Thursday, May 6, 2010

Amateur Week - The Disappearing World

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. On Monday, Roger tackled "Hell Of A Deal" by Joe Giambrone. Tuesday , I took on "The Deja Vu Of Sidney Sumpter Stu." Wednesday was the controversial review of "Blackball." Thursday the high concept "Premeditated" and today, I'm reviewing the drama, "The Disappearing World."

Genre: Drama
Premise: After witnessing a string of suicide attempts, a young doctor quits his job to see if he's really rescuing people or simply interfering with their free will. He examines the lives of two survivors that he had saved from suicide; a boy in his early teens now without a voice, and a young woman who he begins to fall for.
About: Script 5 for Amateur Week.
Writer: Mark Fleming
Details: 97 pages

How does that old saying go? Cheater cheater pumpkin eater? If so, it’s Halloween here at Scriptshadow cause I cheated. But I’m not ashamed to admit it. Most of you cheated too. I told you exactly how your script submissions had to look but you ignored me and added long paragraphs about why I needed to pick your script anyway. Which I admired of course. You gotta try, right? But now I’m getting back at you.

So I said I was only going to look at loglines, but after some of the comments made in the previous reviews, I really wanted to find a script I could get behind (or, at the very least, a writer I could get behind). There was no way I was going to read scripts all the way through, but I did start peeking through the first few pages to see if the writer had talent. There were actually some great loglines, but the writing wasn’t there yet. For example, Frank Cristelli and Eric Gegenheimer came up with this awesome premise: “The story follows a group of vampire hunters who, thinking they have finally rid the world of vampires once and for all, are forced to get real jobs and confront the terrors of everyday life.” Not bad, right? But when I opened up the first page, it had an 18 line paragraph! Frank and Eric, I’m not saying your script would’ve been bad, but you can’t have 18 line paragraphs. A spec script should be 2-3 lines max!

I leafed through about 80 more scripts until I found this one. And right from the beginning, I could tell the writer had something. One of the mistakes young drama writers make is stringing together like 10 depressing scenes in a row to start their screenplay. They basically bore you out of the story. But here, something interesting was happening right away. So that was a good sign. The prose was also confident and sparse. The writing overall had a sharp quality to it. The only thing that worried me was the premise, which I knew was going to turn a lot of you off (aggh! A boring drama??!). But you have to trust me. This, by far, was the best writing I’d seen out of any of the pages I’d read this week. In fact, if we were going on writing alone (and not story), this probably would’ve finished top 2 in my contest a few months ago. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Mark Fleming has a bright future ahead of him. So what’s his script about?

Allen is a 30 year old emergency room doctor, a professional life-safer. One of the unfortunate side effects of this business is that he’s forced to save a lot of people who don’t want to be saved. Apparently, Emergency Rooms are suicide havens. This is where we find him at the beginning of the story, trying to save 14 year old outcast Peter, who’s swallowed a bottle of Drano. Allen is able to do it, but in the process must sacrifice Peter’s vocal chords. He’ll live, but he’ll never be able to speak again.

Soonafter, Allen must save another suicide attempt, this one the beautiful 25 year old Caroline, whose issues with her bitter live-at-home mother have resulted in her downing a bottle of Vicodin. Allen saves her, but afterwards he begins to question if what he’s doing is right. If a person chooses to take their life, does he have a right to interfere?

So bothered by the dilemma is Allen, that he ups and quits his job. He becomes semi-obsessed with the people he’s saved. What happened to them? Did they continue to be miserable? Did they recover? Did they just try again a few days later? He decides to follow his last two saved patients, Peter and Caroline, who both have no idea he was their doctor, to find out. It starts innocently, with notes and recorded conversations to himself, but soon he’s meeting with and talking to them.

With Peter, Allen is so guilt-ridden for stealing away his voice, that he’s compelled to help him learn sign-language. And with Caroline, he introduces himself as an architect, so she won't think he's some crazy doctor stalker. We cut back and forth between these storylines, as well as between each individual person’s life. Before long, Allen is deeply in love with Caroline, but too far gone to admit the truth. In the meantime, Peter meets the smooth-talking Ryan at school, who’s impressed with Peter’s bravery (for his suicide attempt). The two become unlikely friends, and Peter finally starts seeing a purpose to live.

In the end though, we know what Allen’s doing is going to cost him. These two people he’s sought out are troubled souls unsure of their place in this world. His connection gives them hope. So what happens when he reveals that he robbed them of their true wish?

I don’t know what it was about this odd story but it just got to me. The big strength here is the character work, which I’m just not used to seeing in amateur screenplays. Every character had a purpose and their motivations stemmed from deep believable problems/issues. For example, Allen’s obsession with survivors of failed suicides seems trivial at first. But later on, we realize there’s a deep-seated reason for it, which totally legitimizes his plight. Even the secondary characters, such as Peter’s friend Ryan, have an incredible amount of depth and originality.

And this script just did so many quirky things right that aren’t supposed to work in screenplays. For example, you never want to spend a full scene listening to someone drone on about their past. It’s always boring. But during one 5 page scene in the middle of the script here, Allen extensively details to Caroline why he’s estranged from his father, and it had to be one of the most interesting backstories about a father I’ve ever read.

As far as the dialogue in general, it’s really strong. One of the common things I find about good dialogue is that it’s not the dialogue itself that makes it good, it’s the situation built around the dialogue that makes it good. In The Disappearing World, the scenes between Caroline and Allen aren’t normal boring back and forth scenes where two people talk at each other. Allen is hiding something. He’s lying to her about who he is. Caroline is also hiding something, that she tried to commit suicide recently. And of course, Allen already knows that, but he can’t tell her that. So their conversations always have several layers under them. And then with Peter, he can’t talk at all. It’s all one-sided. So you’re dealing with unique or compelling dialogue sequences in almost every scene.

The script is not without its problems though. My biggest concern is all the history-related monologues. Allen, for instance, talks extensively about how there was nothing artificial on this earth until opposable thumbs came around. Caroline explains the surprising history behind contemporary art. And Peter’s friend Ryan knows everything there is to know about Socrates. Individually, I LOVED all these passages. I know you’re probably thinking “Oh god, how pretentious.” But the confident smart writing here easily avoids that pitfall. My problem was that, while fascinating, when every character’s an armchair historian, they start to lose their individuality. Each character has to sound unique, like their own person, and that one quality began to make them all sound the same. However I really liked the Socrates stuff and pretty much anything that Allen talked about. So it might be as simple as losing the Caroline art monologue.

Some other quibbles. Ryan’s abusive stepfather was too cliché. Caroline’s suicide attempt is a little too sudden (all we’ve seen is that her mom is kinda mean). The relationship between Allen and Ryan isn’t nearly as strong as the one between Allen and Caroline. And a few times, I wondered why Allen couldn’t have just approached Caroline from the get-go as the doctor who saved her. It would seem like a more natural starting point for a relationship. But I think all of those fixes, even the last one, are relatively simple.

In the end, this reminded me a lot of Peter Morgan’s script, “Hereafter,” which Clint Eastwood is now directing with Matt Damon. It’s dark and it’s slow and it’s character-driven. And there are definitely a few patchy areas. But I thought this script was MUCH better than that one, to the point where I feel sorry for Eastwood that he didn’t find this first. It explores the same themes in a much crisper way. And I just really enjoyed how different it was. I never knew what was going to happen next. And to do that inside the framework of a cohesive structure isn’t easy. If you’re an agent or a manger out there looking for a new client, I would snatch this guy up. If not for this script than for the next higher concept idea he comes up with.

Great job Mark. You really surprised me in a week I didn’t expect to be surprised. :)

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

What I learned: In the age old debate of how long a script should be, I thought I’d offer up the events that led to me choosing this script. It was getting late and I hadn’t found anything yet. I was tired and running out of patience. As I clicked through the submissions, I noticed something I was doing without realizing it. I was mentally noting the page count and corresponding reading time of each script. In the back of my head, I was saying, “Okay, that will take me 90 minutes to read,” “That will take me 110 minutes to read.” “That will take me 2 hours to read.” The review came down to two scripts. This one, where the writing was better but the concept was weak. And the other one, which had a strong concept but the writing wasn’t as good. That other script was 121 pages. This was 97 pages. I did the math (I’ll save 24 minutes on The Disappearing World) and picked this script.

Now I’m not saying it’s the only factor. Had the writing been better in the other script, I may have picked that one. But to pretend like page count is never a factor is fooling yourself. Everyone in Hollywood is overworked and exhausted by the end of the day. They all have tons of scripts to read and it very well might come down to page count as the determining factor, like it did for me today. I know that page count is kind of thrown out there arbitrarily as an issue. I just wanted to show a real life situation where it came into play.