Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Halloween Week!!! - Black

Genre: Horror
Premise: After a bus crashes in the snowy mountains, its passengers are stalked by a terrifying beast.
About: This one is from Bryan Bertino, the writer/director of The Strangers. At one point, Bryan was going to direct Black but that's since changed, and they appear to be looking for someone new to helm the project. Bertino was a gaffer in Hollywood and wrote scripts on the side. The Strangers was his breakthrough screenplay, finishing in the Nicholl quarterfinals, then later went on to sell to Universal.
Writer: Bryan Bertino
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).

I have to give it to Bertino in his direction of The Strangers. He just made that movie look so cool. I remember it being near the top of my "to see" list that year. Despite that, I had a huge problem with the script. Mainly that the villains didn't have any motivation. They showed up, killed, left.

Now later on, I heard what Bryan was trying to do. He was trying to give you the point of view of the victims in a murder situation similar to The Manson murders. On that dreadful night, none of those people knew why these degenerates came in, terrorized, and ultimately murdered them. So Bryan wanted to do the same thing with this movie. There would be no hindsight. We would experience what it would be like to be attacked without provocation. We’d be scared, confused, and before we could figure it out, dead.

It's actually a cool idea in retrospect. Hearing him describe it that way, I thought "that's a really neat angle." But when you're watching the movie and you see the bad guys kill then simply walk away - I don't know - It left me feeling unfulfilled and, quite frankly, pissed off. I feel like movies need a point. So if there isn't one, it's like the last two hours were a waste of time. If you guys were making The Strangers under the same guidelines, how would you convey what Bryan was trying to convey without pissing half the audience off? There's a good idea in there somewhere but I think he failed to make it clear.

Anyway, Black is about a group of resort workers who are being bussed up to a brand-new upscale hotel in the remote wilderness. There are roughly a dozen of them - but our main focus is on a family of four. There's 32-year-old Sadie (whose tattoos indicate a rebel past). There's her husband, John. And they have two daughters, eight year old Josey and four-year-old Molly.

Whereas most of the payload has always struggled on life's lowest rung, we hear bits and pieces of info to indicate Sadie and John used to be well-off. They've since fallen on hard times, and aren’t thrilled about being the "help" at a hotel.

As the bus weaves its way into the mountains, a snowstorm settles in and it gets harder and harder to see the road. You know what that means. Something LEAPS in front of the bus and our bus driver YANKS the steering wheel to avoid it and the bus goes flipping down the side of an embankment.

After the survivors are accounted for, they start hearing some strange noises outside. Now this is a forest so you’re going to hear strange noises. But there's something particularly unsettling about this noise. And that’s because IT’S A MONSTER!

Bryan takes the Jaws approach and doesn't show us the monster for a long time. But we do get flashes of it and it appears to be half beast, half skeleton. As our desperate bus riders realize they might not be found down here, they decide to grab some flares, head up to the road, and draw attention to their location. They should be fine of course, since monsters can't see flares.

Skeletor Bear takes advantage of our team of idiots and turns them into a Taco Bell fourth meal. Back in the bus, our remaining survivors are learning that they're damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they don't try to escape, they’ll probably die of starvation. If they stay in the bus, Wolf Bone will come and eat them.Oh the irony.

They figure the Hotel isn't far away so they should try and make a run for it. But there are a few surprises waiting for them, starting with the fact that the hotel might not be as safe as they think. Will our bus batch survive? I certainly doubt it. But you never know. Zombie Panda can only eat so much. He may just call it a night and get some much-needed rest. Hunting dumb innocent people takes energy you know.

I'm afraid that Black suffers from the worst screenwriting culprits our there – averageness. You have to realize that readers read this specific type of scenario – people stuck in a space with a monster nearby - thousands of times over. It's such a common story that if you try and half-ass it, if all you do is give us the same or even slight variations of everything that's been done before, we're going to tune out. And that was my reaction here. There wasn't a single moment in the screenplay that wasn't something I'd seen before.

The only time I was even mildly surprised was when the characters decided to go to the hotel. I thought the whole thing was going to take place in the bus. Thank God Bryan made this choice because it at least added freshness to the ending. But there was still so much familiarity with the set up and its execution that I could never drum up enough interest to care about anybody in the story.

I think that was the second big mistake here - none of the characters stuck out. And when you put characters in a life or death situation, you have to make sure - I'm talking priority number one here - that you’ve created enough backstories and motivations and conflicts and flaws and relationship issues so that all the characters feel real and that we actually care about them.

Just yesterday we looked at a script with a very well-crafted central relationship in the movie. A young girl was upset about a new woman trying to take her mom's place. That backstory was crucial to the rest of the story and played into nearly every decision the girl made. I don't know anything about the characters in Black. In fact, it's easy for me to know when a writer hasn't done his job simply by getting to the point in my review where I have to describe the characters. I realized I had nothing to describe. I couldn't remember anything distinct about any of the characters in Black except that one of them was really fat. Fat isn’t a character trait. Fat doesn’t help me understand a character. It seemed like we would get some information about the main family’s financial backstory and how they got to this point, but after that initial hint of it, it was never mentioned again. So with that gone, I had absolutely no one to care about.

These movies are about rooting for the people to survive against the beast. So if we don't care about the people, it doesn't matter how cool your beast is, or how original your story is. We won't care.

Here's the thing. Developing interesting original characters that we want to root for is the single hardest thing to do in screenwriting. It takes a lot of studying. It takes a lot of trial and error to figure out what works. It takes a lot of homework - writing out character biographies and figuring out who your characters were before the story began. But if you're willing to put in the effort and figure the characters in your screenplay out, it will pay off. Because not many writers are willing to do that work.

This is my big problem with horror scripts - is that a lot of horror writers just don't care about the characters. They’re all cardboard cutouts waiting to be dumped into the monster shredder du jour. If you’re a young horror writer out there – study character work. Put the majority of your effort into creating characters with depth and flaws and problems. In fact, before you write your next horror script, go write a character piece. You will not show this screenplay to anybody. It's just for yourself. But try to write a movie just about characters and make it interesting. If you can do that, then you'll be able to write a good horror script (or any script for that matter). Good luck.

[ ] What The Hell Did I Just Read?
[x] Wasn’t For Me
[ ] Worth The Read
[ ] Impressive
[ ] Genius

What I Learned: Today's "what I learned" is a theory based on my frustration from reading the same horror scripts over and over again. Whenever you write a movie inside a genre you like, you never try anything different. Why? Because you like the genre. You like how it works. So why would you change it? However, when you watch a movie in a genre you dislike, you’re quick to point out all its faults. You’re quick to point out all the clich├ęs. You're quick to point out how they all feel exactly the same. For that reason, if you were to write a movie in said genre, you’d probably change everything up - and in the process, create something totally unique. A romantic comedy writer trying sci-fi for the first time would write a sci-fi rom-com. A thriller writer trying a Western for the first time would pump up the urgency in that traditionally slow genre to Mach 10. You wouldn’t be restricted by all the things you love, because you don’t love anything about the genre. I haven't tried this theory out but I think there's something to it. One of the biggest problems with screenplays is that 99% of them feel exactly the same. This might be a way to create something different. Thoughts? Am I crazy?  Actually, don't answer that.