Premise: A film scholar stumbles across an ancient print of a forgotten film, which he believes has the power to manipulate audiences into life-threatening violent episodes.
About: We got an interesting one today, guys. This is a Jim Uhls (the guy who adapted Fight Club) adaptation of a 1991 cult novel that… wait for it… Darren Aronofsky was going to direct. But as is the case with big time directors who have a lot of projects orbiting them, only the cream of the crop gets chosen. So Darren eventually moved on, leaving poor Flicker to fend for itself. Kenneth Branagh would later attach himself, but now the project seems to be without a captain.
Writer: Jim Uhls (based on the 1991 novel by Theodore Roszak).
Details: 117 pages (2011 draft)
Holy Moses of Mary Churchtree.
This was a bizarre one, dude. At times Flicker embraces the sophistication of a Quentin Tarantino production or a David Fincher flick, only to subsequently dip into The Ring meets Scream territory. It’s the screenwriting equivalent of a Nicholas Cage performance. You’re constantly asking: Is this genius or the worst thing I’ve ever read?
Since this is where the majority of great work lies, at the very least we’ve got something to discuss today. And since the only thing we have to discuss in screenwriting these days is how does Max Landis sell vomit drafts for 3 million dollars, I’d say that’s a nice change of pace.
Jon Gates may be the only 20-something guy on earth obsessed with film restoration. He currently works at the UCLA Film Preservation Project, spending the few hours of free time he has each night watching old films at his buddy’s private theater.
One day, while rummaging around the attic of that theater, Jon comes across a rotting print of one of his favorite films and takes it back to his lab to save it. When he gets there, he realizes there’s a different movie in the canister, a film from the 30s called “Judas Everyman” that was thought to have been lost forever.
Since this is the kind of thing film geeks live for, Jon puts together an impromptu screening with his friends, which includes a hot LA Weekly film critic he met named Claire Swann. After the film, everyone believes they’ve watched the most disturbing yet greatest movie of all time. But for some reason, they’re all in an incredibly violent mood. In fact, the youngest girl in the group gets so upset, she storms outside, where she’s promptly flattened by a truck.
Jon and Claire subsequently become obsessed with the film, along with its director, Max Castle. They find out that Castle made one other film, a sci-fi flick called, “Queen of Venus.” They go on an endless journey to find the film, learning some disturbing things about Castle and his movies along the way.
Castle was part of a cult called “Orphans of the Storm,” and this still-active cult has been obsessed with finding these lost prints, as they believe the films have the power to incite violence in audiences. If they can get these films screened, they can incite a revolution.
While Claire believes they’ve gone past the point of tin foil hats on this one, Jon is convinced it’s all real, and if they don’t get these stray films before the Orphans do, that the entire world could be in danger. Can they save the world from this film in time? Or, if not, at least save us from having to endure the next Adam Sandler movie? Read yourself some Flicker to find out!
Whenever you have an “out there” premise like this, you can take it in one of two directions. You can go further out there and be weird as shit (think “Fight Club” or “The Exorcist”). Or you can rein the weirdness in and embrace the more traditional trappings of a genre film.
Flicker takes the latter approach. This script starts off bizarre as shit. You have this weird film they’ve found. In it, mobs of people turn into demons and start killing each other. The director is using subliminal messages to incite violence in the viewer. I can only imagine what Aronofsky would’ve done with this.
But while that opening held promise, this becomes more of a traditional thriller/horror flick where our hero goes searching for the origin of the dangerous film (we even get the horror trope of Jon visiting an insane asylum to talk to a crazy old character who may have information they need), and for that reason, it feels more like a February release than a November one.
And herein lies the age-old question in screenwriting. Do you stick with one of the most time-tested formulas in history – the straight 3-act structure? Or do you ignore it, along with many other screenwriting “rules,” and do whatever the fuck feels right in the pursuit of coming up with something truly original?
Taking the latter route certainly gets you cool points. But it’s also infinitely harder. Everyone loves celebrating the Pulp Fictions, the Social Networks, and the Revenants of the world. But they don’t see what I see – which is the hundreds of scripts that aspire to be the next Pulp Fiction, Social Network, or Revenant. When those scripts are bad, they are worse than any script you could imagine.
That’s because many writers (typically newer writers) erroneously believe that as long as you’re weird and a little bit talented, you can do anything in a script and it will turn out genius. But the truth is, even the weirdos have a solid grasp on how to tell a good story. Tarantino may be nontraditional, but there’s no one out there who can build suspense into a scene like he can. And that’s a big reason why we stay so engaged in a Tarantino film.
On the flip side, you have movies like Rocky, Up, or The King’s Speech, which are simple 3-act screenplays, and proof that you’re not selling out when you go simple. You can still write an amazing film, even if it’s a little more predictable.
With that said, one should always take into consideration audience expectation. When you tell someone your idea, think about what kind of movie they’re expecting to see. If you pitch a producer a really fucked up premise then deliver a straight-forward 3-act hero’s journey, they’re probably going to be disappointed, right? With a fucked up premise, you want a fucked up execution.
One of the most famous cases of this is the still unmade “The Sky is Falling,” about a couple of priests who discover irrefutable proof that God doesn’t exist and go on a crazy drug-fueled killing spree as a result. Are you going to tell that story in a straight-forward manner? I hope not. You’re probably going to want to jump around in time a bit, throw in a series of unexpected twists, give us non-traditional heroes, etc.
However, if you’re pitching me a movie about a boy who befriends an alien, I’m totally fine with that being a simple 3-act story.
Getting back to Flicker, I think the script has potential. But it needs a fresh voice. It needs to be modernized. And it needs to stay away from the kind of second and third acts that you’d see in movies like Scream or The Ring.
This film, like The Exorcist, needs to embrace just how fucked up it is and stick with that. I mean, there’s a scene where Jon and Claire watch Queen of Venus, a film Castle designed to trigger the carnal side of the brain. So the two immediately start fucking like animals while an old man in a wheelchair (the one who showed them the movie) watches while attempting to jack off.
It’s one of the moments where Flicker truly embraces the absurdity of its premise. The next draft of this needs to do more of that, but not just in the individual scenes. It needs to do it in the way the script is structured, in the way the story is told. This really could be great under the right direction. But right now, it leaves you wanting more.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Make sure you’re giving the reader the movie you pitched them in your logline. I read a lot of bait-and-switch scripts where the logline promised me something unique and challenging, and instead I got something simple and formulaic (and vice versa!). Always be consistent with what you pitch.