Is The Umbrella Academy the cooler hipper version of Guardians of the Galaxy that we all deserved?
Premise: An oddball superhero family of brothers and sisters who broke up over a decade ago, must come together when their sister becomes involved in a dark musical plan to destroy the world.
About: The under-appreciated Dark Horse Comics is trying to get another major superhero movie made. Dark Horse is no stranger to film adaptations. They’re responsible for 300, Hellboy, and that Jean Claude Van Damme classic, Time Cop. But “The Umbrella Academy” would be a different beast entirely, a 200 million dollar summer popcorn extravaganza. Which is probably why it hasn’t been made yet. The oddball comic, created by My Chemical Romance frontman, Gerard Way, was purchased by Universal, who has been sitting on it for almost a decade, afraid to pull the trigger. This draft was written by Mark Bomback, who wrote the last two Planet of the Apes films everyone loved so much. Edit: Been informed that Netflix is adapting this now. Definitely better for television format, for all the reasons I bring up in the review.
Writer: Mark Bomback (based on the comic by Gerard Way)
Details: 116 pages
A superhero project that no one’s ever heard of?
And Universal, desperately in need of a superhero franchise, has the rights but isn’t actively developing it?
What, pray-tell, is going on here?
I don’t know why Universal is so anti-superhero. They have the rights to a surefire hit movie on their hands (The Hulk) yet refuse to make it. It’s possible they’ve been smelling themselves since that monster 2015. But now that their big monster franchise, Dark Universe, is D.O.A., they may go back to evaluating their library.
But is there room for any more superhero movies? I would say “No” but every time someone has declared the end of the superhero era, they’ve been wrong. Which means that if you can come up with something fresh and cool, something we haven’t quite seen before, you could strike gold. Is The Umbrella Academy that film?
Sir Reginald Hargreeves (a.k.a. “The Monocle,” a.k.a. an alien) is thrust into action when it’s been revealed that all around the world, 43 babies have been mysteriously birthed despite their mothers never having been pregnant. The Monocle knows that these kids are special, somehow, so he tries to snatch up as many of them as possible.
He’s able to adopt seven of them, which include, Spaceboy, the strongest of the group, Kraken, who can hold his breath for three weeks, Rumor, who can make anything happen simply by saying she heard a rumor about it, Seance, a psychic, The Boy, who can travel into the future, The Horror, who sports tentacles, and Vanya. Vanya is the only member of the family without powers. She’s just really good at playing violin.
The Umbrella Academy, as they are known, become insta-famous before insta-famousness was a thing. They’re like a superhero version of The Beatles. The problem is, they all hate each other and they’re constantly getting into fights. So the public gets sick of them and they all eventually break up and go their separate ways.
Ten years later, Vanya gets an audition to be in an orchestra. But the conductor proves to be a creepy little bugger, revealing that he’s created a piece of music that, when played in its entirety, will destroy the world. Vanya is the only musician good enough to play the violin for the piece, and before she can say no, he puts her in a trance, forcing her to play.
Meanwhile, the academy’s father dies, bringing the family back together. When The Boy shows up – still ten years old by the way – he reveals that he’s just spent the last 60 years in the future, farting around. Oh, one more thing, he says. The future is an apocalyptic wasteland. And according to his calculations, the point of destruction happens in TWELVE HOURS.
The superhero family who hates each other now must figure out who’s destroying the world and stop them. When they realize it’s their own sister, they’ll have to make one hell of a tough choice. Kill their own fam or let the world burn.
Oh, and there’s a monkey that talks too. His name is Pogo.
When you have a ton of exposition and world-building in your story, as is the case with The Umbrella Company, you’re going to have to make some cuts somewhere. You’re going to have to sacrifice scenes or characters or backstory SOMEWHERE. Because if you try and include it all, your script is going to drown under the weight of its own ambition.
This is why I promote simplicity so much. Week after week, month after month, year after year, it’s the only piece of screenwriting advice that holds true for every story and every situation. Get down to the bare-bones of your story, figure out what it’s going to be about, and avoid adding shit that doesn’t matter.
The first 20 pages of The Umbrella Academy is one giant montage of exposition setting up this incredibly complex family. I mean you have non-pregnant women having babies. Talking monkeys. You have kids named 00.01, 00.02, 00.03, who then each get new names, who then each get powers, who we then watch grow up, love each other, hate each other, become stars, break up.
Once that sequence is over, we meet all of these characters AGAIN, but this time as adults. So it’s essentially a second set of full introductions. All of that takes up the first 40 pages.
Now here’s the thing. We will care more about these characters if we meet them when they’re young. There’s no question about that. The longer you know a character, the more you know about them, the more you care about them. But this is what I’m talking about. We’re not operating in a screenwriting utopia where the audience will gladly sit around for four hours while we tell our story.
The audience is the exact opposite. They’re easily bored, easily distracted, and don’t have time to waste. So that means EVEN THOUGH it would be better for character development if we met The Umbrella Academy when they were kids, we need to make sacrifices somewhere. And the first sacrifice probably needs to be made with that opening sequence. Start us when these characters are adults and imply their past.
And I say that factoring in multiple variables, such as the fact that we’re covering SEVEN DIFFERENT CHARACTERS here. If this were about ONE superhero, and therefore we’d be able to set his past up in 1/7th the amount of time, I would be okay with starting this movie in the past. But that’s not the case. We have a ton of characters to cover.
Unfortunately, The Umbrella Academy is battling this issue throughout its screenplay. It’s always one part fun, two parts exposition. And writers have to remember that reading needs to be fun. If it’s work, the script isn’t working. And I know when a script is work because I’m taking notes the whole time. That’s what was happening here. Note after note after note.
And it’s too bad, because I think there’s something to this. It’s sort of like X-Men meets Guardians of the Galaxy, but with its own unique voice, with its own unique aesthetic. I love that this is, at its heart, a story about family. I love that there’s an organic wedge that’s been driven between this family, creating conflict that can be milked in basically every dialogue scene between the family members.
And it’s a different kind of conflict than appears in Guardians. In Guardians, the key players didn’t know each other before they teamed up. So the conflict was more surface-level. Here, the conflict is dripping with history. There’s so much subtext to the conversations because of how deep these rifts go.
And props for writers who finally came up with an original villain with an original plan. In all of these superhero movies and scripts I’ve read, I haven’t come across one with a world-ending concerto.
I didn’t love The Umbrella Company, but I think there’s something here that they should keep developing. It reminds me a bit of Internet Explorer. That used to be the best web browser. But then they kept adding shit and adding shit and adding shit until it became bloated beyond function. That allowed for streamlined browsers to come in and steal their market share. That’s what The Umbrella Company needs to do. It needs to streamline.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you have to include exposition on virtually every page of your script, you’re trying to include too much. This can happen to writers who are trying to be loyal to the source material or writers who want to be truthful to the event they’re depicting (a World War 2 battle they’ve researched extensively, for example). But keep in mind that the audience member just wants a good story. They don’t want to have to take notes for two hours to understand what’s going on.
Genre: Comedy/Satire/True Story
Premise: (from Black List) The remarkable true story of an unremarkable church-going accountant who stole $17 million in the biggest fruitcake heist of all time.
About: This is the breakthrough script from Trey Selman, which made last year’s Black List. When asked in an interview at the Austin Film Festival how it all happened, he answered: “For years it was an unremarkable pursuit as I rolled along – finishing script after script – that no one ever read, until I finally wrote something that people wanted to read. Getting your start in screenwriting always reminds me of what Hemingway wrote, “How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
Writer: Trey Selman
Details: 107 pages
My reaction to “The Fruitcake” can be boiled down to my reaction of the script’s first sentence. “A massive split lane chugging between the breast augmentations of Dallas and the refried smog of Houston,” is how Selman describes the I-45 highway.
On the surface, I like that line. But when I start thinking about it, I’m not really sure what it means. What’s “refried smog?” Do they cook smog in Houston? It’s a weird analogy. And that confusion would happen a lot during my read.
Then again, “The Fruitcake” is a satire. And satire has always been a genre that confuses me. I feel like it’s smarter than I am. Therefore, even if it’s bad satire, I’m always assuming it’s me who’s the problem, not it. I don’t know. I’m starting to confuse myself here. Lots of confusion in today’s review and we haven’t even got to the plot summary yet.
Sandy and Kay Jenkins live in Corsicana, a rich little town in the famous (infamous?) state of Texas. Corsicana is best known for one thing – it’s the home of Collin Street Bakery, where the majority of the world’s fruitcakes are made.
Over the years, fruitcakes have become somewhat of a joke. Nobody knows anybody who’s actually eaten one of them. Yet they’re one of the most gifted foods of the holiday season, the solid state version of eggnog.
Don’t tell that to Collin Street, though. They pull in 40 million dollars a year on their fruitcakes. Those little nut and dried fruit patties are like gold. Which is why Sandy Jenkins is so damn confused why he’s not reaping any of the benefits of the business. He’s been an accountant at the company for a decade. He’s the ultimate team-player. He’s friendly. Yet he’s always passed over when it comes time for a promotion.
The truth is that Sandy is kind of a weirdo – the guy at work who wants to be your friend a little too badly. And his wife, Kay, isn’t helping matters. She’s practically begging her richer housewife neighbors to be in their book clubs, even though she hates books. She also says awkward stuff like, “Well, I don’t think we should celebrate until you’re pissing in high cotton, Sandy,” which is a sentence that I don’t understand.
Convinced he’s paid his dues, Sandy stops waiting for the American dream, and instead takes it. He writes himself, we’ll just say, a “secret check” from the company. At first he buys a Lexus. Then a 5000 dollar suit. Then a Bentley. Then a Porsche. Pretty soon he’s paying for 100,000 dollar parties every month.
Meanwhile, the company president, Bob McNutt, is trying to figure out why their foolproof business is losing so much money. He starts looking into it, all the while watching Sandy show up in a new car every day with a new suit every day, with a new watch every day. Gosh, he thinks, if Sandy would stop buying all this nonsense and invest his money into the company, they probably wouldn’t be in the red right now.
That’s how clueless Bob is on the matter. But, come on, how long can you really steal 300 grand a month from your company and get away with it? Believe it or not, a lot longer than you think.
If you liked movies such as Jack Black’s “Bernie” or highly celebrated 2010 Black List script, “Butter,” you’ll like “The Fruitcake.” It’s in that vein. But I struggled with it. My biggest issue was that I felt it was all overwritten.
For example, a basic beat where Sandy gets mad at himself while eating is described as such: “He BASHES his hands down. And like a volcano of reheated Tex-Mex, caloric chaos plumes high.” That’s a very over-thought sentence. And the whole script reads like that.
Dialogue such as: “Alright is a saddle on a donkey, Scott. I’m a four point harness in a Ferrari,” and “Arrived? We’re about to drive an eighteen wheeler of nitroglycerin right through the aristocracy of Corsicana!”
The reason I have a problem with this, particularly on the dialogue side, is that our two main characters, Sandy and Kay, never once speak like real people. They speak in over-the-top analogies the whole time. So how can I take them seriously?
It’s my belief that a movie can only work if you care about the characters involved. And in the case of The Fruitcake, we’re clearly spending the entire script making fun of these people. So why would I care about them?
But The Fruitcake has problems that go beyond that. Once Sandy starts stealing, the script keeps hitting the same beat over and over again – which is Sandy buying more and more stuff. That goes on for like 50 pages.
For the most part, a script is divided into eight sequences of 12-15 pages. Whatever “beat” you’re trying to convey, you want to limit it to one of those sequences. Once you move to the next 12-15 page sequence, you want to focus on something new!
That’s not to say that Sandy can’t keep buying shit in the other sequences. But that can’t be the ONLY thing that’s going on in the story for 50 pages. You need other plot beats to come into play.
For example, towards the end of the story, the FBI secretly catches Sandy, but they tell Bob McNutt if they’re going to convict him, Bob needs to catch him in the act of stealing. That’s a new sequence you could build right there – Bob trying to catch Sandy in the act.
Unfortunately, in the current draft, that moment doesn’t come until 10 pages left in the screenplay. So it’s an opportunity missed. But that’s what I mean. You gotta keep introducing fresh plot directions that make the current 15 pages feel different from the previous 15.
With that said, I liked a few things about the script, such as the fact that Sandy was the ultimate fruitcake. That actors love to play parts like this. And The Fruitcake is doing something different. We’ve got all these true stories showing up on The Black List. At least The Fruitcake is being unique in the way it tells its story. It wasn’t for me. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be for you.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Murder or Money. Murder or Money are the easiest way to write low-budget character-driven screenplays that are still marketable (and therefore still have a chance to sell). How does it work? Just make sure, at the core of your premise, is either murder or money. That’s it. In The Fruitcake’s case, it was money. In The Big Short. Money. In Fargo. Murder. In Wind River. Murder. Murder or Money, baby. Two things the world is fascinated with.
Congratulations to Logan Martin, the writer of “Meat,” who just signed with Good Fear this week! They’re going to go out with the script this weekend. So if you’re a producer or financier whose interested in “Meat,” make sure to get in touch with Good Fear by tomorrow.
Regardless of whether you liked the script or not, this is a win for screenwriters. Logan grew up in North Dakota and lives in Florida. So he’s about as far away from Hollywood as an American can get. If he can get a legitimate shot, why can’t you?
“Meat” is also a win for those writers with unique voices. I believe there are a lot of readers out there like me who are so sick of the current trend that they can’t wait to read a script that’s the complete opposite. And that’s what Meat was. It was the anti “Female John Wick.”
With that said, if you have a fresh take on a trend, by all means, I’m up for that too. In fact, I’m giving a Female John Wick a shot this week. Let’s hope it doesn’t disappoint! But mostly, I’m up for a fresh take on a familiar idea with intriguing/compelling characters who have to resolve some issues before their 100 pages are up.
How to play Amateur Offerings: Read as much of each script as you can and submit your winning vote in the comments section. Winner gets a script review next Friday!
If you’d like to submit your own script to compete on Amateur Offerings, send a PDF of your script to firstname.lastname@example.org with the title, genre, logline, and why you think your script should get a shot. Good luck!
Title: Siege Perilous
Logline: A UFO Investigator gets in way over his head when he stakes out a space observatory that has secretly recorded radio signals from another world.
Why you should read: Siege Perilous was a semi-finalist in the Page Awards this year. Didn’t make the finals, but the feedback has been positive. Though it’s a sci-fi thriller, the script is a love letter to kids who’ve grown up in a single parent home or just felt like they didn’t know their place in the world. Tonally, it’s a cross between Spielbergian optimism and Fincher’s cynicism. Enjoy, I hope.
Title: The Seventh Rule
Genre: Contained Psychological Thriller
Logline: In order to save his kidnapped daughter and earn a chance at redemption, an abusive father is forced to work with and trust the stranger suffering from amnesia he has tied-up in his basement, even as it becomes increasingly clear that this man is involved in her disappearance.
Why you should read: We won’t bore you with the details of contest finishes, though they do exist as we have been paying our dues for roughly a decade. All you need to know is that THE SEVENTH RULE won’t disappoint you. It has GSU and is a quick and entertaining read. It is marketable with strong leads and limited locations. It takes risks (such as the first line of dialogue not being spoken until page 5), and we hope it forces the reader to take sides even if that gamble works against us later. We want you (and anyone else that reads it) to have a reaction. If you’re not engaged and curious after the first 10 pages, we’ll understand if you want to stop reading, but our bet is that you won’t put it down. Enjoy!
Title: 100 Proof
Logline: Animal House Goes to Hell. A geeky college freshman joins a fraternity that’s secretly run by a Lovecraftian cult.
Why You Should Read: Many moons ago, I was in a fraternity at a major party school and while I do not recommend anyone ever joining such an organization, I believe the experience provided me insight into the mindset of powerful, rich and predominately white men, such as the current US president. This script is a horror satire meant to skewer that mindset.
Title: CLUB LAVENDER
Genre: 1 hour DRAMA
Logline: Club Lavender follows a transgender cabaret singer forced to go undercover for the fbi to infiltrate a gay private club run by an alleged communist gangster.
Why you should read: My script received a recommend on the trackingboard.com in 2016 and yet nobody would touch it because it was too niche. This was when transgenderism was beginning to get mainstream news after Caitlyn Jenner’s recent reveal. Now it’s a year later and I believe it’s the right time for more daring television surrounding controversial matters. Most importantly, my script exists in the new age of television and as such, takes a no hold’s barred approach to the aspects of story realism and grit. So read at your own caution.
Title: A GOOD DEATH
Logline: When the mob kills her fiancé and comes after her, a former prostitute uses years of street survival skills to take the mob on head-on in a bloody battle for survival and revenge.
Why you should read: Samantha (“Sammy”) is my answer to the unrealistic “super-women” Hollywood has been giving us. The victim of a tragic childhood, she ran away from home when she was thirteen and learned to survive on the Chicago streets alone. Yeah, she’s special. If she wasn’t, she’d be dead. She’s an athlete and she’s smart, street-smart. She has more than her share of flaws, but her many friends know they can count on her if they need help. And she’s a survivor. She won’t go down easy. A strong female protagonist, plenty of action, a high body count, betrayals, twists, a woman’s desperate struggle to survive. That’s Sammy’s story. I would really appreciate getting comments/suggestions on it.
The other day, I was talking to a friend. He’s more a director than a writer. So he doesn’t write unless he has to. And it so happens this is one of the rare times he’s writing one of his scripts. He said he could use my help. So I met with him and we talked through a bunch of ideas regarding the characters and the plot, and by the time I left, I felt like the script was ready to go.
A couple of days later I called and asked how the writing was going. “It’s not,” he said. I naturally asked, “Why not?” There was a long pause. “Because I don’t even know where to start.”
I live and breathe screenwriting. I know all the ins and outs of the medium. So it’s easy for me to forget that for many people, looking at 110 blank pages is like looking down into an endless black hole. The prospect of knowing where to begin, and then of how you’re going to fill in all those pages, seems impossible.
I’m hoping to erase that fear today. To give you all a little guidance. You see, to write a great script, your writing must have PURPOSE. We, the reader, must feel like you have a plan in place – that you’re bringing us somewhere. So before you do anything with your script. Before you write a single word. You need to know HOW YOUR STORY ENDS.
Think about it. How can your driving have purpose if you don’t know where the trip ends?
I call this: The Check Point Method.
You set yourself a series of check points to write towards. And you start with your ending. That’s going to be your final check point.
How do you come up with an ending if you haven’t even started your script yet? It’s easier than you think. What is the problem that sends your hero on his/her journey? Once you have that, you know what they must do to solve the problem. And the climax will be their attempt to solve it.
In Wonder Woman the problem is the evil German baddie who’s waging World War 1. The climax, then, will be her battling that villain, trying to take him down.
If you were to, say, came up with an idea about a group of kids in a small town who start seeing a creepy clown, it’s pretty clear how that script should end. They will have to battle the clown! So there you go. You’ve just identified your climax. Which gives you your first check point to write towards.
That check point is still really far away, isn’t it? You’ve given your script SOME purpose. But it still has the potential to wander around in circles before it gets to that final check point. Which means we need MORE check points!
The big plot beat that comes before the climax is the second act climax. What typically happens at the end of the second act is you main character reaches his lowest point. The bad guy gets away. The hero loses his girlfriend. Your NAVY SEAL’S entire team is killed. Your character has hit rock bottom.
Which means that for your second check point, all you have to do is figure out how your hero reaches his lowest point. In “It,” for example, all the friends get in a fight and break up. They leave one another. How the hell can they defeat It if none of them are talking to each other? Look at that. Another check point’s been added that’s even closer to the start of the script than the climax. All of a sudden, this giant black hole isn’t looking so giant anymore. Crafting a story starts to seem possible.
Let’s keep it rolling and find another major plot beat that happens even closer to the beginning. For example, in “It,” you have that haunted house the kids always see. You know you’re going to have to build a set piece into that haunted house somewhere. You may not know what the scene is yet. But you know something big needs to happen there. So, once again, you make that another CHECK POINT. “Kids get stuck in house for some reason. Major battle occurs there.” We’ve just added a third major check point to the story. This isn’t looking difficult at all.
By this point, we’re almost backed up to our midpoint. The midpoint is usually when a major plot beat occurs, something that adds another dimension to the story or sends it off in an unexpected direction. You could argue that in “It,” this occurs when the “Losers Club” fends off the bullies and befriends Mike Hanlon. A new member has joined the group. An EVEN CLOSER check point to write towards. The script, now, is even smaller.
We also know that early on, we want a series of scenes where It scares the children. That can become our first major check point of the movie – “Each kid gets scared by It in a unique way.” That means that after your script’s opening, when you set up your characters, you have FIVE CHECK POINTS to write towards.
1) Series of scenes where kids get scared by It
2) The Losers group befriends Mike Hanlon after fighting off the bullies.
3) Big haunted house set piece.
4) Friends break up.
5) Friends battle It.
The idea with these check points is to make it so you always have something to write towards, which means your story always has purpose. If you don’t set up these check points ahead of time, you’ll find yourself scrambling for plot ideas and story directions, which inevitably lead the story nowhere. If you’ve ever run out of steam on a screenplay around pages 40-60, this is usually why.
Now remember, you don’t have to limit yourself to five check points. You can include as many check points as you want. And I’d argue that the more you figure out ahead of time, the better. The writers of “It,” for example, may have known beforehand that they wanted “It” to kidnap Beverly near the end, which motivated the Losers to regroup and go after It. So you’d slip that check point in between numbers 4 and 5.
To truth is that the less check points you have, the more likely you are to get lost. If you have to cover even 20 pages in your script with no check points to write towards, there’s a good possibility that that section will lose focus.
Also, you don’t have to start at the climax like I did and work your way backwards. I just find it easier because the two easiest plot beats to figure out are the Climax and the Hero’s Lowest Point. And both are at the end. Feel free to start forming check points at the beginning if you want. Just make sure you have your ending figured out before you start writing. That’s the one non-negotiable check point. Your climax guides the entire story as well as all the check points before it. So you want to have that one down.
I find that one of the most common issues in amateur screenplays is an unfocused narrative. The writer doesn’t have a plan. And a lot of that comes from not having your major plot beats figured out ahead of time. Figure those plot beats out, CHECK POINT THEM, then write towards each, one at a time. Keep it simple guys. That’s the name of the game.
Premise: An Air Force Lieutenant assigned to debunk UFO sightings has a sighting of his own, which changes his approach to life.
About: This is that often-talked about draft of Close Encounters of the Third Kind that Spielberg did a complete rewrite of. How drastically did he change things? And why mess with a script written by one of the best screenwriters of the 70s? Paul Schrader had written Taxi Driver and would go on to write American Gigolo, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ. He was also utilized as the number one script doctor of that era.
Writer: Paul Schrader
Details: 133 pages
I’ll start this review off with a giant thank you. Thank you, Steven Spielberg, for making sure this version of Close Encounters never saw the light of day.
I’ll go one step further. The ineptitude of this script makes me retroactively question Taxi Driver. I now wonder whether that movie was one of those lucky accidents, an accumlation of many different contributors coming together to make something great in spite of a weak screenplay. Because, when you think about it, Taxi Driver is a pretty messy script. I suppose I should give credit to Schrader for creating a great character. But that narrative was always all the hell over the place.
We see the same with Kingdom Come, a bizarre excuse for a UFO movie that feels like it was written in eight different sections and pieced together on an assembly line. To say this script is a mess is an understatement. And it forever alters how I see the screenwriter who is Paul Schrader.
It’s 1960 and Paul VanOwen, a 40 year-old Air Force Lieutenant, has been given the unenviable task of investigating UFO sightings. These sightings are happening more and more often across the country, and as far as VanOwen is concerned, they’re all hogwash.
Then a big one comes along – a series of sightings in the small town of Clarenceville, Indiana. VanOwen goes down there with a small team to tell anyone who believes in this nonsense that they’re a moron. But then, while driving back to his hotel one night, he has a close encounter with an alien ship.
VanOwen’s entire outlook changes, to the point where he’s begging the U.S. Government to give UFOs a legitimate look. They end up telling him to screw off, but later on, VanOwen is cornered by a secret group who call themselves “Project Grief.” These are the REAL government UFO investigators, so Top Secret that their own government doesn’t even know of their existence. Huh?
They ask VanOwen if he wants to join, but concede he’ll have to leave his family and pretend he’s dead to do so. Sure! He says, without a second thought. Cut to 13 years later and VanOwen is still on the hunt for that perfect UFO case, the one that’s going to finally reveal that UFOs are, indeed, real.
Unfortunately, Project Grief spends most of its time sitting around waiting, not unlike firefighters between fires. The only difference is that it takes a lot longer for a UFO sighting to come along than it does a fire. Which means lots of waiting. And waiting. Oh, and did I mention waiting?
Eventually, a big sighting comes along, and it’s time to find out if all this hard work is going to pay off. Too bad for VanOwen and the rest of his team that everyone who’s read this script has fallen asleep by this point and will never find out what happens. Including Steven Spielberg himself.
This was baaaaaad. Michael Jackson Bad. Jamon.
I’m not even sure what I just read.
It’s funny. There are always these stories about these “alternate drafts” of famous movies that are so much better than what was filmed. EVERY TIME I’ve read one of these supposed “better” drafts, they’ve turned out to be awful.
It’s geeks trying to conjure up controversy despite it making ZERO sense to film an inferior draft. I mean, why would anybody knowingly do that? At worst, the other drafts are DIFFERENT. A different vision from a different person. But they’re never better.
With that said, there are still a couple of debate-worthy screenwriting topics here. The first is our main character. Schrader’s hero is a military man right in the middle of the action. Whereas Spielberg’s Roy Neary was a nobody family man nowhere near the action.
If you’re a studio, you’re probably favoring Schrader’s hero. You typically want your main character as close to the action as possible. And if VanOwen is an air force UFO investigator, he’s going to be have lots of opportunities to get into interesting situations with UFOs, the military, and the government.
Roy Neary has to see all of these things from the outside, which is arguably not as interesting.
But maybe this is part of Spielberg’s genius. Despite so many writers favoring the military man route, Spielberg’s always liked the “ordinary man stuck in an extraordinary circumstance” setup. And I think it works because the ordinary man is more relatable. I don’t personally know any CIA or FBI agents. But I know plenty of regular dudes. It could easily be you, then, who had that close encounter. You’re just like Roy Neary!
But where Spielberg really shows his brilliance is in how he takes everything that Schrader TELLS, and turns it into a SHOW. Show don’t tell. Show don’t tell. Show don’t tell. This is Screenwriting 101, arguably the first thing they teach you about the medium. For Schrader to have no concept of SHOW DON’T TELL is baffling.
His entire opening is people talking about their sightings. We don’t see any sightings. We just hear people talking about their sightings. How does Spielberg start Close Encounters? It’s show after show after show. It’s the air traffic room sequence. It’s running into a desert to see a bunch of planes that went missing 30 years ago having returned out of nowhere. It’s giant groups of people chanting a mysterious alien melody.
And if there’s a lesson to learn from this abysmal script, it’s that. Scharder was thinking LIKE A WRITER. Spielberg was thinking LIKE A FILMMAKER. He realized he had to SHOW the audience something. That having characters engage in pages of recollections about the UFOs they saw wasn’t going to be interesting to watch. So keep that in mind guys. You’re writers. But you’re writers FOR THE SCREEN.
Kingdom Come becomes laughably bad as it continues. At one point, VanOwen shows up at his old family home, 15 years after he suddenly disappeared from his family’s lives, and his wife is surprised by his arrival for all of one second before she casually suggests, “Come inside. Let’s talk about what you’ve been up to.”
The dialogue here is routinely awful. Here’s an example. Late in the script, a couple of years after Project Grief has dispersed, VanOwen, still working for the government, runs into Judy, an ex-member of the group. She starts the conversation…
“What are you doing? What’s going on?”
“Judy, you know I can’t tell you. You’re on the outside now.”
“I can keep a secret.”
“But I can’t tell you.”
“But I spent four years in the Project. It was a very big part of my life. I have to know if anything’s happened.”
“Come on, let’s have lunch and talk about other things. Let’s enjoy the sunshine.”
I mean, in a way, it’s almost encouraging. You have this titan of screenwriting writing garbage dialogue. If he struggles, it’s obviously okay for the rest of us to struggle as well.
Schrader keeps the hits coming, at one point sending us out into the stars and into a nebula shaped like a vagina. I guess the acid really was flowing back in the 70s.
I can only imagine Spielberg taking one look at this script and saying, “What the fuck is wrong with you, dude? I’m trying to make a movie here. Not Easy Rider 2: A Junkie’s Jaunt Through the Milky Way” (but, you know, in that nice Spielberg way where he doesn’t let on that he’s never going to call you again).
I wish I could say there was anything good about this but there isn’t. It’s the screenwriting equivalent of an interstellar vagina.
[x] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Make sure to have a plan for your script beyond your first act. Or else after the act is over, you’ll be flailing in the wind trying to come up with plot beats and story threads. And you’ll convince yourself that it’s coming together. But trust me. When the reader reads it, they know you have no clue where you’re going. I say this because Schrader at least knew what he wanted to do with the first act here – send VanOwen to a town that was experiencing a UFO flap. But he didn’t have a clue what was going to come next. And it caught up to him. The power of outlining, guys!