Synopsis: A man's fiance is kidnapped into the depths of New York's subway tunnels.
About: Recently sold spec
Writer: Jeremy W. Soule
It's time for a weekend kidnapping sandwich! Today I'll be reviewing the recently sold "Gone" (at least I think it sold), and then Monday the recently sold "Layover." And no, "Layover" is not a sequel to "Bumped." And Gone is not prequel to "Taken." Although in the strange world of Hollywood, I'm sure they're all related.
Oh boy...where do I start with this one?
Gone is not as bad as it tries to be. In a script with mole people, deaf-mutes, underground cities, and fabled 1900's abandoned tunnels, there was potential for this to be really shitty. But Gone redeems itself with a couple of late second-act twists and a reasonably satisfying ending. But boy, did it look like it was going to stumble before it got there.
A big deal is made of Andrew, 20s, being claustrophobic early in the film, and yet this has little to no effect on the storyline. That sums up "Gone." Lots of declarations. Not a lot of following through. Andrew is engaged to the beautiful Becky, whose father just happens to be the president of American Motors (aka loaded).
Andrew and Becky hop on the subway when, a few minutes into the ride, the train makes a sudden unorthodox stop. Everyone's told to evacuate. They walk down the tunnel to the next exit and as they're almost evacuated to safety, Andrew turns around only to find that Becky is GONE (I'm thinking this is the inspiration for the title).
Andrew frantically searches for her. Nobody seems keen on helping him. This is one of the underlying themes I really liked about Gone. This idea that we live in a world where nobody cares about anybody anymore. I thought that was really well done, and it's something I believe is a growing problem in the world. When I hear someone scream at 11pm at night, I don't bat an eye. I'm just so used to crazy background city noise. Soule captures that here. Anyway, a cop reluctantly decides to help him, and their search takes them down into the depths of the subway system, until they're in an underground world all its own. They run into crackheads, deaf-mute graffiti artists, even mayors of underground communities.
Gone's problem is that, at its core, it's just silly. It's a silly idea. A silly concept. A silly execution. This guy goes down into a subway underworld to find his fiance, and starts meeting all these goofy characters. There's no genuine fear. There's an underground world that compares itself to Oz for God's sakes. It's all so strange that the immediacy of finding and rescuing his fiance feels secondary. That's not to say the characters weren't interesting. They were. I would even say they deserve to be in a movie - just not this one.
Gone also falls headfirst into some of the traps of the genre. Like when the killer/kidnapper is revealed (spoiler --------it's the cop) and gives the order to kill Andrew, you immediately wonder why he didn't kill Andrew one of the 1800 other chances he had to kill him- specifically when they were alone in a tunnel that nobody's been in for 90 years (and probably won't be for another 90 - don't know about you but if I were going to kill someone, I'd think that would be a pretty safe place to do it). The writer tries to talk his way out of it (at least he addresses it) by hiring M. Night's character from The Village to play the part of Edgar The Explainer, but it's kind of like the liar getting caught, then trying to explain why he's not lying. It only makes it worse. This is sloppy stuff and shouldn't be allowed in a screenplay that's selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But like I said, there were a few twists that I didn't see coming and everything wrapped up a little nicer than I expected. I can see why a lot of people are hating this script. It needs work. But I can also see why it sold. The unique universe of the abandoned New York subway tunnels has been a ripe environment for a film for a long time. I've always wondered why studios hadn't made a film about it . Maybe we'll finally see one with "Gone."
[ ] trash
[ ] barely readable
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned from Gone: The value of a good twist is incredibly important in movies like these. You have to jolt your audience, let them know that they may *think* they know where the movie's going, but they don't have a clue. Stay on a predictable track for too long, and the reader/audience is going to lose interest.
I write a lot of action scripts (yet to have anything professionally read) which means a lot of action - gun fights, fights, chases etc. But how much is too much? I have a very clear image of how a fight will go for example, so I'll describe most of the punches and how close the bullets are. Should I be avoiding this> Is it not my job? Should I be somewhere between this and "they fight". Say HOW they fight (style and who is superior) and show the outcome?
Good question. As a writer, I tend to favor erroring on the side of caution and not giving a blow-by-blow description of the fight. In general, a lot of that work is probably left to the fight choreographer. Speaking as a reader who has suffered through more than a few over-written fight scenes, I can say that it does impact the read. First, I’d say follow the tips I gave yesterday. You can probably get away with describing a few extra actions so long as those actions are broken up in a way that they still flow.
Having said that, take a look at this example from Revenge of the Sith:
And now look at how the first few scenes in that clip are described in the script: (http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Star-Wars-Revenge-of-the-Sith.html)
ANAKIN: If you're not with me, you're my enemy.
OBI-WAN: Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes. I will do what I must. (ignites his lightsaber)
ANAKIN: You will try.
ANAKIN ignites his lightsaber. ANAKIN lashes out at OBI-WAN, and they begin a ferocious sword fight. ANAKIN throws CONTAINERS at OBI-WAN using the Force.
They work their way off the landing platform and into the main entry hallway. ANAKIN kicks OBI-WAN, and OBI-WAN drops to a lower level.
ARTOO BEEPS his concern and rushes to the unconscious PADME's aid.
197 INT. MUSTAFAR-PASSAGES TO MAIN CONTROL CENTER-DAY
ANAKIN and OBI-WAN move their fight toward the main control center. As the laser swords fly, bits of the hallway are cut up. OBI-WAN and ANAKIN jump and use every trick in the Jedi book.
200 INT. MUSTAFAR-MAIN CONTROL CENTER-DAY
View screens EXPLODE around ANAKIN and OBI-WAN as they work their way into the Control Room. The fighting is intense.
OBI-WAN is on the defensive as he jumps up on the table view screen in the center of the room.
It’s worth noting that if you compare the script to the film as produced, there are more than a few differences. Still, notice how sparse Lucas’ descriptions are? Especially compared to all the parries, thrusts, and flips seen on-screen?
With so many great scripts online at the Internet Movie Script Database, it’s worth checking out famous fight scenes and seeing how under-choreographed they are. Just take a look at Rocky (http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Rocky.html) and see how the final fight gives a sense of how many blows are thrown, without specifically choreographing each hit.
Bottom line, I wouldn’t go overboard in the description. If there’s a particular punch or gun shot that’s important, then certainly call it out in the script. If your script is starting to read like a ringside play-by-play, then you might want to rethink things.
Having said that, everybody has their own way of doing these things. Just make sure it’s easy to read. You can get away with a lot so long as it’s easy to read. In my experience “easy to read” usually translates to less description.
Synopsis: A college kid is forced to babysit a very strange family for an evening.
About: Big spec script that sold a few weeks ago.
Writers: Brian Gatewood & Allesandro Tanaka
Noah, 21, is a loser. He's a fuck-up. He does not have it going on. He's been suspended from college, is flat broke, lives with his mother, and has a girlfriend who refuses to list her Facebook status as "In a relationship." So when a party that his mother's been looking forward to all week has been canceled due to her friends not being able to find anyone to take care of their children, Noah is forced to do the unthinkable: Be a 21 year old babysitter.
He huffs and he puffs but ultimately gives in. Once he gets there he realizes this family isn't just weird, they're batshit crazy. Blithe is an 8 year-old whore obsessed with celebrity (particularly Kim Kardashian's sex tape). Rodrigo is an extremely weird slightly retarded recent adoptee from Ecuador who likes to walk around lighting sparklers, and Slater is a 13 year-old stud with a laundry list of prescription medications for his multiple anxiety disorders.
About 5 minutes into the night, Noah gets a call from Marisa (his "girlfriend" - cough cough), asking if he'll come meet her at a party (only an hour ago she told him she couldn't hang out because she was sick). He tells her he has to babysit but it falls on deaf ears. She needs coke and asks if he wouldn't mind dropping by her dealer's place on the way over. Or, err, her "old dealer" she means. Cause Marisa doesn't do coke anymore. It's for her friend Tiffany. Noah, blinded by the fact that he's being used, grabs the kids, jumps in their parents' Bentley, and the adventure begins.
Along the way Noah accidentally destroys 10,000 dollars worth of coke. The drug dealers threaten his life if they don't get their money back. This forces Noah to crash one of Slater's friend's bat mitfah's, where they steal money envelopes from the "gift pile." The Bentley gets stolen, forcing him to confront a father he no longer has a relationship with. He steals his father's keys and robs his jewelry store. He himself gets robbed by a pair of shady cops. All just to get to this damn party to see a girl that he refuses to accept doesn't even like him.
Although it's a silly movie about a crazy night out, the script tackles some bigger issues, specifically the destruction of the American family. Fathers move on to start new families. Mothers are stuck trying to find new husbands. Husbands are cheating on their wives, unaware of what it does to their children. Wives who know of the cheating but refuse to accept it, try to make up for the loss by "saving" children through adoption. It's all pretty heady stuff. And all too familiar.
I got to give it to these guys. Any writers unafraid of putting an 8 year-old whore in their script deserve some credit. Surprisingly enough, even with how broad these characters are painted, they really come to life in the end. Blithe learns that the reason she cakes her face in make-up and wears slutty outfits is because she spotted her father making out with his secretary. Slater's anxiety stems from the fact that he's in the closet. And Rodrigo just wants to feel like he's part of a family.
This is the best script I've read in awhile and I highly recommend it.
[ ] trash
[ ] barely readable
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned from The Sitter: Flip characters around to come up with something unique. Slater isn't the nerdy kid with asthma problems. He's the good-looking kid with anxiety problems. Blithe isn't the perfect 8 year old cute girl, she's an 8 year old whore.
Synopsis: 5 strangers get stuck at the airport together.
About: Yes, this is the infamous "remake" of The Breakfast Club
Writer: Lizzy Weiss
Okay I have a suggestion to the people realeasing this film. Do not, under any circumstances, let any media print that this is in any way related to The Breakfast Club. Like me. Come to my place right now, break down my door, and force me to log into my blog and erase this paragraph. Cause I'm telling you right now, you do not want people comparing this to The Breakfast Club. It's like comparing a cracker to a croissant. It is really not a good idea. Every time I read a line - heck every time a character's name came up - I thought, "How does that compare to The Breakfast Club." So please do that ASAP. For your own good. Now on to the review...
It's the day before Thanksgiving and five strangers decide to "bump" themselves to the next flight in order to snag some free tickets. We learn that the reason for their bumping is that each is having their own issues back home which prevent them from being in any sort of hurry to get there. A few more hours in the middle of nowhere is better than a few extra hours in hell. Hey, I think we can all relate.
The five characters sort of "bump" into each other, as you sometimes do at an airport, and begin a seriously accelerated group friendship. There's C.C., 21. Poor C.C.'s in love with a guy who will only ever see her as a friend. Tabitha, 20s, is a stuck up bitch with a high-paying job. She's engaged to the Cuban-born Omar, a dirt poor musician. Then there's Max, 20s, a guy who's been swallowed up by a job that sends him everywhere in the world but home. And finally (and most unfortunately), there's Eleanor. Eleanor is a mini-celebrity, has 1.5 million myspace friends, and her alias is...yes...Veronica Vodka (consider yourself lucky if you don't know the real-life person she's portraying). I'll get to that in a bit.
Max and C.C. hit it off immediately. Omar and Tabitha start their rift soonafter. And Eleanor pokes and prods into everyone's life - though she's mostly interested in Omar. For the most part, Bumped is like a reverse Breakfast Club. Whereas everyone started off hating each other in that movie, then slowly grew closer, everyone in bumped starts off liking each other before slowly breaking apart. Of course they all come back together in the end, but it's interesting how they approach the genre from a different angle.
I think the biggest faux pas in the script is Tila Tequila - er, I mean Veronika Vodka. Cause you see, once you include a celebrity in your story, the story is no longer about people. It's about people...and a celebrity. It peels away some of that real life autheticity. Sure it's possible that you could run into a celebrity at the airport and start hanging out, but it's unlikely, and actually comes off as a bit of a gimmick.
The dialogue - which started out pretty standard - improves tremendously as the script goes on. In The Breakfast Club, there are about 30 classic lines. Most movies would be lucky to have 1. So I'm not going to hold that against Bumped. But as the relationships became deeper, the truth starts coming out, and that's when the dialogue began to soar. Sure, the situations are a little heavy on the drama, but it worked. Why? Because they're in an airport. And for people like me (who don't live in them), an airport is a very emotional place. It means you're going home, or going to meet somebody important, or heading back for the holidays, all things that force you to deal with and assess where you are (and who you are) in life. I am never more emotionally schizophranic than the moment I step into an airport.
In the end, Max helps C.C. realize she's spending her life being more than a little pathetic (turns out that guy she liked "borrowed" 500 dollars out of her account - for a weekend with another girl no less). C.C. helps Max realize that his work is preventing him from having a life. Omar and Tabitha realize they aren't meant to be together. And Veronica Vodka? Poor girl realizes that she can't hide behind her celebrity anymore and that maybe she misses what it feels like to be a "normal" person.
I have to admit, Bumped got to me. There was a moment about 60% in where I realized I was truly emotionally invested in this group. I mean, it's still no Breakfast Club. But you know what? It doesn't have to be.
[ ] trash
[ ] barely readable
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned from Bumped: Make sure to connect your characters to their setting, whatever it is. Had these five been stuck at a laundromat, for example, it wouldn't have been nearly as powerful.
One of the first ways I determine if a script is a PASS or a CONSIDER is if it was an easy read. Did I breeze through these 105 pages quickly and still retain a good sense of what the story was about? Was I turning those pages at a fast rate, eager to see what was on the next page? Or was it a chore to get through each page? Did my mind wander? Was I tempted to check my email, get a sandwich, make sure my DVR was programmed properly for that week’s offerings? Most of the time there’s a correlation between this sort of fast read and a story with a great concept, great characters and a solid structure. In the rare instances when all of those factors are so-so and I still got through the script with ease, it’s clear that the way the action was written played a difference.
Consider this following example:
JAMES BARTON (22) enters his apartment carrying a bundle of mail. He sets it on the table, including a small brown package. He hesitates. Carefully he pulls out a knife and cuts open the packing tape. Reaching inside he pulls out a silver ID bracelet with the name “Carrie” inscribed on it. He impassively stares at it, then tosses it across the room. Moving, he closes all the blinds in the living room. One by one. With the room now dim he goes to a stack of magazines on a bookshelf. Without looking, he plucks a particular one. Playboy. He sits down on the sofa – the magazine in his left hand while his right hand disappears towards his belt, below frame…
How did that read to you? Boring? Did you almost miss the detail about him closing the blinds because it was buried in the middle of the paragraph? Was there any sense of flow or pacing to the scene? Probably not. Now, take a look at how by changing only a few line brakes, we can adjust the pacing and even add some emotion to the moment.
JAMES BARTON (22) enters his apartment carrying a bundle of mail. He sets it on the table, including a small brown package.
Carefully he pulls out a knife and cuts open the packing tape.
Reaching inside he pulls out a silver ID bracelet with the name “Carrie” inscribed on it. He impassively stares at it, then tosses it across the room.
Moving, he closes all the blinds in the living room. One by one.
With the room now dim he goes to a stack of magazines on a bookshelf. Without looking, he plucks a particular one.
He sits down on the sofa – the magazine in his left hand while his right hand disappears towards his belt, below frame…
Did that read better? It certainly looks better on the page, and it’s a lot easier to skim. That’s the little trick – the easier you make it on your reader, the more likely they are to come away from your script with a favorable impression. When that happens, your odds of getting a consider have just gotten better. Every writer should strive to make their script an “easy read.”
How does one accomplish this? By remembering these little tricks:
White space is your friend. If you’re working on a screenplay, I want you to flip through a few pages of it without reading it. Look at the balance between text and white space. If you know what you’re doing there should be more white space on your page than text. Brevity is essential.
Keep your paragraphs short and break up long blocks of text. I’ve found that four lines seems to be the point where descriptive paragraphs hit critical mass. Any longer than that and it gets hard on a reader’s eyes when they’re trying to skim the page (and they WILL skim – there’s no getting around that.)
Start a new paragraph with every new action. Don’t pile a number of consecutive actions on top of each other. Breaking up long paragraphs into smaller bites is also a good way to control the pace of the scene. In the examples above, the first spacing makes it harder to convey mood. The second one, by breaking up and drawing attention to specific moments and visual beats, probably had an entirely different flow altogether.
Next time, we’ll discuss fight scenes, and how much to choreograph in the descriptive paragraphs.
Synopsis: A down-and-out political fundraiser will do anything to get his candidate elected president.
About: Berger (the son of President Clinton's National Security Adviser Sandy Berger) wrote the script after interviewing professional fundraisers in Washington and Los Angeles.
Writer: Alex Berger
[ ] barely readable
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
So it’s not that I don’t understand the compulsion to remake a favorite movie, or to make a sequel to a favorite film. And I’m hardly alone in my urges. When he was 14, Len Wiseman apparently shot a backyard version of Die Hard. The thing is, that kind of fan fiction has a time and a place. When you’re ten, it’s no big deal to invest your time in writing and/or shooting your own James Bond or Star Wars sequel. But if you’re trying to break into the business, writing a sequel or a remake really isn’t the way to go about it.
When you’re writing a screenplay, presumably you want to sell it, and logically that means that you want to have as many potential buyers as possible. Just by way of example, an action-comedy with original characters is the sort of script you can take to any producer and any studio in town. But what if you decide you want to write the next Star Trek movie. Do you know how many potential buyers do you have in that case? One – the studio that owns the rights to the series, which in this case would be Paramount. And do you know what you are if Paramount reads and feels they’d like to “go in a different direction?” Screwed.
If you don’t hold the rights to what you’re writing about, don’t bother. Amazingly, I’ve seen several scripts over the years where wannabe writers have ignored that advice. Possibly the most ridiculous violation of this rule I saw was a script that was a misguided attempt to continue a 30 year-old action franchise by crossing it over with another 40 year old film! One of those films featured an actor long dead, and the other featured an actor who likely would never return to this signature role. Out of respect for the writer, I won’t post the specifics, but it was sort of like crossing over The French Connection with the original Gone in 60 Seconds. It would have been difficult enough to do a sequel to just one of those films, but with a crossover, this writer was putting himself in a situation where he couldn’t make a sale unless two completely different sets of producers and rights-holders signed off on the concept. This would have been a legal nightmare even if someone like Steven Spielberg or J.J. Abrams was determined to make it.
And let’s be realistic here – in the case of franchise films like those, the studio never is going to buy the latest sequel as a spec. Those kinds of tentpoles already have specific producers attached, and they’ll have considerable say in the hiring of a writer. Even if you manage to query the producers, it’s extremely unlikely that they’d be receptive to a script from an unproven outsider, and again, there’s still only one guy you can take that script to. As a writer, the franchise film isn’t something you can really go after until you’re inside the club. Then, either your agent will lobby to get you onto, say, the next Superman. Or the producers or studio behind said movie will come to you and say, “How’d you like a crack at Superman?”
If you don’t have any script sales to your name, you’re essentially an unproven writer and no one hands a franchise movie to those guys. It’s like writing for the school paper and then expecting to get hired as the main political writer at The New York Times. It just doesn’t happen.
So consider all that before you invest six months of your life writing a live-action adaptation of the 80s cartoon Jem and the Holograms or GoBots. In the end, you’re going to need your own idea and your own characters in order to break into this business.
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Synopsis: A bald overweight TSA screener, Kirk, somehow lands Molly, the most beautiful girl ever.
About: Despite Kirk's description as "bald and overweight", Judd Apatow alum Jay Baruchel will be playing the lead in this. God are these Freaks and Geeks guys kissing the ground that Apatow walks on or what? There isn't a comedy that comes out these days without one of them.
Writers: Sean Anders & John Morris
I wouldn’t say this was the most hilarious script I’ve ever read. But what it lacked in the laugh department it made up for in sweetness. At its core, the story is about the insecure guy inside all of us struggling for acceptance. What we tend to forget, however, is that true acceptance doesn’t come from others. It comes from within.
She’s Out of My League spends a hell of a lot of time making it very clear to us that Molly is way out of Kirk’s league. She’s constantly being hit on whenever they’re together because, well, everyone assumes that Kirk and Molly can’t possibly be together. He’s kicked out of restaurants as owners assume she must be a high-class escort. He’s tackled by cops who assume he’s a random pervert. It goes on and on and on and a lot of it, I have to admit, is pretty funny. But at a certain point you have to say, “Okay, you’ve made your point. She’s out of his league!”
Although I loved Kirk, the writers at times try to make him a little too lovable. He’s so low on the family totem-pole that he’s been resigned to the butt of all jokes. His brother is a total asshole. His parents like his ex-girlfriend so much that they’ve adopted her into the family, along with her new boyfriend! And through all this, Kirk takes it in stride, accepting it for what it is. We're meant to feel sorry for him but in the end, he comes out looking like a little too much of a schlub. We wanna grab him and scream, “Stick up for yourself! Say something!” But he never does. I wouldn't have minded if they'd given him something - anything - to rough him up a little. Make him not soooo perfect, ya know? Even the best people have faults.
Kirk spends much of the movie trying to figure out why Molly is with him. Is this some kind of bet? Is it a misunderstanding? His best friend Stainer, an anger management candidate if there ever was one, is convinced she’s a terrorist, befriending him in order to circumvent security. But the truth is, Molly's just sick of all the jerks she usually goes out with. Kirk is first genuine guy she's met in...well, ever.
It is an interesting question. Is it possible for a relationship like this to exist? I'm not sure She's Out Of My League gets to the bottom of that , but it certainly tackled the kinds of situations a couple like this would find themselves in.
The script moves along nicely and I don't really have any complaints except that I felt they missed an opportunity in the end. As we all know, every romantic comedy ends with someone running to the airport. And here, he *works* at an airport. So there was such potential to come up with a unique ending. Like maybe he has to race to her house (away from the airport). Or maybe he does have to run to the airport, only to get stuck at...SECURITY (he's a TSA screener). You know, something like that.
But all in all it was a fun script. And maybe with Kevin James’ newfound fame, it’s a role he might be interested in (Jonah Hill also comes to mind). Otherwise, I don’t know if this has the teeth to make it to the big screen.
note: I wrote this before knowing that it had been made into a movie. I like Jay Baruchel and have been waiting for him to get a legitimate leading man role. I guess we're going to find out if he's got leading man chops.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM “SHE’S OUT OF MY LEAGUE”
Never miss a chance to create suspense, even if it’s using a cheap trick. We’re told at one point that Molly has a birth defect that’s caused her some self-esteem issues. When Kirk is informed of this by Molly’s friend, he’s ecstatic. Because it means she’s not perfect, and he doesn’t have to feel so inadequate. For the 12 pages between when you’re told of the defect, and it’s actually revealed, you are riveted. You desperately want to know what it is. So cheap, but it works.
I can't recommend this book enough for the first-time screenwriter. It's everything you need to know to get your script past a bitter reader like me.
The answer: they turn to the last page to see how long it is. Though as a reader of many years and many more scripts, I can tell you that this is often a formality. An experienced reader can usually peg the script’s length just by eyeing the thickness. We often know a script is too long or too short even before we check the page number.
Roger Ebert once said, “No good movie is too long. No bad movie is too short.” That’s true when it comes to the actual movie, but in the eyes of a reader, the best script is a short script. Just as long as it’s not too short.
It’s generally been understood in the industry that 121 pages is the magic number where a screenplay becomes too long and 89 pages is the magic number where it is too short. As every screenplay writing book will tediously inform you, one page of script is equal to about one minute of screentime. In most cases a Hollywood movie runs between 90 minutes and two hours, hence those “magic numbers.”
When you’re trying to break into the business, the odds are your script isn’t going to be read first by the guy who makes the decision to buy the script, and probably not by the guy directly under him either. If you’re lucky, the script will land on the desk of a professional reader – along with another dozen for that week. If karma’s really out to get you, your script will get passed on to the new intern who just arrived in town a week ago. Either way, the pile of scripts confronting that particular reader will be attacked in the same method – shortest scripts go first.
Remember, readers get paid by the script. Why spend an hour and a half reading a 180 page script when you could get two 90 page scripts done in that time? (Though often a reader makes extra for a longer script.) This results in the longest scripts being put off as long as possible, probably until the end of the week when the reader’s patience is at its lowest ebb. Suddenly, deliberately paced stories feel slow, slow-paced stories feel glacial and REALLY slow scripts get weaseled out of with a quick verbal summary of the hook to the director of development and the exasperated remark – “It’s a three-hour movie!”
Once you’re a known writer who’s sold a few, the usual rules no longer apply. At that point, write all the 140 page scripts you want. If you’re any good, odds are that your tightly written, well-paced story won’t come out that long, and if it does, hopefully it’ll be well-crafted enough that the reader won’t care.
But when you’re Joe Nobody, you’d better believe it matters. To be honest, these days the average industry script is coming in even shorter, close to the 105-115 range. Probably one of the most common critiques a reader will give a script is that the plot is too slow to advance. You might only get one shot with some contacts, so before you send around your script, give it an extra read and make sure that every scene counts.
Expositional scenes are the ones that tend to kill you here. Particularly with films that have complicated plot twists, a writer wants to make sure that they haven’t lost the audience. Unfortunately, this often manifests through overwritten scenes or scenes that spell out what the audience had already figured out on their own. You can usually trust in the intelligence of your audience so when giving your script a final read, there are a few questions you should ask yourself:
Have you entered each scene as late as possible? Are you getting out of there as quickly as possible? When I was learning the art of economic scene length, I studied Law & Order. Though their episodes are more plot driven than character-driven, they cover an incredible length in 44 minutes of airtime. What’s more, almost all of their scenes tend to be short, succinct and give you exactly what you need to see in order to keep the plot moving. If your script’s coming in long, it might be scenes like this that end up being the culprit.
Perception is everything, though. If your reader starts the script already “knowing” that it’s “too long” they’re going to look for the evidence to justify it. They’ll be reading it primed to point out scenes that don’t fit, dialogue that goes too long, and plot points that are needlessly complicated. If – in your heart of hearts – you are certain that this is a story that demands 130 pages, by all means submit it. But cutting 11 pages and getting it down to 119 might make all the difference in how the reader perceives it.
Every reader has a horror story about the 150 page opus that went nowhere that they had to read. The vast majority of “too long” scripts are written by people whose writing would be unbearable even at 90 pages. It doesn’t take too long for a reader to start noticing a correlation: Too long = bad writing.
Is it fair? No. Is it the nature of how readers work? Almost to a man.
Synopsis: An upper-class New York family of five bratty sisters must fight for their father's inheritence.
About: Taxonomy of Barnacles is an adaption from the novel of the same name.
Writer: Amy Lippman adapting Galt Neiderhoffer's novel.
Now I'm going to go on a little rant here so hang with me. I hate book adaptations. When you adapt a book, you're writing a screenplay to adapt a book. When you write a screenplay, you're writing a screenplay to write the screenplay. It's natural, organic, and the only thing you have to worry about is telling a story. Adapting books, your first priority is to find a way to tell the same story but in screenplay form. So you're fighting a battle even before you place a word on paper. This is very evident in screenplays like Taxonomy of Barnacles, where 6 characters are being jammed down your throat in the first 3 pages and FIVE of these characters have names that start with the letter "B". A screenplay rule for as long as there have been screenplays is to give your characters distinct sounding names to make it easy for the reader to differentiate between them. Five characters all having names that start with "B" is absurd. Especially when you meet them all at once. I had to keep going back and checking who was who. It was incredibly annoying. And this is just a minor problem with adaptations. The big one is that old problem of having to tell 100% of the story in 10% of the space. But I digress.
The movie begins with four rich bratty sisters, Benita (10), Beth (20), Bridget (24), and Belinda (15), (we'll meet Bell - 27 - later) complaining about everything from school to life to boyfriends. We've got a roomful of complete brats and it's hard to like a single one of them. After 10 pages I wanted to nail these girls to my door and throw darts at them til they bled to death. So far so good.
But then Barry Barnacle (God does this author like the letter B), their father with a hard-on for Charles Darwin , comes home to inform the girls that he's decided to use their inheritance money to have a room at the Museum of Natural History and Art dedicated in his name. He's giving the girls one last chance to convince him that they're "worthy" of the inheritance. If they somehow achieve this feat, one of them will get it all. That's right: only ONE of them. And thus Barry infuses their lives with his own little Charles Darwin experiment. Survival of the fittest indeed.
Can I just say? THANK GOD! I was so worried this was going to be some novelized version of Privileged about a bunch of snobby rich girls bitching about how difficult it is to be rich (I've never actually seen Privileged but this is what I assume it's about). Now we actually have a story. Bravo. I'm on board. But dammit. This means I'm going to have to learn these girls' names!
It's actually a nice setup, as each of these girls must now face their deepest flaws and see if they can overcome them. Bridget never finishes anything she starts (her boyfriend Trot wants to set a date to get married but she's reluctant). Beth won't even interact with a man. Belinda can't think for herself. And there's something wrong with the other one too. Is Bartha her name?
But Barry is a peculiar character. He cheated on his wife. He resents having all girls. He's disappointed in Bell for leaving her husband, even if the man was a compulsive cheater. So this "prove you're a good person" bit doesn't hold much water when you think about it. It's kind of like gutters in Los Angeles. They're not really equipped to handle a lot of rainfall. When Bell claims she doesn't want the half of the money she's entitled to through her divorce, Barry is the first to tell her to take it. So the man who's trying to teach her a lesson about being entitled tells her she's entitled to half her husband's fortune? Uhhh, what?
The most compelling storyline is Bridget, who left her previous fiance, Billy, unannounced. Then Trot, her current boyfriend, the only person in the story with any actual working blood in him, finds out that Bridget's gone back and slept with Billy. He confronts them both and tells her he can never be with her again. Billy lies and tells Trot that Bridget won the inheritance, in order to prove to Bridget (in an effort to win her back) that Trot's been in this for the money all along. Trot changes his tune once he finds out that Bridget won the money, and ole Billy's point is proven. The problem with this is - TROT'S THE ONLY PERSON WE LIKE IN THE WHOLE GODDAMN SCREENPLAY. Now you just made him an asshole like everyone else.
The rest of the story is fun. Beth finds out she's a lesbian. Belinda tries to marry a punk rocker to rattle her father (who she dumps because he ends up being jewish - which wouldn't have rattled her father at all). All Benita wants is her father's appreciation. And what we find out, in a rather touching finale, is that their mother committed suicide because of depression. Barry needed a way to rationalize it, and used Darwin's theory of Survival Of The Fittest to explain it away - hence his peculiar obsession with the theory.
There's a humorous subplot about a nest of rare eagles living out on the ledge that Barry's been trying to get rid of for years (but Animal Activists groups have prevented him from doing so). Again, there's some Darwanism going on here - will the birds make it? But I think the biggest strength of the script is watching these little bitches battle each other for the gold. Making us dislike them from the get-go was a calculated move, and now we revel in their misery. And it's so wonderfully written (save for the noted problems) that even without a character to root for, you're desperate to find out how it's all going to end. I see Taxonomy of Barnacles as the movie I had hoped The Royal Tenenbaums would be. As it is, it's probably too obscure to be made into a film. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be.
What I learned from Taxonomy of Barnacles: The power of a strong theme can really unify your script. Everything in Taxonomy stems from Darwin's Theory of Evolution, and it works superbly.
Synopsis: A woman gets lost in the Everglades.
About: A Nicholl's quarterfinalist.
Writer: Leif Lindhjem
Give. Me. A. Break.
Look, I hate to bash a writer who's just starting his career. But this wasn't enjoyable. It wandered. It meandered. It had no idea what it was.
Can I just make a statement? Can I make a plea to all the young writers out there, especially the writers who write horror? Please...for the love of all that is holy...DO NOT. UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. WRITE THE MOVIE WHERE THE PERSON WAKES UP IN THE END IN A PSYCHE WARD AND FINDS OUT THAT THEY'RE CRAZY.
Not only is it the least original ending that you can possibly think of. But it allows the writer to write 10,000 "spooky" crazy nonsensical things into the story that go nowhere, all in the name of being "clever" cause in the end, the character we've been following is CRAZY! So you see! Remember when she saw that tree made out of human flesh?? Well that's explained because she's crazy! Remember when she ate a human baby? Well that makes sense now because she's crazy! (sigh)
Claire, 30s, pretty, heads into the forest with her son, Levi, and sometimes-boyfriend David, and the three get split up. When Claire goes looking for them, she gets lost. As dusk turns to night, and she's frantically searching, she slams into a branch, knocking herself out. She wakes up the next day with no idea where she is or how to get home.
We sense something is off. There's a strange savage seminole woman who follows Claire around wherever she goes, always staying at a distance, always in the background. The first thing I thought (at this point I still held out hope) was "Please don't let that be herself. Please don't let that be herself."
Claire almost gets eaten by an alligator. She gets stuck in a sinkhole (and watches the Seminole woman toss a baby into the sinkhole, killing it). She keeps falling and passing out every three minutes. At some point she's picked up by Russel and J.R., two hicks who live out in the everglades. They take her to their house and they speak cryptically of knowing the Seminole woman. They tell her the woman has her son. When she asks if they can go get her, J.R. replies. "You don't go to her. She comes to you."
Everything is cryptic and weird. Nothing makes sense. Nobody talks in any sort of reality, which makes every conversation and moment extremely absurd(cause like, she's MAKING THIS ALL UP IN HER HEAD, REMEMBER??).
She finally wakes up in the psyche ward. Her real world boyfriend turns out to be a doctor - proving that she just *believed* he was her boyfriend. They have no relationship. The real Russell and J.R. work there as assistants. She still thinks this is all real of course and tries to escape. She sneaks out through the window, climbs the fence, only to get caught up in the barbed wire. She's too wrapped up in it for them to remove her. Blood gushes everywhere. She passes out....and wakes up in the forest again...to start the nightmare all over again! And oh yeah, if you haven't figured it out already, she IS the seminole woman.
I wish she would've died. And I wish she would've taken me with her.
This is when I don't like reading. When I hit a stretch of scripts so bad I start wondering if anything will surprise and excite me again.
What I learned from Everglade: You can only lead your audience on for so long before you have to start giving them answers. "Intriguing" can become "annoying" faster than you know.
Synopsis: 1930s adventure book author goes in search of the Black Diamond Of The Orient
About: Sacha Baren Cohen may have been interested in playing Jack. The script sold for one million bucks.
Writer: Johnny Rosenthan
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
I wish I had kept a running tally of how many times I’ve seen some version of the following scene. It usually happens in a romantic comedy, though often it pops up in dramas centered on relationships. Usually, the core romance has landed on the rocks at the end of Act Two, thus forcing the protagonist to fight to save the relationship in Act Three. The penultimate scene typically plays out one of two ways – the characters confront each other and the relationship is either explicitly mended, or there’s an emotional catharsis that ends ambiguously. Are the couple still together or aren’t they?
And then comes “the scene.” Four times out of five it will be a montage without dialogue, and almost always is set “One Year Later.” Carefully, each character is revealed in this coda, culminating with….
Come on now, dear reader… surely I’ve given enough set up for you to guess?
… the woman of the couple. And guess what?
Please, people. This isn’t hard. Speak up, now.
That’s right! She’s pregnant! The guy and the girl are going to live happily ever after and the proof is in the belly! And the scene is totally showing, not telling! Isn’t that cool?
To be blunt, not really. Too often I’ve seen writers use this as an out to show that the couple’s together without doing any of the work to really make it feel like the couple is together. It’s a cheap “out.” I admire what the writers are going for, but the next time you have the urge to end your movie this way, take another day or two and see if there’s a more original way of showing the couple is going to turn out all right.
However, in most cases, I usually discuss structure in a less specific fashion when I do coverage. Here’s the short, most basic breakdown I tend to work from:
Typically you want the inciting incident to happen in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. This is the moment that puts the main arc of the story into motion and often ends up defining the script. In most cases, you’ll find it close to p. 12-15. Then, at the end of Act One, there will be a major turning point in the plot that sends the story in a new direction. This usually happens in the range of p. 25-30. First acts generally conform to this pattern, whether the second act is 30 pages or 60 pages. If your main story hasn’t gotten some advancement by p. 30, it’s usually time to start tightening the pace.
Act Two has three turning points, and usually they’re separated by a range of 15-20 pages, though in a tight script it’s not unheard of for them to be ten pages apart. In any event, there need to be three major developments in the story that build on each other, with the third development being the end-of-Act-Two climax. Usually, this is the point where things are at their worst for the hero. It’s sometimes called the “all is lost” moment because it happens when the odds have been stacked against the protagonist and everything that can go wrong, has.
The third act then usually begins with the hero somehow rallying as he prepares to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Then after about 15-20 pages, we reach the climax, where the central problem of the film is resolved. After that, there’s usually a coda, which can take anywhere from 5-10 pages and brings closure to the story.
I’m always leery of citing page counts because that gives the impression that scripts are completely cookie cutter and a writer is going to get called out if their inciting incident is on p. 16 instead of p. 15, or if the first turning point comes on p. 31. Don’t worry too much about that. Worry about the fact that if your reader is noticing the page numbers, then the pacing probably isn’t as tight as it needs to be. When a story isn’t flowing well for me, or the beginning of a script is dragging, 99 times out of a hundred, I can trace it back to the fact that the writer is taking too long to get to the turning point. Cutting down the excess almost always results in the turning points ending up roughly where they need to be in terms of page count. Pacing and structure go hand-in-hand, and there’s definitely a reason why reviewers notice when the first act runs 35 pages long.
See, when I read a script, I like to keep notes about particular plot points so that I can go back and refer to those scenes later, either when writing up the synopsis or when later revelations in the story motivate me to go back and revisit earlier scenes. Without page numbers, not only does that task become much more difficult, but it becomes nearly impossible to give specific notes about typos, bad lines of dialogue, awkward transitions and so on if I don’t have a page number I can cite.
Some might say, “Well, you could just write in the page numbers as you go. It only takes a second.” That’s true, but it also only takes one second for the writer to activate the page numbers in his word processor. If I have to write in each page number manually, it breaks the flow of the story for me, plus it puts me in a really bad mood. As we’ve established, it’s not wise to upset your reader.
Don’t make a reader angry. You wouldn’t like us when we’re angry.
About: This played at Sundance '08 and stars Zooey Deschenal and Joseph Gordon Levitt.
Writer: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
500 Days Of Summer (Summer is the female character by the way) is a film that, dare I say, a young Woody Allen might have written. It took me awhile to understand that, but once I did, I really started to enjoy it. The movie starts off with a Narrator (presumably the author) declaring, “This is NOT a love story.” Oh wait, I should back up. Before any of the script is written, the writer states, “The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” One page later. “Especially you Jenny Beckmen.” One page later. “Bitch.”
Every scene in 500 Days of Summer is preceded by the day number in the relationship. Usually we’ll go from Day 33 to Day 401 to Day 55 to Day 350 - with the ends of the relationship getting closer and closer. So it’s kinda cool. Cause we’ll go from a scene where Tom and Summer are laughing their asses off having the best time of their lives. To a scene where they’re at a restaurant wanting to rip each others' heads off. It’s a neat way of showing how much relationships change over time.
If indeed this is based on the writer's life, as he implies, I feel really sorry for him, because Summer, by all accounts, is a complete and utter bitch. Playing with gender-reversal here, Summer is pretty much the guy in the relationship and Tom the girl. She refuses to be labeled as boyfriend-girlfriend. And Tom - well - that's the only thing he wants. And he believes that Summer, who we’re told right off the bat is way out of his league, is his soul-mate. This forces us to endure this completely one-sided relationship with poor Tom. We're hoping and praying that Summer will finally come around and love him the way he loves her. But sadly, as we were warned in the beginning...this is not a love story.
The unique structure keeps you on your toes. You never quite know what’s going to happen next. In fact, the only clichés in the film are that Tom works at a Greeting Card company (ugh, please no one use this anymore) and he secretly wants to be an architect (doesn’t every guy in every movie?).
I guess in the end the whole 500 days thing and jumping back and forth can be looked at as a gimmick. Because on the whole, it really doesn’t add *that* much to the story. But it’s different. And in a world where a lot of these romantic comedies are the same, it’s a welcome change. If you can't wait for those cash-hungry indie houses to scrape up enough money to get this thing distributed, I'd highly recommend checking out the script. It's a good read. Just make sure you’re a bit of a masochist. If you've ever been in a relationship where you liked your partner a lot more than they liked you (come on, haven't we all?) this one's going to hit close to home.
Oh and the very last line is a classic. I don’t want to hype it up. It’s not like the first time you saw The Sixth Sense or anything. But it’s a great great line.
[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned from 500 Days Of Summer: I think the thing that struck me right off the bat was how unlikable Summer was. And how that was the first time in romantic comedy history I had ever seen an unlikable female lead. Again, do something different with one of your main characters. Do something different with how you tell a story that's been told a million times before (going back and forth randomly in time). 500 Days is a unique take on a tried-and-true genre. How will you make your story different?
About: Source Code is very much like the Denzel Washington vehicle "Deja-Vu". But, you know, actually good.
Writer: Ben Ripley
Wow. Wow wow wow wow wow. I absolutely freaking LOVED this script. Loved it x a million. I'm a sucker for sci-fi. But sci-fi that makes you *feel*? I'm so down.
Source Code is about a guy who wakes up on a train, having no memory or idea how he got there. He stumbles around, observes the other passengers, trying to find something, anything, to remind him why he's here. And then...the train BLOWS UP. Our main character is dead. Boom. Welcome to Source Code.
Moments later we wake up in a strange lab only to realize that, a la Deja Vu (a way inferior movie), our main character is actually being sent back in time digitally 3 hours prior to find out who blew up the train. Before he can process this, he's sent back again, to the exact same moment where the movie started. He has 17 minutes to find out who's responsible before the train blows up again. Confused and disoriented he starts to study the passengers one more time. Which ones look suspicious, which ones look innocent, all the while trying to figure out what the hell he's doing on this train. 17 minutes later - BOOM! The train blows up. Time to start over again.
Obviously, we've seen this structure before in movies like Vantage Point and Run Lola Run. You know, where you keep going back to the beginning of the same experience. I've come to dislike this structure and here's why: The story's never moving forward. You're stuck in neutral. I tolerated it with Run Lola Run because it was a visual experience. And even though Vantage Point introduces you to a new character every time we back up, it still feels like we're going nowhere. I remember the groans from the audience the third, fourth, and fifth time we went backwards in that movie.
But Source Code never gets old. There are a couple of key devices the writer uses to keep us interested. First, he creates an extremely likable female character. She sits across from the seat our hero is always warped into. And so amidst all this terrorism chaos, you're intrigued by their relationship. Each time, he learns a little bit more about her. And the more we learn about her, the more we like her. It gets to the point where he actually reveals to her what's going on. She, of course, thinks he's crazy (wouldn't you?). But because of the incremental information he gains each time through, he's eventually able to convince her. And yet each time, she dies, so when he goes back in again, he has to start all over again. A "serious" take on the Groundhog Day premise. And because you know that this moment doesn't exist anymore, that she's already dead no matter what he does, it becomes this tragic love story. How can he save someone who's already dead? His orders are to look for evidence so they can stop the terrorists. But all he wants to do is save this girl. To save everyone on this doomed train. He simply refuses to accept that he can't do anything.
The second thing the writer does that Deja Vu did NOT do (a great screenwriting tip to keep in mind), is create a story outside the virtual train ride whereby the terrorists who struck the train (that morning) promised to strike 3 more times throughout New York that day. Which puts an amazing amount of pressure on our protag to find out who did this so they can prevent the subsequent terrorist attacks from happening. This works great. I thought about the movie had this device not been used and realized it wouldn't have been nearly as exciting (if at all).
I can't stress how perfectly executed this script was. No scene was wasted. Everything was go go go. I have no doubt that the similarities to Deja Vu have thrown the chances of this thing ever getting into production into jeopardy. But let me make a plea to whoever owns this property: MAKE THIS MOVIE. Cast an up and coming actor. There are only a few locations. Very cheap to make. Then spend a ton on marketing. It will open with 10 mil but word of mouth will carry it. This can be a sci-fi classic.
[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
What I learned from Source Code: Increase the tension and stakes of your action script by adding an impending "time bomb" (in this case three potentially devastating terrorist attacks). The critical difference between what made Deja Vu stupid, and Source Code awesome.
About: Tis an artsy film with a nod towards The Squid And The Whale. Totally out of left field and a unique read.
Writer: Ann Cherkis
Man Under is a rather odd story about a family from Yonkers that’s all sorts of fucked up. Stephen, the father, lives in the basement and refuses to talk to his family. Miriam, the mother, is a beautiful librarian who dreams of collecting first edition books she can’t afford. Wally, their geeky teenage son, is so used to getting bullied that he’s actually bored of it. And Joy, the fellow-geek daughter, is so obsessed with “cock” that she sneaks a peek at male porn whenever she gets a chance. The family has basically given up on being a family.
I’m not really a “wacky family movie” kind of guy. But this script had so much depth to the characters that it made up for a lot of the things in the genre that I usually hate (don't get me started on Little Miss Sunshine!). The film that most comes to mind when reading Man Under is The Squid And The Whale. However whereas that movie forces its depression down your throat for the sole purpose of wanting to depress you , the depression here stems from an actual event – a subway train the father was driving hitting and killing a suicide jumper – what is known as a “Man Under”. The event destroys the father and sends him into a deep depression, ultimately taking the rest of the family along with him. One death, five lives lost .
But then the family receives a mysterious trunk in the mail that contains dozens of old but fashionable (in a quirky retro way) clothes. On a whim, everyone (sans the father) decides to throw on an outfit and head into Manhattan. Once there, they’re spotted by a strange but beautiful photographer, who asks to take their picture. When the photographer dies three months later, the picture becomes semi-famous, and the family finds themselves becoming mini-celebrities.
Each family member uses their mini-celebrity to pursue things they were previously too afraid to, and each storyline that results is quietly interesting. Wally asks out the hot girl. Joy starts dating a man twice her age. Miriam develops a relationship with a fellow book lover - a woman - that teeters on romance. And Stephen? Well, he's still haunted by that horrible day. But even he finds redemption. That’s one of the unique aspects I liked about the script. Usually the “coming-of-age” story centers around a single person. Here, it tackles an entire family.
Man Under does what any good story should. It introduces you to a cast of characters you’d never find in your day-to-day life, and makes you want to follow them. I don’t think the narrative here is mainstream enough to propel the script to the big screen. But it’s a wonderful character study, and something you might enjoy reading if you have a couple of hours.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM MAN UNDER
The power of a unique character holds a lot of weight. Coco is a 14 year old girl obsessed with ballet so as to help forget the memory of her sister. Joy is a geek obsessed with sex. Wally isn't scared of bullies. He’s bored with them. Sherman has given up on his family. Miriam is a beautiful librarian who hasn’t thought about accentuating her beauty until now. I haven’t read a single character like any of these people in any screenplay I’ve ever read. Remember that when writing your characters.