Genre: Film Noir
Premise: A knife-thrower uses the unique talents of his circus co-workers to track down the organization that killed his sister.
About: So in the wake of the Scriptshadow 250 top 25 being released, I thought I’d review the winner of another major screenwriting competition, the 2014 Page Screenwriting Contest. Matias Caruso’s “Carnival” won the competition, then went on to finish on the bottom half of last year’s Black List. Let’s take a look!
Writer: Matias Caruso
Details: 111 pages (undated)

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Rising star Christopher Abbot for Shiv??

No matter how hard I try and get into Film Noir, I can’t seem to embrace its idiosyncrasies, specifically the artificiality of a beaten down detective giving you a monotone play-by-play of his every move via voice over.

And maybe my screenplay education plays into that. One of the first things you’re taught as a screenwriter is to never repeat what the audience can see for themselves. So if your hero hits a bully to teach him a lesson, you don’t have him then say, “You realize I had to do that to teach you a lesson, right?” The action already implies that.

Unfortunately, film noir was built on top of this repetition philosophy. Your hero sneaks into the bad guy’s house to search for evidence while we hear him tell us, in mechanical voice over, “I snuck into Bob’s apartment hoping to find the smoking gun. Instead, I found the dame with a hole in her head.” Yeah, we know! We’ve been with you this whole time!!

I suppose it’s a taste thing, not unlike the difference between film and digital. Different strokes for different folks. And I will say that Carnival takes the genre on in a unique way. But it was going to have to do a lot to make me forget all of those film noir trappings.

20 year-old Shiv is a knife-thrower in the circus (or the “carnival,” depending on how you view these things). Shiv is a brooding angry youngster who lives for two things – his co-worker and all around wonderful sister, Ayleen, and Zodiac, the hot fortune teller who also happens to be the carnival whore.

So when Shiv finds Ayleen dead one day, you can bet your ass he’s going to find the killer and make him pay. But first he’s gotta convince Tigress, the tough-as-nails head of this operation, to give him some time off. Tigress gives Shiv access to several of the carnival’s players, including Dante (the fire-breather), Goliath (the strong man), and of course, a resistant Zodiac.

This misfit team of super-frenemies heads to Babylon, which is like a smaller nastier version of Vegas, to seek out The Black Rose, a gang of unsavory folks who perform most of the drug-running around town. If someone was killed, The Black Rose probably had something to do with it.

During this pursuit, Shiv falls in love with Zodiac, who, because of her ability to see into the future, allows their underdog team to survive where many others would’ve failed. But no matter how hard Shiv pushes for love, Zodiac keeps rebuffing him for a mysterious reason we won’t find out about until later.

If you’ve watched any film noir, you probably know where this is going. It turns out The Black Rose is tied back to Tigress, and that Tigress probably had something to do with Ayleen’s death. And that maybe the cover-up goes even further than that with people involved who are even closer to Shiv (hint hint).

Despite this, Shiv still has to kill the head of The Black Rose. With his knife-wielding skills and the backing of fire-breathers and strong men, he just might do it. But what does it matter if his only place of sanctuary – the carnival – is poisoned beyond repair? Where will Shiv take the next chapter of his life?

If screenplays were just about great storytelling, a lot more movies would be made. But a screenplay is divided into two halves. There’s the “play” part, where the story is told. And there’s the “screen” part, which is where your story will end up.

Even if you’ve written a great play, if that story won’t look good on screen, it’s going to have a tough time making fans. For example, if you write something like Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room,” where everything takes place in a room, that’s not going to look great onscreen.

But if you wrote something similar that took place in a beautiful East Coast harbor town, that movie’s going to look better, right? And if you write something like Carnival, that has fire-breathers and goliaths defending their turf against mobsters, that’s going to look A LOT BETTER, right?

And there’s no doubt that that’s Carnival’s biggest strength. It would create the kind of trailer that would have movie geeks salivating.

……..

Yet still… I couldn’t get past the film noirishness of it all. One of the things that absolutely kills me about this genre is the exposition. It seems like the plot becomes deliberately dense just so characters can explain to other characters (and the audience) how everything is connected. So you get a lot of stuff like (my made up version): “You were in cahoots with Red Face. And Red Face wanted to take down Flower Pot… So you used your sway with the Money Men to attack them on the backside. But you never predicted we’d have Barnaby Bilkes in our back pocket…”

I like it when a story comes together in a way where it doesn’t have to be explained. To me, that’s the beauty of storytelling. The audience gets to put 2+2 together instead of someone explaining Goldbach’s Conjecture to them.

Also, film noir has the most artificial dialogue of any genre. It’s all about quips and comebacks and clever observations. I like naturalism. I want to believe what’s happening, and if people are speaking in a way that normal people would never speak, it’s hard to do that.

And I understand it’s part of the stylization of the genre. I guess I just don’t respond well to it. It’s hard for me to embrace one line like, “She’s the Reaper’s eyes tonight and I am his Scythe. I want this dance to last forever.” Much less an entire script full of them.

Also, I’m never a fan of psychics pushing plots forward. It’s the crutch of all plot-building devices. Whenever you’re stuck, you just have your psychic say, “I have a vision that Evil Bad Guy is at Location X right now. We need to go there!” It’s unnatural and lazy and if you use it too much, your characters never have to work for the information they get. They just wait for Psychic Character to come up with their next plot destination.

Okay, I’m just piling on now. But these are the things keeping me from loving this script. And the thing is, it’s got a lot going for it. It’s got clear GSU, like any murder-mystery does, and it’s strongly-structured as a result. This would look amazing on the big screen with the right director. It’s a new way into the genre, with the carnival angle. I just can’t look past my issues with film noir. But I’d be interested to hear what fans of the genre think (calling Poe!), as I’m guessing some of you might dig this.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Words matter. Make sure the words you use represent exactly what you want the reader to see. One misuse of a word can send your reader into imagining something completely different from what you intended. The opening of “Carnival” starts with (italics are mine):

A CIRCUS FLIER

Floating in the night air like a falling Autumn leaf.

“Shiv” is the name of the KNIFE THROWER, written in sharp, gleaming font. A stylish illustration depicts a hooded man hurling knives at us, blades reflecting a cheering crowd.

A sharp WHISTLE – the poster TEARS as:

I read this assuming “flier” meant a circus acrobat who was “flying” through the air. As such, the Shiv paragraph didn’t make sense. Was Shiv the circus flier? He was flying through the air while hurling knives at us?? A simple switch from “flier” to “poster” would’ve resolved any confusion. So really think about how your reader is receiving the words you’re writing and make sure there are no key words that could be misconstrued. Especially if it’s the beginning of your script.