Friday, April 1, 2011

Amateur Friday - The Sleep Of Reason

Genre: Drama /Horror
Premise: After his wife goes missing, a man heads to the darkest reaches of Transylvania to find her.
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: Lee Matthias
Details: 107 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).

What if your wife got kidnapped? And what if you found out the man who took her was the most notorious blood-sucking vampire in history? How far would you go to try and get her back? Those are the questions posed in the mysteriously titled, “The Sleep Of Reason,” the first amateur script I’ve read in forever that I believe is worthy of your time. And a big reason for that is, I’ve never seen a “Dracula” story taken this seriously before. This is one part Dracula, seven parts character study. That’s what makes The Sleep Of Reason so unique. It doesn’t rest on the laurels of its famous character. It’s more about the man who must overcome him.

Sleep of Reason didn’t start off well for me. There’s a big difference between complex openings and confusing openings. Complex openings create interesting questions the reader wants answers to. Confusing openings leave readers frustrated and trying to keep up. These openings are usually the result of a writer trying to cram too much into their setup. Because they’re so familiar with the elements in their story, they wrongly assume you’re familiar with them too.

We start off Reason on a boat (for seemingly no reason), then jump to an insane asylum, then jump to a man in that asylum interviewing a crazy person, then jump to that interviewer’s predecessor at the asylum from a few years back, who then helps us jump back 35 years prior to understand why this man went crazy. It was just so many elements coming at us so fast and in such a disjointed fashion, I had to reread it a couple of times to understand what was going on. You never never never want your reader to have to go BACKWARDS to check something in a script. It takes them out of the story (literally) and screws up the rhythm of the read.

Luckily, once we move out of the present day storyline, things pick up considerably. Renfield (our crazy character and hero) is the son of a wealthy entrepreneur on a trip to America to explore some business opportunities, when he meets and falls in love with Elsbeth, a poor but beautiful young woman.

Unfortunately, because Elsbeth is a woman of simple means, Renfield’s father doesn’t approve of their union, cutting the two off from the family. This forces Renfield to pursue a career on his own, and their first option is a contact he knows in the furthest reaches of Eastern Europe. It is there, in a small town, that Renfield leaves his hotel for just a moment, before coming back and finding his wife gone. Her disappearance is particularly upsetting because…it’s impossible. He was outside the hotel for just a few minutes and never saw her leave. It’s as if she just…vaporized.

Naturally, Renfield becomes consumed with finding his wife, and after experiencing many roads that lead nowhere, he finally gets a clue about a mysterious resident who lives up in the mountains in a castle. Against the advice of the townspeople, he heads up to that castle, and finds it occupied by a curious group of people who welcome him with open arms.

After a couple of nights of wandering through the cavernous castle walls, Renfield befriends the irresistibly sexy Elizabeth, who informs Renfield that his wife is here in the castle. There’s a problem though. Vlad, the owner of the mansion, has become enamored with her. Soonafter we realize that Elizabeth is just as heartbroken about the chain of events as Renfield, as it used to be her who was the apple of Vlad’s eye.

The two must work together, then, to create a mutually desirable outcome. But it won’t be easy. When Vlad finds out what they’re up to, he plots to make things very difficult for Renfield.

After getting through that tough opening, I realized something quickly. Lee was a really good writer. I can’t remember the last time I came upon an amateur writer who had such command of language and story. And it gave me an immense amount of confidence in the script. I immediately felt like I was in good hands.

Indeed I was rewarded when Renfield got to the castle as that’s when everything really began to pick up. The conflict Lee creates and the clashing motivations of all the characters make for some really great tension. You have Renfield, who wants to get his wife back. You have Elizabeth, who wants Vlad back. You have Vlad, who wants to keep Elsbeth. And you have Elsbeth, who wants Renfield, but is too deep under Vlad’s spell to do anything about it. Complicating things even more is the vampire angle. Even if Renfield is able to get his wife back, how does he get around the fact that she’s now a vampire?

I also loved the tone here, and Lee achieves this quite cleverly. In order to protect himself from all of the vampires in the castle, Renfield keeps with him a special case of garlic-laced brandy. He must keep drinking the brandy to keep the garlic in his blood. The side effect of this, however, is that Renfield is always slightly drunk, which gives his actions and his experiences a dream-like quality, and puts into question everything he’s doing. Is he really here? Is this really going on? Are these people really who he believes them to be? Does he want his wife so badly that he’s merely creating this story in his head? It felt a lot like Black Swan in that sense, where we’re constantly questioning reality.

That’s not to say The Sleep Of Reason didn’t have some hiccups. I wasn’t entirely clear on why Vlad didn’t just kill Renfield and get it over with. Possibly establishing that Elsbeth would’ve never forgiven Vlad if he’d done such a thing would’ve helped.

Also, the pace is a little slow. I’m afraid some readers are going to be like, “Let’s get on with it already!” And I guess I’d understand that argument.

But the reason I think the slow pace works here where it didn’t work in, say, Tripoli, is because Reason has something Tripoli did not: Personal stakes for its protagonist. At stake here is Renfield’s wife – the woman he loves more than anything. So even though it takes awhile to get to things, we’re willing to wait because the goal is so strong.

The Sleep of Reason is a thousand times better than most Amateur scripts I read. The attention to detail alone proves how much Lee cares about this story and how much he respects the craft. It’s slow-going in places and the writing is a little thick at times, but there’s enough conflict and a strong enough character goal driving the story, that it all works out. Granted I’m not a Dracula fan, but this is the best Dracula story I’ve read easily.

Updated Script Link (with changes): The Sleep Of Reason

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

What I learned: One of the mistakes I see intermediate to even advanced writers make is trying to cram too many elements into the opening of their scripts (voice overs and flashbacks and jumping back and forth between unrelated scenes). I think these writers are simply trying to create complex multi-faceted openings. But they forget that the reader is entering their world for the first time and needs to be oriented before they can handle all the craziness. You can’t throw me into the middle of the world Crickett Championships if I don’t know the rules to the sport. So just take a step back when you’re writing that opening and say, “Am I trying to do too much here? Am I asking too much of the reader?” Because if you lose your reader within those first ten pages, your screenplay is screwed.