Monday, May 28, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Final Broadcast

Genre: Drama
Premise: A strange cult kidnaps a girl from a small town and uses a local radio talk show to promote their twisted beliefs. 
About: This is the duo who wrote one of my favorite scripts from last year, “When The Streetlights Go On” (finished #2 on last year’s Black List). Not sure if they wrote “Broadcast” before or after “Streetlights” but if you liked that script, you’re going to be plenty satisfied with this one. 
Writers: Chris Hutton & Eddie O’Keefe
Details: 127 pages - undated

I’m still baffled by these writers.  I do not believe they’re only 23 years old.  Not because the writing is so specific or so good, but because they seem to understand things about life that you don’t understand without an older perspective.  I mean, when your generation’s most famous singer is Justin Bieber, you don’t reference The Beatles.  When you grow up during the Iraq War, you don’t know the intricate make-up of Vietnam.  Yet these two seem to know things that are way beyond what their years would imply.  I guess they’re just old souls.  But I won’t be convinced until I see them in person.  

I mean let’s start with the first page - a centered 30 line paragraph detailing the world you’re about to be transplanted into, which includes segments like: “The Final Broadcast takes place in an era neither here nor there. It could be 2012 as easily as 1952. It’s a vacuum; an America that exists only in our collective unconscious. The kind of place Edward Hopper might have painted.” 

Normally I’d slaughter writers for this.  The audience can’t see this paragraph. These aren’t titles or a voice over.  It’s never meant to be seen onscreen.  So if it’s not in the film, it shouldn’t be in the script! And yet I believe it’s indispensible to the story.  We need to understand this world.  We need to wrap our heads around its idiosyncrasies and rhythms and tone to understand how it’s going to play out on screen.  And this paragraph does that. So I’m in. Even though I’d never recommend anyone else trying it. 

But what really sets these two apart – and I probably mentioned this in their last review – is how every single scene in their screenplay feels different.  Read the first 10 pages of Broadcast for example.  We get a monologue from a “Carl Sagan Lite” character in some cheap PBS show about the origins of the Universe.  He tells us, in no uncertain terms, that our existence is pointless.  It’s jarring, unnerving, unsettling, and yet there’s a poeticness to it all that propels you forward. You need to read more.  You WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT – the only thing that truly matters in a screenplay.

So what does happen next?  Well, we meet a girl named Teresa Carnegie, who happens to be the daughter of the host of that show.  She’s watching a drive-thru movie with her friend when she’s kidnapped by some very nasty men. 

Afterwards, we run into Gary Glossup, a transplant from the big city who’s just moved in to take over the local talk radio gig.  Gary’s DJ’ing career is turned upside-down when he receives a live call from the men who took Teresa.  They call themselves “The Association” and proclaim that the end of the world is coming.

Because the local cops are morons, Gary has no choice but to get involved in the investigation and save Teresa, a task that’s personal to him as he lost his own daughter many years ago. 

So Gary buckles down and starts investigating the kidnapping, which brings him to another boy who went missing some weeks back named Billy Turman.  Rumors were that Billy was abducted by aliens.  But he was eventually found hanging from a tree during Halloween.  Everyone just assumed he was a prop, until the smell clued them in. 

Gary’s helped by a strange young reporter named Claire who happens to be in town doing a report on a rare moon eclipse.  But when Gary finds out that her credentials don’t check out, he begins to wonder if she’ telling him the truth.  As the eclipse draws near, more insanity begins to unravel, and Gary finds himself questioning everyone and everything around him.  All of this leads, of course, to a shocking conclusion. 

You know that show The Killing?  You know how you’ll be watching an episode of it and you’re wondering why the f*ck nothing is happening??  But there’s still something entrancing about the tone and the characters that keeps you going?  And since you want to find out who killed that damn girl, you stick around?  Well imagine The Final Broadcast as the best episode of The Killing ever written times a thousand – because it has that same kind of dark spooky tone, but it’s actually entertaining! 

And because there’s some actual urgency to it (the eclipse – ticking time bomb!) it moves where The Killing does not.  Speaking of urgency, I have to point out that while these guys do break their share of rules, the core dramatic storytelling pillars are in place.  You have the GOAL – find the girl.  STAKES – her life, as well as the lives of others the cult keeps kidnapping.  And URGENCY – the impending eclipse, when they promise to kill Teresa by.  So with that core there, they can go off-book in a number of other places.

Like the way they write their scenes.  I’ve been Twit-Pitch Reviewing every night and not enough people are surprising me. I’m not talking about big surprises.  I’m just saying, when you write a scene, you have to know that TYPE of scene has been written tens of millions of times before.  So it’s ESSENTIAL you add a minor twist or two to keep it fresh.   

I was just talking about this with a professional screenwriter the other day in fact.  She had a scene that had been in thousands of movies before but she still had to write it.  Just the fact that she knew she had to approach the scene differently put her ahead of 99% of the writers out there, because most writers don’t think about that stuff. We talked it through and found a few new elements which would allow her to write a unique version of the scene, and it turned out rather well.

So here, in The Final Broadcast, we have the sort of common “femme fatale” trope.  Our hero sees the drop-dead gorgeous stunner at the end of the bar and we’re assuming we’re going to get that boring predictable “one-up each other” clever dialogue laced with sexual subtext scene. Then, in the end, he’ll convince her to come home with him.  Instead, he buys her a drink from across the bar, she walks over, hands him the drink, says she doesn’t go out with men twice her age, and leaves.  The conversation is over before it even started.

“Hmmm,” I thought, “that’s a little different.”  And the thing with this script is, it’s packed with dozens of moments like this.

I can’t stress how important this is because it’s the only time I truly get excited by a screenplay these days - when I’m not sure how scenes or a story are going to unravel. That was my experience with “Streetlights” and that was my experience here. 

It’s rare that I give a writer two consecutive “impressives” in a row.  Their follow-up is almost always a let-down.  But these guys have done it.  And in many ways, this is actually a step-up from “Streetlights.”  It’s more structured.  It’s cleaner.  But it doesn’t quite reach the heights of that script and I think it’s because there’s a lack of character connection here.   We really identified with and bonded with the main character in “Streetlights.”  Here, it’s more about the story/the plot.  Luckily, the plotting and story were top-notch, which is why this still makes the “impressive” pile.  I love these writers. 

[  ] what the hell did I just read?
[  ] not for me
[  ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[  ] genius

What I learned: I always say – don’t write 5-6 line paragraphs in a screenplay.  And I’ll continue to say that until my very last script read.  However, any rule can be broken if there’s a direct correlation between the rule and the writer’s strength.  These two are so good with prose, so smooth with their writing, that I actually ENJOYED reading their long paragraphs, which is incredibly rare.  Take for instance, this description of Gary: “He was once a very handsome twenty-five year old.  However many years and many six-packs have softened his features a bit; softened everything but his old school heritage and sense of resolve. He’s a man cut from the same cloth as Newman or McQueen. The kind of guy they just don’t make anymore.”  That’s a long freaking paragraph.  But it flows so naturally and gives you such a great understanding of the character, that you allow it.  So a big part of breaking the rules is understanding your strengths. If you’re great at dialogue, you can get away with 8 page dialogue scenes.  If you’re great with prose, you can write longer paragraphs.  The trick is to never blindly assume you’re good at something.  Make sure you KNOW.  Because that’s the reason behind a lot of bad writing – writers assuming they’re good at something they’re not.  Play to your strengths people!