Genre: Contained Thriller
Premise: A weekend tryst between two cheating spouses goes south when the husband of the woman finds out and makes them pay in the most unimaginable ways possible.
About: This one was acquired by 1984 Defense Contractors (“The Grey”) a couple of years ago. Before selling the script, the writer, Elliot San, wrote and acted in a comedy troupe in Muncie, Indiana.
Writer: Elliot San
Details: 96 pages
What caught my attention with this script was that it was said to be in the same vein as Hard Candy, the 2005 film about an older man who preys on a younger girl online, and when he brings her home, realizes that he’s the prey.
It was a good movie (Ellen Paige’s debut) and I realized that we haven’t had a good contained thriller in the vein of Hard Candy in forever. So let this be an official shout-out to those of you looking to sell a script, that this is the perfect sub-genre to write in.
It costs NOTHING to shoot. And it stands out from 90% of the other contained thrillers just by not being a horror script.
Assuming you go this route, You’ll Be The Death of Me is your competition. It’s already made a splash. I’m sure someone is out there trying to make it. Let’s see if it’s good enough to be the next Hard Candy.
40-something Holly seems to have a good life going for her. She’s got a husband, Russell, who loves her, and a daughter in college. Yet we get the sense that the recent uptick in Holly’s business trips is straining the marriage.
When Holly heads out on one of those trips, we learn that they’re more personal in nature than she’s letting on. As in, she’s been banging some pool boy for the past six months. And this particular getaway in Palm Springs is going to be the biggest and craziest sex-a-thon yet.
Oh, it’ll be big and crazy all right. Just not how she planned it. You see, Russell figured out what was going on. And instead of going the whole “lawyer up,” route, he’s going to have some fun at his wife’s and Everett’s expense.
He kidnaps Everett ahead of time, brings him to the hotel room, and tells him that his only job is to keep Holly in that room until tomorrow morning. If Holly leaves that room before then, Russell will kill Everett’s wife and daughter, who he’s holding hostage.
Russell then leaves, Holly never knowing he was there, and calls her, pretending to be back at home. He informs Holly that he knows she’s with Everett and that Everett is a killer. Holly, he believes, will be his next victim. Holly must get out of that room at all costs.
And hence begins a life-or-death game of both lovers attempting to outwit one another, unknowingly going up against a likewise manipulated foe. Who’s going to come out with their pants on? I can promise you this. You’ll have no idea unless you read the script.
I LOVED the way this script started. You guys should all read the opening of You’ll Be The Death of Me. It starts out by breaking the rules, giving us a dialogue scene (you rarely want to start with a straight dialogue scene) that takes place on the phone in a car (the characters engaging in the dialogue aren’t even together!). Can you ask for a scene that’s more designed to bore an audience?
Here’s why it works though.
Holly, who’s in the car, is talking to her husband, Russell, about seemingly unimportant things (their daughter’s college life, for example). As they continue talking, we get the sense that the conversation is boring Holly. Not in a normal husband-wife know-everything-about-each-other way. But that she has something else she’d rather focus on.
And what that does is it creates a question in the reader: “Why does she want to get off the phone with her husband so badly?”
Once you have the reader questioning the situation, you’ve got them hooked, at least temporarily. And San starts dropping more bait crumbs for us. Holly mentions her “conference” that she’s going to. Russell says, “I thought you said it wasn’t a conference.”
Okay, now we know Holly is lying. Why is she lying? Whether we like it or not, the writer has us in the palm of his hands. We want to know where this is going and that, my friends, is how you pen an opening scene that hooks the reader.
Once Holly gets to the hotel, we sense that something is off. Everett, the man she’s cheating with, isn’t around. He’s left messages with instructions for her instead. Something’s up. The suspense is building. We want to see what’s going to happen here because we know it’s probably going to be bad (pro tip: simple suspense is implying something bad is going to happen then suspending the outcome of that moment).
For the first 15 pages, I was so onboard with You’ll Be The Death of Me.
And then San makes a risky choice. He has Russell threaten Everett, secretly telling him that if Holly leaves that room before tomorrow morning, he will kill Everett’s family.
He then calls up Holly, and secretly tells her he knows she’s having an affair, and that Everett is a killer.
In the immortal words of Saturday Morning Cartoons: “WAH WAH WAHHHHHHH.”
First of all, if you’re a wife having an affair and your husband calls you while you’re with the other man and tells you he’s a killer, what’s your first response going to be? I’m assuming it’s something along the lines of “bullshit.” Your husband has every reason to want to get you away from this man or make you scared of him. So of course he’ll lie.
And this is something I’ve been trying to tell screenwriters forever, and something they don’t want to listen to: Before you have a character do something incredulous, ask yourself if this were the real world, would that character still do what you’re having them do?
If the answer is no, readers are going to call bullshit on you. Russell is written as a smart man. A real life smart man isn’t going to try and pull something over on a wife that she would never believe. And likewise, a real-life wife would never believe that thing even if her husband was dumb enough to try it.
Unfortunately, when a mistake like this is built into the conceit, it disqualifies everything that happens after it. If we don’t believe in how we got here, we can’t believe in what follows.
But here’s the thing about You’ll Be The Death of Me. It adds ANOTHER twist that throws everything you thought you knew out the window. It becomes a completely different story.
And I’ll be the first to admit, despite the thousands of screenplays I’ve read, I had NO FUCKING CLUE what was going on. I couldn’t venture a guess at who was pulling the strings if you gave me temporary access to Einstein’s brain.
Now was the script perfectly constructed? It was not. But it takes chances and after it hits that midpoint, it always stays ahead of you. It’s enough to keep you entertained, that’s for sure.
The contained relationship thriller is like a secret weapon sub-genre. Not many people write them, so the competition is minimal, they’re cheap to make, since they’re one location, and they’re easy to market, so producers want them. It’s the trifecta! So if you’ve got a good idea for a contained relationship thriller, the market is due for one. Take advantage!
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Be careful with scripts where there’s no one to root for. They can still work as thrillers because the audience is there for the thrills as much as they are the characters. But in You’ll Be The Death of Me, you have a cheating wife, a cheating husband, and a man who’s torturing them. Who do we root for in that scenario? Even if we’re left thrilled by the breakneck pace and clever plotting, we feel empty at the finish line because we never had anyone to latch onto. So if you’re going to write one of these films, try and add someone to root for!
SCRIPTSHADOW TOURNAMENT CONTEST REMINDER: Remember guys – Your Scriptshadow Tournament scripts are due next Sunday!!! Here are the details if you’re interested in submitting. Get cracking on those scripts!
Premise: A corrupt politician recruits an aspiring law school student to help him escape New York before the cops can capture and throw him in prison for life.
About: This script sold to Sony a couple of years ago for three-quarters of a million bucks. Say what you want about Sony’s trouble as a studio, but they buy more specs than anyone. That makes them friends to screenwriters everywhere! Writers Matthew Bass and Theodore Bressman are former assistants to comedy titans Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. It’s said that they’ve written dozens of drafts of this script, as every few months a new political scandal hits the news that either gives them new ideas or makes their previous version dated.
Writers: Matthew Bass & Theodore B. Bressman
Details: 110 pages (8/30/13 draft)
So Saturday I popped in the Sundance winning documentary, Weiner, about the infamous politician’s attempt to get back in the political game, and found myself mesmerized.
It’s a tough watch. You will never feel worse for a human being more than you will for Anthony Weiner’s wife after watching this movie. I almost had to stop watching because I felt so bad for her. And yet it’s one of those documentaries that you can’t look away from.
This jogged my memory about The Politician’s sale from a few years ago. So I pulled it out and gave it a read.
Now I advise against writing political comedies. While politics is one of the easiest things to make fun of, it’s a sober reminder of real life to most people. And people don’t go to the movies to see real life. They go to the movies to escape life. Look no further than Rogen and Goldberg’s hit, Sausage Party, as proof.
Political comedies never do well. The best ones are Wag The Dog. Bullworth. Primary Colors. All of which had their fans but were box office duds. Even The Campaign, which had the two biggest comedy stars in the world at the time, couldn’t reach the 100 million mark.
So write in this genre if you must. But I have warned you!
The Politician follows Henry Cashin, a low-life governor who cheats on his wife with hookers, uses dirty money to fund his campaign, and can’t go five minutes without doing a line of coke.
When Cashin gets caught for all his naughty deeds, he decides to make a run for it. If he can get to the airport, he can fly his private plane to his secret house in the Maldives and do lines of coke on hammock ropes for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, across town, we meet Joe, a kind-hearted aspiring lawyer who’s able to quit his job at the Apple Store when he finds out he’s been approved for a full ride at the New York City School of Law. This is much needed since his fiancé is the daughter of one of the biggest judges in the city. In Joe’s eyes, this makes him a legitimate contender to be a part of the family.
Unfortunately, when he gets to the school, they tell him that the man responsible for approving these city scholarships, Henry Cashin, did so through corrupt means, and that since Henry is now a criminal, they can’t offer Joe the scholarship.
Joe storm out, and by serendipitous fate (or lazy plotting) Henry rear ends Joe while on the run. Henry jumps in Joe’s car and tells him he’ll fund his law school if Joe will help him get to the airport. Joe reluctantly agrees, and is now abetting the most wanted man in the country.
In addition to the cops, we have by-the-books FBI officer, Jefferies, teaming up with fuck-the-books Federal Marshal, Gardini. They hate each other’s guts. And there’s also professional hitman Axel Wallace, who’s been hired by corrupt real estate developer, Sam Shankrow, to assassinate Henry before he’s able to reveal just how corrupt Shankrow is.
This shit show stumbles and bumbles its way around Manhattan leaving so much collateral damage, it’ll be a miracle if the city is still standing by the end of the day. You get the sense, though, that if there’s anybody who can survive this mayhem, it’s Henry freaking Cashin.
The Politician has a nice approach to it. Give us a scorched-earth be-as-politically-incorrect-as-possible comedy, leaving no fearless joke unturned. If it had had a little more variety, I may have been on board with this. But The Politician’s biggest weakness is its over-reliance on a single joke.
Henry Cashin’s coke obsession is funny the first few times. I even laughed the tenth time it came up. But once the joke hits the 50 counter and we’re not even at the halfway point? It starts to seem like you don’t have any other jokes in the joke shed.
Recurring jokes are an essential part of feature-length comedy. But at a certain point, you have to give us some variety, man! I don’t think Cheech and Chong mention pot in all of their movies combined more than this movie mentions coke in its first act alone.
So that bothered me because there’s a couple types of comedy out there. There’s blunt force comedy where you keep hitting them over the head with the same shit. And then there’s clever comedy, where there’s an attempt to be thoughtful with your jokes.
I’ll give you the one clever example I saw in The Politician. Corrupt real estate developer Sam Shankrow hires hitman Axel Wallace to kill Henry. Having never done this before, Shankrow is terrified that his phone calls will incriminate him if discovered.
So he uses an analogy, calling for Axel to “deliver the pizza.” The problem is, the analogy is so bad, neither of them are that sure what they’re saying to each other. Does “delivering the pizza” mean that Alex has killed the man? Does it mean he’s just now getting to Henry’s location?
It gets even better when Henry escapes Axel and Axel must relay the information to Shankrow. Shankrow responds, “So you’re telling me you’re just sitting there with a cold pizza?!” Axel rolls his eyes. “Pizza’s still warm. I just gotta drop it off at a different location. And I have a good idea of where that is.” “So you have the pizza?” “No! I don’t know! Fuck.”
Whether you think that’s funny or not, do you see how there’s an attempt to actually be clever? There’s some thought that went into the joke there. There’s not a lot of thought that goes into having Henry do a line of coke every page.
This percentage breakdown is reflective of the rest of the script. 80% is over-the-top “MORE COKE!” type humor while 20% is clever thoughtful humor. And that leads me to today’s big piece of advice.
This past week, I’ve read a lot of amateur scripts that are making a huge mistake. They aren’t giving the reader a single “I haven’t seen this before” element in their script. If there’s nothing new about your screenplay, why would somebody buy it?
What does The Politician offer us that we haven’t seen before? Running around New York? Acting crazy for laughs? We’ve seen that, haven’t we? I’ll tell you what we haven’t seen before – animated sausages. That’s something that nobody’s ever seen before.
Now you may say, “Well, this script sold, Carson.” Or “Taken wasn’t unique and it sold.” And you’re right. But you shouldn’t be trying to compete with bland ideas that managed to sell for reasons that may have nothing to do with the quality of the script.
As a spec writer, your job is to STAND OUT. I want you to say that out loud. “As a spec writer, my job is to STAND OUT.” Because you’re nobody right now. You’re not Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s assistant hearing what kind of movies they’d love to make every day. So you need to stand out in some way. And the only way you’re going to do that is with a major UNIQUE element that nobody’s seen before.
Nobody saw cars transforming into robots in movies before Transformers.
Nobody saw a buddy cop movie where the cops took down aliens before Men in Black.
Nobody saw a Godzilla-like destruction movie told from the point of view of a video camera before Cloverfield.
Nobody saw magicians pulling off heists before Now You See Me.
Nobody saw a single man stranded on Mars before The Martian.
Nobody saw a buddy comedy between a man and his talking teddy bear before Ted.
Nobody saw a dream heist movie before Inception.
If you don’t have a big “unique attractor” in your script, you will have trouble convincing anyone to read it, much less buy it. I’m not saying it’s impossible. But a) the pool of people willing to read it will go down one hundred-fold and b) the level of execution will need to rise one hundred-fold. Do the math on what that does to your chances.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: So how big does the “UNIQUE ATTRACTOR” I referred to have to be to get people interested? Unfortunately that question is as hard to answer as “What makes an idea high concept?” But I can tell you this: The bigger and more involved your unique attractor is, the better off you’ll be. For example, a vacation island with real-life dinosaurs that goes bad would be a more attractive idea than “Taken on an airplane.” And if your unique attractor is something like, “Well, nobody’s ever seen a female main character as smart as mine before,” then it’s time to pack your bags and go back to the drawing board cause that’s not unique at all. This is a question all of you should be asking yourselves before every script you write. “What do I have in my movie that nobody’s ever seen before?” If your answer is some tiny insignificant thing, you’re in trouble.
Summer’s just about wrapped up, and boy what a disaster it has been! Unless your name is Ellen, you came out of this box office bloodbath in search of your limbs, many of which were chopped off before the Saturday matinee receipts were counted.
But as bad as Hollywood has been in predicting what the public wanted in 2016, I was surprised to count twelve – that’s right, an ENTIRE DOZEN – original ideas in the top 50 films of the year so far. That’s, like, 20%! Now, if you’re wondering about pure spec scripts, that’s where things get a little depressing. There were only seven pure spec scripts.
But that’s okay. Oscar season will add a few more to that list (legendary spec script, “Passengers,” is sure to lap the competition). And today isn’t about depressing statistics. It’s about understanding what original material gets picked up by the studios so you know what to focus on.
Most writers get this bullshit touchy-feely advice of, “Just write whatever you want. As long as it’s good, people will buy it.” That’s not true. If you write about the first group of Navajo Indians to join the American school system, your script will not have to be “good” to get noticed. It will have to be SPEC-FUCKING-TACULAR.
This is a CONCEPT and GENRE driven business. So, let’s check out which original scripts made the top 50, and, therefore, what Hollywood will be seeking from you moving forward.
Title: Central Intelligence. (TRUE SPEC)
Genre: Buddy Comedy
Box office rank: 13
Box office take: 127 million
Thoughts: The buddy comedy is a tried and true formula that Hollywood will always come back to. Most writers think of it as bottom of the barrel dreck, but I think there’s a lot of ways to reinvent this genre that writers aren’t taking advantage of. Write a good buddy comedy with a fresh take and I guarantee you someone will buy it.
Title: Bad Moms (TRUE SPEC)
Box office rank: 18
Box office take: 87 million
Thoughts: Bad Moms has thrown a wrench into Hollywood’s female-driven comedy agenda. With Ghostbusters and The Boss bombing, it looked like this trend was over. But then Bad Moms surprises everyone with a strong showing and now they’re like, “Should we? Shouldn’t we?” I’d say that if you’re working on a female driven comedy spec, you’re still in business. But the next one of these that bombs, it could put the kibosh on the trend.
Title: 10 Cloverfield Lane (TRUE SPEC)
Box office rank: 24
Box office take: 72 million
Thoughts: I know, I know. This is a franchise! But technically, it wasn’t when it was bought. It was a normal spec about people trapped in an underground bunker that was later turned into a Cloverfield film. This is great news for spec writers – that you can write something that may be used in an existing franchise. The contained horror spec will always be a smart choice as young and hungry production companies are all fighting for these cheap-to-produce films.
Title: Sausage Party
Box office rank: 25
Box office take: 69 (and rising)
Thoughts: Sausage Party is as big of an outlier as there is. There are no comps for this film. I’m actually shocked that a studio funded this. Before you say, “They do anything Seth Rogen wants.” That’s not exactly true. They just cancelled “The Something,” the Seth Rogen project I reviewed awhile back about a group of guys in space who meet a ship full of women. It’s not like studios just greenlight whatever the hell these guys want. Still, I’m not sure if there are any lessons to learn from Sausage Party outside of, “If it’s funny, someone will buy it.”
Title: Lights Out
Box office rank: 28
Box office take: 64 million
Thoughts: A little shout-out to my buddies at Grey Matter here. They took this film, which cost nothing (like barely any money), and made a ton of dough off of it. This was based on a short film that the director made, which kind of makes it an adaptation, but not really. This is actually a great way for a spec screenwriter to promote his stuff – make a short movie and go viral with it!
Title: The Boss
Box office rank: 29
Box office take: 63 million
Thoughts: I’ll try to say this nicely. This feels like an idea that a husband and wife would come up with – the kind of thing an agent would tell a newbie screenwriter, “Ehh, it doesn’t quite work.” But nobody can say no to Melissa McCarthy these days, so her and her director husband get to make The Boss. Despite this being in the top 10 for original ideas, it was deemed a huge disappointment, grossing half of what they had hoped. Maybe this means no more Melissa and hubby team-ups (hopefully).
Title: The Shallows (TRUE SPEC)
Box office rank: 36
Box office take: 54 million
Thoughts: Easily the sharpest concept of the bunch. I’ve had my issues with Jaswinski’s writing, but he tuned into the public conscious here. This is 1-character show that starred one of the more boring actresses in Hollywood and it still killed at the box office. If there’s a spec success story that promotes the power of a good concept is, this is it.
Title: How to be Single (EDIT – SORRY, THIS IS BASED ON A BOOK)
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Box office rank: 42
Box office take: 46 million
Thoughts: I tried to watch this and it was simply the WORST first ten minutes of a movie I saw all year. I have no idea how anyone read this and thought it was worth making. I guess we can chalk it up to the female-driven comedy phase.
Title: Money Monster (TRUE SPEC)
Box office rank: 45
Box office take: 41 million
Thoughts: This feels like an idea that a bunch of old people would come up with, so it’s not surprising it was directed by and starred a bunch of old people. My issue is that they thought it was a clever idea and it was so not a clever idea. It was, quite frankly, a bad idea. So how did it get made? A good role. George Clooney got to do a bunch of things he’d normally not be able to do. This is why it’s always a good idea to have a really big character somewhere in your script. It’s the insurance policy that just might get your script turned into a movie, even if your script sucks.
Title: The Nice Guys
Genre: Buddy Comedy
Box office rank: 48
Box office tank: 36
Thoughts: I honestly don’t know if this was a hit or not. If it cost 15 million, then it did pretty well. Although you’d think with Ryan Gosling, it would’ve done better. Here’s my take on it. Audiences don’t like the 70s. The over-the-top outfits and big mustaches and weird hair – it feels like a different world to them. What movie set in the 70s that’s not about war has done well? Like over 50 million? Anything? I would be willing to bet (and this is partly because there’s no way to test it), that if they had made a buddy cop movie with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling set in the present? That it would’ve made triple what this made. That’s how big of a hit the period setting was on this.
Title: The Boy (TRUE SPEC)
Box office rank: 49
Box office take: 35 million
Thoughts: Another low budget contained horror film. I really liked both the script and the film for The Boy. Spooky dolls sell!
Title: Dirty Grandpa (TRUE SPEC)
Box office rank: 50
Box office take: 35 million
Thoughts: One of the saddest moments of my cinema-loving life was watching Robert DeNiro jack off for a cheap laugh. It hurt my soul. With that said, I find that these movies get made because they give older star actors an opportunity to be in a film that’s going to be on 4000 screens. That opportunity doesn’t come around as often when you’re in your 70s.
Not that I have to put a spotlight on it because it’s pretty obvious, but in case you weren’t paying attention, here are the genres of the top 12 original ideas of 2016 as of August 24th…
Any questions on which genres you should be writing to get Hollywood to notice you?
The Big Stone Grid may be the closest thing we’ll ever get to the next Seven.
Genre: Crime Thriller
Premise: A New York cop investigates a series of torture-centric murders that lead to a strange underground blackmail scheme that’s growing bigger by the day.
About: This one comes from the writer of one of my TOP FIVE favorite scripts, S. Craig Zahler, who wrote The Brigands of Rattleborge (why hasn’t this been made yet???). Making the Black List in 2011, The Big Stone Grid has been a victim of development hell. It got Michael Mann attached after its appearance on the Black List. But he left the project to make Blackhat instead (definitely made the right call there #sarcasm) and now Pierre Morel is making the film, who’s best known for directing Taken.
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Details: 137 pages – First Draft
Once you become a big screenwriting hotshot and all the studios are throwing money at you, you’ll realize that you have a new problem – a problem that is infinitely tougher than the one you faced trying to break in. You are now attempting to find the magic formula to GET YOUR MOVIE MADE.
There are many theories on the best way to do this, but it usually comes down to getting a director attached who’s seriously committed to your movie. If you can get a director attached (and by “director,” I don’t mean your friend Bob down the street who made that killer 3 minute short about zombie cats), a studio or film fund will eventually pony up the dough because established directors are the primary ingredient to getting films made.
With that in mind, here’s the thing you have to remember: EVERYONE IN HOLLYWOOD IS STUPID.
And I include myself AND you guys on that list. We are all only capable of seeing people for what they’ve last done. For example, you don’t take a Western to M. Night. You don’t take a musical to Michael Bay. You don’t take Paul Blart 3 to Paul Thomas Anderson.
And this extends to actors as well. When you have to cast the Joker, you don’t call Zak Efron. When you have to cast a bullied loser, you don’t cast Channing Tatum. We only see these actors, directors, writers, as capable of whatever we’ve last seen them do.
Everybody is afraid to take the pigeon out of the pigeon hole. BUT. If you’re smart? That could be your ticket to getting your movie made.
If you want to make The Big Stone Grid, sure, you can go to guys like Michael Mann and David Fincher. Here’s the problem though. These guys have already done this movie, or some version of it. Artists want to challenge themselves. They want to prove they can do something different. So the better option – IF you want your movie made as quickly as possible – would be to find a marketable director who hasn’t done something like this.
Big Stone Grid is slow, thick, heavy, and grimy. Who would love to direct that movie? The guy who’s been pigeonholed as the fast brainless thriller director, that’s who. This is the kind of director that would FLIP over this script. Now of course, it’s a gamble. You don’t know if he can pull it off because he hasn’t shown that yet. But would you rather play director roulette for the next dozen years or get your movie made?
Something to think about for the future.
Okay, onto The Big Stone Grid.
In classic Zahler style, we start off with a torture scene. No one does torture like this man. And while the scene isn’t as memorable as say, the famous “split-in-half” scene in Bone Tomahawk or the hamster scene in Rattleborge (a personal fave), it’s DIFFERENT. And this is why Zahler has sold so many scripts. He writes scenes that are DIFFERENT from the way other writers would write them.
Cut to Garret Winter, a Manhattan detective who’s in a bad mood, seeing as his wife just left him for some loser. Winter and his partner, Benjamin Williams, are checking out a routine suicide where an older man put a bullet in his head, but there’s something off about the crime scene.
Winter looks into it and finds that the man used to be happy until his 14 year-old niece was murdered a few years ago. He never saw life the same after that. When Winter looks deeper, he finds that a lot of mysterious murders and suicides have been happening around town, and that they all may be connected.
Meanwhile, we’re cutting to some psychopath with a burned face come to people’s houses and demand their “payment,” and when that payment can’t be paid, their friends and families are summarily butchered, usually in really horrifying ways.
But things really get fucked when Winter notices a few cops from another precinct at one of his crime scenes. There’s no reason for them to be here, and all it takes is a quick follow-up to find that lots of cops are involved in this – whatever “this” is.
(spoiler) Winter eventually learns that a complex and wide-ranging blackmail scheme is going on around the city, one that utilizes hundreds of people and all sorts of strange checks and balances so that nobody knows who else is involved. It doesn’t take the bad guys long to figure out Winter is onto them. And that his own family is now in a lot of trouble.
I always learn something new when I read Zahler, and I learned something new right away here. Winter’s introductory scene is in a stripper bar. One of the strippers comes over, butters him up, tries to give him a dance. Through their conversation, we learn that Winter is married. In fact, he takes off his wedding ring and hands it to the dancer, tells her to do what she wants with it, and leaves.
Right away, we’re not sure about this guy. He’s giving his wedding ring away to a stripper?? Not exactly winning the husband of the year award with that move. But then, a few scenes later, Winter tells his partner that his wife is leaving him for another man. Now we understand the stripper scene better.
The lesson here is that you don’t have to start with the obvious. Don’t start with the scene where the hero says, “My wife just left me.” You can start with the opposite, where it looks like HE’S the dick. And then switch it. It’s a more playful and therefore entertaining way to get to the same information.
As the script goes on, I had mixed feelings about the execution. Zahler’s scripts are more like “scrovels.” They’re a script-novel hybrid. This guy is not afraid to drop a dozen-liner on you every few pages.
And that got me thinking about this contradiction screenwriters are forced to navigate. The less you write, the easier your script is to read. However, the more information you offer, the more immersed in your world we become.
So which path do you choose?
I think there are a couple of factors to keep in mind. First, you have to be a good writer. If clarity and description comes really easy to you (not just in your mind – but people consistently tell you you’re good at it), then more detailed paragraphs are okay.
But also, you need to be legitimately interested in the details of the world you’re writing about. If you’re describing something to be descriptive, that doesn’t work. If you’re describing something because it fascinates you and you want to share that with the reader – not to mention, it adds context to the story – then that, combined with good writing, will result in readers who will be okay reading through dozen-line paragraphs.
And that’s why Zahler can get away with his verbose style. He’s good at these two things. If you’re not good at these two things, I would adopt a sparse and less ambitious style.
Anyway, back to the story. The developments in The Big Stone Grid were always cool. And I liked that it was reminiscent of Seven without being Seven. Cause that’s what a lot of writers will do when they love a movie. They’ll take a movie like Seven, move the setting to Los Angeles, change one of the detectives to a woman, then write the same movie.
Big Stone Grid was a serial killer movie without the serial killer. It was more about this mysterious blackmailing plot and trying to figure that out. That slight shift helped Big Stone Grid stand on its own.
My only issue with the script, besides it being 10% too slow, was that the ending didn’t come together in that clever “Holy shit” way you were hoping for. The mystery was unique. But when you have a unique mystery you have to come up with a unique conclusion. And that was the one choice that didn’t stand out for me.
Still, Zahler is a fun writer to study because he does a lot of things differently. You never read a Zahler script and go, “Man, that was just like the last 30 scripts I read.”
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Be inspired IN TONE and IN FEEL with your favorite films when you write your versions of them. Don’t be inspired by plot or character or you’ll write something too reminiscent of them, and I GUARANTEE YOU readers will pick up on it. They’ll know the exact movie you’re copying and they’ll call you on it. So focus on what those films made you feel and the specific tone they used, then write something that allows you to explore those same elements.
Premise: A former rodeo star turned motel owner helps his town heal after a triple-homicide, having no idea that the killer is one of his customers.
About: This script finished on the 2012 Black List and is just now coming together with one of my favorite actors, Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead). The script was written by Paul China, who hails from the faraway land of Australia. Paul wrote and directed 2011’s crime thriller, Crawl, about a seedy bar owner who hires a mysterious Croatian to commit murder, which likely caught Hollywood’s attention, leading to Sweet Virginia making the Black List. It is rumored that a kangaroo did a dialogue pass on Sweet Virginia.
Writer: Paul China (story by Paul & Benjamin China)
Details: 117 pages – 2011 draft
The other day we were talking about indie ideas and how to turn them into something bigger. Why turn them into something bigger? Well, put yourself in my shoes, or an agent’s shoes, or a producer’s shoes. If a script came across your desk about rodeos and small town trouble, would you race to read it?
So let me take this opportunity to remind you that if you have written a small-scale indie screenplay, it is ESSENTIAL you make it sound as EXCITING AS FUCKING POSSIBLE. Here’s the logline that was given to the Black List for Sweet Virginia: “A former rodeo star unknowingly starts a rapport with a young man who is responsible for all of the violence that has suddenly gripped his small town.”
Holy shit. Are you TRYING to make your script sound boring? Your movie starts with a triple murder and that’s your logline? Talk about burying the lead. Don’t let this happen to you. Get a logline consultation.
E-mail me at email@example.com with the subject line: “LOGLINE CONSULTATION.” They’re cheap and they’re worth it. This script is really fucking good. And 75% of Hollywood ignored it because that logline sounded like a snore-fest.
Anyway, onto today’s script!
Tom, Mitchell, and Lou, three locals living in a small town in Virginia, have gotten together for a weekly poker game at Lou’s bar. When a mysterious customer shows up and Lou tells him they’re closed, the customer shoots them all up.
Cut to Sam, the owner of the town’s lone motel. Sam used to be a rodeo star until a ride gone bad, and now finds himself drifting through the days, his lone focus taking care of his customers. Like everyone in town, he’s shocked by the massacre, and tries to comfort those affected.
Meanwhile, we get a little more backstory on that murder. It turns out that Lila, Mitchell’s wife, paid to have him killed. And ONLY him. However, our killer was supposed to wait until Mitchell left the joint, and when Mitchell didn’t leave when he was told Mitchell would leave, our killer impatiently took matters into his own hands.
That killer is a stone cold sociopath named Elwood, and Elwood wants his payout, which Lila is supposed to receive in her will. However, as you might have guessed, it turns out Mitchell wasn’t the best with finances, and had been lying to Lila about how well off they were.
Lila must now figure out a way to pay an increasingly impatient Elwood, who, at this point, has befriended a clueless Sam back at the motel. Sam’s also got some secrets he’s hiding, and those secrets will collide with Lila’s and Elwood’s in one powerful finale.
Sweet Virginia is a really GOOD script, and like a lot of impressives on this site, it gets there by breaking some rules. As much as I love simple solid storytelling, the truth is that in order to write something great, it has to be so unlike everything out there that you have no choice but to break some rules.
What’s the broken rule here? There’s no goal. Well, that’s not entirely true, but it’s a little harder to find the goal since it isn’t coming from our protagonist, Sam. This is advanced stuff here so pay attention.
The engine driving this screenplay is coming from the villain, Elwood. Elwood wants his money. We know that the story can’t end until he either gets his money or eliminates the person who didn’t give him his money, so that’s the main reason we keep reading. We want to see how that story thread ends.
But that’s not powerful enough to drive a story all by itself, particularly because Elwood isn’t actively pursuing his money. Most of the time, he’s waiting. I always tell you guys, waiting is boring! Your main characters shouldn’t be waiting! So how does Sweet Virginia survive this issue?
Dramatic irony. We know Elwood is the killer, but nobody else does. So when he gets into interactions with others, particularly Sam, whom he befriends, it’s exciting, since there’s so much subtext in every scene. We’re sitting there going, “He’s the killer! He’s the killer! Don’t you realize it!” You may know of another hotel-centric film that utilized this approach.
China also peppers the story with a few subplots. For example (spoiler), Tom is sleeping with the wife of one of the men killed in the massacre, and has been for a long time. She loves him. He cares for her. We want to know if they’re going to end up together, which keeps us reading.
Subplots act as insurance in stories like this that don’t have huge story engines. They give the reader one more reason to keep reading. The more subplots, the more insurance (as long as the subplots are actually, you know, GOOD!).
But the truth is, I knew China knew what he was doing long before we got to the second act. I knew he knew what he was doing from the very first scene because he did something that bad writers don’t do.
That first scene is a really long one – 10 pages – and consists of a group of men sitting around talking. Characters sitting around talking, especially for a long time, is boring as shit.
Unless you create suspense in the scene. And that’s what China did. He mentions a mysterious car parked in the back of the driveway early on in the scene. Remember that all suspense is is implying something bad is going to happen and then drawing it out. We knew that car was bad news, so even though we’re listening to these boring men ramble on, we’re wondering, “Who’s in that car?”
Also cool was how China LAYERED the suspense. So at first, he goes with the fairly innocuous car in the parking lot. Then he brings Elwood into the bar and has him sit down and order. A lesser writer would’ve had Elwood come in and kill everyone right away. No, this is the perfect opportunity to build more suspense!
After the conversation ends, then, and only then, does Elwood kill them. This way, China got the most bang for his buck out of the scene. No pun intended.
Lots of good writing beyond this as well. The character development was top notch. Everybody here felt real. There were none of those tacked on Screenwriting 101 character traits (the character used to be a juggler) as a fake way to add depth. Read this script and tell me you don’t feel Sam’s pain after being a rodeo superstar and now a battered down nobody motel owner. I dare ya.
I would say I’m surprised this movie took so long to get made. But if that’s the logline they went with, I’m actually not. Thank god the script was great!
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: You know how after a movie is shot, a marketing team comes in and decides what the best way to promote the film is? The same thing goes on after you finish your screenplay. Except you’re the marketing team. You have to come up with the best way to promote your screenplay. A snazzy logline is the billboard that’s going to be on the side of every highway in America. Make sure it’s one hell of a billboard cause if you don’t, ain’t no one showing up to (reading) your flick.