Friday, February 18, 2011

Amateur Friday - The Alien Diaries

Amateur Friday is back! I didn’t like the sound of last week's “New Writer Friday" but I can't think of anything better at the moment so back to Amateur Friday we go.  Who knows though?  Next week it could be something else. We’ll see. The drama continues! :)

Genre: Drama/Sci-fi
Premise: A book appraiser working at an old farm mansion finds a diary that implies the family who used to live there 200 years ago may have come in contact with a crashed alien ship.
About: Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. 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.
Writer: Glenn J. Devlin
Details: 114 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).

For long-time readers of the site, this premise probably sounds familiar. That’s because it was one of the 25 loglines to make the semi-finals of my “Script/Logline” contest a year ago. If you made the top 25, that meant I read your entire script, so I actually read an earlier draft of this already. While I remember it creating an eerie atmosphere, I also remember it becoming vaguely hokey in the second half when (spoiler) the alien arrives. I mentioned this to Glenn and I was curious to see what he did with the rewrite, as I absolutely love the idea.

Colin Brayton, late 40s, is a book appraiser. As you’d probably expect, Colin’s not exactly “making it rain” every night at the clubs. This guy’s idea of a raucous party is an original second print edition of Tom Sawyer.  In other words, Colin keeps to himself.

One day, an older man named Asher Bradford shows up at Colin’s shop and asks him if he’d like a job. The Dibble Estate, one of the oldest estates in Virginia, has thousands of books that need to be appraised, which Asher is willing to pay a hefty sum for. Of course, this means Colin will have to go out to the estate and live there for awhile, which is the last thing he wants to do, but in the end he knows the job is too good to pass up.

Once there, he meets the caretaker of the house, Madeline Prentice, an attractive woman in her 40s who has more rules than your average grade school gym teacher. Madeline does not like Colin being here and she lets him know it.

So Colin tries to stay out of her hair until he comes across an old diary amongst the books he’s appraising. Shockingly, it’s from a 15 year old girl named Kate who used to live here back in 1781! Her entries are rather mundane at first, but that changes quickly when she recalls a strange vessel flying across the sky and crashing onto the estate.

We then flash back to 1781 and meet our author, Kate, along with her parents and siblings. The script quickly settles into a rhythm of cutting back and forth between the past and the present, dictated by Colin’s need to find out what happened with this ship.

The gist of the story is that Kate and her family inspect the crashed craft and meet a surviving alien who they name Bronte. The family takes Bronte in, but learn that other aliens will be coming after him soon. This results in a tough decision. They either have to kick Bronte out or move far far away with him where they’ll never be found.

In the meantime, Colin is trying desperately to convince Madeline that all of this is true, while she, of course, thinks it’s hogwash. Colin goes out in search of the ship, as well as for other alien artifacts Kate speaks of, trying to find some evidence that this is more than a young girl’s imagination. During this time, the icy chill between he and Madeline begins to thaw, and they develop a friendship with one another, with the hint of something more. But before any of that can be resolved, Colin must find out the fate of Bronte and the family.

Okay, I’m going to do something I rarely do on this site. I’m going to admit that I don’t exactly know what’s wrong with The Alien Diaries. What I do know is that something *is* wrong. The script moves way too slowly and I’m not sure the most interesting version of the story is being explored. However, far be it from me to throw my hands in the air and give up. I’m going to give an analysis of this script whether it likes it or not.

So we actually have two storylines we’re dealing with here. The present storyline and the past storyline. Let’s start with the present. NOTHING IS GOING ON IN THE PRESENT STORYLINE. It’s just a man and a woman with some sexual chemistry observing an event that happened 220 years ago. There’s no problem they’re trying to solve. There’s no immediate issue they need to take care of. There are no stakes to whether they achieve their goal or not. And actually, there’s no goal to achieve in the first place. This makes the entire present storyline….I hate to say it but…pointless.

Whenever you have a script exploring two parallel plot threads, you want to make sure that each thread has something important going on in it. I know this is a completely different genre, but think of Apollo 13. In that movie, when Tom Hanks and crew are up in that ship trying to find a way to survive, are the guys down in Houston just standing around twiddling their thumbs? No! They have just as much to do, with almost as much at stake, as the guys up in the module have. They’re running simulations, slamming together breathing masks, running re-entry calculations. That they have so much to do in this movie is why the ground stuff is almost as exciting as the module stuff. Here, Colin and Madeline have nothing to do, so almost all of their scenes are boring.

Now, as far as the past scenes, those are a little more complicated, and this is where I’m not sure why things aren’t working. Theoretically, initiating an alien into a family should be interesting. I mean, they did it in E.T. right? And that movie was pretty good. But there’s something off about it here.

One issue is that just like the present day storyline, the majority of the 1781 storyline is absent of any problems. There’s no immediacy. That changes later when the other aliens arrive, but that's really late in the script. Until that point, we're just watching a family get acquainted with an alien. There’s no real conflict there. And maybe it's because we’ve seen this play out before in movies like ET – but “just getting to know the alien” isn’t enough. There needs to be a problem, a danger, something to bring the story alive. Otherwise you have a present day storyline where nothing’s going on, cutting to a past storyline where very little is going on.  And that's a whole lot of not going on.    

Another problem here is that our main character doesn’t have anything going on internally. This script is slow enough where it’s posing as a character piece, but there’s little to nothing going on inside any of the characters. What is it that Colin has to overcome? What is it in this specific journey that challenges his biggest flaw as a human being?

Or let me put it in simpler terms. You know there’s not enough going on with a character when you realize that no actor would want to play the role. Think about it. What challenge would an actor get from playing the role of Colin? All they’re doing is showing up on set and reading a book. If you want to get an A-list actor interested in one of your parts, you gotta work some complex UNSETTLED shit into the character that they need to work through during the course of the story.

So the combination of an uneventful present day storyline, a mostly uneventful past storyline, and a main character who’s got no inner demons or inner conflict to overcome…that’s a super deadly combination right there. That is something that’s going to be really tough to make entertaining.

The thing that’s eating at me is I love this idea. And I’m trying to figure out a story direction that would best take advantage of the premise. You know, one of the most important decisions any writer makes when he sits down to write a script is which direction he plans to take the story. And I don’t think this direction is the most interesting direction Glenn could’ve taken.

But this much I know. The script needs to start with a problem. Every script needs to start with a problem. If your hero doesn’t have a problem, you don’t have a story. And the first real problem that arrives in The Alien Diaries (the other aliens coming for Bronte) doesn’t arrive until, I believe, 70-80 pages into the script. And that’s just too late. Glenn needs to go back, identify a problem that BOTH sets of characters in his story have, and build a story from there.

Now I know I’ve been harsh but the potential of this idea is bringing out the passion in me. There’s some good stuff to build on in Alien Diaries. I liked the book appraiser stuff. I’ve never seen that explored in a movie before, and there’s something mystical about the profession that fits well with this idea. The foundation is also there for an interesting relationship between Colin and Madeline. Their conflict is a little too artificial so far (they hate each other for the sake of needing conflict in the relationship) but that’s how all these relationships start in early drafts. You just keep nuancing them with each successive draft until they begin to feel natural.  But yeah, the idea's cool enough to keep plugging away at.

Anyway, I appreciate Glenn putting his baby up for some hard core analysis. Hopefully I’ve given him some new ideas for the next draft. :)

Script link: The Alien Diaries

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

What I learned: I think this is a classic case of leaning on your premise. That’s when you’ve got a great premise, and you just try to write enough stuff around it until you have a script. Instead, try to pretend like you don’t have that great hook. Try to make sure your characters are compelling enough that we’d want to watch them regardless of if they were in this story or not. Try to make everything AROUND the premise better than the premise itself, instead of just hoping that the premise is enough.