Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Monsters (Script-As-Film review)

Note: This is a “script-as-film” review, where I review the screenplay through watching the film. I have not read the actual script for “Monsters.”

Genre: Horror/Drama/Sci-Fi/Love Story/Indie
Premise: (from IMDB) Six years after Earth has suffered an alien invasion a cynical journalist agrees to escort a shaken American tourist through an infected zone in Mexico to the safety of the US border.
About: This sleeper film emerged out of Cannes with a lot of buzz, due in part to Slash Film’s religious coverage of it. One of the main factors contributing to the buzz was the rumor that the film was shot in several countries with huge special effects shots for under 15 thousand dollars. It just didn’t seem possible, but that Rodriguez-inspired rumor gave the project enough legs to land a theatrical release. Although people keep telling me the budget is way off and that even director Gareth Edwards admitted the figure was wrong, I haven’t been able to find any official quotes from him online confirming it. Edwards, who both wrote and directed the film, said his goal was to make “the most realistic monster movie ever made.” He possesses a unique talent in that he’s been a long time visual effects artist, mostly for British TV. A good quote from his interview below: “Creativity is being stupid enough not to realize you can’t do something.”
Writer: Gareth Edwards

These are my favorite stories to follow in Hollywood. Young filmmakers who say “fuck you” to the system and go ahead and do everything the establishment tells them they can’t do. Neil Blomkamp did it last year with District 9, but Gareth Edwards is taking it to a new extreme, approaching a movie with top notch visual effects and 1/100th the budget of that hit film. I don’t know how you can’t be inspired as an artist by this story.

Monsters takes place in the very near future.  Five years ago, a satellite fell to Mexico with some kind of bacteria on it. That bacteria grew, eventually becoming a family of huge monsters, which are now terrorizing the country. Andrew Kaulder is a sort of cranky selfish photojournalist on the hunt for an elusive photo of people who were killed by one of these creatures. One money shot could pay his salary for an entire year.

But Andrew gets a call from his publisher informing him his plans have changed. He must escort Samantha, the recently injured daughter of a newspaper magnate, to a crossing point so she can get back to America. Even though, technically, it gives him a better chance at getting the shot he wants, he’s pissed off about this interruption.

When the two meet, it’s clear that they’re from different worlds. Him a financially strapped pessimist who does everything himself, her a humanitarian whose father has all the money in the world.

Because of their differences, they don’t have much to talk about, so we spend a majority of the time following them through lush forests and dying South American towns. It’s during this time that best line of dialogue is uttered. Disgusted by his profession, she asks him, “Does it bother you that you profit only when bad things happen to people?” And he responds, “You mean like a doctor?”

Eventually they get to the crossing point, which consists of a ferry that will take them around what’s known as the “Infected Zone.” It’s here where the bulk of the monsters are. Naturally, some complications arise, and the two find themselves having to traverse *through* the Infected Zone, where we can only assume, many monsters await them.Will they make it to America?  Will they die at the tentacles of one of these beasts?  You'll have to watch to find out.

In many ways, Monsters isn’t a screenplay. And I don’t say that with any cynicism, but everything about this movie seems to be generated from the mind of a director first and writer second. Indeed, the entire film is one big stream-of-conscious travelogue, as we watch our characters drift from town to town, house to house, meal to meal, simply…existing.

If you like long shots, not a lot of dialogue, played against a haunting beautiful score, this movie is definitely for you. But there’s no denying that story-wise, the film is lacking. Part of that is due to the limited budget, but most of it is due to ignoring basic storytelling principles.

First, what they did right. The script has a clear goal – get to America. So the narrative as a whole is focused. The characters are also aptly conflicted. The last thing Andrew wants to do is escort this rich girl to America. Samantha, on the other hand, is getting married, inserting a nice barrier between the two when he starts to fall for her.

But that’s where the good stuff ends. Basically, the hook of this movie, what we’ve come to see, is these two having to travel through the Infected Monster Zone to get to America. But it takes us waaay too long to get there, which would be okay if there was enough story to keep us interested in the meantime. But the first 45 minutes of this film is running on a treadmill, with shots of our couple at hotels, checking out the local towns, eating, getting drunk, talking about their pasts, repeat repeat repeat.

There’s simply not enough new happening to keep our interest.

The script noticeably sputters when they get to the crossing point and negotiate a price for these very expensive ferry tickets that take them around the Infected Zone to safety.  Now normally, after negotiating for these tickets, our characters would hop on the ferry and go. Instead, because the story has to be feature length, the ferry isn't leaving til tomorrow, so we spend an entire extra night here.  When they wake up, they realize their tickets are stolen, forcing them to have the EXACT SAME NEGOTIATING scene that they just had, which comes off as super sloppy.

There’s another big hole here as well. Once the ferry leaves, they now decide to go with the other option, walking through the Infected Zone to get to the American border. Why do the characters need to get back to America so badly that they knowingly walk through a foreign forest known as "The Infected Zone" where GIANT KILLER MONSTERS ARE WAITING TO KILL THEM??! There’s no reason why they can’t just wait a couple more days for the next ferry and go around the zone safely.  In these situations, you have to write in some impending life or death situation to justify such a drastic action as knowingly marching into your own death makes no sense.

The characters also act oddly at times. For example, videos of these monsters apparently play on TV 24/7, so everybody’s seen them and know what they look like. When our characters, as well as their seasoned veteran escorts, are camped out square in the middle of the Infected Zone, they hear this loud guttural monster-ish drawl. After hearing it, everybody looks around at each other, confused, and our hero says, “What was that?” I mean, come on. It’s a FUCKING MONSTER! You’re in the Infected Zone! I don't know.  Little details like that are easy to catch in the script stage.  So I don't like when they slip through.

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Now we have to be realistic here. This is a movie with two characters and a 4-man crew. There aren’t a lot of things you can pull off with that kind of minimal fire power. But whenever you’re writing one of these low-budget shoot-it-yourself movies, one of your jobs is to recognize that issue, and build more drama, more conflict, more twists and turns, into the human relationship, to make up for the lack of money and options. I think the problem here is that that’s what Gareth thought he was doing with the alien effects shots, but out of all the alien scenes, there’s really only one where I felt the characters were in any danger (when they were in the van).

Okay, elitist screenwriting rant over. Time to give credit where credit is due.

I don’t care if this movie was made for $15,000 or $500,000 (like some are reporting). It’s an amazing filmmaking achievement. The cinematography is GORGEOUS. The score was the best score I’ve ever heard for any inde film at this level. The lead actress was really good. The lead actor was solid. The effects are all astonishing for this budget level. To get these performances under these conditions with this filmmaking approach was truly inspiring. I mean Gareth has a huge ace in the hole with his visual effects prowess – but even if he hadn’t had that, he still shot a movie that looked great, that didn’t resemble any Hollywood product and that, despite all my criticisms, was different. And that’s what this new-new type of Gurerilla filmmaking 2.0 allows you to do. It allows you to make the movie YOU want to make and actually have a shot at getting it distributed.

Script-wise, this didn’t work for me, but movie-wise, I think there's something here, if only for the inspiring story behind the film.  It's tracking at around 70% at Rotten Tomatoes. You can wait for it to come to theaters on October 29th, or watch it on demand right now.  If you see it, tell me what you think. 

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

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

What I learned: I am about to tell you something that may be the most important screenwriting advice anyone has ever told you……Okay, that’s an exaggeration (but it sure sounded good). Seriously though, the fastest way to advance in this industry is to write and direct your own material. Monsters is proof positive of that. Now sure it has some flashy effects, but every writer brings unique talents to the table. You have to find out what those are, write a script that takes advantage of them, then go shoot it. Tarantino focused on his dialogue. Rodriguez focused on production value. Kevin Smith wrote every funny thing he’s ever thought of and crammed it into a script. And these days, you don’t even have to drum up the money for a full feature. All you need is enough to shoot an innovative short and if it takes off online, there are people willing to offer you film deals. So what the hell are you waiting for? Go shoot something. Just make sure that afterwards you come back to Scriptshadow.