This is my first REQUESTED review from Amazon Studios which I’m excited about.
*Sidenote* Thanks to Lauri for taking my review in stride, and sorry I misspelled your name.
Today’s review is of Blood and Fire by Karl Larsson. He takes us to the remote jungles of Belize, where we get into a bit of drug related trouble, even as a missionary for the Salvation Army.
1.) Can we visualize the description?
Yes, very much so. Karl keeps things moving as we go, but each description is enough to conjure a picture in my mind. I was reminded of when a screenwriting professor had us read the script for Alien. It felt short and punchy like that.
I am taking off one point though, as in a few places there just wasn’t enough, especially during action sequences when the kids are kidnapped. The action bounces around and I had to go back and figure out who was where. It happened in three places tops, two of which were with Faron, and the other with Abrego.
9 out of 10 points.
2.) Does the author use an acceptable format?
Format was what it should be, and since this is an Amazon Studios script, I thank Karl for that. Some of our newer writing readers might want to check his script out if they’re looking for an example of acceptable formats. Other than those few places mentioned above, I had an easy time reading it.
OH, and it was 110 pages which was right on the money.
10 out of 10 points.
3.) Is the dialogue free of exposition and rich in subtext? Does each character have a unique voice?
Each character had their own voice, and I’d argue each character was needed. (Two exceptions being the women who go on the field trip with Kara. They could probably be generic woman 1 and 2.)
There was a BIG problem though, that right as something exciting is happening, or conflict is unfolding, we have to pause for two characters to have a witty back and forth. One, maybe two, characters can have this as it helps them, but it seemed like almost every major character did it. A sample of what I’m talking about is on page 35:
Joanna! What are you doing up there. You’re supposed to be with Mary’s team.
I wanted to be with you.
Did you hear that Chloe? Joanna knows I’m cool…
She’s been on that hot roof too long.
Let’s go sweetheart. You shouldn’t be up there.
A pregnant woman on a roof? That’s a big “no, no” and she should instantly be escorted off. I get the back and forth between mother and teenage daughter, but as Chloe does so in other places, maybe we should just get the poor, pregnant girl off that shabby roof before we have a late term miscarriage.
Although I can’t remember each instance, Penner has a few of them too, while Shane and Kara can’t seem to part ways without a one liner.
And another from page 106:
Pray with me Captain.
Shane shakes his head.
You’re on your own…. Thirty seconds.
I have a lot of sins to confess.
Better hurry up then…
This last one actually makes sense, as it fits Abrego’s character and the situation. Other instances, and there are a few, similar to the first one don’t seem to fit the character, and I feel it might be Karl’s personality bleeding through into his characters, where he’s quick with the one liners.
If that’s the case, we all as writers need to watch out making each character like us, and if it’s not, as I mentioned before, two characters tops should be funny, and that in my opinion would be Carnel and Abrego as it fits them best how’re they’re written here.
6 out of 10 points.
4.) Does the writer understand the challenges and rewards posed by the medium chosen in which to tell his/her story? Shorthand version of this is: Is it a movie and not a play?
Elaborate jungle settings, like temple ruins or a rundown town divided by a dirt road lead me to the idea that this couldn’t be a play. Also, very limited talking scenes where characters aren’t already engaged in some action along with it.
This was done well, and again newer writers could learn a thing or two from keeping the story moving.
10 out of 10 points.
5.) Is there anything unique in what the writer presents? Are the writer’s ideas, based on this sample, likely to continue to be original?
The script was good, don’t get me wrong. But the hero trying to escape his dark past only to fight a drug lord felt done before. (My mind jumps to Walking Tall, although I can’t remember the exact past of the Rock.)
The setting was interesting and Karl has either done his homework on the area, or had first hand knowledge. But some details were “too” original, in that I wasn’t sure why they were included and it brought me out of the story.
I can point to one exact instance, and that’s to the reference of Mennonites in Belize. Karl sets up the scene that even though we’re in Central America, the setting looks cherry picked out of Kansas. The main characters then interact in a few settings where the Mennonites are present, like stores and such, and I was thinking more about if Mennonites are actually in Belize, than on what the characters were doing.
I think the locations themselves need to be included, and it helps establish Shane and Kara as folks we can cheer for, but do we really want the audience/reader pulling out their iPhone in the middle of a movie to fact check? (FYI, it turns out Belize has a substantial Mennonite population among Central American countries. I googled it while reading.)
Another detail that took me out of the story was the fact that they worked for the Salvation Army. I’m not against the Salvation Army, and even wrote a Christmas story for them for one of their magazines, but I was left wondering about the whole “Captain” thing. Were they priests, missionaries, volunteers who led church services, what? It bugged me.
Now I’m not saying go full on catholic priest, as that would be very unoriginal, but maybe a Methodist Reverend, or something along those lines, where Shane could easily have been a Marine, but in an effort to cleanse his soul has now turned to God.
It might also be better to have a dark back story to go along with why he’s moving his family to Belize, which can be unearthed by Fitzroy later on. Killed someone in self defense, nasty military trial where he’s cleared of charges but greatly disliked by the community, etc.
5 out of 10 points.
6.) Does the script have a hook?
Man goes down to start a church in an impoverished Central American town, but happens to set up shop in a building used by a Mexican drug cartel. Nice, conflict on the horizon.
Same man is also a bad-assed ex-marine. Oh, hasn’t this been done before? I guess I’ll still read/see it.
12 out of 15 points.
7.) Is that hook effective?
We’re bounced around a lot in the first several pages, but the characters presented and the actions setting the stage for later payoffs was enough to keep me going. Was a spot or two where I had the planes confused in the beginning, and thought a 737 was actually landing on a two lane highway at one point, but it wasn’t enough to deduct points.
15 out of 15 points.
8.) Is there enough to maintain the hook? Reveals, conflict, etc.?
Here’s where I think I can help the most.
The way it’s set up now, Carnel changes too fast once folks are kidnapped, and we’re getting too much side story on Abrego.
We get it, he’s a bad ass Mexican drug lord. I don’t need to see him being feared by people in Mexico or even running from the “federales.”
This drug out, and took the place of, time that should have been spent setting up the hate/respect between Shane and Carnel.
Keep the initial scene where he kills Miguel, and Abrego really shouldn’t show up again until he needs his buried church money from Fitzroy, who will tell him they have a problem. This still sets up the kidnapping, which gives Shane and Carnel a reason to team up.
I think the setup should also somehow show Carnel has a strong dislike for Abrego. I originally thought of something similar to the Godfather, where Don Corleone didn’t want to get involved with drugs, and have Carnel have a similar outlook, where he’s involved with gambling, women, booze, etc. This felt unoriginal though, but something along these lines needs to be done where Carnel hates Abrego, so Carnel’s switch makes sense later on.
As I mentioned before, he switches too fast to a good guy, and it doesn’t fit.
He and Shane should initially like each other. Carnel should still be true to character, and do the things he does, but he should convey to Shane that it’s his town, and as long as Shane doesn’t get in the way he’s free to run the church.
THEN, and here’s where the conflict ensues, everything should fall apart when his brother gets shot, but Shane should be left holding the smoking gun. This puts doubt in his mind whether Elsa was really there, and gives them time to stir things up before their kids are kidnapped.
Two other points on Carnel before I move on.
Carnel should be rude to Alfonso, not cruel. He can be harsh to his son, but we need to see him defending him also, whether in private between the two of them, or slapping another character around who tries to mistreat his son.
Some sort of affection is needed, because when I read the script, I really expected Carnel to be thankful someone kidnapped Alfonso. (Besides the fact he’d have to get his own beer.)
Once Alfonso is killed, which I’m not sure I liked, Carnel shouldn’t care what else happens. He should want to die, going out in a blaze of glory, and Shane is only able to talk him out of it by convincing Carnel that the kids of his village are still in danger. This is both realistic, him giving up, but also makes him a noble character in the end.
As the script very much hinges on the fact that Carnel needs to realistically help Shane:
3 out of 10 points.
9.) Does the story play to a target audience, and have the elements demanded by that audience?
The story moves fast, and that’s another problem I had with it. It moves too fast in some scenes.
During dramatic parts in the story, the tension doesn’t build. We’re presented with Situation A, character does B, so we move onto C.
I’m in no way suggesting we drag things out where the story slows to a crawl, but one situation that shows what I’m talking about is when Chloe is kidnapped and in Fitzroy’s house.
As it is now, he ties her up, leaves, she escapes, he comes back, is interrupted by Penner, leaves again, and then her dad saves her.
This is where tension should really leave us on edge, and I think we need to see Fitzroy right in Chloe’s face, pressing himself against her. It should repulse us and right before he’s about to make his first move, he leaves needing to get his crack on.
Then she’s struggling, struggling, and doesn’t get free until right as he’s coming back the second time, key in door, she’s found a chair leg to ambush him with, but Penner calls him out, and the door shuts, then locks before she can get to it.
It doesn’t need to go down like this word for word, but key scenes should be added to with one question in mind, “How can I build tension in this scene?”
This scene and others should have me at the edge of my seat, or in my case nose pressed against the laptop screen, that I’m thinking, “Oh shit,” for the character.
The ending was great, both the final chase of Abrego and buying the whore house to convert into a church. I wouldn’t change anything there.
5 out of 10.
Good script, so much so, that like I said above, certain elements are great examples for new writers.
I liked it because I read it quickly, and was also entertained.
75 out of 100 points.
Thanks for review, and the encouraging words. You’re offering a great service here, with solid notes, so here’s hoping many other writers take advantage.
Let me address some of the things you raise:
I’d never received the note before that my own sense of humor was bleeding into the characters, but you know what, I think you’re right – it’s a great insight. In my defense, an earlier draft had Shane and Kara’s entire backstory, right back to the moment they first met, and she was a very funny, sarcastic character back then, not putting up with any of Shane’s crap. I think I was trying to retain some of that, plus lighten was is, in places, some tough material.
The Salvation Army thing came about for three reasons:
1) It was different. They’re very familiar, especially at Christmas, but also a little bit unknown. Seemed a good way of doing the old ‘same, but different’.
2) Their military trappings tie into Shane’s past nicely.
3) It’s loosely true. I met a Salvation Army couple down in Belize, with their three young daughters. The parents were indeed ex-military, and a lot of what I described in the village was true. Obviously Abrego was invented, but a lot of the rest had a basis in reality. The locals were really friendly, but there was a dark side as well – one of the villagers had raped an eight year old, and the kids refused to walk down that guy’s road. One of the friends I made was murdered a few months back as well (the loose basis for Faron).
Killing Alfonso is one of those things I’ve gone back and forth on hundred of times. It’s a tough call, but my theory is that if this ever sold, it would be easy to step back from, whereas it would be a tough sell to add it back in.
I also take your point about exploiting the tension without sacrificing the pace. I was wary of making it too long, but I think there are some scenes that could be pushed further.
Again, thanks for your detailed notes, and I would encourage other writers to take advantage of the best deal in town right now.
So glad you’re pleased. I’m always nervous that I’ll get a, “Hey buddy, F you and your notes,” when I suggest certain things.
After I did this review, I googled your script for other reviews and saw you had one on Scriptshadow. From what I read, I think you’ve addressed most of those criticisms perfectly in this latest draft.
Like I said, the main problem was giving us a bit more conflict in key scenes, and really working on a better initial relationship for Shane and Carnel. Other than that this script is pretty much there, as long as you can get someone to read it, and make sure that someone is looking for something exactly like it. (That’s the real trick we all face, right?)
I got to thinking more about the Salvation Army thing, and even the Mennonite portion, and maybe you should keep it. If you were to enter it into a contest like say the Nicholl, they dig stuff like that so it’d probably help you. And when you sell it, a producer can easily change it later like you mentioned with the Alfonso thing.
As far as making Kara witty, I wouldn’t. Like I said, Abrego definitely should be, and Carnel probably also, but Kara being a supporting wife fits her character and your story. The way you handled her and Shane’s entire backstory in two lines of dialogue was perfect.
Again, glad you liked my notes, and thanks very much for the thumbs up on what we’re trying to do here.
As long as the notes are honest, then there’s nothing to fear by either the writer or the reviewer, but yeah, I’m sure you’ll get some blowback on occasion. I guess the difference is this is public, but you’re doing this for free, so you don’t owe anybody, anything.
If you keep it constructive and honest, then you can enjoy the extra traffic a writer’s meltdown brings, guilt free 🙂