TITLE:

 

AUTHOR:

 

FORM:

SP

PAGES:

101

GENRE:

Comedy; Adventure

BUDGET:

Mid

LOCALE:

Pacific Northwest

CIRCA:

Present day

DATE:

1/3/12

READER:

CAM

 

LOGLINE:

 Two grad students on a quest to find a rare bird in the Pacific Northwest get caught up in a young Native American woman’s fight to save her people’s land from being decimated by a logging company.

 

POINT

SCORE

OVERVIEW

Voice

8

GLOBAL NOTE

This is an often engaging comedy script that has a viable premise and commercial construction. The pro-environmentalist bent is timely and accessible, and principals Jake and Duncan make for a fun buddy team. Tethering them to an intrepid Native American woman and her plight provides cross-cultural cachet and a dynamic blend of narrative flavors.

 

To fully engage, however, the script needs to crystallize and intensify the emotional stakes of Jake and Duncan’s quest, anchor the comedy in their fish-out-of-water status and competitive wooing of Shawnee (rather than in zany situations involving sketch-like incidental supporting characters), and readjust the tone to fully exploit the action-oriented premise and create an immersive, varied narrative world that feels lifelike.

Format

9

Story

7

Structure

8

Theme

8

Tone

7

Premise/ Concept

8

Plot Points

7

Pacing

8

Conflict

7

Characterization

8

Dialogue

9

Cast - ability

7

Marketability

7

Commerciality

8

Salability

7

TOTAL POINTS

   123/160

GENERAL NOTES

Character

Duncan & Jake

Duncan and Jake are introduced in tandem. Structurally, this positions them as a buddy team, and they retain this status throughout the narrative. That feels right. Physically, they are delineated sharply. Duncan is a “tall and charismatic…Nordic god…with a calm, self-assured demeanor” while Jake is short, pudgy and unkempt but brimming with “raw energy.”

After their initial introduction, Duncan and Jake begin to act against type and eventually reverse roles. That is to say that self-assured, physically attractive Duncan begins to blanch in the face of the danger with Shawnee after their initial involvement and repeatedly wants to abort his involvement while Jake—pudgy and less overtly confident—becomes ready to go all in. This reversal is interesting and keeps either character from feeling too one-note or overly consistent. If anything, this element ought to be harped on more explicitly, perhaps with Shawnee Ray becoming aware of it herself and commenting upon it.

Finally, while Duncan and Jake have tangible surface personalities and share the same dramatic need, there is nothing truly unique or even specific about them or their relationship besides the fact that they are career academics and concerned with finding a girl. To make them truly special, it would be advisable to dig deeper and provide more details about their backstories and the history of their relationship. It is interesting that they are shown as living together in the same apartment. This implies that they have a friendship that transcends being fellow teaching assistants. Since this foundation is so economically provided, why not build on it and create a context for their friendship that makes us feel closer to and more knowing of them.

You may wish to consider expounding upon and exploring the backstory of Duncan and Jake a little more.  What if they’ve previously fell in love with the same woman in the past? Is there buried resentment that could raise the emotional conflict between them? Could one of them perhaps have had a negative experience with Native Americans in the past or is perhaps just a little closed minded. Then, through his experiences in trying to help Shawnee, he learns and gains greater understanding and appreciation of the true meaning/ intentions of the Native American culture and people that allows him to broaden his acceptance to the point he falls in love with Shawnee.

 

Dr. Xavier Pitelewski

Dr. Pitelewski is introduced as “robust, ruddy, and vital,” “a true pioneer” and the first ornithologist to ever photograph birds from the sky. His storied reputation establishes his importance to the narrative world and he is, to an extent, the emotional spine of the story, particularly in regard to Duncan and Jake. He is the archetypal mentor figure that incites them to go on their quest. Duncan and Jake commit to the journey of finding and documenting the Squawker for Dr. P. This is a strong emotional foundation, but there is more work to be done her to heighten the emotional stakes of the story.

On page 5, hospital-ridden Dr. P charges Jake and Duncan with proving to the world that the Squawker still exists and proving that his life’s work has not been in vain. “Save the Squawker. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever,” he says. However, just before this, Jake and Duncan introduce Dr. P as being vital (see above paragraph), an esteemed ornithologist of great importance who has just been awarded a coveted two million dollar grant. Thus, Dr. P seems to have no inherent internal conflict. His professional status and reputation is not characterized as being in doubt; rather, he seems like a storied success.

He may be the only one who believes that the Squawker is not extinct, but the script does not provide any indication that Dr. P has been ridiculed or vilified or cast out by the academic community for that belief. Thusly, the stakes of Jake and Duncan’s quest seem almost nonexistent. If Jake and Duncan fail to find evidence of the Squawker, who cares? What will happen? What does Dr. P have riding on the line if not his reputation? Other questions to ask are: what distinguishes the Squawker from every other bird? Does it have some kind of unique ecological or ornithological purpose and/or effect? What would proving its discovery really mean, what would be the effect? Would it fundamentally change the ornithological inner circle?

It should also be clarified precisely what Jake and Duncan’s quest is. Is it to find evidence of the bird so as to secure Dr. P’s reputation, or is it to save the Squawker from extinction (alluded to in Dr. P’s line about saving the Squawker, referenced in the above paragraph). This is not to say that those goals are mutually exclusive, but we should know from an emotional standpoint what the priority is for Duncan and Jake.

If Dr. Pitelewski has spent his whole life searching for and insisting on the existence of the Squawker only to face skepticism and derision at every turn, and if he is now on what may be his deathbed, then Duncan and Jake’s mission will feel that much more essential. If they don’t discover existence of the bird, their mentor will die unfulfilled and viewed as a kook; they are his last hope. Tweaking the setup of the first act in this way will offer a much stronger emotional hook for an audience.

It would also help to personalize and heighten the relationship between Duncan, Jake and Dr. Pitelewski. Make their closeness more surface-evident; make it clear that their bond transcends that of normal professor/teaching assistant relationship. 

 

Shawnee Ray

Shawnee Ray is the most intriguing character in the script, and not just due to her Native American heritage. She has the most complex internal conflict and for much of the second act, she embodies the Shapeshifter archetype. It is unclear whether she is solely using Duncan and Jake (e.g. page 31, she tells Zelda that the “new braves” are doing “better than the last two,” implying that Duncan and Jake are in a long line of saps that have been drawn into the anti-North Cascades cause) or whether she genuinely believes that their separate quests of stopping the logging and finding the Squawker can be combined to kill two birds with one stone and achieve the same ultimate goal. It is unclear almost up until the denouement whether or not she has any feelings—platonic or romantic—toward Duncan and Jake.

She articulates to Hector and Zelda on page 32 that she feels bad about deceiving Duncan and Jake, saying that they don’t deserve to end up in prison. This admission is of paramount importance, as it prevents Shawnee from coming off as a cold, clinical manipulator of our heroes. She walks that line between cold commitment to a cause and human sense of responsibility and remorse so finely, it would be advisable to more consistently show that dilemma going on in her mind.

Shawnee has the biggest burden placed upon her (p. 19 “to honor myself, my family, and my people, and walk with courage down the red road!”) and must try to reconcile the responsibility she feels toward her parents and her tribe and her desire to “start a new life in the city” (p. 47). She fears being imprisoned, in both the literal and figurative sense. 

 

Baines

FBI Agent Baines is introduced as having the “gruff bearing of an ex-Marine” and being something of a “loose canon” (p. 29), a description he lives up to. The President’s Chief of Staff gives him the mandate of learning how to soften his image and practice smiling so as to persuade an eventual jury. This is an unusual and funny dramatic need, of sorts, befitting a comedy antagonist. His stoic, sandpapery manner serves the story well and contrasts nicely with the broad comedic interactions he shares with his number two Lackey.

His occasional, foolhardy over-the-top outbursts (e.g. p. 55 “Good God Almighty! They’ve killed them all!” and p. 84 “Good God Almighty! Lackey, this operation has been compromised”) seem to push him into buffoon territory, however. It’s one thing to make a villain humorous, but making him seem inept and ridiculously clueless strips him of his credibility as an antagonist and therefore damages the emotional stakes of the story. If the villain feels cartoony and not entirely threatening, it is difficult to invest in the protagonists’ journey because they seem to be in no legitimate danger. It would be advisable to hew more closely to the initial introduction of Baines throughout the narrative and keep him as a credible threat, rather than sacrifice his integrity as a character in order to create ephemeral, low-impact laughs.

 

President Cash

President Cash is an entertaining Commander in Chief that breaks the mold of the stiff, stoic authoritarian we are so used to seeing. He displays an it’s-lonely-at-the-top sense of gravitas (e.g. pp 32 and 60), and his unfulfilled desire to spend a stress-free day romping around in the woods with his dog Lad and engaging in carpentry makes him accessible and relatable. He is a no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth president. He’s likable, which feels odd in this case because he is positioned as an antagonist.

Baines may be the physical grunt, out chasing Jake, Duncan and Shawnee; but Cash is the one in charge with all the clout, the guy that hired Baines and is doing the bidding of the unscrupulous North Cascades Timber Company just because he is a major campaign contributor. President Cash would be better positioned as a likable victim not aware of the full facts (perhaps his Chief of Staff and other cabinet members are in collusion). That way, an audience could purposefully enjoy him as a character and not feel conflicted.

It would also help to deflect more villain energies and functions onto North Cascades, rather than the Oval Office. After all, the thematic spine of the script has to do with the environment, protection of endangered species and tribal lands, not U.S. politics. North Cascades should take prominence and priority over the scenes with President Cash. The best and most dramatic way to do this would be to personify the North Cascades corporation by creating a villainous CEO character to give it a human face. As is, the only human components we see of North Cascades are Earl and Jimbo, and their coarse, redneck ineptness does not project the image of a formidable, dastardly antagonistic enterprise that will stop at nothing to destroy Shawnee’s land and thwart our heroes.  

 

Structure & Plot Points

The structure is uniformly sound. The opening establishes the separate realms of the story: Native American landscape and academia. The first act, in turn, establishes Jake and Duncan’s ordinary, safe, contained world before launching them into the Pacific Northwest on their quest to find the Squawker. Jake and Duncan are thrown into Shawnee and her plight, and they commit to the journey by infiltrating the mill with her and playing the prank on Earl and Jimbo.

The second act immerses them deeper into their new world and sets up the foundation for the love triangle between the three principals. It is with this development that the script underwhelms. The love triangle is potentially the most arresting narrative component in the story, but it does not yet feel an integral part of the narrative. There is very little discernable conflict between Jake and Duncan over their competitive wooing of Shawnee Ray. In fact, there is very little wooing of Shawnee period. Having the three of them alone in the mountains provides a golden opportunity for Duncan and Jake to go all out in trying to woo Shawnee, and given how dreamily they talk about her, it really does seem like they should go all out.

Perhaps the most glaring omission here is that, while it is evident that Jake and Duncan are lusting for Shawnee, we never see any intimation as to how Shawnee feels about either of them; her point of view is minimally shown. She is clearly the most mature and focused of the three principals, there is a glowing opportunity for her to have some fun at the boy’s expense and show them up, thereby proving that she is more than just the typical stoic warrior we have come to respect in Native American characters.

Because time is not spent ratcheting up the emotional closeness of the relationship between Shawnee, Jake and Duncan, it feels jarring at the end when Shawnee suddenly declares her love for Jake, saying that “you’re the one I’ve been waiting for!” This exclamation would have much more meaning if the relationship between them had been built more deliberately and extensively. A great scene to do this in, for one, is the jail scene on page 67. Having Duncan, Jake and Shawnee trapped together in an adjoining enclosed space, feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders, is a perfect opportunity for them to express some genuine emotions.

To an extent you already do this, with Jake telling Shawnee that he will find her no matter what happens. Shawnee, however, is given no response, so the emotional growth feels one-sided. Extending this scene would also help heighten the power of this second act break. As is, the trio spends less than two full pages in jail before Dr. Pitelewski shows up to bust them out. Consequently, the all-is-lost sense of them being trapped in jail, at their lowest point, does not fully register because the trio is extracted from the situation almost as soon as they are placed into it.

Finally, Dr. Pitelewski seems entirely too accepting of Jake and Duncan’s getting caught up in Shawnee Ray’s quest. After all, Dr. P sent them to find the Squawker, not get involved in an act of (no matter how justified) eco-terrorism. Dr. P busts them out of prison as if it were no big deal, and the foursome continues on their quest with no readjustment period. It seems unlikely that Dr. P would have all the facts regarding Shawnee (especially because Baines cut off Jake’s prison phone call to Dr. P mid-call) before busting Duncan and Jake out; correspondingly, it seems unlikely that he could be so instantly understanding. Having a scene where Duncan and Jake have to justify their actions to Dr. P and (re)gain his approval would make the story more believable and provide a welcome avenue of conflict. The relationship between Dr. P and his protégés will be that much stronger if they go back and forth before arriving on the same page.

 

Tone

Tonally, the script would benefit from some rethinking. The premise—parallel quests to discover evidence of an exotic bird and stop a heartless timber company from destroying tribal land—screams action-adventure, not straight comedy…yet straight comedy (with a hint of romance) is what the script attempts to deliver. This results in an emotional disconnect and a feeling that the narrative is not optimally prioritized. The pro-environmental premise is timely and potentially galvanizing. Why not position and exploit it in such a way as to engender genuine emotional resonance instead of merely surface silliness? As is, the script feels tonally betwixt and between. It would work much more successfully as an action comedy with real life-or-death emotional stakes peppered with fun back-and-forth buddy banter and romantic sparks. (A good tonal reference here would be Romancing The Stone, which also features a quest narrative in a wilderness milieu and provides grounded emotional stakes, genuinely threatening antagonists and a steady, polished intermingling of comical action set pieces and romantic sparks). To realign the script in this direction would mean adding more elaborate action beats (like the skunks and porcupines timber mill infiltration sequence) and heightening the intensity of bits like the hot air balloon escape so that an audience feels like they are in a world where death is always nipping at the protagonists’ heels, rather than a safe it’s-all-in-good-fun broad comedy realm.

 

Humor

A significant degree of the script’s humor comes from external agents—broad sketch characters like 12-year-old Wilderness Scout Bob and his bugle, cult followers (“Terps”) Bogus and Jill, crotchety RV couple Clarence and Gloria, and aptly-named henchman Lackey. These creations are sporadically amusing, but the time spent on them shifts the comedy and focus from principals Jake, Duncan and Shawnee when they should be the primary source of laughter and enjoyment. Our emotional investment is with that trio, so having them play comedic second fiddle to zany caricatures…having them as passive players along for the comedy ride…is unsatisfying.

The script astutely sets up two key exploitable tentpoles for character-driven and generated comedy: the fish-out-of-water trope and the love triangle. Jake and Duncan are established as somewhat mild academics, used to a tame world where they are in control of their environment and the biggest challenge is picking up girls at the local bar. Jake articulates this explicitly on page 38, when he tells Duncan “We’ve led privileged lives. All we’ve ever known is our safe, boring, academic existence.” The stark contrast of throwing them into the wilderness with an unpredictable wild woman ought to be played up much more fully. We should see Duncan and Jake in their own unique ways reacting to the outlandish, unfamiliar, high-pressure situations they find themselves in. 

Similarly, the love triangle between Jake, Shawnee and Duncan ought to be developed to a much more significant level. There are golden opportunities for rich conflict and comedy embedded in that triangle, particularly because Jake and Duncan are not only questing for Shawnee but because they already have a close friendship and history of competing for women. As strong as this foundation is, the script exploits it only perfunctorily. There are myriad scenes of Duncan and Jake, solo, talking about Shawnee and who should get her (e.g. the coin toss scene on page 37), but there is almost a total dearth of scenes showing Duncan and/or Jake actually wooing Shawnee.

Duncan and Jake interact with Shawnee only through the prism of their respective quests to find the Squawker and stop the North Cascades Timber—the A storyline. Once it becomes clear to both Duncan and Jake that Shawnee does not have a boyfriend and is ripe for the picking, they take no active, propulsive steps towards getting closer to her. There are no big comedic set pieces involving Duncan and Jake putting on airs and battling for romantic dominance. These three principals ought to be thrown into each other much more forcefully and chaotically, rather than just alluding to action in separate, private conversational asides.

Early in Act II, Duncan and Jake lay out the ground rules (via the aforementioned coin toss scene) as to who will make the first move toward Shawnee. Later, on page 57, Duncan reverses the result of the coin toss scene to give Jake first dibs. This provides a nice friendship moment and expression of selflessness for Duncan, but by formally separating Duncan and Jake and ensuring that they will not try to woo Shawnee at the same time, in competition, a huge opportunity for escalating comedic antics is lost. Having Jake and Duncan actively compete to woo Shawnee would amplify the conflict between them and provide opportunities for bigger comedic set pieces that impact on different emotional registers, thus creating a more varied sense of comedy (as opposed to the one-note interactions between the aforementioned incidental side characters like Bob).

 

Emotional Resonance

In its current incarnation, the script is amusing but not truly engaging on an emotional level. This is an easy trap to fall into when crafting a comedy because so much energy must be devoted to keeping the laughs coming at relentless intervals. After a certain point, however, wall-to-wall humor without an underlying emotional earnestness results in a capping of audience involvement. In its characters and premise, the script has the potential to impact emotionally; it merely needs to be reconfigured in its execution so as to hit those emotional character beats. The most viable way to do that is to increase the importance and stakes of Duncan & Jake’s and Shawnee Ray’s quests.

Duncan and Jake need to be on a quest not just to see a rare bird but to save their beloved mentor’s reputation and life’s work at all costs. Shawnee Ray’s quest to save her people’s land has to be fraught with even more danger. The way to do this is to enhance the deviousness and morally bankrupt power of Northern Cascades Timber by giving the company a human face (see aforementioned in President Cash section). It would also help to show more specifically the damage that Northern Cascades has wrought. One idea would be to have a scene where one of Shawnee’s relatives or close friends is driven from their home and Shawnee feels powerless to stop it. It’s all about bringing big, faceless ideas like corporate logging down to a tangible, human level so we can personally see how it impacts the protagonist.

Adding more high-stakes action to the story, where Jake, Duncan, Shawnee Ray and, eventually, Dr. Pitelewski face mortal danger will add to the emotional roadmap. It will also help the comedy shine much more brightly by providing a vibrant sense of contrast; rather than having a monotonous comedic tone that overshadows the inherent seriousness and gravitas of the premise. Interspersing the comedy with scenes of tension will provide a much more rounded, complex and lifelike emotional experience.

 

Dialogue

One of the key strengths of the dialogue is how principals Duncan, Jake and Dr. Pitelewski often apply ornithological terms and metaphors to every aspect of their lives (e.g. Duncan telling Jake on page 7 that “the male with the bigger stature and finer plumage normally wins the mate” in response to Jake’s complaints that Duncan always gets the girls; Duncan telling Jake on page 57 “Bro, if I could be any bird at all, I’d be a raptor—a hawk, a falcon or some kick-ass eagle. But deep down, I know I’m just a chickadee”; Dr. Pitelewski talking about the Squawker on page 97 (but really talking about Jake), saying “I don’t know, but that brazen display of courage must be crucial in finding a mate, perhaps even more important than his size or plumage.” This consistent effort works exceedingly well by keeping the script’s thematic concerns at the forefront of the narrative. It also reveals character, showing how the ins and outs of ornithology have consumed every aspect of Duncan, Jake and Dr. Pitelewski’s lives.

 

Conclusion

In summary, the draft is in a strong position. It contains a viable, timely premise, an appealing trio of principals, a scenic milieu and strong structure and voice. Tweaking the script to make the tone more emotionally varied and resonant and enhancing the foundations for conflict (both comedic and dramatic) already inherent in the setup—particularly the love triangle—will take it to a more commercially viable and salable level.