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Genre: Contained Thriller
Premise: A group of masked thugs break into a morgue, demanding access to a body that contains evidence to a crime they recently committed.
About: Information on this one is mixed but I believe it originally went wide in 2010 and then finally ended up selling (possibly after a few rewrites) at the end of 2011. David Lesser, the writer, has been around for a long time, working mainly in TV. He wrote for “Who’s The Boss,” and wrote episodes for “Coach” and “Sabrina The Teenage Witch.”
Writer: David Lesser
Details: 106 pages – undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
I guess what happens when you get into the later stages of your screenwriting career is you stop writing spec scripts. You usually have a family, children, people who depend on you. So you don’t have the luxury of spending those precious few hours each day on writing something that doesn’t guarantee a paycheck. Instead, you go where the money is. And the money is in a steady paying TV job or assignment work.
For that reason, it’s always cool to see a veteran writer still writing specs – still taking a shot. And to that end, I love what Lesser has done here. He’s come up with a cool little idea with plenty of conflict and a cheap production tag.
With that said, Bodies at Rest is one of those screenplays that exists in the floating netherworld of spec sales. It’s good enough to get purchased, but something’s missing from making it that break out “talked about” screenplay. Sometimes I bring up the notion that certain stories (namely dramas and thrillers) need TEETH. They need to bite down on you, wrestle you, make you feel like you’re not going to get away. They need to feel DANGEROUS. That’s how I felt yesterday. I felt like The Stanford Prison Experiment dug its teeth into me and wouldn’t let go. With this script, I feel more like the characters are blowing bubbles at me. They’re winking and smiling when the cameras aren’t looking. Nobody ever feels threatening or threatened. For that reason, it was hard to become invested.
For example, it seemed like over a dozen times the villain said to our hero, “If you try and screw around ONE MORE TIME I’m going to [some clever saying about the method in which he was going to kill him].” But that moment never came. Once you get past 3 empty threats, it’s hard to take anything the villain says seriously. The irony is that in The Stanford Prison Experiment, we knew with 100% certainty that those characters were safe – that nothing terrible was ever going to happen to them. And yet I was a thousand times more terrified for them than I was the characters in Bodies At Rest. And that’s because that script had TEETH.
Anyway, Bodies At Rest follows the beautiful Lia and the mischievously handsome Abe. Both of them work together at the morgue, tearing up dead bodies and trying to figure out how they died. The two have a bit of a romance going, but Lia wants more out of it than Abe, and that causes just the slightest bit of friction between the two. She’s ready to take the next step. He’s not.
Well that white picket fence Lia’s so obsessed with is about to get mowed down, because three armed men in masks burst into the morgue, demanding to see a woman’s body. Now you’d think our body carvers would be terrified by this development. I mean, it’s not every night that someone breaks into a morgue and threatens to kill you. But for whatever reason, our heroic duo is as calm as the dead body lying on the table in front of them.
We soon learn that the trio wants a bullet taken out of a female body. Abe, who is somehow more relaxed now than he was when Lia was asking for a commitment, shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “Sure, why not?” He goes in the back room to extract the bullet from the woman. The thug watching him is so grossed out, he can’t look. Abe gives the man his bullet and the group leaves.
Once they go, Abe reveals to Lia that he didn’t give the men the bullet they were looking for. He extracted a bullet out of a different female body. Now he wants to find out why the men wanted that body. Hmmm. So instead of calling the cops, Abe wants to play Sherlock Holmes? Of course, the thugs realize that they’ve been had and charge back into the morgue all over again, demanding the REAL bullet.
What follows is a psychological game of cat and mouse as Casual Abe leads the thugs on and the thugs keep catching on, menacingly threatening Abe each time but never actually doing anything about it. In the end, when they’ve really truly honestly had enough of Abe’s antics, it looks like they’re REALLY going to kill him. Casual Abe will then have to come up with one last trick to get he and Lia out of this mess.
So I’ve already given you my main problems with the script. But here’s the thing I’m stumped over. There are certain movies where the main character is essentially a super-hero. He’s not afraid of anything because he knows he’s more powerful than everyone else. Many of these movies are popular (Mission Impossible, James Bond). But isn’t it more interesting when the main character actually exhibits fear? When he (and we) feel like there’s a possibility that he can be beaten/defeated/killed?
Because if we’re not worried that anything’s going to happen to our protagonist, then what are the stakes? What’s dramatically interesting about a person who can’t be hurt? That was my issue with Abe. He just seemed WAY too sure of himself and was never once afraid. Since he wasn’t afraid, I wasn’t afraid. And if I’m not afraid, I’m not going to be into the movie.
Still, I admit this kind of character works in some scenarios. One of my favorite characters of all time, Wesley from The Princess Bride, is this kind of character. He always knew he was going to come out okay and so did we. So what’s the difference here? Why does Wesley work and Abe not work? Or do we only accept these characters in larger than life scenarios?
This same approach was extended over to Lia. There’s a moment early on, when the thugs send Abe off to extract the bullet, and Lia is left standing there with the men. What is the first thing she says to them? “Do you mind if I get back to work?”
Uh, wait a minute. What did you just say?
DO YOU MIND IF I GET BACK TO WORK?????
Oh yeah, that would definitely be my reaction if someone was pointing a gun to my head. “Hey guys? I know you want to kill me n’stuff but I REALLY need to get this blog entry up. If you can just hang out for a moment? There’s food in the fridge. Believe me, if you knew Grendl, you’d know why I need to do this pronto.”
Anyway, this gets to the heart of why the script didn’t work for me. Nobody acted like people would really act in this situation. For example, when one of the bad guys is about to rape Lia, she tells him she’s into weird kinky sexual shit and asks if she can spit on him. The thug answers “yes” for God knows what reason and she asks him to hold out his hands. He does, she spits on them, and then kicks him backwards into a freezer where his wet hands get stuck on the frozen doors. This, apparently, was her plan all along. I mean let’s be serious for a second. Is this in any way believable?
My philosophy is always to put yourself in your character’s shoes. Ask the question, “What would I do if I were in this situation?” If your characters are doing something completely different from that, you better have a great reason for why. And I couldn’t find that reason with Bodies At Rest.
[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I think it’s important that the audience FEARS your villain. If we don’t fear the villain, there’s a lack of tension and uncertainty in the script that’s hard to make up for. Star Wars has a great moment early on when Darth Vader holds a rebel soldier up off the ground by his neck, choking him to death. So right away, I’m scared of Darth Vader. But it’s not just that he killed someone (the villain in Bodies at Rest kills a few people). It’s the manner in which he does it. It’s cold, it’s heartless, it’s brutal. I just never got that feeling here from the villain. He was never very frightening.
Last week we talked about establishing conflict through characters, relationships, and external forces. During the article, I casually mentioned the importance of conflict within scenes as well. Many of you expressed interest in hearing more about that, so I decided to expand my conflict ramblings to a second week.
Indeed, virtually every scene in your screenplay should have some element of conflict if it’s going to entertain an audience. I cannot stress this enough. One of the biggest mistakes I see in screenplays is boring scenes. Scenes that only exist for characters to spout exposition, to reveal backstory, or to wax philosophic. I’ve referred to these scenes before as “scenes of death.” The quickest way to make these scenes interesting is to add conflict.
The basis for all conflict comes from an imbalance – two forces opposed to one another (wanting different things), or even one force wanting something it can’t have. Usually these forces are represented by your characters. But they can be external as well (if our character is racing towards the airport to tell his girlfriend he loves her, the opposing force might be a traffic jam). So when you sit down to write a scene, you’re always looking to create that imbalance, that unresolved issue, to add an entertainment factor to the sequence.
Having said that, it should be noted that in rare circumstances, you can get away with no conflict. For example, in order for the scene in Notting Hill to work where Anna invites William up to her hotel only to find her boyfriend there (a scene heavy with conflict), we needed a few scenes with the two having a great time together. So eliminating the conflict in those previous scenes actually made the conflict stronger in this one. So as long as you have a purpose for not using conflict, it’s okay (however I would always err on the side of adding conflict).
In true Scriptshadow form, I’ve decided to highlight 10 movies and look at how they create conflict within their scenes. This should give you a clearer picture on how to apply conflict to scenes in your own screenplays.
Meet The Parents
Scene: The Dinner Scene
Conflict: The conflict here is simple. Greg wants to impress Jack so he’ll approve of him marrying his daughter. Jack wants to expose Greg as the inadequate choice for his daughter that he is (two opposing forces – a clear imbalance). This is a great reminder that the best conflict has usually been set up beforehand. So we’ve already established in Greg’s earlier scenes how important getting married to Jack’s daughter is (testing his proposal on one of his patients, organizing her preschool class to help him propose). We’ve also established how reluctant Jack is to accept Greg (when he first shows up, Jack disagrees with him on almost everything). This is the most basic application of conflict in a scene, but as you can see, even the most basic conflict can make a scene highly entertaining.
The Sixth Sense
Scene: Malcolm tries to get Cole to talk to him.
Conflict: This is a very understated scene, but the conflict is well-crafted. Malcolm wants Cole to trust him. Cole is resistant to trusting Malcolm. Again, a simple imbalance. One person wants one thing. Another person wants the opposite. Night cleverly draws the scene out by building a game around it – if Malcolm guesses something right about Cole, he has to take a step forward. If he guesses wrong, Cole gets to take a step back. So you actually feel the conflict with every question.
Back To The Future
Scene: Marty asks Doc to get him back to the future.
Conflict: Once Marty convinces 1950s Doc that he’s from the future, Doc lets him inside. Now at this point, the two are on the same page. They both want to get Marty back to the future. So there’s no conflict between the characters. Instead, the conflict comes from the fact that Doc doesn’t believe it’s possible. So again, two forces are colliding with one another and need to be resolved. At the end of the scene, they realize that the lightning can send him back to the future, and the conflict is resolved (sometimes conflict will be resolved by the end of a scene and sometimes not – it depends on the story and what you’re trying to do).
Scene: Multiple scenes.
Conflict: One of the reasons Rocky is so great is because almost every single scene is packed with conflict. Whether it’s Rocky trying to get a resistant Adrian to go out with him. Whether it’s Rocky getting kicked out of his gym. Whether it’s Mick begging Rocky to let him coach him. Whether it’s his constant clashes with Paulie (and his destructive behavior). Whether it’s him telling a resistant girl to stop hanging around thugs and do something with her life. If you want to know how to create conflict within scenes, pop this movie in your DVD player right now.
Scene: Birthday scene.
Conflict: In this scene, the army men sneak down to Andy’s birthday to report what the new presents are. The conflict stems from trying to report the presents without getting caught. Remember, if it didn’t matter whether the army men were discovered or not, there would be no conflict (and therefore no drama) in this scene. The conflict comes from the fact that if they’re seen, they’re screwed. This is actually one of the reasons the Toy Story franchise is so successful. Because nearly every scene is built around this imbalance. The toys have to pretend to be inanimate whenever humans are around. That means every scene is packed with conflict.
Scene: Deli scene
Conflict: In this famous scene, the conflict comes from the fact that everything in The Ram’s life is falling apart – his health, his family, his profession – and the last place he wants to be is at his $10 an hour deli job. So there’s conflict within the character before the scene even begins. But when his boss starts getting on his nerves, when customers start pushing him, when someone recognizes him, he starts losing it. Those multiple forces pushing up against him are the conflict that makes this scene so great. It’s also another reminder that the best conflict is usually set up ahead of time. This scene doesn’t work if it’s the first scene in the movie. It works because we’ve experienced the downfall of this character. We know what he’s been through. Therefore we understand why he doesn’t want to be here.
Scene: Vivian comes back to his hotel.
Conflict: In this scene, Edward picks up Vivian on the streets and brings her back to his hotel. I specifically picked this scene because it’s a scene that amateur writers always screw up. What’s the purpose of this scene? The purpose is for these two characters to get to know each other. A very common scene in a romantic comedy or any “guy meets girl” movie. However, bad writers will take this scene and try to fill it with a bunch of clever dialogue, exposition, and backstory. If you go that route, at best you’ll have an average scene, and more likely a terrible one. Here’s the thing. This scene *does* have clever dialogue, exposition, and back story. So then why does it work? Because the writer added an element of conflict. Edward wants to talk whereas Vivian wants to get down to business. He wants to get to know her. She wants to collect her money and run. So there’s this little dance going on during the scene – the two characters wanting different things – that allows the writer to slip in clever dialogue, exposition, and backstory, without us realizing it. We’re so entertained/distracted by that dance, that all the story machinations slip under the radar. This is why conflict is so powerful. The right dose can turn an otherwise boring scene into an entertaining one.
The Other Guys
Scenes: All of them.
Conflict: One of the easiest genres to write conflict in is the buddy comedy. That’s because every single scene will have your characters clashing with each other. This is why The Hangover was so popular. This is why Rush Hour was so big. The conflict is definitely artificial, however because it’s a comedy, it works. The trick with these films is to vary the conflict from scene to scene so we don’t tire of it. For example, in an early scene at the office, Mark Wahlberg yells at Will Ferrell for being a pussy. It’s an intense scene with a lot of conflict. However later on, when Mark has dinner with Will’s wife, the conflict is more subtle. Mark keeps bothering him about the fact that there’s no way this could really be his wife. Not every scene needs to be nuclear charged with conflict. You need to mix it up just like you need to mix up any aspect of your screenplay.
Scene: Jack Rabbit Slims
Conflict: The uninitiated screenwriter will look at this scene between Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace and think it’s just a bunch of cool dialogue. Don’t be fooled. This scene’s awesomeness is based entirely on its conflict. Vincent Vega wants something he can’t have – Mia Wallace. Why? Because Mia Wallace is the wife of his boss. What’s so great about this scene though is how hard Tarantino pushes the conflict. If all that was going on here was Vincent wanting Mia, there would be conflict, but not that much. It’s the fact that Mia is throwing herself at him that’s making this so difficult. The more tempted Vincent is, the more difficult his choice becomes. Another lesson here is that the conflict doesn’t only have to come from the characters inside the scene. It’s not Mia who doesn’t want Vincent here. It’s her husband who’s preventing her from being with Vincent. So the conflict in this scene is a little trickier than normal, but it shows that if you think outside the box, you can find conflict through other avenues.
No Country For Old Men
Scene: Anton and the gas station attendant.
Conflict: In this scene, which is probably one of the best scenes of the last decade, Anton pays for gas but gets annoyed when the attendant makes an offhanded remark about where he’s from. The conflict here comes from two places. The first is through dramatic irony. We know how dangerous Anton is. We know what he’s capable of. So we fear what he’s going to do to this man. Dramatic irony is basically conflict between the character and the audience member. It’s usually us not wanting a character to do something. So the imbalance has actually broken the fourth wall. The other conflict here is basic. Anton refuses to let the attendant off for anything he says. Every sentence is shot back in his face. The longer the conversation goes, the more dangerous (and more conflict filled) the scene becomes.
The idea is you want to look at every scene and ask the question, “Where is the conflict here?” Where are the opposing forces? Where is the imbalance? If everything is too easy for the characters in your screenplay – if everybody agrees on everything or the characters don’t face any resistance – there’s a good chance your scene is boring. There are instances where it’s okay (such as the Notting Hill example) but for the most part, you want some conflict in your scene. So get back to that script you’re working on and start making all those scenes more interesting by adding conflict. Good luck! :-)
We’re back for Day 4 of Star Wars Week. To find out more, head back to Monday’s review of The Empire Strikes Back.
Premise: (from IMDB) Anakin Skywalker shares a forbidden romance with Padmé Amidala while his teacher, Obi-Wan Kenobi, makes an investigation of a separatist assassination attempt on Padmé which leads to the discovery of a secret Republican clone army.
About: Lucas was a little shaken by the response to his screenplay for The Phantom Menace, so was reluctant to write Attack Of The Clones. He ended up writing a couple of drafts and then gave off the final draft to Jonathan Hales, a writer on Young Indiana Jones, who had little experience writing theatrical films. Hales finished his draft a week before production began.
Writers: George Lucas and Jonathan Hales (story by George Lucas)
Of the three prequels, Attack Of The Clones probably had the best chance of becoming a real movie. There’s definitely a lot more going on here than in Menace. You have an assassination attempt. You have a much more interesting dynamic in your Jedi pairing. The set pieces are more interesting. But much like The Phantom Menace, there’s too much junk you have to sift through to find the gems. By far, the biggest fault of the screenplay is its treatment of its love story. If you ever plan to write a love story, watch this movie to see how not to do it. Lucas has referenced numerous times how this storyline was his “Titanic.” And that’s a great place to start because I want to show you just how inferior this love story is to Titanic.
Probably more important than what happens during the love story, is how you set up that love story. Your job as a screenwriter is to set up a situation that mines the most drama out of the relationship. In Titanic, we have a poor drifter falling for one of the richest women on the ship, who also happens to be engaged – and oh, they’re on a ship that will eventually sink and kill most of the people on it. I can safely say that’s a situation that will bring out a lot of drama. Now let’s look at Attack Of The Clones. Anakin and Amidala are told to go hide out on her planet.
I want you to think about that for a second. Hiding out on a planet. There is no goal here. There’s no engine driving the story thread. There’s nobody after these two. There is no urgency. There are no stakes. You’re simply putting two characters in an isolated location and asking them to sit and wait. Is there any drama to mine from that situation? No. This means that before our characters have a single conversation, their love story is doomed. There is no way for it to be interesting. Contrast this with The Empire Strikes Back, where the entire love story takes place on the run with our characters constantly in danger. That’s how you want your love story unraveling.
Next up is the dialogue. This is a huge mistake that a lot of amateur screenwriters make. They believe that if the characters are telling each other that they love each other, that the audience will by association feel that love. Wrong. Actually, the opposite is true. We feel love through actions. We feel love through subtext. The time when we least feel love is when two characters are professing it to each other (unless we’re at the end of the movie and you’ve earned that moment).
One of the best ways to convey love is through subtext. Characters are saying one thing but they really mean something else. The best example of this is in The Empire Strikes Back. During that movie, Han and Leia are arguing with each other nonstop. Yet we can feel the desire each has for the other in every argument. Even when Han is directly trying to make a move on Leia, he does it by challenging her. He’s constantly telling her that she likes him, which is far more interesting than if he would’ve sat her down and professed his love for her, which is exactly how all of the love scenes happen in Clones.
Another thing you need with any good love story is conflict. You need things constantly trying to tear your leads apart. Whether it be something between them, an outside force, a battle from within the individual. The more things you can use to tear your lovers away from each other, the more those characters have to fight to be with each other, and those actions will translate over to the audience as love. So look at all the things keeping Jack and Rose apart on Titanic. First they’re from different classes. A poor kid like Jack just can’t be with a rich woman like Rose. It doesn’t happen today and it definitely never happened back then. Also, Rose is engaged. Even if the class thing weren’t an issue, she’s getting married. Also important to note is how much is at stake with that marriage. Rose’s mom needs her to marry to save their financially crumbling family. The two are also constantly being chased by her fiancé’s Henchman. And on top of all that, they’re on a doomed ship, a ship that will sink and likely kill one of the people in the relationship. I mean if you want to talk about things that are trying to rip a couple apart, all you have to do is watch this movie.
Let’s compare that to all the things keeping Anakin and Amidala apart in Attack Of The Clones.
(insert long silence here).
I mean I guess if you were to push me on it, I could argue that there’s something about how Jedi’s are not allowed to love. That, to me, is the only element of conflict keeping these two apart. But the thing is, there are no explained consequences to this conflict. It’s never explored in anything other than words. And Lucas never commits to it. As we’ll see in the next film, their “secret romance” has Anakin sleeping over at her apartment every night. Yeah, they’re trying really hard to keep this a secret. This leaves us with absolutely zero conflict in any of their scenes, putting all the heavy lifting on the dialogue, and since the dialogue is mostly Anakin professing his love for Amidala, this storyline turns out to be one of the worst love stories ever put to film.
This also highlights something I brought up yesterday – the scene of death. Every single scene on Naboo between these two characters is a scene of death. The characters are either talking about their feelings or talking about politics. You will never be able to make those scenes interesting because, again, there’s nothing else going on in the scene and none of these scenes are pushing the story forward.
These scenes of death are everywhere if you look for them. Remember, when you’re writing a story and trying to convey any sort of character development, you want to show and not tell. Now George does a pretty poor job of this in an early scene with Obi-Wan and Anakin, but he does do it. After Obi-Wan and Anakin chase an alien into a bar, the two get into a series of disagreements on how to handle the matter. It’s sloppy and it’s on the nose, but at least we’re showing their problems and not telling the audience their problems.
However, a few scenes later, we’re up with Amidala in her apartment and the entire scene is dedicated to Anakin telling Amidala how he feels about Obi-Wan. This scene of death (two people talking about another person) is violating three screenwriting rules at the same time. First of all, it’s not pushing the story forward at all and therefore is unnecessary. Second, it’s telling us and not showing us. And third, it’s repeating information we already know. Lucas has given us a few scenes now that have shown us that Anakin has a problem with Obi-Wan’s authority. This is the kind of mistake a screenwriter who is writing their first screenplay would make. It’s that bad.
As for the structure of the screenplay, all you need to do is compare it to Empire to see why it fails so spectacularly. Remember how in that movie, we were cutting back and forth between Han being chased and Luke training to become a Jedi? In this movie, the two threads we’re cutting back and forth between are a love story on a planet where there’s no urgency whatsoever, and a procedural where Obi-Wan plays detective, a sequence that also has little urgency. That means instead of two threads with high horsepower story engines, we have one thread with just a tiny bit of horsepower. No wonder the movie feels so slow.
The funny thing is, there’s only a single interesting scene from a screenwriting perspective in the entire movie. And the reason for this is probably that Lucas ran into it by accident. Good screenwriters deliberately structure their screenplays to create these scenes. Bad screenwriters stumble upon them luckily every once in a while, wondering why they’re the only scenes that feel right in their script. The scene in question is when Obi-Wan meets Jango Fett in his apartment. This scene is a good one because there’s so much subtext at play – one of the few times in the prequels that we actually have subtext. Obi-Wan suspects that Jango Fett is the one who tried to assassinate Amidala. Jango Fett knows that Obi-Wan is on to him but must act aloof. This is what creates the subtext. The two are having a somewhat normal conversation, but both are hiding some critical pieces of information that they know about the other.
The only things that actually work in the film are things that were born out of the original films. We’re excited to see Yoda fight for the first time. We’re excited to see a bunch of Jedi’s take on another Army. We’re excited to see Obi-Wan battle Jango Fett. But none of those things are generated through the dramatic components of this particular story. We enjoy them based on nostalgia. Attack Of The Clones is a little better than The Phantom Menace but not enough to garner a better rating.
[x] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: What I’m realizing with these prequels, especially after yesterday, is that there’s no urgency to them whatsoever. I mean look at this stretch of four scenes early in the movie. We have a scene of the Jedi Council telling our characters what to do. We have a scene where Sam Jackson and Obi-Wan and Yoda discuss how Jedi’s have become arrogant (scene of death). We have that scene where Anakin and Amidala talk about how Obi-Wan is mean (scene of death). And we have a goodbye scene at the ship station with Obi-Wan and Amidala (scene of death). That’s four scenes in a row where the only thing that happens is the Jedis order Anakin to protect Amidala. There are no story engines driving these scenes whatsoever. Everything just sits there. Go watch the first act of Empire. After the 15 minute “Luke kidnapped by Wampa” sequence, we get a fun little scene where the crew jokes around about what happened, and then the very next scene they find out the Empire has spotted them, beginning the next sequence where they have to escape the planet. If Lucas would’ve wrote that sequence? He probably would have added three or four scenes with Han and Leia talking to each other, with Han and Luke talking to each other, and God knows who else talking to each other. When people say to keep your story moving, this is what they mean. They mean don’t write all these unnecessary scenes that you don’t need.
It’s going to be a great week here at Scriptshadow. We have an Impressive script and a new Top 25 script. In fact, I might even make it a Top 10 script. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I read it. So, is today that script? Read on to find out…
Premise: An FBI agent whose family life is falling apart is tasked with escorting an eccentric bank robber to jail.
About: Moving Elliott sold to Universal Pictures back in 2001 for mid six figures and started the careers of Glenn German and Adam Rodgers, who went on to sell a few more scripts. Unfortunately, those careers never extended into produced credit territory, which is a shame since this script is so good. In fact, even though this script was sold back in 2001, its greatest attribute is that it’s timeless (note to writers: the more timeless your story is, the longer its shelf life). You could still shoot this movie today as written. I really hope somebody takes that chance because this script does not deserve to be lost in development hell. Here is an interview that the writers did back in 2005.
Writers: Glenn German and Adam Rodgers
Details: 118 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
Elliott Jenkins, an African-American armored truck driver, is picking up some moolah from the bank with his menacing partner Donald Griggs. Elliott is a unique guy. He can be laid back, he can be intense, he can play the dumbest guy in the room, he can play the smartest guy in the room. He’s eccentric. A little off center. And all in all, a happy go lucky honest kind of dude. So it’s a little strange then, as he and Griggs load the money onto the truck, that a second armored truck pulls up.
Oops. Maybe Elliott and Griggs aren’t so honest after all. After a few distracting words with the second crew, our thieves hightail it out of there.
Halfway across town we meet Jack Traylor. Jack is an FBI agent whose family life is going to shit. His wife has left him and wants full custody of his two children, his young son and teenage daughter. These are the only two things Jack has left in his life, so he’s going to do everything he can to hold on to them. Unfortunately, with the bills piling up and the neverending demands of being an FBI agent, the two worlds keep crashing into each other, and lately Jack has found himself in too many situations where his kids have been put in danger, not the kind of facts you want showing up at a custody hearing.
Anyway, while driving his kids home for the day, Jack runs into that armored truck that Griggs and Elliott are driving and becomes suspicious. He follows them into a Long John Silvers, and the next thing you know Griggs is opening fire on him and his daughter. Jack is able to nab Elliott but Griggs escapes.
Back at headquarters, Jack gets reamed out for yet again mixing family with work, and as punishment, his boss wants him to escort Elliott across town to jail tomorrow. Jack pleads with his boss to use somebody else because his custody hearing is tomorrow but his boss doesn’t give a shit. In fact, he’s ready to take Jack’s badge right now. Not screwing this up may be the last chance for Jack to keep his job.
So Jack agrees to do it, but there’s no way he’s losing his kids, so he decides – against all reason – to do it all. After picking up Elliott, the first place he goes is to the bank to refinance his mortgage so he can keep his house (and therefore keep his kids). What he quickly finds out though, is that Elliott is not the easiest guy to shut up, and that wherever he goes, Elliott always has an opinion. Sometimes he helps him and sometimes he doesn’t, but he’s always got advice for Jack.
Complicating things is that Griggs is still out there and has a huge hard-on for finding Elliott. As the day goes on, Jack starts putting together the pieces, and realizes that something is off. Why would two guys who just stole hundreds of thousands of dollars stop at a Long John Silver’s anyway? Why did Griggs fight for his life while Elliott practically begged to get caught? And why does Griggs keep chasing Elliott? Jack suspects that he may be part of a bigger plan. The problem is that he’s so consumed with keeping his family together that he doesn’t have time to figure that plan out.
This script had so many things going for it. It had a tight urgent easy-to-understand goal. It had tons of obstacles that got in the way of that goal. It had two compelling main characters. It had conflict at the center of that pairing. It had a character with a ton to lose (high-stakes). It had a solid villain in Griggs, who was always on their tail. It had enough setups and payoffs to make Back to the Future jealous. It had a great sense of humor. And what put it over-the-top was that it had an intriguing mystery.
If this were just some movie about a guy escorting another guy across town, it would have been average at best. But where this script elevates itself is when Jack realizes that there might be more going on here. When we realize that Elliott could have a bigger goal in play, and that getting escorted was all part of a bigger plan, that’s when I knew I was reading something special.
And you know, I actually loved all the family stuff too, which I normally don’t. These guys have somehow managed to write a family movie without falling into that safe PG territory. The Disney promotional team would have a heart attack combing through this, but I think that’s what makes it work. It’s been a long time since we’ve infused a traditionally R-rated genre with a family theme. But these guys have done it, and done it well.
But these scripts don’t work unless the central relationship works. And the key to making that central relationship work is to put the two characters as far apart as you can on the spectrum, and then over the course of the movie, get them to a place where they understand each other. Seeing two people who weren’t meant to like each other eventually like each other is one of the more satisfying threads you’ll find in a film – if it’s done well. And like everything else in the script, it’s done well.
I also want to highlight Moving Elliott for doing something that another recently reviewed screenplay did not do. My big problem with that script (amateur entry “Inhuman Resources“) was that it was too thin. There were no subplots. It just barreled through to the end, never stopping to develop anything other than the main plot and the pursuit of the main goal.
Moving Elliott is an example of how to populate your screenplay with subplots. Instead of just barreling towards the jail, we have the custody hearing, we have the house foreclosure, we have a project he has to get to his son at school, we have his daughter secretly dating a guy behind his back, we have the mystery behind Elliott getting caught so easily. We have the pursuit by Griggs. That’s what’s so awesome about this screenplay. It’s populated with so many little subplots and extra things that a simple movie about transferring a convict becomes a complicated story about an FBI agent trying to make it through the day with his family intact. I can’t stress this enough. If you have ever wondered about how to integrate subplots into your script, check out this screenplay. It’s a master class.
However, this is not the Top 25 script. Why? A few minor reasons. The dialogue wasn’t punchy enough for this kind of movie. It’s almost there. But this is the kind of film that needs those memorable one-liners that people will be quoting for weeks after leaving the theater. And right now it doesn’t have them.
I also thought the opening scene was more confusing than clever. This may sound like nitpicking but the introduction of one of your main characters is one of the most important scenes in the entire movie. The idea here is that Elliott is supposed to be clever and intelligent – that plays out through the rest of the story. But the way he handles the second armored truck interrupting their pickup, is akin to something a 12-year-old would come up with. He babbles some stock nonsense about calling the guy’s supervisor if he mentions this to anyone, and for no other reason than that this is a movie, the guy goes along with it. If they could’ve improved this scene so that Elliott comes off as the clever “smartest guy in the room” he’s supposed to come off as, that would have sold him as the person he needs to be.
Other than that, I loved this. I don’t know if Universal still has the property. But if they do, they need to dig it up right now and take another look at it. Cause this script does not deserve to be collecting dust. It could be a great film.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: When you sell that first script, you haven’t made it. I think that’s terrifying to hear because we’re sold on this whole idea that selling a script is the endpoint. It’s the moment when we’ve officially “made it.” But if you look at the career of these guys, they wrote a great script here – and yet they still don’t have a theatrical credit to their names. That’s baffling to me but it’s far from unique. There are a lot of really good writers who still struggle in Hollywood purgatory. It’s a great reminder that once you sell that first script, you need to fight and claw and write and work and put everything you’ve got into keeping it going. Because one of the sad realities is that if you don’t keep moving up that ladder in those first 2 to 3 years, people will start to look at you as one of those average second rate writers who will never go beyond that intermediate level. It’s not fair and, in this case, it’s a crime. But that’s the reality of the business.
So last week I gave you ten screenwriting tips to take away from Aliens, one of the best sci-fi action films ever. This week, we’re looking at the sequel to Aliens, Alien 3, which a young David Fincher directed. Now originally, I wrote this long impassioned opening about how terribly directed this movie was. The setting was beyond boring. The casting was uninspired. For some reason Fincher had every character whispering to each other. I’ve since done some research and learned that Alien 3 had an extremely complicated development period even by Hollywood standards. 30-some takes were written over the course of six years and when they finally hit production, they were still rewriting the script. Fincher was so upset about the experience that he parted ways with the project and left the studio to cut the film. Does this mean I’m going to take it easy on the script? Hell no. They had six years to write this thing. They made the choice to go ahead with it before it was ready. Casablanca was rewritten during production, right? No, I’m not going to be easy on it because even with these excuses, Alien 3 is still terrible beyond comprehension. With that in mind, here are ten mistakes to avoid when writing your next screenplay.
You’ve heard about passive heroes a lot – characters who let everything come to them, who let outside forces dictate their actions instead of taking charge and doing it themselves? Well there’s another passive activity you want to avoid – passive storylines! Alien 3 spends the first half of its running time with absolutely NOTHING going on. Where is the goal? Where is the story? Where is the DESIRE from any of the characters (alien included!) to do ANYTHING?? It’s just a bunch of people sitting around with occasional cuts to an alien growing up. Contrast this with Aliens where there’s always a strong goal for the characters (go in and kill the aliens). Or even in the first Alien, which is closer in spirit to this one, the alien itself was active (searching out and killing its prey). Here, no one’s pursuing anyone. Even when they decide to catch the alien, they do it in a passive way (they try to lure him to a spot on the base – forcing them to run away from it the whole time). Reflecting on this film, I can’t remember a single active pursuit by anyone. This alone killed any chances the movie had of being good.
ACTING OUT OF CHARACTER
In the real world, people act out of character all the time. In the movies, the rules are different. If someone who’s perennially shy busts out the Dougie on the 3rd Street Promenade, the audience is going to be really confused (unless it’s properly set up of course). One of the quickest ways to lose a reader is to have your character act completely out of character, as is the case here with Ripley. Let’s recap, shall we? Ripley survives her entire crew being killed by a crazy ass alien. Ripley goes into cryo-sleep for 57 years. Ripley is asked to come help some marines dispose of some more aliens. She does, kicking ass and being one of the only survivors. She again goes into cryo-sleep. Her ship crash lands on a prison planet, and everyone onboard besides her dies, including the little girl she’s unofficially adopted as a daughter. After a few minutes of crying, what does she say to the big creepy ugly personality-less weird dude taking care of her? “Are you attracted to me?” Yes, all of a sudden Ripley wants to fuck!!!! Despite us not seeing Ripley have a single sexual urge for two movies, now she’s a nymphomaniac! Seriously, who the hell wrote this?
YOU WILL NEVER GET AWAY WITH LAZINESS
For some weird reason, certain writers believe they can skimp on the details and we’ll just go with it. We will not go with it. We will always spot when a writer is lazy. Let’s look at the prison here in Alien 3. This is supposed to be a maximum security prison right? So then why are there NO RULES!?? Why is there NO STRUCTURE!?? Prisoners can walk around wherever and whenever they want. There are no prison cells…IN A PRISON! There is no structure besides an occasional meal in the common area. It’s unclear who the warden is. It doesn’t even look like a prison. It looks like a series of interconnected tunnels. If you’re going to write a movie about a prison, learn how prisons operate so that your script will at least be somewhat plausible. Laziness gets you nowhere.
LOGIC MISTAKES EVERYWHERE
I’m always disappointed when writers ignore logic. But especially in a sci-fi movie. The rules are much more precarious in sci-fi because you’re already asking your audience to make a leap and believe in a world that doesn’t exist. Throwing a bunch of logic holes into that story is like shining multiple spotlights on the illusion. We are asked to believe, in Alien 3, that in a maximum security prison with the most lethal prisoners in the universe, that there isn’t a single weapon in the entire prison??? This is such a preposterous notion that it alone could be used as a legitimate excuse for hating the movie.
TRUST YOUR GUT
I have a theory I’ve formulated over time and I think it’s a solid one. When it comes to key decisions in your story, trust your gut. If your gut tells you it’s bad idea, it’s probably a bad idea. Even if it feels right from a logistical-standpoint. Even if it feels right from a character standpoint. If there’s that little voice in the back of your head saying, “This doesn’t feel right.” Trust it. To prove this theory, go back to all those reluctant choices you made in your previous screenplays. Chances are on an overwhelming percentage of them you turned out to be right. They didn’t work. I bring this up because while Ripley getting pregnant with an alien and having a special cross-species relationship with it may have sounded cool in the room, it’s one of those things that, at a gut level, you know isn’t right. Ignoring this gut feeling led to one of the dumber storylines we’ve seen in the franchise.
ALL THE CHARACTERS LOOK AND ACT EXACTLY THE SAME
There are a lot of reasons for you to differentiate your characters. One of the most important ones is that the more different your characters are, the more they bring out the differences in the other characters. If a person is nice, for example, we’ll obviously see that they’re nice. But we’ll see that niceness more clearly if we put them in a room with a mean person. Their qualities are exaggerated by being in proximity to their opposite. In Aliens, Burke’s sliminess is brought out in large part by what a good person Ripley is. In Alien 3, every single character looks the same and acts the same. They’re all a variation of annoyed, twitchy, and angry, except for maybe the doctor, who’s so boring in his own way that it doesn’t matter. You need variety in your characters. If you were to ask what’s the biggest reason for why Aliens is so great and Aliens 3 is so terrible, the unique cast of characters would likely come up as the top answer.
This is a common beginner mistake. Someone wants to make a dark film. So they make every single stinking frame as dark as humanly possible. Dumb move. Emotions are like anything in life. If you get too much of one, you’re going to get bored. I love cake. But that doesn’t mean I want to eat it three times a day. When it comes to emotions, you need to bring the audience to the other end of the spectrum every once in awhile to mix things up. Again, look at Aliens. There’s some bleak ass shit in that movie. But it’s peppered with a lot of humor (and plenty of hope as well). Alien 3 is one long bleak-fest. I counted a single joke, one joke!, in the entire movie (“No need to get sarcastic”). It could be as simple as adding a comedic relief character (Hudson) or throwing in a reasonable amount of gallows humor. Don’t think of it as selling out the darkness. Think of it as reminding the audience what darkness is.
IDENTIFY THE CENTRAL PROBLEMS – FIX THEM
At some point in the writing process, you should note the major problems in your script (the things that don’t quite make sense or aren’t yet working) and formulate a plan to fix them. Bad screenwriters allow many of these lingering issues to stay in the script, figuring they won’t be a big deal. If you aren’t striving for perfection, why even bother pursuing screenwriting? Let’s take a look at a really lazy mistake in Alien 3. In the final act, where they confront the alien, it’s established that the alien won’t hurt Ripley, because she’s impregnated with another alien. So let me get this straight. The only person on this entire base that we even halfway care about – your HERO no less – CAN’T BE HARMED BY THE ALIEN????? How stupid of a story decision is that? Identify your major problems and fix them. Or else you get ridiculous situations like this one.
Let me make something clear. Audiences hate woe-is-me characters. They hate them more than any other character you can possibly put in your screenplay. Whoever was dumb enough to turn Ripley from an active intelligent ass-kicking take-charge protagonist into a whispering, whiny, mousey annoying whisperer who can’t shut up about how awful she feels should never be allowed near a copy of Final Draft again. There are very VERY rare occasions where woe-is-me protagonists work (Mikey from Swingers comes to mind) but my suggestion would be to avoid them like the plague. The audience will hate your hero, and by association your movie.
BEWARE OF CLICHÉ/PREDICTABLE MOMENTS
Audiences are savvy. Many of them have seen enough television and film to have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen next. However, if your script is packed with scenarios where the audience can predict EXACTLY what’s going to happen next, chances are you’re being too cliché and need to make a better choice. There’s a moment deep in Alien 3 where Ripley asks Rock (I don’t even know his character name so I’m using his real life one) to chop off her head because she’s pregnant with an alien. She turns away and puts her hands up on the bars, waiting for him to do it. There is then a 60 second build-up where he brings the axe back and prepares to kill her. Oh no! Is he going to do it??? I’d say of the 5 million people who saw this film, 4,986,000 knew Rock would deliberately swing and miss, making the loud dramatic “THONK” on the bars, we’d stay on Rock’s face so as to momentarily wonder if he’d killed her, we’d show that Ripley was indeed still alive, then give Rock a rah-rah speech about how much he needs her. What do you know? That’s exactly what happened! You can’t always avoid your audience being ahead of you, but with a little effort, you can avoid cliché moments and at least keep them guessing.
I don’t know what else to say. I guess if there are great screenplays like American Beauty and Dogs Of Babel out there where every single choice the writer makes is perfect, there can also be screenplays where every single choice the writer makes is disastrous. Such is the unlucky distinction of Alien 3. But maybe it was a nice reminder to the studios that you can’t fake it. That even the death of some of your biggest franchises is one bad script away. I’ll finish this breakdown with another question for all you Alien nerds. To this day, I’m still confused about the Alien 3 trailer that came out promising aliens coming to earth. What the hell was that? Why would they play a trailer that had nothing to do with the movie? I guess it’s just one more nonsensical thing associated with this catastrophe of a film.