Premise: A Vietnam POW struggles to survive captivity to seek revenge on the group of soldiers who betrayed him and left him for dead.
Why You Should Read: Been at this incredibly rewarding and gut-punching craft for seven years now. I’ve had my share of contest placements and even turned one of my ten scripts into a multi award-winning book, however, I’m still on the hunt for that big breakthrough. For this script I stepped way out of my comfort zone and broke some of the so-called “rules.” This is a past/present script that is part The Revenant, part Apocalypse Now, and part Saw. Would love the invaluable feedback from the Scriptshadow community to make it the best it can be.
Writer: John Avrai
Details: 95 pages
We had a tie in last weekend’s Amateur Offerings.
And that meant the onus was on ME to pick a winner. This is a good time to take you into the mind of a script-reading madman, because I think the way I approach which script to read is similar to how most people in the industry would choose between two scripts, all else being equal.
The primary determining factor is, which concept do I like better? In this case, I felt both concepts sounded interesting. And that led me to determining factor number 2. You guys are going to hate me for this but I promise you it’s something most producers and agents use in their decision-making process as well. That’s right. Page count. One script was 105 pages. The other was 96. The latter would save me 7-10 minutes of time in my evening. Game, set, match. My Sojourn in Hell.
That’s not to say Dark Horde will never get the call. It could come up in a Rematch Week somewhere down the line. But right now. It’s all about the sojourn, baby. Even if I don’t yet know what sojourn means.
Might need to change that title.
69 year-old Eiten Comacho has just flown into town for a Veterans Benefit. Camacho, a badass soldier in the Vietnam War, isn’t off the plane more than five minutes when he’s approached by a woman who claims to be associated with the proceedings. She guides him towards a parking lot where he’s quickly drugged and thrown in the back of a van.
When he wakes up, he’s with three members of his old infantry unit back in Vietnam. There’s Whybrow, a chickenshit wannabe weatherman, Ox, a former tough guy who’s since found the lord, and Emmit, Ox’s dumbass little brother. All the men have been cuffed and restrained.
They’re soon met with the sight of the woman who drugged and kidnapped them.
Before we can work out what’s happening, we flash back to Nam, where we meet Fort, the weakest member of their outfit – a man so incompetent (he can’t even do one pushup) that the others are routinely forced to pick up his slack. It gets so bad that Comacho beats the hell out of Fort in the hopes that he gets stuck in medical and they never have to see him again.
From there, we cut back and forth between the past and the present, learning more about how the guys bully Fort, and more about this mysterious woman who’s torturing them. Eventually we find out that Camacho killed a local Vietcong woman, and to make sure the word never gets out, he attempts to kill Fort as well. But Fort survives and is later captured by the Vietcong.
Back in the present, the mysterious woman drops a bombshell on all of them. Their shitty lives since Nam (they’ve all been victims of a string of bad luck) have been meticulously orchestrated by her. She made sure Camacho went to prison for 30 years. She made Ox’s business fail. She sabotaged Whybrow’s weatherman job. She’s the sole source of their miserable lives.
Who is this woman? Why is she such a monster? Will she kneel for the anthem on Sunday? And what ever did happen to poor Fort, who barely escaped Camacho’s murder attempt that day? Inquiring minds should check the comments section for answers.
On Wednesday, I complained about a script that was too predictable.
So before I do anything, I have to give props to John for writing a script that, for 60 pages, I had NO IDEA where it was going. When he says he broke rules, he wasn’t lying. This was a wild one.
For starters, there’s no protagonist! Going the no-protagonist route is extremely risky because audiences want somebody to latch on to. They want to feel connected to someone. We didn’t feel connected to anybody here. I mean, Camacho was introduced first so I thought he was our hero. Yet he’s the most despicable character of the bunch. After I found that out, I was left stranded. Who am I rooting for now? Crazy Torture Lady? Kind of hard to get on board with mysterious torturers. Was Fort our hero? No. For the first 60 pages, we only see him through the eyes of others. Talk about keeping me on my toes!
Despite its unpredictable nature, the script still had an ENGINE. What I mean by an ENGINE is that there was still something DRIVING our interest, our need to keep turning the pages. It’s important I make this distinction because it’s easy to write something unpredictable if you just ramble on aimlessly. But we’re going to lose interest if it’s clear the story isn’t going anywhere. Here, the script still had this mystery of: Who is this woman and why is she doing this? So despite us jumping all over the place and going back to Nam for these crazy flashbacks, I was still driven by the desire to find out what this woman’s end game was.
Another thing I picked on the other day was the writer not doing anything unexpected with the plot. You have to take chances with your plot beats or else the story becomes boring. Here, midway through the script, the crazy woman simply unlocks everybody and gives them access to a machine gun! Our characters could’ve hopped up and killed this psycho right then. It was moments like this where I said, “Wow, I did not expect that!”
So what’s the deal then? Did I like this script?
Here’s the problem with My Sojourn In Hell despite its mysterious setup and consistent risk-taking: It was seeped in anger. Reading the script made me feel sad, depressed, angry. Watching the worst in human beings exploit the worst in other human beings – That’s not my cup of tea. And I get that this isn’t an issue for some readers, which I respect. But, for me, a script has to have a sense of hope SOMEWHERE. I can’t leave feeling like humanity is hopeless. It’s just too depressing.
Even in the torture-porn era, you had the torturer, and you had the person getting tortured. And the person getting tortured was usually good. So you were hoping they were going to somehow get out of this and maybe kill the villain. Remind us that good conquers all. My Sojourn In Hell gave us bad people going after bad people. And so even if I was intrigued by what was going to happen next, I never had someone to root for.
In addition, the final act falls apart. The stuff about one brother secretly fathering the other brother’s son felt kooky. And to add this entirely new character of Lee (who accompanies Fort in a POW camp) with 30 pages to go… it felt like the narrative was unraveling rather than coming together. In a way, Fort becomes our hero. But like I said above, we barely knew the guy. We only saw him through the eyes of others, and usually simplistically. He wouldn’t do a push-up right and people would kick his ass. That’s not how you get an audience to root for a character. We have to get to know him on some level.
Also, I figured out what the twist was with a good 40 pages to go, only because there was literally NO other way it could’ve gone.
With that said, John is a good writer. I’d encourage him to enter Amateur Offerings again with something that’s less of a downer. But that’s just my opinion. What did you guys think?
Script link: My Sojourn In Hell
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you’re a writer who wants to take some big chances with your narrative, really be unpredictable, this is a good way to do it. Have a giant unanswered question/mystery at the center of your story, and the reader will let you bounce around and do a lot more avant-guarde stuff than usual.