Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bright Angel Falling

Genre: Sci-fi
Premise: A civilization ending comet is on a collision course with Earth.
About: Back before Armageddon and Deep Impact, James Cameron (along with Peter Hyams) was angling to get his own asteroid/comet disaster flick into theaters. For whatever reason, his script was ignored in favor of Dreamworks’ and Disney’s own versions. Or was it?
Writer: Peter Hyams and James Cameron
Details: 136 pages (undated draft)

In case I haven’t made it clear, I’m head over heels in fan love with James Cameron. The man has proven time and time again that he’s the King of Blockbusters. While I understand the Titanic backlash, particularly in response to the film’s dialogue, I’ll repeat what every good writer knows: It isn’t the dialogue that’s difficult to get right, it’s the structure. And the structure underneath the Titanic screenplay is so solid not even the biggest iceberg in the world could sink it. It’s hard enough to keep someone’s interest for 90 minutes. Cameron kept you biting your nails for twice that. Even the man’s less successful films, The Abyss and True Lies, are better than 95% of the summer movies you see today (the director’s cut of The Abyss is particularly trippy if you ever get a chance to see it).

But I have to say, this whole 3-D thing isn’t for me. I’ve gotten into some fights with friends over this but I can’t imagine any scenario where putting bulky 3-D glasses on every time you go to the theater is the norm. That doesn’t mean I won’t give Avatar a chance. On the contrary, Avatar is probably the one movie I *will* see in 3-D. If anyone’s going to do this right, it will be the creator of Terminator and Aliens. But what bothers me about the movement is that it’s not so much consumer driver (us demanding it) as industry driven (them pushing it on us). Hollywood clearly needs something to differentiate itself from the ever-improving home theater experience. 3-D is the only thing they’ve come up with. So they have, and will, throw every dollar they have into convincing us it’s the future. And that’s the problem. Is that’s exactly how it feels. A desperate attempt to keep us going to movies. I, however, come from the old school. You know, that school that says, “Write better scripts.” Studio heads may laugh at me when I mention such a silly idea, but I honestly think that’s the key. Look at Pixar if you don’t believe me. They put so much emphasis on the script and look at their track record.

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. Back in the days when you could find a pair of 3-D glasses in the current month’s issue of MAD magazine, Cameron and Peter Hyams (writer-director of 2010) wrote a comet heading towards earth flick called, “Bright Angel Falling”. For you under-ten year olds, 1998 was the year of two asteroid-earth collision movies, the Steven Spielberg produced “Deep Impact” and the Michael Bay directed “Armageddon.” Both these films came out within a FEW MONTHS OF EACH OTHER. If that doesn’t tell you how fucked up Hollywood is, I don’t know what does. Both movies brought on a large amount of writers. Armageddon in particular had, what some people believed, was the most writers ever to have worked on a single project. We’re talking tens of millions of dollars were spent on that screenplay. And my question today is: why? Why did both productions spend so much money on writing when they basically took James Cameron’s screenplay and switched out the title page?

I suppose there are differences here but man, not many. Bright Angel Falling centers on Will Seacord, a divorced astronaut who's up in space so much he can probably name all the satellites on site. As a result, he doesn't see much of his 15 year old rebellious daughter, Claire. Work’s given him an excuse for that. So when he’s told he’ll no longer be a part of NASA’s number 1 flight crew anymore, the reality of a life post-NASA, a life where he’ll have to face his failures as a parent, have him reevaluating everything.

Around this time, a young astronomer (the female Asian version of Elijah Wood) spots the comet that’s going to turn our planet plural. The president is notified and pretty soon the whole world is aware that human extinction is 3 months away. But the prez isn’t going down without a fight. The United States government puts their best minds together to come up with a solution but the truth is there’s nothing that can be done in such a short amount of time. That is until a couple of Berkely students stumble in with an old thesis paper they think is the answer to earth’s problems. What if they strategically place two bombs on the comet and detonate them simultaneously to knock the comet off its trajectory so it will miss earth? (Does any of this sound familiar?)

A crew is readied, people prepare, and in a scene reminiscent of the terrorist attack in Contact, the captain of the crew is killed by some religious freak. What do you know? Seacord is once again in command of the shuttle. There's some training stuff with the rest of the crew but to be honest, it wasn't very interesting. One touch I did like (which is funny, because it’s one that neither movie chose to use) requires them to use two 50 megaton nukes. And there are only two of these bombs in the world. Both of them reside in Russia (this would be China if the script were written today). Because Russia refuses to just hand over two of their biggest nukes to the U.S., they give them on the condition that two Russians accompany the bombs, each one containing the codes to activate them, which they will do once the bombs are in place on the comet. The reason I liked this so much was because I have a feeling this is exactly what would happen if our world was threatened by something. Politics would take precedence over saving mankind. It also serves a great dramatic purpose, since you know those Russians aren’t going to be around when the actual codes need to be entered.

Anyway, back on earth, fragments from the comet start hitting early (I told you it was similar). And in one of the coolest described destruction sequences I’ve ever read, Cameron and Hyams detail one of these black-out-the-sky-it’s-so-big chunks hitting the ocean at “a thousand times the speed of a bullet”, resulting in a colossal tsunami wave that shoots off in every direction. I want you to stop and imagine something as big as, say, 50 city blocks, shooting towards the earth 1000 times faster than a bullet. Imagine what that would look like. I honestly felt like I was in the theater watching this during the description. It was that cool.

But once the astronauts are in the air, I'm afraid I felt like I was back watching Ben Affleck run animal crackers up girls’ bellies, because it really is sequence after sequence from Armageddon. From the Mir hookup gone wrong to the slingshotting around the moon (although it's way cooler in Cameron’s version) to Seacord locking his co-astronaut in the shuttle so that he can detonate the bomb manually. It sucks because it takes away from an otherwise cool reading experience. I’m guessing with all the similarities that Disney must’ve bought this screenplay, right? Can anyone confirm this?

As for the script itself, it’s probably not something you guys should emulate. Cameron and Hyams write in big intimidating chunks, sometimes 15 lines long, going into the minute details of the science behind the operation. Cameron’s obviously obsessed with this stuff and since he probably entertained directing the project himself at some point, he may have been writing these things more for his own reference than the readers.

In the end, I think it’s worth the read because Cameron basically does everything they did in those movies, but better. The amount of research this man incorporates into his projects is astounding and boy does it help sell the idea. When he tells us, “It takes 30 thousand people to get a shuttle ready for launch. 6 million parts need to be checked,” we understand the scope in a way that we never did in Deep Impact or Armageddon. It would be an interesting exercise to read the script then watch those two movies, just to see how Cameron’s version compares side by side. I have a general sense. But I haven’t seen either film since the summer they came out so I don't remember everything.

Maybe the biggest compliment I can pay James Cameron is that if there was a comet heading towards earth, I’d want him on the team assigned to stop it. If you’re a Cameron fan, you should definitely give this a read.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I know I just praised Cameron’s attention to detail, but there are times when he gets a little carried away. It’s one thing to explain how the shuttle is going to land on the comet. It’s another to get into the different kinds of compounds needed to create the fuel that will get them there. Know when enough is enough. Story is always most important. If you’re slowing everything down so you can explain the minute details of something that we only need the bare essentials of, take a step back and determine which information is really necessary and cut out the rest. Nobody’s going to be as patient with you as they are with a James Cameron script.

The Cross

Genre: Drama with a touch of sci-fiPremise: In an undisclosed future, one man will try anything to “cross” a border that cannot be crossed.
About: To star Orlando Bloom, John Goodman, and Olga Kurylenko (Quantum Of Solace), this is a project Andrew Niccol has been wanting to shoot forever, even as early back as the 90s. Early drafts under a different title (“River Road”) did not garner a positive response. It is only with his most recent draft, the draft I’m assuming is the one that succeeds this one, that he secured Orlando Bloom. The movie became a go film last month as a result of Bloom’s involvement.
Writer: Andrew Niccol
Details: 117 pages - 2007 draft.

What?? An original review?? No guest review today? I guess I'm losing my touch.

Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) and Orlando Bloom (Pirates Of The Carribean, Lord Of The Rings) are at similar places in their careers. Both started out as shining stars, exploding onto the Hollywood scene as golden boys who would surely have Tinseltown eating out of their mittens for years to come. But they quickly learned that this city has a two-strikes-your-out clause, and companion duds from both actor and director shifted them from the A-List to the B-List. In order to stay clear of Kathy Griffin territory, they both needed a hit, so they decided to put their careers in each other’s hands and are praying for redemption in “The Cross.”

For a little background, I thought Gattaca was pretty badass. It was a teensy-bit too dark in places, but it was a unique voice in a sea of foghorns that blasted the same throbbing whine. The Truman Show was probably overrated as it came out at the peak of Jim Carrey’s box office domination. The movie was okay, but I don’t remember much about it other than Carrey overacting. Then came Niccol’s directing efforts. Even in the most generous light, Simone and Lord Of War were dry and flaky with deep shadows under their eyes. To Niccol’s credit, I don’t know many productions that can survive a modern-day Al Pacino performance.

As for Orlando, the jury may still be out, but we can hear them finishing up in the other room. True Bloom is coming off one of the most successful franchises of all time, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks he's anything more than the fourth most memorable character in the films. Crossing into lead territory yielded dreary efforts like Elizabethtown and Kingdom Of Heaven. Bloom was tagged with the “boring” label and it’s hard for me to disagree. Every time he came onscreen I wanted to pull up the covers and take a cat nap. He’s definitely got face. And Peter Jackson found some sparkle in those eyes as Legolas, but if The Cross doesn’t work, Bloom just might turn into Gloom.

Mylar is a former engineer in a future racked by war and disease. The particulars of how this came about are not disclosed. All we know is shit is bad and it’s supposedly better in the country to the north. So it’s fitting the story takes place in a border town where the patrolling guards make those Shawshank pussies look like bus boys at a four star hotel. Heading up the border’s toughest patrol unit is August Gideon, a man who lives for only one thing: to patrol the border. Gideon is so naughty that if he catches you trying to cross, he doesn’t kill you. He makes you eat an entire bucket of dirt. If you try a second time? He makes you eat two. Third time? He’ll make you eat three buckets. Thing is, nobody’s ever made it past two. Well, not yet anyway.

There seems to be a clear understanding in this town. People *will* try to cross the border. The crossers know that. The guards know that. The spoils of freedom in the neighboring country are too great not to give it a shot. Except that outside of a few rumors, it doesn’t appear that anyone’s successfully been able to cross the border. It’s too damn difficult.

Enter Mylar.

There’s no question that Niccol’s spent a few dozen nights watching Cool Hand Luke. This is no doubt a dark futuristic version of the 1967 classic. There is a secret group of men who meet weekly, discussing plots and plans to get across the border. But they never actually do anything about it. Mylar is less a talker and more a doer. The fearless daredevil keeps trying to cross, despite the ridiculous odds, and just like Paul Newman, he keeps getting caught. Each attempt is more dangerous than the last because, as Niccol explains to us, eating buckets of dirt mutilates your insides.

While there are many characters in the script, this is really a mano-a-mano battle between Mylar and Gideon. There’s an enjoyment in the chess match the two play against each other and their scenes are definitely where the script shines.

There are other things that work as well. The story directive is clear as day: Cross the border. We're talking about a prison break movie here. He’s going to try to "get out," and we’re wondering if he’ll be able to do it. The dark tone adds a needed element of uncertainty. This is the kind of film where there’s just as much of a chance that he *won’t* as he will. So we’re definitely on edge.

In addition, we’re also wondering what’s on the other side. What is it that’s so great about this neighboring country? Would it be everything they thought it would be? And will this shed some light on the country they’re in, how they got here? What year it is? It’s fun trying to piece together these answers from the crumbs Niccol leaves us.

On the downside, the story is almost too simple. It’s a man trying to get across a border. And while there are some unexpected developments along the way, there’s definitely a monotony to the script. I guess you could make the same argument about Shawshank, but that movie had two of the most memorable characters in cinema history to fall back on. Mylar is interesting, but he’s not *that* interesting.

Also, it doesn’t seem like Niccol’s nearly as interested in giving answers as I am in asking for them. I guess I can respect him focusing more on the micro than the macro here, but it would’ve been fun to have some little twist at the end, some shocking revelation of where we are (the United States maybe?) and how we ended up here. For these reasons, I finished this script a little disappointed.

I think the key to this film is going to be Mylar and Gideon. If we keep the focus on them, on their chess match, the movie will be fun. I’m not saying the secondary characters aren’t interesting, they just didn’t measure up to the duel between the leads. The Cross is a solid script, but I wanted more.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[xx] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Niccol shows how to secure a star. There’s no doubt that this is the kind of character actors love to play. The setting is dark, which implies their efforts will be taken seriously. The character is both charming and fearless. His conviction to get across the border is unequaled. Being charming and brave, yet with an added layer of complexity? Is that not the guy all of us wish we could be? Remember, the number one way to get your script into the production pipeline is to secure a star. So you need to be thinking about creating a protagonist or antagonist (preferably both) that A-List actors want to play. Had Niccol’s last film not done so poorly, he easily would’ve secured an A-lister here. Bloom may have been Plan-B-List, but it was enough to secure funding and make the film.

Monday, September 28, 2009


So I'm introducing a new script reviewer today because he's a great writer and passionate about the craft (and he writes me weekly e-mails telling me how awesome Scriptshadow is). He kept raving to me about this awesome script he read that he just had to tell the world about. I tried to explain to him that I already had a backlog of script reviews in queue. He ignored me and sent the review anyway. Once I saw how passionate he was, I knew I had to post it. So I'd like to introduce everyone to... Michael Stark.

Random observations before I give Michael the reigns. Strange that the script title is also the name of Freeman's most famous character? And what the hell happened to Bruce Willis??? When did he become a cranky old man?? It's sad. I'll still see anything he's in. But after this interview, I won't ever look at him the same way again.

Genre: Action/comedy
Premise: A retired Black-Ops Agent must reassemble his old team to fight the new generation of high-tech assassins hunting him down.
About: Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman already attached to this comic book flick. ‘Nuff said.
Writers: The Brothers Erich and Jon Hoeber adapting a Sir Warren Ellis Graphic Novel
Details: 120 pages (November 14, 2008 first draft, revised)

First off, I’m old school. Not just kind of old school, but real old school. I’m typewriters and rotary dial phones and vinyl records and staples-in-the-navels of centerfolds kind of old school. So, I just can’t get into reading scripts as pdfs. Can’t stand it. I loved the fact that they had to pulp some thousand-year-old Sequoia just so I could read your fucking work of genius. Screenwriting is an art. It requires sacrifice. Trees must die! Toner cartridges must get depleted. There might even be papercuts.

I know the industry is trending green these days, but I swear on the life of your vegan girlfriend’s pound-rescued crack puppy that I promise to recycle all the paper you send me. I’ll fold every page of your fucking work of genius into assortments of barnyard origami to leave at crime scenes. I’ll wrap my kid’s peanut-free school-bound sandwiches with your untroubled third act. Hell, I’ll chew on every page of your sparkling dialogue till I can spit out a fine paste that’ll turn your high concept into reprocessed, adult diapers for June Allison.

Just gimme your words on paper. I need to have you in my hands. I gotta feel the true heft of your tome. I wanna get blisters on my fingers from turning the pages so goddamn fast. I want to take you in the can with me cause I just can’t put your magnum opus down. I want to jot down notes you’ll never read in the margins. I want to spill coffee all over your script at the Farmer’s Market and play keep away with it from Andre De Toth, whose depth perception has been kinda off these days. And, of course, for my troubles, I’m gonna steal your 1.5 inch brads when I’m finished, cause I’m not only old school, but I haven’t worked in like fucking forever and I gotta scrimp and scrounge and steal wherest I can.

This is just how it’s supposed to be done. Call me old fashioned, but screenplays are made to be read in one sitting. You wanna know why spec scripts aren’t selling right now? It ain’t the economy, stupid. It’s cause you listened to that liar, Al Gore, and you’re now dutifully sending them all out as pdf files! Producers and executives and movie stars and their assistants already have the attention spans of retarded, sugar-smacked hummingbirds. You think they’re gonna really read anybody’s script on their computers with all them fine distractions already loaded on their desktops like tournament canasta and barely legal porn?

Honestly, how many of you have actually read an entire screenplay on your computer in one sitting? Don’t tell me you didn’t check your facebook 18 times after you opened up the file. How often did you tweet before the second act rolled around? How many hands of solitaire did you play? Bet you already IMDBed the key grip of this flick while you’ve been skimming my opening rant.

Believe me, I’m equally guilty. I haven’t been able to do a single one-shot read through on my laptop of anything since this techno geek takeover. Nope, not once. Not till someone sent me Red.

That’s how engrossing this script was. Even the most ADHD of you fan boys will soar through this without once checking your emails or twiddling out a text. It’s just that absorbing.

Okay, maybe I’m overselling it a wee bit. The thing isn’t a great work of art. But, it is a great work of craft that’s worth studying. So, if you have a hankering to write an action film, you’ll learn a lot about plotting, pacing and narrative drive from reading Red.

Let me impart some wisdom on all you young scribes out there. I’m not advocating you forego the usual study of Chinatown, The Untouchables and the complete works of Joseph Campbell. But, if this script got both Bruce and Morgan so hot and bothered, I’d download it while you still can and scrutinize the shit out of it. Reread the mother till it becomes your mantra. When you get your next draft of “My Catalogue of Cool Shots” into something this tight, I guarantee it will get sold. Yup, even if you sent it off as a fucking pdf file.

So, why am I so impressed by yet another adaptation of yet another graphic novel? Well, for one, the source material is from Warren Ellis, the Godfather of funny paper scribblers. The screenwriting brothers in charge of distilling this comic into cinema are Erich and John Hoeber. They might not have made movie alchemy with their recent “Whiteout”, but the boys definitely spin yarn into gold this time around.

Now, I must warn you. You’ve seen this plot before. You’ve seen it many times before. Nothing new under the sun here – especially if you’ve ever seen a Jason Bourne flick or read any David Baldacci or Lee Child potboilers. Did the Brothers take all the genre conventions and spin them on their heads Electric Boogaloo style? Not exactly, it’sbstill pretty much standard fare. You have the same stock, way-high-up-in-the-Washington-food-chain villains and side switching patriotic uber-thugs revealed at the end. And, the Bruce Willis character is pretty much a Bruce Willis character only a little bit older -- and, apparently, gonna actually be played by a little bit older Bruce Willis.

So, Mr. Hype Meister, why should I read this damned thing? For the pace, baby, for the pace. This thing leaps out of the gate and keeps building and escalating with a rare economy of action. Meaning, there are no superfluous scenes or even extraneous lines of dialogue. Every single set up has a payoff!!! They didn’t throw in a car chase barreling through the unfinished Panama Canal during an asteroid storm just for the sake of getting your attention. This is a lean cornbeef sandwich without an inch of fat kind of storytelling. Hell, even the crusts of the rye bread have been trimmed off.

This is one lean, mean fighting machine of a screenplay!

So, what it’s all about? Frank Moses is a retired Black-Ops agent. He hasn’t pulled a Burn Notice and isn’t scrambling to get back in the show by helping a new troubled civilian every episode. Frank basically keeps himself under the radar, adjusting to his AARP status by keeping fit with early morning sit-ups, trying his hand unsuccessfully at gardening and listening to his classic collection of 50s vinyl. His only contact with the outside world is with Sarah, the operator of the government office whose pension checks he accidentally-on-purpose keeps losing to perpetuate their little chats.

Their burgeoning friendship doesn’t seem forced at all. It’s funny, sweet and real. The writers allow us a little downtime to develop this. When we open, Frank just seems like an average Joe struggling with the boredom of retirement. You get the hint that he might be ex-military cause of his regimented morning routines. But, there’s no hint of the two-fisted events to follow. Maybe I was sent a sweet romantic comedy for the Angela Lansbury set.

We don’t know anything about Frank or his mercenary past till page 8 when a crack team of government killers suddenly turn up to his abode to take the old dude out. His ex-spy status has just turned from “Green” to “Red”. “Red” as in when someone uptown wants you seriously dead “Red”. And, we’re kinda amazed to see our rose gardening retiree so effortlessly, single-handedly take out their whole unit. He’s old, but not Bucket List or Bubba Ho-Tep old. Ain’t no Death Panel for our Frank Moses.

See, Frank is like me, old school. He listens to Vinyl, not MP3s. He does sit-ups, not crunches. He slowly courts a woman over the telephone, not going after her all balls-out like some Apatow/Smith scripted lothario. He’s a gentleman. He’s also a former one-gentleman killing machine that some big muckety-muck just stupidly forced back into the game. And, he’ll show the young turks assigned to euthanize him just how it was done back in the good old days.

He doesn’t need any real cool, high tech weaponry from the Cheney Foundation to annihilate you. He’s a Q-less, Luddite who doesn’t know gun fu or parkour, but can still take down the entire CIA with a paper clip, a long expired bottle of High Karate and a little bare-knuckled help from his Cold-War era friends.

But, first, Frank has to rescue the gal whom might be the only leverage his ex-agency has on him. She doesn’t go quietly. It exacts some smooth talking and duct tape on Frank’s part to get her out of harms way. Yes, you’ve seen this before in Three Days Of The Condor, but, didn’t I mention somewhere this was also a comedy? It’s Grumpy Old Men vs the entire Central Intelligence Agency. It’s John McClane action hero Willis morphed with the wisecracking Moonlighting David Addison Willis with some gray haired, Danny Glover Murtough “I’m too old for this kinda shit” thrown in for good measure. And, Casting Directors, the gal, should most definitely be played by a certain repartee-ready Gilmore Girl.

Now Frank is just as in the dark as we are as to why he’s suddenly chased by the best assassins our tax dollars can still buy. The rest of the first act and a good chunk of the second is him reaching out to the few industry contacts he has left – Joe, his 90-year-old-dying-of-liver-cancer mentor; Marvin (Freeman) a completely paranoid ex-compadre: Ivan, a Russian ex-spy denigrated now to desk duty at the Ruskie Embassy and Victoria, a B&B owning femme fatale who has been juggling her retirement with a little wet work here and there for the extra pocket scratch or maybe just for the kicks.

The guy running this raid on Entebbe is Cooper, the agency’s most efficient and loyal killer. Of course, he’d been trained by someone Frank had trained way back when Coop was just a young pup of a pitbull. He’s also quite the devout family man, getting a honey-do list from his wife while he restages his latest hit to look more like a convincing suicide.

So, what ensues is the old guard versus the better-armed, physically fitter, mentally sharper army of new kids.

Unlike the norm for this genre, there aren’t any red herrings, false leads or wrong turns. Remember that I told you this was an exceptionally lean and mean script. The narrative drive goes from Point A to Point Z seamlessly and without any pit stops. Each action beat gets either Frank a new team member, another obstacle placed in the way or a bit more intel on why he’s suddenly a hunted man. And, once he gets the why, our guy quickly goes on the offensive to payback the who.

The writers also chose not to bog us down with the usual detective work seen in most procedurals. Frank doesn’t have to leap through a lot of hoops to find out why he’s on the hit list. He basically has Joe run the thumb print off the thumb he ginzued off of one of his attackers and – BAM -- we go from there. This was a wise choice cause it gives us far more time on Frank’s elaborate (and pleasurable) acts of table turning.

The sure to be scene stealing character is Frank’s old buddy, Marvin. He doesn’t just spout paranoid conspiracy theories, he practically foams at the mouth with them. He’s delusional and perhaps dangerous, but a total riot nonetheless. His choice as an asset is what’s so fun about this script. The audience is kept guessing if Marvin’s brain has finally been fried forever, making him a potentially huge liability (He was the agency’s main lab rat in their LSD experiments back in the 70s) or if he’s really still that super perceptive at the spy game.

Marvin gets many magnificent melt-down moments. He is suspicious of everyone and everything and it would be unwise to make any sudden movements or whip out your cellphone in his presence. While our rag tag team tries to quietly cross the Mexican border, he suddenly pulls a gun on a woman tourist, a middle-aged realtor, weaving her into his psychotic pastiche of black helicopters, satellite surveillance and the Patriot Act. I don’t want to spoil the scene, but this script adheres to strict Newtonian laws. To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.

All the characters here are blessed with snappy dialogue, intriguing back-stories and sheer likeability. Except for Frank, all of the supporting players sprang solely out of the imaginations of the screenwriters. Ellis’ three-issue miniseries was really just a cocktail napkin of carnage for the Hoebers to build off of.

Now, the sheer likeability factor is what will have the true Ellis disciples shouting “Heresy!” The comic’s consequent bloodbath has pretty much been excised. We may live in the age of Dexter, but the producers wanted to keep this caper strictly PG. And who really wants to see John McClane play a monster? The very thought is just so un-American.

Frank and Ivan share a John le Carré inspired cloak and dagger past. They reminisce about the Golden Age of the Cold War when spies were real spies. When it was considered bad form to even think about touching your target’s family. Cooper, representing the new breed, has the combined ethics of a rattlesnake, a used car salesman, and the entire Bush cabinet (minus Colin Powell of course). He’ll do anything necessary to serve Frank’s head on a platter to his bosses.

Perhaps that’s what stayed with me so long after reading Red. It’s really a throwback to an earlier era/age/style of screenwriting. It has action, but it doesn’t call attention to itself like today’s product. The sequences moves at a nice clip, but it’s totally devoid of any look-at-me-as-I-cleverly-off-someone-with-a-bednob-or-a-broomstick-or-something-else-you’ve-never-seen-before. We’re totally invested in these characters and I found myself getting gleeful as they miraculously pull their mission impossible off.

Red is different because it’s so refreshingly underwritten. You won’t get a jolt or a rush or a headache after putting it down. There’s an old showbiz axiom that admonishes to “Always leave them wanting more.” The Brothers Hoeber have deftly pulled that off. When I closed the file, I was already looking forward to Frank’s next adventure.

Even if I have to read that next adventure as a fucking pdf!

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[] worth the read
[X ] impressive
[ ] genius

I’m sure the discussions that follow will accuse me of being overly generous, throwing off the Shadow’s strict script grading curve. I think it’s a great script to learn the craft from. The teacher inside me stands firmly by this high mark.

What I learned: Surely you don’t think an old dog like me can pick up any new tricks? Yes, I learned something. And, this is why I’m making Red required reading for all the young scriptors I’m tutoring. Most screenplays remind me of all the damned, superfluous notes Mariah Carrey squeezes into every fucking song she sings. Your scripts don’t need superfluous diva shit. Not every scene has to be an extravagant road trip tangent or an over the top set piece. Stop trying to light a fart or a building or a whole country on fire just to get my attention. You have my attention. So, just tell me a story.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Shadow 19

Hard science fiction is one of the biggest gambles you can take as a writer. It's easy to assume that everyone will wait patiently while you explain the setting, the time period, the sides, the politics, the alien races, and everything else they need to know to understand your universe. But the reality is, the information is probably so overwhelming that they've checked out before you've made it to the second act. I love hard sci-fi as much as the next nerd but if you're spending a majority of your screenplay telling us that The Hawfner Alliance is about to annihilate the Crimson Factor and that General Eekou, of the half-alien half-human sub-race, the Qualars, is hoping to halt it with the Leviathan Treaty, which he just found in the Baristone constellation, let me let you in on a little secret: Your reader isn't reading anymore. That's not to say hard sci-fi can't be done, just that it requires a very skilled writer. On a spec, you're much better off following James Cameron's lead, who created the best action sci-fi film of all time. There are aliens. Marines are going to kill them. That's your movie. Speaking of the Alien franchise, Roger Balfour wants to know whether it's in good hands. So he's reviewing a script from Jon Spaihts, the man tapped to reboot/remake/prequelize Alien.

Genre: Science Fiction, Action-Adventure, Horror
Premise: Captain Conrad Vance, of the Offworld Marine Corps, is selected by the Special Science Agency to travel to a hostile planet to repair a super-intelligent machine.
About: Twentieth Century Fox hired Jon Spaihts to pen the Alien prequel for director, Ridley Scott. Why? What the hell did this dude pitch to Scott and the studio? And based upon his outer space thrillers, Passengers and Shadow 19, is this the right man for the job? Shadow 19 was originally purchased by Warner Brothers some years back with Keanu in mind to star. But that project fell apart and Keanu tapped Spaihts to write his Isolation space opera idea, Passengers (not the one in my Top 25 but a script that is very highly praised). That's still a possibility but it's looking like Shadow 19 may be dead. I do like the first half of the title though.
Writer: Jon Spaihts

This script had me at man in mechanized death suit. Ever since Ripley fought the Queen femme contre femme in the power loader in James Cameron’s Aliens, I’ve been hooked on stories that have moments where humans climb into armored exoskeletons and become war machines. From the tortured kids in Neon Genesis Evangelion to Wikus van der Merwe in District 9, there’s something cathartic about watching a protagonist go all giant robot and fuck shit up, Stark-style. So it was a stroke of brilliance for Jon Spaihts to introduce the hero of Shadow 19, Captain Conrad Vance of the Offworld Marine Corp, on page 1 of the script already suited up in his Heinlesque armored space suit.

There’s no fucking around here. He’s not climbing into the armored power suit. He’s already inside. He already looks like a superhero, in his half-ton war machine, holding his cannon-sized rifle. He’s aboard a battleship that’s approaching Dione, one of Saturn’s moons. A Colonel tells Vance and eleven other marines that they are the only defense the Dione Colony has against the Hegemony. The situation in our world is this: The Earth is split into two factions, The Allied States and The Hegemony. Overpopulation has stretched the world’s resources to the point where the supply of basic necessities like food and water cannot keep up with the demand. The growth rate of humanity has rendered our world unsustainable. Half of the Allied States’ federal budget is classified and the existence of these “black funds” has come under serious scrutiny by world leaders.

As they say, shit done got rough.

In a riveting sequence that makes both the D-Day assault into Normandy and cinema vérité seem inconsequential, Vance and his squad are ejected into space via drop capsules and they rocket towards the surface of Dione, through the cross-fire of four, three-story high D-Class Tanks and salvos of missiles from their battleship. They crash land, hop out of the impact-craters, and engage the tanks. And it’s fucking awesome. We really get a taste of how cool these suits are, and we meet the OS of Vance’s suit, Athena. She’s so user-friendly she could almost be sentient. But things get hairy and marines start to die when a moving fortress designated the Colossus arrives over the ridge.

And in a battle that made me cum in my pants, Vance takes the offensive. He rips a turret off the thing, enters the Colossus, and starts to kill every living thing inside like a goddamn bull in a China shop. Of course, the look on all of the officer’s faces is pretty fucking priceless when Vance uses his jump-jets to blast through a ladder-well, collide into the ceiling of the bridge, fall, land, and proceed to slaughter the Hegemony scum ED-209 style. Kudos to you, Mr. Spaihts. I never had multiple orgasms while reading the first ten pages of a screenplay until Shadow 19 (and I’ve read a lot of scripts).

If we didn’t know it already, we learn that Vance has survived more missions than any other marine in the Offworld Marine Corps. It’s sort of a big deal, because there’s one-hundred thousand of these guys. He has the fastest reflexes, the lowest resting pulse rate.

He’s the man that always comes home.

After his victory, the battleship receives orders to return Vance back to earth. Why would it (what accounts to be a military aircraft carrier) be diverted for just one man? The State Science Agency needs Vance for special duty. He’s whisked to New Washington where he signs a writ of secrecy, where the penalty for violation of said secrecy is execution. This is some heavy shit. He’s deposited in the Science Agency’s underground complex, where he is introduced to the Scientists. The Scientists are cyberpunk company men (The Stars My Destination. Check.) whose influence may even jeopardize the power of the traditional-nation state (Neuromancer. Check. Dune. Check.)

They are organized by rank. Novices. Apprentices. Masters.

A Master-level Scientist surgically receives a cybernetic crown. This level-up is called the coronation. Scientists who have been coronated absorb information faster, calculate faster, and have total recall. Most importantly, they can control the Agency’s devices by mere thought alone, sort of turning them into cyberpunk wizards who can telekinetically control the tech they build. Receiving your crown is a Devil’s bargain. The Agency owns you and always knows where you are. Treason against the Agency once you have your crown is the equivalent of instant execution.

Director Marbeck, the top Master of the Science Agency, has taken it upon himself to search the heavens for another world, with the intention of safeguarding humanity’s future. He’s spent all of his career spearheading the construction of Prometheus, a massive ship and the greatest secret ever kept (construction period took 30 years and was concealed on an orbital path around Jupiter). Marbeck has gone to extraordinary (and possibly murderous) measures to keep this baby a secret, as the identity and whereabouts of the men and women that comprised the construction crew are classified.

Prometheus is basically a super-intelligent terraforming machine designed to transform a planet twenty-light years away, named Erix, into a new Earth. Once Prometheus landed on Erix, it divided into six mobile sections called Crawlers. These Crawlers spread over the surface of the planet, sowing the seeds to make this alien planet habitable. The problem is, one of these Crawlers has broken down.

Prometheus’ main spire also contains one-half of a device called The Lang Transporter.

Vance’s mission is to travel to Erix instantaneously by Lang Transporter (very important, I’ll get to this in a second), trek one-hundred kilometers to the Crawler, and repair it. Sounds simple, right? Not at all. Erix is richer in heavy elements than Earth. Tungsten, chromium, titanium. Living things on Erix incorporate these metals into their physiognomy, and on a planet with twice the background radiation than on Earth, we essentially have a celestial body whose flora and fauna is the equivalent of military hardware (a detail that perhaps piqued Ridley Scott’s interest). Alien, metallic, nightmarish demons. But doesn’t Vance have a bad-ass battle-suit?

Doesn’t stop him from being killed within seconds of reaching Erix.

Yeah, Vance dies after he is teleported from the Lang Transporter Earth-side to the Lang Transporter Erix-side. It’s scary shit. But wait, how do you have a feature-length script where the protagonist dies on page 38? I’ll tell you. The Lang Transporter is not really a teleportation device. It creates copies. When Vance walks into the Lang chamber, it creates a copy of him on Erix. Bottom line: The Lang Transporter allows Vance to stand on earth and cast his shadow on another world. Which is going to be useful because problem-solving and strategizing a way to make it to the Crawler might take a shit-load of extra lives to figure out. Vance might as well be fighting his way through Hell and all of its armies to accomplish his mission. Now, I’ve summarized this plot point, but experiencing how it unfolds is one of the many joys of this screenplay.

The 2nd act is devoted to Vance, the military strategist, cracking the riddle of surviving on Erix. He develops an intimate relationship with an Apprentice, Ada. Their relationship jeopardizes their sense of identity and loyalty (corporate and personal) to their different employers. Vance is a military man. Ada is a Scientist. She feels guilty that the Agency is basically using Vance as a lab-rat Theseus, and Vance empathizes with Ada’s doubts concerning her career path, her inevitable sacrifice and coronation to the Agency. If there’s a weakness in the script, perhaps it’s the repetitive nature of the scenes. Trying to dramatize the scientific method is a hard gamble. But the drama is compelling, nonetheless. Vance’s adventures and deaths on the hostile planet are wisely kept to short, nightmarish glimpses (wisely focusing on Vance’s story Earth-side). Each segment is enough to whet your appetite, but leave you wanting more more more.

There’s a sequence where Vance demands access to all the cutting edge armor and weapons technology available on Earth. Top-secret experimental weapons of war that he’s ultimately allowed to take with him to Erix. Rail guns, antimatter grenade launchers, massive machetes and the best, shiniest battle-suit executive clearance can get you. It’s a giddy moment, and if you’ve ever been on drunk on a first-person shooter, then you’ll grin like an idiot while you read this.

Stakes are raised when a Scientist is jettisoned by Director Marbeck for discovering information that may or may not pertain to an intelligent civilization that exists on Erix. Not only is this character jettisoned, he may have been executed for his discovery. A Senator challenges Marbeck and demands to know what all this secret spending is being poured into. And with the disappearance of the Scientist, Ada is chosen as his replacement. Her coronation is to commence, against her will.

The 3rd act of this script is probably genius. The jury is still out. I’m still too busy fanboyin’ the fuck out about it. If it’s ever filmed (if a studio won’t fund it, maybe Bill Gates will, they can use Peter Jackson’s line producer), this is the kind of movie that Starcraft-playing Koreans who have been up for 72 hours straight at the local net-cafe and are only awake because of stimulants will have heart-attacks over once in the theatre. It’s a riveting resolution that intercuts between Shadow 19’s adventure on Erix and Vance’s conflict on Earth.

When the iris fully opens on Erix, it’s an action-adventure enthusiast’s wet dream. There are moments of sheer terror and sadness that had me glued to the script even though I had been up for over 20 hours. As Shadow 19 ignores Athena’s advice (which he has programmed to mimic Ada’s voice, a touching detail) and injects himself with stimulants to stay alive, I felt how weary, how desperate Vance’s copy was as he single-handedly destroys most of a planet with his personalized weapons-of-mass destruction and his burning need to accomplish his mission. It’s Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Peter Jackson caliber story-telling that does not disappoint. The Earth conflict is just as desperate and emotional as Vance tries to save Ada from her coronation. And when both worlds collide, it’s the type of splendid screenplay moment that’s both cerebral and visceral.

This script deftly uses the language found in videogames to punctuate the story-telling elements. Something we’ve seen before in Danny Boyle’s The Beach (with mixed results, although it works in Garland’s novel) and will see again in Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim. It’s an idiom that’s hard to avoid in an age where the gaming industry competes with the movie industry and publishing industry for dominance over the market of story. It’s part of our perspective, our shorthand, our inside jokes. And if you agree with Drew McWeeny over at HitFix, videogame stories will never be as good in the cinematic medium as they are in their medium of origin. But can cinematic stories that use conventions found in videogames be successful? If Shadow 19 is any indication, then yes, they can be.

Shadow 19 is a gunmetal paean to id Software and cyberpunk. A hymn to boys (and girls, are you out there?) who spent many a night playing Doom, or any videogame, really, and you were so engrossed in the virtual world the next time you looked out the window it was already dawn. It is a love letter to fans of smart and ambitious science fiction. Not sci-fi. Yes, I say “sci-fi” pejoratively, because to use the parlance of Harlan Ellison, there is a difference. And it is a felony against all people who care about story to not know the difference.

This is science fiction done right. And I dare say it...I dare say it. The Alien prequel is in good hands. If Ridley Scott is willing to believe, then so am I.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?

[ ] barely kept my interest

[ ] worth the read

[x] impressive

[ ] genius

What I Learned: Don’t sacrifice story for scene. If you do, chances are that’s the point where your script derailed. I’ve read enough scripts where the writers blow their wad in the first 10 pages, or in a single scene that not only sacrifices story for scene, but also spectacle. If Spaihts had chosen to show us too much of the Shadows doing battle on Erix early on, he would have run out of steam by the 3rd act. He would have focused on the wrong elements. Spielberg didn’t reveal Jaws until sixty minutes into the movie; Cameron didn’t reveal the Alien hive until sixty or so pages into the script. Follow their lead. Like Spaihts, you might create an atmosphere of sustained suspense so tangible it threatens to suffocate you before you reach the end.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dogs Of Babel

Genre: Drama
Premise: When a dog is the only witness to a woman’s death, her husband tries to teach the dog how to talk so he can find out what happened to her.
About: Mandate Pictures (Juno) optioned Carolyn Parkhurst’s novel. John Crowley (Intermission) will direct. David Heyman of Heyday Films, and Corey May and Dooma Wendschuh of Sekretagent Productions will produce. Nathan Kahane and Tiffany Daniel will executive produce. Overseeing the project for Mandate will be Nicole Brown and Tendo Nagenda. Funny enough, Todd Phillips was once attached to the project. It’s unclear whether he wanted to veer out of comedy or not. I know that turning this into a comedy would pretty much destroy everything that’s great about it. So I’m glad that experiment is over.
Writer: Jamie Linden (We Are Marshall)
Details: 122 pages (Nov. 2006 draft)

I really loved this script. I mean, it’s not perfect. The ending gets a little…abstract. And there’s an odd tonal shift late in the second act. But there’s so much to love here. And the storytelling is top notch. Dogs Of Babel tells the tale of Paul Ransome, a man who comes home to find his wife dead. She apparently fell from the apple tree in the back yard and cracked her neck. All signs point to it being an accident. But Paul’s not so sure. There’s something not quite right about the evidence. What in the world was his wife doing up in the apple tree anyway? And how do you fall and crack your neck from an apple tree? Break your legs maybe. But break your neck?

It so happens that the only witness to this “accident” is Lexy’s dog Lorlelei, a dog, it should be noted, Paul doesn’t care much for. In fact, the dog spent more time getting in the way of their relationship than complementing it. And because Lorlelei pretty much feels the same way about Paul, life after Lexy’s death turns into a tough learning experience for both. Not only are they both extremely depressed, but Lorelei’s desired routine coupled with Paul’s ignorance regarding pet responsibility turns into a clumsy frustrating dance that neither can get quite right.

After awhile, Paul becomes fascinated by Lorelei’s ability to understand simple words like, “stay” and “lay down,” etc. He wonders, “If she can understand these words, why can’t she understand others? And if I can communicate with her, why can’t she communicate with me?” And thus Paul sets out on a journey to do something that makes no logical sense whatsoever: Teach Lorelei how to speak so she can tell him what happened to Lexi that day.

I like premises that border on the absurd because I’m fascinated to see if the writer can actually pull them off. 9 times out of 10, they're not up to the task. But this is that one time where they get it right. What drives this story and our emotions and our hope is Paul’s devastation over his wife’s death. We want so badly for him to find out what happened to her, that we become just as illogical as he is. We actually believe that if he can just find enough time, if he can just come across the right piece of research, he'll find a way to do it.

Dogs Of Babel is a script that takes a lot of chances and pulls most of them off. In addition to the main storyline, Linden offers us a glimpse into Paul and Lexy’s life through a series of flashbacks. Now normally I hate flashbacks. But here, they’re presented intermittently and at designated times, therefore making them feel like a natural part of the story instead of an interruption of it. They also acheive a couple of things. They introduce us to Lexy, which allows us to care more for her, ultimately driving up our emotional involvement in Paul’s search for the truth. And it furthers the mystery of her death, as all signs point to them having a perfectly healthy relationship.

The next thing Linden does is highlight a history of canine intelligence through a series of voiceovers dictated by Paul's research. All of the stories are 100% true. And after each one, we feel a little bit closer to the ultimate goal of getting Lorlelei to communicate. For example, one of the stories involves a woman who decided to teach her dog how to type. She made a specialized keyboard that would release a treat upon tapping of the correct letter. She’d call out a letter, and if the dog got it right, he’d receive a treat. The dog got so good at typing she’d have him type out her Christmas cards every winter (via her transcribing each letter of course). There’s a haunting quality to each story. Because while each one seems to give us hope, there’s a part of it that feels desperate. The stories are magnificent in their own right, but none of them point to that Holy Grail - actually getting a dog to talk to you. Is Paul grasping at straws? Has he gone insane? Is any of this really worth it? The fact that we’re not sure is what compels us to turn the pages.

As I mentioned before, the script isn’t perfect. There’s a particularly strange choice in the second act where Paul visits a man who’s done research into canine communication. But it plays out in a creepy way that feels more like a scene out of a horror film than that of a drama. It was definitely a memorable scene, but I’m not sure it belonged here. As we get to the climax, Linden also makes some odd choices, as real-life is kind of blurred into the subconscious and deluged with flashbacks. It was hard to tell what was going on and I was terrified that the ending would be explained away in a big copout. But thank God it comes together nicely and we get the answers we’re looking for.

Had the ending been a little cleaner, this might’ve shot into my Top 10. As it stands, it still breaks into my Top 25. A great story indeed.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Flashbacks are more effective if they’re a part of a larger pattern. If they’re simply there to fill in some hole you couldn’t figure out how to integrate into your story, they'll stick out like a sore thumb. But if there’s a rhythm and consistency to them, they’ll feel like a natural extension of the story.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Genre: Dramedy
Premise: Blockhead explores what it would it be like if the real-world Peanuts Gang grew up and lived together in New York City.
About: This script got a ton of recognition about ten years ago. Just about everyone who read it loved it. For obvious copyright reasons, it never got purchased. But it ended up getting the writer, Emily Fox, a lot of buzz and started her writing career.
Writer: Emily Fox

I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of the Peanuts characters but there’s definitely a certain familiarity and nostalgia they bring to the table. Who doesn’t watch The Charlie Brown Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas specials? And with the rewarding experience I had with “The Muppet Man,” I thought another unique exploration of a childhood franchise could be fun. But man, it wasn’t until I went back and watched a few episodes of Charlie Brown on Youtube that I realized just how negative it was. Everybody’s upset or depressed about something. Nothing ever goes right. Lucy berates Charlie Brown so relentlessly, she’d probably go to jail for assault if she tried the same thing today. It's like dissecting one disaster after another.

Fox makes one thing clear right off the bat. This isn’t your Grandmother’s Charlie Brown. No. I think I figured that out on page one when we’re introduced to Lucy getting ram-rodded by some dude from behind. Okay okay. It’s not nearly that graphic (although to say I was shocked was an understatement). But Lucy's declaration of war on the world at such an early age has definitely had its effects on her psyche. Now 28 years old, she's unaware that her current boyfriend, Schroeder (you may remember him playing the piano for Lucy and repeatedly fighting off her advances), is probably gay. She’s also cheating on him with her 43 year old married with children boss. She thinks she's pregnant. And she lives with Linus, now a stockbroker, and still as cautious and pragmatic as ever (and still a virgin).

But what really blows her lid is that Charlie Brown and Snoopy are moving in with them! Lucy still can't stand Charlie Brown and lets him know right away that she does not agree with these arrangements. Charlie Brown has made his way here to pursue being a writer - any sort of writer - and because he's been a bit of a failure in life so far, he hasn't a penny to his name. Eventually Charlie’s model younger sister, Sally, moves in as well, driving Linus all sorts of crazy, and the four of these childhood “friends” try their best to coexist in New York City 18 years after we last saw them.

The whole vibe is very “When Harry Met Sally." The reason it ends up working is that the sexual tension between Charlie Brown and Lucy that’s existed since all the way back in the original cartoon, is finally explored. But not in the way you think it will be. Lucy is like a Velociraptor, tenacious and relentless in her belittling of anything that gets in her way. It’s actually fascinating you care about her so much because she’s such a raging bitch. But “Blockhead” benefits from this weird nostalgic curiosity that coats every scene. It may not be the most compelling drama. But you’re just so shocked that you get to see what happens to the Peanuts gang all grown up. Lucy getting banged was definitely the topper, but at one point the crew sits around smoking weed. It’s like if you somehow weaseled your way into The Jonas Brothers’ apartment and found them snorting coke off strippers. This stuff is not supposed to happen! (not that I’d want to sneak into the Jonas Brothers’ apartment. I’m purely using that as an analogy. I don’t own any of the Jonas Brothers’ music).

There are little nods to the comic sprinkled throughout. Linus will be at work with his boss giving a speech and when he drifts off, the boss’s words devolve into a repetitive “wah wah wah wahhhh wah wah wah wah.” All the catch phrases are used at least once. And there are probably a million references that I didn’t even catch because I don’t remember the cartoon that well. But the script does end on Christmas with Charlie buying a tiny little $15 Christmas tree and Lucy freaking out about it. I mean how can you not love that?

My one complaint was that Snoopy wasn't used enough. Granted, you’re not doing Garfield or Scooby Doo with an animated dog, but Snoopy was the most memorable character in that show after Charlie Brown. You needed to find a way to use him!

This was such a trippy journey that I have to recommend you read it for yourself. Even though I know it would never happen in a million years, God would I like someone to make this film. I have no doubt it would be an instant cult classic.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: This is probably obvious, but just know that you can only sell a script based on someone else’s material to the company that owns that material. So if you write a Matrix movie, you can only sell it to Warner Brothers. And chances are, they don’t want your script because if they want to write another Matrix movie, they’ll do it themselves. In the case of this script, Emily Fox is basically damaging the brand name of the Peanuts characters (having sex, getting high) so not only will you have a hard time selling this for copyright reasons, but the estate that owns the rights to the Peanuts characters would never allow something like this to be made. I’m assuming Fox knew that going in. So it's important for you to know the same thing. Selling one of these novelty scripts isn't going to happen. But it might open a few doors.

How Much Money Should You Expect To Make On Your First Sale?

Great guest article by entertainment attorney Jesse Rosenblatt over on Stephen Hoover's blog on how much you should expect to earn on your first script sale. Go over there and check it out now.

Here's an excerpt:

A burning question on any first time writer’s mind is – “How much will I get paid for my feature film screenplay sale?”

It’s a valid question, though a difficult one to answer. You’ve spent months, maybe even years, writing your script. You want to get paid! And you need to make sure you’re protected and don’t sell yourself short. Often times, writers are willing to forego monetary compensation in exchange for the hope they’ll receive credit on a completed film to help launch their writing career.

While I certainly understand that perspective, and in some cases it’s a valid point of view, please remember – if others are getting paid well for their contributions to the project, you should too. Every great film starts with a great script.

I want to make clear that the typical structure of a screenplay deal is not an outright purchase but rather an option/purchase agreement. Let me briefly explain what this is for those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept: an option/ purchase agreement is one where the prospective buyer (a producer, production company, studio, etc.) agrees to pay you some money (generally 10% of the potential purchase price or less) in exchange for a period of time (typically called the “option period”) where your script is off the market and the producer can develop it...

Rest of the article.

Update On Logline Contest

Been getting some e-mails about this. I'll be making plenty of announcements regarding the official announcement of the contest, which will probably be about two or three weeks from now. So you should be prepping those loglines as we speak. Also, I've decided to use Paypal for those of you who want to submit more than 1 logline, with a package of up to 10 loglines for 5 dollars. So if you don't have a Paypal account yet and you plan on submitting more than 1 logline, please go set one up now! Can't wait to start reading these.

Victoria Falls

Genre: Drama
Premise: A look at the white commercial farming industry in Zimbabwe in 2002, the year of the first opposing political party to president Mugabe’s tyranic reign.
About: Victoria Falls is one of the winners of this year's Nicholl’s Fellowship. The Nicholl's Fellowship is considered by most to be the most prestigious screenplay competition on the planet. Although winning the Fellowship is by no means a path to success (many winners we never hear from again), there are some who have used it to launch great careers. Recently mentioned on the site are previous Fellows Ehren Kruger (1996) and Anthony Jaswinski (1997). Kruger's winning script was the excellent unconventional twist-ending thriller, "Arlington Road."
Writer: Matt Ackley

President Robert Mugabe

Victoria Falls, even on its best day, even with a great director, even with an A-List actor, is never going to light up the box office. It's just not that kind of movie. The themes are heavy here. The subject matter will challenge you. Thinking is a requirement. It feels like something you'd see nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

What I like about Victoria Falls is that it's not what we think it is. Since the script is set in Zimbabwe, we're automatically assuming it's going to be about a bunch of oppressed Africans. Yet the focus is actually on a family of rich white farmers who are kicked off their land without reason by Zimbabwe's tyrant of a leader, the dreaded Robert Mugabe. What I don't like about Victoria Falls is that there are large sections of the script where I felt like I should be taking notes so I could ace my History test tomorrow. First and foremost to me, movies represent entertainment. And anytime I feel like I'm being taught something, I get squeamish. I think the true mark of a great historical or socially relevant film, is to teach you without you realizing you're being taught. And that wasn't my experience here.

So as long as class is in session, you're probably wondering what Victoria Falls is. It's actually the name of the biggest waterfall in Africa. And as you can see in the below picture, it's one of the few waterfalls where you can actually lay over the edge without going over. Because people need to lay over 700 foot waterfalls. Yeah, that's exactly what I want to do when I go to Africa. Right after I dive head first into a Volcano and swim into the heart of a tsunami.

The story centers around two best friends, poor Zimbabwe native Ojaji, and the rich white son of a local farming family, Nico. Nico's father is nearing the end of his working days and would like for Nico to take over the farm. But Nico has other ideas. He wants to grab a pot of the family gold and head over to America to party it up. And he wants Ojaji to come with him. The two are all set to bounce when Ojaji feels some guilt for leaving his crumbling country, a country where 10 trillion Zimbabwe dollars is worth 3 U.S. dollars. In an ironic twist of fate, he takes the job Nico was supposed to take, managing his father's farm.

Meanwhile, for the first time (In its history?) Zimbabwe has an opposition party. Mugabe, who is painted as a seriously bad dude, will do anything to squash the uprising. So in order to appeal to the masses, he promises that, if elected, the rich white farmers will be sent back to their country, and the locals will run all the farms themselves. It's a bold but effective claim. Zimbabwe is home to 5000 whites and 12 million blacks. Yet whites own more than 70% of the farmland. There's a predicable amount of animosity towards them as a result, and the chance to send them packing strikes a chord. Ojaji is then forced to become a bit of a politician himself, as he tries to save the farm from the relentless locals, who would like for nothing more than to burn the farmhouse down along with everyone inside it.

Zimbabwean politics. Farm management. An upcoming election. What more can you ask for in a piece of summer entertainment, right?

What we have here is a good writer who's maybe trying to do too much. I mean there's a lot going on in this script. We have the two best friends going off in different directions. We have a political battle between a renegade party and a dictator. We have Ojaji trying to run a farm. We have Ojaji's sister secretly promoting the opposing party. We have a strange love triangle between Ojaji, Nico, and an American woman. I just felt that at a certain point, we lost focus. What was Victoria Falls about? I wasn't always sure.

That's not to say the script isn't deserving of a Fellowship. There are some wonderful moments and the final act rewards you for your patience with an intense almost action-movie like ending. But the foundation of the story - asking us to sympathize for the rich white man amongst the poverty and struggles of so many less fortunate people - is a tough pill to swallow. From a purely story point-of-view, it's the same reason why I didn't like Friday Night Lights (the film). I couldn't figure out why I was supposed to root for a team that always won. I tend to pull for the underdog.

I'm happy the writer had this competition, because I'm not sure the script would've been recognized otherwise. If you liked Gaza or The Untitled Bill Carter Project, you might want to check this out. The subject matter here just wasn't my cup of tea, and ultimately kept me from falling for this story the same way the Nicholl's judges did.

Script link: **sorry guys - asked to take this down.**

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: This is a competition script. Plain and simple. You could send this logline to a thousand agencies and you'd probably get 999 rejections. But there's a lesson here. You need to understand how marketable your idea is before you type Fade In. Know that if you're going to write the next Victoria Falls, agents, producers, and managers will likely turn their cheeks. Contests will probably be your only route. Write something more mainstream with a hook, and the logline does the work for you - getting you reads everywhere you submit. As long as you know what you're in for, you can make a more informed decision and write any kind of screenplay you want.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Henry's Crime

Genre: Heist/Drama
Premise: A toll booth worker takes the blame for a bank robbing he was tricked into. When he gets out of jail, he decides to rob the same bank in order to justify his sentence.
About: This is the recently announced project Keanu Reeves (no relation) signed onto, which he will also produce. It will be directed by Malcolm Venville. Stephen Hamel and Lemore Syvan will produce along with Reeves. – Some of the trades are calling this a romantic comedy. Though I can see why classifying the script may have been difficult, there’s not an ounce of comedy in here, so you can kaput that rumor right now. Sacha Gervasi is probably best known for writing 2004’s “The Terminal” for Steven Spielberg.
Writer: Sacha Gervasi
Details: 121 pages (unknown draft date)

So how *does* one classify Henry’s Crime? We’ve determined it isn’t a romantic comedy. But it does have romance. Yet I wouldn’t call it a romance. It’s got a lot of drama, that’s for sure. Oh, and it’s also a heist flick. Well… It’s not quite a heist flick. You’d need a lot of heisting going on for that. I guess you would call this a soft blend of all of these, with an exclamation point after “soft”. I’m having a hard time forming my thoughts for this review because Henry’s Crime didn’t really leave a lasting impression on me. It’s minimalist to the extreme. It’s reserved. It’s passive. And for that reason, it moves through you like a daydream. You’re experiencing it but when you wake up…you only remember bits and pieces.

The premise is actually kind of neat. A simple toll booth worker named Henry is unknowingly roped into a bank robbing by a few loose acquaintances. When it all goes to shit, Henry’s the one who gets caught. He’s told that if he names the men involved, he’ll go free. For reasons that are still unclear to me, he doesn’t name the men. This leads to a four year stint in jail, where he meets a wise older gentleman named Max. They become best friends. The sage Max is always pushing Henry to find his point here on earth. Why is he here? Henry doesn’t know. After Henry gets out of jail, he goes in search of this point. He ends up heading back to the bank he didn’t rob, and that’s where it hits him. He went to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. So he might as well go ahead and commit the crime.

So far, so good.

Except that’s pretty much where the interesting stuff ends. Henry’s Crime feels like a script desperately searching for a way to fill up all the empty space around that intriguing premise. And although there are some original choices made in the story, they never really feel like they’re a part of it.

Henry himself is quite a vapid character. He rarely interacts with life unless it interacts with him first. He doesn't offer his opinions on matters unless someone asks him. He will speak only when spoken to. In fact, most of Henry’s vocabulary revolves around different ways of saying, “I don’t know.” To be honest, Henry feels a lot like a robot. I couldn’t help but think of Jeff Bridges in Star Man. Remember how that character always seemed confused and asked a lot of questions? That’s pretty much Henry here. Except Henry is from earth. I know, I know. There are a million Keanu Reeves jokes to be made here. But I actually like Reeves and respect how he takes chances on material. Only a few A-list stars are that brave. But this role may even be too introverted for him.

Anyway, eventually Max gets out of prison and Henry convinces him to help him with his plan. It so happens that there’s an old theatre company right next to the bank, and that underneath it is an ancient water tunnel that nobody knows about, which leads to the bank vault. Henry ends up befriending a young actress who works at the theatre, and the two strike up a relationship. Eventually (and I wouldn’t fault you if you laughed here), Henry and Max realize that they can only get into the tunnel through one of the actor’s rooms. So Henry tries out for and lands the lead part in the play, which allows Max to use his room to dig into the tunnel.

I mean…that’s about as bold of a choice as you can make. Because if it doesn’t work, it’s gonna fall faster than the floor Max is standing on when he breaks through.

Towards the end, things start getting Prison Break in nature (can anyone explain to me how that show lasted more than one season? THEY BROKE OUT OF THE PRISON!!! There's nothing left to do!). The original gang leader who robbed the bank first (and screwed over Henry), finds out about the heist and wants in. So does the security guard who spotted Henry during that original robbing (though his interest feels more like a convenient way to give them a man on the inside). And while this is the one place where the script adds a healthy dose of conflict, the heist itself doesn’t sustain it.

I fully admit there's a chance here I didn't "get" this story. I didn't read the trades until afterwards and therefore had not heard of people classifying this as a "Capra-esque" romantic comedy. Looking back at it, that surely would've colored my approach to the read. But I think it's better I went in knowing nothing. Because that way I read the material for what it was. And I never felt any comedy in here at all. In fact, I thought this was a pretty heavy drama. Who knows? Maybe Variety got it wrong and everyone else picked it up. I will give this to Gervasi. He’s written something very original. But I simply couldn’t get into it.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: This very well may be a pet peeve of mine so I’m not going to speak for the rest of Hollywood here. But one thing that drives me crazy is characters that only ask questions. One of the reasons I hated Kevin Smith’s Dogma so much, is that all the main character does is ask questions. That’s all she does the entire script. I never learned a single thing about her because she was too busy asking everyone else questions. And while Henry isn’t that bad, he definitely spends a lot of time asking questions, and as a result, I never get to know who *he* is. Without knowing your main character, it’s hard to identify with and root for him. And that was my big problem with this script. I never got a sense of who Henry was, so I didn’t really care about his life.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Dinner For Schmucks

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A group of rich friends have a monthly dinner ritual where they each bring the biggest weirdo they can find, then discreetly make fun of them over the course of the evening.
About: Add yet another project heavy-set in-boy Zach Galifianakis is attached to. The film will co-star Paul Rudd and be directed by Jay Roach. The film is actually a remake of a French film that came out about a decade ago (Having some major déjà vu here after The Tourist review). Galifianakis’ part was originally to be played by Sacha Baron Cohen when he was attached to every comedy in town. When he dropped out, so did the project, and Roach has been trying to get it going again ever since. It should be noted that, like a lot of comedies, these things are rewritten right up to the end, so a few story points may have changed from this relatively older draft.
Writer: Andy Borowitz (Revisions by Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio and Jon Vitti -- Further revisions by David Guion & Michael Handelman -- Based on the original French film "Le Diner de Cons" by Francis Veber)
Details: 118 pages (February 2007 draft)

I guess if there’s anyone qualified to review this script, it’s me. I’ve actually seen the original French film it’s based on. In fact, I’ve seen quite a few French comedies. I don’t know what it is about them that I’m drawn to. I mean, the French aren’t exactly known for their sense of humor. But the films are kind of like bastardized versions of our own ridiculous comedies. So they take everything about them that’s ridiculous, and make them even more ridiculous. I don’t know if I ever really laugh at them, so much as marvel at how strangely seductive and amusing they can be. So when I heard there would be an American film based off of a French film, that bases its principles off American films, I thought at the very least I might be able to offer some commentary on how insane that is.

The story is about a group of rich assholes that have a monthly dinner ritual whereby they each find and bring with them a “schmuck.” Someone so out of touch with the world, so strange, so ridiculous, that they’re unaware of just how idiotic they are. The person who brings the strangest “schmuck” ends up “winning”. Our hero, Tim, is on the verge of landing a 100 million dollar investment for his company, and his boss, in anticipation of Tim’s newfound status, has invited him to one of these infamous dinners. Tim is stressing out as there are only a couple of days left before the dinner and he still hasn’t found a schmuck. If he doesn’t impress these men, there’s a good chance they won’t let him into “the club.”

Enter Barry Speck (no doubt Zach Galifianakis), an IRS auditor who recreates famous moments throughout history (think the moon landing) using taxidermied mice. To say that Speck is a bit of an odd duck would be selling him short. The guy recreates history...with dead rodents. Tim realizes right away he’s found his golden ticket and asks Barry to join him for dinner in a couple of days. Barry, not used to any attention whatsoever, is thrilled by the invitation and accepts.

Back at home, Tim prepares his beautiful girlfriend Julie for their Jeffersons moment. But when Tim explains what goes down in these exclusive dinners, Julie is horrified and tells him he shouldn’t go. Of course, since that means throwing everything he’s worked so hard for down the drain, Tim’s quite reluctant. This inaction leads to Julie huffing and puffing and eventually claiming she needs some "time away to think about their relationship". So she leaves. And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as she does, Barry shows up. Tim asks him what the hell he’s doing here and Barry says he’s here for the dinner. Tim informs him that the dinner isn’t until tomorrow but Barry refuses to accept this. He’s convinced the dinner is tonight. Tim tries to inform him that he’s the only one between the two who would know when the dinner actually was. But Barry’s not buying it.

After Barry worms his way into Tim’s apartment, he eventually finds out that Julie’s run out on him. This hits Barry particularly hard because he experienced a particularly harsh dumping himself. After talking it through, Barry convinces Tim that Julie is probably cheating on him with her slimy boss, Kieren. Hence begins the main thrust of the story – Tim and Barry desperately trying to prevent Julie from being with Kieren. Naturally, whatever plan they come up with, Barry ends up making it ten times worse than it would’ve been had they done nothing at all. When Tim realizes just how disastrous Barry is, he tries to get rid of him. But the thing about Barry is, once he’s in your life, he doesn’t leave.

For a movie called “Dinner For Schmucks”, it’s somewhat odd that the dinner doesn’t happen until the last 30 pages of the screenplay, but like I mentioned before, this is a French film. And for better or worse, the French throw logic, along with movie conventions, out the window.

There are some good things and some bad things here. One issue I had was Julie deciding she needed to "get away" because of the schmuck dinner. I mean come on. There are worse problems going on in relationships *every day*. If that’s what’s going to break you up, then keep walking honey, cause you were never going to make it in the first place. One thing that will undoubtedly work though is Zack Galifianakis as Barry. I mean, if there was ever a more perfect marriage between actor and character, I’d like to see it. Barry is such an odd weirdo and Galifianakis has so claimed the crown on odd weirdos, that the two couldn’t be more right for each other. But that doesn't necessarily make it funny. And that's where Schmucks runs into some trouble. Is this movie supposed to make you laugh? Or is it supposed to make you uncomfortable with Barry's character? Cause it definitely achieves the latter. I'm not so sure it achieves the former.

The jury will be deliberating on this one for sure. I think at best it can be a solid middle-of-the-road comedy. At worst it can be a huge misfire, with the audience sort of wondering what the focus is and seeing the humor as too weird. Regardless of what it becomes, the script isn’t quite up to snuff. It would be interesting to see what’s happened since, but I can't recommend this draft.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I try to preach this to any writer who will listen. It’s one of my big things and that’s why I keep harping on it. Make sure your script abides by real-life logic, not movie-world logic. I simply did not buy this idea that Julie would get so upset about a business dinner that she'd leave Tim. This falls into the "movie logic" world, where you need something to happen (in this case, Tim and Julie need to be split up) so you come up with a bogus reason to do so, regardless of if it would ever happen in real life. I'm telling you, readers and audiences aren't dumb. They'll sniff this shit out. I realize there's some leeway involved in comedies, but not on the critical plot turns that set up your movie. You gotta make sure that stuff is 100% believable.