Welcome to another Saturday Edition of Hank Unleashed.
Today’s script take’s us down to the Florida Everglades in search of the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Interestingly enough, doing a bit of research, I found out that the story has a loose basing on a Cornell study that took place in the swamps of Arkansas, where people have reported seeing this thought extinct bird. I don’t believe they’ve found it yet. (But that was also only doing 15 minutes of “thorough” research via Google.)
PECK by Kevin R. Wright
Logline – A Cornell biology professor travels to Florida to confirm the sighting of a bird that was thought to be extinct – only to find that the town may have a different agenda.
Let’s get started.
1.) Can we visualize the description?
Here’s our opening image:
There is no fade in or prefatory images, just the rhythmic croak of frogs, followed by:
EXT. HARDWOOD SWAMP – SUNRISE
A boat oar’s clap against algae covered water. It’s a
pleasant, sun-baked morning. DON PHILLIPS, 70’s, grizzled,
flabby in the middle, strains and breathes heavy as he
navigates a wooden punt-boat through a labyrinth of cypress
He keeps his ear to the canopy. There is a cooed honk, like a toy trumpet. A bead of sweat tickles the corner of his eye.
The silence is broken by the sound of a hollow wooden WHOOSH,
FLAP, FLAP, FLAP. Tree branches rustle and snap.
Don’s toothless mug contorts into something between
astonishment and ecstasy. He fumbles for his cell phone, he
gets it out of his pocket.
Not bad, but I’d argue the first part definitely needs to be dropped. That’s for directors and/or once the movie’s actually in production.
The second part I didn’t like was how the first paragraph seems so long. Not just over 5 lines, but can some of it be dropped entirely?
Lastly, it would have more of a dramatic impact if set up something like this (especially anytime we’re out in the swamp):
The silence is broken.
FLAP, FLAP, FLAP.
Tree branches rustle and snap.
This gives us that sense of serenity only to be rudely broken, and causes us to JUMP as we read.
Then there were things that weren’t needed or at least needed trimming down.
James is hunched over his desk. He gawks at the TV. On it, behind Anderson and Bill, a photo of himself, only it’s years ago. He’s fresh faced and idealistic, standing with a group of men in a tropical climate beside a freshly planted sign which reads: El Yunque Reserve “Home of the Yellow-Shouldered Blackbird”.
Not only is stuff like this long, but do we need to see it? Can’t the name drop of closing El Yunque Reserve be enough? It’s just a lot of description for details that are gone over later.
Double Description and Dialogue.
Let me stop you right here in the
hallway for a second, Mister Dane.
They stop in the middle of the hall.
Um, what? Do southerners typically say what action they’re going to perform before they perform it?
Two instances, although there were others that I fought through, are:
Page 9 – It’s a second reference to two different people clearing phlegm or mucus. Not sure why that was important, or why Cornell has such a cold epidemic.
Page 62 – James’s hotel room seems broken into, but when he goes in to stick his foot through the door, suddenly he’s unconscious with a bad ankle? That confused me.
There were other bits, and overall I’d say the description needs some decent trimming, additions for better impact of sentences, and clear some of the action up.
4 out of 10 points.
2.) Does the author use an acceptable format?
Format was good. Relatively free of typos, and other than the bit right at the beginning, I didn’t have anything else that struck me as bad.
10 out of 10 points.
3.) Is the dialogue free of exposition and rich in subtext? Does each character have a unique voice?
Dialogue was a bit rough.
Dude, Well, Huh, Man…
Drop all of these.
I have no clue why Elsa starts saying “dude” on page 11 suddenly, then has to use it each other time she talks.
Anderson Cooper shouldn’t say “huh” nor should any other characters.
Page 66, Tom and James have an exchange, but leave the “man” out of what they say.
And “well” I don’t have exact uses written down, but it was in there, so go back through and edit any of these types of things out.
Clear. Crisp. Dialogue.
Good Expo vs. Bad Expo
The exposition between Elsa and James is actually pretty good, especially when paired with her trying to connect to the conference call that isn’t working. I really liked that trick.
Unfortunately, the next two scenes give us redundant information. My opinion is to drop the classroom scene since it doesn’t add anything, and all but Vaught we never see again (and he can easily be edited out of the end).
The news interview is decent expo, but you need to make Anderson Cooper a generic commentator. Hey, I’m an AC360 fan, but you need to leave casting as open as possible. (Plus readers may be taken out of the story as they think of Anderson’s good looks or goofy laugh.)
Too many…use of…ellipses…
I counted 3 just on page 71. Go back and edit these all out. If characters are trailing off, don’t let them, and if they’re being interrupted–
Use two dashes.
Unclear or Odd Dialogue
Two distinct points I wrote down were on page 45:
It ain’t probably nothin’ to worry
about. The swamps are right across
the lot. Wager it’s a stray shot
from a hunter.
Is there anytime of night you
people do not hunt!?
James just seemed to talk weird, in this sentence and other cases, especially for an educated professor. (A good tip to solve this would be reading lines out loud.)
Speaking of, you’re putting
yourself out there for this. You
might have a hard time finding
grants the next few years.
Bill pats James on the back. They put out their cigarettes.
Who does that? Who are you?
I’m not sure how his second line related to the first.
Character Voices and Subtext
Gail was unique and had some subtext, warning James to leave.
Tuck and the other folks all sounded alike.
Bill was okay.
Bobby was a bit different than the other Floridians in that he spoke with more authority.
The dialogue was one of two parts that really needed work, the other being the payoff with the plot, but we’ll cover that in a bit.
3 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?
I’d lean towards movie. There’s a lot of scenes that would be hard to recreate on the stage.
Nothing jumped out and screamed trailer though, so I think more suspense needs to be added.
That leaves us somewhere in the middle.
5 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 bird research was believable which I think was good.
The problem was, it has to be a problem we as an audience can get behind, and in a way where it keeps us turning pages. I didn’t have that longing for the next page that I had in some of the more recent scripts we’ve reviewed.
5 out of 10 points.
6.) Does the script have a hook?
When I read the logline I was intrigued.
Having Don die also helped, especially just catching the bird with a cell phone shot.
James waking up in the car though, and his chat with Brian, I just didn’t get into. (Now, having read the whole script I wonder why Brian was even in it in the first place.)
A better way to open is with James in his car, then going straight into his offices with everyone celebrating.
Right now it’s giving us back story with no later payoff.
8 out of 15 points.
7.) Is that hook effective?
Yes, but we need to get to Florida sooner. I already mentioned above cutting out Brian, and I mentioned even earlier to cut out the classroom scene.
This should dramatically improve the first part, but you need one more thing. We as the reader/audience need to get an idea that something isn’t right down there.
Maybe Don’s journals are missing, or maybe they should have been sent back with his things but weren’t. There needs to be some hint that Moore Haven will spell trouble for James, but mysteriously.
10 out of 15 points.
8.) Is there enough to maintain the hook? Reveals, conflict, etc.?
James certainly gets dragged through Hell and back.
We can’t accuse Kevin of being too easy on his protagonist. The problem is the story never really pays off.
I had the feeling the entire script that there was going to be some grand scheming conspiracy with this bird, and I’m left thinking there is, but we never find out.
This can’t happen.
EVERYTHING that happens to James needs to have an explanation at the end. Characters need to have chosen sides, turned out to be not who they seemed, and James needs to get to the bottom of it all.
Right now, things move along, but the ending is a complete downer.
3 out of 10 points.
9.) Does the story play to a target audience, and have the elements demanded by that audience?
I think if restructured properly, this could make for a cool suspense thriller. I was certainly wondering who all was behind James’s misfortune.
As I said above though, the audience will fly to your house and slap you if the ending stays the way it is.
I think there’s an excellent opportunity to keep us in the dark on why James suddenly wants to take this on. I think he should deny going to Elsa in the beginning, then after seeing the news program we’re left wondering why he suddenly changed his mind.
The other characters should wonder why he’s so against finding the bird in Florida, and maybe Bobby knows all along, but only hints at it. This adds instant tension, as two forces are directly opposed over the bird’s existence.
It’s also a good opportunity for Bill to have a falling out with James later on, since James leads him to believe that the bird doesn’t exist due to the lack of scientific proof, but Bill questions his motives once he realizes James will lose funding for research he’s passionate about.
(Great way for other characters to question his resolve, and if it’s left until this point for a reveal, we might question him too, but ultimately side with James since we haven’t seen the bird either.)
More tension, and keeping us in the dark on it will have us turning the pages.
With a title like Peck, and it being about a woodpecker, I wish there would have been a mysterious pecking. Each time they’re out in the swamp it should be heard in the distance.
This causes the characters (and us) to wonder if it’s real or not. This could be an awesome plot trick if implemented correctly, so feel free to explore that idea.
Sleeping in the Car
This is another plot device that is never explained.
I assume from the discussion with Brian that it has something to do with James’s ex-wife, but it was a lot of setup only to have it fall flat in the end.
Same goes for his divorce. If you’re going to have the end in there, we need more tips at the beginning. (I’d argue for the story’s sake to just leave the ex out entirely.)
James isn’t smart?
Personally, I had a problem on how long it took James to figure out Don was dead. He’s a professor, putting two and two together should come quickly instead of wasting space with silly dialogue asking, “Where’s Don?”
James leaves Florida, quits his job, and then what? It’s a very irrational ending.
3 out of 10 points.
The premise started out well, however I was really hoping for more.
Kevin did a very good job of beating the crap out of his protagonist, but now it’s time that he tied that in with the rest of the story.
Giving us some sort of explanation on “whodunnit” is a MUST for this type of story, and leaving the existence of the bird up to the audience is at his discretion, but we will need to know the who and why of what’s going on in Moore Haven.
Total 51 out of 100 points.
Did anyone else read this with me? I think there’s a lot to learn from it, especially setting things up and NOT paying them off.
As always, I’d be interested to see where I got it right, and where you folks thought I was wrong. Maybe Kevin will even weigh in.
I enjoyed this script, although I agree with most of Hank’s reservations. There is a feeling at the end that various intriguing strands of the story haven’t been tied up.
I think this is really a drama, with a conspiracy thriller structure being used as a McGuffin. I like that idea, but I think more attention should be paid these structural elements. Set-ups and payoffs. If this is done properly the writer will create the space within that structure for the character-driven story that seems to interest him.
To that end, I think there are too many named and recurring characters in the script. The Brian bit is, as Hank notes, pretty much superfluous, although I do like the running gag of James only being able to sleep in his car. It seems left over from a previous draft in which the ex-wife thing is the B story, and this draft has a fuzzy melange of B stories. I think the author should pick one and stick to it, make it thematically relevant, maybe use it as a way to occasionally leave the swampy primary location.
I had a few more problems with the format and typos than Hank. As to the description blocks, they could be broken up and edited to maximize their effect, but this would add to the page count.
I really like this premise, it reminds me of something Preston Sturges might have come up with, or one of the more whimsical Alfred Hitchcock films, The Trouble With Harry.
I detect that Hank may be slightly biased against adult dramas, but I have to agree with him that this script needs to deliver more as a mystery story, even if the writer is primarily interested in his characters.
LOL – You think I’m biased against everything.
And wouldn’t a suspense/thriller just be a category under drama?
Yes, it appears as though I am biased to perceive bias.
Good point about mystery, suspense, and thriller all just being subgenres. You should talk to the woman who runs* my screenwriting life, she keeps telling me she’s not thrilled with my drama.
* typo for ruins?