Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Screenwriter Interview - John Swetnam

You know, it's harder giving interviews than you think!  It's hard to come up with unique questions and such.  So I decided to mix it up a little bit with today's guest and ask some questions that usually don't get asked.  Hopefully you enjoy it.  John Swetnam's name might sound familiar to you.  He's the Found Footage king.  Well, maybe not the king.  Oren Peli owns the copyright on found footage.  But he's pretty darn close. He's sold two found footage specs, Evidence and Category 6 (a found footage tornado spec) and, as I just found out via this interview, is coming out with another, "Genesis: Dawn," that he hopes will change the found footage game. I talked with him after the interview and I don't think I've ever heard somebody as passionate about something as he is about this spec. I wanted to go to the nearest theater and see it right now!  Need more John Swetnam? You can follow him @JohnSwetnam on Twitter .

SS: How is a working writer’s life different from a non-working writer’s life? How are your days different?

JS: The biggest difference in my life now is that pants are mostly optional. I can’t tell you what it’s like to commute from my bedroom to the computer in by boxer briefs, spike a cup of coffee with some Jack Daniels and spend my hours just making shit up. It’s amazing. All the years of struggle, of waiting tables, of making minimum wage are definitely worth it. It is the greatest job on the planet and I just try to be grateful every day. I even had that tattooed on my chest. Literally. Be Grateful Every Day.

SS: Everybody has a bad first script story. What was your first script about? Was it bad? When you go back to it, what kind of sounds do you make?

JS: My first script was called “Fifty Yard Gain”. It was a teen drama that I based on the small town in Tennessee where I used to live. We had an East and West High School in the same town, which was pretty nuts. HUGE rivalry. So the script was basically Romeo and Juliet in the world of High School Football. I actually went back to check it out recently and of course it was awful, but there was this energy in the writing that I thought was cool. Back when I had no idea what I was doing, I just poured my soul onto the page. But of course, my soul is twisted and insane, so the script is a complete and total cluster fuck. I still think it was a pretty good idea though. It would be like High School Musical but instead of singing, there would be drugs, abortions, and armed robbery. Somebody put in a call to Disney…

SS: I’m hoping you visited Scriptshadow before you sold Evidence. Is there anything you learned from this wonderful little blog that helped your own screenwriting?

JS: Dude, you probably don’t remember this but way back in the day you read some of my stuff. There was one script called RAPTURE, which was like this Midnight Run at the end of the world thing. Again, it was a steaming pile of shit, but you had some very encouraging words about the writing. And I’ve never forgotten that, even though you have-- dick.

And yes, I’ve followed the blog since its conception. And one of the greatest things I’ve learned, or at least reconfirmed, was from reading all the comments from your readers. And that’s that this business is SO subjective. One guy may hate something while another loves it. And neither one of them are wrong (except for the pricks who railed on EVIDENCE). But us, as writers, need to remember that. You’re not gonna please everybody and somebody IS going to hate your stuff. But that’s okay. Just know who your audience is and write it for them… even if that’s just you. You can’t please everybody so don’t even try.

SS: Wait a minute wait a minute. I think I remember that script. This was back in the Done Deal days right? Maybe when I had just started the site? I remember that. The writing was good. Definitely not a steaming pile of shit. So if you wrote that script now, what would be different? How would you approach it now as opposed to then?

JS: Yeah, it was back in my DDP days. The idea for that script was actually pretty good butt I’d completely have to rework it to fit certain marketing parameters. That was a 150 million dollar post-apocalyptic dark comedy. Not really an easy sell. If I were to do it today, I’d do a Zombieland version. Small and fun with action. Midnight Run at the end of the world. It practically sells itself!

SS: You wrote 16 specs before you got your first sale. How did you keep the faith? And how did you pay for rent?

JS: I always tell people that there is no right or wrong path to making it in this business. We’re not lawyers. Some guy can write one script at 19 years old, sell it for a million, and be off and running (of course we all hate that guy, but still). And for some it may take three or four scripts. And for some stubborn idiots it may take 16. But the thing is, for me, I needed ALL of those scripts. Because I got better with each and every one. Obviously when I started I was the equivalent of a brain damaged sloth, but slowly and surely I got better and better, until finally I had enough skill to become a bonafied hack and sell a script.

But in all seriousness, through all the ups and downs, what I know for sure is that I believed in myself. From my first script to my latest, number 22. I know deep down that I can be good at this and I’m determined to prove that to myself. I have no backup plan. If there are any doubts, I squash them (or drink them away). But this was, and continues to be, the greatest and most satisfying challenge of my life. Can I succeed? Can I make awesome movies that make shitloads of money? The answer may be “no”, but I promise you I will keep trying until the day I die. I always tells my buddies that “this is the year”. And if that’s what it ends up saying on my gravestone… that “this is the year”… I’m okay with that because it means I never gave up.

And to all your readers, if you look deep down in yourself and you honestly believe you can do this and this crazy dream is what makes you happy, then just go for it. Do it. Go all in. And don’t doubt yourself. I know that’s hard to do, but trust me, in this business there’s gonna be enough people out there doubting you… don’t be one of them. Your passion and confidence are what will get you through. Just know that it’s hard, and it may take one year and two scripts, or ten years and twenty scripts. But that shouldn’t matter. Just keep writing. Keep fighting. And keep believing in yourself.

And to answer your question about paying rent. I will now give your readers the greatest piece of screenwriting advice ever. Two words. APARTMENT MANAGEMENT. I got free rent, salary, had a roommate that paid me cash, and I spent all day writing. Your toilet needs to be unclogged? Fuck off, I’m writing. Did it for 7 years. That’s the trick. You’re welcome.

SS: A question I’m CONSTANTLY asked is “Should I go to school for screenwriting?” You went to Chapman (a beautiful little school btw – I visited there myself). How would you answer that question? SHOULD someone go to school? Or should they just visit screenwriting blogs every day and save their money?

JS: Getting a master’s degree is a very strange thing. I already had a bachelor’s so there I had a base of knowledge and education. For me, going to grad school was not so much about learning the craft, but being surrounded by it. And by that, I mean, you’re talking with people every day about movies. You’re writing on deadline, interacting with professionals, networking, etc. And of course there’s the student loans that you can use to fuel all those weekend binges in Vegas.

So for me, in my particular situation, it was cool. I met some cool people and it really threw me into the world of film like nothing else. Would I do it all over again? Probably not. I would probably write my ass off, move to Hollywood, and get a job as an apartment manager while interning and visiting Scriptshadow and GITS every day. (Are you gonna pay me for all these plugs?)

SS: By the way, how does the money work for a script sale? Everybody hears about the numbers but, like, when do you actually get paid! How does that whole process work?

Ah, the money question. My favorite. To be honest every deal is different. The option is what happens to most people on their first “sale”. And if you can get into production you’ll see a fat check on day one of principal photography. For outright sales you get a big fatty check about 3-4 months after the sale (it takes a while to get all the contracts worked out) and then another chunky pay day on day one of shooting. Plus there are bonuses built in, some back end possibly, etc, etc. Let’s just say the money beats apartment managing.

SS: 3 movies that you think would be awesome remade as Found Footage movies. Besides When Harry Met Sally. Go.

JS: I actually wrote down 3 answers to this question but then I erased them all because I realized how fucking awesome they were. I’m literally gonna pitch them now. Sorry.

SS: You’ve had multiple agents and managers. It sounds like the early ones didn’t do a whole lot. Could you tell writers what to avoid when looking for an agent or manager, and some of the issues to expect once you do become a client?

JS: I can tell you from my experience that 99% of any issues I ever had with any of my previous reps fell completely on my shoulders. Believe me, if I would’ve given any of those guys a good damn script they could’ve sold it. But I never did. So it’s really hard to judge anyone on representing me when I didn’t yet have the ability to represent myself in my work.

As for issues with reps, I always tell people to forget about the letters on the building or the promises and the smoke that will inevitably be blown up your ass. Trust your gut. Do you believe that they believe what they’re saying? I mean, just take your time and really get a feel for the person and if you feel that connection, then go for it. If it doesn’t work out you can always leave. Nothing personal. You have to remember that this is your career so if you’re not feeling it after six months or a year… just bail and start again. No shame it that. I know that when you’re starting out it’s terrifying to go from repped to unrepped, but if you can find that manager/agent once then you’ll be able to do it again. Be confident in your ability, or at the very least, be confident in your ability to get better.

SS: How did you get your early agents/managers btw? I know Jake Wagner found you after being a finalist on the Tracking B contest. But before that, what was your trick to getting repped?

JS: After grad school I moved to Hollywood and got an internship. I worked hard and tried to figure out what the producers at the company were looking for. I became friends with the assistants who were genuinely good guys and I asked their advice as I generated concepts. Finally I had a concept that they loved. I wrote the spec script and the assistant showed the producer. He liked it enough to want to develop it so I asked him to call his friend who was a manger, which he did. Then when I signed with the manager I asked him to call his friend who was an agent and he did. Boom. Repped.

Of course, the script turned out awful and I never made any of those guys one dollar after years of bitching and complaining. I still feel like I owe all my old reps a drink or ten. I mean, I was so cocky back then with absolutely zero skills. I must’ve been a pain in the ass to deal with. (I still am but at least now they’re getting paid). 

SS: What is a writer/agent writer/manager relationship like? Do you talk every day? When you do talk, what do you talk about? Can you give me a typical conversation?

JS: Again this is one of those questions, like most, where every time it’s different. Every relationship I’ve ever had, whether it was with a girl, a guy friend, an agent, or whatever… they’re always different. Some good and some bad. My relationship with my team right now is fantastic. I consider them both friends and when I need something they are there for me. I’m really, really lucky.

A typical conversation might go something like this…

ME: Yo, let’s sell this script and get me paid. THEM: On it. CUT TO TWO WEEKS LATER where I’m either making it rain at the strip club, or back on the computer working on a new spec.

But seriously, they’re great. I owe a lot to them both. And right now… it’s all good.

SS: What are your thoughts on Tyler coming out of nowhere this past week with The Disciple Program? Pretty wild, huh?

JS: Fucking loved it! These are those stories that I would dream about when I was starting out. I’m a little pissed and super jealous that this kind of shit never happened to me, but I was never as good as a writer as he is. The guy put the words on the page. He created a product and then you created a demand. The product lived up to the hype and dude’s gonna have a hell of a year. My advice to him is just to keep his feet on the ground and write, write, write. I’m excited to see how his career progresses. No doubt he’ll be getting all the good jobs and exposing me for the fraud that I am.

SS: Speaking of, Tyler is taking a bunch of meetings over the next two weeks. Can you give him any advice? I mean, what did you learn from that first wave of meetings?

JS: Enjoy the hell out of it. It’s a once in a lifetime experience because it’s only “new and exciting” once. I mean, it’s always exciting but that overwhelming, surreal world he’s about to step into is soooo much fun the first time. It’s a trip. The studios. The fancy restaurants. The praise. Oh man, do I miss all that praise. But like I said before, hopefully he meets some reps, clicks with them and trusts his gut, and they’ll get him a ton of opportunities. Just have fun, order the lobster, drink the single-malt, and then get back to writing. Create more product. Cause without it… we got nothing.

SS: You seem to be on the cutting edge of technology. You have a Twitter account. You write found footage. Are you actively thinking of the next trend? What is it? Can you tell me?

JS: I’m on the cutting edge of technology because I have a twitter account? Sweet. And yes, I write Found Footage. As for the next trend… I could tell you but I’d have to kill you.

SS: How do you think found footage is going to evolve? What’s the next phase?

JS: Found Footage has a long way to go before it fades away. There are so many writers out there experimenting with the genre that I think it’s really exciting to see what comes out of it. But you really wanna know what I think the next phase of found footage is. Two words. “GENESIS: DAWN”.

SS: So what are you writing now? What have you finished recently? You got any cool scripts we should be aware of?

JS: Oh, funny you should ask, but I just finished a new spec that’s the next phase of found footage called “GENESIS: DAWN”. I’m actually really stoked about this one because it’s literally like nothing that’s ever been done before.

Tonally, I wanted to do a franchise starter like Resident Evil or Underworld. But mine is the sci-fi action-thriller version of that.

Here’s the logline to peak your interest (hopefully): After her daughter is abducted, a young mother wakes up on a spaceship and must traverse a hostile landscape while battling alien creatures in order to find her. It’s basically Taken meets Aliens POV style.

Hopefully you can do a review on it soon. Just make sure it gets an “Impressive”.

SS: Finally – since you love to reminded – you wrote 16 scripts before you found success. If you could go back and do it all over again, what would you change to speed things up!?

JS: Here’s the fucked up thing about this question… there’s nothing I could’ve done different. For me, it took 16 scripts before I got to a place where I felt like I knew what I was doing. If I could go back and make myself smarter, maybe that would work. Or I could’ve told myself not to drink so much beer or smoke so much weed, but what’s the fun in that? I really just think there is no secret. No magic bullet. There are tons of concepts, theories, ideas, guidelines, etc, that will definitely help you. But I think every writer has to just keep writing. And keep writing. If you stay focused, work hard, and work smart, you will succeed at some point. And it will be at your own pace. I’m proof of it, because I’m not a talented writer. I wasn’t born with a gift. I just know that I will not be outworked. As Big Willy said, “I’m not afraid to die on the treadmill”.

Anyway, thanks for the interview. It was fun. Hopefully I didn’t come off as too much of a d-bag. I wish nothing but the best for all of us. It’s an amazing dream that we’re chasing and it won’t come easy, but it will come if you believe in yourself and KEEP WRITING!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Scriptshadow Twitch Contest

Okay, so for the last few days I've been racking my brain trying to figure out ways to find a few more gems, find a few more Disciple Programs.  So I came up with an idea.  This Sunday, between 12:00 pm and 12:15 pm Pacific time, any writer who's made less than 10k through screenwriting and does not have a manager or an agent, can pitch me their script IN A SINGLE TWEET.  Yes, that's right.  You'll have 140 characters to pitch your screenplay.  I will read the first 10 pages of my FIVE FAVORITE pitches.  Whoever has the best first 10 pages, I'll read the entire script and review it on the site. If I really love it, I'll pass it on to the higher-ups.  This will be a grand experiment. I have no idea what to expect.  But it should be really fun.  As someone else put it, you'll basically have to come up with a logline for your logline. There are no rules to how you have to pitch - as long as it's within a single Tweet. And you can only pitch me ONE IDEA. I'll post a reminder on Friday with more detailed information.  So first, GO FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER.   And second, START PREPARING THOSE TWITCHES.

EDIT 3: Will probably push this back guys because it's getting a lot bigger. Won't happen this Sunday.  So you'll have a little more time.  Not sure actual time frame but 2-4 weeks sounds reasonable. This should give you time to work on those scripts!

EDIT 2: Guys, this thing is going to get a lot bigger. A LOT.  I'll keep you updated in the coming days as I start putting it together.  But needless to say, I'll be looking to change a writer's life. :)

Screenplay Review - The Hand Job (GUEST REVIEW!)

A last second change brings us a guest review of a 2010 Black List script about teenage girls exploring their sexuality. Enjoy!

Ha, you guys thought I was going to post a review of one script, but I did a switcheroo on you and now I’m posting another! Don’t ever try and predict the Scriptshadow. Because you can’t! Why the switcheroo? Because I’m going one better. Instead of reviewing the script of John Swetnam, I’m interviewing him instead! Tomorrow. So be there or be…um…not there. But you should be there. Cause I ask him some fun questions. In the meantime, today’s guest review is from Matt Williams, who’s reviewing the 2010 Black List script, “The Hand Job.” He’s also the first Scriptshadow reviewer to use the semicolon. So watch out!

Genre: Comedy/Coming-of-Age
Premise: Over the course of the summer of 1991, up-tight Brandy Clark aspires to check off all the points of her “To-Do” list, which would ultimately conclude in losing her virginity.
About: Originally appearing on the 2010 Black-list, “The Hand-Job” (now re-titled “The To-Do List”) is slated for a 2013 release, to-be directed by writer Maggie Carey, and starring Aubrey Plaza in the role of Brandy.
Writer: Maggie Carey
Details: 112 pages – July 6, 2009 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).

Mega-cutie screenwriter Maggie Carey.

We all remember the summers in between the various years of our high school experience. More so than anything, these years can, in many ways, be considered the most formative of our lives. Whether you spent your summers at the local swimming pool, working a job, chasing girls you had no chance of hooking up with, getting high, or all of the above (yes, those are the only things high school students do) – we all remember these times. And Brandy Clark will remember hers.

“The Hand-Job,” which has been re-titled “The To-Do List” (a wise move, imo), reminds me what you’d end up with if you combined The Last American Virgin with Dazed and Confused with Bridesmaids. It has the theme-similarity and coming-of-age quality of The Last American Virgin; the laid-back, free flowing feel of Dazed and Confused; and the female-oriented vulgarity of Bridesmaids. But the question is – does it work?

Brandy Clark is 16 years old. She’s a virgin, a prude, a do-gooder proud of her achievements. She’s also smart, tenacious and a little uptight. In the opening sequence, she’s trying out to be a lifeguard at the local swimming pool. Immediately we recognize her as someone who goes above and beyond, even when there is absolutely no reason to.

We meet her two best friends, Fiona and Wendy – collectively known as “The Girls.” We meet her popular and gorgeous sister, Amber, who is two years her senior, and the object of Brandy’s disdain. We meet Cameron, her long-time male friend, and Rusty, the object of her desire.

The year is 1991. The school year has just ended, and Amber is finally finished with high-school (mostly, anyway). When an end-of-the-year party is thrown at Amber and Brandy’s house, Brandy gets drunk (a rarity), and pursues Rusty, even though it’s a hopeless endeavor. The next morning, she finds her sister and Rusty sleeping in her bed, and she flips out.

This is the event that pushes Brandy to do something about her prudishness. She makes a summer “to-do” list, deciding that she must work her way up to the big event (losing her virginity), like “training for a marathon.” And so she sets out to check everything off, with anyone she can.

The opening fifteen pages of The Hand-Job were a little meddling to get through. And while that apparently didn’t turn out to be a problem for Ms. Carey (since this is in production with some major actors attached), it can definitely be an issue for other writers. We’re all told that you need to grab the reader within the first few pages. And it’s true. Had I not set out with the goal of finishing this script, I probably wouldn’t have.

These opening pages, to me, basically amount to a bunch of high school kids either talking about their boobs, talking about someone else’s, or insulting each other with what felt like trying-to-be-cutesy one-liners.

The biggest issue here is that a goal doesn’t really emerge until the end of the first act. Brandy is introduced as a fairly interesting character right off the bat, but her lack of a real goal until late in the game is a problem. Sure, she obviously likes Rusty and that’s made clear in the first 10 pages, but the GOAL, the driving CONFLICT of this script, doesn’t arise until she decides to make the list.

There are times when it’s necessary to withhold the character goal until the end of the first act. These times are few and far between, however (Rocky comes to mind). But when you do this, there must be a REASON. In Rocky, the reason is simple and clear – had Rocky agreed to fight Apollo Creed by page 4, we wouldn’t have given a shit. His character needed to be established for us to CARE. With The Hand-Job, there is no question that the writer could have amped up the pace, bringing the main conflict to the forefront much earlier, without losing anything, and gaining much. (Carson note: I have an opinion about this in the comments below).

However, once we get to the second act, the script really picked up. Not all of the scenes work, but many do. Especially in the third act, where there were numerous highlights, particularly between Amber and Brandy (despite these developments being somewhat predictable, they do WORK).

My least favorite scene occurs in the second act. Brandy, while working her job at the pool as lifeguard, is told to fish out a piece of poop that’s floating in the pool. Assuming this is a prank, and that it isn’t real shit, she skims it out of the water and, in front of everyone, tastes it to show that it’s just a Snickers. But surprise! It isn’t.

This scene was frustrating for two reasons 1) I’m not the biggest fan of toilet humor to begin with, but more importantly 2) this is an example of desperately trying to get a laugh though gross-out humor, even if it logically makes little sense. I mean, seriously? To prove she’s being pranked and that it’s really a candy-bar, she tastes it? There’s no other way?

On the other hand, gross-out humor is used effectively in a film like Bridesmaids (the gown scene). In that film, the gross-out development is well-developed, organic to the story, and most importantly, creates conflict that ripples throughout the story. Here, this event never rears its head again. The scene is entirely superfluous, and I hope it’s removed from the final film. It’s a simple enough fix, and a minor point, but it’s an example of how wrong you can go if you’re reaching too far for laughs (or scares, or thrills, or whatever) and it isn’t logical to your story.

There’s a subplot in here that involves the pool manager, Willy (in his 30s), and his girlfriend, Nicole. This thread involves the oldest characters in the story, and could have been used to drive home the theme from an older perspective (rather than the entire story revolve around teenagers). Problem is, this subplot is far too underdeveloped, and really doesn’t play a huge part in the script. It feels like wasted potential.

Finally, I wanted to mention the stakes. What happens if Brandy fails to achieve her goal? Nothing, really. She returns to the status quo, no worse than when the story began, and life goes on. She doesn’t lose her friends. She doesn’t die. Nothing happens.

Granted, many coming-of-age stories don’t have an incredible amount at stake – or I should say, most of the stakes are internal. But problem was, I never FELT Brandy’s internal desire. I mean, it’s there, but did I really FEEL it? No.

Take one of my favorite coming-of-age scripts, Almost Famous. If William fails to get his story and write his article, does he really lose much? Nah. Yeah he won’t get paid, but most of what he has to lose is internal. Thing is, I really FELT how much he wanted and needed to succeed at his goal. I really felt like this was important to him. With The Hand-Job, I didn’t.

So the answer to whether this script works or not is – yes and no. While there are problems, I always ask myself after reading every script – was it entertaining? It’s an autonomic response. And with The Hand-Job, I was definitely entertained. Not amazingly entertained, but it did hold my attention, partly because Ms. Carey has a fluid, visual writing style, and partly because she does create an interesting character in Brandy.

In the end, I’m teetering between “not for me” and “worth the read.” But because it held my attention – a feat that hundreds of other scripts have failed to achieve – I’m going to give it a “worth the read.”

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

What I learned: Get to the point as early as possible. Many of the scenes here do a good job of getting in late and leaving early, but the first act could have used a quicker pace to get us to the point (the conflict). If you don’t do this soon enough, you could lose the reader, even if your second and third acts are amazing.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Screenplay Review - Run All Night

A fellow screenwriter who burst out of nowhere with a 750k sale returns with his newest spec, which sold last month.

Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Premise: A washed up hitman is pulled back into the game when his estranged son accidentally gets tangled up in a bad situation with his former employer.
About: Brad Ingelsby jumped onto the scene when he sold The Low Dweller a few years ago. The 750,000 dollar spec sale was spearheaded by getting Leonardo DiCpario attached. This is his new spec, which he just sold last month.
Writer: Brad Ingelsby
Details: 107 pages – 1/3/12 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).

Collin Farrell for Mike?

What better word-lover to follow Tyler than ANOTHER word aficionado, Brad Ingelsby! With these two on the Hollywood Scrabble board, it’s like a word-topia. It’s like a word-a-palooza. I have a feeling if it was just me, Tyler, and Brad at a bar, I would quickly be nudged out of the conversation. They’d be like, “Carson, could you parsimoniously pass me my drink?” And I’d counter with one of six four-syllable words I know – something like “affirmative” – and that would be it. I’d be out.

Anyway, this is Ingelsby’s second big script. I may not have been The Low Dweller’s biggest cheerleader, but hey, you know me. It’s hard for a slow-paced script to pull me in. Maybe that same thought nudged into Ingelsby’s noggin, because he did title this one, “Run All Night.” Promises of something faster paced? Read on to find out.

Jimmy Conlon is a hitman in Philadelphia. To give you an idea of what Philadelphia's like – they boo Santa Clause there. No, I’m not kidding. Santa Clause showed up to an Eagles game once and they booed him. So the kind of people who live in this city? Not the huggable types. Important to know for later.

Anyway, Jimmy’s finally hung up the gun (do you hang up a gun) and spends his days in cushion land getting wasted all day. While I understand this is the de facto writing method for 30% of the screenwriters out there and can be really fun when combined with the internet, it definitely doesn’t suit our friend Jimmy. Clearly, he’s wasting away.

So Jimmy’s got a son, Mike, who he hasn’t stayed in touch with. Mike drives a limo. Has a family. Lives a clean life. He’s basically the opposite of his father.

That’s about to change, however. Mike is unknowingly tasked with bringing a couple of low-lives to a guy named Colin McGuire’s place, who’s also a low-life, but with lots more money and guns. And when these guys ask for their payment, Colin gives them a bullet sandwich instead (yes, I just used “bullet sandwich” in a sentence. Roll with me here. I’m still upset about being kicked out of Tyler and Brad’s conversation).

Once Colin realizes these guys came in a limo, well naturally he has to kill the limo driver too. Which is exactly what he tries to do. But Mike narrowly escapes. This leaves Colin with a problem. A virtual eye-witness to his murders. Now here’s where things get interesting. Jimmy, Mike’s father, used to work for Shawn McGuire – as in COLIN’S FATHER. That’s who he used to kill people for.

So now Mike has no choice but to go to his father and ask him what the hell he should do. Jimmy, back in business mode, says he’s going to try and take care of this diplomatically. So he calls his old boss, explaining that it’s all good – that his son isn’t going to say anything. But while this is happening, the loose-cannon Colin sneaks in to kill Mike. When Jimmy realizes what’s going on, he runs into the room, just as Colin is about to pull the trigger, and shoots him dead.

Jimmy then tells Shawn what happened – that he just killed his son. Shawn agrees that he did the right thing. If he were in his position, he would’ve pulled the trigger too. But he follows this with a really chilling sentence: You know how this has to end, right? Jimmy knows. So he grabs his son, and the two have to “run all night,” and not just from Shawn, but from everyone in the town that Shawn owns, which is everyone, including the cops. Will they make it out alive?

Run All Night starts with a very un-reader friendly gaggle of Irish names. Everybody’s named Shawn or Frank or Collin or Conlon or Maguire or Dorsey. My guess is Brad doesn’t read a lot of scripts or else he’d know how difficult it is for a reader to keep track of that kind of character spread. If I’m looking at a large character count, I’m using everything in my arsenal to make those names individual and memorable. I’ll use nicknames, unusual names, monikers (Fat Bill). I’ll push unimportant character intros to later so they don’t get lost in the slog. But it really gets hard if all the names are one nationality like this. I was checking my notes every 30 seconds to keep track of who was who.

But after that…Run All Night gets good. Really good in fact. I got goosebumps after Jimmy kills Colin, makes the call to Shawn to tell him he just killed his kid, and Shawn, somewhat understanding, replies, “You know how this has to end.” That was my official "sit up" moment (Whenever I sit up, it means a script's got me).

Brad also makes the wise decision – WHICH I ALWAYS TELL YOU GUYS TO DO – to create an unresolved relationship between Mike and Jimmy. Once you have an unresolved relationship, the audience emotionally invests themselves in the journey until it’s resolved. So it’s one more way to pull the audience in besides the cool plot of running from the bad guys. Was the relationship here a little too familiar at times? Yeah, probably. But Inglesby added just enough of his own spin to make me believe these two were real people with real issues.

And, you know, I always like when a writer throws in the wild card character. I remember how this very device SAVED a script that I would have otherwise forgotten. We also saw it work for Everly. Here, it’s Andrew Price, a trained killer who looks like he never outgrew his high school mathlete days. Shawn hires him to dispose of his son’s killers and boy does he pull out every trick in the book to do so. I don’t know what it is but there’s something about the wild card character that just shakes shit up. You don’t feel like you have as good of a beat on what’s going on. They create uncertainty and unpredictability and I love that.

Scriptshadow vets (not to exclude the Disciple newbies) may have also noted a key Scriptshadow truism– our character’s goal. Remember, if you just have the characters on the run the whole time, it’s probably going to get boring. Your characters need a purpose! They need somewhere to go! So Ingelsby uses the kid who witnessed the murder as the character goal. They need to find that kid so they can prove that Colin, did indeed, kill those men.

Did I love this goal? No, I didn’t “love” it. I kept flashing forward to the court room with Shawn using one of the best lawyers money can buy to discredit the shit out of this boy. So I think something stronger could be used. But the point is that there’s a goal in the first place. Beginner writers wouldn’t even use a goal in this scenario so the characters would just be running around aimlessly with the audience asking, “What’s the point of all this again? Where are they going?”

But I was definitely entertained bythis one. It feels like Ingelsby is growing as a writer. Let’s hope that continues cause he’s frighteningly talented.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: You never want your characters wandering around aimlessly for too long in these “on the run” movies. They can be running from someone. But within 2-3 scenes, you want to give them a plan, something to do – because wandering around aimlessly gets repetitive. For that reason, always be asking yourself, “What can my characters be *after*? What can they *need to do* right now?” The sooner they have a plan in place, the sooner your script gains that essential focus that all good screenplays have.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Coming Soon :)

Screenwriting Article - Recognize The Dramatize

Hollywood Reader reading a non-dramatized script.

I can’t take it any longer. I can’t take reading all these scenes that are so…….BAD! Scenes that just sit there. Scenes where nothing happens. Scenes where characters babble. Scenes that only dole out exposition. Scenes without conflict. Scenes without DRAMA!

Ah-ha! There’s the root of our problem! No drama. No baby mama drama. And what do scenes without drama result in?…Does anybody remember? That’s right! Scenes of death. The worst possible scene you can write in a screenplay. These are scenes with no dramatic or entertainment value whatsoever. I don’t care if your characters are talking about the origins of the universe. If it isn’t dramatized, we’re bored.

Confused? Do you still not know what “dramatizing a scene” means? Don’t worry. Actually, DO WORRY. Because if you don’t figure this out, you will never learn how to write an entertaining screenplay. You’ll be able to write people talking to each other. You’ll be able to write exposition. You’ll be able to move the plot from point A to point B to point C. But you won’t write anything that entertains an audience. So let’s make sure that’s never the case.

“Dramatizing a scene” means finding a dramatic component – usually fueled by conflict - to center a scene around. For example. 2 people talking about their day is a boring scene. 2 people talking about their day when one of them has a secret lover hiding in the closet is a dramatized scene.

An easy way to assess whether a scene is dramatized or not is to imagine the rest of your movie stripped away. All you have is this one scene. Would that scene entertain a reader? Context, of course, is essential to any good scene. So that always needs to be factored in. But in general, is your scene entertaining in its own right? If not, chances are you haven’t dramatized it. Because that’s what dramatizing a scene does – it makes the scene work on its own.

In order to help you understand the practice better, I’ve decided to lay out three screenplays I’ve been working on in my free time. In each of them, I will show you what a non-dramatized scene looks like, and then the thought process and approach that goes into dramatizing it. Now I’m trusting you guys to not steal my ideas here. These are three of the best ideas I’ve ever had so please keep them to yourselves. Let’s start with the first one, my martial arts fighting epic…The Weigh-In.


PREMISE: A martial arts fighter named RIGBY BONAPARTE is near the end of his career when he gets a surprise shot at the mixed-martial arts championship of the world.

SETUP: Rigby is getting by on ramen noodles and Wonder Bread, fighting a bunch of nobodies on Friday night undercards. At this point in the movie, he hasn’t yet been offered the title shot.

THE SCENE: Rigby heads over to his gym to get some of his angst out. As he battles away on the punching bag, he watches a couple of hot young fighters spar in the ring. The entire gym watches them in awe. It’s clear that Rigby feels old, left out, forgotten. He gives the bag one last PUNCH and stomps out, pissed about life.

VERDICT: This may SEEM like a decent scene. We’re showing instead of telling. That’s good, right? It does get across some information about the character (that he’s over the hill and frustrated) but we kind of already knew that. I mean, where’s the drama here? The guy is punching a punching bag, watching people. That’s not a scene.

Time to take The Way(eigh)-In through the Scriptshadow Dramatizer!!!

DRAMATIZED SCENE: Clearly, this scene needs more conflict. I have an idea. What if Rigby went into the locker room to change, only to find out that…his locker’s been given to someone else! Now we have some conflict (our hero is confused/angry) – somewhere to start our scene. Already, the scene’s looking better.

The situation also forces our character to be ACTIVE. He has to find out what happened. Why did someone change his locker? So let’s send him to the owner’s office and have him go off on the guy. That’s drama, right? Well, sort of. But I feel like we can do better. I mean, how dramatic is a private argument in a back office? Let’s put the argument right in the middle of the gym! Yeahhhh! Now the whole gym can stop and watch them go at it! Ooh, I’m liking this.

We’ll even have the owner, some crotchety old trainer named MACK, ignore Rigby when he approaches, focusing instead on these young buck fighters we had in our previous pointless scene. And to really maximize the drama, let’s make Mack hate Rigby. Let’s make him think Rigby is the biggest bum in the world, a real waste of space. Now, when Rigby finally reaches Mack and demands to know what happened to his locker, we have ourselves a bona fide dramatized scene.

SUMMARY: (Real movie – Rocky) I don’t know about you but I like this scene waaaaay better than the one where he’s banging on a speed ball looking upset. And all it took was a little dramatizing!


PREMISE: A young strapping lad named Carribou Willoughby has managed to stow away on a passenger boat headed to America. It is on this boat that he falls for a beautiful out-of-his-league young lady named Jezzebel Gonzalez.

SETUP: So far, Carribou has only been able to marvel at Jezzebel from afar. She’s always flanked by a first-class entourage. He wonders if he’ll ever get a chance to speak with her before they reach America.

THE SCENE: One night out on the back of the boat, Carribou is laying down, chewing on some hey, when he notices – gasp – Jezzebel! She’s at the railing, staring at the stars, all by herself! This may be his only chance to talk to her. So he approaches, sidling up to her. “A wonderful night, isn’t it?” She turns, startled. But when she sees the handsome young man in front of her, she smiles. “It is.” Silence passes. The two look up at the stars. “You know what my father used to stay about the stars,” Carribou offers. “No. Tell me,” she replies. “He used to say that every star was one of the sun’s children. And that one day, they would all come back to rejoin him and when they did, there would never be darkness again.” She turns to him, offers her hand. “I’m Jezzebel.” He takes her hand up to his mouth, kisses it. “They call me Carribou.”

VERDICT: WORRRRRRRRRST SCEEEEEEEEEENE EVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVER!!! No conflict. On the nose dialogue. Cheesy lines. Ugh. Awful.

Let’s push this puppy into the SCRIPTSHADOW DRAMATIZER shall we?

DRAMATIZED SCENE: Okay, first of all, a person standing at the back of a boat looking up at the stars is the equivalent of placing your reader in a 4x4 foot concrete coffin. That’s how boring it is. So, how can we spice this up? First of all, let’s change Jezzebel’s situation. Let’s say she’s engaged to a man she despises. Yes! That’s good. And he makes her feel trapped. To the point where she’s considering suicide. Ooooh. Okay, now we’re on to something.

Jezzebel isn’t going to the back of the boat to look at stars. No. She’s going to the back of the boat to jump off! Now, instead of Carribou simply having to start a conversation with Jezzebel, he has to save her life!

But let’s amp up the conflict even more. She’s dead set on jumping. Nothing’s going to change her mind. So Carribou has to come up with a clever way to stop her. “The freezing water!” he thinks. That’ll be his angle. He can use that to scare her. And you know what? It’s working, to the point where she lets him approach, even take her hand to help her back over.

But that’s too easy. This is called the “Scriptshadow Dramatizer,” not the “Scriptshadow Sort-of-make-things-more-interestinger.” So what if she slipped! Yes, an obstacle (DRAMA!)! Now he LITERALLY has to save her. Using all his strength, he yanks Jezzebel up over the railing and to safety. Phew, she’s okay!

SUMMARY: Obviously, this is a scene from Titanic. You’re aware of the finished product. But what you didn’t know is that the “the sun and the stars” scene I mentioned earlier could’ve made the final cut had Titanic been in the hands of an amateur. Believe me. I’ve read tons of “Sun and The Stars” scenes in my life! Too many!


PREMISE: Chubbs Henry is an idealistic middle-aged literary agent at WMA who wants to change the business. He’s tired of the agency selling these crappy POS screenplays to the studios and wants them to make a stand. So he sends an e-mail out to everyone saying they need to get behind good material and good material only, even if it means selling less product.

THE SETUP: While Chubbs’ idealistic approach goes over well at first, a week later his boss calls him in and fires him. Sorry Chubbs. That’s not how this industry works. We sell crap because we make a lot of money off crap.

THE SCENE: Okay, so Chubbs just lost his job. What is he going to do? Well obviously he’s miserable, depressed. But he’s got to think of the future! So on the way to his car, he starts calling all of his writers, seeing if they’ll stay with him. The first eight say no but his big moneymaker, his top writer, says yes! Hooray. Chubbs is still in the game.


Let’s take this puppy through the Scriptshadow Dramatizer…

DRAMATIZED SCENE: First of all, the method of firing (boss calling him in) is too standard. Let’s try something different. Why not make it so his rival (Ted Sweets) gets to fire him? YEAH. Now this firing has some meat behind it, some angst. This should piss our hero off (pissing off heroes is good – creates conflict).

Next, him calling his clients on the way to his car is boring. Let’s make him have to do it at the office. Now he has to walk through an entire company that knows he just got fired. How embarrassing. But talk about conflict! Already this scene is way better.

And you know what? Why take Sweets out of the picture? When you have a great nemesis/villain, you want to use him as much as possible. Hey, I know! What if Sweets immediately starts calling all of Chubbs’ clients, trying to poach them before Chubbs can call them himself?? Okay, now we have some URGENCY to the scene. Chubbs has to move fast or risk losing his writers to Sweets. We could turn it into a sort of “phone-battle,” with both of them speed-dialing numbers as fast as they can.

That’s a good scene but you know what? We could dramatize it EVEN MORE. What if, in a previous scene, Chubbs’ promised one of his lower-level writers more personal attention? Like SWORE TO HIM that he’d give him more personal time? Yeah, and let’s say that that writer (we’ll call him Joe Estzeras Jr.) calls him RIGHT IN THE MIDST of this phone battle, demanding that personal time come RIGHT NOW. Okay, now we have a real obstacle. He can’t call people if he’s stuck talking to Estzeras Jr. Friends? We have ourselves a real scene!

SUMMARY: Obviously, this is the famous scene from Jerry Maguire. But did you see how it looked before it got dramatized? Talk about boring. And yet I read DOZENS of those scenes every single day. Which goes to show just how important dramatizing a scene is!

Hopefully these examples have given you an idea of how to dramatize a scene. And while it may seem daunting at first, figuring out how to dramatize a scene actually becomes really fun! It’s like a puzzle where you’re constantly asking yourself, “What elements can I add to this scene to make it more dramatic?” Just remember, not all scenes have to be over the top dramatized. Just like any aspect of screenwriting, the level of dramatization will depend on the genre, the scene, the tone, the situation and dozens of other smaller factors. Sometimes you need to throw a big heavy dose of dramatization onto a scene (like the Jerry Maguire example) but other times it might be something simple – like a wife who’s upset with her husband but won’t tell him why. What you don’t want to is a write a scene without a single dramatic element to it. I cannot stress how often I read that type of scene though. So I’m telling you guys. START DRAMATIZING YOUR SCENES. Recognize how to dramatize.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Screenplay Review - Selfess

Another Black List sci-fi thriller makes it way to Scriptshadow. But how does the screenplay hold up to other recent sci-fi thrillers on the site?

Genre: Sci-Fi
Premise: (from Black List) An extremely wealthy elderly man dying from cancer undergoes a radical medical procedure that transfers his consciousness to the body of a healthy young man but everything may not be as good as it seems when he starts to uncover the mystery of the body’s origins and the secret organization that will kill to keep its secrets.
About: Writer-director brothers Alex and David Pastor are best known for writing and directing the 2009 film, Carriers, about a group of friends fleeing a pandemic. The film starred Chris Pine and Emily VanCamp. Before that, the brothers made tons of shorts (the new way to break into Hollywood – Go make some shorts people!). This most recent script, which I'm assuming they're on board to direct as well, finished in the bottom quarter of 2011’s Black List, with six votes.
Writers: Alex and David Pastor
Details: 118 pages – June 27th 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).

Selfless looks like a job for Shia!

Selfless is eerily reminiscent of another 2011 Black List script I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, Flashback. Not in plot. But in tone, the way it’s written and overall feel. These scripts could easily be considered kissing cousins. But while it’s always fun to kiss your cousin, the reality is, that’s as far as it can go. There’s no way you can be in a relationship with your cousin. Which leaves you with a sorta nice, if ultimately confused, memory, and nothing more. That pretty much sums up my experience with Selfless.

Selfless follows Damian Hayes, a rich old codger who owns a huge company worth Facebook money. But Damien’s currently learning one of life’s harshest lessons. That there’s one thing money can’t buy. And no, I’m not talking about love. Damien is dying of cancer. He only has a few months left to live.

At least, that's what he believes at first. It turns out there's a super secretive – albeit shady – company that snatches up healthy young individuals, wipes them of their memory, then maps the brain scan of their ready-to-die clients onto their brain, turning our senior citizens back into the junior variety.

Not wanting to kick it just yet, Damien gives Shady Incorporated every penny in his Swiss bank account, and to his surprise, it goes well. He’s got this young hot bod to run around in. He can exercise as long as he wants to (I’d debate whether this is a good thing or not). Ladies look at him again. He doesn’t have to expense adult diapers anymore. The only downside seems to be not getting the senior discount at the local AMC anymore.

However, every once in awhile, Damien gets these little memory glitches. It’s like for a brief moment he’s…..well he’s in someone else’s body, experiencing someone else’s life.

It takes Damien a lot longer than us to realize that the person who used to own this body is still a part of him. But things really get turned around when a woman named Madeleine bumps into him and starts freaking out. He eventually comes to realize that this is his “wife,” and she thinks Damien is her husband.

After some eat-pray-love-like soul-searching, Damien starts to wonder if what he did was kosher. So he goes back to Madeleine, pretending to be her husband, and starts investigating who the man in his body used to be. The more he investigates, the more guilty he feels. And to make matters worse, “The Company” learns what he’s up to and comes after him. They expect their Switcheroo App to be quite popular in the coming years and don’t want Damien screwing up their star rating. So Damien must figure out a way to…well, I'm not sure to be honest. I think expose the company? Or just find out more about his body? It’s not 100% clear. But what I do know is that in the end, Damien’s probably going to learn to be a lot more SELFLESS.

Much like Flashback (aka Source Code 2), Selfless was an easy breezy little sci-fi thriller that practically read itself. I exerted so little effort in ingesting this that it almost felt like cheating. And yet, that’s sort of my problem with it. I’m not sure there’s enough story here. I’m not sure there’s enough going on.

You know what it feels like? It feels like the logline is a beat sheet for the entire movie. I mean if you read the logline I wrote above, you read every major plot point in the script. There were no surprises here, no big twists or turns. You got EXACTLY what you paid for. I’m reminded of my friend Jim Mercurio’s term, “story density.” There was no story density here. Then again, I felt the exact same way about The Adjustment Bureau, one of the thinnest scripts I read in 2010, yet people seemed to like that movie. So maybe I’m asking for too much?

The way I see it, there are two phases when you write a script. The first phase is getting the story down on paper. You’ll go with a lot of “first choices” in this phase, even if they’re generic, just so you can get the script out.

After you’re done with that, you move to the second – and way more important – phase. Populating that story. You start to add detail, you explore the relationships between characters, you add unexpected twists and surprises. This is really the phase where your script becomes a movie.

And I feel like Selfless never got to that phase. At least not with this draft. I always go back to what Ben Ripley told me about Source Code - how the movie started off as a Blake Snyder beat sheet. There's a train wreck. Some mysterious guys show up. They bring in a new technology that allows them to go back in time. Our hero’s then zapped back onto the train before it crashes. And his job is to find out what happened. That version, he said, was fine. But it just didn't have any punch.

Once he got to Phase 2, he really started challenging the direction of the script, and that’s when he came up with the idea to place the character on the train from the very first frame. The script felt fresher, denser, more populated, more detailed. And that came directly from the Phase 2 process. Selfless could benefit a lot from the same approach.

Outside of that, I don't have much to say about Selfless. It's a solid treatment of a neat idea. I just feel it has the potential to be so much more.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I want you to take a look at the opening scene to Selfless, which on the surface seems like just another “Table Scene.” In it, a young man approaches two older men (one of them Damien, our protagonist) about a deal he just closed. I always tell you: Don't write Table Scenes (lunch/dinner scenes heavy on dialogue). And definitely don’t start your movie with one! But the difference here is that the writers immediately inject conflict and suspense into the scene. A young man walks up to two older men, flush with excitement over beating them out on a 200 million dollar contract. But as the other men begin to congratulate him, we sense that they know something he doesn’t. Suspense and mystery slip their way into the scene. We’re wondering: “What do they know?” Over the course of the next few minutes, they drop a few more clues and we learn our character did not, in fact, close the deal, like he believes. Not only that, but there’s a good chance his entire career is about to be flushed down the toilet. It’s a slow-building scene with lots of conflict and plenty of suspense, and it’s quite good! So the lesson here is that while you SHOULD avoid Table Scenes, if you can inject enough conflict, mystery, and suspense into them, you should be okay.

Moratorium: From this point forward, I’m retiring all protagonist peanut allergies in screenplays. We've had too many of them. You can no longer give your hero a peanut allergy, Skippy.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Counselor (The Return Of Roger!!!)

An old friend drops by Scriptshadow to review a screenplay from one of the biggest writers in the world, Cormac McCarthy!

Carson here.  Lots of interest in today's script.  I was going to review it but I know next to nothing about Cormac McCarthy.  I knew if I was going to do this right, I would have to find the greatest living Cormac McCarthy fan in the world, a man who used to grace Scriptshadow with his presence on a weekly basis. But how to find him?  Last I'd heard, Roger Balfour had conned his way onto the set of The Hangover 2 as an extra.  Not sure if he made the cut.  Well, after exhausting my entire Rolodex, I finally found him, dehydrated and half-comatose in a South American dog breeding clinic. When I asked him to review Cormac McCarthy's first screenplay he replied, "Where are my pants?"  That was good enough for me.  -- Now I've been hearing all sorts of things about this script.  Some have called it unreadable (literally! - Cormac invents his own screenplay format!).  Some have called it genius.  And the people who call it unreadable can't fathom how anyone could like this script.  They think the lovers are reading it through Cormac-tinted glasses.  Anyway, I've been too afraid to open it.  I'll let Roger take care of that.  Oh, and just a reminder.  The Disciple Program debuts in three days!!!!!!

Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Premise: A respectable lawyer gets in over his head after becoming involved in the illegal drug business.
About: Deadline Hollywood described this script as “No Country for Old Men on steroids”. McCarthy was at work on three different novels when he turned this screenplay into his agent. Ridley Scott soon attached himself to the project as director, with his Prometheus star Michael Fassbender in mind to play the lead. Interestingly, there are also two female roles up for grabs “who intrude to play leading roles”.
Writer: Cormac McCarthy
Details: PDF created on January 20, 2012

Now this is what a writer looks like!

This script made me want to commit suicide. It was so bleak, it made me want to overdose on heroin while skydiving into an avalanche of naked women.

Whoa. Rewind. Roger, where have you been the past year and a half?

Brian K. Vaughan says that the ages between 22 and 27 are important years in a male’s life. The things that happen during that timeframe shape and guide the transformation of a boy into a man. I spent the past year and a half becoming a man.

My journey started in the Philippines, where I worked in the anime industry as a Foley Artist. It was here that I learned someone has to create the sound fx for a tentacle violating an orifice. That someone was me. Sometimes I would do nothing but stand on a soundstage and plunge my hand in and out of a peanut bar jar for fourteen hours straight. I grew a beard and air-licked microphones, the resultant sound was used in children’s cartoons in Australia. But life couldn’t be squishy and honey-roasted forever. 

You can only hide from your destiny for so long before it comes looking for you. And if your destiny is writing, then your destiny kicks you in the teeth, yanks you out of your cushy Foley Artist gig and turns you into a creature of dreaming and longing. 

I spent a lot of time writing poems about He-Man while sitting alone in hotel rooms eating Ritz crackers. I snorted chamomile tea and cat nip through rolled-up Bukowski poems and called it the hipster speedball. The hipster speedball helped me write and publish an Animorphs novel that was about a boy who grows an owl’s beak that was really a Bildungsroman about first boners. I posed for my author photo in front of a shelf full of Star Trek novels and was called gorgeous. I wanted to write a sequel but couldn’t. I got fingered by the ghost of Hal Ashby and for a week all my dreams were like Wes Anderson movies yet to be made. I watched the first season of Downton Abbey in one sitting with a 20-year old girl who thought she was the fifth Pevensie sibling. We held hands the whole time and shared an Edwardian world together but afterwards we never saw each other again. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, I made my own Wilson out of a prenatal body pillow and dealt with my sadness by straddling Wilson and making Wilson watch me punish my Sailor Moon bedsheets. I read fantasy novels and ate confectionaries and did p90X. I became better, stronger, faster and wondered how Tron Legacy got made and if Oblivion would be better. I wondered why they never did a storyline on The Gilmore Girls where a guy dates both the mom and the daughter at the same time. I decided to amend this oversight and wrote the teleplay on spec with me as the guy and when I presented it to Amy Sherman-Palladino she politely informed me the show had been cancelled and she consoled me as I wept into a burrito by saying, “There there, young Balfour. There there. You wrote a Gilmore Girls script. You are a true man, now.” 

Sorry we asked. So, you read Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor?

Twice. The first time because I’m a legitimate Southern-fried McCarthy scholar and the second time because I only vaguely understood it the first time. Have you ever tried to watch a movie and halfway through, think, “Man, I don’t think I understand the plot but I’m pretty excited by all the violence”? I did that a couple weeks ago when I saw Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. Sometimes when I see art films, I think, “Man, this is pretty unconventional but I also feel sad and I kind of want to stick my head in an oven like Sylvia Plath.” I did that a couple of weeks ago when I saw Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. The Counselor kind of combines both of those ambivalent sensations and does so with Faulkner-in-Sanctuary-mode panache. 

You ever receive a screenplay and open it up and think, “What the fuck is this? A play?” Because I did that, too. As someone who works as a screenwriter, as someone who took many years to adapt to the industry’s formatting and conventions, my first instinct was to scream, “Fuck this guy! How dare he invent his own screenwriting format! Who the fuck does this guy think he is?!”

Oh, it’s Cormac McCarthy. He won the Guggenheim Fellowship, also known as The Genius Award. In addition, not only has he won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN Award, but he also won Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Road. With those kind of laurels, you can kind of do whatever you want. 

Still, this raises the question, in the world of screenplays, do we still hold such an author to the same standards as everyone else? When it comes to story and character, yes. But, when it comes to formatting and breaking rules, you’re just gonna have to leave your specialized mindset at the door. There’s an excellent article on creativity in Psychology Today that says, “The more expert and specialized a person becomes, the more their mindset becomes narrowed and the more fixated they become on conforming what they believe to be absolute. Consequently, when confronted with new and different ideas, their focus will be on conformity. Does it conform with what I know is right? If not, experts will spend all their time showing and explaining why it can’t be done and why it can’t work.”

I’m not here to do that. Look, even in the world of novels, McCarthy has always gone against the grain. The man doesn’t like semicolons and uses commas sparingly, so the glue holding all the sentences together are contractions. He never uses quotation marks either. Why should we expect anything different in one of his scripts? He doesn’t see the need for slugs. Diagramming some of his sentences in the AD lines is like a choose-your-own-adventure story. He still writes on an Olivetti typewriter. These pages were probably collected in a shoebox and then quickly retyped by an assistant into MS Word. 

It’s kind of like having a not-playfully racist grandfather who is set in his ways. Sure, you can try to tell him that the word “negress” is not considered proper lexicon in polite society, but what’s the point? He’s just gonna keep on truckin’ till his number’s up. (Double Cliché). 

So, what’s the story about, Rog?

Think Body Heat or the Edgerton’s The Square but set against the backdrop of the border world McCarthy explores so well in his Border Trilogy and novel, Blood Meridian. If these stories exist in a Venn diagram, they take place inside the circle where the not so insulated worlds of Mexico and the United States collide. This territory is a no man’s land where characters from the so-called civilized world experience great violence and brutality, where destiny has its own gravitational pull and the best at surviving the territory are those who are so damaged they’ve transcended polite society’s moral code. It is a place heroism is not rewarded. It’s punished. If you don’t believe me, look at the ending to No Country for Old Men. In the face of evil, only other predators have a chance at surviving.

So, it’s no surprise that McCarthy chooses to tell a cautionary tale set against the drug war violence that is taking place in Mexico right now. In Mexico, murder has become a national pastime. It is a collective enterprise. And, it is spilling over into our border towns. 

Who are the characters?

This is the tale of the Counselor, a man, who when we first meet him, is in bed with the love of his life, Laura. We see him in Amsterdam, in a jeweler’s shop, procuring the perfect diamond for his bride to be. We’re treated to a philosophical and prophetic lesson from the Dealer. He tells the Counselor the Jewish civilization is the only true civilization, and that any country that has driven the Jews out has never been the same. He waxes a McCarthy monologue about the one true God, who is immovable, and tells us that stones are the true witnesses since they’ve been around since the beginning. When the Counselor picks out his diamond for Laura, the Dealer says, “This is a cautionary stone. You will see.”

Intercut this with the intriguing couple of Reiner and Malkina, who are in the Southwest desert hunting with their pet cheetahs. Yes, this couple, who seem like some kind of S&M Hemingway power-duo, own cheetahs. More specifically, they are Malkina’s cheetahs, and Malkina is the one we ought to be paying attention to. A native of Buenos Aires, we notice the Egyptian cat tattooed on her brown skin. She’s sexy, possessing a Moriarty-like intelligence so cunning even her beau, Reiner, is terrified of her. Another important note about Malkina is that she knows her way around technology, around computers. She might also be quite mad. Perhaps we’re supposed to think she makes Lisbeth Salander seem like a Disney princess in comparison.

The third strand in this tapestry is a septic tank truck that is making its way from Mexico to the United States, which we can assume is loaded up with about twenty million dollars worth of Colombia’s finest. All these elements we are introduced to as the opening credits are playing. 

What’s the caper, Rog?

Much like the protagonists in Body Heat and The Square, the Counselor is motivated by his love and lust for a woman. Because of her, he wants to get rich quick. He decides to go all in concerning a business venture with Reiner, who has learned never to speak in arraignable phrases. Reiner is filthy rich because his demeanor and surroundings and the gifts he provides for Malkina tell us so. And it’s easy to see that Reiner’s source of wealth comes from mines that aren’t always legal. 

The idea is to get into the drug business unnoticed while all the cartels are busy killing each other. That septic tank truck from earlier? It’s carrying 625 kilos of cocaine from Mexico to Chicago and will sell for two grand an ounce on the street, meaning this is a twenty-million dollar payload for all involved. The Counselor asks, “If the drug wars stop this will dry up, right? “Yeah. Bad times are good times for guys like us.”

But, what happens if the cartels find out about this new start-up company? The answer to that question, as we learn in the second half of the script, is very bad things. The characters tell us that three thousand people were killed in Juarez alone last year. We learn something about the nature of the men in these cartels. Before the drug wars, thousands of young and attractive factory workers were being kidnapped and sexually mutilated. The maquila girls, they were called. 

The money trail led to the men in the cartels. “So much cash you’re using it to insulate your own house and you’re morally depraved out of all human recognition, what will you spend your money on?” The answer to that, is snuff films, and we learn that we’re probably not separated more than two degrees by someone who has seen a snuff film. 

When it comes to men who have kidnappers on full retainer, even the smallest little detail becomes life or death for the Counselor and everyone he knows. There’s a lot of talk about the dangers of dabbling into this trade, and in fact, most of the scenes in the script are characters warning the Counselor. One of the characters even quotes Blood Meridian at one point, “Yet even the smallest crumb can devour us.”

So, what’s the crumb that devours everyone, Rog?

There’s a drug runner, a character named Young Man, who is to rendevouz with the septic tank truck and presumably drive it to Chicago. Except, you know, he never makes it to the truck. 

There’s another problem. Not only does the Counselor have to worry about what may become of the drug runner, there are complications with the money people. He has to get money into Mexico and get it back out again. In order to do this, one has to filter the money through a corporation, which means there has to be a money person on the inside handling all of the bank transactions, “The biggest issue is that your guy is not going to fall in love with a pole dancer and go south with three million of your ducats. The biggest issue is that someone is going to find out who he is and what he’s up to.”

In one of the more creative ways of killing a drug runner I think I’ve ever heard about or seen, we learn that there are other parties looking to intercept this shipment of drugs and ruin everything for the Counselor. To complicate matters, the Counselor is linked to the drug runner in a way that is most unfortunate and may redefine dramatic irony. 

It’s interesting to note that the main story involves all of the men in the script, and it dovetails with character revelations concerning Malkina, as shown by her scenes with Laura (she has an ominous dream about Malkina; pay attention to the scene at the confessional) and the stories Reiner tells about her. Although Reiner, being a criminal, is concerned about the cartel men, he is genuinely frightened of his own girlfriend. His views on women could probably be called misogynistic, and it’s the type of misogyny only a man who has been twice divorced can really relish. 

Of course, everything goes wrong for our guys and the most exciting part of the script is seeing how that all unfolds. I’m not exaggerating when shit hits the fan and a line forms to kill the Counselor. My favorite part was seeing how one specific character reacts to all this misfortune and how they enact revenge on some of the parties responsible. 

What do you think attracted Ridley Scott to this script?

Ridley Scott has been trying to adapt Cormac’s novel, Blood Meridian, for a long time now. There’s even a draft floating around penned by William Monahan, but even Scott can be quoted as saying that adapting McCarthy is a difficult gambit because the work is so prosaic, and much of the power comes from the violent beauty of his language. The sentences weave a spell, and I think the closest we get to that in The Counselor are the strange monologues that hint at some darker premonition. 

Take for example a tale by Reiner about his girlfriend, the mysterious Malkina. She’s a lover of fast things. Not only does she own two cheetahs, her club is decorated with actual racing cars. Reiner is scared of Malkina, and he tells the Counselor a true story about how she fucked one of his cars. Here’s his description of her bumping her ugly against the windshield, “It was like one of those catfish things. One of those bottom feeders you see going up the side of the aquarium. Sucking its way up the glass...hallucinatory...You see a thing like that, it changes you.” 

Or, it reminds you of a face hugger sucking at the glass of a specimen jar in Alien, and you can’t help but think McCarthy was trying to seduce Ridley Scott as he wrote this fucking thing. 

So, what’s the verdict, Rog?

I think McCarthy fans, who relish the poetry, tone and cadence of his language, and appreciate his stylized and precise dialogue, will love the movie. And, I’m mainly talking about those who are fans of his play The Sunset Limited or the film version of No Country for Old Men. Because The Counselor has a lot of dialogue, and a lot of the scenes feel play-like in the same way that Tarantino conversations feel play-like. I think it hearkens back to older movies, where there are more scenes of simply people sitting in diners or at tables and desks, talking. 

It’s a challenging piece of art, thought-provoking, no doubt, but I also think it may just be this strange and alienating movie to people who aren’t already fans of McCarthy. It feels exhausting and was certainly a punch to the gut. 

If you subscribe to the Chris Columbus philosophy, the one that says, “I can understand the validity of showing people the ugliness of the world, but I also think there is a place for movies to leave people with a sense of hope. If your film isn’t going to do that, I just don’t think it’s worth making,” then you may be turned off by this work. Cormac writes about life and death, and the concept of hope is often a foreign one in his tales, more the subject of philosophical debate between characters.

My interpretation, after having a chance to let this thing settle for a few days, is that Cormac is making a point. Violence overtook Mexico because so many people closed their eyes to it. If America continues to close our eyes and ignore the drug war violence, it will only be a matter of time before it overtakes us, too. 

On another level, according to the finale, I saw The Counselor as a woman’s revenge story, a femme fatale fuck-you to all the violence done against women in Juarez, Mexico. The Counselor is kind of like the Cormac McCarthy version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. 

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Rewarding VS Punishing the Protagonist. Usually, in movies where the hero is being an actual hero, you know, making the right kind of decisions, doing heroic things like be willing to put his life in danger and even sacrifice his well-being to achieve a goal, the common thing to do is to reward the character with victory at the end of the story. But with stuff like Body Heat, The Square, No Country for Old Men and this script, these are all about guys motivated by their lust and love for a woman. They want to spend the rest of their lives with this woman, and they want to illegally land a nice nest egg on which they can retire on with this woman. They compromise their own sense of morality and ethics, and in the audience’s eyes, do something that is considered illegal to obtain this nest egg. Thus begins the downward spiral of making bad decisions that always leads to death, or punishment, for the protagonist. Things just get worse and worse. The rule of thumb for protagonists that do something that upsets the collective audience’s sense of ethics or morals or code of conduct, is to punish the protagonist. If the protagonist were to get away with the caper, this would upset the audience on some level. McCarthy is interesting because he pits this character making bad decisions against predators who just might be the embodiment of evil, so deep down you kind of want these guys to win, but it’s always the most fucked-up person that gets away with their lives in the end and wins the game. It’s something to think about.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Screenplay Review - Abomination

One of the most successful Nicholl Fellowship winners in history hits Hollywood with his brand new Yeti spec.

Genre: Horror
Premise: Sent to a remote arctic outpost during World War 2, a disgraced soldier learns of a giant flesh-eating beast killing the locals, and decides that defeating the monster is his one shot at redemption.
About: This script has not yet been purchased, but was written by Bragi Schut, who penned 2011’s Season Of The Witch, a former (2003) Nicholl winner. As you can see by my review of the script, I really liked it. Unfortunately, the filmmakers misjudged the tone of the script and what I saw on film was not what I read on paper. BUT, it officially put Bragi on the map, and now he has another big film lined up, The Voyage Of The Demeter, about the ill-fated ship that transported Dracula’s coffin. The film stars “Dragon Tattoo” star Noomi Rapace, Jude Law, and Ben Kingsley. Abomination is his latest spec script, which he hopes will continue his hot streak.
Writer: Bragi Schut (story by Bragi Schut and Chato Hill)
Details: 112 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).

This week is about as delicious as it gets. Not only is one of the top living authors in the world getting reviewed tomorrow with his first script, and not only is that script being reviewed by a long-time-in-hiding Scriptshadow Reviewer from the past, but we also have our first amateur script going into the Top 10 this week! And I’m talking AMATEUR amateur. No agent. No manager. This guy’s a total unknown. I can’t WAIT to tell you guys about it. Friday can’t come soon enough!

So how does our friend Bragi hold up on one of the biggest weeks in Scriptshadow history? Read on to find out.

Sergeant Harry Wilkins arrives in the Arctic Tundra a disgraced man. He hasn’t been sent to this remote outpost to fight any battles. You don’t get to fight battles when your cowardice led to eight of your fellow soldiers dying. Nope, you’re sent to Bumblefuck, Antarctica. All alone. Where you can’t hurt anyone. All you can do is think. Think about how bad you screwed up.

And think he does. Outside of the snow, the whistling wind, and the whines and barks of the snow dogs, there isn't much to do here. It’s 1944 remember. There’s no playstation.

But then one day Wilkins receives a surprise visit from some Eskimos. They look worried. They look afraid. And through their broken English, tell Wilkins he has to come with them. He has to help them stop a beast that’s been killing their people. Wilkins is intrigued by the offer but going AWOL after, you know, killing eight people, isn’t exactly the best route to a promotion.

Still, there's something telling Wilkins that he needs to do this. So he treks the 20 mile trail to the Eskimos’ isolated village and meets up with the men who visited him. Time is short so almost immediately they begin planning for the beast’s arrival.

Their first plan is to trap it. So they set out some bait and wait for Mr. Snowshoes to fall for it. Unfortunately, when the beast shows up, it's unlike anything Wilkins imagined. It's part polar bear, part human, part beast. And it's all angry. You could shoot this thing til you ran out of bullets. It wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t go down.

So after the trap fails, they realize the only way they're going to kill this thing is if they find its lair and take it on there. Not surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of Eskimos eager for Operation Lair Battle. Might have something to do with a beast who treats humans like Pringles chips. But Wilkins will go even if he has to do it alone. He needs to kill this thing. He needs to find redemption.

If you've been paying attention for the last two years, you already know I've been looking for the preeminent Abominable Snowman screenplay. We reviewed one a long time ago on Amateur Friday.  But that one never quite made it out of the snow.

Here, we’re obviously being guided by much more skilled writer. And you feel it. I loved the set-up of Abomination. I loved that this took place in the 1940s. I loved the World War 2 connection. Something would’ve been lost had this been happening in the present day. Making it a 70 year old tale gave it real texture and weight.

But I think the biggest difference you'll see in this script (compared to Ascent: Day 3) is the character development. This isn't so much about a scary beast killing people as it is about a man's redemption. It's about accepting responsibility for your failures and trying to atone for them. There’s some real meat to the character of Wilkins here.

Not only is redemption a great character trait to explore, but it’s perfect for a screenplay, since if your character’s seeking redemption, he has no choice but to be active. He has to go out there and make things happen, which in turn propels your story along.

Where I think the screenplay stumbles a bit, however, is in the Eskimo storyline and the second act in general. We’ll start with the Eskimos, who I thought were fine. But “fine” was as intense a feeling as I felt for them. Looking back, they were all pretty much the same. I don’t feel like I got to know any of them well.

I thought Avatar did a good job of this actually. We really *spent time* with the Na’Vi and got to know their culture and their way of life. The scene where they climb the floating island and Jake Sulley tries to connect with his first dragon - I really got a sense of what these people valued – what their world was like. I never got that sense with the Eskimos. There was nothing unique or interesting or new or exciting about their lives that made them stand out. I had a very general understanding of Eskimos going into this script. And I have just as general an understanding of Eskimos leaving it. I don’t think that can be the case in this movie.

This affected the story because the story is about saving these people. And if I don’t really know the people being saved – I hate to be crass but – I don’t care if they’re saved or not.

So if I were Bragi, I'd look to get Wilkins to the village sooner. I’d look to create more of a bond between him and the Eskimos. I’d look at create a couple of original/unique experiences with the Eskimos so that they really stick out. It feels like there needs to be more here. I mean there’s even a hint of a love story with one of the women, but as soon as it arrives, it’s gone, erasing yet another opportunity for us to connect with and care about these people.

It's funny because a part of me was bored by the Eskimos, so my initial reaction was: we have to get to the monster sooner. But when I stepped back and looked at it, I realized it wasn't that I wanted to get to the monster quicker. It was that I didn't know or care about these people enough to be around them. So if that can be fixed, I think the whole script improves.

I also would've liked a scarier buildup to the beast. I wasn't afraid in this draft. There's a moment early on where Wilkins is scouting the footsteps of the beast, and he puts his hand down onto the beast’s footprint. I don't remember exactly how the wording went, but it was something like "the footprint is a little bigger than his hand.” Now I don’t know about you, but footprints that are barely bigger than my own hand aren’t scary. If the footprint were FIVE TIMES bigger than my hand, THAT would be scary! (like the picture I posted above!) And that was par for the course with this thing. The beast had me worried. But it never had me TERRIFIED.

I’ll tell you what though, this script really picks up in the final act. When our hero decides to take on the beast through hell or freezing water, I was into it. And when he finally battles that thing in its lair, it’s pretty freaking awesome! That whole final act almost made up for the problems above. It’s a good reminder that if you can write a great ending, it can cover up a lot of faults. So, indeed, the ending was just enough to pull this into “worth the read” territory. I just feel like the script can be so much bigger/better. I hope Bragi takes advantage of that potential and kicks some Yeti ass in the next draft.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: The thing I take from this script is that if you create a movie where you place your hero inside a unique culture, like Avatar, like Dances with Wolves, like Abomination - you need a few scenes that show the characters experiencing the unique aspects of that culture together. Knock Avatar all you want but it had a TON of these scenes. From the dragon scene to learning how to run through the trees to learning how to ride horses to shooting arrows to killing animals the right way to learning about the Tree of Souls to learning about “the bond.” I truly felt that Jake Sulley was embedded into this culture after those scenes. That wasn’t the case in Abomination. I sort of remember a hunting scene but overall, I never got a sense of the Eskimos’ culture, never got a sense of them as a people, and as a result, I didn’t care if they were saved or not. And I know this script is more about Wilkins’ redemption than it is about a man learning the Eskimo culture. But if you’re going to design a movie where a man saves people, we have to care about those people.