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.