Thursday, December 15, 2011

First Ten Pages Week - Nice Girls Don't Kill (4th Place)

Genre: Action Comedy
Logline (4th place): When a meek and universally abused copy editor is mistaken for the professional killer she accidentally bumped off, she decides to take on this violent new identity until the killer turns out to be not so dead, and very pissed off.
About: Welcome to the first annual “First Ten Pages Week.” What I did was have readers send in loglines then vote on their favorites. The top five loglines, then, would get their first 10 pages read. With any of this week’s reviews, if the comments are positive enough, I’ll review them in full on an Amateur Friday.
Writer: Emily Blake (check out Emily’s Blog – Bamboo Killers)

Mila Kunis for Mary Beth?

When this logline first came in, I admit I didn't think much of it. I mean it was good enough to make the Top 50, but I wasn’t sure it would fare well against everyone else. Then it started getting all these votes and I was like, "Hmmm…Let me take a look at this again." When I read it a second time, I realized it had more potential than I originally thought. In fact, it had the best title and logline *combination* of the five entries. What I mean by that is, of all the combos, I got the best sense of what the movie was by looking at the title and the logline together. And I can't tell you how huge that is. When you’re on the outside of those pearly studio gates, your logline and title are the only two things advertising your script. So if you can come up with a combination that sells your story clearly, you're in really good shape. For contrast purposes, compare this to Stationary, where we got a sense of the movie but didn’t get the full picture.

The first 10 pages of Nice Girls Don't Kill start with southern Belle assassination queen Lana walking into a library and killing a librarian who owes her boss money. Cut to Mary Beth, who is the polar opposite of Lana. We observe her backing down from a confrontation with her defense class teacher, backing down from a trainer who bullies his way onto her treadmill, and backing down from an obese woman who cuts in front of her in line. Mary Beth is a girl who seriously needs to step up her game, but from what we’ve seen, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

The pages…

First of all, we have a solid opening scene. Some nice atmosphere is created with an empty library at closing time, thunder cackling through the windows. A seemingly innocent girl taps on the door, asks to come in, and then assassinates the librarian. We have some nice dialogue in the scene: “Listen, honey. I'm a nice girl. I don't do that whole bamboo under the fingernail shit, but if you paw at me again I will shoot off your shriveled old Willy, put a knife in your gut and leave you to bleed to death. Are we clear?” The only thing I didn’t dig was Lana singing “Cherry Pie” to her ringtone as she cleaned up her kill. It just felt a little forced. But overall, I was into it.

However once we cut to Mary Beth, Emily starts working a little too hard to convey her heroine’s fatal flaw. Conveying a protagonist’s fatal flaw is an art. You want to make it clear. But you don’t want to whack us too hard with it or it feels forced. In this case, we see Mary Beth kicking ass when she's banging on the punching bag, but then unable to hit her instructor when he (she?) tells her to. The instructor goes apeshit on her for her weakness and even calls Mary Beth a giant pussy.

We follow this with Mary Beth on the treadmill staring at a slutty client flirting with a trainer. The duo then comes over and boots her off, and she meekly retreats to the locker room without saying a word. We then get a scene in the locker room where Mary Beth observes some badass woman taking charge. If only she could be that tough… We then follow THIS with a scene in the bus line where someone cuts in front of Mary Beth and she doesn’t say anything. And then, in addition to all of this, Mary Beth keeps spotting numerous advertisements for an energy drink called…yes…“Potential.”

I think it’s safe to say that Emily drove the character flaw nail into the 2x4, then kept slamming it until she split the board in half. Selling a character flaw is good. But at some point, you gotta let the customer experience the product for themselves.

Afterwards, Mary Beth walks up the stairs to her apartment, and there her landlord is, asking for rent. I have no problem with this scene. It raises the stakes and forces your character to act. But you have to realize, I’ve read maybe 800 scripts (no exaggeration) where a landlord wants rent from the protagonist. All I ask is for from the writer is to show this moment in a unique way. Simply having the landlord yell, “You’re late with rent,” is boring and predictable. You’re a writer. This is what you do. You come up with unique ways to spin familiar situations. Maybe Mary Beth comes home and finds her refrigerator gone. In its place is a note. “You steal from me? I steal from you. Pay your rent!” Maybe this is even a common practice. There are notes all over the apartment from things that have been stolen by the landlord. That may be a dumb idea. I don’t care. It’s better than the tried-and-true landlord (who, although not in Emily’s script, is almost always Eastern European) standing at the doorway and demanding rent when our hero comes home from a long day.

Nice Girls, all in all, was probably the toughest of the five entries to judge. There’s nothing really wrong here. I mean, yeah, there’s the fatal flaw repetition I mentioned above. But that’s an easy fix. Just cut a couple of those scenes and we’re fine. But there’s nothing I got too excited about either. Nice Girls falls into that dreaded category of “Good but not great.” Or, as the Hollywood types like to say it: “Liked it didn’t love it.”

So then how do we bring this up to a “love it?” Well, I’m going to offer the same advice I offer everyone.  Professional readers spend *all day* reading scripts with the same scenes and the same plot points and the same characters and the same devices used to make us like or hate those characters. It’s all so familiar. So what gets us on the edge of our seat? When writers TRY HARDER. When they don’t go with the obvious choice. The “rent is due” scene is the perfect example. You need to TRY HARDER and give us something slightly different from what we’ve seen before. And you need to do that FOR EVERYTHING. If you even have an inkling that you’ve seen the scene you’re writing before? Try to come up with SOME SPIN, some FRESH POINT OF VIEW, that makes it read differently. Nice Girls Don’t Kill is too familiar in its current incarnation. And I think that if Emily were pushed more – had a development person on her ass – that she wouldn’t be taking these safe routes. She’d be pushing herself and coming up with better, more original, material. Since not a lot of us have a development person calling us on our bullshit, we have to depend on our inner development person. In other words, you have to call your own bullshit.

Would I keep reading?: Maybe. Truthfully, this is one of those scripts where I’d probably say, “I’ll give this until the end of the first act to pick up.”

Link: Nice Girls Don’t Kill (First Ten)

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

What I learned: Beware of “Pause scenes.” – “Pause scenes” are any scene where you pause your story to put something in that doesn’t push the story forward. The treadmill scene is a classic “pause scene.” There is no story information in this scene whatsoever. The only point of the scene is to tell us something about our character. And in this case, it’s to tell us something about our character that we already know, since we just saw Mary Beth back down from her instructor a scene ago. I’d argue that the changing room scene and the bus scene are also pause scenes. So how would you unpause the treadmill scene? Well, maybe Mary Beth’s best friend is on the treadmill next to her and they’re setting up later story points (“You’re coming out tonight to meet Bob. You know that right?” “You mean Ear-hair guy?” “He is a nice man with an ear-hair issue okay. And he’s a book nerd. Like you. You’re not getting any younger you know.” “Fine.”) Now you have STORY INFORMATION conveyed in the scene so the scene itself is actually necessary. If all you’re doing with a scene is telling us about your character, you’re writing a pause scene.