Upstream Color will have to wait another week. So today’s script will take on one of the most famous baseball players in history. The question is, is he interesting enough to have a movie written about him?
Genre: Sports Drama
Premise: (from IMDB) The life story of Jackie Robinson and his history-making signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers under the guidance of team executive Branch Rickey.
About: Writer (and director of this film) Brian Helgeland, is the only screenwriter to win both an Oscar (for L.A. Confidential) and a Razzie (for The Postman) in the same year. While sticking mainly to writing, he does occasionally plop down in the director’s chair, such as when he directed Heath Ledger in the 2001 film, A Knight’s Tale (for which he also wrote the script – which sold for 2.5 million). Helgeland is one of Hollywood’s super-writers, brought in for million dollar rewrites when crap needs fixing (which is often). But this is a project he clearly wanted to be involved in from the beginning to the end. The film comes out this Friday and stars Harrison Ford as Jackie Robinson’s manager.
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Details: 125 pages (September 27, 2011 draft)
Man, there is a lot to talk about here. And I’m not even referring to the screenplay. First off, the sports drama is hard to pull off. Sports movies just don’t make money. So to see this splashed all over my TV and my neighborhood makes me think we’re talking AT LEAST a 70 million dollar marketing campaign. On top of the budget for the film, which was maybe 60 million, that means the movie has to clear 130 million just to meet its production and advertising budget (and since a movie has to make 3 times its budget to start making money, actually much more than that!)? Why do I have a hard time seeing 42 making that kind of money?
Then again, I have to admit, the trailers for this thing have been kick-ass. The marketing takes a 60 year old topic and makes it feel current and exciting. Despite that, I probably won’t see this until it comes out on Itunes. Which is surprising because I actually like baseball. I’d consider myself the core audience for the film. But Jackie Robinson’s story has been told so many times before. Why will this one be any different? What’s supposed to excite me about this new take besides the admittedly cool Jay-Z music in the trailer?
Then there’s the race angle. I don’t think race is an insignificant discussion by any means, but Jesus Christ has it been explored to death in cinema. I have to now endure another one of these cliché situations? There’s actually a lot of irony here because while this movie celebrates African-Americans breaking into baseball, we live in a time where African-Americans are becoming extinct in baseball. There are only a few dozen black baseball players left in the majors. They are gradually phasing out of the sport as the average African-American kid would rather play basketball or football. Baseball, for the most part, has become a Latino dominated game.
Then there’s just baseball in general. The sport is dying. It was created in a time where people actually had patience. Where they were willing to sit and watch a 3 hour game practically built to be boring. It’s been on a downward slope for awhile now. There’s really only one compelling story left in the sport in my opinion, and that’s “When are the Cubs going to win the World Series?” They better hope it never happens because as soon as it does, baseball is dead in my eyes.
So where does this leave my anticipation for 42? Not that high. I will say that these biopics are only as good as how interesting the main character is. If he’s complex, interesting, strange, has secrets, has demons, has personality, and lived an exciting life, put me in coach. But if this is just a by-the-book retelling of the most memorable moments from Jackie Robinson breaking into the major leagues, throw me out of the game.
Everyone knew 26 year old Jackie Robinson had the talent to play in the big leagues. But back in the 1940s, baseball was a white man’s game. I’m talking literally. Like there wasn’t a single black player in the league. And that’s because they weren’t allowed. There were even laws in some southern states where black men could not play baseball with white men. So if the cops were to see this, they’d arrest the black man (a scene that plays prominently in the movie).
Enter Branch Rickey, the owner of the New York Dodgers (yes, this is before they moved to Los Angeles). A little bit old, a little bit prickly, Rickey felt it was time that baseball had a black player. But he was unapologetic in saying he was just as interested in winning a world series. And he felt Jackie Robinson gave him the best chance of doing so.
While we expect this to be about Jackie’s anointment onto the Dodger team, most of the movie takes place before that monumental moment, back when he was playing for the Dodger’s Triple-A team. As he kicks ass in the minor leagues, word spreads that he’ll be coming to the Dodgers soon, and a lot of players don’t like it. In fact, a petition is put together for Branch Rickey from the entire Dodger team saying they won’t play if Jackie is brought up.
But Rickey doesn’t scare easily. He tells his players if they don’t want to play for him, no problem. He’ll trade’em. With that plan backfiring, Jackie does make his famed major league debut on April 15, 1946 and all the players but one are there to accept him. Well, “accept” might not be the correct word. As you’d expect, Jackie’s not exactly bombarded with Facebook friend requests upon his arrival. For the most part, everyone just tolerates him, and as one sportswriter puts it, Jackie has become the “loneliest man in baseball.”
But Jackie keeps fighting, doing the one thing he knows he does best – play baseball. And play it he does. His combination of strength and speed is like nothing baseball has ever seen. And with him leading the team, the Dodgers put themselves in position to do the unthinkable: Win the pennant. That’s if Jackie can weather the storm his entrance into the sport’s created.
This movie is called “42,” which stands for Jackie Robinson’s number. This movie is about Jackie Robinson. So if Jackie Robinson isn’t a compelling character, this movie is dead. And guess what? Jackie Robinson (in this draft at least) isn’t a compelling character. Now sure, the events surrounding him are compelling. Everything he goes through is compelling. But the character himself? Well, okay I’m just going to say it…he’s kinda boring.
I mean first his flaw is too simplistic. He’s a hot head. So wherever someone tests him, whenever some white Klansman-wannabe tells him to go back to the cotton field, Jackie must resist his first impulse, which is to beat the living hell out of the guy. This isn’t easy since it happens multiple times a day every day he’s in the big leagues. Hmm, I’m not sure how deeply that’s exploring our hero.
Second, he’s got zero personality. I mean ZERO. He just nods a lot, bristles a lot, keeps to himself a lot. He has no sense of humor, no compelling quirks. He’s just a super serious boring guy. This very well may have been how Jackie was and they didn’t want to mis-portray him, but that doesn’t mean he gets a passing grade. Boring is boring.
Finally, and most importantly, Jackie is not an active character. This entire movie is about how he reacts to what’s happening. He’s told he gets to be in the big leagues. He’s told how to handle it. Whenever someone tells him to do something, he does it. The character isn’t driving any apect of the story except for maybe the pennant race, which is given very little focus. Look at two other famous African-Americans in history, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. These are people who were ACTIVE. Who DID things. Jackie Robinson was thrown into a situation and we watched how he reacted. And for whatever reason, his reaction just isn’t that compelling.
In fact, I would argue that Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) is the main character here. He’s the one who made the decision, who has the most at stake, who’s driving the story with his choices. And that’s fine. It’s cool to know more about this person who played a big part in the Jackie Robinson story. But this movie isn’t called “Branch Rickey.” So why the hell does he get more attention as a character than Jackie?
Then there’s the structure. So much of the movie is leading up to this moment when Jackie joins the team, that after it happens, I’m not really sure why I’m watching anymore. I mean, it’s interesting to see the kind of resistance he runs into (even if it’s predictable), but we’ve already covered a lot of this while he was in the minor leagues. After awhile, I got impatient and asked, “Where is this going?” Eventually, this late-emerging pennant-race storyline popped up and I just sort of went with it. But since it wasn’t given a lot of emphasis, it lacked that engine that really drove our interest.
That’s not to say the script was bad. It had a strong, if a little safe, voice to it. There were a few nice moments, such as when the Phillies manager came out on the field and, in front of the world, reporters and all, told Jackie he was a monkey and to go back to the cotton fields. THE PHILLIES MANAGER. Not some player. That one stuck out. But because Jackie Robinson himself was so bland, and so reactive, I was never truly invested in the screenplay.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I’ll say this until the day I die. It doesn’t matter how interesting a person’s life is. If the person themselves isn’t interesting, don’t write a movie about them.
This is your chance to discuss the week’s amateur scripts, offered originally in the Scriptshadow newsletter. The primary goal for this discussion is to find out which script(s) is the best candidate for a future Amateur Friday review. The secondary goal is to keep things positive in the comments with constructive criticism.
Below are the scripts up for review, along with the download links. Want to receive the scripts early? Head over to the Contact page, e-mail us, and “Opt In” to the newsletter.
TITLE: Operation Vertigo
GENRE: Sci-Fi Thriller
LOGLINE: In 2049, a government employee is wrenched into an anarchist plot to destabilize a dystopian U.S. government.
Why You Should Read (from writer): “This screenplay is 1984 meets North By Northwest, by way of V For Vendetta, with a splash of Breaking Bad for good measure. It’s set in a realistic future, one not all that different from 2013, where the dystopian elements of society hide under bridges and behind CIA doors. It uses the classic Hitchcock trope of an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation.”
GENRE: Sci-Fi/Fantasy Action Adventure
LOGLINE: When his dream girl is abducted and taken into cyberspace, a young genius must journey to the furthest reaches of the digital universe to save her.
TITLE: TIME & TIME AGAIN
LOGLINE: Only one man can help fiery-tempered Louis save multiple universes from destruction and rescue his kidnapped wife… her lover.
TITLE: Alien Prime
LOGLINE: A boy becomes best friends with an alien that his parents find and protect from the military. When they become adults, he realizes the Alien is the key to an invasion of Earth and he is the only one who can stop the alien.
Does Home For The Holidays feel too “been there done that?” Or does Carson simply not have a sense of humor? Read on to find out!
Amateur Friday Submission Process: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, a PDF of the first ten pages of your script, your title, genre, logline, and finally, why I should read your script. Use my submission address please: Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Your script and “first ten” will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effects of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.
Premise: A conservative family man looking to move up in his law firm struggles to balance his daughter’s pregnancy, his son’s bullying, and comes to terms with college son’s surprise boyfriend over the Christmas holiday.
About: This script won the Amateur Friday Submissions Post last weekend. It beat out a clunky grab bag of comedies, but as we all know, comedy is hard. So don’t get too down on yourselves folks. Just keep writing and keep getting better. I know Tom and Christopher well. I reviewed a previous script of theirs (Charming) a couple of years ago and it ended up getting the two a lot of recognition, despite me having some issues with it.
Writers: Christopher Jones & Tom Albanese
Details: 111 pages
Another script from a former Amateur Friday writer(s) is reviewed! I don’t know what to tell you guys. You gotta write better scripts if you’re going to beat out the top players on Amateur Offerings Weekend. Lots of the people submitting these scripts to Scriptshadow (and everywhere else) have been at this for a long time. They’ve written 6,7, 8 scripts, or more. More scripts means more practice. They learn what they’re doing wrong and they improve the next time around. So don’t bring your Bush League stuff here. Bring your A-Game. And make sure you’ve written the best possible screenplay you can write.
As I picked up Home For The Holidays, I realized something immediately – I’D ALREADY READ IT. Over a year ago. I’d given notes to Tom and Chris on it. It had a different title (Fudge Packers). So I went back to check my notes and after admiring how amazing they were, I plucked open “Holidays,” excited to see if any of my suggestions were incorporated.
So what WAS my big problem with the script? I had two. First, the idea felt too “been there, done that.” There was a familiarity to it, but not that good familiarity. Rather the one where you’re like, “I’ve seen too many movies like this before.” I wanted the concept to feel fresher. I wanted there to be something that separated it and gave it that “difference” that’s required in the “same but different” equation Hollywood craves.
A big reason for this was Calvin, the boyfriend our main character’s son brings home. He was way way waaaay over-the-top. Again, I feel like that kind of flamboyant gay character became played out in the “Will and Grace” era. These days, homosexual characters are being portrayed in all sorts of different ways. This was a huge HUGE concern of mine, and I knew it if it wasn’t addressed, I’d have a hard time changing my mind about “Holidays.” So I was curious to see if that would be fixed.
54 year-old Bob Packer is the all-American father with the all-American family. He’s got two sons and a daughter, as well as a wacky Grandfather who’s obsessed with The Notebook and lives in the basement. Okay, maybe that’s not completely All-American, but it’s close enough.
Bob’s pride and joy, his college son Drew, is coming home for the holidays, and he’s bringing his new girlfriend with him. Bob is pumped because he was beginning to get concerned. He hasn’t seen his son with a girl in years. Of course, Bob hasn’t been able to keep up with family lately as a lot of his time is being taken up by the law firm he works at. Luckily, all that work is paying off. He’s a shoe-in for president of the law firm, succeeding his doucebag close-minded boss, Harlen Taylor.
So Bob heads to the airport to pick up Drew but surprise surprise, Drew hasn’t brought home his girlfriend, but rather a BOYFRIEND. Drew is gay! This is a shock to the system for Bob, who goes into a fit of denial. That shock will only get worse as Calvin, Drew’s beau, is reallllly touchy-feely. He can’t keep his hands off Drew. Or his lips. He’s loud. He’s obnoxious. He’s the most flamboyant gay man on the planet (so much for hope of a change!).
Besides the fact that Bob is so not prepared for this, he must hide his son’s sexuality from his boss, who’s one of the most intolerant people ever. This won’t be easy as Harlen sets up a bunch of get-togethers with the fams on the eve of Bob taking over. Bob must work every angle possible to avoid Harlen discovering the truth, that Drew’s friend is not a friend at all, but his lover. Eventually, though, Harlen figures it out, and he gives Bob a made-for-the-movies ultimatum: Get rid of the boyfriend or you don’t get the job. Bob will now have to decide what’s important to him, his family or his career.
So, I asked the question. And it seems to have been answered. While I noticed a lot of my smaller notes addressed (Bob’s job promotion storyline is a lot clearer), my big issues were left untouched. Home For The Holidays still feels like a movie I’ve seen too many times before. And Calvin is still way over the top. For those reasons, I just can’t get onboard with this script.
I think I understand Chris and Tom’s choice with Calvin though. They wanted to make Calvin the absolute WORST person that could possibly show up for Bob. He isn’t just gay. He’s the GAYEST PERSON EVER. This would allow the most amount of conflict between Drew and Bob, and the most outrageous comedy situations (i.e. Calvin constantly trying to mount Drew wherever they go).
That’s the thing about screenwriting. It’s never an easy choice. Technically, you want to create the most difficulty for your protagonist. But when that choice includes creating a cliché character, you have to weigh the pros and cons of each, go with what you think is best, and hope the audience likes it. I didn’t agree with this choice, but that doesn’t mean someone else won’t.
I just hope that this decision wasn’t made out of laziness. This happens a lot when I give notes. I’ll highlight a couple of big problems and a lot of little ones. The writers look at the big notes, realize how much work they’re going to take, and decide to fix all the little issues instead. I receive the script a second time, and while the writers may have spent upwards of 40 hours making all those little changes and feel like they’ve done a ton, I read it and it’s basically the exact same script with a little extra make-up on it. I mean, about 80 pages in here, I had this horrifying thought. I was reading the old draft by accident! That turned out not to be the case, but the fact that I was even thinking it was was a bad thing.
That is, of course, assuming that my observations that the concept is too familiar (and old) and Calvin was too cliché were correct observations. I mean, I may be way off base here. What did you guys think?
If Chris and Tom are going to stand by their guns with these choices, I would address one more issue. Bob’s character arc isn’t there yet. It has to be set up better that Bob is spending too much time at work, that he’s neglecting his family, that the family is suffering because of it, something Bob is too busy to be aware of. We need to have that “big issue” problem here. His son being gay should appear to be the main problem, when in reality there’s a much bigger issue at play – him neglecting his family. That way, when the final ultimatum comes down from his boss, it has a lot more weight to it. Bob breaks up his son’s relationship (work over family) or tells his boss to fuck off (family over work). I didn’t get that feeling here, and in a comedy like this, that moment is essential for the story to feel complete.
It sucks I didn’t love Home but I continue to believe in Tom and Chris as writers! I wish them luck on their next project! ☺
Script link: Home For The Holidays
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: It took me awhile to realize this (first while sending my own stuff out there, and now being on the other end where I’m receiving scripts), but if you’re just making cosmetic changes to your script (changing some locations, adding a character, making one character a little nicer or another a little meaner), someone who didn’t like your script the first time isn’t going to like it the second time. If someone doesn’t like your script, you’re going to have to do a page 1 rewrite to turn them around. I remember re-sending a script out to a good contact, making this mistake, and hearing the disappointment after they finished the draft. I’d put lots of hours into the changes, but I realized much later that the basic underpinnings of the story were the same ones he had issues with the first time.
So you’re currently preparing to write your next script. And it’s a drama.
I have some advice for you. Don’t do it. Stay away. Avoid the drama spec at all costs.
Why? There are tons of reasons. But let me break down some of the big ones for you. Drama specs don’t sell. Or, at least, they don’t sell nearly as much as comedy, thriller, horror, action, or sci-fi. Most of the dramas being made are on the indie circuit, where they don’t pay you for your script. They politely ask you for your script for free and offer you back-end profits. And those aren’t ever going to come. Because dramas don’t make money unless they’re funded by the studios, who give the films huge budgets, which allow for amazing production value and giant box-office promising stars. Oh sure, a little “Engine that could” drama comes along every few years or so and makes a good showing, but those are the rarest of the rare.
Most of the dramas being written in Hollywood are by the big name A-list screenwriters, the guys with a proven track record, and almost all of these are assignment work. That means the studio owns the rights to a project and interview a bunch of potential writers before hiring one. Rarely will you find a writer who actually wrote a drama on spec (all on his own – without studio money) and that script went on to sell. And under the rare circumstances where that does happen, it’s someone who’s already established himself in Hollywood. For an unknown writer to write a drama and sell it (a legitimate sale, meaning at least six figures), is practically unheard of. The last one I can think of is maybe Brad Inglesby, who sold “The Low Dweller” like 5 years ago? And of course he had to snag Leonardo DiCaprio as an attachment to secure that sale.
To get a better sense of the drama landscape in Hollywood, let’s look at the box office take for the top 5 dramas last year.
1) Lincoln – 182 million
2) Argo – 135 million
3) The Vow – 125 million
4) Life of Pi – 123 million
5) Zero Dark 30 – 95 million
Lincoln came in at the number 13 slot. It was adapted from a book. Argo finished at 22 and was adapted from a book and article (which was based on real life). The Vow was 26 and based on a book. Life of Pi was 27 and based on a book. And Zero Dark 30 was 32 and based on real life events, with the writer already hired to work with the director.
The first true drama spec-script-turned-film of last year (it sold for around a million bucks) was the John Gatins scripted “Flight.” The film did pretty well, considering its downbeat subject matter, grossing 93 million dollars. Unfortunately, scribe Gatins was not an unknown. He had written Hardball, Coach Carter, and Real Steel. He’d even directed the film “Dreamer.” Again, a reminder of how tough it is to sell a spec. You need 3 freaking credits to get people to trust your written word.
Let’s get to the point here. There are a ton of you who love dramas and are going to ignore my advice. You’re going to be that once-every-five-years exception who sells their drama spec for big money. Which is fine. You gotta be a little crazy to make it in this town. But if you’re going to be insane, it’s my duty to at least help you swing the odds in your favor. And Flight is actually a great script to analyze as far as drama spec writing. It does a few key things right, but is actually a horribly written screenplay. Therefore there’s a ton to learn from it.
Gatins makes three key decisions that allowed his script to be saleable and ultimately produceable.
1) Include something you can market your drama around, that you can put in a trailer – This is where most amateur drama writers fail. They write about a group of people droning on about their miserable lives and the terrible circumstances that brought them together and blah blah blah. There’s no hook. Just depression. Instead of that, include a hook or flashy story element that can be placed in a trailer and get people excited. I guarantee Flight sold most of its tickets due to the image of that upside-down airplane flying towards earth about to make a crash landing.
2) Include a tough part an actor will want to play – The one big advantage with drama is that you can create a dynamic interesting hero that big actors will want to play. So that’s what you gotta do. Make the character compelling, rich, complex, unique, filled with conflict, someone you can truly see an A-list actor (an actor who’s given ALL THE BEST MATERIAL IN TOWN remember – so they have a lot to choose from) fighting to play. A hardcore alcoholic was just the part Denzel was looking for to stretch his acting muscles.
3) A larger than life character – This isn’t a requirement like the other two. But it’ll help a lot. Actors may love to show off their acting chops, but they’re still actors. They have big egos. Therefore they want to play larger-than-life characters. If Whip Whitaker (the main character in Flight) is the exact same character but the movie takes place in all the bars of New York as opposed to in a plane that Whip saves with a daring heroic move, Denzel doesn’t sign on to this movie. He wants to play the drunk AND the larger than life character. We see the same thing in another successful drama, Good Will Hunting. Will’s not just some average kid off the street. He’s a genius.
In my opinion, this is why Flight sold and attracted the talent that it did. And Gatins is lucky that he got those three things right, because this was a horribly written screenplay outside of the plane crash sequence. It’s essentially a vehicle for Denzel Washington to try to win an Oscar with and nothing more. Unfortunately, nobody checked to see if this drama was actually DRAMATIC. Because it wasn’t. It was one of the least dramatic movies I saw all year.
That’s where you won’t get the same leeway Gatins did. Gatins was trusted because of his credits. You, as a struggling amateur, have nothing, which means that getting the above three things right isn’t enough. You must also write a COMPELLING STORY. And that’s done by creating a series of DRAMATIC situations. Situations that pull your reader in, that make him excited, fearful, curious, angry. Situations that milk tension, that bleed suspense. If your drama isn’t dramatic, you don’t have a shot in hell of selling it.
Let’s use Flight’s execution as an example of how NOT to write drama. The script and movie open up on the morning after a long night of drinking between Whip and a mystery woman in his hotel room. There’s little-to-no interaction between the two, implying that neither really gives a shit about the other. They just needed a warm body on a lonely night.
However, when Whip shows up for his flight in the next scene, we see that, oh my, the woman from the room is actually one of his stewardesses! When Whip makes his miracle landing, saving 90-some passengers, six people from the plane are killed, one of them being that stewardess. This ranks as probably the least dramatic choice you could’ve made with this character. Sex-Friend Girl turning out to be a stewardess has zero impact on the story. It’s a gimmick. It works for .2 seconds as that’s how long it lasts for the audience to go “Oooh” when her stewardess status is revealed. It’s clear the writer didn’t know how to handle this situation because later in the hospital, when Whip wakes up and learns she died, he starts crying. Wait a minute. What??? Whip doesn’t care about this chick. She’s a nobody to him. They fucked then ignored each other all morning.
Let me offer an alternative scenario that adds WAY MORE DRAMA to this situation. Start with the same scene. He sleeps with this chick. But in this version, the two don’t know each other. They met last night at some FAA banquet thing, got drunk, and ended up here. Now Whip doesn’t want her here so he does everything short of saying, “Get the fuck out” until she leaves. Pissed, upset, hurt, she leaves with a grudge. Then later, when the NTSB starts inspecting the crash and Whip is led back to the crash site, the lead investigator emerges out of a group of people and guess who it is? The woman he slept with. NOW you have a dramatic situation. He has to win over the person he fucked over earlier in order to come out of this okay. Not easy since she knows he was drinking that night. Now that may take the story in a direction you didn’t want to go. But Jesus Christ, give me something! Give me anything that creates drama. Not some random chick dying who our main character didn’t even like.
There’s another scene in Flight that I believe epitomizes what bad writers BELIEVE is drama but is actually the OPPOSITE of drama (or what I call “anti-drama”). It’s a freaking 10 minute scene where Whip, a female druggie (who overdosed and is therefore at the same hospital Whip is), and some random cancer patient meet up in the stairway of the hospital to sneak a smoke. Each character starts talking about life, particularly Cancer Guy, who dispenses a bunch of “wisdom” about how God decides our fate. This goes on for TEN MINUTES.
Bad writers think this is drama because characters are being deep and talking about the complexities of life. That’s not drama! Drama is creating DRAMATIC SITUATIONS! Where’s the dramatic situation here??? What aspect of the scene makes us want to keep watching? For almost any scene to have a dramatic situation, at least one of the characters in the scene should have a goal, an objective. You then place obstacles in front of that objective and that’s what creates the drama. Nobody in this scene wants anything! It’s clear Gatins just wanted a scene where Random Cancer Guy could dish out his philosophies on life so he forced his characters into a stairway to do it, even if that didn’t make sense and there was nothing interesting or dramatic about the scene that we would actually enjoy.
What if, instead, Whip finds out that his toxicology report (which hasn’t been tested yet) is somewhere in the hospital? The one that proves he was high and drinking during the flight? He finds an excuse to sneak out of his room and locates the blood lab. He gets there, gets in, but finds a doctor in the room. Maybe it’s the doctor of the druggie, who’s also there (if you still wanted her to be in this scene). Whip pretends he’s lost but the doctor ends up recognizing him as the hero pilot and becomes a bit of a fanboy. We have another three-way conversation, but this one includes a goal. Whip has to find a way to get his lab results without this guy noticing. I guarantee you this scene is going to be more exciting than talking-to-boring-druggie-and-Random-Cancer-Dude-in-the-stairway scene. And it’s not through any bit of magic. We’re just DRAMATIZING the damn scene!
I could literally list dozens of other bad choices this script made, but we’d be here all night. Let’s end this on a positive note and remind ourselves what gives us the best chance of selling a drama spec. First, write something that contains SOME ASPECT that’s marketable. The entire movie doesn’t have to be marketable, just a portion. Next, write a character an A-list actor will want to play. A drama is nearly IMPOSSIBLE to sell without an A-list attachment so this is big. And make that role larger than life in some way. Play to the actor’s ego. Finally, make sure you’ve DRAMATIZED YOUR STORY as much as possible. Dramas aren’t people depressed about their wives dying joining up with other depressed people and talking about how difficult life is. They’re about finding a series of compelling dramatic situations that cover every inch of the screenplay. If you’ve chosen the drama to break in with, you have a long journey ahead of you. Hopefully these words of wisdom will make that journey a little shorter.
Premise: (from IMDB) A veteran assigned to extract Earth’s remaining resources begins to question what he knows about his mission and himself.
About: While this draft was written by “The Departed” screenwriter William Monahan, Monahan didn’t seem to make the final cut when the credits were given out. The writer doing the revisions here, Karl Gajdusek, gets credit, along with Joseph Kosinski (the director) and Michael Arndt (significant since this is the only sci-fi script we have from Arndt, who is of course writing Star Wars VII). Gajdusek is probably best known for writing the 2011 thriller “Trespass” which starred past-their-prime actors Nicholas Cage and Nicole Kidman. He also created the recent TV series, “Last Resort,” about a bunch of deceived American military men forced to take over an island to defend themselves against the very country that is supposed to be protecting them. Oblivion stars Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, and is directed by ultra-slick Tron: Legacy director, Joseph Kosinski.
Writer: William Monahan (current revisions by Karl Gajdusek) (Based on the story by Joseph Kosinski)
Details: 109 pages (March 27, 2011 draft)
I heard good things about this script over the past year or so. But one criticism kept coming back at me – The first half was really good. The second half, not so much.
Didn’t matter. I was still interested. William Monahan isn’t known for sci-fi, so his involvement was intriguing. The guy excels at period pieces, which are great springboards for sci-fi writers, since period pieces are all about research and world-building and detail. Those same tools are what’s needed to create great sci-fi.
I also love the trailer for this. I’ve been a fan of Kosinski since Tron: Legacy. I know the plot in that film wasn’t the greatest, but boy was the direction slick. Directing-wise, Kosinski reminds me of a young Gore Verbinski, someone who understood how to make a commercial film, yet has just enough of a unique eye and temperament to make his stuff feel different. I have a feeling that this guy will be directing some of the biggest summer blockbusters in Hollywood within the next couple of years.
Oblivion begins with the mono-named Jack explaining to us (via voice-over) that aliens tried to out-war us humans and lost. The bad news is, because we had to use our nukes to beat’em, it left our planet a shit-hole. Jack is a clean-up guy of sorts. You see, there are still rogue aliens skittering across the planet, and we’ve built these droids to fly around and kill them. But sometimes the aliens shoot our droids down. Jack goes around and fixes them.
When he’s not fixing droids, Jack hangs out at his sky-home with his girlfriend and droid-repair partner, Victoria. She helps monitor the downed droids so Jack knows where to go. The two couldn’t be more different, however. Jack loves Earth, even if it’s fallen apart. Victoria can’t wait to leave so she can be one of the first humans to colonize Mars. In the meantime, the “TET,” a space station orbiting earth that houses the million or so humans remaining, keeps her abreast of their mission goals, and makes sure everything’s running smoothly between her and Jack.
But everything’s not running smoothly with Jack. He keeps having these dreams of another mysterious woman, a woman he was intimate with. That recurring dream eventually comes crashing down, literally, when an old shuttle, launched into orbit before the war, crash-lands, with the woman he’s been seeing in his dreams in one of the sleep chambers. Yikes! Even stranger, when she wakes up, she knows his name!
(MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD) Things unravel from there. When inspecting a downed droid, Jack’s attacked by a group of aliens. He’s shot down, and when he wakes up, he’s in some kind of underground cave. It turns out, the aliens? Not aliens. They’re humans dressed all funky to disguise themselves from the droids. Droids that aren’t hunting down aliens at all. But HUMANS. Why would human-controlled droids be hunting down humans? Because it’s all a lie. The humans didn’t win the war. The aliens did. The TET isn’t an American base. It’s an alien ship. Jack and Victoria have been tricked into helping the aliens exterminate the last of the humans.
But these humans have one last plan in the hopper. They’ve got their hands on a bomb. If they can somehow get someone to deliver it up to the TET, they can destroy the aliens once and for all. Jack would totally be down for this if he wasn’t having a mental breakdown. It’s not easy to learn you’ve been working for the man. Especially when “the man” is a mass murderer of your people! But eventually Jack comes around. He wants to do the right thing and kill some alien ass. But with the TET onto his plan, it very well may be too late.
I gotta say, I really liked this script. The structure was especially strong. Structure is all about setting up pillars and dangling carrots to get you from one pillar to the next. Anything you can do so that we want to make it to the next pillar is fair game. Here, it’s all the mysteries. First, who is the woman in the dreams? Then when he finds her, how does she know his name? Then, what’s on the voice recorder box from the crashed shuttle? Then, what’s in the “forbidden” areas? Monahan keeps us guessing, and therefore keeps us wanting to get to that next pillar.
This then leads us to our eventual goal (back to spoilers) – kill the aliens. But what’s so cool about “Oblivion” is that it layers these story engines. We’re trying to figure things out (what’s in the forbidden zone?) at the same time as we’re gearing up to achieve our goal – kill the aliens.
People often ask me what’s the biggest difference between an amateur and a pro script. There’s no universal answer, but something from Oblivion reminded me of the question: The complexity of the relationships. (major spoilers) Look at the relationship between the three major parties here, Jack, Victoria, and Julia (the girl from the downed shuttle). Jack turns out to be a clone of the man Julia loved. And with Victoria also being a clone, Jack’s relationship with her turns out to be nothing but a fabrication of the alien’s programming. So he’s stuck in a really weird place. He loves both of these women, despite the fact that his love for them isn’t technically “real.” This leads to a lot of gray area whenever the relationships are explored, areas that felt fresh because we’d never seen them before. Do you know how hard it is to create unique male-female relationships in a medium that’s been going on for 100 years? Monahan figured out a way to do it. And that to me is the sign of a professional.
As you know, I’m always talking about conflict. I like how Monahan injected not one element of conflict, but TWO into his main relationship (Jack and Victoria). Jack is carefree while Victoria’s by the book. Jack wants to stay on earth while Victoria’s desperate to leave. For a movie whose first half rests solely on this relationship, adding two elements of conflict instead of one becomes essential. The plot didn’t have enough going on to only house a single lane of conflict between its two main characters. Decisions like this really impressed me.
If I had to log a complaint about Oblivion, it might be how little we see of the human rebels. We basically get a couple of scenes with them and that’s it. I liked the way the script ended, but maybe these guys could’ve logged more minutes prepping Jack and getting things ready for the bomb transfer. My gut tells me that’s probably something they changed in the subsequent drafts. But we’ll see.
I don’t know what readers were talking about when they said the second half of this script wasn’t good. I thought it kept getting better all the way til the end, which is what a good script should do. I’ll be checking this out on opening weekend as I’m curious to see what they’ve changed. I’m guessing it wasn’t much. It would be foolish to mess with this script.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I learned a lot of things from this script. But I think the big one is that if I were writing a sci-fi script, I’d keep a handful of mysteries in my story until the very end. One of the problems with a lot of these generic sci-fi movies today is that they show all their cards early, and the second half of the script amounts to a business-like execution of the goal. Oblivion has questions going all the way up until the end. The story then becomes more about getting these answers than it does executing the big traditional climax. So dangle those carrots all the way until the end of your story, people. Don’t let us eat’em too early.