Premise: In 1985, a 13 year old socially challenged boy obsesses over finding pictures of nude women while his preacher father tries to become a bishop.
About: This is Phil Johnston’s first sold script, I believe, which landed him on the 2006 Black List. Johnston would later write “Cedar Rapids,” which would make last year’s Black List and get produced earlier in the year (it stars Ed Helms). Johnston was a broadcast journalist in the Midwest who moved to New York to attend film school at Columbia. While details are sketchy, I believe this is the script that got him representation at UTA. You can also find some storyboards Johnston did for the script on this site.
Writer: Phil Johnston
Details: April 7, 2006 draft – 107 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
Last year, Cedar Rapids, Phil Johnston’s kooky tale about a straight-laced small-towner trying to survive a weekend in the “crazy” big city of Cedar Rapids, climbed its way into the Black List Top 10. The script made Johnston one of the hotter writers in town. But it actually wasn’t Johnston’s first script. In fact, it wasn’t even his first foray into the Black List. That happened back in 2006 with another script called “Jeremy Orm is a Pervert.”
I had no idea what to expect from "Orm," but I quickly found out that Johnston’s unique take on small-town America which served him so well in Cedar Rapids, was actually sculpted and framed long beforehand.
Let’s jump back to 1985 Neenah, Wisconsin. Jeremy is a 13 year old “chubby bowl-haired oddball” who’s just trying to survive junior high. He and his “unnaturally thin” best friend, Gordon Pinto, are, like most junior high boys, obsessed with seeing girls naked. Now for you younger folk, let me just tell you, it was a lot harder to do this before the internet. Jeremy and Gordon have scrapped together bits and pieces of material through the years – a possible nip-slip from a JC Penny catalogue, some naked National Geographic African women, even some naked pictures from the Holocaust – yeah, there’s some major desperation here.
But when an acquaintance from their class brings them the real deal – a Playboy – it’s like their world has been turned upside-down. These are “real” real naked women.
Jeremy would be spending all his time on nudie hoarding if he could, but he has other problems to tend to. His preacher father wants him to get in shape and is therefore obsessed with the idea of Jeremy making the basketball team, a sport Jeremy doesn’t even play. After being cut immediately, Jeremy is so afraid of his father’s reaction, he lies and tells him he made the team.
He then goes and begs the coach to allow him to play, who says he’ll let him on the team if he pays him 100 bucks a week under the table. I’m not even sure Morris Buttermaker would pull that one. It looks like Jeremy is screwed. However, after some brainstorming, he realizes that he might be able to buy Playboys from his Playboy supplier and sell them to school kids at a marked up price. He, Gordon, and Swati (a smart pushy Indian girl) throw together a business and soon he’s making just enough money to pay the coach so he can stay on the team.
In the meantime, his slightly racist fairly sexist preacher father is up for the esteemed title of Bishop, and happens to be running against a woman. Over the course of the story, when it looks like the race will be surprisingly close, he resorts to darker and slimier tactics in order to land his dream job. This include exposing her gay son to the world. But what Jeremy’s father will learn is that he has a far bigger mess to clean up with his own family, especially Jeremy, whose increasingly unsavory antics are about to blow up in his face.
The term “voice” can be thrown around a little too liberally at times. Truth be told, of all the new writers I see jumping onto the scene, it’s rare that they have a truly unique vision of the world that nobody else has. I love Source Code. But I don’t think the voice in that script is doing anything we haven’t seen before. It’s just a really well-told story.
But when you open up a Phil Johnston script, you really do feel like this guy has a unique view of the world. Each of his characters are steeped in this quirky exaggerated Midwesterness that makes them slightly different from any character you’ve read before.
He mixes that in with the contradictory nature of Midwesterners, specifically their dogged attention to morals, which they circumvent on a daily basis. Watching Jeremy’s preacher father make racist comments and tear down women, while believing he’s the perfect candidate for state bishop, is the kind of conflict Johnston loves to explore.
But what sets Johnston apart from other writers who like to write these kinds of character-based quirky movies, is that Johnston makes sure his characters have strong goals driving the story. So here, Jeremy’s dad is desperately trying to become bishop. Jeremy is desperately trying to stay on the basketball team so as not to upset his dad. Those two goals keep the story focused, and that can’t be stressed enough. Character based stories that fall off the rails fall off because the characters have flimsy goals with no stakes. This may be a small story but the characters’ goals feel big because they’re so obsessed with them.
If “Orm” has a problem, it’s when its characters skew a little too broad. The basketball coach here is a Nazi-sympathizing German. I felt we’d gone a little too far into left field (and maybe even into the bleachers) on that one, and in the process took some of the edge off Jeremy’s goal. There’s also a deaf-mute assistant coach who speaks in sounds that would’ve worked great in a movie like Airplane. But here it was just a little too weird and “out there.”
In the end, however, this is really solid writing. Since a unique voice is so rare to find these days, when one emerges, it’s impossible to ignore. And I haven’t read anything like either of Johnston’s scripts. I don’t think this is quite as good as Cedar Rapids, which was a little bigger and a little more fun, but it’s still a very deserving script.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I’ll be honest, I don’t know all the qualities that make up a “unique voice,” but I know that the dominant quality is how a writer sees the world. If you see the world just like everyone else, then there’s probably not a whole lot of uniqueness to your script. But if you see people differently, situations differently, objects differently, theories differently, chances are people will recognize you as having a unique voice. One of the reasons Tim Burton is so successful is that he sees the world differently from everyone else. You can tell that by watching any of his movies. When you read The Voices or Mixtape, you feel like they see the world differently. This is by no means the only way to get your script noticed, but it is one of the more established ways.