good. I don’t care if the fucking thing comes from Hickory Sam’s Smokestack Screenplay Contest where each script is battered and skewered on a frying pan before Cleevus the One-Eyed script reader reads it. If it’s a good script, it’s a good script.

So what’s the deal with Villain? Is it a good script?

Impossibly Handsome super-agent Drake Develin is finally proposing to divinely beautiful super-agent Alicia Cox. “Marry me,” he says. And she says yes. But before they can start making flower arrangements, a GIANT ROBOT crashes into their room, grabs Develin and SQUEEZES HIM TO DEATH. Agent Drake Develin is now Agent Drake Dead…lin.

Cut to Professor Mortimer Savage, criminal mastermind super-villain and the apparent orchestrator of this death. Together with his cloned robot-bodyguard-butler, Hugo, Savage is on top of the world. That is, until Savage realizes that by killing his arch-nemesis, he has no one to compete against anymore.

This hurls Savage into a mid-life crisis, punctuated by the Villain Coalition dropping him from the club for not being evil enough. He’s replaced by some new copycat robot-builder named Jackal, and before Savage knows it, he’s unofficially a “good guy,” teaming up with Develin’s old partner, Agent Fox, battling Savage’s network of evil villains.

Of course (spoiler), Savage eventually finds out that The Jackal is really – wait for it – Develin! Which means Develin is now a bad guy and Savage is now a…good guy. I think. Whatever the case, Savage will have to get in touch with his inner hero to finally take down Develin/Jackal and save the world! Or an island. Or something.

Okay, a couple of observations right off the bat. This is so not my thing. To be honest, this script was dead before it even reached my hands, because goofy super-hero humor is my reading kryptonite. I can’t appreciate it on any level. Maybe that’s why I have no idea if this is a Megamind clone or not, because I’ve never been interested in seeing that movie either.

Something else I realized right off the bat was that this wasn’t a good script for Amazon to pick as its winner. The problem is, Villain is one of those scripts that’s very easy to make fun of. The humor is so silly and the plot so ridiculous, that even though that tone is intentional, it creates a fertile ground for angry writers to tear it apart. Onscreen, a robot crashing through a hotel chasing our hero might be pretty awesome. On the page it’s, “This?? THIS BEAT MY SCRIPT?? THIS FUCKING STUPID SHIT!?!” One thing I’ve learned from reading scripts is that there’s no easier genre to tear apart than goofy comedy. In fact, there was a script that sold a couple of years ago for a million bucks with a very similar tone to Villain (Iron Jack – you can read the review here). I’d imagine that script would’ve received the exact same reaction had it won the Amazon competition.

But I *can* see why this won. Having run a couple of contests myself and talking to other contest runners, I know that out of every 1000 entries you get, you’re looking at about 10 decent scripts. And that’s just decent. While those scripts have some impressive component (great premise, great dialogue, unique approach) which helps them stand out, they’re usually plagued by sloppy uneven execution. It’s so rare that you find a contest script that’s consistent all the way through. And say what you will of Villain, but the script is consistent (yes, I'm not unaware of the obvious joke here).

As far as the screenplay itself, you can pick out a number of things that the writer did well. First of all, you have a high concept hook. A villain mastermind who’s hiding a big secret – that he’s good. That one decision puts you ahead of 70% of the competition, who don’t have any hook at all. You have some cleverness here (things like the bad guy ends up being the good guy and the good guy ends up being the bad guy). The dialogue is by no means exceptional, but it’s funny and clever most of the way through. The three act structure is executed to a “T.” The story moves at a very brisk pace. There’s barely if any fat here – a result of creating multiple ticking clocks throughout the script. And it’s a really easy read. I mean this script reads faster than a Japanese bullet train, a testament to the writer understanding the writer-reader relationship.

So whether you think this script is stupid or not, professional readers can easily identify that Stern understands how to tell a story in screenplay form and as much as I hate to say it, 80-90% of writers who enter a competition don’t know how to do that yet. Which is why this script rose above the rest fairly easily.

Now of course none of this matters to me, because I detest the subject matter. There were a lot of angry posters Saturday when I brought up the awesomeness of the Dead Island trailer - pissed that we were getting, yet again, another zombie flick clogging up our multiplexes. Well imagine that feeling times a hundred and you now know how I feel about super hero flicks, real ones or parodies. To me, this script is no different than The Incredibles, which was another well-put together story but did absolutely nothing for me.

And of course, as we discussed in the Chinatown review, I can’t give something a high grade if it does nothing for me emotionally. So despite the technical achievements of Villain and despite me understanding why it won, it was definitely not for me.

Script link: Villain 

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

What I learned: I have no idea why Villain didn’t find a home when it went out a couple of years ago, but one of my guesses is that it would be insanely expensive. You have giant robots chasing people through hotels. You have battles taking place on volcanic islands. It seemed like every other scene was a 30 million dollar set-piece. While I used to subscribe to the theory of “write what you want and let the producers figure out the budget,” I think in these times more than any, producers are counting money when they read your scripts. They’re thinking “How am I going to sell a 200 million dollar non-pre-existing property to a studio?” They know they can’t so they move on to the next script. So while I’m not going to lay down any hard and fast rules, writing a 250 million dollar film probably isn’t in your best interest.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Island of Originality

I'm not going to pretend like I'm first on the boat here.  The "Dead Island" video game trailer went viral a couple of days ago and has been burning up the internet ever since.  Within a day, all the big studios were clamoring for a movie deal with the producers (who'd actually secured the film rights during the game's development).  The interesting thing is that what makes the trailer so unique - the fact that it's in reverse - is not how the game plays out at all.  The trailer is just so powerful, that that's how they want to script the film. The reason I decided to post it though, was because this is EXACTLY what I'm talking about when I say "Find a unique angle to a genre."  Part of the reason this trailer has become so popular is because a) we've never seen a zombie film in reverse before, and b) we've never seen so much heart in a zombie film before (I guarantee, if you haven't seen this already, that some of you will weep).  That's the kind of mindset you need to have when you sit down to write your idea.  You need to ask the question, "What can I do differently?"  This trailer shows the potential of what can happen when you ask that question.  (And if I may - if the producers are listening - let me suggest a writer for this project.  Oren Uziel, who's written one great script told backwards as well as a zombie script, would be perfect for this).  Enjoy!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Amateur Friday - The Alien Diaries

Amateur Friday is back! I didn’t like the sound of last week's “New Writer Friday" but I can't think of anything better at the moment so back to Amateur Friday we go.  Who knows though?  Next week it could be something else. We’ll see. The drama continues! :)

Genre: Drama/Sci-fi
Premise: A book appraiser working at an old farm mansion finds a diary that implies the family who used to live there 200 years ago may have come in contact with a crashed alien ship.
About: Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted.
Writer: Glenn J. Devlin
Details: 114 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).

For long-time readers of the site, this premise probably sounds familiar. That’s because it was one of the 25 loglines to make the semi-finals of my “Script/Logline” contest a year ago. If you made the top 25, that meant I read your entire script, so I actually read an earlier draft of this already. While I remember it creating an eerie atmosphere, I also remember it becoming vaguely hokey in the second half when (spoiler) the alien arrives. I mentioned this to Glenn and I was curious to see what he did with the rewrite, as I absolutely love the idea.

Colin Brayton, late 40s, is a book appraiser. As you’d probably expect, Colin’s not exactly “making it rain” every night at the clubs. This guy’s idea of a raucous party is an original second print edition of Tom Sawyer.  In other words, Colin keeps to himself.

One day, an older man named Asher Bradford shows up at Colin’s shop and asks him if he’d like a job. The Dibble Estate, one of the oldest estates in Virginia, has thousands of books that need to be appraised, which Asher is willing to pay a hefty sum for. Of course, this means Colin will have to go out to the estate and live there for awhile, which is the last thing he wants to do, but in the end he knows the job is too good to pass up.

Once there, he meets the caretaker of the house, Madeline Prentice, an attractive woman in her 40s who has more rules than your average grade school gym teacher. Madeline does not like Colin being here and she lets him know it.

So Colin tries to stay out of her hair until he comes across an old diary amongst the books he’s appraising. Shockingly, it’s from a 15 year old girl named Kate who used to live here back in 1781! Her entries are rather mundane at first, but that changes quickly when she recalls a strange vessel flying across the sky and crashing onto the estate.

We then flash back to 1781 and meet our author, Kate, along with her parents and siblings. The script quickly settles into a rhythm of cutting back and forth between the past and the present, dictated by Colin’s need to find out what happened with this ship.

The gist of the story is that Kate and her family inspect the crashed craft and meet a surviving alien who they name Bronte. The family takes Bronte in, but learn that other aliens will be coming after him soon. This results in a tough decision. They either have to kick Bronte out or move far far away with him where they’ll never be found.

In the meantime, Colin is trying desperately to convince Madeline that all of this is true, while she, of course, thinks it’s hogwash. Colin goes out in search of the ship, as well as for other alien artifacts Kate speaks of, trying to find some evidence that this is more than a young girl’s imagination. During this time, the icy chill between he and Madeline begins to thaw, and they develop a friendship with one another, with the hint of something more. But before any of that can be resolved, Colin must find out the fate of Bronte and the family.

Okay, I’m going to do something I rarely do on this site. I’m going to admit that I don’t exactly know what’s wrong with The Alien Diaries. What I do know is that something *is* wrong. The script moves way too slowly and I’m not sure the most interesting version of the story is being explored. However, far be it from me to throw my hands in the air and give up. I’m going to give an analysis of this script whether it likes it or not.

So we actually have two storylines we’re dealing with here. The present storyline and the past storyline. Let’s start with the present. NOTHING IS GOING ON IN THE PRESENT STORYLINE. It’s just a man and a woman with some sexual chemistry observing an event that happened 220 years ago. There’s no problem they’re trying to solve. There’s no immediate issue they need to take care of. There are no stakes to whether they achieve their goal or not. And actually, there’s no goal to achieve in the first place. This makes the entire present storyline….I hate to say it but…pointless.

Whenever you have a script exploring two parallel plot threads, you want to make sure that each thread has something important going on in it. I know this is a completely different genre, but think of Apollo 13. In that movie, when Tom Hanks and crew are up in that ship trying to find a way to survive, are the guys down in Houston just standing around twiddling their thumbs? No! They have just as much to do, with almost as much at stake, as the guys up in the module have. They’re running simulations, slamming together breathing masks, running re-entry calculations. That they have so much to do in this movie is why the ground stuff is almost as exciting as the module stuff. Here, Colin and Madeline have nothing to do, so almost all of their scenes are boring.

Now, as far as the past scenes, those are a little more complicated, and this is where I’m not sure why things aren’t working. Theoretically, initiating an alien into a family should be interesting. I mean, they did it in E.T. right? And that movie was pretty good. But there’s something off about it here.

One issue is that just like the present day storyline, the majority of the 1781 storyline is absent of any problems. There’s no immediacy. That changes later when the other aliens arrive, but that's really late in the script. Until that point, we're just watching a family get acquainted with an alien. There’s no real conflict there. And maybe it's because we’ve seen this play out before in movies like ET – but “just getting to know the alien” isn’t enough. There needs to be a problem, a danger, something to bring the story alive. Otherwise you have a present day storyline where nothing’s going on, cutting to a past storyline where very little is going on.  And that's a whole lot of not going on.    

Another problem here is that our main character doesn’t have anything going on internally. This script is slow enough where it’s posing as a character piece, but there’s little to nothing going on inside any of the characters. What is it that Colin has to overcome? What is it in this specific journey that challenges his biggest flaw as a human being?

Or let me put it in simpler terms. You know there’s not enough going on with a character when you realize that no actor would want to play the role. Think about it. What challenge would an actor get from playing the role of Colin? All they’re doing is showing up on set and reading a book. If you want to get an A-list actor interested in one of your parts, you gotta work some complex UNSETTLED shit into the character that they need to work through during the course of the story.

So the combination of an uneventful present day storyline, a mostly uneventful past storyline, and a main character who’s got no inner demons or inner conflict to overcome…that’s a super deadly combination right there. That is something that’s going to be really tough to make entertaining.

The thing that’s eating at me is I love this idea. And I’m trying to figure out a story direction that would best take advantage of the premise. You know, one of the most important decisions any writer makes when he sits down to write a script is which direction he plans to take the story. And I don’t think this direction is the most interesting direction Glenn could’ve taken.

But this much I know. The script needs to start with a problem. Every script needs to start with a problem. If your hero doesn’t have a problem, you don’t have a story. And the first real problem that arrives in The Alien Diaries (the other aliens coming for Bronte) doesn’t arrive until, I believe, 70-80 pages into the script. And that’s just too late. Glenn needs to go back, identify a problem that BOTH sets of characters in his story have, and build a story from there.

Now I know I’ve been harsh but the potential of this idea is bringing out the passion in me. There’s some good stuff to build on in Alien Diaries. I liked the book appraiser stuff. I’ve never seen that explored in a movie before, and there’s something mystical about the profession that fits well with this idea. The foundation is also there for an interesting relationship between Colin and Madeline. Their conflict is a little too artificial so far (they hate each other for the sake of needing conflict in the relationship) but that’s how all these relationships start in early drafts. You just keep nuancing them with each successive draft until they begin to feel natural.  But yeah, the idea's cool enough to keep plugging away at.

Anyway, I appreciate Glenn putting his baby up for some hard core analysis. Hopefully I’ve given him some new ideas for the next draft. :)

Script link: The Alien Diaries

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

What I learned: I think this is a classic case of leaning on your premise. That’s when you’ve got a great premise, and you just try to write enough stuff around it until you have a script. Instead, try to pretend like you don’t have that great hook. Try to make sure your characters are compelling enough that we’d want to watch them regardless of if they were in this story or not. Try to make everything AROUND the premise better than the premise itself, instead of just hoping that the premise is enough.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Chinatown - Best Screenplay Ever?

Genre: Crime/Noir
Premise: A private detective investigating an adultery case stumbles onto a larger conspiracy involving the Los Angeles water system.
About: Chinatown has been called one of the greatest films ever made. It was nominated for eleven Academy Awards in 1974, winning for Best Original Screenplay. In 1971, producer and all around kook Robert Evans originally offered Robert Towne $175,000 to write a screenplay for The Great Gatsby. But Towne came back with a different idea, asking for $25,000 to write his own story, Chinatown. It was the first part of Towne's planned trilogy about the character J.J. Gittes. The second part, The Two Jakes, was about another grab for a natural resource — oil — in the 1940s. It was directed by Jack Nicholson and released in 1990, but the film's commercial and critical failure scuttled plans to make the third film. Evans intended for the screenplay to have a happy ending with Cross dying and Evelyn Mulwray surviving. Evans and Polanski argued over it, with Polanski insisting on a tragic end. The two parted ways due to the dispute and Polanski wrote the final scene just a few days before it was shot. The original script was over 180 pages long. Polanski eliminated Gittes' voiceover narration (hey, see what happens when you get rid of voice over! An Oscar!), which was written in the script, and structured the movie so the audience discovered the clues at the same time Gittes did. (Wikipedia)
Writer: Robert Towne
Details: 123 pages

If you polled every established screenwriter in the business and asked them what the best screenplay ever written was, Chinatown would probably come out on top. The Robert Towne screenplay is considered to be the gold standard of screenwriting. So one day while drinking a glass of Cavasia and watching the tail end of the women’s professional bowling championships, it hit me like a sack of bricks: How come I haven’t reviewed the greatest screenplay ever written? It seemed like an odd oversight.

Now I have a confession to make. I’ve never been a huge fan of Chinatown. It’s not that I don’t like the film. I think it’s okay. I just never understood the immense love for it. I mean, let’s be honest for a minute. It’s a murder mystery about water corruption. Try pitching that at your next meet-and-greet. For that reason, I’ve never sat down and read the screenplay from cover to cover. But all that was about to change so I could answer the eternal question that has been burning in screenwriting circles for centuries: Is Chinatown really the best screenplay ever written?

I’m not going to summarize the whole plot because the movie is too well-known. But for you youngsters who don’t know what the acronym “VHS” stands for, I’ll give you a quick synopsis. Chinatown is about private investigator Jake Gittes, who begins investigating the murder of Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power back in the 1930s. It appears Mulwray was sniffing up the wrong tree in a larger conspiracy meant to protect the DWP’s interest in other parts of the water-starved city. Jake becomes chummy with Evelyn Mulwray, Hollis’ wife, who helps him piece together the mystery behind Hollis’ shocking death. But it soon becomes clear that Evelyn herself is hiding a dark secret, one that will help explain just how deep this conspiracy goes.

Okay so let’s get right to it then. Is Chinatown the best screenplay ever written? The answer to that question is no. Well, at least in my opinion the answer is no. I still think Back To The Future is the best screenplay ever written. But that’s a debate for another time. What surprised me, despite never holding this movie in high regard, was that once I stripped away all the images, once I forgot about the film and Jack Nicholson and just concentrated on the words, how good of a script it really was.

I’ll start with the first 15 pages. A big problem I have with most crime/murder mysteries is that they follow the same boring opening template:  "Dude gets murdered. Time to start looking for the killer." A monkey could set up that scenario. Here, things are quite different. Mrs. Mulwray hires Gittes to see if her husband is cheating on her. He does a little investigating, finds out that he is. But after the investigation is over, a new woman walks through the door claiming *she* is Mrs. Mulwray. Which means the other woman was a fake.

Okay, when I say that professional writers make more original choices in their stories than amateurs, this is exactly what I mean. This is not a setup I’m used to seeing. Just like yesterday, in my review of Nautica, it passes my murder-mystery test of not just setting up the lazy question of “who killed the dead guy,” but poses a much more complicated series of questions, starting with, why the hell would a woman pretend to be someone else’s wife and hire a private investigator to follow her non-husband? It just doesn’t make sense. Interestingly enough, it isn’t until AFTER this scenario that the principal murder takes place, leaving us really confused about what the hell is going on. This multi-faceted setup is what hooks us. It’s different. It’s unique. We need to know what happened.

Another notable thing about the Chinatown script is its story density. One of the problems I had with Amateur Friday Randy Steinberg’s script (I love you Randy. Just using your script as an example!) was that there was no story density, no subplots, no character development, which led to a very “thin” feeling plot. Here, we have several intriguing threads going on at once. There’s the Hollis murder. There’s the city water conspiracy. There’s the mystery behind Evelyn. And then there’s the Ida Sessions stuff (the mysterious girl who first claimed to be Hollis’ wife). There were even a couple of smaller threads as well, making sure Chinatown always felt rich and complex. Of course, handled shoddily, these multiple threads could’ve led to the story feeling overplotted (read my Die Hard 2 review to see what I mean by “shoddy”), but everything’s been so well thought through here – each thread exists for such a specific purpose – that that’s never the case.

I also love how every key character in Chinatown has a real backstory, and that those backstories are multi-dimensional. Take Evelyn for example. She’s not simply the innocent wife. She’s been having affairs of her own, implying all sorts of things about her marriage. We never find out exactly what happened there, but we get enough of a whiff to imagine a rich full complicated history between the two.  If you can do that in your screenplay, you can make the audience believe that the characters they're watching are real.  Because backstory implies a life before the movie existed, which tricks the brain into thinking the people they're watching exist in real life.  Of course, if it's some cliche generic backstory, we never get that sense, leading to the opposite effect - us not believing the characters are real. 

I also thought the way Towne handled the backstories was great. When it came time to tell the story points that mattered, he went into great detail. But when it was time to get into backstory that didn’t necessarily affect the plot, Towne wisely showed restraint, something very few writers are able to do in the same circumstance. For instance, when it finally comes time for Gittes to dish about Chinatown, he doesn’t really tell us anything. He just implies how terrible it was. Such a nice change from the kind of thing I usually see (“Well, my partner and I were walking down an alley. And there was this 7 year old kid dealing drugs. I didn’t want to shoot him, but the gun went off accidently….”)

Chinatown is also a great example of how to construct conflict within the central relationship. With Gittes and Evelyn, there are actually two elements of conflict happening at all times. First, he doesn’t 100% trust her. So there’s always a restraint there, a cautious wall he puts up, which adds a nice subtext to their conversations. And also, there’s sexual tension between the two. Both characters are attracted to each other, which also plays into their dialogue, and nicely contrasts with the lack of trust. This is by no means a new device, but it works particularly well in this relationship for some reason.

As far as what’s not in this script, there’s no real ticking time bomb here, which I guess is not surprising since that was less of a concern back in the 70s. Everybody had all the time in the world so who cares if things get finished now or later? Now would it have helped Chinatown? I think yes, it would have. Not dramatically. But there were a few times in the script where we could’ve used some momentum. Also - and you’ll have to excuse me if this is a bigger deal in the movie because I’m just going off the script (it’s been ten years since I saw the film) – but there’s no true villain here. I mean, there are some smaller villains. And of course Cross is pretty bad. But here in the script he shows up late and the extent of his evil is only revealed in the final act. One of my big things is to try to get a great villain in your script. So it was interesting that Chinatown chose to cloak its villain for the majority of its story.

You know it’s funny. If this showed up on my desk for the first time today, I’d probably say, “Change the water conspiracy to something more interesting and get the opening act moving faster.” But otherwise, this script really is a master class in crafting a character-driven mystery. It's not the greatest script ever written in my opinion, but I can't fault others for believing it is.  It's damn good writing.

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

What I learned: Restrained information. There are two instances where big parts of the characters’ pasts are set up, yet both times, very little or the barest amount of information is given. With Evelyn, it’s how she got pregnant. With Gittes, it’s Chinatown. Notice how Evelyn doesn’t go into extreme detail about the experience. “My mom died. He was angry. I was 15. I ran away.” It’s just quick flashes of information. And as I noted before, with Gittes, it’s not any specific thing that happened in Chinatown. It’s more the character’s reaction to the memory than the memory itself. These moments always tend to work better with restraint, and Chinatown is proof of that. Less is more people. Less is more.