Premise: When Air Force One is shot down in South America by terrorists, the female president of the United States must be rescued by a local Seal Team that isn’t too fond of her.
About: This script sold last year to Millennium Films and was written by Gregory Allen Howard, who wrote Remember The Titans as well as did some work on “Ali.” Howard is trying to move away from more serious stuff and re-brand himself as an action writer. Looks like it’s working out so far!
Writer: Gregory Allen Howard
Details: 122 pages – 1st draft
Hollywood. Loves. Action.
They love it.
It is the genre that will never die because it PLAYS EVERYWHERE. And in an ever-expanding global market, it gives studios the best chance for a big return on their investment.
Strangely, many of these action specs that get purchased never get made unless they stay closer to the action-thriller genre, which is a little more focused, less grandiose – stuff like Taken. These big idea action specs are having trouble getting green lights, and I have some theories on why which I’ll share in a moment. First, let’s check out the plot here.
Karen Morgan is the tough-as-nails president of the United States. When she learns that Hakim Ibn Al-Libi, a top Al-Queda terrorist, is in Somalia, she orders a local American military outfit to grab him. Led by tougher-than-nails Commander Bobby Lee, the Americans Zero Dark 31 him up.
Unfortunately, they find out that the President has decided to swap Hakim back for one of their own. Lee is pissed, but since those decisions are way above his pay grade, he rolls with it. That is until a week later when Lee’s son is killed in a suicide bombing… by Hakim!
Meanwhile, President Morgan is heading down to Ecuador for some conference, but as soon as they land, they’re attacked by the local military… who just so happens to be led… by Hakim! Air Force One is able to take off, but is shot down immediately. President Morgan is able to eject via the special Air Force One “escape pod,” but now finds herself in the dangerous jungles of nearby Columbia, with a quickly approaching Hakim.
Back in the U.S., they learn that the closest team to extract the president is… Bobby Lee’s team! And therein lies the irony. The guy whose son was killed because of a direct order by the president is now tasked with saving the president!
The rest of the script plays out like a game of cat and mouse, with some really big cats and some really gnarly mice. In classic early 90s action form, we have our control room, our president and her Seal Team, the pursuing baddies, and the nearby extraction ship. Will our female prez make it to safety? That will be up to a still simmering Bobby Lee, who doesn’t take too kindly to presidents killing his son.
Okay, before we get into my thoughts on action specs, I first have to regurgitate a rant.
I hate reading these presidential scripts.
There are at least 25 characters (joints of chiefs of staff, CIA directors of staff, Defense Secretary of Staff) you have to keep track of, and you have no idea which ones are One-Scene Johnnies and which ones are sticking around for the long haul, which means you’re spending all this mental energy on remembering people who don’t matter.
The worst are these 3-characters-introduced-in-a-single-paragraph moments. You might as well hold a screenwriting funeral for those characters because there’s no way in hell the reader is going to remember them. All of this gives the script more of a homework assignment feel as opposed to an entertaining piece of fiction.
To some degree, I understand that this is necessary. To feel authentic, you need a lot of the periphery government people around the president. But as a writer, it’s your job to be aware of that problem so you can curb it whenever possible. For example, if there are any single-scene characters, do you really need to give them a name? A reader’s brain only has so much space to fill up. You don’t want to gum it up with unimportant people or information.
Story first story first story first.
The priority is always writing the most entertaining story. You then go back and include the minimum plot, logistics, and exposition you can get away with. Cause nobody gives a shit about any of that if they’re not entertained.
Now this next issue may be because this is an early draft, so keep that in mind, but I don’t like my action scripts to have a ton of 3-4 line paragraphs like Hunt Capture Kill did. I like things to be a little more cut-up, spaced out. Remember that how something is read has to feel like how it will be watched. Action moves faster than any other genre with the exception of maybe comedy. So the paragraph structure should reflect that. Keep things closer to 2 lines each, with a 3-liner every so often.
Now onto these modern-day action specs and where they go wrong.
I believe that too many action writers are attempting to resurrect the 80s action film. The thing is, that era is dead. That was a time when the your main character could pump out jokey one-liners every time he killed a man. For whatever reason, today’s audiences require a more believable vibe.
True, everything is cyclical, but just like fashion, you can’t bring it back in the exact same form. You have to find a way to modernize it. And these big concept 80s type specs feel more trapped in the past than they do reinvigorating it.
A successful example is Fast and Furious. We didn’t have any major drag-racing action movies back in the 80s. So that movie felt unique when it came out. And I happen to know that when producers talk about looking for scripts, “something like Fast and Furious” comes up a lot, because it’s a franchise starting film that doesn’t cost the studio an arm and leg to buy up any IP. It really is an ideal space for a spec screenwriter to write in.
With that said, I was open to hunting, capturing, and killing here. And one of my criteria for good action specs is: Do I see anything in the first act that I haven’t seen before in an action movie? Genre movies are easy to write if all you’re doing is rewriting your favorite scenes from previous genre movies. They’re a lot harder to write if you’re trying to be different. So I know if I see something different, I’m in good hands.
The setup here was very standard early 90s stuff. Get the terrorists, meet the government, set up meeting in Ecuador, plane goes down, team goes in. Where was a scene I hadn’t seen before?? The first time that happened was halfway into the script when our SEAL team comes across two hot bikini-clad Columbian women bathing in an isolated river who then take out some AK-47s and start shooting at them. However, I’m still not sure how that scene made sense. Does Al-Queda employ beautiful half-naked women in isolated parts of the jungle? Or were these two just really pissed off that someone was interrupting their daily swim?
I did like that the person charged with saving the president was someone who hated her. But the more I thought about this idea, the more I wondered if it would be better if the president was male and the person charged with saving him was a woman. Wouldn’t that be a more original (and interesting) take on this setup?
I don’t know. As I said already, this is a first draft. So maybe a lot of this gets sorted out later. But I was definitely hoping for more.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: One-Scene Johnnies. Characters who are only in the script for one scene. Think long and hard before you name these characters. If you really truly think they only work with a name, name them. Otherwise, call them by something general (Waitress, Lieutenant) so as not to force the reader to remember someone meaningless.
What I learned 2: Whatever genre you’re writing in, make sure at least ONE of the scenes in your first act is something we haven’t seen before in that genre. If you can’t be original in your first act, why would I believe you could be original for the rest of the script? And really, you should be doing this with more than one scene. One scene is the absolute minimum.