Premise: The military contracts a disgraced Harvard professor who believes in dragons to escort them to a mysterious island where the mythical beasts potentially still exist.
About: What else is there to say? It’s another Max Landis script, baby. The one writer still making huge spec sales. This one, to my knowledge, has not sold yet. But if anyone has any updated information on that, let me know.
Writer: Max Landis
Details: 120 pages (Dec 2014 draft) Second Rewrite
Max Landis really likes orcs.
And fairies n stuff.
By the way, I finally figured out why the trailer for Landis’s Netflix flick, “Bright,” begins with that uncomfortable fairy-beating sequence. I realized that a meeting took place within the Netflix brain trust…
“How do we show that this is the kind of fantasy movie Hollywood can’t make?” So they had Will Smith beat the shit out of fairy, the message being: This ain’t your grandfather’s fantasy flick.
Was that choice a success? No.
But that’s what’s great about Netflix. They’re okay with taking chances. And chances often fail, as I’ve discussed in a recent Scriptshadow post.
So let’s get to today’s script, because I think there’s a huge screenwriting lesson we can learn from it. But before I tell you what that is, let’s dive bomb, dragon-style, into the plot…
Terra Obscura starts with one of the most traditional first acts you’ll find in a movie like this. Which was surprising since Landis is such an anarchist. Adam Burns just got fired from his Harvard professorial job after an interview of him saying he believes in dragons goes viral.
After his girlfriend reams him out for deep-sixing his career, Adam is kidnapped off the street by men who’ve watched too many movies, since they throw a bag over his head then yank him into a van. They then throw him on a helicopter, informing him that they’re going to an island where a Russian sub thats’s been programmed to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. has crashed.
Adam makes it clear he doesn’t know why he’s here. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
“On the contrary,” the military official tells him. “You might be the only one who knows what’s going on.”
Cue our “HARD CUT TO” Predator helicopter moment. Oh yeah, this island they’re going to may contain… creatures of the magical type. That’s confirmed the second they fly over land when two dragons that would make Khallesi’s corset explode attack the Blackhawks.
Adam’s helicopter crashes and he and the men use a radiation meter to figure out where the marooned sub is. But on the way there, they run into orcs and fairies and Necromances and Dark Elves and other nerdy monsters. What Adam realizes is that the Russian sub may have been a ruse. Which means they’ve been lured here. But why? The answer may be much worse than a measly nuclear attack on the United States…
The first thing I noticed about Terra Obscura had nothing to do with Terra Obscura. Rather, it had to do with Skull Island and Ghostbusters. Strangely, two of the first three scenes in Landis’s script have helicopters arriving on an “invisible” island and giant monsters attacking them. After that, we flash back to show Adam getting fired from his job at a prestigious university because he yelled into a camera, “I believe in dragons,” then got fired by his boss after it went viral.
Both these scenes, almost verbatim, were in Skull Island and [the new] Ghostbusters. I see that this script pre-dates both of those films. So what does that mean? I remember Landis either worked on or was going to work on Ghostbusters. So maybe he wrote a similar scene there and they used it cause they had the rights? But I didn’t know Landis worked on Skull Island. And if he didn’t, does that mean someone just took this scene from Terra Obscura?
Of course, there’s a third possibility: None of us are as original as we think we are. Maybe these ideas are so obvious that everybody is writing versions of them. I don’t know. But I found that surprising. I was like, “I’ve seen both of these scenes already!”
There’s a bigger talking point I wanted to get into today, however. And it has to do with the fact that Bright got made and Terra Obscura (as of today) did not. Why is that?
Bright is set in the real world with actors wearing prosthetics. Terra Obscura is shooting in a jungle with a full slate of Lord of the Rings like creatures. In other words, it’s a lot more expensive.
I’m often asked by writers if they should write something big budget or small. The answer to this is more complicated than you’d think but I’ll give you the simple answer first. SMALL. Look at the data. How many non-IP giant-budgeted movies are made a year? Two? How many non-IP small budget movies are made a year? A LOT. So you’re increasing your number of buyers exponentially with a lower-budgeted script. Which is why Bright was kind of genius. It was a high-concept idea that was financially achievable.
However, there’s a growing belief that it’s so difficult to sell screenplays, you have to entertain the long game when thinking about which script to write. So if you want to write big-budget movies like James Bond, you write a James Bond-like movie, knowing that it isn’t going to sell. However, if people like it and you get buzz from it, you’re now brought into the Hollywood loop, and you’re in contention for assignment work on movies like that. So in that case, writing the big-budget idea was the way to go.
The point is, it depends on what your goal is. If you’re just trying to sell, Bright is the perfect conceptual blueprint. It’s a budget-friendly genre idea. But if you want to write for the Star Wars or Avatar franchises, write the best sci-fi fantasy script of the decade. Just know that you ain’t going to sell it.
As for the Terra Obscura script (which is the name of the island, if you were wondering), it was pretty good. It poses an interesting question for a script like this. Do you make your hero resistant or active? In the similarly set up, Aliens, Ripley is a boss. She’s all in right away. In Terra Obscura, Adam doesn’t want to be here at all. He’s scared. This is too much for him.
Both options have their pros and cons. When your hero is resistant, like Adam, he has somewhere to go as a character. It’s clear that there’s going to be an inner journey here. Him being able to overcome his fear will lead to him changing, which, when done well, results in a more impactful viewing experience.
However, in Aliens, Ripley is thought of as one of the best characters ever. And she was active and brave from the start. Why did that work? Well, Cameron decided to explore a different part of Ripley to show her growth. Both her distrust of the mission and her role as a mother to Newt became the backbone for her character growth.
And that’s the thing screenwriters forget. You’re not limited to one of those “fatal flaw” boxes. You can play outside the box.
Also, I find it dangerous to have a hero who’s too weak. Even if they’re eventually going to arc into a strong person, we’re going to be spending at least half the screenplay with them as a weakling. And audiences have trouble rooting for weaklings (not physical weaklings, but mental). That hurt my overall opinion of the script.
However, Landis knows how to keep a script entertaining. And whereas the Kong Skull Island plot points were visible from light years away, I didn’t know where this script was going. The Dungeons & Dragons creatures angle threw me off. And Landis’s love for that world resulted in numerous twists and turns I wasn’t expecting.
So Terra Obscura was just fun enough for me to recommend.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: A trick for writing high-concept low-budget genre films is to utilize one fantastical element and place that element inside the modern-day world. What this does is it ensures that studios don’t need to create any expensive effects-driven worlds. They can shoot 95% of the movie in real world settings. Then, the one fantastical element (Orcs in Bright, or time travel in Primer) is what gives your script a big feel for a cheap price.