LOGLINE: An expert on cults is hired by a mother and father to kidnap and deprogram their brain-washed daughter. He soon begins to suspect the parents may be more destructive than the cult he’s been hired to save her from.
WRITER: Riley Stearns
SCRIPT BIO: 19 votes on the 2013 blacklist. It has since been made into a film directed by the writer. This is Riley's first feature. It has a 6.7 rating on IMDB. Metacritic has it on 70/100 and rotten tomatoes gives it a 90% rating.
Interesting to note this film didn't get a box office release yet and I imagine it won't.
Ansel Roth is a weird character to say the least. I think this character is the core reason this script placed so high on the 2013 blacklist - the blacklist is becoming more and more a celebration of the weird. If you go through the blacklist loglines of the last few years, you will find a large percentage of scripts dealing with cancer, and lead roles that are either mostly dislikable or straight out serial killers.
The story to this script is pretty straight forward - Ansel Roth is a 40 something professional deprogrammer - that is - a person who deals with people (mostly young adults) that have been brainwashed by cults. He takes them away from the cult - locks them in a room then spends 5 days deprogramming them.
This story is pretty much that - we first meet Ansel at a seminar he's giving where there's only a handful of people present. One of whom is a member of a family that Ansel worked for deprogramming a young lady. That same young lady killed herself - this man believes it is as a result of Ansel's deprogramming and he punches Ansel hard in the face.
Ansel doesn't seem fazed by this - he takes the punch and moves on. At the same seminar a husband and wife approach Ansel and say that their daughter has been brain washed by a cult and that they dearly want him to kidnap her and deprogram her.
At first Ansel is reluctant - but being that he is in debt to his manager for the cost of all his self-help books he had printed on credit but has failed to sell, he decides to take the 'case'.
He then kidnaps Claire - a 19 year old lady - sequesters her in a remote motel and begins deprogramming her.
As the logline suggests - what he discovers makes him question who is more dangerous - the cult or Claire's parents.
The first thing that hit me as I was reading this - was how much I disliked Ansel. In fact, the first 18 pages are nothing but negative empathy. I wrote in my last post the importance of making the audience like your hero BEFORE showing us their flaw.
The writer has done just that here. The entire first 5 pages of this script are devoted to showing Ansel run out on paying a food bill. He does it in a fashion that makes us hate him.
He's an asshole to the manager, he's an asshole to the waiter, he's just a plain asshole.
Now what was the point in opening like this? I imagine the writer was trying to SHOW us that Ansel is down and out - he can't even afford a meal. But why convey that story point in a negative light. Why couldn't it have been written in a positive light?
Here's an alternative - instead of having Ansel steal a lunch, then be abusive toward the manager and waiter of the diner, why not have him out the back of the restaurant, picking through the rubbish bin after scraps thrown away - then have a couple walk past and see him and recognise him 'hey, aren't you Ansel Roth, the author?' He denies it, as he's embarrassed, then when he's up on stage giving his presentation, that same couple are in the audience. In fact, that couple could BE the couple that come to ask him to deprogram their daughter.
This way we have conveyed that he is down and out on his luck in a positive light - this execution of this character point is an example of passive empathy. Which is FAR better than ACTIVE NEGATIVE EMPATHY.
Just for those that aren't 100% up to date on the 4 types of empathy --
ACTIVE POSITIVE EMPATHY is when the hero DOES something we like them for. They save someone, they run after the mugger, they whistle blow on the bad guy etc....
PASSIVE POSITIVE EMPATHY is when something bad happens to them and we feel sorry for them.
Then there is ACTIVE NEGATIVE EMPATHY and PASSIVE NEGATIVE EMPATHY.
Active negative empathy is when the character actively does something we don't like them for. As in this instance, Ansel is an asshole to the waiter and the manager.
PASSIVE NEGATIVE EMPATHY is when something bad is happening - and the hero chooses not to do anything about it. Say, your hero is watching someone being mugged and they don't try to stop it. We don't like them because they DIDN'T do something.
The next 13 pages in this script are one active negative empathy beat after another.
When you don't have empathy for the hero in a story - there is no vicarious connection between the audience and the film. People will still watch, but that's all they're doing - is watching - they're not FEELING the film. We get feeling when we have a connection with the characters on screen. The first 18 pages of this script are spent alienating the reader/watcher.
The first positive empathy beat comes in the form of a threat from a strong-man who threatens Ansel that he has 1 week to pay off his debt or he'll be beaten up.
But even that is PASSIVE POSITIVE EMPATHY. What really gets the audience connected is ACTIVE POSITIVE EMPATHY. In fact - I don't recall ONE SINGLE beat of ACTIVE POSITIVE EMPATHY in the first 50 pages of this script.
Ansel goes and kidnaps Claire - that's active - but is it positive? I would argue no. His intentions might be well placed - but forcibly kidnapping someone is never something that endears us to a person.
Empathy beats aside - my next big problem with the first half of this script is...
EXPLAIN THEN HAPPENS
What does that mean?
It's a beat in a film - where you have a character saying - 'Okay, this is what I'm going to do. I'm going to kidnap your daughter and take her to a motel where I'm going to deprogram her.'
Then after saying that - we spend the next 5 - 10 minutes watching - exactly that. There is nothing more boring than being told what's about to happen, then it playing out exactly as we were told it would.
If you do have a character explain what's going to happen - then it's on YOU the writer to make sure that SOMETHING GOES WRONG.
If you just have it play out as it was explained - then that's dull screen time. It's boring as hell.
This script is also guilty of TRAVEL TIME.
Right after the kidnapping goes completely to plan... (boring) ... we then have a series of shots of Ansel driving for about 24 hours.
It takes up almost a full page. That's 1 minute of screentime. Why do we need to see them driving for a minute?
Then, when they get to the motel, they have the problem of walking Claire from the van into the motel room without her causing any trouble.
This was a great opportunity for something to go WRONG.
Nope - nothing went wrong - not really - Claire tried to walk away - but one of Anel's minders grabs her and forces her into the motel room without incident.
So there was really no point to showing the kidnapping as NOTHING WENT WRONG.
Then there was no reason to show the travel time of driving as NOTHING WENT WRONG.
Then there was no point in showing them get Claire into the room as - you guessed it - NOTHING WENT WRONG.
I'm not gong to break this script down completely like I have many other scripts. But I do want to look at another few aspects of where this script went wrong.
Next is ANSEL'S FLAW.
What is it?
He's down and out. That's not a flaw. That's a by-product of a flaw. What is it that's causing him to be down and out?
He's an asshole? Is that a flaw? Not really. Again, it's a by-product of a flaw.
So to this end... I can't really see what Ansel's flaw is. When a hero doesn't have a clear flaw, it makes it harder for the audience to connect with them.
When a hero doesn't have a clear flaw, there's no inner journey - the story becomes spectacle only. Surface level.
Why is Ansel a deprogrammer? Wouldn't it have been more interesting if he went into this bizarre profession as he himself was once a victim of a cult?
Remember in Jaws - the famous monologue from Quint about being on the USS Indianapolis that sank in the pacific. He spends days in the water, watching his buddies being eaten alive by sharks.
That made Quint's hatred of sharks personal. We understand what his flaw was. Why he was the way he was. When you understand WHY a person is flawed - you are far more likely to be forgiving toward their flaw.
If someone is an asshole for a good reason, we forgive them. If someone if just a plain asshole, we dislike them.
Let's look at the goal here.
What is the goal? Deprogram Claire.
We are given a tentative timeline - one week - or Ansel will be beaten up - but we get the feeling Ansel doesn't really care if he's beaten up or not. He's kind of psychopathic like that.
Let's look at the stakes of the goal. What happens to Ansel if he fails at de-programming Claire? Nothing really - he goes back to his normal life and he's been paid.
So there's zero stakes.
IF - say - Ansel was really messed up BECAUSE he blamed himself for the suicide of the other girl that he tried to deprogram - and he reluctantly took on this case - not for the money - but for the opportunity to prove to himself he can succeed - then we have a great motivation for his flaw! And we also have great personal stakes. We - as the audience - are suddenly SOOOO much more invested in this story.
If Ansel fails deprogramming her - then he is a failure. We can get behind that as a story line.
As it stands - there's nothing personally invested for Ansel. He doesn't really want to do this deprogramming - he's really only in it for the money.
Okay -- so that's a lot of negative for this script - there is one ounce of goodness here...
This script is 90% contained in the motel room. That brings the production costs waaaaay down... which is a good thing. I had a look around but could not see a production budget for this film. I' going to guess less than $5m - and assume it was more likely around the $2-$3m mark.
Looking at the setup of this film - the lack of empathy for Ansel, the lack of flaw, the lack of personal motivation for the hero - I can see why this film played well at film festivals - but then did not make any money at the box office.
There's no big idea here - this script is a DRAMA - it's got darker elements - but it's definitely not a thriller and definitely not a horror.
It could have been both a thriller and a horror if it had been executed differently. Look at Jason Blum's THE GIFT - that was a straight forward drama that was told as a thriller/horror. The dark/suspense elements of that drama were played up and it found an audience.
Faults could have gone in that direction - but instead it chose the dark dramedy route (drama/comedy).
Dark drama's almost never make money. And a dark dramedy is even less likely to make money.
So how to apply what we've learnt to your script?
Take a look at the moment you reveal your hero's flaw. Do you do it in a positive or negative way? If you do it in a negative way, re-write it until you can convey the point in a positive way - a way that makes us LIKE your hero despite their flaw.
Second tip: - personal investment. Look at your story. Is your hero PERSONALLY involved in the storyline? If not, then go through and re-write it until your hero has a personal reason to want to go on their journey.
When your hero is personally invested - WE the audience will be personally invested.
In the original draft of Jaws written by Peter Benchley - Quint had no personal reason for hating sharks. It was Spielberg who wrote that monologue about Quint going down with the USS Indianapolis, and the film is all the more powerful for it.