Thursday, June 28, 2012

Twit-Pitch Review - Ridin' The Gravy Train

Genre: Comedy
Premise: (original Twit-Pitch logline) With his favorite fast-food sandwich facing its final week before it's phased out forever, an obsessed man leads a protest to save it.
About: For those recently joining Scriptshadow, I held a contest a few months back called "Twit-Pitch," where anyone could pitch me their screenplay on Twitter, as long as it was contained within a single tweet.  I picked my 100 favorite loglines and read the first 10 pages of each (which I live-reviewed on Twitter), and then from those, picked the Top 20, which I'll read the entire screenplay for.  Yesterday I thought, "What better way to kick off the reads than to review one of the finalists on Scriptshadow?"  So here we are. the first entry in the Twit-Pitch Top 20!
Writer: Jerry Hernandez.
Details: 103 pages

I met today's writer, Jerry Hernandez, AND his beautiful wife, at the Scriptshadow meet-up last week (at a bar called The Village Idiot - keep all jokes to yourself please).  Like everyone I met, he was extremely nice and fun to hang out with.  Which of course means I won't be able to say anything bad about his script.

However, this is a competition, which means not everyone wins the gold medal.  And there were some things that worried me going into a full Gravy Train feast.  I love Jerry's opening scene, which is why I advanced it.  But the end of the ten pages started to peter out just a little, and it had me wondering: Can Jerry extend this premise out to an entire feature-length film?  Let's find out.

Rough-around-the-edges Middle School teacher Bronson Matas has one love in his life - Going to his favorite fast food restaurant, DJ's, and ordering the "Gravy Train."  Sure, the Gravy Train (a mound of turkey, gravy, bread and grease) is 4000 calories and cuts a month out of your lifespan whenever you eat one.  But dammit, isn't that the American way?  To be able to physically watch yourself get fatter during a meal in hopes that one day you can be one of those Walmart shoppers riding around in those shopping scooters?

Bronson thinks so.

Unfortunately, DJ's doesn't think so.  Lawsuits from overly obese customers who somehow weren't aware that 4000 calorie meals make you diabetes-ridden Jabba the Hut clones, have destroyed store margins, leaving DJ's on the brink of bankruptcy.  One of the execs has an idea though.  The Veggie Train.  Not only is it healthy, but it costs 1/4 the budget of the Gravy Train to make!

And so the unthinkable happens.  An announcement is made that The Gravy Train will be phased out.  Well this, like turkeys, just doesn't fly with Bronson.  The Gravy Train is his f*cking LIFE!  So he grabs his best friend and roommate, Randy (who ironically hates the Gravy Train) and begins a campaign to save the sandwich.

However, things get tricky when PETA clone "Animals Are People Too" come out in droves to make sure the Gravy Train stays dead.  Bronson realizes that if his campaign is going to get noticed, he'll have to add numbers.  So he launches a Twitter campaign that finds him...well, the exact kind of people you'd expect to find wanting to save a 4000 calorie sandwich (a bunch of losers).  

Concurrently, Bronson is trying to get with his old high school flame, Golda, who's since gone on to create a Tia Tequila-like empire for herself, singing pop songs as deep as desert puddles.  Bronson and Golda used to make love while eating Gravy Trains, so there's obviously a personal attachment here.  But when Golda switches allegiances and sides with the Veggie Train, Bronson will have to make the most difficult decision of his life - Love.....or sandwich.

Usually when I go back to a script I liked, I see the flaws more clearly, since I'm more concentrated on the writing than the story.  But surprisingly enough, I actually liked Ridin' The Gravy Train's first 10 BETTER the second time around than the first.  It's my kind of humor.  And there was just an effortlessness to the way Hernandez wrote his pages.  One of the most powerful tools a writer can possess is the ability to make a screenplay not seem like a screenplay, but rather real life happening before our eyes.  And I felt that during those first ten.

But things did start to get bumpy after those initial pages, some of which had to do with the thin premise and some of which had to do with the hero himself.  First of all, I'm not sure we like Bronson.  That's not to say we NEED to like the lead in a comedy script.  The funnier a character is, the more we'll put up with.  And Bronson is funny.  But he's just such a loser and is so selfish and so mean-spirited, I had a hard time rooting for the guy.

In fact, Bronson gets more unlikable as the script goes on.  He becomes more selfish (never once listens to his friends and only looks out for his own interests), more angry (thinks all his students are idiots and treats them like shit) and consistently acts like a loser (his only real goal besides saving the sandwich is getting high).

And I understand it's a delicate line.  A lot of humor can be mined from anger/cruelty/selfishness.  Look no further than Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.  But I think that character is the exception to the rule.  Most heroes, particularly when they're not yet embodied by an actor America's familiar with, need at least one thing to make us like them.  Because if we like them, we want to root for them.  I'm not sure what that trait needs to be with Bronson, but I'm pretty sure he needs it.

Another issue was the structure.  The Gravy Train sandwich is eliminated from the menu about 12 pages into the script.  However, after another 12 pages, it's put back on the menu, and we go from "Gravy Train is gone" to "Gravy Train is back for a month and gets a farewell tour."  I don't think Jerry meant for it to come off this way, but it felt like the plot was stalling.  It was a weak development, since both issues were essentially the same.  Why not have him come in the first time and learn that the Gravy Train is starting its farewell tour?  Then you're not wasting 12 pages.  It's not a huge deal, but in a script where people are going in questioning the premises' legs, it looks bad when you're already repeating similar plot developments in the first act.

The last couple of issues I had were motivation-based.  I wasn't sure why the bad guys wanted to eliminate the Gravy Train so badly.  Yeah, there's the cost-cutting thing, but that was a throwaway line.  These guys are fighting our hero tooth-and-nail throughout the screenplay to eliminate this sandwich.  If I'm not sure why they're doing it, then the conflict between them and Bronson feels manufactured.  Why not make it so a new evil Vegan CEO takes over the company, and it's his idea to turn the franchise vegan.  I'm not sure a Vegan villain has been done before, so that could be kind of funny.

The other motivation issue was the road trip.  I'm not sure why we went on it.  Yeah, it was a way to introduce some entertaining set pieces (I particularly liked the Anti-Mexican Infestation Militia - self-proclaimed protectors of the Border), but I wasn't clear on why the characters didn't just stay in LA.  It felt like they would've gotten a lot more publicity there.  Maybe if, say, they realized they needed to drive to the company headquarters in Omaha to make a real impression, that would've made sense.  But the way it came off in the script was, "Let's go on a road trip." "Why?" "Because I want to."

Now all of this might seem like nitpicking, but motivation is actually very important in comedy.  If we're not convinced that the characters need or desperately want to do what they're doing, then the situations aren't nearly as funny.  For example, in Bridesmaids, when Annie and Helen are trying to out-toast each other at the wedding shower, that scene doesn't work unless we know how deeply each one wants to prove that they're Lillian's best friend.  Without that motivation, they're just two characters on a stage goofing off.  So you want to make sure motivation is always strong in a comedy.

Having said all of that, Jerry's a good writer and this script has some great moments.  The character of Courtney Langdon, an overtly angry FBI agent who's torn between his love of the Gravy Train and his duty to the FBI, was a highlight.  In fact, there was never a moment during this read where I didn't have a smile on my face.  I'm just stuck wondering if there's enough of a story here to carry an entire movie.  Either way, I'll be looking forward to Jerry's next!

Script Link: Ridin The Gravy Train

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

What I Learned: The title of Jerry's document is "RTGTNicholl," which I assume means this is his Nicholl draft.  Here's a tip folks.  Never submit a comedy to Nicholl unless you're doing something TOTALLY ORIGINAL with the script.  Tell your story backwards, out of sequence, in a made-up language, in the first person, whatever.  But I have never, in all the years Nicholl's been running, seen a traditional comedy win.  They're just not comedy-friendly over there.