Genre: Psychological Horror/Thriller
Premise (from writer): When ancient relics wash ashore in the south pacific, a team of scientists set sail to investigate. The closer they draw to their origin, the further they flail from reality. (A Modern day take on The Call of Cthulhu. The Shining on a boat).
About: Craig Mack first hit the airwaves here on Scriptshadow, when he submitted The Devil’s Hammer for Amateur Offerings. I really liked the script, and others took notice, allowing Craig to land a couple of assignments, one of which was a sequel to the hit indie horror film, “Contracted.” Craig has always valued the feedback of this community, so I’m sure he’s eager to hear what everyone, including myself, has to say today. Let’s check out his latest.
Writer: Craig Mack
Details: 99 pages
So last week’s Amateur Offerings got a little testy. Craig tried to come in under the radar, submitting his script anonymously. But I think some people are upset that someone who has a couple of produced credits is competing in Amateur Offerings.
I have mixed feelings about this. Everyone assumes that the second you get something made, you’re inside the golden palm trees and never have to worry about struggling again. The reality is, even if you get in, unless you write a major studio release, you’re basically an advanced amateur, or a fringe professional. You still struggle to get people to pay attention to you. You’re still writing specs, desperately hoping someone will like them enough to hire you. As Craig points out, he’s not in the WGA, nor does he have an agent. And plus he’s a longtime Scriptshadow reader and contributor, so heck, why not give his latest a shot.
Professor Joseph Wexler is just getting back into teaching after a horrible tragedy when a visit from Alexandra Young, an oceanographer, throws everything off-axis. Wexler and Alex clearly have a history together, but how deep that history goes is something we won’t find out until later.
Alex is here because a recent earthquake in the South Pacific seems to have triggered a bunch of ancient relics washing up on nearby islands. Strangely, local island tribes are entranced by these relics, chanting to them in strange languages and drifting in and out of consciousness while doing so.
Alex convinces Wexler to join her and her crew to sail off into the ocean and see if they can locate the source of this phenomenon. Wexler and his plucky t.a., Steve, join the club, only for Wexler to immediately start experiencing intense daydreams.
In these dreams, we learn about the tragedy that’s shaped Wexler. While on a ship, his wife, Lily, and son, Carter, got up and walked off the side of the boat, never to be seen again. Eventually, we learn that the reason Wexler’s relationship with Alex is so complicated is that he was banging her when this happened. And oh yeah, Alex is Lily’s sister! You’re not a true mister until you’ve had the sister.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that Wexler is on a full cocktail of drugs. But that’s making his scientific analysis skills spotty at best. And as they get closer to ground zero, Wexler goes crazier and crazier, mistaking everyone and their mom for his dead wife and son.
Will he be able to pull it together in time to solve the relic riddle? Methinks Iron Man has a better chance of convincing Captain America to hand over control of the Avengers to the United Nations.
So Craig is going to kill me because he sent me an updated draft of this – I’m sure one where he addressed all of your concerns. But I’m a man of routine. When it’s time to read the amateur Friday script, I go to the Amateur Offerings page and download the winning script there. So Craig, I apologize.
A quick glance through the comments section seems to reinforce the big issue I had here – the dream sequences. Holy Moses were there a lot of them. It felt like every five pages, Wexler or someone else was having a dream, usually about how Lily was dead and so was Carter.
I’ve said this before but I hate dream sequences. So a script that’s built around them isn’t going to fare well on my judging scale. But even if that weren’t the case, there were way too many. Anything you do too much of in writing loses its impact with each successive iteration.
Put a magician in front of a group of kids at the beginning of a birthday party, and they’re on edge with every trick that magician does. Bring that magician back an hour later for a second round, half the kids are bored. Try to pull the magician card a third time – those kids won’t even pretend to be interested. They’ll just get up and walk away.
I was also trying to determine if these dream sequences were necessary. As long as something is pushing the story forward, the writer can make the argument that it’s necessary. And Eternal Lies pushes the argument that these relics are causing people to lose their minds. So the sequences have a little more going for them than simply, “I’m going to write a fucked up dream sequence cause I don’t have any other ideas at the moment,” which are scenes I’ve read a lot of.
Still, every time the sequences came around and Lily would give us yet another version of, “He’s waiting for us,” I felt like I’d washed up on Deja Vu Island. This was compared by Craig to The Shining in his logline. But I’m thinking Groundhog Day might be more accurate.
The bigger problem here, though, is the lack of originality in the story. Do you know how many scripts I’ve read in the last month that involved a main character who wasn’t sure if they were going insane or not? Nine. That’s no exaggeration. NINE.
And this goes back to something I said the other day. One of the ways you beat out your competition as a writer is being diligent in your script reading and movie watching so you know what else is out there – you know what everyone else is writing. That way, you can make sure you’re not writing the same thing.
The “am I going insane or not” main character trope is one that’s been used for half a century. So you either want to avoid it altogether or bring something new to it. And I’m not sure this does. In fact, if you read my last newsletter, you read my review of one of the highest profile spec sales of the year, Max Landis’s Deeper.
What is Max Landis’s Deeper about? About a man who’s going to the bottom of the ocean while he slowly goes insane. What’s the final act of Eternal Lies about? About a man and a woman who head towards the bottom of the ocean while they slowly go insane.
I’m trying to think back to The Shining, which I haven’t seen in a decade, but which I liked quite a bit. And I’m trying to remember how many dream sequences they had in that movie. Cause they didn’t bother me. The question then becomes, is that because dream sequences just work better onscreen? Or is it because Kubrick’s story was simply better? I don’t know. Someone else can answer that in the comments section.
What sucks for screenwriters is they never know what’s going to turn a specific reader off. I don’t like dream sequences. So any script that has them enters a mental wrestling match with me that they lose 99% of the time. For another reader, it may be main characters who are alcoholics, or comedies where the characters don’t take anything seriously. You don’t know. Which is why you should never let one opinion sway you. Always try and get multiple opinions on your script.
My opinion on Eternal Lies is that it ignores exploring what could be an interesting story in favor of a wild trippy pseudo-psychological mindfuck. If that’s your jam though, you might end up digging this.
Script link (new draft): Eternal Lies
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Avoid patterns in your script. The more established a pattern becomes, the easier it is for the reader to predict what comes next. That’s what hurt Eternal Lies for me. We established this pattern of: Wexler is fine, Wexler dreams of his wife and kid, Wexler is fine, Wexler dreams of his wife and kid. This must’ve happened between 8-10 times. Once we know what’s coming next, we’re bored. It’s your job as the writer to BREAK THE PATTERN so we keep guessing.
For the next three months, every Thursday, I will be guiding you through writing a feature-length (110 pages) screenplay. Why are we doing this? A few reasons. For new screenwriters, it’s a chance to learn how to write a screenplay. For experienced screenwriters, it’s an opportunity to learn a different approach to writing a screenplay. And for every screenwriter, it’s an opportunity to light a fire under your ass, keep you moving, and have a finished script in your lap in just 90 days.
We have three months to achieve this, which equates to roughly 13 weeks. Each week I’m going to give you a task, which you will need to finish by the following week. I’m going to need, at minimum, two hours of your time a day. However, the more time you can contribute to the cause, the better. More time means more thought, more trial and error, more swings, which means an overall improved product.
One of the biggest pushbacks I expect to encounter in this exercise is writers saying, “Well I don’t do it that way. I do it a different way.” Tough. This is about trying something new. It’s about going outside of your comfort zone so you can grow. I don’t expect you to write every script this way from here on out. But I do expect you to discover some new methods you’ll be able to use in future scripts. So don’t complain. Just do it.
The plan is to write both a first draft and a second draft. Afterwards, the best scripts will be chosen for a tournament. You do not have to participate in the tournament if you don’t want to. It’s merely there to incentivize you throughout your journey. Those tournament scripts will be put up for critique by the Scriptshadow Faithful, who will vote for the best script each week. The feedback they give you, you can then use for further rewrites to improve your script for the later rounds.
Are we ready? Okay, let’s get to it.
First and foremost, you need a concept. We’ve been trying to come up with those for the last two weeks. Guys, I tried to get through all the loglines you sent me but there were just too many. I’ll attempt to rate a few more today but don’t hold your breath. If you didn’t get any feedback, you’ll have to go with your gut and write the idea you like best. And really, let’s be honest. You were going to write your favorite idea anyway. :)
If you didn’t participate in the last two weeks, you’ll need to come up with a concept and logline pronto. Check out last week’s post, as well as the comments, and you’ll get an idea for which concepts tend to work best. Once you’ve identified your concept, it’s time for the first task. And the first task is one that 50% of screenwriters detest. I DON’T CARE. This is your week 1 assignment.
OUTLINE AND CHARACTER BIOS
For those of you who want to start writing your script, TOUGH. Unless you’re a genius, the screenwriter who jumps into his script immediately runs out of gas by page 45. Oh, they won’t admit it. They’ll keep writing. But deep down they know they’re lost. This week’s assignment is designed to prevent that from happening.
DAYS 1-3 – THE OUTLINE
There are six main points you want to identify in your outline. But before we get to those, let’s go over the basic blueprint of a story. A protagonist is breezing along in their life. Then something happens that jolts the status quo. This thrusts them onto a journey where they try to achieve a goal. They encounter lots of obstacles and uncertainty along the way. Then, in the end, they somehow pull off the impossible and achieve their goal (or fail!).
We’re writing 110 pages here. So you’ll break your outline down into Act 1 (roughly pages 1-27), Act 2 (roughly pages 28-85), and Act 3 (roughly pages 86-110). Your scenes will average between 2 and 3 pages long. That does not mean every scene will be 2 or 3 pages. It means this is the AVERAGE. Some scenes may be 7 pages. Others may be half a page. In the end, you’ll be writing between 45-60 scenes.
The more scenes you can fill in for your outline, the better. But the only ones that are required for next week are these six. If you can figure out more, great. But these are the essentials.
The Inciting Incident (somewhere between pages 5-12) – The Inciting Incident is a fancy way of saying the “problem” that enters your main character’s life. For Raiders, that’s when the government comes to Indiana Jones and says they’ve got a PROBLEM. Hitler’s looking for the Ark of the Convenant. You, Indiana, need to find it first. Or, more recently, in The Revenant, it’s when Leo is mauled by a bear. Everything is irrevocably changed in his life after that incident.
The First Act Turn (page 25-27) – The first act turn is when your main character will start off on his journey to try and obtain whatever it is he’s trying to obtain. So what happens between the inciting incident and the first act turn? Typically, a character will resist change, resist leaving the comfort of his life. But most of the time it’s just logistics. We’ll set up what needs to happen, how they plan to do it, how impossible the task will be, etc. It all depends on the story.
The Mid-Point Twist (page 50-55) – If your story moves along predictably for too long, the reader will get bored. The Mid-Point Twist is designed to prevent that from happening. It changes the rules of the game. And there’s a bit of creativity to it. It could be an unexpected death. It could be a major betrayal. It could be a twist (Luke and Han get to Alderran, but the planet they’re going to has disappeared!). The point of the Mid-Point Twist is throw your story’s planet off its axis.
The End of the Second Act (page 85-90) – This will be your main character’s lowest point. They likely just tried to defeat the villain or the problem and failed miserably. Along with this, everything else in your character’s life should be failing. Relationships. Their job. Their family. It’s all falling apart. Your hero will be AT HIS LOWEST POINT. Hey. HEY! Stop crying, dude. It’s just a movie. He’s going to get back up and kick ass in the third act. But right now, it looks like he’s fucked.
The Early Second Act Twist (page 45) – We’re going backwards here only because I wanted to get the important plot points down first. Once you have those, figure out page 45. Basically, page 45 will be 15-20 pages into your second act, typically where most writers start running out of ideas. You need to add some sort of unexpected moment here. Something that lights a fire under your plot. It’s not going to be as big as the Mid-Point Twist. But you can’t have 30 straight pages of the same pacing. You have to mix it up. The Early Second Act Twist in The Force Awakens occurs when Rey and Finn get captured by Han Solo. Notices how Han’s entrance into the story takes everything in a different direction.
The Late Second Act Twist (page 70) – This is the same idea as all the other “twists” we’ve been talking about. If you mosey along for too long without anything new or different happening, the reader gets bored. You need to be ahead of the reader, always coming up with plot points that they didn’t expect. I’ve seen writers use The Late Second Act Twist to kill off a character. In Frozen, it’s the moment where Hans reveals to Anna that his entire courting of her was a sham designed to take over her kingdom.
Once you have these six key moments in the script mapped out, you’re in great shape. Why? Because now you always know where you’re going. You always know where you’re sending your characters, which will give your script PURPOSE, something people who write randomly and without an outline rarely have. And don’t worry. These moments are not set in stone. As you write the script, you’ll have new ideas, and these key points may change. That’s fine. But by having something in place initially, you’ll be able to write a lot faster.
It should also be noted that not every story will follow this path. Not every script’s structure is based off of Raiders of The Lost Ark. I get that. Still, you want to think of these moments in a script as CHECKPOINTS. Whether you’re writing the next Star Wars or the next Magnolia, every 15-20 pages, something needs to happen to stir the pot. So if you’re going to take on something unique, no need to fret. Give yourself those 6 checkpoints so that your script is moving towards something.
DAYS 4-7 – CHARACTER BIOS
I know. You HATE CHARACTER BIOS. Look at it this way. Remember when your parents told you to eat your vegetables but you never understand why when Captain Crunch and pop tarts tasted so much better? Then when you hit adulthood and you were 40 pounds overweight, you looked back and thought, “Hmm, mom and dad may have been right about that one.” Well, the same thing’s going on here. Character bios may not be fun. But you’ll thank me for them later.
What you’re going to do is write a character bio every day for your four biggest characters. One of those characters will likely be your villain. Here are the things I want you to include in each bio. Try to get between 1500-2500 words for each character.
1) Their flaw – Figure out what’s holding your character back at this moment in their life, the thing that’s keeping them from reaching their full potential as a human being. Stick with popular relatable themes. Selfishness, egotistical, stubbornness, fear of putting themselves out there, doesn’t believe in themselves. You may not explore this flaw in the movie. But it’s good to know, as it will be the main thing that defines your character.
2) Where they were born – A lawyer from the projects in Chicago is going to talk and act differently than a lawyer from the upper crust of a rich East Coast suburb.
3) What their family life was/is like – Our relationships with our siblings, but in particular, our mother and father, influences our personality and approach to life more than anything else. Know your character’s relationship with each and every family member.
4) Their school history – Were they a nerd? The popular kid? A drug dealer? An athlete. Our school experience, particularly high school, affects who we are and how we act for the rest of our lives. So the more you know about this period in your character’s life, the better.
5) Their work history – Work is 50% of our lives (for many of us, a lot more). It has a big effect on who we are. So you want to establish what your character used to do before they got their current job, and also the events that led to them getting their current job.
6) Highlights of their life – This is basically everything else, the character’s highlight reel, if it were. When they lost their virginity, any devastting breakups, their highest points, their lowest points. Just let loose here and use this section to discover what your character’s life has been like.
And that’s it! You’ve completed your weekly task. If you finish ahead of time, go back to your outline and fill in the areas between the major plot points. The more scenes you can outline ahead of time, and the more detail you can add to those scenes, the easier it will be to write the script when that time comes. Okay, all of this starts RIGHT NOW. So what are you waiting for???
Premise: In 1974, a company attempts the first hostile takeover of another company in history.
About: Today’s script is the first from Oliver Kramer (or at least the first he’s sent out). Kramer was a former executive for Colin Firth’s production company, and also has some former ties to Hollywood production companies. His script sold back in March to Filmnation.
Writer: Oliver Kramer
Details: 120 pages
Screenwriters tend to get prickly when they hear about former execs selling screenplays. And I get it. It doesn’t seem fair. You have nobody who will read your script and this guy has a dozen decision-makers off the top of his head he can text.
However, I like to remind people that every single person in Hollywood has a screenplay. From the guy who gets the director coffee to Steven Spielberg’s wife. Industry types are well aware of this, and, contrary to popular belief, aren’t asking their co-workers when that Ikea biopic they’ve been working on is going to be ready.
In fact, most of these people play the game of nod-and-dodge. Since 99% of screenplays are bad, they know that Craig the Cinematographer’s script has a good chance of sucking. So they nod, say, “Yeah, that sounds cool,” and then run away, hoping Craig never speaks about it again.
My point being, it’s still tough for the industry vet to sell something. Not as tough as it is for you. But if it were as easy as you think it is, we’d have 50,000 sold screenplays a year, one for every person working in the industry.
On top of this, it serves no purpose to hate on sales. All it does is get you down, reinforce false truths about how it’s impossible to make it, and dissuades you from doing what you should be doing, which is writing. So don’t worry about where a spec sale comes from. Just be happy that things are still getting sold and get back to work.
Leverage follows… okay, I’m not going to lie – this script was really hard to follow, so I can only promise that 70% of the below is accurate. But the script takes place in New York City, 1974, and follows a young lawyer named Ben Kleiner.
When Ben hears that a company his firm represents is planning something called a “hostile takeover” of Dickey Electric Copper, he jumps ship to another firm and pals up with a guy named Bill Faverwether to pull the takeover off himself.
The plan consists of a lot of confusing moving parts, which include buying 20% of Dickey’s stock from this guy, another 10% from that guy, and trying to do it quickly enough so that Dickey and friends can’t stop it before the takeover is completed.
Meanwhile, Ben is in love with a radical anarchist named Sara who’s on the lamb from the FBI. When Sara learns who Ben is trying to take over, she finds out that they’re responsible for illegal weapons manufacturing or something, and wants Ben to kill the deal.
Before Ben can contemplate that nonsense, Fayerwether is found murdered, leaving everyone to wonder who ordered the hit. Was it Dickey? Was it Sara? Was it some previously unknown entity?
Complicating measures is the fact that Ben was having an affair with Fayerwether’s wife. So now he has to appease her in the aftermath of her husband’s death. And, of course, somehow try to get this deal done, even though doing so now puts him on some secret hit list. Will he succeed? Will he fail? Much of that depends on if you can keep track of what’s going on in Leverage.
There are two kinds of scripts out there. Fun scripts and investment scripts. Fun scripts are scripts like Source Code. Like Max Landis’s, Deeper. Like Stuber. Investment scripts are scripts that make you invest. You’ll need memory on full alert, loads of concentration, and probably a notepad to keep up with all the names and subplots.
If you’re going to be an investment script guy, you need to be a better writer. You need to know how to weave suspense and conflict and structure and character and dialogue and plotting and clarity into a dramatically compelling screenplay. If you’re writing fun scripts, you need a grasp of those things, but you don’t need to have mastered them. You only have to be creative, fun, have some cool ideas, and not be boring.
Within 3 pages of Leverage, I’m trying to keep track of 10 lawyers, a complex meeting that involves a bunch of Wall Street and legal jargon, and no clues as to who the main character is. 7 pages later I’m introduced to a woman who’s pretending to be a hooker but who’s actually an anarchist on the lamb from the FBI, sneaking around with a guy who may or may not be our leading man.
So take a guess which category Leverage falls into.
Typically, investment scripts are saved for in-house development, or “assignment work,” where everyone is on board and contributing to the complexity, therefore making it not so complex to them.
When you don’t have that luxury and you’re writing an investment script on spec, you MUST do everything better. The reason for this is that you’re asking A LOT MORE from the reader. And if you screw anything up, it creates a domino effect where multiple story variables dependent on that initial variable become unclear.
I’ll give you an example. In Leverage’s opening scene, we’re introduced to a bunch of people. I don’t know who these people are yet. Which of these people are important and therefore deserve my full attention? Which are background characters and therefore people I don’t need to devote my memory to? And on top of that, what do each of these characters represent? What do they want?
I wasn’t sure of any of that. Therefore, 70 pages later, when a guy like Fayerwether enters a scene, I still don’t know if he was one of the lawyers in that meeting or one of the business owners. I still don’t understand how Fayerwether was at that meeting and then later teamed up with Ben to initiate a takeover that I could’ve sworn was planned by another company at that meeting.
That’s what I mean by YOU HAVE TO BE REALLY GOOD to pull off an investment script. You need to know how to introduce characters properly, how to make their entrances memorable, and how to be clear on who we need to focus on. Because a mistake in any of those areas will create a domino effect that results in exponential confusion.
Unfortunately, Leverage asks us to invest too much. I mean, when you’re creating dual love-interest subplots, you’re off the reservation. It’s hard enough to make one love interest work. You’re doing two? In a movie that already has half-a-dozen elements that require EXTREME concentration to keep up with?
And like I said, I just never quite knew who was who in this movie. Everything was fuzzy. And how can you enjoy something if you don’t know who the characters are?
There’s some potential in this subject matter. I’ve always been fascinated with this idea that a company can buy another company without their permission. And documenting the first instance of this sounded like an interesting idea.
But this isn’t like The Big Short, where you’re learning how all of this works and watching a blow by blow of how it all goes down. It starts out that way, but then introduces this weird girlfriend anarchist subplot, which leads to a murder, and now we’re in unchartered territory, no longer sure what the script is about.
I think the writer may have been too ambitious, which is something I warn you guys about all the time. When you’re trying to spin a dozen plates at once, unless you’re Aaron Sorkin, a lot of those plates are going to fall and break. Is it really asking so much to only spin 4 or 5?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I’ve spotted this new naming trend recently and I like it. If you’re going to address a character by his last name in his dialogue scenes, only capitalize his last name when he’s introduced. So you wouldn’t say, “JOHN BLISS, 33 and a bulldog,” you’d say, “John BLISS, 33 and a bulldog.”
What I learned 2: I’ve never heard anybody in my entire life use the term “touché” in conversation. It seems to be solely used in movie dialogue and therefore always comes off as forced and false. I fully admit, however, that this may be a Carson-specific pet peeve.
Premise: A young White House staffer helps president Ronald Reagan, experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s while in office, function by convincing him he’s an actor in a movie playing the president.
About: This script got a ton of press last week as Will Ferrell signed onto it only to, after a ton of backlash due to the supposed comedic treatment of Reagan’s Alzheimer’s condition, drop out a few days later. Reports later surfaced that he was never involved at all. Or maybe he was and forgot about it. I don’t know. Either way, this script made the Black List last year. It’s Mike Rosolio’s breakthrough script (he’d done a tiny amount of TV writing before this). Let’s see what all this controversy is about and then forget we ever talked about it.
Writer: Mike Rosolio
Details: 114 pages
There really isn’t that much controversy in the screenwriting world. I mean you got your Max Landis’s. You got your Diablo Cody’s. You got your egocentric bloggers who think it’s okay to review screenplays on the internet. But outside of those things, there isn’t a whole lot of drama in this craft. So when a script somehow manages to get Hollywood’s panties in a bunch, you can’t help but be curious, even if it’s another one of these biopic doohickeys that won’t stop clogging up the airwaves. Let’s see if “Reagan” is worth all the chatter.
It’s 1984, and 20-something Frank Corden is one of those rare people who got into politics because he wanted to make a difference. Unfortunately, nobody cares. The people who work with him don’t care. The people who work above him don’t care. Even his own family doesn’t care.
For two years, Frank’s political career can be summed up as, “How do you like your coffee?” And then one day, that changes. Frank notices that President Ronald Regan’s staff, minutes before his reelection speech, is freaking the hell out because Reagan keeps asking for someone named “Mark,” and nobody knows who Mark is.
Frank stumbles into the room and, because his own father has dementia, recognizes that Reagan is having an “episode.” He also realizes that Reagan isn’t looking for a man named “Mark.” But he’s literally looking for his “mark,” as in the piece of tape on the floor that actors use to know where to stand.
For those who don’t know, Ronald Reagan used to be a famous actor before he became president. So Frank rolls with it, telling Reagan to get with the program and that his speech “scene” is supposed to start soon. To everyone’s amazement, Reagan actually listens to him.
Naturally, Frank assumes this will be his last day on Capitol Hill, but instead gets a call from the Cabinet saying they want him to come back and do more of that movie stuff. Reagan is a wild card, rarely able to function. And having a director directing him – specifically Frank – seems to be the only thing that gets him to do what they need him to do.
Frank isn’t dumb. He sees this as an opportunity to move up the ladder, and so begins a networking campaign built off of pretending to be a movie director to get an Alzehimer’s-stricken president in and out of big speeches.
What we eventually realize is that this isn’t about Reagan at all. The president is more like a backdrop – an extra who comes in every once in awhile when needed. In the meantime, Frank tries to move up the most cutthroat business ladder in the world, all while operating with a butterknife. Will he succeed? It’ll depend on how long he can keep convincing the president that he’s in a movie.
This is a pretty ballsy screenplay. I feel like Alzheimer’s was fair game as recently as the early 2000s. But once the internet went p.c. police, anything that could be offensive to anyone in any situation, no matter how specific, was deemed off-limits.
Whether that’s right or wrong, I don’t know. But there’s an added component to this. And that’s that Reagan’s kids are still alive. This isn’t a president who held office in 1906. This is recent. You put something out there that makes light of a man’s crippling disease, and you can bet his offspring are going to go after you about it.
So now that that’s established, what about the actual screenplay? If you strip away all the controversy, is it any good?
Yesterday, we talked about what happens when a story has no structure, when the characters have no directive. On the flip side of that is a movie like The Force Awakens. Abrams and Kasden make it clear what every single character in that movie wants. That’s why the film moves so quickly and with so much purpose. Because whenever a character is onscreen, they have a goal, they have something they’re trying to achieve.
Reagan is somewhere in between these two. It’s not High-Rise, where you have no fucking clue what’s going on. But Frank isn’t exactly Liam Neeson either. When he’s not helping Reagan stay on target with his speeches, he’s got this vague goal of “moving up the ladder.”
I’ve talked about the varying degrees of goals before. A character who’s trying to, say, save his wife, has an extremely clear and strong goal. But if a character is merely trying to improve his marriage – yeah, that’s a goal, technically, but how do we know when he’s succeeded?
Some of this gets resolved later when the Iran-Contra mess hits the media and Frank has to cover his own ass while keeping a worsening president on point. But it’s plot that’s arriving a bit late to the party.
I will say this though – If you’re writing a script that doesn’t have that clear character goal driving the story, an option is to introduce a PROBLEM. Problems, by their very definition, require solutions. And solutions require goals, since your characters will try and pursue them. The Iran-Contra PROBLEM achieved just that. I just wouldn’t have waited until page 80 to introduce it.
Despite all of this, I have to admit that the subject matter got me curious, so I checked out Reagan’s wikipedia page to figure out if Reagan was, indeed, experiencing memory loss while he was president. It appears to be a controversial topic, with those who worked with Reagan vehemently denying the accusation. Then again, admitting that the president was incapacitated while in office would open up the government to somewhere in the vicinity of 300 million lawsuits. So what are they gonna say?
It’s an interesting conversation, for sure, but I don’t know if it’s something you can make a comedy out of in this day and age. People on social media get offended if you say “Taco Tuesday.” You really think an Alzheimer’s comedy is going to survive that crowd?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Any time a character goal doesn’t have a clear end-point (i.e. move up the company ladder), the script doesn’t move with purpose. Clear goals (i.e. find the treasure) will move your story along with force due to the goal having a finish line.
Premise: In a high-rise building, set in a dystopian future, the lower poor residents begin to rise up against the higher rich residents.
About: Wasn’t the writer of Carol complaining recently that it took 15 years to get Carol made? Well I got news for you, Carol Writer, producer Jeremy Thomas has been trying to get this movie made for 40 years!!! And he finally did it, when the UK’s hottest new director, Ben Wheatley, sought out the rights to the novel and learned Thomas had them. Wheatley snatched up another hot British property in actor, Tom Hiddleston, and finally, High-Rise would be made. Wheatley writes all his scripts with his wife, Amy Jump.
Writers: Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump (based on the novel by J.G. Ballard)
Details: 2 hour running time
I’m going to forewarn you here. I will piss some people off with this review. I am going to be giving some unpopular opinions on beloved directors. I know Mondays are already tough. So if you want to avoid some vitriolic anger, I’m giving you the opportunity to put the computer down. Just walk away, man. Walk away.
Still here? Okay, I warned you!
I’ve been waiting desperately for this film. I thought it looked like one of those unexpected breakout hits that was going to launch everybody involved into the stratosphere. So I was shocked to see it pop up on Itunes this Friday. I mean, I was happily shocked. But I was worried. This was supposed to be Ben Wheatley’s big arrival. He was working with, arguably, the hottest actor in Hollywood in Tom Hiddleston. And he was adapting a famous novel with some pretty lofty production value. A digital release implied – at least to me – that something may have gone wrong.
And that’s too bad. Because I see Ben Wheatley as, potentially, one of the most important directors working. This guy has one of those filmmaking eyes that comes along once every couple of decades. I mean go watch the trailer for this film and tell me you’re not moved by this man’s talent.
However, Wheatley is in danger of becoming one of those directors who never goes beyond indie-cool status because he doesn’t understand the value of screenwriting, or, more specifically, a coherent narrative. He’s inspired by the cinematic inventiveness of men like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, believing their vision, their voice, and their filmmaking bravado are enough. But what he doesn’t realize is that the reason Tarantino is the best stylistic “I do things my own way” filmmaker around is because he DOES put so much effort into the screenplay and because he DOES understand storytelling.
On the flip side, the visually gifted Paul Thomas Anderson, who never really understood writing beyond how it propelled his actors’ performances as well as the soul of the film, now finds himself struggling to grasp why his latest two incarnations were so reluctantly received. I’ll tell you why. Because there was no narrative, nothing dramatically to keep us invested. And when you don’t have Daniel-Day Lewis to pick up the slack, when all that’s left is an incoherent narrative – guess what? You no longer have anything of substance. You have a bunch of individual scenes thrown at an editor with the directive, “Figure this out.”
And I’d push beyond that. Visionary directors who don’t know what drama is on the page – Sofia Coppola, Gasper Noe, David Lynch (yes, I said it) – eventually run out of gas, whereas visual filmmakers who understand that writing is a craft that requires just as much attention as filmmaking – they give us the best of both worlds. Guys like Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, David Fincher.
As Ben Wheatley stands at the precipice of what could be an amazing career, he has to decide which one of these entities he wants to be. Because these are the exact problems I recognized in his script, Freak Shift – he writes in ideas, in visuals, in how a scene is going to play. He doesn’t write in a way where he’s narratively connecting the dots – where each scene propels the script forward.
And that’s reflected everywhere in High-Rise. Have you ever watched something half-heartedly while you surfed the internet? About 40 minutes in, you see the characters in a cave or on a plane and you go, “How the hell did we get here??” The thing is, you’re the one to blame in that scenario, because you’re the one who wasn’t paying attention. High-Rise creates that same effect even though you’re 100% focused. Scenes seem to come and go without warning. Characters seem to pop up with a disassociativeness that’s typically reserved for mental patients.
At one point, we’re in this party with Tom Hiddleston’s character, everybody dressed in 17th century garb, with wigs and pirate shirts galore, and you literally have no idea why you’re there or what the scene is about. And this is exactly what I mean. The scene LOOKED amazing. It’s the kind of imagery you can throw in the middle of a trailer and the potential audience goes, “Wow, that looks great!” But it’s empty nonsense unless there’s a purpose for it come movie-time.
I tell this to a lot of writers. If you’re going to write a party scene, we need to know a) what the main character wants out of it. And b) what the stakes are (so the scene feels important). For example, I’ve seen lots of party scenes where the hero’s goal is to approach somebody important in the party who they’d otherwise never be able to talk to. That character will then be important to what our hero has to do next in the plot, which is where the stakes kick in. There doesn’t seem to be any knowledge of that going on here. The primary directive is always, “What will look neat?” and while that can carry music videos and even feature films for 20 minutes or so, sooner or later the audience starts asking, “Why am I here?”
I mean this whole movie is about the deterioration of a high-rise as the poor at the bottom rise up and clash with the rich at the top, yet there’s no single moment where you can identify where this takeover was initiated. Like everything in the film, it just sort of happens.
Oh man, I’m so disappointed by this. But at least it serves as a cautionary tale. You can only cover up so much of a bad script with filmmaking. You have to get the script right first.
[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the rental
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: One of the key mistakes that inexperienced writers make, and that was made here, is not building the story. Newbie writers set up their story, usually with a competent first act, and then take this attitude of, “Let’s see where this goes.” As a result, the story starts to feel that way – unconfident. You can almost see the fingers on the keyboard desperately trying to come up with a flashy scene because the last three scenes have gone nowhere. That’s not how you write a good screenplay. A good screenplay is paced, and the second act is about BUILD. It’s about slowly presenting bigger and bigger obstacles for your main character to overcome on the way to their goal. I can always tell a rushed script or an inexperienced writer because they write all these scenes into one 15 page block right after the first act, then have no idea where to go next. This results in 50 pages of treadmill storytelling until they can finally get to their climax. This is how High-Rise felt to me and this is what happens when you only study the filmmaking side of the business and not the screenwriting side.