Friday, March 9, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Telemarketer (Amateur Friday)

He claims his script is better than every script sale out there. He repeatedly trashed Disciple in favor of his own masterpiece. But does writer Jai Brandon deliver on the goods?

Amateur Friday Submission Process: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted in the review (feel free to keep your identity and script title private by providing an alias and fake title). Also, it's a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.

Genre: Thriller/Crime/Serial Killer
Premise: (from writer) The lives of two opposing forces collide, after an argument escalates between a telemarketer and the recipient of his phone call – an active serial killer. Unfortunately for this serial killer, the man that he threatened is no ordinary telemarketer.
About: Jai Brandon has been pushing me to read his scripts for over a year. His constant hyping of The Telemarketer has made him impossible to ignore.
Writer: Jai Brandon
Details: 100 pages

I have experienced my share of confident screenwriters. I, like most of you, lived through Trajent Future (for the time of your life, grab some popcorn and read through the 500 comments of that post). The House That Death Built taught us that the quality of a man’s script is dependent not on one’s bravado, but rather one’s writing. Jai Brandon seems to have ignored this lesson. He places his screenplay up on the highest pedestal, betting that it’s not only better than recent entries such as The Disciple Program, but even some of the classics that have graced our movie theaters for years.

I’d tell Jai that’s a recipe for disaster, but I don’t think he’d listen. However, I’ll give Jai this. At a time where I've received more script submissions than any other time in Scriptshadow’s history, this man figured out a way to get me to read his script. True it was done through incessant badgering and enough e-mails to break Gmail’s servers (true story – I opened one of his e-mails and Gmail crashed), but you gotta get your name out there somehow and Jai did it.

Of course, this brings us to the actual script, and I'm not going to lie. I was expecting it to be somewhere between really bad and extremely terrible. My experience has taught me that those who yell the loudest usually have the least to say. The good news for Jai is that the script did not fall inside that category.

But it did fall inside a new category I like to refer to as, “Logic, flow, and tone be damned.” This has to be one of the strangest scripts I've read in a while in that Jai actually has a lot of talent, to the point where you occasionally wonder if you’re reading a pro. Unfortunately, that talent is eclipsed by a poor story sense. The script has so many weird combinations going on as to make it almost indecipherable. I'll get into that in a second but let's deal with the plot first.

20-something James Walker is a deliveryman. Well, that's not entirely true. He's a telemarketer. He’s a telemarketer/deliveryman, working delivery by day and telemarketing by night. Confused? So am I. I guess James doesn’t have to sleep. But neither did Edward Norton in Fight Club so I’m going to let it slide.

Our favorite telemarketer/deliveryman goes to deliver a package at a house only to see three burglars holding a woman hostage inside. Since James is not the kind of person to sit back idly, he sneaks in through the window and systematically kills the men. Add ass-kicker to James’ resume.

Later, a couple of detectives stop by to try and figure out what happened but come to the conclusion that no man could have taken these burglars out the way they did. It would have been impossible.

Off in another home we meet a man known as The Clown Face Killer. This Caucasian fellow likes to dress up in blackface and an afro wig and kill African American women. He also has Alopecia (he’s hairless) which means he never leaves a single trace of DNA evidence wherever he goes. He's the perfect killer. The perfect CLOWN FACE KILLER.

In the meantime, those “savvy” detectives find a delivery notice on that burglarized lady’s front porch. So they head over to James’ telemarketing job to ask him some questions, namely why the notice is marked with the exact time this burglary took place. But James is as cool as a Kumquat (and as sarcastic as a snapping turtle) and convinces the doofus detectives that he wasn’t involved.

Across town, Mr. Clown-Face Killer continues attacking young unsuspecting African-American women, but during one of these attacks, James calls the house as part of his telemarketing gig. He and Clown Face have a brief conversation and the clown killer decides he's going to make this personal. He then begins killing everyone in New York named James Walker – our hero’s name!

In the end, the Clown-Face Killer with alopecia gets so worked up that he actually targets James’ own mother. James will have to call on not only his telemarketing and delivery skills to take this man down, but his mercenary skills as well. Wait, what?! Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. James used to be a mercenary too! Will he succeed? I'm not sure. Nothing is certain in…..The Telemarketer.

Okay, so like I said, Jai shows a lot of skill in his writing. Open up this script and read the first scene and you’ll notice the writing is crisp, lean and professional.

The problem is, Jai’s lack of storytelling sense becomes increasingly problematic as the story goes on. What I mean by “storytelling sense” is the combination of structure, tone, understanding of genre, and how to build a story in a believable, compelling and logical way. The Telemarketer builds, but nothing is ever believable. And rarely is the tone of the story consistent. It kind of feels like a pastiche of several different genres slapped together in no particular order.

But let's back up for a second and start with the title. The reason I resisted reading this in the first place was that the title and the logline didn’t jive. It sounded like a set up for a comedy as opposed to a thriller. A telemarketer taking on a man with alopecia who dresses up in blackface and an Afro wig? I don’t know. That just doesn’t sound like a subject matter you can treat seriously. So that was the first problem I had, and that was before I even opened the script (again – why testing your concept is SO important!).

The next problem I had was the dual jobs. I understand some people work two jobs to make ends meet, but in this case, the two jobs were obviously created for the purpose of instituting key plot points. Jai needed James to be a deliveryman/vigilante killer in order to get the detectives after him. And he needed his hero to be a telemarketer so he could call the woman that would begin Clown Faced’s obsession with him.

My question is, since the deliveryman job has absolutely nothing to do with the story, why not ditch it? Just make him a telemarketer. That's the name of the movie anyway. By calling a movie “The Telemarketer” and starting off with your hero as a deliveryman, you’ve already confused your audience. In the very first scene! That's a big problem with the writing here. It just seems to go wherever it wants in order to make the story work for the writer.

In addition to these problems, we just have these really weird scenes that appear out of nowhere. For instance, in addition to being a telemarketer and a deliveryman, it turns out that James also used to be a mercenary. So right in the middle of the script, for no discernible reason, we jump back to James during his mercenary days taking down Somali pirates. To the writer, this may all seem completely logical. “Of course he’s a mercenary. That’s my hero’s backstory!”

But to a reader, it’s utter confusion. We’re adding on to a character who already feels schizophrenic the title of mercenary??? How can an audience take that seriously? It would be like in Silence Of The Lambs if, 60 minutes in, Jodie Foster participated in a local disco competition, won, then went right back to hunting Buffalo Bill. You can't just do whatever you want in a story. It has to make sense, it has to feel natural, it has to fit within the theme. If it doesn't, it just feels random.

Another scene that came out of nowhere was James driving his delivery truck and getting stopped by some detectives, but it turns out those detectives were fake and actually robbers! Who rob him! The scene is just some random isolated incident that has NOTHING to do with the plot at all! These moments kept coming in The Telemarketer. Which was a big part of what made the read so frustrating.

The thing is, Jai really does have some talent. And despite his insane bravado, he actually seems like a nice guy. I don’t think he’s going to be telling everybody here (along with myself) that we’re all worthless and don’t know what we’re talking about and he does, a la Trajent Future. But he needs to back up and study storytelling a little more. Storytelling isn't about throwing a bunch of shit on the page you think is cool. It's about slowly building up a story where all the pieces fit together in a natural way. There are very few pieces in The Telemarketer that fit together and that's why, despite the talent, the story doesn't work.

What did you guys think? Is this better than The Disciple Program, as Jai claims? Or is my review completely off?

Script Link: The Telemarketer

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

What I learned: Be elegant in your plot construction. The more you strain, the more we’ll notice. In other words, never push an improbable or illogical plot point onto your story just because you *really need* something to happen. Here, Jai wanted these detectives to pull his hero, James, into the story. So he created this deliveryman job, which allowed his hero to murder these men, so that the detectives could question him. Keep in mind this job has NOTHING TO DO with the rest of the story. Never once is delivering something ever broached again. So it obviously feels false. You easily could’ve achieved this plot point without adding another job. Why can’t James be the woman’s neighbor? He’s about to go to work and sees something suspicious going on? Or maybe part of the telemarketing gig is delivering flyers about the service. You must be elegant in the way you weave things into your story or you’re going to pull your reader out of that story.