Premise: (from IMDB) Five former Special Forces operatives reunite to plan a heist in a sparsely populated multi-border zone of South America.
About: Frequent collaborators Mark Boal and Katheryn Bigelow were set to make this film back in 2010 with Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp. As happens all the time in Hollywood, development lagged long enough to see both Hanks and Depp leave, and soon even Bigelow dropped out so she could make Detroit (bet she stands behind that decision). The movie rose from the ashes when JC Chandor (Margin Call, A Most Violent Year) came on. He was joined by Depp again, Will Smith, Tom Hardy, and Channing Tatum. But the film wasn’t out of the clear yet. With just weeks before shooting, everything fell apart and the producers had to start all over again. That led us to the current cast, which includes basically plays himself Ben Affleck, constantly slips into a British accent Charlie Hunnam, and Chandor’s Violent Year star, Oscar Isaac.
Writer: J.C. Chandor & Mark Boal
Details: 125 minutes
Correct me if I’m wrong but I think this is the first time in history that the major movie release of the weekend came out on Netflix. What does that mean? I don’t know. I know Steven Spielberg has an opinion or two about it. But what’s unique about Triple Frontier is that it’s clearly an experience that works better on the big screen. This isn’t some goofball comedy. The helicopter sequence through the South American jungle alone is stunning enough that it would’ve shined at the Arclight. And yeah, I know, they put it out in theaters for a week. But it wasn’t a real release. It was in case the movie was nomination worthy.
As a lot of you know, I loved the Triple Frontier script. But I’ve been tepid about how it would translate, specifically because of Mark Boal. Boal gives you a specific kind of movie and doesn’t seem to know how to work outside of that. I remember watching Boal’s Zero Dark 30, being underwhelmed, and wondering why. On the surface, it should’ve worked. We’ve got a real life story about the hunt for the most notorious terrorist in American history. And yet it was boring. Why?
Then it hit me. The script only hit one beat: Serious. Every scene was about the serious nature of what they were doing and the serious problems they ran into and the serious characters who had serious opinions and serious discussions about those serious opinions. A movie should be a roller coaster. It should not be a train ride. We have to go up and down, sometimes even in a loop, to keep the story interesting. Boal doesn’t know how to do that and his screenplays suffer as a result. They’re never bad. But it’s impossible not to become a numb viewer when every scene is the same.
JC Chandor is a better screenwriter than Boal. But he operates in the same world. His stories tend to take themselves seriously. So I wondered if a collaboration between the two would do what you want collaborations to do – elevate the material. You want your co-writer to be strong where you’re weak, and vice versa. Not sure that was the case here. And yet the old draft I read was strong. Let’s see how the movie turned out.
Pope (Oscar Isaac) is an ex special forces soldier who’s doing bad guy clean-up work in South America. When Pope learns that one of the biggest drug dealers in the world has tens of millions of dollars stashed at his home in the jungle, he recruits his old special forces buddies, Redfly (Affleck), Ironhead (Charlie Hunnam), Ben (Garrett Hedlund) and Catfish (Pedro Pascal), to steal it. The “hook” here is that these guys have always abided by the law. This is the first time they’re going to break it.
The group flies to the Triple Frontier, the tri-border area along Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, and start prepping for the heist. Redfly is the taskmaster. He makes it clear they’ve got a small window to get this done and if any red flags pop up, they bail. The group is shocked when they finally execute the heist and there’s 10 times as much money as they planned for. Now they have a new challenge – get all this money back to the US somehow. They’ve got a helicopter but it wasn’t ready for this kind of load. They’ll have to get creative and take some chances if they’re going to succeed. Of course, in the end, greed gets the best of them.
I liked Triple Frontier.
But it’s a frustrating movie in a lot of ways.
Somewhere along the 10 years of development, Boal and Chandor forgot to hit the beats that really matter, starting with the title itself.
In the script, it’s made clear why the Triple Frontier is such a badass place. They explain it’s the earth’s equivalent of Mos Eisley, one of the most crime-ridden dangerous places in the world. However, in the movie, you don’t even know what Triple Frontier is. You just know it’s the title. The reason this is frustrating is because the history behind the triple frontier sets up why this one guy has so much money stashed at his house. He’s the top dog in one of the most lawless places on earth.
This problem of forgetting to highlight the big moments when they happen continues throughout the screenplay. When the team gets to South America, we spend 25 minutes preparing for the heist. Then, out of nowhere, we’re in the house executing the heist. The moment came so stealthily, I assumed they were doing a test run. About midway through I realized this was the real thing. The heist is the most important moment in the movie! Why wouldn’t you make it clear it’s happening!
One of my favorite moments from the script was when they learn they’re not stealing 25 million dollars. They’re stealing 250 million dollars. Everyone’s excited but they also realize this changes everything. They weren’t prepared for this kind of load so now they have to rethink the plan. But in the movie, this moment occurs passively. They’re at the helicopter and Catfish and Pope have this conversation that amounts to, “Oh, by the way, we have 250 million dollars now so it’s going to be a little trickier.”
This was the irony that made the script so cool! In every one of these movies, the thing that goes wrong is that they end up with LESS money than they hoped. Triple Frontier flipped that and said, ‘No, we’re going to give you more. Lots more!’ But what seems like a good thing is actually what does them in, cause they didn’t plan to handle this much money but their greed tries to make it work anyway.
As for the changes in the script, I noticed a couple of things. The first is how the money is found. In the script, they go to the room where the money is supposed to be but it’s not there and they freak out. Then someone notices that the ceiling is leaking cause it’s raining outside. Which means they probably moved the money. The group keeps on looking and, indeed, it’s in another room. I liked the scene because you always want to throw curveballs at your heroes. It can never be easy for them. They show up, they think the money’s gone, but then they realize it’s somewhere else.
Boal and Chandor improve on this, however. Instead, the group shows up, the money isn’t there, they’re momentarily defeated, then someone realizes it’s in the walls. So they start breaking through the walls and ripping the money out. This achieves two things. First, it’s way more cinematic. The previous scene had them taking money off a pile of money. This version has them breaking walls to get the money. It just looks better. It also adds a component of urgency – do they have enough time to break down all the walls and get all the money? It turns out they don’t, which throws the operation off.
The other change they made is jumping into the heist sooner. In the script, the prep section was the longest section of the script. And, to be honest, not a lot was happening there. Prepping is tough in screenwriting because there’s something inherently repetitive about it. And I think Chandor realized that at some point and sped it up. I would even venture to guess that they shot the extra prepping and only realized in editing that they didn’t need it. Which probably has something to do with the neutered announcement of the heist itself.
I loved the helicopter stuff in the script and I love it here in the movie. The best you can ask for in screenwriting is a story that shines by showing and not telling. So if you’re writing a movie about greed, having a bunch of characters talking to each other about how much they love money and how they play the stock market and what car they just bought – that’s the worst possible exploration of greed. The best is in this movie. A helicopter is carrying a bunch of money through mountains that it’s not light enough to get through. So the characters literally have to decide how much money is worth their safety. We see their greed in that they can only push out so much money, even if it means risking their lives.
Another great example of this is Redfly (Ben Affleck). He’s the most practical of the group. He’s the one saying, “We’ve got this many minutes, we’ve got to hit this checkpoint by this time, that checkpoint by that time, if there’s any fluctuation, we ditch.” And then, when they find the money in the walls and they’re desperately trying to bash out as much as possible, it’s Redfly who’s the first one yelling out, “Don’t worry! I gave us a buffer!”
I can’t get past how much I love this idea. You’ve stolen all this money but to get from Point A to Point Z, you have to keep making decisions about how much you can leave behind. It’s the ultimate exploration of greed. And while I would’ve liked for Chandor to treat this more like a Hollywood movie with big beats as opposed to a “true story” like Zero Dark 30, I was still entertained the whole way through.
[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the stream
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: HIT. YOUR. MAJOR. BEATS. HARD. Hitting your beats means when a major moment comes up in your story, you give it its proper due. For example, if a character has a baby, there’s an excitement that should permeate everyone associated with that character. The new mother doesn’t text her mom, “Had the kid. Still on for dinner, Sunday?” You must be true to the level of intensity that moment would provide. Triple Frontier doesn’t hit its big beats hard enough, from the triple frontier to the heist to the amount of extra money they stole. Those moments needed extra attention.
This was a fun experiment. It took me back to the days when I read 8 scripts a day. When you’re looking at that much material within that short of an amount of time, it’s easier to identify what doesn’t work. And the biggest thing I discovered by reading so much material back to back is how generic most screenplays are. For example, I read 30+ opening scenes that dealt with cops arriving on a murder scene. 20+ opening scenes that dealt with a bank robbery. 15+ opening scene with characters starting their day. But it wasn’t just the generic nature of the setup. It was the generic nature of the execution. A bank robbery can be a compelling scene. But not if you follow the obvious beats (Get down on the floor. Give me your money. Run out and drive away). If anything, this exercise taught me that writers aren’t aware of just how much content they’re competing with and, therefore, how important it is to differentiate your work.
The next big issue I ran into was that a ton of these scripts started slow. Let me reiterate what this challenge was about. It was about hooking me from the VERY FIRST WORD and never letting go. I don’t know why anyone would think that a slow pan across a desert horizon was a good idea. Or the 40+ script openings that focused on how light was hitting something. Or plopping me down in a room with two characters chatting away. No doubt a sizable portion of these entries were writers sending their latest script in regardless of the exercise. But for those who understood the exercise and still started slow? Or even medium? Shame on you. You knew the rules. Hook me immediately. Not hook me on page 2 and a half.
Every once in awhile I felt bad because I wanted to give writers a fair shot. So I would read past the point where I got bored. But in every one of those cases, I was proven right. The script didn’t get better. It almost always got worse. And it’s frustrating because I feel like this is my fault. We talked about this for an entire month, with me going into detail about what works and what doesn’t and, still, writers are making basic mistakes. There were so many times where I would read the first half page, stop, stare at my computer, and wonder why anyone would think this would hook a reader.
To give you some stats. 80% of the scripts, I didn’t get past the first half-page. I’d say, of the 20% where I kept reading, 70% of those I didn’t get past the second page. The most common problems were…
1) The writer couldn’t construct a sentence.
2) The writing or the scenario was confusing.
3) The writer was more concerned with setting up characters than entertaining the reader.
4) The writer was more concerned with setting up their world (exposition) than entertaining the reader.
5) There was nothing original or unique about the writing or the situation.
6) The scene was straight up boring. Nothing was happening.
That last one bothered me the most because you’d think “Don’t be boring” would be obvious. And yet time after time we’d get these scenes that didn’t contain a single entertaining element within them. No drama, no conflict, no mystery, no comedy, no dramatic irony, no dialogue that popped off the page. I thought about this a lot and wondered why were writers violating something that was so obvious to me. I think the problem boils down to too many writers assuming you “owe them.” You owe them your focus. And when you’re writing with that mindset, you don’t care about keeping the reader’s attention. I can tell you right now, that’s a deadly mindset to have. If you want the reader to like your script, you HAVE TO GRAB THEM. And the only way to do that is to assume they’ll get bored unless you’re giving them your best.
If you could construct a sentence, if you could convey action clearly, if you started with a scene that could conceivably grab the reader, you made it past page 1. But now it’s a matter of, “Are you giving me anything new?” Anything new at all. It could be a reversal (that Silence of the Lambs example I used in a previous post where we’re led to believe the person being restrained is the victim, when in actuality, they turn out to be the bad guy). It could be a strong sense of detail that pulls me into the world. It could be pure talent, like Diablo Cody’s Juno dialogue. ANYTHING. If you did that, you got past page 2. But from here, you had to prove that you could construct a compelling scenario. For example, a writer might’ve opened on a shocking murder scene. Okay, you have my interest. But if the scene doesn’t build and contain conflict and move towards a satisfying conclusion, then I immediately lost interest.
If you could set up a compelling scenario, you got me to read the whole thing. And there were about 15 entries that got me to read all 10 pages. Four of those didn’t leave me with a good enough taste in my mouth to celebrate them here. The remaining eleven were all good. So here’s what I thought we’d do. I’m going to post the eleven winners here today and we’re going to do an impromptu 10 Page Amateur Offerings (which will last through the weekend). You guys will read the eleven entries and vote on your favorite. The winner will get a review next Friday. If the writer has a full script, I’ll review that. If they only have the ten pages, I’ll do an in-depth review on the pages, focusing on things we don’t get to normally explore when covering an entire screenplay. The winner will also get a feature consultation package from me! So really think about who you’re giving your vote to.
And I want to say one more thing to those of you who don’t find your pages here. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It doesn’t mean you failed. But you do need to redefine what grabbing a reader means. Because I know a lot of you are talented. And in almost every case with you talented writers, you wrote something better than average. But you didn’t write something that grabbed me. You didn’t write like your life depended on it, I guess you could say. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this, it’s that busy people whose lives revolve around reading and hearing ideas all day don’t have any patience. And you have to write with that in mind. Like I said when all of this started, write 10 pages that are impossible to put down.
Okay, here are our 11 finalists! Good luck to everyone! Oh, and these are my titles for the scripts, not the writers.
Premise: A young woman turns 1970s Pittsburgh on its head, opening a string of successful massage parlors and parlaying the profits into a number of business ventures that made her the queen of the city.
About: Today’s script is the most controversial script on the 2018 Black List. The project became an instant Oscar contender when Scarlett Johansson signed on to play the lead. But immediately after that happened, the trans community attacked her online, claiming a straight woman shouldn’t be able to play a trans character. Challenging the very definition of acting, their argument was that only a trans person should play a trans role. The tactic worked, scaring Johansson off the project. It’s unclear if they deemed this a win, since, in chasing Johansson away, they killed a project that would’ve brought a lot of positive attention to the transgender community.
Writer: Gary Spinelli
Details: 120 pages
I can see why Scarlett Johansson wanted a Rub and Tug. This is a dream role for an actress. You basically get to play the lead in the first ever “Scorsese movie” centered around a woman. You get to play a lesbian, then later a trans person. You get to play someone consumed with money and power. You get to play the Connor McGregor of 1970s Pittsburgh, an outrageous personality with outrageous tastes. Johansson could’ve sent her stunt double to shoot this movie and she would’ve still won a Best Actress statue.
On the lame side, we’ve got yet another biopic. But, I’ll give Rub and Tug this. It’s at least someone we’ve never heard of before. I feel writers mail it in when they’re writing biopics about famous people, thinking the fame will do the work for them. But when you’re writing about someone we didn’t know existed, you’re basically writing a spec, which means you gotta work harder to earn our interest. And I was interested in Rub and Tug. At least for awhile…
It’s 1979 in Pittsburgh, a town full of blue collar workers all looking for a little release. That’s where 20-something Jean Marie Gill comes in. Jean gets this idea that she can monopolize the rub and tug business. She’s already familiar with the industry, as she’s been giving handjobs for cash since she became legal, and probably before that. And since Pittsburgh’s starving for new businesses, Jean soon has a handful of massage parlors up and running.
But not everyone likes the parlors, including Sebastian LaRocca, the current Godfather of Pittsburgh. Realizing LaRocca’s going to be a problem, Jean grabs her first officers and shoots him and his lieutenants dead. Now Jean’s the effing king of Pittsburgh. Not long after, Jean falls in love with Cynthia, who she meets because her husband frequents one of her parlors.
Around this time, Patti, the first female agent to work for the Pittsburgh D.A., comes sniffing around. She can’t bump into a crime that doesn’t somehow lead back to Jean. Needing to make a name for herself, she’s determined to take down Jean’s empire. Jean doesn’t take the threat seriously, expanding her business into steroids. In fact, she starts taking a few steroids herself in the hopes of become more manly. Eventually, however, Jean’s Jordan Bellforte like desire for decadence does her in, as Patti gets her on the Al Capone charge – tax evasion. And just like that, it’s all over for Jean.
Man, for a project so controversial, this script was as by-the-numbers as they get. The beats are way too similar to what we’ve seen before, almost like they were constructed after a marathon charting of every Scorsese movie ever. Start as a nobody. Rise up in the crime game. Take down your competitors. Lose yourself in excess. Fall in love with someone. The feds come after you. Montage montage montage. You lose in the end. Crime doesn’t pay.
The script is lucky that the main character is so strong because if she wasn’t, this would’ve been the most generic movie ever. Even then, I was expecting a lot more from Jean. Especially in regards to her transitioning. Her being trans is what sparked the whole controversy in the first place but there’s very little in here about converting or being trans. Maybe that’s my fault. The media made a big deal about it because anything trans was such a polarizing headline. But in reality none of them read the freaking script. Had they, they might’ve learned the movie was more about Jean the person than Jean the transgender person.
None of that matters, though, because the script is sooooo achingly generic. It’s cool that someone made the first big-budget female vs. female crime film ever. But does it matter if you can predict the beats 20 pages ahead of time? Patti is a virtual waste as the second lead, which should’ve been rectified. If you’re playing opposite the female version of Connor McGregor, you need to be strong, memorable, and have an equal number of demons that make you a worthy adversary. Instead we get an overworked mother who “wants to make a splash.”
Then there’s the ending. Jean gets arrested, goes to prison, and we cut to 12 years later where she heads to downtown Pittsburgh to see what happened to her city. She’s bummed out because there’s nothing left of her empire. But then she sees a few trans and gay people walking by so maybe she did have an impact? The end? What??? If there’s a definition for not knowing how to end your script, this would be it.
The script isn’t a total loss. It works best when we see Jean rising up the ranks. These are always my favorite sequences in Scorsese movies. Who doesn’t love watching the underdog become the top dog? But even that sequence is ripping off other movies (the LaRocca murder scene was clearly inspired by The Godfather). I don’t know. I’ve been reading so many pages due to the First Ten Pages Challenge that my mind is desensitized to the point of stasis. But this script needs an originality rewrite. Are there writers for that? “Can you make everything in this script more original?”
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you’re writing a movie that’s similar to other well-known movies, I’d recommend not going back and watching those movies. Yes, they help you understand what works. But at what cost? Scenes and characters from the film will creep into your script. This is known as unconscious plagiarism and it happens to all writers. I know this because I’m constantly giving this note to writers in my consults. “You know this scene is the exact same scene from Movie X, right?” They never know.
Don’t shoot me! I’ve got 75 entries left in the First 10 Pages Challenge. I will for sure, 100%, absolutely, no more excuses, be done Wednesday night and have a post for you Thursday. In the meantime, enjoy this zany time-loop comedy.
Genre: Sci-fi Comedy
Premise: During a wedding, the bride’s older sister notices that one of the guests is acting bizarre. In an attempt to find out more about him, she inadvertently joins him in an endless time loop of her sis’s wedding day.
About: It was announced TODAY that this movie was being greenlit. It comes from Lodge 49 writer, Andy Siara, and will star Andy Samburg and JK Simmons. The film is being made by three first-timers – Siara, director Max Barbakow, and newly created production company, Limelight.
Writer: Andy Siara
Details: 115 pages
Cristin Milioti will play Sarah.
Today we’re reviewing one of the hottest trends in Hollywood at the moment – the time-loop sub-genre. Why is this sub-genre so hot? Cause it’s high concept on a stick. It’s the simplest (and cheapest!) version of a marketable idea out there. All you need for a time loop movie is two actors and a camera. We saw that with Meet Cute.
I just never considered that it would become its own genre. How many different ways can you explore the loop experience? Well today’s script takes things in a slightly new direction, focusing on the depressing side of being stuck in a time loop. But will it be enough to counteract the ubiquity of the idea? I’m curious to find out. Aren’t you?
Sarah is the 32 year old unmarried older sister of Tala, who’s getting married on this fine weekend in Palm Springs. Sarah is over the wedding before it starts, rolling her eyes and giving a mumbling commentary of the stupidity on display as bridemaids who start their speeches with “hashtag lifegoals” vomit out never-ending monologues about true love.
As this nauseating ritual continues, Sarah notices one guy, Nyles, who isn’t like the other guests. Not only does he lack a filter, but he doesn’t seem to care. About anything. It’s catnip to Sarah, who oogles and eventually snoogles him to the outer edges of the party. While they chat, though, Nyles is hit with an arrow. Yes, as in the kind that comes out of a bow. Nyles leaps up and runs as some rando chases him into a cave, continuing to shoot arrows at him. A concerned Sarah follows him in there, where she sees a giant light and then – CUT TO – the start of the day.
Nyles informs Sarah that by following him into the cave, she has entered into a never-ending time loop. No matter what they do, they can’t get out. Sarah is pissed, then curious, then pissed again, then gives into it. Soon she’s robbing stores and killing cops, fully embracing the rules of this strange universe she’s found herself stuck in.
Along the way, each of them drop a major game-changer on the other, which results in the “boy loses girl” portion of the screenplay. Which sucks because it’s not like they can move to a different country and never see each other again. They always wake up at this wedding. Eventually, Sarah is determined to stop the time loop. But that will mean years of studying. Which isn’t difficult when you have a movie montage on your side. Indeed, after many years of studying time, space, and physics, Sarah thinks she knows how to escape this nightmare. There’s only one problem. Nyles doesn’t want to leave.
Did NOT like this one initially. Mainly because of Nyles, who isn’t likable. He sits around all day and either complains, mopes, or throws up his hands and says “what’s the point?” This is something I don’t understand about writers. One of the easiest ways to determine whether a reader is going to like your hero or not, is to ask if people would like him in the real world. Do I like people who complain, mope, and don’t give a crap about anything? No, I don’t. So why would I like that person in a movie? It’s such a simple test. Why don’t more writers use it!?
Sarah’s not much better. She’s a downer. She’s depressed. She’s over it all. Which at least explains why the two are attracted to each other. But getting through their early scenes was a chore. Mopey comment followed by pissy observation followed by negative response followed by downer thought.
HOWEVER. As the script continues on, the downer conversations morph into something more thoughtful, with the two forced to evaluate what’s most important to them, seeing as they’re stuck here forever. I’m not a fan of “meaning of life” dialogue. It’s a one way trip into On-The-Nose City. But if it’s organic to the situation, it can work. And meaning of life chats are pretty darn organic when you’re stuck in a time loop.
I also liked how the script embraced absurdity. People attack each other with arrows. Every night at sunset, you can see dinosaurs in the distance, a side effect of being stuck in this universal glitch.
Not to mention, the script dropped a couple of fun whoppers in there that recharged the story. This is something I’ve definitely learned about time-loop scripts. Due to their repetitive nature, you need a plan for changing things up every once in awhile (spoilers). Nyles’ revelation to Sarah that he’s already slept with her thousands of times turned up the heat. And Sarah’s reveal that she was banging her sister’s fiance the day before their wedding was the real shocker. It was enough to keep me engaged, at least.
The problem this script faces is that neither of its leads are likable. And the script contains an overall depressing tone. Writers have to consider the mood they want their audience to leave with. Because everything they write – from the characters to the plot choices to the conversations to their writer’s voice – affects that. And sometimes you can write a good story but the reader leaves the script feeling down. And if they’re leaving the script down, they’re probably not recommending it to others. That’s how I felt here. “That was pretty good.” But the downbeat nature of it all left me with me a bitter taste in my mouth.
Of course, the opposing argument is that by being a downer, it’s capturing more of the “reality” of life. I’m not sure I buy that. But those who bathe in the darker shadows of life will. Palm Springs had just enough of a unique take on this setup that I’d recommend it. But it doesn’t hold a candle to Meet Cute, the current king of the unproduced time loop projects.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: There seem to be two types of time loop setups. The first has your characters stuck in the time loop (Palm Springs, Russian Doll). The second has your characters initiating the time loop (Meet Cute). I like scenarios where characters dictate the plot. Movies like ACTIVE CHARACTERS and if your hero is purposefully resetting the loop, they are actively driving the movie. It can, of course, work either way. But you should always give first look to the ACTIVE scenario. Movies tend to work best when the main character is driving the plot (as opposed to the plot driving them).
Premise: (from IMDB) Carol Danvers becomes one of the universe’s most powerful heroes when Earth is caught in the middle of a galactic war between two alien races.
About: There was a lot of uncertainty about how much money Captain Marvel would make this weekend, with estimates ranging anywhere fro 80 million to 150 million. By pulling in 152 million dollars, Disney and Marvel have to be stoked. They’ve got another huge hit on their hands. I have one little nitpick here about the writing credits. Why did the directors have to take a credit? I mean come on already. You’ve got the most desired credit in the business – a directing credit. Why take the writing credit as well? That always annoys me. It just feels greedy.
Writers: Story by Nicole Perlman & Meg LeFauve and Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet – Screenplay by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Details: 2 hours 4 minutes
The first real movie of 2019. And it showed us that audiences are still willing to pony up cash to go to the movies.
But only if that movie has a Marvel logo in front of it.
It’s getting scary folks. I used to think audiences would tire of superhero movies. But it seems like they’re the only movies people actually pay to see anymore.
For those of you who read my newsletter, you saw that I wasn’t looking forward to this film. Personally, I didn’t think the writing or directing talent were up to snuff for a blockbuster movie. But I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong. Let’s see if I was.
If I don’t place today’s plot breakdown in the Dumbed Down Machine my head might explode. So here goes. Vers (Brie Larson) is a Kree, an alien race in the far reaches of somewhere. Vers is given a mission to go to earth to locate a lightspeed prototype for her people. But when she lands on earth (circa 1996), she starts having flashbacks of a life here. It’s confusing, but she tries to keep the focus on her mission, which teams her up with a human named Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson).
That mission is complicated when aliens called Skrulls, who have the power to shape-shift into humans, arrive on the planet, searching for the same thing. The race is on, and eventually the leader of the Skrull team, Talos, catches up to them and, to our surprise, politely asks if he can join them. Hmm, maybe these Skrulls aren’t such bad dudes after all. Even if they do look like rejected concept art from Star Trek. This new super team of Krees, Skrulls, and humans, finally find the hyper drive. But before they can secure it, an evil fourth race arrives to both take the drive and blow up earth. It will be up to Vers, aka Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, to stop them!
Join me in my “Complain About the Train” campaign!
If you forced me to distill my screenwriting advice down to a single sentence, it would be this: Keep it simple. The further you go away from simple, the more problems you’re going to have. The writers of Captain Marvel obviously don’t read this site. Cause they took the Captain Marvel screenplay in the most complex direction they possibly could.
First of all, you have this alien woman going to earth to retrieve something for her people. While she’s on earth, she starts having memories of living on earth. This is the story’s central mystery. Why does Captain Marvel have memories from earth if she’s an alien? It doesn’t take long for us to figure that out. She must have been a human at one point. This means the mystery is downgraded to the less explosive question, “How did Vers become an alien if she was once a human?” Mileage may vary on who finds that question compelling but I’m guessing most audience members don’t care.
To understand how strange this choice is, imagine the more traditional version of this story. We meet Carol Danvers AS A HUMAN BEING on PLANET EARTH. We get to know her and see her day to day activities. During this time, she’s having memories of living on an alien planet. The mystery then becomes more straightforward: Why is a human having memories of being an alien? This would have been a much simpler story to tell.
So I don’t understand why they flipped it in a way that made everything so discombobulated. We’re following someone who looks human but who’s an alien who remembers being human who turns out to be both. Not only do I find that uninteresting, but it makes writing your screenplay a nightmare. All your energy has to be put into filling in the 10,000 plot holes that inevitably pop up when you write something this complicated.
Let me ask you a question. What are the best Marvel movies so far? I would say, in no particular order: Deadpool, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Winter Soldier, and Iron Man (I would personally place Ant-Man in there as well). And a big reason why all those movies worked is because the screenplays were so simple. No screenwriting pyrotechnics were involved. Captain Marvel’s biggest issue is that it spends its first 50 minutes fighting an overly-complex lumbering narrative it never should’ve used in the first place. Once it emerges from that nonsense and enters into a clean easy-to-understand story (find the MacGuffin), it gets a million times better. And if that isn’t an endorsement for keeping your plots simple, I don’t know what is.
Another thing that wacky plotting can do to your script is blind you to the stronger elements within it. The strongest element in this screenplay is the Skrulls. One of the best script scenarios is when you have two characters in a scene and one is lying to the other. For example, if two guys are having lunch and one guy is secretly sleeping with the other’s wife. That lie permeates the scene, making the interaction interesting.
Well, what’s the ultimate lie, then? That would be when you’re impersonating someone else. That scenario is a screenwriter’s dream because the scenes write themselves. It’s no surprise that one of the best scenes in one of the best movies ever, Die Hard, is when Hans runs into John and pretends to be a hostage. So I don’t know why Captain Marvel didn’t do more with the Skrulls. If you shifted your focus from writing the screenplay equivalent of a mushroom trip to a straight-forward mission where everyone you interacted with could be a potential enemy, the possibilities are endless. John Carpenter proved that 30 years ago with The Thing.
The fact that Captain Marvel emerged from these issues at all is a minor screenwriting miracle. But it does and a big part of that is, ironically, due to the two big male roles in the movie, Nick Fury and Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). This is the first time Fury has really gotten to spread his wings in a Marvel film, so much so that you wonder why they didn’t let him do it earlier. Also, Samuel Jackson and Brie Larson have great chemistry together, which helps you forget that Brie isn’t quite right for her role.
Mendelsohn as Talos
But the real star to come out of this is Ben (for those who don’t know, Mendelsohn starred in directors Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck last film, Mississippi Grind). My favorite scene in Captain Marvel is when the group is flying somewhere and they’re quizzing Talos, asking him what he can and can’t transform into. “Can you transform into a cabinet?” someone asks. Mendelsohn has one of the all time great baffled reactions to a question before answering, “Why would I want to transform into a cabinet?” And you know a character is working when they have stellar chemistry with a cat. Speaking of, another one of my favorite moments was when the Skrulls put a Hannibal Lecter mask on Goose the Cat.
(major spoilers) Finally, the big screenwriting win in Captain Marvel was the Skrull storyline. We went into this assuming these things were villains. But the writers cleverly trick us, and reward us with a surprisingly touching climax for Talos and his people. Unfortunately, that caused some problems with who the real villain was. And we get this strange trifecta of villains (Supreme Intelligence, Yon-Rogg, and Ronan) who never quite scare us enough that we’re worried. I’ll save my rant about late-revealing villains for another day but I’ll leave you with this: you probably shouldn’t do it.
Despite all its problems, Captain Marvel wins us over because it’s such a charming movie. Marvel is great at this. They understand that as along as you have a good time at a movie, you’ll overlook many of its faults. That’s why DC struggled for awhile with both Superman and Batman vs. Superman. You didn’t leave either of those movies feeling good. But their most recent films, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, were crowd-pleasers. I don’t think that’s an accident.
So there you go! Color me surprised. I didn’t think I’d like this one but I did! What did you think?
[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Plot holes. Plot holes are the direct result of how complicated your screenplay is. The more non-traditional and time-jumping and secret-keeping and unknown identities your plot is, the more time you’ll be pulling your hair out, draft after draft, trying to fill in the holes that that kind of plot creates. I’m not saying it can’t be done or that you should only write Taken. Only that you should be prepared to do the work. Cause if you don’t put in the time, all you have is a big messy movie where everyone’s pointing out how many plot holes there are.
What I learned 2: I like storylines where the villains arc from bad to good. It’s usually more touching than a hero transformation if done well. Of course, Talos wasn’t ever “bad” in this movie. But we thought he was. That was enough.
Genre: Supernatural Western
Premise: In the Old West, a troubled girl hunts for the mysterious stranger who destroyed her family. Her quest leads to a cabal of shapeshifters and forces her to face the truth of her own dark heritage.
Why You Should Read: Okay, so a lot of work has gone into my goal of making Skinwalkers a clean and easy read. I set out to write a compelling action story featuring a young and spunky female protagonist with inner demons, who comes of age and finds her true identity during her quest for revenge. I also aimed to introduce a sinister and enigmatic villain with shades of grey, a force of nature in her own right that plays off the hero in unexpected ways. Have I succeeded? It’s hard for me to say for sure, so I welcome opinions and constructive feedback from anyone who has the time and inclination to take a look. Cheers.
Writer: Lyndon Tait
Details: 107 pages
Garance Marillier for River?
Just saw Captain Marvel last night. And I’ll say this. I can’t WAIT to talk about it on Monday. There’s a lot to unpack with that film. Brie Larson’s performance, the writing, cats. There’s one thing I do want to talk about ahead of time, though. The movie starts off in Los Angeles in 1996. So how is it that one of the major set pieces takes place on a train system that was built in 2016? Did the characters travel forward in time for that sequence when I wasn’t looking? I mean why don’t you just add goat yoga while you’re at it.
Speaking of goats, that feels like a good segue into today’s Amateur Showdown winner, Skinwalkers. The Skinwalker sub-genre is still looking for its defining film. So I’m all for a writer taking a shot at it. And, quite frankly, more writers should do this. Trying to come up with, say, a great time-travel comedy is impossible because it’s always going to be compared unfavorably to Back to the Future. Find the sub-genre that hasn’t blown up yet and write the movie that’s going to define it.
It’s the mid-1800s and 17 year old River Wild is still reeling over the murder of her mom and kidnapping of her father. An evil woman named Hart is responsible, and River will stop at nothing until she finds her and gets revenge.
But she can’t do it alone, so she enlists the help of her buddy and longtime boyfriend, Paul. She’s also got a gang of folks she rolls with who attack slaving caravans, freeing the slaves and stealing the gold.
After years of hunting her, Hart pops up and tells River she must kill her own boyfriend then come with her, where she can be reunited with her dad. River’s not cool with killing boyfriends so she tells Hart to eff off. The thing is, River does have nightmares of killing others. Nightmares where she has the bloodthirsty instincts…. of an animal.
Eventually, River and Paul track down the whereabouts of Hart’s clan and learn that they’re skinwalkers, people who turn into murderous animals – Hart is a raven. They want River to join the club, but she’s a little freaked out by the fact that her own father doesn’t seem to remember her. What kind of shenanigans are these shapeshifters up to!? Naturally, this leads to a final showdown – River versus the shapeshifters. And if she wins, she can finally put this torturous chapter behind her.
First off – clean, easy-to-read script. Very professional. I understand why it won.
I went back and read the comments and when I came across Barky’s, I might as well have made that the review, because I was literally thinking the exact same thing on every point he made.
For example, the opening. We come in after something terrible has happened and within 15 seconds, we’re out. That’s not a scene. That’s an image. And I’m surprised to see that since I spent an entire month on this site touting the importance of hooking the reader right away.
I suppose you could argue that the scene created a sense of mystery? That the reader is going to say, “Ooh, what happened here? I need to know more!” And I won’t totally dismiss that that could work. But again, you’re giving us an image. You’re not giving us a scene with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I see that and I have to stop myself from getting angry because I’ve seen this mistake thousands of times now. Literally. I’ve read thousands of screenplay that will never be made because of mistakes like this.
But I don’t want to beat a dead horse-human since I’ve talked about first scenes enough.
The much bigger issue is another point that Barky brought up. The script portends to bring up this mystery of “Who is this girl?” We’re given nightmare after nightmare where River’s howling at moons and seeing wolves near caves. And it’s structured in a way where we’re supposed to wonder what’s going on. But we know exactly what’s going on. She’s a wolf. She’s a skinwalker. We know that because you’ve made it obvious. So now you’ve placed your script in the single worst position it could possibly be in – which is that the reader is miles ahead of you, waiting for you to catch up with him. That’s the opposite of what should be happening. You should always be ahead of the reader UNLESS you’re deliberately allowing them to get in front of you for dramatic purposes (i.e. to make them think they know what’s going to happen then you pull the rug out from under them).
You know, as I was reading this, I kept thinking to myself, “This really isn’t bad.” The writing was crisp. The characters were active. Not a lot of dreaded “characters in rooms talking scenes.” But I wasn’t engaged. I had to push myself to stay focused. And whenever that happens, I ask, “What’s keeping this from being recommend-worthy?”
And I think the answer is that I have to feel a connection to the hero’s internal plight. I need to feel like something they’re working through internally is something I’m working through on my own. That’s not as limited as you’d think. There are numerous universal struggles that human beings share. With Free Solo, it was facing your fears. Going after something that scares you. That resonates with me deeply. Or with Eighth Grade, it was not giving up. No matter how many times she couldn’t break through, she kept trying.
Conversely, the worst thing you can do is write a character who doesn’t exhibit any struggles we can relate to. Or write a struggle that’s too vague, so we don’t understand it. That’s how I’d categorize River’s plight. I don’t know what she’s trying to work through. Is it something about being uncomfortable with who you are? I never knew so it’s not surprising I wasn’t able to connect with her.
I don’t want to discourage Lyndon because this isn’t a bad script. But these are things that need to be addressed if you want to take your writing to the next level. I’d say the biggest thing to work on is STAYING AHEAD OF THE READER. You have to constantly check in with your story and ask, “What does the reader think is going to happen next?” If the answer to that is obvious, you might need to change things around with your plot.
And keep at it. The best advice for becoming a good screenwriter is the most boring: Put the work in. Keep getting better so that you don’t make the mistakes you made in the previous script. As long as you keep improving, you will eventually reach a point where you’re at a professional level. It’s inevitable.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I’m feeling lazy today so I’m just going to copy and paste Barky’s comment which I agree on with every point. Thank you, Barky!
I jumped in with “Skinwalkers”, as I’m a sucker for westerns. Admittedly, I’m a little more excited by the genre than this logline in particular. I love a western, and I especially love a western with a “+1”, but the logline itself has some problems.
The mention of a “mysterious stranger” followed by a “cabal of shapeshifters” is essentially telling me that the mysterious stranger is a shapeshifter, so why not just come out and say it? Same with “her own dark heritage”. Well, that means she’s probably one of them, too. Lots of dancing around what the idea here is for no good reason. Being too cute with loglines works against you. It makes the reader second guess your writing off the bat because it isn’t as clever or mysterious as you think it is, and that makes me think the script will suffer from similar issues.
I’m also taking “Shapeshifter” to mean “werewolves”, or similar, which is fine to put in an old west context, but I have seen were-things before, so what is the GAME of the script that is going to get me excited about how the story unfolds beyond just telling me there’s going to be shapeshifting action?
As with many loglines that don’t quite make the grade, the problem is that this is all SET UP, not STORY. What is going to happen in act 2? Her quest leading to a cabal of shapeshifters is a first act, not a story. Coming face to face with her own dark heritage is a character arc, not a story. I still have no clear vision of what is actually going to HAPPEN in this movie.
All that being said, I dove in in good faith and hoping for the best, but am already troubled by the first pages.
First line: “Full moon beams through the window.” I get it, we’re dealing with were-things. You don’t have to beat us over the head with it. Then a shadow of a bear that morphs into a human. You’re showing us EXACTLY what is happening. There is no mystery just because you put it in a shadow.
The other issue is that this scene is completely INERT. I see this all the time. Scenes that, essentially, do nothing but give us information. We come in after the action, so we don’t get the excitement of seeing that. Then, we are shown in no uncertain terms this was done by a shapeshifting were-bear. Where’s the fun in that? Why not play with these pieces and build something more satisfying out of them?
We could see the family being attacked by a bear, and let us think for a little while that it is a REAL bear. That is terrifying in and of itself. Then, after the parents are dead, the bear stomps toward the girl. We fear she is doomed. But, something IMPOSSIBLE happens: The bear SHAPESHIFTS into a human and spares the girl!
Now we have a scene. We have a beginning, middle and end, rather than just an end. We have expectations that have been upended with a surprising outcome. I’m sure there is a better opening scene than this, too, but the point is scenes should have movement, turns, development, surprises. Especially OPENING scenes. They can’t be INERT.
The next scene is equally troubling. Another full moon (we get it!), some cawing ravens and then Hart screams into the sky. Again, INERT. Why have her scream inside of a contextless moment? No movement, no turns and no GAME. I have a hard time believing this scene is essential for the script to work.
I also must point out that her eyes can’t be “fresh with old pain”. The pain is either old or it is fresh. Pick one. Similarly, the ravens cannot “caw as one” AND raise a “mighty cacophony”. If they are as one, they are in unison. A cacophony requires overlapping sounds that are decidedly NOT “as one”. Am I supposed to be imagining all the ravens cawing in eerie unison? That WOULD be creepy and interesting, but it is very different from a cacophony. Think harder about the language you choose and the actual meaning you are trying to convey.
The next scene ALSO begins with a FULL MOON. You must try harder! Create a flow from scene to scene that incorporates some juxtaposition of contrasting images. Imagine what this would look like on screen, three scenes back to back that each start with a shot of the full moon! It’s going to turn into a joke. I laughed when I read it the third time in the script.
This scene, at least, has something happening in it. There is a character who has actions and dialogue, so that’s a good start. However, it appears the only point is to get to the line “why do I see you in my dreams” as she stares at a wood carved wolf. Umm, is there ANYONE reading this who doesn’t have a pretty clear guess as to why she sees it in her dreams? No, because there has been no mystery whatsoever in these opening pages.
The problem here, aside from just telling us what she is thinking, rather than showing us somehow (just drawing the wolf is enough to show it, honestly) is that the audience is SO far ahead of your character that we are going to get bored waiting for them to catch up to us unless it happens very fast. From the logline, it seems as though the writer is going to use this as a late breaking revelation, which is going to be a problem since I knew before I even started the script where that plot thread was going. Unless you’re going for dramatic irony, the reader should be on the same page as the protagonist, which seems like it is River at this point (despite opening with Hart, which seems like the wrong choice the deeper I go). If she doesn’t know what’s happening to her, we shouldn’t know, either.
The next scene with the family telegraphs even more obviously what’s going on with the wolf situation and now I feel like I’m watching a children’s movie. It’s all just too much hinting at and trying to build a mystery around a reveal that is SO obvious. River following her father and being attacked by the wolf, again, all seems perfunctory. What am I actually learning form these scenes that I didn’t already know?
I did like River going into town and trying to sell her wares. This shows me what kind of person she is, clever and resourceful (though I don’t get why the bartender so roughly throws her out of the bar. Seems a bit slapstick for the tone of this). If you can marry these scenes with the werewolf stuff you’ll be able to get away with these hints at what is going on with her much more easily. Putting all the hinting at the werewolf secret in the foreground of their own scenes draws too much attention to something that’s already very obvious. However, hiding it behind other drama and character situations allows it to be an accent to a scene, rather than the main course. This will pique our interest rather than beating us over the head with it.
I finally got to the killing of the parents, which happens pretty late, pg 17. You can get to that much earlier if you lose the first five or so unnecessary pages and sprinkle the werewolf hints during the other scenes in town. Again, at this point we know MORE than River. If we only knew what she knew, and you cut the unnecessary following her father into the woods, then the killing of the parents is a true mystery, and we can learn about it along with her.
We then get to a montage of River learning to fight and getting older. Again, I would say this is unnecessary. We can just cut to her being older and tougher, we don’t need to see all that. I think the time jumping is an issue, though, in general. I just spent a lot of time with 13 year old River, getting to like her, and now that investment feels wasted. If you’re going to do that, the scenes with her need to be cut back, more like the opening with Hart. A single, simple scene that tells us what we need to know. Now we are going to have to be RE-endeared to the older version of River, making your job twice as hard AND wasting pages. I would also make the age gap bigger, 13 to 17 is a bit too close for a dramatic transformation to take place. Lastly, I’m confused about how she hasn’t discovered her werewolf heritage yet. When she was 13 it seemed as though she was on the cusp, and her mother even said she was at the age where it is unavoidable. Yet, it appears that it has been avoided? Again, delaying the inevitable here is not helping you.
This scene where River joins the Wagoneers is where I had to stop reading. Things are just taking on too much of an episodic nature. At this point, River should have clear direction, not still be wandering aimlessly hoping to find a clue. I skimmed ahead to discover that Hart simply reveals herself to River around page 40, despite the reader being teased with the idea of River being on a dogged pursuit of Hart with everything that has happened so far. Why rob River of the chance to be smart, follow a trail, show us that all this training and work has resulted in her achieving something of value, like finding the person she is looking for? Instead she has accomplished nothing, and the goal she desired just handed itself over to her. Not great storytelling.
Bringing this back to my first point about the logline, the fact that the logline has no suggestion of the shape or direction of this story is telling in that the execution is also rather directionless. If you can’t get your logline to indicate clear direction and a sense of what Act 2 is going to look like, chances are good that your story still needs work in that department, which seems to be the case here.
I’ve been reading a lot of amateur scripts over the last few weeks and I continue to come across a troubling pattern. Boring scenes. I want to make something clear. You can be great with character. You can be great with dialogue. You can be great with structure. But if you don’t know what goes into writing an entertaining scene, none of that matters. After seeing this problem over and over again, I began to form a theory. I believe that one of the most well-known pieces of screenwriting advice – that you must move the story forward with every scene – has confused writers into believing that scenes are merely vehicles to get from point A to point B. Instead, you should be looking at scenes as their own individual movies. They must be entertaining in their own right. And as much as it can be done, they should have their own beginning, middle, and end.
The primary boring setup I encounter is the “talking heads in a room” scene. Whenever you have characters in a familiar generic room (living room, office, bedroom, kitchen, motel room) talking to one another, you should be worried. This is not an ideal setup for creating an entertaining scene. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Only that you are in danger of writing a boring scene. Why? Because you’re in a familiar setting and you’re depending on keeping the reader invested solely through your characters’ conversation. And if your storyline hasn’t pre-loaded this scene with drama, you’re stuck with two people droning on to each other.
Here’s the thing. These scenes are almost always the result of a faulty plot. If you’ve come up with a movie idea that doesn’t have momentum? That doesn’t force your character to go out into the world and do things? If your plot is passive or inert? Then chances are your characters are going to be sitting around in a lot of boring rooms talking to each other. And because there’s no engine driving your story, everybody’s going to be relaxed and talking about boring things. Let me ask you a question. How many familiar generic rooms was Indiana Jones in in Raiders of the Lost Ark? One? Two maybe? That’s because HE WAS TOO FREAKING BUSY TRYING TO FIND THE ARK OF THE COVENANT!
Hmmm, I guess he’s sort of sitting in a room here.
Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’m not saying you can only write entertaining scenes if you write action adventure movies. I’m just using that as example to explain that when you come up with a story that has a strong engine, that pushes your character to do things, there will be less instances where they’re sitting around.
Now the truth is, there will be scenes where your characters need to talk to each other in a boring room. In fact, there are some great scenes in cinema history that take place with two characters in a room. But not unless you know what you’re doing. And for that reason, I want to introduce a concept that will help you avoid this problem. It’s called SCENE TENSION. Whenever you write a scene, you want to ask where the tension is coming from. If there’s no tension, or the tension is weak, there’s a good chance you’re writing a boring scene.
Let me give you a basic example. A guy and a girl are discussing plans for the weekend. I wouldn’t want to write this scene regardless but let’s pretend, for whatever reason, that it’s necessary for the plot. If you were to write this scene in a living room with the two characters sitting down, it would be boring. To fix this, ask yourself where you can introduce some scene tension. What if the guy is late for a flight? He doesn’t have time to talk about this. He’s running around, feeling his pockets for his keys, checking his phone for his ticket. Meanwhile, this conversation is important to the girl and she’s trying to sort it out, but he can’t focus. This creates a natural conflict, which, in turn, makes the scene entertaining. I’m not saying this a great scene. But it’s magnitudes better than the first version.
Let’s look at another example. A mom is cooking breakfast for her children. I’ve read this scene hundreds of times. You can certainly write the scene so that the mom asks her kids how they’re doing. The kids ask for help on their homework. In other words, not a very interesting scene. However, if you look to add scene tension, maybe the mom just got a call in the previous scene from work, where it was revealed that they’re going to make layoffs today. Now the exact same scene involves an anxious mom who’s not paying attention to her kids cause she’s wondering if she’s going to get fired. Meanwhile, the kids are getting upset that their mom isn’t paying attention to them, and, as a result, the dialogue becomes more charged, more interesting.
Jerry Maguire is a master class in scene tension but look at the famous scene where Jerry Maguire comes to Dorthy’s house and tries to get her back. A writer could’ve very easily written a scene with Jerry and Dorothy alone in a room. But Cameron Crowe adds this divorce woman’s group – the worst possible people in the world to have around when you’re trying to get your wife back. The ultimate scene tension.
Or here’s one I saw the other day. A character was trying to have a conversation with someone else. But he kept getting important texts from someone, creating all sorts of tension in the scene. “Should we talk about this another time?” “No! No no no. I’m paying attention.” I’m not saying you always need a gimmick for a scene. Don’t let that be your takeaway from this article. I’m just using bigger examples to get my point across.
Actually, the most common way to add scene tension is through the characters themselves. You have a million options of who your character is in any moment. The most dangerous option you can go with is “fine.” If two characters in a scene are fine – if there is nothing bothering them, nothing eating at them, nothing pressuring them, nothing causing any level of unrest or anxiety, you are at risk of a scene heart attack. Actually, no. Heart attack implies it would be exciting. You are at risk of a scene coma. Which is why it’s critical you identify at least one character in the scene who’s exhibiting some level of unrest. That, then, will be the tension that keeps your scene entertaining.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. At work, a guy and a girl need to discuss relevant exposition that sets up important plot points later on. They go to the break room, maybe grab some chips from the vending machine, and chat away. Potential for a boring scene = high. IF, however, the guy has a secret crush on the girl, that “unrest” or “anxiety” adds tension to the scene. The exposition goes down a lot smoother because we’re focused on the subtext of the conversation.
And it can be even more subtle. Take Clarice’s first meeting with her boss, Jack Crawford, in Silence of the Lambs. That scene is a straight exposition scene, setting up Buffalo Bill, the serial killer. Now this isn’t the best example because a scene setting up a serial killer is kind of an interesting scenario. However, screenwriter Ted Tally still uses scene tension here. Clarice wants to impress her boss. She’s trying to prove that, even though she’s young and a woman, she’s worthy of this assignment. That “unrest” within Clarice creates the scene tension.
Let me now give you an example of a scene without scene tension. Guardians of the Galaxy 2. When Starlord meets Ego and Ego starts showing him around the planet, we get a very boring scene. The scene is exposition-driven but they forget to add any scene tension so the scene just drones on aimlessly as Ego explains tons of backstory and exposition to Starlord.
The reason writers screw this up so often is because they’re focused on getting the scene in their head down on the page, and as long as they’ve done that, they’re happy. For example, the plan might be to set up Character X in this scene. Or, like the Guardians example above, the plan might be to convey Relevant Exposition Y. They believe if they merely execute that plan, they’ve written a “successful” scene. And I can understand that. It is hard to write a scene where you get all the necessary exposition down in a way where it’s readable. But it’s only the beginning. You still have to entertain. Always. In every scene. Entertain. Never forget that.
And I want to finish off by reminding you that if you create plots with active heroes who go after things, you will encounter this problem way less. That’s because your hero is too busy to sit around in rooms chatting with people. He or she is out there trying to achieve their goal. But if you are writing a character piece, then you need to be an expert on scene tension. It’s gotta be in your writing DNA. Or else your script is DOA.
Premise: (from Black List) When Grace and her husband Jay retreat to an empty vacation island to escape his grueling political campaign, Grace begins reliving traumatic experiences from her past, forcing her to question what is real.
About: Today’s writer came out of nowhere. Up to this point, he’d been writing and directing his own short films. But “Grace” got him onto last year’s Black List, where he finished 16th out of the 73 scripts. Marc Evans is producing the film over at Paramount.
Writer: Will Lowell
Details: 103 pages
Thandie Newton for Grace?
I’m going to say something controversial.
If your script ends with your main character in an insane asylum, implying that the series of events we just watched were all in the hero’s head, you’ve probably written a bad screenplay.
Insane asylum endings aren’t much lower on the cliche ending totem poll than your hero waking up and realizing it was all a dream.
I say this as someone who has read in the neighborhood of 100 screenplays where the main character isn’t sure if they’re crazy or not and then, ultimately, ends up in an insane asylum.
While I don’t believe it’s impossible to write a “Am I Going Crazy” script, I’ve found that most of the writers who tackle them have done less than 10 minutes of research on what being “crazy” actually means. There are dozens of different variations of mental illness, all of which have unique side effects. There’s no such thing as blanket “crazy,” although you’d think so after reading a script like this.
It’s hard to trust myself to a writer who hasn’t done their due diligence in accurately portraying the driving force behind their entire story.
Grace Byrnes watches his Senator father hang himself from their summer mansion when she’s 9 years old. Right before he jumps, he smiles at her. After this happens, Paul Sheridan, her father’s political fixer, makes Grace swear that she’ll never tell anybody what happened here. They want to frame the father’s death as a heart attack. Sure, Grace says. She’s 9 so she does what she’s told.
Cut to 23 years later and Grace is the wife of Jay Connors, an all-star Democratic Governor who’s on the fast track for becoming the president of the United States.
Everything is going well in Grace and Jay’s marriage except for the fact that Grace has inexplicable feinting spells. It’s getting to the point where the media has picked up on it, and Jay is afraid it might affect his political aspirations. So he decides to take a week off and bring Grace to a place that feels like home so she can heal – her old summer house!
They show up at the house, which hasn’t been used in 23 years but is somehow still livable. And, almost immediately, Grace starts seeing things. Is that a man she saw behind a tree? Is that a man who walked behind her in the hallway? Is that a man in the upstairs window? Is that a man at the end of the bed? You could’ve just won the Fields Medal and not be able to keep up with how many times there’s a man just outside of Grace’s vision, who she then turns to, only for him to disappear.
Grace thinks she’s going crazy but refuses to check herself into a psychiatric ward because her mom rotted away in one. Eventually, Paul shows up at the house. Oh yeah, Paul is now Jay’s political fixer. One afternoon after they think Grace is asleep, Grace hears Paul and Jay discuss that this is all a setup to get Grace to agree to be admitted into the psyche ward so she’s not a liability on the campaign trail. Everything Grace has seen is a ruse! Now that Grace has uncovered Paul’s Scooby-Doo plan, she has to escape! But she’s going to have to outwit the craftiest political strategist on the East Coast to do so.
This was a bizarre read.
I get the feeling that this is a ten year old script that the writer dug up off of an ancient hard drive. The movie centers around a political figure yet there isn’t a single mention of the most influential tool in politics today – social media. There is never a tweet. Never a gram. Never a youtube video. So right from the start, something felt off.
What might have happened here – and I give the writer credit if it’s true – is that he determined the script could be marketed as part of the #metoo movement. If it takes 20,000 screenplay skill points to make the Black List, a #metoo angle gives you a free 10,000 points. So if the writer identified this and took advantage of it by digging up an old script, good on him. Screenwriting isn’t just about writing. It’s about market savvy. It’s about taking advantage of the system. He did that. So kudos.
But the script itself is too simple and too repetitive. And too repetitive. And too repetitive. After the 6,328th time that Grace saw a man out of the corner of her eye, I felt like I was the one going insane.
The ending is OKAY. And I say that because I thought Jay was going to be the killer. And it ended up being Paul. So I was surprised by that. But this is the most simplistic execution of an idea I’ve read all year. There’s nothing new or fresh here at all. And that sucks because I actually like these “couples out in the middle of nowhere one of them might be a killer” scripts. But this one didn’t do it for me.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I find character descriptions fascinating. They’re a lot like loglines. Even if you’re good at screenwriting, you may be terrible at character descriptions. I think that’s because a) most screenwriters don’t read enough scripts to see how it’s done, and b) most screenwriters don’t make it a priority. But let me tell you why character descriptions are so important. One of the hardest things to do in screenwriting is write characters that leave an impact. And a character introduction is the starting point of that process. If it’s weak, it’s almost a guarantee the character himself will be weak. You want to start off on the right foot. Here are five character introductions from recent scripts I’ve reviewed (including today). Not all of them are good. I want you to see how impactful a good character intro is. And the best way to see that is to place it up against a bad one.
Dressed in paint-stained working clothes, caretaker BILL MCCABE (50s) has the unkempt appearance of a man who hasn’t had human contact in months.
ATTICUS ARCHER. 55. Silver hair. Oxford jacket. He methodically checks his watch, as he always does when a plan is unfolding. He has everything under control.
A curl of lights and camera crew surround a reporter, BINGBING (late 20s, the kind of woman who makes you think you’ve done something wrong with your life).
LIZ ROE, 40, sharp and self-possessed with an approachable beauty and ironic smile, contemplates her outfit in the mirror.
A WOMAN sits in the driver seat of an old beige HONDA, staring off into oblivion. This is ELIZABETH (29) – a listless shrinking violet, desperate to be known and undetectable at the same time. She looks PAINFULLY BORED.
Which one did you like best? For me, the winner is Liz Roe, which came from yesterday’s script, Our Condolences. Note how the description is both thoughtful (it uses specific words like “sharp” and “self-possessed”) yet to the point. Usually when I get a character description that’s thoughtful, it’s too long. Ideally, you want it to be descriptive but also succinct.
I also like Bill’s description (from today’s script). His outfit, “paint stained working clothes,” tells us a ton about him. But it’s that second half of the description that really paints a picture.
Note how when the writers try to get too writerly (“a listless shrinking violent”) or cute (“the kind of woman who makes you think you’ve done something wrong with your life”) you leave the intro unsure. Be clear. Be succinct. Use clean words that illicit an image. You do that and you’ll write a good character description.
Genre: Drama with light comedic elements?
Premise: After their friends lose their daughter to a drunk driving accident, a neurotic New York couple find themselves unable to comfort and relate to their pain. But as the pair grapples with their personal inadequacies, their own relationship slowly begins to unravel.
About: Today’s script finished on both The Black List (top 20) and The Hit List (Top 10). The writer, Greg Kalleres, used to write commercials for high profile clients such as ESPN, Nike, Budweiser, Twitter, and Google. He has since segued into playwriting, and now, screenwriting. One of his more recent plays, Honky, is about how a sneaker blows up with young white buyers after a black man is murdered for the sneakers. You can read an interview with Kalleres about the play here.
Writer: Greg Kalleres
Details: 105 pages
I could see Reese playing Liz.
It’s always interesting reading screenplays from playwrights because all of the emphasis is on the dialogue. Plays don’t work like cinema does, which is about showing (not telling). With plays, silence is death. Therefore, if actors aren’t talking a lot, something’s wrong. For that reason, it’s more important for playwrights to learn how to write good dialogue. And indeed, the dialogue in Our Condolences is the highlight.
Where playwrights get into trouble is with scope. They’re used to having one location, one stage. And while there are clever ways to switch locations, you’re basically spending long periods of time in the same place. You always see that when playwrights take on features. The stories are limited in scope.
Our Condolences introduces us to a proud liberal easy-going New York couple, James and Liz. James is a movie reviewer who trashes most movies even though he secretly likes them. And Liz works for a giant advertising company.
They’re headed over to Mike (a former SEAL who cashed in on his job by becoming an author) and Christina’s house, who they haven’t spoken to since they lost their young daughter when their car was hit by a drunk driver. On the subway, the two joke around about what it is they’re supposed to say in these situations. “I think maybe we do it right away. You know, just nip it in the bud,” James says. Liz, sarcastic, replies, “So, what, we walk in and immediately say: ”Hi guys, we can’t possibly know what you’re going through?!”” “I thought that was my line.” “Why are you being all Woody Allen about this?”
However, the mood changes when they get there. Mike opens the door, screaming that Christina is in the bathroom, threatening to kill herself. The three race to the bathroom and Liz unloads a line of bullshit about fighting for your life that sounds good in the moment, stopping Christina from going through with it. When they get home later that night, Liz is a wreck. She begins questioning everything – their relationship, their stupid jobs, their purpose on earth. Basically, she feels guilt for not experiencing the pain that Mike and Christina feel.
The next day, Liz goes back to see if everything’s okay but only Mike is there. After talking for awhile, Mike kisses her. Liz is confused but sort of goes with it. Mike makes a play on her, asking if she’s happy with a silly man whose contribution to society is ripping on movies all day. She doesn’t exactly disagree with this assessment.
Meanwhile, James randomly runs into Christina at the movies. After this happens a few more times, he learns that Christina is following the drunk driver who killed her daughter. When it becomes clear that it’s only a matter of time before Christina cracks and kills him, James will have to figure out how to stop her. And he may have to do it without a wife, since every day that goes by, Liz is less and less clear on why she married him.
Our Condolences starts off awesome. Passed my First 10 Pages test with ease.
I love movies that tackle serious subject matter in a humorous way. You’ve got to find the right tone, which is difficult. But if you can pull it off, the movie feels unlike anything else out there. It’s what creates that elusive “fresh voice” that Hollywood keeps asking for but can never define.
To give us a comedic take on a dead child is a brave move. And when you can combine that with easy-breezy dialogue that makes your eyes fly down the page, I was in screenplay heaven the first 10 pages.
But then the writer began making strange choices. We go from fun and giddy to super serious and sad. Mike is a huge downer and Christina isn’t far behind. Not that I expected them to be happy, obviously. But the tone was set up to be funny. So I didn’t know why we all of a sudden turned it into Heavy Sad Suicide Alert!
I eventually got used to the new tone. But then the characters are given these overtly goofy jobs that implied we were back in comedy land. Mike is a former SEAL who wrote a book that became a best seller for alpha men. Liz was working on an advertising job that revolved around building an 80 foot tall potato chip. James goes and sees silly big-budget movies that he trashes… then goes and sees them again cause he likes them.
At a certain point, I couldn’t lock down what the tone of this movie was! And if I don’t know what universe I’m in, it’s hard to enjoy what I’m watching. In fact, if you were to ask me, “What movie is this most similar to?” I couldn’t give you an answer. And that’s a big deal. Producers and studios are looking for any reason to say No. And if you can’t give them a comparable successful movie, it’s a No before you’ve walked in the door.
To be honest, I think the character jobs are what sunk this script. They feel like made-up movie jobs. These are jobs that are common in La La Land. But in the real world, nobody knows anybody who does this stuff. And the reason that’s important is because you’re writing a movie about real people and real emotions and grief. And if the people involved are doing Three Stooges routines while pitching the merits of an 80 foot tall potato chip in Times Square, it’s hard to take them seriously.
Actually, one of the easiest ways for me to identify newbie screenwriters is made-up movie jobs. Unless these jobs are organic to the characters to the point where nobody is going to question them, you want to use real jobs. The large majority of people have boring real jobs.
Despite that, the dialogue here is strong. There’s a naturalism to the interactions, a nice flow. If I learned any new dialogue tricks, it would be that dialogue works best when you’re playing against the emotion. The best scene in this movie is the first 10 pages. That’s because the characters are going to someone’s house who lost a child, yet their dialogue is light and playful and fun. Later on, when the dialogue is matched up with the emotion, it’s not as good.
And that would be my big suggestion here. This script should’ve stayed with the tone it started with. Once it got serious, it wasn’t as interesting.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: After James and Liz jokingly fight each other in that opening scene, we get this line of description: “Suddenly they both begin laughing like idiots. This is the essence of them. This moment. And we can’t help but like it.” Don’t ever write this line! Never! You should never ever tell the reader what to feel. Readers read more stuff than you can imagine. And the one thing they’re never receptive to is being told what to feel or think. Let your writing do that.
Genre: Article/True Story
Premise: After having a stroke, a prominent Los Angeles doctor begins rapping, eventually taking his talents to the heart of the Los Angeles street rap scene.
About: This Atlantic article was discovered and picked up by producer Michael Sugar (Spotlight). Sugar will produce the film for Netflix. John Hamburg (I Love You, Man and Why Him), will adapt and direct the film. Jeff Maysh, who likes to write articles that have the potential to become movies, wrote the article. Here’s another of his articles about a unique catfishing story. And another about a wedding used as a drug dealer sting. Neither have been optioned yet. Maybe someone here will change that.
Writer: Jeff Maysh
Details: Article appeared in The Atlantic on January 16th.
Since they’ve worked together before, I expect Cranston to be named Dr. Rapp soon.
We’re doing something different today. As I’ve talked about freely over the last year, spec sales are down, which means you have to be more strategic in the way you approach breaking in. If you’re not writing a contained horror, contained thriller, or guy/girl with a gun spec, you need to be open to new avenues besides the straight spec script.
One of those avenues is to write articles or short stories and post them on the internet, or look for popular articles and stories and try to get the rights to them. This brings up a larger question about what makes a good movie idea. When you read a short story, news article, or Twitter rant, how do you know if it has the weight to be adapted into a feature film? I have the answer for you. But before I go there, let me break down this article.
Dr. Sherman Hershfield was a neurologist in the 1980s and 90s. Then, during the 90s, he started having blackouts. Later, those blackouts would turn into a stroke. And when Hershfield came out of the stroke, something was different. Without trying, everything he said came out in rhyme. Unable to practice medicine anymore, Hershfeld began obsessing over poetry, and, eventually, rap.
One day, when someone heard him rapping on a bus, they told him he should check out Leinhart Park. They had an open mic for rappers there. Anybody could get up and spit rhymes. The only catch was that Hershfield was a 50-something Jewish man. And Leinhart Park was the area where Rodney King got beaten up. To say the area was skeptical of rich white men would be an understatement.
Hershfield went anyway. But when he got onstage, he was far from an immediate sensation. He was more a poet than a rapper. The only reason he didn’t get kicked off that first night was because the crowd felt sorry for him. But Hershfield wasn’t fazed. He began studying the history of rap and practiced every day. Even as his Beverly Hills family became embarrassed of him, he didn’t stop.
One day after performing, Hershfield met rap legend and now mentor KRS-One. KRS-One saw a passion, but more importantly, a unique point of view, in Hershfield. He was bringing a different kind of battle to his music. KRS-One schooled Hershfield on the technicalities of rap, and now when Hershfield went to Leinhart, crowds were looking forward to his performances. He would eventually adopt the moniker, “Dr. Rapp.” Unfortunately, Hershfield’s health began to deteriorate, and after a series of seizures, he would pass away. Still, everyone who knew Hershfield admitted that he was never happier than in those final years where he found and honed his passion of rapping.
So what are you looking for when you option an article?
A great story.
Or a fascinating character.
Every once in a blue moon, you’ll find the HG (the Holy Grail). That’s when you find a great story AND a great character. But one is good enough.
Dr. Rapp has the great character. I mean look at all the things that are going on with Hershfield.
You have irony. A rich white doctor who goes to the poorest areas of the city to rap.
You have a fall from grace. A man whose career was derailed by a stroke.
You have a fish out of water story. A white man inside a world he’s totally unfamiliar with (or as someone else put it: “It was like Larry David had wandered into a Snoop Dogg music video.”).
You have an underdog. An older white man trying to make it in a profession dominated by young African American men.
And on top of all of that, you have a role an actor would die for. Why? Because it’s not a role actors of this ethnicity and age ever get to play. When you have a role that actors have never gotten to play before, they swarm to it.
With that said, I knew this had a good character based on the press report alone. An older white man rapping is a unique role. My question going in was, “Is there a story here?” It doesn’t have to be a great story. But there has to be a place to go with the narrative. What’s the destination?
I’m not convinced Dr. Rapp has that yet. But it has some pieces to work with. For starters, I like Leinhart Park itself. It feels like the area is its own character, an entire community of unique personalities. I also like this mentorship between KRS-One and Dr. Hershfeld. I’m immediately thinking of Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston in The Upside. You’d do something like that.
Where the adaptation has me worried is the stakes. It doesn’t sound like Hershfield did anything outside of become a mini-celebrity within a sub-community. Is that enough? He didn’t make an album. He didn’t break out into the mainstream. What will the culmination of this journey be? That’s the problem with these people you’ve never heard about before. There’s usually a reason you haven’t heard of them.
I suppose you can take the feel-good life-lesson route. Hershfield is dying but he still wants to rap because it soothes the soul. But that still doesn’t tell me where the story’s going to end. What’s the big rap-related event going to be? That question becomes more important when you take into account who’s adapting the material. This is the writer who made one of the worst comedies of the last few years, Why Him. How is he going to nail a character-driven comedy-drama without a clear plot? Even Why Him had a clear end point (the end of the weekend, when the parents were leaving).
But there’s potential here. This might be a case where the right actor comes along, creates a classic character, and that’s all that matters. We’ll see!
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Audiences like watching cultures collide. Remember that the best stories contain conflict at their core. So it’s not surprising that someone would be interested in making a movie where a rich white man attempts to become part of the inner city culture. The conflict is ready to go before you’ve written a word.
Next Monday: Captain Marvel Review! I have a feeling it’s going to get bloody!