Today’s script may be the strangest combo I’ve ever read. Forrest Gump meets Clockwork Orange.
Premise: We follow the life of Cosmo Hopper, a drifter whose life has been influenced by several major historical events, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Challenger Explosion, the Rodney King inspired riots, and the first Iraq War.
About: This is one of the two scripts Eric Bress, writer of The Butterfly Effect, sold back-to-back last year. I loved the first one and got a lot of flak for it from you guys. Well, we’re back with the second one, which is a lot more ambitious. Let’s check it out!
Writer: Eric Bress
Details: 107 pages – 1st draft
Guess what time it is?
TIME TO TALK ABOUT VOICE FOR THE 684,233rd time!
Raise your hand if you’re tired of hearing about voice? Okay, now ask me if I care. Go ahead. Ask me.
See, the nice thing about reading an Eric Bress script is that it won’t be like anything else you’ve read before. We have death by falling Challenger Shuttle explosion debris in this movie. Try and top that.
On the flip side, if all you do is rewrite the movies you’ve loved from your past, you’re not going to write anything memorable. That’s not to say you can’t write an entertaining product. If your technique is good, if you understand basic storytelling (suspense, irony, dramatic irony, character development, conflict, anticipation, mystery), you can still write something solid. But you’ll never write something great unless it comes uniquely from you.
I mean, yes, I liked The Force Awakens. But I’ll be the first to admit that JJ didn’t bring anything new to it. He didn’t bring any voice. He brought his love and passion for the source material. And that was enough to get me excited about Star Wars again. But The Force Awakens never had a chance to be great because there wasn’t a unique voice behind it.
39 year old Cosmo Hopper is a homeless vagrant who’s just been accused of burning down a building and trying to kill everyone inside of it. Luckily, nobody died, but the interrogating officer wants to know why the fuck Cosmo would do such a thing. So Cosmo decides to tell the officer his life story.
Cut to Cosmo at seven years old when he loses his mother to cancer. That means his care is transferred over to his estranged weirdo father, one of those low-lifes who thinks he’s a scientist because he drinks a lot of beer and reads books.
Dad makes Cosmo his own personal guinea pig, putting him through a series of tests like holding him underwater for minutes at a time, walking on glass and hot coals, covering Cosmo’s favorite horse with gasoline and having Cosmo walk him through a thin path with fire on each side. Yeah, your basic nut job shit.
Lucky for Cosmo, his father dies one day when the two are fishing. They’re in Florida at the time, and watch in horror as the Challenger shuttle blows up in the sky and eventually rains down its debris on the lake. His father is hit by one of the chunks from the shuttle and that’s all she wrote.
Cosmo, now 19, says goodbye to his best friend and love of his life, Rosanna, and heads off to find his grandparents. He stows away on a crabbing boat (the most dangerous job in the world) eventually ending up in Germany during the fall of the Berlin Wall. He finally finds love again with his grandparents, and things seem to be going well.
Eventually, Cosmo heads off to fight in the Iraq war, where he sees the kind of death and mutilation that even someone with the most fucked up father in the universe is prepared for. At one point, he’s responsible for taking all the blown up soldier bits and, like a puzzle, putting them back together again.
All during this time, Cosmo ponders the meaning of life, of the universe, with a particular obsession over the number 17 (“I’d seen 17 men die in my meat wagon and 17 explosions since then. The flight home was 17 hours and left at 17:00 hours.”) and longs to be back with the only thing that makes him whole – Rosanna.
But is it too late for them? Is it too late for Cosmo? Has he seen too much? Experienced too much? Not even Cosmo may be able to answer that question.
You ever wonder what Forrest Gump may have looked like had it been directed by David Lynch, with second unit directing by Harmony Korine? Yeah, me too. Well, it would probably look something like this. This is bizarro world shit up in here, and whether you love it or hate it will depend on how fucked up you are in the head.
Structurally, it’s kind of a mess. We’re randomly jumping through time to key historic moments both in our hero’s and our planet’s lives. But Bress does use a device to make it more palatable, and it’s one all screenwriters should be aware of. He uses the “base camp” technique.
So last week, I was consulting on a script for a writer and his story was jumping all over the place. We were in Egypt for awhile, then we spent some time on a ship, then we spent time in business boardrooms, then we followed the construction of a soccer stadium. The script was frustrating to read because it couldn’t focus on one thing.
You could argue American Drifter is the same way – with a tweak. Bress establishes a “base camp” at the beginning of the story – the interrogation of Cosmo Hopper for burning down a building. By establishing a base camp, wherever we travel in our story, no matter how far or how weird, we have this base camp to come back to.
Now ideally, you want a storyline going on with your base camp, something the reader actually cares about. That way, when we’re in Berlin or a crabbing ship or Florida during the Challenger explosion, we’re always thinking in the back of our minds, “I wonder if he’s guilty of burning down that building.” This device basically gives a shapeless story shape.
Now is the base camp storyline here great? No. But we are dealing with a first draft. And I assume Bress has improved it since. There didn’t seem to be big enough stakes attached to his burning down of this building. Nobody died. It was more about, was this a dry-run for Cosmo to do something even worse. And since he was already captured, I wasn’t worried about that.
A base camp movie that worked better was Source Code. Whenever we went back to base camp (our hero stuck in that room with the controllers), it was made clear to us that time was running out. If they didn’t find this bomb soon, another bigger bomb would blow up, killing thousands. So the interrogation actually had some stakes attached to it.
Still, this script is unlike anything I’ve read all year. It’s not perfect. It’s not something that will appeal to everyone. But in a sea of scripts that all read the same, this is a refreshing diversion I was happy to take.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Anybody you’ve ever been passionate about – good or bad – has a strong voice. M. Night, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Bay, Quentin Tarantino. The less passionate you are about someone, the less defined their voice is. Again, you can still enjoy a non-voicy person. But their films tend to inspire less of a reaction. So ask yourself when you’re writing – am I writing the kind of thing that wouldn’t offend a single person? That wouldn’t inspire passion one way or another? If the answer is no, you’re probably not drawing deeply enough within yourself to explore your unique point of view on the world.
What I learned 2: The bigger your movie, the harder it is to inject voice into it. Voice often divides people. And the biggest movies out there can’t afford to divide people. They have to appeal to everyone. So if you’re writing a huge 150 million dollar movie, don’t worry too much about injecting the script with a controversial voice.