Monday, May 14, 2007

Surprisingly Good Criticism from Slamdance

Several months ago, I wrote a short film screenplay, that I happened to like. I entered it in a few contests and got bummed out because it didn't even place.

So I submitted the almost very same short film screenplay (except I changed the "Working" in the title to the folksier "Workin'") to the Slamdance Film Festival and paid the extra few dollars for some feedback. I consider it money well spent. The reviewer even quoted Thoreau, which is always a plus.

I like this feedback so much, I don't mind so much if the script doesn't win, place or show. There are always more scripts and more contests.

So... here is the screenplay.

And here is the feedback:

Slamdance Screenplay Competition
Coverage for Workin' Girl (Reader #55031)

Melissa is a struggling actress who works as a waitress to pay the bills. The first act (pages 1 - 5) essentially works at developing her character and does so efficiently. The first conflict arrises when her boss gives her a double shift and she must A) convince him to let her out B) make the audition with the time given her. It's a race against the clock and because of the earlier character build up showing just how much she wants to act, the tension is palpable. Act two is the audition. Melissa sees a coworker there - a young ditz with little passion or respect for the craft. That she has no talent as an actress will, ironically, be dependant on the performance of the young woman who plays the character. Following the audition, Shannon gives Melissa a ride back to work. Act three is the reveal: Melissa got a role! But not the one she wanted. That went to Shannon and so stamps the film with the old addage: "Nobody said life is fair." It's not, clearly. Here lies the largest conflict for the main character: give in or keep trying? Thankfully Melissa keeps trying, but in such a way that we are never told explicitly that things will be okay, but rather a message is hinted that the true value contained in life is not the achievement but the trying. Ultimately, this provides a beautiful end to an deftly handled but otherwise traditional story.

What works:

The writer is to be congratulated in the way by which they reveal the character of Melissa in the opening act. Little things like the different accent for each table and the "campaign" for more hours are good ways of illustrating her as hard working, creative, and in need of money. She say a lot without saying a lot, which is one of the primary rules of good writing and the author does that exceptionally well here. The End: This isn't the first script written about a struggling actor, nor will it be the last. What sets this one apart from the bunch is not just the lack of happy ending / resolution, but the characters heartwarming desire to push on. It's a banner for hardwork and optimism which can come across as sentimental and "light" if done poorly, but can also come across as inspirational and real, when done well, as it is done here.

What doesn't work:
Something abstract and something simple. Your biggest issue lies with originality. That isn't to say that this is not a unique piece of writing. It is. But it retains the frame work of the traditional "struggling actor story." Luckily your characters excede this limitation, but the confines of a 10 page script still hold them back. Consider a wider scope in a future draft. There are a few instances where the author allows potential plot twists and turns to go unrealized. It's not something that is done wrong per se, just something which could be done better. The piece is extremely tight, but in some instances that actually works against you. As an experiment, consider everything that could possibly go wrong in Melissa's day and write that in. The boss says No. The scooter gets a flat, runs out of gas. She leaves her makeup behind. Arrives late. Wrong building etc. Etc. You provide plenty of internal hurdles for the character, now provide a few more external ones.

How it can be improved:

The most basic element is originality. Of course, every story has been told before so you're not likely to write something entirely new. However, the script as it is has enough going for it that it could stand to benefit from a longer draft with a deeper more personal exploration of the characters. Not to get too academic here, but Henry David Thoreau said something once that I (if I may use the singular) always liked: "...for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me." In other words, the author in encouraged to allow themselves the time and leeway to make a fully personal realization of the character which have up until now been sketched in compelling but still broad outlines. You may perhaps do a rewrite of it in a pilot format (roughly 30 pages). As it is and with the ending you've allowed, it may make for an interesting TV show. Also, a small thing: you may consider using the second shift as a more dynamic hurdle to be overcome. Some maneuvering and scheming might add to the sense of urgency and keep the audience on their seat for just those extra few minutes.

Next step:
This reader's reccomendation: do a rewrite as a thirty page pilot. This is much more likely to be noticed as a TV show than as a short.


Courtney said...

Oooh, that hadn't occurred to me, but your screenplay would be a *great* basis for a series. And just think how the actresses would struggle to try and get the lead. Which would be enough stories for, like, the first two seasons.

alex said...

Very cool MR. I liked it!