Friday, August 31, 2012

Screenwriting Interview - John Jarrell

Recently I’ve been talking a lot to John Jarrell, a screenwriter who’s been working in this business for over 20 years, and learning quite a bit from him. When he mentioned he was putting together a class, I told him that I had to promote it on the site, especially since I've been getting so many e-mails recently asking where the best screenwriting classes are.  I think you'll be able to tell right away how awesome John is and how much damn knowledge he's accumulated over his career.  But probably the best thing about John is what an awesome guy he is.  He's just a great champion of screenwriters everywhere and really wants to help.  Enjoy the discussion and if you like John, sign up for his class here in Los Angeles!

SS: So tell us a little about yourself. Who are you?? What's your screenwriting backstory?

JJ: Basically, I was a young guy who took on $50,000 worth of student loans to go to NYU Film and chase a dream of making movies one day. I literally drove out to L.A. in late 1990 with nothing but $200 dollars and my trusty '66 VW Bug to my name. The old "confidence of ignorance" approach. (Not recommended, by the way.)

Five months later, with my Hollywood hopes and dreams being pulped into cream corn, I hit a clutch do-or-die shot and sold my first script. I was over the moon. Next thing I knew, I had real cash in my pocket and was flying home on a private G-3.

It had happened so fast, it all seemed to be too good to be true. Of course it actually was too good to be true. Which I learned pretty quickly.

My script didn't get made and within a year I was broke and unemployed again. What followed was five unrelenting years of struggle simply trying to survive and put food in my mouth. (also not recommended)

But I did survive, and in '97, based on a fresh spec, I got a break. I was signed by this small new agency called "Endeavor". Things kinda took off after that.

Since then I’ve written films and tv pilots for many of the major studios and have worked with some of the best producers and directors in Hollywood. These include — Jeffrey Katzenberg, Neil Moritz, Joel Silver, Terence Chang & John Woo, Mike Medavoy, Richard Donner, Luc Besson, James Foley, Carl Beverly and Warren Littlefield.

Among other projects, I wrote “Hard-Boiled II” and a remake of Peckinpah's "The Killer Elite" for John Woo, was one of the many, many writers on “Live Free, Die Hard” at Fox, and scripted the animated family film “Outlaws” for Dreamworks. I've also sold four tv pilots and just finished my first book -- the real life memoir of a legendary Chinatown gangster from the '70's and '80's.

SS: Sweet! So you’ve worked in this industry for two decades. Which leads me to a couple of questions.
     a. What do you think the key is to breaking into this industry?
     b. What do you think the key is to staying in this industry.

JJ: A) To get a start in this Business, first and foremost, you need a great script. Not merely good, but GREAT.

Twenty years ago screenwriter Larry Marcus ("The Stuntman") told me that if you have a great script it may take a week, a year, or even ten years, but if you've written something undeniably fantastic, someone will find it. Why? Because there simply aren't that many great scripts out there. It's straight-up supply and demand.

I was pretty young at the time, and remember thinking, "That's bullshit." But what he said was right, and I've seen that dynamic play out with both my friends and myself as we've pursued our careers.

The other key elements to "getting a break" are timing and luck, and unfortunately, as most of us know, you can't always control those. But I do believe you can "create your own luck" to an extent by working relentlessly to push your project. Meet people, network, send your script out knowing 99% of the time you'll probably hear "no thanks", but don't let that discourage you.

See, this is the real key for any aspiring writer -- "It only takes one buyer". That's what my first agent told me, and it's just as true today. You can hear 1000 "No's", have a million doors slammed in your face, but just one simple "Yes" validates everything. As a writer, I've always found strength and inspiration in that. You don't have to conquer Hollywood, you just need to find that one buyer out there who gets it.

SS: What’s your general philosophy on screenwriting? What do you think makes a script work? 

JJ: Of course, there are all the classic elements involved -- great characters, great worlds and themes, killer dialogue, etc. In fact, I've seen a lot of solid posts on ScriptShadow discussing all these with real insight. So yeah, they're all important, but if I had to narrow it down to one thing it would be structure.

Having an airtight structure backstopping your script is absolutely critical in my opinion, especially these days when the window for experimentation and/or ambiguity is largely slammed shut.

Want to give execs and producers immediate confidence in whatever they're reading of yours? Land your story's structure. It allows them to "see the movie" straight out of the gate and provides a solid foundation for you as the writer to do your very best work. Structure is a key element of what we do at Tweak Class.

SS: Your big strength is probably action. I don’t see many good action scripts these days. In your opinion, what’s the secret to writing a good action script?

JJ: With the films I've written, I've always focused on creating "intelligent action" -- elevating above and beyond genre expectations by making things smarter and more real. If there's any "secret" to the process, that's probably it. "Bourne Identity" may be the high-watermark in this department. It provided proof positive that when you raise the bar on intelligence and realism that high, you can reach a vast audience... even people who don't usually like action films.

Remember, just because a project is labeled "action" doesn't mean it has to be stupid. Yet, I feel like a lot of writers play down to that, even unconsciously. Repeating the shopworn clichés -- the ball-busting, froth-spewing Police Lt., the scowling, uni-browed Russian drug lord, etc.

Sure, they still make movies with these one-D characters. But as an aspiring writer, you're being held to a much higher standard than that. The limited pool of buyers out there want to see something fresh and inventive -- even if they ultimately dumb it right back down to the most basic clichés (picture me laughing here).

Two rules I try and live by -- 1) Never write something you yourself wouldn't want to read. 2) Whenever you find yourself writing a scene that feels stock, like you've seen it a million times before, cut it and start over. Believe me, if you don't, sooner or later someone in the food chain will call you on it, and it may kill your read.

Bottom line, guys, make your scripts as smart and interesting and badass as you would want a film to be if you just forked over $12 to see it. That'll help keep you honest and keep the quality of your writing high.

SS: For me, personally, I need some depth in an action script to respond to it. But you obviously talk to these action producers all the time. In your experience, what are they looking for?

JJ: Just like the rest of us, great action producers want something fresh and fun, a badass idea that gets them totally pumped. Christ, you can see their faces light right up in the room when you pitch 'em one they legitimately love. Remember, at heart, these guys are all big fans of action, just like we are.

The Business is making a lot less movies these days, so producers are even more selective about what they can finance. The good news is that they'll always make action movies -- the genre is old as Hollywood itself. So as a writer, help increase your odds of survival by thinking smart, badass and fun as hell -- even if it’s a dark fun. Brother, if your world, characters or premise feels stock, you're already dead and buried five pages in.

One more thing I'd like to add -- Don't kid yourself about "action" producers being ridiculous cartoons or "not getting it". I've worked with Joel Silver, Neil Moritz, John Woo/Terence Chang... believe me, these men are SHARP. They have a depth of knowledge when it comes to genre that is outright intimidating.

Joel in particular was incredibly bright, one of the smartest men I've met in my life. When I wrote "Romeo Must Die" he had crossed the $100 Million Dollar mark FOURTEEN times. You don't get there by accident, believe me. Man, that was such an incredible learning experience for me as a writer. Joel was a true connoisseur and had an incredible love for the genre, which he himself largely helped define.

SS: A lot of people don’t know the journey a script takes when it leaves your computer to getting sold. Can you tell us how that works? From when your agent sends it out to the sale, what happens?

JJ: Well, a lot of that has changed in the past four years. Pre-2008 when you wrote a great spec, you gave it to your agent and they would send it out to the different studios and producers that were logical, legitimate buyers.

Today, the emphasis is really on packaging. To a large extent, the studios have gotten out of the development business because of the expense, so now the agencies play a lot of that role. When an agency gets a viable spec, they try and attach a director or star in-house from their client lists first. Once they've cobbled together an appealing package, THEN they shop it to studios and financiers. The thought is that it increases their odds of selling it, and doubles or triples their profits because they rep the attachments involved.

"Naked specs" (scripts without attachments) still do sell, just in much, much smaller quantities. Attachments are king right now. But regardless of the Business of it all, what I said at the start still holds true -- having a great script is always your best bet for navigating through the Hollywood crazy factor.

SS: What are a few of the best lessons you’ve learned over the years about screenwriting, stuff that’s really improved your writing?

JJ: Wow, there's so many at this point, twenty years later. William Goldman's advice to try and "begin each scene at the last possible moment" is a great one. Paddy Chayefsky's "If it should occur to you to cut, do so" is also spot-on -- even if it hurts like hell for a writer to do it. And there's always Hitchcock's dictum that "Movies are real life with the boring parts cut out", which is an excellent guide for any writer constructing a screenplay.

In Tweak Class, we also get into very practical, real life advice for helping writers during the long struggle to finish a feature. Features aren't sprints, they're marathons, and there's a psychological battle to fight every bit as much as a creative one.

Stuff like recognizing when you're past it, when you need to stop for the day because you're not generating good material is really important. As Dirty Harry so famously said, "A man's got to know his limitations." Page count means nothing, page quality everything. It took me years to get hip to this, to understand there's no shame in calling it a day when you're wasted.

Another thing I push hard, which may seem self-evident to some, is that you should NEVER, EVER edit the fresh pages you've written the same day you write them. You're burnt out by then, snowblind. Give them a day minimum, a week's even better, before starting to mark them up. From vast personal experience, I can testify this is the quickest and easiest way to destroy material that would have actually been pretty good upon later, clear-eyed reflection. (laughing again)

End of the day, I firmly believe that Writing is Momentum and a writer has to protect that forward progress at all costs. My class gets into a lot of workable ways to do just that.

SS: We all have weaknesses as screenwriters. What’s your biggest weakness? And how do you work around it?

JJ: One key weakness for me is simply not writing enough. When I look back over my career, I feel like I could have -- and should have -- written twice as much as I did. Writing is damn hard work, and facing a blank screen and all that comes with that is not exactly my idea of fun. Still, despite 27 features and 4 sold pilots, if I could do it over again, I would write a lot more.

Another weakness is driving myself way too hard when on a project. I have a bad habit of beating myself to a pulp psychologically, talking myself down during tough days. Funny thing is, it does not provide better results. If anything, it hampers your process. "Pressure is the enemy of art."

Henry Miller has that great quote about writing -- "Don't be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand." He also said to "Keep Human" while writing. Unfortunately, I've never been able to approach screenwriting from either of those perspectives. For me, for better or worse, it's mostly war all the time... and believe me, I don't recommend it to others.

SS: If you were a young screenwriter today, what kind of script would you write to give yourself the best chance to break in? And what would you do after you wrote that script to break in? What would your process be?

JJ: I suppose I'd do the same thing I did way-back-when -- I'd cook up something commercial and put it right down the middle. My first script was pretty dark, tough Irish kids in the old Jersey City, and while it was good, we couldn't find a buyer. I was new to Hollywood, and my first agent just flat out said -- "Write me something I can sell."

I was juiced up on youthful indignance back then, taking my script's rejection way too personally, and decided that goddamnit, this business would not beat me! I resolved to write something they would have to buy -- something a complete stranger would willingly give me money for. And that's precisely what I did.

After that, I would try to line up a paying gig while writing a second spec even stronger than the first. Young writers have to keep WRITING. But back then, like a dummy, I didn't do that. There's a tendency for young writers to rest on their laurels and celebrate, and I was no exception. Within two years my script had gotten shelved and I was out of work. (more laughter)

SS: You work with the biggest agency in town, WME. How did you end up there? And where did you start as far as representation? Can you give us the journey from your first rep to your current one?

JJ: I ended up at WME through Endeavor. I was signed at Endeavor when it was just starting out, at the very inception. It was tiny and really felt like family back then, just the coolest environment and best ENERGY you can imagine for an agency in this dog-eat-dog town. Being involved at that time was an absolutely amazing experience, one of the high points of my professional life. Hard to imagine today, but I would just stop by and hang out with the agents, bouncing jokes off each other, having a blast, all that. There were some really special people there.

Of course, what happened later is history. Endeavor blew up, became WME, and many of those agents became superstars. Now it's a completely different world. But often I think of those early days with a big smile in my heart.

My career prior to that was probably like many writers out there -- boutique agencies that couldn't quite get it done, agents that didn't have the juice needed to get me in the room on things. And to be fair, I wasn't exactly lighting the town on fire with my writing back then.

But ultimately, again, there aren't any shortcuts. My getting signed at Endeavor came as a direct result of my finally writing a script worthy of getting noticed by the people I wanted to notice me. That's how this game works, like it or not. You have to prove you belong.

SS: What’s the best screenplay, produced or unproduced, you’ve ever read, and why?

JJ: I have a massive vintage script collection at home and here are a few of my all-time favorites --

Larry Kasdan's Body Heat. Good God, what a great read! Every single detail is so artfully laid out and seeded in, and the heat of it, the naked lust and desire, just bleeds right through the page.

Hampton Fancher's early draft of Blade Runner -- For pure writing's sake, I much prefer this to the Peoples' rewrite. It's just more textural and evocative to me, with some slight differences that I really enjoy. A magical script in my opinion.

Oliver Stone's Scarface -- People these days forget what a world-class screenwriter Stone is, one of the greatest who's ever lived in my opinion. What's so mind-blowing about this particular draft is that damn-near EVERY LINE in the film is right there on the page as Stone intended it. As badass a screenplay as you'll ever read.

Paddy Chayefsky's Network -- Pretty much the Holy Grail for screenwriting as far as I'm concerned. His command of subject, character and dialogue is unparalleled here. You're reading these long, thick passages of dialogue -- something you could never get away with today -- and suddenly realize that every last word counts. It's entirely surgical, and coming at you at lightning speed. Unreal. Do not attempt this at home!

Lastly, Andy Kevin Walker's Seven -- The greatest serial killer movie ever written, and one that'll never be equaled. I remember reading it when it first hit town and having it scare the absolute shit out of me. I was living in a tiny Venice Beach studio by myself, and when I got to the sequence with the desiccated guy "Victor" and the Polaroids, I got up to make sure nobody was hiding in my closet. Andy really is the master of the brilliant twist on top of the brilliant twist.

SS: What’s your teaching philosophy?

JJ: I'd never really thought of it in those terms, but I suppose it's that there are no magic bullets or secret potions. Screenwriting is a craft you have to work very, very hard at, and nobody, no matter how experienced or successful, is exempt from that. Making money at it and being good at it are entirely different things, as many of us well know from reading an ocean of shitty big money drafts.

I want my students to be legitimately good at it. To develop the skill set needed to make a career out of writing -- not just hope they'll get lucky optioning a script or two every ten years.

Most of all, I see all the writers in my class as peers. Anyone can come up with a great idea -- the right idea -- at any time, regardless of experience. I'm a produced screenwriter. So what? Does that give me a monopoly on great ideas? Hell, no. The cool thing about screenwriting is that the blank page is the great equalizer -- anyone can work hard and excel there, regardless of who they know, who their parents are, who they're connected to, and so on. That's one thing I really love about it. That anyone can participate and succeed.

Tweak Class aims to be the anti-cottage industry class. The real deal, no-nonsense, Welcome to the NFL shit, right there in the room, from a battle-proven vet with twenty years in. We all share the same dream, and my sole focus is helping you realize your version of it the way I wish someone had helped me out when I first started.

SS: I know your class is a little different from the other classes out there. Can you tell me what you focus on? What can your students expect from your classes?

JJ: "A little different" is a polite way of putting it :) What surprises new students is how much FUN we have --- and how much great work comes out of that. The class is extremely interactive, and that support and synergy can be outright electrifying at times. There's no better rush than having a class get on a creative roll together.

But hey, don't just take my word for it, check out our Facebook Group Page ("Tweak Class Screenwriting") or the website ( and see what my students have to say. Hell, go ahead and PM them and get their takes firsthand.

End of the day, I guess the Log Line here is that writers who join my class can expect to learn how the day-in, day-out business of screenwriting is actually practiced by professionals -- both creatively and business-wise.

Not just the writing stuff, which is essential, but how to pitch, how to read a room, how to surf the million-plus curveballs any situation can throw you. It's hard to win the big game if you don't know the rules, right? Tweak Class focuses on getting your "A" game together in every sense, getting individual projects successfully plotted and First Acts written by the end of the ten weeks.

Every single member of my classes has accomplished both these goals, and trust me when I say you will too. 

I think it goes without saying that John knows his sh*t.  I'll be honest, when I did a grammar pass on this post, *I* wanted to sign up for John's class.  I know his classes start next week in L.A.  You can find out more about them and sign up here.  You can also e-mail John yourself at if you have any questions.  Thank you to John.  This is one of my favorite interviews I've given on the site!  

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Twit-Pitch Review - Re-Enactment

Genre: Thriller(?)
Premise: (Original Twit-Pitch Logline) A civil war expert and his son must fight to survive a reenactment organized by a dangerous southern cult.
About: For those recently joining Scriptshadow, I held a contest a few months back called "Twit-Pitch," where anyone could pitch me their screenplay on Twitter, as long as it was contained within a single tweet.  I picked my 100 favorite loglines and read the first 10 pages of each (which I live-reviewed on Twitter), and then from those, picked the Top 20, which I've been reading the entire screenplay for.  
Writer: Richard Karpala
Details: 119 pages

Don't worry you Twit-Pitch fanatics.  I haven't forgotten about you.  In fact, I was so excited about bringing a Twit-Pitch script back for a review, that I'm posting it a day early!  How bout them apples?  I figured since we dealt with some American history yesterday, why not extend it into a 48 hour American history marathon?!  Scriptshadow Textbook Reviews?  Coming soon!

I remember when I originally picked this up.  The writing was so crisp, so clean, that I wanted to replace my bedsheets with it.  I mean, the script starts out with some of the best descriptions of Civil War battle I've ever read.  Karpala can detail a battlefield kill like no other.  And then for us to realize that it was all just a reenactment via a Lady Gaga ringtone going off?  Brilliant!

Now, before going forward, I should point something out.  When I picked this up yesterday, I'd completely forgotten the logline.  Which turned out to be a good thing because it meant reading the script clean.  That lack of context allowed me to identify a huge issue that needs to be dealt with in the next draft.  So, grab your Confederate flags Scriptsoldiers, it's time to take a trip back in time...for the second day in a row.

During Reenactment's opening reenactment, we meet 45 year old Doug Abbot, a fearless leader on the battlefield, but your average Joe with an ex-wife and a teenage son off it.  You get the feeling that Doug's life didn't turn out the way he wanted it to, and these reenactments are the only moments of joy he has left.

So when he's invited by another re-enactor to a secret reenactment known as the "Battle Of The Wilderness," Doug is in.  In fact, in order to salvage his deteriorating relationship with his son, Will, he invites him to come with.  Will isn't exactly keen on reenacting, but the fact that he gets to shoot guns, even if it's with fake ammunition, is enough to get him onboard.

So Doug and Will, along with a few hundred other participants, are bussed into the middle of some nowhere forest where they're introduced to their commanders and where they get ready for battle.  They march through the forest, encounter the opposing army, and engage in the first volley of gunfire.  But strangely, nobody from the Confederate side falls.  Per the rules of reenacting, at least a portion of the other side is supposed to "die."  Nobody does.

And that's when the Confederates fire on them.  Which is when they figure out something is very VERY wrong.  Dozens of men fall to the ground in a bloody pulp.  These guys are using REAL AMMUNITION!  Let the slaughter begin.

Once Doug realizes this, he grabs Will and a few others and hightails it into the forest.  They're getting the hell out of here. The problem is they're so deep in the middle of nowhere that there's nowhere out.  At a certain point, Doug and his son get split up, and now it's not just about escaping these crazy psycho REAL Confederates, but about Doug finding his son amongst this endless battlefield.  Will he able to do it in time?  And even if he does, how the hell do they plan on getting out alive?

Like I said, the writing here is pretty great.  It's that perfect mix of powerful description and lean paragraph packaging - the way screenplays are meant to be written!  I mean check out this opening line: "A maze of white oak trees, holding up canopies of rich, green summer leaves.  There is an early morning light, bringing with it an early morning stillness." I know a lot of writers who would turn that opening description into 4 to 5 paragraphs!  All we need is one here and the scene is set.

However, once we get into the meat of this story, some cracks, not unlike the cracks in the Confederate army, start to show.  The first issue was simply what the hell was happening!??  I couldn't for the life of me figure out if we had gone back in time or if this was occurring in the present day.

Here's why.  Karpala makes a huge deal out of how "similar" all the Confederate leaders look to their real life counterparts.  Eerily similar.  To me that meant we'd gone back in time and were dealing with the real versions of these people.  Also, there were numerous references to how things weren't where they were supposed to be on the map, which was another hint to me that they were 150 years in the past, where the landscape was much different.  So for about 75% of the screenplay, I thought we were in the past, which is of course a completely different kind of movie.

Another issue for me was the tone.  The non-battlefield stuff had this light, almost goofy family movie quality to it.  Oh, there's the goofy but annoying new boyfriend of the ex-wife.  Lady Gaga ringtones.  A boy and his dad trying to find common ground together.  Yet once we got onto that battlefield, people's heads are decapitated by cannon balls.  Bodies are exploded into a dozen pieces by land mines.  And there's more blood in your average battle scene than in an entire Quentin Tarantino movie.  I don't know about you guys, but I couldn't marry those two extremes together.

Also, once I started thinking about the story, there were certain things that didn't make sense.  Apparently these REAL reenactments were put together once a year.  And during each of them, somewhere between 400-500 men were killed.  Now I'm not a math major, but doesn't the FBI start getting suspicious when 500 men who went on a reenactment trip don't return?

Story-wise, the one thing I felt needed strengthening was the father-son stuff.  If the central objective of the script is for the father to find and save his son, we have to really care about that relationship.  I didn't NOT care about that relationship, but there was nothing exceptional about it  either.  Therefore I was only mildly interested in whether Doug would find Will.  Since that's pretty much the whole movie, that area needs to be beefed up.

I think Karpala needs to create more of a divide between Doug and Will.  Something more deep-seated that's been at the core of their relationship for awhile.  For example, maybe Doug bailed on his wife, and Will's never forgiven him for it.  Now that we have a strong unresolved issue between the two, we as an audience will be rooting for them to reunite so they can finally resolve that issue.

So yeah, the writing in this one was great, as I expected it to be after those first 10 pages, but there were too many little issues that added up.  Not bad, but not good enough to get me all smiley and happy.  :(

Script Link: Re-Enactment

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

What I Learned: Beware the forced plot point!  Readers know!  Look, we all WANT things to happen in our screenplays to move our story along the way we want it moved along.  But it still has to make sense!  If it doesn't, it feels forced, and we readers shake our heads in quiet dismay, muttering to ourselves, "That would so never happen."  Clearly, Karpala needed to split Doug and Will up so Doug could be looking for Will the whole movie.  The problem is, it makes absolutely NO SENSE WHY THEY SPLIT UP.  Doug says something like, "You're going to wait here while I go do this thing."  So wait, this father who loves his son more than anything is going to leave him alone in this insanely dangerous and unpredictable battle zone instead of take him with him???????  No way.  Come on guys.  Make sure all your plot points make sense.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Screenplay Review - The General

Genre: Historical/Action
Premise: George Washington must lead a dying army to fend off a band of British mercenaries intent on destroying America.
About: A couple of interesting things about this one.  First of all, Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) is set to direct it.  Now THAT could be interesting.  Also, the writers here are traditionally comedy writers.  Their credits include the Olsen Twin classic (heh heh), New York Minute, the college comedy, Accepted, and I believe they wrote the original spec for the tonally strange Tower Heist.
Writers: Adam Cooper and Bill Collage
Details: 115 pages

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  Scripts about the birth of America are boring.  I don't know if it's the cheesy wigs.  I don't know if it's the fluffy clothes.  But there's something about Washington and Jefferson and Adams that just screams...BORING!  There, I said it.  I let the bayonet out of the bag.  But it's true!  Lots of speeches about happiness and liberty.  Declarations of independence.  Hey, it's all great for history.  But for entertainment purposes, I'd rather watch a weeping willow grow.

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that we, as Americans, hold these men up as flawless heroes.  Washington couldn't even tell a lie!  But if you want us to care about your characters, you HAVE to show us their flaws.  Flaws are what make them real.  Nobody's perfect.  And nobody should want to be perfect.  Perfect people are BORING!

So the only way anyone's going to write a good story about this period is if they dare to challenge our heroes.  They have to stop idealizing them and show us the things that made them human.  Well, we finally have a script for that.

When we meet 46 year old George Washington in The General, he is not yet the president we know.  He's the Commander In Chief of the American army.  And the American Army has their hands full.  They've lost Manhattan to the British, and they're losing many more territories by the day.

Worst of all, the army's about to get a lot smaller.  They only have like 30,000 troops as it is, and many of those are the walking wounded.  But higher on the Suck Chart is the fact that the deadline on those soldiers is running out.  Their tour of duty is about to end.

So instead of going out there and fighting battles, which is what Washington wants to be doing, he's stuck touring the nation, begging Congress and rich people for money to keep the defenses strong.  It's not going well.  Many people are just like, "Fuck it, let the British have their country back and let's just be done with this war."  Washington is becoming the lone voice in a sea of surrender.  This man will die trying to keep this nation free.

And he almost does.  When the British attack the very fort named after him, Washington is nearly killed, and carried away onto a row boat to begin what would easily be the best pre-20th-century chase scene ever put on film.  Washington and five men in a row boat are chased by three giant British war ships down the river.  This is the kind of shit you need if you're going to write a movie about the birth of our nation - shit that's actually cool!

Another great decision the writers made was not focusing on the redcoats themselves as the enemy, but the MERCENARIES the British hired to invade America.  Wait a minute.  Did I just say we have mercenaries in a Wigs and Whistles costume pic?  Yup!  A heartless German gun for hire named Johann Rall and his Hessian army do not play by the rules.  They pillage.  They burn.  They kill civilians.  They just don't care.  And these are the men Washington is going to lose his country to.

Whereas the British believe that securing land is the key to victory, Rall has a different opinion.  He believes you don't win this war until you kill "The Virginian," until you kill Washington himself.  So that's all Rall cares about - chasing Washington down and turning him into bayonet stew.  His obsession, however, becomes a little unhealthy, and in the process he becomes blind to the unthinkable - that Washington might actually come after him first.

LOTS of cool things about this one.  Where do I start.  First, the character flaws!  Yes, Washington has some actual flaws in this screenplay.  He's arrogant.  He's stubborn.  He's even a little jealous.  This is not the Washington we know, and thank God.  Our first president becomes a million times more interesting under the guidance of Aronofsky.

It's got a great bad guy!  This Rall bastard is the real deal.  Such a great idea to focus on the mercenary angle.  Also loved how they made Rall's pursuit of Washington PERSONAL.  Remember, you're always looking to specify conflict.  If it's too general, the audience won't connect.  But if you focus on one person's obsession with taking down another person, now we have something clear to latch onto.  We actually care what's going to happen because what's happening is SPECIFIC.

The writers even brought in a ticking time bomb!  Yes, I loved the focus on the army's soldiers about to end their tour.  It instantly adds stakes.  You could feel that if Washington didn't make his move now, he'd lose his army and America was done for good.  I love when writers tackle these tough period subject matters but still fall back on sound storytelling principles.

Yet another smart move was constantly reminding the audience how impossible the odds were.  When you think of that time, you assume that with all our land and us defending our own country, that we were probably going to win no matter what.  But the writers constantly reminded us how many of our soldiers were injured, how low morale was, how amazing the Hessian army was.  This created a sense of desperation, of America being the huge underdog.  And who doesn't root for the underdog!?

There was really only one problem in the script for me, and that's when Washington and army camped out across the river from Rall for 30 pages.  I hate hate HATE when characters just sit around for extended periods of time in scripts.  It means they're not being active.  It means they're not doing anything.  Sitting around is almost ALWAYS boring unless you have a ton of conflict to deal with inside the protagonist's party.  And they didn't really have that here.

Also, the ending wasn't as good as I was hoping for.  I didn't really understand what Washington was trying to do.  He was trying to cross the Delaware River and take over a town called Trenton, but I had a hard time figuring out if Rall was there or someone else.

That was the thing.  The writers did such a good job setting up that personal showdown between Washington and Rall, that, in the end, that's all I really cared about.  It does happen but, I don't know.  It just felt like it could've been done better.

Still, this one surprised me.  And I think Aronofsky is going to do something really cool with it!

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

What I learned: Make it difficult for characters having an argument to have their argument.  Remember, straight up arguments with people yelling at each other are boring.  You need ways to make them different or interesting.  A great way to do this is to place people around the arguing party that prevent them from being able to argue.  In the opening scene of The General, Washington is raising money at an event when a congressman challenges his approach to the war.  Washington is furious and is readying to scream at the guy - but everywhere around him are potential financial contributors, so he must have his argument in a quiet restrained manner.  I just always find these confrontations more interesting than the blatant, "You scream at me, I scream at you" arguments.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Zero Theorem

Genre: Sci-Fi/Drama
Premise: A terminally ill data cruncher is tasked with crunching the company's most unsolvable job, the mysterious Zero Theorem.
About: If there's ever been such a thing as a dream geek pairing, Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys) and Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Bastards) would be somewhere in the top 10 (okay, let's face it, Terry Gilliam and any actor would be in the top 10).  Right now, The Zero Theorem is in pre-production.  Gilliam has been trying to get this movie going for awhile, with Billy Bob Thorton attached at one point.  This will be writer Pat Rushin's first produced credit.  He was an English professor at the University Of Central Florida and has had his work published in a number of magazines and newspapers.
Writer: Pat Rushin
Details: 95 pages

The more I read, the clearer this whole "voice" thing becomes to me.  Let me explain.  Almost all the scripts I read follow the same exact pattern, make the same exact choices, have the same exact sense of humor, have surprisingly similar dialogue.  There's nothing in the script that stands out as unique.  And when there isn't a single unique thing about your script, how do you expect it to stand out?  Why would you expect anyone to remember your screenplay an hour after they've finished it?

This is why "voice" is so important.  If you can do anything differently - if you have a part of your writing that only YOU can add - people are going to remember you.

That's the feeling I got right away when reading The Zero Theorem.  It was unlike any script I've read in awhile.  It's sort of 13 Monkeys by way of Midnight Cowboy with a splash of Eternal Sunshine with a sprinkle of The Matrix? Original enough for you?  We're introduced to a strange man named Qohen Leth, a 40-something gaunt hairless fellow, presumably in the near future, working for an obscure data-crunching company.

Qohen is one weird dude.  He's tired, distant, and hates to be touched.  He also thinks he's dying.  And the only thing he cares about is a big call he assumes he'll be getting soon which will tell him what he needs to do with his life.  See that's the thing.  Above and beyond everything, Qohen feels like he doesn't have a purpose.  And that whoever's calling him will finally give him that purpose.

So Qohen applies for a medical exception which will allow him to work from home so he can be around at all times just in case that call comes.  He gets the exception, but on one condition - that he tackle the biggest number-crunching job the company's ever had - The Zero Theorem.  Nobody's been able to figure out The Zero Theorem.  No matter how many times they've tried to crunch the numbers, they won't stay crunched.  Qohen is their last shot.

The kicker?  If he solves Zero Theorem, management will make sure Qohen gets his phone call.  That's one of the weird things about this script.  We're existing in this slightly "off" universe where the boss at a company can make sure a Fate phone call can get to one of his workers.  I'm not sure how Rushin pulled this off, but it somehow makes sense.

Anyway, Qohen soon finds The Zero Theorem to be as impossible as it's hyped to be.  The numbers just don't work.  When he complains to management, "Management" sends his 15 year old boy genius son, Bob, to help him.  Bob is as eccentric as Qohen is bizarre.  For example, he calls everyone else "Bob" so he doesn't have to waste brain space on remembering new names.

Qohen and Bob develop a unique friendship and together find out what The Zero Theorem reveals - the meaning of life!  Yeah, that's a pretty big deal - and it's something Qohen in particular wants to find out, especially because he's been stuck in this paralyzed state ever since his wife and son died in a fire.  He craves meaning.  He needs a reason to go on.  So Qohen and Bob give the theorem everything they've got.  Will they solve it, especially once they learn management is working against them??

A main character who refers to himself as "We."  A 15 year old boy on life-support who refers to everyone by his own name, Bob.  A buxom blonde infatuated with virtual reality.  A manager who never shows his face in public.  Heck, this script had me when it introduced a rapping virtual psychiatrist on CD-ROM.  There was nothing about this script that was ordinary.  I had NO idea where it was going.

A lot of times, that can end up in disaster.  If you get too random, your story falls off the rails.  But this script managed to stay random yet still incorporate a clear story with a clear goal (Figure out Zero Theorem so Qohen can get his phone call).  Cool!

I think that's what really stuck out to me here - that the script managed to feel so different yet incorporate a lot of the most basic storytelling tools.  Take, for example, the creation of a sympathetic character.  Qohen is lonely.  He's an outsider.  He doesn't relate to anyone.  Characters like these are really easy for an audience to sympathize with.  People naturally root for lonely people, people who are misunderstood.  From Edward Scissorhands to Elliot in E.T.

On top of that, Qohen lost his family in a tragic fire.  It's something that's completely destroyed him emotionally.  Again, people will ALWAYS root for characters who have experienced personal loss.  So we're rooting for this guy HARDCORE from the get-go.

And I just liked the contrast and conflict within the script.  I loved how Qohen was just about the most anti-social creature in the universe, and we pair him up with a love interest who's the most outgoing person in the universe, the buxom force of nature, Bainsley.  It's decisions like these (a pairing similar to Eternal Sunshine) that ensure tons of conflict between the characters, which results in the dialogue writing itself (whenever someone says, "The dialogue practically writes itself," that usually happens because the conflict in the scene makes the dialogue really fun/easy to write).

Now the ending of the script starts to get a little wacky and hard to follow, not unlike Friday's amateur effort, where there were simply too many variables to keep track of.  So if the story has a weakness, that's probably it.  I've found that whenever you promise an answer akin to the meaning of life in your script, you're usually not going to deliver, so it was a dangerous route for Rushin to take in the first place.  But outside of that ending (which was still pretty solid), this weird little story had me digitally dancing through the pages.

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

What I learned: If you do not have a distinct voice - and not every writer does - the only thing you have is your ability to tell a great story.  I look at a movie like Contact as a good example.  I don't sense an original voice when I read that script, but the story is extremely well told.  That said, you should always be looking to see what makes you original as a writer and try and highlight that in your writing.  If you don't have anything unique about yourself that stands out, it can be a tough road getting discovered.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Amateur Friday - Keeping Time

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: Sci-Fi/Comedy
Premise: (from writer) A for-hire time traveler who specializes in “preventing” bad relationships meets his match with a mysterious woman who claims to also be a traveler and is determined to stop him from completing his mission.
Writer: Nathan Zoebl
Details: 100 pages

Any excuse to put a picture up of BTTF!

You guys know one of my weaknesses is time-travel comedies.  Back To The Future is the responsible party.  I don't know why I keep thinking I'm going to find the next Marty McFly.  Time travel is so difficult to get right.  Comedies are so difficult to get right.  So these sci-fi time travel comedies are NEVER very good, and nowhere close to the perfection that is BTTF.  And yet I continue my search!

Well, I finally found something.  Now I don't want to get TOO excited here.  This isn't BTTF quality (What is???).  But this Eternal Sunshine meets Adjustment Bureau comedy is the best time travel thing I've read in forever.  It's really clever, really fun, and really well-written.  And best of all, it's written by an amateur!

I knew I was in for something good right away when we see our hero, Charles, walk in front of a car, about to get plastered, then FREEZE to the title card: "48 Hours Earlier."  Oh no, the dreaded "48 hours earlier" title card!  The thing Carson hates more than anything!  But then the "48 hours earlier" is crossed out and replaced with "48 hours later."  Which is also crossed out.  And finally a title card appears that tells us that in the near future, time travel is a reality, and that for the right price, you can take care of hurtful past relationships that have turned you into a walking pile of sludge.

All you have to do is sign up at "Forget-Me-Nots," the company our soon-to-be-road-kill hero, Charles, works for, and an agent will go back in time to make sure you and that guy who dumped your ass never meet in the first place.  And of course if you never meet, you never break up, so you never experience heartbreak.  Hey, sign me up!

When our story begins (or ends??), Charles is approached by a recently scorned woman, Julia, who wants to make it so that she and her ex, Tom, never meet.  Julia tells Charles how they met, and he heads back in time to make sure it never happens.  Now the rules of time travel are strict.  The governing body of time only allows people to jump for 48 hours, so Charles has to be efficient in his approach.  And he always is.  So far, he hasn't screwed up a job yet.

But that's about to change.  As Charles moves to prevent Julia from meeting Tom, a cute 22 year old spunky chick, Dora, bumps into him, unloading a cup of coffee onto his shirt.  She apologizes profusely as Charles tries to get away, but she insists on cleaning him up.  He fights and claws to escape, but in the end loses the battle and watches helplessly as Tom and Julia meet across the street.

No problem.  He's missed first encounters before.  He'll just prevent their first date from happening.  But what Charles soon finds out is that something keeps preventing him from executing his plan.  And there's one common factor involved: Dora!  She ALWAYS seems to be around when things go south.

Charles finally confronts her and finds out that she's a time traveler as well, and that she's been sent here to make sure these two stay together.  Charles is pissed, but takes it as a challenge.  He's been on dozens of trips.  This girl is a rookie.  He'll be able to handle her no problem.

So the two start an Adjustment Bureau-like battle where they each make moves to alter fate surrounding the couple.  And every time Charles seems to have a leg up, Dora outfoxes him.  But as this time battle escalates, Charles starts to see the Tom-Julia job as secondary.  He wants to know who this Dora girl is, and who sent her here.  All of this will come to a whopper of a conclusion when we finally catch up with the opening scene that has Charles staring down death in the form of a car seconds away from crushing him.

This one was good.  Really good.

Yesterday we talked about clarity and how difficult it is for some writers to write even the most basic scene.  Keeping Time jumps between the present and the past and has multiple versions of characters and yet I knew what was going on 95% of the time (the ending does get confusing, which I'll talk about in a sec).  For example, instead of just assuming we'd get it, Nathan will stop the script to explain the difference between "Past Charles" and "Present Charles," so we won't be confused by their interactions.

What I also liked about "Time" was that it kept evolving.  Every time I thought I knew where the story was going, it took a left turn.  For example, when Charles misses the first Tom-Julia encounter, he  decides to use the information she gave him back in their interview to sweep her off her feet, keeping her away from Tom in the process.  I thought, "Uh-oh.  Now we just have another version of There's Something About Mary."  Except when Tom tries to use her secrets against her, she stonewalls him, which confuses the hell out of Charles and left me wondering - "Wow, what now??"

Likewise with the Charles-Dora relationship.  I thought for sure these two time-travellers would battle each other to change fate and in the process fall in love!  But that doesn't happen either.  At that point I'm thinking, "Man, this writer really knows how to craft an unpredictable story."

And pretty soon, I found myself obsessed with finding out who Dora was and why she was here.  I had about five theories, but was never sure which one it would be.

On top of that, I felt the dialogue, for the most part, was really solid.  It wasn't great.  It had some clunky moments.  But Charles and Dora's back-and-forth was almost always fun to listen to.  The two had great chemistry and I'd find that even in scenes where they were just sitting at the table chatting for five pages (a scenario I tell writers to avoid all the time - two characters sitting at a table talking), I'd always be entertained.

But you know what really put me over the top?  What really got me?  This script had a theme!  I can count the number of amateur comedies I've read that have a theme on one hand - that were actually trying to say something!  Here, the theme was about allowing people to have the experiences in their lives, whether good or bad, because those experiences end up making them who they are.  I thought it was really well executed.

And to prove it, when the ending came, and one of the final twists arrived, I actually found myself tearing up!  And I realized that doesn't happen by accident.  It happens because the writer was doing more than simply throwing a cool story on the page.  He created likable characters we wanted to root for.  He created interesting backstories (and forestories!).  He used a theme to add layers and depth to the script.  That's how you emotionally affect a reader.

The only reason I didn't raise the script to "impressive" status was the ending.  It gets a little too confusing.  I liked the ambition behind it.  But either it tries to be one level more clever than it needs to be and gets too confusing in the process, or it's not described clearly enough.  I'm not sure which but if Nathan can fix that and improve a bunch of smaller problems in the script, this could EASILY be an impressive and get snatched up by a production company.

How much do I believe in it?  I'm going to try and convince Nathan to let me hop on as producer and push it around town.  We'll see what happens! :)

p.s. I believe the draft I sent out to everybody was the wrong one and wasn't spell-checked.  The one I personally read was devoid of errors.

Script link: Link taken down due to increasing interest.  Will keep people updated on my Twitter feed, @Scriptshadow!  E-mail me to read!

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

What I Learned: Getting back to theme, I find that one helpful way of expressing theme is to include a  scene (sometimes two) where the main characters debate both sides of the theme.  Some writers think this is too on-the-nose, but in my experience, theme does need to be announced in places for it to really catch on with the audience.  Be too subtle about it and your audience might miss it completely.  Charles and Dora have a scene in the middle of the script where they debate just that - whether it's okay to erase our mistakes, since those mistakes are an essential part of who we are.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Screenwriting Article - Clarity, The Most Overlooked Mistake In Screenwriting

So over the last few weeks, you guys have seen me bring a certain term up time and time again: CLARITY.  Or, more specifically, lack there of.  Clarity isn't as sexy to talk about as character arcs or the first act turn, but unclear writing is a way-too-common problem for beginners and low intermediates, particularly because they're not aware it's a problem in the first place.  Tell them you didn't understand something, and they think the onus is on you.  They believe that if it makes sense in their heads, it should make sense in yours.

The problem is that what works inside your gray matter doesn't always work on the page. For example, say you're writing about a movie that jumps back and forth between Present Day and the Old West.  As the writer, you've been prepping this dual-time story forever.  So by the time you start, everything about it makes complete sense to you.  Your first scene, then, follows a detective walking into a murder scene.  After the scene is over, you cut to a whorehouse in the Old West.  Now to you, this cut makes perfect sense.  To a reader being introduced to the story for the first time, however, it's confusing as hell.  How did we get from a murder scene to a 19th century brothel??? The solution to orientating the reader is quite simple.  Just insert a title card that says "1878 - The Old West." Now the cut reads as structured and intentional, as opposed to random and bizarre.  It seems quite obvious but beginner writers often don't know to do this.

And that's the problem.  If a script contains as little as three or four confusing moments in the first act, the script is shot.  It gets too confusing for the reader to follow along.  I mean sure, we have a vague sense of what's going on, but the particulars are hazy, and the particulars are what make a script a script.  Now the more I started thinking about this problem, the more I realized there weren't any articles out there specifically addressing it.  Which seemed strange to me because it's an issue that comes up three or four scripts a week in my reading.  Hence, why I decided to write today's post.  I want to give writers the tools to BE CLEAR in their writing.  So here are some guidelines to follow that should keep your screenplay easy to understand.

A CLEAR GOAL - One of the simplest ways to write a clear story is to set up a big goal for your main character in the first act.  In Trouble With The Curve, we establish that Eastwood's character must correctly scout a minor-league player or lose his job.  In yesterday's script, The Almighty, I was never clear on what the ultimate goal was.  Stop Lucifer maybe?  But we had to get through a lot of gobbledy-gook to get to that point, and even then, I wasn't sure if that was the ultimate goal.  So, as a beginner, instead of having a bunch of changing or shifting goals during your story, keep it simple.  Your hero should be going after one thing (Indiana Jones goes after the Ark).  Following this one rule is going to take care of most of your clarity problems.

GET RID OF UNIMPORTANT SUBPLOTS - Lots of writers will add subplots that feel completely separate from the main storyline.  So instead of enjoying them, readers spend the majority of the time trying to figure out what they're doing there in the first place.  This detracts from the primary story (the main goal), making the story difficult to follow.  Subplots are good.  Just make sure they're plot related.

GET RID OF UNIMPORTANT CHARACTERS - I can't tell you how many times I stop reading a script to ask the question, "Who is this person???"  Characters that have only a minimal effect on the story should be ditched or combined with other characters.  The more characters there are in a script, the harder it is for the reader to keep track of everyone, and the more confused they get.  They'll start mixing people up, forgetting who's aligned with who, and just outright forget characters.  This is a big reason for reader confusion.

REMINDERS - Depending on how complicated your story is, you may need to remind your reader every once in awhile what the goal is.  Even if your story isn't complicated, you'd be surprised at how quickly a reader can lose track of why we're on this journey.  In The Hangover, Bradley Cooper's character is constantly reminding us that they need to find Doug.  For simple stories, you may only need to remind the audience twice.  For complex ones, you may need to remind them as many as six times.  Feel out the complexity of your story and determine the number from there.  But a good reminder of what we're doing and why is always helpful to the reader.

STAY AWAY FROM FLASHBACKS, FLASHFORWARDS AND DREAM SEQUENCES - In the hands of beginners, these devices are script suicide.  I'm not even sure what it is, but when new writers attempt them, they almost always occur at random times and result in total confusion.  I just read a script two weeks ago that started with a woman getting married.  The very next scene had that same girl walking into a pharmacy and flirting with a different guy.  Questions: Why was our protagonist going to a pharmacy right after her wedding?  And why was she trying to pick up a guy hours after getting married?  Eventually I figured out that this was a flashback.  But how was I supposed to know???  This kind of thing happens ALL THE TIME, even with more advanced writers.   So the best solution is to just keep your story in the present.  Use these devices if they're necessary for telling your story (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind).  But make sure that they're properly notated and that there really is no other way to do it.

KEEP YOUR WRITING SIMPLE - I was just discussing this with a writer the other day.  He'd written this huge lumbering opus and peppered every paragraph with 20 adjectives and 90% more description than was needed.  Even when I did manage to understand what was being said, it felt like I'd run a marathon through quicksand.  After awhile, it became so laborious to read through even the most basic scenes, that my mind tired out, and it became difficult to follow what was going on.  Therefore, it wasn't that the information wasn't on the page.  It was that we had to dig through a pile of words to get there.  Do that too many times and the reader gives up.  And when that happens, your script becomes unclear by reason of exhaustion.

MAKE SURE EACH SCENE HAS A CLEAR GOAL - Believe it or not, there are tons of writers out there who can't even write a clear scene.  ONE CLEAR SCENE.  And it's usually because they don't have a gameplan.  They just sort of write what comes to mind.  So make sure going into a scene that you're doing four things.  First, make sure you have a goal for the scene.  For example, you want your two leads to meet. Second, make sure the scene moves the story forward.  In other words, the scene should be required to get your protagonist (either directly or indirectly) closer to his ultimate goal.    By "indirectly" I mean, yes, Indiana Jones wants the Ark, but the scene where he goes to Marion is required because she has a piece of the puzzle required to find the Ark.  If she doesn't have that piece, this scene isn't moving the story forward, and therefore isn't needed.  Third and fourth, make sure both characters in the scene have a goal.  So in the Marion Intro scene, Indiana's goal is to get that puzzle piece, and Marion's goal is to keep it from him.  This basic setup should ensure that every scene you write makes sense.

IF YOU DON'T TELL US, WE WON'T KNOW - In your mind, Indiana might be standing right next to Marion, but if you don't tell us, how are we supposed to know?  In your mind, the bar might be full of people.  But if you don't tell us, we might assume it's empty.  In your mind, the bad guys are in the room adjacent to our hero, ready to strike.  But if you don't convey that, we may assume they're in a room all the way across town.  Writers leaving out basic information is one of the quickest ways to scene confusion.  For example, I just read a script where two friends were sharing secrets about a guy named "Joe."  But Joe was right there in the room next to them!  I was so confused.  How could they secretly be talking about a guy who was right there???  The writer later explained that Joe was actually on the other side of the room, so he couldn't hear them. Well how the hell was I supposed to know that?  Again, it's a matter of assumption with a lot of beginners.  They assume things are obvious.  But the reality is, if they don't tell the reader, how the heck is the reader supposed to know?

Now in the end, sound storytelling principles have the biggest effect on clarity:  A strong goal.  A hero we want to root for.  An interesting story with exciting developments.  Escalating stakes.  If you do that, you'll keep the reader's interest.  If you don't, the reader will get bored and start checking out, missing things because they're just not into your story anymore, and hence start getting confused.  And one last thing.  When you're finished, give your script to a friend to read and just ask them if it all makes sense.  Drill them on parts of it.  Ask them questions.  Make sure it's all clear.  Then, and only then, should you unleash your screenplay into the world.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Almighty

Genre: Action
Premise: A young man who has the ability to see manifestations of evil in people, must save the world from Lucifer.
About: Okay, so a little history on this script.  This is not a spec sale.  Nor has it been optioned to my knowledge.  I'm reviewing it because it was highly recommended to me by a reader of the site.
Writer: Dempsey Tillman
Details: 108 pages

When you're in my position, one of the things you get used to is people referring "amazing" scripts to you that turn out to be not so amazing, usually because it's the person who referred it's own script.  I actually had a hilarious experience recently where a guy e-mailed me and said he'd found this dusty old screenplay at an estate sale and that it was the best thing he'd ever read and he wanted to send it to me.  So he does, and it's a PDF document clearly printed from the Final Draft program.  I mean come on.  If you're going to lie, at least go through the process of making the lie look legitimate.

And hey, I get it.  You gotta try everything in your power to get read.  I will say this, however.  A reader will never be as relentless as when he's told something's amazing and it's not.  Nobody likes to be conned.  So it's fake referrals like this that get the most backlash.  That's why I suspect there will be plenty of pissed off comments today.  People want a venue to vent their frustration.  And I have a feeling it's going to get ugly.

So what is The Almighty about?

Oscar Renfro has been seeing creepy things ever since he was a kid.  Like people turning into monsters n' stuff.  In that sense, he's like Cole from The Sixth Sense.  He sees ugly people.  The doctors have a perfect explanation for this.  He's a paranoid schizophrenic.  So they prescribe him a bunch of medication and the visions kind of go away, but never disappear completely.

In fact, Oscar's walking through the city one afternoon when a homeless man approaches him telling him he best stop taking his medication because it's covering up his gift.  He can see evil in people, which is something he should use to save mankind.  Apparently Lucifer's making an appearance on Earth soon and if Oscar doesn't use his power for...something (was never quite sure what), then Lucifer's going to take over the world.

Oscar, who works at the DMV, ignores the crazy homeless man (and I don't blame him), but later that day while he's supervising a driving test, the woman driver accidentally scrapes against a school bus, sending sparks into the car, which make her catch fire and burn to ashes right in front of him, freaking Oscar out!  Except five seconds later she's totally fine.  Errrr....ummm...what???

Oscar's boss yells at him, and Oscar realizes that the pills just aren't helping anymore.  Afraid that he's going to hurt his wife and son during one of these freak-out sessions, he sends them away and admits himself into a psyche ward.  But not before a demon attacks him on the bus and the video goes viral.  Now Oscar has to go on the run, since everyone wants to know what the crazy demon-fight was all about.

Enter a dude called THE MESSENGER.  The Messenger really really really - like really really wants Oscar to accept his powers.  He tells him that Lucifer's coming to steal his secret ability to see the bad in people (The devil doesn't have this ability himself????) and once he does, he'll be able to take over the world.  I think.

From that point on, for the final 50 pages, I truthfully have no idea what happened.  It was as if 20 random stories were thrown into a blender and spat out into one long 50 page action sequence.  I take notes when I read these scripts so I can keep track of the plot, and there was a point late in the story where I wrote, "Mom sucked into vortex."  It was time to say goodbye to The Almighty, referral and all.

Something I'd like to remind people is that Hollywood is a VERY liberal town.  Look no further than the recent Chik-Fil-A spat as proof.  If there's one thing that there's a strong resistance to here, it's a heavy Christian agenda.  So when you write an entire screenplay that's clearly pushing that Christian agenda, chances are it's going to be met with fire and brimstone.

I know, I know.  The Passion Of The Christ made a bazillion dollars, but nobody in town wanted to distribute that movie.  It was only because of Mel Gibson's star power that it got out there.  So before even getting into the mechanics of this one, I kinda feel like this type of script is dead in the water.

Put plainly, The Almighty felt like a cliche jumble of ideas with no plot.  While at first I was able to decipher some semblance of a story, the script continued to get more and more confusing as it went on.  This happens a lot with amateur writers who spend a ton of time on the first 30 pages, but maybe 1/4, even 1/8 the time on their last 80.  And it shows.  I literally had NO IDEA what was happening after the midpoint.

Lucifer was coming to earth for some reason.  He needed the power of someone who could see evil to take over the planet?  Lucifer can't see the evil in people himself?  I'm already confused.  Then there was this guy called The Messenger, who may or may not have also been the cliche Homeless Guy spouting out end of the world sermons at the beginning of the story.  The Messenger spends most of his time reminding Oscar how great God is.

The Messenger also, a la The Ghost Of Christmas Past, takes Oscar back to witness his childhood to learn some valuable lessons or something.  Some Fallen Angels show up, intent on kicking ass.  Oscar's best friend, Cole, turns into Lucifer for some reason, but not by himself.  He becomes Lucifer in conjunction with his jail cell mate, so they both speak at the same time in Lucifer's voice??

Random people, like the police detective, become Lucifer too - I think.  There's a ton of bible gobbledy-gook spoken, about how "He" is our savior and "He" will make everything all right, and then lots of quotes from the bible, I think.  All of this is a big deal because Oscar doesn't believe in God, even though he sees demons on a daily basis.

I don't know.  After that, it just turns into this huge melee of confusingness.  I rarely knew where we were or why.  They need to take the Messenger to the hospital or something.  Cole, who was Lucifer, is no longer Lucifer.  Lucifer jumps into a bunch of other bodies.  Oscar has to find him and stop him.  Reading the final act was a bit like drinking a case of beer and being taught Calculus and Spanish simultaneously by a Chinese speed-talker.

I hate to beat a dead horse but this comes down to the same old same old - the writing isn't clear.  It's confusing.  The writer knows what's going on in his head.  But he hasn't yet learned the tools necessary to convey those thoughts in a coherent manner to the reader.  Therefore everything feels random and confusing.

You need to go back to basics.  A clear goal that the main character is going after.  Establish someone on earth as Lucifer.  Then establish that the main character is going to have to kill him.  That way, we understand the objective of the story right away.  KISS folks.  Keep things simple stupid until you have a grasp on the craft.  To be honest, I didn't think The Almighty was that bad at first.  It wasn't until the non-sensical second half that I had no choice but to give it the lowest rating. :(

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

What I learned: Recently, a writer chastised my consulting notes because I "missed things," many of which he detailed in a rebuttal document.  When a script is written clearly, the writer has a point.  But when it isn't, the writer has no idea how difficult it can be to follow along.  For example, if the reader doesn't understand what happened in the last four scenes, if he doesn't know who these three new characters are, if he doesn't know how any of the characters are related to each other, if he doesn't understand why we keep cutting to a character on a train who never becomes part of the story, if he can't keep up with the time jumping since the writer never notates it, if it takes 2-3 read-throughs on every scene just to understand what's going on... then the reader'll be lucky to catch 40% of the details on the page.  Which brings me to my point.  If something is wrong, it is NEVER the reader's fault.  Maybe the reader did tune out and miss something.  But it's your job as the writer to figure out why you the reader tuned out in the first place.  So any time you're told, "This didn't work" about your screenplay, don't fight it.  Figure out what you did wrong and fix it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Screenplay Review - Subject 6

Genre: Sci-fi
Premise: A strapped-for-cash woman agrees to be part of a lab study where participants are placed in a room for a month, but begins to suspect that she's been in the room for much longer than that.
About: Don't know much about this one other than that the movie is being made by Vital Pictures and will come out sometime next year.  You can see the writer's early attempts at a Kickstarter page here, which has a trailer and some cool concept art.
Writer: Seda
Details: 108 pages

Screen Grab from short film - Portal: No Escape

Liberace.  Madonna.  Beyonce.

And now...Seda.

Two names is so passé.  These days, it's preferable to cap it at one.

Okay, am I thrilled that a screenwriter has given himself one name?  No.  Does it scream pretentiousness?  Yes.  But I have to remember that this is the entertainment industry.  You gotta market yourself to stand out.  And maybe I have a teensy bit of sympathy since I'm not using my real name on this blog either.

One name or not, when I started reading Subject 6, a script heavily influenced by Cube and The Matrix, I started to exert all kinds of worriedness.  I've read these kinds of scripts before.  And when I say "these kinds of scripts," I mean scripts with a bunch of fucked up things happening for seemingly no reason.  The fear?  That the "seemingly no reason" is because there IS NO REASON.  The writer's constructed a setting that allows him to make a lot of cool trippy fucked up things happen without having to come up with that all-important explanation  Which is why I almost universally hate these screenplays.  If you want to know what I'm talking about, read the pointless 2:22.

Now it started off okay, with our heroine, known only as "SIX" (in reference to the number listed on her fatigues), waking up in a bare-bones icy room that carries only the necessitates - bed, toilet, floor, ceiling.  There's also a TV, which inexplicably allows our subject to watch hundreds of other people in their own experiment rooms.

From what we can gather, the experiment is some sort of psychological test.  Participants are paid 20 grand to come in and simply sit in a room for 30 days.  You can opt out of the experiment any time you want by pressing a big red button in your room, but if you do, you forfeit your payment.

Naturally, there isn't much to do other than sit around and talk to the other participants.  Yes, for some reason, you have a video phone in your room that allows you to talk to any of the other rooms.  Seems like an odd freedom for the experimenters to allow, but anyway, it introduces Six to 33, a strapping young slacker philosopher type.

The two hit it off and pretty soon they're planning a rendezvous inside the walls between their rooms (they happen to be placed right next to each other).  But the rendezvous goes bad when these things called "Technicians," huge men in nuclear-fallout-type suits, intervene and shock Six, who wakes up once again in her room at the beginning of the experiment, as if none of her previous experiences happened.

Six grows suspicious and escapes through a ceiling vent.  It's there where she's rescued by a group of people who tell her the truth.  There is no 30-Day experiment.  The people who are here are stuck here forever.  The technicians just keep resetting them over and over again.  Which is why this group has formed.  They're trying to find a way out - an escape.  But this facility - whatever it is - is ginormous.  So it ain't going to be easy.

Another issue is that Six keeps flashing back to some psyche ward doctor's office where a man is evaluating her.  He asks her about this experiment, about these "technicians," about her escape, and Six begins to doubt whether any of it is real.  Is she crazy?  Is she just a looney chick locked up in a padded room imagining all this shit?  Her fellow escapees tell her "no," that it's all a part of the experimenters' plan - to destroy the mind, to make you lose confidence in your reality.  But Six isn't so sure.  And neither are we.

Is Six nuts or does this place really exist?  And if it does, how did she get here?  Or, if the psych ward's real, what happened in her past that led to her insanity?  All those questions are...sort of answered in Subject 6.

Wheel me in and call me Sally cause I don't know what to make of Subject 6.  There are moments where this script absolutely shines and there are others that left me searching for a bottle of aspirin.  I'll say this about the script.  I rarely knew where it was going.  And anyone who reads this blog knows that goes a long way with me.  90% of the scripts I read are as predictable as the sun setting, so when one has me genuinely wondering what the next page holds, that's impressive.

BUT, the thing that kept bothering me was all the silly random stuff, like the repeated religious references that seemed to be there for no other reason than their inherent creepiness.  For example, when we see a dead character in a hallway with the word "Foresaken" scrawled on the wall behind him in his blood?  Commence the eye-rolling.  What the heck does that have to do with the story?  As far as I could tell, nothing other than it looked cool.

There was also one obvious derivative component that bothered me - the Matrix team.  I mean, the group that takes Six in does so in a way that's so eerily reminiscent of The Matrix that I thought I was watching an aborted take from the film.  And then you have this really HUGE Jabba The Hut like leader man named "One" who weighs 800 pounds.  All I kept thinking was...wait a minute here - this group has to go on super risky scavenger missions for food and one of them is 800 pounds?  How exactly is this possible?  Is he eating the other members when nobody's looking?

Having said all that, I *did* want to turn the pages.  I mean, the script genuinely had me wondering where the hell it was all going and, more importantly, I wanted to find out.  But the big reason I'd recommend this to others is that the third act really comes together.  Which was surprising.  Because the third act is usually where these scripts fall apart, since the writer can't answer all the questions he's been asking.

But as Six keeps flashing back between the Insane Asylum and the Experiment, not only was I wondering which one was real and which one wasn't, but I genuinely found myself empathizing with Six.  I wondered what it would be like to go "crazy" in this manner.  What if this really was your life?  Is this what people with mental diseases really go through?  Do they live this kind of life every day?  How fucking terrifying.

Once the script crossed that fourth wall, it'd done its job with me.  I didn't agree with all the choices.  I thought things got a little goofy in the second act when the team was introduced. But the recovery in the third is what saved it.  For that reason, I say check this one out.

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

What I Learned: The introduction of One (the huge Jabba The Hut leader of the underground) is a perfect example of a writer wanting something so badly (the image of this huge overweight barely moveable leader) that he puts it in there without considering how illogical it is.  I mean, from what we've been told, this group has to risk their lives going out to find scraps of leftover food to stay alive.  Yet somehow we have an 800 pound man chilling out?  Does that make any sense?  These are the moments when readers lose faith in writers because they're not doing their due diligence.  We all want to include cool things in our scripts, but if you're going to do so, they have to MAKE SENSE.  If they don't, ditch them or come up with an explanation.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Screenplay Review - Trouble With The Curve

Genre: Sports Drama
Premise: An aging baseball scout who's losing his eyesight must enlist the help of a daughter who hates baseball to scout a young prospect.
About: This one has a really interesting backstory to it and should give screenwriters everywhere hope that it can happen, if not on the timeframe they planned.  Writer Randy Brown wrote this 15 years ago and actually had Dustin Hoffman attached at one point.  But Hoffman and the producer didn't get along, so the project went belly-up.  15 years later, Randy's writing for some MTV shows (and running a cafe).  He met a producer through a mutual friend, who gave it to someone close with Clint who thought it would be great for him.  Now this is where you're really going to freak out as you realize just how important timing is in this town.  Clint couldn't do it because he was doing A Star Is Born with Beyonce.  Well, Jay-Z got Beyonce pregnant and all of a sudden, Clint had an opening in his schedule. The script was purchased for a million bucks and the movie is coming out later this year.  How bout them apples?
Writer: Randy Brown
Details: This says it's a 2011 draft but the references in it clearly indicate it's the original draft from 15 years ago.

Usually, when a script has been ignored for 15 years, there's a reason for it.  It's just not good enough.  Either that or its time has passed it by.  Or sometimes, when there's a popular script in town that can't get made for one reason or another, everyone in Hollywood plunders ideas from it, to the point where the original script now feels derivative.  I remember that happened with The Tourist, a famous script that keeps coming up on many people's "Best Of The Unmade" lists.

So to be honest, I kind of expected Curve to be terrible, some barely-above-average screenplay whose only redeeming quality was a prominent senior role for Clint Eastwood. But boy was I wrong.  Curve is almost textbook in how to write a screenplay.  I'll get more into that in a sec, but right now, here's the breakdown.

Senior citizen Gus Lobel is baseball scouting royalty.  Credentials?  Oh, he only found Hank Aaron.  And he was the guy who scouted Micky Mantle and bet his career he would become a hall-of-famer, something many people ignored, only to find out 30 years later how wrong they were.

But Gus is also a stubborn crotchety old fuck.  And he doesn't listen to many people besides himself.  So nowadays, with all these fancy-schmancy computers coming around, detailing RBIs and OBPs and OBGYNs, giving new scouts a whole new arena to judge baseball players on, Gus is insistent that none of that shit does anything.

Which is why the upper levels of the team he's working for, the Atlanta Braves, are starting to have questions about if Gus is stuck in the dinosaur ages.  Sure he knows his stuff, but as one executive points out, "Nobody cares who scouted Hank Aaron anymore."

But that's only the beginning of Gus' problems.  Gus is also losing his eyesight.  He's had to rearrange his entire apartment, in fact, so that he doesn't randomly bump into furniture.  Because Gus is so stubborn, he's in denial about this, but he's going to have to figure it out fast.  The team is sending him out to scout Bo Gentry, an 18 year old phenom who's projected to be the next Mark McGuire.

Across town, we're introduced to Gus' 30-something daughter, Mickey.  Yes, Mickey was named after Mickey Mantel, even though she's a girl.  That right there shows you what Gus' priorities are.  It's baseball first - daughter second.  And that isn't lost on Mickey, who loves her dad more than anything, but when you show up for family dinner only to find out you'll be watching a 3 hour baseball game...well...EVERY SINGLE TIME, you begin to hate baseball more than hell.

But when Mickey catches on to her father's eyesight problems, she worries for him, and imposes herself on his latest roadtrip, something he's vehemently opposed to.  But as he follows Bo Gentry from game to game, he realizes it's impossible for him to SEE whether this guy is the real deal or not.  And that means he has to depend on his daughter, a girl he groomed to love baseball when she was growing up, but who hates it now, to save him.  In the strangest of ways, this dependency brings them together in a way no other experience could.

Okay, to start things off, let me reiterate that you should NEVER TRY TO SELL A SPORTS SCRIPT that isn't based on a true story (or novel) unless it's a boxing script or a comedy.  Trouble With The Curve is the rare exception to the rule, although I will say that when this exception comes around, it's usually with a baseball script.

Okay, now on to the script itself.  The writing here is amazing!  And I don't mean it's beautiful to read.  I don't mean the prose makes my heart sing.  That's not what a good screenplay should do.  When I say the writing is amazing, I mean that every sentence is carved down to only its bare essence, only the words we need to know, and nothing more.

I bring this up because of a couple of scripts I read recently.  The first was a confusing mess and a big reason for that was that there were too many words.   The writer kept tripping over himself because he was constantly navigating through a sea of alphabetical albatrosses.  He was trying to be too clever by half when he should've stuck with the "half," as that's how many words you should be shooting for when you're writing screenplays.

I also compare it to tomorrow's script, which is well-written and clear, but every page feels like it's taking twice as long to get through because of the extra verbiage.  This kind of writing gets exhausting to read.  I mean, I'm enjoying the script because it's an interesting mystery (I'm not finished yet), but I find it hard to get through because of that excessiveness. And I'm not even talking like HUGE BIG PARAGRAPH CHUNKS here.  It's more that the simplest sentences, something like, "He darts over to the phone," become, "He peers at the surrounding walls, which seem to be closing in on him, then darts to the phone across the room."  It's twice or three times as much reading as the reader needs to be doing.

But what I really liked about this script was the character work, and more specifically the relationship work.  It's simple but clever, and very well done.  You have a man who thinks a sport is more important than his daughter, who must now depend on that daughter to save his position in the sport, even though she hates the sport because of him.  I don't know if you can come up with a more beautifully constructed triangle of conflict.  Watching Gus start to reluctantly rely on his daughter, and the ironic way in which that brings them closer - it was perfect.

I could go on about this script.  It's just really well done.  I don't know if it's Oscar worthy. That'll depend on if it's directed well.  But the foundation is definitely there.  This one surprised me!

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned:  Let me tell you when I knew I was dealing with a professional here, and not an amateur, or one of these pros who got lucky and cheated their way into the system.  The stakes and the deadlines.  Only the good writers know to contain their screenplays with them.  First, the end of Gus' contract is coming up (deadline).  So if he doesn't prove his worth with this prospect, he loses his job (stakes).  Then there's Mickey, who just got a job at a prestigious law firm.  Now she has to go on this trip with Gus.  They're upset and tell her, "That's fine, but you need to be back to meet with the client by Thursday. (deadline)"  The implication is, "If you screw this up, we're letting you go (stakes)."  From there, we keep cutting back to the Atlanta Braves' offices, where the club's brass are pushing harder and harder to eliminate Gus if he screws this up (raising stakes).  Stakes and deadlines need to be everywhere in your script.  They're the plot mechanics that keep your audience invested in the story.