Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Kitchen Sink

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A human teenager, a vampire, and a zombie must save their town from an alien invasion.
About: Oren wrote one of my favorites scripts from last year, Shimmer Lake, about the aftermath of a bank robbery except told backwards. The script won the Austin screenwriting contest. Kitchen Sink is, from my understanding, his follow-up to that script, and made it on to this year’s Black List.
Writer: Oren Uziel
Details: 105 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).

I’ve already sung the praises of Oren before. I thought his told-in-reverse crime caper was one of the best scripts I read all of last year. He has a real nice command of his craft and I love the way he mixes cleverness with comedy.

Now normally, if I’d read this premise, I would’ve rolled my eyes and moved on. The double-mumbo-jumbo approach has been debated to death here and the consensus is, it doesn’t work. But vampires, zombies, AND ALIENS??? That’s triple mumbo jumbo. A surefire 8 car pile-up.

I have some context here and those long time (and I mean REALLY long time) readers of the site might remember this. Joss Whedon wrote a script titled “Cabin In The Woods,” (which, if I understand correctly, has already been shot) that incorporates zombies and aliens and robots and vampires, etc., etc. I haaaay-ted it. I mean I thought it was beyond awful. And it was for that very reason – trying to mix all these disparate elements into the same flick (18-plex mumbo jumbo) - that I claimed something like it could never work.

But when I saw Oren at the helm of a script tackling similar territory, I thought, “You know what? If there’s anyone who can pull this off, it’s him.” Just the fact that he’s willing to title his script, “Kitchen Sink,” lets you know he’s in on the joke.

Kitchen Sink starts off the way you want your spec to start off: With something going on. In this case we have teenage everyman Dag and his maybe-girlfriend Lorelei sprinting through a Zombie-Vampire apocalypse. Zombies are eating humans. Vampires are eating zombies. And the few remaining humans are trying to kill both.

But not our heroes. They’re running. Towards that house! Except when they get inside…it’s filled with MORE zombies and vampires! Who continue to attack each other and who try to take down their new human prey.

But then there’s a flash of light. Everybody looks outside. Fucking ALIENS have just landed! And they start killing EVERYBODY. Aliens, zombies, AND humans.  Talk about bad luck.

Somehow Dag, a hot vampire named Petra, and a geeky zombie named Ned, are able to escape into the basement before the aliens get to the house. Lorlelei wasn’t so lucky. Petra killed her pasty human ass. Once down there, they realize that if they’re going to survive against this new threat, they’re going to have to work together. Petra reluctantly accepts but Ned takes a little more convincing, since he really really wants to eat Dag’s brain.

We then cut back to a few days ago before all the chaos began. This was an interesting choice by Oren because he uses the device so we can get to know the characters before they became…well…monsters. The backstory also adds a lot more context to the relationships. For example, it turns out Lorelei, that girl who came into the house with Dag, stole Petra’s old boyfriend, which is why she vampired her ass as soon as she walked in the door.

It’s a funky construct, as we’re whisked back and forth between the more character building scenes of the past and the crazy immediate dilemmas of the present. It gets a little out there by the end (Tivo becomes a huge part of the problem – if you can imagine that) but you’re definitely rooting for these characters to succeed and take down the aliens, and wonder if their previous prejudices are going to allow them to do it.

You know, I thought the script was pretty good. I didn’t like it as much as Shimmer Lake but that probably had more to do with the subject matter. I did, however, like that Oren was trying to do something different with a zombie movie. I thought the jumping back and forth in time so we could get to know the characters elevated it in comparison to other scripts in the genre. And again, that’s what you’re trying to do when you write a spec. You’re trying to create something different, something that’s going to stick out from everything else. If you have a script about three people stuck in a house with zombies attacking from all sides….it’s time to write a new script.

My big beef with Kitchen Sink was I thought the backstory would also reveal how a regular everyday set of teenagers had turned into vampires and zombies. I was waiting for another one of Oren’s clever little revelatory explanations but instead we find out that vampires and zombies were already a part of society before this apocalypse began. It worked fine but it would’ve been way more fun to find out how the world had gone from “everything’s normal” to “zombie/alien apocalypse” in 48 hours.

I should also note that crow will be served at dinner tonight. Last week I said I was sick and tired of people throwing real life actors into their scripts. Yet Oren does it here and actually manages to make it work (for those wondering – the real life actor is Don Johnson). I think a lot of that has to do with Oren’s skill and understanding of when he can push it and when to pull back. But the main reason it works is because Johnson’s character is actually an essential part of the plot, and not just a “Ha ha! Look, it’s Don Johnson!” moment.

I thought the prose was a little thick here, not indicative of a tight spec script, with some of the action paragraphs 6-7 lines long. While this may seem nitpicky, I only noticed it when realizing that, for a fast story, the pages were taking a little longer to read than normal. I looked back and noticed that a lot of the paragraphs were too thick. Of course, this might be the beefy version which Oren planned to slim down later.

If you liked Zombieland, this is about the closest thing I’ve read to that movie. It’s not as good as that film, but it’s still pretty damn good.

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

What I learned: Spec scripts should be written as if the people reading them have at least a mild case of ADD. When I receive a script from an established writer, I’m not getting antsy if the first four scenes are slow. I know the writer. I know what he’s capable of. So I know that eventually he’s going to steer me down the right path. When I’m reading an unknown writer, however, and they’re drawing everything out, taking their sweet time, I start getting antsy as hell. I begin to think, “This writer doesn’t know what he’s doing” because 99 times out of 100 when this happens, that’s the case. That’s not to say this won’t be the 1% execption. But I’m much less willing to let them prove me wrong cause I don’t know them. So I become distracted. I’m not paying attention as much. I’m moving through the script faster, trying to get finished sooner. When you look at the beginning of Kitchen Sink, we’re thrown right into the mix in the very first scene. We’re told by the writer, “I’m going to keep this entertaining. Don’t worry.” And whenever the script gets slow from that point on, another fun scene is thrown in that jolts us back again. That’s what you have to do with a spec. And no, that doesn’t mean you have to have aliens running around in your movie. Maybe someone gets shot in the first scene. Maybe someone’s told they’re a Russian spy (Salt), maybe we see people loading an obscured beast into a trailer (Jurassic Park), maybe someone’s landing on a new planet (Avatar). You gotta bring us into your world and keep us there when writing a spec so remember to infuse it with a number of entertaining scenes. Remember, readers expect spec scripts to move faster than other material.