Thursday, September 30, 2010

Amateur Friday - The Black Way

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. :) Here’s this month’s review, a sci-fi thriller by John Worsley!

Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller
Premise: (from writer) Five survivors of a deadly archeology dig uncover an ancient alien plot while investigating a friend's suspicious death, and find themselves drawn into a war between the aliens.
About: Amateur Friday script!
Writer: John Worsley
Details: 107 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. 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).

The Black Way follows a group of friends/archeologists as they explore the remote forests of Belize, presumably for remnants of ancient Mayan civilizations. While there, they’re attacked by a mysterious group of people who kill three members of their group.

Fast-forward five years and Merida Zamora, a member of the group who lost her sister on that fateful day, gets a call from the leader of the expedition, Kyle Woodson, a professor type. He has a job for her, and actually wants to include the whole gang . So everyone flies to the same airport where Kyle is scheduled to meet them.

But uh-oh, when Kyle shows up, he’s acting like a deranged emu, refusing to engage anyone in conversation. He quickly marches into the airport and when the others give chase, they watch in horror as Kyle charges outside, into the middle of the road, where he's hit by a car and KILLED.

Well that definitely didn’t go as planned.  The group concludes that instead of heading back to their respective homes, they need to find out why Kyle was acting like a robot.

They’re given a lead after Kyle’s wake when they spot a strange female intruder at Kyle’s house. Sensing that the group is onto her strangeness, she runs, they chase her, and when they catch her she convulses and dies. I think this is the point in the script where I knew it wasn't going to work. We start off with the slaughter of the three friends. A few scenes later we get the death of Mysterious Kyle. A few scenes later we get the death of this woman. And I should mention that the movie starts 2500 years ago where we see the death of a Mayan man. It just seemed like there was a lack of inventiveness or imagination here. Death after death after death after death?  Usually one death is the jumping off point for a story. So getting four consecutive instances of it was too much.

Anyway, the group snoops around town, running into more mysterious figures, eventually finding a SECOND KYLE! But how can that be?  Kyle is dead! Well, they follow this Kyle into an alley where some strange alien-men beat the hell out of him and take him away.

At a certain point they realize this is all related to the experience they had in Belize and seek out some ancient Mayan tablets, which inspire them to head back to that dreaded country to finally confront what happened to them that fateful day. 

What I liked about this script was John’s ability to build mystery. Building up questions that the audience wants answered is a surefire way to keep the story entertaining. I also thought the writing style and general flow were solid. But there's a huge problem looming over this script, and it has to do with the structure. 

You don’t want to wait until the middle of the script to get to the heart of your story. When you come up with an idea, whatever the heart of that idea is, that’s where you should have your characters by page 25-30. If you’re writing Indiana Jones, you don’t have him teaching classes and stumbling around town searching for clues to the Ark of The Covenant until page 60. You send him on his adventure as soon as possible! If you’re writing The Matrix, you don’t have Neo stumbling around the city finding different secrets about the Matrix until page 60. You have him in the real world by page 30! As far as I can tell, the hook for this movie is the creepy Mayan mystery. For that reason, we need to be in Belize by page 30! Not stumbling around finding multiple Kyles and Mayan tablets and weird women and alien thugs. Or, if we are doing that, we should be doing it in Belize or the Mayan jungle, not a completely benign location. Get us to the heart of the story ASAP!

I also think the characters need to be beefed up here. I’m not sure I even know who the main character is in The Black Way. It appears to be Kyle, since he’s the leader of the Belize mission and the one who calls everyone together. But he goes AWOL so we’re forced to accept another main character, who I guess is Merida. But Merida doesn’t really act like a hero. She has no flaw, her personality is neutral, she doesn’t possess any heroic qualities. She’s more like a tour guide, reminding and encouraging everyone where they need to be, than an active driven heroic individual. I didn’t see any passion in her, any fight, anything that made her jump off the page.

In addition to this, none of these characters stand out. Everybody acts the same. Whenever you include a group of people in your script, your first job is to differentiate them. Look no further than Aliens to see the best example of this ever put to film. As soon as those characters are introduced, each one is distinct, each has their own character flaw, each has their own quirks, each has their own agenda. One of the archeologists in The Black Way is described as having an attitude, which, on paper, is great. But I never once saw her attitude in action. Remember, we have to SEE it to feel it.

I think a lot of this comes down to an unfocused story. Blake Snyder, for all the controversy his Save The Cat series inspires, said something that I didn’t initially agree with, but have since realized is so true. He said if you can’t figure out your logline, you’re not going to be able to figure out your story. And what he means by that is that your logline is a reminder of exactly what your story is about. If it’s mushy, if it’s unclear, if it’s weak, then your story is going to be mushy, unclear, and weak. To be honest, I’m still not sure what the central storyline is here. So if I were John, I’d focus this logline to represent a group of people going back to Belize to confront a terrible tragedy, only to uncover a deep secret once they got there.

I say all this, of course, with an encouraging smile and pat on the back. Despite my problems with the script, I see some promise for John as a writer. Just need to get that structure in shape and make those characters come alive. Good luck on the next draft!
Script link: The Black Way

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

What I learned: Today’s “what I learned” isn’t in regards to The Black Way, but rather query letters. I know Amateur Fridays is a learning experience and that you’re trying to present an honest portrait of your work when you write me, but it’s hard to get excited for a screenplay when I read, “I know my script needs work but…” or “I think my script is pretty good…” When someone has so many scripts to choose from, the tiniest lack of confidence eliminates you from the competition. I mean, I have scripts from people saying, “This is funnier than 99% of the scripts you’ve read. I guarantee it.” Now of course I know they’re wrong, but when someone says that, I have to admit I’m intrigued and want to take a look, if only to satisfy my assumption. Of course I’m not saying you should start every query letter with “THIS IS THE BEST SCRIPT EVER!” But just have an air of confidence about yourself. Sure you might have doubts about your work, but that doesn’t mean you should convey them to the person who's going to read it.

News - From Around The Web

The biggest news of the week so far is that Robert "motion capture" Zemeckis is getting back into live action filmmaking!  Hurray!  Even better, he's doing it with a time travel movie!  Back To The Future is easily in my Top 5 of all time so this is, like, thrilling news.  If you want to jump in the Scriptshadow time machine, you can take a look at the original Back To The Future 2 script, which I reviewed a few months ago. Warner Brothers has picked the project up for high six figures, I believe, as a pitch.  Mike Thompson (Dragonfly) is writing it.  Warner Brothers must have robbed a casino recently since, as you know, they bought two specs last week, a big sci-fi script and a spy thriller. I'm loving it.

Proving that connections are awesome, Collider is reporting that Chris Pine, who, let's be honest, nailed the part of Captain Kirk in Star Trek, is running back into Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci's arms, as he looks to have accepted the lead in "Welcome To People," Kurtzman's directing debut.  The script is not typical Kurtzman and Orci fare and looks to be more of a passion project.  It's about a guy who comes home to his father's funeral, only to learn that he has a sister he never knew existed.  I'm still looking for this script so if you have it, please send it my way!

Deadline Hollywood's reporting that the video game Myst and its sequels are finally being turned into movies.  On the one hand, I think Myst is one of the most cinematic video games ever and would probably make one of the best video-game adaptations in history.  Certainly a better choice than turning board games into movies.  But I seem to remember this being purchased for a film adaptation numerous times.  It's one of the highest selling video games ever and I remember loving the first one back in 1993, but there's obviously something preventing this from getting to the big screen.

Slash Film has brought up the title change to "I'm Mortal," Andrew Niccol's latest sci-fi escapade.  I reviewed his script "The Cross" a while back and must admit I didn't like it.  Niccol is sort of plagued by creating such a brilliant first film in Gattaca, and is still looking to recapture that greatness in my opinion.  I do have this script but I haven't mustered up enough excitement to read it because Niccol's work is so uneven.  Have you guys read it?  If so, what did you think?  Apparently it's about a future society where time is rationed, which sounds kinda neat if done right.  On the plus side, the film has some Mad Men love going for it, casting Vincent Kartheiser.

Finally, it's sort of a bittersweet moment here at Scriptshadow.  My review of The Social Network script a year ago doubled Scriptshadow's traffic in a single day, so it's going to be sad having to take it down from The Top 25.  The film is opening tomorrow. I don't know about you but I will be watching it this weekend AND reviewing it for you next week.  So go see it!  Also there's good news for The Social Network as I'm hearing the soundtrack is number one over at Amazon.  Really hope this movie does well.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

News - Vampire Hunters, Snow White, and Franco

The folks over at Deadline Hollywood are reporting that Universal has just purchased a script titled "Snow White and the Huntsman" for 1.5 million dollars, obviously taking the famous deceased gal in a new, and I presume more sinister, direction.  Rupert Sanders, desired by everyone for their big budget projects (he's said to be up for the All You Need Is Kill job) will be directing.

Another hot project that looks to be bought up soon is "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith.  The script is said to have in it Abraham Lincoln.  And vampires.  Tim Burton is producing and Timur Bekmambetov is directing.  You may be asking the question, "How is it a spec script if it's based on a novel and two entertainment heavies are attached to it?"  Well technically any script that you're writing and not getting paid for is a spec.  The traditionalist in me sure would like a good ole fashioned original spec idea but hey, if it keeps the market alive, it's a nice consolation.

James Franco, fresh off his 127 Days buzz, has purchased the Stephen Elliott novel, The Adderall Diaries, which he not only plans to direct and star in, but write as well!  More power to him.

Finally, the biggest purchase of the day was actually in the book world.  For 2.5 million dollars Sonny Mehta acquired The Loneliness of Sonia and Sunny by Kiran Desai based on a four page proposal.  It looks like we're in the wrong business!  Desai is a Booker Prize winner for her heady novel, The Inheritance of Loss.

Welcome To The Rileys

Genre: Drama
Premise: An upper middle class suburban man who loses his 15 year old daughter to a car crash befriends another 15 year old girl eight years later.
About: Welcome To The Rileys came out of Sundance with a lot of buzz. It has an interesting cast with James Gandolfini and Kristin Stewart playing the leads. Ken Hixon, the writer, is probably best known for writing City By The Sea, the Robert De Niro starrer from 2002, and Inventing The Abbots, from 1997. Rileys hits theaters at the end of October.
Writer: Ken Hixon
Details: 123 pages - undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. 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).

Welcome To The Rileys is another one of these early Oscar contenders. “Early Oscar Contender," of course, is synonymous with  “Indie movie which desperately needs Oscar buzz to make money."  Which is fine.  James Gandolfini gotta eat.  But you always gotta be leary of these movies with Oscar buzz in September. 

Actually, I have to come clean on something. I’ve really soured on independent film. A lot of that world has become a breeding ground for directors and actors to play around and experiment with things that the studios would never allow them to do but the scripts themselves have been lacking.  Oftentimes they're too self-important (Rachel Getting Married) or too heavy (Frozen River).  It's rare that we get one that really rocks like the Alfonso Cuaron masterpiece, Children Of Men (btw, it sounds like Natalie Portman will be starring in Gravity). 

I can remember the moment I first started questioning independent film. I'd heard about this movie called “Maria Full Of Grace” that was, according to all the critics, phenomenal. I raced over to the Santa Monica theater on 2nd street for the 11:15 A.M. Friday opening day show and proceeded to watch…the – most – average – movie – ever! It was the big budget equivalent of watching “The International,” just an average plot with average execution that you forget one second after you leave the theater.  Up until that point, the indie marketing strong hand had convinced me that every one of their movies was a secret stash of gold that only cinephiles knew about.  After that, I had a whole new perspective.

In fact, I would argue that out of the roughly ten bonafied "good" movies that come out every year, studios are either even with the independent circuit or a little better.  

But low and behold, today's script might have found it's way into that Top 10 spot.  I don't know how well Welcome To The Riley's the film panned out (I'm personally a little worried about the casting), but as a script, it's good stuff. 

Rileys starts off with a car crash on a dark lonely intersection eight years ago. We don’t know why this crash is important yet, but we will soon. Jump to eight years later where we meet Doug Riley, the 56 year old president of a plumbing firm, and a man who’s clearly drifting through life. Doug lives in upper-middle-class suburbia with his wife Lois, who’s developed a severe case of agoraphobia, refusing to ever leave the house.

We find out the reason these two have essentially given up on life is because their 15 year old daughter was killed in that car crash we saw at the beginning of the film.

When Doug’s mistress, the only person keeping him sane, dies unexpectedly, he decides to go down to a plumbing convention in Savannah, if only to clear his mind for the weekend. On his first night out, he spots some men from the convention coming his way and in order to avoid talking to them, he ducks into a strip club. He immediately spots a clumsy young dancer dancing on one of the side stages.  Mallory is a dead ringer for his dead daughter. 

Doug finds himself ordering a private dance in order to talk to her, but Mallory is far from the refined middle class daughter he once knew. All she talks about is sex, all she asks for is money, and she seems genuinely baffled that Doug doesn’t want to have sex with her.

Their conversation leads them back to Mallory’s place, a dump in the icky part of Savannah, and within a couple of days, Doug is doing her laundry and cleaning her place, essentially becoming a surrogate father to this part time underage stripper/hooker. 

Back in Indianopolis, when Lois hears that Doug isn't coming home anytime soon, she does the unthinkable, forcing herself out of the house and into their car, beginning a blind drive from Indiana to Savannah. Since she hasn’t engaged in society in over eight years, her experience is not unlike an alien's on a new planet. She doesn’t know what to do, how to act, who to talk to. When the car starts chatting with her, for instance, she almost has a heart attack.  She's never heard of On Star before. 

As you’d expect, Doug and Mallory’s situation is akin to that trailer for the new Denzel Washington movie about a train full of chemicals barreling towards the heart of the city (Yes, the rumors are true, Denzel only does movies about trains now).  We know it's going to crash and burn unless she commits to his lifestyle or he commits to hers.  If they keep living in this dope den, nothing good is going to come of it. 

I admit that Welcome To The Rileys is a movie I usually give the Heisman to. In fact, some might argue that it’s the exact type of film I was referencing above, a laborious indie ride with no plot. But Welcome To The Rileys has more going on for it than you think, namely really interesting characters, and lots of conflict.

Take Doug for example. He’s unable to communicate with his wife on any level since she’s withdrawn from society, so there’s conflict between them. Doug doesn’t want Mallory doing what she’s doing, so there’s conflict between them. Doug still refuses to accept his daughter’s death. So there’s conflict inside of him. His business associate and friend doesn’t want him to sell the company because it will put him out of a job, so there’s conflict (pressure) pushing on him there. Each character here is experiencing conflict on several different levels, which really makes up for the film's lack of plot. 

Here’s what you have to remember. If you don’t have a plot, you have to have memorable, original, interesting characters steeped in conflict. This conflict is essentially the car that's driving your story, so it really has to be thought through. As soon as that conflict runs out of gas, you better find the nearest Conflict Station because you ain't going nowhere without it.

If Welcome To The Rileys runs into any trouble, it’s in that it’s dark and depressing, to the point where it will turn people off. This isn’t shiny happy REM people here so if you’re not in the mood for a rough ride, you’re not going to like it. Indeed I wanted more humorous moments like Mallory and Doug trying to find common ground, as these two were possibly the most opposite human beings on the planet.  But these moments are pretty sparse, and I'm not sure I would've responded if I weren't in the mood for something so bleak (why I was in the mood for bleak, I have no idea!).  I think that’s why I loved American Beauty so much. It nailed that perfect balance between humor and drama, bringing a smile to your face just as often as it brought tears. Having said that, Rileys does have a little bit of American Beauty in it, in that it explores the facade of the perfect happy family unit in suburbia (and in a totally unique way!)

If you’re in the mood for a dark piece with some good writing, I’d recommend you check this out. It’s quite good.

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

What I learned: Try to get those three elements of conflict into your script if possible. Conflict inside your character (internal conflict), conflict between your characters (intra conflict) and conflict pushing on your characters (external conflict). You want to do this no matter what kind of story you’re telling, but pay extra attention to it if you’re writing a character piece with little to no plot, such as Welcome To The Rileys.

News - Pre-Release of Monsters is out.

It looks like this is where the movie world is headed.  It started with Steven Soderbergh's Bubble a few years ago but this week two movies have hit the video release market before or during the time they're being released in theaters.

The first is the movie Slash-Film has been gushing over for months now, Monsters, where this director shot the movie across three continents for like five thousand bucks or something ridiculous like that.  It hits theaters October 29th but is available direct-to-download now for ten bucks. I'm going to be watching it later this week and then throw up a sort of movie-as-script review on the weekend.

The other is the now infamous "I'm Still Here," the Joaquin Phoenix mocumentary, shockumentary, weirdumentary which is taking a more illogical (and in a strange way, more appropriate) path by releasing the film on DVD at the same time it's appearing in theaters for a heftier than usual price tag.  Don't know if I'm going to see that one, but I do think it's interesting that this is the direction movies are going.  Will you pay a premium to see movies early?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

News - Nicholl Finalists Announced!

A big congratulations goes out to all the Nicholl finalists.  It looks like two comedies have made their way into the Top 10 (Drunk-Dialing and Nicky Flyn Finally Gets A Life), a genre that traditionally doesn't fare well at Nicholl, so double-congratulations to those guys.  Nicholl tends to get a lot of crap these days and while I do think they lean a little too harshly towards the heavier period fare, it's still the biggest contest out there and usually leads to writing careers for its winners.  30 grand is some nice pocket change too.  I used to be against contests but what I learned is that they really keep writers focused and working towards a deadline.  As we all know, if we're left to our own devices (no ticking time bomb!) we just end up drifting away, working on a script for years.  I'd be curious to know if any of these finalists are Scriptshadow readers.  If so, please chime in and tell us a little about your script, how long you've been writing, etc.  And I wouldn't mind anyone sending me these screenplays either.  I'm sure there are a few good ones in the bunch.

The finalists are...

Sage Vanden Heuvel, Ann Arbor, Mich., “Inner Earth”
Tim Macy, Kansas City, Mo., “The Last Queen”
Destin Daniel Cretton, San Diego, Calif., “Short Term 12”
Art Corriveau, Santa Fe, New Mexico, “Nicky Flynn Finally Gets a Life”
Micah Ranum, Beverly Hills, Calif., “A Good Hunter”
Sebastian Davis, Los Angeles, Calif., “Drunk-Dialing”
Logan Steiner, Redondo Beach, Calif., “The Promise of Spring”
Andrew Lanham, Austin, Texas, “The Jumper of Maine”
Marvin Krueger, North Hollywood, Calif., “And Handled with a Chain”
Cinthea Stahl, North Hollywood, Calif., “Identifying Marks”

Monday, September 27, 2010

The King's Speech

Genre: Period/Biopic
Premise: On the precipice of World War 2, the son of King George V, who has an embarrassing speech impediment, is tasked with giving one of the most important speeches of the 20th century.
About: The King’s Speech just won the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival. The film stars Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Botham Carter. For those of you writers getting long in the tooth and afraid that Hollywood ageism is conspiring against you, David Seidler, the writer of The King’s Speech, is 73 years old and just signed with UTA! Talk about paying your dues, huh? This script should prove to many that your best work is usually your most personal. Seidler had a terrible stuttering problem when he was growing up and was inspired by Bertie’s (King George VI) story. He’s been trying to get the film made for over 20 years. The script was finally made because it got into the hands of Tom Hooper’s parents (the director). They gave it to their son, who was shooting John Adams for HBO. He showed up at Seidler’s door, waving the script, calling it the best script he’d ever read in his life. In classic Hollywood fashion, they then proceeded to write 50 more drafts!
Writer: David Seidler
Details: 115 pages – Sept. 17, 2008 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. 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 remember last year around this time when An Education debuted and people were talking about it as an Oscar contender. I didn’t personally see anything Oscar-contention-worthy about the script, so while I know a lot of people liked it, I wasn’t surprised to see it disappear off the radar. I still don’t know why you’d make a movie about an inappropriate relationship where nobody in the movie cares that the relationship is inappropriate! But alas, I’m not here to complain about An Education.

I’m here to look for some weightier scripts. Last week’s half-hearted attempts at screenwriting left me cold so when I heard that, once again, companies were marching out their Oscar contenders, I perked up. You figure, at the very least, the scripts have to be decent, and this is what led me to The King’s Speech, the movie that came out of Toronto with the most attention.

I’m by no means an expert on British royalty so you’ll have to excuse me if I get some facts wrong. The King’s Speech is about Albert, or “Bertie” as he’s known, The Duke of York and second son of King George V. It’s the 1930s and some lunatic named Hitler is wreaking havoc up and down Europe. With King George on his last legs, a new king will have to reign soon, and that king’s voice will be one of the most important voices in the world, as it will convey to every country what Britain’s stance is on the dictator.

Enter Bertie, who has a colossal stuttering problem, so much so that his own wife, Elizabeth, is embarrassed by him. Lucky for Bertie, his older brother David, the Prince of Wales, will be taking over the throne, not him. David is a media darling and extremely popular, however he falls in love with a common woman, and is therefore scandeled out of the throne, forcing Bertie into the role he thought he was free and clear of, that of The King.

During this time, radio was becoming huge. For you youngsters, think 3-D times a thousand. Actually, 3-D’s not a good example, since it will be gone in a year. Let’s see. Like the internet! Yes, like the internet. Radio was like the internet back in the 1930s. Except there was no e-mail in radio. Or web. Or Twitter or Facebook. This reminds me, did you guys hear about that college that experimented for one week with no cell phones, texting, or internet? I guess the whole college grinded to a halt because nobody knew how to operate.

Anyway, the point I was making was that radio was huge, and more leaders were required to give public addresses. In particular, the world was awaiting the most important country in the world’s response to Hitler. Enter Bertie, a man who stuttered so bad he couldn’t find his way out of a sentence with a map.

So terrible is his problem that his wife actually seeks a speech therapist outside the royal circle. She finds a man with a great reputation, an Aussie named Lionel Logue. Lionel is of course brash, unconventional, and inappropriate, sort of like a 1930s Mr. Miagi with more attitude. Bertie hates him immediately. But after a clever first session in which he proves to Bertie that he can speak without stuttering, Bertie has no choice but to continue the therapy.

This is where the script really takes off, when these two are clashing against each other. The pitch-perfect conflict, one steeped in convention, the other dripping with disrespect, makes for some fun back and forth. Characters who buck convention and live by their own set of rules are always good, and when I heard that they got Geoffrey Rush to play this part, I knew they’d hit the jackpot.

Unfortunately, for some reason, the script deviates from the Lionel-Bertie storyline in the later half of the second act, focusing instead on in-family political issues and some nonsense with the prime minister that we don’t really care about. While I understand why so many writers get lost in this part of the script (I think it’s the hardest part of a screenplay to get right), this seemed like a pretty obvious mistake. Why go away from the best part of your story?

While it could be characterized as a hoighty-toity period piece, The King’s Speech uses the simplest most classic story structure there is. Man has problem. Man tries to fix problem. Believe it or not, it’s not that different from a script like Bad Teacher, the Cameron Diaz comedy I reviewed earlier this year. In that script, woman has problem (she needs bigger boobs so she can find a sugar daddy) and woman tries to fix problem (Steals money from the school she’s employed at).

What makes The King’s Speech so successful at this format, however, is first, irony is built straight into the concept. A man who can’t speak is tasked with making the biggest speech ever! What a great premise. Next, the stakes are extremely high (possibly the freedom of the world). There’s a natural ticking time bomb (the speech), and our character is super sympathetic. He’s an underdog! As I’ve pointed out before, there’s no character we root more for than an underdog. Put all these things together and you have a winning formula.

Now that doesn’t mean the structure is foolproof. One of the problems you run into with such simple stories is deciding how complex to make them, namely how many subplots to add and what to do with those subplots. This is a critical decision. If your subplots are too few or too thin, the story feels empty. If they’re too many or too complex, they create deep chasms of screenplay real estate that bore the audience to death. This is what I was referring to above. When we move away from Lionel and start concerning ourselves with Bertie’s brother, he’s just not tied into Bertie’s issue enough to make him interesting. Or, at least, not in the way they chose to include him.

Finally, I have to mention the dialogue in this script, specifically between Bertie and Lionel. Once again, it proves that the SITUATION is the most important factor in creating great dialogue. The dialogue here comes because you have an uptight man who demands respect working with a selfish man who respects no one. Before you’ve even written a word, the conflict you’ve created by placing these two characters in the same room is going to lead to great dialogue no matter how inexperienced you are.

It’s really too bad that the dreaded late second act blues hit this script because it was shaping up to be an impressive. Still, this was an enjoyable read and I’m not surprised it’s playing so well to audiences.

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

What I learned: Failed period pieces often try to cover too much territory. It’s as if the writer feels he/she must live up to the weightiness of the time and the material by exploring as many different aspects of the subject matter as possible. Instead, the next time you write a period piece, consider telling a simple yet powerful story that audiences can understand and relate to, like The King’s Speech.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The High Lonesome (Roger Review)

First thing's first.  If you want to complain about the new look of the site, I've created a forum for you!  A lot of people have said to just go back to the old look but unfortunately that's one thing I can assure you isn't happening.  I've always despised the look of the site and while I'm clearly not an esteemed member of the design club, I'll keep tweaking it until it's acceptable.  If you're a graphic design master and want to shoot me some tips, feel free to!  

You'll also notice there are now ads on the site.  People have called me a moron for not monetizing the blog earlier and I guess you can say I finally came to my senses.  My adsenses.  Heh heh.  If you've spent countless hours here and always wished you could help out somehow, support the site when you see something that interests you. :)  It will definitely be appreciated.  

This week Roger starts us off with a Western.  I then review scripts for two movies that played over at Toronto, both of which are getting some early Oscar buzz (Oscar buzz?  In September??).  I'll also review an enormous super-thriller that's been kicking around development for awhile. And for those freaking out because I didn't do Amateur Friday last week, fear not as I am doing one this Friday.  In my world, Friday is September 31st.  Now, here's Roger with a review of a Richard Donner project.  Enjoy!  

Genre: Western
Premise: A deaf gunslinger running from his past finds his destiny in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he becomes embroiled in a war between rival railroad companies.
About: The only information I can find is the sentence that was attached to the script, “All Richard Donner will say on the project, a Western, is: ‘It’s got an incredible character in it that makes it unique.’” If, for some insane reason, you don’t know who Donner is, he’s the director responsible for such classics as Superman, The Goonies, and Lethal Weapon. Brian Helgeland (A Knight’s Tale, L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) is the screenwriter telling Donner’s tale.
Writers: Story by Richard Donner; Screenplay by Brian Helgeland
Details: Draft dated October 30, 2000

Brian Helgeland is the guy most likely to rewrite your screenplay should a) you manage to sell it, and b) it’s greenlighted with either Scott Free Productions or The Donner’s Company as producers. Richard Donner is the guy that convinced everyone to go the straight route on a Superman movie, and for his efforts created a modern classic that all geeks favorably point to when arguing about the cinema of superheroes. His name is associated with the zeitgeist of popular 80s flicks, The Goonies and Lethal Weapon, and although he’s directed a ton of movies and television episodes, he’s only been attached to two Westerns, Maverick and the 60s tv show, Wanted: Dead or Alive.

So, my interest was immediately piqued when this script made it into my hands with the note, “All Richard Donner will say on the project, a Western, is: ‘It’s got an incredible character in it that makes it unique.’

Who is this incredible character, Rog?

John Bowman Young is in love with a girl.

When we meet him, he’s one of the Union soldiers at war with the Confederates at Gettysburg. He’s scared and fighting for his life, and in the midst of all the chaos, he tenderly takes a moment to place a Bible under a dying friend’s head in an attempt to comfort him during his last moments.

If you’ve ever asked the question, ‘Why does Brian Helgeland get to rewrite everyone’s work?’, then this script will help tell you why. There’s both powerful and economic storytelling here, and during this war sequence we flash back to visions John is having of his circumstances in Boston before the war.

As John defends his dying friend, we meet the gal he’s in love with, Mary Deacon Powell. We’re told everything we need to know about them. How he first saw her during a downpour on a cobblestoned street in Boston, how he escorted her home to her mansion through the rain. How, at a Boston Society Ball, he watched her dance with the rich Alfred Roebling, the son of railroad tycoon, Temple Roebling.
Although John dreams of marrying her, he knows that this ambition doesn’t match his wallet. Temple has a proposition for John. He offers the young man four thousand in gold to serve as a draft replacement for his son, Alfred, “Money which would be worth ten times as much by war’s end.”

Mary protests, says that the only thing she wants is for him not to go. Says that the only thing she wants is him. John ignores her, and all she can do is give him a keepsake, a locket containing a lock of her hair.

And, the war ends.

But, before it does, he holds onto the locket as he’s charged by bayonet-wielding Rebels, accepting his death, but as he drops to his knees, a cannon unleashes hell just above John’s head, cutting down his attackers.
The cannon saves him, but at the price of his hearing.

John Bowman Young returns home from the war, deaf.

There’s a brilliant scene of John making the trek back to Boston, always moving against the grain of crowds of people, and he’s walking away from Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address on a military platform.
He stares, and of course, he hears nothing.

What happens back in Boston?

Heartbreaking stuff.

John makes his way to the bank and discovers that there’s no money waiting for him in his name. Zilch. Apparently, Temple duped him. Regardless, John sets out to find Mary.

Only to find her with Temple’s son, Alfred. He follows them on a busy street, and to all appearances, it looks like they’re a bonafide couple. In actuality, Mary is telling Alfred she misses John, but to a man who can’t hear, he can only react off the visual cues. When a woman screams because John is almost hit by a carriage, Mary spins around to see John, but John flees.

Mary recognizes him and screams, “I –“ but the ‘love you’ is silent in John’s world, and he leaves Boston despondent, full of despair. It’s a tragic case of Shakespearean miscommunication, with John assuming the worst and acting off of his perception of events, not the reality.

Where does John go?

He heads West, full of grief, hoping to find peace as a homesteader in the great move to settle the land. He can’t really stand being around people anymore, so instead of joining the Manifest Destiny caravan, he travels alone on foot. He acquires a best friend, a starving redbone coonhound named Moocher. They scavenge wagon train camps for food on their journey, and one day, he sees his reflection in a pool of dirty war. He hates seeing what he’s become.

He silently screams and howls, catching the attention of some Pawnee Indians led by a man named Six Killer. Six Killer allows John to stay within eyesight of them as they all travel, convinced that the crazy are good luck. The Indians call John, “Screams Alone”. He validates his presence when he saves the Indians from a buffalo stampede during a thunderstorm because he hears their approach when no one else can.

He’s sort of inducted as an honorary member of the tribe, but he’s forced to part ways with Six Killer when they decide to head to Canada. In an emotional scene, the band of Indians all start to scream and holler, but John doesn’t understand because he can’t hear them. “They just want you to know, you no longer scream alone! We scream with you.”

In Kansas, John learns that the Independence Mercantile Bank is refusing his loan to become a homesteader because he’s deaf.

So, in an act of desperation, he uses all the money he has to purchase a gun and one bullet. Hey, it’s all he can afford.

And, he attempts to rob the bank.

How the hell is a deaf man going to rob a bank with one bullet?

With the help of T.Z. Spaulding, of course. See, John is in the middle of trying to rob the bank when another robber arrives, and realizes what’s going on. Spaulding is quite entertained by the scenario, and he decides to help John rob the bank.

Which they do.

And the first half of the Act Two is about Spaulding and John’s relationship. You see, Spaulding is a famous gunslinger, outlaw and bank robbery. He’s the Wizard of the Pistol. He teaches John everything he needs to know about being an outlaw and thief. He’s a great raconteur, and in fact, he’s even writing a book about himself, “And you’re making an appearance in chapter ten.

“Deaf bank robber with one bullet and no horse.”

This section of the script is great fun, and a nice break from all the grief and sadness that permeates the first act. They rob trains and banks and John learns a thing or two about himself. But, good times can’t last forever and it’s not long before a posse is sent to hunt these two down.

Things don’t end well for Spaulding, and John sort of picks up his mantle, and through the book his mentor was writing before he died, he learns the intricacies and theory of becoming a gunslinger.

John becomes adept with all kinds of guns and tricks and flourishes, and he sets out to get revenge on the outlaw that tried to kill Spaulding, and in the process, took his thumb. John learns how to kill when it’s required, and he develops a reputation that brings him all sorts of trouble.

So, what happens?

John arrives in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a hotbed for the war being waged between two railway companies, Union Pacific and Great Northern. Two Union Pacific detectives arrive in town to recruit John as a hired gun, but they end up becoming his enemies. Each day, more men arrive, Pinkertons, outlaws looking to make a name for themselves, and a mysterious Man in Black, all taking sides in the battle to control the railway lines.
The situation is simmering, but really starts to boil when Alfred Roebling arrives in town, the scion of the Great Northern company, with his son and wife who guessed it...Mary.

Farragut and Sunday, the Union Pacific detectives, conspire to assassinate Roebling, but of course, they’re going to have to get through John, first.

To complicate matters, John is in love with a prostitute named Liza, and our hero is forced to face all the demons of his past whilst trying to protect the people he cares about and get out of all the expectant violence alive.

Does it work?

Oh, man, does it.

This is a great script about a grief-stricken man trying to cling to hope and find peace and redemption. There were several times where I teared up because of the things said about loneliness, love lost, and hope. I mean, this is a Western that’s really about the characters and relationships and the hurt we hold inside us.

But, don’t get me wrong, the action and gunplay is awesome as well. It’s great to see how John deals with several life-threatening situations, compensating with cleverness and his other senses for his lack of hearing.

You know how we always talk about fully exploiting your concepts? Well, the concept of a deaf gunslinger is explored in exciting and painstaking detail, and it’s such a good journey. There are some cool gun rigs John wisely comes up with, and you can imagine all the duels and confrontations playing out awesomely on screen.
None of it is boring.

“The High Lonesome” is an emotional page-turner that feels like a great Western. It’s hard not to envision something special here, a deaf gunslinger looking for peace against the backdrop of the Civil War and Manifest Destiny, a man attempting to cling to hope in the throes of despair. It’s one of those journeys that you can’t forget, and you feel like you’re along for the ride every step of the way. What the story says about friendship and healing is powerful stuff, expressed in T.Z. Spaulding’s words to his friend and confidante, “...just remember hope, the patient medicine for disease, disaster and despair.”

Indeed, this is a journey of hope.

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

What I learned: There’s a current trend with pacing that tends to rush a story. I can see people reading this script and saying, “Wait, all the stuff in the logline and Cheyenne doesn’t begin to happen until the mid-point. Is there any way you can tighten things up and get it to start at the beginning of the 2nd Act?” I don’t know when or how this Haphazardly Rushed Sense of Urgency started, but sometimes people are so eager to make their plot move fast that they neuter their characters, sense of pace and overall story. Stories are journeys that unfold, and not all require the plot events of the logline to take place as soon as fucking possible, especially when the character stuff is so rich and required. “The High Lonesome” wouldn’t have worked without John’s journey and transformation, which all happens before his arrival in Cheyenne. Without it, the events in the third act wouldn’t pack the emotional punch they do. Sometimes, people just need to slow down and let their story unfold. Ignore the cookie cutter beats and let character be the engine that drives the story.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Playing with some new looks for the blog.

The style of the blog will be changing periodically throughout the week until I figure out what I want it to look like.  Sorry for the inconvenience.  At least we'll still be updating!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Man On A Ledge

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A suicide jumper is secretly orchestrating a jewel heist in order to clear himself of a crime he didn’t commit.
About: It should be noted that this isn’t the draft that got the movie moving. Hot scribes Erich and Jon Hoeber, who wrote the upcoming Geek-tasmogoric “Red,” starring Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman, have done a rewrite, and that rewrite is what secured Sam Worthington, Amy Adams, Jamie Bell, and Elizabeth Banks. Pablo Fenjves, the original writer, has just taken a huge step forward in his career. Up until this point, he’s written movies only for TV. Chris Gorak, who did revisions, is still listed as director on one of my favorite scripts, the crab-fisherman thriller, “Dead Loss.”
Writer: Pablo Fenjves (revisions by Chris Gorak)
Details: 115 pages – May 16, 2009 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. 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).

Is there such thing as the purity of the viewing experience anymore? I ask this because nobody in this day and age goes into a movie without already knowing what’s going to happen. At the very least, they know the hook, and the hook occurs one-fourth of the way into the movie, which means the first 30 minutes might as well have been watched at home. In a sense, marketing has become the first 30 minutes of every film, in many cases extending to the first 60 minutes, and even 90. That’s why I love reading scripts. It’s the last form of entertainment where I can have no idea what’s going to happen next. But I’ve managed to destroy this purity, as my reading options are many and my time is little, requiring me to know as much as possible about each script ahead of time so I can pick something I’ll have a reasonably good chance of liking. What I find fascinating, however, is how different a script reads when you truly know nothing about it, not even a logline, because the script doesn’t have the advantage of knowing that you know what it’s about. If Man On A Ledge is any indication, first acts become way more boring, because writers have come to depend on the the drama in the act depending on your anticipation of the story’s hook, and I didn’t know the hook to Man on A Ledge. So for a good 40 pages I was going, “What the hell is this movie about?”

What is this movie about? Well, 30 year old Nick Cassidy is a broken down man who’s serving time for something we’ll find out later he didn't do. Luckily Nick’s father dies because prison law states that a man is allowed to attend his father’s funeral. So Nick goes to the funeral where he runs into his younger brother, Joey. The two clearly don’t get along, and after some pushing and shoving, things escalate into a full blown smackdown. Now if I were working this job and I saw a prisoner get into a fight with his brother, I’d probably check the prisoner afterwards. But these guards don’t subscribe to that theory and of course pay the price for it. The fight was a ruse, Joey slipped Nick a knife, Nick slips out of his cuffs and drives away to freedom.

A few weeks (months?) later, Nick walks out on a ledge 21 stories above Manhattan and threatens to jump. For reasons that remain unclear Nick has a very specific jumper psychologist he wants handling his attempted suicide - Lydia Anderson. Lydia is famous for NOT being able to talk down some kid on the Brooklyn Bridge a few weeks ago. Her failure was caught on Youtube and so she’s become a bit of an internet anti-celebrity .

While Nick’s on the ledge, Joey (his brother) and his girlfriend break into a jeweler’s shop. Eventually we learn that that shop is in the building across the street, and that Nick is secretly communicating with Joey. Ahh, this is all a setup! But a setup for what? Well, Nick used to be a policeman, and was tasked with escorting a man with a very expensive diamond from one place to another. The diamond later went missing, and the man, billionaire David Englander, blamed Nick for stealing it, so Nick was sent to jail for 30 years!

Nick is staging this faux-suicide so his brother can nab the diamond Nick supposedly stole and show it to the millions of cameras and policeman who are standing by, thus clearing his name in the court of public opinion, and we assume, the real court as well.

Once all the gears of this giant piece of machinery start grinding, the story comes alive. However I assume I’m not the only one who thinks there are too many gears grinding and that too many of these gears are grinding unnecessarily. For example, it’s entertaining that Joey’s stealing the diamond at the exact same time Nick’s pretending to be suicidal, but is it realistic? Wouldn’t it make way more sense to get the diamond on a Sunday night when no one's around? I mean I suppose doing it right now "proves" that they weren't holding the diamond all along, but who's to say they weren't holding it all along? Who's to say Joey didn't just "pretend" to break in and steal it right now? I don't know. All the theatrics seemed more in tune with making an exciting movie that they did real-world logic.

Another thing that bothered me was the plethora of uninspired and/or lazy choices in the script. We’ve seen the fake fight stuff in order to pass weapons off in plenty of prison movies before. We have mirrors placed in rooms to trick security cameras and characters looping those images so they can walk around freely. We've, of course, seen that dozens of times before. We even have a car chase where one car is trying to ditch another…. by beating a train across the tracks!!! With a little more effort, each one of these moments could’ve been infinitely more inventive, but for some reason only the most obvious option was used.

Man On A Ledge hits a sweet spot around page 60 where we’re jumping back and forth between the ledge and the jewelry store. Lydia is starting to suspect something with Nick and cops are on the heels of Joey and his girlfriend and it feels like it’s all going to go to hell in one disastrous yet delicious finale. At this moment, the story feels most like the film it’s obviously inspired by, Dog Day Afternoon. But that glow dims quickly and there isn’t much left to grab onto.

I’d be interested to see what the brothers Hoeber changed to make this so appealing to everyone involved. In this draft, it’s a bunch of ideas stuffed together searching for the sharp complex thriller it wants to be.

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

What I learned: The outrunning the train scene really bothered me. Look, everything’s been done before. I know that. It’s impossible to be 100% original. But when you come across conventions, at least try to put a new spin on them, even if it’s a minor one. Let me go on record as saying Date Night is one of the worst movies I’ve seen this year. But in it, there’s a big car chase sequence. How many car chases have we seen? 100,000? 200,000? It would be really easy then to throw together yet another forgettable chase, right? Well instead, the writers have two cars locked onto each others’ front bumpers, so the drivers in each car are facing each other, with our heroes having to escape a third car. Now the cars have to cooperate, in a sense, in order to escape that third car. That’s what I mean by giving a convention a new spin. If Date Night, of all movies, can come up with something new in a 100 year old medium, so can you.

Why Worthington attached himself: This role is pretty complex. Worthington gets to play a suicidal man. A deep and emotional challenge for any actor. But in actuality he’s playing a man who’s pretending to be suicidal, which actually makes it even more challenging. He also spends the majority of the movie in one spot (on a ledge), so everything is a series of close-ups for the actor to do what actors like to do best: ACT! On top of all this, he’s secretly orchestrating a plan to prove his innocence. So it’s a part that obviously has a lot going on and obviously allows an actor to stretch his muscles. Not surprised at all that Worthington chose to do the movie.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Irishman

Genre: Crime Drama Biopic
Premise: A mob hit man recalls his relationship with one of the most well-known mobsters in history.
About: Some confusion going on with this one. There’s an identically titled project starring Christopher Walken and Val Kilmer being directed by Jonathan Hensleigh about mobsters in the 70s, but this is not that project, even though it’s also about mobsters in the 70s (I suppose any project titled “The Irishman” is going to be about mobsters in the 70s – indeed there is a third project titled “The Irishman,” so we’ll have to find out what time period that’s set in). This “The Irishman” is based on the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. It’s a hot project due to Martin Scorsese potentially directing the all-star team of De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino. Steven Zallian is one of the best writers working today. His credits include American Gangster, Gangs of New York, Mission: Impossible, Clear and Present Danger, and Searching For Bobby Fischer. Of course, he won the Oscar for Schindler’s List back in 1993.
Writer: Steven Zallian (based on aforementioned novel by Charles Brandt)
Details: 135 pages – Draft 1-5, Sept. 15, 2009 (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. 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).

Scorsese’s been in the news a lot lately with the whole Boardwalk Empire thing (note for those who followed that post: I did watch past the 30 minute mark and it got better – the Al Capone moment was indeed cool), his possible reteaming on this project with Pesci, De Niro and Pacino, and his summer blockbuster about a man who infiltrates others’ dreams trying to overcome the death of his wife. Oh wait a minute wait a minute. I’m thinking of Shutter Island. Why do I keep getting those two mixed up? :)

Anyway, The Irishman is yet another Scorsese foray into the criminal underworld, this one taking place in a time he’s very familiar with, the 70s. Actually, it’s not really based in the 70s. Scorsese, lover of flashbacks that he is, actually flashes back within this 70s flashback to the 1950s, where the bulk of the plot takes place.

Our real life hero is an average guy named Frank. Frank tells us (in voice over of course) how sucky it is having to kill people, particularly people you know. Because of the friendship, you must master a cadence by which they’ll never suspect you of ending their life. As soon as they suspect you, they’ll do something crazy, and all bets are off. So stay calm, wait for them to turn their back, and bang bang. Problem solved.

While explaining the art of the kill, we meet Frank’s good friend, Russell Bufalino. Bufalino wants Frank to join him on trip to an old friend’s wedding. Bufalino has some “business” to deal with along the way so he’d prefer to drive instead of fly.

Using this 1970s “present” as a framing device, Frank escorts us into an extended flashback where he tells us how he got here. He first learned to kill back in World War 2. He was involved in a major standoff where Germans fired on him for 130 consecutive days. When the Allied forces finally surrounded the Germans, even though they surrendered, Frank shot every pleading German he could find for the living hell they put him through the last four months.

After the war, Frank took a trucking job, immediately figuring out how to work the system. He’d steal steaks right out of his own truck and sell them on the side. This led to him working for Russell Bufalino (the man he’s taking the road trip with) who was one of the big heavies of the time. If you’ve seen Casino or Goodfellas, this portion of the screenplay will sound familiar, as passages are almost identical to famous passages from those films. “You wanted to bribe a judge, you asked Russell. You weren’t sure how much to give him, Russell would tell you. You wanted to up one of your guys, he’d tell you if you should. You wanted to get rid of someone - you needed Russell’s permission.”

Where the script really picks up is when Bufalino introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa. Now I had no idea this story was about Hoffa, so watching him show up was kind of like Will Smith showing up to your birthday party. Everything went up a level and all of a sudden it hit me: “Oh shit, we’re going to get to find out what happened to Jimmy Hoffa!” And indeed, that’s exactly where they story goes.

For those who don’t know much about Hoffa (don’t feel bad – I didn’t know much myself), he became president of the biggest union in the United States and began lending out money to high class criminals from the union’s pension fund. This changed the face of America, as it infused mobsters with boatloads of money, and allowed them to organize crime in a way it had never been organized before. They say Vegas was built with this money.

Hoffa’s story is pretty fascinating (are you paying attention John Wilkes Booth?), so the entire second act is solidly entertaining. For example, Hoffa’s people donated tons of money to back JFK in the hopes that he would help them get back all the casinos they had built in Cuba, which Fidel Castro had claimed for himself once they severed ties with America. Incensed, Hoffa wanted JFK to kill Castro once he became president. Of course, as we all know, that didn’t go so well, and Cuba was lost forever.

In fact, the backing of JFK came back to haunt Hoffa. Kennedy’s brother Bobby HATED him and went after him relentlessly. Eventually he caught Hoffa on tax evasion and he went to jail for 13 years. During this time, Hoffa wanted a placekeeper union leader he’d be able to elbow out as soon as he finished his time. Unfortunately the man that took his place became super-popular and wouldn’t let Hoffa back in. Hoffa’s insistence that he get that slot back eventually lost him a lot of friends and led to his downfall. Of course, we’re watching all this unfold through Frank’s eyes, and specifically his friendship with Hoffa, who considered Frank one of his closest confidants.

Overall, I really liked The Irishman. While I joke about Scorsese’s love for flashbacks and voice overs, I thought they both worked well here. There’s something sorrowful about these old men, driving across Americana, tired, burnt out, brittle, contrasted against their prime, when they were both masters of the universe. The juxtaposition there was perfect. When you combined that with the larger-than-life character that was Jimmy Hoffa, someone I’ve always wanted to know more about, that's what broke down the wall I usually use to fend off approaching biopics. I mean this is a story that’s fun, interesting, mysterious, suspenseful, dramatic, inventive and challenging. I rarely see a couple of those things in a biopic, much less all of them. Maybe that’s because it isn’t your standard biopic, but that’s a discussion for another day.

My one major criticism of the story is the present day storyline. There just isn’t anything going on in it. They’re driving to a wedding. Every time we cut back to them, they’re still driving to a wedding. There’s no drama there. No conflict. Zallian seems to be using the 70s solely as a “Princess Bride” device – a way to jump forward in the 50s storyline whenever he needs to.

I actually thought the 70s storyline had a ton of potential. In the beginning of the movie, Frank tells us how difficult it is to kill someone you know, so I was sure that was in reference to him having to kill Bufalino. Had we been watching their friendship build over two hours back in the 50s, all the while anticipating Frank having to get rid of him at the end of the trip, that could’ve upped the suspense a hundred-fold. Or maybe we had it backwards, and Bufalino was going to kill Frank. And we're sitting there wondering who's going to kill who. It goes another way, and I think that way is ultimately interesting, but it definitely would've been nice to have something more going on here.

Where it really hurts the script though is in the final act, since we spend the entirety of that act in the present day. So little has happened in that storyline that it lacks the essential pulse that pushes a story to its ultimate conclusion. It’s hard to describe but those last 30 pages (and we are talking about a long script here, so that contributes to it) feel like the last 60 minutes of a long vacation. Your plane has landed, you’re barely able to stand, you’re waiting for your luggage, and all you want to do is get home and sleep. I’m not sure that’s the way this story should've ended.

But hey, on the whole, this was really enjoyable, especially the second act, which as we know is the hardest act to master. Of the four scripts I reviewed this week, I expected to enjoy this one the least, and it ended up being the best by a mile. So for that reason, it’s definitely worth the read.

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

What I learned: Never neglect a storyline. I see this a lot, particularly in this kind of setup where two storylines are going on and one of those storylines carries the bulk of the plot. It’s easy to say, “Well, the 70s storyline isn’t really that important so let’s just make it adequate.” But it’s always better if there’s something interesting going on in the lesser storyline. Even in The Princess Bride, there’s conflict in the Fred Savage/Grandpa storyline because Fred Savage is pretending like he doesn’t care or want to hear the story. That back and forth eventually leads to them becoming closer, giving that storyline a legitimate beginning, middle, and end just like the story he tells has a beginning, middle and end. So I’m by no means saying there needs to be shootouts or excessive fighting in the 70s storyline here – but it would be nice if it wasn’t so benign.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Genre: Biopic
Premise: A look at the years leading up to John Wilkes’ Booth assassination of President Lincoln.
About: Booth is one of those scripts that’s been bouncing around Hollywood for a long time. Although all we have to go on is rumor here, it’s said that many who have read it loved it, and that the only reason it hasn’t been made is because it’s a hard sell. Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the script with Dylan Kussman, has talked openly about his screenwriting career and about how winning an Oscar on only his second movie with “The Usual Suspects” put an enormous amount of pressure on him. He’s spoken about how freeing it was to write the script when he knew nothing about “the rules of screenwriting,” and how that allowed him to make choices he never would have made today. He talks about the subsequent decade long process of being stuck in development rewrite hell on numerous projects, which is why he seemed to disappear after Suspects, and he’s talked about wanting to quit the screenwriting business because of how difficult it is to get movies made (even for an Oscar winner!). Lucky for McQuarrie and us, Tom Cruise called him up one day and wanted to do a movie about Hitler, which has given his career a resurgence. McQuarrie’s favorite movies include, “Deliverance”, “The Verdict”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “The Taking of Pelham 123”, “Die Hard”, “Electraglide in Blue”, “Lone Star”, “The Big Country” and “The Lives of Others.” Kussman is primarily an actor, appearing in such films as Leatherheads and X-Men 2.
Writers: Christopher McQuarrie & Dylan Kussman
Details: March 18, 2004 draft – 121 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. 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 don’t know if Booth has hit “cult” status in the screenplay world yet but it is one of those screenplays that people say you have to read. I’ve been meaning to read it myself until hearing McQuarrie talk about it. I don’t know what it was but there was just this sense of…frustration when he discussed it. Maybe it was not being able to get it made but it sounded more like he knew the script had problems. I lost interest after that but finally decided to give it a read.

One of the things that drew McQuarrie to Booth was that he wasn’t your average mentally unstable weirdo stalker who thought killing a famous person would bring him closer to a higher power. He was actually a pretty levelheaded guy. In fact, he was quite popular, one of the more famous stage actors of the time. Booth toured from city to city, directing and acting in his own hit plays, charming any man or woman who stepped in his path. He was also frighteningly handsome, although if this picture below is anything to go by, there probably weren’t too many good looking people back in the 1800s.

We meet Booth on that infamous day, as he’s shooting Lincoln and jumping off the rafters, shouting those immortalized words, “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” which is probably why we’ve always assumed he was a nut. Killing people and shouting out phrases in an ancient language usually means “crazy town.”

We then jump back five years to Richmond, Virginia before it all started. This portion of the story is somewhat Wikipediaish. Booth has a big family. He doesn’t have the best relationship with them. In particular he and his brother Edwin, also an actor, don’t see eye to eye. This conflict stems from their father’s passing, who apparently drank himself to death, which (I think) Booth believes Edwin is responsible for.

Around this time, the Civil War is gearing up, and after seeing a Union soldier hanged for freeing slaves, Booth has an epiphany and rededicates himself to becoming a great actor (I’m not sure what seeing someone’s death has to do with acting either. Though Tom Cruise has taught us inspiration comes from the strangest of places).

Eventually Booth meets up with his childhood friends Sam and Michael, who are off to the war. Booth promises to join them but then makes a second promise to his mother that he’ll never become a soldier. This leaves Sam and Michael pissed and is a critical turning point in Booth’s life, as he will never get over the guilt of abandoning his friends.

However, Booth gets another chance to help out the cause when the Confederacy comes to him and asks if he’ll secretly deliver medicine to the Confederate army on his tour stops. Delighted to be of use, he accepts, and this is probably the most dramatically compelling portion of the screenplay. There’s a great scene where some officers stop him and ask to check his suitcase for weapons, the very suitcase the medication is in. Watching him try and squirm out of it is fun stuff.

As Booth’s star rises, his side falls. It’s looking more and more like the Union is going to win the war, and for that reason, people are coming up with desperate ideas. Booth is no exception. He starts concocting a plan whereby he kidnaps the president in order to bargain for many of the captured Confederate soldiers.

This is actually what was supposed to happen all along until a few days before the kidnapping, when Booth’s conspirators changed the plan to killing Lincoln instead, something Booth was never totally on board with. And while he went through with the killing, his conspirators left him out in the cold. They were supposed to kill the entire presidential body, including the vice president and secretary of state, but they all choked and didn’t go through with it. Which kinda sucked for them, since they ended up getting hanged anyway. And that, my friends, is the story of Booth.


This was a tough read. There’s so much information packed into this novel-esque screenplay that every page you read feels like you’re reading four. Indeed, the student inside me wanted to highlight all the necessary passages for the test I would surely have to take tomorrow. When I do my whining on this site, it’s usually for biopics that make me feel like I’m back in school in the middle of a boring history course, and unfortunately, that’s how I felt here.

My big problem with Booth was that there wasn’t enough drama. There wasn’t enough conflict. In Valkyrie, Quarrie’s last film, there were so many scenes where people were clashing up against each other. You could feel the tension in each of the scenes. Here, it was just a person’s life unfolding before us, and that wasn’t enough for me. That’s why I loved the medicine-luggage scene so much. It was the only time where Booth’s journey was difficult – where his world was challenged and where something bad had the potential to happen.

The central conflict in Booth is internal – specifically his troubled relationship with his dead father. The problem is that the source of that conflict and the reasoning behind it are all very confusing. It’s somehow related to his brother and he’s mad at his brother for not stopping his father from drinking himself to death, so he blames his brother for killing his father but his brother also blames him for it I think and then he’s also trying to live up to his father’s name (who was also an actor) and I think somehow we’re supposed to make the connection between his unresolved relationship with his father and him killing Lincoln but I just didn’t see it. It was way too complicated.

I also found it a strange choice to put the assassination at the beginning. On the one hand, it makes sense. We all know what happens anyway. Why not start the movie off with a bang? The problem with this is, the rest of the story is so slow (and I think deliberately so), that we need something to look forward to. We need that exciting finale to pay off the huge investment we’re putting into this. But since we’ve already experienced the finale, we’re not sure what it is we’re driving towards, why we want to get to the end.

My question is, is Booth’s story worth telling in the first place? As far as I can tell, the bullet points of his motivation are, “He sympathized with the south, felt bad for not joining his buddies in the war, and eventually that guilt caught up with him which resulted in him killing Lincoln.” It’s almost as if what’s interesting about Booth as an assassin, the fact that he was pretty normal, is what makes his story so uninteresting. There’s no deep-set shocking reasoning for his actions. He was a normal guy and decided to do something stupid. I don’t know if that’s enough for a movie.

I think McQuarrie’s a great writer but this subject matter didn’t interest me.

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

What I learned: Now I know that some of you disagree with me on this but I believe, and will continue to believe, that telling a story where the audience already knows what’s going to happen severely handicaps one of your biggest advantages as a writer – the element of surprise. To me, when your audience is 30-40 pages ahead of you (or in this case, 100 pages), you have to work twice as hard to keep them entertained. Sure, if you have super-compelling characters, unlimited obstacles, and every scene is dripping with conflict, you can keep our focus so in the now that we don’t care that we already know what will happen (For example, we loved Apollo 13 even though we knew how it ended) but why make it so hard on yourself? I remember watching Toy Story 3 this year, probably my favorite film of 2010, when the toys are heading towards that incinerator (spoiler), and for the briefest of moments thought, "Oh my God. They're really going to do this. They're going to end these toys' lives." I was riveted in that moment, on the edge of my seat. Imagine if the opening scene of that movie was a flashforward showing us that those toys had made it out okay. How that would've eliminated every drop of mystery from the movie. How it would've stolen one of the best scenes of the year. Writing a good story is hard enough. Why handicap yourself?