So the other day, I was sitting there surfing the net, coming up with excuses not to work (What!? Of course I want to see what those 80s stars look like now!) and like a flash of light, a reality hit me. We don’t have any new voices in screenwriting.
I mean who’s the new Charlie Kaufman? The new Tarantino? I mentally cycled through the last few years of film and came up empty. I mean, I guess you could say M. Night was a dominant “new voice” for awhile. And then, of course, we had Diablo Cody. But was that it? And do those two compare to screenwriting demi-gods like Tarantino and Kaufman?
And what does this say about “screenwriting voice” in general? Is it not as important as it used to be? I mean look at spec machines like David Guggenheim and Kurt Wimmer. They’re not exactly bringing anything new or unique to the table. They’re just really good at execution. And they’re selling plenty of pages because of it.
This got me thinking about the state of “voice” and how important it is. There are guys like Kyle Killin, who blew up a few years ago with his number 1 Black List script, The Beaver, a wholly unique dark comedy about a manic depressive who speaks to people through a beaver hand puppet. But what happened to that film? It disappeared. And while Kyle has written some challenging material in the meantime (Awake, Lone Star, Scenic Route), the public hasn’t warmed to it.
When you think about, almost all of the major “voice” people aren’t writers at all, but rather writer-directors. Quentin Tarantino, Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, M. Night, the Coens, Cameron Crowe, John Hughes. So it’s a little misleading. Because those writers get to build on their material in cinematic form and make it look more “voice-y” than it actually is.
To be honest, I think a lot of the more inventive writers are running off to cable television, where they can play around with their stories and actually have fun. Vince Gilligan wrote the mega-hit Hancock. Yet he opted to go to TV to write Breaking Bad afterwards. From shows like Community to Arrested Development to Orange is the New Black to Mad Men to Game of Thrones to Girls to Dexter, the “voices” in our line of work are choosing TV.
With that said, there are still some primarily writer-only screenwriters with strong voices. Diablo Cody. Eric Roth. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. And there are some new guys on their way up. Brian Duffield (who wrote the amazing Monster Problems and Your Bridesmaid is a Bitch), Max Landis (Chronicle), Brian K. Vaughn (who wrote the still unproduced sure-to-be-a-megahit Roundtable), Chris Hutton and Eddie O’Keefe (who wrote the awesome pair of scripts, “When The Streetlights Go On” and “The Last Broadcast”).
So I still think writing with a unique voice is a great way to get noticed. Because readers respond to things that feel different. It may be harder and harder to get these “voice-centric” scripts made. But you’ll definitely get noticed off them and get an opportunity to start your career. The question is, how do you do this? What is voice exactly and what is it made up of? I looked back at the last few years of cinema to find an answer. Here’s what I discovered.
Voice can be broken down into seven distinct categories. Some of these categories are things you have a measure of control over. Some you have to be born with. Of course, you can always improve on a component with practice, but you gotta know what they are first. So let’s take a look.
1) How one sees the world – This is something that you can’t teach and is probably the most important component of voice. How do you see the world? And, more importantly, do you see it in a slightly different way from everyone else? If the answer is yes, your writing is going to come across as unique without you even trying. Alexander Payne obviously sees the world as a very cynical place, as a place of struggle. But he also sees it as a funny place, as a world where people say strange hilarious things at unexpected moments. The way he mixes those two ingredients is what makes an Alexander Payne film different from any other film out there.
2) Writing style – This you have control over. Do you write with a sense of humor? Do you write cold and to the point? Do you keep your prose moving quickly like David Guggenheim or do you focus on every little detail like S. Craig Zahler? Are you self-referential? Or do you never want to break the reader’s spell? Your writing style will influence how your voice is delivered.
3) Narrative – Non-traditional narratives are one of the easiest ways to differentiate yourself as a writer. Tarantino mixed Pulp Fiction’s narrative up. The Coens basically wrote an act-less plot-less feature in Inside Llewyn Davis. Oren Uziel (who’s now writing mega-assignment Men In Black 4) wrote his breakthrough screenplay, Shimmer Lake, starting from the end and going backwards. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber wrote 500 Days of Summer jumping around haphazardly. How you approach your narrative helps establish your voice.
4) Choices – A writer’s story choices are a critical component to his voice. Take the Coens, who decided to introduce their protagonist in Fargo, Margie, a full 40 minutes into the movie. Or Tarantino, who decided to kill off Hitler in Inglorious Basterds. Or Charlie Kaufman, who invented stuff like the seventh and a half-floor for Being John Malkovich. If your choices aren’t unique, chances are you don’t have a strong voice.
5) Character – This goes without saying. If your characters are straight-forward and familiar, like Melissa McCarthy’s character in Identify Thief, you’re not a “voice” writer. If they’re unfamiliar and unpredictable, like Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in Django Unchained, you’re going to be seen as different.
6) Sense of humor – There are some genres that play better with “voice” than others. And humor plays the best. Especially dark humor. It’s why The Beaver was heralded as such a unique voice. It’s why Being John Malkovich was heralded as having such a unique voice. It’s why Michael R. Perry’s “The Voices” (which recently finished shooting!) was so universally loved. How you play with humor, in your writing, in your choices, in your characters, in your dialogue, will have a huge impact on your voice.
7) Dialogue – Dialogue is one of the best ways to show off voice in screenwriting because it’s what readers pay attention to the most. And if dialogue really pops off the page, like Diablo Cody’s did, everyone’s going to take notice. Unfortunately, this is one of those things that is very talent-based. The Coens or Tarantino or John Hughes – they have a talent for making characters sound different and for putting unique/witty/unexpected/well-written words in their mouths. But you can still get better at this. One of the easiest ways is to not have your characters say what’s typically said in a situation. Always have them approach the moment and respond differently from what’s expected.
Now here’s the tough thing. All of these things individually influence voice. But it’s how you combine them that determines your voice. Maybe you like writing crazy “out there” dialogue but prefer traditional narratives. Maybe you’re obsessed with violence (how you see the world) but diffuse it with a healthy dose of over-the-top humor. Which ingredients and how much of each ingredient you use will determine how your “voice meal” tastes.
But this begs the question – are you born with your voice or can you create it? Or maybe the more appropriate question is, if you DON’T have a strong voice, should you try and create one? I mean, isn’t voice WHO YOU ARE? So if you try and manipulate it, aren’t you then becoming something you aren’t?
Not necessarily. Your voice is not unlike how you present yourself to the world. You know those guys who dress in sweat pants and t-shirts and don’t cut their hair and defiantly expect girls to like them because they’re being real? Because by changing they’d be lying about who they are? Well, you can still be who you are, just a better version of yourself. There are nicer clothes out there that will allow you to keep your relaxed style. You can still have that “messy” hair look, but make it look better with a recent haircut.
The same is true for voice. Find out what’s unique about your writing and exploit it. If you like sarcastic humor, write stuff where you can play with sarcastic humor. If you have a strong sadistic side, always try and add a sadistic character to your ensemble.
I think a big part of having an original voice is just seeing what no one else is doing and then, assuming that void gels with the kind of stuff you write, exploit that area. That’s what Shane Black did with his big over-the-top dark action comedies. What are you going to bring to the table that’s different?
Genre: TV Pilot – Drama/Thriller
Premise: The Pope must decide what to do when a New York Archbishop ordains a woman, threatening everything the Catholic Church stands for.
About: Showtime is hoping this controversial new show (although the creator claims controversy is not the goal) will extend on the network’s breakout critical hit, Homeland. Writer and creator Paul Attanasio is best known in the TV world for creating the hit show “House M.D.” on Fox. Attanasio seems to have some high pedigree in his DNA. A Harvard Law grad, his brother is the principle owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, a professional baseball team. In addition to being a film critic at the Washington Post (in the 80s), Attanasio has been nominated for an Academy award and an Emmy. He penned feature films “Sphere,” “The Sum of All Fears (which kind of sounds like ‘Sphere’ if you say it fast),” “Quiz Show,” and “Donnie Brasco.” The Vatican is being made in partnership with Ridley Scott, who is currently the only man in Hollywood history attached to every single project in town.
Writer: Paul Attanasio
Details: 68 pages – “Revised Draft, September 18, 2012”
I don’t know much about the whole Pope thing. What I do know boils down to a really old man who often looks like he’s on the verge of death riding around in a funny looking bullet-proof glass car waving to people. In fact, most of my understanding of organized religion comes from The DaVinci Code (the book, not the movie. Come on. As if.).
But in retrospect, I wish I’d known more. I believe as a screenwriter, there are four things you owe it to yourself to study as much as possible, because they ALWAYS come up in some form or another in stories. If you DON’T know them, your story always loses some credibilty. These are: law enforcement, hospital/medicine, the legal world, and, of course, religion.
I mean how often are you going to have a big group of characters and not even one is religious? If you’re completely ignorant on the topic (like myself) your character either looks generic (since you don’t know the details of what makes the man tic) or you get scared off and take the character out of the religious realm, losing the religious dynamic entirely from your story.
And religion’s resulted in some pretty amazing stories. I mean how cool is it that Vatican City is its own country, with its own set of laws and rules (according to Dan Brown)? That right there is enough to base a story on. And my guess, when I saw this show, is that that’s what it would be about, that intricate quirky world. If indeed that’s the case, I’m in.
Although there are a billion characters in “The Vatican,” the show focuses on a handful. The first is cooly named Pope Sixtus, a fussy 70-something who’s trying to be open-minded about the Church’s future. Then there’s Cardinal Marco Malebra, the Secretary of State here in Vatican City and the No. 2 man in power. He’s a hardliner who wants the Pope to rule with more of an iron fist. Then across the pond is Cardinal Duffy, a young up-and-coming New York Archbishop who’s just gone against everything the church stands for and ordained a woman.
Even for church ignorants like myself, Attanasio keeps this plot surprisingly easy to follow. Basically, Duffy thinks that in the age of Twitter, it’s time for a change. People are losing interest in the church, and he knows that this kind of thing is going to get folks talking again, make people realize that the church CAN change and IS willing to evolve. Important to America since giant contemporary issues are bumping up against the church more and more every day, starting with gay marriage.
Back in Vatican City, Cardinal Malebra is not down with this at all. He thinks the Pope should take a stand and publicly oppose the move, then remove Duffy from the Church. But the Pope isn’t so sure. While he believes that Duffy is probably wrong, he wants to see how the public reacts to it. Eventually, however, the news gets so big, that Malebra wins out. The Pope is forced to fly Duffy into Rome to give him a talking-to.
Or so that’s what Malebra thinks. In actuality, Malebra, who’s spent the last 20 years maneuvering to become Pope, is shocked when the Pope confides in him that he plans to give Duffy his (Malebra’s) job. Realizing this would destroy his career, Malebra must act fast. But what follows is something nobody could have predicted (well, nobody who’s not a screenwriter at least). It will change not only the fabric of Vatican City, but the fabric of the entire world.
So here’s what I always wondered about the hardcore political folk. The people who live in Vatican City are probably the most religious people in the world, right? Yet trying to become Pope requires so much political maneuvering that many of them have to get screwed, right? So do those screwed Cardinals then get pissed off?? Or do they smile kindly and claim that it must have been “God’s will?” I always wondered where God ended and people began in those dust-ups.
As for the story here, I thought it was… angelic? Even I know ordaining women is a big deal, and I loved the pressures that created for our characters – forcing the Pope to take a stance on it. And really, that’s what I loved most here. When you’re coming up with any idea, whether it be film or television based, you’re looking for something that creates a pot-boiler – a kitchen full of people who are feeling the heat from the outside, and don’t like who they’re looking across at inside.
That’s “The Vatican” in a nutshell. The Catholic Church is always under heat for something. Whether it be child molesting priests or the hardline stance on gay marriage. So you’re always going to feel that heat. And then you have a bunch of people inside this church who all have their own motives and ideas on how things should be run. Malebra and his cronies are trying to surround the Pope from every side and squeeze him until he gives his position up.
Add a dose of irony and it gets even better. These are people who are supposed to be kind and caring and doing “God’s will.” But they’re all double-crossing and scamming and scheming – the very opposite of the oath they took when they committed to the Church. And when you add really strong writing on top of that (Attanasio knows this world well, his prose is strong, his description is strong, his writing is self-assured), it all came together rather nicely.
Then, of course, when you write a TV pilot, we have to be able to see the future episodes. This setting is so rich that they could honestly keep writing episodes until the end of time. I mean when is the Church not going to be controversial? When isn’t there going to be some big issue they have to deal with? When won’t they have to fight hypocrisy? When won’t they have to defend their place in society? And with many around the world claiming religion a dying ideal, how does the Church stay relevant? What lengths won’t they go to to do so?
The only things I’d call negatives were the over-abundance of characters. I understand it’s a necessary evil, but the only time the pilot stumbled was when I tried to remember who someone was and what they had to do with everyone else. And then the story itself could’ve had a little more pop. I mean, there’s a big pop at the end, but the pilot must spend so much energy setting up its extensive world, that the story itself wasn’t able to have as much fun as maybe it wanted to.
But this was good stuff. No doubt about it. I’ll have to wait til it hits Itunes since I don’t have Showtime, but this one’s certifiably worth checking out.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If possible, try to have conflict coming from your characters’ OUTER world as well as their INNER world. Here, the Pope is being bombarded by his Archbishops in America (who are ordaining women), as well as having to fight off Malebra, who is gunning for his job right here in Vatican City. You can apply this to smaller stories as well. Say you’re writing a movie about high school, like the Alexander Payne film, Election. Matthew Broderick’s principal character is fighting the “outer” world, in Reese Witherspoon’s character trying to take over the election, as well as his “inner” world, the fallout with his wife over his affair with another woman.
Premise: In the far-off future, inter-planetary bounty hunting becomes a hot profession. But when a mysterious bounty is put on one bounty hunter’s head, he must find out who did it, and kill them before he becomes a victim of his own profession.
About: Cowboy Bebop was a popular anime series in Japan in 1998, and then later in America – so much so that most people consider it the gateway series for Americans who want to get into anime. For awhile, Keanu Reeves was attached to this project, but I’m not sure if that’s the case anymore. Peter Craig adapted this draft of the property. You might recognize him as the writer of The Town. He’s been writing many big assignments since, including Top Gun 2, Bad Boys 3 and a remake of The Birds. He wrote this draft of Cowboy Bebop at around the same time he did The Town. This is a 2009 draft. It’s not known whether they’ve rewritten the script or brought on new writers since.
Writer: Peter Craig
Details: April 25, 2009 draft
I remember reading about this project back in the day when it became a hot commodity. These anime projects are tough sells in America though. On the one hand, they’re very cinematic, almost a perfect fit for the big screen. On the other, there’s a cultural disconnect in them that makes them hard to translate. The Japanese seem to be a little more liberal with their imagination (i.e. they dig stuff like planets that live and think) and with us Americans being more traditional in that capacity, we don’t always understand these eccentricities. And because some of these “eccentricities” are weaved so tightly into the plot, the American translations can feel goofy, even ridiculous. More on that in a bit.
Cowboy Bebop is the name of a bounty hunting spaceship. The captain of that ship is a rogue named Spike Spiegel. Naturally, he’s a handsome dude. Obviously, he’s got messy hair and a 3 day old beard. And of course he’s got a dark mysterious past. He’s joined by the gorgeous card shark Faye Valentine (also with a sketchy past) and Jet Black, a bionic-armed cook/ship owner (only a sort of dark past).
The Bebop (which, whenever you type, always comes out first as “Bepob”), is modeled after The Millennium Falcon. It’s beat up (or Bebop’d up). It’s always on its last leg. And nothing seems to work. Things are only getting worse for the poor ship with our crew running out of money. They need to land a big bounty to keep this hunk of steel puffing through the galaxy. You don’t want your ship to break down in the middle of the Intergalactic “In and Out” drive-thru line, do you?
Across the solar system, Spike’s onetime best friend (but now part of the evil Red Dragon Syndicate) Vicious, has just broken out of prison. And to show how bitter he is about his time there, he kills all his fellow inmates while leaving. Vicious wants to control all the oil in the solar system, since whoever controls the oil is king. All he has to do is kill the Red Dragon leader as well as his successor, who just so happens to be Spike!
So Vicious breaks into the Bounty Hunter Computer and puts a 400 million dollar price tag on Spike’s head! Spike, who so often has been the hunter, is now the hunted. He must not only convince his own crew not to turn him in (hey, 400 mil is a lot of money – of course they’re thinking about it) but escape the hundreds of bounty hunters who will now do anything to find him and bring him in – dead or alive.
Okay, so getting back to what I was saying earlier – the whole translation issue with these animes is messy. Because on the one hand, you have to give the core audience everything they know from the series or else they turn on you and start bad buzz. At the same time, you must eliminate the elements that just aren’t going to translate in America, which in some cases are major parts of the characters and story.
Take, for example, the fact that our hero, Spike, contains an eyeball that pulses (pulses??) and continuously plays all of Spike’s memories, so he’s simultaneously watching his past along with his present. There’s something cool in here SOMEWHERE, the idea that someone’s forced to watch their past on a loop. But it’s just too weird to play in a movie like this IF you want that movie to be taken seriously.
And that was another problem I had with Cowboy Bebop. I couldn’t figure out the tone. Were they trying to treat this the same way Christopher Nolan treated Batman? Where they made it as real as possible? At times I thought so. But then we’d all of a sudden land on a “Truck Stop” Asteroid Diner, like we were in a chapter from A Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. So maybe this is more like The Fifth Element? It was hard to tell on the page.
And I’m not blaming Craig here. I think any writer would have trouble figuring this out. It’s the toughest part of adapting material like this – finding the perfect tone that balances the outlandish with the realistic. It’s why there tends to be so many writers on these projects. There’s so much trial and error involved before you finally steer that wayward ship onto a straight path.
As for the story, I think it was okay. The irony behind our bounty hunter hero getting a monster bounty on his head was fun. I thought the conflict within the ship (every crew member was looking over their shoulder) led to a lot of great tension. And the world-building itself was admirable (if a little predictable at times). And just bounty hunting itself is fascinating. It’s hard not to be drawn in by that subject matter.
However, there are parts missing from this vehicle. I hate to be the broken record but I believe the key to good sci-fi is an easy-to-follow plot. There’s usually so much world-building and so much backstory and so much exposition you have to give the reader, it’s hard to build a complicated story ON TOP OF THAT. And while I wouldn’t say Cowboy Bebop’s story was “overly-complicated,” it was just complicated enough that my mind began to wander. The only thing I truly understood was the bounty on Spike’s head. The rest of the stuff (Vicious’s secret plan to take over the solar system and where Spike was going to solve his bounty issue) was too vague, and that’s probably because it got lost inside all those other things I mentioned above.
And then there were the characters. After I read this, I went to the Cowboy Bebop Wikipedia page and I read through everything. I was surprised to see that each of these characters had a pretty elaborate and original backstory. And as I looked back at the script, I realized that much of that backstory was in there. So the million dollar questions was, why didn’t I feel that? Why did these characters seem generic and by-the-book to me? Why didn’t they “pop” the way their unique backstories would suggest they would? I’m not sure, but it’s been driving me crazy. I like to know why I don’t like a character.
Like yesterday. I didn’t like Llewyn Davis because he was the world’s biggest asshole and he was selfish and made a habit of fucking girls and making them get abortions. Wasn’t hard to figure out why I disliked him. With the crew of the Bebop, it’s still a mystery. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen Jet’s robotic arm thing a million times before (dating all the way back to the Mortal Kombat video games). Maybe because outside of his pulsing rewind-eye (which I didn’t like anyway), Spike was your garden variety rogue bounty hunter, a less charming less-cool version of Han Solo. And as you know, if the reader’s not on board with the characters, it really doesn’t matter what you write. They’ve already mentally checked out. And I checked out.
I’m not saying that this will be impossible to translate. It’s just going to take a lot of work, as well as a writer who knows exactly what to do. I hope they find that writer because there could be something here if they do.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: “Trust Issues.” Characters who don’t trust each other but who have to work together is a dynamic that almost always works in a screenplay. Spike and Faye don’t trust each other further than they can throw each other here, but they’re on the same team and therefore have to work together. This is a natural recipe for conflict, which leads to one of the better dynamics in the script. You’d like to add a little something to every character relationship – something to give it life. “Trust Issues” is one of many options you can use.
Premise: (from IMDB) A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.
About: It’s the latest Coen Brothers film! This one stars newcomer Oscar Isaac, along with Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman. The film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival (which, historically, is a sign that the movie will be slow, boring, and pointless – yippee!). When asked about the plot, Joel Cohen joked that it didn’t have one. I’m not sure he realized how true that answer was.
Writers: Joel and Ethan Cohen
Details: 105 minutes long
Well this movie sure gives “Save the Cat” a whole new meaning (or should I say, meowning). No really, I’m just kittying. That joke was purrrrr-fect.
I understand, Critics of America, that the Coen Kool-Aid is usually double-packed with extra pink sugar and therefore never fails.
The Coens are great filmmakers. I’m not going to argue with you there. And they’ve won two screenwriting Oscars. So they know how to write. Not going to argue with you there.
But being great at something should never give one free reign to write a script with…
a) Boring subject matter.
b) An abysmal unlikable protagonist.
c) No story.
d) Boring music (although I guess the music itself isn’t actually in the script).
I would not rule out the possibility that the Coens are laughing at everyone who gave this movie high marks. There’s a chance (albeit small) that they made this movie just to fuck with you. Just to see how pointless they could make a film and still get you to declare it great.
Inside Llewyn Davis is like the movie Once, but without a story, likable characters, or good music. It’s just not a good movie. Okay, it has a few interesting performances. I’ll give it that. But as a movie, it’s a disaster.
The movie follows our “hero,” Llewyn Davis, who’s a really good folk singer in the early 60s. The problem is, Llewyn is a complete loser. The guy doesn’t even have a home! He just couch surfs. His entire life! Can you imagine not having a place to live? Having to call someone every few days to see if you can sleep on their couch?
Anyway, Llewyn is nearing that “point of no return” in an artist’s life where he either has to commit to being an artist forever or move on to a “normal” life. Complicating matters is that Llewyn doesn’t exactly sing the most commercial music. He sings folk. Which is even less popular than jazz, which is also not very popular.
On his last leg (and last dollar), Llewyn spends a few days in the city trying to make ends meet. As if this guy’s miserable angry existence isn’t enough to make you dislike him, it turns out he’s also impregnated one of his best friends’ girlfriends! So what does Llewyn do? Looks for a gig so he can pay for the abortion! No, I’m serious! This is the only time this guy shows any initiative.
After taking care of that, the movie looks to have nothing more pushing it along. It’s like the people mover at the airport if all of a sudden, it just stopped. So where to go next? Why not Chicago! Of course. Makes sense. Yeah, so Llewyn decides to hop in a car with two artists and take an impromptu trip to Chicago. It’s not really clear why he’s doing this but the smart money is on meeting a club owner there who may be able to get him a job.
That doesn’t go well (the guy tells us what we already know – Llewyn’s music will never make any money). So Llewyn goes back to New York, where he finally gives up on music. He gets in a few more tiffs with all the friends he’s bummed couches off of, until the “big” finale where he gets beat up by an old folk singer’s husband for cursing her off the stage. The End.
I get the feeling that the Coens, if they’re even aware of sites like this, laugh at them. I don’t think they believe that there’s any reason to analyze a piece of art. You just follow your gut, make what you feel, and whatever comes of it, comes of it. It’s likely why they look so damn bored whenever they win an Oscar.
And there’s something to be said for that approach. It serves you well when you’re a genius. It doesn’t do jack daniels to those of us who aren’t, however. The rest of the world must construct an approach to storytelling that allows us to write a good story. But even if that wasn’t the case, without form or structure, you run the risk of dolling out just as many total pieces of shit as you do total pieces of genius. It’s the law of averages. And unfortunately, Inside Llweyn Davis from the Coens lies squarely in the disaster heap.
First of all, there’s no story here. I mean, there is for awhile. Our main character’s goal is to “make it.” So that drives him a little, gives him a reason to get up in the morning. Which is good. At least we have a character who’s active. But eventually, Llewyn is revealed to be so self-destructive, we know he’s never going to achieve anything. This is going to be one of those depressing movies with a depressing ending. And when that happens, we tune out.
But where this story really lost itself was when Llewyn heads off to Chicago. I mean we don’t even know where we’re going anymore. Vaguely, Llewyn’s trying to get his papers in order so he can join the Navy (or something like it – that was unclear). But that seems to be secondary to simply showing Llewyn be miserable. All. The. Time.
The Coens even have the audacity to write a scene where Llewyn goes to see his father, who lives in the saddest living assistance facility in the world and has dementia, play a really sad song for him, then watch his dad shit himself. Ooh, I’m sure the Coen critic fans were saying, “It’s so raw and real! It mirrors life!” No, it’s sad, it’s depressing, and it’s pretentious.
Don’t even get me started on our unlikable protag, who takes unlikable to a whole new level. I mean this guy doesn’t work hard enough at his dream, he impregnates his friend’s girlfriends, he then ONLY WORKS HARD to get money so he can pay for her abortion, he’s selfish, he complains all the time, he’s not thankful when people let him stay at their place. Look, I think the unlikable protag is a daring choice and it needs to be used sometimes. But there has to be a measure of balance. If your main character is going to be an unlikable loser, the rest of your movie has to have some redeeming qualities, something to offset that. But there’s nothing in this movie that does. It’s just a sad depressing movie with a pointless wandering plot.
There are really only two standout performances in the movie: John Goodman and Orange Cat. I mean this cat – he was the only character I actually cared about! When he was lost, I wanted him to be found. When Llewyn is carrying him around, I was worried he was going to slip away. When he ran away, I desperately wondered how Llweyn was going to explain it to his owners.
And I’m sorry, but in a “real” movie, the character you care most about shouldn’t be a cat. Which leads us to John Goodman. I gotta give it to the guy, his heroin-addicted crippled always-sleepy ranting jazz musician stole the show. But a lot of that is because there was nothing to steal from. It’s hard not to be the prettiest girl in the room when you’re going up against a bunch of inbreeds.
However, if you were to make an argument about this film’s merits, it would come back to, as it always does in a Coens film, the characterization. These guys do things with their characters that nobody else does. I mean they even made Carey Mulligan, a girl who’s made a living out of being boring, into a semi-interesting character. John Goodman’s silent mysterious driver kept us guessing. The weirdo actor from Girls was good in his few moments onscreen as a goofy clueless singer. But all these performances fell on deaf ears because there wasn’t a story to hold them up.
The Coens are known for always putting a bag of money in their scripts. Everyone, then, follows the money. And that usually makes things fun. At the very least, it gives the story a plot. But there’s no money here. Just a bunch of sad people living miserable existences. Yeah, the music was pretty. But it was pretty in that boring way, the kind of music you nod to your girlfriend about afterwards and say, “That was pretty good.” But no fucking way do you ever want to hear it again.
I know I get criticized for not being open enough about indie film. But trust me. Unless you’re 60+ years old and have a hard-on for folk music, this movie is going to bore you to tears. Save your moolah. This is a freshly mixed glass of disaster sauce.
[x] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Parallel problems. Parallel problems are problems that are happening to your character at the same time as they’re dealing with a current scene-related problem. If you use them correctly, they create a lot of tension, since the audience will be worrying wherever your character goes. Here, it’s the cat. Llewyn loses his friend’s cat, which they don’t know about because they weren’t home. So now Llewyn is meeting up with other characters, dealing with other problems, and all we can think about is, “Is he going to be able to find the cat in time?” You can use MULTIPLE parallel problems to add even more tension to your main character’s plight.
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 it gets 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: Contained Sci-fi Thriller
Premise: (from writers) When an elite team of Allied forces assault a top secret research facility, they become trapped underground with a sadistic Nazi Colonel and a mysterious Machine which allows him to switch bodies, turning the team against one another as they desperately try to survive.
Why you should read: (from writers) Echovault is a contained thriller with a strong hook, interesting characters ,and edge of your seat twists: the perfect low budget script to get two blokes from Australia noticed. We are a writing partnership from downunder and believe being featured on Scriptshadow would be great exposure, as well as a means to get extra notes from the Scriptshadow community. Please don’t hold back; we’ve been bred tough, boxing kangaroos and wrestling crocodiles, so go ahead and throw us to the Scriptshadow wolves.
Writers: Andrew Macdonald and Jacques Joubert
Details: 96 pages
Okay, enough about who made it in Hollywood and who didn’t make it in Hollywood and if you’ll make it and why we make it. What it comes down to is writing scripts. You gotta write something. So it’s time to review one of those somethings. Maybe today we’ll see someone make it. Which is a darn good reminder. People can still make it right here on Scriptshadow! If you write something awesome, it will be recognized and people will seek you out. But you gotta bring it. Let’s see if today’s writers did that.
Echovault is about a group of American soldiers in Germany during World War 2. They’ve been given the task to storm a secret vault in the dead of winter and secure some nasty German fellow named “Schneider.”
Our hero is 30 year old Corporol “Fish” Fisher. He’s a man’s man who just wants to follow orders and get the job done. He’s joined by a group of men that include Captain “Jonesy,” Lieutenant Colonel Somerset, Private Mahler, Corporol “Jackpot” Washington, Corporol Webster, and a few others.
So these guys storm this vault that juts deep into the ground, only to find out that their target, Schneider, is a scientist, and this is his testing lab. After a lot of confusion, Schneider (who was supposed to be taken alive) is shot and killed.
Or was he??
It turns out Schneider’s machine switches the consciousness of two human beings! And that Corporal Webster is now Schneider. Of course, nobody knows this yet. They’re still trying to figure out what the hell’s going on.
Schneider uses his cover to call in reinforcements, who are a few hours away. In the meantime, everyone’s trying to figure out how to get out of this vault, which has been mysteriously locked from the inside.
Eventually, everyone gets caught in the lab area again, the machine is turned on, and Schneider uses another jump to get into someone else’s body. By this time, everyone’s figured out what’s going on. The problem is, no one’s sure which body Schneider just jumped into. Which means any one of them could be the bad guy. Combine that with the fact that the calvary’s coming and they can’t get out of here, and we have ourselves a dandy of a situation.
There’s definitely something to Echovault. The last two days we’ve talked about the importance of writing marketable concepts, and we’ve got that here. We have a contained thriller set in World War 2 with Nazis and secret experiments involved. Those are a lot of marketable elements.
They’ve also added a clever mystery (who’s Schneider?), a ticking time bomb (the Nazis are coming), and some high stakes (obviously, there’s death at every corner. But also, if Schneider gets out of here with his experiment, he could do a lot of damage).
But MAN, there are so many little things that trip Echovault up. The good news is, this is an idea worth pursuing. The writers should definitely keep at it and try to make it work. Because my gut tells me there’s a movie here. But the writers need to pay a lot more attention to the details.
First off, I wasn’t thrilled by the idea that the Nazi scientist they’re trying to get just happens to be working on an experiment that would help him get out of this exact predicament. I found that to be a little convenient. I eventually forgot about it, but it was always in the back of my head. I don’t know if anybody else saw this as a problem. If so, they might want to fix it. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a way to do this.
Second, I think the story moves a little slow. I only became interested once we didn’t know which one of them was Schneider. That’s when the script really picked up. Whenever you write, you come up with a few good things in that first draft. Your job in the second draft, then, is to move all those good things up in the timeline and try to come up with MORE good things. The third draft, do the same. The fourth draft, the same. Until your script is packed with good things from beginning to end! That’s what we need here. We need to push up the moment where we’re not sure which one’s Schneider. Because before that, I was kinda bored.
The BIG fix that needs to be made, though, is the characters. They’re all the freaking same!!! In this kind of script (with lots of people to keep track of in a small space), you have to differentiate the characters somehow. All these guys pretty much acted and sounded and did the same things with only slight variations. The extent of differentiating them came in the description, when someone was labeled as “big” or “black.” You think that anorexic description is going to help us remember who’s who five pages from now? Twenty pages from now?
But even if you take out the “helping the reader” aspect, you just want your characters to feel different. Give a character a certain phrase he keeps using (“You got it champ”). Make one character faux tough, compensating for the fact that he’s scared as shit. Have an over-educated guy speak intelligently. Have one guy who never says more than a few words. And then use the character’s actions to further differentiate them from each other. Have one character be overly fearful. Have another be too brave. Because outside of Fish, I rarely knew who was who until the ¾ mark of the script.
Character differentiation is one of the easiest ways to spot the pros over the amateurs. So if you can master this, you’re in good shape. But it’s REALLY important in scripts like these, where you have a lot of characters thrown at the reader quickly. It’s so easy for the reader to forget who’s who. It’s your job to make sure that doesn’t happen.
As for the rest of the script, it was a mixed bag. It still feels rough to me. I think Anna is a throwaway character that you’re not committing to. You either have to commit to a character like that or not. You can’t straddle the line. And you’re clearly straddling the line. I think the soldiers would’ve figured out A LOT EARLIER that they could sit everyone down and play the memory game in order to sniff out Schneider. I was thinking that the whole time, so I didn’t believe it took them forever to figure it out as well. I didn’t know how Schneider all of a sudden became a perfect naturally speaking American once he was in someone else’s body. Did he just inherit the person’s speech patterns? I’m not sure that makes sense.
These are those annoying things we writers HATE trying to figure out but we HAVE to figure them out or else the screenplay feels lazy. And that’s where the script lies right now. So unfortunately, while I think there’s potential here, it isn’t at “worth the read” quality quite yet.
Script link: Echovault
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: In order to help differentiate your characters, think (maybe even write down) about ALL your friends and the people you know. Write down what makes each of them sound different from one another. Some speak fast. Some slow. Some are more nurturing. Some are less caring. Some keep the topic of conversation on themselves. Some like to ask other people about themselves. Some say “um” a lot. Some are more eloquent. The list of variables is endless. Take what you learn there and apply it to your characters so they, too, sound like their own people.