Friday, February 17, 2012

Screenplay Review - Fifi, A Monkey's Tale (Amateur Friday)

Today's amateur screenplay offers us the rare combination of Nazis and children's books. Can these two elements coexist? Read on to find out.

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: Biopic/Action/Drama
Premise: (from writer) With only the clothes on their backs, and a Manuscript in-hand, a Jewish-German couple narrowly escape the 1940 Nazi March on Paris, thus beginning an odyssey to save themselves and one of the most beloved children's book characters for generations to come.
Writer: Brantley Edwards
Details: 110 pages

Uh oh. What’s wrong. Why am I reviewing a biopic? Have I been held at gunpoint? Maybe I’ve gone insane. It wouldn’t be the first time. Everybody remembers my Super Bowl Tweet Party. Maybe this time I’ve gone LIN-sane!

For those of you visiting this review for the first time, I posted today’s AF script WITHOUT A REVIEW earlier in the day, allowing you, the readers, to weigh in on it first. Sometimes I feel like I influence your opinions and, for once, I wanted to get your thoughts before I gave mine. Well, now that the opinions are in, it’s time to give you my take…

It’s January, 1940. Paris, France. 38 year old illustrator Hans Reyersbach has everything going for him. He’s got a new wife (the beautiful Margaret), a baby on the way, and he’s about to release a successful children’s book. He’s like the 1940s version of Lady GaGa! Actually, disregard that analogy. He’s not like that at all.  That was dumb.

Anyway, what’s putting a dampener on all this happy-time is this pesky European war going on. You know, the whole World War 2 thing? Those meanie Germans just can’t keep their paws out of anything and rumors are they’re snatching up Jews in the night. As Hans is Jewish, he’s not a fan of these rumors. But at least he’s in Paris. The Germans would never invade Paris. Would they?

Actually, it turns out that’s the least of Hans’ worries. A Nazi special agent named Wilhelm Schultz has been sent to Paris to retrieve Hans at all costs. Apparently, the infamous Joseph Goebbels read Hans’ book to a group of children at a publicity event, only to find out later that – gasp - it was written by a Jew! Embarrassed beyond belief, and in trouble with the Furher, Goebbels decides to get a hold of this author and make him dead.

Ironically, Hans and Wilhelm actually knew each other as children, even used to play together. This allows Wilhelm the opportunity to befriend Hans – then lure him into his trap. The problem is, just before he executes his plan, word of Germany’s arrival sends Jews fleeing south. Hans decides it’s a good idea to go with them. So he and Margret flee.

But not before Wilhelm, posing as a fleeing Jew himself, gains Hans’ trust. The trio travel by foot, bicycle, and train in hopes of catching a boat to America, where Hans has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to publish his new book in the biggest book market in the world. But will his childhood friend prevent that dream from coming true? Will he snatch Hans and Margaret away in the night? Oh, and who is this Fifi fellow? Is he related to Jeremy Lin? All these questions will be answered in, “Fifi, A Monkey’s Tale.”

Fifi has a lot going for it. We have a clear goal (escape!). The stakes are high (getting caught by Nazis is typically a bad thing!). There’s tons of urgency with them always being on the run.

There was some nice use of dramatic irony as well. Wilhelm joining the fray, pretending to be “one of them,” but secretly planning to capture and ship Hans and Margaret back to Germany. That led to some suspenseful scenes early on.

(spoiler) And the twist at the end – that this is in fact E.E. Henry, the famous author of the Curious George franchise, was also a highlight, and something I wasn’t expecting at all. So all those elements made for a fun read…at times.

“At times” is the key phrase here. Because there were other times where it became clear that Brantley was still a young screenwriter finding his way, starting with the relationship between Hans and Margaret.

There just didn’t seem to be anything to this relationship. Which is a strange thing to say because the two experience a miscarriage, several near-captures by the Nazis, and Margaret almost dying. So how can I possibly say that?

Well the main issue was their dialogue. It was too on-the-nose, too generic, too bland. They were either talking about how they felt towards each other (“I love you.” “But I love you more.”) the logistics of getting to the next destination (“We have three days to get to the Brazil port..”) or the occasional exchange about how hungry they were. But that was it. Honestly, those were the only three topics of conversation for about 80% of the film. There was no drama in any of these conversations, no internal relationship issues that needed to be resolved. Just two people talking about matter-of-fact things for 100 minutes.

And since this relationship took up the majority of the script, it was impossible for the script to recover. If the central relationship isn’t interesting, there’s no way your movie is going to be interesting, no matter how cool the plot is. And I’m not saying that the characters needed to be arguing or fighting, but there needed to be SOMETHING there.

For example, Margaret has had a couple of miscarriages. So what if she’s told by the doctor that if she tries to carry a baby to full term, there’s a high probability that she’ll die (which, so far, is in the script)? Then, early on, have Margaret get pregnant, and she still wants to have the baby. Hans, on the other hand, does not, because of the danger it poses to his wife.

Now, instead of a gaggle of “I love yous” and “No, I love you mores,” the two have something to disagree about (conflict!). You could complicate this by the pregnant Margaret starting to bleed as the journey goes on (I think some of this is in here - but it's not given the right focus). The stress has increased the chances of another miscarriage, and now there’s a very real chance Hans is going to lose both his unborn baby and his wife.

Still – even if you nailed that – there was still something missing in this relationship. I didn’t know these two *at all*. They spoke to each other so generically, in such basic terms, that I never got a true sense of the pair and therefore never cared for them. And obviously, if I’m not caring for the characters being chased in a movie, there’s no movie.

So I believe a couple of big long character biographies need to be written before the next draft. Hans and Margaret’s entire lives need to be documented by Brantley. They need to have issues which need to be worked out. They need to have character flaws, which I don’t believe they have now (character flaws are basically a prerequisite for biopics – the genre was designed to explore character – so if we’re not sure what’s going on internally with the character, there’s no movie).

Another problem for me was the logistics. Despite there being a lot of chatter about where people were heading, and which boats they were getting on, I constantly found myself confused as to where we were, where we needed to go, and by how much time. I think there were a couple of boats they needed to get on but then they missed one, so now they were going to catch another one? Maybe? It was confusing and because I was never quite sure where they needed to get, it was hard to care.

There were some other things I had issues with as well. In a thrilling ride like this, it’s hard for me to imagine the characters on bikes. There’s something so…I don’t know…I kept visualizing the “Singing In The Rain” sequence in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Like they’re just biking away, backs erect, smiles on their faces. I couldn’t match that image with Nazis chasing them.

Commenters have mentioned the characters changing back and forth between languages. I agree that it’s too confusing. Any time you have to read something twice to get it means the writer hasn’t done their job. And every time someone would speak in a different language, I would have to read it twice. If this served some purpose, I could let it go. But the read would’ve been so much easier had we stayed with one language the whole time.

And then there are the clarity and dialogue issues commenters have brought up. The dialogue does feel stilted and on the nose here – most of the time repeating things we already know. This goes back to learning how to dramatize a scene. If there’s no drama in a scene, there’s nothing for your characters to say. So if you put words into the mouths of characters who have nothing to say, you’re going to get bad dialogue.

But if you *dramatize* the scene, it’s a different ballgame. Now the characters HAVE to talk because they need to deal with the situation. For example, let’s say Hans and Margaret are on a train. However, that’s *all* the scene is about – them on a train. Go try and write that scene. I’ll wait.

Let me guess. Not a very good scene right? I mean you might add some exposition there (“We have to get to Spain by Monday”), and to fill up the rest of the scene, your characters may talk about each other (“Are you doing okay? How is your wound?”). But this is just logistical stuff. You can’t build an entire scene around logistical stuff.

However, let’s change the scene around and say that, earlier, Margaret snuck on the train because they didn’t have enough money. So she doesn’t have a ticket. Her and Hans are sitting there when they notice the conductor coming down the aisle checking for tickets. Uh-oh. Oh, and did I mention that a minute ago, two Nazi officers just sat down next to them?

Go write that scene. I’ll wait.

A million times better right??!! These are the things you learn as a writer making those first steps. I know it sucks because you want to convince yourself you’ve figured it out already. But it takes time to learn these things. It takes trial and error to realize, “Oh, if I just have two people talk to each other about stuff that’s going on, it’s boring.” But when you do learn this stuff, your writing really takes off. So like Matt pointed out yesterday, keep writing!

I think Brantley is where a lot of writers are who come to Amateur Friday. They’ve got some good things going on in their writing. They’ve learned to write a cool character or a cool scene here and there. But there’s still a lot to learn before their scripts can truly shine. So I’m just going to say: Stay at it Brantley! Jump to that next script, write something new, learn more, do it again. Come back to this script afterwards and apply what you’ve learned. Right now, Fifi is a fun ambitious little script. But it’s not there yet.

Script link:  Fifi, A Monkey's Tale

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

What I learned: I’m going to dish out some really important advice here: The opening scene of your screenplay is CRUCIAL. Why? BECAUSE IT’S THE OPENING OF YOUR SCREENPLAY! It’s the very first scene the reader will read. They’re going to form an opinion on you as a writer and this story as a story before the scene is over. So why would you open with a scene that lacks drama, conflict, suspense, action, or anything that would draw an audience in? Fifi opens with two people sitting at a zoo watching animals. You do *not* want to open your screenplay with a scene that uneventful. You have to give us more! Give us a reason to want to read the next scene!