Have we just found the next Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind? Be prepared for a screenplay experience that’ll warp your mind 16 ways to Sunday.
Premise: After an unplanned night of drinking, a man wakes up to realize he’s stuck in a movie.
About: This script finished on the 2009 Black List. The writer, Sam Esmail, had a previously well received script on the 2008 Black List called, Sequels, Remakes, and Adaptations,” which I reviewed here.
Writer: Sam Esmail.
Details: 111 pages - undated (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).
Ben Stiller for Norm?
I was really excited to read this. Sam Esmail is one of those writers who’s never going to give you what you expect. And in a profession where you can practically guarantee the expected, that’s an unexpected surprise.
The thing with these Charlie Kaufman’esque writers, though, is that sometimes their writing can be TOO unique. Sometimes they can take TOO many chances, and in the process lose their story.
Look no further than Charlie Kaufman's own latest screenplay, Frank or Francis. There's no doubt that there was some great stuff there, but it pushed against the grain so severely that eventually it just lost itself. So I was interested in what Sam would do with this idea.
The movie starts off with Norm Goldworm, a decidedly average 30 something with no friends and no life to speak of. Adding salt to the wound, he's deeply in love with a woman named Sally, who has no idea of his true feelings. So he’s decided that tonight, on his birthday, he’s going to invite her out and tell her the truth.
So he goes to the bar but it turns out Sally stands him up. As a result, he gets wasted and starts chatting up a strange woman who refuses to acknowledge his existence. This results in him drinking more, and he ends up getting SO drunk that he passes out right there at the bar.
When he wakes up, he immediately notices something is off. There's an orchestra-like tune playing in the background and instead of walking from room to room, he just starts appearing in them, like entire seconds have been skipped.
This jumping gets more severe as he goes to work. All of a sudden he'll be – BAM – inside a crowd of walking New Yorkers then – BAM – inside his office at work. It's almost like all of the boring parts of his routine are being cut out. And Norm is freaking out about it!
In addition to this, everybody he bumps into is either acting overly-dramatic or really clever. Nobody is acting normal. So he seeks out the one person who’s kind of his friend, the embarrassingly overweight Reynold, who spends most of his days in his pigsty of an apartment watching 90s teen flicks like Bring It On and Can't Hardly Wait. After some extensive discussion with Reynold, it becomes clear to both of them what’s happened. Norm is stuck in a PG-13 movie.
While Norm thinks this is a disaster, Reynold thinks it's great. Norm spends his entire life miserable, but now he only has to live the good parts. Instead of being the boring him, he can be the interesting him, the MOVIE him. And since a movie has to end in two hours, he only has to hang around for another 90 minutes before it’s over and he can go back to his normal life.
So Norm decides to do what he was originally going to do anyway, go tell Sally he loves her. But when he finds her, he also finds out she's getting married to some guy named Tom, who of course he's never heard of before this moment. So Norm professes his love for her, causing her to realize that she loves him to, and the two make love like they've been waiting for it their entire lives (but of course, because it's a movie, Norm misses the sex, only jumping to afterwards!).
When Norm finally decides to reveal to Sally that the both of them are living in a movie, she freaks out, tells him to leave, and recommits to marrying Tom THIS WEEKEND! But that's when the real bomb is dropped. Norm and Reynold realize that when the movie is over, they don't go back to their normal lives, they DIE! Which means they only have an hour left to figure out how to get out of this.
This script was bold.
I mean it took some real chances and just about every one of them paid off. First of all, the script was extremely clever. I kind of feel sorry for this Friday's amateur effort, Soundtrack, because it tackles some of the same subject matter, and doesn’t explore it nearly as extensively and inventively as Norm The Movie does.
I loved how when Norm was first getting used to the jump-cutting, he would jolt as if being transported into a different world. I loved how when he's finally going to have sex with the girl of his dreams, he skips to after the sex is over – missing it! I loved Norm discovering a note on his door from Sally and then Sally's voice reading it, and then him jumping and looking around frantically for Sally, but not finding her, then looking at the note again, and hearing Sally read it again, then jumping up and looking for Sally again, only to eventually realize that it’s a voice over of her voice reading the note. I love how the goal of our hero is to NOT end up at the wedding and TO NOT end up with Sally, so that the movie doesn’t end and he can keep on living. What a perfect way to exploit this premise.
I loved the idea of him discovering a beautiful extra, someone whose only job it was to sit around an office all day typing, then pulling her into his adventure. I loved watching this one-dimensional character being forced to become three-dimensional. I mean if you're a screenwriter and you don't love all these little nods to screenwriting, I don't see how you can like screenwriting. It’s borderline brilliant at times.
One of my newer beliefs is that if you want to make a comedy stand the test of time, you need to add *some* darkness. And this script definitely has darkness. They realize that at the end of the movie they’re going to die. There's a running commentary about the parallels between real life and movies where people only have certain purposes and how most of them aren't allowed to move outside of those designated purposes, leading to an unfulfilled life. That part of the script really rang true and it’s a testament to Esmail not being afraid to explore the suckier aspects of this situation, much like Groundhog Day did.
The only issue this script runs into is that it's similar to two very popular movies, The Truman Show and Stranger Than Fiction. It even, at one point, references The Truman Show, which I thought was a weird choice because you never want to bring up the movie you’re borrowing so heavily from. For that reason, people may be scared to make it. But here's the thing. This is a better script than either of those scripts. And I know that The Truman Show is considered to be one of the greatest scripts of all time and that a lot was changed when Jim Carrey came on, but I just feel like the imagination and the cleverness here exceed what was done in either of those movies. The question is whether the powers that be care or not. Are they willing to make a movie this similar?
Still, if you liked Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Groundhog Day, The Truman Show, or Stranger Than Fiction, you’re guaranteed to like this screenplay. It's as good an example as I’ve ever seen of mining a high concept premise. It’s just really well done.
[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: “Can I come up with something better than this?” - From every scene you write to every line of dialogue you write to every character you write, you need to ask yourself the question “Can I come up with something better than this?” And if your no-bullshit 100 percent real answer is, “No, I can’t. This is the best I can do.” Then great. Keep it. But if the answer is yes, then rewrite it. Because I'll tell you, from my end, I don't have time for somebody's “just good enough.” That's all I read all day is “Just good enough.” Scenes, characters, ideas, dialogue. They’re all just OKAY. It’s as if the writer wants to be commended for simply coming up with a movie that makes sense from start to finish. The scripts that always stand out are the ones where a writer has clearly gone beyond the call of duty and kept pushing themselves until they came up with the absolute best they could in every single element of their screenplay. I think this is a screenplay that demonstrates that. And I'm hoping that all of you will treat your screenplays the same.