Labor Day Schmabor Day. Scriptshadow doesn’t take days off. What is Labor Day anyway? A day off in celebration of “labor”? We need more holidays like that. Here’s my question. Us U.S.’ers have been around 300 years and we have about a dozen holidays that give us days off. How is it for you countries who have been around for 2000 years? Do you guys have like 100 holidays? Every other day must be a holiday. What am I even talking about right now? Back on point. Today, we actually have a spec sale to cover. Outside of Fuckbuddies – which was really a replacement for the case of the disappearing Cameron Crowe – we haven’t had many of these lately, cause there just haven’t been that many. Which means all of you are slacking! Get out there and sell some scripts so I can review them! – I haven’t read Barnaby James but from the description, it just goes to show that you don’t need to write the next high-concept comedy or thriller to sell a script in this town. And that if you have a script that’s a little different, Appian might be interested (remember – DiCaprio bought the very “un”spec-like “The Low Dweller”) – As for the rest of the week, expect a rare double-review where I team up with one of our readers to tackle the latest from one of the bigger writers in town (and someone I’ve reviewed a few scripts from on the site already). Also expect another rarity: Me reviewing a horror script. A horror script I thought was quite good in fact. Also we’ll take a trip back to a script that Spielberg, when he read it, said was the best script he’d ever read up to that point. The script never got made. Also, I’m learning that Spielberg says that kind of thing a lot. And as for the final review, we’ll keep that a mystery for now. Here’s Roger Balfour with his review of The Many Deaths Of Barnaby James…
Genre: Horror, Dark Fantasy
Premise: A teenage apprentice in a macabre circus for the dead yearns to bring his true love back to life, but not before encountering the many dangerous and gothic characters that stand in his way.
About: 2008 Black List script. Sold to Appian Way in March, 2009. Remember, Appian is Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company. Nathanson is repped by CAA and Benderspink. His script “The Occasionally Interesting Anti-Adventures of an Unnamed Girl” is in development with Scott Rudin at Disney.
Writer: Brian Nathanson
Details: 114 pages (undated)
You ever wonder what the world would be like if Chuck Palahniuk wrote “Something Wicked This Way Comes”? Or what if John Bellairs had a love-child with the Blood Countess herself, Elizabeth Bathory, and their baby boy grew up to write screenplays?
Yeah, these thoughts never occurred to me either, until “The Many Deaths of Barnaby James” found its way onto my hard-drive.
Let’s all pretend it’s a late cider day. The once green leaves have faded to blood-red and autumn herself has wrapped her crisp cloak around your shoulders. Gather ‘round the fire and focus on Roger in the chair as he tells you the one about Barnaby James and his many deaths.
Once upon a time…
…there was a transgendered club owner who called herself Lady Liberty. Spindle-shank skinny and all tattoos and lipstick, a spiked tiara protrudes out of her bluish-green wig. She’s the force of nature behind The Pound, the Mortecita den of sin where the especially seedy and select can be serviced by boys and girls appareled in scant, bordello-red leather.
If your name’s Callahan, you’re probably interested in other taboos of the flesh. Lady Liberty can accommodate you, too. As a VIP, you’ll be escorted past Malacoda, the chain-wielding bouncer, and led into the basement that’s fondly referred to as The Meat Room.
And there you will find stacked glass cases that align the walls like some Freak Show exhibit curated by Eli Roth or Darren Lynn Bousman. Because inside each glass case is a prisoner, a live human being on display as if they were action figures at Toys ‘R Us. It’s a veritable smorgasbord for those who have a taste for American red meat.
Just seeing this live menu causes your eyes to turn yellow, your fangs to jut out.
It triggers The Change.
Because if your name’s Callahan, you’re also a feeder. One of the cursed. And the cursed gotta eat. But don’t touch Play-Thing, the mangled, gibbering mass of scar tissue with female genitalia. She’s already reserved for someone else. But that plump brunette next to her? She’s all yours, friend.
But this story isn’t about Lady Liberty or Callahan or the other characters that populate this story. Not really. This is about Barnaby James. Everyone else is more or less a monstrous obstacle on Barnaby’s Campbellian road of trials slash rite of passage.
Who’s this Barnaby chap and what’s with this many death business?
You know anything about Saint Nicholas? And I don’t mean Santa Claus, although this dude’s the prototype. No? Well, he’s a miracle worker of sorts. There’s the legend about the malicious butcher that lured three children into his house. He killed them and put the butchered remains in barrels. Saint Nicholas is the dude that saw through the butcher’s ruse and resurrected the slain children.
I mention this legend for two reasons. 1) Resurrection is both crux and MacGuffin in this dark fairy tale and 2) when we first meet Barnaby he’s digging up a grave in the Church of St. Nicholas cemetery.
Barnaby’s a grave boy.
He works for Azlon. Azlon is showman, businessman, barker and owner of the Black Top. The Black Top is a mysterious travelling carnival and circus. Think Vaudeville cross-pollinated with the Grand Guignol. A sprinkle of Caligari here and a dash of Rob Zombie’s “Living Dead Girl” there.
And, oh yeah, all of the performers are resurrected corpses.
Azlon possesses a wand. It’s about ten inches long. Metallic. It has ancient writing and strange swirling symbols chiseled into its sides.
Now here’s the racket. Grave boys like Barnaby dig up these corpses, and Azlon arrives with his wand. He jams the wand into a specific spot between the corpse’s neck and chest. The wand plunges into the flesh and leaves a telling mark on the body. Purple ichor bubbles out of the mark, enlivening decayed flesh, making the body new again. The deal is, these people are given a second chance at life, but it’s in servitude to Azlon and his Black Top.
You don’t like the terms of the deal, say hello to the business-end of Azlon’s other wand — his boom-stick. After all, the Reaper will gladly chaperone you six feet under for a second time.
Now, Barnaby, he doesn’t remember much before his life with the Black Top. He doesn’t remember how he died. He remembers that he was raised in an orphanage. He remembers that he was rescued from the orphanage by a farmer. He remembers that he worked as a farmhand.
And he remembers Delilah.
He remembers her porcelain skin, her red hair. He remembers that he loved her. He still loves her. He loves her. And every time the Black Top passes through Mortecita, the longing for Delilah becomes overwhelming. Because Mortecita is Delilah-Ground Zero. It was their home before all the bad came to pass, and it’s her home now.
Mortecita is the resting place for Delilah’s corpse.
And every year Barnaby begs Azlon to resurrect her. She’s an angel. She’s so beautiful she could be a lead attraction. It’s how Rob Zombie must feel about Sheri Moon Zombie. But every year Azlon must dissuade the boy. But this year, Barnaby is not going to take ‘No’ for an answer.
Barnaby steals Azlon’s wand and escapes the Black Top. He embarks on a journey to find the final resting place of sweet Delilah so that he can resurrect her. Lovers reunited.
You still haven’t told us about Barnaby’s many deaths…
And spoil the fun? Okay, I’ll throw out some bones.
Barnaby has a huge problem. And that problem is the bounty hunter employed by the Black Top. They call him The Fiddler. He’s sort of an assassin-troubador. A murderous minstrel. Has a nasty switchblade attachment on his fiddle bow. Likes to kill things.
If Barnaby’s presence in Mortecita isn’t enough to send its underworld into a frenzy, then the unleashing of The Fiddler all but guarantees a maelstrom of people stabbing each other Michael Myers-style to simply make it to dawn alive.
And like Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and countless other fairy tale children before him, Barnaby has wolves and witches of his own to contend with…
A) Jayce. Twenty-seven. A modern day Don Juan. A necrophile. I wish I could make the word ‘necrophile’ blink. But I guess it pops out on its own, doesn’t it? When we first meet Jayce, he’s going to town on a corpse in the Mortecita cemetery. With his dong. Yeah. It’s gross. Anyways, Jayce is in a relationship with…
B) Elena. Early thirties. Although ‘relationship’ is probably too strong a word because she’s more of a beard for Jayce. She’s a Bible-quoting born again who doesn’t put out. But she has her reasons. Elena is a feeder, a were-creature, who is trying to be free of her curse. And Elena’s ex is…
C) Callahan. But we already met him. He’s not so keen on letting Elena put her sinful and flesh-eating ways behind her. He wants his were-mate back, and he’ll do anything to get her back. Even if it means dragging her to The Meat Room himself so she can no longer fight her primal urges.
D) Figueroa. Forties. A salty old dog of a tattoo artist. Sort of a liaison between those that are undead, or if you wanna be PC, ‘re-born’, and the waking world. Barnaby goes to him to cover up the mark on his chest and to find the whereabouts of Delilah’s body. He might even murder Barnaby to get control of the wand…
So yeah, a dark forest of nasty adults. Barnaby may or may not die a few times trying to navigate his way through the forest.
Sounds twisted. Did you like it?
I thought it was pretty damn good. It’s a matter of taste on two fronts. 1) Subject matter and 2) narrative structure.
The content is not going to be for everyone. But that’s okay, nothing is for everyone. I’m a stickler for dark fantasy and fucked up fairy tales. I like both Lemony Snicket and Mario Bava. If those two want to team-up and try to scare the bejeezus out of me, I’m all for it. And that’s what this story feels like. It has claws poking out of it.
If you’re like me, and your favorite holiday is Halloween, then you might love this thing. Because this story pushed all my Halloween buttons, and that’s no small feat. After I finished reading it, I wanted to hand the script to my favorite tattoo artist and say, “Here’s your reference point. Read it. Be inspired. Now slap a full sleeve on me.”
The sense of melancholy in the third act is so intoxicating I might have even shed a tear.
This thing just isn’t all flash, there’s some real storytelling chops at work here. It’s unique. It feels new.
It’s “Sweeney Todd” on X-rated over-drive. It’s “Into the Woods” if every character was trying to kill each other. It’s Sondheim and Hans Christian Andersen distilled through Tim Burton and Dario Argento.
The structure irritated me at first because it was jarring to be pulled out of Barnaby’s point-of-view. I was already settled in with the character and I didn’t want to leave him, and the writing was so good I was kind of surprised that the writer chose to structure the story as a Rolodex-shuffle of rotating perspectives.
But it’s necessary for the story to work. It’s devious. Like Lemarchand’s box. We meet the characters and then Barnaby collides into them. There’s some bait-and-switch moments, and they work. The ending caught me off guard.
Reminded me of a Robert Cormier story. If you know his books, you know he writes about teenagers. And no taboo is forbidden. Every topic is fair game, however shocking. But more interestingly, his protagonists rarely win. And that’s heart-wrenching.
So if you’re willing to go along for the ride, you might also notice this story is laden with the monomyth. From a Campbellian perspective, the writer is tilling some rich fields. It’s not something that calls attention to itself, and I like that about it. But it’s certainly there for those of you who like Joseph Campbell and are into the Hero’s Journey.
If I lived in Los Angeles, and if he were so inclined, I’d love to take Nathanson out for a nice, dark stout and tar-tar and discuss our future careers in serial murder.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: Are you using structural trick-flourishes for the sake of style alone? Or does the nature of your story necessitate it? Because the punishment for the sin of the first is that it will damn your story under the label of ‘gimmickry’. You don’t want to be known as the guy or gal that’s all style and no story, do you? But if your story necessitates a structure and style that deviates from traditional dramatic structure and you can pull it off, then more power to you. You must ask yourself, what will make your story more powerful? Do you want to make “Smokin’ Aces” or do you want to make “Pulp Fiction”? There’s an important distinction in there, somewhere…
Genre: Dark Comedy
Premise: A sex-addicted former car magnate tries to put his life back together.
About: Solitary Man stars Michael Douglas, Mary-Louise Parker, Susan Sarandon, Jenna Fischer, Danny DeVito, Jesse Eisenberg, and is directed by David Levien & Brian Koppelman. The sex-addicted character of Ben is one that Douglas understands well as he was diagnosed with sex addiction back in 1990 (take that you copycatter David Duchovny). The film was produced by Paul Schiff and Steven Soderbergh.
Writer: Brian Koppelman
As the Tornonto Film Festival gears up for its return, a lot of future indie darlings are prepping and hoping to get their name out there with a great screening. Festivals are like Grand Slam tournaments for indie projects (tennis reference) and they know that a good showing can be the difference between a wide indie release and a debut on your local video store shelf. Festival titans like Werner Herzog, Alejandro Amenabar, Lars Von Trier, and Terry Gilliam will be vying for your indie hearts and trying to generate buzz. But one movie that no one seems to be talking about is Solitary Man, the much less publicized starring comeback of Michael Douglas (he’ll also be starring in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel). Well, if the script is any indication, this is a movie that should not only be on everybody’s radar, but could nab Douglas an Oscar nod if he takes advantage of what’s on the page.
Ben may be 60 years old, but he doesn’t act a day over 30. Everything he does, from dying his hair to the way he dresses, represents a man desperately trying to hold onto his youth. Back in the day, Ben was a shark. The guy owned one of the biggest car dealerships in New Jersey and was such a high roller, even the mayor knew who he was. But greed and carelessness resulted in some sketchy financial practices and Ben lost it all. It’s been some years now and Ben’s running out of his ‘fuck you’ money. He needs to make something happen fast or this “everything’s fine” façade he’s put up will fall away faster than a Cameron Crowe script review.
Which explains why he’s with Jordan, a 40 year-old divorcee who’s hot enough to land a role on Desperate Housewives. But Ben has no interest in Jordan. Ben has no interest in any relationships. It so happens that Jordan’s ex-husband runs in some high-class circles and Ben needs funding for his brand new car dealership – the business that’s going to put him back in the game. Ben slyly convinces Jordan to set up a meeting between the two so he can do what he does best: Sell.
Ben is not thrilled then when Jordan tells him that as long as he’s going up that way, he can take her daughter Allyson with him and introduce her to the Dean of the nearby college she wants to attend. Since it’s Ben’s Alma Mater, he can put in a good word for her. Neither Ben or Allyson is hip to this idea *at all*. Allyson is quite the bitch and it so happens she’s actually caught Ben cheating on her mom. Not that she cares. She hates Ben. But she hates her mom even more. The two actually agree to fake the trip and lie to the mom afterwards. But at the last second Ben grows a conscience and decides to do the right thing.
Once at the school, Ben both watches over and tries to stay out of the way of Allyson, as she seeks out one of those memorable self-destructive college visit nights (come on, we’ve all been there). In the process he meets uber-nerd Daniel (played by Jesse Eisenberg) and teaches him how to use car salesman tricks to talk women into sleeping with him. The two actually develop a bit of a friendship, and Ben watches proudly as Daniel emerges from his shell. Later at a bar, he spots Allyson talking to some douchebag, goes to save her, and the two actually find that they have more in common than they’d like to admit. One thing leads to another and before we know it the two are back at the hotel doing all sorts of self-destructive things.
Yes, Ben just slept with his girlfriend’s daughter. Have you stopped reading yet?
Here’s the thing. This doesn’t play out the way you think it will. At first glance it seems like Ben is the predator. But the next morning, we realize that he was actually the prey. For the first time in his life *he’s* been fucked. In a little karmic justice, Ben desperately tries to court Allyson, only to be fed a line he’s fed a lifetime of women: “Last night was fun. But that’s all it was.” Once home, Ben continues to desperately court Allyson. She realizes the only way to get him off her back is to do the unthinkable: She tells her mother she slept with him.
Bye bye car dealership!!!
And pretty much bye bye everything else. Ben’s life comes crashing down. He loses the financing. He loses his home. He’s forced to beg his ex-wife for money. He has no friends to turn to because he’s burned every bridge he’s crossed – usually for a one night stand. And finally, here, this man, clinging to the last rung of respectability, doesn’t have anywhere to turn.
Ben is a sad sad character. You actually wince while reading him. Every scene is an exercise in saying, “No. No. Don’t do it!” And then he does. There’s a scene late in the movie, after Ben has helped Daniel land a beautiful girl who he ends up falling in love with. And they’re all hanging out at the bar and Daniel goes to the bathroom and it’s just Ben and the girlfriend. And you close your eyes and say, “Please. Please don’t do it.” But when you open them, there he is, asking her if she’s really satisfied with Daniel. Telling her that all he wants is one night. Daniel will never know. It’s sad and it’s disgusting and yet it’s incredibly compelling.
You see, despite it all, we’re rooting for Ben. He’s like Darth Vadar. We want him to change. We want him to see the light because somewhere deep inside him, we know there’s good. There’s a great final scene where he actually gets this opportunity. On one side is the hope of an honest life, and on the other, the mistakes that define his past. It’s a clever little moment with an ending that brought a smile to my face.
But hey, I’m not going to pretend like this is for everyone. Women, in particular, will probably find this character unbearable. But we’ve all known a Ben, maybe even have been him for awhile, and for that reason it’s a fascinating character study. Can’t wait to see what the reaction to this is coming out of the festival.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: When you have this repulsive of a character, you need to give us something so we can root for him. If he’s 100% bad, we’ll hate the guy. Koppleman achieves this by giving Ben a grandson who he loves more than the world. In the scenes where the two are together, they get along so well and Ben is so happy to be with him, it allows us to see that good side. It helps us sympathize and gives us hope that he can become a better person.
For those of you who missed it the first time, Extract was one of the first scripts I reviewed on the site. You can tell by the lack of any information in the review. I thrived on laziness back then. I still thrive on it, I just manage it better. Well, as is protocol here at Scriptshadow, when a script is officially released as a film, it’s no longer eligible for my Top 25. So unfortunately we have to say goodbye to Extract. If you’re feeling nostalgic though, go back and read the original review. Also check out this review at the LA Times which reads shockingly similar to mine. Then go see the movie tomorrow. We need to support Mike Judge!
Very quickly. I want to apologize for putting up then taking down the Untitled Cameron Crowe Project (Deep Tiki) earlier today. I learned that the draft I reviewed was ridiculously early and not representative of the screenplay they were going to use. So, I’m replacing the review with another review from a guest reviewer. That reviewer is a mystery man. A man so full of mystery that he doesn’t even have a name. That’s not true actually. His name is Zack Smith and he has a blog you can visit here. In the meantime, he’s reviewing a script that inspired all sorts of reactions when it sold last year: Fuckbuddies….
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: A guy and a girl struggle to have an exclusively sexual relationship as they both come to realize they want much more.
About: This was a top contender on the 2008 Black List with 39 mentions. It’s currently under development at Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Picture Company (under the more marquee-friendly name “Friends With Benefits”) as a potential vehicle for admitted “dirty rap” lover Natalie Portman. Liz Meriwether has become one of the more buzzed-about screenwriters in Hollywood, as part of the “Fempire” that includes Diablo Cody. The Yale-educated Meriwether’s sales include the spy comedy Honey Pot and Maynard & Jennica for Scott Rudin. So does this script show if this buzz earned?
Writer: Liz Meriwether
Fuckbuddies/Friends with Benefits is a screenplay with some amusing dialogue and well-drawn main characters. It’s easy to see why this had appeal to some people; it fits into the modern romantic comedy formula that combines some outrageously raunchy characters and/or situations with the more traditional “true love conquers all” ending.
Heck, even the poster seems to illustrate itself – two pairs of feet poking out from under a rumpled sheet, the man’s feet bare, the woman’s with a pair of shoes on.
However, the undated, possibly first draft that I read (there’s no title page, just “FUCKBUDDIES BY LIZ” on the first page of the script), reveals that this isn’t quite the edgy, emotional comedy that it wants to be.
The screenplay involves the history of the relationship between Adam Kurtzman and Emma Franklin. Adam works as an assistant on a horrible sitcom while trying to become a stand-up comedian; Emma is a doctor who works to be detached from feelings in her personal and professional lives. She doesn’t even take her shoes off during sex (hence the potential poster).
The two have encountered each other a few times throughout their lives, but the timing’s never been quite right for them to get together (Emma’s too detached, or Adam’s with someone else).
Adam is a nice-if-not-terribly-aggressive guy who desperately does not want to be like his womanizing sitcom-star dad Alvin. He’s the kind of guy who desperately tries to make the relationship work, even when it’s clear things are not working out. In no way do I relate to this.
Emma has a different perspective: “The way I see it, we’re all just these big dumb animals who, for the most part, just want to have sex with each other. So maybe we should stop beating ourselves up for what we feel and make sweet bone.”
So, after a particularly bad break-up involving his dad, Adam drunk-dials Emma, who as it turns out has recently moved to town. She proposes the idea of sex without strings; Adam, who’s clearly into her, is all for this. All they have to do is make sure feelings don’t get involved, except they already are…
The screenplay falls into roughly three “acts.” The first depicts Adam and Emma’s relationship, leading to their becoming FBs. The second shows said relationship, while both deal with the more complicated feelings under the surface, while the third act deals with both working through the emotional issues they need to understand to be a real couple.
Not bad, right? And the characters have great chemistry on the page. Much of the script simply consists of their having fun or riffing off each other.
However, beyond the appealing lead characters, you have a screenplay with a lot of problems. There’s very little plot, very little conflict, and very little for any of the other characters to do.
There is some clear appeal to this screenplay – it’s a raunchy comedy where the female lead is equal to the male’s part. It’s also a screenplay where the female character has more of the emotional arc, and is more in charge of the relationship.
Still, there’s some question as to how this story is supposed to be focused. Emma isn’t a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” but her situation with Adam is very much a male fantasy. In other words, what you have here is a male fantasy scenario from the woman’s POV. Who is the audience for that?
One thing I’d like to see conveyed better is how this arrangement has its drawbacks for the characters. They’re pretty much in a real relationship; they’re just reluctant to codify it as such. Because they’re pretty close already when the situation starts, there doesn’t seem to be much of a jump to a full relationship. They only half-heartedly date other people, and for the most part, they’re there for each other.
The fact is, they’re pretty much dating for most of the screenplay. They have individual lives (Emma at the hospital, Adam at his job), but there’s never a sense of emotional separation in their relationship. It’s simply that they don’t call it “boyfriend and girlfriend.”
That does not exactly make for a compelling conflict.
Neither Emma nor Adam has a potential love interest that suggests competition with their arrangement. Emma has a thing with her boss at the hospital, but the character is only developed over a few scenes, and then disappears from the script. Introducing the idea of this anti-relationship character falling for someone who isn’t Adam is a rich source of potential conflict, but it goes nowhere.
There’s also a serious lack of supporting players. Emma has issues with her mom, and Adam has a comically self-absorbed sitcom-star dad, but those characters only seem to appear when the characters’ issues need to be brought up.
This is a shame, because Emma’s scenes with her mom represent some of the best emotional material in the script – the mom is the only character who seems to have an arc beyond Emma and Adam, and it’s not even much of an arc.
Other characters just feel perfunctory. We don’t learn much about Adam’s friend Eli beyond he likes sex and has two gay dads. That’s it.
The bright side is, as I’ve said, that the lead characters offer decent parts. Natalie Portman could do a good job as Emma; though she mostly does serious roles, her guest-hosting on SNL showed she could be a bad-ass bitch (hell yeah!).
Adam is the more stereotypical “guy who needs confidence,” but there’s some funny potential there. Interesting note on potentital casting: On pages 16 and 36, Adam is referred to as “Jonah.” So the character was clearly named that in a previous draft of the script. Perhaps it was changed to avoid casting issues, but when I see a funny-but-insecure Jewish guy named “Jonah” who wants to be a comedian, I think of…
The question this script raises, but fails to answer, is “Why should we care about a story where the conflict is whether or not two characters will admit they’re dating?”
The buzz on this script is that it provides a unique insight into the world of twentysomething relationships, but honestly, this just feels like a traditional romantic comedy with some profanely funny dialogue. That’s not a bad thing, but there’s a real gap between what this script wants to be, and what it actually is.
Given that this is an undated draft, revisions might have helped give this the structure and pacing it desperately needs, but overall, I was disappointed.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I Learned: While many screenplays rely on contrived situations to create external conflict, just basing a comic screenplay around an internal, emotional conflict can make the final product seem talky and slow.
Creating a greater sense of stakes or conflict for your characters – while avoiding overly-familiar clichés – heightens the reader/viewer’s sense of involvement in the storyline. And while it’s great to keep the focus on your main characters, giving them few other people to bounce off of can also contribute to a sluggish sense of pacing.
Other characters can be used to reveal aspects of your main characters outside of their romantic entanglement, and deepen both them and your story as a result.
Carson here again. Although I strongly support Zack’s opinion, I liked this script quite a bit. I think it’s a fair argument to call it one note, but the note is a beautiful, if slightly quirky, one. The dialogue is snappy and enjoyable and man does this thing move. This is one of those scripts that seems to inspire discussion, which is a good thing.
Sorry, no link today! :(
Premise: A private satellite contractor is sent to Hawaii to oversee the launch of a secret satellite.
About: Cameron Crowe’s next film was supposed to be released this year but got pushed back for unknown reasons. Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon were attached at one point, but I don’t know if that’s still the case. Crowe likes to shroud his projects in secrecy, though this draft has been floating around for a year now. There’s a chance this was a “vomit draft”, the first draft meant to “get everything out”, which would explain a lot in regards to what I read. But my sources tell me while there will be changes, all the main stuff will probably stay intact. Having said that, if I were a betting man, I’d say that production got pushed back because of script concerns. There are a lot of concerns here. A lot. And I can see producers getting all jumpy after reading this.
Writer: Cameron Crowe
Details: 142 pages (May 2008 draft)
Cameron Crowe was an inspiration to me growing up. Say Anything. Singles. Jerry Maguire. These were movies that shaped my love of film. The guy accomplished something that no other filmmaker in history had managed to do: He made romantic comedies cool. I could go on and on about how much I loved every single word Crowe wrote but I don’t have enough time or enough space. What I can tell you is how difficult it was watching his movies lose their edge. I wasn’t in love with Almost Famous but I definitely found it enjoyable. The same can’t be said for his next two movies. The one-two punch of Vanilla Sky and Elizabethtown was like showing up to your birthday party only to find everyone dead. There are many negative reactions you can have after a bad film, but the worst is easily disappointment. How difficult is it watching a film fall short of your expectations? Ugh. For me it’s the worst.
But hey, I still love Crowe. He seems like one of the true “good guys” in the business and one of the few people who genuinely cares about making good movies. Which is why this review pains me so much. I say this as a fan. I say this as someone who doesn’t want Crowe to fall back any more than he has: He shouldn’t make this movie.
The script is incredibly ill focused. We’re talking private satellite contractors, Hawaiian military bases, government politics, Afghanistan, a potential war with China, a mystery character in Wyoming, native Hawaiian voodoo, cursed volcanoes, a military that won’t launch without the natives’ blessing. And all this is wrapped around…a romantic comedy??
As I was reading Crowe’s script, I found myself asking the same question over and over again: What is the appeal here? Who would go see this movie? Women don’t want to see a romantic comedy about satellite contractors. And men are going to be weirded out by all the spiritual Hawaiian mumbo-jumbo. And those are just the first two plots. There are 7 or 8 subplots in the film as well. If I haven’t made myself clear, there’s a lot fucking going on in this film. Every writer is told to ask themselves this question before, during, and after they write a script: What is your movie about? I don’t think Crowe ever asked himself that question because it’s just so all the hell over the place.
Brian Gilcrest is 37 and sells satellite systems to anyone who has money. And I do mean anyone. We start off in Afghanistan with Gilcrest explaining to a bunch of Afghani Tribesman how to operate their new satellite. When things don’t go well, Brian goes apeshit (the man has a bit of an anger problem), and as a result, gets killed by the Afghans. Yes, our main character is dead on page 3.
So then we fast-forward to Brian’s funeral back in the states. It’s here where we meet Tracy, his ex-wife and one of the many completely unnecessary subplots. Just as the priest is sending the coffin down, an officer pulls up, jumps out of his car, and announces to everyone that Brian is still alive! I’m assuming this scene is meant to be funny but man…it just felt…off. I mean, this kind of thing would work great in a Will Ferrell comedy. But here? In a movie we’re supposed to take seriously? It’s one of many miscalculations that pop up in the script. But whatever, I’m being picky. We flash forward to a year later where we find our main character on one of the most beautiful islands in the world…
After World War 2, Hawaii’s significance as a defense post diminished greatly. But recently with all the crazy shit going on (those wacky North Koreans), the army wants to have a strong presence on the islands. As a result, a small 60s-styled military town which was once deserted is now thriving again. Brian, who was blacklisted after the Afghanistan incident, is given a second chance here on the island as he overlooks the launch of a joint private/military venture: a secret satellite known only as “Elevation.”
While overseeing the project on the private side, he’s paired up with a strange Airforce Major named Lisa Ng, who represents the Airforce’s interest in the project. Brian is not happy as he thought he’d be flying solo here. The two’s first assignment is to establish a rapport with and get the blessing of the Hawaiian natives for the satellite’s launch. Getting this blessing is so important that the launch cannot be made without it. It is on this trip (to one of the other islands) where the two get to know each other, and learn more about the ancient voodoo myths surrounding the islands, which may or may not end up summoning the Gods if they don’t handle their business.
The natives are skeptical but cool with the launch as long as it’s not military in nature, which Brian assures them it’s not. But later on, in a surprise that you’d be retarded not to have seen coming, it turns out the satellite is indeed very military in nature. When Brian finds out he’s pissed as all hell, but in another subplot, China has blown up a satellite with a ground-based missile, upping the need for a better satellite defense. A decision is on the table. Brian must decide if he wants to have a conscience and prevent this evil satellite from launching, or reap the personal and professional benefits of overseeing the successful launch of one of largest private space ventures in history.
As I sat there after reading this, I went through about 15 minutes of, “Is this just over my head?” Did I not “get it?” Could this be a case of reading a genius script but I’m too stupid to realize it? I was so pained by the possibility that I sent it out to two people. The first one, a girl I know who, interestingly enough, hates Jerry Maguire and loves Elizabethtown. And the other, a guy, who likes all the Cameron Crowe movies I mentioned plus has an unhealthy love for Almost Famous. I eagerly awaited their reactions. So I waited. And waited. The verdict? Neither of them could get past page 30. I begged them to keep going but they both said there was simply too much going on and none of it was any good.
Huh. Talk about breaking criticism down to the bare essentials. But they were right. We don’t know what we’re supposed to be focused on here. We don’t know what the end goal of the story is. I mean, I guess it’s the satellite launching. But we don’t have any reason to care about whether the satellite launches because the stakes of it not launching are zero. If Brian stops it, who cares? I’m sure Crowe would argue that world peace is at stake. If we launch the satellite, maybe, MAYBE, China might get mad and blow us up. Well yeah, and maybe swine flu will mutate into a plauge next week and we’ll all be dead by December. There’s a lot of things that could maybe happen. It doesn’t mean they will.
I will say this about Crowe. The man is fearless. He’s not afraid to ignore the rules and take chances. You have to admire that in an artist. When you look at Jerry Maguire, that movie had a funky structure and a lot of characters as well. But in that film, we really felt that if Jerry and Rod failed, that that was it for them. They were through. And so we desperately wanted them to succeed. I never felt that once in this script.
The one place where the script excels is, not surprisingly, the relationship between Brian and Lisa. Or I should say the early scenes between Brian and Lisa. Brian’s a broken down mess of a man trying to gain back some respectability. Lisa’s this socially retarded company woman who cares only about the next link in the chain of command. It’s all business for both of them in this endeavor but come on. We know it ain’t going to be business for long. Crowe writes these tension filled “I don’t like you but I really do” scenes better than any writer out there. And watching this relationship evolve was the lone shining star in the script. Unfortunately the characters become causalities of the sprawling unfocused story. After awhile, they just get swallowed up.
Speaking of the military I should get a medal for summarizing this script. The above is a supremely simplified version of what I read. There are tons of characters and countries and motivations and storylines involved that I didn’t even touch upon. Partly because it would be too confusing and partly because I didn’t understand them. I applaud Crowe for exploring such a unique world. But ultimately this story doesn’t work on any level. It pains me to say this about one of my idols, but if I were Crowe, I would not make this film. It simply isn’t a good story.
[x] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: In a world where nobody gives you their honest opinion, how do you know when something you’ve written is bad (or good)? There’s no full-proof way to find out. But there are some things you can do. First of all, know that whatever friends and family say, they’re usually embellishing by up to 20-30%. So If they say they liked it, that probably means they thought it was average. If they say they loved it, it probably means they thought it was good. A good idea is to ask them pointed questions. What did you think of the protag? Did you like the relationship between the leads? Was the final act satisfying? If the friend is excited to talk about these things, chances are they were at least into it. If they seem disinterested and keep their answers short, chances are they weren’t. If you really really really want an honest opinion, have your friends give it to someone who doesn’t know you. Have them tell the person that they have no personal connection to the writer but need to know if the script is great or sucks. Make sure your friend asks them key questions afterwards. It’s not easy to find someone to read a stranger’s script, but I promise you, you will get that completely unbiased opinion you’re looking for if you do. I’ve found that being able to read people helps as well. The way someone talks can give away whether they loved or hated your masterpiece. If they’re reciting their favorite scenes to you unprovoked. If they say things like, “Did you really write this?” If they ask you two weeks or two months down the line, “What’s going on with that script?”, these are signs that you have something good. And of course, try to get as many opinions as possible. It’s not easy (this generation – more than any other – hates to read) but if you can convince a group of people to give you feedback, you can get a good sense if what you’re writing is good or bad. — P.S. Any other suggestions on this issue are welcome in the comments.