Newsletter has been sent! If you have Gmail, make sure to check your promotions folder as well as SPAM. If you still don’t see the newsletter, e-mail me. If you want to sign up, by God do it now. And you definitely want to get a hold of yesterday’s newsletter, as I reviewed, what I believe, to be the #1 Black List script of 2014.
Premise (from writer): A gambler wins millions on a crazy bet, yet is unable to tell anyone. Instead, he resolves to secretly use the money to improve the lives of those closest to him, and win back the love of his long-suffering wife.
Why You Should Read (from Carson): This script faced off against last week’s “Down to the Wire,” in the Amateur Offerings round-up. Much controversy arose when Down to the Wire got a lot of early love in the comments section then “Chain,” got a lot of votes late. Were those early votes from people in Wire’s writing group, some wondered? According to the conspiracy-obsessed Grendl, yes, although I have no idea if any of that is true. In the end, it’s Evian under the bridge, as “Chain” gets its shot today. Everybody wins! Yay!
Writer: David Braga
Details: 116 pages
Breaking the Chain has become a well-known script over the past few weeks. Grendl has been raving about it ever since he read it a few months ago. And since Grendl hasn’t raved about anything since 1975 (the year Jaws came out), that’s a pretty big endorsement.
The problem is, for some reason, it keeps finding its way into the Comments section, derailing on-topic conversations. Which is fine. I don’t mind, as long as we’re talking about screenwriting, but man, so much has been built up about this script, I’m worried my expectations are going to be too high. Part of me feels like since Grendl doesn’t like anything, that anything he DOES like must be really REALLY weird.
When you combine my devastation over learning that Harrison Ford broke his ankle on the set of Star Wars 7 last night and there’s ZERO information about how bad it is and how it’s going to affect the shoot, you could say I’m in a pretty emotionally fragile state at the moment! I mean does Harrison have to be sitting down in every scene now? Will the climax of the film be a yelling match during family dinner? Forget the Death Star. Try the Death Stir Fry. May the fork with you.
Steve is a small town guy with a big time gambling problem. Poor Steve would like for nothing more than to quit gambling, but the thing with being an addict is, well, no matter how much you want to stop, you can’t. Even if it’s ruining your marriage. Which it is. Steve’s perfect wife, Sarah, an actress at the local theater, is sick of playing the asshole, having to question her husband every night he comes home from work late. Did you do it? Did you gamble again?
After attending a local support group, an old gambling codger tells Steve the trick to quitting is to bet on the worst odds possible. That way, you’re guaranteed to lose. And after a steady diet of losing, you won’t want to play anymore. Steve takes him up on the advice, making the dumbest bet probably in the history of gambling.
He then goes home, where Sarah asks him, yet again, if he was out gambling. No, he lies. He’s quit. For good. This seems to appease her, which is great, except for one little problem. The next day, Steve ends up winning that bet! 3 million pounds!
Of course, he’s ecstatic. But then he realizes if he reveals his winnings to Sarah, it would confirm his lie. So he decides not to tell her or anyone else.
After getting the money, Steve anonymously buys up the floundering general store he works at, then anonymously buys up the playhouse and forces the director to give Sarah the lead in the play! Soon, Steve is trying to solve all the town’s problems with money.
Of course, we know how these things usually end up. As if on cue, Steve’s evil nemesis and Sarah’s ex-boyfriend, Craig, wins the lead role opposite Sarah in the play. Steve tries to puppeteer Craig’s ouster, but it’s fruitless, and soon Craig and Sarah are spending a lot of time together.
Could it be? Steve thought this money would solve all his problems, but it only seems to be making them worse. Will Steve find a way to make it right, or will he have to come clean to the town about his financial secret?
“Breaking the Chain” had a really tough act to follow. Last night I read my favorite script of the year, “Hot Air” (about a talk show host who gets a visit from his teenage niece). The thing about that script was it was really in your face. Edgy. Intense.
Breaking The Chain was more of a “feel-good” script. It was warm and fuzzy around the edges. You knew everything was going to be all right in the end. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. Cameron Crowe and Richard Curtis made a living off these films. But when you go from a script where everyone’s acting realistically to one where everyone isn’t, it’s a hard switch to make.
Let me give you an example. There’s this character, Martin. He’s a bad alcoholic. Both us and Steve learn this in the very first scene. Later, Steve needs a business manager for his newfound wealth. All the other interviewees talk over his head. But when Martin comes in, he’s dumb, but down to earth. So Steve hires him.
That moment, where Steve hires Martin, is funny. I laughed. But after the laugh was over, I sat there thinking, “Is Steve really dumb enough to hire an alcoholic?” I mean he’s a gambling addict. He should know better than anyone how unreliable an addict is. And he’s now trusting him with his 3 million pounds? It didn’t make any sense other than to get that quick laugh.
There were plot choices that didn’t make sense to me either. For example, the first thing Steve does after he gets the money, is anonymously buy the store he works at before it can be sold off. I couldn’t figure out the logic behind this. He hated this store more than anything. Why would he want to buy it to continue working at it? I understand he must keep appearances up that he’s poor, but he doesn’t need to go through the hassle of buying and secretly running a store to do that, does he?
If any business was going to be on the verge of dying with Steve saving it, shouldn’t it have been the playhouse, since that’s where the real stakes were? His wife’s happiness?
Then there was Craig, who became a bigger part of the plot as the script went on. The problem with Craig was, he was so thin as a character, it was hard for me to see him as anything other than a cartoonish persona. When a character is too thin, the reader starts to see through him (call it “reader x-ray vision”) to the hand manipulating him underneath.
The more screenplays I read, the more I learn that every character in a story should have his weaknesses AND his strengths. Craig didn’t have any strengths, any redeeming qualities. And since the last 40% of the script depended heavily on him, it was hard for me to keep my disbelief suspended.
Now I don’t want to discredit what David’s done here. There’s a lot of good stuff in this screenplay. I loved his use of dramatic irony – We know our main character is manipulating everyone, is living a high-stakes lie – but nobody else does. And it was fun seeing if he was going to get away with it.
But I don’t know if I ever truly bought in to the premise. The thing with these scripts/movies is that the reader’s either going to buy into the premise, they’re not going to buy into it, or they’re going to straddle the line. If they don’t buy into it, you’re screwed. Nothing you write afterwards will matter.
But if you keep them on the fence, you have a shot at converting them. That’s where I was through the first half. I wanted to be pulled over. But once the Craig stuff took over, I just couldn’t commit. There was something too inauthentic about his character to me.
Still, I can see why this got recommended by The Tracking Board. It’s better than a ton of the amateur stuff out there. Everything just felt a little too loose, like the glue hadn’t hardened yet. The dad ending up in the hospital late, for example, didn’t seem like it had an appropriate setup. I saw in the comments section that David implemented some suggestions from the Scriptshadow community over the week. So maybe that’s the reason? He didn’t have time to solidify all this stuff? I’m not sure. I still like David’s writing. This one didn’t quite grab me the way I hoped it would, though.
Script link: Breaking The Chain
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Make sure your third-act climax is a payoff of your theme or your main character’s flaw (most of the time, these will be the same). The climax here focused on Steve’s worry that Sarah was going to cheat on him. That’s not the story we signed up for. The story we signed up for was a character who’s lying to his wife, and who then uses money to manipulate her (and the town’s) happiness. His lack of trust in Sarah was never mentioned anywhere until the final act, which is why the sudden focus on it didn’t make sense. – To make this work, you’d probably want Craig to represent the opposite of Steve. He would represent truth and trust, the things Steve hasn’t been able to give Sarah. That way, this ending stays on-theme. As a bonus, that would make Craig a more interesting character – if he’s actually a good guy. Or at least appears to be.