Monday, January 31, 2011

Are We Officially Dating?

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A group of 20-somethings must deal with the ever-complicated logistics of commitment.
About: Are We Officially Dating made the 2010 Black List, landing somewhere near the middle of the pack. Thomas Gormican, the writer, graduated from Brown University. He began his career at GreeneStreet Films in New York City. Afterwards, he partnered with Charles Wessler and the Farrelly Brothers to produce a short-films-compilation (Movie 43) in the vein of The Kentucky Fried Movie, to be financed and distributed by Overture Films.
Writer: Thomas Gormican
Details: 112 pages – 10-22-10 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).

 Would James Franco make a good Jason?

The male bachelor afraid of commitment sub-genre is probably the most crowded sub-genre in the spec screenplay market. Makes sense, right? There are a lot of males between the ages of 20-30 writing screenplays. It’s only natural, then, that they write about what males between the ages of 20-30 think about. For that reason, if you’re going to add your name to this list, you better make sure your script is one of two things: 1) very well written or 2) a completely new take on the genre. I always advocate for #2, since people are more likely to pass around something that’s fresh and original. If you’re going to go with #1 though, know this: Even if you execute your story to perfection, there’s still a good chance it’s never going to be seen as anything other than an average comedy, and that’s exactly what we have here with “Are We Officially Dating?”

Jason is 28 years old, charming, handsome, and deathly afraid of commitment. He’s specifically afraid of the “So…” I think we all know the “So…” The “So” is when a woman has had enough of the fun, and after a particularly enjoyable sexual encounter sneaks in, “So….where is this going?” Yeah, Jason would rather sleep in an oven than deal with the “So…” So, as soon as a relationship gets to that border between fun and serious (The Great Wall of Commitment?) he bails.

Completing the bachelorhood lifestyle are Jason’s two best friends. There’s Mikey, a doctor whose wife just started banging their lawyer. Because Mikey has little respect for himself, he still allows her to use him for medical advice. Then there’s Daniel, whose best friend Chelsea is “one of the guys.” But when he sleeps with her, he too must deal with the question of whether to commit or keep it casual.

Jason’s problems start when he takes the cute Ellie home for a night of sexual adventure, only to realize she’s a hooker, only to later realize she’s not a hooker. They start hanging out, having fun, and in between these fun escapades, the guys, a la a younger better looking Seinfeld cast, discuss their predicaments in comedic detail.

Eventually Jason starts falling for Ellie, but when she gives him the “So…” he freaks out and tells her he can’t make a commitment. Jason then learns that Ellie is seeing a hot new author (both characters work in the publishing industry) and of course realizes that he loves her. He then becomes Stalk Machine 3000, breaking down cryptic updates on Ellie’s Facebook page like archeologists would hieroglyphics, eventually getting to the point where, as one of his friends puts it, he “looks like somebody Jamie Foxx would play in a movie.”

Jason has to pull it together to win Ellie back but there’s a chance he’s gone too far and that he’ll never experience the joy of a loving committed relationship.

 Maybe Blake Lively for Ellie?

I don’t have anything against “Are We Officially Dating?” There aren’t any big problems here. There’s a nice work goal that keeps the story on track. There’s plenty of conflict between the three pairs of characters. The dialogue is decent. The comedy wasn’t suited to me but I definitely laughed. What plagues “Dating” in my opinion is that there’s nothing new about it. I’ve read this exact kind of script two hundred times before. Was Gormican’s version of the story better than those other 200? It was better than most. But even though well-written, you can only read the same story so many times before it stops affecting you (and hence, another argument why you should find a fresh take on the genre).

There were some smaller issues here for me. Ellie isn’t a very exciting character. One of the things I constantly see in these male-written rom-coms – especially ones which sympathize with the male hero’s fear of commitment – is that the female leads aren’t very strong. And I’d probably make that argument here. Ellie is treated more as an ideal than a character. The focus is on what the guys think of her, of their situation, and of the developments on Jason’s side of the relationship, rather than Ellie herself. This is particularly true later on, when Ellie disappears for most of the third act. We’re focused more on Jason going crazy than what’s going on with Ellie.  For this reason (spoiler!), when he gets her in the end, we don't feel it, cause we don't really know the girl. 

I also found it strange that Jason was pursuing Ellie early on, despite the fact that he so adamantly didn’t want a relationship. The explanation we’re given for his contradictory actions is that he “wants her on the roster,” though it’s never explained what that means. So it felt like a cheat.

A lot of you are probably wondering, “Well then how did this get on the Black List?” It’s a fair question. I think it’s because it gets all the little things right. A big problem I see in amateur scripts is that writers don’t know how to get the script to the point where it’s being judged solely on the story. They haven’t learned all the little things required to make the story stand on its own.

For example, they may not know how to set up their main character. When we meet your main character, you need to tell us exactly who that character is, what their strength is, what their flaw is, what the central problem in their life is. We need to know this so we understand what it is our character will need to overcome during the course of the story.

I don’t see that in a lot of amateur scripts. Instead I see character introductions with our protagonist doing arbitrary things that tell us very little if anything about the character. The writer erroneously assumes that since *they* know who their character is, that it will just magically leak out onto the page. But it doesn’t work that way, and as a result, the whole movie’s point is muddled. We don’t know who our main character is, why they’re existing, what they’re trying to overcome, and how it relates to the plot, because nobody’s ever told us. I see this ALL. THE. TIME.

Are We Officially Dating begins with Jason explaining exactly what’s wrong with him. He’s a commitment-phobe. He avoids relationships. There isn’t a single doubt in our mind what’s going on with this character after that scene. And I realize that Gormican chooses to TELL us and not SHOW us this information (we can debate that another day), but the point is, when that opening scene is over, you don’t have any doubt in your mind who Jason is – and that’s important.

There are a lot of little things like that in a screenplay that you have to get right JUST TO HAVE YOUR STORY MAKE SENSE TO THE READER. And that’s why a lot of amateur scripts don’t stack up to “Are We Officially Dating?” even though there’s nothing particularly new going on here.

These are always the toughest reviews for me to write, because the script didn’t make me feel anything one way or the other. It showed a good command of the craft, but that’s about it.

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

What I learned: Up above, I went on a long rant about making sure we know who your main character is in his introductory scene. Well, I wanted to make sure you knew that there are times when you DON’T want to do this. In particular, when your character has a deep mysterious background. So say you’re writing a Western and start on a drifter riding into town. The appeal of this character might be his mystery. It might be counter-productive, then, to tell us everything about him right away. Instead, you'll want to install little pieces of his backstory and problems throughout the story.  Just make sure that the revelations about his secret past are worthy of being initially kept from us (in other words, make sure they're damn interesting).