Premise: A psychologically damaged slacker living in a small town with his girlfriend, soon finds that the CIA is trying to kill him for reasons unknown.
About: American Ultra was written by Max Landis, the writing machine who writes like five scripts a year. The Chronicle writer got Jesse Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart attached to this script, and Project X director Nima Nourizadeh to direct. The prolific scribe is set to direct his first feature soon with “Me Him Her,” – which is being described as “Reality Bites on acid.” If that sounds scary, Landis told Variety of the script, “It’s totally insane! The devil is in it,” which seems to be a theme in a lot of his writing. American Ultra was shot earlier this year and comes out in 2015.
Writer: Max Landis
Details: 109 pages – 3/13/2013 draft
Garden State meets… The Bourne Identity?
Bet you haven’t seen that pitch before.
Can something like this actually work?
That’s a good question, and one I’m not sure we’ll be able to answer by the end of this review. And that’s because I heard Max Landis doesn’t write more than one draft. Ever. Like he finishes his first draft and says take it or leave it.
Whether this rumor is true or not, I don’t know, but it’s surely going to affect how our stoner version of Bourne Identity turns out. And if we don’t know what the best version of American Ultra can be, then how can we determine if a mash up of these genres works?
I do think the “never writes second drafts” thing is kind of cool though. Or at least a cool thing to talk about. I mean, how much does a rewrite REALLY mean to a script? And could there be a scenario where writing more than one draft actually hurts a script? Let’s find out.
29 year-old Mike Howell is similar to the small town he lives in: Liman, Oregon. He’s kind of in the middle of nowhere with his life. He doesn’t have a whole lot of motivation. He doesn’t ever leave town. And that makes it hard to understand why his beautiful hippy girlfriend, 28 year old pot-hot Phoebe Larson, is with him. Because Phoebe seems to be everything Mike isn’t, strong, motivated, focused.
Anyway, at the end of a hard day – actually, that’s not true. Mike works at a grocery store – I’ll rephrase. At the end of a medium day, Mike notices two dudes putting something under his car. He asks them what they think they’re doing, and the guys pull guns out and prepare to KILL MIKE.
So Mike takes the spoon from the ice cream he’s eating and KILLS TWO MEN WITH A SPOON (yes, a SPOON!). He looks at himself afterwards. How the hell did he do that? He races back to Phoebe to tell her what happened, only for more evil crazy guys to come after him and try to kill him.
What we eventually learn is that Mike is part of some abandoned mind-altering CIA experiment program that’s being phased out, and Mike has to be eliminated by the government so their tracks are covered. Except Mike doesn’t want to be eliminated. Mike wants to know how he can kill people with spoons!
Pretty soon, an entire section of the CIA descends upon Liman to get rid of Mike, but Mike’s not going down easy, especially because with each person he kills, he gets access to better and better weapons. I mean, if you can kill a man with a utensil, imagine what you can do with a gun.
(spoiler) But Mike is devastated to learn that his girlfriend has actually worked for the CIA these past five years and is his girlfriend solely to keep an eye on him for the government. Normally, when you find out your girlfriend’s been deceiving you for five years and that more than 30 people want to kill you, you’d go into a state of depression and end it all. But Mike decides to use his hibernated skills to teach the CIA a fucking lesson. That no one messes with Mike from Liman, Oregon. Bitch!
They call this kind of script a “tweener.” It’s in be-TWEEN two genres. Tweeners are these anomalies that scare the hell out of producers. On the one hand, a tweener is almost always original. Since it doesn’t fall into a clear genre, it feels like something we’ve never seen before. That’s good!
But that also works against the script, as no one knows how to market tweeners. Audiences (and that includes you, bucko) like to know what they’re going to see. When you’re in the mood for a thriller, you don’t look for a kind-of thriller kind-of indie romance. You look for a thriller. I mean would you see The Skeleton Twins if Kristin Wiig was also an assassin? Probably not.
With that said, the hope with a tweener is that the originality of the idea is strong enough to outweigh the murkiness of the genre. This is exactly what we were dealing with yesterday actually. The Babadook is kind of a horror film but also a drama. Yet it was unique enough that its tweener-ness helped it stand out from the competition.
Does the same thing happen for American Ultra? Well, here’s why that’s hard to answer. This is clearly a first draft. And if that’s because Landis only writes first drafts, then I guess it is what it is. I’m just trying to figure out if the first-draft-ness here works FOR the script or AGAINST it.
The thing that a first draft gives you that no other draft gives you is UNTAMED ENERGY. Your first draft is always raw. And while you may not have the structure or the characters worked out in the story, the script is alive in a way it can’t be after you’ve diddled with it for 20 drafts.
American Mayhem takes off about 15 pages in (when Mike kills the CIA agents) and then never lets up. And Landis’s writing style, which is very confident and excitable, works well with this uncapped energy. You’re not sure where he’s going, but the writing is so damn fun that you go with it.
I mean how else do you explain coming up with dialogue like: “You’ll be detained and tortured to reveal your source, indicted as a traitor and locked away forever, even if you found out I didn’t have proper sanction or protocol you’d still be in a bureaucratic catch-22 where you’re the bad guy. You’re my fucking dog here, I could walk you, behave.”
The thing is, whenever you’re putting the onus on a first draft to carry the story, you’re walking the line between RAW and MESSY. Raw is good. Messy isn’t. And while good writers can keep a script feeling raw for 30, 40, even 50 pages, nobody I know can keep an entire script in their head, perfectly structured, for 110 pages.
Just simple things like setups and payoffs require lots of rewriting. How many times have you come up with a cool idea, like Doc using a bullet proof vest so that the Libyans can’t kill him (Back to the Future) knowing that the only way it can work is if you set it up earlier? That’s where subsequent drafts really help. Is going back and prepping those late-script ideas.
But a bigger problem with writing only one (or even two or three drafts), is that the characters always seem murky. I’ve found that you need to write a lot of drafts and see your characters through a lot of situations before you get a sense of them, a sense that you can then go back and make clear for the reader.
While American Mayhem sets Mike and Phoebe up well (Mike is an unmotivated loser – Phoebe is the good girlfriend who’s trying to help him see his potential), once the shit hits the fan, all that character development goes out the window. It’s just the two running around trying to stay alive.
Now obviously, once you’re fighting for your life, your future career choices don’t seem that important. But that’s the challenge of a screenwriter. Is you have to figure out a way to still focus the story on the characters, the characters overcoming their flaws, and the characters overcoming their relationship issues. That’s what a screenplay is supposed to be about, is your characters transforming. And since good character transformations are some of the trickiest threads to pull off, they typically take a lot of rewriting.
Personally, from what I’ve seen from Landis, I think he’s a good writer. His voice is chaos mixed with childlike fun. He’s like Brian Duffield in that way, just a little more reckless. That gives his scripts an electricity that’s very hard to match. I just wish I saw a little more focus in his stories. They’re fun, and yet they kind of feel like the passionate guy at the party telling you about how he stole the pizza guy’s delivery car last weekend. It’s entertaining for awhile, but once you realize he’s wasted, you kind of wanna go somewhere else.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: This isn’t so much a tip as it is a warning that you can’t fool a reader. I can always tell an early draft when I see a lot of monologues in it. This is especially true when I see the monologues increase in frequency and length the further into the script we go. That’s because in early drafts, we don’t quite know our characters or our story yet. So we have our characters talk a lot as a way to figure things out. Over the course of rewriting, we move a lot of that “telling” dialogue into “showing” action and we focus what our characters are saying into smaller more concise snippets. In American Ultra, there were a TON of monologues, and they got bigger and more frequent as the story went on, contributing to its messy feel. Landis is a good enough writer that it didn’t become too much of a problem (his monologues were usually quite funny), but usually this is a death knell for screenplays, and proof positive to the reader that you didn’t put enough work into your script.