Friday, April 29, 2011

Amateur Friday - Blood and Fire

Genre: Drama
Premise: After the wife of a missionary is killed, we jump back and explore the couple’s life together.
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: Karl D Larsson (“Karlosd” in the comments section).
Details: 113 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).

I always get a little worried when I can’t come up with a logline for a script I just read. This is by no means a death sentence. Films like American Beauty have imperfect loglines. Amores Perros, Heat, Babel and Pulp Fiction have imperfect loglines. But my experience has been when you can’t summarize your story cohesively in a single sentence, the script itself probably lacks focus. The reason for this is that a logline doubles as a controlling idea. It’s the idea that controls your story. If that idea is unclear, the story itself is going to be unclear. And I think we have a little of that going on today’s script, Blood and Fire, a subdued chronicling of a couple’s life together.

Blood and Fire starts out strongly. We meet a family living in an unfamiliar country having breakfast. They’re slightly dysfunctional but no more so than the average family. The key players are the father, Shane, a 40 year old Salvation Army officer, Kara, his beautiful wife, and Chloe, his 17 year old goth-ish daughter. After they finish eating, Kara goes out for her morning jog, only to be shot and killed by the local thug tandem of Carnel and Faron.

Jump back to Afghanistan in 2002 where we discover how Shane and Kara met. He was a soldier and she was a nurse. After getting injured and brought in to her hospital, the two begin to bond, and Kara, who’s actively religious, introduces Shane to the power of faith, going so far as to bring him to a local Afghanistan church service, a dangerous endeavor in a country currently at war with his people.

The story then jumps back 3 days earlier to highlight an event that (I believe) got Shane sent to the hospital in the first place. He and another soldier were on patrol in the city and his dim-witted partner caused a panic that got some poor pedestrian trampled, causing all sorts of mayhem that resulted in the two barely getting out alive.

We then jump forward in time to Los Angeles, years later, where we learn that Shane has become a preacher, is now married to Kara, and has a couple of children. Shane is actively involved in helping the community, but also worried that his teenage daughter, Chloe, is heading down the wrong path by dating suspect guys. Eventually, the Salvation Army decides to make Shane a missionary, and he takes his family to Belize, which is, of course, where our story began.

It’s here that we meet the local crime lord Carnel, and his cronie, Faron. Carnel likes his community nice and dirty, as it’s easier to operate as a criminal that way, and therefore doesn’t like Shane and his family barging in, trying to clean things up. Things only get worse for Shane when his daughter Chloe starts dating Faron. But Faron is like a meek little bunny compared to Carnel, who's constantly warning Shane to go back to America.  When Shane ignores him, Carnel finally takes matters into his own hands, and kills Kara.

This is a tough one. With no hook, no discernable character goals and no real story structure, there isn’t a whole lot to grab onto with Blood and Fire, especially because we spend a lot of the story randomly bouncing around in time. In any story, you’d like for the reader to have an idea of where things are going by the end of the first act. I never pinpointed that direction, and thus had a hard time staying interested.

Part of the problem here is the lack of clarity in why we're jumping around so much.  Take the jump backwards to the Kabul incident for example. We watch as mayhem occurs and a girl is trampled. This is probably one of the more active moments in the script. But ultimately, it doesn’t have anything to do with the story. The person responsible for the pedestrian’s death isn’t even our main character. It’s another character altogether, one who we never see again. Which leads me to wonder, why include the scene at all? If it was our main character, Shane, that would have huge implications on the story and his character. But since it isn’t, it’s just a scene where something bad happens to someone we don’t know by someone else we don’t know.

The inclusion of the Los Angeles storyline also stumped me. To me, backstory is backstory for a reason. It’s not important enough or exciting enough to document in the main story. And I felt that a lot of this script, in particular the Los Angeles section, was background story on our main characters. I say that because there were very few things in the Los Angeles thread that influenced the central question of the story, which is, why did Carnel shoot Kara? Instead, it’s just a bunch of scenes showing a married couple trying to live together while raising a family. If there was a more immediate problem in Los Angeles, more interesting story threads, higher stakes, more conflict between the characters (there’s conflict between Shane and Chloe, but it’s too subtle to spend 40 pages on), these scenes could have been justified. But for me, at least, it all felt like backstory.

It's only natural, then, that I feel that the bulk of this story needs to take place in Belize. The last 30 pages of this script are its best, and there’s a reason for that. That’s where all the conflict and drama is. We could feel the tension growing between Carnel and Shane’s family, Carnel and Shane’s work, which is why we’re so invested in this part of the story. You always want to ask yourself, “Why am I including this section? Is it worth including? Is there enough conflict here? Enough tension? Enough story? Enough shit going on? Does it pay off?” I would argue that the whole Los Angeles middle act does not. It just tells us about the characters. Belize is where all the drama is.  All the conflict, stakes, and story progression. Let’s keep as much as the story there as possible.

This is where I’m going to put my producer hat on and pretend like this is a project in my vault. How can I move this out of passion project territory and into “worth the 20 million dollar investment I'm going to make” territory? How bout this? Instead of following Kara off on her jog, don’t show her beyond when she leaves the house. 30 minutes later, Shane gets a call. He goes out to find out his wife has been killed. But in this version, we don’t know who it was. We know they have people in custody (maybe even Carnel), but they’re denying they were involved.

Now we have a mystery. So when we jump back to 2 weeks ago, here on the island, we as an audience are more actively engaged in the story, cause we’re trying to figure out, which one of these characters killed Kara? This is exactly what they did in American Beauty. Had they spun that story so that you knew who killed Lester at the beginning of the movie, I’m not saying the film would’ve stunk, but it certainly would’ve been less interesting. A lot of what drove our interest in that film was, “How does Lester die?”

As for the stuff in Afghanistan and Los Angeles, I don’t think you need it. It really is backstory and most of what’s shown is monotonous. I understand you want to build up how the two fell in love to make Kara’s death more impactful, but by giving the couple a key unresolved issue here on Belize, you can delve into a lot of the same themes and issues, yet still keep the story moving along (and not stopping for 50 pages to learn how the two met and spent their day-to-day lives). And if you absolutely must jump back to when they first met, just show a couple of those scenes and keep them sparse. And make sure they reveal something new and interesting about their relationship that we didn’t know before. If they’re just average scenes about two people getting to know each other, that’s not worth stopping the story and going back in time to see. We’re imagining something similar to that anyway so to show it to us is just redundant. Instead, use those early meeting scenes to surprise us. Not that you’re writing Lost here (I understand this is a completely different genre), but sort of that same idea. We thought we knew those people. When we jumped back though, we realized we were dead wrong, and that made seeing them again, in this new light, interesting.

This sounds very much like the “passion project” problem I was describing yesterday. I can feel you exploring some really deep and meaningful themes and issues in the writing of this story. I can tell that it’s moving you. But now take a step back and put yourself in the reader’s shoes. We have a slow-moving, structurally confusing concept-less meditation on faith and family. That’s not an easy sell, nor is it an easy story to invest in in screenplay form (I could see this working more as a novel where you could get into these characters' heads). So the trick is trying to find a stronger way into the story (a better concept/hook) which allows you to do the same things you’re doing here, yet make it more market-friendly. Maybe you cross-cut an investigation into Kara's murder with the two weeks leading up to her murder. Or maybe something else entirely. But I do think there needs to be a more active story here, and not just a look back at a couple’s relatively predictable life.

I will say that the writing itself is strong, succinct, and professional though. While I didn’t respond to the story as strongly as I would’ve wished, I felt like you were telling the exact story you wanted to tell. You just need to bring the structural aspects and the conceptual aspects to the same level as your writing skills. Good luck. :)

Script link: Blood and Fire

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

What I learned: You are no longer a struggling writer barely able to pay his rent. You are now a low to mid level producer who’s desperately trying to keep his job at a studio. These are the eyes you should be looking at your screenplay through. You’re a producer who needs to make money to live. To pay the rent. To support your family. To put your two daughters through college. --- Now does that mean you have to write a zombie flick to impress this person? No. But it does mean you need to find a marketable hook to the story you’re telling. Black Swan could’ve easily been about a struggling ballerina who lived in an apartment with her overbearing mother. Instead, it was about the cutthroat pursuit of one of the most coveted roles in the world of ballet while fending off an evil adversary. Always look for that hook/angle that will appeal to the person tasked with buying your story. You’ll be surprised at just how easy it is to convert your passion project into that kind of story with a little imagination.