Monday, February 20, 2012

Screenplay Review - Abomination

One of the most successful Nicholl Fellowship winners in history hits Hollywood with his brand new Yeti spec.

Genre: Horror
Premise: Sent to a remote arctic outpost during World War 2, a disgraced soldier learns of a giant flesh-eating beast killing the locals, and decides that defeating the monster is his one shot at redemption.
About: This script has not yet been purchased, but was written by Bragi Schut, who penned 2011’s Season Of The Witch, a former (2003) Nicholl winner. As you can see by my review of the script, I really liked it. Unfortunately, the filmmakers misjudged the tone of the script and what I saw on film was not what I read on paper. BUT, it officially put Bragi on the map, and now he has another big film lined up, The Voyage Of The Demeter, about the ill-fated ship that transported Dracula’s coffin. The film stars “Dragon Tattoo” star Noomi Rapace, Jude Law, and Ben Kingsley. Abomination is his latest spec script, which he hopes will continue his hot streak.
Writer: Bragi Schut (story by Bragi Schut and Chato Hill)
Details: 112 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).

This week is about as delicious as it gets. Not only is one of the top living authors in the world getting reviewed tomorrow with his first script, and not only is that script being reviewed by a long-time-in-hiding Scriptshadow Reviewer from the past, but we also have our first amateur script going into the Top 10 this week! And I’m talking AMATEUR amateur. No agent. No manager. This guy’s a total unknown. I can’t WAIT to tell you guys about it. Friday can’t come soon enough!

So how does our friend Bragi hold up on one of the biggest weeks in Scriptshadow history? Read on to find out.

Sergeant Harry Wilkins arrives in the Arctic Tundra a disgraced man. He hasn’t been sent to this remote outpost to fight any battles. You don’t get to fight battles when your cowardice led to eight of your fellow soldiers dying. Nope, you’re sent to Bumblefuck, Antarctica. All alone. Where you can’t hurt anyone. All you can do is think. Think about how bad you screwed up.

And think he does. Outside of the snow, the whistling wind, and the whines and barks of the snow dogs, there isn't much to do here. It’s 1944 remember. There’s no playstation.

But then one day Wilkins receives a surprise visit from some Eskimos. They look worried. They look afraid. And through their broken English, tell Wilkins he has to come with them. He has to help them stop a beast that’s been killing their people. Wilkins is intrigued by the offer but going AWOL after, you know, killing eight people, isn’t exactly the best route to a promotion.

Still, there's something telling Wilkins that he needs to do this. So he treks the 20 mile trail to the Eskimos’ isolated village and meets up with the men who visited him. Time is short so almost immediately they begin planning for the beast’s arrival.

Their first plan is to trap it. So they set out some bait and wait for Mr. Snowshoes to fall for it. Unfortunately, when the beast shows up, it's unlike anything Wilkins imagined. It's part polar bear, part human, part beast. And it's all angry. You could shoot this thing til you ran out of bullets. It wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t go down.

So after the trap fails, they realize the only way they're going to kill this thing is if they find its lair and take it on there. Not surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of Eskimos eager for Operation Lair Battle. Might have something to do with a beast who treats humans like Pringles chips. But Wilkins will go even if he has to do it alone. He needs to kill this thing. He needs to find redemption.

If you've been paying attention for the last two years, you already know I've been looking for the preeminent Abominable Snowman screenplay. We reviewed one a long time ago on Amateur Friday.  But that one never quite made it out of the snow.

Here, we’re obviously being guided by much more skilled writer. And you feel it. I loved the set-up of Abomination. I loved that this took place in the 1940s. I loved the World War 2 connection. Something would’ve been lost had this been happening in the present day. Making it a 70 year old tale gave it real texture and weight.

But I think the biggest difference you'll see in this script (compared to Ascent: Day 3) is the character development. This isn't so much about a scary beast killing people as it is about a man's redemption. It's about accepting responsibility for your failures and trying to atone for them. There’s some real meat to the character of Wilkins here.

Not only is redemption a great character trait to explore, but it’s perfect for a screenplay, since if your character’s seeking redemption, he has no choice but to be active. He has to go out there and make things happen, which in turn propels your story along.

Where I think the screenplay stumbles a bit, however, is in the Eskimo storyline and the second act in general. We’ll start with the Eskimos, who I thought were fine. But “fine” was as intense a feeling as I felt for them. Looking back, they were all pretty much the same. I don’t feel like I got to know any of them well.

I thought Avatar did a good job of this actually. We really *spent time* with the Na’Vi and got to know their culture and their way of life. The scene where they climb the floating island and Jake Sulley tries to connect with his first dragon - I really got a sense of what these people valued – what their world was like. I never got that sense with the Eskimos. There was nothing unique or interesting or new or exciting about their lives that made them stand out. I had a very general understanding of Eskimos going into this script. And I have just as general an understanding of Eskimos leaving it. I don’t think that can be the case in this movie.

This affected the story because the story is about saving these people. And if I don’t really know the people being saved – I hate to be crass but – I don’t care if they’re saved or not.

So if I were Bragi, I'd look to get Wilkins to the village sooner. I’d look to create more of a bond between him and the Eskimos. I’d look at create a couple of original/unique experiences with the Eskimos so that they really stick out. It feels like there needs to be more here. I mean there’s even a hint of a love story with one of the women, but as soon as it arrives, it’s gone, erasing yet another opportunity for us to connect with and care about these people.

It's funny because a part of me was bored by the Eskimos, so my initial reaction was: we have to get to the monster sooner. But when I stepped back and looked at it, I realized it wasn't that I wanted to get to the monster quicker. It was that I didn't know or care about these people enough to be around them. So if that can be fixed, I think the whole script improves.

I also would've liked a scarier buildup to the beast. I wasn't afraid in this draft. There's a moment early on where Wilkins is scouting the footsteps of the beast, and he puts his hand down onto the beast’s footprint. I don't remember exactly how the wording went, but it was something like "the footprint is a little bigger than his hand.” Now I don’t know about you, but footprints that are barely bigger than my own hand aren’t scary. If the footprint were FIVE TIMES bigger than my hand, THAT would be scary! (like the picture I posted above!) And that was par for the course with this thing. The beast had me worried. But it never had me TERRIFIED.

I’ll tell you what though, this script really picks up in the final act. When our hero decides to take on the beast through hell or freezing water, I was into it. And when he finally battles that thing in its lair, it’s pretty freaking awesome! That whole final act almost made up for the problems above. It’s a good reminder that if you can write a great ending, it can cover up a lot of faults. So, indeed, the ending was just enough to pull this into “worth the read” territory. I just feel like the script can be so much bigger/better. I hope Bragi takes advantage of that potential and kicks some Yeti ass in the next draft.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: The thing I take from this script is that if you create a movie where you place your hero inside a unique culture, like Avatar, like Dances with Wolves, like Abomination - you need a few scenes that show the characters experiencing the unique aspects of that culture together. Knock Avatar all you want but it had a TON of these scenes. From the dragon scene to learning how to run through the trees to learning how to ride horses to shooting arrows to killing animals the right way to learning about the Tree of Souls to learning about “the bond.” I truly felt that Jake Sulley was embedded into this culture after those scenes. That wasn’t the case in Abomination. I sort of remember a hunting scene but overall, I never got a sense of the Eskimos’ culture, never got a sense of them as a people, and as a result, I didn’t care if they were saved or not. And I know this script is more about Wilkins’ redemption than it is about a man learning the Eskimo culture. But if you’re going to design a movie where a man saves people, we have to care about those people.