Wednesday, December 12, 2012

(Produced) Screenplay Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


Premise: The life of Benjamin Button, a man who ages backwards.

Writer: Eric Roth

Technical: 199 pages. Shooting script.


"Maybe some things last..."

Sometimes, art is created within Hollywood. Sometimes, you think that you have read five pages of a screenplay, and then you look up and see that you're on page 100. Sometimes, a screenplay is so full of true, profound life lessons, that you come away from reading the screenplay wiser, and thinking about it for a very, very long time.

The premise says it all. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" tells the story of a man who ages backwards. We see his birth as an octogenarian, all the way to his final breath, dying as a newborn baby. We see all of the pivotal events in his life. His growing up in a care home during the early twenty-first century... His relationship with his adopted mother, Queenie... His days working at sea, fighting in the war... And one of the greatest, more tragic cinematic romances of all time; the complicated and breathtakingly realistic relationship with his childhood friend, Daisy Fuller. The best description of this screenplay (so vivid and beautifully written that you forget you are reading at all) is pure cinema.

Within the actual writing of Benjamin Button, Roth has a very distinct style:


A piano’s playing a standard, people singing.... There’s a myriad of old dark rooms... heavy furniture and carpets... an eclectic mixture of the possessions of those who have lived and died here over many years... and we see a parlor is crowded with Old People, from sixty to ninety-five, in various stages of health... various contraptions to keep them "afloat". An Old Age Home.

Reading a passage like this, I guess most "screenwriting gurus" would start bleeding from their eyeballs. "It's too long... it's formatted incorrectly... etc. etc." I have always liked the three periods, "...", Roth places after some descriptions and lines of dialogue. It is a very small detail, but I haven't really seen it anywhere else. It really helps with the flow of the blocky descriptions (nothing wrong with blocky descriptions), making it all much quicker to read.

As appropriate, there is no sense of time in the screenplay. The present day hospital scenes do not seem as if they occur after Benjamin's life. Nothing feels as if it happens before or after anything. The reader is introduced to a new concept of time: the concept that there is no time. How Roth does this, I couldn't tell you. It's not as though in the screenplay he writes, "And now we find ourselves back in the darkening hospital... having no sense of time or place..." or anything like that.

The writing itself is phenomenal. Each line is something to be enjoyed slowly and thoughtfully. The dialogue in the film... is sensational, to say the least. A lot of the lines should be classics, but I guess they're not, because you never hear them anywhere. Lets just say that most of the lines in here blow "Like, I am your father" and "We're gonna need a bigger boat" out of the water.

Another very small part, but the reader never once questions Benjamin's ageing backwards. It is dealt with in such a mature, intelligent, and interesting way, that how could they? Also, smartly, the writer never much draws the other character's attention to Benjamin's ageing. Or rather, they never question it, they never investigate it. It is never sensationalised, which is where most writers would have taken the material. There is no, like, evil neighbour antagonist, blackmailing Benjamin, threatening to reveal his "secret" to the news unless he does a., b., and c. I understand how ridiculous that sounds, but there are some "writers" who could have done much worse than that. The fact that Benjamin's ageing backwards is accepted and rarely spoken of is crucial to the success of this screenplay. It seems extremely obvious and an easy choice, but anyone who is a master at their craft makes their work look obvious and easy when it is not.

Every character in the screenplay has their own unique voice, and is a real person. When they're speaking, you're sitting in the room with them. Based on the words themselves, one could identify the character that spoke them. Benjamin is extremely relatable, but also very intelligent, which is refreshing and clever. By the ending, your heart is breaking, watching a seventy year old Daisy taking care of a toddler Benjamin.

Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button were both written by Eric Roth. Many have noted the similarities between the two films, the two screenplays. The similarities are undeniable, but the real question is who gives a damn? These are two separate films. I don't have much to say about Forrest Gump, but the Benjamin Button screenplay is a masterpiece by itself. Saying that they are similar means nothing, and is idiotic.

Lesson: If you are going to give your screenplay a theme, it should be dead simple and crystal clear. At the end of the screenplay, the reader shouldn't be trying to guess your theme. The theme should be memorable and a reader should be able to relate it quickly and simply. In "Benjamin Button" this was done by flat out having the main character state one of the main themes, in clearest terms possible. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as it's incorporated into the story in the proper context, and not put in wherever.

Monday, December 10, 2012

(Rookie) Screenplay Review: Scion

Premise: (from writer) A naive young man's dreams of a normal life is hijacked by a charismatic "faith healer" and a powerful media tycoon when both become hell bent on exploiting the young man's amazing gift...the power to raise the dead.

Writer: Scotty Davis

Technical: 129 pages.

Page 2:

DOC JORDAN, and old man with a kind face, preps the exam table.

Way too boring and generic. Every character in your screenplay, even if they say two words, needs to have a sensational description. The most common problems writers make with character descriptions: the writer either goes for a sensationalized character description, or they try too hard to have a quieter, more intelligent description. In general, in all screenplays, some characters may have more of an impact if they have no description past physical characteristics (or maybe no description at all, not even physical). So few writers consider this option. But if one does not give their character a description, the character's actions and words will speak for them. A screenwriter may be scared that if they don't put a description for their character, the reader won't "understand the character", or something like that. But for those who think that character introductions (in the action line) is key, think about this: is a character who can be summarized in one line very complex? I don't know any people who could be summarized in one line.

Another line from page 2:

Charlie and Doc steal a "what the fuck" glance.

I'm getting pretty tired of casual profanity in general. Maybe other people are too. Maybe it's dying down. In screenplays, loosely used profanity (just like loosely used sex, and violence) comes off, more than anything, as lazy and unoriginal. If one must fall back on profanities, whether consciously or unconsciously, they must not be too creative/must not have a lot of interesting things to say.

Throughout "Scion" there is a lot of writing that is unclear: locations, where we are situated; the ageing of the characters; scenes cutting off abruptly. Some things are also overwritten. But the biggest problem is the typos: spelling mistakes, incorrect grammar, run-on sentences. These are all ubiquitous throughout the screenplay. I am not talking about, like, four typos. There are way, way, way too many spelling mistakes. So many that it is unacceptable.

The biggest contributor to the lack of clarity in this screenplay is that the writer does not understand how to construct a proper (readable) sentence. The following is a prime example (from page 17):

Charlie's asleep on the couch. A hair cut and shave - it's been a while.

For those who just read that and don't understand what it means, the writer is trying to convey that the character of Charlie has aged, therefore showing a time lapse into the future.

Here is another example of the unclear writing, from a character description:

Fifty pounds soaking wet, Kenny's biggest threat - if his giant ears teamed up with a big gust of wind.
Again, for anyone who read that and did not understand: the writer is saying that Kenny weighs very little (fifty pounds soaking wet) and he has large ears. I understood that after re-reading the sentence three or four times. Confusing sentences like these slow down the reader and frustrate them; "breaking the spell" and making the reader aware that they are reading a screenplay. A good screenplay should play like a film in the reader's mind, clearly visualized and uninterrupted. The fact that the writer of "Scion" does not know or use proper spelling/grammar (for example: they don't understand the difference between to, too, and two) shows how much they care about their writing.

There were small flashes of hope throughout the screenplay. Caleb's ability to bring back the dead was interesting. The introduction of George, Levi, and Sammy was compelling (Levi started off as a very promising character). But nothing brilliant was done with the initial concepts (making the concepts themselves almost useless). An exception is Levi's breakdown, which was emotionally engaging. The thing I enjoyed the most about "Scion" was the changes in the character's ages, the changes in times, and the changes in settings.

The writing itself, in every way, was very, very bad. The surface layer, action descriptions, were quite terrible... but the dialogue was also painful. "Scion" is sprinkled with cliches, too. Like the how-many-times-have-we-seen-that birthmark, which has major significance, and is in the shape of something. Or the nefarious, stalking black sedan. The final problem I will comment on is the characters: they were inconsistent at times, to the point of it being noticeable. Their reactions were not very realistic, but instead mostly served the story. The romance between Rebecca and Caleb made me queasy (if you have read the screenplay, you'll know what I mean).

This writer of "Scion" holds his readers by the shirt and drags them around, raising his voice, telling the reader what's what, disorienting them. But a writer should have very little to do with the reader. Perhaps a writer's main focus should be recording the story in the clearest, simplest way possible (because that is the best gift that they could give to their reader).

Lesson: The technical aspects of writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure), as well as clarity, are basic. These things shouldn't even be thought about as one is writing (just like you don't think about taking every breath as you breathe). Clear and simple writing will never confuse or frustrate a reader.

The screenplay "Scion" doesn't feel like it has a soul. Here are some simplified, general terms in which I personally think about a script's soul: The main character, or characters, in a screenplay should become the writer's best friends. With the writer of "Scion", it feels as if the screenplay were his best friend. If a writer wants to get to the level of a master, the situations in their screenplay must be as real as their everyday, waking reality. As with everything, this will look and feel different to different people. But if you can create characters that you love like they are your children, create places that you would give anything to visit, other people will probably feel the same way. If you create characters that you don't love, or places that you couldn't care less about, why would a reader feel any differently?

Friday, December 07, 2012

(Produced) Screenplay Review: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Premise: (from IMDB) A meek and alienated little boy finds a stranded extraterrestrial. He has to find the courage to defy the authorities to help the alien return to its home planet.

Writer: Melissa Mathison

Technical: 117 pages. Shooting script. September 8, 1981 revision.

Page one, there is a ship full of alien beings, exploring a forest on earth. They are shown examining and nurturing plants.This is obviously meant to garner our sympathies; a "Save The Cat" scene if there ever was one. The way this is done with the aliens is sort of a cheap, unimaginative trick. They are all loving, innocent, and vulnerable (how could we not care about them?). It succeeds; the aliens are instantly likable, and we are on their side. They're compassionate, kind, and curious towards the earth; they are not a threat. (Looking back on this, I realize something very important: unimaginative, lazy writing can sometimes work. Just as writing with many grammatical errors can sometimes work, having a powerful emotional effect. Or just as overwritten work, arduous to get through, may underneath contain brilliant characters, or other gems. Uninspired writing can sometimes work, just as inventive writing can sometimes fail. How you want to use this awareness to your advantage is up to you. Some writers would feel ill at the thought of including a lazy trick in their story, knowing full well that a reader will eat it up; other writers thrive on these easy manipulation tactics. There is no right or wrong answer. It is just something to think about).

The first eight pages of the script, everything up to the point where we get to Elliott's house, is unneeded. It should have either been cut, or condensed into one or two pages. But after that, the story gets going very quickly. Elliott and E.T.'s interactions are very cute; Elliott leading E.T. with a trail of M&Ms, E.T. copying Elliott. After that, the script starts to kick into high gear. And just as quickly... runs out of gas; sagging all throughout the middle. At the end, the race to get E.T. back to the ship was kind of exciting. But it weakened as it went on.

One of the biggest problems, why the script wasn't compelling, was that it was totally predictable. You know that at the end, E.T. will get home. Even before that, when E.T. dies, we know he is going to come back to life, somehow. The script ends with an expected happy, everybody-wins, everything-is-back-to-normal-but-forever-changed, Hollywood ending.

One good things about the screenplay is that it is written simply and clearly. The script is minimalist, without having each line of action only four words long. There is no flowery language, no over description. This makes for a quick, much more enjoyable read. And of course, within the script, there are some great lines and scenes: "E.T. phone home". Elliott throwing the orange into the shed - the orange being thrown back out by the unseen E.T. Unfortunately, the good ends here. The screenplay did what Hollywood's dark side does best: it had zero imagination, and was filled with cliches. A perfect example of this is the spaceship on the first page. The description of it as round, with a hatch door stretching to the grass, spilling light, is so cliche that it seems silly.

Keys is about the most boring antagonist that the writer could have come up with. For more than two thirds of the script, he doesn't say anything, and we don't see his face. When we do see him, and when he does speak, it doesn't get any better. Him using the Geiger counter to find E.T. is extremely goofy, and there is zero explanation behind it. When Keys was finally revealed as a kind-looking young man, I thought that was great. It was the opposite of what I was expecting. But the writer didn't do anything with that, so it was pointless. He was still devoid of personality. (This follows the pattern prevalent throughout the script: half-baked ideas).

I blindly accepted a lot of the unbelievable things in the screenplay, which is fine. With a script like this, the reader has to. But there are some things relating to the character of E.T. that don't make sense, and need to be addressed. On page 6, E.T. is hiding in the bushes from Keys. The red light in E.T.'s chest comes on, and the alien moves his hand to cover it. But that doesn't make any sense. If these aliens are all so peaceful and innocent, how would they know fear or shame as we do? It really, really feels as if the writer just threw a bunch of ideas against the wall, and then left it to the director to see what stuck. This not only shows laziness, but is insulting to the reader. E.T. crying on page 82 is just goofy. On page 88, Elliott asks E.T. if E.T. can heal himself. E.T. says no. But they have only been together two days, so how can E.T. understand and respond to Elliott so perfectly?! It goes on and on. The writer makes the enormous mistake of assuming that if it is written down, the reader will/must believe it.

A little thing that I thought might be fixed: E.T. says the word "home" too many times, in different variations. I didn't count how many exactly, but it is at least have a dozen. If E.T. verbally expressed his desire to go home one time, or twice, it would be more powerful than him saying it over and over and over. "Less is more".

The writer technically did the majority of things right. The script was a good length... there were believable characters... the writing was clear... the structure is solid... But the characters were still boring. The story was told in a boring way, and was just generally uninteresting.

This screenplay is a slap in the face to intelligence and imagination. Quite repulsive, especially with regards to the fact that the writer sent this screenplay out, knowing it would be filmed and viewed by children.

Lesson: Amazing movies can be made from terrible scripts. Amazing scripts can be made into terrible films. "Professional" writers can write abysmal screenplays. "Unprofessional" writers can write something that will become Harry Potter. Experience, age, none of that has anything to do with the writing. All that has to do with the writing is the writing. The E.T. screenplay was utter trash, though funnily enough, I am grateful to have read it. It taught me some valuable lessons. Even if your characters are believable and likable, even if your script has perfect structure, and is written clearly... it can still be mind-numbingly boring. Do not underestimate the importance of imagination, and having passion for the story you are telling. Cliche equals death, and do anything you can to get away from it. Anything else is better than a cliche. Also, even if you are writing something for a younger audience, anything goofy (characters, situations, etc.) is unacceptable. Films like Toy Story and Finding Nemo were told in a mature, professional, intelligent way, and they appealed very much to children. If you want to write a "family film" or a "children's movie" it should probably appeal to children and adults (I wonder if there are any instances where this would not be the case?) Never underestimate your reader or your possible audience. Readers and viewers are not stupid. The only time they are stupid is when you make them stupid.

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