Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Topiary

I'm taking a break today and bringing in Aaron Coffman to review a script that you couldn't get me to read with an AK-47 pointed directly at my nose. 244 pages?? That means at page 120 you're not even halfway finished! When James Cameron says your script is too long, that's when you know your script is too long. But that's why I'm bringing in AC, a Primer fan who wrote one of my favorite scripts of Amateur Week, The Translation. He's read this thing not once, but twice, sacrificing his entire 2009 to do so. So I thought the least I could do is give him a platform to tell us about it. Here's Aaron with his review of Shane Carruth's "A Topiary."

Genre: Sci-fi?
Premise: This may be the first script in Scriptshadow history that can't be described in premise form.
About: Shane Carruth burst onto the scene with his low-budget sci-fi brain teaser "Primer," which won the grand prize at Sundance in 2003. Strangely, Carruth doesn't have a single credit to his name since that film (although he may have done some uncredited writing work). If I had to guess why this is, I'd say it's because this film (which he's trying to make himself) sounds like it would cost 150 million dollars, which may be a tad ambitious when the only other budget you've worked with is 10,000 bucks. As a side note (this is Carson here), I went to a question and answer session after a screening of Primer in 2004, and I remember Carruth being very nice and quite overwhelmed by the Hollywood Machine. He told us that he had no idea you were supposed to go into meetings with ideas for future movies ready to pitch. His thinking was, "I just spent the last 3 years making this movie and it's finished. Why do you want me to talk about something I haven't even written yet?" I always remember that and thinking afterwards, "You know what, he's got a good point."
Writer: Shane Carruth
Details: 244 pages

Let’s just get this out of the way, right here and now, and then we can get on with things... A Topiary is 244 pages long and there is a very good chance I’m not smart enough to understand what it’s really about. I’ve read it twice now, and I’m still not sure exactly what’s going on.

The script begins with a 68 page first act in which Acre Stowe, a city employee, has been tasked with finding the perfect spot for a first response facility. The idea is that they want to build this building close to where all the accidents happen to cut down on response time. By taking data from the past seven years he’s come up with a weighted average that pin-points the spot where the contractor should build.

Lobbyists aren’t happy with the location and give Acre data that they suspect will get a location more to their liking. And yet, when he breaks it down and plugs their data into his equation, he comes up with the same location.

An intersection.

This leads him out to this specific location, and it’s here where he sees a starburst glistening off a skyscraper. And it’s within this starburst that he sees a pattern. A pattern that he starts to see everywhere. He begins following the pattern to different locations around the city, marking each location on a map. And eventually, realizing that the locations on the map create a design that looks like the starburst.

The journey blossoms as the first act spans around eight years or so and Acre meets and joins a cult-like group of scientists who are investigating the same phenomenon. To go into more detail would be counter-productive as it’s not entirely clear what they’re looking for or what they find. In fact, the first act ends with Acre resigned to the fact that they’ve hit a dead end.

Acre’s story ends here, and we pick up with ten boys, aged 7-12, who discover something called a ‘Maker’ which ejects strange discs. Without much explanation the boys discover that the discs have strange abilities and eventually the boys can build rocket-like toys out of them and control their flight with small ‘controller’ discs. By holding or wearing these controller discs they merely have to yell, “launch” and the rockets take flight.

Then slowly, as they toil with their rockets they discover that they can in fact create creatures with these discs and control their actions. The controller disc now acts like a Wii remote...

...I think I’m going to stop here, because I don’t think I can clearly describe what comes next. Let’s just say that over the next 176 pages the boys learn to make more sophisticated creatures, they discover the discarded pieces from the creatures they created have bloomed into a fort, and then a war breaks out between them and what I think are the scientists from the opening act. And it's during this war that the boys use their creatures like that giant war elephants in that last Lord of the Ring movie. Beyond that, I’m still confused as to what exactly happened.

Oh, except I do know that the boys eventually make a full-scale flying dragon. That part was pretty clear.

Now despite my confusion, and inability to properly describe what happens with much detail, I can say that I really hope Carruth gets to make this film. As a fan of Primer, there were a lot of things that I loved about that film that he brings back here.

First, Carruth has talked in the past about how All the President’s Men was a big influence on Primer. More specifically the idea that you don’t have to explain everything to the audience as long as the two characters who are talking onscreen seem to know exactly what they’re talking about. In A Topiary Carruth does the same thing both with Acre in the opening act and again with the boys. They clearly know what they’re after, but it’s not made entirely clear to the reader just what that is. While some might find this annoying, in this case I found it interesting and it helped keep the story moving at a clip and kept my confusion at bay.

While reading this script I couldn’t help but think of the pacing of Magnolia and how the sequences almost had an operatic quality to them. Each sequence would start out slow and then build and build and build and then move suddenly into the next sequence. I think this helps keep a long script feeling energized as it moves towards its conclusion. It really helped in this instance as the script was, well, long.

Something else Carruth does here that he did very well in Primer is to sound like he knows what he’s writing about. In Primer it felt like everything the characters were doing was based in real-world research and that is the case here as well. In the opening act I felt that Carruth had taken his time to do his research, not just in the fantastical details, but even the smallest details. For instance, when Acre interacted with the other municipal workers it sounded real. There was a short hand to the way the characters spoke to each other.

“Look, we’ve gotta get the --”
“Yeah, it’s on its way, has he called light and power --”
“This morning. Paperwork is on my desk. Just need your signature on the I-9 --”

Now, I personally felt there were some issues with the script, specifically there were a lot of names given to the strange objects the boys come in contact with and I had a difficult time keeping them all sorted out, especially as the story went along. Each time something was given a name, and then became a big part of the story I had to step back for a moment to take inventory of everything that had been introduced to make sure I still remembered what it all did. The ‘Maker’ did this, the ‘funnel’ did this, the ‘governor’ did this’ the ‘petals’ did this, the ‘flowers’ did this, etc, etc...

Lastly, I could probably discuss the formatting that Carruth used, since it did feel as if it had been written in MS Word, but ultimately because Carruth is directing this, the format isn’t really a major concern.

Let me just end this mess with restating that I hope Carruth finds the money to make this film. The script can be frustrating and it can feel long at times and it can lose you at others, but it also feels like it was written by someone who knows exactly what they want to do with it and have a clear vision on what it should look like in the end. It’s an original work and boy do we need more of those right now.

[ ] What the Hell Did I Just Read?
[ ] Wasn’t for Me
[x] Worth the Read
[ ] Impressive
[ ] Genius

What I Learned: If you’re writing a script that you plan on directing yourself, then you can pretty much do whatever you want. Sure, eventually someone will need to understand what you want to do so they can give you some money, but until then, write the script however you want. If you’re writing a spec, I don’t think this should be your blueprint. If you are trying to secure an agent or make a sale there are ways to write this story in a more traditional way. That’s not to say you can’t be original when writing a spec and it’s not to say you can’t try and do something different, but if you want that agent, handing them a 244 page script probably isn’t the best idea. I imagine if this script found its way onto the desk of a reader, that person would get maybe halfway down the first page before tossing it into the recycling bin -- and I’m not even talking about the shred-only box that contains Amy Pascal’s receipts from her last trip to Vegas -- I’m talking about the blue bin for bottles and plastic cups that sit next to the dumpster out back.