Premise: A civilization ending comet is on a collision course with Earth.
About: Back before Armageddon and Deep Impact, James Cameron (along with Peter Hyams) was angling to get his own asteroid/comet disaster flick into theaters. For whatever reason, his script was ignored in favor of Dreamworks’ and Disney’s own versions. Or was it?
Writer: Peter Hyams and James Cameron
Details: 136 pages (undated draft)
In case I haven’t made it clear, I’m head over heels in fan love with James Cameron. The man has proven time and time again that he’s the King of Blockbusters. While I understand the Titanic backlash, particularly in response to the film’s dialogue, I’ll repeat what every good writer knows: It isn’t the dialogue that’s difficult to get right, it’s the structure. And the structure underneath the Titanic screenplay is so solid not even the biggest iceberg in the world could sink it. It’s hard enough to keep someone’s interest for 90 minutes. Cameron kept you biting your nails for twice that. Even the man’s less successful films, The Abyss and True Lies, are better than 95% of the summer movies you see today (the director’s cut of The Abyss is particularly trippy if you ever get a chance to see it).
But I have to say, this whole 3-D thing isn’t for me. I’ve gotten into some fights with friends over this but I can’t imagine any scenario where putting bulky 3-D glasses on every time you go to the theater is the norm. That doesn’t mean I won’t give Avatar a chance. On the contrary, Avatar is probably the one movie I *will* see in 3-D. If anyone’s going to do this right, it will be the creator of Terminator and Aliens. But what bothers me about the movement is that it’s not so much consumer driver (us demanding it) as industry driven (them pushing it on us). Hollywood clearly needs something to differentiate itself from the ever-improving home theater experience. 3-D is the only thing they’ve come up with. So they have, and will, throw every dollar they have into convincing us it’s the future. And that’s the problem. Is that’s exactly how it feels. A desperate attempt to keep us going to movies. I, however, come from the old school. You know, that school that says, “Write better scripts.” Studio heads may laugh at me when I mention such a silly idea, but I honestly think that’s the key. Look at Pixar if you don’t believe me. They put so much emphasis on the script and look at their track record.
Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. Back in the days when you could find a pair of 3-D glasses in the current month’s issue of MAD magazine, Cameron and Peter Hyams (writer-director of 2010) wrote a comet heading towards earth flick called, “Bright Angel Falling”. For you under-ten year olds, 1998 was the year of two asteroid-earth collision movies, the Steven Spielberg produced “Deep Impact” and the Michael Bay directed “Armageddon.” Both these films came out within a FEW MONTHS OF EACH OTHER. If that doesn’t tell you how fucked up Hollywood is, I don’t know what does. Both movies brought on a large amount of writers. Armageddon in particular had, what some people believed, was the most writers ever to have worked on a single project. We’re talking tens of millions of dollars were spent on that screenplay. And my question today is: why? Why did both productions spend so much money on writing when they basically took James Cameron’s screenplay and switched out the title page?
I suppose there are differences here but man, not many. Bright Angel Falling centers on Will Seacord, a divorced astronaut who’s up in space so much he can probably name all the satellites on site. As a result, he doesn’t see much of his 15 year old rebellious daughter, Claire. Work’s given him an excuse for that. So when he’s told he’ll no longer be a part of NASA’s number 1 flight crew anymore, the reality of a life post-NASA, a life where he’ll have to face his failures as a parent, have him reevaluating everything.
Around this time, a young astronomer (the female Asian version of Elijah Wood) spots the comet that’s going to turn our planet plural. The president is notified and pretty soon the whole world is aware that human extinction is 3 months away. But the prez isn’t going down without a fight. The United States government puts their best minds together to come up with a solution but the truth is there’s nothing that can be done in such a short amount of time. That is until a couple of Berkely students stumble in with an old thesis paper they think is the answer to earth’s problems. What if they strategically place two bombs on the comet and detonate them simultaneously to knock the comet off its trajectory so it will miss earth? (Does any of this sound familiar?)
A crew is readied, people prepare, and in a scene reminiscent of the terrorist attack in Contact, the captain of the crew is killed by some religious freak. What do you know? Seacord is once again in command of the shuttle. There’s some training stuff with the rest of the crew but to be honest, it wasn’t very interesting. One touch I did like (which is funny, because it’s one that neither movie chose to use) requires them to use two 50 megaton nukes. And there are only two of these bombs in the world. Both of them reside in Russia (this would be China if the script were written today). Because Russia refuses to just hand over two of their biggest nukes to the U.S., they give them on the condition that two Russians accompany the bombs, each one containing the codes to activate them, which they will do once the bombs are in place on the comet. The reason I liked this so much was because I have a feeling this is exactly what would happen if our world was threatened by something. Politics would take precedence over saving mankind. It also serves a great dramatic purpose, since you know those Russians aren’t going to be around when the actual codes need to be entered.
Anyway, back on earth, fragments from the comet start hitting early (I told you it was similar). And in one of the coolest described destruction sequences I’ve ever read, Cameron and Hyams detail one of these black-out-the-sky-it’s-so-big chunks hitting the ocean at “a thousand times the speed of a bullet”, resulting in a colossal tsunami wave that shoots off in every direction. I want you to stop and imagine something as big as, say, 50 city blocks, shooting towards the earth 1000 times faster than a bullet. Imagine what that would look like. I honestly felt like I was in the theater watching this during the description. It was that cool.
But once the astronauts are in the air, I’m afraid I felt like I was back watching Ben Affleck run animal crackers up girls’ bellies, because it really is sequence after sequence from Armageddon. From the Mir hookup gone wrong to the slingshotting around the moon (although it’s way cooler in Cameron’s version) to Seacord locking his co-astronaut in the shuttle so that he can detonate the bomb manually. It sucks because it takes away from an otherwise cool reading experience. I’m guessing with all the similarities that Disney must’ve bought this screenplay, right? Can anyone confirm this?
As for the script itself, it’s probably not something you guys should emulate. Cameron and Hyams write in big intimidating chunks, sometimes 15 lines long, going into the minute details of the science behind the operation. Cameron’s obviously obsessed with this stuff and since he probably entertained directing the project himself at some point, he may have been writing these things more for his own reference than the readers.
In the end, I think it’s worth the read because Cameron basically does everything they did in those movies, but better. The amount of research this man incorporates into his projects is astounding and boy does it help sell the idea. When he tells us, “It takes 30 thousand people to get a shuttle ready for launch. 6 million parts need to be checked,” we understand the scope in a way that we never did in Deep Impact or Armageddon. It would be an interesting exercise to read the script then watch those two movies, just to see how Cameron’s version compares side by side. I have a general sense. But I haven’t seen either film since the summer they came out so I don’t remember everything.
Maybe the biggest compliment I can pay James Cameron is that if there was a comet heading towards earth, I’d want him on the team assigned to stop it. If you’re a Cameron fan, you should definitely give this a read.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I know I just praised Cameron’s attention to detail, but there are times when he gets a little carried away. It’s one thing to explain how the shuttle is going to land on the comet. It’s another to get into the different kinds of compounds needed to create the fuel that will get them there. Know when enough is enough. Story is always most important. If you’re slowing everything down so you can explain the minute details of something that we only need the bare essentials of, take a step back and determine which information is really necessary and cut out the rest. Nobody’s going to be as patient with you as they are with a James Cameron script.
Genre: Drama with a touch of sci-fiPremise: In an undisclosed future, one man will try anything to “cross” a border that cannot be crossed.
About: To star Orlando Bloom, John Goodman, and Olga Kurylenko (Quantum Of Solace), this is a project Andrew Niccol has been wanting to shoot forever, even as early back as the 90s. Early drafts under a different title (“River Road”) did not garner a positive response. It is only with his most recent draft, the draft I’m assuming is the one that succeeds this one, that he secured Orlando Bloom. The movie became a go film last month as a result of Bloom’s involvement.
Writer: Andrew Niccol
Details: 117 pages – 2007 draft.
Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) and Orlando Bloom (Pirates Of The Carribean, Lord Of The Rings) are at similar places in their careers. Both started out as shining stars, exploding onto the Hollywood scene as golden boys who would surely have Tinseltown eating out of their mittens for years to come. But they quickly learned that this city has a two-strikes-your-out clause, and companion duds from both actor and director shifted them from the A-List to the B-List. In order to stay clear of Kathy Griffin territory, they both needed a hit, so they decided to put their careers in each other’s hands and are praying for redemption in “The Cross.”
For a little background, I thought Gattaca was pretty badass. It was a teensy-bit too dark in places, but it was a unique voice in a sea of foghorns that blasted the same throbbing whine. The Truman Show was probably overrated as it came out at the peak of Jim Carrey’s box office domination. The movie was okay, but I don’t remember much about it other than Carrey overacting. Then came Niccol’s directing efforts. Even in the most generous light, Simone and Lord Of War were dry and flaky with deep shadows under their eyes. To Niccol’s credit, I don’t know many productions that can survive a modern-day Al Pacino performance.
As for Orlando, the jury may still be out, but we can hear them finishing up in the other room. True Bloom is coming off one of the most successful franchises of all time, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks he’s anything more than the fourth most memorable character in the films. Crossing into lead territory yielded dreary efforts like Elizabethtown and Kingdom Of Heaven. Bloom was tagged with the “boring” label and it’s hard for me to disagree. Every time he came onscreen I wanted to pull up the covers and take a cat nap. He’s definitely got face. And Peter Jackson found some sparkle in those eyes as Legolas, but if The Cross doesn’t work, Bloom just might turn into Gloom.
Mylar is a former engineer in a future racked by war and disease. The particulars of how this came about are not disclosed. All we know is shit is bad and it’s supposedly better in the country to the north. So it’s fitting the story takes place in a border town where the patrolling guards make those Shawshank pussies look like bus boys at a four star hotel. Heading up the border’s toughest patrol unit is August Gideon, a man who lives for only one thing: to patrol the border. Gideon is so naughty that if he catches you trying to cross, he doesn’t kill you. He makes you eat an entire bucket of dirt. If you try a second time? He makes you eat two. Third time? He’ll make you eat three buckets. Thing is, nobody’s ever made it past two. Well, not yet anyway.
There seems to be a clear understanding in this town. People *will* try to cross the border. The crossers know that. The guards know that. The spoils of freedom in the neighboring country are too great not to give it a shot. Except that outside of a few rumors, it doesn’t appear that anyone’s successfully been able to cross the border. It’s too damn difficult.
There’s no question that Niccol’s spent a few dozen nights watching Cool Hand Luke. This is no doubt a dark futuristic version of the 1967 classic. There is a secret group of men who meet weekly, discussing plots and plans to get across the border. But they never actually do anything about it. Mylar is less a talker and more a doer. The fearless daredevil keeps trying to cross, despite the ridiculous odds, and just like Paul Newman, he keeps getting caught. Each attempt is more dangerous than the last because, as Niccol explains to us, eating buckets of dirt mutilates your insides.
While there are many characters in the script, this is really a mano-a-mano battle between Mylar and Gideon. There’s an enjoyment in the chess match the two play against each other and their scenes are definitely where the script shines.
There are other things that work as well. The story directive is clear as day: Cross the border. We’re talking about a prison break movie here. He’s going to try to “get out,” and we’re wondering if he’ll be able to do it. The dark tone adds a needed element of uncertainty. This is the kind of film where there’s just as much of a chance that he *won’t* as he will. So we’re definitely on edge.
In addition, we’re also wondering what’s on the other side. What is it that’s so great about this neighboring country? Would it be everything they thought it would be? And will this shed some light on the country they’re in, how they got here? What year it is? It’s fun trying to piece together these answers from the crumbs Niccol leaves us.
On the downside, the story is almost too simple. It’s a man trying to get across a border. And while there are some unexpected developments along the way, there’s definitely a monotony to the script. I guess you could make the same argument about Shawshank, but that movie had two of the most memorable characters in cinema history to fall back on. Mylar is interesting, but he’s not *that* interesting.
Also, it doesn’t seem like Niccol’s nearly as interested in giving answers as I am in asking for them. I guess I can respect him focusing more on the micro than the macro here, but it would’ve been fun to have some little twist at the end, some shocking revelation of where we are (the United States maybe?) and how we ended up here. For these reasons, I finished this script a little disappointed.
I think the key to this film is going to be Mylar and Gideon. If we keep the focus on them, on their chess match, the movie will be fun. I’m not saying the secondary characters aren’t interesting, they just didn’t measure up to the duel between the leads. The Cross is a solid script, but I wanted more.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[xx] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Niccol shows how to secure a star. There’s no doubt that this is the kind of character actors love to play. The setting is dark, which implies their efforts will be taken seriously. The character is both charming and fearless. His conviction to get across the border is unequaled. Being charming and brave, yet with an added layer of complexity? Is that not the guy all of us wish we could be? Remember, the number one way to get your script into the production pipeline is to secure a star. So you need to be thinking about creating a protagonist or antagonist (preferably both) that A-List actors want to play. Had Niccol’s last film not done so poorly, he easily would’ve secured an A-lister here. Bloom may have been Plan-B-List, but it was enough to secure funding and make the film.
no link :(
Premise: An 8 year old girl’s wish for her parents to get back together results in the island of Manhattan, where her father lives, detaching and sailing across the ocean to Spain, where she and her mother live.
About: So the trades are reporting all these weird details about the script that have a little girl living in England making a wish via lighthouse candles to see her father again. But those reports were made back in April, and the draft I have is dated June, 2009. So it seems like a lot of those details have changed. If this is the official new direction they’re taking or if they’re planning on changing it even more, I’m not sure. What I do know is this: Will Smith has signed on to play the lead character in The City That Sailed. He’ll be teaming up once again with his go-to New York director, Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend). I mean, they brought New York into the future. Why not bring it to Europe? Now supposedly this is Will Smith’s next project. But if you go to Smith’s IMDB page, you’ll see that he has 25 projects in development. So I’ll believe it when I see the first production photos. Smith will also be producing the picture with Overbrook Entertainment partner James Lassiter.
Writer: The Wibberleys (previous draft by Andrew Niccol)
Details: 130 pages (June 9, 2009 draft)
I guess we’re all driven by the concept, right? We try to put up this façade like we’re better than that. That it’s what’s inside that matters. And don’t get me wrong. The inside *definitely* matters. But there’s nothing that sparks the imagination quite like a cool concept. So when I heard there was a script about Manhattan detaching and floating off into the ocean, I just thought that was the coolest sounding thing ever. I didn’t know how it detached. I didn’t know why. But I wanted to find out.
Imagine my surprise when I learned the reason Manhattan detached was because a little girl wishes for it to. A little girl wishes it? A little girl wishes it!!??? That’s what I got all excited over?? I thought this was going to be a cool sci-fi destruction movie! An action film! A terrorist plot! But an 8 year old girl making a wish while holding a snow globe?? That’s definitely not what I had in mind. All my enthusiasm went right out the window by page 10. What the hell am I reading? Liar Liar?? I was so pissed that for the next 20 pages, I barely paid attention.
And then a funny thing happened. I found myself slowly getting roped back in. I couldn’t believe it at first. I had so given up on this story. Yet somehow I was looking forward to the next page. And then the next page after that. How did this happen? Well, I think it’s because “City That Sailed” is unlike any script I’ve ever read before. It’s just…odd. I bitched about Henry’s Crime not having a genre but “City” crosses into more genres than a student thesis film. It lives by its own rules and has its own agenda and as a result is a completely unique experience.
Greta Cooper is an 8 year old girl who lives in Spain with her mother, Anna. Greta’s father (Anna’s ex-husband) is Elliot. Elliot still lives back in Manhattan, where he operates as the director of Homeland Security for New York. When Greta finds out that her mom plans to marry Javier, star of the Spanish soccer team (in one of the more ridiculous choices for a character I’ve seen in awhile – but hey, this is The City That Sailed, where logic is thrown out the window), she makes a wish that her mother and father will get back together while holding a magical snow globe (note to all writers: There is no such thing as a non-magical snow globe in movies. So if you use one, make sure it’s magical).
We truck over to Manhattan where it’s just another average day in New Yawk when WHAM, a huge jolt rocks the island. And then another. And then another. Bridges start SNAPPING off their grids. Remember that crack in the earth that comes during the earthquake in the original Superman? Child’s play compared to the one rocking 5th avenue. Buildings are swaying. People are freaking. It’s absolute chaos. And the next thing you know, Manhattan is floating down the Hudson River!
Elliot is quickly on a direct line with the president trying to figure out what the hell is going on. The top two choices are a terrorist attack and some kind of unique earthquake. But the more information they collect, the less each of those causes makes sense. In the meantime, scientists start calculating the destination of the island, and it looks like the island is heading directly towards…Spain!
When Greta hears this information on TV, she announces to her mom that her wish worked. When Anna asks what she’s talking about, Greta explains the whole snow globe fiasco. Of course Anna thinks she’s crazy but then again…SO IS MANHATTAN FLOATING ACROSS THE OCEAN!
Things only get weirder from there. The media finds out that Elliot and Anna are divorced, Anna is now getting married to Javier, and the island is scheduled to arrive at Spain on the day of the wedding. As a result, they run with the story that he’s coming to break up the wedding. The paparazzi and internet are going crazy. David Letterman (still broadcasting from New York mind you) is cracking nightly jokes about their predicament. Everyone’s dancing in the streets. People are water skiing off the back of the island. It’s…bananas.
And somehow, it actually works. I’m still not sure how, but I was definitely entertained. When writing a movie, the list of priorities usually goes: story, character, dialogue, etc. But City That Sailed doesn’t excel in any of these areas. It excels in the area that’s supposed to have the least affect on the emotions of the audience: Spectacle. This movie is one giant spectacle and the images described are so wild, so breathtaking, so fucking back-breakingly loopy, that they’re the main engine driving the island, err—the story forward.
The sequence of Manhattan plowing through the Hudson River alone will be worth the price of admission. The shots from underneath the ocean looking up at the underside of the Island, its car tunnels and its cracked off subways…it’s just something that we’ve never seen on film before. When New York sails past the Pico Islands, considered to be one of the most beautiful places on earth…you can’t help but smile imagining it.
But if I’m being fair, I do have some problems with the story. Because as a story, The City That Sailed is more like a rented sunfish than a world renowned cruiseliner. Anna and Elliot’s failed marriage boils down to the old “He worked too much.” The problem here is that Elliot has the best excuse in the world for working too much. He’s saving human lives! He’s protecting America! For that reason, we don’t see his choices as selfish, and actually sympathize with his situation. In addition, Javier the soccer player feels like such a joke, such a cartoon of a character, that he’s never a true threat. Without a true threat, we’re never worried that Elliot and Anna won’t end up together. And finally, the entire relationship between Elliot and Anna has to be done over the phone (the nature of this story unfortunately) and therefore we never get a true sense that the couple is making progress. Since the relationship is *supposedly* driving this story, that’s a big deal.
But who needs all that nonsense to work when you have New York floating through the ocean!!?? This isn’t so much a movie as it is the ultimate vacation. Smith and his boys are betting that they can throw this thing up at Christmas and nab every single demographic in the country. And the truth is, they just might. Because of the mechanics of the story, I don’t know how much more it can be improved (besides getting rid of Javier. Please, for the love of God, get rid of Javier) but that’s okay. The script embraces what it is and what it is is a giant spectacle.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The City That Sailed suffers from the main characters (Anna and Elliot) not being in close proximity to one another. No method of communication is as good as putting your two main characters face to face. Phone, e-mail, text messages, even video chat. You can get as creative as you want interchanging these things, but your story will always feel like it’s missing something if the characters aren’t in front of one another. I’m not saying some stories don’t warrant it (this one obviously does). Just know that when you choose to write these stories, you’re never going to get the romantic aspect to feel just right. And that’s why.
So I’m introducing a new script reviewer today because he’s a great writer and passionate about the craft (and he writes me weekly e-mails telling me how awesome Scriptshadow is). He kept raving to me about this awesome script he read that he just had to tell the world about. I tried to explain to him that I already had a backlog of script reviews in queue. He ignored me and sent the review anyway. Once I saw how passionate he was, I knew I had to post it. So I’d like to introduce everyone to… Michael Stark.
Random observations before I give Michael the reigns. Strange that the script title is also the name of Freeman’s most famous character? And what the hell happened to Bruce Willis??? When did he become a cranky old man?? It’s sad. I’ll still see anything he’s in. But after this interview, I won’t ever look at him the same way again.
Premise: A retired Black-Ops Agent must reassemble his old team to fight the new generation of high-tech assassins hunting him down.
About: Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman already attached to this comic book flick. ‘Nuff said.
Writers: The Brothers Erich and Jon Hoeber adapting a Sir Warren Ellis Graphic Novel
Details: 120 pages (November 14, 2008 first draft, revised)
First off, I’m old school. Not just kind of old school, but real old school. I’m typewriters and rotary dial phones and vinyl records and staples-in-the-navels of centerfolds kind of old school. So, I just can’t get into reading scripts as pdfs. Can’t stand it. I loved the fact that they had to pulp some thousand-year-old Sequoia just so I could read your fucking work of genius. Screenwriting is an art. It requires sacrifice. Trees must die! Toner cartridges must get depleted. There might even be papercuts.
I know the industry is trending green these days, but I swear on the life of your vegan girlfriend’s pound-rescued crack puppy that I promise to recycle all the paper you send me. I’ll fold every page of your fucking work of genius into assortments of barnyard origami to leave at crime scenes. I’ll wrap my kid’s peanut-free school-bound sandwiches with your untroubled third act. Hell, I’ll chew on every page of your sparkling dialogue till I can spit out a fine paste that’ll turn your high concept into reprocessed, adult diapers for June Allison.
Just gimme your words on paper. I need to have you in my hands. I gotta feel the true heft of your tome. I wanna get blisters on my fingers from turning the pages so goddamn fast. I want to take you in the can with me cause I just can’t put your magnum opus down. I want to jot down notes you’ll never read in the margins. I want to spill coffee all over your script at the Farmer’s Market and play keep away with it from Andre De Toth, whose depth perception has been kinda off these days. And, of course, for my troubles, I’m gonna steal your 1.5 inch brads when I’m finished, cause I’m not only old school, but I haven’t worked in like fucking forever and I gotta scrimp and scrounge and steal wherest I can.
This is just how it’s supposed to be done. Call me old fashioned, but screenplays are made to be read in one sitting. You wanna know why spec scripts aren’t selling right now? It ain’t the economy, stupid. It’s cause you listened to that liar, Al Gore, and you’re now dutifully sending them all out as pdf files! Producers and executives and movie stars and their assistants already have the attention spans of retarded, sugar-smacked hummingbirds. You think they’re gonna really read anybody’s script on their computers with all them fine distractions already loaded on their desktops like tournament canasta and barely legal porn?
Honestly, how many of you have actually read an entire screenplay on your computer in one sitting? Don’t tell me you didn’t check your facebook 18 times after you opened up the file. How often did you tweet before the second act rolled around? How many hands of solitaire did you play? Bet you already IMDBed the key grip of this flick while you’ve been skimming my opening rant.
Believe me, I’m equally guilty. I haven’t been able to do a single one-shot read through on my laptop of anything since this techno geek takeover. Nope, not once. Not till someone sent me Red.
That’s how engrossing this script was. Even the most ADHD of you fan boys will soar through this without once checking your emails or twiddling out a text. It’s just that absorbing.
Okay, maybe I’m overselling it a wee bit. The thing isn’t a great work of art. But, it is a great work of craft that’s worth studying. So, if you have a hankering to write an action film, you’ll learn a lot about plotting, pacing and narrative drive from reading Red.
Let me impart some wisdom on all you young scribes out there. I’m not advocating you forego the usual study of Chinatown, The Untouchables and the complete works of Joseph Campbell. But, if this script got both Bruce and Morgan so hot and bothered, I’d download it while you still can and scrutinize the shit out of it. Reread the mother till it becomes your mantra. When you get your next draft of “My Catalogue of Cool Shots” into something this tight, I guarantee it will get sold. Yup, even if you sent it off as a fucking pdf file.
So, why am I so impressed by yet another adaptation of yet another graphic novel? Well, for one, the source material is from Warren Ellis, the Godfather of funny paper scribblers. The screenwriting brothers in charge of distilling this comic into cinema are Erich and John Hoeber. They might not have made movie alchemy with their recent “Whiteout”, but the boys definitely spin yarn into gold this time around.
Now, I must warn you. You’ve seen this plot before. You’ve seen it many times before. Nothing new under the sun here – especially if you’ve ever seen a Jason Bourne flick or read any David Baldacci or Lee Child potboilers. Did the Brothers take all the genre conventions and spin them on their heads Electric Boogaloo style? Not exactly, it’sbstill pretty much standard fare. You have the same stock, way-high-up-in-the-Washington-food-chain villains and side switching patriotic uber-thugs revealed at the end. And, the Bruce Willis character is pretty much a Bruce Willis character only a little bit older — and, apparently, gonna actually be played by a little bit older Bruce Willis.
So, Mr. Hype Meister, why should I read this damned thing? For the pace, baby, for the pace. This thing leaps out of the gate and keeps building and escalating with a rare economy of action. Meaning, there are no superfluous scenes or even extraneous lines of dialogue. Every single set up has a payoff!!! They didn’t throw in a car chase barreling through the unfinished Panama Canal during an asteroid storm just for the sake of getting your attention. This is a lean cornbeef sandwich without an inch of fat kind of storytelling. Hell, even the crusts of the rye bread have been trimmed off.
This is one lean, mean fighting machine of a screenplay!
So, what it’s all about? Frank Moses is a retired Black-Ops agent. He hasn’t pulled a Burn Notice and isn’t scrambling to get back in the show by helping a new troubled civilian every episode. Frank basically keeps himself under the radar, adjusting to his AARP status by keeping fit with early morning sit-ups, trying his hand unsuccessfully at gardening and listening to his classic collection of 50s vinyl. His only contact with the outside world is with Sarah, the operator of the government office whose pension checks he accidentally-on-purpose keeps losing to perpetuate their little chats.
Their burgeoning friendship doesn’t seem forced at all. It’s funny, sweet and real. The writers allow us a little downtime to develop this. When we open, Frank just seems like an average Joe struggling with the boredom of retirement. You get the hint that he might be ex-military cause of his regimented morning routines. But, there’s no hint of the two-fisted events to follow. Maybe I was sent a sweet romantic comedy for the Angela Lansbury set.
We don’t know anything about Frank or his mercenary past till page 8 when a crack team of government killers suddenly turn up to his abode to take the old dude out. His ex-spy status has just turned from “Green” to “Red”. “Red” as in when someone uptown wants you seriously dead “Red”. And, we’re kinda amazed to see our rose gardening retiree so effortlessly, single-handedly take out their whole unit. He’s old, but not Bucket List or Bubba Ho-Tep old. Ain’t no Death Panel for our Frank Moses.
See, Frank is like me, old school. He listens to Vinyl, not MP3s. He does sit-ups, not crunches. He slowly courts a woman over the telephone, not going after her all balls-out like some Apatow/Smith scripted lothario. He’s a gentleman. He’s also a former one-gentleman killing machine that some big muckety-muck just stupidly forced back into the game. And, he’ll show the young turks assigned to euthanize him just how it was done back in the good old days.
He doesn’t need any real cool, high tech weaponry from the Cheney Foundation to annihilate you. He’s a Q-less, Luddite who doesn’t know gun fu or parkour, but can still take down the entire CIA with a paper clip, a long expired bottle of High Karate and a little bare-knuckled help from his Cold-War era friends.
But, first, Frank has to rescue the gal whom might be the only leverage his ex-agency has on him. She doesn’t go quietly. It exacts some smooth talking and duct tape on Frank’s part to get her out of harms way. Yes, you’ve seen this before in Three Days Of The Condor, but, didn’t I mention somewhere this was also a comedy? It’s Grumpy Old Men vs the entire Central Intelligence Agency. It’s John McClane action hero Willis morphed with the wisecracking Moonlighting David Addison Willis with some gray haired, Danny Glover Murtough “I’m too old for this kinda shit” thrown in for good measure. And, Casting Directors, the gal, should most definitely be played by a certain repartee-ready Gilmore Girl.
Now Frank is just as in the dark as we are as to why he’s suddenly chased by the best assassins our tax dollars can still buy. The rest of the first act and a good chunk of the second is him reaching out to the few industry contacts he has left – Joe, his 90-year-old-dying-of-liver-cancer mentor; Marvin (Freeman) a completely paranoid ex-compadre: Ivan, a Russian ex-spy denigrated now to desk duty at the Ruskie Embassy and Victoria, a B&B owning femme fatale who has been juggling her retirement with a little wet work here and there for the extra pocket scratch or maybe just for the kicks.
The guy running this raid on Entebbe is Cooper, the agency’s most efficient and loyal killer. Of course, he’d been trained by someone Frank had trained way back when Coop was just a young pup of a pitbull. He’s also quite the devout family man, getting a honey-do list from his wife while he restages his latest hit to look more like a convincing suicide.
So, what ensues is the old guard versus the better-armed, physically fitter, mentally sharper army of new kids.
Unlike the norm for this genre, there aren’t any red herrings, false leads or wrong turns. Remember that I told you this was an exceptionally lean and mean script. The narrative drive goes from Point A to Point Z seamlessly and without any pit stops. Each action beat gets either Frank a new team member, another obstacle placed in the way or a bit more intel on why he’s suddenly a hunted man. And, once he gets the why, our guy quickly goes on the offensive to payback the who.
The writers also chose not to bog us down with the usual detective work seen in most procedurals. Frank doesn’t have to leap through a lot of hoops to find out why he’s on the hit list. He basically has Joe run the thumb print off the thumb he ginzued off of one of his attackers and – BAM — we go from there. This was a wise choice cause it gives us far more time on Frank’s elaborate (and pleasurable) acts of table turning.
The sure to be scene stealing character is Frank’s old buddy, Marvin. He doesn’t just spout paranoid conspiracy theories, he practically foams at the mouth with them. He’s delusional and perhaps dangerous, but a total riot nonetheless. His choice as an asset is what’s so fun about this script. The audience is kept guessing if Marvin’s brain has finally been fried forever, making him a potentially huge liability (He was the agency’s main lab rat in their LSD experiments back in the 70s) or if he’s really still that super perceptive at the spy game.
Marvin gets many magnificent melt-down moments. He is suspicious of everyone and everything and it would be unwise to make any sudden movements or whip out your cellphone in his presence. While our rag tag team tries to quietly cross the Mexican border, he suddenly pulls a gun on a woman tourist, a middle-aged realtor, weaving her into his psychotic pastiche of black helicopters, satellite surveillance and the Patriot Act. I don’t want to spoil the scene, but this script adheres to strict Newtonian laws. To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.
All the characters here are blessed with snappy dialogue, intriguing back-stories and sheer likeability. Except for Frank, all of the supporting players sprang solely out of the imaginations of the screenwriters. Ellis’ three-issue miniseries was really just a cocktail napkin of carnage for the Hoebers to build off of.
Now, the sheer likeability factor is what will have the true Ellis disciples shouting “Heresy!” The comic’s consequent bloodbath has pretty much been excised. We may live in the age of Dexter, but the producers wanted to keep this caper strictly PG. And who really wants to see John McClane play a monster? The very thought is just so un-American.
Frank and Ivan share a John le Carré inspired cloak and dagger past. They reminisce about the Golden Age of the Cold War when spies were real spies. When it was considered bad form to even think about touching your target’s family. Cooper, representing the new breed, has the combined ethics of a rattlesnake, a used car salesman, and the entire Bush cabinet (minus Colin Powell of course). He’ll do anything necessary to serve Frank’s head on a platter to his bosses.
Perhaps that’s what stayed with me so long after reading Red. It’s really a throwback to an earlier era/age/style of screenwriting. It has action, but it doesn’t call attention to itself like today’s product. The sequences moves at a nice clip, but it’s totally devoid of any look-at-me-as-I-cleverly-off-someone-with-a-bednob-or-a-broomstick-or-something-else-you’ve-never-seen-before. We’re totally invested in these characters and I found myself getting gleeful as they miraculously pull their mission impossible off.
Red is different because it’s so refreshingly underwritten. You won’t get a jolt or a rush or a headache after putting it down. There’s an old showbiz axiom that admonishes to “Always leave them wanting more.” The Brothers Hoeber have deftly pulled that off. When I closed the file, I was already looking forward to Frank’s next adventure.
Even if I have to read that next adventure as a fucking pdf!
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
 worth the read
[X ] impressive
[ ] genius
I’m sure the discussions that follow will accuse me of being overly generous, throwing off the Shadow’s strict script grading curve. I think it’s a great script to learn the craft from. The teacher inside me stands firmly by this high mark.
What I learned: Surely you don’t think an old dog like me can pick up any new tricks? Yes, I learned something. And, this is why I’m making Red required reading for all the young scriptors I’m tutoring. Most screenplays remind me of all the damned, superfluous notes Mariah Carrey squeezes into every fucking song she sings. Your scripts don’t need superfluous diva shit. Not every scene has to be an extravagant road trip tangent or an over the top set piece. Stop trying to light a fart or a building or a whole country on fire just to get my attention. You have my attention. So, just tell me a story.
Hard science fiction is one of the biggest gambles you can take as a writer. It’s easy to assume that everyone will wait patiently while you explain the setting, the time period, the sides, the politics, the alien races, and everything else they need to know to understand your universe. But the reality is, the information is probably so overwhelming that they’ve checked out before you’ve made it to the second act. I love hard sci-fi as much as the next nerd but if you’re spending a majority of your screenplay telling us that The Hawfner Alliance is about to annihilate the Crimson Factor and that General Eekou, of the half-alien half-human sub-race, the Qualars, is hoping to halt it with the Leviathan Treaty, which he just found in the Baristone constellation, let me let you in on a little secret: Your reader isn’t reading anymore. That’s not to say hard sci-fi can’t be done, just that it requires a very skilled writer. On a spec, you’re much better off following James Cameron’s lead, who created the best action sci-fi film of all time. There are aliens. Marines are going to kill them. That’s your movie. Speaking of the Alien franchise, Roger Balfour wants to know whether it’s in good hands. So he’s reviewing a script from Jon Spaihts, the man tapped to reboot/remake/prequelize Alien.
Genre: Science Fiction, Action-Adventure, Horror
Premise: Captain Conrad Vance, of the Offworld Marine Corps, is selected by the Special Science Agency to travel to a hostile planet to repair a super-intelligent machine.
About: Twentieth Century Fox hired Jon Spaihts to pen the Alien prequel for director, Ridley Scott. Why? What the hell did this dude pitch to Scott and the studio? And based upon his outer space thrillers, Passengers and Shadow 19, is this the right man for the job? Shadow 19 was originally purchased by Warner Brothers some years back with Keanu in mind to star. But that project fell apart and Keanu tapped Spaihts to write his Isolation space opera idea, Passengers (not the one in my Top 25 but a script that is very highly praised). That’s still a possibility but it’s looking like Shadow 19 may be dead. I do like the first half of the title though.
Writer: Jon Spaihts
This script had me at man in mechanized death suit. Ever since Ripley fought the Queen femme contre femme in the power loader in James Cameron’s Aliens, I’ve been hooked on stories that have moments where humans climb into armored exoskeletons and become war machines. From the tortured kids in Neon Genesis Evangelion to Wikus van der Merwe in District 9, there’s something cathartic about watching a protagonist go all giant robot and fuck shit up, Stark-style. So it was a stroke of brilliance for Jon Spaihts to introduce the hero of Shadow 19, Captain Conrad Vance of the Offworld Marine Corp, on page 1 of the script already suited up in his Heinlesque armored space suit.
There’s no fucking around here. He’s not climbing into the armored power suit. He’s already inside. He already looks like a superhero, in his half-ton war machine, holding his cannon-sized rifle. He’s aboard a battleship that’s approaching Dione, one of Saturn’s moons. A Colonel tells Vance and eleven other marines that they are the only defense the Dione Colony has against the Hegemony. The situation in our world is this: The Earth is split into two factions, The Allied States and The Hegemony. Overpopulation has stretched the world’s resources to the point where the supply of basic necessities like food and water cannot keep up with the demand. The growth rate of humanity has rendered our world unsustainable. Half of the Allied States’ federal budget is classified and the existence of these “black funds” has come under serious scrutiny by world leaders.
As they say, shit done got rough.
In a riveting sequence that makes both the D-Day assault into Normandy and cinema vérité seem inconsequential, Vance and his squad are ejected into space via drop capsules and they rocket towards the surface of Dione, through the cross-fire of four, three-story high D-Class Tanks and salvos of missiles from their battleship. They crash land, hop out of the impact-craters, and engage the tanks. And it’s fucking awesome. We really get a taste of how cool these suits are, and we meet the OS of Vance’s suit, Athena. She’s so user-friendly she could almost be sentient. But things get hairy and marines start to die when a moving fortress designated the Colossus arrives over the ridge.
And in a battle that made me cum in my pants, Vance takes the offensive. He rips a turret off the thing, enters the Colossus, and starts to kill every living thing inside like a goddamn bull in a China shop. Of course, the look on all of the officer’s faces is pretty fucking priceless when Vance uses his jump-jets to blast through a ladder-well, collide into the ceiling of the bridge, fall, land, and proceed to slaughter the Hegemony scum ED-209 style. Kudos to you, Mr. Spaihts. I never had multiple orgasms while reading the first ten pages of a screenplay until Shadow 19 (and I’ve read a lot of scripts).
If we didn’t know it already, we learn that Vance has survived more missions than any other marine in the Offworld Marine Corps. It’s sort of a big deal, because there’s one-hundred thousand of these guys. He has the fastest reflexes, the lowest resting pulse rate.
He’s the man that always comes home.
After his victory, the battleship receives orders to return Vance back to earth. Why would it (what accounts to be a military aircraft carrier) be diverted for just one man? The State Science Agency needs Vance for special duty. He’s whisked to New Washington where he signs a writ of secrecy, where the penalty for violation of said secrecy is execution. This is some heavy shit. He’s deposited in the Science Agency’s underground complex, where he is introduced to the Scientists. The Scientists are cyberpunk company men (The Stars My Destination. Check.) whose influence may even jeopardize the power of the traditional-nation state (Neuromancer. Check. Dune. Check.)
They are organized by rank. Novices. Apprentices. Masters.
A Master-level Scientist surgically receives a cybernetic crown. This level-up is called the coronation. Scientists who have been coronated absorb information faster, calculate faster, and have total recall. Most importantly, they can control the Agency’s devices by mere thought alone, sort of turning them into cyberpunk wizards who can telekinetically control the tech they build. Receiving your crown is a Devil’s bargain. The Agency owns you and always knows where you are. Treason against the Agency once you have your crown is the equivalent of instant execution.
Director Marbeck, the top Master of the Science Agency, has taken it upon himself to search the heavens for another world, with the intention of safeguarding humanity’s future. He’s spent all of his career spearheading the construction of Prometheus, a massive ship and the greatest secret ever kept (construction period took 30 years and was concealed on an orbital path around Jupiter). Marbeck has gone to extraordinary (and possibly murderous) measures to keep this baby a secret, as the identity and whereabouts of the men and women that comprised the construction crew are classified.
Prometheus is basically a super-intelligent terraforming machine designed to transform a planet twenty-light years away, named Erix, into a new Earth. Once Prometheus landed on Erix, it divided into six mobile sections called Crawlers. These Crawlers spread over the surface of the planet, sowing the seeds to make this alien planet habitable. The problem is, one of these Crawlers has broken down.
Prometheus’ main spire also contains one-half of a device called The Lang Transporter.
Vance’s mission is to travel to Erix instantaneously by Lang Transporter (very important, I’ll get to this in a second), trek one-hundred kilometers to the Crawler, and repair it. Sounds simple, right? Not at all. Erix is richer in heavy elements than Earth. Tungsten, chromium, titanium. Living things on Erix incorporate these metals into their physiognomy, and on a planet with twice the background radiation than on Earth, we essentially have a celestial body whose flora and fauna is the equivalent of military hardware (a detail that perhaps piqued Ridley Scott’s interest). Alien, metallic, nightmarish demons. But doesn’t Vance have a bad-ass battle-suit?
Doesn’t stop him from being killed within seconds of reaching Erix.
Yeah, Vance dies after he is teleported from the Lang Transporter Earth-side to the Lang Transporter Erix-side. It’s scary shit. But wait, how do you have a feature-length script where the protagonist dies on page 38? I’ll tell you. The Lang Transporter is not really a teleportation device. It creates copies. When Vance walks into the Lang chamber, it creates a copy of him on Erix. Bottom line: The Lang Transporter allows Vance to stand on earth and cast his shadow on another world. Which is going to be useful because problem-solving and strategizing a way to make it to the Crawler might take a shit-load of extra lives to figure out. Vance might as well be fighting his way through Hell and all of its armies to accomplish his mission. Now, I’ve summarized this plot point, but experiencing how it unfolds is one of the many joys of this screenplay.
The 2nd act is devoted to Vance, the military strategist, cracking the riddle of surviving on Erix. He develops an intimate relationship with an Apprentice, Ada. Their relationship jeopardizes their sense of identity and loyalty (corporate and personal) to their different employers. Vance is a military man. Ada is a Scientist. She feels guilty that the Agency is basically using Vance as a lab-rat Theseus, and Vance empathizes with Ada’s doubts concerning her career path, her inevitable sacrifice and coronation to the Agency. If there’s a weakness in the script, perhaps it’s the repetitive nature of the scenes. Trying to dramatize the scientific method is a hard gamble. But the drama is compelling, nonetheless. Vance’s adventures and deaths on the hostile planet are wisely kept to short, nightmarish glimpses (wisely focusing on Vance’s story Earth-side). Each segment is enough to whet your appetite, but leave you wanting more more more.
There’s a sequence where Vance demands access to all the cutting edge armor and weapons technology available on Earth. Top-secret experimental weapons of war that he’s ultimately allowed to take with him to Erix. Rail guns, antimatter grenade launchers, massive machetes and the best, shiniest battle-suit executive clearance can get you. It’s a giddy moment, and if you’ve ever been on drunk on a first-person shooter, then you’ll grin like an idiot while you read this.
Stakes are raised when a Scientist is jettisoned by Director Marbeck for discovering information that may or may not pertain to an intelligent civilization that exists on Erix. Not only is this character jettisoned, he may have been executed for his discovery. A Senator challenges Marbeck and demands to know what all this secret spending is being poured into. And with the disappearance of the Scientist, Ada is chosen as his replacement. Her coronation is to commence, against her will.
The 3rd act of this script is probably genius. The jury is still out. I’m still too busy fanboyin’ the fuck out about it. If it’s ever filmed (if a studio won’t fund it, maybe Bill Gates will, they can use Peter Jackson’s line producer), this is the kind of movie that Starcraft-playing Koreans who have been up for 72 hours straight at the local net-cafe and are only awake because of stimulants will have heart-attacks over once in the theatre. It’s a riveting resolution that intercuts between Shadow 19’s adventure on Erix and Vance’s conflict on Earth.
When the iris fully opens on Erix, it’s an action-adventure enthusiast’s wet dream. There are moments of sheer terror and sadness that had me glued to the script even though I had been up for over 20 hours. As Shadow 19 ignores Athena’s advice (which he has programmed to mimic Ada’s voice, a touching detail) and injects himself with stimulants to stay alive, I felt how weary, how desperate Vance’s copy was as he single-handedly destroys most of a planet with his personalized weapons-of-mass destruction and his burning need to accomplish his mission. It’s Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Peter Jackson caliber story-telling that does not disappoint. The Earth conflict is just as desperate and emotional as Vance tries to save Ada from her coronation. And when both worlds collide, it’s the type of splendid screenplay moment that’s both cerebral and visceral.
This script deftly uses the language found in videogames to punctuate the story-telling elements. Something we’ve seen before in Danny Boyle’s The Beach (with mixed results, although it works in Garland’s novel) and will see again in Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim. It’s an idiom that’s hard to avoid in an age where the gaming industry competes with the movie industry and publishing industry for dominance over the market of story. It’s part of our perspective, our shorthand, our inside jokes. And if you agree with Drew McWeeny over at HitFix, videogame stories will never be as good in the cinematic medium as they are in their medium of origin. But can cinematic stories that use conventions found in videogames be successful? If Shadow 19 is any indication, then yes, they can be.
Shadow 19 is a gunmetal paean to id Software and cyberpunk. A hymn to boys (and girls, are you out there?) who spent many a night playing Doom, or any videogame, really, and you were so engrossed in the virtual world the next time you looked out the window it was already dawn. It is a love letter to fans of smart and ambitious science fiction. Not sci-fi. Yes, I say “sci-fi” pejoratively, because to use the parlance of Harlan Ellison, there is a difference. And it is a felony against all people who care about story to not know the difference.
This is science fiction done right. And I dare say it…I dare say it. The Alien prequel is in good hands. If Ridley Scott is willing to believe, then so am I.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I Learned: Don’t sacrifice story for scene. If you do, chances are that’s the point where your script derailed. I’ve read enough scripts where the writers blow their wad in the first 10 pages, or in a single scene that not only sacrifices story for scene, but also spectacle. If Spaihts had chosen to show us too much of the Shadows doing battle on Erix early on, he would have run out of steam by the 3rd act. He would have focused on the wrong elements. Spielberg didn’t reveal Jaws until sixty minutes into the movie; Cameron didn’t reveal the Alien hive until sixty or so pages into the script. Follow their lead. Like Spaihts, you might create an atmosphere of sustained suspense so tangible it threatens to suffocate you before you reach the end.