Last year, in anticipation of the upcoming Star Wars film, I invited anyone who wanted to send in their own Star Wars script to do so. I would review the Top 5, and if one was really awesome, who knows, Disney might see it and get the writer involved in a future installment of the series. I received 20 Star Wars scripts in total. This week, I will review the best 5. Let’s hope we find a winner!
Genre: Sci-Fi fantasy
Premise: (from writer): 1000 years in the future of the Star Wars universe, a young female fugitive from Tatooine and the last Sith Lord must travel to the abandoned city world of Coruscant to retrieve the location of an ancient planet-destroying superweapon: the Galaxy’s only hope of overthrowing the totalitarian rule of a sinister New Jedi Order.
About: The mysterious Ellen Starkweather seems to get hyped a lot in the comments section, yet no one knows where she comes from or where she gets her fans. Can Scriptshadow readers solve the mystery? I reviewed one of Ellen’s scripts awhile back. Let’s see what she has in store for us today…
Writer: Ellen Starkweather
Details: 157 pages!
As you’d expect, I have some MAJOR opinions about Star Wars, way too many to get in to here. But one of my strongest opinions is that in the two best Star Wars films, A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, the films are all about urgency. They move quickly because they’re both chase films, with Darth Vader always on our heroes’ tail. The problem with the prequels was that they ditched this formula in favor of slow introspective mythology lessons. It wasn’t pretty.
So when I opened this up and saw 158 pages, my head sunk. 158 pages?? That pretty much ensured there would be zero urgency. And it’s not the only Star Wars script of the bunch with that kind of page count. There’s another one that’s 150 pages! I’m telling you, the Star Wars formula that works best is one that keeps things moving. BUT I’ll gladly eat my shorts if Ellen Starkweather can prove me wrong. Let’s see if this 160 page epic changes my opinion…
It is 1000 years after the end of Episode 6, but you might not have guessed it, since we start right back on our favorite little dusty planet, Tantooine! It’s here where we meet a couple of our Jedis, Master Mahrel-Dee Goodweather, a middle-aged woman, and Temlin, a 16 year old girl who’s just starting to realize her Jedi powers. Neither of these two know each other yet. But they will. Oh yes, they will….
So in this episode, it’s kind of like Jerry Seinfeld’s Bizarro World, as the universe has been flipped. The Republic is firmly in control, but they’ve become such a dictatorship that, without even knowing it, they’re now the bad guys. Joining the Dark Side is the new hip “rebellious” thing to do. And that’s what Temlin and her land-speeder racing buddies are into.
Eventually, Master Mahrel-Dee goes looking for this new Jedi girl, possibly for training, but Temlin is able to get away and go to Yoda’s old stomping grounds (or mushing grounds?), Dagobah, where she’s been sent to meet someone important. It’s there where she finds a dark-cloaked 900 year old man who happens to be a Jedi himself! Or a Sith Lord, depending on your perspective.
It doesn’t take us too long to figure out that this 900 year old guy is Luke Skywalker (yes, you read that correctly), and Luke wants to bring Temlin to Coruscant to look for some old super-weapon plans (if you’re thinking these plans have something to do with Death Star 3.0, you’d be correct). She’s not so sure, but she doesn’t have many other options (it’s not like there’s a bar on Dagobah to think things over), so she says ‘why not.’
Meanwhile, Master Mahrel wants to get her hands on Temlin because Jedi chosen-ones are at a premium. So, about a hundred pages into the script, she starts chasing the two through the galaxy and is finally able to nab them. It’s then that Luke and Mahrel get into a lightsaber duel and she kills Luke the exact same way Vader killed Obi-Wan!
But a ship collision follows and Mahrel is burned over 80% of her body. She wakes up three years later (yes, three years), and is now wearing (yup, you guessed it) a white female Vader suit. Oh, and while she was asleep, a new Death Star was built! And hence we get another final-act run at our favorite robot moon, where it is once again, sadly, destroyed.
Okay, where do I start here! Let’s start with the good. The page count here is way too long. But at least the script was easy to read. Most paragraphs were two lines or less and the dialogue moved along quickly. While I wasn’t always thrilled with the direction the story took, Starkweather was usually able to move us through each sequence quickly, whether it be a speeder race on the now overrun-with-jungles Coruscant, Temlin trying to snatch Boba Fett’s old laser gun from the Sarlac Pit or the occasional space battle.
Old Weapons has one major problem though. It uses the old films as its crutch. The entire movie is a mish-mash of the plots from the original trilogy. We have our hero growing up on Tantooine, her family dying, having to go to the Cantina in Mos Eisley, going to Dagobah where someone’s been hiding for 900 years, getting captured on the bad guy’s ship, to the older wiser Jedi getting struck down by another Jedi, to a Jedi getting burned to death and needing to live inside a life-support machine, to a Death Star being made and having to be destroyed. There was so darn little originality in this script that, if I’m being honest, it was hard to take it seriously.
It all boils down to the script being too “fan boy.” What I mean by that is the writer clearly loves the original films so much that they can’t think beyond them, and therefore every decision and choice is in service to those movies somehow. Why, for instance, do we have characters trying to get Boba Fett’s gun in the Sarlac Pitt if it has nothing to do with the story other than it’s cool to bring up Boba Fett?
Then there’s Luke Skywalker. Luke Skywalker’s been alive for 900 years? I mean, I guess he has the force in him, and we’ve established that allows beings to do things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do, but this just rang false (and somewhat goofy) to me.
I wanted to see something NEW brought to the table. I wanted a different story to experience, not a rehash of everything I’ve already seen. There are hints of that here. Obviously, our main young Jedi is a girl. The new “Darth Vader” is a girl. But I don’t think you can just change the sex and everything be new and different.
On top of all this were some… curious choices. When we meet Jedi Master Mahrel-Dee, it’s insinuated that she just got out of a three-way with two younger Jedis. Also, 16 year old Temlin is in a relationship with another 15 year old girl, one who she plays sex games with (it’s implied) where one of them dresses up like “General Master Solo.” Then later, one of our characters is a suicide bomber who blows up a bunch of people.
Choices like this really worried me because the tone of Star Wars is a clear one. It’s light fun entertainment. I don’t know why we’re implying sex on any level, much less playing dress up in a sexualized lesbian teenage relationship or having three-ways. And suicide bombers, while maybe a little easier to buy in this universe, are too complicated an idea for the target audience (young children) to grasp.
Tone is something I continue to see amateurs struggle with. They often throw anything they think of into their stories without considering how it fits in with the bigger picture. It’s like they take the stance, “If I think of it, then it’s tonally consistent.” That’s not how it works. I’m not going to have Eve imply she wants to give Wall-E a blow-job just like I’m not implying three-ways in Star Wars.
Then there are just the geeky things that I personally didn’t agree with. I’m not sure you mess with the opening crawl (having the letters turn blood red and say everything you just read was propaganda). I don’t think you want to talk about midi-chlorians, as it was widely agreed that this was a huge misstep for the franchise. Coruscant being run by cannibals who strap human skeletons to the front of their ships felt exactly like the Firefly villains, to the extent that it was almost a direct ripoff.
I think that’s my biggest beef here. There was no originality in Old Weapons. It was all rehashing storylines and characters we already knew. For Star Wars to grow (and for any script to grow), it needs to explore new ideas and invent its own story. I kept waiting for that to happen with Old Weapons but it never did. ☹
Screenplay link: Star Wars: Old Weapons
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: “Writing light” is when you write very sparse paragraphs (one or two lines tops). “Writing heavy” is the opposite (Thick paragraphs of 4-5 lines). When you “write heavy,” the page count tends to be lower, since your lines aren’t spread out as much. “Writing light” creates the opposite effect. The excess carriage returns take up more space and can easily add 10-20 pages to your script. So there’s this debate whether one should “write heavy” to keep the page length down, even though it means a harder read, or “write light,” which jacks up the page count, but is much easier for the reader to get through. Here, Ellen obviously took the “writing light” approach and added a good 20 pages as a result. I admit it was easier to read than if this was 140 pages written “heavy,” but the reality is, 160 pages is just too damn many, period. My advice is: this is screenwriting. You have to do both. You have to write light with a heavy writer’s content. Let me give you an example:
The robust trees and their exposed roots snake through the yard like curious animals, adding a deep unexpected texture to the front of the house, the kind of anomaly that screams “unnatural.”
You can just as easily write…
The trees’ gnarly exposed roots snake unnaturally through the front yard.
What I learned 2: If there is a large LONE time-jump forward in the second or third act of your script, there is probably something very wrong with your story (and one of the biggest tell-tale signs that you’re reading an amateur). Large time jumps happening once your story gets going almost NEVER work unless you’re established a time-jumping rhythm throughout your script (and this is one of many time jumps, such as you’ll see in a movie like Braveheart).
Star Wars - Old Weapons - by Ellen Starkweather – MONDAY REVIEW!
Logline: 1000 years in the future of the Star Wars universe, a young female fugitive from Tatooine and the last Sith Lord must travel to the abandoned city world of Coruscant to retrieve the location of an ancient planet-destroying superweapon: the Galaxy’s only hope of overthrowing the totalitarian rule of a sinister New Jedi Order.
Star Wars – Secrets of the Ancients – by Robert Cornero
Star Wars – The Admiral’s Vendetta – by Scott F. Butler
Star Wars – Children of the Jedi – by Nicholas Saraceno
Star Wars – The Emperor (an origin story of the Emperor) – by Zachary Stevens
Star Wars Ep 7 – Rise from the Shadows – by Tom Albanese
Logline: After the murder of her master, a young Padawan subverts the Jedi Council’s wishes in order hunt down his enigmatic killer before she can put to use a powerful and ancient Sith artifact.
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.
Premise: Members of a deep-space mission come out of cryo-sleep only to learn that one of their crew members has gone missing, and that mysterious forces may be to blame.
Why You Should Read: Ron Hollis has been promoting his script in the comment section for awhile now and when Scene Week came around, he got a ton of support for his scene from other readers. Therefore, I’m giving him an Amateur Friday shot!
Writer: Ron Hollis
Details: 116 pages
I don’t know where I first heard the phrase “Go big or go home.” All I know is that Ron Hollis must have that credo tattooed to every visible part of his body. I’ve got to give it to the guy. Anyone who attempts to explain the origins of mankind, the universe, and the meaning of life, all in one script, isn’t messing around.
It’s funny that just yesterday I wrote that article about unconventional writing. We couldn’t have received a screenplay better designed to explore that debate than Dark Matter. This script is anything but conventional. It takes chances left and right. It’s weird. You’re never really sure where it’s going. By gosh, a chimpanzee even turns into an alien boy at one point!
So it leads us back to yesterday’s question – is this the kind of unconventional writing you want writers to embrace? Or should Ron utilize a more proven storytelling approach? Keep that in mind while we check out the plot.
Dark Matter follows two separate narratives. The year is 2199, and mankind has created a space station orbiting Mars. Three people are operating this station. Ethereal beauty Angelique is the one we’re primarily following. So one day, while the crew’s going about their daily duties, Angelique spots a glowing white orb dancing around the ship. It’s a fascinating moment for her, but since it leaves as quickly as it showed up, all she can do is marvel at the experience then get back to work.
Cut to a few hundred light years away where we meet up with the H.M.S. Babylon, a ship that’s travelling to a distant planet. On this ship, crew-member Newton is brought out of cryo-sleep to be informed that fellow crew-member Adam has disappeared! The record of this disappearance is being conveyed to Newton by the ship’s creepy A.I. controller, S.O.L.O.M.O.N., who seems a lot like another artificially intelligent ship controller we know.
SOLOMON’s acting all fishy when Newton asks specific questions about Adam, so he’s forced to wake up the rest of the crew early and do some detective work. After some snooping around, they realize that aliens may be involved. Apparently, they’re being followed by, or are in some kind of “dark matter” that’s allowing their entire ship (and their minds) to be controlled. Naturally, this freaks everyone out.
Now you’re probably wondering what these two completely separate space missions have to do with each other. Well, not a whole lot. The lone connection is that Newton and Angelique are a couple and really want to call each other, but no one on either ship will allow them to. I’m guessing this has something to do with cell phone charges in the year 2199 being REALLY bad.
Eventually, Angelique and her crew decide to go down to the Mars surface (not sure if it’s ever explained why?), only to crash land in the process. Back on the Babylon, SOLOMON’s acting more and more suspicious, while the crew keeps seeing more aliens, white orbs, and spaceships. At one point they even bring out a chimpanzee (“Darwin”) as bait to lure the aliens in.
But don’t worry, it gets stranger! The crew realizes that dark matter can only be accessed subconsciously, so they decide to go into hyper-sleep together and take on these problems through their collective subconscious. While there, they’re able to communicate with the dark matter and the aliens, and find out what their ultimate endgame is. Of course, no one’s really sure what’s real and what’s not, which begs the question if any of this is even real.
Okay, so here’s the big debate, kids. Yesterday we asked if we should let the writer follow his voice while ignoring convention, or follow the proven storytelling methods Hollywood endorses. To add some stakes to this debate, let’s say that YOU are developing this project for a studio and are tasked with guiding Ron to write a great script. What would you do with Dark Matter?
To me, the two separate narratives here are a killer, particularly because there’s barely any connection between them outside of one character from each ship mentioning that they want to call the other. Outside of that, bouncing back between a station orbiting Mars and a ship hundreds of light years away seemed distracting and unnecessary (and is it even possible to make phone calls light years away?).
Now if we’re playing devil’s advocate, we could say, “Yeah, but take the double-narrative away and you take away the script’s originality.” I suppose that’s true. But would you rather have a focused story that’s more engaging or an unfocused one that’s more thoughtful? For me, I always want the more engaging story, but I know others disagree with me on this.
As for everything else, Dark Matter was one of those scripts that took a lot of work to get through. And readers don’t like to feel like they’re working when they read. The problem was I was never quite sure what was real and what wasn’t. And I couldn’t decide if the deliberate vagueness of the storyline was well-crafted or sloppy.
What I mean by that is we’re given these really vague rules, like the fact that dark matter and the soul are linked. And that aliens can take over humans and make them look like human-alien hybrids. That there are alien ships and there are alien orbs, and the two may or may not be connected. And to communicate with dark matter and aliens (which may or may not be the same thing), we have to access our collective subconscious while we sleep.
All of that stuff sounds fun in a vacuum, but when you add it all together and try to spin a story around it, it can be quite frustrating to try and keep up with. If I don’t understand the rules of the universe you’ve created, how can I remain invested? It’s kind of like listening to two people talk in a language you only sort of know. You understand a few things here and there, but most of the time, you have no idea what they’re talking about, and boy is that frustrating.
It IS a delicate balance though because there are movies that have been able to make this work, such as Donnie Darko and 2001. All the answers are not given. There are many little gaps in rules and logic, and somehow, it makes the story feel deeper and more exciting. Instead of you feeling frustrated trying to figure things out, you feel excited, like every frame could contain a new clue to the mystery. You want to participate. Why Dark Matter didn’t get there, I’m not sure. All I can say is that the rules were a little TOO fast and loose. It was hard to find any numbers that added up.
Speaking of 2001, you have to be careful about letting your influences be too influential. S.O.L.O.M.O.N. was so similar to H.A.L. that whenever he spoke, all you can think about was that movie. You can’t have that. Look, our favorite movies always end up influencing our scripts. But you have to be smart about it. Find a new angle that makes the thing you’re stealing seem unique.
Maybe you change SOLOMON to a female voice. Maybe you make SOLOMON a full-on see-through virtual ship-assistant (something it looked like Ron was thinking of doing, but never quite pulled the trigger on). What I can tell you is that you if you recreate one of the most famous characters ever, people are going to call you on it.
Finally, this story seemed to be about “what comes next,” or the afterlife. That’s pretty much what the last 20-30 pages are about. However, there was barely ANY DISCUSSION about the afterlife throughout the script.
If you’re going to focus on a particular subject matter, especially something as intense as the afterlife, you have to design your characters around that idea. We need characters who are extremely religious. We need characters who are extremely scientific. We need agnostics. And we need conversations that tackle these different points of view in compelling entertaining ways. It was really strange that this script ended on such a religious note, yet barely brought up religion throughout its running time.
I’d be interested to hear what people think of Dark Matter in light of what we discussed yesterday. Would you rein this in or would you let Ron trust his voice and roam free? The unfocused narrative and vague rules ultimately did it in for me. But Ron certainly has a unique point of view and way of writing that should serve him well in his career.
Screenplay link: Dark Matter
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: When you’re writing, you’re always looking for which parts of your story pack the most punch and which parts are missing something. With each subsequence draft, you want to spend more time expanding the “packing punch” parts and less on the “something’s missing” parts. Over the course of many drafts, you’ll see the good stuff expand to take over most of the screenplay while the lacking stuff disappears completely. That’s the approach Ron needs to take here. The stuff that packs the most punch is on the ship, Babylon. The stuff that seems to have something missing is the Mars storyline. Therefore, I’d eliminate Mars and keep the story on the ship.
Today I want to pose a question to you that’s had me stumped for awhile.
What is the difference between BAD non-traditional writing and GOOD non-traditional writing?
I’m asking this question because I meet so many writers who insist on defying convention. I read their scripts and I say, “I don’t see a focused story here. I don’t see you setting up your characters correctly. I don’t see your story starting soon enough. I don’t see you adding conflict or suspense or any of the things that traditionally keep a reader interested.” And their response to me is always, “Well I don’t want to do it like that. That’s how Hollywood does it and I don’t like Hollywood movies. I want to do it differently.”
My gut reaction is to groan, but then I realize that they have a point. There isn’t just “one way” to do something. There are lots of ways. And if I tell these writers, “No, don’t do it that way,” aren’t I stifling their creativity? Aren’t I potentially preventing a new voice from emerging? If I was Captain of Hollywood, True Detective would’ve never been made. Yet there are a lot of people who love True Detective, and that’s definitely a show that “does it differently.”
Here’s the problem though. 99% of the time I let these writers roam free, they come back with a hodge-podge of ideas, sequences, and characters in search of a script. It’s like walking into a Category 5 Screenplay Storm. Anyone who’s been tasked with reading amateur scripts where the writers ignore all storytelling convention knows what I’m talking about.
Yet these writers continue to drum up compelling arguments to defend their approach. They say, “Well I don’t want to write Transformers, or Grown-Ups, or Identity Thief, or Olympus Has Fallen. Those scripts follow all the rules and they suck.” Hmm, I think. Can’t argue with that. And yet I can’t seem to convey to them that even Hollywood’s vanilla is better than their chocolate without getting a funny look or a black eye.
Maybe we can solve this by moving away from the amateur world and into the professional one. Because in this venue, writers are having the same battle. They all want to write something challenging and unique, a convention-defying opus that will win them an Oscar. All else being equal, no one wants to write Battleship. And they seem to have hard-core cinemagoers on their side. You need look no further than the Scriptshadow comment thread to see Grendl preaching this every day – break away from convention, ignore the rules, create something original!
But let me offer you the flip side of this argument. It’s only two words long.
Here’s a book that was adapted by and then directed by the Wachowskis (and Tom Tykwer), three of the more visionary directors in Hollywood. The result was one of the most beautiful movies of the last decade. And one of the most unfocused unsatisfying stories of the year. I’m not going to say the film didn’t have fans. But by and large, it was a failure, making only 30 million domestic. A documentary about chimpanzees made more money that year.
I bring the film up because this is the kind of thing you’re advocating when you say, “Fuck convention and write whatever you want.” You have three of the stronger talents in the business writing six narratives spanning six different time periods, with no clear connection. Set one of those time periods a thousand years in the future. Have the main character followed around by a homeless looking Leprechaun creature who spouts out indecipherable ramblings. I mean come on! There isn’t a single audience member who’s going to respond to that. It’s too weird!
And I can hear you from here. You’re saying, “Well I’d rather Hollywood produce ten failures like Cloud Atlases than one “hit” Iron Man 3.” No you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t. I dare you to sit down and try and watch Cloud Atlas’s three hour running time and not start checking your e-mail by the halfway point. I thought Iron Man 3 was pretty bad. But at least it was trying to entertain me.
My lack of enjoyment not-withstanding, the point is, two popular writers were given free rein to go crazy with a huge budget and created a piece of doo-doo. Which begs the question, is this what we want all the time? Julie Delpy written movies? Shane Carruth written movies? Another “Somewhere” from Sophia Coppola? Steve Soderbergh busting out films like “Bubble” every year?
It sounds fun in theory. Yeah! Give those guys gobs of money and let them do whatever they want. But what are the actual consequences? The consequences are film geeks getting to masturbate online about 10 minute tracking shots. But that’s where the benefits end. There would be no movie business because attendance would be down 90%. And the thing is, what you’re asking for is already here! These movies have already happened. You’ve just never heard of them because they were so bad.
Does a movie that promises to aggressively subvert the romantic comedy genre sound intriguing? Sure. But watch “I Give It A Year” and tell me you don’t want to kill yourself by the end of the first act. Diablo Cody won an Oscar. Let’s let her go wild on the page and see what happens. It happened, with a movie called “Paradise,” which I’m pretty sure is still waiting for its first customer. Francis Ford Coppola was given free rein on his last film. What did he come up with? Twixt. I’m guessing you didn’t rush over to Fandango to find the opening day showtimes for that one.
Now you may be saying, “Yeah, but I don’t like the sound of any of those movies, Carson. So of course I’m not going to see them.” That’s the problem. Millions of other people feel the same way. And if no one’s going to see these “fuck convention – I’ll write what I want” movies, then there won’t be a movie industry anymore.
On the flip side, there are definitely screenplays that have defied convention and turned out great. Pulp Fiction, Slumdog Millionaire, American Beauty. More recently, some might say American Hustle and Her. Which is why answering this question is so difficult. What makes one unconventional script good and another terrible?
I’ll give you an example from both sides. What makes the intense dramatic unconventional Short Term 12 good while the equally intense dramatic unconventional Labor Day is terrible? I suppose we can break down each script point by point, but I’m looking at the bigger picture. How do writers not bound by rules keep away from the bad and write something good? Do they just follow their heart? Should writing contain no form whatsoever other than the stream-of-consciousness rolling off the writer’s fingertips? I mean we can’t really be advocating this, right? There’s got to be a plan.
Ah-haaaaa. I believe that may be the clue we’ve been looking for.
If we’re going to do something as radical as defy convention, it only makes sense that we have a plan. Now that I think about it, the successful “unconventional” screenwriters I’ve spoken with always knew why they did what they did. They understood their unorthodox choices and made them for a reason. The people whose unconventional scripts aren’t so good are those who can’t answer any questions about their choices. They seem tripped up when you ask them even the simplest question, like “why did you choose this plot point here?” or “why did Character A do that?” They never had a plan, which is why their scripts tend to feel so aimless and frustrating.
So what I’d say to everyone planning on writing that next great unconventional screenplay, learn everything you can about this craft and then have a plan when you write. It doesn’t have to be everybody else’s plan. It just has to be yours. And know why you’re doing shit. The more control you have over your choices, the more logical your script is going to be, and the easier it’s going to be for your reader to digest. If you think that advice is for wimps and you want to fly by the seat of your pants, that’s fine. But don’t be surprised if you leave a lot of confused readers in your wake.
What about you guys? What do you think the key is to writing an unconventional screenplay?
Premise: Every time a man reaches the end of his life and dies, he resets back to his 18 year old self and lives his life with the knowledge of all the mistakes he’s made before.
About: Replay is based on a 1989 book and was actually developed back THEN into a script. Problem is, it didn’t go anywhere. Then, a couple of years ago, it became hot again, drawing interest from Ben Affleck (as director and star) and when he dropped out, Robert Zemeckis. Unfortunately, Zemeckis would later drop out as well. The script’s resurgence was brought about by a new draft from writer Jason Smilovic (Lucky Number Slevin, Bionic Woman, My Own Worst Enemy) which ended up on the low end of the 2010 Black List. However, it’s a little unclear if Smilovic adapted an earlier version of the script or simply started anew and stayed extremely loyal to the source material. The “present-day” storyline in Replay takes place in the late 80s, which makes the launching-point year 1989 (which takes some getting used to).
Writer: Jason Smilovic (based on the novel “Replay” by Ken Grimwood)
Details: Frist Draft – September 30, 2010
So you’re feeling frustrated. You’re feeling left out. You’re upset that all these writers are out there winning Oscars and selling scripts and you’re in your parents’ basement trying to come up with that next excuse for your “family meeting” about why the job search isn’t panning out. “What?? Do you want me to work at Denny’s???” you argue to your demanding parents. “I’ve looked EVERYwhere and there are NO jobs,” you lie, knowing full well you haven’t looked for jack shit because if you can JUST FINISH your latest script, you know it’s going to sell and you’ll be rich and famous and never have to worry about watching porn with the volume low so your mom doesn’t hear you again.
Welcome to the mind of the writer!
But I’ve got news for you. Just because you “make it” doesn’t mean all your problems go away. One of the most frustrating things professional writers have to deal with is the “attachment revolving door,” which means watching director after director attach themselves to your project, only to stop returning your calls a couple of months later (which may or may not have to do with the latest rewrite). Spielberg is notorious for doing this, repeatedly raising and then crushing dreams (I feel so sorry for that Roboapacolypse writer!). I am here to tell you, if Steven Spielberg ever wants to direct your screenplay, do not tell anyone UNTIL THE CAMERAS ARE ROLLING. There’s like a 90% chance he’ll drop out and do something else.
Imagine being in Jason Siminuc’s shoes. Ben Affleck agrees to direct your movie. YAY! Happiness. Success. A house in the hills. But oh no. Affleck doesn’t want to direct your movie anymore. You’re at your lowest point. And then Robert Zemeckis wants to make your movie! Yay! Happiness again! The director of Forrest Gump. Oh, but then Zemeckis doesn’t want to direct your movie anymore.
Do you know how hard it is to get a director to make your movie? Directors take THREE years to make a movie. So they only have so many open slots. The best of the best, the guys who can greenlight films on their name alone – getting one of them is like trying to pass a bill in Congress. So to have two of those guys attach themselves, only to then ditch you at the dance… it’s gotta be soul-crushing.
Why am I telling you this? To cheer you up! You, lucky unknown screenwriter, don’t have to deal with any of that soul-crushing madness yet. You get to pick any idea in the imaginatory universe and write a script about it with no deadlines or pressures or directors toying with your emotions. That’s a pretty sweet deal, I’d say.
But I must admit, Replay has taken such a curious route to its current status, I must know more about it. Let’s check out the draft that made it to the Black List and see what we can find.
Jeff Zatkowski is living in the year 1988 when he decides to take over a news station (holding hostage a newscaster named Pam) and tell the world that he’s a time-traveller who keeps dying at the end of his life, only to be sent back into his 18 year-old body to start over again.
It’s a glitzy tale, but Jeff’s got plenty of details to back it up. It starts with his daughter Chloe, who, in his first life, dies at 4 years old. Jeff had Chloe with his wife Linda, and because the memory of his daughter’s death is so painful, when Jeff finds himself starting over, he doesn’t want to marry Linda again. He wants to bang girls and have a good time.
But that gets old quick and isn’t very fulfilling anyway, so he pulls a Phil Connors and tries to learn new languages, play new instruments, and stop Kennedy from getting assassinated. But as you’d expect after living the same life over and over again, even that gets boring.
That’s until Jeff sees a movie about a man who keeps reliving the same life over and over again. Convinced that whoever made the film has the same affliction he does, he tracks her down, only to find out it’s Pam, the woman he’s holding hostage in the present timeline. Except that’s a different Pam from this Pam. Because every time someone relives a life, they tend to choose a different path. So with a little prodding, Jim finds out that he’s right. Pam is a replayer too!
This leads to the two trying to figure out what it all means. Why are they replaying? What is the point? When does this all end? Eventually, they find a third man who replays (we’ll call him the Biff Tannen of the story) and he wants to make sure they never tell anyone about their powers or try to change them, because Biff likes reliving his life over and over again.
From there, the script delves into 2001 territory, as we get trippy sequences where Jeff lives his life over and over again, but we’re experiencing each one for only a fraction of a second, until he’s finally able to figure out how to save Chloe. But it’s at this point that Jeff begins to wonder if what he’s telling Pam and the rest of the world is really true. Did he really experience all these things? Or is he just nuts? I’m not sure we ever find out. And I think that’s just the way Jason and Ken like it.
I’ve read a lot of these “relive your life” scripts and I’m not sure they ever really satisfy me. The reason is simple. The concept is too big for the writer. There are so many iterations you can take this in that trying to rein in any sort of story can be nearly impossible. That’s one of the genius moves of Groundhog Day. They realized that tackling a whole life is too vast, too complicated. So they just focused on a single day. As a result, it was much easier to manage.
At the same time, I see the allure of doing the grander version. This concept does have more possibilities. I’m assuming that’s why guys like Affleck and Zemeckis signed on. The script has potential. But potential and execution are two different things. And figuring out these alternate-reliving-time-travel-life things can be a nightmare. I mean, at a certain point in Replay, we were jumping back and forth between four different timelines and I’d forgotten what it was the story was about. I didn’t know what the characters were trying to do anymore. Is Linda the love interest or is Pam? If Chloe is such a big plot point, how come we never meet her?
The more I think about it, the more I’m not sure what it is this movie’s trying to be. It’s a drama about time travel (or a form of time-travel). Where does that exist on the genre spectrum? It’s funny, because I was JUST having this discussion with a friend yesterday. We were discussing a script like this and I made the same observation: “Where does this exist genre-wise?” And my friend was like, “Why does it have to exist anywhere? Isn’t that what Hollywood needs? More originality? More skewing away from genre?”
I thought long and hard about that. It was a solid point. Isn’t this a good thing that it’s different? I guess so. You have to commend Smilovic for taking chances and pioneering his own narrative. But the thing about taking chances is the chances still have to work. And I don’t know if this one does. It feels like a jumble of planets in search of a sun to orbit.
Obviously, part of that is first-draft jitters, but I don’t even know where you go from here. The most obvious choice would be to reset this in the present, which would at least make it more current. But that’s a page-1 rewrite, since you’d have alter the very fabric of the timeline (instead of going back to the 60s, as it stands now, we’d be going back to the 80s) which requires all new “historic moments” our main character needs to experience. The more I think about it, the more shocked I am that they didn’t “present-ize” this story from the get-go. It seems like something a studio is going to ask for sooner or later.
I have a lot of respect for the people who are working on this project. It’s compelling subject matter with a lot of potential. But this is one of those things you have to develop and play with and try things with until you finally rein in a narrative and story that works, and the variables are scattered enough that you’re not sure if you’re ever going to get there. I wish them luck, but this one wasn’t for me.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: As a script trying to become a movie, I don’t think this works. But as a writer trying to get Hollywood’s attention, this script was perfect. The one thing about taking chances and writing a script that’s completely different, is that even if you “fail,” Hollywood likes the fact that you tried something new. Despite evidence to the contrary, Hollywood is always looking for new voices. So you can write unique scripts like these and still have it pay off.