Genre: Thriller
Premise: A CIA drone coordinator battles his sanity while trying to figure out if his wife has been replaced by someone else.
About: Canadian Christopher MacBride broke onto the scene with his film, The Conspiracy, about a documentary crew who stumbles upon a secret society. Since then, he’s been pitching projects all over Hollywood. In addition to this one, he’s got a project called Amnesia, which asks, “What if the human race was rebooted because the entire planet was struck with collective amnesia?” Gotta give it to MacBride. He steers clear of low-concepts! Echo made the top half of the 2014 Black List.
Writer: Christopher MacBride
Details: 119 pages – 2nd draft

2010-toronto-film-festival-portraits-james-mcavoy-50335

McAvoy for Bob??

If you asked me what is the ideal genre for the screenplay format, I wouldn’t hesitate. Thriller a hundred times over. A Thriller rarely requires a ton of description, so the prose stays lean. Screenplays like stories that move quickly, and Thrillers move faster than anything else. And for whatever reason, Thrillers fit inside the 110 page package better than other genres. Comedy works well, too. But Thriller has it beat because the genre is so damn movie-friendly.

Then what’s the least ideal genre for the format? I’d say period pieces. More specifically, anything that moves us through multiple passages of time. Screenplays are at their best when we’re moving in one continuous timeline, and when that timeline is urgent. Period pieces are more about taking your time. Many work hard to build up momentum, only to break it with a 5-10 year time-jump forward, forcing us to build up momentum all over again.

Does that mean you should only write Thrillers and never Period Pieces? Of course not. But it’s important to know the odds before you get started. That way you can make an informed decision. You may believe that your 80 year exploration of the North Pacific logging industry is so fucking good that it’s worth the issues you’ll encounter when writing a Period Piece.

The one major drawback to Thrillers, however, is their tendency to be one-dimensional. Call it the “Taken Syndrome.” Does Echo fall victim to this weakness? Or does it discover a way to excel within the template?

Bob Neven doesn’t know how it happened. But the woman he sleeps next to every night, his wife, Anna, isn’t the same woman he met. And no, he doesn’t mean she’s changed over the course of their relationship. Bob believes that Anna is physically not his wife. Someone, or something, has replaced her.

If that’s true and “Fake Anna” exists, she chose the wrong man to try and fake out. You see, Bob works for the CIA. His specific skill-set involves deciphering details and mannerisms of human beings to determine if they’re dangerous.

So Bob will watch hundreds of hours of drone footage of potential terrorists to determine if the U.S. should blow them to smithereens with one of them fancy drones we like to strike ISIS with.

This talent is how Bob’s so certain his wife isn’t really his wife. All her mannerisms have changed. She acts suspicious whenever they’re together. Even her eyes seem to have been replaced by empty voids.

But as our story unfolds, we learn that Bob was in a major car crash a couple of years ago, and this happens to coincide with when he became convinced Anna wasn’t Anna. Could it be that Bob suffered a debilitating brain injury and THAT’S the reason he thinks Anna isn’t herself?

When Bob discovers a boatload of evidence that that’s the case, he walks back his theory. For the first time in a couple of years, Anna starts acting like Anna again, and Bob is ready to admit he fucked up. But there’s always something in the back of Bob’s mind telling him that it doesn’t add up. That if he can just catch Anna at the right moment, he’ll prove what he’s known all along. That she’s an imposter.

One of the easiest ways to find a good movie concept is to genre-switch an idea. So take an idea that worked in one genre and switch it over to another. Cast Away – a drama about a man who’s stranded on an island alone – becomes The Martian – a sci-fi flick about a man who’s stranded on a planet alone. Three Days of the Condor, a conspiracy thriller, becomes Captain America 2 – a superhero film.

Where you’re going to find the most bang for your buck in genre-switching, though, is with comedy – either going into or coming out of it. So in the case of Echo, our writer basically took the premise of True Lies – a comedy about a CIA agent who used his unique skills to track his wife, and asked, “What if we made a thriller out of the same concept?” What if a CIA agent’s wife really was dangerous, and he was forced to use his unique skills to figure out her end game?

Sounds like a cool idea to me!

And right from the get-go, things looked good. As you know, one of the critical things every screenplay must do is pull the reader in immediately. Now I’m of the belief that if you have to choose between an action scene or a mystery scene to achieve this, you go with mystery.

For example, if you open your script in the middle of a car chase, yeah, I’m going to pay attention for at least a few more pages. But if you jack into my brain with a cool mystery, you’ve got me for at least the first act. And here we’re presented with a pretty sizzling question. After establishing this married couple, we see the husband go to a shack in his back yard, where he’s got a full-blown multiple-monitor surveillance project built around watching his wife.

Uh, yeah, I’m sticking around to see what comes next.

But now Echo enters into the Mystery Thriller trouble zone. Does it merely ask questions, refusing to reward its reader for all his hard work? Or does it answer those question then introduce new more complex questions that surprise us and keep us curious? You want to do the latter. And while Echo gives us some of that, it doesn’t give us enough.

I liked, for example, the introduction of Bob’s brain injury, and how that led to Bob realizing he was wrong. His sickness had concocted a false reality. This happened near the midpoint of the script and it’s a direction I didn’t expect MacBride to take. But then, Bob starts discovering hidden cameras in his house that he knows he didn’t install. And so we’re back on again. Now we have proof that something nefarious is going on. However, we still don’t know what that is. So the mystery is alive and well.

Overall, though, the ratio of questions to answers was too lopsided, and that’s when the script started to lose its magic. For example, there’s this whole mystery back at CIA headquarters about this magical place in a desert they’ve been surveying where cars just disappear. It was kind of cool. But because it wasn’t made clear what the stakes were with these disappearing cars, the mystery felt empty, the kind of crutch plotline a writer introduces when they know their script isn’t delivering the goods. Hey, I’m not mad at ya. We’ve all done it!

With that said, I loved MacBride’s commitment to the concept. And the final act does get pretty damn trippy. There’s enough here to keep the average reader entertained, and that’s enough to recommend the script.

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

What I learned: I loved how MacBride used Bob’s therapist to guide the exposition needed to explain our complicated setup. I’ve seen this used before and it’s quite effective. If you have a hero with an issue (in this case, a conspiracy theory) and need to convey that issue to the audience, you can do it with voice over, which always feels forced, you can do with a friend he confides in, which feels like an exposition dump, or you can layer in therapy sessions where a therapist organically asks our hero to explain his theory. “Why do you think your wife isn’t real?” Your hero gets to expose his thoughts in a manner that seems entirely natural. And when done well, it operates invisibly.

  • Scott Crawford

    Congratulations to… Mayhem? She got the most votes, I guess she was this weekend’s winner. But congratulations to all five entrants; despite technical issues, absenteeism and more trolls than a Norwegian fjord, this was a close contest between some very good scripts.

    You can find today’s script, ECHO, here:

    https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0BybNvm-CX6dkR05rOS04MFVFQTQ

    And finally, R.I.P. to one of my favorite screenwriters Jimmy Perry, co-writer of some of the finest situation comedies of all time.