Premise: (from Black List) A former FBI psychologist is called in to investigate when a young girl goes missing after the apparent murder of her father and brother by two strangers in a small Oklahoma town.
About: This script finished near the middle of the Black List with 12 votes. It was optioned in September with Charlize Theron coming on to produce and possibly star. Brandon Willer continues a trend of Black List writers who have made this year’s list a harkening back to the Black Lists of yesteryear, when more unknown talent was celebrated. While many have attacked the 2011 Black List for having a below-par selection of scripts, it’s to be expected that if the list caters to younger more unknown writers, the quality of those scripts is naturally going to be lower. Willer is just finishing up his only previous credit, a tiny indie film he wrote, directed and starred in called, “The Racket Boys,” about two men and a woman driving from L.A. to San Francisco.
Writer: Brandon Willer
Details: 111 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).
Welcome to Cities of Refuge, or as I like to refer to it: “Introduce-A-character-A-Thon.” There were more characters introduced in this script than live in India and China combined. This made Cities one of the hardest reads I’ve ever tried to get through. At one point I hired a second person to take notes for me because my Microsoft Word document – for the first time in history – gave me the error “out of space,” due to all the characters I had written down.
Cities of Refuge begins with 40-something Nathan Spiller, a former marine, hanging out with his two kids, 19 year old Colt and 10 year old Jenny. Nathan clearly loves his daughter more than anything, and even though he and Colt have issues, he loves him too.
Well I hope he loves them in DEATH! Because a group of three bad men sneak into Nathan’s house, apparently looking for money, and kill him and his son. When the cops arrive the next day, they find the bodies, but realize Jenny, the daughter, is missing. Did these thugs take her?
After the FBI gets involved, they recruit former FBI missing persons specialist, Brooke Benedict. This girl used to be the best in the biz. She had a perfect record for finding kids alive. But then one case went bad and she hasn’t investigated a missing child case since. But the FBI give her the hard sell and she decides to make a comeback.
When they bring in their lead suspect, a former nasty marine named Marcus, they want Brooke to see if she can get anything out of him. But the interrogation proves too much for her and she realizes that maybe she shouldn’t have come back – that she’s in over her head.
During this time, there’s a local drugpin (I think?) named Delgado who seems to be interested in the case for some reason. There’s also some guy who’s pissed off that the police aren’t looking into the case harder so he gets the town all riled up for a possible run on the police station, where Marcus is being held. Marcus starts becoming a lot like Hannibal Lecter. At first he hates Brooke but then he starts liking her for some reason and giving her clues about the case. Eventually all these stories come crashing into each other in the end.
Okay, so look. I’m not going to lie. I’m angry. It’s one thing to have a lot of characters in your story but it’s another to introduce a character per page. Having lots of characters in your screenplay is no sin. The story you’re writing will dictate how many characters you should have. Pirates of The Caribbean, for example, will have a lot more characters than Buried.
However, you have to be realistic about what the reader is capable of remembering. But before we even get into that, let’s deal with the industry side of this. Do you already have a producer on board? If you’re writing for a producer (as I’m assuming Willer was) who will later package your script and sell it to a studio, character count isn’t as big of a deal. You already have a producer on your side who likely knows the underpinnings of the story, so who cares if there are a lot of characters? To that end, Willer is off the hook.
Same thing goes, to a lesser degree, if you’re working with a manager or already have an agent. They’ll be able to get your script to important people so it’s not as big of an issue.
However, if you are an unrepped, unmanaged, un-anything’d as a writer, DON’T WRITE SCRIPTS WITH LOTS OF CHARACTERS! Don’t do it. Because your scripts will be the lowest priority for industry readers. Therefore they will have the LEAST AMOUNT OF PATIENCE for you. If they’re already confused about who’s who on page 20? You’re dead. They’re not going to go back and check who’s who. They don’t have time. They’re going to keep reading through it, subsequently being less and less sure of which characters are which, resulting in more confusion, resulting in more skimming, resulting in a snowball effect that leads to total confusion by the time your script ends. Your script may ACTUALLY make perfect sense. It might even be good! But because you made things so difficult on the reader with the character count, they wouldn’t know.
That’s why most people in the spec sale market favor simple easy-to-understand stories. Because they can easily keep track of who’s who and therefore what’s going on. That’s not to say you can’t have complications and twists and turns. You just have them on top of a story that a reader can actually follow. Source Code is a good example. It has a low character count and yet it has plenty of twists and turns and complications.
So I guess what I’m saying here is: Don’t write a movie like Cities Of Refuge unless you’re working with someone pretty high up in the business. And even THEN, you need to use a smart approach to your character count, your character content, as well as HOW you go about creating characters, so that the reader ACTUALLY has a chance of remembering them. For example, if I know a character is in only one scene, I’m not going to name him Bob Jensen. I’m not even going to name him Bob. This implies that we’ll see him again, which means the reader has to reserve a spot in his memory for when this guy comes back later. One more character in the memory banks means one more character to potentially mix up with ALL THE OTHER CHARACTERS. Instead of doing that, just name the guy, “Slick Guy,” or “Truck Driver.” This indicates to the reader that the person will only be in one scene.
There are about 10 tricks of the trade you can use to make characters memorable amongst high character counts – this being one of them. But even if you do have a producer or manager already on your side, you’re still trying to write the best story possible. You’re still trying to make the read as enjoyable as you can since other actors and producers are going to be reading it to see if they want to be a part of the project. So show some restraint. Look for ways to make it easy on them so they actually enjoy your story.
I suppose I should use this time to tell you what I thought of Cities of Refuge but I can’t. I literally had no idea what was going on by the midpoint. There were too many damn people. Not only did this make the character count high, but it added too many subplots, many of which I also found hard to follow because I couldn’t remember who was who.
I will say that the final act was pretty damn explosive and has tons of twists and turns. It might even be enough to save the movie. But as I preach to you on top of this broken record player, I will say this one more time – I didn’t understand what was going on during it. There were too many characters.
[x] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The best way to handle a story that requires a lot of characters is to ask yourself, “Do I really need all these characters?” You’d be surprised at who you can cut and which characters you can combine. Also, another little trick is to give lesser characters memorable nicknames. For example, instead of calling someone “Jim,” call him “Big Jim.” Jim I won’t remember. “Big Jim,” I will. But the real solution to this problem is the most basic one. Ask yourself: “Do I honestly need all these people to tell my story?” Chances are you don’t.