The 2nd analysis from BlueCat screenplay contest & my final thoughts [Act III]

07/06/2012
This is the final installment of a three-act blog post about the feedback I received from two readers of the BlueCat Screenplay Contest. Read Act I which describes my screenplay, and Act II which delves into the first analysis.

UPDATE: The Ice Boy, my screenplay which is discussed here, was a Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship 2012 Quarterfinalist

The Story So Far

Are two opinions better than one? My screenplay entry in the BlueCat contest came with not one, but two script analyses. I have posted the entire feedback from my second reader below, interspersed with  my own comments.

The Final Feedback

Archive # 265
The Ice Boy
Reader # 6087

What I liked about the script

You’ve created an active, interesting female protagonist, something not enough action or high-octane films do these days, or do well. She’s intelligent (as shown through her actions and position as a doctor) and she’s pro-active which is a must (shown through her ability to keep Rune on the run as long as she does.).

This was definitely a goal of mine. I love films with smart, kick-ass female leads. Ripley stands out as a model, of course. I was also moved by the character in Central Station — a cynical woman who, in spite of herself, learns to open her heart again when she decides to help a young boy find his father after his mother dies. And then there’s Gloria. I definitely had the archetype of the mother-protector in mind when writing this script.

Now I just need to get this script to an actress in search of a killer role.

You made an interesting opening sequence and made your protagonist act during it, showcasing her virtuous traits in action without telling us about her which goes a long way to establishing our emotional connection to her.

Show don’t tell. Always a good idea. Nice to know I’m doing that.

It reads like a graphic novel, full of mysterious developments and stylized violence which is interesting and would be visually intriguing.

One of my concerns when writing this script was — had I gone too far? Could I really do what I was doing? Was it too violent and over-the-top? What I learned was — go there. Go. All. The. Way. Otherwise you end up writing safe scripts that no one will remember or care about.

All that aside, I could quibble with this comment (are there no movies with stylized violence?!) but the truth is — the graphic novel potential of this script never occurred to me. If the screenplay doesn’t advance as a movie — it truly would make one hell of a graphic novel. Man, I’m so grateful for this comment.

If anything, this kind of style (first truly noticed when Agnes pulled a sword and mysterious men in fedoras appeared) should appear sooner in the story, maybe in the initial fight with the first revivified Neanderthal. That way it comes as less of a shock or out-of-left field when people start pulling swords and grappling hooks and wearing robes and talking about the end of the world.

Now I am going to quibble.

I do pile on the crazy in this script, but it’s a gradual accumulation. You just can’t pull out all the stops in the opening hook. The audience already has to absorb the secret government lab setup, meet all the characters for the first time, and swallow the whole idea of reviving a frozen Neanderthal without rolling their eyes.

Mousey lab assistant Agnes’s reveal — that she is a secret, sword-wielding apocalyptic cultist mole — is supposed to be a what-the-fuck-holy-shit moment. The first of many. I know it didn’t work for this reader, but it’s a deliberate choice. The weirdness starts gradually, and by the end of the movie the audience in on a freaking tilt-a-whirl. But it’s not like it should be a major bump in a world where sci-fi labs are bringing Neanderthals back to life.

I’m choosing to take the audience on a journey into stranger and stranger territory. It’s always a risk that not everyone will choose to come along for the ride.

Your action sequences are interesting, and every time it starts to get intense you do a good job describing the action and keeping it moving, you don’t let it get static or boring with a simple firefight, you mix in various goals, obstacles, settings, it helps keep it fresh and entertaining.

This comes very naturally to me, I don’t even realize I’m doing it. It’s always really nice to have someone point out something you take for granted.

You do a fantastic job keeping descriptions lean and short, and the pacing is strong, moving forward consistently and upping the ante with reveals, betrayals, and twists. Every scene had a unique spin to it that really made it interesting, made me want to keep going.

Conflict is key. That’s been drilled into my head by every writing teacher I’ve ever had. Also, my biggest fear is that my writing will be boring. I tend to overcompensate. A lot. To the extent that I’m incredibly skilled at crafting a lean, powerful, unstoppable locomotive of a screenplay — thank you, UCLA MFA screenwriting program.

The concept of a revivified Neanderthal boy being the savior of the human race and being fought over is very inventive and creative and I thought it was a nice touch for this kind of story, new, but familiar enough to warrant comfort.

Huge relief to hear this. The major sticking point before I could pull the trigger on writing this screenplay was figuring out why the Neanderthal boy was so valuable to everyone, and then finding a way to sell it. I’m asking the audience to swallow a lot – to believe in a crazy genetic plague, to believe you can find not one but two perfectly preserved Neanderthal males, and to believe you can revivify them. It’s good to know that the result was something that felt creative and fun.

And now, the not-so-good stuff.

What needed work

One of the downsides of the stylized manner of the script is that it’s distracting. Based on the first 10 pages it’s a sci-fi horror (big monsters mauling people), then it becomes a sci-fi thriller (save the specimen), then it becomes an apocalyptic sci-fi.

She left out the historical epic. There’s really no way around this — that’s the nature of this particular story. I can’t make it less of a sci-fi thriller. Well, I can, but that’s a whole other screenplay.

As we move deeper into the mystery and deception, and more things are being revealed, then we are naturally going to move from the initial ten pages of sci-fi horror (and it’s not like we lose the horror/violence later on — it gets worse) to something on a grander scale.

Hitchcock’s The Birds starts out as a romantic comedy before it moved into horror.

Be wary of it becoming so over-stylized that it has no real content or story.

But did it? No? Then what’s your problem? I don’t understand comments like this. Either the screenplay succeeded and this isn’t a concern, or it is. And frankly — there’s a pile of content here. (See the previous reader’s comments). This is just griping about the story’s inherent characteristics. You don’t have to like it, but realize it is a matter of taste.

Also be wary that the second-half of the story is inching eerily close to Y: The Last Man, a graphic novel where men die all over the world because of hemorrhaging, with similar effects to the ones in your plot.

And Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

There’s only so many ways a plague can kill off most of the population. I think this is a good heads-up, and I’m going to definitely check out Y (it’s been on my wish list forever) but I think this story has plenty that is original to offer. But I need to be sure I’m not accidentally duplicating scenes.

Some characters are introduced with names (like ED in the intro) but then are given dialogue tags like TECHNICIAN. It never got confusing, but this is an easy way to convolute your screenplay to the point of it becoming hard to follow. Just something to be aware of.

Ed had one line of dialog and I forgot to change his tag when I decided to give him a name instead of making him a generic TECHNICIAN. But how many times did this happen? “Some characters”? I count one. I don’t want to be ungrateful for the catch, but sometimes notes are overgeneralized when they don’t need to be. I wonder if my screenplay gets significantly marked down for that…

The flashbacks to Rune’s childhood 30,000 years ago derail action sequences and contrast a little too much with the sci-fi near-future apocalypse you’re going for.

Once act two gets kicked off properly, try to limit the length of the flashbacks. After the initial Homo Sapiens attack we’ve established Rune’s fear of humans enough that his situation is more emotional and easier to connect with.

And there it is.

This reader just doesn’t get this script. It comes down to a matter of taste. Stylized violence. Increasing levels of craziness. Dual plots in separate timelines. This isn’t for everyone and that’s okay — but these were deliberate choices made to tell this particular story.

There’s no getting around it. Some people are going to have problems with the “flashbacks”. There are those who are programmed to have a knee-jerk reaction and reject flashbacks under any circumstances. It’s a “rule” of screenwriting. And there are those who just don’t like to be yanked back and forth to two very different worlds in one screenplay. I understand that.

I’m not going to change it.

The amount of betrayals became a little much, getting to the point where it seemed inconsistent or unbelievable. Consider other approaches to twist and keep Grace on her toes.

At the end of the world, no one can be trusted.

We work our way up the ladder of plants and moles. But really, there are only three. And three is a good number. I also find this note perplexing in light of the previous note about how the script worked because I was continually “upping the ante with reveals, betrayals, and twists”.

A lot of the code names that cropped up in the final act with Kyle and his organization were corny and felt unrealistic. It didn’t feel like he was an advanced doctor with an army of specialists under his command (including the young Valkyries) but more like a cartoon or comic book (but given the style…).

But given the style, WHAT?! Either this note counts or it doesn’t. The reader almost gets to the point of judging the script on it’s own merits, but backs away.

As I’ve said before, Kyle really is the good-guy version of a bond villain. He has set up a secret laboratory to save the human race in an old primate research facility in an abandoned zoo. He has a secret lair, henchmen, a trained team of ninja-like assassins, a mad-scientist laboratory, and a high-tech security system. The code names just come with the kit.

I took all the names from Norse mythology because it was consistent and fit with a strong motif running through the screenplay. For instance, instead of calling a group of young girls the “Angel” project, they are the “Valkyrie”. That said, the codes names are a bit tongue-in-cheek, and Grace even calls Kyle out on it.

KYLE

The end of the world tends to bring out all the crazies.

GRACE

I’m not sure you aren’t one of them, “Odin”.

And here’s the final note:

Some of the dialogue felt trite or inappropriate for the situation at hand, a little too witty when it should be serious, or dramatic when it didn’t need to be.

An example would have been helpful here, but really, this goes back to the heightened reality of the script and the taste of the audience. You either like this kind of thing, or you don’t. This note directly contradict’s the opinion of the first reader.

And again, it’s hard to tell how big a deal this note is. “Some” of the dialogue could be a few lines here or there, or it could be half the screenplay. There’s just no way to tell how much of a problem this was for the reader.

Fade Out

What to make of all this?

Did I think the feedback was worth the fee? Yes and no. The feedback didn’t cost any more than a regular contest entry, so in that regard — it’s no loss. But if I had paid extra for these two reports, I probably would be slightly happy that my curiosity had been satisfied, but not very happy as far as getting anything tremendously useful. There’s nothing here that I didn’t or couldn’t get from my trusted Beta reader.

Would I recommend this contest to others? I don’t really recommend contests of any sort. It shouldn’t be your only approach to getting your work out there. There is just too much subjectivity involved and you can be shut down on a whim. Enter contests for a bit of fun and a sense of community. Use the deadlines to spur you on. But don’t depend on them.

As for this particular contest — I like knowing what the judges are thinking, but I don’t think their feedback is going to help people rewrite their scripts on a large scale. For that you need page notes or development notes, not coverage.

Here’s what I got out of this experience so far: confirmation that I had, at least for these two readers, accomplished much of what I set out to do with this screenplay. I wrote something fun, fast and thrilling. I created a strong female protagonist. I created characters that the audience could connect to. I created something with strong visuals and a unique sense of style. And I didn’t leave any gaping plot holes or cause anyone to balk at the premise. So in the sense that I did not get negative feedback on these items — mission accomplished.

If I were going to do as the contest suggests and rewrite the screenplay for resubmission, I’d go with the feedback from the first reader. She seemed more in tune with what the screenplay was trying to accomplish, and she tended to give notes that built on the strengths of the script.

Finally, I should say I have nothing against feedback in general. I’ve been in more critique workshops than I can count, not even counting my three years in grad school. The workshop process was essential to learning the craft. There’s nothing worse than the guy who comes to class and defends his screenplay against every single note he’s given. But the truth is, not every note is valid. The key to maturing as a writer is knowing which notes to keep, and which to throw out. And that means you have to know what you’re aiming for with your screenplay so you can tell what pulls you off track and what brings you closer to your goal.

For now, the BlueCat Screenplay Competition goes on. And we’ll see if my script makes the first cut or not. It’s hard to tell, even with the feedback.

What would you do? Would you enter this contest? Would you rewrite your script based on this sort of feedback? Let me know in the comments.

Top Photo: MagazineArt.com