Premise: In 1934 Texas, a teenage boy sets out to collect the bounty on a murdering fugitive, but when he finally finds her, he starts to fall for her.
About: Dreamland finished fairly high on last year’s Black List. This is the writer’s breakthrough screenplay.
Writer: Nicolaas Zwart
Details: 120 pages
One of the hardest things to do as a script-reader is take chances on material outside of the norm. This is why most ideas outside the norm never get read. If the genre is undefined (or is some version of “straight drama”), it almost always leads to an undefined narrative, and that’s what scares readers and producers off. They’ve wasted too many hours giving those scripts a chance only to come up empty.
But the truth is, the best scripts tend to be dramas. They’re the ones most likely to make you feel something. Unfortunately, the skill set required to write drama is exponentially higher than that required to write anything else. That’s because you can’t use tricks to keep the audience’s interest. You have to be a great dramatist. And most screenwriters don’t even know what that means.
What it means is being a good storyteller. Building up living breathing compelling characters. Using suspense, tension, mystery, and curiosity to keep the story interesting. Infusing your script with consistently unexpected developments, as opposed to going with the same old cliche plot beats. Being brave and unafraid to try new things. And, of course, bringing that all together in a harmonious organic way.
If that’s confusing, just think the opposite of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. If you make the opposite choices of everything in that movie, you will write something great.
Dreamland follows 15 year-old Eugene Evans, a kid stuck in 1934 rural Texas right after the dust storms destroyed all the farmland. This has left Eugene’s family, and others like his, scrambling to find jobs. And since there aren’t many jobs in the middle of nowhere besides farming, everybody’s leaving.
At the very least, the town is experiencing some excitement. A 24 year-old woman named Allison Wells robbed a couple of banks nearby and is said to be hiding out in town. The FBI is awarding 10,000 dollars to whoever can bring her in, and Eugene figures this is his shot to save his family.
Eugene doesn’t have to do much looking, as it turns out the recently shot Allison is hiding out in his barn. Allison puts on the charm, convinces Eugene to help her get better, and it isn’t long before she has him looking to steal a car so she can escape to Mexico.
Eugene falls in love faster than a honey bee and is a helpless pawn in Allison’s plan. But when Allison learns that Eugene plans to come with her, she may have to resort to more violent means to complete her plan. Either way, this isn’t going to end well.
Dreamland is sort of like this weird combination of E.T. and that awful Jason Reitman movie, Labor Day. It has its strengths, but ultimately the engine at the center of the story isn’t powerful enough to keep us caring.
But let’s look at what works. We have a solid motivation. The reward money Eugene is after would save his family. We have suspense. He must hide Allison from his family. We have a goal driving the story – Allison has him looking for a truck so she can escape. We have urgency – we can feel the town closing in. It’s only a matter of time before they figure out where Allison is. And we have some clever choices as well. Eugene’s step-father is the town deputy. So an authority who can put an end to this lives literally a few feet away from our hero.
And the character development is solid as well. Zwart spends the opening 10 pages of the script setting up the story through Future Eugene’s voice, as he tells this tale of his childhood. This allows him to tell us all these things about these characters that three-dimensionalize them. For example, we learn that Eugene’s father was a drunk and left the family for Mexico when he was a child and Eugene is desperate to see him again.
Narrating can be a blessing and a curse in that sense. You can use it at any time to tell us more about one of the characters if need be. For example, Eugene goes into detail about Allison’s past as well. And the more you know about a character, the more real that character feels to you. But whenever we’re covering backstory, THE PRESENT STORY IS NOT MOVING FORWARD, which is always dangerous. Audiences HATE when the car isn’t on the road. They get antsy quickly. And any time you’re covering backstory, you’ve stopped the car to get some food.
But none of this covers the real problem with Dreamland, which is the one I hinted at at the beginning of this review.
Is this really a compelling story?
A 15 year old protagonist in a period piece. Can you name me one period piece movie in history centered around a teenager that was good? Or even memorable? I’m guessing you can’t. And that’s the core of the problem here. There’s a story, for sure. But it doesn’t feel important enough. And since it doesn’t have any sexy genre tropes to throw at us, it’s the kind of script that leaves you nodding your head and saying, “That wasn’t bad,” which in my opinion, is the worst reaction a reader can have. Love my script, hate my script. But don’t “not bad” my script. That’s the kind of reaction that means you didn’t take a single chance in your screenplay.
So while Dreamland did a lot of good things, it’s unfortunately not the kind of thing that stays with you.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: My guess is that you do not feel compelled to comment on this script. In fact, your reaction at the end of this review was most likely, “Meh. Time to check Slash-Film.” That’s because it does not exist within one of the sexy genres (action, adventure, horror, sci-fi, thriller, comedy). I now want you to look at your own script. Does it exist outside of those genres as well? If so, it will very likely garner the same reaction from others that you are giving this script. My point being, while there’s a chance you’re the special one, it’s more likely that nobody cares with a genre like this. It’s the same reason nobody saw Labor Day. You play outside of the biggest sandbox, very few people will want to build a castle with you.
What I learned 2: It’s very VERY hard to build movies around teenage protagonists unless they’re big genre films (Hunger Games) or high school movies. Adults (30-40), good. Kids (8-11), good. But there’s something about teenagers that never feels quite right for some reason. I’m not saying it can’t be done. ANYTHING can be done. I’m only saying to be cautious because the vast majority of the time, it doesn’t work.