Saturday, June 30, 2012

You Pick The Next Two Amateur Friday Scripts

Everybody always complains to me about my Amateur Friday choices.  (complain-y voice) "Carson, you never pick Amateur Friday scripts fairly." "Why does this guy get to go twice?"  "This logline sucks.  Mine's better."  "How come I didn't get picked?"  "You play favorites."  Well NO MORE my friends! That's because YOU'RE picking the next two Amateur Friday scripts!

Below, I've listed 20 loglines along with the first ten pages of each.  Now I want you to pay attention to HOW you choose the pages you read.  Since you don't have time to read all 20, you'll notice that an automatic filtering system kicks in.  Based on what?  The logline, of course.  How interesting it sounds.  If it seems like a movie or not.  In doing so, you're doing exactly what agents, producers and execs are doing.  Take what you learn from that experience and apply it to your next script.  Make sure your idea can stand up to this test.

Now I didn't hand-pick these loglines.  They were all picked randomly.  I wanted to give you an opportunity to see what I (and others) get sent.  As you can see, if you come up with a good idea, it's pretty damn easy to stand out from the pack.  The large majority of these loglines won't get anything more than an eye-roll.  I know that's harsh, but this process is harsh.  Nobody cares about your feelings (besides Scriptshadow of course!), which means if you want to succeed, you have to do better.  There's also no official tally here.  Just tell me which loglines and pages you like the most in the comments section and I'll go with whatever's getting the most attention.  Now have at it!

The Last Banana Tree (Dramedy) - Tensions rise in the Foster household as their oldest daughter plans a doomed fundraiser for the world's last banana tree.

Wonderwall (Action) - A former black ops soldier now makes millions providing freelance security to criminals. But his newest client attracts every cop and criminal in the city, and she just may be innocent. Saving her forces him to be a soldier again.

Heavy Gravity (Sci-Fi) - When a spoiled celebrity athlete is framed for blowing up the floating Imperial sky palace, he escapes with a rag-tag bunch of Surfacer teens to bring to justice the Empire's most notorious terrorist -- it's ruler.

Dear Melanie (Drama/Romance) - After receiving a letter from a recently deceased co-worker professing his feelings for her, Melanie leaps at the chance to go back in time and save him.

Banshee (Horror) - A woman tormented by visions of death must learn to control her rage with the help of a vigilante vicar, in order to find her son and save a sea-side town from a soul stealing Banshee.

Kings (Thriller/Dark Comedy) - A group of teenagers congregate to play a popular drinking game, but when sex, drugs, and angst raise the debaucherous stakes, they'll have to reassess their friendships in order to survive the night.

The Big Bang (Comedy) - After a desperately inadequate man sells his soul to the Devil for "male enhancement," he discovers that his newfound stature is more of a curse than a blessing and he must confront God to find true happiness.

Dark Space (Action/Sci-Fi) - Alex Chaser, a tenacious mechanic, has gone through life ignoring humanity's perilous position in the galaxy; constantly abused and ignored by a powerful alien government. But when she learns she is the first human to acquire psionic abilities, Alex finds herself changing the trajectory of human evolution in ways she never could have imagined.

Dethroned (Romance/Drama) - A millionaire, lost his fortunes & company, has to adapt to a new life when he becomes homeless and now faces losing his wife & daughter.

Amerikanski (Crime/Drama) - An orphan is taken in by a gang of criminals in Northeast Philly and grows up to lead them in a turf war with the Russian Mafia.

Things To Do Before I Died (Dramedy) - After the funeral of his best friend a lonely estate agent with a drab existence finds her wish list and decides to complete it in her memory. But when the list leads him on a journey that uncovers her troubled past, he must question everything he ever knew about her before he can begin the healing process.

The Real Jeff Spencer (Romantic Comedy) - An average Joe - with the same name as a TV star - begins a text-messaging relationship with a Hollywood starlet who falls for him.

Headlong (Comedy) - wo Aussies roadtripping from Phoenix to Vegas pick up a recently turned zombie gang member, who carries a fortune in stolen gems. When his former gang comrades pursue, a wild chase begins...

Mad Dogs (Grindhouse/Horror) - A repressed teen werewolf tracks down her estranged father -- the sheriff of resort that caters to the hedonistic pursuits of werewolves -- but an outbreak of weaponized rabies turns their reunion into a fight for survival.

Blood and Water (Thriller) - After her lover is murdered, a disillusioned sheriff struggles to cover up the affair; but instead, discovers a conspiracy that threatens to wipe out her entire town.

Blood Star (Sci-fi/Action) -When the last Vampires on Earth realize their powers are fading, they must go in search of the source of their immortality, before they are hunted down by a vengeful Grim Reaper bent on ending their kind forever.

The Battle Of New Orleans (Historical Action) - Outnumbered by the British army as he defends New Orleans in the War of 1812, heroic but strict General ANDREW JACKSON joins forces with the charming pirate JEAN LAFITTE, but must compete against the captain for the affections of Jackson's willful wife, RACHEL.

Doxide (Sci-Fi) - A mafia hitman is hired by the government to hunt down a group of extraterrestrials on the New York City waterfront.

Battleground (Sci-Fi/Action) - During World War Two, in the merciless, freezing wilderness of southern Russia, stranded American and German soldiers put their differences aside to fight off an alien invasion from another world.

The Lumber Hack (Comedy) - When the world's greatest competitive lumberjack decides to make a come back, he must overcome his past mistakes and the reigning world champion to complete his quest.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Screenplay Review - Orbital War (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: Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. 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: Sci-Fi
Premise: (from writer) In the year 3000, the husband and wife survivors of an elite black ops unit are on a mission to infiltrate a rebelling orbital state, resolve a tense hostage situation and avenge their fallen teammates. As the only people admitted Upstairs are kids and their parents, the operatives have to adopt a 13-year old girl as their cover.
About: A year ago, a brave young Scriptshadow reader subjected himself to an Amateur Friday Review that might have been the most infamous ever if not for a certain Trajent Future.  If you don't feel like reading that review, I'll boil it down for you.  I laid into the script for not having a plot, structure, or characters.  It felt like it'd been written in a week. Well, Sweden, who took a beating in that review and in the talkback, ingested all that feedback, went back to the drawing board, and approached the story from a whole new angle.  This is his rewrite.
Writer: John Sweden
Details: 99 pages



Instead of doing the intro on this one, I'll let Mr. Sweden do it himself!  Here was his e-mail to me about why I should read his script: "One year ago in the talkback for my hilariously offensive script "Orbitals" some kind commenter suggested that the concept would be perfect for a PG-rated Disney summer blockbuster. I replied that I'd actually pay to see such a big budget version of my story. "Why don't you write it yourself? -- asked the commenter. -- This way you won't have to pay -- you'll see it at the premiere!" So I spent a year researching, writing and re-writing my own brand of a summer sci-fi adventure movie: as realistic, action-packed and -- most of all -- human a story as I could possibly imagine. I think it would be fairly interesting to do an anniversary Friday -- a sort of "a year in life of an amateur screenwriter" thing."

Okay then John, let's see how you did!

Orbitals 2: Orbital War, begins by taking us through many centuries until we get to modern day, which in this story is the year 3000 (I think - more on this in a moment).  During all that time, mankind has sent a ton of satellites and space stations up into space, creating many rings of debris around the planet, similar to Saturn.

There also appears to be a war or two going on.  The first war is happening down on earth (I think - more on this in a moment) between...well, I'll be honest, I'm not sure who it's between.  But there's definitely some sort of war going on!  Actually, that's not true.  I'm not sure there's a war going on.  But there are people firing weapons at each other.  That I can tell you with certainty.  I think.  No, I know.  Yeah, I know that for sure.  I think.

So in one of these warring factions/teams is some sort of orphanage - I think.  I say "I think" because I couldn't figure out why any army would also carry with them a bunch of orphans.  Anyway, in that orphanage is a 13 year old girl named Haley, who's had a rough life, as indicated by the huge scar on her face.  When the bad guys (I'm assuming they're bad since the orphanage army has to be good, right?) successfully take down Orphanage Army, two soldiers, Jonathan and his beautiful wife Stellar, light up when they find Haley amongst the wreckage.

That's because Jonathan and Stellar need a kid if they're to make it up to Orbital Station, which has a requirement that only full families (with children) are allowed on the premises.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you about Orbital Station!  Besides these two warring factions, there's this really evil dude up on this station who's housing...ALIENS.  Yes, he's got a couple of aliens on the ship and is using them to threaten earth, even going so far as to ignite a tidal wave that destroys San Francisco.  I'll be honest, I'm still not sure if he's affiliated with one of the factions on earth or not.  But after making his Tidal Wave point, he tells the earthlings his demands are....NOTHING.  He doesn't want anything.  I guess he just wanted to test out his cool tidal wave weapon.

Anyway, Jonathan and Stellar tell Haley she has to pretend to be their child since they want to go up to the Orbital station and blow up the aliens.  Haley shrugs her shoulders - "Sure, why not?"  It's not like she has anything better to do.  So the trio develop aliases and hop onto the next transport to Orbitsville.  Once there, their cover is blown quickly, and everyone on Orbital wants them dead.....I think.

Okay, John did address one of my main concerns.  His previous script felt like it was whipped up in 3 days after a Reno bender.  This script, however, is bursting with effort.  Remember, readers can tell when a writer isn't putting in the effort.  In these cases, your script isn't a script.  It's Al Qaeda.  And we will do everything in our power to rip it to shreds.  Never EVER waste a reader's time.

The problem with John's rewrite is, a lot of this effort is misguided, starting with a really confusing plot.  I mean right from the outset, I was confused.  We start out in the year 2020.  5 paragraphs later we're in 2312.  Five paragraphs later we're in 2750.  And five paragraphs after that, we're in the year 3000.

Now there's no rule that says you can't jump through time in your screenplay.  But John doesn't prepare us for this.  He never informed us that this was going to be a montage.  So we're just sort of watching these huge chunks of time go by without understanding why.

This is followed by an introduction to a group of characters known as the Archangels.  Cool name.  But what the hell are they?  It's not clear what their place in the story is.  I actually thought they were like the stars at the beginning of It's A Wonderful Life, since they start telling us a story.  The story appears to be about the long ago past.  However, later in the script, we're told that we're still in the year 3000.  Very confusing.

From there, we're all of a sudden thrown into this desert with someone named Gareth.  Gareth and his team are preparing to attack an army - drones of some sort (I think).  But we're just thrust into it with no explanation of what's going on.  Who's Gareth?  Why's he talking to a 13 year old girl?  Why are they in a desert fighting a drone army?  What is the objective here?  Who's trying to attack what and why?  What do orphans have to do with any of this?

It's just really damn confusing.  I mean we've started out with three segments here - A thousand year montage, an introduction to a strange unexplained group, and a random desert attack.  As if that's not enough, we then get the president of the Orbital Station destroying San Francisco, claiming he has aliens, then telling the Earth that he has no demands.  So he just wanted to blow something up and brag that he had aliens???  What's going on???

There are two mistakes here and they're mistakes I see a lot of beginners make.  Plot complexity and writing clarity.  Sometimes writers simply over-plot their story.  Here we have a thousand years going by.  Some sort of war on earth.  Archangels.  An Orbital Station Maniac.  Aliens.  A military couple who wants to blow up the station but can't do so without kidnapping an orphan and pretending she's their daughter.  It just feels like too much.

Then there's clarity.  John consistently keeps key information from us.  He doesn't explain why the Orbital Leader destroys San Francisco.  He doesn't explain why he doesn't have demands afterwards.  He doesn't explain why we're in the desert in the middle of a war.  He doesn't explain who the sides are.  He doesn't explain why one side has an orphanage in its possession  He doesn't explain why Haley appears to be special within this orphanage.  He doesn't even explain basic logistical things well - like who's shooting at what.  For example, there's this big turret gun featured at the beginning of the desert battle.  But I have no idea whose it is or what it's shooting at.

Both of these issues are big, but when you combine them - plot complexity AND lack of clarity - it's a script-killer.  There's no way to recover from it.  ESPECIALLY when you're writing sci-fi, which requires a lot more from the reader, since they also have to learn your world and memorize the rules and characters that govern it.  So it's like a trifecta of script-destroying.  And unfortunately that means everything that comes after it - good or bad - is irrelevant.  We can talk about how good Scene 45 was, but what does it matter if we already checked out in Scene 5?

Having said that, this script *is* better than John's earlier effort.  You can tell right away that he's put a ton more effort into it.  It's unfortunate the story is so murky, to be honest, because the universe itself is extensively detailed and pain-stakingly explored.  John didn't come up with this on a Saturday night after smoking a pound of weed.  He really pushed himself.

But that's the shitty reality about writing sci-fi (or fantasy).  And it's a mistake I see writers make all the time - particularly advanced beginners for some reason.  You can create an amazingly detailed Star Wars or Lord Of The Rings-like universe.  But if the story sucks or is confusing, it doesn't matter one iota.  I don't care if you know the history of Planet Nebular down to the year of the last ice age if the whole time I'm scratching my head going, "Uhhhh, why the fuck are we on this planet again??"

So I think John's learned a valuable lesson.  He's learned how much effort it takes to write a screenplay.   Which is important, because some writers never learn that lesson and keep scribbling out half-assed "final" drafts.  But there are still some huge lessons he must take from this.  Don't make your plot any more complicated than it has to be - especially sci-fi plots, since you're already asking a ton of your reader.  Remember, Star Wars, at its core, has a very simple plot.  Bad guys chase good guys.

And then, of course, John must learn the value of clarity.  Stop worrying so much about writing the perfect poetic sentence.  Instead, just convey what's going on and why it's going on as clearly as possible.  I don't care about the way the asteroid vessel gleams in the distant sunlight if I don't have the slightest clue why the hell we're focusing on an asteroid vessel in the first place.

This skill unfortunately takes many scripts to master.  It takes most beginning screenwriters forever just to realize they're not conveying themselves clearly.  There's a difference between the scene in your head and the scene that's written.  You must master the language which allows your reader to not only see what you're seeing, but understand what you're saying.  One of the best ways to speed this process along is to give your script to a good friend and go through it afterwards, asking them what made sense and what didn't.  You'll start to see patterns in where you're being unclear, lessening the chances you'll do it again.

I hate to do this to John but this script still isn't up to "wasn't for me" standards.  When, as a reader, you're not even sure what's happening half the time, that's a major problem.  So unfortunately, Orbital War still gets the dubious lowest Scriptshadow rating.

Script link: Orbital War  (p.s. If you want to get the Amateur Friday scripts early, e-mail me with subject line: "EARLY")

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

What I Learned: Clarity over poetry.  Poetic prose is something advanced beginners obsess over.  They think that if every sentence is perfectly written, the reader will fall in love with the script.  But when a writer favors this approach, it almost always comes at the expense of clarity.  A reader would rather read, "David ducks under Linda's swing and crushes her nose with a stiff elbow" than, "David's shirt echoes his acrobatic duck as the clothesline of flesh soars an inch above his head.  His shadow displays a quickness even cheetahs would envy, turning the nose of his victim into a sprinkler of crimson."  Enough already.  Just tell us what's f*cking happening!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Twit-Pitch Review - Ridin' The Gravy Train


Genre: Comedy
Premise: (original Twit-Pitch logline) 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.
About: For those recently joining Scriptshadow, I held a contest a few months back called "Twit-Pitch," where anyone could pitch me their screenplay on Twitter, as long as it was contained within a single tweet.  I picked my 100 favorite loglines and read the first 10 pages of each (which I live-reviewed on Twitter), and then from those, picked the Top 20, which I'll read the entire screenplay for.  Yesterday I thought, "What better way to kick off the reads than to review one of the finalists on Scriptshadow?"  So here we are.  Welcome...to the first entry in the Twit-Pitch Top 20!
Writer: Jerry Hernandez.
Details: 103 pages


I met today's writer, Jerry Hernandez, AND his beautiful wife, at the Scriptshadow meet-up last week (at a bar called The Village Idiot - keep all jokes to yourself please).  Like everyone I met, he was extremely nice and fun to hang out with.  Which of course means I won't be able to say anything bad about his script.

However, this is a competition, which means not everyone wins the gold medal.  And there were some things that worried me going into a full Gravy Train feast.  I love Jerry's opening scene, which is why I advanced it.  But the end of the ten pages started to peter out just a little, and it had me wondering: Can Jerry extend this premise out to an entire feature-length film?  Let's find out.

Rough-around-the-edges Middle School teacher Bronson Matas has one love in his life - Going to his favorite fast food restaurant, DJ's, and ordering the "Gravy Train."  Sure, the Gravy Train (a mound of turkey, gravy, bread and grease) is 4000 calories and cuts a month out of your lifespan whenever you eat one.  But dammit, isn't that the American way?  To be able to physically watch yourself get fatter during a meal in hopes that one day you can be one of those Walmart shoppers riding around in those shopping scooters?

Bronson thinks so.

Unfortunately, DJ's doesn't think so.  Lawsuits from overly obese customers who somehow weren't aware that 4000 calorie meals make you diabetes-ridden Jabba the Hut clones, have destroyed store margins, leaving DJ's on the brink of bankruptcy.  One of the execs has an idea though.  The Veggie Train.  Not only is it healthy, but it costs 1/4 the budget of the Gravy Train to make!

And so the unthinkable happens.  An announcement is made that The Gravy Train will be phased out.  Well this, like turkeys, just doesn't fly with Bronson.  The Gravy Train is his f*cking LIFE!  So he grabs his best friend and roommate, Randy (who ironically hates the Gravy Train) and begins a campaign to save the sandwich.

However, things get tricky when PETA clone "Animals Are People Too" come out in droves to make sure the Gravy Train stays dead.  Bronson realizes that if his campaign is going to get noticed, he'll have to add numbers.  So he launches a Twitter campaign that finds him...well, the exact kind of people you'd expect to find wanting to save a 4000 calorie sandwich (a bunch of losers).  

Concurrently, Bronson is trying to get with his old high school flame, Golda, who's since gone on to create a Tia Tequila-like empire for herself, singing pop songs as deep as desert puddles.  Bronson and Golda used to make love while eating Gravy Trains, so there's obviously a personal attachment here.  But when Golda switches allegiances and sides with the Veggie Train, Bronson will have to make the most difficult decision of his life - Love.....or sandwich.

Usually when I go back to a script I liked, I see the flaws more clearly, since I'm more concentrated on the writing than the story.  But surprisingly enough, I actually liked Ridin' The Gravy Train's first 10 BETTER the second time around than the first.  It's my kind of humor.  And there was just an effortlessness to the way Hernandez wrote his pages.  One of the most powerful tools a writer can possess is the ability to make a screenplay not seem like a screenplay, but rather real life happening before our eyes.  And I felt that during those first ten.

But things did start to get bumpy after those initial pages, some of which had to do with the thin premise and some of which had to do with the hero himself.  First of all, I'm not sure we like Bronson.  That's not to say we NEED to like the lead in a comedy script.  The funnier a character is, the more we'll put up with.  And Bronson is funny.  But he's just such a loser and is so selfish and so mean-spirited, I had a hard time rooting for the guy.

In fact, Bronson gets more unlikable as the script goes on.  He becomes more selfish (never once listens to his friends and only looks out for his own interests), more angry (thinks all his students are idiots and treats them like shit) and consistently acts like a loser (his only real goal besides saving the sandwich is getting high).

And I understand it's a delicate line.  A lot of humor can be mined from anger/cruelty/selfishness.  Look no further than Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.  But I think that character is the exception to the rule.  Most heroes, particularly when they're not yet embodied by an actor America's familiar with, need at least one thing to make us like them.  Because if we like them, we want to root for them.  I'm not sure what that trait needs to be with Bronson, but I'm pretty sure he needs it.

Another issue was the structure.  The Gravy Train sandwich is eliminated from the menu about 12 pages into the script.  However, after another 12 pages, it's put back on the menu, and we go from "Gravy Train is gone" to "Gravy Train is back for a month and gets a farewell tour."  I don't think Jerry meant for it to come off this way, but it felt like the plot was stalling.  It was a weak development, since both issues were essentially the same.  Why not have him come in the first time and learn that the Gravy Train is starting its farewell tour?  Then you're not wasting 12 pages.  It's not a huge deal, but in a script where people are going in questioning the premises' legs, it looks bad when you're already repeating similar plot developments in the first act.

The last couple of issues I had were motivation-based.  I wasn't sure why the bad guys wanted to eliminate the Gravy Train so badly.  Yeah, there's the cost-cutting thing, but that was a throwaway line.  These guys are fighting our hero tooth-and-nail throughout the screenplay to eliminate this sandwich.  If I'm not sure why they're doing it, then the conflict between them and Bronson feels manufactured.  Why not make it so a new evil Vegan CEO takes over the company, and it's his idea to turn the franchise vegan.  I'm not sure a Vegan villain has been done before, so that could be kind of funny.

The other motivation issue was the road trip.  I'm not sure why we went on it.  Yeah, it was a way to introduce some entertaining set pieces (I particularly liked the Anti-Mexican Infestation Militia - self-proclaimed protectors of the Border), but I wasn't clear on why the characters didn't just stay in LA.  It felt like they would've gotten a lot more publicity there.  Maybe if, say, they realized they needed to drive to the company headquarters in Omaha to make a real impression, that would've made sense.  But the way it came off in the script was, "Let's go on a road trip." "Why?" "Because I want to."

Now all of this might seem like nitpicking, but motivation is actually very important in comedy.  If we're not convinced that the characters need or desperately want to do what they're doing, then the situations aren't nearly as funny.  For example, in Bridesmaids, when Annie and Helen are trying to out-toast each other at the wedding shower, that scene doesn't work unless we know how deeply each one wants to prove that they're Lillian's best friend.  Without that motivation, they're just two characters on a stage goofing off.  So you want to make sure motivation is always strong in a comedy.

Having said all of that, Jerry's a good writer and this script has some great moments.  The character of Courtney Langdon, an overtly angry FBI agent who's torn between his love of the Gravy Train and his duty to the FBI, was a highlight.  In fact, there was never a moment during this read where I didn't have a smile on my face.  I'm just stuck wondering if there's enough of a story here to carry an entire movie.  Either way, I'll be looking forward to Jerry's next!

Script Link: Ridin The Gravy Train

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

What I Learned: The title of Jerry's document is "RTGTNicholl," which I assume means this is his Nicholl draft.  Here's a tip folks.  Never submit a comedy to Nicholl unless you're doing something TOTALLY ORIGINAL with the script.  Tell your story backwards, out of sequence, in a made-up language, in the first person, whatever.  But I have never, in all the years Nicholl's been running, seen a traditional comedy win.  They're just not comedy-friendly over there.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Screenplay Review - Leaving Pete


Genre: Comedy/Romantic Comedy
Premise: After his wife leaves him, good guy Paul is horrified to learn she's written a book about how to leave your loser husband.  It gets really bad, however, when the book hits number 1 on the bestseller list.  
About: This script finished on the bottom half of last year's Black List.  Ali Waller was a writer on The Jimmy Fallon show.  Morgan Murphy was a writer on Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and wrote a couple of episodes of Two Broke Girls, which (and I'm making a bit of a leap here) might have been based on the life of these two??
Writer: Morgan Murphy and Ali Waller
Details: 103 pages


Jay Baruchel for Paul?

It's hard, because of what I do, not to know at least something about the script I'm reading.  But every once in awhile I open a screenplay where I literally know nothing about it, such as today.  The only thing I have to go on with Leaving Pete is the title.  Who's Pete?  Why is someone leaving him?  I sorta wanna know.  So crack open a can of Blood Orange San Pelligrino and join me.  Let's find out if this Pete character deserves getting left.

Paul is a typical nerdy adorable rom-com protagonist.  In fact, Paul is an appropriate name, as I'm pretty sure the writers were thinking of Paul Rudd.  And if you're worried about the hero being yet another lovable loser...well, be worried.  Cause he is.  BUT, the writers seem to know that this is a problem for certain readers, and have made Paul a little more active and take-charge than your typical loser-ish Seth Rogan-type. Paul is writing a book (about an obscure Civil War hero) and wants to do good in the world.  He's just...a little slow.  But hey, aren't we all slow?  Don't we all finish drafts a little later than we mean to?

Paul's idea of fun is hanging out with his pals Murph (think a younger Jack Black) and Dean (think a younger Jason Bateman).  Murph's the kind of guy who hits on every girl, gets turned down every time, but doesn't give a shit.  Dean's the kind of guy who's married, lives vicariously through his single friends, and does give a shit.  The three spend their guy's night out every week at a bar playing a cheesy Bar Quiz game where the winner gets a free pitcher of beer.  Not exactly a giant stuffed bear (now THAT'S a prize) but each wackily-named team (Murph came up with their name: "Taking Care Of Quizness.") takes it very seriously.

It's on one of these nights that we learn Paul's been riding solo since his wife, Jane, left his ass.  As far as Dean and Murph are concerned, that's good news.  Cause Jane was a bit of a bitch.  Without the "bit of a" part.  Naturally, then, they're skeptical when they hear Paul's meeting her for lunch tomorrow.  Paul's still in that delusional state we've all been in where he thinks he's over his ex yet secretly hopes she's meeting him to get back together.

Which, of course, is not even close to reality.  Jane actually shows up with a lawyer, who's there to inform Paul that Jane's written a book about leaving losers, based on him, titled "Leaving Pete."  Guess that rules out a sympathy screw.

But it gets worse.  The book becomes a smash-hit!  Like Da Vinci Code sales.  Without the boring movie adaptation.  Pretty soon Jane is on Oprah touting her catch phrase ("Go it alone") and every woman out there is making sure their man isn't a "Pete" (a "Paul"), someone who's lazy and clips their woman's wings.  Of course, Paul wasn't any of these things.  He was nice and sweet and super-supportive of Jane, so he has no idea where any of this is coming from.  In the meantime, Paul's inadvertently become the poster child for "Men you shouldn't be with."

Even retreating into his man cave for months does't work (this is us guys' GO-TO MOVE when we encounter trouble - retreat to the man cave for two months.  It's where problems magically disappear!).  Except books that sweep the nation never disappear.  This is one virus Paul can't wait out.

But then salvation arrives in the form of Abby, a beautiful barroom quiz nut who answers those pitcher-chasing questions faster than Paul can process them.  Paul's wowed by her intelligence and after that night's game, the two are off to Umani Burger to have the time of their lives (okay, they don't go to Umani Burger.  That's where I'd go with a girl for the time of my life.  But you get the idea).

Everything's going swimmingly, in fact, until Paul learns that Abby, gasp, works as an assistant at the publishing company that publishes Jane's book!  Luckily for him, she hasn't read it yet (she assumes it's trash).  Still, Paul's the most popular anonymous book character in the world, and everywhere they go, it seems like he's one slip-up away from Abby finding out his not-so-secret persona.

Obviously, the longer this secret goes on, the more precarious Paul's situation gets.  There's that delicate point in a relationship where you can't disclose certain secrets afterwards less you want to be lynched by your significant other.  Paul crosses that line ten times over.  And since this is a movie, we know it's going to blow up in his face.  Which is where all the fun is...for us at least!

Finally!  A good script!  Finally!  Good writing!  This was mostly great.  Not only are these writers hilarious, but they nail the beats every romantic comedy must have.  First, the characters have to be likable.  I dare you not to like Paul, Murph, Dean, or Abby.  It's impossible not to like someone who gets screwed over by a bitch.  It's impossible not to like the most supportive friends ever.  And it's hard not to like a girl who falls in love with our hero, warts and all.

Next, the dialogue here is great/hilarious.  This is a MUST for any comedy/romantic comedy writer, and it's where talent comes into play most as a screenwriter.  Any writer can learn structure and conflict and character construction with time and determination.  But only those special few can consistently write funny dialogue.  Some of the most painful scripts to read are comedy scripts where the writer can't write anything beyond average dialogue.  And believe it or not, that's about 90% of the comedy scripts I read!

These girls, however, tear it up.   Here's an early sequence where the friends are playing the "Celebrity Jeopardy"-like bar quiz game in which Paul is his team's only chance at winning. HOST: "Next question.: Uxoricide is the killing of one's what?" Paul's stumped. DEAN: "Why aren't you buzzing?  You're supposed to be buzzing." PAUL: "I don't know this one." MURPH: "OH, COME ON!" Becca N Friendz buzzes in. BECCA: "Uxor?" HOST: "No it is not the killing of one's uxor, but Becca, I would love to know what you think an uxor is." Becca looks disappointed.  She thought she had that.

MURPH: "We can figure this out.  Uxor sounds like Luxor, we stayed at the Luxor in Vegas last year...(suddenly excited)...remember that waitress who was into me?!" PAUL/DEAN: "No." Terry (the annoying player who always wins) buzzes. TERRY: "Wife.  It's the killing of one's wife."  HOST: "Correct."  Unphased by his victory, Terry casually takes a sip of beer.

Later in the scene -- MURPH: "THAT'S what your book was about?  Why don't you write something commercial like a zombie soap opera?"  PAUL: "Because I'd hate myself." MURPH: "You already hate yourself." PAUL: "By the way, I started writing again." DEAN: "Wow. That's great, man." PAUL: "I feel good about it.  I think I'm in a good place.  I'm finally over Jane.  Last week I even went to the gym." DEAN: "You went to the gym?" PAUL: "I walked past the gym. I saw a guy on the treadmill in the window.  He smiled.  I smiled back...the wheels are in motion."  DEAN: "It's nice to see you happy again." PAUL: "Thanks." MURPH: "You only sucked for a year." DEAN: "Give him a break. Divorce is hard. I read an article once that break-ups are more painful for people than a death in the family."  PAUL: "Yeah, cuz when your mom dies you don't  imagine her fucking all your friends."

And it goes on like this.  The dialogue between the characters is always lively and entertaining.  And it looks so damn easy when someone does it right, even though it's so damn hard!  I envy writers who are able to pull this off.

But the script's real power comes from its...big screenplay term here: DRAMATIC IRONY. That's right.  Weeee know something a key character does not.  We know that Paul is lying to Abby, which means every single scene where Paul and Abby are together contains a secret.  And when you have a secret like that, it creates subtext, which makes all of the scenes waaaaay more interesting.

For example, when Paul and Abby are going to Dean's place for a couple's dinner, we know that one slip-up could lead to Abby finding out who Paul is.  Mundane conversations become suspenseful and terrifying.  If Dean's wife accidentally says the wrong thing, Paul's secret is out, and he's lost the love of his life forever.  That's how to make scenes come alive!

Finally, there just wasn't any fat here.  The script comes in at a lean 100 pages, which is exactly where this genre should be, and that's an indictor that these writers know what they're doing.  I see too many comedy (or romantic comedy) scripts coming in at 115-120 pages, with writers swearing they need every cubic square inch of those pages, and there being 8-10 scenes that could be cut instantly.  Not the case here.  Every scene pushes the story forward.  Nothing is included that doesn't need to be included.  This skill is one of the easiest ways to identify a pro writer.  Amateur writers always include stuff they shouldn't (so remember guys - ONLY write scenes that PUSH THE STORY FORWARD!!!).

So as far as I'm concerned, Leaving Pete leaves the Scriptshadow arena a winner.  ALMOST got an impressive.  Thank you for finally giving me a good screenplay to read Screenwriting Gods!


[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] not for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius


What I Learned: Substitute an inevitable disaster for a goal.  I talk about goals all the time on this site.  If you give your main character a goal, we'll want to stick around to see if he/she achieves it or not.  But lots of romantic comedies don't have goals.  Which means you need to substitute something to keep us interested - to keep us turning the pages.  A great alternative, then, is to create an inevitable disaster, usually brought on by a secret one character is keeping from another.  Our need to see what happens when that secret is revealed will work, in a lot of ways, like a goal.  We HAVE to be there when that happens, and therefore, we HAVE to keep reading your screenplay!

What I Learned 2: Subliminal naming!  In a comedy, it might be a good idea to name your character after the name of the actor you want to play the part (just the first name, not last).  Subliminally, this will make the writer think of that actor, which definitely helps the read (it's easier to imagine lines coming out of a specific actor's mouth, since every actor has their own unique voice).  I would only do this in comedies though.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Screenplay Review - The God Particle

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: In the near future, a large-scale science experiment on an American space station goes haywire, eliminating earth from space.  The occupants of the space station must then deal with a rogue space shuttle that may have nefarious plans for the crew.
About: Writer Oren Uziel is best known for his somewhat wacky premises.  In his breakthrough screenplay, Shimmer Lake, he told his story backwards.  In his next script, Kitchen Sink, he tackled aliens, zombies and vampires.  The God Particle is his first screenplay that takes a grounded approach to a premise, albeit one steeped in science fiction.
Writer: Oren Uzeil
Details: 110 pages


Oren's one of my favorite writers.  You're just never sure what you're going to get when you open one of his scripts.  And you can't say that for a lot of writers.  Oren first came to my attention when he won the Austin Film Festival screenwriting contest with his backwards tale, Shimmer Lake.  It was one of the few times I've seen that gimmick used in a way that actually helped the story, and wasn't just a cheap way to get reads.

But that was a small town hick tale.  This is the future.  In outer space.  And it's the first time Oren's told a grounded story.  The characters aren't layered in sarcasm or broader than a 3 Stooges sketch or steeped in tongue-in-cheek dialogue.  Which means Oren has no "special effects" to fall back on.  He has to tell everything straight-up.  And that's when it gets hard folks - having to create REAL people.  I actually know very few writers who can pull it off consistently.  Does Oren join the club?

The God Particle introduces us to space station "Dandelion," which consists of Ava Hamilton, an engineer and the de facto captain of the station (I think - that's never clear), her boyfriend, Evan, the boyish Miika, the pious "Monk," the shaggy-haired ship screw-up, Mundy, as well as a few others.

This station's been orbiting earth for a few years, which is probably a good thing because earth isn't doing so hot.  There's an escalating war between the U.S. and Europe, with each side sending troops over for a massive offensive.  Not sure what us and Europe would fight over (the metric system maybe?) but apparently things are getting pretty nasty.

The Dandelion was built to house one of those particle accelerator thingys.  A little unclear on the need for one of those puppies up in space (seems kind of expensive doesn't it?) but maybe it has something to do with that one in Sweden breaking down if you so much as sneeze near it.  Well, if you want to talk about a breakdown, let's talk about what happens when Dandelion runs its first particle acceleration experiment.  The goddamn earth disappears!!!  Now that is a fireable offense.

After some really pissed off astronauts regroup, they wonder what the hell they're going to do.    Imagine never being able to go to Chipotle again!   Sooo not okay.  So the station does what orbit-less space stations do best, drift around in nothingness for awhile.  Until - that is - spotting an incoming space shuttle.  But not just any space shuttle - a EUROPEAN space shuttle.  Looks like that century old debate of meters or yards will be solved after all.  Possibly over a game of darts!

After the Europeans convince the stupid Americans to let them board, people start dying.  The first one to go is Hamilton's boyfriend, Evan, who's poisoned.  The problem is, Hamilton's not convinced the Europeans did it.  She thinks it might have been one of her OWN men.  Well by gosh, we just stumbled upon a good old fashioned whodunit, didn't we?

This is followed by a number of twists and surprises, such as the true nature behind the particle accelerator, and pretty soon it looks like no one's coming out of this thing alive.  So Hamilton will have to put her best private detective hat on while keeping both crews from each other's throats, and come up with a solution before humanity as we know it is barbecued.

I don't know if my standards have gone up in recent weeks or the scripts I'm reading have gone down, but I'm having a hard time endorsing screenplays lately.  The God Particle is okay but I'm just not sure it's a big enough idea.  I've read a half a dozen of these "stuck on a space station - try to get back to earth" scripts, so I've pretty much seen it all.  And unfortunately God Particle doesn't introduce anything new to the equation.

Actually, I shouldn't say that.  We do have the "whodunnit" aspect, which bookends a nifty little Act 2 sequence.  But I can watch a whodunnit anywhere.  I'm not sure putting it in space adds anything new to the mix.

Also, there were a few unclear plot points which had a fairly significant effect on the read.  For example, I couldn't figure out if this was some sort of half-ship/half-station or if it was JUST a station.  What confused me is that they kept saying it took them a month to receive signals from earth.  If they're orbiting earth, why would it take a month to receive radio/television signals?  Wouldn't it only take, like, a few minutes?

The reason this is a big deal is because at the end of the first act, the earth disappears.  And I was trying to figure out if the earth was a 2 month trip from where they were or just right next to them.  Cause if it was the former, it would be a lot harder to pinpoint earth, increasing the odds that they'd made a mistake.  The point is - it was unnecessarily confusing!  And you can't have confusion surrounding ANY major plot points.  It's those key points that, if unclear, can confuse the hell out of a reader and make him give up on the story.

Another issue is the darn characters.  There just weren't any that stood out.  Hamilton, the lead (I'm still confused about whether she was the engineer or the captain or both) was about as bland as it gets, which is strange, since Oren's written such interesting characters in the past.  There just didn't seem to be any conflict going on inside of her, or outside of her for that matter.  Even when her lover was killed early on, she seemed indifferent to it, which was bizarre.

And then we had Monk, the religious character, who was about as on-the-nose as a freckle.  He's a religious character who's...religious!  He just talks about God the whole time.  There's no new angle there, nothing to grab onto or surprise you.  When you're writing "stereotype" characters, particularly ones with strong ideologies, like religious characters, I always advise adding irony to spice them up!  For example, maybe Monk's a religious man who's addicted to a drug or extremely violent or even swears all the time!  You know what I mean?  Just give me something so it's not so obvious and on-the-nose.

And this issue reared its ugly head in all the characters, none of whom had that necessary trait to make them stand out from the pack (or from previous movies).  And obviously, if the characters are boring, the plot doesn't matter.  Who cares how cool a plot is if we don't care about the people in it?

And the unfortunate thing here was, the plot had its moments.  One of my favorite parts (spoiler) was when the Europeans turned out to be military and had successfully tricked the Americans (who they'd always planned on killing).  It was a plot twist with all sorts of potential but, again, because the characters were so bland, we just didn't care that much.

God Particle is well-written but lacks all those exceptional amenities that make a script stand out.


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


What I Learned: You need at least one character in your sci-fi script (and really any script) who's just really fucking unique.  They have to be different from any character you've seen before, or else what's the point?  Look at Riddick from Pitch Black.  He's blind.  He's a murderer.  But he's also a hero.  Look at his adversary, Johns.  He's a bounty hunter who's addicted to drugs.  He's more morally bankrupt than Riddick himself.  You gotta push yourself in this area because if you just create a bunch of "normal" characters and no one stands out, you're going to have, at best, an average script.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Another Scriptshadow Travel Day - Late Post

In my rabid attempts to find an apartment, I wasn't able to get today's review up before my 4 hour ascension to 30,000 feet.  Which means a late post.  I want to take this time, however, to thank everyone who sent me apartment prospects.  I went through ALL of them.  Unfortunately, I still haven't found a place.  I think what I'm going to do is come back here August 1st, sublet a place for a month or two, and just become an apartment-hunting Nazi.  From my experience, I've learned that you basically need to make apartment-hunting your job if you're going to find a good place. So, with that said, if you guys find anything amazing in the meantime, send it to me!  I'm still offering a script read and notes to anyone who finds me my place.  --- Now hang tight. I'll have a review up later in the day.  Oh, and no, I didn't send out this week's newsletter yet.  Too busy.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Screenplay Review - Return Fire (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: Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. 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: Action/Sci-fi
Premise: (from writer) When a US Special Forces team is transported back in time to World War II, their young lieutenant must step up to the calling and prevent the Nazis from turning the war in Germany's favor, and return his team home safely.
About: Another idea that was pitched to me on Twitter!  I want you guys to know that I'm not ONLY reviewing amateur scripts that are pitched to me on Twitter.  I did go through about 30 e-mail submissions first.  But nothing popped out at me.  This one did.  I could see producers and studios being interested in it if well-executed.  So I took a chance.
Writers: Joe Dinicola & Anthony Davies
Details: 115 pages


What I wouldn't do for a time machine this week!  It's Friday and I still haven't found a place.  I need to go back to Monday and, knowing what I know now, search better and more efficiently.  With that said, THANK YOU for all the e-mails yesterday. You guys have given me a ton of apartment leads to follow-up on.  I'll keep you posted on how those go on Twitter.  And please, keep them coming!

ALSO, thank you to all the Scriptshadow readers who came out last night!  I had a blast meeting everyone in person and everybody was super-cool.  My only regret is that I didn't have more time to spend with each individual person.  But maybe I'll do it again when I move out here in a month.  Assuming I have a place that is.  And hey, what's the worst that can happen if I don't find a place?  I'll be one of the many homelesses.  Being homeless in LA is almost trendy.

Return Fire begins with an earthquake in Switzerland.  But something's funky enough about this earthquake that it gets the American military curious.  They think it might be a nuke testing of some sort.  What the Swiss would be doing testing nukes, who knows?  But the point is, the military wants to send in a Special Forces unit to check it out.

That unit is basically headed up by Jonathan "Santa" Santarelli, a young hotshot defined more by his war decorated grandfather than anything he's achieved.  We also have Hawks, a hot chick who's deft at throwing knives around, Dang, a Cuban who's obsessed with Star Trek, and a number of other dudes who really enjoy being the biggest badasses on the planet.

So our team flies to Switzerland, locates the epicenter of the earthquake, and finds a hidden bunker there with a couple of dead Nazis and a strange nuclear reactor thingy inside.  Seems they've stumbled upon a secret Nazi science experiment gone wrong.  Certainly nothing to worry about right now though.  But as they prepare to leave, there's a big flash, they pass out, they wake up, and the bunker now looks clean and shiny.  Not just that, but those dead Nazi bodies are gone!

Of course Dang thinks they've travelled back in time but no one else is buying it - yet.  Once they're attacked by a few Nazis, though, public consensus sways. As hard as it is to believe...they may have just been transported back to 1945, two months before the end of World War 2!

A simple mission all of a sudden becomes, "How the hell do we get back to the present?"  After cornering a Nazi scientist who's a part of the time-travelling experiment, they learn that unless they kill a really bad Nazi (who's realized via the Americans' arrival that the Germans lose the war), there's a good chance Hitler will be informed of the loss and travel back in time to start the war over again, this time making sure he doesn't fuck it up.  So it's sort of like my apartment hunting issue.  Without the threat of a thousand year Reich.

Okay so here's the good news.  This script is probably the best script of the week.  The writing here is really strong.  Paragraphs are short and packed with information.  They're easy to read.  And a lot has been put into the prose.  For example, here's an early line in the script: "In the smoky doorway, SERGEANT MAJOR JACOBS (50s) leans on the jamb, a hard, lean man with a lined face and hair speckled a wise grey."

So the script was just really easy and fun to read.  However, there was something missing here and as I look back on it, I'm not entirely sure what it was.  That'll happen to me sometimes.  I'll read a script that, for all intents and purposes, has very little "wrong" with it.  And yet there's something that just doesn't do it for me.

To find the issues, I usually ask myself a simple question: "What didn't you like?"  The first thing that pops out at me is that the story isn't exceptional.  It's serviceable.  It explores the premise.  I'm just not sure it explores it in an interesting or unique enough way.  Once we get back to 1945, the story devolves into a series of small tasks that revolve around finding this Nazi Bad Guy who may or may not tell Hitler they've lost the war, which would result in Hitler MAYBE going back in time and starting the war over again.

When I have to play "maybe or maybe not connect-the-dots motivation," I'm not nearly as invested in the story. I like when motivations are crisp and clean.  Taken.  Save his daughter or she disappears forever.  I get that.  It's not that "connect-the-dots motivation" can't work.  It's just a gamble, especially when you couple it with a "maybe" scenario.  That was the thing.  I was never sure exactly what the Nazi bad guy was going to do OR what Hitler would do with the information once he got it.

And yet I'm not sure if that's the main reason Return Fire didn't pop for me.  I think another issue is that nothing really shocking happened.  Nothing surprising.  And that's a problem when you have a time-travel film.  Just the nature of the concept necessitates some shocking things to happen.

For example, when Marty gets sent back in time in Back To The Future, how boring would the movie have been if all he had to do was get back?  The surprising twist that makes that screenplay one of the best ever is that Marty accidentally gets hit by the car that has his mother fall in love with him instead of his father (who was the one who was SUPPOSED to get hit by the car).  So now it isn't just about getting back.  It's about making his mom fall out of love with him and in love with his father.  That's what made the script pop.

Here we have a nice little storyline with Santa running into the young version of his highly decorated grandfather, but I'm not sure anything interesting is really done with the storyline.  It's sort of like the writers want us to be excited just by the fact that they've integrated this character into the past.  That's not clever.  That's the BEGINNING of clever.  You still have to do something inventive with that, as well as something surprising with the rest of the time-travel plot.

With that being said, these writers do have a future in Hollywood.  Their writing is taut, professional, and easy to read.  They understand mechanics and structure.  For example, the characters always have a goal they're going after (i.e Get back to the helicopter drop point, find and kill the Nazi Bad Guy), so the script is always pushing towards something.  I just wish the things they were pushing towards were a little more interesting and unexpected.  It was like the writers pushed right up to that 75% point of their imaginations and stopped.

Return Fire is one of those "almost" screenplays.  You read it.  You see a lot of good things.  But afterwards, you leave wanting more.  If the writers push themselves on the time travel elements, they might be able to make this work.  Right now, unfortunately, it's too standard.

Script link: Return Fire


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


What I learned: You have to remember that you are competing against MILLIONS OF PEOPLE'S imaginations in the scriptwriting game.  Thousands of those people are pushing their imaginations to the brink to come up with something that the next guy hasn't thought of.  If you stop at something that's simply "good enough," chances are your script isn't impressing readers.  It's when you push PAST that point - when you say to yourself, "This is good, but I can come up with something better," that your screenplays truly start to shine.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

FIND ME A PLACE TO LIVE!


Okay, so I have about four days left here in LA and the apartment search is not going well.  I've been to  $2500 apartments that are wedged up against the 10 freeway and have little children with six fingers on each hand running around outside of them.  What this unfortunately means is I haven't had time to write a Thursday article.  I'm going to try to later today, but no guarantees.

In the meantime, I need my Scriptshadow network to help me out.  Find me a place!  I'd preferably like to live in Venice.  If not, Santa Monica.  If not there, Culver City, maybe West Hollywood, maybe the nice areas of Hollywood, or anywhere on the West Side.  No Valley!  I want a big cool apartment and I'm willing to pay up to $2500/mo.  If someone on this site finds me a place, I will read their script as well as give them a detailed consult, which isn't cheap!  I'll also get on the phone with them and answer any questions they have.  If you find something, email me at carsonreeves1@gmail.com. Please, help me out!!!  Thank you!!!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Screenplay Review - Grim Night

Genre: Horror
Premise: One night every year, strange creatures attack the major cities, killing thousands. Nobody knows who or what these creatures are, and no one can stop them.
About: Grim Night made last year's Black List AND was purchased last year.  The sale was best known for the writers' inventive idea of making a trailer for their script.  Now I've been promoting making one-sheets for scripts (e-mail me for details), but I never thought it would go so far as people making trailers for scripts.  Cool idea.  Check out the trailer below.
Writers: Brandon Bestenheider & Allen Bey
Details: 117 pages


I'm trying to be better.  I know I don't review enough horror scripts on the site and I want to change that.  I just got back from a meeting where everyone agreed that the most risk-free way to make a movie was to a make a horror film.  So it's a really lucrative market to explore as a screenwriter.

Why, then, don't I review them?  Cause they're often juvenile and horribly written, moreso than most genres.  Horror writers care about scares and gore and disgusting imagery.  They don't have any interest in story or characters.

Well, Grim Night was a popular sale so I decided to give it a shot.  Imagine my reaction, then, when a longtime Scriptshadow reader told me, "You shouldn't have picked that.  It's the worst screenplay I've read in ten years."

OUCH.  Here I was, taking a chance on a horror script, and I happened to pick the worst one in ten years??  Talk about bad luck.  However, myself and this reader have disagreed on many scripts in the past (he liked Hugo!!??), which I pointed out to him.  He assured me, however, "This one we'll agree on.  Trust me."  Hmmmm...So, did I agree?

Grim Night starts "downtown."  Downtown where?  Big city?  Medium-sized town?  No idea.  The slug just says, "Downtown."  Okay, I'll just make up a location for myself then.  Ummm, big city.

Everywhere around this city are warnings.  "Never forget," these warnings warn warningly.  "37,112 dead."  News footage fills us in on the rest.  Every year, these things called the "Grims" come around and kill thousands of people in all the major cities.

They're kind of like really nasty trick-or-treaters.  They come to your door, ask you for something you don't want to give them (a watch, a lock of hair), and if you don't give it to them, they kill you.  So for that one night, everybody stays indoors, huddled up, and prays that the Grims don't bother them.  Most people make it through the night just fine.  37,000 deaths is a lot.  But over ten years?  In all the major cities?  As someone points out, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning twice.  However, there are others who aren't so lucky.

Our hosts for Grim Night are the Green family.  There's the father, Paul, who's just a normal dad who's occasionally late getting home.  There's the overtly brave 15 year old Sasha.  There's younger brother Josh, whose character development consists of owning a samurai sword.  And there's wife Liz, who takes Grim Night the most seriously (believe it or not, there are some people who don't worry about Grim Night at all).

The night begins, and after a few false alarms (Josh's buddy Cooper plays a joke on them), the real Grims show up.  The Grims hide under giant "Grim Reaper" like cloaks so you can't see their faces and instead of walking, they prefer to glide across surfaces.

The Grims are also cheap-asses, because instead of going off and buying their own wives a wedding ring, they demand that Liz give them hers.  She reluctantly does and that's it.  The family feels like they've passed the test and they can go on with their lives.

Not so fast.  Next, the Grims want a lock of Sasha's hair.  And after that, they want Sasha!  Paul tries to fight them off but the Grims take Sasha into the night and Paul realizes that as soon as the sun rises, Sasha will be gone forever.  So they need to chase the Grim who stole her!  Grim-chasing is an inexact science and there are a few stumbling blocks along the way, but in the end they catch up to her and somehow get her back.  But, is this Sasha still the Sasha they know?  Or is she...like...ummm...evil Sasha now??

The big question: Was this the worst screenplay of the last 10 years?  Umm, no.  Not even close.  Was it a good screenplay?  Ehhh...sometimes?  I mean, there's definitely something spooky about what's going on here.  Creepy dudes in cloaks coming to your door and asking for shit.  Then killing you if you don't give it to them.  I mean that's the stuff horror's made of, right?  Being in a completely helpless terrifying situation.

My issue is that I just didn't buy it.  The beginning of the script establishes that this has been going on for years, even though it's present day.  So...going on for years where?  In an alternate universe?  So you're asking me to now buy into a world that doesn't exist?  Sure, that's part of movies.  Star Wars doesn't exist.  But the difference here is that everything else is the same.  It's depicted as "reality" when it isn't reality.  The writers have changed our planet's history in order to set up this scenario, and I just couldn't get past that.

The other issue I have is how nonsensical everything is.  The Grims come by to...take your ring?  What are they going to do with a ring?  Pawn it at the local pawn shop?  I don't get the sense that after Grim Night they all sit around and play cards, gambling away the things they've stolen for kicks.  So there has to be some motivation here - some reasoning for this odd behavior.  But we never get it.

If you're going to build a mythology THIS BIG (evil creatures killing thousands across the world), I suggest you know why your antagonists are doing what they're doing.  And I'm not sure the writers know this.  Whenever writers don't know why their characters are doing things, the writing takes on a murky generic feel.  The less you know about the why, the more you have to fake it.  And readers can always tell when you're faking it.

Then of course there's absolutely zero character development.  I mean ZERO.  Like we don't even know what was going on in a single character's life before this screenplay started.  The dad could've been a lion-tamer a month ago for all I know.

Then there were weird choices that made no sense, like right in the middle of all this terror, Sasha goes upstairs and takes a bath?  Uhhh, what???  There were just a lot of weird things like that that popped up.

In the end the script just felt thin.  The real coup here is the trailer.  The writers understood - as I've been telling you guys - that the landscape is changing.  You have more avenues to get yourself noticed than you've ever had before.  Take advantage of them.  Try new things.  They may not always work out.  But remember that you could have Citizen Kane on your hard drive.  But if you don't figure out how to get people to read it, it doesn't matter.

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

What I learned: Use anticipation to reel a reader in.  If you use Anticipation correctly, it's almost impossible to lose the reader.  I dare anyone to read this first act of Grim Night and not want to keep reading.  That's because the writers do a great job of building up our anticipation for the Grims' arrival.  We absolutely HAVE to see what they look like and if they'll go after our family.  Anticipation is one of the easiest ways to rope a reader in so if you can write a story that takes advantage of it, consider it.  Just remember, once you've burned that anticipation (and we meet the Grims) you have to use other tools to keep us invested, like suspense and original choices and twists and turns and character development.  I don't think Grim did that effectively.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Screenplay Review - Wunderkind

Genre: Thriller
Premise: In 1973, a CIA agent searches for an infamous Nazi wunderkind who spearheaded Hitler's nuclear technology push during the war.  
About: This one sold to Paramount for JJ Abrams's company, Bad Robot, last week I think?  Although Aison has been toiling around in Hollywood for the better part of a decade, this is his breakthrough screenplay.
Writer: Patrick Aison
Details: 118 pages


Messy.

That's the first word that comes to mind when finishing Wunderkind.  It took me half the script before I understood what kind of movie it was.  It took me 40 pages before I understood the general direction in which the story was going.  There are tonal shifts throughout.  There are story shifts throughout.  In general, it has a great big "figure it out as I go along" feel to it.  

That's not to say there isn't a movie here.  Chasing Nazis has proved its value at the box office.  I feel the South American Nazi network hasn't been taken nearly enough advantage of as a story device.  And there were moments where it felt like Wunderkind was ready to take off.  

But just as the plane was ready to lift into the air, the pilot always chose to abort.  It was one big tease.  I was ready for my week-long dream trip to Puerto Vallarta.  But I never made it into the air.

Wunderkind starts out focusing on a 23 year-old wunderkind named Julius Heinrich.  Heinrich was handpicked by Hitler himself to spearhead his rocket/nuke program, to the dismay of the program's longtime members.  But, of course, the war ended before Heinrich could really get his talons into the program and blow up the rest of the world so Hitler could become leader of the universe.  

Now because things aren't really clear here, it was tough to keep up, but in my best estimate, after a few 40s flashbacks, we cut to 1973 where we meet young CIA agent Sam Brauer.  Sam is down in Brazil looking for an old Nazi officer because that officer (I think) knows where the wunderkind is.  And as we find out much much later (which was part of the problem - I couldn't figure out who they were after or why - that info was gleaned much much later in the story), the wunderkind could potentially sell his wunderkind-like secrets to the Russians, who the Americans, of course, are in a Cold War with.

Anyway, before Sam can get to this officer, a badass Mossad (Isralei special forces) agent named Ari kills him.  But here's the big twist.  Ari is Sam's estranged father!  Well, after Sam goes back to his bosses and bitches about the red tape that allowed Ari to get a jump on the Nazi before he did, the CIA reveals that they actually know where the wunderkind is (and did all along??) and now, since he's officially gone rogue, need Sam to find and stop him.

But there's a twist!  They need him to work with someone who has the intelligence to keep up with this guy.  Who is that person?  Why Ari, of course!  Sam's father!  So Sam and Ari, who hate each other more than Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnel, must team up and find the Wunderkind before he sells himself and his trade secrets to the Russians.  

Oh boy.  I mean...I don't know what to say here besides I wish this weren't so messy.  First off, the script takes forever to get going.  It starts and stops a number of times (we're in a 1942 Nazi Rocket program, we're in a concentration camp, we're in 1973 looking for a former Nazi officer, we're teaming up two unlikely agents for a Lethal Weapon type buddy action film), and just never seems to decide what it wants to be.  

What is the point, for example, of the concentration camp sequence?  Particularly since nothing interesting happens during it?  It just seems to be there to let you know that Ari was in a concentration camp.  Okay, fine.  But instead of wasting 8 pages on that, can't you just show the tattooed number on his arm in 1973?  Then we'll know he was a prisoner.  That takes 8 characters instead of 8 pages.

The next mistake is the buddy action angle.  As soon as Ari began making jokes about how big his penis was, I was like, "Okay, seriously???"  I mean, is that really the appropriate tone for a movie about chasing Nazis?  They didn't even stoop that low in Lethal Weapon, a movie, by the way, that was tonally much more appropriate for two bickering partners.  

On top of that, it wasn't clear what the good guys were trying to stop!  Why did they want to catch the wunderkind?  Apparently, he was going to sell his secrets to the Russians.  Ummmm, if it's 1973, I'm pretty sure the Russians already had a stockpile of a couple thousand nukes.  What else was Heinrich going to offer them?  The good-luck stein that Hitler used to drink his nightly Heineken in?  

Finally, things just weren't very well explained.  For example, early on, Sam approaches someone in Brazil about Foltern, the original Nazi he was looking for.  He tells the man that Foltern is either his father or knows his father, which is why he's trying to find him.  It wasn't clear which one.  But then it turns out neither one was true.  An agent from an entirely separate organization was Sam's father.  Did that mean Sam was lying to that person in order to get him to help him?  I'm still not sure but this lack of clarity plagued the entire script.

Whenever you write something with an intricate plot you have to comb through the thing and make sure that EVERY. SINGLE. PLOT POINT. Is clear.  If you slack off for even a single scene, you might throw something in there that completely sends your reader off on the wrong track.  

Using the above example, it might make sense to YOU that your hero would lie to this man and say the guy he's looking for is related to his dad.  But if that's just a lie to get him to talk and isn't actually true, and then a Mossad agent is your hero's REAL father, who also happens to be searching for the same man and trying to kill him - can you see how that might be really f*cking confusing for someone reading the script for the first time?

Anyway, I think this puppy needs five or six more rewrites before it's where it needs to be.  In its current state, it's just not there.

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

What I learned: Ticking time bombs and STAKES are the staples of any good thriller.  If they're unclear or weak, you don't have a thriller.  




Monday, June 18, 2012

Screenplay Review - Glimmer

Genre: Sci-fi/Found Footage
Premise: A group of friends stumble upon a time portal that sends them back 30 years into the past.
About: Dreamworks picked this up the other week. Since then, everyone’s been recommending it to me enthusiastically. Now you have to understand, this is a big deal. USUALLY when a script sells, I get a bunch of e-mails telling me it sucks. Now a lot of times this is inevitable. There’s a lot of jealousy (this script sold and theirs didn’t) or frustration (people are more likely to send a frustrated e-mail than a ‘yay screenwriting’ e-mail). So it really means something when I’m only getting universal positive feedback on a script.
Writer: Carter Blanchard
Details: 100 pages


I’ve been saying it for a couple of years now: When are they going to do a found footage film with time travel?? I almost wrote one myself cause it sounded so much Iike a no-brainer. But after asking around, I found out, not surprisingly, that a TON of people were writing them.

Remember that guys. If you ever think of a “no-brainer” idea, consider that a lot of other people have thought of it and might be writing it as well. That’s the gamble you make when exploring mainstream/popular ideas. It’s why there were a thousand “Bromance” scripts 3 years ago. So ask yourself: Can you write it quickly? Do you have contacts who can help you if it’s good? Because chances are a more established writer (like Blanchard) can do both. And that’s your competition.

The awkwardly-titled “Glimmer” is set in the small town of Hopewell, PA around a group of teenagers on the verge of graduation. There’s Tyler, an upper-tier nerd, his best friend Ben, a lower-tier nerd who believes he’s upper-teir, Mike, a preppy stud who’s friends with these two for reasons that are never explained, and his super hot girlfriend, Casey Lee. Joining the group later is Allison, the classic All-American girl unaware of her beauty, and longtime obsession of Ben.

Because school life doesn’t have much to offer these misfits, they’ve planned a little weekend getaway to the nearby forest, which word has it is haunted. Over the years, many people have disappeared into this forest, as we see on the opening page, where a picture shows a “missing persons” cork board.

Now maybe I’m missing something here, but if dozens of people disappeared in a forest, would you nonchalantly cruise into that forest yourself? I guess if you were 17 and reckless, yes. But would your parents allow this? These parents do.

It’s an easily addressed note (the kids could lie about where they’re going in the next draft) but these kinds of details are important, particularly for a script depicting “realistic” time travel, since you’re already asking the audience to accept a ton.

Anyway, the five camp out the first night, have a hell of a time, but when Tyler and Allison wake up the next morning, everyone else is gone. They search high and low, but can’t find them anywhere. AND they seem to have taken Tyler’s video camera! Hmm, I think I know where this is going.

Tyler and Allison head back to town, where they find a key to a lockbox at the bank. When they open the lockbox, low and behold…..there’s Tyler’s camera! From 30 years ago! Tyler and Allison go home and watch the tape, where they see something that can’t be explained. Their friends are there, in their town, but back in 1977!!!

From here we switch over to the story of Ben, Casey, and Mike, who are also having a hard time believing what’s happening. But at a certain point, they realize there’s no other explanation. They’ve f*cking time-travelled.

It appears that while swimming through a little cave pool that night, Mike, Casey and Ben crossed into the past. And to add insult to time travel, the pool closed up afterwards! Therefore, there’s no way to go back! (Come on guys. That’s like the first thing I learned after ‘Don’t start forest fires’ from Smokey The Bear – Don’t EVER swim through cave pools. They're time travel traps!).

What this means is that Tyler and Allison have to cycle through all the footage and figure out a way to go back and save them! Of course, things are never that easy. While Mike and Casey don’t dig the bellbottom age, Ben realizes he can use his knowledge of the future to break out of his forever-nerd status and become the kind of the 70s.

But things get tricky when the trio starts running into the younger versions of their parents, who aren’t exactly George McFly. They’re more like Bif on steroids. And they don’t like these new visitors. I won’t get into spoilers. But let’s just say the accommodations for this time travelling trip are…violent. And that violence creates a ripple effect on the future, where Tyler and Allison are continually watching the world change around them. They know if they don’t do something soon, existence itself could be in danger…or something.

Okay, so here’s the conundrum. I love time-travel movies. I’m always asking for the next great time-travel script. BUT, time-travel movies are always the most difficult to write. There’s a reason Back To The Future works so well while the second two feel slapped together. It’s because Bob and Robert worked for years on the time-travel plot. They made sure every single plot hole was plugged. When you don’t have that time – when you don’t laboriously pour over every single time-travel detail - the story will feel thin, shaky, and leave a series of confusing questions in the readers’ minds.

Now is Glimmer like that? Not all the time. It’s better than most time-travel scripts. I’m just not sure the rules are in place yet. And Blanchard makes it tough on himself by adding this constantly time-shifting present with self-aware characters who can remember both the real past and the new past. It reminded me a lot of that movie with Dennis Quaid, Frequency, from a decade ago. People are changing the past. People in the present are changing. Dead dads are coming back to life. Here we have a storyline with Tyler’s dead brother who is alive in some variations of the present and dead in the others. It was confusing. Maybe this all makes sense somewhere, but I couldn’t quite figure it out.

This might be the result of my high standards for the genre. Still, if you’re going to write sci-fi, you gotta make sure you cover up every hole. And try not to cover new holes by creating new rules (i.e. people can remember two different pasts). It may take more effort from you to simplify things, but it will pay off in the end. When it comes to time-travel, I'm telling you, KEEP IT SIMPLE.

As for the rest of the story, here’s what I think. I think this is a movie. Like I said in the beginning – time travel found footage is a no-brainer. Teenagers and 20-somethings are going to see this. But it did feel a bit too close to Chronicle. You have the “new power” the character gets, which then leads to the abuse of that power (Ben essentially uses his knowledge to become a powerful rich man). The final act, with the Ben and Tyler confrontation, was Chronicleesque to the bone, and it took me out of the story.

I do like how Blanchard adds an emotional core to the movie with the death of Tyler’s brother, but the emotional set-up wasn’t there for me, so when his brother re-emerges, I didn’t feel the same way Tyler did. I think that’s another important lesson screenwriters should learn. Just because your character feels a certain way (sad, upset, relief, happiness) doesn’t mean the audience is going to feel that way. You have to do a lot of work ahead of time, a lot of set-up, to make the audience feel that emotion.

Glimmer was a weird read. It was solid, but I couldn’t help feeling like it was a little safe, a little more confusing than it needed to be, and a little derivative in the third act. Having said that, I applaud Blanchard for establishing a solid foundation for what could potentially be a really cool movie.

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

What I learned: Like I was saying, if you want an emotional reaction from your audience, you have to work for it. It comes from exploring your character, his flaws, his backstory, his relationships, his fears. And it comes from integrating those into the story invisibly. In other words, you can’t SEEM like you’re setting things up a later moment. Here, it felt like we just got a couple mentions of Tyler’s brother being dead and then Allison asking him about it, and him recalling the death in a very downbeat way. That’s not enough in my book. You know I don’t like flashbacks, and they wouldn’t have worked here, but in Stand By Me, we got a solid flashback of Gordy and his brother, back when his brother was alive, that just showed the connection between the two. After that scene, we knew how much that bond meant to Gordy. Therefore, any time his brother was referred to, we FELT it.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

How Can We Find The Next Great Script?

Let's build a better mousetrap.

Over the next month and a half, Scriptshadow will relaunch its site.  I have some great things in store for readers, but one of the things I'm most excited about is the time it will free up for me to start working on my next project - Developing a new system to find great screenplays from unknown screenwriters.

For 100 years, Hollywood has basically used the same system for finding screenplays.  Each company, whether it be a studio or agency or whatever, has readers cover all incoming scripts, and anything the readers like gets passed up to their superiors, who if *they* like it, pass it on to their superiors, and so on and so forth.

Here's the thing though.  Over the past 5 years, the script-sending game has changed dramatically.  The obvious difference is that scripts are now sent digitally as opposed to via a hard copy.  This has led to a more instantaneous flow of scripts, and I feel like it should be ushering in a new filtering process.  But it hasn't.  The model for weeding through screenplays has pretty much stayed the same.

Well, I want to change that.  I feel we need some new ideas and some new voices.  We need the younger generation - the generation not tethered to these outdated models - to look around and say, "How can we do this better?"  I've already started looking for new ways to find great scripts, starting with my Twit-Pitch contest.

But I'd like to develop a large all-encompassing model for finding great screenplays that's smarter, faster, and more efficient.  I want to do what the studios and the agencies are too lazy to do.  I want to change the system.  And I thought, "Who better to ask for advice than the very people submitting these screenplays?"

So, I'm interested to hear what you guys would do if you were me.  I'd like you to come up with a system for weeding out the bad screenplays and finding the good ones that takes into consideration today's technologies and new avenues.  There was no Scriptshadow 5 years ago.  There wasn't a huge community of people reading screenplays for enjoyment and education every day.  There was no Twitter.  PDF scripts were a luxury at the time.

Pretend that you've just been given the job at Scriptshadow Studios to build a better mousetrap.  I have thousands of scripts coming into me from Amateur writers.  How do we weed those down efficiently and find the good ones?  The sooner we figure out how to do this, the quicker we revolutionize the business.  So, I'm leaving it up to you guys.  I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments section.  Show me what you got!