Premise: A sheriff and a slave must team up to rescue a politician’s daughter, who’s been kidnapped by the slave’s previous owner.
About: This one finished on the 2012 Black List. The writers of the script, Russell Sommer and Dan Frey, used the buzz from the placement to sell a Chronicle-like pitch to Paramount soon afterwards, but in the time since, still haven’t written a breakout project.
Writers: Dan Frey & Russell Sommer
Details: 108 pages
Assuming you haven’t given up on screenwriting to become a full-time professional Pokemon Go player, and assuming you’re not down in line at your local cineplex trying to get front row seats to Friday’s Ghostbusters premiere, and assuming you’re not still reeling from Jim John going home on last night’s The Bachelorette episode, then it’s time to get your screenplay review on.
A little background on why I chose to review this. It’s got the perfect setup for a conflict-heavy adventure. A slave has to team up with a white sheriff to rescue a kidnapped woman. Now this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this idea or ideas like it. I know of a couple of other slave-sheriff team-ups as well as a few Jew-Nazi team-ups.
And for whatever reason, despite the red-hot conflict being seared into the premise, nobody’s ever made it work. It’s almost like the setup is TOO good. Like when the U.S. took all their best basketball players to the Olympics that one year and they didn’t win the gold. The team was literally too good to be true.
Is that a real thing? Is it possible for a concept to be too good? I don’t know. But maybe today’s review, along with a few Pokemon Go catches, can shed some light on the mystery.
Bleeding Kansas starts off with slave, Judah, killing one of his masters, then grabbing his wife, also a slave, and making a run for it. He escapes but she, unfortunately, does not. Five years later, we see a battle-hardened Judah robbing stage-coaches for a living. When he saves up enough gold bars, he plans to buy a mustang ranch. Judah REALLY LIKES horses. Like even more than The Bachelorette contestants in last night’s creepy almost horse-sex scene.
Meanwhile, politician Charles Robinson is trying to win the Kansas election so he can finally free all the slaves in the state, but is up against bully incumbent, Governor Sherman. When Robinson gains momentum in the polls, Sherman hires a slaver, David Atchison, to kidnap Robinson’s daughter, KC, until the election is over, figuring it will force Robinson to drop out.
But Robinson doesn’t drop out. He gets Sheriff Colin Schumacher to find his daughter. Meanwhile, Judah finally gets caught stealing and is scheduled to be hanged. But when it’s revealed that Atchison used to be Judah’s master, Colin realizes Judah might be able to help him get KC back. So he reluctantly teams up with Judah and Judah’s girlfriend-horse to right this wrong.
After finishing Bleeding Kansas, I flopped my arms out to my sides and made a noise like, “Humph.” To me, this is the worst kind of script there is. No, it’s not a bad script. Bad scripts can actually be entertaining. But a “humph” script. Everything is competently written. The script even takes a few chances. But there wasn’t a single element that rose to the level of “Holy shit.” And when you’re writing subject matter that’s this dark, you need some Holy Shit moments.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. Bone Tomahawk, another Western. Google the Bone Tomahawk torture scene. It’s the most brutal thing maybe ever put on film.
Or I’ve been catching up on Mr. Robot lately. There’s a scene where our villain CEO character goes downtown, finds this barely-able-to-stand 60 year old homeless man, and we watch as they negotiate a price. We don’t know what they’re negotiating for yet. Finally, the dejected homeless man agrees to 300 dollars, and after he pockets it, our CEO character casually puts a pair of rubber gloves on, and proceeds to beat the shit out of this guy. It’s such a disturbing scene. But the point is, it affects you. It jolts you. It lets you know that you are not safe in this universe. And I felt too safe in Bleeding Kansas.
I don’t need you to blast through the ceiling of expectation in a movie like Crazy, Stupid, Love. But if you’re going to take me into the world of slavery – or any dark subject matter for that matter – I have to see some things that shock me. I have to feel UNSAFE!
That’s not to say this was some by-the-books screenplay. In fact, Frey and Sommer made an interesting structural choice. Instead of placing the invasion on the kidnapper’s farm at the climax, it became the midpoint. And then the team is chased back through hostile terrain on the way back home.
I applauded that choice because it was unexpected. But a choice like that doesn’t come without its drawbacks. When you take something that contains all the power of a climax and you place it at the midpoint, you’re releasing a ton of air out of your screenplay despite being miles away from your finish line. And the challenge becomes, how do you build that back up?
I mean imagine if they had destroyed the Death Star at the midpoint of Star Wars and the rest of the movie was the Empire chasing them back to their home planet. Would that have been a good movie? Maybe. Would it have worked as well as the current film? No way.
Another problem with Bleeding Kansas is you can’t read it and not think of how infinitely better Tarantino’s version was with Django Unchained. If you want to see just how good Tarantino is, compare his films to anything similar. His writing is so heads and tails better on every level, it’s more terrifying than horse-love. And as I was trying to think of a specific example that would show exactly what I mean, the answer came immediately.
The main relationship.
In Bleeding Kansas, the main relationship (Colin and Judah) is very straightforward, in-your-face, and on the nose. A black slave teams up with a racist white sheriff. They hate everything about each other and what the other stands for. Then look at Django Unchained, which could’ve taken a similar route. Instead, Django is teamed up with white German man who isn’t the least bit racist.
WHAAAAT? Screenplay teachers would’ve blown you up had you come to them with that outline. “But there has to be clear conflict!” they’d say. “Why wouldn’t you make Dr. King Schultz a southern racist hate-mongerer! You’d get so much more out of the relationship that way.” Well, Tarantino would counter, because that’s what everyone would expect! And while you may lose that conflict, you gain audience curiosity. They’re not used to this kind of team-up, so they want to know more.
To that end, my big takeaway is that sometimes a setup is too good to be true. If it’s too obvious, there may not be anything to explore. That’s not to say it can’t work. Conflict is still a good thing. But make sure you’re asking the question: Can I execute this in a way that isn’t obvious?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: When you tackle fucked up subject matters, be prepared to go in fucked up directions, or risk a disappointed audience.