Monday, May 7, 2012

Screenplay Review - Hidden

Today's screenplay proves you can only hide for so long before something comes for you and makes you do something you don't want to do...

Genre: Contained Horror
Premise: A family lives in a nuclear fallout shelter, hiding from a deadly race of mutated humans known only as, the breathers.
About: This is a script that’s been getting a lot of heat lately. Lots of people I talk to really love it. Hence, I had to read.
Writers: The Duffer Brothers
Details: 105 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).

There is one type of script that is absolutely perfect for the spec market – this one. If you come up with a contained horror scenario that's intense, that has immediacy, and that's a little bit different from what’s come in the past, somebody will buy it. Shit, I’LL buy it. You can make these movies for a cheap price AND they’re easy to market. So they’re always going to be in high demand.

But that doesn't mean you can do whatever you want. You have to find that fresh angle. Hidden is by no means original, but it has just enough new that it doesn’t feel like yet another contained thriller clone.

For example, almost all scripts with people hiding from an unseen danger put several strangers together. It's a smart way to go because you can create a mysterious backstory behind each character (that can be revealed over the course of the script) and the potential is high for conflict since you have a bunch of different personalities.

But Hidden took the unique approach of sticking us with a family. You definitely lost some potential conflict with the choice, but what you gain is an overwhelming sense of love between the characters and an "us against them" mentality. This created a strong bond between us and the characters, which meant we were rooting for them from Page 1.

And remember that when you have the audience rooting for your characters, you can pretty much get away with anything. You can even ignore some of the things I preach all the time because if we’re desperately rooting for the characters, the structure isn’t as important. We just want to see the characters win, regardless of the mechanics beneath them. The closeness of this family really helped in that sense. I read on because I wanted to see them survive.

Speaking of the family, it includes Claire and Ray Hewitt, former middle-class suburban parents, and their seven-year-old daughter, Zoe. They're down in this shelter because a year ago, on an ordinary Sunday, a mass hysteria rose up when a unique virus started infecting everyone. The virus turned ordinary people into dangerous and uncontrollable beasts.

The Hewitt family tried to get away like everybody else, but when the military started attacking civilians, they fled into the woods and found this hidden shelter. They've been here ever since, hiding. And it's gone pretty well. Except they're finally running out of rations and will need to find food somewhere else – not an easy task since going to the surface is the equivalent of suicide.

But hunger is just one of many invisible clocks ticking down for this family. And those clocks start ticking a lot faster when an accidental fire sends smoke out the ventilation shaft up into the forest. It’s only a matter of time, now, before the breathers spot the smoke and seek out its origin. When that happens, it’s doubtful our family will be able to remain…hidden.

Lots to like about this one! The writing itself was top-notch. The brothers have an amazing ability to keep descriptions sparse, so that the script moves along quickly, yet still pack interesting shit into their action, so that the info both moves the story forward and paints a powerful picture of the situation.

I read lots of scripts from writers who hear their writing needs to be sparse, but they take it to the extreme. The writing ends up containing so little meat, so little detail or depth of information, that it’s as if the words disappear somewhere between the page and your eyes.

I loved how the brothers would take time, for example, to explain how a rat was able to get into their food supply and chew through the cans, cutting their survival time in half. It’s stuff like this that paints a detailed picture of their predicament – that shows the unique things a family in this type of situation would have to go through. There’s meat here. There’s specificity.

But the real power of the script came in the writers’ ability to tell a story. Again, so many new writers focus on how to string words together. And it's not that that isn’t important. It is. But it's not nearly as important as telling the story and keeping the reader interested.

Right away, we hear about these "breathers." The way the family talks about them, you’d think that the devil himself was hunting them. And yet we don’t know what they are yet because the writers have chosen to make them a mystery. Well guess what? That mystery is a storytelling device to keep us, the reader, interested. We will keep reading until we see these breathers for ourselves.

Then there was the smoke that went up through the ventilation shaft. We knew that the breathers might see this and possibly find them. So from the moment that smoke went out, we’re in a deep state of anticipation as we hope against all hope that they’re not going to show up. That's storytelling. You manipulate the plot in such a way where the reader *has* to read on because they *have* to find out what happens next.

And then there were, of course, the set pieces of the script. For a movie this small in scope, the set pieces are incredibly well-crafted. What I loved about the brothers was that they knew when they had a high-impact scene, and they milked the hell out of it.

Too many writers extend scenes that have no business being extended. You only want to milk scenes if the set-up is big, the stakes are high, and the situation is compelling. There's a scene, for example, where the escaped smoke has caused the leaves hiding their doorway to blacken with soot. This means that the parents have to go topside to replace them with fresh leaves in order to stay hidden. So they do, leaving Zoe alone in the shelter.

This is the exact kind of scene you want to milk. You’ve set up a dangerous situation. The stakes are through the roof (literally). You’ve left your youngest character alone. Go to town with this scene. Zoe watches them, for example, from the underground “periscope,” and thinks she sees breathers running towards them. She has to warn them, but has no way to. We cut back and forth between the breathers getting closer and Zoe trying to open a hatch she’s not strong enough to open. The brothers milk every second of this scene, and appropriately so, as it’s the perfect kind of scene you want to milk.

What’s really impressive is they have about five of these sequences throughout the script, all about 10 pages long, all of which move like the Chicago wind. Truthfully, I was shocked at how quickly the brothers were able to make such a tiny movie move so fast.

For me, this was a guaranteed impressive through the first two acts. However, while I liked the twist ending, I’d heard there was a twist ahead of time, so I was anticipating something a little flashier. Unfortunately, while the twist did its job, it didn’t quite live up to the expectation in my head. Don’t get me wrong. It was cool. It just wasn’t “fall out of your seat” cool.

So even though that brought it down a notch, this is one of the better horror scripts I've read in a while. It's a little different. The characters are compelling. The writing is great. You just don't see all of those things in a horror script these days. For that, I commend these guys. A job well done!

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

What I learned: Show and Tell. Any good screenwriter will tell you to SHOW things, not TELL things. But there’s actually a way to show while telling, and I call it the “Show and Tell.” Here, on page 10, the brothers want to establish how many days the family has been down here. So they highlight hundreds of marks on the wall (this is them showing). Zoe then asks how many days they’ve been down here. Claire answers, “Count for yourself.” Zoe counts, and tells us the number (301). So technically, since there’s a discussion about the days, we’re telling. But the conversation is motivated by a ‘showing,’ the walls. So it's a combination of the two. Which is way better than someone going, “Man, if we hadn’t been down here for 300 long days already…” which, believe it or not, is the kind of clunky exposition I read all the time.