Thursday, November 1, 2012

Amateur Week - USS Nikola Tesla

Welcome to Amateur Week!  All week we're reviewing scripts from amateur writers that got the best response from this post.  We've already had one script perform REALLY WELL in "Fascination 127."  And today we review the highest concept of all the entries, "USS Nikola Tesla."  Is it only a cool concept?  Or is the execution just as good?  Let's find out... 

Genre: Sci-Fi/Supernatural
Premise: (from writer) The American Navy's latest destroyer, the USS Nikola Tesla, disappears without  a trace. Two years later she reappears with no sign of her crew. But no one realises this ship holds a dark secret that dates back to World War Two and a horrifying experiment.
About: The big worry when you open up a high concept script from an amateur writer is that that's all it's going to be.  The writer will set up the high concept in the first 20 pages, we'll be riveted, and then once they don't have that crutch to lean on and actually have to tell a story, the whole thing falls apart.  I PRAY whenever I read one of these scripts that that's not the case.  Because if a reader finds a high concept script that's also a great story?  It's like finding gold.  You can start printing the money.
Writer: Anonymous (more on this in a second)
Details: 99 pages

When I recieved the e-mail query for this script, it was accompanied by a very cryptic note from the writer, who explained that he couldn't include his name on the screenplay.  It was something about...I don't he had top secret clearance at Area 51 or something and if his name was associated with the script, men in black would visit his home and terminate him, along with all other members of the Resistance, except for the ones who were sent back in time to save humanity.  I'm not sure what any of that means but it has me curious as to what happens if this script sells.  Who do they write a check to?  The writer obviously can't accept the money.  Maybe I'll take it.  Seems like a logical compromise.

Of course, I've gone down the anonymous writer path before.  You'd be surprised at the lengths writers will go to get their scripts read, and the "anonymous" route is a popular one.  Oftentimes the writer will imply a bunch of vague allusions to "big name actors" circling their script and how they'll get in trouble if they send it.  But they're going to risk it all and send it anyway!  They just can't reveal their name.

There was even one guy who told me he had come across an old screenplay during a yard sale.  He bought it for kicks and it turned out to be the most amazing thing he'd ever read.  If I was interested, he noted, he could send it to me.  I said, "Sure" just to see how far he'd take the story, and he magically sent me a PDF document of the script that was converted from a word processing program.  If this was an old script he found at a yard sale, wouldn't it have had to be scanned?  Anyway, I opened the script up out of pure curiosity, and the first scene was a 10 pager focusing on urinal humor.  Look, I respect playing the game a little.  Just know that when a reader feels like they're being taken for a ride, they're going to be hard on your script.   So, will that approach doom USS NIKOLA TELSA?  Let's find out.

"Tesla" begins with an ode to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.  A bunch of American soldiers in Afghanistan walk up a hill in the desert to see, below them, a giant half of a submarine.  No, not a submarine sandwich (I should be so lucky).  But an actual submarine.

Meanwhile, in Glasgow, two teenagers are making out on a foggy dock when a huge naval destroyer comes bearing down on them.  They run for their lives, barely able to make it to safety, but soon afterwards, there's a loud groaning noise from inside the ship and then a shockwave of energy shoots out, vaporizing the couple.  And before the dude could even make it to second base!

Cut to army officials in rooms making hushed phone calls.  "It's back," they tell one another.  The USS Nikola Tesla.  Apparently it had gone off on some training mission two years ago and disappeared!  Naturally, they need to figure out what caused its return, so they e-mail the experts.

Two of those experts are Lieutenant Robert Montrose and Lieutenant Claire Allen.  Montrose is a notorious Navy playboy who's constantly looking to get his turret waxed.  And Claire is a no-nonsense engineer who's next sexual encounter will probably be her first.  Obviously, when these two get paired together, conflict is going to fly!

And they do get paired together, along with a group of other officials who have been brought in to check out the mysterious return of this boat.  It isn't long before they realize something's up.  The boat likes to groan a lot, and it seems like everywhere you look, something is dashing behind a corner.  Add a little magnetism to the mix - a pen will be yanked out of your hand and stick to the wall - and boarding this boat becomes its own little house of horrors.

But the biggest question of them all comes in the form of Charlie, a young man dressed in a World War 2 naval uniform who tells Montrose and Claire he'll give them a tour of the boat if they're interested.  Once he touches them, a flash of light occurs, taking our characters to Nowheresville, and the story along with them!

Montrose and Claire end up in a 1950s military hospital and Charlie informs them that he was part of the original Philadelphia Experiment and when his boat was destroyed, he decided to use this new boat to show the world just how stupid they were for messing with science.  How he plans to get his point across?  By blowing some cities up mothafuckuh!  And he has the powers to do it!  While poor little Montrose and Claire only have the power of persuasion to stop him.  Dammit these paranormal Navy ghost World War 2 Philadelphia Experiment castoffs.  They always seem to screw up a perfectly good day.


To put it bluntly?  My biggest fear was realized.  Strong setup.  But with every page afterwards, the story fell more and more apart.  And it's not Anonymous' fault.  Well, not entirely.  This is why there's such a steep learning curve with screenwriting.  You have to learn how to tell a story, not just set up a story.  It's a mistake I see made all the time.  Writers think that all they need is a cool idea and they're finished.  No, you need a cool idea AND the knowledge of how to write a second act.  The second act is where the concept takes a back seat to the characters.  If the characters aren't interesting in some way, if they aren't tackling something substantial within themeselves and between each other, then the second act will rest too heavily on a series of forced plot points that we won't care about because we don't care about the people inhabiting them.

And that's what happened here.  Once Charlie shows up, the script just becomes one goofy nonsensical sequence after another.  Look at Aliens.  That was a hardcore action sci-fi thriller, right?  But in that second act, you have Ripley battling her trust issues (she doesn't trust Burke or Bishop or the entire operation) and trying to protect this surrogate daughter, Newt.  In "Tesla," we have Montrose and Claire bickering with each other via cheesy dialogue and Charlie being super-dramatic and often confusing with his scientific explanations.  I'm still not sure how Charlie became a part of this ship in the first place.

I suspect that this stems from another common amateur mistake - the refusal to outline.  You can almost always tell an un-outlined script because the further the script goes on, the less it makes sense.  It feels like the writer is making stuff up as he goes along because that's exactly what he's doing.  When you write this way, you feel this pressure to "keep things interesting," and so you try and top whatever outrageous scene or sequence you just wrote with an even MORE outrageous scene or sequence.  It's kind of like that desperate boy pining for a girl's attention.  Sucking up jellow through a straw into your nose didn't work, so why not rip your shirt off and start dancing on the table?

That's not how screenplays work.  You need to carefully plot out what's going to happen 20 pages down the line so you can build up to that moment, whether it be through suspense, set-ups, or character development.  "Tesla" certainly had a lot of stuff going on, but none of it felt cohesive.  It felt more like a distraction to make sure you didn't realize that there wasn't a story.

If I were Anonymous, I'd focus on three things moving forward.  First, learn the value of outlining. Once you know where your script is going, you can create a more logical and plausible plot.  Second, learn how to tackle your second act.  A second act isn't just a bunch of crazy shit happening.  It's a slow build, where you tackle most of your characters' issues.  Which leads me to the third focus - character development.  Give your lead characters something inside of themselves that they're trying to overcome.  With Ripley it was trust.  But it might be the recent death of a family member, an inability to love, or the desire to prove that you belong.  The possibilities are endless. But if a main character isn't tackling SOMETHING inside themselves, chances are they're boring.

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

What I learned: A screenplay isn't just a high concept you parlay into a cool first 15 pages.  The other 95 pages are going to be read as well, and those are the ones that are going to be more tightly scrutinized. Cause every reader worth his salt knows that that's where you find out if you're dealing with a writer or just an idea guy.  Consider your high concept to be your "good looks."  It's what gets you in the door.  But you still have to be charming, you still have to be intelligent, you still have to be interesting.  Your second and third acts are what's going to prove your value as a writer, so make sure they kick ass.