You will, I trust, be unsurprised to learn that many people who write or do shows about movies start out (and occasionally remain) keen to get into the film business themselves. The stereotype of the film critic as a film student who stalled out along the road to becoming a filmmaker isn’t universal, but it’s true enough. For my own part, I’ll happily cop to still being very much a guy looking to sell a screenplay (or two, or three), and I’m quite proud of having produced and acted in this short film a few years back.
One of the obvious reasons you don’t often hear movie critics who are also (or at least aspire to also be) professionals talk up their own work is that the answer to everyone’s first question – “Is it better than most or any of the stuff made by other people that you’ve torn apart?” – is very often “NO.” Case in point, critic-turned-director Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs” remake.
But I’m a big believer in periodically purging one’s ego by admitting, openly, when you’ve done some awful work. So consider this week’s column an act of bearing my own back for a public flailing, as I offer you a glimpse of some of the more wretched stuff I was once upon a time convinced I’d make my fortune on. And just so we’re clear, I swear to you these anecdotes all come from actual completed screenplays in proper format that were written with full intent to try and sell, and have not been exaggerated for effect.
Ten Nights of the Weed
This was more or less the gritty reboot of a bunch of characters I’d dreamed up during downtime in high school. The big idea? Ultra-violent (think Troma) action comedy about narcotics legalization. Again, no exaggeration necessary.
The premise? Seemingly ordinary high school student Jack Paper (and yes, he has a female love interest codenamed “Puff”) joins an underground resistance movement trying to stop a war being fought between “The Druglords,” a cabal of superpowered criminals who secretly control the world’s illegal drug trade, and The DEA, here depicted as an equally evil organization prolonging the drug war for its own gain by not targeting The Druglords directly. The main plot involves Jack’s team trying to steal an experimental suit of battle armor, the N.A.R.C., from the DEA and use it (alongside a magic sword that once belonged to Bob Marley, because I wrote this nonsense in college) to stop the bad guys from activating a superweapon that will turn every drug user in America into a feral psychotic – thus ensuring the war goes on forever and killing millions in the process.
The characters were very … well, Captain Planet would be an apt comparison. The Druglords were led by The Weedmaster, a living cannabis bush (which had writhing, tentacle-like vines because that would look more cool) that concealed itself in a human costume. The rest of the team included Tract (“Druglord of Heroin,” big syringes for forearms), Kilo (think Sandman, but made of cocaine – he’d fly up people’s noses and blow up their heads), Shroom (big hulking mushroom monster), Ellis D (90s gangsta/pimp archetype with an “acid cannon”), and Mary-Jane, Weedmaster’s cyborg-ninja girlfriend. There was also a secondary West Coast set of ‘Lords representing various other controlled substances, one of whom was an obnoxious ballet-dancing tween boy because Billy Elliot was a new movie at the time.
The DEA, meanwhile, was led by a “Drug Czar” who looked like Stalin (confused metaphors FTW!) named Handsov Funstov, whose muscle was a McGruff The Crime Dog-type figure who actually was a half-man/half-bulldog monster underneath his mascot costume. For good measure, the DEA’s “true” masters were revealed to be sinister representatives of the alcohol and tobacco industries: Toback, a perpetually-smoldering skeleton pushed around in his wheelchair by Alan Nahn, an Asian man with a functioning beer tap for a hand.
The biting social commentary (of which I was enormously proud of at the time) was pitched at about the same level as the characters. There was a sequence parodying the “D.A.R.E.” program (“S.C.A.R.E.,” aren’t I a clever boy?) which involved the anti-drug lecturers pantomiming a prison rape as part of their presentation to grade-schoolers. Jack, who was African American, was met with outright racism by every single white authority figure he encountered, and he meets Puff and her mentor, a Jamaican mystic named Rhasta Joe, when they save him from a police beating.
The finale, set at a mansion in Hollywood and coming after a pitched street battle wherein most of the cast dies horribly, features Jack fighting a giant scale, venus flytrap-headed mutant Weedmaster and getting powered up by the ghosts of his fallen comrades plus Bob Marley and Bruce Lee – Oh, yeah … Jack had an amnesia-concealed origin story that involved him being a secret master of Lee’s Jeet Kune-Do martial arts technique.
And yes, it does all take place over the course of ten days. Because I thought the title sounded cool.
The Pursuit Of Happiness
About four years after I wrote this, Will Smith made a movie by the same title. It’s actually a really, really good movie, but did that version have a scene (set in the petting zoo of a Bible-themed amusement park that was secretly the headquarters of a terrorist organization bent on world conquest, mind you) where the hero takes out an enemy by throwing a poisonous snake at him and then quipping, “Kiss my asp!”?
No. No it did not. And my version spelled the title properly, too.
The heroes of this one were a team of videogame designers, world famous for their popular games and for their colorful antics when called before a series of ongoing Senate hearings about game violence. The “Wolverine” of the group was Jack Balthazar (I’m sorry), the team’s concept artist and – deep breath – PTSD-afflicted/half-Japanese/martial artist/conspiracy theorist/weapons expert/motorcyclist with permanently dilated eyes and an American Flag trenchcoat. Also on hand: Brainy Guy, Skeptical Guy, Badass Military Advisor Guy (they were making an army game) Bisexual Whip-Wielding Goth Chick, Guy Who’s Only There to Betray Everyone in Act III and The Red Herring (to distract from the Betrayer guy, of course).
The main story turns on a Columbine-style massacre/suicide at a high school. The perpetrator turns out to have been a game tester who’d been working on our heroes’ upcoming title, and he’d left graffiti and audio recordings indicating that he was unquestionably acting out behaviors, catchphrases, etc., from the game. Having been handed their smoking gun, the pro-censorship lobby passes sweeping laws and the public turns against the gaming culture, burning and looting game stores and arcades in a wave of violence that Jack un-ironically compares to Kristillnacht. At one point, an outraged crowd spontaneously becomes a lynch mob and attacks a child who’d been walking by with a Game Boy.
Jack, naturally, suspects something is amiss and soon uncovers the truth. The massacre was staged as the first part of a massive, coordinated effort by a secret society of religious fundamentalists to turn the United States – and then the world! – into a theocracy. Armed with this knowledge (and an absurd number of guns, tactical gear, katanas and more) they go on the offensive to out the conspiracy, clear their names and save the country.
To call Pursuit the fevered work of an Angry Young Man would be charitable. It was a disaster; an egomaniacal, id-driven screed in which literally every aspect of society or philosophy I was directly or indirectly infuriated by at the time was an active part of the bad guys’ scheme and the good guys were equal parts sanctimony and wish fulfillment. Jack Balthazar was the absolute worst kind of what we’d later call a Mary Sue character. He was always right about everything, innately skilled at anything he needed to do and flawed only in the sense that he could stand to be more patient with people who just weren’t as awesome as him.
As you might expect, the game references were constant and incredibly forced: Jack lived in a Victorian mansion filled with classic arcade cabinets. An action scene involving smoke bombs kicked off with the original Zelda‘s “Dodongo dislikes smoke” line being quoted (I’m pretty sure I threw an “It’s dangerous to go alone … ” in there, too). At one point Jack comes back to life after near death by drowning, during which he hallucinates himself as a child putting a quarter into an arcade machine to give himself a “Continue” (a gag I’ve since repeated in two or three subsequent, slightly-less-crummy scripts). My crowning achievement, though, was a hacking scene wherein the good guys correctly guess that a password needed to open a folder containing proof of the conspiracy is “JUSTIN BAILEY” because the computer’s desktop background is a collage of photos of Australian models wearing swimsuits.
So … yeah. The next time you hear me say that a movie had a terrible screenplay, rest assured that I know a thing or two about terrible screenplays.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.