TITLE:

 

AUTHOR:

 

FORM:

SP

PAGES:

114

GENRE:

Drama

BUDGET:

 

LOCALE:

Large City (Nondescript)

CIRCA:

Near Future

DATE:

3/30/12

READER:

CAM

 

LOGLINE:

 In the near future, a key leader of a militaristic regime waging a holy war against a rebel sect has a crisis of faith in his mission and contemplates helping the rebels while battling his murderous brother.

 

POINT

SCORE

OVERVIEW

Voice

8

GLOBAL NOTE

 

This is an intriguing faith-based script that offers a variety of viable and sympathetic principals in a future world while exploring timeless and universal themes of spiritual crises, religious persecution and the quest for peace. To become viable, however, the script’s narrative world and concept need to be conceived and articulated with much more specificity and logical follow-through, and the script’s structure needs to be reengineered to ensure that the protagonist(s) drive the story consistently.

Format

9

Story

8

Structure

7

Theme

9

Tone

8

Premise/ Concept

7

Plot Points

7

Pacing

7

Conflict

9

Characterization

8

Dialogue

9

Cast - ability

8

Marketability

7

Commerciality

8

Salability

7

TOTAL POINTS

   126/160

 GENERAL NOTES

There are a variety of intriguing and promising elements in this script. It is laid out with great visual precision and features a viable, sympathetic protagonist in Jared Cain. He is a young man with deep family responsibilities and a sense of duty who comes to question his belief system and the justness of what he has been asked to do. The script seizes upon multiple universal and easily translatable narrative notions that make it relatable, including but not limited to a forbidden Romeo & Juliet-esque young romance, issues of faith and religious tolerance, governmental abuses, issues of privacy, fratricide and the ability to change.

There is significant room for evolution and enhancement of the narrative, however, and these ideas are discussed below.

 

CONCEPT/PREMISE & COMMERCIALITY

The notion of telling an action and suspense-oriented story about religious tolerance that celebrates Christian values set in a futuristic milieu is a viable one. It offers opportunities to engage multiple demographics and could conceivably make for a four-quadrant film. 2010’s The Book of Eli was similarly conceived and positioned and grossed $157 million worldwide on a production budget of $80 million, proving that there is a precedent for this kind of material. Broadening Christian-oriented material in such a way facilitates the project to break out of the singular, pigeonholed demographic targeted by still successful releases like Courageous ($34 million worldwide gross on a production budget of $2 million) and Fireproof ($33 million worldwide gross on a production budget of $500,000).

It is imperative, however, to ensure that in creating a future-set world for the story to take place, a fully immersive and specific narrative universe is created with delineated rules and underpinnings. The future world is the high-concept component of the narrative; it is what will allow it to be pitched and marketed as commercial and engaging. In its current incarnation, the narrative universe of Underground Light is intriguing without being fully developed and articulated.

The opening, set in Roman catacombs in AD 65, hints (at least cursorily) at the Praetorian sect that will serve as the oppressive antagonistic regime for the story set in the near future. The use of catacombs—and the notion of devout Christians existing in harmony within them—foreshadows the central importance of the underground tunnels in the story to the Christian rebels.

No explicit link is made, however, between the Praetorian Guard that came to be a vital force in the power politics of ancient Rome and the modern incarnation that dominates the narrative. Certainly, the name Praetorian has come to have a general connotation of intrigue, political execution and faithlessness, but as it is clear that the modern Praetorians have bestowed this namesake upon themselves, this connotation requires further explication. It is also prudent not to assume that a general audience will have intimate knowledge of the Praetorian Guard and understand the reference and to have the story specifically articulate and contextualize the antagonists so that no audience member has an incomplete understanding of the premise and feels left behind.

Repeated references are made to the Praetorians having invasive surveillance abilities, not the least of which is their central initiative of the titular Underground Light: to place cameras throughout the rebels’ sewers. Jared refers to the notion of “cameras everywhere watching, listening” while Commander Cain counters that they are “the price we pay for being secure” (p. 18). This notion strongly suggests an Orwellian backdrop, characterized by pervasive government surveillance, totalitarian abuse, propaganda and public mind control. The script never contextualizes this setting, however, in terms of how and why it came to be.

Similarly, repeated references are made to the “government.” Jared is described as being an expert in “eliminating threats to the government or its laws” (p. 4), with the job of “protect[ing] [their] government against all enemies” and that the Rebels spout heresy and proclaim faith in “their God” (p. 17).  It is clear, then, that the Praetorians and Rebels have different belief systems, but though the Rebels are repeatedly seen (especially Julie, Papa and Mimi) reading Bibles, we never see any specifics about the Praetorians’ deity and religious practices. This feels like an especially glaring omission given that the narrative rests entirely on the holy war between these two disparate groups. It is not enough to define the Praetorians merely as a general antithesis to the Rebels/Christians. The Praetorians ought to be defined not merely by what they aren’t and what they don’t believe in, but by what they are and do believe in.

Furthermore, Commander Cain is constantly consumed by “stopping terrorists before they strike” (p. 18). Through all this we come to understand that the Praetorians are not Christians—they view Christians as rebels and terrorists, but we never learn why or how the great schism happened to divide these groups. We never see the Rebels plan or carry out any conceivable terrorist action or receive any kind of inkling as to what threats there are to the Praetorian government and its laws. Commander Cain tries to instill in Jared that they are fighting to “prevent another damn war” (p. 19), but we are never given any intimation as to what war he is referring to.

A war—presumably some kind of holy war, given the script’s singular focus on conflict between those with different belief systems—is a strong precipitating event to build this narrative on, but we as an audience need to be given the requisite exposition on what that mentioned war was, so that we can understand what the Praetorians believe they are working to prevent.

The Praetorians are clearly the oppressors and could more readily be characterized as terrorists abusing a hapless population of innocents. The Rebels fight back and shoot, but we never get the impression that they have ever acted as the aggressors. This makes the conflict seem entirely one-sided, which isn’t necessarily a detriment dramatically, as such a black-and-white dynamic between the protagonists and the antagonists makes it easy to emotionally identify with the so-called “good guys” and root for them over the “bad guys.”

On a narrative logic level, however, this construction seems puzzling. Because we never see or come to understand, specifically, what threats the Praetorian government face or fear facing, the conflict between the script’s two groups is hard to follow and thus feels distracting and underexplored. The script clearly and repeatedly makes the case that the Praetorians are out to annihilate the Christian rebels not merely out of religious intolerance but because they see them as a pernicious threat…but no evidence is really given to show why the Praetorians have come to see Christians as such, and this information is needed.

Praetorian soldiers talk about having heard stories about ceremonies where the Rebels (read: Christians) “eat a body and drink blood, waiting on their God to return” and some express the belief that the Rebels are alien beings (p. 11). Thus, we can infer that many of the Praetorians blindly follow the dominant leadership without having any real information about who the Rebels are. They see them as less than human for entirely superficial reasons, which could be interpreted as a metaphor for the kind of blind following demonstrated by historical forces like the Nazi party.

Indeed, the script seems as if it is attempting to create a modern scenario and metaphor for religious persecution, but this scenario can’t simply be made to exist in broad strokes with no questions asked. There needs to be a specific logic and context articulated that explains why this persecution is taking place and why all of this misinformation exists between the Praetorians and the Rebels. The extent of this divide also ought to be addressed…is the war between the Praetorians and the Rebels a world occurrence or merely an American one? Are countries and providences in the “near future” world of Underground Light tantamount to the present day?

Another detail that ought to be addressed is how exactly the Praetorians hunt Rebels and find their targets, as we see repeated instances of Rebels being instructed by other Rebels to blend in with the Praetorians so as to not be detected. This implies that there is no glaring external physical feature or surface signifier of any kind that inherently marks a Rebel, which makes it even harder to understand how and why the Praetorians prey upon the Rebels. In particular, how and why the Praetorians know to come after Aunt Sally on page 38 feels curious.

Of course, the Postman character staked out Aunt Sally’s bookstore in Act I, but it seems mildly contrived that the Praetorians wait to come after her until the moment in Act II when she has settled in. Having the incident occur at that moment serves the story on a structural level, but does not feel justified diegetically, from within the narrative world. Correspondingly, it feels curious that Aunt Sally and her ilk don’t seem to take any proactive measures to avoid being rounded up and victimized by the Praetorian Guard.

It is also unclear how exactly the Rebels navigate the surface world versus the tunnels. Throughout the narrative Papa, Mimi, Julie, Aunt Sally, Thomas Ben, TZ et al spend time on the surface, in coffee shops, bars and dwellings with ease and calm, yet at other myriad moments they are scrambling for safety and to get into the tunnels. If the Rebels are constantly being hunted and living in fear of being discovered, it begs the question as to why they do not live under the tunnels exclusively, save for acquiring surface food and supplies. Are there certain regions above ground where they are and aren’t safe and/or certain times of day? Is there a curfew they need to be aware of?

In creating a future world or even a “near future” world, as is the case here, it is entirely necessary to actively and thoroughly shape and define that world for an audience at the very outset of the story. An audience wants to be painted a specific picture with rules, conditions and historical precedent. They are tourists who need to have a guide point out to them everything they need to know, so they can settle into the narrative and focus on the characters. An audience can’t be expected to focus on the micro if they are still trying to figure out the underpinnings of the macro.

Toward this end, it is advisable that the opening of the script be reconceptualized so as to provide a more active and all-encompassing contextualization of the narrative world…something that connects the timeless religious conflict and references—Cain and Abel, holy war, persecution—with the specifics of the futuristic world of Underground Light. Though the script isn’t firmly situated in the sci-fi genre, that genre is the best reference point for understanding how best to economically—but thoroughly—contextualize a unique narrative world.

Think of the prologues/openings to such films as Blade Runner, The Matrix, Serenity, Waterworld, The Postman and Inception, to name but a few. The number one goal of the opening should be to creatively and entertainingly explain—with speed, precision and efficiency —the narrative world that the audience is about to be immersed in. The world needs to be defined before the characters. This is the key to maximizing the script’s commercial viability. The juxtaposition of a specific, unique narrative universe married with timeless, universal themes about religious freedom and tolerance is how the script could best be sold.

Action

The script, quite simply, would have far greater commercial prospects as well, if the action quotient were intensified and made more pervasive. It is understandable, given the spiritual nature of the material, to not want to indulge in cheap, sensationalist violence, but because the script opens and ends with action-oriented chases and fights, having a second act that is largely devoid of spectacle creates something of a tonal imbalance that makes the material harder to classify in the marketplace.

The Matrix is a good reference here. Though that film takes place in a comic book-esque science fiction universe and has markedly different tonal aims than Underground Light, it does manage to engage key dialectics regarding philosophy, spirituality and freedom of belief while telling a traditional quest-based narrative with consistent tentpole sequences and moments that give the film its commercial viability. Because Underground Light does occasionally provide thrilling and visceral action sequences, it is only natural that it expand on those moments so as to create a more compelling roller-coaster experience that will thereby heighten the principals’ character arcs.        

 

STRUCTURE & PLOT POINTS

The First Ten Pages

Other than not thoroughly explicating the narrative world and context, as discussed above, the first ten pages are well-designed. They establish the Praetorian threat with suspense and economy and introduce key visual elements of the story, namely the Praetorians’ black garb and vehicles and the Rebels’ use of underground crawl spaces and tunnels.

Jared—described as having an evident weariness (p. 5)—is introduced rounding up Papa and Mimi, and it is telling that his first line of dialogue is to his brother Derek, asking him if he ever has doubts about what they do. Immediately this cues an audience to the fact that Jared is plagued by doubts about his duty. This ambivalence makes him human and underscores not only his status as the protagonist and character to watch, but also suggests the notion of questions of faith, which becomes one of the script’s main themes.

It is unclear, however, how Ben is killed and who is responsible. Another element that warrants further explication is the instance of The Zealot, a.k.a. TZ, seemingly manipulating the wind in order to aid his escape. On page 9 it is written that as TZ slides into the drainage opening, the “wind changes direction and blows past Derek and the Soldier; everything becomes calm.” Derek refers to the incident as “some kind of damn magic,” and the Soldier replies that “these Rebels creep me out.” This exchange strongly implies that TZ has some kind of supernatural, talismanic ability, but the notion of “magic” is never mentioned again in the script.

Given that this is a story dealing with faith and spirituality, it is important to convey whether or not the term “magic” is meant as a synonym for faith and if an audience is meant to believe that the direction-changing wind is some manifestation of a higher power coming to TZ’s aid. Unless this element is truly meant to be important to the narrative—in which case that needs to be made more clear and explored much more consistently—it would be advisable to cut it for the sake of clarity.

Act I: Setup

What Act I does set up successfully is Jared’s status as protagonist and his questions of faith, which form the seeds of his character arc; the contentious relationship between Jared and his hotheaded younger brother Derek; the Praetorians’ relentless persecution of the Rebels and Commander Cain’s central Underground Light plan to install cameras and tracking measures throughout the Rebels’ underground sewers; and the spark between Jared and Julie in their apartment building and, later, at the music bar.

Related to the general need to better define the concept and narrative world, however, these last points, beg additional questions. For one, how is it that Rebels and Praetorians can live in the same residence without falling into conflict? With her blue sneakers, it is clear that Julie does not try to fit in with the Praetorians. Is Jared the only Praetorian living in her building and thus Julie is in no danger of being found by other Praetorians? If this is so, then where do the majority of the Praetorians live? Do they live in units or as individuals?

Also, why is it that the Underground Light plan has not been implemented? What has been keeping the Praetorians from chasing the Rebels down into the sewers and annihilating them? The first act clearly establishes that the Praetorians are dominant and that the Rebels are by large no threat to them. The Praetorians have superior weapons and forces; it is difficult to imagine what has been keeping them from mapping out the tunnels. The war seems entirely one-sided and thus it is difficult to understand why it is still being sustained. If the first act can be radically enhanced to address questions and details like the aforementioned, the story will be in a much stronger position to continue and intensify.

The exchange between Jared and Commander Cain on pages 16-20 is effective, as is the first act break, in which Derek lives up to the etymology of his last name by attempting to kill Jared and leaving him for dead in the Rebel tunnels. This development boldly spins the story in a new direction by catapulting Jared out of his Ordinary World and into the Special World of the Rebels, where Jared stands to meet tests, allies, and enemies.

Act II: Conflict

Act II begins with Jared hanging on by a thread in the tunnels but really focuses on Ben’s funeral and the attempted abduction of Aunt Sally. Jared, as a protagonist, actually gets somewhat lost in the shuffle. The early part of Act II is less about him and more about other characters reacting to him. Structurally, this choice makes Jared passive because he is no longer driving the story. Jared does not resume active participation in the narrative until after the midpoint of Act II, when Jared recovers enough to pull out his IV and starts interacting with Matthew on page 68.

Up until that point, Jared is relegated to minute glances and nonverbal exchanges with supporting characters. The ensemble surrounding Jared is worthy—particularly Julie, Franklin and TZ—but to bench Jared for so long when structurally he began as the predominant protagonist feels out of balance. The majority of Act II gives Jared very little to do. He sleeps, paces back and forth in the tunnel storage room and reads Julie’s journal. He does not try to escape or probe his captors, and save for the brief instance where Thomas stands over Jared while holding a rusty pipe wrench on page 51, we never get the sense that Jared is in any danger. This lack of high-stakes conflict results in a feeling of narrative ennui. This feeling is compounded by the absence of a definitive second act break, where Jared—and perhaps, Julie—are brought to their lowest emotional point.

The obvious plot point that could devastate both Jared and Julie is the revelation that Jared killed Julie’s mother Sheila, but the script does not maximize the emotional implications therein. When Julie overhears a conversation between the Rebel leaders and learns that Jared killed Sheila, she is never given a chance to fully go off the rails and confront Jared because TZ quickly explains to her that he was the intended target and that Sheila was collateral damage. Julie processes this information so rationally that we never feel the weight of the revelation.

Furthermore, even if Julie were to react much more measurably and go after Jared, their romantic relationship has not been built up to the point where we would feel Jared’s pain at feeling that, now that Julie knows the truth about him, she will hate him for the rest of her life. Reengineering the second act to prioritize the building of the relationship between Jared and Julie and providing a shattering second act break are paramount. Another way to up the emotional stakes would be for Jared to have to break out of the underground tunnels to go save Julie, Papa, Mimi & Co. from Derek.

As enjoyable as it is to see Jared and Matthew start to develop a bond—with Jared convincing Matthew of his good intentions—they could just as easily form this bond after Jared escapes, with Matthew tracking him down and Jared convincing him not to oppose him. Doing so would allow for an exciting prison escape beat that would give an audience a chance to get even more invested in Jared without losing the positive qualities of the Jared/Matthew relationship already present in the script.

Act III: Resolution

Act III kicks into high gear and returns the script to an action-centric storyline, with Jared fighting to save the Rebels from Jared and then battling Jared to the death. Though it brings Jared’s Cain & Abel family dynamic to a close, the dénouement does not provide any closure for the macro conflict between the Praetorian Guard and the Rebels. Jared cathartically returns to Julie but we don’t get the sense that he has come to a place of spiritual peace and understanding.

His arc seems unfinished, and given that his dramatic need—to find spiritual harmony—serves as a microcosm for the larger central conflict of the story—this incompleteness is unlikely to leave an audience with a feeling of closure. Though a temporary ceasefire of all aggression toward the Rebels is enacted, this feels like a superficial bandage for the conflict. We don’t get the sense that forces are at work so that the war of intolerance will not resume exactly as before once the cease-fire is over. A more comprehensive, emotionally resonant sense of resolution will ensure that the script finishes strong and leaves an audience with a well-rounded narrative experience.   

 

CHARACTER

Little needs to be said in terms of characterization. All of the principal characters are viable and sympathetic, particularly Jared and Julie. The concern at hand is in making sure that the script is conceptually and structurally designed so as to maximize an audience’s emotional involvement with these characters, as discussed above.

 

DIALOGUE

The script’s dialogue is almost uniformly an asset. It consistently reveals narrative and character while managing to sound lifelike and character-specific. The one area in which the dialogue rings inauthentic is in the Praetorian’s use of faux profanity. Repeatedly, Praetorian figures like Derek and Commander Cain utter expressions like “What the crap!” (p. 94) or “Crap! Because your freak’n informant disobeyed my orders!” (p. 17).

It is clear that these lines are meant to supplant expressions of actual profanity, but they sound inauthentic and out of character with the general portrayals of those characters. If the use of profanity is objected to for creative or personal reasons, it would be less distracting to eliminate instances of cursing entirely rather than using faux profane substitutions.

 

THEME

The script’s themes jump off the page with consistency and unity. The Cain and Abel conflict between Jared and Derek is readily apparent and underscores the religious overtones. Issues of religious tolerance and holding on to faith are also prevalent. The themes will shine much more brightly once the script’s concept has been more elaborately contextualized so as to provide an easily comprehensive narrative need for such themes to be explored.

 

FORMAT

The script consistently demonstrates a command of the screenplay form. The character descriptions are insightful and economical, and the action paragraphs are to the point and well-conceived. Aesthetically, there is an abundance of white space on every page and the script never feels cluttered or disorganized.

The script does, however, fall into the trap of overusing montages. There are five total, and they slow the pacing of the story and more often than not feel episodic. It’s always a worthy goal to embrace visual storytelling as much as possible in a script—to show, rather than tell through overwhelming amounts of dialogue—but multiple montages more often than not end up coming across as narrative shorthand that eschews meaningful and specific character interactions. One or possibly two montages are viable, but more than that tends to feel amateurish.

Several of the montages in the script—such as the one on page 56 where Praetorians roam the streets and the death of the homeless man on page 59—could very easily be reformatted as traditional action paragraphs and ought to be. Passage of time is not an important factor in those montages, just the visual information. Reformatting would allow the plot points to be told without feeling like unnecessary shorthand. Where the montage format is effective is in sequences like Jared pacing around in his underground jail (page 70), where the slow passage of time is important to depicting the character’s psychological experience. Moments like these are where montages shine, and the opportunity is dormant to enhance the power of this particular montage by making it even more elaborate (a good reference here would be the solitary confinement montage in Papillon).

Another caveat to be aware of is directing on the page. Format choices such as “Series of Shots:” (p. 75) are alright in moderation, but it is generally better to avoid commenting on shot selection so that all potential readers can form their own vision of the events, and so as not to step on the toes, for lack of a better expression, of a potential director.

The script also requires a page-by-page proofread to eliminate the occasional grammatical errors, typos, and misuse of homophones. These errors are minor and infrequent, but eliminating them entirely will ensure that the script has a wholly professional presentation.  

 

PACING

Pacing becomes an issue in the second act when, after the shocking and propulsive end of Act I, Jared undergoes a series of repetitive scenes of languishing in the tunnels, first fighting to survive his beating and then fighting to make headway with Julie and the Rebels. It is not that these scenes are entirely devoid of conflict, but rather that they hit the same emotional and visual beats over and over. Compounding the problem is that Jared lies in a dormant state for much of the second act. Reconfiguring Jared’s involvement, as discussed above, and adding more high-stakes action beats and battles for dominance will alleviate this problem.

 

CONCLUSION

This is an intriguing faith-based script that offers a variety of viable and sympathetic principals in a future world while exploring timeless and universal themes of spiritual crises, religious persecution and the quest for peace. To become viable, however, the script’s narrative world and concept need to be conceived and articulated with much more specificity and logical follow-through, and the script’s structure needs to be reengineered to ensure that the protagonist(s) drive the story consistently.