This is a reposting from a long-ago newsletter. So busy this week! But since I talked about the script in yesterday’s article, I felt like I should at least give you a chance to talk about it as well! Also, a new batch of amateur offerings will be up by 2 a.m. Pacific Time.
Genre: Sci-Fi’ish Comedy
Premise: In a future where the world has been overrun by monsters, a young man risks his life to get to the woman he’s fallen for.
About: Brian Duffield is one of my favorite writers. One of his scripts, Your Bridesmaid is a Bitch, is on my Top 25. And through no fault of his own, another of his projects, Jane Got A Gun, found itself in the middle of a production circus when on the first day of shooting the director of the film just decided not to show up. This resulted in actors dropping out, other actors switching roles, and a full-on game of production musical chairs. Monster Problems was picked up last year. It’s unclear where it is in development. I’ll tell you this right now, though. If I were a studio, this is one of the first scripts I’d green light.
Writer: Brian Duffield
Details: 113 pages (undated)
Okay, so I want you to imagine Sleepless in Seattle. Mixed with a John Hughes film. Mixed with Harry Potter. Mixed with Pacific Rim.
You may be saying, “Carson, that is an unbelievable combination of films. There is nobody in the world who could make that work.”
Ladies and Gentleman, may I introduce you to Brian Duffield. The only person in the world who can make that work. And honestly, I’m in awe of the guy. I really am. I don’t know anyone else on earth who has this kind of imagination, that is also good with character, who can also create a believable and touching romance, who can also add hilarious comedy and lots of heart, whose writing style is sparse yet packed with information, who can ALSO tell a great story, and who always surprises you with his choices.
You just don’t find that kind of writer often. If ever. And it kind of depresses me. Because we’re all supposed to have weaknesses. Those weaknesses are what make other writers feel like they shouldn’t commit suicide. It’s important for them to be able to say, “Okay, sure he can do comedy. But he can’t develop characters like I can.” Duffield can do it all. I guess maybe in Jane Got A Gun, things were a little slow. Maybe when he’s not able to use comedy, his scripts aren’t as entertaining? Maybe that’s a weakness? I guess. Or maybe he purposefully slowed things down in “Jane” because he didn’t want to make all us other writers feel bad.
So what’s Monster Problems about?
This guy, Joel Dawson. A really good guy, this Joel. But he’s been dealt a shitty hand. He lives in this underground bunker with 37 people and he’s the only single guy there. Everyone else is always making out and having sex while he’s just… dreaming of what it would be like to have a girlfriend. Oh, and then, of course, it’s a hundred or so years in the future where the world’s been overtaken by monsters. Bad hand once again. It’s safe to say poker’s not Joel’s thing.
The one thing Joel’s got to look forward to is a girl. Her name is Aimee. She’s got red hair. He knows that because he asked, though he’s never seen her. See, Aimee is in another bunker 30 miles from his. And they can only contact this bunker for a couple minutes a day due to battery issues. And because the hope of being with Aimee is the only reason for Joel to put on his pants every morning, he decides to do the unthinkable – go to her.
Now that might not sound difficult to you or me. 30 miles puts a lot of stress on your quads but it’s doable. Here’s the problem. Monsters. And this isn’t the monster problem you see in Pacific Rim. Or that indie movie, “Monsters.” You know when Will Smith says in the “After Earth” trailer, “Everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans?” And then you went to see the movie and nothing on this planet had evolved to kill humans?
Well imagine a movie where that was actually the case. The second Joel leaves the bunker, he’s attacked by a strange dog-like critter, a raptor-thing, a giant frog, a giant spider, giant killer moths, a weird seven feet tall ghost-like centipede thing, a three headed T-Rex, a giant sea creature, as well as a few other beasts so strange they’re impossible to describe! And all Joel is armed with is a crossbow and a mangy dog he finds along the way.
Joel fights for his life, almost dies a thousand times, saves his dog, gets saved by his dog, meets a father-like figure, meets an astronaut robot, almost dies a thousand more times, etc. There aren’t many things Joel doesn’t experience on this perilous journey. But will he make it to Aimee? And what will happen if he does? Will she be everything he hoped for?
This script. Was awesome.
It was awesome. Where do I begin? Oh, I know. I’ll begin at the end. Duffield arcs the dog character. You read that right. Duffield GIVES A CHARACTER ARC TO THE DOG! Remember the scene in Cast Away where Wilson, an inanimate object, floats away forever? And you were crying, desperately hoping your date or parents didn’t look over at that exact moment and see you drowning in tears?
There’s a moment that rivals that here with the dog. The dog, you see, was found clinging to the dress of his long-since disappeared female master. He won’t leave with Joel until Joel brings that dress with him. And he’s so stuck on that dress. He cares more about that dress than he does Joel. And then in the end (spoiler), that dress gets stuck in the ocean, where Joel is battling a monster, and he has a choice to either go after the dress or save Joel. And he picks Joel. He changes. The dog arcs. Not barcs. Arcs. And it was so fucking good you cried just like when Wilson died.
Oh, and did I tell you about the astronaut? Yeah. One of my favorite scenes all year has this robot astronaut, split in two, only wires holding her together, pulling herself across the terrain, bumping into Joel, explaining she only has 16 minutes left before her battery runs out. And the two just share her last moments together before she dies. And it’s heartbreaking. And I don’t fucking understand how anybody comes up with this stuff. We can talk about structure until the screencows come home. But you still have to have imagination. You still have to come up with unique choices. How does Duffield bring a nearly dead cut-in-half female robot astronaut into a story about monsters taking over the earth and make it work? I don’t know but it fucking makes me jealous.
And then there’s the ending. I’m not going to get into spoilers, but let’s just say what you thought was going to happen doesn’t happen. That ALSO is a trait of great writers. They take you to the place you think you’re going, then totally change things up on you. You realize the writer is in control. Not you.
There were a few other reasons I loved this script. The main character is a lovable loser. But when he befriends this dog and loses his loneliness, we officially fall in love with him. It’s really hard to have a character befriend a dog or save a dog and not like him. As ridiculous and simplistic as it sounds: we like people who love animals. Who will protect them. It’s crazy how obvious this is, yet when it’s done well, as it is here, it makes the character irresistible.
And I love stories where the obstacles are impossible, where the writer is never easy on his hero. His hero has to earn every step he takes. Remember in After Earth, where the main character is basically guided by his father the whole way? So he didn’t really earn anything? He just follows orders. Here, Joel earns every step he takes. He finds the solutions to all the problems. He outruns or outsmarts or outbeats all the monsters. And the sheer number of monsters he has to take on is ridiculous. At one point he’s trying to get over a rickety bridge when giant moths with needle teeth attack him, teeth that inject deadly venom into him, while a 3 headed T-Rex is trying to kill him, while he drops his only weapon, his crossbow, into the monster-infested waters below. There are so many moments like this where you wonder, “How the hell is he going to get out of this alive?” And because the odds are so heavily stacked against him, we hover over the page with baited breath, reading as fast as we can so we can get the answer.
And then at the heart of this script is… heart. See that’s the thing. All these big effects movies have zero heart, have zero characters we really care about. I mean does anybody in the world really care about Shia LaBeouf in Transformers? Here, we care about Joel. We care about his dog. Because Duffield knows that none of those effects will matter. This is about the character. And you will like Joel. You will love Joel. You will love this journey he goes on. You will be shocked by the ending. And when it’s over, it’ll be one of the few times you’ve finished a script and wished there were more pages to read.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (TOP 25!!!)
[ ] genius
What I learned: The key to writing these scripts is mentally stripping out all the big creatures and monsters and robots and effects, and remembering that it’s a personal journey. Focus on making that personal journey work first. Make your audience fall in love with your main character and want them to succeed. And then build that effects world up afterwards. This is such simple advice and yet this is the first time I’ve seen it done in maybe two or three years? If you’re a big-budget writer, get this right and you’ll be golden.
What I learned 2: Choose action over dialogue to build a relationship. — Let’s say you only have one scene to make us care about a key relationship in your script. In this case, we’ll use Joel and the dog as the characters. Scene Option 1 has Joel talking to the dog over the fire. Scene Option 2 has both of them being attacked by a monster, and Joel has to make a choice between either saving himself or trying to save the dog. ALWAYS choose the second scene option. Action always accelerates a relationship faster than dialogue. Obviously, scripts are long so you’ll have the opportunity to do both, but always favor action over dialogue when you can.