Saturday, February 4, 2017

Mistakes: The Mystery of the Wizard Clip Demon

It's confession time.

When I find the time I DO write screenplays....that will probably never get made. Yes, I do write a lot of stuff that does get produced, but generally only for my documentary/corporate clients. (In fact, we just finished a hour long television special in December, but I can't talk about it or even show the trailer until the client gets their release scheduled figured out. It's looking like July if they can four-wall the theater.)

But back to the screenplays I'd love to see made. As much as I consult with filmmakers and storytellers in various genres, it's always surprising to me how I (supposedly the expert at some of this stuff) am totally blind to it.

Case in point. Here's the "comp" poster, log, and synopsis for the seventh major draft (over as many years) of a project I just sent off to The Black List for evaluation and the WGA (again) for registration.

GENRE: Historical Haunted House Drama-Comedy 
LOG LINE: The "true story" of a demonic infestation from Early American history. Refusing last rites to a dying sojourner, an Early American farmer battles a haunting and enterprising demon who destroys the family's home and farm while bargaining for their souls. 
SYNOPSIS: In 1795, Adam Livingston and his family were farmers in the Shenandoah Valley. A visiting stranger became deathly ill and begged his host to find a Catholic priest to come and administer last rites. But the Livingston's, who despised Papists, refused. As he died, the stranger cursed the Livingston homestead. Immediately after, a demonic presence came to haunt. The poltergeist, among other things, made a name for itself by cutting crescent moons out of linens, silks and leather goods  Why crescent moons? They say the demon was the moon god. And since no human would speak a demon's real name, it settled for a nickname—The Wizard Clip. Over 2-3 years the Wizard destroyed the family’s homestead. Admitting that the Haunt had religious intents, Adam begged various preachers to come and exorcise his property. But they could do nothing but run away. Then, after a couple of nightmares, he discovered that to achieve his greatest desire, he would have to embrace what he hated most.

The mistake I warn others often about, but that I've made for the first five drafts on this story was this:

I was loyal to the historical record. 

This is particularly true of life stories. Several times a year a client will come to me and with great excitement tell me the adventurous story of their aunt battling city hall, or their brother who battled the cartel in Texas. Inevitably there's a slow beginning, middle or end so that all the exposition can be crammed in. Or some event cannot be eliminated because the writer's mother-in-law would be offended.

And yet, at the same time these writer's will claim that they want their story to be embraced by main stream audiences who long of the big and regular emotional roller coaster ride of a well-structured story designed to entertain mainstream audiences.

Well folks, you can't have it both ways...usually.

In my Wizard Clip story (above) the historical record tells how Adam Livingston battled the demon tooth and nail for three years, but was unsuccessful in getting it to leave them alone. (SPOILER AHEAD) Then he has a nightmare of a man performing some kind of incantation followed by an otherworldly voice that says, "This is the man who can relieve you." Of course Adam doesn't know what that means, but starts asking around...and some neighbors...whom he had previously despised (because they were Catholics), tell him that the dream was that of a Catholic priest celebrating Mass. So, the McSherry's introduce Adam to Fr. Denis Cahill, who eventually comes (after some earlier failed attempts), celebrates the Mass in the Gathering Hall of their farm house...and the demon never comes to haunt again.

Being a Catholic, the story sounded cool to me. So that's what I wrote and stuck to for the first five drafts. (I was loyal to the historical record.) That is, for Acts 1 and 2 my protagonist/hero is Adam Livingston. And then suddenly in Act 3 I switch heroes to the priest.

DUMB! I would never tell you to do that for your story, but that's what I told myself for five years.

My mistake was made crystal clear to me in a very short review I got back from The Black List two years ago, which pointed out that I had switched protagonists in Act 3, and all the emotional collateral I had built up in Acts 1 and 2 were suddenly, and without explanation, thrown out with the bath water.

I was distressed. So, I decided to write a novel, went on a 10 day research trip to Virginia where the events occurred, and a year later I traced Dennis Cahill's life to his grave in Pittsburgh. You see, I had figured out that the story was really about the priest, BECAUSE he's the one that does the hand-to-hand combat with the demon in Act 3.

EXCEPT... the historical record and a lot of cool scenes and action are about Adam Livingston...not the priest...who still doesn't show up until Act 3.

It takes months, but finally I start to listen to my own advice....resulting in the last two drafts where Adam battles the demon in Act the excited CHEERS of my wife, Pam, when she reads it.

Ha! Ha! Well, we will see what my anonymous Black List evaluators think.

Such is my advice...(if I'd only listen to it). Write movies for the public, and not ABOUT your family or close friends...or ABOUT a pubic figure that everyone knows everything about (e.g. biopics).

It's for the restructuring reasons that such successful movies being this way:

and my favorite
(from American Hustle)

Of course,  your opening title could be:


And because movies are generally understood to be fiction...make everything up...even the opening title.