Wednesday, December 7, 2011

America's Ben Franklin In: The Electrocution String

Genre: Comedy/Historical
Premise: (from writer) Before James Bond, there was Benjamin Franklin: inventor, philanthropist, and the single largest exporter of kicking British ass. Using his array of inventions and weapons, Franklin is a one-man army thirsty for Redcoat blood, especially when he's wrongly accused of treason.
About: This won the $20,000 monthly grand prize at the Amazon Studios contest a few months ago. A little birdy told me it’s a project the media giant is really excited about. You can learn more about it, download it yourself, and see a storyboard trailer of the film here.
Writer: Jason Ungate (revisions by Frank Pasquine)
Details: 116 pages – November 10th, 2011 draft (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).

Ben Franklin!  Action star?

I have to admit that I’m still confused about a lot of Amazon's contest rules. I know they (thankfully) changed it so that random writers can't rewrite your script (dumbest idea ever?), but as I'm looking at the title page for Ben Franklin, I see that it's been revised by Frank Pasquine. Unfortunately I don't have any idea if this rewrite was authorized, if the original writer approved of it, if it's something that Amazon themselves facilitated. I'm not even sure if this is the draft that won the contest. It's all very peculiar and confusing to me, but hey, where’s the fun in clarity?

I will say this about the Amazon contest. They clearly have a vision for what they're trying to do. This contest is almost the exact opposite of the Nicholl contest in philosophy. Amazon doesn't care about deep character driven thematic pieces. They want movies. They want films that people will go see. Now they might not always be right in choosing those films, but at least their contest is more reflective of the industry.

So. What’s this script Amazon’s so high on about? Well, it's about a 70-year-old Ben Franklin superspy type dude. This isn't the Franklin you read about in your history books. Oh no no no. This is the medical anomaly who can take down a gaggle of bad guys faster than Jason Bourne. If that kind of thing excites you, you're going to love this.

Unfortunately, the US government isn't as excited about our hero’s martial arts abilities as we are. In particular, a rising young general named George Washington is sick of getting one-upped by Franklin, who's constantly stealing his spotlight. Even more concerning to Washington, however, is that Franklin uses phrases like, "A bullet a day keeps the motherfuckers away.” Yes, I'm afraid to say, that line *is* in the screenplay.

Anyway, the British sail over to our shores because we weren't paying our taxes or something and like the big mountain of meanies they are take over Philadelphia, pushing all of us Americans out of the city. It’s there where Franklin meets Benedict Arnold, who’s already crafting a plan to take Philadelphia back. Right before Franklin can help, however, the Americans find a letter that Franklin wrote to the British telling them in detail how to capture Philadelphia! What!? No! Franklin has secretly been working for the British??

Of course not sillies. He’s been set up! So he does some kick ass move to escape from jail then goes on a search to find out who framed him. Due to circumstances out of his control, he's forced to team up with Washington, who as we've established, hates him more than a cherry tree that won't grow. Somewhere around this point, Franklin gets a hold of a 1956 Thunderbird. It was at this point that I either stabbed myself in the gut or tried to rip my eyes out of my head in order to make the torture stop. Unsuccessful, I was forced to keep reading.

Essentially, an evil British general arrives and demands that Franklin create for him the elusive electrocution string, rumored to be the most powerful weapon on the planet. Franklin refuses but when the evil General steals his girlfriend (who I forgot to mention he met along the way. And oh, she’s 24 - remember, Franklin is 70), he has no choice but to risk the safety of the world and create a weapon that makes the atom bomb look like a firecracker. And oh, somewhere in all of this is a plot I think, even though I never really figured out what it was.

Well, let's see.

I guess the first thing I should say is that I'm not really into these historical mash-ups to begin with. You will not see me in line for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for example, even though Fox is spending like $200 million dollars on it. So Ben Franklin: Electrocution String had about as much chance with me as me trying to get up a ski slope without the electricity required to make the tow-rope go. I’m sorry. I was trying to make an electricity joke there. Oh my god! This script has destroyed my sense of humor!

Where was I? Oh yeah. Ben Franklin suffers from a disastrously unclear plot. I have no idea what anybody's goal is in this movie. I think the main goal was that Franklin and Washington had to find out who wrote the letter that framed Franklin. I don't care how you spin that. That's gotta be the most boring goal you could possibly give to a story like this. Bodhicat just said this the other day and I couldn't agree more, but: Who cares??? Who cares if they find out who sent the letter? Are we the audience really on the edge of our seats saying, “Oh man, oh man, I *hope* they find out who sent that letter!?” No. Of course not. This is why it's so important to make your goals strong. You have to give your heroes objectives that the audience desperately wants them to achieve, that there are real genuine stakes attached to, that have consequences. If Franklin and Washington never find out where this letter came from, what happens to them? As far as I can tell, nothing. So there are no consequences. And if there are no consequences to the main objective of the story, who cares?

I also thought that they could have done more with the humor here. It felt like the humor was either really cheap or really random, such as all of these historical figures swearing at each other, or our hero busting out a car that hasn't been invented for 200 years yet. I suppose that’s okay for a younger audience in the 13 to 18 demo, and maybe that's the demo they're going after. But if you dig a little deeper and give just a little more effort, you can broaden that audience outside of high school. I mean we all know Washington as the most honest man in history. Why not make him a liar? Why not have him keep getting caught in his lies and be forced to cover them up with even more lies? I mean have some fun with history here.

The only shining moment in Franklin comes at the end. I had to admit that the whole electrocution string weapon stuff (which turned out to be Franklin’s kite experiment) was kind of genius. Unfortunately, it was the only moment in the script where I felt like the writer had actually tried, where he pushed himself to come up with something original.  I don't take any pride in disliking this so much but I just couldn't get into it at all.

Script link: Benjamin Franklin: Electrocution String

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

What I learned: Research your contests. Know what kind of scripts traditionally win in a contest before entering. If you look at all the past winners for Amazon, you'll see that they’re all basically high concept ideas aimed at the 14-25 male demographic. So if you enter a script that’s set in the 17th-century about a man obsessed with studying tree bark called Dark Leaves, then shame on you when you're surprised that it didn't win. Enter that same script into the Nicholl, however, and you may have a shot. This is the age of the internet people. It doesn't take much effort to figure out what the winners of every contest are. Do your homework so you don't waste money (and yes, I know Amazon is free – but why enter a script and lose the rights to it if it has no chance of winning?).