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Screenwriting Help E-Mail (Previous)

Updated every Monday, one selected e-mail will be posted and answered here each week. With many years of experience in the film and television business, I look forward to providing answers to your questions about screenwriting or the entertainment industry in general.  Please send your e-mailed questions to: Script Advisor.  You may also wish to visit our Screenwriting Help E-Mails - The Archives.

This week's question: 

I was so disappointed with ladder 49.  Can you help me understand why in terms of screenwriting?

Thomas J. Tuttle from Ohio

This week's Answer: 

The Missing Ladder

Thomas, thanks for contacting me with your question.  I assume you are referring to the film, Ladder 49 and not that you own forty-nine or more ladders.  Come to think of it, why did they call that film, "Ladder 49"?  I didn't see any ladders with the number, "49," did you?  And if the fire company was called, "Ladder 49," why didn't they just get one more ladder and call it, "Ladder 50"?  Maybe it did used to be called, "Ladder 50" and somebody stole one of the ladders?  These are the kind of questions that were not addressed in the screenplay, which may have hurt it considerably.  Maybe, instead of a biography-type pic, it should have been a suspense mystery:  

Log-line:  Firefighters in Baltimore search for a missing ladder.

In regards to your question, I believe that the screenplay could have been more compelling and missed opportunities to delve deeper into the fascinating world of the life of firefighters.  It was inventive to follow the life of a firefighter as we flashback to his life while he is trapped and injured after an accident that was precipitated by his unrelenting drive to save the lives of others, but, in my humble opinion, the script depended too much on us becoming sentimentally involved with this "great guy," who was sensitive and heroic.  The opening of the film, the introduction to the protagonist and his initiation into the firehouse, was somewhat interesting, but the storyline leveled off at a sentimental, "let's praise the mighty firemen, who can do no wrong" plateau, which manifested a dragging, tedium with little respite from the propaganda message that was delivered over and over again.  It was as though we were being delivered an 11th commandment:  

"Love Thy Firefighter."  

Generally, although it had its moments, the script fell short because of its overarching (or "overaching") self-absorption.  It didn't take nearly enough risks.  Of course we care that the protagonist firefighter was courageous and sacrificed his life for others, but we have to sit through 115 minutes to understand that?  Was the screenwriter afraid to show us the dark side of the firefighter?  Why couldn't we be trusted to make our own conclusions if we saw even a little gray?  Looking at another film about firefighters, Backdraft lets us into the firefighter's psychology in a deeper way and offers a central theme related to the literal and figurative concept noted by the title.  What does Ladder 49 offer?  Tears for a firefighter who chose to do a job that entailed risks.  The producer cut a scene that showed somebody watching the news broadcast about "9/11."  Do you think maybe the producer finally said, "That might just be a little too much"?  If so, he or she was right.  And the screenwriter should have said it a lot sooner.  Well, maybe the sequel will be better.  

Ladder 51.



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