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Nothing Ever Happens

So the second script I read had one unfortunate side effect: very little in the way of plot. It gave me an early Richard Linklater vibe because of the setting and the writer’s penchant for meandering scenes of characters just hanging out. Although he defies many conventions, Linklater’s a master of subtext and conflict. For instance, Dazed and Confused has a very loose plot—seniors want to beat up next year’s freshman class—that sets up the characters and their minor goals over the course of the night (e.g., “beat up a freshman”/”don’t get beaten up”). It has the traditional obstacles and changing goals, but it’s mostly a movie about hanging out. Yet, from the conversations these characters share, everything they say tells us a little something about them. Their attitudes on superficial things like music, acid-induced dreams, fashion—what a person discusses and the way others react to it all tell us things about who they are.

The script I was given had the loose plot and the deliberate (some might say “plodding”) pace of a Linklater film, but it didn’t have much else in common. When the characters talked about buying a keg, all they were talking about…was buying a keg. That’s a problem. Similarly, the characters desires and goals are shielded until, quite literally, just before each goal is altered. (In one case, we don’t know a character wants a scholarship until page 100, and he gets the scholarship on page 102—ooh, the suspense. In another, the character reveals he’s unwilling to take the scholarship because he knocked up his girlfriend and needs to take care of her. Beyond logic problems I won’t go into, this is another conflict that’s brought up way too late and then resolved almost immediately. In literally the same scene that he mentions it to the love interest, she’s hit by a drunk driver and killed, leaving him to take the scholarship.)

I don’t want to go on and on ranting about this particular script, but I do want to bring up some fundamental tools of drama that this script should have employed but didn’t.

The Unbreakable Bond

The Unbreakable Bond, illustrated by Lajos Egri in The Art of Creative Writing, is the most effective dramatic tool I’ve ever read about. In fact, much of what I write features unbreakable bonds even when I don’t intend them to (not that that’s a bad thing). It works pretty much the way it sounds: characters who are polar opposites in nature and goals are thrust together for one reason or another, unwilling to cave to each others’ wills. At least, not until the climax.

The wonderful thing about unbreakable bonds are, it works on more than just a protagonist-antagonist/hero-villain level. For instance, in this script, two best friends are vying for the same scholarship. There’s no conflict about this whatsoever—in fact, we don’t learn until far too late how important the scholarship is to either character. But the foundations of an unbreakable bond are there—bound by friendship, a team, and direct competition for this scholarship. The opposites are there, too: one’s a spoiled, carefree rich kid who doesn’t seem to need the scholarship, while his best friend is poor and desperate. Every scene should crackle with conflict, but mostly they just hang out until the rich friend has a temper tantrum after the poor friend already has the scholarship.

Here’s a more famous unbreakable bond: Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese in The Terminator. You have a militant from the future and a frilly, young waitress. They’re thrust together (in more ways than one) by a combination of time travel and desperation. Sarah Connor has seen the terminator—she knows she’ll die without Reese. This creates tension between the characters even though the central conflict is between the two of them and the machine. You could argue that in the vastly superior Terminator 2, the bond between herself and the terminator is even more unbreakable than between her and Reese in the first one. I could see it—after all, there’s nothing more “opposite” than allying with your former worst enemy—but one of the great ironies of T2 is that Sarah Connor is no longer all that dissimilar from the terminator. He may be a machine and, in her mind, an enemy, but they share the exact same goal: an obsession with keeping John Connor alive and safe from the T-1000. There’s still plenty of conflict there, but it’s not unbreakable bond conflict.

(On a related note, the underrated and hopefully soon-to-be-renewed TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles elaborates on this dynamic and creates an unbreakable bond. Unlike the mindless, militant characterization of Sarah Connor in T2, on the TV series she’s softer and less willing to kill indiscriminately. Thrust together with an unwanted terminator companion, the main source of conflict is trying to achieve the same goals through opposite ways. Rather than killing the dorky cell phone salesman who will have direct involvement in Judgment Day, Sarah opts to burn down his advanced homebrew chess-playing computer.)

In the latest draft of Disappear, I counted a total of three unbreakable bonds, only one of which was intentional:

  1. The heroes are siblings on the run from the law (long story). As such, even though they don’t get along, they’re forced to hide out together. The brother has a single-minded obsession with clearing their names, while the sister is dealing with the problem by trying to pretend it never happened.
  2. The two villains, corrupt federal agents, have opposite methods of handling situations. One’s an older agent with duplicitous Cold War ethics, more interested in building elaborate fronts to lure people into traps than just killing them. His partner is a rank-climbing sociopath who will do anything to make his bosses happy. They’re forced together to find the siblings.
  3. The brother and the older agent, who has secret reasons for keeping the siblings alive, are forced to help each other in order to bust the younger agent.

The Love Story Ploy

The problem with the screenplay I read is that it was, indeed, a love story, but it didn’t use its romance to give us any kind of reflection of the characters involved. This problem is compounded by the stoic nature of the protagonist; we don’t get a window into his emotions until the last 20 pages, which makes him exceedingly dull to spend the preceding 100 pages reading about. Plenty of movies have had taciturn protagonists, many of them with romantic subplots that allow us to get a glimpse into the true nature of these characters.

In Hard to Kill, bad-ass cop Mason Storm awakens from a seven-year coma (comas are a typical side effect of getting shot in the chest, twice, at close range, with a shotgun) to discover he still has reason to be on the run. He enlists the aid of sexy English nurse Andy Stewart, who, trust me, is a chick. Once he gets her to believe him…okay, more accurately, two dead bodies in the hospital within 15 minutes of him waking up make a more compelling case than Mason Storm. Anyway, she takes him away to a hidden cabin, where he can rehabilitate and fall in love.

Storm is not an emotional guy. He’s sarcastic and fearless, but all we get from him is that block-of-wood Seagal face intercut with Vaseline-lensed flashbacks to his family life before his wife was brutally murdered. The only way to get him to open up, and to understand what he’s really thinking and feeling, is for him to sex up Andy Stewart and then tell her what life was like pre-coma. There’s plenty of story and conflict prior to that, but this subplot gives both Storm and Andy a deeper emotional complexity. Did you ever think you’d hear the phrase “emotional complexity” applied to Hard to Kill? It’s there, and it’s a better movie than you might think.

So the love story in this script could have been used to let us know how he feels about the protagonist’s troubled family life, his desperation to leave town, etc. Instead, what do they talk about? Baseball. And, as I mentioned above, when they’re talking about baseball, all they’re talking about is baseball. No subtext. There are only two instances where we know what he’s feeling. The first occurs just before he gets the scholarship; the second occurs just before he tells her he’ll give up the scholarship to raise the baby. We don’t even get an emotional cue when she dies. In fact, quite alarmingly, he spends his last week of school all smiles. So is the point of the story that she didn’t mean anything to him and now he doesn’t have to shoulder the burden? It’s anybody’s guess, because unlike Mason Storm, he doesn’t let the love interest—or the audience—know anything.

I have to say, even though the first script was better than expected, I am having major concerns about the members of this hippie co-op. In fact, I’m back to thinking it’s just a classy-seeming way to get someone to do coverage.

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