Adapting a Screenplay—Fun Times

[Scream Poster]
Photo Courtesy of IMDb
Early in my writing career I focused entirely on writing screenplays—something I would not recommend to the foolhardy. You see, unlike novels, screenplays serve absolutely no purpose if you can’t sell them. They sit in a pile in the corner of your home office collecting dust, instead of appearing with nice covers on Amazon. That said, if you are lucky enough to have a written a screenplay that sold (I did that once), you might be on your way to an actual career in the movie business.

But enough about fairy tales.

Horror Comedy, Anyone?
I want to talk about a particular screenplay I wrote a few years back that had to do with a fourteen-year-old girl, a nasty marital breakup and a behind-the-scenes look at an indie horror film. Sounds fascinating, right? At the time I really thought I could make that thing sing. Now, from a technical perspective the work was professional. But I was never really able to generate enough interest. So … I tossed it into the corner and allowed it to gather a nice patina of dust.

Until recently.

I’d been toying with the idea of adapting some of my screenplays into novels. I mean, why let all that good writing go to waste? And I decided that, because I had just come off a heavy horror thriller trilogy with lots of bloodshed, I would tackle a fun horror comedy … with somewhat less bloodshed.

Novelization, Shmovelization
I’m just about finished with the “novelization”—something I’d never done before. And let me tell you, it’s hair-raising. In screenplays, each page is a combination of slug lines, short descriptions and dialogue. That’s it. Try turning that into beautiful prose that descends on the reader like the first gentle snowfall in a New England winter. The process is quite instructive, though, and I am learning more about voice than I ever thought I would.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress from time to time, but it’s my goal to turn this thing into an enjoyable book that captures some of the craziness of living in LA, from the POV of a precocious teenager. Wish me luck.

‘Maggie’—A Poignant Family Drama

[Maggie Poster]
Photo Courtesy of IMDb
Maggie’ (2015)
Directed by Henry Hobson
Screenplay by John Scott 3
Drama | Horror | Thriller
Stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson
LionsGate
Rated PG-13
Log Line: A teenage girl in the Midwest becomes infected by an outbreak of a disease that slowly turns the infected into cannibalistic zombies. During her transformation, her loving father stays by her side.

You see, the thing about zombies is, they’re incredible boring. I’m pretty sure that’s why George Romero always chose to marry the “ghouls” in his stories with political commentary. I had to learn this lesson myself with my own horror-thriller trilogy. You cannot expect readers to embrace three novels—nearly three hundred thousand words—if all they have to look forward to is a bunch of drooling braineaters on the loose.

Forget Zombies
‘Maggie’ is not a zombie movie—not in the normal sense. Yes, there are zombies in it—in particular, the title character, played by Abigail Breslin. But these are not the undead we are used to. They are victims of a plague that has swept the planet and has made ordinary people sick—slowly. They may no longer eat, but they can still talk and think and love. They don’t shuffle, and neither do they move ultra-fast as in World War Z.’ They are simply people who are dying.

Against this backdrop you have a father, played beautifully and with quiet strength by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is determined to keep his daughter not only alive, but safe for as long as possible. In doing so, he drives away his wife and their two small children, manages to earn the scorn of the police and quite possibly risks his own life. Because when the day comes that Maggie “turns”—and that day will come—he will be forced to either take her to a quarantine facility, where they will end her life with a death cocktail, or deal with her in his own way at home.

Family Is What Matters
If there’s one lesson that ‘Maggie’ teaches us, it’s that family and friends matter—especially in times of crisis. This movie didn’t have to be about zombies. Wade and his daughter could have ended up exactly in the same situation as a result of worldwide famine, cataclysmic climate change or End Times. It doesn’t matter. For me, the poignancy is most present in those quiet moments when Wade and his daughter are sharing a memory or a laugh. It’s when he desperately tries to get her to eat something to keep up her strength. And it’s when she’s starting to turn and he exhorts her to fight and stay human.

Box Office Fiasco
‘Maggie’ bombed at the box office. As of this writing, it has earned only $187,112 domestic, according to BoxOfficeMojo. And that’s a shame. I think perhaps LionsGate may not have known how best to market this film. I sympathize, though. As soon as you say “zombie” and Arnold Schwarzenegger, audiences are going to have certain expectations. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were thinking guns, brains, and lots and lots of blood. Too bad. This movie is not that.

I’m really hoping ‘Maggie’ does well on video. It deserves an audience—the right audience.

‘Lucy’—Asking the Wrong Question

Photo Courtesy of IMDb
[‘Lucy’ Poster]Lucy’ (2014)
Directed by Luc Besson
Screenplay by Luc Besson
Action | Sci-Fi
Stars Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi
Universal
Rated R
Log Line: A woman, accidentally caught in a dark deal, turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic.

 

SPOILER ALERT!

I saw the much-anticipated ‘Lucy’ last weekend and, before going into my review, I’d like to make a few preliminary comments. First, I am a huge fan of Luc Besson. Ever since ‘La Femme Nikita,’ I was convinced this guy could do no wrong. Second, I am in love with Scarlett Johansson—don’t tell my wife. Third, I’m very aware that no matter what I say here, this movie will make a ton of money. So that said, what’s my take?

I was disappointed.

This Was Two Movies
Apparently, ‘Lucy’ couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. On the one hand, it is a smart, funny, bloody sci-fi thriller that doesn’t skimp on the action. On the other, it’s an vfx-laden treatise on the history of man and his ability to utilize the untapped potential of his brain. Judging by the official trailer, I was promised the former. And I was getting it in all its Luc Besson glory until Lucy finally meets Morgan Freeman’s Professor Norman in Paris.

There was an upside to the mindy, spacey stuff that takes us from man’s beginnings with the original Lucy to the wonders of the universe. I enjoyed the visual effects—especially when Lucy stops Time with a wave of her hand. Sure, that’s cool. And the movie came in at ninety minutes, which meant we weren’t saddled with a slow-moving second act. But when the screenwriter stops caring that Lucy is on the lam and an evil Korean guy is after her, and opts instead to focus on her morphing into a frickin’ computer made of giant Nutella-like tendrils, that’s when you lose me.

Every Hero Needs an Arc
This is a basic tenet of screenwriting. As we’ve learned over the years, it’s the Hero’s Journey, people. The hero—or the protagonist—reluctantly sets off on a journey where a bunch of stuff happens. Whether it’s good or bad stuff doesn’t really matter. In the end it’s life changing. And there’s always a final battle, which the hero must win. Then he returns home changed and tells the others what he learned. The model may be old, going all the way back to Gilgamesh, but it works.

So what happened to Lucy? Well, she didn’t come back! Instead of an arc, we got a trajectory. She never gets to have the final battle with Mr. Jang—that’s left to the battle-weary French cop Pierre Del Rio. Once Lucy’s brain reaches a hundred percent utilization, she trips off somewhere beyond Time and Space, probably meeting up with an alternate universe version of herself, which is the OS from ‘Her.’ Seriously? What am I supposed to do with pure energy? I invested a lot of my emotions in this woman, and now she just disappears? And just like Professor Norman, I am left with nothing but a thumb drive with a bunch of ones and zeroes on it. Great. I guess I should start that backup now. Oh wait, she melted all the computers.

How Might This Have Worked?
The movie already has the elements of a great sci-fi action thriller—bad guys, experimental drugs, exotic locations and a woman who, though she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, starts out dumb as spit when it comes to choosing men. Speaking of bad guys, the only thing better than a Korean bad guy is pairing him with an English bad guy. Bravo, Luc!

As I said before, I was good with everything until the fateful meeting with Professor Norman. Previously, she had only spoken to him by phone or video screen. He was becoming her Alfred. But once she meets with the good professor and other scientists, we’re transported to the Science Channel as Lucy’s brain utilization increases and everyone discusses the nature of Time and Space. At this point, I wouldn’t have been surprised if everyone adjourned to a nice restaurant and spent the next five hours discussing Sartre or the symbolism behind clowns in horror movies.

Here’s my idea for a third act. When Mr. Jang and his army arrive at the university to kill Lucy, she is already starting to lose her powers because the drug is wearing off. That, coupled with a blinding headache and other side effects from the drug, it’s a question of whether she can still take out the bad guys before they can kill her. A massive final battle ensues where everything—the university, everything—is destroyed as Lucy battles with Mr. Jang and his men while becoming weaker and weaker.

At a critical moment, Mr. Jang shoots Lucy. Weak and bloody she still manages to send him to hell. Then she collapses as the professor makes his way to her. As the professor examines her, he realizes that she is once again human. How? Well, her irises appear normal. Working fast, he and Del Rio get her to the hospital, where surgeons operate on her and she recovers.

Epilogue. Lucy is standing outside the airport with Del Rio. She’s going home to see her parents. He says, “I guess we’ll never know what would have happened had you hit a hundred percent.” Just then, a toddler drifts into the path of an oncoming taxi, his mother running after him and screaming in French. Suddenly, the taxi stops completely, as if Time itself had stopped. The crying mother retrieves her child as Del Rio stares at Lucy in amazement. “What?” she says, smiling. Then she kisses the cop on the cheek and walks into the terminal. Setup for a sequel? You bet.

The Wrong Question
Every great movie asks a question at the beginning that must be answered at the end. In ‘Lucy,’ the question appears to be “what would happen if we could access our whole brain instead of just ten percent?” To me, that’s the wrong question. It has nothing to do with a hero’s life. What happened to Lucy could have happened to anyone—the conniving boyfriend, the French cop or Professor Norman.

I think a better question is, “Will Lucy become the person she is meant to be?” With my ending, I think the movie would have answered that. It still would have been a kick-ass story and we would have left the theatre satisfied that Lucy completed the hero’s journey.