Monday, April 9, 2012

Screenplay Review - Safety Not Guaranteed

While you may not be able to go back in time and Twit-Pitch a better logline, you can head back in time with today's screenplay, Safety Not Guaranteed.

Genre: Indie-Comedy
Premise: Based on a real ad, SNG is about a small-time group of journalists investigating an ad in the classifieds that states - “WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 322 Oakview, CA 93022. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before."
About: Yes, this story is based on a real ad. However, if I'm to understand it correctly, the rest of the script is completely made up. While the writer, Connolly, has a distant TV movie credit back in 2005, this seems to be his first “real” produced credit. Rising star Jake Johnson, along with the weird chick from Parks and Recreation, star. The film debuted at Sundance, where it was received well.
Writer: Derek Connolly
Details: 93 pages (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).

 Jake Johnson

I like these scripts with pseudo-magical premises. I like that there's the possibility of stuff we haven't figured out yet or can’t understand. Shit, I even liked K-Pax with Kevin Spacey! Actually that's not true. I liked it for 45 minutes and then it got stupid (“You’re an alien. No, you’re an abused child!” Uhh, what??). I guess what I’m saying is, I like the idea that there’s more out there and I enjoy movies that explore that possibility in a grounded way.

Which leads us to Safety Not Guaranteed, a whimsical little drama/comedy that feels like it was born inside Sundance’s womb, with the intention of playing there once then disappearing forever, kind of like that old Apple commercial that only played once during the Super Bowl.

The script starts out in disastrous territory, introducing us to our lead character, Darius. Now when I say "Darius," tell me what the first image that comes to mind is. Is it a 13 year old Caucasian girl? Ding ding ding! If you guessed yes, you’d be correct! Except I know you didn’t. Because no intelligent person would. So I will make this plea for the 842,000th time. Do not give your female characters male names. And if you're going to give them a name that’s usually popular in another ethnicity, you better have a darn good reason for why. It’s not clever. It’s confusing to the reader.

So yeah, right away, I was ready to kick this script’s ass. However, as I was putting on my ass-kicking boots, the story slowly started to rebound (how could it not? It started at such a low point). We learn that the now 22 year old Darius is an assistant at a weird but assumingly popular magazine where she’s desperate to move up. I like characters who want to move up. Makes them active. I stopped tying my boots.

As the employees gather to pitch their latest story ideas to the editor, one of the lead writers, 29-year-old Jeff, pitches his idea on a classified ad about a guy asking for a partner to go back in time with. The guy lives up the coast in a beach town called Ocean View, and he figures he could take a couple of assistants up there and interview the guy. The editor agrees so Jeff chooses Darius and the overtly shy Arnau.

On their way up, Darius pleas with Jeff to get her name on the article while Arnau sits in the back doing his best to look confused (something he’s very good at). Once we get there, we find out Jeff wasn’t interested in the story at all. He actually came here to reconnect with a girlfriend he hasn’t seen since childhood.

Darius is pissed that her boss is a fraud but it actually opens up a great opportunity, since she can now write the article herself. So she goes off to meet the mysterious adster, Kenneth, and finds him as weird as advertised. He’s a terribly awkward combination of autistic and paranoid, convinced that some Men in Black are on to him, trying to prevent him from his mission (just out of curiosity – Why do crazy people always think the government is after them? Is there a Crazy Handbook out there that requires this?).

Kenneth takes to Darius immediately and she goes along with it to get the story. But the more she gets to know him, the more she starts to understand him. He wants to go back in time to prevent a girl’s death. That hits close to home because Darius’s mother died a decade ago and she, too, wishes she could go back and save her.

The closer we get to the big jump, the closer the Men in Black dudes close in. Jeff and pointless Arnau start to question whether Darius has lost her mind because she’s actually starting to believe him. Oh, and then there’s Kenneth, racing around, stealing materials from local corporations, trying to finish up his time machine, which puts the community on high alert. This means they have to speed up the time table. And as the big launch approaches, everybody – the characters and us – are wondering, is this real? Or is Kenneth crazy?

Safety Not Guaranteed started out as one of those "trying too hard to be a hip indie comedy" films that make you laugh and groan in equal measure. Everybody wears a vintage sweater. Everybody’s ironic. And everybody has a perfect little quip in response to a line of dialogue. In other words, if films had necks, you’d want to strangle this one.

But then the screenplay stops trying to impress us and starts focusing on the characters. And when that happens, it actually gets pretty good. I really liked our heroine, Darius. I liked how she hid behind this wall, afraid to feel, afraid to show emotion. I like how she masked it by making fun of others. And I loved how that wall eventually began to drop as the story went on. A little Screenwriting 101 here. Walls are good! Characters who have walls give you a natural place to go with them (breaking those walls down). So add walls to your characters!

I also liked a lot of the choices the writer made, specifically how he wanted the story to remain ambiguous. For example, Kenneth is going back in time to save this girl. (Spoiler) Yet later, Jeff tells Darius he did some investigating and found out the girl Kenneth is going back to save is still alive. When Darius confronts Kenneth about this, he's confused, but then starts to wonder, does that mean they already went back in time and succeeded? And it was at that moment that I really started to appreciate the script. It genuinely had you wondering – is this real or isn’t it?

I also liked Jeff's journey. Jeff is clearly a ladies man whose flaw is that he only sees people from the outside. So when he finds the girl from his childhood who’s now… a lot bigger, he has to decide if he's willing to make a commitment to someone he’s not attracted to. Watching him battle this and come to terms with his flaw was surprisingly touching.

But you can't win them all, and the game of Anau was definitely lost. I mean could there be a more pointless character in screenplay history? I don't know if they just wanted a funny Indian guy in the trailer or what but this character was a disaster. His goal was to get laid? Or something? Huh?

Really, that's the only thing I didn't like, well besides the Darius name thing of course. The only reason this doesn't rank higher is because it carries that Sundance Indie tag that seems to limit a story’s ceiling. I can’t really explain it other than to say those movies only tend to be so enjoyable. And while I did enjoy this, I wouldn’t go out telling everybody they have to read it. Still, if you like this kind of story, you should definitely check it out. It's pretty solid.

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

What I learned: Beware the “show off” first act. Some writers feel it’s necessary in the first act to prove how good of a writer they are and therefore push too hard. It’s the equivalent of a first date where you’re trying realllllly hard to be funny or cool. It never comes off natural because you’re pressing. The best dates are when you just relax and be yourself. Your first act should be similar. Don’t try to impress anybody or prove that you’re a great writer (overly quirky dialogue, overly cute names, false “movie” moments). Just tell your story!