Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Advanced Placement

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A high school student is blackmailed into assassinating a senator on his first day of school.
About: This sold a couple of years back for low six figures. Jaswinski has a couple of other sales, including Kristy, a hot spec also from a couple of years ago about a girl being stalked on a college campus. It made the original Reader Top 25.
Writer: Anthony Jaswinski
Details: 103 pages – May 3, 2008 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I still have not read Kristy. And I know is a lot of people love it so I should probably get to it at some point. In a bit of a coincidence, if you do like that script, make sure to tune in tomorrow. I’m reviewing a hot screenplay that’s somewhat similar.

But today it’s all about the high school. I’m sure you remember what it felt like to walk through those enormous doors for the first time. Seeing enough kids to fill a small city. Believing that all of them were staring directly at YOU. Believing they could all read your mind. Knowing that you were SCARED SHITLESS. First days of school. Now there’s something I don’t miss.

But our protagonist in Advanced Placement is going to have a worse first day than all of our first days put together. 18 year old Seth Deacon is on something like his 3rd high school in two years. The guy’s one of those people who doesn’t look for trouble, but trouble always seems to find him. He’s got that rebel vibe that draws the attention of the jockalonians. But unlike most kids, Seth always fights back. Which has given him a long rap sheet.

The one constant in Seth’s life is his 10 year old sister, Tara. She’s the reason he smiles at the end of the day. Why he’s able to forget the two or three fights he got into at lunchtime. She’s the center of his world. And that will play a big part in today’s story, because things are about to get really bad for Seth and Tara.

On this day – his first day – Seth gets called into the principal’s office where he’s tasked to talk with a guidance counselor, the insanely hot Gail Fenn.

But something tells us pretty quickly – her choice of language maybe? – that this isn’t your average guidance counselor. Gail is one mean son of a bitch. And she lays it down for Seth. The senator is coming to speak at the school this afternoon, and Seth is going to kill him. If he doesn’t, they will murder his sister. It’s as simple as that. They’ll put the gun he’s supposed to use in a compartment in his locker. They’ll sit him down close to the stage. He’s to walk up, shoot him, and that’s it.

Man, this is so much worse than 3 O’Clock High. Naturally, Seth tries to escape between periods. But he quickly finds out that Gail has people working everywhere. He even tries to text for help but they’ve rigged his phone. They’ve been planning this for a long time. And the easy-to-blame Seth is the final piece of the puzzle.

Seth eventually finds some help in the alternative form of Chloe, another outsider. She doesn’t believe him at first, but comes around in the end. The question is, will they be able to escape not killing the senator AND save Seth’s sister? If so, it ain’t going to be easy.

Reading “Advanced Placement,” I thought to myself, “I can maybe see a high school demographic going for this.” They might be able to relate to these characters on some level. It’s an exciting enough situation that they themselves might wonder what they would do. And the script is competently written – no doubt. Jaswinski knows how to create suspense and keep his story moving, something a lot of amateurs have trouble with. But there was still something that bothered me about Advanced Placement.

Another writer noted to me Advanced Placement was the kind of script that was ruining the spec market. The market has become so dependent on fast easy reads, that nobody’s developing characters anymore. Nobody’s implementing themes anymore. Spec screenplays have become more of a race these days. Who can get to the finish line first? That’s why the only genres that seem to sell anymore are comedies and thrillers.

I don’t know if I would go that far. But I can definitely see his point. You can speed through Advanced Placement faster than an episode of Survivor. But when you’re finished, what is it you’ve read? There’s no bigger picture here. The characters don’t change. There’s no message. It feels empty. Look at Taxi Driver, which convers similar territory. You finish watching that film and a message has definitely washed over you. The idea that a city is falling apart. That we’re all becoming depraved angry dirty vicious animals. That the only way to change it is to take a stand.

And I realize this is more of a thriller than it is a character exploration, but Adavnced Placement could’ve really benefitted from stopping, slowing down, and examining its characters every once in awhile. The writer asking himself: “What is it I actually want to say here?”

I mean the story was fine. It wasn’t entirely believable. But enough of the holes were camouflaged that you bought into it for at least the amount of time it took to read. The concept was pretty good as well. While I’ve seen movies where normal people were forced to assassinate someone before, I’ve never seen one set in a high school.

But again, as I look back at this, I can’t remember any of the details. I don’t remember any particular scene standing out. The whole thing is a blur. And this goes back to what that writer brought up.

Is this what spec scripts have become? Where we celebrate something just because it has a solid hook, gets to the finish line quickly and doesn’t have any glaring holes? As much as I don’t want that to be the case, I can see why it’s come to this. There are so many bad screenplays out there that readers just don’t trust writers. If I read an amateur script, the first thing that pops into my head is, “This is probably going to be bad.” I don’t want to think that. I just do. Because nine out of ten times, that’s the case.

For that reason, readers want screenplays to read fast. That way, even if it’s bad, at least it’s over quickly.  The problem is that most of the time, it's the slow scripts that are REALLY bad.  So readers tend to link those two things together. But really that badness is just beginners who don't know what they're doing. Beginners notoriously take forever to set up their stories and get things going. For that reason, when a screenwriter who DOES know what they’re doing comes along and tries something slow, he gets lumped in with the amateurs, because the reader just assumes it’s another beginner droning on. Even if the script does get better, the reader is already in “skim mode” and therefore not really paying attention.

So what’s the solution? I think it has to be compromise. I don’t like the system but as long as there are going to be thousands upon thousands of terrible screenplays, there are going to be impatient readers. So start your scripts off moving. Get our attention. And then, once you’ve gotten it, you’ve earned the right to slow down. To explore your characters a little. To explore your theme some. I would’ve liked to have seen that here with Advanced Placement. Have some quieter moments between Seth and Chloe and really gotten to know them. I was just watching Up the other day (a movie I used to dislike but have come around on), and that movie is marketed to the highest demographic of attention deficit disorder people in the world – children. And yet it slows down so many times to explore themes like friendship and mourning and moving on. I understand that Up isn’t a thriller but if your audience isn’t connecting with your characters on something more than a surface level, then that movie or screenplay you show them is going to disappear from their minds the second it’s over.

Advanced Placement is too breezy for its own good. It’s too fast. It’s too slick. I guess sometimes a script can move so fast that afterwards you’re not even sure if you saw it.

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

What I learned: The lesson here is to try and say something with your script. Oftentimes when a story disappears from my mind the second I’m finished reading it, it’s because the writer wasn’t trying to say anything. Every once in awhile if you create great characters and an expertly plotted film, you can get away with pure entertainment. For example, I’m not sure Die Hard was trying to say anything about the world. But why not try to say something with your story just in case you haven’t created the next Die Hard? Go back to your top 10 favorite movies. What did you FEEL afterwards? Ask yourself why you felt that way. What themes were those movies hitting on? See if you can’t incorporate those themes into your own screenplays.