Finished My First Feature… Sorta
I entered one of the Amazon Studios contests – a comedy punch up for one of their earliest winning scripts – ‘America’s Ben Franklin in: the Electrocution String’ – sounds like a brand of tampon, doesn’t it? – okay, don’t make fun of the title – no, please do, it becomes a running gag in my… oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself…
This is the first time that Amazon Studios (AS) has offered this specific contest, so the rules were quite open – edit as much or as little as you wanted. They were offering a financial incentive too – fifteen total winners, getting $500 bucks each, five of those becoming semi-finalists getting an additional $1500 greenbacks and the eventual ‘chosen one’ adding a cool $5000 samolians to the total. Not too bad, for a comedy punch up. At least for those of us without paid gigs and hoping to break into the business.
Way back in September, they announced the contest, but I didn’t find out until November, while chowing down leftover turkey. I said to myself, Xander, we should do this – no reply – my name’s not Xander – so I said, self, we should do this. I know how to write comedy and there is still plenty of time (deadline, Jan 31). I screamed LET’S DO THIS, then calmed down and upped my Schiz meds…
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I read the original script – definitely amateur in every sense. BUT, it did have an interesting comedic premise – what if old Ben Franklin were a James Bond style agent of the American government and the founding fathers were not the glorified heroes we imagined them to be. That is definitely territory for mining comedy – and with Hollywood mashing up historical figures with modern plotlines (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, anyone?), there is something there. Which is why the original writer won $20K clams for his concept.
So my initial thought was I would do a straightforward punch up – adding funny dialogue, finding humor in the character traits (Washington was written as a pompous airhead) and situations (it was a mixture of action/comedy).
I got through 26 pages (doing a significant rewrite of all the descriptions and dialogue along the way, even if they weren’t part of the punch up – afterall, that is what I’ve been trained to do since beginning my education in screenwriting years ago – and it would be tough to see the humor through the raw/amateur writing that existed in the original draft). Loved what I had done – but then I hit a wall.
The author had taken us to a redundant scene – a location we had been to just a few pages earlier and with virtually the same characters/information. The choice was clear – eliminate that location, add it to a later one and incorporate the new information there – done and done. Then a story choice was made I didn’t agree with – we were introduced to what would become Ben’s sidekick, but the author chose to split them up for a long stretch before bringing them back together again (in a rather contrived manner). It was not the best choice, so I decided to keep them together, which necessitated more plotting changes and well, you know where this is going – I was no longer just punching up the script, but rewriting.
It took a week to punch up just 30 pages (of a 120 page script). Did I really want to tackle a rewrite too and would that effort be rewarded?
Amazon had posted their comments about the script months earlier and while they really enjoyed the premise, they thought two of the main characters needed work, that the plotting around the Electrocution String (sounds like a Euro synth band, not some bad-ass weapon, right? – running joke #2!) could be richer and the second half of the script, which was primarily action and not humor, could be punched up (hence the contest.)
I had lots of ideas for all those things, but, it was the holidays, I was heading to LA for a week (tourist thing) and it sounded like a LOT of work. So, I put it off…
Until January rolled around – looked at my bank account, re-read my first pages which I really liked and most importantly, looked at my career path (which needed a validation to have any chance of success) and said, Xander (damn those meds!), we need to do this. I yelled THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE, turned off my Highlander soundtrack cassette (Sony Walkman, still running!)…
And for the next three plus weeks – working 8- 12 hours days – plotted, outlined, wrote, rewrote and repeated that cycle until I turned in this, my entry for the contest.
Incredibly proud of getting this done in time, significantly improving on the work and making it funny. I decided to go total Airplane/Naked Gun with the comedy – lots of outrageous and anachronistic dialogue, gags, spoofs and parody – not for everyone, but I felt the concept best fit that comedy style/tone.
Even if it doesn’t win, I proved that I can take an existing concept, crank out a quality (though not perfect) feature length draft in a very short period of time, incorporate studio notes and meet a deadline.
Most people think of professional screenwriting as creating and selling original works – that’s not really true. Most working professionals work on and complete assignments, whether that’s developing existing concepts, or rewriting someone else’s work. And this is something I know I can do well.
So, here’s hoping for a win that I can advertise to get future work and begin a career. And picking up 70 Benjamins would be a nice bonus. Good luck to me! (find out Feb 28).
And for the one or two people who will actually go and read my script…
…my primary focus was in finding the funny – I edited the story and characters to do so – but the structure remained largely intact, even though I completely rewrote the 2nd and 3rd acts – if I were doing this on assignment, now is the time I’d go back and rework the structure (Act 1 too long, Inciting Incident way late). I have an awesome idea for a total revamping of the story, will see what AS does with BF after the comedy punch up contest completes (end of February).