Wednesday, January 26, 2011

One script reader's meat is another reader's poison

Entries have now closed for the BlueCat Fellini Award, a contest open to un-optioned scripts for short and feature film screenplays. Just for fun I entered a favourite short of mine, THE WOMAN WHO SCREAMED BUTTERFLIES [TWWSB hereafter]. It's had interest from directors and was a 2009 Page Awards finalist, but remains stubbornly unmade.

[If you'd like to read the script for TWWSB, a version can be seen online at Circalit here. You'll probably need to register with the site, but it's free and they don't spam you in my experience.]

I figured that in the unlikely event it won, there might be some fresh in the script. If not, the BlueCat Fellini Awards gives not one but two sets of reader's notes on every script entered. I submitted early, which meant I got my feedback this month. Now the entry date has passed, let's play compare and contrast with my two sets of notes.

[A swift caveat: what follows are extracts from the notes, which I've edited for brevity or because they deal with specifics elements that won't mean much unless you've read the screenplay for TWWSB. Hopefully I've left the anonymous readers' meaning intact.]

THE WOMAN WHO SCREAMED BUTTERFLIES is an evocative title that’s sure to draw the attention of film festival programmers, who will then be attracted to the original vision embodied in this script. The content and style of the piece are perfectly matched: haunting, Gothic, lyrical. This screenplay demonstrates excellent understanding of the elements that best drive a short film narrative: sound and symbols. In this case the sound is Sophie’s operatic singing which transforms, onscreen, to the butterflies manifested by Jamie’s synesthesia.

The story is deceptively simple, but manages to deal in several weighty themes – art, ownership, sacrifice, cruelty. While the mise-en-scène incorporates several lavish elements that will require something of a budget, this script is one that is probably worth spending money on. The minimal dialogue means it has an audience beyond English-speakers, and the universal, almost fairy tale facets of the story-telling mean that this could be a favorite at film festivals worldwide.

The screenplay is on the long side for a short ... if the screenplay could be trimmed that would only heighten the surreal intensity of the link between Jamie and Sophie, and give the audience an even more escapist experience. As Jamie never speaks, Sophie becomes the de facto protagonist and she is rather passive, partly because she is portrayed as too good to be true, a talented musician who helps the homeless ... It would be intriguing – and make this even more of a fairy tale – if there could be a “be careful what you wish for” angle to Jamie rolling up in Sophie’s life. If Jamie is a symbol, what does he represent to Sophie, specifically?

Please rate on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest: Story – 9; Characterisation – 8; Dialogue – 8; Description – 9; Clarity – 9; Originality – 9. Total score: 52 (out of a possible 60).

Lots of lavish praise, and some interesting points for me to consider on the next draft. I find the complaint that a 19-page screenplay is long for a short ironic, when the contest rules allow up to 40 pages. But the reader is right: the shorter TWWSB is, the more chance it has of being made. 10-12 pages would be best, if I manage that.

The overall mechanics of this script are very tight. The spacing, the slug lines, the grammar and spelling are all on point. All these elements help to present the script as professional and thus sell the solid content within the script. The content itself is effectively visceral. The writer grasps the purpose of a short film – it's not only to tell a story but to create a world that is interesting, consistent and moving (and all the other things a script/film hope to be).

The “Jamie POV” shots are an effective device ... however, by my count there are twelve POV shots here and it seems like a case of too much of a good thing ... The abbreviated timeline in a short script gives even less room for the writer to create three-dimensional characters (while also setting up an interesting story). A writer has to use emotional short hand and devices in order to be able to pull off the trick.

In this script the visuals are there but there is no context surrounding the characters. Who are the people here? Why should we be interested in their struggle? They seem to exist only for the sake of this story and therefore it would be a challenge for most people to identify with them ... The script would become infinitely more effective if the characters could match the strength of the rest of the script.

Finally, there is a such a thing as a script being “over-written.” Shane Black closed out there era in Hollywood of screenplays being peppered with colorful descriptions. While some readers might enjoy the change, some will think it unprofessional and gimmicky.

Please rate on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest: Story – 7; Characterisation – 6; Dialogue – 5; Description – 5; Clarity – 4; Originality – 7. Total score: 34 (out of a possible 60).

Again, some very good points and lots of food for thought. I suspect this reader is right about my over-using sequences see from Jamie's POV. Trimming some of these would help cut the page count, too. Depth of characterisation - that's definitely a weakness I've identified in my screenwriting. I need to dig a bit deeper into my characters.

What's remarkable is how much these two readers agree upon yet how different their final scores are. The first love all the visual flourishes and Gothic fairytale atmosphere of TWWSB, while the second found that far too emo and over-written for their taste. The first notes are verging on a rave, the second far less enthusiastic.

The good news is that only the BlueCat Fellini contest uses whatever is your highest score to determine which scripts go through to the next round. So that 52/60 might stand me in good stead. Whatever the result, it's been useful to get two very different opinions about TWWSB. I hope to revisit it, when I get time. Onwards!


Lucy V said...

Meh. Second set of notes do little for me; the reader is counting stuff? Please. HATE counting, as I said on the blog only yesterday - plus s/he goes on to try and "hide" this observation by saying generic stuff *about* shorts writing. Now, had s/he said it *feels* like too many "[because of this SPECIFIC reason story/character-wise in TWWSB]" then I would give it more weight. But then again, I'm *just* another reader.

Personally, having read TWWSB myself, I would say of most value here is the notion of shortening it. 19 pages is not technically too long for it, but I've always felt - not just in your script either - that 15 pages is somewhat of a "ideal" limit for short films, any longer and the audience can get a little "tired" for want of a better word... MTV generation and all that. Plus, as you say, the shorter it is, the more likely the short is to be made. Since anime would be the ideal choice for this script (IMHO), you're looking at even more expense, so perhaps you could even get it down to ten pages. You're a good writer, so I'm betting you could with some judicious and ruthless editing. Since it's been a while since you wrote it too, I'm willing to bet there's a whole load of stuff in your brain just waiting to be uncovered.

Adaddinsane said...

Interesting. I had a similar experience getting two sets of feedback from BlueCat last year.

Today's verification word is "Butgerre" - what you wear on your posterior.