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Genre: Sci-Fi Action Thriller
Premise (from writers): Set in a post-apocalyptic NYC ravaged by a rapid-aging virus, THE MAYFLY follows a soldier who lives his entire life in one day, as he goes against his training to transport an uninfected woman to safety.
Why You Should Read (from writer): We’ve been pitching THE MAYFLY as, “Children of Men meets Escape From New York,” but the premise is best explained by a single question: What if you lived your entire life, from infancy to old age, in 24 hours? There is a chapter in Alan Lightman’s “Einstein’s Dreams” that explores a similar concept, except his story doesn’t include a certified bad-ass who attempts to reverse the state of the world before his time is up. In other words, Alan shit the bed, so we changed the sheets. Every screenplay is hard work. Every screenplay is a labor of love. Not every screenplay is good. Although it took us a while to get here, we believe we’ve reached the point in our journey as screenwriters where we know the difference. We humbly submit our egos to the counsel and would love some help in continuing to develop this script.
Writers: Ryan Curtin & Todd Kirby
Details: 107 pages
So yesterday I got a little rant-y and overly negative. I actually don’t think screenwriting is dead or anything ridiculous like that. And while the spec system is rigged to resist more thoughtful work, that doesn’t mean you can’t trick it. It doesn’t mean you can’t slip a lobster inside the Big Mac you’re serving them. You just have to be sly about it.
One of the things I complained about yesterday was this notion of “effort.” Or “lack of it.” Because a good script is so hard to write, anything less than everything you’ve got isn’t going to be good enough. So when I see shoddy scripts with only the barest grasp of storytelling, I wilt like an aged dandelion. Whether your script is the best script in the world or the worst piece of shit in 9 counties, I want to be able to tell that you gave it your all.
I believe today’s writers gave it their all, or a pretty close approximation to it. The amount of world-building alone indicates they thought a lot about it. My question would be, did they put TOO MUCH into it? Let’s look at The Mayfly’s plot and then I’ll explain what I mean.
It’s the far-off future just outside Manhattan. To bring you up to speed, some war-hungry dimwit created a fast-aging virus that nearly wiped out all of mankind. Earth’s most recent generation still has to deal with this moron’s creation, as some people have the fast-aging virus and some don’t. Some people live till they’re 60. Some live till they’re 1 day old. It’s a crap shoot. Oh, and if you live for one day, you grow up and live your whole life in that day, baby to old man.
This is where it gets a little confusing. The people of Alistair Kingdom have a King who’s looking for a “breeder” to help continue the Royal bloodline. Breeders don’t have “die early” blood. Breeders have a normal life expectancy. Which makes them rare. Problem is, this breeder chick they need is in Manhattan. How the King knows this, I’m not sure. But he does.
The king nominates half-day old soldier, Morrow, to retrieve the breeder. Yes, Morrow is half a day old. But he looks like he’s 30. And he somehow has the intelligence of a 30 year-old, which I didn’t quite understand. But Morrow, being so young and therefore easy to manipulate, believes everything the King tells him, and goes off to secure the Breeder.
Once he finds her (Margo) he pulls a “Midnight Run” and handcuffs her, then starts back home, Shrek-style. You gotta remember, this guy’s got to move. It’s not like he can head home tomorrow. He’ll be dead. On their way back, Margo tells Morrow that he’s been fed lies. That the King of Alistair is purposefully letting people die for his own gain. Instead of offering her up as a sex slave, he should take her to something called “The Program” – where scientists still try to save humanity.
Morrow is torn, but eventually decides against it. His allegiance is to the King. However, after he takes her home and sees how she’s treated, he realizes how wrong he was, and that he must save poor Margo, all before he dies at the end of the day.
So in last night’s newsletter, I brought up something called “The Burden of Investment.” And what it amounts to is, how much information is the writer forcing you to take in before you can enjoy their story? How many characters, worlds, rules – essentially, how much exposition do we have to sit through before we can be entertained?
The Mayfly had a very high burden of investment. There was a Kingdom. There was a past virus. This virus acts differently/randomly for each person. There are p-counts. There are breeders. There are uninfected breeders. There are “IDs.” There are CONS. There are CONS pretending to be IDs.
My brain was so fried after 20 pages, I was pointing right while saying left. The problem when you have such a high burden of investment, is you risk losing your reader. Because there’s so much coming at the reader, it’s hard for them to pick out the essential story beats that convey the central plot.
The story’s clear to the writer because he’s gone over it 300 times. We’ve gone over it one time. That’s what happened to me. I understood that Morrow was going after this girl in Manhattan, but I wasn’t exactly sure why (till later). That’s not to say the answer wasn’t there. It’s that it may have gotten lost inside all those other things the writer was trying to tell us.
I understand this is sci-fi and there’s going to be some world-building involved, but one of the first things I tell sci-fi writers is, “Don’t let things get too complicated. Don’t lose the reader by setting up and explaining ten thousand things right away.”
This may sound contradictory to what I wrote yesterday – when I said I wanted more depth in screenplays – but depth doesn’t mean over-complicating and over-populating and confusing your reader. That’s a different thing entirely, and the overwhelming amount of information being conveyed in the opening act of The Mayfly was too much for my little fried brain to handle.
It feels a little like Ryan and Todd came up with this idea and despite realizing it was always going to be a battle, they were going to do it anyway. Through hell or high water. And there’s a part of me that admires that stubbornness. I think it’s important to challenge yourselves as writers. But there’s another part of me that says, “Why torture yourself?”
I mean, there are still very basic things I’m miffed about that seem directly related to the concept. How do these people learn to be human in one day? How are they speaking fluent English by 9am? How do they learn how to fight or be a warrior? By noon, no less? Even in the most optimistic scenario, wouldn’t it take an adult a couple of days to learn how to walk? That was a huge problem for me, was that I never fully embraced the premise. That’s not to say it wasn’t interesting. It’s just one of those premises where you’re always aware of it, where you’re always wondering how they’re going to pull it off as opposed to just enjoying the story.
Did Ryan and Todd try to do too much? Did having a kingdom in the future along with all these complicated factions/rules take precedence over exploiting the theme at the very core of the concept – aging? That’s something I kept asking myself. This seemed to be more about continuing bloodlines than realizing how short life was. I mean aging’s brought up a few times (for example, Morrow’s never going to see a sunrise) but it’s through dialogue and it feels inconsequential. The theme of aging and time passing should have been explored a lot more thoroughly here.
The writers bring up comparisons to Children of Men, and one of the reasons that movie worked so well was that it was so simple. There wasn’t any complex mythology with Kings and Princes. That’s why I tell sci-fi writers that if they can keep their futuristic societies relatively close to current society, they should do it. Because then you don’t have to spend half your script explaining shit, like a whole new political system.
I’m really torn on this. Does The Mayfly really get better if you ditch all the Kingdom stuff? It seems like the story wouldn’t be burdened with so many limitations that way. Then again, some of the better character moments happen inside the Royal Family (I liked the complex family dynamics of creating an heir).
But yeah, the more I think about it, the more I believe there were too many ideas crammed into here. And it hurt the story. Morrow and Margo rarely got a chance to talk about anything real (life, love, happiness, loneliness, fear) because they were always focusing on p-counts and breeders and bloodlines and Cons. Once exposition takes precedence over character, you’re in trouble. But it’s often the price you pay when you try and over-mythologize a script.
Moving forward, I’d try to streamline the opening act. Strip out as much information as you can and make the world of Mayfly as easy to understand as possible. You do that – this script is going to be so much better.
Script link: The Mayfly
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Reader Reminders – When you’re writing one of these scripts with SO much information, you might want to repeat the protagonist goal for the audience a second time. I didn’t know why they were going after Margo here. The answer was in there somewhere, but it got lost inside all the information dumps. So it was nice when, later, Morrow reminds us that they’re getting Margo in order to continue the Royal bloodline. If your plot is simple, you won’t have to do this. It’s only required when your setup is packed with information and exposition.