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I hope all of you are getting some writing done, dammit. But in case you need to procrastinate, the topic du jour is Max Landis’s movie, “American Ultra.” The film didn’t do well on its opening weekend, finishing with 5.5 million bucks and a 48% Rotten Tomatoes score. I think they were hoping for Zombieland-like numbers (24 million bucks – 90% RT score).

Now I sympathize with ANYONE who has to go through an opening weekend. They are, quite honestly, one of the most fucked up masochistic business endeavors anyone could subject themselves to. You spend 3-10 years writing a script, looking for financing, finding stars, trying to get a green light, making the movie, cutting it together in post… all to see how it does between 3pm and 10pm on a Friday evening. Because it’s at that moment when you know whether you have a hit or a bomb. It’s an insane way to live your life – to engage in a business plan like that.

And because of that, when something does go bad, everyone involved in the project buries their head. But Max Landis, the tweeter of all tweeters, jumped right in and owned up to the failure. Or did he? I’m not sure if he’s blaming this movie on himself or the general population. Here’s what Landis tweeted:

So here’s an interesting question: American Ultra finished dead last at the box office, behind even Mission Impossible and Man From Uncle…American Ultra was also beaten by the critically reviled Hitman Agent 47 and Sinister, despite being a better reviewed film than either…which leads me to a bit of a conundrum: Why?

American Ultra had good ads, big stars, a fun idea, and honestly, it’s a good movie. Certainly better, in the internet’s opinion, than other things released the same day. If you saw it, you probably didn’t hate it. So I’m left with an odd thing here, which is that American Ultra lost to a sequel, a sequel reboot, a biopic, a sequel and a reboot. It seems the reviews didn’t even matter, the MOVIE didn’t matter.

The argument that can/will be made is: big level original ideas don’t $. For the longest time, my belief was that the 80s/90s were the golden age of movies; you never knew what you were going to get. Am I wrong? Is trying to make original movies in a big way just not a valid career path anymore for anyone but Tarantino and Nolan?

That’s the question: Am I wrong? Are original ideas over? I wanted to pose this to the public, because I feel, put lightly, confused. I feel like I learned a lesson, here, but have no idea what it is. I once joked “there’s only so many times people will go see Thor 2.” Sorry to be kind of a downer guys. It’s just a little frustrating to see John Cena squash Kevin Steen. Metaphorically.

Landis makes some good points. But there are a few he’s maybe twisted in his favor. Did American Ultra have “big stars?” Is it a “good movie?” Was this even a good idea? I think you limit yourself with the “Dude, I’m so high” crowd, but Pineapple Express road that subject matter to riches. It’s sad because this was one of the movies in my “Please Save The Day Specs” post. What do you guys think? Is what Landis is saying legitimate? It certainly hits on a lot of things we’ve discussed here before.

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Hey guys. I am out of the office until Tuesday, the day after Labor Day (so September 8th). Lots to catch up on with Scriptshadow 250 entries and I need some extra time to pull it off. The good news is, I’m going to try and send a newsletter out soon. Also, I’ll try and update something small every day.

Today’s thought of the day comes from James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy. In this Facebook post, he talks about what kept him from experiencing success for a long time, and what the eventual solution was. In short, finish what you start. Read it all here and feel free to discuss it in the comments. Have a great Monday everybody and get some writing done!

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I don’t even know how I’m writing this. With absolutely zero to watch, I made the mistake of renting Aloha. This movie is beyond incomprehensible. There are scenes that defy cinematic explanation. Bradley Cooper howls out the window like a wolf in a desperate bid by Crowe to recapture the magic of Jerry Maguire. The multiple love stories here are uncomfortable. 70 minutes in and there’s still no plot. Emma Stone may have to give in her SAG card after this. Oh man, this is brutal. I’m willing to bet that at least two amateur scripts from this week’s pile are better. So dig in and let’s find them!

Title: Jesus Christ: Witch Hunter
Genre: Action Comedy/B-Movie
Logline: In a world where witches have all but eradicated witch hunters, the final hunter is brutally murdered when the most powerful hunter in history, Jesus Christ, returns to prevent the witches from resurrecting an ancient, powerful witch who will destroy the world and enslave mankind.
Why You Should Read: Jesus Christ: Witch Hunter is a high octane, action fuelled, comedy, b-movie. JCWH is ridiculous. It’s ‘Machete’ meets ‘Wolfcop’. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s bloody and it’s absolutely bonkers. This is a popcorn film… not in the $200 million type Hollywood sense, but in the absurd, outrageous and blasphemous sense. I’m pretty sure this is the type of film the Vatican would abhor, condemn and then ban, thus doing most of the major marketing the film needs to succeed. Anyway, if you choose to read it, enjoy.

Title: Underneath
Genre: Contained Horror Thriller
Logline: A routine maintenance call goes awry when an explosion traps a public works crew underground with a mysterious symbiote that was released from hibernation.
Why You Should Read: Every review I read, Carson harps on the importance of urgency, goals, purpose, and a BIG story. I’ve tried to wrap my mind around what it means to create a story with those paramaters. While trying to mastermind a scenario that gives characters goals to achieve and the motivation to get there, I remembered a script I wrote a few years ago. “Underneath” is boiled down to those simple ideas. A group of maintenance workers are trapped underground after an explosion. Their goal is to get back to the surface. The urgency to get them there comes from an entity released after the accident. But as they race for freedom, the organism hunts them down. And best of all…it is all contained to the sewer. I would love to get the community’s feedback.

Title: Sign of Four
Genre: Spy/Mystery/Action/Thriller
Logline: After a senior intelligence agent dies under mysterious circumstances, three genius-level private spies become engulfed in a mole-hunt within their organization.
Why You Should Read: This script is very relevant in the sense it talks about the intelligence community’s growing dependence on private contractors; that grey area of espionage. I’m not a card-carrying liberal, but I feel like too much leeway to private intelligence companies can be a disaster.

Title: The Hindenburg Alien
Genre: Sci-fi
Logline: When a young man serving on the zeppelin Hindenburg discovers that a deadly, shape-shifting alien is hidden on board, he must defeat it or the girl he loves will suffer a fate worse than death.
Why You Should Read: I already sent you two of my other scripts for the Scriptshadow 250 contest, but what you wrote about the lack of big idea scripts inspired me to send you my biggest idea script. With its love story on a doomed vessel coupled with an alien which can assume the form of anyone it devours, it’s like TITANIC meets THE THING… I worked hard to make the script as easy to read as possible (no paragraph over 2 lines, only 97 pages) and to keep it moving and entertaining. If you’ll like it I’d really love for you to come on board as a producer!

Title: Small Slices
Genre: Horror
Logline: A strange old man tells scary campfire stories to two young boys. But who is the man, why are the boys in the stories and where are their parents?
Why You Should Read: Early in the year, you wrote a couple of posts, the gist being – You want to stand out in the current spec market? You need to take risks. So, I sucked up that advice, threw caution to the wind and the result is this very different little horror script. It takes the sort of structural and narrative risks I normally wouldn’t have the guts to try. I’d love it if this could find a place on AOW so the Scriptshadow community could let me know if the risks paid off or should I go back to channelling my inner Blake Snyder?

Get Your Script Reviewed On Scriptshadow!: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, along with the title, genre, logline, and finally, something interesting about yourself and/or your script that you’d like us to post along with the script if reviewed. Use my submission address please: Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Remember that your script will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effects of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.

Genre: Action/Horror/Sci-Fi
Premise (from writer): After a mysterious virus ravages Los Angeles, a father and daughter trapped in the evacuated city attempt to escape from a horde of infected canines.
Why You Should Read (from writer): I moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting and creative writing. This is my attempt at a feature-length screenplay. The premise is World War Z meets Cujo. Here’s a tagline for the movie: “Welcome to the dog days of summer.”
Writer: Jesse Zamorano
Details: 110 pages

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And you thought they were your friends.

Virulence came at us about a month ago and just barely lost out to eventual winner, Endwar. But the great thing about Scriptshadow is that, due to my laziness, you can ALWAYS MAKE A COMEBACK!

You never know when I’m going to be too tired to look for Amateur Offerings on a Saturday morning and have to dig back into previous posts to find a script to review. Jesse Zamorano caught the lucky stick square in his jaws. And now it’s time to see if this leash-loving scribe-barker can take advantage of it.

Virulence definitely has a “movie” premise. People trying to make it out of an infected city is a time-tested idea. And Jesse was smart enough to add a twist. Instead of the typical zombie takeover approach, he made the enemy man’s best friend.

Our best friend – aka our protagonist – is Ethan Walker. Ethan charges into L.A. two weeks after a viral outbreak that’s sent every dog in the city on a human meat mission. These dogs are no longer our best friends. To be honest, I wouldn’t even call them acquaintances.

Anyway, the city is nearly evacuated when Ethan comes looking for his ex-wife and daughter. The good news is his ex-wife is dead. Ha ha. I kid. But no, she is. His 15 year-old daughter, Sam, however, has managed to survive.

So Ethan and Sam set their sites on the last of the evacuation boats, which are heading out of Santa Monica soon. That’s an ultra-touristy beach town here in LA that has, like, zero parking. Just a warning if you ever come here.

On their way, they bump into some military jag-offs who tell them that the beach is no longer taking survivors. They have to go back into the city to Staples Center, which is acting as a de facto Los Angeles Bed & Breakfast. Just as they’re about to head back, a group of “Reapers,” a band of criminals who’ve basically taken advantage of a deserted LA, gun down the military squad.

Ethan and Sam barely escape and drive to Staples Center, where along the way they pick up a group of six teenage girls who they nickname the Girl Scouts, and then a group of three African-American boys who call themselves the “BPR” (the Black Panther Revival).

When it becomes clear that the military is not coming to save them unless the Lakers decide to play, they come up with a plan to use a tunnel underneath LA to drive to the ocean, where they figure their chances are a lot better than they are here. Spoiler alert. They’re wrong!

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I think this guy speaks for every cat in Los Angeles.

Virulence has a kick-ass opening scene where a diseased dog eats a baby. I mean kudos to a writer who’s not afraid to go there. I was hooked immediately.

Unfortunately, after that scene, some choices started creeping in that made me say, “This feels like a beginner writer.” I’m sure that’s of interest to you guys. What are the tip-offs that give you away as a neophyte in the craft of screenwriting?

Well, the first tip-off was the Reapers. Now the thing is, if this scenario happened in real life, there would definitely be criminals taking advantage of it. But the Reapers were a more stylized villain that was inconsistent with the realistic tone established at the beginning of the script.

Also, they go against the premise. The star villains here are supposed to be the dogs. That’s the concept you promised us. To deviate from that so early and create this new band of uglies who were even worse – that didn’t feel right. And it basically made this The Purge: Anarchy. Which isn’t what we came to read. We came to read about killer dogs.

The thing I find with new writers – especially writers tackling genre material – is that they like to throw anything in the script that sounds cool, regardless of whether it fits in nicely with the rest of the story. That, to me, is what the Reapers felt like.

Then there was the Black Panther Revival stuff. Why are we bringing up racism in this story? It was so thematically random, that it brought you right out of the script. So the second lesson here would be to know your concept, know your theme, and stay on-point with both.

If you’re writing a straight-forward romantic comedy, don’t throw a ghost subplot in on page 60. If you’re writing a heavy drama about alcoholism, don’t throw in a song-and-dance number on page 75. And if you’re writing a movie about killer dogs, don’t include a racism subplot.

Finally, we have these girl scout characters. First of all, I don’t think these characters were necessary. They were a totally a random addition. To add insult to injury, despite meeting them on page 50, we don’t get formally introduced to them until page 86! Not giving characters proper introductions when they’re introduced is a flashing neon sign for “beginner screenwriter.”

I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but I think the key to getting this script right is SIMPLIFYING EVERYTHING. Get rid of the girl scouts, the Black Panthers, the Reapers. Unless you want this to take place 2 years in the future, where the idea of a unique mythology is easier to grasp. But the dogs took over Los Angeles just TWO WEEKS AGO. There’d still be a level of normalcy to this world.

Go back to the core of your story: A father and his daughter trying to escape a city full of killer dogs. All your story choices should stem from that.

That’s the thing that drives me crazy about aspiring screenwriters is they’re always trying to cram a million things into their script when the better choice is almost always to stay minimalistic. Keep it simple. That doesn’t mean you can’t bring in other characters. But bring in characters that feel honest and realistic.

Strip this down, focus on the broken relationship between a father and his daughter, and you might have something. And look, Jesse, I’m talking to you now. Nobody else. You’re a good writer. You have a very visual crisp style that’s honestly a joy to read. But you need to make better story choices. Good luck!

Script link: Virulence

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

What I learned: In monster-in-a-box movies (movies where your protagonists are stuck in an enclosed area with a monster or monsters chasing them), the bigger the box is, the more threatening/dangerous/terrifying the monster needs to be. In a small house, the “monster” can be one man with a knife. But if the box is an entire city, with millions of places to run and to hide, a single man with a knife is about as scary as a Jack Terrier puppy. The threat must grow exponentially with the amount of space. I’m not sure I was ever that afraid of these dogs. I kept saying to myself, “Can’t you just get in a car and drive east?” There are a BILLION streets in LA. And they all seemed to be empty here. So I didn’t understand what was so difficult for these characters. I needed evidence that these dogs were so terrifying, that walking just a couple of blocks in the city was the equivalent of death. I needed to be more afraid.

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“I’m going to tell you my backstory, see. And you’re going to like it, see!”

I get questions from writers all the time on things as varied as how to make a serial killer likable to how to end writer’s block. And what I’ve found is that all of these questions are stupid, just like the people who ask them.

I’m kidding! There’s no such thing as a stupid question. Most of the time at least. One of the things I’ve been asked about a lot lately is backstory. Now backstory, as most screenwriters know, is a bad word. We’ve all read or watched that mind-numbing scene where an unprompted character decides that he just has to tell the supporting character how daddy touched him when he was 19.

Backstory is the ugly cousin of exposition, a kid who’s already ugly as it is. And since exposition is often boring, the rule of thumb is to only include it when you absolutely have to. You want to extend that rule over to backstory. It is likewise evil, and therefore to be treated like a pimple on prom night. It MUST be eliminated.

I’ve found, by and large, that the longer screenwriters write, the less backstory they include. There are very successful writers, in fact, who believe that you don’t need any backstory at all. Since a movie takes place in the present, anything in the past is irrelevant.

And someone might argue, “But how can we really get to know a character if we know nothing about their past?” And Backstory Hater would reply, “The only tool you need to reveal character is choice.”

We figure out who people are by the choices they make. This is true in real life just like it is in the movies. If you’re on a first date and an elderly woman falls down in front of you, the choice your date makes is going to tell you a lot about them. If they walk around the woman, we know they’re an asshole. If they jump into action to help her, we know they’re good.

To these veterans, the idea is to create dozens of choices (small and large) throughout the script that your main character will encounter, and to tell us who he/she is through those choices. A small choice might be if your protagonist is given the option to order salad or a one pound greasy cheeseburger. Whichever one he chooses will tell us a lot about him. Ditto if he opens the door for his date or waits for her to open it while he texts away on his phone. Ditto if he chooses to drink 8 martinis or just one.

I tend to agree with Backstory Hater on this approach. I think backstory is troublesome even in the best case scenarios. The revelation of it rarely feels natural and any time we move into the past, we’re halting the present.

So are you telling us never to use backstory, Carson? Like, ever? Can we still visit our childhood friends? Reminisce about our first kiss?

No, you can’t do those things. I forbid it. But you can use backstory in one key instance: When defining what led your main character to inherit their FATAL FLAW.

A reminder on “fatal flaws.” This is the internal “flaw” that holds your character back from being whole. Even if they succeed at obtaining their goal (“Deliver R2-D2 to the Resistance to destroy the Death Star”), they will still have failed if they haven’t overcome the flaw within themselves. Why? Because there’s still imbalance within them. They’re the same person – still unhappy. Luke Skywalker’s flaw was that he didn’t believe in himself. He finally did in the end, which is what allowed him to destroy the Death Star and be happy.

Once you know your character’s flaw, you can target the specific moment from their past (their backstory) that brought it about. So in Good Will Hunting, Will Hunting’s flaw is his inability to let others in. Now that we know that, we can ask ourselves, “What happened when he was younger that stopped him from letting people in?” Well, his father used to beat him regularly. That had some impact. So that’s potentially something we could bring up in the story (which they did).

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Backstory Face: The expression that results from an actor who’s forced to listen to too much backstory.

It doesn’t do the script any good if your hero babbles on about his former life as a male stripper if stripping has nothing to do with what he’s struggling with now. It’s just noise and can actually work against you, as your reader will try to find meaning and importance in a detail that contains neither. Now if your main character’s flaw is that he’s sexually promiscuous and it’s ruining his life, then maybe that stripper backstory becomes relevant.

So to summarize, avoid backstory at all costs. Try to tell us who your character is through their choices instead. But if you must include backstory, only include the details that inform your character’s fatal flaw. Since character transformation is one of the keys to emotionally engaging your reader, information about why your character is suffering from his flaw can strengthen our understanding of that transformation.

And with that, I’ll leave you with a few other tips on how to convey backstory in your script. If you must do it, do it right!

1) Have your character be forced into telling their backstory – If your character is forced into talking about their past, we’re more focused on them being forced than we are on the artificiality of a character discussing their backstory. If your character is being tortured, for example, and asked about his past, we’re not thinking, “Oh, backstory moment!” We’re hoping the poor guy lives.

2) Always keep backstory as short as possible – Just like exposition. Try to disseminate backstory in bite-sized nuggets. Instead of Indiana Jones going on a one-page monologue about the time he was almost killed by a snake, we see him react to a snake in the plane and scream, “I hate snakes.” That’s it!

3) Backstory-as-mystery is often more powerful than literal-backstory – You don’t have to tell us everything. You can hint at things. And this is actually more powerful because it forces the audience to fill in the gaps themselves. Remember in Alien when we saw that giant stone structure of an alien manning some kind of gun/telescope? Our minds were racing trying to figure that out. How boring would that have been if one of the characters knew what it was and explained it in detail to us?

4) Show your backstory. Don’t tell your backstory – The old show-don’t-tell movie rule is multiplied ten-fold when it comes to backstory. It’s always more powerful if you show us. In Bridesmaids, our two main characters walk past our heroine’s failed cupcake shop. There was tons of backstory in that one image.

5) Have others bring up backstory, not your hero – The less your hero is talking about their own backstory, the better. Always think of a way where someone else brings it up. This is why the “resume” scene works so well in movies. It’s an easy way for the interviewer to read off your hero’s backstory without the viewer getting suspicious.

6) Some genres are more accepting of backstory than others – Backstory doesn’t work well inside the faster-moving genres like Thriller and Action. But in a slower drama, it’s expected that some backstory will be offered.

7) A good place to include backstory is the first scene – The biggest problem with backstory is that it INTERRUPTS the present story. Therefore, if you give us a flashback before your present-day story’s begun, you’re not interrupting anything. This is why you see so many movies start with flashbacks and then cut to: “15 years later.” If you’re going to do this however, cover ALL of your backstory in that single scene. Don’t keep giving it to us 70 minutes later.

8) If you can find a way to make backstory entertaining, you now have super powers and all bets are off – This is what the pros do. They’ve figured out all the tricks to hide backstory inside of entertainment. And if you can do that, none of these rules matter because you’ve learned to make backstory just as entertaining as present story. Look at the scene where Clarice goes down to talk to Hannibal Lecter for the first time in “Silence of the Lambs.” Remember the moment when they show Clarice a picture of one of Hannibal’s victims? That’s a writer giving us Hannibal Lecter’s backstory. But we’re so focused on the anticipation of seeing this monster that we never consider for a moment that the writer is doing this. Master this technique and you will be unstoppable!