Sunday, October 28, 2012

Amateur Week - Pocket Dial

Welcome to Amateur Week!  All week we're going to be reviewing scripts from amateur writers that got the best response from this post.  Time for you guys to take advantage of the opportunity.  Hope we find something great.  But even if we don't, it should be a great week for learning why screenwriting is so hard!

Genre: Comedy
Premise: (original logline) With temperamental technology thwarting them at every turn, three brothers get tangled up in love, lust and infidelity.
About: For those who remember, I wasn't a fan of this logline.  The phrase "temperamental technology" tripped me up (seemed way too complicated for a simple premise), and I always get nervous when loglines don't lay out a clear objective.  My experience is that when there's no clear objective stated in the premise, there's no clear objective in the script, and we get a wandering story as a result.  However, the people who read the first ten pages of Pocket Dial spoke, and the general consensus was they liked'em.  I was more than happy to be proven wrong, so I pocket dialed Chris Head with the hopes of leaving him some good news.
Writer: Chris Head
Details: 99 pages of script on the wall

This isn't going to be good news.

I wanted it to be good news. But we're going to have to turn this review into more of a lesson.  I realized pretty quickly that Pocket Dial was going to dial up my initial fear when I read the logline - that an unclear logline will always result in an unclear screenplay.

When you read a subpar script, you always have that "Uh-oh Moment." It's the moment where you realize the script isn't going to work. And it's a sad moment, because most of the time it happens early, and you still have a hundred-plus pages to go.

In "Pocket Dial," the "Uh-oh" moment comes when one character tells another character he "fuck-ranks" women at work when he's bored.  Not only did the conversation not push the story forward, but it was told to us via flashback.  Why are we flashing back within 15 pages of the opening to an event that seemingly happened a few days ago?  It just feels sloppy, like the writer is more concerned with forcing jokes into the script than moving the story forward.

It's not that you can't put fuck-ranking into your script, but Chris should've figured out a way to do it in the present - in the midst of a scene that mattered.  It seems like the point of the scene is to introduce a hot co-worker to one of our characters?  So why not make that meeting a real scene then?  Something that matters?  Something that sets up a storyline for that character at work (i.e. he's got to close this account or he's not getting the promotion).  Then he and another worker can be trading scraps of paper where they're "fuck-ranking" the women in the room.  Now the "fuck ranking" is happening in the midst of an important scene so you get the joke WHILE pushing the story forward, as opposed to forcing an unnatural 2-days-ago flashback into the first act (in general, you should just avoid flashbacks at all costs.  Unless they're done perfectly, they're usually terrible).

As for the plot, Pocket Dial focuses on three brothers, each with a unique problem.  The first brother is 32 year old Clint, who's trying to date a girl, Amy, who thinks he's boring as hell.  Clint is way too nice, but Amy is kinda desperate so she's going out on these 2nd, 3rd, and 4th dates out of fear that if she doesn't, she's going to end up alone.

Clint's younger brother, Jim, is about to get married.  But his wife is a workout freak and is so obsessed with their wedding, that when Amy's boss, Liz, takes a liking to him, he helps Clint out by double-dating, if only to extend the amount of time Amy gives Clint to change her mind.

Finally, there's Brad, the oldest of the three.  Brad is already married but is miserable because his God-fearing wife won't give up the sexay time.  This has driven Brad to take an interest in his young supple hot co-worker, Padma, an Indian girl who does't seem to believe in traditional Indian values (she purposely mispronounces Brad's name as "Bad") and makes it clear that whenever Brad wants to kama, she's sutra.

If there's a main thread to the story, it's the brothers trying to help Clint man up and get Amy.  Because Clint is so nice and sweet, he has NO GAME whatsoever, which means the brothers have to pull out all the tricks to turn him into a man.  In the meantime, we watch as both Jim and Brad try to resolve the issues with their own significant others, both of whom seem so far gone that there's no hope.

Okay, we'll start with the obvious here.  The title and logline indicate somewhat of a hook, in that we're going to see how present day technology affects realationships.  However, outside of a "butt dial" within the first ten pages, I'm not sure I saw one other instance of current technology affecting these relationships. That's going to be frustrating to a reader - that you promised something and didn't deliver.  And since there's only that one instance of technology affecting relationships, the script really doesn't have a hook.  It's just three guys dealing with relatiopnship problems, which is something we've seen thousands of times before, and done much better, leaving the reader with the question of, "What's the point?"

Another huge issue for me is that the main character goal in the script - Clint trying to get Amy - is one we don't care about because Amy's such a bitch.  She thinks she's much better than Clint.  The only reason she's even going out with him is because her boss wants to hook up with Clint's brother.  So we're watching this guy obsessively try to get this girl who we detest.  If I don't want the main character to achieve his goal, why would I want to read on?

In Chris's defense, though, I feel like there are instances of this approach working.  I just can't think of any (can you?).  Maybe it's just me, but when the main character is going after a goal we don't want him to achieve, it's hard to enjoy the story.

The script also falls into that dreadful "observational comedy" pitfall.  You know, when characters are sitting around, discussing superheroes and their take on Dora The Explorer.  No story is being moved forward during these scenes.  We're literally just watching two people share their observations about innocuous things.  I suppose this can work if the writer is really hilarious and has great unforgettable characters, like in "When Harry Met Sally," but even the observational comedy in "When Harry Met Sally" was theme-relevant.  All the observations had to do with love versus friendship, which was the theme of the movie.  What do Dora The Explorer and superheroes have to do with current technology?

If I were advising Chris on this script, here's what I would tell him to do.  I'd give each of the brothers a strong goal in their storyline, either relationship-related or work-related, something that pushes their story along whenever we cut back to them.  For Clint, that goal is obvious - get Amy.  For Brad, it might be a work goal - to get promoted (then we make Padma the boss's daughter, a direct obstacle to him achieving his goal).  For Jim, it might be that he thinks his wife is cheating on him, so he follows her around to catch her in the act.  Now, whenever we cut back to anyone, they're all going after something, making sure the story is always moving.

Second, we need to make Amy someone we actually want Clint to win.  If she's an annoying selfish "I can do so much better than the main character" type of chick, we're going to be frustrated cause we WON'T want Clint to get her.  I'd also consider making Clint less of a wuss.  He's just soooo nice and so naive and such a wuss.  I kind of detested the guy.  In general, be wary of making your main character a wuss.  Audiences tend not to like wusses.

And finally (or probably firstly) you have to decide what the hook of your story's going to be.  It can't just be three guys experiencing relationships in life.  There's no hook there and you're going to be compared to other movies and scripts that have done this much better.  If you're going to use the hook about technology, then you have to go all out with that hook.  Scene after scene needs to be dealing with the way today's technology affects relationships.  You can't just slap a snazzy idea on a logline to lure people in and then not explore it.  You're going to piss readers off.

I think this speaks to the importance of a logline.  If you go back to the logline for Pocket Dial, you'll see that it doesn't define a clear objective.  It's not surprising, then, that the script tends to wander.  I know this critique was in your face but I'm hoping Chris realizes how the importance of getting all this stuff right is going to vastly improve his writing.  These are the things you need to nail if you want someone to pay a bunch of money for your screenplay.  I'm wishing Chris lots of luck.  Get back in there, apply these changes, and kick ass!

Script link: Pocket Dial

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

What I learned: Writing scripts like these (the wacky misadventures of modern-day relationships) are tough because the writers who are good at them are naturally gifted at finding funny unique current angles to the dating world.  Just read the original spec draft (not the dreadful final movie draft) of "Going The Distance."  Those are the guys you're competing with.  It's probably a better idea to find a unique hook for a story and exploit it.  That way, you don't have to be perfect because a producer might fall in love with the hook and buy your script on the strength of that alone.