Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Halloween Week!!! - Dead Of Winter

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A teenage girl heads to a remote cabin in the mountains with her father and new stepmother - an experience the father hopes will bond the two ladies. But when a mysterious wounded Park Ranger shows up, family bonding will be the least of their concerns.
About: This spec was sent out to producers last October and to my knowledge never sold, which is shocking to me because it’s so much better than 95% of the specs that go wide. My guess is that the spec market sucked so bad last year that a few gems were passed over. This is obviously one of them. It’s Dead Calm meets Panic Room in the best way possible.
Writer: Sarah A. Conradt
Details: 106 pages - undated (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 know. I know. This isn't technically a horror script. But I'll tell you what it is. It's the best-written script of the week by far. So hold on to your skimobiles people. This is going to be fun.

Beth, Cam and daughter Jo were the perfect family at one point. With Cam being a successful doctor, they had money to spare, which meant perks like a huge beautiful cabin in the snowy wilderness, a place they considered their sanctuary. The best times of their lives were spent there. But unfortunately, so was the worst. Beth got cancer and spent the last moments of her life at the home. Cam and Jo are so devastated by the painful memory that they abandon the house for years.

But eventually, Cam moves on and meets Diane, a school counselor who knows when she's found something worth hanging onto. Obviously, Jo, now 14, doesn't feel the same way, and lets it be known. The father realizes he has to do something drastic to get these two on the same page, so he decides to head back up to the house they spent Jo’s youth at.

Unfortunately, this makes Jo even angrier. To bring this woman into the home where her mother died is blasphemy as far as she's concerned. And you can feel the tension in the car ride up.

Once there, the group settles in for the week, but soon spots a strange man walking towards the house. A bleeding man. When he finally gets to the porch, he's so exhausted, he passes out. They take him inside, realize he's a Ranger, and figure out something must have happened to the Ranger station. So Cam jumps in his snowmobile and takes the 40 minute trek down to see what happened.

When he gets there, he sees that an avalanche has practically collapsed the station. But when he goes inside, he finds something much worse. There's a dead man with a knife in his chest. Turns out our friendly neighborhood Park Ranger might not be a Park Ranger at all. But before Cam can rush out, the structure buckles, and he gets pinned under a log.

Back at the home, our "Park Ranger," Andy, is coming to. In his 20s, Andy is devilishly handsome, even in his broken down state. He seems like a really nice guy too. He lets them know that he was barely able to survive the avalanche, but that he was the only Park Ranger on duty, and that therefore everything is fine. A big storm has moved in, so he assures them that as soon as it passes, he'll head out and let the proper authorities know what happened.

Jo is instantly taken with Andy and trusts his every word, whereas Diane isn't so sure. There's something fishy about this guy. And this is where things get interesting. We know that Andy is a bad guy. But we see Jo taking his side over the stepmother she despises. Andy quickly figures out the fractured dynamic and takes advantage of it. He tells Jo everything she wants to hear, making her putty in his hands. This allows the both of them to gang up on Diane, and allow Andy to control the situation.

Diane tries desperately to tell Jo that there's something strange about Andy, but the only thing Jo sees wrong is a woman trying to take her mother's place. As the script continues, it's clear that Andy has some sort of plan. But what it is, and what it means for the livelihoods of these two, isn’t clear. However if I were a betting man, I’d say it’s not looking good.

I loved this script from the very first page. And the reason I loved it has a lot to do with things we've been discussing over the last few weeks. I've been telling you guys that you NEED to add conflict to your scenes. You NEED to look for ways to make your characters clash, for there to be some sort of imbalance in every scene in order to keep things entertaining. This script is the perfect example of this. I wasn't keeping count, but I'm pretty sure every single scene in the script had conflict. And that's why it was so exciting.

The important thing to note, though, is WHY every scene had conflict. It’s because the dynamics in the relationships were set up from the outset. For example, we set up that Jo doesn't trust or like Diane from the very first scene. That means every scene between them is going to have conflict.

But the real power in the script is how Conradt MAXIMIZES this conflict. She wisely starts the movie with Jo's mother dying. Because we see Jo watch her mother die, because we see how much it hurts her, we *feel* her pain. This allows us to more effectively feel the conflict between her and Diane. Had the dying of the mother merely been mentioned, I'm not sure it would've had that much of an effect on us.

The other major source of conflict comes from dramatic irony. We suspect that Andy is bad, but they don't. Or at least, Jo doesn't. So every scene between Andy and Jo or Andy and both of them is laced with this tension because we want those characters to find out what we suspect. That means there’s two strong layers of conflict going on at all times. One is between Jo and Diane. The other is between the audience and the characters. Since the majority of scenes take place with these three characters, every scene is good. You have built-in conflict before the scene’s even started. This is what writers mean when they say “the structure needs to be in place first.” If you’ve set up everything ahead of time, you don’t need to pull out your bag of tricks to make the scene work.

Another great thing about Dead Of Winter is that it knows when to reveal information or introduce a plot point to keep the story fresh. For example, for a while the goal is about heading down to a neighbor’s house to use their radio. That lasts for about 15 pages, then the goal shifts to finding out why the father hasn't come back yet. Then the goal shifts to Diane trying to convince Jo that Andy is bad. Amongst all this, a twist will occasionally pop up, such as Andy's secret reason for being at the house. Remember that 15 pages is about the threshold for when audiences want something new in the story. And you can see that at play here. Every 15 pages or so a new development or new focus would emerge. This is what keeps a script from feeling repetitive.

And I just loved the way Conradt crafted the relationship between Jo and Andy – the way she uses his looks and sexuality to control and take advantage of her. (Spoiler) When they kiss, it was both terrifying and hypnotizing. And how Andy used that infatuation to encourage Jo's distrust of Diane. It's just this constantly evolving dynamic between the three that was perfectly executed.

About the only thing I didn't go gaga over was the ending. The ending for these scripts is always difficult. And I'm not saying it was bad. It was actually better than average. But something felt off to me about the video phone stuff. It was the only moment in the script where I became aware of the writing, and unfortunately the ending is the most important moment of the script so it has to be seamless. We can’t be aware of the writer’s hand. If Conradt can somehow tweak this, this would be an unstoppable script. But even with that flaw, it’s still damn impressive.

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

What I learned: We've probably heard the groan-tastic "I'm pregnant" line 600 gabillion times in movies. It’s almost impossible for it to be uttered without a giant “CLICHÉ” sign flashing underneath. So always look for a visual way to convey “I’m pregnant” if possible. Later in the script, Jo spots a bunch of Diane's books, and in the middle of them is "What To Expect When You're Expecting." She quickly puts two and two together. Sure, it's a little bit on the nose. But I'd much rather see that than Diane dramatically saying while they're stuck in a dark room, "I'm pregnant." Show don’t tell people!