Friday, September 28, 2012

Amateur Friday - Hail Mary

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: Action/Thriller
Premise: (from writer) A reformed hitwoman must return to the world of bullets and bloodshed she left behind, to take on the organization she helped build, in order to avenge the death of her younger sister.
About: We're going to take a week off from Twit-Pitch so we can get an amateur Friday script in.  Lots of you are submitting and haven't had an outlet lately, and I feel you deserve that.  Why did this week's script get chosen?  Because Brandon is persistent!  He's been sending in queries for over a year, and my assistant, Sveta ( read his first ten pages and liked them enough to recommend him to me.  So here we are!
Writer: Brandon McFall
Details: A lean 96 pages.

Zoe Saldana as Mary?

I just tweeted yesterday that in all of my meetings, one piece of information that keeps popping up is Buyers are looking for action scripts!  I'm not sure why.  "Taken" came out like four years ago.  What is this immediate need for action scripts all of a sudden?  Do studios just get together and decide, "The genre we want to make now is..............ACTION."  Is there any rhyme or reason?  Is there any logic to it all??

I consider this a problem for me because action is not a genre I gravitate towards.  It's often the thinnest genre out there.  The characters lack depth.  The stories are obvious. It's just a lot of action sequences, which is often the most boring stuff to read.  "He jumps to the side and unloads an entire clip before he hits the ground."  None of the action is ever inventive.  It's all stuff I've read a million times before.

I want drama.  I want twists and turns.  I want characters who are trying to figure shit out about themselves.  If someone can write an action movie with THOSE elements, count me in.  Which is probably why everyone's STILL looking for action scripts.  As someone pointed out to me the other day, "The reason they're so desperate to find good action scripts is because all the action scripts out there suck."

Guggenheim just sold action script Black Box for seven figures, which everybody is telling me is a "not as good Enemy Of The State," (although to be fair, a few of you LOVED IT).  What's next?  Is there someone out there sitting on a cool action spec with characters and a story and, gasp, some unexpected twists and turns we haven't seen before?  If so, send it in for an Amateur Friday submission.  If it's good, I'll help you sell the damn thing.  Of course, you may be too late.  Because Brandon McFall might've beaten you to it with his action thriller..."Hail Mary."

Hail Mary has one of those unabashedly simple plots, which can work if you nail every single dramatic element.  Look no further than Taken as proof.  That story was as simple as it gets - "Save daughter." But you loved Taken because of its main character.  And Hail Mary will live or die on whether you love Mary.

Mary used to be the baddest hitwoman on the planet.  But to be fair, the pool of hitwomen is a lot smaller than the pool of hitmen.  Still, that's a pretty impressive title to hold.  Mary is pissed to high hell because her little sister's been raped and murdered.

Actually, let me back up.  Mary was chased out of town a long time ago for killing too many of the wrong people.  What nobody knew for a long time was that she had a little sister.  Well, someone finally figured that out, then killed the sister to bring Mary out of hiding so they could settle a score.  Mission accomplished!  Mary is back, and mad as ever!

She recruits her little sister's boyfriend, thug Tony, and her old boyfriend, weapons specialist George, to give her just enough firepower to wreak havoc.  After hitting up a corrupt cop, she finds out the person who raped and killed her sister was a crime boss she has a lot of history with named Dominic.  Mary has little problem busting Dominic up then shooting him between the eyes.

Unfortunately, that doesn't end the problem.  The leader of The Syndicate, the crime organization that runs the city, finds out about what's happened.  His name is Constantine, and he can't have little girls making his organization look weak.  So he orders everybody in town to take down Mary.

Normally, when you have an entire city of people who want to kill you, you leave town.  But Mary doesn't do "normally."  She does Mary.  And Mary says, "If you're going to try and kill me, I'm going to try and kill you first." This is Amuurica.  Where if you don't like someone, you shoot'em.  So she gathers all her resources together and - despite Tony and George thinking she's crazy - heads straight to Constantine's stronghold where she plans to put an end to her problems once and for all.

First thing I'll say is that this was written like an action script.  An action script has to move.  The paragraphs have to be nibble-sized (no more than 3 lines) and you can't get too wrapped up in miscellaneous description.  You only want to tell us enough to set up the scene, to create a little bit of atmosphere, and then focus on the action at hand.  To that end, Hail Mary was nearly perfect (The only writing mistake I found was the constant misuse of apostrophes like "want's" and "get's" which is a mistake I see in a lot of screenplays for some reason).

We also have a clear goal - Mary is avenging her sister.  She first has to find out who did this and then kill that person.  So there's a little bit of mystery then some hardcore old fashioned action.  A clear and motivated storyline = good. I also liked how the midpoint changed things up.  Mary kills Dominic, forcing Constantine's hand to come after her.  It maybe didn't change the story ENOUGH for my taste (it was still basically - "Kill someone") but you want your midpoint to change the game so the second half isn't exactly like the first half, and Hail Mary achieved that.

Now with these revenge scripts, you really have to a) like the main character and b) want the main character to get revenge.  I think that's why Taken was so popular.  You loved Liam Neeson.  And because you saw how much he loved his daughter and how much he wanted to repair that relationship, you wanted him to save her.  By no means did I *not* want Mary to avenge her sister's death, but I didn't know her sister.  Outside of a couple of quick flashbacks, she was just a name to me.  So I was never THAT into Mary getting revenge for her.

This is always the tricky part about these revenge movies. Do you start the story AFTER the character's death so you can jump right into it?  Or do you start out slow, get to know the character, and THEN kill her, making for a slower opening, but one in which we care about the dead character and therefore are more interested in avenging her death?  I'm not going to say I know the definitive answer to this question.  All I can say is that I didn't know Elizabeth (the sister) and therefore was mostly detached from Mary achieving her goal.  Obviously, this affects one's opinion of the entire story.  If you don't care about the main goal, how can you care about what happens?  Unfortunately, that's where I found myself.

Another issue here was the character of Tony.  Who the hell was Tony??  He starts the movie as our narrator, implying he's a key character, then disappears for 90 pages, occasionally offering disembodied voice overs with lines like, "But that wasn't all Mary needed to do."  I just felt like Brandon didn't know what to do with this character.  Either that or he used to be a bigger part of a former draft and Brandon hadn't yet phased him out.  Remember, if you change direction in subsequent drafts, you gotta put things out to pasture from the previous drafts.  I don't see the purpose of Tony at all, so he probably shouldn't be in the script.

Another problem: My biggest gripe when reading action scripts is that they're thin and they're always a bunch of pointless action scenes.  So you have to try your hardest not to fall into that trap.  When Hail Mary has an entire late sequence where Mary infiltrates Constantine's compound, then follows that with a final sequence of Mary infiltrating Constantine's casino, it was basically like watching the exact same sequence twice. That's what I'm talking about.  You have to be inventive.  You have to use your imagination.  Action is one of the oldest genres out there.  So if you're not trying to make yours unique, if you're just repeating action sequences over and over again, you're going to bore us.  Each action sequence in an action movie should be DIFFERENT!

As for the characters, I had a couple of ideas while reading this.  If you want to keep Tony, why not create more of an unresolved relationship between him and Mary?  She detests him but needs him.  She always looks down at him, thinks he's incapable, doesn't trust him.  Really play into that relationship, not unlike the relationship between Ripley and Bishop in Aliens.  Then, over the course of the story, the two begin to find common ground, learn to fight together.  And in the end, she ends up putting her life on the line to save him, creating a legitimate arc to her character.  You don't have to use that exact scenario, of course, but I think that's something that was missing.  True emotion.  Mary was cold.  I wanted to see her change, to find that warmth, learn to feel.  I didn't see that, further distancing me from her.

Also, I always feel like a parent's protection of a child is more compelling than a sibling's protection of another sibling.  Might we make Mary a mother?  Elizabeth her daughter?  Not only would that make us more interested in seeing Mary get revenge, but I'm not sure I've seen a 40+ year old female hitwoman driving the entire story before.  I suppose it makes the script less marketable, but it would create a more interesting situation, no?  Instead of Mary being unstoppable, she'll have lost some of her edge.  She's older, slower.  Which means she's more vulnerable.  I was kind of bored by the fact that Mary never had to sweat.  You never had any doubt that she was going to kill everyone in the room and come out alive.  I'm not sure that's very compelling.

That's all I got for today.  Action has to be great to get me onboard, and this was too familiar for my taste.  Still, I commend Brandon for writing a solid quick read!  :)

Script link: Hail Mary

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

What I learned:  We just talked about villains yesterday.  I HATED how Constantine was afraid of Mary.  Your big main bad guy is AFRAID of the hero???  How scary is that?  How much do we fear Constantine after that?  How much do we want him to go down after that?   We don't care.  Cause he's a weakling!  Your villains in this genre need to be arrogant.  They need to be fearless.  Is Hans ever scared of John McClane?  No.  And if he was, Hans would've sucked balls.

What I learned 2: The late-villain intro who's also the mastermind is almost impossible to pull off.  (spoiler) We find out Vance is our real villain here.  Who's Vance?  I met him on page 80.  I barely know the guy.  Now I'm supposed to be excited because he's our mastermind?  If you want to throw a late twist at us with the final villain, I advise that villain be fairly prominent during the entire screenplay.  Dr. Charles Nichols in The Fugitive has around 5 scenes scattered throughout the script before his ending reveal.  We need that here too.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Screenwriting Article - How To Write A Great Villain

So as I was reading Laymen's Terms earlier this week and going ga-ga over all the great villainy in the script, I realized that I hadn't yet breached the subject of villains in any extensive way on the site.  And there's a reason for that.  I hadn't developed an extensive enough take on the matter!  Which is strange, because I'm a huge proponent of having great villains in your screenplay. Audiences often like to root against the villain just as much as they like to root for the hero.  So if you're only including a hero in your script, you're depriving the audience of half the fun!  I don't care if you're writing a romantic comedy, an indie drama, or a period piece.  99% of the time, there better be a villain involved!

So who are some of the great villains in cinema history?  Well of course there's Darth Vader, Buffalo Bill, Longshanks (Braveheart), Hans Gruber, Michael Myers, The Joker, Hannibal, Apollo, the T-1000.  There's also Agent Smith (Matrix), Annie Wilkes (Misery), Drago, Mr. Potter (It's A Wonderful Life), Tommy Devito (Joe Pesci - Goodfellas), Hans Landa (Inglorious Basterds), Anton Chigurh (No Country...), Max Cady (Cape Fear), Alex Forest (Fatal Attraction), John Doe (Seven), Alonzo Harris (Training Day) plus many many more.

Strangely enough, I've found that what works as villainy in one movie may not work in another.  Sometimes you need your villain to be calculated, other times you need him to be terrifying.  It all depends on the situaiton, the genre, and the type of story you're telling. So before we go into what makes a good villain, let's first identify the different kinds of villains.

The Nasty Villain - I'd say this is the most common villain of all.  If you want a villain that gets the audience all riled up with hatred, this villain is your pick.  They seem to be driven by an unseen evil force that will stop at nothing to destroy our hero. Annie Wilkes, Mr. Potter, Anton Chigurh, even the blond haired baddie in The Karate Kid.  These are bad bad guys.  However, these villains can backfire on if you if they're too thin, and a lot of amateurs make this mistake.  They make the villains nasty just because they're the bad guy in the story.  To combat this, make sure to add a solid motivation behind their actions.   Anton wants his money.  Annie is obsessed with Paul Sheldon's books.  Mr. Potter wants every last piece of this town.  Even super-thin Karate Kid Blondie hates Daniel because he's stolen his girl.  Your villain can be a really bad person.  Just make sure they have a little motivation behind their badness.

The Complicated Villain -  "Complicated" is usually code for a villain with some backstory.  I remember this gained popularity after the 80s Batman movies.  Tim Burton started showing the complicated histories behind why these baddies became bad.  All of a sudden, our villains obtained depth.  They had a past.  We could almost sympathize with them in a way.  This created a more complicated reaction to the character for the audience - shades of gray instead of straight black and white.  Max Cady from Cape Fear, for example, endured years of rape and degradation inside a prison because the man he's now stalking put him there.  I'm not going to say I like Max Cady because of this, but I definitely understand him better.  The danger in writing this type of villain is that they become too sympathetic.   If we start sympathizing with the villain too much because of their troubled past, we don't want to see them go down.  So be careful!

The Sorta Likable Villain - These villains are bad, but there's also something alluring, interesting, or cool about them that makes us sort of like them.  Apollo Creed, Darth Vader, and Hannibal Lecter are all "Sorta Likable" villains.  I find that a lot of the time, sorta likable villains exist in a film where there's a villain worse than them.  This allows us to root against someone while still kinda rooting for the cooler villain.  With Darth Vader in Star Wars, the real villain is Grand Moff Tarkin.  With Darth Vader in Empire and Jedi, the real villain is the Emperor.  In Lambs, Hannibal isn't the top villain.  That title goes to Buffallo Bill.

The Comedic Villain - Seen only in comedies, these villains can be tough to get right.  They must be funny, but not so funny that they aren't threatening.  I read a lot of comedy scripts where the villain is funny, but also such a goofball or so stupid that I don't see them as a serious threat.  Therefore, you have to find that perfect balance.  Matt Dillon's character in There's Something About Mary is a great comedic villain.  Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore is a great comedic villain.  As much as I love Dumb and Dumber, those two villains were so bumbling that I was never scared of them, and that may have hurt the movie just a tad.  One of the most surefire traits to add to a comedic villain to ensure we'll want to see them go down is arrogance.  Arrogance gets an audience riled up every time.  And it just seems to mix perfectly with comedy bad guys.

The Hidden Villain - Sometimes stories dictate, due to your bad guy being a mystery, that you not reveal your villain until the third act.  If you're going to do this, you're going to need an antagonistic force to challenge your hero in the meantime.  While an antogonist can be a villain, in these cases, they're usually not.  Take The Fugitive for example.  (spoiler alert!) Dr. Charles Nichols is the surprise villain in the third act. But Tommy Lee Jones' character is the antagonist for the first two acts.  It's important that the hero always have an antagonist force pushing against him in the screenplay or else there's no conflict.  Which is why a hidden villain can be a dangerous move.  However, if you substitute another antagonistic force in the meantime, you should be okay.

No Villain - I strongly discourage writing a script without a villain.  But if you're going to do it, you better have a great antagonist pushing up against your character for the entire movie.  In most cases, if there is no villain in the script, the antagonist is nature.  Take Castaway for example.  That movie is villain-free.  But it has a strong antagonist - the island.  The Grey is another example.  The antagonist is the weather and the wolves. Those are the forces relentlessly pushing against our characters.  So sure, the no-villain approach can be done, but you better have some kick ass antagonistic nature if you're going to pull it off.

Okay, we've identified the kind of villains in a script.  Now it's time to determine what actually makes a good villain? Once again, not all of these things will work all of the time and certain combinations may work in some situations while not in others.  You have to assess what kind of story you're telling and add the appropriate villainous traits.

Pompous - Like I mentioned above, a pompous character is a hated character.  There's just something about people who are full of themselves that riles us up.  We NEED to see them go down.  Look at Apollo Creed in Rocky.  That man LOVED himself.  So we were dying to see Rocky beat him.

Stronger than our hero - This is a big one.  If a villain is weaker than our hero, we'll have no doubt as to who will win in the end.  That's bad.  What makes movies fun is when we think our hero has no shot because the villain is too strong.  Hans Gruber in Die Hard is the perfect example.  The man just oozes confidence and intelligence.  You really think he has his shit together, and that makes us seriously doubt if John McClane is going to win in the end.

Intelligent - This doesn't ALWAYS have to be the case, particularly in comedies, but I love villains who can go toe-to-toe with our hero intellectually.  It creates the same effect as strength.  You always fear that they just might outthink our hero.  Prince Humperdink from The Princess Bride (who's MAJORLY ARROGANT by the way) is actually a really smart guy.  He looks over the battleground after the Man In Black and Inigo Montoya's sword fight and knows exactly how it went down and which direction the Man in Black went.  Smart villains are worthier villains.

Deceitful - Everybody hates deceitful people, people who go back on their promises.  Therefore this is a great trait to give your villain.  One of the scenes in Star Wars where our hatred for Grand Moth Tarken goes through the roof is when he asks Princess Leia where the Rebel Base is, promising he'll spare her planet if she does.  She ends up telling him, and he goes ahead and blows the planet up anyway!  Or in Up.  Charles Muntz pretends to be all nice and friendly to our heroes.  Until his true colors come out later.  We hate deceitful people!

Emotionless - Sociopaths are REALLY SCARY.  Cold and collected, villains who feel no remorse for killing are as terrifying as it gets.  They just have that blank emotionless look on their faces?  Ugh, creeee-py!  Look no further than the flagship villain for this category, Anton Chigurgh in No Country For Old Men.  This dude is terrifying because he doesn't have a single feeling bone in his body.  John Doe from Seven is another one.

Motivated - Most villains only work if they have a strong motivation behind their actions.  Take the T-1000 in Terminator 2 for example.  He's been programmed to come here and eradicate John Connor in order to make sure the machines win the war in the future.  It's a simple motivation, but it's also dead solid.  We understand why he's obsessed with killing John Connor at all costs.  You can certainly try writing an unmotivated villain, like The Joker in The Dark Knight, but be careful.  Villains who do bad shit just to do bad shit often confuse and frustrate the reader.  Also, it's likely your villain won't have 80 years of built-up audience awareness behind him to get an audience to go with it, such as the case is with The Joker.

Villain is strongest where hero is weakest - This is often tied into a hero's fatal flaw, and therefore can be quite powerful if applied correctly.  The idea is that whatever your hero's flaw is - whatever his biggest weakness is - make the villain extremely powerful in that area.  Take Luke Skywalker for example.  His flaw is that he doesn't believe in himself.  Darth Vader, on the other hand, is the epitome of belief.  He's the most confident motherf*cker in the galaxy (buoyed by his expertise in The Force).  Because Vader is so strong in the area that our hero struggles with the most, it creates a sense of doubt in whether Luke will be able to defeat him, and those situation tend to be the most compelling to watch.

Backstory - This is a choice.  You don't have to do it.  But backstory adds depth to your villain, and readers/producers/agents tend to favor depth.  They want some info on why your bad guy turned into a bad guy.  Well, here's my take on that.  I think what they really want is to know is something about your villain before the story began.  It doesn't have to be WHY they became a bad person (i.e. daddy used to beat me when I was a kid), it can simply be fucked up pieces of that character's past.  For example, the backstory we get on Hannibal is that he tore people's faces off and used to be a therapist who preyed on his victims.  It doesn't really tell us why he's the way he is, but it adds depth to his character since we know more about him.  I will also say this about backstory.  Be careful about making your villain's situation too sympathetic.  At a certain point, if we're sympathizing with them too much, we don't want to see them go down.  And we have to want to see the villain go down.

And there you have it!  My take on how to create a great villain.  However, like a lot of these articles, I feel like I'm only scratching the surface.  I know you guys have some thoughts of your own on how to create great villains, so throw'em at me.  If there's anything really good, I'll add it to the article! :)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Screenplay Review - Epsilon

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: 100 years in the future, artificially intelligent robots begin to rebel, forcing the planet to build a world of generators that fry anything with circuitry, as its the only sure way to eradicate all robotic forces. Little do they know that a group of A.I. robots have escaped to deep space, where they are training humans to help them take back the planet.
About: This is a script from the Zombieland writers, who have ditched the horror and the humor this time around for serious sci-fi.  The script sold a couple of weeks ago.  For those who turn their noses up at writers who aren't writing A-list projects, note that co-writer Rhett Reese's first feature credit was Cruel Intentions 3, and that Reese and Wernick were doing reality TV before breaking through with Zombieland.  You gotta start at the bottom, folks, then work your way up!
Writers: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Details: 109 pages, Sept. 10, 2012 draft

Zombieland is still one of the nicest unexpected presents I've received in the past few years as a movie watcher.  The spec was a hot one but I refused to read it cause I didn't want to read yet another dumb zombie spec.  But low and behold, the thing turned out to be pretty damn awesome, a perfect mix of character, story, humor, and surprises.  That doesn't happen very often.

I have this discussion with people all the time.  That when a movie actually works, it's a minor miracle.  There are so many things out of your control, that you basically have to get lucky a dozen times over to pull the movie off.  The actors have to understand and nail the characters.  The sets need to be right (and not cheesy).  The editing needs to be perfect.  The score can't suck.  The producers can't come in and fuck things up (which they do ALL the time). It's sort of like trying to direct a circus on top of a giant moving rubber ball.  That's the reason most movies suck.  They had the right intentions going in.  But because it's so likely that a dozen things are going to get fucked along the way, they fall apart.  And Zombieland was one of those rare movies where everything fell into place.  It was one of the lucky ones.

Having said that, I do know this.  You don't even give yourself a chance to get lucky if the script isn't good.  I don't care how great of a director you are, you can't turn shit into ice cream.  Zombieland had A-grade cookie dough ice cream running through its veins.  Does Epsilon?  Or did the writers move too far away from what made them stars?

I'll say this straight out.  Epsilon had one of the wildest "wtf" first acts I've seen in awhile.  I didn't know WHAT the hell was going on.  It's 100 years in the future.  We're on a bus where a crazy dude named Adam is butchering passengers to pieces.  We're then on the space station where ANOTHER Adam is butchering astronauts to pieces.  We're then in a living room where a woman named Eve is butchering her husband to pieces.  Then we're outside the house where a worker is crawling out of a manhole, being chased by ANOTHER blood-thirsty Adam.

What the hell is going on???

Well, it turns out that in the future, we've created artificially intelligent robots that look and act like human beings, and these robots, called "Automatics," have decided to rebel.  But the problem is more far reaching than that.  Through their collective connective, buoyed by a ubiquitous wireless internet, they can communicate with and take control of everything with computer circuitry, whether it be a smart phone or a microwave.

Combined with the fact that they've learned to disguise themselves as real human beings, the governments of the planet have only one choice. They must build a series of generators that fry anything with a computer chip in it.  Yeah, they're going to be losing 150 years of progress.  But it's either that or be taken over by a robot Apocolypse.  Hmmm.  I'm picking the "bye bye progress" option.

Little do they know, however, the Automatics have been planning a contingency plan.  They dupe 30 couples into using what they think are human women to carry their babies, when in fact these women are Automatics.  Those women join a group of Adam and Eves on a rocket that sets off to a faraway space station, where they begin training these babies.

You see, since they can't go back to earth, lest they be fried, Automatics need humans to go down there first and take care of the generators.  Hence, they raise these kids into super-soldiers, ultimate fighting machines.  But to prevent any unwanted hiccups, they teach them to be just like them - emotionless.  These soldiers may be human in make-up, but they're robot in spirit.  They do not feel.  They do not want.  They do not love.  They just wait for their next command.

However, once these humans are sent back to earth to execute the key phase of the takeover, one of them, a black sheep soldier known as Epsilon, starts getting curious about his origins, as well as emotions.  Whether he succumbs to his desires and aborts the mission or stays strong and carries out his commands will be the main determinant of whether our future planet will be run by humans...or robots.

Epsilon gets a "worth the read" for the simple reason that it took a group of familiar concepts and put a unique spin on them.  We have robots taking over the world a la Terminator.  We have intense training sequences and super-human fighting, a la The Matrix.  We have the "robots" who are struggling with whether to "feel" angle that has been done dozens of times.  But it's wrapped up in a package we haven't quite seen before.

I mean, I loved the opening 15 pages.  I was seriously going "what the fuck is going on right now??" Even after the whole Adam and Eve bloodbath, we had doctors who were secretly automatons, 30 different female clones who were all 9 months pregnant, rockets being prepared to launch out into space.  I felt like I was in the middle of a snow globe being relentlessly shaken by a child with serious A.D.D.  I couldn't figure out which way was up.

The training sequence was pretty cool as well, even though it probably went ten pages too long.  One of the highlights was an intense scene where Adam and Eve were training the humans not to "want." With each one in their own cell, they'd place a glass of water on the table and flash the command "Don't drink it." on the digital display.  They would then keep the water there for 3 full days, bringing all the trainees near death, until finally allowing them to drink.  If they failed, they were shot out into the cold bleak darkness of space.  They would also have to kill animals they'd become attached to, be squeezed into a box less than 1 square foot for days on end, and worst of all, forced to fight to the death other soldiers they had befriended.

My problem with the script was what happened once they got down to earth.  I liked how Rheese and Wernick pushed the emotional component of Epsilon wanting to find out who his parents were and wanting to learn what love was (with one of the other soldiers) but neither of those threads played out in a satisfactory way.  I don't know if these subplots weren't detailed or complex enough, but I just remember thinking, after Epsilon visited his parents, "That's it??"  It was almost like the scene was squeezed in there out of necessity, not because the writers really wanted to explore it.

I see that in a lot of scripts actually - writers who know they have to have some emotional resonance in their story, so they put it in there out of necessity rather than actually wanting to explore the emotional thread.  It's almost as if they can say, "See, I have it in there!  So you can't complain."  Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.  It only works if you truly care about what's happening between the characters, inside the characters, for the characters.  You have to want to dig into those unresolved issues the same way you want to dig into an action scene.  If you don't, it never reads right.

The last third of the script is all action.  Unfortunately, action doesn't read as well on the page as it plays on the screen.  Which makes it hard to judge.  Having said that, it did feel like a lot of the uniqueness of the first half of the script had been replaced by brute action.  Still, it should make the studio happy, and no doubt it will play well in the trailers.  But it further accentuated my ultimate problem with the script, which is that I didn't connect with the characters as much as I wanted to.

In the end, though, this is too unique and too cool of a potential movie not to celebrate it.  So I say Epsilon is worth the read.

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

What I learned: This is sort of a unique "What I learned" but helpful enough to mention.  Writers will set their scenes or montages to music all the time.  They'll name the title of the song that's playing at the beginning of the sequence, then proceed to write the scene.  The problem with this is, since the music isn't actually *playing*, the reader will forget it.  So if you're really trying to set the mood of a scene through music, it's likely that mood won't stick.  In the bizarre opening sequence to Epsilon, the writers set it to Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces." As the sequence goes on, a couple of pages later, Reese and Wernick organically weave into the action description, "Patsy Cline continues to sing about things falling to pieces." It seems like a harmless line, but it immediately reminded me that the music was playing, keeping the intended cinematic effect alive.  Remember guys, the reader CAN'T HEAR music.  So if you have it playing over montages or long scenes, look for ways to subtly remind the reader that it's there.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Laymen's Terms

Genre: Period
Premise: In a small town during the 1935 dust bowl, a former soldier must protect a fleeing city woman from a group of gangsters who want her dead.
About: I don't know much about the writer, but this script made the Black List in 2008.  People have been describing it as the next Low Dweller (now titled "Into The Furnace.") although I've been told it's very "Desperate Hours'ish" as well.
Writer: Jeremy H. Bailey
Details: 110 pages (undated)

Eric Bana for Crane?

So there're two things I've been going gaga about over the past month.  One is Gangnam Style and two is Desperate Hours.  Both are amazing and world-changing in their own way.  Now if there was some way to combine these two forces into one super-force...well gosh-darnit we might have the single greatest piece of entertainment in world history.  The only thing better than that mobster battle in Act 3 of Hours would be if Psy popped out and said.....LONG PAUSE..."Oppam Gangnam style!" and started doing the horsie dance.  And then the pelvic-thrusting elevator guy began doing his pelvic-thrusting elevator dance to ward off some of the mobsters.  I know if I were one of those mobsters, I'd run for my life.

What were we talking about again?  Oh yeah, a period piece.  Makes total sense that I'm including a South Korean pop star in this review then.  So the reason I picked this script today was because someone told me it was similar to Hours, but "EVEN BETTER."  Well, since it took me over two years to crown a new number 1 script on my Top 25 list, I'm not sure how you can get any better than that, but I was willing to give it a shot.

And I quickly found out that it was, indeed, similar to Hours in many ways.  Both scripts start out in a really depressing era, with Layman's beginning during the Dustbowl.  Don't know what the Dustbowl is?  From my shaky history class memory, it was the time after we planted all our crops and didn't consider how to keep the moisture intact (something about crop rotation?).  So all the land went dry, and that caused these huge dust storms to swirl around the country, making the problem even worse.  Basically, America went all North Korea farming, to stick with today's theme.

This has caused the tiny Oklahoma town of Red Thistle to go near-broke.  The only one with any money is a not-very-nice man named Two Bills Calahan.  A fat bald sweaty pervert of a fellow, Two Bills understands the power he yields, and he makes sure he takes advantage of every ounce of it.  This guy is such a scumbag that he actually brings in a beautiful struggling farmer's widow every day, Evelyn, and pays her for his sexual needs.  Evelyn, who has a sick daughter, is so desperate for money that she has no choice but to do it.

Staying with Evelyn, it turns out she lost her husband in the war, and got back his brother as the prize.  Crane McNamee has been shunned by the community since he left town when they needed him most, and has come back with his tail between his legs to take care of Evelyn now that she's living alone with her daughter.  The two have a complicated relationship that revolves around her constantly being pissed off at him.

Their relationship is about to get even more complicated though as, during one of the many dust storms, Crane finds a crashed car on the side of the road with a passed out woman and a dead men inside  He schleps the woman, a city girl we'll come to know as Cassidy, back to his house, not knowing that the men who were chasing her aren't far behind.

These men, led by a really scary motherf*cker named Washington, head to the middle of Red Thistle and demand to know where this woman is.  They make a deal with Two Bill that whoever finds her first gets a reward, and that Two Bill gets half of it.  Never one to turn away money, Two Bill takes the fight to the people, encouraging them to look under ever rock, behind every loose board.  They MUST find this woman.  And the people, desperate for money, become a senseless mob in the process.

Naturally, word comes down that Crane is hiding her, and Washington's crew, along with the town, go to claim their prize.  But Crane is not giving her up.  He'll do anything, including becoming the killer he left in the past, to protect her.  An awkward four-pronged battle then ensues between Crane, Washington, Two Bill, and the town, which seems headed in one direction and one direction only: Disaster.

It's hard to write this review without comparing Layman's to Hours.  Had I read Layman's first, I'm sure I would've rated it higher.  It's still a very good script, but in the back of my head I was always saying, "Oooh, Hours did that better."  The first thing that struck me was the time and place.  What I liked about Hours was that it was set at the end of all that depressing shit.  America had started to recover.  There was a sense of hope.  With Layman's, it's set in the heart of hopelessness.  The Dustbowl had made everyone as poor as dirt, and there didn't seem to be any end to it.  It was super-damn depressing. Like, the complete opposite of watching the Gangnam Style video.

I was actually telling a friend about the script after I read it, and I realized after a few minutes what I was saying..."Dustbowl, dying daughter with pneumonia, mom who must prostitute herself to stay afloat, crippled main character, dead soldier brother" -- and all of a sudden we both just started laughing at how depressing it all was.  And the thing is, it really isn't as bad as it sounds, but yeah, the hopelessness definitely played a part in my reaction here.

I'll tell you one area where Layman's DID eclipse Hours, though, and that was in the villain department.  It has two really nasty villains, one in Two-Bill and the other in Washington.  These are just two really BAD dudes, each in their own way.  And like I always say, if you can develop a great villain, you will rope in the reader.  Because there's nothing more fun than watching a villain you hate go down.

To me, that's what sets this script apart.  I so wanted to see this pompous megalomaniac Washington get his ass handed to him by Crane.  But the thing is, it could've been even better.  Crane was an okay protagonist, but not nearly as good as Frank from Hours.  With Frank, his situation was always clear.  He'd lost his family to the Spanish flu and he was still in love with the woman he left when he was young, only to come back and find out she'd married another man.  With Crane, there was something about how he could've saved his brother in the war but didn't.  Maybe??  I wasn't sure.  I could also never figure out what his relationship was with Evelyn.  Was he just a caretaker or was there more there?  She seemed to hate him.  But at the end she says she always loved him.  Loved him as a family member or like "in love" with him?  I couldn't figure that out.  And it drives me batty when main characters' intentions and motivations and their situations are unclear.  I just couldn't get a handle on Crane.

The ending, also, was a little confusing.  At a certain point (spoiler) Cassidy tells Crane she came here for him?  But wait?  Why did she wait until the very end to tell him that?  Did she not know who he was yet?  I'm not sure.  It was one of those situations where it felt like the writer was so set on the twist, that he was going to force it in there through hell or high water, regardless of if it was clear or not.  I'm not upset about it.  Let's face it: WE'VE ALL BEEN THERE.  But still, that third act definitely could've used another draft or two.

But boy oh boy, those villains.  They really kept me around wanting to know what happened.  They were so strong, in fact, and so fun to watch, that they pumped this script up to a double worth-the-read.  Them and that damn rain-maker, who was a stroke of atmospheric genius!

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

What I learned: Today's "what I learned" came out of nowhere.  I realized that having two villains go toe-to-toe is a guaranteed great scene!  My favorite scene in the script is when Washington and his gang interrupt a church sermon to confront our other villain, Two Bills, to ask where their girl is.  There's something about seeing two evil factions who we've met individually square off against each other that's fascinating.  I just couldn't wait to see who was going to bend first.  This is a cool tip to remember.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Screenplay Review - One Track Mind

Genre: Dark Comedy
Premise: When the writer dies, a struggling creative exec changes the name on his screenplay to his own, only to find out that there are others who've read the screenplay, others who he must now take care of.
About: This script sold all the way back in 1997 and obviously never became a movie (unless it was released under a different title and went straight to DVD??). Now through sheer coincidence, Mr. Queen did not have a single feature credit until last year, when he wrote Cars 2.  Man, making a career in screenwriting can be a looooong journey!
Writer: Benjamin Queen
Details: 131 pages - October 1997 draft

Taylor Kitsch for Clay. Taylor Kitsch for everything!

Hey, who am I to turn down a spec about screenwriting!?  With like deceit and murder 'n stuff.  Not only that, but it was set back in 1997, which makes the read almost comical in how much everything has changed since then.  I mean, people were sending each other PHYSICAL DRAFTS of screenplays in the 90s. With, like, BRADS 'n stuff.  What's a brad?

Calm down calm down.  Before the anti-Scriptshadowers begin their uproar, I *do* know what a brad is.  However the rest of this world is quite foreign to me.  Everything is done physically as opposed to digitally, which means if this script were ever to be made today, it would need to be majorly rewritten.  I guess that's the question, isn't it?  Is One Track Mind good enough to be rewritten?

Well it starts off introducing us to Clay Buckley, a 25 year old creative exec at mega-movie-star Max Rebello's production company.  Except Max Rebello is never there and doesn't even know who Clay is, so it's not as glamorous a job as one might assume.  In addition to that, Clay works under an asshole of a boss, V.P. of Production Larry Dealing (who we never actually see, only hear).  All these things are a reminder of just how low on the totem pole Clay is.  He's just another tadpole in the gigantic pond that is Hollywood.  And he'll continue to be, until he finds that next great script.

But the next great script hunt isn't going so well.  It's the same old garbage from the same old agencies. He's being slipped scripts left and right, but nothing's actually sticking.  And on top of that, there's one writer who lives in the middle of nowhere who continues to clog up their mailing system with the same script over and over again.  Ugh! Amateurs! - they just never give up!

Unbeknownst to him, however, that very script ends up in his bag before a meeting with another creative exec, frenemy Jennifer.  Jennifer is desperate for some other script she's been tasked with finding for her boss because if she doesn't find it, she'll lose her job.  Because Clay has this script, she needs his help.  Clay has to keep the script private, however, so he tells her no.  She apologizes for putting him on the spot and they go their separate ways.

That night, just out of curiosity, Clay starts reading the amateur script, and it's AMAZING.  He contacts the writer, who happens to have just gotten to LA, and sets up a meeting on the Universal lot.  They meet the next day, and the writer tells him that no one knows he's a writer and that he's never sent the script to anyone else.  He then proceeds to back up into the street and get RUN OVER by one of Universal's back-lot tourist trams.  And DIES!

Clay is horrified by the ordeal but then realizes...hey wait a minute...NO ONE knows about this script.  So Clay changes the name on the script to his own and gives it to a buddy at another studio.  He's going to sell this script for a cool million, dammit, and not a soul is going to know the truth.

Errrr...not so fast.  Remember Jennifer?  Yeah, it turns out that meeting was a little con.  She did it to distract Clay while her assistant took the script from Clay's bag, ran to Kinkos, and made a copy.  Except the dumb assistant copied the WRONG SCRIPT.  The DEAD GUY'S SCRIPT.

Oh shit.

Clay goes to Jennifer to get the script back, but it turns out Jennifer has read it!  And she loved it!  And wants to know all about the writer.  Clay demands the script back and the two struggle for it with Jennifer falling directly on one of the script's brads, which impales her neck right at the main artery, killing her!  Yes, death by brad!  What's a brad again?

Clay gets the hell out of there, with the script of course, and it finally looks like he's in the clear.  Except then he finds out Jennifer slipped the script to someone else.  And of course when he goes to that person, he finds out the script's been slipped to someone else, and so on and so forth.  So Clay must race to all of these people and CONTAIN the mess, which oftentimes means KILLING THEM.

When it's all said and done, Clay is either going to sell this damn script or be forever blackballed in Hollywood know, go to prison for the rest of his life.

One Track Mind (a strange misguided title if there ever was one) was a pretty funny little script and I can totally see why it sold.  It's got a situation at the heart of it that'd have all the nuts in Hollywood wondering what they would do in the same situation, and it's actually quite clever a lot of the time.

For example, when Jennifer is killed by the brad, it turns out she didn't die right away, and is able to scrawl onto the floor in her own blood, "Clay did it."  Clay luckily stumbles upon the scene right before the cops get there and changes the scrawled message to, "C.A.A did it."

Then there's the genius choice to make Max Rebello, the movie star Clay works for but has never met, researching his next role as a detective.  So Max is actually with all the detectives when they're investigating Clay's murders.  Max, of course, is the only one who's putting the pieces together, so it's him who's actually realizing that Clay did it.  But because he's just a dumb movie star, the other cops ignore him.

There were some issues with the script though, in my opinion.  First, I hate when young writers write young characters who are supposedly in these "my life is over if I don't figure this out" situations, when they're only 25 years old.  Clay's life is supposedly going to fall apart if he doesn't find that next big script soon, but really, he's only 25.  If he gets fired, he still has his whole life ahead of him. He'll get plenty more chances.  If he was, say, 35, now you have a character who really is in trouble if he doesn't figure this out.  It really is his last shot.  I don't know - I just felt like there was no desperate reason why he needed to put his name on this script.

Had he been made a little older and his boss would've made it clear that if he didn't bring something great in soon, he was going to be fired, then we would've felt Clay's desperation more, and his reasoning for taking the risk that he did.  This wasn't a deal breaker by any means.  I was still into the story.  It's just nice when you make the stakes clear.

There were also some conveniences that bothered me.  Jennifer for example.  Someone he needs to erase from the equation conveniently falls and dies?  The falling on a brad made it funny enough that you almost ignored it, but it just seemed a little too perfect that, now, a second person who he needs to die, dies for him.  And honestly?  I don't like when anybody dies by falling down.  It just seems...I don't know, lazy.

And finally, I cannot fathom that Queen, someone who was clearly a creative exec or reader himself, as he knows so much about this world, would write a 130 page script!  That's, like, rule #1!  That's what all the readers and execs joke about.  "Some writer sent me a 130 page script.  Give me a fucking break!"  Either Queen really thought highly of himself or this was an early draft.

Actually, I'm prone to think it was an early draft, as the script definitely got sloppier as it went on.  The first half was tight and focused, while the second half started splitting into too many threads with too many stories to clean up.  And the ending, which involves an unexpected request by one of the main characters, didn't make sense at all.

Despite all that, I did want to keep reading and I did want to find out what would happen until the end.  And if you've achieved that with your screenplay, you've done something right!

Script link: One Track Mind

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

What I learned: Beware the "sloppier as you go on" problem.  I see this quite a bit.  We write from the top down.  Therefore, we ALWAYS put more time into the first half of our scripts than the second.  This means the second half isn't as well-tuned, and that's a problem because the second half actually needs MORE attention than the first half.  That's the half where you wrap everything up, where you make everything make sense.  If that isn't written to perfection, your script will seem sloppy, or worse, confusing. One Track Mind definitely suffered from this problem.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Twit-Pitch Review - Proving Ground

Genre: Sci-Fi/Western
Premise: (Original Twit-Pitch Logline) 9 strangers wake in a deserted Mexican town besieged by killing machines: they must discover why they've been brought there to survive.
About: For those recently joining Scriptshadow, I held a contest a few months back called "Twit-Pitch," where anyone could pitch me their screenplay on Twitter, as long as it was contained within a single tweet.  I picked my 100 favorite loglines and read the first 10 pages of each (which I live-reviewed on Twitter), and then from those, picked the Top 20, which I've been reading the entire screenplays for.  Today's 10 pages landed in the "definite" pile, which means it was one of the 7 best.
Writer: James Topham
Details: 118 pages

I remember reading through the first ten pages of this one and thinking...hmmm, now this is different.  Writers are trying to come up with high concept ideas all the time.  But it's a tough proposition.  I encounter a lot of ideas that seem high concept, or are high concept "on paper," but there's something about them that doesn't scream movie high concept, the kind of true bona fide high concept idea you hear and you say, "Oooh, now that's a movie I'd check out."  And it's usually a tiny unique addition to a tried-and-true idea that does it.  The tried and true idea here is a small group of people fighting off "monsters."  The unique twist is that they aren't "monsters," per se, but rather mech machines designed to kill humans.

And I'll just be honest.  I'm a sucker for movies where a hero wakes up someplace unfamiliar with no idea how he got there.  I know it's cliche.  I know it's been done a billion times over, but I just think it's such a compelling situation.  That's why I put this one in the coveted "definite" pile when I first read it. However, the "definite" pile hasn't exactly been a bastion of quality.  None of the definites so far have even reached "worth the read" status.  Let's hope today's script changes that.

John Caan has just woken up in a Mexican pueblo.  He doesn't know where he is.  He doesn't know how he got here.  He's never even been to Mexico.  So why he would be here is beyond him.  But that's not even on the radar right now.  What is on the radar are the noises coming from outside.

Caan peeks out the window to see the most horrifying most baffling sight he's ever seen in his life.  Large mech machines, with saws, with machetes, with lasers, with guns, are massacring a bunch of people in the town square.

While this would be too much for any sane man to handle, Caan's slightly insane.  And he knows exactly what he has to do.  GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE.  So he loads up his gun and heads outside to get the huh-zell out of Dodge.  There are people dying all around him but he doesn't care.  It isn't until a small girl is in trouble that he actually does anything.  But after saving her, he slips out and heads through the desert to safety.

Except it's not that easy.  Far off in the desert he encounters a huge electrically charged fence.  And more MECHS, standing guard, making sure no humans make it past them.  They chase Caan back to the town and it's time for plan B.

Back in the town we meet a series of other characters - Michael, the almost Alpha-Male, Lily, the mother of the child Caan saved, Petra, a 20-something goth girl, Tom, a 50-something ex-cop, and a few more.  This is Caan's army.  And they're all looking to him for leadership.

But Caan's not interested in being a leader.  He just wants to find a way out of this situation.  Unfortunately, that'll mean fending these mechs off for a few days while he figures things out.  So he reluctantly rallies the troops and does the best job he can.

The thing is, nothing goes quite as expected.  The weirdness of this situation just keeps getting weirder. For example, sometimes the mechs don't want to kill them.  They just want to toy with them.  And (spoiler), the group finds a room deep under the town where 9 bodies lie.  A closer look at the bodies show that they're exact copies of THEM.

So yeah, shit is pretty f*cked up!  Caan not only needs to find out how to get them out of this alive, but also what the hell is going on here.  And boy is it a shocker when he does figure out the truth!

First off, this is superbly written.  The lines are lean.  The prose is bare but descriptive.  This feels like a spec.  It feels like something that deserves to go out wide and vie for producers' attention.

And it nails a lot of its components as well.  Our anti-hero leader, Caan, is mysterious and dark enough to keep our interest throughout. Dare I say he's a worthy successor to Mad Max himself with his selfish yet reluctantly compassionate demeanor.

The situation driving the story is so damn weird (human-killing mechs) that you have to keep reading to find out why the hell this is all happening.  And surprisingly enough - while I admit a tad far-fetched and "out there," the explanation is - it worked for me in regards to the universe Topham created. That's where these scripts always fall apart.  An outrageous situation to start the script, yet the writer never explains that situation in a satisfactory way.  I don't know if it's that Topham is such a good writer that you believed it all despite its weirdness, or if it honestly just felt right, but it made sense to me and I was satisfied.

I liked the nice little twists and turns also.  For example, early on Caan finds a drawing in a school that shows a man shot in the head, the same man he just saw shot in the exact same way minutes ago.  And (spoiler), when the characters find dead versions of themselves in a room...that's when I really took notice.  I like those "sit up" moments in a script - moments that are so shocking or weird or cool, that you actually readjust yourself and sit up.  That doesn't happen very often!

The script is always kept moving by the inherent GSU.  The goal is to hold of the mechs and find a way out of here.  The urgency is the constant barrage of mechs that keep coming.  And the stakes are, obviously, their lives.

I liked how Topham always kept his characters active too.  One of the pitfalls of placing your characters in a confined area is that you'll just have them sitting around doing nothing for long stretches of time.  In order to combat this, you must always give them a plan, always keep them trying to achieve something, never sitting down and talking in safety for too long. I remember I reviewed an Amateur script awhile back called "Zombie Knights," that had this exact problem.  The characters just got inside the castle grounds and hung out.  Nothing happened for long stretches of time.  That can NEVER be the case in this kind of story or in a spec script period.

The only real issues I had here surrounded Caan.  Even though I liked him (and I'll go into why in the 'what I learned' section), there were times where he tested me.  He was almost too brooding.  And the eventual reveal to his backstory was boring.  It could've been a lot better.  And seriously, writers, don't have your heroes deliberately kill nice animals - EVER.  When Caan kills the dog/coyote in this, I was like, "Really?? Are you trying to make us hate this guy?"  I find that a little bit of dark or gallows humor can quickly up the likability quotient of your anti-hero.  Let's go that route instead of making him a dog-killer.

Anyway, this one was fun!  And it now takes the lead as THE BEST TWIT-PITCH SCRIPT OF THE CONTEST!  Check it out yourself in the link below!

Script link: Proving Ground (Since the writer didn't want his contact info on the script, if you like the script and want to get in touch with the writer, e-mail me and I'll put you in contact).

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

What I learned: When you have a brooding protagonist, an anti-hero, or a protagonist who doesn't talk much, it can be hard for the audience to like/sympathize with him.   The lack of talking makes it difficult to identify with or get into the hero's head.  Therefore, look to make us like your character through action or choice.  Proving Ground does a great job of this early on.  While everyone's fighting off the mechs, Caan is simply trying to escape.  That moment presents itself when a mech leaves its guard at the gate to go kill a little girl.  Caan has a choice now.  He can slip out the unattended gate or save the girl.  In the end, he chooses to save the girl.  It's this action, this choice that makes us like him! Oh, and always place these moments EARLY ON.  It's important that we like our hero right away!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Movie Review - The Master

Genre: Drama
Premise: (from IMDB) A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future - until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.
About: Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights) had been talking about making this movie for awhile, but backed off it a couple of times before finally committing to it.  The main issue seemed to be that the script was based off of the early days of L Ron Hubbard and his spooky little cult religion, Scientology.  To get around this, Anderson simply states that the movie has nothing to do with Scientology, which it of course does, but keeps him safe from the evil-doer scientists in the aforementioned religion, who have been known to ruin people's lives who take them on.
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson

I have seen many movies in my lifetime.  Good movies.  Bad movies.  Fun movies.  Weird movies.  But I don't think I've ever seen a movie as boring as The Master.  A long time ago, Paul Thomas Anderson's script was floating around and I was wondering if I should read it, but everybody who'd read it said the same thing: "It must be a really early draft because it's barely readable.  Nothing makes sense."  I didn't want to review something that raw so I moved on.  But it looks like that's the actual draft he shot!  I don't know if Anderson is getting lazy, if he's taking too many drugs, or if he just doesn't care anymore, but this has to be one of the worst scripts I've ever seen turned into a film.

One need look no further than The Master's story to see how little effort was put into the script.  Imagine a first draft, but the kind of first draft where you're not even trying - where you're just attempting to find a few good scenes - where your goal is more to get to the end than construct a compelling drama.  That's The Master.  It's almost comical when you try to summarize it, because it's so random, so directionless.  But I'll try my best.  Here's my summary of The Master's plot...

It's the 50s I think.  And we're introduced to a soldier named Freddie.  Freddie has some sort of mental condition although we're never told or given a hint as to what it is.  Like a lot of things in The Master, it's vague - not on purpose, but because Anderson was too lazy to figure it out.  Anyway, Freddie's the kind of guy who will masturbate out in the open, in front of everybody.  So yeah, we love this character right away.

In addition to this, Freddie hovers back and forth between a socially awkward weirdo who can barely interact with other human beings and an ultra smooth lathorio who women can't keep their hands off of.  How is this possible?  I'll venture to take a guess.  Because Anderson didn't know anything about the character and made it all up on the fly.

In addition to Freddie being a nerd/ladie's man, he also has a talent for mixing alchohol in weird and unique ways.  He can whip up a doozy of a drink with a full bar, but sometimes goes too far and adds questionable ingredients, like paint thinner!  This ends up eventually killing people wherever he goes, so he always gets chased out of every group he becomes a part of.  Hmm, a nonsensical alcohol mixing paint thinner backstory.  Riveting.  And totally relevant.

So after bouncing around, Freddie happens upon a strange miniature cult leader/boat enthusiast/author named Lancaster Dodd.  Dodd doesn't like being on land, because he doesn't like people approaching him or something??  Dodd likes Freddie for no reasons that are apparent to the audience.  He just likes him because the script needs him to like him.

It is through this weird friendship that Dodd, who is in the process of creating a new religion, decides to make Freddie his main disciple.  His reasoning, according to him, is that Freddie is "fearless."  But it's pretty clear that Freddie is just stupid.  And weird.  That's one of the only consistencies about The Master - that nothing makes sense and everything often contradicts itself.

Unfortuantely for the actors, and the audience, Anderson has no idea where to go with the story from here.  We just sort of stumble along, with the only real hint of a plot being the release of Dodd's second book.  But even that seems to be forgotten for most of the screenplay and is sprung upon us out of nowhere near the end of the second act (if there even were acts?).  The story here was so formless and random that I remember at one point thinking the film could either end in 5 minutes or 50 minutes. That's how little purpose or direction it all had.  You just had no idea where the hell it was going!

And that can be fun if there's an actual story.  But there wasn't any.  It literally felt like Anderson woke up each day of shooting, asked the actors what they wanted to do, and just played around with a bunch of random scenes until they shot something they liked, logic and story be damned.

I'll tell you the scene that really did it in for me.  It's a scene on the ship when Dodd first calls stowaway Freddie into his quarters.  Dodd starts off the scene by scolding Freddie for being a deadbeat drunk, telling him that he'll never amount to anything because of his dependency on alcohol.  The two then talk for a few minutes and how does the scene end?  By Dodd saying he got wasted on Freddie's special alcohol mix, loves it, and he desperately wants him to make more so they can get drunk again.

Uhhhhh...what????  "You're a stupid drunk.  Clean yourself up.  Oh hey, let's make some more alcohol and get wasted."  This epitomizes just how nonsensical and high Anderson was when he was writing and shooting this.  Absolutely NOTHING made sense.

And there was no BUILD to this story.  Dodd was at the same place in his career at the end of his movie as he was the beginning.  This would've been so much better had we watched Dodd rise up as an unknown nobody into a dominant cult leader with sweeping power and influence, much like Anderson did with There Will Be Blood.  You then pitt people against him, people to call him out, and relish in the sustained conflict that storyline offers.  We almost ALMOST got a hint of this early on, and not surprisingly, it was one of the best scenes in the movie.  At a party where Dodd is explaining his philosophies, a man walks in and challenges him in front of everyone, calling his work a sham.  Dodd is forced to defend his stance, and it's an intense and riveting standoff.  We needed more scenes LIKE THAT.  Instead,  the conflict amounts to Dodd encountering a series of tiny inconsequential incidents which had no consequences whatsover.  Dodd was never in any danger or trouble.  So who cares?  Even when he goes to jail for...I don't know, being "cultish" or something, he's out of there in a day and back to his life.  Where were the stakes????

There was so little here that was thought through.  And it's a shame.  Because the cinematography was amazing.  The score was great.  The actors came to play.  Hoffman, especially, was great.  But even though Phoenix's performance was memorable, it was memorable for all the wrong reasons.  Not because it served the story, but because Anderson clearly told him to act however fucking crazy he wanted to, then yelled action. Talk about an uncontrolled and random performance.  Again, I still don't know if Freddie is a stud or a dork.  I don't know anything about him.

Obviously, I'm disappointed by this effort.  Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few truly original voices out there that Hollywood allows to make movies.  He owes it to himself and to us to give everything he can on the script, and not just one-draft it ala prequel George Lucas.  The abysmallness of this script is right up there with Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.  Just embarrassingly awful.  So upset by this script and film.

[x] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasted 2 hours
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Laziness in scriptwriting ALWAYS COMES BACK TO BITE YOU.  You can't hide it.  Readers aren't stupid.  They will always spot it.  They will always call you out.  And we all know when we're doing it.  We all know when we're being lazy.  We all try to talk ourselves into why it's okay for that specific scene or moment.  DON'T FALL INTO THAT TRAP.  Don't let a single piece of your script be lazy.  It will come back to bite you, I promise.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Screenplay Review - Hyde

Genre: Horror/Procedural
Premise: An allegedly rehabilitated Dr. Jekyll is pulled out of prison to help hunt a new monster who seems to be using an improved version of the Hyde serum.
About: "Hyde" made the 2010 Black List.  While writing Hyde, screenwriter Cole Haddon concurrently wrote the story in graphic novel form for Dark Horse.  That novel is titled "The Strange Case Of Mr. Hyde" and is available on Amazon.  
Writer: Cole Haddon
Details: 114 pages (8-06-10 draft) This is the first draft (the one that made the Black List).

Mr. Hyde

I'm still kind of geeking out after meeting Eddie O'Keefe last night, one half of the writing team of When The Streetlights Go On.  These guys just ignore ALL RULES.  The draft of theirs that made the Black List?  That script was written in SIX WEEKS.  Oh, and did I mention it was their FIRST SCREENPLAY.  Wowzers - that goes against everything history has dictated regarding first scripts.

Eddie talked about how he and his partner, Chris, don't focus too much on structure, but rather come up with this huge playlist of songs that they feel is appropriate for the material, and just let the music guide their writing and their choices.  Again, this is sooooo NOT the way I'd recommend anyone doing it.  Because believe me, I've read stuff from writers who've written that way before, and it is NEVER GOOD.  So to see these guys use such an undefined unstructured approach so effectively is both scary and inspiring.

With that said, they DID read all the screenwriting books before they wrote the script.  They do understand things like active characters and act breaks and all that.  So they did have that in the back of their mind when they were writing.  They've also written lots of short stories and both attended film school - so it wasn't like they were going into this screenwriting thing completely unprepared.  Still, I love how that approach works for them, because it's what makes their work so unique and unpredictable.  Oh, and he told me that in addition to Streetlights and Broadcast, the two have written a script that he feels is EASILY their best work.  It's just not very well known.  Eddie says he's going to send that to me and I cannot wait!

What does this have to do with today's script?  NOTHING!  I just wanted to get my geekery on and this felt like the right place to do it.  However, Eddie and Chris did not write today's script.  So let's move away from formless writing to something a little more structured, and surprisingly good!

So as you probably know, back in the day, there was this doctor named Henry Jeckyll.  Dude liked to experiment.  And dangit if he wasn't such a believer in his work that he'd experiment on himself!  That didn't turn out so hot, though, since one of his experiments turned him into a monster, a monster who crawled through 1880s London looking for people to mutilate. Eventually, the coppers caught up with him and killed his ass, and the world was forever better.

Or was it?

Five years later, a rash of prostitute killings have started up again, and the crime scenes look like something out of a superhero film.  20 some feet between fleeing footsteps. Blood trails halfway up the sides of buildings.  Whoever's pulling off these killings is superhuman.

But who could it be?  Hyde was killed five years ago.  At least that's what everyone was told.  Our resident inspector on the case, the off-putting Thomas Adye, learns that Hyde, in fact, wasn't killed.  Why would you kill something with that much power when you could study it instead (Paul Riser from Aliens would be proud!)?  So the dual personalities of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde have been kept underground in the interim, locked up in a Hannibal Lector-like cage that only an unprivileged few have access to.  Adye is tasked with going to talk with Dr. Jeckyll to see if he can get a beat on who this monster is and where it might be.

The two don't hit it off AT ALL and Adye leaves hoping he'll never never have to see Jeckyll again.  But when he runs into the murderer who shrugs off a few bullets like he's being tickled by duck feathers, he realizes he's in way over his head.  If he's going to take this killer down, he will need the help of the man he despises the most, his underground cell buddy, Dr. Jeckyll.

Away the two go, into the streets, pounding the pavement, talking to anyone who might know who this killer is.  Of course, the scum of the underground don't like to talk to cops, so it's hard-going wherever they turn, especially with the mischievous Jeckyll delighting in every little misstep Adye takes.

After a couple of false-positives, the duo finally find out who they're dealing with (spoiler).  In case you haven't figured it out yet - yup - our "psycho killer" is none-other than Jack The Ripper.  Yikes.  As if we didn't have enough problems.  And since Mr. Ripper also seems to have gotten his hands on Dr. Jeckyll's serum, he's basically like a serial killing nuclear bomb!

So our mismatched couple will need to put aside their differences to catch the killer before he continues his run.  But it's starting to look like the only way they're going to stop him, is if they use some of that infamous serum themselves...

Duh duh duh duhhhhhhh.....

I'm not really a fan of these outdated public domain monsters. I know there's a reason some of this stuff stands the test of time, but to me I'm always thinking, "Ehhh, isn't a hundred years enough? Shouldn't we, maybe, try to come up with new monsters and new stories?"  I know saying such words could get me blackballed from Hollywood, but seriously - let's create something new, not rekindle something old!

With that said, this is about as good of a job as you can do with this kind of story.  The atmospheric writing (I love the way Haddon describes Jeckyll's face as "UNEXPECTEDLY HANDSOME, startlingly so..." when it first slams into his jail cell bars, his features clear for the first time after being hidden in shadows the entire scene) and forward-moving story kept things fun throughout.  In these procedurals - these "chase the killer" scripts - it's all about pushing the story forward, keeping the momentum going, and I thought Haddon did that brilliantly.  There's never a moment where we're just sitting around discussing shit.  We're always AFTER THE KILLER.

The real star of the script though was the relationship between the straight-laced Adye and the mischievous Jeckyll.  This updated (or backdated) take on the buddy-cop dynamic was, dare I say, scrumptious.  It was hilarious to watch Adye obsessed and freaked out by every little detail, contrasted with Jeckyll, who was just thrilled to be out of his cell for a few days.  This was one big field trip for him, and dammit if he wasn't going to play on everything before the whistle to go back inside blew (God I hated that whistle!).

I (spoiler) thought bringing Jack The Ripper into the mix was also clever, as was giving him access to Jeckyll's serum, making him super-human.  I mean what's scarier than a monster version of Jack The Ripper??  Maybe the only thing I was worried about was that this felt a teensy bit similar to the abomination known as Van Helsing. I hope if they make this, they don't "kids family" it up but stick with the darker more intense approach.  That will definitely hurt opening day grosses, but it will pay off for the film in the long run.

Honestly, the only reason I didn't rate this higher was because it's not my thing.  But for what it is, it's pretty damn enjoyable.

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

What I learned: A common screenwriting debate is whether you should write dialogue "properly" or if you should add accents and speech imperfections.  Take for instance this line on page 12 from Chief Inspector Newcomen: "Stay away from Hyde, Inspector. 'E's like a poison that keeps working at you. A poison, just ask 'is mate Utterson."  The way I see it is is this - you can add speech imperfections as long as you don't overdo it.  As soon as I have to WORK to get through all the accents and deliberate misspellings, I get pissed at the writer, because a reader should never have to work.  So use it sparingly if you REALLY NEED TO, but don't slaughter your dialogue with it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Screenplay Review - Psycho Killer

Genre: Dark Thriller
Premise: Often told through the point of view of the killer himself, Psycho Killer is about a serial killer who believes he must kill as many people as possible in order to receive preferred status in Hell.
About: Andrew Kevin Walker is, of course, spec sale royalty, as his script "Seven" was one of the most popular spec scripts in Hollywood history.  It eventually went on to be directed by David Fincher, starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, and Kevin Spacey.  Walker would struggle a bit after that sale, eventually writing and selling another script, 8mm, for 1.25 million dollars.   Unfortunately, the studio deemed that work too dark and encouraged director Joel Schumacher to sanitize it.  The results were so bad that Walker disowned the movie and has refused to watch it since, even to this day.  Psycho Killer is a script he penned four years ago.  Not sure where it stands at this moment.
Writer: Andrew Kevin Walker
Details: 113 pages.  July 4, 2008. This is a SECOND DRAFT.  So take that into consideration.

Another famed serial killer.

While Andrew Kevin Walker remains spec sale royalty due to his screenplay masterpiece, Seven, lighting up Hollywood back in the 90s, it still remains unclear how the script sold.  I could've sworn  the script was found in a production slush pile.  But people also say Walker gave the script to A-list screenwriter David Koepp, who he reportedly had a friendship with.  Koepp then passed the script on to New Line, who purchased it.  If anyone can clear this up for me, that would be great.  Because hey, the story's definitely more inspiring to the average writer if the the script was discovered on talent alone, and not through an A-list Hollywood contact.

There's this sort of unofficial age-old debate that has gone on about which sick dark fucked up movie is better, Seven or Silence Of The Lambs.  Personally, I've always been a Lambs guy.  I just thought the character work in that script was a lot better.  Seven wins on atmosphere for sure.  But I just didn't find the characters as compelling as I did in Lambs.  Of course, that could've been due in part to Pitt's acting. :) Anyway, that's a nice segue way into today's script, because what keeps this script from connecting with the reader is a somewhat distant character dynamic.

Psycho Killer has a freaking awesome opening.  Imagine Psycho Killer popping out of his car on a highway, walking over to a man who's changing his tire, bashing his head into smithereens with a sledgehammer, chasing his wife down the highway, seeing a semi baring down on them, hurling the sledgehammer at the truck with all his might.  The sledgehammer goes through the windshield.  The incapacitated driver loses control of his truck, which jackknifes, turning the fleeing woman into road gravy, before finally coming to a stop.  All in a day's work for our Psycho Killer, who's in the middle of an 8 state killing spree.

What sets Psycho Killer apart right away is that we take the POV of the killer himself.  So we're the bad guy for the entire first act.  I thought we were going to be the bad guy for the entire movie, but when Psycho Killer (yes, his name is actually "Psycho Killer") kills a cop in front of his fellow cop wife (Jane), the POV turns to a traditional third person narrative and we follow Jane as she tries to avenge her hubby's death.

To me, this was when the script sort of lost its appeal.  Although it was disturbing, what made it unique was watching a killer through a killer's eyes.  Once it became a straightforward procedural, it didn't hold up because I didn't feel anything for the characters.  I guess I should've felt something since Jane watched her husband die, but there was just something standard and unexciting about her character.  I don't know.  She just felt too...normal.

But we do occasionally cut back to Psycho Killer's life, which seems to be consumed by these nightmares of hell.  Psycho Killer is convinced that he has some higher purpose and will be rewarded in hell, as long as he keeps killing people.  This leads him on a search for a secret group of fellow satan worshippers, who he eventually finds after putting a code message in the New York Times (huh?).

The story finishes with a rather strange choice, sending Psycho Killer on a much larger mission to kill way more people than the inefficient one at a time he kills every day.  I'm not going to spoil it, but I'll just say the movie turns from a serial killer movie into, basically, a terrorist movie, and that didn't feel right.

I'll give Psycho Killer this - it *is* a little bit different.  Just putting us inside the body of a serial killer was creepy enough and made for some great dramatic irony moments.  Remember, dramatic irony is when we know something one of the characters in a scene does not.  So in this case, we knew Psycho Killer was about to kill some poor unsuspecting soul, and that we couldn't warn that soul.  So that made for some tension-filled scenes, if not some majorly fucked up ones!

And ya gotta love how Walker decided to name his character PSYCHO KILLER.  Lol.  I mean how great is that?

But the rest of the script - and obviously this has something to do with this still being a second draft - feels exploratory.  We have these random dream sequences where Psycho Killer imagines himself in Hell surrounded by demons.  They feel like kick ass scenes for a director to play with but, storywise, they're glorified film school writing, where every tenth page is yet another "trippy" dream sequence.

I suppose it comes together later when Psycho Killer joins up with some satanists and they talk about Hell taking over earth and all that jazz.  But that was a concert I wasn't interested in going to, and to be honest, it all felt a might confused, again probably due to the exploratory nature of the second draft.

What bothers me is that I couldn't figure out why I didn't care for Jane at all.  Just the other day, with Desperate Hours, I was talking about how effectively loss creates sympathy for a character.  The reason we're on board with Frank Sullivan right away is because we feel his pain in losing his family to the Spanish flu.  So then why don't I feel a thing when Jane loses her husband to Psycho Killer?

I can't figure it out but I suppose part of it is that she just seemed so mechanical.  Her personality was non-specific, basic, and just boring.  It almost felt like she wanted to find Psycho Killer not because she was deeply affected by losing her husband, but because the script needed her to want to find him.  And that's when a story falls off the rails, when things are happening because the writer needs them to and not because the characters need them to.  I don't know.  Am I the only one who thought this?

Since I'm obviously not going to root for a Psycho Killer, that meant I had no one to cheer on.  If you don't have any characters to attach yourself to in a movie, then the movie's dead to you.  Doesn't matter how clever the plot or the twists are, I'm not emotionally invested and therefore not interested in the story.

That's a shame.  I still think Walker is a great screenwriter but I would've loved to have had someone to root for here.  I hope Walker's since fixed this problem.

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

What i learned - This scene ALWAYS WORKS.  Put your character in a car with something he's hiding, then have a cop stop him.  It is virtually impossible to screw this scene up.  We see it here when Psycho Killer gets stopped.  We see it in Fargo when the cop stops Carl and Gaear.  Just make sure you milk the suspense.  The audience loves wondering what's going to happen, so feel free to draw it out as long as you'd like.