Friday, December 9, 2011

Amateur Friday - Fatal Woman

Genre: Period/Noir
Premise: (from writer) In wartime LA, a lounge singer falls for the detective hired by a vigilante group to investigate her gangster boyfriend's treasonous activities.
About: Fatal Woman won this year's Zoetrope screenwriting contest. - 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.
Writer: Laura Kelber
Details: 106 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 loved what Laura had to say in her query letter. Not only was her attitude great but she had an interesting story to tell. This is what she said: "When this won the grand prize of a major contest back in February, I thought I had it made. I thought, at the very least, I'd get a mid-level manager. But there was zero interest. Zip. Nada. I didn't get so much as a "what else you got?" query. In fact, I got a helluva lot more response when one of my comedy scripts made the Nicholl Quarterfinals. OK, I know exactly what you're gonna say: amateurs shouldn't write period pieces. I know! I've written 17 screenplays now, including comedy, drama, and supernatural, dutifully submitting them to contests. But it was an effin' period piece that won the grand prize. It's a sad fact (or maybe it's a good one), that contest winners don't always tend to be commercial. After the disappointment of getting nowhere with this script, I've moved on to others. I like to write. So this one is more or less dead to me. Tear it to shreds!”

Well Laura, your wish is my command. :)

No, I'm not going to tear Fatal Woman to shreds. But I do think it has some significant problems. Having said that, I have a pretty good idea why it won. I talk to a lot of contests readers and I've held a couple of contest myself. There’s this wide-held belief that if you have a thousand screenplay submissions to anything, that at least one of them is going to be great. Not true unfortunately. You have to remember that like 80% of the scripts are from people who’ve never even read a screenwriting book before, which makes the pool of relevant scripts considerably smaller. And even then, as you all know by reading this site, it’s still incredibly hard to write something great. So what ends up happening is that it isn’t necessarily the best script that wins the contest, but the best writer. And I think that’s what happened here. The writing here is great. But the story itself is often muddled and confusing. Let’s take a look.

It’s Los Angeles circa 1942, the middle of the war, and Monique is a Veronica Lake-like lounge singer who's nearing that age where people will start seeing her as a Ricki Lake-like lounge singer. In fact, her thuggish boyfriend who owns the nightclub, Flip Foster, is already moving on to the new hot younger version of her, creating all sorts of tension at work. Rrrreow!

One night after a set, Monique is approached by private detective Dan Armstrong, a handsome bloke (they used that word back then right?) who lost his leg in an accident and is therefore unable to fight for his country. Dan thinks that Flip is involved in some suspect illegal activity and wants to know if Monique will help him get to the bottom of it. Since Flip no longer wants to make sexy time with Monique, she decides, “Why not?”

Unfortunately, that's where I started getting confused. A bunch of strange plot points are thrown at us one after another and we’re stuck trying to figure out what the actual story is. It starts when Flip takes Monique out on his ship and Dan sneaks onto it as well, only to get captured by Flip and questioned as to who he's working for. In one of the more bizarre moments, they actually make him take a truth serum. I think that's the official moment where I started pulling away from the script.

Eventually Flip, who I'd assumed was this terrifying dangerous crime lord, politely shuttles Dan back to shore and lets him go without a scratch. Since when are bad guys so nice? In the meantime, Monique finds out that Flip is using the roundup of Japanese Americans at the time (For those who don't know, our racist 1942 government rounded up all the Japanese-Americans and put them in concentration camps on the off chance they were spies) to change their identity into Chinese-Americans, release them back into the general population, and make a nice chunk of change out of it.

At some point, Monique decides she’s in love with Dan and wants to run away from him, but when Flip hears about this, he's furious and refuses to let her go. Because Flip is footing the bill for Monique's ailing brother, she has no choice but to stay with him, and that means she'll never get to be with the man she's fallen in love with.

As she alludes to in her e-mail, Laura starts off with a concept that has such narrow audience appeal that the majority of people who hear the logline aren't going to be interested in reading it. Literally the only way you can write one of these scripts and get others interested is if the script is absolutely flawless. That's the only way. You get an L.A. Confidential, what, once every 20 years? That's why I try and steer you guys away from this stuff because I don't want to see you waste your time.

As for the script itself, I think it gets buried under too many plot threads and too many ideas. One of the ways I measure a script’s potential is I imagine somebody asking me what it's about. If I have trouble with that explanation or the explanation itself doesn't sound very exciting, there's a good chance that the script is in trouble. If you asked me what Fatal Woman was about, I'm not sure how I would answer. I would say something like, “It's sort of about a lounge singer in 1942 who falls for a private investigator. But it's also about trafficking Japanese-Americans for money. Though not really because that plot doesn't really play into the ending.” You get a semblance that there's something there but it's not concrete. It's not clear or “hook-y” enough.

Let's use that old trick of trying to find some irony in the premise and see if we can't come up with something better. What if a guy who was trafficking Japanese-Americans during World War 2 ended up falling in love with one of them? That's not great and I would brainstorm it extensively to find more conflict and higher stakes, but already I think it’s a more interesting story. I mean what does a lounge singer have to do with trafficking Japanese-Americans? There’s too big of a disconnect between the elements (stealing a phrase from yesterday’s logline article). This seems so much cleaner.

Now I'm not saying everything’s bad here. I thought Dan was a really interesting character. I like the idea of a man who desperately wants to fight for his country but can't because he's handicapped. I thought it was interesting seeing the shame and guilt he lived with every day. So I really felt that character was well developed.

And the writing itself, as advertised, was very good. I mean here's Monique's character introduction: "She’s talented and perky enough to please the audience, but would draw yawns from any passing talent agent.” I mean that told me everything I needed to know about the character in one line, which is the mark of a great screenwriter.

But this script suffers from too many problems, the biggest of which is that I’m not sure it knows what it’s about. There’s only a semi-commitment to the Japanese-American smuggling subplot, and that leaves the bulk of story to rest on the Dan/Flip/Monique love triangle, which I don't think has the muscle to keep our interest. We’re also confused about what characters are doing and why they’re doing them half the time. I had no idea why Flip would just let Dan go. Why not kill him? I'm still not sure who was fighting at the end of the script. Was it Dan’s people versus Flip’s people? If not, who were these other guys? And what did any of it have to do with the Japanese-American smuggling plot? Why is it that that plot became a big deal in the middle of the second act and then simply vanished? And why have the climactic scene in the movie take place in a tiny office? Since I wasn't clear about a lot of these things, Fatal Woman basically became a bunch of characters wandering around talking to each other. The goals weren’t clear. The stakes weren't clear. So no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get into it.

My advice to Laura would be this: "You’re a really good writer. I think trying to fix this story is more trouble than it's worth. Move on to the next script and kick ass with it.”

Script link: Fatal Woman

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

What I learned: One thing I'm sure people will bring up is the 5 to 6 line unfilmable asides Laura uses throughout the script, such as this one on page 38: “Wait a minute! What happened to that steamy lip-lock? Apparently, afterwards, they hopped into the cab and drove all the way back to Dan’s place. Obviously, they’ve had sex. It might have been a long night of Kama Sutra passion, or maybe Dan thinks a simple wham-bam routine’s all he needs to impress a dame. We’ll never know, because it’s the ‘40s and the Hays Code is in full swing. Why else would Dan use a word like “heckuva”?” For the most part, I found these asides charming and fun. But here's my theory on this. Your primary goal as a screenwriter is to make somebody believe that your story is *real*. If you can convince somebody that a made-up string of sequences from inside your imagination REALLY HAPPENED, you have reached the mountaintop as a storyteller. That's what we’re all trying to do. The second they're aware they’re reading a script, you've lost that spell. You’ve brought them back to reality. So why put anything in a script that's going to facilitate that? It's the equivalent of walking up to them and saying "Hey, you know this is all fake right?" Ironically, the reason I didn't mind the asides here was that I wasn't really into the story to begin with, so they were a welcome distraction that made me smile. But had I been engulfed in Fatal Woman, I probably would have had a big issue with them. There are exceptions to this rule of course. For example, I don't mind them much in goofy comedies when we know what we’re reading isn't real anyways. But I do have problems with them in almost every other genre.