Premise: (from IMDB) A man believes he has put his mysterious past behind him and has dedicated himself to beginning a new, quiet life. But when he meets a young girl under the control of ultra-violent Russian gangsters, he can’t stand idly by – he has to help her.
About: As you can see just by looking at my Top 25 list (over to the right), I hold this script in high regard. So I was more than curious how it would play out on the big screen. The project had a bouncy development process. Denzel was always attached, but it kept switching directors, moving from Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) to Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive – another favorite script), and I want to say one other director before it eventually reteamed Washington with Antoine Fuqua. Let’s be honest here. Fuqua hasn’t been hitting it out of the park lately. But anyone who directed Training Day is an okay choice by me. The film opened this weekend at number 1, surprising a lot of industry analysts, who thought it would land in the 23-25 million dollar range. Instead it finished with 35 million.
Writer: Richard Wenk
Details: 2 hours and 12 minute runtime
Writer Richard Wenk initially passed when he was offered The Equalizer. But the second time he was approached, the assignment came with a new piece of play-doh. Denzel Washington. Wenk, who had promised himself to only write for directors from this point forward (if you write something without a director attached, you’ll likely have to start all over again once one does join, so why bother?), changed his tune once the name “Denzel” was uttered.
But that still didn’t guarantee anything. Denzel has lots of people “officially” writing projects for him. If you don’t deliver, if the script doesn’t excite him that first time it hits his eyes, you’re SOL. So Wenk and the producers worked really hard to get it right. The result was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read.
It really is a master class in writing. Everything is so sparse, from the description to the dialogue. And that’s not surprising when you hear Wenk talk. He claims his m.o. as a writer is looking for ways to eliminate all the unnecessary words from his work, to slim the script/story down to its bare essence. And you see that here.
The question with The Equalizer script was always, is it too generic? The story is SO simple that it risks being a retread of lots of stuff we’ve already seen before. I didn’t see that happening. But you never know. If the director doesn’t pay attention to those little details the writer worked so hard to integrate, an “Equalizer” can easily turn into an “Abduction.”
For those who don’t know anything about the film, it’s about a 50-something “nobody,” Robert McCall, who lives by himself and works at Home Depot. He develops a friendship with a young hooker (Chloe Moretz), who’s nearly killed by her Russian pimps. We learn that McCall used to be a CIA officer, and knows about 7000 ways to kill a man. He takes down the pimps to set the hooker free, only to learn that the biggest Russian mafia boss in the world has put a price on his head.
So what did they change from the original first draft? And how did it affect the film? They didn’t change much. The most well-publicized switch was changing the 30-something hooker to a 17 year old. Here’s the thing you gotta remember when you make a key change in your script. Since you’re going to both lose something and gain something, you have to make sure that you gain more than you lose.
What they lose by going from a 30-something to a 17 year old, is a more flirty love-interest type of relationship. Audiences like these relationships, even in a script like this, where the romance doesn’t take precedence, because they like the idea that our main character and this woman might get together in the future.
You don’t get that when the girl is 17. It’s more of a friendship. What they were banking on, and this was specifically a note from Sony studio head Amy Pascal, was that we would sympathize and care more about Teri (the hooker) if she was just a girl. It’s a solid argument. The entire script hinges on us buying that McCall would kill five random men to save this one girl he barely knows. And if we’re seeing a girl in danger as opposed to a grown woman, we’re more likely to believe McCall will stick up for her.
It worked. I’m not sure how much less I would’ve sympathized with Teri as an adult, but that additional layer of her being a scared little girl affected me. A smart call.
Some of the other changes were more subtle, but interesting nonetheless. In the script, McCall was a tidy dude, born out of his upbringing in the military. But in the film, McCall is OCD. He has to make sure things are lined up properly. He’s always rearranging things on desks and on tables. In the script version of the famous “Take-Down Russians” scene, McCall walks back to the door and locks it. Here, he opens and closes the door three times, the echoes of an OCD tick.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this is something Denzel Washington brought to the character. As an actor, that’s your job. You have to find ways to play the character that make them original, make them truthful. But that’s not how it should’ve gone down. And I’ll tell you why in the “What I Learned” section later.
Seeing the finished product also helped me notice a few things I missed in the script. First, you guys know how much I love underdog heroes. They are the heroes audiences root for the most. Audiences also love badasses. They love John McClane and Iron Man.
Therefore, I realized how genius it was that they somehow created a hero in The Equalizer who was both. They got a 2-for-1 deal! McCall is the most unassuming man in the room. Couldn’t win an arm-wrestling contest with a 5th grader. And that’s why we fall for him. He’s one of us. And yet it turns out he can take down the entire fucking Russian Mafia! How rad was that choice? Could you have created a more perfect likable combo?
Lastly, I noticed a unique structural choice that I wanted to discuss, as it’s something Miss Scriptshadow was curious about after the film. Usually, you want your main character to have a big goal once the first act is over. He’s got to kill the terrorists or win the Hunger Games – whatever. Equalizer doesn’t have this. McCall kills the local Russian Mob Ring, and for the next 20-25 minutes, he doesn’t have a clear goal.
He’s sort of drifting between helping people when his help is required. His storyline is directionless. Which can kill a script dead if it goes on for too long. I mean it’s great McCall is helping random people, but sooner or later the audience is going to be like, “Wait, where is this going???” So Wenk does something really clever, and something you should take a cue from. During that 20-25 minutes, he switches the goal over to the villain.
You can do this in your script, when, for whatever reason, your main character’s story is stagnant. Switch the focus over to the villain and his goal, and in this case that means our villain investigating who killed his Russian gang. The story is still moving forward because we feel him getting closer to discovering our buddy, McCall. Once he finds him, the story hits a new beat. McCall has to take these guys down before they take him down, giving both sides an overarching story goal that effortlessly drives the story for the last hour.
There was really only one big thing that bothered me, and it bothered me in the script as well. The Home Depot climax felt too safe. The script was so good up until that point, that to conclude things with a generic cat and mouse game in a glorified warehouse – it was lightweight. Using the tools from his store to defeat the bad guys gave the impression of cleverness, but in reality, we were never at his work, so who cares if he’s using his unique knowledge of his workplace against the bad guys. Plus, McCall can kill people with anything. He doesn’t need tools. The tools ended up being cheap gore.
Because I loved the first 95% of the script so much, I didn’t penalize the script for that ending. Here, in movie form, it was more evident that it didn’t work, which brought it down a notch for me.
With that said, I still think this script is fucking amazing and should be studied in all screenwriting classes and read by all screenwriters. You can see Wenk’s philosophy at work in every scene – always looking to take words out, minimizing anything that’s unnecessary, keeping the read sparse and focused. It’s great stuff.
[ ] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Do the actor’s job for him – Like I was saying earlier, Denzel brought the OCD angle to McCall to make him more distinctive. Learn from this as a writer. When you’re writing a character, think about them from the actor’s point of view. Think about what the actor is going to say about your character after they read the script and how they might want to improve him/her. Then, write all that stuff into the character before it gets to the actor. I believe, that if an actor feels like they need to improve their character, that the writer didn’t do his job. You should build all that stuff into the character ahead of time, and you can do this, at least partially, by anticipating the weaknesses an actor might see in the character, and addressing them yourself.
Amateur Offerings is back once again! Check out the scripts below and offer constructive criticism, and then vote for the best of the bunch!
LOGLINE: The interstellar migration of the human race has failed. On our new planet a widowed construction worker learns of a message from an eccentric journalist on Earth; one that unravels a conspiracy that has crossed light-years – one that puts him firmly in the sights of the government’s most dangerous agents
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: We are two brother’s from the UK with the itch to tell a story. That story has culminated with the labour of love that you have sitting in this email.
Influenced by sci-fi classics such as Blade Runner Exodus is story that crosses light-years, but crucially we feel it remains personal – with its core centred around the human struggle with grief and loss. Onto this grounding we layered all the elements that we look for ourselves from a story – elements such as a genuinely conflicted hero, a three dimensional antagonist and dialogue that doesn’t make you cringe when you read it.
We have had strange anomalies with a previous reviewer, rating it excellent across the board before rejecting it when it entered their competition for grammatical errors.
Undeterred we returned to the drawing board and are hoping to get our voice heard. Take a shot on us two from across the pond, you will not be disappointed.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: I’ve started a few screenplays before but Dawn was the first one I ever completed. It was the first of the two screenplays I wrote during my year at Vancouver Film School. I managed to option it a week before I graduated. That option has since dried up but I figure if it’s option-worthy then it must be pretty good.
LOGLINE: After a robbing a gas station, two small time criminals steals a car with a kidnapped man in the trunk, and has to stay hidden from two rival gangs, while they try to collect money for one of the criminal’s daughter.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: Because it’s a fast paced crime comedy with two female leading roles. I wrote it because it’s simply something I’d watch, with characters I’d watch.
GENRE: 3D Family, Adventure
LOGLINE: Having been kidnapped in South Africa, a resilient young traveller is forced into criminal activity by his captors in order to repay the ransom his family could not afford.
Get Your Script Reviewed On Scriptshadow!: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, along with the title, genre, logline, and finally, something interesting about yourself and/or your script that you’d like us to post along with the script if reviewed. Use my submission address please: Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Remember that your script will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effects of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.
Genre: Sci-fi Comedy
Premise (from writer): The invasion came. Humanity lost. The processing of billions of corpses into bio-fuels begins. By avoiding human interaction, a loner computer gamer survived the alien plague. But the only way she’ll survive the alien harvest is by joining in with a close-knit militant family journeying to humanity’s final fortress, NORAD.
Why You Should Read (from writer): Awhile ago, Carson reposted a comment I made about the choice between writing something personal and writing something commercial. I figured I may as well leverage that post into a review. So I’m throwing-down with a good ol’ alien-invasion script.
Details: 99 pages
The following is to be read in Lord Baelish’s voice – he from Game of Thrones. If you’re not familiar with the character, imagine someone who always sounds like they’re conspiring against the world, and who can turn even the most insubstantial cue into a three-page monologue about how humanity is doomed (or just go here – he’s the one with hair).
As I plithered through the 500 comments of last weekend’s Amateur Offerings, I bestowed upon myself a simple goal – to find the best script. As the blood settled amongst the heathens, I became enamored with a certain story about Invaders. About space. But before I could pluck it from its dewy soil, I was told this adventure had been removed from the competition, sent off to Winterfell on a forlorn barge. Gone was it and stuck was I. But I am a practiced man. I seek unto myself the things I believe are mine. And so I contacted this writer, this “Tom,” and I bethrothed him to re-consider. Surely, I implored him, he would want to satisfy the curious minds who had partaken in his story of invaders. “Alas,” he inquisited, “I agree.” Of course it took the threat of sending him over the wall to do it. But I believe he made the right choice. Shall we begin?
I can identify with 25 year old Sarah Kerrigan. The girl likes Honey Nut Cheerios. No, I mean she really likes Honey Nut Cheerios. To an unhealthy degree. But I can relate. As someone who thinks Frosted Flakes are the prime rib of the breakfast world, I know what it means to obsess over cereal.
Unfortunately, Honey Nut Cheerios and the video game “Starcraft” are the only thing Sarah’s got going for her. Ever since her father died, she’s been all alone, holed up in her living room, playing the game her father introduced her to. Known as “SlayerQueen 113” in this virtual existence, it is the only time she feels alive.
And then the aliens show up. They send down their alien powder, turning 10% of the people into worker-zombies and 90% into dead meat. The “pron-zoms,” so named because they were targeted by a virus exploiting earthings’ insatiable appetite for internet porn, stumble around with their pants still at their ankles, looking for dead bodies to send up to the ships, where they’ll be turned into bio-fuel.
The thing is, Sarah is so off the grid when this happens (she doesn’t do anything other than play Starcraft) that none of the viruses the aliens use to attack the humans reach her.
While heading into town to replenish her supply of Honey Nut Cheerios, Sarah runs into a family (a father, daughter, and son) who 1 month ago would’ve looked like a candidate for those crazy underground bunker shows. But now they’re looking pretty darn smart.
Sarah’s reluctantly pulled into the group, and they’re on their way to NORAD, where it’s said the government is preparing a counterstrike. Once there, the gang sees that old grandmas are being stationed as guards, and that the head commander isn’t very good at commanding. Sarah and the family will have to work together to get NORAD back in shape, all before the aliens storm the base and put an end to humanity for good.
I knew I was going to like this from the very first page. From the opening scene, where a Neanderthal gets scooped up by a flaying saucer and juiced into pulp, to the little asides that would pop up in text form throughout the script. Sarah (V.O.): “I had a sudden surge of discipline, desire, and dedication… to be the world’s mightiest Starcraft player.” ON-SCREEN TEXT: “Disclaimer: Among non-Koreans.”
It was that mash-up of Zombieland and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy humor that got me. It even feels fresh, with an unlikely hero (a girl gamer) leading the charge. It always shocks me how the simple decision of turning your male lead into a female can make an ordinary idea pop. It doesn’t work everywhere, obviously, but it definitely worked here.
There was even an emotional component to the story, with Sarah still grieving the loss of her father. It turned her into a recluse, and now she was being thrown into the family she never had. What a clever plot design by Tom.
And then there were the laughs. Lots of them! Maybe it’s because I understood Sarah so well, but when she looks at the box of regular Cheerios and would rather risk her life to go and refill her Honey Nut Cheerio stash than eat plain Cheerios, I understood that. And the pron-zoms with their pants still around their ankles from the moment they were turned? Genius!
The thing is, I think Tom can make Space Invaders even better. I feel like the script’s at 65% of its potential. We needed more fresh ideas like the pron-zoms, but I wasn’t seeing them in the second half of the script. In fact, the second half of the script is pretty wonky, due to some unique structural choices.
Here’s the thing when you come up with a goal for your protagonist. You can either make it the end-goal, or you can have your characters achieve the goal early on, then reset the story with another goal. That’s what Tom does here. The goal is getting to NORAD where they can launch a counterstrike against the aliens. But we get to NORAD before the midpoint.
When your characters accomplish their goal by the midpoint, you have to have another goal in tow, preferably something bigger than the first goal. It might take a couple of scenes to figure that goal out, but if you wait too long, your characters can start to wander (and why wouldn’t they? They don’t have a goal anymore). And this can really slow the story down.
Sometimes writers will eventually bring a goal back into the story, but it’s been long enough where they’ve lost the audience. I’m not going to say that happened here. But I was definitely wondering where this was all going during that middle section. Once the nuclear strike enters the equation, the script gets back on track. But before that, everything was a little hazy.
I also think Sarah either needs to be a bigger personality or she needs to be more active. For the most part, Sarah is following other people’s lead. Her dialogue is also relegated, mainly, to quick reactions, so she doesn’t feel like she says much. This combination made her disappear sometimes, even with her voice overs. I like main characters who are driving the story, or at least have a say in it. And I’m not sure Sarah has that much of a say here.
Also, try to create a specific issue between Sarah and each member of the family, a problem that needs to be resolved by the end of the story. These issues and subsequent explorations become the meat of your characters’ development, so they’re important.
Sarah’s clearly affected by the loss of her father. There’s gotta be something you can do with Jim that allows her to finally find peace with her loss. I know this is going to sound Hollywood but every producer in town is going to ask you why you aren’t exploring a relationship between Sarah and Matt. You might as well take care of it now and do it your way instead of wait for studio notes and do it their way. As far as Ariel (the sister), you don’t need to do anything with her. Maybe the problem is more on Ariel’s end (she wants to be more like Sarah and live life “her way” but her dad won’t let her). But that’s not a requirement.
Overall, I had a great time with this script. We’ve seen a lot of alien invasions before, but none quite like this. It’s not all the way there yet, but Tom is a promising writer, and going by all the love this got on the Amateur Offering’s vote, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the script, and Tom, find success.
Script link: Space Invaders
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Label each character with a definitive quality, then keep hitting on that quality throughout the script. Jim (the dad) plays the role of caretaker. Matt (the son) plays the role of wuss. Ariel (the little sister) plays the role of badass. I’ll be honest. Part of the reason why I never completely connected with Sarah was that I couldn’t define her. I didn’t know what her “definitive quality” was. – I bring up definitive qualities because I see so many invisible characters in scripts, and it’s usually because the writer hasn’t defined them. That doesn’t mean you can’t add layers to the character. But if you don’t have that one big surface trait defining them, you may find your reader saying at the end, “I didn’t get that character.”
Are you aware that 90% of all scripts are dead before the writer even writes the first word? Welcome to the “bad idea,” the quickest and most terrifying way to destroy a screenplay. The worst thing about the bad idea is that, after coming up with it, you are beholden to it for the next year, two, three, five. You could spend countless hours and endless rewrites on something that has no chance of success no matter how much you put into it.
Now some might argue that struggling through your bad ideas is part of the learning process. Your bad ideas are where you practice, where you fail, where you grow. You don’t have enough experience yet to know that the idea is weak, so you keep fighting the script, and in the process, learn how to write scenes and characters and dialogue.
But bad ideas are not exclusive to young writers. Anyone can have a bad idea. Animal Kingdom was one of my favorite movies a few years ago. It was raw and fresh and different. I recently watched the director’s newest effort, “The Rover.” As far as I can tell, it’s a dystopian tale about a man who wants his car back. Now we know David Michod can write and direct. We saw it in his previous film. But once he locked himself into that bad idea, there was nothing he could do. The idea wasn’t good enough to sustain a movie.
Now some of you may be saying, “Judging ideas is pointless.” “Whether an idea is good or not is subjective.” That’s sorta true. But I’d argue there are lots of ideas we can all agree on. Take, for example, these two that I just made up…
1) Payback – A famous White Supremacist Leader wakes up in the middle of a gang-infested African-American neighborhood.
2) The Tech – A well-known but reclusive tech blogger wakes up in the middle of Silicon Valley.
Which one of these ideas is better? I’m guessing that we’re all in the same boat here. The first idea knocks the second idea out of the park. Why? Let’s take a closer look at both ideas to find out.
The first thing you notice in Payback’s logline is CONFLICT. There’s a ton of it. A white supremacist in the middle of a predominantly black ghetto tells us there are going to be a number of confrontations, and they aren’t going to be pretty. Next we have stakes. There’s a good chance that our character’s life is in jeopardy. Finally, a good idea inspires the reader to ask questions. “Will he get out of this?” we ask. “What will they do if they catch him?” Questions put the reader in the story before they’ve even read it. If you can put readers in stories they haven’t read yet? You’re doing your job as a writer.
Now let’s check out The Tech. A reclusive tech blogger is dropped inside Silicon Valley. Doesn’t sound like there’s much conflict here, does there? If he’s a tech blogger, he probably knows a lot about Silicon Valley and should have an easy time getting out, right? Also, if he’s reclusive, will people even recognize him? And are those people even on the street? Probably not. This is sounding less and less interesting by the second. Actually, now that I think about it, does he even want to leave? As you can see, when there’s no problem, there’s no reason for the hero to act. So unlike our white supremacist, our blogger might decide to head to Starbucks and grab a coffee. Why not?
So the first lesson in writing a great idea is that there needs to be some sort of problem, and that problem needs to cause some ongoing conflict in the storyline. Stakes are important as well, and should come naturally if you have conflict in place. Alright, let’s see if this holds up with a few of the best ideas ever to grace the silver screen. Notice I’m not saying these are the best movies. Just the best ideas.
Jurassic Park – A group of people are trapped inside an island theme park for cloned dinosaurs.
The Hangover – Three groomsmen must retrace their steps after a black-out drunken night in Vegas to find the missing groom and get him back to his wedding on time.
Hancock – A depressed alcoholic super hero must fight off his inner demons in order to save his city from a rapidly growing crime wave.
Rear Window – A wheelchair bound photographer confined to his apartment starts watching his neighbors and becomes convinced that one of them has committed a murder.
Say what you want about these films. These are all quality movie ideas. And they all fall in line with our “good idea” requirements. A problem is introduced that creates conflict. The stakes are high (except for, arguably, Rear Window). And they get us asking questions (The Hangover and Rear Window, especially.) Now, here are a few amateur loglines I found on the internet for comparison.
Seven-Fourteen (drama) – A psychiatrist during the 1970s finds himself selling prescriptions to a vicious mob boss while being hunted down by an FBI agent.
The Quest For Triaba: Secrets of the Forbidden City – After Lucas and Alexa travel with Mattack to the Forbidden City, Zetra and Connor try to find their own way into the Forbidden City. Along the way, these different groups of survivors meet up with some of the Wasteland’s most hideous people. Can Zetra and Connor make it to the Forbidden City? Can Alexa and Lucas fight off the terrible Carga? What will happen?
Cold Snap (drama/thriller) – During Christmas season – three young, bored and jobless teens hatch a plan to rob a family man’s traditional takeaway shop.
A Mind Reader (Horror) – A serial killer who can read minds is terrorizing Las Vegas. Emma, a troubled young girl is receiving visits from the ghosts of his victims. She seeks solace with a group of young teenage psychics. For differing reasons, they decide to find the mind reader themselves. The only trouble is, it’s hard to stay a step ahead of someone who can read your mind.
Hmm, my theory for good ideas is crumbling as we speak. Three of these ideas do just as our professional loglines did – they introduced a problem. Seven-Fourteen has the FBI hunting our hero down. The Quest for Triaba has the terrible Carga wreaking havoc. A Mind Reader has a serial killer on the loose. The only one that doesn’t have a problem is Cold Snap.
And yet, it’s hard to argue that any of these ideas are any good. If I were pressed for the best idea, I’d probably say Seven-Fourteen. But it still feels weak. In order to figure out what’s not working here, we may need to dissect each idea individually. Maybe then we can add some more rules to our list.
Seven-Fourteen (drama) – Okay, so like I said above, the writer creates a problem here. A psychiatrist is being hunted by an FBI agent. But there’s something very bland about it. FBI agents are in every single movie. What’s so special about this one? Not only that, but the elements don’t come together in a cohesive manner. What do the 70s have to do with this idea? How would it be any different if he were selling prescriptions today? And why would the FBI hunt down a psychiatrist? Isn’t the way more important catch here the mob boss? This idea is missing both excitement and logic.
The Quest For Triaba: Secrets of the Forbidden City – At first glance, this appears to be more of a logline problem than an idea problem. But logline or not, the idea is unfocused. I mean the title is “The Quest for Triaba,” yet there isn’t a single mention of Triaba in the logline. How could that be if Triaba is the goal driving the story? It’s pretty clear to me what isn’t working about this idea. It’s unfocused and confusing.
Cold Snap (drama/thriller) – The problem with Cold Snap as an idea is that there’s no story problem. Our main characters decide to do something because they’re “bored.” Boredom is rarely a good starting point for a story. You want a character who’s in peril, who’s in trouble. That way their motivation is strong. They must act to solve a problem. Also, this idea, like Seven-Fourteen, is too plain. Look at a comparable idea done better, the Sidney Lumet film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. “When two brothers organize the ‘perfect crime,’ robbing their parents’ jewelry store, their mom is accidentally killed during the robbery, leading to the implosion of the family.”
A Mind Reader (Horror) – Surely an idea about serial killers who can read minds is good, right? Not really. Whenever you complement strong elements, you want to do so with irony. The Billy Bob Thorton Christmas movie isn’t called “Dolphin-Loving Santa.” It’s called “Bad Santa.” There’s no irony in a Santa who loves dolphins just as there’s no irony in a serial killer who can read minds. Here’s another serial killer idea – A serial killer who only kills serial killers. That’s the premise for Dexter, the HBO show. That’s an idea. “A Mind Reader” is a muddled beginning to an idea that hasn’t been explored enough. Also, once you add ghosts, the idea becomes too crowded.
Okay, so we’ve learned a few new things. An idea works best when it’s big or exciting (as opposed to bland). This seems obvious but I can’t express how often I see this mistake. The addition of irony always makes an idea better. It’s why Hancock was such a big spec sale and huge movie, despite the execution being so lackluster. The idea must be clear. The idea must be focused.
But wait a minute. Not every idea can be Jurassic Park, can it? What about movies that don’t sound good in idea form? Like The Skeleton Twins! Which I loved. The logline for that was, “Two siblings both try (and fail) to commit suicide on the same day, later coming together to try and resolve their complicated relationship.” The “problem” here is their “troubled relationship,” which is hardly the kind of big idea that drives people to theaters. And yet the movie turned out good. How can that happen if it’s not a good idea?
The Skeleton Twins, like a lot of indie movies, is an “execution-dependent” film, which is code for “character-driven.” These scripts are built less on ideas as they are on characters. Once you have strong characters in your script, you attract strong actors. The marketing of the film then focuses on those actors, as opposed to the concept itself. If you watch any publicity material for The Skeleton Twins, it’s all about Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader as opposed to the story. You’ll find that these scripts almost NEVER make it through the spec market because the ideas aren’t big enough. They have to be made on the indie circuit and are usually done by writer-directors.
That doesn’t mean you can’t write character-driven ideas. You just need to come up with good concepts for them. That way you get the best of both worlds. Like 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed. A man puts an ad in the paper claiming he can time-travel and that he needs help. This is the starting point not for some Edge of Tomorrow knock-off, but an exploration of four characters and the problems holding them back in life.
All of this leads to the big question. What are the definitive traits that make up a good idea? We can never say for sure. But we’ve certainly seen crossover elements in the good ideas. Here are the big ones in list form. By no means must your idea include every item on the list, but it should definitely have a few.
1) There’s a big problem facing your hero(es) (the Nazis are trying to get the Ark of the Covenant to use as a weapon!).
2) There is lots of conflict inherent in the idea (The Walking Dead – everyone’s life is constantly in danger from both zombies and other humans).
3) There are high stakes (Jaws – if they shut down the beach because of the shark attacks, the town won’t make any money during tourist season).
4) There’s something unique/original about your idea (memory zapping in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
5) The idea feels big (A town and their fuel is in jeopardy from a rival band of raiders in Mad Max is a much bigger idea than a man who wants his car back in The Rover).
6) There is some irony in the idea (A king who must make an important speech has a catastrophic stuttering problem).
And let it be said that ONLY meeting the bare minimum of this criteria isn’t enough. I wouldn’t create a tiny problem to set your story in motion. I’d find something big. I wouldn’t be okay with a little bit of a conflict. I’d add a lot.
Does this article end the question of “What makes a good idea?” Of course not. Ideas are subjective creatures. What’s appealing to me isn’t always appealing to you. I thought the idea behind Dallas Buyers Club sounded melodramatic and outdated. But others liked it and that’s part of the subjectivity of this business.
With that said, you have a much better chance of creating a good idea if you follow today’s advice. What about you guys? What do you think makes a good idea? And to take that question a step further, how do you come up with your own ideas?
Premise: A psychiatrist tasked with determining if death row inmates are mentally fit for execution encounters a strange inmate who somehow knows everything about her.
About: This appears to be one of those scripts that slipped through the awareness cracks. It did finish on the Black List last year, but near the bottom. The script sold to Lionsgate in a bidding war, and ended up with a mid-six figures price tag. The writer, Hernany Perla, had been working at Lionsgate as an exec.
Writer: Hernany Perla
Details: 111 pages
Now I know what a lot of you who read the “About” section are thinking. “OF COURSE HE SOLD THE SCRIPT! HE WORKED AT THE PLACE THAT BOUGHT IT!” Oh, if it were only that easy. Because only EVERYBODY in Hollywood, whether they work at a production house, a studio, an agency, or a management company, has a script they’re hawking. And while the sell rate is definitely better if you’re inside the system, I’m betting the odds are still pretty low. I’m guessing less than 1% of those working at studios sell their scripts.
The way I see it, there are two types of writers, no matter where those writers reside. Casual ones and serious ones. The casual writers think if they write ANY-thing, success will come. The serious writers do the work. They read, they study, and they write their asses off. I don’t know Hernany Perla, but judging by the quality of this screenplay? I can make a strong argument that he’s one of the latter.
The REAL advantage of working as an executive, and why these guys have a leg up on the competition, is because they read a lot of scripts. That’s their job. But it’s not just that. They’re tasked with figuring out what’s not working, then coming up with solutions to improve the script. That trouble-shooting muscle comes in handy when one’s writing own scripts.
“Revelations” follows Dr. Kayla “Kay” Margolis, a successful psychiatrist who’s been assigned to Death Row to decide if the current crop of inmates are mentally fit for execution. Of course, when these guys are facing down death and they know their only out is to plead insanity, they all try and plead insanity. Kay’s job is to cut through the bullshit.
Then Kay meets Samuel Desmet. Shaved head, looks like one of those hare krishna guys. Which is apropos, since he once led his own cult. Samuel’s on Death Row because he blew up a group of people.
Kay’s a little thrown by Samuel’s Hannibal Lecter-like charm, but she seems to have the situation under control. That is until Samuel mentions Kay’s boyfriend, Troy. There is no possible way that Samuel could’ve known Troy, and it freaks Kay the fuck out.
But that’s just the beginning. According to Samuel, he (Samuel), is a God, being reincarnated over and over again. He’s had this conversation with Kay a countless number of times already. And he needs her on his side if they’re going to stop what’s coming. “What’s coming?” Kay wants to know. “Winter.” He says with a whisper. Just kidding. He says the current Governor, who’s also a reincarnated God, is going to set in motion a series of events that will result in nuclear war. And Samuel’s the only one who can stop him.
Kay knows this is bullshit, but over the course of the next few days, Samuel keeps telling her things that he can’t possibly know. He even sends her to a library to check out a book that was written 100 years ago. It was a book HE wrote in a previous life for this very moment, to prove to her he’s real. In it, there’s a direct message to Kay. That she can no longer trust her boyfriend Troy, who’s cheating on her.
You’d think that would be enough evidence, but there’s always one thing that puts every proclamation of Sameul’s in question. With a little digging, for example, Kay finds out this 100 year old book was placed in the library a day ago. When she questions Samuel about this, he swears it’s Governor Cayman, who’s making him look like a liar so she won’t help him.
Kay only has a few more days left to figure it out, because at the end of the week, he’ll be executed. If she saves him, is she just another victim of a persuasive cult leader? Or could it be that she truly is saving humanity?
Ever since I read that Lee Child article, I’ve been obsessed with suspense. How a story’s success boils down to setting up questions and then stringing the audience along until those questions are answered. That’s pretty much “Revelations” in a nutshell. And it’s very effective. Samuel makes a statement that something’s going to happen in a few days (i.e. a security breach at a nuclear facility) And we furiously read on to see if, indeed, the event happens.
Even better, Hernany LAYERS these suspense plotlines so we always have more than one thing to look forward to. For example, Samuel says that Kay’s boyfriend can’t be trusted. He says that there’s going to be a book he wrote 100 years ago in the library. And he says there’s going to be that security breach, all before any of these answers come yet. It’s kind of like story crack. One suspenseful storyline is good. Three is great!
Another thing I liked here was that Hernany didn’t JUST rely on plot. That can happen when you write thrillers, especially thrillers like this. Everything’s about the twists and the turns and the suspense, and you can get so wrapped up in that that you forget you’re dealing with actual people here. No matter how Hollywood you’re getting with your script, you can never totally ignore character.
That’s why one of my favorite threads in the script was the cheating stuff. Once Samuel tells Kay that Troy is cheating on her, everything about their relationship is uncertain. When she comes home, she’s watching Troy closer. When he’s on the phone, she’s asking who he’s talking to. When they go to work functions and he talks to a woman, she’s wondering, “Could that be the one?” It added another dynamic to the story besides the ‘end of the world’ plot.
There was only one thing wrong with the script. When you started to scrutinize it, I’m not sure it all made sense. At first, Samuel wants to die, because he’ll be reincarnated more quickly than if he lives out the rest of his years in an institution. And once he’s reincarnated, he can try to stop Governor Cayman (another “God” who’s lived hundreds of lives). But if that’s the case, why is he saying all this gobbledy gook to Kay, making her think he’s crazy, if that’ll prevent the state from executing him?
Then later in the script, when it’s looking like he’ll escape death due to insanity, he goes to Kay and says he’s been conning her. Nothing he’s said to her has been true. This, she presumes, is to ensure the state kills him. So he can be reincarnated. That left me wondering, “Why the big show? Why not claim you’re a fraud right from the start if you want to be executed?” It just didn’t add up.
Usually, faulty logic like that will kill a script for me, but I was so insanely caught up in whether Samuel was telling the truth or not that I didn’t care. The genius of this script is you’re unsure about Samuel right up until the end. And that mystery dug its claws into me and never let go.
But the biggest reason I liked this script was that it was so damn FUN! It’s been awhile since I’ve had this much fun reading a script. There isn’t a slow page in the screenplay. Every single scene moves. It’s just good writing. This should’ve finished a lot higher on the Black List.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Never answer a question right away in a script. Every question is an opportunity to draw the answer out (for suspense). You can draw out the answer for 10 seconds. You can draw it out until the end of the script. It’s up to you. But you definitely want to draw it out.
What I learned 2: Layering suspense – Don’t just lay down one suspense thread. Layer them on top of each other so there’s always two or three unanswered questions going on at once.