Friday, December 3, 2010

Amateur Friday - We Found Bigfoot

Genre: Drama
Premise: (actual logline from author) At the height of the 1970's Bigfoot craze, an obsessed, lonely 9 year old boy living in the heart of Sasquatch country becomes entangled in a hoax which threatens to shatter his family, new friendships, and his innocent belief in the mythic creature.
About: Well if there’s any good to come out of this huge snafu, it’s that Amateur Friday may start living up to its name and become a weekly feature. So, if you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur review, send it in PDF form along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted on the site.
Writer: Robert Ducey
Details: 104 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).

A few reasons why I went with this today. The first is that this is a logline that actually made it into my top 100 loglines from the Logline/Script Contest a year ago. I also liked the drama angle. Most Bigfoot-related stories are comedies so I knew I’d be reading something different. But what put me over the edge was the writer’s attitude. He just missed the Quarterfinals at Nicholl and wanted to know why his script didn’t stack up. What was it he was missing? He genuinely wanted to improve. On a personal level, I also wanted to find out if my instincts were right for not advancing this after reading the first ten pages (in the contest, after qualifying for the top 100 loglines, I read the first 10 pages of all 100 of those scripts, of which 25 advanced – Bigfoot did not). In other words, can a script recover if it doesn’t blow you out of the water with the first 10 pages?

Ben Whitcomb is a pale skinny 9 year old boy who lives in the heavily forested region of Portland. The only thing that gets Ben through the day is his obsession with Bigfoot. He religiously studies the famous creature, and has all the stories and books and articles ever recorded about the beast.

None of this is probably healthy, as Ben’s Blazers-obsessed alcoholic father points out, but his mom is a bit of an enabler, constantly encouraging Ben to do the impossible – find the mythical beast and become world famous – which propels Ben into his daily search for Bigfoot.

On one of these forays into the woods, Ben runs into Alex, an older boy with an attitude, and Tuan, who’s Ben’s age and from Vietnam. The two invite Ben into their game and soon Ben is telling them all about Bigfoot. The boys like what they hear enough to join the search, and soon Ben has himself a Bigfoot Team.

Eventually the three run into a scruffy smooth-talker named Reggie. Turns out Reggie’s father is the man who shot that famous Bigfoot tape, and Reggie believes with all the recent activity in the area, that he can find Bigfoot once again. Picking up on Ben’s excessive knowledge of the creature, Reggie asks the boys if they want to help him.

However Reggie has some weird tactics he employs to lure in Bigfoot, including creating huge footprints in the forest via large fake feet as sort of a mating call to the monster. Right away Ben’s suspicious of this activity, but he goes along with it anyway. Reggie’s later able to secure a camera from a local news station and shows the boys how to use it. Almost magically, the next day, when left alone with the camera, Bigfoot appears, and the boys hurry up to tape the creature.

But when Ben goes chasing after the creature, he’s shocked and horrified to see it jump into Reggie’s van and drive away.

Reggie submits the footage to the news and quickly he and the boys become local sensations and national stars. But Ben is plagued with the knowledge that it’s all a lie, that this isn’t the real Bigfoot. And for Ben, that’s what matters the most. He doesn’t want money or fame. He just wants to know – needs to know – that Bigfoot is really out there, that he’s real.

So when the story starts falling apart and the backlash threatens to ruin the reputation of everyone involved, including Ben’s family, Ben makes a last ditch dash to find the creature, and prove once and for all that Bigfoot lives.

All right. This is a tough one. It’s actually the toughest kind of script to analyze because the writing is really good. The characters are all interesting (especially Ben). There’s a strong goal. There’s ticking time bombs, real stakes, villains, twists, turns, a theme – everything that a good movie is supposed to have. And yet I still understand why this didn’t make the Quarterfinals. There’s something missing here.

And I’m going to be honest. I don’t know exactly what it is. But here’s where I think the problem lies. Sometimes you finish a script and you say, “That was pretty good.” But that’s all you say. You don’t have any intention of telling other people about it. It didn’t hit you hard enough to inspire you to do so. It’s like a comfort food. You wouldn’t travel into the city to get it. But if it’s there, you eat it and it makes you feel good.

We’ll start with the first ten pages. The goal with any first ten pages is to hook your reader. When your script makes it up the ladder and finally into the hands of the big players (big producers, directors, stars), the guys who can really make a movie happen, their time is short, so they’re likely only giving you a little rope at a time. They say, “I’ll read 5-10 pages. If I like it, I’ll keep reading.” And they’ll continue to do that throughout the script, extending another 5 pages here or 10 pages there, like those old arcade racing games where you received extended time every time you hit a checkpoint.

So you have to rope them in over and over. You have to keep things moving. And right away with We Found Bigfoot, I sensed that Ducey was unnecessarily drawing moments out. In the opening pages, Ben is watching a Bigfoot special. He and his mom talk. Then his drunk father comes home and wants to watch the Blazers, kicking Ben off the TV. This whole sequence takes 6 pages when it shouldn’t have taken more than two.

Here’s all you have to do.

Show Ben watching the Bigfoot show (establishing his love of Bigfoot). Show Dad come home and change the channel without saying anything (establishing he’s an asshole and doesn’t care about his son’s interests). Have Mom point out that Ben was watching something (establishing his mom’s support) and show Dad ignore her (establishing that he doesn’t respect his wife either). That can all be done in a single page and we know everything we need to know about this family.

Now that’s not to say you can’t get into a little more detail, but you have to be careful not to get into TOO much detail this early on because like I point out, you’re on someone’s leash. If you want more leeway, you gotta prove you deserve it.

Another thing that slows down this opening is the friendship situation. Before we can start the Bigfoot story (what we came here for) Ben has to first meet his new friends, get to know their situation, ask them to join his cause, and that takes a good 10-15 pages to establish.

Here’s what I always say. Establish relationships before the story starts if you can afford to so you don’t have to waste precious screenplay real estate doing so. In other words, why can’t Ben, Alex, and Taun already be friends? I understand that Ben is a loner, but you can establish a character as kooky/weird/an outcast and still have him have friends. That way we can jump right into them looking for Bigfoot together and not have 3-4 scenes where they have to build up that trust before doing so (and the reality is, even with all those pages, we still don't have a good feel for Alex and the mysterious Taun).

Imagine Goonies if all those boys had to become friends first before they went on their adventure. Or imagine how much longer Avatar would’ve been if there hadn’t been previous diplomacy attempts between the humans and the Na’Vi before Jake Sulley got there (You’d have to create a whole additional sequence, for example, where Jake Sulley taught the Na’Vi English).

If the story is ABOUT the relationship (When Harry Met Sally), then yes, you want to wait until your story to explore it. But if it’s just one piece of the story, consider establishing it before the movie starts.

A couple other things that bothered me were first, forgetting to tell us what year it was. I only knew the time period (the 70s) because it was mentioned in the logline, but there’s no guarantee a reader will read your logline before they read your script. And this script reads WAY differently if you think it’s happening in the modern day than in the 70s. This is one of those beginner mistakes you never want to make because if a reader realizes you forgot something this obvious, they’ll know you’re an amateur, lose all confidence in you, and start skimming through the rest of the script to get through their coverage.

I also thought the dad was way over the top here. I liked that he had a clear specific identity (in his basketball obsession) but he’s so relentlessly cruel that he almost becomes a cartoon.

On the plus side, I really loved Ben as a character and I thought the theme of losing one's innocence was well handled. This script is strongest when it’s focusing on Ben’s struggle, specifically when he knows his footage is fake and can’t decide what to do about it. Unfortunately this comes into the story too late. I would’ve liked that conflict introduced earlier and to have seen Ben struggle with it longer. Again, this is the strength of the script, so let’s milk it.

Developed with the right producer, We Found Bigfoot could become one of those PG family films with a moral that does well in the family demo. I just wish I had a better idea of why this was an “almost” screenplay and not a “have to recommend it” screenplay. So I guess I’ll turn it over to you guys. Maybe you can help Robert. What’s missing here? Ideas?

Script link: We Found Bigfoot

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read (very torn on this one so I’ll cheat)
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I find that when you’re creating asshole characters – particularly fathers – that throwing in a positive trait to balance things out, or giving us some insight into why they’ve become the way they are – goes a long way towards the character feeling realistic. “All asshole all the time” never works.