Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Slackfi Project

Genre: Sci-fi/Comedy
Premise: A hapless and broken hearted barista is visited by two bad-ass soldiers from the future who tell him mankind is doomed, and he alone can save them.
About: This script from British writer Howard Overman sold in March of last year and made it onto the middle of the Black List, right next to Desperate Hours!  Overman has been a longtime British TV writer, writing such shows as "Merlin," creating the show "Vexed," and winning a 2010 BAFTA Television Award for Best Drama Series for "Misfits."
Writer: Howard Overman
Details: 116 pages - February 2011 draft

Jay Baruchel for Josh?  Why not??

Wait a minute.

Hold up here.

Are you telling me that I just read a comedy script...that was funny?  And that I liked?  Has Scriptshadow slipped into Bizarro World??

Not only that, but a good comedy that was low-brow (the longest running joke in the screenplay is literally a shit joke)??  I always complain about low-brow comedies.  Scripts that have nothing to offer other than jokes.

Aha! But Slackfi DID have more to offer.  It had a story (with unexpected twists and turns 'n stuff!) and even some character development.  By the way, what does that mean exactly?  "Character development?"  I see that phrase thrown around a lot and I'm not always convinced that the people who throw it would know how to catch it if it was thrown back.

Character "development" is any instance of your character developing into a different person.  This can be through overcoming a flaw, overcoming the past, or in the case of The Slackfi Project, overcoming a relationship.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Which is fine, I suppose, since there's time-travel in Slackfi.  However, I don't get the nicest responses when I dislike time-travelling scripts these days.  So thank God I enjoyed this one.

20-something Josh sleepwalks his way through his coffee shop job.  The guy can whip up a mean vienttia grand-aye half-whip double-sauce cinnamon-style frappe mocha-chino (apologies to all if I'm getting the terms wrong. I'm not a coffee person) but is bored out of his gourd while doing it.  Josh is the kind of person where smiles go to die.

But at least he has a reason for it.  His girlfriend, Zoe, dumped his stupid ass a few months ago and now toys with him.  She wants to hang out, but then she doesn't.  She wants to go on dates, but then she cancels.  She wants to have sex, but then the next morning thinks it was a bad idea.  God was not a nice dude for creating people like this but they'll be around for as long as people don't have the balls to walk away from them, and unfortunately, Josh's testicles haven't grown to "walk away" proportion yet.

So how does one deal with devil-chicks like this in the meantime?  By playing video games with one's apartment-mate of course!  Josh and his buddy, Apollo, are quite a team, getting high while ridding the alien planet Tressor of the dangerous race: Plekisaurians.  But when Apollo says he's grown up and wants to do more adult things with his life, poor Josh finds himself with only one friend left, his overweight guinea pig, Mr. Tibbs!

Until one night when he's visited by the duo of Wolf and Tiger, a badass male-female team who claim to be from the future! They tell Josh the world is a week away from a pandemic that will kill 6 billion people.  Josh is the only one who can save them because he delivers sandwiches to the lab where they test guinea pigs, who are responsible for the virus.  "Deliver sandwiches?" Josh responds.  But he's a barista.  Wolf and Tiger look at each other, then double-check the address.  Oops, they're in the wrong apartment.  They meant to go to Apollo's apartment!

"Sorry," they say, and leave.  Bummed beyond all reasonable definitions of the word, Josh happens to run into Wolf, Tiger and Apollo the next day, when they're attacked by micro-chipped bad guys from the future called Replicants.  Apollo is killed, leaving Wolf and Tiger with no choice but to go with Plan B, Josh!

Unfortunately, while gearing up for the big attack on the lab, the police get a hold of Josh and explain to him that Wolf and Tiger are a couple of whack-jobs who escaped from the nuthouse.  They made up this whole thing about the future based on their obsession with the Terminator and Matrix franchises, and right now, they're being escorted back to Crazy City.

At this point, Josh doesn't know what to believe.  Are these two really crazy, in which case he should move on with his life?  Or in doing so, is he killing six billion people?  It isn't until Josh confirms that his own guinea pig - MR. TIBBS - is a secret spy for the replicants, that he shifts into high gear!  He must find a way to break Wolf and Tiger out of the nuthouse, come up with a plan to get into the lab, and then....well and then massacre hundreds of guinea pigs so they can't spread the disease.  All while his annoying ex-girlfriend keeps trying to ruin his life!

Okay, so let's get back to that character development thing I was talking about.  When you write a script, you want to ask yourself, "How is my main character going to develop?  How are they going to change?"  If they're not developing into anything new or different, that means they're staying stagnant.  And for the most part, stagnant is boring.

Overman uses a relationship to develop his hero, Josh, coupled with a flaw.  The relationship is obviously his one with Zoe.  He allows her to treat him like shit and is afraid to move on.  Overman cleverly creates a scenario at the end of the script, then, where Josh is at the lab with Zoe outside the contamination door.  He has a choice of either letting her in, which saves her but kills 6 billion people, or leaving her out there to die and moving on with his life.

Remember, this is one of the best ways of conveying development in your character.  You give them a choice near the end of the story that basically asks: "Have you overcome your flaw or what?"  (Spoiler) In this case, Josh leaves Zoe out there (thank God!) and he's officially developed into a better person.

BUT, I have a suspicion some of you don't care.  Why?  Because I know how a large reading contingent HATES loser wimpy main characters.  That's an issue that's long escaped me - how to straddle that line.  In order to develop  your character into a strong person, he must first be a weak person.  So how do you make someone weak but still likable?  I have to admit Josh was a little too much of a loser for my liking, but the rest of the story was so clever and funny that I still rooted for him.

That's the other thing I liked here - the story.  Most comedies I read have a VERY thin premise that's stretched to the gills.  A joke that should've ended on page 7 has been beaten to death for 110 never-ending pages.  Slackfi actually had a story that was carefully plotted.

Which reminds me - one of the telltale signs of a good writer is what they do with their midpoint.  The midpoint should shift things around a bit, turn what was essentially one story into a slightly different story.  I always use the example of Star Wars.  It starts out being about some people delivering a message, but then turns into those same people trying to destroy a huge base.  In the midpoint of Slackfi, we find out everything Josh has been told is a lie, and that Wolf and Tiger are in the nuthouse.  It changes from Josh following along to Josh having to come up with a plan to break out Wolf and Tiger and then save the world.

Anyway, this was a funny little script, and evidence of what I was saying Friday about storytelling being more important than writing.  The writing in Slackfi is nothing to write home about.  Many of the sentences are stilted and simplistic.  Overman also has a bad habit of doubling up on beats, making many moments redundant (i.e. we'll see Josh get rejected by Zoe and Overman will follow the action by writing something like, "Josh is stung by getting rejected by Zoe" - an unnecessary sentence).  But the STORY ITSELF for Slackfi is fun and keeps you reading.

So I recommend this script.  It's a cool little sci-fi project that's marketable enough to be brought to the big screen.  And I couldn't help but think it would be a perfect double-feature with amateur favorite Keeping Time!

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

What I learned: The midpoint is a great place for passive characters to become active.  -- Preferably, your hero will be active from the outset (like Indiana Jones).  That's because movies like active characters.  But some stories necessitate that the hero start off passive.  Starting off passive is fine.  What you don't want is for your hero to be passive for the entire script.  At some point, you want them to start driving the story.  Through Slackfi and Star Wars, I realized that the midpoint is a great place to do this.  Luke doesn't start taking charge until the midpoint (when he comes up with an idea for how to save Princess Leia) and Josh doesn't start taking charge until the midpoint (when he has to rescue Wolf and Tiger and come up with a plan to save the world).  So consider this option the next time you write a story that begins with a passive hero.