Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tracking Board and It's On The Grid!

Note: Scroll Down for FRIDAY'S Amateur Friday review!

Hey guys.  So I've been chatting with my friends over at The Tracking Board and It's On The Grid and have set up another opportunity for you to get a nice discount on subscriptions to each.  For those who don't know what a tracking board is, it's a private online site that provides insider industry information. They tell you which spec scripts are being sent around town, which specs are selling, which are failing to sell, which writers are picking up assignments, which scripts are getting heat, what studios they’re getting heat at, etc. etc. As a writer, this is really valuable information. Being able to track which genres and concepts are flooding the market, and where they ultimately end up (or don't end up), is an essential component to choosing how you want to approach the market with your own screenplay.

People often ask me how I know about all these scripts, how I choose which scripts I'm going to review, how I keep tabs on all these projects.  Well, I'm officially revealing my magic trick.  I get my info from The Tracking Board.  If you’re serious about the craft of screenwriting (or becoming an agent, manager, producer, etc), if you want to excel in not just the writing side of this business, but the selling side, it’s a good idea to join at least one tracking board. Now for the month of June, I've set up a deal with The Tracking Board to bring their annual rate of $79 down to $59 for Scriptshadow readers.  Make sure to go through this link below to get the discount.

$59 FOR 1-YEAR
(note: Password will be sent to you within 24 hrs of sign-up)

Now if you're super-serious about writing and want to take an even bigger step, you should check out It's On The Grid, which is basically an up-to-date screenwriting version of IMDB, tracking all the projects out there in detail.  A couple of great things about It's On The Grid are its inclusion of up-do-date open writing assignment info as well as a studio/agency style searchable database.  This is the kind of information that Hollywood has kept to itself for over 80 years.  You would not have been able to find it as an "outsider" just two years ago.  If you're interested in The Grid, The Tracking Board has partnered up with them to give you a combo annual subscription price of $299.  However, if you sign up through Scriptshadow via the link below, you can get it for $247.  Happy gobs of new screenwriting information everyone!  I'll be leaving this deal up through the end of the week. 

(note: Password will be sent to you within 24 hrs of sign-up)

Note: I've been informed some of you are having trouble getting the Paypal link to work.  If you're having problems, feel free to e-mail The Tracking Board, mention Scriptshadow, and they'll get you signed up at the discount.  You can reach them here: info@tracking-board.com

Amateur Friday - Tribute

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A marginally talented tribute band finds itself magically/accidentally transported back to the year 1973 and seizes the opportunity to become actual rock stars by “stealing” the career of the group they’ve long made a living out of impersonating.
About: Okay you guys who want to submit to Amateur Friday, I expect your loglines to get a lot better after yesterday’s great discussion. Feel free to re-submit with something new and improved. ---- 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 Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Keep in mind your script will be posted (feel free, however, to use an alias and a fake title).
Writers: Charles Wellington and Michael Bloat
Details: 118 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).

Let me start this by reiterating a common theme that comes up during comedy reviews: this genre is subjective as hell. I bring this up because Tribute didn’t win me over in the end, but it clearly won a lot of other people over. I had a half-dozen people e-mail me during the week to tell me how much they liked this. So I want to strike a deal with you. Give this script a chance. Don’t go by my review alone. It’s rare that I get a chance to hype up an Amateur Friday screenplay and it seems like the one time everybody seems to like something, I’m the Debbie Downer. I’m the guy crapping on the parade. I’ll explain why I felt this way after the synopsis.

40-something Guy Kirshner is the lead singer of a group called “Swords of Britain,” a moderately successful tribute band celebrating the legendary hard rock group “Jabberwocky.” His group consists of guitarist and music aficionado Sean Goolsby, as well as his short and stubby drummer and bassist team, the Ramirez brothers. Guy’s one of those eternal optimists who thinks Swords of Britain’s big break is always around the next corner.

Which it kind of is. Richie Loud, the elusive and partly insane lead singer of Jabberwocky, has just been found dead, which has thrust Jabberwocky’s music back into the spotlight. Guy realizes that they’re not going to get many opportunities like this again, and convinces his band to crash Richie’s funeral to promote tonight’s gig.

However, as the band drives to the bar later, they get in a pretty gnarly accident. Guy, hellbent on still making their gig, gets the band to suck it up and rush to the bar, and it’s only once there that they realize they’ve been magically transported back to 1973! In fact, after they play their set, they realize they’ve accidentally been mistaken for the REAL Jabberwocky, who are (or WERE) about to play their first American gig, the one that started their success. This means that Knights of Britain have taken the real Jabberwocky’s place!

Of course everyone else is nervous about this, but Guy realizes this is his one and only real shot at becoming a rock star, and so convinces them to take advantage of the opportunity. The next thing you know, they’re recording Jabberwocky’s first album and living Jabberwocky’s success!

In the meantime, an angry Richie Loud, who’s convinced that these men stole his music, though he has no idea how, since he’s never played it before (At one point, he starts writing a song on Sunset Boulevard, only to hear it blasting out of a car radio seconds later), plots to expose Guy and his band of imposters to save Jabberwocky.

That job may take care of itself though since Jabberwocky only recorded one album. So when the media starts asking Guy and the others what’s next, Guy realizes there is no next. There are no more songs left to steal. Or are there? That’s when Guy formulates his ultimate plan, to steal every single great tune recorded after 1973 and make it a Swords of Britain song. Will he succeed? Or more importantly, will everyone else in Swords of Britain go along with it?

There’s no doubt this is a cool premise. And I’ll back this script all day for potential. But I had a lot of issues with it, and it will be interesting to see why others didn’t. As a reminder, I don’t check boxes when I read scripts. I first judge a script on how I feel while reading it. If I’m not feeling it, I go back and try to figure out why. In this case, the story felt like it was wandering. So I asked myself, “Why did it wander?” Did it wander because I lost interest in the story and therefore wasn’t fully paying attention? Did it wander because I never connected with the characters? Or did it wander because there was really something structurally wrong here? That’s not always an easy question to answer. The simple solution is to just slap a cliché screenplay analysis term on it (NO TICKING TIME BOMB!) and call it a day. But I always want to get to the heart of why something didn’t work, or else I don’t learn anything from it.

My first problem with Tribute? There was nothing FOR ME PERSONALLY that I hadn’t seen before. The tricky thing about any premise, particularly a high concept one, is that you have to give the audience what they’re expecting, but you have to do it in a better way than they’re expecting it. That’s what we writers do. We give you what you want but in a higher quality version of how you thought you’d get it. If the audience already knows exactly how everything goes down, why even show up? The problem with this is that each person brings a different depth of movie knowledge to the table. The more they know, the harder it is to give them something they weren’t expecting. I suspect that that’s part of the problem here. I’ve seen this all before.  However, someone who’s younger (and surely someone who’s read a few thousand less scripts) is going to be surprised more often, and therefore more likely to enjoy Tribute (and other films like it).

My second problem was – yes – the lack of a ticking time bomb. Everybody’s allowed their opinions on ticking clocks. There are some cases, particularly slow character driven indie-fare, where the artificial quality of a ticking time bomb does more harm to a story than good. But when it comes to high concept movies, especially high concept comedies, ticking time bombs are essential. You have to have one dominating your narrative, or else your story gets lost. The moment where this story lost me was after Swords of Britain recorded their first album and realized they didn’t have any music left. After that point I was like, “What now?” The finish line was nowhere to be seen. I had no idea what the goal was anymore (vaguely continue to try and be famous?). There was no indication of when the story would end. I felt lost.

I understand that the concept here is to see a band become successful, and that takes time, but when you’re talking about a movie, you have to find a way to bookend the journey. For example, maybe Jabberwocky’s history is that they first started to get popular in Los Angeles, but it wasn’t until they opened for the Stones at the Rose Bowl that they became national rock stars. Assuming this, you’d now have Swords Of Britain arrive in 1973 just like in the current script, accidentally steal Jabberwocky’s first gig, then begin to get famous in L.A. only (this way you can still have scenes of them experiencing success) and then place that Rose Bowl concert in three weeks. That then becomes your ticking time bomb. Your characters will have to make a choice by that night whether to play the concert (live a lie for the rest of their lives) or walk away (do what’s right).

Character-wise, Tribute was a mixed bag. Sam (the guitarist) was obviously the deepest character. I loved how he’d been trying to get Guy to listen to his demo. But after that, there’s less character depth than the Los Angeles Clippers’ bench. Our next deepest characters are Richie Loud, who’s relegated to solo scenes of being pissed off. And Tess the Weirdo Groupie, who’s actually a pretty sad and interesting character, but since she’s relegated to scenes with Richie, who's number 3 on the depth chart, she never has a chance to shine.

And that was another problem I had - I was never sure who the main character was. Remember that whoever you introduce us to first in a screenplay, that’s who we assume is the main character. So for a long time, I thought Guy was the main character. But then Sam sort of emerged as the main character and Guy became this caricature of a man obsessed with fame. Then there are times when Richie could be interpreted as the main character. Yet just when you think that’s the case, he disappears for a few scenes. I don’t know. I couldn’t figure it out.

Now having said all these terrible things, I want to reiterate the strength of this concept and the strength of this story’s potential. You can see A-list comedy actors dying to play these roles (Jack Black alone is probably begging Charles and Michael for an audition). I’d just like to see a rewrite with a little more structure, some more character depth, and a few more surprises. I wish these guys luck. This could be a project to look out for.

Script Link: Tribute

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

What I learned: A 118 page comedy equals a big no-no. You want to keep your comedies under 110 pages, unless you’re a known movie star or you already have ins in the industry (and even then, it’s not advised). I’m not saying 118 pages is bad because it’s 118 pages. I’m saying 118 pages is bad because it almost guarantees that a comedy will be unfocused and/or bloated. If you have a clear character goal, if you have a ticking time bomb, you can make sure that every single scene you write is necessary to tell the story. If you don’t (and as you can see, these were my issues with the script), you end up writing too many unnecessary scenes, which in turn bloats your screenplay up to 120 pages.

Scriptshadow Special - How To Craft A Damn Good Logline

 Best movie fit for a logline ever??

Okay, first thing’s first. I am not a logline expert! There are probably people on these boards that know a lot more about loglines than I do (and therefore I welcome their criticisms). However, I am someone who’s received a few thousand loglines all designed to catch my attention and make me want to read your scripts. From that end, I can speak from experience, and my experience is that 90% of the loglines I read aren’t professional or well-constructed. Since your logline is your initial point of attack, the line that either gets you or doesn’t get you the all important read-request, it’s gotta be just as tight as your script. So, let’s take a look at what loglines are, and how you can improve them.

People always used to say to me, “Make sure you write a proper logline!” stressing the word “proper” with an inordinate amount of vigor. I always dismissed them with a roll of the eyes and a, “I’ll write my logline however I want to, thank you very much.” Well, now that I’m on the other side, and I’ve read hundreds of loglines which I’ve then gone on to read the scripts for, I’ve realized that there’s a strong correlation between professional loglines and professional scripts. When a logline is really well constructed, the script is usually really well constructed. When a logline is confusing or unfocused, the script is usually confusing or unfocused. For that reason, when I see a logline that confuses me in even the slightest bit, I won’t read that script, as experience tells me that if they can’t make that one sentence comprehensible, there’s no way they’re making 110 pages comprehensible. Seasoned industry folks are looking for a clear concise summary of your story. For that reason, it’s essential that you get the logline right.

The single most important thing in a logline is the hook. There has to be some kind of intrigue, some kind of irony, some kind of high concept, some kind of unique subject matter, that grabs our interest. In other words, there has to be something in the logline that’s exciting. That word is, of course, subjective, but without a hook, you could construct the most technically perfect logline in the world and still no one will want to read it. It doesn’t matter if the scope’s big (Breaking into people’s minds to steal information) or small (A man is stuck in a coffin with no memory of how he got there), you gotta hook us. A teenager who has to save his mom and dad’s marriage is not a script I’d hurry to open. A teenager who gets stuck in the past and must figure out how to make his parents fall in love or else he’ll cease to exist? Now THAT’S a script I want to read.

A good logline usually covers three bases. It gives us the main character, the main character’s goal, and the central conflict in the story (what’s preventing them from getting that goal). Let’s take a look at this in action. The logline for Black Swan might be: “A sheltered ballerina must train for the most important role of her career while fighting off fierce competition from her talented and dangerous understudy.” We have the main character (the ballerina), the goal (training for her role) and the central conflict (the other ballerina trying to steal the role from her). Bonus points if you can give or allude to the hero’s defining characteristic. This is usually done with an adjective. “A sheltered ballerina must train…” gives us a lot more information than “A ballerina must train.” And there it is. That’s your logline template.

This is the biggest mistake amateurs make when constructing a logline. They think an idea, or a “concept” is a logline. So they might write, “A hockey player takes up golf and becomes a superstar that changes the sport.” (Happy Gilmore). That’s not a logline. That’s an idea. A logline fleshes out the details to give us a better understanding of the main character and the specific journey he goes on. So instead, that logline might look like this: “A hockey player with severe anger issues is forced to join the golf tour, a sport he detests, in order to save his Grandmother’s home.” Now instead of imagining a vague series of scenarios, we understand who our characters is (a hockey player), what he’s trying to do (save his grandmother’s house), and what’s standing in his way (a sport he hates).

Okay, I’m not suggesting that every movie you write from this point on be based on an ironic premise, because there are plenty of great movies that aren’t, but I will tell you this. The loglines that read the best are the ones with some sort of irony in them, where the character and the situation are at odds with one another. A lawyer who can’t lie (Liar Liar). A king who can’t speak to his people (The King’s Speech). A Detroit cop investigating a case in Beverly Hills (Beverly Hills Cop). A time manager stuck on an island with all the time in the world (Cast Away). An alcoholic superhero (Hancock). These loglines will always catch a reader’s attention, so you’ll have a huge advantage if your concept contains irony.

Here are some good examples of well-written loglines I’ve found across the web. Notice in all of them how we have the main character, the goal, and the central source of conflict.

On the eve of World War 2, an adventurous archeology professor tries to find the mythical Ark Of The Covenant before the Germans, who plan on using the powerful relic to take over the world. (Raiders Of The Lost Ark)

In a future where criminals are arrested before the crime occurs, a drug addicted cop struggles on the lam to prove his innocence for a murder he has not yet committed. (Minority Report) 

After a thirteen year old outcast accidentally destroys a mixtape belonging to her deceased parents, she struggles through an impossible journey to re-find each rare track in hopes of finally connecting with the parents she never knew. (Mixtape) 

A precocious and selfish high school playwright whose life revolves around his unique private school, finds himself in a dangerous competition with its most famous and successful alumnus for the affection of a first grade teacher. (Rushmore)

A reclusive sociopath must fight his way across the wasteland of a dangerous postapocalyptic America to protect a sacred and mysterious book that holds the key to saving the future of humanity. (The Book Of Eli)

Okay, now on to you guys. I’m going to finish this post up by listing 5 loglines I’ve recently received (for Amateur Friday) and explain why I haven’t picked them. The goal here is not to embarrass those who submitted, but rather put them inside the head of the person who’s using their loglines to determine whether to read their script. Hopefully they, as well as you guys, will learn something in the process. Enjoy.

THE WARRIOR POET - The Epic story of the early years of the Biblical figure David, who while fleeing from the paranoid and murderous King Saul becomes leader of a guerrilla unit of 600 soldiers and assassins in the harsh wilderness of Israel.

Jason’s a regular contributor on the site, and I know he’s been working on this script for awhile. Why then, did I not choose his logline? Good question. The subject matter itself sounds like it has potential, but there are some red flags that kept me away. The word “epic” itself is daunting. I think “epic” and I imagine 140/150 pages, which is an immediate “no way” since I read too many screenplays as it is and like to keep each read under the 1 hour and 45 minute mark if possible. The subject matter is weighty as well. It sounds like it’s going to be dense, with lots of long paragraphs, and will require copious amounts of concentration to stay involved. That sounds more like work than entertainment. And finally, the logline doesn’t indicate any character goal driving the story. Rather it implies a situation. After David flees, it sounds like he just hangs out in the Israeli forests with 600 soldiers for a few months. Where’s the point? Where’s the all-essential driving force? There isn’t one, which leaves me thinking that the story, as well, will not have a point or a driving force.

SMALL TOWN HITMAN - The world's worst hitman is banished to Anytown, USA.

This logline is way too general. It doesn’t tell me enough about the story. I’ve seen a billion loglines about hitmen. What makes this one special? What makes me want to pick up THIS hitman screenplay over all the others? Again, scripts often reflect loglines. So if a logline is vague and generic, the script will likely be vague and generic. This logline needs some major fleshing out, more specificity, and more of a hook. “The world’s worst hitman is accidentally assigned to assassinate the number one criminal on the FBI’s most wanted list,” sounds like something with a lot more potential.

BLACKOUT - A band about to embark on their first world tour throws the party to end all parties, only to wake up with a corpse in their pool... Hilarity ensues.

There’s something too generic about this idea. Any dead body is a problem in a story, for sure. But there’s something too on the nose and obvious about a wild band having to deal with a dead body. A much more intriguing logline would consist of a CHRISTIAN ROCK BAND waking up and finding a dead body in their pool. Now you have irony. Now you have a movie. Also, I advise against using “Hilarity ensues” in any logline. I see it a lot, and since hilarity almost never ensues, it tends to send a subliminal message to the gatekeepers to “avoid this.”


First of all, you definitely don’t want to present your logline in all caps. It’s too hard to read and comes off as unprofessional. My big problem here is that the story doesn’t make sense, at least as told through the logline. If someone heads off to Africa to save lions, why would the FBI care enough to put them on their most-wanted list? If she was going from continent to continent killing lions, trying to make lions extinct, I could see the FBI wanting to find her, but why would the FBI want to stop someone from saving lions? Isn’t that a good thing? And don’t they have more important criminals to take care of? Like child molesters and terrorists? It didn’t make sense to me. And if the logline doesn’t make sense, I’m not going to open the script.

THE DAY OF RECKONING - After a Zombie outbreak erupts, a devout Street Preacher must struggle to make it home and save his pregnant wife and young son while determined to keep to God's commandments—especially, thou shalt not kill.

This is actually a well-constructed logline. Notice that we have our main character (our preacher). We’re told something about him (he’s “devout” and does his preaching on the “street”). We’re given his goal (make it home while protecting his wife and son), and we have a hook (he’s not allowed to kill any of the zombies along the way). This is something that I might pick up and read in the future. So why haven’t I yet? Simple. I have read a shitload of zombie scripts in the last 3 months. And while this sounds solid, it’s got nothing new or different enough in the well-tread zombie genre to make me want to pick it up right away.

And there you go. Hope this has helped. If you’d like, go ahead and post your own logline in the comments section and I (as well as the rest of the readers) will tell you if it needs work or not.

The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea

Genre: Drama
Premise: After a young man's wife dies, he befriends a strange homeless girl who's building a raft she hopes to sail away with.
About: The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea is based on the memoirs of Henry Hertzel Jr. and will star Zach Braff, Chloe Moretz, and Jessica Biel. Robbie Pickering, the writer, had his first produced credit with Natural Selection, a comedy about a woman who goes on a journey to find the mullet-headed son her husband secretly had via donating to a sperm bank. That film debuted at SXSW last year.
Writer: Robbie Pickering
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).

I’m fully aware that I’ve reached the quota on dead wives scripts on this site (Dogs of Babel, Honeymoon With Harry, After Hailey), but I swear to you I didn’t know what this was about when I picked it up. Actually, I was a little bummed, as this specific script has some similar elements to a script I myself am working on (for the record, there are no dead wives in my script). But in the end, the similarities were negligible, and I was able to get through “Deep Blue Sea” confidence intact. As for whether “Deep Blue Sea” made it through intact, that’s another question. This is one odd puppy. And I’m not really sure what to make of it.

33 year old architect Henry Hertzel slips into a dress shirt, ready to begin his day, a day that will end with his wife, Cindy, driving their jeep into a pole and not living to tell about it. Of course, that hasn’t happened yet. Right now, we’re listening to Cindy get ready on the other side of the bathroom door while Henry goes through his own morning ritual. Just listening to these two talk, you can tell they’re deeply in love.

So when Henry gets the news later that day, it’s no surprise that he’s beyond devastated. And before he’s able to wrap his head around it, Cindy’s family is already putting him in charge of dispensing of her ashes.

Luckily, Henry becomes distracted by a peculiar 15 year old homeless girl who’s known for junk scavenging in the neighborhood. He remembers his wife mentioning the girl, and begins to take an interest in her. He eventually finds out that she’s hauling all this junk back to an abandoned barn where she’s building a raft to sail away to the Azores Islands.

So Henry, along with his contractors, Pele and Retard (yes, his name is Retard) offer to help her. She’s reluctant at first, as she doesn’t trust anybody, but his building experience becomes too valuable to pass up, and she decides to give him a shot.

The building of the raft begins to consume so much of his time, that soon he’s skipping work on a daily basis. Although it seemed inevitable, Henry finally realizes that he wants to join the girl (Millie) on her trip to the Azores. He wants to sail away into the great unknown.

The problem is his mother-in-law, Julie, learns about Henry’s exploits with this girl and becomes very concerned. She begs him to seek some help, but he refuses, becoming more and more obsessed with completing the raft. In the end, he’ll have to fend her and others off to reach his goal, as well as overcome a shocking truth about Millie.

I feel like I’ve read three scripts this week all with tons of potential, none of which realized that potential. There are so many neat ideas packed into “Deep Blue Sea,” but I’m not sure they come together in a cohesive or satisfying way.

These sort of quasi-mystical concepts are harder to pull off than they look, because the tone is so tricky. You don’t want to play up the magical/quirky aspects too much, because the story won’t feel realistic, but you can’t skimp on them either, since they're the hook that brought people in in the first place.

That’s why I liked Dogs of Babel so much. It walks that line with pinpoint accuracy. And it’s a great reminder of why that script is so awesome. It makes you believe in the impossible even if it isn’t possible. In fact, Dogs of Babel is a perfect comparison piece for “Deep Blue Sea.” When you read that script, you really feel like the writer had a plan, that they mapped out their story. In “Deep Blue Sea,” you feel more like the writer had an idea, and just scribbled it down stream-of-conscious style. As a result, the script comes off as a messier not-as-good version of “Babel.”

Indeed, I found myself frustrated by the sloppiness of the characters and the narrative in “Sea.” You have the funny guy named Retard. You have the raft made out of junk. You have the weird homeless girl with her strange way of talking. You have the imaginary flashbacks of pretend famous people sailing across oceans. There’s no structure here. Just ideas.

For example, I wasn’t sure why anyone was doing anything. Millie was building a raft to sail somewhere…but why? Because she wanted to sail somewhere? And while at first Henry’s motivation for hanging out with Millie made sense (his wife asked him to check on her before she died), it becomes increasingly unclear why he continues to hang around her other than the vague conceit that he’s having trouble moving on.

Or we’d get these moments of total randomness like a picture of Henry’s wife when she was 15 years old, who looks exactly like Millie does now, setting up a big revelation somewhere down the line. But then it’s never mentioned again. As a reader, when things are set up but never paid off, it makes me question just how much effort was put into the rewriting.

My biggest issue though, was the lack of any true character exploration. Don’t get me wrong. Characters are experiencing things here (the loss of a wife) and having deep conversations (discussing the dead wife), but much more emphasis is put on the external qualities of the characters as opposed to the internal. As a result, we get caricatures, characters who are defined by their quirky attributes (one named Retard, one who collects and wears trash). But what about the inside of these people? Why they are the way they are? Look at After Hailey, where we knew the main character’s flaw was his inability to settle down. This informed his entire character, as the central conflict was about him attempting to leave town (to avoid settling down) but constantly being pulled back (by his stepson, by his sister, by the house). In “Deep Blue Sea,” all I knew about the characters was their quirky exteriors, their weird mannerisms, and that made it hard to connect with them on a deep level.

The truth is, there may be some symbolism here that I’m just not getting (I’m notoriously bad at picking up on symbolism). The stuff with the sea, the dog named AHAB, the friend named RETARD. I’m half-expecting someone in the comments to say, “Don’t you get it Carson? This is about the slowly deteriorating state of the capitalist construct and our over-reliance on Middle Eastern oil.” Well, symbolism or no symbolism, I wanted to be entertained, and while there were some really neat ideas in “Deep Blue Sea,” they never came together for me.

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

What I learned: Now this doesn’t apply exactly to this script because we realize that Millie has only been homeless for a few days, but a word of warning to those of you writing homeless people into your scripts. Don’t do it. Unless you’ve been homeless and know what it’s like, do not write a major homeless character into your movie. Every single homeless character I’ve ever read in a script reads like an ignorant writer’s idea of what a homeless person would be like based on TV shows or movies they’ve seen. If you’re going to do research, go out and interview homeless people and figure out what their day-to-day life REALLY consists of? Then fine. But if you’re just going to guess? Don’t do it. Cause I promise you it will come off as a really shallow version of a homeless person. Go rent Pay It Forward and watch Jim Caveziel’s homeless character to see what I’m talking about (The “The first time you sleep in a dumpster” monologue may be the worst monologue ever written).

What I learned 2: When one character makes a quick off-the-cuff analysis of another character, try to come up with a more original response than, “Thanks Dr. Phil.” I’ve read that line somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 billion times.

Congrats to Scriptshadow Reader

Just wanted to send out a little love to longtime Scriptshadow reader Gary Milin for his Amazon Studios screenwriting win.  His script "Sky Pirates" won the top prize.  The logline is: "In 1940, a US airship is sent on a top secret mission into the uncharted African interior in order to intercept a Nazi Zeppelin involved in an archeological expedition that could make Hitler’s armies invincible"  Shane Black was one of the guest judges and you can read the script here.  I have not read Sky Pirates yet, but I have read several drafts of "Killer Role," a comedy of his about a college student who must harbor the daughter of a Russian crime syndicate during Thanksgiving, and liked it a lot (Killer Role is also available on Amazon).  Anyway, it's always good to see Scriptshadowers do well so good job Gary. :)

What Would Kenny Do?

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A recently dumped high school senior gets a visit from a hologramed version of his 37 year old self, who helps him put his life back together.
About: What Would Kenny Do made the bottom quarter of the 2008 Black List. The writer, Christopher Baldi, has been busting his ass writing, directing, producing, and editing shorts and small indie projects over the past half-decade. This was his breakthrough screenplay. Recently, Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher signed on to star in the film, however the producers (of which Ashton is one) want a major rewrite before going forward.
Writer: Christopher Baldi
Details: 107 pages – April 1, 2008 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).

Justin Bieber.

Ashton Kutcher.

Is there anything more that needs to be said?

Okay maybe there’s a lot of things that need to be said. And I’m sure you’re saying them right now. But before you, you know, do anything drastic, let’s dial down your “all pop culture” sucks attitude and look at this script purely on potential. Even though Kutcher is seriously lacking in the acting department, the one type of role he does well is the one where he’s making fun of himself, where he’s winking at the audience.

In that sense, What Would Kenny Do is a genius career move, for both him and Bieber. Bieber’s poking fun at himself. Ashton’s poking fun at himself. Ashton’s poking fun at Bieber. Bieber’s poking Selena Gomez. I mean, come on, I would rent that movie. Or one of those movies.

Now that doesn’t mean the script gets power of attorney to vomit out a lackluster story. This is a mistake I see a lot writers make actually - they believe that since the subject matter is light and fluffy, the effort can be light and fluffy. BIG mistake. If there’s one thing I’ve realized about screenwriting, it’s that every script is a challenge. Every script requires the same amount of dedication and effort to pull off. If you half-ass any script, I guarantee it will show.

17 year old Kenny Bellmore is devastated by the recent dumping he received by his long time girlfriend, Holly. High school is tough. You can put two long years into a relationship, slowly chipping away at that magical end goal known as losing your virginity, only to have your gf break up with you weeks before it’s supposed to happen, which is what happens to poor little Kenny.

Needless to say, he’s kinda devastated.

Luckily, Kenny is BFFs with Jared, his burnout buddy who’s not only a genius, but also secretly works for NASA. Bummed about his best friend’s quickly deteriorating life, he offers Kenny up an opportunity to salvage his high school career. What if, he asks him, he could meet his grown up self, who could then steer him in the right direction and fix all his problems via the power of hindsight? Kind of like a really advanced science-fiction version of MTV’s “Made.”

Kenny’s a little weirded out about meeting his grown-up self but, because this is a movie, he goes along with it and soon an eerily similar looking 37 year old version of himself is standing in front of him. Old Kenny has one simple rule. Do what he says and everything will turn out dandy.

The goal for the Kennys is three-fold. Make his ex-girlfriend jealous for leaving him, find a date for the prom, and lose his virginity. Not exactly a trifecta of depth, but let’s remember that this is high school, where sex took precedence over world hunger.

Over the next couple of days, Old Kenny orchestrates situations where his ex sees him talking to other women, hanging out at parties, and courting the school slut. Though he doesn’t always agree with him, Young Kenny has to admit that everything Old Kenny tells him to do is working. Which makes Young Kenny one happy little terrier. Although I’d advise anyone to “never say never” (if you get that reference, shame on you), it looks like all of Young Kenny’s problems are going to dissolve away.

I thought “What Would Kenny Do?” started off well. It was clearly going for a “Weird Science” vibe and did a great job pulling it off. However, I’m afraid there are a couple of script-crippling issues here that are going to have to be addressed if they want this film to reach any higher than 30% on Rotten Tomatoes.

The first is the same problem I had with yesterday’s script – but here it’s even worse. Our main character is cripplingly passive. And that’s because of the way the main characters – Young Kenny and Old Kenny - are constructed. You see, usually, in these types of movies (older self mentors younger self), we tell the story from the older self’s point of view. So in 17 Again, we’re with the 40 year old adult version of Zac Efron first.

The reason for this is because the central issue at the heart of these movies – wishing you would’ve done things differently – can only be realized from the perspective of the person who’s already screwed them up. They’re the ones who know what happens later on, and therefore the ones who can offer advice for change. You see this in 17 Again, where Zac Efron (who’s really 40 year old Matthew Perry) tries to guide his high school daughter through the right decisions.

Here, since the movie is told from the perspective of Young Kenny, you have this really weird dynamic whereby our main character doesn’t make *any* decisions. He just follows orders from his older self. Obviously, if you’re doing what somebody else tells you to do for the entire film, that’s the very definition of passive.

This could’ve been salvaged had Older Kenny been a more complex character, but since we’re telling the story from Young Kenny’s point of view, we never get an opportunity to explore Older Kenny. I know I know. I just said not to give Ashton Kutcher any complex parts, but just from a screenplay perspective, we needed some depth here.

Actually, there was a late attempt to add some complexity to Old Kenny’s character, when he finally gets a chance to see his father alive again, but it was so thin, so barely realized (I didn’t even know his father was dead in the future) that it didn’t work.

Another major issue is that in all these “wish fulfillment” films, there comes a point where things need to start falling apart. At first, it should be puppy dogs and ice cream for your hero. But then, after the initial shine begins to fade, our hero’s situation needs to gradually deteriorate into something worse than had they never made the “wish” in the first place. This usually ends up teaching our hero a lesson, which allows them to change and become a better person.

Big is a great example of this. Initially, Hanks’ character reaped all the benefits of being an adult, but eventually learned that with that came an overwhelming amount of responsibility and “adult problems,” that he wasn’t yet prepared to handle. “What Would Kenny Do” has a “blink and you miss it” troubling sex scene with a slut late in the third act, and that’s it, that’s the extent of his “deterioration.” As a result, the script lacks any real conflict for the main character and therefore any drama. It feels one-note and way too easy of a journey.

When it’s all said and done, there’s barely any story to speak of in “Kenny.” Things move along, but do so without the necessary emotional peaks and valleys, and without a character who’s deciding his own fate or learning anything. I’m not saying you need to tell “Kenny” from the point of view of his older self, cause then you just have 17 Again Part 2, 17 Again: Text Patrol. But something needs to be figured out so that the main character in this script is more active. I hope they figure it out, cause Bieber and Ashton on the big screen together is comedic gold! (even if that comedy is more of the “laugh at” than “laugh with” variety)

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

What I learned: Usually, the last 15-20 pages of Act 2 should be reserved for your hero slowly descending until they reach their lowest point (which is the end of Act 2). If that descension is shortchanged (only given a scene or two), or worse, not addressed at all, your script won’t feel like it has a third act, but instead, one long second act, which will throw off the script’s rhythm and confuse the reader.

Monday, May 30, 2011


Genre: Drama
Premise: An alcoholic pilot becomes a reluctant hero when he saves a crippled plane from certain catastrophe.
About: If this is based on anything (a novel?), I wasn’t able to find out what. Which means we have the rare exception to the rule that is a drama spec sale. The writer, Gatins, has jumped back and forth between small roles in films and being a feature writer. He wrote the Dakota Fanning film, Dreamer, as well as Coach Carter and Keanu Reeves’ Hardball. Robert Zemeckis is said to be interested in directing. And Denzel Washington is currently attached to star.
Writer: John Gatins
Details: 134 pages - undated (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).

Robert Zemeckis used to be my favorite director. What I loved about him was that he always put the story first. And the bigger he got, the more effects-driven his movies became, it was fascinating to watch him stick to that philosophy. I still remember going through the Forrest Gump DVD extras and realizing just how many special effects were invisible.

So when Zemeckis gave up live-action movies to become this 3-D motion capture pioneer, I was left not only confused, but baffled that he was no longer embracing the principals he’d built his career on. This motion capture stuff seemed to be ONLY about the special effects, with the story being an afterthought. It’s no coincidence that every one of those movies was absent of any soul. What’d happened to the Robert Zemeckis that I loved?

Well, I’ll say this. I have no idea what it’s like to direct a dozen movies in Hollywood. But I’d imagine that, as hard as this is for someone like you or I to believe, you probably get bored after awhile and look for new challenges. Pioneering a new technology then, would be alluring. Still, I’ve been impatiently waiting for Zemeckis to return to the live-action well, and finally it’s starting to look like that will happen, with Flight being one of his first steps back.

40-something Whip Whitaker is waking up from a long night of drinking and fucking. In order to kickstart the old ticker and put an end to his post-wasted sluggishness, he snorts up a few lines of cocaine. Nice! Breakfast of Champions baby.

It is to our horror, then, that we realize Whip is piloting a commercial airliner that morning. His co-pilot, a ball of nervous energy to begin with, is staring at Whip suspiciously. He wants to believe that he doesn’t smell booze. But man does he smell booze. Does he say something? Does he do something? If he’s wrong, his career could be over before it begins.

Despite Whip’s questionable shape, he seems amazingly calm during a rough take-off. And later in the flight, after a huge BANG and a collapse of the plane’s hydraulics which results in the plane flipping upside-down, it’s the co-pilot who freaks out and Whip who’s as calm as a cucumber. I won’t ruin what happens next, but let’s just say that, if executed well, it will be one of the more harrowing scenes ever put on film. In the end, Whip crash-lands the plane, saving all of the passengers except a few. It is seen as the single most amazing maneuver in commercial piloting history.

Whip’s injuries put him in the hospital where he misses the majority of the media coverage and it is there that he meets Nicole, a 30 year old drug addict who’s resorted to giving hand-jobs during massages to secure money for her next high. She overdoses on heroin which is what led her here. Her and Whip then form an unlikely friendship, that slowly turns into something more.

What Whip doesn’t know is that when he was unconscious, they took blood and skin samples from him, and know he was drunk and high during the flight. This becomes the central focus of the story – an inside look at the politics of a crash investigation, as each of the parties (the union, pilots, airlines, plane manufacturers) all fight against one another for who’s to blame so that THEY aren’t responsible for footing the bill. It’s the uniquest of unique situations. There’s no doubt that Whip saved all of these people. Yet he still might get tabbed as the cause of the crash.

There are so many ideas in Flight, and the structure of the story is so unpredictable, I’m not sure how to break it down. I guess that ultimately it didn’t work for me, and the reason is, that for all the interesting stuff going on with the crash and post-crash politics, this is really just a hard-core look at alcoholism (and addiction in general). It’s kind of like Leaving Las Vegas in that sense. A good movie, but not something you pop in after a long week for entertainment.

I’ll give Gatins credit though. He went against the grain a lot, and made choices you didn’t expect him to make. For example, the hero aspect of the story is never explored. Whip is a hero, yet is never seen by the media, never recognized by the public.

My question is, is that realistic? I think every person in America knew exactly who Captain Sulley was after he landed that plane in the Hudson (granted, he was kind of a funky looking dude). My issue with Whip never experiencing his celebrity firsthand, was that it made the event seem less significant. We’re told this was the greatest commercial airplane maneuver in history, yet if we’re going by what Whip experiences in the aftermath, it’s like it never happened.

It actually had me wondering why Gatlins didn’t go in the opposite direction. Why not have it so Whip becomes this huge celebrity with all these opportunities stemming from his heroics? He’s hugging babies, he’s the spokesperson for the airlines. For the first time, he’s got real control over his life. And THEN the union comes to him and tells him about his toxicology report.

The reason I think this works better is because now Whip actually has something to lose. He has this perfect life that hangs in the balance of these reports getting out. This would in turn make the backroom politicking more interesting. They have a national hero on their hands who’s changing the industry for the better. Do they really want to lose that? In other words, the stakes would be higher on both ends.

This led to the biggest bout of turbulence during Flight: Whip Whitaker doesn’t really give a shit about his goal – keeping his job. Protagonists not caring about their goals is a huge problem, because if they don’t care, we the audience don’t care. Look at some of Zemeckis’ other films. Marty McFly is desperately trying to get back to the future. Tom Hanks is desperately trying to get off that island. Jodie Foster is desperately trying to make contact with aliens. Whip Whitaker is barely interested in keeping his job as a pilot. And this lack of interest just kills any significant stakes in the story. I will say this all day long. If there’s nothing to lose for your hero, you don’t have a movie.

Despite all this, I didn’t dislike Flight. I thought it was an interesting script with some great moments (the crash landing sequence was truly awesome) and should be an awesome role for Denzel. But in the end, it’s a huge downer, and because of that, not the kind of reading experience I’d recommend.

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

What I learned: I think there are two kinds of passive characters. The worst kind is the one without a goal. Without a goal, your hero will be directionless, and the movie will be directionless as well. The second kind of passive character, which isn’t as bad but still not good, is the character who DOESN’T CARE ABOUT HIS GOAL. So Whip Whitaker has a goal here – to save his career. But he just doesn’t seem that interested in it. We get the sense the whole way through that if he fails, then he fails. He doesn’t really lose anything. This lowers the stakes and makes us less interested in his journey.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Amateur Friday - Untitled Man Camp Project

Genre: Comedy
Premise: When a controlling fiance-to-be loses her boyfriend and descends into bitterness, her friends send her to “Man Camp” to learn how to date again.
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 Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Keep in mind your script will be posted (feel free, however, to use an alias and a fake title).
Writers: Amie Kelbing & Eva Taylor (story by Ami, Eva, and Danielle Morrow)
Details: 90 pages

It’s probably unfair to put Man Camp under the spotlight a day after reviewing the best movie about bridesmaids ever put to paper. However, it’s a great opportunity to compare a professionally sculpted screenplay shepherded by a dozen industry pros to one written by a couple of amateur scribes still figuring things out. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Wiig and Mumolo’s first draft looked similar to this one, more of an unfocused collection of thoughts than a fully fleshed out story.

That’s the big problem with Man Camp. It’s majorly unfocused. The narrative feels like it’s been strapped to an overanxious rabbit set loose in the jungle. You think you’re going one way, but oh wait, let’s go over here, but oh no, how about checking this out, wait, let’s go back to where we started, no, changed my mind, let’s go this way again. Structure is so important for a screenplay. And there isn’t a lick of it here.

Man Camp has a surprisingly similar setup to Bridesmaids. Annie (same name!) is in a relationship with Ryan, the key difference being she expects to be marrying Ryan soon. The problem is, Annie can’t shut up. She makes all the decisions, she takes all of the control, she doesn’t let her boyfriend get a word in edgewise - about anything. As a result, Ryan dumps her, and there Annie is, back to square one.

Even worse, Annie’s friends all start finding husbands and having babies, leaving Annie further and further out of the loop. She begins to feel sorry for herself, gives up on dating, and becomes a hermit. Worried she’ll become a cat lady, her friends set up an intervention and send her to “The Center” - a place that teaches destitute women how to get back out there and start dating again.

Except The Center is run like an insane asylum, which is appropriate because Annie’s rambunctious roommate, Nina, is about as crazy as they get. While everyone else conforms to the “warden’s” strict rules, Nina’s running around wreaking havoc, trying to get the girls, and in particular, Annie, to live a little. Eventually Annie learns enough from the camp to land another man, Eric.

In a kind of unclear development, the very friends that cared so much about getting Annie help, have now completely forgotten about her, instead wrapped up in their own married pregnant lives. Eric is Annie’s ticket back into that selective group, and she carefully grooms him for reinsertion. But just before they get to the party, Annie can’t help but be too demanding, and loses Eric right before going in. In a lucky coincidence she convinces the bartender, a flamboyant weirdo named Javier who she met while at The Center, to pretend he’s Eric so that her friends won’t know she’s alone again.

And if that doesn’t test the boundaries of believability, Annie then convinces Javier to marry her, and the next thing you know the wedding is set! But at the last second, Annie’s old friend from The Center, Crazy Nina, shows up, drugs Javier, and dresses up like a man so she can scold Annie for marrying just to get married. The moment causes outrage from the wedding party, and Annie is forced to come clean about the whole ordeal.

Okay, first of all, Amie and Eva? I want you guys to know that I love you. But it does neither of us any good if I sugarcoat my notes here, so this is going to get a little bumpy. It’s important for readers of this script to remember, before you go crazy in the comments, that this is likely a first or second effort from the writers, and as anyone who writes knows, the first and second efforts are usually best left as learning experiences. So, let’s get into what’s wrong with Man Camp.

The problem here is a maddening lack of structure. First, we have a main character, Annie, who’s given up on dating. So her friends send her to a “Man Camp,” to learn how to date men again. The script then switches gears and becomes sort of a broad comedy version of Girl Interrupted. And even though we just met an entire cast of Annie’s friends, we’re asked to meet and remember a whole new cast of friends.

But what’s strange about Man Camp is that the actual Man Camp ends halfway through the script. We then cut to THREE MONTHS LATER with Annie now in a relationship with Eric. It’s a little jarring that we’ve now left a second set of characters in the dust, but we try and go with it. But in an ongoing trend of “this is the story, oh wait no it isn’t," Nick disappears from the script three scenes later! Another seemingly key character left in the dust!

This leads to the impossible-to-believe development of Annie spotting a bartender she barely knows and paying him to pretend that he’s her boyfriend (and subsequently marry her). This is the fourth time now that the focus of the script has changed. First it was about a woman losing her boyfriend. Then it was about a Man Camp. Then it was about the relationship that stemmed from Man Camp being a success. Now it’s about a woman paying a man to pretend that he’s her boyfriend. In other words, you’ve officially said to your audience, “We have no idea what this movie is about anymore.”

So first and foremost, this script needs focus. If it’s about Man Camp, then Annie needs to be in Man Camp for 80% of the movie. If it’s about paying a man to pretend he’s your boyfriend so you can hang out with your married friends, then that needs to be explored for 80% of the movie. The fact that Man Camp keeps switching around on us is what makes it so damn frustrating.

Man Camp also cares little about making sense. I get that this is a comedy, but that doesn’t mean characters can just do things because the writers want them to. Actions need to be rooted in some sort of reality for the audience to go along with them. Annie’s friends love her enough to have an intervention for her. Yet we’re to believe they won’t hang out with her unless she has a boyfriend? Nina hates Man Camp. Why doesn’t she just leave? Random bartender Javier agrees to marry Annie on a lark for a few extra dollars? This is nonsensical even by broad comedy terms. Every character here acts like they’re in a cartoon, like there are no consequences to their actions, and because there are no consequences, we stop caring.

Also of note is how Annie’s character is constructed. In Bridesmaids, (the other) Annie is getting screwed over by an asshole, creating instant sympathy for her. In Man Camp, it’s Annie who’s doing the screwing over (of her boyfriend), leaving us sympathizing with the boyfriend as opposed to her. I’m not saying you can’t make your protagonist unlikable or be the one with the unflattering problem. But it’s important to note how this seemingly minor approach dramatically changed how we perceived these two protagonists.

Also, like I was talking about yesterday in the Bridesmaids breakdown, you gotta spend time on your secondary characters. I couldn’t remember any of the characters in this movie besides Annie, Javier, and Nina. There was nothing distinct about any of the original group of friends. There were no memorable characters inside The Center besides Nina. You need to sit down and create big full backstories for these people if you expect them to come alive. Then and only then will you discover the unique characteristic that will help them stick out.

But these problems are minor when compared to the structural issues of Man Camp. The lack of focus and a clear plan is what really hurts the script. Figure out what this movie is about, make sure the entire movie follows that plan (not just parts of it), and you should be okay. Remember, you’re making one movie, not 5-6 mini-movies. Good luck on the next draft! :)

Script link: Man Camp Project

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

What I learned: Unless you’ve set up a comedy that logically progresses over a long period of time (Knocked Up, Juno), you don’t want to throw a random huge time jump into the middle of your story. The 3 month jump in the middle of Man Camp is so awkward, so random, that it deflates everything that came before it. Good comedies usually have some kind of immediacy to them, a ticking time bomb, a feeling that things need to happen RIGHT NOW. Hangover. Liar Liar. Meet The Parents. Even Knocked Up, which takes place over 9 months, has that feeling of, “Oh boy, we’re running out of time!” If you can just randomly fast-forward your story to 3 months later? That tells me you were missing urgency in your story. I mean imagine in Bridesmaids if, in the middle of the movie, we just cut to 3 months later. How awkward would that have been? Condense your storyline into a more stable time frame and make everything happen inside that timeframe. Random large time jumps in the middle of your movie are momentum killers.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why Bridesmaids Is The Best Comedy Since The Hangover

A friend of mine was telling me that Bridesmaids was written in six days. I laughed at him. “No it wasn’t.” “Yes,” he assured me, “It was written in six days. I’m positive. I read it in an interview.” Having just come from the film, and marveling at how well-written it was, I assured him, that without question, there was no way in a Bridezilla-infested hell that this movie was written in six days. If a thoughtful nuanced character driven comedy was written in six days, it would mean I would have to reevaluate the totality of screenwriting. I mean, there was just no way.

So I did a little digging. Read a few interviews. My friend was right. Bridesmaids was written in six days. Oh, but there was one small detail he left out. It was then rewritten over the course of five years. Now THAT sounded more like it. Not that I have any problem with genius writers writing amazing scripts in the same time it takes to read a novel. I just felt that this script was way too good to be haphazardly thrown together over five nights of Hawaiian pizza and pajamie-jam parties.

Another key piece of the puzzle revealed itself when I heard that Judd Apatow shepherded the script. Wiig and Mumolo had never written anything bigger than a comedy sketch before. And when that’s the case, you need someone who understands structure, who knows what to do with all 110 of those big white pages. Again, this is not to take anything away from Mumolo and Wiig. Actually, these two contributed the single most important element of the script that’s led to Bridesmaids’ success.

What would that element be? What is it that makes this film so much better than the awful comedies studios have been peddling to us like “The Dilemma” and “Couples Retreat?” The answer is simple: Character. Everything that happens in Bridesmaids is born out of character. And you just don’t see that anymore. We preach it. I preach it on the site here all the time. But nobody listens to me! The majority of comedy writers these days start with a funny idea, come up with a few funny scenes, and then look for a plot and characters they can jam into those scenes. But in Bridesmaids, every single laugh is born out of character.

So what do I mean when I say “born out of character?” Well, there are four main character components that drive the comedy in this film. Let’s take a look at them. We start out Bridesmaids with Kristin Wiig’s character, Annie, having sex with super asshole take-advantage-of-her-guy Ted (Jon Hamm). Now it’s a goofy scene in that they’re never in sync, that she’s never comfortable with anything Hamm tries. But the thing you’re getting from this scene goes way beyond the hilarity of awkward sex. This scene does an amazing job of setting up our main character so that we both love her and understand her flaw. Annie is desperate to find someone to be with. She wants that other half in life so bad, that she’s deluded herself into believing that Ted might be the guy. The fact that he’s so shitty to her makes us feel bad for Annie. Which means we now want her to be happy, to not have to cling to jerks like Ted. This is the first character component that drives the humor.

Cut to a nonchalant lunch scene between Annie and her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph). I always say to never put two characters at a table together unless you absolutely have to. It’s really hard to make two people sitting down and talking interesting. And as far as this scene goes, it’s probably one of the weaker in the script. However, the scene does a great job establishing the amazing friendship between Annie and Lillian. We see these two play off each other, understand each other, finish each other’s sentences. There’s no doubt in our minds after leaving this scene that these two have an amazing friendship. This is the SECOND character component that drives the humor.

Soonafter, Lillian tells Annie that she’s getting married, and while we can see that Annie is happy for her, we also sense that this affects her in two important ways. 1) She realizes her friendship with Lillian is never going to be the same again, and that terrifies her. And 2) Her best friend getting married highlights her own biggest fear – that she’ll never get married herself. These two things combine to give Annie her defining characteristic which will drive much of the comedy – her fear of being alone. Therefore, it’s the third key component.

This leads us to the (pre?) bridal shower party and it’s here where we meet the fourth and final component that makes the film work: Helen (Rose Byrne). Helen is Lillian’s best friend at work, and when Annie sees them together for the first time, she realizes that they’re a lot better friends than she thought. For that reason, Helen becomes the embodiment of Annie’s fear. Losing Lillian to Helen, in Annie’s mind, means being alone for the rest of her life. And that leads to the main engine that drives this story. Annie will do anything – and I mean ANYTHING – to make sure she doesn’t lose Lillian to Helen.

And there you have it. This is why the movie works so well. Those four character-related components drive 95% of the laughs in the movie.

Take a look at the bridal shower speech stand-off for example. That scene’s not funny because Annie is making a fool of herself or because Kristen Wiig is mugging for the camera. It’s funny because the entire scene is born out of her character’s need to prove that SHE’S Lillian’s best friend, NOT Helen. Had the writers not put all of that legwork into establishing the characters’ flaws and relationships, scenes like this would just die on the screen.

One of the things that shocked me about Bridesmaids was all of the long scenes in the film. One of the “rules” often touted in screenwriting books is to keep your scenes between 2-3 pages. Which is actually good advice.  Scenes tend to play a lot slower than you think they will, so writing a 4-5 page scene is often akin to putting a dead fish on the screen for 5 minutes. But there are tons of scenes in Bridesmaids that last 6-7-8 minutes long. Why do these scenes work?

Well I hate to sound like a broken record but it’s the same answer. The character work. If you make your characters likable? If you build people whom we want to see succeed? If you show us characters with real fears (being alone) and real backstories (lost their business) and real dreams (finding happiness) and real failures (being a hook-up for a guy who will never love you)? Those characters will end up “fixing” a lot of your scripts' other problems. It’s no different than in real life. If you like somebody, you don’t need to be with them at Disneyworld to be having fun. You could be in the back alley of a Tijuana suburb and still be having a good time.

But Bridesmaids didn’t stop there with its character work. It did something that is so rarely done nowadays that I’ve almost given up on expecting it. Bridesmaids puts just as much thought into its secondary characters as it does its primary characters. Here we have Rita, the disgruntled overworked mom whose home has become a prison, Becca, the “married the first man she had sex with” innocent newlywed, Officer Rhodes, the earnest mini-carrot loving perfect for Annie but she doesn’t know it yet love interest, and even Megan, the weird puppy-stealing positive-thinking-for-no-good-reason sister of the groom. The writers take advantage of every single moment of screentime to make these characters distinct and memorable. I just don’t see that in comedy scripts anymore. There’s usually the main character, the wily friend, and those are the only two people in the entire screenplay that the writer puts any time into.

What I take away most from Bridesmaids – the thing I “learned” from this film - is that great comedies are character pieces first and comedies second.  Mumolo and Wiig – either through Judd Apatow or on their own volition – decided to explore their characters first, and see what kind of funny situations arose from that exploration, as opposed to coming up with a bunch of funny scenes and then trying to reverse engineer characters to fit those scenes. I’m hoping the staggering staying power of Bridesmaids (20% weekend hold??) will prove that audiences want to connect with people first and laugh second. For all you comedy writers out there, take heed of this advice, and go write your next character piece. I mean your next comedy!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Red Circle

Genre: Crime Thriller
Premise: After being double-crossed during a bank heist, a safe-cracker teams up with the hitman hired to kill him to take down the double-crosser.
About: Knight is one of the top-dollar assignment dogs in Hollywood. I don’t know what his fee is but I’m pretty sure it’s close to a million bucks an assignment? Maybe more? Someone want to confirm or deny this? Before Knight hit the big-time, he, well, hit the big time, being one of the co-creators of the original British version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. After writing Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, he became one of the more sought after screenwriters for weightier fare. He’s claimed that he wants to write screenplays for another year or two and then go write novels. Of course, when they’re UPS’ing you bags of money, that decision becomes considerably harder. The Red Circle is an adaptation for a remake of a French thriller.
Writer: Steven Knight
Details: 106 pages – 2nd Polish – Feb 6 2009 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).

As you may have noticed, Steven Knight is the writer of my second favorite unproduced script, Untitled Chef Project, which I’m begging someone to get off their ass and make. But Knight is also in charge of Pawn Sacrifice, which I found decidedly underwhelming (it was too straightforward for me). So I was more than happy to take a look at a third Knight script to see where my loyalties lie with the man.

It’s Hong Kong, and brothers (friends?) Sean and Corey are on the eve of a huge job. All they have to do is sneak into a lightly guarded building, crack a safe, and walk away with a ton of dough. Everything goes according to plan until they get back to their car, where they pop the trunk to find peculiar sociopath and hitman Vogel waiting for them. We’ll find out later that the nasty crime boss Santi, who’s friends with Corey, hired Vogel to double-cross them.

But this double-cross is about to get triple….crossed? Two Hong Kong cops, the stylish and confident Mai and her by-the-books partner Junji, spot our trio in the alley and decide to enter the equation. A wild three-way shootout follows, and when it’s all said and done, Mai and Sean are dead.

Five years later Corey gets out of jail and wants only one thing - to kill Santi. But before he does that, he’s going to steal all his money (actually, I guess that's two things). That won’t be easy so he’ll need help. And who better to help than the man who got the jump on him and the cop who lost his partner. So Corey goes back and recruits Vogel, who signs on for a 25 million dollar payday, and Junjie, whose alcoholism has become worse than a bad David Hasslehoff home video.

During the workup to the heist (and murder), Corey reconnects with his lover, An. Suddenly, a more complicated picture materializes. We realize that An is married to Santi, who found out about her and Corey’s affair, and THAT’S why he double-crossed him. With Santi and An being around each other all the time, Corey institutes a stipulation that they can’t hurt her in the raid, which angers Vogel, who thought Corey was doing this for the revenge. But now it’s clear he’s doing it for love.

To make things even more complicated, Officer Mattei, who took Junji’s spot on the force after that fateful night, is looking to make a big move to expedite his career. He wants to take down Santi as well as Corey and Vogel, all in one fell swoop. So he befriends Junji to give him eyes and ears into the operation, with plans on being there when the shit goes down.

In the end, Corey will need to decide what’s most important. The revenge? The money? Or the love?

You know what Red Circle reminded me of? It reminded me of a Hong Kong version of The Town. Like that film, it creates some exciting multiple character relationships at the center of the story, and like that film, it doesn’t quite come together at the end. The ultimate difference is, though, that it’s not as good of a script. Red Circle has so much double-crossing and such an intricately woven set of storylines that you’re not always sure what’s going on, or if it all makes sense.

Still, there’s a lot to like here. First of all, I love stories where two people who don’t trust each other are forced to work together. I understand it’s cliché, but it’s also one of those things where if you set it up right (so that we believe in the pairing), your script will be dripping with conflict from start to finish. Which is important. Because lack of conflict is where a lot of scripts falter. They’ll have too many pages where there isn’t anything going on underneath the surface. This solves that issue definitively.

As for the characters, I wouldn’t say they were perfectly drawn, but they were all pretty interesting. Corey’s motivation was strong, with both the loss of his friend and the love for Santi’s wife. Vogel was a little over the top at times (playing PSP in the trunk while he waited to execute his hit?) but his weirdness and sociopathic behavior kept him interesting. And while Junji was the weakest of the bunch, I thought making him a drunk who mourned the loss of his partner and having his loyalties tugged at by the police force he left, gave him plenty to work with.

I thought the Hong Kong setting was fresh as well. This would’ve felt too generic, for example, if it had been set in LA. And there were a handful of scenes that really stuck out. My favorite was the pet shop scene and the throwing of the snake. Added an interesting wrinkle that’s a lot more fun than two dudes pointing guns at each other.

I did want to bring something up about Red Circle though, and I want the opinion of the advanced writers out there, as it’s my understanding that after you figure out structure, after you figure out character, after you figure out theme, that a lot of writers become orgasmically obsessed with visual motifs.

I’ll never forget the interview with the writer of Spielberg’s TV mini-series “Into The West.” The writer explained that the reason he got the job was because he pitched this idea about the WHEEL as a visual motif throughout the series. That we would constantly see images that evoked the image of a wheel moving. And as soon as Spielberg heard that, he gave him the job. And I remember thinking at the time, “What a dumb reason to give a writer a job.” And still today, I think, “What a dumb reason to give a writer a job.” I guess I’m not sold on why something like this would matter.

I bring it up because in The Red Circle, we’re constantly seeing red circles in the script. A red stop light. The red blood outline of a bullet hole. A red bullseye. Whatever. That seems to be a big visual motif in the script. And I don’t know. To me it just screams “on the nose.” Like, “It’s called The Red Circle and now we’re actually seeing ALL THESE RED CIRCLES! Cooooooool.” Does anybody else feel like this is too obvious?

Anyway, I thought The Red Circle was a pretty good script that went about things just differently enough to make it fresh. The reason I didn’t rate it higher is because there’s something murky about it, sort of the way you only remember certain aspects about a dream . If this could be jammed into a pencil sharpener until it’s sharp as a tac, it could be awesome. As long as you don’t then prick yourself and create…another red circle.

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

What I learned: Here’s a great technical tip. When your characters speak in another language, instead of wasting a whole parenthetical saying, “in Spanish,” whenever they speak, just note in the description that they’re speaking Spanish and from that point on, put parenthesis around their dialogue. i.e. -- Joe: (We need to go find Hank). – Some writers will use italics to convey this as well, but either one is fine.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I Want To ______ Your Sister

Genre: Comedy
Premise: When his sister joins him at the New York Stock Exchange as an intern, Drew thinks it’s going to be the best summer ever – until he realizes that every single guy at the company wants to _____ his sister.
About: I Want To ____ Your Sister made huge waves back in 2007 and rode those waves to a top spot on that year’s Black List. While Stack still doesn’t have a produced credit, she’s got a Jennifer Aniston project called “Pumas” in development (about a pair of women who experience some misadventures on a French skiing trip) and has been making a lot of money doing uncredited dialogue polishes around town (due to the impressive dialogue in “Sister.”)
Writer: Melissa Stack
Details: 110 pages - undated (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).

At the very beginning of Scriptshadow, Sister was at the bottom of my Top 25. But I’ve never reviewed it on the site. Also, I’ve read a thousand scripts since then, so I was interested to see how the script held up after all those pages in between. Was it really Top 25 worthy? Or was that awesome title (it really was “Title Of The Year”) a distracting smokescreen for an average screenplay? Let’s find out.

21 year old Mandy, beautiful and blossoming, is heading to New York City for her first big internship. Her overprotective parents are terrified of course, maybe not so much by the city as they are of Mandy living with her successful trader brother, Drew. Drew may be making millions of bucks at the Stock Exchange, but he’s not exactly Mr. Dependable.

Despite Drew’s overt selfishness and self-destructive behavior (which revolves mainly around banging chicks), these two are inseparable, that disgusting brother-sister duo that love each other to death no matter what. Kind of like the Kardashian siblings. Not that I watch any of those stupid shows of course. The fact that a glitch resulted in me following Kim’s Twitter feed just so I could hear her say “I just finished working out” and “Don’t forget to watch Khloe and Lamar tonight" 47 times a week was not something that happened by choice, I assure you.

Totally an accident.

Anyway, Drew is more than excited to introduce Mandy to her new intern job at the stock exchange. This is like a dream come true. He gets to do what he loves every day AND hang out with his baby sister while he does it. That unbridled optimism dissolves, however, about 5 minutes into Mandy’s first day, when a horrifying truth begins to dawn on Drew. Every single guy at the Exchange is looking at Mandy. Every single guy at the Exchange wants to fuck his sister. Err…uh oh.

Drew instantly transforms into warrior mode, using every free second to push guys away from his sister. But when Drew is tasked with landing the new big fish for the company, super-rich Lothario Jameson Winters, he can only dedicate so much of his time to saving his sister’s innocence.

The pressure of handling these two extremes begins to wear on Drew, and soon he’s acting like an overprotective parent, setting rules and talking down to his sis like she’s 14 again. Mandy starts resenting him for this of course, and starts dating the guy Drew hates more than anyone, deli owner Aarjev, to teach him a lesson. But it’s when she starts hanging out with Jameson Winters, the “big fish” he’s supposed to land, that things really spin out of control.

“Sister” starts out strong. Really strong. One thing I’ve begun to realize and something that “Sister” reminded me of, is that you can use your title to enhance your story – specifically to create dramatic irony. Remember, dramatic irony is when the audience knows something bad that’s going to happen to the characters before the characters do, causing anticipation. So here, we know from the title that people are going to want to fuck Drew’s sister. So the entire first act is thick with anticipation as we’re waiting for and expecting that to happen. We can’t wait to see the look on Drew’s face when the reality hits him.

This works especially well due to the irony of Drew’s character. Here’s a guy who wants to fuck everything that walks, who’s had sex with EVERY SINGLE INTERN in the company, who flaunts it, who encourages it. Yet now, his sister is one of those interns, so in an unthinkable turn of events, he has to prevent everyone else from fucking her.

Stack also does a nice job making us like Drew, even though he’s kind of a doucebag. An easy way to make us like “bad” people is to show them loving someone else. The love here is so strong between Drew and his sister, that we forgive him for being the unsavory guy that he is. In fact, Stack doubles up and gives Drew a little “save the cat” “show don’t tell” moment when Mandy can’t afford a dress early on and Drew buys it for her. Awwwwww.

You also have to give credit to Stack for her dialogue. From the people I’ve talked to, the title is the reason they opened the script, but the dialogue is the reason they stayed. Stack joins Headland (Bachelorette) and Diablo Cody as yet one more razor-sharp dialogue feminista. But for me, it wasn’t the sharpness of her dialogue. It was the realness of it. I read so many scripts where people talk to one another like robots. This person’s turn then that person’s turn then this person’s turn then that person’s turn. It’s predictable and boring. When Drew punctuates one of his points with “KARATE CHOP THAT!” and then does a karate chop move, it’s silly and stupid but it reminds me of the kind of shit my own friends do when they’re hanging with each other. It wasn’t about ‘taking turns.’ It was about what people really say, no matter how nonsensical or non-sequitur those things might be.

My problem with “Sister” is that it has a great first act, but an average second and third acts. There’s nothing bad here. The writing is solid all the way through. But it’s almost like Stack was struggling to figure out reasons for the story to keep going. We do have a goal here (land Winters), but I’m not sure how important that goal is. And the fact that we endure an endless barrage of meaningless gatherings before we get to it didn’t help. My feeling is that Stack needed something to surround the main question driving the story with – will someone fuck Drew’s sister? – and came up with just enough to do the job, but nothing more.

I also thought the Aarjev storyline rang false. In any romantic comedy, you make the choice of basing the comedy in reality or basing it in “movie reality.” An example of movie reality is when a man bets a woman he can make her fall in love with him in ten days. It’s obviously something that would never happen in real life. I’m not saying that kind of humor can’t work. It obviously has fans. But where you run into trouble is when you start mixing the two worlds up. So in “Sister,” the tone here, while slightly exaggerated, clearly strives to exist in the real world. For Mandy and her buddy to conceive of this little plan to start dating disgusting deli owner Aarjev just because Drew hates him…I don’t know. It wasn’t realistic and therefore didn’t match up with the tone in the rest of the script.

It’s too bad, because this is a really good idea for a comedy. And if there were a way to breathe some life into the storyline, as opposed to having a storyline that punches the clock, this script could be a classic. Right now it’s just a solid comedy, which is still something to celebrate, since we don’t see many of those anymore.

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

What I learned: I want to bring up “unfilmables” because they’ve been such a hot topic lately. “Unfilmables” is the buzz word for written description in a screenplay that can’t be filmed. So if I write, “Joe walks to the car,” that’s okay cause it can be filmed. But if I write, “Joe loves this car,” that’s “unfilmable,” cause you can’t “film” Joe’s love for the car. Therefore, certain people argue, you should never ever write “Joe loves this car” (or any other unfilmable) into your screenplay. Okay, I’d agree with this line of thinking…IF THE YEAR WERE STILL 1953. However, things have changed. A lot. It started with Shane Black and it continued with the spec market boom. No longer were scripts meant PURELY AS BLUEPRINTS. They now had to read well in order to have a chance at selling. This is why scripts have become less technical over the years – to make them easier reads. What that means is you have a little more leeway in the “unfilmable” department. I’m not saying that you can now write 18 page internal monologues for your characters, but if you want to throw in a “cheat” every now and then to make the reading experience easier, go for it. I’ve literally read hundreds of professional writers who write unfilmables. So Melissa Stack writes of Mandy’s parents, “They’re batshit crazy, but she loves them.” Yeah, that’s an unfilmable. But it helps tell the story. As long as you use your unfilmables judiciously, and don’t litter your scripts with them, you should be fine.