Outside the Wire

outsideToday’s script was a 2011 Nicholl fellowship winner written by John MacInnes. It led him to a career [as a video game story writer on the Call of Duty franchise]. Since I have long held the Nicholl in high esteem as THE contest amateur writers should enter because of its ability to turn regular writers into successful writers, and since this actually happened for MacInnes, I decided to see what the judges over at the Academy were willing to endorse. (1)

Unfortunately, I don’t think this script is very good. I’m not sure how it managed to make it through a series of readers to a final round of judging that resulted in it being selected as a winner. The fact that it did makes me wonder what is going on behind the veil at the most prestigious screenplay competition in the world. I’ll refrain from judging the judgers, while still noting that the script is no better than average in every component of our craft. There are some areas where I would even rate it wildly below average.

Needless to say, I don’t think it merits a full five question review. This leaves me with looking intensely at one of the questions from my standard analysis and seeing how Outside the Wire measures up. Usually, I would look at dialogue or structure, but this script is so poor in those areas, the review would come across as unnecessarily harsh. I’ve decided, instead, to talk about this script solely in terms of question two from my format.

Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out?

My expectations were pretty high going into this read. I mean, this wasn’t just a finalist, this was a fellowship winner. My expectations were quickly bled dry. This is what lies beneath the first slugline in the script:

INT. INTERNET CAFE, CAMP VICTORY, IRAQ – CONTINUOUS

WE are with PRIVATE LAVENA TORRES, sitting alone in the dark.
Her fresh, young face illuminated by the computer screen as
she dips her spoon into a Ben and Gerry’s mini-tub. Her son
holds up the picture he’s drawn: his HOME.

Ben and Gerry’s? What is that? Is that the military version of Ben and Jerry’s? Is it military slang for electrical components I know nothing about?

You might think I’m being excessive here, but the truth is I stopped reading in the first paragraph of the script because of an error. I actually re-read the paragraph several times to see if I were missing something. Again, I’m not being picky here. I feel like I owe it to an author to read his/her script carefully. I expect authors to afford me [as a careful reader] the same respect. The first paragraph forced me to back up several times and start over to make sure I was getting the information correct.

Also, there is the issue of “the picture he’s drawn.” It should be he has drawn. I understand errors happen, and often happen on the first page, and colloquialisms are becoming acceptable, but… two errors in the first paragraph? This is beginning to feel like sloppy writing. As I always say, sloppiness in writing is ALMOST always endemic. People who are careless with their presentation, are usually careless with their structure. It is often a sign of no rewriting.

I’ll summarize the rest of these complaints in list form to make as little fuss as possible about them.

Page 2: The
M4 automatic assault rifle slung over shoulder seems
impractically large against her petit frame.

Page 4: She knows she’s beat. The contractors leads her away.

Page 4: They reach a black ARMORED CHEVI SUBURBAN.

Page 5: The physic and demeanor of a
long-retired boxer who kept on getting up when he should
have stayed down.

[Cannot tell you how many times I had to read physic before I finally deciphered it.]

Page 8: Kieft hands Schmidt a polo shirt with a logo on the chest:
FORTIS SECURITY. The same logo adorns on all the vehicles.

By any standard, that is a rough ten page presentation. I don’t want to belabor the point, but this sloppy trend continues throughout [actually gets worse]. As I got into the third act of the script and it became clear that the author was just spit balling plot points, I couldn’t help correlating the lack of polish in the words themselves with the lack of polish in structural design.

What really bothered me about this ten pages, however, was that NOTHING happens. We take four pages to introduce Torres as a good working class Army mother, and then we take the next six pages setting up Schmidt as a Private Military Contractor with a depressing life. The only interesting thing that happens is that Torres gets arrested [framed?] for having Tequila in her cot. From pages 3-4:

She gives him her phone. He places it in a clear plastic
sac that already contains some of her other personal effects.

MP#1 (CONT’D)
Hands on the wall.

The MP runs his hands around her thighs as she faces the
wall.

TORRES
You find what you were looking for?

The other MP finds half a bottle of tequila in her cot.

TORRES (CONT’D)
You got to be kidding me.

MP#1
Let’s go.

TORRES
I’m shipping out in the morning!

MP#1
And we’ve got orders.

For those that haven’t read the script, nothing of interest whatsoever happens until pages 20-21:

Rolo gets out with the AK. Schmidt gets out and crouches
down, sweeping the vicinity with this M4.

Rolo opens the trunk, hauls out ‘the package’.

‘The package’ has human form. A prisoner? Cuffed and gagged
in tan combat fatigues? Schmidt is increasingly uncomfortable
with the picture.

Of course, the package is Torres.

It takes today’s author 21 pages to set up his central conceit: A private contractor must rescue an innocent army member from her execution. This should have taken no more than ten pages. The author fills the other eleven pages with false bravado and homosexual “jokes” in order to what… inflate the page count?

These first ten are weak, and wouldn’t have gotten many points on my scale.

I think the script is still interesting, however, because it teaches us that “contest scripts” are different animals than spec scripts. How else do we explain this unengaging first ten being the opening ten in a fellowship script? Clearly, the requirement of contest readers which FORCES them to read a whole script [instead of stopping when the script bores them], creates leeway for a writer to take a little more time setting up her story.

In the contest world, my question two is weighted far too high.

Rating: Not Worth Your Time

Footnote:

I should note that I was a quarterfinalist this year, but did not advance. I don’t think that has influenced my review. Although, I am smiling as I type.

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