Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fig Hunt: The Quest For Battle Armor Star Captain

Edit: I was able to get my hands on the newest version of Fig Hunter and give it a read.  As a result, I've decided to add my thoughts on the new draft, which will appear after the original review.  So make sure to read til the end!

Genre: Comedy/Mockumentary
Premise: A couple of “fig hunters” (action figure hunters) go out in search of the rarest action figure in the world: Battle Armor Star Captain.
About: This is another one of the 2011 Nicholl Finalists. Again, the finalists are the top 10 screenplays in the competition. Only five of those will be chosen as winners.
Writer: Aaron Marshall
Details: Old version 122 pages - New version - 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).

Older Version Review:
I have to give it to any writer who takes on a Mockumentary. The thing about these hybrid beasts is that they don't really work until they're up on screen. The interview segments are so dependent on us buying the “reality” of the actors’ words, that it doesn't feel right to see it all written out beforehand.

For that reason, I always advise writers to stay away from the Mocks unless they’re making the movie themselves. That being said, Fig Hunt does about as good of a job as you can of conveying a Mockumentary in script form.

Jason Udegaard is the 30-year-old version of Steve Carrel in The 40 Year Old Virgin. I guess you could call him the 30 year old virgin. His house is decorated with action figures and plenty of other nerdtastic touches. But whereas Carrel seemed at least capable of operating in the real world, Jason seems to be living in an alternate reality.

In this reality, the only thing that matters is finding rare action figures. And the crème de la crème of that world is Battle Armor Star Captain. The short of the story is that many years ago one of the big toy companies was getting ready to unveil a new series of action figures centered around Battle Star Captain. Unfortunately, before Battle Star could be shipped, one of the companion figures ended up in a poor little boy's mouth and choked him to death. As a result, all Battle Star Captains were incinerated and thus never seen from again.

However, years later, a janitor discovers 19 Battle Star Captains that avoided their fiery death. The company, capitalizing on this screw-up, decides to ship the figures out to random stores across the country, mainly to juice up publicity for their other toys.

If only life were that simple. You see, there's only one group of people out there who give a shit about a 20-year-old random action figure. Fig Hunters! This small but obsessed community spends every waking moment hunting down these forgotten plastic morsels. So when they hear that Battle Star Captains are going to be showing up across the country, it's like a church congregation being told that Jesus is going to be hanging out at one of the local 7-11s.

Which brings us back to Jason. Jason is one of the last pure figure hunters. He doesn't care about the money. He doesn't care about the glory. He cares about the purity of collecting these rare works of art. And since Battle Star Captain is the Holy Grail of action figure collection, he absolutely must have him.

He's joined by his best friend and fellow fig hunter, 31-year-old Marcus. Marcus is chubby, balding, and pathetic. Essential qualities to being a great fig hunter. The problem is, Marcus has actually found himself a female companion, a rarity in the fig hunter community, and she's making him think twice about fig hunting as a full time job. Things are getting so bad, in fact, that Jason actually has to convince Marcus to help him find Battle Star Captain.

If finding an impossible action figure weren’t enough, they also have to battle…. Lord Werner. Werner is the worst kind of fig hunter. He's a scalper. He finds rare action figures then sells them on eBay for a profit. He has a whole gang of fellow profit-seeking scalpers that give him a wide knowledge base that no other fig hunter can match. This means he's always one step ahead of Jason and Marcus.

The hunt is chronicled online by a mysterious figure known only as "Rogue Fig Hunter," who keeps tabs on when one of the 19 Battle Star Captains is found. We watch as the number continues to fall, until there are just two Battle Star Captains left. It's looking like Jason will never get a hold of the greatest rare action figure in existence. The question is, if he does fail, will he ever be able to recover?

So what's the verdict on Fig Hunter?

Well, if I was to equate the value of this screenplay to a rare action figure, I would probably categorize it as Lando Calrissian. Definitely harder to find then Luke, Han, or Darth Vader, but certainly easier to find than Hammerhead. (I actually don't know what I'm talking about - I have no idea what the order of difficulty is in finding action figures - but just go with me dammit).

The script is okay. The problem is that whenever it ramps up, it slows right back down again. The script is 122 pages and I just don't see why. Why wouldn't you compress your comedy so that there's more laughs per minute instead of less?

As I've always tried to convey, the comedy genre NEEDS TO MOVE. The writing needs to be sparse. Needless tangents need to be eliminated. One of the things that bothers me is when we jump into a flashback only to be told something we already know. So here, Jason is a nerd. We then jump back in time to see him as a kid and what are we told? You guessed it. That Jason was a nerd back then too. What's the point of giving us backstory if it doesn't tell us anything new about the character? Take The Imitation Game for example. The backstory was about Alan’s relationship with Christopher, who ends up being the inspiration behind the machine that saves all those lives. That's worth showing because it informs so much of the present day storyline. We could have easily lost 7-8 pages off this thing by getting rid of the flashbacks.

What I did like about the script was that it had strong GSU. We have a character who's desperately trying to achieve his goal. The stakes are high because we've established how much it means to him. And time is running out because Battle Star Captains are being found left and right. In fact, this script is a reminder that if you can convince the audience that a character cares about something, it doesn't matter if that thing is the machine that breaks the code that saves millions of lives, or if it's an action figure that brings someone personal joy. As long as we feel his passion for it, we'll want him to achieve the goal.

However in the end, I'm not sure I can recommend the script. It sort of runs out of ideas . I mean when they create this whole obstacle course between Jason and Werner to determine who gets the last Battle Star Captain, where they’re competing on things like monkey bars - that's when I officially tuned out. Remember, you're always one bad/uninspired choice away from losing your audience, and that was the choice that lost me.

So I guess this wasn't for me. That being said, if somebody told me they were going to read it, I wouldn't stop them. I'd probably say something like, “It’s a little silly, but kind of fun." If that sounds like the mood you’re in, give it a read.

Edit: Here are my thoughts on the newest version of the script.  Enjoy!

Okay, so I just read the newest draft of Fig Hunter and this proves what a well thought-out rewrite can do for a script. There are several key improvements, starting with the focus. In the earlier draft, we had this wandering storyline where there were 19 random Battle Star Captains spread throughout the United States and our characters had to chase after them over the course of, I believe, a year. So even though there is urgency (the figures are disappearing one by one), it's not as urgent as it could be. In this new version, the toy company sponsors a 45-day action figure hunt from the get-go, and the winners will square off in a competition for a single Battle Armor Star Captain.

One of the reasons I always talk about focus and making your character’s motivations clear, is that it’s easier for the audience to follow along. If either of those things are murky, or they go on for too long without being addressed, the script starts to feel like a fever dream. Screenplays need to be focused. The story needs to be clear. The characters need to be clear. We have to know what everybody wants and why they want it. The difference between the last draft and this one in the focus category is like night and day.

For example, as I mentioned, one of my big problems with the previous draft was that all of a sudden, in the end, we’re thrown into this bogus random contest run by a couple of local DJs. Because it came out of nowhere and because the event seemed so scattershot, we didn't care. In this version, the Fanathlon is set up early on in the script, so we understand it's coming from the beginning. This gives it a lot more weight than if it's just thrown at us on a whim. Also, it's being held by the toy manufacturer itself, as opposed to a couple of random dudes who have nothing better to do. So that also makes it bigger. In retrospect, it wasn't really the events (the monkey bars) that bothered me, it was the fact that this event came out of nowhere and we were supposed to think it was important. So set up your plot points ahead of time people. Your script will be better for it.

The characters felt more reined in as well. It just seemed like the writer understood them and didn't simply go off on whatever tangent popped into his head whenever he thought of something funny for one of them to say. They really stay within character. And while at first I didn't like the decision to curb Jason’s edginess, I realized over the course of the draft that there was a purpose behind it. It allowed the character to grow into that crazy more reckless version of himself, instead of just being that character from the get-go. In other words, there was more of an arc to his character.

Werner was much better as well. One of my favorite additions is that instead of making it so there was one kid who choked on the Battle Star action figure as a kid, there were three. And in this version, two of them died but one of them survived. The survivor? Werner. That's the kind of backstory and/or flashback that I wanted in that earlier version. Instead of just telling us something we already assumed, it's information that makes that character a lot more interesting, a lot funnier, and plays into the story.

Lots of improvements here.  So much more focused.  This easily jumps into "worth the read" status, and is a textbook example of how to improve your script through a rewrite. 

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

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

What I learned: Set up your key plot points ahead of time.  If you're going to have a big competition at the end of your script, the earlier you can tell the audience that it's going to happen, the longer they'll be anticipating it.  And the longer they're anticipating it, the more important it becomes to them.  If you tell us in one scene that our character is entering some super big important race, and then in the very next scene show us the race, how is that race going to feel important to us?  We just heard about it a second ago.  So set up those big plot points and big moments early on in your script.