by Laurence Frank
August 18, 20--
You’ve pulled off a pretty impressive piece of work. It brims with energy, has humor in places (especially up front) and a cast of very interesting, unique and textured characters set in a novel and highly entertaining “show within a show” world. Your dialogue is terrific – polished, conversational where it needs to be, and loaded with great put-downs, descriptions and comebacks – topnotch stuff. Also very polished is your staging; most often we know exactly where we are, what we’re watching, while scenes unfold in a visual manner that makes imagining them quite easy. This, the staging, arguably, is one of the more difficult components of the craft, and I’m happy to say that you have a terrific feel for it. Just on these merits alone, I would say that you have a knack for the craft, have clearly spent time honing it, and you’d be foolish not to pursue screenwriting to see where it leads.
While extremely polished and largely an enjoyable read, in current form, the screenplay does have its problems in a few areas. Problems, I believe, that are fixable with some re-imagining, and some thought. And it would be worthwhile because your blend of humor, your eye for cinematic detail, and the movie’s heart could morph into a screenplay that while inexpensive to produce could earn you some real attention. There are no guarantees, of course, and we write because we have to write, but I’d be lying if I said you didn’t have a good shot, and you didn’t have talent.
There’s an offhanded quality to much of the dialogue; rhythms are acute, made all the more appealing because you’re a funny guy. That’s a gift; it can’t be taught. Where you need work is in the brass tacks of an exacting and hard to pin down craft: conceptualization & technique.
A STRONGER POINT OF VIEW
The deepest problem that you should address is at the concept level. But let’s table that discussion for next. It implies a tricky balancing act, and as much of it has to do with taste as it does craft. For now, I want to illuminate the most obvious problem at the outset: the lack of a point of view, which could be described more crassly as clutter.
I know you have created an ensemble, with a shading toward Ricky & Melissa as the “more featured characters”. However, because you keep introducing characters sequentially in your first 30-odd pages, while never returning substantially to any of one them to establish an emotional grounding or a point of view, the read becomes needlessly disorienting. The construct of “the final episode” fails because it does not hold at the center. We are asked to track, give or take, fifteen characters while also balancing in our mind’s-eye the “extras”, the regular folks who populate the interview segments. It’s just too much and cumulatively it costs you. Your characters, so many in number, just take too long to roll out, and while you’re platforming each one, these introductions (highly amusing) lack conflict. This is a leaden combination – too many people to string along, and not enough conflict.
This is a discussion of structure – how you elect to deploy the “string” of narrative that you’ve chosen. Odds are, any anonymous professional encountering your script, despite the riches therein, would not go all the way because of the work involved tracking the various characters, their jobs and their relationships, BEFORE the actual story takes place. Dude, it’s a lot of work, and it shouldn’t be. Not for a comedy like this. I had to draw a chart. No agent, intern, exec or producer would ever take the time to do this.
I would place my bet on Melissa emerging as your point of view. She is courageous, honest, and you’ve given her an appealing commanding voice. A case could be made for Ricky, the droll horny PA – it all depends on your marketing sense. The tale of murder and fear on a lowrent reality show as told by the low man on the totem pole, or the travails of the put-upon director who struggles to balance the personalities and her dignity as she makes bottom-feeder television. I would be happy with either as your anchor. To achieve this, you need a fundamental element that is lacking: establish your point of view, establish what they want (whatever it is), and complicate the hell out of them going for it. That’s 101 stuff. And you’re obligated to do it. Even ensemble pictures – and this by default is one – establish a common goal that is thwarted, which then amounts to the conflict.
Part of what eludes you in the conflict is the version of this story (terror in the woods) that you’ve chosen to tell – the concept.
A STORY ABOUT A STORY? OR THE STORY ITSELF?
I embrace your concept of mounting the final episode of a reality show, from cobbled together footage, newsreel (which fades as a device) and “personal” footage. Your choice, though, imposes a strict formal restraint on you because you’re not telling “the story of”, but are mounting an actual TV episode. I’ve done this kind of work – “writing” these shows – and it’s tough to keep all the balls in the air. I’m not sure you pull the device off. For one, the man on the street interviews, the newsreel, etc etc would be strung through the entire episode, and here, they fall off once the crew gets out in the woods. There, your horror movie within the TV show takes off and we lose all sight of your clever construct. This alone tells me it’s not necessary. More on that below.
Because of all the hoops the TV episode construct makes you jump through, I’m not sure it’s the most dramatic choice. And by hoops, I mean in every scene you (and your reader!) have to account for how we get to the footage. The minute you stop telling us what it is, we lose sight of the construct, and yet you spend so much time up front so assiduously establishing it. It is novel to be sure, but the gag wears off at the time we try to invest in your people. And for reasons I detail under the last heading, there are important barriers to that.
The construct never allows you, as the filmmaker, to simply tell an objective story, which is hard enough in itself. I think you should consider doing that. Open on your rich oddball cast and crew mounting an episode from quirky start to bloody finish. You could even start by saying the final episode, they have been cancelled. Why should this all be told after the fact? Why not just tell a linear story moving forward. Tired, pissy, Melissa and Dan are finished, Dak is jealous of Cotton; Ricky wants to dog Alicia; Sebastian is a fop etc etc. You can still do your intercuts of the crew’s footage; of personal footage, but you get the added tool of a good old-fashioned objective camera, telling the story of what happens to these very appealing (and flawed) folks. Honestly, once the story gets under way, and everyone meets up and they head off, it doesn’t matter if this is an episode for a fake show, or movie about this crew.
If you do keep your existing construct, then be sure that you always have the mindset of servicing the TV show, “Monster Hunter”. Take pains to let us know what we’re looking at. You cannot lose sight of that. If you dump the construct (I think you should), obviously you lose the current opening, but that won’t be a big loss. I think your characters – their warmth and foibles and their humor – are far more interesting, and it’s them who carry the day.
If you want to protect some notion of the shock opening, you could hard cut into some other Monster Chaser episode, being screened, for example, to Martin or Leland by Melissa in an edit bay.
TWO KILLERS. REALLY?
I was disappointed to learn that there was actually a monster AND that one of the cast turned out to be a maniac. I don’t think you have room for both in your current plot – it’s just too much to buy and not fun enough. One way you could keep both is by having some bodies drop, have our guys fearing a real monster, only to learn that it’s whack job Dak, but then, after he’s done in, at the very end, there’s that groan and they find (or get fleeting footage) of some jabberwocky out there. This is either a story of a cynical reality crew chasing “monsters” encountering a real one, or the story of a guy who turns on his crew. A lot of this is “taster’s choice”, and I really feel that it cannot be both. I didn’t buy Dak’s psychology – that he would uphold this highly visible role in life while being a serial killer. And once we’re in serial killer mode, you defy all that you’ve built in terms of tone. The staging of his murder scenes is great, so you take some of the curse off. But still, it is a bit of a groaner to know that there is a monster – AND one of our guys goes off.
If anything, have this episode (and your movie) be about the moment in time that Dak – for reasons you have not even begun to explore (stress? the fact that he ain’t the man he pretends to be, shown up by Cotton perhaps?) – just frickin snaps. Or, he has premeditated this for a while, and has monster noises and butchered animal parts to introduce as props, to cover his tracks. Then some bodies drop, and Dak makes it look like some “monster” is at work. In this version, Dale, Cole & Sherman are just fodder in the way, who perhaps get waylaid by Dak for witnessing him taking Shaw out (or so we think). I love the end, by the way, of Shaw being alive and flipping us that bird before he dives for sharks. You just had Mel assume Shaw died; we never saw it, so I figured you had something sneaky up your sleeve. Very clever, that.
MIND YOUR TONE
Needless to say, once you get into your folks dying in the woods story – after the long and drawn out setup – the humor fades and is replaced by horror, perhaps too much. You need to find a better balance. Personally, because you are so funny, and have such a great knack for verbiage, I’d encourage you not to fall into the horror trap. Explo horror writers are far more common than a guy who can riff dialogue that you could see coming from the mouth of a Farrell or Danny McBride. That is your strength. You should write to it. Finally, if you really want to sell the story of Mel & Dan reuniting, then you have to build their demise into the earlier pages. That felt tagged on. But given their chemistry as you’ve written them, I think it’s worth it.
I’ve thrown a lot at you – mainly because your script inspired it, and deserves it. I think you have a great knack for comedy and if you work harder on the basics – the DNA of your story, what exactly is the concept? – and walk the high wire of tone in your horror comedy, we may be hearing more from you. Writing is rewriting. Keep at it.
Screenplay Notes by L. Frank
Oct. 21, 20—
At the concept level, XXXXXXX is both hilarious and promising as a Latino slapstick horror comedy. Tapping into a long-ignored market segment, this send-up of the Wolfman premise through the prism of Latino sub-culture is tremendously inspired, and has potential to garner much attention—whether as a spec script for mainstream sale or as an independent production.
The execution is economical, and the whimsical, easy tone is pitch-perfect. There are some very funny set pieces (e.g. stealing silver from the Church; exploding “shickens”), as well some funny & endearing dialogue between hapless hero Menso and other characters, notably Loco & Juan.
Careful work in the following areas can bring the material up to its full mass-market potential:
1) Create more plot variety & complications
2) Sustain existing characters in the action (e.g. Cholos & Menso’s brothers)
3) Expand and “codify” the Werewolf rules/mythology
4) Develop Rinaldi (the human side)
5) Develop the maid (or create a new female character) as Menso love interest
The above five areas will amount to a thorough (broad but not deep) rewrite. Given the enormous appeal & potential of this property, the undertaking is most definitely worthwhile.
Overall, you need to play more with audience expectation. You can do this by not having the Count be so “formal” in the old horror movie way; by getting ridiculously complicated with your Werewolf “rules”; by having Juan not believe Werewolves, only to have an old book in his home provide the key to winning.
PLOT VARIETY & COMPLICATION
The setup is very appealing in its simplicity. A hapless Mexican plumber Menso is sent to work on a pool in a mansion, only to get ensnared, to his horror, in the nefarious activities of the wealthy owner’s secret werewolf identity. From here until close proceeds a series of escalating “takedown” set pieces, as Menso enlists various helpers, and gamely tries (and fails) to get the Wolf man. While the progression of Menso’s weapons from poison to silver bullet to TNT-laden “shickens” is funny, more needs to happen to differentiate the set pieces, the build up to them—and to complicate them.
There is room in the page count (and the formatting, of course!) for more character & plot development and action.
For example, Menso’s rapport with “the maid” is very engaging. She could be written up, to have a more significant part. (Start by giving her a name.) Every time Menso appears at the house, he hits on her (there is chemistry) but alas, she’s taken. (You start with this, but seem to drop it.)
She could have a badass cholo boyfriend who wants to kick Menso’s ass; she could be Rinaldi’s concubine, and in fear of losing her job, she can’t quit sleeping with him. This could add an interesting dimension to Menso’s conflict with Rinaldi. Either way, Menso’s relationship with the maid should develop. It should have an arc—a beginning, a middle and an end. They don’t have to get together in the end, but there should be some sweet resolution.
The story itself repeats the same set piece, and tends to run a good idea into the ground: Menso goes to the mansion to kill the wolf. What changes with each visit is his weapon. The canvas of the story needs to be broader. Here are a few ideas to open it up:
1) Menso could be a more reluctant hero; what if he doesn’t return to house after seeing the wolf; he’s too scared. Instead, the Wolf seeks him out to destroy him because Menso knows that he exists (not who he is, just yet; we should delay that. See #2, below). That could bring some action into Menso’s world; it doesn’t all have to happen at the mansion. There is a variety of interesting comedy to come from a Werewolf in the barrio.
2) Don’t reveal right away that there is a Wolf man. And, once you reveal that there is one, don’t reveal who he is right away. First, at the job site, Menso is attacked by what he thinks is a coyote or a rabid wolf. Reluctantly, next day, he returns to the worksite, (he needs that job, and he’s sweet on the maid!) only to get attacked again. Now he realizes that this is no ordinary coyote or wolf – it’s a man who turns into a wolf! And let Menso first suspect the gardener or the Maid’s boyfriend. On the next trip (the third) to the worksite, then Menso discovers that the Wolf man is the Count. Play with this reveal … tease it out… you have the room.
3) Give Menso a stronger reason to go back to the mansion. Once he discovers that there is a Werewolf, and that he is the Count, Menso should refuse, at the expense of the pool job, to go back. More pressure needs to be put onto him to get him to go back into the face of danger. Again, think about the classic comedy heroes: from Keaton to Abbott & Costello to Harpo Marx to Peter Sellers (Clouseau): they always want to chicken out, but then rise up to save the day. Of course, the audience will be ahead of you; they’ll know there’s no movie if Menso doesn’t go back. But the fun lies in his stalling, and then his final acceptance of “the call”.
4) Be sure to escalate the danger. Once the Cholos all die on p.43, it’s hard to raise the stakes from here. Save the bloodbath for the finale. It’s OK to maybe kill one Cholo. But structurally, killing them all at once is too much too soon, and story wise, you don’t want them to all exit.
KEEP MENSO’S BROTHERS AROUND
Perhaps the biggest shortfall (and disappointment) in the script is the disappearance of two great sets of characters: first Menso’s brothers, who get replaced by Loco; and then the Cholos, who seem to be replaced by “Homes”, a character you don’t really need, who never really pays off.
Script opens as a rollicking “Latino Marx Bros”. Then the brothers exit, and with Loco & Menso as the duo we get more of Abbott & Costello. It’s okay to add Loco, but this doesn’t mean get rid of the brothers, especially since Menso is the “half-brother” and treated like crap.
There are potentially many very interesting story opportunities to be had if the brothers stick around. Menso has great chemistry with them as the half-brother they disrespect; your script will be well served not to send them to Mexico for the whole story, but rather, keep them around. If necessary, you can send them there for a brief spell – for the same reason – tarantula bite – and at all cost, don’t lose Abuelita’s line “don’t bring Menso”. Funny stuff.
If you keep the brothers around (working another bigger job), you keep more pressure on Menso not to mess up the job at Rinaldi’s; this job could be the first one that the brothers allow Menso to take on his own, and they only do it because their hand is forced. If Menso succeeds, he’ll get more responsibility and make more money. It’s his “audition” with them.
If the brothers remain in the story, Menso can never tell them what he’s experiencing at the mansion—think of all the comic energy that lives in Menso having to conceal the whole adventure from them! There’s an element of a male Latino Cinderfella – lowly plumber exploited by his mean brothers. You should run with it! (With them in Mexico, he never has that conflict). One of the funnier scenes, of course, is near the end when Menso/Loco describe to Joe what they’ve just been through. You can keep this; but find ways to keep the brothers around to create a fuller and more complicated canvas for your anti-hero. In the same spirit:
KEEP THE CHOLOS ALIVE
It’s a mistake to get rid of the Cholos so soon. The prospect of Menso teaming up with Cholos to fight a werewolf is so funny—why get rid of them? After the brothers get yanked from the story, when the Cholos all die, the plot starts to feel arbitrary – one thing after the other. You don’t have the luxury of introducing multiple sets of characters for only short stays; people expect continuity in your world; they want to invest in the characters you introduce, not the next characters you introduce.
Perhaps one of the Cholos can die, or get badly injured, and Cholos being what they are, the survivors swear revenge. Now the Cholos have to throw down with the wolf (someone needs to call him “El Lobo”) for their honor. Here’s a reason to keep them in the plot; then if these bad dudes stick around, you have more bodies for your finale. If you want to kill them all then, fine.
If you keep the brothers & Cholos around, it’ll allow you opportunities for more story complications. For example, the brothers could see Menso with them and think he’s turning into a gangbanger when he should be doing the job; they could banish him from seeing them, when they’re the guys who’ll help get the wolf! At the very least, if a Cholo arrives at the worksite at the same time as Joe, then sparks could fly. There’s a degree of layering that can occur to make the story more complex; not every scene has to be about the Werewolf.
Just think of the layering & comic complexity you can muster if both the Cholos & the brothers remain in the plot, and you are forced to account for them.
On p.22 Juan Melindez lays down a funnily complicated (intentional?) set of rules governing the Werewolf’s strength relative to the moon. Do more with this. The “rules” should be hopelessly complicated—too much for anyone to ever remember (except Juan); that way the Werewolf will be impossible to kill, because the right conditions can never be fulfilled, e.g., if the full moon is on a Saturday, the Wolf needs to eat a woman with brown eyes; or he needs to be killed by a pretty female; or, if the moon is only half-full, he only becomes half a werewolf, etc.
Each time Menso goes after the Werewolf he should believe one rule, only to have it contradicted by another condition, which Juan will then explain after the fact to him. It’s a running gag that could be quite funny. In another version, Juan could not believe in Werewolves at all; what he tells Menso he could be making up – which is why none of the remedies (poison, silver bullet, TNT etc) ever work. He could be getting his info from a comic book, only for there to really be a werewolf, and for the information on how to stop one turn out to be true! In this spirit, Juan is more in the tradition of “the Jokester”, a fine & reliable archetype.
(See “Kung Fu Hustle”, a hilarious genre bending comedy from Steven Chao. With regards to Juan not really believing in Werewolves, the parallel gag I have in mind is how the writer teases us with the power of the Kung Fu comic book; at first we’re led to believe that it’s a fake; but then, by end, we’re led to believe that the comic book really has mystical secrets. At any rate, the tone is a good case in point for “Morales”.)
Also, you need to account, one way or the other, for the accepted wisdom that if you get bitten by a werewolf you turn into one. You don’t necessarily have to have this rule, but it is “inherited wisdom” and either need to use it or explain it away.
THE CHARACTER OF JUAN
It would be great if you could do more with the old guy. He’s a funny archetype, but pretty much stays on one note throughout. Could he have a “fea” (ugly) daughter he’s trying to set up with Menso? Could he be secretly a Werewolf? Could he have a fortune stashed? Maybe he’s not a “believer”, but in the end, a comic or an old book he has winds up having the truth. Just riffing here, but it would be great to peel back another layer on him.
Much more can be done with him. Firstly, as mentioned above, do not reveal him as Werewolf right away. And in his human character, be careful to “misdirect” guilt away from him. He’s quite arch right now—in that traditional aristocratic horror movie way; I’d hip him up, make him really charming and accessible, and charismatic, always with a wry thing to say; generous to his workers, etc. etc. These are just examples. It should come as a surprise that this charming actor (perhaps over the hill, perhaps not) has such a “terrible” secret. So instead of making him “The Count”, let his famous role on TV be “The Count,” when in reality, he’s really a down to earth guy, who digs sports, is rueful over how he’s been typecast as “the Count”, and who has some strong opinions. Give the guy something more to do besides twirling his moustache and eating “shickens”.
And, importantly, in his scenes as a normal guy, after Menso knows the werewolf is him, you need to track the Count’s awareness (or not) of this.
You need to commit to a) the Count knows who he is, and is desperate to cover his secret, or b) in the true Jekyll/Hyde paradigm, has no awareness of his transformations.
The ideal version would be “b” – the guy doesn’t know, and Menso thinks he’s lying to cover his secret.
In the same spirit, you need to commit to what the Maid knows. If this transformation is occurring on a regular basis, surely she’d know. If not, you need to plug how come she doesn’t know; and if she does know, you need to plug why she doesn’t say anything. Is she too terrified? Afraid to lose her job?
Think of this in light of my earlier pitch that maybe the Count is secretly sleeping with her…
Simply threatening “to go to the Mayor” can’t sustain why nothing happens to him over the length of the script, or before. Did he just suffer this affliction? It’s not credible, and misses some opportunities for comedy.
There is a harder to do version in which we think the Count is the wolf, but it turns out to be the maid … and we only realize this at the end, when Menso is finally about to seduce her.
THE NATIONAL GUARD
The finale gets wildly big in the slapstick spirit when the cops and the National Guard get into the mix—and it is quite funny. If you’re sold on our guys getting TNT from the armory, then you have to make their caper much more credible. Loco & Menso too easily dupe the Guardsmen into revealing where the TNT is, and then get away off the base with the explosives too easily.
It’s not certain that you need this caper set piece; conceivably, if you keep the Cholos alive, these guys would be able to score dynamite on the street. If you keep the Guard, make sure your caper is somewhat credible. Either way, it gives rise to perhaps the most general, but most important note:
KEEP THE “REAL” MOMENTS REAL
Don’t be afraid to write for real horror, real desire, and real tension. Menso can have real moments with the Maid, his brothers, Loco y Juan. He can experience real fear and dread. It’s okay to humanize him and to let the script “breathe” in places by pausing the slapstick action. The hybrid tone will really help the wacky hybrid concept. Mix it up. Keep the reader guessing.
I’d rethink Menso’s fate. It’s fine to intern Loco in the Loony bin, but let our plumber be a hero; if it isn’t as a werewolf hunter, at least let him get the girl. I would fully expect that Menso Morales is a character that any studio or producer would want to serialize—like Abbot & Costello.
A FINAL NOTE: “STEREOTYPING”
Studios, actors & directors are extremely sensitive about stereotyping minorities—especially by people of different ethnicity (i.e. whites). Call it “PC Hollywood”. Right or wrong, talent & programmers are loathe to rub up against traditional racial profiling, such as “cheap Jews”, “lazy blacks”, “cunning Asians” or “dumb Mexicans”.
While there is nothing blatantly racist or offensive about this script, written in a very affectionate tone, before it is distributed, it would be wise to do one final “PC” pass to excise any borderline offensive material. Too closely identifying Mexicans by Pollo Loco, tortillas (i.e. their food) can scare away producers from speculating in the very ethnicity you’re writing about. Make it dummy proof. Doing this final PC pass will not denature the comedy as much as it will make the script “objection-proof”; it will remove yet one more reason for someone to say no, and so many are in the business of saying no—mostly the frontline readers who, perverse as it may sound, are loathe to justify to their bosses any script they like, and by liking the script, force them to read it.