Genre: True Story/Drama
Premise: This is the true story of Mathew Martoma, a hedge fund trader who many consider a Wall Street sacrificial lamb for the 2008 stock market collapse.
About: This is a highly ranked 2016 Black List script. It received 21 votes, placing it in that year’s top 10. The writer, Matt Fruchtman, doesn’t have any previous credits on the books, making this his breakthrough screenplay.
Writer: Matt Fruchtman
Details: 128 pages
Sayid for Mathew??
I preach relentlessly about the importance of starting your script strong. So it kills me when a screenplay violates this simplest of simple rules.
Although I didn’t get into it, I knew yesterday’s script was in trouble the second I read the first scene – an exposition dump. You never. EVER. in any circumstance. open your script with an exposition dump. With Dorothy and Alice, the first scene was all about a moon stone and the rules of the different worlds and what had happened to Oz and what our hero had to do now. I see a mistake like that and I know there will be more mistakes to come. And there were. The script devolved into a paycheck for a Santa Monica special effects company.
But in the case of Dark Money, a script I ended up liking, I didn’t connect with the opening scene either. Or the scene after it. Or the scene after that. It took me a good 50 pages before I was pulled into the story. And I can tell you the exact moment where it happened. But first, let’s summarize the story.
It’s 2006. 32 year old Mathew Martoma, a handsome Indian-American, is wrapping up the biggest job interview of his life. He’s informed by Steve Cohen, the head honcho at SAC Capital, a billion dollar hedge fund, that he doesn’t have what it takes. But after Mathew leaves, the private investigator Steve hired to look into Mathew informs Steve that he doctored some of his grades to get into college. That convinces Steve that Mathew will do whatever it takes to win, so he calls him up and tells him he starts tomorrow.
Unfortunately, working with Steve is like having someone bang you over the head with a space heater 50 times a day. All Steve does is tell Mathew that he’s dumb and won’t make it here. If that’s not bad enough, Mathew learns that SAC employees making a 20% return on their trades (a full 12% above the market) are getting fired. The pressure to bring record-breaking returns to this company is enormous.
So Mathew is more than thrilled when his doctor wife tells him about a miracle Alzheimer’s drug that’s going into trials. Mathew befriends the elderly doctor whose paper led to the drug, Sid Gilman, and, as a result, gets regular updates on how the trials are going. When it looks like the medication is going to be a hit, he gets his boss, Steve, to go all in on it. If this pays off, he’ll make Steve more money than any other trader has made him.
But as the release of the drug nears, Sid informs Mathew that the latest set of trials were ugly. At the last second, Mathew informs Steve of this news, and Steve executes a slimy trader move whereby he “shorts” his stocks via “dark pooling.” This allows SAC to not only abandon the stock without anyone else noticing. But also, if the stock bombs, SAC will make an insane amount of money.
“Shorting,” is a morally reprehensible thing to do because you’re basically profiting off of everybody else’s misfortune. It turns out that this particular short occurs during the giant financial meltdown of 2008. So immediately afterwards, with the world’s biggest newspapers demanding culpability, the FBI needs to take people down. Enter BJ, a faux-hawked Korean FBI agent who has his sights set on Steve. However, Robert Mueller (yes, that Robert Mueller) tells him that you can’t put billionaires in prison. It’s impossible. Well then who the hell can we take down, BJ asks. It turns out Mathew, who committed insider trading, is the easiest target.
Mathew ends up getting 9 years in prison while Steve gets… well, I’ll let the closing title card tell you: “After paying the fine, Steve Cohen immediately purchased a $60 M Hamptons home and an $155 M Picasso. He was never charged criminally.” And this, my friends, is America!
So let’s get back to that opening scene. Why didn’t I like it? It wasn’t a bad scene, per se. It was a job interview. The stakes and tension are inherently high in job interview scenes so I was game. But the dialogue straddled the thin line between cool and try-hard, to the point where it became distracting. Being able to write showy dialogue authentically (Fruchtman: “They speak in a rapid-fire testosteronese, not really listening but preparing to counter-punch each other’s remarks.”) is such a fragile practice. Try too hard and we, the reader, begin focusing less on the characters and more on the writer writing them (“Say I put you in a time machine. Bit of an alternate universe. September 11th 2001. You come to work here. First plane hits the tower. 9:46 AM this time. What trades do you make as soon Allah Akhbar Airlines smashes into the North Pole of American finance?”). It’s a game where unless you’re a true master, it can backfire badly.
When I read a script, I want to disappear into the story. I don’t want to be reminded that someone’s writing it every couple pages. So I waded through the following scenes carrying a grudge. I kept waiting for the storyteller to disappear. Meanwhile, the script was feeling more and more like a poor man’s “The Big Short.” But then something happened. And here’s the big screenwriting lesson of the day. Fruchtman introduced a PROBLEM. Mathew had spent 30 pages staking his reputation and livelihood on the Alzheimer’s stock. So when he’s told that the medication is garbage and the stock is worthless, his entire world is flipped upside-down.
It isn’t just that a problem has arisen. It’s that it’s a BIG PROBLEM. One big problem can make a movie. And, indeed, the script gets 1000% better the second this problem arrives. Now, every scene requires a choice (for example, what does he tell his boss?), as opposed to focusing on the daily activities of too-cool-for-school stock brokers. And once Mathew makes the choice to short the stock and deceive the market, we know it’s only going to get worse from thre. Once you have a character in freefall, it’s hard to screw that up. The audience is going to want to see if they can get out of it.
Still, I thought Fruchtman could’ve gotten so much more out of this story. The script kind of makes Mathew the bad guy. And make no mistake, he did break the law. But it should’ve been clearer that he was the fall guy. The question everyone wanted answered in 2008 was, why are these billionaires allowed to gamble our money away then get bailed out? More focus needed to be placed on taking Steve down and explaining the intricate web of reasons why he, and others like him, couldn’t be arrested. These movies are about sending audiences out in a rage so that they demand change. But the ending to Dark Money was just sad.
We’ll see if Dark Money gets made. Working against it is the fact that the best movie ever about this subject matter already came out (The Big Short). Studios may wonder why even bother. Then again, if Hollywood’s Diversity Movement needs another feather in its cap, two of the three main characters in Dark Money are Indian and Korean. And ALL of the characters in this story are interesting. It’d be an actor’s paradise. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, if you want to read something good. Dark Money will do.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The “freefall” plot device. Put your character in freefall and the script will write itself. One of the best movies of all time, Fargo, is great precisely because it follows a character, Jerry Lundergarden, in freefall.
As we anxiously await the end of the year screenwriting lists, we turn to one of Hollywood’s go-to moves – free IP!
Premise: Dorothy Gale and Alice meet in a home for those having nightmares and embark on a journey to save the imaginations of the world.
About: This script made last year’s Black List. The script was involved in a bidding war and eventually got gobbled up by Netflix. This is an intriguing purchase in that this film will cost at least 120 million dollars (probably more). It’s also an indication that Netflix is now poaching on film studios’ favorite material – old IP. The writer, Justin Merz, is an English teacher.
Writer: Justin Merz (based on the characters created by L. Frank Baum, Lewis Caroll, and J.M. Barrie)
Details: 114 pages
When in doubt about what to write next, turn to the classics.
Cain and Abel, Shakespeare, Wizard of Oz, Frankenstein, The Count of Monte Cristo, dare I say ROBIN HOOD(???) – I just did. I said Robin Hood. But it’s true. Hollywood never tires of these stories because they tick two of the most important boxes in production. They are KNOWN TO EVERYONE and they are FREE TO LICENSE. That’s profit on both ends, baby. And yet, Hollywood’s been screwing up the formula. They’ve got the Robin Hood Problem. The Pan Debacle. The Frankenstein Atrocity. And when was the last time someone gave us a good Shakespeare adaptation? It’s been so long, it’s starting to feel like it was back when Shakey was alive!
I suspect that there are so many options bouncing around our field of vision these days that if we whiff even a HINT of dust on a movie, we’re out. “We’ve seen this already!” we scream to our glowing portals. Only for the studios to be confused when we don’t show up to their latest CGI debacle. The trick to writing in this genre is you have to make it feel new. That’s the only way to wipe the dust off. And hence I give you Dorothy & Alice, a script that will attempt to reinvent a story we know by combining TWO tales into one. Let’s see if it works…
It’s 1901 and an 18 year-old Dorothy keeps having nightmares where she tries to get back to Oz but can’t find it. UNTIL NOW. Dorothy digs under some dirt, finds the yellow brick road, which leads her to someone named Ozra – protector of the Emerald Tower – who informs her that she needs to find something called THE DREAM STONE stat! If she doesn’t, it’s likely that the Red Prince will. And if he gets the stone back to his mommy, it will allow her to destroy any reality – Oz, Wonderland, Neverland, even Earth!
Dorothy’s cool uncle (her aunt has since died) believes that her crazy dreams are real and sets her up with a dream specialist who lives all the way out in London. Once there, Dorothy stays at a special hospital for girls who have wild dreams like hers. She’s thrilled when the head doctor, Dr. Rose, believes that Oz exists. But the good vibes don’t last. A crazed former patient named Alice pops in and recruits her to come to Wonderland where it’s believed the Dream Stone is located.
When Dr. Rose learns that the girls have escaped, she sends two of her men to neighboring Neverland through a Matrix-like contraption that allows people to jump into the dream world at will. Dorthy and Alice travel across the magnificent Wonderland, only to get picked up by Princess Tiger Lilly, who whisks them off to Neverland. Once in Neverland, the Red Queen arrives looking for the dream stone and, wouldn’t you know it, the Red Queen is Dr. Rose!!! Spoiler alert. From there it’s a battle to secure the dream stone and the good guys win and it’s all happily ever after………. or is it?
So here’s the deal.
I can’t stand scripts that are one giant CGI fest. For starters, when it comes to worlds this unique, it’s hard to imagine what we’re looking at based solely on words on a page. But, more importantly, when you write these movies, you risk slipping into CGI dependency, where the answer to your story problem becomes an enormous set piece on top of a giant rose with 50 foot monsters attempting to eat your hero.
The irony of a scene like this is that it’s both imaginative and unimaginative all at once. Sure, we’ve never seen it before. But we’ve seen enough stuff like it where it isn’t interesting. It’s much harder, and more rewarding, to come up with an emotionally resonant character-driven scene. But the more you fall into “GIANT CGI MOVIE MINDSET,” the less likely you are to go with that option.
I actually liked how this script began because it was character driven. I thought it was a really interesting question the author was posing – What is your life like three years after going through an incredible experience that nobody else believes you went through? Imagine how frustrating that must be. And when you add the death of Auntie Em, it makes Dorothy’s situation even more sympathetic.
I WANTED TO WATCH THAT MOVIE.
I even liked it once we got London. Again, it was because the writer was forced to write real things. Just to be clear about what that means – I believe that readers are attracted to things that they can relate to in their own lives. That’s a big reason why Harry Potter is so popular. It mirrored the school experience everyone goes through. When we get to London in Dorothy and Alice, we’re still dealing with real world things like settling into a new place and meeting new people.
Once we get to Wonderland, all of that goes out the window. It’s one CGI experience after another. And while I understand that a lot of this is inherent to the concept (it’s called WONDER-land, so there has to be plenty of wonder), that doesn’t mean you throw out the tool that helps the reader relate to what’s going on. You can ALWAYS use that tool, no matter how insane the world you’re writing about is. In Raiders, it’s the broken relationship between Indiana and Marion. Who hasn’t had to navigate a broken relationship before? It’s the thing that reminds us these people aren’t that different from ourselves.
I don’t know what the flaw or conflict or relationship issue any character here is going through. All I knew was that every ten pages, there’d be a new creature. That’s lazy. Not engaging.
Something that amazes me every time I think about it is the climax of The Matrix. It’s the epitome of the argument that character is more important than spectacle. The climax of The Matrix takes place IN A HALLWAY. The background is WALLPAPER. Think about that for a moment. That’s how minimalist the movie is. And we’re talking about a film that pioneered special effects. Yet the final battle is as simple as it can get.
I try and tell every writer I can about this scene because it’s more than just an example. It’s a way of thinking. When you’re struggling with your script, the solution is rarely to come up with the best action or chase or explosion scene ever. But rather, it’s to explore who your character is and how you can use this experience they’re in to test them.
A lot of you are probably confused now because I’ve gone on this whole rant yet Dorothy And Alice sold to Netflix. So why did it sell? I don’t know. But I can hypothesize. My guess would be that Netflix wants to get into the IP game. And going with free well-known IP is one of the easiest ways to do it. The writer DID come up with a new take, which is to combine two worlds. I suspect that that also had something to do with it, as it gives them unlimited options for sequels if the film does well. And the script is written well. I’m not saying this script is bad by any means. It provides spectacle if that’s what you’re looking for. My argument is that this stuff doesn’t resonate unless you prioritize character over spectacle. And I didn’t see that here.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: As a counter-argument to my review, I will admit that these kinds of scripts are good for writers who want to show that they have the ability to write big set-piece laden Hollywood screenplays. The scripts themselves don’t often sell. But if you can be consistently imaginative, and write even two REALLY INVENTIVE set pieces, that could get you an assignment on one of these effects-heavy projects. — HOWEVER, if you do that AND YOU NAIL THE CHARACTERS, you will be desired by every major studio in town.
This is as close as we get to flashy spec sales these days. A writer writes a short story, gets Ryan Reynolds attached, and a bidding war erupts!
Premise: A young resident at a psychiatric hospital attempts to diagnose its most dangerous patient.
About: And now for something different. Today we have the wonderful success story of a writer who posted his short story on the subreddit “Nosleep” two years ago and last week, found himself teamed up with “it” Warner Brothers’ horror producer, Roy Lee, and Ryan Reynolds, to turn the tale into a movie. Right now Reynolds is listed only as Producer. But it’s hard to believe he won’t want to play the juicy role of “Joe,” the titular patient driving the story, by the time cameras get rolling. Jasper Dewitt is experiencing that rare “came out of nowhere” moment that every writer dreams of.
Writer: Jasper Dewitt
Details: roughly 60 pages
I absolutely love success stories like this. In today’s Hollywood, the majority of breakout stories come from within. Most of the writers you see credited on studio movies came up through the system. They never had a true “name in bright lights” moment. So it’s fun to see that it’s still possible, even if these breakout moments require some unique twist. Writing a great screenplay will always get you noticed. But being found in some random corner of the internet carries with it that “rags to riches” story the trades love to write about.
Patient’s success also embodies the spirit of what I’ve been pushing for the last couple of years. Which is that you shouldn’t limit yourself to just writing screenplays. And you shouldn’t be trying to get noticed solely through traditional channels. The end game is to get noticed. Therefore, you need to be taking a “whatever means necessary” approach.
Just 25 years ago, it was impossible to get read. Almost literally impossible. Think about if you had a screenplay but no internet. How would you even begin to get people to read your stuff? You’d be lucky if three people read your screenplay in a year. Now we have entire websites dedicated to you being able to promote your work. Take advantage of that. Cause stuff like what happened to Dewitt can happen to you.
“Patient” is written in a first person voice so as to take advantage of the medium where it was published (Reddit). Their subreddit, “Nosleep” has a rule by which every story written there is “true.” Therefore you need to treat it as such. Our hero, Parker, has just started his residency at a psychiatric hospital and all he hears about is the mysterious patient, “Joe.” Joe is legendary due to the fact that everyone who speaks to him either quits, goes insane, or commits suicide. Being your typical ambitious doctor, Parker wants to be the one who cracks him.
It’s by no means an easy goal. There seems to be an intricate web of levers one must navigate in order to get permission to even get inside Joe’s room, much less try and diagnose him. So, at first, Parker goes through Joe’s old files, where we learn that Joe’s been here for over 20 years, since he was six years old, and was committed for being convinced that a spider-like monster lived inside his bedroom walls.
By the time Parker finally convinces the president of the hospital to get a crack at Joe, he’s bursting at the seams. But Joe isn’t anything like Parker expected. He’s skinny and meek and completely lucid. He tells Parker that everything Parker’s heard about him is a lie. That he hasn’t hurt anyone or convinced anyone to hurt themselves. But, rather, his parents are disgustingly rich, and, at the moment, he’s the hospital’s biggest source of income. As long as he’s here, they’re getting rich.
Parker becomes so convinced that Joe is being taken advantage of, that he plans an elaborate escape to free Joe. However, on the night of the escape, he’s swooped up by the orderlies and brought to the president, who informs him that she knew about his escape plan all along. “How?” Parker says. “Joe told me,” she replies. And it’s from here that Parker learns Joe is a lot more complicated than he expected. And maybe he should’ve heeded the advice he got about Joe from the beginning – to stay as far away from this psychopath as possible.
I have mixed feelings about this one.
We have a clear protagonist goal in place: diagnose and save the patient.
But is that goal strong enough to power an entire movie?
That’s the first struggle I had.
The second was padding.
Early on, Parker tells us he’s going insane due to the experience he had with his patient, Joe. Then makes us wait forever before he brings us into Joe’s room. I get it. The writer’s milking that suspense. But I didn’t feel like he’d earned the right to make us wait that long. Okay, you’ve established that the patient is weird. Let’s get to him already.
One of the worst things in storytelling is padding. If it feels like the writer is writing stuff just to pad up the page length, I go insane. And while I understand you need to build up a world before you can exploit it, you only get so much leeway. If I were reading this as a screenplay, I would’ve given up on it during this section.
And I thought about that while it was happening. Why is it, in this particular scenario, that I don’t care enough to get to the good stuff? I realized it was because the main villain, Joe, was becoming more and more obvious the more we learned about him. He made this nurse commit suicide. He assaulted another patient. He scared a guard. WE GET IT! HE’S NOT A GOOD GUY! lol It was all so obvious. Had we been given info about Joe that was actually surprising, I might’ve changed my tune.
This is probably why, once Parker finally talks to Joe, I got onboard. Joe, it turns out, is the opposite of what we’ve been told. I liked that Joe was making sound arguments about being set up, namely that his parents were rich and he was a paycheck for the hospital. All of these rumors about committing suicide or assaulting patients, were lies made in order to keep the gravy train rolling. This set up a legitimately compelling mystery: Which side is telling the truth?
Now Parker has to go back and forth between the two sides to come to a conclusion. It’s during this time that a new variable comes into play – the monster in the walls that supposedly drove Joe here in the first place. I like when stories do this – pose multiple questions – as it gives us more reason to keep reading. Now I’ve got two things I want to figure out.
The story’s featured scene is when Parker visits Joe’s old home so he can inspect the bedroom where the monster supposedly attacked him. I don’t know why but I’m a sucker for the old, “remove the rug and find an anomaly on the floor” development. I fall for it every time. And we get an appropriately kick ass climax to the scene when Parker’s had enough and takes an axe to the walls.
At this point, I was in “worth the read” territory, only to be yanked back to “wasn’t for me” when the author attempts to button up his story with a Sixth Sense level twist. I’ve read the twist several times now and I still don’t understand it. Even after going down and reading some of the comments, it’s confusing.
I’ll say this about good twist endings. They require more rewriting than anything else in storytelling. That’s because they need a series of setups that were put in place throughout the script. And you need to tweak those setups and the ending repeatedly so that when the payoff for those setups finally arrives – our twist – we understand what’s happened immediately. If the audience asks, “Wait, what?” after this moment, the twist didn’t work. And that’s very much how this twist felt. It was a “Wait, what?” twist.
“Patient” is a pretty good story. It’s fun in places. But it seems to be lacking that je ne sais quoi that puts movies like this over the top.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The twist ending is one of the most tempting items on the writing menu. However, think about how many truly great twist endings there have been in cinema history. Can you think of more than five off the top of your head (no, I’m serious – list as many as you can in the comments section – no googling!)? My point is, only write a twist ending if you’re sure it’s effing great. Otherwise, write the ending that best suits your story.
No post today. Instead, I command all of you to write for FIVE HOURS this weekend. Find the time. Work on your script. Or an outline. Or start something new. However you want to parse it. As long as you’re writing. If you need a break, come back here to discuss the newest Avengers trailer (what?? no action scenes???). You can also read last week’s big sale in town, which happened to be a story someone wrote on Reddit’s “No Sleep” subreddit. It’s about a doctor who works in an insane asylum who tries to connect with a disturbed patient. Another example that you can find success in a myriad of different ways. I’ll be reviewing that on Monday. Seeya then!
Marvel Studios' Avengers - Official Trailer - YouTube
As we inch towards an Avengers Infinity War Part 2 trailer, the Russo brothers, who directed the film, have been giving interviews. And one of their recent statements made me look up and say, “Wucchu talkin’ bout Willis?” Apparently, the Russo brothers aren’t fans of the two-hour storytelling format known in most corners of the world as the “feature film.” Here’s what they had to say: “We are in a major moment of disruption. The two-hour film has had a great run for about 100 years but it’s become a very predictive format. It’s difficult, I think, to work in it. … It’s sort of like saying, ‘We all like sonnets, so let’s tell sonnets for 100 years, as many ways as we possibly can… I’m not sure that this next generation that is coming up is going to see two-hour narrative as the predominant form of storytelling for them.”
That’s a bold statement. The two hour movie is dead? Have I been transported to another dimension? Actually, I admit to having similar thoughts over the last couple of years. One of the most annoying things about going to movies these days is that I always know what’s going to happen. Or, even if I don’t, I have a pretty good idea. The way the 2-hour 3-Act movie is set up necessitates that only a finite number of things can happen. I mean, if you set up a goal in the first act, the end of the movie is either going to be our hero achieving their objective or failing at it. If it’s a big Hollywood movie, they’re probably going to succeed. If it’s an indie movie, it’s not always obvious, but you usually have a good idea based on the tone of the film.
So I’m left to ask, “Why DO we still tell movies in a two-hour format?” Well, a big part of it is that movies have to be at least 80 minutes to be shown in a theater. This is so you don’t go see a movie and 40 minutes later the lights come up and you feel like you’ve been ripped off. The two hour format also seems to be the baseline for how long an audience is willing to sit down and watch a piece of cinematic entertainment before they start shuffling about and getting impatient. Hence why films are around two hours long. But I do think it’s a fair question to ask: Is this format the way it is because it’s the best way to tell a story or is it the way it is because we’ve gotten so used to it that we haven’t bothered to come up with anything else?
The argument towards change seems to be coming from the explosion of streaming entertainment. This new outlet has begun to tell stories in ways they haven’t been told before. Black Mirror has given us a series of one-hour films. Maniac is an 8 hour movie. And it seems like we’re only at the beginning of this experimentation process. Hulu just announced a John Grisham “universe” whereby two shows will be made side-by-side and tackle the same story from their own individual perspectives. Meanwhile, sites like Youtube are popularizing the 12-15 minute format, even if right not it’s being utilized mostly for real-life content creators. So TV/Streaming/Internet seems to be driving this “the two hour movie is dead” narrative.
But let’s not kid ourselves. TV still has its own story problems, namely the “never-ending second act.” Almost every story starts with a problem or issue that needs to be resolved. For example, with Lost, it was “We need to get off the island.” Or with Breaking Bad, it was, “Get my family taken care of before I die.” This ensures that the first few episodes (or, if a show is really well-written, the first few seasons) begin with a giant push. But inevitably we get to a point where it feels like we’re spinning our wheels. The new shorter-series streaming projects have less of this. But they’re still there. That’s one of the powers of the 2-hour format. Is that everything has to be decided by the end of the film. So there’s an amazing amount of momentum propelling the story forward. It’s a rush as opposed to a slow drip.
Still, I think there’s something to what the Russos are saying. The two hour feature storytelling format has become embarrassingly predictable. There are only so many ways you can remix the 3-Act structure. Every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Sure, you can try and pull some Tarantino shit (“Every story should have a beginning, middle, and end, but not necessarily in that order”), but for the large majority of the writers who try that, their scripts come off less revolutionary than they do messy. Playing with time requires a deft touch. And it’s usually a gimmick to begin with.
I suspect the fate of the 2-hour film is going to play out over the next decade. The feature world will skew more and more towards spectacle, which means the majority of the non-Marvel movies we watch will be at home on streaming services, where there are no restrictions on time limit. And that’s where more and more chances will be taken. It’s going to take young writers and filmmakers who grew up without these hard-limitations in mind to discover different ways of telling stories. Despite that, I don’t think the core of how we tell a story will change. There will always be a beginning, a middle, and an end – a setup, a conflict, and a resolution. That’s how stories have been told for two thousand years. So I don’t see this “the two hour movie is dead” proclamation as doom-and-gloom. Maybe more of an evolution. And I wouldn’t mind that if it eliminates movies like Mortal Engines and Artemis Foul. Would you?
Premise: (from Black List) A young girl partners up with an elf, a Russian explorer and a reindeer to rescue Santa Claus from a band of evil elves and save the North Pole.
About: Today’s script finished on last year’s Black List with 10 votes. The writers, Paul Laudieo and Ben Baker, are both new to the game. This is their breakthrough script.
Writer: Paul Laudieo & Ben Baker
Details: 112 pages
Today’s review comes with a reminder. Thursday, December 14th, is the last day to send in your script for the FINAL AMATEUR OFFERINGS COMPETITION of the year, which is for holiday-themed scripts only. So if you have a script about Christmas, Hanukkah, Festivus, or even that long awaited Alastair Sim biopic (we’ll see how many of you get that reference), send it to firstname.lastname@example.org with the title, genre, logline, and why you think it should be featured on the site.
The good news is that Netflix has embarked on being the home of everything Christmas. Their “Christmas Chronicles” movie, starring Kurt Russell, has been viewed over 20 million times! And it’s still 3 weeks til Christmas! So there’s a real shot that if you write a great Christmas script, good things will come of it. Today’s Christmas adventure was featured on last year’s Black List. Let’s check it out!
13 year old perennial good girl Sophia is headed to her grandmother’s house for Christmas with her family. While Sophia loves her four siblings, she’s sick of them being so selfish all the time. So when the family finally gets to Grandma’s and her older sister, Caitlin, starts being a bitch, Sophia screams at and throws a plate at her, which leads to her getting punished.
Later that night, while stewing in her room, Sophia notices an elaborate sleigh landing on the roof! Oh my. Is that… Santa Claus?? Sophia runs outside to see that it is not Santa, but rather someone named Bucklebee the Elf. Bucklebee makes Sophia an offer she can’t refuse. Come to the North Pole and party her ass off. Since that sounds better than hanging with her annoying family, Sophia walks into the sleigh carriage, which has a giant endless carnival inside!
Sophia begins to enjoy the festivities until she notices a kid hiding from everyone. She runs after him and he tells her that Bucklebee is evil! He’s an elf who’s taken over the North Pole and loves to sing mean variations of holiday classics (“I see you when you’re sleeping! And I know when you’re awake! I know that you’ve been bad, not good! So give in and accept your fate!”). And one of his favorite things to do is kidnap the “naughty” kids every year. Heeding his warning, Sophia is able to escape the sleigh, jumping out onto a snowy mountain.
It’s here where she runs into Juniper, an elf who escaped the Rebellion, Cosmo, a baby reindeer, and Georgy, a Russian man who’s been wandering around these parts for years in search of the Abominable Snowman. When Sophia informs them she heard that the exiled Santa Claus is somewhere in the Yulewood Forest, they reluctantly agree to help her look for him. Unfortunately, Bucklebee and his army of oversized crows are hot on their tail, determined to prevent Santa Claus from returning at all costs!
When it comes to kids movies, there’s this odd glitch in the success matrix that seems to favor darkness. Think about the most famous kids movies. The Wizard of Oz. Willy Wonka. The Lion King. The Nightmare Before Christmas. These films get really dark! I don’t know why this is because, on the surface, you’d think anything for kids should be straight-up fun and happy. But the proof is in the pudding. In the movies I listed above, there’s death and moody songs and intense villains and uncomfortable weirdness. I mean, who the hell came up with flying monkeys? Or a girl who turns into a giant blueberry and disappears?
Escape From The North Pole sticks to that tradition. Bucklebee is both evil and freaky. But it’s not just him. There’s a warped sense of hopelessness that permeates the story. Santa is gone. Kids get kidnapped into a flying carnival of hell where they’re all drugged to prepare them for slavery. And some of the biggest set pieces are really sad. Like the Cave of Lost Toys – an entire world of toys living underneath a cave because they weren’t deemed fun enough to play with. Yeah, right?! This is some dark shit!
But what Laudieo and Baker get right is that they build a central group of characters to contrast against that. Our heroes are actually fun. Sophia is delightfully earnest. Georgy’s a big goofball. Juniper doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. And who doesn’t love baby reindeer who haven’t yet learned how to fly? These four are the beacon of light that keep us headed for land.
Yet Laudieo and Baker run into a screenwriting problem I see often. They cheat on the hero’s character flaw. You can’t do this because the hero overcoming their flaw is the emotional anchor to the story. When you get it right, it’s the thing that makes the audience feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Get it wrong and the movie can still be good. But it’s not MEMORABLE to the audience because they don’t associate any FEELINGS with it.
Let me explain in more detail. This whole premise is based around Sophia getting on the naughty list. That’s why she’s picked up by Bucklebee. However, Sophia isn’t naughty. The entire opening of the movie establishes that it’s everyone else in the family who’s naughty. She’s the lone good one. But if she’s good, Bucklebee won’t want her. So the writers have to construct this moment where Sophia loses her cool and throws a plate at her sister. And that’s what gets her on the list.
The reason this is a problem is because Sophia doesn’t have a true character flaw to overcome. She doesn’t have to learn to be “nice” or “unselfish” because she’s already nice and unselfish. By cheating to get her on this trip, you’ve given us a character who can’t be arced. The writers would’ve been better off making Sophia legitimately selfish or “naughty.” That way, we can use the adventure to teach her a lesson and arc her. The problem is that every writer’s terrified of making their hero mean because all the screenwriting books tell them the hero has to be “likable.” But if a character doesn’t have any flaws, then there’s no reason to send them on an adventure. The whole point of going on any adventure, even in real life, is to test and learn something about yourself.
While some writers rebel against the notion of character arcs in movies because that stuff never happens in “real life” (or at least, that’s the argument), family films are one of the genres where you have to do it. If there was ever a genre built for arcing characters, it’s this one. Your main audience is in the process of learning what’s right and wrong in life. Your responsibility as a writer is to show them.
But that doesn’t mean Escape From The North Pole was bad. I found it to be imaginative (I loved stepping into the carriage and it being a million times bigger inside than out), and brave (the darkness gave the story an edge that struck a nice balance between sophisticated and childlike). I just wish more had been done with the characters. That’s where the real magic happens in these movies. And it could’ve elevated Escape From the North Pole into something truly memorable.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I wouldn’t recommend writing something like this. It’s so hard to get a 150 million dollar non-IP film made. Christmas movies like The Christmas Chronicles and Elf can both be made for under 30 million bucks. So if you have a choice, write one of those over the much more expensive Escape From The North Pole. That is NOT to say it’s impossible to get this movie made. Only that when a script comes along with this big of a budget, you’re eliminating 90% of the buyers in town.
We may not have a new Star Wars movie this Christmas season. But we have a Star Wars script review! It’s time to go back to that brief period in history when Jedis enacted revenge!!!
Premise: The rebels must destroy a series of Death Stars that are being manufactured outside the Imperial capital planet of Had Abaddon.
About: This is an early draft of Star Wars Episode 6. While it’s technically 82 pages long, that’s only because it was re-typed into a digital document. Since whoever transcribed it didn’t know everything about screenplay format, or Final Draft, the formatting is quite sloppy, particularly on the dialogue side, where the margins are way wider than normal. I would estimate the “true” page count for this script is somewhere around 115 pages.
Writer: George Lucas
Details: June 1981 “Revised Rough Draft”
I vaguely remember hearing, as a kid, that the original title for the final Star Wars movie was going to be, “Revenge of the Jedi.” Something about that title promised the greatest moviegoing experience that I was ever going to have. It was such an in-your-face title that hinted at seeing Luke Skywalker as you’ve never seen him before. So when the title was later changed to, “Return of the Jedi,” and the excuse was that Jedis don’t enact revenge, I was kinda bummed. I mean, sure, it made sense when they explained it. But “Revenge of the Jedi” sounded so much cooler.
It speaks volumes to the problem of over-thinking writers have. We can overthink ourselves into anything. Sure, “revenge” may not be part of the Jedi code, but that’s exactly why it was so exciting. A Jedi doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing? Count me in! Nobody wants to see a movie where someone does exactly what they’re supposed to do. That’s boring. They want to see a movie where a character does what they’re not supposed to do. That’s not to say the final result here wasn’t great. Only that, one day, I want to see a movie about a Jedi revenge.
Oh, speaking of the final result, George Lucas went full-bonkers for his climactic Jedi battle in this one. Much different from what we saw in the final film. Read on to find out what happened!
“The Rebellion is doomed. Spies loyal to the Old Republic have reported several new armored space stations under construction by the Empire.” This is the first paragraph of the opening crawl, which follows that up by introducing us to the planet, Had Abaddon, the “dreaded” Imperial capitol.
It turns out that in this version of “Jedi,” the Empire wasn’t just doubling down on their Death Stars, they were mass-producing them! Well, maybe not mass-producing. But they’re building multiple Death Stars. Which is where we meet Leia, guiding a rebel pilot in a stolen Tie-fighter towards a nearby sanctuary moon, so they can begin their plan of shutting down the moon’s shield generator, which is protecting Had Abaddon.
Meanwhile, on Tatooine, Luke, Threepio, R2, Chewie, and Lando, are hiding out in a Jawa Inn, where they’re plotting their rescue of Han at Jabba’s palace. Everyone thinks Luke is a little too confident, but go along with the plan anyway. Strangely, in this version, Han is not frozen in carbonite. Once he was sent to Jabba, he was un-frozen and simply kept prisoner. Odd, I know.
The assault on Jabba’s palace is janky only because Lucas had not yet figured out that he should put Leia on the team. As you know, in the finished film, Leia is a pivotal component to saving Han. But here, she’s in charge of the Had Abaddon plan, and therefore can’t be there. One of the stranger moments in the script is that, after Luke escapes the Rancor, Han is thrown into the prison cell with the others. He didn’t even need to be saved. There’s a possibility that Lucas hadn’t nailed down the specifics of the Han rescue yet and was simply creating a placeholder sequence.
Back on Abaddon, Vader and the Emperor aren’t speaking. In fact, Emperor only speaks to Vader through the new Grand Moff JerJerrod, a pompous mothereffer who treats Vader like the dirt underneath his shoes. Vader is determined to find and train Luke, but the Emperor has other plans. He secretly tells Grand Moff JerJerrod to find Luke and bring him to him. JerJerrod is all too happy to oblige, and when Luke and the crew get to the Tatooine space port, he’s lured into a back alley and taken by JerJerrod’s men.
Leia finally gets to the sanctuary moon, where I was disappointed to learn that the Ewok sequence was the same as it is in the finished film, the only difference being that it’s Leia and a bunch of nobodies fighting the biker scouts this time. I’d heard all these stories about how the original plan was to set this sequence on the wookie planet. But I guess it had already been decided it was Ewoks. Oh well. I still have The Star Wars Christmas Special.
Somehow, Lucas is able to get Han, Chewie and the droids to the sanctuary planet, where they team up with Leia (and yes, we still have the “Threepio is a deity” sequence). But the real fun is the Emperor/Luke/Vader battle, and that’s because two additional characters are involved. That would be Obi-Wan and Yoda! Yes. So while Luke is fighting Vader, Obi-Wan is occasionally getting between them, using the “netherworld” powers to protect Luke. At one point, the Emperor shoots lightning at Luke, only for Obi-Wan to get in the way and use the force to create a shield. And when his shield starts to weaken, we see a second shield. And it’s Yoda, standing in front of him, doing his best to protect Luke as well. It’s pretty badass.
But gone is all the father-son stuff. And, of course, that’s what made the fight in the movie so emotional and affecting. It’s actually a great lesson for action screenwriters. The tendency is always to start with “cool” and “badass” shit. But what’s really going to land with the audience is emotion. So go ahead and get creative with your big set pieces. But note, especially when it comes to the climax of your movie, that it’s going to feel empty unless you anchor it in some kind of emotional catharsis.
Oh, but Lucas didn’t stop there. Yoda COMES BACK FROM THE DEAD! Yeah. He ends up saving Vader from going into Force Hell or something. And, as a reward, he’s brought back to life. I know. Crazy, right? Rian Johnson would’ve loved to film that scene.
This was really fun to read because it shows just how much of a process writing a script is. For example, it makes total sense to keep Leia at Abaddon. She’s the rebel commander. You need a main character to take care of this stuff. However, you don’t want one of your main characters away from your other main characters, especially her love interest, for 70% of the movie. Not only that, but it’s for the very reason that Leia is a high-class commander of the rebellion, that it’s so cool that she gets down and dirty to save Han at Jabba’s palace.
Another thing you see the value of when reading early drafts is how unnecessary character prep is. It’s preferable to just throw your characters into the plot. I made this same point with the original Star Wars script. We don’t get four scenes of Darth Vader talking about how he needs to stop the Rebel ship. We meet him AS HE’S STOPPING THE REBEL SHIP.
Likewise, here, there’s this whole scene at a Jawa Inn where Luke and the rest of the crew are prepping to save Han. It’s a boring scene. Characters are standing around (never a good thing in an action movie). In the final movie, we meet Luke AS HE SHOWS UP TO SAVE HAN. We meet him in media res. And you see that all over this script. There’s a lot of “before” stuff. Whereas in the final film, it’s all “during” stuff.
That was a huge problem with the prequels. There are way too many scenes “before” the scenes that matter. It makes me think that Lucas just filmed the equivalent of whatever this draft was for his prequel movies, instead of continuing to improve them and get the stories to a place where the plot was charging forward in every scene.
Another problem with this draft is GRAND MOFF JERJERROD. Full-disclosure. I love Grand Moff Jerjerrod. I still don’t know what a Grand Moff is. I don’t even know what a Moff is. But I wanted my own Grand Moff JerJerrod toy within a second of meeting him. With that said, creating an intermediary between the Emperor and Vader made JerJerrod the active one and, in the process, Vader the passive one. Vader basically just sits around and waits while JerJerrod gets to do the fun stuff like kidnap Luke.
By eliminating this character for the final film, it made Vader and the Emperor have to work together. And this is how you want it. You want your big boys interacting with one another. You don’t want bottom of the toy shelf characters getting to do all the fun stuff. This is another great screenwriting lesson. Sometimes you have to eliminate characters you like for the greater good of the story. I liked JerJerrod. But he was in the way of the more interesting storyline that occurs between Vader and the Emperor.
Another thing Lucas clearly had no idea what to do with was the Death Stars. Unlike a lot of people, I love Death Stars. I want to see as many of them as possible. So when I found out the Emperor was mass-producing them, I had a Stargasm. The problem was that you had three entities. You had Had Abaddon, which was the capital of the Empire. You had the sanctuary moon. And then you had the Death Stars. It’s unnecessarily complicated.
What do I tell 90% of the writers who come to me for notes? SIMPLIFY. The answer is almost always to simplify. And you see that’s what they did here. They got rid of Had Abaddon. They got rid of multiple Death Stars. And the reason that was so key is that it allowed them to put the Emperor on the Death Star, making him much more vulnerable. Everything became streamlined once they consolidated all of those things.
Sadly, I didn’t get any revenging. I really wanted some Jedi revenge. I suppose the good news is the emergence of Star Wars TV. Maybe one of these days, I’ll yet get my revenge.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Place your character in situations that contrast with who they are. Leia is a high-level commander. So it’s cool to see her in an underground cess pool of scum and villainy trying to save her boyfriend. Likewise, a homeless person is going to be more interesting if he’s placed inside of a black-tie fund raiser. Put your characters in locations they’re out of place in and watch great scenes write themselves.
Is Netflix going to be around in five years? SNL just made fun of them this weekend for making way too much content (I like the bit about the show that only has one known viewer – “Kennymeade Depot” – and how the title actually sounds like one of those real Netflix shows you never watch). However, there’s a very specific reason why they’re doing this. Netflix was built on a foundation of renting out OTHER PEOPLES’ content. Over 80% of their content is not theirs. Imagine if that all disappeared one day? If the studios ever found their balls, they could do that. And then Netflix would only have Netflix content. And what is Netflix content? It’s a bunch of garbage movies with a few good TV shows. That’s why they’re creating content at a breakneck pace. They’re doing the streaming version of “prepping.” They need to have something to scroll through once the Disney streaming armageddon debuts in 9 months. With Warner Brothers not far behind.
Ironically, I’ve seen some pretty cool stuff on Netflix these last couple of weeks. Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which I reviewed last week, was amazing. I also saw this movie, “Cam,” about a webcam girl who starts seeing her doppelgänger on a cam feed. The doppelgänger conceit always starts strong and ends weak, as writers struggle to explain what’s going on (they never know and are therefore writing themselves out of a corner the entire third act). Cam runs into some similar problems, but it manages to keep the tension throughout. I was pleasantly surprised. I also saw the first episode of Bodyguard, about a war vet tasked to protect a political figure whose views he doesn’t believe in. The first episode was awesome. It’s also a great reminder to start your script with a scene that makes it impossible for the reader to put it down. I always tell you guys that and get asked, “What do you mean?” This scene is what I mean. Check it out and you’ll understand where the bar is.
But yeah, Disney’s IP is terrifying. They’ve got Star Wars, Marvel, and 80 years of animation movies to make, re-make, reboot, and build off of. Netflix’s IP is… Bright? I guess Stranger Things as well. I’m not sure if Stranger Things is scaleable though. Netflix does have some interesting projects in development such as The Umbrella Company, The Magic Order (Mark Millar), Ratched (prequel to Cuckoo’s Nest), Locke and Key, The Dark Crystal, and the biggest project of all, The Irishman (which, in the process of de-aging its stars for the flashback scenes, seems keen on testing just how limitless that Netflix bank account is). What do you guys think? Will Netflix survive the next stage of streaming wars? I honestly don’t know.
As for the real world of movies, I’m only looking forward to one film in the final month of 2018, and that would be Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse. Not only because I heard it was great. But should this movie do well, it will be another major strike against Lucasfilm head, Kathleen Kennedy, since the writers of the film, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, are the directors she fired off Solo. And if they can make a premise as wacky as this work, their version of Solo, no matter how weird, was likely a thousand times better than middle-of-the-road Ron Howard’s version.
While I’m not exactly jonzeing to see Aquaman, I’m hoping to be surprised. James Wan has a special talent for elevating material that you wouldn’t suspect would be any good. And the movie does look fun. I’m afraid Bumblebee’s going to get lost in the holiday jumble for me and I’ll be waiting for digital. I don’t know what to make of Mary Poppins Returns. I love Emily Blunt but this one may be skewing too young for me. Oh, I almost forgot. There’s one more movie coming out on Netflix December 14th. Bird Box! I loved that script. But it’s funny how now it’s going to be looked at as A Quiet Place ripoff, despite the fact that it was written before that film. Still. Who doesn’t like them some Sandy Bullock, the nicest woman in Hollywood? I’ll be checking that out for sure. Am I missing anything? Let me know in the comments.
SCRIPTSHADOW DECEMBER SCHEDULE
Okay, here’s the schedule for December. Pay attention because there are a lot of things going on, particularly with the release of the two major “Best Of” screenwriting lists (The Hit List and the Black List). Usually, the Black List likes to release their list on the 13th. But they also tend do it on a Monday. The 13th is on a Thursday so I suspect they’ll release the list on the 10th. If they decide to wait an extra week, the dates below will change to reflect that. Ditto with The Hit List. They like to get their list out a couple of weeks before the Black List. So they may come out with it today. If they wait another week, the review dates below will reflect that.
Another important date to note: Thursday, December 13th! That’s the due date for the ALL Holiday-Themed Amateur Offerings. If your script’s got even a sideways glance at a holiday angle (Santa Clause, Rudolph, Frosty, Hanukkah, a haunted stocking, a suicidal teenager with a candy cane addiction), send it to email@example.com. Include the title, genre, logline, why we should read it, along with a PDF of the script. I’ll be Ho-Ho-Ho’ing a review of the winner on Friday, December 21st.
You’ll also want to tune in on Friday, December 14, as I’ll be listing my 10 favorite amateur scripts of the year. That should be a fun conversation. And, finally, you’ll want to get as much Scriptshadow in as possible, since I’ll be heading away on a Scriptshadow winter wonderland Staycation during the last week of December. But don’t worry. I have something for you to do in the meantime. Read on to find out what it is.
Tuesday December 4 – #1 Hit List script review
Wednesday December 5 – #2 Hit List script review
Tuesday December 11 – #1 Black List script review
Wednesday December 12 – #2 Black List script review
Thursday December 13 – My Top 10 favorite scripts of the year
Thursday December 13 – All Holiday Amateur Scripts Due!
Friday, December 14 – My Top 10 favorite AMATEUR scripts of the year
Monday December 17 – Review: Spiderman Into the Spiderverse
Tuesday December 18 – A 2018 Hit List or Black List script review
Wednesday December 19 – A 2018 Hit List or Black List script review
Thursday December 20 – My 10 favorite movies of the year
Friday December 21 – Review the winner of the Holiday Amateur Offerings
Saturday December 22 – A rare Saturday movie review: Aquaman
Sunday December 23 – Tuesday January 1 — I will be on winter vacation. So no Scriptshadow posts. :(
Sunday December 23 – Tuesday January 1 – Because there will be no Scriptshadow, I’m challenging you with The Unofficial Holiday Scriptshadow Write-A-Script Jamboree. You have 10 days to write a script. That’s only 10 pages per day. That’s easy! Start outlining now so you don’t have any excuses. :)
When I heard that Searching was a good movie, I was skeptical. A feature-length mystery told on a computer? Stuff like this always sounds good in theory. But when you get into the writing process, the scale of just how difficult it is becomes apparent. Even the simplest moments can be hard to work out. For example, let’s say your hero has to go to someone’s house and confront him. In a normal movie, you just write the scene. But in a gimmicky computer-only movie, you must construct the whole thing through this artificial lens of “reality” seen through the eyes of computers. So what’s your hero going to do? Show up with an iphone in his hand and record the whole thing himself? Why would he do that?
One of the things I’ve become extremely appreciative of in screenwriting over the years is authenticity. As long as a scene feels genuine and truthful, I’m invested. The second the writer starts constructing artificial reasoning into the plot beats, I check out. This is one of the reasons found-footage died. The grandfather of the genre, Blair Witch, made sense in that the group was documenting their search for a legend. But as found footage was forced to get bigger, writers had to work harder to justify why people would be holding cameras in situations. I mean, if you’re writing the found footage version of Die Hard, why would John McClane be holding a camera up to tape Hans while Hans held John’s wife hostage? Yet these were the kinds of scenarios found footage was asking us to buy into.
So I was shocked that Searching not only made all of its artificial beats plausible, but used its unique medium to improve those beats. There’s a moment in the film where the dad is convinced one of his daughter’s friends is responsible, so he confronts him at a movie theater and punches him in the face. Again, you can’t just show this scene like you would in a traditional movie. So, instead, we see the scene through a teenager at the scene who recorded it on their phone and uploaded it to Youtube (“Crazy Dad Theater Attack”). But what’s really amazing about this movie is that it’s got the tightest screenplay I’ve seen all year. There isn’t a single wasted moment. And what’s most surprising is that despite its cutthroat pacing, it still manages to pack an emotional wallop. Amazing character development AND great plotting? How often do we see that these days? Here are 10 screenwriting lessons to take away from Searching…
WARNING: LOTS OF SPOILERS BELOW (Searching is available to rent. I suggest you watch it before reading the below tips)
1) A little emotion early can go a long way late – A lot of people will leave this movie talking about its unique form of storytelling. But Searching’s secret sauce actually occurs during its first five minutes. It’s here where we see, through pictures, video and e-mail, how David loses his wife (and Margot her mother) to a two year battle with cancer. Searching would’ve been a decent film without this scene. But it becomes a great one with it. Connecting these two through that devastating loss makes us root a million times harder for them to reunite.
2) When writing a mystery, create a character that the audience is convinced did it, then later on, clear that person – This advice is as old as the mystery, but it still works great. Writers Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian make sure to construct the brother in such a way where we know he did it. Hell, I was 90% sure he did it. If you can successfully trick the audience into believing this, later on, when the character is cleared, it leaves us floating out in space, unsure of everything we thought we knew. As a reader/viewer, that’s exhilarating. Because now anyone could be the killer. And we have to read on to find out who that is.
3) The sweet spot for an inciting incident is page 15 – The “inciting incident” is when the official “problem” arrives, the thing that turns your hero’s life upside-down. In Searching, that’s when Margot goes missing. And it happens at exactly the 15 minute mark. You can certainly have your inciting incident occur sooner. Some writers put it as early as page 1. But the reason page 15 works best is that it gives you 15 pages to establish your characters. This is important because why would we care about someone’s problem if we don’t know them?
4) In mysteries, you need a, “Okay, here’s what I have so far” character – In a mystery, your hero will be coming across a lot of information. It’s important then, that every once in awhile, they share where they’re at with the reader. The best way to do this is to create a character specifically designed to convey that information – the “Okay, here’s what I have so far” character. In Searching, that character is the brother. David periodically checks in with him via Facetime to tell him (and by association us) everything he’s got, as well as get feedback on what he should do next.
5) Create mini-movies within the movie – A script can seem endless when looked at from afar. How does one come up with 100 straight minutes of a guy looking for his daughter? You come up with it by chopping your script down into smaller goal-driven movies, then playing those mini-movies out for 10-15 minutes at a time. After David connects with Detective Vick, one of the first things she says is, “I need to know everything I can about Margot’s friends. Can you help me with that?” Bam: Just like that, we have a mini-movie. The next 10 minutes are dedicated to David calling and talking to Margot’s friends, trying to learn everything he can about them and how they’re associated with Margot. Amateur screenwriters don’t know how to do this, which is why their scripts feel so scattershot and unfocused.
6) Position the real killer early on as a hot suspect, then clear them – I actually learned this by watching Investigation ID shows. What you do is you focus on a hot suspect. Here, it’s Fish_N_Chips, a girl Margot talks to online a lot, but who she’s never met in real life. David goes through their YouCast archives, and the girl definitely seems suspicious. However, when Detective Vick goes to check her out, she comes back with the frustrating news that the girl has an airtight alibi. — But here’s the trick to making this work. By writing the person off so early, we forget about them. That way, when they reemerge late, we have a big “oohhhhh yeahhhhh” reaction due to the fact that we knew, just KNEW, that that girl was suspicious. This is so much better than what lazy writers pull – which is to pluck a random killer out of thin air at the last second.
7) Exploit what’s unique about your story – One of the first things you should ask yourself when you’re writing something is, “What’s unique about my story?” Once you know the answer, you can look for ways to exploit it. Since a lot of Searching takes place via text messages, it allows the writers to occasionally get inside David’s head via deleted messages. David will want to say something… “Your mom would be proud.” Which we see him write out. But then he changes his mind and deletes the text before sending it. It’s this clever little way to let us know what the hero is thinking.
8) Be clever in how you reveal exposition – One of the easiest ways to determine where a screenwriter is in their journey is to see how they deal with exposition. The more on-the-nose, overwritten, and dialogue-driven exposition is, the newer the writer. The more clever the exposition is exposed, the more advanced they are. Searching has one of the best uses of exposition I’ve seen all year. At one point, David must go into his wife’s old computer profile to find information about Margot. He opens it up and the first thing he sees is a pop-up: “You have not run Norton Anti-Virus in 694 days.” And just like that, we know how long his wife has been dead.
9) Killers working together give you a huge advantage over the reader – If you have two killers working together, it’s way easier to throw readers off the scent. And since tricking a reader these days is super-hard, the dual-killer setup can be a secret weapon. What we eventually learn in Searching is that Detective Vick’s son is the “killer.” Therefore, she’s trying to cover up what he did. Remember Fish_N_Chips? The early primary suspect? It turns out that was Detective Vick’s son. Because Chaganty and Ohanian were using a two-killer setup, they were able to have Detective Vick “visit” Fish_N_Chips and confirm that “she” had an alibi. Without the two-killer setup, explaining why Fish_N_Chips was let go early would’ve been impossible.
10) Make hard-to-believe plot points easier to believe via set-ups – In almost every screenplay, there will be a few plot points that are hard sells. The best way to deal with these is to SET THEM UP EARLY ON. If we feel like something’s already been established, we’ll be more likely to go with it. Searching has a hard-to-believe plot point in its third act – a live-cast of Margot’s funeral. Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian take care of this by having the Live Cast company contact David earlier in the script, when his missing daughter story has gone national. They’re basically a business looking to make a sale. David tells them to fuck off. “SHE’S NOT DEAD!” More importantly, the brief interaction makes the reemergence of the Live Cast more believable in the third act.