Friday, July 8, 2011

Amateur Friday - Orbitals

Genre: Sci-Fi Comedy
Premise: Set in the future, a married couple trying to join an exclusive orbiting community (above earth), is forced to adopt a 13 year old girl due to the community’s “families only” policy. Little do the girl and the community know, the couple’s intentions aren’t so kosher.
About: Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted in the review (feel free to keep your identity and script title private by providing an alias and fake title).
Writer: John Sweden
Details: 97 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’ve been hearing some strongly opinionated rumblings about this script all week. I just want everyone to remember, this isn’t Trajent Future we’re talking about here. We don’t have the writer telling everyone they’re idiots for not liking his script (or at least, not yet). My assessment of John Sweden is that he’s a nice guy, someone interested in the craft, but whose proximity to screenwriting may not be as close as the rest of us. We all started somewhere. We all know what those early scripts of ours looked like, so don’t be mean here. Be critical, but don’t be mean. Now, having said that, I have to call it like I see it, so to Mr. Sweden, take a seat. There’s going to be some tough love in this breakdown. Try to take it constructively. In the end, it’s about learning from your mistakes and becoming a better screenwriter the next time around. :)

The first hint that something’s off here comes in that DAD and MOM, the main characters in Orbitals are referred to in quotes throughout the screenplay. So they’re “DAD” and “MOM.” Anyway, “Dad” and “Mom” are obsessed with sex. In fact, the movie starts out with them trying to make a sex tape. I’m not sure what this has to do with the story, other than maybe being a viral offshoot of Monday’s script review, but it’s a pretty darn strange way to open a script, I’ll tell you that.

Anyway, the other thing “Dad” and “Mom” do is swear a lot. Fuck this and fuck that and fuck fuck fuck and lots of use of the word fuck. I did a word count and there are over 150 uses of the word fuck. That’s almost 2 per page!

Now I’m a little confused about this next part, but I think “Dad” and “Mom” work for the military. And they need to get up to this orbiting community to execute a top secret plan. Unfortunately, the “Orbitals” don’t allow you up there unless you’re a full family, with children and such. So “Dad” and “Mom” decide to adopt a teenager.

Luckily for us, “Teenager” has a real name. Aubrey. And Aubrey, just like her new parents, likes to use the word “fuck” a lot. Now for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, once they have Aubrey, they do not go on their mission. They instead hang out at their apartment, celebrate a birthday, go shopping, try to have sex a few times, and watch movies. After awhile, they decide it’s time to head up to Orbital-Land, where we quickly learn their intentions aren’t as pure as we thought. “Dad” and “Mom” are terrorists! And they’re planning on blowing up the entire Orbital community – while discussing sex of course.

I’m just going to tell you right now – Orbitals is getting the worst Scriptshadow rating there is. And I don’t want to discourage John because this is not a rating that reflects his writing for the rest of his life. It is a rating that reflects this script only. The great thing about screenwriting is that as long as you have the drive, you can keep learning, keep getting better. This is probably a rating that would reflect every screenwriter's first screenplay – which I assume that this is – so try to take these notes as constructively as possible.

When I first got to LA, I wrote a script with a friend and we managed to finagle it into a few pretty big hands by basically lying our asses off. We told our few contacts that we’d written something that huge producers were interested in (lie), tricking them into reading it themselves.

Eventually, a really big agent agreed to “have lunch” with us and we prepared for our imminent big break. “I knew this was going to be easy,” I thought, mapping out which kind of car I was going to buy, a Bentley or a Ferrari. Now let me tell you something I learned in retrospect. This script was fucking AWFUL. Like the worst script you can imagine. It was about the internet coming alive or something. I don’t even remember exactly because I’ve tried to purge my brain of its existence. To give you an idea of how bad it was, we gave the script to a couple of 15 year olds since that was our target demo and one of them came back and said it was the single worst thing he had ever read in his life. He actually thought we were kidding. “You didn’t really write this, did you?” He was 15! 15 year olds like everything!

Anyway, we later realized (hindsight is a beautiful thing huh?) that the agent who was most certainly going to give us our big break, wanted nothing to do with us. She was doing a favor for the person who gave her the script, who she thought was a lot closer to us than she actually was. So she sent her crony assistant, this total Hollywood douchebag who spent more effort trying to pick up our waitress than talk to us, which in retrospect sucked because we convinced ourselves the guy was a moron and therefore ignored everything he said to us. But the guy gave us some really important advice that I only grasped 5-6 years later. This is what he said.

Writing screenplays is not a joke. You are competing against guys who have dedicated their lives to this craft, who have a 15-20 year head start on you. These are the Derek Jeters and the David Beckhams of the screenwriting world. They will spend 1-2 years on their screenplay. They will have written 30-40 drafts. They will go over every scene 200-300 times. They will make sure every line of dialogue is sharp, relevant, reveals character, and pushes the story forward. They will obsess over that screenplay like you wouldn’t believe. And because they’ve written 30 screenplays already, they will know where all the mistakes are and how to fix them.

If you think you can just slap together a high concept idea with 2 good scenes and a threadbare story that barely makes sense and compete with that? You’re off your fucking rocker.

The agent-assistant (whatever he was) then made us pick up the tab and went over and asked that waitress out (she said yes) and in that moment I hated everything about Hollywood. But you know what? He was right. He was so very right. This isn’t a joke. It doesn’t matter how many bad movies you’ve seen. If you expect to break in with a script you wrote in 14 days? If you think that professionals in this business won’t be able to tell that you wrote the script in 14 days, due to its unoriginality, its sloppiness, its 70% of scenes that repeat information we already know, its lack of character development? That readers won’t know that you didn’t think a single plot point through or do more than a single rewrite, you’re crazy. The guys who matter know these things. You cannot trick them.

That’s not to say newcomers can’t write something decent. But if you want a fighting chance, go out and read the 5 best-selling screenwriting books so you have SOME idea of how to tell a story. Read at least a hundred screenplays so you know what kind of quality you’re going up against. Plot out your story beforehand so it doesn’t look like something that was made up on the spot. When you’re finished, read through it and note all the places you were bored. Come up with solutions and then rewrite it. And when you’re finished, repeat that process. Again. And again. And again. Give it to friends and ask them what parts they liked and didn’t like. Incorporate those responses. Rewrite it again. And again. And again.

Honestly, I don’t know where to begin with Orbitals. I guess I’ll start with the basics. Movies are about only giving the audience the good parts and cutting out all of the boring stuff. Orbitals is written the opposite way. It only gives you the boring parts, and could care less about the interesting stuff.

For example, the script is supposedly about a couple who adopts a girl to get access to the orbiting system above earth that they normally wouldn’t have access to. Therefore, when they adopt the girl, you’d think that we’d be – you know – on our way to the orbiting system. No. Orbitals spends the next 50 pages back at the apartment with its two lead characters talking about sex. That is not the “good parts.” The equivalent would be like in Star Wars, after Obi-Wan and Luke went and got Han as their pilot to go to Alderran, they then went back to Obi-Wan’s hut, shot the shit for 50 minutes, and THEN went to Alderran. Honestly, we have one straight 50 minute chunk in Orbitals that could be axed and the screenplay would be exactly the same (actually it would be better because it would be over sooner). That’s not a good sign.

The reason this makes me so angry is because this is Screenplay 101 stuff here. This is some of the first stuff you learn when writing. And so the fact that it’s ignored tells me the writer hasn’t even attempted to learn the craft. I have less sympathy for Amateur Friday writers if they’re not taking the craft seriously. Once again, you’re stepping up to the plate facing a jacked up on steroids Roger Clemens in his prime. You better have spent as much time as possible learning the difference between fastballs and curveballs and sliders before you grace that batting box.

Another Screenplay 101 mistake is that every character in Orbitals talks EXACTLY THE SAME. This is probably the number 1 telltale sign that you’re dealing with a new writer. Everyone here uses “fuck” in equal disparity, meaning nobody sounds unique. All the conversations have the exact same rhythm. And worse, they are exactly the same scenes repeated over and over and over again. The parents want to have sex. We get it. We don’t need 13 scenes in a row telling us that, specifically since having sex has nothing to do with the plot.

And the scenes themselves are like 10-15 pages long. The average scene is supposed to be 2-3 pages long. A “long” scene is considered 5 pages. And you should only have a few of those in your script. 10-15 pages is a lifetime for a scene. There’s a moment in Orbitals where the characters sit down and watch The Shining for five pages, get in an argument, and then have another 5 minute scene talking about watching The Shining and getting in an argument! I don’t even know where to begin with that. Why are we wasting five pages of a screenplay with our characters watching a movie???

There’s no structure here. There’s no conflict. There are no stakes. There's no urgency.  The characters are all the same. The dialogue is repetitive. The story repeats itself. The script basically ignores every good storytelling tenet in the book. And again, this is more a condemnation on the writer for thinking it’s easy than it is on the writing itself. I feel that if John actually studied the craft, read a few books, learned the basics, mapped out a plot ahead of time instead of making it up as he goes along, he could come up with something a thousand times better than this. But this is all we have. And it’s a great reminder that this craft is a lot harder than everybody thinks it is.

Script link: Orbitals

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

What I learned: Readers have strong negative – often angry – reactions to scripts like this because we’re pissed that the writer actually made us spend 2 hours of our lives reading something that they scraped together in a couple of weeks between Modern Warfare and World of Warcraft sessions. You’re going up against veteran screenwriters who know ALL the tricks in the book. Who know how to mine emotion on the page so that they already have the reader in the palm of their hand by page 5. You’re going up against people who are getting professional feedback from producers and agents, then going back and fixing their mistakes until there are no mistakes left. You’re going up against people who are not only pouring over every scene in their screenplay, but every *sentence.* Every *word*. You're going up against writers who can attach Robert Pattinson or Leonardo DiCaprio to their screenplays.  That’s your competition. That's why you have to be perfect . Every writer loves that fever draft you shoot through in a couple of weeks. But believe it or not, that’s the easy part. The real work comes afterwards. In the rewriting. If you’re not willing to make that commitment, this business isn’t for you.