We've all been there before. We've labored through draft after draft, trying to inject something special into a screenplay that we thought was a sure thing. Yet there's still something off.
Hollywood contacts aren't biting. There is clearly some disconnection with an otherwise excellent concept and the eventual execution of it.
2016's science fiction film Passengers, starring Hollywood box office king and queen Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, is a perfect example of this strange phenomenon.
It had everything going for it. It starred two of the biggest box office sure-bets of the last few years. The space story genre was a hot commodity with hits like Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian. And the script had an intriguing concept to boot, telling the story of two space explorers waking up from hypersleep ninety years before they were supposed to, as their fellow travelers slept quietly, oblivious to their plight.
The script itself was a 2007 Black List script that launched the career of screenwriter Jon Spaihts — he would go on to write Prometheus, Doctor Strange, the upcoming The Mummy, etc.
Despite everything it had going for it, the film's Rotten Tomatoes rating stands at a lackluster 31%. The box office take proved to be troublesome as well, garnering only $100 million domestic ($199 million international) off of a hefty $110 million budget. While it will turn a profit in the end, it's not the guaranteed slam dunk the studio clearly thought it would be.
So what happened, and more importantly, what can screenwriters learn from its failure?
The Nerdwriter1 Youtube Channel tackled this very subject by posing the question, "Is it possible to make the movie Passengers better with some minor changes?"
They managed to answer that question by discovering a brilliant and somewhat simple solution to the problem that the shooting screenplay of Passengers suffered from with their Youtube video Passengers Rearranged. We'll share their brilliant change here (the full video is below) and then showcase how screenwriters can apply this — and others simple changes — to their own scripts.
Warning: Spoilers Below
The basic plot of Passengers is fairly simple. After the interstellar spaceship Avalon malfunctions, Jim Preston wakes up ninety years before anyone else on the ship. He can't go back to sleep. He can't contact Earth. He can't get to the ship controls. He tries to do all of these things and fails.
We watch as a year passes and he grows helpless and depressed. So eventually he decides to wake up another passenger, Aurora Lane, condemning her to the same fate in order to give himself some more company.
He doesn't tell her the truth — instead making her believe that her awakening was a malfunction as well. They eventually fall in love until she finds out the truth, gets really angry, and then as if things couldn't get worse for them, the ship begins to further malfunction, threatening their lives and the lives of the other passengers. Jim sacrifices himself to save it. She then saves him. They fall in love again and spend the rest of their lives alone on the ship.
So What's the Problem with the Story?
Overall, the film itself isn't nearly as bad as many seem to believe. The concept is engaging. The exploration of Jim's initial dilemma is intriguing as we watch him enjoy most of the benefits of the ship, with some comical moments. We also get to witness the emotional impact of his situation, which drives him to do the unthinkable — waking someone else up for the most selfish of reasons.
We then meet Aurora. The two clearly have chemistry and they fall in love. However, the audience knows what Jim has done. This is where the film begins to go into overly predictable territory. We know that she is eventually going to find out the truth. We know she won't be too happy. And then we know that the third act is going to throw some conflict at them that they have to overcome together. The story becomes predictable.
This plot can be broken up into five turning points.
1. Jim Wakes Up
2. Jim Wakes Aurora Up
3. She Finds Out
4. He Sacrifices Himself
5. She Forgives Him
The draw of story lies within the conflict between parts 2 and 3. Aurora starts to fall in love with Jim, but the audience knows the truth. The audience knows that the truth is coming and predictably, she finds out and isn't too happy. The audience feels some sadness because they were doing so well and clearly this is something that is going to create a lasting rift between their romantic storyline, which is a draw of the movie's concept.
This reveal happens just an hour into the screenplay. About halfway through the film. Because this happened so quickly, the script has pretty much written itself into a corner.
Because Jim is the main character and the opening perspective that the audience is introduced to, his character arc really only offers two options. Either he dies or she forgives him. Either way, he finds some sort of absolution to the sin he has committed.
No matter which way is chosen by the screenwriter, the last half of the story would pretty much play how it already does. The only option they had was to throw another obstacle at them in order to get them together again. This is where the story becomes muddled in predictable and forgettable fashion. It's clear that for the third act, the writer and studio needed to juice things up by having them solve a technical and life-threatening problem via a dangerous and nearly "impossible" series of events.
So How Can We Make a Simple but Brilliant Change to Fix It?
What if we rearranged the screenplay's events to tell the story from Aurora's point of view? What if the film began with her waking up?
The Youtube video brilliantly re-edited the existing footage to do just that, and the results are mind-bending, proving that a simple change in the structure of the story can actually be a brilliant move that could help save the script.
When this new perspective introduces the film, the tone of the first act changes drastically. Instead of the somewhat passive — albeit entertaining — intro with Jim waking up, exploring the ship, and dealing with the situation, the story is layered with mystery. We don't know anything about either character. And more important, we don't know what to think about Jim. He comes off as creepy. We don't know what his intentions are and we don't know if he's really trustworthy.
The result of this change makes the audience's experience an active one in every moment. We find ourselves trying to figure out the story and what's going to happen, instead of pretty much knowing the outcome due to its predictable set-up. As Jim leads Aurora around the various locations of the ship, what we see becomes a crime scene littered with mystery for the audience to be engaged and challenged by. The audience has to piece the fragments together, which keeps them on the edge of their seat and invested in the story.
This builds to the revelation of what really happened and because we've opened with Aurora's perspective, it is a true shocker for most. It packs more of an emotional punch.
So at this point, we're at the point where the original story hits the dead end. Before we only had two choices to go — Jim dies or Aurora forgives him.
But now, we have more options. And better ones at that.
1. Jim Could be the Villain
Now we have a third act with some true stakes. We still don't know what he's capable of. The science fiction genre could then be blended with a Horror/Thriller element.
2. Jim's Backstory Could be Part of the Third Act
We could use the first portion of the original version, showing Jim's journey after waking up. This would allow the audience some pay-off and reveals to the mystery of Jim's character in this new version of the story.
3. The Ship Malfunction Could be Eliminated
With either option 1 or 2 above, or both combined, we don't need the otherwise predictable and passive action ending. Instead, we could utilize the Horror/Thriller elements.
4. Jim Could Die and Aurora Could Face the Very Ethical Dilemma He Did
Whether he dies by her hand or by saving her, we could see her survive and possibly face the ethical decision that he was forced to deal with — "Do I want to die alone?" This type of ending could leave audiences with something to talk about afterwards, which always leads to lasting impressions of the film.
So What Can Screenwriters Learn from This Brilliant Exercise?
Brainstorming like this helps the screenwriter to explore different options in their own writing. With a simple change in Passengers, we saw the ripple effects that could have offered a more dynamic and engaging story.
While the film deserves its kudos for high production value, charismatic casting, and intriguing and original concept — as opposed to another sequel, prequel, remake, reboot, or re-imagining — this lesson should teach screenwriters that the answers to their own problems within their own scripts could be more simple than they could ever have imagined.
1. Switching Character Perspectives
Passengers Rearranged proved that a simple switch of what characters we see the story through can drastically change the tone, atmosphere, and conflict of the script. Imagine how different Saving Private Ryan would have been had we opened with Private Ryan and his journey before meeting the men risking their lives looking for him. In retrospect, it likely would have been a lesser version, however, it would have been very different.
2. Interchanging First, Second, and Third Acts
If your screenplay has an excellent concept but is feeling a bit by-the-numbers, switching up the structure can do wonders. Imagine how different Pulp Fiction would have been had the stories been told in sequential order.
3. Gender Switches
While Passengers Rearranged didn't toy with switching the genders of the characters, it's worth noting that if your script is in need of some retooling, switching the genders of your main characters could be the X factor that gets your screenplay in the conversation of the Hollywood elite. The hit action film Salt starring Angelina Jolie was originally written with a male lead starring Tom Cruise. The concept took on a whole new tone with a woman in the action lead.
These are just a few of the simple, but brilliant changes that screenwriters can make to better their screenplays.
Watch the full Passengers Rearranged video now:
Guest blogger Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as two writing assignments with Larry Levinson Productions, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies