Premise: After two fame-seeking Millennials are outed for their plans to fake a sailing adventure blog, no one believes it when they really are ship-wrecked and lost at sea.
About: The first half of the story pokes fun at our obsession with fame and lampoons our dependence on smart phones. In the back half I play with what might happen when you take away the phones. Do we remain tethered to societal whims and expectations? Or do we gain clarity about who we are and what we really want?
I took some chances with the back half. Yes, indeedy. Curious if it works.
Thanks ahead of time to all who check it out!
Writer: Stephanie Jones
Details: 89 pages (this is an updated draft from Amateur Offerings)
The weekend is only hours away!
Unfortunately, so are those box office receipts for The Dark Tower, which, by all accounts, is dead on arrival. I’m surprised they made The Dark Tower, actually. I always found it to be the least appealing of King’s work, a mish-mash of an experiment masquerading as one giant story. In my experience, when something isn’t clear in written form, it doesn’t translate well to movie form. Movies need focus.
Which is actually a great segue into today’s script. Let’s Be Famous tackles the ubiquitous millennial desire to be famous without having to earn it. The question is, does it focus enough to convey that theme? Let’s find out, mateys!
Susan works at an office downtown where she spends the majority of her time watching Youtube videos of internet-famous people. Fred, her boyfriend, hangs out all day at home with his cat, “Cat,” and the two occasionally make videos for his Youtube Channel about cat communication.
Susan and Fred yearn for a better life, a life that includes actual excitement.
That’s when Fred gets an idea. Why don’t the two of them hop on a boat, travel around the world, and vlog about it? They’ll be famous. Susan isn’t into it, but it sounds better than staring at Youtube videos all day. So the two hit up their parents for money, buy a boat, and quickly learn that they have no idea what they’re doing.
No problem. They’ll just tell everyone they’re traveling the seas, go out just far enough to make it look like they’ve left, then sneak back to shore when no one’s looking. Take a few sea-selfies, post them on the site over time, and “voila,” it’s like they really are traveling the world!
Unfortunately, a huge storm hits the second they leave harbor, and they’re forced onto a life raft. Soon after, the man who sold them the boat, “Captain Caboose,” arrives to save the day, but not really, since he kidnaps Susan and boots Fred back onto the life raft (with his cat). Susan then begins an S&M relationship with Captain Caboose (no, I’m not kidding). Will Susan come to her senses? Will Fred and his cat survive? Will the two of them ever become famous? Check out Let’s Be Famous to find out!
This was a wild ride.
Okay, where to get started…
This isn’t the movie I thought I was being pitched. I thought this was going to be about two friends who want to be famous. Like young versions of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. Instead, it was about a couple. I don’t know why that didn’t work for me. But something about a relationship felt less funny.
Maybe if Fred and Susan’s relationship were easier to grasp, I’d change my mind. But I could never get a handle on it. Did they like each other? I never read a genuine moment between them. And, if anything, Susan seemed to despise Fred (there’s a moment early on during a dinner date where she’s annoyed by pretty much everything he says).
So I kept asking, why is she even with him if she doesn’t like him?
This had a ripple effect on the rest of the script because I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be looking for from their relationship. For example, had we established at the beginning that they were on the verge of breaking up, but they decided to go on this trip as one last attempt to fix their relationship, I’d understand the dynamic. These two are either going to figure it out or not.
Instead, the relationship was vague, to the point where you could’ve easily categorized them as friends. In my experience, when relationship dynamics are unclear, the rest of the script is unclear. And that’s kinda what I felt.
I mean, at a certain point, Susan starts an S&M relationship with Captain Caboose mere hours after her “boyfriend” (again, I’m reluctant to use that term since I’m still not convinced what they are to one another) is booted back out onto a life raft. Susan did hit her head. And I think it’s implied that that’s the reason she’s not being herself. But, like a lot of the script, I was never 100% sure.
That was another problem. The writing was so manic, the story never has a chance to breathe. This was particularly problematic in the setup, as I would constantly find myself a couple of minutes behind the writer. We’d arrive at a scene and I’d be asking, “Wait, how did we get here?”
For example, there’s a moment where Fred and Susan are about to begin their voyage, and out of nowhere, there were these – I guess internet reporters? – there to document the event. I realized, “Oh, they must’ve told these guys to come here to get it on record that they really did leave on this trip.”
But why was I only finding this out now? We needed that scene six pages ago where one of them said, “We need to document this so that people believe us.” “How do we do that?” “We’ll call some people. From the smaller Youtube channels. Get them here so that they see we’re really leaving.”
But virtually none of the script is set up like that. We’re just SLAMMED into scene after scene and it’s our job to keep up.
I can’t figure out if this is Steph’s writing style or if she simply wrote this script too fast. Whatever the case, this would be the first note I’d give her. SLOOOOOOWWWWW DOOOOWWWWWNN. Take your time setting up the characters. Take your time setting up their relationship dynamic so that we understand it.
I mean we don’t even get a proper scene where we see that these two desire fame above all else. Without that scene, it doesn’t make sense that they’re going through all of this hubbub in the first place. And I suspect that that scene wasn’t written because this script was written too fast.
For me, personally, my checkout point was the S&M stuff. While comedy has no rules (whatever makes someone laugh makes them laugh), I need some logic to my comedy. If it’s literally ANYTHING GOES and there’s no rhyme or reason to any decision whatsoever, I don’t think that works. Why would a woman let her boyfriend die in some lifeboat while simultaneously agreeing to engage in sexual fantasies with some disgusting old weird man she’s known for 30 minutes? It’s just odd.
Something tells me this script wasn’t properly outlined. And when you don’t outline, you just go wherever the pen takes you. And while that can feel exhilarating as a writer, it rarely feels that way for the reader.
A friend of mine growing up used to love going out on a boat and dragging an inter-tube along the back. He’d send me back on that tube then drive around the lake like crazy, whipping and snapping, zigging and zagging, desperately attempting to get me to fall off. That’s exactly what I felt like reading Let’s Be Famous. Being dragged around like that can be fun for 2-3 minutes. But longer than that and it gets exhausting.
If Steph wants to continue with this script, I would build the story around friends, not a relationship. I would take time to set the story up. I’d let the scenes breathe. I would establish what each character’s main issue was (they want fame). And I would focus more on the theme of fame and what it does to people, rather than bring in a joke character (the captain) who works at the expense of your script’s theme.
That’s just me though. What did you guys think?
Script link (new draft!): Let’s Be Famous
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The other day we talked about saying NO to your characters. When you say no, it creates conflict. That forces your character into action, which almost always results in a better scene. So in Let’s Be Famous, both characters need money to buy a boat. They each go to their parents and what do the parents do? They hand over money without hesitation. They said YES instead of NO.
A script without a theme is like a photograph without a subject. The picture can be well-composed, colorful, sharp, and yet the experience of looking at the photo feels empty. You get no sense of what the photographer was trying to say with the image.
“Trying to say,” is a nice way to define theme. When you write a story, you should be trying to say something. You don’t have to. But it helps fill in the emptiness. It helps give your story meaning.
Today, I want to talk about how to find your theme. And not just for your own projects. When you break into the big leagues, being able to discuss theme in a pitch room will be one of the determining factors for you getting the job. When you’re angling for that million dollar Emoji Movie assignment, you better have an idea of what your theme is going to be going into the pitch or I promise you, you won’t get it.
Despite the term being one of the most abstract in the craft, theme isn’t as difficult to identify as you might think. In fact, most of the time, it’s right under your nose.
A few weeks ago, Steph Jones sent me her logline for a consultation (the script was also a part of last week’s Amateur Offerings). Her script was about two fame-seeking millennials who start a fake travel adventure blog. Going off that one-sentence breakdown, let’s see how we figure out the theme.
The driving force behind Steph’s story is clearly fame. That’s what these characters are looking for. Therefore, our theme should revolve around celebrity. So maybe the theme is about our culture’s obsession with celebrity without actually having to earn it, and the ramifications of that.
Keep in mind that simple/universal themes resonate best. And that a good theme teaches the characters a lesson after it’s all over.
Continuing on, let’s look at yesterday’s script, Murder on the Orient Express. Here’s the logline: “When a murder occurs in the first class cabin of the Orient Express, a world renown detective must figure out which of the travelers committed the crime.”
This one is tougher as the logline is too broad to imply any obvious themes. However, if you were writing this script yourself (spoilers!), you would know that the murdered man is an escaped killer, and that the travelers have decided to kill him for it. This opens up a more obvious theme, which is that of vigilante justice. If a man has done something inarguably horrible, is it okay to take justice into your own hands, or do you gamble on the risky nature of official justice, where the man might go free? This is one of the most common themes in film. You see it in Westerns, in superhero movies, and in revenge thrillers (John Wick).
Okay, let’s up the difficulty level. Dunkirk: “An army of 300,000 men, trapped on the beach, desperately await rescue while a surrounding German army decides whether to attack or not.”
War allows for the exploration of many themes. So it’s not like you can wrong here. But with the key plotline focusing on one soldier’s willingness to do anything to escape the beach, you could argue that the theme of Dunkirk is, simply, selfishness. At what point does sacrifice give way to looking out for number one? Indeed, this theme is present throughout many war movies.
Since this is Scriptshadow, we can’t go through an entire Thursday post without a Star Wars example. But let’s make it tough on ourselves. We’re going to find a theme for Rogue One: “A group of misfit criminals must join together to steal the plans of the most dangerous weapon in the universe.”
Hopefully you guys are getting a feel for this now, so before I offer my theme, go ahead and try to figure this out on your own. I’ll wait… Okay, so we have a group of people attempting to steal something. Normally, these people operate on their own. So this one is actually pretty easy. The theme is the power of the group over the individual. In life, one person can only achieve so much. But together, the possibilities are infinite.
Remember, themes should have consequences for the characters who deviate from them. Or, at the very least, the threat of consequence. So if one of the characters in Rogue One chooses an action that pits himself above the group, he should pay for it.
Okay, let’s end on the toughest one yet. It’s so tough, I’m not even sure what the theme is yet. Gone Girl. Here’s the IMDB logline: “With his wife’s disappearance having become the focus of an intense media circus, a man tries to prove that his wife is inexplicably responsible for what has happened.”
Usually, when the theme for a movie isn’t obvious after you’ve watched it, that’s a bad thing. It means the message didn’t come through clearly enough. And it may be why, while Gone Girl is considered a good film, it’s not one that’s remained in the public conscious. That’s why theme is so important. A well-executed theme helps a movie stay with someone for many years to come.
But I’ll give it my best shot. I’d say that the theme of Gone Girl is our society’s need to try people in the court of public opinion. You’re guilty until proven innocent. What I find interesting about this and similar themes is that while they shine a light on society, they don’t hit the audience on an emotional level. That’s something to keep in mind when you choose your theme. Do you want to make a statement about society or do you want to make a statement about the individual? The former gets critics frothing but the latter stays with audiences longer.
Now bust out your latest script and figure out the theme, dammit!
Carson does feature screenplay consultations, TV Pilot Consultations, and logline consultations, which go for $25 a piece or 5 for $75. You get a 1-10 rating, a 200-word evaluation, and a rewrite of the logline. And as of today, all logline consultations come with an 8 hour turnaround time. If you’re interested in any sort of consultation package, e-mail Carsonreeves1@gmail.com with the subject line: CONSULTATION. Don’t start writing a script or sending a script out blind. Let Scriptshadow help you get it in shape first!
Premise: (from IMDB) A lavish train ride unfolds into a stylish & suspenseful mystery. From the novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express tells of thirteen stranded strangers & one man’s race to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.
About: Today’s screenplay was written by a writer The Hollywood Reporter just called, “The most famous screenwriter you’ve never heard of.” Never has a statement been more true. Michael Green is on some kind of streak. Once known only for his involvement on the failed Green Lantern movie, Green has been unstoppable this year, scripting Logan, Alien: Covenant, American Gods, Blade Runner 2049, and now this. Murder on the Orient Express will star Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, and Josh Gad. It was directed by Kenneth Branaugh and comes out this November.
Writer: Michael Green (based on the novel by Agatha Christie)
Details: 133 pages (2/20/15 draft)
Murder on the Orient Express is an odd project that probably would’ve remained in obscurity had it not been for Josh Gad’s viral videos asking Daisly Ridley questions about Star Wars Episode 8. In all my years, I’ve never seen a movie find buzz quite like that before. Then there was that now infamous trailer that ended with a severely mismatched piece of music by the Imagine Dragons.
This may seem like nothing to the casual movie-goer. But knowing how hard it is to create buzz for a film if you’re not part of a Marvel or Star Wars universe, the fact that this obscure title can drum up any buzz at all is impressive. I mean, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone last year saying, “You know what they need to remake? Murder on the Orient Express!”
I personally consider this setup to be ingenious. A group of people not just stuck in a room, but stuck on a train in the middle of nowhere? A murder that must be figured out before they get to the next stop? It’s a tailor-made plot for a film. Let’s see how it turned out…
It’s the 1930s and Hercule Poirot is the most successful investigator in the world. And he’s not afraid to tell you that. But Poirot has been solving too many burglaries, too many murders. The dude just wants a vacation. So he hops on the Orient Express to travel to some faraway land and get some R&R.
Because Poirot is so famous, he’s able to get a first class cabin, and he’s joined there by a number of characters. There’s Bouc, an aging partier who works for the Orient Express. There’s Ratchett, a blustery American who buys and sell antiques.
There’s Caroline Hubbard, a 40-something 2-time divorcee who’s on the prowl for her third husband. There’s Mary Debenham, a young beauty who’s carrying on a secret romance with a black doctor, Arbuthnot. The two are traveling “separately.” There’s a Russian Princess, a Hungarian Count, a formally violent Cuban, and a slew of other characters, all on their way to different destinations.
On the first night, Ratchett arrives in Poirot’s cabin and tells him that the mob is after him and he wants to hire Poirot for protection. Poirot blows him off. Ratchett storms away. And the next morning the train comes to a sudden stop. Everyone’s informed that the train has hit some snow and that they will be stuck there for awhile.
Moments later, Ratchett is found dead in his cabin, stabbed 12 times. Bouc freaks out and says if they don’t figure out who killed him by the time they reach the next stop, the Slavs will use their own sense of justice, randomly pick a killer, and hang him right there in town. To avoid this fate, Poirot will have to come out of vacation and solve his toughest case yet. What he will find during this investigation… will shock everyone.
A couple of years ago I introduced a term on the site: burden of investment. I use this to describe the amount of work the reader must do to keep up with a script’s setup. When the writer inundates the reader with insane amounts of information in the first act, it causes a “reader short circuit,” effectively K.O.ing their mental facilities, throwing them into skim-mode for the rest of the story.
Murder on The Orient Express has a high burden of investment. There are a TON of characters to remember. And each character’s name is unfamiliar, making it even tougher to remember who’s who. All of them are going to unique destinations and have unique backstories and objectives. By the time you get to page 30 of this script, your brain is so scrambled, all you can think about is taking a nap.
Even if you get through this section, the script doesn’t get much better. Part of the problem with “Orient” is that the story is so old fashioned. Which I guess is the point. But you have to find a way to modernize SOME aspects of the story. Or else everything just feels… old.
The writing is stodgy and formal. The dialogue is as well. Here’s an early line from Poirot: “I am of an age and level of experience where I know what I like and what I do not. What I like pleases me enormously. What I do not I cannot abide. For example, the forced pleasantry before what is determined to be a business discussion.”
The whole script reads like this.
But it’s not just the writing. It’s the plotting. It’s very “And now I’ll go question this person, and now I’ll go question this person, and now I’ll go question this person.” It’s repetitive to a fault. Any format that repeats becomes predictable. And predictability is the predecessor to boredom. You need to shake things up. Outside of a fun chase sequence through the snow, “Orient” rarely shakes things up.
There were other dated choices as well. For example, the murdered character was an asshole. These days, when someone gets murdered in a movie, they’re almost universally a good person. Or else why would we care that their murder be avenged? I think back in the 30s, the mystery alone was enough for readers to be engaged. Today, we need to feel some connection to the victim to care.
Likewise, the construction of Poirot’s character is at odds with today’s heroes. The guy is the best in the business. He has no weaknesses. We know, from the get-go, that he’s going to solve the case. I think these days, the hero would be more flawed, more tortured, and probably not as good at his job. All of this would inject doubt into whether he would solve the case or not.
Doubt is drama’s best friend.
However, even if you were to ignore that modernist take, they still had something to work with. Poirot’s ego. Had they explored that as his flaw – his ego being his downfall – that could’ve been interesting. And yet, they decided to play the character straight up. He’s got an ego but who the cares? Not relevant to the story!
The one thing I liked about the script was that the murder on the train was tied to the murder of an innocent family that was set up as backstory at the beginning of the script. I never like something that’s straightforward (a man is dead, find his killer). By including that other murder, it added an extra layer to this murder, almost creating a secondary mystery. That was cool.
Unfortunately, the stodgy storytelling, the pragmatic pacing, and the flaw-less hero made for a less-than-stellar reading experience. All I wanted out of this movie was to have fun. This is a FUN premise. Instead, the whole thing felt like work.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Broad Stroke Writing vs. Specific Stroke Writing. When you come into a scene, you can give us the broad strokes (Joe stands by the window, staring out. Jane makes coffee). Or you can give us the specific strokes (Follow a deep long crack up a frost-bitten window, the sound of heavy breathing nearby. Moving back, a man stares out into the cold day). The former is if you want to jump right into plot. The latter is if you want to create a mood or set a tone for the scene. You will usually use broad strokes in screenwriting. But when you want us to feel a scene, move to specific. Here’s an early example of specific strokes in Orient Express…
Genre: TV pilot – Half-Hour Single-Camera Comedy
Premise: Follows the adventures of two Los Angeles 6’s trying to make it in a land of 9s and 10s.
About: Today’s TV pilot was picked up by the newly branded “Freeform” Channel, which has gone all in on the millennial demographic. Creators Benji Aflalo and Esther Povitsky shot a pilot episode on their own, which got the attention of Andy Samberg’s Lonely Island crew, who came on as producers.
Writers: Benji Aflalo & Esther Povitsky & Eben Russell
Details: 35 pages
The conundrum with television pilots is that television is long-form storytelling. And long-form storytelling works best with lower-concept material. Shows like Friends, Law & Order, Modern Family… there’s no big concept to any of these shows. It’s just characters and a barely-there initial hook (“They’re friends in New York!”).
While this used to be enough, a new problem has arisen: insane competition. If you come to the plate with a low-concept TV idea these days, there’s a good chance your show will get buried. This has resulted in what I call the “high-concept low-concept” TV idea. It’s characters getting into situations, just like the shows I listed above, but inside bigger and more specific worlds. Veep – the White House. Silicon Valley – tech startups. But even that’s not enough anymore. So TV is going the way of features – scrambling for big IP (Rosemary’s Baby! Training Day! Comic Book shows!).
How, then, did Alone Together rise above all this? I’ll answer that in a second. But first, let’s check out what Alone Together is about.
Benji and Esther are the 20-something runts of LA. Don’t worry. That’s not a harsh analysis. They’d agree with it. And therein lies their struggle. They’re two bottom-rung barely attractive actors trying to stand out in a town full of the most beautiful people in the world.
Whereas Esther is a Midwest transplant who can barely afford her rent, Benji’s parents have “Fuck you” money, the problem being that the main person they say ‘fuck you’ to is Benji whenever he asks for any of it. This leaves Benji living in perpetual irony – he’s got a room in a beautiful house in Malibu, but can’t afford gas to get there.
When Benji’s brother and sister hold a huge party at the house, it’s an opportunity for Esther to expand her social circle and finally get that boyfriend she’s been angling for. While she fails miserably at that plan, Benji catches the eye of a hot party-goer when she learns he lives here.
When Esther suspects that Benji’s new girlfriend is an escort, she’s forced to sign up as an escort herself on the service to confirm her suspicion. Soon, men are hitting her up for dates, and while she’s initially grossed out, she starts to like the idea of getting wined and dined, and agrees to a date with an older gentleman. Naturally, both of our heroes’ situations implode, leaving them back at square one, a square they’re starting to believe they’ll never escape.
Like I said earlier, these super-low concept shows are a dime a dozen on the script circuit. And because there’s no concept, everything boils down to how inventive the comedic situations are and how witty the dialogue is. And it’s not like it’s impossible to stand out in these areas. But when that’s all your show has to offer, you’re handicapping the shit out of yourself.
With that said, there’s some pretty funny stuff in Alone Together. In this exchange, Benji attacks Esther for going out with an old dude from the escort site…
BENJI: I hope you figure that out when that guy kidnaps you and locks you in a basement forever.
ESTHER: Whatever. Free rent.
BENJI: You could literally get your head cut off!
ESTHER: Warren’s not cutting anyone’s head off! Not with his rheumatoid arthritis.
Or when Benji’s asshole older brother points out to his two model girlfriends that Benji and Esther are a lot older than they look…
MODEL GIRLFRIEND 1: You’re like twelve. Why are you worried about aging?
DEAN: Actually, they’re both pushing thirty.
BENJI: I look young because I spend most of my time alone and don’t have to make a lot of facial expressions.
Even the character descriptions are funny. Here’s Benji’s: “BENJI, pathetic but confident.” I love character descriptions that are to the point. Too many writers try and stuff a biography into their character intros. Keep it simple.
With that said, this is still a basic comedy about two people living in a city trying to make it. It’s universal but devoid of a sexy hook. How, then, was it able to leap frog all the clones? One. Simple. Answer.
THEY WENT OUT AND F*&KING SHOT IT THEMSELVES.
Shooting anything is hard. So when you have a tangible product to show people? That’s a thousand times more valuable than a script. When a producer sees that, they know what they’re getting if they give you money to make a show. That same producer might have three other funnier scripts on his desk. But those are just pieces of paper. What may come of them is a mystery. This is tangible proof that you know how to make a show.
And I’m not saying this is the only way to get your pilot noticed. What I’m saying is, we all start with the same number of chips. But you can do things to raise your pile. You can come up with a high concept. That famously happened with True Detective.
You could shoot something professional, like these guys did. Or shoot something barely professional that still shows how funny your talent is, which is what the Broad City gals did, posting shoddily-produced vignettes on Youtube.
If you don’t have access to production equipment, think of something else. Come up with a teaser, get somebody to draw concept art. Remember, this is the ENTERTAINMENT BUSINESS. They want a show. Give it to them. That’s part of your job.
Now, what’s interesting about these guys shooting their own pilot and the changes they’ve made to the script is that the produced pilot is better. Not by a lot. They’re both funny. But you could tell that once they had more money, they were trying to build a bigger story. We had the big party scene and a date restaurant scene.
In the produced pilot, all the locations were rooms or easy-to-shoot exteriors. There were never more than 4 characters in a scene. It forced the writers to be more creative. For example, instead of a big party at the Malibu house, Benji and Esther show up after the party is over and bring their out-of-their-league crushes to the place hoping to get laid, and the crushes end up with each other instead.
It’s a classic example of how bigger doesn’t always equal better.
Still, I liked both versions of the show. These two actors are funny. And the big lesson here is if you want something – such as having a show on television – you gotta fight for it. Nobody gives out participation trophies in Hollywood. Do everything in your power to show that you’re serious.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Comedy’s all about placing your characters in situations then asking, “What’s the worst thing I can do to them right now?” In the produced pilot, Benji and Esther just spent all their money on one of those ridiculously expensive LA juice cleanses so they can look like rail-thin movie stars. They’re going to hole up in Benji’s house for the weekend and only drink juice. So… what’s the worst thing you can do to your characters in this situation? They get there at the tail end of their brother’s party and there’s copious amounts of food everywhere. Fried chicken. Cupcakes. Pies. Waffles. Donuts. The one temptation that can ruin their juice cleanse is staring them right in the face.
Premise: The military contracts a disgraced Harvard professor who believes in dragons to escort them to a mysterious island where the mythical beasts potentially still exist.
About: What else is there to say? It’s another Max Landis script, baby. The one writer still making huge spec sales. This one, to my knowledge, has not sold yet. But if anyone has any updated information on that, let me know.
Writer: Max Landis
Details: 120 pages (Dec 2014 draft) Second Rewrite
Max Landis really likes orcs.
And fairies n stuff.
By the way, I finally figured out why the trailer for Landis’s Netflix flick, “Bright,” begins with that uncomfortable fairy-beating sequence. I realized that a meeting took place within the Netflix brain trust…
“How do we show that this is the kind of fantasy movie Hollywood can’t make?” So they had Will Smith beat the shit out of fairy, the message being: This ain’t your grandfather’s fantasy flick.
Was that choice a success? No.
But that’s what’s great about Netflix. They’re okay with taking chances. And chances often fail, as I’ve discussed in a recent Scriptshadow post.
So let’s get to today’s script, because I think there’s a huge screenwriting lesson we can learn from it. But before I tell you what that is, let’s dive bomb, dragon-style, into the plot…
Terra Obscura starts with one of the most traditional first acts you’ll find in a movie like this. Which was surprising since Landis is such an anarchist. Adam Burns just got fired from his Harvard professorial job after an interview of him saying he believes in dragons goes viral.
After his girlfriend reams him out for deep-sixing his career, Adam is kidnapped off the street by men who’ve watched too many movies, since they throw a bag over his head then yank him into a van. They then throw him on a helicopter, informing him that they’re going to an island where a Russian sub thats’s been programmed to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. has crashed.
Adam makes it clear he doesn’t know why he’s here. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
“On the contrary,” the military official tells him. “You might be the only one who knows what’s going on.”
Cue our “HARD CUT TO” Predator helicopter moment. Oh yeah, this island they’re going to may contain… creatures of the magical type. That’s confirmed the second they fly over land when two dragons that would make Khallesi’s corset explode attack the Blackhawks.
Adam’s helicopter crashes and he and the men use a radiation meter to figure out where the marooned sub is. But on the way there, they run into orcs and fairies and Necromances and Dark Elves and other nerdy monsters. What Adam realizes is that the Russian sub may have been a ruse. Which means they’ve been lured here. But why? The answer may be much worse than a measly nuclear attack on the United States…
The first thing I noticed about Terra Obscura had nothing to do with Terra Obscura. Rather, it had to do with Skull Island and Ghostbusters. Strangely, two of the first three scenes in Landis’s script have helicopters arriving on an “invisible” island and giant monsters attacking them. After that, we flash back to show Adam getting fired from his job at a prestigious university because he yelled into a camera, “I believe in dragons,” then got fired by his boss after it went viral.
Both these scenes, almost verbatim, were in Skull Island and [the new] Ghostbusters. I see that this script pre-dates both of those films. So what does that mean? I remember Landis either worked on or was going to work on Ghostbusters. So maybe he wrote a similar scene there and they used it cause they had the rights? But I didn’t know Landis worked on Skull Island. And if he didn’t, does that mean someone just took this scene from Terra Obscura?
Of course, there’s a third possibility: None of us are as original as we think we are. Maybe these ideas are so obvious that everybody is writing versions of them. I don’t know. But I found that surprising. I was like, “I’ve seen both of these scenes already!”
There’s a bigger talking point I wanted to get into today, however. And it has to do with the fact that Bright got made and Terra Obscura (as of today) did not. Why is that?
Bright is set in the real world with actors wearing prosthetics. Terra Obscura is shooting in a jungle with a full slate of Lord of the Rings like creatures. In other words, it’s a lot more expensive.
I’m often asked by writers if they should write something big budget or small. The answer to this is more complicated than you’d think but I’ll give you the simple answer first. SMALL. Look at the data. How many non-IP giant-budgeted movies are made a year? Two? How many non-IP small budget movies are made a year? A LOT. So you’re increasing your number of buyers exponentially with a lower-budgeted script. Which is why Bright was kind of genius. It was a high-concept idea that was financially achievable.
However, there’s a growing belief that it’s so difficult to sell screenplays, you have to entertain the long game when thinking about which script to write. So if you want to write big-budget movies like James Bond, you write a James Bond-like movie, knowing that it isn’t going to sell. However, if people like it and you get buzz from it, you’re now brought into the Hollywood loop, and you’re in contention for assignment work on movies like that. So in that case, writing the big-budget idea was the way to go.
The point is, it depends on what your goal is. If you’re just trying to sell, Bright is the perfect conceptual blueprint. It’s a budget-friendly genre idea. But if you want to write for the Star Wars or Avatar franchises, write the best sci-fi fantasy script of the decade. Just know that you ain’t going to sell it.
As for the Terra Obscura script (which is the name of the island, if you were wondering), it was pretty good. It poses an interesting question for a script like this. Do you make your hero resistant or active? In the similarly set up, Aliens, Ripley is a boss. She’s all in right away. In Terra Obscura, Adam doesn’t want to be here at all. He’s scared. This is too much for him.
Both options have their pros and cons. When your hero is resistant, like Adam, he has somewhere to go as a character. It’s clear that there’s going to be an inner journey here. Him being able to overcome his fear will lead to him changing, which, when done well, results in a more impactful viewing experience.
However, in Aliens, Ripley is thought of as one of the best characters ever. And she was active and brave from the start. Why did that work? Well, Cameron decided to explore a different part of Ripley to show her growth. Both her distrust of the mission and her role as a mother to Newt became the backbone for her character growth.
And that’s the thing screenwriters forget. You’re not limited to one of those “fatal flaw” boxes. You can play outside the box.
Also, I find it dangerous to have a hero who’s too weak. Even if they’re eventually going to arc into a strong person, we’re going to be spending at least half the screenplay with them as a weakling. And audiences have trouble rooting for weaklings (not physical weaklings, but mental). That hurt my overall opinion of the script.
However, Landis knows how to keep a script entertaining. And whereas the Kong Skull Island plot points were visible from light years away, I didn’t know where this script was going. The Dungeons & Dragons creatures angle threw me off. And Landis’s love for that world resulted in numerous twists and turns I wasn’t expecting.
So Terra Obscura was just fun enough for me to recommend.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: A trick for writing high-concept low-budget genre films is to utilize one fantastical element and place that element inside the modern-day world. What this does is it ensures that studios don’t need to create any expensive effects-driven worlds. They can shoot 95% of the movie in real world settings. Then, the one fantastical element (Orcs in Bright, or time travel in Primer) is what gives your script a big feel for a cheap price.