Wanted to take some time today to respond to our most recent submission to the Script Notes Pitch Workshop. Thanks to Matt for submitting his work, and thanks also to Janine for her thoughtful online response. Matt, I hope you found Janine’s thoughts helpful, and I just thought I’d add my own two cents.
For those who are new to the discussion, here’s Matt’s synopsis…
Title: Downsize This!
Genre: Romantic Comedy
“Love in the Time of Downsizing”
Steve (40) is a miserable, cantankerous SOB, who finds that his long-laid plans for self-downsizing is finally starting to bear fruit when his Boss presents him with an offer he can’t refuse: submit to the company’s new Wellness Program, and if in 6 weeks, his disruptive at work attitude can’t be adjusted; his self-downsizing wish – and the severance windfall that accompanies it – will be granted.
But when Steve meets and immediately falls in love with Alice (36), the sexy, eccentric, alcoholic Wellness Program Instructor he learns is (unwillingly) destined for downsizing; he presents a very different face at work – one of charisma and cool confidence – that brings a surge of curious new members to Alice’s program; securing her immediate future within the company.
It also garners the attention of the Boss’ who mistake Steve’s charade as proof that he may just be what they’ve been looking for: someone fresh, re-energized, and confident; a man who can be presented to the Board as appearing to be the company’s new face during these tough economic times.
Meanwhile, Steve struggles to woo Alice away from a competing nemesis while juggling his new found celebrity with other female co-workers, as he continues to plot his professional demise within the company in the hopes of receiving his elusive severance prize.
In the end, Steve must decide if what he wants – financial independence – is really worth sacrificing what it is he truly needs – love?
WHAT I LIKE:
I’ll be honest, Matt—I am a total sucker for stories about people trying to get fired. I think there is something absolutely hilarious about people behaving inappropriately in corporate/work environments. A couple years ago, CBS and LMNO Productions did a reality show called Fire Me, Please, where employees had to compete to get fired without their bosses catching on. It was—for all intents and purposes—a miserable failure… but I loved it. So I think “Downsize This!” begins from a strong comedic starting place… the kind of premise that immediately allows you to brainstorm scores of hilarious scenarios.
You’ve also given Steve a strong, relatable want… to get fired and get a severance package, which is something we’ve all dreamed of, especially working at jobs we despise. So right off the bat, you’re in a good place to generate story… you have a fertile premise and a character with a solid objective, both of which put you in a good starting posigion.
WHAT I’D WORK ON:
I agree with Janine’s comments… despite having a strong starting place, I think there are a lot of confusing elements in this synopsis, and they’re muddying both your A-story (Steve trying to get fired) and your B-story (Steve trying to win Alice).
While I obviously haven’t talked to you at all about your story, my sense—simply from readying the synopsis—is that much of the confusion is coming from a flaw in your writing process, and that flaw is this…
I think you’re creating story situations based on things you, the storyteller, WANT to have happen… or things you think SHOULD happen… rather than creating story situations by letting characters and events play out organically.
I know that sounds like a weird note, since we—as storytellers—are obviously in control of our stories and responsible for creative decisions, but being creatively responsible doesn’t necessarily mean we can simply wrench stories and characters in any direction we want; in fact, it often means that while we do indeed CREATE a story, we must also SERVE the story… or, rather, do what is right for the story… make it as relatable, believable, and powerful as possible—even if that means sacrificing things we want to happen.
The reason I say this in regard to “Downsize This” is that while your movie has a wonderful premise, it feels like many of its actions, events, and characters don’t behave in ways that seem honest, familiar, or true to human behavior. And since your premise is so ripe… and Steve’s want is so strong… your audience immediately has visions of how this story “should” play out. Thus, when your characters behave in contradiction to those expectations, it makes it very hard to believe in them or their world. This doesn’t mean your story should be predictable; it just means it needs to operate within the “rules” and expectations of how we believe people would act in the situation you’ve set up.
For instance… Steve is a “miserable, cantankerous SOB” who has been trying to get downsized for a long time. But instead of firing him—even in “tough economic times”—his company puts him into a six-week “Wellness Program” to change his attitude. Well, first of all—I’ve never heard of a company that puts troublemakers through their own “attitude rehab.” Companies may put an employee on probation, but they don’t usually put them through a six-week readjustment program. Why wouldn’t they just fire Steve? He’s a bad worker who doesn’t want to be there… why spend six weeks of valuable time, money, and energy trying to “fix” him?
Then, Steve meets Alice… and he INSTANTANEOUSLY becomes a new person: cool, confident and charismatic. Now, love is a powerful thing… but I’m not sure it can instantly change someone from “miserable” and “cantankerous” to cool, confident and charismatic. This just doesn’t seem like believable behavior… or at least, none I’ve ever seen in the real world. First of all—how does Steve change so dramatically so quickly? Second of all—it’s tough to swallow that such a miserable jerk would so quickly fall in love. And while you say it’s a “façade,” that confuses things even more: does Steve actually like Alice? Because if he DOES, then it’s NOT a façade; it’s a sincere attempt to be a better person and win her heart. And if he doesn’t like her, then why should we care about their relationship? Or, more importantly, why is she even in the story?
I also don’t buy that Steve’s boss—who knew Steve was such an asshole he had him put in a “wellness program”—would be so instantly duped by his transformation that he would suddenly make Steve the “new face of the company.” I mean, the boss knew what Steve was like before… so wouldn’t be super-skeptical of this “new Steve?” Even if he wasn’t skeptical, why would he make this guy—who less than two months earlier was on the verge of getting fired—the “new face” of the company?
Along those same lines, why do all these women who knew the
“old Steve” suddenly fall head-over-heels for the “new Steve?” Most men spend a lifetime trying to find that kind of female-attracting behavior, and Steve—a known misanthrope—suddenly fakes (after meeting ONE GIRL) and all the other women fall for it. I don’t buy that Steve—or anyone—could do that… and I don’t buy that all these women are stupid enough to fall for it.
Perhaps most importantly, if Steve’s incredible ability to be a brilliant businessman was nestled just below the surface… why didn’t he ever step up before? I mean, once Steve meets Alice, he becomes a virtual superhero, possessing nearly inhuman business savvy and romantic prowess. So where were these skills before? I suppose you could say he hated his job so he never used them, but I don’t believe that someone in possession of these kinds of skills is an antisocial bum. Why couldn’t he have just gotten another job? Or why wasn’t he using these skills all along to get ahead, pick up chicks, dupe his boss, etc.?
Now, Matt—I know it seems like I’m really ripping apart every beat of your story here, and in a way I am. But here’s why I said earlier I think your process is flawed and you’re trying to twist the story in directions it doesn’t want to go…
I can see how each of these moments would work and be funny… in their own movie. We’ve all seen movies—and will see many more—about losers who acquire business/romantic skills and find themselves catapulted to the top of the social food chain (What Women Want, Love Potion #9). We’ve all seen movies about guys who work to become different people to win a girl (Hitch). We’ve seen movies about people pretending to be someone they’re not to get ahead in the corporate world (The Secret of My Success, Working Girl, Taking Care of Business). We’ve all seen movies that satirize and condemn the corporate world (Office Space).
So each of your story moments could be very effective, Matt… and I understand why you like them all. But that doesn’t mean they all belong in the same movie… and combining them seems to blur the story you really want to tell.
My advice: think about the story you really want to tell, the story scratching and clawing its way out of your imagination. Don’t pick the story you think is the most commercial… or even the most original… or the easiest to shoot on a low-budget… or the easiest to make as a summer tentpole… or the best to get you into film school. Pick the one story that will haunt you and eat at you if you DON’T tell it.
Once you’ve done that, write your logline. This isn’t so you an pitch it easily and quickly; it’s so you have—in short sentence form—the core essence of your screenplay. For sake of this example, let’s say your logline is…
“When Steve, a cantankerous misanthrope, learns his company will be laying off its ten lowest-performing employees and giving them severance packages, he becomes determined to under-perform his co-workers, get fired, and use the money to achieve his dream: starting his own comic book store.”
Print this out and tape it above your desk. As you continue to work, refer back to this logline as often as you need to to make sure your story is laser-focused and not veering off in weird directions.
Next step: brainstorming. I usually like to do this somewhere other than the place where I do most of my writing. I’ll go outside… or to the park… or a café… or the swimming pool. Anywhere where I can feel unconfined and free of the environment where I do most of my other thinking and working. Personally, I think it’s tough to do “new” thinking when you’re surrounded by “old” environments.
Take a pad and brainstorm all the things Steve might do to try and achieve his goal. Don’t censor yourself as you write… simply let as many ideas as possible flow from your brain to your pencil and onto the paper. Never let your pencil stop moving. Even if you’re scribbling lame, ridiculous ideas… let them come. A strong premise—whether comedy or drama—should generate a nearly infinite number of ideas.
Just looking at the above Steve/comic book shop example, I’m gonna do a quick brainstorming session. Here we go, right off the top of my head…
WAYS STEVE MIGHT TRY TO GET FIRED/LAID OFF
• Never turn in any work
• Show up late
• Sleep with the boss’s wife
• Sleep with the boss’s daughter
• Dress like a clown
• Fart wherever he goes
• Eat lunch without a fork or spoon—just put his face right in the plate
• Only communicate by singing
• Hop everywhere he goes
• Call his co-workers names
• Pee himself constantly
• Wear his clothes backwards
• Start selling off the office equipment
Now, I’m not saying any of those or good, funny, or even helpful idea. What I AM saying is this: I typed those in about 30 seconds of spur-of-the-moment thinking. If you were to spend even just an hour doing this, you’d have HUNDREDS of ideas.
Your job is then to pick the best of those (and by “best,” I mean those that are the most true and honest to Steve’s character, his want, and the world of the story—not those that you most want to happen), and begin to think about what would logically happen if they were to happen.
For instance, if Steve started communicating only by singing, he’d probably annoy and anger a lot of people… at first. But then maybe people would grow to like his singing—maybe it’s a cheerful break in an otherwise dreary workplace—and the office would institute musical Fridays, allowing people to play CD’s and listen to radios. So Steve would need to think of a new tactic. Perhaps he tries to sleep with his boss’s wife… only to discover that his boss and his wife have an open marriage, and his boss wants to join them.
Again—I’m not saying ANY of these ideas are right for the story you want to tell. I’m simply trying to concoct examples that are on-point for Steve’s objective and have a cause-effect relationship that seems believable… in both our world and your story-world.
Anyway, Matt—like I said earlier, I think you have a strong comic premise and a character with a great want; my sense is that you simply got sidetracked by subplots and story elements that seemed interesting, but weren’t necessarily integral to your main story. I even think that as you go back and reconstruct your story, focusing on your A-story, you’ll see how the B-story (the Alice love story) can integrate itself more organically without derailing everything else.
I hope this is helpful info… good luck with project, and lemme know how it goes!
For the rest of you, if you have loglines or summaries you’d like to submit to the Script Notes Pitch Workshop, feel free to email me at WDScriptNotes@FWPubs.com, or simply post them in a “comments section” here on the blog.
In the mean time, we’ve got some great stuff coming up… more Pitch Workshop submissions, book reviews, some great website recommendations, and more questions from readers!
Have a good Sunday!