Premise: A janitor on an off-world secret prison is tasked with helping the prison’s biggest criminal escape or his family dies.
About: Today’s writer is one of the few out there who can say he’s sold a spec for 7 figures. Sascha Penn is known as a writer with lots of fun sci-fi ideas and sold this script, The Ditch, to Warner Brothers in 2009.
Writer: Sascha Penn
Details: 4/9/09 draft – 120 pages
I tried to get myself up to the Arclight to see Coco this weekend but there was something about the film that wouldn’t allow me to justify the $20 cost. Studios have to be careful right now. I’ve seen them up the prices across the board in both theaters and home rental. I’ve noticed that those extra few bucks have made me much more likely to think through a purchase. This isn’t a good time for the industry to be doing this. They need more people watching movies. Not less.
I begrudgingly opted instead for Atomic Blonde, hoping my instincts about the film were wrong (it looked cold and inaccessible). But they turned out to be dead on. The film was cold and inaccessible. Seems like the director forgot what made John Wick so good. The fun factor. There was zero fun factor in this movie, a grim action piece with perfectly choreographed fights and slick cinematography, hampered by a main character who was as fun to root for as a bully at a chess meet. It continues to prove my theory that the Cold War is one of the worst subject matters to base a movie around. There have been like 2 good Cold War movies in the past half-century. And that’s being generous.
My weekend felt like it was heading towards failure until I got one of those pleasant surprises – a kick-ass consultation script. It was a Western from a Canadian writer who’d injected the very thing Atomic Blonde was missing – FUN! I was hoping to go 2 for 2 on the script front with this sci-fi offering. Let’s see if I scored.
The year is 2119 A.D., a year where they still need, unfortunately, janitors. Which is what our main character, Jake Pryor, is. Jake’s occupation is a sore spot for his family – his wife, teenager daughter, and newborn – but at least they get to experience the pioneer life, living on Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon.
Jake is a janitor at The Ditch, a giant prison outside of Ganymede’s main city. This mega-prison houses over 500,000 prisoners and 125,000 employees. And Jake’s under the impression that when he shows up at work, it’s going to be just another day of cleaning.
Boy is he wrong. Armstrong Praxis, the most ruthless terrorist on earth since Osama Bin Laden, has been sent to The Ditch to be executed, old-school style (electric chair), today! Jake senses something’s off when, while passing Praxis, Praxis asks how his wife is doing – BY NAME. Yeah, that’s never a good sign.
Jake is then contacted by some ex-workers, who inform him that they’re holding his family hostage. And if he doesn’t rescue Praxis and get him out of that prison, they’re all going to die.
With time-a-tickin’, Jake blows the main fuse to the building and manages to intercept Praxis’s escort back to his cell. After beating some ass (you knew this guy wasn’t always a janitor, right?), he leads Praxis through a series of back-alley rooms in the prison he knows so well, and out to safety. But will they be caught before they can get back to the city? And will Jake’s family become a casualty after all?
The Ditch is a cool, if standard, sci-fi script.
You’re not going to get anything too imaginative here. And that’s a reality of the genre. There isn’t a genre more copied than sci-fi. That’s why, if you’re one of those unique talented sci-fi writers who can come up with a bunch of shit that nobody’s ever seen before? You WILL work in this industry. Because all I see? And all anybody sees? Is sci-fi writers regurgitating the same four movies – Terminator, Aliens, Star Wars, and The Matrix.
I’ll give you a scene from The Ditch, though, that got my originality vote.
Penn cleverly sets up a main elevator that is the only elevator serving the entire prison tower. This elevator is so smart, it can actually detect extra heartbeats. So if an employee signs into the elevator but there is a second person that isn’t checked in, the elevator won’t move.
Well, there’s a moment where Jake has to use the elevator to take Praxis down to the first floor. So he tells Praxis to take these pills that basically kill him, and he’ll revive him once they get to the bottom. Keep in mind, it’s been made clear to Jake that if Praxis dies, his family will be killed.
We establish that Praxis can be dead for maybe 3 minutes before he has to be resuscitated, which happens to be the same amount of time the ride will take. So they initiate the plan, but because the building is still reeling from the earlier power outage, the elevator is only moving at 40% speed.
It’s a great little tense scene, with some lovely irony in it to boot. Paxis was brought here to be killed. But Jake’s whole world depends on bringing Paxis back to life.
If you can come up with 4 or 5 scenes like this in a single sci-fi film? People WILL make your movie. Only because it’s so rare that you get scenes that are actually original in science-fiction. It’s usually people shooting lasers at each other or driving futuristic cars after one another. You have to be crafty. You have to be clever.
The rest of the script never reached the heights of that scene but the setup was strong enough to keep me engaged. In these situations, if you give us a main character we care about and you give us a family (or wife) who needs to be saved that we care about as well, even if you execute a ho-hum plot, we’ll still be invested because we want to see the characters survive.
In no movie is this better proven than Die Hard. Die Hard is a super generic premise. Terrorists take over a building. But we love John McClane. And even though we met his wife for only a couple of scenes, we love her too. So we want to see them survive and be together again.
Just think if you could do both these things? Write an insanely original sci-fi script with characters we love and want to see survive? You’d freaking clean up. You’d be getting checks in the mail for the rest of your life.
Easy right? :)
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Judgeable Moments – There are moments in a script where the reader is judging the writing heavily. These are moments that shine a light on just how hard the writer is trying. I know if the writer nails that moment, they’re giving it their all. In The Ditch, there’s a moment right before Paxis is about to be executed, when the warden asks him, “Any last words?” Now think about that for a second. As a writer, this is one of the highest honors you can take on. You are crafting the LAST WORDS a human ever thinks they’re going to say. This is not something to take lightly. You need to come up with a line that’s not only powerful and memorable, but that encapsulates everything that character is. You have some understanding of who Paxis is. What last words would you write for him? Because I’ll tell the last words that were chosen. They were: “Fuck all of you.” I don’t know about you? But that’s the most generic line that could’ve been chosen. And I say that because ANY CHARACTER could’ve said it. There’s nothing unique about it. To bolster this point, think about what Darth Vader would’ve said here. Or Hannibal Lecter. Or Annie Wilkes. Or Nurse Ratched. Or The Joker. Or Gollum. Their answers would’ve been entirely unique to their character. Which is why I need for these moments in a script to be perfect. Because they’re the moments that highlight your writing. So, I ask you. What line would have you chosen for Paxis’s last words?