Monday, October 31, 2011

The Silver Linings Playbook

Genre: Drama/Love Story
Premise: A man is released from the mental hospital with his mind set on getting his wife back. He’ll unfortunately need the help of a woman as crazy as him.
About: This is perfect subject matter for David O. Russell, since it's pretty well known he's a bit nuts himself. Playbook’s been in the headlines a lot lately, first for having a female character that every actress in Hollywood wanted to play, and then because it broke up the long-time friendship/partnership between David O. Russell and Mark Wahlberg. Apparently, after The Fighter’s success (Wahlberg brought David on to direct when nobody else wanted anything to do with him), Mark just figured he'd automatically be cast in Playbook. Instead, Russell went with Bradley Cooper, and Mark was pissed. Next thing you know it’s Selena Gomez and Demi Lavato all over again. Or is it Samantha Ronson and Lindsey Lohan all over again? Oh I don’t know. I’ll check PerezHilton and get back to you.The film also stars Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Stiles, Chris Tucker and Robert De Niro.
Writer: David O Russell (based on the novel by Matthew Quick)
Details: 127 pages - 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).

It's hard to talk about David O. Russell without mentioning all the controversy that follows him. This guy creates so much drama, you could throw him on the cast of Jersey Shore and the show wouldn’t skip a beat. I've been lukewarm to Russel’s work. I’ve always thought he was interesting, but there’s this consistent lack of focus in his storytelling that's always bothered me. For example, Christian Bale’s character was so dominant in The Fighter that the whole boxing match at the end with Mark Wahlberg felt tacked on. To be honest, I’m still not sure who the main character was in that movie.

Well that's about to change today. This is my favorite thing Russell has done by far. Just last week, in my review of Black, I talked about the need to exploit a genre and give it something new. This is the perfect example of that. It's the most offbeat love story I've read in a long time.

30 -year-old Pat Peoples, a former high school substitute, has just gotten out of the mental hospital, and is moving back in with his parents. All he can think about is getting back together with his wife, Nikki. Unfortunately, the reason Pat got stuck in the hospital in the first place is because he mercilessly beat up the man who Nikki was cheating on him with.

What Pat didn't realize was that the reason Nikki was cheating on him was because he’d given up on life. Now that Pat has been allowed back into the world, he's decided to change. All he cares about is getting in the best shape possible and being as optimistic and positive as possible, so he can prove to Nikki he’s worthy of being hers again.

Pat’s brother eventually sets him up with Tiffany, who’s a piece of work herself. Her husband recently died, and she was so traumatized that she started having sex with every guy she worked with. Obviously, this became problematic for the company so they let her go. That means Tiffany's living with her parents just like Pat! The blind date is a disaster. Pat’s disgusted by this woman, and when the night is over, he hopes to never see her again.

Unfortunately, when Pat goes jogging the next day, Tiffany joins him, staying a perfect 10 paces behind him. This leads to a hilarious conversation where Pat explains he wants nothing to do with her and Tiffany explains she wants nothing to do with him, yet they keep running exactly 10 paces from one another the entire time. This becomes a daily ritual between the two until Pat realizes that Tiffany, through a mutual friend, has access to his wife (who, it should be mentioned, has a restraining order against Pat).

Tiffany agrees to deliver a secret letter to Nikki if, and only if, Pat agrees to become her partner in a modern dance competition that takes place in three weeks. The last thing Pat wants to do is dance, but he realizes it's the only way he’ll be able to communicate with his wife, so he agrees to it. These two oddballs get to know each other during their extensive practice time, and Tiffany starts to fall for Pat. With the eventual meeting of Pat’s wife looming, it remains to be seen whether Pat will reciprocate that love.

First thing’s first. Remember people, this is a writer-director draft. That's why there's all of this long text on the page. Why the description gets too specific in places. Why it feels overwritten here and there. Russell does not have to impress any readers. He just came off a box office hit and can make anything he wants. The thing is, despite this alienating style, the actual writing is simple and poignant, so the script reads well.

It's funny though, the more I think about it, the more I realize Russell probably never had to deal with the spec market. He just wrote a script and directed it (Spanking The Monkey), which is probably why his style is so reader-unfriendly. If you don’t have to impress readers, you never have to learn what impresses readers. This is why Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) has a somewhat unique style as well (some may call him the King of Parentheticals). He too never had to write a spec script. He was hired to write projects right out of college.

Anyway, I thought this script was great. The big lesson that came out of it for me was “anticipation.” If you can make the audience anticipate something - if you can make them want to see something badly - the story will fly by, because we'll be looking forward to “that” moment. That’s what the device of Nikki (Pat’s wife) does here. Pat is so obsessed with her, he so believes that they're going to get back together (even though we know he’s got no shot), that we can't wait for that meeting to come. And this is created through Russell’s detailing of Pat’s obsession. None of this works if Pat is only mildly interested in seeing his wife again. It works because he’s CONVINCED, beyond a reasonable doubt, that she’ll take him back once she sees him. As strange as it sounds, we can’t wait to see his reaction when that dream is crushed.

Another thing I wanted to point out was this running gag (no pun intended) of them jogging 10 paces away from one another. Whenever you write a romantic comedy or a love story or any relationship movie, one of the biggest challenges is coming up with interesting places to put your characters when they have conversations. If it's just a bunch of talking in coffee shops and rooms, it’s boring. So you want to look for locations/situations that can make an average conversation dynamic in some capacity.

The jogging scenes here are a great example of that. First of all, you have conflict. He doesn't want her jogging with him. And second you have the unique conversational component. She's in back of him the whole time. They both have to yell in order to talk. It's 1000 times more interesting than putting your characters across from one another at a table. That's not to say you won’t have those scenes. There's usually going to be one or two dates in a relationship movie where the characters are at a dinner table (and actually Pat and Tiffany’s first date is at a diner). But the idea is to minimize those locations as much as possible.

The thing that worried me the most about the script actually ended up being one of its best attributes. The introduction of this dance contest had the potential to be a really cheesy forced plot thread. I'm actually not sure how Russell and Quick pulled it off but somehow it became an organic extension of the story and quite sweet and moving. When the competition nears, and he hears his wife may be coming, you are on pins and needles waiting to see what will happen.

The presentation here was a little clumsy but the story was top notch. Just barely missed an impressive.

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

What I learned: Occasionally in your screenplay, you'll need to highlight documents, usually for expositional purposes. The best way to handle these documents is not to go into detail about what they say, but only highlight the relevant words needed to sell the exposition. For example, when Pat’s mom picks him up from the mental hospital, the audience needs to know that the only reason he’s getting released is because he's going into his mom's care. Therefore, this is what Russell writes:

“ …she signs 'Jean Peoples' as we see phrases: 'ASSUMES FULL RESPONSIBILITY' and 'HOSPITAL BEARS NO LIABILITY.'”

All you need to do is highlight the relevant phrases on the document and then move on. Don't give us a word by word account of the entire paragraph. It takes up space and this other way is so much easier.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Halloween Week!!! - Amateur Friday - The Hostage

Genre: Horror/Thriller
Premise: (from writers) It's a brilliant bank robbery plan. But there's one contingency no one could have planned for: One of the hostages turns into a werewolf, turning the bank they've locked down to keep out the police into a deathtrap. And turning a criminal into a hero.
About: One of the writers of today's script, B.P.Kelsey, is an up-and-coming one-sheet artist. I've included one of his posters in the review below. -- 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: Joel Thomas & B.P.Kelsey
Details: 101 pages – undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Created by writer Kelsey

Werewolf. Heist. Nuff said.

The Hostage centers around Liam Bardwell. Liam is in his 40s and is coughing up blood faster than a vampire with the flu. That's because he's got cancer, which is a big reason he's leading this heist in the first place.

His second in command is a scary ass dude named Frankie Mitts. Even though Liam’s in charge of the show, Frankie believes he's the star. When things start going to shit - and you know they will - it's Frankie who will insist on directing.

Our other main character is Jamee, a single mother in her 20s who's trying to manage a bank while dealing with a divorce. She's just started dating again which isn't making her cop husband happy. When he unexpectedly drops their daughter, Kristin, off, she's furious, as it was supposed to be his turn to take her. She has a big date with a doctor that night (who’s there at the bank waiting), and now she doesn’t know what to do.

Well my dear, get ready for a bigger problem. Liam and his crew bust into the bank right after her husband leaves. The workers are marched down into the vault and the bad guys begin executing their plan. That is until they hear screaming downstairs. They head back to the vault and find nearly everybody ripped to shreds.

If you think you have bad luck picking men, try finding out your boyfriend is a werewolf! But the heist crew doesn't know that yet. They think some crazy ass dog got in here and had a field day. Da Nile ain't just a river in Egypt boys.

After a couple of more slaughters, it's clear they’re dealing with something bigger. Problem is, they can't leave the bank because there's a billion police officers outside. They have to stick to the plan – dig a tunnel to an underground escape pipe - all with a hungry werewolf on their heels.

Eventually Liam hooks up with Jamee and Frankie gets a hold of her daughter, Kristin. So in addition to getting the money, digging the hole, and avoiding a werewolf, Liam and Jamee have to get her daughter back from Senor Psychopath.

The police are finally able to sneak inside, but they quickly become a bowl of pooch pastries as well. Will anybody make it out of this heist alive? Read The Hostage to find out.

Another one of Kelsey's posters - A movie about Bigfoot

The Hostage has a lot going for it. I love the premise. I love the situation. As far as the promise of the premise goes, the script delivers. It’s packed with tension. The structure is solid. We have a clear goal. We have clear stakes. We have clear urgency. Everybody's motivations are strong. If I was running a production company and this showed up on my desk, I would look long and hard into purchasing it, even though horror isn't my strong suit.

So why, then, was I not loving The Hostage? Could it be that I'm not into werewolves? No. I’m not into vampires but I loved Elevator Men.

I stripped away all my analytical instincts and asked a simple question: "What was it about this script that I didn't like?"

When I asked that question, I realized there wasn't a single character in the script I connected with. Now let me make something clear. The characters here are all better than the characters in Bryan Bertino’s Black. But there was still something missing.

Let's start with Liam, who has cancer. The problem with this is, it still doesn't tell me anything about his character. Just giving Liam cancer doesn't make him "deep." Yes, it adds a little bit of context, but I still don't know anything about his life. Look at Breaking Bad. In that show, we see our hero manning a second job at a car wash, struggling to support his family. We see the manager force him to join the cleaners and help wipe down cars, a totally humiliating experience for a family man. We see one of his rich students (he’s also a chemistry teacher) drive up, see his teacher cleaning cars, and start laughing at him. In that moment, we get a perfect snapshot of this person's life, his struggle. And we feel for him. We're ready to root for this guy through anything.

I know that's a TV show and you have more time to explore characters in TV, but you have to pick at least one person in your movie and give us a reason to root for them. Tell us about who they are and why they're in this situation. We get bits and pieces of that with Liam, but never enough to give a shit about him. The reason this is so important is because we have to want Liam to get that money. We have to care about him saving himself or his family. And since we know so little about him, we don't. It's only after all of this is over that I officially learn he's trying to obtain money for his family anyway.

There's a little more going on with Jamee. I liked that she had a daughter and how the daughter gets split up from her. But I don't know. I never connected with her either. It was almost as if the relationship with her husband was thrown in at the beginning to give the appearance of depth, and then forgotten from that point on. I don't even remember what happened to him. Why is it that we spend time with the feisty random Latino female police officer trying to get inside and not on one of our character’s husbands – who’s a COP!?

If you look at Ripley in Aliens, who's in a similar scenario, she's constantly battling this issue of trust. She doesn’t trust Bishop. She doesn’t trust Paul Riser’s lawyer character. On the flip side, she's the only one on this crew that Newt trusts – who Newt knows will protect her. So there's a theme and a struggle that the film is constantly hitting on, which gives everything a deeper meaning.

Once we get into the fray here, it's just a bunch of people running around, trying to avoid a werewolf.

The stranger thing about The Hostage is that it occasionally wastes character development on random or meaningless characters. Outside of Random Feisty Latino Cop, we also get Marcus, the police commander, who takes up all of five pages in the screenplay. Yet he’s given this whole backstory about a wife who keeps trying to call him but he won't answer. Why is it that I know more about a throwaway character than I do the two main characters?

Even little things about the characters didn't make sense. For example, Liam is in his 40s and he's a grandfather. I know that's possible but it doesn't sound right. Jamee is a 20-something bank manager? Isn't that a little young to be managing a bank? She’s also divorced with an eight-year-old kid. When did she get married? When she was 16? Was she a child bride? Did she get married to one of the actors on Lost? It's details like this that make me wonder if the characters were thought through at all.

Now there is some good here. The structure is solid. The script has a ton of energy. There are a lot of clever touches. I love that they weren’t after money, but rather an expensive coin collection. I loved that they later use those coins (because they're silver) to shoot down the Wolf. Being forced to make a choice between keeping a $2 million coin or using it to kill a dangerous beast is a great movie moment. I loved the twist with those coins (I won't spoil it but let's say their initial plan to use them as bullets doesn't work). I loved that the bank robbers wore sheep masks. And the plan for the heist was a good one - something I could see real live bank robbers using.

And you know what? This FEELS like a movie. I could see it being made. I could see renting it myself. It's a cool idea. But if this is going to be more than a straight to VOD title. If it's going to be something you remember and recommend to your friends, the characters are going to have to improve. Because right now, they’re what’s keeping a cool idea from becoming a great movie.

Script link: The Hostage

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

What I learned: Giving a character a disease doesn't make them deep. Diseases are actually common in movies. People have cancer. People have AIDS. So if that's all you tell us, it just feels cliché. It’s the circumstances you build around those diseases that flesh out the character and make them real. Breaking Bad is the perfect example. We don't just see that our hero has cancer. We’re given the circumstances by which cancer will affect his life. Treatment will cripple his family’s bank account when he already has a disabled son and another baby on the way. Thomas and Kelsey try to hint at Liam’s family issues in an early phone call. Unfortunately, that doesn't do anything for us. We don't see the family. We don't see the people he's fighting for. It doesn't affect us at all. I understand that this is a horror thriller and you want to move into the story as soon as possible, but you have to figure out a way to make us care about the characters first. When you think of Taken, you remember a lot of running around, a lot of action, and a lot of excitement. But remember, the first 30 minutes of that movie are about a father and his relationship with his daughter. It's never easy balancing character development with urgency in movies, but it has to be done.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Halloween Week!!! - Zombie Baby

Genre: Horror Comedy
Premise: In a world that's gotten used to the zombie presence, a young couple finds themselves trying to raise a zombie baby.
About: This script finished in the middle of the pack of last year's Black List. This was Jones’ thesis script at the American Film Institute. He moved to LA after going to college at the University of North Carolina, which, correct me if I'm wrong, has a strong film department. So I'm assuming he started his examination of the craft there. This is his breakthrough screenplay.
Writer: Andy Jones
Details: 107 pages - undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

The beauty of this job is that one day you can be reading about the man who cracked the code that ended World War II, and the next day you can be reading about A ZOMBIE BABY! I'll be honest with you. I was not looking forward to this. I didn't see any scenario under which this script could be good. How do you center an entire movie around a zombie baby? I can imagine maybe three jokes? Four tops? If you'd put me in a room and told me I’d be gassed in an hour if I didn't come up with a script idea that incorporated a zombie baby, I'd start writing my will.

But you never know which scripts are going to surprise you. I guess that's why they call it a surprise. Zombie Baby was the funniest comedy I've read in a while. It’s not perfect, but boy is it entertaining.

Mike Peters is 35 years old and married to his unfairly pretty wife, Sarah. Not a good start for Zombie Baby. I’ve read, I think, 16,215 scripts that start with an average looking guy who has an unfairly hot girlfriend/wife. Originality = -1. But hey, it’s the movies. And I know a zombie baby is coming. So I brush it off.

Sarah's parents, who come around way too often, are getting impatient about the non-baby situation. Mike and Sarah have been together forever. So where’s the damn little one? It’s getting so bad that Sarah can barely make it through the day without having a nervous breakdown. It’s not that SHE has to have a baby. But it would be nice to shut her parents up.

Oh, let me back up. The world’s also been overrun by zombies. But the good news is, the governments have it under control. They've pushed most of the zombies into big cities where they’re safely contained. But the occasional zombie does lurch around and it's up to you and your trusty sidearm to take care of it.

And this is really where our story begins. Mike and Sarah come home one night to find a zombie couple in their house. After splattering their brains all over the kitchen cabinets, they realize the zombie couple have left behind a zombie……….you guessed it……..BABY! Zombie Baby!!! And while it's easy to fill a full-grown zombie’s skull with lead, it's a lot harder to do so to a cooing and cawing zombie baby.

So they take a page out of the screenwriter’s handbook and put it off until tomorrow. The zombie baby doesn't have any teeth yet so technically they’re safe. The problem is, the more time you spend with zombie baby, the more you like him. Sarah even realizes that with a little make-up, you can actually make him look like a real baby. Wait a minute. Are they actually KEEPING zombie baby?

I guess so. And the reason this is a big problem is that recently, someone who was keeping their zombie mom lost her and she went on a 35 person zombie killing spree. For that reason, the government has made it illegal to house zombies. If you’re caught with a zombie, you’re getting the chair.

Eventually, Mike's redneck brother shows up to stay with the fam, which is problematic in that he LOVES KILLING ZOMBIES. After an odd babysitting adventure, he begins to suspect something is up. Mike and Sarah realize they need to do something with Zombie Baby now or his bro is going to kill it. Even worse, he might turn them in. If you thought raising a real baby was hard, try raising a ZOMBIE BABY! (can you tell I like saying “Zombie Baby?”).

I thought this was great. I can't remember a horror comedy that had this much fun with its premise. But what I really liked about Zombie Baby was that it wasn't truly about a zombie baby. It was about the challenges a young couple faces raising a baby for the first time. Yet explored in a unique way.

Think about it. How many "raising babies" movies and TV shows have we seen over the years? Somewhere between way too many and a googolplex. The worst is when it enters the sitcom scenario. We've watched a sitcom for five years, and in order to "spice things up" they add a baby. It always signifies the death of the show. And that's because we've seen it all before. There's nothing new you can show us.

That is, unless you make the baby a zombie. This opens it up to all sorts of new scenarios and it's fun to see what Jones does with these scenarios. For example, when it's time to clean the baby, they don't go to the bathtub and have their first bath. Mike drops him down in the middle of the driveway and shoots a hose at him for 5 minutes. You can't do that kind of thing in Three Men And A Baby.

Most of the story mechanics in Zombie Baby were sound too. There's this constant evolving (open-ended) goal of trying to figure out what to do with the baby. Jones was also wise to add high stakes to the scenario. If they were caught with the baby, they’d be killed. So there really was a lot at stake.

I was enjoying this so much, in fact, that at one point I had it as an impressive. But unfortunately, my fears were realized. Try as you may, try as you might, this is still a thin premise. It's hard to build an entire two hour scenario around it. And I could feel that in the second half.

Two story choices I had problems with were the brother and the painting. I can't figure it out, but something bothered me about the brother. He felt like an artificial storytelling device to create conflict in the family. What I mean by that is, I was never clear on why he came to the house. He just sort of shows up and says I'm gonna live here now. It's critical that pieces of the story like this make sense, because if they don't, we become aware that the writer is placing them in the story. This only gets worse when the brother becomes this radical hick who's willing to murder his own family because they’re housing a zombie baby. I never bought it.

The other plot point that didn't go anywhere was Sarah’s painting of the zombie baby. There's this whole thread where a weird senator falls in love with the painting and wants to buy it. I didn't feel it had anything to do with the story and really just got in the way.

One of the hardest things to do as a writer is recognize when something isn't working and cut it. It's hard because you know you’ll have to think of something else and rewrite a hell of a lot of the script. But I always say, if something feels wrong in your screenplay, it probably is. And if you don't do something about it, you're going to be chained to that bad choice for the rest of the screenplay. It's just going to lead to more bad choices. So it's best to take care of the problem at the outset.

Luckily, the script rebounds at the end when our couple realizes what they need to do with the baby. I won't spoil it for you but it was well set up and it ended everything on a good note. Which I was so happy about because I was getting nervous there for a while. This was a really funny script. I'm glad to see that Jones is getting so much publicity over it.

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

What I learned: I know I've talked about this before but I can't stress it enough. You have to find a unique way to tell an old story. Jones actually gave an interview about this. He loves zombies but when he sat down to think about a zombie movie, he realized that almost everything had been done. So he vowed not to write a zombie movie until he discovered a unique angle. He eventually realized he hadn't seen a zombie movie about taking care of a zombie - and that's where the zombie baby idea came from. This is a critical component to a writer's success - that moment BEFORE you write your screenplay and figuring out if the story is WORTH being written in the first place. I always say marinate on an idea for 2-3 months (at least) before you write it. Make sure you like the idea just as much now as you did originally.  Also, the best way into this business is still to find a unique way to tell an old story. You still have to execute it. You still have to nail all the beats and the structure. But you're way ahead of the game if right out of the gate you have something unique.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Halloween Week!!! - Black

Genre: Horror
Premise: After a bus crashes in the snowy mountains, its passengers are stalked by a terrifying beast.
About: This one is from Bryan Bertino, the writer/director of The Strangers. At one point, Bryan was going to direct Black but that's since changed, and they appear to be looking for someone new to helm the project. Bertino was a gaffer in Hollywood and wrote scripts on the side. The Strangers was his breakthrough screenplay, finishing in the Nicholl quarterfinals, then later went on to sell to Universal.
Writer: Bryan Bertino
Details: 115 Pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I have to give it to Bertino in his direction of The Strangers. He just made that movie look so cool. I remember it being near the top of my "to see" list that year. Despite that, I had a huge problem with the script. Mainly that the villains didn't have any motivation. They showed up, killed, left.

Now later on, I heard what Bryan was trying to do. He was trying to give you the point of view of the victims in a murder situation similar to The Manson murders. On that dreadful night, none of those people knew why these degenerates came in, terrorized, and ultimately murdered them. So Bryan wanted to do the same thing with this movie. There would be no hindsight. We would experience what it would be like to be attacked without provocation. We’d be scared, confused, and before we could figure it out, dead.

It's actually a cool idea in retrospect. Hearing him describe it that way, I thought "that's a really neat angle." But when you're watching the movie and you see the bad guys kill then simply walk away - I don't know - It left me feeling unfulfilled and, quite frankly, pissed off. I feel like movies need a point. So if there isn't one, it's like the last two hours were a waste of time. If you guys were making The Strangers under the same guidelines, how would you convey what Bryan was trying to convey without pissing half the audience off? There's a good idea in there somewhere but I think he failed to make it clear.

Anyway, Black is about a group of resort workers who are being bussed up to a brand-new upscale hotel in the remote wilderness. There are roughly a dozen of them - but our main focus is on a family of four. There's 32-year-old Sadie (whose tattoos indicate a rebel past). There's her husband, John. And they have two daughters, eight year old Josey and four-year-old Molly.

Whereas most of the payload has always struggled on life's lowest rung, we hear bits and pieces of info to indicate Sadie and John used to be well-off. They've since fallen on hard times, and aren’t thrilled about being the "help" at a hotel.

As the bus weaves its way into the mountains, a snowstorm settles in and it gets harder and harder to see the road. You know what that means. Something LEAPS in front of the bus and our bus driver YANKS the steering wheel to avoid it and the bus goes flipping down the side of an embankment.

After the survivors are accounted for, they start hearing some strange noises outside. Now this is a forest so you’re going to hear strange noises. But there's something particularly unsettling about this noise. And that’s because IT’S A MONSTER!

Bryan takes the Jaws approach and doesn't show us the monster for a long time. But we do get flashes of it and it appears to be half beast, half skeleton. As our desperate bus riders realize they might not be found down here, they decide to grab some flares, head up to the road, and draw attention to their location. They should be fine of course, since monsters can't see flares.

Skeletor Bear takes advantage of our team of idiots and turns them into a Taco Bell fourth meal. Back in the bus, our remaining survivors are learning that they're damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they don't try to escape, they’ll probably die of starvation. If they stay in the bus, Wolf Bone will come and eat them.Oh the irony.

They figure the Hotel isn't far away so they should try and make a run for it. But there are a few surprises waiting for them, starting with the fact that the hotel might not be as safe as they think. Will our bus batch survive? I certainly doubt it. But you never know. Zombie Panda can only eat so much. He may just call it a night and get some much-needed rest. Hunting dumb innocent people takes energy you know.

I'm afraid that Black suffers from the worst screenwriting culprits our there – averageness. You have to realize that readers read this specific type of scenario – people stuck in a space with a monster nearby - thousands of times over. It's such a common story that if you try and half-ass it, if all you do is give us the same or even slight variations of everything that's been done before, we're going to tune out. And that was my reaction here. There wasn't a single moment in the screenplay that wasn't something I'd seen before.

The only time I was even mildly surprised was when the characters decided to go to the hotel. I thought the whole thing was going to take place in the bus. Thank God Bryan made this choice because it at least added freshness to the ending. But there was still so much familiarity with the set up and its execution that I could never drum up enough interest to care about anybody in the story.

I think that was the second big mistake here - none of the characters stuck out. And when you put characters in a life or death situation, you have to make sure - I'm talking priority number one here - that you’ve created enough backstories and motivations and conflicts and flaws and relationship issues so that all the characters feel real and that we actually care about them.

Just yesterday we looked at a script with a very well-crafted central relationship in the movie. A young girl was upset about a new woman trying to take her mom's place. That backstory was crucial to the rest of the story and played into nearly every decision the girl made. I don't know anything about the characters in Black. In fact, it's easy for me to know when a writer hasn't done his job simply by getting to the point in my review where I have to describe the characters. I realized I had nothing to describe. I couldn't remember anything distinct about any of the characters in Black except that one of them was really fat. Fat isn’t a character trait. Fat doesn’t help me understand a character. It seemed like we would get some information about the main family’s financial backstory and how they got to this point, but after that initial hint of it, it was never mentioned again. So with that gone, I had absolutely no one to care about.

These movies are about rooting for the people to survive against the beast. So if we don't care about the people, it doesn't matter how cool your beast is, or how original your story is. We won't care.

Here's the thing. Developing interesting original characters that we want to root for is the single hardest thing to do in screenwriting. It takes a lot of studying. It takes a lot of trial and error to figure out what works. It takes a lot of homework - writing out character biographies and figuring out who your characters were before the story began. But if you're willing to put in the effort and figure the characters in your screenplay out, it will pay off. Because not many writers are willing to do that work.

This is my big problem with horror scripts - is that a lot of horror writers just don't care about the characters. They’re all cardboard cutouts waiting to be dumped into the monster shredder du jour. If you’re a young horror writer out there – study character work. Put the majority of your effort into creating characters with depth and flaws and problems. In fact, before you write your next horror script, go write a character piece. You will not show this screenplay to anybody. It's just for yourself. But try to write a movie just about characters and make it interesting. If you can do that, then you'll be able to write a good horror script (or any script for that matter). Good luck.

[ ] What The Hell Did I Just Read?
[x] Wasn’t For Me
[ ] Worth The Read
[ ] Impressive
[ ] Genius

What I Learned: Today's "what I learned" is a theory based on my frustration from reading the same horror scripts over and over again. Whenever you write a movie inside a genre you like, you never try anything different. Why? Because you like the genre. You like how it works. So why would you change it? However, when you watch a movie in a genre you dislike, you’re quick to point out all its faults. You’re quick to point out all the clichés. You're quick to point out how they all feel exactly the same. For that reason, if you were to write a movie in said genre, you’d probably change everything up - and in the process, create something totally unique. A romantic comedy writer trying sci-fi for the first time would write a sci-fi rom-com. A thriller writer trying a Western for the first time would pump up the urgency in that traditionally slow genre to Mach 10. You wouldn’t be restricted by all the things you love, because you don’t love anything about the genre. I haven't tried this theory out but I think there's something to it. One of the biggest problems with screenplays is that 99% of them feel exactly the same. This might be a way to create something different. Thoughts? Am I crazy?  Actually, don't answer that. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Halloween Week!!! - Dead Of Winter

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A teenage girl heads to a remote cabin in the mountains with her father and new stepmother - an experience the father hopes will bond the two ladies. But when a mysterious wounded Park Ranger shows up, family bonding will be the least of their concerns.
About: This spec was sent out to producers last October and to my knowledge never sold, which is shocking to me because it’s so much better than 95% of the specs that go wide. My guess is that the spec market sucked so bad last year that a few gems were passed over. This is obviously one of them. It’s Dead Calm meets Panic Room in the best way possible.
Writer: Sarah A. Conradt
Details: 106 pages - undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I know. I know. This isn't technically a horror script. But I'll tell you what it is. It's the best-written script of the week by far. So hold on to your skimobiles people. This is going to be fun.

Beth, Cam and daughter Jo were the perfect family at one point. With Cam being a successful doctor, they had money to spare, which meant perks like a huge beautiful cabin in the snowy wilderness, a place they considered their sanctuary. The best times of their lives were spent there. But unfortunately, so was the worst. Beth got cancer and spent the last moments of her life at the home. Cam and Jo are so devastated by the painful memory that they abandon the house for years.

But eventually, Cam moves on and meets Diane, a school counselor who knows when she's found something worth hanging onto. Obviously, Jo, now 14, doesn't feel the same way, and lets it be known. The father realizes he has to do something drastic to get these two on the same page, so he decides to head back up to the house they spent Jo’s youth at.

Unfortunately, this makes Jo even angrier. To bring this woman into the home where her mother died is blasphemy as far as she's concerned. And you can feel the tension in the car ride up.

Once there, the group settles in for the week, but soon spots a strange man walking towards the house. A bleeding man. When he finally gets to the porch, he's so exhausted, he passes out. They take him inside, realize he's a Ranger, and figure out something must have happened to the Ranger station. So Cam jumps in his snowmobile and takes the 40 minute trek down to see what happened.

When he gets there, he sees that an avalanche has practically collapsed the station. But when he goes inside, he finds something much worse. There's a dead man with a knife in his chest. Turns out our friendly neighborhood Park Ranger might not be a Park Ranger at all. But before Cam can rush out, the structure buckles, and he gets pinned under a log.

Back at the home, our "Park Ranger," Andy, is coming to. In his 20s, Andy is devilishly handsome, even in his broken down state. He seems like a really nice guy too. He lets them know that he was barely able to survive the avalanche, but that he was the only Park Ranger on duty, and that therefore everything is fine. A big storm has moved in, so he assures them that as soon as it passes, he'll head out and let the proper authorities know what happened.

Jo is instantly taken with Andy and trusts his every word, whereas Diane isn't so sure. There's something fishy about this guy. And this is where things get interesting. We know that Andy is a bad guy. But we see Jo taking his side over the stepmother she despises. Andy quickly figures out the fractured dynamic and takes advantage of it. He tells Jo everything she wants to hear, making her putty in his hands. This allows the both of them to gang up on Diane, and allow Andy to control the situation.

Diane tries desperately to tell Jo that there's something strange about Andy, but the only thing Jo sees wrong is a woman trying to take her mother's place. As the script continues, it's clear that Andy has some sort of plan. But what it is, and what it means for the livelihoods of these two, isn’t clear. However if I were a betting man, I’d say it’s not looking good.

I loved this script from the very first page. And the reason I loved it has a lot to do with things we've been discussing over the last few weeks. I've been telling you guys that you NEED to add conflict to your scenes. You NEED to look for ways to make your characters clash, for there to be some sort of imbalance in every scene in order to keep things entertaining. This script is the perfect example of this. I wasn't keeping count, but I'm pretty sure every single scene in the script had conflict. And that's why it was so exciting.

The important thing to note, though, is WHY every scene had conflict. It’s because the dynamics in the relationships were set up from the outset. For example, we set up that Jo doesn't trust or like Diane from the very first scene. That means every scene between them is going to have conflict.

But the real power in the script is how Conradt MAXIMIZES this conflict. She wisely starts the movie with Jo's mother dying. Because we see Jo watch her mother die, because we see how much it hurts her, we *feel* her pain. This allows us to more effectively feel the conflict between her and Diane. Had the dying of the mother merely been mentioned, I'm not sure it would've had that much of an effect on us.

The other major source of conflict comes from dramatic irony. We suspect that Andy is bad, but they don't. Or at least, Jo doesn't. So every scene between Andy and Jo or Andy and both of them is laced with this tension because we want those characters to find out what we suspect. That means there’s two strong layers of conflict going on at all times. One is between Jo and Diane. The other is between the audience and the characters. Since the majority of scenes take place with these three characters, every scene is good. You have built-in conflict before the scene’s even started. This is what writers mean when they say “the structure needs to be in place first.” If you’ve set up everything ahead of time, you don’t need to pull out your bag of tricks to make the scene work.

Another great thing about Dead Of Winter is that it knows when to reveal information or introduce a plot point to keep the story fresh. For example, for a while the goal is about heading down to a neighbor’s house to use their radio. That lasts for about 15 pages, then the goal shifts to finding out why the father hasn't come back yet. Then the goal shifts to Diane trying to convince Jo that Andy is bad. Amongst all this, a twist will occasionally pop up, such as Andy's secret reason for being at the house. Remember that 15 pages is about the threshold for when audiences want something new in the story. And you can see that at play here. Every 15 pages or so a new development or new focus would emerge. This is what keeps a script from feeling repetitive.

And I just loved the way Conradt crafted the relationship between Jo and Andy – the way she uses his looks and sexuality to control and take advantage of her. (Spoiler) When they kiss, it was both terrifying and hypnotizing. And how Andy used that infatuation to encourage Jo's distrust of Diane. It's just this constantly evolving dynamic between the three that was perfectly executed.

About the only thing I didn't go gaga over was the ending. The ending for these scripts is always difficult. And I'm not saying it was bad. It was actually better than average. But something felt off to me about the video phone stuff. It was the only moment in the script where I became aware of the writing, and unfortunately the ending is the most important moment of the script so it has to be seamless. We can’t be aware of the writer’s hand. If Conradt can somehow tweak this, this would be an unstoppable script. But even with that flaw, it’s still damn impressive.

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

What I learned: We've probably heard the groan-tastic "I'm pregnant" line 600 gabillion times in movies. It’s almost impossible for it to be uttered without a giant “CLICHÉ” sign flashing underneath. So always look for a visual way to convey “I’m pregnant” if possible. Later in the script, Jo spots a bunch of Diane's books, and in the middle of them is "What To Expect When You're Expecting." She quickly puts two and two together. Sure, it's a little bit on the nose. But I'd much rather see that than Diane dramatically saying while they're stuck in a dark room, "I'm pregnant." Show don’t tell people!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Amateur Friday - Alexandria

Genre: Period Piece/Adventure
Premise: (from writers) 48 BC. When fanatics burn the Library of Alexandria to cover the theft of advanced technology, a naive engineering apprentice and a handful of displaced scholars must defeat the growing cult using scientific trickery of their own.
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: Aaron Greyson and Kate Foster
Details: 112 pages

So a lot of you are probably wondering why I picked this script today. I am not a swords and sandals guy by any means. But I’d read eight straight subpar scripts in a row (I hadn't yet read The Imitation Game) and I was aching for something good. I knew if I picked the guy with 7 spelling mistakes in his query letter, even though he had a cool premise, it was going to be numero nineo. These two graduated from the UCLA writing program and even worked as readers in the industry. So I figured at the very least, they’d write something competent, and maybe even something great. So it was time to put on my toga and my “I Heart Socrates” shirt and get down to business. Caligula style. Well, maybe not Caligula style.

Alexandria was… different. It's not bad, but the story takes a hell of a long time to get going, and is so heavily populated with characters that I found that fleshy computer between my ears overheating before I’d even hit the page 30 mark. I know I talk way too much about this, but people keep ignoring me so I'm going to talk about it again. If you include too many characters, the reader will start forgetting them. This goes double if it's a period piece with a bunch of unfamiliar-sounding names. Ctesibius. Philokatres. Gnaeus. Makeda. Ptolemy. Athanas. You get the picture. I had to take metisibius notes in order to keep track of who was who. There's always going to be a little work that goes into reading something like this. But the first order of business is still to entertain, so if I feel like the read is more work than play, I'm checking out.

Heron of Alexandria is a 20-year-old apprentice engineer who specializes in creating complex statues and puppeteering stages with lots of moving parts. His master is Philokatres, an imposing man who’s always quick to exert his dominance. They have the typical master and apprentice relationship where Heron believes he deserves more responsibility whereas Philokatres doesn't think he's ready.

The city is booming at the moment. Ptolemy XIII, the young pudgy future King, is having a great big birthday party and everybody has turned out to shake their btooty. I'm not sure if the Macarena had been invented yet, but if it had, they were doing it. We bounce around, meeting all the major players, including getting a glimpse of Cleopatra herself, when all of a sudden there's a big argument.

I wish I could tell you what happened next but I'm not sure. All I know is that two sides were mad at each other - one of those sides taking up with Ptolemy and the other taking up with Cleopatra. This confused me because I thought Cleopatra was the queen and I thought you could never put a ‘t’ after a ‘p.’ So if Ptolemy was the future King, wouldn’t they be on the same side? Unless of course, I'm getting Ptolemy mixed up with somebody else whose name started with a P, which is very possible, and goes back to my problem of having so many characters with impossible to remember names.

Anyway, Heron and the rest of the scholars lock themselves inside the library and watch what started as a tiny skirmish turn into a giant battle. They eventually sneak out and migrate into the countryside to regroup. They do so at Philokatres’ countryside Villa, which is apparently huge, because a whole lot of people are staying there.

On the way there, they're shocked to see a small army using a giant religious statue to scare towns into joining their cause. But the real surprise is that it’s HERON’S STATUE! He built it. And these guys have modified it to make noises and move a little more convincingly. When the ignorant come upon it, they assume it's a God, and step in to line quickly. For those who don't step in line, they're slaughtered. Man do those Scientologists wish they had that kind of recruiting flexibility.

Back at the Villa, Heron befriends a slave girl and tries to recruit her, along with a bunch of others, to find out who this poser is who stole his statue, and stop him before he's able to convert the entire continent. Little does he know that the person responsible for this façade is closer to him than he thinks.

First of all, this script was beautifully written. I have a ton of respect for people who are able to write in this genre. I can't imagine how much you'd have to know about this time and this place and the people and the way they spoke in order to pull off anything even remotely convincing. Just the dialogue alone - I don't know how you'd research that. I mean I'm pretty sure Cleopatra never texted Ctesibius with a “Yo Ctes. C u in 5?”

But the thing was, this script took soooooooooooooo long to get going. I'm always looking for when the main character’s goal emerges. That, to me, is the official start of the story. It's when Shrek realizes he has to save the Princess in order to get his swamp back. It's when Luke realizes he has to deliver the message to Princess Leia’s father. It's when Alan Turing decides he wants to crack the Enigma Code. Here, I would designate that point as when Heron decides to find out who’s behind the statue and stop them. I don't remember the exact page when that happened, but I'm pretty sure it was after page 50.

That's a long time to wait for a story to begin. And I can be patient in the meantime if you build in little mini storylines that are interesting. But I just didn't see that here. Where it really went South for me was the Villa. Just sending your characters to a Villa in the beautiful countryside alone makes it feel more like we’re on a vacation than in a movie. But then to hang out at that Villa for pages upon pages where nothing is happening just killed the script’s momentum.

And it highlighted a bigger problem. If they would have stayed at the Villa for the rest of the film, nothing bad would’ve happened to them. They would have been fine. Maybe eventually sometime in the future, 20 or 30 years from now, because they didn’t act, this religious cult would’ve swept over the Villa and destroyed it. But I’d hardly call that high stakes. I hardly sense the need to act now in order to save themselves.

If we bring back Shrek as an example. He had to leave because his sanctity was threatened. This is an ogre who lived a life of privacy. Being alone was what was most important to him. So he had to go on this journey or else he’d never have that again. It's not clear to me why Heron needs to go on this journey other than that he's curious.

So if I were Aaron and Kate, the first thing I would do is get to the point of this story faster. A lot faster. Identify the problem. Identify the main character’s goal. And then send him off to achieve that goal. In addition to this, create a scenario by which if he doesn't act, his world will be threatened. Now your main character has to act, and if he doesn’t, he’s fucked.

Ideally, I would place Heron in one of these small towns to start off the story. Then I would have this religious cult with this huge statue come in, kill everybody who didn't convert, take all the others, and have it so Heron was able to escape. All the people he loved were killed. So he gets together with a group of stragglers, the few others who were able to hide, and they go after these people. It just seems like this story would be so much more focused. As it is now, all of that stuff that goes on in Alexandria is backstory. I don't think we need it.

Anyway, the writing itself was clean and easy to follow. I just would've loved something more streamlined. You're already bumping up against conventional spec screenplay wisdom when you take on a time period like this. So if you're going to do it, you want to make the story as audience-friendly and easy to follow as possible.

Having said all that, I did think the ending came together. It was fun that they had to use their minds in order to defeat this huge enemy as opposed to an army. I also liked the twist in the middle of the script when we find out who's leading the army. It was unexpected and gave the story a jolt right when it needed it. Now if only we can move it along faster. Good luck on the next draft guys.

Script link: Alexandria

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

What I learned: In yesterday's comments section, a few of you talked about getting into your scene as late as possible and getting out of your scene as early as possible. That exact same principle needs to be applied to your story itself. We need to get into the story as late as we possibly can. In my opinion, all the stuff that happens at Alexandria with the burning of the library and Cleopatra - it's all backstory. It doesn't have anything to do with the main story. The only time we ever see Cleopatra again is when we go there to ask her for help, to which she says, “Sorry. You’re on your own.” So why did we need that scene? We can have them be on their own without Cleopatra having to confirm it. The only other plot point I could think of that was set up in those opening pages was Heron’s statue. But do we really need 30 pages of backstory just to set up that one piece of information? I would ask if we even need to know that it’s Heron’s statue in the first place. I don't think the story changes if it isn’t. It's not like any knowledge he has of the machine plays into later parts of the screenplay. I suppose the fact that he knows it's fake plays into it a little bit. But I'm not sure he needs to have created the machine to figure that out. So let's start this story later - when our characters first encounter this cult. Now we've established the problem, and we can begin our character’s journey to stop it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Article - 10 Ways To Juice Up A Scene

So last week we talked about adding conflict to scenes. Today, we're gonna take that one step further and talk about specific ways to improve your scenes. Now the majority of what makes a scene great comes from what you’ve done beforehand. The structure of your story. The development of your characters. How you craft your relationships. You have to set all that stuff up in order to pay it off later. For example, the Jack Rabbit Slims scene in Pulp Fiction doesn't work if it's the first scene in the movie. It works because of what’s been set up beforehand. That said, every writer should carry around a bag of tricks for when their scenes aren't working. Don't have a bag of tricks? Not to worry. I'm about to give you one. Here are 10 tricks you can use to make your scenes kick ass.

Well surprise surprise. Here we have another article and Carson's harping on about that "goal" thing again. Well hold onto your seat sister, because this might be the most important advice I give you all day. In short, a goal gives a scene focus. Just like a goal gives a movie focus. Say you have two characters at a bar. You need to get in some exposition about how one of them is having troubles at work. Problem is, random conversation gets boring fast. However, if you switch the scene around so that your hero needs a solution (goal) for this work problem before tomorrow morning, now all of a sudden your scene has purpose. Both characters are working towards a common goal. You can still throw in a bunch of funny banter, along with necessary exposition, but since you've established that there’s a purpose (a goal) to the scene, we’ll be more interested in what they're talking about. Adding goals to scenes is one of the easiest ways to make them more interesting.

I got this one from the billionaire screenwriters over at Wordplayer. Remember, every single scene should be entertaining on some level - even exposition scenes. That means instead of just pushing your plot along, push it along in as entertaining a way as possible. Let's look at Back To The Future. There's a scene early on where Marty stumbles into town and must find out where 1950s Doc lives. So he goes into the diner, looks him up in the phone book, and finds the address. Technically, that's all you need to get Marty to the next scene. So the scene’s over. Right? Well, no. Because it's boring. There's no situation there. It's just a character moving from point A to point B. So Zemeckis and Gale throw on their creative caps and get to work. Marty runs into his father, who's being bullied by Biff. We get a fun scene where they meet each other for the first time and then Marty has his first confrontation with the movie’s villain. You've taken a simple plot-point scene and you've turned it into a situation. Now this might seem obvious in retrospect. Of course Marty runs into his dad and Biff. The story can't work without it. But when you're staring at a blank page, you don't see all that stuff yet. You have to find it. So if your scene feels thin or boring, turning it into a situation is definitely going to spice it up. And who knows, you might just find an exciting new plot direction along with it.

This is an old but effective trick. A quick way to make a scene between two people more interesting is to add a third person. A great example of this is in Notting Hill. It’s the scene where William goes to talk to Anna (Julia Roberts) but her press junket is running late. Will is ushered into her room under the assumption that he's a journalist. Now if you would've played this scene with just two characters, the dialogue would've been on the nose and boring. “Thanks for coming.” “You’re welcome. What are you up to?” "Nothing. How about you?" Borrrrrrrring. So instead, they keep sending Anna’s handler into the room to check up on them, forcing William to keep up the façade that he's a journalist. He has to come up with questions. He has to pretend like he's seen the movie. It adds a ton of flavor to what otherwise would've been an average scene. The trick is, you want the third person to agitate matters. They have to complicate things somehow. That's where you get your entertainment.

Hey, this may sound familiar. What are the stakes of your scene? Because if nobody in the scene has anything on the line, there's a good chance you've just sent your characters to Boringsville. How do you know if the stakes are high? Ask yourself: Does my character lose anything significant if he doesn't get what he wants? Also: Does my character gain anything significant if he gets what he wants? Look at the famous scene in The Princess Bride where the Man In Black swordfights Enigo Montaya. Both characters have an incredible amount at stake. If the Man In Black loses, he won't be able to save the life of his true love. If Enigo Montaya loses, he'll never be able to avenge his father's death. That's why that swordfight is so exciting. Contrast that with any of the hundreds of swordfights in the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise where we feel nothing, because either we don't know what's at stake or what's at stake is so murky that we don't care. Not every scene will have astronomical stakes, but you can always make a scene better by upping the stakes.

This is hands down one of the best ways to juice up a scene. Give the audience knowledge that someone in your scene - or group of people in your scene - don't know. This is the often referred to "bomb under the table" scenario. If two people are talking at a table, it's boring. But if two people are talking at a table and we know there's a bomb underneath about to go off, it's interesting. Just remember, the bomb can be anything. Let's say you're writing a horror movie and your beautiful 20-year-old heroine is coming home after a night out. She comes into her apartment, puts her things away, washes her face, gets ready for bed, and as she opens her closet to throw her clothes in, a man leaps out and tackles her. Hmmm, that's pretty boring. Let's go back and do that same scene over again, except this time, before she walks in, show us that the man is inside the house, waiting for her ahead of time. Ohhhhhhh. Okay. Now we have dramatic irony. We know she's in trouble but she doesn't. Even the most mundane act - washing her face - becomes interesting. Dramatic irony people. It’s a writer’s best friend.

Any time you add urgency to a scene, everything about the scene becomes more exciting. That's because urgency creates pressure. And dialogue and action will always be more interesting under pressure. For example, let's say you wanted to write a scene where your married couple was discussing their problems. The obvious way to do this would be to throw them at the dinner table and let them go at it. Hmmm. You can obviously make this work. But consider how much more entertaining that conversation might be if you place it during breakfast with one of the characters (or both) late for work. Now they're rushing around, trying to get ready, while having this intense conversation. Because we know the conversation has to end soon, it’s elevated to a new level. We feel all that emotion and tension at a higher decibel level.

Remember, if there are too many scenes in your movie where your character is comfortable, there's a good chance your movie is getting BORRRRRRRRRING. An easy way to add tension to a scene is to put your character in a situation they don't want to be in. The Deli Scene from The Wrestler that I highlighted the other week is a good example. The last place The RAM wants to be is at that deli. You can see this in a lot of scenes. The Cantina scene in Star Wars. They don't want to be there. It's dangerous. Lester Burnham being dragged to his wife's real estate convention. He doesn't want to be there. You obviously have to mix in scenes where characters are happy in order to set up those moments, but just remember, you have to keep making your characters uncomfortable or else the situations they're in become boring.

Make sure you know what each character wants in your scene. The stronger you can make that want, and the more that "want" conflicts with the other character’s "want,” the more entertaining a scene you're going to write. So let's say your main character wants to ask the Starbucks cashier out on a date. That's his want. So the character gets up to the cashier, and his side of the conversation is very strong, but for some reason, the cashier’s side is boring and lifeless. Why is this? It's likely because you don't know what she wants. Maybe she's at the end of a double shift and all she can think about is getting home. Immediately your scene becomes more interesting. Your hero has been prepping for this moment all week, and she won't even look at him because she keeps glancing at her watch and that clock up on the wall. Even when she is looking at him, she doesn't care because her "want" is so strong. Any time you have two strong conflicting wants in a scene, chances are you have an interesting scene.

Forcing yourself to come up with a visual solution instead of a spoken solution can do wonders for a scene. How do you accomplish this? Start off by asking yourself, what's the point of this scene? Then, instead of trying to convey the answer through dialogue, do it visually, through action. Show us. Don't tell us. For example, say you want to convey that a girl is frustrated with her father. The obvious way to do this would be to have her dad ask her why she's been quiet lately. She tells him he wasn't around last week when she needed him most. Things get heated. She eventually storms off saying something to the effect of, “You’re such an asshole.” Instead, why not write a scene where she's in her bedroom and hears her dad coming. She quickly grabs her headphones, throws them on, and pretends to do homework. He peeks in, sees she's busy, and leaves. If you really wanted to drive it home, maybe she gives him the finger after he leaves. Now the truth is, in this day and age, you're not going to have many scenes without dialogue. But you'd be surprised at how much better your scene becomes when you approach it from a "show don't tell" perspective. You'll probably end up adding dialogue back in, but the scene will have a more visual flair and therefore be better.

Something we’re all guilty of in our scenes is having tunnel vision. We know what we want out of the scene, so we write a straightforward version of it. For example, if we’re writing a breakup scene, we simply write our character break up with the other character. The scene does what it's supposed to do so we’re happy. But in the end, the scene feels flat. A breakup is supposed to be an entertaining moment. Why is ours so boring? It's likely because the scene is too predictable – too straightforward. You need to add an obstacle, a twist, something unexpected. For example, in Say Anything, Diane is going to break up with Lloyd. But as she's preparing to do it, Lloyd goes into this big thing about how much he likes her and how they're going to do all these things together and he tells her about the letter he wrote her. All of a sudden, breaking up isn't so easy. And it's all because we added a little obstacle - an unexpected roadblock. I think whenever a scene is too easy, you should be looking to add some sort of obstacle to throw the scene out of balance.

I guarantee that these tools will improve your scenes. It has to be the right fit for the right scene, but the solution to one of your yucky scenes is probably listed above. The only thing left is to figure out tip number 11. I'm gonna leave that one up to you guys. What tricks or methods do you use to improve your scenes? Maybe we can come up with the ultimate list and sell all of our screenplays to Fox by the weekend. Suggestions in the comments section please. :-)

The Last Night Of October

Genre: Comedy
Premise: In 1986, the year Halloween lost its innocence, three junior high best friends try to salvage their last shot at the holiday.
About: There's not a whole lot of info on this screenplay but it looks to have been commissioned from National Lampoon’s for Robbie Chavitz to write. Robbie has been working for a long time in the business as a writer, director, and actor, though he hasn't had any huge breakout success yet.
Writer: Robbie Chafitz
Details: 112 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I like to find the diamonds in the rough just like any other reader. And since Halloween is coming up, and the premise for this one sounded fun, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to go diamond hunting. Unfortunately, the diamond I found turned out to be a sharp rusty nail, hidden in a mini Snickers bar, which turned the inside of my mouth into a bloody stew of flesh.

I didn't think you could write a Halloween script that was as average in its execution as Fun Size but The Last Night Of October managed to do so. This one was just devoid of everything. It doesn't have a single element that sticks out.

October follows three 13-year-olds, Matt, Wayne, and Frankie. As you would expect, all three characters are kind of nerdy, and all the major character tropes are covered. Matt is super average, but un-nerdy enough to be our hero. Wayne is the skinny dork. And Frankie is the sloppy fat kid.

The movie starts off with a school demonstration about how dangerous Halloween has become. An officer warns the kids that there are a lot of bad people out there who are looking to kidnap children and/or stuff their candy with razor blades and anything else that could maim or kill them.

But our un-heroic trio could care less. As 13-year-olds, this is probably their last ever night of trick or treating, so they have to make sure it's the best trick-or-treat night ever. Wayne has even gone so far as to map out the "Golden" route, where he’s used years of experience to only cover the houses with the best candy.

Oh but wait. Obstacles start happening immediately (if by "immediately" you mean after 30 pages of nothing happening). Fatso Frankie gets grounded by his parents because… well, he's too fat. Then there's Matt, whose father so much wants to be the "cool" dad, that he follows his son around like a lost puppy. I think something happens to Wayne as well but it was so inconsequential that I don't remember it.

After 10,418 pages, the group actually starts their trick-or-treat route, and hijinks ensue. For example, one of them gets stuck inside a Jesus freak’s house who keeps telling him about the importance of God. And then another one - I'm not kidding you - gets stuck in an old woman's house who wraps him up in yarn. Still another one of the group gets caught with a really nervous man with no treats. I'm sorry but there were moments where I thought the script’s goal was to not be funny.

Eventually the kids find their way inside a high school party with a lot of drinking and the story picks up a bit as they gargle some booze and get a little wasted. I admit that for a brief five pages, when they meet some girls, I believed there was a chance the script would rally.

But alas, all we get is something about all of them going to a haunted house where the family who used to live there is supposedly dead, only to get there, start partying, and find out that the family is still very much alive and back from a night out.

Let's see. How do I categorize this one? Well I should probably say this. Any screenplay that I read right after The Imitation Game has a tough act to follow. When you read a lot of screenplays, you always encounter stretches of mediocre material. After a while, you begin to think that's all that's out there. Then you read a script that's actually good and you go, "Oh yeah, this is what real writing looks like."

So when you go back to the average writing, it sticks out like a sore thumb. I mean the opening 10 pages here killed this script. Absolutely nothing happened. We literally got a 10 page scene of a cop talking to a bunch of kids. 10 pages! Of a demonstration. And I'm not saying that you can't make an opening 10 page scene work, BUT SOMETHING NEEDS TO BE HAPPENING IN THOSE TEN PAGES! If all you're doing is setting up your characters and spouting out exposition, you've lost the battle before it began. I already know I'm in for a long boring ride because if it takes a writer ten pages to get across what should have been conveyed in three, who knows how boring and unfocused it's going to get for the next 100 pages.

Indeed, this script takes forever to start. I don't think they actually get on the trick-or-treat route until page 33. Up until that point, all that happens is kids talking to each other. They talk and talk and talk and talk. And I don't even know what the hell they're talking about. But boy did they keep talking. This is why I so madly obsess over goals. If you give your characters goals, your characters will be active. They'll be doing things. They'll be pushing the story forward. If you don't, all you have is a bunch of characters in a bunch of rooms talking to each other. Borrrrring.

There's no GSU here. There's no conflict here. There's no exploration of character flaws here. There’s no character development here. As far as I can tell, this is just about three kids who go out on Halloween and trick-or-treat. That could be funny if the obstacles they ran into were interesting or funny in some way. But all of the gags and all of the events were either obvious, predictable, or dumb. A kid who needs to call for help because an old woman has wrapped him up in yarn? I don't know where to begin with that

The thing is, there was so much potential here. I was a little too young to remember Halloween in 1986, but I remember my parents talking about it. It was the year the holiday died. Up until that point, it was a safe fun exciting experience. I mean what's better as a kid than walking around from house to house with people handing you candy? It's like the greatest holiday ever.

But that year, everything changed. Kids were getting abducted. Bad people were stuffing razor blades in candy bars. You couldn't trust the experience anymore. Parents became paralyzed with fear for their children. And the kids felt that. Even sixth-graders were being escorted around by their guardians.

The thing is, I don't think I've ever read a script where something was discussed as much as this was, and yet I didn't feel an ounce of it. There are probably two dozen moments in Last Night where people talk about the danger of Halloween, and not once did it resonate. Maybe it was because they were telling and not showing. I don't know. But it never went beyond the page. Since I didn't feel that fear, I didn't care about the story.

And also, of course, the characters were boring as hell. So I didn't care about them either. If you don't care about the characters and you don't care about the story, there isn't much left in a screenplay to care about. Which is why this was such a disappointing read. This didn't work for me at all.

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

What I learned: Do not start your movie off with an exposition scene. Don't do it. Even if it's funny. It's too risky. If the reader feels right away like they’re being asked to remember important things and are not being entertained, they're done with you. And if you ignore this advice - because I'm sure there's a good movie or two that started out with exposition, for the love of God, make it short. Do not make it 10 pages long.

Nicholl Fellowship Winners Announced!

I guess we should've known Nicholl would never allow scripts as weird as Fig Hunt and A Many Splintered Thing to win.  That's not their M.O.  They tend to highlight those types of scripts in their finalists category, then award the trophy to more serious fare. I haven't read any of the winning scripts yet, but I've heard mixed things on Unicorn (a serial killer script).  Some have called it average, others amazing.  Anyway, here are your winners! Congratulations guys.  Being the top dogs out of 6700 entries ain't easy!

Chris Bessounian & Tianna Langham, Los Angeles, Calif., “Guns and Saris - They’ve been oppressed and brutalized at the bottom of India’s caste system for 3000 years, but now the “untouchable” women of India have found an unlikely source of hope - and she’s armed.
Dion Cook, Altus, Okla., “Cutter” - After surviving the nightmare of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Patrice Gasana has made a new life in the United States.  A dedicated Miami trauma physician, Patrice lives the American dream with his loving fiancé and her daughter – until his past returns to imperil everything he holds dear.
John MacInnes, Los Angeles, Calif., “Outside the Wire” - An ex-Marine working in Iraq saves a young, single-mom in US Army from assassination by his powerful employers. Two Americans on the run in the most dangerous place on the planet with hostile insurgents, militiamen, and a private army hot on their tail, in a desperate bid to make it back home.
Matthew Murphy, Culver City, Calif., “Unicorn” - A by-the-book FBI profiler must track down a serial killer with the help of an illiterate 24-year-old psychic.
Abel Vang & Burlee Vang, Fresno, Calif., “The Tiger’s Child” - When his father is suddenly killed after being coerced into the CIA's Secret Army, twelve-year-old Tou must decide whether or not to follow in the same footsteps in order to provide for Cheng, his five-year-old brother.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fig Hunt: The Quest For Battle Armor Star Captain

Edit: I was able to get my hands on the newest version of Fig Hunter and give it a read.  As a result, I've decided to add my thoughts on the new draft, which will appear after the original review.  So make sure to read til the end!

Genre: Comedy/Mockumentary
Premise: A couple of “fig hunters” (action figure hunters) go out in search of the rarest action figure in the world: Battle Armor Star Captain.
About: This is another one of the 2011 Nicholl Finalists. Again, the finalists are the top 10 screenplays in the competition. Only five of those will be chosen as winners.
Writer: Aaron Marshall
Details: Old version 122 pages - New version - 120 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).

Older Version Review:
I have to give it to any writer who takes on a Mockumentary. The thing about these hybrid beasts is that they don't really work until they're up on screen. The interview segments are so dependent on us buying the “reality” of the actors’ words, that it doesn't feel right to see it all written out beforehand.

For that reason, I always advise writers to stay away from the Mocks unless they’re making the movie themselves. That being said, Fig Hunt does about as good of a job as you can of conveying a Mockumentary in script form.

Jason Udegaard is the 30-year-old version of Steve Carrel in The 40 Year Old Virgin. I guess you could call him the 30 year old virgin. His house is decorated with action figures and plenty of other nerdtastic touches. But whereas Carrel seemed at least capable of operating in the real world, Jason seems to be living in an alternate reality.

In this reality, the only thing that matters is finding rare action figures. And the crème de la crème of that world is Battle Armor Star Captain. The short of the story is that many years ago one of the big toy companies was getting ready to unveil a new series of action figures centered around Battle Star Captain. Unfortunately, before Battle Star could be shipped, one of the companion figures ended up in a poor little boy's mouth and choked him to death. As a result, all Battle Star Captains were incinerated and thus never seen from again.

However, years later, a janitor discovers 19 Battle Star Captains that avoided their fiery death. The company, capitalizing on this screw-up, decides to ship the figures out to random stores across the country, mainly to juice up publicity for their other toys.

If only life were that simple. You see, there's only one group of people out there who give a shit about a 20-year-old random action figure. Fig Hunters! This small but obsessed community spends every waking moment hunting down these forgotten plastic morsels. So when they hear that Battle Star Captains are going to be showing up across the country, it's like a church congregation being told that Jesus is going to be hanging out at one of the local 7-11s.

Which brings us back to Jason. Jason is one of the last pure figure hunters. He doesn't care about the money. He doesn't care about the glory. He cares about the purity of collecting these rare works of art. And since Battle Star Captain is the Holy Grail of action figure collection, he absolutely must have him.

He's joined by his best friend and fellow fig hunter, 31-year-old Marcus. Marcus is chubby, balding, and pathetic. Essential qualities to being a great fig hunter. The problem is, Marcus has actually found himself a female companion, a rarity in the fig hunter community, and she's making him think twice about fig hunting as a full time job. Things are getting so bad, in fact, that Jason actually has to convince Marcus to help him find Battle Star Captain.

If finding an impossible action figure weren’t enough, they also have to battle…. Lord Werner. Werner is the worst kind of fig hunter. He's a scalper. He finds rare action figures then sells them on eBay for a profit. He has a whole gang of fellow profit-seeking scalpers that give him a wide knowledge base that no other fig hunter can match. This means he's always one step ahead of Jason and Marcus.

The hunt is chronicled online by a mysterious figure known only as "Rogue Fig Hunter," who keeps tabs on when one of the 19 Battle Star Captains is found. We watch as the number continues to fall, until there are just two Battle Star Captains left. It's looking like Jason will never get a hold of the greatest rare action figure in existence. The question is, if he does fail, will he ever be able to recover?

So what's the verdict on Fig Hunter?

Well, if I was to equate the value of this screenplay to a rare action figure, I would probably categorize it as Lando Calrissian. Definitely harder to find then Luke, Han, or Darth Vader, but certainly easier to find than Hammerhead. (I actually don't know what I'm talking about - I have no idea what the order of difficulty is in finding action figures - but just go with me dammit).

The script is okay. The problem is that whenever it ramps up, it slows right back down again. The script is 122 pages and I just don't see why. Why wouldn't you compress your comedy so that there's more laughs per minute instead of less?

As I've always tried to convey, the comedy genre NEEDS TO MOVE. The writing needs to be sparse. Needless tangents need to be eliminated. One of the things that bothers me is when we jump into a flashback only to be told something we already know. So here, Jason is a nerd. We then jump back in time to see him as a kid and what are we told? You guessed it. That Jason was a nerd back then too. What's the point of giving us backstory if it doesn't tell us anything new about the character? Take The Imitation Game for example. The backstory was about Alan’s relationship with Christopher, who ends up being the inspiration behind the machine that saves all those lives. That's worth showing because it informs so much of the present day storyline. We could have easily lost 7-8 pages off this thing by getting rid of the flashbacks.

What I did like about the script was that it had strong GSU. We have a character who's desperately trying to achieve his goal. The stakes are high because we've established how much it means to him. And time is running out because Battle Star Captains are being found left and right. In fact, this script is a reminder that if you can convince the audience that a character cares about something, it doesn't matter if that thing is the machine that breaks the code that saves millions of lives, or if it's an action figure that brings someone personal joy. As long as we feel his passion for it, we'll want him to achieve the goal.

However in the end, I'm not sure I can recommend the script. It sort of runs out of ideas . I mean when they create this whole obstacle course between Jason and Werner to determine who gets the last Battle Star Captain, where they’re competing on things like monkey bars - that's when I officially tuned out. Remember, you're always one bad/uninspired choice away from losing your audience, and that was the choice that lost me.

So I guess this wasn't for me. That being said, if somebody told me they were going to read it, I wouldn't stop them. I'd probably say something like, “It’s a little silly, but kind of fun." If that sounds like the mood you’re in, give it a read.

Edit: Here are my thoughts on the newest version of the script.  Enjoy!

Okay, so I just read the newest draft of Fig Hunter and this proves what a well thought-out rewrite can do for a script. There are several key improvements, starting with the focus. In the earlier draft, we had this wandering storyline where there were 19 random Battle Star Captains spread throughout the United States and our characters had to chase after them over the course of, I believe, a year. So even though there is urgency (the figures are disappearing one by one), it's not as urgent as it could be. In this new version, the toy company sponsors a 45-day action figure hunt from the get-go, and the winners will square off in a competition for a single Battle Armor Star Captain.

One of the reasons I always talk about focus and making your character’s motivations clear, is that it’s easier for the audience to follow along. If either of those things are murky, or they go on for too long without being addressed, the script starts to feel like a fever dream. Screenplays need to be focused. The story needs to be clear. The characters need to be clear. We have to know what everybody wants and why they want it. The difference between the last draft and this one in the focus category is like night and day.

For example, as I mentioned, one of my big problems with the previous draft was that all of a sudden, in the end, we’re thrown into this bogus random contest run by a couple of local DJs. Because it came out of nowhere and because the event seemed so scattershot, we didn't care. In this version, the Fanathlon is set up early on in the script, so we understand it's coming from the beginning. This gives it a lot more weight than if it's just thrown at us on a whim. Also, it's being held by the toy manufacturer itself, as opposed to a couple of random dudes who have nothing better to do. So that also makes it bigger. In retrospect, it wasn't really the events (the monkey bars) that bothered me, it was the fact that this event came out of nowhere and we were supposed to think it was important. So set up your plot points ahead of time people. Your script will be better for it.

The characters felt more reined in as well. It just seemed like the writer understood them and didn't simply go off on whatever tangent popped into his head whenever he thought of something funny for one of them to say. They really stay within character. And while at first I didn't like the decision to curb Jason’s edginess, I realized over the course of the draft that there was a purpose behind it. It allowed the character to grow into that crazy more reckless version of himself, instead of just being that character from the get-go. In other words, there was more of an arc to his character.

Werner was much better as well. One of my favorite additions is that instead of making it so there was one kid who choked on the Battle Star action figure as a kid, there were three. And in this version, two of them died but one of them survived. The survivor? Werner. That's the kind of backstory and/or flashback that I wanted in that earlier version. Instead of just telling us something we already assumed, it's information that makes that character a lot more interesting, a lot funnier, and plays into the story.

Lots of improvements here.  So much more focused.  This easily jumps into "worth the read" status, and is a textbook example of how to improve your script through a rewrite. 

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

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

What I learned: Set up your key plot points ahead of time.  If you're going to have a big competition at the end of your script, the earlier you can tell the audience that it's going to happen, the longer they'll be anticipating it.  And the longer they're anticipating it, the more important it becomes to them.  If you tell us in one scene that our character is entering some super big important race, and then in the very next scene show us the race, how is that race going to feel important to us?  We just heard about it a second ago.  So set up those big plot points and big moments early on in your script.