For the month of May, Scriptshadow will be foregoing its traditional reviewing to instead review scripts from you, the readers of the site. To find out more about how the month lines up, go back and read the original post here. This first week, we’re allowing any writers to send in their script for review. We warned them ahead of time that we’d be honest and judge their material aggressively, so put that Kleenex box away. There’s no crying in screenwriting. Actually, there’s lots of crying in screenwriting but that’s besides the point. This is not a final judgment of your script, just how we see this particular script in relation to the other scripts we read. Yesterday, Roger tackled the first amateur script, “Hell Of A Deal” by Joe Giambrone. Today, I take on a young man who likes to travel to different dimensions. Or time travel to different dimensions. Or dimension jump to different time…..Aw hell, just read the review already!

Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi
Premise: (from the writer) A young man must protect his one true love from his jealous best friend (who may or may not be a werewolf) with only a clothes dryer, the theory of quantum mechanics, and multiple incarnations of himself to guide him.
About: Unfortunately I don’t know anything about this script other than it’s easily the best title for a script I’ve randomly selected on a blog for a special amateur related script month ever!
Writer: Sam Stoppard
Details: 102 pages

Okay so look, Michael Stark e-mailed me and said, “You realize you’re about to break 5 screenwriters’ hearts.” And I thought about that and I realized that the writers of these scripts are going to be affected by how their scripts are rated. I get that. But what I want to make perfectly clear is that these are not definitive statements about the writer. They’re statements about the scripts submitted. All of us are in different phases of this frustrating journey called screenwriting, and just because this script isn’t any good, doesn’t mean the next one won’t be, or the one after that.

One of the reasons I wanted to have this week was to show just how hard screenwriting is. Most writers I’ve encountered believe they’re better than they actually are and all that leads to is a lot of frustration and a resistance to learn. Mind you it’s an understandable stance. You (we) tend to judge ourselves against all the shitty movies Hollywood makes. It’s one of the oldest clichés in Tinsletown: “I could write something better than that.” And I’m not going to get into the hundreds of reasons why this is a fallible argument. I’ll just say this: You need to become good at screenwriting to realize how bad you are at it. And I don’t say that from a place of superiority. I say it as someone who finally understood the craft well enough where I could look back at a lot of the scripts I’d written and go…jesus, those were terrible.

Anyway, all this talk about bad screenplays isn’t exactly looking good for Sumpter Stu. But I think I’ve picked the perfect screenplay for my first review of Amateur Week. It represents a writer with talent and imagination who wrote a screenplay that’s all the hell over the place. You’ll find these kinds of scripts everywhere in Hollywood, and chances are, we’ve written one ourselves. But nobody tells us why these scripts of ours that display flashes of brilliance and loads of potential don’t get past the first reader on the totem pole. Well I’m about to tell you why.

Sid Stu, a 17 year old on the verge of becoming a stud of a man, and Bane Barley, a 16 year old who has a pet chicken, are best friends living in a rural Texas town. Sid lives with Virgil, an older machine shop owner who took Stu in when his parents left him. Virgil spends a lot of his time dabbling in time travel literature, and even fiddling with old washing machines in the backyard, hoping to one day create a porthole that can travel back and forth in time.

Sid leads a pretty normal existence, hanging out with Bane and doing normal kid stuff. But recently, Sid’s been seeing one of those old men with “End Of The World” signs everywhere. This wouldn’t be a big deal except that there’s something familiar about this old guy. Hmm, we’ll get back to that later because an army captain has just moved into town and he’s brought with him the most beautiful vision Sidney’s ever laid eyes on, 16 year old Cilla. Sid instantly falls in love, and although the Captain doesn’t approve, the lovestruck teenagers take the long slow road to becoming an item.

Unfortunately, this puts Bane on the outs, and like a wounded ex-lover, Bane begins to despise Cilla. This starts with him growing a beard (can 16 year olds grow beards?) and ends with him luring Cilla over to his house where he kills her. When Sid comes over to see what happened, Bane blames it on the fact that he’s become a werewolf. It should be noted that Bane isn’t *actually* a werewolf. He just thinks he’s a werewolf.

Around this time the crazy sign man visits Sid at his house, where he informs him that he’s him, from the future. He goes into an elaborate explanation about how there are multiple dimensions and that in each dimension, Bane, out of jealously, has killed Cilla. This older Sid has been traveling back in time from dimension to dimension trying to prevent the murder from happening, but no matter what he does, he can’t stop it. So then Young Sid joins older Sid to go dimension-hopping in an attempt to find a way to stop Bane from killing Cilla, so that Sid and Cilla can be together.

Okay. Wow. That’s a handful. “The Déjà Vu of Sidney Sumpter Stu” is a perfect example of a writer being too far inside his own head, and not taking into account how his audience is processing the information he’s giving them. There are actually some pretty inventive and interesting ideas going on here. We have time travel, we have multiple dimensions, we have a Romeo and Juliet love story, we have a character who thinks he’s a werewolf. But when you try to mix all of those things into one screenplay, you don’t have a story, you just have a bizarre mash-up of ideas. This is a common habit for a lot of young screenwriters. They use their early screenplays as a vessel to cram as many cool sounding/interesting/crazy things into as possible. In their mind, they’ve created the ultimate original movie. But to us, the people who aren’t privy to all the information that led to those choices, it just feels like a big hot confusing mess.

Now even if you get past the overabundance of ideas in this script, you still run into some major structural problems. When you come up with a concept for your screenplay, you want to make sure the screenplay is about that concept. This may seem obvious, but I see writers screw it up over and over again. Here’s the concept for “Déjà vu:” A future version of a teenager teams up with his younger self to try and prevent the love of his life from dying. THAT’S YOUR STORY. That’s what it needs to be about. Yet we don’t even find out that there’s a future version of Sid until page 60, halfway through the screenplay!!! This means for an entire 60 pages, you’re depriving us of the whole reason we came to see the movie! Imagine The Matrix if Neo didn’t meet Morpheus until page 60. Imagine Avatar if Jake Sulley didn’t get to the Na’vi clan until page 60. Once you identify what the main hook (the reason your audience comes to see the movie) is, you need to get to that point by the end of your first act. There are only a handful of successful examples where this isn’t the case, and most of them are from a bygone era. In this day and age, unless you have a hell of a reason not to, get your story started early.

So with “Deja Vu,” I’d set up the Cilla and Sid relationship by the second or third scene. I’d have them in love by page 15. And I’d have her killed by page 25. Then I’d bring Future Sid in to inform Young Sid that he has a chance to save her. And the second act would then be dedicated to multiple tries in multiple dimensions of them trying to save Cilla.

I mentioned this before. The writer has some interesting things to say. He has imagination, and if you can combine imagination with an understanding of this craft, you have some good times ahead of you. But right now, in this screenplay, the story is too unfocused, it starts too late, it dwells on too many pointless sequences, it gets too confusing, it tries to do too many things, its title misrepresents the script (it implies it’s a comedy), as well as some smaller problems I don’t have time to get into…The point is there are just too many marks against it for me to give it a passing grade.

Script link: The Déjà Vu of Sidney Sumpter Stu

[x] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: It’s simple and it’s been said a million times but oh how true it is. Whatever amount of time you think you need to set up your story, you’re wrong. You need less. If someone put a gun to your head and said, “set up this story in half the time,” I’d bet every last penny in my bank account that you’d figure out how to do it. Get your story set up by the end of the first act so that your main story can start between pages 25-30.

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18Jul09

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500 Days of Summer came out today which means, as an officially released film, it must be officially released from my Top 25. 😦 So sad. Let me go on the record, however, about the casting of the film, which I think they got all wrong. Summer is supposed to be the world’s biggest bitch. There’s a distance to her. She does not own a heart. Casting Zooey Deschenel is a “Hollywood” attempt to fend off the character’s unlikeability – the thinking being that if Zooey Deschenel is doing all these terrible things, we’ll still love her. But it totally undermines the character. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s a great actor, is wrong for Tom for the exact opposite reason. Gordon’s got a tortured James Dean quality to him. Tom’s supposed to be a spineless schmuck that lets people walk all over him. Imagine a slightly better-looking Michael Cera. Gordon-Levitt’s eyes don’t scream out “take advantage of me.” Of course, the financers/producers usually give the filmmakers a list of actors that are marketable enough to justify the budget. So for all I know, the other choices could’ve been Lindsey Lohan and Zac Efron. Maybe these were the best options off a very short list. But anyway, I’ll stop raining on this parade. The movie appears to be getting excellent reviews and still to this day has the best opening three pages of any screenplay I’ve read.

PAGE ONE — NOTE: THE FOLLOWING IS A WORK OF FICTION. ANY RESEMBLANCE TO PERSONS LIVING OR DEAD IS PURELY COINCIDENTAL.

PAGE TWO — ESPECIALLY YOU JENNY BECKMAN.

PAGE THREE – BITCH.

Check out my brief review of the script from long ago here. I hope to be proved wrong about the casting – very wrong – when I check out the movie this week. 🙂


Misha wrote and sold the script “Sunflower” last year. The thriller (which is number 7 on my Top 25 list) about two women being held captive at a remote house by a serial killer was adored by just about everyone who read it and made the 2008 Black List. It’s one of those rare screenplay reading experiences where you get so into it, you forget you’re reading a screenplay. William Friedkin (The Exorcist) is attached to direct. Green has parlayed her script sale into a a staff writing position on NBC’s “Heroes” which I can assure you she won’t be telling us anything about. 🙂

Misha and I will occasionally engage in late night IM procrastination parties. She’s humble and tends to keep a low profile so I had to wait until just the right moment (after I sent her a couple of rare scripts) to inquire about an interview. Heh heh heh. Believe me, this was not easy folks. Misha was entrenched in a Buffy marathon and I had to work all sorts of angles to get her to turn it off. So please thank her for giving us her time and talking about her screenwriting career.

me: So when did you write your first screenplay?

Misha: Senior of high school for my sr. thesis project. It was called, “Maxwell Brenner, Teen Spy” haha

me: Was it any good?

Misha: Horrible, but aren’t all first scripts?

me: So then am I allowed to ask how long ago that was?

Misha: 2002. Not that long ago.

me: How many screenplays did you have to write before you felt like you were “getting it”?

Misha: Around the fourth one, I started to feel my own voice starting to come through, and that the dialogue wasn’t atrocious and cliched.

me: What was the fourth script about? Was that Sunflower?

Misha: No. It was a teenage Thelma and Louise-esque script, called “Dry” that was in the finals for the Sundance Labs. Sunflower was two scripts after that. I guess part of feeling like I was “getting it” had to do with people responding enthusiastically and positively to my writing.

me: How did you get into the Sundance labs?

Misha: I actually didn’t. I was rejected, but the script helped me get my manager.

me: Okay so this is what every aspiring writer out there – this is the part they pay attention to the most. What were the series of events that got you your manager?

[time passes]

me: Is Buffy killing someone right now?

Misha: haha, i’m surfing the internet and answering your questions. buffy will come next

me: I hope she lives.

Misha: I paid 140,000 dollars to attend NYU film school, and luckily had a teacher who believed in me enough to refer me to her manager. I was working at a restaurant in NYC, partying, and having a generally great post college life, and I ran into her at my restaurant, and she was very appalled by the idea that I had a script in the finals for Sundance, and wasn’t capitalizing on that buzz by trying to get a manager. So she sent my script to hers, and the rest is history. Referrals are very key in getting your foot in the door.

me: So important to capitalize on any buzz. You wait just a couple weeks sometimes and bam nobody cares…

Misha: That’s true. But I also think good writing will find a way to get read.

me: So this manager was out in LA or there in New York? Are you still in New York?

Misha: Manager is in LA, and I’m now in LA. My managers emphasized how important it was for budding screenwriters who want to start a career to live in LA. And they were right. To really get a career going, it helps 100 percent to be here to take meetings and such. And if you want to write for TV, you definitely have to live in town.

me: So now a little off-topic here and then we’ll get back to screenwriting stuff. You told me at the beginning of our chat that you were watching Buffy. So I’m assuming you’re a big Whedon fan?

Misha: Huge.

me: So then what did you think of Cabin In The Woods?

Misha: I haven’t read it yet. But it’s near the top of the script reading list.

me: Whaaaaaaaaaaaat? You just lost some Whedon points there.

Misha: Haha. I know.

me: Whedon seems to have a serious female following. Why do you think that is?

Misha: Because Buffy is a great female character. And he’s funny. Girls like funny. And wit. Joss has a lot of wit. And he works with a lot of writers that match him in wit.

me: Hold on. Writing this down. “girls… like… funny.” You know, had someone told me this a long time ago life would’ve been a lot easier.

Misha: Uh oh. Maybe I’m giving away too many secrets here. Us girls like to remain mysterious.

me: lol. Okay, so moving forward. Did you feel like you had something with Sunflower before you showed it to anyone? Were you like, “This is the one.”

Misha: I thought, “Wow, this is cool, I like this…” but I’ve also thought that about the other five scripts I’ve written. Haha. But the response to Sunflower has been amazing, and I could have never imagined it at the time.

me: Sunflower was your first sale, right? How did that happen? Was it relatively quick? Arduously long? Easy? Difficult?

Misha: Sunflower was my first sell. It felt long to me, but I’ve been told it was relatively quick. My agents sent it out to a select few producers, who all passed for various reasons, but they wanted to meet because they liked the writing. While I was taking those meetings, Sunflower was being slipped around by execs at different companies, until finally one company decided to take a chance, and bought it. That was three weeks after it first went out.

me: Okay, just to back up for a second. How did you get your agent? Did your agent come from your manager?

Misha: I wrote Sunflower after I got my managers, and we sent it to the big five (big three now) and I had the fortunate opportunity to be able to pick an agent.

me: So you got the agent before or after it sold?

Misha: Before.

me: Oh cool. That’s not easy to do. I hear about unrepresented writers on the verge of a big deal not being able to get callbacks from agents.

Misha: Really? I would think if agents know there’s a deal in the bank, they’ll sign you in a second. They’re all about the less work they have to do, the better.

Me: I know. You’d think. Though I hear it happens every now and then. So what was that like when you got that call and it had sold? Did you head straight to Bar Marmount and start rubbing elbows with the stars? How has it been having to fend off paparazzi?

Misha: Haha. When I got the call that it had sold, I was on the bus to work. I was working as a hostess at a restaurant on Sunset at the time, and I didn’t hop off at Bar Marmount, I got off at the stop in front of my restaurant, and worked my shift. Which I continued to work for the next two months while contracts went back and forth between lawyers. The sad truth is, that for most screenwriters, your first sale doesn’t put you on easy street.

me: Yes, once everybody takes their cut, you’re left with just enough your electricity bill for that month. What restaurant did you work at?

Misha: Talesai. Very good Thai food. I was working at night, and going on meetings during the day. And occasionally serving producers and execs I had gone on meetings with. That was a little embarrassing.

me: Haha. “Oh hey, fancy meeting you here. Would this be a bad time to ask you what you thought of my pitch?” Was everybody else who worked there an actor or a screenwriter?

Misha: No actually. It was very strange. Everyone else that worked there were Thai, and they had been working there for like 20 some years. I definitely stood out.

me: How did you land the job at Heroes?

Misha: I was working on “Sons of Anarchy” (a show on FX) and looking forward to the hiatus between seasons, and I got a call that they were looking for a staff writer for Heroes and liked Sunflower and wanted to meet. So I went in and met with the producers, and they asked me to join their staff as well. So now I’m back to back year round on two shows, and it’s a lot of work, but amazing.

me: Oh cool. I know they’re pretty tight-lipped over there but are you allowed to talk about what the show’s going to be like?

Misha: They are very tight-lipped. It’s all kind of insane. There’s a lot of exciting stuff happening this season, but I can’t talk about any of it. We’re outlining my episode right now, and I’m very excited about it. But that’s really all I can say. Haha.

me: You know it took me two seasons to make the connection between one of the character’s names being “Hiro” and the show being called “Heroes”?

Misha: Haha. I caught that around the middle of the first season.

me: And at first, I thought it was a complete coincidence. I actually wanted to write the show and tell them about this amazing coincidence they were missing.

Misha: You should have. That might have even responded. Or it’s something you should have asked at the comic con panel. I’m going for the first time this year. I’m a little afraid.

me: Are you going to dress in like battle gear or some strange outfit?

Misha: No, I’m going to hide in the corner, and hope no one realizes I work for the show, and start asking me questions. There’s a whole Heroes wiki page, where they have pictures and bios about the entire crew! The entire crew! I don’t have one yet, and as I mentioned earlier, I like to remain mysterious.

me: Is that why you worked at a Thai restaurant?

Misha: Haha. No. I worked at a Thai restaurant because they were the first people to hire me. I didn’t have many options then.

me: You told me you’re finally going to write another spec. Have you started it yet? And are you nervous about following up the wildly popular Sunflower?

Misha: I haven’t started it yet, but soon hopefully. I’m writing a lot of notes in my notebook for it. Deep down I think all writers have nerves about what they’re writing, because ultimately you want people to connect with your work, and like it, maybe even love it, but ultimately nerves are useless. You just have to believe in what you’re writing, and write it. The response is out of your control.

me: I feel that way every night at 12 a.m. — I love asking this question because it makes writers’ heads explode. If you could give the aspiring writers out there any piece of advice, what would it be? — And you can’t say, “Follow your dreams.” lol

Misha: haha — I would say read a lot of scripts! I can’t emphasize that enough. Which is why I think your site is great, cause it gives aspiring screenwriters access to Hollywood scripts. The first thing I did when I got my managers was send them a list of scripts to send me. And learn to love rewriting, because that’s a lot of what having a career in screenwriting is. And do more. Experience more. Because ultimately your personal experiences is what’s going to make your writing better. And invest in a nice desk and a comfy office chair, cause you’ll be spending a lot of time in it.

me: Sage advice wise one. Now if I could somehow find a way to make sitting on a couch for long periods of time dramatically compelling.

Misha: haha. Well, having a good imagination helps in that case.

me: What’s your favorite script you’ve read lately (or from the site)?

Misha: I liked Prisoners

me: What about your favorite movie this summer?

Misha: Star Trek. Did that come out this summer?

me: Hey! Me too.

Misha: haha, the sad truth is, once you start working in the industry, you rarely have time to go to a movie. Which is really unfortunate for me: It’s like a rare treat. But you do get sent screeners of them which is nice.

me: you’re so spoiled

Misha: I really am. There are a lot of perks. My DVD collection has doubled since I sold Sunflower. haha

me: What do like to do when you’re not writing? In those slivers of time you have to yourself? Besides our late night IM sessions of course.

Misha: I live for these late night sessions.

me: lol

Misha: My slivers of time are getting very tiny these days. I’m working on a lot of pitches with producers, and the show, and producing a short I wrote. So when I’m not working, I’m pretty much sleeping, or partying when I can.

me: Ah yes. Do you Heroes writers know how to get down?

Misha: I don’t know about the rest of them, but I do. haha.

It was at that point that Misha said something about too much time away from Buffy so our session had to end. It’s not easy losing out to Sarah Michelle Gellar, let me tell you. And I hope Misha doesn’t read my review of Joss Whedon’s “Cabin In The Woods.” Yikes, talk about wanting back slivers of time.


So today we have a review of S. Craig Zahler’s script, “Incident at Sans Asylum.” Zahler is the writer of the number three script on my Top 25 list, the Western, “The Brigands Of Rattleborge.” The script is a town favorite, yet everyone’s terrified to make it. I have no idea why. Show this thing to one A-List actor and they’d die to play the part of Abraham, a character that has the potential to be one of the greatest movie characters of all time. We’re talking Hannibal Lecter territory here. But hey, you guys don’t want an Oscar? That’s cool with me. Anyway , this is Zahler’s follow-up script and because I’m so busy this week, I’m leaving the review in the trusted hands of Roger Balfour, a young man whose unique perspective on writing digs all the way to the bone of Zahler’s work. So take it away, Roger.

Genre: Nihilistic Horror
Premise: A group of struggling musicians who work as cooks in an asylum for the criminally insane get locked in with the inmates during a massive thunderstorm. Chaos ensues as the musicians/cooks struggle to escape and stay alive.
About: S. Craig Zahler, writer of the 2006 Black List screenplay, “The Brigands of Rattleborge”, wrote this script which has been developed by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures in conjunction with Vertigo Entertainment. Helmed by Spanish director, Daniel Calparsoro. To be released, one presumes…
Writer: S. Craig Zahler


Caveat lector: Forgive me. I’m going to season this review with references to other horror movies and writers of the genre in order to properly convey what this script accomplishes to do. We’re going to explore the coin of this sub-genre a little and look at the ideas that are reflected on both sides of the coin.

Confession.

I’m one of those struggling screenwriters outside of LA that worships at the stone altar of “The Brigands of Rattleborge”. I live in the Bible Belt. I don’t just surround myself with books that can be categorized as Southern Gothic, I live in the environment. I’m exposed to the Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy flavor grotesquerie every day. It’s part of the atmosphere here.

It’s the temperature.

And I only read it a few weeks ago. But when I finished, I wanted to hold the screenplay up in the air like the baby Simba and shout its ultraviolent majestic grandeur from the precipice.

“Look, some dude wrote a screenplay and he used the word ‘agglutinated’ in one of the prose passages when describing dried blood and brain matter! Fuck studio readers!”

“Rattleborge” was a bizarre and compelling morality play that explored a cycle of bloodshed and violence and bloodlust. It was about revenge. It was about what revenge does to a man’s soul. It was about the consequences of revenge. It was Shakespearean. It was Greek tragedy. It was Grand Guignol. It was Southern Gothic. It was “Unforgiven” if written by Cormac McCarthy. And I loved every fuckin’ word of it.

So, I was foaming at the mouth to read another Zahler screenplay. Here’s a guy who is obviously both a bibliophile and a cinephile. He knows his literature as well as his movies. And the motherfucker can write. So when I found “Incident” in my inbox, I burned through it immediately like a junkie jonesin’ for the rock.

And if the screenplay wasn’t a PDF file on my computer, I would have hurled it against the wall in frustration and disappointment. But, it was a PDF file on my computer and I need my netbook. It’s not very useful to me if it’s in pieces.

Did you expect to be disappointed?

No. I was supposed to be shaken, thrilled. I was supposed to be aroused viscerally and cerebrally. But instead…I was puzzled. I felt like I was attacked by an angry mob of natives on some alien continent where people don’t possess souls, and they tried to cut my limbs off and fuck me in the eye-sockets. And after the initial shock of that faded…I felt empty. Hollow.

But…

But something had slipped under my skin, kept nagging me throughout the day. I kept turning the story over in my head like a rock in a lapidary, trying to find its meaning. Surely, what I just read had to mean something, right?


Zahler is a writer that seems to be interested in eliciting dread. Which I think is an admirable pursuit in the world of Story. Dread is a useful ingredient, a powerful emotion that burrows past a person’s mental walls and pierces the heart like a stiletto fashioned out of ice. The sensation is like being impregnated with a seed of panic and as it grows and blooms and does war against your conscious and subconscious, the war that fights against this revelation can be best described as a paralyzing sensation, a numbness that tries to protect you from the horror that elicited the dread.

Dread pairs especially well with exhilaration.

Horror movies like “Alien” or “The Descent” are good examples of this. Both stories that are more Lovecraftian in nature than most of the intentional adaptations of his work out there.

They manage to explore the concept of Lovecraftian existentialist and nihilistic horror. The realization that man is an infinitesimally small speck in the order of the universe. Or: man is insignificant in the face of the alien, the other. H.P. Lovecraft, a master at eliciting dread, was an atheist who wasn’t scared by the concept of God and the Devil; Angels or Demons. So he created a pantheon of the other, whose very existence, when exposed to man, was capable of driving the individual mad.

Of course, the stories in “Alien” and “The Descent” have different outcomes…

Sure. Ripley is the light that pierces the darkness of the other. She blows it out of the airlock and wins. In “The Descent”, Sarah’s ordeal and exposure to the other drives her mad with a hallucination of freedom, but her dramatic need to be reborn in order to overcome her family’s death is a still-birth attempt at best. She doesn’t make it out of the cave. She’s left trapped in the caves with the other, wrapped in a bundle of raw nerves and reduced to a gibbering psychological state.

But I would argue that both movies are exhilarating. Cathartic even. We faced the abyss, we ran from the abyss, we fought the abyss. When all was said and done, we walked away from the theater and were entertained. No biggie. Just a fun roller-coaster ride of a story. Go on with our lives, rejuvenated for a while by our escapist encounter with the abyss.

So what’s the moral?

Distribute some darkness and dread with that creator’s wand, and pit it against light and hope, toggle in some thrills, and you have a heady potion of adventure. Adjust the contrast knobs if you want the tone to be dark fare, or lighter fare. If done right, manage to thrill an audience both viscerally and cerebrally.

But what happens when dread is the ultimate victor? What happens when dread is your only ingredient?

“Incident at Sans Asylum” happens.

It is not a ride.

It is not escapism.

It is a cold, serrated knife in the gut.

It’s watching a layer of torn skin be flayed from the bone with a potato peeler, and feeling every moment of it.

These characters are not heroes.

They are victims.

And we suffer with them.


So what’s the story?

George is a musician in his mid-twenties who moonlights as a chef at the local asylum. Seems to be a new job for him. His band-mate Max is his second-in-command and they spend a lot of time together, working in the kitchen preparing cafeteria-style meals for the populace of the institution. When we first meet them they’re pissed at a younger, undisciplined drummer of the band, Ricky. Why? Ricky was a no-show for a studio session that they all saved up hard-earned money for because of his questionable taste in women. Ricky also works with them in the asylum as a cook, and most of the humor in the script (which is kept to a minimum) is derived from George and Max making fun of Ricky and his dubious taste in the female gender. We’re also introduced to William, a likable Hispanic employee who works diligently for George as a kitchen grunt and is a bit ostracized by the other guys, especially Max, because he’s not a member of the band.

There’s a simple, naturalistic feel to the scenes and the dialogue. Spare, with the highlights of these scenes being the detail applied to George’s job as a chef. Zahler captures the weird, limanel state-of-being of the struggling artist: George and his band have a gig at a venue where they have to cover an extra set because a scheduled band dropped out at the last minute. Which means their gig is going to run to 2 am. Good news for the band, but George also has to be back at the asylum at 5 am to oversee a shipment of product that is set to arrive.

The details are right. The lack of sleep. The tedium and mundanity that accompanies chopping vegetables or cleaning up blood because the plastic bag that contains meat product ripped and it made a mess everywhere. Pretty ordinary stuff that chef’s deal with everyday, but the fact that they are mentioned in the script gives the scenes and characters a sense of verisimilitude.

This sense of simply being and living and working is shattered when a thunderstorm blows out the generators and fries up all of the electrical wiring in the building.

This means two things: (1) No more lights, and (2) The electronic security doors leading to the outside world no longer operate, and there is no way to open them.

J.B., the main security dude/orderly, needs the cooks to help him escort the inmates back to their cells from the cafeteria before things start heading south. Already, some of these mentally fragile inmates are starting to panic because the thunderstorm interrupted their mealtime and habitual sense of institutionalized routine, and more importantly, there is no fucking light anymore.

So the cooks argue about what they should do, some opting to barricade themselves in the kitchen, while George and Max decide to help J.B.

And of course, things go horribly wrong.

As violence erupts within the darkened walls of the asylum, we get the sensation that some of the alpha’s of this insane-convicted-felon populace have taken over and they have some plans for these cooks who have been preparing meals for them for the past few days.

What about the structure? Does Zahler do his own thing again?

Kind of. Zahler does eschew the traditional, time-tested 3-Act screenplay structure and does his own thing. But I get the sense that he turned to classic stories of the horror genre found in literature and studied what made them work. How they were put together. Hell, they were good enough in that medium, why try to interface it with the Hollywood way?

This is essentially a tale told in 2 Acts. With Act 1 being a 40-page setup; Act 2 plays out like a brutal and tragic 50 page survival mode.

Most comparable movie in structure, theme and style I can think of is “Wolf Creek”.

Let’s get to it already. Was it scary?

It’s pretty fuckin’ terrifying, dudes. Think about it. You’re a kitchen grunt who works in the cafeteria of an asylum for the criminally insane. A dark storm hits and transforms the asylum into a haunted house with no exits and no lights. Several of these inmates are roaming the haunted house. They raid the kitchen, find sharp objects, and begin attacking all the institution employees they can find.

As the characters look for asylum within the *cough* asylum, there’s even shades of zombie horror. Kind of like a dreadful game of hide and seek. They catch glimpses of the pale, naked flesh of the lunatics as they roam the halls. Some are harmless, some attack on whim, others have some kind of fucked up plans for our characters. Except, you know, these ain’t zombies. These are people. There’s nothing supernatural about them.

And that’s the idea. The only monsters in this story are the ones within ourselves. There’s probably nothing more revolting than the depravity and sickness a broken mind is capable of.

The realism and brutality and chiaroscuro murk gives the story a distinctive 70’s cinema vibe.

It sounds pretty good. Why didn’t you like it?

A few reasons which could be chalked up to a matter of taste. I’m not a fan of the genre. I don’t like Nihilistic Horror when it’s followed to its logical conclusion: I don’t like watching violence as it’s committed against a protagonist for the sole purpose of taking away any and all motivation for the protagonist to merely stay alive.

Here’s the deal. George isn’t a hero. He’s a victim. He exists to be broken down and ground into dust.

There’s a key scene that brought to mind Gregg Araki’s “The Doom Generation”. If you’ve seen it you probably already know what I’m talking about. Except this castration is performed with poultry shears instead of pruning shears.

The most disturbing part of the flick is that this is a horror movie where the final coup de grace is the protagonist offing himself. Sure, there’s a character in “The Exorcist” who kills himself. Father Karras kills himself, but he does so because he’s trying to kill the Devil. Even if he was driven mad by the Devil and opted to kill himself, it would be an act that would be seen as a man who was driven mad by a demon and was looking for respite.

George kills himself because he’s been emasculated, both literally and spiritually, by his fellow man. He’s a victim of the violent volition of sick minds, which any human being is capable of, and he refuses to recover after his ordeal because he feels like he has nothing to live for. Even though he survived, he comes to the conclusion that his life is over. George loses the will to live because his sense of peace has been irrevocably violated. There is no more sanctuary for George. His sense of asylum has been stripped away, stolen.

The only escape from the horror and dread is death.

And I don’t like that.

What did you like?

The details and the foreshadowing: The Shakespearean technique of evoking and harnessing storms and weather to parallel the emotions, moods and future of the characters.

I liked that the exposure to the inmates is limited to mealtimes, where cooks are separated from the rest of the institution by a plexi-glass window. At first, we never see any of the inmates. We only hear them being directed through the line by an officer.

In fact, whenever they hear ghastly screams coming from the bowels of the asylum, the cooks are so accustomed to it’s just white noise.

The symbology. Zahler knows what he’s doing. Some interesting stuff going on with violence and images. Particularly an image involving a calf’s head and a decapitated body.

There’s a brazen climatic scene of suggested violence and horror that involves an oven. If the director is capable, this sequence will become part of cult-cinema history.

I like that someone is writing dark, cerebral genre fare other than the Nolan brothers. Stuff that feels like it’d be as much at home in literature as it would be on screen. I’d like to see Zahler take a stab at “Blood Meridian” for Ridley Scott, or maybe even adapt Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” trilogy into an HBO miniseries.

Script Link: Incident At Sans Asylum

[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest

[x] worth the read

[ ] impressive

[ ] genius

What I Learned: Theme, theme, theme. Your choice of theme can either invigorate an audience, or alienate an audience. Nihilistic themes always seem to come out of a dark place, and when followed to their logical conclusion, descend into an even darker place. As storytellers, we have a responsibility when it comes to deciding what kind of story we want to tell. Again, this is a matter of taste, but I like to think that stories of hope are more palatable than stories of despair.

Also – I was reminded of a quote concerning the distinction between horror and terror. Anne Radcliffe wrote, “I apprehend that neither Shakespeare nor Milton, nor Mr. Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreader evil.“

Boris Karloff put it in simpler terms. Terror is anticipating the monster behind the door. Horror is the sense of shock and revulsion upon seeing the monster. Zahler seems to be a master of both, and uses both techniques impressively. This is an apt distinction for anyone who wants to know the secret to creating suspense.


Due Date

15Jul09

No link.

Genre: Comedy
Premise: An expectant dad (along with an unlikely travel companion) races cross-country in hopes of making it home for the birth of his first child.
About: Todd Phillips, who made in excess of 35 million dollars by foregoing his salary for profit participation in The Hangover, has made Due Date his next film, to co-star Zach Galifianakis and be released next summer. The following summer (2011), he’ll release The Hangover 2, which I am looking for an early draft of (so if you have anything on the project, send it my way!).
Writers: Alan R. Cohen & Alan Freedland (March 6, 2009 draft)

The most unlikely movie-star in America

Nikki Finke had a huge write-up on her site about who was responsible for the success of The Hangover. Obviously, she’s got it all wrong. I was responsible for the success of The Hangover. Did I not have it here in my Top 15? I mean, duh. But seriously, the people responsible for The Hangover’s success are the writers who came up with the idea. It’s one of the few concepts I’ve heard that could’ve been interpreted a bunch of different ways and still been funny. It was just a great concept and a good reminder to all of you that a strong hook goes a long way.

So last week Todd Phillips announced that instead of going directly into The Hangover 2, he’d make this little road trip film, Due Date, first. It’s actually a smart idea. You snag Galifianakis so you got the familiarity factor, and you capitalize on the success of The Hangover without having to burn a Hangover sequel. Word is that Phillips is taking the script by Cohen and Freedland and Phillipsizing it. Which means we can expect the roadtrip version of a few tigers, Mike Tyson, and a breast-feeding Heather Graham. What else can we expect? Read the review to find out bra.

House-hunting in Bel-Air

Peter, a worrywart of a man with a mega-pregnant wife, has just been offered the chance of a lifetime: To sign Croatia’s biggest action movie/basketball star to his company’s Red Bull like drink, Bull Rush. To a man who doesn’t answer a question without consulting his ten-year plan, this could bring him the kind of financial security that every family dreams of. Oh, but there’s a small problem. Peter has to meet the Vlad Squad all the way across the country, only days before his wife is scheduled to have their baby (via a structurally convenient C-Section). This is cutting things mighty close but these kinds of opportunities don’t come along in life very often.

So Peter hops on a plane, flies to the east coast, and has a wonderful meeting with the Croation Sensation. It’s on his way back where the problems begin. At the airport he gets his bag mixed up with man-child Ethan (Galifianakis). Ethan’s bag is packed with all sorts of drug paraphernalia and other weird things. It’s enough to get Peter pulled into a back room and questioned. Peter barely makes his plane where he’s conveniently seated next to – who else but – Ethan. In a tired shtick we’ve seen a million times before, the two start arguing, sarcastically boasting that they have bombs in their bags, and wouldn’t you know it, get kicked off the plane.

Peter’s thrown on the No-Fly List and no rent-a-car List and No Everything Else list. But guess who is driving back to California??? That’s right. Ethan! The scruffy, lazy, farting, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants nimrod invites poor Peter along and since beggars can’t be choosers, Peter accepts the invitation.

After that, classic roadtrip hilarity ensues.

It doesn’t take long for Due Date to hit some bumps in the road. The biggest bump is that there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before. Add to that that Due Date is more concerned with hijinx than story and you’re looking at one grumpy Carson. As I may have mentioned before, I like a story in my screenplays. Look, I’m all about the lol if you can pull it off. But rooming with your easily insulted sister-in-law isn’t exactly Grade-A material. And crashing a college party doesn’t ring very high on the original-o-meter. These problems only serve to exaggerate the lack of story. And while there’s a decent subplot involving Peter’s absent dad, the main storyline of Peter’s baby being born isn’t threatened until very late in the script.

It’s page 80 to be exact. That’s the first moment where Cohen and Freedland take a chance and the first time the script actually surprised me. Peter and Ethan pay a visit to Peter’s old college buddy, Jim. Jim is a black man who used to date Peter’s wife. As Peter and Jim get to talking, Jim seems to know a little too much about Peter’s life and casually mentions some e-mail exchanges with Peter’s wife – none of which Peter knew about. As Peter takes a look around the house, he notices quite a few pictures up of Jim and his wife from their relationship days. A little later, he finds a “not so old” picture of the two at a restaurant. While Peter defends this discovery, Ethan insists that Jim is “fucking your wife.” This of course adds a whole new dimension to the birth of Peter’s child. Will it be his child? Or might his wife have been having an affair behind his back?

The mystery is exactly the kind of jolt the screenplay needed and for the last 30 pages of Due Date, I was right there wanting to know what happened. That’s more than I can say for the first 80. But for whatever reason – maybe they didn’t have confidence in the storyline or maybe they hadn’t fully fleshed it out – the mystery of whose baby it is is forgotten. I don’t think Cohen and Freedland are aware of what they have here. Due Date would gain tremendously from moving the Jim/Peter meeting up to the middle of the script, heightening our curiosity about his wife’s fidelity and increasing the mystery of the baby’s father for a lengthier stretch of the story. This also puts Peter in direct conflict with his character flaw – the idea that you can plan for everything – and overall just makes the story more interesting.

But the one thing that I kept coming back to during this read is how amazingly similar Due Date was to a script off of last year’s Black List, the hilarious The Most Annoying Man In The World. Of the two screenplays, “Annoying” has a better hook and is funnier overall. Who knows? Maybe Phillips shares this opinion but couldn’t get his hands on it.

Anyway, how a script ends has a huge effect on me and Due Date definitely saves face in the final act, tapping into an emotional component that simply wasn’t there for the earlier part of the script. And I think that Ethan is going to be a fun character onscreen. For that reason, I’ll recommend this, but only by a sliver.

Link: No link.

[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest

[x] worth the read

[ ] impressive

[ ] genius

What I learned: There’s usually a moment in every screenplay where your main character has to talk about a dramatic moment that happened earlier in his life (i.e. “My mother died when I was ten.” ” My wife left me for another man.”). Since most characters in movies have troubled pasts, these admissions almost always feel cliche. A character going into a monologue about how they came home from school one day and saw the ambulance is about as close to screenplay suicide as you can get. For that reason, there are little tricks to make these moments less schmaltzy. One, which Cohen and Freedland use, is to have your supporting character ask your main character about his past, and then have your main character resist answering. This takes the focus off the actual reveal and puts it more on his resistance. We’re more likely to buy into the story if we sense the character isn’t comfortable talking about it. Here’s the example from Due Date.

[scrippet]

ETHAN
So, is your dad still alive?

PETER
Yes.

ETHAN
What’s his deal, what’s he do?

PETER
I don’t know.

ETHAN
You don’t know? How do you not know?

PETER
I’ll tell you about it some other time. Good night.

ETHAN
C’mon, we’re having a conversation. We’re bonding.

PETER
(sighs)
He walked out on us when I was twelve. I don’t speak to him. I don’t even think about him.

ETHAN
I don’t believe that. Every guy thinks about his Dad. I think about mine all the time.

A beat.

PETER
We really should get to sleep.

ETHAN
Yeah. Alright.
[/scrippet]

You see how that reveals a traumatic experience for Peter but doesn’t draw attention to itself? How much better is that than this?
[scrippet]
Peter and Ethan are almost asleep. But Peter looks like he has something on his mind. He turns to Ethan.

PETER
You know my dad left me? He walked out on us when I was twelve. He doesn’t speak to me. I don’t even think he thinks about me. It’s really hard for me to wake up in the morning sometimes.”
[/scrippet]

LAAAAAAAME. Yet you’d be surprised at how many times I see this in scripts.




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