Tuesday, May 31, 2011

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.