Is Pox Americana the next Revenant?
Premise: After a town of Americans are slaughtered by Indians, a group of Indian assassins are put together to enact revenge. But not everything goes according to plan once they accomplish their mission.
About: Frank John Hughes, who had parts in such films as Catch Me If You Can and shows like Band of Brothers and The Sopranos, is one of the new guard of actors changing their fortunes by writing screenplays. We saw what it did for Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water) and if someone’s brave enough to make Pox Ameircana, which was featured on the 2013 Black List, it should do good things for Hughes as well.
Writer: Frank John Hughes
Details: 103 pages
One of the most eye-opening books I’ve read was “Empire of the Summer Moon,” a non-fiction account by S.C. Gwynne that tells us what the American frontier was really like back in the 1800s.
I’d grown up in a P.C. culture that informed me that Americans were the savages. That we ruthlessly wiped out the Native Americans as if spraying for bugs in our basement.
“Empire” taught me that while that was true in some cases, it wasn’t when it came to the more ruthless Indian tribes – the Navajo, the Apache, and the Comanche. The book goes into horrifying detail about what those tribes would do when they captured whites, specifically the women, children, and babies. You read that book and you’ll never be able to get some of those images out of your head for as long as you live.
I’m assuming that book at least partly inspired Hughes. Heck, before we even get to a slugline, we’re given a warning by the author of how graphic things are about to get. And to turn back now if you’re squeamish.
That’s no false teaser. Hughes delivers on that promise immediately, with an intense POV scene of an Indian raid. We’re talking people being hacked to death right before our eyes. We’re talking a giant rock being smashed into our – yes OUR – face, ending our life.
If there’s any truth to the old screenwriting axiom, “Your first 10 pages should yank the reader in,” well, consider this a proper yanking.
This sets up a revenge tale that isn’t exactly a revenge tale. Let me explain. This slaughter so infuriated president of the United States, James Buchanan, that he put together a crack team of Indian hunters to kill famed Navajo chief, Babazorka.
There’s only one problem. It was the Apaches who slaughtered the Americans, not the Navajo. But hey, there was no internet back then and since perception is reality, and because Buchanan wanted Babazorka dead anyway, he realized he could kill two birds with one stone. Get rid of an agitator while simultaneously easing the American people’s fear. Kind of a Sadaam Hussein deal, if you’re looking for an analogy.
So our group, led by “one mean son-of-a-bitch” Major Solomon Trigwell, galloped into Navajo territory, found Babazorka’s village, and killed Babazorka and everyone else. They’re ready to celebrate when they accidentally stumble upon Babazorka’s war chest, which has been built up over 50 years.
We’re talking gold, jewels, diamonds. All sorts of shiny shit.
The men start looking around at each other, realizing that if they head off in any direction other than back home, where they’d have to report this find, they could be rich for the rest of their lives. Ahh, greed. It makes everything so much more interesting.
On the night they’re ready to head out, though, an unending wave of arrows come shooting down at them. Out there in the darkness are more Navajo. Could be dozens. Could be hundreds. The men send their scout out to call for reinforcements, but the question is, will they last that long? Whoever’s out there doesn’t want them to leave alive.
I was going to use this script to discuss pure unbridled violence in writing – the kind that shocks you so relentlessly, it alone becomes the driving force behind your interest.
But I found the unique structural setup of the script to be a far more interesting topic. You see, in most screenplays, you lay out a goal and you see if your characters achieve it, which typically comes down to a third act climax, where, let’s face it, our hero usually wins.
In Finding Dory, Dory is trying to find her parents. In Deadpool, Deadpool is trying to kill the man who tortured him. In Suicide Squad, they’re trying to kill a witch or something. All of the objectives in these films are handled in their final act.
However, every so often, I read a script where the hero achieves his goal in the middle of the script. That’s what happens here. The group sets out to kill Babazorka (what a great name, by the way), and does so right at the midpoint.
This choice can be positive in that we’re asking, “Ooh, what the hell is going to happen now?” But it can be negative in that the writer, basically, has to come up with a whole new storyline. Either you create a new goal, a new problem, or a new mystery. And that’s no easy feat. Remember, the whole reason we showed up in the first place was because of the initial goal. That was your movie’s hook. So how do you entertain us now that that’s gone?
Pox Americana’s new goal is a solid one: ESCAPE. But I love that Hughes doesn’t stop there. He adds a couple of wrinkles. This war chest, which creates greed, and a sickness, which creates uncertainty.
When in doubt, go simple, and that’s what Hughes has done here. Where writers make mistakes is when they overcomplicate things. They say, “We no longer have a goal,” so what if we give each of my characters a subplot and they’re each trying to figure out some aspect of their life, and one guy’s got to do this and that guy’s got to do that. And soon they’re lost within a matrix of character motivations.
Hughes keeps it simple: ESCAPE. Then he throws in a couple of obstacles. A war chest and a disease.
If you want to practice this setup yourselves, imagine you’re writing Taken. However, instead of Liam Neeson rescuing his daughter at the end, he rescues her at the midpoint. As the writer, what’s your “second movie” for the second half of that script? I’d be interested to hear your ideas in the comments.
My only issue with Pox Americana was that they focused more on the disease in the final act than the greed. I found the greed to be the more compelling element. Yeah yeah, I know. It’s called “Pox Americana.” But it wouldn’t be hard to change that title. You should always follow the most interesting storyline, even if it means a title change.
Pox Americana is violent and dark (many of our “heroes” are bad dudes) and therefore not for everyone. But if some brave young filmmaker wants to make their version of The Revenant, this is the script you want to be looking at.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: “2 for 1 Structure” – 2 for 1 Structure is when you end the original story goal by the midpoint, then add a new story for the second half of your script. In this way, you’re basically writing 2 movies. The advantage of doing so is that your story stays fresh. If you wait until the very end of your script to solve the goal, you risk the audience becoming bored with the drawn-out nature of the hero’s objective. With a 2-for-1, you avoid that. Just know that 2-for-1’s have their own set of challenges. You have to come up with a second storyline that’s equal to, or preferably more interesting, than the first. That’s not easy to accomplish.