Premise: George Washington puts together a band of renegade historical figures to take down Benedict Arnold the Werewolf and form the country he promised a dying Abraham Lincoln he would build, America.
About: This 2016 Black List script, which looked like it’d never rise above a fun curiosity, shocked the world last week when Netflix purchased it and decided to turn it into an animated film. Channing Tatum will voice George Washington and the film will be directed by Matt Thompson, one half of the beloved “Archer” team. The writer, Dave Callaham, is best known for writing The Expendables films. More recently, Callaham penned the upcoming Zombieland 2.
Writer: Dave Callaham
Details: 101 pages
First of all, I think Netflix is great. It’s one more outlet for creators to bring material to, and not only that, but unique material, the kind of material that takes chances. Now, after procuring America The Motion Picture, they’ve announced themselves as a new destination for animation. Just 15 years ago, there were three places that made animated movies. Now there’s triple that. Think about that. Spec screenwriters can actually write animation now!
However, Netflix is also learning that luring talent into their fold by offering them creative freedom has its drawbacks. Some of these movies and shows premiering on Netflix are so bad, it’s getting uncomfortable. Have you seen that new Brad Pitt War Machine trailer? It looks like everyone in it is acting in a high school play (by the way, when is Hollywood going to learn that war comedies stopped working in the 70s).
But here’s the scariest part. When a movie used to bomb in the theatrical world, there still came with it some notoriety. The promotion, the build-up, the press the movie got for bombing. People at least KNEW OF THE MOVIE. When a movie bombs on Netflix? It just… disappears, into a Netflix black hole, as if it never existed at all.
The point being, now that the sheen has worn off, the reality sets in. Netflix buying you doesn’t mean jack shit unless your movie connects with viewers. Will “America The Motion Picture” connect with people? Joint me for a little history lesson to find out.
While George Washington is enjoying a show with his best friend, Abraham Lincoln, his evil nemesis Benedict Arnold pops out of nowhere and kills Lincoln right in front of his face! Lincoln, with his dying breaths, makes Washington promise that he’ll create an independent country called America!
Knowing he can’t do this on his own, Washington puts together a super-team that includes demolitions expert Thomas Jefferson, transportation expert, Paul Revere, science expert Thomas Edison, and an Indian, Geronimo.
This all star team quickly corners Arnold, only to watch him BITE GERONIMO’S ARM OFF! That’s when the true nature of what they’re dealing with is revealed. Arnold is a werewolf! Which means the only way they can kill him is with a silver bullet. Now this was the 1700s, when silver bullets weren’t easy to come by. So off to the best blacksmith in the land!
The next place they know Arnold will be is at the Gettysburg Address. The problem is, they don’t know the address. So they spend countless days trying to figure out what the address of the Gettysburg Address is, until Washington uses some next level Davinci Code shit and figures out that the “A” in America is actually a code for “1” and therefore the address is 1 Merica Dr. And then the five blow up the Titanic.
Finally, after recruiting another well-known Washingten who spells his name with an ‘e,’ not an ‘o,’ and who is a dinosaur rancher who owns his own Tyrannosaurus Rex, the group attacks King James’ army. But will a T-Rex be enough to rid America of the redcoats for good? Spoiler Alert. Merica is on the map, isn’t it?
I refer to this kind of comedy as non sequitur comedy. Nothing really needs to make sense. Non sequitur comedy requires a writer with a huge imagination who’s naturally funny, the written equivalent of Robin Williams. Throw it all out there knowing not everything’s going to hit. But when it does, it will be HI-larious. And there are definitely hilarious moments in America The Motion Picture.
My favorite character was easily Edison, who would just scream out “SCIENCE!” and randomly be able to send a laser beam at people, vaporizing them instantly. Or you’d have all five heroes chasing someone on Paul Revere’s horse, and that someone would get on a boat and speed off, and Washington would ask, “Do you think your horse can leap across that water?” Paul Revere would reply, “That lake is 200 feet long.” “Well, do you?” Beat. “Yes. Yes I think he can.”
And so Revere would trot the horse back, make a run at it with all five people on, and the horse leapt… and make it all of four feet before falling in the water.
However, when the jokes weren’t hitting, you were stuck with a plot that wasn’t exactly Chinatown. I mean, it did have GSU! We had a goal (defeat King James), stakes (America’s independence) and urgency (they needed to defeat them before the Gettysberg Address).
But the comedy was so goofy that there wasn’t a lick of depth to anyone. Nobody was trying to overcome any sort of internal issue. With that said, I don’t know if you want that in non sequitur comedy. I think if you try to force character arcs into movies like this, they don’t work.
I’ve been reading the science fiction book, Rendezvous with Rama, recently. It’s a book that’s light on character, and heavy on the mystery behind a giant abandoned ship in our solar system. I later found out that a different author wrote a sequel that was universally panned. Everybody seemed to have the same reaction to the sequel: “What was so great about the first Rama was that it focused exclusively on the mystery,” they said. “Rama 2 sucked because it was all about characters and drama.”
Point being, sometimes you have to lay off the rules of the craft. If Screenwriting 101 books tell you you have to insert “A” whenever you do “B” but as you’re writing “B” you’re thinking, “I don’t think it would work if I added A.” Well, then maybe you shouldn’t add “A.”
For example, if you’re writing The Martian and you’re thinking, “I know screenwriting sites like Scriptshadow say I should give the story a contained time frame. But geez, I don’t think that’s going to work for a movie like this. I think this movie only works if you let it breathe and extend it out over a long period of time.” Then go against the rule.
Everything is a case by case basis, guys. So if you’re writing a goofy comedy like this one and adding character arcs feels wrong, don’t add them! Go by what you feel.
As long as you’re good at delivering what the audience wants, nothing else matters. And America The Motion Picture delivers exactly what its audience wants.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Extremely goofy comedies like this do not need character development (inner conflict, vices, character arcs). But they do require some sort of structure. America The Motion Picture has one giant goal (defeat King James and gain independence) and a series of smaller goals (create a silver bullet, find the Gettysburg Address, etc.) that always keep the plot moving (whenever there’s a nearby goal, the plot is moving towards that goal). If you try and write non sequitur comedy without structure for 110 pages, the reader will probably want to murder you.