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Premise: (from writer) When a homicide detective learns that the murderer of a Senator was the victim of a high-tech setup, he then uncovers a conspiracy that makes him question everything he believes in, even himself.
Why You Should Read: (from writer) “In 2003 I had a “concept” for a Sci-Fi movie but had never written a screenplay. My wife saw a news piece for a screenplay community on the Internet, where you could upload your work and get constructive reviews and help. I read the first ten pages of the “Terminator” to get an idea of formatting. Using Word templates and a few reference books, I knocked out the first draft of in a week. The formatting was terrible and the story was littered with mistakes. But I pushed on and learned/developed the craft though constructive feedback and hard work. — My ideas were always a little high concept (and budget) so I began to get interested in short scripts and independent film, to both learn and give me a chance at getting produced. 10 years later I’ve just started a draft of my 19th feature script and finished short script 120. So I guess it’s fair to say I’ve been bitten by the bug of screenwriting. I’ve had short films screened in Cannes, won and placed in contests (thrilled that Kenneth Branagh read and selected one of my scripts). But am I any closer to breaking into the business? Hell no! But I’m enjoying the journey and learning as I go.”
Writer: Sean Ryan
Details: 100 pages (August 7, 2013 draft)
I coulda swore I reviewed this script on the site before. I know I’ve given Sean notes on it. But a search back through the archives shows that it’s never been reviewed. But even if it had, I’m interested to see how my notes and the subsequent drafts Sean’s written have improved the script. Sean’s sent me plenty of updates via e-mail so I know he’s been working on it forever. Which leads us to the “21st draft” reference on the title page. Definitely don’t want to keep that there. Readers have this weird thing where if they see you’re on some really high draft, they’re put off. Therefore, it’s always in your best interest to imply that you’re on your 2nd or 3rd draft. That way, they’re always impressed. “Wow, you pulled this off in 2 drafts?!” Lying is bad. Unless you’re a struggling screenwriter.
Moving on, my big issue with the previous draft of SWAP was that it was too generic. I liked the idea, but I thought Sean was making some very obvious choices. When you have a good idea, especially one like this, which allows for a lot of intricate story directions (literally any character in the story can be anyone else), you have to take advantage of it. Let’s see if Sean’s done his job.
39 year-old Detective Mitch Chance has been assigned to one hell of a weird case. Some dude just shot up the inside of a mall, killing a Senator in the process, but now claims that he didn’t do it. He’s on every security cam in the building, yet he says he has no memory of it happening. And a lie detector test confirms his claim. Somehow, this killer believes he didn’t kill.
While everyone else chalks it up to the dude being crazy-time, Mitch can’t get the case out of his head. And things get weirder when he’s contacted by a mystery man to meet in secret. The man tells him to look deeper into the shooter, implying that he didn’t kill those people. But how can someone who’s been video-taped mowing everyone down with an AK-47 NOT be the killer? It’s impossible! Or is it?
Mitch realizes he’s onto something big when he and his family are attacked, presumably because someone knows he’s digging. Naturally, he starts digging deeper, eventually learning that the government is running a secret program called “SWAP” where they can jump into people’s bodies and control them. This allows them to do things like jump into a terrorist’s body thousands of miles away and have him kill all his terrorists buddies, which sounds good to me. But you get the feeling that the naughty government is now using the technology for much less patriotic purposes.
What follows is a complicated game of chess where we’re never sure who’s who. Who’s in who’s body? Mitch is able to jump into bodies in the government’s secret facility, and the government is able to jump into the bodies of everybody close to Mitch (and even Mitch himself). It starts to get really complicated, as nobody can trust anybody. Will Mitch be able to navigate this puzzle and take down the SWAP program? Or will he be yet another victim?
So, what’s the verdict??
This was a tough call. First of all, I really like Sean. You’re never going to find a nicer, more dedicated writer than him. The problem with that is, since I WANT to like the script so badly, I don’t think my judgment was 100% objective.
I will say, though, without question, this draft was better. One of the things we talk about a lot on this site is “dramatic irony.” Although it’s more complicated than this, it basically means the reader is aware that one character is keeping a secret from the other. SWAP, then, has the potential to be a dramatic irony gold mine, since there are a ton of scenes where WE know a character is hiding inside another character, but the other characters in the scene do not know that. To that end, I thought Sean did a good job. Every scene had that extra layer of deception driving it, which kept things pretty entertaining.
What hurt the read for me, though, was that there was a certain thinness to everything. And I saw this being discussed in the comments the other day – this idea of a “fast read,” and how readers are always looking for “fast reads.” And SWAP was just that. The writing was really sparse (rarely was there a paragraph over two lines long) and therefore really easy to get through (I think I read the script in an hour).
But here’s the thing. There’s such a thing as being TOO fast of a read. Sometimes we need that thick description of a major character (“Tall and blond” isn’t enough). Sometimes we need that dark warehouse described in detail in order to create atmosphere. But more importantly, we need the relationships to be more complex. And I’m not saying it’s easy. This is a thriller. It’s tough to keep the story moving quickly – like all the readers want – yet still explore relationships. But it IS possible. Taken, the prototype for a lightning fast thriller, actually sets up a complicated family dynamic in its first act, with a father trying to reconnect with his daughter amidst his ex-wife re-marrying. I wanted SOME kind of emotional storyline like that to latch onto here.
Personally (and I’m not saying this is everyone), I need to be able to connect with the characters in more than a surface-level way to get involved in the story. And again, Sean doesn’t do a bad job here. Mitch’s daughter is almost killed. We see his desire to keep his family out of harm’s way. But I wanted something specific. Maybe Mitch’s daughter is older (15) and starting to pull away from her father. Or Maybe Mitch and his wife have been having problems and she’s thinking of divorcing him. I just reviewed the new Johnny Depp project, Mortdecai, in my newsletter and that’s exactly what they did. Our main character’s wife was pulling away from him, and you got the feeling that unless he succeeded in his goal, she was going to leave him.
These were the things bouncing around in the back of my head while I was reading SWAP, and when I’m reading a great script, there’s nothing bouncing around in the back of my head. I’m just enjoying the story.
I think Sean’s done a good job mastering the structural component of screenwriting. He’s got a good feel for plotting and keeping the story moving. But if screenwriting prowess is measured on a 1-10 scale, I think mastering this aspect only gets you to level 5 or 6. The next step – that leap up to 7 and 8 – requires you to master character development and character relationship development. Learning how to not only build that into your story, but do so in a way that doesn’t slow the story down, is what gets you to a place where agents and producers start noticing you. So this one flirted with a “worth the read,” but didn’t quite make it there. Still, I hope to see more stuff from Sean in the future. But only those 2nd and 3rd drafts. :)
Script link: SWAP
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I looked back at my notes for SWAP (when I did a consultation with Sean) and saw this line: “Remember, for every question that’s answered, a new one should be posed.” – I want to commend Sean for listening to that advice. This new draft did a better job of replacing answered questions with new questions. But I bring this up because I’ve read a lot of scripts lately that DIDN’T do this. If you’re going to give us the answer to one of your key mysteries, ALWAYS pose a new one. This way, you’re always dangling a carrot in front of the reader, giving him a reason to keep walking. The second there’s no carrot, is the second we turn around and head back home.