Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Screenplay Review - Garden District

Genre: Horror/Found-Footage
Premise: After a viral video depicting a vampire attack hits the internet, a group of myth-busters go on a quest to prove it's fake.
About: Anthony Jaswinski is an idea machine who unabashedly focuses on the high concept.  He writes a lot of scripts with big stories and fast writing.  One of his earlier scripts was "Kristy," which although I didn't read, was reviewed on the site by another reviewer and a lot of people loved.  I did, however, review one of his spec sales awhile back, Advanced Placement.  I also reviewed his script for the horror film, Vanishing On 7th Street.
Writers: Anthony Jaswinski and Luke Goltz (story by Jaswinski)
Details: 88 pages (March 19, 2012 draft)

Here's what I'll give Jaswinski.  The man understands the hell out of high concept.  He knows how to come up with a marketable idea that producers will want to make into a movie (girl trapped on college campus with people trying to kill her, everybody in the world disappearing, high school kid forced to kill a senator at his school).  This skill is not to be underestimated because it's one of the primary variables one must master to get a script noticed, sold, and made.  Surprisingly, very few writers actually think about this.  Instead, they're off trying to write "The Ends Of The Earth 2: Lydie Has An Affair With Her Son."

It's not that you shouldn't write things you're passionate about - but until your writing ability catches up with your writing ambition, you should probably gravitate towards ideas that will get you reads, that producers will think, "Hmmm, this could be a film."  In that sense, you want to study writers like Jaswinski.

My problem with Jaswinski is on the execution side.  With ideas as fun and "movie-ish" as he has, it's unfortunate that they come off half-realized.  Everything from the characters to the plot points to the story direction feels like a first draft - like he's only diving skin-deep into the story's potential.

Now, moving onto today's script, it's true that Found Footage films are about as "un-depth friendly" as genres get.  The idea behind them is that they're supposed to feel "real" real.  Not "movie" real.  So you almost want to avoid things like character arcs and first act transitions and the like.  It's gotta feel random.  I think that's why Blair Witch remains the best found footage movie yet (well, maybe second to Paranormal Activity).  It really felt like those guys were lost, randomly walking around the woods.

Still, if the characters have zero depth, then the same rule that applies to "normal" scripts applies to these - We won't want to follow the characters.  We won't care if they achieve their goal.  We won't care when they're in danger.  I'm not saying I loved Chronicle or that it should be seen as some FF gold standard, but at least with that script, we got to know the hero and care for him.  We saw his dad beat him.  We saw how he was an outcast at school.  We saw that his mom was sick.  For those reasons, I cared when he went off the reservation.  I wanted to see what would happen to him - how it would all end.

I don't get that here.  I mean even the character descriptions are generic.  One of the three leads, Lori, is described as "pretty with Seattle cap."  Or another, Kyle, is a "techno nerd."  These are the leads! After those descriptions, I don't have any sense of the characters at all.  And that's a huge deal.  Because I'm about to spend an hour and a half with them.

So what's Garden District about?  Well, a well-known internet myth-hunting team known as The Frankel Brothers interview a girl who thinks she's a vampire.  In the interview, to prove to the girl she's human, one of the brothers opens a shade to let some sun in (I guess Frankel Bro 1 hasn't seen Twilight, where vampires can walk around in the sun just fine).  The girl gets angry, turns into a raging vampire, and while her skin is seared away by the sun, viciously attacks the brother and kills him.

The video goes viral, which is where our heroes come in.  Chris, Lori, and Kyle are myth-busting second-stringers.  They're trying to be who The Frankel Brothers are.  And they believe this is all a hoax, some clever use of CGI and lighting the Frankel brothers are using to increase their audience.  Chris and Crew believe if they can prove it's a hoax, that they'll steal that audience away.

So they take a trip to New Orleans, where the video was shot, and start asking around about Paula, the girl in the video.  What they learn is that there's this whole underground community of people who consider themselves "vampires."  But they're not real vampires.  They just shave their teeth into fangs and live the lifestyle.  They don't have real powers like immortality.

Or do they?

The more people they interview, the more they consider the impossible.  On the one hand, these people sure do seem like delusional freaks.  But on the other, they exhibit strange enough qualities that maybe, just maybe, they really ARE vampires.

Eventually our crew gets an opportunity to interview the top dog, the leader of the Vampires (the "Sire"), and he grants them the interview in the very same building that the Frankel Bros. taped Paula in!  Uh-oh, this is getting spoooooky.  But shit really gets spooky when they pass out, wake up, and see that the building has been abandoned.  It's only then that they realize these vampires aren't letting any myth busters out of this city alive!

Continuing with the positive, we do have a clear goal in Garden District.  Our heroes want to prove this video is a hoax.  They're trying to infiltrate the vampire network to achieve that goal.  So the script definitely has forward momentum.   And that's not to be downplayed.  If I had you read all the amateur scripts I get, you'd see that most writers don't even integrate that essential component into their story.

But on the stakes and urgency end, there isn't much going on.  What happens if they don't prove the hoax?  Nothing.  They retain their status as "second-tier" myth-busters.  Not what they wanted but they seem to be doing just fine with it.  I remember reading a similar set-up in a found footage script awhile back and the writer established that the characters couldn't financially support their website show anymore.  They needed to make money off of it or else they wouldn't be able to do it anymore.  So when they went after their goal, it was clear that unless they succeeded, their blog was dead. Those are stakes.  There's something to lose.

Lack of urgency was also an issue.  There's no need to do their job quickly.  I suppose they have their return flight they need to get their answer by.  But again, this goes back to stakes.  Who cares if they get the answer or not?  It doesn't hurt them if they fail so the urgency's irrelevant.  That's why I say goal, stakes, and urgency are all tied together.  You have to make them work as one to really get the most out of them.

Again, you don't HAVE to use GSU when you write a story.  Chronicle had scenes upon scenes of the characters exploring their powers that had no urgency.  But Garden District's story is specifically set up to take advantage of GSU (with the big goal), so something feels off when it doesn't.

But all this is secondary to what I believe is the real problem here - and that's that the story just isn't explored enough.  The ideas feel first-run.  There's a safe-ness and predictability to each choice.  We know where it's going all the time.  Now does this matter with the demographic being 12-22?  Does a 13 year old who hasn't seen enough films to call things derivative really care?  That's debatable.  But I like to believe you should push yourself on every element in your script.  Don't just give them what they've seen before.  Try to do something different/new/challenging.  I didn't see any of that difference and therefore didn't enjoy this. :(

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn't for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned – Make sure you're giving us ALL THE INFORMATION we need in order to understand a moment.  I see this happen A LOT.  On page 62 of Garden District, we're in a hotel at night, and one of the characters wakes up to hear scratching on the window.  He slowly walks towards the window, trying to figure out what it is.  Now while I'm reading this, I'm thinking, "Well isn't he looking at the window?  How does he not see what's scratching it?"  He gets closer and closer, and I keep wondering, "How come he doesn't see what's scratching??"  Finally, when he gets there, it's written that he whips the curtain open and sees nothing.  Ohhhhhh!  There was a CURTAIN there the whole time!!! That's why he couldn't see.  But this was never conveyed to us so how was I supposed to know that a curtain was blocking his view?  Had I known that, this scene would've been creepy instead of confusing.