Genre: TV Pilot (Sci-fi)
Premise: Inside a giant city within a spaceship, a former detective is hired to find a dead woman who’s uploaded her consciousness into a robot.
About: AMC wants that next big genre show. We reviewed Galyntine a few weeks ago. Now we look at Ballistic City, a creation from Tron director Joseph Kosinski, and written by Pacific Rim and Killing on Carnival Row scribe, Travis Beacham. The show is being pitched as Blade Runner meets Battle Star Galactica. While he’s definitely got talent, Beacham was one of the lucky ones. While in his senior year at college, he sent his latest script out to a recent graduate who’d gotten an intern position at a producton company in Hollywood. All he wanted was some feedback. A few days later, agents and managers and producers started calling, wanting a piece of this new talent. That script was Killing on Carnival Row. Beacham and Kosinski met on their collaboration of the as yet un-made remake of the “The Black Hole.”
Writer: Travis Beacham
Details: 60 pages
Here’s a question for you. How many scripts should a writer write a year? Because when you’re Travis Beacham, one of the most in-demand screenwriters in Hollywood, you’re constantly getting million dollar assignment offers. And success never lasts in Tinseltown. Just ask Val Kilmer. So the inclination is to take everything and get that money while it’s there. Indeed, Beacham seems to be writing everything these days (he’s got projects with JJ, with Cameron, with Del Toro, with Fox, with AMC).
Then you have the other end of the spectrum. When nobody even knows that you write. You don’t have anyone paying you or waiting for your next script. When that’s the case, it’s easy to lay back and putter away, finishing one script every three years or so. Which is not good if you want to work in this industry. Writers and managers want prolific screenwriters.
So that’s my question to you guys. How many scripts do you write a year? And how many do you think a writer should write a year? I’m thinking the top number is three. Anything more than that and you’re sacrificing quality, no?
Speaking of sacrificing quality, Ballistic City isn’t what I was hoping for. I thought I was getting straight sci-fi, but this is more “Killing on Carnival Row on a spaceship” sci-fi. Some of you are going to love that. But this was so focused on the cricks and cracks of this noir-ish city, I began to wander why it was set on a spaceship in the first place. More on that in a second. But first, the plot.
“Ballistic City” is about a giant city on a huge spaceship that’s travelling between the stars. The journey for this voyage is taking so long that the last member of the first generation on the ship just died.
That’s where we come in, and where we meet Canaan Bendix (lots of bizarre names in this script), a private detective for hire. Bendix is hired by the police to look for the “Geist” of this First Generation woman who died. See, First Generation had a robot that backed up her memory. Therefore, when she dies, she’s still “alive” in this robot. Well, as soon as she died, her Geist ran off into the ship. And police wanna find her and ask why.
Bendix goes into the dirty underbelly of the city and Beacham gets to show off what he does best – create big detailed weird worlds. For example, people have modifiers for skin and hair and eyes to make them look like animals. They take “hits” off each other’s memory devices. You know, weird fucked up shit like that.
When Bendix finally finds Robot Chick (who actually looks like a beautiful younger version of our 117 year old dead woman), she claims that she was murdered. But she doesn’t remember how or by whom. So the two team up and look around the ship until (spoiler), it becomes apparent that no one murdered Robot Chick. She murdered herself.
First the good. This was better than Moonfall!
Of course, I’ve seen cats fall sleep on keyboards and create better screenplays than Moonfall. “Fffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff” is still an all-time favorite of mine.
Ballistic City was good in that “Travis Beacham atmospheric” kind of way. He’s the screenwriting equivalent of a young George Lucas, filling every little piece of the frame with some cool gadget, a detail to help bring the world alive. Like the kids wearing animal mods. Like gene-modifier drugs that turn you into mold. Like dead people living their lives inside glitch holograms.
There’s actually this cool little storyline where Bendix’s old partner killed Bendix’s wife. The partner was convicted, went to prison, and was executed. His memory was placed inside of a hologram, and in accordance with the law, the last week of its life was erased, the week he killed Bendix’s wife. So Bendix goes to meet with his friend every so often, and the partner has no idea he killed Bendix’s wife. He always innocently asks what the last week of his life was like, but Bendix can’t tell him.
Neat stuff like this was scattered everywhere.
But here’s the big reason Ballistic City didn’t work for me. It doesn’t do anything with its premise. And that KILLS ME. We were just talking about this the other week. What’s the point of creating an eye-grabbing concept if you’re not going to explore it at all?? It’d be like building Disney World and filling it with skate parks. Yeah, we’re kind of having fun, but not “Disney World” fun.
Ballistic City may take place on a city inside a giant spaceship, but you wouldn’t know it by how little its mentioned. The ship and its ongoing journey are rarely talked about. And when they are, it’s never in accordance with a plot point. It’s a radio personality blurting out the equivalent of, “This trip is taking too long.”
Whenever you come up with an idea, you first see the material through a macro lens. If you came up with an idea about a future war on Mars, initially, you’d think of the big battles that would take place, all the cool Mars architecture being destroyed, the big beautiful centerpieces of the city.
But as a screenwriter, your job is to find a SPECIFIC vessel to tell the movie through. You must find an interesting character who’s living in this world, is directly affected by this world, who’s directly involved in the problems this world creates, and tell the story through their eyes.
So in our Mars movie, maybe we tell the story of a 20 year old female miner who lives in a dying Mars city. In fact, the city is almost out of water. She has the choice of moving to the bigger cities to survive, but if she does, she’ll have to join the army and fight in the war, something she doesn’t want to do. Now we’re tackling the idea through a specific point of view.
Ballistic City decides to make Bendix its specific point of view, and he’s a detective. Okay, I guess that works. A detective will have a new goal each episode (inspect a disappearance or a murder). And a detective will be exploring a big slice of the city, allowing the writers to show every nook and cranny of this unique world.
But if the people whose deaths we’re inspecting have nothing to do with this ship or where it’s going, who cares?? Tell that story back on an earth city. I mean this murder needed to be about someone who knew a secret about the ship, someone who was hiding something and could put a lot of high-powered people in danger.
That way we’d have Bendix, who was previously inspecting a tiny little crime, moving up the ladder to a bigger and more elaborate conspiracy. Plot points should include ship-specific things like a decrease in cabin pressure, slow-downs in engine velocity, the discovery that their course has been changed. This is a show about being on a ship. Therefore, the plot points we encounter need to be about the ship. A show about a robot killing her human self is a different show altogether.
Ballistic City did bring about one good thing though. The question: Would you have sex with a 117 year old woman if she were inside a synthetic fake body? Because Bendix didn’t seem to have a problem with it. But you guys are the final authority on this. Yes, we’re pushing the boundaries of screenplay analysis here. But if your script doesn’t bring it, we gotta find something to talk about.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Beacham is a big imagination guy. And a lot of people have asked me if should they should “limit” the imagination in their script to account for budgets. Beacham was asked this very question by Film School Rejects. This is what he had to say: “As a writer, you can easily get stuck in the trap of, “Is this doable? Are people going to pay to make this?” I think you have to bury that. You just gotta try the best you can, and if it’s good and people like it, it’ll get made. With special effects nowadays, you can basically do anything. If somebody likes something enough, they’re going to find a way to get it made. When you’re in the early stages of coming up with an idea, you just have to let it tell the idea tell you what it is.”