A quick reminder on loglines, friends. Avoid general phrasing to describe big swaths of your script, particularly the last act. “A young man meets an alien only to realize that friendship is a two-way street.” “An older woman discovers a cave full of gold before coming to the ultimate conclusion… greed kills.” “A famous actor starts believing that he’s living in a movie, and that life is a lot more complicated than it seems.” Do you see how the second half of every one of these loglines TELLS US NOTHING? Every time I see one of these loglines I want to strangle somebody.
Be specific! Tell us what the plot is! “A famous actor who believes he may be living in a movie sets out to find the director so he can get back to the real world.”
There were so many of these submitted that I was forced to include one in the offerings. But no more! Please avoid this in the future. You want people to know what your script is about, right? Tell them what the plot is with your logline.
Okay, on to this weeks’ picks.
Read the scripts and vote in the comments for your winner. Top vote-getter gets a review next Friday.
To submit your script for a future Amateur Offerings, send me a PDF, along with the title, genre, logline, and finally, why your script deserves a shot, to: Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Remember that your script will be posted. If you’re nervous about the ramifications of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or script title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every few weeks so your submission stays near the top.
Good luck to all!
Title: King Solomon’s Mines
Logline: Victorian-era big game hunter Allan Quatermain leads a daring expedition into unexplored African territory in an attempt to locate an explorer who went missing while searching for the legendary diamond mines of King Solomon. Based on the novel by H. Rider Haggard.
Why You Should Read: I’ve been fascinated with the novel King Solomon’s Mines ever since I first read it and while reading it I’ve always envisioned it as a movie because of how cinematic it is. Even though the book has been filmed several times before, the last theatrical adaptation was released in 1985, and I feel that now would be a good time to reintroduce the story to modern audiences.
Title: Cal Bain
Logline: Seven English twenty-somethings discover the island they’re camping on has a hidden history of murder. And history has a way of repeating.
Why you should read: It’s got a killer first page.
Title: Never Stops (Endless)
Logline: Stuck in a perpetual psychedelic trip, a drug dealer has until midnight to retrieve stolen goods from the girl of his dreams and return them to a ruthless kingpin.
Why You Should Read: I just moved to Los Angeles from New York City to pursue a career in screenwriting. “Confessions of a Failed Screenwriter” was on loop in my head almost every day leading up to the move. I’m currently contracted to write a script for a Canadian production company (paid), which is exciting, and hopefully a step in the right direction. As for the script, it’s pretty out there. I tried to infuse elements I like about the crime genre (Victoria meets Enter the Void) and create something that makes you say “the f*ck did I just witness?” But in a good way.
Logline: A female serial killer with a penchant for porridge stalks a true crime author she wants to write her life story.
Why You Should Read: The most famous home invader in all of fairy tale history has never gotten her own movie. This is a fresh modern take on one of the most globally recognized public domain characters that Hollywood hasn’t cracked. The script was a Finalist in two screenwriting contests: Fresh Blood Selects & Search for New Blood 3.
Genre: Contained thriller.
Logline: Fleeing from Cuba to Florida inside a shipping container, a pregnant young woman must fight for survival when her container falls into the sea during a storm.
Why You Should Read: I wanted to add new and different twists to the recurring elements we see in the lost-at-sea genre while having one sole female protagonist. And why should you read it? This is not my first script, but it is the first I’m really proud of. I’ve been working on it for the last nine months and I’m still having fun with it, so I guess that’s a good sign! Honestly, I can’t wait to read Carson’s thoughts on it, whether mixed, bad or horrible.
There’s an old saying in baseball. “You can’t win the pennant in April. But you can lose it.” For the uninitiated, a baseball season is 162 games long. The first month of the season is April. And what that saying means is this: Even if you win every game in April, you haven’t won the pennant. You still have 140 games to go. BUT. If you lose 17 of your first 20 games, no team ever comes back from that. You’ve ensured that your team is screwed.
The same thing can be said for a screenplay. You can’t write a great screenplay in one page. But you can prove that you’ve written a bad one. This is why, when a reader or producer says they read “one page of a script” before “throwing it away,” it’s not as asinine as it sounds. There are lots of things a writer can do on that first page to kill a script. And that’s the topic of today’s article.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Make sure there are no misspellings on your first page. No misused words. No grammatical errors. No screw-ups when it comes to tense. And make sure the formatting is error-free (easy if you have reputable screenwriting software). If there’s a single spelling or grammar mistake on the first page, I don’t bail on the script, but a huge red flag goes up. If there are two, I know the script is bad. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. That’s right. In the 7000+ screenplays that I’ve read, when there were two errors on the first page, the script was bad 100% of the time. So don’t make that mistake.
The above should be a given. But the rest of this stuff isn’t. Some will depend on your skill level and the amount of time you’ve put into the craft. But don’t let that deter you. This is what I call the “weeding out” process. Those screenwriters who don’t have the stamina to master the craft will eventually drop out during this phase, leaving you with less competition and a better chance to succeed.
Writing in the active voice is part of the unique writing-style of this medium. Because it’s so specific to screenwriting, when you don’t see it, you know the writer’s a newbie. “Active Voice” means conveying things as they happen. The idea is, we’ll be seeing it happen on screen, so you should write in the way that it will be seen. “The man cuts the rope,” as opposed to, “The man is cutting the rope.” There is some leniency here, as there will be times when you want something to happen in the moment: “He starts cutting the rope.” But you should be using the active voice 95% of the time.
The style in which you write is how you distinguish yourself as a writer. However, there is a basic truth that must be present in every style. Your sentences must be readable. They must be smooth and easy to digest. If your sentence construction is clumsy, overlong, too descriptive, wrought with pretentious vocabulary, or confusing, people won’t want to keep reading. To some degree, subjectivity comes into play. A writing style that is pleasing to some may not be pleasing to others. But there’s a mantra here that should serve every screenwriter well: Keep your writing simple and easy to read.
Here’s an example:
He watches Vivian in the adjoining kitchen as her arthritic fingers bring a nub of a cigarette to her angry lips.
With his mother in the kitchen, he focuses on her, from which he notices her cigarette in her fingers, which are arthritic, but also angry, and which twitch in tiny angry spurts every time she lifts the cigarette to her mouth.
The first is a sentence from the opening page of “Palmer,” a script I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. The second is a butchered version of that sentence which is the kind of thing I’ll see a lot of in amateur scripts. You’ll notice that, technically, the sentence is fine. But it’s overwritten. It’s redundant. It goes about describing things in a roundabout way (“With his mother in the kitchen…”). The first sentence is clean and direct. There is no confusion when you read it. And that’s the important lesson here.
The other kind of writing you want to avoid is the opposite of the above: GENERIC writing. This is when the writing has no style or character at all. Writing needs some personality. And as long as you don’t go overboard with that personality, you’re good.
Joe opens a coke. He drinks it. He finishes it. He throws it in the garbage can.
If you give me an entire script of that, I’m going to kill myself. Here’s a line from the first page of Juno…
She swigs from an absurdly oversized carton of juice and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.
There’s a little more color here. A little more style. But not TOO MUCH style. Just enough to create an image in your head.
HUGE PARAGRAPHS (AKA “WALL OF TEXT”)
If I see a first page with a TON of description, I’m on high alert. That means any paragraphs that contain 5 lines or more or pages that have multiple 4-line paragraphs (four or five in a row). This isn’t a script-killer. And if the writing is pleasing and smooth, I’ll look past it. But more often than not, this is an indication that a) the script is overwritten and will be a chore to read, or b) this is a newbie screenwriter who doesn’t understand that “less is more” when it comes to description.
Since we don’t know the characters yet, I don’t put a whole lot of stock in first-page dialogue. For example, if a character has really boring dialogue, that may be because he’s a really boring character, something I’ll find out once I keep reading. But there are one of two criteria I want met with first page dialogue.
1) I either want to notice that the dialogue is really good.
2) I don’t want to notice the dialogue at all (it’s so natural that it’s invisible).
If I’m reading the dialogue and it’s extremely on-the-nose (“I hate that you abused me when I was a child, father!”) or doesn’t sound anything like how real people talk (in a drama script: “How are you? I haven’t seen you in so long.” “I contracted cancer recently. How are you?”), I know the script is in trouble.
Okay so, everything we’ve gone over so far is the technical end. The other thing you have to nail in your first page is that something needs to be happening to grab us, to pull us in and make us want to keep reading! What does that mean, “happening?” It means one of these four conditions must be met:
1) Jump into the story immediately.
2) A great intro for your hero.
3) A teaser.
4) A story is told.
Jump right into the story – The first option is the easiest. Introduce your character as soon as the story is ready to begin. So in the example I used above, from Palmer, that first page has Palmer being released from prison. It’s not big. It’s not flashy. But we’ve jumped right into the story. Had we spent 15 pages hanging out with Palmer in prison or fuddy-duddying around the neighborhood before meeting our main character, that wouldn’t have worked. Unless you used one of the remaining three options…
A compelling hero intro – If you’re not going to jump into the story, you better jump into your character. Give us something that makes us interested or excited about your hero. Put them in a scenario that tells us who they are. The classic example of this is Indiana Jones going into the cave. More recently, Deadpool. Juno is a good example. The first Star Trek reboot. This option is a great choice if you’ve got a flashy main character. Throw him and all his glory at us immediately.
A teaser – If your story starts slowly, consider adding a teaser. The cool thing about teasers is they don’t have to linearly line up with your story right away. You could start with a scene from 200 years ago. You could jump to the end of the movie first, showing your main character dead. You can show a drug deal between two characters that gets ugly, despite it seemingly having nothing to do with your story yet. A teaser is an easy way to grab us right away. The Sixth Sense, an otherwise slow movie, starts with an intense break-in from six months ago where an old patient shoots our hero.
A story – This is the hardest thing to do, but the thing that best conveys you’ve written a good script. Write a first scene that’s a mini-movie in itself. Construct a scenario that has mystery or suspense or dramatic irony. Give it conflict or an unexpected twist. Make sure it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like a movie. The best example of this, in my book, is the opening scene in Fargo (the movie) where a husband meets two criminals who he’s hiring for an undisclosed crime. There’s mystery (we don’t yet know what he’s there for). There’s conflict (the other guys are pissed off that he made them wait for an hour and he won’t acknowledge it). There’s suspense (we have no idea what’s going to happen here. It could go any way). And an unexpected twist (they reveal that he’s hiring them to kidnap his wife). That last piece is what sets this scene apart from so many others. He’s not hiring them to kill a drug dealer. He’s hiring them to kidnap HIS WIFE. That bizarre request is what makes us want to watch the rest of this movie.
It should be noted that the first page may only carry a portion of the above four options. You don’t have to begin and end the scene in one page. But the point is, that first page will have a purpose, since we’ll see that it has a clear plan. Which means we’ll want to turn the page. And in the end, that’s the goal of screenwriting. To make the reader want to turn the page. As soon as they stop wanting to turn the page, your script is dead to them. And that process begins on the very first page of the script.
Premise: (from the Black List) An underwater earthquake decimates a research crew working at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, leaving two survivors with limited resources to ascend 35,000 feet and reach the surface before their life support runs out.
About: This script finished on the 2015 Black List with 6 votes. Newbie writer, Pete Bridges, would later sell his second script, The Fall, to Amblin Entertainment. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Writer: Pete Bridges
Details: 104 pages
Every time you come up with an idea, it’s going to be heavily weighted one way or the other. So you have a movie like The Force Awakens, plot-heavy with every character needing to do things and other characters trying to stop those things. Goals, stakes, urgency galore.
Then you have a movie like Manchester by the Sea. Almost no plot. A character-focused script if there ever was one. With that movie, it’s more about emotional beats, introspection, overcoming inner obstacles.
One of your jobs as a screenwriter is to identify which kind of idea yours is. Is it a plot-heavy idea? Or a character-heavy idea? Once you have your answer, form your plan of attack. And this is how that plan of attack should go:
If it’s a plot-heavy concept, YOUR PLOT MUST BE FUCKING AWESOME. This is what your idea is selling. The plot. So that plot better be something to write home about. If it’s a character-heavy concept, same thing. YOUR CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT and CHARACTER EXPLORATION better be the kind of thing that makes other writers shiver in their boots because they know that they can never touch your expertise on the character front.
The point is – whatever you’re selling your script on, that thing better be great.
Now here comes the second part. And this is the one most screenwriters screw up on. You still have to do a solid job in the other department. So if you have a plot-heavy script, you still need to spend some time making the characters compelling, going through tough inner obstacles, and having problems with one another.
Same with a character piece. Don’t forget you still need to add some plot.
Cause here’s the thing, see…
If you only focus on the side that you’re selling, your script is going to feel thin. Who here has watched an action movie or a thriller where you didn’t feel any emotion towards the characters? Or who here has watched one of those aimless character pieces that’s all about feelings and crying but GOES NOWHERE? That’s what I mean by thin.
The reason I don’t review scripts like Resurface as much anymore is because the writers who write them make this mistake all the time. They have this plot-heavy premise, which inevitably leads to them making both mistakes. The narrowness of the plot means it’s going to be predictable. And because it’s so plot-focused, the characters are going to be underdeveloped.
In that way, an idea like Resurface is fool’s gold. It seems so movie-friendly. And yet it has so many traps it can fall through. And I don’t even fault the writers of these movies for falling into these traps. While I was reading this, I thought, “You know, I probably would’ve made a lot of these same choices.”
The difference is, I know after reading a lot of these scripts how dangerous they are, so I know not even to attempt them.
This goes back to yesterday’s post where you’re always looking to find that angle into an idea that’s fresh. Because fresh angles create fresh scenarios. You’re not burdened with going through the “been there done that” checklist.
For example, with Resurface, you know you’re going to have a “losing air” situation. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. But when the audience already knows your dramatic scenarios before your film has begun, you’re at a disadvantage. The writer should always be ahead of the viewer, unless he wants them to be ahead of him.
Resurface follows Josh Strand and Hannah Bradford, co-workers with way too much sexual tension, working in a submersible in one of the deepest parts of the ocean. They’re joined by several other submersibles, finishing up a project they’ve been hired for, when there’s an underwater tectonic shift. We’re talking the sea-bed shifts an entire mile.
Everybody’s sub is damaged in the quake and, after the subs succumb to the damage one by one, Josh and Hannah find themselves the only ones left. And it’s not looking good. Their sub doesn’t even have power. They’re able to use a backup battery to get their sub to the nearby supply sub, and transfer everything into there.
The problem is, the supply sub wasn’t made for people, requiring Josh and Hannah to hack the system and turn this puppy into something that can take them to the surface. As you can imagine, that journey is fraught with a dwindling air supply and an unreliable GUI.
Meanwhile, Josh and Hannah try to make the best of the situation, slowly transforming from sarcastic jokes to expressing their true feelings for one another, which, it turns out, are love. Let’s just hope that love has the chance to last a lifetime.
I give credit to Bridges for doing the best with what he had. But I was so ahead of this story. Which is what I was afraid of to begin with. That the logline was the movie. The logline needs to convey the main conflict in the movie. But you then add twists and turns to keep things unexpected. There was nothing unexpected here. They encountered technical obstacles to getting to the surface and they talked to each other. That was it.
A good movie to compare this to is The Martian, as that script had a similar setup. Here’s what The Martian did that Resurface didn’t, though. IT GOT SPECIFIC. When you have a limited premise, specificity can become your best friend. Find things or research things that you know about that the audience doesn’t. That way, you’re feeding them new information. New information FEELS FRESH.
The perfect example of this is the potato growing sequence in The Martian. We don’t know anything about growing potatoes. It’s actually a pretty weird concept in the context of a movie about a guy stranded on Mars. But that’s exactly why it worked. It was UNEXPECTED, unique, different. And I know I keep harping on that word lately. But it’s so important as a screenwriter. If you’re not giving us unexpected things, then we know what’s going to happen in your story long before you show us.
On the character front, a screenplay like this is a huge challenge. Lots of screenwriters see the beginning of this idea, imagine two people in a sub, and think, “I’ll just come up with things for them to say to each other.” But them talking to each other is the whole movie. It will take up 100 minutes of the running time. It can’t just be “people talking.” It’s got to be a compelling situation between the two that evolves, that reveals, that changes, that’s UNEXPECTED.
And while I didn’t think Josh and Hannah’s situation was very compelling, I don’t pretend to know what would’ve worked better. You could’ve had two people that hated each other. But that’s kind of cliche. You could’ve had them be a married couple on the outs, but that’s cliche. You could have had them be divorced, forced into this sub by their boss. But that’s cliche.
This is the stuff that drives me crazy about screenwriting, is that there are a lot situations that have limited answers. I mean I’ll kick the question down to you guys. What would you have done with Josh and Hannah to make their storyline compelling? Because I learned early on that putting two people in a small trapped space for 100 minutes is a lot harder than it looks. What the f&*% are they going to say to each other for 2 hours?
And for that reason, I couldn’t get into Resurface. With that said, the writing is solid. The plot moves quickly. And there’s a bigger story here. With this script, Bridges got noticed. Once you get noticed, you’re in the game, and your odds of selling something increase tremendously. Bridges used the heat he got from Resurface to later sell The Fall to Steven Spielberg’s company. So it’s safe to say, everything worked out for the best.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Remember to add ticking time bombs to not just the entire plot, but to individual scenarios. There’s a scene early on in the script where they’re moving from the broken sub into the supply sub, and a battery is leaking so badly, that the whole thing could blow up in an instant. It added a nice bit of tension on top of what was already a tense scene. That’s good writing.
This high-profile spec sale achieves what many thought was impossible – it brings back the romantic comedy!
Genre: Romantic Comedy/Fairy Tale
Premise: When a fairy godmother is commissioned to help a young woman land the fairest prince in the land, things go awry when the godmother falls for the prince herself.
About: Fairy Godmother sold as a spec late last year to MGM. It comes from newbie screenwriter Chiara Atik, who honed her craft in the playwrighting world.
Writer: Chiara Atik
Details: 113 pages
May I suggest something to those of you scraping by on ramen noodles and that 3 year old bag of chicken cutlets in the back of your freezer?
LOOK INTO THE FAIRY TALE GENRE.
Let’s be honest. There aren’t a lot of lanes to sell spec scripts in at the moment. You’ve got your female John Wick-flicks. You’ve got your biopics. You’ve got a more recent and surprising fad – intense real-life story scripts (stuff dealing with Anne Frank or JFK’s mentally-challenged sister). And finally, you have the fairy tale world.
[note: This does not take into account whoever comes up with the next big fresh concept that starts the next spec-sale trend]
Studios buy fairy tale scripts because they’re IP without needing to pay for IP. Every person on the planet knows all the famous fairy tale tropes because they were all read to us when we were children. If the studios know that you know about something, that means they don’t have to do all of the work of explaining it to you when it’s time to advertise. They show you a fairy-tale world trailer and you know exactly what’s going on.
Familiarity gets butts in seats.
And the thing is, it really is a fertile ground for storytelling. No, that doesn’t mean you should write the 918th iteration of Cinderella. Simply find a new angle into the fairy tale world, then exploit it. It could be funny, it could be dark, it could be weird, it could be ironic, it could be scary, it could be mysterious. Bring some other genre or concept into the fairy tale world and you could have a spec sale faster than I can say, “You complete me.”
That’s what today’s writer, Chiara Atik, did. Atik took an age-old fairy tale trope, the young girl going to the ball who only has until midnight to win over the prince so the two can live happily ever after, and tells it from the point-of-view of the fairy godmother.
That fairy godmother’s name is Faye, a 40 year-old world-beater in the fairy godmother department. Faye works for a sort of “Fairy Godmother’s Incorporated” company, whereby families can hire a fairy godmother for a night to make their overly dramatic teenage daughters’ dreams come true.
And Faye has a nearly flawless record. Hell, she did Cinderella. But Faye’s about to meet her match in 18 year-old supermodel-in-training Kenzie, a hotter Selena Gomez if there is such a thing. Kenzie is, like, so obsessed with meeting the most eligible bachelor in the land, Prince Carl of Carbondale.
Faye makes a face like she’s just downed a bad shot of whisky and warns Kenzie that Prince Carl is kind of… well… promiscuous. Kenzie doesn’t care. All she wants is one night with the prince. That’s something Faye can manage, so she dresses Kenzie up for the big ball and looks forward to that big – cha-ching! – commission tomorrow morning.
Except that Kenzie is so nervous she demands that Faye come with her. Uhh, that’s not in the fairy godmother handbook, honey. But ya gotta do what ya gotta do. So Faye reluctantly joins her. Once there, Faye accidentally ends up in a back hallway with Prince Carl, who seems to… like her? Pfft, like she would ever get involved with a dumb young prince!
Cut to 20 minutes later, post-sex. What the hell did Faye just do??? I think you know where this red hood is riding. Kenzie, who’s unaware of her fairy godmother’s mishap, pleads with Faye to help her get Carl, and while Faye does just that – giving Kenzie a Pretty Woman style makeover – she keeps bumping into Carl herself, recharging the incredible chemistry the two have. But will the mature and responsible middle-age Faye really throw away her ideal job to be with a hot young piece of ass? Cue the juggling jester to find out!
One of the most common questions I get asked is, “How do I bring the romantic comedy back?” My response is uniformly, “Find a new way into the genre.” This answer is inevitably met with a second question: “How do I do that?”
Today’s script is how you do that.
Fairy Godmother is a romantic comedy. It has all the classic tropes laid out. The “uglier” main character helps the hot dumb client get the man, when all along our main character is falling in love with him as well.
The difference is: WE’RE NOT TELLING THAT STORY IN MODERN DAY NEW YORK CITY!
That’s the first way to make sure you’re not writing a cliche romantic comedy.
Instead, we’re getting the story 500 years ago in the fairy tale world. Now, had that been the only change Atik made, it wouldn’t have been enough. The secret sauce in Fairy Godmother was changing the character we usually see this scenario play out through. That’s what made the script spec-sale worthy.
On top of that, I loved that Fairy Godmother was racy. I mean, people have sex in this script. Our teenage co-lead initially just wants to have one night in Pound Town. In a fairy tale movie. It gave the story some edge and played against the squeaky clean fairy tale persona.
The only thing I had trouble with was that this 40 year old frumpy fairy godmother was so easily able to bag the most handsome prince in the land. That’s not to say Betty Crocker can’t bang Justin Bieber, but this is the kind of thing movies like Knocked Up get called out on all the time. That a guy who looks like Seth Rogen is able to get a woman who looks like Katherine Heigel.
In these instances, it is up to the screenwriter to convince us why this would happen. Is there a particular brand of humor the woman offers that’s right up the guy’s alley? Does she symbolize something that’s missing from his life? Do they connect in some unique way? I never got that answer here, and was always wondering what, exactly, Prince Carl saw in Faye that made him so easily overlook the most beautiful woman in the world.
Despite this, the ever-present charm of the script along with a seamless plot that never got in the way of the story (ahem, take some notes, Guardians 2), made up for any deficiencies the script had.
I also liked some of the offbeat choices Atik made, particular the one she made before the script even began. On the title page, she included a note that read: “Tonally, think a cross between My Best Friend’s Wedding and Into the Woods. Real, everyday people, who just happen to live in a Fairy Tale world.”
Screenwriting purists might scream out blasphemy at such a choice. Shouldn’t it be up to the writing alone to convey tone? But I find when it comes to comedy, tone can be tricky to get a handle on early. By letting us know right away exactly what the tone is, we go in knowing what kind of movie we’re reading. And, at least in this case, it was helpful.
Clever concept. Funny script. Solid execution. Totally see why this sold.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Clarity is important! This is something we don’t talk about much on the site but it’s often just as important as the creative side of writing. If we don’t understand what you’re saying, it doesn’t matter what you say. Here’s a rare mistake in Atik’s script. Take a look at this sentence.
Prince Carl is seated, eating breakfast. The only other two occupants are his balding, but affable older brother, PRINCE ALISTAIR, and his new(-ish) wife, PRINCESS GRISELDA.
What’s wrong with it? Well, it isn’t 100% clear whether Princess Griselda is the wife of Prince Alistair or Prince Carl. “…and his newish wife…” could be in reference to either. Now, at this point in the story, it had been made clear that Prince Carl was a bachelor, so I knew the answer. But I’ve read a lot of scripts where a sentence like this came early on, when familial connections hadn’t yet been disclosed, and a sentence like this provided a lot of confusion. Always err on the side of caution. So I’d go with something closer to…
Prince Carl is seated, eating breakfast. The only other two occupants are his balding, but affable older brother, PRINCE ALISTAIR, and Alistair’s new(-ish) wife, PRINCESS GRISELDA.
Premise: The guardians of the galaxy get split up when leader Peter Quill meets his estranged father for the first time, who promises Peter power beyond his wildest dreams.
About: Baby Groot!
Writer: James Gunn
Details: 136 minutes
On the surface, Guardians 2 has all the things required for summer blockbuster success. Action, humor, special effects, character development, at least three-dozen uses of the word, “family.”
So why did I leave the theater with a sad emoji face? Especially when the movie started off with one of the best blockbuster scenes ever? I’ll give you a hint. It has to do with screenwriting. So crippling were these screenwriting choices, I want to make sure I highlight all of them so that you guys never make these same mistakes yourselves.
For those who haven’t seen Guardians of the Fast and Furious, it follows our space-faring guardian group, Peter Quill, aka Starlord (Chris Pratt), Rocket Raccoon, Gamora, Baby Groot, and Drax, after they steal some next-level batteries from a group of Gold People. Afterwards, the Gold People hire mercenaries to chase the Guardians, which triggers a group split-up.
On the one side, Rocket Raccoon and Baby Groot are captured by the mercenaries. On the other, Starlord, Ghamorra and Drax, meet some dude, Ego, who claims to be Peter’s dad. Ego takes them to his utopian planet, tells Peter all about his past, and lets him know that this is all his, too, if he wants it. Life is good.
We bounce back and forth between the two storylines. Rocket and Baby Groot trying to escape the mercenaries, and Ego explaining their family history to Starlord. We gradually become suspicious of the all-too-perfect Ego, until we realize he wants to rule the universe. Like, literally. The ENTIRE UNIVERSE. Starlord will have to choose, then, between his real family (Ego) and his adopted one (The Guardians).
Guardians 2 starts out so damned good, I thought I was in for the best movie of the summer. The opening scene has the Guardians awaiting a giant blob monster they’ve been hired to kill. When the monster finally arrives, writer-director James Gunn makes the genius choice to not let us see the Guardians battle it. Instead, we focus on Baby Groot as he dances away on the sidelines.
Occasionally, we see bits of the battle spill into the background (Drax being hurled through the air, for example), but we never really see the fight. I can’t tell you how much I loved this scene. It wasn’t just an interesting choice, but an ingenious commentary by Gunn on the state of the modern blockbuster. He’s saying we’ve reached a state whereby we’ve seen so many giant monster movie battles, that we don’t even care if one happens off-screen.
And to Gunn’s credit, he sticks with that philosophy throughout the film. Gunn set out to make a character piece dressed in blockbuster clothes. However, in order to make ‘character’ compelling, you must make it entertaining. We don’t get that here. And there are a whole lot of reasons why.
The first is that the second act sucks. And when I say sucks, I mean it’s one of most boring second acts in recent memory. The reason for this is that Gunn chose to create TWO passive plotlines. The first plotline is people wandering around a planet talking about life (boring). And the second is characters being held captive (slightly less boring). In both instances, we’ve got people sitting around talking a lot. Not a smart decision for any film, but especially a summer blockbuster.
If you’re going to have a slow storyline, you need a more energetic storyline to contrast it against. For example, in Empire Strikes Back (another direct sequel), we have the slow moments of Luke training contrasted against the Empire’s intense pursuit of Han Solo. And even the “slow” storyline in that equation, Luke’s training, was still exciting and fun. It’s all slow all the time throughout Guardians’ second act. That’s because of another bad choice Gunn made.
**SCREENPLAY KILLER ALERT!!!**
The main problem with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is that its main character is the least active character in the movie. All Starlord does is follow people around. I don’t think he made a single choice in the first two acts. To create a main character this passive is a screenplay killer.
Because when you write a passive main character, you’re shooting yourself in the foot twice. First, passive heroes aren’t interesting. So you’re putting a boring person on screen for the majority of the running time. Secondly, if your main character isn’t active, then he’s not driving the story forward. So your plot suffers as well.
Look at Raiders. Look at how ACTIVE Indiana Jones is, and how his actions propel the plot forward every step of the way. That’s the power of a strong active hero.
I’m surprised that a seasoned writer like Gunn would make this mistake. My theory is that he liked his toys too much. He liked the quote-machine Rocket, the cute-machine Groot, and the goof-machine Drax. He figured that any slow passages would be alleviated by this trio’s zany comebacks and wily antics. And they are, to a certain extent. My favorite moments included Groot (as well as bad-guy-turned-good, Yondu). But that kind of stuff only works for so long. In a 2 hour movie, you need your ‘slow drama’ moments to be just as entertaining as your ‘fast drama’ moments.
This speaks to a problem a lot of writers have, which is they think “character-driven” means slow scenes where people talk about feelings. Watching Peter walk around for 40+ minutes confused about his daddy-issues isn’t entertaining. For character stuff to work, there needs to be drama, tension, conflict, suspense. And in blockbusters, you want most of your character work to play out via action and choice.
Take the current season of Fargo, which itself focuses on family. In the first episode, a fuck-up loser comes to the home of his successful brother to ask for money. There are no discussions about feelings, just the tension born out of a lifetime of conflict between these two brothers. This is how you explore character through action. We learn so much more about these brothers’ relationship through this tense conversation than had we sat around with them while they discussed their feelings about one another.
But let’s take that a step further. In the second episode of Fargo, the brothers DO have a direct discussion about their feelings. The fuck-up brother asks the successful brother if he’ll come outside to discuss a truce. The two get into some heavy thoughts about their relationship and ultimately apologize.
But it’s all a ruse. It’s a setup so the fuck-up’s girlfriend can sneak inside the brother’s house and steal something from him. So we’re cutting back and forth between them talking and her looking. This makes what would normally be a boring scene centered around feelings become a dramatically suspenseful one. Contrast that with Guardians, where it seems like there were 50 scenes of Ego (Peter’s dad) walking Peter around the planet talking about life and family and exposition. It’s really lazy, and therefore, boring.
The funny thing is, the one area where Gunn DID do this right – Gamora’s ongoing battle with her sister – didn’t register because Gamora was the least interesting character in the movie. So we didn’t care. This is another lesson. Give your big conflict relationships to your best characters, not the ones we don’t give two shits about.
I think Gunn had a four-prong attack for this screenplay he thought would be enough to make it work. First, theme. He believed the theme of the family you’re born into versus the family you choose would carry more weight than it did. As I’ve said here before, if you’re focusing more on getting your theme right than you are entertaining the audience, your script is screwed. Second, by splitting the group up, our need to see them get back together would be powerful enough that maybe we wouldn’t notice the slow pace. Third, he thought the eeriness of Ego would create more curiosity, making that section more suspenseful. And finally, he figured his cute toys could help distract from any of the script’s weaknesses.
The thing is, if you don’t have an active main character, especially in an action movie, it doesn’t matter what else you do. You’re putting yourself in a Houdini restraining suit every time you sit down to write. I don’t know why you would attempt that, and it proved to be the narrative choice that doomed Guardians 2.
[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: You can’t fix slow sections of a screenplay by adding additional cuteness and funniness. Yet another Baby Groot dancing scene will never solve a boring narrative. If you have slow sections in your story, there is something wrong with the foundation of your screenplay. Find out what’s wrong and those sections will fix themselves. Again, had Peter Quill been the active character driving this narrative, a lot of the slow sections in the script would’ve disappeared.
Commenter Challenge: I would love for commenters to list any good PASSIVE main characters in action or blockbuster movies. I think we did this once before but I can’t remember any good ones. How bout you guys?