They’ve finally begun the rounds of judging for the BlueCat Screenwriting Competition, and I am delighted to announce that Adonis, the screenplay I wrote with Bernie, has made the top ten percent of Features for 2015!
I am so happy about this. I had been feeling pretty good when we got our initial feedback from the contest, and I felt like it gave us a really good direction for the edit. The version produced for this one was the one that we would be judged on, and I felt it was very strong.
Though this was the last possible version to submit, BlueCat actually offers a second round of feedback on it, which I’d been meaning to write about here but hadn’t gotten around to. Bernie and I felt like our first reader grasped the script really well, giving us both astute positives and valid, useful critiques, so we asked to have them look at our next draft as well, but unfortunately they were not available. That made me nervous, as we had addressed their criticisms specifically. But our replacement seemed to get the piece as well! It’s such an encouragement to see that people with film industry training and perspective can get behind a piece as challenging as this one.
“This is both a period drama with a dynamic twist of fantasy and a powerful love story with considerable erotic frisson. It is set in the era of the Roman Empire – but a version where women are in charge. The screen direction on p.4 lays it out very clearly “Everywhere one looks is the grip of matriarchy; every slave master, every owner of property, every magistrate or enforcer of the law. Wherever there is position of power or authority, it is filled by a woman.” There is no question as to which is the second sex. This storytelling device allows the writers to take a fresh approach to somewhat tired material (a gladiatorial contest) and ask some pointed questions about a civilization that resorts to bread and circuses to keep dissatisfaction contained. It also paves the way for some deliciously bawdy inverted sexism (e.g. Orestea’s line on p.22 “he would make Vesta dampen her hearth” or Tamar’s reference to “Aphrodite’s saddle. The cradle of a horsewoman’s pleasure” on p.24). This inversion of the usual sexual hierarchy is very thought provoking. It causes the audience to rethink attitudes to both historical cultures and our representation of them. If a male general were to have a relationship with a female slave in the way Diana connects with Aidan, it would seem like a well-worn trope. However, switching their genders causes us to think more deeply about the power dynamics in such relationships, as opposed to taking the sexual chemistry for granted. The writing comes from a place of authority regarding such contests, and describes the protocol and the weapons used (e.g. Aquila’s gladii on p.19) with confidence, making it easy to believe in the world on the page. While Aidan/Adonis wins fans in the arena (and Diana’s heart), his sister Morna is sowing the seeds of rebellion. One of the most powerful elements of the screenplay is the slow, almost unnoticed rise of the crippled girl. By the time Aidan faces Aquila for the final battle, his sister has almost as much at stake as he does. Although it’s really no surprise that Aidan manages to strike the triumphal blow on p.95, the screenplay frames it as an unexpected win, triggering the revolution that Morna has so carefully put in place. However, the real victory comes with Diana and Aidan’s kiss on p.107, capping off their romance.”
I like a lot about this, but I think the best and most important line is “It causes the audience to rethink attitudes to both historical cultures and our representation of them.” This is the main theme of the story, drawing attention to gendered epic tropes by changing the customary gender roles, so I am delighted to see such understanding of it. He also liked the meat of the story (Aidan’s progress through the games, the romance between Aidan and Diana, and Morna’s sowing rebellion) as well as the trappings, such as our “deliciously bawdy inverted sexism.” I love those bits myself, so I’m glad they were noticed. I also love that he bought into the ship, considering “the real victory” to be Aidan and Diana’s kiss.
And now for the negatives:
“It seems you may be missing a major trick by making Morna and Aidan siblings rather than lovers. It would certainly add urgency to the entire story if Aidan was devoted to Morna, forced to fake fealty to Diana, and then torn between the two women, whom he loves for different reasons. Have you considered a painful (and therefore conflict generating) love triangle, with the slaves lying about the true nature of their relationship in order to stay together, similar to the one in DAYS OF HEAVEN? Although the writing is generally clear and eloquent, it may be a little long-winded and formal in places. Screenplays demand economy of language. Try to keep screen directions more concise. Describe visual beats in as simple a manner as possible, withholding comment or judgment, and describing only what can be seen within the scene. Try to avoid lengthy, dense blocks of description such as the one describing Morna’s ride around the city on p.45. Break it down into a series of specific beats, possibly a montage or sequence of shots. Aim for short, snappy paragraphs of screen directions less than three lines in length. When proofreading your screenplay, check for formatting errors such as character names becoming separated from dialogue over a page break, or scene headings separated from screen directions. Screenplay software should prevent this from happening. Also check for the occasional typo (such as “you sent me for” instead of “you sent for me” on p.60). When a screenplay has this level of overall polish, odd mistakes are all the more glaring.”
On one hand, most of this criticism is TRIVIAL. He doesn’t like how my screenwriting software (which yes, I did use, but it’s just a bad iPad port of a program called Celtx) sometimes separated the sluglines for names and scenes. A tiny thing I can fix manually in a minute. He thinks my scene descriptions were a bit too long and formal– yeah, they might be a little bit, it’s a problem I’ve had in the past, though I’m not exactly sure what “formal” means in this context. It’s actually a pretty good sign when you only get dinged on nitpicky technical things; it means there are minimal substantive things to criticize!
On the other hand, the only real thing he mentions made my eyes pop out of my head– he thinks we were “missing a major trick” by making Aidan and Morna brother and sister, as opposed to lovers. WHA-WHA-WHAT? I can’t even CONCEIVE of that. How would it even work? It kills SO MANY THINGS about the point of our story. In this schema, would he be with Diana and Morna at the same time? We’re supposed to like this guy– wouldn’t he come off as a major cad, boning the powerful person who can do things for him when he has someone looking out for him at home? A huge plot point is that up until he meets Diana, he’s never had the wherewithal to work on moving past his trauma– if he already has a lover, the power of him finally taking all that on so that he can be with Diana is destroyed. And also– a LOVE TRIANGLE? Ugh, that is SO played out.
Bernie was less bothered by it– he thinks the guy was just thinking out loud about what he might have done if he were writing it (in which case, I say “Why does it need to be mention in his response to OUR WORK?”). Bernie says that while it isn’t right for the story we’re actually telling, he could see it working if it were an urequited thing, like Morna loved Aidan from afar and never pursued him due to his trauma, adding an extra layer of tragedy to how she worked to protect and save him even though he loves another. But I am much more moved by the idea that Aidan and Morna are FAMILY, all the family they have, and that is a bond that can never be severed. I think there’s a lot of feeling that the only really powerful motivating force is romantic-sexual love, and I not only disagree with that notion, I want to depict how other kinds of love can be just as powerful.
Perhaps you’ll disagree with me, and I have no proof either way, but while I got the sense that the first reader was a woman, I would guess that this second was a man. If so, that’s actually possibly a good thing, as I think the hardest sell on a story like this is men. But the suggestion about making Morna Aidan’s lover rather than his sister is what clinched it for me. I think that represents a somewhat more typically masculine way to interpret a character like Aidan. I think the idea of having two women after him is sort of a way to “man him back up.” Bernie thinks I’m reading too deeply into it, but that’s what I think.
Regardless, this reader liked it enough that we made it into the top ten percent. Maybe Bernie’s right and it was just musing. I’m not sure what the process is, but I would guess that each reader has to care enough about the script to argue for its inclusions to all the other readers who didn’t see it, and if that’s the case, our guy pulled for us. And I’m really happy about it.
I don’t know if we’ll go any farther in this contest. I really hope so, though I probably shouldn’t get my hopes up. But I’m so proud of this piece, and I believe in it so much. Special thank you goes to, in no particular order, Jenn Giorno, Matt Kamm, Shannon Moore, Ben Federlin, Tegan Kehoe, Charlotte Oswald, Sam LeVangie, Caitlin Partridge, Frances Kimpel, Eboracum Richter-Dahl, and anyone else I’m sorry to be forgetting, who read the script and gave us such amazing and useful responses. You guys did so much to make it as good as it turned out to be.