Sunday, October 31, 2010

It Flies At Night (Roger Review)

If you have those Blood List scripts, keep sending them in.  My mailbox definitely isn't bloody enough.  This week is the week of the amateur as Roger reviews an amateur script today and I review one Friday (Amateur Friday got moved forward a week).  In the middle, we'll have...some other scripts.  How's that for a teaser?  Hey, I'm tired.  I just spent the entire day walking back and forth to the front door giving kids candy.  HERE'S ROGER!

Genre: Horror Western/Creature Feature
Premise: After committing a massacre in an Indian village, a cavalry troop finds their remote fort under siege by vicious flying reptiles seemingly sent to avenge the massacre. Fort Apache meets Aliens.
About: Michael Ezell is a Project Coordinator in the Makeup FX industry. From his email submission for an Amateur Review: "I have to read countless 'horror' films to do budget and bid breakdowns. All those 'slash and hack' films and creature-features with yet another group of teenagers camping in the woods inspired me to break that mold and write something different. I happened to be watching a doc on John Ford at the time and thought, 'What if John Ford had decided to direct a creature film?' The result for me was 'It Flies At Night'." Ezell is a Nicholl semi-finalist.
Writer: Michael Ezell

Ah, the 'ol Horror Western.

It's a genre mash-up I have an affinity for. Something about those big, wide open spaces and shots of vast, rugged terrain framed by doorways seems like a rich setting for scares, thrills and a healthy dose of repulsion. There aren't many of these suckers. For me, the most notable as of late are JT Petty's "The Burrowers" and perhaps Antonia Bird's "Ravenous". The latter is definitely a Period Piece, but I suppose it can be debated whether or not it's a Western. In screenplays and literature there's always Zahler's "The Brigands of Rattleborge" and McCarthy's "Blood Meridian". I guess people attempt to write these genre mash-ups but I rarely come across a script that pulls off this particular brand of alchemy.

When I came across the submission, I decided to give the script a chance because the writer told me about his background in the Makeup FX industry. He told me about his inspiration behind the script, that he was watching a John Ford documentary and dared to dream what a creature-feature by the famed director would possibly be like. Not only does that take balls, but here was a guy trying to break the mold of all the other horror scripts he was being forced to read because of his job. He assured me that reading his amateur script wouldn't be a headache, that he was a Nicholl Semi-Finalist and had been writing scripts for a few years. To make me trust him more, he even provided a synopsis of sorts to peruse in case I had cold feet.

Well, instead of reading the synopsis, I decided to look at the first ten pages of his script. So far, so good.

I kept reading.

So, who are the Cavalry Troops on this bug hunt?

Lt. William Griffin is in charge of this group of men investigating the death of two families who lived and worked on the land near Fort Lewis. He's the youngest man in the troop, the most educated, but the one with the least experience.

Private John Carson is too old to be a private. While the other men carry standard military gear of the time, Carson carries a tomahawk and big-ass knife. We understand he's probably been demoted for his drinking at some point, and this seems to be a point of contention between him and his rival, 1st Sergeant McCallister.

Not only does McCallister wear the rank Carson used to wear, but the guy's an ex-Union soldier while Caron's a former Rebel. I thought this was a great dynamic because it guaranteed there would always be conflict amongst the troop, and it's actually the set-up for an antagonist who decides to screw the rest of the soldiers over when things get dicey.

Rounding out our triumvirate of heroes and villains are the comic relief, Tate and Arbuckle. Two Abbot and Costello idiots anxious for some action. The troop has two Indian guides who are reluctant to lead them into a valley because of superstition. To make matters worse, they encounter an omen in the form of a mutilated buffalo during their expedition. There's some speculation as to what killed it, and although no one can agree, there's the tell-tale sign of a reptilian claw print nearby.

When Griffin spies some branded horses, he ignores the bullying of McCallister, and with the support of Carson, leads the troop into the valley.

Why are the guides superstitious of the valley?

First off, there's an Indian encampment in the area that they're wary of, as they're not of the same tribe. This particular tribe seems to be living under a dark cloud. No one is playing or laughing and braves are all equipped with not-so normal spears, weapons easily over ten feet long.

The English-speaking spokeswoman of the tribe, Bluebird, confronts the soldiers and tells them they did not steal the branded horses. Rather they found them, and there was no trace of their riders. Although while Griffin is taken with her beauty, he doesn't quite believe her story and decides to speak to their shaman instead.

They find the shaman inside his teepee chanting in front of a fire, and he holds a strange ceremonial knife that has a big, albino reptilian claw as a handle. There's a painting on the wall of a strange animal, a horrible lizard thing that warriors are fighting off with long spears. He tells them they all must beware of something he calls It Flies At Night, and he also says that he must sing his song to this thing and give his sacrifice, otherwise they're all going to die, Indians and whites alike.

McCallister, frustrated by Griffin's patience, jumps the gun and points his gun at the shaman. Demands the braves who killed the settlers. Of course, everything goes to shit and the shaman cuts Griffin across the face with his strange knife-claw and McCallister blows him away. Thus, the massacre begins as Indians take arms against the troops but are shot down by the frightened soldiers.

They decide to flee back to their fort before the braves return, and it's when they decide to camp that they are first attacked by something from the sky. A soldier is killed and mutilated. They escape to the fort and Griffin is convinced it's the Indians retaliating for the massacre. He aims to return to the camp the next day and give them some come-uppance, which McCallister is all about while Carson is the reluctant one. Sure, they found bodies, but they didn't exactly see what attacked them.

It's only when more soldiers are snatched from the fort wall and pulled up into the sky that Griffin starts to think it isn't Indians, "What on God's green earth was that?"

"Well, it sure as hell wasn't Indians. Unless they learned how to fly."

But McCallister isn't totally convinced. "Fuck you, Carson. Whatever it is, they had somethin' to do with it."

So, what exactly was it, Rog?

Scar-Head and her brood are these nasty albino lizard things with wings that can lift entire horses into the sky and drop them on their enemies. They're tough, ugly bastards that score quite a few gory kills, but other than having wings and claws, and grotesque white skin, there's really nothing distinctively unique about the creatures. Other than story, I think the one thing that can separate a creature-feature from the rest of the pack is a truly unique monster. The xenomorphs in the Alien movies are the shining example, with their Giger-design, inner mouth, and acid for blood. Not to mention their weird sexual organ imagery. The worms in Tremors are another good example because they make the very ground below the character's feet dangerous.

Or take something simple like Jaws, where the characters build a mystique around the shark by simply talking about it and revealing the corpses it leaves behind. Like in Cameron's Aliens, you don't even see the monster until the mid-point of the movie. I'd say that building a sense of dread and mystique is half the battle in crafting a capable creature-feature.

As far as nasties go, these reptiles are utilitarian. They make a capable threat, but I guess I wanted more mythology about them and wanted features that make them a truly unique monster.

So, what happens?

Well, Bluebird and her love-interest warrior brave, Running Elk, bring their people to the fort and make a demand. They want Griffin and his men to protect their women and children while the men hunt down these monsters once and for all. They want to strike a truce, and only when the threat eliminated, will they deal with their own conflict.

This sends McCallister into conniptions, but Griffin, intrigued by Bluebird and guilt, acquiesces.

The rest of the second act plays out as a sort of Monster Siege on Fort Lewis. There's some waiting around as the characters get to know each other. Plot-wise, this may make you question if the characters are behaving realistically. I'm not sure if this quite works, because it makes our troop seem kind of passive.

Especially since this doesn't feel like a Our-Only-Option-Is-To-Sit-Around-and-Wait scenario. The only obstacle is the creature, so I kept thinking, well, if they know the mountain where these things live, why don't they go kill them?

Which they do, later on.

Pissing off Scar-Head, the brood mother, who goes on a revenge spree against our heroes after they kill her children. Things are also more complicated when McCallister becomes an outright obstacle and antagonist, creating another threat for Griffin and Carson. I liked this human conflict and thought it was more involving than the bug hunt stuff, and there were some touching heroic moments that are well-written, but I think these pay-off scenes could have benefited from a more powerful theme.

Does it work?

As an action-packed bug hunt, it's a page-turner, but like I just said, I think this sucker could benefit from a more resonant theme. I would have liked to see more meat to the story. Starting with the characters, I definitely think the most interesting was Carson. He was an underdog of sorts who was looking for redemption, and his ultimate pay-off is poignant and cool, but I think the reasons for his fall from grace could have run deeper. My suggestion to the writer is to search for a deeper flaw.

Other than the hatred towards Indians, I didn't feel there was a strong thematic undercurrent that runs from the beginning all the way to the end of the script. I think part of the genius of Aliens, other than the unique creatures and the multitude of obstacles and the problem-solving of the characters, is the maternal theme. Two mothers defending their broods to the death. It was a subtext that elevated the material and made the characters, even the Alien Queen, feel like real entities with motivations that ran thicker than blood.

But, as an Amateur Script, I was pretty impressed. I would watch a movie like this. I also think the writer shows a ton of promise and is someone to look out for as his craft improves. That's why I'm giving this a...

Script Link: It Flies By Night

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

What I learned: I'm a firm believer in treating B-material like A-material. Just because something has monsters in it doesn't mean it can't have heart or a powerful story. I think the key is creating a protagonist who is looking for something more than just defeating the monster. In Aliens, Ripley wanted to be a mother. She had a hole in her heart for a child. Newt filled that hole. When Newt was endangered, the stakes went through the roof. Create a character who has a void in their heart they yearn to fill, and let the plot become an obstacle to try and prevent them from filling that void. If you do that, I think you'll find that the theme will rise to the surface as you write and polish and shape your story. That's my two cents, anyways.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Blood List Is Out

If you've been hanging around the site this week, you've been hearing of "The Blood List," an informal list of the best horror scripts of the year.  Last year's was posted, and this year's has just been released.  So, what's on the list?  Download it yourself and see, although I think a fault of the list is that, unlike The Black List, they don't give loglines.

If you know the loglines for some of these scripts, please post them in the comments section.  And if you have any of the scripts, please send them to me.  Maybe we can wrangle this thing together. I have Chronicle and a few others, but that's it.  Enjoy.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Rite

Genre: Horror
Premise: A young priest who does not believe in the Devil travels to Rome to study at an Exorcism School.
About: Oh yeah baby. It’s Halloween Week! Why the hell was I thinking of reviewing Wanderlust on Halloween Week? Instead I’ve decided to review a more appropriate script, The Rite. The Rite will star Anthony Hopkins, Alice Braga, and an unknown actor in the starring role (at least he’s unknown to me). It’s directed by Michael Hafstrom, who directed 2007’s fun Steven King adaptation, 1408. Michael Petroni adapted the screenplay from a book by Matt Baglio. In 1994, Petroni moved to Los Angeles to study screenwriting at the AFI Conservatory, graduating in 1996. While at AFI, he wrote and directed his first feature, Till Human Voices Wake Us, starring Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham Carter. He also wrote The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and the new upcoming Narnia flick, The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader.
Writer: Michael Petroni (based on the book by Matt Baglio)
Details: 123 pages – April 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).

No offense to some of the recent writers whose scripts I’ve reviewed, but man can you tell when someone knows how to write. Writing isn’t about dictating real life events word for word. It’s about constructing those events in a dramatically entertaining way for an audience. It’s about knowing when to step on the gas and when to ease up. It’s about ratcheting up the conflict when the audience wants it, and keeping it subtle in the meantime. Yesterday my reading experience was pure frustration. I kept thinking, “Is this good and I’m just not getting it?” Today reminded me what real writing reads like.

These days, all you need to do is look around to see to see how many people are acting out their most sinful thoughts. We’re devolving as a species, and the devil is using it as a means to get inside of us. Over 500,000 possessions were reported last year. Priests are our last line of defense against this growing problem. For that reason, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI instructed all bishops of the Catholic Church to appoint an exorcist in every diocese world wide. But before these exorcists can operate, someone has to teach them.

Thomas is an intelligent 24 year old embalmer for his father’s lifelong business, a funeral home. Close to retirement, he wants Thomas to take over when he leaves. But Thomas has other plans. He wants to get an education. He wants to live a normal life.

But a normal life requires schooling, and his father has made it clear that you don’t need an education to run a funeral home. If Thomas is going to go to school, he’ll need to find the money himself. That’s when he comes up with a plan. If you pledge your life to God, the church will pay for your education. In a move that would surely guarantee his spot in Hell if Thomas believed in such a place, Thomas plans to get his four years of education, then, before taking his vows, say “thanks but no thanks.”

As the climax for his plan approaches, one of the priests sees Thomas perform an amazing act of God without a shred of fear. He believes Thomas is destined for bigger things and suggests he consider becoming an exorcist. Thomas is reluctant, but the priest convinces him to go to Exorcism School in Rome for two months. If he doesn’t like it, he's lost nothing.

Once at this school, Thomas is thrust into lectures about exorcism protocol, exorcism subjects, and the spookiest of the teachings, documentation of past exorcisms. But even the most spectacular of cases – and some are truly horrifying – are yawn-inducing as far as Thomas is concerned. He knows there’s a rational explanation behind everything and all this nonsense about God and the Devil are clouding these priests’ ability to judge.

The head priest senses Thomas’ skepticism and decides to send him off to one of their more “unorthodox” priests who does his work off-campus.

Indeed Father Carmine lives by his own code. There’s a protocol to go through before performing exorcisms. You have to see if a patient is mentally unstable. You have to rule out multiple personalities or trauma or psychological issues. Carmine couldn't care less about that shit. If he thinks someone’s possessed, it’s time to slam a cross onto their forehead and batter them with the word of God.

It just so happens Thomas walks in during one of Father Carmine’s exorcisms, a young 17 year old pregnant woman named Rosaria. The event is horrifying, this young girl doing and saying the most unimaginable things. But even after what he’s seen, Thomas still believes that her problems can be explained away through abuse and trauma.

The rest of the story centers on Thomas and Carmine’s relationship as Carmine takes him through the daily treatment of his clientele. Even when these subjects bring up personal issues about Thomas’ life, he is convinced they’ve either done research or heard information about him from other parties. He knows that it is impossible for a person to be possessed by the devil. Of course, at some point, this conviction will be tested, as he will have to perform the exorcism to end all exorcisms, a task so impossible he will need to believe if he has any chance in succeeding.

I really really liked this screenplay. First of all, this is exactly what I was talking about when I reviewed our last exorcism script. In that review, I talked about how every exorcism movie is about some priest coming into a town to perform an exorcism on some woman. EVERY ONE! Borrr-ing. So taking the exorcism idea and coming at it from the angle of a school was, in many ways, genius. It’s a great reminder that finding a new angle to a tired subject matter just requires a little thought.

Also, as dumbed down as this sounds, this script proves how effective the “crazy mentor character” is. I was talking about this in my review of The King's Speech the other day (with the part that Geoffrey Rush plays). There’s something about a mentor who does things “his own way” that’s simply fun to watch. It works here with Father Carmine, it worked in The King's Speech, it’s one of the reasons Karate Kid is so popular. About the only time it hasn’t worked is in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.

The construction of Thomas’ character here is also well done. We have a built in fatal flaw – he doesn’t believe. He has a complicated unresolved relationship with his father that we keep going back to. He’s resistant to the job, which infuses most of the scenes with conflict. We understand where the character’s been. We understand where the character wants to go. So many times I don’t know who a character is in a screenplay so it’s refreshing when the writer takes the time to map him out like he does Thomas here.

I think the one challenge for the script was the tricky notion of putting a priest in Exorcism School who didn’t believe in God. This was an essential component to the script working, yet not a logical situation. Petroni (or Baglio) decided to use this desire for education as the reasoning behind why someone who didn’t believe in God would join the priesthood, and it’s admittedly the one conceit you have to make in order to buy into the premise, but I think he gets away with it. And I have to admit, it was a lot more interesting than the tired choice we’re used to seeing , which is to have someone close to the priest die right as he’s starting his journey.

Another dramatic mainstay the screenwriting gurus will tell you is that your main character should have a goal and that that goal should drive the plot. So in The Exorcism, the goal is to exorcise the demon from the girl. In Borrelli’s script, it’s the same thing. This approach keeps the point of the story crystal clear to the audience. But The Rite doesn’t do this. There is no single goal for our protagonist, which gives the story an uncertain quality. We’re not quite sure where it’s going. Which is good if it works, but usually if this goes on for too long, an audience will check out. So how does The Rite make it work?

Well Petroni shifts the focus of the movie from a physical goal to an internal question. Will Thomas believe or not? The answer to that question becomes the driving force of the story. It’s a risky move that I see fail way more than I see succeed because it just doesn’t give the story the same driving force a goal does. But because the characters are so compelling here, because the situations are so interesting, and because we want to find out what happens with Thomas, Petroni makes it work.

If I had a beef with the script, it’s that the ending gets a little crazy. One of the effects of focusing on several exorcisms instead of one is that you have to resolve them all, and with Thomas running around at the end to see all these threads to their conclusion, the finale feels a little scattershot.

But overall, I enjoyed this way too much to let that bother me. A highly recommended read.

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

What I learned: A big reason why this script works is that it’s steeped in conflict. Thomas and his father don’t agree on his direction in life. Thomas doesn’t believe in God. Thomas doesn’t believe in Exorcism School. Thomas doesn’t agree with Carmine’s methods or practice. Everywhere you look in this script, two diametrically opposed ideas are colliding, and it’s the resulting conflict that brings so much entertainment to the ride. Remember, as a story teller, conflict is always your best friend!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Open Grave

Genre: Horror
Premise: A group of 20-something’s find themselves out in the middle of the forest with dead bodies everywhere and no memory of how they got there.
About: This a script from the ’0-SIX Black List. It received SIX votes. And today is the twenty-SIXTH. Get it? 666. Hey, Halloween’s coming up. Work with me. In addition to its Black List pedigree, the script also landed on the 2009 “Blood List” which is an unofficial list of the best horror scripts. The writers, Eddie and Chris Borey, recently got a gig to rewrite the Japanese horror film, “The Neighbor Number 13,” about a boy who becomes psychologically disturbed after an extreme case of bullying. That picture will be helmed by Final Destination director James Wong.
Writers: Eddie Borey and Chris Borey
Details: 98 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).

Sometimes when I’m trying to decide what to review, I poke inside a handful of scripts, giving each a couple of pages. This isn’t some universal approach I’m trying to endorse. I’m merely performing a quick preview to see if I’ll like something. Most of the time there isn’t enough information to make a surefire decision, but scripts that start strong right off the bat definitely have an advantage. Open Grave was one of those scripts.  I was onboard halfway through the first page.

The story starts out with a guy named John stuck in a pit with no memory of how he got there. This is not an ordinary pit. It’s a pit full of gooey mangled tangled bodies. Some of them are decomposed. Others are fresh. Many of them have a hole in the forehead. Which is a curious detail since John finds that he is holding a gun.

For those of you who have also been in this situation, you know it can be pretty harrowing. Pits of dead bodies are particularly hard to get out of.  And while John’s trying to pull it all together, he sees a young Asian woman (who we’ll know as “Brown Eyes”) peer over the pit. He screams for help but she’s either too scared or too busy to comply.

Meanwhile there’s a cabin full of fellow amnesiacs nearby who are also trying to figure out what the hell is going on. There’s Logan, a take-no-prisoners dickhead. There’s the neurotic obsessive babbling Michael. There’s the caring Sharon. There’s the mysterious Nathan. And, of course, Brown Eyes, who seems to know the most out of everyone but can’t communicate it since she doesn’t speak English.

And to really add to the suckage. No internet.

When they hear John yelling from the pit, the group is split on what to do. The lone man in a pit full of dead people has a gun. Aren’t many convincing arguments to save the guy. But while everyone else goes back to the cabin, Brown Eyes drops a ladder down for John and he crawls out.

John joins the group and after a lot of infighting and accusations, they decide they have to work together to figure out what they’re doing here and what’s going on. So they begin exploring the surrounding forest to get a lay of the land and immediately run into some compounds. These metal shacks look like they’ve been built recently. The question is for what.

We find out pretty quickly as inside one of them, they find a woman tied up. Unfortauntely she’s one step down from the crazy homeless people you see on Lincoln Boulevard, deliriously babbling something about the number 18 (or any combination of numbers that add up to it). They notice a surveillance camera in the shack. Someone’s been watching this woman. What the hell is going on??

Madness descends as each of the characters begins to suspect one another as the responsible party for the dead bodies and makeshift compounds. Even John starts to wonder if he’s responsible. All of this will lead to the most pressing question of all: What in the world is going on out here in this forest, and how did they all get involved?

Open Grave starts out great. But maybe a little too great.  Like I've pointed out before, a good concept gets you through the first act, but after that, it’s up to you to tell a story. Jerry Seinfeld used to say that whenever he went out on stage, he could say anything he wanted for the first five minutes and people would laugh because he was Jerry Seinfeld. But after that, after the thrill of seeing Jerry Seinfeld dies out, he has to start being funny or he’s dead. Same idea with a great concept. It makes the reader pay attention.  But at some point, you need to start telling a compelling story.

I think my biggest problem with Open Grave is that the emerging storyline is more shock than substance. There’s some great imagery here, such as this old woman tied up in a shack with a bucket of her own waste placed underneath her. Gross, eerie, scary. But in the end she’s no more than a scare-tactic, someone whose involvement has very little to do with the actual plot, and more to do with freaking out the audience.

This approach is epitomized by a scene at the midpoint where Brown Eyes looks over and sees a group of small kids eating the body of a dead man. It’s a wonderfully spooky image. But when she tries to point it out to the others, the kids have turned into dogs. This visual, while arresting, has nothing to do with the plot at all. It’s simply there because it’s freaky.

Contrast this with one of my favorite scary movies of all time, The Others. (This is a major spoiler if you haven’t seen the film) One of the freakiest images you’ve ever seen has Nicole Kidman’s character walking in on her daughter, her back turned to us, dressed in a wedding dress, singing to herself. Kidman approaches her and the daughter turns around, only to have an old woman’s face with milky white eyes, speaking to Kidman in her daughter’s voice. It’s horrifying. But it’s also perfectly logical within the context of the story. The old woman turns out to be the medium who’s searching the house for ghosts for the current tenants, who we realize were the “ghosts” our characters had been seeing all along.

This leads us to the explanation for our characters predicament in Open Grave, which unfortunately isn't very original, and a lot of that had to do with the writers writing themselves into a hole, no pun intended. If you wanted all of this craziness to make sense, it was really the only direction you could go. And I think the reader senses that, which is why they’re not surprised when it’s revealed.

Now the script does bring into play one of those things that screenwriting teachers will tell you never to use because of its overuse – amnesia. But I thought the collective amnesia was one of the better parts of the script and was the key element that made the opening work so well. I would’ve liked it to have been better explained, but it worked for me here.

In the end, I liked this more than a similar script I read a few weeks back – Vanishing On 7th Street. And if you’re a fan of Jacob’s Ladder or those types of freaky nonsensical imagery type films, then you should check this out. You might like it. It just didn’t come together for me.

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

What I learned: One of the mistakes we often make when writing complicated plots is patting ourselves on the back just for tying everything together at the end.  Weaving multiple mysteries, subplots, and chracters into a cohesive whole is actually one of the hardest things to do when telling a story.  Unfortuanately it's also expected.  It's not unlike all the hard work (lighting, make-up, focus, camera movement, blocking) that goes into just putting a good-looking shot together. But nobody in the audience cares about that because it's expected.  So just tying all the pieces together so they make sense at the end isn't enough.  You have to then look at your story from the reader’s perspective. Have you satisfied them? Have you surprised them, tricked them, made them think? That’s the ultimate goal. Once you get to the finish line, work on making the finish line great.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

We're The Millers

Our good friend Roger is taking the day off to catch up on some writing. That means I’ll be doing five full reviews this week. Where do I find the time? On the docket we have a couple comedies, a little sex, some horror, and….an impressive script! Been awhile huh? And it’s a spec sale that happened recently. So look forward to that on Friday (Amateur Friday being pushed to next week -- get your scripts in if you haven't already). Right now, it’s Millers time.

Genre: Comedy
Premise: (from IMDB) A veteran pot dealer creates a fake family as part of his plan to move a huge shipment of weed into the U.S. from Mexico.
About: We’re The Millers is a script that’s been in development for awhile.  It was recently pulled out of development when the writing team that gave us Hot Tub Time Machine (Sean Anders and John Morris) chose it as their first directing gig. This is not a review of the most recent rewrite by Dan Fybel and Rich Rinaldi , but rather the original script that sold back in 2004 by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher, who you’ll remember penned Wedding Crashers.
Writers: Steve Faber and Bob Fisher
Details: 117 pages, 2004 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).

Pot comedies. Gotta love’em. The movie-going public has always embraced reefer-based cinema, including such classic titles as Up In Smoke, Pineapple Express and ….. um, other pot movies. So when I heard the concept for “We’re The Millers,” I thought, “You know what. That could be funny.” But as we all know, coming up with a funny idea and extending that funny idea out to 110 pages are two totally different things. Usually by page 40 you’re wondering how you used up all your funny scenes already and the majority of your creativity is focused on the best methods for procrastinating. 

One thing I can tell you about good comedies though is that they STAY ON TRACK. The number one mistake novice comedy writers make is including scenes that don’t have anything to do with the story. They think, as long as it’s funny, it should go in. You can usually get away with this once in a script, but any more and experienced readers will know they’re dealing with an amateur, which eliminates all confidence in you. Now Faber and Fisher were pretty new to the scene when they wrote this script, so do they fall into this well-tread trap? Let’s find out.

David Korngold is a 30 year old University of Chicago graduate who’s somehow stumbled into a pot-dealing career. The money’s easy but knowing you’re the King of Underachievement is not. Doesn’t help that he resides in a grimy area of Chicago where he routinely runs into a runaway teen named Agnes, a sexually frustrated dork named Sam, and a stripper neighbor who’s constantly threatening to call the cops on him.

Bad boys. Wuchu gonna do.

This isn’t how David imagined his life so he goes to his overly kind gay drug supplier, Taylor, and tells him he’s out. He’s going make an honest living. Taylor’s supportive, but before David leaves, he offers him a job. Grab a 400 pound shipment from Mexico and bring it across the border.  For the trouble he’ll pay him one million bucks. David’s eyes pop. A million bucks could make his life hella-easy. But David’s a smart guy. He knows that the job is too risky. So he politely refuses and gets an 8 dollar an hour job at Kinko’s instead. David’s fellow pot dealing friends are so offended they actually offer to pay him eight dollars an hour NOT to work at Kinko’s.

It only takes a couple of hours on the job before David realizes that dealing pot may be bad but working at Kinko's is hell.  He calls Taylor and tells him he's in.

The question is, how is he going to get 400 pounds of weed across the Mexican border? David quickly conceives of a plan to use Rose, Agnes, and Sam to pose as his family members. They’ll rent a Winnebago, stock it with the weed, and drive back across the border saying they’re returning from vacation.

If you guessed things don't go as planned, you'd be right. David's idiot contact in Mexico thinks David is someone else and gives him the wrong shipment, a full ONE THOUSAND POUNDS EXTRA of weed. When the man who was supposed to receive the shipment finds out, he orders the guy to find David’s “family” and murder them all.

In the meantime, our friend Taylor never planned on paying David a million dollars. He was going to wait til he crossed the border, have a couple of his men kill him, and take the weed for free. On top of this, David and Co. keep running into a real family on a real trip, who fall in love with David’s family and want to spend every waking second with them. Problem is the father is a DEA agent.

So there’s definitely potential for comedy here.  I’m just not sure that Faber and Fisher mined all that comedy in this draft. We’re The Millers is always on the brink of making you laugh, but you never quite get there. Specifically, I didn’t think there were enough set piece scenes to drive an idea of this magnitude.

There were some close calls, such as when the family goes to Sea World, but it wasn’t interwoven into the plot. Someone simply said, “Let’s go to Sea World.” Someone else replied “Okay.” And so you have a scene that should be funny because it’s a non-real family going to Sea World. But since there are no stakes attached, since it isn’t necessary for the story at all, it just sits there. If, for example, they were forced to go to Sea World with the clingy family and pretend like they were enjoying themselves, now the scene at least has a point.

There are a few scenes like this, such a five minute scene where David’s “family” goes into a store and runs up his credit card on junk food. As a quick throwaway joke, this could've been funny. But to dedicate an entire scene to it? Is that necessary?

I’m a big believer that the comedy in your film should stem from the concept. That’s usually where the biggest laughs come from. So in a comedy about a museum that comes to life every night, you probably wouldn’t add a scene where your main character runs a marathon. Not that you couldn’t find some funny scenes in running a marathon, but what does running have to do with a museum that comes to life?

Also, everything about this plan hinges on them getting across the border. It’s the whole reason the payout is so high. So when they get to front of the border line (spoiler) and the agent simply waves his hand, “Go ahead,” it feels like a cheat. I mean sure you chuckle because it’s funny how easy it is, but I’m not sure it’s worth excising the scene with the most potential conflict in your movie.

Like all comedies, however, in the end it comes down to the characters. With the exception of Rose (stripper/mom), who I never got a handle on, the rest of the family is pretty good. David’s desire to live a better life resonates. And the romance between “brother and sister” Agnes and Sam was pretty well done. But I felt like each character needed another few drafts to really come alive. It felt like we were seeing the surface level versions of them, and as a result, no one truly stuck out.

I still feel that this idea has tons of potential so I’d be interested in reading Fybel and Rinaldi’s draft, but this initial draft was too raw for my taste.

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

What I learned: Quirks. Quirks are what make comedic characters memorable. Especially villains. Mr. Chow in The Hangover is naked when we meet him. Owen Wilson’s character in Meet The Parents is the single smartest most accomplished man in the world. Lumberg in Office Space always carries a coffee mug and mutters, “mmm’Yeaaaah,” at the end of every sentence. Actually, look at all the characters in Office Space to see how quirks make a character memorable. The only thing going on with the villain (Taylor) here is that he’s gay. As a result, he isn't memorable at all.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

What I Watched This Week

I love this show.  I keep going back and forth between this and Modern Family as the best sitcom.  Both have managed to make shows like The Office feel archaic in their execution.  However this week’s episode was a little too much for me.  The best and worst thing about Community is how ambitious it is, and sometimes it tries to do too much within its tiny 23 minute running time.  This week had Abed creating a film about Jesus, where the film was actually real life, yet the real life was actually a film.  It was making fun of student films but never quite achieved what it was trying to do.  The best episodes usually revolve around Jeff, and he was basically relegated to background music here.  The previous week’s episode where they got stuck in a KFC space shuttle simulator was much better.

I think this week’s episode was probably the best episode of the season.  It helps that it borrows from the best Seinfeld episode ever (The Contest) as Phil’s fam has become so dependent on technology that they don’t talk to each other anymore.  So Phil comes up with a contest to see who can go without technology the longest.  Phil, of course, is more dependent on technology than anyone, so he’s finding it tough to deal.  Mitchell and Cameron realize the power of being a gay couple with a minority baby and realize they can get Lily into the best pre-school in the nation…IF they nail the interview.  When they find out their competition is a handicapped Indian lesbian couple with an African-American baby, Cam is ready to pull out all the stops.  In the meantime Jay is convinced that his Colombian wife, Gloria, put a hit on the neighbor’s dog after it wouldn’t stop barking.  Some really good stuff here.  I don’t know how the writers do it.

You know, I was expecting this to be terrible.  I remember reading an article where one of the actors said, “Some days we don’t even have script pages. We just make shit up as we go along.”  I know how much this kills Favreau as he puts a heavy emphasis on the script.  But regardless, I was preparing for Shit Central.  But you know what?  It wasn’t *that* bad.  I mean, I wouldn’t say it was good.  But I enjoyed myself.  I was definitely disappointed in the lack of relevant action scenes, however.  For instance, the Iron Man and War Machine fight had to be one of the dumbest ideas ever.  There were no stakes to the fight.  It was like a couple of kids wrestling around the house.  That's what you're going to spend 20 million dollars worth of special effects on? The two of them fighting a group of faceless robots was also kinda lame.  But the power of Robert Downey Jr. somehow holds it together.  Strange how the best parts don’t involve him in his Iron Man suit.  

This…was fucking…terrible.  And I mean beyond terrible.  The only reason I watched this was because people were telling me it was a lot better than they thought it would be.  Uh, no it wasn’t.  First of all, setting this around a ten year old instead of a high schooler was an awful choice.  I’m going to bring up that word again, but the *stakes* become too low with this decision.  In high school, if you become an outcast, it can make the next four years of your life a living hell.  In grade school, it’s just a bunch of kids horsing around.  I was also surprised at just how little personality Jayden Smith brought to the table.  He was trying, but every word out of his mouth felt artificial.  Making Jackie Chan angry instead of mysterious, like the original Mr. Miagi, was also a horrible mistake.  This movie sucked.

I remember when this script was first floating around.  Everyone I asked said it was awful.  The whole movie takes place…ON A CHAIR LIFT.  I groaned.  And I can hear you groaning now.  But this turned into quite a surprise.  It’s no Open Water 2, but around midway through the film, the writers make a choice that breaks up the monotony and I guarantee will you have you either squirming or laughing.  This falls squarely into the category of “So bad it’s good,” and is a great film to watch with friends and make fun of.

I throw this puppy in every year or so and am never disappointed.  It is truly a classic.  What amazes me about this film is that it was written back in 1967.  A lot of fans of movies back then point out that films used to take their time.  Indeed, if you watch any film from the 60s, they don’t move nearly as fast as films today.  And that’s a big reason why a lot of younger moviegoers don’t accept those films.  But I’ll tell you this.  There isn’t a single scene in this movie that isn’t necessary.  There isn’t a single moment that isn’t driving the story forward.  For a film from the 60s, one that’s over 2 hours no less, it’s shockingly tight.  If someone were to ask me to recommend a film to teach the screenwriting rule that every scene should be pushing the plot forward, this is the film I’d recommend.  It’s pretty much flawless.