matthew herbertz ameiah coverage arc studio pro scriptup
Coverage

Coverage: AMEIAH by Matthew Herbertz

ScriptUp and Arc Studio Pro are teaming up to give you feedback on your scripts. After REFUGE by Kyle Fossé and KUDZU by Palmer Rubin, the script coverage service reviews Matthew Herbertz’s screenplay for AMEIAH.

The Script

INT. HOUSE. NIGHT

The image goes in and out with each shot;

A GLOVED HAND squeezes a sponge into a bucket. Pink water DRIPS down.

A hand SCRATCHES a BLOOD STAIN on the wall.

The Gloved Hand wipes hair away from a forehead.

A hand lights a SAGE. It CRACKLES.

A blurry image of A FACE. The SMOKE fills the frame.

Birds eye view of WOMAN lying down on the foyer floor next to the bucket, hugging her knee.

FADE TO BLACK.

A muffled cry turns into-

EXT. GAS STATION – EVENING

A tire SCREECH.

AMEIAH (20, Navajo) jumps up from a nap as she leans against a column of the gas station.

She studies her surroundings-

Early Premise

Ameiah is a 17-page short film that dramatizes a two-day period in the lives of its Navajo protagonist Ameiah and the initially-menacing-but-later-supportive character Andre. The script shows true respect for the rules of show, don’t tell filmmaking, with much of the plot developed through images rather than dialogue.

Setting plays a large role in atmosphere creation in the script. Although it is only mentioned in passing, the reader suspects that this story is playing out in the dusty planes of Arizona or New Mexico (think Better Call Saul landscapes).  The vast expanses certainly help to underscore Ameiah’s initial sense of hopelessness, and draw attention to the improbability of two strangers striking up a firm friendship in such an underpopulated area. If anything, more could be made of the short’s unique locations; a couple of well-placed lines of scene description would certainly allow the reader to picture the sun-scorched landscapes more easily. Sites such as the motel and the isolated gas station are firm favorites of directors, particularly those looking to build tension from the broader cinematic symbolism of these archetype locations. Watchmen showrunner Damon Lindelof specifically draws attention to the recognizability-factor of such places in his screenplay for The Hunt, for instance:

It’s a roadside Chevron, straight out of a Coen Brothers Movie. An OASIS.

This script, I think, demonstrates that same self-awareness, for instance when the loaded reference to ‘psycho’ is dropped in a motel room not unlike that in Hitchcock’s own Bates Motel:

Like I’m gonna let her be raised by a fucking psycho!

As in Hitchcock’s Psycho, the aim of the game here is to create and sustain tension through a combination of delayed information reveals and suspicious behavior. This tension is created visually when we notice that the baby in Andre’s car is white, when he himself is black – a plant that will later be paid-off. Similarly, you’ve neatly led the reader to believe that Andre might have darker sexual motivations for driving Ameiah to the hotel, only to reveal that he is in fact gay. This twist effectively releases tension across two levels: we understand that Andre is not ‘out to get’ Ameiah in a predatory sexual sense, and also that Sam must be adopted, hence the race difference between parent and child. It’s a well-engineered moment that might encourage the viewer to consider their own pre-judgments made during the first half of the film. Broadly, the central theme of the piece is the struggle between loneliness and companionship. This theme is explored as the relationship between Ameiah and Andre slowly morphs from one of convenience (Ameiah needs to borrow Andre’s phone) to necessity (Ameiah needs Andre to drive her to the funeral) to friendship (Ameiah invites Andre into her family home). It’s a satisfying arc  that provides a healthy dose of catharsis at the moment when the two amigos pull up outside Ameiah’s house in the final scene. A good deal of introspection and distrust has been overcome to reach this point. The key scene in developing this central relationship takes place at the motel pool. For once, ellipses in Ameiah’s dialogue suggest that she’s lost some of her earlier (affected?) confidence. Noticing this, Andre diagnoses her situation with a strong, truthful line:

AMEIAH

I just fucking met you I’m not... I just..

Andrew kicks his feet in the water.

ANDRE

Looks like I’m all you got right now.

The quiet, contemplative setting of the motel pool area at night adds to the emotion of the scene here – a wonderful choice. In this scene, both Ameiah and Andre find their common ground. Whilst most of the diegetic action in the script makes perfect sense and is guided by visual meaning, I must admit that by the end of the script, I couldn’t connect the teaser to the rest of the plot. Perhaps I’m being dim.  Is the implication that the woman lying in the foyer is the victim of murder (therefore Ameiah’s murdered best friend) or the perpetrator (therefore Ameiah herself, or someone entirely unrelated)? More simply: did Ameiah commit the murder?  If yes, this has big implications for the rest of the story, and needs some clarification, I think. Even after several passes, the central question of Ameiah’s friend’s death didn’t make sense to me. Who is Rob? The friend’s boyfriend? If he killed her, then why hasn’t he been arrested? And if Ameiah killed her, then why hasn’t she been arrested (given that the victim’s family is uncomfortable with her being at the funeral)? There are many questions raised and, frustratingly for the reader, quite a few of these are left unanswered. The good news is that some of these questions will be answered when the film is actually made (for instance whether the ‘woman lying down’ is dead or alive), and others can be easily clarified. Giving a name to the dead friend, for instance, would help to clarify other characters’ relationship with her.

Characterization

Ameiah is the protagonist of the short whose dramatic need is set up at the bottom of page 4:

AMEIAH

I actually need to get to Las Cruces.

The reason that Ameiah needs to be there is neatly teased, although the reveal that the funeral of her best friend awaits her is cleverly delayed until later. Ameiah clearly struggles with the late-teen desire for freedom and, later, the anxiety that strikes once she’s actually won that freedom (like a dog that, having escaped its walker, becomes lost in a forest and begins to whimper). She is keen not to be perceived as a child any longer, explaining her sharp reaction to Andre’s sarcasm:

ANDRE

This car is falling apart as is. I don’t need a teenager killing it for good.

AMEIAH

I’m not a teenager and I’m not staying in a motel with a man I don’t know.

(Again, is ‘killing’ here a veiled reference to Ameiah being the killer?) Over the course of the short, Ameiah and Andre’s relationship inverts itself neatly so that, by the final scene, Ameiah is the higher-status character that invites the nervous Andre to dinner with her mother. In a moment of clear role reversal, he hangs back in the car like a nervous teenager:

AMEIAH

Come on

ANDRE

I don’t know man, this is weird. 

Beyond the ambiguous question of whether Ameiah is the killer or not, the audience shouldn’t have difficulty in understanding her personality and motivation. Andre, on the other hand, is a more mysterious characters whose intentions could perhaps be clarified. Put simply: what does he want? Why does he invite Ameiah to dinner? And how come he can dedicate two days of his life to helping a stranger? At times, we might struggle to build a clear character profile for Andre. His gesture and attitude is hard to predict, sometimes jarring against the tone of a preceding line, for example when he ‘hops’ out of car to switch sides with Ameiah. When we first meet him, a few focused details about his appearance, manner and bearing might give the reader some valuable clues about what makes this man tick.

In terms of dialogue, Andre seems to be a humorous guy who often relies on sarcasm or exclamation to make his point. For the most part this lends him a strong sense of charisma, although at times his lines can feel a little abrupt. The key example comes just off the back of the emotional low-point of the motel pool scene:

AMEIAH

Her funeral. I’m trying to get to her funeral, but.. Her family doesn’t want me-

ANDRE

What time?

AMEIAH

The service is at 9. Tomorrow.

Andre jumps up.

ANDRE

Well, we better get some rest so we can get you to the funeral then!

Tonally, Andre’s final line above (and particularly the exclamation point) jars with the self-reflexive, melancholic dialogue that has come before it. Whilst a confident actor could certainly style out this shift of gear, it’s a stark change on the page, one that could perhaps be dampened with the addition of a parenthetical along the lines of ‘(addressing her sadness)’ or ‘(resolutely)’.

Conclusion

Ameiah creates a strong sense of atmosphere off the bat, in large part thanks to the rate at which questions are asked and answered – an element of the screenplay that is kept in good check. That said, there’s no doubt that this draft is written from a directorial perspective and, whilst this will help the produced short in the long-run, there are a few quick fixes to the scene description and dialogue lines that would really benefit the screenplay as a blueprint for the film. One point to address in a next draft would be Andre’s denouement: does he get the ending that he deserves? He’s made a new friend, but has he made up with his husband? The answer doesn’t need to be explicitly shown, but perhaps it would be satisfying to imply some personal progress for his character. More broadly, the film may benefit from a less ambiguous teaser whose consequences are made plain at the climax of the script; at present, the teaser is a ‘dangling modifier’ (to borrow from the language of grammar). Once that ambiguity is ironed out, Ameiah is ready to let rip with two strong, likeable lead roles – a confident take on guilt, loneliness and unlikely friendships.

Technical Elements

p.1) ‘The image goes in and out with each shot’ – The technical implication for the camera isn’t quite clear here; for the reader, it’s tough to visualize.

p.1) ‘Birds eye view’ –  standard formatting would recommend that lines specifying camera shots are capitalized.

p.6) ‘Oh Hey’ – No need to capitalize the ‘Hey’ here.

p.6) At what point does the car pull-up? Have they stopped before we cut into the motel scene? To help the reader’s visualization, it would be good to know.

p.9) ‘She looks at Andre’ – A very minor point, but for consistency’s sake you could add punctuation to close off this line of scene description (as you’ve done up to this point).

p.9) ‘Andrew kicks his feet in the water.’ – Andrew is a typo – perhaps carried over from the character’s previous name? – that should be corrected.

p.13) Recommend being consistent in capitalization of new characters.  ‘POLICE OFFICERS’ are capitalized, whereas the ‘few ushers’ are not.

p.15) ‘Ameiah catches her breathe’ – Small edit needed here to amend ‘breathe’ to ‘breath’.

P.17) ‘Ameiah holds sam and walks up to the front door.’ – ‘sam’ ought  to be capitalized here.

[Throughout] The script could do with a quick consistency check on punctuation in scene headings. There are, for example, a few inconsistencies to be ironed out of the following:

INT. HOUSE. NIGHT

EXT. GAS STATION – EVENING

EXT. MOTEL

INT/EXT.  CATHOLIC CHURCH – DAY

I.E. MOTEL – NIGHT

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Felix Von Stumm

Felix is co-founder of the screenplay feedback service ScriptUp, a site that provides in-depth script reports to help screenwriters improve their work.

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