Friday, May 18, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Disciple Program (Amateur Friday)

This is a re-post of the original Disciple Program review that I posted on February 24th because....The Disciple Program just sold! With Mark Wahlberg and Morten Tyldum attached, an awesome new director who directed a film called "Headhunters" (google for the trailer). Congrats to Tyler. I know he had higher offers out there but his goal was to get this movie made so he's been carefully working with WME packaging the thing so that this is a movie and not just one of the 9 in 10 script sales that never gets made. I'll be putting together an interview with Tyler soon so we can go over all of the nitty gritty details with you guys. It's been pretty interesting watching the entire process of a script from that crazy first day to finally selling. Lots of stuff I never knew goes on behind the scenes. So for the weekend, chalk one up to SS and a fellow Scriptshadow reader. We're on the board!

A review of the screenplay that's turned into one of the rarer more interesting screenwriting stories in awhile.  And yours truly found himself in the middle of it. :)

Amateur Friday Submission Process: To submit 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.

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A man begins an investigation into his wife’s mysterious death, only to find that it goes much deeper than he imagined.
About: The first amateur script to ever crack The Scriptshadow Top 10. Tyler was an unsold unrepped writer out of Brooklyn when he sent this to me. After I sent the script out to half a dozen industry contacts on Wednesday, the script has found its way into every agency, management company, and studio in town. Late yesterday, Tyler finally made his decision to go with WME, who will put a package together for the project and go out with it in the near future.
Writer: Tyler Marceca
Details: 114 pages

Poster courtesy of Brian Kelsey!

As the creator of this blog, I dreamt of this moment. I wanted to find a script that nobody else knew about, that no studio or producer or agent or manager knew existed and celebrate it here in front of the world for the first time. I was hoping to do this on a regular basis. But as we’ve found out together over the past three years, good scripts are hard to come by.

Well, I finally found one. And it all happened rather unexpectedly. Tyler contacted me out of nowhere to consult on his latest screenplay. My prices have gone up a bit in recent months so I got the feeling he was reluctant. But in the end, he decided to go for it, and sent me a script called “The Disciple Program.” “Cool title,” I thought to myself, then prepared to note away.

I don’t know what time travel feels like but I’m assuming it feels something like this. I remember starting the script, then looking up and seeing that I was on page 30! *And I hadn’t written a single note down.* Just for reference, I usually have a couple pages of notes by the end of the first act.

Hmm, I thought. That’s odd. This never happens. But a small part of me was still worried. I’ve read a lot of good first acts, only to find a writer who doesn’t know how to navigate a second act. So I kept waiting for the jenga pieces to crumble. Not because I wanted them to. Good God, finding a great script is every reader’s dream. But because that’s what usually happens. I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

But ten more pages passed and it still wasn’t crumbling. Ten MORE pages passed, and it actually *started getting better.* And then the midpoint came and I realized, Holy Shit, this is the real deal.

And when you hit the real deal as a reader, it’s the most exhilarating feeling in the world. The only thing better are those divine moments of inspiration you get as a writer.

So afterwards, naturally, I called up Tyler and said, “Where the f&%* did you come from???” And he said, “Brooklyn.” After talking to him for awhile, I learned that this script had actually started from a contest – The Writer’s Store “Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest.” They do a unique thing where they give you a high concept yet slightly generic logline from a professional screenwriter (in this case it was Robert Mark Kamen – the writer of “Taken”) and then you send them ten pages at a time, for which they provide feedback, and in the end they name the winner. He informed me that he had just won that contest. (I believe their new logline for this year’s contest is out if you want to check it out!).

That didn’t surprise me at all. In fact, Disciple Program looks like a winner from the very first scene. It takes that old screenwriting axiom of “Make your first ten pages great” and crushes it with a thousand megatons of failed screenplays. Great is for amateurs. It goes for amazing.

We meet Jocelyn, a psychiatrist at a mental hospital – that’s gotta be a rewarding job – who’s been tasked with probing the mind of a convicted serial killer. He’s not quite Hannibal Lecter territory. But I’m guessing this guy’s nibbled on his share of human flesh.

At this point I’m musing, “Okay, this might be a cool scene. Scary ass lunatic in a tiny room with a vulnerable woman. Only one guard nearby. I’m digging it.” Well, a few pages later, the man regurgitates a shiv, grabs the guard, stabs him a dozen times before he can blink, then, still handcuffed to the chair, he starts reaching out, desperately trying to do the same to Jocelyn, who’s inches out of his reach.

As long as she stays in this exact spot, he can’t get to her. That is until he starts CUTTING OFF HIS OWN HAND WITH HIS SHIV, desperate to get across that table and kill Jocelyn. Who the fuck is this guy? Is he nuts?? Well, yeah, I guess he is. But this goes beyond “nuts.” It’s like he values killing this woman more than his own life. That can’t be normal, can it? Then, just when it seems like he’s going to succeed, guards race in and save her.

In the meantime, we meet Jocelyn's husband, Roger, one of those predator drone pilots. He gets to send planes into hostile territory, take the enemy out, fly home, without ever leaving his computer. When Roger hears about the attack on his wife, he hurries over to the hospital. But when he tries to console her, she’s stand-offish, distant. We realize that even a near-death experience can’t repair the issues these two have going on. Roger clearly wants to be closer to his wife. But she’s put up a wall.

So Roger takes Jocelyn home, figuring a little rest will calm them both, and maybe he can deal with this tomorrow morning. But he never gets that opportunity. When he wakes up, he finds Jocelyn dead in their swimming pool.

The coroner calls it an accidental drowning, but Roger has a funny feeling about it. Something’s not right here. So he looks deeper, going so far as to inspect the body himself, and what he finds is shocking. On the back of her neck is a piece of carefully placed synthetic skin, meant to blend in with her real skin. He rips it off to find a small pin prick.

There’s no doubt now. Somebody killed his wife. But who? And why? She’s just a psychiatrist who works at a mental hospital.

That’s where Roger begins the investigation. He wants to talk to Cut-Off-His-Hand Dude. Not surprisingly, the guy isn’t the best conversationalist. But to his credit, it’s looking like his attack and her murder are unrelated. Yet when Roger checks the security tapes, he sees that in the hour leading up to his wife’s attack, every camera in the facility was turned off. Hmm…Strange.

It doesn't take long for Roger to realize that if someone wanted his wife dead, they probably want anyone looking into her death dead too. As if on cue, a couple of highly trained killers move in, Nurse Kathy and The Arsonist, gas Roger in his home, and take him out to a remote cliff to put an end to his life.

Roger barely squirms out of that one, and when he does, he realizes just how bad this is. While Nurse Kathy and The Arsonist are two of the most lethal killers on the planet, they’re chicken feed compared to the people he just pissed off. These men will stop at nothing – NOTHING – to kill Roger. What they don’t account for, however, is that Roger’s just as determined as they are, and he WILL hold responsible the people who killed his wife.

Where do I start with this one? I basically loved everything about it. Surprise, huh? Seeing as I’ve been tweeting about it every 10 seconds for the last 72 hours. The only thing that sucks about The Disciple Program is figuring out where to start with its awesomeness.

I guess I'll start with its consistency. Bad amateur scripts have one good scene followed by 10 average scenes. Then another good scene, followed by 6 bad scenes. Tyler made sure EVERY – SINGLE – SCENE was worth reading here. There were no bridge scenes. He didn’t take any scenes off. Every single scene mattered. Every single scene was *dramatized.* That’s what was so cool about The Disciple Program. It never allowed you to NOT like it.

The next thing I noticed was the intelligence. Most bad scripts feel like they were slapped together by someone who keeps “Jackass 3” saved on their Tivo and eats Fruit Loops for dinner. There’s no depth to the writing. There’s nothing about the world they create that you haven’t seen before in other films or TV shows. So it all feels generic. Here, there was a genuine intelligence, uniqueness and understanding of the world in the writing. It was so convincing, in fact, that I called Tyler afterwards and asked him how long he’d been on leave and when he had to go back. He laughed and assured me he’s never been in the military. But I don’t know. I think there’s more to that story.

What really made this stand out though were the characters. Every single character in this script is memorable. I can’t BEGIN to tell you how rare this is. From the wife to Roger to the nurse to “The Arsonist” to the big man in charge, Ambrose, to the military men Ambrose hires (Arroyo and Vickrey) to the even bigger man in charge, Beau. This is the area that really separates the top dogs from the lap dogs. Strong writers know how to make their characters unique. Newbies don’t put any effort into character creation, therefore it’s rare for any of their characters to stand out.

I’ll say it again but they – along with everything else - felt so SPECIFIC. The way Ambrose goes about recruiting a couple of dangerous U.S. soldiers with sordid pasts to help him take down Roger – I’ve never read a scene like that. It was just so convincing. I’m used to writers bullshitting their way through those scenes. I felt that Tyler had either been in that exact same situation himself (yes I REALLY thought that) or he’d researched the shit out of how these conversations typically go down (which is even scarier when you think about it – where do you find people who have been in that kind of situation before?).

And the scene construction here – it’s just SO good. Every single scene BUILDS. There was suspense, conflict, curiosity. It was like each scene had its own story. Each scene stood on its own.

One of my favorite scenes was when Nurse Kathy and The Arsonist gas Roger. He wakes up, paralyzed in a car. He can SEE The Arsonist and Nurse Kathy in front of him, but he CAN’T MOVE. They’ve drugged him. So all he can do is watch helplessly as they set up his fake suicide – a plan that includes manually inserting a liter of whisky into his stomach then pushing his car off a cliff.

It was one of the most intense scenes I’ve ever read. He’s just WATCHING them casually plan his death and there’s nothing he can do about it. All you’re thinking is, “How the hell is he going to get out of this one??”

(spoiler) Then, just as the arrogant gloating Nurse Kathy puts the finishing touches on her Rembrandt, she looks into his eyes, as if to taunt him one last time. And there’s something she sees that’s not quite right. In a brilliant payoff (that’s too complicated to get into here), Roger wasn’t paralyzed at all. He swiftly GRABS her and proceeds to take both her and The Arsonist out, forcing Kathy, in particular, to suffer just as horrible a death as she was planning for him.

And that's the thing about this character - he was so badass! He was so capable, so clever. Usually, when I read these screenplays, the methods by which the characters get out of situations are entirely dependent on the writer helping them. Here, Tyler writes himself into corners, practically daring himself to find a way out. This forces him to come up with really clever solutions to things. Every time it happened, I would just get this big smile on my face. A smile of, “I fucking never see this in screenplays. This is nuts!”

Another thing I'm always telling you guys to do is to make sure your script builds. Make sure that each challenge in the script is bigger than the last. Most of the scripts I read go in the opposite direction. Writers throw everything into those first 45 pages then don’t know what to do next. So the rest of the script is one long balloon deflating.

We start Disciple with serial killer Edmund, move up to third tier villains The Arsonist and Nurse Kathy. Then we get to Ambrose, who’s just about the coolest most confident villain you'll ever meet. He hires two military men and goes on a personal vendetta to end Roger’s life. But Ambrose is nothing compared to our final villain, the man above him, Beau. This guy practically runs the CIA with an iron fist. So you really get the sense that our character is going up against bigger and bigger obstacles.

I haven’t even gotten to the dialogue, which was amazing (Go read the scene where Beau and Ambrose are out on their respective building decks with Beau giving Ambrose the business – fucking awesome). This had some of the best monologues I’ve read in a script. There wasn’t a single moment in the story where I didn’t believe what was coming out of a character’s mouth. That NEVER happens when I read a script.

Let’s see…the pace was great. The structure was great. The writing was top-notch. Am I leaving anything out? I mean, when I read a script, I’m charting about 8 things that show a mastery of the craft. They include things like character, structure, dialogue, pacing, conflict, theme, that sort of stuff. Most amateur scripts I read are lucky to have 1. This may be the first script I’ve read to have all 8.

There were really only a couple of things I thought could be improved. There are times when the prose feels a bit overwritten. I discussed this with Tyler and he’s just a guy who likes words. He’s not out to prove that he knows more than you. His inspiration is writers like Brad Ingelsby (The Low Dweller) so that’s just his style. I’d like him to keep it a little simpler but then again, I’m not the one who wrote this great script. So I’ll trust him.

And next, I felt like there was a missed opportunity with the Predator Drone. It pops up late LATE in the script. But I would’ve liked to have seen it featured somewhere. I mean you have this guy who pilots predator drones. That’s got set-piece scene written all over it. I suggested a scene to Tyler of having to access the drone from some ratty old laptop when surrounded in the remote cabin (he’s stuck in a remote cabin near the midpoint) and have to use a really bad internet connection to get the drone out there to kill his assassins before they move in and kill him. Tyler’s response to that idea was about five seconds of silence, lol, so I knew where I stood with that one. I’m just going to leave the writing to him. But I would like a bigger predator drone scene.

A couple of weeks ago, finishing Disciple, I knew I had found something special. I knew that these kinds of moments don’t come around often – finding a really great script from an unknown writer. But I had no idea that it would blow up as big as it did over the past few days. I mean, I had producers calling me saying they’d been forwarded the script by four different people in the last hour. I heard over a dozen producers were flying around trying to put the project together with multiple packages. My phone blew up (I don’t know how – nobody has my number) as I quickly realized I was in a strange sort of interim manager position since Tyler didn’t have any reps. That’s what was so unique about this. Usually when this kind of thing happens, it’s a calculated thing with agents and managers carefully orchestrating the buzz. It’s never really been done like this before so nobody knew – even seasoned producers - where to go or what to do. Including myself!

And it was a little nerve-wracking and fun talking with Tyler during the process, who when I first told him I was going to send the script out to some contacts, expected to field 3 calls, maybe 4 tops. He didn’t expect to be on the phone for 8 straight hours two days in a row. He didn’t expect to have to turn down calls from producers who just days ago he would’ve sold his left arm to talk to. It was insane.

But towards the end of yesterday, when Tyler finally signed with WME, and he finally had a second to just breathe, he said something that really stuck with me. He said, “Carson. I don’t want to deal with any of this stuff. I just wanna write.” And it was a really cool moment because I remembered that all of this craziness was just that – craziness. And what matters most is the writing. To that end, I think Tyler’s set for a long time.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (Top 10!!!)
[ ] genius

What I Learned: I have a funny little postscript to this experience. So after I finished The Disciple Program, raced to my phone, called Tyler, and asked him where the hell he came from, we had a couple of laughs and then he casually mentioned that he’d sent me a script 8 months ago for notes. What?? I said. You’ve sent me a script before?? There’s no way I would’ve forgotten a script by this writer. So after the call, I went back through my notes and indeed, found an old script that I covered for him. I quickly remembered it. It was a script with all sorts of talent. But the story itself was all over the place and muddled. And I remember giving him that note. That he needs to focus his story more because the talent is clearly there. And just 8 months later, he came up with this. And I think that should serve as a motivator to every writer out there. You’re going to learn with each script. You’re going to get better with each script. You just have to keep writing. So stay inspired. Your own breakout moment could be a script away. :)