Friday, March 18, 2011

Amateur Friday - The House That Death Built

Edit: Feeling like his best work was not on display here, Stephen has asked if I would post a more recent script of his that he feels more confident in.  Since some of you were asking, this is his script that placed Top 100 in the Nicholl.  I present to you....Dead Even.

Genre: Thriller (Horror?)
Premise: A recently widowed cop reclaims an old property in a small southern town, only to discover that key figures in the town have been hiding a horrifying secret.
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. Oh, and please, guys, this format only works if you present your criticism in a constructive way. Just be respectful to the writer when giving feedback. Thanks.
Writer: Stephen
Details: 99 pages – 11/15/10 draft

Okay, I admit it. Sometimes (not all the time!) but sometimes, I fall victim to a challenge. If a writer says to me “My script is way better than this,” in reference to some other script I’ve reviewed, there’s a part of me that wants him to prove it. Cause 9 times out of 10, they’re wrong. Their script isn’t better. And Stephen was making some noise last week about how bad the script choices have been for Amateur Friday lately, saying I could easily break that streak if I just read his script. So I decided to take him up on his challenge, and read his screenplay, “The House That Death Built.”

Now afterwards, I was surprised to find a couple of old e-mails from Stephen in my Inbox, and realized that I’d actually already read a script of Stephen’s two years ago – a great comedy premise about a guy who starts dating a girl only to find out she has multiple personalities. But when I read the script, it was a classic case of not exploiting the premise enough. It still needed a lot of work. Well, I’m happy to say, that Stephen’s writing has improved significantly since two years ago, but The House That Death Built still falls a few steps short of the front porch. Let’s find out why.

After opening with a spooky small-town carnival kidnapping, we jump forward eight years into another town where we meet Detective Trajent Future, a New York transplant working in the deep south. Things seem to be going well for Future, who’s happily married with a baby on the way. But unfortunately both his wife and the baby die during a difficult child birth, and just like that Trajent is a widower.

Three months later, Trajent heads off to the tiny town of Malatia, Louisiana to pick up the pieces of his life. Although it’s not clear how he’s affiliated with it, Trajent is reclaiming an old house there, where he plans to get a little R&R before heading back to the city.

Almost immediately, bad things start happening. Trajent can apparently see the past, and inside the house, he keeps seeing flashes of jarred up shrunken heads resting on shelves and lots of young girls being sliced and diced on an operating table. Also, the local sheriff and a few other tough guys send Trajent some not-so-subtle hints to get the hell out of town.

As Trajent begins to dig, he learns that a serial killer who preyed on young female runaways used to live in his house, and use it for many of his sick fantasies. But more importantly, he begins to suspect that key high profile figures in the town are aware of what happened here, and covered it up. But why? Why protect a serial killer? That’s what Trajent’s going to find out.

Okay, first, I want to point out some good things here. This is a great format for a story and almost always works. Guy comes into a small town, starts turning up rocks; the locals get pissed and want him out. Conflict naturally emerges from this situation. The people in the town are protecting their way of life (and possibly something bigger), so the closer our hero gets to uncovering the town’s secrets, the more motivated our locals are to fight back. This story always builds to a perfect climax, as sooner or later it’s either going to be him or them. So from a concept standpoint, “House” is in good standing.

Also, things do HAPPEN. One of Stephen’s complaints last week was that nothing HAPPENED in Vortex. It just kind of trickled along. I wouldn’t call the story developments in “House” anything new, but Stephen *does* keep the story moving. We have a death during childbirth. A move to a new town. Locals give our hero a warning. Hero starts discovering weird shit around his house. One of his only friends in the town dies. He looks into her death. He interviews some of the rich people. There’s a “go go go” mentality here that marches the story along at a pleasant pace.

But here’s the main problem with “House.” It’s sloppy. And I mean real sloppy. Especially the opening act. First we start with this kidnapping of 14 year old Kristy. She’s running through a carnival, trying to escape, then hides in a “white room” which I think is supposed to be some kind of carnival ride. The room begins spinning, and it reads like she’s being pelted with stuffed animals until she dies. I couldn’t believe that we’d have a “death” scene that was so silly, so I assumed I was reading it wrong. But the point is, I couldn’t understand what was happening from the description. And that’s on the writer. The writer has to be clear about the actions that occur on the page.

Next comes our main character’s name: “Trajent Future.” Does that sound like a character in a slow pot-boiling southern thriller? Or does it sound like the protagonist in your next sci-fi flick? It certainly doesn’t sound like the former to me.

Next we have a double time jump. We observe a kidnapping. Cut to 8 years later. Then meet our hero. His wife quickly dies. Then we jump 3 additional months forward. You can do a hard time jump forward once in your opening act, but you don’t want to do it twice (time montages are different). It’s confusing and gives the opening of the script an uncertain sloppy quality.

Then, Trajent arrives in town to reclaim this house, but I’m not sure what this house is. Is this his wife’s old house? Is it his parents’ old house? Or is it his? These are really important questions because it becomes a different story if his parents lived here, or his wife grew up here, or if he has no affiliation with the town whatsoever (although that brings up another question – why would he have property in a town he’s never been to?). I was never entirely clear why Trajent needed to come to this specific town because I didn’t understand his affiliation with this house.

Then, once in the house, Trajent starts having flashes where he can see back to the previous occupant of the house. My question is, how?? Does Trajent have superpowers that we haven’t been told about yet? Or are these flashbacks for the reader’s benefit, meaning Trajent can’t personally see them? This is never explained, leaving us to wonder if this is a supernatural script or not.

Worst of all, the first ten pages are littered with grammar mistakes, spelling mistakes, punctuation mistakes, missed words, and misused words. It’s a cornucopia of sloppy writing. Strangely, once we get past the first 15 pages, a lot of these problems clear up, leaving me to wonder why only the opening of the script was neglected in this manner.

To the script’s credit, the second act *does* get better. Once the procedural stuff starts, we do want to find out these town secrets. We do want to find out who this serial killer is and if he’s still alive. We do want to find out who’s involved in the conspiracy and we do want to see these bad guys go down.

But unfortunately, a lot of damage has already been done. The beginning of the script is so sloppy, and so much of the information given is unclear, that I lost trust in the writer. I didn’t feel like he was giving me his best. And once that happens, once the writer doesn’t have the benefit of the doubt in the reader’s mind, the script is dead. Because every unanswered question or bump in the road is assumed to be a mistake. I mean, how can I trust a writer with complicated plot points when I can’t even trust him to go back and clear up all the punctuation in the first 15 pages?

I do think the second and third acts of “House” were a lot better than what I read in “Three Times A Lady,” the first script of Stephen’s I read. So he’s definitely improving. But this script needed a few more passes.

Script link: The House That Death Built

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

What I learned: Guys, make sure your script is ready for public consumption. Being 65% ready isn’t good enough. Fix the spelling, make sure action descriptions are clear, smooth out the bumps in the road (the double time jump). Part of this is simply giving your script to a friend or an analyst and saying, “Is all of this clear?” But if you jump the gun and throw it out there when it’s only partially ready, it looks bad on you. Cause people are going to assume that this is what you consider “finished” work.