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.