Thursday, March 1, 2012

Screenplay Review - Origin Of A Species

A young up-and-coming writer takes on the Amazon Contest winner in a two-day experiment I call "The Gauntlet."

I'm unofficially introducing a new feature here on Scriptshadow. I call it "The Gauntlet." It's when an amateur screenwriter believes with all of his heart that his screenplay is better than a professional’s, or in today's case, a contest winner. Gauntlet rules are simple. Two scripts enter. One script leaves. The contest in question? Amazon (who else?). Tomorrow’s writer, Mike, took one look at Origin Of A Species, the Amazon winner, and was confident his entry was better. So today we’ll look at the winner (which you can download here) and tomorrow we’ll look at Mike’s script (which you can download here - fixed) and decide which script wins the GAUNTLET!

Genre: Drama/Thriller
Premise: An ex-cop finds himself in a precarious situation when his 3 dogs begin a killing spree across town.
About: This was the winner of Amazon Studios script contest. Matthew Gossett, the writer, took home the biggest winning contest check ever for a screenplay - $100,000. Amazon practically branded itself the “High concept” competition. It was the anti-Nicholl. They wanted to celebrate big ideas that they could turn into profitable movies. So it was a bit of a shock that one of the least commercial scripts took the top prize. Must mean they really loved it. But is that love deserved??
Writer: Matthew Gossett
Details: 111 pages - 1st 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).

What a great script to discuss after last week’s behemoth, The Disciple Program. That script had a goal (find out who killed his wife), stakes (hero’s life constantly at risk), and urgency (someone always on our hero’s tail). This script has…well, none of that really. Or at least, it doesn’t have it for awhile. This is such a weird story, I feel like I need a map to explain my reaction to it.

I’ll start off by paying it a weird compliment. I don’t think I’ve ever liked a script this much where nothing happened for so long. I mean no plot emerges in this script for forever. And yet it still managed to reel me in.

“Origin” introduces us to 36 year old Bonnie and 16 year old Dan. They’re out swimming in the middle of nowhere and we’re not sure what the connection between them is but we sense that their relationship isn’t on the up and up.

Afterwards we meet Jim, Bonnie’s husband, a former cop who lost his leg in the line of duty. These days, he collects disability while running a private K-9 drug-sniffing business. But he spends most of his time dealing with annoying Larry Givens, his elderly next door neighbor who insists, at every opportunity, that Jim’s fence is on his property.

We also end up learning where Bonnie and Dan met. At school! As in, she’s his teacher. So we meet all these characters, get a feel for their situations, and then the script sort of drifts out to sea for awhile. But somehow it drifts in a good way. Whenever you have a secret dominating your plot (Bonnie and Dan’s relationship), the audience subconsciously wants to stick around until that secret comes out. We want to be there when this affair gets revealed.

Finally, a plot starts kicking in. Jim’s drug dogs start acting strange. They start missing drugs they usually sniff out and they’re not as responsive as they usually are. Earlier in the script we learned of a rabies outbreak sweeping the territory. It looks like Jim’s dogs have caught it. But before anyone realizes this, the dogs escape, and that’s when everything changes.

The cops find a young boy mauled to death. Later, Jim finds his neighbor, Larry, chewed to a pulp, along with a horrifying secret inside his home. And the dogs are getting worse. They’re roaming around town, looking for anything to sink their teeth into. In the end, they’ll find our inappropriate duo of Bonnie and Dan. Will they make them their last supper? Or will Jim stop them before they do?

Holy Schnikes. This script was *different*. Like I said, there’s no true narrative to speak of here. The plot doesn’t kick in for awhile. When urgency does arrive in the story (they have to stop the dogs before they kill more people), it’s so random (rabies-infested dogs don’t target specific people) that it’s hard to worry. I mean yeah they do end up going after people we know, but it’s all by coincidence. They could’ve just as easily continued killing randoms.

So then why the hell did I like this thing? Well, let’s start with the conflict. Gossett has an amazing ability to find the conflict in every situation and exploit the shit out of it. This is so important in a script like this because there isn’t much holding the story together. So if the scenes aren’t interesting – if they aren’t conflict-filled – we’ll become bored easily. Since there’s always conflict present, however, it distracts us from the fact that there’s no story to speak of.

There’s an early scene in a scrap yard, for example, when Jim is looking for his dog (this is before the dogs have gone nuts). He all of a sudden spots the junked cop car he totaled his leg in. Spooked but intrigued, he sits down in it. That’s when he hears his dog and tries to get out. But his pants get stuck on a metal divot. So he’s trying to rip his pants away so he can get his dog before she disappears again, but he can’t. He can’t get out.

And it’s the simplest scene. A guy trying to get out of a car. And yet it’s really good because it utilizes the full gamut of GSU. Goal – get his dog. Stakes – his dog being lost. Urgency – if he doesn’t get out soon she’ll disappear. Throw in some conflict (his leg gets stuck) and you have yourself a scene. I was amazed at how much drama Gossett could milk out of these tiny little moments.

This script reminded me A LOT of When The Streetlights Go On actually. There’s just a mood and tone here that permeates throughout every page. There’s a sense of foreboding. I wouldn’t say the writing is as good as Streetlights (those writers could paint a scene like no other) but boy does Gossett know how to build tension and ambiance. I mean there’s this random insignificant scene where Bonnie has to put the dogs away and gets caught behind them in the doghouse. They’re all just looking at her. And for a brief moment, we realize that she could actually die here. It was freaky man. I guess I was just constantly amazed at how Gossett could do so much with so little.

The thing is, I can’t really argue with people who hate this script. And there seem to be many. I mean, like I pointed out, it doesn’t have any of the key ingredients that make a story go (GSU). Instead it uses less obvious story engines (suspense, curiosity, dramatic irony). But that’s what’s so impressive. Anybody who’s read a ton of scripts can tell you, coming up with a story that works without using those big engines is one of the hardest things to do. Shit, it’s hard to write a good story when you DO use GSU. So I have an immense amount of respect for any writer who’s able to pull off what Gossett did here.

On the technical side, it looks like there’s two versions of this script floating around. There’s the 8th draft and then there’s this one, the 1st draft. People who have hated the script have been mentioning the 8th draft. I’m wondering if the 8th draft is the last draft in a long attempt to turn this into a traditional narrative? I think that would be a huge mistake. The whole charm of this story is that it’s so weirdly constructed. You’re unsure of where it’s going next and if you try and structure that, the script loses that X-factor that makes it unique.

You know what I just realized this reminded me of? A Haruki Murakami novel. The narrative’s loose but there’s a lot of weird interesting shit going on to keep you engaged. So if you like Murakami, you’re definitely going to like “Origin.” If they could get “The Ice Storm” Ang Lee to direct this. Or Atom Egoyan? It could become an indie classic. Hey, I know I hated Ben Franklin. But I have to give it to Amazon. They absolutely picked the right winner. This is impressive stuff!

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

What I learned: Order of information – Be aware that the order in which you reveal information in your story has a HUGE impact on the how the reader emotionally processes it. By moving just a few scenes around, you can create a completely different reaction. In “Origin,” we start out with Bonnie and Dan. We don’t know much about these two, but we know their relationship isn’t appropriate. This rouses our curiosity. How did these two meet? How do they know each other? How did this come about? A little while later, we get a classroom scene and realize Bonnie is Dan’s teacher. Oh! That’s how they met. In class. Consider if we would’ve changed the order of these scenes. If we start with Bonnie and Dan in class first, you lose the lingering curiosity of “How did this come about?” You also start with a boring scene that means nothing to us at the time as opposed to an interesting one, which gets us thinking. I’m not saying you should never reverse the order of these scenes. There are some story situations where you want an affair between two people to be a surprise. But just make sure you’re thinking about your scene placement. You always want to order things in a way to maximize the story impact.

What I learned 2: That even the tiniest scenes can be really good with a cleverly introduced element of conflict. The “getting stuck in car” scene and the “Bonnie trapped by the dogs” scene were perfect examples of this.