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