Premise: A prequel to The Shining, The Overlook Hotel chronicles the 1918 construction of the infamous hotel.
About: Things seem to be really coming together for Glen Mazzara. The longtime TV writer became headline news in the trades when he took over as showrunner for Frank Darabont on The Walking Dead, follwing Darabont’s ugly exit from the show. Most predicted the series would suffer in quality, but Mazzara proved them all wrong, bringing the series to new heights. He’s now making the transition into features, writing the script for Hancock 2, and writing this high profile scarer for Warner Brothers. The film will be directed by the suddenly resurgent Mark Romanek, who had to wait 8 years between films after his critically appreciated “One Hour Photo” and his moody euthenaisa-esque “Never Let Me Go,” the film that got him this job.
Writer: Glen Mazzara (based on the prologue in Stephen King’s “The Shining.”)
Details: 115 pages – Studio draft (April 30th, 2014)
A special “ooh ooh ooh ah ah ah” shout out to everyone on our very last day of Halloween coverage. And what better way to celebrate the spookiest day of the year than with a review of The Shining prequel script!
As much as my bullshit meter goes up when studios try to capitalize on old horror properties (if they were such good ideas, why didn’t they make them a long time ago?), I’m more worried about what this means for writers. Between the new “Conjuring” universe approach and now another “based on a big property” release, I’m nervous about what this means for writers trying to sell horror. Horror has been one of the few genres that embraced new ideas from the spec market. If it goes the way of the action and adventure genres, focusing only on IP, that’s one less genre we have to play in. I hope I’m overreacting.
Now it might surprise some of you to know that I never really embraced The Shining as one of the horror greats. But I blame that less on story and more on Kubrick. I know he’s one of the masters. But his nihilist view of the world has never really gelled with my more hopeful view of things, so there was always a disconnect there. With that said, Jack Nicholson gave a superb performance, and the film was undeniably creepy. Let’s see if Mr. Mazzara can live up to that pedigree.
The year is 1918 and Bob T. Watson, husband to one of the richest women in the world, is looking for a way to be his own man – to create something that he can be known for, as opposed to always being seen as, “that rich woman’s husband.”
His vision is to build the grandest hotel in the nation, a breathtaking behemoth in the Colorado mountains. His plan is to create something so extravagant that the rich and famous will travel across land and sea to stay here.
But things don’t start out well. As a line of trucks carrying building supplies snake their way up the mountain, a flash flood hits. Bob can only watch from above as everyone in the trucks is violently wiped out. Decapitations. Bodies being severed in half. It isn’t pretty.
But Bob is a business man and decides to push on. He continues to build the hotel, despite the fact that some believe the land is now cursed.
Unfortunately for Bob, his problems aren’t limited to flash floods. His 8 year old son, Richard, “sees things” and is constantly claiming to spot dead people, including those men who perished in the flood. He also claims to see a woman named Norah, a woman who died 40 years ago on this mountain during a winter storm where she ran out of food and had to eat her own babies. Now that is truly disgusting. I hope she at least had some spices to flavor the meat.
Not long after guests start showing up, Bob’s OTHER son (spoiler), 12 year old Boyd, chokes on some meat and dies. This devastates Bob’s wife so much that she goes into a funk, which eventually leads to her falling and breaking her back, paralyzing her. On the plus side, he’s now the husband of the “paralyzed chick” instead of the rich one. Gotta look on the bright side, right?
Not unlike Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, from the original “Shining,” Bob then finds himself having homicidal tendencies. He’s also confused when things just start showing up in his hotel, like a library that he never built, and those infamous garden mazes we saw in the original film.
If Bob wants to save his family along with this hotel, he’s going to have to get his shit together and figure out what’s causing all this madness, a reality we’re fairly sure will never come to fruition.
I’ve never read the book, “The Shining,” so I can’t speak to this prologue that the prequel is based on. But I can say that this very much feels like something based on a prologue. And what I mean by that is, I can imagine this 15 page story that Stephen King wrote, which likely highlighted 5 nefarious events (such as the flash flood), and I can see that all five of those points were dutifully incorporated into the screenplay.
And make no mistake. Those events are nefarious. The flood scene is like nothing we’ve ever seen on film before. It will be amazing. And the scene where Boyd, the son, chokes to death, was particularly graphic and disturbing. But I’m not sure there was anything left to “Overlook.” It feels like a “highlight reel” and nothing more. There’s no story here to hold it all together.
To be fair, the script starts off strong. We’re literally building towards something, and as viewers, we’re excited to see how that’s going to turn out. But the hotel is finished by the end of the first act, and Boyd is dead at the midpoint. From that point on, I had no idea where we were going. I’ve used the analogy before (in Gone Girl) of blowing up the balloon all the way until your climax. Well, Boyd’s death released all the air in the balloon, and we weren’t even halfway through the script. From then on, I’m not sure there was even a balloon to blow into anymore.
The script skittered about with a few cheap scares (seeing dead people) before eventually settling upon Bob T’s failing sanity as a narrative engine, much like the first film. But whereas The Shining built up to the loss of sanity nicely, here it seems to come as a last second bail-out. Like, “Hmm, nothing’s really happened for 30 pages. Maybe Bob should go crazy now.”
I’m not sure how this should be fixed other than to suggest a clearer goal be put in place after Boyd’s death. When a story wanders, it often comes back to an inactive protagonist. If the protagonist isn’t ACTIVELY pursuing anything, the story itself feels inactive. By giving the protagonist a goal, then, the script gains purpose. It gains direction.
So maybe Bob is looking into his son’s death. Whereas he didn’t believe in the paranormal before, the strange events surrounding Boyd’s death encourage him to find the truth. This gives the story momentum while still allowing you to do everything you were doing anyway (introducing scary garden maze scenes and such).
Also, something that bothered me from the original Shining was still in play here, which is that I never truly understood the rules of this universe. The big twist at the end of the original was cool at first, until I started to think about it, and then it didn’t make sense at all. I don’t want to get into spoilers here. But at the end of Overlook, there are some things that sure are spooky when you first see them. But then you’re like, “Wait a minute. Does that even make sense?” Like the library that just appears in the hotel. What is the logic behind that? Why would ghosts sneak a library into the hotel? Are they vociferous readers?
Anyway, the script isn’t bad, just light on story. I do think they should make this into a movie. The setting is unique for a horror film (the year adds a new dimension to the “spooky hotel” tale) and it’s a better set-up than most of the horror ideas out there. Certainly better than “Ouija.” But this highlight reel needs to be turned into more of a story. I hope they pull it off.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Something that bothers me in any film is when a writer knows they’re going to kill off a character, so they never develop him. The problem when you do this is that when these characters die, we don’t feel anything. This is what happened with Boyd’s death, the older son. He was mentioned 1/10th as much as Richard (the other son), so when he died, despite it being an awesome death, I didn’t feel anything for him. You should treat any dying-later character with just as much depth and complexity as your other characters. The more that’s going on with them, the more shocking and more impactful their death will be.
At 29, Adi Shankar is one of the hottest young producers in town and one of the few guys who isn’t afraid to produce risky R-rated material. His credits include The Grey, Dredd, Lone Survivor, and A Walk Among The Tombstones. He’s also releasing one of my favorite scripts, The Voices, next year.
Shankar’s counter-culture approach extends to the web as well, where he’s produced the short film, “Punisher: Dirty Laundry,” starring Thomas Jane and Ron Pearlman, and “Venom: Truth in Journalism.” His newest offering is the animated dark comedy mini-series, “Judge Dredd: Superfiend,” which you can go watch right now!
SS: Before we get into writing, I’ve always admired your ability to make these risky R-rated films in an industry that’s typically afraid of that space. How do you pull it off?
AS: Most companies egregiously overspend on overhead. I believe in a lean, tight-knit team, and it allows me to be cost effective in all my decision-making and affords me the financial freedom to make “riskier” films.
SS: Okay, moving on to my bread and butter. I always talk to writers here on Scriptshadow from a writing perspective. But producers see the craft differently. From your side of the wall, what advice can you give writers just starting out?
1. When starting out, don’t be discouraged by people with the “9 to 5” jobs. They are the ones who urge you to “be realistic,” goad you as you attempt to understand yourself, and bring you down during your sporadic, minor, yet intangible victories. Take solace in the fact that these “9 to 5-ers” will get their minds blown when they see Katy Perry (or equivalent) at a restaurant one day and it will become the single defining moment of their lives, while you are attempting to add to the discourse of the culture.
2. Write every single day. If you don’t, writing will always just be your hobby. (Note: This doesn’t mean quitting your job)
3. You should read 200 “great” professional screenplays before you start writing so that you know what you are aspiring to be. The resources (scripts, interviews, trades, etc.) you have access to today as a beginning screenwriter are unparalleled and were only available to previous generations by becoming someone’s bitch. For the first time, you don’t even need to live in Los Angeles to be a screenwriter or to have your work read.
4. Follow the plethora of online recourses that weren’t available to past generations i.e Blacklist and the tracking boards, to see what’s selling, what’s getting heat and not selling, what’s getting acclaim, and what’s getting acclaim but not selling. This will inform your understanding of the marketplace and the business of screenwriting.
5. Write and produce for the Internet. It blows my mind that more people aren’t attempting to build a web footprint. Check out NEXT TIME ON LONNY it’s simple, smart, funny and is a blueprint for anyone who aspires to create.
SS: What about writers who are closer to the mid-level? These might be writers on the verge of breaking in or who have just punctured the lower levels of the industry. Any advice for them?
AS: The biggest misconception you have to psychologically fight is this idea that once you cross a certain imaginary threshold in your career you’ll feel “made.” You’ll never feel truly “made.” While, like any rote skill, things do get easier over time, you struggle consistently at any level and actually feel more not less pain at every higher rung on the proverbial ladder.
This industry is convoluted and hard for everyone: Whether you’re a novice writer or Robert Towne, a beginning actor or Russell Crowe, an assistant at the mailroom or Stacy Sneider there is always arbitrary red tape, infuriating walls built by insecure middlemen, and some asshole that just wants to fuck you over for the sake of fucking you over. You are constantly living with a damoclean sword over your head and a lottery ticket in your hand, one bad decision away from being black balled and one great sentence away from becoming the next big thing.
SS: Everybody’s trying to get their idea/script/project to the guy who’s able to say “yes” and the movie is greenlit. You’re occasionally that guy. In your best estimation, what do you need from a screenplay to give it that green light? What makes you say “yes?”
AS: Two things need to happen:
1. I need to respond to it creatively. (Note: I detest the routine and respond to material that is unconventional).
2. The market needs to respond to it financially.
As you can imagine 1 & 2 are almost always at odds with one another.
To be specific, by the “market” I don’t mean the movie-going public. Unless you are operating at the highest of levels (aka the Chris Nolan, Spielberg, JJ Abrams level), producers/directors don’t make movies for audiences, we make movies for distributors, and are beholden to what distributors believe audiences want (read: the last successful movie).
Second only to the inability of distributors to match a prospective customer with a specific product in a cost effective manner, the biggest problem that our industry needs to solve is the issue of access. Information is a commodity to the detriment of the business.
So my advice to writers: Figure out what the market wants and write the best version of that as quickly as you can before the market changes. For example, in 2008 it was quirky indie comedies, in 2010 it was $25-30 million dollar action movies, in 2012 it was $3 million dollar horror movies. Pretty soon the $7-12 million range, which for years had been the “no mans land,” is going to be the independent sweet spot.
SS: This leads me to a question I’ve always had. This industry is actor and director driven. If you get a big actor or director attached to your script, the project has a much better chance of getting made. So as a writer, should I be trying to find ways to get actors and directors to read my script so they’ll attach themselves, THEN come to you? Or should I come to you first and let you use your relationships with actors and directors to put that project together?
AS: It depends. I prefer STD free scripts, but sometimes if the attachments are so great then everyone is obviously going to pay more attention. Again, it depends on the producer and the genre of the script.
By and large I’ve found attachments for the sake of attachments to be a detriment. I once read a script that I thought was great but the manager insisted that a much hated director had to be attached to direct. That manager ultimately screwed the writers by making their very makeable, highly marketable script instantly un-makeable due to a bogus attachment. The marketplace moved on and the window of opportunity to make the film passed.
Also, when you’re attaching someone, realize that you are getting in business with the person, that person’s reputation within the industry, and reputation with the potential buyers for your project, not their credits.
SS: You sell your movies to many foreign territories, which is a way to fund your movies (or most of them) before they even get made. Film is becoming more and more of a global business. Should screenwriters be accounting for that in their screenplays? Should we be writing differently? How does one write for a “global audience?”
AS: Don’t worry about this. Just try to tell a really great story. The more you get caught up in trying to retrofit a human story into something that will “sell globally” the more you risk diluting your material.
SS: You were telling me about a project awhile back, an idea you came up with. And you said you went out and found a writer for that. How does a writer (say, a writer reading this right now) become the person you call to write your movie? How does he get in that room with you?
Step 1: In that particular instance the writer had written the last movie by the director whom I was developing the idea with. The brutal reality is that writers almost always get hired for an assignment because of a working relationship.
Step 2: When I call writer’s representatives, it’s preferable that they be “user friendly.” I’ve passed on working with so many talented writers because I thought their agent or manager was a cheese dick and was going to cause problems down the road.
Best blanket advice I can give to an up-and-coming writer:
Find a talented director at “your level” and partner with them and become “their writer” and start operating as a team (See: Wigard, Adam & Barrett, Simon). So many talented directors are in dire need of writer/producers to execute their wonderful ideas and more importantly for a creative partner who isn’t a cornball producer trying to pull a silver dollar out from behind their ear. This journey in 2014 is now too complicated and frankly impossible to do alone, so build a collective.
To be a douche and quote myself:
“Hollywood is undergoing a massive decentralization right now, caused by the ongoing collapse of the studio system and the rampant greed of the 90’s. It means that collectives of people who can consistently and autonomously deliver a product will have an advantage. They will help you sift through all the crap Hollywood throws at you, and more importantly give you the kind of creative autonomy that today’s non-celebrity filmmakers can only dream of.”
SS: Is it important that a writer be “good in the room” with you? Do you have to feel a chemistry or a certain energy and knowledge from them to work with them? Or do you only care about how good of a writer they are?
AS: Being good in the room doesn’t matter. I don’t want the guy who sells me the car to design and build the car too. I’m also not looking for a friend, girlfriend, roommate, drinking buddy, flip cup or beer pong partner. Humility, writing skills, and general insight about life that can be retrofitted into a screenplay are all that matter. I do meet many writers who are whiney and unloved and complain about “how unfair the industry is” and I generally want to bitch slap them … so don’t be that guy.
SS: I ask a lot of producers what they want from a script, and they almost always say, “I’m just looking for something great.” Is it really that easy? Or are there more factors involved?
AS: It’s that simple. We just want great material. Great material will attract a great director and that package will attract “bankable” (note: as an actor myself that word pisses me off) actors. It will make distributors fight over the distribution rights. Give me SOURCE CODE and I’ll produce and deliver you a finished film via text message faster than you can say Punisher Dirty Laundry.
SS: Does a writer need an agent for you to read their scripts? If you do receive scripts outside of agents, where do they come from?
AS: It’s a legal grey area. I desperately want to discover a great script from under a rock but legal reasons make it challenging.
Traditionally, success in this business has been proportional to one’s access to information. In their inevitable next evolution, online screenplay resources like ScriptShadow, Trigger Street, and Blacklist are very shortly going to revolutionize the way producers/actors/directors access material and democratize the green lighting process.
Before the Internet, an agent had the ability take a script off the shelf and present it as brand new. Tracking boards made the spec market efficient. Blogging made it possible for one to dissect material and allowed the industry to congregate behind risky but great material. The next tectonic shift will be numerically driven and force an egalitarian more “crowd sourced” process to the chaotic status quo.
On the issue of agents, keep in mind that reps are useless unless you have a career spark. To be clear, it’s on you at every juncture in your career to create a spark for yourself. If you are unrepped and looking for your big break right now the web stuff is the best platform to create a spark. What reps are really good at is turning a spark into a flame and the best reps will help convert that flame into a forest fire (see: Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper).
SS: Finally, we all know Hollywood prefers intellectual property that’s already proven. Since all screenwriters are poor and can’t afford to buy flashy intellectual property, what can they do to compete with these guys?
You bring up an interesting point. In television, the writers are the producers. This should be the case in the movie business as well, as it would eliminate a lot of the infrastructural problems we face.
A trend I’ve noticed is that once writers become deemed “professional writers” many take the mentality of “I need to be paid to write.” While I can sympathize, the fact of the matter is great screenplays are the lifeblood of this industry. If you have a great story that must be told … fucking write it.
It doesn’t make sense to waste time waiting for some jerk off producer or studio to “buy your idea.” Own it, control it, and if you really are that good you may have just written the next DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, PRISONERS, or LOW DWELLER (OUT OF THE FURNACE). Every major movie star and every major director needs a “next movie” and even those we have deemed gods at the moment are beholden to access to great material and are at the mercy of those who control it. Unencumbered scripts are easier to make.
Premise: (from Blood List) When a young journalist suspects that an abducted girl is being held somewhere in her own neighborhood, she decides to delve into the secret lives of her neighbors to determine which one is capable of the horrific crime.
About: Writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman are an up-and-coming writing-directing team who have been quietly landing on some of Hollywood’s more popular lists (The Hit List, The Blood List) as well as writing and directing their own shorts. On Your Doorstep finished in the middle of last year’s Blood List (The new Blood List comes out Friday!) and has been acquired by Haven Entertainment, an indie production company who made Josh Radnor’s film, Liberal Arts, and more recently, the big John Milius documentary.
Writers: Steve Desmond & Michael Sherman
Details: 96 pages (August 27, 2013 draft)
I don’t know what happened to me these last two days. The combination of The Good Wife and John Wick’s dog turned my brain into some sort of new age pate. I knew it was bad when I went to In and Out and they asked me how I’d like my burger. “Good Wife Style, “ I replied. It was an awkward moment for everyone.
When I got home, it hit me. It’s freaking Halloween Throwdown Week! We need to be reviewing Halloween scripts, not badgering witnesses on the stand! Which is why I went back to The Blood List, our favorite stomping ground for the spooky and the macabre, to get today’s tasty treat.
On Your Door Step is one of those scripts that succeeds in exactly what it sets out to do. The question is, does it excel beyond that success? Is it able to get into February territory?
20-something Carmen grew up in the dilapidated logging town of Willow Creek, up near Seattle, Washington. Carmen was one of the few lucky gals to get out and make a life for herself, as she’s now a journalist for a big city newspaper.
But her exit from town was anything but clean. When she was 12, she was playing with her best friend, Kaylie, and after an argument, Kaylie left, never to be seen again. A lot of people blame Carmen for not doing more to save Kaylie, and Carmen’s never forgiven herself as a result.
But fate is funny. 15 years later and Kaylie’s bones have been found. Carmen’s boss thinks it might be a good idea to write a story about the murder. So he sends Carmen back to the town she grew up in, a town she never thought she’d see again.
Shockingly, on her first night back, a 17 year-old girl starts banging on her door. Scared shitless, Carmen calls the police. But by the time they get there, the girl’s gone. Carmen does some digging, and believes the girl she saw is a girl who went missing 5 years ago named Joelle. That would’ve made her 12 years old, the same age Kaylie was when she went missing. Hmmmm…
With Kaylie’s bones located right near her block and this new girl banging at her door, Carmen suspects that whoever took these girls resides right here, on her block. And she believes that person is still holding Joelle. There are only 7 houses on the block, so she doesn’t have many people to investigate.
But her first suspect turns everything around. He’s not the killer, but he is a pedophile. And he lets Carmen know, if she’s got any chance of solving this case, she’s going to need someone like him, someone who can think like a pedophile.
On Your Doorstep is a clever twist on the murder/missing girl plot. Instead of a killer who’s roaming around aimlessly, our bad guy is living right here on our protagonist’s block. This localizing of the plot keeps the story simple and easy to follow, and it also ups the tension, since we know the killer is nearby.
Desmond and Sherman were also smart to create a personal connection between Carmen and the case. She was friends with Kaylie, something she still feels guilty about. Had the newspaper sent any other reporter, I’m not sure we would’ve cared as much.
I was also impressed by some chances the writers took. They pulled a Silence of the Lambs in that Carmen has to make a deal with the devil (a pedophile, Malcom, who can get into the minds of other pedophiles). That gave “Door Step” a slightly harder edge.
In every script you’re going to have to take two or three major chances. If everything feels too perfect, your script’s going to be boring. It’s a frustrating part of the process, adding an element you’re unsure about. But those are the things that make your script stand out from the pack. I mean The Matrix had its characters battling each other with Kung Fu. I don’t care who said they read that script ahead of time and thought it was perfect. That had the potential to be embarrassingly bad. But it was one of the big chance-taking moves that made the movie stand out.
The only problem I had with “Doorstep” was one I suspect kept it from finishing higher up on the lists.
Even though our writers took a chance with the “Hannibal” approach (a pedophile helper), they did so with kid gloves. What’s so great about Hannibal is that we’re genuinely scared of him. I’m not sure I was supposed to be scared of our pedophile (Malcolm), but I needed to be scared of what he could do to others (specifically children), and I wasn’t. If we don’t feel the WEIGHT of this character’s demons or what he’s capable of, I don’t care if you call him a pedophile. He’s just another guy.
It’s one of those balancing acts writers have to pull off. If you write Malcolm more aggressively, as a true pedophile, you risk turning readers off who don’t want to read about a “good” version of a pedophile. But if you write him too soft, the character loses street cred. He doesn’t seem honest because the writer is turning him into the “safe pedophile.” That’s what Malcolm felt like to me. The safe version of a pedophile.
I always suggest that when you’re writing a dark script, you err on the side of pushing the envelope. That’s a big reason Prisoners (a similar script) sold for a million bucks. Those scenes of torture were relentless. There was no holding back.
One of the things I enjoy doing when I read a script is going back to the big choices the writers made and seeing if there were other ways to go. The right choice at a key moment in your story can turn a bad script into a good one and a good script into a great one. So it’s a habit you want to get into as a writer – asking yourself, “What if I do this instead of that?”
I wondered if “Doorstep” would’ve worked better had Carmen been living at the house instead of passing through. There’s something scarier about the fact that a killer lives on your block. Possibly, then, Carmen would have a daughter who lives with her as well, around 11-12 years old. Now we have someone our main character loves who’s directly in danger from the killer.
I also wondered if placing the story in a low-income town was the best way to go. All of the people who lived on Carmen’s street were scum. Might it be more ironic, and therefore scarier, if this took place in an upper-middle-class neighborhood? Where everyone seems perfect and has their shit together?
I honestly don’t know if those are better options (what do you think?). I just like to explore them to remind myself that they’re there. The second you start thinking everything in your script is set in stone is the second your script is dead.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Character street cred. If you’re going to write a “bad” person (a killer, a rapist, a pedophile, a hitman), you have to commit to that. You gotta give him the kind of street cred that makes him believable. If you shy away from the uglier aspects of who someone is, the character will come off as the “safe” and therefore “fake” version, which, depending on how integral he is to the plot, can undermine the believability of your entire story.
“You know the show’s demographic is 57 year old women, right?”
That’s what Miss Scriptshadow said to me when she found me watching my third episode of The Good Wife in a row. I tried to explain to her that I’d merely been tired of hearing how good the writing was on The Good Wife and I had to check it out for myself for research purposes. That was all. Strictly research.
But then I realized I wasn’t just lying to Miss Scriptshadow. I was lying to myself. I was a Good Wife addict. The show that I never thought I’d watch, much less enjoy, had become my favorite show along with The Walking Dead. How did this happen? The plight seemed implausible. I HATE these kinds of shows. “Ooh, are they gonna prove that the murderer’s shoe didn’t fit in time to win the case!???” I don’t care. I have something called intelligence which allows me to know that, yes, they will prove the shoe fits, and then afterwards we’ll learn that it was really THE WIFE who did it.
That’s what I was expecting to find when I started watching this TV version of crack. And in a few instances, I was right. But what I learned through this particular law procedural, is that while the individual cases that come about each episode are usually cliché, it’s the things that happen outside the cases that make the show good.
For those who don’t know what The Good Wife is about, it follows Alicia Florrick, the wife of prominent and popular State’s Attorney, Peter Florrick, after he’s involved in an ugly scandal, fixing cases through a complicated web of prostitution, prostitutes that he himself slept with. Peter goes to jail, and Alicia, who’s up until this point been the “good wife” and mother to her son and daughter, must finally do something with that law degree she secured forever ago in order to support her family.
Luckily, Alicia’s old law school boyfriend, Will Gardner, is now a partner at his own firm. He decides to take a chance on Alicia as a junior associate, something that raises a few eyebrows in the firm. Is Will bringing her in because she’s good? Or is Will bringing her in because he’s still in love with her? The series is populated with lots of other fun characters, like the cryptic private investigator, Kalinda, and the tries-too-hard first year associate Cary, and like any good show, is a joy to watch in that you never know what to expect. The Good Wife constantly surprises you.
You don’t really understand the power of a television show until you’ve seen it done right. And The Good Wife does pretty much everything right. Starting with its levels.
I admit that I’m completely making this vocabulary up because I don’t know the TV vernacular as well as I do features, but I’m calling it “The Level Approach.” The Good Wife taught me that there are three LEVELS of exploration in every episode. The first level is the case itself. We’ll call this the episode’s plot. While there will be other things going on, sometimes more important things, this level is the engine that drives the episode. The second level is what happens at work (in this case, the law firm). This includes all the interpersonal relationships that are occurring at the firm. For instance, Cary has a thing for Kalinda, who doesn’t like Cary. So when they work together, there’s an undercurrent of tension. Finally, there’s the home level. What happens to these people when they go home (their personal lives)? For the most part, this level follows the main character (in this case, Alicia) and her problems with her family – how her two kids are dealing with this. As well as her complicated relationship with her husband, who she still loves, but who has betrayed her.
Now when each of these levels is dealt with separately, they’re only moderately entertaining. It’s when they INTERWEAVE with one another that the show excels.
Let me give you an example. In the second episode of the series, a prostitute comes to the firm complaining to have been raped by the son of a rich Chicagoan. On its own, this is a pretty uninteresting case. But who’s put on the case? Alicia Florrick. Alicia’s husband, of course, was cheating on her with prostitutes. Now, she’s forced to defend one. Her home life is now clashing with her work life. You see how a ho-hum case/episode can all of a sudden become exciting?
As the season moves on, Alicia is hearing more and more that her husband, Peter, might have been set up by the new State’s Attorney, Glenn, who orchestrated her husband’s ouster in order to steal his job. Then one day, the firm gets a new client. It’s Glenn’s wife, who wants a divorce. And she wants Alicia to represent her. As Alicia looks into the divorce case, she comes across information that might help her husband’s case. Which is complicated, as she’s still not sure she even wants her husband out of jail. Once again, her home life is clashing with her work life.
And really, when you think about it, you don’t have to stop at three levels. Every show concept will be unique, allowing you to add a fourth, or even fifth level. You could argue that Peter’s storyline (trying to get out of jail and get his State’s Attorney job back) is the fourth level in The Good Wife, and the writers do an excellent job of integrating that storyline into the cases as well. For example, in one episode, the law firm needs a judge’s help. That judge happens to be a good friend of Peter’s. So they need to ask Peter to put a call in.
The great thing about The Good Wife is that they only include a choice if it adds more conflict to the show. Take the example above. It’s not as simple as the firm asking Peter to make a call. Their only connection to Peter is through Alicia. Will has to then ask Alicia if she’ll tap her husband’s connections. This makes Alicia question if she’s been hired for the right reasons. Is she hired because she has access to one of the most powerful men in the city? Or has she been hired because she’s genuinely good? Everything about this show is so intermixed and intermingled. There’s never a straightforward narrative to any of the cases.
Now Miss Scriptshadow argues that it’s all too soapy. Will liking Alicia. Prostitutes coming out with stories in the media. But I pointed out that The Walking Dead (her favorite show) is one of the most soapy shows out there, and really, all the best shows have soapy elements. You can’t NOT have love stories and betrayal and the occasional character getting pregnant. She says The Walking Dead is different cause there’s zombies. I’m not sure how to respond to that.
Another thing I talk a lot about on the site is “The Choice.” This is when you give your character two choices that are equally bad. It’s a fun place to put your character because the audience loves watching them squirm their way to a decision. The Good Wife is one of the best shows (or movies) I’ve ever seen at this. They must talk about it specifically in the writer’s room because they clearly try to include it at every opportunity.
Let me give you an example. In the fourth episode of the series, Peter’s lawyer, who’s trying to get Peter out of jail, wants Alicia to testify that Peter made untruthful statements not because he was hiding illegal activity, but rather to hide his infidelity from his wife. In other words, Alicia is being asked to help her husband by confirming an action that kept her in the dark about his cheating. If she helps him, she basically endorses this behavior. If not, her husband stays in jail. Complicating matters is that her kids are desperate to have their father home.
The best of these choices are always ones where if you put yourself in the character’s shoes, you wouldn’t know what to do. If, however, they’re “paper decisions,” decisions that look fine on paper but, really, everyone knows what the best choice is, then you’re not doing your job.
I didn’t even get into the great character-writing here. I often hear the tip, “If you cover up all the characters’ names, you should be able to know who’s talking just by their dialogue.” This certainly sounds good, but it’s rarely 100% applicable. There are always going to be characters who sound neutral enough that their dialogue can be confused for others’. But The Good Wife is the one example where you really see this. The selfish and direct Kalinda. The uber-confident Peter. The motherly Alicia. The try-hard Cary. The stately Alicia (one of the partners). The calm and collect Will. I mean you really could cover these characters’ names and know who’s talking.
The only question I have for this show is, can it keep it up? I’m on Episode 18 of the first season. I understand they’re on their 6th season now at 23 episodes a pop. Does it devolve into Gray’s Anatomy territory where, by season 2, they’re doing Prom Hospital? Or are they able to keep up this amazing level of quality? Let me know so I can either raise or lower my expectations.
And finally, I need to know what club I’m in now. All these shows/movies have cool names for their watchers. Twihards. Browncoats. What am I now? Am I a Goodwifer?
Premise: When a Russian gang kills a former hitman’s dog, he decides to take all of them down in an act of revenge.
About: John Wick just came out this weekend, finishing in second place at the box office with 15 million dollars. It could not overcome a major horror release (Ouija) a week before Halloween. What’s unique about this film is that it comes from first time directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, who were former stuntmen directors for more films than you can count (including 300, The Bourne Legacy, and Matrix: Revolutions). Needless to say, action was a priority over all else in the film. This is writer Derek Kolstad’s first big writing credit, unless you count the two movies he wrote for Dolph Lundgren, one of which is said not to contain a single discernible word from Lundgren.
Writer: Derek Kolstad
Details: 100 minutes
If there is an argument for the non-screenplay, John Wick might be it. This is an unapologetic action revenge flick with nothing going for it other than a good guy, a lot of bad guys and a kitchen full of bullet sandwiches. And you know what? It’s all the more wonderful for it. This film embraced what it was and WENT for it.
But don’t be fooled. John Wick has a little more screenplay panache than first meets the eye. I mean, you’re not going to get 86% on Rotten Tomatoes as an ACTION movie and not have some checks in the screenplay department. So we’ll get into that in a second. But first, for those of you who haven’t seen the movie, let’s find out how John Wick’s dog died.
John Wick is a normal guy, if you consider living with Keanu Reeves looks and a home right off the cover of Architectural Digest “normal.” Things are going well until the love of his life, his dear wife, gets cancer and DIES! Spoiler alert! Afterwards, John gets a package in the mail. It’s a present from his dead wife, to be delivered after she’s passed away. The present? The cutest freaking puppy in the entire universe! Awww times a trillion.
John loves this darn puppy. They walk around together, sleep together, eat cereal together. But then one day, when John goes to fill his 69 Chevy up with gas, a Russian punk takes a liking to his wheels and asks if he can buy the car. John says it’s not for sale, IN RUSSIAN, which makes our Russian baddie grumble extensively.
It isn’t surprising then when, that night, the Russians invade John’s house, beat him to a pulp, steal his car, and, oh yeah, KILL HIS DOG (luckily, this happens from John’s blurry point of view – so we don’t partake in the gory details).
The Russian who instigated this realizes soon afterwards that he made a major mistake. His Russian kingpin father tells him that the man whose dog he just killed… was John Wick. The greatest hitman ever. In fact, John Wick used to work for him, and was the main reason he rose to prominence. “So what is he, The Bogeyman?” the Russian son asks. “No. He’s the guy who KILLS the Bogeymans.” OHHHHHH.
John Wick then takes a sledgehammer to his basement floor, under which are buried all his old hitman toys, which seems a little dramatic (couldn’t he just put them under the bed?). He then checks into a special hotel downtown that caters exclusively to hitmen, and plans his revenge. Revenge that will require killing a lot of people with Russian accents.
So here’s the thing with John Wick. It’s both straight forward and not so straight forward. Even though there are clichés here (Russian bad guys for the 634,783rd time), the film does enough differently to make the journey fresh. And that’s what you’re always trying to do as a screenwriter. You’re never going to be completely original. But you can try and write ENOUGH original to outweigh the unoriginal.
A great way to do this is to introduce an overarching original element. By doing so, you can use it to spurn numerous “sub-elements” that are also original. So the big “original” thing in John Wick is the Continental, the hotel downtown that caters exclusively to hitmen. There are rules here. No one is allowed to kill you here. You are given special attention and special treats as a hitman.
This one choice birthed a number of sub-choices. John is supposed to be safe here. But the Russian Mob Boss doubles the price on his head (from 2 million to 4 million) so that hitmen will attack him inside the Continental, a huge no-no. Also, when you’ve left someone for dead in the hallway of the Continental and someone comes out of their room, they don’t scream and call the police. They nod and say, “Hey John. Didn’t know you were back,” and let you go about your business. There’s a unique currency used in this world (special gold coins). And even a hotel manager who enforces the rules at all times.
This is really what helped set John Wick apart from the other action movies. I heard one interview liken it to a hitman’s Harry Potter – this special underground world where hitmen reside. And I liked that analogy. It really does feel that way. And that choice was enough to spurn several other unique choices. I don’t think I need to tell you this since I always do. But PLEASE! Take the extra time, especially when you’re writing in such a well-known genre, to find some original ideas for the story. It’s the ONLY way your script has a chance.
But there were some screenwriting things that bothered me. First, everybody knows that “saving the cat” or “kicking the dog,” are quick and dirty ways to make you either love the hero or hate the villain. But they’re not meant to be taken literally. I never thought I’d see the moment where a writer would literally have his villain kick the dog to get us to hate him.
But it seems like it actually worked. I couldn’t possibly judge the choice myself because I was so hyper-aware of it being used to manipulate the audience. But the audience fell for it. As you know, it’s the impetus for the entire movie. John Wick kills all these guys because the Russians kill his dog. So if people are rooting for that at the end, it means they bought into the motivation.
For those of you who saw the movie, can you tell me if this worked on you? Were you aware of the manipulation? Was it too on-the-nose? Did that matter? I’m just curious how people didn’t see this as the most overt attempt at gaining hero sympathy… ever!
The other problem with John Wick was the second half of the script. The movie peaked with this beautifully crafted bath house invasion by John Wick set to this ethereal melodic pop song. But after that, the movie started running out of ideas. The hotel was now in the rearview mirror, and the writer didn’t seem to have anything fun or original to replace it.
Early on I was thinking, “You know how I know this is good. It’s the first action film I’ve seen in forever where we haven’t ended up in an industrial area.” Those industrial areas are beautiful to shoot in and give directors lots of options, but they all look the same. They make your action film the same as every other action film. The fact that these guys had managed to avoid that told me they were actually thinking through their choices.
Then, after mentally lauding the film for this choice, where does the climax end up happening? In a giant industrial area.
It signified the reality here, which is that our writers and filmmakers ran out of juice. They were okay with the status quo with their ending. If they would’ve figured out how to make that ending unique? John Wick could’ve been a classic.
I still like it! Don’t get me wrong. But I almost loved this. I wanted to love it.
All I ask is that in the sequel, give John Wick a possum instead of a dog. Or when John Wick comes out on DVD, show us that the puppy playing the part of John Wick’s dog is still alive in the credits sequence. Killing puppies, man. It’s too much.
[ ] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: John Wick is a classic example of first-half favoritism! It is a condition writers have in which they spend the bulk of their focus on the first half of the script. They don’t realize that 9 out of 10 times, when they go into their script to fix or work on something, they’re focusing on the first half (they do this whether they know it or not since the first half is closer to the top of the document, which is often where you open it). For this reason, the second half of your screenplay gets the short stick. So here’s a trick to avoid that. Instead of always opening your script on the first page and going down, open up the bottom of your script and go up. Work on those bottom scenes just as much as you do the top ones. Otherwise, there will be a perceptible quality drop as your script goes on.
What I learned: Just say NO to industrial locations in your action script! In your next action script, I implore you NOT to use any industrial locations. The entire thing must avoid all industrial areas, including the insides of warehouses! Especially the scene where our hero is captured and wakes up tied to a chair in a warehouse. Give us something new instead!