Friday, February 26, 2010

Titan Week - "Night Skies"


If you’ve been following Titan Week, here are the first four titans we reviewed:
1) Shane Black 2) David Benioff 3) Kurtzman and Orci 4) Frank Darabont - Today, we’re calling in the Big Kahuna, Steven Spielberg…sort of. I don’t have an actual Spielberg script, but I do have a script he developed with John Sayles titled, “Night Skies.”

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: A rural family must fight off a group of pesky aliens who invade their house.
About: Who’s a bigger titan than the man himself? Steven Spielberg! As has been the theme this week, I’m cheating a little, because Spielberg didn’t actually write Night Skies. The studio wanted him to come up with a sequel to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, but he was putting Raiders together, so he didn’t have the time. But instead of allowing the studio to screw up his franchise the way they did with Jaws, he commissioned John Sayles to write a script from an idea of his based off of a “true” story he heard. The thing was, Spielberg wasn’t into it, and the project never really had a shot. He did however read it to Harrison Ford’s future wife on the set of Raiders, and she was taken by the relationship between one of the characters and an alien. This connection inspired Spielberg to come up with the idea for E.T. In a funny twist, Universal was desperate for Spielberg not to make some schmaltzy kiddy Disney movie, and tried to get him to ditch the project. He ignored their wishes and made it anyway. And we got glowing fingers, the power of reeses pieces, and 7 year olds calling each other “penis breath” as a result. John Sayles is no slouch. He’s been nominated for two Oscars, 1996’s “Lone Star” and 1992’s “Passion Fish.” But seeing as he doesn’t have a single additional sci-fi flick on his resume, I wonder if he was the right man for the job.
Writer: John Sayles (based on an idea by Steven Spielberg)
Details: 100 pages (this is the only draft ever written)

John Sayles

Oh Priscilla. How did we end up here? Three foot tall aliens “terrorizing” a local farm family? I know this supposedly “happened” in real life (it’s since been criticized as one of the most blatant hoax attempts in history) but man, I’m not sure Spielberg ever sized this idea up. It's such a neutered idea, in fact, that if I were a betting man, I'd guess that Spielberg put this in development with the sole intention of preventing someone else from making a Close Encounters Of The Third Kind sequel. Speaking of interesting screenplays, how bout that one for you? If you ever want to watch a film that seems to follow no sort of structure or rules whatsoever, and whose entire story depends on our desire to see the aliens at the end, go watch that. In the meantime, let me try and break down Night Skies for you.

Tess in an 18 year old hot country girl who lives with a really fucked up country family. There’s her always angry father, her bible-thumping mother, her ganja-smoking little brother, her slightly deranged grandmother, and, of course, her retarded youngest brother, Jaybird.

Although not a lot happens in Bumblefuck, Nowhere, it’s been unusually busy as of late. There have been a series of cow mutilations making their way up the state, and the latest one has happened right over on their neighbor’s plot. But this isn’t any normal mutilation. The cow’s face seems to have been seared off with geometric precision, its brain plucked out as if a surgeon himself had done it. This gets the locals up in a tizzy, cause rural folk have a lot of patience, but one thing they don't like is when people mutilate their cows. Trust me, I know from experience.

Once the cow-killing chatter calms down, the characters spend a whole lot of time doing zippity-zilch. Tess cares after Jaybird because no one else will. The father complains a lot, especially about the fact that he has a retarded son. The mother says little unless a lesson from the bible is needed. The brother, keeping it real, protests that his parents are too strict. This is all about as exciting as you'd expect it to be. And we're jonzeing for something - anything - to happen.

Well later that night we get our wish because when everyone’s back home, the lights cut out and the family starts seeing little heads and arms zip past the windows. Not taking any chances, they lock down the house, but it isn't enough, cause whatever was outside finds a way inside. We come to find out that they’re being…I wouldn’t say “attacked”…but maybe “hassled” by 3 foot tall aliens. And these aliens are really good hasslers. They bang on the windows and sneak through the cat doors. They make funny faces and leap out of shadows. We're not really sure what they're doing, but their actions cause a lot of screaming and overall confusion. Soon everybody gets split up, and each character has an individual experience with an alien. Tess, for example, is taking a bath (why she’s taking a bath when there are aliens in the house I’m not sure) when an alien darts out from the corner and does the alien equivalent of yelling "bugga bugga bugga." This may have been a mating tactic for the alien, I don't know, but whatever it was, it doesn't work, cause Tess runs out of the bathroom.

In general, the aliens act the way I’d expect drunken Wizard of Oz munchkins to act. There’s no real method to what they’re doing, outside of darting and dashing from one shadow to the next. Since they pose no danger, their presence feels a little like a traveling stage show. Jump in, do a little dance, jump back out. On to the next town! It’d be funny if it weren’t so odd.


Eventually there’s some connection between the aliens and Jaybird, and, I think, the aliens tell the humans that they’re killing themselves and that everyone on earth is really sad. After that, they leave, and Tess's family is left to wonder the same thing we are: WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED??

Night Skies is plagued by that most troubling of script problems: It’s un-engaging. The people are boring. The relationships are boring. And the story’s boring. Now part of this is because of the 18 million alien films we’ve seen since the 80s. We demand more creativity from our sci-fi today than we did then. But that’s only part of it. The characters in particular don't have enough going on. They all have their own angle (angry, retarded, religious), but they're essentially townsfolk with absolutely nothing going on in their day-to-day lives. It’s as if these characters were written specifically to wait for this moment, and will cease to exist as soon as the moment is over. They don’t have any life. Even Jaybird, the most original character here, feels DOA. I was hoping to experience more of a connection with the characters. But it never happened.

But the biggest issue of all is that there are no stakes in the script. Now that’s a term we hear bandied about a lot in screenwriting . “Stakes.” But what does it really mean? I try to explain it by asking a question: What consequences does the situation driving your story have on the characters? Are the consequences big? Or are they small? In the case of Night Skies, the situation driving the story is a group of midget aliens badgering a rural family. Not trying to kill. Not trying to injure. Just badgering. What are the stakes of badgering? The worst thing that can happen is for the family to get a little spooked. Is that really so terrible? Of course not. And for that reason, we’re never truly invested in the story. Take Paranormal Activity on the other hand, where the antagonist was an invisible malevolent entity that had a connection to the devil. A horrifying death for both of our protags was a possibility at any moment. Or take Spielberg’s own “Poltergeist.” In that film, the girl is taken from the family. So the stakes are that they may never get her back, and that any one of them could be killed. In both those cases, the stakes were extremely high, and as a result, the tension was high, and the conflict between the characters was high. Now I’m not saying every movie has to have a life or death scenario, but if you’re not aware of the stakes of your story and how to increase them, you’re not going to have a lot of success in the screenwriting world.

I wouldn’t say this script was awful, but it’s pretty uninspired. And I think Spielberg and Sayles would admit as much. If this was a jumping off point, I’m sure they would’ve improved a lot of the bland choices in subsequent drafts. And there are some fun moments that give us glimpses into the origin of E.T. (an alien’s finger lighting up for example). But it’s pretty obvious why this was never made.

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

What I learned: This is proof that no screenplay is a waste. Outside of every script being a learning experience, many writers mine stories, characters, or scenes out of their old failed screenplays. Part of the progression of becoming a writer is identifying what the most interesting thing about your idea is, and then mining it for everything it’s worth. Beginner writers, for whatever reason, tend to focus on the least or only the mildly interesting aspects of their story, leaving their script feeling like a bowl of untapped potential. As writers begin to intrinsically understand conflict (outside of just making two people fight) and which concepts provide the best opportunity for conflict, this problem goes away. So head back to those old ideas with your new mindset and see if you can't find that nugget of a concept you overlooked.