Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Screenplay Review - Breyton Avenue (Guest Review)

Peter Pan mixed with Lord Of The Flies mixed with...zombies? Sounds like an interesting little screenplay. Let's find out if guest reviewer Amy Suto liked it...

Since I’m tired of giving you guys vague updates about my book, the site re-launch, and Twit-Pitch, I’m putting together an official schedule (with real dates!) that I plan to post this weekend. I’m like the U.S. Government. I’m posting about a post that I’ll make later. Heh heh. In the meantime, I’m bringing back guest reviewer Amy Suto, (who reviewed Celeste and Jesse Forever a month ago) to take on some zombie madness. Or, errr…are they zombies? I’m confused. You know what, I'll just let Amy clear it up.

Premise (from IMDB): A group of teens living without adults and under their own social order in a small fenced-in neighborhood are forced to face what they fear is the inevitable physical danger beyond the fence.
Writer: J. Daniel Shaffer
About: This is Shaffer's first writing credit. Breyton Avenue finished with 6 votes on the most recent Black List. I know Shaffer has written three drafts since this one, carefully chipping away at the script’s issues. I also know he’s been reading Scriptshadow forever and is very excited (and surprised) by all the love his script has gotten.
Details: 112 pages – undated.

This script starts out with a bang: eight year old Noah witnesses his parents die at the hands of a vampire/zombie hybrid that drinks his mother's blood but, for an unexplained reason, leaves Noah and his brother, Sam, alive.

Noah wakes up from his nightmare, and we discover he's living in an enclosed town where kids have banned together against the threat of these monsters – called the “Unwelcomes”. These Unwelcomes drink blood, but they can also infect others through... blood lesions or something? I'm not sure. The script was unclear about exactly what the lesions did, but I do know that if you get them, it's not a good sign.

Noah is taking care of his younger brother, Sam, who is deaf. Not only does our protagonist win our sympathy because he lost his parents, but because Noah's taken on the role of protecting his younger brother, that sympathy’s taken a step further.

We soon meet the others in the town. Marshall is the fearless leader who sets curfews and organizes the kids. Hawthorne is described as “pounds of muscle and wrath with a tribal tattoo on his neck” and is the obnoxious jerk who is engaged in a power struggle over Breyton Ave with Marshall. He's the bully who slaps people around, and we know he's a tough guy because he gives himself his own tattoos. Another standout character is simply known as, “The Boy Who Never Leaves” because... well... he never leaves his house. He stands in the window wearing a gas mask and writes foreboding sentiments on his window. Creeeeeepy.

Noah's got the hots for Madeline, the sister of our resident abusive jerk, Hawthorne. He spends most of the script making awkward sexual advances that culminate in the two of them watching the stars on his roof as they are surrounded by fireflies.

After their night on the rooftop, Noah is chosen to go with Marshall and the others to gather supplies outside of the safety of their fenced-in neighborhood. They stop at a drug store, and, in a homage to Zombieland, find a whole bunch of Twinkies! One of the kids runs over and starts stuffing his bag with them. But wait, this is where things get weird: in the back of the store there's some sort of hospital for the Unwelcomes! And they find other kids there – with tubes in them – who are still alive. The Unwelcomes attack the boys, and only Noah gets away. He makes his way back to Breyton Ave, and we are left with more unanswered questions. Why don't the Unwelcomes kill kids? Are there more survivors outside of Breyton Ave? Are the Unwelcomes sick?

The script ends with a massive battle against the Unwelcome, and Noah's younger brother Sam ends up saving the day by using his ability to communicate with the dead. Sam may be deaf, but he can hear the Unwelcome talking to him. In the end, Noah gives a speech to the remaining kids and they ride off into the sunset on a quest to seek out other communities of survivors.

This script is Lord of the Flies meets The Village: it's intriguing in a way that makes your skin crawl, and it has a supernatural slant to it that makes it unique. The writing is solid, and the story is moving. This isn't your average apocalyptic killfest. This apocalyptic killfest has heart. It's poignant and gruesome and you just can't shake it from your head.

What really jumps off of the page is the vivid atmosphere. The tone of the script is consistent. From the little touches (a wheel of an overturned bicycle slowly turning amongst a pile of abandoned toys) to the sweeping descriptions of the depravity of the state of the world, Breyton Ave is immersive and gripping.

This script is also set apart by the unique details and flourishes that Shaffer peppers in throughout the script. For example, the quote “Second star to the right, straight till morning” is scrawled on a wall in graffiti. For the uninitiated, the quote is an allusion to Peter Pan, and is ironic yet fitting: Breyton Avenue is a twisted dystopian Neverland where there are no parents – where children must fend for themselves against monsters that seek to destroy them. These subtle details are marks of a talented writer.

Marshall, who is the fearless leader and Noah's mentor, had many memorable lines of dialog. His most profound words, which Noah repeats on the final page are: “You shouldn't let death scare you, Noah. It can only grab you once, and you won't remember. If there's anything else after, well it didn't really grab you, did it?” When your movie is extremely quotable, that means you've done your job in the dialog department.

Shaffer also understands that film is a visual medium, and the imagery within these pages is delightful: The fireflies. The close up on the coils of a light bulb. The spinning of a record player. The swarms of flies, which are a sign that Unwelcomes are near. On page 67 “a thick, wet, crunching bump” is heard when Noah runs over an Unwelcome with the bus. Can't you just see that in your mind's eye? Yeah. You're welcome (or unwelcome).

The weakest part of the script had to be the character of Madeline. She's described only as, “vulnerable and introverted and beautiful... And we know from Noah's face that he is in love.” I may be biased, but only describing a female character as beautiful and vulnerable feels like a crutch. Especially because in the script, she repeatedly disproves this description. She speaks up in the meeting, declaring that girls should be able to go to the Gathering as well, and stands in Hawthorne's way when he storms out. Her interactions with others likewise don't suggest introversion: sure, her date with Noah does carry the awkwardness of teenage love, but she never seems particularly shy or withdrawn. She's using aerosol as a flamethrower, she's demanding to be included, she flirts with and teases Noah, yet she's as passive as can be. Her sole purpose is to fill the love interest void. She doesn't have any defining goals. I'm being nitpicky because she's the only major female character in the story, and it's frustrating to see these blank, aimless girl characters floating around. So, gentlemen, please do your female characters justice, and don't forget to give them traits, flaws, and goals of their own.

Noah's also not an active character, and is only reacting to what happens to him. Weakness is his flaw. He couldn't do anything when his mother was killed, he can't defend himself against Hawthorne. The sympathy generated by protecting his brother and losing his family offsets his passiveness to an extent, but I still expected him to step up when Marshall died, expected him to fill the leader void and fight off the invasion. But, alas, it was not to be. He rigged some traps in his house and his little brother saved the day. Sam was the star of the story, not Noah. Noah was more of the narrator, the everyman we can identify with. A vehicle for the story, not an actual character in it.

However, the plot was so strong that even two underdeveloped leads couldn't slow it down. In a TED talk, J.J. Abrams said that writers must establish “mystery boxes” for their audience. You must present your viewers with questions they desperately want answered. In this script, new questions cropped up every twenty pages. Why did the Unwelcome leave Noah alive? Why does Sam hear voices? What is the Gathering? Who is the little girl? Are there any survivors left besides the kids? What about the boy who never leaves his house? What do his messages mean, and who are they for? This script reached page-turner status with all of these mysteries, and tied up all the loose ends nicely by the final fade out.

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

Create a sense of foreboding in your script right away. In Breyton Avenue, there's the boy wearing the gas mask who writes warnings on the window, the upcoming Gathering expedition, the voices Sam hears, and the dead animals that repeatedly show up around town. These events hint at something big happening, and the story holds our attention. One of the most important aspects of storytelling is making a promise to your readers that your story is worth their time, and Breyton Avenue does a fantastic job of building the suspense and anticipation leading up to the final battle through the ominous set-ups in acts one and two.