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First Ten Pages: American Sinners

I wonder how many of you have a general idea of the significance of the first ten pages of a screenplay. That there is a kind of rule that means you ought to capture your reader’s attention in those first pages, or else that, and the other one hundred plus pages, end up in the trash. I’m talking about the powers that be in the industry, the first page turners on the journey to having a movie made. A long journey. I would like to think friends and family, those readers of your screenplay, would perhaps give you a little bit more of a chance.

But let’s quickly think about the general audience, when you go to the cinema. You sit through the ads and the trailers and the music. Then comes the feature presentation, the movie you have paid good money to see. How many minutes into the movie do you start to question it? How long is your attention span with this? When are you going to figure out what is going on or know what this is about or start guessing what will happen next? Generally speaking you may realize that after about ten minutes you have an idea as to whether or not you are going to eagerly sit through this movie, or get up and walk out.
So how do you introduce fourteen characters in ten minutes? Involve them in an explosion, maybe some of them in a gunfight? They can all be on a train that is about to go off the tracks. At a crucial sports event. Are they attacked by thugs? Or a sea monster? Does it open with a huge wedding? A beautiful birth? A Christmas party? Do they all crash land on an island? Not quite any of those.
My movie American Sinners is actually quite grounded, in that rather than dealing with natural disasters or alien invasions, or even car chases, this is about human feelings and human actions. It is about sex, need, desire, denial, anger, regret, arrogance. Portions of humanity through one day. A colony of people in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

American Sinners, the first ten minutes, looks something like this:

A young couple British, appear to walk out of the sea. He suggests they have earned brunch in America, she asks him if he knows what has happened. An English waitress offers a towel, and they small talk about Brits in America. We realize the waitress is religious, and has a cross tattoo on her hip. After she greets a doctor she know, a cocky guy she is due to have a date with shows up way too early to her disapproval. Arriving at the clinic, the doctor is surprised to see his German receptionist. Their awkward conversation suggests she is having pregnancy troubles, and her husband is ignoring her calls. He is an ageing police officer, trying to impress his also over-confident black female rookie. They respond to a report of gunshots, which turns out to be troublesome twelve year-old twins with firecrackers. The boy is timid, but the girl appears threatening and vengeful. At their school the principle rushes back to his wife, a teacher at the school, to bring her an inhaler. She, more than he, is sceptical about the pending house stay of their daughter’s gay male friend. Outside their home, the daughter greets a man in his thirties with a huge embrace. They appear to have not met before in the flesh, but are in love.

I’ve considered giving the opening a more dramatic turn. Perhaps bring some of the later “big” scenes forward. But I soon decided against it. They are later in the narrative for a reason. Plus the movie has to have an impact ending, as well as beginning. The boat does not sink at the beginning of Titanic (should have screamed spoilers there).

The final act of American Sinners is about revelations, redemption, the what has happened, and the what they have done. By definition, those are aspects of this story that should come later, that you do have to wait for. We can build towards it. Some stories work showing the ending first, and then find out how we got there. But not this one. Sins play a major role in the lives of these characters, whether they have sinned themselves (or will), or having been sinned against (or will). This is brought to the surface in this movie, what turns out to be very high drama. The opening ten minutes have to hint at this. That the waters are rippling, and a storm is coming. And although I am in a very small boat, I will take my chances.


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