Friday, April 6, 2012

Amateur Friday - Breathwork

The number one logline from a couple of weeks ago - Breathwork - finally gets its day in the sun with a review.

NEW Amateur Friday Submission Process: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, a PDF of the first ten pages of your script, your title, genre, logline, and finally, why I should read your script. Use my submission address please: Your script and “first ten” will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effect of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A man undergoing past-life regression therapy must find out the identity of a nemesis who’s killed him in his past lives... before he’s murdered again in his present life.
About: This is the logline YOU picked to be reviewed two weeks ago. Let’s see if it lives up to its logline!
Writer: Gunner Pons
Details: 108 pages

When I finish a script, there are reviews I look forward to writing and reviews I don’t look forward to writing. The reviews I don’t look forward to writing are for scripts like “The Knoll” and “My Son Is The Fucking Anti-Christ.” Why? Because there’s no substance, no interesting ideas, nothing new. Even the entertainment factor is bare-bones. Without those things, what’s there left to talk about? How many brads you should use? 2 or 3?

When I finished Breathwork, I couldn’t wait to review it. It's been a long time since we've had a good "past lives" movie - I'd argue the last one was “Dead Again” - so it seems ripe for another go-around. I'm not sure this script is ready to handle the burden of a 50 million dollar production, but I'll tell you this, if somebody who understands storytelling guided this writer through targeted rewrites, there might just be a great script in here.

Breathwork begins in a radio station where our shock jock (Howard Stern reincarnated - no pun intended) is launching into his 91st dick joke of the day. Soonafter, he welcomes in Erika Saccio to talk about her new book which explores the realities of past lives.

The show’s plan is to make fun of her, of course, but when she puts everyone under hypnosis, 33 year old Jack, the sound technician, really does appear to be hypnotized.

Jack imagines himself in someone else’s body during a huge Civil War battle. Out of nowhere, a man comes racing up to him and stabs him. Jack wakes up, shaken and frightened, but, to save face, pretends that he’s joking. Erika’s not fooled though. She knows when somebody’s been under and Jack was under.

So she contacts him afterwards and asks him to come in for more sessions. Jack does so reluctantly and through further hypnosis starts going back to his past lives. In one of these lives, he's a maid who, instead of saving her owners from a raging fire, runs out of the house to save herself. In another, he stops Jack the Ripper from kidnapping a woman in the street. In another, he's a waitress at a bar in Germany and ends up serving Hitler! Turns out Jack has had some pretty eventful past lives.

Eventually though, Jack realizes there's something bigger going on here. Some rascally little bastard in each life keeps finding Jack and KILLING HIM. That’s not very nice Random Past Lives Dude. But it seems to be the bane of Jack’s existence. Sooner or later, this ying to his yang finds him and puts an end to Lifeville.

This, of course, means that somebody's going to do the same thing now, in the present! But who? That’s the question. As Jack starts taking a closer look at the people around him, he realizes that every one of them is a suspect, and that any one of them could kill him at any moment.

This script was a whale of mess-strocity. Talk about “all over the place.” But, it was also a delicious mess – like the food-fight kind. I wouldn’t want to clean it up but boy was it fun while it was happening. I don't think I've ever read a script that’s had so many cool ideas that have been undermined by so much sloppy writing. I’d read two pages, want to throw it away, read two more, and desperately need to keep reading.

So what was so screwy about it?

Look no further than the first scene. In it, we meet Erika, our author, and her agent, Lori. These are the two brought in for the interview. Except we NEVER SEE LORI AGAIN AFTER THIS. She just disappears. So why in the world would you bring her into the movie in the first place? Why not just have Erika by herself? You don't wanna introduce a character in the opening scene, hint that she’s important, then just never show her again. That’s confusing!

On top of this, Erika is introduced as our hero. But Erika isn’t our hero. Jack is our hero. One of the worst things you can do in the opening of your script is confuse the reader as to who the main character is. I’ve found that in every script where this has happened, the execution turned out to be a disaster. I mean if you can’t convey who the main character is in five pages, how can I trust you to convey a complicated intricate plot in 110 pages?

And that's not even the worst of it. If I were to give you five guesses on who the main character was after the first scene, JACK WOULDN’T EVEN BE IN YOUR TOP FIVE!!! That's how little the writer does to clue you in on Jack’s importance. This is Screenwriting 101 stuff here.

Next, why is Jack an engineer for a shock jock? Why that as his profession? I ask because it doesn't have anything to do with the story whatsoever. Your main character’s job should always be relevant to the story.

For example, if Jack worked at the History Channel putting together documentaries or he worked as a history professor at a major university, either of those jobs would've allowed overlap with the past lives stuff. Jack would be able to pull knowledge from his profession to help explain or navigate his past-life experiences.

My guess on why we open with the shock jock scene (in addition to Irrelevant Lori) is because it’s an easy way for the writer to dole out exposition. The interview allows her to talk about the book and the past life “rulse,” and the waiting room allows us to get to know Erika through her agent.

Well I got news for you. You shouldn't choose your characters’ jobs based on how it’s easiest for you to unload exposition. You should choose your characters’ jobs based on what's best for your story! Start this somewhere darker, creepier, scarier – a place that FEELS like it’s connected to the premise you promised us!

As far as the flashbacks themselves, they were always interesting, but they never felt well thought through. Why famous historic figures? What is the point of us seeing Jack The Ripper or Hitler if they have nothing to do with the story? It feels like the writer’s trading believability for historic celebrity name-dropping. There’s no relevance here.

If you're going to throw Hitler in a script about past lives, then by golly, your whole damn plot better revolve around Hitler. Hitler isn’t a sideshow. It would be like having U2 pop in to play three chords with your wedding band, then leave. There's a cool moment where Jack realizes he can manipulate the past bodies he’s in. Well there’s your movie if you want Hitler! Jack realizes he can kill Hitler, and he uses his past life to do it.

Despite all the flaws, though, I liked the idea of this Jack-killer in each time period. Especially as it becomes apparent that there’s one in this time period too. And when we start wondering who that person could be, the script really picks up. And to the script’s credit, you’ll have no idea who it is. So just the fact that I wanted to get to the end and find that out says a lot.

Unfortunately, I don't think that's enough to put it into “worth the read” territory. It’s just too darn sloppy. Too many beginner mistakes here. So I say to Gunner, keep working on it, and find somebody who can give you solid insightful notes so you can really kick ass on the rewrite.

Script link: Breathwork

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[x] wasn’t for me (but close to “worth the read!”
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Make sure that your logline and the opening of your screenplay match in tone. The logline for Breathwork promises a dark and spooky thriller. The first scene though, is goofy, broad and silly. It immediately erases what you thought the script was going to be about, which means already I’m disappointed. Had I not had people tell me about the bad opening, I might have put this down before the scene was over and went on to another Amateur Friday script.