Monday, May 3, 2010

Amateur Week - Untitled Time Travel Script

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 this particular script in relation to the other scripts we read. Yesterday, Roger tackled the first amateur script, "Hell Of A Deal" by Joe Giambrone. Today, I take on a young man who likes to travel to different dimensions. Or time travel to different dimensions. Or dimension jump to different time.....Aw hell, just read the review already!

Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi
Premise: (from the writer) A young man must protect his one true love from his jealous best friend (who may or may not be a werewolf) with only a clothes dryer, the theory of quantum mechanics, and multiple incarnations of himself to guide him.
About: Unfortunately I don’t know anything about this script other than it’s easily the best title for a script I’ve randomly selected on a blog for a special amateur related script month ever!
Writer: J. Smith
Details: 102 pages

Okay so look, Michael Stark e-mailed me and said, “You realize you’re about to break 5 screenwriters’ hearts.” And I thought about that and I realized that the writers of these scripts are going to be affected by how their scripts are rated. I get that. But what I want to make perfectly clear is that these are not definitive statements about the writer. They’re statements about the scripts submitted. All of us are in different phases of this frustrating journey called screenwriting, and just because this script isn’t any good, doesn’t mean the next one won’t be, or the one after that.

One of the reasons I wanted to have this week was to show just how hard screenwriting is. Most writers I’ve encountered believe they’re better than they actually are and all that leads to is a lot of frustration and a resistance to learn. Mind you it's an understandable stance. You (we) tend to judge ourselves against all the shitty movies Hollywood makes. It’s one of the oldest clichés in Tinsletown: “I could write something better than that.” And I’m not going to get into the hundreds of reasons why this is a fallible argument. I’ll just say this: You need to become good at screenwriting to realize how bad you are at it. And I don't say that from a place of superiority. I say it as someone who finally understood the craft well enough where I could look back at a lot of the scripts I'd written and go...jesus, those were terrible.

Anyway, all this talk about bad screenplays isn't exactly looking good for today's script. But I think I’ve picked the perfect screenplay for my first review of Amateur Week. It represents a writer with talent and imagination who wrote a screenplay that’s all the hell over the place. You’ll find these kinds of scripts everywhere in Hollywood, and chances are, we’ve written one ourselves. But nobody tells us why these scripts of ours that display flashes of brilliance and loads of potential don’t get past the first reader on the totem pole. Well I’m about to tell you why.

Sid Stu, a 17 year old on the verge of becoming a stud of a man, and Bane Barley, a 16 year old who has a pet chicken, are best friends living in a rural Texas town. Sid lives with Virgil, an older machine shop owner who took Stu in when his parents left him. Virgil spends a lot of his time dabbling in time travel literature, and even fiddling with old washing machines in the backyard, hoping to one day create a porthole that can travel back and forth in time.

Sid leads a pretty normal existence, hanging out with Bane and doing normal kid stuff. But recently, Sid’s been seeing one of those old men with “End Of The World” signs everywhere. This wouldn’t be a big deal except that there’s something familiar about this old guy. Hmm, we’ll get back to that later because an army captain has just moved into town and he’s brought with him the most beautiful vision Sidney's ever laid eyes on, 16 year old Cilla. Sid instantly falls in love, and although the Captain doesn’t approve, the lovestruck teenagers take the long slow road to becoming an item.

Unfortunately, this puts Bane on the outs, and like a wounded ex-lover, Bane begins to despise Cilla. This starts with him growing a beard (can 16 year olds grow beards?) and ends with him luring Cilla over to his house where he kills her. When Sid comes over to see what happened, Bane blames it on the fact that he’s become a werewolf. It should be noted that Bane isn’t *actually* a werewolf. He just thinks he’s a werewolf.

Around this time the crazy sign man visits Sid at his house, where he informs him that he’s him, from the future. He goes into an elaborate explanation about how there are multiple dimensions and that in each dimension, Bane, out of jealously, has killed Cilla. This older Sid has been traveling back in time from dimension to dimension trying to prevent the murder from happening, but no matter what he does, he can’t stop it. So then Young Sid joins older Sid to go dimension-hopping in an attempt to find a way to stop Bane from killing Cilla, so that Sid and Cilla can be together.

Okay. Wow. That’s a handful. “Untitled Time Travel Script” is a perfect example of a writer being too far inside his own head, and not taking into account how his audience is processing the information he’s giving them. There are actually some pretty inventive and interesting ideas going on here. We have time travel, we have multiple dimensions, we have a Romeo and Juliet love story, we have a character who thinks he’s a werewolf. But when you try to mix all of those things into one screenplay, you don’t have a story, you just have a bizarre mash-up of ideas. This is a common habit for a lot of young screenwriters. They use their early screenplays as a vessel to cram as many cool sounding/interesting/crazy things into it as possible. In their mind, they’ve created the ultimate original movie. But to us, the people who aren’t privy to all the information that led to those choices, it just feels like a big hot confusing mess.

Now even if you get past the overabundance of ideas in this script, you still run into some major structural problems. When you come up with a concept for your screenplay, you want to make sure the screenplay is about that concept. This may seem obvious, but I see writers screw it up over and over again. Here’s the concept for “Déjà vu:” A future version of a teenager teams up with his younger self to try and prevent the love of his life from dying. THAT’S YOUR STORY. That’s what it needs to be about. Yet we don’t even find out that there’s a future version of Sid until page 60, halfway through the screenplay!!! This means for an entire 60 pages, you’re depriving us of the whole reason we came to see the movie! Imagine The Matrix if Neo didn’t meet Morpheus until page 60. Imagine Avatar if Jake Sulley didn’t get to the Na’vi clan until page 60. Once you identify what the main hook (the reason your audience comes to see the movie) is, you need to get to that point by the end of your first act. There are only a handful of successful examples where this isn’t the case, and most of them are from a bygone era. In this day and age, unless you have a hell of a reason not to, get your story started early.

So here, I’d set up the Cilla and Sid relationship by the second or third scene. I’d have them in love by page 15. And I’d have her killed by page 25. Then I’d bring Future Sid in to inform Young Sid that he has a chance to save her. And the second act would then be dedicated to multiple tries in multiple dimensions of them trying to save Cilla.

I mentioned this before. The writer has some interesting things to say. He has imagination, and if you can combine imagination with an understanding of this craft, you have some good times ahead of you. But right now, in this screenplay, the story is too unfocused, it starts too late, it dwells on too many pointless sequences, it gets too confusing, it tries to do too many things, its title misrepresents the script (it implies it's a comedy), as well as some smaller problems I don't have time to get into…The point is there are just too many marks against it for me to give it a passing grade.

Script link: Untitled Time Travel Script

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

What I learned: It’s simple and it’s been said a million times but oh how true it is. Whatever amount of time you think you need to set up your story, you’re wrong. You need less. If someone put a gun to your head and said, “set up this story in half the time,” I’d bet every last penny in my bank account that you’d figure out how to do it. Get your story set up by the end of the first act so that your main story can start between pages 25-30.

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