Genre: True Story – Thriller/Comedy
Premise: (from Black List) The unbelievable true story of a family man from Alaska in the midst of a midlife crisis who embarks on what he hoped would be a dream sailing vacation but ends up shipwrecked in the Atlantic Ocean with a charming but psychotic sea captain who has decided to stop taking his medication
About: Today’s script finished in the Top 15 of last year’s Black List! The spec script was picked up by LD Entertainment, who most recently handled Oscar contender, “Jackie.”
Writer: Ben Bolea
Details: 110 pages
I’m running the name through my head over and over again: “Bolea…Bolea…Bolea.” Where have I heard that name? It sounded familiar. Finally, I plugged it into the Scriptshadow Search Machine and, lo and behold, look what came back. Bolea co-wrote the runner-up script in my first ever Scriptshadow Contest!
That script, about a group of Alaskan high school seniors facing their impending life after high school, was a big favorite of mine. I LOVE when this happens – seeing screenwriters who keep at it. It goes to show that when you’re dedicated and work hard and write your ass off, eventually, good things will happen. And it’s great to see that Ben’s still writing about Alaska! Write what you know, people!
“Burt Squire” starts off with a simple creed from Bolea:
I met Burt Squire at Floater’s Bar in Big Lake, Alaska. He heard what I do for work and said he had a story I would like. He was right. A week later I received a package containing a journal.
This screenplay is taken from those pages.
Burt was on his way to the adventure of a lifetime in 1996 – a dream trip to Sydney, Australia – when he found out his girlfriend, Mel, was pregnant. That trip had to be axed, and after having one beautiful son, Wyatt, and later another, Trevor, Burt eased into the family life.
17 years later, on the eve of his 40th birthday, Burt’s wondering how it all went by so fast. Instead of traveling the world going on adventures, the native Alaskan travels to schools and side roads, plowing snow every morning.
So when Burt’s boss offers him a chance to go on a sailing adventure with an old friend, Burt doesn’t have to think twice. The old friend, Vernon J. Knux, is on the other side of the country, in Rhode Island, and needs someone to help him sail his boat to the Caribbean. No experience needed! Which is important, since Burt doesn’t know Jack about sailing.
Knux acts exactly how his name sounds. He’s a weirdo to the nth degree, babbling on in every-sentence-contradicts-the-last homeless-person speak. But Burt chalks it up to the eccentric nature of a real live sea captain. And soon they’re sailing into the Atlantic, destination, Bermuda, where Knux is delivering the boat to his son.
Almost immediately, Burt realizes something ain’t kosher. Knux encourages pissing your pants over using the lavatory, has a penchant for Viking pornography, performs naked Yoga on the regular, only eats cream of mushroom soup, and sings Taylor Swift songs on his ukulele.
Burt can deal with Knux’s eccentricities. But he can’t deal with him disappearing into the cabin for days at a time while he, someone who’s never been on a boat in his life, is left in charge of sailing it. This plays out in predictable fashion, with Burt navigating the ship into a giant storm, which rips their sails, rendering them immobile.
As Burt turns to Knux for help, Knux spins into insanity, breaking the GPS so they can’t be located, before it’s revealed that this isn’t even Knux’s boat. He stole it from some rich guy. At a certain point, Burt realizes that surviving this inconceivable dilemma is all on him. To live, Burt will have to become the captain now.
A couple of things I want to mention off the bat.
Bolea does a good job setting up his main character, Burt. If possible, you want to introduce your protagonist in his everyday world. This not only allows us to get to know him in his natural environment, but it helps to create contrast with the extremes we’ll see him in later.
For example, if we hadn’t met Luke Skywalker fighting a life of boredom on Tatooine before blasting off on his adventure across the galaxy, we wouldn’t have appreciated the character as much. We needed to see him roll his eyes while drinking blue milk and change power converters to truly understand how crazy it was to be shooting at tie-fighters from the Millennium Falcon.
I’m a big believer in using CONTRAST whenever possible. If you’re going to show your character on a boat in the middle of the ocean during a beautiful summer, it’s a great idea to start as far away from that as possible. And what’s further away than plowing snow in Alaska?
I also noticed that “Burt Squire” was about escape. Which was the same theme Bolea explored in his Alaska high school script. Kids wanting to get out of this place and go do exciting things with their lives. I bring this up because wanting to break out of a mundane life is one of the most universal themes there is. People relate to that. And if they’re relating to that, they’re relating to your hero. Which means they feel like they’re a part of your story. That’s a powerful tool when you know how to harness it.
Where “Burt Squire” hits choppy waters is in its tone. The situation Burt’s been placed in is harrowing. He’s a non-sailor stuck in the middle of the ocean with a guy who’s so crazy he’s sabotaging their rescue.
However, Knux is so funny, so out there, you can’t stop laughing at him. That humorous component gave me a sense of security that everything would be okay. That was my dilemma. I never feared for Burt. And I think you have to fear for your main character in a script like this.
The good news is, actors are going to be jumping over each other to play this character. Knux is such a weirdo. I could see Jim Carrey playing the part. He’s crossed over into Crazyville anyway. This role wouldn’t be much of a stretch.
The project also benefits from the fact that there’s nothing else like it out there. As much as we talk about Hollywood remaking the same stuff over and over again, the truth is actors and directors ALWAYS want to do something different. So if you can get them to believe in your project, they have the power to push it through a resistant system.
“Burt Squire” was fun! I think it needs to decide if it wants to be more comedy or drama. But either way, it was an enjoyable read.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: There’s something about putting characters on a boat in the middle of the ocean that I like. There’s nowhere to go. And if you can introduce some compelling conflict into that mix, you’ve got yourself a movie, because the characters have no choice but to hash things out. Remember, guys, movies are conflict. Find the most intense conflict-laden situation you can think of and the story will write itself.