Premise: A man slowly comes to discover his girlfriend is literally working for the devil and has to find a way to escape.
About: Underling finished in the lower third of the 2009 Black List. I believe this is the writing team’s first screenplay together. One of the writers, Ben Shiffrin, is currently working with another partner bringing the animated comic “Dirty Pair” to life. Shiffin also wrote a spec script a couple of years back called Heartstopper with another writer that made some noise but ultimately didn’t sell.
Writers: Dave Stoller and Ben Shiffrin
Details: 110 pages – undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
I have to admit that I made a huge mistake when I picked this one up. I thought the logline was, “A man slowly comes to discover his girlfriend is the devil and has to find a way to escape.” Now I don’t know about you, but that’s a movie I would love to see. Had I read the logline a little more closely and realized it was about the girlfriend’s boss being the devil, I never would’ve read it. Mainly because I’ve already seen that movie (The Devil’s Advocate).
So as the story unfolded and I began to realize that the girlfriend wasn’t the devil, I was kinda disappointed. Still, I tried to refocus and give the script a shot. What I found was a strange screenplay with a vacillating tone and a subject matter that was probably more ambitious than the writers realized.
22-year-old East coaster Tamara Stevens has just gotten a kick ass music management job in Los Angeles. She’s going to be working for one of the best managers in the business, the ultra-intimidating Kyle Barrington, described as “Bruce Wayne meets Gordon Gekko.”
Somewhat reluctantly dragged along is Tamara’s boyfriend and our main character, 22-year-old shaggy haired Alex Jacobs. Alex doesn’t really have a lot to do in Los Angeles but he’s a very supportive boyfriend and if his better half is moving across the country for her career, he’s going to be her number one cheerleader.
They get to Los Angeles and Tamara immediately gets to work. But on one of the first nights out at a club, Alex thinks he sees a man kill a woman in the bathroom. The cloaked-in-shadows man must have seen Terminator 2 too many times because he chases them in their car in almost the exact same manner as the T 1000.
Later on, Alex finds some evidence to suggest that the man he saw is his girlfriend’s boss. When he finally gets the courage to tell her, she of course thinks he’s crazy. So he does a little digging, and that turns out to be a lousy idea. Kyle finds out and he sicks a bunch of his deadly assistant minions on Alex to warn him off.
In the meantime, Tamara is working later and later at work and she’s acting a lot stranger back home. If he didn’t know any better, he’d think she’s under Kyle’s spell.
Eventually, Alex is able to turn one of Kyle’s minions against him, and she’s able to educate him about his weaknesses. So Alex must channel up his strength and try to save his girlfriend from the clutches of a man who very well may be the devil himself.
This was one of the odder reading experiences I’ve had in a while. Despite my misinterpretation of the logline, I still think this script needs to be re-examined. There’s something here, but I’m not sure the writers respect the complexity of the subject matter they’ve chosen.
Let’s start with the main character. I always get nervous when the main character isn’t the most active character in the screenplay. The reason for this is simply because audiences like active characters. They like it when their heroes are the ones making the decisions and pushing the story forward.
The person making all the decisions and being the most active in this story is Tamara. She’s the one driving off to LA for a job. She’s the one who’s working 16 hours a day. Our main character is essentially this slacker being dragged along for the ride. As a result, he feels weak and unimportant.
This inactive follower mentality continues throughout the story. Alex doesn’t even have a job as far as I can tell. His only actions revolve around checking up on his girlfriend. And that gets old quickly. This is exactly why The Devil’s Advocate worked so much better, because our main character wasn’t some secondary hanger-on. He was Tamara’s character, the one in the trenches who had the actual job dealing with the antagonist.
It’s also why I liked my initial “mistake premise” better (A man finds out that his girlfriend is the devil) because, again, our main character is directly interacting with the antagonist. Wherever there’s danger in your story, you want to put your main character as close to it as possible, and that doesn’t happen here. There’s this detached quality to the narrative because we’re always experiencing the danger second hand. By far, this is the biggest problem with the script. You need to have your main character be more active and in direct contact with the dangerous situation. Keeping Alex so far away from the meat of the problem is killing this script.
Now this next opinion is going to ruffle some feathers so I want to make sure I convey it delicately. Whenever all of the characters in the story are really young – in this case around 22 – it’s easy to conclude that the writers are also young. Now this doesn’t matter if you’re writing something that takes place in a younger universe (“Friends With Benefits” “Friday the 13th”). But if you’re trying to tackle subject matter or a storyline that requires a little more sophistication, it can often feel like a couple of teenagers who read about war in their history books trying to write Apocalypse Now. It just doesn’t feel like they’re up to the task.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Because the screenwriters are so young (or at least, I’m assuming they are), they make the main characters boyfriend and girlfriend. Why? Because that’s all they know. That’s the current world they live in. However, while that relationship might work fine in the movies I listed above, when you’re trying to tackle something with more gravitas, boyfriends and girlfriends are too lightweight. Most relationships at the age of 22 have what? A four month lifespan? At best? If these characters were older and married however, there would be so much more at stake. Alex wouldn’t just be trying to save some girlfriend he’s probably going to break up with in two months anyway. He’d be trying to save the love of his life. (Remember people: stakes!)
I’m not saying you’re a doomed screenwriter until you turn 28. But I am saying that in order to mask your lack of life experience when dealing with sophisticated subject matter, you should match the ages of your characters to the situation they’re in and not just make them 22 because you’re 22. Then you have to do the research and make sure those older characters act like they’re older. That might mean giving your script to a 35-year-old and asking them, “Does this character really act like a 35-year-old?” If you look at Kyle, for example, he doesn’t act like a 35-year-old at all. He’s petulant and immature and thinks the world revolves around him. This character is supposed to be one of the oldest entities in all of time, and he never acts older than 23 years old. If all of this sounds too complicated, then just write characters and subject matter that you’re extensively familiar with and you should be fine.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that readers expect young writers to be sloppy. So if you give them clues that you’re a young writer, and they pick up on some sloppiness, they’re going to make a connection between the two and dismiss you because of it, however unfair that is. So mix up the ages in your screenplay and then do your homework on the older characters to make them honest. You have parents and uncles and aunts. Ask them questions. Ask them if they’d really react the way the older characters in your screenplay reacts. It’s your job as a writer to create the most honest believable world possible, no matter how extraordinary the story you’re telling is.
Anyway, I’m rambling and I’m making this sound like a terrible screenplay, which it really isn’t. It’s just too unfocused and shoots further than what the writers are willing to commit to. I’m not saying they aren’t capable of getting there. But I would’ve loved more depth to this story. It was too all over the place for my taste.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: One of the easier ways to spot a young writer is tone. Whether we’re talking about humor that’s too broad for the subject matter or repeatedly jumping between genres or inconsistent characters, it can be confusing for a reader trying to grasp what kind of story you’re trying to tell if the writer is jumping all over the place. For example, if you read the first 10 pages of this script, you’d probably think it was a romantic comedy. If you read the last 20 pages, you’d think it was torture-porn in the vein of Hostel. You can’t just jump back and forth between those kinds of extremes and expect the reader to stay with you unless your name is Quentin Tarantino. And unfortunately, there’s only one Quentin Tarantino.