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.