Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Genre: Ghost Story/Light Horror
Premise: After a young man is killed in an apartment building, he becomes a ghost, and must save his family from the same fate.
About: Erik Kripke sold Haunted to Warner Brothers earlier this year and the plan is for him to direct the film as well. Kripke is best known as the creator of the TV show “Supernatural” (also produced at Warner Brothers). Born in Ohio, Kripke graduated from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 1996. His first big writing credit was 2005’s “Boogeyman” but he actually had some success many years earlier, in 1997, with his film Truly Committed, which won the Audience Award at Slamdance. Wow, that’s pretty impressive. Having a film at Slamdance the year after you graduate college. It’s also a reminder of how much work and perseverance is required in this business, as he had to wait another 8 years before his first major credit was produced.
Writer: Eric Kripke
Details: 102 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).

I hope you’re not easily SPOOKED. Because today’s entry is verrrrrryyyyyy spoooooooky. Okay, I’m lying. It’s not spooky at all. But it is an example of a high concept premise that’s executed just well enough to sell to a major studio. A lot of people ask me about that actually. They say, “Carson, you tell us we have to write a perfect screenplay in order to sell. So why do I see all these decent-but-not-great screenplays selling?”

Because of one simple factor. The more high concept/marketable your premise is, the less impressive your execution has to be. That’s because producers have TONS of writers in their rolodex that they know can fix a script. So if they come across an awesome premise but the characters suck, they have a writer in waiting who’s awesome with character that’ll clean it up. But the less marketable your premise is (aka the less it looks like your movie would actually make money), the more impressive the execution has to be to make up for it. And even then, you’re probably just going to become one of those writers that producers call to help fix a script as opposed to one of the writers who actually sell a script. High concept/marketable premises people. Probably the most important factor in your script selling.

Anyway, on to today’s script, Haunted.

Detroit. The happiest place on earth! Errr, not exactly. And especially not exactly at The Rossmore, the apartment complex where our story takes place. It’s here where teenager Max Maitland moves in with his family. Max’s family has money issues, and truth is they’d rather be anywhere but here. But since beggars can’t be choosers, it’s here they will be. And almost immediately, they hate it. Not only is it dingy and depressing. But it’s also kind of…spoooooooky.

It isn’t long before we figure out why. It turns out numerous people have been murdered in this complex, a few of them right here in their apartment. And at the end of the first act, poor Max becomes one of the victims. Yes, our lead character is MURDERED. We later find out he’s been offed by the evil Caleb Grady, a spirit who committed suicide many years ago, blowing his entire jaw off with a shotgun. He now roams the complex, looking for opportunities to eliminate new victims.

After the shock of being a ghost wears off, Max befriends some of the other ghosts in the building, which include a man hanging in the lobby, a girl drowned in a bathtub, and a cute teenage girl named Christina whose fashion sense tells us she probably wasn’t born in this century, or the previous one for that matter. Christina and Max become fast friends, and she helps him with his transition into a ghost, giving him the lay of the land and how Ghostville at the Rossmore works.

Eventually, Max realizes that Caleb Grady is targeting his family for his next kill, and he has to figure out a way to get them out of the complex before it’s too late. But how do you get someone out if they can’t see you? Why, you learn to “haunt” of course. So Max goes through a crash-course in haunting with the other ghosts in a desperate attempt to save his fam. But it might be too late. Grady is already on the prowl.

Haunted is a light haunted house movie that packs just enough of a punch to keep you interested. The twist of having the main character be a ghost was an interesting one, and made for a story you’ve never seen told this way before. I think the biggest issue I had with it was its tone. There were many times where it felt like this script wanted to go DARK, into The Ring and Sixth Sense territory, but would then pull back into PG territory. I’m not even sure what movie I’d compare it to. Some have said Beetlejuice, but it’s been awhile since I saw that film so I couldn’t tell you. Personally, I would lean towards making this darker, but I concede younger audiences may enjoy the “safer” feel of the film.

Despite the subject matter being light, Kripke does a pretty good job exploring the relationship between Max and his father. I liked this idea that his father never listened to him when he was alive, and that ironically, only now when he’s dead, is he truly able to hear him. The problem was Max died so early that the relationship never had time to establish itself. Just as I was getting a feel for the two, Max was murdered. I would’ve liked just a little more setup there.

I also caught Kripke using a little writing trick that a lot of good writers utilize. Use your action description to slip in reminders of your character’s flaws, fears, and weaknesses. After one of the ghosts points out how lonely a lot of the ghosts here are, Kripke writes: “CLOSE ON MAX. Thoughtful. If there’s one thing he understands... it’s loneliness.” Sure, it’s a little bit of a cheat. But sometimes you have to hold the reader’s hand and let them know what it is your character is feeling/fearing. If that can be done in little asides like this, why not take advantage of it?

Throughout the script, I was going back and forth on what I would rate it. It was simply too safe of an execution to get revved up about. But then a nice little twist appears near the end that I never expected (no, it’s not a “Sixth Sense” like twist) that spins the story in a different direction. That twist saved this script in my eyes and made it worth the read. I have to hand it to Kripke. I did not see that coming at all.

So this was good. And I think most people will agree. In fact, everybody I know who’s read it so far has liked it.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: As a testament to writers who have discovered the importance of theme in their work, Kripke looks back at his approach to his show “Supernatural” now as opposed to when he started: "When we started out, we were going to make a horror movie every week. It was about the monsters, and it was about Hook Man and Bloody Mary and the urban legends and the boys, honestly, in the beginning, Sam and Dean, were an engine to get us in and out of different horror movies every week. [Now] for me, the story is about, 'Can the strength of family overcome destiny and fate, and can family save the world?' If I had a worldview, and I don't know if I do, but if I did, it's one that's intensely humanistic. [That worldview] is that the only thing that matters is family and personal connection, and that's the only thing that gives life meaning. Religion and gods and beliefs -- for me, it all comes down to your brother. And your brother might be the brother in your family, or it might be the guy next to you in the foxhole -- it's about human connections.” This is the kind of THEMATIC approach that tends to resonate with audiences, that makes your story more than just a forgettable 2 hour slice of entertainment. You can see that in how Kripke explores the relationship between father and son here. You may argue whether he succeeds or not. But it’s certainly a better approach than seeing how many scares or “cool kills” you can pack into 90 minutes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Devil's Punchbowl

Genre: Thriller/Drama
Premise: A man inherits a huge piece of land in Montana only to learn that it comes with an enormous price: a longstanding blood feud with the neighbors.
About: This is a 2011 Blood List script that will go into production later this year. Adam Wingard will direct (Pop Skull, A Horrible Way To Die). This is what he had to say after reading the script: "I was instantly attracted to the authentic 70's style grittiness and the Terrence Malick/Sam Peckinpah feel of the script. It's got this sweeping scope that takes you in, lifting you up as it explores the beauty and mystery of nature, and then tears it all apart with sheer brutality and violence.”
Writers: Alex and Max Schenker
Details: 102 pages – August 1, 2011 draft (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).

I don’t know what I was expecting when I picked this one up, but it definitely wasn’t what I got. Punchbowl’s about a young man named Dylan Massey, a 24 year old slaughterhouse grunt who’s probably going to be killing cows for the rest of his life. The only light in his life is Savannah King – the beautiful woman who puts up with him. Dylan knows that Savannah’s too good for him. And he knows that the second she realizes it, she’s out the door. Which is why he wants to provide a better life for her. Unfortunately, there aren’t many opportunities for a better life in rural West Texas.

And then Dylan wins the lottery, in a manner of speaking. Dylan’s grandfather just died and in the will left him a 4500 acre estate in Montana. People don’t have 4500 acre estates anymore. That’s like owning your own country. So at first Dylan is skeptical, but is corralled into driving up there by Savannah, his best friend Garrett, and Garret’s girlfriend Isabella.

The place is GORGEOUS. It’s like what the pioneers must have seen when they first travelled across America. And it’s all Dylan’s. He immediately asks Garrett to move up and work with him. They’ll be millionaires, living the life they always dreamed of. The girls are just as excited. It’s all like a dream come true.

Heh heh heh. Or so they think.

Our group gets the first hint that something’s wrong when they head into town. Everybody there is just NOT friendly. Lots of glaring. Lots of avoiding. They eventually run into the Sheriff, who tells them what’s up. There’s been a generations-old feud going on between the Masseys and their neighbors, the Shores. Dozens of Masseys and dozen Shores have been killed over the years. And word on the street is that Dylan’s next.

It’s not surprising then that they get home to see the words “Go away” on their front porch written in pig blood. Everybody’s freaking out, wondering if they should leave. But you don’t voluntarily wake up from a dream. You sleep for as long as you can.

So Dylan gets this crazy idea that he’s going to end the feud. He saunters over to Fallon Shore’s place, the most evil man you can imagine, and says he wants to talk. He’ll agree to give Fallon a few hundred acres if he ends the feud. Fallon wants to know if the acres include a water stream (known as “The Devil’s Punchbowl” because of how much blood has been shed over it). Dylan says “no” and Fallon says he’s sorry, but that means the feud is on. And boy is it ever. That night, these men are going to give a whole new meaning to the word “Hell.”

Man, this was a weird one. It was weird good for the most part, but for everything the Schenker brothers did right, they seemed to drop the ball on something else. The biggest issue with the screenplay for me was how abruptly it ended. So much time is put into the setup here that when we finally got to the actual feud, there were only 30 pages left, and that wasn’t NEARLY enough to tell the story. This is the kind of story that needs time to breath, and it would’ve had that time had it gotten to its story sooner.

This is why you always hear the advice: “Move your story along quickly.” Especially the setup. And especially in a movie like this where the central plot is 1500 miles from where the story begins. We needed to get to Montana sooner, establish the danger sooner, and then we could’ve worked our way through a few escalating skirmishes before we got to the big battle. As it stood, all we had was the big battle, which was sort of like being fed the main course without the drinks, bread, and salad. I kept thinking, “But we don’t even know the Shores yet. We’ve had like, two scenes with them. I’m not ready for a final confrontation.”

Another misguided choice was giving Dylan and Isabella (Garret’s girlfriend) a secret romance. Sometimes we can get so obsessed with adding conflict, that we add it even when the script doesn’t need it. Sure, a Dylan and Isabella affair created conflict and some dramatic irony, but it ultimately had nothing to do with the plot. It was only there to be there. And since the conflict between the families was SO intense, adding a silly affair plot almost seemed annoying, like something we have to put up with in order to get to the good stuff. I’m not saying to never add conflict between the group in movies like this, but if you force it, we’re going to notice, and that’ll kill our suspension of disbelief.

On the plus side there’s something very authentic about the details in this script. I FELT like I was in Texas. I FELT like I was in Montana. I felt like these characters were real people. And on top of that, these brothers can write. There were some great moments in Punchbowl. There’s a creepy scene where a townie approaches Savannah at the grocery store, starts massaging her pregnant belly, and asks her what it’s like to have the devil inside of her (a Massey). There’s also a great dinner scene where Dylan invites the Shores over for a truce talk that is just laced with tension. That’s when Punch Bowl was at its best. That’s where this script really shined.

And boy is Fallon a GREAT bad guy. You work so hard to create memorable villains in your screenplays yet so many of them come off as sloppy copycats of much better villains of past films. Fallon is just a nasty man. But more importantly, you believe in him. And you hate him. And you want to see him go down. If you can create a villain that gets to the audience THAT much, you’ve taken care of 60% of your movie. Just that NEED to see him burn, to breathe his last breath, can power an audience’s interest.

But ultimately this script is a mixed bag. It alienates you at the same time that it pulls you in. For example, there was all this senseless animal violence. And the feud itself was too vague. I mean we’re told that the town is split in its support for the families. But we never meet anybody who supports the Masseys. And then of course, there’s this sudden ending, where it feels like someone accidentally skipped 15 chapters on the DVD and threw us into the final climax. I wanted to see more of a build up there. I wanted to see more conflict between the families. Besides all that though, this is too interesting not to recommend.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Whenever you have a story that has your hero(es) moving to a new town, you want to get to that town as SOON as possible. That’s because in addition to setting up your character’s CURRENT life, you’re going to have to set up their NEW life (and their new town). That’s two consecutive setup sequences, which is a lot of screenplay real estate. This is why you see most “new town” screenplays STARTING with the characters arriving in the new town. The Karate Kid for example (I know, I know, completely different movie) – we start with them arriving in California. Now in this case, the Schenkers wanted to establish the characters’ shitty lives before they got lucky, which is a choice I support. But we don’t get to Montana until page 35. That’s WAAAAAAY too long. We should be there AT THE LATEST by page 25, and preferably by page 20. Montana is where the meat of the story is so that’s where we need to be.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Shotgun Wedding

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Premise: After 10 years of waiting for her boyfriend to propose, Sam has had enough. She grabs her shotgun, points it at her deadbeat other half, and threatens him that if he doesn’t marry her today, she’s going to kill him.
About: This script finished on the lower half of the 2006 Black List. It should be noted that this is a first draft, however it is the draft that got Shotgun Wedding on the list with 6 votes. The writer, Zehnal, has seemed to focus most of her career on TV and is still looking for that breakthrough career hit. She wrote an episode of 2002’s That 80s Show, and recently worked on the 2010 show, “True Jackson, VP.”  EDIT: One of the commenters pointed out that a newer version of this script sold to Dreamworks a couple of years ago.
Writer: Tiffany Zehnal
Details: May 22, 2006 – First Draft (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).

The best way I know how to express my opinion on Shotgun Wedding is: I don’t get it. I don’t understand this type of writing. And the question I keep asking myself is, “Is this a gender thing?” Rom Com Girl. If you’re out there, can you help me with this? This premise just hits me as ridiculous. A woman forces her husband, at gunpoint, to drive to Las Vegas and marry her? As a scene? A SINGLE SCENE?? I could see that working. I was actually laughing when Sam first pointed the gun at Wyatt. But as time went on, I realized that this wasn’t going to be one scene. IT WAS GOING TO BE AN ENTIRE MOVIE!

I checked out right there. I mean I kept reading, but from that point on I felt like I was the one who had the gun pointed at me. Comedy is a weird beast, as we’ve discussed before. One person’s “funny” is another person’s “stupid.” But regardless of taste, I don’t get these premises where the central conceit is so far removed from reality that there’s no way to identify with the situation at all. Sure, a lot of crazy shit happens in The Hangover, but it’s based around a situation that we’re all familiar with – having a crazy night out where we don’t remember anything. In what bizarre pseudo-universe is anybody going to make someone marry them at gunpoint???

Help me out ladies. What is it about this premise that you like? Is it the wish-fulfillment thing, like Horrible Bosses? Where you wish you could put a gun to your man’s head and force him to do what he’s too much of a wimp to do? I suppose that makes some sense. I did like Horrible Bosses. But I am so far removed from understanding what that must feel like that there’s no way for me to identify or care about this situation at all. And even if I’m going to make that conceit, I still think this is a one-scene premise stretched out to two hours. So with that “ring”ing endorsement, let’s get to the review!

34 year-old Sam has been with her boyfriend Wyatt for ten years and she’s STILL waiting for him to pop the question. But since Wyatt’s a Neanderthal loser, he plans on enjoying his freedom for as long as he can get away with it. Well he’s gotten away with it long enough. On their tenth anniversary, when all signs are pointing towards Wyatt asking her for her hand in marriage, he instead offers Sam a brand new water filtration system!

Well that’s enough for Sam. She grabs her shotgun, points it at her boyfriend’s face, and says to get dressed. We’re going to Vegas to get married.

The script then spends a lot of time trying to come up with stuff to fill in the time before the wedding. We get a lot of flashbacks, for example, of Sam watching much less deserving women get proposed to a lot sooner than she did.

On the road, she calls and alerts her friends and family that she’s tying the knot. But they’re not letting her get away that easy. They want to come to the wedding! So all of a sudden everyone’s planning an impromptu Vegas vacation to see Sam and Wyatt exchange vows. There’s only one problem. Wyatt doesn’t WANT to get married. And he’s using every single argument he can think of to escape this nightmare.

The hijinx continue when Sam realizes they don’t have a ring so she stops off to rob a jewelry store. Now the cops are after them too. They end up running out of gas of course, and some studly trucker picks them up and she pleads her shotgun wedding case to him. We get a scene where Wyatt accidentally shoots Sam’s foot. There’s even a scene where she has to logistically figure out how to let Wyatt go to the bathroom in privacy without him escaping!

Ah but escape he does eventually, and in a random development, Sam befriends some waitress at a diner and then it becomes the Laverne and Shirley show circa 2011! So now she’s got to avoid the authorities, find her “fiance,” find her ring, and find her wedding dress (both of which have been lost along the way) all in time for her big wedding in Vegas. Will she do it? Can she pull off a miracle and actually become a wife after all this?

Oh boy. Okay. Let’s see. Besides everything I mentioned above, this concept has a major flaw in it. We’re not rooting for Sam to succeed! All of us think Wyatt is a moron. He’s not worthy of being with Sam Kenison, much less this Sam, so the whole time we’re like, “Uhhh, okay. Why do we care if this plan succeeds or not?” If we’re not rooting for the main character to succeed, your script has all sorts of obstacles to overcome. I mean that’s one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting.

Also, if the guy our heroine is going after is a moron, then by association, your heroine is a moron too. More than a few audience members are going to be thinking, “Why the hell is she with this loser? She must be a loser herself.” I mean you’re ultimately responsible for your own choices. And if you’re still with a guy who won’t commit to you after ten years, it’s a lot more your fault than it is his. So now I don’t like the main character. I don’t care if she succeeds at her goal. How does a screenplay recover from that?

On top of all this, you also have the issue that the modern woman (or at least the ones who read this site) absolutely hates this kind of setup, where a woman’s entire state of happiness is dependent on getting a man. This actually isn’t something that bothers me because I see variations of it in my everyday life all the time. So I think it’s ripe to make fun of. But I know a lot of women hate this. So now you’ve alienated a big portion of the very demographic you’re targeting.

Was there anything good here? I mean I smiled a couple of times. But it’s hard to get on board with a faulty premise with a character you don’t like who’s trying to do something you don’t care about. The opening is cute. And Zehnal is actually a good on-the-page writer (I loved the opening description of their town – “The kind of town where people get by and then die.”). But I don’t think any writer could’ve made this work. The premise is too faulty.

[x] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Beware the deceptively enticing but ultimately thin premise! The premise that sounds good in a room, but doesn’t have a chance at being fleshed out into an entire movie. I can see the pitch now: “What about a LITERAL shotgun wedding??! Where a woman forces her boyfriend to marry her at gunpoint?” I’d probably laugh at that if I were in the room. But then you start mapping out the story and realize it’s good for about 20 pages and that’s it. I mean how do you expand that premise into 100 pages? There’s just no way. And the number of fluffy scenes in Shotgun Wedding is proof positive of that. Make sure your premise is big enough to handle an entire film!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Article - The 3-5 Year Plan

So a couple weeks ago I stirred up some emotions when I came up with the 6 month plan for selling a screenplay. I think my article was somewhat misinterpreted. I wasn’t saying that selling a script was EASY - that all you had to do was follow these steps and VOILA – 500 thousand dollars magically appears in your bank account. I was merely saying that if you ONLY HAD SIX MONTHS to sell a script, and didn’t have any (or very few) contacts, that the route that gave you the best chance to do so was that one. And I still believe that. I’m open to hearing alternatives, but so far no one’s given me something better.

Also, since the article, I’ve gotten a few e-mails telling me that e-mail is a better way to pitch your script than a phone call. The reason being that phone calls take time and if you’re not important, busy assistant types are likely to hurry you off the phone. With e-mails, they can check them whenever, which is easier for them. That actually makes sense so if that’s the way you want to go, go for it. Just remember that if you do go that route, make sure you've followed RULE #1 (pick a great concept!) from last week’s article. Because chances are that’s the only thing they’re going to read in your e-mail. And if you want that logline to be as powerful as humanly possible, then be sure to check out my logline article.

Okay, now let’s get down to business. Last week we talked about the 6 month plan. That’s fine and dandy if you only have six months. But a more realistic plan for selling a script and becoming a professional screenwriter is 3-5 years. You know how doctors and lawyers spend 4 years of 50 hour weeks to get their degree? It’s no different for you. You have to study this craft religiously if you want to be great at it. With that in mind, onto the plan.


DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB - Not yet at least. You need to start saving money. You’re going to need it later when you either visit or, preferably, MOVE to Los Angeles. Save as much money as you can. Stop spending it on stupid stuff like Angry Birds Seasons. Every buck counts. You can live on In and Out Burger for 8 bucks a day. The more money you save, the more Double-Doubles you can buy!

READ - Start reading scripts. As many as you can. The more you can get your hands on, the more you should read. Not just the pro scripts, but the amateur scripts as well (which you can get over at Simply Scripts). Nothing has taught me more about screenwriting than reading screenplays. At the VERY MINIMUM, read 2 a week. But if you can read up to one a day, do it. And don’t tell me you don’t have the time. Sheldon Turner still reads a screenplay a day and he’s one of the busiest screenwriters in the business.

FIRST SCRIPT - Write your first script. Write about anything you want. Something personal and non-commercial even. Why? Because you’re not going to show it to anyone. Just write and have fun. Enjoy the process. Enjoy figuring things out. If you write 4 pages a day, you’ll be finished in less than a month. Resist the temptation to show it to friends because you think you’re the exception to the rule who’s written a genius script your first time out. Those friends will always secretly think you’re a terrible writer and feel sorry for you whenever you bring your writing up. You only get one chance to make a first impression.

ONLINE RESEARCH - Start trolling the Done Deal message boards as well as the Scriptshadow archives. Read the popular posts, the popular topics debated. Read the comments sections as well. There are some great commenters here at Scriptshadow, guys and gals who know more than I do about screenwriting. Learn who they are, who’s respected, and take their lessons to heart. They’re usually right. Reach out to those people (reach out to anyone you like). Get to know them. Get to know as many screenwriters as you can! This is a lonely profession and it’s a lot easier when you have someone you can e-mail or call when you hit a rough patch. You’ll also need these people for script feedback and to trade contact info with later.

SECOND SCRIPT – Write your second script. As much as you want to, you’re still not going to show it to anyone. It will be better than your first script, but it will still be bad. You won’t think so but that’s only because you don’t know what you’re doing wrong yet. If you did, you wouldn’t have done it wrong. Take a little more time with this one. 2 pages a day so you can think about what you’re doing. See if you can’t apply some of things you’ve been learning from reading all those scripts. Afterwards, take a week off and come back to it. Assess the slow parts, the parts you don’t like, then come up with a plan to fix those problems. This will be your first rewrite. You’re now officially a part of the club.


BOOKS – It’s time to read some screenwriting books. All of the big ones. Save The Cat, Story, The Sequence Approach, 500 Ways To Beat The Script Reader. Read’em all. Some of the big ones you can get for free at your local library. Think of screenwriting as a language. You may be able to pick up a language by being around others who speak it, but if you want to sound intelligent, if you want to be fluent, you’ll need to study that language, and these books are your professors. Learn the three act structure. Learn how to set up a story, how to build a second act, how to develop characters. Find an author who speaks to you and build your approach around his advice.

THIRD SCRIPT – Now it’s time to get serious. You need to start thinking about your concept (check the Six Month article for how to do so). If you have loads of talent, selling your third script isn’t unthinkable. But you won’t have a shot unless you pick a marketable concept. You’re also going to be outlining for the first time. The books should have taught you how to do this. Just remember, the first time someone starts outlining and structuring, they tend to overdo it, making everything in the script feel TOO structured. Apply these “rules,” but not overtly. You still want the story to feel natural. Rewrite the script a few times. Rewriting is what’s going to turn a good idea into a good script.

GIVE TO FRIENDS – Okay, time for some feedback. Send your script out to friends, family members, and screenwriting buddies you met on the internet. If any of those internet friends ask you to send a naked picture along with the script, de-friend them immediately. Unless that’s exactly what you’ve been waiting for. In that case, send away. Your friends will lie to you. They will tell you your script is much better than it is. That’s okay. You need to ease your way into feedback. It’s not easy hearing someone’s flippant reaction to something you slaved over for 3 months. Rank your friends/family’s enthusiasm for your script on a scale from 1-10. Whatever it is, subtract 4. That’s their real reaction.

CONTESTS – Pick 3 or 4 contests (Nicholl, Bluecat, Austin, Zoetrope, Page, TrackingB, etc.) and send your script into them. Don’t expect to win. You won’t. But if you’re on the right track, your script should at least place in one of these contests. Use the inspiration to motivate you for your next script.

KEEP READING – You need to keep reading as many scripts as possible. You won’t have a lot of time because you’ll be writing, but try to get in at least 2 a week if possible. It’s not hard guys. At the end of the day, instead of watching your fifth favorite TV show, read a script.

FOURTH SCRIPT – For the love of God, test your screenplay idea ahead of time. You’re now on your fourth script, where you’re actually starting to get good. You don’t want to waste 3 months on something that has no chance of selling. Spend more time on your outlining as well. Make sure to avoid mistakes you made in previous screenplays. Substantially rewrite (I’m not talking about a polish here) the script 7-8 times. Really try to make it as good as it can possibly be.

FRIENDS AND CONTESTS – Follow the same pattern. Give it to friends. Ask them to be harsher in their feedback. I find that the more scripts you swap with friends, the more honest they get, because they’re more comfortable with you. So it might actually seem like you’re getting worse, since they’ll be more critical. But the reality is they thought your previous scripts were awful and didn’t tell you. So don’t worry. You’re improving. Send your script out to contests. Try to place. Don’t worry if you don’t. It’s only your fourth script.

MONTHS 13 – 24 (YEAR 2)

CONTINUE THIS PROCESS – Your goal for the second year should be 3-4 scripts, depending on how much time you have. Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep studying. Keep exchanging with friends. Keep entering contests. They’ll keep you on a deadline. The goal here is to use every free second of your life on screenwriting. Immerse yourself in it. The quicker you learn everything, the faster you’ll improve.

START QUERYING – Once you get to your fifth or sixth script, assuming it’s a marketable premise, you can start querying. Look back at The Six Month Article to see how to do this. The difference is, you’ll be querying agents and managers in addition to producers. This is going to be an important step for you because this is the second stage of building your contacts. You already have a group of online screenwriter friends. Now you’ll be adding business contacts to that list. Now chances are, ASSUMING YOU HAVE A MARKETABLE CONCEPT, you’ll get some bites. And most of those bites will be low level agents and managers. That’s okay. You’re low level too. And just like you expect to be big time in a couple of years, so do they. So send your script along.

LUCKY – If you’re lucky, maybe someone wants to represent you. They’ll probably want to send your script out to a bunch of people. And some of those people will want to meet with you. Which means guess what? Yup. You’re flying to LA! Have fun with these meetings. It’s still unlikely that anybody’s ready to buy a complete unknown writer’s script, but that doesn’t mean you can’t set up a network for future purchases. Be excited. Have a few pitches ready for these meetings. Industry folk always want to know what you’re working on next. Remember, script sales usually take time. Building relationships and trust. Getting to know people who then feed you information of what the people they work with want. If nothing comes out of the script itself, it’s still a win, because you’ve expanded your network.

UNLUCKY - Don’t worry if no one liked your script. You’re still learning. At the very least, a few of them will open the door to send your next script. So you’ve still expanded your network.

MONTHS 25-36 (YEAR 3)

IF YOU CAN, MOVE TO LA – Notice how I waited until Year 3 to have you move to LA. That’s because you’ve built up a library of scripts, and not rocketed into town with that abysmal first script you wrote (which by this time you’ll be looking back at and saying, “Thank God Carson didn’t allow me to show that piece of crap to anyone.”). Now I know some of you are saying, “Do I have to move to LA?” No, you don’t have to. But here’s why you should: You want to be able to meet people year round, whenever they read your script or hear about you or have something to discuss. Hollywood is just like any other business. It’s about relationships. And if you’re not physically there to build those relationships, people tend to lose sight of you. They move on to the next guy who IS there. Let’s say one of the producers your new manager sent your script to didn’t get to it for 3 months, a full 2 months after you left LA for that week of meetings. He wants to meet now but you’re back in Iowa. What if you and that producer had hit it off? What if he had asked you to rewrite his little horror flick? Maybe that horror flick got a surprise theatrical release and did a lot better than expected and now that producer is willing to pay you TRIPLE to work on his next movie. All of a sudden you’re a credited screenwriter with people asking for your services. Which means more people know about you. Which means more meetings. More offers. More fans. Which means more people to pitch your OWN ideas and send your OWN scripts to. Which means a REAL SHOT at selling your script! Hollywood people like to meet. I don’t understand it either but they like to see your face. They like to look you in the eyes. They like to bounce ideas off you, see if you’re a writer they can work with. If you’re 3000 miles away, you’re missing those opportunities. I’m not saying you can’t succeed if you don’t live in LA. What I’m saying is, if you CAN live in LA, do it. You’ll increase your chances of selling a script tenfold.  AND you'll get to eat at Tito's Tacos whenever you want.  Which is a HUGE plus.

IF YOU CAN’T MOVE TO LA – Don’t freak out. Technology is bringing us closer together every day. More youngsters are moving into important positions. Those guys may not mind skyping you. Or Facetiming you. And even the older folks should be okay with a phone call. It’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing. Still, if you’re getting consistent nibbles from producers and other industry people, you should plan to fly to LA 3-4 times a year and meet all those people face to face to keep those important relationships active. Building your network of people to send your scripts to is the most likely way you’re going to sell one of your own screenplays. So you have to meet these people face to face if you can.

CONTINUE PROCESS – Aim for 3 or 4 scripts this year. Keep entering those contests. Keep querying managers with your new scripts. Keep getting feedback. Keep reading screenplays. Keep reading Scriptshadow. Keep sending new screenplays to producers you have relationships with. With every new idea comes the opportunity to find someone who loves that idea.

MONTHS 37-60 (YEARS 4 AND 5)

TIME TO BREAK THROUGH - You have your pattern down by this point. You know what to do. I’d be surprised if you don’t have, at the very least, a dozen contacts by this point. But even if you don’t, don’t worry. The thing with screenwriting is you can always get better. Go back through the feedback you’ve received. Identify what you need to work on and get better at it. If your characters are forgettable, for example, go back through all those books and re-read the chapters on character. Or just read the character article on Scriptshadow! You’re bound to have an “ah-ha” moment sooner or later. And then continue that process. Write. Read. Feedback. Rewrite. Contests. Query. With every script, you’ll get better. If you’re still not getting any bites, another option is to get your script looked at by a professional analyst. These guys will tell you why your script isn’t up to snuff with the pros and what you need to do to get better. It’s expensive, but if you’ve been at it for this long, it’s an investment that might be worth it. I give notes when I have time, so you can come to me. But this isn’t about me pimping my services. There are a lot of people online who give notes and some of them are really good. Do your research and find someone you feel comfortable with. There’s nothing quite like specific quality notes on one of your screenplays.

KEEP FIGHTING – A lot of people ask me, “When do you know you’re not cut out for screenwriting? How do you know when to give up?” My answer is, “When it’s no longer fun.” If you start to hate screenwriting, you shouldn’t do it anymore. And, you know, as long as you’re still a responsible human being who’s contributing to society, you can write til you’re 90. If you’re the 45 year old guy living out of your car suffering for your art who says he’s got the next great found footage rom-com, maybe it’s time to reevaluate your life. But if you enjoy the challenge, if you enjoy what you’re doing, fucking write screenplays til you die. Who gives a shit if they never sell? You’re doing what you love and that’s all that matters.

I don’t think there’s anything more to say but get to work! :)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hey everyone.  No official post today.  I just wanted to write a big thank you to everyone who visits the site.  And an extra big thank you to those who take the time to write out all those thoughtful comments.  All of you make Scriptshadow.  Enjoy the day off and prepare for tomorrow's post, where I give you a realistic 3-5 year plan of becoming a professional screenwriter. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Lucky Dog

Genre: Indie Comedy
Premise: A couple of Canadian losers drive down to New York to try and sell Christmas Trees. Dumb and Dumber meets Sideways.
About: Melissa James Gibson is a well-known Canadian playwright. As far as I can tell, this is her first screenplay sale. Paul Giamatti and his wife are producing the film. Giamatti and Paul Rudd will be playing the lead characters. Phil Morrison is directing. Morrison is best known for the well-received 2005 film, Junebug. Strangely, he hasn’t made a film since.
Writer: Melissa James Gibson
Details: 115 pages – 3/11/11 draft (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).

The only thing I knew about this one when I started reading it was that Paul Giamatti was involved. He usually makes interesting choices so I was in. Later I discovered Paul Rudd had been cast and started wondering what the tone of the script was. Afterwards, I’m still searching for that tone. This is a weird script, starting with the premise.

Guy is a 42 year-old Quebecian who just got out of a 5 year jail stint for burglary. Guy is a thief. A lifer in the trade. Except he’s ready to end that life. Guy wants to go on the straight and narrow. So after being released, he heads home to reunite with his wife and eight year old daughter. But there’s a problem. Actually, there’s a couple of problems. His wife went ahead and told their daughter Guy had died. It was apparently too hard to tell her the truth. So Guy can’t even come into the house. He can’t meet and talk to his daughter. Which makes absolutely no sense of course. If I have a daughter who thinks I’m dead, I’m walking in and telling her I’m not. I’m sure she’ll get over it.

Anyway, that’s just the beginning. Guy tasked his old partner in crime, Rene (the one I believe got away on the job that put Guy in jail) with taking care of his wife while he was gone. Well Rene takes care of her all right. If by “taking care” you mean “has lots of sex with.” Now his wife loves Rene, and his daughter thinks of him as her father. In two words: Not good.

Well at least Rene still has all the money from their last job, right? Umm, not really. When Guy goes to collect his half of the loot that he’s been waiting 5 years for, he finds out Rene has spent it all. Nice! That leaves both of them broke. Guy wants to know how they’re going to make money – legally, but Rene isn’t being very helpful. He says he’s going down to New York to sell Christmas trees with a friend. Guy says, “Ditch the friend. You’re going with me. And we’re splitting the money.” Rene reluctantly agrees and off the two go to New York.

Once there, Guy realizes that Rene doesn’t have any of this planned out. He doesn’t even have a Lot to sell the trees on! So they start selling trees out of the back of their truck. It becomes clear that Rene is a total moron and Guy gets more impatient with him every minute because of it. Eventually, the duo start poaching on an empty lot, and things pick up. So how does this all end? Why they decide to steal a piano of course! “Huh?” You ask. “What does that have to do with a movie about selling Christmas Trees?” Beats me. Welcome to Lucky Dog.

Where to begin with Lucky Dog. Let’s start with the title, which has absolutely nothing to do with the story. That’s usually a bad sign and a harbinger of things to come. That’s followed by a nonsensical “you can’t talk to your daughter because she thinks you’re dead” sub-plot. Then, out of nowhere, the script becomes about selling Christmas trees (What does selling Christmas trees have to do with a movie about a couple of thieves?). By the midpoint I had no idea what the script was about or what was going on.

I wasn’t even sure what they were doing this for. To make money? Okay, fine. But for what? What was the ultimate goal? To make money so they could have… money? That’s not a goal. Making money for the sake of making money is never going to entertain an audience. They need a point – a REASON for wanting to make money. Somewhere near the end we learn that Rene’s going to use the money to provide for Guy’s wife and kid. Which didn’t make any sense because the whole time in New York, all Rene wanted to do was fuck other women. And I guess the reason Guy wanted the money was to buy his daughter a piano? Except we didn’t find this out until 15 pages before the ending. Strange.

Then there’s the baffling relationship between the two main characters. Rene is fucking Guy’s wife. But this isn’t a secret. Guy knows about it. Yet he never raises a stink about it. He gets annoyed every once in awhile, but all in all doesn’t seem to mind much. Here’s a scenario for you. Before you go to jail for five years, you task your best friend with watching your wife. You come back to find out he’s fucking her. Do you say anything to him or just continue your friendship like nothing happened? Apparently in this universe, you opt for the latter. That’s what was so damn strange about this script. There were so many illogical aspects about it that it was impossible to take any of it seriously.

Luckily, once they get to New York and settle in, the script FINALLY starts to find its groove. Once it became solely about selling Christmas trees, I at least understood the story. There is some funny stuff in there, such as the two believing they can sell Christmas trees on a lot that isn’t theirs.

Also, thank God for Olga, the woman who befriends Gary after buying a tree. She was the only character in the entire script who was exciting – who jumped off the page. There was an honesty and a vibrancy to her that none of the other characters had. I wondered why she was so head and shoulders above the other characters and I later found out that the script was written by a woman (I just assumed it was a man because it was a script about two guys on a road trip). Naturally, I wondered if she simply understood the female voice better, being a woman. That may sound sexist but I can’t think of any other reason why all the guy characters were muddled and she was so well defined. I actually would’ve LOVED a lot more of Olga. When she first appeared, I thought, “Thank God!” This script needed a woman – a love story. But then she disappears for the majority of the script until the strange piano theft finale.

I don’t know how to conclude this. Lucky Dog was just all over the place. The story was weird. The characters were odd. Nobody’s actions made much sense. The goal was vague. I felt like I was on a backwards merry-go-round being juggled by Godzilla. I never knew which direction was up.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Maybe you guys can help me here. I’m all for a writer being “different.” I’m all for a script making unconventional choices and constantly surprising you. In fact, I often advocate for that kind of thing. I love not knowing what’s coming next. But there seems to be a line where once you cross it, “different” becomes “confusing/frustrating.” Sure, the script is giving us something we’ve never quite seen before. Plot points are unique. Characters don’t act like we expect them to. But the combination is so off-kilter that we can’t identify with anything – we can’t find our “bearings” so to speak. And that “unique” script ends up being confusing and weird. I don’t know where that line is, I just know when it’s crossed. And here it was crossed. No matter what I did, I could never get a feel for what this script was or what it wanted to be. It was simply all over the place.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Boy Next Door

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A newly separated mother finds herself attracted to the 17 year old boy who moves in next door. But when she abruptly ends the romance, he’s not ready to give up on her.
About: The Boy Next Door was featured on this year’s Blood List. Barbara Curry is known for another highly acclaimed script titled “Talk Of The Town,” which was featured in UCLA’s prestigious Screenwriters Showcase Event. And there’s another thing about Barbara. She’s HOT! If you don’t believe me, go check out her interview here.  I am officially starting the Barbara Curry fan club. Who wants to join?
Writer: Barbara Curry
Details: 105 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).

First thing I noticed about The Boy Next Door was how tight the spacing was. Hmmmmm. Barbara? Are you trying to pull one over on us here? It looks like someone got a little scrunchy with their First Draft settings. On any other day, I’d hold it against the writer. But today I’m smitten. So I’ll let it go.

High school teacher Claire Peterson is having a rough go of it lately. She’s recently split up with her hubby and is taking care of her teenage son, Kevin, all by herself. At home things are fine but she’s got a front row seat to Kevin getting bullied at school every day. She desperately wants to do something about it but knows that butting in will probably just make it worse.

Claire’s got her own issues as well. She’s suuuuuper uptight. Her best friend Vicky, a fellow teacher, is begging her to go out and have some crazy wild animal sex so she can loosen up. But Claire’s not ready for that yet. She may have kicked her hubby to the curb, but that doesn’t mean she’s not conflicted about it.

And then everything changes. A new family moves in next door, starring model-esque 17 year old Noah Sandborn. Noah looks more like a man than a boy, and he immediately befriends Kevin, making it nearly impossible for Claire to ignore him. Pretty soon he’s chatting her up and she finds herself taken by the muscle bound youngster.

Claire is a different person around Noah. She feels sexy, desired, lustful. One thing Claire isn’t feeling though is lawful. Cause one night when she’s drunk, she takes a spin on the Noah-mobile. Noah is thrilled with this development but when Claire wakes up the next morning, she’s in damage control mode. What the HELL did she just do??? She tells Noah that she’s sorry. This was all just a mistake, and does the dart-of-shame.

Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a problem. But Noah lives right next to Claire. Noah’s best friends with her son. Noah sits front and center in one of her classes. In other words, wherever Claire goes, Noah is waiting. And he *really* wants to get back together.

Claire tries desperately to get her son to stop hanging out with Noah. But the guy’s become Kevin’s own personal bully-buster. That and there’s no perfect way to say, “Hey son. You know your best friend? I kind of had sex with him the other night. So could you ignore his texts?” I mean you thought the “birds and the bees” conversation was tough.

There’s probably a lesson to take out of all of this. Oh yeah: DON’T HAVE SEX WITH ONE OF YOUR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS. But hindsight is 20/20, and Claire’s going to need more than a lesson plan to get out of this one.

The Boy Next Door is pretty good. I don’t think it’s going to knock anybody’s welcome mat off, but for what it’s trying to be – Fatal Attraction with a twist – it does a good job.

I will say this about the script. It’s PERFECT for studying dramatic irony. Once Noah and Claire have sex, virtually every scene contains some aspect of dramatic irony. In the classroom, Noah will press Claire on a question. Since nobody in the class knows what happened between them, their exchange is dripping with dramatic tension. At home, whenever Noah, Claire, and Kevin are together, Kevin is unaware of their secret, which means that each exchanged word is laced with subtext.

In fact, this script is further proof of how effective the “add a third person to the scene” rule is. Lots of scenes become more interesting once you add a third person (or people). I mean imagine Noah and Claire having that same conversation OUTSIDE of the classroom, without the rest of the class listening. There’s no more subtext. Imagine Claire and Noah having conversations without Kevin around. Those same electric scenes become dry and boring.

And I’m going to stay on my “unresolved relationships in your second act” kick here. Notice that there are TWO unresolved relationships in the movie. The first one is obvious. Claire and Noah. But we also have one between Claire and her husband, Gary. Claire needs to come to terms with what Gary did to her and decide whether she’s going to take him back or not. Barbara could’ve added a third unresolved relationship if she wanted – that between Claire and her son, Kevin. But she chose to keep that relationship fine.

Personally, I think three unresolved relationships is the perfect amount for your second act. There are 50-60 pages in your second act which gives you about 20 pages for each - the perfect amount of time. But it all depends on HOW much is going on in each of those relationships. If you have two REALLY POWERFUL relationships that have ups and downs and breakups and reconciliations, you may not need that third relationship. It’s up to you.

Another interesting thing to note about this script is that there’s no real goal. I’ve found that in these types of thrillers (The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Single White Female) the train-wreck nature of the relationship is enough to drive the story. So there’s nothing big that Claire has to achieve here until late in the script, when she must scramble to fix what she’s broken. This is a little confusing, I know. But that’s how these movies work.

On the downside, I wasn’t a big fan of how easily Claire fell into Noah’s clutches. I mean he had her drooling from the very first conversation. Within like two scenes he’s asking her about her failed marriage and she’s chatting away like she’s at lunch with the girls. This is a 17 YEAR OLD BOY SHE’S TALKING TO! You’d think she’d show a little more restraint. At least initially.

I also thought people bumped into each other too easily in the story. It seemed like every other scene, one of our characters would magically BUMP into another one randomly. This is a little talked about area of screenwriting but an important one. You can’t just have characters bump into each other because you, the writer, need to have a scene between them. It has to be natural. You have to come up with seamless ways for them to meet. This is usually annoying work. It’s not creative and not very fun. But it pays off because it keeps your story seamless. If we become aware that the writer is manipulating the characters, the story spell is broken.

But overall, The Boy Next Door was fun and silly. A guilty pleasure of sorts. I had a good time with it and therefore recommend the read!

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: In most movie romances, you want the pursuer to have to EARN the romance. This is a MOVIE. It’s no fun when anything lands in a character’s lap. You need conflict. Doubt. That’s what makes the romance (the pursuit) interesting. Here, Claire is ready to fuck Noah from the first moment they meet. That’s not very interesting. She probably should’ve resisted him more. Noah should have had to EARN the romance. Look at Titanic. Jack doesn’t just slide up to Rose and say, “Hey girl, nice hat,” and they’re banging in the boiler room 10 minutes later. He has to STOP HER FROM COMMITTING SUICIDE. I’d say that’s earning the romance.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Genre: Comedy
Premise: Two brothers raised to believe their father died find out their mom was lying to them and doesn’t know who their father is (due to a healthy sexual appetite in the 70s). So the two set out to find him.
About: Bastards sold earlier this year to Paramount just 24 hours after being put on the market. This is Justin Malen’s second sale, the first being a script titled “Prick.” He is also working on a project titled “Trophy Husbands” for Mike Judge to direct.
Writer: Justin Malen
Details: 112 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).

Carson casting choice for Kyle (And I don't care what you think about it!)

Should I give up with comedies? Is every modern comedy script just an idea with comedic potential for Vince Vaughn to improvise in? Is there such thing as a comedy spec that’s just…I don’t know…GOOD?? It seems like even when a good spec is purchased, the studio finds a way to screw it up. Going The Distance was a hilarious comedy spec. Its biggest strength was its edgy dialogue. So what's the first thing they did once they bought it? They REWROTE ALL THE DIALOGUE! I guess when a “soft” director and huggable cast is added, the studio has no choice but to make changes but man, there’s something wrong with that process that needs to be fixed.

Anybody still with me? Have I whined you away yet? I hope not. Because guess what? Today’s comedy is actually pretty good!

Peter and Kyle are twins but couldn’t be more different. Kyle’s a cross between Keanu Reeves and Brad Pitt, while Peter’s a cross between a can of peas and a cherry pit.

Kyle doesn’t have a single identifiable skill. But an aspiring barbeque sauce maker spots him on the beach and asks him if he could use his silhouette for his sauce label. The sauce blows up, and Kyle becomes a millionaire off the royalties.

Peter, on the other hand, is a proctologist. He sticks his hand in assholes all day. But there’s actually a reason for that. You see, Peter and Kyle’s mother told them that their father died of colon cancer before they were born. Peter, then, is on a lifetime crusade to help others with the disease.

Well that’s about to change. In a twist only Meryl Streep with a bag of popcorn watching Mama Mia could’ve predicted, it turns out that their mother’s been lying to them this entire time! Dad didn’t die. She doesn’t even know who dad is! That’s because she was the world’s biggest slut back in the 70s. Their father could be one of a dozen men for all she knows.

The cool news, though, is that their mother was a REALLY GOOD SLUT. Like if they were ranking sluts, she would be at the top of the slut chain. She had sex with some really famous people, and right away the evidence points to their father being Hall of Fame quarterback Jack Tibbs! Kyle is besides himself. This is the coolest news ever! But Peter’s still thrown by the whole thing. He can’t get over the fact that his whole life has been a lie.

So they go and visit Jack, and even though they hit it off, Jack mentions just how much sex their mom had (a LOT!), and evidence points to there being more likely candidates than himself. So Kyle and Peter jetset all over the U.S., meeting their potential fathers, but can’t seem to locate “the one.” During that time, Peter finally unleashes the longstanding resentment he has for his brother, who’s lived this charmed life while he’s never had ANYTHING good happen to him. Looks like these two won’t just have to find a father. They’ll have to find each other (awwwwwww).

Let’s address the most important thing first. Bastards has a goal (find the dad) that a character DESPERATELY WANTS TO ACHIEVE (Peter wants nothing more than to find out who his father is and have a relationship with him). Since we sympathize with Peter’s earnestness and his frustration for always being second fiddle in his family, we root for him, and therefore want him to achieve his goal. All of this is set up in the first 25 pages. And when you do that well, your story writes itself. It has direction. It has purpose. The reader is never lost because he/she understands what the protagonist is trying to do. This is how to set up your story.

Bastards also nails the second act because remember what the second act is mainly about. It’s about exploring unresolved relationships between characters. And here we have a big one. Peter hates his brother’s perfect life. So that’s the relationship that needs to be fixed. But what I found unique, and really liked about Bastards, was Kyle’s role in all this. He was completely oblivious to Peter’s resentment. He loved his brother more than anything and would do anything for him. He was just clueless and naïve. So you didn’t have that cliché “both characters hate each other” thing that you see in a lot roadtrip movies. The dynamic was more subtle, and therefore unique.

Malen has also put story before comedy. I’ll be honest. I didn’t laugh a whole lot in Bastards. But I wanted to see if Peter was going to hash out his problems with Kyle and find his father. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. It’s probably THE BIGGEST MISTAKE amateur writers make when writing comedies. They don’t care about the characters or the relationships those characters have. They rationalize to themselves, “Well it’s just a fun comedy! I don’t have to create deep characters.” And then they’re surprised when nobody’s into their screenplay. Readers say, “I didn’t really connect with the characters.” And the writer screams back, “But it’s just a light comedy! It’s not supposed to be about the characters. It’s supposed to make you laugh!” We don’t laugh unless we care. And caring typically comes from giving us characters we identify with and care about. I believe this is why a lot of people had a hard time with Mrs. Satan. It wasn’t that it didn’t have funny moments. We just never cared for or identified with the main character.

Comedy-wise, Kyle is the big star here. He’s pretty funny as the clueless guy with the perfect life. He not only has a Hawaiian model wife and three perfect children. But his wife is of the belief that men have strong sexual appetites that need to be satiated and if she’s not around, he should satisfy those urges. Because that will make him happy. And if he’s happy, his wife argues, then their marriage will be better. So the whole time Kyle is feeling bad because he doesn’t want to have sex with other women but has to, which just infuriates Peter to no end.

I don’t know why but I kept imaging Keanu Reeves for the role of Kyle. He needs a good comedy role and since I’m a Keanu apologist, I’m secretly hoping that that’s the way they’ll go. Anything so this isn’t another Vince Vaughn comedy. All in all, this is one of those perfectly executed comedy specs. Malen really showed his command of the craft here. It wasn’t funny enough to get an impressive, but everything else was so sound that I’m strongly recommending it.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: A few weeks back I wrote an article about how to juice up your scenes. One of those tips was to add a THIRD PERSON to the scene. Bastards showed how to use this tool effectively. In these types of movies, you’re always going to have the scene where the characters finally blow up at each other. It’s the “You Wanna Know What Your Problem Is!” scene where each character tells the other what there big “fatal flaw” is. Because we’ve seen this scene so many times, it’s become cliché. But what Malen does here is he adds a third character – a hitchhiker they picked up – and it adds a different flavor to the fight that actually makes it funnier and a bit unique. The hitchhiker is the one that senses the tension between the brothers, instigates the fight, and then referees it. It’s a small thing but this is what screenwriting is about. Finding those little things that make scenes feel different!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Amateur Friday - Mrs. Satan

Genre: Horror-Comedy
Premise: (from writer) The most reviled teen in town has 96 hours to find her soulmate or become Satan's new bride.
About: Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted in the review (feel free to keep your identity and script title private by providing an alias and fake title). Also, it's a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so that your submission stays near the top of the pile.
Writer: Gary Rowlands
Details: 102 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).

Hey, what’s wrong with using the comments section to get me to review your script? That’s what Gary did with the help of longtime reader Poe. Of course that wasn’t the only reason I reviewed Mrs. Satan. As I’ve mentioned before, the amateur script is usually the last one I read during the week. Why? Well, because it’s usually the least goodest script I read all week. So I put it off til the last second.

I’m not the only person who does this. Most readers approach it this way. They have a stack of scripts to plow through and chances are they’re putting the amateur submissions at the bottom cause history tells them they’ll be the hardest to get through.

THIS is why industry people are constantly telling you: Low page count. Lean writing style. Thriller or a comedy. Go with things that make the read faster. You see there are “easy” reads (fun subject matter, easy to understand narrative) and there are “tough” reads (complicated period pieces, tons of characters, dramas without a clear narrative). You’re usually hitting your reader at his most tired, at his most impatient state. So you want to make the read as easy for him as possible. And all I had to do was look at the title (“Mrs. Satan”) and I knew Gary’s script would be an easy read.

True to form, there’s not that much explaining that needs to be done for Mrs. Satan’s plot. 18 year old goth-ish bully Angel (heh heh) is a great big meanie. She and her friends, Lizzie and Evelyn, spend the majority of their time playing pranks on people. In fact, the movie starts off with Angel dressed up as the Grim Reaper and walking through an old folks home, scaring the bejesus out of its inhabitants. I have to admit, it was pretty funny. My favorite part was starting on the Grim Reaper (who at this point we believe is the REAL Grim Reaper), who approaches the home dourly, reaches to grab a doorknob… and it FALLS OFF. He stares at it, pissed, and chucks it away. That’s when we realize it’s Angel.

But Angel does a lot worse than that. In fact, she fabricates an entire story about the local priest “touching” her inappropriately which sends him to jail! Which proves to be a lousy decision because the priest’s nephew, a fisherman who lives nearby, actually DIES, and his first mission as a ghost is to find the devil a bride. Doesn’t take long to decide who that’s going to be.

So the nephew starts haunting Angel, telling her that the devil’s going to make her his bride in a week. She thinks he’s joking but then sees his death reported on TV. Uh oh. This shit is for realz! After brainstorming how the hell (get it! “Hell?!”) she’s going to get out of this, she comes up with the plan of getting married. If she’s already married, Satan can’t marry her.

Problem is, everyone kind of hates Angel. And even the ones who don’t hate her aren’t keen on some psycho chick wanting to get married at the end of the first date. I mean talk about clingy!

Complicating matters is that the devil’s put a spell on Angel that’s created a really bad rash on her face, making her super ugly. This forces her to, in a last ditch effort, try to marry a blind guy. But just like the other guys, he gives her the Hellsman. I mean the Heisman (I’m on fire here!).

During all this, Angel and Marlon (the dead nephew of the priest) start to like each other and now Marlon’s not so sure he wants to help the Devil. However, the Devil isn’t too keen on that plan, and makes it clear that it’s either his way, or the highway. TO HELL!

Mrs. Satan is, indeed, an easy read. It’s got all the screenwriting staples in place (the GSU is rockin’). The goal is to find a husband before the devil makes her his bride. The urgency is she only has a week to do it. Stakes are if she doesn’t succeed, she goes to hell. Definitely something worth avoiding.

However, that knowledge only gets you through the door as far as the reader is concerned. It shows that you’ve been at this long enough to understand basic story principles. Now you have to show that you understand the nuances of storytelling – the guts that make a screenplay pop.

I think the biggest problem with Mrs. Satan is Angel’s age. Having her still be in high school feels wrong for some reason. This seems like it should be a story about a 24 or 25 year old, not an 18 year old who still goes to math class every day. “Sophistication” may be my issue. Since nobody except those kids on MTV reality shows gets married (and pregnant) at 18, it just felt like Angel was dealing with an unrealistic issue for her age group.

Another roadblock Gary battles is getting us to root for an unlikable protagonist. This is a bad person. The scaring old people sequence was kind of funny. But accusing an innocent priest of raping you? I don’t know. And that’s the challenge here. You have to make your protagonist bad enough so that she’d go to hell, but “good” enough so that we’ll like her (or at least root for her). Angel was funny enough that I was usually on her side. But she did enough bad shit in the beginning that, to be honest, I didn’t care whether she ended up in hell or not. And that’s a problem, since those are the big stakes of the movie.

Gary wisely combats this with a “save the cat” moment early on, having Angel beat up the town bully who’s picking on her younger brother, but I’m not sure she earns enough points to make up for all the other shit.

It’s also said in this business that while audiences are forgiving of unlikable male protagonists, they are NEVER okay with unlikable female protagonists. I don’t know how true that is. Bad Teacher just made boatloads of cash. But I know it’s something producers are afraid of (and when you think about it, Cameron Diaz is kind of “man-ish”).

I also had some problems with Angel’s attempts to get married. You’re a hot 18 year old girl. I think you can find someone dumb enough to marry you. So I didn’t believe she’d have so much trouble in that department (I was also unconvinced that this would really stop the Devil – I mean he is the Devil. Is a fake marriage going to stop him?).

As for everything else, I’d like to see more heart and character exploration in the script. We do get Angel changing in the end, doing all these good things for others, but it seemed tacked on. Up until that point, it was hijinx galore. I would love to know WHY Angel became this way – why she got so much happiness out of hurting others. It’s implied that her mom dying had something to do with it, but it’s all rather loosely explained. I feel this script needs to be about a girl learning to respect others and help others, and while there’s some of that here, it wasn’t enough for me to become emotionally attached to the material.

Not a bad script at all, but not enough punch to get my juices flowing.

Script link: Mrs. Satan

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I don’t know why I keep referring back to Karl’s script this week, but there’s something we were talking about there that I think is an important lesson. You can’t get hung up on one script. You have to keep writing new stuff. New scripts bring up new problems, which improves you as a writer. If you’re tackling the same old issues over and over again, you’re not getting better. This script is a great example of that. Sooner or later, you’ll write a script with an “unlikable” main character. The trials and tribulations that come along with trying to get an audience to root for an unlikable protagonist is one of the most important lessons in your education as a screenwriter. But if you never encounter it, you’ll never know how to deal with it. I think Sean was saying this yesterday as well. Keep writing new stuff guys. And if that first script really means something to you? Don’t worry. It’s not going away. You can come back to it a year from now. And you’ll be a better writer when you do.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tarsem Singh to direct Killing On Carnival Row

A lot of people seem to want to talk about this so I thought I'd throw up a post and let you discuss.  We've reviewed the script twice on the site, once by Roger, who thought the script was genius, and then I reviewed it as well.  The script is also ranked as #1 by you guys, the readers of the site. It wasn't quite my thing but I had to admit the writing was imaginative and detailed.  So what do I think of Tarsem directing the film?  Well, he has an interesting visual style that should gel well with the universe.  He hasn't had a good script to direct yet though.  This would be the best one by far.  So maybe that's all he needs to knock a film out of the park.  What do you guys think? 

Interview With Sean O'Keefe

A couple of weeks ago Sean O'Keefe sold his pitch, Riders On The Storm, to Fox for half a million dollars. The script is about a heist crew that pulls off sophisticated robberies during severe storms. I realized we don't talk about pitching very much on the site, even though it's a huge part of the business. Oftentimes, after you meet someone about your script, you'll pitch them other projects you're working on.  So I thought Sean would be the perfect person to ask, "What's this pitching thing all about?"  Sean is also currently writing a film adaptation of “Apaches” for producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney Pictures about the NYPD along with writing partner Will Staples.  Enjoy the interview.

SS: Can you tell us how you got started in screenwriting? What was your background leading up to it? Did you do anything else film-related?

SO: I grew up between two isolated worlds – a cabin in Alaska with no running water and a draconian boarding school in England. As a result movies for me were always a way of feeling connected with the outside world. My final semester in college, I decided to write a spec based on Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and some family friends hooked me up with a meeting with veteran screenwriter Jay Cocks who had worked with Scorsese on “The Age of Innocence.” Jay told me I was crazy – Hollywood would never make it – so I let the idea go. Now, of course, Alex Proyas is making a film based on the material. It’s the same lessen I’ve learned a hundred times: follow your gut no matter what because it’s all you have.

After paralegalling in New York my first year out of school and writing two painfully bad scripts on my lunch breaks, I moved out to LA and worked in development first for Neal Moritz at Original Film then Michael Ovitz at APG, the film production arm of AMG. I then co-founded a film and video game production company called Union Entertainment with Rich Leibowitz.

Around that time, my father passed away and I spent a week in ICU waiting for the inevitable to happen. It turned out to be a period of reckoning for me. I realized you only have so much time to do what you want in life, so I made the choice to return to screenwriting.

SS: When was the first time you got paid to write? How many scripts had you written before you got that first paycheck?

SO: The first time I got paid was in 2003 with my former writing partner, Will Staples. We had gone out with a Mayan period piece spec (my fifth script at that point) that didn’t sell but was well received for the writing and two weeks later Sony called up and asked if we wanted to write King Tut for Roland Emmerich. We came up with a take, Roland and the studio liked it, and the rest is ancient history…

SS: I’ll be murdered if I don’t ask this question. But how did you get your agent?

SO: I was lucky in that in my capacity as a producer and exec I had dealt directly with a number of agents and managers around town. My agent, Nicole Clemens at ICM, and my manager, Brian Lutz, were both reps who were excellent at representing their clients when I was on the other side of the table. When it came time for me to devote myself to writing again, they were the first people I reached out to.

SS: In your opinion, what’s the most difficult thing about screenwriting, and what’s the best way to tackle that difficulty?

SO: Knowing that I am writing for an audience is the hardest aspect of the process for me. The moment I look up from the page and see the faces in the proverbial crowd – studio execs, agents, managers, other writers – I feel stage fright setting in. I start to second guess myself. I wonder if I have the right character for my story or the wrong story for my character. I fall into the trap of perfectionism. The trick is to write as if you are writing purely for yourself, but it’s easier said than done. Oddly, Donald Rumsfeld had some wisdom in this arena: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want.” Eventually, you have to stop second guessing yourself and charge into battle.

SS: You’ve obviously been out there, talked to producers, have a beat on their needs. What do producers want these days? Are there some common genres they’re asking for? Do they want the “Next Twilight?” The “Next found footage” script? What are you hearing?

SO: Everybody thinks they want the thing that just performed at the box office but the truth is that they want the next great idea that walks through the door. Your job is to bring them that next great idea. I’ve never been very good at forecasting what the market wants and then tailoring my output accordingly. I run with the movie I most want to write and hope that others feel as excited about it as I do…

Disappointment, however, lurks around every corner in this process. That is why I have a personal rule of thumb, which is my ‘one in ten’ rule. That is for every ten swings at bat you connect with one ball. For every ten meetings or reads, someone connects with what you are trying to do. It’s fuzzy math, but it helps to keep your expectations in check. Not everyone is going to resonate with what you’re doing. But that’s okay – you only need one in ten to actually make real progress. Every studio passed on our Mayan epic, but one liked the writing enough to call us back in. That one call gave birth to our career.

SS: We were having this debate the other day on the site. Should an unknown writer try to break in with something heartfelt and personal to them – something that will bring out their best writing? Or should they write something high concept and marketable, even though they won’t be as emotionally attached to the writing?

SO: Stick with the cliché of writing what’s in your heart. It’s a cliché for a reason. But if it’s a big summer action movie that’s in your heart, then consider yourself lucky.

SS: If you could go back in time and give your younger screenwriter self some advice on how to get to the professional level faster, what would you tell him?

SO: Four things…

Write as much as you can. It’s all about clocking the hours and getting words on the page. In the Gladwellian sense you need to get in your 10,000 hours, so the sooner the better.

Write, rewrite, then move on. Don’t get stuck trying to overly perfect a script in the beginning. You will learn more from cracking a new story than you will from debating where to place your commas.

Avoid the Freshman Writer Trap. The problem is that in the beginning many new writers think they’re the next Robert Towne – and perhaps they will turn out to be – but it will likely take years to know. Don’t assume that you shit gold from the get-go. The likelihood is that your first few scripts will be abominations in hindsight (at least mine were). Humility will keep you open to constructive criticism and ensure that you are learning and progressing.

Run your writing career like a producer. Have a slate of projects – one or two that you are focused on at any point in time and the others that you continue to inch forward as the opportunity arises. Never have just one baby. This is Hollywood. There is no safety net. You need to have a Third World family of projects because sadly not all of them are going to survive.

SS: What is a pitch meeting and how does one go about getting one? Does an agent read your latest script and ask you to come in? Is it something your agent works to set up? Is it you having a previous relationship with the producers and saying, “Hey, I got this new idea I want to come in and pitch you?” How does a writer get one of these things!?

A pitch is a meeting where you make a verbal presentation of a story that you want to sell so that you can be paid in advance to write it as a script.

The three essential ingredients to a pitch are having a sample script that people already like, a story to pitch, and an agent to set the meetings.

Pitches can arise in two basic ways. First, you tell your agent you have a pitch you want to take out to the town and they set meetings with producers who then take it into studios where they have their strongest relationships. Second, a producer brings you an idea and you take it out to the town exclusively with them attached.

SS: With your recent pitch sale, were you going in to specifically pitch them this project – with both sides already knowing what you were going to pitch them? Or was it something that emerged during the course of the meeting?

SO: The pitch meetings were specific to this project, which is the way it typically goes down, but there are exceptions. For example, on “World’s Most Wanted,” a spy thriller we set up at Universal, the original pitch was about a Mexican drug cartel but the exec didn’t respond to the subject matter. He did, however, like the team-versus-team dynamic of the story and said if we could come with a new subject, he would be interested. So we did several weeks of research and found a real-life NATO team that hunts the world’s most wanted criminals. We went back in, employing a similar story with the new subject, and he bought it. It was proof that you can never tell which direction a project is going to break, but you’ll never know unless you try.

SS: Can you tell us how a pitch that leads to a sale works? Are they all different? Do they tell you right there in the room “yes, we’re buying this?” Or does it happen afterwards, once they’ve checked with their superiors?

SO: I dream of the ‘in room’ sale, and I know it has happened to others, but I haven’t been the recipient of that kind of spontaneous largesse yet. For me, selling a pitch has always entailed an agonizing wait – sometimes a few hours, sometimes a few days. Now that the studios have more leverage and they are more picky about what they buy than when I started in the business, they aren’t in the same real-time rush to respond that they used to be back in the glory days of the mid-90s spec market when high concept ideas with poor execution seemed to sell on almost a daily basis. Now execs seem more afraid of being left holding the bag on a project than they do being left out of a sale.

The truth is that very few people at the studio have the authority to buy a pitch without running it up someone else’s flagpole first. If you happen to be in the room with someone who can say ‘yes’ then you’re already doing something very right – in which case keep it up!

SS: People talk about different kinds of pitches. There’s the 5 minute pitch. The 10 minute pitch. And like the longer 20 minute pitch where you pitch the whole movie. I can’t imagine a busy producer able to concentrate for 20 minutes on any writer. Do you follow this formal time-specific pitch list or do you just do it your own way?

SO: I think it depends on where you are in your career as a writer and what the nature of the pitch is – i.e. are you pitching on a rewrite the studio has submitted to you, or are you pitching an original of your own. If it’s a rewrite, and your stock is high with the studio, you can get away with a more limited pitch – i.e. “Here are the three major problems with the existing script and here’s how I would address them.” Your presentation will then likely lead into a more informal conversation with the exec.

However, if it’s an original then your choice is more problematic and the decision to go long or brief depends on a number of factors... How established are you (i.e. how much does the studio already want to be in business with you)? If you are one of the lucky few hot scribes around town then you can probably get away with the ‘less is more’ approach. If not, you might want to incorporate more detail in your presentation. The risk is that you will lose the exec’s attention and give them more to pass on, but the upside is that if you do manage to hold their attention you want them to know that you have this story worked out in enough detail that you feel confident writing it.

Another factor to consider is what kind of story it is. If it’s a rom-com in a familiar setting like a wedding then you probably don’t need to sweat establishing the world in great detail. But if you’re pitching a sci-fi or action film that takes place in an original or arcane world, then you probably want to lead with an explanation of the setting of the story so the exec can better visualize what you are talking about and understand the consequences of your dramatic choices based on the rules of the universe you are drawing from.

However…if I had a gun to my head and had to give you an ideal pitch length, I would say 12 minutes. Beyond that any exec is bound to start wondering whether they’re going to have sashimi or the dragon roll for lunch.

SS: Can you give us any tips for nailing a pitch? It’s such a different art form from writing itself. What do you think the key is?

SO: You have to know your strengths and play to them, and by that same token know your weaknesses and try to avoid them or compensate for them. If you’re good with banter, then reduce the length of your pitch and put more weight on the Q&A with the exec where you respond to their questions and observations on the fly. If you feel more confident memorizing your pitch word for word and creating a more airtight presentation, then go for that. It’s a personal choice. No one size fits all.

In addition, try to get into the pitch itself as quickly as you can. Most execs are busy and under a lot of pressure. They’re only going to be able to listen to so much of you talk, no matter how enthralling you are. Dedicate as many words as you can in the meeting to your story, not how awesome your Cabo bachelor party was or that you just hit level 85 in World of Warcraft.

Lastly, make it personal. You’re trying to convince your audience that you have this story inside of you – that you’re going to burst if you don’t get it out, and that you’re the one person who can tell it. You have to walk into the pitch believing that you’re entering with a briefcase full of diamonds and that they’d be crazy to let you walk out with it. Only never carry a briefcase into a pitch…