Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Review – Diablo Cody's "Body"

“I have no idea what to think about this.”
Latino Review

Jennifer’s Body is a very different movie than Juno. For example, it is extremely gory. One passage from Cody’s script describes a scene where blood and viscera is scattered everywhere, with intestines strewn about ‘like party streamers.’ One victim is described as looking like ‘Lasagna with teeth.’ There are a couple scenes where a Jennifer graphically tears apart unknowing High School boys. Some of the descriptions gave me an uncomfortable feeling deep in the pit of my stomach. The gore described on these pages is Hard-R. However, I assume that the film will likely be cut down to a PG-13 to capture the teen audience. But I’m not really sure that is possible...”
Slash Film

[The quotes above represent the extent of the spoilers.]

Okay, I’m looking at a September 20, 2007, draft of
Jennifer’s Body. So far, we know that Jennifer will be played by Megan Fox (of Transformers). The protagonist, however, is a girl named Anita “Needy” Lesnicki who shall be played by Amanda Seyfried (of Mean Girls). The film will be directed by Karyn Kusama (of Girlfight).

To strip everything down to a simple sound-byte, I’d have to say that Jennifer’s Body goes overboard with the way it tries to sell itself. One of the sure signs of overselling in screenwriting is a flashback structure, which I talked about previously in the
Hitman review. A flashback structure is where we open with the ending, there’s a cliff-hanger, because something’s at stake, and then a character “tells his/her story” through voice overs. We go through the entire story (filled with voice overs, mind you) until we come full circle back to where we started at the ending. There’s usually a twist and then the story’s over. I really despise this structure with every fiber of my being. Although, a few scribes on TriggerStreet showed me how some films used this structure to a good, defensible purpose – Amadeus, Double Indemnity, and Titanic, to name a few. In the case of Amadeus and Double Indemnity, the audience gets emotionally prepared for a tragic ending. Okay, fine. In the case of Titanic (which Pat talked about in her third exposition article), we first see the ship after it sank, we learn how it sank, so that we’re not too distracted when it sinks.

But this script feels like a step backwards for Diablo, because flashback structures are so common in amateur screenplays it’s almost clichéd that new writers resort to this. It’s as if the writer hasn’t found his/her confidence yet and feels the need to overplay their hand and give a peak at the ending so you’ll read the script all the way through. A confident writer would never feel the need to do that and certainly wouldn’t resort to a cheap gimmick like that to get people to read the whole story. And I believe that, ultimately, this kind of structure does not satisfy audiences. It turns the story into an empty narrative puzzle where you ask yourself, “okay, so how do the characters get from point A to point B” as opposed to wondering and worrying throughout the movie HOW it will end for the characters that you really care about. Thus, the deteriorating relationship between the two leads came as no surprise, nor was it engaging, because we already saw the ending. The showdown in the pool was robbed of all its tension and fear because we already saw the ending. It’s as if Diablo has given us a safety-net in her story and cushioned the audience by showing how it will end when nobody really wants that in a movie. They’re happier not knowing and riding that wild roller coaster from beginning to end. There's something to be said about being too nice to your audience.

Diablo didn’t even really follow the usual traditions of flashback structures. Usually, an amateur would show us HALF of the third act climax in the opening scenes in order to hook us into reading to the end to see how that specific scene plays out and then there’s a twist. Here, though, Diablo shows us in the first few pages of the script the entire third act climax from beginning to end, and when we actually get to the end, there are no twists, which was also a bit of a letdown. The most important section in your screenplay is the ending, and her structure really pulled the rug out from underneath her own ending and you walk out of the theater feeling less than thrilled. Also, there were no questions hanging over our heads as we jump into the story as we would usually experience in this kind of structure, such as “does this person live or die?” Instead, because we see the whole scene and it had some surprising supernatural elements to it, the only thing we might ask ourselves is, “What the hell was that all about?” Other than that, there was nothing at stake, and to go through the entire story just to answer “What the hell was that all about?” isn’t worth it. It’s better to tell your story in chronological order, let the audience get into it, let the tensions naturally rise over the course of three acts, let the audience wonder and worry throughout, and let them be surprised and wowed by the ending.

Okay, let’s talk about the dialogue. Another way that, to me, she oversold her story is in its excessive dialogue. This had much more dialogue than Juno, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. She is, of course, known for her snappy lines, which I loved in Juno, and you look forward to reading more, but here, I felt like we were given too much of it because we not only have lots of dialogue in the regular scenes, but we also have lots of voice overs from Needy as she tells her story. It’s too much. Even the parents are rattling off Cody-speak. This is the perfect opportunity to show the world confidence and discipline from a matured Oscar-winning artist by toning down the dialogue. By the way, if you guys ever become famous for dialogue, the worst thing you can do is to give them MORE in your next script. You have to keep your fans hungry for your work by giving them less. Or something completely different. Because people WILL tire of this kind of talk and if this is all you’re good for, you may not have a very long career. Thus, I’d suggest an emphasis on other strengths in order to showcase a range of skills and sustain longevity in your career.

There are two areas I believe she can do this:

1) Master the Lost Art of Horror

So much of the script was filled with, not fear or dread or tension or anticipation, but SUDDEN EXTREME GORE, which pulls the script down a few notches to the category of cheap thrills. Just because you see gore does not necessarily qualify your script as good horror, because that isn’t fear. Most definitions of “horror” include both repugnance and fear. Here, it’s just repugnance. Ya know, I recall Justin Clark saying in his
review of Feast: “James Cameron once said, in reference to his work on Aliens, that gore isn't fear. It's disgust, a totally different emotion. No matter how gory your film is if there isn't anything more to it than that, it's no different than watching people drink sperm-tainted beer in American Pie. It's getting to the point now where the true art of dread, of terror, of watching people, characters and things be threatened by a truly frightening menace has taken a back seat to ‘safe’ thrills.” That’s exactly how I feel about this spec.

2) Master the Art of
Visual Storytelling.

I know my more devoted readers are sick of hearing about this, but it’s important, and I’m not sure she’s even aware of this principle. If you were to tone down the dialogue and emphasize the visuals, you will inevitably write scenes filled with better tension, such as the Tarantino example we studied in the
Write the Shots article. I also had two examples here and here that would serve her well.


- In terms of formatting, it was a bit sloppy. Hey, if you’re going to be a pro screenwriter, know the format. The “smash cut” on page 19 wasn’t the right technique for that transition nor was it necessary to call out any transitions at all. Write a proper MONTAGE or a SERIES OF SHOTS by actually listing the shots, which is what we’re supposed to do. And quit writing “we see.” Obviously, “we see.” It’s a movie. That’s the point, isn’t it, to “see?” On pg 88, we had, “We hear the voice of Chip’s Mom through the door.” That’s called “(O.S.)”.

- Pg 85 – How does Needy figure out that Jennifer possibly killed Ahmet?

- I can't share anymore thoughts without revealing the plot, but for me, the pacing was off at times, particularly in the 80-page range with that passing of time, which I thought really undercut the tension. I also had questions about the arcs of the characters.


Don’t let this review and current Juno backlash fool you. Diablo is an immense talent that I believe still needs to be nurtured because she has a lot to learn. What we’re seeing in Jennifer’s Body is a case of nerves more than anything else, an anxious artist that’s eager to “kick ass” without having the experience and necessary study of the craft under her belt to really do that.


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