Today I take a train ride to Confusionville. All aboard!

Genre: Sci-fi
Premise: (from writer) After witnessing UFOs and other strange phenomena, an insomniac on a cross country train trip suspects an alien invasion is underway, beginning with his fellow passengers, but when no one believes him, he must team with a fugitive stowaway to unravel the sinister agenda.
About: This is…. Amateur Week SMACKDOWN – 5 scripts, all of which have been pre-vetted by the SRF (Scriptshadow Reader Faithful), vie for the Top Prize, an official endorsement from whoever the guy is who runs this site. Good luck to all!
Writer: Brefni O’Rourke
Details: 105 pages

Night_Photography_Train_by_Shark1217

Holy Shozers.

Am I still alive? Am I living in the correct dimension?

I feel like my brain’s just been pulled out, sent to Planet Claxor, studied by several alien species, then placed back in my skull sideways.

I’m 83% sure that only 5% of what I just read made sense.

Okay, I have an assumption here and I may be totally off base, but I think a European writer wrote this. Why? Because it’s set on a train in America. And while trains are big in Europe, they’re dead in the U.S. I mean, it can cost twice as much and take 1000% as long to take a train from New York to LA. So people just fly. Whereas in Europe, train travel is much more evolved and makes much more economic sense. It’s part of the reason why Observation Car feels so weird. Nothing quite seems logical, or real for that matter. It’s like a daydream after drinking a case of Coke then crashing from the sugar high. You’re dehydrated. You’re confused. And your brain goes to Crazy Town.

Observation Car (we HAVE to change this title. I assumed it was about one of these new Google cars) is about a guy named Trevor who’s travelling on a train from the East Coast to the West Coast. He’s taking with him his lovely wife, and the two seem to be trying to escape something. It’s just not clear to us what. I often got the impression it wasn’t clear to THEM either. Every character here seems to be very… confused.

Anyway, on the first night of the train ride, while in the Observation Car portion (upper deck) of the train, Trevor sees a freaking UFO swoop down and nearly hit the train. What the! He starts barking to anyone who will listen, “Did you see that!?? Did you see those lights!!?” But no one knows what the heck he’s talking about, including his own wife.

That is until he randomly bumps into another passenger named Kowalski who says, “I saw that!” And the two begin considering all the alien possibilities. A little while later, Trevor falls asleep, only to wake up at some hospital, where he informs a doctor that he just had the strangest dream. He was travelling on a train with his wife. And it all felt so real!

Soon Trevor finds himself BACK on that train, where things get even crazier. Apparently, there’s a convict named Victor running around who the police want really badly. In fact, every time the train stops at a station, cops board to look for Victor. But these must be really incompetent cops because they can never seem to find the guy.

Then, while moseying down on one of the bottom floors, Trevor runs into Victor, who hands him a device and informs him that the world is being infested with aliens. They are the ones trying to capture him. However, this device keeps them from reading minds, so Trevor won’t have to worry about aliens stealing all his thoughts.

Back up to the Observation Car Trevor goes, where he sees the same UFO swoop down over the train car. But once again, nobody seems to be able to see this except for him (and Kowalski of course). To make things worse, all the policeman/agents looking for Victor on the train start focusing on him. There are references made to some government program Trevor may or may not have been a part of (it’s hard for him to remember and us to understand) but before long, it’s implied that Trevor may actually BE Victor.

What this means is that Trevor knows there are aliens and, for that reason, the aliens want to take him down. Or Trevor, in order to deal with this mind-numbing reality, has created this conspiracy involving all the people on this train, who aren’t actually real. Or Trevor may have been part of an experiment by aliens (and/or the government) and he’s escaped. Or he’s in a mental institution and is simply dreaming this all up. Got all that?

There are a lot of questions when one reads Observation Car, but I’m afraid not a lot of answers. I’m not going to lie. I don’t respond well to this type of material – the type where eighteen different realities exist at once and it’s up to the reader to determine which is real. Particularly when I don’t have the confidence that the writer knows the answers to all the questions he’s posed.

That’s the thing with this kind of script. They only work if the writer has total command over the page – if you get that confident feeling they know exactly what they’re doing. That’s not what I got from this. It felt too much like a writer making something up as he went along, and stopping about 9 drafts short of where he should’ve. This script just feels… shapeless. Government terrorist conspiracies and characters who are possibly dreaming and a UFO cover-up… Individually, all of these things make for good movies. But when thrown together in a blender, they feel like they’ve been thrown together in a blender.

Things looked bad from the beginning. From the overly on-the-nose title to the ill-advised use of an American train setting to the fact that I never even knew why my main character was on the train in the first place. A simple, “He’s just been given a new job in California,” would’ve helped.

If I were the writer, I would set this on a train in Europe. And I would get rid of all the conflicting conspiracy possibilities. Settle on one. Tell us more about our main character (I know nothing about Trevor). What’s his backstory? What are his flaws? Where is he going now and why? You gotta give us SOME SORT OF foundation – SOME facts – about our people involved, or else nothing will feel real, and we’ll just be confounded the whole time. Also, map out your story ahead of time. Outline it. It shouldn’t feel like every story twist was thought up on the spot. There has to be purpose to the choices. Each one can’t feel like the writer trying to write himself out of a corner.

Mysteries work best when there’s structure, logic, and purpose to them. Because I didn’t see any of that here, I turned on the script quickly. However, if you’re into shows like Dr. Who (which I only know from someone explaining it to me) or you’re a David Lynch fan, you may find more value in this than I did. It’s a trippy script, and some people don’t need the sort of story conventions I do to enjoy a film. So I’m hoping it finds some fans. But since I was so confused so much of the time, and since I never got that big payoff that tied all the confusion together, Observation Car just didn’t do it for me.

Script link: Observation Car

[x] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I think one of the most dangerous things a mystery writer can do is make everything up as he goes along. 99% of the time, it will feel to the reader like it was made up as it went along. Readers like writers who can craft a story, who can create a series of clever setups and payoffs that show a plan. It implies a writer who knows what he’s doing.

Why this script isn’t ready for a script sale: Lack of structure. More preparation (outlining) needs to be put in at the beginning of the writing process so things don’t feel so random. The writing here, like all the scripts this week so far, is solid. The sentences are well-written. They’re descriptive, clear. I don’t remember a single spelling mistake. That was never the problem. It was simply that the writer didn’t seem to know where he was going with the story, and that lack of planning implies someone who doesn’t understand the value of structure. In this business, structure is everything. Because you often won’t be writing for yourself. You’ll be writing for someone else. That’s where all the money is. And when these producers come to you and say, “What’s your plan for adapting this novel?” you need to be able to convey, from a structural (often 3-Act) standpoint, how you plan to wrangle in the story. You can’t just say, “Well, I fly by the seat-of-my-pants and just see where it goes.” They’ll have you out the door before you’re able to thank them for the opportunity.

  • jaehkim

    how much mystery is ok to add in the beginning? I can deal with one. two or more, and I start to check out.

    observation car felt too much like source code for me to get into, but I think the basic idea of a guy on a train with possible conspiracy could make for a great thriller. my least favorite part was when trevor left the train, or woke up, or whatever.

    just a ufo conspiracy would have been cool enough.

  • ThomasBrownen

    I think this writer has talent, and for the most part, can write well. The description usually made sense, and the script was a nice, easy read with 2-3 line description paragraphs and only about 100+ pages. (Exceptions: There was a “their” instead of “there” at the start of a paragraph on page 26, I think; I was confused by what the “Mazda” was on the first page when it had only been referred to generically as a “car”; and I wasn’t sure how that lady was making blankets–I figured out later she was knitting, but that wasn’t described at first, or if it was, I missed it / forgot it.)

    I liked how this script seemed to evoke all sorts of other stories: Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Source Code seemed to be the most similar, and that was sort of cool. But at the same time, I never felt like this story could do more than just play around with already-used concepts. It’s fine to use concepts that have been used before, but tie them together in a new way, or at least… tie them together! This script just kept spiraling further and further out of control, and that can be done, but I think such scripts work best if they are all tied up at the end.

    Consider Twelve Monkeys. There’s another story about a man who travels back and forth between two realities, and isn’t sure which one is real. But at the end, the story all comes together, and although there are still some ambiguities, we get all sorts of payoffs.

  • Jonathan Soens

    That’s an interesting note about the train making you think the writer must be European.

    I like the premise of a story taking place on a train, but I have to agree about trains not being that big a deal in America anymore. I’m not sure, in my whole life, I’ve known anyone who traveled cross-country on a train. Train rides these days seem reserved for shorter trips (commuting to and from work, or trips that are taken mostly for the scenery or nostalgia of it).

    Or is this set in some version of the future where America has embraced a modern rail system?

    • Acarl

      Couldn’t the writer simply give the protag a fear of flying to make the cross country train trip feasible?

      • Brian Lastname

        Bingo. That would make total sense.

        Also — and I’m certainly not saying that having a fear of flying makes one neurotic — but by adding this quirk to Trevor’s list of issues, it would strengthen the reader’s suspicion that he is, indeed, a skitzo, or crazy, or dreaming, or something along those lines.

      • MichaelWhatling

        He’s on the Do-Not-Fly list. Hey, it’s 2013 after all. In another reality, he’s considered a terrorist. Forget I wrote that. I think I have some writing to do.

    • Citizen M

      Maybe it’s set in some version of the future where gas is $20/gal. i.e. in about five years’ time:(

    • Brainiac138

      Traveling across the country isn’t that unusual. Quite a few of my family take the train from Chicago to Utah for Sundance.

  • martin_basrawy

    Trains not a big deal in America? Clearly you guys have forgotten Tony Scott’s masterpiece Unstoppable. ;)

    • J. Lawrence Head

      Cargo not passenger

    • Ken

      But Tony Scott was British and he obviously didn’t know trains aren’t used much in the USA…

    • J. Lawrence Head

      And the WRITER, Mark Bomback was American.

  • Ken

    But Source Code is good and it’s set on an American train, right?

    • MichaelWhatling

      It was supposed to be a commuter train to Chicago. (Although it was filmed in Montreal, Canada.)

      • Citizen M

        From memory it was mostly filmed in the studio with green screen scenery. They built a mockup of a carriage and mounted it on shaky mountings.

        • Ken

          But it is set on a train.

      • IgorWasTaken

        Back in the mid-90s, I was at Paramount for a ribbon-cutting of their new “New York” set. Garry Marshall spoke and said, “With this new set, now longer – when we need to shoot New York – will we have to travel to Canada.”

        • MichaelWhatling

          Well, on my street in the little town I come from outside of Montreal (Pop: 2,000), they filmed:

          Zelda (Natasha Richardson and Timothy Hutton)
          Love! Valour! Compassion! (Jason Alexander)
          The Score (Brando, Ed Norton, DeNiro)
          Gothika (Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr.)
          Taking Lives (Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland)

          and most recently:

          Red 2 (Everyone in Hollywood)

  • Howie428

    I haven’t read the script, but as a person who has travelled across the USA on Amtrak trains, I can confirm that they do exist. Not only that, but they also have “Observation Cars”, which are carriages with unassigned seats and glass ceilings so that the traveler can appreciate the full beauty of incredible landscapes these trains travel through.

  • SMH

    Man, it’s really disheartening that the SRF would vet something so scattered. Is the system rigged?

    • Acarl

      A lot of the posts in the ‘voting’ blog liked this script.

      • Sly

        Which begs to question once more, is the system rigged?

        • Will Vega

          Rig implies fraud. This was probably more a fumble than anything.

        • IgorWasTaken

          Yes.

        • Michael

          There are some kinks in the system, no doubt, but a lot of scripts get a thumbs up on the first 10 to 15 pages and as we all know, most scripts quickly fall apart after Act I. On the positive side, it’s proof that having a voice and good writing skills keeps you in the game.

      • Citizen M

        My guess is most of the votes were on the basis of the logline. The SS crowd favours sci-fi/action over drama/romcom.

    • JakeBarnes12

      Some commenters don’t yet have the experience to know how to evaluate a script from a technical standpoint.

      You’re on your first few scripts, you’re trying to work it out yourself — how are you supposed to know exactly how it all should fit together?

      So naturally these writers/readers don’t know what to look for in terms of overall structure, can’t see when a scene doesn’t have enough (or any!) conflict, that characters are too thin, are not being set up, etc.

      Yes, there’s room for subjective judgment, but a script like this, it’s pretty clear where the problems lie.

      Reading the first act of this one it’s obvious we don’t have enough character set up. That first conversation between Trevor and the guy driving the car (his brother? I forget, read it when it first showed up) is a prime example of a writer who doesn’t know he needs to be SETTING UP character and any relevant back story (in a subtle way, of course) straight out of the gate.

      Carson already mentioned not even knowing why he’s heading cross country. Instead we get a lot of vague talk.

      Also, levels of character passiveness in that first act are way too high. Contrast with “Source Code” where the protag is almost always acting.

      That’s the sense you get with scripts that aren’t quite ready for prime time — a lot of stuff is a little fuzzy, unfocused, and what that really means is the writer hasn’t really thought it through.

      Great scriptwriting employs Hemingway’s iceberg story. You only “show| the one eighth above the water, but you sure as hell know every detail of the seven eighths below because that’s what really informs your script.

      • IgorWasTaken

        I though Hemingway’s Iceberg theory was that for every Berg you see, there are 7 other Bergs that you don’t see, behind the scenes, busily running Hollywood.

  • Citizen M

    I started reading where I finished off a couple of weeks ago, on page 25. It was deja vu all over again. Trevor on a train eyeing suspicious-looking characters with some fugitive guy Victor appearing now and then, just like the first 25 pages. I think there’ll be more action in the audience than on the screen as people squirm in their seats.

    Not to mention, requiring an actor to sit down and look suspicious yet hold the audience attention for 35 pages is a a tough ask.

    Finally, some action — a UFO hovers over the train. And just as things get interesting, we get a looooong flashback/dream sequence/parallel reality/hallucination/no idea what it was, including flashbacks within the flashback, and I completely lost any grasp I might have had on what the story was about.

    I read all the way to the end hoping all would be revealed. If it was, I didn’t get it. This might be the most mystifying script I’ve read on SS, and I don’t mean that in a good way.

    There were too many scenes of passengers just sitting, glaring at each other. Too many inconsequential and repetitive conversations. No forward momentum unraveling the story, at my level of understanding anyway. I can only concur with Carson; this gets a great big WTF.

  • Bobby

    The concept has potential. Mystery’s kept me curious til page 40 but by that stage I felt like nothing was been payed off and so I as the reader wasn’t being rewarded, therefore I lost interest. A good lesson to remember with my own writing!

    However, my advice to the writer would be work on Trevor first and foremost. Like Carson, I knew nothing about him or what he was doing. I think the writer was going for a mysterious protag but there was not enough to keep me invested in his plight. There’s a great opportunity to create conflict between Trevor & Samantha so that if/when she turns on him, we really feel for him but can empathise with her decision also. This in itself creates mystery and keeps the audience torn. Get Trevor’s story succinct and drop it amongst the cool aliens on a train concept for maximum effect. In fact, there’s your new title…

    “Aliens On A Train!” See if Sam Jackson is available ;-)

    Lastly, I’d change the location to Europe too. Best of luck with it.

  • rsuddhi

    As confusing as this script was, I did enjoy the read. I just wished there were more clearcut answers to all the mysteries and different realities that were going on, because I really do think there could be something here. I think Brefni should focus in on one aspect, such as the conspiracy/dreaming experiments and whatnot, and blow it up, making sure to CLEARLY explain what’s going on and the whole purpose of the plot. Besides that, I thought that the script, though slower in pace, kept me wondering, and this made it quite a fast read. The writer just needs to work on the payoff, answering all the questions in a clear manner for the reader. So for me, it started out great, and I think it has a lot of potential, it just needs clearer explanations and answers to all the mysteries.

  • carsonreeves1

    That was a commuter train though. It was taking us from the suburbs to the city.

  • TruckDweller

    I’m surprised I didn’t see this mentioned yet. One of the things that made me check out early was the dialogue. This maybe part of what had Carson convinced that the writer is European – none of the dialogue felt natural. How often do brothers need to tell one another they’re brothers? And if they are brothers, why is Trevor so intrigued by Desmond defending his job? Why does Trevor wait to tell his wife (who is also lazily labeled in dialogue to let the reader in on their relationship) that he’d rather travel by car?

    I think a lot of this comes from not knowing your protagonist. If Trevor had an issue with his father, Desmond might say “This risk, going West? Dad would be proud.” And by Trevor’s reaction, we’d learn a lot about him (on top of Desmond not having to explicitly say they’re brothers). It’s worth taking a look at your dialogue and figuring out how much you can tell about the speaker and the listener. If the answer is only exactly what is said, your dialogue is likely too thin or too on the nose.

  • Michael

    Structure your script? You don’t need that. On-the-nose dialog? So what. Use quotes, voice over and flashbacks? Yeah baby, rules are made for breaking.

    Apparently the only rule that even an amateur won’t break is, when writing a character of Polish descent you must name them Kowalski.

  • ripleyy

    Backstory breaks mystery if there is any lack of it, so first off, Observation Car (or, as I like to call it, Observation What?) needs backstory. In fact, I checked out pretty early because I feel this story needs a completely fresh retake because – believe it or not – this has potential.

    Observation Car is the sort of script that runs on too many engines – while two competing storylines *do* work – it’s rare that four competing storylines that evolve around one person work – and in reality (no pun intended?) – they usually fail.

    First of all, if different realities is something the writer wants to work with, then I suggest backstory (no matter what, if this is a mystery, it needs it) because the more backstory you put into your story, the better it is. Two conflicting problems come with backstory: Number one, it wears you down, and you lose the spark pretty quickly, Number Two, you add too much into your screenplay.

    Backstory needs to be balanced so perfectly that you don’t add too much and that you don’t add too little and by doing so, your mystery pretty much writes itself like you’ve just picked up some sort of possessed version of Final Draft. Mysteries have to be so fucking focused that you could shoot the damn thing and hit a fly’s ass with it. You have to outline it so precisely that it works like clockwork.

    That said, O’Rourke needs to decide what he’s doing. *If* he wants to do multiple realities, then he needs to detail each and every version of that story.

    There are six versions here O’Rourke is working with: Trevor and the Aliens (which, admittedly could be be one and not two separate things), Trevor and the Government, Trevor as Victor and Trevor and the Mental Asylum.

    O’Rourke needs to decide what is more important and focus on it otherwise it’s just going to be a mess. As it stands, it is. I *understand* why O’Rourke wrote this. He gave us these things and we have to ultimately decide if Trevor is nuts.

    Excuse me, though, if I am wrong, but it seems as though these factors aren’t even related? If so, O’Rourke needs to blend these into one and the writer needs to cut two of them out.

    Trevor in the asylum, Trevor and his wife, Trevor sees an Alien.

    Those three things are so well in tune with each other that it works instead of this being Observ-ception.

    My Version:

    Trevor’s stint at the hospital has caused him to be a little out-of-touch, so his wife decides to take him to a trip to Europe. Trevor, though, is scared of flying, but more importantly, Trevor is secretly afraid that he’s going to lose touch with reality. Trevor’s so afraid of losing touch with it that he’s became almost obsessed to grab onto it and his wife (or girlfriend) seems to be the only anchor. On his journey to Europe, he’s became suspicious of a certain person who *he thinks* might be someone who he has seen repeatedly at his hospital – a person who he believes is following him. Basically, my idea is that you want Trevor’s loss of touch with reality to slip and to inject as much paranoia into him as possible which, thus, causes the story to evolve naturally instead of adding so much into it.

    I’m not saying that’s a good example but basically, with backstory, and with mystery, and without over-doing it, you can write something that evolves naturally without forcing it.

  • rl1800

    I love Silver Streak, too, but that was 1976. Fact is, nobody really takes cross country trips on trains anymore in the US. Think it ended when Seagal did Under Siege 2: Dark Territory.

    • MichaelWhatling

      In Canada, a cross country train trip is considered something quintessentially Canadian. Even a right-of-passage. Funny how different cultures have different perceptions of something as mundane as a train.

    • UrbaneGhoul

      Under Siege 2, another great movie. And there was a train in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I guess if this was on the road, it would be like that Seth Rogen alien movie a few years ago and if it’s a plane, Twilight Zone’s Nightmare at 20,000 feet. So I think a train is a decent setting.

  • klmn

    WRONG. Best train movie ever is Emperor of the North aka Emperor of the North Pole.

  • Michael

    As far as comedies go you may be right, but Some Like It Hot has some good fun on a train. If I had to pick a train movie to watch, The Train with Burt Lancaster would be the top of my list, closely followed by Von Ryan’s Express with Frank Sinatra and Runaway Train with Jon Voight.

  • MichaelWhatling

    “Silver Streak” was also shot in Canada. Best train movie: “Murder on the Orient Express.”

  • denisniel

    feels just like right up my alley

  • Gregory Mandarano

    Other than more conflict and all the other suggestions here, this script can use a new beginning. It should start with scenes that have action and set up the mystery boxes and introduce the world before the train. Whether thats the dude having second.thoughts about his second electric shock treatment and wounding two orderlies before being taken down, or men in black abducting people who were abducted by aliens or something is up to the writer.

  • IgorWasTaken

    GC, just so ya know, that’s a quip about Hemingway.

    It’s also a bankshot quip aimed at Mr. Barnes for invoking Hemingway, and for how he invoked him. “Great scriptwriting employs…” Ugh.

  • Midnight Luck

    “You can’t just say, “Well, I fly by the seat-of-my-pants and just see where it goes.” They’ll have you out the door before you’re able to thank them for the opportunity.”

    ….. Unless you are Charlie Kaufman…..

    I am sure they had no idea how he would adapt THE ORCHID THIEF, I think he made it up as he went, only taking bits from the book, and then fine tuned it like crazy.

  • James Inez

    I like how it alludes to a lot of the conspiracies and truths going on in America right now. But I do also feel that it is a little too convoluted. I think if it was written a little more comprehensible, it would be really something. The whole time I was afraid it was going to go the route of Shutter Island and make the protagonist the one with the problems and not the world around him (which I think makes people subconsciously doubt themselves (“are the problems all in my head?” (some of them of course are, but not all of them. :P ))).
    [x]worth the read