Premise: (Original Twit-Pitch Logline) 9 strangers wake in a deserted Mexican town besieged by killing machines: they must discover why they've been brought there to survive.
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've been reading the entire screenplays for. Today's 10 pages landed in the "definite" pile, which means it was one of the 7 best.
Writer: James Topham
Details: 118 pages
I remember reading through the first ten pages of this one and thinking...hmmm, now this is different. Writers are trying to come up with high concept ideas all the time. But it's a tough proposition. I encounter a lot of ideas that seem high concept, or are high concept "on paper," but there's something about them that doesn't scream movie high concept, the kind of true bona fide high concept idea you hear and you say, "Oooh, now that's a movie I'd check out." And it's usually a tiny unique addition to a tried-and-true idea that does it. The tried and true idea here is a small group of people fighting off "monsters." The unique twist is that they aren't "monsters," per se, but rather mech machines designed to kill humans.
And I'll just be honest. I'm a sucker for movies where a hero wakes up someplace unfamiliar with no idea how he got there. I know it's cliche. I know it's been done a billion times over, but I just think it's such a compelling situation. That's why I put this one in the coveted "definite" pile when I first read it. However, the "definite" pile hasn't exactly been a bastion of quality. None of the definites so far have even reached "worth the read" status. Let's hope today's script changes that.
John Caan has just woken up in a Mexican pueblo. He doesn't know where he is. He doesn't know how he got here. He's never even been to Mexico. So why he would be here is beyond him. But that's not even on the radar right now. What is on the radar are the noises coming from outside.
Caan peeks out the window to see the most horrifying most baffling sight he's ever seen in his life. Large mech machines, with saws, with machetes, with lasers, with guns, are massacring a bunch of people in the town square.
While this would be too much for any sane man to handle, Caan's slightly insane. And he knows exactly what he has to do. GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE. So he loads up his gun and heads outside to get the huh-zell out of Dodge. There are people dying all around him but he doesn't care. It isn't until a small girl is in trouble that he actually does anything. But after saving her, he slips out and heads through the desert to safety.
Except it's not that easy. Far off in the desert he encounters a huge electrically charged fence. And more MECHS, standing guard, making sure no humans make it past them. They chase Caan back to the town and it's time for plan B.
Back in the town we meet a series of other characters - Michael, the almost Alpha-Male, Lily, the mother of the child Caan saved, Petra, a 20-something goth girl, Tom, a 50-something ex-cop, and a few more. This is Caan's army. And they're all looking to him for leadership.
But Caan's not interested in being a leader. He just wants to find a way out of this situation. Unfortunately, that'll mean fending these mechs off for a few days while he figures things out. So he reluctantly rallies the troops and does the best job he can.
The thing is, nothing goes quite as expected. The weirdness of this situation just keeps getting weirder. For example, sometimes the mechs don't want to kill them. They just want to toy with them. And (spoiler), the group finds a room deep under the town where 9 bodies lie. A closer look at the bodies show that they're exact copies of THEM.
So yeah, shit is pretty f*cked up! Caan not only needs to find out how to get them out of this alive, but also what the hell is going on here. And boy is it a shocker when he does figure out the truth!
First off, this is superbly written. The lines are lean. The prose is bare but descriptive. This feels like a spec. It feels like something that deserves to go out wide and vie for producers' attention.
And it nails a lot of its components as well. Our anti-hero leader, Caan, is mysterious and dark enough to keep our interest throughout. Dare I say he's a worthy successor to Mad Max himself with his selfish yet reluctantly compassionate demeanor.
The situation driving the story is so damn weird (human-killing mechs) that you have to keep reading to find out why the hell this is all happening. And surprisingly enough - while I admit a tad far-fetched and "out there," the explanation is - it worked for me in regards to the universe Topham created. That's where these scripts always fall apart. An outrageous situation to start the script, yet the writer never explains that situation in a satisfactory way. I don't know if it's that Topham is such a good writer that you believed it all despite its weirdness, or if it honestly just felt right, but it made sense to me and I was satisfied.
I liked the nice little twists and turns also. For example, early on Caan finds a drawing in a school that shows a man shot in the head, the same man he just saw shot in the exact same way minutes ago. And (spoiler), when the characters find dead versions of themselves in a room...that's when I really took notice. I like those "sit up" moments in a script - moments that are so shocking or weird or cool, that you actually readjust yourself and sit up. That doesn't happen very often!
The script is always kept moving by the inherent GSU. The goal is to hold of the mechs and find a way out of here. The urgency is the constant barrage of mechs that keep coming. And the stakes are, obviously, their lives.
I liked how Topham always kept his characters active too. One of the pitfalls of placing your characters in a confined area is that you'll just have them sitting around doing nothing for long stretches of time. In order to combat this, you must always give them a plan, always keep them trying to achieve something, never sitting down and talking in safety for too long. I remember I reviewed an Amateur script awhile back called "Zombie Knights," that had this exact problem. The characters just got inside the castle grounds and hung out. Nothing happened for long stretches of time. That can NEVER be the case in this kind of story or in a spec script period.
The only real issues I had here surrounded Caan. Even though I liked him (and I'll go into why in the 'what I learned' section), there were times where he tested me. He was almost too brooding. And the eventual reveal to his backstory was boring. It could've been a lot better. And seriously, writers, don't have your heroes deliberately kill nice animals - EVER. When Caan kills the dog/coyote in this, I was like, "Really?? Are you trying to make us hate this guy?" I find that a little bit of dark or gallows humor can quickly up the likability quotient of your anti-hero. Let's go that route instead of making him a dog-killer.
Anyway, this one was fun! And it now takes the lead as THE BEST TWIT-PITCH SCRIPT OF THE CONTEST! Check it out yourself in the link below!
Script link: Proving Ground (Since the writer didn't want his contact info on the script, if you like the script and want to get in touch with the writer, e-mail me and I'll put you in contact).
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn't for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: When you have a brooding protagonist, an anti-hero, or a protagonist who doesn't talk much, it can be hard for the audience to like/sympathize with him. The lack of talking makes it difficult to identify with or get into the hero's head. Therefore, look to make us like your character through action or choice. Proving Ground does a great job of this early on. While everyone's fighting off the mechs, Caan is simply trying to escape. That moment presents itself when a mech leaves its guard at the gate to go kill a little girl. Caan has a choice now. He can slip out the unattended gate or save the girl. In the end, he chooses to save the girl. It's this action, this choice that makes us like him! Oh, and always place these moments EARLY ON. It's important that we like our hero right away!