Monday, November 12, 2012

Screenplay Review - Giant Monsters Attack

Genre: Comedy-Drama-Supernatural
Premise: A boy and his father move to Tokyo only to learn that it's routinely invaded by giant monsters set on destroying the city.
About:  Lawton has been working in the industry for a long time and is best known for writing "Pretty Woman," or more specifically, the dark spec draft titled "3000" that would eventually become the playful romantic comedy, "Pretty Woman."  Since then he's worked on a ton of things, including creating the Pamela Anderson TV show, "VIP. " This script landed on the 2007 Black List, although I believe this is an updated draft.  Lawton appears to be a guy who likes to experiment.  He avoids the more traveled path, as evidenced by today's script.
Writer: J.F. Lawton
Details: 130 pages

Friday's script was offensive.  Yesterday's script was boring.  Today's script is racist.  Script reading is like a box of choc-co-luts.  You never know what you're gonna get.  Okay okay, maybe "racist" is going a little far.  But to assume that our neighbors in the far east must deal with giant monsters constantly invading their cities because they're Japanese - I'm thinking somebody out there's going to be offended by that.  It's not me.  But somebody.

On the plus side, the idea here is beautifully original.  When you're searching through hundreds of loglines, you're always looking for the one idea that stands out, that promises a unique voice, that clearly states, "Hey, I'm different from everyone else," - because the truth is, 99% of us are the same.  We're rehashing the same ideas with the same characters and the same plots.  Doesn't mean we can't become professional writers if we master those elements.  But for script readers, the true gems are the scripts that don't sound or read like anything else, and I think it's pretty safe to say that a script about a father and son who move to Tokyo only to find that the city is overrun by giant monsters is a unique script.

William Smith works in upper management at your standard Fortune 500 tech company.  Unlike most characters we meet in this situation, however, William loves his job.  But what he's really excited about is a Japanese company he just convinced his bosses to buy.  It's the kind of acquisition that, if it turns out how he thinks it will, will solidify his standing in the company and lead to that big promotion he's been anticipating.

Well that promotion - if you want to call it that - comes sooner than expected.  Turns out the company they just bought is falling apart!  And it's William's job to go over there and fix it.  Or else the only promotion he's going to be getting is the one to the front of the unemployment line.   So he grabs his energetic son, Johnny, and the two fly to Tokyo.

They immediately meet Seiji, William's passive-aggressive handler.  Seiji likes to say things like, "It's alright, Smith-san. We consider all Westerners to be barbarians.  You will be cut considerable... if I may say... slack.  Johnny-san will have time to adjust."  "Barbarians?"  "I mean it in a good way.  Your most modest effort to adapt will be met with accepting amusement.  Please follow me."

Before they even have time to grab their luggage, however, a giant monster named Mongomash comes stumbling towards the airport, destroying everything in sight. Within a few short minutes, William learns why their new acquisition is struggling.  It's not because of TPS report mismanagement.  It's because giant monsters are constantly destroying all their factories!

While Johnny seems to think this is the coolest thing ever, William is justifiably freaked out.  But it's about to get weirder.  Once they reach their new home, they're met by a couple of female ninja neighbors, one of them Johnny's age.  And then there's a samurai waiting outside (complete with badly dubbed English) who declares it his duty to always keep Johnny safe.

So Johnny goes off to school and William goes off to work, trying to solve this giant monsters destroying factories problem.  The big (no pun intended) issue seems to be Cyclotron, an angry reckless monster who likely doesn't have any specific issues with William's company, yet reeks a ton of collateral damage whenever he goes out on one of his morning rampages.  If William has any chance at saving his company, he's going to need to kill Cyclotron.

And they really only have two options to achieve this.  The first is to use one of the company's giant robots to fight off Cyclotron.  The other is to send Johnny to Monster Island so he can ask Megamonster to come back and take down Cyclotron.  Megamonster loves kids but is apparently sick of helping every little boy and girl who asks for safety from some new giant monster, so convincing him is going to be difficult.

The stakes are pretty high because if William doesn't figure this out, he'll have to limp back to America with nothing to his name, bringing Johnny with him, who's become so in love with Tokyo that he can't imagine leaving.  Well Johnny, you better display some hard core convincin' skills then, cause without Megamonster, your chances of defeating Cyclotron are slim.  Says the guy who knew nothing about giant monsters before reading this script.

I liked "Giant Monsters Attack" immediately.  And I actually read it without knowing J.F. Lawton wrote the thing.  I thought this was some crazy young writer trying to make a name for himself, not a veteran who had carved himself a place in spec lore with a script 20 years ago.  I mean if you had told me the writer of "Pretty Woman" had penned this script, I would've told you you were nuts.  And yet I was stoked when I found out.  What writers out there, particularly writers of famous romantic comedies, are trying to push the boundaries of their writing 20 years later with totally out-there concepts?

Besides the neat premise, I loved the sweetness Lawton established with the father-son relationship - how they were going off on this journey together and how their individual happiness was dependent on one another.  I also loved the clever little ways he would explain the absurdity of what we were witnessing.  For example, we needed a reason for why nobody in America knew about these giant monsters.  Lawton has one of the characters explain that Japan has been sending out giant monster reenactments to America in the form of documentaries for years, but apparently the Americans mistook them for entertaining TV shows.

The structure for Giant Monsters Attack is quite solid.  Our main character, William, has a clear goal - to stop Cyclotron before he destroys the company.  The stakes are his job and therefore his family's livelihood.  And the urgency is that Cyclotron is going to strike again soon.  So they have to act fast.  Characters are always doing things here - going after things - so the script, the first half especially, is always moving along, which is what a well-structured screenplay needs to do.

The problem is Lawton falls too in love with his idea.  Once William sets off to build a new robot to kill Cyclotron and Johnny heads off to recruit Megamonster, the script, speaking of monsters, becomes a bit of a Jeckyll and Hyde act.  The big mistake in my eyes was the inclusion of the bandit subplot.   Johnny has to battle these rogue bandits while on his journey to Monster Island.  The problem was...WHO CARES ABOUT THESE BANDITS???  They don't have anything to do with the plot.  They were a random speed bump that destroyed any momentum the script had.

I see this sometimes - a writer including a subplot that doesn't need to be included.  You especially have to be wary of these in a script that's 130 pages long.  If your script is 130 pages long, stuff needs to be cut out, and the whole bandit thing, particularly because the bandits were so disconnected from the rest of the story, would seem like an easy cut.

Unfortunately, this drifty approach of focusing on things that didn't need focusing on continued.  William's storyline with the construction of a new robot really started to go off the rails, at one point including a secondary character being an alien-in-disguise with a secret master plan.  It was there that I confirmed the second act had gotten away from Lawton.

The second act is so key because it's the biggest act by far and therefore the easiest to get lost in.  If you're not on top of your game - if your characters aren't constantly targeting specific goals and objectives that are plot-relevant - pretty soon you're going to be writing vague scenes with unmotivated characters talking about stuff that doesn't tie in with your story.  When William went off to ask the old boss how to build the perfect robot, that's where I gave up.  I mean it was fine.  The character was still pushing towards his goal.  But at a certain point, you have to move your story along, not have your character searching days for a solution.

Despite all that, I still recommend this script because it's funny, it's original, it's got charm, and I loved the father and son characters.  If Lawton could tighten the plot up, I would LOVE to see what a director like Spike Jonez could do with this.

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

What I learned: Avoid throwing subplots into your second act unless they're 100% relevant to the plot.  For example, the bandits.  If those bandits would've been, say, working for our villain, Senjei, their inclusion would've made a lot more sense.  Instead they were random obstacles with no real connection to the story, making defeating them seem irrelevant to the reader.