Friday, October 21, 2011

Amateur Friday - Alexandria

Genre: Period Piece/Adventure
Premise: (from writers) 48 BC. When fanatics burn the Library of Alexandria to cover the theft of advanced technology, a naive engineering apprentice and a handful of displaced scholars must defeat the growing cult using scientific trickery of their own.
About: Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted in the review (feel free to keep your identity and script title private by providing an alias and fake title). Also, it's a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so that your submission stays near the top of the pile.
Writers: Aaron Greyson and Kate Foster
Details: 112 pages

So a lot of you are probably wondering why I picked this script today. I am not a swords and sandals guy by any means. But I’d read eight straight subpar scripts in a row (I hadn't yet read The Imitation Game) and I was aching for something good. I knew if I picked the guy with 7 spelling mistakes in his query letter, even though he had a cool premise, it was going to be numero nineo. These two graduated from the UCLA writing program and even worked as readers in the industry. So I figured at the very least, they’d write something competent, and maybe even something great. So it was time to put on my toga and my “I Heart Socrates” shirt and get down to business. Caligula style. Well, maybe not Caligula style.

Alexandria was… different. It's not bad, but the story takes a hell of a long time to get going, and is so heavily populated with characters that I found that fleshy computer between my ears overheating before I’d even hit the page 30 mark. I know I talk way too much about this, but people keep ignoring me so I'm going to talk about it again. If you include too many characters, the reader will start forgetting them. This goes double if it's a period piece with a bunch of unfamiliar-sounding names. Ctesibius. Philokatres. Gnaeus. Makeda. Ptolemy. Athanas. You get the picture. I had to take metisibius notes in order to keep track of who was who. There's always going to be a little work that goes into reading something like this. But the first order of business is still to entertain, so if I feel like the read is more work than play, I'm checking out.

Heron of Alexandria is a 20-year-old apprentice engineer who specializes in creating complex statues and puppeteering stages with lots of moving parts. His master is Philokatres, an imposing man who’s always quick to exert his dominance. They have the typical master and apprentice relationship where Heron believes he deserves more responsibility whereas Philokatres doesn't think he's ready.

The city is booming at the moment. Ptolemy XIII, the young pudgy future King, is having a great big birthday party and everybody has turned out to shake their btooty. I'm not sure if the Macarena had been invented yet, but if it had, they were doing it. We bounce around, meeting all the major players, including getting a glimpse of Cleopatra herself, when all of a sudden there's a big argument.

I wish I could tell you what happened next but I'm not sure. All I know is that two sides were mad at each other - one of those sides taking up with Ptolemy and the other taking up with Cleopatra. This confused me because I thought Cleopatra was the queen and I thought you could never put a ‘t’ after a ‘p.’ So if Ptolemy was the future King, wouldn’t they be on the same side? Unless of course, I'm getting Ptolemy mixed up with somebody else whose name started with a P, which is very possible, and goes back to my problem of having so many characters with impossible to remember names.

Anyway, Heron and the rest of the scholars lock themselves inside the library and watch what started as a tiny skirmish turn into a giant battle. They eventually sneak out and migrate into the countryside to regroup. They do so at Philokatres’ countryside Villa, which is apparently huge, because a whole lot of people are staying there.

On the way there, they're shocked to see a small army using a giant religious statue to scare towns into joining their cause. But the real surprise is that it’s HERON’S STATUE! He built it. And these guys have modified it to make noises and move a little more convincingly. When the ignorant come upon it, they assume it's a God, and step in to line quickly. For those who don't step in line, they're slaughtered. Man do those Scientologists wish they had that kind of recruiting flexibility.

Back at the Villa, Heron befriends a slave girl and tries to recruit her, along with a bunch of others, to find out who this poser is who stole his statue, and stop him before he's able to convert the entire continent. Little does he know that the person responsible for this fa├žade is closer to him than he thinks.

First of all, this script was beautifully written. I have a ton of respect for people who are able to write in this genre. I can't imagine how much you'd have to know about this time and this place and the people and the way they spoke in order to pull off anything even remotely convincing. Just the dialogue alone - I don't know how you'd research that. I mean I'm pretty sure Cleopatra never texted Ctesibius with a “Yo Ctes. C u in 5?”

But the thing was, this script took soooooooooooooo long to get going. I'm always looking for when the main character’s goal emerges. That, to me, is the official start of the story. It's when Shrek realizes he has to save the Princess in order to get his swamp back. It's when Luke realizes he has to deliver the message to Princess Leia’s father. It's when Alan Turing decides he wants to crack the Enigma Code. Here, I would designate that point as when Heron decides to find out who’s behind the statue and stop them. I don't remember the exact page when that happened, but I'm pretty sure it was after page 50.

That's a long time to wait for a story to begin. And I can be patient in the meantime if you build in little mini storylines that are interesting. But I just didn't see that here. Where it really went South for me was the Villa. Just sending your characters to a Villa in the beautiful countryside alone makes it feel more like we’re on a vacation than in a movie. But then to hang out at that Villa for pages upon pages where nothing is happening just killed the script’s momentum.

And it highlighted a bigger problem. If they would have stayed at the Villa for the rest of the film, nothing bad would’ve happened to them. They would have been fine. Maybe eventually sometime in the future, 20 or 30 years from now, because they didn’t act, this religious cult would’ve swept over the Villa and destroyed it. But I’d hardly call that high stakes. I hardly sense the need to act now in order to save themselves.

If we bring back Shrek as an example. He had to leave because his sanctity was threatened. This is an ogre who lived a life of privacy. Being alone was what was most important to him. So he had to go on this journey or else he’d never have that again. It's not clear to me why Heron needs to go on this journey other than that he's curious.

So if I were Aaron and Kate, the first thing I would do is get to the point of this story faster. A lot faster. Identify the problem. Identify the main character’s goal. And then send him off to achieve that goal. In addition to this, create a scenario by which if he doesn't act, his world will be threatened. Now your main character has to act, and if he doesn’t, he’s fucked.

Ideally, I would place Heron in one of these small towns to start off the story. Then I would have this religious cult with this huge statue come in, kill everybody who didn't convert, take all the others, and have it so Heron was able to escape. All the people he loved were killed. So he gets together with a group of stragglers, the few others who were able to hide, and they go after these people. It just seems like this story would be so much more focused. As it is now, all of that stuff that goes on in Alexandria is backstory. I don't think we need it.

Anyway, the writing itself was clean and easy to follow. I just would've loved something more streamlined. You're already bumping up against conventional spec screenplay wisdom when you take on a time period like this. So if you're going to do it, you want to make the story as audience-friendly and easy to follow as possible.

Having said all that, I did think the ending came together. It was fun that they had to use their minds in order to defeat this huge enemy as opposed to an army. I also liked the twist in the middle of the script when we find out who's leading the army. It was unexpected and gave the story a jolt right when it needed it. Now if only we can move it along faster. Good luck on the next draft guys.

Script link: Alexandria

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

What I learned: In yesterday's comments section, a few of you talked about getting into your scene as late as possible and getting out of your scene as early as possible. That exact same principle needs to be applied to your story itself. We need to get into the story as late as we possibly can. In my opinion, all the stuff that happens at Alexandria with the burning of the library and Cleopatra - it's all backstory. It doesn't have anything to do with the main story. The only time we ever see Cleopatra again is when we go there to ask her for help, to which she says, “Sorry. You’re on your own.” So why did we need that scene? We can have them be on their own without Cleopatra having to confirm it. The only other plot point I could think of that was set up in those opening pages was Heron’s statue. But do we really need 30 pages of backstory just to set up that one piece of information? I would ask if we even need to know that it’s Heron’s statue in the first place. I don't think the story changes if it isn’t. It's not like any knowledge he has of the machine plays into later parts of the screenplay. I suppose the fact that he knows it's fake plays into it a little bit. But I'm not sure he needs to have created the machine to figure that out. So let's start this story later - when our characters first encounter this cult. Now we've established the problem, and we can begin our character’s journey to stop it.