Monday, May 24, 2010

Favorites Week 2 - The Incident

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 but all you need to know is I'm throwing in one more Favorite. The Incident!

Genre: Sci-Fi/Paranormal Thriller
Premise: A small documentary team goes back to a Russian mountain, the site of one of the world’s most famous unsolved mysteries, to try and figure out what really happened there.
About: This is an interesting situation. Russ was somewhat reluctant to let me review “The Incident” on the site. Not for any SS related reasons though. Even though the script secured him his first manager a few years ago, he sees it as more of a “stepping stone” than anything else. He doesn't think it's good enough. I think he’s way off course. We tend to get bored with our ideas after we’ve worked on them forever. But we forget that each time someone reads our script, it’ll be their very first time. He may have been discouraged by The Nichol Contest, of where The Incident didn’t even make it out of the first round! Normally, my experience has been that if a script doesn’t advance in a contest, it doesn’t deserve to. But this flat out shocks me. I mean, even if you didn’t like the story, you can’t argue that the writing’s solid as hell. This may have more to do with Nichol’s notorious obsession with weighty fare, but it’s a great reminder: Don’t let the Nichol contest (or any contest) be the end all be all to gauging your screenplay or your writing. Keep fighting.
Writer: Russ Bryant
Details: 103 pages

Russ is an old-fashioned guy who believes in hard work and perseverance. Like a lot of the people who’ve been featured on Favorites Week, he’s been writing for a long time, becoming a student of the craft and steadily getting better. It’s something I remind every screenwriter. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You’re probably going to write five scripts before you write anything good. Embrace that process instead of trying to circumvent it. If you try to hit a home run on the first pitch, it will only lead to a lot of misses and a lot of frustration. I want to talk more about that tomorrow. But for right now, let’s discuss his script.

Serious-as-cancer Hugh Moore investigates incidents, specifically the unsolved kind. This planet has been known to spit out some pretty strange happenings. Hugh is the scientist who goes in and spits them back in. No, this isn’t a goofy episode of Fringe with Pacey mugging for the camera. This is a story about a committed man who seeks out the truth at all costs.

The holy grail of unsolved incidents has always been the Dyatlove Party. In 1959, a group of Russian friends took a ski trek up the notoriously spooky Yural Mountain. Weeks later, they were all found dead. Two were in the trees, three were trying to return to camp, and four others were buried, with massive internal injuries but no external ones. The Russian army quickly closed off the area and investigated, but the case was never solved.

Now an all expenses paid trip with scientific equipment and foreign guides to Yural Mountain isn’t cheap. So when Hugh is offered everything paid in full IF he agrees to allow a documentary crew to follow him, he agrees only because he knows this may be his only shot.

Joining him will be Eli, his sketchy producer, Tara, his old girlfriend and former partner, a 3-man production crew, a hotshot mountain climber named Chad Baker, a beautiful Russian cultural anthropologist named Ania, and 70 year old Yerik, a member of the original search team.

Up to the mountain they go and the tension equals the altitude. The producer wants some meaty conflict for the camera – preferably Hugh and Tara rehashing old problems – but all Hugh wants to do is figure out what doomed those poor souls back in 1959.

Tara, a bit of an eccentric, is leaning towards aliens being involved. There have been numerous sightings of strange crafts around the mountain throughout the years. It’s conceivable they may have attacked the group. Ania believes that a native tribe known as the “Mansi” murdered them. Others believe it was an avalanche. But no single theory can explain all of the deaths, which is why Hugh is here. He thinks a straight-forward scientific approach is the key to finding the answers.

Except he won’t get the chance. Almost immediately, things start going wrong. On the first night, there’s a minor avalanche, which separates the group. Some members spot a light off in the distance. They choose to follow it. Others find footprints, which they also follow, only to find that they abruptly stop. How do footsteps stop?

And then it gets really bad. The group is split up in a way that’s eerily reminiscent of the team from 1959. They’re starting to see things that don’t make sense, do things that defy rational explanation. This isn’t a story about finding out what happened that fateful night. It’s a story about getting off this mountain alive.

The first thing I want to point out here is something that’s so crucial to writing a good screenplay. We get into this story right away. We don’t start off watching our protagonist sit in the park. We don’t see him having a couple of deep conversations with friends and family, updating them on what’s going on in his life. We don’t watch him drive up Highway 1, searching for meaning, wondering if he should continue his career or move on to something else. We don’t wait 30 pages for our hero to start talking to people that actually have something to do with the story.

No. We jump into the story RIGHT AWAY. The very first scene is Hugh explaining to the documentary financers what the Dyatlov Incident is. And it’s such a fascinating story, we’re immediately intrigued. And it doesn’t stop there. We actually GET ONTO the mountain by page 13. Page 13!! An inexperienced writer wouldn’t have us there til page 50. This is such a basic rule, but it’s one I see ignored in almost every amateur screenplay I read. Get to your story RIGHT AWAY. You don’t have time to diddle-daddle.

Now while the entire first half of the script is almost perfect, it starts running into some trouble in the second half. Character motivations get sloppy. Geographically we don’t really understand where everyone is or what's going on. But most importantly, the explanations behind the mysteries are too vague. The thing I’ve found with this kind of movie is that the more clear your explanations are, the better. If you can explain the movie’s central mysteries in a single sentence, you’re on the right track. But when your explanations start reaching paragraph length, and it sounds more like you’re trying to convince the reader than simply tell them, that’s a really bad sign.

Another issue is that there isn’t enough inter-character or internal character exploration going on. A second act is really less about the plot and more about the issues the characters are experiencing. Them trying to grow and overcome those issues, whether they be within themselves or with someone else, is what keeps us entertained. So in Aliens, for example, the middle act was more about trust than it was about the aliens. Ripley doesn’t trust these marines when they get to the planet. Her skepticism is verified when Burke tries to hide an alien inside of her. When Newt disappears, it’s about living up to the trust Ripley promised her. And in the end it’s about Ripley trusting Bishop to wait for her, even though he signifies the core of her distrust (dating back, of course, to the android deceiving her from the first Alien). That’s a lot of character stuff going on in what’s supposedly a big dumb movie about killing aliens.

There are shreds of character issues here in The Incident, such as past relationship issues with Hugh and Tara, but it’s too ill-defined to warrant any true emotional investment. So I think if Russ would’ve focused more on the characters here in this act, and less on the bells and whistles (mysteries and twists), he would’ve been in better shape.

But the ending here is the real issue. Like I mentioned above, it’s too muddled to satisfy our appetite. And I think the same rules about the second act apply. The concept gets the audience in the door. But the character’s journeys are what keep them around. And I know I’m going to get roasted for this but I don't care. I thought Lost did a brilliant job in their finale on focusing on the character issues as opposed to the more tempting plot revelations. The entire episode was about characters finding redemption, coming to terms with their faults, and resolving the conflicts between each other. Although it would’ve been tempting to build the ending around one giant twist or revelation, it never would’ve worked. Emotionally, we got way more out of seeing these characters come full circle.

Now I’m not saying you should totally abandon plot in your endings. You still have to conclude your story. Haley Joel Osmet still needed to see dead people. But your focus should always be on the characters first. The plot ending is icing on the cake. I think had Russ taken this approach (or if he does take this approach in the future), he could create something amazing.

It sounds like I’m tearing down the script here but I’m not. I think this script, particularly with Russ’ talent, has the kind of potential to not only get purchased, but to become an actual movie. So I’m curious, after you read it, what your suggestions will be to conclude this in a satisfactory manner. Cause I have a lot of hope for this screenplay. Take a look and tell me what you think.

Script link: The Incident

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

What I learned: How to introduce a character the right way! The Incident isn’t perfect in this respect, but I noticed that more times than not, Russ got it right. Amateur writers make the mistake of thinking they can introduce a character like this: “JOE, tall and skinny,” and we’ll know exactly what they look like, exactly who they are, and exactly what’s going on in their heads, FOR THE ENTIRETY OF THE STORY. We don’t know your character from Adam. Just because you know where he went to school in 3rd grade doesn’t mean we know. We only know WHAT YOU TELL US. So there are two things you can do when you introduce your character to make sure we never forget him/her. First, give us an awesome description. Something that lets us know exactly who the character is. Here’s a description of Colter from Source Code: “Colter looks to be thirty years old. A military buzz cut. A disciplined physique, lean and spare, almost gaunt. Skin burnished by hears of desert sandstorms and equatorial sun. His expression, prematurely aged by combat, is perpetually wary, sometimes predatory, accustomed to trouble.” Now that’s a little longer than I'd prefer, but you tell me you don’t know exactly who that guy is after the description is over. And tell me you don’t know a million times more about Colter than this guy: “JOE, tall and skinny.”

Second, put your character in a surrounding that tells us exactly who they are. This isn’t always possible because the intricacies of your story (and where your characters need to be) may prevent it. But if you can do, do it. For example, if they’re a famous mountain climber, we should meet them on the most dangerous mountain in the world (which is how we meet Chad here). If they’re a ladies man, introduce them at a bar, chatting up a woman, then getting a text from ANOTHER woman. You get the idea. If we SEE the characters in the element that best represents them, that goes way beyond just knowing what they look like.

Always do at least one of these when you're setting up your characters, but I’d strongly suggest you do both. If you do it right, I promise you the reader will know that character better than he knows his own best friend.