Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why Did Good Will Hunting Win An Oscar?

Genre: Drama
Premise: A young janitor at MIT solves an impossible math equation, which leads to a unique relationship with a reclusive psychologist.
About: Good Will Hunting was originally purchased by Rob Reiner at Castle Rock for 675,000 dollars. The script at that time was a straight thriller about a math genius recruited by the government. Reiner told Damon and Affleck to cut out the thriller aspect, however, and focus on the character development. The rewrites went well, but eventually the project jumped ship to Miramax (spearheaded by Kevin Smith, which is how he got producer credit on the film). After demanding the usual suspects for the lead roles (DiCaprio and Pitt) and not getting them, Miramax begrudgingly allowed Damon and Affleck to play the leads, which would end up launching their careers. The script went on to win the best original screenplay Oscar in 1997. There was a lot of controversy behind that win, however, as many claimed William Goldman rewrote the script. Goldman repeatedly denied these claims though and told the screenwriting world they were simply jealous that a couple of good-looking kids could write a great screenplay. For an article about dialogue in GWH, go the the writer's store.
Writers: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

When Good Will Hunting came out, I didn’t see what the big deal was. A couple of pretty boy best friends able to make their dream project seemed to be influencing the Oscar vote way more than the quality of the movie itself. I mean, the story was basically about a couple of friends hanging out in Boston, right? Give me a break.

But having watched the movie a number of times since, and maybe growing up a little as well, I’ve realized just how complicated and well-written this screenplay is. Good Will Hunting is a multi-faceted multi-character study, which places its chassis around an engine that’s never officially turned on. It’s overly melodramatic in places. The backstories are a mite cliché (oh, daddy was abusive!). And yet it’s all powerfully affecting. It works in a way that so many other character studies (Smart People, Garden State, Brothers, Pay It Forward, Finding Forrester, etc., etc.) have failed. So what’s going on here? And what is it about Good Will Hunting that’s so complicated?

As I’ve stated many times before, most of the best stories start with a character who wants something badly. That thing they want? It’s called a goal. And their pursuit of that goal is what drives the story forward. Because there’s uncertainty in whether they’ll achieve that goal or not, we want to stick around to find out what happens. That formula right there is the core of any good drama.

However, every once in awhile, a movie is based around a character without a goal. In these cases, the character is known as “passive.” They’re passive because they’re not “actively” trying to obtain a goal. Movies based around these characters can still work (The Graduate), but they’re really hard to pull off, because it’s hard to get excited about a character who doesn’t do anything just as it’s hard to like people in the real world who don’t do anything. Inactivity is boring.

However, one of the ways to make movies with passive heroes work, is to give the goal that drives the story to someone else. In almost all cases, that secondary choice would be the villain. So in Home Alone, Macaulay Culkin doesn’t have a goal. It’s Joe Pesci’s villain, who’s trying to break in, who has the goal that’s driving the story. Macaulay Culkin is just trying to survive.

To recap, we have giving your main character the story goal or giving your main villain the story goal. But if neither of these two has a goal? Now you’re stepping into dangerous territory. Because very few movies work without the two most important people in the movie driving the story. I mean, if anyone besides these two is driving the story, why aren’t they the main character??

Yet this is what Good Will Hunting does. The goal in Good Will Hunting is Professor Lambeau’s. He’s trying to help Will realize his full potential. But it doesn’t stop there. Instead of Professor Lambeau - the person with the actual goal - being the one to guide Will to his objective, he brings in ANOTHER CHARACTER – a psychologist friend – to do the job for him. This means, by association, Sean (Robin William’s character), is the character responsible for the main goal that drives the story, a goal he personally (at least initially) could care less about.

If we were to go back to the conception of this idea, I think every one of us would’ve been more comfortable making the person who cares so much about Will becoming a math genius (Professor Lambeau) being the one to “help” him. Adding a buffer character between him and Will lowers the stakes, since Sean doesn’t have as much on the line as Lambeau. It would be like Daniel coming to Mr. Miagi in The Karate Kid and Mr. Miagi saying. “I want you to be a great Karate master. Let me introduce you to my friend, Cousin Taki. He will teach you.”

So, let’s recap again. Our main character has no goal. There’s no villain so the villain has no goal. A third person has the goal but pawns it off to someone else. And to make things as tough as they can possibly be on our writers, the goal itself is vague. They’re helping Will with his Math so he can…help the world? Sheesh, talk about a tough sell.

So then, why does Good Will Hunting still work?

Well, it starts with something not a lot of people who write character work think about – a hook. Will is a genius. He can solve impossible math equations, equations that would give Einstein fits, in a matter of seconds. So right away, you have something unique that intrigues an audience. But the writers go one step further. Will is a janitor at MIT. They’ve harnessed the power of an ironic character. A janitor at MIT who’s smarter than all the students? Who doesn’t want to go see a movie about that?

What the hook also does is it makes us like Will. Remember, audiences love characters who are talented at something. It’s no different than real life. We love people who are great at something. We look up to them. Admire them. Wish we could be like them. And so even though Will beats the shit out of people for fun (although it’s important to remember that the person he beats up is the kid who bullied him in kindergarten), we really like the guy.

Affleck and Damon then introduce the secret engine that’s driving the story. You didn’t know about the secret engine rule did you? Well pay attention, cause this is the key to why this story works. Are you ready? WILL HUNTING DOES NOT WANT TO DO ANYTHING WITH HIS TALENT. And that, my friends, is the conflict that’s driving the story.

Our character wants to be one way. **But we want him to be another way.** Conflict. We, just like Lambeau and Sean, want Will to realize his potential. We want him to realize what he can do for the world. And that’s why those therapy sessions between Sean and Will work so well. Because there’s so much at stake. If Will doesn’t open up, if he doesn’t listen to what Sean has to say, he’s going to be mopping floors and banging bricks for the rest of his life. And we can’t have that. It’s a really weird driving mechanism for a story. Because normally character goals or mysteries drive a story. In this case, it’s our desire to see this character reach his potential.

There are some other risks Affleck and Damon took in Good Will Hunting as well. Usually, in a drama like this, you don’t want to have any more than 3 central relationships for the main character to resolve. And that’s because if you spread yourself too thin, you won’t have enough time to explore those relationships on a meaningful level. So in Rocky, we have the relationship with Adrian, with Paulie, and with Mick. Here in Good Will Hunting, we have five. Will’s relationship with Chuckie (Affleck), with his group of friends, with Professor Lambeau, with Sean, and with Skylar. That’s a lot of jumping back and forth and by no means easy to juggle. Now on top of this – as if these guys weren’t making things difficult enough for themselves - we also explore Sean and Lambeau’s relationship AWAY from Will. This is a risky move because it isn’t required. They could’ve nixed it and kept the story leaner and more focused. But they did it and it paid off, because it made us understand these characters in a way we couldn’t have understood them if we had only seen them around Will.

Good Will Hunting also seems to violate the melodrama rule. Which is you don’t want to stack a bunch of really intense (yelling, crying) scenes back to back as the melodrama will overwhelm the audience and cancel itself out. Yet at the end of Good Will Hunting, we get, I believe, 5 back to back scenes with our characters breaking down, crying, or screaming. In every other instance I’ve seen this attempted, it’s failed miserably, as the audience just gets drama’d out. Yet in Good Will Hunting, it works. And it works because the characters are so unbelievably crafted. Each one of them feels like a real person so we believe that they’d really be crying and yelling at each other.

And the touches here. The touches are amazing. Making sure to keep enough humor in the script to balance out all the melodrama. Stuff like Professor Lambeau’s study aid, a character who could’ve been forgettable but Damon and Affleck gave him a jealousy storyline. The script strives to create those all important “memorable moments” (“How you like them Apples” and Chuckie’s “retainer” interview). And the dialogue. Jesus Christ the dialogue in this script is tremendous. I mean they must’ve written those scenes between Will and Sean a thousand times because none of it is cliché. Not a lick of it. They just kept pounding it out and pounding it out and pounding it out until it felt unique and infinitely organic to this world. I can’t say enough about this script. I think it’s genius. And it’s on Neflix Streaming for free. So what the hell are you waiting for?

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

What I learned: Good Will Hunting is a testament to the power of rewriting. It’s well documented that they rewrote the shit out of this thing. Probably over a hundred drafts. And when you keep going back and holding every scene up to the spotlight and saying, “Is this as good as it can possibly be?” and not stopping until the answer is yes, that’s the attitude that leads to great scripts. Just remember though. These guys had some really smart people giving them notes (Rob Reiner, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Smith, Robin Williams). Getting fresh eyes on the script after every rewrite helps you identify problems in your script that aren’t working which is the key to making it better.

Support the Source!

First of all, shame on all you people who e-mailed me months ago telling me Source Code screenings had gone terribly and the movie was bad enough to go straight to video and you never understood why I loved the script in the first place .  The movie is playing like gangbusters for critics made all the more shocking by the fact that it's a sci-fi film! 

I'm just kidding of course.  Everybody has their own opinions and they're all valid.  But I'm excited as hell that a great script has transferred over to the big screen, because sometimes this shit gets screwed up.  And it goes to show you that an original idea stemming from a SPEC SALE can turn into a good movie.  So keep writing!  Next Thursday, I'm going to chronicle the changes made from that initial draft to what ended up onscreen and discuss how those changes helped or hurt the story.  So go see the film this weekend and support the Source. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Genre: Historical Epic
Premise: In 1804, before America has any cachet in the world, a rogue U.S. diplomat arrives in the savage city of Tripoli to demand the release of American prisoners.
About: Tripoli was famously about to begin production in 2003 (2004?) when at the last second the studio pulled out. Ridley Scott, the director of the project, immediately moved on to another Monahan scripted endeavor, “Kingdom Of Heaven.” Tripoli has made waves in screenwriting circles since, with many proclaiming its awesomeness. As I’ve found this to be standard practice when it comes to deserted high profile projects, I decided to read the script and decide for myself. Monahan is pretty much the go-to guy when it comes to historical-based screenplays and is one of the better writers in Hollywood overall (I really dug his underrated screenplay for Edge of Darkness). He actually sold this screenplay on spec.
Writer: William Monahan
Details: 129 pages – 4/11/02 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).

Historical-related plots are so hard to pull off. They’re always walking that line between maintaining the historical accuracy of the times and keeping things entertaining enough for a modern audience. The problem is that the speed of life back then was so damn slow, and if you violate that pace, if you try to speed it up Michael Bay style, it feels false, necessitating that you move your story along at “Sunday afternoon” speeds. This requires the writer to dig deep into his bag of tricks to keep the story moving - conflict, mystery, suspense, tension, plotting – all of them must be used to “trick” the audience into thinking things are moving faster than they actually are. The problem is, there aren’t many writers who can do this. But since Monahan is about as skilled as they come, maybe Tripoli would be different.

Or…maybe not.

I didn’t like Tripoli. In fact, I had a harder time getting through this than I did a day at Sunday school. I don’t know if this movie was built for me because it is looooooong and drawwwwwwn out and not much happens and I don’t know if the subject matter is big enough for an entire movie. It’s basically about a guy walking around for a couple of hours. Let me lay out the plot for you.

The story starts off in the Barbary Coast of Africa in 1804. America isn’t a major player yet. To the point where places like Tripoli scoff when Americans show up in their city and demand the release of American prisoners. This is exactly what happens as our hero, Eaton, an easily frightened American diplomat on his way to another country entirely, but who gets roped into Tripoli after local pirates seize his ship, sees other Americans there and asks for their release.

This was the first sign of trouble for me, that our hero wasn’t even specifically headed to Tripoli in the first place. He was going somewhere else and only upon noticing a few of his other countryman being held did he decide to make a stand. When the situation was so meaningless that our hero wasn’t even going there to address it in the first place, it just felt like a second rate problem. And indeed, the Americans aren’t in any imminent danger. They’re just sequestered to their ship in the port. So right away, the stakes feel low.

To the script’s credit, there is one great sequence in this opening act, and that’s when Eaton demands to speak with the city’s ruler, a barbaric man who skins people alive, pokes their eyes out, and forces them to live in cages in his throne quarters. And we thought Charlie Sheen had issues. Just the anticipation of this meeting between Eaton and the ruler was great, and when they do finally have their showdown, and Eaton stands up to him, it was easily the best moment in the script. I still had high hopes for Tripoli at this point.

Unfortunately, Monahan takes the story in another direction entirely. After the ruler denies Eaton the release of his countrymen, Eaton finds out that the king has a brother who’s been exiled to Egypt, and that this brother is a way cooler cat who doesn’t skin people alive and put them in cages. So he gets this idea that he’ll go to Egypt and convince the brother to come back and rule Tripoli.

And thus begins an endless trip where Eaton finds the brother and the two walk back to Tripoli, debating how they’re going to take over the city with so few men. As you know, for any “road trip” scenario to work, the characters have to be interesting. And both Eaton and the brother are – I hate to say it – but really boring. They sound like two college professors debating 200 year old world affairs for two hours. I mean it’s really hard to get through.

I suppose the final battle to take the city back could be epic with Ridley Scott directing, but because I didn’t care about any of the characters involved, in particular the American soldiers who I barely knew, the battle didn’t matter. To make things worse, there’s a huge anti-climactic moment that interrupts the battle at the end that basically makes everything that came before it (aka the entire movie) meaningless.

Tripoli’s faults come down to that most basic pillar of storytelling – stakes. I just didn’t feel the stakes. I didn’t really know or care about the Americans being saved. I didn’t understand why replacing the leader of Tripoli was so important. It seemed like our main character was set on it only because of principle, because the ruler was bad and his brother was good. I get principle but I don’t know if I believe that someone takes a months-long trip to Egypt to find a replacement king then goes back and tries to take over the city simply on principle. In Braveheart, if William Wallace loses any of those battles, his country loses their fucking freedom!! Now THOSE are stakes. Replacing the ruler of a mean but small group of savages who annoyingly interrupt European trade routes with their piracy? I’m not sure why I’m supposed to care about that.

Also, I didn’t like the recruiting of the replacement brother. Mainly because the CITY IS WHERE ALL THE FUN IS! Tripoli, with this barbaric insane leader who kills people for sport….THAT’S WHERE I WANT MY MOVIE TO BE. That’s where all the conflict is. When we’re in this city, we feel like Eaton could be skinned alive at any moment. When he’s off wandering around Egypt, we feel no danger for him whatsoever. Why not have Eaton stay in the city and plan his takeover there? I suppose the answer to this has something to do with that’s not how it happened in real life. So then maybe you focus the story on one of the other characters, possibly one of the Americans stuck in the city?

To be honest, this is why I get worried whenever I open a period piece. Many of them seem to be geared towards historical nerds who love the details yet aren’t that interested in telling a rip-roaring story, which I guess brings us back to Monday’s script review, Repent Harlequin. The details are definitely necessary to making a script great. But a script’s laurels can’t rest solely on historical details. It has to be based on some kind of unique entertaining hook, and I’m still struggling to figure out what the hook of Tripoli was.

So if William Monahan, one of the best writers in Hollywood, is struggling to make an historical epic work, then let that be a word to the wise for all you amateur writers out there thinking you’re going to break into the spec market with an historical/period piece yourself. It’s really damn hard!

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

What I learned: If you refuse to listen to me and still want to write your period piece, seriously consider starting your screenplay with an opening crawl that highlights the relevant details of the time. One of the reasons I had such a tough time getting into Tripoli was that I had no knowledge of this time period or this city. If there are some important details about why Tripoli is the way it is or what stage America is at right now, the reader needs to know (i.e. “In 1807, pirates out of Tripoli were wreaking havoc on the surrounding countries, severely crippling the most important trade routes in Western Europe, which in turn crippled America’s commerce…”). Set up for us why this story is relevant.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dirty Grandpa

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A young man about to get married to the wrong girl gets stuck down in Florida for a week, babysitting his newly widowed grandfather.
About: Hip hip hooray, the spec sale lives! This script just sold a couple of weeks ago to Universal for mid six figures. The writer, John Phillips, is a New York based comedian who was a part of the Upright Citizens Brigade.This is his first spec sale. 
Writer: John Phillips
Details: 112 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).

I feel like this is my fault – that I’ve clamored so loudly for a ticking time bomb in every script, that every writer is making damn well sure they have one. Which is good. The problem, however, is the blatant lack of ticking time bomb diversity, particularly in comedies. Just about everyone uses the same one – the hero is getting married in a week. I know it’s the easiest. I know it works. I know it’s the ideal frame for the story. But just keep in mind, everybody else is using it, so if you can find a different one? Please use it instead, as it will set your screenplay apart. Okay, now on to the script.

Our affable but uptight hero, Jason Kelly, is about to get married to Meredith in a week. Meredith is kind of like Ed Helms’ girlfriend in The Hangover, only slightly less mean. Unfortunately, throwing a little wrench into his plans is that Jason’s grandmother just died. And they have to fly out to the funeral a week before the big day.

Even worse, it turns out that his grandmother used to drive his grandfather around. Now that she’s, you know, DEAD, she can’t do that anymore. So Jason’s parents ask him if he can stay in town for a few days to take care of Grandpa’s driving duties until they can hire someone new. Jason reluctantly agrees while a pissed off Meredith heads back to Atlanta and, voila, that’s how our adventure begins.

Dick Kelly, Jason’s grandfather, might as well be 30 years younger he’s such a specimen of handsome macho manliness. He has a way with the ladies but hasn’t been able to use it for the past 50 years because he was, you know, married. But now that the wife is fertilizing the dirt at the local cemetery, he can finally concentrate on what he was born to do – score women!

That’s the REAL reason he asked Jason to stay behind, so he can have a wingman. Unfortunately Jason’s the worst wingman ever. He does everything by the rules and because he’s getting married, has no interest in hooking up with anyone.

But then they meet a couple of girls in town for Spring Break and in order to give Dick a shot with one of them, Jason has no other choice but to entertain the other one, a sarcastic witty unpredictable exotic girl (read: “the complete opposite of Meredith”) named Shadia.

The group finds themselves getting caught up in Spring Break activities, frat house parties, go-kart races, a fight or two. And in the process of loosening up, Jason begins to realize that maybe Meredith isn’t the girl he’s supposed to spend the rest of his life with after all. Maybe it’s Shadia. Of course, before he can figure it all out, he’ll first have to make sure his insane grandfather lives through the week.

Let me start this analysis off by asking a question. It seems to me that there’s a portion of the moviegoing public who hates the “weak” 20-something male protagonist who doesn’t have his shit together. Michael Cera. Seth Rogan. Paul Rudd. Skewing slightly older, Steve Carrell. The kind of roles that those characters play. Which is the same role that’s presented here in Dirty Grandpa.

Now here’s my question. A character needs to start from a place of weakness in order to get to a place of strength. I mean, if they’re already strong, and they already have their shit together, then why do we need to watch their story? If Jason already knows that Meredith is an overbearing bitch that controls his life, then he can get rid of her on the first page and the movie is over.

So I’m curious if you guys just hate these characters in general or if there’s a version of these characters that you like? And if so, who would that version be? Can you give me a specific movie example? Cause again, while I don’t exactly like wimpy characters who don’t stick up for themselves, such as Jason, I realize that the journey is about their growth. And they can’t grow if they’ve already learned and corrected their weaknesses. So I’m curious what the Rogan/Cera/Rudd/Segal haters have to say about this.

Okay, enough of that. What about the script? I thought Dirty Grandpa was actually pretty good. I mean, we’re not breaking any new ground here. It’s another “buddy” movie, however the pairing is unique in that it’s a guy and his grandpa, something we haven’t seen before, which gives it a fresh feel. I also thought the comedy was pretty sharp, especially the early stuff. Meredith’s dog barking like crazy during the funeral and being completely oblivious to it not only had me laughing, but set up her character perfectly as well.

Unfortunately, the humor in the rest of the script never quite lives up to those first 20 pages and now that I think about it, this happens in a LOT of the comedies I read these days. And I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because when you first conceive of an idea, the easiest scenes to think of are the ones that happen right around the story’s hook (which always comes early), or maybe it’s because writers obsess over those first 20 pages way more than they do the last 80. But I’ve been seeing this in a TON of comedies lately so please comedy writers, make sure to keep the jokes going the whole way through, not just in the beginning!

I also thought the comedy could’ve been pushed more. We’re warned that Grandpa is unpredictable and racist, yet I don’t remember one racist joke in the movie. Actually, the script plays it pretty “P.C.” with Grandpa coming to the rescue of a gay character at a key moment in the movie that might as well have been a P.S.A for GLADD.

I will say this though. I thought Dirty Grandpa was better than El Presidente. That script was pure shenanigans with zero story. This at least tries to have a structure, albeit one that ends with the dreaded “run to the airport” scene – noooooo!

I actually had an idea after reading this ending. If Jason had to instead chase his GRANDFATHER to the airport and not a girl – like every other romantic comedy in existence – I think it could’ve worked, because it would’ve been a new spin on an old idea. But chasing the girl to the plane terminal just CANNOT BE DONE anymore. You can’t do it. And no, it’s not okay if you’re self-referencing it either (“This is so cliché! Us ending up at the airport!”). That’s becoming almost as cliché as the run to the airport in the first place (I say as Phillips is padding his pocket with a 500,000 dollar check).

As it stands, Dirty Grandpa isn't bad. And not bad is pretty solid for a comedy these days.

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

What I learned: Always give your characters goals in scenes. Remember, scenes are just mini-movies. They, like movies, should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And the beginning starts with a character who needs something (a goal). So in the middle of Dirty Grandpa, there’s a scene where they go go-karting. Now even though the temptation is to just have a wacky wily shenanigan-filled go-kart scene, you need a reason for the scene to exist. The character goal here becomes Grandpa wanting to take out the two muscle-bound stooges that are cock-blocking them from getting the girls. It’s thin and in the grand scheme of things, kinda silly, but at least it gives the scene a purpose. So make sure there’s always a character goal in every scene you write.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Repent Harlequin, Said The Ticktockman

Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Premise: In the future, where every minute is kept track of by a time dictator known as the Ticktockman, one man decides to fight the system and help the public seize back their lives.
About: J. Michael Straczynski, through the blessing of his friend Harlan Ellison, who wrote the original short story which won the Hugo Award in 1966, has adapted Harlequin in spec screenplay form. He went out with it recently and to be honest, I don’t know if it sold or not, but I don’t think it did as I can’t find any information that definitively claims it did. J. Michael Straczynski is, of course, the screenwriter of the recently reviewed World War Z.
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski (based on the short story by Harlan Ellison)
Details: 106 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).

What an odd little screenplay this was. I must admit, despite learning that “Repent, Harlequin Said The Ticktockman,” was one of the most famous sci-fi short stories ever written, I had never heard of it up until now. And upon hearing what it was about, I have to say I was pretty excited. Time rationing is a cool science fiction idea. So I was curious to see what Straczynski had done with it.

It’s an unspecified future. In this future, time is valued above all else. You see, in the interim between 2011 and…whenever it is now, the world has become more and more obsessed with time. Every single second must be squeezed out from every single person and that means people can’t be late…ever. Time abuse is not permitted. In fact, the ruling government has become so strict in their efforts to keep everything moving on schedule that they’ve built a mechanism into your heart whereby every minute you’re late, they take away one minute of your life. Try to escape these constraints, they simply press a button and stop your heart altogether.

The ruler of this time-obsessed world is the Ticktockman, an elusive Kim Jong-Il like leader who only emerges when he has to, and is feared by all. He makes sure that there is no one who takes advantage of his OCD-esque scheduled world, and if they do, it’s OFF WITH THEIR HEARTS.

Enter Everett C. Marm, a storage space cleaner who doesn’t abide by the system. Well, he abides by it when he’s being watched, but Everett steals minutes of relaxation and fun whenever he can. He actually ENJOYS himself in those moments, something that isn’t accepted in this world.

Well one day, while cleaning out a storage locker, he finds a room filled with old toys. It’s a revelation to him, as toys (signifying an age where people enjoyed “leisure time”) aren’t made anymore. Specifically, he finds an old harlequin costume (one of those costumes that makes you look like a court jester) and formulates an idea. What if he could become a “super hero,” a man who reminds the lemmings what it’s like to enjoy themselves again?

So that’s exactly what he does. He pops on the costume, starts running around the city, and causes all sorts of mayhem, which results in people being late for work or late for appointments. This forces them, for the first time, to just….enjoy the moment. These moments of enjoyment begin to spread, and soon the population is starting to wonder if the time-constricted world they’re a part of is really the best thing for them.

The Ticktockman, realizing his grip on the people is slipping, dedicates all of his efforts to find and expose the Harlequin, in order to save his dictatorship.

So, how was it?

Okay, I feel very strongly about this even though I know some hardcore sci-fi lovers share the opposite opinion. I believe that you entertain FIRST and do your social commentary SECOND when writing a movie. I get that sci-fi, in particular, is a great venue to bring to light modern day socio-political problems. District 9 brought to light how we treated the less fortunate in Johannesburg.

But for any of that to actually rub off on your viewer, you need to make sure you’re entertaining them first. Or else you might as well plop them in front of a CNN broadcast. That was my big problem with Harlequin. It's geared so extensively to deliver a message, that it’s never that entertaining. "Enjoy yourself. Smell the roses," is what the story keeps telling us.  The irony being that we're not enjoying ourselves. I wanted a story.  Instead I got a moral.

This is also a tonally strange screenplay. On the one hand we’re living in this technologically superior futuristic city. But on the other, our main character is dressed up in an 18th century harlequin costume bouncing around town like a court jester. I had a really hard time bringing those two visuals together. I don’t know, it felt like Charlie Chaplin dressed up in a clown costume doing pratfalls in front of a Minority Report skyscraper. For example, in one of the central set pieces, the Harlequin unloads thousands of jellybeans onto the city to bring it to a halt. Jellybeans? Really?

I guess the movie it reminded me of the most was V for Vendetta. And I really disliked that movie. But I realize that a lot of people *did* like that movie, so I’m thinking those same people might like Harlequin. Still, it's hard to argue that this didn't feel like the year 2100 imagined by someone living in 1783. For example, there’s no mention of the internet at all here. It’s as if it doesn’t exist. And, of course, that’s because it if it did exist, the story couldn’t exist, because people don’t act like the people in this story if they have the internet. That then makes the future of Repent Harlequin an alternate reality and boy do I hate alternate reality futures because they eliminate the suspension of disbelief. If you don’t believe that this could really happen, if you're not truly worried that this is the direction the world is headed in, then why should you care?

Still, I feel like some of you will like this. It reminded me in many ways of Frank Darabont’s Farenheit 451, and as many of you remember, I so did not like that script either (also because it was set in an alternate reality).

I guess in the end this is a stylized interpretation of an alternate reality future. It’s highly conceptual and so you need to buy into a lot of things to suspend your disbelief. If you can make that happen, or if the alternate reality vibe doesn’t bother you, hey, you very well might love it.  I couldn't unfortunately. I will give it this though. It’s unlike anything that’s coming out in the theaters today. And that’s always a good thing.

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

What I learned: The funny thing is, most writers have the opposite problem. They have no theme. They have nothing they’re trying to say. As a result, their story is thin and forgettable. But the deep-thinkers, the people who use film to say something about the world, their problem is that sometimes they get a little too wrapped up in their message. And they need to be reminded: First and foremost, people go to the movies to be entertained. They want a story first and to be preached to second. If you mix up the order of those two things, if you get too heady on them and they feel like you’re teaching them something, you’re dead. This is especially true with a sci-fi audience, as they want to be entertained more than any audience out there. I think time-rationing is a cool idea. But Harlequin made me feel like I was back in college English debating philosophy. It was too much.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Amateur Friday - Citizen Kane: The Remake

Genre: Comedy
Premise: (writers’ logline) A film producer known for remaking some of Hollywood's biggest movies becomes the subject of a posthumous investigation by Entertainment Tonight.
About: Last week’s comments section for Amateur Friday was a disaster. I want to rebound here. Remember what Amateur Friday is about. It’s about identifying the problems in an amateur screenplay to help both yourself and the writer of the script get better. There’s a huge difference between constructive criticism and hurtful criticism. Let’s show some class and keep everything on the constructive side. ---- 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.
Writers: Josh Ames and Richard Karpala
Details: 102 pages

Ahhh Citizen Kane. A strange movie indeed. I’m one of those people who find the film fascinating, not so much because of the movie, but because of everything that happened around the movie. The egos involved. The history involved. The scandal. The David vs. Goliath aspect. With all those rich subplots, it really is the best story behind the making of a movie ever. And I can’t tell you how weird it was when I actually visited Hearst Castle and saw the real-life Xanadu for the first time. It made the whole thing even more real. Very trippy indeed.

So naturally, anything with Citizen Kane in the title and I’m going to be interested. And this one sounded good. The idea of trying to remake Citizen Kane is beyond ridiculous, and yet in this day and age, plausible. A comedy about that process could be gangbusters if done right.

Unfortunately, the movie I was expecting to read and the movie I actually read were not one and the same. Today’s writers take a more “meta” approach in their tackling of the subject matter. And the success of that decision will probably depend on the subjectivity of the reader. Let’s take a closer look.

The script starts off PERFECTLY. Charles Foster Kane – or a modern day version of him at least – stumbles into an expansive living room with bullet holes strewn everywhere, plants on fire, and a suffocating barrage of smoke. As sad opera music plays, and in ultra-slow motion, Kane pulls off a grenade pin. “Rosebud,” he says. And proceeds to blow his insides against the walls. Talk about updating a classic!

But whatever does “Rosebud” mean? I’ll tell you who wants to know. Entertainment Tonight. They assign our hero, Frank Tesh (yes, John Tesh’s brother) to find out as much as he can about Charles Foster Kane, so as to shed some light on why that word might have been his last.

He starts off by locating Kane’s infamous mistress, Susan Alexander, a MILFy cocaine-addict who still strips when they allow her to. Susan fills Tesh in on Kane’s early life, where he first discovered his love for movies. When he was old enough, he took a 25 grand loan from his uncle and proceeded to make “Heart Songs,” a touchy feely film that won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance (one of my favorite jokes in the script).

But Kane wasn’t satisfied with his success. What he really wanted to do was make remakes, regardless of how controversial they were. And his wish was granted. Producers everywhere allowed him to remake movies like Top Gun, Forrest Gump, and Back To The Future. Kane was on top of the world.

But that world came crashing down when his wife found out about his mistress, and pretty soon Kane was divorced, alone, and miserable. Even his most trusted confidant, Leland, sells him out by writing a scorching guest review of one of his movies on Ain’t It Cool News (another favorite moment). In the end, it all became too much for him, so he took his own life.

I’m not sure where to start here so I think I’ll begin with the degree of difficulty. This is something I bring up a lot and it’s definitely something every writer should be aware of. You need to know when you’re aiming too high. A lot of writers feel that the freedom of art should allow one to go anywhere they want and if it’s funny enough or clever enough, it will all simply work itself out. Unfortunately, that’s idealistic and unrealistic. The higher the degree of difficulty, the more likely it is that your story will fall on its ass.

Here, Josh and Richard are writing a highly broad comedic update of Citizen Kane while tackling a social commentary on the state of Hollywood remakes and sequels. Do you realize how pin-point accurate the tone has to be to pull that off? I don’t know if Aaron Sorkin could throw that together in his best year. I mean the humor here is really broad - almost Airplane 2: The Sequel broad.  You have an apparition of John Tesh appearing whenever our hero, Frank Tesh, does one of his interviews. And at the end of said interviews, Frank always ends up either having sex with or blowing whoever he interviewed. I’m not saying that a younger crowd wouldn’t find this hilarious, but that’s the problem. I don’t think a younger crowd gives a shit or has even seen Citizen Kane. So you’re trying to strike a tone that caters to the older educated cinephile and the goofy juvenile high school kid.  Is that even possible?  I don’t know, I guess I was hoping for something more clever, something that challenged me more.

Also, once the initial fun factor wears off, we realize that we’re basically following the exact same story format as Citizen Kane, but in broad comedy form. This puts us way ahead of the story and since there are no real stakes or consequences to anyone’s actions, we’re just hoping that each of the sequences is funny.

Strangely, this script brings to light some of the weaknesses in the original Citizen Kane, which are actually the same well-documented problems I have with all stories that exist in the bio-pic format. There’s nothing truly driving the story. The mystery behind “Rosebud” is a lazy attempt at creating a reason to look back into Charles Foster Kane’s life, made all the more clear when we find out the damn thing was in reference to a relatively insignificant sled. The thing with Citizen Kane though, was that it was such a rich and thorough examination of a man, that we didn’t care that such a thin objective was driving the story.

Citizen Kane: The Remake has replaced that richness with shenanigans - and many of them- which means, unfortunately, there isn't a shred of story left to grab onto. In fact, the secret behind what Rosebud means (it's a tube of lipstick Kane used to wear as a child) is given to us midway through the script, technically leaving no more reason for the story to continue. We know what it means. So why are we still following the guy who’s trying to find out what it means?

But the bigger issue here is the same problem I have with most of the comedies I read. Citizen Kane: The Remake is more about stringing together funny scenes than it is about telling a story. And when all you have to connect with your audience is laughs, they start tuning out on you around the half hour point (this was the exact moment, in fact, where I started pulling away from Citizen Kane: The Remake). This is why in the history of sitcoms, whenever they’ve tried to do an hour special, it's never worked. Because after a half hour of jokes, the audience needs something more to keep them interested. They need characters to care about, relationships that need mending, a story to latch onto. There’s none of that on display here. It’s just cold hard comedy.  And as a result, I became more and more distanced from the material as it went on.

There’s a part of me that wishes Ames and Karpala would’ve taken a more traditional route here and followed a director who was trying to remake Citizen Kane. It wouldn’t have been as inventive or daring, but it would’ve been much more manageable. Watching a Michael Bay like idiot suggest to a producer who held Citizen Kane close to his heart how he wanted to stage that opening scene (with Kane dropping the grenade during a slow operatic score) would’ve been priceless. But I’ll give it to Josh and Richard for taking a chance. They went for something a little left of center. They just may have underestimated how difficult it was to pull off.

Script Link:  Citizen Kane: The Remake

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

What I learned: Beware of the 3 a.m. idea! These are ideas that make you laugh your ass off at 3 in the morning. But that does not mean they should be included in your screenplay. In fact, most of the time, they definitely shouldn't be included in your screenplay. I mean, apparitions of John Tesh (who’s not dead so why would there be an apparition of him?) playing a piano in the corner of the room during all of Frank’s interviews? Sometimes you need to police yourselves. You need to say, “You know what? That’s too much. We need to dial it back.” There is a limit, even in broad comedy.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

10 Great Scripts That For Some Reason Remain Unmade

I’ve reviewed a lot of scripts here on Scriptshadow, and one of the unfortunate things about the way the blog is constructed, is that whenever I come across a good script that’s been lost amongst the glut of endless projects weighing down the Hollywood sign and everything around it, it’s forgotten less than a week later, as newer fresher script reviews take its place. So I’ve been meaning to look back over my reviews and find a handful of scripts that deserve to stay in the limelight, scripts that I think some ambitious producer or director could turn into a great film. Now I realize that there’s a reason these scripts haven’t been made yet. They’re gambles. None of them has that moist dewy high concept center that make them a “sure thing,” but that’s what makes them such great scripts. They all take chances. And it’s time for some producer to take a chance on them.

MIXTAPE by Stacy Menear
Premise: A thirteen year old outcast finds a mixtape that holds the key to learning everything about her deceased parents. But after accidentally destroying the obscure compilation of songs, she must rely on the song list to find all the music instead.
There’s tough sell and then there’s *tough sell.* If centering your script around a 30 year old good-looking male lead is the best way to get your movie made, centering it around a 13 year old chubby introverted girl is probably one of the worst ways to get your movie made. But this script has more heart in its 119 pages than every movie that was released last summer combined. You immediately fall in love with Beverly, the main character, and when that impossible journey of finding these obscure music tracks looks like it’s going to end in failure, and that Beverly will never truly get to know her real parents, it kills you. Obviously, finding the right actress to play Beverly is key (Chloe Moretz is attached to star but she’s attached to star in a lot of things), but this is one of those movies that I guarantee festival audiences will fall in love with, which should propel it to a strong limited release. Are you listening indie producers?

THE GARDENER by Jay Sherman
Premise: A reclusive gardener’s life is turned upside-down when he’s given a unique plant that exhibits shocking properties.
It’s not too often you mistake a script for another script, sit down to read it, realize it’s the wrong script, but still enjoy it anyway. Yet that’s exactly what happened with The Gardener. Nobody really jumped onto the Gardener train with me when I first posted it back in the day, and I guess that’s because it’s a pretty weird concept, but man is it a fun weird concept. Here’s why I think this movie should be made. Even without the high-concept elements, even without the weirdness, it would still be a good movie, because there’s still a series of compelling real-life storylines going on here, and all of them are relatable. Hey, they made a movie about going into John Malkovich’s brain. Why can’t they make a movie about living plants?

BLUE by Lindsey Rosin
Premise: In 1998, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a high school girl becomes a local celebrity when she produces a line of dresses based on the famous blue dress Monica Lewinsky wore while having “relations” with the president.
I love this little story. And I believe it’s the only script on the list that hasn’t been purchased yet. I’ve read a lot of screenplays about high school and I can’t remember one that captured the fear, the confusion, the anticipation, and the excitement of being a teenager as honestly as this did. I also loved how packed the story was. Every character has a purpose. Every storyline challenges our hero. And it’s got one of the more clever indy hooks (with the Monica Lewinsky dress) and superb character work I’ve seen in an indie screenplay. Just a really neat little script.

Premise: In order to earn the respect of his famous father, a young man must go on a great journey to find his idol, a “Cat Stevens” like 70s alternative-dance icon who’s since gone into hiding.
Granted this would cost a little more dough than the above mentions, here’s why I still think this movie needs to be made: Because Wes Anderson doesn’t write good movies anymore. There. I said it. The cat stevens is out of the bag. But it’s true. Everyone’s just afraid to admit it. He’s copying themes and characters that he’s already written in much better movies, just like what happened with Woody Allen 20 years ago. Lonny The Great is the kind of script a young Wes Anderson would write. It’s funny, it’s quirky, it’s ambitious, and it has an interesting main character we want to follow. The structure’s all over the place but it’s a testament to how great Reiss is with character that it still works.

HOME by Adam Alleca
Premise: A paranoid delusional ex-convict is left on house arrest in a cabin out in the middle of the woods.
The contained thriller is PLAYED OUT. Right? Wrong. It’ll never be played out. Because you can always shoot contained thrillers for 1/20 the cost of normal movies. That’s never going to change. The problem is, everyone is writing them. So how do you stand out? I’ll tell you. You create interesting characters we care about (can’t spell “character” without… “care”), introduce exciting plot twists, and always keep the reader guessing. Home does this better than any contained thriller I’ve read all year. The gimmicky set up had me convinced this was going to be more “been there, done that,” but the execution (even when it goes off the rails at the end) was superb.

Premise: A secret supercollider underneath Sparkle Creek, Wisconsin starts wreaking havoc on the small town.
This was a HUGE spec sale from David Koepp and John Kamps (2.5 mil!) back in 2001 so this is hardly a “little known” script, but what surprises me is just how dead the project is. This is a great idea for a movie! We’ve never seen anything like it before. And not only does it have that high-concept hook, but it wouldn’t be expensive to make either. It’s set in a small town. And all of the effects are basic shit filmmakers 20 years ago could’ve pulled off in-camera. So those won’t be that expensive. The bigger problem here is with the main characters. They’re not interesting. Their love story isn’t interesting. But that can be fixed. It’s not hard to come up with a compelling love story with tons of conflict set in a small town. I think of all the scripts I’m highlighting today, this one has the biggest chance for success.

PASSENGERS by Jon Spaihts
Premise: A spacecraft transporting thousands of people to a distant planet has a malfunction in one of its sleep chambers. As a result, a single passenger is awakened 90 years before anyone else. Faced with the prospect of growing old and dying alone, he wakes up a second passenger who he's fallen in love with.
Well well well, isn’t this a surprise? Those of you who’ve been reading Scriptshadow fore-ev-ah know that I did not get swindled in by this Black List favorite that was the belle of Hollywood’s ball (and Keanu Reeve’s eye) when I first read it. But after recently engaging in an hour long conversation with a writer who loved the script, I started to see it in a whole new light. Although the logic problems in the script kill me (there’s no backup plan for someone accidentally coming out of cryo-sleep early???), this is a love story we’ve never seen onscreen before. Imagining these two tiny people walking around this vast empty ship --- I think it could be iconic if done with the right director. And because there’s only two characters, some clever green screen would actually make this cheap to shoot. One thing I didn’t give enough credit to Spaihts for in my initial review was, he wrote a unique story. And in a world where everything is copied, remade, and reimagined, you have to give him credit for that.

Premise: A manic narcissistic workaholic chef tries to get back into the restaurant game after a much publicized meltdown many years ago.
Of all these scripts, the one I’m the most shocked hasn’t been made yet is this one. I mean, whoever plays the title role in this movie is going to win an Oscar. Hands down. It’s the kind of stuff actors’ dreams are made of. And it’s funny. This movie is so damn funny! And I love the love story here. It’s so unconventional and fresh. As fresh as the food that’s prepared at our hero’s restaurant. There is no doubt in my mind that this would be a great film. So why the hell has everyone abandoned it?? This is not the kind of project that deserves to be lost in Development Hell. Find your lead actor, whether it be Denzel, Russell Crowe, Mel Gibson, Tom Hardy or whoever and start production on this tomorrow! Before my food gets cold. You’re really dropping the ball if you don’t get this made!

OH NEVER SPECTRE LEAF by C. Ryan Kirkpatrick and Chad Musick
Premise: After a freak plane crash, an awkward teenage boy must enlist the help of a sexually frustrated dwarf, a smokin' hot cyborg, and an idiot in a bunny suit to defeat the Nocturnal Wench Everlasting and restore sunlight to the bizarre land of Spectre Leaf.
Okay no doubt this would cost a little extra cash, but in my biased opinion, Spectre Leaf is a thousand times better than all these mash-ups hitting the airwaves right now. My problem with those projects (Snow White and the Huntsman, Peter Pan, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is that they’re sheep in wolf’s clothing. They promote themselves as different, yet they’re as tame as a Wednesday evening Justin Bieber concert. I promise you that there is nothing tame about Oh Never Spectre Leaf. These guys pull no punches and rarely write what you think they’re going to write. True, while the overabundance of adrenaline will (and has) turn off some, the non-stop streaming of imagination these two put into every page means there isn’t a boring moment to boot in Spectre Leaf.

Premise: A black ops agent is assigned to protect a female operator who works out of a “numbers station” deep in the Arizona desert.
I’m not really a minimalist fan because if movies go on for too long without much happening, I start jonezin for some story. But in this minimalist thriller, the slow build-up helps escalate the tension and suspense required for the second half of the story to work. I’m not in love with the draft I read, but I loved where it could go with a few rewrites. I wouldn’t mind the numbers, and their secret meaning, to be tied in closer with the plot, so that our protagonists are not only fighting for their lives in the end, but also realizing the much bigger implications involved. Of course, one of the reasons this thriller is so charming is that it doesn’t give you all the answers, forcing you to figure out some key pieces of the story on your own. Most writers don’t know how to pull this off, but Frazier understands the balance perfectly. I’d love to see this movie get made.

There are plenty of other scripts I could’ve pointed out. The Ornate Anatomy Of Living Things, Junior Executive, Sunflower. All great scripts. But they’ve already gotten a lot of play on the site. I was hoping to dig a little deeper, and when I went back through all my reviews, I was surprised by how powerfully some of them affected me. Passengers, for example, is a script I was never into, but when I went back to it, I realized that I remembered every scene. That told me there was something more going on there. For that matter, all of these scripts stayed with me in some way, and I’ll be really excited if a few producers out there see the same thing and get these projects where they belong, at a Rodeo Drive intersection under a green light.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Point A

Genre: Romantic Dramedy
Premise: A frustrated 35 year old magazine columnist forms a friendship with a 16 year old female blogger while researching her for an article.
About: Point A landed on the 2010 Black List. It’s written by Chris Rubeo, who wrote and directed the 2003 Indie “Hale Bopp,” but has been kicking it underground-style ever since. After Point A landed on the Black List, it was optioned by Darius Films.
Writer: Chris Rubeo
Details: 109 pages - undated (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).

I’m going to get a little “Days of Our Lives” here for a second, but bear with me cause I promise you this is going somewhere. Actually, I can’t promise that. But hear me out anyway. I had this friend, a woman I knew, who was going through some tough times in her marriage, and she started having an affair with this guy who was another friend of mine (why do I hang around these morally bankrupt people? A question for another day). I never felt comfortable hearing about the whole thing but because I was so involved in these people’s lives, there was no way around it.

Well one evening, we were at a bar, and someone in our group brought up this reality star chick (can’t remember her name) who had recently cheated on her husband. And my friend (the female) jumped in and gave this five minute monologue about how much of a whore this woman was for cheating on her husband. Now naturally, I’ve got a really confused look on my face because, um, wasn’t she doing the same thing? Yet as I watched her say this stuff, she didn’t have the slightest hint of guilt or hypocrisy on her face. She really believed it! And while at first I didn’t understand this, later that night I had an epiphany.

Every situation has an external reality and an internal reality. The external reality – the one everyone on the outside sees – is simplistic and stereotypical. A woman cheats on her husband? She must be a whore. The inner reality is much more complicated. There may have been years that led up to that decision. There may be a complicated history between the married couple or the affair couple that led to that choice. Whatever the case, what’s perceived on the outside is never as complicated as what’s happening on the inside, to the point where someone who’s having their own personal moral struggle can’t even acknowledge the possibility that someone in a similar situation might be having theirs.

And that’s what Point A is about. It’s about that “Oh gross” reaction we get when we first hear about a 35 year old man getting involved with a 16 year old girl. Yet as the facts and the details start to dribble in, we slowly start to understand why it’s happened. We may not think it’s right. We may not agree with it. But at the very least, we can see why it happened.

35 year old Josh Bennett, a handsome easy-going type, works for one of those “Maxim” type magazines, writing crappy articles for 20-something men that require exactly 3% of his talent. Josh is notably frustrated with his career and wants to take some real journalistic chances with his next column. Instead, his boss assigns him to find a hot slutty local female blogger they can throw some skimpy clothes on and feature in the magazine.

Josh eventually finds 22 year old Cloe, a blogger with a unique refreshing view on life. He meets her for coffee and quickly realizes that Cloe’s not 22. She’s 16. Despite this, Josh decides to go through with the article and starts meeting with Cloe on a continual basis, learning about her life and what she does.

Of course, when you spend enough time around anyone, you start to form a connection with them, and the connection between these two people, each with their own frustrations and insecurities, manifests itself into an intense friendship. Luckily, Josh has some perspective. He’s recently proposed (even if he was forced into it) to his longtime commitment-obsessed girlfriend, and isn’t about to screw up the very adult life he’s stepping into for a young girl (or is he?).

But the friendship with Cloe is forcing him to face some tough questions. Like what inspires him? Why doesn’t he pursue his dreams anymore? Why doesn’t he leave the job he hates? At what point in life are you not allowed to have fun anymore? And why is it that when he goes to sleep at night, it isn’t his future wife that he thinks about? It’s Cloe? Josh is going to have to figure all this out soon, cause that wedding date is racing up fast.

I really liked Point A. The story started out a little familiar and Cloe’s initial dialogue felt false, as if a 35 year old was speaking through a 16 year old in the assumed non-sequitur philosophical rambling fashion someone of his age would suspect a 16 year old would speak, but once we got beyond that and these two just started talking to each other like real people, the dialogue was quite good.

And a lot of that had to do with the foundation of conflict set up in the movie. Whenever you’re putting two people together in a relationship in your screenplay, you need to find a “blocker,” something that prevents those two from being together. Making one of these characters a minor may sound simplistic, but it’s a time-tested device that usually works because we get it right away. We know there is no way these two can be together. He’s 35 and she’s 16.

Also, the universal themes keep the story relatable. Cloe, like a lot of high schoolers, wants her life to begin. Wants to be taken seriously. And Josh is wondering if his life is over, if it’s time to put aside all the surprises and the dreams for something more stable. Yeah we all have to grow up, but different people grow up in different ways. And Josh isn’t sure his growing up is over yet.

When you combine these two things – the age conflict hovering over their relationship and these universal questions they're struggling with – I don’t know…it sounds like it shouldn’t be enough but it is. I was genuinely interested in every conversation they had.

But I think what really separates Point A from similar scripts is the impressive balancing act it pulls off. There are a lot of things that need to go right for this kind of story to work. Josh can’t look like a predator. Josh’s dismissal of his fiance can’t be too cruel. Josh’s issues must feel real and relatable. The girl has to be pursuing the guy, not the other way around. You have to build up the relationship long enough before anything happens. It’s a thin tightrope you’re walking and I’ve watched many a writer fall off. But Rubeo clearly thought all this stuff through and somehow, someway, keeps it classy.

And that’s the cool thing about Point A. While you never forget that it’s a script about a 35 year old man in a relationship with a 16 year old girl, it does reach a point where you’re more focused on the two individuals as opposed to their ages. And, in the end, there’s only one question that matters in a relationship movie. Do you want to see if they end up together or not? And I did. I wanted to see if Josh and Cloe could find a way to make this work.

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

What I learned: (spoilers) Make sure you have a tension-filled subplot ready to go before the big kiss in your relationship movie. One of the big reasons any relationship movie works is the sexual tension. Everything’s building up to that first kiss. The problem is, once that first kiss comes, a ton of air is let out of the balloon. One of the main questions driving our interest (“Will they or won’t they?”) has been answered. Which means we’re not as interested in the story anymore. The trick is to have a replacement tension-filled subplot ready to go as soon as this kiss happens, so the story doesn’t skip a beat. Here in Point A, we’ve been spending a lot of the plot building up Josh and his fiance’s upcoming wedding. So after Josh and Cloe kiss, the tension/conflict shifts over to Josh sneaking around with Cloe, trying not to get caught by his fiance. It seems simple in retrospect, but I’ve seen a lot of writers have nothing waiting in the wings after the big kiss happens, and their story fall off a cliff as a result.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Honeymoon With Harry

Genre: Love Story/Drama/Comedy?
Premise: After eternal ladies’ man, Todd, falls in love for the first time, he must learn to get along with his new girlfriend’s overbearing father, Harry.
About: Honeymoon With Harry is a project that’s been kicking around Hollywood for awhile, and is thought to be one of the better unproduced screenplays out there. It’s based on an unpublished novel by Bart Barker, which is also supposed to be really good (I don’t know why it’s never been published). The project is set to star Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper (though De Niro’s been waffling recently) with Johnathan Demme directing. This is an early Paul Haggis draft (from 2004) and I guess there have been a lot of writers since, with the most recent being Jenny Lumet, who wrote Rachel Getting Married.
Writer: Paul Haggis
Details: 131 pages – November 8, 2004 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).

Paul Haggis is a solid writer. The guys knows his shit. So after watching/reading his last two writer-director projects, The Next Three Days and In The Valley Of Elah, I guess you could say I was disappointed. Neither script was bad. But neither was that good either. You know how I pointed out the other day in my Breakfast Club breakdown that every script needs a few “memorable moments?” The bag blowing scene in American Beauty? The egg-eating scene in Cool Hand Luke? Neither of those Haggis films had any memorable moments. You forgot about them as soon as you left the theater. This was surprising, since Crash, Haggis’ controversial but most accomplished effort, had a ton of memorable moments. Having heard on several occasions that Honeymoon With Harry was one of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood, I was eager to see if he was sitting on a goldmine, something that brought him back to those Crash days. What I got instead was two movies wrapped into one.

The first of these movies is GREAT. It’s a love story. We have our hero, Todd, who admittedly sleeps with one too many women, instantly falling in love with Haley, who he meets at a bar. This girl is THE ONE. She’s sweet, she’s nice, she’s funny, she’s beautiful. And the dialogue between them is great. After noticing that she’s wearing a ring, he offers, “That’s one beautiful ring.” “Thank you.” “I’m hoping that the guy who gave it to you died in some tragic way and you’re wearing it to remember him.” A charmer indeed. But Haley’s no easy target. She takes his number and tells him she “might” call.

After sleepwalking through a few weeks of torture, Haley finally calls Todd and the two begin dating. And it’s…perfect. Even Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan would look at these two and say, “Wow, now that’s a couple.”

Of course no story works if your central couple is happy for too long. You have to introduce some element of conflict to give yourself a movie! And that conflict comes in the form of Harry, Haley’s overbearing powder keg of a father (who she still lives with). And the worst thing about Harry? He sees right through Todd. He knows his kind. And there is no way in hell he is allowing this piece of shit to be with his little girl.

This makes things pretty awkward because Todd isn’t about to give up. Even when Harry threatens to KILL HIM, Todd is right there the next day, inviting (or is it daring?) Harry to join he and his future wife for dinner.

And then – just like that – everything changes.


Halfway through the movie, Haley dies in a car accident. I have to tell you, since I didn’t see this coming, it was a shock. One of the things I always recommend here is that whatever your movie is about, make sure it starts being about that by page 30 (the end of the first Act). The reason is, if you wait all the way until halfway through the film to hit the main storyline, the audience is going to get impatient, or worse, confused. It’s just not the way people are used to digesting stories.

However by ignoring this rule, Honeymoon With Harry was able to surprise the hell out of us. So you have to give it to Haggis for that. I was devastated. I mean, I really liked this girl. And just like that – just like in real life – she’s gone. Where do you go from here?

The problem is that in the script world, the answer to that question poses all sorts of problems. Now that *that* story’s over, you have to start up a whole new story, and starting up a whole new story halfway into your screenplay is really fucking hard. And that’s where Honeymoon With Harry falters. Its second story isn’t one-tenth as interesting as its first one. And there are a couple of reasons for this. Todd and Harry.

I don’t know why the original author or Haggis did this. But Todd is a slimeball. I mean he’s a really sketchy dude. I didn’t mind him banging every female that strolled into the club BEFORE he met Haley because that was BEFORE he met Haley. But to keep doing it afterwards? I mean, HE FUCKS HALEY’S BEST FRIEND ONLY DAYS AFTER HER DEATH. And I get that it’s supposed to be an emotionally confused screw but still, it’s like the author is deliberately trying to make us hate this guy.

And yet despite this, Harry’s even worse! He’s mean, he’s abrasive, he’s an asshole, he’s irritating, he’s unruly, he won’t shut up, he whines, he’s a dick. There isn’t a single likeable trait on this man’s body. And yet he and the sperminator are who we’re spending the next 70 pages with! It’s like watching two people argue on Celebrity Rehab. You don’t care who wins cause you hate them both.

Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you what the rest of the movie is about. After Haley dies, Harry and Todd fly off to the tropical island where Haley wanted her ashes thrown. Despite each having their own ideas on how this should be approached, they must work together and compromise to get it done.

So I guess the big question is, how do you save this story? A much more traditional setup would have Haley dying at the end of the first act. Although if you do that, you lose that amazing mid-story surprise. But I don’t think you have a choice. It poses too many problems to change your story up so late in the game (plus people are going to know going in that she dies anyway). The bigger issue is that you have to rewrite Harry. This man needs a Final Draft intervention. Just an obnoxiously annoying person from top to bottom. I get that you need to create conflict between these two to keep the story juicy, but if it’s forced, if the character is all the way to one extreme, it’s never going to feel right. And Harry and Todd’s interaction never felt right.

A frustrating script with a lot of potential. I wonder if they’ve solved these problems by now (or if they even saw them as problems in the first place).

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

What I learned: I feel, as writers, we go through phases in the way we write our protagonists. It starts when we learn how important it is to make our hero “likeable.” Once we learn that, we go to the extreme, making our hero the greatest nicest coolest most charming person ever. But after doing that for a few scripts, we realize it isn’t realistic. And that all that glitter and gold actually makes our hero feel artificial and off-putting. So we go through phase 2, which is to start adding unlikable traits to balance out the likeable ones. “Ahh,” we say, “You thought I was going to make this character perfect? Well how bout him dumping his girlfriend at her sister’s wedding! Now you’re not so sure about him, are you?” We do this for a few scripts, proud at how balanced our heroes become, but then somewhere around this time, we hit Stage 3, which is to start pushing the envelope on our hero’s unlikeability . I’m not sure why we do this but I think it’s to prove that we aren’t slaves to traditional screenwriting structure. We want people to know that we take chances. So we load up on the unlikeable traits, making sure they outnumber the likeable ones, and almost dare our audience to root for our character. The problem with this is, of course, that if you flirt too close with the edge, you run the risk of falling off it. And that’s what happened here, with both characters. When Todd is funny and charming, we like him. But then when he sleeps with some random chick on the night he meets the girl of his dreams? We hate him. And when he continues to bang girls at the tropical resort? We hate him more. And don’t get me started on Harry, who I don’t believe has any likeable traits. Once the unlikeable traits outnumber the likeable ones in your hero, your audience is going to turn on them. Never forget that.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Attack The Block

Genre: Horror/Thriller
Premise: A teen gang in South London defends their block from an alien invasion.
About: Attack The Block has gotten a lot of love recently as it won the audience award at the South By Southwest Film Conference. Writer-Director Joe Cornish is the creator of the iconic “The Adam and Joe Show.” This is his debut feature. Nick Frost stars. Shaun of The Dead and Hot Fuzz writer-director Edgar Wright executive produced the picture. Here’s a Film School Rejects interview that talks about a lot of the screenwriting aspects of Attack The Block.
Writer: Joe Cornish
Details: 113 pages -- 2nd draft – further revisions – April 21, 2009 (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).

Quick question before I start this review. How come every single successful entertainment person in England is best friends with each other? Can I get someone from England to explain this to me? It’s like everybody not only knows everyone there. But they all spend Christmas together as well.


I wasn’t surprised when I heard this won the audience award at SXSW because it just sounded DIFFERENT. There aren’t enough ideas that genuinely sound different these days. But this was putting a whole new spin on the “trapped in a room with a monster” sub-genre. The heroes were all wrong (they’re young punks on BMX bikes). The location was all wrong (a block? Not exactly “trapped.”). The construct here had just a unique enough spin to it to set it apart from all its predecessors, yet still feel familiar. And as I’ve said many times before, that’s exactly what you’re aiming for when you come up with your movie premise.

Having said that, I was eager to see how this would read on the page. Although I'll defend to the day I die that the script has to be good in order for the movie to work, the intensity of the creature feature formula never plays on the page as well as it does on screen. A lot of the fun comes from seeing our characters attacked by monsters, and no matter how perfectly you describe your monster on the page, it’s never going to be the same as seeing it onscreen. That’s usually a good thing though, because that way we can concentrate on what really matters when reading the script: the story and the characters. So I guess the question is…how are the story and the characters in Attack The Block?

It’s South London. A city block. Public housing. Not the kind of place you want to be spending your Saturday evenings. This is where we meet Sam, a mousey pretty girl on her way home from work. But she doesn’t get far before being mugged by a band of teenage hooligans who run the block. Oh yeah, those hooligans would be our heroes in the story, and they’re led by Moses, a selfish heartless bully who’s already looking ahead to the next stage of his life, a life of crime.

Before they can really do anything bad to Sam though, a meteor barrels into a nearby street and out pops a creature that looks like a shaved monkey. So what does our gang do? Why they go over and kill it of course! They then go parading around the block like cavemen, displaying the fruits of their labor to anyone who will listen.

Problem is, more of these meteors start landing, and bigger creatures, creatures that look like sabertooth werewolves emerge, and these alien monsters, for whatever reason, seem dead intent on killing our hooligans, or anything that gets near them.

You may be saying, “So aliens are invading all of London?” Well, not really. Nobody on the news seems to acknowledge these attacks. Nobody texts or e-mails or calls our characters to talk about these attacks. They seem to be centered only around this block for reasons that are anyone’s guess.

Naturally, Sam is forced to team up with the Hooligans in order to survive, and even though these guys mugged her and are assholes and are annoying and are bullies and are the kind of people you’d want to beat the shit out of if you ever got the chance to, they all eventually become friends, running around “the block,” avoiding and killing off these alien werewolves until there are none left.



Truth? This script is…strange. And intense. And messy. And unsure of itself. And strange. Did I mention strange? All these things, I suppose, are normal when writing your first feature script. The difference is, people don’t usually get their first feature script made. So the story has a bizarre manic energy to it that thrives in the script’s best moments, but falters everywhere else. In the end, it was way too redundant for me and I lost interest halfway through.

Yes, it falls victim to the infamous “wash rinse repeat” syndrome. Get into fight with monster, someone from group dies, run from monster to new location, talk a little bit, get into fight with another monster, someone from group dies, run from monster to new location, talk a little bit, wash rinse repeat.

The repetition of this process – which I admit is more necessary in this genre than others – can be offset IF the characters are compelling and have enough going on. But that was my big contention with Attack The Block. I hated the characters. In today’s “What I Learned” section, I include some of Cornish’s thoughts on “likable” heroes, so I won’t get too much into detail here. But let me just say this. I’m okay with making your hero dangerous. I’m okay with your hero not being perfect. In fact, a character should be complicated. But to make your character a complete asshole who bullies and mugs people and has no remorse about it? I mean come on. I’m never going to like that guy.

And I didn’t like any of the characters in this gang. “Punks” is the proper term for them cause they’re just punks, the kind of kids who would humiliate someone on a city corner without a second thought. And these are my heroes? A bunch of assholes? This MIGHT work if a few of our heroes try to change over the course of the story, but at least in this draft (which is admittedly an early one) that isn’t the case. It wasn’t until page 100, actually, that two characters (Sam and Moses) sat down and had a real honest to God conversation about their lives. And it’s quite simple. If I’m not rooting for your characters, I’m not interested in your story.

And that’s why I can’t recommend this. While there may be irony in Attack The Block (the people who usually do the attacking are being attacked) there’s no humanity in Attack The Block. There are no real connections, real feelings, real issues. It’s just people running from monsters or getting shredded by monsters. Sam is an attempt to make some connection with the audience, but she’s dragged along almost reluctantly, as if Cornish knew he needed one decent person on this ride to offset all the cruelty.

Look, I’m sure this plays much better on screen where you’re digging the kills and laughing at the absurdity of it all. And if you’re not as sensitive as I am about how big of dicks all these punks are, you might find yourself laughing at their ongoing commentary of the situation. But in script form, where something more is needed to draw the reader in, it doesn’t offer enough.

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

What I learned: Cornish and Wright were asked in the Film School Rejects Article about the daring choice of following antiheroes as our leads. Here’s what they had to say: Cornish: Yeah, I guess that was just because I liked those films. That was very much a John Carpenter-y thing. Specifically Assault on Precinct 13 where the character who’s locked in the prison, he’s a murderer. You don’t know what he’s done. You don’t specifically know what his crime was. Snake Plissken, he’s not a good guy. He’s on death row, isn’t he, or he’s a convict. Vin Diesel in Pitch Black. I mean, any film about bank robbers, any film about a criminal: Bonnie and Clyde, Public Enemy with Jimmy Cagney. It’s not a new thing, and I find it very attractive as a writer because it gives you something to write. All characters have to have a problem, otherwise there’s no story. Personally as a moviegoer there seems to be a big thing about making your character sympathetic in the first act at the moment, and people get a bit freaked out if they’re not made sympathetic. But I just wouldn’t have the energy in me to write that story, because it wouldn’t give me anything to write about personally. Maybe it’s because I’m not a good enough writer and I need the bone to chew on kind of thing. --- Wright: Yeah, it definitely is a trend where you definitely get notes a lot about people…yeah, there’s definitely a thing within studio films – and independent films – with all films where people financing are just nuts about people being likeable. That tends to where you get a lot of films that are bland because your heroes aren’t allowed to make mistakes anymore. That’s what the whole of your film is about, somebody making amends through a heroic act.
Carson Reaction: All true, but you have to know how to offset the character's bad traits with good traits so that the audience still roots for them, which I did not feel was the case in Attack The Block.