Sunday, May 2, 2010

Amateur Week - Hell Of A Deal

For the month of May, Scriptshadow will be foregoing its traditional reviewing to instead review scripts from you, the readers of the site. To find out more about how the month lines up, go back and read the original post here. This first week, we're allowing any writers to send in their script for review. We warned them ahead of time that we'd be honest and judge their material aggressively, so put that Kleenex box away. There's no crying in screenwriting. Actually, there's lots of crying in screenwriting but that's besides the point. This is not a final judgment of your script, just how we see it in relation to the other scripts we read. We're hoping the original writer can learn something and so can you. Roger is here with the first script, Hell of A Deal, by Joe Giambrone.

Genre: Thriller (?) Mystery (?) Drama (?) Black Comedy (?)
Premise: An aging Hollywood film mogul makes a deal with a mysterious man who is selling an experimental medical treatment that promises youth. In exchange, the salesman wants to use the mogul’s resources to make a movie, but the only catch? The salesman may or may not be the Devil.
About: Blindly chosen from the ScriptShadow slush pile for Amateur Week. I received this screenplay in my inbox with this attached email from Carson, “I literally closed my eyes and clicked. This is what came up.” The title page indicates this script is based on an original novel by the screenwriter, but upon further investigation (Google!), I couldn’t find any information about said novel on the Internet.
Writer: Joe Giambrone

I dove into this script with nary a logline nor a clue as to what genre I was about to read. All I had was the title, “Hell of a Deal.” Would it be a Mark Twain social satire like The Prince and the Pauper, a picaresque Horatio Alger rags to riches story, or would it be something more Faustian? And, more importantly, what sort of ramifications would it have for the next few hours of my life?

After I studied the title page, I looked at the first page. I examined the formatting and the prose in the Action/Direction lines. This is always telling. For example, you can always look at the A/D lines on the first page to gauge if this is going to be a safe read or not. By safe, I mean, does the writer have a competent command of not only the English language, but Screenplay Shorthand? Can they string words together in a clear and concise way that creates tone, atmosphere and description of not only character, but action? In other words, can the writer set the stage (scene) and describe what happens on the stage (scene) with prose?

If the answer is ‘Yes’, then it’s possible you might be in safe hands. But even if it’s obvious the writer has a skill with words, sometimes they come from the world of novels and prose fiction and the A/D lines may be overwritten, redundant, too dense (some may also argue that the prose is too spare) for the brevity required in screenplays. If the answer is ‘No’, then your luck is cut out for you and you’ll find yourself in what can be described as a frustrating foray into clumsy A/D lines that will have you both confused and pulling your hair out.

But luckily, with “Hell of a Deal”, the A/D lines looked safe so I continued my journey.

What’s it about, Rog?

This is a morality play about a Hollywood mogul named Al Smith. When we meet him, he’s seventy-three years old and he’s walking on a treadmill, staring at a plasma screen monitor that features living wills and trusts.

Al doesn’t have a lot of time left here on earth. He spends his days exercising on his treadmill, looking for that next original screenplay and keeping final cut away from the death merchant directors that make movies for him.

But then Lou Seaford arrives in his life, a shark-like salesman hawking a veritable fountain of youth. Al is suspicious, as of course he’s researched all the latest medicinal treatments, but he seems to cave in pretty fast when Lou talks about nano machines and shows him a video of his assistant, Katya, dressed up as a naughty nurse, injecting an old mangy mutt with a serum that transforms the dog into a puppy so realistically that Al is convinced it’s CGI.

Al is all too ready to sign up for the treatment, but when he asks how much this is gonna cost him, Lou answers, “I want money, I go to a bank. I come to you, Big Al Smith, the king of Hollywood, and of course?”

“You want to make a movie.”

But what are the conditions?

Well, of course, the studio cannot go beyond an R rating. “No male genitalia. No mutilation.” Lou doesn’t understand, as Al’s last movie had tons of blood. But they move on.

Al emphasizes that Lou must stay within budget, a generous twenty million. But then they get into an argument and Lou talks a hard bargain, driving the budget up to a hundred million dollars.

When Al tells Lou that the studio has final cut, Lou threatens to walk away. But Al is desperate to be young again, so not only is he gonna give Lou the hundred million, it also seems like surrendering final cut to this odd salesman is going to be negotiable.

The next thing we know, a waiter carries over a contract on a tray, but when Al tries to sign it with his pen it suddenly runs out of ink. Lou hands his pen over, and Al notices the ink is blood red. As he’s signing, the lights seem to dim.

All this and he doesn’t know yet what the movie is going to be about.

So how does the treatment go?

After he experiences some chest pains, an ambulance ferries Al from his Beverly Hills home, where his daughter Victoria sees him off with promises to visit later, to the treatment center.
Victoria’s decision to go do “a shoot” instead of accompany her father (who appeared to be having a heart attack) to the treatment center puzzled me. I just can’t rationally or logically accept it. Characters should act like real people in these situations, and as a loving daughter, I would expect her to go with her father in an emergency like this. It could be the last time she sees him, after all.

At the treatment center, it’s a chaotic scene as Al is losing consciousness. Lou is yelling at him to choose an age before he administers the drugs, and Al passes out and has a flashback about his deceased wife.

What happens in the flashback?

Al is in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco with a crew of film students. He’s pushing them to film a drum circle of Ojibwe as they’re out looking to score footage of a police riot or topless girls. “Sex and violence. Don’t waste film otherwise.”

One of the Ojibwe women confronts Al, a gal named Lisa. But they seem to have an attraction to each other and the next thing we know they’re doing LSD and making love. They share a bond now, and Al proposes to Lisa.

Then we’re out of the flashback, and the age Al screams out to Lou before he passes out again is “Thirty!” This was Al’s age in the flashback and that’s the age he returns to when he awakens from the treatment.

If he’s 30 again, how does Al deal with Victoria and the film studio?

By pretending to be Al, Jr. I didn’t have a problem with this tricking the film studio, but I did have a problem when it came to convincing Victoria. It felt too easy and it didn’t feel as graceful as it should have.

I have a hard time getting past a plot glitch like that, and this brings me to my main criticism with “Hell of a Deal”. I’m going to be honest here, and my negative feedback may seem harsh, but as writers, we should be used to feedback, both positive and negative.

There’s a lack of verisimilitude, that quality of stories and storytelling that uses the right details to create the appearance of truth. To make something made up seem realistic. As storytellers, we are basically spinning lies into truth. And we must become masters at it if we want to succeed.

This lack of verisimilitude rears its head in the scenes dealing with the examination of the film business. And as the rest of the story is about Lou’s movie, well, this absence of truth plagues much of the script.

So what’s Lou’s movie about and what’s his end game?

Lou’s film is called, ‘Terra: Earth Under Terror’. Much of the second act is focused on Al dealing with Lou’s demands as they hire a screenwriter to script the project. After that, we see what happens when they send the script out to the latest leading men to see who’s gonna bite.
This movie within the script is pretty weird. Lou explains it, “It’s about the Supermen of the the Nietzsche Ubermenschen...,” who rise up to defend civilization against the terrorists.

Except these Supermen are into gangrape, torture and killing.

Basically, things come to a head during an Angel Heart-like moment when we learn that Lou Seaford is really Lucifer. His movie is hopefully gonna be as effective as La Fin Absolue du Monde from John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns when it comes to inciting madness and homicidal urges in people, in turn causing World War Four and the end of civilization as we know it.
So the third act becomes a court case where Al is trying to block the release of ‘Terra’, but is then sued for a billion dollars by Lou’s team of lawyers.

Does Al succeed?

Strangely, no.

We have a heavy-handed finale where Al urges Victoria to live a happy life and “make moral art” before Lou comes to collect his soul, welcoming him into the gates of hell.
This sequence kind of blind-sided me as an attack on violence in cinema, especially violence in the “Torture Porn” genre.

I mean, as a dude that saw Kick-Ass three times in the same week, I felt like I was being personally condemned for being entertained (and finding value) in the Cinema of Violence.
But personal feelings and ego aside, that wasn’t my issue here. My issue is that the sequence felt pretty preachy, and I wish it was more subtle.

So, what’s your final verdict, Rog?

Well, despite my criticism concerning the plot glitches and character logic, I think there’s a good use of the three act structure. There’s a good macro-structure here. The writer nailed his over-all structure.

My criticisms deal with mostly the micro stuff, the stuff that happens in the scenes. I found that the scenes ran too long or lacked the realism they required. Instead of feeling like I was glimpsing into a window of a real-life mogul, it felt more like a hasty approximation of what one imagined this mogul’s life to be.

It ultimately ran off the tracks for me when it came to Lou’s movie. It was just really strange.
My advice to the writer would be to focus on making his scenes feel realistic, on making his characters feel like real people. Study genres and their tones, what makes them work, and apply appropriately.

Script link: Hell Of A Deal

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

What I learned: Does your screenplay have a message? It does? Okay, kill it. No, seriously. Dismember it and bury it under your story. Because chances are, unchecked, this message has grabbed the reins from story and has shattered through the fourth-wall and has punched the audience member in the face, breaking his or her nose. The audience is coming to your movie because they want to be told a story, not a sermon. Sure, a theater can be sacred like a cathedral if you’re an audience member passionate about cinema, but it’s still not a church.

Here’s the analogy: Say you’re writing a science-fiction tale. The fiction comes first, not the science. The story is the center. If there’s no story at the center for the audience to be moved by, then they might as well be reading a text book on quantum mechanics.

All screenplays address an idea or ideas, something we can refer to as theme. If theme is a bell, then every scene should ring this bell. However, watch out for those moments where it seems like the character has stepped on a pulpit and is ringing the bell so hard it’s clanging and hurting our ears. And if you’re telling a morality play, aim for subtlety. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was a morality play, but its message was always in harmony with the story.

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note 1: Cruel remarks such as "This is f'ing terrible" or "This story sucks" will be deleted. I want you to be honest and I want to have a discussion about the writing but be respectful to the writer.

note 2: I'm sorry that the comments aren't working for some - try using different browsers while I continue to work on it. Ever since upgrading it's been a nightmare. Unfortunately, like most computer shit these days, they won't let you downgrade back to the old version. If you have any experience with Disqus and/or commenting problems and know what the problem may be, e-mail me please: