Sunday, November 11, 2012

Screenplay Review - Back East

Genre: Drama
Premise: A young writer, sick of the LA scene, decides to head home to Connecticut, but when his car breaks down in a nowhere town, he befriends a young woman, on her way to LA with her boyfriend, and starts to fall for her.
About: Did you know that the Whedon family is full of screenwriters?  Their dad was a screenwriter.  Their grandfather was a screenwriter.  Joss, of course, is a screenwriter.  And then they have another brother who's a screenwriter, in addition to Zack here.  Imagine the Thanksgivings at that place.  You wouldn't be able to get a turkey leg without establishing a character flaw for the stuffing.  Zack has worked on a lot of TV shows including Deadwood, Rubicon, and Fringe.  This is one of his earlier efforts, which landed on the bottom half of the 2007 Black List.
Writer: Zack Whedon
Details: 91 pages

Back in the day, I used to be a lot more open to down home simple character pieces - stuff like "Beautiful Girls."  Remember that movie?  A guy comes back home and has to deal with a bunch of "home-like" shit.  It's relatable.  It's identifiable for writers especially. It's one of those stories you can imagine yourself reading by the fire with a glass of wine (even though I don't drink wine).

But the more screenplays I read, the more I realize how "non-movie-like" these types of scripts are.  That's not to say they shouldn't be purchased or made.  It's just that movies work best with stuff that's actually - well - moving.  And these stories don't move.

Most people go to the movies to see things a little more exceptional than everyday life.  When you get to a movie and all you see is characters sitting around talking about life, in the back of your head you're thinking, "Can't I get this back home with my family and friends?"  What is it about this movie that's different?  That necessitated you leave your home?  I'm not saying everything has to be James Bond.  But these simple character pieces have to be almost perfect to work - like American Beauty.  And finding another American Beauty is like finding a brad in a studio garbage dump.

Having said that, a part of me still has a soft spot for these scripts.  I still wanna find that golden character-driven brad.  There's something beautiful about the drama of everyday life, that if you can capture it, people will relate to it and allow it to impact their lives.  That's what I was hoping to find when I opened "Back East."  I mean, there's some strong screenwriting pedigree here, so you figure it has a shot to kick butt, right?...

William is 24 years old and lives in LA.  I think he's a writer but Whedon never really makes that clear.  Whatever the case, he's having a tough go at the whole LA thing.  You get up.  It's 70 degrees out.  You go to a job you hate to make money so you can write, you go back home.  You're tired.  You wanna go to bed.  But you know you have to write.  But it would be so much easier to just go to sleep now and write tomorrow.  Yeah, tomorrow will be the day.  That's when you're going to write 50 pages!  Tomorrow it is.  Today is a day of rest (none of this is actually in the script - I'm assuming that's what's going on in William's head though cause he's a writer).

William is tired of pretending tomorrow's going to be the day though.  He wants to go home.  Back to Connecticut.  Back east.  So he grabs all his stuff and begins the cross-country trek.  Somewhere between point A and point B, though, his car breaks down, and he gets towed to a little nowhere town called Dry Lake by an 80 year old grouchy mechanic named Jeffrey.

It isn't until they get to town that Jeffrey tells William he's retired, and that if William wants his car fixed, he'll have to fix it himself.  Jeffrey will give him some guidance, but he's too old to be doing any physical labor.  Great, William thinks.  Like most upper white class offspring, he doesn't even know how to change windshield wiper fluid.  How the hell is he going to fix a car?

However, it's not all bad.  While hanging out at the local hotel, he meets a beautiful young lady named Tamara.  Tamara's fun and flirty and up for having a good time.  But she's also with her boyfriend.  The two are traveling the opposite direction, going from the East coast to LA.  Our aforementioned boyfriend, the perpetually angry "Evan," notices this little flirty friendship developing between Tamara and William, and does everything in his power to stop it.

And this is pretty much how the next three days go down.  William goes over to Jeffrey's body shop to work on his car, then comes back to the hotel where he repeatedly runs into Tamara.  The two run off to flirt with each other but never quite take it to an inappropriate level.  However it's clear that that's exactly where William wants to take it.  In fact, he really likes Tamara, which means he's gotta find a way to somehow steal her from Evan and get her to come back to the very place she left so they can be together.

Well, I wanted something simple.  AND I GOT IT!

Really simple.  Dangerously simple.

But was it good simple?

I'll say this.  The first half of this script was boring.  And it clearly stood out as one of those early efforts we're all familiar with reading.  You know what I'm talking about.  The story tends to be personal, maybe even autobiographical.  The writer uses huge paragraphs detailing things that soooo do not need to be detailed.  Like strapping up the car to the tow mechanism.  Like getting out, walking over, opening the garage, and pulling the car in.  I think young writers believe they're keeping it real by putting a spotlight on the mundane, but all they're really doing is boring us.  I don't need to know how the strap is hooked up to the car when someone's towing it.  Just get us to the next scene where, hopefully, something interesting happens.

You also see the occasional camera action: "Track in extremely slow."  And at least one character will be introduced sans capitalization, making us wonder if they were introduced beforehand and we missed it, so we go back and check and find out they weren't, annoying the hell out of us.  The thing is, all these little "first effort" flags pop up and it sucks because you out yourself as a beginner, lessening your credibility to the reader, resulting in them trusting you less.  Which is why even though these are all ultimately unimportant things, tallied together they do have an effect on the read, whether fairly or not.

I think what surprised me was that "Back East" eventually won me over.  If you're going to write a simple story based around a few characters, you better have some lights-out character development.  The first half of the script didn't have any.  Even the character who had the most potential for depth, Jeffrey, was being used as a sort of quasi comedic sidekick.

But once Whedon started capturing the loneliness of that character, and William fixed his car on his own, helping him realize how capable he really was (and thus, the emergence of a character arc), the script came to life, as if the entire time it was hiding in the bushes, waiting for the right time to strike.  I mean, it wasn't world-changing or anything.  I thought all of that could've been explored way deeper (and earlier), but at least now the script was breathing.

Strangely, the second half of the Tamara/William relationship was also way better than the first half. (Spoiler) Once the relationship got to that "all or nothing" point, where a decision had to be made, I was genuinely curious which man Tamara was going to choose.  And more importantly, I wanted it to be our protagonist, which meant that Whedon had done his job of getting me to care about our tow leads.

But in the end, this script runs into the very problem I brought up initially.  It's fun.  It's cute.  It's fine.  But that's all it is.  It isn't a movie people are going to grab their friends over and say, "We gotta go see this!" or "We gotta rent this!"  It just doesn't carry that kind of excitement behind it, which is why the script can end up on the Black List but that's where it stops.  Managers and agents can't do anything with it beyond that.

The only way these scripts tend to get sold/made is if the script is impeccable (American Beauty) or if the writer is also the director and scrapes up the money to shoot the film himself (Garden State).  I thought Back East was cute.  But I didn't see anything beyond that.

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

What I learned: If you're new to screenwriting and you have access to somebody who reads in the industry, have them read your script and ask if there are any telltale "early effort" signs.  If you don't have that access, take note of some of the ones here:  1) Really basic semi-autobigrophical story, usually about a guy disenfranchised with life (and at only 24 years old!!!)  2) camera directions.  3) lingering on mundane unimportant shots for too long.  4) huge paragraph chunks that could easily be cut by 75% and lose nothing.  5) lots of extremely basic dialogue scenes with no real tension or suspense - it's more about the characters trying to be cute and quirky.  --- There are, of course, more of these signs (and feel free to list them in the comments section).  But this is a good starting point.