Friday, September 30, 2011

Final Day Of Final Draft Sale!

Hey guys, for any of you who were thinking about buying the Final Draft software, today is the last day for the 20% off.  This is the screenwriting software I use and it's the screenwriting software pretty much everybody in the industry uses.  It really is the best option.  So, if you want to get the discount, click on the banner at the top of this page.  And start having a way easier time writing screenplays.  :-)

Amateur Friday - North Korean Musical

Genre: Comedy
Premise: (from the writers) An American screenwriter and his nemesis, “The South Korean Julia Roberts”, get kidnapped and taken to North Korea, where they’re forced by Kim Jong Il to make a propaganda musical glorifying the revolution, all the while falling in love and plotting their escape.
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 in the review (feel free to keep your identity and script title private by providing an alias and fake title). Also, it's a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so that your submission stays near the top of the pile.
Writers: James Luckard & Gordon Smith
Details: 117 pages

Probably one of the biggest things I've learned from reading all these screenplays is how similarly people tell stories. When we start out, we believe that we're this unique treasure that Hollywood has never seen before. We believe that we see the world in a way that nobody else can possibly see it. We think we’re more imaginative. We think we’re funnier. We basically think we’re going to change the system and become the biggest thing since George Lucas.

But then you start reading screenplays and you realize that you're not nearly as imaginative or funny or interesting as you thought you were. You see people using the same jokes, the same characters, the same plot points, the same concepts. The truth is we’re all tapping into the same stream of information. That story you just read on CNN about a murderer who escapes prison disguising himself as a woman - sure, that might be the genesis for a good movie idea. But guess what? 20,000 other screenwriters read that same story. Which means you're going to have some competition.

This is one of the biggest reasons why longevity improves screenwriters. Because after a while they realize how similar their ideas are to everyone else, and they start challenging themselves more, trying to come up with truly unique choices. You wouldn't think you would need to be trained to imagine, but you do.

How does this all come back to North Korean Musical? Well, I wanted something different. I was tired of reading screenplay after screenplay that was the same. When I read this logline, it looked like somebody had come up with something truly different. A comedy musical set in North Korea? If that doesn't promise a unique experience, I don't know what does. So I was eager to be transported into this outrageous world.

We're on the set of Yoojin Park’s latest film. Yoojin is the Julia Roberts of South Korea. Her success there has allowed her to make some inroads into Hollywood, but she's a bit of a diva, and in this instance, refuses to film a scene until it's better written. Enter Tom Collins - not the drink but the person - a "working writer." Now his resume isn't gonna sets IMDB Pro on fire - it's mainly a bunch of B action movies - but hey, at least he’s in show business. Problem is, Tom wasn’t Yoojin’s first choice, so she's kind of furious that he's there.

Boy is she going to wish that was her only problem. Soon after, both of them get kidnapped by ninjas. Why ninjas? I have no idea. I didn't know that North Korea was a big ninja country. But anyway, when the blindfolds are removed, they find themselves in North Korea. It turns out that Kim Jong Il wants to produce the greatest musical ever made to inspire his people, and he specifically wants Tom to write and direct it, and Yoojin to star. I think he believes that once this movie is shown, South Korea will finally want to reunite with North Korea.

Why Tom? Because Tom wrote some B action movie way back in the day called Double Barrel which is one of the most celebrated movies in North Korea history. It's only natural then, that he write and direct North Korea's greatest movie ever. The problem is that he and his star don't get along at all. But since making this movie is the only way that the great leader will allow them out of the country, he has no choice but to buckle up and make it work.

What follows is hijinks galore. The great leader insists that many of his own family members star in the film, family members who couldn't act their way out of a Jersey Shore episode. An undercover FBI agent with really bad Asian makeup is also constantly trying to get Tom to play pranks on Kim Jong Il. And a seductive Chinese government official keeps offering him freedom if he will publicly admit that America is stupid. Oh, and of course Tom and Yoojin get to know each other better and eventually start to like one another. I think that's all you need to know.

I've realized that after I summarize a screenplay, that nine times out of 10 when I start the following paragraph with "Okay," it's usually bad news.

Okay, so the big question is, did this achieve what I was hoping it would achieve? Well, the setting was definitely different. But I would have to say, sadly, no. This was basically yet another example of a screenplay where the comedy took precedence over the story. As we all know, this drives me nuts, although I'm going to take some of the blame for this one. I mean, it was a comedy titled "North Korean Musical.” So what was I expecting?

Well, the first thing I was expecting was A MUSICAL! I was hoping for wild and crazy musical set pieces and instead I got a story about people making a musical. I'm just not sure you can write a movie titled North Korean Musical and it not be a musical. So I was really bummed there.

Another thing that bothered me was the central relationship. There's nothing that gets to me more than a romantic comedy couple who hate each other only because the plot requires them to hate each other. There's no basis for that hate. There's no back story driving that hate. It's just: This is a comedy, so the lead male character and lead female character have to hate each other.

Look at a movie like The Proposal. Not a great film by any means. But you actually understood why Ryan Reynolds hated Sandra Bullock. He’s been working for her for three years and been treated like dirt the whole time. Of course he's going to hate her. You always want your comedy to emerge from your story and your characters. If things just happen because the writer wants them to happen, the story’s going to be thin.

There were other sloppy choices as well. Tom is a writer. He was brought in to write this film. But then, once he gets there, he's told that he's also directing the film. This just seemed like a lazy choice. I know this is a comedy but these are two completely different skill sets. I thought with just a little more effort, they could've come up with a creative solution to this problem.

For example, why not make it so he has to work with a director who’s already there? And he's this crazy North Korean director who’s terrible? Maybe halfway through the production he goes insane and Tom is forced to take over. Or why not make Tom a director instead of a writer? That would make more sense anyway. If you're going to bring in somebody to make a film, it's probably going to be a director and not a writer. Or maybe Tom is a writer who spent the last 10 years trying to break in as a director but no one would give him a shot. This ends up becoming his shot, and he realizes that even though he's making a musical for North Korea, that if he can make it great, it can be his calling card for Hollywood. Now you have a character who really cares about the outcome of the film.

That would solve another problem I had, which is that there are no stakes to Tom doing well (I guess he gets out of the country, but it never feels like it's that hard to get out of the country anyway). If your main character doesn't really care whether he achieves his goal or not - in this case to make a good movie - then why should we care? Even if it's a goofy comedy. This is why I'm constantly repeating this. Your screenplay is going to be in much better shape if your main character desperately wants to achieve his goal. If he doesn't, then the audience is constantly wondering why they're supposed to care about this person who doesn't care about what he's doing.

I could go on but I’d just be piling on. I'm going to say something to all future screenwriters who want to submit comedies to Scriptshadow. Unless you give me some substance to your comedy, I'm probably not going to like it. I'd like your main characters to be properly developed. I'd like your main character to care about his goal. I'd like some sort of thematic through line. I want the comedy to stem from the story and the characters as opposed to random craziness. That's the kind of screenplay I would love to review on amateur Friday. I am not saying that that's the only kind of comedy that does well in the marketplace. We live in a world where a Jackass movie can make $40 million on opening weekend. I'm just saying that that's the kind of comedy that I personally respond to. I really hope that some of you guys who aren't as anal as I am enjoy this, because it does have some funny moments. But because of the reasons I listed above, it wasn't for me.

Script link: North Korean Musical

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

What I learned: We have another example of something that drives me crazy. A 120 page comedy. There are really two factors for a screenplay being long. The first is a large character count. Laying out character storylines takes time, which takes up pages. The second is a complicated plot. When you have lots of developments and twists and turns - the kind of stuff that needs a lot of setup and exposition - that's going to take up time as well. The thing is, comedies shouldn’t have either of these problems. Comedies usually center on a small group of people, or even one person. And the plots themselves should never be that complicated. Don't believe me? When is the last time you went to a comedy to see an extremely complicated plot? That's why you get readers and producers and agents who look at a 120 page comedy and roll their eyes. Because they know that the writer has included stuff that they shouldn't have. So keep your character counts down and your plots simple in comedies. Do so and you shouldn't have a problem with too many pages.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Nicholl Finalists Revealed!

Yes, after many long hours of reading, the Nicholl finalists have been revealed.  First of all, congratulations! Are you on this list? I would love to check out these scripts myself, so feel free to send them my way. And best title of the list and possibly of the year definitely goes to: “Fig Hunt: The Quest for Battle Armor Star Captain.”

- Chris Bessounian & Tianna Langham, Los Angeles, Calif., “Guns and Saris”
- Dion Cook, Altus, Oklahoma, “Cutter”
- K.E. Greenberg, Los Angeles, Calif., “Blood Bound”
- Ehud Lavski, Tel Aviv, Israel, “Parasite”
- John MacInnes, Los Angeles, Calif., “Outside the Wire”
- Aaron Marshall, West Hollywood, Calif., “Fig Hunt: The Quest for Battle Armor Star Captain”
- Khurram Mozaffar, Lisle, Illinois, “A Man of Clay”
- Matthew Murphy, Culver City, Calif., “Unicorn”
- Abel Vang & Burlee Vang, Fresno, Calif., “The Tiger’s Child”
- Paul Vicknair & Chris Shafer, Los Angeles & Hermosa Beach, Calif., “A Many Splintered Thing”

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Drive - Script to Screen

Before you start this review, I'm going to need you to do something. Go to your kitchen, grab yourself a large Tupperware container, and place it under your computer screen. You're going to need that to collect all my drool, because even though we’re entering the best time of year for movies, I'm pretty positive I just found my number one, and it’s Drive baby. It's all Drive.

Now this movie isn't going to be for everyone. As someone noted in the comments section the other day, there's an article out there about how disappointed audiences have been with this film. The reason for this seems to be the age-old marketing dilemma of trying to bring in the widest audience possible - even if it means misleading your customers. So they sell this as Fast Six, and you get Fast Six, but the way a 25-year-old Terrence Malick would direct Fast Six. The thing is, that's why I loved it so much.

And this is coming from somebody who was expecting the worst. I finally saw Everything Must Go the other day, which you may remember was my favorite script at one point. Watching that movie was an exercise in futility. What seemed so alive on the page felt dead on the screen. And I'm not even sure why. My guess is the casting of Will Ferrell. I just kept waiting for the guy to say something funny and he never did. I'm not sure he's interesting as an unfunny person. And since the whole movie was based around him, I guess that's why I was so bored.

Drive was the opposite. As you know, I loved the script. I gave it an impressive and put it in my top 10. But after hearing such mixed reactions about the film, revolving around all the cutting and the minimalism, I was expecting some weird control freak European director who thought it was more important to impose his vision on a film than tell the great story he'd been given. Man was I wrong.

Somehow, Refn figured out a way to take a script that was already great, pare it down to its bare essence, and in the process make it better. This guy is just an amazingly talented director with such a unique voice. You can't write the way it feels to watch Gosling drive through the neon lighted nighttime streets of LA with a soft focus lens and an errie techno pop song playing over the radio. It conveys the loneliness and isolation of this character within 5 seconds, something that might take three or four scenes in a screenplay. 

And Gosling - I've had my problems with this guy in the past. I mean, I wanted to slit my wrists during Lars And The Real Girl. And I'm not sure I like how seriously he takes himself. But man, did that come in handy here. This guy has moments where he conveys the same screen presence as a young DeNiro. When that guy approaches him in the bar and asks him about doing another job, and Ryan turns to him and says if he doesn't walk away he's going to kick his teeth in, I mean, I don't think I've been more convinced by a performance this year. He just embodied that character- and that wasn't easy to do since so much of his performance was internal and restrained. Brad Pitt is getting all this credit for his restrained performance in Moneyball. But Gosling's performance puts him to shame.

Gosling’s character is not an easy character to get the audience to like either. He doesn't say a whole lot. We don't know much about his past. So the writer and director look for little moments here and there to build that trust between you and the character. We see the way he looks at Carey Mulligan's son for example. We see him smile whenever she comes around. And of course, we see that he cares so much for this family, that he actually puts his own life in danger to help the husband pay back the money he owes, so the family will be safe. That's another thing I loved about this script so much. There were so many layers going on. You're saving the two people you love, but in the process you're creating a scenario where those two people can never be yours.

It was interesting to see how much they carved out of the original screenplay (namely the dialogue), and how much it actually helped. Dialogue can become a writer's own worst enemy. It's so much easier to tell the audience something than it is to show it. It takes time to think of the "show." And writers are lazy when it comes to that stuff. Why try to think of a clever way of one person showing another person how much they love them when they can just say "I love you?" Never forget that filmmaking is a visual medium. Try to tell your story as visually as possible. And if you have any questions on how to do that, watch this movie.

And the strange thing about the dialogue is if I showed it to you in a vacuum, you’d probably think it was pretty bad. Or at the very least, boring. For example, we get a scene where Ryan comes into Carey’s apartment for the first time, and the extent of the conversation is that she asks him if he wants some water. Not exactly Academy award-winning banter here. But you have to remember, it's not the dialogue itself that matters, but everything surrounding it that adds context and subtext to it. So in this case, we feel Gosling’s restraint. He doesn't usually get close to people. Being in this room, enjoying a moment with another human being, goes against everything he's about. And yet there's a part of him that's attracted to this girl. So, "Do you want a glass of water?" takes on a whole other context. Because saying yes means he's going to stay here a little longer, something he'd normally never do. This is screenplay 401 stuff here - the kind of things you should be ingesting into your very screenwriting soul. It's just really good writing.

Probably the biggest shocker, and the biggest difference from the script, was the violence. I'm not sure how I would've felt if I hadn't been prepped for it. But I thought it was great. I remember these same complaints were coming out of A History Of Violence - that we had these needless graphic violent moments that added nothing to the film. But with all that quiet in Drive, with Refn ’s minimalist approach, the violence jumped out at you in a way that it doesn't jump out at you in other movies. These days, you see these movies with mindless violence from the first frame to the last. After a while, the violence doesn't mean anything to you, because you get used to it. Here it's the exact opposite. Refn sets you up with these long flowing sequences of restraint, and then the next thing you know Christina Hendricks’s brain is being splattered across the bathroom wall.

The other huge addition was the music. I've said this before, but it doesn't matter how elegantly you convey music in your screenplay. If the reader isn't listening to it, he's not going to feel the same way he's going to feel in the theater. This was a huge gamble by Refn . There was a lot more dialogue in the script - a lot of which was built around Ryan and Carey’s relationship. Here, it's all looks against music. It's a drive down the Los Angeles River against music. It's him hanging out with the family against music. This is one of those areas where the director - as long as he knows what he's doing - can change entire scenes because he knows he can convey the exact same emotion that the scene in the script conveyed, but through images and sound, as opposed to two people talking to each other.

Another smart move was keeping the film short. It's under 100 minutes. Whenever you write a movie where there's little dialogue, you have to keep it short. Audiences aren't used to silence. They aren't used to characters not talking. So you're already making them uncomfortable. If you try to extend that out to two full hours, you're going to have a lot of inpatient people on your hands. Just with the length of the movie now, you have people who feel that way. So when you take chances like this, it's a really good idea to keep the story as clean and quick as possible.

Speaking of that, I'm shocked with just how much plot they were able to put into this movie with so little dialogue. Actually, maybe that's the reason why they were able to get so much plot in. Because we didn't have these three or four min. scenes with people talking, Refn was able to throw a lot more plot in. I remember reading the original script, which was over 120 pages, and I don't think they lost a single plot point in this 97 page version. That's really impressive, and proof that you don't always need characters explaining things to get your plot across. Maybe I'm looking at this through rose colored glasses, but I can't remember a single line of obvious exposition in the film. I mean you have to give it up to any writer and director who are able to pull that off.

I don't really know what else to say about this movie. I just loved every single second of it. As a fan of movies, I loved how different it was, how much restraint was used, how the writer and the director were constantly looking for different ways to convey the story. I mean, tell me you weren't affected by that elevator scene.

It'll be interesting to see what happens with this film come Oscar time. Will it disappear? Will someone get behind it? It seems like the perfect kind of contender because people have such strong feelings about it one way or the other. But I'll tell you what. I love this movie. I think right now it's the best film of the year. As I look back on it, I can't think of anything I would change. This is pure filmmaking and pure storytelling. It's films like this that make me proud I'm a small part of this amazing medium.

[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[x] genius

What I learned: This reminded me to always look for a visual solution to a problem as opposed to a dialogue solution to a problem. One of my very first film school teachers made us write a scene where one person broke up with another, but we weren't allowed to use dialogue. It's a great way to look at your scene. Maybe dialogue is still the best way. But the right visual solution always makes the scene so much better.

The Spellman Files

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A family of private investigators investigate each other just as much as they investigate their cases.
About: This is a low-level 2008 Black List script based on the novel of the same name, written by Lisa Lutz. Lutz started out as a screenwriter, writing a screenplay titled "Plan B," which by all accounts ended up being a terrible movie. She later began writing novels, and her first one, The Spellman Files, reached number 27 on the New York Times bestseller list. The screenwriters adapting the book may sound familiar to you. That's because Bobby and Josh still hold the record for the highest selling spec sale by unproduced screenwriters in Hollywood history - 1.5 million - for their sale of The Passion Of The Ark, which I reviewed a while back.
Writers: Bobby Florsheim & Josh Stolberg (based on the novel by Lisa Lutz).
Details: 122 pages - August 26, 2008 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).

This week we have a script written by an Academy award-winning screenwriter. A script written by the man who made in the vicinity of 40 million dollars in his screenwriting career. And a script written by the guys responsible for Evan Almighty. Which one would you bet got the impressive?

One of the prerequisites of comedy scripts is that they be…you know…funny. Unfortunately, if you look at the recent track record of comedy scripts here on Scriptshadow, there have been about as many laughs as the season premiere of Two And A Half Men. I'm beginning to wonder if the screenplay format is just not conducive to laughs. Maybe it's so technical, that even getting someone to chuckle is a monumental achievement.

Still, this sounded like a premise with potential. It's not exactly the kind of movie I'd see on a Saturday night, but I knew if the writers could find the comedy in the situation, we might have a winner. So is this just another in a long line of failed comedy attempts at Scriptshadow, or that rare five-star knee slapper in waiting?

20-something Izzy is out on a date with a young suitor. We get the sense that Izzy isn't very good at dating, but boy does she try her darndest. Unfortunately, just when the conversation is getting good, Izzy can't help but notice a car that's driven past the restaurant a third time in the last 10 minutes. Her date thinks she's a little nutty for pointing it out, but she insists they're in danger.

The next thing you know she's screeching through the downtown streets with her date hanging on to his seat for dear life. Eventually, after a few deft maneuvers, Izzy pulls up around the car, gets out and storms over to the passenger window. The window rolls down and we meet a slightly older man and woman. These are Izzy's parents, doing reconnaissance on her date. Welcome to the Spellman family.

The Spellmans operate a private investigation business that's run sort of like the mob. If you're born into the family, you’re born into the business. Besides Izzy and her parents, there's Ray, the grandfather, who started the business. And then there's little Rae, a preteen devil of a girl who loves private investigation just as much as Izzy hates it.

And that's really the issue here. Izzy wants out. At the very least, she wants her family to stop butting into her private life so she can meet a man, get married, and start a normal life. And when she finally finds the man who fits the bill, a handsome conservative dentist, it's full steam - and lots of free toothpaste - ahead. The problem is she has to solve one more difficult case before she can officially be let go.

That case involves a brother and sister whose ancestors were involved in one of the biggest unsolved bank robberies in US history. It happened in San Francisco back in 1906, where three brothers stole millions of dollars worth of rare government bonds. The thing is, the brothers hid them, and nobody's been able to find them since. So the brother and sister hire the Spellman family to find the money.

In an interesting choice, we repeatedly flash back to 1906 to learn about the brothers: how they planned the robbery, how they were able to do it without getting caught, and what eventually happened to the money. To me, this is what elevated the script beyond your average comedy. While I thought the Spellman's comedy was solid, it wasn't anything "fall on the floor" worthy. So this added element of depth and mystery took some of the load off. This is what I always say. Create an interesting story and characters first, and then try to find the comedy within that - as opposed to trying to find a bunch of funny situations, and then building characters and story around it. The former always ends up in a better screenplay.

I have to admit though - I was skeptical of The Spellman Files at first. It seemed like one of those screenplays that thought it was a lot more clever than it actually was. Everybody's double-crossing each other. Everybody's secretly following each other. Everybody's got something on everybody else. It just seemed a tad predictable. But then a funny thing happened. The script actually did become as clever as it thought it was.

For example, later in the script, little Rae sneaks off to monitor the bad guys, something her parents specifically told her not to do because the bad guys were getting dangerous. Because the parents are always one step ahead, they’re already on Rae’s trail as soon as she leaves the house. Then, across the street, they see a man behind the bushes watching Rae. They sneak up on him (figuring he's one of the bad guys), and tell him he's dead meat if he doesn't explain who hired him. "She did," he replies. Huh? “She gave me 20 bucks to follow her and take her picture. She said I could stop when two lunatics came up to me.” When they look up, Rae’s gone.

And really there's all sorts of fun little plot developments. Later on, for instance, the sister (the client) comes back in, convinced that her brother already has the money and is hiding it from her. So she hires them a second time to look into him. Now, the family isn't just trying to find the money. They're trying to find out if this brother is conning his sister. Usually when you try to cram too many plot points into your script, it can become confusing. I was impressed by how many layers this story had, and yet how simple and easy it was to follow. That's not easy to do.

But in the end, it's all about the main character. Your main character has to be compelling in some way - they have to be going through something - trying to overcome something. And even though the idea of breaking free of the family business is kind of silly, we really felt Izzy's struggle and her need to be an individual. The boyfriend himself was probably a little lame, but I totally understood this character, identified with her and felt like her struggle was real. I love when a script is trying to say something with its characters. And breaking free of your family is a theme that everybody can relate to at one point or another in their life.

How this movie does is going to depend on how they make it. If they make it like Spy Kids, it's going to suck. If they treat it with the weight and sophistication that are present here in the script - don't add any fart jokes or pop culture pandering nonsense - I think this could be a really good movie. It's fun. It's fresh. It's one of the better scripts I've read in awhile. Bobby and Josh have really improved since that first sale of theirs way back in the day.

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

What I learned: This is a good example of how to use flashbacks effectively. Remember that most of the time, it's best to convey backstory in the present storyline. That's because every time you go backwards, you stop your story. So for instance, if we were to flash back and show Izzy’s early years with her family - see that her struggles with her family have been going on since she was a little kid - that's basically a pointless flashback. That can easily be implied in the present day storyline - which is exactly what they do. But the flashbacks here tell the story of the three brothers who robbed the bank. Because that story helps push the present day story forward (the more we understand about their story, the closer we get to finding the money in this story), it doesn't feel like a flashback. It feels like a natural extension of the story. Again, always be wary of using flashbacks, but there are occasions where they can be effective.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Genre: Thriller
Premise: While investigating a recent murder spree, a cop gets lured into the unique lifestyle of his main suspect, an ex-rocker turned club owner.
About: This script sold back in 1994 to Savoy Pictures. At the time, it was the richest deal for a screenwriter ever made. Joe got $1 million up front with another $4 million production bonus, plus 2.5% of the box office AND video gross and finally 1% of the soundtrack sales. Keep in mind this is when Eszterhas was at the top of his game and selling badly scribbled to-do lists for millions of dollars. He still remains the most successful spec screenwriter in cinema history. Oh, and this is a first draft. Whether this is the draft that got the deal done, however, is unclear. I can see Joe sending this off to someone to give them an idea of what he was going for and them just throwing a bunch of money at him, assuming he’d get it perfect in the subsequent drafts.
Writer: Joe Eszterhas
Details: 110 pages - first 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 theme of the week seems to be the 90s. Yesterday's script felt kind of 90s retro, but this script takes it to a whole new level with pop culture references and everything. And really, if you want to get right down to it, it feels like Basic Instinct except the main suspect is a man instead of a woman. That definitely makes things interesting for the first half of the script. I was right there with it. But then, either because this is a first draft or he just ran out of ideas, the story nosedives faster than Taylor Lautner's acting career.

30-something Vince Cochran probably isn't the cop you want working your case. His veins are usually juiced with a fresh coat of whiskey, and he often looks like he just got off of a three day bender. Anyway, Vince is pulled into a case where a woman has been sliced and diced and left on the beach. She's one of a handful of recent victims who’ve been killed in a similar manner. Nobody has any idea what the connection with all the victims are, except that they were all seen at one point or another at a really hot downtown club.

That club is owned by Billy Hawks. Billy is in his 40s and used to be quite the famous rocker. But he gave that life up to own a few high profile clubs and reap the benefits of being a local icon. And boy does he reap those benefits. Usually decked out in an Armani suit, he's always on the prowl for young ladies to add to his growing list of sex groupies. This guy makes Charlie Sheen look like Jon Cryer.

Naturally, Vince wants to ask Billy some questions, but the police force isn't keen on the idea. Billy makes a lot of money for the city and contributes a lot of it back to the city, making questioning him a bit of a risky proposition. Say the wrong thing and maybe that year's donation doesn't come in.

Vince goes in there anyway, his question gun cocked, but has no idea just how out of his league he is. Billy is a master at identifying people's weaknesses, and can tell that Vince is a bit of a partier, so he encourages him to join him for a night out on the town. While Vince asks questions, Billy introduces him to lots of drugs, lots of alcohol, and lots of ladies. The next thing you know, Vince wakes up with no idea what he's done, but the implication is that he got into a wild sexual encounter, one that didn't just involve women, but may have involved Billy himself.

In the meantime, Vince starts drooling over Billy's prized prospect, a hot sweaty reckless rocker named Trish. Trish is either a master at playing hard to get, or really doesn't want to be gotten. Either way, Vince is infatuated with her, and tries to make headway whenever he can steal a minute or two. Naturally, none of this stuff is really helping his pursuit of the killer, but in the end, maybe none of that matters.

Like I said, this script is pretty awesome through the first half. Eszterhas is a master at creating characters whose work lives and personal lives overlap. This creates a dangerous gray zone where a mistake in one has profound implications in the other. How is it that Vince is able to objectively do his job if he's hanging out with the main suspect?

Eszterhas is known for his dialogue and part of the reason his dialogue is so good is because he works in that gray zone so often. Lots of the dialogue is laced with subtext because people are hiding things or covering up things or keeping information from each other. For example, because Vince spent this crazy night with Billy and doesn't remember any of it, Billy can use that against him. So when they have discussions, Billy throws out an implication here or there about the things Vince did that night. Because it's Vince’s job to be in control, he has to act as if he knows what happened. As a result the dialogue feels more like dancing than the straightforward on the nose "I'm telling you exactly what I think" dialogue you see in a lot of amateur scripts. For that reason, if you're a beginning writer, Eszterhas is a great scribe to study when it comes to dialogue and subtext.

Ironically, this is what ends up getting the script into trouble. All the lying and the deception is great for a while, but sooner or later the reader has to know what's going on, and I'm not sure I ever did. I don't know what Eszterhas’ process is, but it seems like he gets a sense of what he wants, then tries to discover the rest along the way. That's why the second half here seems to fall off a cliff.

There's a random thread where it turns out that Trish ran away from her rich parents a long time ago. But when they try to reclaim her, she claims her father used to have sex with her. Huh? It's a familiar situation we writers go through. We don't know where our story is going, so we just try to throw in something shocking to make up for it.

Then there's this whole thing with some killer in jail who somehow married a really rich woman and they go and interrogate this woman, who may or may not be a psychic. By that point I had no idea what was going on or what the point of anything was anymore.

But it gets even more wacky in the end when Vince’s partner, an older cop who's completely baffled by all the sex and drugs and craziness that goes on in today's world, goes postal because he can't take it anymore. It's such a weird choice and a complete detraction from the main storyline that it just felt, again, like a writer who didn't know where he wanted to take his story so he just came up with something crazy to distract you from the fact that there was no story.

If there's something wrong with your third act, you probably need to fix your first act. I think Eszterhas was so focused on creating this interesting relationship between Vince and Billy - which was definitely the highlight of the script - that he didn't set up where he wanted the story to go. Maybe subsequent drafts fixed this. If they did, producers may want to pull this script out of development hell. There's definitely some cool stuff in here. But this draft is too messy to recommend.

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

What I learned: The less you outline your screenplay ahead of time, the more work you're giving yourself in the rewrites. Why? Because the rewrites will be less about making what you already have better, and more about fixing the faulty structure and character work. As every good writer knows, restructuring the story and figuring out where everything goes is what takes the most amount of time. If you get all that stuff figured out ahead of time, there will be less moving scenes around, less moving plot points around, less re-of imagining your characters, less trying to figure out character motivations, and you can just work on making what's already there better.

Monday, September 26, 2011

One Shot

Genre: Thriller
Premise: An ex-military man is brought in to help figure out the mystery behind a mass sniper shooting.
About: This is going to be Tom Cruise's next, after that strange musical he's making. It’s based on the book of the same title written by Lee Child. Cruise brought in his Valkyrie writer, Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie, to adapt the book. McQuarrie is best known for writing The Usual Suspects (for which he won the Oscar).
Writer: Christopher McQuarrie (novel by Lee Child) (previous drafts by Josh Olson)
Details: 122 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).

Let's get this out in the open right away. Christopher McQuarrie can write. After reading last week’s offerings, you forget what real writing looks like. This is it. The man has such a visually exciting style, that even mundane scenes have an energy to them that you just don't see with other writers. And he does some controversial things to get there. For example, McQuarrie uses camera directions (you see "extreme close-up" several times in the opening pages), which is supposed to be a big no-no. But he likes how they orient the reader’s eye to what's important, and if they don't bother you, they definitely achieve that (having said that, it should be noted that most readers will tolerate professionals doing this, but get annoyed when amateurs try it).

He also writes some pretty big paragraphs. We were just ragging on Montana the other day for doing the same thing. But the difference is, McQuarrie rarely writes anything unnecessary, so even the big paragraphs work. Is this a double standard? Probably. But hey, Brett Favre threw off his back foot into double coverage for over a decade. A rookie quarterback should not be afforded the same leniency. He hasn't earned it yet.

So what is this script about? It's actually a fairly basic plot. I don't know what I was expecting, but I guess I thought since Cruise was making it a potential franchise, there was going to be more action. But this story is more a procedural. It starts off with a mysterious man pulling up into a parking garage overlooking a heavily trafficked pedestrian area, pulling out a sniper rifle, and randomly shooting five people dead.

When the Feds investigate, they trace the shooting back to a man named James Barr. But when they bring him in, he insists he had nothing to do with it. When they try to get a written confession from him, he gives them three words instead: "Get Jack Reacher.” So they send James off to jail and start looking for Reacher. After figuring out he’s an ex-military special something or other who’s an expert at pretty much everything, including staying invisible, they conclude that there’s no way they’ll ever find him. Which is the exact moment they get a knock on the door. "Someone's here to see you." "Who?" "Jack Reacher.”

It turns out Reacher knows this guy from the Army, and that James did a lot of bad things there. Reacher wants to make sure he goes to prison for a long time. But before he can talk to James, James is beaten to within an inch of his life at jail and is now in a coma. So Jack teams up with James’ plucky female defense attorney to cross the T's and dot the I’s on the investigation.

But one look at the crime scene and already Reacher knows something’s off. It turns out, for example, James paid the meter before he shot everyone. Why would a man pay a parking meter before he was about to kill five people? It also starts to look like this was less a mass shooting and more a targeted shooting. The question is, how are all these people related, and why did James, or whoever killed them, want them dead? Of course, the closer Reacher gets to the truth, the more sketchy people come out of the woodwork trying to kill him. But if there's one thing you find out pretty quickly, it's that you don't fuck with Jack Reacher.

The biggest surprise with One Shot is that there's almost nothing new here, and yet it's still pretty damn exciting. You have a couple of choices when you write a script. You can write something that's been done before and try to execute it perfectly or you can write something unique and execute it adequately. McQuarrie does the former.

That's not to say One Shot is totally by the book. In a typical procedural you have police officers or the FBI doing the investigating. Here, we have a defense lawyer and a mysterious ex-military man. This allows McQuarrie and Child to play fast and hard with the rules. Not everything has to be by the book because neither of these two belongs to a body that follows a book. It gave the script just enough freshness to differentiate itself from similar screenplays.

As far as GSU, the goal here is clear. Figure out who killed all these people and why. The stakes and urgency aren't as clear. The stakes are the safety of our protagonists, since the deeper they dig, the more the bad guys want to kill them. And the urgency is also vague at first. There's no real ticking time bomb. Instead, the urgency comes from the bad guys closing in. We know they're always close by. We know they plan on killing our heroes. And that's what keeps the momentum up.

One of the bigger lessons to come out of One Shot is one that Leslie Dixon reminded us of in an interview leading up to the release of her movie, Limitless. When asked why she chose to write the movie, she said she was tired of writing movies with main characters that movie stars didn't want to play, because they never got made. She knew that the only way her movie was going to get greenlit was if she wrote a main character for a star. Say what you will about Limitless, but the movie definitely has an intriguing central character that a big Hollywood star would want to play.

We have the same thing here. Jack Reacher is a man with a mysterious past who plays by his own set of rules - who isn't afraid of anything. I mean how much more appealing can you make a character for a movie star? It's Han solo. It's Indiana Jones. It’s the template for every character you ever pretended to be when you were a kid. So as important as the craft itself is, never forget that you have to wrangle in a movie star to get your script made. So that main character better be interesting.

There were a few things that bothered me, notably that a big deal is made out of James Barr saying "get Jack Reacher" (which, let's face it, is an awesome moment) and yet it’s never clear why he did this. We find out later that Reacher hates James. So why in the world would James call him in? I guess James thought Reacher was the only one who could prove he didn't do this, but since Reacher had been trying to get this guy behind bars for years, who's to say he wouldn't use this opportunity to finally do so? Maybe someone can explain this to me.

Also, the bad guy here is too cartoonish. As writers, we can get so carried away with trying to come up with somebody different, that we forget that that person still has to exist in the universe we created. The idea of somebody known as The Zec being stuck in some prison to the point where he started eating off his fingers… I'm sorry but that's just silly. That was the one area that really disappointed me with this because when you have such a cool hero, you want him going up against the best. And if the best is Zec The Finger-Chewer - I'm just not sure that's a matchup I'm looking forward to.

But man, the writing here is good. I'm so happy this came around when it did because when you read a lot of subpar scripts in a row, you start to think that there's no good writing left. This proves that there is.

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

What I learned: Here's a scene that always works. Have your protagonist go talk to somebody suspicious, and have that suspicious person handling a gun for an innocuous reason. For example, Reacher believes that our bad guy did some training at a gun range, so he goes out to the range to ask the owner if the man he's looking for was there. On its own, it's a basic question and answer scene. But McQuarrie gives the gun range owner a gun he's cleaning. This adds a whole new dimension to the scene. Whenever things get testy, you cut to the gun, and a normal conversation is layered with all sorts of subtext. Is he going to pull it out? Would he try and shoot Reacher? These are questions the audience is asking while watching the scene, making the scene much more exciting.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Amateur Friday - Influence

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: (from writer) A marine biologist, up to her ankles in oysters, flounders on Capitol Hill trying to save the Chesapeake Bay from a silk suited, Republican lobbyist.
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 in the review (feel free to keep your identity and script title private by providing an alias and fake title). Also, it's a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so that your submission stays near the top of the pile.
Writer: Montana Gillis
Details: 96 pages

Montana is probably one of the nicer funnier guys who e-mails me. He just seems like a real genuine person interested in bettering his craft. He also has an interesting backstory, in that he was a Marine, if I'm not mistaken. Which makes this review all the more difficult. Like every Amateur Friday screenplay I pick up, I want to love it. And while Montana can definitely write, I think he gets in his own way at times. This script is really dense, which isn't what you want if you're writing a romantic comedy. The number one thing I want to say to Montana going forward is: less is more. Everything needs to be pared down and the story itself needs to come to the forefront. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Dr. Turner Dixon, a 30 something "fresh-faced shapely stick of dynamite" is doing her best to try and save the Chesapeake Bay. Like a lot of bays in the US, this one is being polluted to the point where all the marine life has disappeared. So Turner is trying to pass a bill on Capitol Hill that will get all these greedy corporations out of the water.

In the meantime, we meet Jack Ward, 39, roguish, and very handsome. A lobbyist, Jack owns a breathtaking boat (the "Influence") that he takes a lot of political bigwigs out on, presumably to wine and dine and get his way from.

Anyway, Dr. Turner is that annoying thorn in all the Senators sides, always pushing one of those liberal "save the world" agendas that will destroy the very economy allowing the town she lives in to thrive. So when Turner heads to a big Capitol Hill party and starts talking up the Senators to vote her way, she's pawned off to Jack, who just the other day nearly killed her when his boat almost slammed into hers.

Naturally, the two get to talking, one thing leads to another, and the next thing you know they sleep together. It's only after this, of course, that Turner realizes Jack is a lobbyist for the bad guys, and therefore her enemy. There’s also a group of shady characters behind the curtain who are aggressively trying to get rid of this annoying Turner and her stupid bill - the very people who allow our Jack to live such a wonderful life. So at some point Jack will have to decide between the cushy life he now lives or the woman he has fallen for.

Okay. I'm going to prep this critique by saying I know very little about how things work on Capitol Hill. So while this script is titled "Influence," you might be able to title me "Ignorance." I just don't know how lobbying and all of that other backroom stuff works. So at least some of my confusion regarding this plot has to do with that. Having said that, I don't think this story is nearly as clear as it needs to be.

Let's start with one of the main characters, Jack. I originally read the logline for this eight or nine weeks ago. So when I picked Influence up the other day, I didn't remember exactly what it was about, which is how I like it, because I want the script to speak for itself. However, I had absolutely no idea who Jack was for half the screenplay. It was only after I went back to the logline that I realized he was a lobbyist. One of the things I just pointed out yesterday was you have to make it clear who your character is as soon as possible.

So how is Jack introduced? He's introduced on a boat barely saying or doing anything. The entire scene focuses on the other character on the boat, the senator, leaving me with no idea who Jack was. In fact, his entrance was so weak, I just figured he was the driver of the boat and therefore a character we’d probably never see again. If the reader thinks one of your two main characters is nobody important in their introductory scene, you're in trouble.

But this continues on for the rest of the script. Jack barely ever says anything. He doesn't have any defining characteristics. He never does anything unique. It was impossible to get any sense of him at all. I mean take the first scene with Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. You see him in a big business meeting. You see that he's frustrated. You see that he wants to get away from this world. You see that he's been so pampered his entire life, he doesn't even know how to drive a car. I mean we learn so much about that character in that first sequence. And I don't know anything about Jack after this entire screenplay.

Personally, I think the big mistake here was making him a lobbyist. It just doesn't have any "oomph” behind it, particularly because he never seems that interested in lobbying. In fact, I don't remember a single scene in the entire screenplay where I see him lobbying for anything. That's awfully strange for a lobbyist, don't you think? Why not just make Jack a Senator? It would instantly give him more clout and clarity as a character. It would force him to be more active. The stakes would be higher since he’d have more to lose. It just seems like the much more powerful choice. I guess the lobbyist angle could work, but not as it's currently constructed, with a weak character who doesn't seem interested in lobbying and isn't active in any sense of the word. Still, I would strongly consider the Senator option.

The next huge issue here is the writing itself. It's way too dense. It seemed like every single scene was over-described. It felt like there was a line of description or action between every single dialogue utterance. There was just way too much writing going on here. We only need the essence of the scene, just enough to fill in the rest of the gaps ourselves. Let me give you an example. Here's a paragraph from the script:

"A four story behemoth rises up behind Turner as she stands at the curb. Bright sunlight reflects off car windows and the white stone building. Turner pulls a small purse out of her large bag. She sets the bag down on the edge of the street as she digs in the purse."

The paragraph should probably read closer to this:

"A four story behemoth rises up behind Turner. She digs her purse out of a large bag then places the bag on the ground."

Actually, I probably wouldn't even mention the building, as it's not a necessary component to understanding the scene. I'm going to tell you why this is such a problem. When every single description is a bunch of details that don't matter, that aren't essential to understanding the story, the reader starts skipping over them. So after reading 20 paragraphs like this, I just started skimming because I just assumed all of them weren't important. Then, when you actually do have a paragraph with some important plot information inside of it, the reader’s going to miss it. It's the screenwriting equivalent of crying wolf.

I would try to cut down the amount of description by 50 to 60% here. That's not an exaggeration. Everything needs to be pared down. Not just big paragraphs, but all of the needless descriptions in between the dialogue. Not only would this be a problem in a normal screenplay, but this is a romantic comedy, which should be one of the lightest flowiest screenplays out there. It should be the essence of minimalism. And yet the approach here is the opposite. So I’d definitely encourage Montana to fix that.

There were a lot of little problems here as well. For example, we have a scene where Turner gets out of a car and bumps into Jack. Okay. We create a little conflict between the characters. That's fine. Except then we also have a scene where Jack's boat almost runs over Turner's boat a scene or two later. Why do we need two separate scenes showing the exact same thing?

Also, never give your female character a male name in a romantic comedy. It's too cute, every beginning writer does it, and it drives readers nuts. I mean I've seen readers explode over this because it's done so often. But even besides that, it's confusing. It always takes me 5 to 10 pages to get used to associating a female with a male name, so even if you don't care whether you get the reader upset, you should care that it hurts the reading experience, which is the last thing you want to do in a screenplay.

Lastly, I don't think this script is fun enough. This is supposed to be a romantic comedy and yet the majority of the script focuses on boring backroom politicking. I'm not saying that that stuff can't be interesting, but it's false advertising. People don't come to a romantic comedy to learn the specifics of what goes on behind the pushing of a bill. They come for romance and they come for laughs, and both of those things take a back seat to a lobbying plot here. To use Pretty Woman as an example again, it would be like if they erased half the scenes of Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, and replaced them with the details of Richard Gere's business deal. So unfortunately, even though I love Montana, these issues really affected my enjoyment of the script.

Moving forward, I would focus on a few things. First, pare all the description down. You have to make this script more readable. Second, go back over yesterday's article, specifically how to introduce characters, and make sure we like these characters right away. I never ever felt like I knew Jack and a big part of that was the way he was introduced and the lack of characterization. He just didn't have any defining characteristics. Finally, I would cut out 75% of the bill plot. We only need the key scenes revolving around that plot. If you want to get into the details of that kind of story, I would recommend writing a drama or a thriller. But here, people are going to be more interested in the romantic comedy aspects of a romantic comedy. This was a fun exercise Montana. Hopefully you don't hate me after this review. All I care about is making the script better. :)

Script link: Influence

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

What I learned: I want to introduce a new term: Readability. As writers, it's our job to get carried away with every detail. We want to make sure we get this important plot point in and that this character arcs correctly and that our theme is consistently hit on. We become so consumed with all the minutia of our script, that we lose the ability to perceive it as a whole. When this happens, we're not able to judge how readable our script is. So after you're finished with your screenplay, you need to ask, "Is this readable?" Not, are all the plot points in the right spot and are all the characters perfectly drawn? But simply, when somebody sits down to read it, is it easy to read? I'm not sure that question was asked here. So save a couple of passes at the very end of your process just for that question. If the read is taking too long or you're not flying through it, ask why? It might be that your description is too thick. It might be that you have too many needless lines gumming up the spaces between the dialogue. It might mean you have scenes that don't need to be in your screenplay. But this is a question that definitely needs to be asked because it's not just about getting everything into your screenplay, it's about how quickly the reader’s eye moves down the page.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Article - Scriptshadow Character Generator

I was originally going to post something else today but had to scrap it at the last second. So I decided to post my character checklist document instead. This is something I'll occasionally send off to people I give notes to who are having trouble creating interesting characters. The problem with most screenplays isn't that the writer doesn't have an interesting character in mind. It's that they don't understand how to convey that character in a way that the reader sees what they see. So many writers believe that everything about their character will simply emerge onto the page magically, like something out of a chapter of The Secret (Australian accent and all). Wrong. We don't know something unless you tell us. So to help you, here are eight ways to make your characters come alive.

1) A great description – A reader must get a sense of your character after you’ve described them. “Tall and thin” is boring. “Ichabod Crane on crack” evokes an image. Having said that, make sure the description matches the tone and genre of your story. I wouldn't use “Ichabod Crane on crack” in a drama, for example, but I might use it in a comedy. Here’s a description of Christina in the original draft of Source Code. "In contrast to the corporate suits around her, her appearance is thrift store funky: black nail polish, dark lipstick, black hair with blue streaks, a button-down blouse edged in black funeral lace with silver skull and bones cufflinks.” I would probably encourage something more sparse, but as long as your description gives us a strong sense of who your character is, you're in good shape.

2) A great entrance – Usually reserved for your key characters – give them an entrance that’s worthy of their character. Obviously, the best example is Indiana Jones. One of the key reasons we love that character so much is because of his entrance. He's exciting. He's brave. He's great at what he does. But hey, that's not the only way to create a memorable entrance. Look at Lester Burnham in American Beauty. Between his hypnotizing voice over, and his sad assessment of his daily routine ("That’s me, jacking off in the shower."), we know just as much about Lester as we did Indiana. Memorable entrances are so important in making your character jump off the page.

3) An action that immediately tells us who they are – This is sort of an extension of number 2, but I can’t stress it enough. There’s so little time in a film, and just like in real life, first impressions are everything. So you want to make sure we know *exactly* who a character is when we meet them. If your character is a genuine asshole, give us an *action* that *shows* us he’s an asshole (he’s yelling at another character for a trivial reason). If a character is weak, give us an *action* that *shows* us that he’s weak (show him/her backing down from a confrontation). In Jerry Maguire, for example, we meet Rod Tidwell complaining about how he doesn't get any respect, which is his defining trait throughout the film.

4) A fatal Flaw – That one thing that defines your character, that’s held them back their entire lives. The thing they’ll need to overcome to solve the big problem facing them at the end of the story. Rocky Balboa’s flaw, for example, is that he doesn’t believe in himself. This is something that should come up repeatedly in the script, something your main character should be bumping up against again and again. So in Up In The Air, for example, George Clooney's fatal flaw is his inability to get close to other people. That's why he's easily able to fire people. That's why he has meaningless sexual relationships on the road. That's why he barely talks to his family. That's why he gives seminars about the power of being on your own. At the very least, you should give your main character a fatal flaw. But I like to give a few of my secondary characters fatal flaws as well. It just makes them deeper.

5) Backstory – Anything to give us a little context about your character's life is a good thing. But backstory is tricky because just like exposition, it needs to be integrated in a way that doesn't slow the story down. Nobody likes when a character starts talking about their past for four pages. Borrrrring. Also, you only want to include backstory that will later play into your current story. So it's fine if your character was abused as a child. But if they're not going to confront that abuse at some point (such as the way Will Hunting does in Good Will Hunting), then we don't need to know about it. Contact is a great example of a movie that uses backstory to dramatize the present story. The backstory was her father’s unexplainable death. Which could've been pointless and merely an attempt to draw sympathy from the audience. But the father's death ends up shaping everything that the main character does. The whole reason Jody Foster starts studying aliens is to find an answer to all of this, to find some meaning to her father's death. So the right backstory can really propel your character forward. You just have to integrate it in a way where it doesn't slow the story down and where it informs the current story.

6) Goals - This is a Scriptshadow article so you knew there was going to be some discussion of goals. I like to give my characters two goals. The first goal is the story goal, the one that drives them forward. So in Back To The Future, Marty's goal is to get his parents together so he can get home. The second goal is one I don't think enough writers think about - the life goal. It's what the character’s ultimate plan in life is. The reason this is so important is because it's one of the biggest insights into who a person is. If you know a person, for example, whose life goal is simply to become rich, that's very telling. If you know a person whose life goal is to bring fresh water to 60% of Africa, that's very telling as well. Just by those descriptions, I'm sure you're imagining two completely different people. So in Back To The Future, Marty's life goal is to become a musician. It's not profound. It's not the most original life goal in the world. But it does give us more insight into who Marty is. Had Marty wanted to be a pharmacist, for example, he would have been a completely different character. So make sure to think about what your character ultimately wants to do in the long term.

7) Secrets – Secrets always make characters more interesting, whether it’s something from their past or something about themselves they don’t tell other people. What your characters hide is very telling. In the upcoming Shame, Michael Fassbender's secret is that he's a sex addict. In Black Swan, Natalie Portman hides her fear that she's not good enough, which is a big part of her character. The right secret can add a lot of depth to a character.

8) Characteristics/quirks/clothes/personality traits/grooming – Any detail you can give a character to make them stand out, do it. Maybe they have a soul patch. Maybe they have OCD. Maybe they wear jean shorts. Figure out who your character is, and try to find some detail that symbolizes their essence. So if you have a character who's lonely, such as Steve Carrell in The 40 Year Old Virgin, have him be a collector of toys/action figures. Or look no further than Napoleon Dynamite to see how a combination of all of the above can create a unique memorable character.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how little or how many of these character tools you want to use. My opinion is that your leads should utilize all eight of them. As you go down the ladder of supporting characters, that number will go down as well. But if you want characters with depth, this is how you get them. Good luck!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I didn't change the look of the site.

Something happened with the bogus joke of a blogging system that is Blogger, and when I woke up this morning, the look of my page had changed.  I'm not sure why this happened and since I haven't gone into the design segment of Blogger in over a year, it's probably going to take me a couple of days to figure it out.  Viva Las Blogger!

Con Men

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A pair of pharmaceutical reps, one crazy, one conservative, travel to a drug expo to try and land the most important deal of the year.
About: This finished on the lower half of the 2009 Black List. Outside of that, little is known about the script. It appears to be Eric Lane's breakthrough screenplay.
Writer: Eric Lane
Details: 116 pages - December 1, 2009 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).

Today's script is a comedy so I'm going to take this moment to talk about another "comedy" that I saw last night. After all of this hype, I decided to watch the "Two And A Half Men" season premiere. I'd never watched Two And A Half Men before, so I wasn't sure what I was expecting, but what I got was quite possibly the worst 22 minutes of television I've ever witnessed. I'm not sure if it's possible to die just by watching a TV show, but I'm pretty sure I came close a couple of times. I've never seen anything more juvenile, more stupid, more on the nose, and more insulting than those two and a half men. I'll tell you when I turned it off. That would be when the kid answered a question by farting. I don't have any other words. I'm just baffled that people watch that show and enjoy it.

Anyway, that leads us into today's script. Yay! The good news is, this is way better than Two And A Half Men. Then again, so is soaking your eyeballs in sulfuric acid. But at least Con Men doesn't try and insult your intelligence. Well, actually, that's not true. Maybe I should just get to the review.

Con Men is about 25-year-old Greg Weinstock. Greg is really good at what he does, which is sell prescription drugs, and all things considering, he's got a lot going for him, except for his material girl who lives in a material world girlfriend, Tiff. Tiff’s big beef with Greg is that he's not really a take charge guy. He's too comfortable with his lifestyle.

So when the boss man asks Greg to join up with the company party boy, Kevin, and try to land the biggest deal of the year at the Milwaukee drug expo, his initial reaction is, no way. The reward may be high but so is that damn risk. However, after Tiff dumps him, Greg gets it into his head that if he lands this deal, maybe he can prove to her that he is a risk taker, and she'll end up taking him back.

Like the recently released Cedar Rapids, Greg is all business and Kevin is all party. In fact, as soon as they land, Kevin heads straight to the bar and starts having sex with as many women as possible. A scary prospect if you've ever been to Milwaukee before.

Anyway, they eventually run into the reason that they got this job in the first place - Sheera and Mandy. These two used to be the top pharmaceutical reps at their company until they quit and started working for the competition. Because they are hot and because they will do anything to get the sale, they are every pharmaceutical rep’s nightmare. Our guys basically have no chance against these two. And to make matters worse, Sheera is Kevin's kryptonite - the only girl he's ever truly loved. He basically turns into a drooling half-witted Nerf Herder whenever he's around her, which Sheera uses to her full advantage.

I'd detail more of the plot but that's about it. There's a lot of double-crossing. A lot of sex. A lot of drinking. A lot of lying. Each side tries every trick in the book to land the big fish but only one will come away with the prize.

Con Men is a script from an extremely talented writer who has a huge future ahead of him. I say that mainly because his dialogue is so strong, some of the best I've read in a while. Here's one of Kevin's many meanderings in the script: “A few months ago Lindsay came over. She’s a middle reliever I keep in the bullpen for weeknights. Anyway, we’re changing the batteries in the smoke detectors. One thing leads to another. You lick a nine volt battery and put it against your chode during sex. Turns out, when you climax, fireworks. Buttermilk into thunderbolts, lead into gold. You can literally singe the minge. It’s a K Russell Orig. But yours if you need it. Point is, Lulu dug the spark. Lucha libre.”

I don't know how to put it other than to say his dialogue has a lot of texture. It's interesting and unique and, most importantly, memorable. Which is going to make it all the more confusing pointing out Con Men's biggest weakness: the dialogue.

What? Carson, have you gone mad? Didn't you just tell us the dialogue was great? The content of the dialogue is great but it seems like Eric knows this and as a result goes way too far with it. There is so much needless dialogue here that pages upon pages go by where nothing happens but people talking (about nothing). Every time someone speaks it's a mini monologue. We're consistently getting 10 to 12 line dialogue chunks and it just kills the momentum. There's a reason this script is a needless 120 pages. It's because people talk for too damn long! I don't care how good your dialogue is. You have to show restraint. Everybody loves cake. But nobody wants to eat cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Unfortunately, there are a ton more beginner mistakes in the script. Character actions don't match up with their motivations for example. When we meet Kevin, he's the one dying to go on this sales trip. He's the one who wants this more than anything. So it's beyond strange that the second he lands in Milwaukee, he doesn't spend a single moment trying to land the sale. You could even argue that he could care less about the sale. If a character really wants something then does the complete opposite, you have character problems.

The character flaws are also clumsily executed. When you have a character flaw, the best way to convey it is through action. So if you have a character who’s selfish, you want to show them encountering a situation where they can either help themselves or help someone else. You show them helping themselves and you've conveyed their flaw. The lazy way to do it is to have somebody come up to that person and say, "You know what. You’re selfish,” which is exactly what happens here when Tiff tells Greg exactly what's wrong with him. This is okay if you've already shown the flaw in action. But here, all we've seen from Greg is how awesome he is at his job. It's not like this is Seth Rogan in Knocked Up. Greg has a high-paying job with a great future ahead of him. So his girlfriend telling him that he doesn't have his shit together doesn't make sense.

And outside of that, this story is just all over the place. Once they actually get to Milwaukee, there's no form. There's no structure. It's just a series of repetitive sequences where people get drunk and try to bang each other. Combined with an extremely inconsistent tone, the script never finds itself. I mean, Con Men starts off feeling like a sophisticated comedy. The first 10 scenes convey tasteful and occasionally sophisticated humor. Open the script to the middle however, and you'll read a scene where a character shoots his sperm up into an exposed wire, which starts a fire and turns on the entire hotel sprinkler system. That's Scary Movie 5 territory there and an example of a young writer just trying to make anything funny without thinking how it fits into the bigger picture.

I will say that I loved the inclusion of Sheera and Mandy though. Usually in these scenarios the competition is two men. So to make it two women was a good twist as it created a whole new dynamic between the main players. Now sex could be used as a weapon. An old relationship that still had ripple effects on the characters could be included. It just gave everything a fresh feel. I wish Eric could have brought more of that freshness to the rest of the screenplay. But I still think he has a great future. He just needs to learn how to hone the rest of his craft.

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

What I learned: Less is always more when it comes to dialogue. If you bust out screenplays for your five favorite movies, you'll probably find that the large majority of time each person speaks, they're doing so in 3 lines or less. Not 10 to 12 lines or more, which is the problem with Con Men. Now obviously, each story is unique with unique requirements. Some characters talk more than others. Some stories require more exposition than others. But I promise you that your dialogue will be a lot better if, on the whole, you show restraint.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Short Term 12

Genre: Drama
Premise: A young woman at a care facility for at-risk teenagers deals with an unexpected pregnancy.
About: One of the winners of the 2010 Nicholl Fellowship.
Writer: Destin Daniel Cretton
Details: 121 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).

Well, we have another Nicholl winner here, which means we’re probably jumping into a character development sandwich with a healthy dose of thematic honey mustard. Gone are plot mechanics and the kind of poster that will bring the teenagers in in droves. But in their place is hopefully something that hits a little deeper and stays with you a little longer. And hey, it’s about teenagers. So maybe those mini versions of ourselves will show up.

Short Term 12 is a short term foster care facility for at-risk teenagers. 20-something Grace, one of the head counselors at the facility, has just learned of some unfortunate news – she's pregnant. Now Grace is in a happy loving relationship with fellow counselor Mason, so that's not the problem. The problem is that, like a lot of these kids she takes care of, she had a horrible childhood, and isn't keen on bringing another child into the world. So she doesn't tell her boyfriend, and sets up plans for an abortion.

But in the meantime, she's got a job to do. Over at Short Term 12 we meet the major players. There's 14-year-old Sammy, small for his age and someone who loves to run around without any clothes on screaming at the top of his lungs (for a similar story, see Carson's childhood). There's 17-year-old Mark, a beast of a teenager who rarely talks to anyone. There's 15-year-old sex-obsessed Kendra. And then there's the new girl, Jayden, a small girl with a big chip on her shoulder who reminds Grace of herself when she was younger.

Short Term 12 doesn't really have a plot. It's more about the day-to-day happenings of this facility. And it's quite a facility. All of these kids are here for a reason, that reason being that they don't fit into the confines of "normal" society. They've been left here mainly because they're considered rejects, and most of them are aware of this label and seem to live up to it if only because the world expects them to. A normal day might have one kid trying to escape, another kid trying to kill himself, and a third kid beating the hell out of his roommate. Being a counselor here and dealing with this stuff isn't easy, but most of the people who work here work here because they were at-risk kids themselves, and feel it's only appropriate that they give back.

The bulk of the story focuses on Grace and the new girl Jayden. We eventually learn that Grace was abused by her father when she was a kid and that Jayden is currently going through the same thing. The problem is that Jayden is afraid to admit it because she knows it means losing her father and being stuck in a place like this forever. So as Grace tries to save her, she's constantly running up against a wall. And of course, there's the reality that she's approaching this from a slightly selfish perspective. She feels that if she can help this girl, she can find closure in her own relationship with her father.

And then of course there's the whole pregnancy thing. She knows that if Mason were to find out, he would be thrilled, want to get married, and want to have the kid. But even though Grace knows she would never be the way her parent was with her, she's terrified of just how cruel this world can be to children and she doesn't want to put any human being through that, especially one she brings into the world herself. So the ultimate question, I suppose, is will Grace come around and want to have her child?

You know, this was a tough one to judge, especially after reading yesterday's script. Because yesterday's script was so full of fluff and so devoid of any real…well…anything, this script feels like reading American Beauty in comparison. It's all character development all the time. But even though it was nice to just experience the inner battles people go through every day, especially people like this who are so damaged, I was still craving some sort of story, some sort of wrapper, to bring it all together. I'm a greedy reader. I don't want all of one thing or all of another. I want everything. So even though this script had so much more depth and richness and passion than yesterday's offering, I still found myself moving my hand in a circular motion and subconsciously saying, "Okay, but where's the plot?"

But the script does teach some good lessons. I think the most obvious one is that you're able to bring more to the table if you write what you know (I would be shocked if the writer, Destin, didn't work at one of these facilities himself). What that affords you is specificity. Now it by no means guarantees a good story. Sometimes you can write what you know, yet only seem to find the most mundane boring parts of what you know. Believe me, I've read plenty of those scripts. But as long as you channel in on something that has dramatic potential, you can bring specific things in that nobody else who doesn't know that subject matter can, and the reader feels that. For example, Sammy running around naked. That feels very much like something that happened in real life that only someone who worked at a place like Short Term 12 would experience.

I also think the character development here is pretty good, especially for the character of Grace. When you don't have a plot driving your story, you need your characters to develop in an interesting way. You need interesting things about their backstory to come up (we find out some disturbing things about her father from early on in her life). You need interesting choices that cut to the core of the issues they’re having (she has to deal with whether or not to have her baby). You need to put them in positions that force them to think about their point of view (she meets someone who reminds her of herself when she was a kid). That's how you develop an interesting character. I don't think that this is ever going to be as compelling as if you have a story driving things forward, but if you don't have that story, you better have an interesting character. And I think Short Term 12 does.

There were also a couple of signals that this writer had studied his craft. Destin knew he would be constantly explaining how the facility worked, so he brought in the "question character," a new counselor who would constantly be asking questions so that the other characters could explain things to him (and by association, to us). This is a tool that every writer should have in their tool shed.

I also liked how Destin used the pregnancy as a soft ticking time bomb. Again, we have a story here without any real form so it's important to frame it in any way possible so that the audience has some sense of when it's going to end. The decision on whether or not to have the abortion was a great way to do that. Incidentally, I would've liked if it would've been highlighted more, such as a specific day that was coming up, or maybe just have the characters talk about it more (it seemed to be forgotten a tad in the second act), but I still thought it was well executed.

You know, I wish this script would've had more story, but when I'm taking everything into account, I would have to say that it does a lot more good than bad. Destin did a great job with character development here, much better than most scripts I read, and to that end this is deserving of a "worth the read."

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

What I learned: Writing what you know does not guarantee a good script. What it does guarantee is knowledge. You know that subject matter better than 99% of the people out there and that's what you want to take advantage of. The reason David Seidler was able to write that memorable scene in The King's Speech where Birdy reads while listening to music was because Seidler himself was a stutterer and was taught the exact same thing. Those are the kinds of memorable moments that only come from experiencing that stuff yourself (or through heavy research). Still, no matter how well you know a particular subject matter, no matter how much you've lived it, it's always best to wrap that subject matter in an entertaining concept/story. Don't get me wrong, Short Term 12 was a solid script, but this is a script that never would have been heard of without the Nicholl Fellowship, as it's the only place that really celebrates these kinds of screenplays.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Genre: Thriller
Premise: An air marshal finds himself in the middle of a unique terrorist attack.
About: This script sold very recently, I believe two or three weeks ago. It sold via the popular method of the writers developing it with a producer, who got it to a point where he liked it, then went out and sold it. This seems to be the best bet for selling scripts these days if you don't have anybody attached.
Writers: John Richardson and Chris Roach
Details: 109 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).

You know I have either read or heard about a dozen of these stuck on an airplane thrillers, mainly because I actively seek them out. I believe it's one of the most naturally tension filled situations you can put your characters in. You're stuck up at 37,000 feet. You're in a long metal tube with no way out. And on top of dealing with whatever problem you're dealing with, you also have to worry about keeping that damn plane up in the sky.

But for all these positives, there's one giant negative. You don't have a lot of room to play around in. I don't think I need to tell you guys how little space there actually is on an airplane. They got us packed in like sardines so they can offer us those nice cushy low prices. So cinematically, it's not an ideal location. On top of that, you have the issue of 200 or more extra people on the plane that you have to figure out what to do with. This is why you get scenes like the one in Knight and Day where there's only 15 people on the plane. Even though it doesn't make sense, it makes it easy to account for everyone. So anyway, this is a long prelude to me saying I'm always interested in what writers do with this set up and how they tackle these unique problems.

Bill Marks is a 50-something air marshal who’s mega bored with his job. Apparently these poor air marshals basically jump on one plane to the next without ever getting a break. Flying is their life and since 99% of the time, nothing dangerous happens on a plane, it's easy to get bored. And Bill is really bored.

About the only thing that keeps him going is women. Yup, Bill is a pretty simple guy. If he can strike up a conversation with a pretty woman, he just might make it through the flight with his sanity intact. So when he’s seated next to 29-year-old hottie Jamie on his Hawaii to LA flight, he thanks the lucky stars he's about to be 37,000 feet closer to.

The two get to talking and while she's hesitant at first (he is like 20 years older) she starts to actually like Bill. But before the sparks can start flying, Bill gets a text that grounds him real quick. The text says that unless he kills himself right now, one person will start dying every 20 minutes. Bill leaps into action, heading back into Coach, and indiscreetly starts searching for the culprit. As he centers in on the obvious suspects, the best twist in the screenplay occurs. He gets a text that says, "I never said it was a passenger." The plane starts flailing wildly and we learn that the Captain is dead.

Bill realizes now that this is serious and also realizes that the only person he can completely trust is Jamie, since she was sitting next to him when he got the first text. They also end up recruiting an Oakland police officer on the flight, who unfortunately turns out to be almost as gung ho in his pursuit of the terrorist as the terrorist is in pursuing them.

More people start dying. Bill searches frantically. The terrorist eventually reveals himself and it turns out that discreetly killing people was only the first part of a much more complicated plan. So Bill must search deep down for every skill he's ever learned and figure out how he's going to save everyone on this plane.

When I first wrote up this review, I read it back and realized how bitter it sounded. I want to make something clear. This appears to be these writers’ first sale and I couldn't be more happy for them. This business is a heartbreaking lonely relentless profession that rarely lets new members through the door. So it needs to be celebrated when one of us becomes one of them. And you know, I can see why this script sold. It's fast. It's intense. It's fun. It's got plenty of twists and turns. It has a solid part to play for a well-known actor.

But having said that, I couldn't get into it because I didn't believe it. I suppose if you take this as more of a fun tongue in cheek type thriller, you probably won't care about a lot of the things I'm about to bring up. And I did try to let myself go and not take things too seriously. But there were just some glaring issues that no matter how hard I tried to ignore, I couldn't.

My first huge problem was that Bill practically pranced around with a sign on his chest that read "I am an air marshal." While I don't know the exact protocol, I believe it's valid that the pilots and crew would know who the air marshal was on their plane. So that I didn't have a problem with. What I did have a problem with was Bill walking up right in front of every passenger on the plane and chumming it up with the Captain, the Co-Captain and the rest of the crew. Could you be any more transparent?

Then, about 90 seconds after meeting Jamie, she says "You're an air marshal aren't you?" Now I'd imagine that the answer you'd be trained to say would be: "No." But instead, Bill smiles and says "How did you know?" Is this the least professional air marshal in the history of air marshaling? So then later when Bill expresses some element of shock that the terrorist knows who he is, all I could think was, maybe if you didn't pull out your bullhorn and announce it to the entire flight every time you got on a plane, you wouldn't have this problem. So I really had no sympathy for the guy because he was so stupid. Once I'm not on board with the main character, it doesn't matter how well the rest of the script is written. I'm probably not going to care. And that's unfortunately what happened here.

And really, an oversight like this leads to a bigger problem. The second you give the reader something to doubt, they start looking for other things to doubt. They're counting problems instead of enjoying your story. So for example, we have a terrorist who's killing people one by one and yet this plane is flying through the sky problem free. As you may remember, just last Sunday, they sent two F-16s after a plane where a man was in the bathroom for too long. Hawaii and California have the largest defensive presence in all of the United States. So why F-16s weren't scrambled to intercept this plane is beyond me. Especially since the plane had internet access, and everyone on it was giving CNN a second by second update of the ordeal.

I'm not going to get into the ending here because I don't want to spoil it. But I'll just say that it was way too convoluted. The coolest thing about these movies is what happens at the beginning. Part of the reason it's so cool is because you want to know how and why it's happening. Why would somebody want an air marshal to kill himself? How is this guy killing these people one by one, especially the Captain himself? That's an intriguing question I want an answer to. So when the answer comes and it feels silly and doesn't really make sense, it's disappointing.

I received a handful of positive reviews for Nonstop, which is why I decided to read it. So I think there are people out there who are going to look at this as a fun ride and nothing more. If you're not as anal as I am and aren’t really concerned about authenticity, or you don't really know or care how things really work in a situation like this, there's a good chance you'll just go with the flow and enjoy this. And I'm guessing that that's what the company who bought it is banking on. But unfortunately, that lack of authenticity killed it for me.

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

What I learned: The lazy "doesn't really make sense" villain motivation. We've all done it. And I'll tell you why it happens. Nonsensical villain motivations occur when you fall in love with your setup even though you have no idea how you're going to explain it. You leave that up to your future self. Or, as the old saying goes, you "write yourself into a corner." This forces you to come up not with the best possible ending, but with the best possible ending that still allows you to keep your setup. Often times, this forces the writer to patch together a forced overly explanatory climax that makes little sense. The best endings usually come when you back engineer your setup after you figure out your ending. Unfortunately, this often means reworking your setup into something that isn't as exciting as you originally envisioned. But I still think it's necessary, because the ending has to make sense. It has to be an organic extension of everything that came before it. If you have your bad guy going through a 5 minute overly complicated "Exposition Eddie" explanation of why he did this, it's usually a sign that something is wrong.