Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Screenplay Review - Selfess

Another Black List sci-fi thriller makes it way to Scriptshadow. But how does the screenplay hold up to other recent sci-fi thrillers on the site?

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: (from Black List) An extremely wealthy elderly man dying from cancer undergoes a radical medical procedure that transfers his consciousness to the body of a healthy young man but everything may not be as good as it seems when he starts to uncover the mystery of the body’s origins and the secret organization that will kill to keep its secrets.
About: Writer-director brothers Alex and David Pastor are best known for writing and directing the 2009 film, Carriers, about a group of friends fleeing a pandemic. The film starred Chris Pine and Emily VanCamp. Before that, the brothers made tons of shorts (the new way to break into Hollywood – Go make some shorts people!). This most recent script, which I'm assuming they're on board to direct as well, finished in the bottom quarter of 2011’s Black List, with six votes.
Writers: Alex and David Pastor
Details: 118 pages – June 27th 2011 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).

Selfless looks like a job for Shia!

Selfless is eerily reminiscent of another 2011 Black List script I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, Flashback. Not in plot. But in tone, the way it’s written and overall feel. These scripts could easily be considered kissing cousins. But while it’s always fun to kiss your cousin, the reality is, that’s as far as it can go. There’s no way you can be in a relationship with your cousin. Which leaves you with a sorta nice, if ultimately confused, memory, and nothing more. That pretty much sums up my experience with Selfless.

Selfless follows Damian Hayes, a rich old codger who owns a huge company worth Facebook money. But Damien’s currently learning one of life’s harshest lessons. That there’s one thing money can’t buy. And no, I’m not talking about love. Damien is dying of cancer. He only has a few months left to live.

At least, that's what he believes at first. It turns out there's a super secretive – albeit shady – company that snatches up healthy young individuals, wipes them of their memory, then maps the brain scan of their ready-to-die clients onto their brain, turning our senior citizens back into the junior variety.

Not wanting to kick it just yet, Damien gives Shady Incorporated every penny in his Swiss bank account, and to his surprise, it goes well. He’s got this young hot bod to run around in. He can exercise as long as he wants to (I’d debate whether this is a good thing or not). Ladies look at him again. He doesn’t have to expense adult diapers anymore. The only downside seems to be not getting the senior discount at the local AMC anymore.

However, every once in awhile, Damien gets these little memory glitches. It’s like for a brief moment he’s…..well he’s in someone else’s body, experiencing someone else’s life.

It takes Damien a lot longer than us to realize that the person who used to own this body is still a part of him. But things really get turned around when a woman named Madeleine bumps into him and starts freaking out. He eventually comes to realize that this is his “wife,” and she thinks Damien is her husband.

After some eat-pray-love-like soul-searching, Damien starts to wonder if what he did was kosher. So he goes back to Madeleine, pretending to be her husband, and starts investigating who the man in his body used to be. The more he investigates, the more guilty he feels. And to make matters worse, “The Company” learns what he’s up to and comes after him. They expect their Switcheroo App to be quite popular in the coming years and don’t want Damien screwing up their star rating. So Damien must figure out a way to…well, I'm not sure to be honest. I think expose the company? Or just find out more about his body? It’s not 100% clear. But what I do know is that in the end, Damien’s probably going to learn to be a lot more SELFLESS.

Much like Flashback (aka Source Code 2), Selfless was an easy breezy little sci-fi thriller that practically read itself. I exerted so little effort in ingesting this that it almost felt like cheating. And yet, that’s sort of my problem with it. I’m not sure there’s enough story here. I’m not sure there’s enough going on.

You know what it feels like? It feels like the logline is a beat sheet for the entire movie. I mean if you read the logline I wrote above, you read every major plot point in the script. There were no surprises here, no big twists or turns. You got EXACTLY what you paid for. I’m reminded of my friend Jim Mercurio’s term, “story density.” There was no story density here. Then again, I felt the exact same way about The Adjustment Bureau, one of the thinnest scripts I read in 2010, yet people seemed to like that movie. So maybe I’m asking for too much?

The way I see it, there are two phases when you write a script. The first phase is getting the story down on paper. You’ll go with a lot of “first choices” in this phase, even if they’re generic, just so you can get the script out.

After you’re done with that, you move to the second – and way more important – phase. Populating that story. You start to add detail, you explore the relationships between characters, you add unexpected twists and surprises. This is really the phase where your script becomes a movie.

And I feel like Selfless never got to that phase. At least not with this draft. I always go back to what Ben Ripley told me about Source Code - how the movie started off as a Blake Snyder beat sheet. There's a train wreck. Some mysterious guys show up. They bring in a new technology that allows them to go back in time. Our hero’s then zapped back onto the train before it crashes. And his job is to find out what happened. That version, he said, was fine. But it just didn't have any punch.

Once he got to Phase 2, he really started challenging the direction of the script, and that’s when he came up with the idea to place the character on the train from the very first frame. The script felt fresher, denser, more populated, more detailed. And that came directly from the Phase 2 process. Selfless could benefit a lot from the same approach.

Outside of that, I don't have much to say about Selfless. It's a solid treatment of a neat idea. I just feel it has the potential to be so much more.

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

What I learned: I want you to take a look at the opening scene to Selfless, which on the surface seems like just another “Table Scene.” In it, a young man approaches two older men (one of them Damien, our protagonist) about a deal he just closed. I always tell you: Don't write Table Scenes (lunch/dinner scenes heavy on dialogue). And definitely don’t start your movie with one! But the difference here is that the writers immediately inject conflict and suspense into the scene. A young man walks up to two older men, flush with excitement over beating them out on a 200 million dollar contract. But as the other men begin to congratulate him, we sense that they know something he doesn’t. Suspense and mystery slip their way into the scene. We’re wondering: “What do they know?” Over the course of the next few minutes, they drop a few more clues and we learn our character did not, in fact, close the deal, like he believes. Not only that, but there’s a good chance his entire career is about to be flushed down the toilet. It’s a slow-building scene with lots of conflict and plenty of suspense, and it’s quite good! So the lesson here is that while you SHOULD avoid Table Scenes, if you can inject enough conflict, mystery, and suspense into them, you should be okay.

Moratorium: From this point forward, I’m retiring all protagonist peanut allergies in screenplays. We've had too many of them. You can no longer give your hero a peanut allergy, Skippy.