Just a friendly reminder to anyone submitting a script for Amateur Friday. I recognize that this is a nice opportunity to get feedback for scripts that are works in progress. But I’m letting you know now that any pitch along the lines of, “I’m not really sure about this script. I’m hoping to see what people think” isn’t going to get chosen. This is the only place on the internet where random strangers willingly read amateur screenplays. So I’d prefer to put the best stuff up here I can find. There’s no hard and fast rule to this. If you send one of these e-mails and include a Jurassic Park level logline, then yeah, I might post it. But, generally speaking, I won’t. The scripts that win Amateur Showdown tend to be scripts that the writers have put a ton of work into. So you’re gonna want to bring your best anyway.
Oh, and I have one minor requirement for readers participating in this weekend’s festivities. Before reading any of the scripts, you must first perform The Git Up Challenge. Preferably with the shades up so that your neighbors can see you.
The Git Up Challenge Dance - YouTube
If you haven’t played Amateur Showdown before, it’s a cut throat single weekend screenplay tournament where the scripts have been vetted from a pile of hundreds to be featured here, for your entertainment. It’s up to you to read as much of each script as you can, then vote for your favorite in the comments section. Whoever receives the most votes by Sunday 11:59pm Pacific Time gets a review next Friday. If you’d like to submit your own script to compete in a future Amateur Showdown, send a PDF of your script to firstname.lastname@example.org with the title, genre, logline, and why you think your script should get a shot.
Title: The Above Genre: Contained Thriller Logline: Awaking on an unknown flight to find everyone else unconscious, a dazed baggage-handler must uncover his foggy past and save the plane before it falls from the sky. Why You Should Read: Contained thrillers still today seem to remain one of the best ways to sell a spec. One possible issue with them is that they sometimes can feel like they’re stuck in place (which they usually are). Here’s my try at avoiding that issue by using a contained location that’s moving at the speed of hundreds of miles per hour. I went back to see Carson’s reviews on earlier contained material and tried my best to incorporate all the best parts of them, from clear GSU to steadily unfolding mystery. Very interested to hear everyone’s thoughts!
Title: The Final Solution(s)
Genre: Historical Fiction/Science Fiction
Logline: A centenarian recounts to his great grandson how he was secretly recruited as a WWII soldier to be transported to biblical times to counter Hitler’s plot to destroy a fledgling Jewish nation.
Why You Should Read: My day job is as real as it gets; I’m an urban public defender. I employ the persuasive power of words to desperate situations, often for societies’ outcasts. And while I feel generally fulfilled by my calling to serve the voiceless, the law is not my first love. Books and movies occupy that place. Fiction and philosophy are my particular favorites, but I partake in all levels of discourse, from Cable News to Cardi B, Stephen Hawking to Steven Soderbergh, James Fenimore Cooper to Jim Rockford. Currently, I am trying to discover how a late-forties father of two with a second marriage and two more step kids, nagging yoga injuries, an inflated mortgage, a stressful career and all the other normal trappings of middle-class American life can become a Dharma Bum. I doubt I’m the only one seeking that answer, but perhaps I’m the only one framing the question quite like that.
Everything I write at this point in my life strives to highlight the primordial human yearning for peace and love set against the grit and contradictions of our post-everything world. The attached screenplay reflects my personal appreciation for art and science as well as history and fiction. Hopefully it reflects my deepest belief about all art, namely, that art should seek simultaneously to entertain and to educate, to touch both intellectually and emotionally, and, most of all, should serve to nurture each of us to find our best, our most complete selves. If nothing else, this script represents the uniqueness of me, my life experiences and worldview, and in that way will be unlike anything else you have ever read. I can think of no other work in literature or the movies that weaves history, fiction and the bible together in such a cohesive and plausible manner. And yet, in the end, it is the relationship of storyteller to listener, ancient mariner to wedding guest, that forms the emotional center of the work and delivers the simple moral truth that drives this story forward.
Title: YEAR OF THE SPY Genre: Spy, True Story, Thriller Logline: In 1985, when CIA Officer Aldrich Ames sells what he believes to be useless intelligence to the Soviets to pay for his divorce, he inadvertently sets off an international Cold War crisis that finds him heading up a special CIA unit — a unit created to find out who sold secrets to the Soviets. Why you might read: Being true, it’s a spy story that’s more grounded than most, but also barely believable in how it plays out. There are absurdities that could only come from real life. It’s based on research drawn from the Senate Committee report published after Ames’s arrest, as well as testimony from the Soviet Intelligence Officer who ran Ames as an agent. Personally, I could use some writerly interaction with my work as I’ve been more-or-less blocked for the better part of a year, and need to get back into the flow. I’d be very grateful for any and all response to the script. Thanks.
Title: The Crooked Tree Genre: Horror Logline: While staying on a rural plantation, a live-in hospice nurse, struggling with the loss of her daughter, must save her young patient from a mysterious intruder. Why You Should Read: Before becoming a full-time Registered Nurse, I attended film school with a foray in horror screenwriting; my ultimate passion. I’ve always loved the genre and the craft, but, at the time, I felt that I could make a better living as a RN. But that writing itch never left! Over a decade since I wrote my last screenplay, comes The Crooked Tree, a unique combination of home invasion and occult horror. This is a love letter to my two favorite sub-genres and I hope you are willing to give it a chance! To quote recent WeScreenplay coverage, “The Crooked Tree offers a very fresh and horrifying vision that feels unique. A terrifying addition to the genre.”
Title: OFF-GRID Genre: Thriller. Pitch: Searching meets Nightcrawler. Logline: An overprotective ex-cop discovers his daughter’s hidden life as an exam cheat sheet organizer after she goes missing from school. Why You Should Read: Hey Carson, my name is Sylvester Ada. 2 years ago, you reviewed my pilot script CLUB LAVENDER about the cabaret drag queen caught up in a mob war. It received a worth the read from you and while you loved the writing, calling it one of the best written scripts of the year, you weren’t a fan of some story elements. Here’s my first completed feature. It’s a lean 81 pages with lots of white space, action and just an all round fun read. The perfect candidate for the age of streaming content and most likely going to be one of the most fun scripts you’ve read all year. It also deals with real world tech and grounds it in a fun way.
We interrupt our regularly scheduled program (dialogue) to talk about character. Why character? Because yesterday some interesting conversations picked up AND I DISAGREED WITH EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM! Okay, that’s an exaggeration. My contention was that the script I reviewed, which sold back in 1994, never got made because the main character was so gosh-darn forgettable. He had ZERO going on. We knew NOTHING about him. Therefore, we had no emotional attachment to the story whatsoever.
One of you was quick to point out that Alien, one of the best movies of all time, tells us next to nothing about its characters and it didn’t seem to hurt the film at all. Others pointed out that action movies are often WORSE when the writer tries to jam a bunch of manufactured character development into them. Rose Tico has this deep tragic backstory in The Last Jedi. But she’s still one of the lamest characters ever.
So is character development overrated? Is it all just a matter of casting? I would answer that with a big fat NO. Not even close. In fact, character construction is still the most in demand writing skill in Hollywood. Put 10 guys in a room and ask them to come up with a cool plot or a killer set piece, and they’ll give you something that’s, at the very least, decent. Ask that same group of people to come up with a handful of great characters and nothing they give you will be useable.
There’s no question in my mind that if Man with the Football had a great main character, it would’ve been made. Why do I say that? Because good characters don’t come around often in Hollywood. So if an actor encounters one, they’re going to want to play them. That character was lame. I wouldn’t know a single actor in Hollywood who’d want to play him.
Now there’s a couple of things at play here that most writers aren’t aware of. When they hear “good character” or “make a character likable,” they think in terms of Adam Sandler movies or cheesy romantic comedies where the main character hands a homeless person a hundred dollar bill or, in the case of the most recent Sandler movie, Murder Mystery, Sandler busts a kid trying to steal something – BUT HE DOESN’T RAT HIM OUT! He lets him correct his mistake without arresting him. Gosh that Adam Sandler guy is nice, isn’t he?
That’s not real character development. It’s not real “character likability” development. It’s a hacky studio note that even the interns at CAA could give. And it’s not what we’re talking about today. The truth is, character development is varied. You will not use the same amount of it in every screenplay. Some stories require less character development. Some require more. Some GENRES require less character development. Some genres require more. A straight drama will always require the most character development of all the genres whereas an action movie might contain very little.
But hear me know, believe me later and understand me next week – YOU MUST ALWAYS add character development to your hero. And YOU MUST ALWAYS give us a hero that we want to root for. That doesn’t mean they have to be likable. But we have to want to root for them. Nobody liked that Hannibal Lecter ate a bunch of human beings to death. But, oddly, we still rooted for him to escape in the end. So today, I’m going to provide you with the eight most important things that affect how the reader perceives your character. I’m going to call this “care-achter” development. Because these are the things that make us CARE about your hero.
Backstory – Backstory is anything that’s happened to your character before the events of the movie took place. Backstory can be presented through flashbacks or alluded to through dialogue. Backstory is actually one of the least effective ways to influence a reader’s emotional response to a character. Movies are about what’s happening NOW, in the present, and therefore people don’t care all that much about what happened in the past. If I hear you lost your kid in a car crash – I’m sorry but big whoop. That’s every movie. We’re too desensitized to that stuff. Now if you start your movie with a flashback that SHOWS us the crash the kid died in, we’re definitely going to have a deeper emotional connection to that loss. But I would only rely on this sort of thing if that’s what the movie is really about. In other words, if the film is about a mother trying to recover from the loss of her child, that can be very powerful. But if you try to throw dead-child backstory into Independence Day 3, the audience is too smart to buy into that nonsense.
Actions – This is one of the single most important ways to influence how the audience thinks of a character – their actions. It’s also one of the primary character development tools in an action movie. Does your character step up to the plate and act when times are tough? If your character, Dan, is picking his 10 year old son up from school and sees Jake, 11, bullying him, does Dan walk up to Jake’s father and say something? That simple action can have a HUGE influence on how we perceive Dan. One of the easiest ways to get readers on your hero’s side is to write an early scene where your character acts in a strong manner. Or rights a wrong. That’s all I was asking from yesterday’s script. Not some big goofy backstory. But ANYTHING that gave me some insight into the hero and made me want to root for him.
Choice – Choice is action’s little cousin. It’s basically the same thing, but you add a little more weight to the action so that there’s not just a choice involved, but a difficult choice. Take the exact same scenario I mentioned above but change it so that Jake’s dad also happens to be Dan’s boss. So for Dan to go up and say something to Jake’s father is actually jeopardizing his relationship at work. If Dan’s already on shaky ground at his job, the choice becomes even harder. However, if Dan does the right thing (mentions Jake’s behavior to his boss), we’ll like him A LOT.
How They Treat People – This technically falls under the action umbrella as well, but I’m separating it because character interaction is such a major component of a screenplay. So if your character is treating everyone badly, you can guess how we’re going to perceive them. Conversely, if they treat people well, we’ll like them. These are the tiny slivers of character development that writers overlook. And yet in an action script where we want to convey as much about a character as possible in as little time as possible, paying attention to the way your hero treats others might be all you need to get him on the audience’s side.
Personality – A favorable personality can do a majority of the work for you. If we like a character because of their general disposition, we don’t need any save the cat moments or yell at bully’s dad moments. The magnetism of that personality is going to drive the majority of our support. Marvel has become a master at this. From Tony Stark to Peter Parker to Thor to Peter Quill, we like positive charismatic people. So if you’re writing a character like this, you don’t even have to worry about doing anything else. We like the character from the second they start talking.
Their situation in life – A character’s current lot in life has a huge effect on the level of sympathy we have for them. A character who lives in a tiny place in a bad part of town and barely makes ends meet is higher on the sympathy scale than a billionaire who owns a penthouse on Fifth Avenue. — BUT if you give the billionaire an A+ personality, it can override our negative perception of their privilege (Tony Stark). There used to be a belief in Hollywood that rich people couldn’t be main characters for this reason. We’d reject them because their life was great. But I think you’re starting to see how this works. You assess who your character is, how they’re likely to be perceived, and you adjust accordingly. Some characters have so much working against them that you need to add a lot of these tools to make us like them.
How others treat them – A lot of writers trying to make their heroes likable assume they can only do so by looking inwards, at the character themselves. But actually, you can make characters likable through the way others treat them. Look no further than Cinderella. One of the reasons Cinderella is so insanely likable is that her stepmother and two step-sisters are so mean to her. When we see people being mean to others, our sympathy immediately goes out to them. I actually leaned this lesson by watching the reality show, Survivor. On that show was this guy named Russell. He was one of the worst human beings you could imagine. He was duplicitous, mean, vengeful, a liar, and just plain not a good person. He also holds the title of being one of the show’s all time favorites. He has tens of millions of fans. But how can that be? Well, the thing was, everybody hated Russell so much that they were constantly trying to get him off the show. They tried everything in their power. And they would say it right to his face. “We don’t like you. We will do anything to get you out of here.” They were so awful to him that audiences gradually found themselves rooting for Russell. So never underestimate the influence of how others treat your hero.
Whether or not they get back up – Movies are about knocking your hero down. It will happen over and over again. In fact, if your hero isn’t constantly being knocked down by obstacles and conflict, there probably isn’t enough happening in your movie. But the critical thing here is HOW YOUR CHARACTER DEALS WITH BEING KNOCKED DOWN. Do they give up? Or do they get back up? One of the most likable types of people on the planet are people who get knocked down but get back up with a positive attitude. They keep trying. Failure is an obstacle to them, not an end destination. So an early scene where your hero gets their butt handed to them badly but they still get back up and want to keep going – that will have a huge positive effect on how we see that character.
I’ll finish off by repeating what I said yesterday. If I’m not rooting for your hero, I don’t care what happens in your script. So make sure that when you’re writing that first act, you’re thinking about how the audience is perceiving your hero. Cause the flip side of what I just said is that if you can make us fall in love with your hero, you don’t need to write the best story in the world. We’re going to care so much about that person that we’ll be willing to follow them anywhere.
Hey, do you have a logline that isn’t working? Try out my logline service. It’s 25 bucks for a 1-10 rating, 150 word analysis, and a logline rewrite. I also have a deluxe service for 40 dollars that allows for unlimited e-mails back and forth where we tweak the logline until you’re satisfied. I consult on everything screenwriting related (first page, first ten pages, first act, outlines, and of course, full scripts). So if you’re interested in getting some quality feedback, e-mail me at email@example.com and I’ll send you a quote!
Premise: An army colonel must hunt down a man who has stolen the “football” from the president, the famous briefcase that travels with the President at all times and allows him to access and launch all of America’s nuclear weapons.
About: Back to the 90s, baby, again! This 1994 script sale got John Pogue the assignment to write The Fugitive 2 (a movie that would never get made). Pogue has a classic Hollywood screenwriting story. He showed up in town, assumed he would be writing blockbuster movies within months, instead got nothing but no’s for 7 years. And then he sold two scripts at once to Neal Moritz (Fast and Furious franchise). A couple more after that. He would then end up getting a deal at Fox to produce and write for them. All of this happened quickly. Unfortunately, none of John’s bigger projects got made. But he did write the moderately successful “The Skulls” film which would spurn two sequels.
Writer: John Pogue
Details: 120 pages – 1994 draft
2019 Casting for this movie: Bradley Cooper?
You can see why this script got the writer The Fugitive 2 gig. The two are very similar in the way they’re structured, the way the action is covered, the way they’re paced. But there’s one extremely important difference between the two and I’d guess that it’s the main reason this script never got made. But I’m not going to tell you what that is yet. You’ll have to read to the end to find out.
I always like reading these stories of scripts sold a million years ago because it’s a bit like seeing into the future when you track how the writer’s career went. You can dissect how they came onto the scene and then the subsequent choices they made in their early career, which would then affect the rest of their career. The reality is that those first couple of years when you break in are crucial because you’re so hot when you’re the flavor of the month and everybody loves you because you’re full of potential, possibilities, and probably most important, heat. If you can use that momentum to string a few successful projects together, you can lay the tracks for a 30 year writing career easy.
I’ll never begrudge a writer who’s found any level of success in the industry. Because while we’d all love to be Spielberg, the reality is we can’t be. But if you can grab onto even a small piece of the pie, you can still live the dream, being paid to write while living comfortably in one of the prime pieces of real estate in the world. I’m guessing that Skulls franchise paid better than selling insurance in Idaho.
Colonel Mitch Benedict is a no-nonsense guy. He cares only about the safety of the president. One of his jobs is to carry around the president’s nuclear suitcase, or what some people call, “the football,” so that if the president ever decides to launch a nuclear attack, he can do so from the comfort of lunch at Five Guys (or whatever fast food places were around in 1994).
So one day, Mitch is having a drink at a bar, and some businessman comes up to him and says he recognizes Mitch on TV as the guy who carries the nuclear suitcase. Mitch says he can’t talk about it, goes to the bathroom, and when he comes back, the businessman is gone. For some reason, this freaks Mitch out, so he decides to chase the guy. After a car and footrace, he catches him in an alley, steals the man’s briefcase, but the man gets away.
Mitch and his White House co-workers, which now include Captain Caroline Rice, a new recruit who Mitch doesn’t approve of because she doesn’t have any “confirmed kills,” look through the briefcase and find a secret camera inside that was taping their conversation. They also find some weird stuff in there about nuclear weapons and Mitch becomes concerned that this gentleman is up to no good.
When the president attends a Redskins football game, Mitch thinks the man will be here, so he and Rice perform surveillance during the game. The man does show up, blows up a trashcan, causing chaos, which allows him to run up to the NEW presidential aid who carries the “football,” cut off his hand, and steal the most important briefcase in the world.
The thing is, the football is useless. It requires too many checks and balances for some random thief to use it. It’s gotta be cleared by a satellite, the codes reset every day, and it needs voice authentication from the president and someone else. So nobody’s that worried.
Nobody, that is, except for Mitch! He’s convinced that this terrorist will figure out how to use the codes. And he turns out to be right. The man even calls Mitch and tells him where the final play of the game will happen – at the Washington Christmas Eve Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Aggression Pact! Will Mitch and Caroline be able to stop him!!???
If you ran this script through a computer program that denoted what components were being used to tell the story, that computer would spit out something like this: plot plot plot plot plot plot plot character plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot character plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot plot.
This script was so technical and so plot-dominant that it was impossible to become emotionally invested on any level.
I felt absolutely nothing for anyone here. This is a prime example of how the absence of sympathy and relate-ability and just plain knowing someone, can make the most cutthroat plot ice cold boring. Pogue is trying to write another Fugitive here. But the reason The Fugitive works so well is precisely because the main character, Richard Kimble, endures the single most sympathetic situation ever. His wife is murdered (sympathy) and he’s then erroneously charged with her murder (exponential sympathy). I mean who’s not going to root for that guy?
Mitch is ice cold. No personality. Never says anything interesting. I know almost nothing about him. And Caroline Rice’s character backstory isn’t just non-existent. It’s weird. Her whole storyline is built around that she doesn’t have a confirmed kill. How is a storyline like that going to make her relatable? Or sympathetic? Why does that make me care? Every character is treated that way here. They are not real people. They are chess pieces to be moved where the plot needs to take them. They’re interchangeable. They’re plastic.
This can be very frustrating for writers who write a good script and yet time and time again they’re told that something is missing but it’s not clear what it is. A lot of times it’s that the writer hasn’t written a character that the reader actually cares about, feels close to, or wants to succeed. I don’t care if Mitch succeeds here. And if that’s not in place, nothing is.
So why did they buy it? Well, the reality of this business is that you weigh the value of the concept against how difficult it will be to clean up the script’s problems. If they really liked this idea, they may have said, “I know we have a character issue here. But I love this idea so much I’m willing to hire a good character writer to clean that issue up.”
I hate pointing that reality of the business out cause writers see that and think, “Oh, my script doesn’t have to be awesome. It can be weak in some areas.” That’s true. But it still needs to be as perfect as you’re capable of making it. Cause chances are your perfect isn’t as perfect as you think, but it might be JUST good enough to get people interested.
This was really well-researched, especially for pre-google days, but I think Pogue got lost in all that research and only cared about making this pass some imagined White House authenticity test. When push came to shove, we just didn’t care about anyone here.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If there’s a lesson to be learned from this script, it’s that, yes, you always want your plot moving forward. But not at the expense of us being able to connect with the characters. At the very least, give us one scene – ONE SCENE – in the first act that you can point to and say, “That’s going to make people like my hero.” If you don’t have that scene, forget it.
Premise: The rise and fall of the greatest one-hit wonder ever – Vanilla Ice.
About: “Something grabs a hold of me tightly. Flow like a harpoon daily and nightly.” Best lyric in the history of music? If this movie happens, one thing they won’t need is a make-up department. That’s because Vanilla Ice doppleganger Dave Franco is rumored to be playing the lead.
Writers: Chris Goodwin and Phillip Van
Details: 127 pages
You know the deal by now. When I read a biopic, I’m looking at whether I’m reading an author who did a quick wikipedia search and copy-pasted the story into Final Draft, or if I’m reading something where the writer actually thought about telling the story in a creative and moving way. If you do the latter, as very few people do, I’m thrilled. If you do the former, it’s one more bullet to the chest of the biopic. Which I’m okay with also because it means we’re one death closer to this genre never being relevant again.
For those new to biopics, here’s how we got here. Event movies destroyed the movie star. The movie star needed to find other options. The biopic became the go-to genre because it allowed the movie star to do what they do best, be the center of attention. The movie was about the historical figure, of course. But it was just as much about the actor. Even better, these movies became a primary vehicle for big studios to win Academy awards. So they were willing to spend big money on the production, the actor, and the director. Do you get to save the world anymore? No. But you get your close-up. And that’s all movie stars care about.
Anyway, I like the idea of a Vanilla Ice biopic because it opens up some avenues to not take the genre too seriously. Maybe play with the format a bit. Have some fun. Let’s see what route the writers took.
Robbie Van Winkle grew up in Miami Lakes, Florida. He was a little kid with a unique dream as a white boy – to be a rapper. Robbie worked as a used car salesman at 20 years old, and he and his crew would go over to the City Lights Night Club every weekend and watch the rap acts. One night, his friends tricked the booker into getting him up on stage, And Robbie killed it. Tommy Quon, the owner of the club, liked what he saw. To him, Robbie was a young Elvis, just doing it in a different style of music.
Tommy ended up selling his club and going out with Robbie on the road where they played in a bunch of dingy redneck bars that didn’t understand what Robbie was doing. But after a year of touring and Robbie piece-mailing together 10 songs, one of those songs, Ice Ice Baby, which was actually a B-track that Ice and his crew felt was weak, started playing on the radio. This led Tommy and Robbie to LA, where they signed with the record label, SBK, who gave Robbie, now “Vanilla Ice,” a half-million dollar advance.
Ice’s single would shoot to the top of the charts where he’d rub elbows with MC Hammer, an artist who many people felt Ice was copying. The single would then lead to an infamous cameo in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, and then Ice’s own movie, Cool as Ice (“Drop the zero and get with the hero”). Quickly, however, the media turned on him, saying that he had stolen the hook from David Bowie’s song, “Under Pressure.” In a famous interview, Ice would explain the difference. “We sampled it from them but it’s not the same baseline. It goes DING DING DING DIGA DING DING. DING DING DING DIGA DING DING. That’s the way theirs goes. Ours goes DING DING DING TING AHH DING DING. DING DING DING TING AHH DING DING.”
But things would get a lot worse. Suge Knight, then an up and coming music producer, threatened Ice’s life if he didn’t give him a percentage of the profits from Ice Ice Baby. Ice was so shaken by the encounter that he hired eight body guards with machine guns to guard his house at all times. Ice then turned to drugs to ease the anxiety, and before he knew it, he was out of money with no prospects. Eventually he would come to the realization that it was time to leave Ice behind and reintroduce himself to Robbie.
Dave Franco for Vanilla Ice!
The most amazing thing about this script is that the rise and fall of Vanilla Ice is structured so evenly. It’s literally the first half is all about the rise and the second half is all about the fall.
To me, the fall was more interesting. I didn’t know anything about the Suge Knight stuff. What do you do when a thug accompanied by four armed men holds you over a ledge and threatens to drop you unless you give him ten percent of the proceeds to your multi-million dollar hit? I guess you say ‘yes.’
As long as we’re talking about hit records, though, we might as well talk about broken ones. I say this every time I review a biopic. Unless you have the most fascinating person with the most fascinating life ever, to the point where you don’t have to change a thing – that’s how amazing it is. If you don’t have that, you need to make some story decisions that set your biopic apart from all the other ones.
This is your typical rise and fall music biopic. There’s nothing inventive about it at all. There’s even a “descends into the drugs and party life” montage. And while Vanilla Ice is amusing, he’s by no means fascinating. So it’s one of those typical reads where you get to the end and you think, “That wasn’t bad.” But it certainly wasn’t great.
A stronger theme probably could’ve helped. With these biopics, since they’re so furiously focused on one individual, you want to say something about the world through that individual. There were tiny moments that hinted at this theme of Vanilla Ice being the first example of cultural appropriation – a white man trying to act black. But they never went that far with it. I think they also could’ve pushed Ice’s desire to be accepted by the black community more. Let’s face it. In this day and age, the media loves race-bait. They eat it up. So if your movie plays into that, people are going to talk about it. And I truly felt like Ice was hurt that people in the hip-hop community weren’t more accepting of him.
And if you’re wondering how do you manage a theme like that in a screenplay – you start with your climax. Your climax should be the moment where your theme is colliding with your character in the most dramatic way. So, as an example (although there are many ways to do it), you might have Vanilla Ice break down about the fact that this community he so badly wants to be a part of has officially rejected him. And then you move backwards from there and make sure there are ample moments throughout the script that keep that topic at the forefront. If your theme is a huge part of your climax, it’s likely the audience will know that THAT’S what your film is about. If it isn’t, we’re probably going to be confused as to what the movie was about. And that was the case with To The Extreme. I’m not sure what it was about other than a singer’s rise and fall.
With that said, I was never bored by To the Extreme. But like all biopics, it’s sort of like reading a wikipedia page while on a Disneyland ride. It’s slightly more exciting than reading it from your couch. And I suppose if you knew nothing about Vanilla Ice, this might wax your candle. But if you don’t know who Vanilla Ice is, do you wanna know? I don’t know. Word to your mother. Peace in the Middle East.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Always try to find fun ways into scenes. If you have a meeting between characters, ask yourself if there’s a way into that meeting other than one man walking into a room, sitting down, and talking with another man. In To The Extreme, Tommy (the night club manager) says to Robbie to come meet him tomorrow at 10. This is Robbie’s big shot. Someone likes his music! Now we could’ve had Robbie just show up. But the writers cleverly have Robbie working at the car lot that day. And his boss, Bryon, won’t give him the time off. So Robbie has one of his friends, Chill, show up pretending to be looking for a car. This allows Robbie to give him a “test-drive,” which, in actuality, allows the two of them to get to the meeting.
This weekend had not one, but TWO, spec scripts vie for a bite of that juicy but elusive summer box office apple. We’re going to talk about them in a second, but first we cannot ignore the giant looming money shadow that is The Lion King. I have to say that Jon Favreau has had one of my favorite careers to follow. I remember after he did Swingers, him and Vince Vaughn were the toast of the town. And then he went and did Made which was as forgettable a movie as they come. I didn’t even know what the genre was. I thought that might’ve been it for Favreau. So when I heard that he was doing “Elf,” I thought, “He’s desperate. His career is done.” And then that became an enormous hit.
Flush with Hollywood capital, he then went off to make Zathura, which confused the heck out of me. The creator of Swingers was now doing movies for 10 year olds?? I thought he was squandering his talent. And the movie, which was a less-good Jumanji, didn’t do well either. Again, I thought he was done. Then he gets called up to do Iron Man. And that’s when people had zero expectations for that character. The movie not only became a monster hit but it became the movie that built the House of MCU. However, immediately after that, he was given 2 years to do Iron Man 2 instead of the 3 he knew he needed to make it good and the movie ended up being awful as a result. To add insult to injury, the MCU quasi-discarded him because of it. “Thanks for the 10 billion dollar franchise. Bye!” I thought, “he’s done” again.
Things went from bad to worse as Favreau created his biggest misfire ever in the ill-conceived Cowboys and Aliens. Favreau let his long-time desire to direct a Western cloud his judgement, and the result was a film stemming from an idea that never worked in the first place. Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, however, Favreau burst back on the scene with the personal film, Chef, which became the little independent film that could.
Believing he was bankable again, Hollywood gave him The Jungle Book, which looked so amazing that Disney handed him one of their crown jewels, The Lion King. Concurrently, he also gets to make one of the flagship shows for Disney Plus, The Mandalorian. Jon Favreau is the guy who’s never quit. He’s always kept fighting. And I think I learned a couple of lessons from him. One is to stay involved with people. When things were tough for Jon, he filmed this show, Dinner For Five, which was way ahead of its time. It was basically a Youtube show before Youtube that covered five people from the business sitting down, eating, and talking about Hollywood. Some of his guests included a young JJ Abrams (long before JJ became the half-billion dollar man), Ben Affleck, Judd Apatow, Will Ferrell. That wasn’t just a show for him. It was an ongoing networking event which would allow him to keep his name in the hat, so to speak. Next, Favreau’s a go-getter. Favreau didn’t just show up to Disney begging them for a Star Wars TV job. He went ahead and wrote The Mandalorian pilot and second episode on spec! He then brought them to Disney and said, “I want to do this.” People know you’re serious when you have skin (all the hours put into those episodes) in the game. Finally, he’s such a curious positive person that you can’t help but leave a conversation liking him. That’s the power of positivity – is it makes you memorable. And in a business where the new hot thing is always coming around the corner, that’s a powerful weapon to have. The Lion King is getting mixed reviews. But I’m really happy for Favreau that he got to make it and that it will likely become one of the biggest movies of all time.
Now let’s talk spec scripts.
The biggest letdown of the weekend by far was Stuber (my script review here), which barely cleared 8 million dollars. The lone giant comedy entry in the summer never exhibited that “must see” quality in its marketing that gets people to rearrange their schedules to go see a movie. Here’s my take on what a comedy spec needs in order to be successful in 2019. For starters, you need a big concept (The Hangover) or a big situation (being a Bridesmaid) that hasn’t been seen in theaters for at least the last 20 years. That gets people charged up. Well-known new technology – in this case, Uber – is what I’d consider a “big situation.” So they got that part right. But there were a couple of things wrong with it. First, it was a few years too late. If this would’ve came out in 2014? It would’ve done four times what it did over this weekend easily. Second, the technology is too similar to previous situations we’ve seen in movies. This is basically, “Two mismatched guys in a car.” We’ve seen that setup hundreds of times before. Changing the car to a ride-share service isn’t enough to get people excited. All they see in the previews is two guys in a car. They don’t see “Uber.” And so it just didn’t look that original.
Once you’ve got a great concept or a great situation, you need to nail the casting. That’s what I’d say are the two biggest factors for success with comedies. Great idea and casting. Hollywood continues to make this mistake where they get inside their little echo chambers about who the best “up and coming” actors are and because all their agent and producer buddies are parroting the names, they think the actors are bigger than they actually are. The average person has no idea who Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista are other than, “Hey, that’s that guy from that one movie.” Instead, you should cast a) the best actors and b) the actor combo with the best chemistry. That’s what they did with The Hangover. Nobody knew who any of those guys were. But they were perfect for their parts. In Kumail and Dave’s defense, they seem to like each other a lot. But chemistry isn’t just getting along. It’s about projecting the dynamic required to make the film believable. In this case, these guys WEREN’T supposed to like each other. So it just didn’t pop enough in the trailers. I’ll point to one of the best casting decisions of all time, when Sylvester Stallone cast Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed in Rocky. He hated Carl in his audition. Hated him. Carl was loud, crude, insulting, and mean to Stallone. However, that’s exactly who Apollo Creed needed to be in Rocky. So he cast him.
It’s crazy to me that the last two break out comedy hits were The Hangover and Bridesmaids. I still have faith though, my friends! The cool thing about the comedy spec space right now is that unlike horror and thrillers, where you have to think about containing them to keep the budget down, comedies need to be big and action-packed these days. So you can come up with big premises and have fun with big wild set pieces if you want. And if your concept is awesome and your script is hilarious, you can sell one of these.
Meanwhile, Crawl made 11 million dollars. I’ve read some conflicting reports on whether this take should be considered a success or not. Some people believe the film bombed. Others think it did well considering it had such a tiny budget and was competing in the lion’s den known as the summer movie season. I’m hard-pressed to say that any film whose marketing budget only allowed them to make people aware of the movie the week of its release is a failure if it made over 10 million dollars. People didn’t know this movie existed last Monday. And on top of that, you’ve got two actors who nobody recognizes. I think Crawl did solid business all things considered. And like I said, this is one more bullet in the chamber for Team Spec Sale.
Michael Rasmussen, who wrote the script with his brother Shawn, tells Final Draft how they came up with the idea: “ It’s just so crazy how you live side-by-side with alligators. You’re side-by-side with these predators and they’re walking across your golf courses; sometimes they’ll get stuck under your house. You just peacefully coexist with these things that can turn on you at any moment. One of the years I was there, there was a hurricane and people were being kind of casual about that, too. Not so much now, but at that time they were like, “ah, a hurricane is coming. I’ll just ride it out. It’s not a big deal.” There’s just this attitude down there that I wanted to capture. I sat down with Shawn and said, “I have this idea and we should just write it before someone else comes up with it.” That started about two years ago.”
Later in the interview, brother Shawn noted the challenge of writing on spec: “It’s interesting when you’re writing a spec because you’re really writing it to maximize it to the full effect; everything has got to be really perfect. In the spec market it’s so hard to get something that generates interest so we worked super hard for six months to make it the best script we could.” Later still, Shawn gave his advice to aspiring screenwriters: “I would say write. If you want to be a screenwriter, you need to write a screenplay. You need to sit down and do it. Sometimes your first three, four, five scripts are going to be not so good, maybe even awful. But you’re going to get better by doing it. You need to sit down and just write. I think that’s the most important thing.” I’ll definitely be checking Crawl out once it comes to digital.
The 2019 box office shows just how big Disney has become. This kind of dominance has never happened before. Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel, Toy Story 4, Aladdin. Only at number 5 do we get another studio, Sony’s Spider-Man. And we still have Disney behemoths The Lion King and The Last Jedi coming. I know I just wrote a newsletter about how Disney has to fall at some point. But who’s going to topple them? Universal’s biggest properties are Fast and Furious and Jurassic Park. Warner Brothers is Batman and Wonder Woman. Paramount’s is Mission Impossible and Sony’s is the Spider-Man universe. Do you see any of those taking down Pixar, Marvel, or Star Wars? Good gosh, these studios might have to actually, you know, come up with some NEW IDEAS if they want to challenge Mouse Head. Will any of them have the stones to take a chance? We’ll see!
Logline: A high-functioning cannibal selects his victims based on their Instagram popularity, but finds his habits shaken by a man who wants to be eaten.
Why You Should Read: WARNING! The following script contains: gratuitous killing, threesomes, sex parties, sex butlers, cannibalism, bonsai trees, SoulCycle, Mongolian horse milk, adult coloring books, people being butchered, butchered people eating other butchered people, Tokugawa feudalism, exhaustive detailing of luxury brands, and other sorts of absurdity that may be unsuitable for viewing. Reader discretion is HIGHLY advised.
Writer: Mayhem Jones
Details: 99 pages
Jamie Dornan for Alan?
Will the summer of underwhelming movie experiences continue? This week we’re hit with Stuber, which, if you want to sell a comedy spec, you may want to support. This is one of the few spec scripts that’s getting a big summer release. Maybe the only one. Whatever happened to the studio comedy!? By the way, one thing you’ll want to pay extra attention to in Stuber is the action. That’s what comedy specs need these days to sell. Action!
Speaking of comedy, I think that’s what we’re getting today. Or at least some form of it. I feel like Mayhem Jones scripts need their own branding. You know how Spike Lee films are “a Spike Lee joint.” Mayhem Jones scripts should be, “A Mayhem Jones Experience.” Or something like that. I’ll leave it up to you guys. But yes, Mayhem probably has the most unique voice of any Scriptshadow reader. You always know it’s going to be an adventure.
Alan Pierce is 33 years old and a headhunter for a giant New York firm. He’s also a cannibal who spends most of his time online looking for Instagram influencers with over 100,000 followers. 100,000 is his bottom-line criteria for who he chooses to eat. By the way, Alan is not a pervert. He doesn’t like sex. All he cares about is killing and eating people. And he’s good at it. He’s ground up over a dozen unlucky influencers into fine dust which he uses for his daily smoothie.
Things get complicated when a guy named Damien learns about his secret. Damien is whatever the opposite of a cannibal is (he wants to be eaten). The problem is, Damien doesn’t have any social media influence at all! And that’s a deal-breaker for Alan. However, Damien is resourceful and inserts himself into Alan’s relationship with his girlfriend, Emily, who loves polyamory and thinks Damien is just swell.
Meanwhile, Alan is obsessed with a woman who just started working at his company who has over 3 million Instagram followers. He desperately needs to kill and eat her. But it’s not going to be easy. Because her celebrity shines so much brighter than everyone else, it’s tough to find a way to get her alone.
Eventually, Alan’s obsession starts spinning out of control. Literally! While he’s at a Soul Cycle class, the girl in front of him loses a leg while she’s pedaling! It appears that Alan is starting to lose his mind. (Spoiler) And we eventually learn, that’s exactly what’s happened. All of these “people” have actually been mannequins from Alan’s favorite clothing store, Bergdorf Goodman. He’s living in some bizarre kinky pseudo-reality where he can live out his cannibal fetish.
I’m going to talk about something not enough writers talk about. TASTE. It’s apropos to today’s review in a couple of ways. One, the obvious. Cannibal script. But also because scripts are rejected a lot because a reader doesn’t have the same taste as you. This is why you should never put too much stock into what a few people say. Get that wider perspective.
The funny thing about this is that, 5-10 years ago, I would’ve been into this script. The Voices script tackled similar subject matter and I loved it. The problem is that the news landscape in the last few years has made subject matter like this a trickier sell. It’s conditioned people to be more sensitive about these topics. Everything goes in cycles so I’m sure that a “blowback” phase will arrive at some point. But right now it’s hard to pull off any sort of abuse or murder based in pleasure. Even if it’s satirical.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to see here. Mayhem’s writing is often excellent. One of my favorite things about it is the specificity. Mayhem knows how to paint a picture. When we’re in Alan’s apartment, we don’t get typical description stock phrases like, “Looks like an Ikea catalogue.” We get, “Vibrant wall art by actor JIM CARREY.” and “Fifty-ish ADULT COLORING BOOKS (in various themes) stacked. Sharpened coloring pencils, crayons, and markers nearby.” I loved that. What kind of adults buy those adult coloring books other than psychos?
Also, yesterday, we talked about the power of larger-than-life protagonists and what they can do for your dialogue. Alan is about as larger-than-life as you can get. And so nearly everything he says is dialogue crack.
Despite this, there were a couple of things that did The Head Hunter in for me. The first is that it felt a tad dated. There was a constant feeling of deja vu as I read the script and I’m not sure which past movies made me feel that way. American Psycho, probably. But it’s been a long time since I saw that. So there’s probably another movie I’m thinking about. That’s the thing when you write something so specific, is that if there’s anything out there that’s as specific, it’s going to get compared to that.
And then you’d get these occasional moments like when Alan is at Starbucks and observes a customer ordering coffee. “Grande quad nonfat ten-pump no-whip skinny hazelnut macchiato with half caff ristretto sugar-free syrup extra shot light ice upside down.” That’s a 15 year old joke there. It’s slightly updated. But it’s still a really common joke that was used in movies for 1-2 years a long time ago. So you have to watch out for that stuff.
And finally, it’s incredibly difficult to write a good movie where there’s no one to sympathize with. It’s impossible to sympathize with Alan. He has zero sympathetic qualities. And then everyone else is so vapid and obsessed with fame that we can’t latch onto them either. Emily, the girlfriend, was the closest thing we got to a likable character, and her main storyline is that she wants a polyamphorous relationship so that she can experience better sex. I’m not sure if that’s someone who I can say, “God do I love this character!”
I’m thinking all the way back to Fargo where you had so many despicable characters with unredeemable flaws. But you still had Marge to root for. We wanted her to win.
So my advice to Mayhem is to DEFINITELY keep writing. There’s talent all over the page. But I’d probably encourage more discussion with other writers at the concept stage. Talk to your writer friends. See what they think about your idea before you write it. And if they don’t like it, listen to their reasons why. It doesn’t mean you have to follow their advice. But you’ll have a better idea of what kind of problems you’re going to run into and you can head them off at the pass. For example, if Mayhem had come to me before writing this and said, “I’m writing this no matter what. What do you think?” I would’ve said, “Just make sure there’s somebody in the story we can root for.”
Good job here. A well-deserved Amateur Showdown win for Mayhem. And like always, I’m one person. Not the final end all be all. If you believe in this script, keep pushing it. :)
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Provocative scripts are going to get you the hardest no’s. People are going to be offended. I’ve vouched for a couple of “provocative” scripts in the past, passing them up to people, and when they didn’t like it, they didn’t just give me a “no.” There was an anger in their voice and in their e-mails. I only bring this up so that you writers who write provocative scripts understand that the ‘no’s’ will be heavier. However, when you finally get that ‘yes,’ it’s going to be a loud one.
Last week we talked about how to set up a scene in order to create the best dialogue. Today we’re going to go back even further than that and talk about how to create characters that lead to good dialogue. How important is character creation when it comes to dialogue? Well, you know that guy Quentin Tarantino? The screenwriter who many believe writes the best dialogue in town? All Tarantino does is he creates a series of larger-than-life characters and simply lets them talk. You could argue that unless you’re constructing some of your characters with the larger-than-life gene, you’re dooming your screenplay to bad dialogue. Think about it, how many average characters do you remember in all of the movies you’ve seen who spit out memorable dialogue? I’m guessing none.
So my first piece of advice to you when it comes to character and dialogue is to create a character who’s larger than life in some way. Now when I say, “larger than life,” I don’t mean Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids. I mean there’s something about your character’s personality that’s bigger than the average person. Juno is a good example. That character was talkative and opinionated, slightly larger than life. But she was still able to exist in reality. Steve Jobs in Aaron Sorkin’s “Jobs,” is another example. Big and opinionated and intelligent and thoughtful. He had that larger than life quality.
So the next question becomes, how do we vary these characters? Not everyone should be Juno. The good news is, it’s not as hard as you think. Personality comes in many different flavors. There’s the motormouth, the joker, the know-it-all, the b.s.’er, the opinionated, the walking thesaurus. Write out a list of all the people you know in your life and next to them write down what their most dominant trait is and you’ll get a sense of what types of people are fun to listen to and what types aren’t. You can also watch sit coms (Seinfeld is a good one) where characters, especially guest characters, are highlighted by a particular trait (the soup nazi is militant, for example), and get ideas that way. It’s important to note that every trait is scaleable to the tone of the movie you’re writing. There’s a version of the Soup Nazi for a move like “The Mule,” You’d just have to dial the goofiness back and make him one of the drug dealers, not a soup dealer.
One of the things that really gets in the way of good dialogue is, believe it or not, the main character. This is because your main character is often the most grounded variable in your story. Their goals and desires need a certain element of truth to them for us to care about their journey. Unfortunately, this often makes them an un-engaging conversationalist. And normal conversation isn’t as fun to read as larger-than-life conversation. This is why people remember Han Solo over Luke Skywalker, Jack Sparrow over Will Turner.
There are a couple of ways to deal with this. The first is to buck the trend of writing a grounded main character and center your story around someone larger than life. A good example of this is The Narrator (Edward Norton) in Fight Club. The guy is very thoughtful and has lots of opinions on work, love, and life, and he’s giving us a rundown of these thoughts throughout the story. He’s anything but your average grounded main character. Christy Hall’s angry man-hating heroine, Skylar, in her spec, “Get Home Safe,” is another anti-grounded character who says what’s on her mind and doesn’t care how you feel about it.
The second way to tackle this problem is to identify which character in your script shares the most screentime with your grounded lead and make sure they’re a larger-than-life character. A recent example of this is Hell or High Water. In that film, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is our muted reserved down-to-earth lead and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), his brother, is our alcoholic rambling joking threatening larger-than-life character. What this does is it creates contrast between the characters. Contrast results in a steady wave of conflict. And conflict is where you’re going to find all of your best dialogue. And the reason, of course, that you do this with the second biggest character is because you’ll have a ton of scenes with those characters throughout the screenplay, which guarantees you a lot of good dialogue exchanges.
One of the most dangerous things you can do in a script is create two down-to-earth grounded leads who aren’t big talkers. I’m sure a few cinephiles here can name a movie or two where that’s worked. But I’m guessing those examples are few and far between.
How many larger-than-life characters should you include in your script? That’s obviously going to depend on genre and what kind of script you’re writing. Every character will have a function in the screenplay that may or may not jive with being “larger than life.” However, one of the nice things about supporting characters is that their lives don’t have to be as fully-shaped and grounded as your leads. Therefore, you can have more fun with them. A movie with great dialogue is Good Will Hunting and pretty much every supporting character in that movie is larger than life. Chuckie (Ben Affleck) was a big goofball. Morgan (Casey Affleck) was the willing butt of the joke. Skylar was big and humorous and always ready to have fun. Lambeau (the math professor) was this fevered tortured soul desperate to see this young man reach his potential. And of course Sean the Therapist was the most animated character of them all. If there ever was a movie to prove the point of this article – that larger-than-life characters are the key to good dialogue – Good Will Hunting would be it. To summarize, there’s no limit to how many of these characters you can add. But there are situations where you have to be very judicious about adding multiple larger-than-life characters. I probably wouldn’t have a ton of them in Moonlight, for example.
I want to finish this off by saying that one of the consistent threads in the scripts I read that contain lifeless dialogue is the lack of interesting characters. It’s hard to make someone sound unique who isn’t. This is the reason for another big dialogue faux-pas, which is try-hard dialogue – characters saying big outlandish things that they would never say. This happens when writers construct uninteresting characters and then try to shove interesting words into their mouths. It doesn’t work because it never feels like the real character. It feels like the writer.
In the coming weeks, we’re going to learn how to apply these tools to actually write good dialogue. Should be fun!
Hey, do you have a logline that isn’t working? Are people not responding to it? Try out my logline service. It’s 25 bucks for a 1-10 rating, 150 word analysis, and a logline rewrite. I also have a deluxe service for 40 dollars that allows for unlimited e-mails back and forth where we tweak the logline until you’re satisfied. I consult on everything screenwriting related (first page, first ten pages, first act, outlines, and of course, full scripts). So if you’re interested in getting some quality feedback, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you a quote!
Premise: A family must fend off a relentless vampire attack during one of the most famous storms in American history, Hurricane Katrina.
About: You may not be a fan of Lionsgate’s recent output, but if you’re a screenwriter, you should be a fan of their studio. That’s because these guys still buy scripts. And they purchased Jaswinski’s latest last year. Kenya Barris (who’s looking to expand beyond his sit-com roots) will produce the film.
Writer: Anthony Jaswinski
Details: 86 pages
Mahershala Ali for Adam?
Is there a screenwriter who knows how to craft a simple high concept idea better than Anthony Jaswinski? If so, Jaswinski isn’t far from the top. In a business full of superheroes, live action Disney characters, and IP, Jaswinski continues to steadily belt out original specs that always get bought up and turned into movies. The box office for those movies has been spotty. But The Shallows showed what kind of damage his specs can do. Today, however, he’s really going out there. We’re talking floods and vampires. I don’t know how those two things go together. But I’m eager to find out.
It’s 2005. We start on a fire crew walking into a French Quarter townhouse bedroom where a woman has been burned to death on a bed. We then cut to three days earlier, where we meet Adam, Shannon, and their 10 year old daughter, Sadie, who arrive in downtown New Orleans from Florida.
Shannon’s mother died recently and they’re going to stay in her townhouse for the time being because they’re having all sorts of money problems. Shannon was a star dancer but recently had an injury that cut her career short. And then Adam recently lost his job. So yeah, things aren’t going well, you could say. They pull up their “new” house which, oh yeah, happens to be the same house we saw the fire crew walk into in the teaser.
Shannon, who’s a recovering drug addict, quickly hooks up with some bad people who she knew growing up. And even though there’s a huge storm on the way and the city is recommending evacuation, the family stays, and Shannon slips out to get her fix. She comes back looking sickly and pale. Assuming she’s on some drug, Adam wants to take her to the hospital. The problem is, with the storm worsening, hospitals and police aren’t an option.
And that’s when things get really bad. Three druggies in rain coats and hoods, one tall man, one woman covered in tattoos, and a third guy, come to their door and demand to see Shannon. Adam tells them to get lost but they say if you don’t let us see her, we’re going to see her our own way. Adam screams at them to leave, and they do, for awhile. But then they come back. And this time, they’re getting in.
Shannon mentally deteriorates until she commits suicide by burning herself to death. From there, Adam does everything in his power to protect his daughter. They fend off the vampires in the townhouse for a bit, and then they run to a neighbor’s house and hide out there. However, one thing remains clear – these vampires aren’t stopping until they take out all of Shannon’s family.
One of the first things that struck me about this script was just how much character development there was. If I’ve had a beef with Jaswinski’s writing, it’s that his characters all seem so thin. But here we get tons of backstory about this family and their problems with each other and their connection to this city and issues with jobs and addiction and money — I mean, I felt like I really knew this family by the time the s&*% hit the fan.
But when you think about it, this is how every contained horror slash home invasion movie should start. The challenge with contained horror is that it’s such a limiting narrative. Once the bad guys are in the house, there’s only about 20 pages of attacking you can do. The rest of the time you have to figure out something else to keep the audience entertained.
For that reason, you should utilize your entire first act to set up your characters. This helps push back the entry point of the invaders which means you don’t have as much time to fill up. And the nice thing about it is that we’ll care more because we know the characters better. And that’s what happened here.
Jaswinski was also aware of the trappings of this genre and made a couple of clever choices to combat them. First, he had Shannon get sick (bitten) first. This meant that even though the home invaders hadn’t technically gotten in yet, they were effectively in, since Shannon was turning into a vampire. This allowed for a 8-10 page sequence where Shannon turns and ultimately needs to be killed.
That was followed by yet another sequence where police come to the door but they’re acting suspicious and we eventually learn that they’re the vampires. It’s little sequences like this that eat up pages before you get to the actual home invasion. And even with this stuff, Jaswinski recognizes that there’s not enough house to spend 30 pages creeping from floor to floor in while avoiding the bad guys. So he has the characters flee the house, and go to another character’s house across the street, George, who was set up earlier.
Another strange thing about these movies is that your best scenes aren’t necessarily going to be the brute physical battles that take place when the characters confront each other. The most tense scene in “French Quarter” for me was when they got to George’s house and Adam’s covered in blood, and the “police” show up outside George’s door and they yell inside to open up, that the man George is harboring “just brutally murdered his wife!” Adam makes his case that they’re lying and that they’re not really police, but George isn’t sure. That moment of: “What is George going to do?” is the single most suspenseful moment in the script.
My main issue with the script is that it was so freaking dark and depressing. Right from the start, nothing is going right for this couple. They’ve about given up on life. Then they get caught in one of the worst storms in the country’s history. Then Shannon goes and basically commits suicide by giving herself to the vampires. Then it’s 60 minutes of hardcore unimaginable horror. That’s the trick with horror films is that you want to stay true to the horror element. But you also want people leaving the theater feeling a rush. I left this feeling mega-depressed. It just wasn’t a happy story.
I remember Jordan Peele bring up this very topic when he talked about the challenges of writing Get Out. On the one hand, he wanted to make this very serious movie about race. But he also wanted it to be fun. And he was constantly struggling to marry those two extremes. I suppose this is something that can be debated either way. I’m not sure anybody leaves The Exorcist feeling a rush. But personally, for me, I need that in my horror films.
Still, this was a well-written script that’s a good template for those of you looking to sell one yourself.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I just consulted on a horror script recently and I was telling the writer that one of the biggest mistakes newbie horror writers make is they come up with a HORROR SITUATION and then pepper in some real life around it. But you want to look at it the opposite way. Once you have your idea, you need to come up with a LIFE SITUATION and then build the horror around that. This is a really good example of that. Clearly, Jaswinski thought long and hard about this family and then built the scary stuff around them.
Premise: The kids from Hawkins, Indiana are back, this time with a mysterious Russian signal to decode and a possessed Billy to fend off.
About: Stranger Things is beloved. How beloved? A seasons 1&2 recap with the show’s stars released two weeks ago garnered 4 and a half million views on Youtube! Just for going over old stuff! Word on the street is that the series is generating more conversation than that Marvel flick we reviewed yesterday. Does this mean Stranger Things seasons 4, 5, and 6 are inevitable? Are we going to follow the lives of Dustin, Mike, and Eleven into their 30s? The way studios are pulling their properties away from Netflix these days, don’t bet against it!
Created by: The Duffer Brothers
Details: This is a review of the first three episodes of Season 3
Yesterday, a commenter brought up the idea that I’d become one of these bitter movie reviewer types who hate everything. I mean, who couldn’t like Spider-Man: Far From Home?? The ONLY thing it wants to do is give the audience a good time!
If I’m being completely honest, the commenter has a point. I think this is something everyone in the business worries about. At what point does it only become about technique, as opposed to how a movie makes you feel? Recently, Gwyneth Paltrow was raked over the coals for not knowing her character, Pepper Potts, was in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Had Gwyneth too, become so blind to the magic of film that she no longer paid attention to her contribution to the community?
Once you’ve figured out whether I just compared myself to Gwyneth Paltrow or not, we can go deeper into that question. I think everyone in movies – especially critics – worry that because they watch so much stuff, they’ll eventually become desensitized to the medium. A french fry is the most amazing invention in the world until you learn that it started out as a big ugly brown thing covered in cow manure.
So to answer that commenter, yes, I do think bitterness shines through at times when I review something. And no, I don’t like when it happens. I don’t want to be the “everything sucks” guy. There are plenty of those people on the internet already. But it’s also hard to endorse something when you’re not feeling it. Spider-Man may have wanted to be the most fun movie in the world. But that doesn’t mean it was. Marvel got to where it got because it took chances. Far From Home was the anti-chance. Like the taco truck selling 99 cent tacos outside the bar at 2am. No matter how uplifting I want to be, I can’t endorse that. At least not sober.
So where does this leave us today? Ironically, Stranger Things isn’t that different from Spider-Man. It’s about high school kids. It’s about having a good time. It’s a big event series. You could argue that these properties are fighting for the same demographic. So who wins in a Spider-Man 2 versus Stranger Things 3 showdown? Let’s find out.
It’s summertime in Hawkins, Indiana and a new mall has opened up, giving our Stranger Things crew of Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Will, and Mad Max something to do besides ride their BMX’s around town. At the mall, Studly Steve now works at an ice cream shop with a girl named Robin who looks eerily like a cross between Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman because, oh yeah, she is a cross between them!
Meanwhile, Mike and Eleven are doing a lot of kissing, as Eleven tries harder than ever to be a normal kid. This is going to be difficult because after Dustin builds a giant antennae to try and communicate with his long distance girlfriend he met at science camp, he overhears a foreboding Russian transmission, which he writes down and later tries to decode.
But things really take a turn for the tubular when Billy, now a life guard, tries to hook up with a MILF, but crashes his car on the way to her house and gets pulled into the upside-down. There, Billy meets… another Billy, and when Billy is sent back to the rightside-up, we realize he’s the alternate possessed Billy. If that’s confusing, you’ll be happy to know that Winona Ryder is now obsessed with the magnets on her fridge, which don’t work anymore. These kids might be growing up but it’s nice to know some things in Hawkins never change.
Here’s the thing about Stranger Things. It’s not a very well-written show. There are too many characters and storylines to keep up with and a good portion of them feel like filler. I mean, do we really need an entire subplot built around Jim Hopper working up the courage to tell a 14 year old boy to cool it on the kissing with his adopted daughter? There’s a scene with Hopper getting drunk and watching Magnum P.I. as he becomes further and further irritated by the idea of kissing that may be the most wasteful two minutes in TV this year.
But the magic of Stranger Things is not that it’s the best written show on television. It’s that it’s the most watchable show on television. I can’t just throw on an episode of Jessica Jones. Or Narcos, or Mindhunters, or even Orange is the New Black. But I can throw on an episode of Stranger Things and, for a little under an hour, every problem in the world fades away. This show takes you back to a simpler time, it surrounds you with incredibly likable people, and it throws just enough zany yet entertaining plot points at you to keep you wanting more.
There are a lot of things we can talk about in regards to this season. But I want to highlight one in particular. The Not-Who-They-Seem Character. The Not-Who-They-Seem Character is any character who, for story reasons, isn’t the person everyone else thinks they are. In this case, that’s Billy. They think he’s Billy. But he’s actually Upside-Down Billy. You see this character everywhere. We just saw it with Spider-Man. Nick Fury is actually Mysterio for a scene. We see it in Mission Impossible. Whoever wears the masks becomes someone else. You see it in more down-to-earth narratives, like Alias. Jennifer Garner is just a regular girl to her friends. But in reality, she’s an international spy.
These characters do double-duty because one, actors love to play them, and two, the very nature of their duality provides numerous avenues for drama. For starters, every conversation they’re in has dramatic irony because they’re lying. They’re not providing the other person with the truth of who they are. And that makes any interaction interesting. These characters become even more valuable in a TV show because you don’t have the spectacle that you do in movies. Your budget-per-minute is a lot lower. So you need to look for clever ways to keep things interesting and utilizing a “Not-Who-They-Seem” character is one of the most cost-effective ways to do that.
Another thing you have to constantly be on top of in TV writing is love stories. But not love stories that are going well. Those never work. Love stories that either have the potential to happen or love stories that are happening, but have too many roadblocks to survive. In this season of Stranger Things, we have the potential romance of Steve and Robin, the potential romance of Jim and Joyce, the potential romance of Billy and the Mom. And in the one romance that’s supposedly going well – Mike and Eleven – we have Jim coming in and telling Mike to stay away from her, effectively ending their relationship. Call this what you want – but relationship management needs to be a strength of yours if you’re going to write in television.
I still struggle with Stranger Things at times. I don’t know if the Duffer Brothers just use 80s homages because they like them or because they don’t have any original ideas of their own. But like I said, this show is so watchable that whatever beef you have with it fades away the further you get into each episode. It and Black Mirror are currently the only must-watch shows on the streaming giant. I hope I still feel this way after finishing the season! What about you guys? What did you think?
[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the stream
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Our interest in each storyline will depend on the stakes of said storyline. A big reason the “Jim Hates Kissing” storyline doesn’t work is because the stakes are so low. Who cares if they kiss? I have a feeling that early drafts of this may have had them working up towards having sex but that someone stepped in and said that’s too much for these characters. If that were the case, Jim’s anxiety about the relationship would’ve been justified. But innocent kissing? There’s zero stakes attached to that.
Premise: Peter Parker goes on a European vacation with his high school class, only to run into a cool new superhero from another dimension who isn’t everything that he seems.
About: Spider-Man Far From Home has pulled in 185 million dollars since it opened on July 2nd, which I’m sure, the marketing minds at Marvel will tell us, is a record-breaking opening somehow. This marks the end of Marvel’s “Phase Three.” Little is known about Phase Four. So far we’re getting a Black Widow movie even though she just died, The Eternals, Black Panther 2, Doctor Strange 2, Guardians of the Galaxy 3, and Captain Marvel 2. Many speculate that Phase 4 includes the “Skrulls,” an alien species that are slowly and methodically taking over earth.
Writers: Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko)
Details: 2 hours 9 minutes
I have good news for screenwriters.
This is the first time I watched a Marvel movie and thought, “There isn’t a whole lot more water left in this well.” Far From Home wasn’t a bad movie. It even contained some original elements, which is getting increasingly hard to do in this genre. But I couldn’t help but notice, “I’ve seen this all before.” If that’s true, it opens up the opportunity for original ideas to shine again. And if you’re a screenwriter, that should be music to your ears.
In Spider-Man’s defense, he was put in a tough position. This movie is the house party the night after Burning Man. No matter how many kegs you have. No matter how many people show up. Everyone’s still only giving you 50%, because they gave everything to the night before. Never have the stakes felt as low in a Marvel movie as they did in Far From Home.
For those who haven’t seen the film, Peter Parker and his school class go on a trip to Europe. Since Peter is emotionally drained from saving the world and losing his de facto father, Tony Stark, he doesn’t want anything to do with Spider-Man right now, so he leaves his spidey suit behind.
Once in Venice, Italy, however, a giant water monster thing shows up and starts beating up buildings. Out of nowhere, a flying man with a fishbowl on his head battles the monster, and with Peter’s help (who fights without his costume), defeats it. Nick Fury arrives and introduces Peter to this new superhero, Mysterio, who is from a parallel earth. Mysterio says more of these monsters are coming.
Meanwhile, Peter receives a late gift from Tony Stark – his glasses! Which have a built-in OS that controls all of Stark Industries, including his weapons arsenal! Determined to remain a high school kid, Peter gives the glasses to his new best friend, Mysterio, and goes on his merry way. Once Peter’s gone, everything around Mysterio begins changing. We realize that Mysterio has been using illusions all along to trick Peter into gifting him Stark’s glasses. Now, with the power of Stark Industries behind him, Mysterio can take over the world!
Far From Home has a lot of good but also a lot of bad.
Let’s start with Mysterio. I loved this character because he calls out exactly what we’re all thinking. “Elementals?! From a parallel earth? I can’t believe any of that worked!” Mysterio is playing into the absurdity of comic book movies these days. That meta approach immediately won me over. Cause as I was watching him, I didn’t even understand his powers. He shoots green rays? What does his fishbowl head accomplish exactly?? Once we realize Mysterio feels the same way we do, it’s fun.
Far From Home also uses a powerful tool in the screenwriter’s arsenal: THE INTERRUPTION. When you’re coming up with your plot, a simple way to look at it is that you have your hero going about their life… AND THEN SOMETHING COMES ALONG AND INTERRUPTS IT. The bigger the interruption, the better. The only thing Peter wants right now is MJ. That’s his goal on this euro-trip. That gets interrupted by Mysterio.
But don’t limit your interruptions to the overarching plot. You can use interruptions anywhere! In fact, whenever things are moving along too easily, too smoothly, you should be throwing an interruption into the mix. Interruptions are a key component to making your movie feel like real life. Because when does life ever go according to plan?
Another thing Far From Home does well is inject several original set pieces into the mix. Remember what we always say. Come up with an idea that allows you to do things audiences haven’t seen before. Especially if you’re writing a big budget movie, where set pieces are the primary currency. The character of Mysterio allows the writer to throw in a bunch of scenes where we don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. Reality fades and Nick Fury becomes Mysterio. An office building becomes an empty construction site. Giant freaky images give way to gianter freakier images and, pretty soon, Peter doesn’t know which way is up. Those were scenes we hadn’t seen before in Marvel movies.
Now on to the bad.
The “blip” may be the dumbest plot choice a franchise has ever implemented. I’m talking worse than midi-cholorians. In Avengers Endgame, the superheroes go back in time to reverse Thanos’s infamous snap, bringing back all the people who disappeared (of which Peter was one). Except while everyone who comes back is the same age, everyone who remained is five years older.
Why is this relevant to this movie? Because now you have this bizarre scenario where people who were in 6th and 7th grade are now older than the people who disappeared. Peter and his friends (who all conveniently disappeared, like him) are now younger than the people they were older than. It’s so unnecessarily bizarre and weird and doesn’t make any sense at all, that I wanted to walk out of the film right then and there. Marvel made a deal with the devil. They wanted this ‘go back in time’ plot, and they screwed up the entire logic of their franchise to get it. (By the way, if you’re wondering why Peter Parker got snapped in Infinity War, it wasn’t some brave creative choice. They had no choice but to do it because if Peter wasn’t snapped, he would now be 21 and look totally different and not be in high school anymore).
I’ll give it to McKenna, though. He did the best he could. Remember when you’re writing at this level, you’re rarely coming up with the plot yourself. The plot is being handed to you and along with it, a set of problems. That’s what you’re being paid for – to problem solve, and to do it quickly. For example, they’ll say, “We need a scene that conveys the blip in an easy-to-understand way.” So McKenna comes up with an opening school news segment where two high school anchors humorously explain how the blip happened. It’s not perfect. Everyone who works in Hollywood groans at the scene. But as long as it works for the masses, that’s fine. And McKenna makes the scene funny enough that we’re not focused on scrutinizing the stupidity of it.
For the next issue, I don’t know who to blame. It could be the producers, it could be Feige, it could be the director, who knows. But one of the worst things you can do in a script is sacrifice character consistency for a joke or a scene or a plot point. In the movie’s worst sequence, the class is being bussed from Venice to Prague, and as Peter talks to Tony’s AI glasses, he inadvertently orders them to kill one of the other students. We cut to Stark’s super-satellite in space, where a killer drone emerges, flies down to the bus, forcing Peter, who all of a sudden morphs into Jar Jar Parker, to dismantle it before it kills the kid, all while keeping his identity a secret. The sequence makes Peter Parker look like the dumbest person on the planet. The faultiness of the software – that it would make such a mistake in the first place – is inconsistent with everything about Tony Stark. Not to mention, nothing about the sequence rings true.
It’s only when you take a macroscopic look at the scene that you realize why it’s in the movie. The story needed to set up the danger of these glasses – what they had access to – for us to understand what Mysterio had gotten his hands on, as well as set up the satellite’s use for later in the film. This was McKenna’s not so ingenious idea for doing so. Even before the scene happened, I was asking myself, “Why are they driving to Prague instead of flying?” It made absolutely no sense. Afterwards, however, it was clear: It would be easier to create a “Peter saves the other student from the Stark Satellite” moment on a bus than it would on a plane.
And look, I get it. Sometimes producers want scenes written in 24 hours and you do the best you can do. Still, it was moments like this that kept Far From Home from being anything other than an average Marvel movie. I’m not even sure I liked it as much as Captain Marvel. And that was the most generic Marvel movie of them all.
I don’t know if I’d ever be able to give a movie with both Tom Holland and Jake Gylenhaal a bad grade. In my happy place, the three of us are best friends and play video games all day and order In and Out from Postmates at six hour intervals. So I’m recommending this mainly on their charisma and star power alone. But if upcoming Marvel movies begin to trend in this direction, they may point back to this film and say, “That’s where it all started.”
[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: “The Power of the Interruption” – I have a scene-writing challenge for you. Two characters. Have them doing something fun. They’re in a good mood. And then INTERRUPT them with something not good. This is one of the easiest ways not just to start a movie, but to write a good scene.