Thursday, 7 January 2016

STRONGER - THE JEFF BAUMAN STORY - BIOPIC

LOGLINE: The true story of Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and became an integral part of helping the police locate the Tsarnaev brothers.

WRITER: John Pollono

SCRIPT BIO: Second place on the 2015 blacklist with 40 votes.

INITITAL REACTION:

Holy shit this script is good. Finally, a review of a screenplay that is well written. This script had me laughing out loud, in tears, and totally engaged right the way through. Let's see how John Pollono did that. 

THE STORY:

Jeff Bauman is a bit of a douche. He works at Cost-co in the chicken giblets section, and all he wants from life is to be able to finish work a little early so he can get shit-faced and watch the Red Sox play.

He learnt these life values from his family, all of whom are fuck-ups in the first degree. Then there's ERIN, the love of Jeff's life who has recently just called it off and broken Jeff's heart. 

A day before the bombing Jeff gets off work early to get shit-faced with his friends and family and watch the Red Sox play. During the match Erin turns up, seemingly intent on putting a final nail in their relationship, but Jeff wins her over with bountiful doses of charisma and promises to be at the finish line of the Boston marathon that Erin is running in. 

Erin doesn't believe he'll be there as Jeff has never kept his word before. But on the day of the race, Jeff is right there at the finish line, holding up a huge sign with 3D letters cheering Erin on. 

This is when he comes face to face with one of the Boston bombers. Jeff sees the man with a backpack looking seriously out of place. Jeff considers saying something, confronting the man, but he lets it go. 

Moments later there's a huge explosion and Jeff finds himself sans his legs. 

In the ensuing aftermath and chaos from the explosions, an unknown man wearing a cowboy hat saves Jeff's life by putting a tourniquet around his legs to stem the blood flow.  

He's then rushed to hospital where he defies the odds and survives surgery. There's a desperate man hunt underway for the bombers, alas the Fed's have no idea who they're looking for. 

But Jeff does, he remembers what the bomber looked like in great detail, and gives an accurate description to a police sketch artist. 

Within 48 hours the Feds have all the bombers under arrest largely thanks to Jeff. 

The man hunt is resolved in the first 30 pages of the screenplay. The final 80 pages deals with Jeff's recovery. Emotionally and physically, but it seems the greatest hurdle to his recovery is dealing with his family. 

Will Jeff be scarred for life from this ordeal, or will he use it turn his life around and make something of himself?

This script does everything right. We'll get into the elements now, but on a whole there's very little Stronger does that needs a red pen.

Let's break this sucker down...

CONCEPT

Oddly, we're starting with the script's weakest point. A biopic about the Boston bombing isn't the easiest of sells. All stories are execution dependant, but some more so than others.

To give you an example, there was a screenplay that sold last year called PATIENT Z, - the search for Patient Zero (the first patient in a zombie break-out -- sigh, another zombie film) 

The hook was that the interrogator could actually speak Zombie. The script basically sold on that concept alone. The writing and execution of the idea were at best mediocre. But that didn't matter. 

That's not the case here. No one would want to read, let alone see a poorly executed story about the Boston bombing. 

Judging from the longline I thought this story was going to be a man-hunt thriller, where Jeff works hand in hand with the Feds for 90 minutes until the Boston bomber is taken down in a huge finale in the closing minutes of the film. 

I couldn't have been more wrong. Aside from providing a detailed sketch of the bomber, Jeff has nothing more to do with catching the bomber. In fact, the bomber is caught by page 30, leaving 80 pages of story for Jeff's recovery. 

That could have led us into a woeful tale of self pity, but Jeff is such a buoyant character and the ensemble of his bat-shit-crazy family around him means the rest of this story plays out with such verve and style that you can't stop reading. 

This, I'm sure is largely due to John Pollono's incredible writing skills. 

So while this screenplay is a zinger, for concept it gets a... 

CONCEPT RATING: 6/10

CONCEPT TIP: If your concept is strong, but not necessarily 'holy-shit what a great idea' material, make sure you nail the human angle. It's the human connection that makes Stronger work.

FORM:

Stronger has good form. The page layout is clear and relatively sparse. Biopics tend to be over written. But stronger - while not as lean as it could be - is easy on the eye. 

It has the occasional 5 line paragraph, but in these paragraphs there's very little that doesn't need to be there. The writing is light and simple to follow. 

There's very little written in the descriptions that you wouldn't see on the screen, so to that end, the writing is pertinent. 

John does use the occasional underlining in his dialogue, which is a definite no-no (never direct the actor) - but you forgive him as the story is so well written. 

That's an interesting thing to note. If you're story is well written and pulling the reader along, the reader is far more forgiving when it comes to smaller things like typo's or poor layout.

FORM RATING 7/10

FORM TIP: Keep your descriptions pertinent. So long as 90% of what you're writing will end up on the screen, you're reader will allow you a little over writing. It's when you're over-writing things that aren't going to end up on the screen that the reader will start to check out and skim read.

STRUCTURE

Biopics are unique in the screenwriting world, in that we don't expect so much of a traditional Hero's Journey structure from them. 

Reason for that is we're following a real life story and we all know that real life doesn't fit into a perfect Hero's Journey. 

That said, a biopic isn't a hall-pass to write how ever you want. We still want there to be a sense of structure, at the very least we need to know that this story is going somewhere, we're not just watching stuff happen until the 90 minutes are up. 

It's the flaw of the Hero that usually drives the structure of a biopic. We want to see the hero change. 

CHANGE.

Sorry, just had to put that in caps as far too many writers miss this. If a hero doesn't change, why the hell did we just watch that movie? No one wants to see a dead-beat spend 90 minutes being a dead-beat only to realise, you know what? He/she's going to keep on being a dead-beat, they've learned nothing from their journey. 

The structure in Stronger is great. 

There's a clear ORDINARY WORLD: Jeff is a douche with no life goals and has consequently lost the love of his life - Erin.

He has a clear GOAL: To get the love of his life back.   

The bombing takes place giving rise to Jeff's CALL TO ADVENTURE.

Then this is where Stronger surprises. Instead of this being a woeful story of over coming self pity, which would be an impossible sell, Jeff is the antithesis of this, he's his old wise-cracking self from the moment he wakes from surgery. 

The structure of the story from there is Jeff dealing with his family and the responsibility of his 'Hero' status bestowed upon him by the media. 

STRUCTURE RATING 8/10

STRUCTURE TIP: The Hero's Journey is so well known these days that it is often over used. Learn the Hero's Journey then veer away from it. But know why you're veering away from it. You will surprise your audience and engage them more than if you follow the HJ structure beat for beat. 

CHARACTERS

This is where Stronger excels. 

Every single one of the characters here, even the smaller ones feel real.

REAL.

Yep, it's caps-lock again. Real, every character had been thought through. You can tell that the writers knew the back stories of each of the characters here. They knew precisely how each character would react at any given moment. 

We not only have incredible dialogue which we'll get into next, but we SEE who these characters are by the THINGS THEY DO. 

I won't break down each character, I'll leave that for you to read in the script. And I do highly recommend reading this script for myriad educational reasons.

CHARACTER RATING 10/10

CHARACTER TIP: Know the backstory of all your characters so you know how they would really react to any given scenario. 

DIALOGUE

Exceptional. 

Every character comes to life by the way they speak. And despite there being around 6 key players here, and they all come from the same socio-economic background - hell, they all come from the same family, they all have distinct ways of speaking. 

DIALOGUE RATING 10/10

DIALOGUE TIP: Once you've created a character, have that character surprise us. We get to know your characters, and we get to predict what they're going to say next. That's fine, but every now and then, have a character break out of their skin and say something we wouldn't expect them to say. It will make that character feel more real.  

Think about your close family and friends. You know how they think and how they speak 95% of the time, but every now and then they'll say something that you really didn't expect them to say, and it gives you pause. 

VOICE

The voice in Stronger shines through in the dialogue. Some writers have great voice but it only shines through in descriptions. That's great for the script, but not necessarily so great for the film, as we don't hear the descriptions on screen. We only hear the characters speaking. 

The voice in Stronger will shine through in the film because of the sensational dialogue. 

VOICE RATING 9/10

VOICE TIP: If you're not so great at writing descriptions, then hedge your play and keep your descriptions pertinent, then spend more time on your dialogue.

Readers often skip over descriptions and focus on the dialogue. If you have fast, fun realistic dialogue, it will outweigh any trouble you may have with the descriptions.

PRODUCTION

This is a very important part to the success or failure of Stronger. It's a film like THE FIGHTER or JOY. Without a big name and great actor to carry the film, it would be a belly-flop.

Aside from the bombing scene, it's primarily set inside, (easier to shoot) and keeps to easy to source real life locations, as appose to costly sci-fi sets. It's also primarily a drama, meaning no VFX.

To that end Stronger could be made for around the 20 million mark.

PRODUCTION RATING 8/10

PRODUCTION TIP: Think about ways to tell the same story with less cast and fewer locations. This will make your story an easier sell.

SUMMARY

Can't recommend this script enough. It's a great example of how to write a successful biopic. The dialogue alone makes this well worth the read. 

OVERALL RATING 9/10