Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Genre: Horror/Family/Comedy
Premise: A recently downsized father moves his family into a dying town, only to find out that it's infested with killer mutated insects.
About: This script made the lower third of the 2009 black list. It sold to Paramount earlier that year. The writer, Marc Haimes, used to be an executive at DreamWorks. He also produced The Legend of Zorro and Hotel for Dogs.
Writer: Marc Haimes
Details: 103 pages – October 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).

Get ready as I plan to fully contradict myself, only to make excuses as to why I'm fully justified in doing so. You see, one of the elements I've been trumpeting nonstop on the site – urgency – is a huge part of this screenplay. However, the excessive reliance on this tool brings up an important question. Is it possible to add too much urgency to your script? It's a strange question because so rarely is it actually a problem. 99.9% of the time, when there's a pacing issue, it's that the script is too slow. But the answer is yes, you can push things along too quickly, and Jitters is an example of that. I'll explain in a second but let's find out what this is about first.

Off in Nowheresville, USA, some scientist-types have been working on breeding genetically modified bugs. At first it's just to help some nearby plant life. But the results prove that the potential for these bugs is much bigger. In fact, it becomes clear that some of these insects could be constructed for…duh duh duhhhhhh, military purposes. So they invite some government dudes in to show them (we have moths that can camouflage themselves, tarantulas that can fly, ladybugs that can…think?) and let's just say a few of the insects get out of their cages and bug these men to death.

A couple of weeks later Walt Hatcher and his family ride into town ready to start their new lives. Besides the wife and baby, Walt has a 13-year-old daughter Kate, who believes every passed minute is a minute you could have been spending saving the world, and a 15-year-old son Jackson, a selfish smart-alec whose number one priority is to make his sister miserable.

As soon as they roll in, they notice that this isn't going to be like life in the burbs. You see, Walt had a nice job and a nice life but all that went to hell with the economy. Unfortunately, the only jobs left were in the middle of crappy dying towns like this one.

Well, maybe "dying" is a strong word. The insect population around here seems to be doing just fine. In fact, the bug problem is so intense that the entire bug spray shelf at the local hardware store has been cleaned out.

Almost as soon as they get to the house, everybody is off to do their own thing - mainly explore this crapola "town." Kate runs off to spy on a couple of nerdy kids who build remote control mini-robots and Jackson goes after the hot girl who lives next door. But when Walt realizes that the insects are out for blood (courtesy of the town’s lone homeless man who has uncovered the giant insect conspiracy) he must round up his family and get them the hell out of here before they all become bug food.

I have to give it to Jitters. I was laughing a lot more than I expected to. All the characters here are really funny, especially Jackson. There's a line he gives early on that perfectly encapsulates his character. A mosquito is caught in the car and everybody's bickering about whether to kill it or not. Kate, of course, is begging to save it while Jackson nonchalantly offers, "We must kill it. It's the only way it will learn."

It's actually a perfect early scene and one of the classic ways to introduce characters. You present a problem to a group of people and use everybody's differing reactions to tell us what kind of characters they are. So it's in this scene that we learn that Katie is the "all life is precious" save the world girl, and that Jackson could care less about anyone.

There's also a funny scene right afterwards where Jackson follows a hot girl in a white tank top to the freezer section of a convenience store, trying to discreetly tape her on his camera phone while pretending to talk to someone. It's juvenile and silly and yet it's something I totally would've done when I was 14 so I loved it. In fact, all the character stuff here in the first act is top notch.

Where Jitters runs into trouble is that it moves at the speed of some of these flying insects. I'm not sure what the time frame is, but I think the whole thing takes place inside of 12 hours. Now you know me. I'm Mr. Urgency. So why didn’t this work for me? Well, it's quite simple. If your whole movie is going to take place in a town, it's important that we get to know that town. And we never get to know or understand or feel the character of this place because we're off and running before we've even settled in.

For example, we meet the hot girl neighbor and geeky robot building twins, but since we've only known them for a few hours, when they find themselves in danger, we don't care. Had we gone to school with them for a few days or had more than one scene to get to know them, I'm sure we would've found ourselves rooting for them because they're actually solid characters.

I also thought the theme of trying to keep the family together could've been better executed. There are times when you're reading a script and you get to that final act and all of a sudden the characters start spouting out universal themes that up until this point have never even sniffed the story (i.e. "Seize the day." "It's better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.") And you're asking yourself, "Where is this coming from?" It's coming from the writer feeling the need to make up for the fact that he hasn't tried to say anything with his story so far. So he has no choice but to wrap everything up in a bow before it all ends.

I feel a lot of that going on here. When Walt starts talking about how family is the most important thing in the world and that's why he needs to save the day, I'm sitting there going, when exactly did this become important? I never got the impression that Walt didn't care about his family at all. And I think the reason for that is, we never spend any time settling into the town. Had we settled into the town, we could've showed Walt being more obsessed with work than he was with his family. But since things move so fast, we never get that opportunity.

On the plus side, you don't really have time to think about all that stuff. The urgency masks a lot of the deficiencies and you find yourself simply trying to keep up with the pace. On top of that, this script is just packed with fun moments. One of my favorites was when the hot girl neighbor tricked Jackson into believing he was being attacked by a giant spider. After she leaves, a real giant spider arrives, and Jackson "isn't buying it this time" and begins messing with the "fake" giant spider, going into this whole routine of petting it and taunting it. Needless to say, it doesn't end well.

That's the true strength of this script. It has this fun lighthearted vibe to it that reminds you of movies like Tremors and Gremlins. It never quite reaches the heights of those films but I can still see this being a really fun silly time at the movies.

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

What I learned: I'm going to take a few steps back here. While I've been touting the importance of urgency a lot lately, this script reminded me that you first need to build up to that urgency. For thrillers like Buried and Source Code, yeah, you want to sprint right out of the gate. But certain stories, such as this one, require that set up time to pull the audience in. Only then do you want to start upping the urgency with ticking time bombs and chases. Jitters never took the time to settle its characters in and I think that's why the script feels too fast for its own good.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Genre: Horror/Thriller
Premise: A man slowly comes to discover his girlfriend is literally working for the devil and has to find a way to escape.
About: Underling finished in the lower third of the 2009 Black List. I believe this is the writing team’s first screenplay together. One of the writers, Ben Shiffrin, is currently working with another partner bringing the animated comic "Dirty Pair" to life. Shiffin also wrote a spec script a couple of years back called Heartstopper with another writer that made some noise but ultimately didn't sell.
Writers: Dave Stoller and Ben Shiffrin
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).

I have to admit that I made a huge mistake when I picked this one up. I thought the logline was, "A man slowly comes to discover his girlfriend is the devil and has to find a way to escape." Now I don't know about you, but that's a movie I would love to see. Had I read the logline a little more closely and realized it was about the girlfriend’s boss being the devil, I never would've read it. Mainly because I've already seen that movie (The Devil’s Advocate).

So as the story unfolded and I began to realize that the girlfriend wasn't the devil, I was kinda disappointed. Still, I tried to refocus and give the script a shot. What I found was a strange screenplay with a vacillating tone and a subject matter that was probably more ambitious than the writers realized.

22-year-old East coaster Tamara Stevens has just gotten a kick ass music management job in Los Angeles. She's going to be working for one of the best managers in the business, the ultra-intimidating Kyle Barrington, described as "Bruce Wayne meets Gordon Gekko."

Somewhat reluctantly dragged along is Tamara's boyfriend and our main character, 22-year-old shaggy haired Alex Jacobs. Alex doesn't really have a lot to do in Los Angeles but he's a very supportive boyfriend and if his better half is moving across the country for her career, he's going to be her number one cheerleader.

They get to Los Angeles and Tamara immediately gets to work. But on one of the first nights out at a club, Alex thinks he sees a man kill a woman in the bathroom. The cloaked-in-shadows man must have seen Terminator 2 too many times because he chases them in their car in almost the exact same manner as the T 1000.

Later on, Alex finds some evidence to suggest that the man he saw is his girlfriend's boss. When he finally gets the courage to tell her, she of course thinks he's crazy. So he does a little digging, and that turns out to be a lousy idea. Kyle finds out and he sicks a bunch of his deadly assistant minions on Alex to warn him off.

In the meantime, Tamara is working later and later at work and she's acting a lot stranger back home. If he didn't know any better, he'd think she's under Kyle's spell.

Eventually, Alex is able to turn one of Kyle's minions against him, and she’s able to educate him about his weaknesses. So Alex must channel up his strength and try to save his girlfriend from the clutches of a man who very well may be the devil himself.

This was one of the odder reading experiences I've had in a while. Despite my misinterpretation of the logline, I still think this script needs to be re-examined. There's something here, but I'm not sure the writers respect the complexity of the subject matter they’ve chosen.

Let's start with the main character. I always get nervous when the main character isn't the most active character in the screenplay. The reason for this is simply because audiences like active characters. They like it when their heroes are the ones making the decisions and pushing the story forward.

The person making all the decisions and being the most active in this story is Tamara. She's the one driving off to LA for a job. She's the one who's working 16 hours a day. Our main character is essentially this slacker being dragged along for the ride. As a result, he feels weak and unimportant.

This inactive follower mentality continues throughout the story. Alex doesn't even have a job as far as I can tell. His only actions revolve around checking up on his girlfriend. And that gets old quickly. This is exactly why The Devil's Advocate worked so much better, because our main character wasn't some secondary hanger-on. He was Tamara's character, the one in the trenches who had the actual job dealing with the antagonist.

It's also why I liked my initial "mistake premise" better (A man finds out that his girlfriend is the devil) because, again, our main character is directly interacting with the antagonist. Wherever there's danger in your story, you want to put your main character as close to it as possible, and that doesn't happen here. There’s this detached quality to the narrative because we're always experiencing the danger second hand. By far, this is the biggest problem with the script. You need to have your main character be more active and in direct contact with the dangerous situation. Keeping Alex so far away from the meat of the problem is killing this script.

Now this next opinion is going to ruffle some feathers so I want to make sure I convey it delicately. Whenever all of the characters in the story are really young – in this case around 22 – it's easy to conclude that the writers are also young. Now this doesn't matter if you're writing something that takes place in a younger universe ("Friends With Benefits" "Friday the 13th"). But if you're trying to tackle subject matter or a storyline that requires a little more sophistication, it can often feel like a couple of teenagers who read about war in their history books trying to write Apocalypse Now. It just doesn't feel like they're up to the task.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Because the screenwriters are so young (or at least, I'm assuming they are), they make the main characters boyfriend and girlfriend. Why? Because that's all they know. That's the current world they live in. However, while that relationship might work fine in the movies I listed above, when you're trying to tackle something with more gravitas, boyfriends and girlfriends are too lightweight. Most relationships at the age of 22 have what? A four month lifespan? At best? If these characters were older and married however, there would be so much more at stake. Alex wouldn’t just be trying to save some girlfriend he's probably going to break up with in two months anyway. He'd be trying to save the love of his life. (Remember people: stakes!)

I'm not saying you're a doomed screenwriter until you turn 28. But I am saying that in order to mask your lack of life experience when dealing with sophisticated subject matter, you should match the ages of your characters to the situation they're in and not just make them 22 because you're 22. Then you have to do the research and make sure those older characters act like they're older. That might mean giving your script to a 35-year-old and asking them, "Does this character really act like a 35-year-old?" If you look at Kyle, for example, he doesn't act like a 35-year-old at all. He's petulant and immature and thinks the world revolves around him. This character is supposed to be one of the oldest entities in all of time, and he never acts older than 23 years old. If all of this sounds too complicated, then just write characters and subject matter that you're extensively familiar with and you should be fine.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that readers expect young writers to be sloppy. So if you give them clues that you're a young writer, and they pick up on some sloppiness, they're going to make a connection between the two and dismiss you because of it, however unfair that is. So mix up the ages in your screenplay and then do your homework on the older characters to make them honest. You have parents and uncles and aunts. Ask them questions. Ask them if they'd really react the way the older characters in your screenplay reacts. It's your job as a writer to create the most honest believable world possible, no matter how extraordinary the story you're telling is.

Anyway, I'm rambling and I'm making this sound like a terrible screenplay, which it really isn't. It's just too unfocused and shoots further than what the writers are willing to commit to. I'm not saying they aren't capable of getting there. But I would've loved more depth to this story. It was too all over the place for my taste.

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

What I learned: One of the easier ways to spot a young writer is tone. Whether we’re talking about humor that's too broad for the subject matter or repeatedly jumping between genres or inconsistent characters, it can be confusing for a reader trying to grasp what kind of story you're trying to tell if the writer is jumping all over the place. For example, if you read the first 10 pages of this script, you'd probably think it was a romantic comedy. If you read the last 20 pages, you'd think it was torture-porn in the vein of Hostel. You can't just jump back and forth between those kinds of extremes and expect the reader to stay with you unless your name is Quentin Tarantino. And unfortunately, there's only one Quentin Tarantino.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Jumper Of Maine

Genre: Drama
Premise: A young emergency response driver with Tourette's syndrome falls in love for the first time.
About: If this sounds familiar, it's because it's one of the winners of last year’s Nickel (sic) competition. Yes, we have a real live winner here.
Writer: Andrew Lanham
Details: 108 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).

First earthquakes. Now hurricanes. How are you East coasters handling all this? Speaking of the East Coast, today's script takes place in Maine (see how I did that?). Not only that, but it won the most prestigious screenplay competition in the world!

I figure screenplay competitions have been getting a lot of discussion on the site lately, so why not show you what a big winner looks like? Who's the big winner?! Mikey’s the big winner! The thing is, if you want to win this contest, the granddaddy of them all, you're probably going to need a couple of things, and a good projectile vomit joke isn't one of them.

You're going to need a profound/interesting theme and/or a compelling nontraditional main character. The competition skews towards meaning. They want you to say something bigger about the world and the people in it. It's screenwriting at its purest. You have to remember that the contest is affiliated with the Academy, and as we all know, the Academy likes to reward films that have a little more going on behind the bread basket.

To that end, I'd say it's the best outlet for writers who are interested in writing non-commercial fare. If you’re someone who loves to dig into characters rather than imagine how a marketing department will sell your film, this competition is probably for you.

25-year-old Oliver James is a paramedic with Tourette's syndrome. Now most of you know Tourette's syndrome as the thing that makes people swear uncontrollably. But as Oliver tells us , Tourette's syndrome can give you a multitude of tics, not just an excuse to swear a lot. Oliver, for instance, uncontrollably jumps. He uncontrollably honks. He uncontrollably licks things. If he concentrates really really hard, he can prevent himself from doing these things. But he's usually helpless against them.

One day, while off duty, Oliver hears about a single mother whose eight-year-old daughter is having a seizure. He races to the house and saves the daughter's life. Afterwards, the mother, Allison, approaches him, and we find out that there's actually a history between the two. Allison was Oliver's sister’s best friend before she died eight years ago, and Oliver has been infatuated with her ever since.

In fact, Oliver has pretty much been stalking Allison for eight years (hence why he was able to get to the house so fast). A little bit dangerous and emotionally distant, the newly single Allison starts hanging out with Oliver, and he falls for her at light speed. But his physical tics start becoming emotional tics and the regular complications of a relationship are compounded by Oliver just trying to be "normal" enough to be around her. Other complications arise, from both the past and the present, and Oliver will have to overcome them in order to finally get what he's been searching for - a true "normal" connection with another human being.

I can understand why Jumper of Maine won. You're exploring a type of character that movies don't typically explore. The script also has an interesting rhythm to it. It starts off exploring the origins of Tourette's syndrome before segueing into a narrative that occasionally likes to jump (just like it's main character!) into the past, always keeping things a little off kilter so you never get too comfortable.

Jumping around in time takes a certain level of skill. The writer has to understand when and where to make those insertions so they don't feel clumsy and Lanham knows what he's doing in that regard. If I have a problem with the script, it's that it's so heavy-handed. For example, I'm not sure we needed the dead sister backstory stuff. We’re already dealing with some pretty complicated subject matter here. To throw another layer of noodles on an already jampacked screenplay lasagna might've stacked things too high.

Don't get me wrong. I like characters with substance and backstory, but I think sometimes writers can get carried away. Every character is so complicated in this story that sometimes it detracts from the point of it all. For example, can't the mom, who has a total of one page of screen time, just be a mom? Does she have to be a mom with Alzheimer's? (For the record, Alzheimer's has become a huge crutch for protagonists’ parents in many of the recent screenplays I've been reading. Think twice before using it).

The other talking point here is the Tourette's syndrome. Whenever you create a character with a disability or a disease, you're walking a fine line. On the one hand there's something honest and important about exploring a person who's suffering from something the average person doesn't understand. But on the other, it can look like you’re pining for the reader’s sympathy. If the reader senses that they’re expected to feel a certain way, you can bet they're going to feel the opposite.

Having said that, I'd still recommend this script.


Because it's different.

One of the things you learn by reading thousands of scripts is that most people are writing the same kinds of stories. Comedies with a couple of bumbling slackers at the helm. Thrillers in a contained environment with time running out. A group of characters trapped in a scary location. Romantic comedies with two opposite main characters. And I'm by no means saying you can't turn any of those scenarios into a good screenplay. A good writer can find unique avenues in any story.

But it is nice, every once in a while, to read about characters or read about a situation that nobody else writes about. And that's what we have here. This is a relationship we don't have a lot of context for, so every story beat is a little unfamiliar.

That's not to say I liked all the choices here. On the Melodrama Richter Scale, I'd probably rate this one above the recent East Coast quake. I thought the script went overboard with the sister getting yanked out to sea. I can't see how that doesn't feel forced and manipulative on the big screen. I would get rid of the Alzheimer's stuff. We have plenty of other issues to work through here. And the stuff with Oliver and Allison is so good that you don't need it. I might even get the ex-husband more involved. As it stands, he's not a real obstacle for Oliver. But if Allison still had feelings for him and at some point he wanted to try again, that could really add some conflict to Oliver's pursuit.

All in all I'd say this was an interesting screenplay. It's far from perfect but it gives us a glimpse into a world we’re not familiar with and does so with a high degree of skill. For that reason, it's worth checking out.

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

What I learned: There's been a lot of discussion recently about the importance (or lack thereof) of screenplay competitions. Here are my thoughts. I think competitions are great. The reason I think they’re great is because screenwriting is a very lonely profession. You might go three years before getting a script in front of somebody who matters. That's a long time to wait for gratification. What screenplay competitions do is they give you that gratification now. Even if you don't place, there's something satisfying about sending your script out into the world. There is a feeling of achievement, and that feeling is essential in a profession that doesn't have many opportunities to feel that way. The truth is, you're probably never going to win one of these things unless you've been writing for seven or eight years or you have an extensive background in other types of writing. But my experience has been that good screenplays usually advance. And getting to the quarterfinals or the semifinals – while not winning – may give you the confidence to finally send that script out to that big contact or add that final polish that's going to put your opus over-the-top. I think without deadlines or checkpoints, it's too easy to get lost in this process. It's too easy to believe that's it's all for nothing. Screenplay competitions are a great way to keep you focused and on track. So pick a few of the better competitions out there (this one, Austin, Zoetrope, Page, Bluecat) and don't use them to try and get that impossible win. Use them to keep yourself writing.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Amateur Friday – Once More Eden

Genre: Thriller
Premise: (from writer) A humanitarian army nurse conscripted against her will uncovers secrets surrounding the government's classified Manhattan Project and risks her life to stop the impending holocaust at Hiroshima.
About: King’s script has made the quarterfinals of this year’s Nicholl competition and is still in play to keep advancing. -- 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). Also, it's a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so that your submission stays near the top of the pile.
Writer: Vanessa King & Mike Palmisciano (story by Vanessa King) (rewrites by Vanessa King)
Details: 115 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

What the hell is going on in this world? I go to sleep for eight hours and the next thing you know Jim Carrey is proposing to Emma Stone via really strange YouTube videos. Despite the obvious here when did everyone become so obsessed with Emma Stone? I mean she's an okay actress. But how did she become the next big thing? I'll never figure this town out.

Anyway, today's script is a Nicholl quarterfinalist. A lot of people have asked me, "What does that mean?" "What do you have to do to get to the Nicholl quarterfinals?" My experience has been that if you have something interesting going on in your premise, and you can put together a cohesive story, you should make it to the Nicholl quarterfinals. I think where a lot of writers go wrong is that even though they can put together a cohesive story, they choose a really boring premise. For example, if you wrote something like Garden State, it probably wouldn't make it to the quarterfinals because it's just a normal guy meets girl story.

But what Nicholl really goes gaga over is strong thematic pieces that are trying to say something bigger about the world or that are tackling their characters in a profound way. Does Eden do that? Will this script advance to the next round? Read on to find out.

It's 1945. Hitler has surrendered. But the Japanese have not. 30-something Annie is an average housewife who's having a bit of trouble in her marriage. Her husband, Wilfred, has been distant lately. He comes home. He doesn't say much. And Annie is really beginning to think that something is wrong.

The only person Wilfred seems to talk to, in fact, is his friend Sam, who has fallen on hard times and therefore lives in their basement. One day, while the men are gone, Annie curiously heads downstairs only to find some strange documents involving her husband.

Soon after, Annie and her best friend Thelma, both nurses at a local hospital, are chased by some men in trench coats. They're eventually captured and brought to a mysterious building where they meet Sam again. Sam informs them that the files they looked through were top-secret and therefore they had no choice but to quarantine them.

Eventually we find out that they're now inside the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project was a top secret government project where they built the atom bomb (that they eventually dropped on Hiroshima). The project was so big that the government created an entire city of 150,000 people to work on it.

But the news is about to get worse. Annie learns that her husband has died, and when she digs into it, she finds out that the death was due to radiation poisoning, something that wasn't well understood at the time. Annie goes on a mission to find out more, and soon finds out what our country plans to do to Japan. Her goal becomes to locate evidence, escape, and let the world know what the US is about to do.

Once More Eden has the makings of a really good movie. There are a lot of exciting story friendly elements here. We have conspiracy. Death. Trauma. Thrills. Suspense. We have a high profile controversial project. And the script takes the unique angle of putting a woman in the middle of it all. So I can see why it would do well at the Nicholl.

However, I had some pretty big issues with the screenplay, starting with the premise itself. We talk a lot about dramatic irony here on the site. Again, dramatic irony is when the reader is in a superior position to the characters. The most common example is two characters talking at a table, and we know that a bomb is ticking underneath. Our superior knowledge to the characters creates tension and anticipation, as we hope that they'll find out about the bomb before it goes off.

However, I find that while dramatic irony is one of the most powerful tools in storytelling, sometimes it just makes the story boring, and I haven't figured out why. My superior knowledge of knowing that Annie would not succeed in her mission (we know the bombs will be dropped), left me feeling like there was no point in telling the story. If I already know she's going to fail, why should I be interested?

I instantly thought back to another movie with a similar use of dramatic irony – Titanic. Just like Once More Eden, we know that this will end in catastrophe. We know the ship sinks. So I was trying to figure out why that worked for me and this didn't. One of the reasons was that the characters in the story were physically at the event, whereas in Eden, our heroine was 10,000 miles away from the event. If she had somehow been in Hiroshima and not known what was going to happen, the dramatic irony would have been way more effective, even though that would have been a completely different movie.

Yet I guess, just like Titanic, we don't know what happens to our main character, and therefore should still be interested. But I wasn't, and I'm still trying to figure out why.

Maybe it was because I never latched on to our main character. How you introduce your character is so important in a screenplay because that's when we form our opinion. We don't form our opinion halfway through the movie. We decide if we like this person within 5 minutes. Once More Eden starts with our main character kind of moping around and playing the "woe is me" card in regards to her marriage.

Then she goes to work and we get this really weird scene that feels like something out of Three's Company, where Annie sneaks into a male doctor’s changing room to steal a uniform and pretends to be a doctor to one of her crazy patients. Combined with her less than impressive entrance at home, I decided early on that I didn't like her.

And this is why that's important. If your reader isn't connected to your main character, it doesn't matter if you create the most intriguing well plotted mysterious captivating story in the world. If we don't care about the person taking us through that plot, we're not going to care about the story.

The thing is, Eden runs into even more problems in that it becomes really hard to buy that this nobody housewife is evading a city full of top government officials. The ease in which Annie is able to simply dash in and out of danger stretched the plausibility factor to the limit. That's why most of these movies end up making their protagonist a government official or a cop or a spy or anything to indicate that it would be believable that they could consistently evade high level authority.

Finally, the ending was way too melodramatic. This idea of trying to get across the official country line into Canada, and coming a couple of inches short, just felt too hokey. I mean if the US government is trying to protect a plan to kill hundreds of thousands of people, I don't think an imaginary line on the ground is going to stop them.

How you would fix all this I unfortunately don't know. You would need to find a way to make the dramatic irony work for you as opposed to against you. The thing is you do have some stuff that feels like a movie here. I like being in the Manhattan Project. I like the female hero. And I liked how Vanessa created a secondary mystery inside the base. But you'd have to rethink this character and find a way to put people we knew in harm's way - (possibly over in Hiroshima  -- maybe the husband is over there doing reconnaissance and they speed up the timetable without telling him? So Annie becomes aware that her husband is going to be there when they drop the bomb?). That way we’d be racing to protect someone we actually knew and cared about.

An interesting script that I enjoyed dissecting but it wasn't for me.

Script link: Once More Eden

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

What I haven’t learned: Staying with today's theme of dramatic irony, I had the same problem with Valkyrie (the movie about trying to assassinate Hitler ) that I had with Once More Eden. We know they're not going to succeed, so what's the point? I guess the point is we're supposed to care about what happens to our main character, but for whatever reason I couldn't in either case. So I wanted to open it up to you guys and ask why dramatic irony sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. I'm still a little stumped about how to execute it properly.

What I learned: Most of the people who matter in Hollywood don't know anything about screenplay competitions beyond the Nicholl. You'll find some agents and managers who've heard of the next three or four biggest competitions, but if you've placed fourth in the McGillicuddy Macaroon Screenplay Shootout, it's probably a good idea to keep that information to yourself. Doing well at the Nicholl is all you need to say. I also wouldn't put your achievements on your title page as it just looks a wee bit desperate.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Article - GSU!!!

And you thought yesterday was the apocalypse...

For those fans of Jersey Shore, you know the term "GTL" well. Of course, I don't watch Jersey Shore so I had to get my "GTL" definition from someone else. But from what I understand, it means "Gym, tan, laundry." These are the things your average Guido (their word, not mine) needs to survive on a day-to-day basis. Food? Not important. Tanning though? That's a life or death situation. Now of course, not knowing anything about Jersey Shore, I haven't heard that The Situation is claiming to have knocked boots with Snooki, who is steadfastly denying the claim, but if I did watch the show - and I don't – I would probably side with Team Situation on this one. I don't know why he put Snooki on blast, but everybody knows The Situation don't lie.

Now, what the hell does this have to do with today's article? Well, there's another acronym you should always be pumping your fist to as a screenwriter, and that acronym is "GSU". GSU stands for "goal, stakes, urgency." Every single one of your screenplays should have goals, stakes, and urgency. So before you go online to see if the rumors are true that Jwow had some work done to her face, let's take a look at GSU in action.

Goal – The character goal is the heart of your story. A character must be going after something or else that character is doing nothing. And a character who does nothing is inactive and inactive people are borrrrrrrrrrrr-ing. You think Pauly D sits at home every night reading War And Peace? No! He has a goal – to get as many female numbers at the club as possible! Characters in movies should have the same devoted drive as Pauly D. So in The King's Speech, the goal is to conquer his stutter. In Black Swan, it's to conquer the dark half of her performance before the show. Now every once in a while, things get tricky and writers try to incorporate negative or benign goals. In Good Will Hunting, the goal is pretty much to endure the court mandated punishment. That doesn't allow our character to be very active, so it's a dangerous road to take. As that movie shows, it can be done, but you need advanced screenwriting skills to pull it off. And very few writers out there have those skills.

Stakes – Once you have a character goal, you can establish your stakes. You do this by asking two very simple questions: "What does my character gain if he achieves his goal?" And "What does my character lose if he fails to achieve his goal?" The bigger the gains and losses, the higher the stakes. Now don't throw in your hair extensions just yet. Before you lose yourself to the beat, remember this. The stakes only need to be high relative to the character’s situation. So in Star Wars the stakes are the safety of the entire galaxy. That's pretty high. In Black Swan, the stakes are the lead role in a ballet performance. Which in comparison, seems really low. But because that role is so important to our heroine, the stakes actually feel just as high.

Urgency – I don't think I need to tell you how important urgency is. It could be the difference between getting to the Smush Room first or getting to the Smush Room second. And as everyone knows, you don't want to use the Smush Room second. One of the biggest problems I see in amateur screenplays is glacial pacing. The writers don't understand how to infuse urgency into their story. The most common way to do this is via a ticking time bomb, that point of no return by when your character needs to achieve his goal. You can throw ticking time bombs all over your screenplay so that the pace is always quick. For example, if Sammy and Ronnie meet for coffee and they talk and talk and talk and talk, it's going to be boring. But if Sammy tells Ronnie at the beginning of the scene that she has to leave in 5 minutes, the scene’s going to have more pep. Also, like stakes, urgency is relative. If I told you I needed to get my wallet back from Snooki’s place, who's leaving for Vegas at 6 AM, the ticking time bomb is going to be somewhere in the eight hour range. But, if I told you that you needed to trick Snooki into falling in love with you so we could start hanging out with the Jersey Shore crowd, the ticking time bomb would be longer – maybe two or three weeks. The idea is to make the time frame as short as you possibly can relative to the situation.

Now, let's look at five movies and see how they GSU. Get ready to pump those fists!


G – The great thing about Back To The Future is that the story is so basic. Therefore it's a great template for learning screenwriting. The goal here is simple. Marty needs to get back to the future.

S - Back To The Future also does one of the better jobs setting up its stakes, as they’re entirely specific to the situation. What's at stake is Marty's existence. If he doesn't succeed, he will cease to exist. Notice how organic that is to the story. Marty doesn't just die because they needed high-stakes. He dies because he himself screwed up his mother and father meeting, and now must get them back together so that he can be born. There's a beautiful irony to that. The more you can tie your stakes into the fabric of the story, the better off you'll be.

U - I don't remember the exact time frame here. But I think it's one week. This is the perfect amount of urgency since it gives Marty and Doc a believable amount of time to take care of the problem but not so much time that it feels easy. This is a problem a lot of beginner writers make. They set the time frame so far ahead that it feels like the main character has forever to solve the problem.


G –The Goonies is a great reminder that when you're writing a high concept idea meant for a mass audience, you want to keep the goal simple. The goal here is to find the secret hidden treasure. That's it. We're now on our way.

S - The Goonies also reminds us to push ourselves a little harder when it comes to key story decisions, such as creating the stakes for your story. I think if I were developing this back in the day, I would've been fine limiting the stakes to Sean Astin losing his house. But The Goonies did something really clever. They came up with a scenario – a golf course – that made it so everybody was losing their houses. That meant that every single kid on this journey had something at stake. So when you think you've figured your stakes out, always go that extra mile and come up with something even bigger.

U - Goonies shows us the power of the super urgent ticking time bomb. We’re not talking a week here. We're not talking a few days. We’re talking less than a day until the house is signed away. This is why I always recommend condensing your time frame to something as short as possible. Having a week to save the house is still pretty compelling. But it's not as compelling as only having a day to save your house.


G - The goal in Inception is to plant an idea into rival Robert Fisher's mind so that he's no longer a threat to Saito.

S - The stakes here are Cobb seeing his children again. If he succeeds, he gets to be with them. If not, he'll probably never see them again (or at least that's what we’re led to believe). Inception spends a lot of time showing us visions of the kids as a reminder of the stakes but I'd argue that Inception was pretty weak in this category. It's still not clear why he can't have his father fly them over to him. And I'm not sure we really believe that if he doesn't do this now, he'll never see them again. But if you're looking at it from a technical standpoint, Inception does have stakes in place.

U - There wasn't a lot of urgency throughout the first half of the movie, which is why it played out so damn slowly. But once we get into the dreams, Nolan makes sure that the urgency is high. He achieves this mainly with a visual ticking time bomb – the van falling. We know that when that van hits the water, everybody is going to wake up. So if they haven't achieved their goal by that time, that's it. Now I still think that Inception fudges the rules in that three levels down they're supposed to have months to pull off their plan. But since they're always being pursued, and because Nolan introduces so many visual cues that the dream states in all three levels are becoming unstable, there's a sense that if they don't get this done now, they're going to run out of time. It's a little bit shaky but it still works. Having said that, if you're one of the many people who felt like Inception was sloppy, there's a good chance that the vague stakes and the vague urgency contributed to that.


G - The goal is for Carl to get to Paradise Falls.

S - This is the first of the movies where you can technically argue that the stakes aren’t high. If Carl doesn't get to Paradise Falls, what happens? Technically nothing. It's not like he dies. It's not like anybody loses anything. However, if you look closer, you'll notice that Up decides to sacrifice physical stakes for emotional stakes. We've established that the one thing Carl and his wife were never able to do was to go to Paradise Falls. The point of this journey then is to take his wife to the place she always wanted to go. That's why the stakes are still high. The trick to making that work is similar to what they had to do in Inception. Whenever you create emotional stakes, you have to do the legwork ahead of time and establish that bond so that we care. How well you pull  that off will determine how invested your audience will be. You'll notice that, emotionally, we’re much more invested in Carl achieving his goal than Cobb , and that's because that opening sequence did such an amazing job establishing the love between these two. We never really feel that in Inception, which is why the stakes seem so low. Who cares if Cobb is able to see his two kids if we don't even know them? We never even see their damn faces!

U - The urgency here comes from two different areas, one of which is quite clever. Instead of having a stock timer counting down, Up uses the rapidly depleting hydrogen supply in the balloons as the ticking time bomb. If he doesn't get to the cliff within a couple of days, he will not be able to get his wife (represented by the house) to the place she always wanted to go. The other is the bad guys (Charles and his dogs) chasing them. Remember that incorporating a chase is a cheap but solid way to up the urgency in any story.


G - I purposely chose this one as the last example because it doesn't easily fit the GSU mold. It's kind of like Sammy Sweetheart in that sense. She's on the show but she never gyms, tans or laundrys. So I'll just repeat this warning. If an idea doesn't fit easily into the GSU mold, be aware that you are now writing in unchartered waters. Good luck. Now let's see how GSU applies to American Beauty. The goal in American beauty is open ended. It isn't a tangible objective. Lester's goal is to get his life back on track (however misguided his belief of what that means is). The reason it still works as a goal though is that it keeps our main character active. Lester goes out and gets a job at the local drive-through. Lester starts working out more. Lester makes friends with people he would never make friends with. Lester buys the car he always wanted to buy. Even though it's unclear when the goal will be achieved, because it keeps our character doing things, it works.

S – Remember that whenever the goal is murky, both your stakes and your urgency will also suffer, since those variables are direct offshoots of the goal. In this case, the stakes are our hero’s happiness. If Lester is to continue down this path of letting the world push him around, he's going to be miserable for the rest of his life. For that reason, failure to push forward means accepting defeat. Lester must succeed at obtaining this new life or else he'll be miserable forever. I'd say avoiding being miserable forever would classify as high-stakes.

U - The truth is, there isn't a lot of urgency in American Beauty. The official ticking time bomb is one year. We find that out at the beginning, when Lester tells us, via voiceover, that he'll be dead in a year. This does create urgency later on when we feel his impending death approaching (and the mystery kicks in of who's going to kill him). But the pace throughout the first half of this script is relatively slow. The question is, why does it still work? The simple answer is that the character work in American beauty is the best of any script written during the entire decade when this movie came out. Most of the relationships here are so volatile or so destructive (Ricky and his dad, Lester and his wife, Lester and Angela) that there is an invisible ticking time bomb ticking away above each of them. We know that sooner or later each of these relationships is going to go boom, and that alone creates the illusion of urgency, even though the physical countdown is relatively slow. I guess the lesson here is that not every movie needs urgency, but you better have the toolset and a damn good plan if you don't plan to incorporate urgency.

My suggestion to you, after you GTL, is to open up your current screenplay and ask if it has strong GSU. If it's lacking in any of the three areas, see if you can come up with a solution. Oh, and make sure to check out Jersey Shore tonight to see who’s lying, Snooki or The Situation. Then e-mail me and tell me what happened because I don't watch the show.

How It Ends

Genre: Thriller/Sci-Fi/Drama
Premise: A man must race across the US to save his pregnant wife as the apocalypse rains down around him.
About: I think this is a brand-new writer. The script appeared in the lower third of the 2010 black list. It was picked up by a small production company soonafter.
Writer: Brooks McLaren
Details: 107 pages - August 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).

You will have to excuse me if this review doesn't feel like a review. That's because I don't know if I'm going to review this so much as gush over it. I'll try to sporadically rein myself in and offer insights where I can, but I can't promise anything. This was a really powerful screenplay that totally took me by surprise and it did so when the odds were against it.

I talk a lot about the impossible to please reader – that tired flustered overworked screenwriter who's had four consecutive 16 hour days and just wants an hour to breathe, to, for once, enjoy his life. That was me last week. It was 11 PM and I'd been working since seven in the morning and I just did not want to read another script. But I had no choice. If I didn't read it now, it would just be added to the pile of work tomorrow. I picked up "How It Ends" and within 5 minutes, I had completely forgotten about being tired (or anything for that matter).

Now let me provide some context. I like end of the world scenarios. I already have one in my Top 25. Not because I want the end of the world to happen. But sometimes it seems like that's the direction we're heading. I don't know if that moment is going to come during my lifetime – I certainly hope it doesn't – but I always wonder what it would actually be like. How It Ends provides a window into how it might look.

It was the confusion that sold me. When the system shuts down, information becomes a mix of reality and rumor. We've never experienced anything like that in our lifetime because connective technology has become so ubiquitous. But all it would take would be a few carefully calculated "attacks" or breakdowns and in a week, or even 24 hours, we could be back in the 19th century.

I should probably tell you what the script is about first. It's a simple story. Will Reacher, the president of a large golf equipment company, travels to Milwaukee for the weekend to get some business done with his wife's father, who's also part of the business. His wife, back in Seattle, is pregnant, and this has obviously brought the two closer together, as Will is excitedly looking forward to becoming a father.

While getting the deal done, electrical grids all across the US start going out. There are earthquakes. There are fires. But this isn’t Roland Emmerich's 2012. What's really cool about How It Ends is that we usually only see people's reactions to things. We don't see the things themselves. This was a brilliant choice because when your imagination fills in the terror, it's usually more horrifying than anything a writer can come up with.

The cities start destabilizing. The airports shut down. So getting back to Seattle is looking less and less likely. But Will, who's having trouble getting through to his wife, is going to make sure that he finds a way to her through hell or high water.

So he and his father-in-law jump in their BMW and start driving across the US. The country is in a rapid state of destabilization. Within hours, the lack of any authority or lawkeeping has resulted in an "everybody for themselves" mentality. For example, Will gets pulled over by a cop, only to find out it's some guy who killed a cop. And who now plans on killing them. Not only is this a cool scene, but it's a clever one. It sets the tone for the rest of the film that nobody is trustworthy. If you can't trust a cop, who can you trust?

Gas quickly becomes the most important commodity and one of the coolest parts about How it Ends is the "mileage left" reading on the BMWs dashboard. I don't think I've been more obsessed with a display since the beeping "movement tracker" in Aliens. The moment that thing hits zero, we know these guys are dead. The highways are screaming with hooligans ready to kill for nothing, so the need to keep finding gas and keep getting that display up to a safe number keeps this script steeped in tension.

Eventually, the dad gets killed and Will stops at an Indian reservation and, as a favor, picks up a kid who's looking for his mother. I'll be honest with you, this was probably the worst part of the screenplay and yet I didn't give a shit. Everything here felt so visceral and so real that poor story choices didn't feel like poor story choices. They felt like reality.

I think that's when I know a script is great. I'm not thinking about screenplay related stuff. I'm just so wrapped up in what's happening that I might as well be there. And I felt like I was here. I felt like this is how it would happen.

I also loved not telling us what was going down. At first I really wanted to know. But then I realized this was a carefully calculated choice. We were put in Will Reacher's point of view so that we could see things the way they would be seen through a single human being's eyes. And in that scenario, you would be confused. You would be scared. You wouldn't know what was going on because there was so little dependable information out there. That may be even more scary than the world falling apart - not knowing why it's falling apart. If you don't know why, you can't fix it.

And really, that mentality permeates throughout the script, where we’re experiencing the end of the world peripherally as opposed to actively. For example, as we’re driving along we see this huge train going west packed with military vehicles and tanks and equipment. It's going off to fight something. But what? We don't know. All we know is that our imagination is going wild.

Then later, when Will gets further up, that same train has derailed. It's crashed. We have no idea why. Was it somebody who sabotaged the tracks? Was it whatever is causing this? Again, we don't know, so our imagination tries to fill it in, and in the meantime we’re experiencing the story how real people would experience it (and not movie people).

As I strain desperately to dole out some screenwriting advice, I think one of the things this script does well is the lack of character development. Yes, you heard me right. I actually just commended a writer's lack of character development. Let me explain. This script is supposed to feel real. It's supposed to feel like we’re really there. If you tried to throw in a Hollywoodized "fatal flaw," it would've pulled us right out of the story. The more realistic your story is, the more subtle your character arcs and your character development needs to be. There's little stuff here and there but all of it is kept under the radar so as not to bring attention to it, and take attention off the external situation, which is where all the story is.

The set pieces are also top notch. My problem with most set pieces is that the writer doesn't make it clear what the stakes are or what the goal is or what the time frame is. When you put together a set piece, you’re essentially putting together a mini-story. So you need all the things that a screenplay would need. Stakes. Goals. Conflict. Urgency.

There is a great set piece near the middle of the movie where they get flagged down by a woman, only to be attacked by some thugs, who siphon their fuel and put it in the Prius they stole from the woman (obviously, a Prius is going to be more valuable than a BMW in this new fuel conscious world) and then drive off leaving them there. There is about 5 miles worth of gas left in the BMW. Their only chance at survival is catching up to them and running them off the road.

So we totally understand the situation. The goal is to catch up to the bandits. The urgency is that they only have a tiny amount of fuel left. And the stakes are that if they fail, they're as good as dead. That's why this sequence was so exciting. Because we understood exactly what needed to happen.

I have a feeling that the ending is going to be a point of contention for some people. But I loved it. I thought it was the perfect way to end the script. I actually had no idea what they were going to do, but once Will finally gets to the finish line, the writer wisely puts one more obstacle in his way. And the only way out of it is to take care of that obstacle before it takes care of him. I thought it was a great choice and I pretty much thought everything here was a great choice. I'm sure if I went back and broke this down technically, I would find some faults. But the goal was so strong. The scenario was so interesting. The tension was so well crafted. And the writing itself was so good. That none of that stuff mattered to me. I was totally caught up in this story, which is why it's going into my Top 10.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (Top 10!)
[ ] genius

What I learned: You would think that with all this praise, I’d have some transcendent lesson for you to learn. But today's lesson is simple: Look for creative ways to convey character backstory. Remember, when a character just starts talking about his past in order to let the audience know who he used to be or what's happened in his life, it's often boring, "on the nose," and amateur. One of your jobs as a writer is to convey the past slyly, so that the reader doesn't realize it. There's a "blink and you miss it" moment early in the script where the father-in-law is speaking to a soldier. They're trying to find out what's going on but the soldier isn't talking. So the father-in-law says this: "You know what happened? You can tell me soldier. I've got a pair of fatigues just like those in my closet." The dominant purpose of this line is to create a bond between himself and the soldier so that the soldier will give him the information he wants. The hidden purpose of this line is to tell us that he used to be a soldier. That's what I mean by slyly conveying back story. Instead of our character driving along and pointing out, "Hey Will, you know that I used to be a soldier right?" It's thrown in there without us even realizing it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Quick Congrats To F. Scott

I wanted to send out a quick congratulations to F Scott Frazier for getting Ben Affleck attached to direct and possibly star in his new screenplay, Line of Sight. He indicated that he had something special to announce soon and I can only imagine that this was it. If you missed our interview, you can check it out here.

The Last Photograph

Genre: Drama
Premise: A war photographer is the only witness to a huge massacre in Pakistan. An ex special ops soldier with ties to the massacred party hires him to travel to Afghanistan and enact revenge on the men responsible.
About: This script came together as an idea by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, upcoming Superman movie) who hired the writer, Kurt Johnston, to write it for him. The script has been in development for a while and this is one of the early drafts. Christian Bale and Sean Penn recently signed on to play the lead roles and the director of the Swedish version of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" is set to direct.
Writers: Kurt Johnstad (story by Zack Snyder)
Details: 112 pages - 1.5 draft - October 10, 2008 (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).

So I wasn't going to review this one because it's an early draft and the movie Sean Penn and Christian Bale signed on to was a more recent draft. But I've gotten enough people to recommend it to me that I decided it was worth taking a look at.

Joe Wallace is an American war photographer in Pakistan who's been relegated to snapping photos of diplomats’ birthday parties. I guess America isn't the only place where the economy sucks. But what Joe is about to realize is that the war is a lot closer than he thinks. A group of men storm the party and massacre everyone there, except for Joe, who escapes by the skin of his teeth. But the event scars him deeply and when we meet him again a few weeks later, he's a full-blown heroin addict.

Ethan Black, an older ex-special ops soldier, had family killed in that massacre, and when he finds out Joe was the only witness, he seeks him out and hires him to help him find the warlord responsible.

So away they go, heading to Afghanistan at a time when you definitely do not want to be traveling through Afghanistan, meeting old friends and trying to piece together where this warlord might be hiding. Eventually they find out that his brother's wife was building schools to educate females, and we all know how the Taliban feels about educating females. So a statement had to be made.

The movie is a down and dirty look at what it would really be like traveling through Afghanistan at this time. They have to con their way through roadblocks, they have to maneuver their way through unfriendly towns, they have to figure out who to trust and who not to trust. There's no glamour here. It was almost like Zack and Kurt decided they wanted to make the most un-Hollywood movie possible. It's dark and it's depressing and it's probably exactly how it would really be if you tried this yourself.

One of the big changes made to the newer drafts is that it's now a kidnapping movie as opposed to a revenge movie. This is a really important distinction I've talked about before because it changes the tone of the story and it changes the pace of the story. When you're talking about a revenge film, the person is already dead. For that reason the pace is more leisurely. You're not in a hurry to take somebody down because they've already done their damage. That slower pace usually ends up hurting the screenplay because the urgency factor (UF) goes way down. And when you lose urgency, you lose a lot of what makes a story work.

If it's a kidnapping scenario, urgency is at the forefront. Every second lost is a potential second that the kidnapped party could be lost forever. Look no further than Taken to see how that plays out. In addition, the entire tone of the piece changes. Whereas with revenge, the tone is sad and fatalistic and hopeless, with kidnapping, it's hopeful and optimistic and exciting. There's always a chance that you could still find that person alive.

Now I'm not going to tell you that revenge is always the lesser of the two choices. The Brigands of Rattleborge is one of my favorite scripts and that movie is pure revenge. But it becomes a lot harder to make the movie work because you need to supplement your story with things to make up for the lack of urgency and hope. Rattleborge had amazing characters for example. It also did a top-notch job making you hate the villains so that you couldn't wait to see them go down. Unfortunately, I don't see either of those things in this early draft of "The Last Photograph." Not only did I never meet the bad guys, but I never knew the people who were killed either. I mean, if I don't know the bad guy and I never cared about the people killed, why would I be invested in this story?

From the opening page, every action is coated with despair. I've read scripts that are more depressing than The Last Photograph, but I'm not sure I've read a script that became so lost in its own hopelessness. Every line sounds like a line you'd hear from somebody right before they committed suicide. One of our heroes is a heroin addict who has no hope of ever being happy again. And the other is an introverted Bounty Hunter who's never allowed himself to feel anything.

That was another issue I had. Whenever you pair two people together, they need to be different in some way. These characters were almost exactly the same. The only difference I could see between them was that one had a drug problem and the other didn't. Since their interactions are the centerpiece of the story, you can imagine why it didn't work. They never really clash about anything. There are no real differences here. It's just a couple of guys who realize that life sucks and then you die. I think that some people gravitate towards that fatalistic mentality but I'm not one of them.

Having said that, I cannot think of two better actors to play these parts. Sean Penn loves these miserable 50 something types. And giving Christian Bale a heroin addict to play is probably more addictive to him then heroin itself.

But I'm trying to figure out what it is people liked about this so much. I imagine we're just into different films. I see them liking Biutiful and The House Of Sand And Fog and 21 Grams. Those films are too depressing for me. The only movie that's really depressing that I love is The Sweet Hereafter and the reason for that is that it's not just an exercise in hopelessness. There's actually a clever story being told. And while the narrative in The Last Photograph is clean and easy to follow, it seems like that story is secondary to showing how miserable two people can be.

But there are some things that worked. I thought the writer did a good job with imagery. One of the challenges of writing a screenplay is trying to get the reader to see what you see, using only words. That's not easy to do. There were many times where I felt like I was there in Afghanistan with these guys. Joey Ramon covering What A Wonderful World while Hindu porn is pumping away on the TV and our character is injecting Brown heroine into his veins is a powerful sensory filled image. And while I know some readers hate music cues, I like them, because they help me understand the tone the writer is going for. There were a lot of music cues that put me right in the heart of the moment here.

Unfortunately, the characters were too clich̩ (to be honest I don't know how you write a heroin addict that doesn't feel clich̩ these days) and the story too depressing for my taste. I also wouldn't have minded a few more surprises along the way. As we've talked about before, it's easy for a road trip movie to become monotonous. It's up to the writer to infuse it with surprises and twists, anything to place us on the less traveled path. I felt like we were too often on the traveled path, which is kind of ironic considering the subject matter. But hey, that's just me. If you love serious fare - if Babel is in your top five Рyou might want to check this out.

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

What I learned: This screenplay was a good example of a term Stacy Menear (writer of Mixtape) taught me. Monodrama. The entire screenplay hits only one emotion. And if you stick with one emotion for too long, that emotion loses its magical effect. People are more likely to respond when you take them through a range of emotions. Unfortunately, we don't get that here. I'm really hoping they addressed this in future drafts.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Moving Elliott

It's going to be a great week here at Scriptshadow. We have an Impressive script and a new Top 25 script. In fact, I might even make it a Top 10 script. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I read it. So, is today that script? Read on to find out…

Genre: Comedy
Premise: An FBI agent whose family life is falling apart is tasked with escorting an eccentric bank robber to jail.
About: Moving Elliott sold to Universal Pictures back in 2001 for mid six figures and started the careers of Glenn German and Adam Rodgers, who went on to sell a few more scripts. Unfortunately, those careers never extended into produced credit territory, which is a shame since this script is so good. In fact, even though this script was sold back in 2001, its greatest attribute is that it's timeless (note to writers: the more timeless your story is, the longer its shelf life). You could still shoot this movie today as written. I really hope somebody takes that chance because this script does not deserve to be lost in development hell. Here is an interview that the writers did back in 2005.
Writers: Glenn German and Adam Rodgers
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).

A young Eddie Murphy would be perfect for this role.

Elliott Jenkins, an African-American armored truck driver, is picking up some moolah from the bank with his menacing partner Donald Griggs. Elliott is a unique guy. He can be laid back, he can be intense, he can play the dumbest guy in the room, he can play the smartest guy in the room. He's eccentric. A little off center. And all in all, a happy go lucky honest kind of dude. So it's a little strange then, as he and Griggs load the money onto the truck, that a second armored truck pulls up.

Oops. Maybe Elliott and Griggs aren't so honest after all. After a few distracting words with the second crew, our thieves hightail it out of there.

Halfway across town we meet Jack Traylor. Jack is an FBI agent whose family life is going to shit. His wife has left him and wants full custody of his two children, his young son and teenage daughter. These are the only two things Jack has left in his life, so he's going to do everything he can to hold on to them. Unfortunately, with the bills piling up and the neverending demands of being an FBI agent, the two worlds keep crashing into each other, and lately Jack has found himself in too many situations where his kids have been put in danger, not the kind of facts you want showing up at a custody hearing.

Anyway, while driving his kids home for the day, Jack runs into that armored truck that Griggs and Elliott are driving and becomes suspicious. He follows them into a Long John Silvers, and the next thing you know Griggs is opening fire on him and his daughter. Jack is able to nab Elliott but Griggs escapes.

Back at headquarters, Jack gets reamed out for yet again mixing family with work, and as punishment, his boss wants him to escort Elliott across town to jail tomorrow. Jack pleads with his boss to use somebody else because his custody hearing is tomorrow but his boss doesn't give a shit. In fact, he's ready to take Jack's badge right now. Not screwing this up may be the last chance for Jack to keep his job.

So Jack agrees to do it, but there's no way he's losing his kids, so he decides – against all reason – to do it all. After picking up Elliott, the first place he goes is to the bank to refinance his mortgage so he can keep his house (and therefore keep his kids). What he quickly finds out though, is that Elliott is not the easiest guy to shut up, and that wherever he goes, Elliott always has an opinion. Sometimes he helps him and sometimes he doesn't, but he's always got advice for Jack.

Complicating things is that Griggs is still out there and has a huge hard-on for finding Elliott. As the day goes on, Jack starts putting together the pieces, and realizes that something is off. Why would two guys who just stole hundreds of thousands of dollars stop at a Long John Silver’s anyway? Why did Griggs fight for his life while Elliott practically begged to get caught? And why does Griggs keep chasing Elliott? Jack suspects that he may be part of a bigger plan. The problem is that he's so consumed with keeping his family together that he doesn't have time to figure that plan out.

This script had so many things going for it. It had a tight urgent easy-to-understand goal. It had tons of obstacles that got in the way of that goal. It had two compelling main characters. It had conflict at the center of that pairing. It had a character with a ton to lose (high-stakes). It had a solid villain in Griggs, who was always on their tail. It had enough setups and payoffs to make Back to the Future jealous. It had a great sense of humor. And what put it over-the-top was that it had an intriguing mystery.

If this were just some movie about a guy escorting another guy across town, it would have been average at best. But where this script elevates itself is when Jack realizes that there might be more going on here. When we realize that Elliott could have a bigger goal in play, and that getting escorted was all part of a bigger plan, that's when I knew I was reading something special.

And you know, I actually loved all the family stuff too, which I normally don't. These guys have somehow managed to write a family movie without falling into that safe PG territory. The Disney promotional team would have a heart attack combing through this, but I think that's what makes it work. It's been a long time since we've infused a traditionally R-rated genre with a family theme. But these guys have done it, and done it well.

But these scripts don't work unless the central relationship works. And the key to making that central relationship work is to put the two characters as far apart as you can on the spectrum, and then over the course of the movie, get them to a place where they understand each other. Seeing two people who weren't meant to like each other eventually like each other is one of the more satisfying threads you'll find in a film - if it's done well. And like everything else in the script, it's done well.

I also want to highlight Moving Elliott for doing something that another recently reviewed screenplay did not do. My big problem with that script (amateur entry "Inhuman Resources") was that it was too thin. There were no subplots. It just barreled through to the end, never stopping to develop anything other than the main plot and the pursuit of the main goal.

Moving Elliott is an example of how to populate your screenplay with subplots. Instead of just barreling towards the jail, we have the custody hearing, we have the house foreclosure, we have a project he has to get to his son at school, we have his daughter secretly dating a guy behind his back, we have the mystery behind Elliott getting caught so easily. We have the pursuit by Griggs. That's what's so awesome about this screenplay. It's populated with so many little subplots and extra things that a simple movie about transferring a convict becomes a complicated story about an FBI agent trying to make it through the day with his family intact. I can't stress this enough. If you have ever wondered about how to integrate subplots into your script, check out this screenplay. It's a master class.

However, this is not the Top 25 script. Why? A few minor reasons. The dialogue wasn't punchy enough for this kind of movie. It's almost there. But this is the kind of film that needs those memorable one-liners that people will be quoting for weeks after leaving the theater. And right now it doesn't have them.

I also thought the opening scene was more confusing than clever. This may sound like nitpicking but the introduction of one of your main characters is one of the most important scenes in the entire movie. The idea here is that Elliott is supposed to be clever and intelligent – that plays out through the rest of the story. But the way he handles the second armored truck interrupting their pickup, is akin to something a 12-year-old would come up with. He babbles some stock nonsense about calling the guy’s supervisor if he mentions this to anyone, and for no other reason than that this is a movie, the guy goes along with it. If they could've improved this scene so that Elliott comes off as the clever "smartest guy in the room" he's supposed to come off as, that would have sold him as the person he needs to be.

Other than that, I loved this. I don't know if Universal still has the property. But if they do, they need to dig it up right now and take another look at it. Cause this script does not deserve to be collecting dust. It could be a great film.

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

What I learned: When you sell that first script, you haven't made it. I think that's terrifying to hear because we're sold on this whole idea that selling a script is the endpoint. It's the moment when we've officially "made it." But if you look at the career of these guys, they wrote a great script here – and yet they still don't have a theatrical credit to their names. That's baffling to me but it's far from unique. There are a lot of really good writers who still struggle in Hollywood purgatory. It's a great reminder that once you sell that first script, you need to fight and claw and write and work and put everything you've got into keeping it going. Because one of the sad realities is that if you don't keep moving up that ladder in those first 2 to 3 years, people will start to look at you as one of those average second rate writers who will never go beyond that intermediate level. It's not fair and, in this case, it's a crime. But that's the reality of the business.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Amateur Friday – Orphans of the Sword

Genre: Period/Historical/Adventure
Premise: The year is 1627: A headstrong Highlander, together with his uncle - an embittered veteran who hates him - must struggle across war ravaged Europe to rescue his young sister after she is kidnapped by a band of ruthless mercenaries,
About: I've just been informed that this script made the semi-finals of the Page Contest for the adventure/historical category. So make sure to send Graham some congratulations in the comments section. -- 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: Graham Kinniburgh
Details: 120 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 picked Orphans Of The Sword for this week's amateur review for a couple of reasons. The first is nepotism. Going to be honest. I probably never would've read this otherwise. But Graham has been such a loyal reader and he's always been polite and nice when he sends in his submissions. He's not like some e-mailers who only e-mail me when they want something (cough cough – shame on some of you). I'm no different than anybody else in the industry. I'm more likely to give somebody a shot if I've heard of them before. So if I've gotten to know a person a little bit, even if it's just through a few e-mails, I'm more likely to read their stuff.

The second is I thought Orphans would be a great follow-up to Inherit The Earth. Both scripts are about an intense journey with our heroes encountering a lot of obstacles along the way. This is one of the most popular story templates out there so I wanted to compare and contrast the way a pro handled it versus the way an amateur handled it. So with that, let's get started.

It's 1627, the year Larry King was born. Jamie, a headstrong Highlander with a reckless streak, becomes aware of his father's existence through a lost letter. So he heads off to the army regiment that his father is supposedly in charge of in hopes of beginning a relationship with him.

But before he's allowed to meet his father, he runs into Duncan, one of the members of the regiment. If this were a Western, Duncan would be the guy who when he walked into town, everybody else ran for cover. It turns out, actually, that Duncan is his father's brother, and therefore his uncle. But the family connections don't end there. It turns out that his father has also married someone new and they have a daughter, Elizabeth, who is staying with the Army. That makes Elizabeth Jamie's half-sister.

While waiting to meet his father, Jamie also runs into a band of mercenaries who the Army have reluctantly allowed into their regiment. The mercenaries are basically a bunch of reckless warriors who take what they want when they want. And they're currently wreaking havoc on morale and protocol.

So when the Army has had enough, and gives them their pink slips, the mercenaries don't exactly go quietly. The next day, they retaliate with a surprise attack. They're able to kill most of the regiment, including Jamie's father. They also snatch up Elizabeth and disappear into the countryside.

Because Jamie wants to get his sister back and Duncan wants some cold hard revenge, the two agree to team up and follow the mercenaries across the country. But because Duncan usually works alone, he's none too happy to have to deal with this idealistic whippersnapper who tends to slash first and think later.

Now I want to make something clear. Orphans of the Sword is one of the better screenplays I've read for Amateur Friday. We have a solid storyline here. The goal is strong. The stakes are high. We have tons of conflict inherent in the central relationship. I mean this is a lot better than the stuff we usually review.

However, because I'm not a period piece guy, I tend to be a little more critical when these specs come around. And there were some choices that I think did a disservice to the story.

The very first thing that needs addressing is the lack of a title card. Whenever you have a period piece, especially if it's set before the 20th century, you need to provide some context for your audience. I have no idea what was going on in 1627. To be honest, I don't know the difference between 1627 and 1726. Or 1276 for that matter. So we need some context here, especially because our characters are jumping in and out of all these different armies and I'm not sure who these armies are or who they're fighting for or what they represent. A quick title card can clear all that up.

Speaking of time, I wasn't a fan of the big time jump in the middle of the movie. You set up a scenario whereby a couple of guys are chasing after a group of men to save a woman. That type of storyline lends itself to urgency. Every day that goes by is a day that something could happen to that girl. So when we jump forward two years and are thrown into this random war that Jamie is now a soldier in, it was unclear if the Elizabeth storyline even mattered anymore.

I think that's why The Last of the Mohicans worked so well. Once the woman was kidnapped, it was one giant race to get her back. Now I'm not saying a movie like this can't work any other way. I know that script Unbound Captives which sold for 4 million bucks (eerily written by the same person who played that female character in The Last of the Mohicans) took the same approach as this one, in that lots of time passes after the character’s kidnapped, but I didn't like that script for the same reason. Maybe there's a happy medium here. But I just thought it was strange that we were all go-go-go, only for the story to stop, jump forward two years, then reboot the chase storyline all over again.

Another issue I had was with the villain. If I understand this correctly, our original villain (the one who kidnapped Elizabeth) is later replaced by his son (the new villain). I'm not a fan of this. Villains are extremely important to movies. We attach ourselves to them with the same intensity that we attach ourselves to heroes. To just replace the villain 70% of the way through the story, to me, is like replacing the hero 70% of the way through the story. This is the person I've grown to hate. Therefore this is the person I want the final showdown to be with. Again, I think this choice was a victim of the big time jump. It allowed that choice to happen (as the son was able to grow older).

Moving over to our heroes, I liked how Graham infused the "buddy cop" model into a period piece. I thought that was really clever and worked well. For me, stories tend to work best when there isn't just external conflict, but also conflict working within the central character dynamic. Here was my problem though. I never understood why Duncan was such a reclusive asshole. He seemed to be an asshole only because the story needed him to be. It's important to remember that as a screenwriter, you're essentially a psychologist. Your job is to get into who your characters are and why they became that way. If your character is like Lester Burnham from American beauty, a spineless weakling who never sticks up for himself, you need to find out why he became that way. So we fairly quickly find out that Carolyn stole his masculinity. Maybe I missed it, but it would be nice if Duncan had some traumatic event happen to him that made him the person he is.

I'm probably being too harsh here because this is an amateur script. I mean, it really is better than a lot of the scripts I review on Amateur Friday. But I do think it needs fixing and I would love if the narrative was more streamlined and not interrupted by these big chunks in time. Part of the problem is that I don't understand what's going on during this time jump. I don't understand what all these wars are. So when the movie stops to thrust these characters into these battles, I don't care because I don't know what's going on. Maybe a better explanation of that would help.

Still, if you're interested in period pieces, especially from this time, you'll probably want to check this out. And I wish Graham further success with the screenplay in the Page competition. He's a good writer and someone to watch out for.

Script link: Orphans of the Sword

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me (but writer has potential)
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I think a late Second Act surprise storyline can recharge a road trip movie (or any movie that revolves around a journey). The thing about a long journey is that, no matter how you spin it, it's eventually going to become predictable. You're moving forward. There's only so many ways to do that. That's what I really liked about Inherit The Earth. As we hit the 70 page mark, the story was beginning to get stale. The arrival of the cult changes that because it gives us a different type of story to focus on. Much like how Cloud City came about in The Empire Strikes Back, we were thrust into a different rhythm than the previous 70 pages, which sort of rewired our expectations . After that story played out, we were recharged and ready to move forward again. That moment never happened in Orphans of The Sword. The chase was definitely interrupted, but because we were never clear why it was interrupted or what the interrupting storyline was (or why so much time had to pass), it didn't have the same effect as the cult sequence in Inherit the Earth. So don't be afraid to change things up in the second half of your second act. A story diversion might be just what you need before you throw your characters into the big climax.