Search Results for: mena
Premise: In the 80s, a rogue pilot becomes Ground Zero for the majority of the cocaine being smuggled into the US. The crazy thing? He’s being funded by the United States government.
About: This was a huge “spec” package early last year. Sold for 7 figures with Ron Howard attached to direct. It’s since nabbed Tom Cruise as the lead to play Barry Seale and Doug Liman (who teamed with Cruise on Edge of Tomorrow) to take over directing duties. The script also finished in the top 10 of the most recent Black List. I remember reading Spinelli’s breakthrough spec five years ago – a clever idea about a man who kidnapped criminals and auctioned them off to rival crime bosses. It didn’t put him on the top of any studio’s list, but it got the town’s attention. He kept writing and, five years later, nabbed one of the top 3 spec sales of the year. It just goes to show that you’re playing the long game here. Break through with a cool spec, don’t celebrate, put your nose back to the grindstone, keep writing, keep generating material, get more and more people familiar with your work. Then one day, that opportunity presents itself for a huge payday and the ultimate goal of being a produced writer.
Writer: Gary Spinelli.
Details: 128 pages – 10/26/13 draft
It’s a new world. A biopic world. After American Sniper, scripts like Mena, Jobs, and that McDonald’s movie are top priority for studios sick of working on the next actors-in-tights SFX fiasco (I mean seriously – is anyone really that excited to work on Wonder Woman?). Now I could go on my rant about why I’m not a huge fan of biopics, but the first half of Mena makes my argument for me.
There isn’t a single dramatized scene in the first 67 pages of this screenplay. The entire first half of the script is voice over and exposition. This doesn’t seem to bother some people and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. It’s nice to learn fun tidbits about how we stole weapons from Palestine, then sold them to secretly win wars in South America. But unless you give me a few scenes with some actual suspense mixed in, I’m going to have a hard time staying awake.
But hey, I was singing the same uninspired tune after reading American Sniper. And look how that turned out. This could be a very good omen for Ron Howard and Co.
Mena follows our adrenaline junkie hero, TWA pilot Barry Seale, through the 1980s, when he realizes he wants something more out of life. Being a commercial pilot pays well. But “light rain” on the runway is hardly enough excitement to get Barry up in the morning.
So when Barry gets an offer from the CIA to fly small planes through South America to track revolutionary movements there, he takes it. Being opportunistic, Barry then uses the contacts he makes in South America to smuggle cocaine back into the U.S.
Thinking he’s sly, Barry is shocked to find out that the CIA knew what he was doing all along. In fact, they orchestrated it! By having someone in tight with the cartels of South America, it allows them to influence the factions of government that run things down there. They also start using the money Barry makes from the drug running to purchase stolen weapons from the Palestinian war and sell those weapons to U.S. friendly forces down in South America.
Confused? I sure as hell was.
Anyway, a local cop in the tiny town Barry lives in starts to suspect that Barry is a shady character (could it be the giant mansion he’s built in the cash-strapped town?) and begins looking into his suspicious activities. To make matters even more complicated, the president at the time, Ronald Reagan, declares a war on drugs, seeking to destroy operations like Barry’s, despite the fact that he’s unofficially funding him!
The next thing Barry knows, the FBI is moving into town. The attorney general wants to know what’s up. And Barry’s supposedly untouchable operation is at risk of imploding, bringing down himself, the South American drug trade, and the CIA. You can bet your ass though, that when those organizations are threatened, the last person they’re going to be thinking of protecting is Barry Seale.
Clearly, this was written with the hopes of getting Scorsese to direct. It’s got his signature “Mythology Breakdown” opening, where he over-examines the intricacies of the subject matter via copious amounts of voice over. Instead of Scorsese, though, we get Doug Liman. Which, while no Scorsese, is still an upgrade over Ron Howard. Ron Howard trying to pull off a Scorsese film is a little like Nicholas Sparks trying to write Fight Club.
Here’s my big issue with Mena, regardless of who’s making it. Barry’s external life is an interesting one. He’s robbing the very government he’s working for. He’s using his drug connections to make himself rich. He’s delivering weapons that are shaping the future of South America.
But go ahead and read back those accomplishments. They’re all EXTERNAL. It’s not Barry who’s interesting. It’s the situations he finds himself in that are interesting. Barry himself is a pretty basic dude. There’s no real conflict within him. He’s not battling any demons. His relationship with his family is practically an afterthought (at least in this draft). So what is Barry dealing with on an internal level?
At least with Chris Kyle in American Sniper, you could feel a battle raging inside of our protagonist. He’s been made a hero for killing people –in some cases children. And he struggles to come to terms with that. I guess I wanted more of a character study in Mena and not just two hours of “look at all this crazy shit that’s happened to me.” Especially because we’re not so much being SHOWN this crazy shit as we’re given an audio play-by-play of it.
Earlier I was talking about the lack of a dramatized scene until page 67. What did I mean by that? Well, the first 67 pages of Mena consist of Barry laying out the bullet points of how he smuggled drugs and ran weapons back and forth between the Americas. There wasn’t a single scene between characters that consisted of an unknown outcome.
Finally, on page 67, Barry is tasked with having to kill his brother-in-law and partner, who’s been captured by the police. After getting him out on bail, Barry plans to take his partner out to the desert and kill him. FINALLY! A SCENE WITH SOME FUCKING SUSPENSE! It was the first time I actually leaned in and was excited to see what happened next. For once, there wasn’t a Wikipedia voice over yapping away at me.
And that’s how I like my stories told. I like when writers set up uncertain situations that hook us into wanting to read more. I get that we have to set SOME story up first but, man, 67 pages is an awful long time to set up story.
There’s definitely something to Barry Seale. There are too many wacky components to his life to call this an ill-informed project. But we must remember that while the external stuff is always fun, it’s not what’s going to emotionally hook an audience. If you’re writing a biopic, you’re saying that first, and foremost, this is a character study. So give us a study of the character. Not just the shit he gets into.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: A great way to write a suspenseful (dramatized) scene is to follow this formula:
a) Create a problem that results in a difficult choice for your main character.
b) Make the stakes of that problem as high as you can.
c) Have the outcome of this issue completely unknown.
d) Draw the scene out as long as you can.
This is why that scene on page 67 brought my full attention to the script for the first time.
a) Barry knows the only way to keep his step-brother quiet is to kill him.
b) If Barry doesn’t kill him, the CIA and the Columbians will come after Barry.
c) We sense Barry is going to kill his step-brother but we don’t know for sure.
d) This all plays out over a long car ride from the jail to the desert.
In honor of the year 2015, the year Star Wars returns to theaters, I’ll be writing a series of articles throughout the year to celebrate (and occasionally eviscerate), the greatest franchise ever. Enjoy! And may Christmas 2015 come faster than it takes Han Solo to do the Kessel Run.
The year was 1999. For movie nerds, that year marked the arrival of the single most anticipated film in movie history. It was the year The Phantom Menace came out. As millions of Star Wars fans left their local theater confused about how the magic of Star Wars could disappear faster than a womp rat on meth, I went back to my apartment looking for answers. Did George Lucas really just turn my favorite franchise into a bad Saturday morning cartoon?
In the time since, a lot has been dedicated to explaining why the movie didn’t work. But one of the things that doesn’t get mentioned that often – if it all – is the featured set-piece in the movie: the Pod Race.
The Pod Race, in George Lucas’s mind, WAS the movie. While good ole George was excitedly grinding everything from characters to sets into his digital blender, the Pod Race was the one thing he actually built stuff for. Every one of the vehicles in that race was a real prop.
So why is it, then, that a set-piece given so much attention, given so much screen time, given so much weight in the film, turned out to be one of the most boring races (and set-pieces) ever put on film? You watch that race and you’re not focusing on whether Anakin is going to win or not. You focus on why everything is so fucking boring.
The answer to this – once learned – will ensure that you never write a bad set-piece again (or at least one as bad as this). To be honest, set-pieces are typically one of the more boring parts of a screenplay. They’re often cut-and-dry “car speeds up, cuts other car off, joey shoots, brad ducks” blueprint-oriented scenes, rather than scenes written to actually evoke emotion (huge mistake). Truth be told, a lot of execs skim over set-pieces because there’s no important story information in them and it allows them to finish the read quicker.
If you’re doing your job, a reader will never EVER want to skim past a scene. They’ll be so caught up in your characters and your story that every little moment in that set-piece matters to them! So what did screenwriter George Lucas do so terribly to make this sequence, which should’ve been one of the classic all-time action scenes, so boring? Five things, to be exact. Let’s take a look at them.
“BORING MAIN CHARACTER” – I honestly don’t care if you’re the greatest set-piece writer in the world. If we don’t care about the person who’s at the center of the set piece, nothing you write in the set-piece will matter. I say this again and again on the site, but writers never do anything about it! Stop putting all your time into the set-piece and put it into creating an original, compelling, entertaining main character who we want to root for. Star Wars could’ve turned The Pod Race into a Bobbing For Apples contest and it would’ve worked if we cared about Anakin.
“NO MAIN CHARACTER FLAW” – In my newsletter, I talked about the importance of dealing with your characters’ internal issues in external ways. There’s no better time to do this than in a set-piece. And there’s no better way to explore it than through your hero’s unique flaw. If you’re going to build a ten minute race scene into your movie, it better challenge your hero’s flaw in some way. The problem here? Annakin didn’t have a flaw. He had some doubts, some fears. But he didn’t have a clear flaw. In contrast, Luke Skywalker didn’t fully believe in himself. That was his flaw. And that’s why him trusting himself in that ending Death Star sequence was so goose-bump inducing. A clear character flaw equals clear “external conflict” to play with during set-pieces, which creates a closer emotional connection between movie and viewer.
“THE BULLSHIT ARTIST” – Set pieces are your movie’s big performance numbers. In an action movie, they will often be what your movie is remembered for. So their reason for existing has to be airtight. The Rebels didn’t attack the Death Star in the first Star Wars, for example, because someone had a hunch that the base had a weakness. They had the Death Star plans that told them exactly how to destroy the base. In The Phantom Menace, we’re sold some cheap B.S. that winning this pod race (and using the prize money to fix their broken ship) was the only way for our group to get off the planet. As if two of the most important Jedi in the galaxy couldn’t have found an alternative way to leave. Once we know you’re trying to bullshit us on the reasoning for a set-piece’s existence, we turn on you quickly.
“OVER-COMPLICATION” – One of the things I continue to see amateur writers do wrong is needlessly overcomplicate their stories. Stop. Just stop! There’s always a simpler way. What you do when you over-complicate something, is you create confusion in the reader. If the reader is confused about why a big set-piece is going on, nothing in the set-piece matters. Before the Pod Race, Lucas injects an incredibly complicated bet between Qui-Gon and a local alien gambler that states if Anakin loses, the alien gets the pod-racer, but if Qui-Gon wins, he gets the pod racer, Anakin, and a part for his broken ship. The alien then doubles down, and if he wins, he gets the ship, the pod racer, the Anakin, and possibly Qui-Gon too. Qui-Gon comes back at him and doubles his own bet by asking for Anakin’s mom if they win as well. It’s so needlessly confusing, that by the time the race starts, we’re clueless as to what needs to happen. Confusion is NEVER EVER EVER good for your story and is especially bad right before a major sequence.
“REPETITION” – A set-pieces’ mortal enemy is repetition. If the cars that are chasing each other are doing the same dance for too long or if the bad guys and the good guys continue to shoot and duck in the same way over and over, we’re going to lose interest. A set-piece is a mini-movie. And just like any movie, you need to challenge and surprise your audience over and over again. Treat your set-piece like your portfolio and diversify. In the Pod Race, we were subjected to the same desert checkpoints again and again with little variety in the action or interactions between racers.
To me, the worst set-pieces are the ones that feel too technical. A set-piece is a complex series of organisms that have to work together. It’s great if you’ve come up with an imaginative set-piece. But if your hero isn’t battling his flaw as well (i.e. Neo fighting Smith in the subway when he didn’t believe in himself yet), then the set-piece feels empty. You might have the coolest location for your set-piece ever, but if you don’t establish big stakes and make those stakes CLEAR, we’re going to be confused about why the set-piece is happening (i.e. the race car set-piece in Iron Man 2).
Learn why the Pod Race, and other set-pieces like it, aren’t working, so that when it comes time to write your own set-piece, you’ll be ready to deliver.
We’re back for Day 3 of Star Wars Week. To find out more, head back to Monday’s review of The Empire Strikes Back.
Premise: (from IMDB) Two Jedi knights uncover a wider conflict when they are sent as emissaries to the blockaded planet of Naboo.
About: It is said that Lawrence Kasdan was approached to write the script for The Phantom Menace but that Kasdan felt Empire and Jedi were a step away from Lucas’s vision and believed that Lucas should write and direct the prequels so that they would remain in his voice. Hmmm, that personally sounds like a clever brushoff to me. Other rumors include Frank Darabont and Carrie Fisher being approached to write the script. But in the end, we got George Lucas. Hooray.
Writer: George Lucas
The Phantom Menace is such a poorly told story that as I started compiling the screenwriting mistakes to highlight in this review, I realized there were too many to choose from.
I guess we’ll start at the top. The first problem is the backstory. In the backstory for the original films, rebels were trying to defeat the Empire. It’s simple. It’s powerful. It’s focused. In this movie, we get the taxation of trade routes. In other words, it’s complicated. It’s confusing. It’s unfocused. Now complicated can be good if you have a screenwriter who knows how to navigate complications and who’s dedicated to the extra work required to write something of this magnitude. But George Lucas is neither. He’s openly stated that’s he doesn’t like writing. And since writing even a simple story can take 20-30 drafts to get right, you can only imagine how much effort and how many drafts something complicated would take. And if you’re not committed to all that extra effort, your screenplay’s going to suffer. And this is the main reason the prequels are so bad. Everything here is a first draft idea that was never developed.
Something feels wrong about The Phantom Menace right from the start. We’ve talked about storytelling engines all week and there is an engine here. But unfortunately that engine lacks horsepower. The goal is for two Jedi’s to convince the trade Federation to leave Naboo. In the opening of Star Wars, Darth Vader storms a rebel ship in search of the stolen Death Star plans. In the opening of Empire, Luke Skywalker is kidnapped by a monster and must be rescued. These are both strong and clear engines. Removing a trade blockade from a planet? Borrrrrrrr-ing.
Now to Phantom’s credit, there is one point in the film where things get kind of interesting, and that’s when Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon discover an invasion army. This creates mystery. And it gives our characters purpose. They must now get down to the planet and figure out what’s up. When they get there, they realize the Naboo people are going to be attacked and therefore have to save the Queen. Okay, we actually have a little bit of story going on here. Saving queens is exciting. Right?
Unfortunately, once they escape, they get marooned on Tantooine and things start falling apart quickly. They do actually have a goal on Tantooine, and that’s to get off the planet. But you’ll notice there’s something missing from this sequence that’s been present in every single Star Wars movie up to this point. Urgency. Star Wars added it by making sure the bad guys were always on our tail. Empire did the same, with the Empire always right behind Han. Nothing is chasing them here. We feel like they could be here for months and there would be no consequences.
The thing is, George has a ticking time bomb for the Tantooine sequence – they need to get to the Senate to tell them what’s going on on Naboo before it’s too late. But he doesn’t do a very good job of reminding us of this urgency and the goal itself is so muddled and confusing, that even if he did, we still wouldn’t feel the importance of it. I mean, hasn’t the Trade Federation already taken over Naboo? What does it matter if they get there now or two years from now?
But The Phantom Menace truly dies when our characters arrive on Coruscant (the city planet). This is where I’ll be introducing a new term on Scriptshadow: Scene Of Death.
The Scene Of Death is any scene that exists only to…
a) Convey exposition.
b) Have characters talk to each other about their feelings.
c) Have two people talk about another person.
d) Have two people talk about their views or opinions on things.
Now let me be clear. You can have all of these conversations in your movie. But you have to have them during scenes where the story is being pushed forward. If the only reason the scene exists is to show one of these four things, that scene will draw your story to a complete stop. Now if you’ve had an incredibly intense stretch of really solid storytelling, you can sometimes get away with one of these scenes. But I wouldn’t recommend it. I think there’s always a way to get this stuff in while the story is being pushed forward.
Now your screenplay is in trouble if you write just one of these scenes. But imagine if half the scenes you wrote were scenes of death. Welcome to The Phantom Menace.
This is what happens on Coruscant. The main characters convene in a room and talk about the upcoming discussion they’re going to have with the Senate. Then we go to the Jedi Council where Qui-Gon Jinn says they need to teach Anakin. Then Anakin goes to tell Amidala that he’s saying goodbye. Then we have a boring Senate meeting. Then they go to the Senate committee to ask permission for something. Then Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn talk. Then Anakin gets tested by the Jedi Council. Then Amidala talks to Jar-Jar about their planet. Then Amidala talks to the Emperor about going back to her planet. Then Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon and Anakin talk to the Jedi Council yet again. Then Qui-Gon Jinn explains what the force is to Anakin. I might nominate this as the worst stretch of scenes in a big-budget movie ever. Out of these 11 scenes, maybe half are scenes of death and the other half so barely move the story forward or are so muddled in their execution, that they destroy any bit of momentum the movie had left. There is no engine underneath this sequence driving the story forward. And there is definitely no GSU. I mean what happened to the storytelling of the first two films?? If somebody wanted something in Star Wars, they went after it themselves. They didn’t go to a Senate committee. Choices George. You have to make interesting choices. Debating anything in a Senate is not an interesting choice.
And the scariest thing? That’s not even the worst part of the screenplay. The worst part of the screenplay is the characters. Even if Lucas had cleaned all this plot stuff up and made each sequence as tight and focused as Star Wars and Empire, it wouldn’t have mattered because we don’t like the characters. Let’s take a look at the six key characters and why they suck.
Qui-Gon Jinn – The mentor character is rarely flashy, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be interesting. I’ll admit that the Obi-Wan Kenobi from the first films wasn’t exactly the coolest character ever. He didn’t do anything outrageous or shocking. But he had this intriguing mystical quality about him and he was very warm. Qui-Gon Jinn is as cold and as boring a character as you’ll find. Part of this is the way Lucas set up the Jedi. He implied in the original films that Jedis were sophisticated and ordered and honorable. Unfortunately, those are all traits that make a character boring. I would probably want Qui-Gon Jinn mentoring me in real life. But I definitely don’t want to put him in my movie if my goal is to entertain people.
Obi-Wan Kenobi – Much like Qui-Gon Jinn, there’s very little going on with Obi-Wan Kenobi. He doesn’t seem to have any character flaws. He listens to and attentively follows everything his mentor tells him to do without argument. And that’s where this dynamic falters. Whenever you pair two people together for an entire movie, you need there to be some sort of unresolved conflict between them. Without conflict, the characters aren’t struggling to find balance. If the relationship is already balanced, then there’s nothing for the characters to fight. That’s going to equal a lot of boring scenes. So you have two characters, both of them with no internal struggles, and no conflict between them. How the hell are you going to make that interesting?
Amidala – Queen Amidala is the worst character in this movie and may be the worst character Lucas has ever created. George tries to create this whole disguise storyline where Queen Amidala disguises herself as a handmaiden. The problem is, there’s absolutely no point to it whatsoever. Had she never disguised herself, absolutely nothing would have changed. This goes back to the use of stakes. If you’re going to disguise someone, ask yourself, what are the stakes to them getting caught? If there are no stakes, then there’s no point in disguising them. If it any point Amidala is discovered when, say, they’re hanging out on Tantooine, what happens? Maybe Qui-Gon Jinn smiles slightly and says, “Wow, you got me.” And that would be it. Look at a movie like Pretty Woman. Watch the scenes where Julia Roberts goes out with Richard Gere to a high-class dinner or a polo match. In those scenes, Roberts is masquerading as one of them. If she gets caught, and somebody realizes that Richard Gere is with a hooker, there are real consequences to that. Maybe the other businessmen don’t deal with Gere. Maybe his reputation takes a shot. Julia Roberts will be humiliated. The fact that George doesn’t realize the importance of stakes in this situation shows how little he understands storytelling.
Anakin – Anakin is a tough character to dissect. Much of our thoughts regarding Anakin have to do with our knowledge of what’s going to happen to him in the future (dramatic irony). Lucas is hoping that just seeing this young happy kid who we know will later become one of the most sinister dictators in the galaxy is going to stir up enough emotions that we’ll be interested in him. And the truth is, Anakin does have some stuff going on. He’s a slave. He ends up having to leave his mother. The seeds are here for a good character. Unfortunately, Lucas really botched the casting. The kid who played Anakin wasn’t a good actor and therefore we just never believed him. I do think that a better casting choice would’ve helped this film tremendously. But it’s also a reminder of a screenwriting tip I’ve mentioned before. It’s probably best not to include a major character under 10 in your script. Finding a good actor who can play a major role at that age is the equivalent of trying to win the lottery.
Jar-Jar – This is going to shock you. Jar-Jar is actually the deepest character in the story. Or I should say, the character whom George Lucas intended to be the deepest. He’s the only character in the group who has a flaw. He doesn’t take life seriously enough. And he doesn’t believe in his worth. That’s what’s led to all of the problems with his people, and why he was ultimately kicked out of the clan. So when you’re talking about unresolved conflict, there’s actually a lot of unresolved conflict going on with this character. Unfortunately, George undercut this with such a goofy annoying character that it didn’t matter. We’re not going to care if a character is able to overcome anything if we don’t like him. So remember, just adding a character flaw isn’t enough. You still have to make that character someone we’ll root for.
Darth Maul – A huge critical mistake that George Lucas made was not including a dominant villain. Not every movie needs a villain. However, if you’re going to write a sci-fi movie, you need a villain. And Lucas actually created a really cool villain here, but ended up portraying him as a nuisance more than a genuine threat to the Republic. The guy barely spoke. He didn’t do anything unless he was told to. He was a weak villain. And if you don’t have someone to point to as the ultimate threat in this kind of movie, then you’re never really scared for the characters. Lucas really should have made Darth Maul a major character with a lot more power. It would’ve helped this movie a lot.
Like I said, I could go on forever with this movie. I didn’t even get to the ending where the bad guys were destroyed by a baffling series of lucky coincidences. I’m just shocked at how much time and effort and money was put into something that was so poorly constructed. If there’s any lesson to come out of this, it’s that this is what happens when you don’t commit to rewriting your script until it’s great. As I struggled to figure out a rating for this film, I realized I couldn’t recall a single moment in the script that worked. For that reason, I have no choice but to give it the lowest rating.
[x] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: This is why you shouldn’t try and write a complicated multifaceted multi-character epic with politics and secret objectives and dozens of vastly different locations. These are the most difficult movies to write by far. And this is often the result. A bunch of muddled objectives in a muddled plot that’s desperately trying to seem important but none of that importance comes through because it’s all so sloppily executed. To me, The Phantom Menace is an argument for the power of a simple plot. Keep the character goals clear. Keep everybody’s motivations clear. Keep the story goals clear. The first two films were basically bad guys chasing good guys. Even Empire could be boiled down to that. As long as you have that simple structure in place, you can try to find the complications within it. But if you start with an overarching complex story that lacks focus, it’s likely doomed from the get-go.
Premise: (from IMDB) A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.
About: This is Luc Besson’s dream project. Back when he made the quirky yet beloved Fifth Element, this is the movie he really wanted to make, but didn’t have the budget or the technology to do so. Much like when George Lucas felt that technology had caught up to his imagination with The Phantom Menace, Besson decided that the same had finally happened with Valerian. Unfortunately, without the brand power that Star Wars has, the film couldn’t make an impact at the U.S. box office this weekend, taking in just 17 million dollars. Not good for a film that cost 200 million dollars, even if Besson claims he has discovered the magic formula for making giant movies that have zero financial risk. All is not lost for Valerian, as it is yet to open internationally, where outlandish sci-fi does a lot better. It’s probably not inaccurate to say that everything depends on China. China is known for liking wacky weird fantastical movies, which is exactly what Valerian is. If it can somehow pull in 200 million there, Valerian may turn into the franchise Besson so desperately wants it to be.
Writer: Luc Besson (based on the comics by Pierre Crhistin and Jean-Claude Mezieres)
Details: 2 hours and 17 minutes
I often wonder why we feel so good when a movie does so bad?
Whether we like to admit it or not, for most of us, there is a rush of satisfaction when a film fails. We’re infused with a hit of ‘bomb adrenaline’ and we can’t wait to discuss the failure with our film buddies.
I hate that feeling. I always have. Why can’t we celebrate movies whether they succeed or fail, particularly since we know how difficult it is to make them. No matter whether you’re making Short Term 12 or The Bourne Identity, you’re told a thousand times “No no no no no no. It’ll never work because a, b, c, d, e, and f. Quit now.” And yet someone believes in that project so much that they persevere, say ‘fuck you’ to the haters, keep fighting, somehow get a director involved, somehow get actors, somehow convince a studio to pony up the budget, somehow pull another 500 craftsmen out of the woodwork over the course of six months to make that thing that was once just a series of images in their head.
Why can’t we celebrate that?
I think I know.
When Hollywood gets it right, it means they don’t need us. The aspiring writers, aspiring directors, aspiring editors, bloggers, reviewers. If every movie did well, it would mean that they don’t need our help. And that’s the most threatening thing you can say to someone who wants to make films: “WE DON’T NEED YOU.”
Every time a movie bombs, it’s validation that they do need us. It’s our chance to say, “Seeeee! Even with your billion dollar marketing teams and partnerships with toy conglomerates and number crunching boardrooms, you still get it wrong.” Which is why you need us. We can tell you how to get it right.
Which brings us to Valerian and all the hatred the movie is receiving for bombing spectacularly this weekend.
Guys, Valerian is not deserving of our ill-will. Not in the way a Pirates 8 or a Snow-white and the Huntsman 4 is. This film was not calculated in a boardroom by marketing people. This is a passion project. This is a film that the filmmaker has wanted to make for fifty years. FIFTY YEARS! This is a movie that a man was willing to bet his studio on.
So Valerian doesn’t deserve scorn for its failed box office. It is, just as much as Dallas Buyer’s Club, Moonlight, or Spotlight, a project that someone cared about with all their heart.
So then why the hell is it so bad?
And not just bad, but bad in the way that you feel nothing when it’s over. Ironically, the main reason it’s bad is because it’s trying to be the very thing it claims it isn’t – a studio film. A studio film with one thing missing – studio oversight.
Isn’t it bizarre? The thing we claim harms so many movies is actually the thing that could’ve saved this one? More on that in a sec.
Valerian opens on the planetary equivalent of Hawaii, a gorgeous beach with humanoid aliens who all look like intergalactic runway models. Now these aliens have a pet, a sort of iguana like creature that – stay with me here – shits pearls. But not just any pearls, pearls that contain limitless energy.
While the beach aliens are enjoying a typical day on the most beautiful planet in the universe, a bunch of ships or meteors or something start crashing into the planet, destroying it. Our poor runway model race is wiped out. Or so we think.
Cut to years later across the universe where we meet Agent Valerian and Agent Laureline, young strapping intergalactic agents of, um, something. Valerian is a ladies man who finally wants to settle down with Laureline, but she’s having no part of it, having seen him bang too many chicks during their adventures. Or so we’re told.
The two are called in to retrieve a stolen item from an alien mob kingpin, which is where they come across one of those iguanas – you know, the ones that shit pearls. Valerian does some research and discovers that the iguana comes from a planet whose history is protected by a top secret classification protocol. There’s no way to find out what happened there.
Naturally, he wants to know more, but before he can find out, Laureline gets kidnapped inside the piece-mailed-together space station where they’re headquartered, a giant sprawling hub of alien activity known as “Alpha.” Valerian will have to go save his partner, and along the way learns why this space iguana and that planet are so damn important.
God was this movie mis-cast. Like oh-my-god-what-was-Luc-Besson-thinking mis-cast. You’re talking about two teenagers (or near-teenagers) being the best space agents in the universe? Who’s going to buy that? That may be the biggest reason for why this movie bombed. You saw those two in the trailers and thought, “I wouldn’t trust those two to do my laundry, much less save the universe.”
Why is that relevant on a screenwriting website? Because every script is dependent on its characters. If the audience doesn’t believe in the characters, it doesn’t matter what the plot is. The audience has already decided that they’re not crossing your suspension of disbelief bridge.
And this is where some basic – I’m talking Screenwriting 101 – studio notes could’ve helped Besson. Take Valerian the character. Valerian is a ladies man. This is what we’re told, anyway. However, when we look at Valerian, we see a skinny dorky dude with the presence of an alternate on the Debate Team.
THIS guy is a “ladies man???”
Okay, now. There are different types of men who attract women. Not all of them have to be buff and look like Bradley Cooper. But, if you’re going to present us with someone who doesn’t look the part, you must SHOW US (“show don’t tell”) how he charms and beds women. If we see him skillfully seduce anyone, we’ll be converted.
But Besson never shows this. He assumes we’ll take him at his word. This is such a basic screenwriting mistake it practically guarantees that everything we’re about to see from here on out will be similarly hackneyed. If you can’t even get basic character introductions right, why the hell should we trust you to take us through a sprawling complex space opera?
Indeed, that’s exactly what happens. The plot here is incomprehensible. There is no main goal to keep things focused (i.e. Get R2-D2 to Alderran), but rather a series of shifting goals that are either too small or too vague to care about. Oftentimes a goal would be set and within five minutes, I’d forget what it was we were after.
And then when the goals were clear – such as when Laureline got lost in the Alpha station and Valerian had to find her – they didn’t contribute to the plot in any meaningful way. In fact, they often felt like stalling, a device Besson would use to spend more time exploring his Alpha station.
And this doesn’t even get into the weird miscalculated plot points Besson included such as the pearl-power shitting space iguana. The idea is so juvenile as to make you think it came from the mind of a 5 year old. And this plot point is what’s powering the entire movie!!! That would’ve been studio note #1 right there. “Get rid of the space iguana that shits power pearls or we’re not making this film.”
That’s the thing with studios. Yes, they strip away riskier choices that may have resulted in a more compelling film. But they also protect us from cataclysmic mistakes like this one.
Valerian is a weird movie based on a weird screenplay. This might have been a classic case of getting lost in the forest of your idea, something that can happen if you you have too much time to think about something. You know what helps in those cases? Feedback. Getting someone who understands story to look at your script and help you identify its problems. Besson never did that and this was the result.
Wrapping this review up, let me ask you something – cause I know there’s a lot of Avatar hate out there (I’m not one of the haters, by the way). Would you rather watch something like Avatar, big sprawling sci-fi with a safe generic “studio-like” approach to the story? Or would you rather watch Valerian, big sprawling weird sci-fi with no filter or studio influence at all?
[x] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The audience will NEVER take your character at face-value. That’s not how storytelling works. You don’t get to say, “Character A is good at his job,” and the audience responds, “I’m sold.” The writer MUST SHOW THE AUDIENCE THAT THE CHARACTER IS GOOD AT HIS JOB. Only when we see it for ourselves will we believe it.
Edit: This draft going around is not the Scott Brick draft, but rather a chopped-up version of another writer’s draft of Rama (one of the risks of reviewing older scripts). Now we need to find the official Brick draft, as Coming Attractions says it is great.
Premise: When a giant mysterious cylindrical ship is spotted barreling through the solar system, a small team of astronauts goes to inspect it.
About: This project was a hot property for a few years in the early 2000s as both David Fincher and Morgan Freeman really wanted to make it. This was going to be Fincher’s make-up film for Alien 3. Unfortunately, it never came to be due to them never getting the script right. This is why good screenwriting is so important. A good script can thrust a project through a green light. A bad one can keep you at that stoplight that always stays red. And big directors only have so much patience before they blow the light and move on to the next big shiny thing. I still think this film will get made at some point. It’s too cool of a premise not to be. A lot of writers have tackled Rama. This draft was written by Scott Brick and is said to be one of the better offerings.
Writer: (edit) Philip Whitcroft (again, someone cut sections out of this script, so this isn’t the full representation of Whitcroft’s screenplay)
Details: 103 pages (2001 draft I think?)
I’ve known about this script for almost a decade now. The only reason I never read it was because I heard the book was good. So I wanted to read the book before I read the script. Well, I finally read the book!
And what a strange book it was. Rendezvous With Rama is a book with, maybe, the least amount of character development I’ve ever seen in a novel. Characters are only given cursory backstories and no meat whatsoever.
The reason, however, that Rendezvous with Rama is so revered is because it contains the most compelling mystery of any science-fiction novel ever. This is something I love to remind screenwriters about. Your script can be shit in one area as long as it’s really amazing in another. When Harry Met Sally has zero story. It’s just people talking for 2 hours. But it has the best romantic comedy dialogue ever.
Anyway, back to Rama. I never finished the book. Even though the mystery was, indeed, fascinating, the author had an excruciatingly annoying habit of describing the orientation of the characters. Since we’re inside a cylinder, he loved discussing whether the characters were not quite facing up, and not quite facing down either – TO THE TUNE OF 100+ TIMES! At a certain point, I was like, enough is enough, dude. This isn’t orientation porn. It’s a sci-fi novel. So I bailed.
Which is great news for me going into this script, as I can finally find out what happened! Let’s get into it…
It’s way way off in the future. We’re at the point where we have cities on each of the major planets in the solar system. Commander Norton is one of the best space pilots in the business, based out of Mars. Just as he returns from a routine mission, his science buddies hit him with a whopper of a discovery – there’s an alien ship shooting through the solar system, heading straight for the sun.
Due to the trajectory of this thing, humans will only have a brief window to inspect it. And the closest folks are Norton and his Mars team. So Norton’s team hops on their ship, the Endeavor, before shooting towards what the media is now calling, “Rama.” Unfortunately, they leave a little too fast, as ZOINKS, Norton’s 12 year old daughter, Myrna, was able to stow away on Endeavor, joining the mission!
The group gets to Rama and finds a giant streamlined sphere. There’s only a single blemish on the sphere, which they realize is a way in. So they land next to it and head inside. The hollow Rama goes on for hundreds of miles, so they can’t see it all, but it appears to have several giant cities inside.
However, when they get closer, they see that these aren’t cities at all, but rather giant featureless rectangles. This is commonplace on Rama. Everything has the appearance of life, and yet is completely dead. They see a giant sea, except when they get to it, it’s like one enormous piece of plastic. What the hell is going on??
The teams split into two to explore, and that’s when shit gets crazy. Rama begins to heat up, and as it heats up, things change. That plastic sea begins to melt into a real sea. Also, out of nowhere, various robotic entities the groups deem “biots” begin appearing. For example, spider biots skitter about, grabbing debris and disposing of it. It seems as if Rama is preparing for something. But what?
As our group gets closer to the answer, they realize they are in great danger. If they don’t get off of this ship soon, they’re going to be casualties of this Rama transformation. A good 100 miles away from the exit, that escape begins to look like a pipe dream.
Rendezvous with Rama was… frustrating.
I think I liked it. But I hated the first act so much that I’m not sure I can give it a passing grade. This was one of the shittiest first acts I’ve read in a long time. The writing was terrible, to the point where I thought I’d been duped and that this was a fan script. Luckily, the stuff on the ship (Rama’s mystery) redeemed the story. But only barely.
So why did I hate the first act so much? Let’s start with the first page:
Where the f*&% are the character introductions???? Are we just supposed to know who these people are telepathically? And does Norton have a first name? That’s a mystery ready for its own novel.
Things get worse when we meet Myrna, the commander with no name’s 12 year-old daughter. Myrna appears to be a character constructed just for this screenplay, a bad producer note likely suggested to expand the demographic. Because, oh yeah, a hard science-fiction movie about an alien invasion isn’t complete without a precocious 12 year old daughter who stows away on the ship. What is this? An episode of Star Wars: Rebels?
Anger reached a crescendo when the Hermians (the people who live on Mercury) threaten to blow up Rama with a nuclear bomb. That’s when I almost put the script down. However, once the script moved past those problems (thankfully, Myrna the Menace stays in the background for most of the story), it got good.
And it got good because Rama is awesome. The ship I mean. It’s just such a great mystery. What is this thing? What’s happening to it (why is it heating up)? What’s coming? If this is an alien race, what do they want? As each new mystery is introduced, I found myself thankfully forgetting more and more about the first act.
But if your script is only as good as its weakest link, this one needs an entirely new setup. For starters, the weight of finding an alien freaking space ship for the first time in history needs to be built up! We need to feel the importance of this moment so that we know how important it is to go and investigate Rama. The discovery of Rama in this screenplay is given as much focus as finding a dollar bill in the dryer. “Oh look! I found a dollar!”
From there, there seems to have been zero outlining. With a discovery this big, the first thing that would happen is a giant question and answer session with the media so humanity could find out what’s going on. Instead, that moment comes when our group is on the ship, almost at Rama, a clear sign of, “Oh yeah, I forgot to include this scene. I’ll just do it now.” It fed into to the laissez-faire approach in which the script was written and in which all the characters seemed to approach Rama.
I mean it’s only the biggest discovery of mankind.
The time period for this is also wrong. We’re staked a couple of hundred years in the future, to the point where we have cities on all the planets. That in itself is amazing achievement, which dilutes the amazingness of discovering an alien ship. This needs to be set as close to present day as possible.
Not to mention, get rid of this nerdy Mars nonsense. Not only is it not 1954 anymore, but we need to be able to feel the shock and awe from people that this ship has been discovered. We can’t do that if we’re camped out on Mars.
And finally, we need a writer who understands character. The characters here are so thin. I’ve already pointed out that the main character doesn’t even have a name! Late in the script (spoiler) a “major” character comes back to life. It’s supposed to be this huge moment but we’re like, “Uhh, I don’t even know you, dude.”
It’s frustrating because this is a movie that could be great. This is a movie that someone should make. But we need a screenwriter who knows how to write. That’s going to be the first step towards giving Rendezvous with Rama a rendezvous with reality.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: NEVER. EVER. take character introductions for granted. Give us a good description. Have the character perform an action that defines them as soon as possible. Have them talk and say things that let us know what their personality is immediately. And start feeding in their backstory as soon as you can invisibly do so. If we don’t know your characters, your script is doomed.