Monday, May 24, 2010

The Beat Down

We're wrapping up "Amateur Month" this week. The first week, we allowed any writers to send in their script. The second week we had repped writers only. Last week we had Favorites Week. This week is going to be wonky. Roger will review another "random" Amateur script. Tomorrow I'll review another of my favorites. Wednesday I'm busting out an article that I hope will be inspirational for all you writers. Thursday is still undetermined. And Friday I'll be reviewing the script for an upcoming sci-fi/horror movie which I really liked.

I've also decided to continue the tradition of reviewing amateur screenplays. On the last Friday of every month, I'll review one amateur script. The angle will be more one of helping to improve the screenplay than flat out reviewing though, so we all learn something from it. If you're interested (and you can handle criticism!), send me your script along with a convincing argument for why I should read it to Don't be upset if I don't choose your script. I'll only be able to review .1% of the entries!

Also, don't forget to check out the "Tracking Board Post." Now here's Roger with "The Beat Down."

Genre: Crime, Black Comedy
Premise: Two cool, small-time cons steal a lotto ticket worth $100,000 and hit the road in search of someone straight to cash it for them.
About: One more Amateur Script, in which the writer made a convincing case on why I should give the script a read: He wants honest feedback and recommendations for how to fix his script.
Writer: Matt Racicot

During the middle of Amateur Week, I received an email that made me laugh. The first few sentences implied that the writer thought this month’s theme transformed ScriptShadow into some sort of bloody, experimental gladiatorial arena, or at the very least a classroom where the walls were stained with the dregs of 3-hole-punch dreams and cots full of rookie writers and bruised egos.

The writer, against all odds and conventional wisdom, wrote to me, expressing that he wanted his script to be in on the action. He seemed to be a guy that had been keeping tabs on the type of material I like, as evidenced by his script’s logline. A crime story about some cool cons trying to find a legit citizen to cash their winning stolen lotto ticket. Visions of Charlie Huston and Elmore Leonard protagonists strapped into a rollercoaster ride of Grindhouse Violence were swirling on the movie screen inside my head.

I wasn’t totally convinced though. This was an unknown writer, and would he really want me to criticize his labor of love in front of the online Screenwriting Community?

But then I read this line: “I wanna know what’s wrong with my script so I can fix the fucker...”

And that clinched it for me.

So in the spirit of the critique workshop, I’ve decided to review Matt Racicot’s “The Beat Down”.
Who are the cool cons this caper is about?

James is a Jimmy Dean-cool, small-time con (I really enjoyed some of the character descriptions here), and when we meet him he’s standing under a single lamppost, surrounded by Asian gangbangers. Him and his associate Sam, work for the Italians, but they’ve both been caught stealing heroin from the Asians, and are about to be appropriately punished.

The Italians, wanting to continue business with the Asians, give up James and Sam to smooth things over. In situations like this, I’d imagine that this crime syndicate would kill both men for their transgressions, but no, they hand James a gun and force him to shoot Sam dead. And that he does, although he doesn’t seem to feel much guilt about the deed, shrugging off this peculiar brand of punishment.

Diamond is James’ pinup sexy, Rockabilly girlfriend.

I really like how the writer describes Diamond, “As lovely as a rain drop dancing on a rose.” I think it captures a tone and style I wish was woven throughout the script.

Diamond works in a convenience store, and she does something interesting in her introduction: A customer arrives with a lottery ticket he wants her to check. She runs it through her machine and discovers it’s a winning ticket. But instead of handing it to him, she drops it and switches it with another ticket before handing it back.

So Diamond totally scams this guy out of a $100,000 lotto ticket?

Yep. And you think that’d be all she wrote. Our cool couple cashes in their ticket and they live happily-ever after like the minimum-wage kids Clarence and Alabama in True Romance.
Except there’s two complications. One is that James is an ex-con and the ticket “will come up stolen. They investigate this shit now.”

The second complication is Mickey.

Mickey is the guy James takes orders from with the mob, and he’s not so much pissed at the fact that James was stealing from the Asians, but that he got caught. As far as Mickey is concerned, James owes a debt, but he’s willing to wipe the slate clean if he leaves Seattle in the next twenty-four hours.

Fair enough.

But for reasons I didn’t quite understand, when Mickey catches wind that James and Diamond have skedaddled, he tracks their movements, learns that they’re making a pit-stop in Eugene, Oregon on their way to California.

When I look over it, I think it’s implied that Mickey is obsessed with Diamond, but I’m not sure. Otherwise why would he follow a guy across state-lines when he wanted him to flee town in the first place?

And that’s one of the issues with the script, character-wise. The motivations aren’t consistent, and there are setups without payoffs; and payoffs without setups. Which makes the plot a bit confusing and scattered.

So James and Diamond go on a quest to find someone straight to help them cash their lotto ticket?

That’s the concept. But, the execution doesn’t fulfill the promise of the concept. I was intrigued by the first act, and couldn’t deny that there was talent in the writing, although the dialogue wavered from entertaining to trying-to-hard.

But the script fell apart for me in the second act, which is usually the case with rookie scripts. They start to wander, unsure of plot. It seems like the characters lose sight of their goals, and scenes begin to feel tangential, distracted.

It’s basically filler.

In the second act, the script begins to focus a lot on another couple that was introduced in the first act, Bea and Will. They’re driving in a mustang, and we learn that Bea is an eccentric actress preparing for an audition. She’s reciting Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead.

She seems pretty crazy, which is confirmed when she randomly pulls out a gun to the surprise of Will, her intellectual boyfriend. She seems a bit like Mallory from Natural Born Killers, except Will is no Mickey. He’s pretty reserved.

He almost gets into a wreck when she starts giving him road head in their introductory scene.
They get a lot of screen time, and I began to feel unsure of which couple I was supposed to focus on. Because they don’t feel like a real foil to James and Diamond, their existence felt extraneous.
Of course the couples collide in Mt. Hood, Oregon, when they end up neighbors in the same motel. Bea seems attracted to James, and we learn that James isn’t that interested in his own girlfriend, Diamond.

I was confused about this point because he seemed pretty happy to be with her in the beginning, even if he wasn’t able to return her ‘I Love You’s’. This point seemed undeveloped, and I didn’t understand their relationship. Why were they together? Why were they engaged if he didn’t love her? I wasn’t shown a reason.

So when James takes Will out to a bar, and starts hitting on all the girls there, I was not only confused, but I began to dislike his character.

After a crazy night, James decides that Will is the guy that can help them cash the lotto, and things get dicey when Mickey arrives looking to snatch Diamond away from James.
It all comes to a head at a campsite on a mountain road when infidelities are revealed, a marriage proposal is rejected, and guns come out.

What were the issues?

The characters were underdeveloped. I wasn’t sure who James was or what he wanted. I know he wanted to cash the ticket, but why was he with Diamond? He felt one-dimensional, and I never got a solid read on his psychology or what lengths he would go to in order to cash the ticket. As such, there was no inner-conflict (his flaw) I could really hook into other than that he was an asshole, which just made him unlikeable.

Setups with no payoffs. In one of James’ first scenes, we learn that he’s obsessed with Bruce Lee and martial arts. He also owns a samurai sword, which he brings with him on the road trip. Now, I was expecting a few things here: James beating people up, or possibly doing something crazy to someone with a fucking samurai sword. dice. It ultimately gets thrown into some bushes.
Payoffs with no setups. James cheats on Diamond various times, but I didn’t understand his motivation. He’s engaged to Diamond, and seems pretty okay with that. There’s one point where it even seems like he’s in love with Diamond by the way they talk to each other, and he didn’t feel like the type of character that would be a cheater at all.

The plot was unsure of itself. The pace was too mellow for such a cool logline. Lots of scenes of characters talking, but it doesn’t feel like anything is happening. I really felt like the ball was concerning the execution.

No ticking clock. No stakes. Which contributed to the leisurely pace.

But how could we fix it?

I think the writer should focus on telling this story from the focus of his main couple. Let them have the majority of the scenes, and really define who they are and think character motivations and plot details through.

For example, why did Mickey follow them out of town so doggedly? A fix could be that they stole the ticket from him, and basically you have him hunting them for a payday. Or, maybe he’s Diamond’s ex-boyfriend or ex-pimp, and this is a personal matter for him.

I like that we got to the lotto ticket business in the first ten minutes, and I think the script needs to pick up the pace and keep it. Make it a chase movie instead of a languid road-trip tale.

Perhaps throw in some other parties who are interested in the ticket as well, anyone from more people from Diamond’s past or James’ enemies.

To make things interesting, do a reversal concerning the so-called straight people they need to cash the ticket. For all we know, they seem alright, but then spin it so that they’re actually worse than our cool cons. They can double-cross our anti-heroes.

Hell, you could even write it as a movie about love, leaving and resolution. What if James loved Diamond, but Diamond left him when she got the ticket? And he had to pursue her and they had to resolve their relationship?

Either way, the plot needs to be tightened with more obstacles getting in the way of the protagonist’s clear goals, but it should serve the story of James and Diamond’s relationship. The story should be about them and the conflict in their relationship and how they ultimately resolve it.

Script Link: The Beat Down

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

What I learned: Give your protagonist as much screen time as possible. They should not only be in the majority of the scenes, but they should also have most of the biggest moments. It’s hard to pull off an ensemble piece because every character has to have solid motivations and compelling arcs and concrete goals that payoff accordingly. It’s hard to pull off dueling protagonists, or in this case, couples, as it always feels like one pair is stealing valuable time away from the other’s story, or is diminishing it somehow. Ask yourself, okay, whose story here is worth-telling? Whose is more compelling? That character is the engine of your story. Focus on them.