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Premise (from writer): P.I. Sam Marlowe shows novice writer Raymond Chandler the realities of detective work, juggling gangsters, corrupt politicians and movie star Jean Harlow to find out who’s burning farms on the Arroyo Seco Canyon.
Why You Should Read (from writer): This is the real life story from the files of Detective Samuel B. Marlowe.
Writer: L.M. Ransil
Details: 107 pages
I’m going to say something that’s rather embarrassing. I don’t know anything about Raymond Chandler, one of the most famous novelists of all time. I’ve, of course, heard his name. But I had to rely on good old Google to know what he wrote, and just how big time he actually was.
When I realized that Chandler was going to be a selling point of the story, I was worried. There aren’t too many people around with a healthy memory of the 30s, and with this being such a youth-obsessed town, selling stories to a youth-obsessed audience, I wondered if a movie from that time could drum up any interest.
However, as the script goes on, and we start wandering onto the stages of MGM, and into the back yard of Hollywood starlet Jean Harlow, I began to see the potential of “Marlowe” to exploit the L.A. noir sub-genre, which always finds its way into production every few years or so. So, were we gonna get another L.A. Confidential here? Or was this no-ir close to that (Get it? “no-where.” Hey, it’s Friday, people. Loosen up!)?
“Marlowe” is so densely plotted and has so much going on, it’s a little hard to keep up with, but I’ll do my best to summarize. Sam Marlowe is an African-American private investigator in Los Angeles, circa 1937 (the very first, in fact).
When he’s not working, Marlowe usually sits at his office, where he cavorts with his good friend and aspiring actress, Velma, and Velma’s brother, the mentally retarded Freddy. On this particular occasion, he’s also brought home the perpetually wasted Raymond Chandler, a friend and aspiring novelist.
So one day, Freddy comes back stabbed in the gut, on death’s doorstep, a camera in his hand. He mentions something about a fire in “Arroyo Seco” and then dies. Committed to finding his killer, Marlowe goes on the offensive.
Along the way, he finds himself lured in by one of the studios, MGM, who wants him to find their new cash cow, starlet Jean Harlow, who’s recovering from her husband’s (famous director Paul Bern) suicide, by partying her brains to mush.
While going after Harlow, Marlowe runs into Los Angeles bigwigs like the mayor, the district attorney, and uber-gangster Benjamin Siegel, who all, for some odd reason, have taken an interest in his latest exploits. Could this have something to do with the rumor that Harlow’s husband didn’t commit suicide, but was possibly murdered?
Eventually, Marlowe chases down Freddy’s murderers to an old house in Arroyo Seco, where he discovers a conspiracy by the town’s politicians and gangsters to burn everything in sight in order to create a highway between there and L.A. proper, that will make everyone rich.
“Marlowe” has been gaining some heat in other areas of the internet (I know it did well in The Tracking Board competition) and you can immediately see why. The script is dense with “old-world” Los Angeles mythology, a time capsule into 1937 that was so well-researched, you could feel the corrupt cops breathing down your neck.
The thing is, “Marlowe” is so full of story, I began to lose sight of what the story actually was. The script starts out being about Marlowe looking into his friend’s murder. However, it quickly turns into Marlowe needing to find and take care of Jean Harlow. Finally, there’s a plot that involves a mysterious house that Velma is trying to secure so she can bury her brother on the land.
All of these things are interconnected, but most of those connections are kept from us as mysteries to be revealed later. As the second act evolves, it’s clear that Harlow’s storyline is taking precedence, so we jump on board with that. Once that winds down, however, and we head back to Freddy’s murder and the house in Arroyo Seco, I’d forgotten a lot of the intricate details required to connect the overall mystery’s dots.
I guess my question would be, does “Marlowe” have too much plot going on? Are we trying to do too much here? That may come down to who the audience for Marlowe it. If it’s for people steeped in L.A. noir lore who know all these names like the back of their hand, it’s probably a lot easier for them to keep up.
For someone like me, though, who knew nobody, it took a lot more brain-power just to connect one scene with the next, much less understand the overall mystery. I’m still trying to figure out how that house in Arroyo Seco was connected to everything.
I guess in the end, you make a choice as a writer who you want to appease, the people who know everything or the people who know nothing. But for me, personally, I would’ve loved a little more hand-holding. I’m a bit of a simpleton.
In addition to the complexity of the plot, I was surprised at how little Raymond Chandler had to do with it. Since the script starts with him, we’re led to believe he’s going to be a major character. Particularly because Marlowe supposedly inspired Chandler’s greatest works. But Chandler passes out early, is absent for 80 pages, before returning for the finale.
Having said all that, there are definitely some things to celebrate about Marlowe. First, the character work is really strong. You feel everyone here, from the weight of the city’s biggest gangster to the widespread corruption of the most insignificant beat cop. Writing memorable characters is one of the hardest things to do in screenwriting, so whenever I see it done well, I have to give the writer an ovation.
Also, Marlowe is a protagonist actors are going to want to play. A black private detective who stands toe-to-toe with the city’s biggest white personalities in 1937? I could see Denzel Washington chewing this role up.
The dialogue is good too. Ransil understands the nuances of that chip-on-your shoulder back-and-forth a p.i. in 1937 would dish out. “I don’t like your manners,” someone says to Marlowe. “Don’t like’em much either,” he replies. “Let justice do its job, Marlowe,” the D.A. says later. “Justice goes to the highest bidder. Anyone who can’t pay, better go find his own.” There’s a lot of that here, and it’s all pretty darn good.
But you guys know me at this point. I’m all about the story. If the story isn’t at the very least, clear, it’s hard for me to get on board. And that’s my big issue with “Marlowe.” I think there’s too much going on in it. I’d ask Ransil if there’s any way to simplify this.
Do we really even need Chandler? Since he’s only in the last 20 pages? And do we need Freddy? I know it’s his murder that starts this investigation, but it’s clear that the Jean Harlow stuff is the main storyline, overpowering Freddy so much that his murder almost becomes an afterthought.
What if we started with Marlowe getting hired by the studio to find Harlow? That investigation leads him into the Chinatown’esque conspiracy of Arroyo Seco. Then you only have to connect the dots between two elements instead of three. In many ways, it would still be the same story. I think it’s good that Freddy gives Marlowe’s case a more personal slant, but if it’s at the expense of clarity, maybe it isn’t the right way to go.
Then again, this was only my experience with the screenplay. Others may have been able to follow it just fine. That’s the nice thing about the comments section, is that we can pinpoint common problems.
But yeah, I thought “Marlowe” had a lot of good things going for it, and there’s no doubt Ransil is a talented writer. I would just hope that in future drafts, it’s a little easier to follow.
Script link: Marlowe
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: When you’re writing real-life people into your script, don’t assume that the reader knows who they are, because a lot of readers won’t know who they are. Treat these characters just like you’d treat any characters and have them work on their own right. In other words, a story should never be determined by its “celebrity cameos” but rather by the quality and clarity of the characters as they relate to the story.
We are nearly a third of the way through the year (how did that happen? Just yesterday it was New Years!). While we can’t make any definitive judgments about the 2014 box office (and how it affects us screenwriters) yet, that’s not going to stop me from doing so. I do these write-ups mainly because writers don’t realize how hard it is to a) get a spec purchased, and b) get a spec made into a movie. They think anything they write has a shot at being made into a movie. And I hate to say it, but that’s not the case.
Hollywood is more narrow-minded in what it lets through, and it’s important for you to know which types of movies those are. Also pay attention to the worldwide grosses, as more and more projects are being determined by how they’ll do overseas. And, of course, pay attention to the kinds of movies that audiences are going to in general. These are the movies the public wants to see, so these are the kinds of writers Hollywood is looking for. Now, of course, we haven’t hit the summer yet, when all the big boys come out. And we’re still a ways away from the “serious” movies that come out at the end of the year. But this is still a good representation of what studios are looking to make. Let’s take a look.
1) The LEGO Movie
Writers: Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman and Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
Domestic Gross: $251 million
Worldwide Gross: $425 million
Origin: Legos are, of course, a toy, which means the number one movie of 2014, so far, is based on a product. Of note is that they made the movie to span a large demo – not just children – by writing a clever imaginative script.
2) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Writers: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely – concept and story by Ed Brubaker – based on the comic book by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Domestic Gross: $167 million (and counting)
Worldwide Gross: $502 million (and counting)
Origin: Another comic book adaptation and sequel. Captain America is part of the new “universe” approach that studios have gotten jiggy for. This was another solid script that the writers clearly put a lot of time into. One of the reasons Marvel is on top right now is because they don’t phone it in with their scripts.
3) Ride Along (SPEC SCRIPT!)
Writers: Greg Coolidge and Jason Mantzoukas and Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi (story by Greg Coolidge)
Domestic Gross: $134 million
Worldwide Gross: $149 million
Origin: Okay, here’s our top spec script showing of the year. Notice that it combines elements of comedy and action, very spec-friendly elements. While comedies aren’t as big as they used to be, due to their dismal worldwide prospects, this proves that if you want to write a spec, a comedy is a good way to go, and the old “buddy cop” formula is still working.
Writers: Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor (based on the novel by Veronica Roth)
Domestic Gross: $126 million
Worldwide Gross: $176 million
Origin: Adaptation of a book, specifically a YA novel. Divergent has done well, but not as well as Lionsgate would’ve hoped. This may show that the YA novel craze is losing steam, or at least the female-driven side is (male-centric YA novel adaptations are coming. We’ll see how those do).
5) Mr. Peabody & Sherman
Writers: Jay Ward and Craig Wright and Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon and Michael McCullers
Domestic Gross: 105 million
Worldwide Gross: 248 million
Origin: This was adapted from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show, which makes it classic intellectual property based on a cartoon. Animation is a beast because it can bring in every single demo when done well.
6) 300: Rise of An Empire
Writers: Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad (based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller)
Domestic Gross: $105 million
Worldwide Gross: $328 million
Origin: Intellectual property strikes again. Here we have a sequel to a film based on a graphic novel. I think one of the reasons graphic novels have been so popular lately is that unlike traditional books, executives can actually see the visual style of the movie right there in front of them. So snatch up the rights to cool graphic novels if you can find them!
7) Non-Stop (SPEC SCRIPT!)
Writers: John W. Richardson & Chris Roach and Ryan Engle (story by Richardson and Roach)
Domestic Gross: $90 million
Worldwide Gross: $186 million
Origin: We got another spec script here, this one a straight-forward thriller, which is a great genre to write in if you’re trying to sell a script. I have to admit I didn’t like this at all when I read it, but if you write something a studio can easily market, they’ll pay for the big actor and all of a sudden, you have a film to be reckoned with at the box office.
Writers: Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel
Domestic Gross: $86 million (and counting)
Worldwide Gross: 248 million (and counting)
Origin: Here we have an adaptation of something in the public domain. So in that sense, it’s technically a spec script. However, it’s a spec by the director himself, and writer-director projects can’t be seen as specs in the traditional sense. Biblical stories are sort of hot right now, and as a writer told me the other day, the Bible is chock full of good story material.
9) The Monuments Men
Writers: George Clooney & Grant Heslov (based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter)
Domestic Gross: $77 million
Worldwide Gross: $153 million
Origin: The Monuments Men was adapted from a book. Projects like these are hard to base future decisions on. If Joe Schmoe would’ve written this, I’m not sure it would’ve gone anywhere. This was Clooney’s love child to begin with, so he was promoting it from the get-go. His amazing cast didn’t hurt either. I’ll also say this about Clooney. Everyone loves him. He’s one of the few guys who seems unaffected by fame and understands how lucky he is. If you’re that kind of person in this business, good things tend to happen to you. Therefore, I’m not surprised that actors jumped at the chance to help him with his passion project.
10) The Nut Job
Writers: Lorne Cameron & Peter Lepeniotis (story by Daniel Woo)
Domestic Gross: $63 million
Worldwide Gross: $69 million
Origin: Here we have another animated film, but I want you to note the difference between this one and the two other higher ranked animated films on this list. In those cases, the subject matter catered to both kids and adults (Every adult used to play with legos and Mr. Peabody was based on an old cartoon that adults were familiar with). The Nut Job clearly only caters to kids. And when you do that, no matter how much kids want to see the film, many parents will resist because they know it’s going to be dumbed-down nonsense. So write your animation for kids AND adults, since the adults are the ones with the actual credit card.
–OTHER NOTABLE SPEC SCRIPTS–
28) Devil’s Due (SPEC SCRIPT!)
Writer: Lindsay Devlin
Domestic Gross: $16 million
Worldwide Gross: $33 million
Origin: Found-footage is still the cheapest genre to produce, so this is a nice genre to write in. The tricky thing is that a TON of these are going straight-to-video, and I still haven’t figured out what determines which films go straight-to-videos and which ones get wide releases. It all seems quite arbitrary. I guess all you can do is come up with the coolest most original found-footage concept you can, write a killer script, and hope for the best.
32) Draft Day (SPEC SCRIPT!)
Writers: Scott Rothman & Rajiv Joseph
Domestic Gross: $12 million (and counting)
Worldwide Gross: no international release yet
Origin: This is the truest spec script project here. Draft Day is the script that finished tops on the Black List a couple of years ago. And unlike all these other spec scripts that made the list, it’s not based on a common “spec script” genre. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t do well. Personally, I thought the script was awesome and it was botched on the directing end. They tried to give this that Jerry Maguire sheen. It should’ve been a lot grittier.
35) Bad Words (SPEC SCRIPT!)
Writer: Andrew Dodge
Domestic Gross: $7 million
Worldwide Gross: no international release yet
Origin: This was a good script, but it’s hard for these edgy indie comedies (comedies not built around a mainstream idea) to break out and do well at the box office. However, these do really well on the script-reading circuit as they’re generally more fun to read that those bigger mainstream ideas. And for that reason, a few of them always get made.
I don’t know about you, but I see a lot of adventure, action, comedy, and thrillers. This is not surprising. People go to the movies to FEEL SOMETHING other than their otherwise boring lives. They want to laugh, they want to be scared, they want a rush. Which is why these genres do so well. Even in the two period pieces that made the top ten (Noah and Monuments) there’s plenty of action. I’m a little disappointed to see only 5 spec scripts in the top 50 (not counting some of these low-grossing indie films). Then again, based on the low-quality of scripts I’ve been reading lately, I guess it makes sense. The problem, I think, is that more and more prod-cos are snatching up intellectual property and hiring writers to write the material, so good writers would rather go for the guaranteed money than risk 8 months on a spec. Then again, that’s good news for all of you. With less people competiting in the spec market, there’s more of an opportunity to write something that stands out and gets noticed.
So, what about you guys? What conclusions did you draw from this list?
Genre: Dark Comedy
Premise: A man loses his wife to a car crash and then loses himself. The only person who can save him is a marijuana addicted candy bar vending machine customer service rep who’s too anxious to meet him in person.
About: This script was on the 2007 Black List and forgotten until last year when Jean-Marc Vallee, the director of Dallas Buyer’s Club, read the script and wanted to direct it for his next project. Here are his thoughts: “Demolition is such a powerful and touching story, written with a strong and sincere desire to try to understand the human psyche, what makes us so unique, so special, what makes us love. This is a script of a rare quality, of a beautiful humanity.” Wow, how could you not want to read the script after that? Now with all that being said, Vallee is one of the most sought after directors in town after Dallas Buyer’s Club’s double-Oscar win, so I don’t know if this is still in his plans. I know his next film is with Reese Witherspoon, the adaptation of the non-fiction phenomenon, “Wild.” But I’m not sure if that was the film he replaced Demolition with or one he was doing when he decided Demolition would be next. Writer Bryan Sipe has been writing and directing small indie movies for over a decade, still looking for that first major writing credit.
Writer: Bryan Sipe
Details: 113 pages
I was eyeing up spec sale 40,000 Man, the Six Million Dollar Man spoof about a guy who’s built by the government on a budget, knowing it was going to be a really breezy read and therefore an easy review. But I realized that when you read 40,000 Man, you’re getting exactly what you think you’re getting. There are no surprises there. That’s a boring read and a boring write-up.
So I decided on Demolition instead. After I read Vallee’s endorsement, I felt this could be one of those sleeper scripts. I always pay close attention to when a director loves a script because directors are what make the business go round. All the good actors are desperate to work with the good directors, so these are the guys you need to impress to get a script greenlit.
Demolition’s director catnip was all the little dream cutaways. For example, our main character would be looking at everybody walking around the airport and, via voice over, wonder what all their luggage would look like if it was all dumped into one big pile. And so we’d jump-cut to that pile.
Then he’d wonder what it would be like to hold one of the military guard’s guns. And then to shoot a fleeing terrorist. And we’d see that. Directors LOVE this kind of shit. Because it’s visual. It’s something they can show off with. You can’t do that with a straight-forward script. And that’s what sets Demolition apart from its competition. It’s not a straight-forward script.
38 year-old Davis Mitchell is absent-mindedly listening to his wife yap away while she drives them to work, when all of a sudden a car crashes into them. Davis walks away with a few scratches. His wife, however, dies.
Later in the hospital, Davis tries to use the vending machine, only to have the candy bar get caught in the metal thing. After the hospital refuses to help, Davis sends a letter to the vending machine’s customer service division, expressing his desire for a refund. But what starts as a “You owe me 75 cents” letter turns into a series of long confessionals about how he never loved his wife and how he has no idea what to do with his life anymore.
The customer service rep who receives these letters is Karen, a pot-addict with anxiety issues and a 17 year-old son who uses M-80 firecrackers to drive home his point during oral presentations at school. He’s pretty fucked up too.
Karen falls in love with Davis’s letters, and by association falls in love with Davis. She starts to follow him around town, eventually calling him, but avoiding a meeting. They get to know each other on the phone, finally meet, and Davis is enamored with her. So he starts stalking her back, eventually showing up at her house, and oh yeah, she forgot to tell him, she’s engaged.
The two keep seeing each other anyway, because they’re drawn to one another’s self-destructive nature. During this time, Davis creates an unhealthy desire to demolish things. Doesn’t matter if it’s an espresso machine, a vase, or his own house. He seemingly needs to destroy whatever he comes across.
As his professional and personal life implode, Davis must figure out why to keep going, now that his life doesn’t have structure anymore. The biggest question of all is, will Karen be a part of that new life?
So yesterday I saw Leonardo Dicaprio sign onto yet another book adaptation. And I can’t help asking, why do these big actors keep choosing these book adaptations over spec screenplays? It’s not always because the books have built-in audiences. I doubt The Reverent has sold a hundred thousand copies.
The more I look into it, the more I realize it’s because in a book, you can be right there in a character’s head with him. That kind of access moves people in a way scripts have a hard time doing. In scripts, you can only develop character through choices, actions, and interactions. You don’t have that first-person advantage a book does. And when Leo signs onto a project like this, I think he’s playing that big thick character whose head he jumped into in the book. I don’t think he’s playing that thin little guy you see in the screenplay.
But! There’s hope! There is one tool left for us screenwriters, one that brings the audience just as close as a first person novel does. It’s called “voice over.” Now voice over gets a bad rap, but if you look back at a lot of the movies you love, you’ll see a lot of voice over, whether it be The Shawshank Redemption or Taxi Driver (or really any of Scorcese’s films). By getting in that character’s head, we feel like we know them in a way that no “choice” or “action” or “interaction” can give us.
BUT, I still think straight up voice over is lazy. The good writers find a way to do it cleverly, or at the very least, motivate it. That’s what I loved about Demolition. Sipe uses this whole “write a letter to the vending machine company” as a way to get into Davis’s head. It starts off as him wanting his money back, but soon he’s able to dish on his whole life. And we don’t question it. The setup for the letters was so fun and believable (he’s gone a little nuts after his wife died) that we go with it.
But what really sets Demolition apart is it’s a different kind of love story, which is exactly why Silver Linings Playbook did so well. This is what writers don’t do enough of. They don’t give us new takes. They simply re-hash old takes. Demolition is not an old take.
Another thing you’re stuck with when you’re writing these “love story” scripts, whether they be drama, comedy, or whatever, is that things can get boring between the characters quickly. With only two people, there are only so many conversations you can give them to keep us interested. So it takes a good writer to figure out other ways to keep us engaged. Sipe did a really good job of this.
First, he kept our romantic leads away from each other for awhile. You have to tease the audience. The first few times these guys talk, it’s on the phone only. Karen is too scared to meet him.
Then, Sipe created a couple of mysteries. There’s a mysterious car that keeps following Davis around everywhere. Also, Karen keeps promising to tell Davis something she’s never told anyone before. These are carrots you’re dangling in front of your audience to keep them reading. If done well, we will want to eat those carrots.
Finally, he added an extra relationship. Again, if it were only Davis and Karen, we’d be bored, so Sipe gave us Karen’s teenage son, Chris, as well. He and Davis begin a rocky friendship that plays into their development as the script goes on.
Demolition was an unexpected treat, a sort of cross between Silver Linings Playbook and American Beauty. If you like non-traditional love stories with fucked up characters taking center stage, this one is for you.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Feelings that are the OPPOSITE of what the character is supposed to be feeling are usually more interesting than feelings that are exactly what a character is supposed to be feeling. Think about it. If a woman loses her husband in a car crash and can’t stop crying, it’s both expected and, if done poorly, melodramatic. But if she has no reaction. Or if she seems happy about it? That throws us off and tends to make us curious. We want to figure out what’s going on with this character and why she would act this way.
Genre: TV Pilot (Horror)
Premise: (from network) Set in the volatile world of 17th century Massachusetts, ‘Salem’ explores what really fueled the town’s infamous witch trials and dares to uncover the dark, supernatural truth hiding behind the veil of this infamous period in American history. In Salem, witches are real, but they are not who or what they seem.
About: When you think about cutting edge television, WGN America probably isn’t the first channel that comes to mind. But that’s only because they’ve never had an original television show to TRY and become cutting edge with! Enter Brannon Braga & Adam Simon’s new pilot, Malice (now known as “Salem”). You might have heard Braga’s name before. He’s made many geeks happy writing on shows like 24, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the short lived but cool Flashforward. Co-writer Adam Simon, who’s been writing for over 30 years (his first credit was 1990’s “Brain Dead”) is best known for writing the 2009 film, “The Haunting in Connecticut.” Salem debuts this Sunday.
Writers: Brannon Braga & Adam Simon
Details: 61 pages (May 2, 2013 draft)
Only two more episodes left of Breaking Bad. I’m trying to extend them out as long as possible because I don’t want it to be over. After that, I’m not sure where I’ll head on the TV landscape. I watched one season of Mad Men, which I liked but didn’t love. I was thinking of getting back into it but people don’t seem to be too excited about it anymore.
I liked The Walking Dead, but also left off somewhere in Season 2. That’s probably the leading contender since the show only seems to be getting bigger and bigger. There’s also Game of Thrones. I watched 5 episodes of that and, I’ll be honest, became pretty impatient with the format (lots of talk talk talk talk talk scenes, which would be fine… if your story didn’t occur in a land of dragons and blue people). It seems like it’s a big universe to set up though, and appears to be the show with the biggest number of payoffs (I feel like every month I’m reading about another huge shocker on the show). So maybe I’ll hitch a ride on a dragon and become a Throner (is that what you call yourselves?). What do you guys think I should watch?
Maybe Salem can become my new watch-fest. Yeah, it’s on WGN America, which has never had an original show before, but here’s how I see it. If you’re the first ever show on a network, they’re going to let you go nuts. These execs know that the way you get noticed in TV these days isn’t to do what everyone else is doing. It’s to do something different. So let’s see what kind of show we’re gonna get.
Although the writers never tell us what year it is (tsk tsk writers), I did some online research to find out that the Salem Witch Trials occurred in the 1690s, in Salem, Massachusetts. When your reader has to do your research for you, that usually makes said reader angry.
After getting over that, I was introduced to our hero, John Alden. 16 year old Alden is in love with 16 year old Mary, but unfortunately has to head off to war. That’s one of the great story options you have whenever you’re writing a period piece. You can always write in some war that your hero has to go off to.
This, of course, means your hero will come back, older and wiser, to a place that has changed a lot, which is exactly what’s happened to Salem. Alden is now 27, thought to be a casualty of war, but pops back in to his old haunt, only to find three bodies hanging just outside the town. Apparently, since he left, his town has been overrun by witches. They’ve even brought over an English heavyweight to get rid of them, a witch-expert by the name of Cotton Mather.
Alden doesn’t believe in witchcraft, and yells at anyone who tells him otherwise. All he cares about is finding Mary again. But that turns into an unwanted surprise. Mary has gone off and married Old Man Sibley, a guy Alden and Mary used to despise as children.
The good news is she clearly still holds a candle for Alden. So we’re hoping these two are going to make it happen. Excccccc-cept we learn that Mary’s holding a little secret from her former lover. Turns out Mary’s a witch. She’s so evil, in fact, that she’s cast a spell on her husband so that he’s a prisoner in his own body, a slobbering vegetable.
Eventually, Alden comes to realize that maybe this witchcraft stuff isn’t so ridiculous after all, and goes to Cotton to see how he can help stop them. Cotton tells him this won’t be as simple as a few hangings. This is going to be a long drawn out war. A war that the witches will do anything to win.
Salem was pretty good. I noticed something immediately that I didn’t see from yesterday’s film. If you read that review, I commented that, in horror, you need at least one super memorable scene, something that freaks people out, the kind of thing you can imagine people talking about afterwards.
Remember, in this day and age, with social media and the good old fashioned internet, word of mouth is as powerful as ever. If you can come up with something that chills people, freaks them out, or unnerves them, everyone’s going to be talking about it, and that means more people are going to watch your movie (or your show).
Oculus didn’t have a single scene like that. Salem had three. The first was when Mary, as a pregnant 16 year old, has an abortion, with her servant literally reaching her hand inside her and pulling out the fetus. It was terribly uncomfortable. But it was MEMORABLE.
Next, there’s a scene where a young teenaged girl who is thought to be a witch is tied down and shaved. Every single inch of her is shaved, and one of the men watching this finds himself getting inadvertently aroused. It’s disgusting and sick. But it’s MEMORABLE.
Finally, there’s a huge orgy that occurs with all the witches in the forest, wearing animal heads, and covered in a strange moss-like grimy substance that seems to enhance all the slipping and sliding and pleasure for everyone involved. It’s disarming. But it’s MEMORABLE.
If you’re going to do horror these days, you have to push the envelope a little bit. You have to freak us out. It’s almost like you want whoever reads the script to say, “Are they really going to film this?” That’s when you know you’re pushing the envelope. Salem had that.
There’s something else I’m catching on to in a lot of these pilots I’m reading. There’s usually a character who starts out one way and ends up another by the end of the pilot. I’m not talking about a character overcoming his flaw, like you’d see in a movie (a man who’s selfish learns to be selfless), but rather their beliefs change or our perceptions of them change because of new information.
So here we have Alden, who doesn’t believe in witches. But by the end, he realizes they’re real. There’s Cotton, who we see as bad since he’s killing witches, when we know there are no such thing as witches. But then we learn that witches are real, and all of a sudden, Cotton becomes a guy fighting a just cause. Then there’s Mary. She starts out as the perfect little princess of our story, but then turns out to be a witch.
So when you’re writing these pilots, make sure characters are changing (or our perception of them is changing) during the course of the story.
Finally, probably the hardest thing to do with a pilot like this (something steeped in history and lore) is to pack all that mythology in there. It has to feel like its bursting with possibilities. Think of it like a dinner. Too many amateur pilots I read feel like they ate a couple of sushi rolls and a piece of celery. Your pilot should feel like a five-course Thanksgiving meal. Like its belly is full – that it can’t even eat one more mint. Braga and Simon clearly did a great job researching and filling this world up as there arose details around every corner. It reminded me a lot of Travis Beachem’s “Killing on Carnival Row” in that sense.
Unfortunately, whenever you’re doing a show like this, you’re only as good as your budget. Once Upon A Time had big ambitions but its budget made it look like it was 1982 again. So I don’t know if WGN America will be able to show off this rich complex period world Braga and Simon have created. But if they do it justice, they should have a good show on their hands.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Don’t be afraid to make one of your main characters a “bad guy.” I think as writers, we often want to protect our characters. Particularly our main characters. We want them to be good and just. But Salem taught me that it’s usually more interesting if you make one of those main characters “bad.” I thought Mary was going to be a typical unattainable romantic interest as she had married the town leader while Alden was gone. That might’ve worked out okay. When we found out Mary was a witch though, now her character takes on a whole new meaning and is far more fascinating.
Premise: A woman tries to exonerate her brother, who was convicted of murder, by proving that the crime was committed by a supernatural mirror.
About: Oculus is the newest movie from horror kingpin, Blumhouse Productions. Everyone who made the film (writers and directors) are fairly new to the business. The film came out in theaters this weekend and finished third at the box office, with around 12 million dollars (behind Captain America and Rio 2). Coolest thing about Oculus? Definitely not the movie itself. But rather Rory Cochrane, who played the iconic Ron Slater in the classic Dazed and Confused, starred as the father in the film.
Writers: Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard (based on a short screenplay by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Seidman)
Details: 105 minutes
Blumhouse is an interesting story. For a long time in Hollywood, people were making 20-40 million dollar horror films. If you were lucky, those films would make 70 million at the box office, and then some more money on DVD. Blumhouse came in and said, “There’s gotta be a better way to do this.”
How? Well, scaring people doesn’t take a big budget. It just takes a good concept and a smart script. So they started making these movies budgeted at under 5 million dollars, that were still getting those 70 million dollar box office returns (or more!). All of a sudden your profit was 65 milllion dollars instead of 30. Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Purge, Sinister are a few of the films that have benefited from this model.
This approach really shook the industry up. Why make big-budget horror movies anymore? We can just give Blumhouse a few million bucks and print money. Blumhouse might as well of called itself Powerhouse.
That is until today. Today, Blumhouse proved why its model is imperfect, exposing a big challenge in writing these kinds of films. I’ll get to that in a sec. But for those who didn’t see the film this weekend, here’s a recap.
Oculus follows a brother and a sister who experienced one hell of a shitty childhood together. When Kaylie and Tim were young, their father (whose job is still a mystery to me) worked in his office at home, where (for reasons that are still a mystery to me) he’s purchased a really really really old mirror that doesn’t go with the rest of the office at all.
Kaylie and Tim watch as this mirror starts to possess their father, which in turn drives their mother mad. In order to save himself and his sister, little Tim is forced to kill his dad at just 10 years old. But that’s not the main storyline. The main storyline actually takes place 11 years later, with Tim finally being released from the mental institution he’s been rehabilitated at, as he is now deemed fit for society.
When he meets up with his sister for the first time in forever, he thinks they’re going to go bowling or grab a big mac or something. Instead, she tells him they’re fulfilling their promise from when they were kids – to destroy the mirror that possessed their dad.
Tim is shocked to find that Kaylie still owns their parents’ house after all this time (which makes zero real-world sense, of course), and actually HAS THE MIRROR. She’s set up a bunch of monitoring equipment throughout the house so she can document what happens and prove the truth – that the mirror possessed their dad and made him crazy.
The problem is, during the past 11 years, Tim has been brainwashed by the world’s best psychiatrists, who’ve told him that everything he experienced in that house was his imagination. That the mirror wasn’t evil or possessed at all. Tim was just a deranged boy. So Tim is trying to convince Kaylie that she’s nuts.
While all of this is happening, flashbacks are inserted to show us just what happened with Dad and the mirror that fateful summer. We already know he and the mom were killed, but the writers want us to know how. And therefore, we get a sort of dual-storyline, 60% present, 40% past, which all takes place in this house, with this mirror.
What is the worst mistake a horror movie can make?
NOT BEING SCARY.
Oculus is a horror movie and it isn’t even scary! It’s just two young adults talking to each other for 90 minutes. When you write a horror movie, scary needs to be a given. On top of that, scary movies need that one huge super memorable scary freaking moment that you know audiences will be talking about afterwards. In The Ring it’s when the girl climbs out of the TV (amongst other things). In The Exorcist, it’s when the girl’s head spins around. In Rosemary’s Baby, it’s the rape dream. What is it here?
It’s not even that it didn’t have this scene that bothered me. It’s that it DIDN’T EVEN TRY TO HAVE ONE. There wasn’t even an attempt. It was all just a bunch of talking and dumb jump scares.
But anyway, here’s the problem when you try to make the 5 million dollar horror movie. When you make the 5 million dollar horror movie, you have to limit your locations heavily. You usually get one big location, maybe a few early outside shots to imply a bigger world, and that’s it.
So if you look at all of the Blumhouse movies, they almost all take place exclusively at one home. Now if you have a solid premise, like, say, The Purge, this can work. But when your premise is thin, you’re screwed. You’re already making it tough on yourself by giving an audience only 5 rooms to spend the entire movie in. Now you tell them that you don’t have much to do in those rooms??
I have no idea how Oculus was approached as a story, but I can take a guess. They had this idea of this brother and sister and a mirror in a house, and as they started to construct a plot around it, they realized they didn’t have enough story. Again, this is the danger you run into with the Blumhouse approach. One location = only so many story options.
So they said, “Hmm, we need to add more story somewhere.” And that’s when someone came up with the brilliant idea: “Why don’t we spend half the movie in flashbacks seeing what happened to the family when the kids were younger?”
As soon as I picked up on that, I knew the story was dead. If you’re spending that much time in the past, it means you don’t have enough of a story for the present. Think about it. We didn’t need a SINGLE flashback for this story to work. We would’ve always understood what was going on in the present without it. So what was the point of adding it? The only logical answer is “to fill up space.”
You never want to only FILL UP SPACE when writing a script. A story should feel like it’s bursting with possibilities, like there isn’t enough time to tell it all. I guarantee you, if you’re using flashbacks to elongate your story, the audience will feel it, and they’ll start getting bored, which is exactly what happened here.
I’m not sure if this exposed the Blumhouse model for the house of cards it is, or if we’ve just reiterated something we’ve known about screenwriting forever: A weak concept will always result in a weak script. I mean WHAT IS THIS ABOUT??? A mirror that sort of possesses people (but maybe not) and also makes people imagine things?? So two people try to “kill it?” Are you kidding me?? Throw if off a cliff. Story over.
Here’s another way to easily tell if a script is going to suck: One of the characters spends TEN CONSECUTIVE MINUTES talking to another character with nothing but exposition (as Kaylie does to Tim when they come back to the house). There are only two possibilities for why anyone would do this. One, they’re not a good enough writer to know how to hide exposition. Or two, they’re trying to add as many pages as possible to get to the minimum run time for a feature. Neither scenario ever results in anything good.
Anyway, this script, at least when it’s watched as a film, is really bad. It’s one of the more disappointing films I’ve seen in the last calendar year.
[x] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Screenwriting 101 – Make use of your premise! This is a script about a mirror. But there were NO MIRROR-RELATED SCENES! Actually, check that. There was one. That didn’t have anything to do with the story (it actually takes place before they even get to the house). It’d be like if you wrote Ghostbusters and there was one ghost. It was baffling. Here’s a tip: If you write a movie like Oculus, and you can substitute ANYTHING for the mirror (a haunted record player, a haunted table, a haunted painting) and it would still be the exact same movie, then you’ve done a terrible job writing that movie.