Premise: After a young girl is kidnapped on a remote island off the west coast, her mother teams up with a local mysterious older woman to get her back.
About: Tried out a few scripts before committing to one today. I’ll be honest – the only reason I tried this one was because JJ’s company bought it. If Lord JJ thinks it’s good enough, I’ll probably like it. The script also finished on last year’s Black List AND it was written by a female writer. Female writers represent!
Writer: Maggie McGowan Cohn
Details: 114 pages – 6/9/15 draft
With thousands of unread scripts at my disposal, it’s hard to choose what to read. So sometimes I’ll read the first page of several scripts to see what grabs me. Usually, I’m not grabbed. But when it does happen, it’s usually because an expectation is flipped on its head.
Expectation-flipping’s not just good storytelling. It establishes a desired precedent that we find in all well-told stories: unpredictability. As I’ve said here plenty of times, if the reader gets ahead of you for too long (even as few as four scenes), they get bored and they tune out.
So the way that “Lou” starts is we’re introduced to this beautiful little deer. Oh, what a pretty little cute deer. And then – BAM! – the deer is shot dead. Cut back to the shooter, a grizzled old woman who doesn’t give a shit about how pretty deers are.
And with that, you’ve gone against the expectation, against the stereotype. Old people are supposed to be, well, old. Sit down a lot. Nice. Not do anything to upset the status quo. We’re told in a single action that Lou is none of those things. And that’s why I wanted to keep reading. If this is what we’re learning about this person on page 1, I wonder what else she’s got going on.
It’s 1985, San Juan Island, which is off the state of Washington. It’s here where we meet Hannah and her five year-old daughter, Vee. Hannah isn’t exactly living the life of dreams out on Nowhere Island, but she’s got a few friends and seems to be happy. That is until her daughter is taken by her ex-husband who – fyi – was supposed to be dead.
Enter Lou, a woman on the northern side of 50, though how north is difficult to tell, seeing as she kicks ass and only takes names when she feels like it. Lou is seen as the island weirdo, but she’s about to become the island Hero. That’s because Hannah’s ex didn’t just kidnap her daughter, he blew up the airport and cut out all communications on the island. And Lou’s the only one who knows how to navigate through all that.
Somehow, the local police are able to contact the FBI, who, when they find out they’re dealing with Lou, call the CIA, who, when they find out they’re dealing with Lou, call Special Forces, and within a day, all of them come flying in. Apparently, this Lou woman is a really big deal. And this appears to be our government’s only shot at getting her.
Which means that in addition to Hannah and Lou trying to get Vee, every United States government organization is trying to get Lou. And that’s only the beginning. After some sleuthing by the Feds, it appears that Lou and Hannah’s ex know each other. But how well? And what does that mean? Could these two actually be working together? So many questions. So few answers!
That opening page was definitely a teaser of things to come. This script did NOT go as expected. I thought this was going to be a gritty indie tale where a hardened mysterious older woman befriends a clueless struggling single mom and the two work together to get her daughter back.
It was sort of like that. But I had no idea that the FBI would get involved, the CIA, special forces. That airports would be blown up. That there’d be this elaborate plan with trees being cut down ahead of time to create road blocks. That there’d be a game involved where messages would be left for our hunters.
And to be honest, I don’t know what to make of it. It’s so batshit wild, that you’re constantly questioning what the writer’s going for. Is this supposed to be like Taken? Or is it supposed to be like Red? I mean at times, I thought this may have been a comedy. The FBI agent shows up on a kayak. And yet, because you had no idea what the hell would happen next or how all of this madness was connected, and you really wanted to fucking know, you had no choice but to keep turning pages.
In the end, though, I don’t think it meshed, and here’s why.
For these movies to work, the relationship at the center of the story needs to be compelling. If that’s not there, it doesn’t matter how well the story is plotted. It doesn’t even matter how compelling the characters are individually. If we don’t care whether that relationship at the center gets resolved, we’re not invested.
So what does that mean? How do you create an unresolved compelling relationship at the center of your story? Well, the most basic version of this is romance. So in Romancing the Stone, the sexual tension between the male and female leads is what makes us want to keep watching. We want to see if they’ll get together.
But even in something as basic as the first Rush Hour, that was about embracing differences in cultures in order to achieve a common goal. And I didn’t see anything like that in “Lou.” Where was that clear ISSUE between Lou and Hannah? Why not explore the age thing, for example? Methodically thinking through things (Lou) versus jumping right into them (Hannah).
A few of you might be groaning about at this, thinking, “That’s what they always do.” But the truth is, the most compelling debates and problems between people are the universal ones – the ones that have been debated since the beginning of time.
And yeah, if you hack through the age-youth debate in a “Screenplay 101” way, it’s going to suck. But if you explore it honestly – if you really CARE about the debate – then it will work.
On the flip side, if the main relationship is ill-defined, we’ll always feel off-kilter around the characters. We won’t truly “get” them. And you’ll receive a bunch of notes to the effect of, “Something felt off about the characters. Can’t pinpoint what.”
So that’s why Lou never lou-red me in. Every time we came back to Lou and Hannah I was like, “These two are boring together. They need something clearer going on.” Which is too bad. Because the story definitely surprised me and kept me off-balance. And that’s really hard to do to someone who’s read a lot of screenplays.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Use other characters’ reactions to tell us about your protagonist. When Lou goes to her hometown bank and there are two open tellers and she picks the first teller, Cohn (our writer) highlights the second teller letting out a relieved sigh. That tells us so much about Lou. Writers don’t do this enough. They don’t create specific moments to inform the reader of who their character is. They just hope the reader understands them through their “general essence.” It doesn’t work that way.
What I learned 2: “This is Who My Character Is” moments. Building on that, you want to include 3 or 4 “this is who my character is” moments early on in your screenplay. If they’re eternal fuck-ups, show us a big “fuck up” moment. They screw something up at work, for example. Then have them come home and realize they didn’t pay their rent on time (another fuck-up!). Drive that shit home because unless you’re deliberately trying to keep your character mysterious, you want to be clear about who they are. If you can’t think of any of these moments? There’s a very real possibility that you either don’t know your character well enough or they’re not very interesting.