Late last night I received notification that I was not short-listed for this years Euroscript Screen Story Competition. Disappointing news but not unexpected. I took some solace in the thought that “at least I get a readers report”. Until I read it. Because this report has turned the mild disappointment that I wasn’t short-listed into anger. I’m angry because it feels to me like the treatment wasn’t read properly. Here is the treatment I submitted.
Carrion is a science fiction thriller about the cruelty of prohibition.
The last few years have been tough on ADAM LEIGH. First his marriage disintegrates. Torn apart by the rigours of army life. Then his parents die in a car crash. Leaving him sole guardian of a teenage sister he hardly knows. He tries to take care of CHRISTINE. Buys himself out of the army. Moves back into the family home. Takes a job with the police. But when growing pains amplify Christine’s grief into rebellion. He struggles to cope.
Outraged by her drug use. He becomes increasingly self-righteous. Until she escapes his tyranny. Finds solace with boyfriend JOHN QUAYS. Things between Adam and Christine come to a head when Adam has to sell the family home. Christine is furious. They fight. Adam snaps. Arrests Christine and John for possession.
Six months later. The war on drugs escalates. Swarms of drug eating insects are released by the government.
Seemingly unconcerned Christine and John still visit their dealer. Stock-up for the weekend’s party. They’re planning a two-fingered salute to new “Code 10” laws that will bar drug-user access to healthcare.
Meanwhile Adam arrives at the house of policeman ANTHONY REINER. His daughter is dead. Needle junked in her vein. It looks like an overdose. But when Adam finds evidence of a struggle. Suspects foul play. He does his job. And arrests Reiner.
That night. While Christine and John deal to their friends. Enjoy a hedonistic mix of music and recreational drugs. Adam questions Reiner. By morning. An unrepentant Reiner admits he killed his daughter. Expresses an evangelical wish to see all junkies’ dead. A wish that might come true. Because when Christine and John arrive home. Rack out a two line nightcap. A swarm of insects attack them.
As the swarm rips through the city. Christine and John drag each other to the local hospital. Only to be turned away. “Code 10” laws prohibit their treatment. Threaten their arrest.
Out of options the pair hole up. Self-medicate on what’s left of their stash. But when John starts to spit blood. A desperate Christine goes to Adam for help.
Still trying to maintain the status quo. Adam puts the law first. And cruelly turns her away. But his loyalty is not reciprocated. Because later that day. The CPS judge there is “no case to answer”. And discharge Reiner. The murderer’s release leaves Adam feeling betrayed. Gives him a galvanising glimpse of the hostilities to come.
So when John delivers news of Christine’s arrest. Guilt drives him to the station where she is being held. Fighting through the riotous crowd of users. He argues with belligerent colleagues. Until they take him to see Christine. Horrified by the abuse she has suffered. He orders a doctor. But his pleas are met with threats of arrest. So when the rioters storm the station. Adam takes his chance. And helps Christine escape.
Desperately in need of pain relief. Christine persuades Adam to drive them north to their supplier. But all they find when they get there is a dead dealer. An eaten stash. And a gang of vigilantes who what to kill them.
They barely escape with their lives. Only to have John succumb to his insect infestation. When the swarm explodes from his corpse. Adam struggle to save Christine. Drags her free. Manages to contain the swarm in the car.
Devastated by John’s death. Confronted by her fate. She is inconsolable. Adam is forced to dig deep. Marshal every bit of empathy he has. And probably for the first time ever. Connects with Christine.
Determined to keep her safe. Intent on escaping the embattled city. Adam steals a car. But when they run into a police checkpoint. He defies the law. Behaves like a criminal. And flees the scene.
Pursued by the police. Hemmed in. They abandon the vehicle. Escape on foot. Find refuge at the home of Christine’s friend. But when her friends turn on Adam. Blame him for their troubles. He confounds their expectations by volunteering to go for help.
Chasing rumours there is a territory controlled by dealers. Adam leaves Christine with her friends. And heads south. Moving fast. He dodges the police. Evades vigilantes. Hides from an army patrol. Only to be captured by a gang of insurgents.
Desperate to get Christine the help she needs. He supplicates himself. Asks a junkie for help. SEXTON takes pity. Follows Adam back to the house. But as his gang triage the household. Administer doses of smack to those who need it. A police snatch squad rolls up.
The fire-fight that follows threatens to kill them all. But when Adam sacrifices himself for Christine. Runs interference with Sexton. Christine and the others escape.
When the police finally raid the house. Reiner is first to breach the barricade. First to discover their escape. First to give chase. But when Adam takes a stand. And fights Reiner. Fights prohibition. He wins a minor victory. And takes Reiner hostage.
With Reiner in tow. Adam and Sexton rendezvous with the others. Head south. Find they’re cut off by military lines. And have to take refuge in the Leigh family home.
As they plan their route through. Christine’s condition worsens. The insects inside her start to gnaw their way out. Adam watches in horror as she vomits blood. He does his best to comfort her. But he’s helpless. All he can do is cradle her in his arms. And watch her die.
Broken hearted. He reacts violently when Reiner mocks her death. Grabs a syringe of smack from Sexton. And sends Reiner to hell. Stabs him with the shot. Leaves him for the swarm of insects that explode from her corpse.
Overwhelmed by grief. Adam refuses to move. Until screams draw him outside. A woman pleads for her life as soldiers tie a noose round her neck. Loop it over a lamp-post. Yank her into the air. Adam snaps. Picks up a gun. And attacks the soldiers. When the shooting’s over. The soldiers are dead. The woman is saved. And Adam is an insurgent.
Humbled by her gratitude. Accepting solace from a junkie. He follows Sexton south. Past a defiant slogan daubed on the wall. “THEY DON’T WANT US. THEY’RE TRYING TO KILL US. WE’RE FIGHTING BACK.”
And this is the readers report I got back yesterday.
A father desperately tries to save his junkie daughter from the ruthless effects of the war of drugs in a dystopian world where insects feed on addicts.
LIST THE STRENGTHS OF THIS WRITER AND SCRIPT:
1. Having a father-daughter relationship central to the plot is an original and interesting perspective.
2. The premise of controlling addicts through the use of specially bred insects is both disturbing and believable in this genre.
3. The prejudicial treatment that addicts receive, along with the lack of understanding that the authorities are shown to have about the ways to best manage drugs are both relevant and accurate. The embodiment of these things in Reiner results in an appropriately despicable “bad guy”.
4. The violence and darkness of the story are tempered by the exciting action sequences and the suspense of the chase. There is a good mix of tones evoking a dystopian atmosphere.
LIST THE AREAS THIS WRITER NEEDS TO FOCUS ON TO IMPROVE THE NEXT DRAFT OF THIS SCRIPT:
1. The fractured style of writing makes this extremely difficult to engage with. It is both impersonal and distracting, and the story is not enhanced by this over-stylised approach.
2. Christine’s character needs further development as she is only shown to be a junkie and the tender bond between father and daughter also needs to be portrayed. Consider personality traits she may have that are not aligned with her drug usage so that she is shown to be a strong personality that the audience can also empathise with, as well as understand Adam’s emotional connection to.
3. The motivations and emotional journeys of each of the characters need to be shown visually through behaviours, as on film they cannot be related in prose. Think about lines such as, “leaves Adam feeling betrayed” or “guilt drives him to the station” and how these may be illustrated in scenes.
4. Crucially when he, “connects with Christine” this needs to be given more detail. This is one of the most important emotional points of the tale so it is necessary to describe how this happens and how the pair relate to one another. By also including more scenes showing the relationship between the two of them, their story is both more moving and therefore the story is more exciting when we see them under such threat.
ANY OTHER ADVICE YOU CAN OFFER WHICH WILL BE HELPFUL TO THIS WRITER WHEN TACKLING THE NEXT DRAFT?
The style of treatment writing should relate the story with a good level of description and clearly defined narrative. With such dramatic and perilous action throughout, stronger character development will enable an audience to engage more deeply with the piece, and care about the outcomes for all of the characters.
Perhaps I am overreacting, smarting at the rejection, but I don’t understand how the reader can mistake Adam and Christine’s relationship. It clearly states in the opening paragraph that Adam is “sole guardian of a teenage sister he hardly knows”. Granted Adam’s attitude toward Christine is paternal, but it’s his unjustified paternal attitudes towards Christine that frames the tensions between them. By ignoring this. Imposing the father daughter relationship the reader has changed the rest of the story, changed the nature of the empathy Adam must find and the personal changes he must undergo.
Because of this initial mistake the other criticisms now feel unjustified.
Firstly there is a criticism of my writing style. “The fractured style of writing makes this extremely difficult to engage with.” The fractured style is deliberate, it’s meant not only to reflect the pace and action of the story, something praised earlier in the report, but also reflects the fractured nature of the relationship between Adam and Christine, a point lost on the reader.
Incidentally I took inspiration from the terse staccato style favoured by Walter Hill, a not unsuccessful action writer/director.
That aside the reader then criticises me for not developing Christine’s character sufficiently. “She is only shown to be a junkie and the tender bond between father and daughter also needs to be portrayed.” Sorry to keep going on about this but the relationship between a father and daughter is completely different to the relationship between a brother and his sister.
Second, and more importantly, I’d say this is Adam’s story. The story focus is on him. It’s about his transformation from self-righteous prohibitionist to compassionate insurgent. It is not a story of redemption about a father trying to save his daughter, it’s a story about the cruelty of prohibition.
Unfortunately the limits of a two page treatment do not allow the intricacies of their relationship to be explored. Cutting to the chase, because that is all there is time for, their relationship is junkie sister, policeman brother. Adam is defined in action. He only attempts to save his sister after his foreclosed identity as a policeman (advocate of the law) is brought into question. When Reiner literally gets away with murder Adam realises his loyalty to the law and the police is not reciprocated, thus causing him to question his beliefs. He then starts on his journey to becoming more compassionate towards Christine.
The criticisms levelled at my treatment in points three and four focus on my use of non-visual language. This seems to directly contradict the style taught by Charles Harris at his Euroscript’s Exciting Treatments workshop. Harris teaches that treatments need to move smoothly “between the different levels on the hierarchy of ideas from the abstract to the specific”. The key levels on this hierarchy are generalisation, sequence and scene description. Basically you move through the hierarchy of ideas to create a more interesting read.
The report asserts that “characters need to be shown visually through behaviours, as on film they cannot be related in prose”. I don’t disagree in a screenplay. A screenplay is made up entirely of the specific level on the hierarchy of ideas, but if Harris is to be believed statements that fall into the category of generalisation or sequence are also allowed in a treatment. In fact they are a necessity. Otherwise you get an unrelenting series of “and then’s”. Lines such as “leaves Adam feeling betrayed” or “guilt drives him to the station” fall into the category of generalisation or sequence specifically to avoid the repetitious “and then” scene descriptions.
I realise this all might sound like sour grapes, but this reader’s report has left a sour taste in my mouth. Anyway I’d be interested to know what someone else thinks.