Thursday, July 29, 2010

Amateur Friday - The Assassination Of George Lucas

On the last Friday of every month, I choose an amateur script submitted by you, the readers of the site, to review. If you're interested in submitting for Amateur Fridays, send the genre, the title, the premise, and the reason I should read your script to Note that your script will be posted online and that you shouldn't submit if you're allergic to criticism. :) This month's script is The Assassination Of George Lucas by Aaron Michael Thomas.

Genre: Comedy
Premise: When George Lucas announces a third trilogy, Mac and his group of ragtag friends hatch a plan to assassinate him in the name of preserving the purity of Star Wars.
About: This is the third amateur script in my monthly Amateur Script review series.
Writer: Aaron Michael Thomas
Details: 105 pages

So why did I choose The Assassination of George Lucas over all the other entries for Amateur Friday? Well duh, because the title is “The Assassination of George Lucas!”

But seriously, the title made me smile. And the premise made me laugh. Sometimes that’s all it takes. When you read a lot, there are periods when you want to get away from the serious stuff and just rattle the belly a little bit. I needed some belly-rattlin.

The Assassination Of George Lucas is about four friends: Mac, our conflicted hero, Sarge, the result of a one night stand with a nameless army Sargent, Casey, a home schooled Star Wars nut, and Joanna, who became a lesbian after seeing Princess Leia in Return Of The Jedi.

These childhood friends endure the same devastating disappointment all of us went through when we sat through the debacle known as the prequels. With cinematic perfection forever ruined, the group tries to come to terms with their favorite movies ever never being the same.

And then the unthinkable happens. At Comic-Con, George Lucas makes a surprise appearance to announce that he will be making a third trilogy – episodes 7, 8 and 9. Within minutes, Star Wars costumed geeks are staging a protest. But Mac is so sickened by the announcement, he’s thinking of something much more dire. If Lucas were to make a third trilogy, it would destroy the memory of Star Wars forever, and Mac can’t risk that. Hence, the only way to save Star Wars…is to KILL GEORGE LUCAS.

The only actor in the world who can turn the word "course" into two syllables.

So he and his buds draw up a flimsy plan to drive up to the Lucas Ranch and poison the goitered one. Along the way they run into a slew of people, including a real life bounty hunter, a frantic Mark Hamill, and a long in hiding Lawrence Kasden. In the meantime we see that Lucas has become so reclusive and paranoid that he can’t even go to the bathroom without body guards. This is a man who will be hard to kill.

There’s some funny stuff in this script. My favorite character was Casey, who’s the only person on the planet who loves the prequels (the guy incorporates Jar-Jar quotes into everyday conversation). In a world where hating on the prequels has become as ubiquitous as pictures of Zac Efron on Perez Hilton, it was funny to watch a character who unapologetically loved them. I also loved the Lawrence Kasdan stuff, as it’s well-known that Lucas didn’t exactly flip over Kasdan getting so much credit for Empire Strikes Back. Seeing him holed up so that Lucas can’t get to him was pretty funny.

The rest of the stuff is hit or miss. There’s a trivial recurring joke about gummy bears, a random scene dedicated to observations about Super Mario Brothers, and probably my least favorite bit, George Lucas being an alienated asshole.

When you write a comedy, you want the jokes to be fresh. And Lucas being a reclusive dickhead has been done to death. I think there's even a South Park episode dedicated to it. I was hoping for a more complicated original take on the character, not unlike what's done with Casey. For example, what if Lucas was actually the nicest guy ever? What if they got there and were all ready to kill him and he made coffee for them and sat them down and started telling them stories? How are you going to assassinate the nicest guy ever? That’s a butchered “off the top of my head” idea and I’m not saying it’s great, but the point is, we needed something fresh here.

But the real problem with The Assassination of George Lucas runs much deeper, and that's the characters. None of these characters have any substance. They have no flaws, no problems, nothing they’re trying to overcome. Each character is exactly the same at the ending as they are at the beginning. And that’s not going to cut it in a comedy spec.

Take the characters in the recently reviewed “Crazy Stupid Love,” for example. Jacob (the womanizer) is emotionally incapable of opening up to women so he engages in an endless streak of one-night stands, not realizing that it's making him miserable. Watching him resist conquering that flaw is what made his character so interesting. Or take Cal (Steve Carell’s characer), who’s trying to come to terms with his wife leaving him. He doesn’t know whether to embrace the singles scene or fight to get his wife back. In both cases, the characters are fighting an inner battle. None of the characters here are battling anything. In fact, three of the characters are built on a joke. Casey is home-schooled, Sarge is a one-night stand, and Joanna turned into a lesbian after seeing Princess Leia. That’s as deep into the characters as we get. And Mac, our protagonist? His big problem is that he wants to preserve Star Wars. I’m sorry but that’s just not deep enough to keep us engaged for 2 hours.

Instead, what if Mac had a choice tugging at him? What if he’s at a point, 26 or 27, where he has an opportunity to take a job, to start being an adult with responsibilities, or continue this arrested development lifestyle where he's obsessed with a children’s movie. Now there’s something actually going on with Mac. He has a choice. He has depth. If you want to see this exact flaw in action (and done well), rent The 40 Year Old Virgin and pay attention to Steve Carell’s character.

Another problem I had was that the script didn’t take advantage of its premise. If you look at a movie like Fanboys, which covers similar terrain, there were all these moments where Star Wars serendipitously intruded upon their journey, leading to a lot of funny in-joke situations. The Assassination Of George Lucas is actually about a piece of Star Wars – the prequels - that hasn’t been explored in cinema extensively. There’s a TON of funny situations Thomas could’ve drawn from these movies but instead we keep focusing on the old stuff. For example, why are we bringing in Mark Hamill, who’s already been done to death? Instead, what if they run into Ahmed Best, the actor who played Jar-Jar? Let’s look at how that role ruined his life and how he hates Lucas as a result. What the hell is Jake Lloyd doing nowadays? Maybe he’s a drugged out misfit who actually thinks he’s Darth Vadar. There’s a moment here where our characters walk into a car dealer. Why not make the dealer like annoying nonsensical Watto? In other words, let’s make their journey to kill Lucas turn into their own Prequel Hell. The current comedic choices here are too obvious and deal with territory that we've already seen. Let’s explore something new.

The final issue here is that The Assassination of George Lucas probably couldn't get made. It paints Star Wars and Lucas in a negative light and even though Lucas would whore out the Star Wars brand to flesh lights if it added to the bottom line, the one thing he does still care about is his personal image, which The Assassination of George Lucas…well…assassinates. That would mean you’d have to make this movie without any Star Wars paraphernalia whatsoever, which I don’t think is possible. That’s not to say all is lost, however. Pretty much all scripts are calling cards anyways, so if this made the right people laugh, it could open the door to a career.

The Assassination of George Lucas was a cute script. But if it's going to compete in the ultra-competitive spec comedy market, it will need to dig deeper.

Script link: The Assassination Of George Lucas

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

What I learned: Your comedies, even the goofiest ones, should contain some sort of theme - some sort of statement you're trying to get across with your story. When I finished The Assassination of George Lucas I felt…empty. Without a larger statement, the story experience dissolved as soon as it was over. One of the reasons Toy Story 3 was so great (and all of Pixar’s movies – which put a heavy emphasis on theme) was that it kept harping on the theme of “moving on.” That there are phases in your life where you have to move forward, even if you don’t want to. In Liar Liar the theme was obviously “truth” and the consequences of not telling it. Even in the seemingly depth-less Dumb and Dumber, the theme is “taking a chance.” Refusing to be held back by the rules and restrictions of society. There’s an opportunity in The Assassination of George Lucas to write a movie about people who are afraid to grow up. Had that been explored here, this script would’ve lingered in the reader’s mind, instead of disappearing into space like the opening crawl.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The End Of History

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: A group of time-travellers jump back to 12th Century China in search of a rare gene that will save mankind. Problems arise when they find themselves in the direct path of Genghis Khan’s army.
About: Details are scarce about this one, but it was acquired by Sony earlier in the year. David Gleeson is an Irish writer-director who wrote and directed a couple of small features in his home country.
Writer: David Gleeson
Details: 116 pages – Feb 10th 2010 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

When trying to find out more about this low-key project, I made a call out to my Facebook peeps for more information. A Scriptshadow reader chimed back, “This sold?!! I thought this was going to be the Amateur Week special on Friday. It is so f**kin' bad!”

To you, Mike, I say….I couldn’t disagree more!

The End Of History starts out much like the sci-fi darling “Children Of Men.” It’s the near future and less than 5000 women in the world are pregnant. Something is preventing the human race from procreating, and if it continues, in about 90 years, earth will look like downtown Pyongyang.

Cool-headed Nathan Scott, however, is going to make sure that doesn’t happen. No place should look like Pyongyang dammit. The Colonel is leading a combination military/scientist team back to 12th Century China, where they’ve located a band of warriors that contain the extinct gene which can reverse the procreation problem.

Scott has a vested interest in the mission. His baby daughter is fighting the killer disease, and won’t live without a gene transplant.

The mission is supposed to be simple. The clan they’re targeting is militarily formidable for the 12th Century, but their weapons might as well be toothpicks compared to what the Americans are packing. Actually, there’s a specific reason the Americans chose this clan. In 100 years, Genghis Khan will wipe every single one of them out on his march through China, permanently erasing any historic influence their presence may have had.

Indeed, when they jump, the sailing is smooth. They infiltrate the fortress without much resistence and the sci-tech team quickly goes to work extracting the gene. But after sending up a quick satellite to get a lay of the land, a horrifying video plays back. An army of 100,000 soldiers is marching DIRECTLY TOWARDS THEM.

Genghis Khan’s army.

There was a malfunction in the jump. They jumped back 100 years LATER than they were supposed to. Which means they’re right in the path of that Ghegis Khan massacre that was the whole reason they chose this location in the first place. Ahh, the irony.

To make matters worse, the hastily scrapped together tech starts malfunctioning in bunches, and after a major explosion, their time travel apparatus is all but toast. The group realizes they can salvage a small piece of the flux-capacitor, but only enough to send a message into the future, not to jump. Their plan is to fix it as fast as possible and send out an SOS. But even under the most optimistic time frame, Genghis Khan is going to arrive before they finish. And that means the unthinkable. A group of rag-tag 21st Century American soldiers is going to have to hold off the most ruthless army in history.

Will they be able to do it?

I have to give it to Glesson. This script straddles the line between ridiculous and awesome so finely that at first I wasn’t sure which side it would land on. But after it got going, I decided on awesome. Usually, in these sci-fi/historic hybrids, either the sci-fi is shoddy and the history is exceptional, or the history looks like it was researched by an 8 year old and the sci-fi is brilliant. Rarely do you find a script where both are handled well, but that’s exactly what happens here, and why I liked the script so much.

And believe me, this isn’t easy to do. One only needs to “travel back” a few years to the abombination that was Timeline to see how to royally fuck up an idea like this. I don’t think I’ve ever heard, read, or seen a time travel story as bad as that monstrosity. There were two castles. People were running back and forth between them for no reason. The time travel had 16,814 rules you had to remember. It was embarrasingly bad.

What The End of History wisely does is it keeps the time-travel plot simple. There’s never a moment where you don’t know exactly what the portagonists’ goals are, and that’s important in a script like this.

I also loved the technology of the war. Oh, I’m not talking about the 21st century technology. I’m talking about all the wacky weapons Khan had in his arsenal. This guy had rudimentary Napalm at his disposal. He had early versions of dirty bombs. He even had an ancient version of the damn Predator (the pilot-less airplane). Watching him unleash these toys on a shell-shocked 21st century army was, in a word, sweet.

However, there were things that kept this from becoming the next Source Code. First, I’m getting tired of these serviceable but ultimately unimaginative motivations for main characters. Yes, Scott has a daughter affected by the killer disease, and that makes his mission personal, but it’s such a derivative motivation that it doesn’t resonate with us. We’ve seen it so many times before. Contrast that with Leo’s character in Inception. Sure there were some problems with the kids storyline, but I have to admit, I don’t remember seeing a character with that particular motivation before, which made it original and therefore powerful.

Also, to echo my sentiments on Layover, there needed to be more dissention inside the group! There’s a troublemaker here, Decker, who adds about as much conflict as an agitated Abe Vigoda. There was so much potential for his character to stir things up, but instead he observes Scott pull off a couple of neat military maneuvers and becomes his BFF. Dissention inside the group – conflict – always makes a mission/goal more interesting, because there’s more for the hero to overcome. If you want to see it how this can help a screenplay, read The Grey.

I also thought Gleeson missed a couple of opportunities. One thing he doesn’t adequately address is what happens if they destroy Khan’s army. Obviously, all of history would change. If they had to fight off this army, but only enough to keep from getting killed, and not enough to become a part of the history books – that’s the kind of unique obstacle that could’ve introduced some interesting challenges. There’s also a female character on Scott’s team who’s half-Asian. What if she were a direct descendent of someone in Genghis Khan’s army? What if killing them wiped her out of existence? Even better, what if she was the romantic lead (a surprisingly absent piece of this puzzle). That would create quite a dilemma as well.

But hey, that’s neither here nor there. Sure the script has some problems (like all time travel stories – there are some holes) but it’s a great spec premise. Contained area. Contained time frame. High concept. These are the kind of scripts that sell when written well, so I’m not surprised that it did.

Still needs to be developed, but overall, enjoyable.

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

What I learned: Whenever you write a time travel flick, you have to deal with one specific problem: “Why can’t they just go back and do it again?” The End of History, unfortunately, doesn’t deal with this question satisfactorily. But this is exactly why a franchise like The Terminator is dying. If they fail in killing Sarah Connor or her son, they can just send back another Terminator a few weeks later (or earlier). There’s no end to how many times they can try to assassinate our heroes.

The recommended solution to this isn’t as difficult as you might think. You simply have to make clear that this is a one-shot deal. Maybe the technology is unproven. Maybe the time machine is so expensive that if it breaks, that’s it. Maybe there’s something in your own time travel design that simply doesn’t allow them to jump more than once. If you do it this way, the mission actually means something. Because everyone knows that there are no second chances here. Ignore that rule, and you have a bunch of sophisticated fanboys (the core fanbase for this kind of film) in the audience thinking, “None of this matters cause they can just do it again.”

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

King Conan - Crown Of Iron

Genre: Fantasy
Premise: Conan The Barbarian becomes a reluctant king and fathers a son, who is then groomed to become the future King.
About: It should be noted that this is NOT the draft of the script they used for the new Conan project, but rather the famous 2001 John Milius draft that many geeks have fallen in love with. Alas, it was not to be, as this draft was assuming Ah-nold would be in it, and Ah-nold decided to instead bankrupt Caleefohneeya. Little known fact. Oliver Stone got a writing credit on the first Conan The Barbarian.
Writer: John Milius
Details: 166 pages – May 24, 2001 draft

For those put off by the 60 pages of character development in Brigands Of Rattleborge, I hereby warn you, do NOT read King Conan. King Conan scoffs in the face of screenplays that only use 60 pages to set up their characters. Why, you ask? Because King Conan uses one *hundred* pages to set up its characters!

I realize this is a losing proposition. Those who don’t care about Conan won’t give a shit what I rate it, and those who do care, care so much that they’ll tear me to pieces for even implying it’s not genius (I’m looking at you JJ) but holy schnikies, this script is so incredibly boring!

Yes, I said it. It’s boring. I feel almost liberated as I write that.

For 100 pages, NOTHING HAPPENS.

Well that can’t be, Carson, you say. *Something* must have happened. Okay, let me tell you what happened and you can be the judge if anything happened.

Conan The Barbarian impregnates a woman named the Daughter Of The Snows. This evil nasty woman tells Conan she doesn’t want to hang out with him until his child is born and kicks him out of her crib. Women.

In the meantime, Conan meets a man named Metallus who teaches him the importance of “fighting in a line.” You can’t break the line ever or you lose. This is obviously symbolic for many things throughout the story, but since I could never get into the story, it just became annoying that it came up so frequently.

After learning the line stuff, Conan heads back to Snowzilla to grab his son, Kon. Yes, Conan is now a father. The Conan line will live on.

Eventually, Conan becomes king of a country called Zingara, which, as many of you know, becomes famous for creating Farmville. You might say, “How is that ‘nothing’ Carson? He destroyed an entire country to become king! That’s epic. That’s exactly why we want a Conan sequel.” Well yeah, if that HAPPENED, I’d be right with you. But Conan doesn’t have to do anything to inherit the kingdom. It’s just handed to him.

Even better, once he gets it, he doesn’t even want it. Conan is about as reluctant of a king as there is – constantly sulking and complaining that being a king isn't all it's cracked up to be.

After awhile, Conan’s handlers suggest sending Kon off to the king version of preparatory school. Kon will study. Kon will fight. He will learn everything there is about becoming a king.

For the next 50 or so pages, we cut back and forth between Kon and Conan – Kon as he grows up and learns the ways of being a king, and Conan as he rules his kingdom. Very little happens during this period. Kon has a rivalry with one of his classmates, Fortunas (the Emperor’s son), and Conan grows so bored of being king that he pulls a Princess Jasmine, dressing up like a peasant, and hanging out with the peasant folk. Here he eventually meets a peasant woman that he falls for.

Where I officially gave up on King Conan though, was when Fortunas finds out that Conan and Kon are trading letters. The mischievous Fortunas then secretly intercepts and throws away those letters, making each believe that the other has forgotten about them.


I can go ahead and buy that plot point in, say, The Notebook or Beverly Hills 90210. But in a Conan sequel??

After this point I found it very hard to stay focused because everything in this script was soooooooooo drawwwwwwwn ouuuuuuuut. From what I could gather, Conan’s boredom leads to him strengthening ties with neighboring countries. But the plan backfires when one of these countries benefits from Conan’s weapons trade, strengthening their army and giving them a decided advantage over a third country. This third country starts bitching at Conan, and he realizes he’s inadvertently created a quagmire in the region.

So outside watching Kon grow up and a king attempt to stave off boredom, we now introduce into the mix… politics? Did we not learn anything from the Star Wars Episode 1 debacle?

Eventually (and I’m talking a good 100 pages into the script here when I say “eventually”) Kon comes back home, and the two try to resolve their artificially fractured relationship. This leads to an assassination attempt on Conan and finally – thank God – something actually starts happening in the script.

But let’s be honest. By that point it’s too late. You are never more drained and more frustrated as a reader than when you’re trying to keep track of a complicated screenplay that you care nothing about. It’s really the worst experience you can have. You want to get it over with, but there are 30-some names like “Lord Gobaniior” along with complicated subplots and reemerging dormant story threads that force you, against all your will, to pay attention. Ugh! I was so drained after I read this.

To Milius’ credit, it’s hard to keep people interested on the page with a story that’s so cinematic – that depends so heavily on actors, costumes, and set design. But that doesn’t excuse the 160 pages, the 100 page first act or the baffling absence of story for long stretches at a time. I remember in the first Conan, which Milius also wrote, Conan pushing that spindle as he grew from a boy into a man. That little montage was a minute long and told me more about that character (how difficult his childhood was) and drew me more into that world, then every single Kon school scene here combined.

I was going to give this a “What The Hell Did I Just Read,” because I just found nothing to grab onto in the story whatsoever. But there’s no denying Milius is brilliant with words. Combined with the extensive mythology he’s created, there’s too much skill on display for me to rate this at the bottom of the barrel, but it was so un-engaging and slow and self-important that I had no joy whatsoever reading it.

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

What I learned: Build characters through action. Not through 18 scenes that essentially tell us the same thing. I’m referring, of course, to that scene in the original Conan I just mentioned where we see him pushing the spindle into adulthood. That simple action tells us more than any dialogue ever could. Think about your favorite movies. All of the characters have moments of action that tell us who they are. We see it when Han blasts Greedo. We see it when Neo gives up on the ledge while running from the agents. We see it when Andy Dufrane DOESN’T cry that first night in Shawshank. We see it in how meticulously Wall-E takes care of the city. Those ACTIONS will always be the best way to convey a character to an audience. Favor them wherever you can.


I have never had to do this. But considering I've received upwards of 500 e-mails asking for it, I can't take it anymore. I'm officially mildly ticked off. I don't have Inception! Nolan has kept it under wraps so they can publish it in book form. So please no more e-mails.

Monday, July 26, 2010


Genre: Thriller/Crime/Revenge
Premise: (from IMDB) A father is forced to confront his past when his teenage daughter is kidnapped during a layover in Las Vegas.
About: Zach Dean was teaching film and writing at a New York high school when he wrote the “Simple Plan’esque” Kin, a script he wanted to write after being on the infamous Jet Blue flight in 2005 whose landing gear malfunctioned, forcing the entire flight to watch in horror on their in flight TVs as major new agencies predicted their doom. The now 35 year-old Dean was so rattled by the experience he promised to write a film about family if he lived, and thus Kin was born. This is Dean’s second script, Layover, which sold a couple of months ago to Endgame Entertainment. You can read more about Dean and that experience in a recent LA Times article here.
Writer: Zach Dean
Details: 108 pages - undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

When we meet the deceptively conniving Theron Turner, he’s amongst a couple dozen convicts on a transport bus. The bus is twisting and turning its way through the snowy mountains, and as you might suspect, something bad is about to happen. As the bus rounds the corner, the innocent outline of a snowman appears in the middle of the road. One of the guards hesitantly steps out to clear the obstruction, and is promptly greeted with a bullet to the head.

A team of three men bursts onto the bus and free their target, Theron. He smiles, marches out, and heads to Nevada to prepare for the biggest job of his career.

Meanwhile, in the most isolated middle-of-nowhere town in all of Nebraska, tow-truck driver Doyle Green is managing the aftermath of yet another brush with the law by his rebellious daughter, Nikki. The bearded homebody is the exact opposite of his daughter, and the 17 year old troublemaker is so fed up with her boring life and her boring dad that she’s willing to do anything to escape.

It kills Doyle that his daughter doesn’t love him, or even like him, and he’d do anything in his power to change that. But Doyle has a secret he’s never told his daughter. He lives here because the witness relocation program made him live here. Doyle's past is packed with more secrets than a prom after party.

However, when Nikki’s birthday rolls around, Doyle is so desperate to please her, that he tells her he’ll do anything she wants for her birthday. Her wish? To see the ocean. Against his better judgment, Doyle allows her to book a trip to California for the two of them.

With a quick layover in Vegas.

Hasn’t anyone told Doyle? Layovers are never as smooth as you think they’ll be.

Sure enough, in the 20 minutes they’re at the Vegas airport, Nikki sneaks into a bathroom and makes a run for it. She leaves Doyle a letter, explaining that her mother finally contacted her online, that they’ve been planning this for weeks, and that she’s running off to live with her. Doyle knows something Nikki doesn’t though. Her mother is dead. Which means someone lured her here. He knows who that person is. And so do we.

Theron has some big plans for Nikki. He’s holding her hostage until he gets the 13 million dollars Doyle helped him steal a dozen years ago, right before he sold him out to the feds. Theron will do anything to get that money back, and that’s exactly why Doyle knows he must do everything in his power to find Nikki as soon as possible.

Yes, I know. Taken.

There’s no place for Layover to escape its “father save daughter” premise, however, Layover excels in a lot of the areas Taken was criticized for. The story is really about two old friends, now enemies, trying to stay one move ahead of each other, as each tries to get something they desperately want. It’s not going to inspire Inception like discussion afterwards, but this is more of a chess game than a footrace, and that twist on the idea is what sets the script apart.

And it really does set itself apart.

One of the mistakes I keep seeing in amateur screenplays is that writers don’t surprise the reader enough. They continually choose the first twists and turns that come to mind, not realizing that they’re in their mind only because they’re remembering them from some recent film they enjoyed. As a result, their scripts play out in a straightforward boring fashion. Layover is an example of a story that keeps hitting us with one “didn’t see that coming” after another.

I say there should be a small surprise, twist or redirection every 15 pages or so, something that ups the stakes or makes us reevaluate the story we thought we were watching. Amongst those 6-8 surprises, there should be 2 or 3 whoppers that really shock us. Here, we see Theron broken out of the convict bus right away, which is a nice surprise. We find out Doyle is in a witness protection program. A nice surprise. Nikki makes a run for it in Vegas. Nice surprise. Doyle turns out to be the former leader of Theron’s group. Nice surprise. All of that is packed inside the first 40 pages. In bad scripts these surprises are either uninspired or non-existent.

Another solid move was creating an unresolved relationship between father and daughter. This may seem obvious but you’d be surprised at how many scripts I’ve read which take the opposite route. “I love you daughter,” “I love you too dad.” (the two then go play checkers for 8 hours). The reason you want to avoid this love-fest is because with unresolved relationships, there’s a desire for the audience to see them get resolved. That can’t happen unless the two see each other again, and of course they can’t see each other again unless he finds her.

At first glance, Taken doesn't seem to have this. There’s genuine love between father and daughter. But the conflict is that he’s been a bad father all his life, and is trying to make up for it. The unresolved part is that he hasn’t proven himself yet, which is really the hidden emotional component of that film that many people overlook. By saving her, he finally proves how much he loves her.

This unresolved conflict extends into the other central relationship in the movie, the relationship between the hero and the villain. Your hero and villain don’t HAVE to have a history, but relationships with history tend to pack more punch than those that don’t (with the exclusion of a budding romance). This unresolved conflict between Doyle and Theron adds an extra layer to the plot and keeps Layover a character piece first, and a revenge/kidnapping piece second.

The only things that don’t work for the script are some of the early dialogue and the relationships between the villains. With the dialogue, some of it was too on-the-nose, particularly early on when the characters and story were being set up. There’s a scene in particular between the U.S. Marshall and his wife that feels like the scene is only there to give the reader insight into the character, and is in no way necessary to the story. This is an easy trap to fall into though. Good screenplays, particularly intricate ones with a lot going on, require a ton of setup, and being able to cram all that setup into the opening act and keep it natural is a constant challenge. So this wasn’t a huge deal for me.

My bigger problem was with the villains in Layover. I felt their relationships with one another weren’t explored enough. We only get the bare-bones details on their connection with one another (one is the girlfriend, one is the brother, one is the drug-addict). Dean hints at the conflict within, but we never get into it, and therefore when their lives are at stake, we don’t care as much as we should. Creating a division in the ranks of either team, the bad guys or the good, is always a fun way to stir up the story because then your characters are fighting battles on two fronts, the outside and the in.

Overall, I thought this was a really well-executed script. Had Taken never been made, this would’ve received a double “worth the read.” But the familiarities in the core idea did hurt it some. Still, it’s a fun smart thriller, and all this praise being heaped on Zach Dean is well deserved. I’ll be reading Kin as soon as possible!

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

What I learned: There’s a feeling you get early on when you’re reading a screenplay. It’s a feeling of “this is going to work” or “this isn’t going to work.” Layover was one of those scripts I knew right away was going to work. The opening scene was interesting and mysterious. The story gets moving right away. The writing was crisp and to the point (1-2 lines for almost all paragraphs). But probably most of all, there’s a confidence in where the story is going. You knew the writer had a plan, that he was building towards something, whereas in amateur scripts scenes are thrown together in an almost searching manner, like the writer is enjoying the process of trying to find the story. Unnecessary scenes, wandering first act, that’s the kind of stuff you see in amateur scripts. Layover is definitely not one of those scripts, and should be studied on how to start a screenplay.

Peach Trees

Welcome to another week of Scriptshadow. This week, we have two mega-geek scripts we're reviewing. The first is Peach Trees, the Judge Dredd project, which Roger reviews today. The second is a reimagining/sequel to a popular franchise from the past, a script that's been around for a decade and is beloved by many. Well, I'll just say right now that I have no idea why anyone would love this script. I was bored out of my mind. I'll also be reviewing two low profile recent spec sales, both of which were quite good. And since it's the last Friday of the month, that means Amateur Friday Review! I just picked out the script this morning so we'll have to see if it's any good. Right now, here's ROGER with his review of the next Judge Dredd project.

Genre: Science-Fiction, Action
Premise: When Judge Dredd arrives with rookie Cassandra Anderson to investigate a trio of murders at high-rise called slum Peach Trees, a drug lord puts Peach Trees on nuclear lockdown and the Judges are trapped inside, hunted by the entire populace. The Judges must choose between escaping the building, or ascending two-hundred stories to prove the drug lord guilty and execute her.
About: Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) writes this adaptation to the popular AD 2000 comic strip. Pete Travis (Vantage Point) is set to direct for DNA Films. Karl Urban will star. Judge Dredd was named the seventh greatest comic character by Empire Magazine, and in Britain, he's certainly the most well-known.
Writer: Alex Garland

"Peach Trees. This is Ma-Ma. Somewhere in this block are two Judges. I want them dead. And until I get what I want, the block is locked down. All Clan, every level, hunt the Judges down. Everyone else, clear the corridors and stay the fuck out of our way until the shooting stops. If I hear about anyone helping the Judges, I'll kill them and the next generation of their family."

Peach Trees is the high-rise Judge Dredd becomes trapped in, a mega-slum with a population of a hundred thousand people that are either trying to kill or hide from the iconic character as he ascends two-hundred stories to prove a drug lord guilty and execute her.

It's a plot stripped of any supercilious details that's less Hollywood and more 2000 AD, a simple framework that possesses the brilliance of taking a well-known comic book hero and placing him inside a contained thriller.

It's like taking Batman and putting him in Die Hard.

I remember the 1995 Judge Dredd movie.

While not a reader of the British comic strip, even I could tell that something was amiss. The tone was all over the place. Here was a simple character that was supposed to be a faceless personification of justice, but this personification has Rob Schneider as a sidekick and Sylvester Stallone as a face. Stallone is quoted as saying, "It didn't live up to what it could have been. It probably should have been much more comic, really humorous, and fun. What I learned out of that experience was that we shouldn't have tried to make it Hamlet; it's more Hamlet and Eggs..."

While I don't agree that it should have been more comic (Sorry, I can only stand one Rob Schneider in a movie), I do think Stallone had a point. The ambition and scale of the plot does not serve the character. A story that is supposed to be about a futuristic gunslinger whom possesses no sympathy for either criminal or victim is lost in a framework that somehow includes cloning, the Hero's Journey, the power struggles of a dysfunctional family, cannibals and Sly unintentionally but comically screaming, "I am the Law!"

There was plenty of humor, but not enough, I dunno, carnage.

It wasn't visceral.

I suppose the idea of a Judge trying to clear his name with the law can make for interesting conflict, but I don't want to watch court scenes.

I want to watch Judge Dredd shoot bad guys with his Lawgiver Gun.

Wait. I don't know anything about Judge Dredd or Mega City One. Does Alex Garland tell an origin story?


And, that's what makes "Peach Trees" so refreshing.

All you need to know is that it's the future, and that there's a guy who will shoot bullets through civilians (endangering them, but not killing them) to execute criminals.

Mega City One is the last outpost of civilization in post-apocalyptic America. It's a series of mega blocks, monolithic high-rises that serve as their own self-contained towns, stretching from Boston to Washington. Skyscrapers are the low-rise buildings peppered between them.

When we meet Dredd he's suiting up. We meet his Lawgiver Gun, which seems to be matched to his DNA. The whole time, the top half of his face is hidden by his visor, and we only see chin and mouth, "as if they have been carved from rock."

He chases a car full of Slo-Mo junkies on his motorbike. Slo-Mo is a drug administered via inhaler, and not only does it slow down time for its users, it causes the world to look beautiful, iridescent and bright. When the junkies steamroll some civilians trying to get away from the Judge, they start to die.

Presumably, Dredd has all the authority of police, judge, jury and executioner.

Especially executioner.

While they die, we learn that the Lawgiver is voice-activated and contains many different kinds of ammo. We also learn something about Dredd. He has phenomenal aim, even when he has to place a shot through a civilian, "Remain calm. The bullet missed all major organs, and a paramedic team will be with you shortly."

Does Dredd get a sidekick in this tale?

Rookie Cassandra Anderson is an orphan who was given a Judge aptitude test (as is standard for orphans) at age nine. Although her score was unsuitable, she was entered into the Academy upon special instruction. When we meet her, we learn that her final Academy score is three percentile points below a pass.

As she stands before the Chief Judge, Dredd wonders why she's in uniform. When Anderson is able to point out how many people are in the next room observing her, without seeing them mind you, we realize that she's a psychic, a power she possibly developed as a child because she lived one hundred meters from a radiation boundary wall. While the fall-out proximity made her a mutant, it also killed her parents.

Although she's failed the Academy, the Chief Judge is giving her one more chance. She's to spend a day out in the field with Dredd, and he's to assess whether she makes the grade or not, "Sink or swim. Chuck her in the deep end."

"It's all the deep end."

Dredd informs of her what to expect out there. If she sentences someone incorrectly, she automatically fails. If she doesn't obey a direct order from him, she automatically fails. If she loses her primary weapon, or if it's taken from her, she automatically fails.

That's all the stuff she knows.

What she doesn't know is that she's in for the most fucked-up day of her life.

She gets trapped inside of Peach Trees with Dredd?


The Judges only respond to six percent of the seventeen thousand serious crimes reported per day, and a slum like Peach Trees, which has a ninety-six percent employment rate, is rarely visited by a Judge.

Because it's rarely seen a Judge, someone like Madeline Madrigal has risen to power.

A character possibly inspired by real-life bandit queen, Phoolan Devi, Ma-Ma is a former prostitute who supposedly feminized a pimp with her teeth and took over his syndicate. More violent than all of the other crime lords and clans, she runs Peach Tree from her Dolce & Gabbana crack den-esque penthouse on the top floor of the two-hundred story building. She is responsible for the distribution of Slow-Mo in Mega City One.

As a testament to her ultraviolent nature, she has her lieutenants, Caleb, Kay and Sy, murder a trio of dealers who were caught selling a competitor's product. They pump the dealers full of Slo-Mo, skin them alive (and because the brain moves at one-percent of normal speed while on the narcotic, this must seem to last an eternity) and toss them off the balcony of the atrium that rises through the center of the building as a message.

Of course, Dredd and Anderson arrive to find the bodies, and thanks to a helpful paramedic, they're told how things work under Ma-Ma's rule and he tips them off to the Slo-Mo distribution headquarters on Level 39. The Judges shoot up the joint, and we're treated to our first gun fight which should blow people's minds in the cinema thanks to the combo of the Slow-Mo point-of-view and the 3D. They manage to capture Kay, who has a tattoo of Judge Death on his chest (undead Judges?) and they get in an elevator to take him out Peach Trees.

Their goal is to interrogate him, learn everything he knows, which will give them enough evidence to return and arrest Ma-Ma. Only problem is, Ma-Ma can't have this happen, so she has her Clan Techie, a dude who has robotic eye implants like a chameleon lizard, takes control of the building's computers and he socially hacks Sector Control to run a systems test.

Peach Trees' system control goes into a nuclear war testing drill and the building is suddenly encased in lead-lined shutters, blast doors that can withstand nuclear attack. Not only does this trap the Judges and the population inside, but it cuts off Dredd's communication link with Control.

So, Ma-Ma announces to Peach Trees that she wants the Judges dead?

Pretty much. It's a sequence that sort of took my breath away. I couldn't help but be glued to the page as Dredd and Anderson are standing in the middle of the atrium, looking up at two-hundred stories of balconies as the clans and warlords begin to organize to collect the bounty on their heads.

You can't help but wonder how much ammo those Lawgiver guns of theirs have.

As Dredd and Anderson struggle between avoiding detection and their duty as people that embody justice, they have to ultimately decide if they should just escape, or if they should ascend all two-hundred stories to prove Ma-Ma guilty and execute her.

To get the evidence, they have to get Kay to talk. But to get Kay to talk, they have to survive an entire population that is trying to murder them so they can get a quiet moment with him. While things are simple for Dredd, it's a moral dilemma for Anderson. As a telepath, she is empathetic to some of the people who are caught in the cross-fire, and she really has to decide if all this is worth being a Judge.

How is the action?

Very satisfying.

This thing has fucking micro-genocides in it.

Ma-Ma is willing to kill entire floors full of people to stop the Judges, and she pulls out every weapon and trick and soldier she has to achieve her goal, which may include a quartet of dirty Judges as her ace in the hole.

It's enthralling and because this is the type of shoot-em-up I love, and because Dredd never takes off his helmet, even when facing his worst fear, I give this an...

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

What I learned: I'm still impressed that someone is making a comicbook movie that isn't an origin story. This isn't about the creation of a hero or antihero, this is about the character being put in a worst case scenario and seeing if he can just make it out alive. It's a new formula. Take a popular character and put them in a situation that is basically the worst series of obstacles ever. Or take a superhero and put him inside a contained thriller. In a climate where it seems like Hollywood will never tire of making comicbook movies, this script proves that these tales can be told without telling their back story as the movie. Secondly, as a shoot-em-up, Garland has created a pretty cool cinematic device with the drug Slow-Mo. Although it makes the world slow down for its users, it doesn't give them super-speed. However, there are lots of POV shots, especially in the middle of the action, and it gives those action sequences more of an edge than just a straight shoot-out.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Girl With The Red Riding Hood

Genre: Horror
Premise: (from IMDB) Set in a medieval village that is haunted by a werewolf, a young girl falls for an orphaned woodcutter, much to her family's displeasure.
About: David Leslie Johnson’s script “Orphan,” made a lot of noise when it was picked up a couple of years ago. Even though it didn’t make a huge dent in the box office, I thought it was pretty good, especially the bizarre twist ending which I wouldn’t have predicted had you given me a hundred tries. Johnson has a very enviable backstory. He was lucky enough to have been mentored by Frank Darabont (working with him on both The Green Mile and Shawshank). The Girl With The Red Riding Hood stars Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Virginia Madsen, Shiloh Somebody and Julie Christie. Catherine Hardwicke, the director of the first Twilight film, is directing.
Writer: David Leslie Johnson
Details: 120 pages – revised first draft – April 16, 2009 (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

You say I don’t do horror. A pox upon you! I do horror. I’m doing horror right now knuckleheads. I heeded all your nasty e-mails and death threats and am finally giving you want you want. Okay, none of that is true. I’m only reviewing this because I hated the other script I was going to review (“36”) and couldn’t muster up the energy to review it.

But here’s the truth. I WOULD review more horror IF there was more horror to review. It seems like every horror script that comes down the pipeline is either a shitty remake or a sure-to-tarnish-the-original sequel. All I’m asking for is ORIGINAL HORROR. Something fresh and unique, like Johnson’s previous effort, Orphan. Any spec sales that fall under that category, let me know, cause I'll be happy to read them.

So, The Girl With The Red Riding Hood is a “gothic” reimagining of that famous fairy tale, “Little Red Riding Hood.” Johnson has been saddled with the difficult task of fleshing out this 5 minute story into 2 hours. The results are, I suppose, solid, but since this isn’t really my thing, I had a hard time getting into it.

It’s 1324 in a French village and 17 year old Isabelle is having a secret romance with fellow villager, and brooding hunk, Peter, who works for her father. However, Isabelle is told that she’s being married off to a man named Henri to settle a debt between her and Henri’s family. Don’t you just love the old days? Have a problem with me? Here, take my daughter.

Isabelle is devastated but she and the rest of the village have bigger issues to battle. A rogue wolf has been terrorizing the town for decades and while it hasn’t killed any of them recently, signs point to that changing soon. Wolf be hungry. So scared are the villagers that they send for a “Witchfinder General” by the name of Solomon. I’m, of course, wondering the same thing you are. Why would you hire a witchfinder to find a wolf? (see how bad I am at reviewing horror?)

Well Solomon, a very serious individual, is too busy being pissed off to care what I wonder. He explains that this isn’t a wolf terrorizing their town. It’s a WEREWOLF. Solomon knows all about werewolves, you see. He’s killed one before. A werewolf that ended up being his own wife! By the name of Bella! Okay, I'm kidding I'm kidding. She wasn't named Bella.

Anyway, Solomon and his men lure the werewolf into town, where it becomes preoccupied with Isabelle, and after finally getting her alone, it TALKS. Yes, this werewolf can talk. It wants Isabelle to come off with him. Apparently it’s not a very smart werewolf or it would know that people don't run off with werewolves! Unless of course, the father orders them to. Then it's okay.

Afterwards, Solomon realizes that the werewolf is not some rogue wolf at all, but that it lives here, in the village. Someone, one of them, is the wolf! The town naturally starts freaking out, and the mystery is on. Which one of them is the wolf?? And will it kill them all?

Okay so, disclaimer time. This isn’t my thing. Doesn’t matter if this were Oscar-worthy writing, I probably wouldn’t like it. Having said that, it’s a solidly executed script. I admit that the one area of writing that intimidates me the most is swords & shields period pieces. Anybody who can write dialogue for a time they did not exist in, where people spoke in a rhythm and a vocabulary as familiar to us as Japanese, I have a lot of respect for. And I think Johnson did a nice job with that.

I also thought he did a good job keeping the story fresh. There’s little twists and revelations here that throw the story in another direction just when it needs it. We have a devastating family secret that's revealed about Isabelle's sister. We have Solomon showing up to add some ass-kicking to the mix. We have a wolf who's able to speak. All of that really kept you on your toes.

But if there’s one type of story I don’t respond to it’s the “Let’s wait here and die,” story. When you throw a bunch of characters into a location and they just wait for the bad guys to show up - that's no fun for me. It’s not that you can’t make it work. I just like when my characters are active, when they have plans. In Aliens, they’re not just waiting for the aliens to kill them. They’re formulating a plan to get the hell out of there. Johnson’s able to infuse the characters with some proactive moments, but in the end, they’re still just a bunch of people waiting around.

This reminds me. Didn’t the original Red Riding Hood walk through a forest? Wasn’t that the big set piece of the story (did they have set pieces back in the fairy tale days)? That she was going somewhere and the wolf cut her off? I guess I kept waiting for this long journey she would have to take through the woods, knowing that the wolf was out there, and the ensuing suspense that would come from whether she would make it or not. Not a huge deal but it seemed like that kind of scene could have some potential and it was a part of the original story so I was confused as to why it wasn't there.

Despite this not being my cup of tea, I can see it working. The image of an innocent girl in a red riding hood is so iconic that I can’t imagine the trailer not being cool. The question is, does the public’s demand to have their werewolves with ripped abs and predetermined teams make a tale like this obsolete? We’ll have to wait and see.

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

What I learned: Hollywood likes things they know. They like to get behind stories the public’s heard of before because then they don't have to spend a billion dollars educating them on it. You and I have heard of Red Riding hood, so there's a familiarity factor there. There's no familiarity factor with "Blue-shoed Thomas" or "The Old Man With The Green Jacket." For that reason, fairy tales are a great place to look for stories. Nobody owns the rights to them, and many are well-known. The trick is to throw a unique twist on the tale to make it fresh. Remember how cool that video game “Alice” was? They simply threw Alice in Wonderland into the horror genre. What about taking the Three Little Pigs and turning it into a modern day comedy starring Jack Black, Jonah Hill, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman? I’m only half-joking! But seriously, if you can find a cool spin on one of these tales, run with it. I see a lot of new writers get noticed this way.

Last Chance For The Champion Screenwriting Contest!

Remember guys, time is running out to enter The Champion Screenplay Competition. July 30th is the final day they're accepting submissions. Head over to the site ASAP and sign up, and if you want to find out more about the contest head, Jim Mercurio, read the interview I did with him here. Nicholl Smicholl. It's Champion time!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Crazy, Stupid, Love

Genre: Comedy
Premise: (from IMDB) A father's life unravels while he deals with a marital crisis and tries to manage his relationship with his children.
About: Helping keep that big spec sale dream alive, Fogelman’s comedy sold for a 2010 best 2 million dollars! What is this? The nineties?? Fogelman’s name may sound familiar as I just reviewed his Black List script, “My Mother’s Curse,” last week. The film stars Steve Carell (who was attached for the sale), Ryan Gosling, Kevin Bacon, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, and Julianne Moore. So live it up people, cause we don’t see these big sellers too often.
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Details: 121 pages – Feb 19, 2010 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I have a lot of good things to say about this script. Plot, character, and execution come together in this tale like a concoction of Coldstone’s ice cream. And while I know some of you will pan it for its feathery light subject matter, make no mistake, there is some serious skill on display here. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this is the best executed comedy I’ve read since The F Word.

But before we get into it, let’s acknowledge the rhinoceros in the room. If you or I had written this script, there’s no way anyone would’ve read it. The premise is too simple: A man is thrust back into the single life after his wife asks for a divorce. That ain’t going to win Pitch Fest at the Expo, sunshine. But this is one of the realities of the business: Professional writers don’t need a flashy logline to get their stuff read. Their NAME is the flashly logline. And that’s a good thing. Cause when you sell your script, your name will be the flashy logline as well.

42 year old out-of-touch out-of-style out-of-sync Cal thinks he has the perfect life. He fell in love with his high school sweetheart, Tracy, when he was 17, and the two have been married ever since. They have two beautiful children, 13 year old Robbie and 8 year old Mollie, a wonderful house, and an unlimited supply of happiness.

Gosling plays Jacob

Or at least, that’s Cal’s view of things. It’s been a while since he’s seen things through his wife’s eyes, and that’s going to cost poor Cal in the form of a blindside. Usually, you have a 'feeling' when the old relationship is about to implode. But Cal is clueless when his wife breaks it to him that she’s been having an affair with David Jacobowitz and that she wants a divorce.

After getting over that shocker, Cal’s inadvertently thrown into the world of dating. Now for anyone who’s been off the market for a significant period of time and then come back, you’ll recall that dating changes QUICKLY. Five years ago is nothing like today. And five years before that was nothing like five years later. But here’s the thing with Cal. HE’S NEVER DATED. EVER. Tracy was his first and only. This is a world completely alien to him.

Stone plays the woman Jacob falls for.

Jacob Palmer doesn’t date either. But that’s because he’s perfected a pick-up technique that requires less than a minute of conversation. Palmer can get you from A (the bar) to Z (his place) in less time than it takes most guys to order a drink. The problem with Jacob is that that’s all he does. He sits at a bar booth every night with his perfect hair, his perfect scent, and his perfect outfit and just picks up woman after woman. He doesn't know the meaning of love.

It just so happens that Cal starts hanging out at Jacob’s bar every night and tells anyone who will listen his sad sack story about asshole David Jacobowitz fucking his wife. Jacob is horrified by this man he deems to be one step above mentally retarded. Just so he doesn't have to witness this pathetic display anymore, Jacob offers to teach Cal how to pick up women.

Cal’s not even sure he wants to pick up women but anything that takes his mind off David Jacobowitz's naked body is a good thing, so he agrees. Jacob gets Cal a new haircut, new clothes, and a new attitude, and after a few conversation-related tips (namely: “don’t talk. Ever.”), Cal starts picking up women left and right.

This very hot girl plays the babysitter.

Now at this point you’re probably saying, “What so great about that? It sounds pretty boring.” And I’ll admit, the first half of this screenplay is pretty average. But where Crazy, Stupid, Love excels is in its second half, where all the characters and the intricate relationships that have been built up between them start smashing into each other like pinballs.

See what we realize, is that the first 60 pages were all one big setup, and the last sixty pages are a continuous ESPN ticker feed of payoffs. Tracy is being stalked by the man she had an affair with. Cal realizes all these one-night stands are meaningless and tries to get Tracy back. Cal and Tracy’s babysitter, Jessica, is in love with Cal. Cal’s son Robbie, is in love with Jessica. Just when it looks like Cal and Tracy are going to get back together, she learns that one of his conquests was Mrs. Thompson, Robbie’s teacher! Cal and Jacob end up becoming best friends. But then Jacob ends up falling in love with a girl, who ends up being the worst possible girl he could fall in love with. Even little Mollie is in love, with Zac Efron and High School Musical. And the further all these relationships go, the more “crazy,” the more “stupid” they get.

Blake Snyder said in his book “Save The Cat!” that there needs to be one scene in every screenplay that a producer can point to and say “That’s a movie.” In “Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot,” Snyder’s one produced credit, he said that that scene was a chase scene where, instead of two cars screaming through the streets of downtown, Stallone’s mom is driving 10 miles an hour, pulling up short at stop signs, and holding Stallone back with her arm whenever they came to a stop. That, the producer said, is what convinced me this was a movie.

Bacon plays the guy Cal's wife sleeps with.

Here, not only do we get that scene, but we get the reason why this script sold for 2 million dollars. It’s the climax of the story, a huge sequence where all of these relationships finally collide with one another in this glorious wacky explosion. It’s executed so perfectly and with such skill that for a brief moment, you sit up and think, “This is what screenwriting is all about.” And it really is. It’s that moment where all of the variables in your story come together in that perfect harmonic climax. It’s really good stuff.

This script also supports my belief that every character should have something going on. They shouldn’t just be an ear for the main character to disclose information to (like so many amateur scripts I read). Cal’s trying to get his wife back. Jacob’s trying to get laid. Bobbie’s trying to get Jessica. Jessica’s trying to get Cal. David’s trying to get Tracy. Even Molly, the daughter, is obsessed with High School Musical. Nobody’s left out to dry here, so we’re never bored, even though we’re jumping around to a lot of different stories.

And finally, this script does what so many comedy scripts fail to do - it packs the story with heart! And I think heart leads to big bucks. I really do. When you make a reader FEEL something at the end of a screenplay, it stays with them. It makes them want to recommend it to others. All comedies should have some heart dammit! This is proof-positive why.

Really really dug this script. Only didn't make the Top 25 because the first half was a little predictable. Oh and hey, is this not the single most perfect role for Steve Carell that could've been written??

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

What I learned: I don’t think you should write a low-concept comedy if you don’t have some connections in the industry. Had an amateur writer tried to get reads from this, they probably would’ve been ignored, as the premise is too generic. As an unknown, you need more flash in your pitch to get noticed, so I’d stick to higher-concept fare if you can.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

127 Hours

Genre: Thriller/Drama
Premise: (from IMDB) Based on a true story, a mountain climber becomes trapped under a boulder while canyoneering alone and resorts to desperate measures in order to survive.
About: The buzz hit early on this script, highlighted by the fact that there will be an entire hour without a shred of dialogue. One of the best directors in the business, Danny Boyle, just finished the film. The script is written by his Slumdog Millionaire collaborator, Simon Beaufoy. James Franco plays the lead role. You can learn more about the real-life story here:
Writer: Simon Beaufoy.
Details: 83 pages – April 1, 2010 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

A question I hear a lot is, “Have you ever read a bad script that became a good movie?” The answer is no, I have not. But the ones that come closest are usually from directors like PT Anderson, Malick, Nolan, Mann, and Sofia Coppola. These helmers have such a powerful and unique style that the story almost becomes secondary to the filmmaking. For example, one thing I loved about Inception was the score. That deep trombone like bass that cycles throughout the film unnerved me in a way a story turn or a character revelation could never do. These kind of filmmaking-specific nuances will never substitute for a good story, but sometimes they can come pretty close.

127 Hours may very well be one of those films, because as a script, I didn’t think it was very good. It isn’t bad. It’s just…predictable.

For those cinephiles who saw “Into The Wild,” a few years ago, Sean Penn’s directorial effort about a man who sells everything he owns and heads for Alaska, Aron Ralston is very much like the character in that film, Christopher McCandless. He’s an adventurer, an outdoor enthusiast, a lover of nature. And like McCandless, he does everything exclusively by himself.

This is exactly how we meet Aaron, heading down to Blue John Canyon on his bike - alone. Once he reaches the desert, he locks up and sprints towards the canyon.

There he runs into a couple of girls, Kristi and Megan, who feel a bit like filler. The problem with writing a script with only one character is that you only have one character to develop. In other words, you don’t need a lot of space. But in order to get the page count up to feature length, you have to put something there, and I’m guessing that’s why these two are in the script (from what I understand, Aron *did* meet them in real life).

So the girls appear, have a few conversations with Aron telling us what we already know, that Aron rides life solo, then scram. But not before telling him about a party they’re going to 20-some miles down the road. You can’t miss it, they say. There’ll be a gigantic Scooby-Doo balloon swaying in the wind.

Later, he makes his way to a canyon/cliff area, starts running around and exploring, accidentally dislodges a boulder, gets chased Indiana Jones style, squeezes out of the way at the last second, but is unable to get his arm out of the way in time. The boulder catches it against the rock. Aron is shocked when he realizes…he’s stuck.

Thus begins Aron Ralston’s 127 hours of hell.

127 Hours uses three devices to keep us entertained – Video diaries which Aaron leaves on his video camera, flashbacks to his old girlfriend, and a series of hallucinations. Interspersed throughout these moments are Aron trying to figure out what to do. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here since this is a real-life story, but eventually Aron realizes that the only way he’s going to survive is if he cuts his arm off – a process made difficult by the fact that he only has a Swiss army knife. And not even the real thing either. A cheap Chinese knockoff.

Essentially 127 Hours is a character piece about a man who realizes what being alone is really about. There’s a difference between the kind of alone where you get to pick and choose when you hear others’ voices, and the kind of alone where you don’t hear any voice but your own. As days dissolve into one another, Aron comes face to face with this reality, and begins to appreciate and understand how desperately all the people in his life have tried to connect with him.

This raises a bigger question: If Aron somehow gets out of here, will he finally look to bring these people into his life?

But if I’m being honest, it was hard to root for Aron. This might seem like an odd declaration, but I don’t have sympathy for people who do stupid shit. You read in the paper, “A freeclimber falls 3000 feet to his death.” You know the first thing that comes to mind when I hear that? “You probably shouldn’t have been climbing 3000 feet in the air WITHOUT ANYTHING TO SUPPORT YOU!” I mean if I ever start juggling chainsaws in Vegas and accidentally cut myself in half, I fully expect anybody reading an account of my ordeal to reply: “Serves you right moron.” I mean Aron isn’t cliff-diving into lava here, but running around the desert and climbing mountains with no one else around and without telling anybody where you are is a pretty stupid thing to do. So I just wasn’t onboard with him from the get-go.

I was also never surprised by this screenplay. As soon as Aron got stuck I thought, “There’s three things he can do here: talk to the video camera, go into flashbacks, and hallucinate.” Sure enough, that’s exactly what happens. And while I somewhat enjoyed Aron exploring his connection issues via flashbacks and hallucinations, in the end these scenes were too repetitive to fully keep me interested. At a certain point I was like, “Let’s cut off the arm already.”

Another unfortunate aspect of this story is that we know the ending before the film starts, draining the script of a good portion of its suspense.

Despite all this, I still think 127 Hours can be a good movie. Boyle is a filmmaker that plays in the same sandbox as Nolan, Mann, and Malick, so he obviously saw something worth getting dirty for. If I had to bet, I’d say he was drawn to the hallucinations, which become a huge part of the second half of the film. Visually, these are extremely weird and powerful (I imagine the huge floating Scooby-Doo balloon in the middle of the desert will be the “what the fuck” trailer image that sells a good share of tickets) and if there was ever an opportunity to explore the limits of your imagination, no-holds-barred hallucinations would be a great start.

But if it will be enough to make up for a rather ordinary story, I don’t know.

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

What I learned: One of the reasons we go to the movies is to see characters try and overcome the same issues we’re trying to overcome in our own lives. The exploration and eventual conquering of these “flaws,” when done right, can be the most powerful part of your story, because it gives us hope that we can conquer our own issues. There are a few character flaws that consistently work well, and one of them is the one Beaufoy uses here – Aron’s refusal to connect with the world. I don’t know what it is, but when we see someone who refuses to connect with others, we instinctively want them want them to connect with others. I’m reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (the book, not the script) and Lisbeth Salander has this exact same flaw. She’s so disconnected from everyone and everything that we pine for her eventual transformation. We want her to initiate a hug, trust someone, open up to a friend. And the further she pulls away, the more desperately we want to pull her in.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Untitled Chef Project

Genre: Drama
Premise: A selfish workaholic chef tries to get back into the restaurant game after a much publicized meltdown years ago.
About: Like a lot of projects that gain instant notoriety in Hollywood, Untitled Chef Project burst onto the scene after David Fincher attached himself to it. This would have paired him with thespian Keanu Reeves had it happened, but the project fell apart for reasons unknown. I’ll tell you one thing, these damn “Untitled” monikers sure do suck the life out of a script. Who gets excited for a project with “Untitled” on the front page? Anyway, the script made the 2007 Black List, and in a case of complete coincidence, had the exact same number of votes – three - as Jeff The Immortal. Hmm, could the low end of the 2007 Black List contain a secret stash of amazing unknown screenplays? -- You may also know Knight as the writer of one of last year’s highly rated Black List scripts, the Bobby Fischer bio, Pawn Sacrifice (which you may remember I didn’t like very much).
Writer: Steven Knight
Details: 116 pages - July 25th, 2007 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I am going to admit something that I don’t admit to many. I love Gordon Ramsey. And I love Kitchen Nightmares. I love watching Gordon Ramsey tell a chef that their food is awful. I love when he goes into a kitchen, turns over a box and finds roaches. I love when he discovers mold on a tomato, stuffs it in a cook’s face, and tells him serving that tomato is the same as pointing a gun at a customer’s head and pulling the trigger. And I love how every time, after his assessment of the restaurant, even though it's all so clearly planned, he says there’s nothing he can do to help them and walks away. I love how we stay on the owners, who are deciding whether they should go after him or not, even though Gordon Ramsey is always exactly 500 feet away, standing on a mark determined hours ago so that he’s in the best possible light when the camera arrives. And I love how even though there’s still 45 minutes left in the show, I’m still sitting there wondering, “What if he doesn’t come back? What if he doesn’t help them?? Will the episode just….end????” If you are not a Kitchen Nightmares fan, I implore you to seek out the one where Gordon Ramsey goes into an Indian restaurant in New York. You will become a convert.

Ironically, this is exactly why I DIDN’T want to read Untitled Chef Project. I was afraid it was a script meant to capitalize on the whole Chef reality TV craze. And as far as inspiration goes, basing a movie on a reality show is one step below basing a movie on a board game.

But if there’s one thing Fincher has proved, it’s that he gets his grubby paws on the best material in Hollywood. By far, this man finds the coolest books, scripts, articles, and bios to develop. No one else even comes close. This is the only thing that gave me hope that Untitled Chef Project would be good.

Adam is an amazing chef. People wait months to eat his food, he has one of the best restaurants in Paris, and he has two Michelin stars to his name (getting a Michelin star is akin to winning three World Series in a row and being the MVP in each one). Adam has a problem though. HE’S FUCKING INSANE! The guy snorts coke while he’s preparing tuna tar-tar and would probably do heroin as well if it weren’t so logistically demanding. Not only is Adam a lunatic, he’s insanely dangerous. He’s violent, self-destructive, and maybe even suicidal. When we meet him, all of this has finally caught up with him. Adam self-destructs, losing his restaurant and losing everything else in his life.

Cut to a few years later and Adam has picked himself back up. He lives in London and he’s been getting that urge to start a new restaurant, which means finding a team. For those of you who saw Inception, this is like the first half of that movie but without all the exposition. It's time to find out who's going to go to war with him.

The key to every team, and particularly every chef, is a great sous chef (the right hand man).

So Adam sets up an interview with his top prospect, the talented, beautiful, and guarded Sweeney. But Adam doesn’t have any money for an office yet. So where does he interview Sweeney? Why McDonald’s of course. And this was the first moment I realized that Untitled Chef Project was different. Well, when Adam was ingesting lines, fighting off drug dealers and preparing a meal at the same time, I knew the script was different then. But when the best chef in the world starts philosophizing about how great McDonald’s is, you know you’re in for something fun.

Anyway, Sweeney knows about Adam’s shady history, but can’t pass up the opportunity to learn from someone of his stature, so she says yes. Adam completes his rag-tag group of culinary-geniuses, talks someone into giving him a million dollars, and opens his restaurant in the middle of London.

You’d think with someone as genius as Adam, building a great restaurant would be easy. But Adam is…different. Not even perfection is perfect enough for him. This is a man who refuses to allow even a single mistake. Michelin stars are only awarded to those dining experiences which are perfect. Not a single thing can be out of place: not the service, not the food, not the atmosphere, not even the damn silverware. And because Adam is trying to achieve something that no other chef has done – get a third Michelin star - he demands of his workers that they be Gods. Every. Single. Day.

As if to show just how serious he is, one of the early nights has a couple of screw-ups. Adam gathers everyone in the kitchen and proceeds to lose his shit in a way that would make Bob Knight say, “Whoa, you went too far there dude.” Adam becomes so angry in fact, that he actually holds a knife to Sweeney’s throat. And you really believe that in that moment, he’s thinking about killing her. You believe he’s actually considering it. Let me give you some perspective here. THIS IS THE FEMALE LOVE INTEREST! You have your protagonist about to KILL the female lead in your movie!!!

As the script hits the second half, it begins to focus more on this love story. But fear not all you readers who hold Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey DVD burning parties. This is not romance of the pillow talk variety. Knight wisely keeps these two separated for as long as possible, so that the tension and conflict are maximized. We’re wondering if Sweeney can see this man as anything but the crazy lunatic he is. We’re wondering if Adam can find enough of his heart to let another human being in. It does not read cheesy. It does not feel saccharine. It’s harsh and it’s real and it's pitch-perfect.

This is a character piece that explores one of the most interesting characters I’ve seen all year. It’s about a man obsessed with himself and obsessed with his work. He’s unable to enjoy life, unable to enjoy the people around him, and he takes that out on anyone who steps in his path. There is a great emotional scene near the end of the script where Sweeney asks Adam for a day off to celebrate her daughter’s birthday, and his answer and the subsequent scene afterwards hit you in a way that scripts just aren’t supposed to do. You’re supposed to need the sweeping music and the perfect cinematography and the actor's faces for this shit to work. Here, it works right on the page.

There is WAY more to this than I'm letting on. But it would take me too long to get into it all. Likewise, it would take me forever to discuss all the great scenes here. There’s a hilarious scene where Adam adds marijuana to a dish to influence a local food critic. There’s his insistence that, after a bad night, they give away free food for a week, something he knows very well could bankrupt the eatery. There’s a wonderful date scene where Adam and Sweeney finally go out, but with so much sub-text going on that it becomes one of the best “first date” scenes I’ve ever read.

But I think probably the coolest thing about this script is that the lead character is both the hero and the villain. He’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And it’s such a great reminder that if you want to get your script noticed, write a part that an A-list actor would love to play. Go read this script right now and tell me if you were a movie star, you wouldn’t want to play this role. I dare you.

And you know what’s nuts? You know who the perfect actor would be to play this part? The one who would heads and tails kill it? Mel Fucking Gibson. I’m not kidding either. He would be perfect for this role. But the guy had to go TNT on his career last week and I don’t think we’re ever going to see him again as a result. It’s probably deserved but if this guy ever wants to jump back into acting , this better be the first script he looks at.

Anyway, this script is fucking awesome, and it’s not just going in my Top 25. It's going in my Top 10.

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

What I learned: In Untitled Chef Project, Adam has a rival who owns a competing restaurant. Naturally, he’s trying to take Adam's restaurant down. So Adam’s manager wants Adam to go there and check the restaurant out – see if there's anything they're doing better there than they're doing here. But he knows Adam's rage will get the better of him so he suggests that Adam take someone with to prevent him from beating the shit out of the other owner. Well Adam doesn’t know anybody. He’s too wrapped up in work to have friends. This leaves him with only one option: Sweeney. Now, after 80 pages of this sexual tension building up between the two, they’re finally going out on a date. But they’re not REALLY going out on a date. No, this “outing” is all under the pretense of business. So Sweeney can’t really say no. Now since Adam knows his rival is a slimy piece of shit, he can't let him know that Sweeney is his sous chef, since he knows he’d try and steal her. So he suggests that the only way they can do this is if Sweeney pretends to be his girlfriend.

Now the reason I went into such extensive detail about this is because THIS is how you build a great date scene! You create a series of situations that work against the date. By doing so, you add mounds of conflict and subtext, which makes the date way more interesting than it ever would’ve been had it just been two people going out. When I read amateur scripts, the date scenes are always boring because they don’t have ANYTHING ELSE GOING ON. Look at how much is going on here. Adam didn’t want to take Sweeney in the first place. Sweeney is excited to be here but knows she shouldn’t be. The two have to act like they’re together, even though they’re not. Adam has to concentrate on what his competitor is doing, so he can make his restaurant better. Adam doesn’t want to ruin the work relationship he has with Sweeney, and is trying to keep this professional. Do you know how easy it would be to write dialogue for this scene? There’s so many things going on to draw from.

Now I’m not saying that every date scene has to be this complicated. Complications will vary depending on when in the story the date happens and what kind of story you’re writing. But you should always look to complicate the surrounding variables of the date to make the scene more interesting. Two people just straight up talking at a table is the most boring thing you can do in a film. Look to make it interesting by adding other variables to the mix.