Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Twit-Pitch Review - Crimson Road

Genre: Dark Comedy/Horror
Premise: (Original Twit-Pitch Logline) Can it get any worse than living next door to a serial killer? It can if you live on CRIMSON ROAD... the whole street is full of them.
About: Twit-Pitch Review Week - 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.  This week I'll be reviewing four of the Twit-Pitch scripts.
Writers: Anothony Filangeri
Details: 103 pages

Emma Roberts as Jill?

Just like that first president of ours, I cannot tell a lie.  This whole Twit-Pitch thing?  I'm starting to have my doubts.  We all know what happened on the last Twit-Pitch script I reviewed, and it only got worse when I went back through the finalists e-mails while looking for four scripts to review this week.  I thought I'd be opening e-mails with scripts attached.  Instead, I received four e-mails that basically said this: "Hi, err, um, Carson. So I was thinking about my script and I realized that, um, I have a job, and because of my job, I can't finish my script in time, for, um, the deadline?  So I'm probably not going to enter.  I hope that's okay and you're not upset."


I knew this would be an experiment.  I said so at the beginning.  But this is still an amazing opportunity for unknown writers to get noticed and nobody seems to be taking it seriously.  I know I could go back through the Top 100 and find replacements for these entries, but I'm probably not going to.  It's hard to drum up enthusiasm for people who don't take this profession seriously.

With all that said, I *have* read the first Twit-Pitch screenplay that's given me hope.  Unfortunately, you're going to have to wait until tomorrow for that.  Today's script, Crimson Road, doesn't quite live up to its premise. However, today's and tomorrow's scripts are a great contrast in what a writer must do to rope in a reader.  Whereas tomorrow's entry takes some hardcore chances, Crimson plays its inspired premise surprisingly safe.  Let's check it out.

17 year-old Jill Harris has just been released back into the wild after spending a couple of years in the looney bin.  Which is why no one believes her when, on one of her first nights back, she sees a man chasing a girl through the woods.  Even her former boyfriend, Stu, and her Deputy big brother, Hunter, give Jill the "Uh huh, we totally believe you" spiel.

But Jill isn't giving up so easily.  She's going to prove she's not the wacko everyone thinks she is. So she jaunts over to Crimson Road, a block full of houses plucked out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and targets the one unkempt house on the block.  It's here where she pops open a trash can and finds the bloodied shirt of the girl she saw in the woods!

The cops race in and arrest the house owner and it's looking like the case is solved.  But not so fast.  The police receive a DVD of an old man in a basement getting tortured!  Have they captured their killer or not??  And if that isn't bad enough, Jill's Uncle Fred, who molested her when she was a child, just got out of jail and moved onto Crimson Road, stirring up all sorts of bad memories in the community.

We eventually come to learn that this block is a community of serial killers who have a set of rules they abide by to ensure never getting caught.  But when Jill begins relentlessly looking into them, they realize that in order to keep their secret, they're going to have to kill her AND her friends.  Although Uncle Fred seems to be the ringleader, a calculated Anthony Perkins type named Ethan is the go-to killer when big jobs need to get done.  So that's who they set loose on Jill.  Will she survive?  Will anyone survive?  That's a question that will continue to be asked as long as there's a Crimson Road.

I think Crimson Road wants to be Scream.  Not so much in the self-referential way.  But it wants to be smart and funny while at the same time conveying a sense of danger for its characters.  The thing is, at least with how it's constructed now, it's neither smart nor funny.  Why do I say this?  Well, the area that's really going to set you apart in these categories is dialogue, and the dialogue here is painfully standard.

Whenever anybody talks to anyone in Crimson Road, it's the most straightforward conversation you can imagine.  People say EXACTLY what they're thinking all the time, making for one boring on-the-nose scene after another.  For example, I don't remember a single character uttering a single sarcastic line in Crimson Road.  And this is about high school kids!  Sarcasm is their second language!

Here's a conversation between Jill's friend Michelle and her ex-boyfriend, Stu.  MICHELLE: "So. Who do you believe?" STU: "Her parents. I think."  "Do you think she is lying?"  "But that is just it. It isn't like she is aware it's a lie.  Her dad thinks the medication she's on somehow screws with her head."  "We don't know if it didn't happen.  What she said a few years back definitely happened, did it not?" "And last week?  You believe someone tried to run her off the road?  I get it, lightning sometimes strikes.  It did earlier in her life.  Several times --"  "--so why couldn't it strike again last week?  Or last night?"  "Maybe last night did happen. But what are we supposed to do?  Believe there's some psychopath in town?"  "(remembering) Shit...I forgot. Her and I are supposed to walk to school together. What do I say?"  "Oh.  When's she gonna be here?"  "Any minute now." "I should probably get going then."

Not only does this not sound like two teenagers talking, it doesn't sound like two people talking.   This is a writer trying to convey information to the reader through two people talking and that's it. There's no nuance, no naturalism, no flavor.  Now let's listen to a conversation between two teenagers in Scream.  Notice the huge difference...

TATUM: "Do you believe this shit?"  SIDNEY: "What happened?" "Oh God!  You don't know?  Casey Becker and Steve Forrest were killed last night." "No way." "And not just killed, Sid. We're talking splatter movie killed--split open end to end." "Casey Becker? She sits next to me in English." "Not anymore.  Her parents found her hanging from a tree.  Her insides on the outside." "Do they know who did it?" "Fucking clueless--they're interrogating the entire school.  Teachers, students, staff, janitors..." "They think it's school-related?" "They don't know. Dewey said this is the worst crime they've ever seen.  Even worse than...(stopping herself) Well it's bad."

Notice how much more fun this dialogue is!  Notice how much more flavor it has!  "We're talking splatter-movie killed." "Her insides on the outside." "Fucking clueless."  "She sits next to me in English." "Not anymore."  As a writer, one of your jobs after you get the logistics of the dialogue down is to add flavor to it.  It doesn't feel like Anthony ever did that.  He just got the relevant information down and stopped there.  Now granted dialogue must be catered to the type of story you're telling and the types of characters speaking it. But I know this - there isn't any situation where teenagers speak like robots.  "Do you think she is lying?" should at the very least have a contraction: "Do you think she's lying?"

On top of this, there's zero subtext.  And subtext is what makes dialogue fun!  Characters need to be in situations where they're saying one thing but meaning another.  They have to be in situations where we know they're hiding something from the person they're talking to.

Take the above scene for example.  Stu used to be Jill's boyfriend before she went to the looney bin.  But it appears that Stu's now with Jill's best friend Michelle and neither of them have told Jill yet. Okay, that's a perfect set-up for subtext!  Stu's over at Michelle's house and Jill shows up unexpectedly.  Michelle and Stu freak out as she's coming up the stairs and she pushes Stu into the closet.  Jill pops in and now you have a conversation between Michelle and Jill.  You could have Jill confide in Michelle that she misses Stu but doesn't know how he feels.  Blah blah blah. You get the idea. A fun scene!  Instead, Anthony has Stu leave right before Jill shows up.  Boring!

Dialogue was just one element of this script that needed work.  I thought the choices here were way too safe and Jill's investigation was way too simplistic.  A solid attempt was made at giving Jill a backstory with her molesting uncle, but it felt mega-forced.  I mean how is it that Uncle Fred has gotten out of jail and moved back into town and nobody from the family knows about it??  There's just no way that happens.

But I wouldn't worry about that for now.  If I were Anthony, I would focus this next draft on dialogue. Learn to have more fun with it, to let the characters go instead of making their conversations so stilted and on the nose.  Learn to incorporate subtext as well to juice things up.  As for what I mean about the choices being too "safe," tune in tomorrow and I'll show you a script that does anything but make safe choices.  You'll be able to see the difference. Until then, what did you think of Crimson Road?

Script link: Crimson Road

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

What I Learned:  After you've come up with your premise, try to put your hero as CLOSE AS POSSIBLE TO DANGER in regards to that premise.  For example, if you're writing a story about the attack on Pearl Harbor, you probably don't want to focus on a character in Montana whose brother is stationed in Hawaii.  You want to focus on the brother stationed in Hawaii!  And you want to put him on one of the ships that's attacked!  Same thing here.  I thought this script would have been a lot better if Jill lived on Crimson Road herself, and slowly began to realize that her father was one of the serial killers (or maybe even her mother!).