Of all the Twit-Pitch First-10-Pages I read, this was tied as far and away one of the best two. I had high hopes for it. My only concern? A wandering story. The logline piqued my interest but as you can see, it doesn’t exactly tell us what the script’s about. So I was really hoping this wasn’t one of those scripts that shows kick ass writing skills for the first ten pages and then just…never turns into anything. Those are always killers as a reader. You can tell the writer can write. They just haven’t figured out how to tell a story yet. Two very different skills.
But this one felt good. I knew I was putting it in the “Definite” pile within the first two pages. I mean go ahead and read the first 10 yourself. Look at how confident the writing is – how self-assured. You feel like you’re in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, which is rare when you read an amateur screenplay. But it’s one thing to make it last 10 pages. It’s a whole nother to make it last 110.
So in case you’re wondering, Gunplay is about terrorist bounty-hunting. It’s kind of cool when you think about it. Those “Reward – $500″ mugshots that were everywhere in the Old West days? They STILL do that. But here, it’s 5 million dollars instead of 500. And the players aren’t Two-Barrel Terry, but international terrorists who want to kill Americans in the name of Allah.
Our big daddy, the 5 million dollar jackpot (not sure why it’s changed from 10 mil in the logline) everyone’s after, is a man named Musab. Musab is actually an American who’s turned on his country, zigzagging through the Pakistani/Afghanstan countryside, trying to escape all the newfound attention he’s gotten after becoming the last big paycheck on the Terrorist Most Wanted List.
There are two bounty hunters he’s gotta worry about. The first one has no name. He’s known only as “Stranger.” This is the kind of guy that gives Clint Eastwood the willies. He’s just a badass aging bounty hunter with one thing on his mind. MONAY! And he’ll do anything to get it. The other dude is 50-something Wyatt, whose face is a “road map to hell and back.” Wyatt’s got some other business to tend to as well, something about tracking down 25 million dollars of stolen moolah.
The story weaves through their individual pursuits until they eventually come together, as at one point all three men (including Musab) must escape some baddies, namely a corrupt policemen and a warlord or two. Soon the 5 million dollar paycheck seems like a pittance compared to that big 25 million dollar payday. But will they find it before it’s too late, or before they all kill one another?
In short, this is the best writing in the contest so far. However, my biggest fear was realized. The story starts out great, but becomes less and less coherent as it goes on. In fact, when I reached the halfway point, I realized I had only a vague sense of what was going on. You know when you’re reading something and all of a sudden you realize you weren’t paying attention the last two pages and have to go back and read it again? I had to do that like 5 or 6 times, and I realized at that point that Gunplay had lost me.
So how did it lose me? Well, let’s see. It starts with Musab. Here was this guy who was known as the most dangerous terrorist left on the U.S. Wanted List, and he didn’t seem dangerous at all. In fact, he seemed like a normal guy. So the whole time I was wondering, why is this dude worth so much money? He’s just like you and me. To be honest, I don’t even know what he did to get that price tag on his head.
So now you have two bounty hunters chasing a villain who isn’t really a villain. Why do we care if they catch him? That was another problem. What’s the urgency here? Why do they need to catch him now? He doesn’t seem to have any immediate plans to kill more Americans, at least nothing concrete. So why the rush? And what are the stakes? Again, it doesn’t matter if he escapes cause he’s got nothing planned. So the stakes are nil.
Same thing with Stranger and Wyatt. Why do they need the money so bad? What’s so important about having 25 million dollars? I mean sure it makes them “rich,” but who cares? That’s such a boring reason for needing to do something. Why can’t the pursuit be personal, for at least one of them? What if Musab killed one of their daughters in an attack?
On top of this, Wyatt’s storyline was murky. He was working for someone who wanted to recoup 25 million dollars that some thieves swindled from him. But I could never really decipher the specifics of what happened. And again, since Wyatt’s working for someone else who wants the money, the stakes were low. Why couldn’t he have lost the money himself? Or maybe he’s not hunting a terrorist, but rather someone who said they’d pay him if he killed a terrorist, but disappeared once the deed was done. Now it’s personal.
Maybe this is the nature of going with bounty hunters as your protags. Bounty Hunters go after things for money, not personal reasons. But I guess I just wanted more. At least somewhere.
But what really killed Gunplay for me was that the further the script went on, the less clear it became. All of a sudden we’re in some compound with men using little boys as sex slaves and I’m thinking, “How did we get here? What does this have to do with the rest of the story?” None of it was set up very well so it all came out of nowhere. To be honest, it felt like yet another script that was rushing to meet a deadline. The best pages were the first 30, since they’d been worked over so many times. And then you could tell that the last 70 didn’t get nearly as much attention, which is why they got so murky.
To me, this comes down to good old fashioned stakes and urgency. A storyline needs to be written in that Musab is trying to get somewhere, and if he gets there, people are going to be killed. That way, there’s some immediacy to the story. Cause the way it stands now, nothing really happens if he gets away besides our bounty hunters not getting their money.
Since stakes and urgency are always intertwined, you have the same problem on the stakes end. There’s nothing Musab is trying to do other than escape, so nothing bad happens to anyone if he gets away.
Another thing I’d consider doing is making Musab REALLY BAD. This guy’s a terrorist. Let’s find out what he did and hate him for it. The worse of a person he is, the more we’ll want him to get caught. That was part of the problem. Since he was a normal guy, I wasn’t invested in whether Stranger and Wyatt caught up to him.
If you want to make Musab a hero – someone we root for – then make it so he’s been wrongly accused. He’s not a terrorist. He’s just been tabbed as one because of bad information or a mix-up. Audiences love rooting for wrongly-accused characters (The Fugitive anyone?), and now we’ll be invested cause we’ll want to see him get away. I mean when it comes down to it, I didn’t care if Musab was caught, and I didn’t care if Stranger or Wyatt caught him. And that just can’t be the case.
Script Link: Gunplay
What I learned: In a chase movie, you want to show the bad guy do something bad, so we’ll want him to go down (Darth Vader chokes a man to death while interrogating him). If you can’t do that, then show the good guy do something good, so we’ll root for him to succeed (Obi-Wan saves Luke from the Sand People). In Gunplay, we don’t get either, so we never become interested in the chase.