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Premise (from writer): Murdered to advance the construction of an exclusive golf resort, a mountain man is resurrected by Death himself to take revenge as an undead killing machine.
Why You Should Read (from writer): I’m a lifelong horror fanatic and very much a product of the VHS generation. This is my sincere attempt at horror the way I lovingly remember it; gruesome and gory, but also imaginative, cinematic and, most importantly, FUN! THE HARVESTER is a high-concept, blood-soaked blast of old-school carnage with an ending so wild and explosive that it needs to be read to be believed. Hope you enjoy!
Writer: Nick Morris
Details: 97 pages
Much like the title character of its script, “The Harvester” came back from the dead after being passed over in its initial Amateur Offerings run. Like any good writer, Nick took the feedback he got from that initial post, made some changes, then tried again. The effort was enough to win him the week.
Of course, now he’s got to get past a sleepy Carson who’s eager to get a review up so he can start his weekend. Oh, that pesky reader – never in the mood you need them to be in when they’re reading your script.
I’ll say this. I stayed wide awake during the entirety of The Harvester. But was Nick’s love for VHS horror enough to steal my attention away from why the hell Zack Snyder is tweeting Jedi Superman pics at Comic-Con? May the Kryptonian force be with me as we find out.
We meet 35 year-old David (“a rugged-looking mountain man”) on the verge of death. His car’s just been pushed over the side of a cliff. His wife died in the fall. And he’s minutes away from following her. But before he does, the original scythe-wielder, Death himself, shows up to send him off in style.
Cut to the board room of one of the richest men in the world, pharmaceutical kingpin and all around hell-raiser, Bob Vargas. Turns out Vargas is talking to David. But how can that be? David is dead, isn’t he? Enter Bergman, Death’s disguise in the human world. Bergman freezes Vargas and asks David what he thinks about becoming his own personal killing machine.
Cut to 20 year-old Sasha, who we’re going to come to learn is David’s daughter. She was a toddler when David and her mom disappeared, and she’s coming home to finally figure out what happened to them.
You see, her town has been overrun by a giant resort owned by whom? You guessed it: Bob Vargas! And there are some suspicious connections between Vargas and David, such as the fact that David was the only person who wouldn’t sell his resort-blocking property to the billionaire. Wouldn’t you know it, a few months later, he disappeared. Problem solved.
While Sasha infiltrates the resort to find out the truth about her parents, David’s brought back to life by Death as someone called “The Harvester.” His only job? Kill as many people as he can. Why? Because that’s what Death wants!
Eventually, Sasha’s investigation and The Harvester’s killings intersect. Will the two figure out who they are before it’s too late? Read The Harvester to find out!
The thing I love about amateur scripts is they’re these giant balls of boundless energy. You can feel the excitement exploding off every page.
The bad thing about this? Those balls can become so out of control, that they shoot off into space without ever letting you know why the heck they came into existence in the first place. Which was kind of my experience with The Harvester.
I’d say for about 10 pages, I loved this. It felt different. It felt fresh. I liked this dual-narrative of following our dead father while seeing his now-grown daughter looking into his death. At that point, the narrative felt focused and strong.
That didn’t last long though. The ice started to crack once David transformed into The Harvester. I never understood why David was supposed to kill people. Death was always so vague about it. He’d say something to the effect of, “That’s for me to know and you not to worry about.”
Which is okay. I’m all for a good mystery if there’s going to be a good payoff. But unless I missed something, that payoff never came. I’ll tell you what did come, though. Confusion.
Why, for instance, with David being so reluctant to do Death’s bidding, did he become the Picasso of killers? Why did he have to stab, slice, decapitate, chop, and mow every person down he killed? Death never said anything about, “You need to kill them as magnificently as possible.” His only stipulation was that David had to kill them. So you’d think a reluctant David would perform his killings as mercifully as possible.
Once the reader senses that things are happening in a script not because that’s how they would really happen, but because that’s the way the writer wanted them to happen, the suspension of disbelief is ruined. Every choice must have a purpose, a reason to exist. Even if you’re writing a fun 80s-type slasher film.
Which leads us to my next issue. Was this an 80s horror film? Sometimes I’d say yes. Other times I’d say no. One of the most interesting things about The Harvester was that we got to know our “movie monster” on a very deep and intimate level. We watched him lose his wife, lose his kid. We see him begging for his life back from Death. This led me to believe that we were going to explore the horror genre on a much deeper level.
But then, once Sasha becomes an employee of the resort and starts partying with all the other 20-something employees, it basically turned into an 80s slasher flick. I just couldn’t wrap my head around what The Harvester wanted to be.
Yet another problematic area was the late emergence of the resort storyline. We didn’t really start meeting all the resort employees until the halfway point (Employee Graham and his wife Portia, page 43. Asshole Jock Mike, page 48).
I’m always nervous when characters don’t get introduced until halfway through the script. Obviously, there are cases where late-arriving characters are necessary. But usually, it’s because the writer didn’t work hard enough to get those characters established early.
I mean I’d read half the script. There had been no mention of this character, Mike. Then Mike’s introduced, and all of a sudden he’s on every page! It became the Mike Show. If he was going to be this important, why wasn’t he in here earlier?
On the plus side, Nick is a really talented writer. I mean, if you open up this script and start reading, you can easily imagine the scene as he’s telling it to you. That’s not easy to do and something most amateurs struggle with for a long time. He’s got a clear, crisp, and visual writing style.
But as I’ve stated a million times before, one of the most frustrating things about screenwriting is that that’s supposed to be a given. Nobody gives extra points to Olympic skaters because their costumes fit. Those things are simply expected. And a clear, crisp, visual writing style, even though that puts you ahead of a lot of amateurs, doesn’t mean diddly squat on the pro circuit, where everyone’s able to do that.
In the pro circuit, it’s all about your ability to tell a compelling story. And right now, The Harvester is too unfocused as a story. If I were Nick, I’d figure out what I wanted this to be. Do I want it to be a weightier character-driven horror flick like the first 15 pages hint at? Or do I want this to be an ode to 80s horror classics like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th? Because I don’t think you can be both.
Personally, I’d be more interested in the first option. But it feels like Nick’s partial to the second. Which is fine. But, if you’re going to go that route, I’d look for a new way to freshen up that genre. Just doing what they did back in the 80s isn’t going to be enough. I wish him luck. I see a lot of promise in Nick’s writing. Just remember to control that ball of energy. The second it gets away from you, there’s no getting it back.
Script link: The Harvester
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: One of the things people in the entertainment business will tell you is to write something “different.” I see a lot of amateur writers take this advice the wrong way. They take it to mean that any kind of different is good. And it isn’t. There’s “different good” and there’s “different bad.” The main difference between the two is focus. The “good different” stuff still has a focused story, whereas the bad different stuff, while definitely different, is all over the place. I can write a movie about a man who paints himself orange and moves to Antarctica, but if there’s no point behind the story, who cares? Write a story about the first murder investigation on the moon though (Moonfall – the hot new spec that just sold) and you’ve managed to write something different that still feels focused.
Justin Lader is the writer on the twisty-turny breakout Sundance hit, “The One I Love.” This is his first produced credit. The film stars Mark Duplass (Zero Dark Thirty, Safety Not Guaranteed) and Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men). The film hits VOD and Itunes on Friday August 1st and theaters on August 22nd! Make sure to see it!
SS: First off, Justin. Congratulations! How did this journey begin for you? When did you start writing?
JL: Once it became apparent that anything involving athleticism wasn’t a viable option, I took an interest in the arts. Growing up I would manipulate the kids in my neighborhood into thinking we were playing cops but I’d really be placing them in certain roles, constructing a story and we’d be improvising. I was also a big GI JOE and wrestler action figure guy. I’d lock myself in my room and use them not as GI JOES or wrestlers, but as characters in stories I was making up while playing with them. That’s all well and fine until you reach the fork in the road called middle school and you had to choose between GI JOES and girls.
At the time, I didn’t realize I was telling stories, I didn’t think of it like that. Writing wasn’t something I ever considered. It was just a thing you had to do for school and you’d put it off until the very last minute (something which unfortunately still hasn’t changed much). In high school I did theater and that was fun but acting never really came natural. Basically I’d be on stage just trying to remember what my next line is and hoping to deliver it in a way that didn’t humiliate myself. It wasn’t until we were given the option of doing a monologue or writing our own for a class midterm that I realized writing was a viable option for me.
The thought of memorizing a monologue was unbearable so I leaped at the opportunity to write my own. I was obsessed with Andy Kaufman at the time so my idea was I’d write what would seem to be an intense personal monologue about loss. That way people would be sympathetic to me and there would already be a built in bit of awkwardness and discomfort in the air. Then I had a friend of mine who was also in the class begin to heckle me halfway through. There was a nice slow build to it; other students began to get upset and annoyed. I began to stammer on stage like it was affecting me. It all culminated with me confronting him. The teacher didn’t even know about it. People in the class were really freaked and confused when they realized it was all a put-on. I got an A and said no more acting. It’s all about story telling. From there I went to undergraduate film school at the University of Central Florida and majored in Film. After that I applied to AFI and was accepted in the screenwriting discipline.
SS: At least you didn’t sit next to people on airplanes and show them gruesome photographs of plane crash sites, as Kaufman was known to do. So how did you get into screenwriting specifically?
JJ: I always loved movies and TV shows. It was my life. I’d watch everything. The undergrad/grad school experience was really eye opening for me. My college film program at UCF was very independent minded. At the time its claim to fame was the Blair Witch guys came out of there. Basically you wrote, directed, produced, edited, and sometimes acted in your own shorts. Permits didn’t matter. It was gorilla filmmaking and it was a lot of fun. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to dive in as a writer/director or just a writer. I knew anything technical wasn’t possible for me. It still takes me about 35 minutes to set up a C-Stand.
SS: Me too!
JL: Those things are impossible. But I did notice something important fairly early on. Most of the other film students had exceptional knowledge and skill on a technical level. Leaps and bounds above me. But they didn’t seem to get excited by story. It was almost as if the story was an afterthought to all the cool technical things they wanted to do. So after undergrad when AFI was an option and I had to actually pick a discipline and stick to it, I thought about that. I thought about all the headaches of going through pre production on a short film – raising money, securing locations and vendors, casting actors that most of the time just want something to add to their reel, and I realized that I didn’t want to go through all that again.
I also thought that after two years at AFI, leaving with a couple of polished feature length screenplays and a TV pilot might position me better to hit the ground running as opposed to a short film, which usually leads to somebody, at best, watching it and liking it and then asking what’s next. So I decided to apply to the screenwriting discipline. And the AFI film experience was the polar opposite of the UCF film experience. At AFI, everything was about permits and narrative and the Hollywood way of telling stories and turning those stories into movies. I used to joke that AFI required a permit just to use their bathroom. So in a lot of ways I felt like I got the best of both worlds as far as the film school experience goes. However, I also got the best of both worlds as far as film school debt goes, so there’s that too.
SS: Well, we’ll try to alleviate that a little bit (Scriptshadow readers, go see this movie!). So during those early days, what was the most challenging thing about screenwriting for you?
JL: I’d say finding my voice. That didn’t happen for me until AFI. Mainly because film schools try to force 3 act narrative filmmaking into the paradigm of a short film. And that’s brutal. A short film is its own mountain to climb and very different from features. I think that’s one of the big mistakes most film schools are guilty of and why a lot of short films you see from even prominent film schools tend to feel long and not work. At undergrad I wrote my first two features. They were the standard coming-of-age scripts. I was lucky to get those out of the way early. Then at AFI, I started to really define my voice and the types of stories that excite me. Something as organic as finding your voice, on paper, doesn’t seem like it should be the biggest challenge, but for me it was. It took a while.
SS: Okay so how many scripts had you written before you finally felt like you were “getting” screenwriting?
JL: My first feature at undergrad was coming-of-age. My next script was a pilot, also coming-of-age. Then, through a professor who became a mentor, I was hired by an author to adapt his novel into a script. That, too, was coming-of-age. So like I said, I REALLY got that out of my system. At AFI, things started to click for me once I realized the types of stories I wanted to tell (bigger hooks that led to intimate unpredictable stories). And to this day, Charlie (director of The One I Love and my collaborating partner) and I look for these types of stories whenever we’re about to break a new script.
SS: Can you remember a specific moment when things really started to click?
JL: My thesis feature script at AFI was a screenplay called Fighting Jacob. At the time, I was pretty unhappy for a lot of reasons that don’t really matter for the purposes of this. And I wondered if being unhappy was also a contributing factor in being a writer. Then I was scared that if I ever found happiness, I wouldn’t be a good writer anymore. Now, if I had this idea back when I was in undergrad, I would’ve written a very literal story about an introverted writer who struggled with his art and emotional growth. You know, a coming-of-age-story. Not wanting to do that, an idea occurred to me and it led to what Fighting Jacob eventually became.
It was a story about a neurotic hypochondriac who just happened to be one of the most promising up-and-coming boxers on the amateur circuit – He won’t throw a punch until his opponent hits him ten times first, and after the post-fight physician checks him out he’s more concerned with the mole on his chest being benign than the bruises he got from the fight. Basically you have a protagonist that’s physically Jake Gyllenhaal but mentally Woody Allen. It’s his pent up anxiety and neurosis that makes him a monster in the ring when he lets it out. The Jewish version of Raging Bull. Anyway, he meets a girl, falls in love and begins to feel happiness for the first time. As their relationship grows, his quirks and OCD tendencies begin to go away and he realizes he’s not fighting as well anymore. And the story then becomes about him struggling with whether or not he has to be unhappy to be a good fighter and does he have to choose between boxing or the girl…. So basically, it was taking something that felt real and honest to me, but dramatizing it in a way that narratively (hopefully) had a fun sort of hook to get people interested.
Then, really quickly, the other thing that clicked was the idea of taking something familiar and subverting expectations in a hopefully interesting way. We had to write a couple of spec scripts of existing shows in a TV comedy class at AFI. I have two television idols (more like obsessions really) and they’re David Chase and Larry David. So naturally I wrote a Curb spec. My premise was Larry agrees to write a Seinfeld reunion episode just to impress an attractive studio exec that was at the pitch meeting. (This was in between seasons 6 and 7 so I had no idea they were actually making another season with a Seinfeld arc). So I wrote that spec and then felt wonderfully vindicated when I learned that the actual premise of the next season was the same thing. As someone who is usually very hard on himself, the cross-over moments between my script and David’s made me feel like I was doing something right.
And the other spec I did was an East Bound and Down that centered around Danny McBride’s character learning that a Hollywood studio was making a biopic about his life as a troubled train-wreck former ball player and the studio casts Vincent Chase to play him. Wishing it was someone more bad ass like Micky Rourke, McBride’s character tries to get Vinny Chase (and the Entourage) to OD on drugs when Vince comes to “observe him” as preparation for playing him in the movie. So it was merging an East Bound and Down spec with an Entourage spec, but in the tones and universe of East Bound and Down. Writing this spec led me to realize that there’s a level of unpredictability that comes when playing within different tones that don’t normally go together. The tricky part is executing those different tones properly. Because there’s good unpredictability and bad unpredictability. Left of center is great; out of left field is not…. These three scripts were what led to my first opportunity to have representation.
SS: Ooh, I like that line (“Left of center is great; out of left field is not….”). So true. Moving on, can you tell us how you eventually got your agent/manager (or both)?
JL: I got my first manager through a friend who read Fighting Jacob and my Curb spec. He very graciously passed it along to a friend who happened to be a manager. I was in my last year at AFI and having a manager that early was thrilling. Ultimately, we had different philosophies when it came to the types of movies I should write. I’m pretty miserable when I’m struggling to write something I love so I don’t want to even think about the unbearable bastard I’d be if I was writing something I wasn’t passionate about. His mentality was more SELL SELL SELL, which is totally fine but being a twenty-four year old coming out of AFI, I was looking more for a manager who would nurture a new writer and work to build a career of collaboration. Eventually, I met Charlie (the director of The One I Love) and he read Fighting Jacob and we hit if off both personally and creatively. We set out for that to be the first movie we’d make. He’d direct it. During that process I signed with another manager, who I’m still with currently. And Charlie and I eventually signed with an agency because we were close to selling a TV show and it was time for agents. We ended up selling a pitch to CBS that never went anywhere and soon after we sort of parted ways from the agency in a very non-dramatic way. Then about 3 years ago we signed with a new agency (ICM) that’s been wonderful and that’s been our happy home ever since…
SS: Is there anything you learned during that process?
JL: Probably not to stress too much about agents and managers. I remember, especially in film school, the thinking is that agents and managers are the answer. And then the career begins. The reality is that agents and managers can’t do much for a new writer until the new writer does something for himself. Obviously there’s that massive spec sale exception. But by and large, it’s about creating your own opportunities AND THEN you have agents and managers to help facilitate those opportunities once they come. It’s a bit of a catch-22 because you can’t really break in without an agent or manager but agents and managers don’t really want you until you break in. My relationship with my agents and my manager has been invaluable since we’ve made this movie. Once you have opportunities and it becomes about navigating a healthy career path, making the right decisions creatively and career-wise, you count on agents and managers. But nine times out of ten, and this is true for pretty much everybody I know who also has managed to break in, that first opportunity that gets your career going comes from you.
SS: Okay now this is the stuff I’m particularly interested in. Most people go the traditional route of sending specs out and either getting a sale or getting assignments. But for these more independent/Sundance type projects, the process can be a little more homegrown. Can you tell us how The One I Love came about?
JL: Charlie and I spent the better part of 5 years trying to get Fighting Jacob off the ground. We had a lot of close calls. We even had financing and a pretty wonderful cast lined up. The problem was it was one of those projects in budgetary no man’s land. At the time, I actually thought I was being smart or strategic by writing a high concept indie in the 2 and a half to 3 million dollar range. What I didn’t know was that nobody wants to finance that. At the time, the big boys don’t see an upside in investing that small of an amount. It’s not worth it to them, they want to invest in bigger indies, more closer to ten. And for the people who do finance low budget indies 2-3 is way too expensive and risky.
SS: Wait, let me stop you there. So it’s bad to write a 2-3 million dollar indie film? That budget will always be passed up because it’s stuck in no-man’s land?
JL: It’s fascinating because the paradigm is constantly shifting; even from only a year or two ago. At the time we were gearing up for FJ, we had the script budgeted for about 2.5 I believe. Not sure exactly, that’s ballpark. It was tough because independent financiers tend to either wanna go below a million or over 6 or 7. That was the case a few years ago. It might be a little different currently. If you had a big name actor that would make it easier. But even that was more of a scientific thing as opposed to a prestige thing. You could get a decent name but if there was no foreign value to the actor, the money folks didn’t really care. It was important to sell off foreign territories so investors can get their money back before the director even says action….
Now currently, and I do think this plays a factor for high concept indies, the budgets can fluctuate based on things that have nothing to do with the script. And that’s something the director discusses with the team beforehand. There could be a version of a film that’s made for 7-8 million and a version made for 1-2; and this gap in $ has absolutely nothing to do with the script, I’m talking about not changing a word. There’s obviously a multitude of pros and cons but overwhelmingly most directors go for the 1-2 million version even though that limits them in many ways.
The short reason why — Control. That amount means the director can pretty much cast the movie the way they want and make the movie the way they see it. But most importantly, once you go beyond 1. 5 (I forget what the exact number is, may not be 1.5) you have to go union. I’m talking teamsters and the whole nine yards. If you make a movie for less than (1.5) you can sidestep all the fees and hoops; and the main reason that’s appealing is because every cent of that budget goes on screen. If you make a move for 3, most of that goes to all the union stuff and never makes it to the screen… From my experience, a nice high concept indie with a great role for a name actor, kept to within 1.5 is a great place to be. Studios that acquire movies on the festival circuit are paying less and less these days. I know of some movies that had decent offers from big studios but COULDN’T sell because the financiers would lose money on the sale. So the filmmakers had to pass. Crazy stuff.
SS: Wow, that’s fascinating. Okay, sorry for interrupting. You were talking about trying to get Fighting Jacob off the ground.
JL: Right so Charlie and our manager were persistent, passionate and smart. Like I said, we got casting and financing and were gearing up for pre-pro when financing fell through and we had to “push” the start date. What I very quickly learned was that “push” is actually code for “never gonna fucking happen.” While that was going on, our agent (who happens to be Mark Duplass’ agent also) gave Mark Fighting Jacob to read. He then met with Charlie and the two of them hit it off. Mark and Charlie had similar sensibilities and Mark explained his model and approach to making low budget films. It was a natural fit and Charlie was so hungry to make something. Mark said we’d hear from him. And we did. The three of us hopped on the phone and we all clicked. Then we started talking about concepts and an idea emerged. Mark then let Charlie and I go off to break the story. (That’s how our relationship works. Creatively it’s wonderful. We break the story together so it comes from us both, I go off and write then he makes what I write a million times better as a director)….
So I put together a ten page document that laid out the ground work for the story in the hopes that it would entice Mark to proceed with us. He was pleased and we were off to the races. This happened in October (not of this past year) and we wanted to shoot the movie in April. Now at this point we knew what we were dealing with in terms of budget, location, and if we wrote a good story – our lead actress. So it was about writing very quickly to make an April start date. Since Mark is one of the busiest people on the planet, if we didn’t make that date, the movie would have been “pushed.” So Charlie and I basically said that if this movie doesn’t happen it won’t be because we didn’t deliver on our end. So we delved into the story and broke it very quickly. I wrote what ended up being what I believe was a 55 page document that we called a scriptment.
SS: Okay, so kind of like what James Cameron does.
JL: For me the inspiration was more what Larry David does on Curb, but yeah. And I didn’t include dialogue in it. I would suggest certain lines but it was all in the exposition and scene descriptions. It had every scene, what was happening in the scene, what the characters were going through externally and internally. It built the narrative thread of the movie. That was completed by the end of October. Our producer Mel came on board after reading it. Mark sent the script to Lizzie (Elizabeth Moss) who read it and wanted to do it. Timing-wise she was finishing up Mad Men literally the day before we were to start shooting, so it felt like the stars were aligning.
As pre-production rolled along it became apparent that the last 30 minutes of the movie required full scripting for practical reasons that would have made improv difficult. So I scripted the last 30 pages, which was an interesting exercise because while the scriptment was very carefully plotted and detailed, I hadn’t heard these characters interact and a lot of that interaction was going to come directly from Lizzie and Mark. It ended up working out and we shot the movie that April.
Like I said, this was a heavily plotted movie with a TON of scenes so we realized on set that we didn’t have the luxury of time to go through long exploratory scenes. It became apparent that I’d be of use scripting the next day’s scenes out the night before. Even if Mark and Lizzie added their own lines, it served as a nice blueprint for pacing. We’d get a sense of how long the scene should feel beat wise – Like, the first few lines there’s room to play, but by line four “this” needs to be said so the scene pivots into this bit of information which carries us into the next scene. I would write those pages, hand them to Mark, Charlie, Lizzie, and Mel while the crew was prepping, and these pages would function as our starting off point and we’d all collaborate and find the scene from there. It was an incredible amount of fun and it kept things fresh and exciting. It was collaboration in the truest sense.
SS: Whoa, that’s a really unique approach. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone doing it that way before. All right, so, if you were giving advice to writers out there, would you tell them to go that more traditional route of trying to get a project made at a studio or should they go the indie route?
JL: That’s tricky. It depends on the types of stories you want to tell as a writer. I mentioned earlier that David Chase was another hero of mine and a major influence. I was in high school when the Sopranos started and for some reason what he was attempting to do with that show immediately clicked for me. He took the hook of a mob story and used that as a way into exploring the things he wanted to say about family, work, fatherhood, and being an American male mid-life in the late 90s and early 2000’s. The main character just happened to run a crime family. What that show did is something that I think independent films can do now. I think it’s an exciting and new time in independent filmmaking.
In the mid 90’s you had the boom of indie filmmaking where studios learned that certain movies could be acquired from elite festivals and find mainstream audiences. And that’s sort of been the paradigm ever since; a little bit of survival of the fittest – Some movies would get acquired by a studio, others would only exist in film festivals. Of the films acquired, some would break through and find an audience, and others would struggle. Now, with VOD and iTunes, same day releases, and everything in between a new model to distribute independent films is on the horizon and beginning to emerge. Of course it requires a little trial and error, and there are a bunch of kinks that still need to be worked out, but I’m incredibly excited to be starting my career during this new boom of indie filmmaking.
Look at something like Snowpiercer. It’s a tremendous success, well deserved. But just from a story standpoint, in premise alone, it’s something that could have conceivably been a big studio tent pole. But they made it independently, which allowed them to take a high concept premise and take it in a direction that’s interesting and unpredictable. And that’s what I was talking about when I mentioned the Sopranos earlier. Part of the DNA of that show was the fact that anything could happen at any moment. It used to be that big ideas were meant for big studios. If you made a “genre” indie, it was meant to get the attention of the studios and help you break in. If you were an indie filmmaker by nature, the perception was that you were dabbling in avant-garde filmmaking that didn’t necessarily have a strong emphasis on narrative. But that’s not the case anymore. So if you’re the type of writer who conceptualizes big ideas and is interested in executing those ideas into a subversive story that appeals to audiences while managing to also keep them on their toes, I think it’s a very exciting time to consider the indie route.
SS: This next question is tricky because I keep hearing this film has a big twist that turns it into a different genre. I don’t want to find out what that is because I want to be surprised when I see the film. But I’m curious if making that choice was easy to you or difficult, since aggressive choices in movies are a hard sell. People usually like to know exactly what kind of movie they’re paying for. Did people tell you, “You’re crazy. This is too strange. We need to rewrite it to be more traditional?”
JL: It was just the opposite actually. We realized that our take, or hook, to hang our story on was exactly what was going to work in our favor. Another reason Charlie and I work so well together is our approach. I tend to think in terms of story. Wouldn’t it be cool if… What if this happens… And then.. etc… Charlie is wonderful when it comes to character. So we complement each other nicely. Once we had the hook of our movie we made it a point not to just rely on it to carry the audience through the rest of the film, but to also build on it. Constantly build and not just tread water. We also reverse engineered the character component and emotional story to compliment what you’re talking about. And what that gave us was taking something that is high concept and making it universal and emotionally true. That was our mandate. As long as the characters were going through the emotional equivalent of the hook or twist or whatever you want to call it, we were confident we were making the right choices.
SS: Can you tell us a little bit about your process? (Do you outline? If so, how extensively? Do you focus mainly on structure? Or character? Or theme? How long does it take you to write a first draft? And then eventually a finished script?)
JL: Clearly The One I Love was not my typical process and was its own thing. Usually it’s a full script from the get-go. The One I Love came together fast. The new one I’m finishing up took a while to find. For me, I think it’s much better to have an idea of what the story is and more importantly where it goes so you have some kind of road map. That’s just me. Some people crank out a first draft very quickly and that turns into their outline. I find I write better and the process is easier when the story is broke before I begin writing. It saves me time and anxiety. And anxiety is something I’m definitely not in short supply of. When dealing with high concept ideas, it’s important for me to tap into that universal theme I really want to explore within the concept. It helps me write because it grounds a big idea into something human. Like Eternal Sunshine. That’s a movie about getting over a break up. So theme is important, especially when the premise isn’t literal.
SS: What are some of the most important things you’ve learned about screenwriting over the years, things that have really helped you as a writer?
JL: I find the best lessons about something specific also apply to life in general. It’s important to be self aware as a writer. And to be reflective and honest enough to not be on either extreme of the spectrum – What you just wrote probably isn’t the best, most original, thing you’ve ever done. And also, what you just wrote probably isn’t the biggest waste of time and load of crap ever typed on a Macbook. It’s important to be dramatic in your writing but not in your analysis. It’s easier said than done, and lord knows I struggle with that. Being able to accurately assess your work in an honest and critical way is something most writers (even great writers) struggle with. The workshop process really helps with that. You’re able to understand notes, navigate how to react to those notes, and most importantly find the note behind the note. Because nobody knows your script as well as you do. So often you’ll hear a note that might not be well articulated but the emotional visceral response BEHIND the note is something that you should consider. That’s why I really like this site. Whether I agree or disagree with a criticism or lesson, ultimately this website is a wonderful tool in learning how to reflect on the writing process as opposed to just fixating on the finished product.
SS: Yeah, go Scriptshadow! ☺ So what was it like seeing your movie for the first time? Did it look and sound like you imagined it in your head? Or was it completely different?
JL: That aspect of this was a fairy tale in every sense. Woody Allen said that an idea is at its best in your head because the imagination has no production limitations. Being on set every day, soaking up and absorbing everything I could from Mark, watching Charlie direct something I wrote with the skill and confidence of a veteran filmmaker, and having Lizzie convey a complex emotion I labored over describing in the script all in just a look was better than anything I was able to conceive of in my neurotic brain. And that was just the experience of making it. Which terrified me. You always hear that the best on set experiences eventually translate into the worst movies. Everyone had a bitch of a time making Titanic, and that turned into a big success. Everyone had a blast making Dunston Checks In, and that turned into Dunston Checks In. So when we premiered at Sundance and it got the reception it did, I was humbled and thrilled. Then I immediately scheduled a physical with my doctor because there’s no way something this wonderful and amazing could happen to me that didn’t result in the karmic balance of some form of cancer. … But I turned out to be clean.
Thanks so much for this. Have a lot of respect and admiration for this website. This was fun.
SS: Thanks Justin. Can’t wait to see what you do next. ☺
note: Justin will occasionally be checking in on the comments. So if you have a question for him, feel free to ask.
Premise: A reluctant boy genius finds out his step-father, who’s building the world’s first artificially intelligent computer, has been keeping a terrifying secret from him.
About: Gary Whitta sold his spec script Book of Eli five years ago. He went on to script After Earth for Will Smith. He’s since been tabbed as the scribe on one of the Star Wars spin-off movies. This is one of his earliest scripts (written even before Book of Eli). The script is based on an 8-bit Infocom story adventure from the 80s. A Mind Forever Voyaging is thought of as the pinnacle of the adventure stories that came out in that era. Whitta took the unique step of writing the adaptation without the rights, hoping to use the finished product to acquire the rights formally. But apparently Activision, who owns the Infocom universe, has zero interest in adapting their products to film, which is bizarre when you think about all the money that could be made. Anyway, Whitta kindly put the version of his script online for everyone to see. He still hopes to get it made one day.
Writer: Gary Whitta (based on the story by Steve Meretzky)
Details: 117 pages (2002 draft)
If you’re like me, you became a lot more interested in Gary Whitta once it was announced that he’d be scripting a Star Wars film. I know a little about his history (he used to work in video games before moving over to screenwriting), but all I have to go on is Book of Eli and After Earth. I’ve stated before that I thought Book of Eli was a solid spec and that After Earth was a much better screenplay than it was a movie.
Still, two scripts wasn’t enough to go on. You needed a tiebreaker.
Enter “A Mind Forever Voyaging.” I’d heard of “Mind” before and while I’d never played those 8 bit adventure stories, there was something exotic about them that I always found appealing. The artwork on this one, in particular, implies a vast and rich story. It’s time to finally find out what that story’s about.
Professor Abraham Perelman, 55, is working on the first ever artificially intelligent computer. It’s a giant unseemly thing consisting of so many computers and components that it needs to be kept in an underground warehouse.
Perelman is eventually approached by a senator who’s heard about his research. Perelman explains to the senator that in 12 years, the computer will be so sophisticated that it’ll be able to predict the future. 12 years is right on track for when the senator plans to run for president. Which means, with the aid of this computer, he’ll be the first president who can actually guarantee his promises.
Meanwhile, Perelman enjoys time with his two step-sons, Jason, and Perry. In short, Perelman lost his previous family to murder. And this family lost their father to jail. So they sort of clicked together like the depressing version of The Brady Bunch.
While Jason rejects Perelman as his step-father, Perry makes a real connection with him. Even when Perry shows tremendous mathematical prowess, Perelman, a math buff himself, supports his choice to be a writer instead.
Time passes and we watch Perry grow from 8 to 11 to 16, to 20. As he grows up, the Senator keeps moving up the political ladder. Finally, Perelman drops the big bombshell on Perry. The reason he’s a math superstar? That he can solve any equation in the universe? He IS the computer Perelman’s been building. Apparently the only way to make that computer truly AI was to make it believe that it was real. Perry is the manifestation of that experiment.
Also, since the Senator is finally running for president, Perelman needs Perry to look forward in time for him and find out what the world’s going to be like in five years. When Perry does this, he sees a world where the Senator has unified all states into one. He’s also restricted most freedoms in order to keep America “safe.”
When Perry tells Perelman this, he can’t believe that his step-father is actually on board with it. From that point on, Perry decides to take things into his own hands. Since he IS the computer, he’ll write his OWN program. And he’s going to change everything to the way HE thinks it needs to be changed.
A Mind Forever Voyaging is one of the stranger scripts I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing. You see, it has one giant problem inherent in it. But that problem might also be necessary for the script to work. Talk about a conundrum.
Let me explain. The hook of this screenplay – a kid (or young man) learns that he’s actually the living brain of a computer – doesn’t arrive until page 80! That’s SUPER LATE to get to your hook.
Explaining why this is a problem is tricky because it depends on what you consider to be your story. Is your story the aftermath of a kid who finds out he’s a computer? Or is your story everything that leads up to that point? To me, the far more interesting story is a kid who finds out he’s a computer (and the subsequent aftermath). For that reason, that twist needs to show up WAY EARLIER, preferably around page 30 (the end of the first act).
For comparison’s sake, look at a movie like The Matrix, where Neo learns he’s living in a computer. Neo finds that out on page 30. Would The Matrix have worked had Neo figured that out on page 80? My guess is no.
The catch with “A Mind Forever Voyaging,” however, is we don’t start with a grown man. We start with a boy. And it’s because we watch this boy grow up through the years that the shocking twist of him not being real hits us so hard. That doesn’t hit us nearly as hard if we reveal it on page 30.
This is a classic example of one of those big screenwriting problems that doesn’t have a perfect answer. If you move the “boy is a computer” reveal to the end of the first act, it doesn’t have the same weight. But if you keep the reveal at page 80, you’re making the audience wait way too long before anything happens.
When faced with this problem, I always err on the side of “get to the story faster” and I’ll tell you why. Because when someone is reading your script or watching your movie, it always feels slower to them than it does to you. You might think, “Oh! Page 30!? No way! That’s way too early!” But in the reader’s reality, things are taking a lot longer.
Think about it. When’s the last time you read a script or watched a movie and said, “MAN! This is going by WAY too fast!” 99 times out of 100, a script is moving too slow, right? So you want to assume that with your own writing as well.
But, if you absolutely REFUSE to meet the Page 30 deadline, a last resort is to push your plot point to page 45. It’s still early enough to keep the story moving, but late enough to give the proper amount of “time passing” before the event occurs. Also, that way, you still have 70 pages left to play out your unique world post-reveal.
Despite these criticisms, I still want to see this movie. Once we DO get to that reveal, things start to get pretty trippy. Like we’re jumping back and forth in time, there’s a struggle for control of the computer, there’s a little Inception thrown in for good measure, a little 2001. And then there’s this creepy sci-fi atmosphere that’s present throughout. To that end, Whitta really captured that eerie empty feeling you get as a story unravels before you in MS-DOS green-on-black text. I definitely felt that here. And along with some complex characters and an unexpected storyline, I don’t see why a studio wouldn’t at least try to develop this.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Avoid “turn-based” dialogue. One of the tricks to keeping dialogue natural is to make sure the characters are listening to each other. That way, they’re responding to one another as opposed to saying what the writer wants them to say. I found a fair bit of turn-based dialogue here. For example, here’s an exchange…
You’re seriously making the argument that an artificial intelligence has rights?
While PRISM’s consciousness may in the strictest sense be artificial compared to our own, its evolution has advanced to the point that there’s no longer any meaningful dissimilarity between the two.
The character of Randu did not hear a single word the character of Fullerton just said. Instead, a very formal well-written answer – something you can tell was crafted and perfected ahead of time – was given instead. To fix this, put yourself in Randu’s shoes. LISTEN to what Fullerton is saying. The response, then, would probably be more reactive…
Why wouldn’t it? While the system’s consciousness may be artificial, it’s advanced to the point where the similarities between the two are negligible.
Obviously, how you write the sentence itself will depend on character and your own voice. But the point is, you want dialogue to have that natural rhythm that comes with people listening, thinking, and responding. In real-life dialogue, you never have the perfect response waiting.
Premise: When a wealthy couple is gunned down in front of their son, a man named James Gordon, one of the only honest cops in the city, attempts to solve the case.
About: This FOX project is, if not the flashiest, definitely the most high profile new show on the 2014 fall television docket, with its direct tie-in to the Batman mythology. Writer Bruno Heller is best known for creating the extravagant HBO show, Rome, along with CBS’s The Mentalist. Heller comes from prime screenwriting stock. His father, Lukas Heller, is the author of several movie classics, including “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Dirty Dozen, and The Flight of the Phoenix. Gotham will include a large cast of characters played by, among others, Ben McKenzie (James Gordon), Jada Pinkett-Smith (Fish Mooney) and Donal Logue (Harvey Bullock – Gordon’s partner).
Writer: Bruno Heller
Details: 59 pages (2nd Revised Network Draft)
You can’t talk about FOX’s Gotham without mentioning ABC’s Agents of SHIELD. This is the new creative world we live in, where pre-established universes are going to take precedence over original ideas. This has always been a movie thing, but now with the whole “universe” approach, it’s becoming more of a TV thing.
Taken at face value, I like the idea. As writers, you’d hope that your fantasy (or science fiction or period piece or superhero comic) screenplay is deep enough to host a vast network of stories. If the people in your script are so singular and so uninteresting that they’re only capable of telling a single tale, you’d think you haven’t built in a deep enough mythology.
But if Agents of SHIELD is any indication of what we’re to expect from this new “Universe” approach, we can safely assume that the translations will be anything but easy. I’m sorry, but that show stunk.
Part of the problem when you’re writing this kind of material is that you’re beholden to the expectations of an audience who wants to see its star characters. Common sense says that once you take the super heroes out of a super hero universe, you don’t have much left. So the shows scramble to include super hero cameos or references to super heroes or fringe super heroes to fill in the gap.
But therein lies the problem. You can’t depend on gimmicks to keep audiences engaged in the long run. The show has to be good on its own. That’s what I went into Gotham wondering. Could it prove itself to be a good enough show on its own merit? Or, more importantly, would it even try? Let’s find out together…
26 year old James Gordon has just been fast-tracked to homicide detective in the crime-ridden city of Gotham. Gordon has a dream backstory. His father was a captain in the force. He’s a war hero. He’s a good man who wants to do the right thing.
Which doesn’t mesh well with the city he got his job in. In Gotham, tough guy criminals like Carmine Falcone are the ones who make things go round. Not police chiefs or mayors. Gordon is about to find that out the hard way.
One night, a little kid named Bruce Wayne is walking with his billionaire parents after a movie. A low-life steps in, demands their money, then shoots the husband and wife before fleeing. Gordon and his experienced (and notably less idealistic) partner Harvey Bullock are assigned the case.
Sexy nightclub owner and friend of Bullock, Fish Mooney, fingers a local thug as the killer, who they end up killing during a rooftop chase, and it looks like the case is solved.
Or is it? Gordon isn’t so sure and starts looking deeper. He finds that Fish Mooney planted the damning evidence on the local thug. When he comes to her with this theory, she beats him to a pulp and drives him to her warehouse of nightmares. But at the last second, none other than crime boss Carmine Falcone saves him.
Falcone tells Gordon that he likes his chutzpah, but that the way things work in Gotham isn’t always black and white. He admits that the local thug wasn’t the killer, but that tabbing him as such was a necessary evil to keep the city happy. He tells Gordon that the best thing for him is to get on board and play the game. Any other option is going to result in… not so pleasant circumstances.
And thus the roadmap for Gotham is laid out. Will Gordon play the game? Or will he fight for justice?
Gotham was better than I thought it would be. During The Dark Knight trilogy, the most boring scenes were always when they focused on Gordon. But I realize now it’s because they couldn’t give him enough time to truly shine. And honestly, how do you shine in a Batman movie if your name isn’t Batman or The Joker?
Now that Gordon is the focus, we get to know him a lot better. And gosh dangit if I didn’t like the guy. Heller uses one of the oldest yet most obvious tricks in the book to make you like his hero. He makes him a good person! There’s no saving the cat here. We just see from the outset that Gordon wants to do good in a bad world. How do you dislike somebody like that?
There’s a great screenwriting trick to highlight this called “comparative actions.” Early on, when Gordon and Bullock are looking for a lead, they go to Fish Mooney’s nightclub. Once there, they hear Fish’s thugs beating up some poor schlub in the alley.
Bullock casually talks with Fish as the screams continue, while Gordon gets antsier by the minute. There’s clearly a crime going on but his partner isn’t doing anything about it. Finally, Gordon can’t take it anymore and goes out to the alley to check it out.
This is comparative action. Just like that, we understand where these two guys stand. And as an added bonus, it makes us like Gordon a little more. He’s always going to look out for the little guy. He’s always going to fight crime.
What most surprised me, though, was that I actually cared about this case. And not because it was Batman’s parents. I cared because the more Gordon looked into it, the more it looked like there was a conspiracy involved, that this wasn’t just a random crime, but a calculated hit in order to redistribute power in the city. I wanted to keep reading because I wanted to know what the damn conspiracy was. I was hooked!
Now I have to admit, I don’t know if this is how the origin of Batman goes. But assuming the choice was an open one, I know that a lesser writer probably wouldn’t have made it a conspiracy. He would’ve used the investigation to simply introduce us to Gotham and all the characters. At the end of the episode, then, we probably would’ve caught the bad guy. The fact that this went higher up was both intriguing and set up that essential “long-running question” that a TV show needs to keep viewers coming back. Who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents???
Gotham started off today as a show that had my curiosity. It now has my attention.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The coolest thing about this script is how it made its bad guy GOOD in order to make him BAD. Remember screenwriters, the obvious choice is to make your bad guy a big bad meanie. But that usually feels obvious and boring. When Carmine Falcone, Gotham’s biggest criminal boss, is introduced, he isn’t introduced killing someone or beating up our hero. He’s introduced SAVING our hero! Then having a nice pleasant conversation with him. The genius of this? He saved Gordon so he could be an even bigger bad guy. He needed to be good to be bad. By now having Gordon on his side, it allows him more control over the city. It’s evil and manipulative, but most importantly, it makes him a way more interesting bad guy than had he just acted bad.
Premise: When a struggling actor’s father is diagnosed with cancer, he must finally grow up and become the patriarch of his family.
About: This film received a lot of press when writer-director Zach Braff raised the funds for the film on Kickstarter. There was some initial backlash, as some noted that Braff would’ve been able to raise the money by traditional means anyway. But Braff argued that doing it the Kickstarter way enabled him to make “no sacrifices.” Which means, of course, that for better or worse, this is exactly the film Braff wanted you to see. Braff’s previous writer-director entry, Garden State, was a surprise hit at Sundance and went on to gross 10 times its budget. Everyone kept asking him, “When are you going to direct again?” Well, 10 years later and Braff’s second movie is finally here!
Writer: Adam J. Braff and Zach Braff
Details: 120 minutes
The Wish I Was Here experience can be summed up by its title. Many hours after I saw the film, I casually wondered, “Why didn’t he just call it ‘Wish You Were Here’ as opposed to this strange variation on the phrase?” Then I realized, “Ohhhhhh. The ‘I’ is a play off the phrase, implying he wishes he was currently present in his life.” I felt a little dumb for missing that, but upon further reflection I realized, “Wait a minute. That was kind of a clumsy play on words. By no means was it obvious.” Which pretty much summarizes the movie itself, a clumsy story that wasn’t easy to get.
The script starts off strong, with a traditional setup of goals, stakes, and urgency. Aiden (Braff) a struggling actor with an 8 year old son and 11 year old daughter, has been married to his wife since college. His kids go to a prestigious private Jewish school courtesy of Aidan’s rich father. But when his father gets cancer and must pay out of pocket, the checks to the school stop, and all of a sudden, Aiden’s free ride in life is over. For the first time ever, he must figure out a way to provide for his children, which means he must consider giving up his acting dream.
Goal = find a way to keep his kids out of public school. Urgency = the check to the school is due in a couple of weeks. Stakes = if he doesn’t figure it out, he might have to give up his dream.
Okay, I can get on board with that, even if the goal is a little “Rich People’s Problems.” But thennnnnnnn… the second act comes. Second acts are where screenwriters make their money. The professionals know how to write them. The posers fake their way through them. And there was never a second act more faked through than “Wish I Was Here.”
Structure is the tool that creates narrative. You make sure your characters are going after something, and that that something is clear and has consequences. That’s what pushes your characters forward, giving them things to do and actions to achieve. The second we stop understanding what your characters are going after and why, we lose interest.
Look at a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark. What happens if, once we hit the second act, Indiana heads off to Iceland, buys a cottage, makes friends with the locals, and becomes a carrot farmer? You’d be confused, right? You’d say, “Wait, wasn’t he going to go after that Staff of Ra thing? Isn’t that what the beginning of the movie was about?”
Yet that’s exactly how Wish I Was Here unfolds (or should I say “unravels”). Once we’ve set up the goal (figure out how to keep the kids out of public school), we go through one tiny sequence of Aidan trying to home school his kids (which was silly – but at least he was pursuing the goal that was set up), and then that was it. The “keep the kids in private school” thing was forgotten.
Instead, we drifted from scene to scene focusing on characters discussing the complexities of life (from dying dad to recluse brother to frustrated wife to confused kids).
One particular scene embodied this problem. It occurred midway through the film when Aidan and his wife (played by Kate Hudson) are sitting alone on a Life Guard chair on the Santa Monica beach, at night, talking about how they used to be happy.
This is the kind of scene that you, as a screenwriter, should kill people to avoid. It is the definition of a “scene of death” (scenes of deaths are screenplay killers). It’s also common for amateur writers to misinterpret these scenes for “good writing.”
And why not? “Important” things are being discussed (life, love, regret!). But a discussion about these trite obvious life experiences never offers anything more than impatient seat-shifting. First, the scene is on the nose. Characters talking about their feelings is almost always boring unless it’s a climax scene where they’ve spent the entire movie holding back and are only now letting loose.
Second, two characters sitting down talking is almost always a bad idea. It’s the definition of stagnant so it almost always plays dead. Third, you never want characters talking about their backstory together unless said backstory reveals something surprising or adds something important to the story. Characters discussing things that we’ve already assumed, such as they were once happy (Of course you were once happy! You got married!) is never a recipe for a good scene.
But the worst part about this scene is that when you sit two characters down in a comfortable environment with nothing else going on and a seemingly endless amount of time at their leisure, you say to your audience, “There is nothing going on in my movie right now.” Because if there was something important going on in your movie, your characters would be dealing with it. They wouldn’t be out here droning on about when they first met.
Assuming that the point of this scene was to show that these two were once happy (which I still think is a pointless scene since we already know that), let’s compare it to a scene from American Beauty that is sort of trying to do the same thing.
In the scene, Lester (the main character) has just bought a 1970 Pontiac Firebird without telling his wife. She stumbles in to find Lester carelessly drinking beer on the couch and angrily demands to know whose car that is in their driveway. He tells her it’s his. “Where is the Camry?” she asks. “I traded it in.” After arguing a bit longer, Lester pulls Carolyn close, and all of a sudden, the mood is charged. Everything about the present is forgotten. They’re young again. They’re excited.
They descend onto the couch like teenagers when Carolyn notices that—“Lester. You’re going to spill beer on the couch.” And just like that, the moment is ruined. The two go back to jabbering before Carolyn eventually storms out of the room.
Notice how much more is HAPPENING in this scene than in the “Wish I Was Here” scene. It starts off with a problem, creating conflict from the outset. “Whose car is that in our driveway?” The scene then makes an unexpected turn in the middle, when Lester makes a move and the unthinkable happens – Carolyn is actually into it.
This part is important, because we’re seeing an action that shows us how they used to feel about each other. He’s not telling her, “Remember when we used to like each other?” We’re seeing it. Then the scene turns again when Carolyn lets her obsession about inconsequential things get the best of her and the moment is lost. So not only is there something happening in the scene, but we’re exploring character as well (Carolyn’s flaw of not being able to “let go”). How much more interesting is this than two people sitting next to each other like robots and saying, “Remember when we used to like each other, bee-beep booop?”
But but but! I want to play devil’s advocate here. If I were Zach Braff, I’d probably defend my script by saying, “Carson, you’re focusing too much on these tired “rules” of screenwriting that there has to be a “goal.” That the plot always has to be straightforward and easy to follow. My movie’s not like that. My movie is about characters and how they interact with one another, how they battle life’s complexities and problems. It’s not about having a clear A to B story.”
Okay, that’s a fair argument. There are successful movies that do this. And to a certain extent, I agree. If you have an interesting set of unresolved relationships in your script, then the “narrative,” (the thing that drives the reader to keep reading) is to see if and how these relationships are going to resolve themselves. That’s how When Harry Met Sally works. We stick around solely to see if they’re going to get together.
And Braff definitely puts a lot of effort into this area. Aidan’s dad doesn’t like how Aidan is an actor. Aidan’s dad doesn’t like Aidan’s brother for being such a dumbo. Aidan and Aiden’s brother don’t talk as much as Aidan wants them to. Aidan and his wife are struggling to find the love they once had. Aidan doesn’t agree with his kids’ infatuation with the Jewish culture.
I agree that, assuming we care about these relationships, that theoretically they can carry the script. But therein lies the problem. I didn’t care about the relationships. And it was mostly because of scenes like the one above. Instead of characters EXPERIENCING problems, they would often TALK about problems. And there isn’t a whole lot dramatically exciting about people talking about their problems. It goes back to the oldest screenwriting rule in the book. Don’t tell us. SHOW us. And there were too many “Character A sits across from Character B and talks about life” TELL scenes.
That’s why story is so important, why character problems aren’t enough. Story forces characters to act instead of sit around and talk. Which means characters are changing through action as opposed to conversation. The only action in Wish I Was Here were gimmicky scenes that had nothing to do with the story – like going out and test-driving a Maserati to feel better about themselves – empty visual experiences.
Wish I Was Here tries so hard to be that emotionally moving movie about life and death, but Braff doesn’t have the writing skills to pull it off. Too much talking, not enough happening.
[ ] what the hell did I just watch?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Beware Peacock Dialogue. Braff has a nasty habit of drawing attention to his favorite lines of dialogue. He spotlights these moments by stopping all space and time so that YOU KNOW HE LOVES THIS LINE. These lines scream, “I want to be in a trailer!” and have that larger than life feel. These sound right at home in a trailer, but are too big and showy to work in the moment. “You can pick ANY ONE you want, as long as it’s unique and amazing… like you.” “When we were kids, my brother and I used to pretend that we were heroes, the only ones who could save the day. But maybe we’re just the regular people. The ones who get saved.” Dialogue should always serve the moment. If it becomes bigger than the moment, it’s a peacock (sprouting its feathers) and draws attention away from the scenery behind it.