I'm proud of the work I did for that contest, yet I know I could have done so much better. There were inexcusable spelling errors, due to my inability to get the damn thing finished right up until the day I mailed it. That should have never happened. I also had other factors weighing against me. I wrote a teleplay; first-place was a screenplay. I wrote a spec script for an existing series; first-place was an original. I choose a Science Fiction series and naturally first-place was so grounded in reality it kind of makes me want to choke somebody. What follows are my thoughts on the first-place winner of our category.
When I saw that the story was based on Iraq, I was instantly disappointed. Iraq is all we ever hear about in the news, and it seems like it's in every conversation, almost inescapable. Iraq is the last thing I want to hear or read about, especially when I'm expecting and looking for entertainment.
The title of the screenplay, "OFF THE FOB", made me pause. It's not very catchy and I had no idea what FOB stood for. It's a minor gripe, but with all the effort that goes into writing these things, a little more time for the title can't hurt.
There were quite a few things on the first page that bothered me. Some of them are stylistic, some of them are syntactical, all of them are subjective. That's the business, no two scripts look the same. I was expecting a script more consistent with my vision of a professional and well written property, and it didn't fit with my preconceptions. That doesn't mean, however, that it's a bad script.
A quick thing here, and this will definitely fall under opinion: character names are much harder to create than you think, until you've actually tried to do it. But the Arab names in this script are so abused for creative purposes that it's almost a cliche to use them. A little research on the web should have made it possible to come up with better alternatives.
Consistency in writing is important, and scripts are certainly no exception. In fact, it's even more important than in other forms of writing for a very simple reason; scripts aren't meant to read like books are. They are blueprints for a very expensive play. It's hard to read one from cover-to-cover and be into the story the entire way without having small mistakes or bad decisions pull you out of the story. Inconsistency in slug lines can do this. Writing a single location two different ways is a no-no, and abusing the time-of-day is as well. There's no need to state the time of day more than once unless you are either changing locations, or intend for the time-of-day to change. "EXT. BOB'S HOUSE - NIGHT
" for your establishing scene, and "EXT. BOB'S GARDEN
" is all you need.
On page 1, there are two action elements that are about 95% description and 5% action. In some circumstances this is fine, and there are tricks you can use to make them more readable, such as breaking up the action with dialog snippets, or being more brief in description. But scripts are not books, description in action elements are not there for you to "show the director/cast/crew what you see", because the director couldn't care less what you want visually. Everyone involved with making a film wants to exert their creative influence, from the set designer to the wardrobe people. There's just no point in excessive description. I've been taught that you write primarily in master shots unless there's something you don't believe will be understood otherwise. Oddly, most of this script doesn't suffer from this problem, but it's evident from the first page that it may be an issue for this writer at times.
There are also places where the author goes a bit too far in describing things that aren't going to be evident to the audience, and are too technical. "The soldiers wear desert camo uniforms and full battle rattle
", from page 1, instantly drops me out of the story. What is "full battle rattle"? Is part of the story going to be confusing to me now, given that I don't understand this? Are the people producing this going to bother to find out? That they are in desert camo and battle gear is more than enough here. The same goes for "Huxley has a breach kit on his back
". I don't know what a breach kit looks like, and I'd bet the barn that the majority of the audience isn't going to know either.
The problems with description continues: "AHMED, an Iraqi man wearing shorts and a wife-beater
". I don't have any clue what a "wife-beater" is, so it's hard to know what to even make of this. It's every bit as important to be clear as it is to be brief in description, and there's no guarantee that the character will be dressed this way just because it's in the script. It's better to be as generic as possible, and save the specifics for when it really
The story moves along with four U.S. soldiers gaining entry to an Iraqi's home via plastique explosives attached to his door. This is a story problem; nobody, including the military, is going to use explosives just to get through the front door of a residential home. The damage to the building would be significant, possibly killing anyone near the door on the inside. The specialized knowledge the author seems to posses about the military seems to fail her in this particular instance. The sad thing is that given Hollywood's love of the explosion (the more the better, right?) this may actually make it a more
marketable. Consistency takes a hit again, as the soldiers raid another home just minutes later, but this time they kick the door in. No explanation is given for the discrepancy.
As I said above, the first raid is written as almost entire page of solid action, broken into many paragraphs. Sometimes you want to break away from a paragraph with a sentence by itself, or just a word, purely for effect.The smoke is hanging in the air like fog, hardly anything in the room is visible. He walks along the wall, slowly, until his feet run into something. It's the missing son.Dead.
Sometimes though, when you aren't doing it for effect, it just makes reading the darn thing more tedious. Every little movement doesn't have to be choreographed in the script, the less you do, the better. Consider breaking it up with some dialog, even if it seems inane. It helps.
I'm not a big fan of excessive profanity, even though I swear, sometimes more than I should. In moderation, they are weighted words which can express things an entire monologue can't. But when excessive, the meaning becomes blunt, and soon looks like nothing but a lack of vocabulary. While some people do swear constantly, I don't buy into what this person is trying to sell me on, that almost everyone does. Soldiers in war or not, it's not working for me.
When it comes to dialog, the most subjective of all the elements, there are still rules to consider. People talk differently because they are different, but also because of the mood they are in, and the situation. People also speak different languages. Nobody expects you to write a French characters dialog in French, but if the person they are speaking to doesn't understand French, then you've got a real problem. In the first two raids, there are two speaking parts by Iraqi men. We know they are both speaking English, because the translator that the raiding party is dragging around isn't really doing anything but reading documents. I don't buy into it.
The last nine pages were no better than the first six. The excessive unbroken action is replaced by unbroken dialog that left me wondering what the author was trying to accomplish with it. A suicidal burned out soldier is nothing new, and it isn't being pulled off convincingly enough to get me interested, much less keep that interest over the course of an entire script. That sequence is complete, and this is where the script ends.
Only the first 15 pages were wanted for the contest, but even so, I still can't understand what this script is supposed to be about. Having only the first 15 pages is a handicap, so there is every possibility that the story may pick up steam later on, and the introduction simply needs more work, but I can't tell. A small group of marines raid two Iraq homes looking for bad guys on their list, destroy some property, and chat about it. I'm just not interested.
There are no blaring mistakes in the way the script is structured or executed, but the problem is serious non-the-less. The story is boring, it's just that simple. I'm surprised it won first-place, I was really expecting something of greater quality.
But it did win. So, congratulations to Catherine Ross. She undoubtedly worked hard on this script and unlike myself, many people did think highly of it. Enjoy your success, and I wish you more of it in the future.