Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Recent Script Reviews


Hey guys,

A writer has to keep reading, writing, and reviewing stories to maintain an edge, right? I do mine on
TriggerStreet, although I’m sure Zoetrope is fabulous, too. So here are some highlights.

Hope you enjoy it.

-MM

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Well, one complaint would have to be that your themes were all over the place, and I can tell you (from experience) that anyone doing coverage will nail you for having multiple themes. I think it'd be best if you just pinpointed one theme you want to work on and stay within that context and make that theme the through-line that will carry your narrative over the course of three acts. With some aspiring writers I've encountered on TS, I've gotten the impression of great reluctance to keep it down to one theme because it somehow feels too simple and they want to show off. But you have to stay focused on one theme. Otherwise, this is the kind of thing critics would call "a film in search of a story." They'd say things like, "The plot had all these different (and sometimes amusing) ideas, but it didn't know what it wanted to be. Is this about an artist wrestling with abandonment? Is this about discovering one's sexuality, as in the case with Claudette? Or is this about exploding frogs?" Films have certainly been made that contain more than one theme, but here, it's too eclectic and too confusing…

Robert said in his Production Notes that he'd be happy to explain his ending. So I sent him an email and here's what he said:

"My original intent was to let people come to their own conclusions about the ending, but judging from the feedback I think I left it a little too ambiguous. Anyway, the key is -- everything after Loofe passed out (after crashing into the warehouse and being swarmed by angry frogs) is a hallucination. I tried to drop hints throughout - the quips about Tahiti, the comment about only US landmarks being destroyed (except for the Statue of Liberty), Loofe's previous book regarding a boy who didn't know his true identity, Loofe's obsession with cleanliness and order, the sci-fi references, etc."

There's no question that great care went into trying to set up the ending. Here's the thing. Whether you were aiming for a clear case of hallucination or something ambiguous so audiences can reach their own conclusion, it all still boils down to the same problem - the third act represents a near-total avoidance of bringing any resolution to almost all of the plots and themes within the script. Granted, this would, of course, be extraordinarily difficult because you have too many themes. How could you write a good ending? But what he have is the equivalent of a good writer saying "I wrote myself into a corner. I don't know how to end it, so here's something out in left field that answers nothing but has a lot of cool explosions." Listen. The problem begins with, NOT how you approached the ending but, the fact that a good ending was so out of reach because you have too many themes. Narrow all the themes to ONE and keep the story within that context. As it is, the third act came across as a case of just totally avoiding the issues and completely abandoning the story, which I think would be frustrating to average readers and unimpressive to pro readers. It's like you're being too clever by half. It's a cop-out disguised as cleverness. Even if you disagree with me, you must agree it's problematic in terms of sheer craftsmanship because it's so out there, you're left with no alternative but to write page after page of verbal exposition, particularly from Papa Loofe, which never works in a Third Act. It's like you're trying to over-sell it. Third Acts should be anything but lengthy bits of verbal exposition.

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So I get the impression you had a LOT of ideas and thoughts about a story that you had to put down on paper, which is great. But then you have to go back and make sure it all comes together as a cohesive whole, and I don't think enough thought went into the details. The plot was filled with stops and starts, like a car that couldn't get into gear. My biggest complaint has to be that you answered almost NO questions in the story. Now I don't believe every story has to have all of its loose ends tied neatly in a bow for the audience, but to have this many unanswered questions is frustrating even for the most independent-film-loving-reader. Most will assume, and I would agree, that this is just a case of weak screenwriting. I don't even think this writer is thinking in terms of setups and payoffs.

Here are a few:

* You have on page 5, Katie asking Alyssa where she gets her marijuana. Alyssa won't answer. Great! This is a setup that begs for a payoff later in the story. The audience is going to be waiting to get the answer to this question. In most movies, this kind of setup means that the answer will be revealed to the audience in the form of a surprise later, and we'll probably learn that the person we least expect has been supplying Alyssa with drugs. It might even be funny. Yet, you never answered this question, which makes wonder why we even needed that dialogue in the first place.

* This brings me to Frank's story. What was the point of any of those cases? If you had Frank defending the dealer that was supplying Alyssa with drugs, you might've had a story. And you might've had a good reason to show Frank's story from his perspective. As it is, his story is too disconnected from everything else beyond the fact that he was having an affair, which was affecting his relationship with his wife and family. Nothing else in Frank's story, not the Pearson case, not the high-level, long-winded conversation he had with the Judge about the justice system, and certainly not the scene with the long monologue by Victor about a matter completely unrelated to anything else, fit into this script. If Victor had some kind of connection to Jake or Alyssa, we might care. We don't have to listen to Victor in order to comprehend Frank's unfulfilled needs, do we? All of this business about the justice system was thematically inconsistent with the rest of this story, which was about interpersonal relationships.

* What's the point of the teacher, Mr. Powell, in the story? We had at least two scenes that I recall in which he totally berated Alyssa. Why? I assumed Alyssa would've A) been getting her marijuana from Powell or B) she would do him just to get a better grade, which marked a new low even for her. Or something. If the whole point of those scenes with Powell berating her in class was to show that she's not her genius brother, then cut them, because we figured that out for ourselves when she was smoking in the bathroom…

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Let's talk mass suicides, shall we? I always get to explore such interesting topics in script reviews. Here's the thing. You created this vast world that you understandably want to explore, but the end result is a story filled with too many subjects and themes and a protagonist weighed down with too many goals. You need one, solid, emotional through-line to carry your story. Here, you have so many that it's emotionally confusing when you get into it. And this is a problem I had when I first started writing. I learned that stories in scripts are usually more simple than we, as writers, want them to be. We want that intellectual / emotional satisfaction of thoroughly exploring these vast worlds we've created, which is great, but at the end of the day, we need to deliver a simple story that an audience can access and follow along. For example, you first set up a love affair with Jayme that I thought was going to carry this entire script, that is, two characters finding true love but cannot consummate that love because it's considered illegal by Big Brother. That's great stuff! But then you cut off that storyline with Jayme in order to explore mass suicides, celebrity cult status, media manipulation, and another case of what could be true love (with Eve) that's under the control of Big Brother (err, Big Sister?) and the media. It's all too much.

Here's what I suggest:

* Forget about everything and stick with true love that's illegal by Big Brother. That's the most emotionally compelling aspect of your script. If you don't agree, then ask yourself "what is the one thing this story is about?" and stick with that ONE THEME.

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You established so very well this love affair between Albert and Marta. I think this comes out through Marta's wonderfully sweet behavior. She is the heartbeat of that relationship. And then you have the tension about this wall, about the possibility of separation, which we know is coming. But once the border is closed and the wall separates our lovers, the script is completely deflated of all tension. You have, of course, the longing of our two lovers to be together, but there's not much tension in that. What are they going to do? You need TENSION to keep Act Two interesting. Even romance stories have tension. So how you do that? By creating inner conflicts.

So here's a list of ideas on tension in Act Two:

* You had on pg 22 the medic trying to sell Albert a pill or something so that he may put his mother out of HIS misery. Albert, the decent human being, refuses. What's the point of introducing this idea if you're not going to let it play out in the narrative? No, I'm not suggesting that Albert kill his mother. I'm suggesting that the Medic, first and foremost, makes a really persuasive argument about killing his mother, about putting her out of HER misery, about being free to pursue his love, etc. You could've had two pages of high drama through dialogue over this one issue that could've been really enthralling, because now it's only introduced and quickly discarded. You should play with this, and play with Albert's mind on this issue. So then, perhaps as an act of generosity (or perhaps Albert owed him money, the Medic didn't have change, and instead gives him this pill), the Medic places the pill on Albert's desk and leaves. Albert gets up and sweeps the pill into a drawer. Later, when times get tough with his mother, Albert looks over to his desk, and seriously considers using the pill. TENSION. But then, as a twist, he almost uses it on himself, and then his mother saves HIM before he dies. This introduces the idea that all of Albert's efforts to save his mother had a pay off because she later saves him. Do you see what I mean? This kind of tension would keep Act Two from dragging.

* I think it was a mistake to have Marta give birth to a child, and I'll tell you why. While this certainly increased Albert's desire to see Marta and now their child, it ultimately undercuts your tension, because now they're permanently linked together by this child. Because they're linked, you know that they will eventually meet each other sometime down the road. If you want to keep Act Two interesting, you should unlink the couple via this child and really put the relationship at risk. Once the border's closed, Albert talks to his mother about how he has to find a way to see her, how he knows that his days are numbered, how no normal woman will wait forever like this, and he has to find a way to be with her. This will give us an unseen ticking clock. Perhaps Marta will leave notes for him in her window. First, she loves him and will wait forever. Later, she's sharing her overwhelming sadness about being apart. And thus, you introduce a plot involving another man. He constantly stops by and tries to woo her. And he will not give up. On the flipside, you could introduce a woman that wants to be with Albert. This gives both Albert and Marta inner conflicts. And then the man proposes to Marta, and she leaves a note in her window asking Albert for a sign. What should she do? And THAT is when we come to Albert in the Ministry of Labor feeling so small and moving to the foreground with this new opportunity. His flying over the wall is her sign to be with him...

3 comments:

GameArs said...

Great post, again. One of the first things a screenwriter ever told me was that although my scripts would be hacked and slashed if they ever got purchased, a strong theme is the one thing that will survive.

I have always written with my theme in mind, and even if the script wasn't that great, it was at least built on this approach.

So, I agree with you, MM. A solid, theme, clearly stated and challenged is one key to great screenwriting.

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, man.

-MM

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