Monday, April 30, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Last Drop

Today's Black List screenplay explores two people falling in love, with one huge problem standing in the way.

Genre: Romantic Dramedy (is that a genre?)
Premise: An alcoholic falls in love with a woman who doesn’t drink. As their relationship intensifies, he must work harder and harder to keep his secret from her.
About: Finished in the middle of last year’s Black List.
Writer: Brandon and Phillip Murphy
Details: Sep 29, 2010 – 111 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

One of the stranger things about last year’s Black List was that there was not one but TWO scripts about alcoholics. But that’s not the freakiest part. They were both placed RIGHT NEXT TO EACH OTHER on the list. Dew-dew-dew-dew Dew-dew-dew-dew (Twilight Zone score). Is that not bizarre or WHAT??

Okay, it’s not that bizarre at all but just go with it. It’s hard coming up with new angles for every review. Alcoholic cloning cousin scripts felt fresh when I thought of it.

So The Last Drop’s principle cast member is a guy named Clay, a good-looking dude in his 30s. Quite charming. Funny. Can have you laughing for 5 straight hours on the phone if need be. Not only that, but he’s fearless. He can walk up to any woman in a bar and have an 80% conversion rate. But that’s part of the problem. Clay spends nearly every free moment of his life IN bars.

In fact, he works at The New Yorker, one of the most prestigious magazines in the country, and rarely shows up for work. The thing is, he’s such an awesome writer that they let him slide. In fact, they kind of know he’s an alcoholic. But as long as he delivers the goods, they don’t care.

So one day, while casually slurping down a drink that’s probably straight alcohol, he notices a beautiful woman sitting alone at a table. This is the kind of girl that makes a boy forget about all the other girls out there. There’s something behind those eyes that he has to know everything about.

So he downs his drink and approaches this girl we’ll come to know as Holly. Just by the way they’re looking at each other, we know they’ve already fallen. They may not have said it yet, but we know. When love grabs hold of you, it beams off of every skin cell on your body.

Before Clay can reach the second act of his play though, Holly’s lunch date shows up – her father. Talk about the mother of all cockblocks! Luckily, Holly slips him her card before he goes. He’s got her number. SWEEEEET!

Clay celebrates, of course, by getting unabashedly wasted. But as all of us guys know, getting wasted with a new girl’s phone number is a cocktail recipe for disaster. That night, Clay calls and leaves Holly FOURTEEN DRUNK-DIAL VOICEMAILS. I don’t care how much a girl liked your first meeting. 14 drunk-dial voicemails puts you squarely in the category of PSYCHO. Poor Clay realizes that he blew his shot. Ain’t no coming back from that one.

Or is there? When you’re in love, you don’t give up. Even when the odds aren’t in your favor. It turns out Holly runs a bakery – something he finds via a little stalking. Never underestimate a person with too much time on their hands and Google. So Clay decides to write a glowing review of her place in the New Yorker, and it turns her languishing business into the star of New York City. After that, Holly has no choice but to give Clay a second chance.

The two start hanging out, and it’s then when Clay realizes Holly doesn’t drink. And since Clay doesn’t NOT drink, every time they’re together, Clay has to sneak into the bathroom or some other private location to get WASTED. It’s sad but it’s the only way he can operate.

At a certain point, however, Holly begins to suspect something’s up. Clay isn’t always acting…balanced. Naturally, this all ends up in a huge train-wreck of a finale that you just knew was coming. This is the kind of stuff that happens in a whirlwind romance. Feelings and circumstances are so intense that they eventually come to a fiery head. However, it’s what you do after that collision that determines where the relationship goes. Will Clay manage to save his chance at true love?

This was a different kind of script. I'm not sure I've ever read a romantic comedy about alcoholism before. That alone makes it unique. But it also makes it a bit of a struggle tonally. Are you supposed to be laughing about the situations Clay finds himself in or are you supposed to be sad? I'm not sure. Because a guy passing out on his front sidewalk after an endless night of drinking is giggle-worthy at 19. Not so much when you're 30.

There seemed to be something off about the structure as well. When you write a love story, you need that middle section where you sell the two characters falling in love. It's essential for the rest of the screenplay to work because we have to feel that love in order to care that they get back together in the end.

So what’s weird about this script is that the main character loses the girl right away - immediately after they first meet. This requires the story to focus on Clay trying to get a girl back that he never really had in the first place. And since that takes some time, by the time he does convince her to be with him, the writers are forced to scrunch that “falling in love” section into a tiny portion late in the second act. In fact, I think the extent of their falling in love happens in a montage.

For that reason, the final act, when Clay goes to Holly's parents, feels a little sudden. We haven't experienced these two together long enough to mine the most out of this sequence. And it's too bad, because it has all the makings of a great sequence. A guy meeting a girl's parents for the first time when he's absolutely obliterated, yet trying to hide it from them.

The Last Drop was a unique script in more ways than one. One thing that really stuck out to me about it was its montages. I've never really liked montages because the idea of a script is to transport the reader into a world where he’s not thinking about the words on the page. Montages are so mechanical (they’re often numbered or listed) that they kill that suspension of disbelief. And yet they're a necessary evil because sometimes in a screenplay, you need to bridge time.

The Murphys have a very non-invasive way of writing montages. They sort of write these mini-scenes one on top of another so it doesn’t actually feel like you’re reading a montage. It definitely takes up more space but I loved how the events blended into each other as opposed to a feeling like a grocery list. It read more…organic I guess. And organic is a good thing!

In the end, I genuinely wanted to see if Clay was going to get better. I think that's the reason you keep reading a screenplay like this. Remember that this is a story about characters – specifically a relationship - so it’s not as GSU applicable. Goals are replaced by questions. Such as, will Clay get better? Will Clay and Holly end up together? That's why we keep reading. We want to know the answers to those questions.

So did I like The Last Drop? Yeah, um-hm. I did. Not only did I like it for the reasons I listed above, but I liked it because it was different. I've just never seen this subject matter tackled quite the way it was here. If you're a reader, you're always looking for that slightly different fresh angle. This had that.

Check this one out if the subject matter interests you. Oh, and don’t give up on it. It gets better as it goes along. Patience will reward you.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: This script is a great reminder of why structure is so important. If you play with structure too much, you can be stuck trying to do big important things in very small spaces. In this case, because it takes so long to get our characters together, the screenplay has less space to sell their relationship. That's not to say it can't be done. It just becomes more difficult because it's always more difficult to sell important pieces of the story in a small amount of time. So feel free to play around with structure. You never want the structure of your script to feel *too* predictable. But know that if you bend too much, you can put yourself in a position that’s difficult to recover from.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Screenplay Review - Eden's Folly (Amateur Friday)

NEW Amateur Friday Submission Process: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, a PDF of the first ten pages of your script, your title, genre, logline, and finally, why I should read your script. Use my submission address please: Your script and “first ten” will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effect of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.

Genre: Drama/Western/Period/Mystery/Thriller?
Premise: A left-for-dead rancher wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of who he is. He goes off in a search to find out what happened.
About: This script came to me via my notes service.
Writer: Ryan Binaco
Details: 104 pages

Scriptshadow pick for Damian! - Jeremy Davies

So at the last second, the writer who was having his script reviewed for Amateur Friday e-mailed to tell me that he wanted to rescind his review. Maybe he was afraid of trying to follow Kelly Marcel’s amazing interview, but whatever the case, this was a nightmare scenario for me. You guys can probably tell that I’m overworked as it is. Now I'm reading two scripts for one review.

But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I’d just finished giving notes on a script which I thought was really interesting. I told him I didn't know who to send it to because it doesn't fit into any particular genre. But at the same time, it's one of the few scripts I've read this year that's kept me turning each page in anticipation.

So while the script isn’t easily categorizable (word?), there's something about it where if it found the right person, someone who knew what to do with it, it could be special. And that's why I decided to review it.

The script has a great opening. The year is 1846. We see the dead body of a rancher in the middle of the desert being pecked away at by buzzards, when all of a sudden his eyes shoot open. He’s still alive. The rancher stumbles up, swatting away at the birds, quickly noticing the huge gash on his head, something that whoever left him here did to him.

If only that was the worst of it. That gash – or the result of it - has left him without any memories. He doesn't know his name, he doesn't know how he got here, he doesn't know anything. All he knows now is that he's in the middle of the desert, dying of thirst, with no idea where to go.

So he just starts walking, eventually finding a disheveled man living in a cave. Cave Man, Damian, takes him in and shows him how to live off the land, even when the land has little to offer. The problem is that he’s very possessive. Every time the rancher tells him he wants to leave to find out who he is, Damian tells him that it's a stupid idea. He has a safe place to live and is well fed. Why give that up?

Not only that, but there seems to be some animal/ beast stalking them on the outskirts of the camp. Even if Rancher did decide to ignore Damian and go out on his own, chances are this "thing" would get him.

At a certain point, however, Rancher discovers that Damian has a deep dark secret, one that explains why he doesn't want Rancher to leave. This forces Rancher to high-step it out of there and, once again, stumble through unfamiliar terrain to find out who he is and where he came from.

Eventually, he makes it out of the desert and comes upon a farm. The farm's owner, an older man named John, lives there with his daughter, Terry. Initially, John doesn't believe the rancher's story and locks him up in his barn. But over time, he loosens up and allows the rancher to stay with them. After a while, he finally decides to take John to town and find out if anyone recognizes him.

When the rancher does discover the truth, it's not what he had hoped, but this will lead him down a new path, one where he’s accepted into John’s family. However it’s at that home that a dark secret threatens to destroy John, Rancher, and John’s daughter.

At first I didn't know what to think of this script. Actually, that's a lie. This script confounded me almost the whole way through. But in a good way. One of the things I'm always preaching to you guys is to take your stories in a different direction - one the reader doesn't expect. That's a lot easier said than done because the direction still has to make sense. It still has to feel like a logical story as opposed to a bunch of weird scenes blended together. I actually just read the first ten pages of a script over in Twit-Pitch. I was definitely surprised by the way the pages evolved, but it was too random to make sense of, too unfocused to be coherent.

With Ryan’s script here, we go from a guy stuck in the desert, to a guy being nursed back to health by a strange man, to a guy living on a ranch with an old man and his daughter. Each successive storyline was unpredictable, and yet it all fit together through the prism of this specific mystery our hero had to solve. I was really impressed by that.

Another thing that sticks with you when you read this script is Ryan’s voice. He has an uncanny ability to create atmosphere by finding the beauty (and the darkness) in seemingly mundane things. For example, he'll highlight the way the shadows dance against the wall via moonlight right before Rancher goes to sleep.

This is another thing where if you do it wrong, it turns into a disaster. It’ll feel like a writer focusing on mundane details that don't add anything to the screenplay other than a higher page count. But Ryan uses such a sparse writing style to begin with that this attention to detail adds instead of detracts from the story. Where this kind of thing becomes problematic is when writers are writing seven line paragraphs describing a room. Here, Ryan picks and chooses the “atmosphere” moments and keeps them very short. No more than a line or two.

Another thing I loved about the script was the way Ryan dealt with his amnesiac main character. I think when I read the logline about a man waking up in the desert with no idea of how we got there, I was expecting another Buried clone. It was going to be cliché – beginning with an intense first 20 pages, only to peter out quickly after the writer ran out of ideas.

But Ryan seems to be genuinely interested in how amnesia affects his hero. There's a deep set need for Rancher to find out who he is. It isn't just a function of the story – a goal without substance. It’s an organic character goal. I don't often see amateurs caring so much about these things, yet these are the exact things that separate writers from the pack. You need to explore your characters on a deeper level and get into what they want. You have to commit to them.

And I like the little ways Ryan keeps you interested. When you have a “slow” script like this one, you must utilize tools like mystery and suspense and anticipation so that we'll want to keep watching. Primarily, we're interested in who the rancher is. But there are also other things that keep our interest. For example, John makes it clear that the one thing the rancher cannot do is look at his daughter in an inappropriate way. If he does, he'll kill him.

Also, John has a room that he forbids Rancher from going into. It's a small thing, but in the back of our heads, we can't stop thinking about that room and what might be in it. By doing this, you don't have to rush the script along at a breakneck speed. The mystery does the work for you. If we want to know the secret behind something, time will appear to move faster, so even though the script is “slow,” it seems fast.

I did have a few issues with the script, however. The first one was the beast at the beginning. I was never clear what the beast was - was it real or fake? To be honest, it kind of felt like one of those “film school” choices. Like, “Ooooh. Maybe the beast is him!” I don't know, it didn't quite fit for me.

But my big issue was the ending. At a certain point, we learn who Rancher is. Yet there were still 30-40 pages left in the script. This is always a dangerous choice. The primary problem you've set up at the beginning of the screenplay drives the story. If you answer it - what's left for the audience to latch onto? Why do they want to keep reading if the main question has been answered?

For this reason, the final act essentially becomes a "wrapping up" of the family story. There is sort of a final twist, but I felt like it was telegraphed too clearly earlier on (it was really the only way for the story to go), so it landed with a whimper. This left the final act to be the weakest of the screenplay, and as we all know, you can't do that.

But I'll tell you this. Ryan is definitely a writer to watch out for. I’m not sure how to turn this into a sellable movie, again because the genre is so wishy-washy. But I'm hoping somebody out there “gets” Ryan and helps him maximize his potential. He has a ton of it.

This one is worth the read.

Script Link: Eden's Folly

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I’d be wary of answering the question that drives your story too early. It puts you in a bind for your third act because we already found out what we wanted to find out. I know who Rancher is, so I’m done. If you *do* need to answer the big question before the final act, replace it with another equally or bigger question. I think Ryan tried to do this with the mystery of who Damian was. But we already knew who Damian was, so it fell short. For example, maybe Rancher finds out what happened to him and who did it, but he still doesn’t know *why* it happened. And the *why* can be the big final act reveal.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Screenwriter Interview - Kelly Marcel

Okay so a little background on this one. Last week I read this AMAZING screenplay, Saving Mr. Banks, about Walt Disney’s endless journey to convince the author of Mary Poppins to allow him to make a movie out of her famous character. Banks is being developed at Disney with a dream cast rumored, led by Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.

Anyway, while I was reading it, I was tweeting about how awesome it was. And some girl kept freaking out, responding to my tweets like I was announcing free money or something. She was talking about dancing on tables and just really excited. I was like, “Uhhhh, who is this freak?” I mean, I’m all for getting excited about me liking a script, but this was overboard. Eventually I figured out that person was Kelly Marcel, the WRITER of Saving Mr. Banks.

Naturally, then, I told her she had to give me an interview. I don’t know if she normally responds well to being told what to do but she agreed on one condition. That we talk about dogs and cake. Hey, you know those Brits. They can be a little [me making cuckoo noise]. I’d soon find out the complex inner workings of Miss Marcel, rooted by our shared passion for cupcakes. I explained to her that there was this place in Chicago that served this delectable cupcake called the “cookie monster” which had cookie dough baked into the cupcake. I’m pretty sure that if she wasn’t working on Banks rewrites at Disney, that she might have hopped on the plane right then. Anyway, that might help you understand a few parts of this interview. Enjoy!

SS: You had a totally rational stipulation for doing this interview. You said you’d only do it if I asked you about cake and dogs. So let’s start with cake. Do you prefer yellow cake with chocolate frosting or chocolate cake with…yellow… frosting?

KM: I just like cake; any kind of cake with any kind of frosting. It seems I have a cake-shaped hole in my life since hearing about the Cookie Monster cupcake you mentioned the other day.

SS: You’re from the UK. What’s the big difference between British dogs and American dogs?

KM: US dogs speak with funny accents, wear designer clothes and ride around in strollers. UK dogs are furless, aloof, survive mainly on a diet of bananas and can say the words “bugger” and “helicopter.”

SS: I should also point out that you didn’t want to do the interview because, quote, you’re “not interesting.” What’s not interesting about you?

KM: The only people who are interesting are the ones who have the banana helicopter dogs. Mine are both from Norway where dogs are rubbish. They just eat, sleep and shit and only know the word “ball.”

SS: Okay, now we actually get to talk screenwriting! Can you tell me how long you’ve been screenwriting?

KM: 10 looooonnnng yeeeeeeears.

SS: About how long would you say it was before you started to “get it?” And what script were you writing when that happened? Why do you think that was the script that signified your big break-through?

KM: I would say that the rewrite I did on Bronson was a significant moment for me. It forced me to overcome the paralyzing fear of beginning. I was writing on set during shooting and knowing that whatever went on the page was going to be filmed allowed a great freedom. It taught me to write with abandon and stop worrying so much - some people are going to like it, some people aren’t but at some point you have to start tapping the keys and just do it. I sound like a Nike spokesperson.

SS: In many ways, your screenwriting journey was harder than most. You not only found success, but you did so from another country! For all those screenwriters who complain that they can’t break into Hollywood because they live in Alabama or Kansas, tell us what the secret is to breaking into Hollywood from so far away.

KM: I came to Hollywood! I am very lucky to have a UK agent who also has a great deal to do with the US side of the business. Hi Lucinda! (She reads this blog.) She introduced me to Aaron Kaplan who is a producer over here (I say here because I am in LA at the moment) and he convinced me to come over and pitch Terra Nova and a show called Westbridge I had been tinkering with. TN needed an American sized budget and Westbridge was about the death penalty so they were never going to work in the UK. The wonderful thing about Hollywood is that people want you to succeed here. The tricky thing is getting through the door and for that I would say you have to have a Lucinda who can get you an Aaron who then got me a Phil and a David – who are my really good looking agents at WME (they read this too.)

SS: Okay, Saving Mr. Banks. After this script, I was in love with Pamela, Walt Disney, the script, and you. The biggest thing that stuck out to me about the script was the GREAT CHARACTERS. What’s your approach to writing characters? How do you make them come to life?

KM: You’re in love with me? I’ve been in love with you since the moment you top 25’d my script! Cookie Monster wedding cake?

I have to love my characters before I can write them - no matter how unlikeable they may appear to be. The first thing I do on any project I write is I put pictures of all the characters on the walls of my office (or wherever I am working.) In this case the film was based on real life events so pictures of Walt, PLT, the Shermans were easy to find. If it’s a fictional character like Ralph I’ll find a picture of someone I imagine he looks like. I will also surround myself with anything else that is useful so… pictures of the Disney lot, as it was, exteriors and interiors of PLT’s house. I want to inhabit the world I am creating from the inside rather than as an onlooker. For me that’s the best way to crawl into the people of the piece and feel like I am there with them. I hope that it can then become an encompassing experience for the reader too. Everything, for me, starts and ends with character; I am definitely not a plot driven writer.

SS: I discussed in my review of the script that the main character is pretty darn unlikable. You must have been aware that this might be a problem. Did this worry you? How did you approach it so that we would root for Pamela?

KM: I think if I had allowed myself to think that people would dislike Pamela I would never have taken on the task. I approached her with a great feeling of tenderness; I was moved when I read her story and I enjoyed how ornery she was. I always wanted her to be a character you loved to hate but whom, over time, you came to understand was damaged and could forgive even if it was just a little. Creativity comes from all sorts of places and I admired Pamela for being able to create a character so beloved out of so much pain. John Lee Hancock talks about how her life was shards of glass but that once you put those shards into a frame they become a thing of beauty. I guess that’s what we both hope the audience will see too.

SS: I usually hate flashbacks. But I loved these. How does one make flashbacks work and, in general, when do you advise writers use them and when do you advise users avoid them?

KM: I hate flashbacks too. I still question myself about whether I could have told the back-story differently. In this instance though, I like to think that they work because, despite their constantly informing the present, they actually feel like a film in their own right. At least I hope they do!

SS: You also have some great secondary characters here, such as Ralph, the driver. Do you always put a lot of stock into secondary characters? How do you approach them?

KM: Secondary characters are so much fun. They don’t have the enormous weight on their shoulders that your leads do so those are the characters with whom you can play a bit more. In the Ralph instance, he didn’t actually come along until I was way into the writing. It’s weird saying that because he feels like such an integral piece of the puzzle now. I was starting to feel that there was no one in the story that PLT wasn’t damaging in some way and I didn’t want to be untruthful – in reality she had a lot of friends who loved her. I wanted her to have at least one ally or someone who just wasn’t affected by her in the same way as everyone else.

Hang on! I’m blathering on about Ralph and that’s not even the question you asked me! I do put a lot of stock in secondary characters they’re the ones who let you see a different side to the situation or person in the situation and I approach them as deeply as I do every other character. However small, their story must also come full circle.

SS: I drop-dead LUVVVED that final Walt Disney monologue. You have to tell me what the secret is to writing a great monologue. It’s something that’s not talked about a lot in screenwriting circles, but it should be, as I rarely see it done well. Do you have a checklist or do you just roll with it?

KM: Oh maannn, that’s a hard one. I think doing a monologue - particularly where you are trying to convince someone of something - is a bit like being a lawyer putting together a closing speech. You have to be manipulative without it seeming like you are. I think they are hands down the hardest thing to write and they really only begin to come together in the re-writing-- way into the re-writing. I will be working on that monologue up until shooting and probably never think it’s right. It’ll be one of those situations like when you’ve had an argument and then days later you think “Shit! I should have said that!” ten years from now I’ll be like “I’ve got it!”

SS: Let’s switch over to TV for a second. You created Terra Nova, a HUGE TV show. I don’t know much about the TV world but I know getting a show that huge on the air is difficult. Can you tell me how you did it? I’m so curious.

KM: I wrote a 15 page and a 30 page bible that my UK agent (hi Lucinda!) was convinced she could sell in the States. I thought she was out of her mind. I didn’t realize she had the powerhouse that is Aaron Kaplan in her back pocket and the rest is history. It’s really about those two people and their connections and ability to get me into the networks with an idea. Aaron helped the show along by bringing in a much more established show runner – Craig Silverstein - to pitch with me. I was a nobody at the time, so without Craig I don’t believe anyone would have let me in the toilets let alone the meeting rooms!

SS: What’s the big difference between writing a movie and writing a show like Terra Nova? What are the unique challenges that you only get in the television world?

KM: With television you are writing to commercial break. It’s a four-act structure and every act needs to end with a cliffhanger that makes the audience want to come back and that is HARD to do. It’s entirely different to a film script, which has more of a slow burn and has less of the big jagged MOMENTS you need in television, network particularly. I am fascinated by watching Vince Gilligan do episode after episode on Breaking Bad and making it surprising, exciting and fresh every time. That’s writing as far as I am concerned; that’s where the really hard work is.

SS: Because I’m a selfish person and I need constant gratification, I have to ask you this. You’re a fan of Scriptshadow. You’ve been reading it for a long time. Was there anything you read on the site that really helped you as a screenwriter, in particular with Saving Mr. Banks? If not, could you lie and make something up?

KM: Yes. It really helped to know that someone out there could get their hands on any draft of any script at any time. It filled me absolute dread that one day it might be my script. Basically you terrified me into trying to be a better writer.

SS: What’s the hardest thing about writing for you? How do you combat it?

KM: Beginning. Always beginning. I will do anything…literally anything if I can get out of starting a script. Washing up suddenly becomes a joy. The blank page is my enemy and it’s normally not until there is absolutely nothing left to procrastinate about anymore that I click the dreaded green f.

SS: Finally, I figured I’d pitch you a project we could co-write together. Note that I incorporated your two favorite things. My idea is about a dog who gets jealous that his owner is getting married so he steals the $20,000 dollar wedding cake the day before the wedding. What do you think???

KM: Is it a Cookie Monster wedding cake?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Screenplay Review - You Are Here

The creator of Mad Men decides to tackle his passion project while on hiatus from the show.

Genre: Drama/Comedy
Premise: In the vein of Sideways, an alcoholic weatherman and his bi-polar unemployed best friend find out that the friend’s recently deceased father has left him a small fortune.
About: Matt Weiner, of Mad Men fame, writes a script that is just about as far away from Mad Men as Don Draper is from fidelity. Maybe that’s because Weiner has been writing and rewriting this script for over a decade! This is his dream project, and Mad Men’s success has finally allowed him to make it.
Writer: Matt Weiner
Details: 120 pages – August 21, 2011 (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Am I wrong in assuming that John Hamm is going to play Steve?

I am here!

So are you guys.

What a perfect way to start the “You Are Here” review.

I definitely need SOME way to start the review because…wow…what a weird script. It’s kind of devoid of structure. It’s more like following two friends around for a couple of weeks than it is a full-fledged story. Stuff *does* happen, but not that often. And when it does, it always feels like it happens too late. I mean I guess the first act turn – the reading of the inheritance - happens on page 30, technically where the end of the first act should be in a 120 page screenplay, but it sure felt closer to page 50. And that, again, is because so little happens before it.

Remember that the placement of your first act turn should be determined by the amount of plot you need to set up in your first act. For example, if you’re writing a movie like Inception, which has a ton to set up, then your first act turn is going to come later. But if you’re writing something with very little plot – say “Dumb and Dumber” – then you end your first act sooner. If you’re just hanging around in your first act until page 30 because the screenwriting books tell you to, then your first act is going to feel like it goes on forever.

And look, I’m not telling Matt Weiner how to write. The great thing about Mad Men is that it doesn’t follow conventions. It makes unexpected choices. The tone and the feel of that show are divinely unique. But I’m not feeling the desire to create something like Mad Men here. This is a pretty standard movie set-up, and it definitely takes too long to get where it needs to get.

On the character front, we do have ourselves a couple of non-traditional “heroes.” There’s Steve Dallas, a weatherman who moonlights, sunlights, and dusklights as an alcoholic. And then there’s Ben, who’s worse off than Steve if that’s possible. He’s a bi-polar nutbag who sits in his apartment all day and does nothing – regardless of the weather report. While they’ve known each other since high school, their friendship is primarily driven by a desire to abuse illegal substances, which they do a lot of.

Eventually, Ben gets called back to their home town for the reading of his father’s will, to which Steve attends. It’s there where they meet Angela, Ben’s late father’s widow. Oh yeah, Angela’s in her twenties. Ben’s dad was in his 70s. Doesn’t take a math major to figure out our dear Angela is probably a modern day gold prospector.

However, the estate reading turns everybody’s world upside-down when the land, the house, and the grocery store are all left to Ben – an estate totaling 2.5 million dollars! Ben’s sister is furious since she knows how much of a fuck-up he is and that he’ll likely squander all of it. But Angela is strangely unaffected by the reading. Which intrigues Dallas, who loves having sex with intriguing woman.

So Dallas makes an excuse to stick around for awhile, “comforting” the grieving Angela. But Angela’s the one woman who’s not falling for his charm and good looks. Which is really all Steve has. So when he can’t depend on that, what can he depend on? The only way to find out may be to sober up for the first time in 20 years, and it ain’t clear if Steven’s going to be able to do that.

Someone told me after reading this that it’s clear a TV writer wrote it. While I’m not quite sure what that means, I think I have an idea. There’s a scene early on where Ben talks forever about being a vegetarian. I’m not sure what the point of it is, but I know it doesn’t push the story forward. It just feels like one of those scenes writers write (we’re all guilty of this) because they’re interested in the subject matter and want to get it into their screenplay – story be damned.

Since TV storytelling evolves at a more leisurely pace, a scene like this might work. But in movies, where every scene must be an integral piece of the puzzle that thrusts the story forward, a scene like this dies on the page. And that was my issue with the first act. There were a lot of scenes that weren’t pushing anything forward.

But I think the thing that really baffled me was how the characters were projected. I’m still not sure who the protagonist was in You Are Here. The script starts out focusing on Steve, implying to us that he’s our main character. But this is actually Ben’s story. He’s the one whose father dies. He’s the one who all of the main shit happens to. So the whole script, we’re treating a character like the main character, Steve…even though he isn’t the main character.

I get the feeling that someone like Weiner would read this and roll his eyes, maybe even laugh - the implication being, “People like you are idiots. You don’t analyze this shit. Just enjoy the fucking story.” But that’s the thing: I had a hard time enjoying the story because of these issues. I didn’t know who to latch onto. I didn’t know who I was identifying with or rooting for.

There’s a segment in You Are Here, for example, where Steve takes off back to the city for awhile, and we stay with Ben and Angela. I was so confused! We’d started the story out with Steve. We’d rode that horse throughout. Now he was just…gone. Our “wacky” sidekick now became our main character, and I for one had a difficult time making that adjustment. It just didn’t feel right.

As far as our character triumvirate went, Angela was probably the most interesting of the three. I liked that Weiner avoided clichés with her. We assumed Angela was a gold digger. She wasn’t. We assumed she was selfish. She taught special-ed children. We assumed she would fall for Steve. She didn’t. The reason a lot of the stuff at the house worked was specifically because we didn’t know what to expect from Angela.

However at a certain point, Angela became the epitome of what I thought was wrong with You Are Here. Which was that I never truly understood any of the characters. Steven is an alcoholic. But I didn’t definitively know this until the third act when Angela literally says it. I just thought he partied too much. Ben, also, starts the movie running up to Steve, trying to beat the shit out of him, then inexplicably bursting into tears. In retrospect I suppose this was to demonstrate his bi-polar personality, but at the time it was confusing. And with Angela, I just couldn’t figure out what she wanted. She seemed confused a majority of the time. And I couldn’t figure out if it was her who was confused or Weiner. She was a hell of a difficult character to pin down.

There are some good things about You Are Here. Stuff gets fun when the sister challenges the will. And I like the idea of Ben stuck in this house with a woman who was the wife of a father he barely knew. It made for an interesting dynamic. Especially with weirdo Steve popping in every once in awhile. I just wish there was more of a structure to the story. Everything felt too fast and loose. And in the end, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to take away from it.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Look out for “Mouthpiece scenes.” These are scenes where you use your characters as a mouthpiece for your own theories and ideas. They never feel natural because we can tell that the character has been replaced by the writer, who just HAS to get out his feelings on this one topic. These became popular in the 90s after the famous “Why should I tip?” monologue in Resevoir Dogs. But now they just stop a screenplay cold. That was my problem with the early Ben vegetarian scene. I read it and thought, “This has nothing to do with the story.” I guess it told us Ben was a vegetarian but we could’ve easily achieved that in a much simpler way (i.e. Steve makes him a sandwich and Ben pulls the meat out before eating it). The point is, mouthpiece scenes tend to feel unnatural. If you absolutely have to include them, make sure the scene is pushing the story forward. Otherwise, they’ll stop the story cold.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Screenplay Review - Fire With Fire

There may not be any White Houses exploding today as previously planned, but we do get the man who played the part our White House exploding screenplay was inspired after. That's right - John McClane, aka Bruce Willis, adds another film to his arsenal.

Genre: Thriller
Premise: When a fireman witnesses a gang-murder, he must stay alive long enough to testify against the leader.
About: Tom O’Connor is the same writer who brought us the Black List script I reviewed/liked a few weeks ago called “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.” Fire with Fire has actually already completed production and stars Bruce Willis.
Writer: Tom O’Connor
Details: 105 pages – 5/12/10 (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

So the other day I was reading some Twit-Pitch First 10 Pages, and I was feeling bad that I was reading them so late. I was exhausted. I was slow. I kept thinking I should be reading these under better conditions. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that these are the conditions most scripts are read under. Readers, and really anybody in Hollywood, are likely reading your script when they’re tired. Industry folks are notorious workaholics (as I’m discovering more and more), and always trying to fit that one more call in, that one more script in. Which means your script is probably being read in that 45 minute period between putting the kids to bed and brushing one’s teeth.

But in this case, I want you to magnify that exhaustion by a thousand - That’s where I was when I opened this script. I’d actually planned on reviewing a different script (let’s just say there was a White House involved) when the writer politely asked me to hold off for awhile. (note: No more live-tweeting script reviews!) Which meant I had to add another script onto an already endless day. Honestly, I think I started reading it at 3:30 a.m. All I could think about was the sweet nectar of my freshly washed sheets against my back. I could feel the coolness already. Oh sweet bed sheets. I love you.

So if ever there was a script that didn’t stand a chance, it was this one. But guess what? It pulled me in almost immediately. THAT, my friends, is good writing. Being able to wake a reader from his impending slumber. And it proves my theory – which is that no matter how distracted or tired or uninterested a reader is, if you write something good, you can get’em. So when you’re writing your next script, ask yourself that question – “Would a dead-tired reader stick with this?” Cause that’s likely your audience.

Anyway, Fire with Fire introduces us to Jeremy, a firefighter who’s so dedicated to his job that when a bar goes up in flames, he runs in to save a case of scotch for he and his buddies. In other words, if you can’t take the heat then take the scotch from the kitchen.

Afterwards, he and his boys decide to celebrate with some early morning snacks. So they head over to the local convenience store and Jeremy goes in to snag some food. An overworked Latino man and his teenage son are cleaning the place when a trio of very bad looking men enter. There’s Boyd, Sean, and Neil Hagan, the leader (a man with Arayan tattoos bursting out of his suit).

Doesn’t take long to realize these guys aren’t here for a Big Gulp.

Turns out Neil wants to buy this store as it’s a perfect location for his drug business. The owner stands strong, though, saying he’s protected by a Latino gang and that they should leave. Hagan responds by SHOOTING HIS SON and then him. Sort of an odd negotiating tactic if you ask me but this Hagan guy’s a bit unconventional.

With Jeremy being a witness, he’s now collateral damage. But a nifty move at the last second allows him to escape. If only that were the end of it. The Feds have been trying to catch this Hagan fellow for years. And now that they have a witness to one of his murders who’s willing to testify, Christmas has come early. But that means Jeremy will have to go into witness protection until the trial.

So he’s whisked off to the middle of Buttfuck, Nowhere, supposedly safe from the reaches of Hagan, especially considering he’s now in jail. But it doesn’t take long for Hagan to work his magic and find Jeremy. He then sends two hitmen to erase the problem.

Jeremy is able to escape, but soonafter, accepts the truth. Jail or no jail, this man will hunt him down until he kills him. So Jeremy does the unthinkable. He goes on the offensive – He’s going to kill Hagan. This seems insane at first, but it turns out that rival Latino gang is more than eager to help him out. And that just might be enough to tip the scales.

Lots of good things about this script. First thing I noticed was the plot device O’Connor used to frame the story – a trial. Specifically getting to a trial where one man could prove another man guilty. Just like The Hitman’s Bodyguard! This was not by accident. Notice how the device creates the trifecta of a goal, stakes, and urgency. The goal is to make it to the trial. The stakes are if he doesn’t, Hagan goes free. And the urgency is the ticking time bomb of the trial, coupled with Hagan’s men on his tail. I’m not surprised at all that O’Connor leaned on this device a second time, as it’s an effective way to frame a story.

O’Connor also followed the old Scriptshadow staple of making your bad guy REALLY BAD. The badder he is, the more we’ll want to see our hero take him down. Hagan shoots a fucking father and son without blinking. That’s bad. But note how he did it. Anybody can have the bad guy shoot someone to make the audience hate him. That’s a cliché choice and probably won’t resonate. So O’Connor has his bad guy shoot the man’s son first - right in front of him! That hits us way harder (a father watches his son get shot right in front of him!!).

The script had some really cool moments as well. I thought the convenience store scene was inspired. I mean you were IN that store, BEGGING for a way out just like Jeremy. That’s the scene that officially woke me up from my slumber.

Another great moment is the line-up scene. They put Hagan in a lineup with the classic one-way glass and Jeremy having to identify him. Each man is asked to step forward and read out the line that Hagan uses at the store. When Hagan finally steps forward to read the line, he reads his own line instead: JEREMY’S NAME AND ADDRESS! It was one of those f*cking awesome “movie moments” that people are going to be buzzing about when they leave the theater.

But Fire With Fire started running into problems in the second act. If you read the site often, you know I like clean narratives. I like when we know what the story is about and where it’s going. For example, The Disciple Program. We know what that story is about. It’s about a man getting revenge on the men who murdered his wife.

With Fire with Fire, the narrative kept changing. At first I thought we were in a firefighting movie (it’s called Fire with Fire, it’s about a firefighter, and the first scene is a fire). Then it becomes a witness relocation movie. Then it becomes a revenge film. Then it turns into a gang war film. I’m not saying you can’t change directions in a script. We were just talking yesterday about doing this at the midpoint. But if you keep doing it, the reader starts becoming confused. I know I was. “What kind of movie is this exactly?” I kept asking. You really have to be a great writer to pull this off and while O’Connor is a very good writer, I would’ve loved to have seen more focus in this area.

It’s too bad because the script started off so awesome. I was thinking it could be a classic. Then it never quite decided what it wanted to be. Still, the story’s fun enough to keep you entertained. And there’s easily enough here for a recommendation. It just didn’t quite reach the heights that it could’ve.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Don’t blow your best scene on the first act. A lot of writers – especially young writers – make the mistake of putting their best scene in the first act. The problem with this is that every other big scene afterwards will feel like a letdown in comparison. If you’re going to put a great scene in the first act, then you have to be willing to top it again and again throughout your script. That was an issue I had here. The scene I remember most is the convenience store scene. And it happens inside the first 15 pages. You’re now going to have me sit around for another 100 pages and not read a better scene? I’m gonna feel let down. So when you get to those big scenes in your script, always try to top yourself from the previous big scene. You want your best most powerful stuff happening in the last third of the script if possible.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Screenplay Review - On A Clear Day

The Black List strikes again with this high-octane sci-fi thriller. But does it have the stamina to make it to the finish line?

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: The United States is attacked by an unknown enemy that is vastly superior to them in every military category. Who could it possibly be?
About: On A Clear Day finished on last year’s Black List. It currently has Jaume Collet-Serra attached to direct. Collet-Serra was the director of Orphan and Unknown. He is also attached to direct the long-gestating live-action adaptation of Akira. Ryan Engle, the writer, gets the Fascinating Adaptation Award of the year, as he adapted “Rampage.” You guys remember that one? The video game where monsters leapt onto buildings and smashed stuff up? I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall during those development meetings.
Writer: Ryan Engle
Details:116 pages - undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

You guys know how I feel about How It Ends. L-O-V-E luv it! Anything where the end of the world is coming and you gotta figure out a way to stay alive is a conflict mating call. Unless, of course, you do it realllllyyyyy slowwwwwwwly. I won't mention any scripts by name but I think you know which end of the world script I'm talking about.

Anyway, if How It Ends had one of those cousins that looks so freakishly like you that you start seriously considering you’re a clone, On A Clear Day would be that cousin. The two scripts start very similarly. In fact, they start in the exact same city – Seattle! Coincidence?

So Seattlein Peter Fox is a normal family guy who, oh yeah, just lost his job. Not ideal when you're trying to support two daughters and a wife. Oh yeah, and you have another one on the way, which you don’t know about yet because your wife, Molly, hasn't told you. Things are looking very bleak on the economic front for the Fox family. The hare has passed them by.

That’s the one good thing about a bloodthirsty attacking army – it puts things in perspective. All of a sudden, a middle-management job with above average health benefits doesn't seem so important. Indeed, just minutes after Molly comes back from dropping the kids off at school, explosions start ringing out everywhere.

Peter and Molly know that their immediate job is to get back to that school and save their daughters. But as soon as they get outside, they realize how bad it is. There are explosions happening in EVERY DIRECTION. Operation Daughter Save is too important though so they head into the heart of the city.

That’s when they first see the enemy. A tank. Shockingly huge. All black. Sleek. Blowing everything to pieces.

*They* may have not figured it out yet, but us sci-fi geeks have. The future has sent back an army to take over the past! Eventually, Peter and Molly catch up to us, but that doesn’t make things any easier. In fact, when Molly gets injured, they’re forced to split up. And that’s when Peter sees the extent of the attack – the army is carting everyone away in trucks. Something tells me they’re not getting a sightseeing cruise around Pugent Sound.

But it's about to get way worse, and you can blame James Cameron for that. Our Terminator-inspired army is hunting down specific people who could cause them harm in the future – and PETER IS ONE OF THEM! Also, because they’re, you know, from the future, they know where Peter’s going to be before he does! Somehow, then, Peter has to circumvent this army and these odds to get his wife back and save his daughters. All before Future Army And Friends destroy the city.

This script took you by the tail and swung you around like a giant ferris wheel. The first 25 pages were probably the best I've read all year. I didn't know what was going on (hadn’t read the logline) so I was having a blast trying to figure out who this mystery army was.

And it was just so easy to read!

That's something I've been appreciating more and more lately: easy to read writing. I've been reading through all these Twit-Pitch scripts and it's strange how some of them allow your eyes to just fly down the page while others keep you reading the same paragraphs over and over again. And it's not even obvious what's wrong. They’re competently written. It's just the way the sentences are constructed is clunky. Either there’s too much information or the order of the information is off or something. It’s unnecessarily difficult.

But the thing I really loved about this script was that Engle always had a huge goal pushing the characters forward. AND… as soon as that goal expired, he’d replace it with a new goal. So there were never any lags in the script. It always moved because his characters always had something immediate to do.

So it starts out with Peter having to save his kids. That's his goal. But on the way there, Molly gets injured. So there's a new goal: Get her to the hospital. Once at the hospital, they get split up because the Army moves in. So there's a new goal, he has to find Molly. Once he does, we go back to the original goal. They have to find and save their kids. This process is essential for a movie like this because a movie like this needs to move. If you don't have a sense of urgency in a movie where the United States is being attacked, then you probably haven't written a good script.

For the record, setting new goals for your characters every 10-15 pages for is one of the easiest ways to keep the pace of your screenplay brisk. I read scripts all the time where writers don't introduce a new goal right after they’ve finished a recent one and let me tell you, those scripts get boring REALLY fast. You ALWAYS want to have your character driving towards something. The second they’re not, they’re passive. And passive people are boring.

I do have to admit, though, that the pace got a little exhausting towards the end. I felt like I was on the 23rd mile of a 25 mile marathon and my legs finally gave out. It’s strange because the pace was “Day’s” biggest strength, but at a certain point we needed to relax. Even Weekend-long benders in Vegas require some nap time.

Another problem was that the first half of the script was so good, it was almost impossible for the second half to live up to it. In any “on the run” script like this, the big danger is that things are going to get repetitive. To prevent this, you want to introduce a new element at the midpoint that adds some sizzle to the story. I always use Pitch Black as an example of this. In the first half, they’re discovering the world and looking for a way off of it. In the second half, darkness comes and millions of flying beasts shoot out of the middle of the planet to make that search infinitely more difficult. That’s what saved that movie from being repetitive.

I didn't get that here so the redundancy factor kicked in.

Still, this was just so well-written, so strongly paced and such a structurally impressive screenplay, that in the end, the positives outweighed the negatives. And I loved the idea of the future attacking the past. I’ve been waiting for a script to take advantage of that idea for awhile.

So I would recommend this one – especially to sci-fi geeks. If the second half had given me a little more, this may have finished a rating higher. 

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: What I liked about this script was that it never let the characters off the hook. There's a moment where Peter’s survived an extended battle with a soldier in the hospital. As soon as he kills the guy, however, he hears two more soldiers coming down the hall. So he hides behind a corner. In almost all the screenplays I read, after an extended battle like this, the writer lets the character sneak away. Engle doesn’t. The new soldiers spot Peter immediately and come after him. It’s a small thing but it’s what makes this script so intense. Nobody’s ever allowed an easy out. Every single moment is difficult. – So always look to make things difficult for your hero. Never let them off the hook!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Screenplay Review - We, Myself and I

She's turned a number of your boring loglines into logline tour-de-forces. Now she gets her screenplay reviewed on Scriptshadow!

NEW Amateur Friday Submission Process: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, a PDF of the first ten pages of your script, your title, genre, logline, and finally, why I should read your script. Use my submission address please: Your script and “first ten” will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effect of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.

Genre: Drama/Romance
Premise: (from Dianne) After one of her alter-egos seduces the guy she’s been crushing on, a shy college student with multiple personalities struggles to get rid of her meddlesome headmates and find love on her own.
About: Dianne Cameron has been a longtime reader and commenter on the site. She may be the best I’ve ever seen at breaking down and fixing loglines. But a logline is a lot different from a script. So let’s see if that talent extends to writing screenplays!
Writer: Dianne Cameron
Details: 104 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

It's pretty amazing what a title change can do. When this script was titled Plurally Inclined, I wanted to stay as far away from it as possible. The title made me squirm and wiggle uncomfortably. When it popped up in my Inbox as “We, Myself and I,” however, I couldn’t imagine NOT reading it. It was all of a sudden friendly and approachable. So my friend, a word to the wise: Never stop until you have the perfect title! It REALLY DOES affect how someone sees your script.

And now to the main event…

Heather Lee is a 19-year-old intelligent shy figure skating sophomore. Her best friend Zoe is an outgoing fire cracker hot fashionista. Her, um, little sister maybe(?), B.J. is cute and precocious. And then her oldest friend, Suzanne, is a moody French chick who spends way too much time complaining about the world.

Oh yeah, by the way, these are all one person - Heather. That’s because Heather has multiple personality disorder. All of these people are just figments of her imagination.

So Heather has a crush on frat boy Matt but has been too shy to do anything about it. Well Heather, waiters become lonely neighbors. Your alternate personality number one, Zoe, takes over your body, then takes over Matt, leading him back to his dorm room and giving him multiple…other things. By the way, Zoe is 17 years old. Which means Matt’s just committed statutory rape. I think?

When Heather finds out Zoe stole her man, she’s furious, but such is the life of a Multiple Person. It’s hard enough to control the urges of one woman, let alone four!

Anyway, the one person who understands Heather and what she goes through is her best friend Tyler. He knows about her multiple personalities and is her one shoulder to cry on. In fact, the two seem like a perfect match, yet Tyler is inexplicably dating someone else who he doesn’t have NEARLY the same chemistry with. So what’s going on?

I’ll tell you. (spoiler) - In the best moment of the script, we find out the girl Tyler’s dating isn’t real. It’s another one of Heather’s personalities! Zoinks! Tyler’s actually in love with Heather, but can’t do anything about it, since you can’t be with a girl who goes off and sleeps with other guys, even if they’re not technically sleeping with them…yet they are.

So we follow Heather as she navigates through this minefield of multiplicity, experiencing the trials and tribulations of a young woman fighting an already difficult stage of her life with 5 times the obstacles. Will she find a way to be with Tyler? Does she really like Matt? How does she satisfy her other personalities and still satisfy herself? Questions abound in “We, Myself and I.”

Okay, I have a lot to say about this one. I know people will want to talk about the pictures on the title page, but the pictures are the least important piece to this puzzle. And it is a puzzle. A great big giant puzzle we only have one third the pieces for.

I think Dianne may have bit off more than she could chew. The difficulty level for this script is through the roof. I’m not sure she knew just how challenging it would be to convey what she was trying to convey when she started this thing.

Let’s start with the rule-set. The rules in We, Myself and I are never made clear. Sometimes Heather can become one of her other personalities. Other times she can sit down and talk with her other personalities. I’m betting Dianne did her research and both these things are possible, but boy was it confusing to someone reading the story.

For instance, sometimes she seems to forget when she becomes other people (Zoe sleeping with Matt) and other times she can remember. So what *does* happen when she’s another personality? Does the rest of her just black out? Does she only remember a third of her days, for example, since she’s another personality for the other two-thirds? I know there’s only so much time and you can’t explain everything to the reader less you bore them to death, but these are extremely important details if we’re to understand what, exactly, is going on.

On top of this, what’s happening doesn’t make sense. A girl with multiple personality disorder has snuck into a college? Do her parents know about this? Are they okay with their daughter, who can become a different person at any moment, roaming around freely? Isn’t that dangerous? Wouldn’t they be worried something might happen to her? Unless she’s tricked her parents too? Although maybe her parents aren’t around anymore and I missed that. Still, that would make this way too convenient.

And wouldn’t her professors or someone at the college have figured her secret out by now? She can’t control when these personalities take over, right? So the chances of her walking around freely and never once slipping into another personality in class or somewhere else are next to impossible. Yet she still seems to be fooling everyone.

This begs the obvious question – why not make this a comedy? If it were a comedy, the audience wouldn’t be asking any of these questions. Or, I should say, they wouldn’t care as much. But by treating the subject matter seriously, you have no choice but to explain these plot holes. And the fact that they aren’t explained undermines any chance of us taking the story seriously.

Personally, I think it would be a lot more interesting to tell this story as a comedy from the point of view of a guy who starts dating a girl who has multiple personality disorder. Now you don’t have to worry about covering this complicated rule-set because Heather would no longer be the main character.

In addition, I’d probably take out the college setting. There's something very “low stakes” about college. People go to college to take classes and party. There’s nothing to lose (unless you stress a scholarship or graduation they’re in danger of losing). It feels like the kind of subject matter that you’d have more options with in the real world. And plus we’d take it more seriously (if that’s the route Dianne wanted to stick with). I never felt that Heather was in danger of losing that much in this story.

On top of this, I’m not sure there’s any GSU. Not that GSU is the end all, be all, but I definitely felt like this story was lacking momentum and forward thrust. What were we pushing towards? What was the point of all this? Was it just to experience a semester in the life of a young woman with this disorder? I guess you could go that route but from a story point of view it just isn’t very interesting.

The lack of GSU also led to murky writing choices. If your main character’s not after something (a goal), you, the writer, don’t really know what to write next so you basically guess. I remember at one point, for example, towards the end of the screenplay, we switch over to Matt as sort of a mini-main character. I barely knew Matt and definitely didn’t care enough about him to be alone with him for a sequence. At that point I truly had no idea where the story was going anymore.

In Dianne’s defense, I see even the biggest A-list writers struggling with this idea. It’s just so complicated. My suggestion would be to simplify it as much as possible and make it a straight comedy. It would make writing the story so much easier. But I wish Dianne the best of luck with it. Her contributions in the comments section have been invaluable!

Script link: We, Myself and I

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Be aware if you're writing a rules-dependent script. There are certain stories where the rules have to be spelled out clearly for the audience or else we're not going to know what’s going on. Sci-fi (Matrix, Inception) and fantasy (Lord Of The Rings) usually fall under this category, but every once in awhile you write a story like We, Myself and I that requires the same amount of explanation. In these cases, you have to think about EVERY SINGLE QUESTION THE AUDIENCE MIGHT ASK ABOUT THE RULES and make sure they’re answered. Not only that, but make sure they’re answered invisibly – hidden inside dialogue and action so as not to draw attention to themselves. Star Wars does a good job of this. We learn the force through actions (Darth Vader force-choking an official for questioning him) and intriguing backstory (Obi-Wan telling a desperate-to-know Luke about how his father used to be a jedi). Diane DID use a lecture scene explaining what multiple personality disorder was, but not only did it feel forced (a professor who just happened to be talking about the very disorder our main character suffers from in a lecture?) but it wasn’t enough. It was only about 30% of what we needed to know. Rule-sets have no “one-size-fits-all” solution, but as long as you’re aware of what the audience needs to know in order to “get” your story, you should be able to write in what you need to.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Screenwriting Article - The Secret to a Great First 10 Pages

Talk about a great opening 10 pages!

Okay guys, Twit-Pitch is alive and well. And if you were following my Twitter feed every night, you’d be seeing me analyze the first ten pages of these entries in REAL-TIME. That’s right. I actually tweet what I’m thinking AS I’M THINKING IT. What other contest does that!? This is unprecedented stuff here so if you’re not following me on Twitter yet, you best remedy that right away!

Now, I bring up Twit-Pitch because when you read ONLY the first 10 pages of a bunch of scripts in a short span of time, you REALLY start paying attention to what makes those pages work or not work. And while it’s nothing new to say “Make sure your first 10 pages are awesome,” it really hit me how important that piece of advice is during this exercise. I realized how quickly that feeling of going one way or the other comes for the reader.

The thing is, when writers hear this advice, they get the wrong idea. They believe “make your first 10 pages great” means immediately assaulting the reader with a huge car chase or a big action set-piece. I’m not saying those won’t capture the readers’ attention if done well, but a generic action scene is just as boring as a generic dialogue scene.

So I sat back and thought about all the openings I liked (both with these pages and with other scripts I’ve read) and while I can’t say I’ve come up with a definitive formula for roping in the reader, I can tell you that when comparing the first ten pages of all these scripts, I found a few go-to approaches that give you the best shot at grabbing the reader’s attention.

One of the best ways to open a script is to introduce a problem. When you introduce a problem, the reader will want to stick around to see if that problem is solved. So in The Sixth Sense, the movie starts with husband and wife having a quiet moment in their bedroom, when, all of a sudden, an old patient breaks in and starts threatening them. This patient is the *problem.* He’s threatening our hero and his wife. I don’t know any readers who would not want to find out how this scene ends.

But you don't have to be telling a ghost story or writing an action film to start with a problem. You can inject a problem into anything. Maybe you open with a teenage girl on the subway with two menacing hoodlums staring at her from across the car. Maybe you start with a woman finding out she’s pregnant. Maybe you start with a lawyer losing his job. Just introduce a problem and you’ve got us.

The next thing you can start with is a mystery. A reader is always going to be roped in if there's some sort of mystery presented to them. You need look no further than Inception to see how to open your script with a good mystery. We see our main character washing up on shore. We see our main character asleep in an apartment with a mob approaching. We see our main character asleep on a train. If I'm a reader, I want to find out how this is happening. I want to keep reading.

The third thing you can start with is a good old-fashioned Scriptshadow staple - a GOAL. Just give your character a goal and we’ll want to see if he gets it or not. The prototypical example of this is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones’ goal is to get the gold monkey in the cave and get out. Throw a few obstacles in the way and you have yourself a great opening sequence.

Another solid opening move is a surprise. I like this one because it actually allows you to start slow. You can introduce your characters. Establish a little bit of setup along the way. And then at some point in the scene, throw in a shocking surprise that jolts the reader. It's been a while since I've seen Iron Man, but if I remember correctly, we start with Tony Stark in a Humvee with some other soldiers chatting away, then out of nowhere – BOOM! - his vehicle is attacked.

If none of these openings float your script’s boat, then AT LEAST start us off with some conflict. Give us an imbalance that projects a feeling of instability. If something's unstable, we intrinsically want to stick around until it stabilizes. So in Fargo, a man walks into a bar to discuss the kidnapping of his wife with a couple of contract men. Immediately, the two parties are not on the same page. They point out how our protagonist is late. Our protagonist counters by insisting he’s on time. This conflict seeps its way into their conversation, making a somewhat straightforward dialogue scene interesting!

Now you don’t have to use any of these approaches if you don’t want. There are plenty of other ways to open a screenplay and I encourage you guys to list them in the comments. But from my experience, if you want to hook a reader right away, these are extremely solid bets. Now if all this stuff intimidates you or confuses you, or you’re convinced there’s no way to use any of these methods in the kind of script you’re writing, then there’s one failsafe rule to fall back on: Make sure something interesting is happening. That's all. Don't bore us with two people talking about something that’s ultimately irrelevant. Give us a scene where something interesting is happening and we’ll be intrigued.

So now that you have a good idea of how to rope a reader in with your first 10, I thought it would be the perfect time to look over the first 14 entrants I’ve read in the Twit-Pitch contest. Of these 14, 8 of them did not make it to the next round. 5 of them received “maybe” votes, meaning I’ll revisit them after I’ve read everything, and 1 received the coveted “definite” vote (“The Tradition - 1867 After losing her father, a woman unwittingly takes a job as a maid at a countryhouse of aristocratic cannibals”). Below, I’m including all the scripts the writers let me post. Check out what you can and study the first ten pages. Determine why you liked some and disliked others. Share your observations in the comments section. And if you know of any other tricks to pull the reader in in the first 10, share those too!


The ghost of a legendary movie star gets tangled up in his own biopic when he needs the help of the heartthrob cast to play him.

Untitled Hoarder
A hoarder finds the girl of his dreams only to lose her in his apartment.

After running away from home, an eight foot tall teenager stumbles upon a retirement town for sideshow performers.

Nuts & Rats
An ex-cop awakes in an alternative reality where normal people are locked up in mental institutions and society is run by lunatics.

Open House
Desperate to divorce but cash-strapped, ornery newlyweds must put their feuding aside to sell their house, much less agree on a price.

Two guys have one weekend to battle for the coveted 'Godfather' title to their best friend's new daughter.

Local .357
Ex-CIA assassin unionizes an eclectic group of freelance hitmen to "negotiate" with their mob employers. Norma Rae meets RED

The Lipschitz Affair
When an art heist interrupts a wedding at the Guggenheim, everyone's a suspect -- even the bride and groom


The Last Rough Rider
It's 1901. Terrorists have just taken over the White House. And only Theodore Roosevelt can stop them.

A hacker for hire finds himself in a deadly web of corporate espionage after being hired to steal the 1st sentient A.I.

Ridin’ The Gravy Train
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.

Gino And Me
In early 1980s New Jersey, a 12-year-old decides to profile the local mob boss for his seventh grade English project despite the vehement disapproval of his mother.

Crimson Road
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.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Screenplay Review - Saving Mr. Banks

A spoon full of sugar wasn't needed to make today's screenplay go down. It looks like we have a new entry into the Top 25!

Genre: Drama
Premise: The story of how Walt Disney got the rights to Mary Poppins.
About: This script finished on last year's Black List with 13 votes, so somewhere in the middle of the pack. It's been getting a lot of heat lately because Tom Hanks has been circling the role of Walt Disney. And who couldn't see that working? Kelly Marcel created the series Terra Nova. And she was also the script editor on the film “Bronson.” I have to admit, though, that I have no idea what a script editor is.
Writer: Kelly Marcel
Details: 109 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I'm about to drop a barrel of honesty on you guys. I wasn't looking forward to this script. It had all the makings of a biopic. Dull play-by-play of successful folks facing “adversity” in their journey towards immortality. Awww, times were tough for you before you became a billionaire and achieved international fame and success? I’m sorry. However did you cope?

I only opened it because I thought Tom Hanks was perfect casting for Walt Disney. Wanted to see what he’d gotten all excited about.

P.L Travers, who has about six names in this script (besides P.L., she's also Ginty, Pamela, Pam and I’m pretty sure a few others. What is this, a preview of Friday’s amateur entry, “We, Myself and I?”), is the creator of the Mary Poppins books back in the U.K. The books have been popular enough to give her a financially stable career, but the reality is, it's been 20 years since they came out, and the money is running out. If Pamela doesn't do something soon, she's gonna be camping outside of Big Ben with a big cup of change.

So you'd think that the most popular movie maker in the world desperately wanting to turn her books into a movie would be “a spoonful of sugar” to her ears. Alas it is not. In fact, Walt Disney has been trying to secure the rights to Mary Poppins for 20 years now. And Pamela has never thought twice about it. The answer’s always been “no thank you.” Without the “thank you.” But times they are a changin’. Pamela needs a spoonful of money in her bank account. So she decides to go to America to hear Walt out.

Now Pamela is not a happy person. To give you an example, when she’s having trouble stuffing her baggage into the overhead bin on the plane, a woman with a baby kindly offers to move her own bag so Pamela can get situated. Once Pamela sits down, she turns to the helpful woman and says, “Is your baby going to be loud during the flight?” What a charmer.

Once Pamela gets to Disneyland, she's greeted by her writing team, who’ve already written the script she must now approve. But Pamela isn't interested in them. She came here to meet Walt Disney and that's the only person she's going to give any respect to.

When the two do meet, Walt Disney is as advertised. He's a big kid, full of ideas and energy, optimistic to the core. In other words, the exact opposite of Pamela. Pamela quickly reminds him that she has script approval and if any of her demands are not met, she will cancel the movie immediately. Walt isn't used to people making demands, but since this is the last leg of a race he's been running for 20 years, he assures her that they'll do everything they can to accommodate her.

One of my favorite moments in the script is when Pamela sits down to go over the script with the writers. She starts at the top of the first page: “Scene one. Exterior. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, London. Day.” She pauses. “Yes, that’s good. That can stay.” The writer looks at her incredulously, “That’s just the scene heading!” lol. Boy do I love screenplay humor!

As the script goes on, Pamela makes things as difficult as humanly possible for everybody involved in the project. For example, at one point she decides she doesn't like the color red. So she makes a demand that there can be no red in the movie. Everybody is rightfully flabbergasted by this demand, but Walt Disney knows that he has no choice but to give her what she wants. So no red in Mary Poppins!

Probably the most daring decision Marcel made was to include flashbacks to Pamela's life as a child. You guys know how I feel about flashbacks. They’re script killers. But if that wasn't daring enough, Marcel decided to explore an alcoholic father in these flashbacks. The drunk father trope?? Uh-oh. A double dose of script killer!

And yet it’s handled beautifully! The best I’ve ever seen of anyone handling an alcoholic father. I’ll get into this more later but we learn that her issues with her father are the main reason she’s held onto Mary Poppins for so long.

So what did I think of Saving Mr. Banks? I loved it! Almost every single choice was perfect. I don't even know where to begin and will probably start rambling but I'm very passionate about this screenplay so I'm just gonna wing it.

It all starts with an interesting protagonist. Pamela isn't the most likable person in the world, but she's intriguing. She has a huge flaw - that she's untrusting of others. I’m still not sure why we're occasionally attracted to characters like this (big meanies) but I think the fact that we all know people like Pamela helps us find her relatable. And in a way, we feel that if Pamela can overcome her flaw, that those friends of ours can overcome their flaws too! Or maybe we even see a bit of Pamela in ourselves. So we think WE can change.

The script also does a bang-up supercalfragilistamakespeealadocious job with conflict (come on, you knew I had to bust it out). Whenever you write a screenplay, you want to establish some sort of central conflict between two main characters. If you do that, it's hard to make your story boring.

In this case, it's Pamela and Walt. He’s on one side, desperately wanting to make this movie, and she’s on the other, intent on sabotaging any chance of the film being made. Even though she's here to work with Walt, it's clear that she has no intention of doing so. She will keep pushing and pushing and pushing until Walt gives up. Because the divide between the two wants is so great, the conflict is supercharged. And that’s what you want in a screenplay – supercharged conflict! Weak conflict rarely gets you anywhere.

But here's the real thing that surprised me about Banks - the flashbacks. I thought for sure Marcel was digging her own grave when she did this, particularly when she wanted to focus on the alcoholic father. But I'll tell you why this worked where so many other alcoholic father storylines die a quick cliché death. Are you ready?

Because she got specific.

We didn't get the standard scenes of daddy coming home and beating mommy up then yelling at the daughter. Instead, we took a serious look at alcoholism. Her father, who's the most loving man in the world, simply can’t stop drinking. No matter how hard he tries, he has no power against the disease. So even though he loves his daughter and his family and knows they’re falling apart around him, he keeps drinking. And it gets so bad that he’s eventually put on bed rest. Every day, then, Pamela has to wake up and see her father in this bed, weak, crippled, and still pining for his next drink. It was so detailed, so specific, so UNLIKE what we’ve seen before in these kinds of stories, that it resonated immensely.

And what's great about this backstory is that it's the reason Pamela created Mary Poppins. She needed a “Mary Poppins” to come in and save her when her father couldn’t. That's why she didn't want to give this book away. She was afraid of Walt Disney tainting and ruining this person who allowed her to make it through childhood.

I cannot stress how difficult it is to pull something like this off. I see so many writers try it and so many of them fail because you have to walk this thin line of not being too cliché and not being too melodramatic, yet still building those moments that have real emotion and connection. You have to take those chances of putting a little girl by her dying father’s bedside and write it in such a way that it doesn’t feel melodramatic or dishonest. Not easy!!!

But the script didn't stop there. Another one of my favorite parts was Ralph the driver - who's been hired to drive Pamela around while she's in town. He couldn't be more different from Pamela. He wakes up, excited for every day. He always sees the positive in everything. And he's absolutely infatuated with the weather, particularly when it's a sunny day outside. Of course Pamela hates him for it but he's so damn earnest that she has no choice but to warm up to him. There's a great moment near the end where we learn why Ralph is so obsessed with the weather, and if it doesn't have you in tears, then I’m afraid you don’t have tear-ducts my friend.

And then there’s the monologue. When I say “the monologue,” I mean the best ending monologue I've maybe ever read in a screenplay. I’m going to get into a little bit of a spoiler here so you might want to turn around. But basically, Pamela leaves Disney World at the last second, deciding not to give Mary Poppins to Walt. When she gets home, she's quickly disturbed by a knock on the door and when she answers it, there's Walt Disney.

Walt then gives the most heartfelt convincing thoughtful meaningful plea as to why Pamela should give him the rights to the book. It's so moving and so TRUE, that it grips your heart and won't let go. I've seen so many of these ending monologues and they're usually just a bunch of words that don't matter. But this monologue/plea is so authentic and true and honest that *I* wanted to give the rights to *my* book up to Walt Disney. It was just such a great final moment for this character and without question, this reason Tom Hanks signed on.

I loved this script!

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (Top 25!)
[ ] genius

What I learned: Whenever you have to write a big moment in your screenplay where one character has to convince another character of something, such as the ending monologue in Saving Mr. Banks, you want to step out of the fictional world, and bring the argument into the real world. Write the argument as if you're trying to convince A REAL PERSON. And not just any real person – a person who has already made up their mind to say no to you. Because if you try to write your argument to a fictional person, it will be fictionally convincing. You know you don’t have to be that persuasive cause all you have to do is write “Sounds good to me” from the other character after it's over. Push harder. Make that argument REAL WORLD convincing.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Screenplay Review - Unicorn (Guest Review)

Carson here.  I'm taking the day off but Roger's here to pick up the slack, reviewing one of last year's Nicholl finalists.  Just to give you an update, I've been reading 2 Twit-Pitches every night and tweeting about them live on my Twitter account. Writers complain that contests are too closed off and they never know why their script was passed over or not.  Well this is about as open as it gets!  I give you REAL TIME reasons for why I like or dislike a script.  Of course, it's pretty late at night but still, you can always go back into my feed history if you missed it. Okay, now to Roger.  Take it away, Rog!

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A by-the-book FBI profiler must track down a serial killer with the help of an illiterate 24-year old psychic.
About: This was a 2011 Nicholl winner.
Writer: Matthew Murphy
Details: Nicholl Draft, 101 pages

You know, I generally stay away from scripts that have “serial killer” in the logline. Sure, last week I reviewed Gaslight, which was about Jack the Ripper (kind of), but that had enough fresh ingredients in the logline to keep the word “cliché” from popping into my thought space. 

So, why did you choose to read the lone serial killer Nicholl finalist script, “Unicorn”, Rog?

Because, it is a fucking serial killer script that uses the word “Unicorn” for a title. Unicorn! So many questions ran through my brain. Why is it titled Unicorn? Are there Unicorns in this script? Is the killer a Unicorn, or does the killer just have a horn? Or wait, is it the psychic who has a horn? How do Unicorns factor into this story? Why isn’t it titled something else? 

More questions flooded my cranium. People still write serial killer scripts? Why not? People still tell vampire and zombie yarns. How do you keep a serial killer tale fresh after seeing stuff like Se7en, Zodiac, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and everything else in David Fincher’s misogynist film cycle? After growing up on Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling and all the second-rate imitations, how do you keep from creating an imitation yourself?

When I can watch Medium, Fringe, The X-Files, or any other tv show that uses psychics to solve crimes, why should I read yet another script that treads through the same territory? The answer is, I wasn’t going to. These stories hit a saturation point in my interest meter, so I set Unicorn aside. 

And I actually went about my day, thinking I was gonna read something else. And why shouldn’t I? After all, Eastern Promises 2 was staring at me from my shiny iPad screen. Would there be any more naked Viggo Mortensen fights to look forward to and HEY ROGER, THERE’S A SERIAL KILLER SCRIPT ON YOU COMPUTER THAT WON THE NICHOLL FELLOWSHIP AND IT’S CALLED UNICORN! 

So, I broke my anger management chip in half and opened the goddamn script to quell my curious gray matter. 

Indeed, why is titled Unicorn?

It’s the first name of the psychic character, Skye Huffman. Unicorn Skye Huffman. Or, if you’re her mother Penny, you call her “Yuyu” for short. Before you ask, yes, this is all chalked up to hipster Penny spawning a killer-catching Manic Pixie Dream Gal.

But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Unicorn starts out with your typical Henry-Portrait-of-a-Serial-Killer murder slash rape scenario. A creepy man rapes a duct-taped girl in her apartment, while the body of her fiancé lies freshly slaughtered on the kitchen floor. He seems to time the kill with his orgasm, because he pulls out a scary hunting knife that’s strapped to his leg and uses it to deliver the coup de grace.

Or, so it appears. Because right before the death blow we cut to a pair of green eyes opening in the darkness that seem to be tuned into the victim’s ordeal. 

And that’s the teaser section of this thriller, a bit of nasty business that sets up our mysterious serial killer and our even more mysterious psychic. You know what a teaser is, right? A two to three page sequence that whets the audience’s appetite for more bloodshed to come and more importantly, mysteries to solve. An audience loves a good mystery to solve, and these teasers are important in thriller and horror scripts.
These scenes ground the story in its genre. It makes promises to the audience. The promise of more kills and grisly encounters, and the promise of revealing and hopefully catching the killer. These ingredients are the blood, bones and butter of this particular genre. They let the audience know what kind of ride they’re in for. 

So, who are the other characters?

We meet the broom-up-his-ass Agent Thomas Buck while he’s briefing the Baltimore police department about his theory that there’s a serial killer in operation, targeting couples. The only problem is, there are no bodies. But, since all of the missing women have dark hair and are in their 20s, Buck believes it’s the work of one killer. The disappearances are getting closer and closer together, so it’s time sensitive they catch this guy before there are any more victims.

The scene gets even more intriguing as the green Agent Buck (he’s still in his 20s) gets nervous during his briefing when Detective Roy Weitzman enters the room. He stammers a bit as Weitzman takes a seat in his wrinkled clothes, looking like he should be at an AA Meeting rather than a police station. 

There’s an interesting writer’s rule that says, “If your character cries, your reader won’t.” Now, I don’t remember who first said this, but I know Orson Scott Card teaches it when it comes to fiction. I’m not sure how applicable this is to a cinematic medium, but there is something about seeing a character not cry when they have reason to. It makes the reader express emotion for the character. 

Why am I mentioning this? The focal character in this scene is Buck, so when he gets nervous and shows interest in Weitzman, we’re immediately interested in him, too. This is an example of why point-of-view is important. Every scene should be shown through a character’s particular perspective. Even Christopher Nolan says, “Stylistically, something that runs through my films is the shot that walks into a room behind a character, because to me, that takes me inside the way that the character enters. I think those point-of-view issues are very important.”

Who is this Weitzman cat, and why does he make an FBI Agent like Buck so antsy?

Weitzman just got back from a book tour and the New York Times even compared him to Sherlock Holmes. Turns out he’s caught quite a few killers and the FBI is so turned on by his crime-solvin’ magic that they’ve sent Buck to observe and take note of his methods. Buck worshipped the guy’s work as he was going through the academy, so he’s struck with the idol-worshipping bug. Also turns out that Weitzman’s boss, Captain O’Neill, is friends with Buck’s family, so he’s perhaps a harmless candidate for the gig. 

Of course, we learn all this through exposition when O’Neill takes Weitzman in his office to discuss the investigation. But, you know, exposition is always welcome when we want to know the information and it’s not clumsily handled. Because of how Weitzman is set-up, we want to learn more about him. And, the scene is kind of nice because we sense a real history between the detective and his Captain. 

But, the first act would be boring if there wasn’t any tension between Weitzman and Buck. You guessed it, Weitzman doesn’t want to be saddled with the naïve young gun. Not only because he’s used to working solo, but it also seems that Weitzman has a secret to hide concerning his methods. 

O’Neill convinces the detective to take the agent along, because he’s someone who is smart and loyal and can keep his mouth shut. He gives us a nugget of intrigue as well by saying, “We’re getting old, Roy. Someone else needs to know.”

What is Weitzman hiding?

After the obligatory “Let’s Get One Thing Straight” Scene, where Weitzman tells Buck how it’s gonna be if they’re gonna work together, the detective dangles an enticing carrot in front of the young FBI agent. Not only does Buck need to get autopsy reports and the like, he is also saddled with an odd grocery list: plastic-wrapped art supplies, one bottle of Johnnie Walker, a book of Georgia O’Keefe paintings and a bag of M&Ms.

Now, most FBI agents probably wouldn’t take these kind of demands from a police detective, but an encounter with one of the victim’s parents motivates Buck to play nice. He buys everything on the list and the next day Weitzman takes him to an odd farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere that is surrounded by weird metal sculptures and other odd accoutrement. 

Weitzman gives him three rules before they enter: One, Don’t touch anything. Two, Don’t move around. 
Three, he must tell no one what he is about to see.

Inside, they find the fading beauty, Penny, who aims to get drunk with Johnnie Walker. There are also canvasses everywhere of painted figures. 

All with no faces.

Penny calls her daughter downstairs. Skye, or Yuyu, looks like a Renaissance Madonna. She wears paint-stained dungarees and neoprene gloves protect her hands. Buck is instantly smitten. 

What’s the psychic’s story?

She doesn’t read because she’s dyslexic. She doesn’t speak because she has aphasia. All human faces look blank to her (she can’t tell one face from another) because she has prosopagnosia. 

Give her an evidence bag (conveniently stolen from the evidence lockers by Weitzman), take off her gloves and let her make contact with the psychic memories these objects carry. She’s like an antenna, locking onto the killer after touching some strands of hair. 

Since she doesn’t speak or write, she draws what she sees on a sketchpad. We learn this system is pretty damn accurate, as Weitzman has caught a slew of killers by using his psychic bloodhound, Yuyu. 

But, what about the book he wrote, you ask? How did he portray his techniques and use of informants? Well, he tells an angry Buck he cribbed from Hitchock films and CSI. 

At this point, Buck is so angry that he wants to leave his assignment, but he’s haunted by the victims and the picture of the killer that Yuyu sketched. He stays on the hunt and carries us into Act Two. 

What’s the rest of the script like, Rog?

This was an odd bird. I breezed through this thing because the writing was clean and vivid and I really wanted to know how the sucker would end. Hell, in stories like this, where the Narrative Question is: Will our guys catch the killer?, I will keep reading until that question is answered. If it’s a pleasant read, that is. 

And Unicorn is a pleasant read.

There’s a B Story where we follow the killer through his routine, and that helps flesh out the script but I think the story and characters need to be beefed up. Right now, a lot of Act Two is about waiting for the killer to make his next move. In turn, our protagonists are waiting for Yuyu to gather clues through her sensory and psychic connections. There’s a lot of waiting. They become a bit passive. Which gives time for Buck to have a romance with Yuyu, but it’s bogged down by too much stuff I’ve seen before. 

This created a bump in the read for me as I wanted more tension and emotional weight that wasn’t coupled with locked-room protagonists (not entirely passive, they’re just caged) and a predictable plot. Unicorn works as a by-the-numbers thriller and procedural, but it needs a cohesive theme. It needs more heart.

However, there’s a cool twist at the end of Act Two that creates a very tense scene that puts one of our heroes in a very vulnerable position, and it may be the best scene in the whole script. Although, the mechanics of how the Twist work here don’t seem to follow the psychic rules set-up by the writer. I do think this is an easy fix, though, and it has to do with touch and giving this particular character an object to help them “hone in”. 

For some reason, Unicorn reminded me of one of my favorite scripts, Sunflower. That’s another thriller, but it has some dazzling psychological pyrokinetics between the characters that I loved, and I think Unicorn could benefit by having more mind-games. The chess pieces are all here for something cool, I just think they should be moved around a bit more to not only beef up the characters, but to make the script itself edgier and not as predictable. 

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Two things. Point of View and Putting Your Character Through the Ringer. The rule of thumb for creating drama and tension in a scene is by telling it through the character who has the most to lose in the scene. After I read Unicorn, I kept thinking how cool it would be if this was a story told from the psychic’s perspective. She’s mute. She can’t distinguish between faces. Yet she gets startling visions. That seems like such an interesting character to tell a story though, and I think it would make the execution unique. Jennifer 8 did it. Yuyu is such a vulnerable character, and any scene in which she is endangered would be tense as hell. Speaking of tension, it’s hard for an audience to pull away from a scene when the protagonist is being endangered with no easy ways out. If story can be defined as how a character deals with danger, then it would make sense to put them through the ringer to such an extent where they can’t escape without a few bruises and scars. Audiences love to see a protagonist get hit, physically or emotionally, so don’t be afraid to beat them up. Stories where characters get everything handed to them on a silver platter are boring. Make them earn it.